John Gayford writes about the prologue of St John’s Gospel
In ancient Greek drama a prologue was poetic, of fluid form, and served as introduction or pre-statement of what was to follow. This was not a feature of Hebrew literature. Nevertheless, Hebrew concepts were introduced in the prologue of St John’s Gospel for Greek readers. If St John’s Gospel is described as a pearl of great price among New Testament writings, the prologue, a well-contained unit, may be described as the gem within this gospel. Both St Augustine of Hippo and St John Chrysostom thought it was beyond the power of man to speak as John does in the prelude, thus drawing a parallel with the creation story and justifying its reputation as a most sacred text of the New Testament.
The message of Jesus is proclaimed in terms of Johannine theology which includes an eschatological message of salvation with Jesus as its mediator. Jesus is projected as aware of his divine origin, speaking of his unity with the Father but also proclaiming the incarnation. St John’s Gospel has also been likened to an exquisite musical symphony that cascades through the text. The prologue to the gospel becomes both musical overture and conclusion, probably written after the main work. In eighteen verses the prologue contains some of the major themes from the gospel. We can compare this with the musical examples of opera, oratorio and suite where melodies of the work are heard in the overture. The prologue can also be viewed as the conclusion to St John’s Gospel. It represents a statement about an intimate relationship between God and the world, by the bridge of the eternal and yet incarnate (of this time) Logos.
The Evangelist does not only go back to the public ministry of Jesus and even his birth, but takes us back to the time before creation, to Jesus’ eternal being with God. The prelude is equally at home in the world of Hebrew scripture and Hellenistic Judaism of the first century that includes Philo, thus serving both cultures. It allows the development of concepts of sophia (wisdom) and torah (law) as both being the Word, thus the prologue is Hellenistic philosophy and rabbinic mysticism set in historical context. The Johannine Logos is parallel to the sophia-torah figure of Judaism: the torah was historically given through Moses, but truth and grace came through Jesus. The Logos existed but was unknown and incomprehensible except through the historical figure of Jesus.
No discussion of the prologue of St John’s Gospel would be complete without some explanation of Logos and wisdom theology. While the concept of Logos theology is relatively modern, the concept of the Logos is deeply buried in Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy and Jewish thought. In simple terms, St John’s name for the second person of the Trinity is the Word of God. In Greek, in which the text was written, Logos means word, speech and reason. The prologue sets out the philosophical basis of the relationship between God and Jesus in terms of the incarnation of the Word of God. The use of ‘word’ (Logos) to denote the coeternal offspring of God replaces ‘wisdom’ in the literary models which lie behind the prologue (Prov. 8.22–31; Eccles. 24 and Wisd. 7.22–8.1). Thus, the concept of Logos comes historically from both Greek and Hebrew with different meanings.
The Gospel of St John is deceptively simple in style and vocabulary, but also has mystic qualities suggesting a hidden depth. Thus, it operates at two levels—factual accounts and symbolic meanings—with St Clement of Alexandria designating it as the spiritual gospel.
Even those who do not accept that the prologue had its origin as a hymn admit there is an element of Hebrew poetry with parallelism which swings as a pendulum through the piece. Hebrew poetry does not rhyme but uses poetic parallelism seen in the Psalms and other biblical texts. The highly poetic format of the prologue demonstrates what can be called climactic parallelism, where a word present in a sentence (usually the last or next to last) is taken up as the subject of the next sentence. This gives the prologue (especially in the first five verses) a cohesion and solemnity in its pronunciation as seen in Psalms and Proverbs.
In the Ancient Near East (the cradle of civilization where the written word had not developed) the spoken word was considered a very powerful means of communication. Magic depended on the correct word for a spell to be effective. This was true for both Egypt and Mesopotamia, where the divine word was considered to have creative powers. This was true for God, gods and, to a lesser degree, human beings, but most powerful in blessing, cursing and given powers in contracts. The word of the king was clearly more powerful than that of the commoner. The word started in the heart (mind) and then was translated into speech. Once uttered before witnesses it could not be retracted. It was the power of speech that made things intelligible and able to be shared with others. The word of God must be understood against this background. The word of the Lord is an essential operative agent in the history of Israel. Things happen starting with creation (Gen. 1–3). In the Old Testament the word was both the medium of communication and the creative power as seen in Genesis 1, verses 3, 6 and 9, and also in Psalm 33.6—‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made.’ In the New Testament, Jesus is projected as the teacher of wisdom.
The author of the prologue is not ashamed of his Hebrew roots which have been transformed into the Christian faith. He translates this into a format that will speak to new converts who were intelligent Hellenistic Gentiles. The heresies of Docetism and Gnosticism were both emerging in the Johannine community. Historians tell us that they were beginning to take hold and it almost became preferred to orthodox Christianity. The author of the prologue was aware of this and knew their language and refuted their teachings in a stroke with verse 14: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’
There is much deliberation as to the author of the prologue and even as to whether there was more than one author or redactor. We could continue to ask if the author of the prologue was the same as of the gospel. John the son of Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman who probably did much of his trade in Greek, but did that give him the linguistic skills demonstrated in the original text? As an intelligent man who lived for a long time it is possible that he gradually developed these skills and honed them into his writings which others redacted. It is also equally possible that he used the assistance of a member of the Johannine community who was known to have these skills. Even so this begs the question of whether the prologue and the gospel were written by the same person. Both have a deceptively simple style and vocabulary which hides the complex multiple layers of their meaning and gives the text the possibility of several interpretations, and also its glorious mystical qualities.
If the prologue of St John is a Christological hymn it is not alone in the New Testament. It can be discussed along with Philippians 2.6–11; Colossians 1.15–20; Ephesians 2.14–16; I Timothy 3.16; 1 Peter 3.18–22, Hebrews 1.3 and possibly others.
There are no Gnostic documents that predate the New Testament, but Gnosticism could have existed in an oral form. If the prologue is a hymn of Christian origin, it is anti-gnostic in that the Logos became flesh. We see that this idea came from the very beginning of a Christian community. Here there was no concept of a mythological redeemer who came to earth, but rather of the eternal Son of God who at one specific time became man, in real flesh and blood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, this Christian community came to conversion from Jews and heathen Hellenists. It seems to make little difference if this hymn was a pre-Christian hymn that may have been adapted from Jewish and heathen Hellenistic concepts.
There have been claims that the Evangelist was influenced by Gnosticism. There is evidence that Docetism and probably Gnosticism existed and caused divisions in the Johannine community in the second century. That Gnostics were drawn to St John’s Gospel inhibited acceptance and study of this gospel by orthodox Christian biblical scholars of the early church. The Gnostics said that matter is evil and spirit is good. The prologue of St John’s put the lie to their error by presenting the truth of the Incarnation: thus God taking on ﬂesh, spirit, and matter in a holy union. St Jerome says: ‘when the word became flesh he did not cease to be what he was before.’ This was the final denial of Gnosticism.
There are many verse by verse exegetical commentaries of the prologue of St John’s Gospel, but we will concentrate on verse 14: the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Most see the prologue reaching its climax in this verse, but we do well to remember that the Word was coming into the world in verses 3–4 and 9. We can make the analogy of the tide advancing up the beach each wave taking it a stage further until it reaches its high water mark. The text of verse 14 gives us a very condensed summary of a central pillar of our Christian faith. Now the incomprehensible takes place, the Logos/Word comes and pitches his tent among men.
The following two quotations seem to stand out, and appear in the Christmas liturgy:
‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ (Gal. 4.4).
For while all things were in quiet silence, and night was in the midst of her course, your almighty word leapt down from heaven from your royal throne. (Wisd. 18.14–15a).
When we say that the Logos became flesh we progress the divine dramatic theme of revelation to include Jesus as light, life and truth. This is what gives humanity salvation. This truly is a genuflection moment of faith we can reflect in liturgy.
The prologue of St John’s was firmly established as the conclusion of most Masses in the Missale Romanum of Pope Pius V in 1570 and remained until 1964 reform at the Second Vatican Council. It still remains part of the Extraordinary Rite. There was a medieval practice favoured by the Dominicans of reciting the Omnia Opera (Dan. 3.58–88) as the priest returned from the altar, followed by the Last Gospel as the priest took off his vestments. There are undisputed claims it appears in the Rituale Romanum and Mediaeval Sarum Manual of 1614, but in the form of a blessing at the end of the Visitation of the Sick and at Baptism. It was in this format that the prologue of St John’s Gospel gained sacred connotations as a blessing, which could even be used to promote fine weather. As such, it was seen as a summary of the Fourth Gospel and a direct attack on the Devil trying to harm souls. Not all Masses ended with the prologue of St John’s Gospel; other texts were used on specific occasions. Historically in liturgy the text was variably rendered, including all reciting the text together. The norm in the Latin Extraordinary Form of the Mass is for the priest to go to the gospel (north) of the altar and after an introduction as for the gospel of the Mass. The priest then recites the prologue of St John’s Gospel in a low voice. At the words ‘Et verbum caro factum est’ (‘and the word was made flesh’) all genuflect in recognition of the incarnation. Altar cards are provided for the text. From the mid-19th century, Anglo-Catholic liturgy (as in the English Missal) was providing for the Last Gospel to be recited at the end of Mass in English, but this has faded from use since the Second Vatican Council.
The eighteen verses of the prelude are packed with High Christological theology which leave us in no doubt as to the divinity and humanity of Jesus. There is no Messianic secret as in the Synoptic Gospels. We are introduced immediately to Jesus as the Logos responsible for God’s cosmic creation before taking human form. He is the light that confronts darkness and overcomes it, giving light to all who believe in him, exalting us to the status of being children of God.
The Revd Dr John Gayford is Honorary Assistant Priest
at St Mary’s, East Grinstead
Suggested further reading:
BLOMBERG, C.L. The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester (2001).
BROWN, R.E. The Gospel According to John. The Anchor Bible. Doubleday, London (1966).
JUNGMANN, J.A. The Mass of the Roman Rite: its Origin and Development. Translated into English by Brunner, F. A. and revised by Riepe, C.K. Burns & Oates, London (1959).
MOLONEY, F.J. The Gospel of John. Volume 4 in the Sacra Pagina Series edited by Harrington, D.J. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota (1998).
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
13 Who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This is he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”)
16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
The Text of the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel (Verses 1-18) from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 1989