Setting the Stage for the Gospel of John – An Excerpt from the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
Today’s excerpt is from the gospel of John, the newest installment in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.
Written by Edward W. Klink III, this volume treats the literary context and structure of the gospel in the original Greek, and provides an original translation based on the literary structure.
EXPLANATION OF THE TEXT
The prologue of John is the cornerstone for the entire Gospel, the lens through which the Gospel must be read. It is of great importance that the magnificent language and imagery of the prologue not detract the reader from grasping its functional significance for explaining and directing the rest of the Gospel.
IN DEPTH: The Prologue
Beginnings of ancient books were important. In recent years scholars have become increasingly aware of the significance of beginnings and endings for their understanding of the Gospels “because each provides important clues about the meaning of the material that lies in between.” The beginning of narratives, often in the form of a preface or prologue, provides information regarding purpose, method, and contents: key information needed to understand the rest of the narrative.
While all types of narrative beginnings are important, prologues had a uniquely dramatic force in ancient writings. Reminiscent of the openings of classic dramas, prologues were often used to introduce the important characters in the narrative, situate them within the story, and give some understanding of their importance. John clearly does this with the character of his biography. But there is a further function of prologues that is important: prologues would project the plot by explaining both seen and unseen forces within the action.
Hooker explains this function: “It was customary for the Greek dramatist to introduce the theme of his play in a ‘prologue,’ which provided members of his audience with the vital information that would enable them to comprehend the plot, and to understand the unseen forces — the desires and plans of the gods — which were at work in the story.” While John does not reveal the desires and plans of the gods, he does, in dramatist fashion, explain the desires and plans of the God. The prologue, in this sense, prescribes the reader’s comprehension of the plot and explains the behind-the-scene activities of God. This is no mere background issue, for it is rooted in the narrative’s own emplotment; yet it is also not merely theological abstraction, for it is connected to real events described by the narrative. What is explained are the “unseen forces” that are at work in and around the real events described by the narrative. Thus, the prologue is guiding the reader to see the invisible (God) in the visible (historical persons and events).
Interestingly, it was common in classic prologues that the deliverer of the prologue, often a character in the play, or in our case the narrator, “would continue to comment on the action of subsequent scenes.” Our examination of the prologue, therefore, must be careful to delineate exactly the plot and the unseen forces; moreover, we should expect to be guided in our reading of both of them throughout the Gospel. As we will see, this is exactly what the Gospel of John provides. The prologue is for the reader of John a guide — its own interpreter — to the meaning of the entire Gospel.
Since the prologue’s conceptualization of the plot and explanation of unseen forces in the Gospel is central to the rest of the Gospel, a synopsis of the plot told by the prologue is necessary. An examination of the emplotment of the Gospel of John reveals two narrative strands developing throughout the narrative. This two-strand plot is related to each of the forces discussed above: the visible (historical persons and events) and the invisible (God). Neither strand of the plot is complete on its own; in fact, each strand is supported by the other. This is vital information that the prologue reveals to the reader. This is what the prologue is prescribing for the reader and is what must be understood if the remainder of the Gospel’s message is to be grasped.
The first of the two strands within the plot is the historical story. This is read plainly from the narrative. The vast majority of the narrative is set in the early first-century CE in Palestine. Thus, this story is historical in that it deals with the Jesus of history. Without taking away the nature of emplotment, the historical story is clearly meant to be read as true accounts of what really happened (cf. 21:24). Reinhartz argues that the historical story is “accessible to all readers of the Fourth Gospel and might be described as the primary ‘signified’ or content towards which the Gospel as signifier is generally thought to point.”
The second of the two strands within the plot is the cosmological story. According to Reinhartz, “specific hints in the Gospel intimate that its story goes well beyond the temporal and geographical boundaries.” One need look no further in the narrative than 1:1. From the very beginning the story told by the Fourth Evangelist is the story of the Word who was with God and was God. The setting of this second story is not Palestine in the first century but the cosmos in eternity itself. Interestingly, the cosmological story is the very first thing introduced to the reader. Since the prologue is intended to guide the reader “to comprehend the plot” and “to understand the unseen forces,” it is clear that the cosmological story is central to the cumulative story told by the Fourth Gospel.
The cosmological story is not in conflict with the historical story but functionsas the metastory, the narrative framework in which the events of the historical story take place. Even more, the events of the historical story are defined and explained by the cosmological story; without the cosmological story the historical story would be incomplete. In this way the story of John is not merely about Jesus of history but must also include Jesus the Word. The two are interconnected in the narrative itself. While the cosmological story narrates the arrival of the Son, the historical story narrates the events of his arrival into the world. Both stories reach their climax in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, where the events of history (Jesus the man; disciples; the world) meet the cosmos (Jesus the one sent from above; God; the coming Paraclete) in a unified way. In this way, John is able to speak simultaneously and integratively of both real history and divine activity.
1:1a In the beginning (Ἐν ἀρχῇ). The opening statement echoes the style, vocabulary, syntax, and general sense of the opening statement of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). This is not merely an echo but serves conceptually to embrace John within its biblical-theological framework, a framework in which an explicit connection — a continuation, even development — with the Old Testament is being presented, including both the God of and the story told by the Old Testament. In Genesis “in the beginning” introduces the story of the “old” creation; in John it introduces the story of the “new creation.” The opening prepositional phrase is directing the action from the past into the present, focusing its attention on its subject matter about whom this biography speaks.
The term “beginning” (ἀρχή) can also be understood to mean “origin” in the sense of a basic cause. In this sense, the term combines two meanings: “in the beginning of history” and “at the root of the universe.” Since this strategy of double meaning is common for John, it is likely being intentionally considered here. The term, therefore, is not referring to the first point in a temporal sequence but to that which lies beyond time. The phrase does more than echo the OT and connect the two testaments; it also frames the rest of the historical narrative. Our discussion above should make clear that the prologue is here explaining the cosmological strand of the plot of John. Whatever activity occurs in the historical strand of the plot does not remove its being influenced and understood by means of the cosmological strand of the plot. This frame functions to explain what happens in the historical strand — the unseen forces. Even before Jesus is introduced as a son, a brother, or a Jew, he is introduced as being located in the domain of God. The context in which the Fourth Gospel begins is not Palestinian but primordial.
Edward W. Klink III, Ph.D. (University of St. Andrews) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author of The Sheep of the Fold: The Audience and Origin of the Gospel of John), editor of The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity, coauthor (with Darian Lockett) of Understanding Biblical Theology, and author of The Sheep of the Fold: The Audience and Origin of the Gospel of John.