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John 1:1

Anthony Buzzard

Christology, the study of who Jesus is, has to do with a reasoned statement about the relation of Jesus to the One God of Israel. There is no doubt that for the early Christians Jesus “had the value and reality of God.” This, however, does not mean that they thought Jesus “was God.” It has been held by some that John presents Jesus in metaphysical terms which would appeal to people in the Greek world who thought in terms of abstract ideas familiar to Hellenistic thought. “Orthodoxy” claims John as its bridge to the world of Greek metaphysics — the metaphysics which helped to mold the Jesus of the Church Councils.

We suggest that we should first see if John can be readily understood in terms of his otherwise very Jewish approach. Why should we attempt to read John as though he were a student of the Jew Philo or of Gentile mystery religion? Why should John be claimed as a supporter of the dogmatic conclusions of the much later Church Councils? Should we not make sense of him from the Old Testament world of ideas? “What we do know,” says a leading Bible scholar, “is that John was steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures. If we wish to understand the historical ancestry of John’s Logos [word] concept as he himself understood it, we have to go back to those Scriptures.”[1]

It is a considerable mistake to read John 1:1 as though it means “In the beginning was the Son of God and the Son was with the Father and the Son was God.”[2] This is not what John wrote. The German poet Goethe wrestled with a correction in translation: “In the beginning was the Word, the Thought, the Power or the Deed.” He decided on “deed.” He comes very close to John’s intention. What the evangelist wanted to say was: “The Creative Thought of God has been operating from all eternity.”

As a leading British Bible scholar wrote, “When John presents the eternal Word he was not thinking of a Being in any way separate from God, or some ‘Hypostasis.’ The later dogmatic Trinitarian distinctions should not be read into John’s mind  … in the light of a philosophy which was not his …. We must not read John in the light of the dogmatic history of the three centuries subsequent to the Evangelist’s writing.”[3]

To understand John (and the rest of the New Testament) we must pay close attention to John’s cultural heritage which was not the world of Greek philosophy in which the dogmatic creeds were formed some three hundred years later. When John is read in the light of his Hebrew background he provides no support for the doctrine of a Jesus who is “God the Son,” an eternal uncreated Person in a triune godhead:

“An author’s language will confuse us, unless we have some rapport with his mind …. The evangelist John takes a well-known term logos, does not define it, but unfolds what he himself means by it …. The idea belonged to the Old Testament, and is involved in the whole religious belief and experience of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the most fitting term to express his message. For a man’s ‘word’ is the expression of his ‘mind’; and his mind is his essential personality. Every mind must express itself, for activity is the very nature of mind …. Thus John speaks of the ‘Word’ that was with God, and was Divine, to express his conviction that God has ever been Active and Revealing Mind. God, by His very nature, cannot sit in heaven and do nothing. When later in the Gospel Jesus says, ‘My Father works up till now’ he is saying what the Evangelist says in the first verse of the Prologue.

“John’s language is not the language of philosophical definition. John has a ‘concrete’ and ‘pictorial’ mind. The failure to understand John [in his prologue] has led many to the conclusion that he is ‘father of metaphysical [i.e., Trinitarian] Christology,’ and therefore responsible for the later ecclesiastical obscuration of the ethical and spiritual emphasis of Jesus …. The evangelist did not think in terms of the category of ‘substance’ — a category which was so congenial to the Greek mind.”[4]

In an illuminating article in Biblical Review J. Harold Ellens points out that titles such as Son of God, as used at the time when the New Testament was written:

“were never meant to designate the figures to whom they were applied as divine beings. They meant rather that these figures were imbued with divine spirit, or the Logos. The titles referred to their function and character as men of God, not to their being God. Thinking of a human as being God was strictly a Greek or Hellenistic notion. Thus the early theological debates from the middle of the second century on were largely between Antioch, a center of Jewish Christianity, on the one hand, and Alexandrian Christianity, heavily colored by neo-Plationic speculation, on the other. For the most part, the Jewish Christians’ argument tended to be that they had known Jesus and his family and that he was a human being, a great teacher, one filled with the divine Logos … but that he was not divine in the ontological sense, as the Alexandrians insisted. The arguments persisted in one form or another until Cyril of Alexandria’s faction finally won the day for a highly mythologized Jesus of divine ontological being. Cyril was capable of murdering his fellow bishops to get his way.

“By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, this Alexandrian perspective of high Christology was dominant but not uncontested by the Antiochian perspective of low Christology. From Nicea to Chalcedon the speculative and neo-Platonist perspective gained increasing ground and became orthodox Christian dogma in 451 CE. Unfortunately, what the theologians of the great ecumenical councils meant by such creedal titles as Son of God was remote from what those same titles meant in the Gospels. The creeds were speaking in Greek philosophical terms: the gospels were speaking in Second Temple Judaism terms ….  The Bishops of the councils should have realized that they had shifted ground from Hebrew metaphor to Greek ontology and in effect betrayed the real Jesus Christ.”[5]

It is not difficult to understand that the Bible is abandoned when fundamental terms like Son of God are given new and unbiblical meanings. The Church Councils under the influence of Greek speculative neo-Platonism replaced the New Testament Son of God with a God the Son fashioned by philosophy. When a different meaning for a title is substituted for the original a new faith is created. That new faith became “orthodoxy.” It insisted on its dogmas, on pain of excommunication and damnation (the Athanasian Creed). Nicean dogmatic “orthodoxy” lifted Jesus out of his Hebrew environment, twisted John’s Gospel in an effort to make John fit into “orthodoxy’s” philosophical mold. And so it has remained to this day.

A revolution is needed to reverse this tragic process. It will come when Christians take personal responsibility for getting in touch with the Bible and investigating it with all the tools now at our disposal. A key to proper biblical understanding is to recognize that the Bible is a Jewish library of books and that Jesus was a Jew steeped in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).

The hidden paganism in Christianity needs to be exposed. The history of orthodoxy shows signs of a spirit which is far removed from the spirit of Jesus. Those who have questioned “orthodoxy” have often been roughly handled.[6] One commentator asks:

“How is it that the religion of love has been responsible for some of the worst cruelties and injustices that have ever disgraced humanity?…. The church has persecuted more cruelly than any other religion…. Our religious beliefs are propped up on the traditional scaffolding, and many of us are intensely annoyed if the stability of this scaffolding is called in question. The average Catholic [and the same applies to many Protestants] relies on the infallibility of his Church, which he has usually accepted without investigation. To own that his church has been wrong, and has sanctioned heinous crimes, is almost impossible for him.[7]


[1] C. J. Wright, “Jesus the Revelation of God,” in The Mission and Message of Jesus: An Exposition of the Gospels in the Light of Modern Research, New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1953, p. 677.
[2] Cp. the very misleading paraphrase of the Living Bible: “Before anything else existed, there was Christ, with God. He has always been alive and is Himself God. He created everything there is — nothing exists that He did not make” (John 1:1-2).[3] C. J. Wright,  “Jesus the Revelation of God,” p. 707.
[4] Ibid., pp. 707, 711.
[5] See “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” in Bible Review, Feb. 1997 and further comments in BR, June 1997 (emphasis is mine).
[6] For an illuminating example of misguided religious zeal and cruelty, see the account of Calvin’s savage persecution and execution of the Spanish doctor and scholar who questioned the doctrine of the Trinity, in Marian Hillar, The Case of Michael Servetus (1511-1553): The Turning Point in the Struggle for freedom of Conscience, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
[7] Dean W. R. Inge, A Pacifist in Trouble, London: Putnam, 1939, pp. 180, 181.

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