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The standard reading of John 1:1

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

is that the beginning - ἀρχῇ (archē) - refers to the old beginning, i.e., the beginning described in Genesis 1.

What are the main arguments in favour of the beginning at John 1:1 referring to the new beginning, i.e., the beginning of Jesus' (human) life or ministry?

This question is a mirror of this question.

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    Good luck with that. v3: "All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made." So, unless all of Creation was somehow re-made at "the beginning of Jesus' (human) life or ministry", such an assertion makes no sense.
    – Matthew
    Commented Aug 6, 2022 at 18:14
  • @Matthew Follow the thread to perhaps find out if it makes no sense. ;) Commented Aug 6, 2022 at 18:56
  • Remembering that the Bible is a book written for humans helps. Fir humans the beginning is the start of it all associated with humanity
    – 007
    Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 12:54
  • 1
    @User14 Perhaps - there are a lot of possible targets. Pre-Genesis. Genesis. Start of humanity. Start of Israel. Jesus' conception. Start of Jesus' ministry. And I'm sure others besides. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 16:21

1 Answer 1

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The arguments in favour of John 1:1's ἀρχῇ (archē) referring to the new beginning can be summarized in 4 main categories.

  1. The prologue makes more sense internally.

  2. The prologue makes more sense with the rest of the Gospel of John.

  3. John's Gospel then fits better with the use of 'beginning' in 1 John 1:1.

  4. John's Gospel then fits better with the other Gospels.

Let's consider each point.

1., the question of the prologue making more sense internally, is the primary one.

There are 2 obvious problems with the conventional reading of John 1 that a new beginning solves. a) Why does the narrator go from primordial space-time Genesis at 1:5 to John the Baptist at 1:6? The abrupt switch seems 'weird'. b) Why does the narrator assure us that John the Baptist at 1:8 was not the light referred to in primordial space-time Genesis at 1:4-5 - did anyone think John the Baptist was the light in Genesis' creation account?

For a) on the new beginning account, there is no abrupt shift at all. The new beginning is about Jesus' ministry, and so logically moves to describe John's ministry, which was crucial to the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

For b) on the new beginning account, the question about John the Baptist was whether he was the Christ, not the light as in the Genesis light. We know a prominent question about John was whether he was the Christ (John 3:27-28, "John replied, “[...] You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of Him.’"). On the new beginning account, then, the 'light' being referred to in 1:4-5 is not the light of Genesis, but the light of the Christ. The pairing of the light and the Christ is clear at John 8:12, where Jesus says "I am the light of the world." Jesus is the light of 1:4-5, not John the Baptist, because Jesus is the Christ, as John the Baptist himself testifies (above) and the narrator of John points out is the main takeaway of the Gospel of John (20:31, "But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.").

However, there are 2 obvious problems with the new beginning reading of John 1, namely a) John 1:3 and b) John 1:10. Can these be adequately addressed? Yes, easily.

Before doing that, however, it is worth addressing the phrase 'in the beginning' (Ἐν ἀρχῇ, en arche), which is sometimes cited as definitive evidence that John is talking about the Genesis beginning here.

On the new beginning, this phrase is echoing Genesis but not duplicating it. The exact same phrase is used twice elsewhere in the New Testament, and in all cases it unambiguously does not refer to Genesis beginning.

Acts 11:15 uses 'in the beginning' to refer to the beginning of the Apostles' ministry - Pentecost. Philippians 4:15 uses 'in the beginning' to refer to the beginning of Paul's ministry. So we can see from the rest of the New Testament that the phrase 'in the beginning' is ambiguous. To understand the actual referent at John 1:1, one must look to the context.

Now let's look at 3 verses that might seem like problems on the new beginning view, and how these can be easily handled once we push through ingrained habits of conceptualizing.

a) John 1:3 is "Through Him all things [(πάντα (panta))] were made, and without Him nothing was made [that has been made*]." If this is a new beginning, how can it encompass 'all things', πάντα (panta)?

*Grammatically ambiguous whether the part in the second [] belongs to that sentence or the next.

The simple answer is that 'all' is usually scoped to a context. If someone says "Which puppies do you want to take home?" and I say "All of them," I don't mean every puppy in the world. I mean all of the puppies that are in front of me in the litter. If someone says "Which painting did you make?" and I say "All of them" I don't mean every painting in the world, I mean the paintings in front of us.

So what is the scope of 'all' here? If you start with the assumption that the context is Genesis creation, then you will have one implicit scope. If you start with a context of the new creation, you will have another implicit scope. So if beginning is the new beginning, the simple answer is 'all' applies to the new creation - the Kingdom that comes about through Jesus Christ.

We can move beyond this basic point and look to similar usage of 'all', πάντα (panta) in other parts of the New Testament. Indeed, we find it.

Ephesians 1:21-23, which is clearly about the new beginning, has

"which He [i.e., the Father] exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all [(πάσης, pasēs)] rule and authority, power and dominion, and every [(παντὸς, pantos)] name that is named, not only in the present age but also in the one to come [(i.e., the ages, cf. Hebrews 1:2, which is about 'ages' but often translated 'world' or even 'universe')]. 22 And God put everything [(πάντα, panta)] under His feet and made Him head over everything [(πάντα, panta)] for the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all [(πάντα, panta)] in all."

Or see Romans 8:32

"He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all [(πάντων, pantōn)], how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all [(πάντα, panta)] things?"

Similarly, Romans 5:18

"So then, just as one trespass brought condemnation for all [(πάντας, pantas)] men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification and life for all [(πάντας, pantas)] men."

Similarly, Acts 13:39, one of St. Paul's sermons, has

"Through Him everyone [(πᾶς, pas)] who believes is justified from everything [(πάντων, pantōn)] you could not be justified from by the law of Moses."

All the translated words above are variations of the same word, as used in John 1:3 for 'all things'.

Note the connection between St. Paul's point in Acts 13:39 and John's point in the prologue at 1:16-17.

"From His fullness we have all [(πάντες, pantes)] received grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

So, both Acts 13:39 and John 1:16-17 pair Jesus and Moses, both are about how the Grace of Christ is > the Law of Moses, and both use pantes in describing the new beginning.

In the opposite verbal direction to 'all', consider John 15:5.

"I am the vine and you are the branches. The one who remains in Me, and I in him, will bear much fruit. For apart from Me you can do nothing."

This can be mapped onto John 1:3's 'all' (so, with the Christ all comes about that comes about for the Kingdom, similarly without the Christ nothing - as it follows logically that if apart from Jesus one can do nothing, then all that one does (in this context) is done with Jesus), and the context of John 15:5 is clearly the new beginning, about the work the disciples will do. The words used are οὐδέν (ouden) at 15:5 ("apart from me you can do nothing") and οὐδὲ (oude) at John 1:3 ("without Him nothing was made").

Also, it's worth noting that 'made' as in the translation of John 1:3 above ("all things were made") is 'egeneto', which has a more general meaning of 'came into being'. A more careful translation perhaps would be "all came about through him" or "all happened through him."

Finally, 'things' in 'all things' is an interpretive choice, and lends itself to thinking about planets, rocks, and so on. But the word itself just means 'all', and whether 'all' refers to things, persons, processes, salvation, aspects of the Kingdom, and so on is determined by context.

b) John 1:10 is "He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him." Here isn't the narrator clearly stating the planet Earth was made through Jesus (or even the entire created reality)?

Simply read the sentence that way, and you can see it isn't an intuitive reading. "He was in the planet, and though the planet was made through Him, the planet did not recognize Him." The planet (or all of created reality) didn't recognize him? No, we surely mean the people on the planet (or in creation).

The word translated 'world' in 1:10 is κόσμῳ (kosmō), and its primary meaning is 'orderly arrangement'. It doesn't mean the planet. Rather, it is reasonable to hold 1:10 is referring to the social or moral order. We could translate this instead as 'the human world' or simply 'society'.

So, "He was in the social order, and although the social order came to be through him, the social order did not know him." Which social order came to be through him? He's the Christ, so the social order we are talking about is the old one (that is overturned decisively in AD 70) and that then is replaced with the new one, i.e., the Kingdom.

On this theory, this is then expanded upon in the next 3 verses (1:11-13). 11a expands on 10a, 11b expands on 10c, 12-13 expand upon 10b.

"10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God - 13 children born not of blood, nor of the desire or will of man, but born of God."

  • 1:10a "He was in the kosmos" -> 1:11a "He came to His own"

  • 1:10c "the kosmos did not recognize Him" -> 1:11b "His own did not receive Him"

  • 1:10b "the kosmos came to be through Him" -> 1:12-13 "12 But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God - 13 children born not of blood, nor of the desire or will of man, but born of God."

Note 1:10b's verb in "the kosmos came to be through Him" - ἐγένετο (egeneto) - is the same verb in 1:12's "He gave the right to become children of God" - γενέσθαι (genesthai), which further underscores the link between the 2 parts.

That 'kosmos' is often used with a specifically human dimension in John is clear. Compare "takes away the sins of the world" 1:29, "so loved the world" 3:16, "to judge the world" 3:17, "the world might be saved" 3:17, "the life of the world is my flesh" 6:51, "the world cannot hate you" 7:7, "Look how the whole world has gone after him" 12:19, and so on.

If you were to replace 'world' with 'human world' those sentences would all still make sense. If you were to replace 'world' with 'planet' they would sound strange, and only make sense by inferring a specifically human reference despite the term 'planet'. For ex., is Jesus judging rocks and trees? No, He's judging humans. Have rocks and trees 'gone after Jesus'? No, humans have.

Or consider the very famous "I am the light of the world" (8:12), which reflects 2 key terms used in the prologue. Light in 1:4-5, 7-9, world in 1:9-10. Indeed, those terms (light and world) that are combined in 8:12 are combined in 1:9 as well. Is Jesus the light of rocks, trees, and so on? No, He's the light of men.

Similarly, the first use of 'world' after the prologue is John 1:29.

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He of whom I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.”"

That something is happening to the world through Jesus is clear here. This is reinforced at 1:31, where John the Baptist states Jesus' work is for Israel, so we have an obvious target for the 'world' of 1:10 - Israel, both old (which in part rejected him) and new (which is brought about through him).

Furthermore, consider 4:42, "we know that this man truly is the Savior of the world." The 'world' here is clearly tied to the new beginning that comes about through the Christ, as it is on this theory in 1:10.

c) A discussion of the prologue wouldn't be complete without mentioning John 1:14, the first part of which is typically translated

"The Word became flesh" (Berean Standard Bible)

By translating the phrase this way, it makes it sound like the Word pre-exists Jesus' conception, and so reinforces the idea that the prologue's beginning is something like the Genesis beginning.

However, Weymouth's translates it as

"And the Word came in the flesh, and lived for a time in our midst"

This suggests something different. Became -> came in, and suggests the shift was into 'our midst' - so similar to Jesus entering into his ministry.

Weymouth's fits very neatly with 1 John 4:2, which in part is

"Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God"

Note what has come in the flesh here isn't a pre-existent Word, but Jesus, the man. So this fits with an interpretation of 'the Word' in John 1 as a title for Jesus in his human ministry and life, not a title for a pre-existent logos-being.

2., the prologue not only makes more sense internally if we hold it to be discussing the new beginning, but it makes more sense with the rest of the Gospel of John.

Indeed, if we think of the prologue this way, every part is expanded upon in the rest of the Gospel. The prologue is 3 iterations of a summary of the Gospel itself (1-5, 6-13, 14-18). Each iteration adds a new dimension to the summary of the Gospel.

Furthermore, when we look at how 'beginning' is used throughout John's Gospel, the overwhelming emphasis is on the new beginning. There are 6 uses of 'arche' (usually translated 'beginning') in John's Gospel, outside of the prologue. 5 out of 6 refer to the new beginning, including the three closest ones to the prologue itself. Every use of 'beginning' pertaining to Jesus (5 out of 5) refers to the new beginning.

John 2:11

"Jesus performed this, the first of [(arche, beginning of)] His signs, at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him."

John 6:64

""However, there are some of you who do not believe." (For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him.)"

John 8:25

"Just what I have been telling you from the beginning."

John 15:27

"And you also must testify, because you have been with Me from the beginning."

John 16:4

"But I have told you these things so that when their hour comes, you will remember that I told you about them. I did not tell you these things from the beginning, because I was with you."

The exception to this is John 8:44, which is a reference to Satan.

"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies."

Sometimes, people hold that 'arche' in the prologue must refer to something pre-existing Jesus' conception because Jesus has come into the world.

John 18:37

"“For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.”"

Doesn't this imply a pre-existence? No. First, note that Jesus states first that He was born, then He talks about coming into the world. The natural understanding of this expression is either He was born first, and then came into the world (i.e., started his ministry), or that his being born is simultaneous with his 'coming into the world', such that prior he wasn't 'in the world' but in his mother's womb. We sometimes speak this way in English - so-and-so came into the world at 6:32am on such-and-such a date. We don't mean they are a pre-existent logos-being or something like that. (Alternately, He's referring to spiritual birth, a theme in John's Gospel, perhaps connected to the Holy Spirit descending upon him at his baptism. Either way, the structure of the sentence doesn't support pre-existence.)

Compare what Jesus says here with what He says at John 17:18, just a little before the above quote.

"As You [i.e., the Father] sent Me into the world, I have also sent them [i.e., the disciples] into the world."

The disciples are not just sent, as John the Baptist was (John 1:6), but sent into the world. Does this mean the disciples pre-existed or are coming from somewhere other than the planet (or all of created reality)? No. It means Jesus is sending them into society on ministry. The ideas of 'coming' and being 'sent' in the 'world' are meant in this way in John's Gospel, and so fit better with John 1's 'arche' being related to Jesus' human life and ministry, not some pre-existence.

3., if we look at the use of beginning in 1 John, it seems much more straightforward to think it is the new beginning. Consider 1 John 1:1.

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have gazed upon and touched with our own hands—this is the Word of life."

John here is describing what they themselves have heard, seen, and touched. It seems more reasonable to then understand the 'beginning' of 1 John 1:1 as having to do with the human life of Jesus, not something happening in primordial time, which they would not have heard, seen 'with their own eyes', or touched.

1 John 1:1-2 also fits in basic structure with John 15:27.

"And you also must testify, because you have been with Me from the beginning."

The beginning referred to in John 15:27 is a new beginning (the disciples were present), and Jesus commands them to testify. 1 John 1:1-2 is testifying about what the disciples had seen from the beginning.

4., the Gospel then fits better with the other Gospels. Both Mark 1:1 and Luke 1:2 use 'arche' (beginning), and they both unambiguously refer to the new beginning of Jesus' human life or ministry.

Mark 1 in particular goes from the 'beginning' and immediately segues to John the Baptist, just as John 1 goes from the beginning (1:1-5) to John the Baptist (1:6).

Luke also segues to John the Baptist at Luke 1:5 (discussing John the Baptist's parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth).

Furthermore, Luke 1:2 contains not just 'arche' (beginning) but also 'the word' ("those from the beginning being eyewitnesses and servants of the word"), mirroring John 1:1's use of both terms ("in the beginning was the word").

Luke 1:2 is also similar to John 15:27, sharing both a new 'beginning' and 'eye-witness testimony'.

Luke 1:2 also mirrors, even more closely, 1 John 1:1, including not just 'the beginning' and 'the word', but 'eyewitnesses' in Luke 1:1 maps closely to 'which we have heard, seen, gazed upon, touched' in 1 John 1:1.

So on this theory, John's prologue is in line with both Mark and Luke. They all use 'arche' in reference to Jesus' human life or ministry, and they all segue to John the Baptist shortly after.

John's Gospel, therefore, is not an 'outlier' among the Gospels in terms of the prologue, but is comparable with both Mark and Luke's introductions.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 16:44
  • It seems more reasonable to then understand the 'beginning' of 1 John 1:1 as having to do with the human life of Jesus - so why does John explain so methodically the nature of this logos as a 'which' or 'what' from the beginning if he was simply referring to Jesus? Jesus is presented as that logos that they could touch etc. because it is now a human. More reasonably, it seems John is expressing that from which Jesus (who) originated or from what heritage he came.
    – steveowen
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 2:40
  • @steveowen What do you make of Rev 19:13? Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 4:18
  • The logos is what Jesus is - we are told that first up in John so being given the name/title is obligatory. The word was not always flesh/human. Now that it is, he has the rights to it. I tried to explore the nuance of this with hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/56361/…
    – steveowen
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 5:48
  • @steveowen What do you mean by "now that the word is flesh/human"? In what sense is 'the word' the same and in what ways different from Jesus, on your view? Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 16:25

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