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Christology and the History of the Johannine Community in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel*

  • John Painter


So much has been written about the Prologue that it must seem unlikely that anything new could be said about it with some claim to credibility. It is not that all problems have been resolved, or that all that needs to be said has been said. But perhaps, on the basis of existing evidence, it seems that what can be said with some probability has been said. Yet many issues remain unresolved. Are the form and content of the Prologue the consequence of the evangelist's use of a source hymn? Or was the Prologue a specially written introduction for the Gospel? If the Prologue is based on a source hymn: What was the origin of the hymn? How did it come to the evangelist and why did he use it? What was in the hymn and what was added by the evangelist? Answers to these questions are fundamental to a precise understanding of the Prologue and could throw light on the history of the Johannine community.



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[1] Barrett, C. K., The Gospel According to St. John(SPCK, London, second edition 1978), p. 150; (1st edition 1955) p. 126.

[2] Schnackenburg, R., The Gospel According to St. John I (Herder & Herder, New York, 1968), pp. 224 f. says that there is now a scholarly consensus that the evangelist made use of a hymn. On the use of hymns by New Testament authors see Sanders, J. T., The New Testament Christological Hymns (CUP, 1971); Martin, R. P., Carmen Christi (CUP, 1967).

[3] Brown, R. E., The Gospel According to John, vol. 1 (New York, Doubleday, 1966), pp. 21 f.

[4] See Bultmann, R., The Gospel of John (Blackwell, 1971), pp. 13 ff.

[5] Both σκηνόω and φωτιω are used in Revelation, but not christologically. On the use of φαίνει in 1. 5 see 5. 35, but there its use is qualified to show the subordinate role of the Baptist.

[6] See Charlesworth, J. H. (ed.), John and Qumran (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1972).

[7] See Martyn, J. L., History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Harper & Row, 1968).

[8] Dodd, C. H., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (CUP, 1953), p. 6 rightly says, ‘There is no book, either in the New Testament or outside it, which is really like the Fourth Gospel.’

[9] See my John: Witness and Theologian (SPCK, 2nd ed. 1979), pp. 27 f.

[10] See John, 1. 51; 3. 13; 6. 62 in the context of 6. 33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58; see also 3.3_legacy4; 8. 28; 12. 32, 34; 13. 31; 20.17. For the significance of this motif see Meeks, Wayne A., The Prophet-King (Brill, Leiden, 1967); and The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’, JBL 91/1 (1972), pp. 4472; Nicholson, C. N., Death as Departure: The Johannine Descent-Ascent Schema (Scholars Press, 1983).

[11] While it has been argued that the death of Jesus has no essential place in the Fourth Gospel it is at least the necessary means of the Revealer's ascent.

[12] In fact the evangelist's addition of 18c introduces the theme of exaltation by speaking of the Son as being in the bosom of the Father.

[13] See Macrae, G. W., ‘Nag Hammadi and the New Testament’ in Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1978), p. 156.

[14] Harris, J. R., The Origin of the Prologue to St. John (CUP, 1917), p. 6.

[15] For example Brown, R. E., The Gospel According to John I, pp. 18 ff. Schnackenburg, R., The Gospel According to St. John I, pp. 224 ff.

[16] Bultmann, R., ‘Der religionsgeschichtliche Hintergrund desPrologs zum Johannes-Evangelium’, in EϒXAPIΣTHPION, Festschrift für H. Gunkel, 2 Teil, 1923 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen), pp. 326.

[17] Bultmann, R., The Gospel of John, pp. 17 f., 107 f.; and in his Theology of the New Testament 2 (SCM, London, 1955), p. 13 and note. According to Bultmann both the evangelist and the hymn came from a gnosticising Jewish Baptist sect.

[18] Rissi, M., ‘Die Logoslieder im Prolog des 4 Evangeliums’, Th.Z. (1975), pp. 321–36; and John 1.1–18 (The Eternal Word)’, Interpretation, 31 (1977), pp. 394401.

[19] See Harris, , Origin, pp. 4 ff., 10–19, and especially p. 43; and Dodd, , Interpretation, pp. 274 f. Dodd lists parallels only to verses 1–14.

[20] ‘Our hypothesis that the Logos of the Fourth Gospel is a substitute for a previously existing Sophia involves (or almost involves) the consequence that the Prologue is a hymn in honour of Sophia, and that it need not be in that sense due to the same authorship as the Gospel itself.’ Harris, , p. 6.

[21] The use of χρπις in the form of a Hellenistic greeting as in 2 John 3 is no parallel. Compare Rev. 1.4;22.21.

[22] See my ‘Paul and the πνενματκοι at Corinth’ in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in honour of C. K. Barrett (SPCK, London, 1982), pp. 237–50.

[23] Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (SPCK, 1965), pp. 147–76 and especially 177.

[24] Should Paul be understood against the background of Palestinian or diaspora Judaism? Does the background make any difference? Paul's relation to the ‘Hellenist’ movement is suggested by his relation to the Church at Antioch which probably arose from the dispersal of that movement.

[25] On the Hellenists in relation to John see Cullmann, Oscar, The Johannine Circle (SCM, London, 1975); and on the relation of Hebrews to the Hellenists see Manson, Wm., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1951).

[26] έξαπέστειλεν δ θεός τόν υίόν αύτοū γενόμενον έκ γυναικός Υενόμενον ύπό νόμον. In later confessions ‘born of a woman’ becomes ‘born of the virgin Mary’.

[27] See my The Farewell Discourses and the History of Johannine Christianity’, NTS 27/4 (1981), pp. 525–43, esp. 540 ff.

[28] See Käsemann, Ernst, The Testament of Jesus (SCM, 1968), pp. 6, 10, 13, 20, 22, 26 f. I suggest that the ‘naive docetism’ which Käsemann attributed to the evangelist might well have been true of the ‘Hellenist’ editing of the Prologue. But the evangelist interpreted the revelation of glory in terms of self-giving love, involving the death of the Revealer. See Pamment, Margaret, ‘The Meaning of δóξα in the Fourth Gospel’, ZNW 74 (1982) 1/2, pp. 1216 and my John p. 58.

[29] The Gospel of John, pp. 17 f. Bultmann, refers to the earlier work (1898) of W. Baldensperger.

[30] Bultmann, R., The Gospel of John, p. 32 n. 1 says that ‘the “Logos doctrine” of the Prologue gives expression to the idea of revelation which dominates the whole Gospel’. See also p. 35.

[31] For the evangelist the revelation is an expression of the self-giving love of God (3. 16) for which the ‘Word’ is a more adequate expression because of the identification of the speaker with his words, his self-revelation in his words. On this theme see my Johannine Symbols: A Case Study in Epistemology’, JTSA 27 (1979), pp. 2641, especially pp. 31 ff.

[32] While 18b has a textual variant, the Johannine reading is ‘Son’ not ‘God’ as the relation to ‘the Father’ indicates. This is the Johannine sense, see 3.3_legacy6, 18.

[33] The same perspective is given in the saying in John 3.3_legacy3. See my review in ABR 25 (1977), pp. 43 f.

[34] Bultmann, , The Gospel of John, pp. 28 ff. argued that the hymn had its origin in ‘early Oriental Gnosticism’, a description which he took over from Hans Jonas, and to which he added the qualification ‘early’. In such Gnosticism mythological features had been pushed into the background under the influence of the Old Testament, an indication of the Jewish milieu of the source. Because of this the evangelist was not directly opposed to the source in its understanding of God and creation, which was the main point of later controversy; see also his Th.N.T. 1.170; 11, 13; and The Gospel of John, pp. 28 ff. Two important points should be noted. Gnosticism is said to have influenced the evangelist through Judaism. Hence it was modified Gnosticism which could take account of creation. Secondly, ‘early’ meant for Bultmann Gnosticism which had been so modified. He does not suggest that fully developed Gnosticism did not yet exist.

[35] This could account for the evangelist's change of attitude concerning the effectiveness of the revelation prior to the appearance of the incarnate revealer. Israel and the Old Testament are evidence of the light shining in the darkness where the revealer is not received, ού κατέλαβεν. The evangelist's interpretation of his source in John 1.10–12 is consistent with this. Those who received the revealer are the believers, in response to his historic incarnation/appearance.

* A revised version of a short paper given at the Canterbury meeting of S.N.T.S., August 1983.

Christology and the History of the Johannine Community in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel*

  • John Painter


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