Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Transformation of Wisdom. A Study of the Prologue of John's Gospel

  • John Ashton


There are two fundamental questions concerning the Prologue, one literary, the other historical. The literary question was raised by Bultmann in his seminal article for the Gunkel Festschrift of 1923: ‘Wie weit ist von dem prāexistenten Logos die Rede, von wo ab von dem in der Geschichte auf-tretenden, d.h. von Jesus?’ The commentators, remarks Bultmann, disxsxsagree on the answer to this question, and this disagreement has persisted. For Bultmann the main difficulty arises from the fact that although v. 14 offers the first explicit statement of the Incarnation, the Christian reader cannot but take vv. 10 f. as an allusion to the life of Jesus, and consequently also v. 5 (which is parallel to it) and probably v. 4 also. Bultmann's solution was to see the Prologue as a pre-Christian Gnostic hymn, stemming from Baptist circles and subsequently taken over by the evangelist and adapted to form the opening of the Gospel. There have been many different answers since.



Hide All


[1] ‘Der religionsgeschichtliche Hintergrund des Prologs zum Johannesevangelium’, EbϒXAPIσTHPION: Hermann Gunkel zum 60. Geburtstage, ed. Schmidt, H., 2 (Göttingen, 1923) 126. Here p. 4.

[2] Cf. Culpepper, R. A., ‘The Pivot of John's Prologue’, NTS 27 (1981), who remarks that ‘recent commentators are fairly evenly divided on the question of whether the work of the Word in vv. 9–12 is asarkos or ensarkos’ (p. 13). And he adds a long note summarizing the various positions.

[3] See for instance Schmithals, W., ‘Der Prolog des Johannesevangeliums’, ZNW 70 (1979) 1643. Of his own highly speculative and disputable reconstruction he makes the astonishing assertion: ‘An der ursprünglichen Richtigkeit des rekonstruierten Hymnus and an der Richtigkeit der Rekonstruktion selbst kann… kein Zweifel sein’ (p. 33).

[4] The publication of the so-called Trimorphic Protennoia in 1974 has revived speculation about possible Gnostic sources of the Prologue. Like all the other suggested Gnostic sources it is too late to have been a direct influence, and in spite of certain verbal resemblances is too far away in spirit to be regarded as anything but a thin rivulet whose origins are perhaps to be sought in the same broad stream of wisdom speculation from which the Prologue also took its rise. Cf. Colpe, C., ‘Heidnische, jüdische and christliche Überlieferung in den Schriften aus Nag Hammadi III’, JAC 17 (1974) 122.

[5] As far as I am aware this debt has not actually been questioned since Rendel Harris's series of articles, The Origin of the Prologue to St. John's Gospel’, The Expositor 12 (1916) 147–70; 314–20; 388–400; 415–26. This began and ended with a version of the Prologue substituting the word Sophia for the word Logos, which was backed up with an array of texts from the Jewish wisdom literature that have been cited regularly ever since. In a book of the same title published the following year, Harris expanded his thesis, though he failed to add Baruch 3 to his list of references. Beside Bultmann's ‘Hintergrund’, Harris's treatment seems oddly superficial.

[6] Martyn, J. L., History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New York, 1968); The Gospel of John in Christian History (New York, 1978). Martyn has promised an extended study of the Prologue based on the literary seam Käsemann claimed to have discerned after v. 13; cf. ‘Source Criticism and Redaktionsgeschichte in the Fourth Gospel’, Jesus and Man's Hope, vol. 1, ed. Buttrick, D. G. (Pittsburgh, 1970) 258 + n. 29.

[7] Meeks, W. A., ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’, JBL 91 (1972) 4472.

[8] ‘Hintergrund’ (see n. 1) 20.

[9] I do not agree with McKane, W., Proverbs (London, 1970) 305, that this is ‘a weaker sense’ than the alternative: ‘Wisdom comes first, (therefore) get wisdom.’ On the contrary, it suggests to me a profound understanding of the hermeneutical circle, not too far from Horace's dictum (part of which Kant adopted as his motto); ‘dimidium facti qui coepit habet: sapere aude: Incipe.’ McKane now thinks, he informs me, that in the second half of Pr 4. 7 is best seen as a beth pretii: ‘sell all your possessions to get

[10] Cf. Rad, G. von, Weisheit in Israel (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1970) 197, n. 4.

[11] The interpretation favoured by the Rabbis, ‘master-workman’ (foreperson?), reading does not really fit the context.

[12] The LXX rendering (ἔκωωεν), which caused such trouble to subsequent Christian commentators, may simply be wrong. Bruce Vawter has argued that ‘in no single instance in the OT or in relevant cognate literature are we compelled by the evidence to ascribe to the verb in any of its forms the sense “create”’: JBL 99 (1982) 205–16.

[13] Proverbs (cf. n. 12) 358.

[14] ibid., 644.

[15] Margaret Barker, in an unpublished paper to which I am greatly indebted, challenges the widespread assumption that is to be read as a pluralis maiestatis. Why should it not have a plural reference (as it must in Job 5. 1; Zech 14.5; Ps 89. 6, 8)? Barker believes that there was a ‘deliberate process of mystification here’, and compares the textual confusion surrounding Dt 32. 8. (Perhaps was allowed to stand because it can have a singular reference, as in Hos 12. 1, if the text is right.) Pr 9. 10 is more doubtful.

[16] ‘Keep them and do them (statutes and ordinances); for that will be your wisdom and under-standing in the sight of the peoples.’ Barker sees in this passage an acknowledgement on the writer's part that wisdom is too important and traditional a category for him to exclude altogether (though no doubt he would dearly have liked to have done so.) In subsuming wisdom under the law he was adopting the next best solution by harnessing this wayward and unpredictable animal to his own wagon. See also Dt 29. 28, where ‘the secret things’ () are declared to be God's exclusive preserve: ‘the revealed things’ ()31, which belong to Israel, consist simply of ‘all the words of this law’. Also Ezra 7. 11–26 (the letter of commission), where the law (v. 14), whatever its precise content, is clearly the same as wisdom (v. 25).

[17] R. Smend is surely right to prefer the Syriac to the Greek at this point: Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach (Berlin, 1906) 6.

[18] I cannot agree with von Rad, who discusses such texts as these under the general rubric Die Selbstoffenbarung der Schöpfung’, Weisheit (cf. n: 13), 189228. It is doubtful if this expression is strictly applicable even to such passages as Job 28 and Sir 24.

[19] Alluding to LXX Dt 32. 9, where both terms occur.

[20] Following Smend's division of the poem into 6 stanzas, beginning respectively vv. 1, 7, 12, 16, 23, 30.

[21] Cf. 4 Ezra 13.54 f., which adaptsa phrase from Pr 7. 4 alluding to wisdom and understanding, and applies it to the study of the law.

[22] Whether the expression ή хáρις και ή áλήθεια is a deliberate allusion to Ex 34. 6 is another matter, and need not be settled here. Many commentators (e.g. Brown, Lindars) simply assume that it is. They may well be right, but it is hard to be sure because is regularly translated by ἔλεος in the LXX.

[23] Cf. n. 2.

[24] The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1953) 263–85. See also ‘The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel and Christian Worship’, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, ed. Cross, F. L. (London, 1957) 922.

[25] ‘Aufbau and Anliegen des johanneischen Prologs’, Exegetische Versuche and Besinnungen 2 (Göttingen, 1965) 155–80. Here p. 160.

[26] The Gospel of John (London, 1972) 78. A similar idea had already occurred to Lightfoot, R. H., St. John's Gospel (Oxford, 1956) 81.

[27] This is how it is taken by all the ancient versions, with the possible exception of the Sahidic Coptic, which is ambiguous. Dodd, who is attracted by the suggestion that we have to do with an original Hebrew or Aramaic circumlocution for ‘man’, is also inclined to this rendering, as is Haenchen, E., Das Johannesevangelium (Tübingen, 1980) 126. But the majority of modern commentators agree that the versions are wrong at this point, and take έρχóμνον with φὠς. Nevertheless the Greek is cumbersome and the order difficult. If the verse was composed d'un seul jet, which I doubt, then A. Feuillet has what appears to me the neatest solution: 'le Logos était la vraie lumiére, qui illumine tout homme en venant dans le monde', ‘Prologue du IVe Evangile’, SDB VII (Paris, 1972) col. 633. But the text is very overloaded: surely a glossator has been at work! The likeliest solution is that most of v. 9 was, as Brown suggests, composed by the editor responsible for inserting the preceding three verses, with a view to facilitating the transition to v. 10. Either αθθρωπον or its Semitic equivalent ρχóμενον εìς τóν κóσμον will have been the original reading, with the synonym added later as a gloss. Bultmann, followed by Schnackenburg, opted for the latter solution in his early article (‘Hintergrund’, 19, n. 51), but changed his mind in his commentary (Evangelium, 31, n. 6).

[28] Cf. Ergänzungsheft, 12, n. 19, where he cites the passage but fails to comment on it.

[29] Cosmology and the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel’, Vig Chr 12 (1958) 147–53.

[30] Le Prologue de Jean’, RSR 52 (1964) 497537, esp. 524 f.

[31] La Vérité dans Saint Jean (Rome, 1977) 162–6.

[32] The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Harmondsworth, 1962) 93.

[33] ‘Cosmology’ 152. The hymns are particularly redolent of this doctrine. See 1QH 1. 6–24; 4.13; 10.1,9;12.10.

[34] The Gospel according to John (New York, 1966) 6.

[35] The Sinaitic MS is defective at this point; the Curetonian reads kūlmedem beh hwā'. The peàl of hw' is as generally unfitted as γíνσθαι to express the sense of ‘being created’. Burkitt's translation of the Curetonian version of Jn 1. 3 reads: ‘Everything came to pass in Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came to pass in Him’: Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe, 1 (Cambridge, 1904) 423. This is also the sense required in 4 Ezra 6. 6, where the Syriac reads hway and the Latin facia sunt. For an equivalent use of the niph'al of , see 1Q27 1 i 3–4: … where the niph'al participle has a future meaning (Milik: le mystère futur; Sjöberg: das zu verwirklichende Geheimnis). Cf. 1Q26 1. 1. 1. Rabinowitz (‘a mystery to be’) compares CD2. 10; 13. 8; 1QS 3. 15; 10.5; 11.3–4, 18; JBL 71 (1952) 19–32.

[36] Contrast 18. 34: ‘the one who made the all’; cf. 19. 7.

[37] The form τ⋯ πάντα does not occur in the Pentateuch except for two highly significant in-stances in Genesis: Gn 1.31 (‘God saw everything that he had made’), and Gn 9. 3, where in making God give τ⋯ πάντα to Noah and his sons the translator is no doubt deliberately echoing the conclusion of chapter 1: after chaos, in the form of the flood, has been reconquered, the restored universe is handed back to mankind in the person of Noah. Apart from 3 Mac 2. 3 (ο κτίσας τπάντα), the few instances in the historical books (LXX 2 Ki 19. 30; 24. 23; 3 Ki 14. 26; 2 Mac 10. 23) scarcely count. Nor do the relatively numerous instances in Ecclesiastes, since it is clear that we have to do here with an idiosyncratic translator (Aquila?) oblivious to the solemn overtones of the term discernible elsewhere in the wisdom literature: Job 8. 3; 11. 10; 28. 25 (?); Wis 1. 7, 14; 7. 27; 8. 1, 5; 9. 1; 11. 24; 12. 15; 18. 14, 16; Ecclus 18.1; 23. 20. To these may be added LXX Jer 10. 16; 28. 19. (Wis 7. 27, where πάντα and τά πάντα occur in close proximity, constitutes in itself a strong argument for a felt difference between the two uses: wisdom is omnipotent - πάνταδύναται - and she renews the whole universe - τ**** πάντα καίνιξει) Against this formidable list there are only two instances in the wisdom literature (not counting Ecclesiastes) where τ⋯ πάντα refers to something other than the created universe: Job 13.9 and Wis 1. 10. Bar 3. 32, where the phrase ò είδὠς τά πάνα is balanced by ò καταοκεύαοας τἔν γ⋯ν is not, I would contend, a counter-example. For further instances we, e.g. T. Asher 5, 2; Josephus, , Contra Ap. 2, 190 (τ⋯ σύμταντα); Justin, , Dial. 56, 11; Did. 10, 3.

On the other side, among the innumerable instances of the plain τάντα in LXX there are only 6 which might be interpreted as referring to the universe. Elsewhere, especially in the Stoic tradition studied by Norden, E., Agnostos Theos (Leipzig/Berlin, 1913) 240–50, there is less uniformity, as is illustrated by a hymn to Selene (cited p. 250): έκ σο γ ⋯ρ πάντ έστι καì εìς σ⋯ τ⋯ πάντα τελευτā. We should leave out of account examples with πάνων (Wis 8. 3; Ecclus 1. 4; 2 Mac 1. 24) and ⋯πάντων (Ecclus 24. 8), since the genitive plural is always found in the anarthrous form in the LXX (though not elsewhere, as is shown by a number of examples cited by Norden, ibid., 164 f.; 245; 247). In Ecclus 39, 21 the Greek reads πάντα γ⋯ρ εíς χραīας αύτōν ἔκτισται. But here the τάντα has a distributive rather than an inclusive force. In Judith 8. 14 the reading is uncertain, as it is in Is 44. 24. This leaves only 3 clear counter-examples: Ps 8. 7; 103. 24; Ecclus 43. 33. Of these the first is particularly interesting, since it is actually corrected into τ⋯ πντα when quoted in the New Testament (Heb 2. 8 and 1 Cor 15. 27).

The NT parallels cited by Bultmann, (Evangelium, 18, n. 4) all have τ⋯ πντα. Bultmann (p. 19) is aware of the difference, but attempts to explain it away. H. Thyen, referring to Jn 1. 3 in another context, actually misquotes it, arguing that ‘ τ⋯ πντα (sic!) nicht einfach mit “der Menschen” identifiziert werden darf’: ‘Das Heil kommt von den Juden’, Kirche, Fs. G. Bornkamm (Tübingen, 1980) 171, n. 35.

[38] The evidence is most fully set out by Lamarche (‘Prologue’, 514–23), and Aland, K., ‘Eine Untersuchung zu Joh 1,3,4. über die Bedeutung eines Punktes’, ZNW 59 (1968) 174209. Aland's conclusions are contested by Haenchen, E., who argues: ‘Man verkehrt die Tatsachen, wenn man heute, mit Berufung auf die ältesten Handschriften, ὂ γέγναν V.4 ziehen würde, ganz abgesehen davon, daβ man damit keinen sinnvollen Text bekommt’ [Das Johannesevangelium (Tübingen, 1980), 122 ]. But this is precisely one of the strengths of Lamarche's case, with which Haenchen was evidently unacquainted.

[39] Johannesevangelium I, 216.

[40] ‘“Was da geworden ist, in ihm (dem Logos) war (dafür) das Leben”; oder “Was da geworden ist, - in dem war er (der Logos) das Leben’’ (Evangelium, 21).

[41] ‘Prologue’, 527.

[42] Jer 29. 11; 51. 29; Mi 4. 12; Ps 33. 10 f.

[43] Cf. Westermann, C., Das Buch Jesaja: Kapitel 40–66 (Göttingen, 1966) 38.

[44] Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch2 (Munich, 1956), II, 358. There is perhaps some light to be shed on this passage, as McNamara, M. suggests, from the Palestinian Targum on Ex 12. 42: Targum and Testament (Shannon, 1972) 103 f.

[45] ‘Aufbau’ (cf. n. 25), 161. Jn 17. 5, 24 are the only instances in which κóσμος bears the meaning Käsemann assigns to it. Even where Jesus is spoken of as entering or leaving the world it is the world of men that is meant.

[46] ‘Prologue’, 254.

[47] Vérité, 164. The idea is certainly present in the Assumption of Moses, though the corrupt state of the text impedes a clear vision: ‘omnes gentes quae sunt in orbe terrarum deus creavit et [ut?] nos [,] praevidit illos et nos ab initio creaturae ad exitum saeculi, et nihil est ab eo neglec tum usque ad pusillum, sed omnia praevidit et provovit [promovit?] cum eis [cunctis?]’ (12. 4–5). Cf. 1QH 1. 14 f., etc.; 4 Ezra 6. 6; Apoc. Abr. 22; Odes Sol. 16. 9: ‘the worlds are by his word’.

[48] ‘Prolog’ (cf. n. 3), 23–6.

[49] Interpretation, 281 f. Bultmann (‘Hintergrund’, 11) points out the parallel with Lk 7. 35: καἱ έδικαιώθη ή σοφία ⋯πò τὠν τέκνων ατ⋯ς. R. A. Culpepper, in what seems to me the most valuable section of his article [‘Pivot’ (cf. n. 2)] gives a very full discussion of the background to the term τέκνα θεοα in the Johannine writings. It is hard to be sure whether these verses (12–13) belonged to the original hymn or not. Either way, it makes little difference to my own argument.

[50] Gospel, 29.

[51] ή σοφία το θεο īπν άπoυστελείς ατοας προφήτας Mt 23. 34 puts this saying into the mouth of Jesus, and transposes the Wisdom who sends into sages who are sent; cf. Sir 24,33 f.

[52] ‘Prologue’, 527.

[53] ibid., 536.

[54] Le Prologue de Saint Jean (Paris, 1953) 107.

[55] Viz. the distinction between Israel and ‘le monde paien’. Lamarche offers no argument for this view, but contents himself with the assertion that the Prologue is written from the same perspective as the Letter to the Ephesians (‘Prologue’, 513). [56]‘Hintergrund’ (see n. 1), 24.

[56] ‘Hintergrund’ (see n.1), 24.

[57] ‘Aufbau’, 170.

[58] ibid., 166.

[59] Die Fleischwerdung des Logos im Johannesevangelium’, NT 13 (1971) 81126; 14 (1972) 257–76. Here, pp. 87 f.

[60] Zu “Das Wort ward Fleisch” (Joh 1, 14)’, NT 16 (1974) 161–6.

[61] ‘Fleischwerdung’, 92.

[62] To maintain this, Richter has to show that there is nothing in the remainder of the verse either which would imply divinity; for an ‘anti-docetic’ redactor would naturally be anxious to guard against misunderstanding at this point. Accordingly he argues (1) that σκηνον means simply ‘dwell’ [‘seinen (dauernden) Wohnsitz nehmen’]; (2) that in the context it is no more than a synonym for incarnation; (3) that it is best understood from Paul's use of σκ⋯νος in 2 Cor 5. 1, 4 and from the use of σκήνωμα in 2 Pet 1. 13 f. Against this, it must be said that (1) though Richter refers to Moulton-Milligan, he omits to mention a papyrus cited there (Syll 177) in which ‘the thought of temporary dwelling is well brought out’, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London, 1930) s.v. 578; (2) he ignores what, in the context, is a scarcely mistakable allusion to Sir 24. 8, 10; (3) the word δόξα itself, even without σκηνον would be enough to suggest a divine epiphany, and is certainly a highly unlikely term for the so-called anti-docetic redactor to pick on.

Richter suggests three different ways of understanding v. 14a: (a) ‘die Fleischwerdung ist nicht real zu verstehen’; (b) ‘die Fleischwerdung ist zwar real zu verstehen, aber der Ton liegt nicht auf sari, sondern auf Logos’; (c) ‘die Fleischwerdung ist real zu verstehen, and der Hauptakzent liegt auf sarx’ (86). But the verse maintains the identity of λόγος and σάρξ so it is a fatal mistake to follow Bultmann and Käsemann in looking for a Hauptakzent in the first place.

[63] Johannesevangelium, 40.

[64] Interpretation, 283.

[65] ‘The Mother of Wisdom’, The Future of Our Religious Past, Essays in honor of R. Bultmann, ed. Robinson, J. M. (New York, 1971) 230–43.

[66] ‘Wisdom Mythology and the Christological Hymns of the New Testament’, Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Wilken, R. L. (Notre Dame, 1975) 1741. Here, p. 29.

[67] ‘Man from Heaven’ (see n. 7) 71.

The Transformation of Wisdom. A Study of the Prologue of John's Gospel

  • John Ashton


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.