Today, I want to think a little about one of the densest and most debated texts I know. It is the Prologue to the Gospel of John, found in Chapter 1, verses 1—18. These verses have made and ruined academic reputations, split churches, and very likely have made or ended pastoral careers. I should say before I begin that this post is going to have to be longer than usual. I’m sorry. The next one is going to be about Vladimir Putin’s New York Times editorial and if you want to wait for that one, I understand. This one will require a little huffing and puffing.
I’m not going to do anything that belongs in that league, but I’ve been thinking about some comments made by Raymond E. Brown in his lectures on the gospel of John and in his commentary on John as well. As I read the Prologue, the question of “rather than what” keeps coming to my mind. From a rhetorical perspective, it is obvious that when you say that an object is something, you are saying that it is not something else. A hand, as St. Paul says, is not a foot.
Very often, however, either “what it is not” is not explicit or “why the distinction is important” is not clear. So in addition to my “rather than what” question, I must as “why does it matter?”
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet 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 natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[b] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
I have read that straight through, all my life, without asking the two questions with which I began this post. There are two reasons for reading it the way I always did and the way everyone I knew always did. The first is that reading it with the alternatives in mind is a lot of work. The second is that it isn’t always work that leaves you feeling clear and committed. Sometimes it makes you feel unclear and hesitant.
Let’s postpone the Prologue for just another moment to consider the “what is not there” question. For that purpose, I propose, “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” the beginning of it anyway.
Down by the old mill stream
Where I first met you
With your eyes so blue
Dressed in gingham, too
Sometime in my unremarkable past, I learned another version. This is the version that pretends to care a good deal about our first question, which, you will recall, is “Rather than what?”
Down by the old (not the new but the old) Mill stream (not the river but the stream), Where I first (not the last but the first) Met you. (Not me but you.) With your eyes (not your ears, but your eyes) Of blue (not green, but blue). Dressed in ging- (not silk but ging-) -ham too. (Not one but two.)
I say it “pretends to care” because some of the appositions are nonsensical and the ones that aren’t are trivial. Is there really a new mill stream? Are streams different from rivers in any important way? Would anyone celebrating the beginning of a romance distinguish when I last met you from when I first met you? Does “when I first met me” make any sense at all?
However, when we get down to eye color, we begin to have something. Let’s make it brown instead of green. I remember a song that has the line, “Beautiful beautiful brown eyes; I’ll never love blue eyes again.” Not blue but brown. If there were rival clans, one of which had blue eyes and the other brown eyes, what would a romance between a brown-eyed boy and a blue-eyed girl mean? It would mean what Capulet and Montague mean; what Hatfield and McCoy mean. It would mean war.
So of all the nonsense accompanying that old mill stream, we come up with one distinction that points us in the right direction. When I say “blue eyes,” is there an alternative that matters?
So—finally—let’s look at the Prologue and start with the last verse. For working purposes, I am going to use my New Jerusalem Bible, which reads, “No one has seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” We know now that someone has seen God and has made Him known. Who is it? Jesus Christ. Who is it not? Moses.
“The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend,” says Exodus 33:11. Here we have a tradition saying that Moses has seen God and a tradition saying that he has not. These two communities are the leaders of the synagogues around 100 A.D. and the believers in Jesus who were being thrown out of the synagogues around 100 A.D. In the bluntest and least conciliatory phrasing, we have the author of the Prologue saying “You say your guy saw God face to face, but you are lying because no one has ever seen God. Except, of course, for our guy who is close to the Father’s heart (v. 18) and who was “with God in the beginning” (v. 2)”
Honestly, I don’t want to enter into this dispute. My contribution to it is a) to note that there is a dispute and b) to show that only one side—the side making the claim in this text—is represented. This text says “blue eyes,” but it does not say “not green eyes.” It takes some study to come up with the green eyes.
Let’s try another. Take a look at verses 12 and 13. Here it is in the New Jerusalem Bible.
But to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God, to those who believed in his name—who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will, but from God Himself.”
In all honesty, I will have to say that in verse 11, just before this passage, it says that the Word came to his own people—Israel—and his own people did not accept him. That’s why I underlined did accept him. Some did (Jews who believed in the claims Jesus was making) and some didn’t (Jews who found those claims the rankest blasphemy). The people who accepted Jesus were begotten of God and Jesus gave these people the power to become the children of God.
There’s the positive reading. Who can possibly object to God choosing some to be his children? Well, remembering that the Prologue is a monument in the ongoing altercation between two parties, you become a Jew by having a Jewish mother. The priests are descended from the tribe of Levi. We are ourselves descended from Abraham (Chapter 8, verse 33) and we are disciples of Moses [because] we know God spoke to Moses (Chapter 9, verse 29). Those are substantial claims and they had allowed Israel to hang together for centuries.
Here is the negative—that is, the version where the pejorative comparison is featured—version. All those are wadded together into “human will” and contrasted to the creative gift of God. What your guy (Moses, Abraham) has and so what you as their followers have, is “merely human.” What our guy (Jesus) has and the gift of God which he has given us is divine and not human at all.
Let’s do one more. This is harder because you have to stretch a little to see what is not there. It is the Torah that is missing. Here is the positive reading. God created the world good. He sent life and light into the world, but mankind chose the darkness. That’s the story of Adam and Eve and their descendants who must live in the darkness their ancestors chose. Then God send light into the world again (the Word) and even now, those who accept him may choose the light of God’s presence. God is trying really hard here. He offered light and life once and got His hand slapped. So he offered them again. You want positive? That’s positive. But as you now know, I am seeing every positive as paired to the exclusion of a (lesser) alternative.
No Jew—ever—would skip from the creation of the world to the incarnation of the Word as Jesus of Nazareth. You start with creation, then move to the call of Abraham and the Exodus and the incomparable divine gift of the Torah. This is where God says, “You will be my people and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7 and many other places). Why on earth would anyone go from creation to incarnation without citing the fundamental agreement God made with His people?
Why? Well, remember that we have dipped into the middle of a ferocious conflict between those who believed in Jesus and those who did not. The Torah is what they had shared. No one is in a sharing mood anymore. Why should we emphasize the Old Covenant when God is in the process of offering a New Covenant?
For the people who were engaged in this conflict, careful judgment and peaceful fellowship were not options. Those aren’t the options facing Christians today—at least they aren’t the options this post is about. Our options are to read these texts naively—noting only the positive case and ignoring what is excluded—or with a sensitive awareness of how the argument is actually built. As I Christian, I don’t pretend to be a neutral observer, but for most of my life, I have not been an observer at all. I have read about the wonderful gift of God without ever seeing the “Our guy is better than your guy” connotations.
Now that I see them, I can’t not see them anymore. For me, “blue eyes” are always going to mean “not brown eyes.”
 I still capitalize the word when I am not quoting someone else. I’m a monotheist and it just makes sense to me.
 I put the dash after name, and capitalized the personal pronoun. The rest is just what you would find in any New Jerusalem Bible.
 And if he did and if he was an Israeli citizen, his passport would get massively more complicated.
 Brown says there are some characters in John’s gospel who wanted to stay in both worlds and for whom John has nothing but contempt.