This is a Sermon I Preached on Christmas Day over a year ago,
on December 25, 2019 11:00 am
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete.
I am only getting it finished now . . .
A Bold Claim
1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. . . . 14Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας · — κατά Ἰωάννην 1.1 & 1.14
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. — John 1.1 & 1.14
One of the most striking things about the Gospel according to John is that arguably it has the highest Christology of the four gospels, and yet it is written in the roughest Greek in the New Testament. One gets the distinct feeling that this is the Greek of someone whose first language is something else, but who has learned it as an adult, perhaps. Don’t get me wrong – it is fluent – but it is simple and repetitive, and it has none of the polish we see in the Gospel according to Luke, nor does it have any of the Hellenistic rhetorical conventions found in the letters of Paul.
And yet it has the highest Christology of the four gospels – Christology being simply the Greek word meaning “words about the Messiah, the anointed one”. By “high” I mean that it views Jesus of Nazareth not simply as a good man, or the Messiah, or even the Son of God, but as God made flesh, true God from true God. If one had only the Gospel according to Mark one could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was adopted as the son of God at his baptism. Matthew and Luke each have the infancy narratives, and while they make it clear that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and so was the son of God in that way, again, one could understand Jesus as being a creation of that same Holy Spirit with the cooperation of Mary, his mother – he is something brand new. However, John suggests that Jesus somehow pre-existed his conception and birth, as the eternal Word:
2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. — John 1.2-5
This Word which became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth thus was not some creation of God, but was itself eternally divine, the uncreated creator. This is a bold claim, but the author of the Fourth Gospel presents it right at the beginning of his work.
A Neo-Platonic Reading
The language of the New Testament is Hellenistic Greek, which is the language Alexander the Great took with him from Macedonia into the Persian Empire some three centuries before the time of Jesus. It was the language of the successor states that ruled after Alexander’s empire split up, and was sufficiently well known in Judea that in the century before Jesus a majority of Jewish grave stones around Jerusalem used Greek. The New Testament itself suggests that Jesus and his first disciples spoke Aramaic and had a knowledge of Biblical Hebrew (they are closely related languages).
Because the common language of the eastern Roman Empire was Hellenistic Greek, the New Testament and its language was immediately related by early Christians to aspects of older Greek culture. This included Greek philosophy, in which the word ὁ λόγος o logos “the word” had a great significance. For Heraclitus (c.535 BCE – c.475 BCE) the logos is that through which all things come into being, but which is not well known by human beings (DK 22 B 1). Plato or Aristotle considered logos as ordinary reason or discourse.
The Stoic philosophers, treated logos as something more. Taking their name from where they gathered, the Stoa in Athens, they started around 300 BCE and continued on into the Roman Empire, through to the Third Century CE. They identified the cosmos as being created of two principles, an active and a passive one. The passive one was the matter of the universe, which they understood as fire, water, earth, and aether. The active princile was the logos – which “is un-generated and indestructible.” It is is “identified with reason and God”. Thus in the Hellenistic world some people saw ὁ λόγος as the rational principle of the universe – a kind of blueprint, a key to understanding what is real.
Plato’s theory of forms/ideas stated that true reality was not this material world but the idealistic world of essences such as “the good”, “beauty”, and “justice”; the world we live in is but a shadowy, derivative version of the ideal which we seek to know better. This world of forms became assimilated to the Stoic idea of ὁ λόγος, especially in the thought of Plotinus (204-270 CE). In what was later called Neoplatonism Plotinus developed the idea that o logos was the divine order that was comprehended by the rational soul of a human. Plotinus shows no influence of Christian thought, but he developed a three-fold set of primordial objects: the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul. The One is beyond being (as was “the good” in Plato) and is self-sufficient, but is the source of all being. It appears to have some form of self-consciousness, and this gives rise to multiplicity, or Intelligence. Plotinus identifies the Intelligence as Plato’s realm of ideas, which is divine. The Soul is that in which the complexities of the material world unfolds, its higher parts contemplating the Intelligence and the lower parts forgetting its divine origin and enjoying its material nature.
While not corresponding well to the emerging Christian doctrine of the Trinity, this hypostasizing of the logos in Neoplatonic thought was close enough to influence ancient theologians such as Origen (184 CE – 293 CE), Pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th to early 6th century CE) and Augustine of Hippo (353 CE – 430 CE). By the third century CE Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, was to be identified with what enlightened pagan philosophers before and after Jesus knew as o logos.
This is important, because part of what was taken from Neo-Platonism into Christian readings of the scriptures was a sense that creation was somehow inherently less than something good, and merely derivative of the pure realm of perfect forms. Thus Porphyry, the student, editor, and biographer wrote that “Plotinus, the philosopher our contemporary, seemed ashamed of being in the body.” This went well with a growing asceticism in Christianity, especially as manifested in monasticism. Celibacy for Paul was a useful state to be in when trying to preach the good news – useful because he thought it would be a short time before the second coming of Jesus. Celibacy developed into an end in itself because it was thought to be more pure and less contaminated by the desires and matters of the world. This morphed into the valorization of virginity, the most pure state. The non-attachment to goods and the sharing of wealth, which in the gospels is as much an issue of justice as anything, is again seen as a detachment from a broken, sinful world. The emphasis shifted from justice and mercy to contemplative purity.
[N.B. I did not actually say all this highfalutin’ stuff on Christmas Day. I think I said something like, “And this was well received in Greek speaking world because philosophers had popularized the idea of o logos as the divine ordering principle of the world.” Then I followed through with something like the paragraph immediately above. One can always expand in a blog.]
An Anti-Jewish Reading
Another unfortunate effect of the Neo-Platonic reading of the scriptures was it played into the anti-Jewish tendencies of the growing Gentile Christian community. Judaism, which in practical terms after the Jewish War of 66-70 means the the earliest forms of Rabbinical Judaism, and which had its roots in the Pharisees, was adamant that God was one, and not a Trinity, and that the word of God however conceived could not take on flesh. That was a line across which they held a proper Jew could not cross, and most Jews would hold to this view today.
Ancient Christians were only too happy to return the complement. The first anti-Jewish polemic was that of Marcion, who in the second century in Rome advocated for the rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures and the sole use of edited versions Luke and some Letters of Paul. In response other Christians affirmed that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian writings in circulation were neither contradictory or subject to editing, but were to be considered as Old and New Testaments, or witnesses and testimonies to Jesus. They began to list the books and letters which deserved to be read in church, and after a couple of centuries they arrived at the Bible we have now.
In terms of ancient readings of the first chapter of John, many Greek-speaking Gentile Christians of the third and fourth century saw its roots not in Judaism, but pagan Greek philosophy, as if to really understand who Jesus of Nazareth was, one had to import this non-Jewish Greek metaphysics.
This desire to rid the Christian scriptures of Jewish influences pops up in modern scholarship. In the 19th century and early part of the 20th century many New Testament scholars believed that the roots of the Prologue of John are to be found in Stoicism and/or Middle Platonism (what came between Plato himself and the Neo-Platonists). Others found it in Gnosticism, which scholars describe as a secret teaching that took on Jewish and Christian forms. The eminent German New Testament scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) believed that our gospel reading today was directly influenced by Mandaeism, a Gnostic religion that was found in ancient times in southern Iraq and is still extant today.
The problem with this is that it perpetuates an anti-Jewish or antisemitic reading of the Christian scriptures. Many of the scholars in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th were German Protestants, deeply influenced by Luther and his understanding of the binaries of Law and Gospel, and Sin and Grace. Luther based this theology on how he read Paul, especially in the Letter to the Romans. Judaism, in this view, is a failure of a religion, because its emphasis on the Law could only result in unrighteousness and condemnation. The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, freed the sinner from the shackles of sin and death, so that they might be saved by faith alone and the grace of God. Thus, Christianity is the new Israel, replacing the old. This view of theology was incredibly influential, but since the 1960s it has been argued that Luther fundamentally misunderstood Paul, reading into Romans and Galatians a form of successionism which was quite alien to his thought. Scholars like Bultmann were not virulent anti-semites, but were predisposed to disparage Judaism.
The Prologue of John:
A Jewish Midrash on Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8
The Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, treats the Christian New Testament as if most of it is non-canonical, first-century Jewish writings. He believes that by the the time of Philo and Jesus the ideas of Greek philosophy had worked their way into Judaism, especially among Greek speaking Jews, but that the ideas then were interpreted in distinctly Jewish ways. Thus, logos was used by Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 40 CE) to understand the wisdom (Hochmah) of God. Philo is a unique exponent of what scholars later called Middle Platonism, a development of Plato’s ideas about the forms that was, in a sense, in between Plato himself and Neoplatonism.
For Philo the logos is spoken by God, and with God speaking is action (unlike us humans, for whom speaking may express a potential). Interestingly, he describes the logos as the first-born son of God, and while on the one hand the logos appears to be a creation of God, at other times it seems it is God.
Boyarin does not think that the author of the Prologue of John had necessarily read Philo, although one cannot rule that out. What is more likely is that Jewish-Hellenistic ideas of Wisdom as being like a divine person, distinct from the uncreated God but partaking of divinity, were becoming more common. In translations of Genesis into Aramaic, called Targums, dating from a century or so after the time of Jesus, he finds evidence of what he calls binitarianism – that the divine was composed of two persons, the Father and the Word (or, in Aramaic, dabar).
Boyarin reads John 1.1-18 as a Jewish midrash on Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8. In Genesis 1 God speaks, and the world is created. In Proverbs 8 we read Wisdom speaking:
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth . . .
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
John 1.1-18, then, is a reflection on Wisdom, as Logos, in the world:
1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being 4 in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
While this is often read as referring to both the pre-incarnate Word and the incarnate word – “the darkness did not overcome it” being seen a reference to Jesus’s victory in the cross and over death – Boyarin reads it as purely disembodied Wisdom. The incarnation is not mentioned until verse 14. At this point we are seeing the Word as being rejected by the people, whether in Sinai, the Promised Land, or the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The prophets spoke of Torah, and that, too, is, the Word of God.
The next couple of verses are often read in a Christian mode, referring to the acceptance of Christ as a kind of rebirth, but Boyarin sees it as something that was available before the time of Jesus. There is no supersessionism here, where the Church replaces Israel, but a plain statement that the acceptance of the Word, the wisdom of God, makes one a child of God:
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Only with verse 14 do we come to an innovative proposition:
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The suggestion that the Word, immaterial Wisdom, took on human flesh in the form of one Jesus of Nazareth, would probably have been a step too far for Philo and the translators of the Targums – but not for the author of the Prologue, who either knew Jesus himself, or knew someone who did, namely, the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel of John. In Jesus they knew the glory of God. In Christ they experienced the reality of the divine in a unique and transforming way, and by the Holy Spirit that glory remained with them.
The Gospel of Glory
The Prologue of John continues:
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth . . .
16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace . . .
17a grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 1
8 No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known.
The Gospel of John is fundamentally a gospel of glory. In Jesus we see the glory of the uncreated Creator. In Jesus we find the truth of God, and the gift of God. On this Christmas Day we witness to that glory, a light which, as in times past and today, shines in the darkness, and is not overcome. However we understand the incarnation, may Christ be born today in ourselves, our souls and bodies, and may the glory which shone in Bethlehem brighten our days and the lives of others.