In the Beginning: The Importance of the Prologue to the Gospel of John

By Edward W. Klink III Mar. 25, 2011 12:00 a.m. New Testament

Beginnings of ancient books were important. Ancient writers were well aware of the importance of narrative beginnings. As Morna Hooker explains (“Beginnings and Endings,” in The Written Gospel, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Donald A. Hagner [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 184), “In the introduction … an author would give some indication of the purpose or contents of the book. Some genres of literature – history, biography, scientific, medical, or technical works – begin with a formal preface, indicating the author’s purpose or method.” This narrative function of beginnings, therefore, provided information regarding purpose, method, and contents – key information needed to understand the rest of the narrative.

While all types of narrative beginnings are important, prologues had a uniquely dramatic force in ancient writings. Reminiscent of the openings of classic dramas, prologues were often used to introduce the important characters in the narrative, situate them within the story, and give some understanding of their importance. But there is a further function of prologues that is very important: prologues would project the plot by explaining both seen and unseen forces within the action.  Hooker explains this function: “It was customary for the Greek dramatist to introduce the theme of his play in a ‘prologue,’ which provided members of his audience with the vital information that would enable them to comprehend the plot, and to understand the unseen forces – the desires and plans of the gods – which were at work in the story” (186). While the Gospel of John does not reveal the desires and plans of the gods, it does, in dramatist fashion, explain the desires and plans of the God. The prologue, in this sense, prescribes the reader’s comprehension of the plot and explains the behind-the-scene activities of God. What is explained is the “unseen forces” that are at work in and around the real events described by the narrative. The prologue is guiding the reader to see the invisible (God) in the visible (historical persons and events). The prologue of John functions, therefore, as the cornerstone for the entire gospel, the lens through which the gospel must be read. It is of great importance that the magnificent language and imagery of the prologue not detract the reader from grasping its functional significance for explaining and directing the rest of the gospel.

Thus, before we meet Jesus in Jerusalem or in Galilee, we meet him “In the beginning … with God.” This is not merely an abstract theological statement, but essential information needed to make sense of the actual historical person and work of Jesus described in the rest of the gospel. In the prologue we learn that Jesus is the Word, the full and final expression of God (1:1, 18), and we learn that he is the Unique Son (1:14). We learn about other important characters as well: The “Father” who sent his son (1:14), the “children of God” who receive this “right” through Jesus’ “name” (1:12), the “world” that no longer knows its Creator because it is “in the darkness” (1:5, 10-11). We also learn the basic plot of the gospel: creation no longer knows its Creator and is in darkness. But the Light has arrived in the world. The Light will make the Father known to the world, as the divine Word of God. All of this is matching and expanding what was revealed in the Old Testament, though now God has been even more gracious (1:16-17). These are the “unseen forces” that are necessary to make sense of the rest of the gospel.

The theme of “the temple” is a clear example of the importance of the prologue of John. Already in 1:14 Jesus is depicted with temple imagery. Human flesh, the body of Jesus, becomes the central place where humanity and God interact. The remainder of the prologue (1:15-18) makes explicit the contrast between the old temple and Jesus as the temple, the one grace being replaced by another, greater grace. The declaration of this “unseen” dwelling of God with humanity in the person of Jesus helps to explain the “temple” imagery in 1:51 where Jesus is described as the locus of divine revelation, the living Beth-el, the “House of God.” It also provides a much needed commentary to the cleansing of the temple in 2:12-25, where the evangelist articulates a full replacement of the temple and its predecessors (Bethel and the Tabernacle) in the person (his body) and work (his death/resurrection) of Jesus. Jesus himself creates a new mode of worship (ch. 4); Christ is the temple of God, and only through Christ can a person find God (14:1-7). The prologue provided the “unseen forces” about the God-made-flesh that makes sense of (sets the trajectory for) the temple imagery in the remainder of the gospel. It is in this way that the prologue serves as an essential guide to the reader, as a lens through which the gospel is to be read. For readers of John, it is important to start “In the beginning.” 

Comments

  • Alice C. Linsley Mar. 25, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Genesis tells us that Abraham's ancestors were Nilotic people:

    In Africa, story telling has certain fixed conventions. One of them is to speak about "the beginning." The phrase "In the beginning was God" is not found in Babylonian sacred prose, but it is found in Africa. The following is a song of the BaMbuti Pygmies:

    In the beginning was God
    Today is God,
    Tomorrow will be God.
    Who can make an image of God?
    He has no body.
    He is as a word which comes out from your mouth,
    That word! It is no more,
    It is past and still it lives!
    So is God.

    Consider this story:

    At the beginning of Things, when there was nothing, neither man, nor animals, nor plants, nor heaven, nor earth, nothing, nothing, God was and He was called Nzame. The three who are Nzame, we call them Nzame, Mebere and Nkwa. At the beginning Nzame made the heaven and the earth and He reserved the heaven for Himself. Then He blew on the earth and the earth and water were created each on its side.

    Nzame made everything: heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, animals, plants; everythng. When He had finished everything that we see today, He called Mbere and Nkwa and showed them His work. "This is my work. It is good."

    The Akan of Ghana also have a creation story with the words "In the beginning..." - In the beginning the heavens were closer to the earth. First man and first woman had to be careful while cultivating and grinding grain so that their hoes and pestles would not strike God, who lived in the sky. Death had not yet entered the world and God provided enough for them. But first woman became greedy and tried to pound more grain than she was allotted. To do this, she had to use a longer pestle. When she raised it up, it hit the sky and God became angry and retreated far into the heavens. Since then there has been disease and death and it is not easy to reach God.




  • Glen Smallman Mar. 27, 2011 at 8:16 PM

    Great post, Dr. Klink. Really appreciate the insights into ancient literature.

  • Keith Mar. 29, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    Dr.Klink.
    without going into great detail.
    Regarding worship, working from the prospective of 3 in 1, Father Son and Holy Spirit. the following question has crossed my mind several times - Should we worship Jesus the Son or Yahweh, the Father?
    In revelations, in heaven it talks about worshiping the Lamb of God, which would be Jesus. from what i recall: during Jesus' earthly ministry, the focus was on worshiping God (Yahweh) and not himself. Jesus described himself as a temple, the place people go to worship and not the object of worship (on earth)

    I would appreciate your insight.
    Thank you.

  • Edward Klink Mar. 29, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    Keith,

    Great question. In short, worshipping Jesus is worshipping the Father. The only worship the Father receives is worship that is mediated through Jesus. A great book that relates to this was written by one of my Biola colleagues, Fred Sanders, "The Deep Things of God." In his words, when we see Jesus we should think Trinity. Everything Jesus is and does is fully represenatvie of the Trinitarian God. And nothing he does separates or distinguishes him from the rest of the Godhead. In this way, it is best to worship God as he has designed it: Worship the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

  • Richard Zuelch Mar. 29, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    John's prologue is especially important in that his entire gospel was originally meant to evangelize first-century Gentiles in the Roman Empire, many of whom were Greek-speaking. What better way to evangelize them, especially, by giving his gospel a theological beginning and using the Greek concept of the "logos" as a way of reaching out to them - by showing them the true Logos?

  • Edward Klink Mar. 30, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    Richard,

    While it is true that John does connecgt with gentile readers in many ways, it could not be more of a Jewish gospel. And it is more often the Jewishness of the gospel that sets the trajectory of the gospel's significance and meaning. I find specific reconstructions of the gospel's audience and origin less than convincing.

  • Alice C. Linsley Mar. 30, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    It is a good question! It seems to me that Christianity is a Trinitarian faith. We should pray in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Yes, Jesus shows us the Father. He and the Father are one. The fullness of the Faith received is hidden in the mystery of the Triune God. We are invited to share in that eternal, unchanging mystery through our Baptism.

  • Edward Klink Apr. 1, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Agreed, Alcie.

    As much as the Trinity is a mystery, we do well to allow what is clear about the Trinity to be certain for us. We want to allow the unity of God and the distinctions of persons in the Godhead to co-exist, so as not not be Trinitarian in principle but modalists in practice.

  • Fr Patrick Gitonga Dec. 31, 2012 at 5:44 AM

    Still not getting why Messianic secrecy?

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