In the beginning was the Word

This coming weekend we celebrate the 2nd Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. Jesus and the disciples were not born into a time of theological vacuum.  Jewish theology was robust and with a history of succeeding and competing rabbinic schools.  The followers of Jesus and the people of his time were Jews who were raised and lived this theology.  It provided the framework for their daily lives and shaped their expectations about the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was to come.  Among the gospels, John’s is the writings whose work expresses the fulfillment of those expectations and provides the theology for those that would follow Jesus.  The basis of the theology is evident from the opening: John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God…” 

The Greek word used for ‘Word’ is logos. Many commentaries on this topic discuss this passage in terms of  logos, Greek for reason and speech.  When this is viewed from a Greek philosophical point of view, it is explained that Jesus was by reason the very idea of God and by speech, the very expression of God.  If this gospel is attributed to John the Apostle, the approach suffers from the fact John was a Jewish fisherman whose family had connections to the high priestly families of Jerusalem.  He is more likely to have used his Jewish background as a basis for the philosophical opening.

This basic Jewish theology was important because it is by understanding the background that the fullest sense of the meaning of Jesus can be obtained.  The introduction to John’s gospel, when viewed from the existing Jewish theology, provides continuity from the Old Covenant to the New.  It shows that the Messiah existed from before creation and sets the theological basis for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy through Jesus, and the forming of a new creation.

A great deal of our understanding of the Jewish theological interpretation of the Old Testament comes from original writings of the Hebrew scholars.  The Old Testament was originally recorded in Hebrew and then translated (with interpretative embellishment) in Aramaic – known as the Targumin.  For example:

  • Isaiah 52:13 (Hebrew) “See, my servant shall prosper..”
  • Isaiah 52:13 (Targumin) “See, my servant the Messiah shall prosper..”

In fact most of the OT citations in John are taken, not from the Hebrew or Septuagint (Greek language; LXX) Scriptures, but from the Targumins.  From study of the Targumins we can begin to understand the full nature of Jesus.

In Jewish theology, the memra – Aramaic for the Word (dabar in Hebrew) – had several characteristics.  It means more than “spoken word”; it also means “thing”, “affair”, “event”, and “action”.  Because it covers both word and deed, in Hebrew thought, dabar had a certain dynamic energy and power of its own.  When connected to Yahweh it took on the divine.  Its energy and power were from God.  The Targuminic reflections on memra (Targum Onkelos) offers some insight into the meaning of the Word in Jewish theological thinking:

  • The memra was highly personified (e.g., Isaiah 9:8, 45:23, 55:10; Psalm 147:15)
  • When the word of God came to a particular prophet (Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1) it challenged the prophet to accept the word; when he accepted it it impelled him to go forth and give it to others and it became the word that judged men.
  • The memra was a means of making a covenant (e.g., Genesis 15:1; Exodus 34:10).
  • The word was is described in the OT as a light for men (Ps 154:105, 103)
  • The memra was life-giving (e.g., Dt 32:46-47)
  • For the Psalmist the memra has the power to heal people (e.g., Ps 107:20)
  • Salvation was by means of the memra (e.g., Wis 16:26)
  • The revelation of God to his people came through the memra as His agent (e.g., Genesis 15:1; Ezekiel 1:3)
  • The memra was an agent of creation (e.g, Psalm 33:6; Is 55:10-11; Ws 9:1).  In Is 40:11 God says, “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.  Rather it shall accomplish what I want and prosper in the things for which I sent it.”
  • The memra was bearer of the judgment of God (Wis 18:15; Hab 3:5)
  • The memra was the agent of the theophany, or visible manifestations of God’s presence (Gen 3:2).   John uses this thought (Jn 1:14) in the use of the term “dwelling”, which loses something in the translation.  The Greek  literally reads “pitched his tent/tabernacle”, describing the place of God’s presence among His chosen people.  The Greek word for dwelling uses the same/near equivalent consonance sounds as the Aramaic work, Shekinah, meaning thiophene.

From the opening of John’s Prologue we see the portrait of Jesus as the fulfillment of all of these Targuminic themes.  Jesus is personified (vv. 1-2), the agent of God and creation (v.3), the life-giver (v.4), the source of life and knowledge (vv.4-5), the maker of covenants (v.12), the means of salvation (v.16), the same as God and different (God and human natures), and the visible presence of God on earth.

The memra describes the very nature of why Jesus was sent. It is this background that gives deep shape and meaning to the simple verse: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)

The Fourth Gospel often speaks of Jesus being sent into the world by the Father: to do his will (6:38–39; 8:29), to speak his words (3:34; 8:28; 12:49; 14:24; 17:8), to perform his works (4:34; 5:36; 9:4) and win salvation for all who believe (3:16–17).

That these same actions would be expected of the disciples, continuing the words and works of Jesus, is foreshadowed at various places in the Gospel. Jesus had urged them to see fields ripe for harvest, and told them he had sent them to reap where others had labored (4:35–38).  Jesus told them that those who believed in him would do the works he had done and greater works than these because he was returning to the Father (14:12). The charge to bear fruit was made clear: “I … chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you” (15:16). When Jesus prayed for his disciples he said to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (17:18). All of this points to a post-Resurrection mission that was larger than simply the confines of historical Israel, but rather a mission to the world.

Image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), c. 1602 | Public Domain

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