Today’s passage is John 1:1-28 (NRSV):
The Word Became Flesh
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.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
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. 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.
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. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 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 Testimony of John the Baptist
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Writing a reflection on the first verses of John’s Gospel in the form of a blog post feels a bit like writing a thank-you card to my parents on the back of a business card. From a history of philosophy perspective alone, John’s first verses are some of the most important ever written. From a literary perspective, the poetic depth of these lines, in the context of the rest of Scripture, makes them worthy of an entire course of study. On a personal level, these words contain a better articulation of my own worldview than I could ever hope to write myself. For the purposes of this reflection, then, I will try to limit my focus to two of these words in particular: “Word” (Logos) and “voice” (phonē), and their relationship to something I’ve been doing a bit of reading and thinking about lately: Wisdom.
The Gospel of John begins with what appears to be an intentional Genesis shout-out, but it quickly sets itself apart as a radically different (though not incompatible) creation story: “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1, NRSV). “Word” here is a sad approximation of the Greek Logos (Λόγος), which could also be translated reason or discourse. By the time of Jesus, the idea of Logos had been around in Greek philosophy for some time — at least since Heraclitus (b. 535 B.C.) — but it found a new elaboration in the work of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (b. ~15 B.C.). In Philo we find the synthesis of two essential insights, one from Hellenism and one from the Jewish nation: the absolute Idea of Divinity on the one hand, and the absolute personhood of God on the other.
John’s Logos refers to both the Divine Reason, coeternal with God the Father, and the person of Christ who “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). While some translations read “dwelt among us” here, the original Greek is eskēnōsen (ἐσκήνωσεν) from the verb skēnóō (σκηνόω), which literally means “to have one’s tent” or, more evocatively, “to tabernacle”. The tabernacle of Exodus (25-31, 35-40) was the dwelling place of God, later replaced by the Temple of King Solomon, a character remembered in part for his Wisdom (in addition to, no doubt, his wealth and his wives).
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Wisdom in the Old Testament anticipates Logos in the New, especially for Christians who accept the Deuterocanon. In Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is referred to as “the fashioner” and “the active cause of all things” (7:22; 8:5), as well as “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). Here, we also get this striking passage —one of my favorites from all of Scripture — which makes a lovely companion to John 1:
“For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior, carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command, and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth.” (Wis 18:14-16)
The other important character from John 1 is John the Baptist, who “came as a witness to testify to the light” (1:7). John the Baptist refers to himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (1:23, emphasis added), an allusion to the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:3). Given the context and his choice of words, for John the Baptist to refer to himself in this way is characteristically self-deprecating. The Greek phonē (Φωνὴ) is translated “voice” here, but could also have been used to refer to meaningless sounds, such as coughs. A phonē by itself, then, may be meaningless, but logos gives meaning to the expression (cf. Aristotle, On the Soul 420b). The voice is not the important thing in this case, but the Word to which it points. John the Baptist understood this as well as anyone; as he remarks several chapters later, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
I think we have much to gain from understanding the voice in light of the Word, and the Word in light of Wisdom. It helps us understand the Incarnation as not just a meaningful historical event, but as an event that infuses history with meaning. Of course, that history includes us, and for our actions to be truly meaningful, they must point towards Christ (cf. John 15:5). If we seek Wisdom, we must allow God, “the true light”, to “enlighten” us (John 1:9), since, in an important sense, God is Wisdom. When we use our own voice, John the Baptist’s example reminds us that, without the Word and Wisdom of God, we’re pretty useless, “for wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute, and made the tongues of infants speak clearly” (Wis 10:21).
The poetry here is profound, and I’ve only begun to scratch its surface. I’ll close here with this prayer that I often recite from Wisdom of Solomon, which ties together a lot of my favorite imagery and themes from John 1:
“May God grant me to speak with judgment, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received; for he is the guide even of wisdom, and the corrector of the wise.” (Wis 7:15)
Justin Sanchez ’17 is a Neurobiology concentrator living in Eliot House.