Thursday, June 02, 2011

Not the Prologue of John

My long-awaited article 'Not the Prologue of John' is now out in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (2011) 375-86.

Here's the abstract:
This article considers the history of the transmission of the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel and the ways in which the text was divided or not divided into segments by commentators (e.g. Ptolemy, Heracleon, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril, Philoxenus), liturgical systems and the scribes of early manuscripts (e.g. Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Greek, Latin, Syriac). There is then investigation of the division of the text in the period of print from 1495 (the first printing of Jn 1.1-14) to the present. It is found that systems that regarded Jn 1.1-5, 1-14, or 1-17 as a unit preceded those that regarded 1.1-18 as a unit and that these earlier analyses each have distinct exegetical advantages over the common modern position of viewing 1.1-18 as a unit. The reasons for the currently preferred division and its exegetical consequences are explored with the conclusion that Jn 1.1-18 should not be regarded as the prologue of the Fourth Gospel.

In the course of the article, I argue that it is more probable than not that the initial text contained a paragraph mark after 1.5, and that the view which regards Jn 1.1-18 as the prologue of the Gospel is very late. In fact, given that no one in the early church, and hardly anyone later, seems to think that the first 18 verses are the prologue it's hard to imagine that the author clearly intended his readers/hearers to take it as such.


  1. Good one Pete. It is not on the JSNT website yet, I assume from the number of pages that there are no pictures.

  2. What difference does it make to my reading of John? I still read 1.1-18 before I get to v19, and v19 begins the first narrative section (with chronological markers, v29, 35 etc.).

  3. Peter -

    How are you identifying introductory narrative features?

    It seems 1:6 with εγενετο ανθρωπος, could work just as well as an introduction to the narrative. Compare LXX 1 Reigns(Samuel) 1:1a: Ανθρωπος ην (ןיהי איש), which the O text revised to και εγενετο ανθρωπος (Rahlfs's text of course).

  4. Peter and John,
    I understand 1:1-2:11 to contain a number of opening phases. There are breaks (as between 1:18 and 1:19), but the continuity across the breaks is always bigger than the discontinuity. Moreover, the break between 1:18 and 1:19 was not perceived to be bigger than say the break between 1:5 and 1:6 or between 1:14 and 1:15 or between 1:17 and 1:18 (esp. on the early church assumption that John the Baptist's speech ended in 1:17 not 1:15) or between 1:28 and 1:29, or between 1:51 and 2:1.

    The problem with positing a 'super-break' between 1:18 and 1:19 is that the two sections about the testimony of John the Baptist (1:6-8 and 1:15-15/17/18) appear to interrupt the alleged unit (1:1-1:18).

    I think that we are presented with a series of five accounts of JB's testimony:

    (1) 1:6-8 in which it is described timelessly and without words;
    (2) 1:15-18 in which it is described timelessly, but words are given (speech now thought to end at 1:15, but in the early church thought to end at 1:17 or 1:18)
    (3) 1:19-28 in which the testimony is related to a specific time and place (details of which only come at the end of or after the testimony); Jesus is in the crowd (almost, 1:26), but John doesn't see him/point him out;
    (4) 1:29-34 with greater time specificity and sighting/pointing out of Jesus;
    (5) 1:35-42 with time specificity; sighting/pointing out of Jesus and hearing of/response to testimony.

    Thus each account of testimony adds something to previous ones.

    More recent ways of reading a super-break between 1:18 and 1:19 simply don't allow this.

    The biggest break as perceived by the early church was between 1:5 and 1:6, which fits with John's observation about 1 Reigns.

    Of course the series of beginnings of John's gospel might find a parallel in the series of endings (20:31; [21:24?;] 21:25)

  5. Thanks P.J. That added explanation was helpful.

    The narrative section of Job begins similarly to 1 Reigns: Ανθρωπος τις ην...ὧ ονομα Ιωβ...(איש היה...איוב שמו). I failed to mention that 1 Reigns also contains the use of name identification similar to John 1:6 and Job 1:1.

    These are just observations. I have not studied in detail what features are used to identify openings of narratives. These two examples, though, seem to corroborate with the comments of the Church Fathers.

  6. This may wander somewhat off topic and I stumble into this discussion as a humble MDiver who is more enmeshed with weekly sermon prep than in depth exegesis, but upon reading this post and the comments I thought this might be an appropriate place to posit a question that has nagged me for some time.
    I was surprised to discover when preaching on John's prologue (however defined) that (by my reading which is amateurish at best) the pronouns used could easily be interpreted to refer to logos or photos...the nouns preceding them. And on this reading it builds nicely in a poetic fashion- hinting at the person of Christ at the end of verse 12 ('the name of him') and culminating finally in the end of 17 with 'Jesus Christ.' In other words translate almost all of those male pronouns as 'it' - which would make sense considering light and word, etc., are masculine nouns. Am I missing something in the translation because this sort of jumped out at me but I have never read anything in my commentaries or online that would indicate that this is a viable reading.
    In Christ,

  7. You are indeed onto something, though I think you should drop the poetry bit. The section is very unpoetic.

    The idea that everything climaxes with 'Jesus Christ' in v. 17 is the Eastern Orthodox reading, which has vv. 1-17 as a unit. The naming of the unnamed is indeed important. We are told more specific things about John the Baptist (e.g. his name) than we are about the Word. By contrast we do not even know (at first) whether the Logos has personality.

    Thus dramatically these verses allow John the Baptist to start with more limelight and then for that light to be eclipsed by that of the Word (cf. he must increase, but I must decrease).

    The pronoun in v. 2 cannot refer to *photos, because the noun 'light' is actually phos (genitive photos) and therefore would not agree with houtos, which is masculine.

    Earlier English translations, e.g. Tyndale, did not give the game away by translating houtos as 'he', but rather said 'the same'. Thus readers didn't know that the Logos had personality until later. The personality of the Logos becomes clear only later in many other modern languages, e.g. French renderings of v. 2 such as elle [la parole] était au commencement avec Dieu.

  8. Not sure if anyone here has yet pointed this out, but the CSNTM has discovered four new manuscripts:

  9. Many thanks to Mr. Williams for clarifying that for me so succinctly. I am surprised that not more of the modern translations try to preserve the sense of unveiling that the text carries with it. Somehow reading it in the Greek that way carries with it more mystery and gives more emphasis to the name/person of Jesus.
    Thanks again, and thanks to those who maintain this blog...I look forward to visiting again in the near future.

    Seth Kerlin

  10. PJ
    Isn't it a rather significant leap from the "early church" to "the author"? I see no harm in looking at how others divided it a century later, but how much should that influence our understanding the Prologue?
    Jay, USA

  11. Jay,

    One link is this: if the author intended people to take vv. 1-18 as a prologue, then he had remarkably little success in the early centuries. Normally when there's a shift in the early church from an original position you can at least find traces of the original position in the early church, but here there are none.

    Secondly, our notion of a prologue as a thoroughly distinct section is wrong-headed for so flowing a narrative. The adjustment from the eternal and heavenly spheres to geographical specificity takes 28 verses of careful management. The transition is gradual.

    Thirdly, I think one can make the case, based on P66, P75 and the Diatessaron, that it is more probable than not that the archetype of the textual tradition did mark some sort of break between v. 5 and v. 6, whereas there's no evidence of a break later. Though one cannot prove the archetype to be authorial, there is at least a reasonable presumption in favour of such an identification.

  12. PJ,
    Points well taken. Thanks for enlightening me. By the way, I recently listened to your talk (somewhere in the USA) on how the names and geographical locations of John's Gospel showed strong evidence of a first century Palestinian document. That was an excellent presentation!! Thanks for your Apologetic research. You are well respected in the US; keep feeding us.


  13. Is there any validity to reading vs. 1-18 as a chiasm? If so, then it would seem to characterize those verses as a distinct section.

  14. I'm not convinced by the chiasm.

    It cuts across too many other structures (e.g. the five testimonies of John the Baptist in ch. 1) and besides there is no ancient report of the existence of the phenomenon of macro-chiasmus. I believe that macro-chiasmus and large concentric structures are a modern invention. Of course they had ABBA structures at the sentence level, and they had recapitulation, whereby the end repeats the beginning, or one returns to a theme at key points. Often these real phenomena serve as a basis for modern imaginative hypotheses about larger structures.