In my non-scholarly opinion, no passages of the Bible have been more misunderstood than the prologue in the book of John. The more I study, the more I become convinced of this. However, as a non-scholar my words should be taken with a grain (or shaker) of salt. Moreover, the whole notion of this website is that one shouldn’t accept the opinion of a man. Rather, they should study the Bible and develop their own conclusions. I offer this article as a thought exercise for the reader to explore and develop on their own. In the beginning was the word. What does John mean?
First, it is important to understand what Jews of that time believed. Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenized Jew who combined Stoic philosophy with Judaism. He taught that the Logos was a divine being of some sort that intermediary divine being. This word “logos” is the same word that John uses that is translated “word”. Hence, in the beginning was the logos.
In Judaism, of course, the “word” of God is Torah. Thus, we must understand what Jews believed about Torah. Torah is more than the first five books of Tanakh, or the Bible. Chabad deals with the topic as follows.
In the beginning was the Torah?
To first century Jews, they would likely be familiar with both of these concepts. The Torah was the pre-existing word of Hashem, the blueprint by which he created and ran the universe. It revealed God to man, and dictated the nature of the relationship between the two. This could be called the logos. Moreover, it could also somehow be conceptualized as being a divine entity through the understanding of Philo’s teachings. To Pharisaical Jews this would be a bastardization of the meaning of Torah, but to Hellenized Jews this would be an acceptable understanding.
At this point I want to take a detour to John 10. In this passage the nature of if and how Jesus could be equal with God is being debated. Jesus then says something that could be perceived as sidestepping the issue. He quotes Psalm 82:6 “I said, you are all gods”. But this clearly isn’t a sidestep because it enrages the audience. He isn’t saying “Hey, we’re all gods, so it’s ok to say I’m the son of God.” Psalm 82:6 makes it clear that he is further equating himself to God here. Verses 6 and 7 read as follows.
Notice, “gods” and “sons of the Most High” are equated here, not differentiated. So why do the pharisees get angry? To understand this, we need to know how they perceived this Psalm. Now here I will grant you that there are several interpretations, and I am intentionally going with the Talmudic reference that best suits my case. It follows.
R. Eleazar b. R. Jose the Galilean remarked: The Angel of Death complained to the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘I have then been created in the world to no purpose!’ The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: I have created you in order that you shall destroy idol-worshippers, but not this people, for you have no jurisdiction over them. That they should live and endure for ever; as it says, “But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you” (Deut 4:4). In the same strain it says, “The writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tables” (Exod 32:16). What is the signification of “haruth”? R. Judah says: Freedom (heruth) from foreign governments; R. Nehemiah says: From the Angel of Death; and Rabbi says: From suffering. See then the plan the Holy One, blessed be He, had made for them! Yet forthwith they frustrated the plan after forty days. Accordingly it says, “But ye have set at nought all my counsel” (Prov 1:25). The Holy one, blessed be He, said to them: ‘I thought you would not sin and would live and endure for ever like Me; even as I live and endure for ever and to all eternity; I SAID: YE ARE GODS, AND ALL OF YOU SONS OF THE MOST HIGH (Ps 82:6), like the ministering angels, who are immortal. Yet after all this greatness, you wanted to die! INDEED, YE SHALLDIE LIKE MEN (Ps 82:7)–Adam, i.e. like Adam whom Icharged with one commandment which he was to perform and live and endure for ever’; as it says, “Behold the man was as one of us” (Gen 3:22). Similarly, “And God created man in His own image” (Gen 1:27), that is to say, that he should live and endure like Himself. Yet [says God] he corrupted his deeds and nullified My decree. For he ate of the tree, and I said to him: “For dust thou art” (Gen 3:19). So also in your case, I SAID YE ARE GODS; but you have ruined yourselves like Adam, and so “INDEED, YE SHALL DIE like Adam” (Num Rab. 16.24
In other words, when God revealed himself to the Israelites and they said “all that it says we will do” they became immortal, no longer subject to face death. Hence, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu says “ye are gods”. 40 days later when they worship the calf, they revoke the covenant. Therefore, “nevertheless like men you shall die”.
The Word became flesh.
It’s not important that this is the correct understanding of this passage. I address this simply to say it is potentially the understanding that those who heard Jesus quote of Psalm 82:6 had. If this is the case, then here’s what they heard him say. “You were all gods, but you will die like mortals. I, as the son of God, remain a god, not subject to death.” This would certainly enrage them, and it is understandable that they would pick up stones to prove him wrong. And what, in this concept, separates gods from mortals? Perfect following of the Torah. Or, dare I say, the embodiment of the Torah?
Let’s combine these concepts into a reading of John 1.
- In the beginning was the Torah, and the Torah was with God, and the Torah was God. (This all works from this perspective.)
- The Torah was in the beginning with God. (Where else would it be?}
- All things were made through Torah, and without Torah was not anything made that was made. (That’s what a blueprint is.)
- In Torah was life, and the life was the light of men. (It could indeed grant life. “You are all gods.”)
- The Torah shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (No problem.)
- John the Baptist, so I’ll pass.
- JTB, pass.
- JTB, pass.
- Torah, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (Like at Sinai?)
- Torah was in the world, and the world was made through Torah, yet the world did not know Torah. (At this, he looses Pharisaical Jews, but Hellenized Jews (the Logos of Philo) stick around to see how this develops.
- Torah came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
- But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (You are all gods, sons of the Most High, if you follow Torah, now Jesus.)
- Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Your ancestry doesn’t matter. If you follow Torah in the flesh, you are sons of God.)
- And Torah became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Like the glory that shined from Moses when he came down from talking with God.)
Now I understand that this reading is devastating to the doctrine of the trinity. However, it also resolves many problematic passages for the trinity. The Father is greater than I? Of course God is greater than Torah. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation? Yes, Torah was the created blueprint that preceded all other creation. That they may know you, the only true God? Yes, Torah is how we learn about God, yet it is not God in the same sense that HaShem is.
An interesting problem for the divinity of Jesus is found in the statement that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. Many Christians negotiate this by saying “firstborn” can mean preeminence, as opposed to chronological order. Very true. However, in Exodus 4:22 God instructs Moses to say to Pharoah that Israel is his firstborn son. Are they first in chronological order? No, that would be Adam. Then they must be the preeminent son of God. Over Jesus? This resolves that problem fully.
Another problem that this resolves is what to do with Moses? God seems unnecessarily harsh with Moses when he denies him entry to the Promised Land over his failure to properly execute one simple command. However, remember that Moses was the one Israelite who didn’t bow to the golden calf. Hence, he may have still been “a god” or immortal. His one deviation from Torah, albeit a minor one, ended that status and thus he had to die.
This also resolves the conflict between Tanakh and New Testament theology of Jesus being the only way to God. How were “Old Testament” Jews saved? By God’s grace and following Torah. If Jesus is Torah in the flesh, they were saved the same way as New Testament Christians. Torah.
To the Jews first, however, may be the biggest problem solved by this reading. Tanakh is full of individual gentiles who followed the God of Israel. But the biggest problem to the traditional reading is the city of Nineveh. God sent Jonah, a prophet, to them. So why did Jesus have to go “to the Jew first”? Gentiles were already historically part of God’s outreach program. But if Jesus is the Torah, then the Jews had already accepted Torah. One could argue that they had to reject it for it to spread out into the gentile world.
Now, am I saying that I believe that John is accurately portraying the real meaning of Jesus here? No. That’s not the point of this article. What I’m doing is trying to accurately understand how John is telling the story of Jesus. How did I do? I would be interested to see your comments either further developing, or refuting this view. Let me know what your thoughts on the subject are.