Wisdom became flesh: an analysis of the prologue to the Gospel of John.

Author:Kling, Sheri D.


I have heard it said that people do not go to church in order to find wisdom, but so that they may find security. Yet it is my personal experience that security is one thing that human life does not offer. What the Christian life does offer is an invitation to participate in the divine life in such a way that one's experience of life is enduring and full of rich meaning and depth. I have also learned that a Christian spiritual practice that connects following Christ with listening to God's wisdom--especially through the examination of one's dreams and inner reflection on life experience--opens up untold possibilities of grace-filled transformation.

Yet Christians who embrace this way of being are typically in the minority in most congregations. This is, at least in part, the result of a lack of understanding of the presence of the Wisdom tradition in Christian scripture and theology. Ironically, it is in the Gospel that is often the most beloved--the Gospel of John--where this tradition is most present, but though scholars understand these resonances, they have typically not been translated into common conceptions of this Gospel.

This essay examines the text of John's prologue for the purposes of exploring more of its beauty and depth, touching on its resonances with the Wisdom tradition, and attempting to uncover how Wisdom/Sophia in the disguise of Word/Logos might have become associated with Jesus. Finally, Twill draw a few conclusions as to the fruits that might come from a rediscovery of the Wisdom roots embedded within the Christian life. I will begin, though, with a limited overview of the Gospel of John in general.

The Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel is generally considered to be the latest one; Clement referred to it as the "spiritual Gospel," (1) and Mark Allan Powell calls this Gospel the most "overtly interpretive." (2) Pieces of it were discovered in papyri Fragments dating to 125 CE, and most scholars date its origination to between 90 and 100 CE, though there is some debate both about its timing and its geography.

Though much in this Gospel has been interpreted as hostility toward "the Jews," Gail R. O'Day finds compelling evidence of many positive resonances with the Old Testament, including the use of "In the beginning ..." to start the Prologue and the "IAM" language echoing the divine name. "Indeed," writes O'Day, "the Scriptures are pointed to as bearing witness to Jesus ... John's animosity to the Jewish religious authorities thus does not extend to Jewish religious traditions. He is thoroughly saturated in and shaped by the Jewish Scriptures." She concludes that this Gospel was written by a Jewish Christian for and in a Jewish Christian community, though that community was certainly "in conflict with the synagogue authorities of its day." (3)

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Fourth Gospel is the degree to which its writer is influenced by the Old Testament Wisdom tradition. In fact, the theme of Jesus as Wisdom in this Gospel has caused many feminist biblical scholars to be drawn to its study.

The association of Jesus with Sophia in the Fourth Gospel has been viewed as an affirmation of a feminine aspect of Jesus (and God). Feminist scholars have used these wisdom motifs as a biblical foundation for constructing a feminist Christology, one that focuses on Jesus not as a reflection of God's maleness, but rather as a reflection of God's life-giving, justice-seeking, instructing and guiding presence. (4) Raymond E. Brown points out that while in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus' ministry and teachings reflect a "certain continuity" with the ethical and moral teachings of the Wisdom literature and its sages, "in John, Jesus is personified Wisdom." (5) This connection between Jesus and Wisdom is no more profoundly apparent than in the Prologue. Elizabeth Johnson summarizes the connection in this way:

The Prologue to his Gospel, which more than any other scriptural text influences the subsequent development of Christology, actually presents the prehistory of Jesus as the story of Sophia: present 'in the beginning,' an active agent in creation, descending from heaven to pitch a tent among the people, rejected by some, giving life to those who seek, a radiant light that darkness cannot overcome (John 1:1-18). (6) The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel: General Structure

While the Synoptic Gospels begin with material about John the Baptist, in some cases with a birth narrative attached, the Gospel of John has what might be called a much more artistic introduction. O'Day considers the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel "one of the most challenging texts in the New Testament," pointing out that John begins "with the cosmic pre-existence of the Word and the Word's relationship to the world." (7) She describes this beginning as an interweaving of traditions to make the "theologically necessary" point of placing Jesus' beginning "beyond time and history in conjunction with his beginning in time and history. For the writer of John, the two belong together." (8) At the same time, the writer of John made the humanity of Jesus exceedingly clear in his assertion that the Word became "flesh" (sarx, v. 14). This interplay between the two "spheres" of "eternal" and "temporal" is, according to O'Day, "at the heart ache Prologue." (9)

Brown considers the Prologue the deeper pearl within "the pearl of great price" that is John's gospel, describing the language as "celestial;" yet, he asserts that "the eighteen verses of the Prologue contain for the exegete a number of bewildering textual, critical, and interpretive problems." (10) O'Day, Brown, and Sharon H. Ringe all consider the basic foundation of the Prologue as having a hymn-like structure, describing it with such phrases as "a hymnic celebration," "rhythmic prose," or a "poem with commentary." (11) Yet most published Bible translations do not arrange the Prologue in verse form--unfortunately hiding for most lay readers the hymn-like nature and possible origin of the text.

Scholars are not in agreement on the origin of the "original hymn" contained within the Prologue. O'Day describes three primary hypotheses: 1) the theory proposed by Rudolf Bultmann that the Prologue is a revised Logos hymn that can be traced back to the Gnostic community; 2) an understanding that the hymn comes out of Judaism's wisdom tradition, including the use of the term...

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