“Knowledge of Greek Makes A Difference: Interpreting the Prologue of the Gospel of John”
written by Dr Laszlo Gallusz
Dr Laszlo Gallusz
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies
The prologue (1:1–18) is in many respects the key to understanding the book of John, the Fourth Gospel. It is a literary and theological masterpiece, one of the finest Christian texts ever written.
The importance of the beginnings of ancient books is well known. The prologue, whether of a biblical or non-biblical document, provides important clues for interpretation, because it states key information needed to understand the entire work. Often the most important things are defined in a prologue: the purpose, the method and the key concepts. Not less importantly, the plot of a work is projected and the action of the seen and unseen forces are introduced. In ancient Greek dramas the prologue delineated the desires and plans of gods which defined the outcome of the story.
In line with the ancient Greek works, the prologue of the Fourth Gospel introduces the key characters and thematic words of the document. These include: life (1:4), light (1:4), witness (1:7), world (1:10), believe (1:12), glory (1:14), grace (1:14), truth (1:14) and revelation (1:18). Supremely, the prologue puts the ‘Word’ at the centre of the scene and elaborates on its nature and coming into the world, but also delineates the appropriate and inappropriate human responses to the fact that the Son of God became the Jesus of history in order to reveal God whom ‘no one has ever seen’ (1:18). The rest of the Gospel is the elaboration of this cardinal theme.
A knowledge of ancient Greek in a biblical context is something that we teach students at Newbold starting from their very first year or undergraduate study, enabling a deeper understanding and more thorough understand of the context of the texts they study. For example, the knowledge of the Greek language helps us to penetrate even deeper into the essence of the prologue, and through it into the heart of John’s Gospel. The term which holds the prologue together and which acts as the ‘motorway’ on which the message of the Gospel is launched is the Greek verb ginomai. The term occurs eleven times (including a compound word) in the prologue and it is variously translated. Its basic meaning is ‘to be,’ ‘to become,’ but it is rendered in the translations of the prologue by several different words.
In 1:3 the term features three times and it emphatically states that it is through the ‘Word’ (Jesus; see 1:14) through whom the entire reality ‘came into being’ (egeneto – aor., gegonen – perf.). Then in 1:6 the same term designates the arrival of John, who ‘came’ (egeneto) as a man sent with a mission from God. The connection seems to indicate that even John’s ministry is to be perceived in terms of the creative activity of God. In 1:10 ginomaireappears in a similar manner as in 1:3 – it indicates that through the ‘true light’ (Jesus) the world ‘came into being’ (egeneto). In 1:12 the term refers to the ‘creative’ power of God through whose work those who believe in his name ‘became’ (genesthai – aor. inf.) God’s children. In 1:14 the same verb is applied to the Word who ‘became’ (egeneto) flesh. In the same verse, and also in 1:18, he is given the title ‘unique’ (monogenēsliterally means: ‘being the only one of its kind’), which comes from the root of the same word. Clearly, Jesus became the centre of all created reality, the centre of time and human history. In 1:15 ginomai reinforces Jesus’s pre-existence, since as a person he ‘existed’ (gegonen – perf.) before John was born, though it is well known that John was born six months before Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem (Luke 1:26). Finally, in 1:17 the verb is used to designate how grace and truth ‘came’ (egeneto) through Jesus Christ. The connection indicates that the same power by which God created the reality is at work in the person and ministry of Jesus.
This concise overview shows that John uses a single Greek word (ginomai) to introduce the main character and delineate the overall plot, but also to point to the unseen forces at work in the Jesus story of the Fourth Gospel. Clearly, ginomai provides the theological platform for interpretation of the message of the Gospel. By the creative use of this term the prologue underlines that what is happening in Jesus is the materialisation of the ‘creative’ and transformative vision of God for the world. This nuance is entirely missed if the interpreter relies solely on translations.
Learning biblical languages requires much time, strong determination, consistent work and sacrifice, but the investment pays off. It provides you with a valuable exegetical tool, an ability to do in-depth analysis of the biblical text. It will also enable you to understand many of the excellent biblical commentaries and profit from the research of the biblical scholars who gave close attention to the biblical text. Ultimately, it will enhance your ability to communicate the gospel to others, whether in a church or unchurched setting, in a more nuanced way. Therefore, theological studies at Newbold are an exciting opportunity to grow and prepare for making difference in a world which cries for people who can make positive difference.