Monday, October 25, 2004

Rereading John 1

The title may make you think that I am firmly setting my foot into ancient heresy, since 'rereading' a passage usually means the reader has come to some different conclusion than previously offered. I don't think that necessarily has to be the case, though, it could just be a 'nuanced' reading (which, in and of itself, might just be a cop-out word for heresy--let the reader decide).

John 1, as far as I can tell, has been in the exegetical captivity of Greek thought forms. (I don't even want to start the debate as to what makes certain thought forms "Greek" or "Hebrew" and if there even is a large difference, see Tom Wright's New Testament and the People of God for the background worldview stuff I'm working off of.) I want to postulate a more "Hebrew" or "Jewish" reading of that text.

In the apocrapha, the book of Ben Sirach has an interesting section on how Hocmah (Wisdom in Hebrew) looks for a place to dwell among the nations, is identified with the Jewish Torah, and finally dwells in the Jerusalm Temple. Looking at Proverbs 8, we find Hocmah at the Creation with God, working with Him--whether a preexistent being or a personification I don't know. But combining all of that, plus various other hints in Scripture (in Isaiah and Jeremiah especially) and you can get a theological-linguistic background to John 1. Let me go about the rest of the argument by skipping the Prologue for a second:

John, apart (supposedly) from the prologue, is about how Jesus is the culmination of all that is in the Torah. He is the fulfillment ofthe sacrificial system; he is the true king of Israel; he is the truetemple; he is the true priest who can proclaim the forgiveness of sins; he is the true cleansing sacrifice from all uncleanness; he is the true prophet/covenant mediator; he is the true manna; he is the true light bearer; he is the true son of Abraham; he is the true shepherd (kingly imagery again); he is the one who gives life (what torah obedience promised); he is the true vine (a symbol of Israel);he is the beginning of the new creation; and the list could go on. Torah addressed all these things and laid them out before Israel. (Sorry for the lack of references, but it is fairly plain from acursory look at the book).

To add to this, Israel itself was to be Torah-incarnate. Living out Torah faithfully, having it in your heart, strength and throat (the literal for nephesh, or commonly translated "soul"), meant that the faithful one was, in a sense, a walking Torah. He became wise, since he feared the Lord. When the whole nation followed Torah, it would be the "light of the world" and kingly among the nations, so on and so forth. Obviously, this is not the same sense of traditional language about "incarnation" but I lack a better word, or a better concept. Isn't it fitting, then, that the book which shows (without a shred of doubt) that Jesus is the fulfillment of all Torah, is introduced by a section showing how Torah (the `word' of God—remember, the Ten Commandments in Hebrew is the Ten Words) enfleshes itself as Jesus of Nazareth, full of grace (God's electing grace, such as shown in theTorah book of Exodus) and truth. Also, if the Torah of God is the revelation of God's own character (as witness Ex. 34:6-7), then how much more the Torah incarnate as says John: No one has seen God at any time. The unique Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared [or exegeted] Him! Jesus explicitly calls himself "the way" (hodos), which would go back to the root meaning of Torah as direction. Jesus claims to be the Torah in this phrase, but also reinforces it by the other two appellations: truth and life. The Torah is the truth of God and also was to guard life, by keeping Israel from the death penalty that hangs over the whole earth. In Exilic thought, Jesus is the way back to the restored Promised Land, the truth of God's prophets fulfilled, and the life that comes with living in the Land (which now encompasses the whole earth).

All of this adds up to a coherent picture of what John was after. He wasn't a proto-gnostic trying to fits his aeons together, in which Jesus happened to fit. He wasn't trying to appeal to Greek categories for his Jewish argument. Instead, he was appealing to Jewish thought at the time to prove the superiority of Jesus to an unfulfilled Torah. The prologue details how Jesus is the Torah incarnate, both the exact representation of God Himself and the true Israel. From there, John defends his thesis with the rest of thebook!

While this thesis is still extremely kerygmatic, I think that thereis a potential for much fruit from it, especially Christologically. It also avoids, nicely I think, both Gnostic and "Hellenistic" (whatever that ends up meaning) interpretations of John. Plus, it shows that John's Christology is very close to that of Paul as witnessed Colossians 1 and Philippians 2.

No comments: