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The Johannine Prologue and the Messianic Secret*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009


In 1892 Adolf Harnack, writing on the relation of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, posed the question in these words: ‘What is the aim of the Gospel, what is the aim of the Prologue? Are these aims identical or is the Prologue really an introduction to the Gospel?… Is it the key to understanding the Gospel?’ My aim in this paper is to consider once again this question of the function of these opening verses. What did the author – or redactor – of the gospel aim to achieve by beginning his book in this way?

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1974

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page 40 note 1 ‘Über das Verhältnis des Prologs des vierten Evangeliums zum ganzen Werk’, pp. 189–231 in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, II (1892), 191.

page 40 note 2 The Gospel Message of St Mark (1950), pp. 15 ff.

page 41 note 1 Hooker, M. D., ‘John the Baptist and the Johannine Prologue’, N.T.S. XVI (1970), 354–6.Google Scholar

page 41 note 2 There are echoes, for example, in ii. II; iii. 19; v. 26, 37; vii. 22 f.; viii. 12, 32, 38; ix. 5; xi. 4, 25; xii. 35 f., 46; xiv. 7 ff.; xvi. 3; xvii. 1–4, 14, 17. The references to John's witness are taken up in i. 19–36 and iii. 25–30.

page 41 note 3 Op. cit. pp. 18f.

page 42 note 1 Turner, C. H., ‘⋯ υ׀⋯ς μου ⋯ ⋯γαπητ⋯ς’ in J.T.S. XXVII (1936), 113–29.Google Scholar

page 42 note 2 Op. cit. p. 17.

page 42 note 3 Adopting the reading of ADW f 13, f 28, etc.

page 43 note 1 The title is puzzling, and no satisfactory solution has ever been given. Perhaps it is best under stood in relation to the Evangelist's arrangement of signs and discourses, by which he shows Jesus to be the one who is the fulfilment of all the Jewish festivals: in him are brought together all the functions of the old rituals – but now they are effective for the world.

page 43 note 2 i. 41; 49.

page 44 note 1 For example in iv. 26; v. 17; viii. 28; ix. 37; x. 24 f.; xviii. 20 f.

page 44 note 2 As in i. 6–8, 15, and i. 19–28, 29–36, the Baptist's witness to Jesus here consists of a negative statement about himself, and a positive statement about Jesus. Cf. M. D. Hooker, op. cit.

page 44 note 3 Since the Baptist witnesses to the truth about Jesus, it can hardly be he, as some commentators suppose, who is referred to as ⋯κ τ⋯ς γ⋯ς.

page 44 note 4 How far they are from comprehending is demonstrated by the fact that they argue about Galilee versus Bethlehem! See vii. 41 f.

page 45 note 1 xviii. 34 f.; xix. 6 f.

page 46 note 1 According to their response, they are sometimes ‘inside’, sometimes ‘outside’. See Moule, C. F. D., ‘Mark 4: 1–20 yet once more’, in Neotestamentica el Semitica, ed. Ellis, E. E. and Wilcox, M. (1969), pp. 98 f.Google Scholar

page 46 note 2 The contrast with Moses is even more pointed if John is contradicting an interpretation which identified Moses with the manna. This identification is perhaps found in Targum Neofiti Exodus xvi. 15; see Vermes, G., ‘He is the Bread’, in Neotestamentica et Semitica, ed. Ellis, E. E. and Wilcox, M. (1969), pp. 256–63.Google Scholar

page 48 note 1 The Fourth Gospel, its Purpose and Theology (1920), p. 6.

page 48 note 2 i. 12 f.

page 49 note 1 CfManson, T. W., On Paul and John (1963), pp. 158 f.: ‘One is tempted to think that the peculiarity of the discourse in the Fourth Gospel arises just from this; that it is the Logos that speaks in the person of Jesus. The Jewish interlocutors get at cross-purposes with the Johannine Christ because they think they are holding a debate with Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth, whereas they are really listening to the incarnate word of God.’Google Scholar

page 51 note 1 Op. cit. p. 78.

page 51 note 2 Ibid. p. 11. Cf. C. K. Barrett's comment on John i. 1: ‘John intends that the whole of his gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true the book is blasphemous.’ The Gospel according to St John (1955), in loc.

page 51 note 3 J.B.L. XLIX (1930), 292–305.

page 51 note 4 Ibid. p. 298.

page 51 note 5 Philo also begins De Vita Mosis with a declaration of his purpose in writing.

page 52 note 1 The title ‘Son of God’ has already been used, together with ‘Son of the Most High’, ‘Saviour’, ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord’; the fact that Jesus is the expected King of David's line has also been stressed. Throughout Luke i–ii angels and Spirit-inspired men and women act in the role of a Greek chorus, pointing out the significance of events, and showing how Old Testament expectation is being fulfilled. CfMinear, P. S., ‘Luke's Use of the Birth Stories’, in Studies in Luke-Acts, ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn (1966), pp. 111–30.Google Scholar

page 52 note 2 A similar suggestion that the birth-narratives in Luke and Matthew are parallel to the Marcan and Johannine Prologues (identified as Mark i. 1–15 and John i. 1–34) has been made by Seitz, O. J. F. in ‘Gospel prologues: a common pattern?’, J.B.L. LXXXIII (1964), 262–8.Google ScholarContrast van den Bussche, H., Jean, Commentaire de l'Evangile Spirituel (1967), p. 65, who compares with the Johannine Prologue the formal introductions in the other gospels – Mark i. 1, Luke i. 1–4, and Matt. i. 1–17.Google Scholar

page 52 note 3 See Davies, W. D., Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (2nd edn 1955), pp. 147–52, 172–5;Google ScholarHooker, M. D., ‘Were there False Teachers in Colossae?’, pp. 315–31 in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament, ed. B. Lindars and S. Smalley, 1973.Google Scholar

page 52 note 4 Käsemann, E., New Testament Questions of Today (1969), p. 152, trans. from Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen, 11 (2nd edn 1965).Google Scholar

page 53 note 1 Borgen, P., ‘Observations on the Targumic character of the Prologue of John’, N.T.S. XVI (1960), 288–95.Google Scholar

page 53 note 2 E.g. Boismard, M. E., St John's Prologue (1957), pp. 136–40.Google Scholar

page 53 note 3 E.g. Dodd, C. H., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953), p. 175;Google ScholarBarrett, C. K., The Gospel according to St John (1955), in loc. Note the equivalence between ברַ and πλ⋯ρης.Google Scholar

page 53 note 4 Although, as we have already noted, many commentators associate the phrase χ⋯ρις κα⋯ ⋯λ⋯θεια in v. 14 (see also v. 17) with the Hebrew תֶמֱאֶו דֶסֶח the usual LXX rendering of that phrase is ἔλεος κα⋯ ⋯λ⋯θεια, and almost every occurrence of the word χ⋯ρις represents the Hebrew זֵח. It is used for דֶסֶח only in Esther ii. 9 (and in ii. 17, where it renders both terms). C. H. Dodd, loc. cit., argues that occurrences in Ecclus. and in Symmachus and Theodotion indicate that χ⋯ρις later replaced ἔλεος as a translation for דֶסֶח. This may explain its use in John i. 14 and 17. As far as χ⋯ρις is concerned, however, the weight of Old Testament evidence suggests that the background is to be found in the term ןֵח.

page 54 note 1 Cf. John v. 37 and vi. 46. The background of the former passage is perhaps also the theophany on Sinai; cfMeeks, W. A., The Prophet-King, Nov. Test. Supp. XIV (1967), 299 f. There may also be an intentional contrast with Ecclus. xlv. 1–5.Google Scholar

page 54 note 2 Cf. T. Bab. Rosh Hashanah 17b; Rashi on Exod. xxxiii. 19 and xxxiv. 6. Already within the biblical tradition, we see the beginning of this development, with the reiteration of the themes of these verses; cf. Numb. xiv. 18; Neh. ix. 17; Pss. lxxxvi. 15, ciii. 8, cxlv. 8; Joel ii. 13; Jonah iv. 2.

page 54 note 3 The LXX reads here: Ἐγὼ παρελε⋯σομαι πρ⋯τερ⋯ς σου τῇ δ⋯ξῃ μου. This may reflect a variant Hebrew reading, יׅדׄובְכִּב but more probably shows influence by v. 22. The reading underlines the fact that the disclosure of God's glory is his self-revelation.

page 54 note 4 Note the verbs used with the ‘I am’ sayings; ‘come’ in vi. 35, ‘follow’ in viii. 12, ‘enter’ in x. 7, 9, ‘know’ in x. 11, 14, ‘believe’ in xi. 25, ‘come’ (to the Father) in xiv. 6 and ‘abide in’ xv. 1, 5.

page 54 note 5 It is appropriate that it is the one who is the λ⋯γος made flesh who performs this function. At this point in the Prologue, we are reminded again of the unity between God and the λ⋯γος, now expressed in terms of the unity between Jesus Christ and the Father. Cf. H. van den Bussche, op. oil. pp. 105 f., who suggests that v. 18 b corresponds to v. 1.

page 55 note 1 Cf. also Ps. xxii (xxi). 23.

page 55 note 2 CfGlasson, T. F., Moses in the Fourth Gospel (1963), p. 24 n.; W. A. Meeks, op. cit. pp. 288 f.Google Scholar

page 55 note 3 M. E. Boismard, loc. cit., understands the parallel with Exodus to mark Christ out as the new Moses of a new covenant. But in John, Christ is the one whose glory we see.

page 55 note 4 See John xvii. 5. CfHanson, A. T., Jesus Christ in the Old Testament (1965), pp. 108–13.Google Scholar

page 56 note 1 The two terms used to introduce the two sections in Col. i, ε⋯κών and ⋯ρχ⋯ are used by Philo in association with λ⋯γος in de Conf. 146.

page 56 note 2 CfCaird, G. B., ‘The glory of God in the Fourth Gospel: an exercise in biblical semantics’, N.T.S. XV (1969), 265–77.Google Scholar

page 57 note 1 Paul brings out clearly the idea that Christians in turn reflect this glory by becoming what Christ himself is. See especially II Cor. iii. 18 and iv. 4. Cf. similar ideas in John i. 12 f., Col. ii. 9 f., iii. 10, and Heb. ii. 10.

page 57 note 2 A similar argument is used by Paul in I Cor. ii, where he speaks of a hidden wisdom, concealed from the rulers of this age, but revealed to Christians. Paul uses language appropriate to the Corinthian situation, speaking of wisdom instead of righteousness, but the argument that man must rely on God's wisdom, not his own, is parallel to his argument in Romans and Galatians that man must rely on God, and not his own works. The two ideas are brought together in I Cor. i. 30, in the statement that Christ is both our wisdom and our righteousness. If Paul is thinking of Christ as the fulfilment of God's age-long purpose, the one to whom the scriptures pointed, though their meaning Was until his coming veiled, it was perhaps a simple step for him to express this in terms of wisdom – not simply because the Corinthians had a special interest in that term, but because Judaism had already identified the Torah with wisdom. For other expressions of this idea of thesecret now revealed in Christ, see Rom. xvi. 25 f.; Col. i. 25 f., ii. 2 f.; Eph. iii. 3 ff.

page 57 note 3 Cf. also the identification of Torah and wisdom in rabbinic writings, e.g. Gen. R. 1. 1. 4; Lev. R. xi. 3.

page 57 note 4 T. Bab. Shabbath 88 b.

page 57 note 5 I Cor. ii. 7; cf. Col. i. 26. The ‘end’ in both cases, as in II Cor. iii–iv, is our glorification.

page 58 note 1 The question which so often puzzles commentators, as to the precise point in the Prologue where the author first speaks of the incarnation, would perhaps be for him a meaningless question. The λ⋯γος now made flesh was with God at the beginning, and has made God known throughout history; the light has always shone in darkness, and the coming ofthe light has continually been rejected by men, both in the past and in the events described by Johnin his gospel. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the Baptist, whose function is to witness to Jesus, should appear in both sections of the Prologue, binding the two parts together and assuringus that the historical figure to whom he points is the λ⋯γος made flesh – that the one who reveals the glory of God is himself the light which has shone since creation, and that the one who comes after the Baptist in time is the one who has existed since before time began.

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