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The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash

While writing a post relating the Logos, Word, of the Gospel of John’s Prologue to hitherto longstanding Jewish ideas I came across the following explanation of “the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture” that requires a separate post or full quotation. It is a portion of an article by Daniel Boyarin that is based on an article by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament, “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament“.

One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage or extract from the Pentateuch that invokes, explicitly or implicitly, texts from either the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Gk “holy writings”: specifically, very frequently Psalms, Song of Songs, or Wisdom literature) as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached. This interpretive practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text, especially on the notion that the laer books are a form of interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts.

The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the text that lies in the background as interpretive framework is Proverbs 8.22–31. The primacy of Genesis as text being interpreted explains why we have here Logos and not “Wisdom.” In an intertextual interpretive practice such as a midrash, imagery and language may be drawn from a text other than the one under interpretation, but the controlling language of the discourse is naturally the text that is being interpreted and preached. The preacher of the Prologue to John had to speak of Logos here, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” It is the “saying” of God that produces the light, and indeed through this saying, every thing was made that was made.

Philo, like others, identifies Sophia and the Logos as a single entity. Consequently, nothing could be more natural than for a preacher, such as the composer of John 1, to draw from the book of Proverbs the figure, epithets, and qualities of the second God (second person), the companion of God and agent of God in creation; for the purposes of interpreting Genesis, however, the preacher would need to focus on the linguistic side of the coin, the Logos, which is alone mentioned explicitly in that text. In other words, the text being interpreted is Genesis, therefore the Word; the text from which the interpretive material is drawn is Proverbs, hence the characteristics of Wisdom:

1. In the beginning was the Word,
      And the Word was with God,
2. And the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through him,
      and without him was not anything made that
        was made.
4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
      did not receive it.

The assertion that the Word was with God is easily related to Proverbs 8.30, “Then I [wisdom] was beside him,” and even to Wisdom of Solomon 9.9, “With thee is wisdom.” As is frequently the case in rabbinic midrash, the gloss on the verse being interpreted is dependent on a later biblical text that is alluded to but not explicitly cited. The Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs 8, had become commonplaces in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1. Although, paradoxically, John 1.1–5 is our earliest example of this, the form is so abundant in late antique Jewish writing that it can best be read as the product of a common tradition shared by (some) messianic Jews and (some) non-messianic Jews. Thus the operation of John 1.1 can be compared with the Palestinian Targum to this very verse, which translates “In the beginning” by “With Wisdom God created,” clearly also alluding to the Proverbs passage. “Beginning” is read in the Targumim sometimes as Wisdom, and sometimes as the Logos, Memra: By a Beginning—Wisdom—God created.

In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1–5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1–5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue shows that the midrash of the Logos is applied to the appearance of Jesus. Only from John 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the Christian narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v. 14, the Johannine prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thoughtthat has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.

I need to update my series on the meaning of midrash. There are major implications here for the gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.


Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.

https://www.academia.edu/36254597/Daniel_Boyarin_Logos_a_Jewish_Word_John_s_Prologue_as_Midrash_in_Amy-Jill_Levine_and_Marc_Zvi_Brettler_eds._The_Jewish_Annotated_New_Testament_New_York_Oxford_University_Press_2011_546_549.