§ 1. Prologue (John 1:1-18)

First book.


§ 1. Prologue.

C. 1, 1-18.

The prologue with which the fourth evangelist introduces his historical account contains the general principles and eternal presuppositions of the figures that are presented to us in the narrative itself. As the archetype of Christian speculation, it has also provided the material for speculative church writers, which they have all used and worked out in more detail. By revealing the metaphysical background of the evangelical story to the ecclesiastical view, it has been the bond that has firmly linked the fourth Gospel with church belief for as long as it viewed the holy story only as the immediate reflection of the idea.

The Prologue takes its point of departure from the inner unfolding of the divine, as it was eternal in the beginning that preceded all finite things, and consists in the inner distinction through which the thinking of the divine as the Logos is set to independent subsistence. This distinction, however, never steps out of unity, since thought has the divine, from which it never tears itself away, as its essential content and is itself God, and thus resting in unity it forms, as it were, the first act of the drama, which encompasses the forces of heaven and earth, of the hereafter and the hereafter, and their mutual relationship. Now follows the second act. Since thinking, which is for itself, is the difference enclosed in the unity of the divine and the eternal source of all distinction, it is the power by which the difference, as it actually appears, sets the world of the finite – everything has become through it. But it is just as much the power of unity, and cannot tolerate that the set difference should continue to the point of opposition and separation from the Divine: from its world beyond, therefore, it acts on the sphere of the finite, in order to keep it constantly in relation to its essential world, and to lead it back again to its true source and origin. By maintaining this relationship and tension between the supersensible and the phenomenal world and never allowing it to weaken completely, the Logos is the light that shines into the finite and the life of the world, which would otherwise fall into death in its existence. As this light bringing in from the beyond, he has always been active in history and has chosen the people of the Jews as his own sphere of activity. In this circle he has led many back to their destiny of being children of God, but he has also had much to fight with those who did not accept him, and the opposition was so little overcome that not even the two contending powers had confronted each other in their pure generality. The end of the universal drama did not come until the forerunner had borne witness to what was to come and the Logos now condescended personally in history to reveal in his appearance as a real individual the glory of the Only-begotten God and to give the interpretation of the essence of the Godhead.


We shall gain a closer insight into the nature and origin of these propositions only through the complete critique of the Fourth Gospel. For although the author has a definite consciousness of the fact that these provisions, in the form in which he places them in the prologue and gives them their point of unity in the idea of the Logos, are his theory, he has therefore been careful not to allow the formula: ο λογος into the speeches of Jesus and the Baptist, this consciousness and literary procedure refers only to this particular formula. The essential content of those provisions does not merely resound in the Gospel itself, but constantly recurs in the speeches of Jesus and the Baptist, and just as it only receives its further, and indeed the richest, elaboration in these, so we shall also only be able to unravel its true meaning by pursuing this original elaboration which the Gospel gives it. The only question we have to ask ourselves here is how the author arrived at this speculative version of the Logos concept and – since we must necessarily broaden the scope of the question – how this speculative direction could develop so early in the Christian community.

In former times, when the Greek element in the concept of the Logos was especially taken into consideration, and the difficulties were felt which stood in the way of the tradition that John, the same one whom the Apostle Paul (Gal. 2:9) describes as keeping within the bounds of circumcision, was the author of the fourth Gospel, special weight had to be attached to the tradition that this disciple of the Lord had worked in Ephesus during the last period of his life. However, there was no insignificant religious ferment in this city: paganism, Judaism and the Christian faith were pressed together here to one point, and as such historical collisions always develop the sharpness of consciousness and lead almost forcibly to reflections on the content of the faith, so here too the speculative direction that we find in the fourth Gospel could develop. If the contact with the scientific consciousness of the Greek spirit was added to this, then this development is even more explicable. These historical conditions, however, can only explain as much as an already established view became even more important to the disciple of the Lord and was developed by him in a more definite way. For even before John could come to Ephesus, the letters of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians and Philippians contain an essentially speculative theory about the personality of the Saviour. The independence of the Pauline dialectic would be too much contradicted by the assumption, or even only the supposition, that the Apostle to the Gentiles “had already received the doctrine of Logos from others, transformed in the sense of Christianity,” or that it had come to him through earlier “oral teaching” of John *). It is more probable, however, that the Pauline views were the first germs of the Logos doctrine, which was later completed by others, and that they were the expressions of an impulse which moved the Christian faith on a larger scale. This much is certain, however, that John’s transfer to Ephesus was not necessary for the consciousness that created the theoretical basis of his Gospel to emerge.

*) Weiße, die evang. Gesch. II, 188, 189.


In all this, it must not be overlooked that the view of the Logos is peculiar to the Fourth Gospel. As close as Paul is to this view, and – it may be said – has expressed deeper views about the personality of the Lord, he has not summarised them in the one thought of the Logos. Therefore, when we ask how the theory was formed in the bosom of the congregation, the question of the origin of this particular theory of the fourth gospel must also be answered.


Since the logos is an essential determination of the philosophical theory, it is obvious to deduce the view of our Gospel from the author’s acquaintance with the writings of Philo. It would be in vain to plead against this deduction that Philo’s theory and that of the fourth evangelist are vastly different and stand in stark contrast to each other. The contrast is this. In Philo, too, the Logos is the personal power of the divine thought and the mediator through whom the world of the finite is established in the first place, and the religious relationship between the subjective spirit and the Godhead is mediated. But he does not remain the eternal and personal object of contemplation and does not maintain himself as the only mediator, since Philo’s theory and fine conception of the inner difference of the divine is again overwhelmed by the abstract Jewish consciousness and by the thought of pure undetermined unity. In this unity of the divine, every difference and inner definiteness then disappears; the simple being remains the last and highest and nothing can be said of it but that it is. The theory and contemplation is thus the immersion of the spirit in pure being, i.e. the spirit loses itself with all richness of definiteness in empty nothingness. In the fourth Gospel, on the other hand, the Logos remains what it is: the eternal mediation, without which the religious spirit cannot even think itself and above which it can never rise. Not only does he remain the highest and only object of theory, but he even makes himself the object of perception, which has the most immediate certainty, namely, sensual perception, by becoming flesh.


This difference must not, therefore, be relied upon if one wishes to assert that the fourth evangelist did not borrow his theory from Philo’s writings. The author of the fourth Gospel could have studied Philo’s writings in great detail, he could at least have appropriated Philo’s theory, and yet, as soon as he merged it with his Christian consciousness, he necessarily had to change it and give it an essentially new twist. If in Philo the definiteness and form of the Logos disappears in the pure being of the divine, in Christian consciousness it must rather descend into the immediate presence of real history and pass over into the individual liveliness of the flesh. This difference alone, then, decides nothing in the present question. But the fact that the fourth evangelist nowhere refers to such an opposite view speaks against the assumption of a direct connection with the Philonic theory. But an explicit relationship of this kind always occurs when someone is inspired by the writings of another and arrives at a result that is essentially different from the view of his predecessor. The fourth evangelist presents his development of the Logos idea far too impartially for us to assume that he arrived at this view through a scholarly controversy with a writer. The evangelist could only speak of the meaning of the Logos with such certainty and impartiality, and with such original freedom, as he evidently does, if he took up an idea which, in its general outlines, was already given in the consciousness of a large circle of life. For this reason alone we must assume the more general spread of a corresponding view, because the evangelist presupposes the idea of the Logos as known when he says without further ado: in the beginning was the Logos.


Philo, however, was the first to systematically unite the theory of the Logos with Jewish consciousness. But apart from the preparations for his theory, which are already to be found in the Apocrypha of the O. T., the idea which he developed must have existed at least in the form of a task which occupied the general activity of educated Jewish consciousness. And not only among the Jews in Egypt, but also in Palestine, we may assume the basic features of this task, since the Apocrypha already stimulated reflection on the inner difference in the divine and had supplied all the essential elements for it. But once Philo had appeared and had written his main writings, it was in the nature of things that his solution of the task also penetrated into circles where his writings themselves had not reached. The movement of the religious spirit was very lively at that time, consciousness was constantly set into strong vibrations, and an idea which seemed to solve the riddles of revelation must, under these circumstances, strike the spirits electrically and become significant as a watchword even for those who could not get further involved in scientific and theoretical development.

When Philo developed his theory, however, he worked without knowledge or intention for the solution of a deeper task than the one that occupied him. He had been driven to his work only by the conflict between Greek scientific consciousness and the Jewish legal spirit, but now that he had made the idea of the Logos native to the Jewish world, a greater conflict had arisen and the three main powers that set the entire history of religion in motion had come into contact, and the comparative compilation of them, as well as their foundation in the last, simplest principles, is the task that the Prologue to our Gospel has set itself. They are the kingdom of O. T., the kingdom of completed revelation, and the kingdom of darkness lying outside. As this kingdom wanted to work and be valid on its own, so it appears to the prologue as the world of paganism, but he also sees an outflow of this power of darkness in the kingdom of the OT, in which truth had to struggle with the opposite until the power of the world was broken in the church. The first Christian consciousness saw these three powers in historical life in direct combination and in hostile opposition to one another, and could not escape the need to see the essential relationship between them clarified.


This need was increased to its highest degree, since the Christian consciousness, with the power of its world, was also to acknowledge that of the O. T., thus to regard a form of the religious spirit, with which it nevertheless had to break, as the content of the divine counsel and thought. As soon as it had come to this comparative reflection, religious consciousness found itself in distress and embarrassment, and had to endeavour to bring light and order into what seemed to contradict and oppose each other. The only help in this fear was the thought of One Principle, which in its historical appearance had passed through various stages. And which principle could this be other than the divine, the principle of the divine thought? Here is the point where the thought of the Logos, which mediated the relationship between the divinity and the world, stepped in as arbiter. The whole history of religion now became the manifestation of one and the same principle, which was only differently limited and clouded by the world. The world, that is the power of paganism, did not allow the appearance of this principle to penetrate it at all and remained darkness, which did not accept the light and wanted to work for itself alone. In the kingdom of O. T. the light of the Logos really broke through the darkness, but still had to struggle with the power of its resistance. In his incarnation, the Logos finally overcame the opposition to such an extent that the light appeared in its undimmed glory.


If the Prologue is this foundation of the history of religion in its divine principle, then no other conditions belonged to its origin than the existence of Christian consciousness, the conflict of the three religious powers, and the conception of the Logos, conditions, therefore, which were as well present in Palestine and could produce the theory of the Prologue as in Ephesus. But if we see how the Prologue regards the Gentiles par excellence as the kingdom of darkness, and how it is completely decided upon, and how the main difficulty for it lies only in the relationship between the OT and the Christian revelation, there is no obstacle to the assumption that John could be the author of the fourth Gospel. We say that he could be, for only the following critique of the Gospel itself will be able to decide whether he really is.


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