The Genesis of John’s prologue: The background behind ‘the Word’

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows intricate spiral arms containing areas of new star formation in a dusty galaxy about 100 million light-years away. The former director of the Vatican Observatory, U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, said that life emerged on Earth through the process of stars caught in a cycle of collapsing and reforming. (CNS photo/NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team and A. Riess) (June 25, 2009) See ASTRONOMY-UNIVERSE June 25, 2009.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows intricate spiral arms containing areas of new star formation in a dusty galaxy about 100 million light-years away. The former director of the Vatican Observatory, U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, said that life emerged on Earth through the process of stars caught in a cycle of collapsing and reforming. (CNS photo/NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team and A. Riess) (June 25, 2009) See ASTRONOMY-UNIVERSE June 25, 2009.

Even those who don’t read the Bible frequently are familiar with the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, since it’s among the most quoted and memorized words of the New Testament:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-4).

This passage can be so familiar to us that we may forget to ask a very basic and important question: Where did John find the image of God’s Word for our pre-incarnate Lord, and what does it mean?

We know that the idea of “the word” (Greek, logos) played a significant role in Greek philosophy. For them, the logos was a divine utterance, a manifestation of a god, or even an emanation coming forth from a god. However, John’s source was not Greek philosophy, but the Old Testament, which had a very developed and deep understanding of God’s Word.

It is no accident that John begins his Gospel with the exact same words that begin the book of Genesis. John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 both begin with the words, “In the beginning…” John’s prologue also contains elements found in the first chapter of Genesis, such as light, darkness, and life.

Of course, the most important connection between these two passages is God’s Word. Yet, if you compare John with Genesis 1, you’ll see that John seems to go beyond what is said of the Word in Genesis.

In Genesis, the Word seems impersonal and veiled. Unlike John, it isn’t singled out in the narrative being reference indirectly as “God said.” But as the Scripture unfolds, more light is revealed about God’s Word. For example, in Psalm 33:6, God’s Word is singled out and it becomes the focus of God’s creative action: “By the LORD’S word the heavens were made; by the breath of his

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

mouth all their host.” In Isaiah 55:11, God’s Word is sent as an agent to accomplish His will before returning back to Him.

By the time we get to the last Old Testament books to be written, God’s Word is described, not as an impersonal utterance as in Genesis 1, but as God’s Wisdom personified as in Sirach 24:3, where Sirach speaks in the person of the Word saying, “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and mistlike covered the earth. In the highest heavens did I dwell, my throne on a pillar of cloud.” Notice how Sirach echoes Genesis 1, but that the Word is not an impersonal utterance, but personified Wisdom that is distinct from the Most High, yet enthroned with the Most High in heaven.

The Book of Wisdom likewise sees God’s Word is nothing other than His Wisdom (cf. Wisdom 9:1-2, 1 Corinthians 1:24). In Wisdom 7:23-24, God’s Wisdom is described using terms that are exclusive to God alone. Wisdom is called “all-powerful,” “unique” (or “only-begotten”), “all-seeing,” and “pervading all things.” In other words, God’s Wisdom / Word is wholly unique, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, attributes possessed by God alone.

This brings us right up to the doorstep of the New Testament era. Non-biblical Jewish writings composed around the time of Christ likewise brings out the mystery that God’s Word is both God and yet in some way not the same as the Creator. The Targums (Aramaic translations of the Scripture) depict God’s Word (Aramaic, memra) as living, active, and speaking, sometimes even using it as a substitute for the divine name. Philo of Alexandria seems to have understood the Word to be a kind of divine mediator between the infinite God and humanity.

By the time of Christ, the theological ground had already been prepared for His arrival. Christ unlocks this mystery: He is the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, who was with God and is God. John’s prologue beautifully connects all these dots.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.