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The Apologists Bible Commentary
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|1a||In the beginning was the Word...|
|Other Views Considered||
objection: The Watchtower has written that this verse means that the Logos was the first creation of God, the beginning of God's creative acts:
Similar statements appear in the Insight volumes.
Witness writer Greg Stafford, who also defends an alternate view of "the beginning" (see below), elaborates on this view:
response: It must be stressed that nowhere in the context of the Prologue to John's Gospel is there a hint of the "beginning" of the Logos. John says that the Word "was" (that is, "was already in existence") in the beginning. The imperfect ÊN signifies continuous or linear existence in the time period specified. Stafford himself argues as much: "[The Word] was existing ... during the time period to which John refers (IBID, p. 319)" Stafford wishes to define this time period as one which includes the creation of the Logos, but John's language does not support such a view. If we are speaking about continuous existence during a specified time period, it does not follow that we are also talking about coming into existence during that same period - even the very first instant of it.
I was born in 1954. While I might say that I was alive in the 1950's, I could not claim to have been continuously alive in the 1950's. There was a time in the 1950's when I was not. This is the force of the imperfect ÊN in John 1:1. It strictly precludes the creation of the Logos during the time period specified - "the beginning." There was no time in the beginning when the Logos was not. This fact, perhaps, is why Mr. Stafford wishes to offer an alternative view of John 1:1 in which the Logos precedes "the beginning" (see the next Objection and Response, below).
In an effort to demonstrate that the imperfect ÊN does not signify the eternal nature of the Logos, Stafford argues that ÊN ARXE ESAN hOI ANGELOI ("in the beginning were the angels") would not have signified that angels were eternal (IBID). While it is true that the force of the verb ÊN itself does not mean eternal existence in and of itself, the placement of that verb in the context of "the beginning" does. Thus, if John had told us that the angels were already in existence in the beginning, it most certainly would mean that they were eternal - which is no doubt why only the Logos is said to exist "in the beginning" with God.
But what of the other verses that the Watchtower and Stafford believe should inform our view of John 1:1?
Proverbs 8:22 and Revelation 3:14 will be addressed in detail under their respective entries in this Commentary. I will simply note here that there is significant doubt whether either verse specifically teaches that the Son is the first creation of God. The precise meaning of the Hebrew qânâ in the former verse and of the Greek ARXE in the latter has been widely discussed and disputed among scholars. It is not even clear that Proverbs 8 is a reference to Christ. There is at least as much evidence against the view proposed by the Watchtower as there is in its favor. These verses - at most - present ambiguous evidence that the Son is a created being, which must be weighed against John's simple and direct statement in the first verse of his Gospel.
Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture is a valid exegetical methodology, provided the context is the same in the passages in question and we allow the clear teaching of Scripture to inform our interpretation of more ambiguous passages. We note that Revelation 3:14 refers to the Son and His relationship to creation - the same context as John 1:1. While Proverb 8:22 also refers to creation, there is some doubt whether personified Wisdom is to be interpreted as the Son. Even if we grant that it is, to follow sound exegetical principles, we must only allow these verses to influence our interpretation of John 1:1 if we consider these verses to be at least as clear as John 1:1, if not even more so.
John's language is precise and unadorned. It does not contain poetic personifications or words that have a wide semantic range and are thus ambiguous in their meanings. Using sound hermeneutics, we should allow John 1:1 (and other clear statements of Christ's Deity, such as John 20:28 and Colossians 2:9) to inform our understanding of more ambiguous passages, such as Proverb 8:22 and Revelation 3:14. Doing so, we can be confident we are building our understanding of Scripture on the Rock of God's Word, and not the philosophies of men (cf., Colossians 2).
We therefore conclude that John words should stand has he wrote them, and not be mitigated by ambiguous passages elsewhere. John does not say the Word came into existence "in the beginning," (though it would have been easy for him to do so, using the verb EGENETO, which occurs later in the Prologue in reference to the Son coming into physical existence at the Incarnation), but rather that when the Beginning began, the Word already was.
objection: Mr. Stafford says that Witnesses are not "dogmatic" in their view of "the beginning" and presents an alternate theory its meaning as follows:
response: There are several problems with this view. First, the quotation Stafford provides can easily be harmonized with the first view of the "beginning," considered above. It is does not specifically say that the Logos preexisted "the beginning," but merely that the Logos was with Jehovah "in" the beginning. If the Watchtower takes a reduced view of the imperfect ÊN and avoids it's linear or continuous connotations, it can argue as Mr. Stafford has argued previously, that: "The Logos then, would naturally have been in this beginning as it extended from the time of his creation to that of man and woman" (Stafford, p. 318). While the Aid volume indicates that the Watchtower views Genesis 1:1 as the beginning of the physical universe (p. 391), it is also quite unequivocal that the beginning in John 1:1 is the "beginning of Jehovah's creative works" (p. 918). The quotation from "Knowledge that Leads to Everlasting Life" would thus appear to be rather ambiguous support for "a present understanding" which contrasts so markedly from the clear statements in other Watchtower literature indicating that it perceives "the beginning" in John 1:1 to signify the beginning of the Logos.
Second, the distinction Stafford draws between the "heavens" of the physical universe and the "heavens" of the spiritual universe (the abode of Jehovah and his holy angels) appears somewhat contrived. The Watchtower has taught that Jehovah resides within the physical heavens:
In the past, the Watchtower suggested that the Pleiades, a star cluster in the constellation of Hercules, "may be" the highest Heaven where God dwelled (The Watchtower, 6/15/1915, p. 5710; 11/1/1920, p. 334), and later positively identified it as such (Reconciliation, p. 14). This view was eventually discounted:
Notice the Watchtower does not deny that such a "spot" exists; it simply suggest we ought not to speculate on its location. The Watchtower continues to teach that God has a location where he resides (The Watchtower, 2/15/1981, p. 6). Thus, it would seem that the Watchtower's view is that the "heavens" where God resides are the same as the physical heavens. So, while the Watchtower suggests that the angels were created prior to the beginning of Genesis 1:1, it does not seem to support Stafford's speculation that God's abode was also.
Third, and most significantly, there is no evidence that John's audience would have associated "the beginning" with the physical universe alone. Stafford refers us to the context of Genesis 1 and the quotation of Psalms 102:25 in Hebrews 1:10 as evidence that "the beginning" was limited to the creation of the physical universe. However, in all three passages, the word "heavens" appears (Greek OURANOS; Hebrew shamayim). We may ask, then, would a contemporary Jewish reader reasonably take "heavens" to mean only the physical universe, or to include both the physical and spiritual realms?
The Normative view of Genesis 1:1
One of the primary distinctions of the God of Israel is that He is the Creator of all things - both spiritual and physical. The Watchtower itself (rightly, in this case) argues that Jehovah must be honored because He is the Creator. Though some commentators outside the Watchtower may perhaps be found who view Genesis 1:1 as limited to the physical universe, this view is certainly not the prevalent one.
Merrill Unger in his Commentary on the Old Testament, suggests that Genesis 1:1 is a 'relative' beginning, not an absolute beginning. However, his argument is largely an attempt to undermine the so-called 'gap' theory, which posits an undefined period of time between verse 1 and verse 2, allowing for the fall of Satan and his fellow rebel angels. However, if one views verse 1 as a heading or introductory statement, the need for a gap theory evaporates. Further, Unger elsewhere argues that the angels were created during the six days of creation, and thus his view of creation is not entirely conducive to that posited by Mr. Stafford:
Since Genesis 1:1 represents the very first revelation of God to man, and since God chose to "introduce" Himself by means of describing Himself as Creator, and because God repeatedly reminds His people in the Old Testament that He alone made the earth and stretched out the heavens, it seems odd that He would only tell "part of the story," in Genesis 1:1, so to speak. If God wished to establish His power and authority at the outset of His revelation (which He certainly did), it would seem more reasonable that He would intend for us to understand that all creation is in view - including the spiritual realms. As we shall see, there is compelling evidence that this is precisely how John's audience would have understood his allusion to Genesis 1 in the opening words of his Gospel.
The meaning of Shamayim
A review of the standard Hebrew lexicons confirms that Shamayim is an inclusive word which may convey the idea of the physical heavens (the sky and space), the idea of the spiritual heavens (the abode of God and his holy angels), or both (particularly when it occurs in the phrase "the heavens and the earth):"
Note that the authors do not say that "totality" is restricted to the physical universe, but to the "present world order," which will be renewed when Christ returns. The new heavens, as depicted in Revelation, includes the heaven where God and Christ dwell, and thus includes the spiritual universe: "According to the sense of 1:1, the narrative states that God created all that exists in the universe. As it stands, the statement is an affirmation that God alone is eternal and that all else owes its origin and existence to him" (IBID). If the sense of Genesis 1:1 is that God alone is eternal, the "beginning" cannot have been preceded by anything - neither preexisting matter nor pre-created spiritual entities. The "all things" of Isaiah 44:24, though enumerated in the passage as elements of the physical universe, nevertheless must include spiritual creation as well, since God is here proclaiming his sovereignty by virtue of His role as Creator - the Creator of "all things."
A "merism" is an idiom signifying "everything" or "everywhere" between two extremes; thus, "heaven and earth" is idiomatic for "everything in heaven and everything on earth."
Thus, while the word "heavens" lexically can mean only the physical heavens, it can also mean the spiritual heavens as well. The phrase "hosts of heaven" can mean either physical objects (stars) or spiritual beings (angels). The phrase "the heavens and the earth" means the totality of creation. We shall next examine if this totality can legitimately be limited to physical creation and ask the key question: What would John's audience have deduced from his allusion to Genesis 1:1?
hashshamayim we’et ha’ares ("the heavens and the earth")
If my computer search is accurate, this phrase occurs 30 times in the Old Testament. I believe only 4 may possibly be classified as referring to the physical heavens alone (Haggai 2:6, 2:21; 2 Samuel 18:9; Jeremiah 33:25). We may eliminate 2 Samuel 18:19 from consideration, as this is not an example of a merism ("totality" is not in view here, but rather a position "between" heaven and earth)..
It is possible the "fixed patterns" referred to in Jeremiah 33:25 may extend to the spiritual heavens as well.
Haggai 2:6 is quoted by the author of Hebrews as follows:
Here, it seems likely the Hebrews writer understood "the heaven" as a reference to the spiritual realm as well as the physical, for "created things" inhabit the spiritual as well as the physical universe, and many like Satan and his angels will be shaken. Most Bibles with verse references, including the NWT, associate Haggai 2:21 with Haggai 2:6 and Hebrews 12:26.
I believe 14 examples may be easily understood as signifying the totality of creation, including the spiritual realm (Genesis 14:19, 14:22, Deuteronomy 4:26, 30:14, 31:28; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 29:11; Psalms 69:36, 115:15, Isaiah 37:16; Jeremiah 23:24, 32:17, 51:48; Ezra 5:11). Each contains a contextual reference to angels or the heavenly realm where God dwells; for example:
verses (Jeremiah 10:11; Joel 3:16) may refer to the physical heavens,
though I think it likely the spiritual heavens are intended here, as
well. In Jeremiah 10, the 'gods' who will perish cannot be said
to have made the spiritual heavens any more than they can be said to have
made the physical heavens and the earth. Joel 3:16 is associated with
Haggai 2:6 in most reference Bibles (including the NWT). If the
reference is to the tumult associated with Christ's return, as seems
likely, the Hebrews writer, at least, views this as including the spiritual
This leaves 10 verses (Genesis 1:1, 2:1, 2:4, Exodus 20:11, 31:17; 2 Chronicles 2:12; Psalms 121:2, 124:8, 134:3, 146:6). These verses all refer to the creation of "the heavens and the earth" by God.
The second five verses exalt God as the Creator. Since the belief in YHWH as the creator of all things - both spiritual and physical - was one of the distinguishing features of Jewish monotheism, it seems clear that the totality of creation is intended. When, for example, the Psalmist praises God as He "who made heaven and earth" (Psalms 121:2), he is demonstrating that God's power is sufficient - indeed more than sufficient - to meet our every need. To limit "heaven and earth" here to physical creation would suggest that the Psalmist is not exalting God's power to the highest degree, which would seem impossible in this context.
The first five verses refer specifically to the six days of creation. Mr. Stafford argues that context limits creation in Genesis 1:1 to the physical universe, presumably because the created things enumerated in succeeding verses are all part of the physical universe. Yet, we have noted that shamayim may denote the spiritual heavens as well as the physical, and that the merismatic phrase "the heavens and the earth" signifies a totality, and it's general use in the Old Testament points to this totality being an absolute one, including both spiritual and physical realms.
Are there contextual clues in the other references to the six days of creation that suggest more than physical creation is in view? Consider Genesis 2:1:
As noted in the NIDOTTE, above, the "hosts of heaven" may refer to either stars or the angelic host. The term "hosts" (Hebrew tsaba) is applied here to both "heavens" and "earth." Thus, it would seem logical that the "hosts of heaven" are intended to parallel the "hosts of the earth." Since the latter are living beings, it follows that the former must be as well. If so, the context of Genesis 1 - 2 does contain evidence that spiritual and physical creation is in view.
Finally, we may consider Colossians 1:16. Here, the heavens and the earth are mentioned in reference to creation:
Paul was a "Pharisee of Pharisees." He was intimate with the Hebrew scriptures, often quoting or alluding to them in his letters. It stretches credulity to suppose that he could have used the phrase "in the heavens and on earth" in the context of creation and not had Genesis 1:1 in mind. Paul includes spiritual ("invisible") as well physical ("visible") in the all-encompassing description of creation. And, we may note, he attributes this absolute creation to the Son, just as John does in verse 3 of the Prologue.
So, given general usage of the phrase "the heavens and the earth," the immediate context, and Paul's gloss on the phrase, it seems doubtful that Genesis 1:1 should be taken as limited to physical creation.
Second Temple Judaism and Genesis 1:1
We first note that Mr. Stafford offers no evidence that Jews in the first century understood Genesis 1:1 as being limited to physical creation. There is, however, substantial evidence that Jews in the second temple period conceived of spiritual creation occurring during the six days described in Genesis 1:1, and not before.
The pseudepigraphal Book of Jubilees is dated by R.H. Charles to 109 - 105 B.C.. Wintermute, in his introduction to Jubilees in the OTP, places it between 161 B.C. and 140 B.C. The book was originally written in Hebrew. A fragmentary manuscript was found a Qumran, dating to the last Hasmoneean period (c. 75 - 50 B.C.). It was translated into Greek, and then into Ethiopic, from which our current editions are derived. However, the second chapter, which contains an elaboration on the six days of creation described in Genesis 1, is preserved in several Greek manuscripts, most notably in Epiphanius, but also in quotations and summaries in Justin Martyr, Origen and several other Greek fathers. The Ethiopic translation is described in Charles' edition of the Pseudepigrapha as follows:
Neither Charles nor Wintermute note any "corruptions" in the second chapter, and since we have the second witness of the Greek manuscripts, we may take at least this chapter of Jubilees as a reliable representation of Jewish thought in the second temple period, two centuries or more prior to John's Gospel. The author of Jubilees understood the creation of the "heavens" in Genesis 1 as including spiritual creation as well as physical creation, and placed the origin of angels on the first day:
Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai was the foremost disciple of Hillel. Abraham Cohen describes him as: "The outstanding authority at the time of the destruction of the Temple by Titus" (Cohen, p. xli). The "school" of Hillel exemplified the viewpoint of the Pharisees. Thus, Jochanan represents the beliefs of a large, mainstream segment of Jewish thought at precisely the time John was writing his Gospel. Jochanan taught that the angels - spirit creatures - were created by God during the "beginning" recorded in Genesis 1:
While the Talmud reflects perhaps several centuries of redaction, there is little, if any, credible evidence that this teaching of Rabbi Jochanan is the product of later redactors. While Jochanan disagrees with the author of Jubilees about which day the angels were created, he nevertheless places their origin within the "beginning" described in Genesis 1.
Another pseudepigraphal work, 2 Enoch, also portrays the creation of the angels as occurring on the second day: "from the fire I created the incorporeal ten troops of angels" (2 Enoch, 29:3). The textual history of 2 Enoch is such that it is difficult to determine whether this verse represents Jewish beliefs in the first century A.D., later Jewish beliefs, or even those of a medieval Christian redactor. It's value, then, is as corroborating evidence that may reflect an understanding contemporary with John, or a later view that is never deemed to contradict the traditional understanding. Many scholars who study the second temple period, such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, regularly cite 2 Enoch as representative of Jewish thought during this era.
Rabbis in later years continued to differ on the exact day of the creation of angels (Rabbi Channina, for example, said it was the fifth day); one Rabbi even suggested that God creates a new host of angels daily. While these rabbis and their (possible) redactors represent beliefs perhaps many centuries after the Apostle John, there is no evidence that they contradicted earlier beliefs, at least with regard to placing spiritual creation during the six days of Genesis.
We thus have a continuum of belief, ranging from about 100 B.C., through a contemporary of the Apostle John, and up to the modern era, in which spiritual creation was included in the six days of creation described in Genesis 1. Conversely, Mr. Stafford presents no evidence that contemporary Jews believed in a creation prior to Genesis 1.
As we have seen, there is little evidence to support the idea that Genesis 1:1 is limited to physical creation. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence the "heavens" referred to in this verse signify the spiritual as well as the physical heavens. This view is generally accepted by most commentators; it is supported by lexical evidence and Biblical usage of the phrase "the heavens and the earth." The Apostle Paul seems to view it that way in his letter to the Colossian church, as do the authors of the literature we have considered from the second temple period.
If John is alluding to the absolute "beginning" of all things - as the evidence presented here and John's language just two verses later attest - John 1:1a tells us as clearly as can be stated that the Logos was already existing at the absolute beginning of all things, and therefore can only be the uncreated God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
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