Studies in John’s Gospel, Bible study lesson 2
by Reta Halteman Finger
In the beginning was Sophia…
Our Fourth Gospel begins like no other. Matthew opens with a human genealogy; Jesus descends from the kingly line of David, his DNA reaching back to Abraham, father of the Hebrews. Luke sets the stage with unexpected embryos and the unusual women who carry them; Jesus begins life as a human baby. Mark’s adult Jesus bursts on the scene on the wings of prophets who simply identify him as a messenger crying in the wilderness.
But John is a philosopher, a seer, and a mystic. He has penetrated the earthly story of the human Jesus to articulate its profound implications. The question is not, “What happened?” but “What does what happened mean?
To push the significance of Jesus, the author takes us back beyond Abraham or Adam—to the ancient equivalent of the Big Bang. Read John 1:1-5. If not astrophysics, it could easily pass for abstract Greek philosophy.
But let’s first explore the implications of that first sentence. Our author uses the masculine Greek noun logos, a term which NT scholar David Barr insists has no English equivalent. It can mean “a word, a saying, a statement, a speech, a conversation, a story, language itself, the process of communication, or reason as the presupposition of communication” (New Testament Story: An Introduction, p 400). Transposing the Greek text into literal English would read thus: When things began the Logos was; the Logos was with God; and as God was the Logos. That one was with God when things began…
A Multivalent Interpretation
What would Greek-speaking Jewish readers have drawn from this opening reflection on logos? Barr lists three possibilities. First, Logos was Torah, the Revelation of God, their Scriptures. Whenever the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) uses the term “word of God” to mean either the law or the prophets, it was called logos. The term, “in the beginning,” from Genesis 1:1, would have further implied that the logos of John 1:1 was Torah.
Second, a Hellenized Jew could identify logos with Reason, the all-pervading order that governs the universe. In the marketplaces of Mediterranean cities, Stoic philosophers aggressively advocated living by logos, an expression of the divine will.
Third, logos was Wisdom. Hebrew sages of old were part of a movement that emphasized gaining wisdom through close observation of the natural world. See, for example, Proverbs 6:6-11, about observing the behavior of ants in order to live well. But these sages were not inventing wisdom; they were discovering it. For Wisdom was personified as a woman co-creating with God from the very beginning. Read her exquisite poem in Proverbs 8:22-31. Before all of God’s creative acts, “I was beside him as a master worker, and I was daily his delight…” (v 30).
Does Gender Matter?
Both Hebrew and Greek have gendered nouns (Greek also includes a neuter gender). Although logos is masculine, torah and hokmah/sophia are feminine. Sometimes gender is insignificant; other times it matters. In Greek, for example, characteristics like truth, beauty, folly, or honor are always feminine. But Wisdom in both Hebrew and Greek has been expressly personified as a woman—no doubt to attract young men. This can be seen throughout Proverbs 1-9 and in the inter-testamental book of Sirach (see chapters 1, 24, 51).
To a Greek-speaking Jewish reader, Logos would have been interchangeable with Sophia. Thus it is appropriate and meaningful for both women and men today to insert “Sophia” into the Prologue of this Gospel. “In the beginning was Sophia, and Sophia was with God, and God was Sophia.”
This move is consistent with John 1:10-11, which describes Logos/Sophia’s rejection by her own people. Here the author draws from the inter-testamental writing called 1 Enoch, where Wisdom is rejected and homeless. “Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place. So Wisdom returned to her place, and she settled permanently among the angels (42:1-2).
From Concept to Human Flesh
But the Fourth Gospel is not simply a philosophical treatise. Nor is it a Gnostic writing where disembodied spirit is good, and matter is evil. It is definitely dualistic, with an Above and a Below—but the relationship between them is never black and white, even in this rather heady Prologue. In verse 6 we meet John (the Baptist) who is obviously earthly and only a witness to “the Light” (phos, a neuter noun!). Verse 14 is one of the most important texts in this entire Gospel: “Logos/Sophia became flesh and lived among us.”
Here we find, first, the mystery of incarnation. Divinity clothes herself in human skin. No Gnostic thinking here! This theme of descent in order to embrace the Below will permeate the first half of this Gospel. Second, we are also confronted with the mystery of gender. The descent of Word/Sophia implies that the human, fleshly Jesus, though male, will also reflect the feminine characteristics of a personified Sophia. Watch for these motherly tendencies in the lessons to come!
Questions for reflection:
1. If you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, how would you describe your understanding of, or relationship to, Jesus?
2. Is the idea of Jesus as Sophia helpful to you as female? Or to you as male?