A Pagan Commentary on John, I: The Prologue

I have to say, O Publius Papinius, that this work has taken me by surprise.  The Greek is far more primitive than I had anticipated, though some of the stories are told with great vividness.  Ioannes appears to be something of a simpleton, but he has an unusually coherent grasp of certain of our own philosophical concepts.

The opening passage is, frankly speaking, a bizarre piece of philosophical mythology.  I had expected some marvelous birth story, such as is told of Moses or of the Romans Romulus and Remus, but Ioannes, after a piece of amateur philosophizing, plunges right into a meeting of a Jewish preacher—one of those Cynic types, who wear funny outfits and don’t bathe—and Jesus.  His parents, their background, place of birth are all ignored.   This all the more strange, since Ioannes appears to be claiming that he was one of the original Learners.

My neighbor tells me that he has been told that Jesus, though he grew up in Nazareth, a city in Galilee, was actually born in a small town in Judea.  This is important to the Jews, because Galilee is a bit off the beaten path.  Their great king Solomon bartered it away for gold, timber, and technical help in  building his temple, and it was only many centuries later that Jewish rebels under Aristobulus wrested it from its legitimate Greek rulers.  To this day, many Jews are suspicious of Galileans and compare them with Samaritans.  That, at any rate, is as much as I have been able to learn.

What can I say about the strange prologue?  

“In the arche/ beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God.”  

Those two words, Arche and Logos tell us that Ioannes or some other Christian has had some instruction in philosophy.  Arche can of course be simply beginning—but beginning of what?  The cosmos has always existed, unless you misunderstand what Hesiod says about the beginning, that Chaos took place as a primal act.  But even then, the cosmos existed.  Of course arche, also means “foundation” or basic element.  So at the basis of all that is we find the Stoics’ Logos—that principle of order and proportion and reason that keeps the heavenly bodies in their orbits and establishes a moral law among men. 

Of course the Stoics borrowed their teaching on the Logos from Heraclitus, who equated it with fire, because the power of fire is in all things, and all things can be reduced to fire.  After reading Joannes' story of Jesus, I am afraid that this Logos may very well be a fire that burns up more than we might imagine from the writer's poor grasp of our language.

And this Logos, he says, was with God; in fact is God.  But is Logos simply an aspect of god or the very god?  Philo the Jew, who defended the Alexandrian Jews before the Emperor Gaius, said something similar.  According to Philo, the god of the Jews is the same as the ultimate being of which Plato wrote.  This pure being made itself known to Moses and other Jewish priests and prophets, like a certain Balaam, by means of a rational intuition he called Logos.  Ioannes equates this Logos with Jesus.  Now this is a paradox and very troubling to Jews, though not so much to us.  After all, Heracles and Asclepius were also humans who became gods, and our heroes, whom we revere though not as gods, have a blessed existence after they die.  

My Christian neighbor--I may as well adopt his spelling--tells me I am putting too much emphasis on our philosophy and points out that the Jewish Scriptures are full of references to the "word of god," meaning something like the power of god that acts in the world.  In one of their sacred songs they improved by translating it into Greek, it is declared that "By the word of  the lord were the heavens made firm."  He says that some Jews are misled into attributing magical power to Scriptural words.*  All this may be true, but it does not go very far to explain why  or how this divine "word" should be a man, much less a son of the god, though I do think Philo must have drawn a connection between the Jewish notion and his philosophical master, Plato.

So, as mythological tales go, this story of Arche, Logos, and the god is not really bizarre but could be interpreted by some followers of Plato along such lines as this: That the indivisible One, the one true God from whom all lesser existences derive, both mortal and divine, somehow lent part of himself in begetting this Logos, the rational mind by whom we have come into existence and can come into contact with god.  

It gets complicated.  Jesus calls himself “the son of man,” but he appears—as the story unfolds—to claim he is the son of God.  In this prologue, he is said to have given his followers the power to be "children of God. " Of course there is a sense in which we are all children of the god or gods who made us and established the rules for our behavior, but Ioannes would seem to mean something more than that.  The best I can figure out is that Jesus, who is born as the son of their god, can make anyone also a son (or daughter), if they will only do what he says.  It sounds easy enough, but Ioannes tells us that Jesus, the Logos, is also the light shining in the darkness.  Presumably this darkness is our human nature or what the followers of Orpheus call the Titanic nature.  Because this human nature is darkened, it does not recognize Jesus as the Logos.  (Note:  Orphic mystics told a tale in which Dionysus was torn to pieces by the old gods, the Titans, whose nature is part of the human race.)

Ioannes uses a curious expression to describe the residence of the Logos among men:  He did not simply dwell among us but he “tented” or “tabernacled.”  Is this just the bad Greek of someone descended from nomadic ancestors, who presumably were used to living in tents, or does it suggest the temporary nature of the residence?  The verb can mean—though very rarely—to take up an abode, but even then I am not entirely sure it does not retain some connection with tenting.  Going further,  could he be drawing upon the primitive Jewish superstition that their God actually dwelt in the tent or shed they built to house the Ark of the Covenant?  I do know how far one can push an argument, when dealing with someone who has only a very rough and ready command of our language.

The great difficulty would be to explain how the Logos could be born and not just as a human, but as a Jew, and not just as a Jew but as the son of a carpenter (as my neighbor tells me) not even in Jewland (Judea) but in an area that is really more Phoenician than Jewish.  What does your Roman poet say?  Credat Apella Judaeus.

* It is almost as if the Christian neighbor had been reading Bruce's Commentary on St. John/

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Joshua Smith says:

    I am enjoying Philodemus greatly, thank you. I am surprised he immediately falls in with the “darkness”referring to something to do with human nature. Maybe he’s the primary source for Zondervan’s persistent “translation” of “sarx” as “sin nature”.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It is a perennial temptation both for Christians and for pagans. I do not believe either Plato or Plotinus went so far as to declare matter (and thus flesh) evil, but they certainly had followers who did. Remember that our new friend Philodemus has only one source for Christian opinion, a rather conventional neighbor, plus the puzzling text he has been given. Perhaps the crude English translation will mislead some into viewing Philodemus II through a modern lens.