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dianoigo blog

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only?

100-Word Summary

(Realizing that not everyone is prepared to read a 3000+-word blog article, I've decided to start providing a 100-word summary of each article for those who like their reading 'to go.')

Christadelphians frequently refer to Jesus as 'the Word made flesh,' a qualification meant to exclude that Jesus is the Word per se. However, considerable evidence supports identifying the Word with the person of Christ throughout John 1:1-18. These include that (i) 'the Word' per se is the referent of pronouns throughout John 1:14-16, some of which clearly denote a person; (ii) 'the Light' (another impersonal noun) clearly denotes the person of Christ in John 1:7-12; and (iii) links between John 1:1-3 and 1:7-18 show that 'the Word' in 1:1-3 has the same referent as 'the Light' and 'the Word' thereafter.

1. 'The Word Made Flesh' in Christadelphian Discourse
2. The Word as the Referent throughout John 1:14-16  
3. The Personal 'Light' in John 1:7-12
4. Linking Back to John 1:1-4
 4.1. 'All things came into being through the Word'
 4.2. 'In the beginning was the Word'
 4.3. 'The Word was with God, and the Word was God'
5. Conclusion  


In Christadelphian discourse, a common way of referring to Jesus Christ is, 'the Word made flesh.' A Google search for this exact phrase and the term 'Christadelphian' yields easily dozens of uses of this expression for Christ, including as the title of articles and talks.1 The source of the expression is John 1:14, quoted below in the KJV (which strongly influenced early Christadelphian tradition) and NABRE:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 KJV) 
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NABRE)
The term 'the Word made flesh' is not intrinsically problematic. If the Word became flesh, and this refers to the event through which Jesus came into the world, then Jesus truly is 'the Word made flesh.' The problem is that Christadelphians use this term specifically to emphasise that Jesus Christ cannot be identified with the pre-incarnate Word, i.e. the Word as described in John 1:1-4. In such contexts, the statement 'Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh' is intended to avoid the divinity and personal pre-existence of Christ. For instance, in his Christadelphian catechetical manual Bible Basics, Duncan Heaster writes,
it cannot be over-emphasized that Christ in person was not "the word"; it was God's plan of salvation through Christ which was "the word". 'Logos' ("the Word") is very often used concerning the Gospel about Christ - e.g. "the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; cp. Matt. 13:19; John 5:24; Acts 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8 etc.). Notice that the 'logos' is about Christ, rather than him personally. When Christ was born, this "word" was turned into a flesh and blood form - "the word was made flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus personally was 'the word made flesh' rather than "the word"; he personally became "the word" through his birth of Mary, rather than at any time previously. (emphasis added)
Similarly, the well-known Christadelphian apologetics work Wrested Scriptures states, 'Christ was the result of the word made flesh, not the originator of the divine plan.'2 Again, an article by Matt Davies seeking to answer Trinitarians' questions states of John 1:14, 'If you read this verse carefully you will note that the word was with God from the beginning. Jesus was not the word. He was “the word made flesh” in v14.' A Belgian Christadelphian blogger writes emphatically, 'Jesus is not an idea thought, spoken or written down – he is a man. He is the word made flesh, not the word!'

Christadelphians do not understand 'the Word' to be a divine person who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The logos is understood as an idea or purpose that became actualised and personified in the man Jesus,3 who is also 'the Word made flesh' inasmuch as his character perfectly revealed the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.4

The typical Christadelphian interpretation of John 1:14a described can be summarised thus: Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh because he, a human being, embodies the plan, purpose and law of God. I say typical, and not unanimous, because there has been one noteworthy dissenting voice: that of Harry Whittaker. In his book Studies in the Gospels, Whittaker describes the usual interpretation of the Word in John 1 as the eternal Divine Purpose in Christ. He rings off seven difficulties with this interpretation and thus rejects it, concluding instead that 'the Word' in John 1 refers to 'Jesus the Man, and not Jesus the Idea or Purpose.' This might appear to point toward orthodox Christological inferences (the pre-existence and divinity of Christ), but Whittaker insists that 'the beginning' described in John 1:1 is the beginning of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry, not the beginning of all creation, and that the absence of the definite article from theos in 'the Word was God' 'weakens the meaning' of this phrase.5


The phrase 'the Word made flesh' does not occur in Scripture, but is adapted from John 1:14, which states that 'the Word became (KJV: 'was made') flesh...' However, what is often overlooked is that this is merely the first of several statements that are made about 'the Word' in John 1:14-16.

The transliterated Greek of John 1:14 reads thus,6 with my clause-by-clause literal translation. In my translation I replace pronouns with their referent to avoid having to choose between personal ('his') vs. impersonal ('its') pronouns, which could bias the reader for or against interpreting the referent as a person.7

kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskēnōsen en hēmin
And the Word became flesh and settled (lit. 'tented' or 'tabernacled') among us,
 kai etheasametha tēn doxan autou
and we beheld [the Word's] glory,
 doxan hōs monogenous para patros
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
 plērēs charitos kai alētheias
full of grace and truth. 

It is important to observe that ho logos is the subject of both verbs in John 1:14a. The Word became flesh and the Word settled among us, not, the Word became flesh and the resulting entity (Word-made-flesh) settled among us. Moreover, the Word is the unambiguous referent of several pronouns in vv. 14-16:
and we beheld [the Word's] glory (tēn doxan autou)... John testified about [the Word] (peri autou) and cried out, saying, 'This [Word] was the one of which/whom (houtos ēn hon) I said, "The one (ho) coming after me ranks ahead of me because he/it existed before me."' From [the Word's] fullness (tou plērōmatos autou) we have all received, and grace upon grace.
From this syntactical observation (that 'the Word' per se is in view throughout vv. 14-16) follows the exegetical conclusion that 'the Word' per se is Jesus Christ personally. If the reader harbours any doubt about this, consider the following. (i) The Word per se settled among us. (ii) The Word's glory is equated with the glory of the only Son from the Father.8 (iii) John the Baptist makes a remark about the Word (John 1:15) that is repeated almost verbatim when he sees Jesus of Nazareth approaching (John 1:30). Thus, the narrator construes John the Baptist's remark about Jesus as a remark about the Word. (iv) Finally, the Evangelist in v. 16 describes having received grace from the Word's fullness, but v. 17 states that grace came through Jesus Christ. In summary, it could not be much clearer that, throughout John 1:14-17, Jesus Christ is the Word per se,  not merely 'the Word made flesh' in some figurative sense (e.g., a human being who fulfills the Scriptures like no other). The Word, according to John 1:14-17, is personally the Son of God.


One of the main arguments that unitarians make against interpreting 'the Word' in the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18) as the Son of God personally is that ho logos, 'the Word,' is an impersonal noun (and used as such through the Old Testament). Hence, it is proposed that a literary technique such as personification is in use here, and we are not to see in 'the Word' an actual person. A serious flaw in this argument emerges from the very text of the Prologue, where 'the Light' (to phōs)—an equally impersonal noun—clearly refers to the person Jesus Christ in John 1:7-12, a portion of the Prologue that falls between the two paragraphs about 'the Word.'

'The light' is first mentioned in John 1:4-5 in connection with the Word, but here 'the light' seems to be an abstract noun opposite 'the darkness.' Only from v. 7 onward does it become evident that the author is (perhaps inspired by his language in 1:4-5) using 'the Light' in a more specialised sense to refer to the person that is Jesus Christ.

John 1:6 introduces John [the Baptist] as 'a man sent from God.'9 As in 1:15, John's function is to testify about (peri) another. The topic of John's testimony is, in 1:7, the Light; in 1:15, the Word; in 1:29-34 and 3:26-30, Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is already a clear indication that the Word = the Light = the Son of God. John testifies about the Light 'so that all might believe di' autou (through him/it).' The final pronoun autou refers to the Light rather than John, and anticipates numerous statements later in the Gospel about all/everyone believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:15-16, 6:40, 11:48, 12:46). One hardly needs to mention that Jesus explicitly identifies himself as 'the Light' later in the Gospel (8:12; 9:5; 12:46)!10

Only in v. 8 does it become completely obvious that the narrator is using the term 'the Light' for a person. He offers a clarification concerning John the Baptist—'He was not the Light'—that would be superfluous if 'the Light' were not, like John, a person. Once again, this statement anticipates later material in the Gospel narrative in which John admits that he is 'not the Christ' (1:20; 3:28). This reinforces the identification of 'the Light' as Jesus Christ. V. 9 speaks of 'the true light' 'coming into the world.' Both of these ideas—Jesus as definitively 'true' (John 1:17; 14:6) and as having 'come into the world' as light (3:17-19; 12:46) recur later in the Gospel.11

The Prologue does not explicitly mention 'the Light' after v. 9, but vv. 10-12 contain five pronouns of which 'the Light' is the only plausible referent. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that a person is in view here. I will again replace pronouns with their referent to avoid biasing the reader through the gender of the translated pronouns:
[The Light] was in the world, and the world through [the Light] (di' autou) came into being, and the world did not know [the Light] (auton). Unto [the Light's] own [the Light] came, and [the Light's] own did not receive [the Light] (auton). As for those who did receive [the Light] (auton), [the Light] gave them power to become children of God, those who believed in [the Light's] name (to onoma autou)
Once again, these statements about the Light anticipate statements about Jesus later in the Gospel. The contrast between things that 'came into being' (egeneto, middle aorist of ginomai) and the Light through which/whom they came into being anticipates Jesus' contrast between Abraham, who 'came into being' (genesthai, middle aorist of ginomai) and Jesus himself who simply 'is' (John 8:58).12 That the Light was not received by the Light's 'own' (v. 11) anticipates the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on Jesus' rejection by 'the Jews.' Note, in particular, Pilate's words at the trial: 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me' (John 18:35). Similarly, speaking with 'the Jews' about the Scriptures: 'I came in the name of my Father, but you do not receive me' (John 5:43). The contrast between those that did not receive the Light and those that did anticipates John 3:32-33, and the statement about the Light's 'name' anticipates the Gospel's emphasis on belief in Jesus' name (John 2:23; 3:18; 20:31) and the life-giving power thereof (14:14; 14:26; 16:23-24).


Until now we have said little about the much-controverted opening statements about the Word in John 1:1-4. We have identified clear evidence that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:14-17, and that 'the Light' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:7-12. This provides us with a strong circumstantial case that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:1-4. However, not content to rest our case, we will briefly observe how the statements about the Word in these opening lines are repeated and reinforced in the rest of the Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] nothing came into being. In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
Of course, the most obvious link between John 1:1-4 and the rest of the Prologue is the term 'the Word' (ho logos). Barring the implausible event that the writer had two different 'Words' in mind within the Prologue, 'the Word' of John 1:14-16—who is clearly personal, as already seen—is 'the Word' of John 1:1-4.


We begin with v. 3 because it is crucial to establishing the temporal setting of the passage. We are 'in the beginning' (v. 1) when 'all things came into being.' This sounds like an obvious allusion to the Genesis creation, but some unitarians such as Harry Whittaker insist that 'the beginning' here is the beginning of Jesus' ministry, which inaugurated the new creation. True, the Johannine Jesus does use the word archē ('beginning') a few times of the start of his ministry (John 6:64, 8:25, 15:27, 16:4). However, none of these texts use the term en archē ('In the beginning'), which is borrowed from Gen. 1:1 LXX.13 The key observation here is the link between v. 3 and v. 10:
All things came into being through [the Word] (panta di' autou egeneto)
The world came into being through [the Light] (ho kosmos di' autou egeneto)
These statements clearly equate 'the Light' of v. 10 (which, as we have already seen, is the Son of God personally) with 'the Word' of vv. 1-3. Not only so, but they equate 'all things' in v. 3 with 'the world' in v. 10. Now, given the consistently negative connotation of 'the world' in the Fourth Gospel,14 there is simply no chance that the author would use 'the world' as shorthand for 'the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry.' John's Gospel depicts Jesus as entering into the world to save it, not as entering the world and then creating the world!


From the above, it follows that the 'beginning' of John 1:1-2 is the primeval beginning, not the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. The notion that the Word 'was' (ēn, imperfect verb) in the beginning anticipates the John the Baptist's testimony in vv. 15, 30 (concerning the Word and then concerning Jesus) that 'he was (ēn, imperfect) before me.' Since John the Baptist's testimony is unmistakably about Jesus personally, the link to vv. 1-2 shows that 'the Word' that 'was in the beginning' also denotes the same person. 


The sublime statement of John 1:1b-c contains an obvious paradox: the Word was with God, which would ordinarily imply that the Word was not God, and yet indeed the Word was God. The observation that the first theos has the definite article while the second theos lacks it is not a persuasive argument for weakening the sense of the second theos.15 That theos carries its fullest sense in 1:1b and 1:1c is supported by the way the ideas of 1:1 are restated in 1:14 and 1:18. Both of these latter texts offer statements of the Word's/Son's divinity precisely in the context of an intimate relationship with God.

The word skenoō in John 1:14 ('the Word...settled among us') is a verbal form of the Greek word for tent (skēnē). This is probably not coincidental but is an intended allusion to the Old Testament tabernacle, or tent,16 where God dwelt from the time of Moses until Solomon's Temple was built. God had promised, 'I will set my tent among you' (Lev. 26:11). The people saw God's glory when a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of God filled it 'in the sight of the whole house of Israel' (Ex. 40:34-38). That John intended to allude to this background in 1:14 is implied both by the explicit Moses/Jesus comparison in 1:17, as well as the similar imagery used in 2:19-22, where Jesus' body is described as a temple (paralleling the notion of 1:14 that his flesh was a tabernacle).

In the Old Testament, it is consistently God's glory that the people behold,17 whereas in John 1:14 the glory that is beheld is that of the Word. By describing the glory in terms of the Father-Son relationship, John shows that his intention in ascribing divine glory to the Word is not to displace God the Father—just as in 1:1, where the Word 'was God' but also 'was with God.' The statement that 'we beheld [the Word's] glory' anticipates two other editorial comments in the Gospel of John that refer to 'his glory' (tēn doxan autou) being revealed or seen. In both of these cases, 'his' is Jesus Christ! In the first statement, the narrator describes Jesus' sign at Cana thus: 'Jesus...so revealed his glory' (John 2:11). This text alludes to Isa. 40:5,which foretells that the glory of Yahweh would be revealed.18 Again, in John 12:41, after explaining unbelief in Jesus in terms of oracles from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6, the Evangelist offers the editorial comment, 'Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.' The 'his' and 'him' can only refer to Jesus,19 yet John is referring to a vision in which Isaiah saw Yahweh's glory in the temple (Isa. 6:1-3)! 

Thus, the statements about the Word in John 1:14 draw on Old Testament statements about God's presence and glory and thus clearly convey the Word's divinity (as in 1:1c), in the context of an intimate Father-Son relationship with God (as in 1:1b). In the Old Testament we frequently read of 'the word of the Lord' and of 'the glory of the Lord,' but here in John we read of 'the glory of the Word'!

The Father-Son relationship between God and the Word is conveyed most strikingly in the adjective monogenēs ('only', 'only-begotten'), which is used in both 1:14 and 1:18. However, whereas in 1:14 monogenēs does not explicitly modify a noun (so that one implicitly reads the noun 'Son'),20 it appears in 1:18 that monogenēs modifies the noun theos; thus, 'the only-begotten God.' There is a text-critical problem here, as the earliest manuscripts have monogenēs theos but others have monogenēs huios ('only-begotten Son'). I have discussed the text-critical problem in more detail elsewhere, but if the NA28 critical edition of the Greek New Testament is correct that monogenēs theos is the original reading, then John 1:18, the closing verse of the prologue, combines with John 1:1, the opening verse of the prologue, to form an inclusio. Just as 1:1 states that the Word was with God and yet was God, so 1:18 states that the only-begotten is God and yet is in the bosom of the Father.


When studying the Prologue of John, as with any other Scripture, there is always the risk of reading one's preconceived theological ideas into the text. One remedy for this is to closely study the syntax (the way the words fit together to form clauses and sentences) and the local context (the way the author weaves the Prologue into a coherent whole that anticipates the narrative that follows). When we do this, I believe we can arrive at something approaching certainty that the author of the Fourth Gospel used the terms 'the Word' and 'the Light' in the Prologue to refer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, personally. Jesus is the Word made flesh, but before he became flesh he was already the Word in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word through whom all things came into being.

Footnotes

  • 1 See, e.g., the online archive of talks from the Eastern Christadelphian Bible School in 1999; and the 2014 edition of Christadelphian magazine Glad Tidings.
  • 2 Ron Abel, Wrested Scriptures: A Christadelphian handbook of Suggested Explanations to Difficult Passages (Pasadena: Geddes, n.d.), 194; emphasis original.
  • 3 'He was so powerfully and completely the word made flesh... all the ideas inherent in God and in His word were expressed seamlessly in Jesus' (from Christadelphian Advancement Trust); 'God’s plan and purpose which had previously been expressed in the words that He had communicated to the patriarchs and through prophets, had now been embodied in human form' (John Carter, 'The Word Made Flesh,' Glad Tidings, 1567 [2014]: 15); '[Q:] Did the Lord Jesus pre-exist before his miraculous birth that was the result of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary? [A:] He existed only in the mind, plan and purpose of Yahweh and this is the reason why in the opening chapter of the gospel of John he is described as “the word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Baptismal Review Book, p. 30); 'Because God instructed His Son and placed His words in his mouth, Jesus was also called “the Word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Bible Mission, Lesson 18, p. 4).
  • 4 'Christ’s character and his whole way of life were formed by God’s word. So complete was its effect on his mind that he is described as the “word made flesh” (John 1:14)' (Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name); 'So if the word was a declaration of God and His plan, how could this be made flesh? ... the first aspect of Jesus being the word made flesh is the actual realisation of God’s declaration foretelling the birth of His Son through the seed of a woman... The second aspect of God’s word being manifest in the flesh was down to the life followed by the sacrifice of Jesus... As Jesus was a man who never once gave in to the lusts of human flesh common to all humanity and who was always totally obedient to his Father’s will, this demonstrated that he was indeed the ‘word made flesh’: a perfect manifestation of his Father’s character, will and purpose in everything he said and did' (Chris Maddocks, God's Word/Logos; Maddocks goes on to describe two other aspects related to Jesus' atoning sacrifice and resurrection).
  • 5 Harry Whittaker, 'The Word (John 1:1-5),' Study 13 in Studies in the Gospels (n.d.).
  • 6 Following NA28 critical text. There are no significant text-critical problems pertaining to this verse.
  • 7 The Greek pronouns used are all masculine, but this is basically necessitated by the masculine gender of the noun logos. Gender does not play the same role in Greek syntax as in English, so the gender of the pronouns does not help us to determine whether or not the author regards this logos is a person.
  • 8 The conjunction hōs ('as') need not be understood as comparing the Word's glory to the glory of another, the only Son—this would make little sense. Rather, hōs functions as a marker pointing to the nature of the thing described. BDAG lexicon regards John 1:14 as an instance in which hōs functions as a 'marker introducing the perspective from which a person, thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role' (p. 1104). For similar instances, see 1 Peter 4:15a ('Let no one... suffer as a murderer': not like a murderer but actually being a murderer), 1 Thess. 2:7 ('we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ'; not like apostles of Christ but actually being apostles of Christ), Col. 3:12 ('Put on then, as God's chosen ones...': not like God's chosen ones but actually being God's chosen ones), and Heb. 12:27 ('That phrase, "once more," points to removal of shaken things, as of created things': not like created things but actually being created things. Basically, the sense is: 'we beheld the Word's glory—glory, that is, of the only Son of the Father.
  • 9 This expression is sometimes used by unitarians as evidence that the abundant language in John's Gospel about Jesus being 'sent from God,' 'coming from God,' 'coming down from heaven,' etc. does not imply pre-existence. However, John the Baptist's own words in John 1:15 and 1:30 undercut this interpretation by contrasting his own origin with that of Jesus Christ.
  • 10 Particularly striking is the parallel between John 1:7-9 and 12:46: 'that all might believe through [the Light]... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.' 'I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.'
  • 11 On Jesus having come into the world, see also John 6:14; 10:36; 11:27; 16:28; 17:18; 18:37.
  • 12 Of course, John 8:58 also draws on God's great 'I am he' statements in Isaiah 40-55 (Isa. 41:4; 43:10-13; 43:25; 45:18; 45:19; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6), and ultimately on the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and also parallels the psalmist's declaration about God in Psalm 89(90):2 LXX, 'Before the mountains came into being... you are.'
  • 13 See John 8:44 for another use of archē in a primeval sense.
  • 14 E.g., John 1:29, 3:16-19, 7:7, 8:23, 12:31, 14:17, 14:27, 15:18-19, 16:8-11, 17:9, 17:14-16, 18:36.
  • 15 To translate John 1:1c 'and the Word was a god' is syntactically legitimate, since theos lacks the article, unlike in 1:1b and 1:2. However, the word order of the clause (kai theos ēn ho logos) reverses the pattern of 1:1b and 1:2, in which the subject ho logos precedes the verb, and instead puts theos first. In Greek, word order does not affect syntactical sense but instead conveys emphasis. Thus theos is the most emphatic word in John 1:1c, which does not square with the theory that the writer intends theos to have a weaker sense than in 1:1b. The absence of the article in 1:1c can be explained as the author's way of clarifying that the Word is not a separate God from ho theos of 1:1b. The statement conveys the divinity of the Word, rather than positing a second, lesser god.
  • 16 In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Torah, the tabernacle is referred to as hē skēnē, 'the tent.'
  • 17 Thus, for example: 'Moses said, "Please let me see your glory!"' (Ex. 33:18); 'Yahweh, our God, has indeed let us see his glory and his greatness' (Deut. 5:24); 'I look to you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory' (Ps. 63:3); 'The heavens proclaim his justice; all peoples see his glory' (Ps. 97:4); 'Then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together' (Isa. 40:5); 'I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; they shall come and see my glory' (Isa. 66:18).
  • 18 John, like the other Evangelists, has already interpreted this oracle from Isaiah 40 as being fulfilled in Jesus' ministry, by having John the Baptist identify himself as the one who makes straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23).
  • 19 See the autos of v. 37.
  • 20 As is explicit in John 3:16, 18.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Did Jesus Raise Himself from the Dead?

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian bishop who was martyred in the early second century, wrote the following concerning Jesus Christ in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans:
For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). (Smyrn. 1.1-2.1)1
In this passage, Ignatius asserts that Jesus had raised himself from the dead. The statement occurs in a longer paragraph in which he praises the Smyrnaean church for their conviction in the concrete historical realities of Jesus' life: his descent from David, birth from a virgin, baptism by John, crucifixion under Pilate and Herod, and resurrection. The point that he is most keen to emphasise is that Jesus' suffering and resurrection 'truly' happened and not did not merely appear to happen. The causal agency of Jesus' resurrection is not a point he belabours; indeed, elsewhere in his writings—including in this same letter—Ignatius describes Jesus as having been raised by the Father.2 Thus, for Ignatius, 'he raised himself' is simply another way of describing Jesus' resurrection. That he provides no further comment or clarification suggests that he does not regard his statement as novel or controversial, but assumed that it would be acceptable to his Smyrnaean readers.

Now, throughout the New Testament literature (all or nearly all of which predates Ignatius), the normative way of referring to Jesus' resurrection is not 'Jesus raised himself from the dead' but 'God raised Jesus from the dead' or simply 'Jesus was raised from the dead,' a divine passive that implicitly identifies God as the subject of the action. The pre-Pauline credal formula quoted in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 uses such a divine passive, and throughout the Pauline corpus we consistently read that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:24; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10). The same language is used throughout Acts (2:24; 3:15; 4:10; 13:30, 34; 17:31) and also appears in 1 Peter (1:21). As for the Gospels, all four of them use divine passives, for instance in the post-resurrection narratives (Matt. 28:6-7; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6, 34; John 21:14).

Juxtaposing the consistency of the New Testament in describing Jesus' resurrection as 'God raised Jesus' with Ignatius' seemingly uncontroversial statement that Jesus 'raised himself' leads to an obvious question: where did Ignatius (and presumably at least some of his contemporaries) get the idea that Jesus raised himself from the dead?

The most plausible answer is that Ignatius took the idea from the Gospel of John. Now, it is not certain that Ignatius knew the Gospel of John. Over a century ago, a committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology made a close study of literary dependence on the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers. They gave a 'B' rating to Ignatius' knowledge of John, meaning they considered it 'highly probable,' but not 'beyond reasonable doubt,' that Ignatius knew the Fourth Gospel.3 A subsequent study by Walter J. Burghardt found that literary dependence of Ignatius on John's Gospel was the most plausible explanation of the affinity between the two, but that other forms of dependency (such as oral tradition or the influence of a post-apostolic 'Johannine school') could not be ruled out.4 Thus, we cannot take it for granted that Ignatius knew the text of the Gospel of John as we have it today, but it is almost certain that he was familiar with Johannine ideas in some form.

The Gospel of John does not state as explicitly as Ignatius that Jesus raised himself from the dead. However, there are also two passages in John that imply that Jesus raised himself from the dead. The first of these reads as follows:
19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22 NABRE)
John explains the temple metaphor that Jesus used in this saying: the temple refers to his body (cf. John 1:14, which says literally that the Logos 'tabernacled among us, and became flesh'). Thus, as v. 22 confirms, in saying 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,' Jesus was foretelling his death and resurrection. The first-person statement, 'I will raise it up' (egerō auton) cannot be explained away as though necessitated by the temple metaphor. Jesus could easily have said, 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will rise again' or 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will be rebuilt.' Instead, he foregrounded his own agency. What is more, this statement parallels the fourfold statement of Jesus in John 6:39-54, 'I will raise him/it up on the last day' (although the latter uses a different verb, anastēsō). In that text, Jesus is clearly referring to his own future agency in raising the dead. Thus, we have every reason to think that the same idea is in view in John 2:19: Jesus foretold that he would raise his own body from the dead.5,6 We must emphasise that this notion is not opposed to the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead by God—to the contrary, the latter idea does appear in this very context (v. 22) through the use of a divine passive. (The same is true, as we noted already, in Ignatius' Letter to the Smyrnaeans). 

How could John have conceived of both God and Jesus raising Jesus from the dead? The answer lies in different levels of causal agency. The temple metaphor is helpful here: the Jerusalem temple, forty-six years in the making, was called Herod's Temple because it was Herod's project. However, Herod probably was not involved in the day-to-day construction operations and almost certainly did not do any of the heavy lifting. Thus it would be correct to say that Herod built the temple and it would also be correct to say that workers built the temple. The second Johannine text that implies Jesus' agency in his own resurrection provides more detail about the respective causal roles of the Father and the Son:
17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 NABRE)
Here, Jesus describes his death and resurrection in terms of laying down his life and taking it up again. Notice that he specifically emphasises his volition: 'I lay it down on my own.' He then declares, literally, 'authority I have to lay it down' (or, 'to give it up,' exousian echō theinai autēn), 'and authority I have to take it up again' (or, 'to take it back', exousian echō palin labein autēn). Word order in Greek conveys emphasis and here the word order squarely emphasises Jesus' own agency. According to this text, Jesus took back his life in the same willful sense that he gave it up. As Jerome H. Neyrey states, 'John 10:17-18 and 28-38 both assert that Jesus has God's eschatological power over death, both to raise himself and to raise his followers.'7 However, the text is not saying that this was done independently of the Father. The last clause stresses that the authority with which Jesus was to act was received from the Father.8

Other passages in John's Gospel shed further light on Jesus' role in the resurrection of others (already seen in John 6:39-54). In John 11:24-25, just prior to demonstrating his power to raise the dead by raising Lazarus, Jesus responds to Martha's faith in 'the resurrection on the last day' by declaring his own definitive role therein: 'I am the resurrection and the life'. However, the Gospel's most detailed material on Jesus' role in the resurrection comes in John 5:19-29. The overarching theme here is that, a son does not work independently of his father, and the Son is no different: the Father loves him and shows him all that he does, and the Son does likewise. Here we have precisely the kind of dual Father-Son agency that is implied in the above references to Jesus' involvement in his own resurrection. John 5:21-22 gives two concrete examples of how the Son imitates the Father: resurrection and judgment. 'just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes'. 'Taking back' his own life after giving it up (John 10:18) was just such a volitional act of the Son. Jesus goes on to declare that it is the voice of the Son that will give life to the dead in the resurrection (John 5:25, 28). Jesus says in v. 26 that 'just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself.' 'Having life in oneself' appears to refer to self-existence, a divine attribute. We have then the paradoxical idea that the Son has received self-existence as a gift from the Father. That the Son 'has life in himself' helps to explain how, having died, he would still have authority to reclaim his life.

We can now understand a bold Christological move that was first made in the Fourth Gospel, and then taken up by Ignatius. Because the Father gave the Son to have life in himself, and authorised him to dispense life to whomever he wished—already during his lifetime, in the case of Lazarus, and ultimately 'on the last day'—why should the Son not also have exercised this agency in his own resurrection, by 'taking back' his life as deliberately as he had given it up? After all, Jesus' resurrection was not a separate event from the eschatological resurrection. It was, in Paul's words, the firstfruits of the same harvest (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Or, to return to Ignatius, 'our Lord' was 'truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrach...in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through his resurrection for his saints and faithful people' (Smyrn. 1.2).9

What are the theological implications of the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead? There are profound implications, not only for Christology—Jesus' divine authority over death is absolute—but also for anthropology. Clearly, in order to raise himself from the dead, Jesus must have still consciously existed while he was dead. This implies that death, for humans, is not the extinction of all existence.10


Footnotes

  • 1 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 186.
  • 2 'They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up' (Smyrn. 6.2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 189); 'Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up, who—his Father, that is—in the same way will likewise also raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life' (Trall. 9.1-2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 165).
  • 3 A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).
  • 4 Walter J. Burghardt, 'Did Saint Ignatius of Antioch Know the Fourth Gospel?', Theological Studies 1(2) (1940): 130-56.
  • 5 Robert H. Gundry writes, 'Jesus' saying [in John 2:19] — with John's editorial comment — makes Jesus raise himself from the dead just as in John 10:17-18' ('Jesus' Blasphemy according to Mark 14:61b-64 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5,' in Robert H. Gundry, The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations [Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2010], 109; previously published by Mohr Siebeck).
  • 6 Frederick Dale Bruner writes, 'Usually in the New Testament it is God who is said to raise Jesus. But John here, and notably in chapter 10 (vv. 17-18), records Jesus speaking of raising himself. Most of us are most comfortable with the majority New Testament representation: that God raised Jesus from the dead. But if John is so convinced of Jesus' full deity that he believes Jesus also contributed to his Resurrection, without any compromising of Jesus' true humanity (a true humanity that John, too, is deeply eager to maintain), then most of us have felt we can live with John's record as well, since in the final analysis, a Resurrection is mystery enough in itself' (The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 195).
  • 7 An Ideology of Revolt: John's Christology in Social-Science Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 79. Previously published by Fortress Press.
  • 8 Bruner again: 'Usually in the New Testament it is God the Father who is reported to have raised Jesus. But here Jesus speaks of raising himself — though, notice, he says he can both "lay down" and "take back" his life only because, as he continues immediately, "I have authority" to do so (from the Father)' (The Gospel of John, 765).
  • 9 Trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 186.
  • 10 One could escape this implication by asserting that unless death for Jesus was a metaphysically different experience than death for the rest of humanity. This, however, would be a soteriologically dangerous claim to make, since it is precisely our relatedness to Jesus' death that gives us hope (see, e.g., Rom. 6:4-5; Heb. 2:9, 14).