If you are an avid reader, you will know that every now and again you come across a writer who profoundly shapes the way that you think. I could name dozens of writers who would make it onto my list. I am sure many of you could too. What is comparatively more rare, however, is the writer whose work – providing you are open to it, of course – not only shapes your thinking but completely shifts its trajectory. It is a beautiful (and admittedly a little discomforting) experience to be afforded the opportunity to suddenly see yourself and the world from a completely different perspective.
I believe that the gospel of John has the potential to be just such a text. Now I am relatively sure you think you know it. And that, I think, is the problem. We are so familiar with so many of its “sound bytes” that we make the assumption that we have understood what the writer was attempting to convey. But we would be wrong.
It was a series of Bible studies by Michael Hardin, which can be found on Youtube, that prompted me to look more closely at the gospel of John. I cannot overstate just how important a theologian Michael Hardin is: despite his sometimes quite abrasive personality, he is one of those writers who will shift the trajectory of your thinking. If you want to understand Jesus – even if you end up disagreeing with him – then Hardin is mandatory reading. I think one of the things that appeals to me most about him is that he understands what is means to deal honestly with a text. He does what I think so many of us fail to do when we confront the Scriptures: he attempts to deal with them on their own terms. In the case of the gospel of John, he had my attention when he pointed to the allusions that the writer (I am convinced it is Lazarus, but that is a story for another day) begins with.
A pivotal point that Hardin makes is that Logos does not translate as “Word”. So long as that is the translation you cling to, you will never see the startling claims the writer is making. Since the word Logos is so central to the writer’s argument, we need to investigate its meaning. It was Hardin who pointed me to Heraclitus.
There is a useful summary of Heraclitus’s work here (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/ ), from which I have quoted extensively, but let me summarise what I think is pertinent.
Heraclitus held that most people were like barbarians who heard Greek but did not understand it, in that they could perceive the world but had no grasp of it. What is needed, Heraclitus argues, is not merely more information or more sensory experiences, but a deeper way of understanding (logos):
“Of this Word’s being forever do men prove to be uncomprehending, both before they hear and once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Word, they are like the unexperienced experiencing words and deeds such as I explain when I distinguish each thing according to its nature and show how it is. Other men are unaware of what they do when they are awake just as they are forgetful of what they do when they are asleep.” (B1)
It is to help the less enlightened (Heraclitus was a bit of a snob) to grasp these truths that Heraclitus constructed what amount to riddles or puzzles, often rooted in a central image, to help provide an access point to these mysteries. And for Heraclitus, the governing principle behind the universe, the Logos that held all things together, the mystery he hoped we would grasp, was violence:
We must recognize that war is common, strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (B80)
War is father of all and king of all; and some he manifested as gods, some as men; some he made slaves, some free. (B53)
And so, for Heraclitus, we find ourselves in a universe, a “world-order [kosmos] [that]…no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures” (B30), where the one constant structuring principle is conflict.
So why does the author of the gospel of John reference Heraclitus? That, my friends, is the important question. When the writer of the gospel of John attempts to make sense of Jesus, he does what all of us do when we try articulate the utterly alien: he describes it using the familiar (and if he treats Heraclitus as familiar then he is certainly among the academic elite of his time, and no uneducated fisherman from Galilee). The opening verses in the gospel of John are rich in allusions to Heraclitus, not only in content but in style:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-14)
Can I put it simply? The gospel writer, in referencing Heraclitus, finds a writer whose ideas provide a familiar platform from which we can begin to make sense of something completely new. There is no doubt that depicting Jesus as Logos is an allusion to the work of Heraclitus, who coined the term, and used it in reference to the structuring principle of reality, which he believed was violence. But Heraclitus and his concept of logos were deliberately chosen as a counterpoint to Jesus: if Jesus is the structuring principle of reality, the one who defines the trajectory of all time and space, then the principle that drives the universe is not conflict, but love. This is, I think, the key idea that the writer needs us to grasp: Jesus was undeniably a pacifist; no amount of creative theological footwork by Calvinists can get around that. The writer of the gospel of John is not setting Jesus up as God’s whipping boy, who takes the punishment for our sins; he is setting up Jesus – and by extension God – as fundamentally non-violent. This is something that, like Heraclitus’ barbarians, people – God’s own, with their sacrifices and holiness codes, their violently defended social boundary-markers – have consistently failed to recognise. But using this gospel, the gospel writer hopes to provide for the reader an experience of Jesus that will help us understand something about the kosmos that is currently beyond our grasp, just as Heraclitus intended his work to do for his readers.
Next time we will look at some of the more Jewish allusions in these opening statements. And if you have never been an avid reader, I hope that as you begin to look at the gospel of John with new eyes, it will become for you one of those rare texts that radically shifts the trajectory of your thoughts.