In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5)
This is undoubtedly one of the Trinitarians favourite proof-texts, which explains their habitual misreading of it. John says ‘the Word was God’ but many Trinitarians cannot avoid the temptation to read ‘Jesus was God’, even though it says ‘Word’.
‘But “Word” is just another name for Jesus’, responds the Trinitarian, ‘John is just being enigmatic’. But if this were the case, why call Jesus ‘Word’ here and call him ‘Jesus’ throughout the rest of the gospel. No, something more subtle is going on here.
It is important to point out from the start that the idea that the Word is a person is entirely the assumption of the interpreter. In Greek pronouns (e.g. he, she, it) are used rarely, they are usually implied by the verb, and the gender of the follows the gender of the subject of the clause. In Greek ‘Word’ (logos) is a masculine noun and therefore the verbs in that follow logos are also masculine. However, this tells us nothing about whether the Word is a ‘he’ or ‘it’, because whichever is the case the verbs would be masculine. So we cannot start considering John 1 by looking at pronouns. Instead we need to look at what the Word would have meant to first century readers of John’s gospel.
In between the testaments there was an important concept in Jewish literature: Wisdom. This was based upon the book of Proverbs, which personifies wisdom as a woman. This concept was developed in two (non-canonical) books: Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) and Wisdom of Solomon. These two books are not scripture, but they are important because they tell us about the concepts that would have been familiar to the early Christians. In these books Wisdom is described as being spoken by God (Sirach 24:3) and is called ‘Word’ (logos; Wisdom 9:1-2).
John’s account of the Word parallels these earlier discourses about Wisdom. For instance, Wisdom is said to have been active at Creation (Proverbs 8:22, 30; 3:19-20; Sirach 42:21; Wisdom 9:1-2, 9). However, Wisdom is consistently personified as a female, i.e. ‘she’ (Proverbs 7:4; Sirach 4:11, 6:22; Wisdom 6:12-21). To the first century Jew there would have been no problem in saying that ‘the Word was God’, because Wisdom was not seen as a separate person or a second God but as an expression of God. So when John says ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’, he was not saying anything that anything first century Jewish monotheist could not say ‘amen’ to, because they knew what he was talking about.
The radical part of John’s introduction is to say that this Word became flesh (John 1:14), that Jesus was this embodiment of this Word/Wisdom. It may seem very weird to modern readers to talk about concepts like wisdom as though they were people and then having it made into a human baby, but as we have seen this kind of talk would have been familiar to John’s original readers. And though John is making profound claims about Jesus, he is not saying that Jesus existed as a person before his birth and he is not saying that Jesus is God.