It is probably clear to anyone who has got as far as asking this question that “In the beginning was the word” does not mean “In Genesis 2:7 Jesus created Adam”. But what does it mean?

This is one of those questions where there are three possible answers: “old”, “new” and “both”. If the answer is “both” the reader than has to decide whether the author John is putting the new beginning, the new creation of new men and women, ahead of the old creation of mountains and animals.

It clearly does to some extent refer to the old creation because of the obvious echo of Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning”, and the use of word (Greek logos) like the Greek text of Psalm 33:6 “By the word (logos) of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth”. (Psalm 33:6, Septuagint Greek Old Testament)

On the other hand John 1:1 has parallels in earlier gospels.

The following text is excerpted from Harry Whittaker’s Studies in the Gospels. The entire chapter can be read here. Note particularly the way beginning (Greek arche) is used in 1 John, Mark 1:1, Luke 1:2 and (not mentioned below) the use of another Greek word (Genesis) for genealogy in the Greek of Matthew 1:1.

Harry Whittaker – Studies in the Gospels, Chapter 14 (excerpt)

The Beginning

The identity of the expression: “In the beginning” with Genesis 1:1 has led many to assume that John 1:1 refers to the beginning of the visible creation. But a careful use of the concordance reveals that out of 16 other instances where John speaks of “the beginning”, in no single case does he allude to Genesis 1:1. Admittedly, in two of them he refers to Genesis, but in both instances (Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8) the allusion is to the serpent. This, however, is Genesis 3 and not the beginning of creation, when all material things were made by the word of God: “And God said…”

It is impressive to observe that all other occurrences of “the beginning” in John’s writings have to do with the beginning of the ministry of Jesus or the beginning of discipleship or some related idea. A few examples:

“And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning” (Jn.15:27).

“And these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you” (Jn. 16:4).

‘Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning” (Jn. 8:25).

“For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him” (Jn. 6:64). “Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning” (1 Jn. 2:7). “For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 Jn. 3:11).

This list should be conclusive. John 1:1 is speaking about the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Hence, appropriately, the immediate reference to the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John” (v.6), a reference which in the traditional exposition is badly out of place.

Mark’s gospel is now seen to have exactly the same approach: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face” (Mk. 1:1,2). And in Luke’s introduction also: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses-and-ministers of the Word” (Lk. 1:1,2). Note here also, that, as in John, “the Word” must be Jesus; the phrase “eyewitnesses and ministers” requires this.

John 1 and Genesis 1

It may be urged that the very similarity between John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 demands that they be allowed to interpret each other. Since Genesis 1:1 is about the beginning of this creation, ought not John 1:1 to be so read also?

There can, of course, be no doubt that John intended his allusion to Genesis to be recognized, but all the evidence already marshalled points to the conclusion that what he sought to stress was this: Jesus was the Beginning of a New Creation; and in the spiritual realm God has worked on similar principles to those which marked His earlier creative work in the material sphere. In other words, John intends his readers to trace a parallel between the material creation (of Genesis 1) and the spiritual creation consisting of men and women made new in Christ.

There can be no doubt that the same kind of thinking is traceable in other parts of the New Testament (Col. 1:15-18; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Pet. 1:23; Heb. 1:2,10-12). The same idea is very probably implicit in the way in which Luke introduces the Greek word for “making a beginning” (in ch. 3:23) in a way that is almost untranslatable and which may even be ungrammatical. And also in Acts 1:1, where Luke employs a phrase from Genesis 2:3 LXX.

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