The Eternal Son of John

 

The way in which John reconciled talking about Jesus and God as two distinct beings with making them also one and the same further underlines the fundamental difference between his theology and the theologies of the Synoptists. John claimed that although Jesus was born and sent at some point in time, which is how he is distinct from the eternal father, he was actually an embodiment of the Word, which existed from eternity. He starts his Gospel as follows:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2)

He later tells us that this Word took the form of a human being, Jesus, and came to live with people on Earth:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

One passage quotes Jesus praying: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Jesus’ preexistence and coexistence with God is again confirmed in that prayer as Jesus goes on to say: “You loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Jesus is also quoted as telling a Jewish audience that he existed before Abraham — a claim that triggered an attempt by the angry listeners to stone him in response to what they perceived as some form of blasphemy (John 8:58-59).

The Evangelist also has John the Baptist declare that Jesus existed before him, implying again that Jesus’ existence predated his physical appearance in this world:

John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me’” (John 1:15)

The Book of Colossians, the attribution of which to Paul is rejected by many, shares John’s claims, calling Jesus “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). It then goes on to more emphatically stress Jesus’ preexistence saying that “all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). The author of Hebrews also calls Jesus “the firstborn” and further claims that the angels were ordered to worship him: “When he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” There is significant similarity between this passage and the Qur’anic account of God’s asking the angels to prostrate for Adam (also 7.11, 18.50, 20.116):

And when We said to the angels: “Prostrate yourselves before Adam,” so they fell prostrate except Iblīs. He refused and waxed proud, so he became one of the disbelievers. (2.34)

And when We said to the angels: “Prostrate yourselves before Adam,” so they fell prostrate except Iblīs. He said: “Shall I fall prostrate before one whom you have created of clay?” (17.61)

This looks to be another instance of “contextual displacement.” In the Qur’anic account, Adam is the firstborn of his kind and the angels were commanded to pay homage to him as the representative of a new species that was destined to produce spiritually highly developed individuals, such as the prophets. Satan felt that the fact that he was created of fire, as he was a jinn, gave him a higher status than an individual made originally of clay, so he rejected God’s command. God threw him out of the special place in which he was living, and he became the Devil who wants to make the human beings reject and disobey God to prove his point and exact revenge. It looks like this original account was changed and reproduced by some Christian theologians, including the author of Hebrews, to make Jesus the firstborn, which made him eternal, and make the angels worship him, which made him divine.

John also described Jesus as primordial light:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11)

John stresses a number of times in his Gospel that Jesus came from God and returned to Him:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God. (John 13:1-3)

For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father. (John 16:27-28)

John’s Jesus was with God from eternity, became flesh and came to live with people, and then left them and went back to where he originally came from: God. John’s Jesus is clearly divine. John obviously promotes the doctrine of the Incarnation.

John still has passages that portray Jesus as having a lower status than the father. For instance, Jesus proclaims that he was sent by the father (John 20:21), the father is greater than him (John 14:28), and he is under the command of the father (John 12:49, 14:31). There is clear inconsistency in John’s portrayal of the divine Jesus and his relationship with God. As has been rightly pointed out, with his “plain affirmation of the pre-eminence of the Father contradicting all the metaphors which suggest equality, John created a doctrinal problem, the resolution of which kept the church, the councils, the bishops, and the theologians fully occupied for several centuries” (Vermes, 2000: 48).

John’s doctrine of the Word, or Logos in Greek, is believed to have been inspired by the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (ca. 15 BCE – ca. 45 CE) who taught that the Logos was the intermediary between God and the cosmos, as it is God’s tool of creation and the agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God. The idea of the Logos dates back to the 6th century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus who believed that the cosmic processes have a logos, or reason, similar to the reasoning power of man. The concept was developed further by other Greek philosophers. Vermes suggests that John’s Logos doctrine was also influenced by Hermetism. According to this 1st century CE pagan Hellenistic mysticism, deification of man is achieved through knowledge, and the Logos is referred to as the “son of God” (Vermes, 2000: 51).

I should point out that the Qur’anic concept of the divine word kun (be) is completely different from the concept of the Logos. This is one verse in which this concept is used:

[He is] the Originator of the heavens and the earth! When He decrees a matter, He says to it “Be!” and it is (2.117).

This concept is not something that can take the form of or be represented by a being, and it has nothing to do with man’s ability or, more accurately, the lack of it to comprehend God. Philo’s idea that the Logos is God’s agent of creation may seem closer to the Qur’anic concept of kun (be), but that is not the case. The latter is merely a symbolic expression of God’s limitless power and His ability to do whatever He wants whenever He likes. We have discussed elsewhere in more detail the Qur’anic concept of kun (Fatoohi, 2007: 96-97).

          

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