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The Christ-Poem in John

Arguably the best known and most influential passage dealing with Christology in the New Testament is the Prologue of the Gospel of John, 1:1-18. It is also probably the most studied and discussed passage – even more than the Christ poem in Philippians 2:6-11. The first eighteen verses of John are typically called the “Prologue” because they are clearly set apart from the rest of the Gospel as a kind of celebration of the main character of the book; these verses are written in a different writing style from the rest of the Gospel (lofty poetry), they contain key concepts not found in the rest of the Gospel (Christ as “the Word” made flesh), and yet they introduce well some of the most important views of the Gospel (the high view of Christ generally). And so it is widely thought that the author of the Fourth Gospel appended these verses as a Prologue, possibly after the rest of the book was written. It is widely thought, in fact, that the Gospel went through multiple editions, so that 1:1-18 is a later addition and the final chapter, ch. 21, is an even later addition. Whether the same author was responsible for all the editions is a matter of dispute.

The prologue presents an unusually exalted view of Christ, and one that is highly complex and nuanced. I won’t be able to give a complete exegesis on the blog – that would take a book. But I will point out a few of the main points, first here in this post and then in one or two more.

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John’s Logos and Jewish Wisdom
Final Thoughts on the Philippians Christ-Poem



  1. Avatar
    James Dowden  February 23, 2013

    So do you see the two John (the Baptist) bits as additions?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2013

      Yes indeed! Different topic, different writing style. These were added later to bring the poem into line with the beginning of the Gospel, probably by a different author from the author of the poem itself.

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    SJB  February 23, 2013

    A side issue to your fascinating post. Several years ago I heard about a computer analysis of the text of the Gospel of John that examined word frequency, style etc and apparently reached the conclusion that the current gospel comes from at least four separate sources that were edited together at some point.

    Do you know anything about this? What do you think of that kind of approach?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2013

      Computer analyses rarely turn out to be right, but using other literary means of analysis other scholars have indeed posited at least four sources lying behind the bulk of the Gospel of John (including a “signs” source that described Jesus’ seven miraculous signs, two discourse sources describing his long speeches, and a passion narrative).

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    tcc  February 23, 2013

    Wasn’t the Logos something that Heraclitus came up with? It seems like the early Christians might have read this passage from his philosophy, said “hey, the same way the Jews didn’t understand Jesus is the same way that humans can’t understand the Logos!” and spun it into a new theology.

    “This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep”. –Heraclitus

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2013

      Yes, Heraclitus is the first we know of with a developed view. It’s doubtful that he was being read in our period, but his views were heavily developed by Plato and others.

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    toddfrederick  February 23, 2013

    I recall reading that there is a link with this poem in John regarding the pre-existant logos and a similar passage in either Psalms or Proverbs about wisdom existing before creation and wisdom being the source of creation. I can not recall the location of that series of verses. I will research it tomorrow. Does this ring a bell with you?

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    RonaldTaska  February 23, 2013

    Wow! Keep going.

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    RonaldTaska  February 23, 2013

    These concepts are so crucial to Christianity that one has to wonder why there is no record of Jesus having said anything about the issue of His being present from the beginning. It is like there is no record of Jesus having said anything about homosexuality (the term really did not exist in antiquity) or the role of women in the church.

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    Dr.Context  February 23, 2013

    The phrase “you are what you eat” makes the best example of “and the word was God”. God being spirit, is what he does. In this, creating is the theme. Something to ponder, Issac is called Abrahams firstborn son, yet we know that it was Ishmael who was born first. Why, because, Issac was promised first. OT saints considered God’s word as fact, as good as done, Issac did not preexist in form, but only in word, so you might say, “And the word [Issac] became flesh. Issac could say, “before Ishmael, I am.” I believe the socalled prolouge was added just as the last chapter was added causing the undisputed double ending. Reasons are that John tells us that he is not the Christ 2 times in the 1st chapter, 1:8, and 1:20. Also, It is a contextural mess. in 1:9, he “was coming into the world, in 1:10 “He was in the world” , about and then in vs 14 “the word becomes flesh”.

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    Beatle792  February 23, 2013

    I once read something written by Irenaeus . I don’t remember where I read it, but it really stood out. I thought it sounded a lot like the prologue to John. It made me wonder that since Polycarp was such an inspiration to him, and Polycarp being a disciple of John, perhaps Irenaeus might have written the prologue. Is it possible that he wrote the prologue and John 21? Wasn’t it Irenaeus that authenticated the 4 gospels? It just seems to me that Irenaeus would feel he had a special link to the Apostle John via his hearing Polycarp. Am I way off base?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2013

      Ah, I should do some posts some time about those links between Irenaeus, Polycarp, and John. I think they (at least the last) were “made up” by early Christians wanting to trace teh apostolic line down to their own day. We have an actual letter from Polycarp, and he never mentions John or quotes the fourth Gospel, even though he quotes lots of other early Christian texts (in fact his book is a pastiche)! That would be hard to explain if he was John’s disciple.
      But my views on this would would take a bit to develop and explain. In any event, the Prologue was almost certainly in place by Irenaeus. It may be that Justin’s Logos doctrine owes something to it….

      • Avatar
        Beatle792  February 23, 2013

        I look forward to that. I don’t understand how Irenaeus can think Polycarp knew John the Apostle, when his companion Papias indicated that he interviewed people that knew John the Presbyter. As I understand Papias thought John and James died fairly early on. Thanks for your response.

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    RParvus  February 25, 2013

    The Fourth Gospel’s combination of a very high Christology with an equally strong anti-docetic “enfleshment” is indeed amazing. And it gets even more amazing if Bultmann is right about Jn. 5: 28-29 being a later interpolation, inserted to add a bodily resurrection to a text that did not have one. For if Bultmann is right, then it would seem to follow that, for the author of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus rose from the dead bodily—but no one else will!!

    To the best of my knowledge the only early Christian who taught such a weird combination of doctrines was the ex-Marcionite Apelles. He got his high Christology from his former teacher Marcion (complete with the Son’s descent from heaven as an adult), but parted ways with him on a number of significant issues, one of which was docetism. Hippolytus, for instance, says Apelles taught that “He (Jesus) showed them the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh.” (“The Refutation of All Heresies,” 7,26). But strangely, together with his “enfleshed-Jesus” teaching, Apelles taught that only the souls of men rise from the dead. (Note that, according to Apelles, even Jesus did not ascend to heaven in an enfleshed state. No, he rose from the dead with a human body, but then set it aside when he ascended back to his Father in heaven. Interestingly enough, the Fourth Gospel hints in Jn. 6:62 that an ascension scene is coming, but apparently any such scene did not make the final cut.)

    Interesting too is that when Apelles abandoned Marcion, he turned to the revelations of his prophetess associate
    Philumena to form a new gospel which he called the Manifestations (“Phaneroseis”). Philumena claimed to receive her revelations via a phantasmata who appeared to her “… dressed as a boy and sometimes stated he was Christ, sometimes Paul” (fragment of Tertullian’s “Against the Apelleans”, Latin Patrology 42, 30, n. 1). So it is easy to see how Christian folks could buy into the idea that an Apostle was still accessible and providing them with a new gospel as late as the 140s CE.

    My guess is that it was Apelles and Philumena who provided us with the marvellous Johannine combination of high Christology and human enfleshment. But if so, they should also be blamed for the anti-Jewish sentiments in that gospel. I am thinking, for instance, of Jesus’ claim that all the Jewish spiritual shepherds who had come before him “were thieves and bandits” (Jn. 10:8). Apelles was well known for his teaching that Judaism was largely falsehoods and fables. His stance regarding Judaism was in some respects more negative than Marcion’s and, unfortunately, it appears that traces of that negativity still remain in the Fourth Gospel. And that may also be the reason why, in contrast to the Synoptics, the Last Supper of his Jesus was not a Passover meal. The blame too for the mildly gnostic dualism present in the Fourth Gospel would have to go to Apelles. Again, perhaps a remnant of his Marcionite past.

    The Apellean community appears to have been short-lived. Apelles may well have been among those who reconciled with the proto-orthodox in the 150s (“He (Polycarp) it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus, caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics [Valentinus and Marcion] to the church of God… – “Against Heresies,” 3,3,4). The cost of reconciliation may have been the granting of permission to the proto-orthodox to make some corrections to his gospel. Irenaeus, writing around 180 CE, understandably omitted all mention of Apelles, Philumena, and Apelleans from his list of heretics. But the heresy-hunters who came after him were not as understanding. Tertullian, for instance, calls Apelles along with Marcion, Valentinus the three “insigniores et frequentiores adulteros veritatis.” And Philumena he calls an “imane prostibulum”(“On the Prescription of Heretics” 30).

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    nickgallagher  July 10, 2014

    Is translating John 1:1 as: – the word was a god accurate grammatically?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2014

      The better option is probably “The word was God,” for a technical grammatical reason.

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