An excerpt from In the Beginning was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John by Anthony Esolen (Angelico Press, 174 pages, $26.00)

A Christmas Meditation on the Words of the Gospel

I have heard many an unbeliever say that the story of Jesus is but the story of every semi-divine hero in the history of the world. That is not true. Quite the contrary. Let us pause to look at the matter.

Alexander the Great traveled all the way to the oasis of Siwah in Libya to consult the oracle of Ammon, whom the Greeks associated with Zeus. He wanted to say that he was the son of Ammonian Zeus, and not the son of the half-barbarian warlord Philip of Macedon, whom, historians believe, Alexander’s ambitious mother Olympias put out of her son’s path by assassination. Alexander wanted to stamp his aristocratic card. It is an acknowledged trick of the self-promoter, and the ancients themselves saw it as such. The Julian clan in Rome traced their lineage back to Iulus, the son of that Aeneas who, according to old self-promoting Roman folklore, settled his refugees from Troy upon the Italian shores. This Aeneas was the son of Anchises by the goddess Venus. Every important clan wanted a ticket like that. It is like establishing your membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Pharaohs in Egypt were considered the earthly personifications of the benevolent god of justice, Osiris, guaranteeing the healthy flooding of the Nile, so that people could cast their seed broadside and the bumper crops would come. The Egyptians believed that divine power flowed through the Pharaoh, sure enough, but no one would say of Tutankhamen the boy-king that he was in himself the origin of the universe, and its significance. There are many stories in human lore about heroes who rise from obscurity and neglect to the heights of glory. Beowulf is one, but Beowulf dies in the end, and the smoke rises above his funeral pyre and is swallowed up in the sky, while the Geats he ruled look forward to annihilation at the hands of the Swedes, their old enemies. The world is also full of stories of men who achieve enlightenment, which they then pass along to their followers: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Zoroaster, even Longfellow’s pleasant Hiawatha. Not one of them takes upon his shoulders the sins of the world. Not one of them is or claims to be the Lord of the world. 

There is, in the story of Jesus, no sense that he gains enlightenment, no dramatic turning point that puts his life on the path to glory. He is not ever the Prince Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree. He is not ever Mohammed, hitherto an ordinary man working among the caravans, visited by a reciting angel in a cave. We have only one account of his boyhood, whence we gather that he was already that same Jesus we know, calmly confident, speaking and listening and replying. There is in his story nothing of Napoleon or Dick Whittington or Epictetus or Oedipus or Arthur or even Moses. 

The story of Jesus is not like the story of man. It is instead the key that opens the story of man. It brings those stories into the light, for all men, and for each man. “I am the door of the sheep,” says the Lord. “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and shall find pasture” (Jn. 10:7, 9). Jesus does not conform his story to ours, but we may find the answers to our stories in his: “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

And so Saint John brings us back to “the beginning,” but what does that mean? Let us consider what he surely has in mind, and what he expects those who hear him to have in mind if they are Jews: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew for that word—for we must remember that John was himself a Jew, thinking first in his native Aramaic and then in the sacred parent language of Hebrew, but writing in his third language, Greek—is bereshith, at the rosh or the head of things. I believe that it meant more to the Jewish mind than our first means to us, or at the start, or to begin with, or even in the beginning, if we think of beginning only in a temporal sense, for instance as the first domino to fall in a series. 

We should not allow our digital clocks and calendars to mislead us. When the Jews celebrated the feast that marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, it was not like what Americans do when they gather in Times Square to watch a conglomeration of electric lights “fall,” and the numerals change on the historical odometer, whereupon everyone takes a drink, and wakes up the next morning foggy and disillusioned. Says God to Moses: “Thou shalt observe the feast of tabernacles,” that is, of barns, granaries, vats, “seven days, after that thou hast gathered in thy corn and thy wine: and thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the Lord thy God in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose: because the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore shalt thou surely rejoice” (Dt. 16:13-15).

Seven, of course, is the number of days in the week, and the week is the divine unit of time. It is suggested by the lunar month of roughly four weeks, but otherwise it is not observable, not evident to the eye. If I may stretch a point: the week is like the angels, invisible. We have the week by the memory of what God has done in the beginning: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all the work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it” (Gen. 2:2-3). For that reason they who worship Him must also keep the day holy, “for in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:11). 

We in our anti-culture of work that makes many a bad thing and unmakes many a man and woman, and of hedonism that brings no pleasure, are apt to view the command as a prohibition: do no work on the Sabbath. It is better viewed as an invitation: Thou shalt feast! Rest, here, is not simply an interruption in labor. It is the feast, the refreshment, the crown of life. The heavens and the earth and all that is in them are oriented toward the feast. It is the feast that is their root and trunk and crown, their sap and leaf and flower. In the beginning and in the end, there is the feast.

But John, as I have said, though he might think in Aramaic and pray and read the Scriptures in Hebrew, wrote in Greek. The people in Ephesus, where several reliable sources say he went to live and preach, spoke the Greek that in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire was common to travelers, merchants, soldiers, Roman officials, and educated people. Many Jews, who had long been scattered across the Mediterranean world, were native speakers of this Greek; Saul of Tarsus was one. Two of Jesus’ apostles had Greek names, not Hebrew: Andrew (Greek Andreas, manly), and Philip (Greek Philippos, Lover of horses), and the name of the blind man cured by Jesus combined a Greek root with the Hebrew prefix Bar-, Son of: Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus. Therefore it seems easy to believe that John could read some Greek. His words, in Greek, echo the beginning of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX):

En arche en ho logos.

En arche epoiesen ho Theos ton ouranon kai ten gen.

Does the Greek influence go farther? Many commentators say that John has adopted a powerful word from Greek philosophy, logos, to name Christ our Lord. Philo of Alexandria, the cosmopolitan Jewish philosopher, had already used the term logos to denote the natural moral law, which he saw as embodied most perfectly in the Mosaic law, many of whose ritual and liturgical requirements he interpreted allegorically. There is no doubt that Philo’s methods had considerable though indirect influence upon Christian writers in the churches of north Africa, especially in Alexandria. I will come to that word soon, but here I wish to look at the first Greek term John has adopted here, rich in significance. It is arche. Again, our English translations have beginning, and that will have to do. It is the closest we can come. But arche means more than that.

The ancient Greek philosophers, long before Socrates, asked themselves what was the arche of the universe. They did not mean the beginning in time, not strictly speaking. Thales said that the arche was water, because water can assume the three states of matter, solid, liquid, and gas, and because water, ever flowing, seemed the best candidate for the fundamental material of a world in which nothing ever stays the same. For somewhat similar reasons, Heraclitus said that the arche was fire. This is what the author of the Epistle to Diognetus (2nd c.) had in mind, saying that before the coming of Christ, “who among mankind had any notion at all of what God is? Or do you accept the vapid and ludicrous suggestions of your own pretentious philosophers—some of whom assume that God is Fire . . . some say that He is Water, and others one of the other various elements of His creation”. 

Materialism is not modern, we see. Democritus and the Epicureans who followed Heraclitus said that the arche was matter and empty space, with matter reduced to the atomoi, the fundamental particles that literally could not be split. The Roman poet Lucretius, attempting to spread what he regarded as the good news of the Epicurean way of life, called the atoms semina rerum, the seeds of things, and primordia rerum, the first beginnings. He did not mean that first there were atoms and then there was a universe. The atoms themselves made that interpretation impossible. There never was a time when they were not combining and recombining. Therefore, Lucretius believed that the universe had no beginning in time. 

Pythagoras, mathematician and mystic, said that the arche was number. Clearly, he did not mean that there were numbers first, and that out of those numbers burst the worlds. He meant that the foundational reality was not material but immaterial: it was not the stuff you measure, but the mathematical laws whereby you measure. It was not the instruments vibrating to the music, but the music that made them tremble. Plato found that insight most congenial and illuminating, and that is why he posted the warning above the gates to his Academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

For an arche was also a governing principle, the ultimate command of being, if you like. An archaeologist studies ancient things and their beginnings; but a monarch is a man who governs alone, as an oligarch is a man who governs with a cabal of the few. Forms of this Greek word are everywhere in the New Testament, and notably so in John’s gospel and his letters: we have for instance the architriklinos or governor of the feast who first tastes the new wine at Cana (2:9), and the archon or ruler of this world, the Devil, whose hour to be cast out, says Jesus after he has raised Lazarus from the dead, has come (12:31). 

The most stupendous instance of this word arche, to my mind, is found in the Apocalypse, immediately after the vision of the new heaven and the new earth, and the descent of the new Jerusalem “coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2):

And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. (21:6).

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Omega is the last. Does Christ here mean only to declare his position with regard to all things, that is, that he comes both at their beginning and their end, their arche and their telos? As I have said above, the Alpha and the Omega comprehend all that comes between them: to be the Alpha and the Omega is to embrace all the truth that has been spoken, that shall be spoken, and that can conceivably be spoken. The arche, the beginning, is not just the first letter of the alphabet. It is the originating fountain, ever flowing; it is the governing and fundamental reality. But all things also have an end. I do not mean that creatures live and die. I mean that they are made to strive for their full flourishing. The baby grows up to be a boy, who then grows to be a man, and the man in his prime marries and has children of his own. The principles of his growth and development to maturity are already present in the first seedling of life, in the zygote, in the mother’s womb. To what then are all things proceeding? What is the aim of the cosmos? The Greek word telos, which we translate as end, suggests the motion of a javelin toward its mark. Christ says that he himself is that aim, that goal, that fulfillment. Tetelestai, John translates the final word of Jesus upon the cross, as he hands over his spirit to the Father: it has been fulfilled, it is consummated (Jn. 19:30).

So rich is that apparently simple arche. And then we come to logos, the Word. Heraclitus, who said that fire was the fundamental stuff of things, held that the logos informed the universe as its animating and harmonizing law, impersonal, immutable. The logos too was the arche. Did John have that sort of thing in mind? Was he speaking here the language of Greek philosophy? We need to be careful here, so as not to confuse words with thought, lest we mistake a surface similarity with a deep kinship or identity. The work that is adduced as a conduit for Greek influence, the Book of Wisdom, was surely in John’s mind, but not, I think, for its being Greek in manner or matter. It is sometimes Greek in expression, but it is deeply Jewish in what it says. Its author calls upon God, the “Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word” (Wis. 9:1, Douay-Rheims translation; Greek logoi). Certainly, the author of Wisdom is thinking of God who in the beginning “commanded, and they were created” (Ps. 148:5). But his imagination, or his inspiration, will not rest with that stark vision of God’s creative act. 

Wisdom is the mediator, and though we must allow the poet his poetic license, he comes near to treating her as more than a personification, more than an allegory: “[Wisdom] reacheth therefore from end to end mightily,” he says, “and ordereth all things sweetly” (Wis. 8:1). “She is a vapor of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God,” “the brightness of eternal light and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness” (7:25, 26). “And who shall know thy thoughts, except thou give wisdom, and send thy Holy Spirit from above?” (9:17). We are a step away from declaring what no Greek philosopher would have declared, that Wisdom is a person, with all the powers of personhood, including freedom, knowledge, love. Then may come that world-changing revelation, of Christ “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Heraclitus had no such Wisdom or Word in mind.

And that is what Christmas is about. . . . 

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

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