Beginnings of ancient books were important. Ancient writers were well aware of the importance of narrative beginnings. As Morna Hooker explains (“Beginnings and Endings,” in The Written Gospel, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Donald A. Hagner [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 184), “In the introduction … an author would give some indication of the purpose or contents of the book. Some genres of literature – history, biography, scientific, medical, or technical works – begin with a formal preface, indicating the author’s purpose or method.” This narrative function of beginnings, therefore, provided information regarding purpose, method, and contents – key information needed to understand the rest of the narrative.
While all types of narrative beginnings are important, prologues had a uniquely dramatic force in ancient writings. Reminiscent of the openings of classic dramas, prologues were often used to introduce the important characters in the narrative, situate them within the story, and give some understanding of their importance. But there is a further function of prologues that is very important: prologues would project the plot by explaining both seen and unseen forces within the action. Hooker explains this function: “It was customary for the Greek dramatist to introduce the theme of his play in a ‘prologue,’ which provided members of his audience with the vital information that would enable them to comprehend the plot, and to understand the unseen forces – the desires and plans of the gods – which were at work in the story” (186). While the Gospel of John does not reveal the desires and plans of the gods, it does, in dramatist fashion, explain the desires and plans of the God. The prologue, in this sense, prescribes the reader’s comprehension of the plot and explains the behind-the-scene activities of God. What is explained is the “unseen forces” that are at work in and around the real events described by the narrative. The prologue is guiding the reader to see the invisible (God) in the visible (historical persons and events). The prologue of John functions, therefore, as the cornerstone for the entire gospel, the lens through which the gospel must be read. It is of great importance that the magnificent language and imagery of the prologue not detract the reader from grasping its functional significance for explaining and directing the rest of the gospel.
Thus, before we meet Jesus in Jerusalem or in Galilee, we meet him “In the beginning … with God.” This is not merely an abstract theological statement, but essential information needed to make sense of the actual historical person and work of Jesus described in the rest of the gospel. In the prologue we learn that Jesus is the Word, the full and final expression of God (1:1, 18), and we learn that he is the Unique Son (1:14). We learn about other important characters as well: The “Father” who sent his son (1:14), the “children of God” who receive this “right” through Jesus’ “name” (1:12), the “world” that no longer knows its Creator because it is “in the darkness” (1:5, 10-11). We also learn the basic plot of the gospel: creation no longer knows its Creator and is in darkness. But the Light has arrived in the world. The Light will make the Father known to the world, as the divine Word of God. All of this is matching and expanding what was revealed in the Old Testament, though now God has been even more gracious (1:16-17). These are the “unseen forces” that are necessary to make sense of the rest of the gospel.
The theme of “the temple” is a clear example of the importance of the prologue of John. Already in 1:14 Jesus is depicted with temple imagery. Human flesh, the body of Jesus, becomes the central place where humanity and God interact. The remainder of the prologue (1:15-18) makes explicit the contrast between the old temple and Jesus as the temple, the one grace being replaced by another, greater grace. The declaration of this “unseen” dwelling of God with humanity in the person of Jesus helps to explain the “temple” imagery in 1:51 where Jesus is described as the locus of divine revelation, the living Beth-el, the “House of God.” It also provides a much needed commentary to the cleansing of the temple in 2:12-25, where the evangelist articulates a full replacement of the temple and its predecessors (Bethel and the Tabernacle) in the person (his body) and work (his death/resurrection) of Jesus. Jesus himself creates a new mode of worship (ch. 4); Christ is the temple of God, and only through Christ can a person find God (14:1-7). The prologue provided the “unseen forces” about the God-made-flesh that makes sense of (sets the trajectory for) the temple imagery in the remainder of the gospel. It is in this way that the prologue serves as an essential guide to the reader, as a lens through which the gospel is to be read. For readers of John, it is important to start “In the beginning.”