John 1:1-5

Background Information on the Gospel


Tradition dating from the late Second Century and recorded by St Irenaeus identified the author of the Gospel as John, Son of Zebedee, and one of the twelve apostles mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels.  Most scholars no longer accept this tradition.

The text itself distinguishes the final editor from the Beloved Disciple, who is claimed as the original author. This claim to the Disciple’s original authorship may also be a simplification. Many scholars think that, while the basic content of the Gospel derived from the Beloved Disciple, the actual text was written not by him but by a disciple from the community he founded. For the purposes of this commentary, the Beloved Disciple, the disciple-author and the final author are treated as one voice.

Who was the Beloved Disciple? He was probably neither one of the Twelve (only two members of the Twelve, Judas and Thomas, are specifically identified as such in the text) nor an apostle (the designation never occurs in the narrative). He certainly knew Jesus well. He was familiar with Jerusalem, and shows much more familiarity with and interest in Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry than in his ministry in Galilee.

Time and Place of Composition

Scholars generally agree that the final text of the Gospel of John appeared in the late First Century, the last of the four Gospels to be written. There is no clear evidence where the work was written. The tradition stemming from St Irenaeus named Ephesus.

A well argued view considers the work to have been written by and for a Jewish community. Its members were familiar with their traditional Jewish Scriptures as well as other later religious works written in Greek and circulating in the Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. If this community originally lived in or around Palestine, it is possible that its later exclusion from mainline Jewish community worship led to its moving to Ephesus. Though basically a Jewish community, it may have counted among its members former disciples of the Baptist, Samaritans and Greeks.

Literary Nature of the Gospel

The Gospel presents a theological meditation on the mystery of Jesus. Its purpose is markedly different from that of the Synoptic Gospels.  While it mentions various incidents from the life of Jesus, its purpose is not primarily historical but theological. It was written to explore the implications of Christian living in light of the divine reality of Jesus. The long discourses placed on the lips of Jesus do not present the actual words of Jesus but are the composition of the author. They reflect the Beloved Disciple’s personal knowledge of the historical Jesus, and his inner experience of the Risen Jesus developed over his later years within the community of fellow-believers. Some actual words and images used by Jesus may have been accurately remembered and recorded. The author wrote in the hope that the reflections would help readers to deepen their personal faith experience. 

This Commentary

For ease of exposition, the commentary will generally treat the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel text as though they were his actual words.


After some early uncertainty, the Gospel was accepted into the Church’s Canon of Inspired Scriptures as a work written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Who is Jesus?

The Gospel’s audience was a community of disciples who already believed. The purpose of the Gospel was not to give them further historical detail of the activity and teaching of Jesus, but to lead them to deepen their faith in the Jesus to whom they had already given their lives. From the privileged position of their present experience of the risen Jesus, the Beloved Disciple wished to open them ever more to the mystery of Jesus. He wanted to encourage them to allow themselves to be drawn into that mystery, to undergo the mystery themselves and to be transformed by it

The Gospel of John would deal consistently with the question: Who is Jesus? What mattered intensely for the Beloved Disciple was people’s response to that question. The best answers remain always open-ended. No disciple ever fully exhausts the depths of the mystery of Jesus. The narrative will clearly state its purpose at the conclusion of its second last chapter: These however are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and so that, as you believe this, you may have life in his name. [20:31].

Early Testimonies

The Community’s Answer – The Prologue

In the formal Prologue to his narrative, the author would answer his own unstated question, “Who is Jesus?”, and wonderfully proclaim the absolute uniqueness of Jesus. The wording of the Prologue represented the climax of what must have been a lifetime of personal and community reflection. (Though boldly situated at the start of the narrative, it was probably added to the Gospel as an editorial afterthought.)

Most scholars are of the opinion that the editor drew on an existing hymn circulating in his community. He obviously agreed with the thoughts expressed. In making use of it, he also felt free to make additions and to modify it for his particular purposes.

John 1:1-2     The Word With God

1 In the beginning, the Word was,
and the Word was towards God, and the Word was divine. 
2 He was in the beginning towards God.

It would never be enough to see in Jesus a new Moses, a present-day prophet, the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus did in some way fulfill all these roles, but he was more. He was utterly unique. Without being able to find words to express the insight adequately, he was towards God - divine.

The Gospel’s claim challenges modern readers who are satisfied with seeing Jesus as a great leader, an apostle of social change, a philosopher or a Gandhi-like figure. Such views lack imagination; they are too timorous. They stop with admiration; and are inadequate. They do not lead into relationship and personal transformation. For the Beloved Disciple, to encounter Jesus is to touch into mystery – mystery that opens into God. 

The opening words – In the beginning – echo the opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures. What the Gospel would introduce was a whole new revelation of God that would immeasurably surpass the revelation given to Moses and the Chosen People.

The Prologue referred initially to the Word.  It would soon claim that this Word took flesh in Jesus; though the term, Word, would not be used again in the rest of the narrative in reference to Jesus.

Words reveal. The Word of God reveals the otherwise unknowable mystery of God. The Word is distinguished from God: it is towards God. (The reflection would phrase the relationship more colourfully later: near to the Father’s heart). In saying that the Word was divine, the author was not precisely identifying the Word with God – as though “the Word” and “the God” were identical – but claiming that the Word somehow shared the nature of the unknowable Mystery that is God. 

Finding Suitable Language

Jews of the time were fiercely monotheistic. It would take Christians some centuries to find suitable philosophical categories to speak with reasonable clarity about the relationship between the Word and the one they simply referred to as God. Even then, the language used by the early Church Councils can be confusing for the modern reader. When they speak of persons in God, for example, modern readers inevitably think of people in God – distinct centres of consciousness, etc. That is not what the Councils meant.

John 1:3-5     The Word and the Cosmos

3 Everything came into being through him,
and nothing that came into being came into being without him.
4 in him was life, 
and the life was the light of humanity. 
5 And the light shone in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overpower it.

The community believed in and lived under the life-changing influence of the risen Jesus. They believed that Jesus’ resurrection initiated a whole new way of being human. They believed that they, too, had been drawn by Jesus into the beginnings of that whole new way of being human. Their experience was like a new creation. For them, it was a natural corollary that, if the Word of God become flesh in Jesus was, in some way, responsible for this new creation, then surely the same Word was similarly involved in the original creation of which the new one was the continuation and perfection.

The hymn went on to proclaim that the life that was in the Word was also the light of humanity.

The author’s reflection on the relationship of the Word and creation drew its inspiration from the account of the creation of the world in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, where the phrase, God said: Let there be …, became a repeated refrain. Light, creatures, human persons, etc. all came to being through God’s creative “word”.

The light that shone in the darkness, and which the darkness could not overpower, may refer back to Genesis’ primal “darkness over the deep” into which God’s creative word brought “light”. It may also look forward to the ministry of Jesus (who was yet to be mentioned). The word translated as overpower could also mean “grasp” and even “comprehend”. In this sense, it would anticipate what would be said of the light in the continuing reflection.

Light and Darkness

The contrast of light and darkness would be a recurring theme in the narrative. A problem constantly exercising the mind of the community was the inescapable fact that most of its contemporaries did not respond to the beauty, truth and love embodied in Jesus. They could not, or would not, see it. How could they be so insensitive, and so unresponsive, to what so fascinated the disciples? For the author, darkness was abroad in the world. Yet, darkness was not a reality or a power or influence for evil in its own right. There was nothing that was not created through the Word: “everything came into being through him” – and in the Word was life and light. Darkness could only have been the absence of light, the lack of something that should have been.

Next >> John 1:6-15