Word became flesh by Sandy Leaitua. Background by NASA

The Word Made Flesh — John 1:1-18

Kathleen Rushton explores the meaning of John 1:1-18 as a Christmas reading.

Christmas carols such as O Little Babe of Bethlehem and Once in Royal David's City evoke the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The wonder, lowliness, humanity and vulnerability of the mystery of the new-born Christ child in those gospels inspire cribs, cards, and the liturgies of the midnight and dawn masses. John’s gospel heard on Christmas Day expands this horizon: 

“In the beginning was the Word … All things come into being through him … the true light … was coming into the world … And the Word became flesh and lived among us” John 1:1-18). 

While English translations capture the poetry of this ancient hymn they also obscure what it would have evoked in its first century hearers. The prologue was not anthropomorphic (human-centred) for them. Particular words in John’s prologue would have evoked biblical and ancient Hellenistic cosmologies inserting Jesus into biblical and ancient understandings of cosmology.

In the beginning

The prologue like the Book of Genesis with: “In the beginning (en archē)”. The opening lines of the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:4 have been described as “geography of the cosmos”. The first five verses of John’s prologue evoke other creation motifs - light, life and darkness. As God is central in biblical creation, so too, is Jesus. 

“Beginning” (archē) evoked many Hellenistic or Greek notions. For philosophers, archē was what was there before anything else was there. It did not have to be explained. It was a “beginning” although it does not have a beginning itself and has a continued existence. It also surrounds and steers all that is holding the whole and, in some way, is responsible for and explaining its direction. It is the basic “stuff” of the world.

The Word

“In the beginning was the Word (logos).” The term for the Word expresses many Hellenistic ideas. Logos is not confined to the meaning “word” only. Logos is the main principle, the reason underlying all reality. This term enabled the writer of John to express the central truth of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of an understanding that saw the world’s wonders as living and moving images of the eternal. Earlier the Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, had uncovered the principle of creation and gave this a Greek name that evokes a thousand resonances: logos. For him, logos, which contained the world of ideas, is the instrument of creation and the principle which held the cosmos together.

Calling Jesus the “Word” evokes the many varied meanings of “the word of God” found in the biblical traditions. The word of God conveys energy and power. Word and deed go together. In the creation account, God creates by speaking the word. In the prophetic tradition, “the word of God came to …” (eg, Joel 1:1) challenging and propelling into action. The word of God is a life-giving factor (Deuteronomy 32:46-47); has power to heal (Psalm 107:20); and is a light for the people (Psalm 119:105). Many times, the word is shown to have a seeming existence of its own, carrying out an independent, personal function (Isaiah 55:11).


The Word theology, outlined above, would be familiar to first century hearers of the prologue. In contrast, they would have been surprised by John’s particular telling of the story of Jesus because the male Logos (the Word) is being spoken about in the way the Wisdom Books speak of the female figure, Wisdom-Sophia. The one declared to be with God from the beginning (John 1:1), pre-existent with God and through whom “all things” (pánta) came to be, is named not as female Wisdom-Sophia (Proverbs 8:22-25) but the male Logos. The Logos is source of life (John 1:9) instead of Sophia (Wisdom 8:13).

All things

By Plato’s time, the word pánta, all things, was one of several ways of naming the universe. In the Wisdom traditions it refers to the other-than-human creation (Wisdom 7:15-22). The narrator in Wisdom 9:1–2 addresses God: you “have made all things by your word, and by your wisdom have formed humankind.” Thus, the word and wisdom, along with humankind and “all things,” are linked. Sophia “pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24), and “can do all things” and “renews all things” (7:27). Sophia, reaching from one end of the earth to the other, “orders all things well” (8:1). 

Because “she is an initiate in the knowledge of God” wisdom is “the active cause of all things” (8:4–5). This biblical use of the phrase, “all things,” to convey a sense of the cosmos, matches a similar phrase, “holds all things together,” found in ancient Stoic philosophy to express a concept for a divine bond that unified the world. In summary, in the divine Sophia, the Hellenistic intellectual tradition of a unified cosmos is expressed in biblical terms.

The Word became flesh

The becoming of Jesus is not expressed as a birth. Instead, “the Word logos became flesh sarx) and lived among us” (literally pitched a tent in us). Sophia pitched her tent (Sirach 24:8) and “appeared on earth and lived with humankind” (Bar 3:37) but never became flesh as Jesus does. It is significant that the prologue states that Jesus became not “a man”, or even “a human person”, but flesh sarx.

In classical and biblical writings sarx has a range of meanings, among them a strand linking humans persons with other living creatures. Often the word “all” is inserted. God’s continuing relationship with creation is with “all flesh” - not just human persons. In the flood, the focus is on “all flesh” (Gen 6:13-22; 7:15-16,) and later the covenant is made with “all flesh” (Gen 9:8–11). God sustains “all flesh” (Ps 136:25) and “all flesh” praises God (Ps 145:21).

In John’s prologue the Incarnation is not a one-off event to be celebrated at Christmas. The interconnections of biblical and ancient cosmologies are reshaped in order to insert Jesus, the Word made flesh, into an evolving understanding of our incarnate, dynamic God and the universe. Creation and Incarnation are interrelated.

The French philosopher, Remi Brague, explains how ancient cosmologies link cosmology and the human person. Cosmology is linked to a wisdom in this world leading to contemplation, which leads to ethical action. Read in this way the prologue speaks of a long, enduring love story of the ever-unfolding interconnection of God, the cosmos, flesh and “all things.”

The wonder and beauty of this understanding affirms and challenges the 21st century-reader to live wisely, caring for our cosmic home on Earth with its complex, evolving, beautiful, suffering and global world.

Published in Tui Motu Magazine December 2015.