Genre of the Gospel of John: Prologue (Part 3)

My first post on John's genre explored the expressed authorial intent and audience reception. The intent to impart "truth" and eyewitness accounts pointed to the genre of ancient biography or historiography. The second post dealt with John's subject matter, which focused on the life and significance of Jesus, and concluded that this strongly pointed towards the genre of ancient biography. In this post, I conclude that the prologue of the Gospel of John reinforces the analysis pointing towards the genre of ancient biography, both in its content and as a literary device.

John's Prologue

In the third part of this series, I begin to examine the literary features of the Gospel of John, starting with its prologue. Richard Burridge, along with many other scholars, concludes that the Gospel of John’s prologue runs from verse 1 through 18. The prologue begins and ends clearly referring to Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.
In the words of F.F. Bruce, "The prologue of the Fourth Gospel sets forth the theme of the whole work. The narrative as a whole spells out the message of the prologue: that in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth the glory of God was uniquely and perfectly disclosed." Bruce, The Gospel of John, page 28. This introductory focus on Jesus supports our conclusion, articulated in the second post, that the subject matter of John is Jesus, indicating that it may be an ancient biography. Additionally, as a literary convention, the early use of the subject’s name is a common opening feature of ancient biographies. John's prologue, therefore, may be additional literary evidence that it is an ancient biography.
[A]lthough Jesus’ actual name is not part of the immediate opening words, he is clearly identified as the subject of the prologue, and his name and Messianic identity the text itself after the prologue, and his name and Messianic identity commence the text itself after the prologue. The use of the name after the prologue was noted as a common feature in Bioi, such as the Agricola.
Burridge, op. cit., page 216 (emphasis in the original).

Prologues in Ancient Biography

Burridge notes that John does not immediately open by identifying Jesus by names, but dismisses this fact by noting that Jesus is clearly identified by other means. Professor Kostenberger agrees, noting that "Bioi often use the subject's name early as a common opening feature. In the gospel of John, the opening words are, "In the beginning was the Word" (logos), who is later identified as Jesus Christ. While the name 'Jesus Christ' does occur later on in the introductory section of John's gospel (1:17), the use of logos sufficiently identifies the subject of the gospel." Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Theology of John's Gospel and Letters, page 114.

Burridge's comparison to Agricola is an interesting one. John's prologue does not identify his subject matter -- Jesus -- by name until the end of the introduction. Tacitus has a lengthy -- longer than John's -- opening prologue introducing his subject and at the end identifies his subject by name: Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Tacitus’ father in law). As with John, however, Agricola introduces his subject before before mentioning him by name.

But perhaps Agricola is an outlier and ancient biographies with prologues uniformly identify their subject much earlier by name in the introduction. If so, then the prologue to the Gospel of John may not count against John being an ancient biography, but it may not be literary evidence adding to the case. To test this point, we will turn to a number of ancient biographies to see how their prologues introduce the subject.

Cornelius Nepos regularly identifies his subjects by name in the opening sentence of his biographies. For example in his biography of Themistocles, Nepos begins his work:
Themistocles, son of Neocles, the Athenian. This man's faults in early youth gave place to such great merits that no one is ranked above him and few are thought to be his equals....
Nepos's biographies are contained in a single literary work with a general introduction to all of the “Great Generals of Foreign Nations.” There is a general preface to the book, and each biography within is set apart by the same uniform introduction of the subject in the opening line of the prologue of each biography.

Since we looked at Philo's Life of Moses in the second post, it is worthwhile to examine his opening remarks. Philo indeed uses an introductory preface and leads off with his subject's name, not in the first words but in the first sentence:
I have conceived the idea of writing the life of Moses, who, according to the account of some persons, was the lawgiver of the Jews, but according to others only an interpreter of the sacred laws, the greatest and most perfect man that ever lived....
The famous ancient biographer Plutarch, however, shows more variation. Plutarch tends to plunge straight into his subjects. His biography of Aristides, for example, begins, “Aristides, the son of Lysiachus, belonged to the tribe of Antiochus and the deme of Alopece.” In his biography of Cimon, however, we get a lot of background and discussion about why this subject is an appropriate one before Cimon is introduced by name. Additionally, Themistocles is named in the first sentence, but Pericles has a lengthier introduction before he is identified by name.

Suetonius similarly shows more variation, sometimes opening quickly with his subject's name, such as in the biographies of the Emperors Julius Caesar, Otho, Vitellius, Titus, and Domitian. Augustus, however, is referred to by name in the middle of the introduction of his biography. The biographies of Tiberius, Nero, and Galba also see a delayed reference to the name of the subject matter. Finally, adding to the diversity, Lucian's Life of Demonax contains a short introduction, but refers to its subject in the middle.

The Gospel of John's prologue, therefore, is consistent with and appears to point towards the genre of ancient biography. But have we overlooked other alternatives? Might John's prologue conform to other types of introductions for other genres?

Prologues in Other Genres

The prologues of other genre candidates, to the extent they had such introductions, turn out to be unlikely candidates. Prologues are rare in ancient novels and epics. Ancient histories often had prologues but are different than that found in the Gospel of John and ancient biographies.

First, let us examine the possibility that the prologue points to the ancient epics. According to Christopher Byran, however, "Epic poets like Homer . . . plunged at once into the midst of the action." Bryan, A Preface to Mark, page 33. The Iliad opens with, "Sing, O Goddess, the ruinous wrath of Achilles, Son of Peleus, the terrible curse that brought unnumbered woes upon the Achaeans and hurled to Hades so many heroic souls..." The Odyssey with, "Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades."

Interestingly, The Odyssey opens with a focus on one man, but it is picking up the story and not really a prologue. Further, both it and The Illiad open with muses, which is typical of epic poetry, though not the Gospel of John or ancient biography. The Agronautica opens similarly, though instead of the singing of muses, the author recounts an oracle: "Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old, who, at the behest of King Pelias, down through the mouth of Pontus and between the Cyanean rocks, sped well-benched Argo in quest of the golden fleece. "

Second, we will compare the prologue of John to the ancient novel. The problem with such a straight up analysis is the lack of candidates for evaluation. As Craig Keener notes, novels lack prologues, "although occasionally they could include a proem telling why the author made up the story (Longus proem 1-2). Keener, The Gospel of John, page 9. In the referenced proem, the author of Daphnis and Chloe refers to the inspiration of his novel being a lovely painting; after seeing said painting the author "was seized by a yearning to depict the picture in words." Chaereas and Callirhoe opens with an even briefer statement: "My name is Chariton, of Aphrodisia, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of a love affair that took place in Syracuse." Next, there is the opening of An Ethiopian Story, which begins, "The smile of daybreak was just beginning to brighten the sky, the sunlight to catch the hilltops, when a group of men in grand gear peered over the mountain that overlooks the place where the Nile flows into the seat at the mouth that men call the Heracloetoic." Other novels jump into descriptions of the central characters, noting their great beauty, such as in An Ephesian Tale. There is no evidence that ancient novels had formal prefaces or prologues as found in other genres, such as biographies or histories.

Third, many though not all ancient histories contained prologues introducing their subject matter. This possibility should be taken seriously given the Gospel of John's interest, explained in the first post, in providing a true account of the life of Jesus. This is historical in a sense, but more the provence of biographies rather than historiography. The subject matter of histories tended to not be one man, but a movement, a war, or a history of a nation or people. Further, though lacking in the Gospel of John's prologue, ancient histories that included prologues tended to distinguish the works of predecessors on the same topic and emphasize their research and reliance on eyewitness accounts. Given these important differences from what we find in the Gospel of John, the subject matter and literary aspects of the prologue points more towards biography than historiography.

Finally, the historical books of the Old Testament generally lack any sort of introductory preface. Joshua, Judges, 1 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example, being with their straight-forward accounts of the history that is their subject matter. 2 Kings begins with a lengthy genealogy. None of these seem likely sources of literary inspiration for the opening of the Gospel of John. A review of the beginning of the prophetic books of the Old Testament is no more fruitful. Isaiah lacks a formal prologues, simply stating, "The vision of Isaiah Son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah." Jeremiah opens similarly, "The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign." This theme of reciting the prophetic word coming to a person in a particular year as measured by a king, recurs in Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Zephaniah, Jonah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Micah. Obadiah, Nahum, Habakuk, and Malachi are even briefer. None are candidates for forerunners of the prologue of the Gospel of John.

Given the weakness of the alternative candidates, the genre of ancient biography appears to best explain the prologue of the Gospel of John.


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