"In the Beginning"
Commentary on 1 John 1:1
As we look at the very beginning of the text, the NRSV has altered the order in which the various phrases appear in the Greek text of the Epistle, apparently seeking to make the sentence comply with the more common usage in English. The sentence thus begins with the subject, “we”: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what …” In this respect, the NIV is closer to the original word order: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which …—this we proclaim. ”
While this does not change the meaning of the sentence, it does change the emphasis, which in the NRSV seems to shift from the events themselves to which John is referring to the “we” who write the letter. The entire passage is not primarily about the writer and the readers, but about “that which was from the beginning.”
In the original order, the Epistle begins with “What was from the begin¬ning,” then connects this with three affirmations of physical constatation—“what we have heard … seen with our eyes … touched with our hands”—then explains the matter further—“this life was revealed … ”—and only after all of this does the text say, “we declare to you.”
To what “beginning” does this refer? Traditionally, the most common interpretation is that this is an apostle speaking of what he saw and heard during Jesus’ lifetime on earth, particularly after the Resurrection, and now communicating it to others. But there are other possible interpretations.
What Didymus the Blind reported in the fourth century has been true throughout most of the history of interpretation of this passage. According to Didymus, some believed that “the beginning” to which John refers is the beginning of the church, after the resurrection of Jesus; others connect the words with the Gospel of John, and take them as referring to the eternal Word of God, present with the Father from all ages; and a third group holds that John is affirming that believers have now seen with their own eyes what was prepared by God from the beginning.
There is a clear parallelism between the prologue to First John and the prologue to the Gospel of John. Most scholars do not believe that the author of one of them had read the other, but rather that they both belong to the same strain in early Christian tradition, and therefore use similar phrases and images. In comparing the two prologues, one finds common phrases such as “what we have seen” or “what we have looked at,” “the word,” “life,” and others. Of all these parallelisms, the most notable is the reference to “the beginning” at the very outset of the document. This would seem to indicate that both the author of the Gospel of John and the author of First John are referring to a commonly held emphasis in their particular strand of early Christianity, and that this is the emphasis on the grounding of the Gospel in the very nature of God, from the very beginning of all things.
We know that at least by the middle of the second century, and probably much earlier, there were those who claimed that Christianity was a radically new thing, with no roots in the Hebrew faith. In fact, according to these people Christianity was so new that it had nothing to do with creation or with anything else that took place before the advent of Christ. Furthermore, the area where such doctrines seem to have been most common was the general area where the Johannine tradition flourished. The community that produced the most famous teacher of such doctrines, Marcion, was in the city of Sinope, on the southern coast of the Black Sea and therefore just north of the province of Asia, and this means that quite possibly there were already in Asia, decades before Marcion, those who proposed similar theories.
Thus, both the Gospel of John and First John seem to be refuting any notion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a recent thing, something having nothing to do with what God was doing before the advent of Jesus. The Gospel of John does this from its very outset, declaring that it is the Word that was “in the beginning” that became incarnate in Jesus: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14). First John expresses the same idea by asserting that “what was from the beginning” is also “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.”
Thus, by opening the document with the words “what was in the be¬ginning,” the author is showing a concern that is also clear in the Fourth Gospel. Of all four Gospels, only John grounds its story on the entire history of creation. Mark begins with the ministry of Jesus. Matthew places the story within the context of the history of Israel by beginning with a genealogy that goes all the way back to Abraham. Luke’s genealogy goes farther, to Adam. But the Fourth Gospel opens with the radical declaration that “In the beginning was the Word.” All of creation and all of history are part of a great cosmic drama whose climactic point is the life, death, resurrection, and coming reign of Jesus. Using very different imagery—a great book sealed with seven seals that only the Lamb can open—Revelation also affirms that all of history is a cosmic drama centering on the Lamb who was slain.
In brief, the phrase “what was in the beginning” does not mean simply at the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel, but at the beginning of all things. While there is no indication that the writer of the Epistle had read the Fourth Gospel, by opening their works with a reference to the beginning both are bringing to mind the opening words of Genesis. First John is not speaking about something that happened yesterday, or a hundred years ago, or two thousand years ago. He is writing about something that has deep roots in the beginning of all things. “What was in the begin¬ning” is none other than God. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gn 1:1) implies that there is no other beginning than God. The same may be seen in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (Jn 1:1). Now First John begins by making it clear that this is not about something that has happened lately, nor is it strictly speaking about the teachings of the church or about Christian behavior. Such things have a place in the proclamation of the church; but the heart of that proclamation has to be what was in the beginning—God.