The Nature of Preexistence in the Gospel of John: A Case Study of John 8:58 and 17:5

The Gospel of John has been a hotbed of arguments, disputes, and disagreements ever since it was composed some two thousand years ago. Modern preachers and theologians continue to lift up the Fourth Gospel over its Synoptic counterparts, often pitting John’s christology against what is taught in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Furthermore, John’s Gospel regularly gets detached from the messianic expectations and job qualifications set forth by a plurality of passages within the Hebrew Bible. In effect, these interpreters are saying that they prefer [their reading of] John over and against the previous forty-two books of the Bible. The distinguished historian Roger Haight notes that this observation is not simply a modern phenomenon, noting that “[a]fter the New Testament period, the understanding of Jesus Christ became governed by the framework and language of the Prologue of John’s Gospel. The Jesus who was the subject matter of christology ceased to be the Jesus of the synoptics.”1

Two of the primary texts within John’s Gospel (John 8:58 and 17:5) are habitually cited as proof that Jesus literally preexisted his birth. I admit that when these are read in a woodenly literally, straightforward manner they indeed convey literal preexistence. However, the keen interpreter has the responsibility to ask whether a literal reading is the most appropriate way to interact with these texts, which are written out of the mindset of a Jewish Christian author who was steeped in the cultural thoughts and expectations of his Judaic heritage. I am convinced that once these texts are properly placed within the context of Jewish preexistence ideas and concepts, which were widely held and taught in the ancient world, then the conclusion of Jesus literally preexisting his birth becomes increasingly less likely. This essay will set forth this very context, beginning by establishing the messianic expectations for one claiming to be the Messiah based on the Hebrew Bible (and how Jews interpreted these texts). Attention will then be turned to texts which reveal how Jews could dialogue about the significant ideas and concepts within the mind and plan of the God of Israel. John 8:58 and 17:5 will afterward be read in light of these invaluable pieces of context so as to better establish a more likely and persuasive interpretation. Once these tasks have been accomplished, this essay will conclude by asking if the nature of preexistence within John’s Gospel truly contradicts the theology of the Synoptics.

The theology located within John’s Gospel did not simply fall out of heaven (pun intended). Rather, it is precipitated by a variety of messianic expectations developed over a significant period of time, culminating at the end of the second temple period. If a historian were to compare the role of Israel’s Messiah to a modern job vacancy for which applicants would apply, a variety of qualifications and job descriptions would easily emerge. In particular, there were direct qualifications which would either justify one’s claim to messiahship within the second temple period, or exclude him altogether. If a figure within the first century CE claimed to be the Messiah but failed to meet these expected and cherished prerequisites, then he would not be taken seriously by his contemporaries. By drawing on important passages in the Hebrew Bible, Jews were able to cite a number of criteria which they deemed authoritative in describing the promised Messiah’s identity and role. This, I contend, is the appropriate stating place for our inquiry.

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Author: Dustin R. Smith

Keywords: Trinitarian, Trinity, Triunity, Trinitarianism, triune, Three in one, God the Son, Preexistence, Pre-existence, Christ's preexistence, Christ's pre-existence, Christ preexisted, Christ pre-existed, Jesus preexisted, Jesus' preexistence, Jesus' pre-existence, Jesus pre-existed, Preexistence of Jesus, Preexist, Pre exist, Jesus was the Word, The Word was Jesus, Word was God, Messiah, Deity of Christ, Deity of Jesus, Jesus's preexistence, Jesus preexisted before he was born, Spirit of Messiah, Jewish preexistence, Jewish concept of preexistence, Jewish concept of pre-existence, Jewish understanding of pre-existence, Jewish understanding of preexistence, Jewish understanding of preexistence of Messiah, Messiah's preexistence, Messiah preexisted, Messiah pre-existed, Messiah's pre-existence, predestination, predestine, predestined, foreknowledge, god's foreknowledge, god knows the end from the beginning

Bible reference(s): John 8:58, John 17:5

Source: “The Nature of Preexistence in the Gospel of John: A Case Study of John 8:58 and 17:5,” Journal of Biblical Unitarianism, Fall 2014, vol. 1 no. 2, pp. 45-61.

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