Recently, de Gruyter published my book Die Präexistenz Jesu im Johannesevangelium. Struktur und Theologie eines johanneischen Motivs, which is a revised version of my PhD dissertation (Humboldt-University Berlin). In this blogpost, I shall present my findings, highlighting some central aspects, especially the role of temporality for John’s notion of preexistence.
The Gospel of John has been said to dare the impossible, the “quadrature of the circle”. The German theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel used this metaphor for characterising the Johannine attempt of narrating the un-tellable. John tells us a story about the preexistent Christ – that is, John transforms an idea connected to eternity and nontemporality into a narrative line connected to temporality. Kuschel calls this the “verwegene Synthese” (daring synthesis), where John synthesizes a story of Jesus and the concept of preexistence, both of which occur, outside of John, only in separate texts. The Synoptic Gospels have at least no explicit reference to preexistence, but start with Jesus’s baptism (Mark) or his virginal conception (Luke and Matthew). Preexistence outside of John is attested only in short, hymn-like passages or formulae within the epistolary literature (Phil 2, Col 1 and others) and Revelation.
Kuschel and other scholars think of the notion of preexistence as something which at its core is not connected to temporality. Talk of preexistence might use the language of temporality, but its actual meaning concerns Jesus’s significance and his belonging to the realm of God. For most scholars therefore, preexistence in the Gospel of John is expressed in a variety of motifs, including the language of sending, oneness, descending and ascending, and various facets of the text that have to do with Jesus’s exclusive connection with his heavenly father and the heavenly realm. In short, it is supposed that preexistence deals with everything expressing Jesus’s superhuman or godly side.
Following Kuschel’s observation that John narrates preexistence and that this concept is highly innovative, the aim of this blogpost is twofold. First, I shall highlight the significance of temporality for the preexistence of Jesus in the Gospel of John, laying open the motif’s clearly structured, temporal function within the overall narrative of the Gospel. Second, I shall make a proposal regarding how this motif could be related to experiences of time and temporality in the lives of the original (ideal) readers, as well as of readers in our time. I shall conclude that because of – not despite – of its temporality, the preexistence of Jesus in the Gospel of John gains in meaning and significance.
Is Jesus’s preexistence in the Gospel of John conceptualised temporally?
My starting point for analysing Jesus’s preexistence in the Gospel were seven statements that express clearly the temporal existence of Jesus or the Logos prior to someone or something else. Preexistence in my approach denotes a linguistic and therefore visible phenomenon in a given text – specific sorts of expressions. While most scholars understand preexistence to denote an idea or mental construct, my approach identifies seven phrases in the Gospel of John which are employed in a similar syntactic-semantic way.
Using a lexeme denoting temporal priority (“before”), each of these sentences makes a claim that, explicitly or implicitly, pertains to Jesus’s being. These statements are as follows.
- John 1:1a, 2: the narrator states that in the beginning was the Logos.
- John 1:15, 30: John the Baptist testifies that Jesus, though coming after him, already existed before him.
- John 6:62: Jesus, in dialogue with skeptical disciples, announces the (future) ascent of the Son of Man to where he was before.
- John 8:58: Jesus provokes his dialogue partners, “the Jews”, by telling them that even before Abraham came into being Jesus existed.
- John 17:5: in the farewell prayer, Jesus asks his heavenly father to glorify him in the glory he already had before the world existed.
- And, finally, John 17:24: Jesus prays for all the believers to be with him and see his glory, which he has from God, because God loved him before the foundation of the world.
When one looks at these seven statements together, the changing temporal points of reference may appear puzzling. There is no unified notion of preexistence in terms of a fixed temporal reference point. Rather the statements run through the Gospel in a temporally dynamic way. In the prologue we are told in an abstract way about the “pure” existence of the Logos in the beginning, with God, and of him himself being God. Then the incarnated Logos is identified by the Baptist as the one who comes after him but existed before him. It is here in John 1:15 where the motif of pre-existence actually starts. The preexistence is a paradox. Yet it spans only a short time, since the Baptist is a contemporary of the earthly Jesus. Following this instance of the motif, the time gap that the earthly Jesus bridges becomes greater, Consecutively it is revealed that he existed prior to the time of his descent, of Abraham’s birth, and, finally, of the foundation of the world. As the plot of the Gospel unfolds, the temporal depth of the protagonist Jesus becomes deeper and deeper. The climax in the use of the motif, which reveals Jesus’s precreational existence, is expressed just prior to the passion and Easter narratives. These moments are the center of the “hour”, the climax of the Johannine story as a whole. This means that the preexistence motif participates in and contributes to the dramatic arc of the Gospel’s storyline.
Let us take a closer look at the connection between the preexistence statements and the larger narrative framework. The statements are strategically located within the Gospel and each of them interacts profoundly with the plot. In my book, I go very much into detail about how each statement functions within its immediate context. In John 1:15 and 30, Jesus’s paradoxical existence prior to the Baptist, though Jesus nevertheless comes after him, relates to the incarnation of the Logos, as well as to the first appearance of Jesus in the narrative. The Baptist here revisits the topic of Jesus’s mysterious, hidden presence and his open activity – a topic that is unfolded broadly within the passage of John 1:19-35.
John 6:62 and 8:58 are carefully placed within the context of chapters five through ten, a section that is characterised by the numerous conflicts Jesus has with different groups. John 6:62 is embedded in a conflict between Jesus and a group of disciples that, at the end of the interaction, finally leaves him. The preexistence statement is part of Jesus’s answer to the disciples’ refusal to accept his living bread discourse. The discourse contained disturbing hints of Jesus’s violent death and voiced the expectation that his disciples would eat and drink his flesh and blood. Rather than ameliorate the situation, Jesus, in his statement in verse 62, increases the challenge posed by his words, now talking about a future ascent (and return) to his heavenly origin. How are the disciples supposed to connect his violent death to his claim to return to God in heaven, “to where he has been before”? Preexistence functions here as a clear hint of the real meaning of Jesus’s death – but only for the informed and believing reader. For the disciples in the story the statement magnifies the stumbling block they see in Jesus’s words.
Similarly, John 8:58 plays a central role in one of the most heated debates between Jesus and “the Jews”. Here, though, the preexistence statement is the catalyst for a decidedly more negative reaction, namely the interlocutors’ attempt to stone Jesus. This is directly connected to the form of the preexistence statement, in which Jesus presents himself as prior to Abraham, to whom the Jews appeal in order to reject Jesus’s challenging request to believe in his words.
Finally, John 17:5 and 24 are part of Jesus’s farewell prayer and therefore – complementarily to John 1:15, 30, at the opening of the Gospel – placed within the departure of Jesus. Both verses address directly the completing of Jesus’s departure as his glorification, which occurs in his “hour”. The references to his precreational being in this context are related to his twofold relationship to the world. On the one hand he is leaving the world and has never been part of it. On the other hand, his salvific action that is taking place in the “hour” aims at the world in that, through it, he sends the believers into the world. In his “hour”, Jesus acts in a way that corresponds to the creation of the world. Therefore he asks his father to glorify him with his precreational glory.
In the Gospel of John, therefore, there is no categorical difference between historical preexistence (existence before the Baptist and before Abraham) and precosmic or “eternal” existence. Rather, the notion of preexistence is developed both temporally and dynamically. This development is a movement of Christ through time to beyond the beginning of the world.
What significance may the preexistence of Jesus and its temporality have to the reader? – A suggestion
Having shown the crucial role that temporality plays for the development of the concept of Jesus’s preexistence in the Gospel of John, I shall now turn to the reader. What does the preexistence of Jesus mean to the implied audience? Is it a doctrine that the audience is meant to believe in? Is it rather, as Larry Hurtado puts it, an expression of their devotional practice? The answer that I am suggesting here is a cautious one. Although John contains the most elaborate and explicit preexistence Christology in the New Testament, nevertheless from a careful analysis of the seven preexistence statements within their narrative contexts, the categories of both doctrine and devotion do not seem to adequately represent the Johannine preexistence motif.
Is it not striking that not one explicit preexistence statement is uttered or even answered positively by a believing figure, comparable to Martha’s confession in chapter 11 or Thomas’s confession of Jesus being his Lord and God in chapter 20? John 1:30 is said by the Baptist who plays an exceptional role in the story as witness and mediator of God’s revelation (cf. John 1:32). His preexistence statement is not answered by another figure; it is not even clear in the story who is listening to him speak. The two statements in John 6 and 8 are strongly connected to doubt and unbelief. In the first case, a group of skeptical disciples leaves Jesus―obviously his preexistence statement could not persuade them to stay and possibly it even strengthened their skepticism. In chapter 8, the provocative function of Jesus’s preexistence statement is clear―his Jewish dialogue partners intend to stone him immediately thereafter. In chapter 17, Jesus is talking exclusively to his heavenly father without any other characters bearing witness or reacting to the christological statements.
In my opinion one can conclude that, for John, Jesus’s preexistence is not an easily nor broadly accepted Christological statement. It is part of a struggle about Jesus’s identity and true being. Thus, John does not put it into the mouth of a believing character. Preexistence here is highly provocative. It stands on the edge between the acceptable and the unacceptable, neither easily incorporated into the devotional practice of the community nor even reflecting such a practice.
But is it possible to say something more about what Jesus’s preexistence might have meant for the intended readers of John’s Gospel? I would like to venture a possible answer. The Baptist’s testimony of Jesus having already existed before him, though he became visible only later (John 1:30), is related closely to the scene in John 1:47-51, where Nathanael becomes Jesus’s disciple. Nathanael is called by Philip and when Nathanael comes to meet Jesus, Jesus greets him by calling him “a true Israelite”, one in whom there is “no deceit.” (John 1:47) Nathanael wonders how it is that Jesus already knows him. Jesus’s answer is enigmatic: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree” (John 1:48).
We can leave aside here the precise meaning of “seeing someone under the fig tree” and focus rather on the first part of the sentence, which points to Jesus’s pre-knowledge. Jesus’s pre-knowledge in this scene and Jesus’s preexistence attested by the Baptist share a parallel structure: Jesus is unknown to the Baptist and to Israel before his ministry but is revealed by the testimony of the Baptist. His earthly ministry is not the beginning of his existence, but he was there even before the Baptist. Likewise, Nathanael, as the “true Israelite”, experiences this insight. He is led to Jesus by a mediator, Philip, and recognizes that Jesus is already connected to him and that Jesus is to some extent “preexistent” in the life of Nathanael. The preexistence of Jesus can be seen as closely connected to the life of the believer.
Preexistence is therefore not an “objective” Christological feature that can be determined without reference to the experience of the believer. It gains meaning when seen in the context of the experience of time in one’s life. Preexistence is related to the insight that the beginning of belief in Jesus is preceded by Jesus’s mysterious presence in one’s life.
In my book, I argued that a clear, crafted motif of Jesus’s temporal preexistence, consisting of seven statements, permeates the Gospel from chapter one to the end of chapter 17. At its core the motif unfolds a notion of Jesus’s existence prior to several other entities, with an ever increasing temporal extent, reaching beyond the Baptist, beyond Abraham, beyond even the foundation of the world. The exposition of the preexistence concept runs through the narrative as a temporal line parallel to the narrative’s unfolding and is deeply connected to the narrative’s dramatic arc. The culminating moment of the preexistence motif (John 17:5.24) corresponds to the climax of the Gospel as a whole, namely Jesus’s “hour”. At the same time – and paradoxically – knowledge of the extent of Jesus’s preexistence, as it is successively revealed, also runs in a line parallel to the unfolding of the narrative, albeit in the opposite chronological direction. Thus it is due to the temporality of the motif that Jesus’s preexistence gains meaning and significance for John’s readers.
Dr. Friederike Kunath is working on her Habilitation about Paul’s ethics in the context of an embodiment-approach with Prof. Jörg Frey. She is the author of Die Präexistenz Jesu im Johannesevangelium. Struktur und Theologie eines johanneischen Motivs, BZNW 212 (Berlin: de Gruyter: 2016).
 Karl-Josef Kuschel, Geboren vor aller Zeit? Der Streit um Christi Ursprung (Munich: Piper, 1990), 469: “Wie soll man von etwas erzählen, das sich im Unanschaulichen ‘vollzieht’”? “Eine einzige christliche Gemeinde wagt gegen Ende des 1. Jahrhunderts den Versuch einer Quadratur des Kreises: die Gemeinde des Johannes.”
 Cf. Kuschel, Geboren, 469.
 Kuschel, Geboren, 468.
 Simon Gathercole, The Preexistent Son. Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), argues that the synoptic gospels implicitly contain a preexistence Christology.
 Cf. Kuschel, Geboren, 644; Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie des Neuen Testaments (6th ed., Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1968), 414f. The opposite view is found for example in William Loader, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Structure and Issues (2nd rev. ed.; Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1992), 153.
 Cf. for example, Loader, Christology, 43, 48, 51f; Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 365-369.
 Cf. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 370.