Nearly all interpreters take it for granted that the incarnational logos poem contained in John 1:1-18 assumes the virginal conception of Jesus that is presented by Matthew and Luke in their redactions of the Gospel of Mark. The Johannine Word becomes flesh, in this case, when the Synoptic Mary conceives a divine son by God’s holy spirit.
There are, however, some reasons to doubt this interpretive reconstruction.
Beginning from the baptism
For one, nothing in John’s introduction, or in the rest of his gospel, betrays knowledge of or interest in the birth of Jesus.1 Rather, after a glimpse of the Word’s activity with God “in the beginning” (John 1:1-5), the Fourth Gospel, like the earliest gospel (i.e. Mark), begins its temporal account not with angels and annunciations but with the activity of John the Baptist on the margins of Israel. It is within this larger narrative framework—the story of John’s witness to the coming of the Messiah—that the Johannine writer embeds his logos poem so deftly.2 The Gospel of John adheres, therefore, to what appears to have been an evangelical framing that predates the work of Matthew and Luke—the gospel story opening with the Baptism and closing with the Resurrection. For John, as for Mark, the Baptist’s messianic announcement constitutes the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” within concrete time (Mark 1:1). With the advent of John as baptizer of the Messiah, the labor of prophetic witness has finally come to an end. The gospel of Christ has begun.
By way of contrast, consider the framing at work in the Gospel of Luke. For Luke (and to some extent for Matthew) Christ’s presence is made known to Israel prior to John’s baptism—by shepherds in the Judean countryside (2:15-20), by prophets in the Temple (2:25-38), and by teachers of the Law who witness the child’s wisdom (2:41-51). In the Gospel of John, however, the Messiah is “found” along the shores of the Jordan by disciples of the Baptist: he is “Jesus son of Joseph” (John 1:45, cf. Luke 3:23). No knowledge of Mary’s maidenhood presents itself here.
Along with the Gospels of John and Mark then, certain texts from the Apostolic preaching in Acts evidence this older schema in which the substance of the gospel originates at Christ’s baptism, not at his birth or conception.
- In the task of replacing Judas Iscariot, the apostles seek a man who had “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). Here, as elsewhere, Christ’s baptism into a spirit of power under the tutelage of John is taken to be the revelatory starting point of the gospel (cf. Acts 2:22, 10:36-38).
- Paul affirms that “John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel” “before [Christ’s coming]” (Acts 13:24). As with various “I have come” statements in the Gospels, here the “coming” of Christ is his public appearance in Israel as a prophet “attested by God” through the spirit. Jesus, of course, was born a human being prior to John’s ministry. But this “pre-existence” of Christ as a child was not part of the gospel’s content for these first framers of the kerygma.
Incarnation without virgin birth
What this more primitive schema means for the question of incarnation becomes apparent when we follow along with the flow of the Johannine narrator. He begins by presenting the anticipatory vantage of John the Baptist (John 1:6-9).
According to this Johannine John God’s light is about to dawn in Israel. It is currently “coming into the world” (John 1:9). In other (i.e. Markan) words, the great disclosure of the Lord Messiah is at hand. Christ is about to the tread upon the regal highway prepared for him by his servants, namely John (cf. Mark 1:2-3, Malachi 3:1).
In verses 10-18, however, the vantage advances from the perspective of the expectant Baptist to the perspective of the jaded but grateful Johannine community, a community looking back. While most of Israel had scorned God’s light as revealed in Jesus, the community of the Beloved Disciple has received “grace upon grace” through the apocalypse of God in his son (1:16-18). By receiving the spirit of the rejected but resurrected Christ they have become sons of the only true God (cf. John 20:19-23). These happenings constitute the somewhat ambiguous outcome of John’s witness.
Still, it is from this later vantage point, the view of the Johannine church towards the end of the 1st century, and not from the vantage of John, that we find reference to the incarnation of God’s word as a past event (1:14). From the perspective of John in the wilderness, however, the light had yet to break. In the same way, the Word had yet to “become flesh” and “tent among us.”
The second line of verse 14 confirms this point. The Word “became flesh and tented among us” with the result that or for the purpose that “we have seen his glory.” By means of John’s prophetic work, thrusting Jesus onto the national stage, God’s word was at last visible before the face of the Jewish people. Prior to John’s discovery of the Messiah the Word was still unknown, an invisible spirit without flesh and bone. But now, after that fateful baptism—a miracle of the spirit attested to by a most popular prophet (1:29-34)—the “word of life” can be “seen with our eyes” and “touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).
At issue here then is not a metaphysical transformation—of divine Word into human flesh—but a revelatory one—from a word unknown to a word disclosed, an imperceptible murmur to a comprehensible voice. Like a man entering the assembly or a tent pitched in the camp, God’s word appeared to Jacob in glory when Jesus came up from those waters endowed with startling power from heaven. Having come to wield this daimonic force against the unclean spirits plaguing Israel, his fame would “spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mark 1:28). God’s word had taken on flesh.
1—Nor in his childhood or humanity for that matter. John has no conception of the Athanasian dictum “That which [God the Son] has not assumed He has not healed.” The virgin birth, moreover, does not appear to have been a widespread or early tradition. Paul, along with Luke’s record of apostolic preaching in Acts, makes no reference to a special birth.
2—See Andrew Perriman’s post When exactly did the Word become Flesh for more on this.