“In the Beginning Was the Word”—Excerpt from a New Book by Anthony Esolen
Editor’s note: a powerful new book by well-known essayist and literary critic Anthony Esolen entitled In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John was recently published by Angelico Press, from whom we obtained permission to share a part of it with our readers. Our own contributing editor Dr. Peter Kwasniewski wrote the Foreword to the book and tells me that it is “dynamite.” This compact but profound commentary on the Prologue of John should be of great interest to all Catholics but especially those who assist at the ancient Roman Rite, where these opening verses of the Fourth Gospel are read after nearly every Mass.—TSF
Paul and John, the storm of fire and the calm immensity of the sea, speak as one. “Behold, I make all things new,” says He who sits upon the throne in the Apocalypse (Rev. 21:5). Paul spoke of God’s saving work in the same vein, as the full and ultimate making of things forever new: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
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What do we make of such a claim about Christ? I have heard many an unbeliever say that the story of Jesus is but the story of every semi-divine hero in the history of the world. That is not true. Quite the contrary. Let us pause to look at the matter.
Alexander the Great traveled all the way to the oasis of Siwah in Libya to consult the oracle of Ammon, whom the Greeks associated with Zeus. He wanted to say that he was the son of Ammonian Zeus, and not the son of the half-barbarian warlord Philip of Macedon, whom, historians believe, Alexander’s ambitious mother Olympias put out of her son’s path by assassination. Alexander wanted to stamp his aristocratic card. It is an acknowledged trick of the self-promoter, and the ancients themselves saw it as such. The Julian clan in Rome traced their lineage back to Iulus, the son of that Aeneas who, according to old self-promoting Roman folklore, settled his refugees from Troy upon the Italian shores. This Aeneas was the son of Anchises by the goddess Venus. Every important clan wanted a ticket like that. It is like establishing your membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The Pharaohs in Egypt were considered the earthly personifications of the benevolent god of justice, Osiris, guaranteeing the healthy flooding of the Nile, so that people could cast their seed broadside and the bumper crops would come. The Egyptians believed that divine power flowed through the Pharaoh, sure enough, but no one would say of Tutankhamen the boy-king that he was in himself the origin of the universe, and its significance. There are many stories in human lore about heroes who rise from obscurity and neglect to the heights of glory. Beowulf is one, but Beowulf dies in the end, and the smoke rises above his funeral pyre and is swallowed up in the sky, while the Geats he ruled look forward to annihilation at the hands of the Swedes, their old enemies. The world is also full of stories of men who achieve enlightenment, which they then pass along to their followers: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Zoroaster, even Longfellow’s pleasant Hiawatha. Not one of them takes upon his shoulders the sins of the world. Not one of them is or claims to be the Lord of the world.
There is, in the story of Jesus, no sense that he gains enlightenment, no dramatic turning point that puts his life on the path to glory. He is not ever the Prince Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree. He is not ever Mohammed, hitherto an ordinary man working among the caravans, visited by a reciting angel in a cave. We have only one account of his boyhood, whence we gather that he was already that same Jesus we know, calmly confident, speaking and listening and replying. There is in his story nothing of Napoleon or Dick Whittington or Epictetus or Oedipus or Arthur or even Moses. The story of Jesus is not like the story of man. It is instead the key that opens the story of man. It brings those stories into the light, for all men, and for each man. “I am the door of the sheep,” says the Lord. “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and shall find pasture” (Jn. 10:7, 9). Jesus does not conform his story to ours, but we may find the answers to our stories in his: “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
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And so Saint John brings us back to “the beginning,” but what does that mean? Let us consider what he surely has in mind, and what he expects those who hear him to have in mind if they are Jews: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew for that word—for we must remember that John was himself a Jew, thinking first in his native Aramaic and then in the sacred parent language of Hebrew, but writing in his third language, Greek—is bereshith, at the rosh or the head of things. I believe that it meant more to the Jewish mind than our first means to us, or at the start, or to begin with, or even in the beginning, if we think of beginning only in a temporal sense, for instance as the first domino to fall in a series.
We should not allow our digital clocks and calendars to mislead us. When the Jews celebrated the feast that marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, it was not like what Americans do when they gather in Times Square to watch a conglomeration of electric lights “fall,” and the numerals change on the historical odometer, whereupon everyone takes a drink, and wakes up the next morning foggy and disillusioned. Says God to Moses: “Thou shalt observe the feast of tabernacles,” that is, of barns, granaries, vats,
Seven days, after that thou hast gathered in thy corn and thy wine: and thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the Lord thy God in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose: because the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore shalt thou surely rejoice (Dt. 16:13–15).
Seven, of course, is the number of days in the week, and the week is the divine unit of time. It is suggested by the lunar month of roughly four weeks, but otherwise it is not observable, not evident to the eye. If I may stretch a point: the week is like the angels, invisible. We have the week by the memory of what God has done in the beginning: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all the work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it” (Gen. 2:2–3). For that reason they who worship Him must also keep the day holy, “for in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:11). We in our anti-culture of work that makes many a bad thing and unmakes many a man and woman, and of hedonism that brings no pleasure, are apt to view the command as a prohibition: do no work on the Sabbath. It is better viewed as an invitation: Thou shalt feast! Rest, here, is not simply an interruption in labor. It is the feast, the refreshment, the crown of life. The heavens and the earth and all that is in them are oriented toward the feast. It is the feast that is their root and trunk and crown, their sap and leaf and flower. In the beginning and in the end, there is the feast. […]
We walk along a narrow land bridge, with a precipice on each side. To the left is the fall into abstraction and mere philosophy. To the right is the fall into mythology and idolatry. We have here neither Heraclitus nor Homer, but what alone will make sense of each, and both together. So, just as we must not reduce the gospel to a footnote to Greek abstraction, so we must not to reduce the gospel to a story about god-characters, Mr. and Mrs. Zeus, whether the characters are to be interpreted literally or allegorically. The gospel is not a work of man’s fevered imagination, nor is it rationalism in symbolic garb. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John, and if all he meant by it was old dry Stoicism sweetened with some Jewish honey, it is hard to understand why Christians would ever be persecuted by anyone. A shrug would suffice: “We are using figures of speech.” Figures of speech cover a multitude of vagaries.
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Likewise, we may be too accustomed to John’s first verse to feel how stunning it is, as stunning as was the first chapter of Genesis, with its frank, terse, and confident rejection of everything strictly mythological about the creation stories of the peoples roundabout. Here we might pause to take a look at that.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—at a stroke, the sacred author dispenses with the theogonies you find everywhere else, the generations of gods, such as Cronus usurping authority from his father Ouranos, and Zeus his son doing the same in turn to him, assisted by his strategic political alliance with some of the Titans, the generation of gods contemporaneous with Cronus. There is nothing of that in Genesis, or of Osiris betrayed and dismembered by his evil brother Seti, and his sister-wife Isis gathering up again all his scattered limbs; or of the Babylonian Marduk enlisting the allegiance of the younger gods to slaughter the ancient sea-goddess Tiamat, and then fashioning the universe from her remains. There is no foundational violence or conquest. There is also no star-worship, no planetary mysticism. For God made the luminaries for times and seasons, the sun to govern the day and the moon to govern the night, “and he also made the stars,” says the author, as if it were an afterthought. It is a poke in the eye of the Chaldean stargazers. As a myth—as a story about how the moon got her spots, or why the whale is so big, the creation account in Genesis would have been a failure, but then it is not intended as a myth, that is, an explanatory story, so much as it is a stripped-down poetic revelation of what the world is: the good and wholly gratuitous creation by God, oriented toward its fulfillment in the worship of God, the feast of the Sabbath.
It is also not a piece of political propaganda. In the beginning (of the earth, that is, and of mankind), in Babylon, there was violence and empire, with Marduk emerging as the dominant god, just as the Babylonians had overrun and built upon the Sumerian civilization that came before. In the beginning (of civilization, that is), in Greece, there was political cunning and reason, in the person of Zeus, outflanking the hideous older gods of brute domination. So did the Greeks project the political organization called the polis back upon the conflict of the generations of the gods. In the beginning (of large-scale agriculture), in Egypt, there was a good god murdered, whose fertility and whose benevolence entered the Nile River and the mud at her banks, making Egyptian civilization possible. None of that, absolutely none of it, is to be had from our sacred author of Genesis.
One might expect the author, if we were talking simply of human agency, to present to us the holy city of Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” as present in the seed from the beginning. For man likes to cast the gods in his image, which will usually be a national or tribal image. But Jerusalem is not here. Rather the first city-builder we learn of is Cain, also the first murderer of his kin, his brother Abel. And the first prominent city in Genesis is Babel, emblem of the greatness and the folly of Babylon, and forever after the type of human confusion. Babel is the anti-word, the sign of human language itself falling into change and decay, into misunderstanding and strife.
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Just as the beginning of all things is not, in Genesis, a civic myth aimed at justifying any specific place or form of human organization, so also the beginning in John is not local or specific or bound to a culture. We here are talking about all men, everywhere, and about each single man. The scope is universal, and the touch is intimate. No broader range is possible, nor any deeper gaze into the dark corners of every human soul. What cultural trappings we find are minimal, no more than is necessary for any kind of human communication to take place. We expect a people who raise corn to give us a Hiawatha, and they do. We expect a people who live beneath the steady glare of the tropical sun to give us a Quetzalcoatl, intense and merciless, demanding his daily tribute in the blood of the people’s enemies. We might expect the Hebrew herdsmen to give us a god of the sheep and the cattle, but they do not. There was no time, and there never will come a time, when the account in Genesis of the creation and the fall of man will not speak home truths about who we are. The ancient here does not grow old. There was no time, and there never will come a time, when the opening of John’s gospel will not prompt the attentive reader to ponder the very being of God, of his relationship to man and to all things, and of the inner life that is God’s own, a relationship of love.
Anthony M. Esolen is a writer, social commentator, translator of classical poetry, and professor of English Renaissance and classical literature. Dr. Esolen is on the Magdalen College faculty and is Writer-in-Residence. His books include Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization; Ironies of Faith; and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child as well as In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John. He has also translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate (Johns Hopkins Press); and Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.