Notes on 1 John (part 3)
By Steve Jeffery, 25 May 2017
The third extract from some notes for a recent Bible study on 1 John:
4. A deliberate grammatical error in John 1:1-3
“A grammatical obstacle course” (Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, p. 152)
Take a look at the literal translation below:
1 Which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have touched, concerning the word of life 2 (and the life appeared, and we have seen it and we testify and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us) 3 which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.
The main verb is proclaim, which generally requires a grammatical object (i.e. the thing that it being proclaimed). Strangely, though, the grammatical object is nowhere to be found! Instead, it is referred to by a string of relative pronouns (which... which... which...), which tell us about the thing that is being proclaimed without telling us what it is.
This forces the reader to ask, “What exactly is being proclaimed?” The most obvious answer would seem to be the eternal life, because in v. 2 John uses the same verb proclaim again, this time with the eternal life as its object. But this can’t be the object of proclaim in v. 3, because (i) it’s in the wrong place in the sentence, and (ii) life is feminine in gender, but the pronouns (which) are neuter.
John is doing something extraordinarily subtle here. He’s trying to get us to work out for ourselves what it is that is being proclaimed – in other words, to fill in what he’s left out of the red box. It must be a neuter noun (to match with which), and it must be a message of some kind (otherwise it would make no sense to proclaim it). The most obvious candidate is the gospel, since this is a neuter noun (euangelion) denoting the message the apostles proclaimed. As we read, we’re supposed to imagine that the gospel is there at the start of the sentence (as in the right-hand side of the table above), even though it’s not actually written.
So why does John express himself in this way – implying the gospel without actually saying it? The answer is intriguing. John can’t actually say the gospel in this context, because then the content of the relative clauses (from the beginning, heard, seen with our eyes, looked upon, touched) wouldn’t make any sense. After all, it is the Son of God himself, and not the gospel, who was from the beginning, whom John heard, looked at, touched and so on.
But John wants us to understand that when we hear the gospel, the message that John proclaimed, we are actually encountering Jesus the Son of God personally. When we hear the gospel, we are encountering the one who was from the beginning, whom John heard, looked at, touched. For the gospel is not just information, it is an encounter with a person, the living Lord Jesus, the Son of God.