Words about the Word: Esolen’s “In the Beginning. . .”

Whenever people ask me what they should read to help them understand the Catholic faith, I say: “Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel.” In his new book, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John, Anthony Esolen has distilled that to just the first 18 verses of John 1. Professor Esolen has written a tour de force of linguistic and Biblical scholarship that may well endure as an essential evangelical tool for years to come. If you look at John in the right way, it’s hard then to look away. Ever.

But why just the Prologue? Esolen writes:

For a long time, the so-called prologue . . . was called “the Last Gospel,” because it was read after the dismissal at every Mass. Thus would the people leave having heard not only some things that Jesus said, but who Jesus was: and thus might the temptation be checked, to patronize Jesus, to humiliate Him by exalting Him to the status of a great teacher, a deeply spiritual man, an advocate for the poor and the insulted and the injured, and so an icon of peaceful resistance against evil.

That John is the most theological of the four Gospels is common knowledge, although there’s theology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke too. But it is John and he alone who comes directly to the point, making clear that Jesus Christ is not the last of the prophets in Israel but the Creator of heaven and earth.

With his characteristic, neo-Chestertonian grace, Esolen writes of the Lord that the “story of Jesus is not the story of a man” but “is instead the key that opens the story of man.” There’s simply nowhere in Scripture in which this is clearer than in John’s Gospel, unless it’s in John’s Apocalypse.

To be blunt about it, there are times when this scares the hell out of me. And, taking that as a literal statement, it’s a very good thing indeed.

So, John begins at the beginning, echoing Genesis 1. Both are creation stories. But Genesis is unlike all the others throughout history – not like the Titans or other gods that abounded everywhere else. Nothing like:

Osiris betrayed and dismembered by his evil brother Seti, and his sister-wife Isis gathering up all his scattered limbs; or of the Babylonian Marduk enlisting the allegiance of the younger gods to slaughter the sea-goddess Tiamat, and then fashioning the universe from her remains.

The Book of Genesis, Esolen writes, “is a poke in the eye of the Chaldean stargazers.” It is a “stripped-down poetic revelation of what the world is: the good and wholly gratuitous creation by God, oriented towards its fulfillment in worship.”

Each of Esolen’s eighteen, short chapters provides exegesis of the words – the key ones – as they are rendered in English out of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Readers of some of Esolen’s columns at this website may recall his displeasure with the New American Bible, which is the one that has snaked its way into the American Church. So it’s no surprise that Tony uses the King James Version of John.

Esolen often pauses to dwell on a word or concept, seeking not just a meaning but John’s meaning. Take, for instance, “And the Word was with God. . .” It’s not “with” as we usually understand it – not simply being next to, alongside of. The Word is pro ton theon: not coming forth from God but going toward God. Esolen suggests a better word is “before”: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was before God, and God was the Word. He was in the beginning before God.

“I mean,” he writes, “before, of course, as in before the face of, but without losing the sense of firstness.” He adds: “If you believe that this is meant to dazzle the mind, you’re right.”

It’s a bold thing to suggest a corrective such as this. But Esolen believes we must look at John’s poetry, for that’s what the Prologue is, with an eye to recalling that John’s Greek isn’t his native tongue:

My claim is not that [John] has found the most artfully verbal way to say it, but that he has found the only essentially proper way to say it. He is not fluent in Greek, as Luke is. He is not a wordsmith. He has a grasp upon a small host of words of power, and he moves those words, or they move him, as the mystery of what they express seizes him, ever returning, recapitulating, resuming, dancing, showing forth the beginning in the end and the end in the beginning.

A strong case is being made here that the Prologue is nothing less than a miracle: the most important 310 words ever written. Surely John’s mind and hand were guided by the Holy Spirit. And Esolen’s case is bolstered by inclusion of wisdom from Venerable Bede, Dante Alighieri, George Herbert, John Milton, John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien among others, especially in each chapter’s epigram.

The Lord has an earthly choir as well as a heavenly one.

Speaking of angels singing, I find myself once again wishing John had given us the Nativity story. Maybe that’s because Christmas is Saturday. John and Our Lady spent years together, but it was the Passion/Resurrection that had bonded them more than Incarnation/Nativity.

Running parallel with the commentary on the Gospel are many references to John’s Revelation. And Tony Esolen has taught me something I’d not quite grasped: the last book of the Bible is inextricably connected to the first, and I may begin – when asked what a prospective Catholic or Christian ought to read – to suggest, in order: Genesis, John, and Revelation.

Of course, I know there will be some whose eyes will roll up into their skulls. I have to read three things! When that happens, I’ll simply say, “Okay, then, read Anthony Esolen’s In the Beginning Was the Word. It’s all there.”


You may also enjoy:

Mr. Miner’s The Immediacy of Mark: Pakaluk’s “Memoirs of St. Peter”

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Loving and Knowing Jesus

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.