Past, Present, and Future in John 1:15

TLDR: I propose that we translate John the Baptist’s speech in John 1:15 like this: “This is he of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me has existed since before me, because he was first before me.'”

The Text and its Standard English Translations

John 1:15 (echoed in 1:30) contains a proclamation by John the Baptist about Jesus. In Greek it looks like this:

ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἑρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν, ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν.

It sounds like this:

ho opisō mou erchomenos emprosthen mou gegonen, hoti prōtos mou ēn

An interlinear (meaning very literal, word-for-word) translation of this would be:

The one after me coming in front of me has been, because before me he was.

This sentence has three clauses, each having a preposition (or adjective functioning like a preposition), the genitive pronoun mou (“me/of me”), and a finite verb or participle. Typically, English translations render this sentence in such a way that the first and third clauses relate to time (temporal sequence) while the second one communicates rank (social sequence). Just a sampling:

He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

KJV

He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.

NIV

He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.

ESV

The one who comes after me is ahead of me, because he existed before me.

LEB

He who is coming after me has proved to be my superior, because He existed before me.

NASB

Questioning the Standard Translation

There is another way of translating this sentence, however, that interprets all three clauses temporally. In other words, emprosthen mou gegonen, which is typically understood as “has been in front of me”, could mean rather “has been before me”? This is because the preposition emprosthen can communicate either spatial or temporal frontward position. The idea of rank is a metaphorical extension of its spatial meaning.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with interpreting the middle clause in terms of rank. Actually, this translation makes a lot of sense and is easy to render in English. On the other hand, the sense of the sentence is unclear if the middle clause is interpreted temporally, and it is rather difficult to render in English in any case. Interpreting emprosthen in terms of space/rank, then, acts as a kind of play on words or pun (the temporal sense acting as its double entendre counterpart). So, bottom line, we don’t have to interpret the clause temporally, but I guess I’m just kind of ornery that way.

Actually, let me not sell my case short. There are reasons to question the standard interpretation. First, the standard translations render prōtos as “before”, like a preposition. The problem is that (1) it isn’t really a preposition and (2) it doesn’t mean merely “before”, at least not in its most essential sense.

  1. The word prōtos is superlative adjective derived from the preposition pro, which means “before” in both spatial and temporal senses (prōtos can also be used as adverbs). With the genitive case (as in mou) it can probably function like a preposition, but still, technically, it’s a superlative adjective.
  2. As a superlative of “before”, prōtos means “first” or perhaps “most before” (if that makes any sense). It sticks out, when either emprosthen or pro or prin (used in John 8:58) could have sufficed if all John wanted to say was “he came before me”.

So it looks to me like prōtos mou isn’t simply “before me”. It means “most before me” or “long before me”, or even “the first iteration of me”. In fact, I would be more inclined to interpret prōtos mou in terms of rank than emprosthen mou, and that’s what the Geneva Bible did.

He that cometh after me, was before me: for he was better than I.

Geneva Bible 1599

The problem with the Geneva Bible translation is that I fail to understand the sense of the word ὅτι at the beginning of the third clause (“for” or “because”) and, consequently, the sense of the sentence, overall.

But beyond the strangeness of the word prōtos, there is temporal progression in the three verbs of the sentence.

  1. Imminent future – present active participle of erchomai (“the one who is coming”
  2. Present – perfect tense of ginomai (“he has been/existed/come into being” *I will say ginomai rather than gignomai throughout this post, because in the Koine Greek of the NT the dialectical distinction between these words has disappeared and all forms have come together into a single paradigm*)
  3. Past – the aorist tense of eimi (“he was”)
  • Though we have three different verbs, in a sense these are all “being” verbs. Obviously, ēn is being verb. As it is in the aorist tense, it is almost certainly meant as a past tense.
  • The word ginomai is often used interchangeably with eimi, though it frequently is stronger than a mere being verb (meaning “exist” or “become”). Ginomai is especially prominent in the first chapter of John. The form here is the perfect tense. Now, the Greek perfect tense is best understood as a present reality resulting from a past event rather than as a kind of past tense, as the Latin perfect tense very often is. And this can be seen even earlier at the end of John 1:3 (ho gegonen), where it arguably refers to what currently exists. So I take this perfect tense as a temporal middle ground between the aorist ēn and the imminent future erchomai.
  • Even the present participle of erchomai (which means “I go” or “I come”) is practically an imminent future “being” verb and is used as such elsewhere in the New Testament (instead of the future forms of eimi, such as esomai and esomenos).

This temporal progression in the verbs is obvious and most certainly not accidental, so it seems to go against the grain of the text not to interpret all three prepositions (or prepositions/adjectives) temporally. In fact, an English translation even earlier than the Geneva Bible, Wycliffe’s translation, interprets all three clauses temporally (following the Latin Vulgate):

This is he of whom I said, He that shall come after me, is made before me, for he was before me.

Wycliffe (14th century)

As I said, this is the way the Latin Vulgate understands the verse:

Qui post me venturus est, ante me factus est: quia prior me erat.

Latin Vulgate

It was subsequent English translations that innovated in the translation of the second and third clauses.

The Most Important Reason to Rethink the Standard Translation

As far as I am concerned, however, the most important reason to rethink the standard translation of John 1:15 is its remarkable similarity to another Johannine threefold description of Jesus in temporal terms: Revelation 1:4, where Jesus is called:

ὅ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος

Again, transliterated this sounds like:

ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos

And translated into English it becomes:

The one who is, and who was, and who is coming.

You don’t even have to be a Greek scholar to see the similarities in a basic sense, but once we look at the Greek text, the similarities are undeniable. Just like John 1:15, we have the aorist tense of eimi (here in the middle clause) to represent the past and a present participle of erchomai (here in the third clause) to represent the future. But in Revelation, rather than the perfect indicative of ginomai to represent the present, we see a present participle of eimi: ὅ ὢν – “the one who is”.

This threefold description of Jesus in Revelation 1:4 (and elsewhere) communicates that he is eternal, existing in present, past, and future. Regardless of how we translate the middle clause in John 1:15, the point of the whole sentence is very similar to that of Revelation 1:4 – Jesus existed before John the Baptist, long before (prōtos), eternally before. We see this theme throughout John, perhaps most spectacularly in 8:58 and in 18:4-6

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, before [πριν] Abraham was, I am [ἐγὼ εἰμί].”

John 8:58

(4) Jesus, therefore, seeing all those coming to him, went out and said to them, “Whom are you seeking?” (5) They answered him, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He says to them, “I am he [ἐγώ εἰμι].” And Judas, the one betraying him, also was standing there. (6) When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

John 18:4-6

If we take all three clauses as temporal in John 1:15, it would differ from Revelation 1:4 both in its structure and in its emphasis. Revelation 1:4 has a present-past-future structure that seems perhaps subtly to emphasize the future coming of Jesus (and to show that the reality of that coming is as certain as his past and present existence). John 1:15, on the other hand, has a future-present-past structure that emphasizes the eternal past (the fact that Jesus has always existed). In both cases, the structure and emphasis of the threefold description serve the literary and theological purpose of the document, but the fundamental assertion about Jesus is the same: he was, he is, and he is coming – he is eternal.

Proposing a New Translation of John 1:15

So clearly the purpose of John 1:15 is similar to that of Revelation 1:4, and the forms of the two verses are remarkably similar. Why, then, shouldn’t we try to translate all three clauses in John 1:15 temporally, rather than translating the middle one as an indication of rank?

The Difficulties of Translating the Middle Clause Temporally

The most obvious answer is that this kind of understanding of 1:15 is very difficult to render in English. So difficult, in fact, that I think some readers of the Greek text assume that it couldn’t be what is intended. A temporal translation of all three clauses in 1:15 is tricky primarily because of the two “before” phrases: ἔμπροσθέν μου (emprosthen mou) and πρῶτός μου (prōtos mou). If we were to find these phrases in different places, we probably would translate both the same way: “before me” in a temporal sense. In other words, if John the Baptist’s sentence did not have the last clause, we would doubtlessly translate the sentence “The one coming after me existed before me”. However, because of their close proximity, we are forced to try to tease out a subtle distinction that English struggles to communicate as elegantly as the Greek does.

If three temporal clauses were intended, what would it look like in English? Again, we already have an example in Wycliffe’s translation:

This is he of whom I said, He that shall come after me, is made before me, for he was before me.

I do not, however, think this is the best way to render the Greek. It is a faithful translation of the Latin Vulgate, especially that theologically awkward sounding middle clause (ante me factus est = “has been made/is made before me”), but it doesn’t render the Greek with the same fidelity:

  1. We do not need the word “make/made” (ginomai = “to come into being, to become, or to exist”)
  2. We don’t need render gegonen with a passive voice verb (“was made”)
  3. We need to find a different way to render the present orientation of the Greek perfect tense

The Difficulties of the Perfect Tense

English makes this difficult. The English perfect tense can, but does not always have the same force as the Greek perfect tense. For example, the question “Have you eaten?” is like the Greek perfect tense in being focused on the present effects. If I ask my friend “Have you eaten?”, I am not asking whether she has ever eaten in her life, but rather whether she has eaten recently, in other words “Are you hungry?” On the other hand, if I ask her, “Have you been to Galveston?”, it is likely that I am asking whether or not she ever went to Galveston at any point in the past – “Did you ever go to Galveston?” A Greek speaker certainly could use the perfect tense for the second question, but there would be an emphasis in its use on the present consequences of having ever visited Galveston or not. So we can use the English perfect tense, but we may have to supplement it with an adverb.

But if we use the perfect tense in English, it will sound strange using the preposition “before” in an adverbial prepositional phrase (or using it as an adverb), because generally English doesn’t do this. If I use the preposition/adverb “before” in a sentence, my verb would typically take the form of a simple/emphatic past or a past progressive or even a pluperfect tense. Examples:

“I lived in the area before the renovation” (simple past).

OR

“I was living in the area before the renovation” (past progressive)

or even

“I had lived in the area before the renovation” (pluperfect)

but NOT

“I have lived in the area before the renovation” (perfect)

That’s just not the way we use the perfect tense in English. This is because the word “before”, by itself, situates the temporal frame of reference in the past, and the perfect tense typically has a present frame of reference even if it refers to past events.

Now, that having been said, in informal English we might use a perfect tense with the adverb “before” in this way:

“Have you been to Galveston before?”

But note that “before” here is most definitely an adverb and not a preposition. It also isn’t strictly necessary (it doesn’t add anything to the meaning of the question). It is like asking “Where are you at?” The only effect of the presence of the word “at” is to make the question informal and colloquial.

We might also use “before” with a perfect tense in this way:

“I have eaten before swimming, and I didn’t get cramps.”

The sense of this sentence is entirely in the past, and there is no emphasis on present reality (note that the present effects of the verb and its relevance to a conversation are two different issues – a past action can be relevant to a conversation without there being enduring effects of that action). This means that a Greek speaker would not use the perfect tense to express this idea. Note that this kind of use could only work with iterative or habitual verbs (i.e., verbs that inherently repeat, envisioned as a series of dots) or with punctiliar verbs (i.e., verbs that are envisioned as a single point), but not durative verbs (i.e., verbs that are envisioned as a line).

So, bottom line, what is the point? The point is that the very literal translation of the middle clause into English, “He has existed before me”, sounds off, somehow. Not only is “exist” inherently durative (i.e., neither punctiliar nor iterative), the use of the perfect tense could strangely imply that circumstances are actually different in the present. “He has existed before me” almost sounds like “Existence was something he habitually did before I was around, but maybe he doesn’t do that anymore.” Clearly, this isn’t what John means.

To translate the middle clause temporally, we will need either to dispense with the perfect tense in English, or we will need to make use of some other word, perhaps an adverb, that isn’t strictly speaking there in the Greek text. I propose something along the lines of “He has existed since before me.”

Rendering prōtos

I’ve already spoken some about the strangeness of the word prōtos in John 1:15. It doesn’t simply mean “before”. It means “most before” or “first”. While it is a superlative adjective, pairing it with a genitive noun/pronoun, as with mou in John 1:15, makes it function like a superlative preposition. In the third clause, John the Baptist isn’t simply saying that Jesus existed before him (that’s what the second clause means, properly understood). Nor is he saying that Jesus ranks first ahead of him (which is the way the Geneva Bible translated it). He is saying that Jesus existed most before him, first before him. This is something for which we just do not have a single word in English, so again though it is somewhat awkward I propose something like, “for he was first before me” for the third clause.

The Sense of hoti

Translating all three clauses temporally helps make sense of the first word of the third clause, ὅτι, which means “because” in this context. Now, the usual translation is not meaningless. It has John the Baptist essentially saying that the reason Jesus ranks above him is because he existed before him. This is certainly better than the Geneva Bible, which seems to say that the reason Jesus existed before John was because Jesus was better than him.

He that cometh after me, was before me: for he was better than I.

Obviously, that doesn’t make any sense.

But if we interpret all three clauses temporally, the because grounds John’s assertion that Jesus predates him (second clause) in the fact that Jesus existed from the beginning: “The one coming after me has existed since before me, because he has always existed.” To me, that makes the most sense of the word ὅτι.

John and Revelation As Mirrors

One last interesting advantage to my proposal for John 1:15 is that it reveals a literary and theological connection between the Gospel of John and Revelation. Now, allowing for the vast stylistic differences between the two texts (for which there are reasonable explanations), John and Revelation (and 1 John, for that matter) have nevertheless always struck me as having far more in common thematically and theologically than either book has with anything else in the New testament. I feel that they belong together, not necessarily in the Luke-Acts sense, but together, nevertheless.

Now if we read John 1:15 as a three-part temporal proclamation about Christ with emphasis on his eternal past, this balances neatly with Revelation’s three part temporal proclamation with emphasis on the future (Christ as the coming one). This literary mirroring seems far too convenient not to be intentional.

Conclusion

We need to revisit our translation of John 1:15 (and 1:30). In my opinion, translating all three clauses in John the Baptist’s proclamation as pertaining to time rather than the middle clause as pertaining to rank, as in “The one coming after me has existed since before me, because was first before me”, makes the best sense of the Greek text, of the literary setting, and of the remarkable similarities between John 1:15 and Revelation 1:4.

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