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The Gospel of John

A lecture to members of the Theosophical Society

Hamburg, May 18, 1908 – GA 103

Translated by Maud B. Monges

Lecture I

The Doctrine of the Logos

Our lectures upon the Gospel of St. John will have a double purpose. One will be the deepening of the concepts of Spiritual Science themselves and their expansion in many directions, and the other will be to make this great document itself comprehensible by means of the thoughts that will arise in our souls in consequence of these deepened and expanded concepts. I beg you to hold clearly in mind that it is the intention of these lectures to proceed in these two directions. It should not be simply a question of explanations of this Gospel, but rather that by means of the latter we shall penetrate into the deep mysteries of existence and we should hold very clearly in mind how the perceptive method of Spiritual Science must be developed when we are dealing with any of the great historical records handed down to us by the different religions of the world. In fact we might imagine that if the exponent of Spiritual Science speaks about the Gospel of St. John, he will do so just as others have often done, that is, he will take some such document as this Gospel as a basis in order that he may draw from it the truths that are under discussion and present them on the authority of this religious document. But this can never be the concern of a spiritually scientific, cosmic point of view. It must be a quite different one. If Spiritual Science is to fulfill its true mission in respect of the modern human spirit, then it should point out that if people will only learn to use their inner forces and capacities — their forces and capacities of spiritual perception — they will be able, by applying them, to penetrate into the mysteries of life, into what is concealed within the spiritual worlds behind the world of the senses. The fact that people can penetrate to the mysteries of life through the use of inner capacities, that they are able to reach the creative forces and beings of the universe through their own cognition, must be brought more and more into the consciousness of present day humanity. Thus it becomes evident that a knowledge of the mystery of this Gospel can be acquired independent of every tradition and of historical documents.

In order to make this absolutely clear we shall have to express ourselves in quite radical terms. Let us suppose that through some circumstance all religious records had been lost, and that men possessed only those capacities which they have today; they should, nevertheless, be able to penetrate into life's mysteries if they only retain those capacities. They should be able to reach the divine-spiritual creative forces and beings which lie concealed behind the physical world. And Spiritual Science must depend entirely upon these independent sources of knowledge, irrespective of all records. However, after having investigated the divine-spiritual mysteries of the world independently, we can then turn to the actual religious documents themselves. Only then can we recognize their true worth, for we are, in a certain sense, free and independent of them. What has previously been independently discovered is now recognized within the documents themselves. And you may be sure that for anyone who has pursued this path, these writings will suffer no diminution in value, no lessening of the respect and veneration due them.

Let us make this point quite clear by means of a comparison with something very different. It is true that Euclid, the geometrician, first gave us that geometry which every schoolboy today studies at a certain stage of his school life. But is the acquisition of a knowledge of geometry absolutely dependent upon this book of Euclid? I ask you, how many pupils today study elementary geometry without knowing the least thing about this first book, in which Euclid presented the most rudimentary geometrical facts? They study these geometrical facts quite apart from this Euclidian book, because geometry originates in a capacity of the human spirit. If the pupil has first studied geometry by means of his own spiritual faculty, and afterwards takes up the great work by Euclid, he then understands how to appreciate it adequately. For the first time then he finds in it what he has already made into a capacity of his own mind, and he learns to value the form in which the corresponding knowledge was presented for the first time. Thus it is possible today to discover the great cosmic facts presented in the Gospel of John by means of the forces slumbering within the human soul without knowing anything about the Gospel itself, just as the pupil acquires a knowledge of geometry without knowing anything about the first book of Euclid.

If previously equipped with knowledge about the higher worlds, we take up this Gospel and inquire into what is disclosed therein concerning the spiritual history of mankind, we find that the deepest mysteries of the spiritual world are concealed within a book, are given to mankind in a book, and because we already know the truths concerning the divine spiritual world, we can now recognize the divine-spiritual nature of this document, this Gospel of John. For this is altogether the right way to approach those documents which deal with spiritual things. What is the position of the exponent of Spiritual Science in relation to those researchers of records dealing with spiritual matters who understand very well, from the standpoint of language, everything presented in documents like the Gospel of St. John; in other words what is his position in relation to those who are pure philologists? (Even the theological researchers of a certain type are today only philologists in respect of the content of such books). Let us take once more the parallel of the geometry of Euclid. Will the best expounder of geometry be the one who in his own way can make a good literal translation without the vaguest conception of geometrical knowledge? Something very extraordinary would result were such a person to attempt to translate Euclid, understanding previously nothing at all about geometry. On the other hand, even if the translator himself were a poor philologist, but understood geometry, he would still be able to give the proper value to this book. The exponent of Spiritual Science is in a similar position in relation to many other researchers of the Gospel of St. John. Today this Gospel is often interpreted in much the same way as the philologist would explain the geometry of Euclid. But from Spiritual Science itself we can gain knowledge about the spiritual worlds recorded in this Gospel. So the spiritual scientist stands in the same relation to this spiritual document as the geometrician to Euclid. He has brought with him something which he now is able to discover in the Gospel itself.

We do not need to dwell upon the objection, that in this way much is “read into” the documents. We shall soon see that whoever understands the content of the Gospel of St. John need not put into it something that is not there and if he understands the nature of the Spiritual Science interpretation, he will not need to concern himself much with this reproach. Just as other documents do not depreciate in value or lose in veneration when their true content is known, so too is such the case with this Gospel. To anyone who has penetrated into the mysteries of the world, it becomes one of the most significant documents in the spiritual life of mankind.

If we consider its exact content, we may then ask: Why should the Gospel of John, which for the spiritual researcher is such an important document, be pushed more and more into the background in relation to the other Gospels by the very theologians who should be called upon to explain it? We shall touch upon this as a preliminary question before entering upon a consideration of the Gospel itself.

You all know that in respect of this Gospel, extraordinary points of view and opinions have possessed certain minds. In olden times it was revered as one of the deepest and most significant documents in the custody of mankind concerning the being of the Christ Jesus and His activities upon earth; and in the earlier periods of Christianity it would never have entered the mind of anyone to consider it other than a powerful, historical testimony of the events in Palestine. But in recent times this has all changed and just those who think they stand most securely upon the foundation of historical research are the ones who have, for the most part, undermined the foundation upon which such a concept rests. For some time, and this can now be reckoned in centuries, men have begun to notice the contradictions present in the Gospels, and after much vacillation, the following has become the accepted view especially among theologians: We find many contradictions in the Gospels and it is impossible to see how it happens that in the four Gospels, from four sides, the events in Palestine are so differently related. When we take the descriptions given according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we have so many different accounts of this or that event that it becomes impossible to believe they are all in agreement with the historical facts. Little by little this became the opinion of those who wished to investigate these things.

In more recent times, the point of view has developed that it is possible to establish a certain harmony between the descriptions of the events in Palestine in the first three Gospels, but that the Gospel of St. John differs greatly from the other three. Therefore, in respect of the historical facts, it is preferable that the first three Gospels should be believed, the Gospel of John possessing less historical authenticity. Thus gradually the time came when it was stated as a fact that the Gospel of John was not written with the same purpose as the first three. The authors of these other Gospels, it was said, wished only to relate what occurred, whereas the writer of the Gospel of St. John did not have this purpose, but quite a different one. And, for various reasons, these critics have yielded to the supposition that the John document was written at a comparatively late period, — but we shall speak of these things again. Most of the researchers believe it was not written until the third or fourth decade of the second century A. D. — although perhaps even in the second decade. Therefore they say it was written at a time when Christianity had already become wide-spread in a very definite form and when, perhaps, it already had its enemies. For hostility against Christianity arose from various sources and those who held this opinion said that in the author we have a man before us who endeavoured to present a book of instruction, a kind of apotheosis, or something like a vindication of Christianity in the face of those streams of opposition which had risen up against it. But this writer, they said, never had the intention of picturing accurately the historical facts, his idea being rather to present his own position in relation to Christ. Thus many see nothing more in this Gospel than a kind of poem imbued with religion, which the author wrote out of a religiously poetical feeling for his Christ, for the purpose of inspiring others also and bringing them into a similar mood. Perhaps this opinion is not expressed everywhere in such extreme terms, but if you study the literature you will find this opinion to be wide-spread, that it has a response in the souls of many of our contemporaries; indeed, such a belief harmonizes exactly with the sentiments of our contemporaries.

A certain disinclination toward any such idea of an historical beginning as we find depicted in the very first words of the Gospel of John has been developing for several centuries among people who have come more and more to a materialistic way of thinking. I should like you just to remember that the very first words permit of no other interpretation than that in Jesus of Nazareth, who lived at the beginning of our Christian era, a being of a very high spiritual order was incarnated. When the author, in his wholly characteristic manner, spoke of Jesus, he could not do otherwise than begin with what he calls the “Word” or the “Logos” and say: “the Word was in the beginning and all things came into being through It.” If we consider the Word in its full significance, we should say that the author of this Gospel felt impelled to speak of the Logos as the origin of the world, the highest to which the human being can lift his spirit, and to say that through the Logos, the First Cause, all things have come into being. Then the writer continues: “The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” This simply means: “You have seen Him who dwelt among us, but you will only be able to understand Him if you recognize the same Principle dwelling within Him through which everything that is about you in the plant, animal and human kingdoms has come into being.” If we do not interpret with too much artificiality, then we must say that according to this document a Principle of the highest order at one time incarnated in human flesh. Let us compare the appeal which such thoughts make to the human heart with the words of many modern theologians. You can read the following in present day theological works and hear it presented in various ways in lectures: We no longer call upon some Supersensible Principle. We prefer the Jesus described in the first three Gospels, for that is the simple Man of Nazareth who is like other men.

In a certain sense this has become an ideal for many theologians and an effort is being made to place everything that has become a part of history as much as possible upon the same level as ordinary human events. It disturbs people that any such exalted being as the Christ of the Gospel of John should tower above all others. Therefore they speak of the Christ as the Apotheosis of Jesus, “the simple Man of Nazareth” and He appeals to them in this character, because then they can say: “Yes, we have also a Socrates and other great men.” To be sure they make him different from these others but still they are using a certain standard for an ordinary humanity when they speak of “the simple Man of Nazareth.” This expression “the simple Man of Nazareth,” which you can find today in innumerable theological works, also in theological-academic writings in what is called “Liberal Theology,” has a very close connection with the materialistic tendency of mankind which has been in process of development now for centuries. According to this “Liberal Theology” there is only a physical sense-world; at least it alone has significance.

But in those periods of human evolution in which humanity could still lift its perceptions to the unseen world, it was possible to say: Of course this or that historical personality may be compared with the “simple Man of Nazareth,” but in what is spiritual and invisible in His personality, Jesus of Nazareth stands before us as a unique figure. However, when men had lost their insight into the super-sensible and invisible world, then the standard for a humanity above the average was also lost and this is especially noticeable in the religious conceptions of life. Let us have no illusions! Materialism first forced its way into religious life. Materialism in its relation to the facts of natural science is very much less dangerous for the spiritual development of mankind than it is in its relation to the interpretation of religious mysteries.

As an illustration, let us consider the true spiritual interpretation of the Last Supper, the changing of bread and wine into flesh and blood, and we shall see that the Last Supper loses nothing in value and importance through this spiritual interpretation. It will be a spiritual interpretation about which we are to hear. This was also the early Christian conception when there was still far more spiritual understanding than there is today, and it was still current in the first half of the Middle Ages when many could comprehend the words, “This is my Body, this is my Blood,” as we shall here learn to understand them. However, in the course of centuries, this spiritual interpretation was necessarily lost. We shall learn the reason why.

In the Middle Ages there existed a very extraordinary current which streamed more deeply through the souls of men than is possible to believe, for we learn very little from present-day history about the way human souls gradually evolved and what they have experienced. Around the second half of the Middle Ages we find a deep current of thought flowing through the Christian minds of Europe, for it was then that the earlier spiritual interpretation of the doctrine of the Last Supper was authoritatively changed into a materialistic one. In these words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” men could only imagine a material process, a physical transubstantiation of bread and wine into flesh and blood. What was formerly conceived in a spiritual sense began to assume a grossly materialistic meaning. Here materialism crept into religious life long before it seized upon natural science.

Another illustration is no less significant. We must not imagine that in any of the authoritative explanations of the Middle Ages concerning the Story of Creation, the six days of Creation were interpreted to mean days of twenty-four hours, such as we have today. This interpretation would never have entered the minds of any of the leading theological teachers, because they understood what was presented in these documents. They still knew how to attach a meaning to the words of the Bible. Has it any meaning whatsoever in discussing these documents about the creation, to speak in our present manner of days of creation twenty-four hours long? What is the meaning of a day? A day is what results from the mutual relationship between the rotating earth and the sun. We can only speak of days in our sense when we think of the relationship between the sun and the earth with its movement as it is at the present time. But we find in the Book of Genesis the first narration of any such mutual relationship between sun and earth in connection with the fourth period, the fourth “day” of creation. Therefore “days” in our sense could not possibly have had their beginning prior to the fourth day of the history of creation. Before that time it would have been foolish to imagine days as we have them now. Since only on the fourth “day” conditions arose which made day and night possible, one cannot speak of days in the present sense before that. Then came a time when men no longer recognized the spiritual significance of the words day and night, when they were of the opinion that the only kind of time possible was what they knew in connection with physical days. So to the materialistically minded person and even to the theologian, a day of creation also meant a day like our present day, because they knew of no other.

The older theologians spoke differently about these things. Such a one would have said, first and foremost, that nothing non-essential was to be found in important passages in the old religious documents. To illustrate this, let us consider one special passage. Let us take the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of the First Book of Moses. There we read: “Then the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human creature, and he slept.” The earlier commentators laid very special importance upon this passage. Those who have understood a little of the evolution of the spiritual forces and capacities of mankind know that there are different states of consciousness, that what we call sleep in the average person is only a transitory state which in the future will develop into one in which the human being, independent of the body, will perceive the spiritual world. (This is today already the case with the initiates.) Therefore the commentators said: God permitted Adam to fall into a deep sleep and then he could perceive what he could not otherwise perceive with his physical sense-organs. This means a clairvoyant sleep — and what is related here is the experience of a higher state of consciousness. So Adam fell into a deep sleep. This was an old interpretation and it was said that a religious document would not have spoken of God's permitting a deep sleep to fall upon the human being if, at an earlier time, he had already gone through such an experience. We are thereby shown that this is the first sleep and that before this time the human being was in states of consciousness in which he was still able to perceive spiritual things. This is what was related to the people.

Today it is our purpose to show that there were, at one time, wholly spiritual interpretations of Biblical documents and that when the materialistic tendency arose, it read into the Bible what is now objected to by liberal-minded people. The materialistically inclined mind first created what it then itself later opposed. So you see how in fact the materialistic tendency in mankind arose and how, because of it, the real, true understanding of religious documents has been lost. If Spiritual Science performs its task and points out what mysteries lie hidden behind physical life, then it will be seen that these very mysteries have been described in the religious documents themselves. The outer trivial materialism which is today considered so dangerous is only the last phase of the materialism I have described to you. The Bible was materialistically interpreted. Had this had not been done, a Haeckel would never have interpreted nature materialistically in physical science. What was sown as a seed in the realm of religion in the 14th and 15th centuries came to fruition in the nineteenth in natural science. This brought with it the impossibility of reaching any understanding of the Gospel of John except by penetrating into its spiritual foundations.

A very simple comparison will explain how this Gospel differs from the other three. Let us imagine a mountain and on the mountain slopes at certain levels four men are standing and these men — let us say three of them — sketch what they see below. Each of them will make a different sketch according to the position at which he stands, but of course each one of the three pictures is true from its own standpoint. The fourth man, who stands above on the very summit and sketches what is below, will perceive and draw yet another view. Thus it is with the point of view of the three evangelists, the synoptists — Matthew, Mark and Luke — in contrast to that of the evangelist John, who merely describes the facts from another standpoint. And to what lengths have learned interpreters not gone in order to make the Gospel of John comprehensible! Often one must really marvel at exact researchers' explanations of what would so easily be seen through were our age not one of the greatest possible belief in authority. Belief in an infallible science has today reached its highest point.

Thus the very prologue to this Gospel becomes something very difficult for the theologians imbued with materialism. The teaching about the Logos, or the Word, has caused great difficulties, for they say: We should have liked so much to have everything plain and simple and naive, then along comes the Gospel of John speaking of such lofty philosophical things as the Logos, as Life, as Light! Philologists are always accustomed to ask about the origin of a thing. With the writings of recent times it is the same. Read what is written about Goethe's Faust. Everywhere you find pointed out the origin of this or that motive. Thus books hundreds of years old have been ferreted out in order to discover, for example, the origin of the word “Worm,” employed by Goethe. In the same way the question is also asked: where did the Evangelist John get the idea of the “Logos?” The other Evangelists who spoke to the simple, plain human understanding did not express themselves in such a personal way. It was said further that the author of this Gospel was a man of Greek education, and then it was pointed out that in Philo of Alexandria, the Greeks have a writer who also speaks of the “Logos.” So it was thought that in cultured Grecian circles one spoke of the Logos when wishing to speak of something exalted, and that it was from this source that St. John derived this word. This again was considered as a proof that the writer of the Gospel of John did not rely upon the same traditions as the writers of the other Gospels, but that influenced by Greek culture, he re-coined the facts in accordance with it. Thus, it is alleged, the very first words of the Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was a god” show that the Logos-idea of Philo had entered into the spirit of the writer of this Gospel and had influenced his form of presentation.

The attention of such people should be called to the very first words of the Gospel of St. Luke: “Forasmuch as many have undertaken to speak of those events which have thus happened amongst us, even as they have been transmitted unto us by those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word (Logos), it seemed well to me also, having examined with diligence all things as they were from the beginning, to relate them unto thee, most excellent Theophilus.”

Here at the very beginning we read that what he is about to relate is what had been transmitted by those who have been eye-witnesses and ministers of the “Word.” It is extraordinary that John should have received this from his Greek culture and that Luke, who according to this view belonged to the simple folk, also speaks of the “Logos” without this culture. Such things should call the attention of even believers in authority to the fact that arguments which lead to such conclusions are really not exact ones, but only prejudices. They should call attention also to the fact that the John document should be placed alongside the other Gospels in the manner just characterized, because in the Gospel of Luke the Logos is also spoken of. What was said by those who were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Logos shows that in olden times the Logos was spoken of as something which the people knew about and with which they were familiar. And this we must particularly hold in mind in order that we may penetrate more deeply into the first paradigmatic verses of the Gospel of St. John. What was a writer speaking about, if at that time he used the word “Logos” or “Word” in our sense? What could he have meant?

You will not come to this ancient conception of the “Logos” through theoretical interpretations and abstract intellectual discussions, but you must enter in spirit into the entire feeling-life of all those who have spoken in this way about the “Logos.” These people also observed the things about them; but it is not sufficient that we simply observe what is in our environment, the important thing is that the feelings of our hearts and souls should also participate in what we observe. We should consider a thing of greater or less importance according to what we are able to discern in it. We all observe the kingdoms of nature about us, the minerals, plants, animals and humans. We call the human kingdom the most perfect creation, the mineral the most imperfect. Within the respective kingdoms of nature we differentiate again beings of higher and lower stages. Men have experienced this quite differently in different ages. Those who spoke from the standpoint of the Gospel of John found one thing above all else to be of very great importance. They looked down upon the lower animal kingdom and let their glance sweep up as far as man, and in this evolutionary sweep they traced something very definite. They said: There is one quality which shows most profoundly the superiority of the higher beings over the lower. This is the capacity to utter aloud in words what exists within the soul, to communicate thoughts to the surrounding world by means of words. Behold the lower animals! They are mute, they do not express their pain and pleasure. They squeak or make other sounds, but it is the outer scraping and rubbing of the physical organs which produce these sounds, as in the case of the lobster. The higher we go in evolution, the more do we see the capacity developed for expressing the inner feelings in sound and communicating in tones the experiences of the soul. Therefore, they said, the human being stands thus high above other creatures, because not only can he express his pleasure and pain in words, but because he is able to put into words what rises above the personal, that is to say, the spiritual, the impersonal, and to express this by means of thoughts.

And there were among the followers of the Logos-doctrine those who said that there existed a period prior to the time when man had developed his present form, a form in which it is now possible for him to express in words the most intimate experiences of his soul. It has taken a long time for our earth to evolve to its present form. (We shall hear later how this earth came into existence.) But if we examine the earlier states of the earth, we do not yet find mankind in its present form, nor do we find any creature which could utter aloud what it was experiencing inwardly. Our world began with mute creatures and only by degrees did beings appear upon this dwelling place of ours who could express aloud their innermost experiences through having acquired a command of language.

The followers of John said further: What appears last in the human being existed in the world in the very earliest times. We fancy that the human being in his present form did not exist in the earlier conditions of the earth. But in an imperfect, mute form he was there and little by little he evolved into a being endowed with the Logos or the Word. This became possible through the fact that what appears within him later as the creative principle was there from the very beginning, in a higher reality. What struggled forth out of the soul was in the beginning the divine creative principle. The Word, which sounds forth from the soul, the Logos, was there in the beginning and so guided evolution that at last a being came into existence in whom it also could manifest. What finally appears in time and space was already there in spirit from the beginning.

In order that this may be quite clear, let us make the following analogy. I have here a flower before me. This corolla, these petals, what were they a short time ago? A little seed. And in the seed, this white flower existed in potentiality. Were it not there potentially, this flower could not have come into existence. And whence comes the seed? It springs again from just such a flower. The blossom precedes the seed or fruit and again in like manner, the seed, from which this blossom has sprung, has been evolved out of a similar plant.

Thus these followers of the Logos-doctrine observed the human being and said: If we go back in evolution we find him in earlier conditions still mute, still incapable of speech. But just as the seed came from the blossom, so likewise the mute human-seed in the beginning had its origin in a God endowed with the power of uttering the “Word.” The lily-of-the-valley produces the seed and the seed again the lily-of-the-valley; in like manner the divine creative Word created the mute human seed — and when this primeval creative Word had glided into the human seed, in order to spring up again within it, it sounded forth in words. When we go back in human evolution we meet an imperfect human being, and the meaning of evolution is that finally the Logos or Word, which discloses the depths of the human soul, may appear as its flower. In the beginning this mute human being appeared as the seed of the Logos-endowed human being which had sprung from the Logos-endowed God. The human being has sprung from a mute human creature not gifted with speech, but: In the beginning was the Logos, the Word.

Thus those who understand the Logos-doctrine in its earlier significance press forward to the divine creative Word which is the beginning of existence and to which the writer of the Gospel of John refers. Let us hear what he says in the very first words: — “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god.” *

They will ask where is the “Word” today? The Word is also here today and the Word is with men and the Word has become man! Thus the writer of the Gospel of John forges a link between man and God and indeed we find sounding forth in the beginning of this Gospel a doctrine easy for every human heart to understand.

In this introductory lecture today I wished to picture to you in simple words — but more from the standpoint of feeling and of inward sensing — how originally a believer in the doctrine of the Logos interpreted these words of the Gospel of John. And after having entered into the soul-mood which existed when these words were first heard, we shall be that much better able to penetrate into the deep meaning which lies at the foundation of this Gospel.

Furthermore, we shall see that what we call Spiritual Science is in fact a restitution of the Gospel of St. John and that it puts us in the position of being able to understand it.


* This is usually translated “...and the Word was God...” However, ancient Greek has no indefinite articles; therefore in English both “a god” and “God” are possible. The sense of the beginning of the John Gospel demands that “a god” is correct. [Editor]

Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive




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