“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
My friend Rev. Kari Jo Verhulst asked me to comment on this passage. She was concerned about the potential biases here toward males and toward humans, but also toward an apparent dualism one can easily read from the passage. She also noted a rather obscure Aristotelian reading of the passage, which, if potentially historical, was not compelling. Knowing my penchant for Aristotelian and Biblical biology, she thought I might have some insights. I’ve not had a chance to look closely at the passage, but wanted to share my best guesses of the moment, in case some others find them interesting. I know I will want to come back to this later, for it is a rich passage. Thus I must start with a heartfelt thank you to Kari Jo, for bringing it my attention.
My short answer is that I think it might be more helpful to read through the lens of Plato, noting that Jesus is the life of the cosmos, and therefore closer to the fullness of Being and the Good than mere life, mere animality, or even mere humanity. Our own fulfillment cannot come solely from any lesser form, but only from participation in the Word (logos) that orders all of Creation.
If I were to unpack that a little, I’d start by highlighting a few words that appear to be key to understanding biology and cosmology in Ancient Greek thought. To start with, Jesus is called the logos of creation. Usually translated “Word” and problematically conflated with the scriptures, the Greek logos is not an utterance, but a principle or rationality behind something. When John calls Jesus the life (zoe) and light (phos) of the world (kosmos), it comes close to meaning the soul of creation – the cause, identity, and end of all that is. [And there I am borrowing from Aristotle’s use of soul as efficient, formal, and final cause. I doubt John thought of it so technically, but in this case it works and is consistent with broader Greek thought.] Before the 16th century, the cosmos was thought to be alive – in exactly the same way that animals are alive. It had a common activity that coordinated the parts to work together. It was an organism because it was organized by soul. [This is solid Plato – Phaedo. See C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image; Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy; and/or Michael Ruse, Science and Spirituality for how this changed between the Renaissance and Enlightenment.] That may sound complicated, but the take-home message is that John is talking biology from the very beginning of chapter 1.
In verses 12 and 13, John contrasts different types of life. The “children of God, who [are] born, not of blood (haima) or of the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) or of the will of man (thelema aner), but of God.” It has been easy to interpret this dualistically as a simple flesh (sarx) versus soul (psyche) or spirit (pneuma) contrast; and this interpretation has been common in readings of Paul, but strikes me as again a 16th century anachronism. Plato does not have this dualism. Instead, he speaks of an unformed world of “Becoming” moving toward a perfect world of “Being.” Like the process of nutrition, by which we turn chemicals into ourselves by metabolism, so the cosmos enfolds becoming into being through the logos.
The Ancients, both Greek and Hebrew, viewed blood as the vital heat or vital fluid that enlivened all living things (including some plants.). This sounds vitalist (invoking a mystical “life-stuff”) until you realize that we also talk about digesting sugars to produce calories (heat) that moves through the blood to give us the energy to live, move, and grow. It goes slightly farther in Greek and Hebrew only in the sense that the blood holds the limbs together, so that spilling the blood is removing the glue that binds them. It seems a short step to me from the Greek blood (haima) to biochemistry or metabolism.
The will of the flesh and the will of man apply similarly to what holds an animal together and what holds a human together. Ancient thinkers recognized something interesting about animals that made them more than metabolism. They acted with intentionality, sensed their environment, moved. Thus they were more than just alive. This more has been called many things – most notably “animal” from anima, the Latin word for soul. Note, however, that it is a contraction of anima sensibilis, while vegetable is a contraction of anima vegetibilis. Plants had souls, too! There is nothing supernatural about the animal soul. Plato and others called this something special the spirit or spirited aspect of the soul and it was associated with anger, courage, and will. It seems a small step in this context to say that the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) refers to that which enlivens and motivates animals. I will take a small liberty here, as the term has no modern correlate, and call it “instinct” as that comes closest in modern sensibilities to animal “reasoning” and “motivation” in many minds.
“The will of man,” at a cursory glance, seems to be a bad translation made by the crafters of the NRSV. I admit from the outset that they are much more knowledgeable than I, so take this with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, looking at other uses of aner in the Bible, it seems to emphasize masculinity particularly in the context of active reason (thinking man versus unthinking boy). Admittedly, this would have been tightly joined to common perceptions of sex (thinking man versus unthinking woman), but I don’t think it necessary or even important to the point that John is making. His emphasis is on wisdom or reason, present particularly in humanity. Indeed the word aner is occasionally used to speak about men and women. Thus, let us render the “will of man” as “human reason.”
With those reflections in mind, the passage becomes something like this: The children of God are not the product of metabolism, or the product of animal instinct, or the product of human reason but genuinely begotten of God. Plato was not a dualist (matter versus form) but a gradualist (becoming, moving through life, body, soul, and humanity, to being). Only logos can beget logos, but it does so through all of these stages, just as humans beget other humans through nutrition (present in all life) and instinct (present in animals). The higher does not oppose the lower, for it does not exist, except through the lower – at least for us. [God is something different.] To prevent us from slipping into dualism, John immediately reminds us that the logos “became flesh (sarx).” This will be reinforced later (John 6:53-56) when Jesus says you cannot have life within you unless you eat of his flesh (sarx) and drink of his blood (haima). The way of salvation is not to avoid the blood, flesh, and humanity of incarnation, but to allow them to be transformed by the logos into the very body of Christ. It is summed up neatly in Athanasius’ comment that “God became human that humans might become God.” By becoming blood and flesh, Christ has enabled us to quite literally eat and drink of that Divine order which is the life of