An Etymological and Contextually Preponderant Approach to the Interpretation of Genesis and John 1:1
By John W. Neff Jr.
Return to index of articles
In Hebrew the book of Genesis is called Bereshith, usually translated : "In Beginning," taken from the opening words of the text. This is commonly how books are named in Hebrew - from their opening line.
The eastern mind is not obsessed with time as the western mind is. Anyone who has lived and worked in the near or middle east knows that they are event oriented rather than time oriented as we westerners. Their lives are not ruled by the clock. The tenses in Hebrew and Arabic and as well in the Greek are not primarily concerned with time but rather flow or type of action.
William Hershey Davis states in his Beginner's Grammar of the Greek New Testament:
"Only in the indicative mode in Greek-do the tenses show time absolutely. The main idea of tense is the '' kind of action.'' the state of action. Even in the indicative time is a secondary idea" (p. 25)
Beginner's Grammar of the Greek New Testament William Hershey Davis M.A., Th.D. Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation In the Southern Baptisti Theological Seminary Broadman Press, 1923 Nashville, Tennessee
We see in the opening words of Genesis 1:1 that the word 'beginning' is the word chosen by the majority of, if not all, translators. Though this is perfectly reasonable there are other things we might consider other than temporal progression. The initial word in the original Hebrew is 'b-ray-sheeth' that is 'ray-sheeth' preceded by the prepositional prefix 'b' for 'in'. There is no definite article in the Hebrew. Many scholars assert that the article is implied, however, when considering that the Bible doesn't seem to be interested so much with chronological progression as many are, let us consider another interpretation of the text by looking at the uses of the word ראשית (ray-sheeth) with special attention to the root word ראש (rosh, roshe)
This root is used in the following way in the Old Testament. head, top, summit, upper part, chief, total, sum, height, front, beginning. This is similar to the meaning of 'primary' or 'principia' (as Jerome renders it in his Latin Vulgate Translation) . Now, why are these possible choices for rendering 'rosh' used? Mr. Jeff Benner in his book 'The Ancient Hebrew Language And Alphabet' indicates that the pictograph for the letter and word 'rosh' is a man's head. Thus we can begin to understand why the words 'head, top, summit, upper part, chief, total, sum, height, front, beginning' are used. This and the reasons stated earlier about the time concept of the culture as well as the concept of God being the Powerful One 'El' (plural 'Elohim' in the original Hebrew).
Now let's go to the New Testament corollary passage found in verse one of the Gospel of John. The original Greek is phrased exactly like Genesis 1:1. No definite article precedes arch 'arche' translated also as beginning. Note that when the root of the Greek.word 'arche' is studied it also has the same sense as the root of the Hebrew word 'ray-sheeth'.
In the short version of the TDNT has: 1) beginning, origin 2) the person or thing that commences, the first person or thing in a series, the leader 3) that by which anything begins to be, the origin, the active cause 4) the extremity of a thing 4a) of the corners of a sail 5) the first place, principality, rule, magistracy 5a) of angels and demons
Greek text of John 1:1 "en arch hn o logoV kai o logoV hn proV ton Qeon kai QeoV hn o logoV"
The term 'archangel' does not mean the beginning or first created angel but rather the head, chief or top messenger.
So, considering this I wish to present another interpretation for Genesis and John 1:1 which is, as you no doubt surmise, is as follows.
Gen. 1:1 'Most importantly (chiefly or primarily), God created the heavens and the earth'
I arrived at this point independently from other sources. But evidently it was not an original idea since I came across (I had it available but never looked into it) Jerome's Latin Vulgate which seems to be the only translator to interpret it the same way it occured to me.
He has for Genesis 1:1 "in principio creavit Deus caelum et terram"
Principio, according to the Oxford English, means primarily
1. Origin, source; source of action. 1. Beginning, rise, commencement; fountainhead; original or initial state. (Also in pl.)
2. That from which something takes its rise, originates, or is derived; a source; the root (of a word). Obs. (exc. as in 3).
3. In generalized sense: A fundamental source from which something proceeds; a primary element, force, or law which produces or determines particular results; the ultimate basis upon which the existence of something depends; cause, in the widest sense."
AHRC Book Recommendation
(see our other recommendations)