“An Ikon of the Word”: A Guest Essay by Brendan

As you all may know, every now and then, we here at Monomakhos like to publish essays or articles from our readers. 

One of our most prolific commentators, Brendan, shared this essay he wrote on the Gospel of John, chapter 1.  We think you’ll enjoy it!

<–The Gospel of John from the Book of the Kells

[gview file=”https://www.monomakhos.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/John-1_1-18-_-An-Ikon-of-the-Word.pdf”]




  1. The reason for the drachma/shilling exchange rate
    is that an Athenian rower was paid a drachma a day,
    while Kipling’s British Tommy got a Shillin’ a Day

  2. Peter A. Papoutsis says

    Bravo! Excellent translation and exegesis of the text.


  3. Whenever I read the Holy Apostle John, I read with the eyes of Orthodox mysticism, much as you would read St. Dionysios or St. Simeon the New Theologian. So it is refreshing to see an academic explication regarding the Incarnation.

    • Thanks, Misha.
      I have tried to retain the Mystery
      while making clear what St John makes clear.
      Whether I have succeeded is for others to decide.
      If you climb top the top of many Scottish mountains
      you may find cairns (or piles of stones) built by climbers.
      Passing climbers grow cairns one stone (chuckie) at a time.

      My work is one more chuckie on a cairn
      biggit (built) by bigger men than me.

      [The image is from the Scots Poet Robert Garioch Sutherland]

  4. Phenomenal. I really enjoyed walking through Ikon of the Word! I cannot even imagine how long this took you to write. Truly a gift to all of us

    • Thank you, Jane.

      I bought my first Greek New Testament (NTG) in 1995, opened it at John 1:1
      and was stunned to read theos een ho logos and not ho logos een theos for 1:1c as my KJV led me to expect.

      At first I wondered why the Greek did not reflect the English.
      Then I realised I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
      The proper inquiry was to ask why the English did not reflect the Greek.

      I read all sorts of stuff about anarthrous articles and Colwell’s Rule
      in assorted New Testament Greek Grammars and academic papers etc.

      None of it seemed to make any sense in the context of John 1:1 on it’s own.
      I knew they were wrong – but not yet why.

      At the same time I read reams of ‘justifications’ for the Dynamic
      Equivalence school of translation, which I found wholly unconvincing.

      Then I discovered the 1545 Lutherbibel reading and bells began to ring.
      Tynedale was with Luther in the 1520s.

      Looking further, I discovered the first Tynedale reading (1525/6),
      later the Anglo-Saxon and Wycliffe versions.

      The traditional English reading was God was the Word,
      but Tynedale changed it in his 2nd version of 1534/5.

      Then, taking the 1st reading, I expanded the context to John 1:1-2
      and realised I had a quatrain on my hands;

      Then I became aware of the following triplet and second quatrain – and so on…

      Then the Eastern/Greek Orthodox New Testament came out
      and I disliked the translation intensely.

      I must be clear here, the Appendix gives an excellent survey of the problem.
      However, the answers offered by the various scholars are plain wrong;
      or so I thought – and think. This essay is in part my reply to them.

      Anyway, for a quarter of a century (eg: while lying in my bath every day)
      I have been running this text through my head until (I hope) I got it.

      My character, my eclectic interests, my seemingly random skills
      all seemed to come together in this one particular piece of work;
      which I release freely as a return on the talents the Lord gave me.

      I am so pleased you like it, Jane;
      but St John is the real ikon writer here – not me.

      • The Prologue of the Book of John affected me very much when I first read it. The darkness could not comprehend the light. I am not an artist nor inclined toward painting or drawing. Something happened to me after reading the Prologue. I went out and bought drawing pencils and paper. I sat down for many days and tried to draw
        the icon of Christ Pantokrator which I completed. Since then, I have not felt the need to draw again. I need to take my time to keep rereading what you wrote.
        The title of your work affected me deeply.

        • The title was originally:
          John 1:1-18 | The Ikon of the Word

          It was an exchange of emails with Fr Laurent Cleenewerck,
          who wrote the Appendix referred to above
          (which appendix (c) is well worth reading),
          which made me realise that the article was far too definite.
          There are many Ikons of the Word;
          all the Gospels, for example…

  5. Gail Sheppard says

    I think you’ve proven you can break Greek down for an accurate English translation. Great job, Brendan!

    • Thank you, Gail.

      New Testament Greek, with its plethora of particles can be
      transcribed pretty accurately into English; provided the translator
      knows his English at least as well as (if not better) than his Greek.

      In the case of John 1:1-18, a feel for poetry is also needed;
      but poetry, like music, is not something everyone gets.
      There is neither praise nor blame in this. It just is so.

      But if (lacking Greek) you want to know what the Apostle says,
      Dynamically Equivalent ‘Translations’ are not for you;
      because you will generally get more translator than Apostle.

      Well, that’s my opinion and I have yet to read a Dynamic
      Equivalence version which proves me wrong on it.

      • Gail Sheppard says

        Your grasp of poetry comes through.

        The way you put it together made my soul sing.

        • Thank you, on behalf of Saint John.
          The music is his, not mine.
          I always tried to keep in mind Dr Richard Bentley’s comment
          on Alexander Pope’s magnificent translation of Homer’s Iliad:
          ‘…it is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope; but you must not call it Homer.’

          For once the Wicked Wasp of Twickenham was out-stung…

  6. Thank you! How beautiful to read this on a Sunday afternoon!

    • Thank you, Christine.
      I am glad you like it.
      But the timing of its appearance,
      for which also I am grateful,
      was down to George and Gail.

  7. Father Alban says

    Hi Brendan,

    Many thanks for this translation and exegesis.

    Like you, I struggle with dynamic equivalence translations. Since all scriptural translation can shaped by the interpreter’s own theological presuppositions, the dynamic equivalence variety seems to provide more scope (or more temptation?) for the interpreter to impose his/her theology on to the text. Better, if possible, just to let the text as it was written, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, speak to us.

    Great job.

    Thank you again, and thanks to George and Gail for posting your work.

    P.S nice to hear another another Orthodox Christian from Scotland.

    • Hello Father Alban and Brendan,

      Are you familiar with the Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints on Mull and Iona? Divine Liturgy being conducted regularly in St. Oran’s chapel on Iona, and at Kilninian on Mull.

      • I am indeed aware of it.
        It is under the Romanian Patriarchate.
        I have an ikon of St Brendan and St Ita
        (his foster-mother) on my wall;
        which ikon I got from there.

      • Father Alban says

        Hello Panos,

        I am indeed familiar with the monastery. In fact, a young man from our parish has just gone there to try his monastic vocation.

  8. Brendan, I am reminded of something I heard as an undergrad many, many moons ago in a Religious Studies class, and would love your perspective. The class was told that there is evidence that originally the text was “In a beginning” not “In the beginning”. The prof used it as a talking point against using Biblical text to count up the number of years earth has existed. His statement fascinated me until I read Fr. Seraphim Rose’s work “Genesis, Creation and Early Man” (one of my most favorite Orthodox books of all time). But I wonder if in your study and research you’ve ever come across differences in the translation of the opening phrase and that one little word (“a” versus “the”)?

    • I think perhaps you are referring to this argument:

      It is based on one grammatically possible reading of the Hebrew,
      But just being grammatically possible does not mean
      that a particular reading makes sense in its context.

      This particular reading need not bother Christians.
      We are told that the Word was in the beginning
      and that all that became through him became.
      Therefore ‘the beginning’ referred to was the beginning,
      before which there was certainly not ‘a’ beginning.

      Lose sight of that and all you have is grammarians
      playing with words, without regard to the context
      in which they occur: and never forget: context is all!

      For example: consider the following sentence:
      “The railway workers are taking industrial action.”

      Now industry is work and to act is to do,
      therefore the sentence literally means:
      The railway workers are doing their railway work.

      But, the colloquial idiom can mean they are on strike
      and are therefore not doing their railway work.
      [I use this example because we are having rail strikes now.]

      Anyway, the Greek LXX predates both the Masoretic Hebrew
      and Qumran Cave 4 Genesis 1:1–27 of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
      So I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

      • Just as a further discussion on this verse,
        here is what the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says:

        בְּ (b) particle preposition רֵאשִׁית (r¢°shît) noun common feminine singular absolute

        רֵאשִׁית (r¢°shît) first, beginning, best

        ‘ The most important use of r¢°shît in the OT occurs in Gen 1:1 where it is combined with the proclitic preposition b (q.v.). There has been a great deal of debate over this use of r¢°shît. Many commentators both ancient and modern have tried to read the phrase as “when-” rather than “in the beginning” as do several modern versions. The chief modern justification for this interpretation of the root is to relate it to the phrase ” en¥ma elish “which begins the Babylonian epic of creation. However there is no evidence to connect the two different terms, the one in Hebrew and the other in Babylonian (see White, W., “Enuma Elish, ” in ZPEB, II, p. 314). The proper interpretation of r¢°shît can be deduced from the other occurrences and the witness of all ancient versions. The NT (Jn 1:1) translates the Hebrew and follows the LXX precisely in its reading of (Gen 1:1) the first phrase of the OT. The use of this root leaves no doubt that Gen 1:1 opens with the very first and initial act of the creation of the cosmos. ‘

        It seems the Dynamic Equivalence School
        of ‘translation’ goes back a long way…

  9. This is much appreciated, Fr Alban
    and of course thanks to George and Gail.

    You’ve certainly put your finger on the problem here.
    People find it hard to read what has actually been written
    as opposed to what they think should have been written
    or what they would have written had they been the writer.
    I once read a translation/commentary on the Gospel of St Mark
    in which the translator wrote that in Mark 1:10, after the baptism,
    when Jesus came up out of the water and saw the heavens torn apart
    and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove,
    what he saw was a private vision not available to anyone else;
    which reasoning was then used to question the veracity of St Mark:
    ie: how did he (St Mark) know what was in purely a private vision of Jesus?

    But this completely misreads the text. It does say what Jesus saw;
    but it does not say that nobody else saw it too!

    Problem solved. Witnesses are allowed.

    PS: Fr Alban, I presume you are named after St Alban.
    But given that Alba is the Gaelic name for Scotland,
    I suppose you could be called Fr Scottish too… 🙂

    • Father Alban says

      Hi Brendan,

      Chuffed to bits with my new Gaelic name!

      I am a daily visitor to Monomakhos, and have benefitted immensely from many of the postings that I have read on here. That’s why I was so pleased to find your piece on St. John’s prologue. I knew that if George and Gail endorsed your work by posting it on here, then I could trust that it’s content would be Orthodox and it would be worth reading. How right they were.

      Keep up the good work.

      In Christ
      Father ‘Scottish’

  10. Thank you, Fr Scottish.
    That is a great compliment
    and I will do my best to justify it.

    Trying to grasp what was going on in John 1:1c
    was like trying to find the leopard in the picture:

    Concentrate on the clause, and you will never get it,
    But view it from a different (poetic rather than prose) focus,
    from a larger perspective (the quatrain rather than the clause),
    from a metaphorical rather than a literal paradigm
    and it’s obvious what is happening.

    But, like most obvious things, it’s only obvious once
    someone has gone half daft figuring it out in the first place.

    And Monomakhos is a wonderful forum.
    I am very grateful to George and Gail.

    God bless,