John 1:5 reads in the ESV:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I recently heard the KJV quoted and was struck by the difference:

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

In the same vein as the ESV, other translations offer overpowered, extinguished, quenched, defeated. More in line with the KJV, other choices include understood and perceived.

The Greek for reference (NA28):

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

BDAG provides options for the meaning of καταλαμβάνω carrying both senses (abbreviations expanded):

1. to make something one’s own, win, attain...
2b. seize with hostile intent, overtake, come upon...
4a. learn about something through process of inquiry...

The lexicon mentions this verse in all three of the entries above, but all I could get out of that without having the referenced works at hand is that it seems to be an open question. How should we decide which of these the author intended?

  • 2
    Here's the inevitable LSJ reference, which has the same spread: to seize (grasp physically, posses); to seize (in hostility); to seize (mentally, to comprehend); + other nuances. FWIW.
    – Dɑvïd
    Dec 4 '14 at 11:32

Short Answer: Comprehend, probably.

A note on method: All words have a semantic range, and only context can tell us how a given word was intended to be understood. While some have asserted that in such instances John intended two (or more) meanings, we can be sure that this was not the case, as that is not how language works (except in the rare cases of certain jokes, and where an author is not intending to be clearly understood. However, in neither case is communication the author's aim.) Thus, once we have ruled out the scholarly cop-out of "intentional ambiguity", we then turn to the context to give us our clues as to John's usage of the word in this case.

Clues from the context

So, in context, is John discussing the failure to conquer Jesus, or the failure to comprehend Him? The latter is clearly in view, while the former is essentially absent.

John . . . came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe -6-7

the true Light . . . enlightens every man. -9

He [the true Light] was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. -10

His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name -11-12

and we saw His glory -14

grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. -17

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. -18


From the context we see that the Light is testified about, believed, and serves to enlighten men. Receiving is put in parallel with believing. His glory was beheld. Grace and truth were realized through Him. Indeed, the Light explains God. Others (a.k.a. the darkness) did not receive / believe the Light. The implication is that they were not "enlightened", did not "know", did not "see", did not " realize", did not fully experience the "explanation". They did not comprehend the Light.

  • 1
    The note about the cop-out (and your stance against it) is refreshing, thanks. I have many times wished the ESV committee had made public their notes so we could know why they came to the opposite conclusion, but in the meantime you've convinced me.
    – Susan
    Dec 9 '14 at 6:05
  • @Susan Glad it helped. RE: the ESV, some see this section as an introduction to the whole book, so they could argue that the broader context allows for "overcome", but I would argue that "misunderstanding Jesus" is such a major theme in the book that the scale still weighs heavily in favor of "comprehend" even in the broader context.
    – Jas 3.1
    Dec 9 '14 at 6:21
  • 1
    I, OTOH, found the comment on the "scholarly cop-out of 'intentional ambiguity'" flippant and, ironically, itself something of a cop-out. The studies I'm aware of that invoke it (see, e.g., footnote 1 in this Answer) are quite careful and considered, with "intentional ambiguity" the result of sifting, not a lazy first port-of-call -- or "cop out". Have a read of Noegel's EHLL article on "Polysemy" for a different perspective on this issue.
    – Dɑvïd
    Dec 9 '14 at 13:22
  • 1
    Having said that :) the reflection is worthwhile, although more attention to σκοτία would be welcome; this also has a bearing on how the verb is understood. Note we don't have σκότος, the standard word for "dark" (151×). Of the 19 occurrences of σκοτία in Greek Bible (LXX+NT), 14 are in Johannine work! It seems to include a gloom that extinguishes light, not just dark-in-constrast-to-light. So maybe "overcome" has more merit than this answer suggests? (It might still be wrong :-) just saying there's yet more to explore in answering this question!)
    – Dɑvïd
    Dec 9 '14 at 13:33
  • 2
    @Jas3.1 "...some scholars prefer to blame authorial intent..." : name and shame! We want evidence! :) | "...any support for your idea that it signifies..." : (re σκοτία, not σκότος) just my own reading of the 19 occurrences. It didn't take long, but neither was it close and scholarly - thus a comment, rather than an answer.
    – Dɑvïd
    Dec 9 '14 at 16:54

I'd like to provide an alternative perspective on this text and get some feedback on whether this is considered a legitimate approach to others.

The more I read John 1, it seems that John is making a parallel with the creation account. Some examples that seem to indicate this to me:

  • "In the beginning" in John 1:1 seems to reference the creation account in Genesis 1:1 a way that would seem to be obviously recognizable by anyone familiar with the Jewish creation account at the time John was written.
  • "Word" in John 1:1 could be a reference to "And God said" which repeated often throughout Genesis 1, although I also believe John is using "Word" in reference to the popular philosophical movement in his day regarding that term
  • "Light" in John 1:4-5 could be a reference to light in Genesis 1:3-4 and also
  • Not to go all crazy here, but I've also wondered if the mention of John to Baptist so early on in John 1:6-8, without going more in detail with him until John 1:19, could be because John is trying to stay within his creation account parallel, and John becomes the "lesser" light spoken about in Genesis 1:16. He's referred to as a lamp in John 5:33-36 that shone for a while, but not as strongly as Jesus.

With those things in mind, the question of whether κατέλαβεν here should be translated as "overcame" or "understood" takes on a new perspective for me. If it's true that John is working from a creation account perspective and is trying to use that imagery, we can look at Genesis 1:4, where God separated the light from the darkness. And perhaps what John is really getting at, in this imagery, is that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.


There is one simple fact that is often not included in this discussion. That fact is that John did not have knowledge of the English words "overcome" and "comprehend."

While he was writing, it's not as if he had one of those English words in mind. He wasn't thinking, "My intention here is 'overcome.' I sure hope my readers can figure it out."

Is it possible that the Greek word carries a depth of meaning that can only be represented by multiple English words? Why couldn't he have wanted us to hear all of those shades of meaning at the same time?

  • 1
    Indeed, this has been discussed (see link there to another comment thread as well, with more links).
    – Susan
    Jul 23 '16 at 9:46

The Gospel of John is full of words with double meanings and this seems to be intentional. Literal darkness (the absence of light) cannot overcome darkness. Light makes darkness disappear. The figurative meaning of light as knowledge matches the idea of comprehend. Maybe a translation of a word that preserves the dual meaning, such as "grasp," would be a better translation. The Syriac Peshitta translated John's word, καταλαμβάνω, with a word that also has the dual meanings overcome and comprehend.


As is true of every assertion or narrative in the NT, it is based on something earlier in sacred writing. In this case, as far as I am familiar with the vast body of Jewish writings that were influential on the NT authors, the most likely candidate for what is being appealed to is this (particularly verse 30), from Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 7:

[Wisdom 7 NRSVCE] 22 for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, 23 beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. 24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. 25 For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. 26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. 27 Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; 28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. 29 She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, 30 for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

So based on this allusion I understand the otherwise ambiguous passage to be presenting the LOGOS as a greater light than the sun because the light of the sun is succeeded by the night, but the light of the LOGOS (the Messiah) is unconquerable and unconquered.

[Rev 1:18 NKJV] (18) "I [am] He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.


Why does this have to mean EITHER comprehend OR overcome? To my mind it appears to mean both. To apply the lexicon cited (BDAG) the darkness could not make (the light) it's own, nor could it seize (the light) through hostile intent nor could it learn anything from (the light).

The darkness could not comprehend or destroy. It cannot comprehend that which it cannot overcome. Is it possible the Greek word inherently contains both concepts whereas English may require two words?

  • 1
    It's certainly true that the Greek word has a range that is not paralleled in English (see Q), and it's possible that both senses were intended here; see the comment trail on a prior answer for some commentary on that idea. They do seem to me distinct ideas, though, and I'm not totally convinced that polysemy is the normal way to use language, but it obviously happens in some contexts. If it can be shown based on this text I'm open to that.
    – Susan
    Dec 26 '15 at 17:55
  • 1
    Welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. When you have a chance, be sure to check out the site tour and read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. This is not a comment on the quality of your answer, but rather a standard welcome message. That said, it would be far better if you argue for a position through analysis of the text instead of stating it.
    – ThaddeusB
    Dec 26 '15 at 18:11

please try looking at the word as idiomatic. we have very similar idiom in English: what do we say when we finally comprehend something. we say "oh now I gotcha" gotcha can also be used in the sense of overcoming. also consider the word grasp. it can mean grasp as in catching something and controlling it or it can mean understanding a concept. while both the literal and the idiomatic interpretation are acceptable and true, the context in my opinion sways toward comprehend.

  • 1
    Hi, Steve. Welcome to BH.SE. It would be good if you could present your answers with appropriate formatting, e.g. capital letters beginning new sentences, and the use of paragraphs. It might seem like a trivial thing, but it will give the impression that you are not just making hurried, drive-by comments.
    – enegue
    May 22 '17 at 3:30
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