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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?

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    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
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 11:32

8 Answers 8

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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

Summary

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.

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    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
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:05
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    @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
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:21
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    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
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:22
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    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
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:33
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    @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
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 16:54
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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.

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Preliminary to addressing the question, the debate over translating καταλαμβάνω as "comprehend" versus "overcome" may be a distraction of what the verse expresses. The emphasis is that the light/truth is from God, and humans are incapable of coming up with God's truth on our own (John 1:10-13,18; 2:23-25; 3:10). In spite of God revealing himself, there is much we don't understand. Our minds are finite. His is infinite. Thus, we must receive God's revelation in Jesus Christ as little children (Matt. 11:25; 19:14, Mark 10:14-15; Luke 10:21; 18:16-17). Darkness cannot attain or understand.

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. Translating with a word that preserves the dual meaning, such as "grasp," would be a better translation. Smoother wording is translating with "get it." The Syriac Peshitta translated John's word, καταλαμβάνω, with a word that also has the dual meanings overcome and comprehend.

1:5. That darkness did not “apprehend” the light may be a play on words (it could mean “understand” [NIV] or “overcome” [NRSV]). -- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jn 1:5). InterVarsity Press.

According to NIV the darkness “has not understood it.”40 The Greek verb is not easy to translate. It contains the idea of laying hold on something so as to make it one’s own (cf. its translation as “gets” with reference to a prize, 1 Cor. 9:24). This can lead to meanings like “lay hold with the mind,” and thus “comprehend” (KJV) or “apprehend.” That the verb can bear such a meaning is not in dispute. Whether it is relevant to the present context is another matter. We do not usually talk of darkness as trying to “understand” light. To take this meaning is really to think of darkness as equivalent to certain people, or perhaps the human race at large. But in this Gospel darkness is not so much people as the evil environment in which people find themselves. -- Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (pp. 75–76). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Thus, the best translation is neither comprehend nor overcome. Consider what BADG gives as the first meaning of καταλαμβάνω:

to make someth. one’s own, win, attain -- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 519). University of Chicago Press.

Attain preserves the dual meaning and fits the context very well. Consider the verse:

... always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim. 3:7, ESV)

And the emphasis:

who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13ESV)

Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10, ESV)

Thus, people in the limitations of human knowledge (darkness) cannot attain the knowledge Jesus Christ brought to mankind. Absolute truth is from God, not from human ability.

If one is going to use overcome, a better term is overtake, meaning to catch up with, the second meaning of καταλαμβάνω:

to gain control of someone through pursuit, catch up with, seize -- BADG (3rd ed., p. 520).

The fourth meaning in BADG is;

to process information, understand, grasp -- BADG (3rd ed., p. 520).

and of course get/grasp still leaves the ambiguity.

Note "comprehend" follows the Latin Vulgate. The Latin "comprehenderunt" does fit the meaning of κατέλαβεν, even all it's meanings.

comprehenderunt comprehend.erunt V 3 1 PERF ACTIVE IND 3 P comprehendo, comprehendere, comprehendi, comprehensus V (3rd) TRANS [XXXAO] catch/seize/grasp firmly; arrest; take hold/root/fire, ignite; conceive (baby) embrace; include/cover/deal with (in speech/law); express (by term/symbol) -- Whitaker, W. (2012). In Dictionary of Latin Forms. Logos Bible Software.

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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?

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    Indeed, this has been discussed (see link there to another comment thread as well, with more links).
    – Susan
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 9:46
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There is ambiguity of languages here, both in the Greek and in the English.

Taking the English ambiguity first, we need to appreciate that "understand" is not the original meaning of the word "comprehend". The dictionary (I use the Concise Oxford) tells us that it derives from the Latin COMPREHENDERE, which means to grasp. So something which is "comprehended" has been grasped, included, taken in to something else. "Comprehensive" means "all-inclusive", which is why the British education system contains "Comprehensive Schools". "Understanding" is the act of grasping something with the mind or bringing something into the mind, which is why it is called "comprehension".

As for the Greek, the verb used here is derived from KATALAMBANO, wwhich has a similar ambiguous meaning. Thayer's lexicon offers as the first meanings; "to lay hold of, to seize upon, detect", with "to lay hold of with the mind" arriving only as the fourth in the list.

In the footnote in B.F. Westcott's commentary, he points out that the same subject and verb appear in ch12 v35, where the AV translation is "that darkness overtake you not". He says "The darkness comes down upon, enwraps men. As applied to light, this sense includes the further notion of overwhelming, eclipsing." That "eclipsing" is what the darkness failed to achieve.

I have also seen somewhere the contrast with what happens to a candle shining in darkness. The light of a candle diminishes and disappears from sight as the observer moves away from it. "The Light" does not so diminish. The darkness does not swallow it up.Or rather, DID not swallow it up; Westcott points out that this victory of the light is described as an event already achieved. The struggle is not continuing.

For these reasons, I suggest that "not overcome" is a much better translation than "not understood".

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  • It should be noted that the CUV translation (in Chinese) uses a word that means "accept" here. The CUV is itself based on the 1885 RV which uses "apprehend"
    – Max Xiong
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 5:03
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"Overcome" vs "comprehend" in John 1:5

I believe that interpreting καταλαμβάνω as overtake or overcome in John 1:5 is preferred because such a meaning is more consistent with how John uses the term in the rest of the book, and because it better aligns with the good news theme expressed in John and the New Testament that we may have confidence in the light who overcame the dark domain because the darkness could not overcome him.

One strategy in determining authorial intent concerning the use of a word with more than one meaning is to review how the author might otherwise use the word elsewhere in the same work of writing you are reviewing where it may not seem as quite as ambiguous.

So let's do that and examine how John uses the word, καταλαμβάνω, throughout his Gospel writing:

John 8:3-4
3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.

In our first example (which is actually two, but we'll count as one), John uses the term to describe the woman being apprehended or arrested for her crime of adultery. (It's noteworthy that the word "apprehended" seems to carry with it a very similar range of meaning that καταλαμβάνω does)

John 12:35-36 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”

Our second and last example is quite interesting since we see καταλαμβάνω used in the context of light and darkness similar to the way it is used in John 1:5.

Here it is quite apparent that Jesus is not concerned about the darkness comprehending his disciples but taking and using them for its own purposes. In this verse walking in the light prevents the darkness from overtaking the disciples, presumably, because the light cannot be overtaken by darkness as John 1:5 expresses if we assume the same meaning for καταλαμβάνω in 1:5 as we have for 12:35-36.

The parallel usage of καταλαμβάνω in 12:35-36 in comparison to 1:5 seems pretty decisive on its own as to how it should be understood.

Now for me, I quite like @Jas3.1 argument that interpreting καταλαμβάνω as comprehend seems to flow quite well with the themes of John 1 of revelation, perception, testimony, logos, and belief.

However using καταλαμβάνω to strengthen the imagery of the Jesus as the true light that could not be overcome by the darkness better aligns with a significant theme of the good news of Jesus Christ as he declares elsewhere in the book, "...the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me (John 14:30)," and ..."take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33)."

You see, by Jesus not being overcome by the kingdom of darkness, Jesus overcomes the kingdom of darkness.

Philippians 2:8-9 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

Romans 8:3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin. He thus condemned sin in the flesh,

Colossians 2:15
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. 1 Corinthians 15:56-57
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

John also riffs off Jesus' conquering theme in his other writings:

1 John 4:4 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world

Revelation 12:10-11
10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

Circling back to John 1:5, here we have expressed not simply that the true light is not comprehended by darkness, but that our hope in the light is secure because it cannot be overcome by forces of darkness that has ensnared and enslaved us for so long.

Hebrews 2:14-15 14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

I believe that interpreting καταλαμβάνω as overtaking or overcoming in John 1:5 is preferred because such a meaning is more consistent with how John uses the term in the rest of the book, and because it better aligns with the good news theme expressed in John and the New Testament that we may have confidence in the light who overcame the kingdom of darkness because the darkness could not overcome him.

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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?

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    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
    Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:55
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    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
    Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 18:11
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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.

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