Yes. The the Word was before the beginning. This conveyed in several ways:
- The plain reading of the texts with imperfect tense.
- The use of allusions to and patterns from Genesis.
- The literal or grammatical "movement" of the Word in time.
- The progression of the Word from the beginning to Incarnation.
In addition, the changing tenses in verses 1-5 proclaim the Word is the current active agent of creation and is still shining as light because the darkness could not overcome it.
To begin, the Prologue (John 1:1-18), is a distinct literary unit arranged using a chiastic structure. In his paper, Brad McCoy gives this outline:
Beyond highlighting the main theme, a chiastic structure "punctuates" a passage by delineating each point the writer makes.
2The exact divisions may be debated, but it is clear verse 5 belongs to the opening and an analysis which stops at verse 4 would be incomplete:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 This One was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came-into-being through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came into being which has come-into-being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 5 And the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (DLNT)
The imperfect tense is used of "the Word," “God,” "this," "life," and then "light," which is immediately contrasted with darkness. Thus the theme of light and darkness, which will continue throughout the Fourth Gospel has been placed in the opening lines and in an allusion to, if not the context of, creation. Significantly, these are arranged in reverse order they occur in Genesis:
A: Life (The Word)
B: Light (The Word)
C: Darkness - antithetical to Light (which is the Word)
Alluding to Creation:
C': Darkness - antithetical to the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2)
B': Light (Genesis 1:3-4)
A': Life (Genesis 1:12, 21, 25, 27)
This is further evidence the writer has only the creation account of Genesis in mind. Also darkness, the antithesis of the Word, alludes to darkness which is contrasted with the Spirit in Genesis 1:2. So, just as the Spirit (and Word) was distinct from darkness in Genesis, the Word (and Spirit) is distinct from darkness in John (cf. 1:32). This implies John understood God as the Trinity and sought to preserve the principles, even in an allusion.
The Imperfect Indicative Tense
Daniel B. Wallace gives this explanation for the imperfect tense:
As a tense of the first principal part, the imperfect mirrors the present tense both in its general aspect and its specific uses (the only difference being, for the most part, that the imperfect is used for past time).
Like the present tense, the imperfect displays an internal aspect. That is, it portrays the action from within the event, without regard for beginning or end. This contrasts with the aorist, which portrays the action in summary fashion. For the most part, the aorist takes a snapshot of the action while the imperfect (like the present) takes a motion picture, portraying the action as it unfolds. As such, the imperfect is often incomplete and focuses on the process of the action.
With reference to time, the imperfect is almost always past. (Note that since the imperfect only occurs in the indicative mood, this tense always grammaticalizes time.) However, occasionally it portrays time other than the past (e.g., the conative imperfect may have this force to it sometimes; also the imperfect in second class conditions connotes present time - but such is due more to the aspect than the element of the tense). In general the imperfect may be diagrammed as follows:
The creation account in Genesis illustrates the imperfect tense: it is action over a seven-day period which is now in the past. So the Word was in the past and continuously with God during the seven-days; as Wallace says, the imperfect has an internal aspect of action within. Therefore, while verses 1 and 2 say nothing about the present state of the Word, the plain reading of the text places the Word and God in the same relationship at the beginning and throughout creation.
The Perfect and Present Tense
Here is a diagram showing the tense of the verbs used to describe the Word in the opening:
John uses the imperfect ἦν six times in the opening. Verse 3 effectively "interrupts" the flow before it resumes in verse 4. This "interruption" serves two purposes. First, it sets apart and summarizes how the Word was with God in the beginning (see below). Second, it functions to keep the Word from being "left in the past" as might be implied by the imperfect tense. Verse 3 begins with two uses of the aorist indicating completed action in the past (corresponding for example with seven-days of creation). It ends with γέγονεν, which is perfect indicative active of γίνομαι.
Of the perfect indicative tense Wallace says:
The force of the perfect is simply that it describes an event that, completed in the past (we are speaking of the perfect indicative here), has results existing in the present (i.e., in relation to the time of the speaker). BDF suggests that the perfect tense "combines in itself, so to speak, the present and the aorist in that it denotes the continuance of completed action." It is incorrect, however, to say that the perfect signifies abiding results; such conclusions belong to the realm of theology, not grammar.
The abiding "result" in verse 3 is the current working of the Word: making children of God (the main theme of the Prologue). That is to say, while the workings of the Word "in the beginning" are important; they are secondary to the working of the Word in the present, which is re-creation (cf. John 3:1-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). The opening verses establish the creative ability of the Word in the past using both the imperfect and aorist, in order to assert the creative ability of the Word in the present.
The imperfect tense resumes in verse 4 but not as the Word directly identified as such. Rather, after first being replaced with the pronoun οὗτος in verse 2, the Word is called by the pronoun αὐτῷ and identified as "the life" and "the light." The use of pronouns to refer to the Word is another literary device to keep the Word "moving forward" in time. Finally, the Word, as the Light is (still) shining (present tense) today because the darkness was unable to overcome (aorist) it in the past. This too is an allusion to the Genesis creation account where "the light" which God saw (1:3-4) was separated from the darkness (also 1:18).
The critical aspect of time is not how things begin; rather it is how things are now. The Word which was in the past is still shining light and still able to create in the present.
"Was" in the Incarnation
While not part of the question on the use of the imperfect tense in the opening verses, this tense is used later in the first description of the Incarnation of the Word:
9 the true Light which gives-light-to every person was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came-into-being through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own things, and His own ones did not accept Him. (DLNT)
9ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον 10ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω 11εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον
Reverting to the imperfect tense to describe the Incarnation could effect how ην is intended to be understood in the opening. Thomas Pearne's answer takes note of this:
The Greek word is ην. It is also found at J 1:10. In verse 9, the Word is coming into the world. Then in 10, he was (ην) the world. His being in the world did not precede his arrival.
However, "the Word" here is identified as "the light" and with αὐτός. In a sense it is "picking up" the Word from verse 5, where, as the light of men, it did precede His Incarnation. This may be understood literally as physical light, or more likely, metaphorically as the Word of God (e.g. Exodus 20:1, Psalm 33:6[32:6], 119:130[118:130]). Arguably John is following the point made in the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. [ESV]
The Word was given many times and in many ways: it was in the world before His Incarnation.
As noted in the answer from Thomas Pearne, the word και (and) found at J 1:1 is said by Danker in his Concise Greek concordance to have the sense of “and so.” This could mean John is referring to three consecutive states which build on one another and correspond to the first three uses of the imperfect tense:
In the beginning was the Word, and so the Word was with God and so the Word was God.
If so, then the first state which lacks God literally means the Word was for a period of time in the past, before God. Then the second state includes God with the article (τὸν θεόν) which the third lacks (θεὸς). The sequence ...τὸν θεόν...θεὸς, which parallels the pattern of the LXX Genesis 1:1-2, reinforces understanding the Word was before Genesis 1 and without God.
The immediate significance of omitting "God" from the first state is seen in state 3: "...the Word was God." Those who deny the equal nature of the Word with God believe the third state is with a god. For example, the New World Translation used by Jehovah Witnesses:
In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. (NWT)
Obviously, this is impossible. The Word cannot be in the beginning without God and later be only "a god." Therefore, the significance of "and so" cannot be to show three states of creation, but does follow the pattern of three separate natures of one God.
This answer to a related question, shows how the fourth use of the imperfect ην does place God "in the beginning:"
In the beginning was the Word...this was in the beginning with God.
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος...οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν
The four uses of the imperfect tense may be diagrammed as:
Effectively the fourth use of the imperfect serves as a summary:
John 1:2. οὑτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. Not a mere repetition of what has been said in John 1:1. There John has said that the Word was in the beginning and also that He was with God: here he indicates that these two characteristics existed contemporaneously. “He was in the beginning with God.” He wishes also to emphasise this in view of what he is about to tell. In the beginning He was with God, afterwards, in time, He came to be with man. His pristine condition must first be grasped, if the grace of what succeeds is to be understood.
The six uses of the imperfect in the opening mean:
- In the beginning the Word was (without God)
- The Word was with God (τὸν θεόν)
- The Word was God (θεὸς)
- In the beginning the Word was with God (τὸν θεόν)
- The Word was the life
- The Word was the light
While all are written as being in the past, after repeating "in the beginning" the working of the Word is placed in the present by the use of the perfect tense and the light which was in the past, nevertheless is still shining in the present as the darkness was unable to overcome it.
1. Brad McCoy, "Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature." p 18 [Chafer Theological Seminary]
2. Ibid., p.29
3. Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, Zondervan, 2000, p. 232-233
4. Ibid., pp. 247-248
5. The Expositors Greek Testament