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What semantic and contextual clues do we have to tell us what the 'foundation' is that Jesus is talking about in John 17:24?

Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, that they may see the glory You gave Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

Πάτερ, ὃ δέδωκάς μοι, θέλω ἵνα ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγὼ κἀκεῖνοι ὦσιν μετ’ ἐμοῦ, ἵνα θεωρῶσιν τὴν δόξαν τὴν ἐμὴν, ἣν δέδωκάς μοι ὅτι ἠγάπησάς με πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου.

Is it the creation of the universe? The coming into being of human society? The foundation of Israel as a distinct human society? The Old Covenant in the the Mosaic law? Something else?

What is the 'foundation' here?

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  • NIV version put "the foundation" as "the creation". Will it answer your question? 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Jan 17, 2023 at 20:45
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    How are you reading foundation? That might explain why you think there is an alternative definition. Foundation in English can mean and is used here as to establish, to set up, the inception Jan 18, 2023 at 12:29
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    @NihilSineDeo biblehub.com/interlinear/john/17-24.htm 'The foundation'. It doesn't sound like it means 'establishing', which is a verb, but rather a noun 'the foundation'. What do you mean by 'alternative definition'? Jan 18, 2023 at 17:40
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    @NihilSineDeo Sure. My question is about what the phrase 'the foundation of the world' is referring to, so we really have 2 key terms, 'foundation' and 'world'. Jan 18, 2023 at 18:44
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    @NihilSineDeo Ya, but what does 'kosmos' mean here (usually, John uses it to refer to human or Israeli society) and how does that relate to 'the foundation' - that's the question. Jan 18, 2023 at 20:25

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The Greek word καταβολή (katabolé = "foundation") occurs 11 times in the NT, 10 of these are in the phrase, ἀπὸ/πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου = "from/since foundation/creation of the world/universe" or very similar.

Those that refer to the time "ἀπὸ = from/since the foundation of the world"

  • Matt 13:35 - So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.”
  • Matt 25:34 - Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
  • Luke 11:50 - As a result, this generation will be charged with the blood of all the prophets that has been shed from the foundation of the world
  • Heb 4:3 - Now we who have believed enter that rest. As for the others, it is just as God has said: “So I swore on oath in My anger, ‘They shall never enter My rest.’ ” And yet His works have been finished since the foundation of the world.
  • Heb 9:26 - Otherwise, Christ would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
  • Rev 13:8 - All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
  • Rev 17:8 - The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go into destruction; and those dwelling on the earth whose names are not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will wonder, seeing the beast which was, and is not, and yet will be.

[NOTE: There is a closely related phrase, "creation of the world" in Matt 13:35, Luke 11:50, Rom 1:20, Heb 9:26, etc; and "beginning of creation" in 2 Peter 3:4, etc.]

Those that refer to the time "πρὸ = before the foundation of the world"

  • John 17:24 - Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, that they may see the glory You gave Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
  • Eph 1:4 - For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence. ...
  • 1 Peter 1:20 - He was known before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in the last times for your sake.

The answer to the OP's question is very divisive and controversial so I will answer in two ways:

Semantic Answer

According to BDAG, the word καταβολή (katabolé = "foundation") has the following meaning from BDAG:

The act of laying something down, with implication of providing a base for something. Readily connected with the idea of founding in the sense of beginning ... this may be the meaning of Heb 11:11

The word κόσμος (kosmos = world, universe, inhabitants of the world, etc) has a variety of subtle meanings but the one pertinent in this context is the following meaning in BDAG:

  1. the sum total of everything here and now, the world, the (orderly) universe

Now, it is almost certain that the ancients did not distinguish, as we do today, between our world and the rest of the totality of the universe and so any such difference or meaning in the text cannot be read into the text.

In the case of John 17:24, it means that God loved Jesus before creation occurred.

Theological Answer

Since God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16), then there never was a time when God did not love Jesus. That is, God cannot exist without loving. Therefore, in the case of John 17:24, Jesus was loved by God before anything else existed and was always loved.

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  • @NigelJ “Jesus' being the name applied to the humanity born of Mary” - sounds Nestorian; Jesus is the name of the unbegan divine hypostasis of the Son having assumed human nature. Jan 18, 2023 at 13:38
  • @LevanGigineishvili Your point taken. I do not know what you mean by 'unbegan'. The point I was trying to make is that 'Jesus' is only appropriate once the eternally existent Son of God enters the world in a union of deity and humanity 'come of woman, come under law'. Prior to that, the term 'Son of God' is appropriate.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 18, 2023 at 13:50
  • [Previous comment self-deleted.] Answer edited only to correct a typo. Up-voted +1, for a substantial piece of work, but I suggest it is more precise to say that 'the Son' was loved before anything else existed, 'Jesus' being the name applied to the union of deity and humanity 'come of woman, come under law'.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 18, 2023 at 13:53
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    @LevanGigineishvili I am a Protestant and am not forbidden to follow the word of God as it is made clear in scripture. Logos is a matter of communication : word.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 18, 2023 at 16:50
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    I agree with @NigelJ,s comment that "the Son" is a better understanding of the object of the Father's love prior to the foundation of the world. Jan 27, 2023 at 19:50
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OP asks,

"Does the foundation of the world refer to the creation of the universe or something else at John 17:24"

It could mean something else. Here is an interesting take on the Greek word for foundation. Google to see what the Greek word for foundation is and this is what comes up.

◄ 2310. θεμέλιος (themelios) ► Englishman's Concordance Strong's Greek: 2310. θεμέλιος (themelios) — 16 Occurrence Here is one example of this word themelios when used as foundation.

1 Corinthians 3:10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.

John 17:24 has a Greek word, katabole many translate as the word foundation.

Strong's Greek: 2602. καταβολή (katabolé) — 11 Occurrence Thayer's Greek Lexicon STRONGS NT 2602: καταβολή

καταβολή, καταβολῆς, ἡ (καταβάλλω, which see);

  1. a throwing or laying down

καταβολή ("throwing down"), from κατά ("down") + βάλλω ("I throw"). Noun… βάλλω (Ancient Greek) Origin & history From Proto-Indo-European *gʷl̥-ne-h₁-‎, nasal-infix from *gʷelh₁- ("to hit by throwing"). Cognates are uncertain, but compare Sanskrit उद्गूर्ण (ud-gūrṇa) and Old Irish at·baill ("dies"). Verb

  1. (transitive) I throw, cast, hurl
  2. (transitive) I let fall
  3. (transitive) I strike, touch
  4. (transitive) I put, place
  5. (intransitive) I fall, tumble

"The Greek term rendered foundation is THEMELIOS, a compound word made up of two parts: thenos meaning place, and melios meaning care. So THEMELIOS means place-care.

This expression occurs some 16 times in the New Testament (the Greek scriptures), and in every place it is used as a basis for building, either literally (the foundation of a house), or figuratively (Christ is the one foundation). We can be certain that THEMELIOS is correctly translated foundation.

Only one Greek word means ‘foundation' and it occurs 16 times —no more. In the other 12 scriptures where various versions have ‘foundation,' it is a rendering of a different Greek word —KATABOLE —with no similarity of meaning. It means something quite different from the other word also translated ‘foundation.'

KATABOLE sounds similar to other words we know well -such as ‘catastrophe' and ‘cataclysm': in fact, it is already in use in our language as katabolism. It also is made of two parts, ‘kata,' meaning down, and ‘ bole' meaning cast. If we look up catabolism in a dictionary we will find it defined as "the disruptive process of chemical change in organisms; destructive metabolism." It is also used in metallurgy, and also to describe the breaking down of food in digestion. 
‘Disruption' is never used of a constructive process.

Two words are translated foundation. They are not similar in meaning. They have no common elements. One means place-care and the other means down-casting The Concordant Version renders place-care as foundation, and down-casting as disruption. Foundation is always a basis for building. Nothing is ever built on the disruption. FOUNDATION = THEMELIOS (PLACE-CARE) 
DISRUPTION = KATABOLE (DOWN -CAST)" This is taken from an article by The Disruption Its Place in God's Ways by Andrew Maclarty

One of the many Bibles I have is a Concordant Literal version which has the word disruption used for 2602. καταβολή (katabolé) 11 Occurrences.

If one does see this word as a casting down of sorts or disruption then it does give some verses a different meaning other than foundation.

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Dr. Andrew Perry in John 1:1-18 - A Socinian Approach first argues that 'world' ('kosmos') at John 1:10 is a societal concept.

"The concept of 'the world' (kosmos) here is a societal concept; it is about a world of people, a social environment; it is not a Genesis concept like 'the heavens and the earth' or 'the species of humankind'.

Moving to John 1:11, he says

This summary statement further defines the focus of 'the world' in v. 10. Jesus came to his own home and his own people, so what world was he in that did not know him? The broad answer is: Israel. Jesus' perspective is of those around him and this limits the focus of 'the world'. The problem for modern readers is that they have a different and larger understanding of the scope of the term [...] We have a tradition of reading John for our own times and our own sense of 'the world'. This is a mistaken approach for determining the original meaning of both Jesus and John.

Having established a context for 'the world' as it is generally meant in the Gospel of John, he then moves to John 17:24.

There are two other texts [outside of 1:10] that talk about the existence of 'the world' - John 17:5, 24. [...] These texts give us, 'the world was made through him' [1:10], 'before the world was/came to be (einai)' [17:5] and 'before the foundation of the world' [17:24]. All three texts mutually define the scope and nuance of kosmos for Jesus and the narrator of GJohn.

Regarding John 17:24, Perry says

a) Scripturally, the 'foundation' of the world (John 17:24) was the Law and the Mosaic covenant. This is clear from Matt 13:35 and its quotation of Ps 78:2-5. Here the 'foundation' is the 'establishment' from 'of old' of the Law in Israel. This identifies 'the world' as the nation and its foundation under Moses. Paul uses a similar concept of 'the world' and the mystery of the gospel that the princes of the world did not understand (Rom 16:25, 1 Cor 2:6-8).

So according to Perry, 'the world' in John's Gospel is at least usually a societal concept, and if we apply that to John 17:24, the world at 17:24 refers to the Israelite nation with Moses, and so the 'foundation' of that world refers to the Mosaic Law and Covenant. In particular, he refers to Matthew 13:35 to buttress that interpretation.

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Plenty of folks argue that the phrase actually means the Downfall of Mankind, or something similar, since there isn't sufficient evidence that καταβολή (katabole) means foundation at all, typical lexicon entries notwithstanding. The verb form means to cast down or destroy. Apparently the meaning of "foundation" came from a Latin mistranslation/guess that became traditional and accepted as fact. Probably either Jesus coined this phrase or it was a Hebrew idiom we unfortunately do not have attested elsewhere. Since the apostles use the ordinary word for foundation frequently, this phrase is definitely a special usage of a different word for a reason, regardless of what it really means, and maybe we should be looking in Jewish thought instead of only evangelical Greek lexicons. When you back-trace the verb form thru the Septuagint into all the different Hebrew words it is translated from, you never get anything like foundation either. Jewish Hebrew experts should get digging on possible answers to this phrase.

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