In a recent online discussion with an evangelical fundamentalist over John 1:1, the claim was made that "in the beginning" means the ultimate beginning of everything.
"There is not a Greek word for prior to archE. This is in the original.
There you have it.
If in the Greek something was archE it was original. Grab your lexicon and look up archE. It means nothing like it prior to it (whatever the object is your speaking of)."
He continued in the same vein.
"Research archE and argue that there should be a word or phrase that mandates prior to archE in the Greek.
There is nothing in the Greek language that represents prior to or before archE.
This is the point of origin (originAL). This fact [sic] and not spin.
If you discover the word or term or phrase then I will stand down. Until then we are dancing and not singing. Just let me know what you discover. At this point the archE is the original and NOTHING before the original unless you discover a Greek arguement for what was mentioned."
When I asked the beginning of what, I recieved a reply which must stand as a masterpiece of reason and logic.
"The Beginning not a Beginning not your Beginnig BUT THE BEGINNING.
The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your eginning [sic]. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning. The Beginning not a Beginning not your beginning."
Several days have since passed, like so much water under the bridge, I chanced to be reading Rashi and came across this insightful exposition of the first verse of Genesis. The medival commentators contain some real gems. Sometimes, as is the case here, the methods used feel strikingly modern.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), a French rabbi of the 11th century, is to this day considered the premier Jewish commentator on the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. His commentaries are frequently printed in the margins of said works. His were the first comprehensive commentaries. Much of them are drawn from aggadic and midrashic materials, but such are not used indiscriminately, but in order to shed light on difficult passages, or to explain the biblical roots of Jewish teachings and traditions. However, in the following extract from his commentary on Genesis, Rashi looks at the text of Genesis 1:1 and provides other biblical occurences of the wrod reishit (what in english is translated as the beginning) to support his perceptive interpretation of the phrase.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Bereshith bara. In the beginning God created. This verse says expound me only in the manner that our Rabbis explained it: God created the world for the sake of the Torah, which is called (Proverbs 8:22) "the beginning (reshith) of His way," and for the sake of Israel, who are called (Jeremiah 2:3) "the beginning (reshith) of His increase." If, however, you wish to explain it in its plain sense, explain it thus: At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth when the earth was without form and void and there was darkness, God said, Let there be light. The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation -- to state that these (heaven and earth) were created first; for if it intended to point this out, it should have been written Barishona bara, "At first God created..." Because wherever the word reshith occurs in Scripture, it is in the construct state. For example, Jeremiah 26:1, "In the beginning of (reshith) the reign of Jehoiakim," Genesis 10:10, "The beginning of (reshith) his kingdom," Deuteronomy 18:4, "The firstfruit of (reshith) thy corn." Similarly here you must translate bereshith bara Elohim as though it read bereshith bero, at the beginning of God's creating. A similar grammatical construction is in Hosea 1:2, "tehillat dibber [yahweh] beHosheah", which is as much to say, "At the beginning of God's speaking through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea." Should you, however, insist that it does actually intend to point out that these (heaven and earth) were created first, and that the meaning is, "At the beginning of everything He created these", admitting therefore that the word reshith is in the construct state and explaining the omission of a word signifying 'everything' by saying that you have texts which are elliptical, omitting a word, as for example Job 3:10, "Because it shut not up the doors of my mother's womb" where it does not explicitly explain who it was that closed the womb; and Isaiah 8:4 "He shall take away the spoil of Samaria" without explaining who shall take it away; and Amos 6:12 "Doth he plough with oxen," and it does not explicitly state, "Doth a man plough with oxen"; Isaiah 46:10 "Declaring from the beginning the end," and it does not explicitly state, "Declaring from the beginning of a thing the end of a thing" -- and if it is so, you should be astonished at yourself, because as a matter of fact the waters were created before heaven and earth, for lo, it is written, "The Spirit of God was hovering on the face of the waters," and Scripture had not yet disclosed when the creation of the waters took place -- consequently you must learn from this that the creation of the waters preceded that of the earth. And a further proof that the heavens and the earth were not the first thing created is that the heavens were created from fire (esh) and water (mayim), from which it follows that fire and water were in existence before the heavens. Therefore you must needs admit that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or later sequence of the acts of creation.
"בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא" – אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשני, כמו שדרשוהו רבותינו ז"ל: בשביל התורה שנקראת (משלי ח כב) "רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ", ובשביל ישראל שנקראו (ירמיהו ב ג) "רֵאשִׁית תבואתו".
ואם באת לפרשו כפשוטו, כך פרשהו: "בראשית בריאת שמים וארץ, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר". ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה, לומר שֶאֵלו קדמו; שאם בא להורות כך, היה לו לכתוב: "בראשונה ברא את השמים" וגו', שאין לך "ראשית" במקרא שאינו דבוק לתיבה של אחריו, כמו: (ירמיהו כו א) "בְּרֵאשִׁית מַמְלְכוּת יְהוֹיָקִים", (בראשית י י) "רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ", (דברים יח ד) "רֵאשִׁית דְּגָנְךָ". אף כאן אתה אומר: "בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים" וגו', כמו "בְּרֵאשִׁית ברוא". ודומה לו (הושע א ב) "תְּחִלַּת דִּבֶּר ה' בְּהוֹשֵׁעַ", כלומר: תחילת דיבורו של הקב"ה בהושע, "ויאמר ה' אל הושע" וגו'.
ואם תאמר: להורות בא שאלו תחילה נבראו, ופירושו: בראשית הכל ברא אלו, ויש לך מקראות שמקצרים לשונם וממעטים תיבה אחת, כמו: (איוב ג י) "כִּי לֹא סָגַר דַּלְתֵי בִטְנִי", ולא פירש מי הסוגר, וכמו (ישעיהו ח ד) "יִשָּׂא אֶת חֵיל דַּמֶּשֶׂק", ולא פירש מי ישאנו, וכמו (עמוס ו יב) "אִם יַחֲרוֹשׁ בַּבְּקָרִים", ולא פירש "אם יחרוש אדם בבקרים", וכמו (ישעיהו מו י) "מַגִּיד מֵרֵאשִׁית אַחֲרִית", ולא פירש "מַגִּיד מֵרֵאשִׁית דבר אַחֲרִית דבר". אם כן תמה על עצמך, שהרי המים קדמו, שהרי כתיב: "וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם", ועדיין לא גילה המקרא בריית המים מתי היתה. הא למדת שקדמו המים לארץ. ועוד, שהשמים מאש ומים נבראו. על כרחך לא לימד המקרא בסדר המוקדמים והמאוחרים כלום.