Last semester in seminary, I wrote a couple of essays for my unit on Jesus and the Gospels. This particular essay is looking at the questions what does the Logos mean, what the Logos meant for the Jewish and Graeco-Roman people of the day and how it should inform our reflection on the personhood of Christ. I’ve always been fascinated by the deep meanings of this Greek word, so I hope you enjoy this essay!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) This concept of the λόγος (Logos, “Word”) permeates John 1:1-18, often called the Prologue by scholars. Those reading the Gospel of John should be warned, says Borchert, “that this Prologue is one of the most complex theological statements in the entire bible”. The semantics of such a term are so complex that our determination of its meaning can only be identified through detailed investigation. The reason scholars retain fascination in this Prologue is due to the connections that can be made with a number of religious and philosophical ideas from John’s time period. The purpose of this essay is to explain the meaning of the Logos in Jewish and Graeco-Roman philosophical thought and to discuss how this should inform our theological reflection on the person of Jesus Christ.
The concept of the Word of God can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. For obvious reasons, this provides many Jewish people a solid basis for understanding what the term Logos means. John’s Jewish background and understanding is the most likely source from which he draws his concept , although he employed Greek terminology of his day to express it. Within Jewish thought, this “Word of God” is seen to be the Creator of all things. “In the beginning” (John 1:1a) alludes specifically to the beginning of God’s creative work through the Word. The voice of God speaking the Word of God in Genesis 1 holds the power to create and order the very fabric of reality. Psalm 33:6, which reads “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made” reminds readers that the Word carries active power in creation. Jewish thinkers would be well aware that the Word acted as God’s revealed will and was sovereignly effective in carrying out God’s plans. Borchert notes that the Word appears in many contexts through the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the covenant promises with Abraham, the foundation of Israel’s laws and the proclamations of the prophets of God.
Personification of the Word may have been seen in Jewish texts as early as the 2nd century B.C.E in the book 1 Enoch. Wisdom of Solomon is more explicit than Enoch, writing that God’s all-powerful Logos came down from heaven during the exodus for the plague of the firstborn. Of particular note, Ernst Haenchen writes that John reverts to an old legacy, to one which may be very old indeed; an old and melancholy myth well known to the Jewish people. Many scholars have commented that John’s writing about Jesus as the Logos finds a parallel in Jewish thought about wisdom, often personified as Lady Wisdom. Wisdom was present at creation and called God’s people back onto the right paths, offering life and favour with God. John’s Logos, like Wisdom, is the agent of God for creation and calls His people into relationship with God and into everlasting life. Personifying the Logos as Jesus in the place of the commonly known wisdom motif of Proverbs would be widely recognised technique by the Jewish community. John links the Word and Wisdom together as one and the same. This may not be the only literary relationship John makes use of however, as some Hebrew Targums replace God with the title “Word of God”.
By using the concept of the Logos, John draws on ideas about the Word of God with which Jewish people would be well familiar from their Scriptures, history and their knowledge about their God.
The word Logos itself is a Greek construction and many Graeco-Roman philosophical thinkers and readers in the first century knew the term. Modern scholars will often view John’s Prologue as an example of late Hellenistic thought and language. In fact, John’s use of the Logos in action in the creation of the cosmos parallels other Hellenistic and gnostic literature, although his treatment of the themes and of his text is unique for its time. In Graeco-Roman philosophy, the Logos can be determined to have numerous meanings, normally depicted as being the inward thought of man or the outward expression of their thought in speech. Morris notes
“It denoted something like the world-soul, the soul of the universe. It was an all-pervading principle, the rational principle of the universe. It was a creative energy. All things in one sense came from it. In another men derived their wisdom from it. The concept is as old as Heraclitus (sixth century B.C.)”
Reportedly, Heraclitus wrote of “thought” as the force that guides and orders the universe. 6 of his surviving 130 fragments of work refer to the term in the sense of this Logos being eternal, omnipresent and the divine cause of all things. Heraclitus undoubtedly saw a basic defining principle in the Logos related to the organisation of the universe. For him, the Logos was the omnipresent wisdom ordering and controlling all things in existence.
The Stoics expanded the use of the term Logos to refer to the divine principle that permeates the orderly universe, an animating life force within all of reality. According to Morris, “the term Logos gave expression to their deep conviction of the rationality of the universe.” The Logos was not a personal being or a god, but a supreme principle that ruled the created cosmos. For the philosopher Plotinus and Neoplatonists, the Logos is the first and ontologically primary principle of all things in existence; however, it is most commonly referred to as “mind” instead of “word”. Many Jewish diaspora writers had already connected Jewish conceptions of Wisdom and Torah with the Hellenistic ideas of divine and universal power by the time John wrote his Gospel. Most notable of these was Philo of Alexandria, who depicts the Logos as a natural blend of the divine Wisdom of the Jews and the universal law of the Graeco-Roman philosophers.
It is evident that John’s use of the term would have been recognised among the Graeco-Roman people of his day. This ultimately would have aroused their minds, causing them to link the supremely great Logos of Graeco-Roman philosophical thought to the all-powerful Son of God who created the universe and orders everything within it.
How then should our theological reflection on Christology be informed? For the Christian, we recognise that John’s Logos is living and active figure in history, one who both began and ordered all of reality that exists. Quoting Bultmann, Keener notes that the Logos “is the intermediary, the figure that is of both cosmological and soteriological significance.” The Christian certainly recognises that Jesus, the Logos created all the cosmos and likewise draws all created things to salvation. It is clear that this Logos was not a created being, because He existed before created things and acted in creation. This figure exists as the embodiment of the glory of the Word of God, which in the beginning spoke creation into being.
Klink III notes that the Word of God is God’s self expression in creation, revelation and salvation. This is what makes the Word personified the perfect self-disclosure of God to humanity; the form of the Son. The Logos is the message and the person of God Himself, displaying His love and light for the world; not as a stranger but as a personal shepherd known and recognised by His sheep. He speaks on behalf of God and everything God has ever said, is saying and will say is made manifest in the Logos. As such, the Logos reveals the truth about God’s own nature, to which Jesus Himself bears witness to in the wider Gospel.
Klink III notes that the voice to which the church must be become fixated upon is the Word of God made fully manifest in Jesus Christ. We must listen to this Logos and what He says because His words contain eternal life, wise guidance and creative power. Hebrews 1:3a says “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Indeed, this Logos is not only the creator and the exact imprint of God but involved in the continuance of all of creation to this day by the power of His word. The Logos is synonymous with Christ, which in turn allows the Christian to draw links with Hebrew Scriptures and recognise the depth and the glory of our Saviour.
Our Christological reflections, especially within the context of the Gospel of John should be heavily informed by this concept of the Logos; the Word who was in the beginning, with God and is God manifest to us.
Although the term Logos is best understood to have a Hebrew scriptural background in John’s context, it is reasonable to assume that both Jew and Graeco-Roman would have resonated with it. Klink III notes that
“The Jew will remember that ‘by the Word of the Lord were the heavens made’; the Greek will think of the rational principle by which all natural laws are particular expressions. Both will agree that the Logos is the starting point of all things.”
Despite his use of Jewish and Graeco-Roman concepts, we find that the intention of John in his Gospel is entirely Christological; Christ and His power and glory from eternity past. These characteristics about the Logos and the historical depth behind the term only work to impress upon the Christian the ever more incomparable station and cosmological significance of the Logos of God; the one to whom we must lay down everything.
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Borchert, Gerald L., The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture NIV Text, John, Vol 25A (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996)
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Morris, Leon., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Michigan: WB Eerdmans, 1971)
Pate, C Marvin., The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocolypse (Zondervan: Michigan, 2011)
Tobin, T.H. “The Prologue of John and Hellenistic Jewish Speculation”. The Catholic Bible Quarterly 52 (1990): 252-269
Witherington, Ben. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)