When John called Jesus “the Logos” in chapter 1 of his Gospel, did he have the Greek philosophical term in mind, or was he simply using the Greek generic term for “word” as he uses in other places in his New Testament writings? This is the operative question.
Scholars debate just how much the Greek philosophical concept of logos he had in mind when he used the term to describe Jesus Christ.1 In this post, I aim to show that in calling Jesus the Logos, John had both the Old Testament idea of God’s Word and the Greek idea of Logos in mind, especially as developed by the Stoics and Philo of Alexandria.
We are almost at the end of a series of posts with the theme “logos” that started in Post 33. Next, I will be discussing Justin Martyr’s use of the idea of logos. After that, I will either pick up where I left off with the Presocratic philosophers, namely Parmenides. In the meantime, I went down the logos rabbit hole in Post 33 and came up five posts later in the Gospel of St. John. It’s a funny thing where Greek philosophy can lead. And we are only at the beginning of our journey. So, please enjoy this post.
In the Beginning…
By opening his Gospel with the the famous line from Genesis, “In the beginning,” John is introducing to us the new creation. The new creation is simply the restoration of the first creation that had been marred by sin and rebellion. The new creation is the restoration of the old spiritual order and the old physical order (Romans 8:18-25). Not only will man be saved and restored, but the heavens and earth as well. You climate change people don’t have to worry – God promises that He will save the earth.
Whereas the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the coming of the Kingdom of God as prophesied in the Old Testament – the fulfillment of Daniel 2:45 – John’s Gospel goes back even further to Genesis 1 and emphasizes the New Creation of God. Jesus is portrayed not as a king but as the divine Creator Himself. So where the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tend to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, John, in his Gospel, emphasizes the divinity of Jesus.
John has the seven great “I Am” statements in his Gospel:
- I am the Bread of Life
- I am the Light of the world
- I am the Door for the sheep
- I am the Resurrection and the Life
- I am the Good Shepherd
- I am the Way, Truth, and the Life
- I am the Vine
He also has seven “sign miracles,” which are miracles meant to point to a deeper spiritual truth.2 Also, the stories in the first three chapters of his Gospel correspond to the first seven days of creation.
With the emphasis on the number seven in his Gospel, and especially in his Revelation, it is obvious that John is portraying Christ as inaugurating the New Creation. There are allusions of creation peppered all throughout his Gospel. For example, in verse 5, he states that Jesus is the light shining in the darkness that has come into the word, clearly a reference to Genesis 1:1-3.
The Hebrew Dabar
As a Jew, when John thought of the the word “word,” he thought of the Hebrew word dabar (דבר).3 For the ancient Hebrew, a word was not simply an idea or a concept, but rather contained in it an associated action or actions. There was no such thing as an idle word without an accompanying action, unless it was an empty or dead word, e.g., a stillborn baby. This is why James, who was Jewish, writes that “faith without works is dead.” So when God spoke in Genesis 1, His Word created the universe. When God uttered words, the heavens, the earth, light, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and finally man were created.
The dabar of the Lord was not only a powerful creative force, but it also had the power of judgment and tearing down as Psalms 29:5 states: “the voice of the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.” For the Hebrew, then, the Word of the Lord was that which made God known by making visible His invisible attributes. His Word was more than His emanation; it was His very essence, the very thing that reveals God to us. To the Jews, Dabar was the highest form of the manifestation of God.
The Greek Logos
The word logos (λόγος) comes from the Greek word lego (λεγω) meaning “to speak.”4 Originally, lego meant “to gather” or “to arrange in an orderly fashion.” Only later did it come to be associated with speech. This makes sense, for when I am writing this paragraph, I am gathering letters, words, and concepts, and arranging them in an orderly fashion so that they are coherent and communicating the essence of my thoughts. It is in this meaning that the Greeks came to apply the idea of logos to the ordering of creation.
And as I demonstrated in the previous six posts, after logos came to take on the meaning of “word,” various Greek thinkers developed the concept of logos over a period of several hundred years until it came to have a much fuller and richer philosophical meaning in the time of Christ. By the first century A.D., “logos” had evolved from a very general, infrequently used term to one of the most frequently used terms in the Greek language.
In John’s time, the word logos could simply mean “word,” or it could be used as a philosophical term with a far deeper meaning. In its usage by the Stoics, the word “logos” meant the ordering principle of the entire universe – that which makes the universe make sense.5 Whereas the Stoics developed a more immanent meaning of logos, Philo of Alexandria, in light of the Hebrew dabar, saw the logos as both transcendent, reflecting the essence of God, and immanent, intimately involved with his creation.
Jewish and Greek Culture Meet in the Scriptures
It could not have been lost on John that there were parallels between the Jewish and Greek concepts of “word.”7 What Philo of Alexandria tried but failed to do, John successfully did by using a word that bridged two cultures. What St. Paul failed to do by describing Christ historically in his Areopagus defense, John successfully did by describing Christ metaphysically.
Another interesting point is that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, especially in direct addresses, even though he did not use it exclusively. In passages like Psalms 33:6, “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were established,” the Jewish Scriptures used the the Hebrew word דבר, dabar, for “Word,” whereas the Septuagint used the dative form of “logos” – τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ κυρίου οἱ οὐρανοὶ ἐστερεώθησαν. τῷ λόγῳ means “by the word,” where λόγῳ is just the dative form of λόγος.8
Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek became the lingua franca of the Roman world. It is similar to English being a common language today, even among those for whom English is not their first language. I find it fascinating that in addition to the New Testament being written in Greek, by the time of Christ, the entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek. It is as if God were saying that, by transitioning from Hebrew to Greek, the Kingdom of God was transitioning from being primarily a Hebrew entity, to a worldwide phenomenon encompassing all nations.
So with the writing of the Septuagint, “dabar” and “logos” become interchangeable – revealed religion and reasoned philosophy met in the text itself. This parallel was not lost on Philo of Alexandria and it certainly wasn’t lost on St. John the Evangelist.
The Transformation of Dabar Into Logos
By using λόγος, the Greek “logos,” John was incorporating a bridge term, a term that spanned cross-culturally from the Jews outward to the surrounding nations – not to just the Greeks, but to all of those who spoke Greek even as their second language. דבר, the Hebrew word for “word,” was now old wine in old wineskins. John choose to put new wine λόγος into new wineskins: the universal church made up not only of Jews but of Gentiles of all ethnic groups, tribes, and languages.
We can say that when Jesus died, dabar was buried with him, and when he arose from the grave, just as his previous body had been transformed into a glorified one, so dabar was transformed into logos, having the same meaning as before, but with a far more universal and metaphysical emphasis. Many such things are transformed from the O.T. to the N.T., one such example being the transformation of the Jewish Sabbath by Christ into the “Lord’s Day.” The meaning of dabar was not eliminated, just transformed.
Some people say that John chose to use λόγος in more of a generic sense, thinking only about the corresponding meaning for “word” in the Hebrew Scriptures. They say that he did not intend to incorporate the Greek philosophical and metaphysical ideas inherent by this time in the word λόγος. I think that this is highly unlikely, because in the cultural milieu at the time, λόγος came to be a word brimming with philosophical meaning. For John to choose that word and only intend it to be used in the generic sense as the identity of Christ would have been too big of a risk and would have created much misunderstanding. Besides, if John intended to reach the entire world with the Gospel of Christ, what better word was there than λόγος?
Unfortunately, there are no parallel words to λόγος in the English language. The translation of λόγος to “word” is the best we have, but falls very far short of capturing the first century meaning of λόγος. One solution would be to incorporate lessons on the first century philosophical and cultural meaning of λόγος into Christian catechesis and then leave the word untranslated. But that opens up another can of worms concerning the dismal state of Christian catechesis in our current time and the amount of historical and theological ignorance among both Catholics and Protestants. But this is a topic for another post, although I did cover it briefly in Post 12, when I discussed how poor catechesis leads to idolatry.
The Unity of Dabar and Logos
In his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Thorleif Bowman states what I have been trying, although in a very beautiful and succinct manner:
“When, therefore, the Fourth Evangelist pronounces the word logos at the beginning of his Gospel, the many different meanings of dabhar as well as logos harmonize into a beautiful and mysterious unity for him as well as for his Greek-speaking readers familiar with the Old Testament in the same way as the sound of several church bells rung simultaneously.9“Thorleif Bowman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek
Whereas the driving force of the Hebrew “dabar” manifests in a word that produces action, the gathering and arranging of the Greek “logos” manifests in reason, with the intersection of the two being what we would call the “Word.” Logos comes to rest in reason and dabar in deed. So that, in the coming together of the two, we see both transcendent reason and immanent action.
It is true that both dabar and logos each contain the ideas of transcendency and immanency, but the Hebrews tended to emphasize action where the Greeks reason.
The Transcendent and Immanent Logos
Previously, I described how not only Plato and Aristotle but also Philo of Alexandria got fairly close, but could not solve the problem of how God could be both transcendent and immanent:
- Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover was transcendent and detached from the world, but could not provide an efficient cause by which everything in the universe moved.
- Plato’s immanent Demiurge provided that efficient cause, but was so intertwined in the world that the distinction between God and creation was blurred. Plato did provided transcendence with his idea of Forms, but he could never quite define what they were or the exact relationship they had with things in the universe or with the Demiurge.
- Philo of Alexandria struggled with that as well, having his immanent Logos being as close to being God as possible without quite being God.
The Stoics, like Plato, described a logos that was immanently involved in the world, but like Plato, failed to make a sharp distinction between God and the universe. Despite that, when the Stoics declared the logos to be the lawful principle that ordered the world, they prepared the way for people to anticipate a lawgiver who would provide order to the world.
In chapter 1 of his Gospel, John reveals not only the Trinitarian nature of God, but also established the transcendence and immanence of God. This is something that all the great thinkers who came before him could not do. The reason for this is that reason alone could not discover these truths; they would have to be understood through revelation.
The actual Greek text of John 1:1 is:
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
It states, to translate it in the same order as above:
“In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and God was the logos.”
In this verse, he establishes the utmost transcendence of Logos since Logos is God Himself from all eternity. John took the step that Philo of Alexandria could not quite take. Philo’s logos was as close to being God as possible, without being God.
Then John says two remarkable things. First of all, he states in verse 3, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” In addition to establishing the transcendence of Logos, he is now declaring him to be immanent, since the logos is also the agent of creation.
Then he states in verse 14:
“καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν“
which is translated word for word:
“and the logos flesh became and dwelt among us.“
John’s Logos not only brought creation into being, but actually made his creation a part of himself by taking on human flesh. The λόγος became σὰρξ (“sarx” or flesh). This is a profound statement indeed that is worth taking a moment to ponder.
John takes us from the Logos being the transcendent God from all eternity to being so immanently involved with His creation that the creation itself becomes a part of Him. By doing that, he went further in transcendence than Philo could ever have with his logos, and established a God far more immanent than Plato could have imagined with his Demiurge. The Stoics abandoned transcendence altogether and just settled for a pantheistic god.
As Christopher Hollis insightfully points out in Noble Castle:
“As St. Augustine put it, Platonism taught him that ‘the Word as God and the Word was with God,” and that ‘all things were made by Him,’ but it could not teach us that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’10
And the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us
In the Old Testament, after God created everything by His powerful Word, He eventually, after the fall of man, chose a people to be His own: the Israelites. One of the first things He had them do was build a Tabernacle. The innermost part of the Tabernacle contained the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, where God’s earthly throne resided. God dwelt there in the midst of His people in the form of a Glory Cloud.
The same Greek word for “dwelt,” ἐσκήνωσεν, was used in the Septuagint to describe God dwelling in the midst of His people. Verse 14 can also read:
“and the logos became flesh and tabernacled among us”
The next part of verse 14 says:
“καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ”
which translated word for word is:
“and we beheld the glory (δόξαν) of him.”
The Greek word for glory, “doxan” (δόξαν) is where we get words like “doxology,” which is a liturgy that glorifies God through praise.
So to behold the glory of the incarnated Christ is reminiscent of the Glory Cloud, indicating the very presence of God in the Old Testament Tabernacle. If the Glory Cloud was an indication of God’s immanency in the Old Testament, how much more immanent is the Son of God – the second person of the Trinity, Christ – dwelling among us in a human body? That is why Matthew refers to Christ in Matthew 1 as “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
As we saw, in the constructs of divinity that came before John, either God’s transcendence was established at the cost of His immanence or His immanence at the expense of His transcendence. John revealed a God who was both transcendent and immanent without a compromise or diminution of either attribute. The second person of the Trinity was at the same time the eternal God dwelling in unapproachable glory and the man Jesus Christ who tabernacles among us as a human.
One of the most striking Old Testament verses that portrays God as perfect transcendence and immanence is Isaiah 57:15:
“For thus says the high and lofty One
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
The Redemption of Creation
The following passage is from Romans 8:
“19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.“
When the Logos took on flesh, He united Himself not only to the human race but really with all of creation. When man fell, he took the created order with him, for it says above that the creation was subject to futility by God. I’m sure Greek philosophers took note of the fact that the universe, despite its beauty and order, was flawed. There was an imperfection. Inanimate things decayed and living things died. They witnessed the principle of entropy.
Maybe that is why philosophers like Plato eschewed the created order and constructed a dualism where the immaterial was good and the material bad. When God created the world and everything in it, He pronounced it all good. So if God redeemed man without redeeming creation, then His work would have been incomplete. Sin and death would have had a permanent victory in the realm of the created order.
Like a rock thrown in the pond, the effects of the Fall rippled out from the Garden of Eden to the farthest reaches of the universe. Since man was commissioned as a vice regent to rule over creation, the creation was inexorably bound to him. That is why in the above passage in Romans, with the redemption of man comes the restoration of creation. They are closely linked.
When the Son of God became a man, he bound mankind to himself, body and soul. In addition to that, by taking on a material human body, he was binding not only man to himself, but the physical creation as well, declaring once again that creation is good and putting himself as a down payment, assuring that all of creation would be redeemed.
Jesus Christ: Fully God and Fully Man
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. declared that Jesus had two natures: fully God and fully man. These two distinct natures are distinct in Christ. One nature does not change or corrupt the other. At the same time that they are distinct, the two natures are completely unified as one. There is no dissonance between them. So in the incarnation, we have then the uniting of God with His creation – immanence – but with the two natures maintaining their distinctness – transcendence.
By Logos taking on human flesh, we have the most poignant example possible of God’s transcendence and immanence in a way that the Greeks could never have imagined, and this is why they had so much difficulty in unifying the two concepts.
Because we are a civilization in decline, and because we have rejected our Christian heritage, we have fallen back into pantheism, albeit with modern trappings. Without beholding the Christ as the Logos, it is impossible to hold together in our minds God’s transcendence and immanence. Fallen man will almost always err on the side of immanence because this is what he sees – a world of diverse things. Without God, the unity becomes lost on him. Eventually, he will see the world not only as diverse, but as pantheistic, being god itself. And he himself, too becomes a god as well.
In our modern pantheism, we have rejected the one God in order to serve a plethora of gods. We serve the created order and we serve ourselves. We also serve the works of our hands, like technology, as we look toward it as our savior. The only remedy at this late stage, if we are to avert a catastrophe, is to turn back to the only One who can make order out of chaos – the Logos of God.
The following quote is from Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address in 2006:
“At this point, as far as the understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.11“
–Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg address, 2006
Consider the following question:
How much of the Greek philosophical idea of “logos” do you think that John had in mind when using the term to describe Jesus Christ?” Please comment below. Thank you!
- INTERS – Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, edited by G. Tanzella-Nitti, I. Colagé and A. Strumia, www.inters.org
- Just, Felix, S.J. Ph.D., “‘Signs’ in the Fourth Gospel,” https://catholic-resources.org/John/Themes-Signs.htm
- Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 58-67, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960
- Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/logos
- Birzer, Bradley J., “Stoicism and the Logos,” The Imaginative Conservative, October 20, 2012
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, p. 215, Fidelity Press, South Bend Indiana, 2020
- Andrews, Edward D., What Language Did Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and Early Christians Speak?, Christian Publishing House Blog, March 6, 2017
- Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, pp. 58-68
- Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 69
- Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, p. 80, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
- Regensburg Address, Lecture of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 12 September, 2006
Bibliography and Sources:
Agbaw-Ebai, Maurice Ashley, Light of Reason, Light of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend Indiana, 2021
Barrosse, Thomas, The Seven Days of the New Creation in St. John’s Gospel, The Catholic Quarterly, Volume 21, No. 4, p.p. 507-516, October, 1959, Catholic Bible Association
Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Gregg, Samuel, Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization, Regnery Gateway, 2019
Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend Indiana, 2020
Kouremenos, Theokritos, Plato’s Forms, Mathematics and Astronomy, Trends in Classics, Vol. 67, Walter D. Gruyter, Inc., Boston, Berlin, 2019
Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009