Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)
I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.
Where did the Logos come from?
Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:
The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)
Boyarin goes a step further and stresses
how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)
Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with
- the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
- or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
- or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,
is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.
The writings of the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, in this time period are one significant demonstration of this type of thinking. Philo was clearly writing for readers who had a devotion to studying the Bible. Yet Philo also assumed that his readers had no difficulty with the concept of a figure, the Logos, that he at one point even calls a “second” God. Such ideas did not apparently conflict with their concept of monotheism. Philo also calls the Logos God’s ‘first-born son’ in On Husbandry/De Agricultura, 51)
For Philo and his readers the Logos (The Word) was found in the Jewish Scriptures. This Logos was the agent through which God created the world; it/he was also the agent through whom God gave his revelations to his servants the prophets.
It can hardly be doubted that, for Philo, the Logos is both a part of God and a separate being, the Word that both is God, therefore, and is with God. (p. 114)
For Philo this Logos was at various times in his discussions of the Scriptures a Son, a King, a Priest and the Only-Begotten. That is, as Boyarin points out, Philo’s Logos was a person.
As a person the Logos was something more than the logos of Stoic and Platonic philosophy and even more than the biblical Divine Word. Boyarin sees Philo’s Logos as a synthesis of all of these. What Philo was doing was taking the problem facing the whole “movement” of Middle Platonism and contributing a specifically Jewish response to it. That problem was “mediation”. If God were so transcendent, so pure and exalted that he could have no association with the impure material world, then how could he make himself of any relevance to people? How could he communicate his will? How could he offer any hope, comfort, salvation? How could he direct or at least occasionally interfere in affairs on earth?
The Logos as divine mediator is found only in Jewish (including Christian) versions of Middle Platonism, and we might, therefore, wish to say that Philo’s Judaism is simply an important variety of Middle Platonism. (p. 115)
But the Jewish Logos is not just a product of philosophical speculation. It derives from Scriptural exegesis. Its precursor was the Hebrew “word” (Aramaic “memra”) as Jews studied this concept in the Scriptures. Philo applied Platonic ideal Forms to this Jewish concept so that the Word itself became a personified entity sometimes alongside God and sometimes as a part of God.
Memra and Semitic (non-Greek speaking) Jews in the Synagogues
If such a notion were found only in Philo we could dismiss the idea as idiosyncratic. But other Jews, including those who did not speak Greek, also embraced some version of the Logos theology.
Similar concepts of the personified Word or Wisdom of God were also found among Jews who wrote of the Memra of God. Justin Martyr and the Targums preserve some of the evidence for these views among those who frequented the synagogues. The Word or Memra of God is said to do the work of creating on God’s behalf; the Memra talks to Adam; the Memra destroys Sodom and Gomorrah; the Memra leads Israel in the Wilderness; the Memra is revealed to the people of God; the Memra creates Light.
Boyarin cites the works of several scholars who have seen in the evidence the Jewish belief in the Memra as a divine person separate from God, higher than the angels yet still an agent of God, a divine power that sustains the universe and that personifies the Law of God.
Some scholars have disputed any link between the Memra and Logos but Boyarin sees no real difference between them. Both are divine mediators.
Larry Hurtado denies that such divine figures were really part of the Jewish idea of a god-head because he finds no specific evidence of direct worship for these figures. Boyarin finds Hurtado’s criteria unnecessarily limiting, however, in any discussion of what Jewish ideas were part of the landscape in the first century.
While in general I find Hurtado’s argument bracing and important, his exclusive reliance on only one criterion, worship, to determine the divine nature of a given intermediary seems to me overly narrow and rigid. There may be no gainsaying his demonstration, I think, that worship in the incarnate Logos is a novum, a “mutation,” as he styles it, introduced by Jesus people, but the belief in an intermediary, a deuteros theos, and even perhaps binitarian worship was common to them and other Jews. (p. 119)
Other Divine Powers
There are a host of others, too. In the Apocalypse of Abraham we meet Yahoel. Adam was also existed in heaven before the world began and has returned there again to sit on his throne looking down on all his children. Israel and Enoch, likewise, had pre-earthly existences to which “they” returned, glorified, after their time on earth. Enoch even became the heavenly Son of Man on his re-ascent to heaven.
This side of Judaism is one that rarely surfaces in many discussions of Christian origins, including the origins of Paul’s concept of Christ. I’d like over the coming weeks and months to fill in a number of gaps in general knowledge on this topic and address in more detail specific points of evidence for some of these ideas and for them being part of the Jewish ideological landscape in the first and second centuries. Rabbinic Judaism was not the only team playing on the field.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- How Jesus Historicists and Mythicists Can Work Together (or, How to do History) - 2022-01-22 07:30:57 GMT+0000
- Bearing False Witness for Jesus - 2022-01-18 01:12:46 GMT+0000
- Why Did Written Stories of Jesus Take So Long to Appear? - 2022-01-17 05:02:14 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!