The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

26 thoughts on “The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos”

  1. Much of the Maccabean series (Mac. 3 or 4 especially) favors “wisdom” or “Sophia” heavily. As did the famous “Wisdom Literature” books in the OT. Sophia is a woman’s name to this very day. And it seems to have been personified as a woman in art and so forth.

    So? Possibly people did worship Sophia at least, as a goddess.

    To be sure, the chief advancement in lionizing wisdom or intelligence or logic, of course, was that we advance beyond god-worship. We do not idolize a static god or idol. But we employ principles or concepts, in everyday life, for our material advancement.

  2. Is there an English analog for Metratron or Yahoel?
    Please do follow up on the genetic and typological
    derivations. As you know, in my book, Son of Yahweh,
    I discussed the definitions of Irenaeus, Gadamer, and
    the shorter one of Tripolitis. To the extent that the analog
    is “Word,” meaning “word,” there are many — or let me
    say “other”, in case someone asks me to list them — spiritual traditions
    that trace creation back to it.

  3. Give me time. Boyarin’s book alone has given me at least a score of very lengthy articles and books to absorb, and some of these have given me yet more articles and books to follow up, so I have much to catch up on in this area. It is virtually a new field for me. The Christian studies I have read on such Jewish writings now look to me to be so much apologetic that avoids much of the work being done by specialists in Jewish studies.

    One amusing little aside: Every Christian account of these apocryphal writings that I have read is so quick to jump to the suggestion that anything that sounds Christian in them is probably a Christian interpolation. There is scarcely any argument to justify this claim apart from the fact that a passage sounds Christian. Yet we know what scholars from that side of the fence are so quick to shout as soon as anyone suggests interpolation in New Testament writings.

  4. When I first heard of Philo, and how he appeared to be influenced by Hellenistic/Greek philosophy,
    I wondered if there was any scholarly work done which supported the idea that the Alexandrian
    conquest of post-exilic territories formerly known as Israel and Judah was so complete that the
    supposed traditional, cultural authority of 1st temple, Mosaic “Judaism” was drained of it’s influence.

    If that ideological conquest was likely, then 2nd Temple Judaism was a hybrid of Hellenism and
    remnants of pre-exilic tradition( in my mind atleast), and maybe even Zoroastrian thought as a
    3rd stream?

    So far I have not found any arguments which cast serious doubt on the existence of a post-exilic,
    Torah obedient priesthood – in concordance with Leviticus and other “Mosaic” teachings – as
    presented by conservative Christian apologists who want to ensure that Jesus is grafted to the vine
    of their choice.

    Alot of the posts on Vridar have pointed me in the right direction, but I have not found a specific work
    which strongly supports the idea of “full spectrum Hellenistic dominance of Judaic spiritual thought in
    the time period between Alexander’s conquest, and Bar Kochba’s rebellion”.

    1. I do know that there have been numerous publications on the extent of Hellenistic (and other) influences in Galilee and that the conclusions vary.

      As for the notion of a priesthood and theocratic society that is modelled on the laws of Deuteronomy, Exodus, and such — such a society really never existed. Yes there were basic regulations like sabbaths and feasts, but many of the laws were never enforced; many of them are theological principles and not genuine legal statutes. Another post or two I plan to do one day! (There is now an emerging view that not even the Hammurabi code was a genuine set of statutes that truly governed a society.)

      Before the Babylonian exile there are good reasons to doubt that there were any scriptures as we know them in existence. They may well have only come into existence in the Persian period or even as late as the Hellenistic era. The story of David may even be based on the Hasmonean conquests; the story of his court scandals certainly mirror the goings-on in the Persian palaces.

      Borayin stresses that rabbinic Judaism as we understand it did not really become the orthodox form of Judaism from the fourth century on and in response to the defining orthodoxy of Christianity.

      Boyarin also points to scholarship that is increasingly asserting that Judaism was not so much influenced by Hellenism as that it was in fact an expression of Hellenism. Hellenism is a blend of Greek and Asiatic cultures, so Judaism can be seen as a clear expression of Hellenism from its very beginning. Other works I have read and that I have posted a little on point to the Hebrew Bible being a Hellenistic book — Genesis itself can be argued as being based on Platonic ideas and writings; the entire Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) can be compared in many aspects to the Histories of Herodotus.

      It’s an interesting topic. I’ve a lot to catch up on.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment.

        Yes the topic of “Hellenistic” influence/expression is fascinating, and for me,
        is intertwined with what I said to “Mark” in another post/thread about “fatal
        strikes” to Judeo-Christian theology orginating from the research of the
        Copenhagen school( as one example of ‘minimalist’ scholarship).

        To call into question the roots of Judaism, is to open oneself to charges
        of anti-semitism; I don’t imagine that anyone interested in research about the
        post-exilic period as a “Hellenistic expression” wants to be the focus of backlash
        from conservative Jewish scholars who see such research as a threat to their
        culture’s psychological integrity. If someone is programmed to believe that
        their cultural identity is essential to survival, then any ideology which severely
        undermines the veracity of that culture will evoke responses from primal fear.

        1. Yes, I’ve been disillusioned for long enough now to fully expect a good number of scholars of the New Testament or Christian origins to be quick to bring out the antisemitism charge in order to protect their own turf and shut down genuine scholarly inquiry. That’s one reason I made a special point of quoting the following by Boyarin in the previous post:

          I and many if not most scholars of Judaism currently do not operate with an opposition between Judaism and Hellenism, seeing all of Jewish culture in the Hellenistic period (including the anti-Hellenists) as a Hellenistic culture. Rabbinic Judaism can be seen as a nativist reaction, a movement that imagines itself to be a community free of Hellenism, and therefore it is itself no less Hellenistic precisely because of its reaction. (p. 18 – Would many scholars of Christianity dare bring back Bultmann or Hengel to the discussion table?)

          I mentioned Bultmann there because — seriously — there are a number of scholars who really have dropped hints that Bultmann’s scholarship was tainted with anti-semitism. See Tim’s post for one example: http://vridar.org/2014/05/14/what-do-they-mean-by-no-quest/ (I’ll be addressing the same point in a future post discussing certain modern criticisms of the criterion of dissimilarity and form criticism.)

    2. Excellent question. From 300 BC to 70 AD, how could there be any fully, loyally Jewish, Torah-based priests in Jerusalem? Jerusalem was taken over by Greece, Alexander the Great, c. 300 BC. After a brief Jewish resurgence of Zionism in the Maccabean revolts, c. 167 BC, it was taken over again more fully by Rome, Pompey, in 64 BC. In the time of “Jesus” Jerusalem was ruled by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Who worked with a Jewish roman collaborator,king Herod. And in such eras of foreign occupation, what occupiers would tolerate pure, Zionist Judaism?
      Pure, Zionist Judaism demanded that Israel be run by a fully Jewish god or Lord or King.

      Likely there were always some rather purist, zealot, Toah-Jews around. But their activities would usually be illegal with occupying forces. Pure Judaism always demanded that a Jewish king or “lord” should return to rule Jerusalem; an idea that would not be popular with Greek and Roman occupiers.

      In any case, there were also many, many Hellenized Jews, who were collaborators with Greek and Roman occupiers. Herod for example collaborated with Pontius Pilate. The NT itself mentions many “Hellenizers.” And though it pretends not to approve of them, perhaps it pretended a little too shrilly after all.

      In fact, there were many Hellenized Jews. And there were apocryphal Jewish works written in Greek, found in the Catholic Bible, that seem on the surface to be loyally Jewish, even Zionist. But many were probably written originally in Greek, after all. Probably they were written by Hellenized Jews protesting their traditional roots too loudly, anxiously.

      Your thought is interesting therefore. How indeed could there have been any purely Zionist Jews openly – when Israel was controlled by Greeks and Romans? Who could not allow any such thing – as Jews who would not tolerate any foreign leaders or gods over them.

      Quite possibly in fact, “pure” Judaism is a pious fiction, historically speaking. Compromises with foreign lords were always being made, out of practical necessity.

      1. Thanks for your feedback to my question/comment @Wentham and Neil.

        Vridarians give always me new portals into the ancient past.

        As a hobbyist scholar, I hope to have enough time to absorb all the data
        which is available about the period between 500bc/500ad. I come from
        atleast 1200 years of Christian ancestors, raised in a Christian household,
        and was a believer by choice, so the question of Judeo-Christian origins
        is very important to me. I identify as a “nonTheist” and I might be asked
        why I bother with my research if Judeo-Christian spiritual entities are not
        a “real” presence in my life. I respect my roots and their power over my
        psyche, so I wish to understand them the way an artificial intelligence who
        has suddenly become self aware may be curious about it’s programming.

      2. Wentham,

        I think “pure” Judaism is represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that’s probably why they had to be hidden and the sect did not survive. Otherwise I agree with what you are saying.

        1. Thanks!

          By the way: Dr. Chris Keith, normally a rather conservative scholar over at The Jesus Blog (along with Anthony Le Donne), has expressed interest in the new book, The Quest for the Real Jesus; 2013. Especially he is noting the Robert Morgan essay. An essay which suggests that most of the scholars who think they have found the historical Jesus, are really projecting their own subjective theology onto the subject.http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-quest-for-real-jesus-brill-2013-and.html#links

          Those who have been allegedly looking into “history” to find a “real” Jesus, have indeed been all too subjective. If we look in a more unbiased way into the historical situation in Jerusalem, c. 300 BC to 300 AD, it seems clear that this area was full of many cultures, not just one. And that the cultural inputs to any “Jesus” or “Lord” legend, would have come from many cultures. Not just Jewish culture, but also especially Greco-Roman culture.

          So I’ve been working informally on a “cross-cultural” approach to early Christianity. One that does not favor one ethnicity or another. Neither Judaism nor Greeks, nor Romans. But that just looks at all the possible cultural influences available. To see which best fit what we see in Christianity.

          By the way? My last name is Jewish/Hebrew. Anyone might think I would be naturally biased toward seeing Jesus as thoroughly, wholly Jewish. But I was also trained as an historian. And from that perspective, the best fit between Christianity and surrounding cultures is very often with Greek and Roman, not Jewish culture.

          There is a tendency to see any Greco-Roman influence in Christianity as a later interpolation from say, Roman Catholicism. However, I am suggesting that such influence was always there, very very early. From the beginning. But especially from the moment that Alexander the Great took over this region, around 300 BC. Not to mention the moment that Rome assumed formal control of Jerusalem, in 64 BC. And not to mention the moment when Rome burned the temple, Jerusalem, to the ground, in 70 AD.

          All these events suggest very, very strong influence by Greece and Rome, over Judaism.

          1. It is also worth keeping in mind that while Jerusalem and Galilee are the focus of the Jesus narrative it does not follow that Christianity itself had its origins in these places.

            1. Of course. It may well be that Christianity’s account of everything happening in Jerusalem and so forth, essentially just substituted this location, for the original setting of many old myths.

              In any case though, if Jerusalem was to any degree the setting of any of this, then it is worth noting that Jerusalem would have allowed far more Greek and Roman influence, than many might have thought.

            2. “while Jerusalem and Galilee are the focus of the Jesus narrative it does not follow that Christianity itself had its origins in these places”.

              That’s quite true. However, I can easily imagine an ideological motivation for the authors of the Gospels to place parts of the story in Jerusalem, but I cannot easily imagine a similar reason to highlight Galilee. Lamestream scholars have tended to assume that this establishes that the historical Jesus was from Galilee. I, on the other hand, have tended to assume that the pride of place given to Galilee implies that Christian movement might have originated there.

              1. Still, on the other hand? Much recent scholarship suggests origins in Galilee.

                Then too, it’s easy to imagine a reason why the early authors of Christianity might want to relocate a Galilean Jesus Legend, to Jerusalem: Jerusalem was where the central Temple and authority was. Any would-be God that did not check in with Jerusalem, would not have fully validated his credentials.

                So that a relocation of any would-be savior to Jerusalem, could well be motivated by structural concerns.

              2. Probably Neil’s qualifications are useful. Even Galilee would of course be problematic.

                In fact, I see the most important origins in say, Rome, Athens, and Alexandria. Rather than Jerusalem.

              3. Mark uses geography as symbol (as do some OT narratives). I would add to your list of likely places of origin Asia Minor and Syria.

              4. There is a lot of reason to highlight Galilee, such as midrash on some passage in Isaiah 9 where Galilee of the Gentiles is said to see the light.

              5. “There is a lot of reason to highlight Galilee”

                The Book of Isaiah anticipates that emissaries will preach the word of God to the Gentiles and that a savior figure will restore the Jews that were disenfranchised and who still live among the Gentiles in regions like Galilee.

                The LXX Books of Isaiah and Ezekiel “depict Galilee of the Gentiles as specially appointed to receive salvation in the messianic age, and, further, as a land which will be one of the first to experience God’s deliverance. The writer of Isa. viii. 23–ix. 6 proclaims that the light of the messianic day will disperse the shadow of death lying over “Galilee of the Gentiles”; and the LXX text of ch. viii. 23 begins with a notable addition . . . that God will pour forth this light of His salvation first upon Galilee…” (Boobyer 1952–1953, p. 336).

                Strabo is aware that Galilee had a mixed population . . . The sources seem to ignore the Hellenistic history of Galilee, its relations first with the Seleucid kingdom and then with the Hasmoneans. [Cappelletti 2007, p. 80.]

                • Cappelletti, Silvia (2007). “Non-Jewish Authors on Galilee”. ISBN 978-3-16-149044-6.

          2. Wentham,is there not a Greek influence in late pre-Christian era Judaism, too? After all, we have the Septuagint old and well-established enough for the Christians to appropriate it; and at least Antigonus of Socho among the Jewish sages has a clearly Greek name. We see “Epicurean” (Apikoros) as a Rabbinical swear-word for someone who doubts the supernatural. And of course there’s Philo of Alexandria.

            But I think you’re on to something about cross-cultural influences at work. They’re at work in just about all historical phenomena that we can see, and everywhere on our human planet.

  5. Philo’s description screams Christ to me. He was right on with his description and it’s clear it was fulfilled in Jesus. We haven’t seen a figure in Judaism to take up said mantle.

    Keep in mind the original christians were jews.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading