“Logos, a Jewish Word”

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by Neil Godfrey

Philo’s Logos is neither just the Wisdom (Gk sophia; Heb okhmah) of the Bible, nor is it quite the Platonic logos, nor the divine Word (Heb davar), but a new synthesis of all of these.

A response to the post Gospel of John as a Source for Jewish Messianism:

This seems interesting. Though the opening of GJohn insists that Jesus is the “word,” or logos. A very Greek word, concept, from as early as Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE (?).

So if this Logos or “Word” is found in Jewish culture, it was probably borrowed by them from the Greeks. . . .

Hellenized Jews like Philo used this Word especially.

An interesting engagement with this critical perception can be found in a short article by Daniel Boyarin, “Logos, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash”, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, conveniently available via academia.edu.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, the idea of the Word (Gk Logos) was known in some Greek philosophical circles as a link connecting the Transcendent/the Divine with humanity/the terrestrial. For Jews, the idea of this link between heaven and earth, whether called by the Greek Logos or Sophia (“wisdom”) or by the Aramaic Memra (“word”), permeated first- and second-century thought. Although monotheistic, Jews nevertheless recognized other supernatural beings who communicated the divine will. The use of the Logos in John’s Gospel (“In the Beginning was the Word/Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [Jn 1.1]) is thus a thoroughly Jewish usage. (546)

As for the “Hellenized” Philo, Boyarin points out that he writes of the Logos “as if it were a commonplace”, demonstrating that at least in some quarters of pre-Christian Judaism “there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a manifestation of God, even as a “second God”; the Logos did not conflict with Philo’s idea of monotheism.”

Philo and his Alexandrian Jewish community would have found the “Word of God” frequently in the Septuagint (LXX), where it creates, reveals, and redeems. For example, speaking of the exodus, Philo writes:

whereas the voice of mortals is judged by hearing, the sacred oracles intimate that the words of God (logoi, the plural) are seen as light is seen, for we are told that all of the people saw the Voice [Ex 20.18], not that they heard it; for what was happening was not an impact of air made by the organs of mouth and tongue, but the radiating splendor of virtue indistinguishable from a fountain of reason. . . . But the voice of God which is not that of verbs and names yet seen by the eye of the soul, he [Moses] rightly introduces as “visible.” (Migr. 47–48)

This text draws a close connection between the Logos and light, as in John 1.4–5:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John’s Prologue depicts the Logos as both a part of God and as a being separate from God. Compare Philo:

To His Word (Logos), His chief messenger (archangelos), highest in age and honor, the Father (Pater) of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same [i.e., the Word] both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject. He glories in this prerogative and proudly proclaims, “and I stood between the Lord and you” [Deut 5.5], that is neither uncreated by God, nor created as you, but midway between the two extremes, a surety to both sides. (Heir 205–6)

Philo oscillates on the point of the ambiguity between separate existence of the Logos, God’s Son, and its total incorporation within the godhead. Philo’s Logos is neither just the Wisdom (Gk sophia; Heb okhmah) of the Bible, nor is it quite the Platonic logos, nor the divine Word (Heb davar), but a new synthesis of all of these.

Philo developed the idea of the Logos through biblical images:

The Divine Word (Theios Logos) descends from the fountain of wisdom (Sophia) like a river to lave and water the olympian and celestial shoots and plants of virtue-loving souls which are as a garden. And this Holy Word (Hieros Logos) is separated into four heads, which means that it is split up into the four virtues. . . . It is this Word (Logos) which one of Moses’ company compared to a river, when he said in the Psalms: “the river of God is full of water” (Ps 65.10); where surely it were absurd to use that word literally with reference to rivers of the earth. Instead, as it seems, he represents the Divine Word (Theios Logos) as full of the stream of wisdom (Sophia), with no part empty or devoid of itself . . . inundated through and through and lied up on high by the continuity and unbroken sequence from that ever-flowing fountain. (Dreams 2.242–45)

That’s Philo. Is there anyone else, though?

Other versions of Logos theology, namely notions of the second god as personified Word or Wisdom of God, were present among Aramaic-, Hebrew-, and Syriac-speaking Jews as well.

Boyarim notices hints of this same idea in existing biblical texts:

Proverbs 8:22-31

22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
23 I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
26 While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
27 When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
29 When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
31 Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.

There is also Job 28:12-28, and then the extra-canonical Jewish writings. I have selected the passages that are the more distinctively echoed in the Gospel of John:

  • Sirach 24:1-34,
    • 24:1 Wisdom praises herself,
      and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
      2 In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
      and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
      3 “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
      and covered the earth like a mist.
      4 I dwelt in the highest heavens,
      and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
      . . . .
      7 . . .  I sought a resting place;
      in whose territory should I abide?8 “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
      and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
      He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
      and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
      9 Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
      . . . . 19 “Come to me, you who desire me,
      and eat your fill of my fruits.
      . . . .
      21 Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
      and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
      . . . .
      33 I will again pour out teaching like prophecy,
      and leave it to all future generations.
  • Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-10:21,
    • for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me
      . . . .
      25 For she is a breath of the power of God,
      and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
      . . . .
      26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
      a spotless mirror of the working of God,
      and an image of his goodness.
      . . . .
      in every generation she passes into holy souls
      and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
      . . . .
      Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
      . . . .
      8:3 She glorifies her noble birth by living with God,
      . . . .
      20 or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body [Solomon is claiming to have had pre-existence of some sort?]
      . . . .

      9:4 give me the wisdom that sits by your throne,
      . . . .
      7 You have chosen me to be king of your people
      and to be judge over your sons and daughters.
      . . . .
      9 With you is wisdom, she who knows your works
      and was present when you made the world;
      . . . .
      10 Send her forth from the holy heavens,
      and from the throne of your glory send her,
      . . . .
      10:1 Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world, when he alone had been created;
      . . . .
      4 When the earth was flooded because of him, wisdom again saved it,
      steering the righteous man by a paltry piece of wood.
      . . . .
      6 Wisdom rescued a righteous man when the ungodly were perishing;
      he escaped the fire that descended on the Five Cities.
      . . . .
      15 A holy people and blameless race
      wisdom delivered from a nation of oppressors.
      16 She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord,
      and withstood dread kings with wonders and signs.
      . . . .
      18 She brought them over the Red Sea,
      and led them through deep waters;
      19 but she drowned their enemies,
      . . . . . .
  • Baruch 3:9-4:4.
    • 31 No one knows the way to her,
      or is concerned about the path to her.
      32 But the one who knows all things knows her,
       . . . .
      33 the one who sends forth the light, and it goes;
         he called it, and it obeyed him, trembling;
      . . . .
      36 He found the whole way to knowledge,
         and gave her to his servant Jacob
         and to Israel, whom he loved.
      37 Afterwards she appeared on earth
         and lived with humankind. 4She is the book of the commandments of God,
         the law that endures for ever.
      All who hold her fast will live,
         and those who forsake her will die.
      2 Turn, O Jacob, and take her;
         walk towards the shining of her light. . . . . .

Especially common is the Aramaic word Memra (“Word”) of God, appearing in the Targumim, the early Aramaic translations and paraphrases of the Bible (e.g., Targum Onqelos, Targum Neofiti), where it is used in contexts that are frequently identical to ones where the Logos has its home among Greek-speaking Jews.

Later rabbinic teachings certainly opposed the Second Temple notions of Logos or Memra by labeling them as the “Two Powers in Heaven” heresy and interpreted Memra as a figure of speech to avoid imputing anthropomorphisms to God, but their polemical efforts betray the existence of an idea among their fellows that they eventually managed to suppress.

[H]istorical investigation suggests that in the first two centuries ce, the Memra was not a mere name, but an actual divine entity functioning as a mediator.

Compare the following roles of the Memra from the Targum with those of the Logos:

  • Creating: Gen 1.3: “And the Memra of H’ (a form of abbreviation for the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton) said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light by his Memra.”

In each of the following verses, it is the Memra—intimated by the expression “and he said”—that performs all of the creative actions.

  • Speaking to humans: Gen 3.8ff.: “And they heard the voice of the Memra of H’. . . . And the Memra of H’ called out to the Man.”
  • Revealing the Divine Self: Gen 18.1: “And was revealed to him the Memra of H’.”
  • Punishing the wicked: Gen 19.24: “And the Memra of H’ rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
  • Saving: Ex 17.21: “And the Memra of H’ was leading them during the day in a pillar of cloud.”
  • Redeeming: Deut 32.39: “When the Memra of H’ shall be revealed to redeem his people.”

There are many more illustrations of the Targumic parallels with the Logos of Christian theology: see pages 547-8 of Boyarin’s article. These examples culminate with the Palestinian (probably Paschal) liturgical poem on the Four Nights:

Four nights are written in the Book of Memories: The first night: when the Lord was revealed above the world to create it. The world was unformed and void and darkness was spread over the surface of the deep; and through his Memra there was light and illumination, and he called it the first night.

At this point we come to the content in the previous post, The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash.

I am sure many others like me responded with some “amazement” when we first read the book of Enoch, in particular the Similitudes of Parables of Enoch, and wondered how such literature was accommodated by scholars studying the background to Christianity. Were at least parts of it written by Christians or was it influenced by Christianity? No doubt many others also like me wondered if the works of Margaret Barker on “Israel’s Second God” and her own discussions of the Similitudes in the context of Daniel and other canonical and extra canonical Jewish writings were perhaps seen as somewhat “over the top” by the mainstream biblical scholarship “establishments”.

Anyone interested in reading the argument in greater breadth and depth should download the 40 page article available on researchgate, The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the prologue to John.

Philo, writing in first-century ce Alexandria for an audience of Jews devoted to the Bible, uses the idea of the Logos as if it were a commonplace. His writings make apparent that at least for some pre-Christian Judaism, there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a manifestation of God, even as a “second God”; the Logos did not conflict with Philo’s idea of monotheism.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.



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7 thoughts on ““Logos, a Jewish Word””

  1. Philo Heir

    [259] Now with every good man it is the holy Word which assures him his gift of prophecy. For a prophet (being a spokesman) has no utterance of his own, but all his utterance came from elsewhere, the echoes of another’s voice … The name only befits the wise, since he alone is the vocal instrument of God, smitten and played by His invisible hand. [260] Thus, all whom Moses describes as just are pictured as possessed and prophesying.

  2. When Boyarin calls “Logos” a Jewish word, it seems clear that he is deliberately making an ahistorical, or even historically false statement. Any language specialist can trace for us the origins of the word “logos” in historical Greek.

    So why has Boyarin chosen to make a statement so obviously contradicted by factual History, historical linguistics? No doubt he does so tongue in cheek; note that he is writing for “The Jewish Annotated New Testament.”. Which is a book clearly devoted to emphasizing just one reading of, just one approach to, the New Testament. And his use of a bit of obvious polemic is partly to acknowledge that to be sure, this publication has an axe to grind.

    Boyarin after all, is a very liberal rabbi, it seems. And while he will tentatively support the most judeocentric rhetoric imaginable, he does so in a way that hints that there is something a bit over-the-top and ethnocentric, unhistorical, about such an approach.

    At the same time, Boyarin seems to make a surprisingly plausible case for an argument that is literally untrue. It seems plausible that the Jewish “word’ of God has some debt to Heraclitus’ or Plato’s or Philo’s logos. (Or possibly vice versa, for those who argue that Judaism is the first, founding civilization?).

    But we might note that most scholars see Philo as a more Greek than Jewish person. Perhaps of mixed parentage. Writing in Greek, probably (?). So that if that word logos seemed familiar to him, that would be due to his Greek rather than Jewish education.

    Indeed, the inter-testimental, apocryphal books, which evidence similar tendencies, were probably often not allowed into the heart of Judaism, the canon, precisely because they seemed too foreign, too Greek.

    So here we favor the earlier Vridar position; that much of what is called Jewish and Christian thought, writing, is subtly under the influence of Greek literary models and so forth. And we suggest that Boyarin is being a bit delerately over the top, judeocentric. Acknowledging too however, that he does manage to score a few points, in an argument that that is, on the face of it, simply wrong, historically, etymologically.

    By the way, I think a little editing of his writing could make it closer to being simply factual. If he had said, for example, that “Logos is the Jewish ‘Word,'” asserting rough equivalence, not identity, he would be closer to the truth.

    1. Jews spoke and read Greek. Their Scriptures were also in Greek. Greek was a Jewish language, too. It was also spoken by Romans, Egyptians, . . . it was the lingua franca of the day, in the same place as the English language is today. Boyarin writes articles in both English and Hebrew. The English articles are no less a work of Jewish scholarship because of that.

      How else were the Jews to translate “memra” except by “logos”?

      I think you are taking rabbinic Judaism as it is generally understood today and as it has generally looked since late antiquity and assumed that that is what Second Temple Judaism was like. On the contrary, there were clearly a range of diverse “Judaisms” in the Second Temple period. Some believed in resurrections, some didn’t; some were pro-Temple, others anti-Temple; some saw God as “two powers in heaven”, others saw that has a heresy. See Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon” for a scholarly insight into how Jewish religious ideas were very fluid and adaptable and not at all rigid as in the way we think of monolithic Judaism today (even though it is not really monolithic even today).

      As for your last point, is not that exactly what Boyarin does? See again the opening quotation to the post.

      1. For all these reasons and more, I feel that to call logos a Jewish word, does not do justice to its multicultural side.

        Even the Hebrew “memra,” might relate to the Hebrew letter mem, meaning water in Egyptian.

        Currently I’m very, very speculatively tieing memra to our cognate, memory.

        In a way, the names, descriptions, characterizations of the various types of things that men have evolved, is due in part to memory. It is seeing something , the same kind of thing over and over, like successive waves, remembering having seen the same kind of thing before, that leads to the notion that there are consistent classes, types of things out there.

        We see a fuzzy small animal with pointed ears. Then another one, purring. And we get the idea that there are many of these things; a general kind of animal we call a “cat.”

        So memory is a key part of learning to analyze and classify; learning to see general phenomena, types, in nature.

        And likewise “logos” we speculate, is partly about the individual, distinctive “logic,” or defining characteristics, of various types, classes, of things. Learning to see types, specific forms, analytical categories. The hidden master models on which individuals are based .

        All this is very extremely speculative and tentative of course. But I’m currently learning to see successive, repetitive or “wave” phenomena throughout nature.

        And as it happens, there might be a commonality to memra and memory, logos and logic. Heraclitus might have thought that water is always changing. But after all, maybe he knew it was also however, consistently, water. And usually had repetitive ripples, waves.

        Much of this is speculative and associative to the point of near mysticism at this point of course.

        But since you asked, this is all I’ve got on that subject, so far. And maybe its vague associative quality is at least embarassingly true to the myth-like origins of knowledge. And specifically memra and logos.

        They may be all about learning to recognize general classification types; the master models, behind things.

        1. Even the Hebrew “memra,” might relate to the Hebrew letter mem, meaning water in Egyptian.

          This is not a valid way of understanding the meaning of a word as used by any particular generation. “Pagan”, for example, derives from a “rustic” or “country person”. Words change meanings. “Virtue” derives from the Latin for “man”.

          We can’t rely upon its ultimate derivation or its related versions in nearby languages to determine how any particular person uses it today or at any other particular time.

          1. Among professional linguists, it is known that 1) words sometimes deviate from their original meaning, by “semantic drift .” At the same time, 2) far more often, they do not drift so very far. In any case 3) when we are looking at the ancient or original usages, the old meaning is still there. And gives us invaluable clues to the sense behind the word. And to history; the thinking, culture, of ancient people.

            It is not a perfect method, and historical linguists need to be – and are – aware of the exception that you note. At the same time, since we have so few items of information about the past, the knowledge of language is an invaluable aspect in historical investigation.

            In the present case, to deny or obscure the Greek, Platonic use origins of “logos,” would hopelessly obscure the history and meaning of the term, and render it opaque to understanding.

            1. I don’t see where Boyarin “denies or obscures” the various Greek meanings of “logos”. Plato’s use was not the only one known to the Greeks or Greek philosophers, and not all Greeks agreed with Plato’s ideas by any means.

              A word legitimately means what its users intend it to mean. Words are redefined and adapted to different ideas and contexts all the time. There is nothing unusual about that.

              I never knew that any linguist argues that words do not change meaning sometimes very significantly through time and different cultures and borrowings into other dialects. Many words clearly do change in major ways. I mentioned just a couple.

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