Tag Archives: Logos

“Logos, a Jewish Word”

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: read more »

Comparing Philo’s and the Gospel of John’s Logos (The Word)

The consequences of this point are formidable. Philo was clearly writing for an audience of Jews devoted to the Bible. If for these, the Logos theology was a virtual commonplace (which is not to say that there were not enormous variations in detail, of course), the implication is that this way of thinking about God was a vital inheritance of (at least) Alexandrian Jewish thought. It becomes apparent, therefore, that for one branch of pre-Christian Judaism, at least, there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a deuteros theos, and nothing in that doctrine that precluded monotheism.  — Boyarin, 249

 

The table sets out my distillation of Deborah Forger’s four points of comparison between the Logos of Philo and the author of the Gospel of John in her doctoral thesis, Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering the Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ.

Philo

Alexandria, Egypt, during time of the Jerusalem Temple

“John”

Probably Asia Minor, after destruction of the Temple

Logos is a “constitutive element of the Creator God’s identity…. Just as a person cannot exist without his or her cognitive abilities, so too Philo claims that God cannot exist without God’s logos. This is because . . . the logos functions as the very “thoughts,” “rationality,” “creative logic,” and “mind” of Israel’s supreme God. . . [Philo employs] the same titles to describe God and the logos.” “John similarly presents the logos as being integral to the divine identity. . . Whereas Philo establishes a temporal distinction between God and the logos, John makes no such differentiations between the two. . . Instead, John presents the logos as being divine and co-eternal with the Israel’s supreme God. The difference
Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God. . . To preserve the absolute transcendence and otherness of God, he depicts the logos in this intermediary role.”

God is immutable. The divine logos is mutable. The logos can enter the corporeal realm.

God is unknowable. The divine logos is made known.

Logos pleads with God on behalf of humankind, and Logos is the ambassador from God to humankind. Though technically a part of God (=the mind of God) the Logos stands on the border between God and everything he has made.

Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God.

The Septuagint depicts the world coming into being directly by the act of God, but for John the Logos is personified and becomes the means by which God creates the world.

Goes one step further than personifying the Logos and claims that the Logos becomes flesh in the person of Jesus.

The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.

Though sharing the divine identity with God, the logos is subordinate as indicated by being “the eldest of all created things” ((Leg. 3, 61, 173; Migr. 6), “the first-born of God” (Agr. 12, 51),, the “man of God” (Conf. 11, 41; cf. 14, 62; 28, 146), the “image of God” (Conf. 28), the “second God” (QE II, 62, Marcus, LCL).

The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.

Jesus as the logos is one with the Father but also subordinate to the Father. The Father “has given all things into his hand”, “has given him authority to judge” yet for all he does he needs the Father’s permission; also as an indicator of Jesus’ subordinate role, he always calls God his Father — even though he and the Father are one from the beginning of time.

The logos is able to enter into the created, corporeal world that God has made.

The logos is thus the judge and mediator of the human race, and the interpreter of God to the world. The logos thus interacts with the world in a way the supreme God cannot. “The logos thus functions as both a tool by which God creates the sense-perceptible world and as an intermediary figure whose immanence in that same realm enables him to exert God’s divine providence in every aspect of it.”

Philo never claims the logos becomes flesh. Rather, God has placed the logos within creation to be the agency of divine providence in every part of it.

Similarly, God implanted the logos within the created realm, but John goes one step further and has the logos actually becomes flesh in a specific person and is part of the created realm itself.

For Philo the logos embodies God’s presence in the world by acting as the mediator, but for John the logos becomes part of the created world in the person of Jesus.

The Gospel of John is unique among Jewish texts (including the other gospels) of the first century CE in declaring that the logos became flesh.

The Incarnation started out as a Jewish thought.

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The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

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.

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