Logos Theology In Pre-christian Judaism (john 1:1-3)

“1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being…”

It is absolutely true that this Gospel’s original author, in his midrashic [1] prologue to the rest of the book, states that there is an entity referred to as “God,” as well as an entity referred to as the “Word of God.” Both God and his Word, in the Evangelist’s mind are divine and existed eternally. Whether one’s theology allows for such interpretation or not, is in some way irrelevant. This is after all theology of the Gospel of John and this is how the author sees God. Take it or leave it.

Some people would say that the rhetoric of “difference and equality” between God and His Word begins with Christian Literature; and particularly in these first verses of John’s Gospel, while others may object to this since this is the language used in creation in Genesis. He created everything by the power of His Word. Both ideas are inadequate, however. It is true, that God spoke (or worded) everything into being, but nowhere (at least not in Genesis) does it imply that God and the Word he spoke were “distinct and yet equal” in their nature, and therefore power and glory. So, while Genesis 1 does not contradict this idea, neither does it prove it.

The Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible [2] were not the only books people of ancient times were reading and hearing at their religious communal readings. They were also exposed to a wide variety of Jewish texts that people thought of as spiritually profitable and many times also sacred. (Remember during this time the Canon (both Jewish and Christian) was not yet firmly established, the rough idea of what would become the Canon was already emerging).

In the Jewish treatises of Philo and others, authored in Greek, a very similar, if not the same, concept is also present. It is referred to by the use of the Greek word Logos just as in the Gospels(Heir 205-6), while in the Aramaic/Syriaic/Hebrew Jewish materials the same (or a very similar) idea is very often, though not always, is signified by the word Memra (Targum Neofiti in Gen.3.13). Once a student of history of religion begins surveying Jewish pre-Christian ideas about the Word of God in para-biblical literature, pre-dating or contemporary with John’s Gospel, that student is quickly beginning to realize that up to this point (John 1:3) the author of the Gospel has not yet introduced any new ideas (and surely nothing foreign) to the Jewish first century thought-world as it existed at the time.

This will change sharply with vs. 14, with the introduction of the almost totally unexpected idea of the Word of God coming in the form of human flesh and eternally joining its divine nature to frail humanity of which he himself, in Christian tradition, was the creator.[3]

© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

 


[1] Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple meaning. It fill in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at in the text itself.

[2] Jews call it Tanach – an acronym for Torah (Five Books of Moses), Neviim (Prophets) and Kituvim (Writings), while in the Christian tradition it is customary to refer to the same set of Scriptures as the Old Testament.

[3] For a more detailed explanation of logos theology in pre-Christian Judaisms, please, see Prof. Daniel Boyarin’s essay “Logos, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pg. 546-549.

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  1. Eric George

    Shalom Eli,

    I enjoy your blog entries a lot, I am a Christian and also a Philosopher of Religion- so your entries are very interesting to me and I appreciate them greatly.
    Your ‘short-hand’ commentary on John is excellent, and is developing nicely. Thank you for trying your very best to remain objective, building a bridge is very important, especially between such closely linked Faiths like Judaism and Christianity.

    Best Regards,

    Eric G.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Eric, welcome aboard! Keep taking part in it with your comments. We need them too.

  2. Fabio

    Dr. Eli
    I have a question.
    In Deuteronomy 6:4-5 says: Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one.
    And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all thy soul, and with all your strength.

    But once scribes came to Jesus and asked what was the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12: 28-30), and Jesus answers them based on what the Scriptures say specifically what mentioned in Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5.
    Also, in the Gospel according to Matthew 4:1-10, we see how Jesus also used the scriptures to refer to YHWH as the one God.
    My question is: Do these verses proves the uniqueness of both the Father and of the Son? What is your view?

  3. Eric Rodríguez

    BS”D

    My traslation of this first verse directly from greek is:
    בראשית היה הדבר, והדבר, היה לאלהים, והדבר, היה אלהים
    The Word was (stand) for the First Fruit and that word (first fruit) was of God, and that word (first fruit), was God. Is like an Ice cube made from a frozen water point in a glass…both are water, one (the ice cube) is a frut of the other (the rest of the water). God and his first (and unique) fruit are one!

  4. Patti Sloan

    I can see this will be exciting!!

  5. John Thornton

    Shalom Eli,

    The deep things of God are searchable, the mysteries of God and of His Christ are knowable, and the simplicity that is in Christ the Logos is never complicated.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Not sure I agree fully. Let me take it back! 🙂 Actually I am sure that I don’t fully agree. 🙂 I think a better way to put it is that they are knowable to the degree to which they ought to be known by us, even when its very complex (given our human limitations).

  6. Lawrence Boyce

    Regarding John 1:14 The Word dwelt among us. My understanding of this is that the Word tabernacled among us or He made His home in us.
    This amazes me as we have fallen short of God’s purpose, He has made His home in us. As the Apostle Paul puts it that we are the temple of God or the Holy Spirit in both 1 and 2 Corinthians,

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      yes.

  7. John Thornton

    Denis/Eli, There are schools of thought that identify Messiah the Word as the personification of the Wisdom depicted here in Proverbs. YHWH (‘I Am’ – Exod 3:14-15) by wisdom created the universe (Psa 136:7) and Jesus seriously upset the scribes and Pharisees (John 8:58) by declaring Himself “I AM”. A similar statement is made by Him in Rev 1:8, but from a rather more commanding position.

    Both plurality and unity is implied in Gen 1:1-2 where Elohim ‘created from nothing’ but so too did the Spirit of God, or at the very least God by His Spirit (cf. Psa 104:30, where the Heb ‘bara’ is also used). The latter is also the Imparter of wisdom to the Messiah (Isa 11:2). So by deduction Jesus had/has the wisdom of God, imparted by the Spirit of God (cf. Luke 4:1; 1 Cor 1:30).

    The individuality of the YWHH/Adonai personages within the monotheistic Godhead is depicted in Psa 2:7 and Psa 110:1 (the latter being quoted a number of times in the NT). The account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah hints at two ‘YHWH’s’ – One in heaven and One closer to the event, having just had a dialogue with Abraham (Gen 18:20-33, 19:24). While many OT scriptures identify YHWH and Adonai with the One who became Jesus Christ, Acts 22:14 seems to differentiate Him, the Just One, from the Theos of the NT (= ‘the Elohim of our fathers’ in the OT) – further evidence of the plurality and closeness depicted in John 1:1, but also the individuality.

    Then we have the account of the ‘Ancient of Days’ in Dan 7:9, 13 and 22. In two of these visions the ‘Ancient of Days’ appears very like God the Father before whom the ‘Son of Man’ comes ‘in the clouds of heaven’ — clearly both are Deity. However in v.22 the ‘Ancient of Days’ is more like the vision of returning Jesus Christ in Matt 26:64 and elsewhere in the gospels (cf. Rev 19:13 where He is again called the Logos). So it would appear that even the names and titles of the Godhead are interchangeable on the one hand to emphasise unity, but on the other the designations depict separate entities.

    Reverting to the Greek ‘pros ton theon’ = ‘to/toward ‘the’ God’ in John 1:1 clearly God and the Logos are close to the point of being what we might humanly describe in very poor English as ‘intertwined’. It should also be noted here that the text does not say the Logos was with God ‘the Father’, but simply that He was with/toward ‘God’. The Father is normally assumed as implied in this text, but the Holy Spirit is also God, so it might be equally valid to state that the Logos was with everything we perceive as ‘the’ (one true) God. Indeed since the Logos is mentioned first ‘In the beginning’, it further implies just how much ‘one true God’ He actually is — which then brings us back to the nature, character, rationale and wisdom of God — or ‘full circle’ as they say. I hope I have not promulgated ‘doctrine’ here at the expense of logic (also derived from the Gk. ‘logos’).

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Its complicated.

  8. eli

    Denis, I just posted a collection of Hebraisms by Dr. Bivin of Jerusalem School of Synaptic research. This is the kind of thing I am referring to here (my comment above).

  9. Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    I am comfortable in this case with almost any translation that communicates either the sense of being “next to,” “beside”, “with” or as you suggest “towards”. An interesting question to ask would be how could this Greek phrase be rendered back into Hebrew or Aramaic. In other words what phrase/s could have been behind this Greek text that we are now discussing? Perhaps, this could be one direction for further research.

    1. Charles van den Berg

      You suggest that there is a connection between John 1:1 and Proverbs 8:30.
      It is indeed very interesting. But when you do so you have also to suggest a connection between Proverbs 8:31 and John 1: 14.
      Because without the ‘became flesh (incarnate) ‘ of the Word Proverbs 8:31 can not be true in that case. It seems to be true because in Proverbs 8:22 is also spoken
      is also spoken about ‘ the beginning’. Now the question is: was John thinking of Proverbs 8 when he wrote John 1?

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Dr. Charles van den Berg, thank you for your contribution. In my opinion John was not thinking about Prov.8, I think his mind was too busy with many other Jewish para-biblical materials (also) that held the view of “duality” (begining of trinity, though not quite yet) of Israel’s God. (For a popular and quick overview see Boyarin’s Jewish Gospels). Was Prov. 8 part of that mix? Naturally! Was he thinking of Prov. 8 in particular, when he wrote John 1.1? I am not sure.

        The truth is that we will not know, until we meet the beleved disciple face-to-face.

        Eli

        1. Charles van den Berg

          Thank you Eli. I think you are right. But we shall ask him when we shall see him from face-to-face when Jesus is coming back with his saints. John believed that too (John 14:3).

          1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            indeed.

        2. Dan O'Connell

          Dr. Boyarin discusses this topic extensively in his book, Boundaries: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2004), particularly in Part II.

          Dan O’Connell

          1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Dear Dan, thank you. Boyarin is a friend and a mentor. This study group has his endorsement (see to the right of the page). Dr. Eli

    2. Rafael

      Greeks claim that the New Testament was penned in Greek. Chaldeans claim it was Aramaic. Messianics believe it was Hebrew. Each one believes all other manuscripts were translations. Is it even possible to derive the autographs?

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        I am not sure it is that simple, but you are probably right this is the trend :-). When we deal in reconstruction of history we must realize that we are dealing with probabilities and not with certainties.

        1. Rafael

          I can still yearn for the certainty (to either know that we have the NT in its original language, or to find it).

  10. Dr Denis Callaghan

    Dear Brother,
    First of all I like that you begin at the beginning. One thing that jumped out of me right away that most wouldn’t consider of much importance is that phrase “and the Word was with God”. In my translation I translated “and the Word was toward God” which leads me to consider Proverbs 8:30 Would you agree with my translation or point me in another direction in my understanding. Thanks,