A Walk Through The Gospel of John, Part 2: In the Beginning Was the Word
Introduction: Disclaimer, review, outline
The Stoics understood logos to be the rational principle by which everything exists, and which is of the essence of the rational human soul. As far as they were concerned, there is no other god than logos, and all that exists has sprung from seminal logoi, seeds of this logos. Others have suggested a background in Gnosticism, a widespread, ill-defined movement in the Mediterranean world of the first three centuries; but it must be admitted that, so far as our sources go, there is little evidence for the existence of full-blown Gnosticism before John wrote his Gospel (cf. the Introduction, §§ II–III). Still others think John has borrowed from Philo, a first-century Jew who was much influenced by Plato and his successors. Philo makes a distinction between the ideal world, which he calls ‘the logos of God’, and the real or phenomenal world which is but its copy. In particular, logos for Philo can refer to the ideal man, the primal man, from which all empirical human beings derive. But Philo’s logos has no distinct personality, and does not itself become incarnate. John’s logos doctrine, by contrast, is not tied to such dualism. More generally, logos can refer to inner thought, hence ‘reason’, even ‘science’. That is one reason why some have advocated ‘Reason’ as a translation of logos (e.g. Clark). Alternatively, logos can refer to outward expression, hence ‘speech’ or ‘message’, which is why ‘Word’ is still thought by many to be the most appropriate term, provided it does not narrowly refer to a mere linguistic sign but is understood to mean something like ‘message’ (as in 1 Cor. 1:18).
However the Greek term is understood, there is a more readily available background than that provided by Philo or the Greek philosophical schools. Considering how frequently John quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, that is the place to begin. There, ‘the word’ (Heb. dāḇār) of God is connected with God’s powerful activity in creation (cf. Gn. 1:3ff.; Ps. 33:6), revelation (Je. 1:4; Is. 9:8; Ezk. 33:7; Am. 3:1, 8) and deliverance (Ps. 107:20; Is. 55:11). If the LORD is said to speak to the prophet Isaiah (e.g. Is. 7:3), elsewhere we read that ‘the word of the LORD came to Isaiah’ (Is. 38:4; cf. Je. 1:4; Ezk. 1:6). It was by ‘the word of the LORD’ that the heavens were made (Ps. 33:6): in Gn. 1:3, 6, 9, etc. God simply speaks, and his powerful word creates. That same word effects deliverance and judgment (Is. 55:11; cf. Ps. 29:3ff.). When some of his people faced illness that brought them to the brink of death, God ‘sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave’ (Ps. 107:20). This personification of the ‘word’ becomes even more colourful in Jewish writing composed after the Old Testament (e.g. Wisdom 18:14, 15). Whether this heritage was mediated to John by the Greek version of the Old Testament that many early Christians used, or even by an Aramaic paraphrase (called a ‘Targum’), the ultimate fountain for this choice of language cannot be in serious doubt.
In short, God’s ‘Word’ in the Old Testament is his powerful self-expression in creation, revelation and salvation, and the personification of that ‘Word’ makes it suitable for John to apply it as a title to God’s ultimate self-disclosure, the person of his own Son.
But if the expression would prove richest for Jewish readers, it would also resonate in the minds of some readers with entirely pagan backgrounds. In their case, however, they would soon discover that whatever they had understood the term to mean in the past, the author whose work they were then reading was forcing them into fresh thought (see on v. 14)
One must go farther. The wealth of possible backgrounds to the term logos in John’s Prologue suggests that the determining factor is not this or that background but the church’s experience of Jesus Christ. This is not to say the background is irrelevant. It is to say, rather, that when Christians looked around for suitable categories to express what they had come to know of Jesus Christ, many that they applied to him necessarily enjoyed a plethora of antecedent associations. The terms had to be semantically related to what the Christians wanted to say, or they could not have communicated with their own age.