The Logos in Greek and Jewish literature (John 1)

John’s theology of the Word (Greek logos) is rooted in the Old Testament but also addresses pressing philosophical concerns in the Greek world. The phrase “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) obviously echoes Genesis 1, which records that God created simply by speaking (e.g. “Let there be light” in Genesis 1:3). That is, God created by means of His word. There can be little doubt that this is the primary background to the use of logos in John 1: God’s word brought the universe into orderly existence. The Jewish Targums echo this understanding of the divibe Word. They frequently employ the term memra (derived from the Aramaic word for “speak”) to describe God’s creative activity, and this may have contributed to the language we find in John 1.

The word logos, however, also had a rich tradition in Greek thought. While logos can be a very general term, simply meaning “word, account, explanation or thing”, the philosophical Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 B.C.) used it in the sense of an ordering principle for the universe. Thus, the logos is the divine logic that gives order to the universe. Heraclitus appears to have associated it with fire and to have linked it with reason within human beings. This sense of logos was most fully developed by the Stoics, who taught that the universe was permeated with the logos that gave order and rationality to all things. In late Stoicism this logos could be equated with pneuma, “spirit”, a kind of compound of fire and air, permeated by reason. There was a logos within each individual person (i.e. human reason) and a logos that pervaded the universe (i.e. the rationality that governs the world). By extension, the logos within human beings enabled them to move in harmony with the logos of the universe. Those who were governed by passions and emotions, however, were thought to have turned away from the universal logos and to have become bestial in their behaviour. This concept provided the basis for the Stoic ethical system.

What did John mean by describing Jesus as the logos? As noted above, the link to Genesis 1 is central; the logos is the one by whom “all things were made” (John 1:3) – that is, Christ. But there may be a secondary application of the term that would speak to the educated Greek reader. Christ in His person is the Logos. The truth, the guiding principle of the universe and of the soul of every person, is not a mere abstraction of theoretical “rationality”, but a person. By this person, the Logos, the individual may attain harmony with God and His creation.

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