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Chapter 7. The Old Testament Roots of “the Word” in John 1.1

Chapter 7

The Old Testament Roots of “the Word” in John 1:1

The “Word” in the phrase “The Word of Yahweh” is basically a collect­ive noun for referring to a string of words which con­veys a command of Yahweh (e.g. “Let there be light,” Gen.1:3). Refer­ring to a message from Yahweh, the phrase “the word of the Lord came” (to Abram, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, etc) occurs over 100 times in the OT.

To appreciate the importance of “the word,” there are some basic facts we need to understand about it. For example, how do human beings communicate with each other if not by means of words? We need only go to a foreign country whose language we do not under­stand to appreciate the fact that without know­ing their language we find ourselves unable to communi­cate even on the sim­plest level. Even knowledge of a few local words could prove helpful. We soon real­ize that words are the essential way by which people commun­icate; all com­munication relies on words whether spoken (in a variety of sounds), written (in whatever forms, signs, or sym­bols), or (as in the case of computers) digitalized. Without language there is simply no way of com­municating—apart perhaps from telepathy, the exist­ence of which appears to be, scientifically speaking, doubtful. Not even husbands and wives who know each other well, and can there­fore guess what is in the other per­son’s mind under various circum­stances, can be sure of what the other person actually thinks in every­day matters without verbal com­munication. Facial expressions can communicate certain emotions, but the contents of those emotions can only be communi­cated by words. But we take language so much for granted in our daily lives that we tend to forget how indispensable it is for human life as a whole.

The word is equally indispensable for God’s communication with man. Here, too, there is no other way to communicate effect­ively or intelligibly. A sign, such as a miracle, communicates a message if we are able to interpret its significance; and words are still needed to interpret it. In Scripture, the mean­ing of divine actions is usually explained, so that people are not left to guess at their meaning and end up misunderstand­ing it. God’s desire is that we come to know Him, hence the importance of His Word. In relation to God, there is something fundamentally im­portant to grasp: all communica­tions between God and man are mediated either audibly or in written form through His word. If, as we have seen, all human communication is essent­ially mediated by words, it is all the more so in relation to God because “God is Spirit” (John 4:24); more­over, He is holy, as is frequently reiterated in the Scriptures, such that no one can have a direct, unmediated vision of Him and live (Ex.33:20); so it is prim­arily by verbal commun­ication that He reveals Himself to man.

There is no possibility, during man’s earthly life, of a direct, unmediated, or “unfiltered” vision of God. When it is stated, for example, that Isaiah had a vision of God (Isa.6:1ff), it is explained that what he saw was the “glory” of God (Jn.12:41), not a direct vision of Him. The same is true of Ezekiel’s vision of God which he was granted to see, looking upward through some­thing like a crystalline pane of “glass,” which he described in this way, “Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads” (Ezek.1:22). There above the living creatures he saw a throne, “and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance” (v.26); “such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Yahweh)” (v.28). Like Isaiah, what Ezekiel saw was the “glory of Yahweh”; indeed, he goes further to say that it was only “the likeness” of His glory. The important point is that all God’s inter­actions with man are med­iated either through His word or His glory, or both: for example, Ezek.1:3, “the word of Yahweh came to Ezekiel,” and “I saw visions of God” (Ezek.1:1; “the glory of Yahweh”, v.28). It is for this reason that both “the Word” and “the Glory” (e.g. 1Sam.4:21,22; 15:29; cf. Heb.1:3; 8:1) serve as metonyms for Yahweh God; but the Word is the main way God interacts with man.

All this is of the greatest importance for understanding John’s Gospel, and especially the only two verses in John where “the Word” is mentioned: verses John 1:1 and 1:14. It is significant that verse 14 speaks of both “word” and “glory” (as in Ezekiel 1) be­cause it is in this verse that “the Word be­came flesh” with the result that “we have seen his glory”. Whom does “his” refer to? The subject of the sentence is “the Word,” so clearly the glory which the apostles saw was the glory of the Word. His glory was made visible by His becoming “flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ. So the term “the Son” does not just refer to Jesus, but to the Word incarnate in him; the glory of the Word is the glory made visible in this unique or “only” Son: “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (v.14). This is crucial for understanding John’s Gospel. To suppose that “the Son” refers only to the man Christ Jesus is the error of unitarianism, whereas to suppose that “the Son” refers to “God the Son” incarnate as man is the error of trinitarianism. Only when “the Son” is under­stood in terms of the Shekinah—Yahweh God (as the Word) dwelling among men—is it correctly understood in terms of the Biblical revelation.

The foundational verse of trinitarian Christology: John 1:1

The first few verses of John’s Gospel are undoubtedly the most crucial for trinitarian Christology; it is the foundation stone upon which it builds its case. With regard to the fundamental importance of the Johannine Prologue for Trinitarian theology, Ben Witherington III (Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky), in his book Jesus the Sage, rightly observes:

Without question, John 1:1-18 has had more impact on Christian thinking about the Son of God as preexistent and a divine being than any other New Testament passage. Here is where the early church derived its logos (i.e., the Son of God as the “Word”) Christology and its basic understanding of the incarnation.

Witherington, like most other scholars, recognizes the crucial import­ance of the Prologue, particularly the first verse, for trinit­arianism. We shall, there­fore, begin this part of our study with an in-depth examina­tion of this first portion of John’s Gospel.

Continuing his discussion on John’s Prologue, Witherington writes:

The evidence that this is an independent hymn that has been incorporated into this Gospel is strong, for there are various key terms in this hymn that one finds nowhere else in the Gospel, including the word logos, the word for grace (charis), the word for fullness (pleros). Further, the idea found in v.14 of the Word coming and tabernacling or setting up his tent in our midst is found only in this passage of the Gospel.

The best way to describe this hymn is to call it poetry with some lapses into prose, or poetic prose at the end. In the Greek it has a certain rhythmic cadence which can even be picked up in a good English translation.” (Jesus the Sage, p.283).

It is worth noting that the major NT passages which trinitarianism relies on to support its christology are passages which are gener­ally recognized to be hymns and, therefore, of a poetic character. Apart from John’s Prologue, there is Philippians 2:6-11, also possibly Colossians 1 and, less likely, Hebrews 1. But what should also be care­fully noted is that these hymns are about Christ (and God) but are not addressed to him (that is, in worship, as is often wrongly supposed).

Witherington traces the origins of the Logos to the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament and other early documents, as many other Biblical schol­ars do. In this chapter we shall consider this and other important ele­ments in the Hebrew Bible to which the roots of the Logos in John 1:1 can be traced and which together contributed to its meaning. We shall begin by examining the term “Word” in those places where its meaning must surely have a bearing on our under­standing of the Word in John 1.

Word = Logos = Dabar = Memra

What is “Logos” (Word) in the Hebrew Bible?

In both the United Bible Societies Hebrew NT (1976) and Salkinson-Ginsberg Hebrew NT, “Logos” (Word) in John 1:1 is correctly trans­lated by the Hebrew word dabar.

Dabar (word) refers to any kind of verbal communication; so the verb can mean “to speak, declare, converse, command, pro­mise, warn, threat­en, sing, etc.”; and as a noun it means, “word, speaking, speech, thing, etc.” As in every language, it is a common word: “These two words [verb and noun] occur more than 2500 times in the OT, the noun more than 1400 times and the verb more than 1100” (TWOT).

It was mentioned at the end of Chapter 5 that loving-kindness is central to Yahweh’s character. Since His Word is the chief means of expressing Himself verb­ally, it is the means of His self-revelation. That is where the signi­ficance of the word lies. Yahweh in His kind­ness desires above all to bring blessing to everyone on earth through His Word. Rain is one of the ways Yahweh’s bless­ings are poured out upon the earth, water­ing the plants which provide food for man and animals. So, rain was an appro­priate and potent symbol of His word.

Dabar—“Word” in Isaiah 55

The gift of rain from heaven, so vital for life on earth, por­trays God’s word:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word (דָּבָר dabar) that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10,11; NIV)

There are several important points of parallel with the Word (Logos/ Memra) in John 1. In the Isaiah passage we note that:

  1. It comes down from heaven, it “waters” (ravah, רָוָה, to “satur­ate, water,” Hebrew and English Lexicon, BDB) the earth.
  2. It brings life to plants (and the animals that feed on them) which provide food for mankind.
  3. The word is “sent” and then returns.
  4. It will not return to God empty but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. This is emphasized by the par­allel state­ments, “will accomplish what I desire” and “achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
  5. When its work is accomplished it will return to God, just as rain water rises again to the skies as vapor, thus depicting its “resurrect­ion”.

It is surely no coincidence that all these points are key elements in John’s Gospel, thus providing a strong indication of the OT root of Logos in John 1. The counterpart of these five points in John can be set forth concisely as follows:

  1. “I am from above” (Jn.8:23)
  2. “I am the life” (Jn.11:25; 14:6)
  3. The Father sent the Son (Jn.10:36)
  4. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (Jn.17:4); “It is finished” (Jn.19:30)
  5. “I go to the Father” (Jn.16:10); “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn.20:17)

The picture of rain is interesting for another reason: Rain is not some­thing that comes only once, but is “sent” from heaven and then “returns” to heaven, and then it comes again. This portrays the Word as having come from above, having been sent by the Father. The Word brings life to those who dwell on earth, and thereby glorifies the Father on earth. It then returns to the Father, but will come again. This point recurs repeatedly in Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel, and not only in the five points just mentioned as exam­ples, but frequently and especially in his final discourses in John chap­ters 14 to 17. Here it becomes very clear that it is the Word (Logos/Memra) that is speak­ing in the person of Jesus, precisely because the Word is “embodied” in Jesus. Already in John 13:33,36 the incarnate Word speaks about his departure, and this extends into the fol­lowing chapters (14:3,4,18,19,28; 15:22; 16:5,7,10,16,17,22,28; 17:3,8,11,13,18,23). [1]

The Word and the Spirit

Jesus, in whom the Word was incarnate, promises his disciples that he will return to them after his departure, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (Jn.14:18). This does not just refer to his appearances to them during the relatively short time after his resurrect­ion and before his ascen­sion, for would he not again leave them as “orphans” when he leaves them at the ascen­sion? How then would he come to them in such a way as not to leave them as orphans? He had anticipated this point in the previous sentence, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for­ever, even the Spirit of truth” (Jn.14:16,17).

To understand the connection between the Word and the Spirit we must return to the OT, for example, “By the word of the Lord (Yahweh) the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps.33:6). Those unable to read the original texts will be unaware of the connection of “word” and “spirit” in this verse. In the Greek OT, the “word” here is logos as in John 1:1,14, and “spirit” is pneuma which is the word used of the Holy Spirit throughout John and the NT. In the Hebrew text, “word” here is dabar, and “spirit” is ruach, which is the usual word used to refer to God’s Spirit.

“Word” and “Spirit” parallel each other in the Scriptures; that is why Jesus could make such a simple transition from his depart­ure to the coming of the Spirit in such a way that the disciples are not left “as orphans”. This is also why the Spirit can be spoken of as the “spirit of Christ” (Rom.8:9; 1Pet.1:11) or the “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7; Phil.1:19), and thus “I am with you always” (Mt.28:20). All this is intelligible only if we understand that the Word “became flesh” (Jn.1:14) in Jesus; for the Word of Yahweh and the Spirit of Yahweh are, in the Script­ures, different forms of Yahweh’s operat­ions, they are not two different persons. Thus he who is “born of the Spirit (pneuma)” (Jn.3:5,6,8) is “born again through the living and abiding Word (logos) of God” (1Pt.1:23) and has experienced “birth through the word (logos) of truth” (Jas.1:18). Here again it is evident that Word and the Spirit are not two differ­ent entities or persons but two aspects of the one spiritual reality.

In contrast to this, trinitarianism has considerable difficulty explain­ing the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. It is also a point of dissension be­tween the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church. Their conflict is over the issue of the Filioque, which means “and from the Son,” that is, whether the Spirit came only from the Father or also “from the Son”. The Orthodox church firmly rejects the Filioque while the Catholic church insists on it. The relationship between these two churches was officially bro­ken in the 11th century (AD 1054) mainly over this dispute. Thus the Spirit of unity and oneness (Eph.4:3) is made the cause of division and discord.

There are many other problems which arise because of the trin­itarian distinction of “the second person” (Christ) and “the third person” (the Spirit) as different divine persons. One example is the fact that though the church is called “the body of Christ” (Rom.7:4; 1Cor.10:16, etc) and Christ is its head (Eph.5:23; Col.1:18, etc), yet the functional operations within the body are directed by an­other person, the Spirit (1Cor.12:11, and vv.7-10). Does this not reduce Jesus to a “figure head” of the church? Are we not left with the rather strange situation in which the head does not direct its body, but has to do it through another person? This, frankly, makes little sense, and hence the difficulty of coming up with any plausible explanation.

Rain as a dynamic symbol of the Word

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accom­plish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10,11)

Like the Word in John 1, the rain comes down from heaven to bring life to the earth. Without the life-giving water of rain to drench the land and fill the rivers and lakes, there would be drought, and drought brings death. Rain brings life by giving itself to be absorbed into the thirsty ground and drunk by needy plants, animals, and human beings. It is well known that human beings can survive for weeks without food, but cannot survive with­out water for more than a few days. Rain can be compared to the seed that is sown upon the ground by the hand of the sower (Mark 4:26); “seed” like “rain” portrays “the Word,” Lk.8:11; 1Pt.1:23; cf. Mt.13:19ff). It is also significant that, in the OT passage quoted above, the rain is spoken of as “giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater” (Isa.55:10). Also like the seed, which after it “falls into the earth and dies” it “bears much fruit” (Jn.12:24), the rain “dies” in the sense of being absorbed by the ground and the plants that live in it; it is soaked into the ground and “buried”. But in due time, when it has served its purpose, having fulfilled its function of bringing life and thereby “bears much fruit,” it evapor­ates and rises to heaven in the invisible form of water vapor and, as such, it portrays the water returning to the clouds of heaven in this “spiritual” form; it will then return again as rain.

It is significant that the term “poured out,” used of the Holy Spirit given to the church at Pentecost in Acts 2:33, is also used of rain: “The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder” (Psalm 77:17). The same Greek word is used in Luke 5:37 of wine which is poured out or spilled. Jesus uses the same word at the Last Supper where the wine represents his life-giving blood, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk.14:24; Lk. 22:20). All this beautifully confirms the function of the Word so vividly and effectively symbol­ized by the rain.[2]

The Word “enfleshed” or incarnate in Jesus is, like the rain, the water of life for the world (Jn.4:14). He is also the “bread of life” (Jn.6:33,35), portrayed by the manna which, like rain, des­cended from heaven and fed the hungry Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. But water does not benefit us unless we drink it, and bread does not nourish us unless we eat it; that is why, speaking metaphorically and spiritually, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’” (Jn.6:53, also 54-56,63). The point is that the Word does not give life until it is “eaten” or internalized, that is, until it is received into the heart, or as Paul put it, “Let the word (logos) of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col.3:16).

The coming down of the Logos/Word can thus be compared to God’s gift of life-giving rain, bringing the blessing of life to the whole world.

Psalm 107

“The word,” Hebrew dabar, is used in the following important passage; here the Greek (LXX) for dabar is logos:

Psalm 107: 19 Then they cried to the Lord (Yahweh) in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 20 He sent out his word (logos) and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction (Hebrew, the “pit”; LXX, “corruption,” meaning: death and the grave).

Verse 20 has enormous significance for the understanding of the Logos in John and for NT soteriology in general. “Delivered them from their destruct­ion” is translated as “He rescued them from the grave” in the NIV. The miracles of physical healing which Jesus performed underlined the fact that Yahweh had “sent forth his word and healed them,” which in turn indicated that He was delivering them from their destruct­ion through His saving work in Christ.[3]

Yahweh, through His Logos embodied in Jesus, fulfilled the words of Psalm 107:20: “He sent out his word (LXX: Logos) and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction (LXX: corruption)”. From this it is clear that Yahweh’s saving Word accom­plishes our salvation in and through the person of Jesus the Messiah; it is equally clear that His Word is not a being who is independent or separate from Yahweh.

Yahweh cannot be separated from His Word because it is integral to His Person, any more than His truth or His salvation can be received apart from Him. In the case of human beings, it is conceiv­able that once their word is spoken or written and sent forth, it has a certain existence of its own, but this is not possible in God’s case because He is omni­present.

Moreover, the Word was embodied or “enfleshed” in Jesus; but the very fact of its embodiment in Jesus indicates that it is not one and the same entity with Jesus. Yahweh functions in Jesus as Word, but Yahweh God and Jesus are not to be confused as one and the same being or person.

Interestingly, the Qur’an (4:171) speaks of Jesus as both “Spirit from God (Allah)” and “God’s Word”. Is this an insight that came from the human mind or a revelation of God? But the Qur’an does not elevate these elements or realities (Word and Spirit) within the Being of God into independent beings or persons distinct from God, which is the error of trinitarianism. Thus the Qur’an affirms that these vital realties within God’s Being are sent forth by Him and incorporated in the person of Jesus Christ. This is entirely in accord­ance with the NT revelation.

“The Word of the Lord (Yahweh)”

This term occurs 242 times[4] in the OT where it means a message, declar­ation, or command from Yahweh. At times this message came by way of a vision (e.g. 1Sam.3:1), usually given to a prophet, and then delivered by the prophet to the person(s) for whom it was intended. There is no instance in which it is hypo­stasized, that is, spoken of as a person.

The same is true in the NT where it appears 12 times (including 1Thess. 4:15), 9 of which are in Acts. In no instance in the NT is it applied to Jesus as a title.

“The word of the Lord” occurs in Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” This verse has some relevance for John 1:3, al­though it speaks only of the creation of the heavens by Yahweh’s word; but it is of no value to trinitar­ianism because it provides no hint of the “word” as a distinct person from Yahweh, much less one who is His equal.

“Logos” in the Greek OT (LXX)

As for the word logos, it occurs 1,239 times in the Greek OT and generally means nothing more than words used in speech or conver­sation. The term “the word of the Lord (Yahweh)” or the “word of God” means the message which God communicates to and/or through His servants. Unlike Wisdom, there is no clear instance of it being personified. This is the kind of problem that the interpretation of logos as person must face up to.

Given the fact that there is virtually nothing that trinitar­ianism can use in the OT, most Christian theologians (followed by trinitarian NT commentat­ors) are obliged to argue that the Johan­nine Logos concept derives not primar­ily from the OT, but from Greek philo­sophy (the Stoics, Plato, etc.) modified by the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo and then adapted by John for his own purposes. This is to say that John borrowed his “Logos” from pagan (Gentile) sources, not from the Word of God, the OT. This amounts to saying that the “Word” (Jn.1:1) of God is not derived from the Word of God! Is it not strange that this trinitarian “Logos” or “Word” of God comes not from the Word of God, but from Gentile philosophical teaching? Yet (as perhaps should be expected) the Gentile church sees nothing incongruous or unac­ceptable about this incongruity!

The average Christian doesn’t have any idea where this trinit­arian Logos concept came from. They are simply told that Logos is the name of the Son, the 2nd person in the Trinity. They don’t know that Logos is nowhere in John’s Gospel applied to Jesus, or to the Son, as a title. In fact, it is not explicitly applied to Jesus anywhere in the NT, not even in the Apocalypse, where the title ap­pears only once, in Rev.19:13, but almost certainly refers to the Lord of Hosts, as evidenced by His armies following Him (described in the next verse). This is consistent with the “Word,” or Memra, as a meto­nym of Yahweh, who is described as “the King of kings and Lord of lords” three verses later (19:16 and cf. 1Tim.6:15).

The origins of the “Logos”?

If we are finally to understand the Johannine Logos, we must first be clear about one important fact: When surveying the enormous amount of Christian (trinitarian) literature on the subject of the Logos in John 1, one fact emerges with complete clarity, namely, the failure to find a satisfactory explanation of its origin outside the Bible. Trinitarianism is likewise unable to find anything within the Bible to support their interpretation of the Word as “God the Son”.

(1) Those who suggest a source in Greek philosophy seem to presume that John was writing for people versed in that philosophy and fail to observe the fact that most people, even today, know next to nothing about philosophy, so any supposed philosophical allusion would have been lost on the general reader.

(2) The same is true of those who assume some connection of the Logos idea with Philo, a Jewish religious philosopher living in Egypt. First of all, we can be quite sure that the average man on the street in Israel in NT times had never even heard of Philo. Aramaic was the lang­uage spoken in Israel at that time, but Philo wrote in Greek, a language not many people would have been famil­iar with in Israel, not to mention the fact that the level of edu­cation was low, as was the level of liter­acy in the general population, which was true for the whole world at that time, including the Greek speaking world. So, if John him­self knew about Philo, which is doubtful, it would have been useless for him to use a Logos concept that the people generally knew nothing about. Even today, few theo­logians know much about Philo’s ideas. Secondly, although Philo did write about the Logos, his Logos was not a distinct person from Yahweh, but was personified somewhat like Wisdom in Proverbs. Philo’s Logos was never a person coequal with God, so his Logos is not of any real use to trinitarians.

(3) There are only two or three verses in the OT which speak of God’s “Word” that can be pointed to as a possible source of “the Word,” and this really is too slender a foundation on which to base a trinitarian “Logos Christ­ology”. More­over, as we have seen, none of these sug­gested sources speaks of the Logos as a personal divine being, much less one who is coequal with Yahweh.

(4) Given this situation, some trinitarians have gone so far as to sug­gest that John had himself invented the Logos idea by means of a “synthesis” of elements derived from Greek philosophy and Philo’s adaptation of it. This should be discerned for what it really is: a piece of baseless specu­lation motivated by the determination to read trinit­arian dogma into the Logos by whatever means avail­able.

(5) The only truly viable understanding of Logos (Word) in John 1:1 is to realize that it is the Greek word for “Memra,” a word well known during the time of the Jewish church because of its frequent occur­rence in the Jewish Targums that were used in the syna­gogues at that time. But this under­standing of Logos was rejected out of hand by trinitarians for no other reason than that it is a metonym for “Yahweh” and therefore does not serve the trinitarian purpose! How this kind of reasoning can pass for “biblical scholar­ship” truly boggles the mind! Truth is accepted or rejected depend­ing on whether or not it is accept­able to trinitarianism. They make dogma determine the understand­ing of the Bible, not vice versa. The final spiritual conse­quences for so doing are hard to imagine.

The Old Testament roots of the Logos

Why were we led to think that Logos has its origin in Greek thought when the Prologue states absolutely unam­biguously that the reference derives from the OT, and specifically from the first chapter of Genesis, by means of the words “In the beginning”—the open­ing words of the Bible? These very words, “in the beginning,” appear again in 1John 1:1 with reference to the “logos of life”. So what is the excuse for attempt­ing to find its origin outside the Scriptures?

We could paraphrase John 1:1 in this way: “The Word that was ‘In the beginning’ (i.e. Genesis 1:1) was the Word that was with God (i.e. the Word that is constantly associated with God in our Jewish Targums as “the Word of the Lord,” the Memra), and this Word (as we know from the Targums) was in fact none other than God Himself.”

The Hebrew Bible did not have chapter and verse numbers (these were put into the Bible at a much later date), so a particular book was often referred to by its opening words. Thus to refer to Genesis, or specif­ically to the first chap­ter, one would use its opening words “In the beginning,” just as in John 1:1,2.

Anyone who reads (not to mention studies) the Scriptures should have been aware of the fact that the God who reveals Himself in those Scriptures is One who has manifold facult­ies within Himself: His spirit, mind, wisdom, power, etc. Why then do we assume that the Word that was “with” Him in the beginning, and by which or with which He brought all creation into being, has to be under­stood as another divine being distinct from Him and not as the expression of an essential faculty within His own Being? Why is “with” to be understood in terms of separation or distinction rather than in terms of partici­pation or oneness? What else but Gentile poly­theistic tend­encies would have inclined the Gentile mind to take the “with” as im­plying a distinction of being, and thereby claiming the existence of another being who is coexistent and coequal with Yahweh Him­self, an idea totally foreign and contrary to the Bible and utterly repugnant to the Biblical monotheist.

But the reason for the trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1 is even more complex than the facts mentioned in the previous para­graphs. For with the emergence of a Gentile church with leaders who had little knowledge of the church’s Jewish roots, the Christian church soon lost its connection with its Jewish origins. For example, many or most of the leaders of the Latin speaking churches, including their leading theologian Augustine, had scarcely any know­ledge of New Testament Greek, let alone Hebrew. Even the fact that Jesus was a Jew was lost sight of, and the fact that the NT, with the exception of Luke, was written by Jews was forgotten. So the NT was inter­preted as though it were a Gentile work. And when speaking of God, it was virtually forgotten that in the Bible this refers above all to Yahweh. God was spoken of as though He were some universal Gentile God. Certainly “God is the King of all the earth; God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Ps.47.7,8). But “let them [the Gentiles] know that you, whose name is the Lord (Yahweh)—that you alone are the Most High over all the earth” (Ps.83:18, NIV). Note, however, the inappropriateness of the translation “whose name is the Lord,” for it should be obvious that “the Lord” is not a name but a title; the Hebrew, of course, reads “whose name is Yahweh”.

But the problem is more complex than even that: incipient anti-Jewish feelings (it would be going too far to speak of a full-fledged anti-Semitism) had already begun to take root in the church. For was it not the Jews who were the first persecutors of the church, having first of all rejected Jesus, and then turned their hostilities upon the infant church? Did not even Paul (Saul) help to implement these hostilities before his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road (1Cor.15:9; Gal.1:13)? These perceptions would have served to in­crease the distance between Christian and Jew. (Cf. also Dunn, “The Question of the Anti-semitic in the New Testament Writings of the Period” in J.D.G. Dunn, Jews and Christians, the Parting of the Ways, p.177ff)

The Word and the Law

The message of Jesus (and Paul) was seen by the Jews as decentral­izing the position of the Law (Torah). Given the place of the Torah in the religion, life, and practice of the Jews, the leading rabbis worked to rally the Jewish people around the Torah after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the col­lapse of the Jewish nation. (See J.D.G. Dunn, Jews and Christians, the Parting of the Ways, p.199, parag.3.)

John wrote around this time, and one important fact that we have over­looked so far is that the Torah or Law of God is fre­quently spoken of as the Word of God in the OT (e.g. the very long Psalm 119). So it is likely that at the very time when the rabbinic council at Javneh [5] was in the process of estab­lishing the centrality of the Torah, the Word, for Israel, the message was being declared through John that God’s Word had become incar­nate in the person of Messiah Jesus. In the circum­stances in which the Jewish nation found itself at that time, this would have been a very relevant and striking message.

The Jews believed that the Torah, God’s Word as Law, existed at the time of the creation and even before it. So while John may not have meant the logos to be the Torah exclusively, it was included within the wider mean­ing of the logos.

Professor C.K. Barrett (who was professor of New Testament at the University of Durham at the time of writing his commentary) recognized the significance of Torah for the understanding of the meaning of Logos. He also noted that in rabbinic teaching, “Torah is said to be pre-existent, creative, and divine” from which he went on to make the perceptive observation that “such notions are the root of John’s statement” (on “the Word was with God,” The Gospel Accor­ding to John, p.129, italics mine). In the subsequent sections of his commentary Barrett repeatedly refers to the Torah and Wisdom to support and elucidate his points.

The Word (Logos) and the Law (Torah)

Psalm 119:89, “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.” Here the “word” is specifically the Law (Torah) of Yahweh. This, the longest Psalm (176 verses), has as its central theme the Law (also referred to as “com­mand­ments,” “statutes,” etc); and the Law is repeatedly described as “Your word”.

One way to help us further is to recall Yahweh’s giving of the Law as summed up in the Ten Commandments:

Exodus 31:18, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (NIV).

Deuteronomy 9:10, “And the Lord (Yahweh) gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words (LXX logoi, pl. of logos) that the Lord (Yahweh) had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.”

On Sinai the Word of Yahweh came to Israel written in stone; in Christ the Word of Yahweh came to the world “written” in flesh, in a human life.

The comparison and contrast of the Law and the gospel is something that is frequent in the NT. This is seen even within the Johannine Prologue, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The relationship between the Law and Christ is referred to fre­quently in Romans (3:21-22; 5:20-21; 7:4,25; 8:3; 10:4), and is a central topic in Galatians (e.g., 2:16,19,21; 3:13,24; 5:4). Com­parison and contrast between Moses and Christ is also made (2Cor.3:13,14; Heb.3:5,6; 8:5,6; 11:24-26). All this means that what Moses and the Law were to Israel, Christ and the gospel are to the world, but on a scale that far exceeds the former both in terms of saving power and life-giving effect.

The connection of Law and Word can be seen in the OT:

Proverbs 6:23: For the commandment is a lamp and the teach­ing (torah; nomos) a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.

In the English translation of this verse, no reference to the Law is evi­dent except to those who know that the word “torah” also means teaching or instruction. In this context, “torah” is better tran­slated as “law” because it stands in parallel with “the command­ment”. Notice, too, that in this verse three things are linked together: Law (nomos), light (phōs), and life (zōē). The connection with John 1:4 can easily be dis­cerned, “the life (zōē) was the light (phōs) of men”.

Logos is linked to light also in Psalm 119:105: “Your word (logos, referring primarily to the law) is a lamp to my feet and a light (phōs) to my path”; for “you are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness” (2Sa.22:29).

Logos and Torah, further observations

What non-Jews generally do not grasp is the pivotal significance of the Law for the Jewish people. The Torah is that around which the life of the Jewish people revolves, defining every facet of their daily lives. This was true for the Jews in Palestine in the time of Jesus and his apostles, and for the Jews of the diaspora (i.e. the Jews who were dispersed to other parts of the world).

It must be understood that the policy that generally governed the preach­ing of the gospel in the early church, and especially for Paul, was “to the Jew first” (Rom.1:16; cf.2:9,10) and then also to the Gentiles. There can be no doubt that this was the object of John’s Gospel, because in John 20:31 he states the purpose of writing the Gospel as being “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” “The Christ,” of course, is the Greek form of “the Messiah,” a term that was rich in meaning for the Jews, but not for Gentiles. This makes it clear that John’s Gospel was written in the first instance for Jews.

This being the case, it should be evident that “the Logos (Word)” must also have been a term that was familiar to the Jews. So we should make it our aim to discover with as much clarity as possible what it meant to the Jews to whom John wrote. The fact is that the Jews were act­ually familiar with the idea of “the word” of the Lord because:

  1. It referred to the Law, as we have just noted;
  2. It could refer to Wisdom, which Jesus speaks of as embodied in him (Mt.11:19; Lk.7:35; 11:49);
  3. The “word of the Lord” which spoke to Israel through the many prophets of the OT (Isa.1:10, etc), was also the word He sent forth to accomplish His purposes in the world (Isa.55:10f);
  4. Yahweh’s creative word, as in Ps.33:6; and
  5. above all, the Memra (Word) was familiar to the Jews from their Targums, which we shall consider in greater detail below.

Given these expressions of “the Word” in the Hebrew Bible, it should be clear that references to it in the first verses of John would not have been something unheard of to the Jews who first read (or heard) it. But what would surely have been astonishing to them is the assertion that this Word has now taken on a body of flesh—in the person of Jesus the Messiah. This would have been for them a mind-boggling declaration.

The identification of ‘word’ and ‘law (torah)’ in Jewish thought and teaching

Most Christians have little or no knowledge of how the Jews in John’s time (and subsequently) viewed the Law as God’s Word. Consider the following excerpts from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

Preexistence of the Torah.

“The Torah is older than the world, for it existed either 947 gener­ations (Zeb. 116a, and parallels) or 2,000 years (Gen. R. viii., and parallels; Weber, ‘Jüdische Theologie,’ p.15) before the Creation. The original Pent­ateuch, therefore, like every­thing celestial, consisted of fire, being written in black letters of flame upon a white ground of fire (Yer. Shek. 49a, and paral­lels; Blau, ‘Althebräisches Buchwesen,’ p. 156).

“God held counsel with it at the creation of the world, since it was wisdom itself (Tan., Bereshit, passim), and it was God’s first revelation, in which He Himself took part. It was given in completeness for all time and for all mankind, so that no fur­ther revelation can be expected. It was given in the lang­uages of all peoples; for the voice of the divine revelation was seventy­fold (Weber, l.c. pp.16-20; Blau, ‘Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift,’ pp.84-100).

“It shines forever, and was transcribed by the scribes of the seventy peoples (Bacher, ‘Ag. Tan.’ ii. 203, 416), while every­thing found in the Prophets and the Hagiographa was already contained in the Torah (Ta’an. 9a), so that, if the Israelites had not sinned, only the five books of Moses would have been given them (Ned. 22b). As a matter of fact, the Prophets and the Hagio­grapha will be abrogated; but the Torah will re­main forever (Yer. Meg. 70d). ‘Every letter of it is a living creature… not one letter of the Torah shall be destroyed’ (Lev. R. xix.; Yer. Sanh. 20c; Cant. R. 5, 11; comp. Bacher, l.c. ii. 123, note 5). The single letters were hypostatized, and were active even at the creation of the world (Bacher, l.c. i. 347),

“Israel received this treasure only through suffering (Ber. 5a, and parallels), for the book and the sword came together from heaven, and Israel was ob­liged to choose between them (Sifre, Deut. 40, end; Bacher, l.c. ii. 402, note 5); and whosoever denies the heavenly origin of the Torah will lose the future life (Sanh. x. 1).” (Jewish Encyclopedia, “Torah”)

Torah as Word of God

It can easily be seen that if the logos is identified as the Word of God, which to the Jews was above all the Torah, then the idea of the preexistent Torah as having become flesh in the person of Messiah Jesus would have been to the Jews truly some­thing aston­ishing.

When we look at the passages in the Jewish Encyclopedia quoted above, we can see a remarkable parallel with John 1:1. Note the following parallels:

In the beginning was the word—“The Torah is older than the world, for it existed… before the Creation.”

The word was with God—“God held counsel with it at the creation of the world, since it was wisdom itself (Tan., Bereshit, passim)”

The word was God—“and it was God’s first revelation, in which He Himself took part.” (i.e. it was a revelation of Himself)

The parallels are the more striking when we realize that the Jewish Encyclopedia was written not by Christians but by Jews, who are here simply giving an account of what the Jews firmly be­lieved from early times. An ade­quate understanding of the Jewish faith in general, and their belief in the Torah in particular, is obvious­ly of great import­ance for under­standing the way the gospel was preached to the Jews both in John’s gospel and in the NT as a whole. These Jewish beliefs are not in themselves always stated in Biblical terms, but were considered to be legitimate extrapolations from the Biblical revelation.

But the parallels do not end there; here are several more points of compar­ison:

(1) “It (the Torah) was given in completeness for all time and for all mankind, so that no further revelation can be expected. It was given in the languages of all peoples; for the voice of the divine revelation was seventyfold (Weber, l.c. pp. 16-20; Blau, ‘Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift,’ pp. 84-100). It shines forever…” (Jewish Encyclopedia, italics added)

John: The logos was the light (of divine revelation), and in Messiah Jesus it is “the light of the world” (Jn.8:12; 9:5).

(2) “The Torah will remain forever… Every letter of it is a living creature [i.e. the Torah has life in itself]… The single letters were hypostatized, and were active even at the creation of the world” (Jewish Encyclopedia).

John: The Father “gave to the son to have life in himself” (Jn.5:26). Compare also Matthew 5:18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

(3) (a) The Torah came “from heaven…and whosoever denies the heavenly origin of the Torah will lose the future life (Sanh. x. 1).”

(b) “Whoever separates himself from the Torah dies forthwith (’Ab. Zarah 3b); for fire consumes him, and he falls into hell (B. B. 79a);

(c) “From the earliest times the Synagogue has proclaimed the divine origin of the Pentateuch, and has held that Moses wrote it down from dictation.” (a-c, Jewish Encyclopedia, italics added)

John: The Son was “from heaven” (Jn.3:13,31; 6:38).

In Judaism, faith in the Torah was considered essential for eternal life or “the future life”. Likewise, faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life in John and in the NT generally.

[1] Note on Isaiah 55:10f: The reason why this important OT root of the Logos has generally been overlooked is almost certainly because the LXX translator of this passage in Isaiah used the word rhēma (ῥῆμα) instead of logos to translate the Hebrew dabar. Rhēma and logos are synonymous; both words are used to translate dabar, but logos is used more frequently (to give an idea of the relative frequency in LXX, includ­ing the apocrypha: logos 1239 times; rhēma 546 times). But the fact that this LXX translator used rhēma instead of logos in this verse has served to conceal the signifi­cance of this verse for the understanding of the Logos in John 1. Had expositors taken note of the Hebrew text, this oversight could have been avoided.

[2] The picture of God’s Word as rain (Isa.55:10) which comes down from heaven is also, not coincidentally, used with reference to the Spirit of God. Com­pare Joel 2:23 with 2:28,29. In the NT, of the Spirit “poured out,” besides Acts 2:33 also 10:45; Titus 3:6; cf. 1Peter 1:12: “the Holy Spirit sent from heaven”.

[3] For further exegetical details on Psalm 107 see Appendix 9.

[4] TWOT (דָּבָר (dabar) word): ‘Gerleman notes that the singular construct chain debar YHWH “The word of the LORD” occurs 242 times and almost always (225 times) the expression appears as a technical form for the prophetic revelation’.

[5] Or Jabneh, Greek: Jamnia; an ancient city of Palestine, in modern Israel called Yibna, it is about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv.



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