Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The word was...?

The writer of the Gospel of John was Jewish and therefore relied on an already established Hebraic way of thinking. This is reflected in the opening chapter to his Gospel where, in line with Jewish poetic prose, he personifies the concept of the logos.[1] A personification and not a person![2] This logos is identified with “God the Father” throughout the NT: “the God and Father of the lord Jesus Christ”[3].

Good evidence for this can be found in the “Hebrew prepositions im [‘with’, alone = in one’s consciousness, whether of knowledge, memory or purpose[4]] or et meaning ‘with’ [which can] describe the relationship between a person and what is in his heart or mind.”[5]

As a result, it comes as no surprise to find that other qualities of God are personified as well.[6] For example: wisdom[7]; the law[8] and so on. At times, these qualities/personifications of the one God are given “a quasi-existence” of their own[9]. Such is the case with God’s "word". For example, Dunn notes in his Christology in the Making [pp129f.] that “in Rabbinic Judaism…there was a clear tendency to hypostatize [personalize] the name of God[10] and the glory of God[11]. Here we might mention also the Memra [word] of Yahweh which is regularly named in place of Yahweh in the Targums …”[12]

In Ps 105.19 “the word of God” is said to have “tested” the patriarch Joseph whilst in captivity; in Isa 2.3; Micah 4.2 “the word goes out from Jerusalem”; in 2Chro 18.4 the king of Israel is told to “enquire [seek the council of] the word of God”[13]; and in Isa 55.11 God says “my word will not return to me empty without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it”. We also have modern-day expressions in English that personify “word”, for example “my word is my bond,” “I give you my word,” etc.
“…the characteristic force of its central term, ‘the Word’ or ‘Logos’, appears to be derived from Hebrew, not Greek, sources and from the atmosphere of Palestine rather than [the philosophical language] of Alexandria…[in the] early Jewish paraphrases on the Old Testament [the Targums],[14] the ‘word’ of Jehovah (‘Memra’, ‘Debura’) is constantly spoken of as the efficient instrument of divine action, in cases where the Old Testament speaks of Jehovah Himself. ‘The word of God’ had come to be used personally, as almost equivalent to God manifesting Himself, or God in action…this means that the phraseology of [John] has its roots not in Platonic or Stoic idealism, but in the Jewish belief in the word of God, the manifestation of His will in creation or in revelation.”[15]
From this we can understand how the writer is relying upon Jewish concepts that predate even his own. This extends across the NT and the way the writers portray the one God and Father of the lord Jesus Christ.

It is because of these simple facts that some Bible versions render the last phrase of John 1.1c as: “…and what God was the word was.”[16] The logos when taken in context should be identified as God. That is to say, the subject of the prologue is God’s word, which is obviously not independent of that very same God! To try and make a distinction where there is none loses not only the style of the prologue but most importantly the writer’s intention and original meaning.

Grammatical points
Most translations inappropriately introduce the male pronoun ‘he’ into John 1.1-2 where ‘he’ replaces ‘this one'[17]. This prompts the reader into the mistake of thinking “the word” is a distinct person from its subject/source, God. Although Greek uses grammatical gender [meaning nouns are masculine or feminine or neuter], this does not mean the reader should assign personhood to them. For example, just because “word” [logos] in Greek has to be accompanied by masculine pronouns, it does not mean it is a person! To render it this way would be grammatical suicide!

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology notes that the phrase “in the beginning”[18] in relation to “the word”, refers to the “eternal pre-existence of the Word whose true sphere was not time but eternity”[19]. This should alert the reader to the simple fact that the writer has the person of God in view, since God is said to be the only One who is inherently immortal. This is in line with Jesus’ reference to God as “the living Father”[20] Who “has granted that same life-giving power to his Son”[21].

Furthermore, the word translated “with” [pros] in the phrase: “the word was with God” in John 1.1b “does not imply any movement or action on the part of the Logos”[22], as if it were talking about one person next to [“with”, para(23)] another, in this case God. Hence the translation above that best captures the meaning and intent of John 1.1c: “what God was the word was”; i.e. it was God’s word!

Apart from these grammatical points, the simple fact remains that in English “word” is an “it”, and not a “he”. The eight English translations from the Greek [not from the Latin Vulgate], before the 1611 KJV, all have “it” instead of “he”.
“It was the Roman Catholic Douay/Rheims version, translated from the Latin by Gregory Martin in 1582, which first rendered John 1:3, ‘all things were made by him,’ rather than ‘by it’ (the ‘word’)."[24]
J.D.G. Dunn in his Christology in the Making notes:
“…it is only with verse 14 [‘the word became flesh’] that we can begin to speak of the personal Logos. The poem uses rather impersonal language (became flesh), but no Christian would fail to recognize here a reference to Jesus—the word became not flesh in general but Jesus Christ. Prior to verse 14 we are in the same realm as pre-Christian talk of Wisdom and Logosdealing with personifications rather than persons, personified actions of God rather than an individual divine being as such.

“The point is obscured by [translating the] masculine Logos as ‘he’ throughout the poem. But if we translated Logos as ‘God’s utterance’ instead, it would become clearer that the poem did not necessarily intend the Logos of vv. 1-13 to be thought of as a personal divine being. In other words, the revolutionary significance of v. 14 may well be that it marks…the transition from impersonal personification to actual person.”[25]
In John 1.1 “the word of God” is not a person apart from the one God. This would inevitably lead to a blurring of the One Person of God and a serious error on the part of the reader as to “how many” God is. As Prof. Dunn once again observes:
The point is that Christ is the incarnation of this Wisdom/Word. To speak of Christ as himself preexistent, coming down from heaven, and so forth, has to be seen as metaphorical; otherwise it leads inevitably to some kind of polytheism--the Father as a person, just like Jesus was a person...

...what a Wisdom/Word christology claims is that Jesus is the person/individual whom God's Word became. Even to speak of the incarnation of the Son of God can be misleading, unless the Son christology of John is seen as it was probably intended, as an expression of the same Wisdom/Word christology; otherwise, there is the danger of a too literal translation of Father-Son language once again into a form of polytheism...[26]


[1] Understood as “God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for ‘the Lord’ when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided.” Memra,

[2] “Philo's ‘divine thought,’ ‘the image’ and ‘first-born son’ of God, ‘the archpriest,’ ‘intercessor,’ and ‘paraclete’ of humanity, the ‘arch type of man’…paved the way for the Christian conceptions of the Incarnation (‘the Word become flesh’) and the Trinity.” The Logos,

[3] 2Cor 1.3; Rom 15.6; 1Pe 1.3; John 20.17; Rev 1.6.

[4] Brown, Driver and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 768.

[5] Im: Num. 14:24; 1 Kings 11:11; 1 Chron. 28:12; Job 10:13; 15:9; 23:10; 23:14; 27:11; Ps. 50:11; 73:23. Et: Gen. 40:14; 2 Kings 3:12 (cp. John 17.5; 2 John 2; Gal. 2:5; Isa. 59:12; Jer. 12:3; 23:28; 27:18; 14:5; Prov. 2:1; 11:2. Buzzard, Hunting, Doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 195-96.

[6] Cp. Isa 40.10; 62.11; cp. Rev 22.12.

[7] Job 12.13, 16; Pro 1.20-23; 8.1-9, 12, 22-31.

[8] Isa 2.3; 51.4; Micah 4.2.

[9] Doctrine, p. 284.

[10] Yoma 3.8; 4.2; 6.2; and strikingly also in the Similitudes of 1 Enoch—39.7, 9, 13; 41.2, 6; 43.4; 45.2f.; 46.6-8; 47.2; 48.7, 10; etc.

[11] The Shekinah—e.g. Sanh. 6.5; Aboth 3.2; Targ. Onkelos on Ex. 33.14f.; 34.6, 9.

[12] G. H. Box, ‘The Idea of Intermediation in Jewish Theology: A Note on Memra and Shekinah’, JQR 23, 1932-33, pp. 103-19. Examples in Strack-Billerbeck 2, pp. 303f. Details of the usage in Targ. Neofiti and its possible significance may be found in R. Hayward, ‘The Memra of YHWH and the Development of its Use in Targum Neofiti 1’, JJS 25, 1974, pp. 412-18.

[13] Cp. Ps 33.4the word of God is right and true, He is faithful in all He does”.

[14] “In the Targum the Memra figures constantly as the manifestation of the divinepower, or as God's messenger in place of God Himself…” Memra,

[15] “In regard to this idea it must not be forgotten that, as found in some of the [Church] fathers, e.g. Justin and the Alexandrians, it has much closer affinities to Greek philosophy than it has in St. John.” Charles Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God: being the Bampton lectures for the year 1891, p. 69-70. Emphasis added.

[16] New English Bible [NEB]; Revised English Bible [REV].

[17] houtos, see the TEV, LB, NASB, NIV, NRSV, NAB, AND the AB.

[18] “It is not by accident that the Gospel begins with the same phrase as the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:1, ‘In the beginning’…In both works of creation the agent is the Word of God.” F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983) pp. 28-29.

[19] Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 4 vols; pp. 1204-05.

[20] John 5.36, New Living Translation.

[21] Cp. “the living God”, Deut 5:26; Joshua 3:10; Psalm 42:2; Jer 10:10; Daniel 6:20; Hosea 1:10; Mat 16.16; Acts 14:15; 2 Cor 3:3; 1 Tim 4:10.

[22] “Support for this view may be found in the NT parallels where pros with the acc. often following the verb einai denotes the linear motion but punctiliar [i.e, not moving] rest (Matt. 26.18, 55 vl.; Mk. 6.3 ( =Matt. 13.56); 9.19 ( = Lk. 9.41 but Matt. 17.17 has meth’ hymon); 14.49; 1Cor 16.6f.; 2Cor 5.8; 11.9; Gal 1.18; 4.18, 20; Phil 1.26; 1Thess 3.4; 2Thess 2.5; 3.10; Phlm 13; Heb 4.13; 1Jn 1.2).” ibid., Brown, NIDNT, p 1204. Emphasis added.

[23] “…elsewhere John uses para tini to express the proximity of one person to another (Jn. 1.39; 4.40; 8.38; 14.17, 23, 25; 19.25; cf. 14.23; note also meta tinos in Jn. 3.22, 25 f. etc.) or the nearness of the Son to the Father (Jn 8.38; 17.5), never pros tina.” Ibid., Brown, NIDNT, p 1205. Emphasis added.

[24] Buzzard, “John 1 and the word”, Focus on the Kingdom, v.9 n.12, Sept. 2007.

[25] J.D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 243.

[26] Dunn, The Christ & the Spirit: Collected Essays, p. 47.

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