Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Thoughts on John 1: Logos

Sometimes learning a little Greek and understanding cultural context can be helpful in interpreting Scripture.  This is particularly true with the first chapter of John.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard well-intentioned ministers massacre the meaning of the first verse.

For example, I witnessed the following statement from a sermon:

John 1:1 says that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  If you keep reading, you see that this is talking about Jesus.  Jesus is the Word of God.  Do you know what else is the word of God? [Picks up his Bible...] This is also God's word.  So, in a very real way, the Bible and Jesus are the same.
Nooooooooo!!!!!! First of all, let me say that I have a Master's degree in historical philosophy.  When you study ancient Greek philosophy, you frequently come across the word logos.  There isn't a good English translation for logos, but it can be thought of "that which separates humans from animals".  The word occasionally implies  rationality, language, or the soul.  When philosophers use the term, they frequently use it as a term for a mysterious deity.

And this is where John 1:1 comes in.  "In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God."  While translating logos as "word" is acceptable, it is hardly the best translation.  Unfortunately, English-speaking Christians would probably have a hissy fit if the verse was translated otherwise.

Why am I making such a big deal of this?  Because English speaking Christians are missing an important part of the meaning of this verse.  John is telling his readers, essentially, "You know all the things that make humans different from other animals?  Well Jesus has all those things in the relationship to humans.  He has rationality, language, and soul to the ultimate extent.  And he is God."

Now to address those who try to say John 1:1 should be interpreted as not being a claim to Jesus deity.  They argue that the verse is more appropriately translated, "In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was a god."  First, let me note that this is a grammatically correct translation.  But it ignores the historical context.  Early in Christian history, there was a school of thought called gnosticism.  These groups claimed special knowledge about God and Christ.  They taught secret messages were found in the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus.  One of the main teachings was derived from neo-Platonist philosophy was about the Logos.  The Logos was occasionally referred to as the real or higher God and that Yahweh was subservient to it. 

In this context, John is trying to explain that the Gnostics have it all wrong.  There is no higher god than Yahweh.  But there is something that was hidden from traditional Judaism.  God's plan was to come to earth and take the form of man.  This is the Logos

When you understand the meaning of Logos and the context of the first century Near East, you could not underestimate the gravity of John's profound words.

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