OriginalChristianity

Not Traditional, Original

John 1 – The meaning of the Logos; The Slippery Slope of Applying Mathematical Precision to Language Expressions

This is a rewrite of an article published a dozen or so years ago with more insight hopefully to make clearer what the beginning of the Gospel of John actually says.  As John 1:1-14 is not literal the original article focused on how languages are imprecise and could be misleading if someone tried to take the section literally,  In this rewrite, I have added more on the actual meaning of John chapter one, and that is where I want to start.

As always on this website, our goal is to discover what the original Christians believed in order to see how we got from what the scriptures actually say to the myriad denominations and traditions that disagree on so many things today, no matter how different it may be from what we think right now.

First, thinking that the first chapter of John is the first place that the concept of the logos, the word of God, in operation and as part of creation is discussed in the manner it is presented is a mistake. More likely it is God’s response to a topic already prevalent in the culture. As we will see later the concept of logos had developed in the culture at that time to take on a meaning that was very similar to and integrated with how wisdom was presented in Old Testament scripture.  This concept is recognized by writers from different denominational backgrounds today. I found an interesting article explaining just this by a Catholic priest.[1]

Part of the problem in this topic is that many people today don’t understand the concept of personification, Or, if they do, they don’t recognize it at times, like we are going to be looking at in scripture.  Look at these examples:

Let the sea roar with its fullness; the world, and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains sing for joy together. Let them sing before Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psa 98:7-9 WEB)

These verses say that there are rivers that clap their hands and mountains that sing. What vivid imagery! What a powerful way to communicate. These nonhuman things, rivers, and mountains are talked about as people. That’s personification.

The waters saw you, God. The waters saw you, and they writhed. The depths also convulsed. (Psa 77:16 WEB)

Here’s another example. People writhe and convulse, waters really don’t. That’s personification. But what powerful imagery.

Yahweh said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground. (Gen 4:10 WEB)

Or how about this one? Blood may be part of a human, but it’s not a person. Yet this blood is “crying from the ground”. What a powerful impact these words make. That’s personification.

Look at how wisdom is personified in places in the Old Testament

Doesn’t wisdom cry out? Doesn’t understanding raise her voice? On the top of high places by the way, where the paths meet, she stands. Beside the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entry doors, she cries aloud: “To you men, I call! I send my voice to the sons of mankind…Yahweh possessed me in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed. When there were no depths, I was born, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was born; while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the beginning of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he set a circle on the surface of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the springs of the deep became strong, when he gave to the sea its boundary, that the waters should not violate his commandment, when he marked out the foundations of the earth; then I was the craftsman by his side. I was a delight day by day, always rejoicing before him, rejoicing in his whole world. My delight was with the sons of men.  (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 WEB) [bolded emphasis added]

In the very first verse above wisdom and understanding are described as a person. “Doesn’t understanding raise her voice?” “She stands.”  “She cries out.” These are all sentences talking about a nonhuman thing as if it were a person. Personification is the figure of speech used here.

Personification is a figure of speech in which an idea or thing is given human attributes and/or feelings or is spoken of as if it were human. Personification is a common form of metaphor in that human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things.[2]

In the above verses from Proverbs, we see that one of the ways that Jews thought about wisdom was to describe it as a wondrous lady. This wondrous lady, wisdom, was there from the beginning before the earth existed. She is described as the craftsman by Yahweh’s side. She’s described as of delight of the Lord. But wisdom is not a person. Wisdom is a quality that is extremely valuable. Wisdom is the capacity to understand and act accordingly. Wisdom is such an awesome thing, but it is not a person. Yet the Old Testament talks about it as if it were, this is one of the ways that the Jews thought about things.

Next, in verses 24 and 25 of Proverbs 8, it says this “I was born.”  Since wisdom was born, it is a created thing, it had a beginning.

Solomon is credited as the author of Proverbs. One source lists Solomon’s life as from 989 to 931 BC.[3] When Solomon wrote proverbs the Logos was not the concept that it would become later. Proverbs’ discussion of wisdom predates the promotion of the concept of the Logos especially the Stoic philosophy that was influential in the world at the time of the Apostles and which started around the fourth century BC.  The Stoics believed in the Logos as the animating, intelligent principle of the universe. The Stoics promoted seeking God’s wisdom in people’s lives by tapping into God’s powerful intelligence, i.e., the Logos.

“The Stoics believed that to achieve freedom, happiness, and meaning one should attune one’s life to the wisdom of God’s will, manifest in the second distinction (above) of Logos.”[4]

In the above statement we have a correlation between wisdom and the Logos that was part of contemporary thinking at the time of the apostles.

Having explained all this I make this claim, trying to take John 1:1-14 literally and mathematically analyze the wording to equate God, Jesus, and the Logos in the prologue of John’s gospel is a mistake and doesn’t reflect the meaning of the concept of Logos at all.  John 1:1-14 is not literal.  Just as wisdom is presented with the figure of speech personification, so is the Logos in John chapter one.

Just as today there are topics that are discussed around the world like evolution, Islamic Jihadism, communism, and so forth, there were concepts that were just as heavily discussed 2000 years ago.  We have already discussed the Stoic emphasis on the Logos but they were not alone in discussing the Logos in their writings.  Philosophers, religious writers, and others, one after another, identified the Logos in their scheme of reasoning as a divine principle in the grand scheme of life. Before the Stoics began incorporating the idea of the Logos there was Heraclitus centuries before them. And not only was the Logos part of Greek philosophical discussion it was in Indian, Egyptian, and Persian thinking, in their discussions of both philosophy and theology.[5]

In the previous article on stoicism, we discussed the stoic view of God, whom they defined as the Logos:

“… the universe is a single ordered whole, a perfect organism that unites within itself all that exists in the world. It is ruled by a supreme cosmic power, a fiery substance that the Stoics called Logos, Divine Reason, or God.  The Logos is the organizing, integrating, and energizing principle of the whole universe.  As a perfect entity, the universe combines within itself the Logos or Divine Reason, which is its soul, and matter, which serves as its body. Since everything is derived from God, everything is a part of God, but not separated or cut from the whole.  Each individual soul is a fragment of the universal Logos or God.”[6]

An individual who lived around the time of the writer of the gospel of John was the Jewish philosopher Philo. Philo wrote about the Logos.  Philo was familiar with the stoic interpretation of the Logos, but attempted to bring it closer to his understanding of the Old Testament.

“For the Stoics, logos was equally reason (individual and universal), nature, and God, while for Philo, logos is not ultimate reality but merely what we can see and understand of God, who is Himself very far from human comprehension. In Stoicism, logos is God; in Philo it corresponds to his specific doctrine of the dunameis, the powers of God who created the world and governs it.”[7]

These explanations of stoic and Philo’s interpretation of the Logos illustrate that the Logos was a concept people were talking about at the time that the gospel of John was written.  They also illustrate that there was debate about what it was.

Philo’s concept of the Logos as the dunameis, the power of God in action, is much closer to the explanation given in the prologue of the Gospel of John than any kind of quick mathematical analysis perfectly equating the Logos to both God and his Son.

More closely to the language of the times the prologue of John says that the Word of God is the powerful energized plan of God. It is God’s wisdom with dunamis power, This powerful energized plan of God has been with him from the beginning and is what we know about God the Father.

We see that energy in the Word of God (Logos) in Isaiah 55.

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isa 55:11 KJV)

While man’s word may be powerless, as we see in the verse above, there is power in the word of God (the Logos).

In reality, as tiny, short-lived, finite beings we can only understand that part of God that he reveals to us. This Word of God, this plan of redemption that God set in motion, and revealed through the law and the prophets, and experienced through our spiritual connection with him is God to us.  But also in reality, the little bit of God that has been revealed to us cannot in any way fully express to our tiny minds who God is.  We will see more of this when we look at the translation of John 1:1 especially.

Now, onto the topic of trying to apply mathematical precision to language expressions because that is what a lot of people studying the Bible attempt to do with John chapter one. In a previous article, Grammar and Logic – Boring But Invaluable, I wrote “Another mistake is to substitute the logic of one discipline for another. An area where I have seen this kind of mistake is in the fields of mathematics and languages. For example, some people read the word “is” and ascribe to that word the mathematical definition of “equals”.”

One comment on the previous article was that a common-sense reading of John 1 is that the Word is someone and that someone is Jesus. This comment is taking the verses literally instead of recognizing that personification is being used here. That comment is saying that the Logos, the Word, is a person.  Then that person is equated to Jesus Christ.  That is taking the section literally and analyzing it mathematically.  The problem is that languages aren’t that precise, especially here which we shall see when we look at the Greek.

Greek, grammar, syntax, and mathematical notation are all boring, but they are the only way to know what something means. So, if you want to understand why it is important, you need to get through this more tedious part of the article

First of all, there is a mathematical language in the world that is used because it allows mathematicians to say things precisely.  There may be some English or other spoken language in Math but mainly it uses precise mathematical symbols.  For example, the following allows someone to express something precisely, in this case, part of Taylor’s Theorem:

I know, it looks like gibberish to a lot of people.  But, it’s not important what the above math says What’s important is that this statement is free from the ambiguity of English and other languages.  It’s precise.

On the other hand, you can’t just apply mathematical precision to English or other language expressions. For example, in mathematics, we have the axiom that two things that are both equal to a third thing are equal to each other. Or, as it is written mathematically, if a equals b, and b equals c, then a equals c. You can use this axiom ad infinitum. If c equals d also, then a would equal d, and so forth.

It is written like this:

If a = b and b = c, then a = c.

The difference is that the “=” symbol means equals. The word “is” may or may not mean “equals”.

This applies universally to expressions people use to communicate. Still, the temptation is to say that anywhere someone uses the word “is”, you can substitute the word “equals” and that is a slippery slope.

First, sometimes the logic does work, and here is an example:

Minerals are inanimate.  Quartz is a mineral.  Therefore, Quartz is inanimate.

The above is a syllogism, a concept introduced by Aristotle.

However, there are numerous examples where the word “is” doesn’t mean “equals”.  For example, US President Barack Obama (A) is a man (B). Nelson Mandela (C) is a man (B). Would anybody try to apply the above mathematical logic and say that Nelson Mandela is the U.S. president? Or that Nelson Mandela is Barack Obama?

Barack Obama (A) = a man (B) = Nelson Mandela (C)
Therefore Barack Obama (A) = Nelson Mandela (C).

That obviously doesn’t make sense! Nelson Mandela was at one time the President of South Africa and was a terrific world leader. Whether or not you agree with his politics Barack Obama held the power of the U.S. presidency, a position of great honor and power. Yet, trying to substitute “equals” for “is” equates Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as the same man. These two both are men, but they do not equal each other; in fact, they are very different men. And in fact, there are no examples where one man would “equal” another. John McCain, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Peyton Manning, and James Earl Jones are all men. But we all agree John McCain is NOT Kobe Bryant who is NOT Lebron James who is NOT Peyton Manning who is NOT James Earl Jones.

Yet the application of mathematical precision to the word “is” as “equals” is exactly what many bible students do in the prologue of the gospel of John. The gospel of John says that the Logos is God.  It also says this same Logos was in the beginning with God.  A little further down the page, it says that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among men.  So, we have mathematically inclined students teaching that this is a mathematical expression. They say that the Logos equals God, that the Logos was in the beginning with God, and that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us. So, to them. we have a mathematical proof that Jesus is God, the God-man.

More specifically, defining “is” as “equals” to John 1 gives us this series of equations:

The Word = God

The  Word = Jesus Christ

Using the transitive property of mathematical precision we get:

The Word = God = Jesus Christ.

However, if you are going to apply mathematical precision defining “is” as “equals” to this statement then you need to apply it fully to all elements. The principle says that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.  Why aren’t people saying that the Word is God?  There are three elements here all supposedly equal to each other, the Word, God (the Father), and Jesus (the word made flesh).  There is a trinity here, but there is no Holy Spirit.  The trinity here is God the Father, the Son, and the Word.  No one says that is the Trinity.

No one is saying that the Word fully equates to God, but if you apply their logic that would be the valid conclusion!

Here is more about how imprecise this language is. Take a look at John 1:1 in Greek. When the Greek refers to God the Father it uses the article “the”.  If it doesn’t include the article then it’s not referring to God the Father. Rather, it’s used to describe a “god” or even a magistrate, also used as a modifier like godly or godward.

Here’s is what Strong’s Greek Dictionary says about the word theos in Greek Texts:

Strong’s: 2316: theos: a deity, espec him. (with #3588, (the definite article “Ho”)): the supreme Divinity figuratively, a magistrate; by Heb. very:- exceeding, God, god [-ly, ward].

It is a little cryptic, but in Strong’s definition above, it says that the word theos with the definite article refers to the supreme Divinity. The supreme Divinity is God the Father. Otherwise, theos alone, without the definite article (ho), can refer to a god, or mean godly or godward.

Here’s the interlinear text:

Do you see how the Greek has “the God” the first place theos is used, but not the second?  The second place doesn’t say “the God” which is the Greek that refers to God Almighty.

So, the second place is more descriptive.  This is more accurate:

In this translation, I have used “godlike”.  As Strong’s says, I could have used godly.  When you don’t have the article, the meaning changes to “god” (small g) or becomes descriptive. In this verse “god” (small g) doesn’t work. So it is saying that the Logos is godlike.  The Logos is godly.  That phrase is absolutely not saying that the Logos is equal to “the God”.

The Greek text above does not even support the translation, “the Word was God”.  In order to even be accurately saying “the Word was God”, you really need an article before the word” God” in Greek.

However, most versions of the Bible have something like:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Joh 1:1 WEB)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Joh 1:1 ASV)

Again, in order for this verse to be saying that the Logos is actually God, it needs an article before God in Greek. These translations are imprecise, and as such, are misleading without the proper understanding.

John 1:1-14 personifies the Logos just like Proverbs chapter 8. Remember personification is treating a thing as if it were a person.  Wisdom in Proverbs was treated like a person, the Logos referred to here is treated like a person.  But neither is actually a person.  Yet the pronouns of she, he, him, and her in these verses refer to these non-human things, wisdom, and Logos (word).  I have added [wisdom] and [Logos] to the verses to emphasize that.

The prologue of John says that the Word of God, the Logos is wisdom with dunamis (a Greek word for dynamic power). This powerful energized plan of God has been with him from the beginning and is what we know about God the Father.

The same was in the beginning with God. (Joh 1:2 WEB)

This Logos, this Wisdom with dunamis power was there with him in the beginning just like it says in Prov 8:22.

“Yahweh possessed me [wisdom] in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed.
(Pro 8:22-23 WEB)

Both Logos and wisdom were there when things were being made.

All things were made through him [Logos]. Without him [Logos] was not anything made that has been made. (Joh 1:3 WEB)

Compare this to Proverbs chapter 8.

When he established the heavens, I [wisdom] was there; when he set a circle on the surface of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the springs of the deep became strong, when he gave to the sea its boundary, that the waters should not violate his commandment, when he marked out the foundations of the earth; then I [wisdom] was the craftsman by his side. I [wisdom] was a delight day by day, always rejoicing before him, (Pro 8:27-30 WEB)

The Old Testament says wisdom, the Gospel of John says the Logos.  They are talking about the same thing, God’s power enabled wisdom, his energized plan.

In him [Logos] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. (Joh 1:4-5 WEB)

Compare that to:

For whoever finds me [wisdom], finds life, and will obtain favor from Yahweh. But he who sins against me [wisdom] wrongs his own soul. All those who hate me [wisdom] love death.” (Pro 8:35-36 WEB)

John 1:4 says the Logos is life, Proverbs 8:35 says wisdom is life. They are talking about the same thing.  The “him” in John 1 and the “me” in Proverbs 8 are the Logos, the wisdom. Again, this is the figure of speech, personification, calling an inhuman thing human.

Next, we have,

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might testify about the light, that all might believe through him [Logos]. He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light. (Joh 1:5-8 WEB)

This is the first time a real man is mentioned, John the Baptist.  He is part of this Wisdom, this Logos, and was sent to bear witness to the Light.  John wasn’t the light, John wasn’t the Logos, but was sent that all might believe through him (the Logos spoken of as a person).

Next, look at:

The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He [Logos] was in the world, and the world was made through him [Logos], and the world didn’t recognize him [Logos]. He [Logos] came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him [logos]. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Word [Logos] became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his [Logos’] glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. (Joh 1:9-14 WEB)

These verses have no parallel in Proverbs 8 because John is announcing that the Wisdom of Proverbs 8, this Logos, has generated a solution in the flesh.  The Word became flesh.  It wasn’t flesh before, but Wisdom, the Logos had been working toward it all along. Part of this plan was to produce a man that was capable of redeeming mankind.  Here’s how that happened.

The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. (Luk 1:35 WEB)

This act allowed the Word of God, Wisdom in Proverbs 8, the Logos in John 1 to become flesh and enter the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This was God’s plan all along.  This was the seed promised to Eve. This was Savior promised by the prophets. This man was created to become the embodiment of this plan.  And as such, he was a man called to be the living Word of God. He was called to carry out God’s plan for redemption.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is that human fulfillment of God’s energized wisdom, the logos. Just as the logos is God to us, but less than the total of all that God is, Jesus is that part of God’s plan that works to provide a human savior for mankind. As such, Jesus is the embodiment, the wisdom for that energized plan.  He is the living Word of God.  That is in no ways a small feat, but that does not make the living Logos equal to the creator

In original Christianity, the Logos, which is wisdom in Proverbs 8, had a beginning.  It was before the creation of the earth, but it was not co-eternal.  All of this is important because this first chapter in John in the third century was misconstrued to say that this Logos is co-eternal with God, a foundational piece of fourth-century theology.  However, this was not the belief of the original Apostles. To see that we read Justin Martyr who around 150 AD wrote that Jesus Christ existed, before his birth, but it was only in the mind of God.  Justin wrote of the Logos and the Son as subordinate to the Father.

“Justin’s emphasis is on the divine Logos, subordinate to God the father , yet his Son,  His agent, and one with Him in some true, though rather indefinite, sense.”[8]

No matter what people believe now, this is documentation of what original Christianity believed.  In original Christianity, the Logos had a beginning,  Jesus Christ had a beginning.

It wasn’t until Kallistos in the middle of the third century that the logos Christology taught that Jesus Christ was coeternal with God. And after him, Novation started using the terminology that Jesus Christ shared a “communion of substance”.[9] But this is hundreds of years after Pentecost and perhaps a hundred and fifty years after the passing of the apostles.

So, what we see is that the Trinitarianism that has been dominant since the fourth century didn’t even exist in the time of the original apostles. With the advent of incorporating philosophy with the apologists, we see concepts such as the Logos changing over time. But the original apostles and other Christian believers believed that the Logos, the wisdom of God, had a beginning and understood that it was a personification of something that God created because that is part of how they communicated. Yes, these concepts changed over time, but as it says in Encyclopedia Britannica, even going into the third century, Unitarianism (God as one person) was the dominant belief of Christianity. The Logos as a creation of God was still dominant even though it was changing from its original meaning in the church as the church embraced philosophy.

“Even after the elimination of Gnosticism the church remained without any uniform Christology; the Trinitarians and the Unitarians continue to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the third century still forming the large majority.”[10]

As it says above, Unitarians still formed a large majority at the beginning of the third century, indicating the Original Christian church started out Unitarian.

I have to admit I was shocked the first time I saw this (and other reputable references pointing to the same outcome) in print.   I had read a lot of things about how the Trinity was developed over time and wasn’t in place originally but I had never read that while there was debate early on, it was Unitarianism that was in place originally, that it was still the dominant belief going into the third century. What an eye-opener!

So, not only is the wording insufficient to establish the Logos is actually God, we have the historical record that shows that the original Christians didn’t believe the Logos was God the Father but subordinate to the Father. They believed that God the Father alone is God. They believed that both the son and the Logos were inferior and subordinate to the Father.  The first chapter of John personifies the Logos as a person just as wisdom is personified in the Old Testament but neither makes Wisdom or the Logos actually God. They are god-like, they represent the best we can understand of who God is.

John chapter one is an insight both into Jewish thinking and an explanation of how God works. God knew what would happen before creation so part of creation is a plan to redeem man whom God knew would sin.  God made a plan and energized it.  Proverbs 8 calls that plan wisdom, John 1 calls that plan the Logos. Part of that plan was to make produce a seed of Eve that would step on the head of the adversary, and redeem us from sin. The Logos is still working and will work until the final victory.

[1] Logos as Fulfilment of Wisdom in Israel, https://www.faith.org.uk/article/september-october-2009-logos-as-fulfilment-of-wisdom-in-israel

[2] https://literarydevices.net/personification/

[3] http://timeline.biblehistory.com/event/solomon

[4] Logos, https://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/theogloss/logos-body.html

[5] Logos philosophy and theology, https://www.britannica.com/topic/logos

[6] The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961. p.51

[7] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

[8] A History of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1959, p. 47

[9] A History of the Christian church, P. 70

[10]  The Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.23 :  Internet Archive p.963

 

September 30th, 2021 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation, Grammar and Logic | no comments