The Vault

The Word was made Flesh

The Greek term logos which we translate “word” had a much wider range of usage than its English equivalent, being an important term in both philosophy and religion, so that J. H. Bernard can say “We may be sure that the Logos of God was as familiar a topic in the educated circles of Asia Minor as the doctrine of Evolution is in Europe or America at the present day, and was discussed not only by the learned but by half-instructed votaries of many religions.”

When therefore we come across such a statement as “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” we are in danger of missing some of the meaning for lack of knowledge of the way in which the term was used. Let us examine some of the evidence.

The Logos Philosophy.

Besides meaning “word” or “utterance” logos came to mean “reason” and in the writings of some of the philosophers we find references to the word “reason,” which sometimes seems to be the reasonable order in the universe, and sometimes is very like God, as when Heraclitus refers to “the omnipresent Wisdom by which all things are steered.” But it is among the Stoics that this development reached its climax and a particularly important concept for them was that of the “spermatikos logos” which means something like “generative wisdom” and which was thought of as being responsible for creation.

Among the philosophers then, we see the idea of the logos as a supremely important Principle, originating and sustaining all things.

The Targums.

Next let us notice a specifically religious use of the term. The Bible of the Jew is written in Hebrew, but in the course of the centuries this language ceased to be spoken, being replaced by Aramaic. As the Scriptures were still read in Hebrew only the scholars were able to understand them, and in order that ordinary folk might know what was in the Bible, the more learned used to translate. At first such renderings were oral, but in course of time they became written down, and they are referred to as Targums. The Targums are not close translations, but free renderings, rather in the nature of paraphrases, and sometimes they are almost a commentary rather than a translation.

At the time when the Targums were made the Jews had a very deep regard for the commandments, and in particular were so afraid of taking the name of the Lord in vain that they tried to avoid the direct use of the name, and in the Targums we often find “the word of God,” where the original has simply “God.” For example in Genesis 28:21 the Targum of Onkelas says that Jacob’s agreement was that “the Word of the Lord should be his God.” The Aramaic word is memra and this is the exact equivalent of logos. Where the Targums were in use, people were accustomed to hearing “the word of God” used as meaning nothing less than God Himself.

The Wisdom Literature.

Writings like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms are classed as the Wisdom literature, and sometimes we find references to the logos in these, as for example “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6 and cf. Psalm 147:18). More important in this class of literature than the actual use of logos is the semipersonification of Wisdom as in Proverbs 8:22ff., Job 28:12ff. In such passages Wisdom is thought of almost like God, and yet almost as separate from God. Since, as we have seen, logos included the idea of “reason” or “wisdom” this usage is very relevant to our present inquiry.

It was developed in certain writings outside the Bible as in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, where for example we read “O God . . . who madest all things by the word; and by thy wisdom formedst man” (Wis. 8.1-2). In this statement the Hebrew and the Greek ideas of the logos come very close together.

Philo and the Logos.

The great Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo has a great deal to say about the Logos. His writings are what Hoskyns and Davey call “a synthesis between the Jewish Scriptures and Greek philosophy” and they go on to say “Philo solves the problem of the relation between the supernatural, invisible, unknowable world and the material world by making use of the conception of the Logos as the active manifestation of God in the physical world.”

The Johannine Prologue.

It is against such a background that we are to understand the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Men everywhere had some sort of idea in mind by the Logos, the Word. In the Greek philosophers it is the Divine Principle responsible for creating all things, in the Targums another name for God, in the Wisdom literature it is God and yet separate from God, in Philo it is the intermediary between God and the world.

John’s idea is more profound than any of these. For Him the Logos was God (1:1), He was responsible for creating all things (1:3) and for giving men the true light (1:4,9). He was no intermediary, but genuinely God. And this Logos says John, became flesh. That is the great pronouncement of this opening section of the Gospel where John is talking about a different sort of God from any men might know apart from Christ. God is not some distant Deity of might and power, not some abstract Principle, but a God who is Love (Agape), and because He is that sort of God, because He has a tender concern for men, “The Word became flesh.”

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, December 23 1954.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *