The Johannine Logos

For those students of Christology who have now begun their in-depth study of the Fourth Gospel, what is perhaps most important to understand is that we are reaching into the very heart of the incarnation, which is nothing less than the study of the Divine Logos and its ontological and metaphysical meaning. Most readers of Scripture believe they already have an adequate grasp of the incarnation, and to an extent this is true, yet at least on the college level it is necessary for students to press further into understanding the "Divine Logos" and its historic undercurrent which is rooted in both ancient Greek and Judaic thought. Ultimately this gives us a deeper creedal understanding of the incarnation - in fact, it is assured that once one embarks on this quest, they will never conceive of the incarnation in the same terms.

It is my hope that for your own spiritual growth and improvement of scripturual understanding you take a few minutes to read this essay - take it to heart and behold that the Holy Spirit who superintended and breathed his words into the gospel writers grafted a script so multi-dimensional that without such intense study, the jewels of this holy writing would go wholly undetected. What he has given in the concept of the "Divine Logos" is utterly mindblowing!

The Johannine Logos
The Influence of Greek Philosophy and Judaic Thought
on the Logos Christology of John: A Synergistic Approach

William J Tsamis, M.A.

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God
All things were made through Him . . .
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us
and we beheld His glory
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father

John 1:1-2; 14

At the ancient monastery church in Daphne, Greece, there looms in the dome of the cathedral a colossal mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, its ominous presence imposing upon all who enter into the hallowed room. Indeed, the eleventh century icon reveals that awesome, majestic power that overthrew the death tyrant nearly two-thousand years ago. And like the historic Christ who pierced the veil of darkness with the glorious light of His immortality, so too, the iconographic depiction bursts forth showing Jesus Christ as the "King of kings and Lord of lords," the divine Logos, enthroned in the heavens -- the ruler and center of the universe. Obviously, from a theological perspective, the ancient Daphne mosaic reflects the high Christology of Nicaea and Chalcedon, a Christology ultimately derived from the Johannine doctrine of the Logos. But whereas it is simple to deduce the theological origin and background of the awe-inspiring mosaic, the influences which compelled the fourth evangelist to use the Logos designation as a descriptive appellation for the Savior are much more elusive. Indeed, this is indicated by the fact that, even though a considerable body of scholarly literature has been devoted to identifying the primary influence(s) behind the Johannine designation, there still remains a general lack of consensus in the academic forum as to the origin and background of the Johannine Logos doctrine.

In this essay, then, we will endeavor to explore the divergent views proposed by Christian scholars regarding the contextual influences which underlie the the Logos Christology of John. In Part One, we will examine the suggested Hellenistic background for the Johannine doctrine, tracing the evolution of the philosophical term logos from its initial Heraclitean conception to its more developed expression in later Stoicism. Then, we will consider the impact of Hellenistic thought on some of the early Church Fathers, and show how that influence affected their perception of the Johannine Logos. In Part Two, we will evaluate the proposed Judaic background for the Logos doctrine, paying close attention to Johannine dependence of the Creation/Sinai motifs and the Hebrew dabar YHWH (= word of the Lord), as well as the symmetry which exists between the Prologue and certain texts from within the corpus of Jewish Wisdom Literature. Finally, in part Three, we will set forth our own position, which is not an uncommon one -- namely, that the author of the Fourth Gospel found in the term logos a concept which, to the Gentile world, he could present Christ as the fulfillment of all metaphysical speculation; and which, to the Jewish world, He could present Christ as the ultimate revelation (word) and manifestation (theophany) of God. In his personification of the Logos, then, the inspired writer brought together the philosophical world of Athens with the religious world of Jerusalem, and, in synergistic fashion, he form a new philosophical/religious reality that is neither Hellenic nor Judaic -- but rather, a reality that is authentically and originally Christian.1

Part I -- Suggested Hellenistic Background

In any discussion of the Greek philosophical doctrine of the logos, one must regress into the pre-Socratic era to examine the religio-philosophical context of the age. For, it was during this period, the sixth century BC, that the Greek philosophers would begin to challenge the existing polytheistic structure which had dominated ancient civilization for so long. Indeed, in the midst of a plurality of gods and goddesses, the Greek philosophers recognized that there must exist some unifying principle behind the universe, and underlying Reason or Force which pervades cosmological and metaphysical reality. thus, limited to natural theology and intellectual speculation, the early philosophers began to posit various notions regarding the nature of this unifying principle.2

The first thinker to advance his thesis on this cosmological/metaphysical problem was Thales (ca. 600 BC), the founder of the Milesian school of philosophy in Ionia, the cradle of Western thought. (At that time, the Ionian Coast on the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey, was an Athenian colony. It was also the approximate region of the seven churches of Asia Minor as mentioned in the biblical Apocalypse of John). In essence, Thales posited the idea that the unifying principle behind ultimate reality was simply water (in its gaseous, liquid, and solid forms).3 Although such a proposition may seem ludicrous to the contemporary mind, what is important here is that Thales raised the question as to the nature of the unifying prinicple, and he opened the door for further metaphyiscal speculation.4 The successors of Thales differed widely in their propositions, Anaximander positing infinity as the unifying principle, and Anaximenes suggesting air; but it was Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 504-501 BC) who first used the term logos in connection with the concept of the unifying prinicple. In his speculations, he identified the logos as the universal Reason, i.e. "the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law."5 Certainly, Heraclitus did not posit the existence of a transcendent monotheistic deity, but he did recognize that, in a universe of constant change, the metaphysical logos remained constant as the underlying principle of order.

In subsequent centuries, during the Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian periods, the great philosophers made little contribution to the Heraclitean logos doctrine, their concerns being epistemologcial rather than speculative.6 But beginning with Zeno (ca. 300 BC) and the rise of the early Stoa, the Heraclitean logos was revived and systematized within the framework of Stoic pantheism.7 Essentially, the Stoics believed that the unifying principle behind ultimate reality was an all-pervading cosmic fiery vapor which they termed "logos spermatikos" (seminal reason), and which they identified with an impersonal pantheistic God.8 Accordingly, this seminal logos (or vital energy) was the "generative principle" of the cosmos, as well as the universal Reason (or rationale) which determined and kept in order the particulars of the universe.9 Simply, the Logos was the rational element which pervaded the universe and unified reality. Thus, in Stoic thought, the Heraclitean logos received its greatest expression, resuming a central role in Hellenistic philosophical cosmology.

Now with regard to our discussion about the origin and background of the Johannine Logos, the question natually arises: "To what extent (if any) did the Hellenistic idea of the logos prevail upon the mind of the fourth evangelist?" Well, although we will deal with the specifics of this issue in Part Three of our essay, it would be worthy to note, at this point, that some of the early Church Fathers (e.g. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and so on) understood the Johannine concept to be an integration of the Heraclitean/Stoic notion.10 Justin, for instance, maintained that the Logos is the mediatorial revelation of God who was partially knonw by the Greek philosophers because of the spermatikos (a germinating seed) which they possessed within their souls; thus, he proclaimed Heraclitus worthy of being called a Christian.11 Similarly, Clement of Alexandria asserted that the Logos is Christ, the Divine Reason and Teacher of mankind, who revealed God to the Jews through the Mosaic Law, and to the Gentiles through the Greek philosophers.12

Although it appears that both Justin and Clement inferred a Hellenistic nuance from the Logos Christology of John, it must be remembered that these apologists were very much predisposed to Greek philosophy in their thinking -- Justin being a converted Stoic/Pythagorean/Platonist (he continued to wear the pallium), and Clement being a native of Alexandria, a convert from Stoicism.13 In our discussion regarding the background of the Johannine Logos, then, the early apologists are not especially helpful, since it is difficult to ascertain if they were truly reflecting the Christological tradition of the Johannine community, or if they were merely superimposing their own Hellenist preconceptions onto the Johannine doctrine (even as Philo of Alexandria sought to synthesize Hellenistic and Judaic thought). In the case of Justin, we are more inclined to believe that he utilized Greek philosophical speculation as a "point of contact" for intellectual and apologetical concerns rather than as the controlling center of his epistemic system; for, throughout his writings he continually asserts the preeminence of biblical truth over philosophy.14 Nevertheless, an appeal to Justin's Logos Christology as evidence of a Hellenistic background for the Johannine doctrine is tenuous at best.

Part II -- Suggested Judaic Background

Until recent years, the idea that the Johannine doctrine of the Logos could have originated in Judaic thought was the minorty view among scholars. Indeed, with the rise of New Testament higher criticism in the nineteenth century, many scholars asserted an extra-Judaic origin for the Fourth gospel, proposing a date of authorship as late as AD 170.15 This consensus was based on several factors, one of which was the presence of a Platonic dualism motif in the Fourth Gospel -- e.g. spirit/world, light/darkness, truth/deceit, and so on. The majority of scholars ignored the author's apparent intimacy with Palestinian customs and instead concluded that the author was firmly entrenched in Greek philosophy (or Gnosticism, cf. Rudolf Bultmann). Thus, it was almost universally acknowledged that the Johannine Logos doctrine was thoroughly influenced by Hellenistic thought.16

In the twentieth century, however, the late-date hypothesis would be overthrown with the discover of Rylands Papyrus 457 (P52), an Egyptian codex fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38, which first came to light in 1935. With the discovery and publication of this earliest extant New Testament manuscript, a hundred years of sophisticated critical theories were tossed onto the ash heap of history. Many eminent scholars such as Sir Fredrick Kenyon reconized the manuscript as early second century, dating to about AD 130.17 But a more recent analysis by Kurt Aland suggests a much earlier date probably at the "beginning of the second century."18 In either case, contemporary New Testament scholarship is now in agreement with the traditional view that the Fourth Gospel is indeed a first century composition.

Now with regard to the nineteenth century critical assertion that the dualistic paradigm in John betrays a Hellenistic influence (Platonic idealism), the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 would altogether eliminate that notion. Indeed, several of the Qumran texts, especially the Rule of the Community (1QS) and the War Scroll (1QM), exhibit a dualistic motif, which, according to most scholars, is entirely independent from Platonic idealism, yet hauntingly similar to the dualism of John.19 Hence, since the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls, the dualism which characterizes the Johannine program does not necessitate a Hellenistic antecedent, since the Essenic writings prove that such language was proper to Judean religious thought in the first century AD.

Needless to say, because of these discoveries (as well as other advances in New Testament studies), contemporary Johannine scholarship has shifted markedly from a Hellenistic orientation to a more Judeo-centric approach; and this radical change in methodology has weighed heavily in the debate regarding the origin and background of the Johannine Logos. Most scholars, instead of looking to the Heraclitean/Stoic ideologies for answers, now place tremendous emphasis on the author's dependence on the Creation/Sinai motifs and the Hebrew dabar/YHWH ("word of the Lord"), as well as some of the parallels which can be found in Jewish Wisdom Literature.20 At this point in our discussion, then, let us consider the relevancy of these Judaic elements.

A simple reading of the Prologue should immediately conjure up images of the Creation and Sinai stories from the Pentateuch. Even the words, "In the beginning" (= en arche - John 1:1), are identical to the LXX translation of the Hebrew Gen 1:1 text, indicating that the evangelist's intent, at the outset, was to establish a Judaic context for the rest of the Prologue.21 In the following verse, the evangelist would further integrate other concepts from Genesis 1-3, such as creation, light, life, darkness, etc., ultimately progressing to verse 14a (lit. "And the Word became flesh and 'pitched His tent' among us, and we beheld 'His glory'"), an obvious allusion to the Sinai/Tabernacle motif of Exodus 40:34ff. As Raymond E. Brown comments, "When the Prologue proclaims that the Word made his dwelling among men, we are being told that the flesh of Jesus Christ is the new localizaiton of God's presence on earth, and that Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle."22 Thus, in the incarnational Christology of John the manifestation (theophany) of God's glory (shekinah) plays a controlling hermeneutical role. Therefore, the Pentateuchal context of the Prologue would suggest that we look for a Judaic background to the Johannine doctrine of the Logos.

In searching for Old Testament parallels, the recurrent phrase "word of the Lord" (dabar YHWH = logos kyriou LXX) immediately strikes us as the most likely antecedent for the the Johannine Logos. Indeed, this concept was critical to the whole idea of divine revelation, and, as a phenomenon experienced by the Hebrew prophets (e.g. "The word of the Lord came to Zechariah . . ." - 1:1), the word consisted of ther thoughts and will of God.23 Moreover, it served as the effective instrument of His divine action; thus, for the Psalmist, "the word of the Lord" served as the mediatorial agent of creation (33:6), while for the prophets of God, the "word of the Lord" possessed an inherent life-giving power (Isa 55:3).24 Interestingly, both of these themes are prevalent in the Johannine Prologue.

Now although the "word of the Lord" was never explicitly personified in Hebraic thought, it nevertheless possessed a "quasi-substantial existence of its own."25 Certainly, this is evident from numerous texts, but there is one scripture in particular in which the "word" serves an independent function which is almost identically parallel to the incarnational motif of the Johannine Prologue. In the Isaian invitation to the abundant life (Isa 55), a chapter to which Jesus often alluded, there is a verse (11) which says, "So shall my 'word' be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." As Brown indicates, "We have here the same cycle of coming down and returning that we encounter in the Prologue."26 Thus, it seems an inescapable conclusion that the Johannine Logos, as the incarnation and revelation of the mind and will of God, is firmly rooted in the Old Testament concept of dabar YHWH // logos Kyriou LXX // memra Adonai Targum.

On a similar plane, another conceptual parallel to the Johannine Logos comes from the corpus of Jewish Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Sirach, Baruch, and the Wisdom of Solomon). Interestingly, whereas in the Torah and the Prophets the "word of the Lord" only possesses an implicit independent function (or personification), in the Wisdom literary genre the idea of a "personified" Wisdom (Sophia LXX) is fully developed, serving as a controlling hermeneutical theme. Indeed, many of the attributes and actions which are ascribed to the Logos of John can also be ascribed to personified Wisdom.27 The following should suffice in demonstrating the Johannine dependence on the canonical and apocryphal Wisdom Literature:28

1. "In the beginning was the Word (Logos)" (John 1:1).

-"The Lord created me (Wisdom) at the beginning of His work" (Prov 8:22).
-"From eternity, in the beginning He created me (Wisdom)" (Sir 24:9).

2. "All things were made through Him" (John 1:3)

-"For Wisdom is the fashioner of all things" (Wis 7:2).

3. "That which came to be in Him was life" (John 1:3-4).

-"For he who finds me finds life" (Prov 8:35).

4. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

-"For the light is succeeded by night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail"
(Wis 7:30).

5. "Yet the world knew Him not" (John 1:10).

-"No one knows the way to her (Wisdom) or is concerned about the path to her"
(Bar 3:31).

6. "He came to His own" (John 1:11)

-"Afterward she (Wisdom) appeared upon earth and lived among men. She is the
Book of the commandment of God and the law that endures forever" (Bar 3:37-4:1).

7. "And His own received Him not" (John 1:11).

-"You (Israel) have forsaken the fountain of wisdom" (Bar 3:12).

8. "And the Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

-"Then the Creator of all things gave me (Wisdom) a commandment, and . . .
assigned a place for my tent. And he said, 'Make your dwelling in Jacob . . .'"
(Sir 24:10).

In analyzing the parallels between the posed writings, it is important to recognize that the similarities are not only conceptual, but also stylistic, reflecting anlalogous linguistic phrases and poetic patterns.29 Furthermore, comparative studies between the Prologue and Sirach, for instance, have revealed that not only are the mediatorial functions of Wisdom and the Logos strikingly similar, but "the order in which these functions are presented is roughly the same."30 Thus, from this evidence, Johannine dependence on Jewish Wisdom Literature is more than certain.

Part III - A Synergistic Approach

In sum, it seems that the suggested Judaic background provides a sufficient context for the origin of the Johannine doctrine of the Logos. Even as contemporary New Testament scholarship has concluded, the Creation/Sinai motifs, the Hebrew dabar YHWH, and the parallels within Jewish Wisdom Literature all provide a firm foundation upon which the Johannine theologian could have presented his Christian Logos. Nevertheless, to dismiss entirely the Greek philosophical nuances inherent in the word Logos (1:1) would be to disregard the Hellenistic zeitgeist which prevailed during the Roman era; and furthermore, it would ignore the historical/geographical considerations which are pivotal in one's understanding of the authorial intent of the Johannine writing.

If the author of the Fourth Gospel was indeed the Apostle John writing from Ephesus about AD 90,31 then we can be certain that he would have been well-acquainted with certain Hellenistic ideologies, including the Heraclitean/Stoic conception of the Logos.32 Ephesus, which was the capital of proconsular Asia, was one of the chief centers of Hellenistic culture; and though the city was renowned for its Artemis cult and accompanying polytheistic ritualism, it was also the home of the ancient Heraclitus, the father of the cosmological logos doctrine, who incidentally was greatly revered even in John's day. And nearby was the city of Miletus (about 20 miles away),33 the very cradle of Greek philosophy, where Thales, Anximander, and Anaximenes once speculated about the unifying principle, and wondered about the underlying reason which pervaded metaphysical and cosmological reality.

When all things are considered, then, it is not unreasonable to assume that the holy Apostle found in the term Logos a concept, which to the Greek world he could present Christ as the fulfillment of all metaphysical speculation; and which, to the Jewish world, he could present Christ as the ultimate revelation (word) and manifestation (theophany) of God, the incarnation of personified Wisdom (Sophia). Astonishingly, in the Johannine doctrine of the Logos we have the convergence of numerous ideological motifs which find their ultimate meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the words of Archibald Alexander would serve as an appropriate conclusion to the thesis we have set forth in this essay:

"From whatsoever source the term Logos was originally derived, whether from Hebrew tradition or Hellenic speculation - on Christian soil it is a new product. It is neither Greek nor Jewish, it is Christian. The philosophical abstraction has become a religious conception. Hellenism and Hebrewism have been taken up and fused into a higher unity, and Christ as the embodiment of the Logos has become the creative power and the world-wide possession of mankind."34

Notes and References

1. Archibald Alexander, "Logos" in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ed. James Orr, 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, 3:1916.

2. Frederick Copleston, Greece and Rome: Pre-Socratics to Plotinus Vol. 1 of A History of Philosophy, 9 vols., New York: Image, 1946, p. 20.

3. Ibid., p. 22.

4. Ibid., p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 43.

6. G. A. Turner, "Logos" in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible,
ed. Merrill C. Tenney, 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 3:953.

7. Copleston, pp. 387ff.

8. Ronald H. Nash, Christianity in the Hellenistic World, Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1984, p. 69.

9. Alexander, 3:1912.

10. Ed. L. Miller, "The Logos of Heraclitus: Updating the Report,"
Harvard Theological Review 74:2 (1981):161-76.

11. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 4 vols. Westminster: Christian Classics,
1950, 1:209.

12. Ibid., 2:21.

13. Ibid., 2:4-5.

14. Theodore Stylianopoulos, "Justin Martyr" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, London: Garland, 1990, pp. 514-16.

15. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Downers Grove: InterVarsity,
Revised Edition 1990, p. 297.

16. James H. Charlesworth, "Reinterpreting John: How the Dead Sea Scrolls Have
Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Gospel of John" in Bible Review (Feb 1993):
pp. 18-25.

17. Guthrie, p. 297.

18. Raymond E. Brown, "The Gospel According to John I-XII" in The Anchor Bible,
ed. David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1966, LXXXIII.

19. Charlesworth, p. 21.

20. John Ashton, "The Transformation of Wisdom: A Study of the Prologue of John's
Gospel" in New Testament Studies (vol. 32: 1986), 161-86.

21. Brown, Sec. 1, p. 4.

22. Ibid., p. 33.

23. "Dabar" in Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, eds. W. E. Vine et al.
Nashville: Nelson, Revised 1985, p. 240.

24. Brown, p. 521.

25. Ibid., p. 521.

26. Ibid., p. 521.

27. Thomas H. Tobin, "Logos" in Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 4,
ed. David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 4:348-56.

28. Ibid., 4:348-56

29. Ibid., 4:348-56

30. Brown, p. 523.

31. Contrary to sophisticated critical theories which are prevalent in scholarly circles today, we have presupposed the tradition of the early Church -- a tradition passed on from Polycarp (c. 71-156) to Irenaeus (c. 115-202) -- namely, that the Fourth Gospel was the work of John the apostle in the last decade of the first century. It must be noted that modern criticism has attacked the Irenaean testimony of apostolic authorship, but this assessment is not based on objective, historical evidence; but rather, it is motivated by the implications of critical presuppositions which cannot be reconciled with the early testimony of the Bishop of Lyons (cf. Guthrie, p. 270). As an aside, a similar scholarly criticism was leveled against Irenaeus in his depiction of Gnosticism (Adversus Haereses), the claim being that Irenaeus was a propagandist who sought to present the Gnostics in their worst possible light. However, after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1949, the polemical writings of Irenaeus were corroborated and thus proved accurate by the Gnostic texts themselves. In my view, then, Irenaeus is a reliable witness to the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel. and furthermore, this confidence is buttressed by the testimony of the Muratorian Canon (AD 170), Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Simply, if Irenaeus claimed that, as a young boy, he heard Polycarp (a disciple of John) attest to the apostle's authorship of the Fourth Gospel, there is really no reason to disbelieve him. Indeed, if we cannot rely on a tradition as strong as this, then in my view, the whole category of "tradition" as a means of discovering historical truth is entirely worthless.

32. The First Epistle of John, in its polemical thrust against the Gnostic heresy, demonstrates that John was very well-acquainted with Hellenistic ideologies. (cf. John Stott, The Epistles of John, Leicester: InterVarsity, 1960).

33. This is the site where Thales founded the Milesian school of philosophy, and also, where Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders as recorded in Acts 20.

34. Alexander, 3:1916.