道(Dao) is the concept which the entire Dao De Jing seeks to expound upon and discuss. Dao De Jing is the central text of Daoist philosophy. I don't know how to define "dao" beyond an extremely layman-style notion of "harmony with the Dao" being synonymous with "not striving" and simply "going with the flow". Perhaps "Dao" might be thought of as the way that the universe operates.

Given the "Logos" has a certain meaning in Greek philosophy as well, it's really interesting that those who translated the Bible into Chinese chose to translate "Logos" in John 1:1 which refers to Christ, as "Dao".

Those doing translation work are usually familiar with the texts of other civilizations and understand how various terms will be understood by native speakers. Wouldn't the translators of Chinese Bibles be aware of the 道德经 (Dao De Jing)'s place in Chinese culture and understand the effect of this translation choice? Is this something they did on purpose, fully aware of the connotations?

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    This book might be of interest: amazon.com/Christ-Eternal-Tao-Hieromonk-Damascene/dp/1887904239
    – user15733
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 2:10
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    The Logos having Greek philosophical meaning is irrelevant because John’s claim has its origin is Hebrew for it’s the “word” in Hebrew or the eth (alephtav). So by insisting on some integrity to Greek philosophy one is making the same mistake as trying to interpret the logos outside it’s Hebrew origin. Greek is a translation and things get lost in translation. John 1:1 corresponds to Gen 1:1 where the word/logos/eth is found creating. John 1:1 is not about Pro8:22 where wisdom is personified, as is instruction personified in v33 and is definitely not speaking of Jesus. Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 21:52

4 Answers 4


Its seems that the Greek 'logos' is similar in concept to the "Tao" of the Lao Tzu and the Taoists, however this is just a coincidence. It seems various English websites have locked onto this similarity conjecturing things about it, but asking one of my many Chinese christian friends, I have been told the word just means original reason or truth. 

For example:

佈道  bou3 dou6 is announce truth = sermon

It is no surprise that Asian religions use the word, as truth is a word that religions are interested in, but as with all Chinese characters, they are so ancient they generally predate history let alone Taoists.

Additional observations based on the historical and current meaning of the pictogram (道):

Aside from my Chinese friend who adamantly denied any relationship with Daoism to John 1 in the Chinese Bible, there is no denying from my own research that there was a pre-existing religious connotation to the word through Confucianism, before Christ. Today the connotation exists in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism as well as other religions peculiar to Japan and Asia. Keep in mind though as a Bible translator one would not want to indicate a preference to one of these religions over another as they are often divided by class.

The neat thing about Chinese is you see the meaning inside in the picture they draw. The composition of 道 (dào) is 首 (shǒu) meaning "head" and 辶 (辵 chuò) "go." The character 首 is distinguished by the tufts at the top, representing the hairstyle of the warrior class (a "bun"). This is used to refer to the head, such as leadership. The character 辶 (辵 chuò) 'go' in its reduced form, 廴 resembles a foot, and means "to walk," and "to go,". The combined characters signify directed, forward movement or in my words ‘going the natural and right way, using your warrior brain (male principle)’. This has eventually developed into the idea of ‘reason’ or truth as the natural right ‘path' as well as many other meanings.

However there are some things about this that makes it different from how John adopts the ‘logos’. From what I know of ‘logos’ it was a concept uniformly held by many different philosophers (Pythagorean, Stoic, Platonic, etc.) and not completely reduced to very common modes of speech. Sure every word outside of Hebrew probably has a pagan quasi-religious origin, so when writing the gospel in any language the scriptures are in some ways circumcising various words along the way and reinventing them with entirely new meanings, while extracting the true concepts from them. There are no other words to use. In the case of “logos” this was very fitting as not only did it have many elements congruent with the “truth” and familiar to all, accepted by all, but had been incorporated into Hellenised Hebrew culture through people like Philo of Alexandria. In this way John uses a very specific term and reinvents it to have a higher meaning that seems more unique then the Chinese counterpart.

It seems now that I have only strengthened the argument that the same things can be done for 道, however, while admitting the religious background that predates Daoism, and even Confucianism, this word has become to have a very, very general meaning and to imagine it will lead a Chinese person to think about Daoism would be misleading (I think as am only trying to understa my Chinese friend). This is probably why my Chinese friend thought I was crazy when I asked him.

For example, here are some other Chinese words using 道 as a ‘path’:

谷道 – the rectum
鬼道 – witchcraft sorcery
入道 – become a Buddhist monk
走斜道儿 – visit brothels

Given the widespread use, with quasi religious undertones, I think we get an approximation as to why the word is suitable for use in John 1, but why other Chinese translations might also use another one.

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    @user1539 - yes it seems very fitting. Actually living in Hong Kong I see this character everywhere as it also is used as a 'way' or 'path' so that it is the same as the english 'road'. Its on almost every street sign. Reminds me of 'I am the way, the truth.' Cheers.
    – Mike
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 3:56
  • Mike, (A.) If you show that "Logos" is used more than this one time in John 1:1, in this same sense, then your hypothesis that John is reinventing a term would be grounded in the text. (B.) Otherwise, your conclusion is not well ground: that John departed from the Normal Understanding of "Logos", and reinvented it. (C.) That is: Your interpretation of John 1:1 is based on this hypothesis, but you did not give any reasons why it is true--other than just saying it is. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 14:18

First, it seems that Dao is often transliterated as Tao. I first heard of the concept via C. S. Lewis' seminal essay, The Abolition of Man:

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. 'In ritual', say the Analects, 'it is harmony with Nature that is prized.' The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being 'true'.

Meanwhile, Heraclitus wrote of a similar concept that he labeled as logos:

This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep.—Diels-Kranz, 22B1

Philo extended the concept to a Jewish audience:

For the [logos] of the living God being the bond of every thing, as has been said before, holds all things together, and binds all the parts, and prevents them from being loosened or separated. And the particular soul, as far as it has received power, does not permit any of the parts of the body to be separated or cut off contrary to their nature; but as far as depends upon itself, it preserves every thing entire, and conducts the different parts to a harmony and indissoluble union with one another. But the mind of the wise man being thoroughly purified, preserves the virtues in an unbroken and unimpaired condition, having adapted their natural kindred and communion with a still more solid good will.—On Flight and Finding

(I wonder if George Lucas was reading De Profugis when he was writing the Star Wars: A New Hope script.)

At any rate, there's little doubt that the author of John 1 knew the philosophical background of logos when he applied it to Jesus. It's possible that he followed the trail that Paul blazed:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.—Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV)


Given that John 1:1 purposely draws on an important concept in Hellenistic philosophy in order to describe Jesus, it seems appropriate that Chinese translators would draw on an equivalent concept in Chinese philosophy. The more pressing question, it seems to me, is why most English translations seem to have made no attempt to preserve that philosophical connection.

  • Tao is indeed the same word; it comes from the older Romanization of Chinese words, the same one that produced 北京 Běijīng as "Peking" and 豆腐 Doùfu as "Tofu"—the correct way to pronounce it is with a hard d sound!
    – Kazark
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 1:51

They were fully aware of the connotations of the translation, and were well informed and educated on the culture and literature of Chinese culture. They were Jesuit Missionaries and studied in China with other Chinese scholars.

"Ricci's thoroughgoing adaptation to Confucianism and his radical rejection of Daoism could not but conflict with Ruggieri's thesis that there was a closer affinity between the Dao of Chinese thought and the incarnate Logos of the New Testament."

(for full reading head to http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Jesuit_China_missions). However there are no perfect translations, even the English translations cannot be taken literally as in English; the Hebrew and sometimes Greek languages have many meaning for one word.This could also be said for this translation, but is correct in being the closest and most relative term for the average Chinese to understand.

  • (+1) Hi Luke and welcome to the site. This is a helpful post, especially for a first post. To make it better it would be awesome to identify why he thought it a better fit. I for one will be looking forward to your future contributions.
    – user10231
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 17:46

The translation of 'Logos' to the Chinese word '道' (Dao or Tao depends on its dialect) perfectly matches its subtle usage and application. '道' is a word dated back to a prominent article, '道德經', literately translated as 'Book of Morality', which believed to be the wisdom of an ancient philosopher called Laozi 6BC before Christ in the Zhou dynasty.

It has to be worth noting that Laozi did not start a religion. He was a philosopher who was later honor to him as the most high in Taoism, likely for the purpose of giving Taoism an honorable figure. In fact, Taoism is developing into idols worship, which is irrelevant to what the Book of Morality was told.

As a book of 2600 years ago, it had been lost and claimed to have found. It doesn't have solid evidence that it is original, nor capable to identify if the words hadn't been changed. The language used is so ancient, that there exist hundred of books to interpret it. But surely when the Chinese translator read John 1:1, and understanding the meaning of 'Logos', they would immediately link to '道德經', a book well recognized no matter he was a Taoist or not.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1 NIV)

,非常「」(道德經 1:1a)

We may see in the beginning of '道德經' is the word '道'. There are three 'Words/Logos' in John 1:1, there are also three '道' in the first verse of '道德經'. Both verses have such a structural coincidence, that spiritually, they are also in harmony.

'道' depends on its context, means differently. Below is a dissect meaning of '道德經' 1:1a

  • 道 - the first 道 means order or law of the nature (refer to 道德經 chapter 25)
  • 可 - means 'can be'
  • 道 - the second 道 means speak out, saying, telling
  • 非 - means 'not'
  • 常 - means 'often, always, same'
  • 道 - the third 道 means the same as the first

Let me paraphrase the meaning of 道德經 1:1a according to my understanding

  • Though a nature statute can be described/told, but this nature statute does not have one form.

Laozi surely did not know God, but he believed that there was a force keeping the nature in balance, and from this force, further elements were created.

「道」法自然 (道德經 ch25) - means '「道」follows the rule of nature'

「道」生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物 (道德經 ch42) - means '「道」forms 'one', 'one' forms 'two', 'two' forms 'three', 'three' forms all things.'

The verse in ch42 tells from 「道」, eventually all things are formed, which is quite amazingly concurring to John 1:3. Therefore I agree that it was a good Chinese translation to use 「道」as 'Logos'.

3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:3 NIV)

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