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In John 1:1 (NIV, KJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV, NRSV), the text is often translated as something close to

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

"the Word" as it is translated here reads λόγος (transliterated as "Logos") in the original Greek. My understanding is however, that λόγος (Logos) is a specific technical term in Hellenistic philosophy and many of the Greek philosophers offered their thoughts on the concept. Accordingly, this term often has a much wider range of meaning than merely the spoken or written word.

So, how exactly would Greek readers have understood the meaning of Logos in light of philosophical thought, and what exactly is the significance of John co-opting this term? What exactly is John claiming about Jesus in co-opting this philosophical term?

2

I think we can agree asking Hellenistic philosophers their thoughts on λόγου Logos is the best way to find out.

Heraclitus Fragments DK B2

τοῦ λόγου δ' ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own

So Heraclitus saw Logos more or less as the universal wisdom.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.1 1103b31-2

(That one should) act according to the right logos is a commonplace, and should be assumed.

Aristotle saw Logos more or less as universal ethics or morals.

Plato Theaetetus 201d-210a

μετα λόγου (alêthê) διοξάνιο Knowledge is True Judgement With an Account

Plato here agrees to a definition of Logos. This definition is supported by Plato in Meno 98a2, Phaedo 76b5–6, Phaedo 97d-99d2, Symposium 202a5-9, Republic 534b3-7, and Timaeus 51e5

The Disciple John saw Jesus Christ as the Logos.

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

So John is tying it all together, he's affirming yes there is a universal moral, ethic, wisdom, true judgement, true belief, there is a universal account of virtue, yes there is Λόγος, and it is Jesus Christ.

  • @Elika, thank you for your help, I apologize but I did have to roll it back. I have a personal pledge to never use Wikipedia as a source. I don't even rely on online Bible translations. Before I quote I look at the material itself. I just do not trust the internet. – N.Ish May 4 '17 at 15:26
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    To me, these quotations are too brief and their explanations too scant to provide a substantial answer to OP's question. I also think there is a serious absence of Philo of Alexandria, who built a syncretic theology from Judean religion and Hellenistic philosophy. The Logos was a major part of his theology and shares too much overlap with John 1 (and Paul's and Hebrews' Wisdom Christology) to be left out. – user2910 May 4 '17 at 16:10
  • @Mark Edward, well I appreciate the critique, but why don't you just write an answer brother? I answer questions with cited sources and brief examples to support my thoughts, not as exhaustive conclusions to entire ideas. – N.Ish May 4 '17 at 20:24
  • @Elika Kohen, you've surmised all of that from my decision to roll back your edit, even after I explained why I did it? Goodness gracious. No, Elika I simply would prefer that you not use Wikipedia as a source for my answers. Please feel free to edit my answer without Wikipedia. That was ALL. – N.Ish May 5 '17 at 15:34
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The term "Logos" has two meanings: "word" and "reason" [1]. Let's focus on each.

1. Logos as Word

In the case of humans, a word is a sign that represents a concept, which in turn is a mental representation of an entity, so that the secuence is:

entity (real) -> concept (mental) -> word (pronunced or written).

God, in contrast, knows perfectly the possible entities and causes their existence by creating them, with Genesis describing the creative act as the enunciation by God of the word corresponding to the entity, so that in the case of God the logical sequence is:

concept (mental) -> enunciation of the word (creative act) -> entity (real).

Understanding then the creation of an entity as the enunciation by God (the three divine Persons acting as a single efficient cause) of the knowledge that God has of that entity, the generation of the Son can be understood as the full enunciation by God the Father of the perfect knowledge that He has of Himself. At this point it is important to note three essential differences between the act of generation of the Son by God the Father and the act of creation by the three divine Persons acting inseparably:

  1. Since God the Father Is the Subsisent Being or absolute fullness of Being, which is necessarily one, the full enunciation of his self-knowledge does not produce another Subsistent Being, which is intrinsically impossible, but a Person Who Is the same unique Subsistent Being. The difference between the Father and the Son, apart from the fact that the Father generates the Son and not the other way around, is that the Father is the Subsistent Being in fontal plenitude mode while the Son is the Subsistent Being in filiation mode, which explains why the Son does not in turn enuntiate his self-knowledge generating his own son. (This last point follows St. Bonaventure as opposed to St. Thomas Aquinas and uses the concept of modes of beings introduced by St. Basil the Great.)

  2. While to beget eternally a consubstantial Son in inherent to God the Father (and to spirate the Holy Spirit is inherent to the Father and the Son), to create is an absolutely free decision of God (the three Persons).

  3. God the Father begets his Son in eternity, while God creates in time, which in fact begins to flow at the moment of creation, since it is a dimension internal to the created universe.

Understanding then the generation of the Son as the full enunciation by God the Father of his perfect self-knowledge, it is evident that the term "Logos" used by John must be understood in the sense of "Word". This is fully in line with the description of the Son with respect to the Father as "charaktēr tēs hypostaseōs autou", "perfect imprint of his Hypostasis" in Heb 1:3: the word represents the concept, and given that, per absolute divine simplicity, the self-knowledge of the Father is identical to the Father, the full enunciation of that self-knowlege results in the full representation, or perfect imprint, of the Father.

2. Logos as Reason

This in turn had two main meanings in Greek philosophy: first, by Heraclitus, the rational structure of the universe, its inherent rationality; then, by the Stoics, the rational active principle that pervaded and animated the universe and caused its rational operation.

It is evident that both notions have much in common with the notion of divine wisdom in the Old Testament, whose personification in Prov 8;22-9,6, Sir 24:1-30 and Wis 7:21-8:1 has always been interpreted by Christian tradition as a prefiguration of the revelation of the Person of the Son. Besides, given that the wisdom of God the Father consists above all in his perfect knowledge of Himself, and that the generation of the Son is the enunciation of that self-knowledge, which is an intellectual act, an act of wisdom, the Son can be called Logos in the sense of Word and also Wisdom (Sophia), or its synonym Logos in the sense of Reason.

[1] Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'LOGOS'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915. https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/logos/

  • Quoting from the (very long) entry for "Logos" in the "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia", 1915: Logos signifies in classical Greek both "reason" and "word." biblestudytools.com/dictionary/logos – Johannes Nov 4 '17 at 20:58
  • Suggestion followed. – Johannes Nov 4 '17 at 21:02
  • Thanks. However, a lexicon entry would be more appropriate and a lexicon lists many more usages: biblehub.com/greek/3056.htm I think you might want to qualify your assertion to a specific sphere of Greek philosophy or something. – Ruminator Nov 4 '17 at 21:28
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This subject is addressed at length in the First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165 AD). In Chapter V, for example, he writes:

For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself. And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that “he was introducing new divinities;” and in our case they display a similar activity. For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ.

  • I feel that Justin's reference could be interpreted as a general reference to reason - although Justin is definitely associating it with John 1. – elika kohen May 3 '17 at 1:42
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Introduction

While researching an answer to another question, I inadvertently discovered the answer to this question.

It appears that this most likely would have been understood in the context of stoicism; most likely in the context of secular Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandrea, a follower of stoicism.


Stoicism

In response to Plato's explorations of whether abstract qualities (Such as justice and wisdom) have an independent existence (and his argument that these things do not truly "exist" by appealing to his Theory of Forms), Stoicism taught that these things did exist materially and in a corporeal form or "substance" (οὐσία).

According to the Stoics, the universe is a material, reasoning substance, known as God or Nature, which the Stoics divided into two classes, the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter, which "lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion." The active substance, which can be called Fate, or Universal Reason (Logos), is an intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter:

The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world's guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.

— Chrysippus, in Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 39

Stoicism also taught that

everything that exists depends on two first principles which can be neither created nor destroyed: matter, which is passive and inert, and the logos, or divine reason, which is active and organizing. The 3rd-century B.C. Stoic Chrysippus regarded pneuma as the vehicle of logos in structuring matter, both in animals and in the physical world. Pneuma in its purest form can thus be difficult to distinguish from logos or the "constructive fire" (pur technikon)



Philo's take

Perhaps by studying stoicism and noticing the Septuagint's use of pneuma (πνεῦμα) in Genesis 1:1,

ἡ δὲ γῆ ἦν ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος καὶ σκότος ἐπάνω τῆς ἀβύσσου καὶ πνεῦμα θεοῦ ἐπεφέρετο ἐπάνω τοῦ ὕδατος

this led Philo to conclude that the πνεῦμα θεοῦ (pneuma theou - Spirit of God) was the Logos (The Reason, thought or word for the formation of the universe.)

In his writings, Philo

...used the term Logos to mean an intermediary divine being, or demiurge. Philo followed the Platonic distinction between imperfect matter and perfect Form, and therefore intermediary beings were necessary to bridge the enormous gap between God and the material world. The Logos was the highest of these intermediary beings, and was called by Philo "the first-born of God". Philo also wrote that "the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated".

Plato's Theory of Forms was located within the Logos, but the Logos also acted on behalf of God in the physical world. In particular, the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was identified with the Logos by Philo, who also said that the Logos was God's instrument in the creation of the universe.

It seems that Philo was attempting to synthesize Jewish thought and Hellinistic Philosophy. Thus, Philo wrote that,

In the first place therefore, from the model of the world, perceptible only by intellect, the Creator made an incorporeal heaven, and an invisible earth, and the form of air and of empty space: the former of which he called darkness, because the air is black by nature; and the other he called the abyss, for empty space is very deep and yawning with immense width. Then he created the incorporeal substance of water and of air, and above all he spread light, being the seventh thing made; and this again was incorporeal, and a model of the sun, perceptible only to intellect, and of all the lightgiving stars, which are destined to stand together in heaven.

And air and light he considered worthy of the pre-eminence. For the one he called the breath of God, because it is air, which is the most life-giving of things, and of life the causer is God


Conclusion

It seems then, that John 1, in claiming that

In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God"

John was, to some degree, affirming the teachings of Philo (either directly or indirectly) and attempting to Join the Stoics philosophical dialogue. John goes on to affirm aspects of Philo's Cosmogony, saying

He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

But then John takes it a step further and refines Philo's teachings in a corrective, saying not just that the Logos was with God at the beginning but that "The Logos WAS God" and that

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

...

The Logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And of course, according to John that was Jesus and the embodiment of these abstract qualities did exist corporeally - in Jesus. John is also claiming that Jesus is the "light" or pneuma, offering a corrective to Philo's belief that God

created the incorporeal substance of water and of air, and above all he spread light, being the seventh thing made

Instead claimng that the Logos is both God and the Pneuma (holy spirit) - which has implications for triniterianism that many miss in the text.


Excursus

As it turns out, Philo's ideas are directly responsible for parts of the Nicene creed. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The other category apprehends him through himself, as light is seen by light. For God gave man such a perception "as should prove to him that God exists, and not to show him what God is." Philo believes that even the existence of God "cannot possibly be contemplated by any other being; because, in fact, it is not possible for God to be comprehended by any being but himself " (Praem. 39-40). Philo adds, "Only men who have raised themselves upward from below, so as, through the contemplation of his works, to form a conjectural conception of the Creator by a probable train of reasoning" (Praem. 43) are holy, and are his servants. Next Philo explains how such men have an impression of God's existence as revealed by God himself, by the similitude of the sun (Mut. 4-6) a concept which he borrowed from Plato. As light is seen in consequence of its own presence so, "In the same manner God, being his own light, is perceived by himself alone, nothing and no other being co-operating with or assisting him, a being at all able to contribute to pure comprehension of his existence; But these men have arrived at the real truth, who form their ideas of God from God, of light from light" (Praem. 45-46). As Plato and Philo had done, Plotinus later used this image of the sun. Thus the Logos, eternally created (begotten), is an expression of the immanent powers of God, and at the same time, it emanates into everything in the world.

This then means that the section of the Nicene creed reading

Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

are a direct result of these ideas and philosophical arguments attributed to Philo and Plato.

  • Well researched, cogent answer. I just wish that whoever down-votes answers such as these could include a critique or rationale. – Dieter Nov 4 '17 at 21:45
  • @Dieter - Thanks! Yeah... I'm also not sure why this answer did not receive the same or similar attention that the question did. I had planned to bolster the answer with a few commentaries and ask for some feedback from the library... – James Shewey Nov 4 '17 at 22:03
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If the Greek word logos is taken at its face value, without assuming any background meaning, it means 'word'.

My word - in toto - is what I have to communicate, all that I have to communicate, that is cogent and reasonable, and that can be conveyed from my own being to the being of another by sensible communication.

It exists within me; and is communicable.

In the beginning, there existed all that was sensible, cogent, logical. And it was communicable.

And God was the word. [The literal rendering of the last statement in John 1:1.]

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    Why on earth would we assume there is no background to this word? The Bible was written in a time and context and we can't simply disregard that fact for modern hermeneutic convenience. In fact, I would argue that to remember there is a background and context of meaning is to actually take LOGOS at face value – James Shewey Sep 30 '17 at 16:05
  • The bible was not written for scholars. It was written so that anyone, anywhere on earth could read and understand it. As Tyndale said, So that any ploughboy in England could read it. My answer looks at the word "Logos" as it appears in John's book, without having any background historical knowledge. – Nigel J Sep 30 '17 at 16:08
  • I think that might be something you could say at the time it was written. But is it still today? But a more larger problem is that this assumes it wasn't also written for scholars. The idea that The Bible is sans intellectual discussion means that while it was written for ploughboys, it was not written for deep thinkers and academics. I would argue that the gospel has a core of simplicity that even the ploughboy could understand, but it also has intellectual and philosophical discussions because philosophic, academic and intellectual thought are a part of God's perfect nature too. – James Shewey Sep 30 '17 at 16:14
  • Having been created in God's image, we must have a very intelligent God capable of having these discussions in his divinely inspired word. I would argue that the Gospel does both. Not just one, because both the ploughboy and the academic have a place in Christ's kingdom. – James Shewey Sep 30 '17 at 16:16
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    To have a conversation with me, it is best to use Biblical Hermeneutics Chat as this is not a discussion forum (and I have probably already conversed too much) To get upvotes from me, you merely need to follow the site distinctives one of which reads - "This is a university, not a church/synagogue", other of which is titled "We prefer lectures over sermons" – James Shewey Sep 30 '17 at 17:36
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That word has multiple possible meanings in Greek, the most interesting is Reason.

Think translating it as:

In the beginning was the Reason, and the Reason was with God, and the Reason was God.

Edit: One person downovoted already. I didn't say 'Reason' was the correct translation but it is one of the multiple possible and quite interesting.

For the meaning of the word in Greek see: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940 in http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

I. computation, reckoning II. relation, correspondence, proportion, III. explanation, IV. inward debate of the soul V. continuous statement, narrative VI. verbal expression or utterance VII. a particular utterance, saying VIII. thing spoken of, subject-matter IX. expression, utterance, speech regarded formally,

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    I think the reason for the downvote is that this answer isn't all that helpful. It is pretty well known that Logos has multiple translations and meanings; most pronounced in English of which is reason. What is not well understood is what Logos means as a technical philosophical term, which you don't really explain - and there is plenty to unpack there. Most around here also know how to consult the LSJ on their own. Also see the note on publicly available Lexica – James Shewey Sep 12 '17 at 4:19
  • As a philosophical term it would mean reason to proportion. Today the meanings that survive are speech, ratio, cause. I don't know if they can consult the LSJ but most don't do it. – Apóstolos Papaðimitríu Sep 12 '17 at 7:43
  • By the way, the answer which mistranslates Herakleitos (born c. 535 BC) is upvoted, while the hellenistic age starts after the death of Alexander ~200 years later and the question is about λόγος as "a specific technical term in Hellenistic philosophy" – Apóstolos Papaðimitríu Sep 12 '17 at 9:19

protected by James Shewey Sep 13 '17 at 15:21

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