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How would the Jewish people in Jesus' times have understood John 1:1-14, when John uses the word "logos" in light of Philo the Jewish philosopher and the Memra in the Targums?

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Memra philosophy

Memra philosophy is an intertestamental rabbinical elaboration of what is already present in the Hebrew Bible, namely the treatment of God's Word (Davar) as a person that represents God and shares many of the attributes we would ascribe to Christ.

Here are just a few examples directly from scripture:

  • God's word can come to you and tell you something: 2 Sam 7.4, Jer 13.2-4, Ezek 13.1
  • God's word can be eaten (Jer 15.16)
  • God's word can take up permanent residence in your mouth and children's mouths (Jer 59.21)
  • God's word can leave God's mouth, perform some action in the earth, and then return back to God. Isaiah 55.11, Isaiah 45.23
  • God's word can be offended "reproved" by a hearer - Isaiah 37.24, 2 Ki 19.24
  • God can send his word so that it enters someone or comes and sits on someone else's shoulder Isaiah 9.8
  • God's word is a "swift runner" - Psalm 147.15
  • God's word can try you - Psalm 105.19
  • You can commit a sin against God's word - 1 Chron 10.13
  • God's word can be with you - 2 Ki 3.12
  • You can ask questions of God's word - 1 Ki 22.5
  • You can make God's word more comfortable - 2 Sam 14.17
  • God's word can be despised or rejected - 2 Sam 12.9, 1 Sam 15.23, Nu 15.30-31
  • God can put his Word directly in your mouth, and then you only say what God wants - Numbers 23.5
  • God's word can be feared - Ex 9.20-21

So it's not surprising that, given the extreme hyperliteralism of the rabbis of that period, that a whole doctrine would develop about a personified attribute of God, called the Memra (Aramaic for "saying") that walked, talked, and did things, very much in line with how we view Christ as "The Word".

It is in this sense that John used Logos -- e.g. he was not inspired by Plato, but by rabbinical tradition regarding the Memra teachings in which God's manifestation in the world was primarily as the Memra of God.

From the Aramaic Bible:

The designation for God most characteristic of all the Targums is “the Memra of the Lord.” This is found 314 times in Nf and 636 times in Nfmg; in Frg. Tgs. about 99 times; in CTg text 97 times in texts published by Kahle; in Onq 178 times and 322 in Ps.-J. The Aramaic word mmr’ (rarely written in original form m’mr’ in non-Qumran texts) comes from the root ’mr, “to say.”

Examples of Memra teachings in the Targums

  • it is the Memra that created the world:

From the beginning with wisdom the Memra of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1.1 Neofiti)

  • Psalm 115:9–12 (The Aramaic Bible, Volume 16: The Targum of Psalms)

O Israel, trust in the Memra of the LORD! He is their help and their shield.

O you of the house of Aaron, trust in the Memra of the LORD! He is their help and their shield.

O you who fear the LORD, trust in the Memra of the LORD! He is their help and their shield.

The Memra of the LORD has remembered us; he will bless (us); he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron;

  • Psalm 118:6–14 (The Aramaic Bible, Volume 16: The Targum of Psalms)

The Memra of the LORD is for me as my help; I shall not fear. What can the son of man do to me?

The Memra of the LORD will help me, and I shall see retribution on those who hate me.

 It is better to trust in the Memra of the LORD than to trust in the son of man.

It is better to trust in the Memra of the LORD than to trust in princes.

All the peoples have surrounded me; in the name of the Memra of the LORD I trust that I shall uproot them.

They have surrounded me, yea they have surrounded me; in the name of the Memra of the LORD I trust that I shall uproot them.

They have surrounded me like bees; they blaze like fire among thorns; in the name of the Memra of the LORD I trust that I shall uproot them.

You pushed me hard, O my sin, that I might fall, but the Memra of the LORD helped me.

The LORD, my strength and my song, the terrible one over all the worlds, has spoken through his Memra, and has become my deliverer.


[1] Kevin Cathcart, Michael Maher, and Martin McNamara, eds., “Cathcart, Kevin; McNamara, Martin; Maher, Michael,” in The Aramaic BibleA: Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, trans. Martin McNamara, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 37–38.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Now... In Jesus' times, would the Targum would be more prevalent than the Hebrew Bible? I just don't understand where Aramaic comes from, when the Hebrews should be speaking Hebrew??
    – sam kim
    Jul 28, 2022 at 3:27
  • @samkim yes, because by Jesus time (and for a while before then), most people spoke Aramaic as their native language and hebrew was used purely as a liturgical language by the rabbinical and educated classes, with many not being able to speak hebrew. That is why the targums were created, to provide the scriptures in a language the common people could understand.
    – Robert
    Jul 28, 2022 at 3:30
  • So... Where does Aramaic come from? And when was Hebrew Tanakh first tranlated into Aramaic?
    – sam kim
    Jul 28, 2022 at 3:32
  • Aramaic is a language that was the dominant language in this part of the world from the time of the Persian conquest until the time of the moslem conquests.
    – Robert
    Jul 28, 2022 at 3:34

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