Ancient Answers

The Word in Hebrew and Greek

1 Comment

What a towering statement, a highpoint of biblical theology, a pinnacle of human understanding and spirituality. Thousands of years of human search for truth and for God, culminated in this statement by the Gospel writer John. The Word, the Logos was in the beginning – was, which means did not come into being at the beginning or some time before the beginning; but already was, in an indefinite past tense of the verb εἰμί, ‘to be’. This indefinite past tense is called the ‘imperfect’ in grammars – indicating no specific time, but a continuing state. And of course how could the Logos be anything other than always existing, since, as John tells us, ‘the Word was God.”

The noun λόγος, logos, is one of the most important gifts of ancient Greece, especially to philosophy and religion. But the religious weight of ‘word’ is not only derived from ancient Greek philosophers, but also from the Hebrew scriptures. The noun דָּבָר (dā·ḇār) is especially important in the form דְּבַר יהוה, dā·ḇār yhwh, “the word of the Lord.” It was by ‘word’ that God created the universe in the beginning of the scriptures, Genesis chapter one. So ‘word’ in the Genesis context can also mean ‘command’.

It is an open question whether John had more of the Greek background or the Hebrew background in mind. My own assumption has always been that John’s poetic inspiration in chapter 1 of his Gospel came from both the Hebrew and Greek usages of logos/dā·ḇār. How could it be otherwise? How could any single language ever do justice to the profound acts and revelation of God? So John borrowed from the two most important languages of the ancient world. That may sound chauvinistic, but let’s face it, what other languages have had the influence on human existence and history that these two languages have had? Yes, ancient Chinese produced extraordinary philosophical concepts independent of the Mediterranean cultures. But it is only in recent decades that Chinese philosophy became widely known and influential outside of eastern Asia – and that is happening at a time when eastern Asian cultures themselves are increasingly embracing western philosophies and cultural and religious concepts! The same can be said of the civilizations of the Hindus valley. And closer to home, Latin thought and language was so derivative of Greek that it doesn’t warrant much attention on its own. So it is not chauvinistic to assign such prime importance to the two languages that formed the Christian mind of John the Evangelist.

Another reason why John borrowed from both linguistic frameworks is that the Hebrew and Greek minds were very different but complementary for the purposes of what John needed to express: the Greek mind more contemplative, given to discourse and rational exploration; the Hebrew mind more earthy, more concerned with action. And the different minds are perfectly expressed in the noun ‘word’. The lexical definition of the Greek logos involves English words and concepts like the following: “word, saying, command, speech, conversation, report, story, law, proportion, explanation, argument, debate, reason, opinion, reflection, esteem, account, reckoning….” The philosopher Heraclitus (about 500 BC) was the first to give philosophical weight to logos. For him it meant the universal law, and thus the rationalism of the universe and the relationships among objects including the relationships among human beings. In later Greek philosophy logos also came to mean method of argument and discourse, so it came to refer primarily to the interactions of human beings in community. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis concludes the development of the Greek concept of logos this way:

Heraclitus’s general universal law and the Sophists’ individual oratorical ability are the extremes beyond which one cannot go within the frame of ref. provided by the understanding of λόγος that characterized the class. period. A fundamentally new orientation of thought, namely, the thesis that ethics is the basic problem faced by humanity, was provided by the Stoics, who confronted the Gk. starting-point of knowledge with the formulation of their question: How must I live in order to be able to be happy? Nevertheless, here too the complex of ideas from which the answer is worked out is denoted as the λόγος…

A thorough intellectual organization of the world and the definition of each person’s location in it—a fundamental precondition for ethics—is undertaken on the basis of Aristotelian schematization. There are, however, certain seminal, seed-bestowing Logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) that permeate the whole world and bring about the continuity of all growth and occurrence and thus its meaningful course. Furthermore, there is a “right reason” (ὀρθὸς λόγος) or universal law that bestows on human beings the power of knowledge and thence of moral behavior. Corresponding with the dual conceptuality of the term λόγος (thinking and saying), a distinction is made between the inner Logos (thinking) given by the God-Logos and the Logos ordained for articulation (speaking).

As you can see from the above, John the Evangelist had a huge conceptual background when he composed the opening of his Gospel. And the concept of seed-bestowing logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) briefly mentioned in the above paragraph became essential building blocks of early Christian theology, especially when the early church had to engage in dialogue with pagan philosophy. The word ‘theology’ itself is composed of two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word, speech, concept). Thus, theology is: words about God – words, concepts!

The Hebrew mind saw ‘word’, dā·ḇār, primarily as force, action. The ‘word of the Lord’ was not a matter of discussion and speculation. It was active, sharper than a two-edged sword, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12) so eloquently expressed it in the New Testament. And as God spoke through Isaiah (55:11): so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. In the Hebrew mind the ‘word’ is all about action. So God sends his word to the prophets and to other chosen individuals – and those who receive the word have no choice but to act; sometimes against their own will, as in the case of Jeremiah, who fought tooth and nail against what God was instructing him to do!

Jeremiah is indeed a classic case of the prophet being overwhelmed by the power of God’s ‘word’. Consider how the book of Jeremiah begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

You see here the power of God’s word; as Jeremiah will speak the ‘word of God’ whole nations will be destroyed or built up! But it wasn’t easy for Jeremiah, he could not stomach pronouncing words of judgment, especially since it brought on the ridicule and violence of his listeners. So in chapter 20 Jeremiah cries out:

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Such was the power of the word inside Jeremiah, like a fire, and he could not resist against it, even as it endangered his own life.

John took the importance that the Greeks assigned to logos and made logos the very definition of God. But that’s as far as John went in conceptual talk about logos. He brought the Greek fascination with logos to its logical (another logos word) climax by saying “the word was God.” (And let’s no forget that John gave another similarly concise description of God, when he wrote “God is love” in his First Letter.) Where can you go after that? That’s the end of Greek philosophy right there. Then the Hebrew mind takes over in John. And he continues his Gospel’s opening with these words:

All things were made through him [the Word], and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Here John echoes Genesis, where God created by ‘word’, spoken command. The Hebrew mind is now in control of John’s writing, and it culminates in perhaps the most radical statement of Hebrew understanding of God’s ways, in verse 14 of John’s first chapter:
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
The Hebrew mind could not conceive of God becoming man. But the Hebrew mind could conceive of God’s word becoming incarnate. After all, the passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah above give us an image of God’s word present in living, active power in the world! So I don’t go for the usual assumption that John was more influenced by Greek philosophy. Certainly in introducing the term Logos he was definitely influenced by the Greek background. He was writing in Greek after all. But in my opinion the way he used logos in the first chapter of his Gospel is pure Hebraic.

One thought on “The Word in Hebrew and Greek

  1. Pingback: Logos – Flowering Poverello

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s