The Word Which Is with God and Is God

John 1.1–18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1.1

The opening to the Fourth Gospel (traditionally attributed to the apostle, John ben Zebadiah) is famous within Christianity for its ‘High Christology’, meaning its identification of Jesus as the incarnation of God himself. Where there is a lot of debate whether other parts of the New Testament identify Jesus as ‘God’, John 1 is often where doubts are put to rest.

Does the text deserve to be the unquestionable proof-text it is used as, though? What does the author actually mean when talking about the ‘word’ of God?

The ‘Word’ in Greek Philosophy

In Greek, the term for 'word' in John 1.1–18 is λόγος (logos). This was a common term used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. It was also a deeply important word for the Greek philosophers in the centuries prior to the Fourth Gospel.

Under Heraclitus (535–475 BC) the word λόγος became common in philosophical lingo. There is debate whether Heraclitus understood this λόγος as an objective, universal constant or as something subjective and general to the individual, but the way he describes it certainly tends toward the former: the λόγος is a sort of universal reason that only some discover.

when Heraclitus says that the logos holds forever, he is using an epithet reserved for things divine. … Heraclitus' somewhat more abstract logos is like the gods it seems to replace. … What is this logos? Heraclitus tells us that it is ‘common’, or perhaps public, but nevertheless not recognized as such by the majority of men … In a sense it is the speech of things, or of the cosmos, which only those who trained their senses, can comprehend.1

Plato's student, Aristotle (384–322 BC), used λόγος for something different. In his philosophy, there were three types of rhetoric that could be used to convince people: ethos (establishing the authority of the speaker), pathos (hooking into the emotions of the listener), and logos (an argument of direct reason and logic).

Departing from Aristotle, but more akin to Heraclitus, the Stoic school of philosophy (begun circa 300 BC) again saw the λόγος as something universal. In their thinking, there are two forms to existence: the destructible world of material things, and the indestructible λόγος which is divine and permeates all.

[The Stoics] were convinced that the universe is amenable to rational explanation, and is itself a rationally organized structure. The faculty in man which enables him to think, to plan and to speak—which the Stoics called logos—is literally embodied in the universe at large. … To put it another way, cosmic Nature or God (the terms refer to the same thing in Stoicism) and man are related to each other at the heart of their being as rational agents.2

In other words, the λόγος is essentially ‘God’ in Stoic philosophy, but ‘God’ is the universe and all that is in it. This is classic pantheism.

The ‘Mediator’ in Judean Literature

During the latter half of the Second Temple period, Jewish theologians took a sudden focus on a special ‘mediator’ who interacted with creation on God's behalf. Some literature from the era presents this mediator as an angel, identified as Michael, Eremiel, or Yahoel. Other texts identify the mediator as an exalted human, usually a figure from the Torah; Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Melchizedek, and Moses were popular candidates.

Other books, however, present the mediator as something within God, and for this they latched onto Lady Wisdom.

The Book of Proverbs, written in the first half of the Second Temple period, briefly personifies God's internal wisdom as a feminine entity. ‘Lady Wisdom’ (as she is commonly called) is portrayed as the first of God's creation, and the means by which he crafts the rest of the universe.

‘Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker’
Proverbs 8.22,30

Remember, this is God's own wisdom, figuratively portrayed as an external entity.

The Book of Wisdom (written circa 50 BC) expands on the short account in Proverbs, showing how Wisdom is the exact representation of God; to see Wisdom is to see God.

I called on God, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. … For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
Wisdom 7.7,25–26

The Book of Sirach (circa 200 BC) depicts Wisdom as manifesting within the world as the Torah.

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory … ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High … Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.” Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion.’ All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob.
Sirach 24.1–3,8–10,23

The Book of Baruch (also about 200 BC) likewise identifies the Torah as a manifestation of Wisdom, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 30.11–12 to describe her simultaneous transcendence and immanence.

Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn Wisdom! … Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her. But the one who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding. … She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever.
Baruch 3.9,29–32, 4.1

The ‘Mediator’ in Philo

At the same time as the Judeans' surge of interest in a ‘mediator’ figure, Greek culture and philosophy spread across the Near East because of the conquest of Alexander of Macedon. Many Judeans were living outside their ancestral homeland, and one such person was Philo (25 BC–AD 50), from Alexandria in Egypt. Philo was a prolific author who formed a syncretism of Judean religion and Greek philosophy, especially borrowing language and ideas from Plato and from the Stoics.

Important to Philo's theology was the mediator figure. In this mediator, Philo ties together an array of earlier ideas seen in Judean and Greek literature: the mediator is ‘Wisdom’, the ‘eldest son’, ‘firstborn’, the ‘advocate’, the ‘image’ of God, and the ‘messenger of his word’.3

Note especially the last of those identities: the mediator is the messenger of God's ‘word’. The mediator is the λόγος.

For Philo, because the λόγος is the ‘image’ of God, Adam's form was modeled after the λόγος.

For God does [seem] to have been guided, as I have said before, by his own λόγῳ alone. On which account, Moses affirms that this man was an image and imitation of God … And it follows of necessity that an imitation of a perfectly beautiful model must itself be perfectly beautiful, for the λόγος of God surpasses even that beauty 4

Philo further identifies the λόγος as ‘the second god’,5 and even as ‘God’ himself, though in an indirect sense:6

for as those who are not able to look upon the sun itself, look upon the reflected beams of the sun as the sun itself 7

In Philo's theology, the λόγος is not ‘God’ in a one-to-one sense, nor a created entity. For Philo, the λόγος is an entity that emanates from within God and reveals him within his creation.

Jesus in Pauline Tradition

In Paul's letters Jesus is, of course, the human Messiah of Israel, but through his resurrection Jesus becomes the ‘last Adam’. Similar to Philo, Paul connects a variety of previous ideas in Jesus: he is the ‘power of God’ and ‘Wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1.24), the ‘image of God’ (2 Cor 4.4),8, the ‘son of God’ (Gal 4.4), and the eschatological ‘firsborn’ of God's new creation (Rom 8.29), as well as the ‘firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1.15), and, like Philo's λόγος, Jesus is the channel through which God created the universe (1 Cor 8.6; Col 1.16–17).

The author of Hebrews also describes Jesus in ways similar to both the λόγος of Philo and the ‘Lady Wisdom’ of earlier Second Temple literature. In the first chapter alone Jesus is the ‘Son’, the ‘firstborn’, and ‘God’, receiving the ‘name above all names’ (cf. Eph 1.21). The book as a whole opens with a passage very similar to Wisdom 7.25–26, given above:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
Hebrews 1.1–3

None of the authors in the Pauline stream of early Christianity call Jesus the λόγος, yet it's impossible to miss the similarities between their theology and what is seen in Philo.

Jesus in Johannine Tradition

John the Elder, author of the three letters of ‘John’, calls Jesus the ‘son’ of God (1 John 1.3) and the ‘advocate’ (1 John 2.1). Jesus is also closely associated with the ‘word [λόγου] of life’ (1 John 1.1), but it's not clear if the author intends to identify this ‘word of life’ as Jesus himself or as a message about Jesus.

The Logos in the Fourth Gospel

This finally brings us back to our text in question, John 1.1–18.

The Fourth Gospel is typically dated to about AD 90–100, and very likely was written after all the above texts. (I set aside New Testament letters that were written contemporary to, or after, this period.) And while not written by John the Apostle, it probably came from the same community as John the Elder, explaining many of the literary parallels between the three Johannine letters and the Fourth Gospel.

So what do we see in the opening passage of the Fourth Gospel?

The author didn't grab this word λόγος out of thin air. The author was drawing from a deep well of existing philosophies in order to communicate his theology in as clear of terms as he could.

The author identifies something called the λόγος, understood by many Greek and Hellenistic Judean philosophers as a sort of cosmic entity that permeates the whole universe and is the reason for the universe's existence. The author identifies this λόγος as ‘God’, but further as God's ‘son’, narrowing down his theology as something Hellenistic Judeans might recognize. The author then claims the λόγος manifested in the world as the man Jesus; those familiar with existing Second Temple-era wisdom literature would recognize this as comparable to the idea of Lady Wisdom manifesting in the world as the Law of Moses. (The author may even allude to that idea in John 1.17.)

In earlier Judean philosophies, Wisdom/the λόγος is both God and yet is an emanation of, is subservient to, and reveals God. In a word, in John 1 the λόγος is God's self-expression. The closest analogy that might be used to explain this relationship between God and the λόγος is the sun/sunbeam metaphor used by Philo above.9 The thrust of this philosophical puzzle is that, for the author of the Fourth Gospel, if God is totally transcendent to his creation (‘no one has ever seen God’) then the λόγος is the manner by which he makes himself immanent within his creation (‘the only son has made him known’).

However, despite that the Fourth Gospel departs from previous philosophies by declaring a human as the literal manifestation of this λόγος, it would not be accurate for readers to flatly substitute the name ‘Jesus’ wherever the λόγος is mentioned in John 1. The text is not saying that the man Jesus existed in eternity past. Specifically, Jesus is not the λόγος, Jesus is the incarnation of the λόγος, which is quite a different idea. I offer the following as a paraphrase that may help to elucidate the meaning of John 1:

In the beginning was [God's self-expression], and [God's self-expression] was with God, and [God's self-expression] was God. ... And [God's self-expression] became flesh and lived among us

So the original question: When reading John 1.1–18, can we accurately call Jesus ‘God’? I think we can, insofar as we understand that ‘the only true God’ (17.3) reveals himself by his λόγος, and that Jesus of Nazareth is this λόγος as a flesh-and-blood human.

Footnotes

1 Vijay Tankha, Ancient Greek Philosophy: Thales to Gorgias, 84.

2 A.A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, 108.

3 Allegorical Interpretations, 43; On the Confusion of Languages, 61–63; On the Life of Moses, 134; On Dreams, 228–239.

4 On Creation, 139.

5 On Providence 1.

6 On Dreams, 228–230.

7 Ibid., 239.

8 Where Philo has humanity created in the image of the λόγος, which is in the image of God, Paul has humanity eschatologically changed into the image of Jesus, who is the image of God (cf. Romans 8.29; 1 Cor 15.49; 2 Cor 3.18).

9 In fact, about a century after the Fourth Gospel, and century and a half after Philo, the Christian theologian Tertullian did use the sun/sunbeam metaphor to describe the relationship between God and Jesus: ‘I will therefore not speak of gods at all, nor of lords, but I shall follow the apostle [Paul]; so that if the Father and the son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord”. But when Christ alone is mentioned, I shall be able to call him “God”, as the same apostle says: “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.” For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered in itself, but if I were mentioning the sun from which the beam emanates I certainly should at once withdraw the name of “sun” from the mere beam. For although I make not two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its beam to be as much two things and two forms of one undivided substance, as God and his discourse, as the Father and the son.’ (Against Praxeas, 13). Note, however, that there is ongoing debate over the syntax and punctuation of the verse Tertullian cites, Romans 9.5, and whether Paul actually identifies Jesus as ‘God’.