In my last post, I mentioned something which happened at the end of discussion on Wednesday evening. I was explaining why I didn’t wholly rely on any translation of the Bible, and used as an example the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God”. When I first read that in French, it was from the Jerusalem Bible, which reads “Au commencement etait le Verbe, et le Verbe etait aupres de Dieu, et le Verbe etait Dieu” (sorry for the lack of accents – I don’t know how to get them in WordPress). Although “Verbe” is perfectly well rendered in English by “Word”, at the time I first saw it I’d have expected “Mot”; “Verbe” carries with it at least a hint of being an action word, not a “thing” word. Of course, in the original Greek, the word is “Logos”, which has even more comlexity – and that’s where I stopped.
It proved that someone there was going to be presenting a bible study on the first 18 verses of John the following night and that this had given them a new dimension to the first verse. I mentioned that there was even more to the original Greek word “Logos”. Having given him a link to the entry on Philo in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, I wasn’t able on Thursday to do full justice to the concept .
I use the above link not because I think it’s wonderfully written (even overlooking the typo in the date of Philo’s embassy) or because I think it does full justice to the subject, but because it’s the fullest resource I could find on the internet for the whole gamut of Philo’s concept of “Logos”.
“Logos” was in any event a Greek philosophical term with a set of meanings well beyond “Word” or “Verbe”, but I think Philo of Alexandria is the best possible source for a fuller understanding of what it is likely the writer intended by using the word “Logos” in the gospel. Philo was a Jewish philosopher who is known to have been old enough and respected enough to head a Jewish delegation to the Emperor Gaius Caligula in 40 CE, which places him as a contemporary of (or possibly a decade or two older than) Jesus. He seems to have had Greek as his primary language, judging by the fact that he quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books of what we call the Old Testament) rather from the original. He wrote prolifically, and whatever the arguments are, I think it very probable that the Greek-speaking writer of the Fourth Gospel knew of Philo’s ideas, even if you don’t look at what Philo’s ideas actually were; he was after all writing in Greek with Greek philosophical concepts about a development from Hebrew scripture, just as Philo had slightly earlier.
Philo had a very complex idea of the meaning of Logos, drawn from his study of the Torah but putting his understandings into a Greek philosophical framework. Assuming that you don’t want to plough through the entry I’ve linked to above, there are twelve categories listed. Among these are Utterance of God, God’s first-born son, the power of creation, the mediator between God and man and God himself. In other words, all of the philosophical structure underlying the Fourth Gospel is laid out in plenty of detail in Philo’s works. On that basis, I don’t think there’s a serious possibility that the author wasn’t steeped in Philo’s ideas.
It is not surprising that some of the early Church Fathers loved him, even to the extent of trying to co-opt him as at least a proto-Christian (though there’s no sign that he even knew of the existence of Jesus). They already had most of the building blocks of trinitarian thinking laid out for them by Philo.
He isn’t recognised as of any importance by Judaism. Those Orthodox or Conservative Jews with whom I’ve talked consider him an aberrant individual outside anything like the mainstream of Judaism.
That’s where I go out on a limb. I think it highly probable that he’s been deliberately minimised over the years in Judaism, and that actually he was representative of a really significant element in the Greek-speaking diaspora Jewish community, which was all around the Eastern Mediterranean, i.e. in all the places Paul later visited. Scholarship seems to indicate that the Fourth Gospel was written in Asia Minor by a fluent Greek-speaker (there’s less agreement about whether or not he was Jewish).
Before 70CE, there were several strains of what is called “Second Temple” Judaism, including Pharisees, Sadducees, Temple priests, Essenes and Zealots but also, I think, including a significant proportion of Jews in the diaspora who spoke and thought in Greek. The link I gave gives two other names of earlier Jews who wrote combining Greek philosophical thinking and Judaism, so I don’t think this was unusual.
I will grant that between 164BCE and 63BCE the Jews had revolted against the Greek imperial power in the region and maintained an independent state, reacting against the Greek (pre-Roman) oppression of Jews and their attempt to assimilate them, and that during that century there had been a major reaction against anything tinged with “Greek” in Palestine. I doubt, however, that this took in the whole of the diaspora – it certainly didn’t include Philo’s background.
In 66-73CE, the Jews revolted again and were put down with maximal force. The Temple was destroyed and all groups other than the Pharisees were thereafter largely wiped out by death or deportation, a process which took until the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135CE to complete. I think the Jerusalem church was one such casualty.
Without the heart of their religion, the surviving Pharisaic Rabbis were forced to reconsider what Judaism was, and the result seems to me to have been a neo-conservatism in which one often used phrase was “not as the gentiles”. Over the next centuries, anything which smacked of Greek thinking (or Christian thinking) was extirpated.
If, which I am inclined to think, Philo’s kind of thinking was widespread among Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, it goes a long way towards explaining how early Christian concepts might have taken root reasonably easily in Jewish communities in Asia Minor and Greece. Again, my Jewish correspondents seem to think that none of Paul’s ideas (far less John’s, which are regarded as irredeemably antisemitic) could possibly have been accepted by Jews and that Christianity is therefore virtually entirely a Greek phenomenon, just “borrowing” some ideas together with a bad translation of their scriptures (the Septuagint). I don’t now think that’s correct; much more of the conceptual differences (such as God-made-man, man elevated to God or trinity) now seem to me natural developments from a kind of Second Temple Judaism which existed in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the first century.
They’re right from the standpoint of modern Judaism, but not from that of, I think, a significant part of first century Judaism.And, just to underline my point, modern Judaism doesn’t accept translations of their scriptures as being fully reliable. They have a point!
You don’t need to know all this stuff in order to read John 1, particularly if you have a footnoted Bible which gives additional meanings. But I think you’re missing something.