White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Logos As a Hebrew Concept

Release date:

January 11, 2019

Ed from Valley View, OH submitted the following question relating to our John series:

I am looking forward to your series on the Gospel of John this year. In the first episode it was mentioned that the logos was a Hebrew concept. My question is what book, etc., can I read about this for further study and thought?

Ed, we’ll actually be exploring this question in much more detail over the next few weeks, so stay tuned! In fact, on Jan 27th we’ll air two interviews with authors who’ve addressed this specific issue in their writings. The first interview is with Daniel Boyarin, who is a Talmud scholar at UC Berkeley, and author of The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, and the second interview is with John Ronning, who is the author of The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology. 

 Another helpful resource you might consider picking up is The Jewish Annotated New Testament which includes helpful commentary on the prologue to John’s Gospel, as well as a number of additional essays that are quite interesting, including one written by Daniel Boyarin himself.

Finally, I’d also recommend The Complete Works of Philo. Philo was an Alexandrian Jew who lived around the time of Jesus, but was never — so far as we can tell — influenced by Christianity. At various points in his writings it becomes clear that he is a thinker who frequently mingles Jewish concepts with Greek philosophy, but his use of the concept of the Word (or, logos) seems to draw more from his background in Judaism. For example, in one place in his writings Philo writes, “God, like a shepherd and a king, governs…according to law and justice; appointing one over us who leads along the straight path, his Word, his first-born son…as vice-regent of the great king; for it is said somewhere, ‘Behold, I am he! I will send my messenger before thy face, who shall keep thee in the way’” (Agr. 51).

In the above passage, Philo appeals not to Plato, but to Moses, and the specific text that he cites actually refers the scene in which God appoints “the angel of the Lord” to lead his people during the time of the Exodus from Egypt:  “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice;  do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Ex 23:20-21). In another place, Philo seems to understand that this “angel of the Lord” should be equated with God himself, and is not to be thought of as a kind of semi-divine being or archangel (as in the view of the view of the ancient heretic Arius, or modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses). For Philo writes,

Why then do we any longer wonder, if God at times assumes the likeness of the angels, as he sometimes assumes even that of men…[We] must understand this, that he on that occasion took the place of an angel, as far as appearance went, without changing his own real nature, for the advantage of him who was not, as yet, able to bear the sight of the true God…those who are unable to bear the sight of God, look upon his image, his angel Word, as himself (Som. 1:238-239).

So if you look at all the places in which Philo mentions this mysterious figure of “the angel of the Lord,” you’ll see that he is sometimes described as “God’s firstborn son,” “the name of God,” “God’s eternal image,” “the high priest of the world,” “the minister of God,” “the shepherd king,” “God’s vice-roy,” and “the ancient Word…by whom all the world was made” (Som. 1:215, 230, Conf. 146-147,  Mut. 87, Agr. 51, Fug. 110, Spec. Leg. 1:81). Philo did not come up with these ideas on his own, since similar concepts can be found in other ancient Jewish texts as well. This is why, in my thinking, John is able to introduce this idea of the logos without explanation in the prologue to his Gospel. In essence, it was a concept that was well understood to his first-century Jewish audience.

Thanks for your great question Ed, and happy reading!

Shane Rosenthal
White Horse Inn

To submit questions on our year-long series The Gospel of John visit whitehorseinn.org/john.