Why Is Jesus Christ Called The Word?
The prologue to John’s Gospel is a stirring passage. It declares that the one through whom all things were made, the light and life of the world, has become flesh and dwelt among us. But a portion of the text can seem almost cryptic to modern readers - seeming to hold some deeper, more mysterious meaning. It does not speak of Jesus Christ as merely “The Son,” or as “The Messiah,” but rather John names him Ho Logos – the Word.
John's use of the Word to describe Jesus does indeed have a deeper meaning, but it was not one intended to be shrouded in mystery, but rather one that clearly illuminated the nature of the Son of God to John’s readers. But to understand the author's intentions, we must first understand his intended audience.
Who Read John's Gospel?
The Gospel of John was not written in the Judaea, rather it was likely penned in Roman Asia – possibly Ephesus, to a mixed audience of Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews1. While many of its intended readers would have been well versed in the Mosaic Law, virtually all of them would be acquainted with Greek Philosophy. Among the non-believing gentiles, philosophy was the source of moral-codes and personal conduct, rather than religion2. While at least a number of Hellenistic Jews sought to show that their Scriptures were compatible to the Wisdom of the Greeks by demonstrating that the two could be interpreted to agree substantially with one another – this was championed by the early first century Jewish writer, Philo3. It was to this audience that John was trying to convey his Gospel. The prologue, which would frame the whole narrative to come, was written to speak to polytheistic Greeks as to the nature of God, while also emphasizing the oneness and eternal unity of the Father and the Son to the Jews.
“In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God.*”
The meaning for Jewish audiences is intrinsically clear; the Word – Jesus – existed from eternity past, he was with God, and he is God. Similarly, this conveyed to the Gentiles that Jesus Christ is not a separate being or second god, but rather he was and is The God.
Ho Logos: The Word in Greek Philosophy
But John wanted to convey something more about the nature and function (if one can use such a term!) of the eternal Son. To this aim, he dubbed him “Ho Logos.”
Ho Logos does indeed literally mean “the word,” but to the Greek mind it also represented “Reason” – particularly in the Ideal sense. To understand the Greek philosophy of the Logos, let us briefly consider its history.
Perhaps the first man to contemplate an ultimate “knowledge,” or “reason” which could be described as Ho Logos, was Heraclitus, c. 500B.C.. Heraclitus saw the Logos as a “message” which the world (Kosmos) had to offer. This was not an ethereal message, but rather could be loosely thought of as “the reason things are as they are.” This was a message which could be perceived – at least in part – by the senses, because all mankind were partakers of this Logos5.
Heraclitus’ teachings were later taken and refined by Stoic philosophers of the last few centuries B.C.. The Stoic’s saw the universe as being made up of two component; a passive, physical portion (matter) and a second rational, motivating aspect which they called the Logos. In short, the Stoics considered the Logos to be the impersonal force that ordered the universe and caused all things to function as they did. If there was no Logos, then there could be no logic, no reason, indeed there would be nothing to enervate matter. All things held together and functioned because of the Logos6.
Philo: Bridging the Gap Between Jew and Greek
The Stoic school of thought popularized philosophy by placing an emphasis on the practical applications of their teachings7. Although there remained other, competing, schools of thought in the Roman world come the first century A.D., Stoic thought was the most influential and widespread.
In this environment, some among the Hellenistic Jews – Jews who had begun to adopt Greek culture – sought to bridge the gap between their traditions (and the faith on which they were founded) and that of the Greeks. The champion of this cause, was Philo.
Philo sought to demonstrate that the prophets of the Old Testament and the Philosophers of ancient Greece were compatible. To this aim, he undertook to demonstrate how the ancient Philosophers, by way of their intellectual reason, had come to the principle truths expressed in the Jewish Scriptures. Among these truths, was that of the Logos.
Philo considered the Logos – this impersonal ordering force of the universe – to be none other than God’s own Reason. The universe was so ordered because God’s infinite reason ordered it. Philo even went so far as to personify Logos as God’s appointed lieutenant over his creation, and even calls Logos God’s “firstborn son!8”** But ultimately, in keeping with both Jewish monotheism and the Stoic view of the Logos, Philo stops short of speaking of the Logos as a “personal” being. To him, the Logos is still nothing more than an aspect of God’s reason.
The Logos in John's Gospel
It was with this understanding of The Logos that John applies the name to the Son of God. But John was not merely borrowing the term, he was making what could only have been a radical claim to Stoic-minded Hellenists; that the very thing that orders and enervates the universe has taken on human form and dwelt among men!
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.9”
The Logos John was describing was not the impersonal force of the Greeks, but a true person, one with God and yet capable of walking as a man among men. John was writing a Gospel that declared he had seen the one who orders all the universe, and that one is Jesus Christ.
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.10”
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” - Colossians 1:15-17
* All biblical texts are cited from the English Standard Version
** It should be noted that there is no evidence John read Philo, nor does this seem likely. However, though John was almost certainly not intentionally making use of Philo’s work directly, it is very likely he was using the concepts that Philo’s influence had lent to Hellenistic Jews to communicate with them. http://web.engr.oregonstate.edu/~funkk/Personal/logos.html
1. Reformation Study Bible, introduction to John, Edt. R.C. Sproul
2. Larry Hurtado, lecture: “Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb96kYfk628
3. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I
4. John 1:1
5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/
6. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicism/
7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
8. Philo, On Husbandry, http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book11.html
9. John 1:14
10. John 1:18