Why Did John Call Jesus the Logos?

There has been a great deal of debate in New Testament scholarship over John’s use of Logos or Word in the Gospel of John. Logos is a unique title for Jesus in John 1 and Revelation 19. But why did John call Jesus this? Some have speculated that John was influenced by Greek philosophy and therefore John does not represent the views of the earliest Jewish Christians, but the later Gentile ones who corrupted the message of Jesus by teaching that he is God. This was a common argument in the “history of religions” school in the nineteenth century, especially at the University of Göttingen (can anything good come out of Germany?). But we do not need to go to the works of Philo or any pagan Greek writings to find out why John chooses to use the word Logos for Jesus.

The background of the term Logos is not Greek, but Hebraic. Logos is the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic word Memra which also means word. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had lost the ability to speak Hebrew because of the Babylonian exile. They instead adopted the language of the Babylonians which is Aramaic. The Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Targum which was commonly used in first century Israel. Memra is the name for God in the Targum when God is spoken of anthropomorphically. The Jewish Encyclopedia defines Memra as:

“The creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for ‘the Lord’ when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided.”

An example of this is in Genesis 3:8 which speaks of “the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The Targum uses Memra to translate YHWH instead of the normal way it abbreviates the divine name. The Word was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Since God is not a man, the description of him walking is an anthropomorphism or manifestation of himself in a way that man can comprehend. This is the word that is used whenever the Old Testament speaks of God being grieved as in Genesis 6 and 1 Samuel 15. Another example is Isaiah 44:24 which speaks of the Lord stretching out the heavens. But in the Targum it reads: “I stretched out the heavens through my Word” which corresponds with John 1:3 when it says that all things were made through him.

That Memra was the word used to describe God anthropomorphically makes perfect sense in light of John’s teaching that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). God the Word actually became man in the incarnation, not just anthropomorphically. Discovering the true background of Word in John shows us that John believed that the Word is God in the same sense that YHWH is God. I wish that more people knew about the glorious background of John’s use of Logos in the Targum.

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