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John’s Logos and Jewish Wisdom

In yesterday’s post I began to discuss the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which contains a poem that celebrates Christ as the Word of God that became human. This Word of God was with God in the beginning of all things, and was himself God; through him the universe was created and in him is life. This word took on flesh to dwell with humans, and that human – the divine word made flesh – was Jesus.

Some readers over the years have wondered if this celebration of the Logos of God that becomes flesh owes more to Greek philosophy than to biblical Judaism. It’s a good question, and hard to answer. One thing that can be said is that this Logos idea does find very close parallels with other biblical texts – in particular with texts that speak of the Wisdom (Greek: Sophia) of God. Sophia and Logos are related ideas; both have to do in some respect with “reason.” Sophia is reason that is internal to a person; Logos is that reason that gets expressed verbally.

Wisdom plays an important role in some biblical passages, none more so than Proverbs chapter 8, where “wisdom” is celebrated and is portrayed almost as a hypostasis – that is, a characteristic or feature of God that takes on personal characteristics as a being separate from God. Much of the Christ poem in John 1 has parallels with the paean to Wisdom in Proverbs 8. Consider the following verses, spoken of Wisdom:

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Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation
The Christ-Poem in John

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Comments

  1. hwl  February 23, 2013

    Do you think Jewish notions of God changed radically shortly after the Second Temple period? Do you think it is in fact simplistic to characterise 2nd temple Judaism as monotheistic, in the sense we understand monotheistic religions in the modern era?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      Well, I think *most* Jews in the second temple period were monotheistic; but there was always a lot of variety.

  2. toddfrederick  February 23, 2013

    Thank you…this is a very good essay on John 1.

  3. Beatle792  February 23, 2013

    I once read something written by Irenaeus . I don’t remember where I read it, but it really stood out. I thought it sounded a lot like the prologue to John. It made me wonder that since Polycarp was such an inspiration to him, and Polycarp being a disciple of John, perhaps Irenaeus might have written the prologue. Is it possible that he wrote the prologue and John 21? Wasn’t it Irenaeus that authenticated the 4 gospels? It just seems to me that Irenaeus would feel he had a special link to the Apostle John via his hearing Polycarp. Am I way off base?

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  February 24, 2013

    When did you start to shift your view more toward early high christology and what were the most influences in this shift? Hengel, Hurtado, others?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      No, not Hengle and Hurtado. It was actually understanding the texts better. But I still don’t think a Johannine style of high christology was “early.”

      • Robertus
        Robertus  February 26, 2013

        Yes, it really is quite plain in the texts themselves. I did not mean to imply any conflation of Paul and John, and I didn’t think Hurtado does either, but I haven’t read much of Hurtado. Are there significant areas where your view differs from Hurtado?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 28, 2013

          I think his work is thoroughly researched and passionately presented. I do think that the category of “divine” is somewhat more complex than he intimates. With Jesus one always has to ask in what *sense* is he divine. Human and divine are gradations of being for ancients, they are not separated by a huge chasm, as for most of us today.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  February 28, 2013

            Thanks.

  5. tcc  February 24, 2013

    Do you think Paul got a lot of his Christology ideas from Philo’s writings? They sound eerily similar.

  6. Sharif  February 24, 2013

    I am curious as to what substantial differences exist between Paul’s and John’s Christology. They both held incarnationist views in which Jesus is the human incarnation of a pre-existing divine being. From what you have written, the most obvious difference is that for Paul, Christ became equal with God only after the crucifixion (or the resurrection?) while for John, the equality with God is pre-eternal. Moreover, for Paul, Christ was pre-existent but not pre-eternal—correct? You stated that for John, Jesus himself only came to exist with the incarnation but the Logos. Do either or both of these authors differentiate between an incarnated ‘Jesus’ and a pre-existing ‘Christ’ (like the Docetists did, from my understanding)?

    Also, what does it mean that the Logos was “with God” (hence distinct) yet “was God”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      Again — too involved for answers here. But I think Paul understood Jesus as some kind of angelic being, and John understood Jesus as the Word of God himself! Moreover, for Paul Jesus was elevated to the status of God at the resurrection; for John Jesus was at that status before time.

  7. Wilusa  February 24, 2013

    I’m curious as to where the “Holy Spirit” fits in here. (When I was a girl, Catholics still referred to the third person of the Trinity as the “Holy Ghost.” I assume that was influenced by the German word *geist*, which probably means “spirit” in a different sense than the English *ghost* normally does!)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      You knew German as a girl?? The Spirit seems to come from the talk of the spirit of God in the OT and, e.g., in John 14, 16, and elsewher ein the NT.

  8. RonaldTaska  February 25, 2013

    As I am sure you know, there are several scriptures where Jesus is quoted as, more or less, saying that He is subordinate to God. These include the following:
    1. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
    2. When Jesus stated that only the Father knows the day of judgment (Matthew 24:36)
    3. “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28).
    4. “I can do nothing on my own authority ….” (John 5:30).

    These seem to be odd statements to come from Jesus if He, indeed, thought He was God. It adds support to the idea that the first chapter of the Gospel of John may have been written by someone other than the author/authors who wrote two of the above statements in John attributed to Jesus.

  9. Adam0685  February 25, 2013

    The diversity of thought regarding Jesus throughout the gospels in particular and the NT in general is quite fascinating considering these are all relatively early portraits. I think your discussion illustrates just how much the pictures of Jesus in John 1:1-18, the synoptics, or Paul, or Hebrews, and so on significantly differ on major points and just how much the writers/communities context shaped how Jesus was understood. Back in my evangelical days I could not see the fundamental differences mainly due to my view that the Bible as one unified book that, while having different perspectives or highlighted different things, they agreed on who he was as Son of God/God/Messiah. This resulted in my going at great lengths to reconcile all the different portraits.

    • Adam0685  February 25, 2013

      ps. what’s the status of your “The Bible: A historical Introduction” book?

  10. dewdds  February 25, 2013

    Interesting. The overlapping concepts of Jewish religious thought and Greek philosophy is intriguing. What is the scholarship on the dating of the Book of Proverbs? My Wiki search (I know, pitiful stuff) revealed two school of thoughts on this with conservative Evangelicals dating to Solomonic times (10th c BCE) and another school that argues for later periods of its development. The wiki article did not specify how late it might have been. I was wondering if perhaps sections might be dated to Hellenic times (late 4th c. BCE), thus allowing for incorporation of Greek ideas into the developing Jewish scriptures. Dr. Ehrman, what have you read on the matter? Any thoughts or opinions about a Hellenic period origin of these passages on wisdom? Are Greek philosophical influences possible before the rule of the Seleucids in the Levantine regions?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 28, 2013

      It’s very hard to date the book of Proverbs because it contains so many two-liners that could have been composed at just any time in the history of the nation. But critical scholars definitely do not place it back in the time of Solomon. It’s not implausible that it reached its final form in the Hellenistic period; but some of the sayings may be far, far older thanh that. And yes, Greek influence is *possible* before the Seleucid period, but obviously less likely.

  11. bobnaumann  February 26, 2013

    Could Jesus have actually uttered the “I AM” sayings in the Gosple of John in first century Judea without immediately being charged with blasphemy?

  12. CaseyDayton  March 2, 2013

    what do you do with the passage when Jesus refers to his hearers as god’s? what was Johns point concerning christology? i know he is referring to psalm 82.

  13. RMaidment  December 16, 2013

    I am currently working on an essay looking into the origins of John’s concept of the Logos- thank-you for your reflections, they will prove useful. Particularly the play between Word and Wisdom as being almost one and the same in some places. However, you mention you read somewhere about why the author may have chosen Logos over Wisdom, here I may prompt your memory. D. Moody Smith mentions this in his book, ‘The theology of the Gospel of John’, “Interestingly, the word for wisdom is feminine in the Greek (sophia) and Hebrew (hochmah); perhaps for this reason the masculine term logos was selected by John to describe Jesus…’ p. 18

  14. piercealexandermarks  February 4, 2014

    Thanks, Dr. Ehrman, for a great post!
    Do you have any recommeded reading on the Wisdom tradition and Philo’s logos?
    Thanks,
    Pierce

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2014

      You might start with the article on Logos by Thomas Tobin in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and pursue the bibliography you find there.

  15. loverlipe  January 2, 2015

    Thank you for giving biblical perspective and context on “logos”. As I understand it, John seems to be primarily addressing Greeks. What did logos mean to the common Greek at the time that John was written? Its meaning seems to have moved around a bit over the centuries for them. One more question: Philo’s definition is similar and it’s tempting to assume this is who John is referencing. But was Philo widely read where John was written?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2015

      Logos meant lots of things. It was the “word” for the word “word.” But it also meant something like “reason” “reasoning” “rationality” “intelligent design” and related things. I doubt if John is referring to Philo directly, but these thoughts were “in the air.”

  16. harrington.adeline  April 16, 2015

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,

    I agree that there’s definitely a connection made between the Logos of John 1 and the Sophia figure present in Jewish Wisdom Literature. I wonder, taking this connection one step further, if you have any thoughts as to how this hypostasis-Sophia character is appropriated by some “gnostic” texts. Where John and Philo seem to have replaced the Sophia figure with that of the Logos, to me it seems that Sethian texts, like the Apocryphon of John, have several positive wisdom-saviors, but the character of Sophia herself sometimes still exists, but she is cast in an extremely negative light. Do you think that these “fall of Sophia” stories, or even the replacement of her with the Logos, are directing criticism at earlier/other wisdom traditions?

    To me, the Sophia of Jewish Wisdom Literature acts as a mediator and savior figure. She is available to humans in the natural world in that, by analyzing the natural world, knowledge of the nature of the divine mind of God is attainable for humanity. It seems that many early Christian texts do not allow for the savior-Logos to function this way–i.e. Christ’s words are the ONLY means to true knowledge of God.

    I do not think that it is a coincidence that the prologue of John is so similar to Proverbs 8. Therefore, if Proverbs is an inter-text of John, it seems like it would also have been an inter-text for writings like the Apocryphon of John. My question is: what exactly are these texts saying, if anything, with their reimagination or deletion of this Jewish Sophia figure?
    Sorry for the long response, but this topic fascinates me! I’d appreciate any thoughts or bibliography you could offer me.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2015

      I don’t know for sure. But I do think there may be something to the idea that Sophia helps capture the female principle in the divinity, especially as it is resident in each of us. I *don’t* think this is a reaction against a Logos doctrine, since Logos also figures in gnostic texts.

  17. Adam Beaven  December 10, 2015

    you said she was a creator god

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ1x-0CNE_U

    time mark

    1:13-05 the christian apologists asks

    name a figure other than jesus in jewish or pagan context that was said to be creator of the universe,equal with yhwh…

    You replied

    sophia

    question:

    in others words a holy spirit like goddess?

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