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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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    toddfrederick  February 23, 2013

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

  3. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    tcc  February 24, 2013

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

  6. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  February 25, 2013

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

  10. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 2, 2013

      I’ve been putting a lot of thought into that one, and haven’t made up my mind yet!

  13. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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?

  18. Lev
    Lev  March 26, 2019

    Instead of asking an off-topic question elsewhere, I hope you don’t mind if I reach into the past to ask my question here.

    I’ve been carefully reading How Jesus Became God and trying to get to grips with NT interpretation of the Logos.

    1 Peter1:23 states: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” before quoting Isaiah 40:6-8 that ends with “The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” Finally, the author explains in v25 that: “That word is the good news that was announced to you.”

    Is the author making a statement about the Logos here? Sadly, I can’t read Greek very well, but it looks like the author switches between a logos-like word in v23, before using a different Greek word for “word” in v24-25 – so I’m really lost here!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Ah, the perils of not knowing Greek! Right! 1:23 does use the world logos for “word”; the biblical quotation cited to support hte claim uses the word “rhema.” That shows pretty clearly that he is not referring to the Logos of God in the technical sense as a reference to Jesus, the Logos (as in the Gospel of John), but to eh proclamation of the Gospel. The word logos *normally* simply refers to a communication, oral or written. Only in technical theological jargon did it come to refer to a divine being.

      • Lev
        Lev  March 27, 2019

        Ah! Many thanks – that’s interesting. So does that mean Logos is usually used without the theological meaning attached?

        I’m trying to figure out if non-Johannine NT literature had or employed the same theological meaning of Logos. I’ve found two other places where I’m uncertain:

        Lk1:2 “just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word

        Leon Morris claims that “when Luke speaks of those who were “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2), it is difficult to escape the impression that by “the word” he means more than the teaching.” Is Morris right that Luke is making a theological reference to the divine Logos here?

        Col1:25 “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known”

        This comes directly after the high Christological claims made in Col 1:15-20 where Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created”, so given the close proximity of these claims to the proceeding “Logos of God”, I was wondering if this is a reference to the divine Logos of Christ?

        PS: I finished ‘How Jesus Became God’ last night – fantastic book! Really impressed with how thorough you were without becoming overwhelming. I found the Christological summaries of how each generation or sect of Christians particularly helpful and I’m going to lean pretty heavily on this book in my understanding of the subject.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2019

          There’s nothing in either book, or in the immediate context of both verses, to indicate that the author is thinking of John’s LOGOS, as opposed simply to referring to “the word” that makes up the gospel message. Only the Johannine books appear to use it as a reference to the pre-incarnate Christ (Luke, of course, doesn’t have an idea of a pre-incarnate Christ; Christ comes into existence at the time of the virginal conception).

          • Lev
            Lev  March 29, 2019

            Aha! That’s very interesting. So only John held this particular Logos view… so, this really does mean there was quite a broad range of Christological views in the 1st century, and there was no consensus or majority view. No wonder the early church wrestled with the issue for the next 400 years!

            On the matter of Luke, I suppose we have three (!) views in Luke-Acts if we accept (as we both do) that ch1-2 of Luke were later additions. In Lk 3-24 Jesus becomes the Son of God at Baptism, in Acts it’s at his resurrection and in Lk1-2 it’s at his conception.

  19. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  April 1, 2019

    Hi Lev (and Dr Ehrman). As an amateur theologian, I have found the Bluelettter Bible (based on Strong’s Concordance) quite helpful for finding out what Greek (or Hebrew) words are used where. The entry on Logos (G3056) is very useful: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g3056 . Reading through the new testament use of Logos here, it looks to me as if Paul mainly uses the Logos to mean speech as well as sometimes referring to the the Logos of God and the Logos of Christ eg Col 3:16. I can’t find a single instance of Paul using the word Logos to refer to the person of Christ. You have to wait until 1 John 5:7 and then Revelation before Logos is used to refer to Christ. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a very good online resource and the article on Philo is a good bibliographic source on Logos: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/ . I think this whole subject is becoming quite topical because there is increasing interest in the idea of mathematics (?akin to the Heraclitean-Stoic-Philonic concept of Logos) being the fundemental building block(s) out of which the universe is made eg Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_universe_hypothesis . Quantum physics seems to indicate that matter and energy may just be rules. Mathematics is fundementally a language made up of very precise rules.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      The definitiions in Strong’s concordance are, of course, slanted to the theological views of the people who defined the words — and they happen to have been conservative Christians. It was one of the first things I learned in my graduate work: dictionaries are not “objective” tools, but are based on all kinds of ideological assumptions (even English dictionaries!)

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  April 1, 2019

        Dear Dr Ehrman. I am of course aware that James Strong’s Cocordance has a methodist bias in its definitions, just as the Blue Letter Bible has conservative evangelical bias in its commentaries. However, I wasn’t recommeding Strong’s definitions nor The Blue Letter Bible commentaries, I was recomending the the combined tool as a superb index for tracing the use of Greek or Hebrew word usage throughout the bible. There is no bias in Strong’s index, not can there be – it’s an index, as you know 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2019

          Yes, that’s right. The index isn’t biased. But the definitions of the words can be. My graduate school professor used ot insist that hte only “objective” tool of research was a concordance (not a lexicon).

  20. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  April 1, 2019

    As for Logos, I was very interested in your comment about why John chose Logos rather than Sophia. Nous would have been another option and, as you probably know, Nous seems to have an even more divine status than Logos in the Corpus Hertmeticum, which has some uncanny parralels with John’s prologue. My interest stems from the fact that I am wrting a book on consciousness, so I’m even more interested in other words like Nephesh, Ruach, Psyche and Pneuma. I would value further discussions at some point Best wishes.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Also, Sophia in Greek is feminine and Pneuma is neuter. Logos is masculine, and that may have something to do with it.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  April 3, 2019

        Dear Dr Ehrman, ‘Nous’ also appears to be masculine. I have extracted a few verses from the Corpus Hermeticum that have some paralllels to John’s prologue, just so see what you think:
        Poemandres 6.That Light, He said, am I, thy God, Mind [Nous], prior to Moist Nature which appeared from Darkness; the Light-Word [logos] [that appeared] from Mind [Nous] is Son of God. What then? – say I. Know that what sees in thee and hears is the Lord’s Word [logos]; but Mind [Nous] is Father-God. Not separate are they the one from other; just in their union [rather] is it Life consists. Thanks be to Thee, I said. So, understand the Light [He answered], and make friends with it. [……………………..]
        12. But All-Father Mind, being Life and Light, did bring forth Man co-equal to Himself, with whom He fell in love, as being His own child; for he was beautiful beyond compare, the Image of his Sire. In very truth, God fell in love with his own Form; and on him did bestow all of His own formations.
        17. [……………………..] And Man from Light and Life changed into soul and mind – from Life to soul, from Light to mind. [……………………..] Book 4: 1. Hermes: With Reason (Logos), not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World; so that thou shouldst think of him as everywhere and ever-being, the Author of all things, and One and Only, who by His Will all beings hath created.
        Best wishes

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2019

          Yes. But it doesn’t tie into Genesis 1 or, as well, into wide ranging philosophical discussions (e.g. in Hellenistic philosophy generally). Later Christian authors did indeed talk about Christ as the nous.

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