What's in a word?

  • A talk about the "word" (John 1:1)

  • based on Genesis 1:1-13 - In the beginning God created the heavens ... John 1:1-14 - In the beginning was the word ....

Recently, there was an exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Old University Library at Durham.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are usually kept at The British Library in London.

The cover of the Lindisfarne Gospels

  • The exhibition was superbly presented, and the beautifully illuminated manuscript itself was opened at the ‘incipit’ page (or ‘opening’ page) from St John’s Gospel.

The openingpage of St John's Gospel

The 'incipit' or opening page of St John's Gospel       

It was hand-written at the beginning of the 8th century, in Latin, and it says,

 “In Principia erat verbum. Et verbum erat abudomeos.”

“In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God”…

"And the word was God."                     (John 1:1)

It’s a Latin translation of John 1:1 from the original Greek, which reads,

“En arche en ho logos. Kai ho logos en tros ton deon.”

“In the beginning was the word” – “En arche en ho logos

  • The “word” – “logos”.  Just what does it mean?

  • It doesn’t seem to make sense! So often we talk about “God’s word” when we meanthe Bible”. Indeed, the Old Testament, refers to the scriptures as “the word of God” (e.g. Psalm 119 verse105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet.”) - But that doesn’t make any sense in this context. (“In the beginning was the Bible. And the Bible was with God. And the Bible was God”??) How can “The Bible” be “with God” and be God himself!  That doesn’t make sense!

  • It’s clear, later on, that the passage is actually referring to Jesus, because it says, in v.14: “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” and it goes on to talk about how John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus as this ‘word’ who became a human being and lived in Palestine 2000 years ago.

  • So why, if it’s really referring to Jesus, does it call him “the word”? And, incidentally, in the original Greek, it’s a small ‘w’ not a capital.

  • So what does “the word” – the ‘logos’ in Greek (or the ‘verbum’ in Latin) – actually mean? It’s not what you might think!

  • It doesn’t mean a ‘word’ at all. It’s true that the Greek word ‘logos’ can mean a “word”. But here, it clearly doesn’t mean that. If that’s what John had meant, he’d have used the Greek word ‘lexis’, from which we get our term ‘lexicon’ – a dictionary, or a list of words.

Raphael: The School of AthensSo ‘logos’ doesn’t actually mean a “word” in this context. It has a totally different meaning – it’s actually a technical term from Greek philosophy, and it might be better to leave it untranslated as ‘logos’. Certainly not “Word” with a capital W !


Raphael - 'The School of Athens' - Greek philosophers

  • So what does ‘logos’ really mean? Many PhD theses have been written on the subject  - but, to simplify it, in Greek philosophy, ‘logos’ is all about the ‘creative force’ that the Greeks believed was present at the start of time; at the beginning of creation.


This idea of a ‘creative force’ present in the act of creation came, originally, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who lived in Ephesus about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. He used the term to indicate the principle of order that made all the difference at creation between chaos which was always there, and the ordered universe as we know it. Heraclitus decreed, “all things come to pass in accordance with this logos”.

Heraclitus - a Greek philosopher

  • The idea of the logos gradually developed over the next 500 years. The ‘Stoic’ philosophers (with whom Paul debated at the Areopagus on Mars Hill in Athens, in Acts 17:18), identified the logos with the ‘reason’, or ‘divine animating principle pervading the universe.’
  • Paul, a highly educated Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus – the centre of philosophy in the Roman Empire of the 1st century – knew all about the current thinking on the logos. Philo of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking Jew, who was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, had adopted the term logos in Jewish philosophy to mean ‘an intermediary divine being’ or ‘demiurge’. He tried to explain why the world created by the one true and perfect God isn’t perfect. Philo followed the Platonic distinction between perfect ideas and imperfect matter, which needed intermediary beings to bridge the gap. In his philosophy, the logos was the highest of these intermediary beings. Philo even went as far as calling the logos “the first-born of God”.



Just before his death in 50AD, Philo wrote, “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and preventing them from being dissolved and separated.”


Philo of Alexandria - from  Die Schedelsche Weitchronik


  • Philo went on to identify the “angel of the LORD” in the Hebrew Bible as the Logos e.g. In Exodus 3:2 where the “angel of the LORD” appears to Moses in the burning bush, and in Genesis 22:11 where “the angel of the LORD called out” to Abraham “from heaven” when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac. (He also recognized 63 other places where “the angel of the LORD” appears in the Old Testament as references to the Logos). He went on to say that this Logos was God’s instrument in the creation of the universe.
  • Now, to understand what John meant in the opening verses of his gospel, you have to appreciate when it was written, and who it was written for. You have to realize that John’s gospel was written much later than the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew.


It’s generally agreed by Biblical scholars that Mark’s was the first gospel to be completed – as early as 62 AD, just a little more than 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus in 30AD. Luke’s gospel followed very shortly after, while Matthew’s gospel dates from about 10 years later. But John’s gospel wasn’t written until the mid 80s – over 50 years after Jesus’s death, and, significantly, well after Philo of Alexandria had become a household name amongst John’s readers.


  • We may never have heard of Philo and his views on the Logos as the intermediary being in creation, but to John’s audience, he was as well-known as Stephen Hawking and his ‘Big Bang’ theory of creation is today.
  • And we have to remember that John lived in Ephesus (where Heraclitus came from), and was writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience.

So when John opens his gospel with the words “In the beginning…” – the same words, in Greek, as the opening words of Genesis 1 in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures) - then none of his Greek-speaking readers would be in any doubt what these opening paragraphs were going to be about. The opening words said it all – this was about creation.

A fragment of the Septuagint - the Old Testament in Greek

  • And when they read on, they would have been totally familiar with the next couple of words: “In the beginning was the logos.” Of course, they’d all nod – we all know that. That’s what Philo taught us!
  • So John continues to lead them along. “And the logos was with God” – Everyone knew that too! “And the logos was God.” Hmm.. not sure about this... but the Septuagint does blur the distinction between the “angel of the LORD” and the Lord – Yahweh – himself.
  • And so John goes on… with nothing dramatically new in the next few verses… “The logos was with God in the beginning” – this is what Philo taught. “Through him were all things made” … “in him was life… ” - Philo also taught that the intermediary divine being - the demiurge – was the creational force holding all things together and binding all the parts in unity. So nothing was particularly new about these ideas.

And then John delivers his “coup de grace”. Yes, he says, you may have been taught all this by Philo, but did you know that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (v.14). Did you know that the logos, this creative ‘force’ present at the beginning of creation was actually Jesus of Nazareth!

That would have hit them between the eyes! Yes, says John, not only was Jesus actually the creative logos force become man, but he was also God’s promised Messiah, the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).


St John - Lindisfarne Gospels

  • That’s what it’s all about! That’s why John talks about the logos in John 1. He’s talking about the life force that brought order out of chaos, and who his contemporaries already knew about; But he’s linking the 'well-known' concept of the logos to Jesus, the Messiah, and the person with whom it’s possible to develop a real and living relationship.

  • And that’s why, to translate the ‘logos’ as the ‘word’ takes away all the real meaning and all the real significance of John’s words in the opening chapter of his gospel. So there’s far more to this ‘word’ in John 1 than the word ‘word’ even begins to suggest!

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