06 November 2023


John 1.1-5.

I’ve written previously about when God became human. Now let’s look at God before he became human. Beginning with the beginning of the Gospel of John.

John 1.1-5 KWL
1 In the beginning is the word.
The word’s with God,
and the word is God.
2 This word is in the beginning with God.
3 Everything comes to be through the word,
and not one thing, nothing, comes to be without him.
4 What came to be though the word, is life.
Life’s the light of humanity.
5 Light shines in darkness,
and darkness can’t get hold of it.

“The word” which the author of John wrote of, exists at the beginning of creation. Is with God. Is God. And is the means by which everything is created.

And round 7BC, this word became a human we know as Jesus of Nazareth. Christians recognize him as the Christ.

Why’d the author of John (and for convenience we’ll just assume he’s John bar Zebedee; he probably is) use “word” to describe the pre-incarnate Jesus? You realize this passage is the reason so many Christians are hugely fascinated by the word “word” (and its Greek equivalent λόγος/lóyos, which they mistransliterate logos and pronounce all sorts of ways; and sometimes its Aramaic equivalent ܡܐܡܪܐ/memrá), and have written endless things about the Word of God. Some of it is extremely profound and useful… and some of it is sour horsepiss. I grew up hearing a lot of both.

This John passage tends to get translated in past tense. The KJV famously renders it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Which is fine; the beginning of time and creation of the cosmos did happen in our past. But most of this passage was written in the aorist tense, a verb tense which is neither past, present, nor future. It has no time connected to it. You have to figure its time from other verbs in the passage, or from context. Well, there is a verb in this passage with a time-based tense; the present-tense ἦν/in from καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος/ke Theós in o lóyos, “and the word is God.” He is God, present tense. God at creation, and never stopped being God.

Okay, now to the concept of λόγος/lóyos. It literally means “word.” Why’d John use it?

For centuries, Christians presumed lóyos comes from ancient Greek philosophy. Blame ancient gentile Christians. As non-Jews, they had no idea what Pharisees taught about the lóyos of God—or as the Aramaic-speaking Pharisees called it in Jesus’s day, the memrá of God. They usually figured whatever the Pharisees taught was wrong, hypocritical, and heresy, so they ignored it altogether.

Instead they interpreted bible through the lens of their own culture. Which was wrong then, and is wrong now. Yet Christians still do it. But that’s a whole other rant; let’s get back to criticizing ancient Christian gentiles.

Ancient Greek philosophers had written a whole bunch of navel-gazing gibberish about the word lóyos. ’Cause they were exploring the nature of truth: What is it, how do we find it, how do we prove it, how do we recognize logical fallacies, and what’s the deal with words which can mean more than one thing? For that matter, what’s a “word” anyway? Is it just a label for a thing, or is it a substantial thing on its own? Maybe that’s why God can create things by merely saying a word. Ge 1.3 And so on.

Follow the Greek philosophers’ intellectual rabbit trails, and you’ll go all sorts of weird, gnostic directions. Which is exactly what gentile Christians did.

Now let’s practice some actual logic. John wasn’t a gentile; he was a Galilean Jew who grew up attending, and getting the equivalent of a middle-school education in, Pharisee synagogues. So let’s look at that culture: What’d Pharisees teach about what a memrá is and means?

Turns out Pharisees had a lot of interesting ideas attached to it.

The word of the Lord.

Synagogues were a Pharisee invention. They created the synagogue system because they feared their fellow Jews might forget the Law, as the Hebrews of the Old Testament repeatedly had. They worried the Jews of their day might suffer the same fate as the Israelis of antiquity: They’d abandon God and go pagan, and God would remove his protection, let their enemies rape and pillage them, and get their land taken away. So Pharisee thinking was “If every Jew goes to school, we can teach ’em to read, make ’em read the Law, and make ’em attend our bible lectures every Friday night. That’s how we’ll keep our nation righteous.”

Sound like a plan? It did turn the Jews into a literate nation. But it actually didn’t make ’em any more devout. Mandatory religious education does what it’s always done, and created a bunch of hypocrites. Same as you’ll find in Christian schools today… which is also a whole other rant.

Thing is, the bible was written in Hebrew, and from the sixth century BC to the first century of the Christian era, Jews didn’t speak that. They spoke what the Babylonians had: They spoke Aramaic. It’s a similar language, but similar like English and French are similar: Tons of the same words, but it’s still another language. So in order to teach bible, Pharisees had to teach their students Hebrew. And when they taught bible on Friday night services, they translated it as they read it.

And, as people will, sometimes they got a little loose with their translations. They’d skip the NSFW parts of the bible and use euphemisms. Whenever they came across God’s holy personal name YHWH, they felt it was too holy to say aloud, so they’d instead say “my Lord”—and that’s why we Christians do it too, and put “LORD in our bibles instead of “Yahweh.”

Likewise whenever God does something in the scriptures which is a little too manlike for the Pharisees’ comfort, it’d trigger them too. ’Cause Moses said God’s not a man.

Numbers 23.19 KJV
God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

I know; the scriptures describe God as sitting, eating, and physically interacting with his people in all sorts of ways. ’Cause he can. Who are we to say he can’t, if he so chooses?

But Pharisees were really uncomfortable with the idea. God’s not human, they insisted; plus he’s holy. Really really holy. Too holy. So holy, he’s too good for us wicked humans, and likely has subordinates who interact with us instead, lest he dirty himself. You know how he sent his prophets an “angel of the LORD” from time to time? Like that.

Hence whenever Pharisees thought the LORD needed to be just a bit more distant than the bible describes him, they translated the scriptures to reflect their bias. Instead of “God” or “Lord,” they instead said memrá Elahín, “word of God”; or memrá Maryá, “word of the Master.” Just like you’ll find elsewhere in the bible:

Psalm 33.6 KJV
By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.

Yep, exactly like John 1.3 has it—everything comes to be through the word, and not one thing comes to be without him.

“Word of God” and “Word of the LORD” pop up in the Old Testament a number of times, Ge 15.1, 1Sa 15.10, 1Ki 12.22, 1Ch 17.3 so it’s not the wrong thing to say! There’s valid precedent. But Pharisees used this term all the time. This way, they felt, God doesn’t come across as too human. Instead his “word” did all those human-sounding things. Whatever “word” meant; Pharisees never bothered to explain.

But the apostle John did. And when he wrote his gospel, he reminded his readers about the word of God. It’s in the beginning. It’s with God. It is God. If you grew up regularly attending a first-century Pharisee synagogue, you’d know exactly what John meant.

Whereas if you were an ancient Christian gentile—or a medieval Christian gentile, a modern Christian gentile, or any present-day Christian who knows bupkis about history—you’ll think, “What’s this ‘word’ concept mean?” and start asking around. And probably find out from fellow Christian gentiles that the ancient Greeks had a whole lot of fascinating ideas. None of ’em actually help, though. Like I said, sour horsepiss. But they’ll sure keep you distracted.

The very beginning of John’s gospel wasn’t a radical idea at all to first-century Jews. They’d have totally agreed. The word in the beginning?—sure. The word with God and is God?—no problem here. But when John tells them a few verses down the word became flesh Jn 1.14that would’ve startled them.

Rhema-words and logos-words.

In the Old Testament, דְבַר/davár, “word,” means many things: Speech, word, message, communication, report, saying, utterance, sentence, written work, business, act, matter, event, cause, behavior, reason, thing, something, anything. It’s so generic, it may as well mean noun. In fact the Aramaic word memrá and the Greek word lóyos do the very same thing.

Ancient Greek has more than one word for “word.” (As do we: Term, name, saying, expression, designation, noun, prompt, utterance.) The more concrete of them is the word ῥῆμα/ríma. Mt 4.4 Americans like to render it “rhema,” and mispronounce it accordingly; and if your favorite preacher likes to show off how he knows a Greek word or two, he’ll talk about “the rhema-word,” and try to define it. Some preachers claim a rhema is one of God’s prophetic statements or promises; others, God’s doctrines or teachings; others, their prophecies, as in “I’ve got a rhema-word from God,” and so on. Plato of Athens used it to mean “verb,” and other ancient Greeks meant all sorts of other things by it… ’cause it’s a synonym for lóyos, and means everything “word” means. Anything and everything. Or nothing.

The Greek translator of the Old Testament used both lóyos and ríma to translated davár. Sometimes within the very same verse. Ex 24.3, 34.27-28, 1Sa 3.17, 2Sa 14.3 ’Cause they’re synonyms. It’s just like using “car” and “auto” to describe the same thing. Now, some fools will try to make ’em sound like they have profound secret meanings: “Well ‘car,’ like a train car, suggests conformity; but an auto, which comes from the Greek for ‘oneself,’ suggests independence. So that’s how a car and auto are different…” Um… no; stop that. Such people have been reading too many nutjob websites. These are synonyms. Don’t do that.

So it’s totally fine to think of lóyos and ríma as interchangeable. ’Cause the bible certainly does.

  • Blessed are those who hear and keep the lóyos of God. Lk 11.28
  • We don’t live by bread alone, but by every ríma of God. Mt 4.4
  • The lóyos of God is living, active, and sharper than a sword. He 4.12
  • And the sword of the Spirit is the ríma of God. Ep 6.17

Getting the idea? The writers of the bible didn’t care which word they used. Neither should we. Both words mean “word.”

The word of God, and the WORD OF GOD.

Unfortunately, some Christians are a little too quick to frappé together all the biblical ideas of “word”—the lóyos who’s with and is God, and is Jesus; and every other “word of God” they find in the bible. I’ve heard Christians actually claim the word of God (i.e. the bible) and the word of God (i.e. Jesus) are one and the same. After all, they’re both “words.” Perhaps the same word?

No. Don’t be a moron.

John’s description of “word of God,” found in both his gospel and Revelation, refers to the Pharisees’ memrá Elahín—the person of the trinity whom we know as Christ Jesus. The other references to “word of God” in the bible—either the devár ha-Elohím of the Old Testament, or the lóyos tu Theú and ríma tu Theú of the New—refer to stuff God’s said. Common sense will tell us when the authors of the bible meant God, and when the authors meant something God said. And if we lack common sense, we’ll stupidly claim they’re one and the same.

Confusing the scriptures with Jesus will of course lead to worshiping the bible instead of God. Bibliolatry, I call it. They’ll justify it by saying, “Jesus is the word of God, so I’m really worshiping him.” Again, no. Bad Christian. Go to the back of the kingdom. Come back once you’ve decided to actually use your noggin.

Anyway, because of this and many other reasons, “word” has become a popular term in Christianese. “A word from the Lord” is how Christians will describe a sermon, a prophecy, a particularly cool bible passage, or any Christian message. “Speaking the word” will do the same. “Trusting the word” can mean trusting the bible, a prophecy, or even Jesus (if by “word” we mean him). In our hands, “word” is a really flexible term.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. God can communicate to us any way he wants, and we can share him with others all sorts of ways. God has truths to share with us which are beyond our ability to even imagine yet. When the writer of Hebrews described the word as living and active, that’s really under-representing everything God wants to share with us. It’s too great for words. (Pun unintended.)

Now let’s strive to find the right words.