Word!

by K.W. Leslie, 22 December

John 1.1-5.

Many Christians are fascinated by the word “word.” Mostly ’cause of the following passage. It tends to get translated into past-tense verbs, but the aorist verb tense has no time; it’s neither past, present, nor future, but just is. So without other past-tense verbs to set that context for it, I just go with present tense.

John 1.1-5 KWL
1 The word’s in the beginning.
The word’s with God.
The word is God.
2 He’s in the beginning with God.
3 Everything came to be through the word.
Nothing that exists came to be without him.
4 What came to be through him, is life.
Life’s the light of humanity.
5 Light shines in darkness,
and darkness can’t get hold of it.

“The word” John speaks of, existed in the very beginning, is with God, and is God. And around 7BC became the man we know as Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

Why’d the author of John (whom, for tradition’s sake, let’s call St. John) use “word” to describe the pre-incarnate Jesus? For centuries, the assumption was λόγος/lógos came from Greek philosophy. Blame the gentiles: The early church’s writers didn’t know what the Pharisees taught, but they did know Greek philosophy, and insisted on interpreting bible through the lens of their own culture. Christians still do the very same thing today… but that’s a whole other rant. Let’s get back to criticizing ancient Christian gentiles.

Just our luck, ancient Greek philosophers had written a whole bunch of navel-gazing gibberish about the word lógos. ’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 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 their 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, and look for once at John’s culture. What’d Pharisees teach about what “word” means? Apparently they had their own interesting ideas behind it.

The word of the Lord.

Synagogues were a Pharisee thing. They created the synagogue system because the Judean people were in danger of forgetting the Law, repeating the sins of their ancestors who likewise forgot the Law, and getting their land taken away from them as a result. The thinking was “If we make all Judeans go to school, teach ’em to read, teach ’em the Law, and make ’em go to our bible lectures every Friday night, we can keep the nation righteous.” I gotta admit it was a good plan. It turned Judea into a literate nation. Didn’t make ’em any more devout; in fact it created hypocrites, much like mandatory Christian education does today. But that’s another discussion.

Thing is, the bible was written in Hebrew, and the Judeans spoke Aramaic. (It’s a similar language, but it’s still another language; it’s like English and French, which are way more similar than you’d expect.) So in order to teach ’em bible, the Pharisees translated it as they read it. And, as people will, they sometimes paraphrased. When they came across God’s holy personal name YHWH, they felt it was too holy to speak out loud, so they’d say “my Lord,” and that’s why we Christians do it too: Bibles typically go with “LORD,” in all caps or small caps.

Likewise whenever God—whom you’ll recall isn’t a man Nu 23.19 —did something a little too manlike for the Pharisees’ comfort, it’d trigger them too. ’Cause the scriptures describe him as sitting, eating, or otherwise interacting with his people. ’Cause he does that. But the visual image rubbed the Pharisees the wrong way, ’cause God is 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, so he doesn’t dirty himself. You know how he sent prophets his “angel of the LORD” from time to time? Like that.

So whenever Pharisees thought the LORD needed to be just a bit more distant, they translated the scriptures to reflect their bias. Instead of “God” or “Lord,” they went with the Aramaic terms memrá Elahín/“word of God,” or memrá Maryá/“word of the Lord.”

“Word of God” and “Word of the LORD” is actually found in the Hebrew bible a few times, Ge 15.1, 1Sa 15.10, 1Ki 12.22, 1Ch 17.3 so it’s not like it’s the wrong thing to say. There’s precedent. But Pharisees used the term all the time. This way God doesn’t come across as too human. Instead his “word” did—whatever “word” meant. Pharisees didn’t explain.

But St. 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. And guess what: It became human. Jn 1.14 You know, Jesus.

If you grew up regularly attending a first-century Pharisee synagogue, you’d know exactly what John meant.

But 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. But they’ll sure keep you distracted for a few years.

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. Now, a few verses down, when the word became flesh—that 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 lógos 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 logos, and means everything “word” means. Anything and everything. Or nothing.

The Greek translator of the Old Testament used both lógos 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 blessed are those who hear and keep the lógos of God. Lk 11.28 ’Cause we don’t live by bread alone, but by every ríma of God. Mt 4.4 The lógos 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. They both 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 lógos 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 teach that 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 lógos tu Theú and ríma tu Theú of the New—refer to stuff God’s said. Common sense will tell us which is which. Lack of sense will tell us they’re one and the same, and how cool is that?

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 use your head.

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 communicate him to 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.