Word!

by K.W. Leslie, 14 December

John 1.1-5.

I wrote 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,
and 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 Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

Why’d the author of John (and for convenience we’ll just figure he’s the apostle John; he probably was) use “word” to describe the pre-incarnation Jesus? You realize this passage is the reason so many Christians are hugely fascinated by the word “word,” and have written endless stuff about the Word of God—some of it extremely profound and useful, and some of it sour horsepiss. I grew up hearing a lot of both.

The John passage tends to get translated in past tense: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” as the KJV has it. 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 for me, the context is καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος/ke Theós in o lóyos, “and the word is God.” He was God at creation, and never stopped being God; he is God—present tense. So, present tense.

Okay, now to the concept of λόγος/lóyos (or as Americans regularly mangle it, “logos”) which literally means “word.” Why’d John use it?

For centuries, Christians assumed 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 it’s called in Aramaic, מימרא/memrá. 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.

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 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 educated by, Pharisee synagogues. So let’s look at that culture: What’d Pharisees teach about what a memrá is and means? And it turns out Pharisees had a lot of interesting ideas attached to it.

The word of the Lord.

Synagogues were a Pharisee thing. 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: They’d abandon God and go pagan, and get their land taken away as a result. 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… and in so doing, we’ll keep our nation righteous.”

Sound like a good plan? It did turn the Jews into a literate nation. But it actually didn’t make ’em any more devout. In fact it created hypocrites, much like mandatory Christian education does today. That’s likewise a whole other rant.

Thing is, the bible was written in Hebrew, and from the sixth to first century CE, Jews didn’t speak that anymore. 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 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 avoid the NSFW parts of the bible. They’d use euphemisms. And whenever they came across God’s holy personal name YHWH, they felt it was too holy to speak out loud, 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 did something a little too manlike for the Pharisees’ comfort, it’d trigger them too. ’Cause Moses said he’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?

Yet the scriptures describe God as sitting, eating, or otherwise physically interacting with his people. ’Cause he does that. But it made Pharisees feel all weird about the idea, ’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, lest he dirty himself. You know how he sent prophets his “angel of the LORD” from time to time? Like that.

Hence 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 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 didn’t 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. 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.

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. 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 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 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. 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 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 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 lóyos 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 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.