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Judaism Meets Hellenism and the Logos

By Lewis Loflin

Israel had been under Persian rule from 520 B.C.E. until Alexander the Great defeated them in 332 B.C.E. The close, friendly relationship with Persia had lasted for 188 years. Alexander died soon after the conquest of Persia; his empire fell apart and was divided between his bickering generals.

One part would become Ptolemy Egypt, the other the Seleucid Syria. Israel was caught not only in a power struggle between the two Greek powers but a culture war within itself.

The Galilee had been seized from the Syrians and itself forcibly converted to Judaism only around 103BC, the Maccabees viewing this as a rightful restoration of part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, wiped out by the Assyrians six centuries earlier. This forced conversion also occurred in the south with Idumeans and Arabs.

1 and 2 Maccabees were removed by Protestants, but retained by Catholics and the Orthodox. As stated in the New American Bible, this war of independence wasn't just about foreign rule, but about those Jews embracing Hellenism. In reality Maccabees is more about a civil war between Orthodox and Hellenistic Judaism. There never was a single Judaism in the 1st century as Christians try to pretend. In fact Christianity is an off-shoot of Hellenistic Judaism.

In particular educated Jews were attracted to Greek language, philosophy, science, and astrology. They wanted to join the rest of the world and go beyond the cloistered and isolated world of Orthodox/Pharisee Rabbis. They wanted to join the Greek world; the Maccabee victory in 129 put a check on the advance of Hellenism. Rome had defeated the Maccabees in 63BC and returned much of Samaria to Syria.

But outside Israel in the Diaspora the opposite happened. Jews weren't under the thumbs and harsh control of the Temple or the Maccabees. They didn't isolate themselves from the world and they sought converts. Many pagans were attracted to Judaism for its moral values on family, social welfare, and monotheism of a caring God.

Jews assimilated Greek science, reason, philosophy, and language into a more universal vision of One God. In addition to the Hellenistic Jews there were the Proselytes, Gentiles that now followed all the rules of Torah. The Torah would be translated into Greek for even non-Jews to read, and most Hellenistic Jews spoke only Greek.

In addition, there were Gentiles who followed the meaning but not all of the Laws; these were called God-Fearers. These people in many cases were allowed to attend Synagogue services but had separate seating, as did women. In one abandoned Synagogue in Syria, men and women and everyone sat together while the walls were filled with biblical paintings and artwork.

They were so successful that by Jesus' time the Roman Empire had between 8-10 percent of the population was Jewish. In Alexandria a city of one million, there were 300,000 Jews. Only two million Jews lived in Israel, five million outside including over a million in Babylon. The Romans gave a recognized legal status and protection to Judaism that was revoked only after Christianity came to power.

A similar struggle like that between humanism and Judaism occurred within Christianity. Christianity outlawed any contact between Christians and Jews and conversion to Judaism carried a death penalty. Many of the various Jewish/Christian groups were declared heretics and wiped out. Pauline Christianity had done to Roman world what the Maccabees had done to Israel. Like the Maccabees, Christianity rejected Greek humanism along with Judaism.

What happens to the various players?

The Christians remained a branch of Judaism for some time. Even Paul taught that Torah was the model for behavior. But since they developed the notion that membership in their community, equated with acceptance of the freedom offered by Jesus, was congruent with salvation, they eventually dropped their ties to Judaism. Also, by allowing Gentiles full membership (none of the Hellenistic social classicism) they became both quite popular and majority Gentile.

The Hellenistic Jews survive until Constantine adopts Christianity as the official religion. Since the Christians have a better marketing message the Hellenists mostly disappeared. However until that time they were a popular and universal movement.

The Pharisees had developed a notion of there being both a written Torah and an oral law, the latter passed on from Moses. This had put them in conflict with the Sadducees - the Priests - because the Pharisees claimed that the Priests had never been true transmitters of the law, but rather only cultic functionaries. The Pharisees claimed that the members of the scholarly class were the true transmitters, because only they had the oral completion of the Law.

What is the Platonic Logos?

The Logos is an important concept that arises from Hellenistic Judaism.

In Hellenistic thought the Logos (the Word of God or Reason of God) is related to the notion that the universe itself is divine, a living being whose soul is God. God is everywhere and within everything. In Hellenistic Judaism as developed by Philo, this notion of Logos is unacceptable, because the Jewish God created the universe and transcends it.

Logos is thought of as God creating the plan of the universe, the mind of God in the act of creation. Christian notions (as in John) of Jesus as the Logos derive by adoption of Hellenistic ideas within the Jesus sect.

The Christian notion that the Logos was created but not preexistent - son but not father - derive from Philo. This created a fight over the question of Jesus being God or a creation of God. That would be settled at Nicaea in 325 that declared Jesus and God the same.

More on the Logos

Logos (Greek, "word,""reason,""ratio"), in ancient and especially in medieval philosophy and theology, the divine reason that acts as the ordering principle of the universe.

The 6th-century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus was the first to use the term Logos in a metaphysical sense. He asserted that the world is governed by a firelike Logos, a divine force that produces the order and pattern discernible in the flux of nature.

He believed that this force is similar to human reason and that his own thought partook of the divine Logos.

In Stoicism, as it developed after the 4th century BC, the Logos is conceived as a rational divine power that orders and directs the universe; it is identified with God, nature, and fate.

The Logos is "present everywhere" and seems to be understood as both a divine mind and at least a semiphysical force, acting through space and time. Within the cosmic order determined by the Logos are individual centers of potentiality, vitality, and growth. These are "seeds" of the Logos (logoi spermatikoi).

Through the faculty of reason, all human beings (but not any other animals) share in the divine reason. Stoic ethics stress the rule "Follow where Reason [Logos] leads"; one must therefore resist the influence of the passions-love, hate, fear, pain, and pleasure.

The 1st-century AD Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo Judaeus employed the term Logos in his effort to synthesize Jewish tradition and Platonism. According to Philo, the Logos is a mediating principle between God and the world and can be understood as God's Word or the Divine Wisdom, which is immanent in the world.

At the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is identified with the Logos made incarnate, the Greek word logos being translated as "word" in the English Bible: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ... " (John 1:1-3, 14). John's conception of Christ was probably influenced by Old Testament passages as well as by Greek philosophy, but early Christian theologians developed the conception of Christ as the Logos in explicitly Platonic and Neoplatonic terms (see Neoplatonism).

The Logos, for instance, was identified with the will of God, or with the Ideas (or Platonic Forms) that are in the mind of God. Christ's incarnation was accordingly understood as the incarnation of these divine attributes.

From Robert S. Brumbaugh

Historical View

The word logos (from the root of the Greek verb lego, "to say") figures prominently in a number of Greek and Christian philosophical doctrines.

Although the word's earliest meaning probably was "connected discourse," by the classical period it already had a wide variety of other meanings: "argument," "rational principle," "reason," "proportion," "measure," and others.

For this reason, it is difficult to interpret the logos doctrines of philosophers and dangerous to assume a single history for these doctrines.

Heraclitus was the earliest Greek thinker to make logos a central concept. He urges us to pay attention to the logos, which "governs all things" and yet is also something we "encounter every day."

We should probably emphasize the linguistic connections of logos when interpreting Heraclitus's thought.

In our efforts to understand the world, we should look to our language and the order embodied in it, rather than to scientific or religious views that neglect this.

In the 3d century BC the proponents of Stoicism borrowed the idea of logos from Heraclitus (neither Plato nor Aristotle had given the term prominence) and used it for the immanent ordering principle of the universe - represented, at the level of language, by humankind's ordered discourse.

Nature and logos are often treated as one and the same; but logos is nature's overall rational structure, and not all natural creatures have logos, or reason, within them. Humans are urged to "live consistently with logos."

In the New Testament, the Gospel According to Saint John gives a central place to logos; the biblical author describes the Logos as God, the Creative Word, who took on flesh in the man Jesus Christ.

Many have traced John's conception to Greek origins - perhaps through the intermediacy of eclectic texts like the writings of Philo of Alexandria.

More recently, however, scholars have emphasized that the Old Testament contains a doctrine of the Word of God; and in Aramaic paraphrases the "Word of God" takes on some of the functions of God.

Later Christian thinkers clearly did incorporate the Stoic logos doctrine; logos was associated particularly with Christ and later, in Arianism, no longer identified with God.

Martha C Nussbaum

J Carey, Kairos and Logos (1978); W J Ong, Presence of the Word (1967).

Christian View

The most usual Greek term for "word" in the NT: occasionally with other meanings (e.g., account, reason, motive); specifically in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1, 14) and perhaps in other Johannine writings (I John 1:1; Rev. 19:13) it is used of the second person of the Trinity. In ordinary Greek parlance it also means reason.

Johannine Usage

According to John 1:1-18 the Logos was already present at the creation ("in the beginning" relates to Gen. 1:1), in the closest relationship with God ("with" = pros, not meta or syn). Indeed, the Logos was God (not "divine," as Moffatt, the anarthrous predicate is grammatically required but may also indicate a distinction between the persons).

This relationship with God was effective in the moment of creation (1:2). The entire work of creation was carried out through ("by" =dia, vs. 3) the Logos. The source of life (1:4, probable punctuation) and light of the world (cf. 9:5) and of every man (1:9, probable punctuation), and still continuing (present tense in 1:5) this work, the Logos became incarnate, revealing the sign of God's presence and his nature (1:14).

The prologue thus sets out three main facets of the Logos and his activity: his divinity and intimate relationship with the Father; his work as agent of creation; and his incarnation.

In I John 1:1 "the Logos of life," seen, heard, and handled, may refer to the personal Christ of the apostolic preaching or impersonally to the message about him. Rev. 19:12 pictures Christ as a conquering general called the Logos of God. As in Heb. 4:12, it is the OT picture of the shattering effects of God's word (cf. the imagery of vs. 15) which is in mind.

Background of the Term


Diverse factors give some preparation for John's usage. God creates by the word (Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:9) and his word is sometimes spoken of semipersonally (Ps. 107:20; 147:15, 18); it is active, dynamic, achieving its intended results (Isa. 50:10-11).

The wisdom of God is personified (Prov. 8, note especially vss. 22ff. on wisdom's work in creation). The angel of the Lord is sometimes spoken of as God, sometimes as distinct (cf. Judg. 2:1). God's name is semipersonalized (Exod. 23:21; I Kings 8:29).

Palestinian Judaism

Besides the personification of wisdom (cf. Ecclus. 24), the rabbis used the word me'mra,' "word," as a periphrasis for "God." This usage occurs in the Targums.

Greek Philosophy

Among the philosophers the precise significance of Logos varies, but it stands usually for "reason" and reflects the Greek conviction that divinity cannot come into direct contact with matter.

The Logos is a shock absorber between God and the universe, and the manifestation of the divine principle in the world. In the Stoic tradition the Logos is both divine reason and reason distributed in the world (and thus in the mind).

Hellenistic Judaism

In Alexandrian Judaism there was full personification of the word in creation (Wisd. Sol. 9:1; 16:12). In the writings of Philo, who, though a Jew, drank deeply from Platonism and Stoicism, the term appears more than 1300 times.

The Logos is "the image" (Col. 1:15); the first form (protogonos), the representation (charakter, cf. Heb. 1:3), of God; and even "Second God" (deuteros theos; cf. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica vii. 13); the means whereby God creates the world from the great waste; and, moreover, the way whereby God is known (i.e., with the mind. Closer knowledge could be received directly, in ecstasy).

Hermetic Literature

Logos occurs frequently in the Hermetica. Though post-Christian, these are influenced by hellenistic Judaism. They indicate the Logos doctrine, in something like Philonic terms, in pagan mystical circles.

Sources of John's Doctrine

John 1 differs radically from philosophic usage. For the Greeks, Logos was essentially reason; for John, essentially word. Language common to Philo's and the NT has led many to see John as Philo's debtor. But one refers naturally to Philo's Logos as "It," to John's as "He."

Philo came no nearer than Plato to a Logos who might be incarnate, and he does not identify Logos and Messiah. John's Logos is not only God's agent in creation; He is God, and becomes incarnate, revealing, and redeeming.

The rabbinic me'mra,' hardly more than a reverent substitution for the divine name, is not sufficiently substantial a concept; nor is direct contact with Hermetic circles likely.

The source of John's Logos doctrine is in the person and work of the historical Christ. "Jesus is not to be interpreted by Logos: Logos is intelligible only as we think of Jesus" (W. F. Howard, IB, VIII, 442). Its expression takes its suitability primarily from the OT connotation of "word" and its personification of wisdom.

Christ is God's active Word, his saving revelation to fallen man. It is not accidental that both the gospel and Christ who is its subject are called "the word." But the use of "Logos" in the contemporary hellenistic world made it a useful "bridge" word.

In two NT passages where Christ is described in terms recalling Philo's Logos, the word Logos is absent (Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:3). Its introduction to Christian speech has been attributed to Apollos.

Logos in Early Christian Use

The apologists found the Logos a convenient term in expounding Christianity to pagans. They used its sense of "reason," and some were thus enabled to see philosophy as a preparation for the gospel. The Hebraic overtones of "word" were under-emphasized, though never quite lost.

Some theologians distinguished between the Logos endiathetos, or Word latent in the Godhead from all eternity, and the logos prophorikos, uttered and becoming effective at the creation. Origen seems to have used Philo's language of the deuteros theos.

In the major Christological controversies, however, the use of the term did not clarify the main issues, and it does not occur in the great creeds.

A F Walls (Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R. G. Bury, The Logos Doctrine and the Fourth Gospel; C. H. Dodd, The Fourth Gospel; W. F. Howard, Christianity According to St. John; Commentaries on John by B. F. Westcott, J. H. Bernard, C. K. Barrett; R. L. Ottley, Doctrine of the Incarnation; A. Debrunner, TDNT, IV, 69ff.; H. Haarbeck et al., NIDNTT, III, 1078ff.; F. E. Walton, The Development of the Logos Doctrine in Greek and Hebrew Thought.

The Word

The Word (Gr. Logos), is one of the titles of our Lord, found only in the writings of John (John 1:1-14; 1 John 1:1; Rev. 19: 13). As such, Christ is the revealer of God. His office is to make God known. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (John 1: 18).

This title designates the divine nature of Christ. As the Word, he "was in the beginning" and "became flesh." "The Word was with God " and "was God," and was the Creator of all things (comp. Ps.33: 6; 107:20; 119:89; 147:18; Isa. 40:8).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

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