What’s the Good Word, God?

As I write this, the feast of Christmas begins at sundown tomorrow. It brings me to think about the awesome masterwork of faith and understanding that is the Gospel of John, and probably the key concept that forms the foundation of John’s understanding of who Jesus was and is: his very nature or essence. His understanding goes far beyond just an appreciation for Jesus and his role in the history of humanity; it goes to the heart of Jesus’ role as essential bridge between the divine and, not only the human, but even the entire universe.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος.1 “In the beginning was the Word (λόγος ‘logos’), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The English word “word” in no way adequately conveys the meaning of what the author of this gospel is saying. It hearkens back, first of all, to the Hebrew term, דבר (‘dabar’), which we also loosely translate as “word,” but which encompasses a broad range of English meanings. It can mean “word” (as we understand it), as well as “event,” or even a “thing” in itself. In the Semitic mind, there is an intrinsic connection between an object and the name of that object. Giving an object a name is a mystical act by which the namer calls the thing out of the blank background of inattention and provides it with a perceptual identity.

The opening of the book of Genesis (which is deliberately paralleled by the Gospel of John) employs this mystical act to explain the relationship between God and his creation, as well as the relationship between humankind and the world. The whole first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:2), rather than being any kind of historical account (which many wrong-headed believers try to make it into), is an exposé on the relationship between God and the universe. God brings order out of chaos and exercises his dominion over all creation by giving names to everything. Likewise, in the second creation story (Genesis 2:3-2:25), God shared his creative power with humankind by allowing them dominion over creation. This is expressed by the humans giving names to the creatures of the earth.2

Most importantly, in the book of Exodus, Moses is granted knowledge of God’s proper Name (Yahweh), thereby granting to the Hebrew people the privilege of connecting directly to God’s person — his essence — and calling upon him. This privilege was so carefully guarded that the divine Name was never read (it was always replaced with ‘adonai’ [‘Lord’] when the texts were read), and was only pronounced by the high priest in the Holy of Holys of the temple in Jerusalem once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Even today, in most English translations of the Bible, ‘Yahweh’ is replaced by “the Lord.”

It is also important to note that, in the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, attributes of God are very often used to reference God himself (a classical figure of speech called synekdoche). In Hebrew biblical and extra-biblical literature, God is often referred to as “the Name.” Likewise, the attributes of God are often personalized as angelic presences: Michael (mi-cha-el) means “who is like God?”, Gabriel (gabri-el) means the “Power of God”; Penuel (penu-el) means the “Face of God”; Raphael (rapha-el) means the “Healing of God”; etc. In any case, in the Hebrew mind, there is creative power and dominion in the Word of God — a power and dominion shared with humanity.

The author of the Gospel of John writes in the context of the Hebrew understanding of the Word, and then expands upon it by bringing to it the Greek understanding of λόγος (‘logos’). This word represents a key principle from ancient Greek philosophy, rather well-understood among the highly-educated of the first century. On the surface, ‘logos’ refers to “word” and “discourse.” We find it in all branches of study, particularly in the sciences (bio-logy, physio-logy, psycho-logy, geo-logy, etc.). We interpret it as the “study of” something. However, this is only a superficial understanding of what ‘logos’ refers to.

In Greek philosophy, ‘logos’ is a first principle: a core aspect that we use to understand and explain relationships among beings in the universe. It describes the essence (“is-ness”) of a thing in so far as it can be known. It expresses the knowability of a thing. Instead of being tied to a single name (like in Semitic thought), ‘logos’ refers to something (the “noumenon” in contemporary philosophy) which is capable of being grasped; by the human mind (the “phenomenon”).

So, in the Gospel of John, we read, “In the beginning (not a ‘when’ but at the core of everything) was the logos.” This expresses the very essence of God (the absolutely Transcendent) as God is knowable by humanity. And we read, “the logos was with God,” because the principle of knowability is simply a principle and does not adequately encompass the entire being of God. Finally, the text reads “καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος,” literally, “and God was the logos.”

What this one sentence expresses is exactly what we celebrate in the liturgical season of Christmas-Epiphany: the manifestation in human flesh and blood the very essence of the living God as knowable and understandable by all. The author writes, “Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν” “and the logos was made flesh and dwelt (‘pitched his tent’) among us.” This refers directly to the meeting tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of the people of Israel as well as the identification of Jesus as Emanuel (“im-manu-el” or “God-with-us”). The words “ἐν ἡμῖν” are ambiguous: they can mean “in our midst” or “within us.”

To wrap up: what the prologue to John’s Gospel is saying in these terms is that in Jesus, we come to know the transcendent God in his very essence. It’s the difference between hearing people talk about some remarkable person and personally befriending him or her. In Jesus, we, like Moses no longer know God through human words (the words of God — Scripture, for example) but we come face-to-face with God (God’s logos). Our job, as we approach the Christmas season is not to let the words of God obscure for us the Word of God, but to allow ourselves to engage anew with God-with-us.

1The opening words in the original Greek of the Gospel of John (1:1).
2“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” Genesis 2:19-20.

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