John 1:1-2 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.”
The marvel of John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is in how it affirms the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth as God incarnate while dismantling competing worldviews. Today’s post is more of a thumbnail sketch of thoughts regarding how a traditional Jewish mindset may had reacted to what John especially wrote in John 1:1-3. This intersection of Divine revelation with the backdrop of 1st century Jewish religious thinking makes John’s prologue an excellent launching ground for discussing Jesus Christ with non-believers. The post will center around John’s use of “λογος” (“word”) in John 1:1-3 as it bears significance to the religious Jewish mind. My hope is that these thoughts will serve to highlight how amazing the opening verses of John’s Gospel really are, and why it is they are truly unique in comparison to all other would be contenders. After making some observations regarding how Hebraic Jewish thought conceived of the function of “The Word” (Hebrew being “הדבר” = “ha-da-bar”), we will then close with some conclusions for practical application.
Understanding the title “The Word” as it functioned with the backdrop of “traditional Jewish thought” in the 1st century.
I underscore “traditional Judaism” in distinction to the Jewish Old Covenant scriptures divinely inspired by God and fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ in His first advent. When I say “traditional Judaism”, I am speaking of the centuries of commentaries and multi-layered traditional Jewish thinking that developed between the Old and New Testament eras. The Jews had developed a method of studying the scripture called “Midrash”, which very loosely understood refers to a sort of commentary on the Old Testament (particularly the Torah or first five books of the Bible). The Apostle John as a Jew wrote his prologue (John 1:1-18) with such tradition as a backdrop. It is the contention of this blogger that the Holy Spirit’s guiding work in John’s Gospel intentionally made his prologue accessible to both a 1st century Jewish and Greco/Roman audience.
Undoubtedly, John’s prologue would had upset the proverbial “apple cart” of traditional Judaism’s interpretation of God and His creative activities. By hearkening back to the Old Covenant scriptures alone, John in effect demonstrated the true meaning of the word “Word”. To be more specific, John used the prologue of 1:1-18 to expound such texts as Genesis 1:1 with its own introduction of “in the beginning”.
As will be seen below, the quotes from traditional Jewish thinking (centuries of Jewish commentary and tradition plus the Old Covenant scripture) vs what John wrote (Old Covenant scriptures as they would see their fulfillment in Christ’s incarnation) will bear out how profound and unique Jesus Christ truly is as the Unique incarnation of God in human flesh.
The significance of the word “Word” in the Hebraic mind and Jewish tradition
When you consider the meaning of the word “word” in the Jewish mind, and compare it to what John wrote, you discover that John was asserting no less than the Full and uncontested Deity of Jesus Christ. For the Jew looking at passages like Genesis 1 through the lens of Jewish tradition, God’s creative activity entailed Him “speaking” things into existence. The Jews came to view the Hebrew word for “word” דבר (da-bar = “word”) in the Old Testament scriptures as signifiying this creative capacity within the One God of revealed scripture – Yahweh.
Scholarship recognizes the place of the phrase “word of God” in God’s self-revelation of Himself in the Old Testament. For example, William Holladay’s Concise Lexicon for Old Testament Hebrew and Aramaic notes scriptures and meanings pertinent to our discussion here about “word of God” or as it would be in the Hebrew (debar elohim = “דְּבַ֥ר אֱלֹהִֽים”):
-“(D)ebar ʾelōhîm 1 S 9:27 (+ 2 ×)” or “Word of God”
– “(D)ebar hāʾelōhim 2 S 16:23 (+ 1 ×), N.B. 1 C 26:32. Which means “affairs of God.”
– “(D) ebar ʾelōhênû Is 40:8”. That is “Word of God”
– “(D)ebar yhwh Gn 15:1 & oft.” That is “Word of the LORD”
– “(D)ibrê yhwh Ex 4:28 (+ 16 ×)”. Which means “Word of the LORD”
– “(D)ibrê hāʾelōhîm 1 C 25:5.” That is “Word of the God”.
Such self-revelation included the notion of the One True and Living God having the capacity to relate within Himself. These types of observations were rooted in the already extant Old Testament idea of God having within Himself a reflexive Personality that included the designations of “Father” (see Deuteronomy 32:7-8) and “Son” (Psalm 2:7; 110:1 and Proverbs 30:4).
As one looks a little bit into the Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament Torah (called Midrash, meaning “interpretation”), for the Jewish tradition and the Jewish Rabbis (or teachers), the Torah was not just merely referring to the first five books of the Bible, but something far more. For them, Torah had always existed with God from eternity. Without a doubt the God of Biblical revelation is, in the words of Christian scholar Francis Shaeffer – “the talking God”. In the Jewish mind, to study the “Torah” meant to consult the very book which would in reality instruct and guide the believer to know the mind of God and really God Himself.
Jacob Neusner, a Judaic scholar, notes the following on Genesis 1:1 in his book on traditional Jewish commentary on the Torah “Invitation to Midrash”: “We read the intersecting verse as if the Torah were speaking. Hence the Torah was beside God like a little child.” As Neusner examines one of the Jewish commentaries (or Midrash) on Genesis 1:1, we see this curious statement from one of those Jewish commentaries (called the Genesis Rabbah): “Thus the Holy One, blessed be he, consulted the Torah when He created the world.” For traditional Jewish thinking, God was consulting His mind and what He saw within Himself, resulting in those thoughts (Torah) manifesting in a verbal activity (Word) and thus: the creation.
The Archaelogical Study Bible suggests that the 1st century ancient Aramaic translation / commentaries of the Old Covenant scriptures (the Targums) contained information about God’s creative word. The note reads: “The Jewish Targums echo this understanding of the Divine Word. They frequently employ the term “memra” (derived from the Aramaic word “to speak”) to describe God’s creative activity, and this may have contributed to the language we find in John 1.” For traditional Judaism, what God did was speak (Word) as a result of the consultations He made in His own mind with regards to the Torah that had always been on His mind.
What is the big deal about these insights?
The above observations point to the following suggested implications about 1st century Jewish thinking and its backdrop to what John wrote in John 1:1-18:
1. In John’s opening statement about Jesus as the Word in John 1:1-3, “The Word” is not merely viewed as a symbolic Person in the form of God’s mind who co-existed with God from the beginning (the traditional Jewish view), but as an actual Person alongside the Father from all eternity.
2. “The Word” was indeed a Real, true Person co-existing with and sharing in the Divine nature with God (the Father) from all eternity! Plainly put: the “power” and “principle” that is the “Word” in traditional Jewish Thought is shown by Divine revelation to be a genuine Person.
3. This Person was “in the beginning”, like we see God in the beginning in Genesis 1:1. Furthermore, this Person, “The Word”, was “with God”. In the original language of John 1:1, we could say “The Word” was “face to face” with God, indicating a co-equal, intimacy that is unshared by any creature.
4. Then to push the envelope all the way, John then says “The Word was God” and then in verse 2 “and He was with God”. To say “The Word” was a “He” brings in the element of True personality.
John as a Jew was pointing out under Divine inspiration that the “Word” had indeed came in the flesh and dwelled among His people – the Jews. Moreover, this same “Word” came into the the world to reveal God to a world in need of a Savior. This “Word” was no less than God in human flesh – Jesus Christ. In our next post, the aim will be to consider the possible interactions John may have had with the 1st century Greco-Roman backdrop in his use of the Greek word for word, namely λογος (logos). More next time….