Though originally a Jew, St. John was clearly a Hellenized Jew who might have taken his own concepts from either the pagans or the Jews. As he describes the Incarnate Word in his Gospel, the Incarnation resembles most closely the Memra of the Jews.
As I discussed in my previous essay, the Pagan Logos had a long history, beginning with Heraclitus around 500BC, continuing through the Stoicism of Zeno and Cleanthes around 320BC, and finding its most complete expression in the words and ideas of Cicero and Virgil in the half century prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Though such pagan thought probably entered Judaism after the conquests of Alexander the Great, it is possible that the Hebrews developed their idea of a “divine manifestation”—what in Hebrew is called the “Memra”—independently of the Greeks and the Stoics. Given the interconnected of the ancient Mediterranean world, it is even possible that the ancient Hebraic thought had influenced the classical Greeks, but there is no proof of this. Regardless, Hebraic thought on this matter strongly resembled the pagan understanding and defined the Memra as “the Word,” “the Revealer of God,” “Wisdom,” and as “the Law that Upholds the World.”
The Jewish understanding found its clearest expression in the “Book of Wisdom,” attributed to Solomon, but, most likely, written around 100BC. In chapter one, the author describes the meaning of the word and God’s justice.
Wisdom will never enter the soul of a wrong-doer, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin; for the holy spirit of instruction flees deceitfulness, recoils from unintelligent thoughts, is thwarted by the onset of vice. Wisdom is a spirit friendly to humanity, though she will not let a blasphemer’s words go unpunished; since God observes the very soul and accurately surveys the heart, listening to every word. For the spirit of the Lord fills the world, and that which holds everything together knows every word said. (New American)
In chapter eight, the author identifies the Word and wisdom with the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
Strongly she reaches from one end of the world to the other and she governs the whole world for its good. Wisdom I loved and searched for from my youth; I resolved to have her as my bride, I fell in love with her beauty. She enhances her noble birth by sharing God’s life, for the Master of All has always loved her. Indeed, she shares the secrets of God’s knowledge, and she chooses what he will do. If in this life wealth is a desirable possession, what is more wealthy than Wisdom whose work is everywhere? Or if it be the intellect that is at work, who, more than she, designs whatever exists? Or if it be uprightness you love, why, virtues are the fruit of her labours, since it is she who teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude; nothing in life is more useful for human beings. (New American)
By chapter eighteen, though, the author had some to his conclusion, recognizing the Word as the Incarnate Word to come.
When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word like a pitiless warrior into the heart of a land doomed to destruction. Carrying your unambiguous command like a sharp sword, it stood, and filled the universe with death; though standing on the earth, it touched the sky. (New American)
Given the language, one can readily see why some Jews anticipated a peaceful messiah and others, such as the Zealots, a rebel to unmake the Roman empire.
Writing in Greek, St. John the Beloved and Revelator wrote the final of the four orthodox Gospels sometime around the year 100AD, about 200 centuries after the Jewish Book of Wisdom. Though originally a Jew, St. John was clearly a Hellenized Jew who might have taken his own concepts (though, of course, by orthodox teaching, as a record of the word of God) from either the pagans or the Jews. As he describes the Incarnate Word in his gospel, the Incarnation resembles most closely the Memra of the Jews, but it also resembles the fire of Heraclitus, the longings of Zeno and Cleanthes, the reason of Cicero, and the god born of the Virgin of Virgil.
Not surprisingly, given this noble lineage of paganism and Judaism, St. John’s first fourteen lines of his gospel—essentially the ancient equivalent of a prose poem—adopt and baptize the Logos, rewriting all of history and philosophy as understood up to that point. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John records. All things came through the Word and nothing that exists, exists without the Word. The Word is life, and “this life was the light of the human race.” Not just any light—as those who worship the sun might have expected—this was “the true light, which enlightens everyone.”
Critically, St. John did not state that the Light only enlightens those who are to come, temporally, after the Incarnate Word. Rather, the Incarnate Word, coming from out of time, can penetrate and interpenetrate all of time, past, present, and future. Grace, once it enters time, is not limited to the present and the future only, but to the past as well.
Further, St. John addresses exactly how the Creator of time could enter time, how the author could enter his book, and how the artist could enter his painting. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” Again, it must be noted, the Logos does not enter flesh or transmute into flesh. Rather, and critically, it becomes flesh. The two—Spirit and Flesh—became not ½ and ½ of a thing, but rather one whole, a completeness of being, the two aspects of the Second Person of the Trinity as one, entering into creation itself, fully man and fully God.
Later, of course, St. John identifies the Second Person of the Trinity not only with the Word, but also the Word as love. “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”
Though St. John is the most blatant in his embrace of the Logos, other New Testament writers adopted the concept as well, though more circumspectly. St. Paul indirectly references the concept many times. In 1 Corinthians 1:24 “but to those whom God had called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In II Cor. 4:4 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” In Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation.” This, most directly, presents a stoic philosophy of history, and it, amazingly enough, answers all the problems of Greek philosophy. And, spoken by St. Paul at Mars Hill, as St. Luke recorded in Acts 17: “In Him we move and live and have our being,” taking this from a—at that point—300-year old Stoic hymn to God.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews also referenced the Logos: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
The implications of the adoption and baptism of this ancient concept by the early Church will have profound implications for the future understanding of the dignity of the human person. But, this is for another post.
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The featured image is “Sermon dans un oratoire israélite” by Edouard Moyse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.