What Is Logos in the Bible? A Short and Extended Answer

More than the name of this blog and our Bible study software, logos (which we pronounce LOW-goess . . .  and LAH-gahss) is an important Greek word in biblical and theological studies.

Logos is arguably the most debated and most discussed word in the Greek New Testament,” writes Douglas Estes in his entry on this word in the Lexham Bible Dictionary (a free resource from Lexham Press).

What does logos mean, and why is it significant for Christian theology and biblical studies? This post, adapted from Estes’ explanation, offers a thorough explanation of the word.

Short answer

Logos (λόγος, logos) is a concept-word in the Bible symbolic of the nature and function of Jesus Christ. It is also used to refer to the revelation of God in the world.

Introduction to Logos

The Greek word logos simply means “word.” However, along with this most basic definition comes a host of quasi-technical and technical uses of the word logos in the Bible as well as ancient Greek literature. Its most famous usage is John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The Meaning of Logos in the Bible

The standard rendering of logos in English is “word.” This holds true in English regardless of whether logos is used in a mundane or technical sense. Over the centuries, and in a variety of languages, other suggestions have been made—such as the recent idea of rendering logos as “message” in English—but none have stuck with any permanency.

There are three primary uses for the word logos in the New Testament:

  1. Logos in its standard meaning designates a word, speech, or the act of speaking (Acts 7:22).
  2. Logos in its special meaning refers to the special revelation of God to people (Mark 7:13).
  3. Logos in its unique meaning personifies the revelation of God as Jesus the Messiah (John 1:14).

Since the writers of the New Testament used logos more than 300 times, mostly with the standard meaning, even this range of meaning is quite large. For example, its standard usage can mean:

  • An accounting (Matthew 12:36)
  • A reason (Acts 10:29)
  • An appearance or aural display (Colossians 2:23)
  • A preaching (1 Timothy 5:17)
  • A word (1 Corinthians 1:5)

The wide semantic range of logos lends itself well to theological and philosophical discourse (Phillips, Prologue, 106).

The Meaning of Logos in the Gospel of John

The leading use of logos in its unique sense occurs in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. This chapter introduces the idea that Jesus is the Word: the Word that existed prior to creation, the Word that exists in connection to God, the Word that is God, and the Word that became human, cohabited with people, and possessed a glory that can only be described as the glory of God (John 1:1, 14). As the Gospel of John never uses logos in this unique, technical manner again after the first chapter, and never explicitly says that the logos is Jesus, many have speculated that the Word-prologue predates the Gospel in the form of an earlier hymn or liturgy (Schnackenburg, Gospel, 1.224–32; Jeremias, Jesus, 100); however, there is little evidence for this, and attempts to recreate the hymn are highly speculative (Keener, Gospel, 333–37). While there are a multitude of theories for why the Gospel writer selected the logos concept-word, the clear emphasis of the opening of the Gospel and entrance of the Word into the world is cosmological, reflecting the opening of Genesis 1 (Estes, Temporal Mechanics, 107–13).

The Meaning of Logos in the Remainder of the New Testament

There are two other unique, personified uses of logos in the New Testament, both of which are found in the Johannine literature.

  1. In 1 John 1:1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word of life”; both “word” and “life” are significant to John, as this opening to the first letter is related in some way to the opening of the Gospel.
  2. In Revelation 19:13, the returning Messiah is called the “Word of God,” as a reference to His person and work as both the revealed and the revealer.

All of the remaining uses of logos in the New Testament are mostly standard uses, with a small number of special uses mixed in (e.g., Acts 4:31, where logos refers to the gospel message).

The Meaning of Logos in the Old Testament (LXX)

The Old Testament (LXX, or Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek) use of logos closely matches both standard and special New Testament uses. As with the New Testament, most uses of logos in the Old Testament fit within the standard semantic range of “word” as speech, utterance, or word. The LXX does make regular use of logos to specify the “word of the Lord” (e.g., Isaiah 1:10, where the LXX translates יהוה־דָּבָר, yhwhdavar), relating to the special proclamation of God in the world. When used this way, logos does not mean the literal words or speech or message of God; instead, it refers to the “dynamic, active communication” of God’s purpose and plan to His people in light of His creative activity (Need, “Re-Reading,” 399). The key difference between the Testaments is that there is no personification of logos in the Old Testament indicative of the Messiah. In Proverbs 8, the Old Testament personifies Wisdom, leading some to believe this is a precursor to the unique, technical use of logos occurring in the Johannine sections of the New Testament.

 

The Historical Background of the Logos Concept

Many theories have been proposed attempting to explain why the Gospel of John introduces Jesus as the Word.

Old Testament Word

This theory proposes that the logos in John simply referred to the Old Testament word for word (דָּבָר, davar) as it related to the revelatory activity of God (the “word of the Lord,” 2 Sam 7:4), and then personified over time from the “word of God” (revelation) to the “Word of God” (Messiah revealed; Carson, Gospel). This theory is the closest literary parallel and thought-milieu to the New Testament. As a result, it has gained a wide range of general acceptance. The lack of evidence showing such a substantial shift in meaning is this theory’s major weakness.

Old Testament Wisdom

In the centuries before the writing of the New Testament, the Jewish concept of Wisdom, or Sophia (σοφία, sophia), was personified as a literary motif in several texts (Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch), prompting arguments that “Sophia” is the root idea for Logos (Scott, Sophia). Paul appears to make a weak allusion to these two ideas also (1 Cor 1:24). This theory may be supported by the presence of a divine, personified hypostasis for God in Jewish contexts. The concept of Sophia shares some similarities with “Word.” However, Sophia may simply be a literary motif. Furthermore, it is unclear why the writer of the Gospel of John wouldn’t have simply used sophia instead of logos.

Jewish-Hellenistic Popular Philosophy

Philo (20 BC–AD 50), a Hellenistic Jew from Alexandria, wrote many books combining Hebrew and Greek theology and philosophy; he used logos in many different ways to refer to diverse aspects of God and his activity in the world (Tobin, “Prologue”). This theory is supported by the fact that Philo is a near-contemporary of John. Furthermore, the use of the language has several striking similarities. However, this theory has three major weaknesses:

  1. Philo never appears to personify logos in the same way John does (perhaps due to his strict monotheism).
  2. Philo’s philosophical system is complex and frequently at odds with the Bible’s worldview.
  3. Philo was not influential in his lifetime.

John’s Theology

One theory for the origin of the logos concept in the Gospel of John comes through the evolution of christological thought apparent in Johannine context: after working through the creation of the letters and the text of the Fourth Gospel, wherein the focus is repeatedly on the Christ as the revelation of God, the fourth evangelist may have written the prologue as the fruition and capstone of all of his thoughts on the person and work of Jesus (Miller, “Johannine”). As this theory takes the thought-process of the evangelist seriously, it is elegant and plausible. However, it does not actually answer the question regarding the origin of the concept, as the evangelist must have had some original semantic range for logos.

Greek Philosophy

For Heraclitus and later Stoic philosophers, logos was a symbol of divine reason; it is possible that John borrowed this concept from the Hellenistic milieu in which he wrote (Hook, “Spirit,” 227). While few individuals support this theory today, early church fathers such as Irenaeus and Augustine indirectly favored it. This theory may be plausible, as Greek philosophy did have a pervasive influence, and was accepted by many in the early church. However, there is no direct evidence that the writer of the Fourth Gospel knew or cared about Greek philosophy.

The Torah

In order to place the Gospel of John squarely in Jewish context, this theory proposes that logos is best understood as the incarnated Torah (Reed, Semitic). The theory is based on some parallels between “word” and “law” (νόμος, nomos) in the LXX (Psa 119:15); thus, one could translate John 1:1 as Jacobus Schoneveld did: “In the beginning was the Torah, and the Torah was toward God, and Godlike was the Torah.” This theory’s major strength is that it encourages a Jewish context for reading John. Furthermore, some parallels between “word” and “law” are possible. However, as there is very limited evidence for such a personified reading, this theory has received only limited acceptance.

[…]

No accepted consensus regarding the origin of the logos concept-word exists. This much appears probable: the writer of the Gospel of John knew Greek, and thus must have encountered, to some degree, at least a rudimentary Hellenistic philosophical understanding of the use of logos; however, being first a Jew not a Greek, the author was more concerned about Old Testament thought patterns and contemporary Jewish language customs. Thus, it seems likely that, in the proclamation of the Gospel over time, these strains bore christological fruit for the evangelist, culminating in the unique “Word” concept presented in John 1.

The Reception of the Logos Concept in Early Church History

The logos concept was a foundational idea for theological development from the start of the early church. Perhaps the earliest Christian document after the New Testament is 1 Clement (ca. AD 95–97), in which the author inserts logos in its special usage of God’s revelation (1 Clement 13.3). First Clement may also contain the first existing unique, technical usage of logos as Jesus outside of the New Testament (if 1 Clement 27.4 is read as an allusion to Colossians 1:16; if not, it is still a very close parallel to John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1). A similar allusion to the logos as God’s revelation/Bible (New Testament) occurs in the Letter of Barnabas 6:17 (ca. AD 100) and Polycarp 7.2 (ca. AD 120).

The first and clearest reference to logos as Christ comes in the letters of Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, who was martyred ca. AD 110 (To the Magnesians 8.2). By the middle of the second century, the logos concept began to appear in conventional (Letter to Diognetus 12.9), apologetic (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus) and theological (Irenaeus) uses. At the start of the third century, Origen’s focus on the logos as to the nature of Christ signaled the intense interest that Christian theology would put on the word into the future.

Logos in Culture

The logos concept continues to influence Western culture; it is foundational to Christian belief. The Greek idea of logos (with variant connotations) was also a major influence in Heraclitus (ca. 540–480 BC), Isocrates (436–338 BC), Aristotle (384–322 BC), and the Stoics, even becoming part of ancient popular culture (Philo). The concept has continued to influence Western culture since that time, partly due to the philosophical tradition of the logos that resumed post-Fourth Gospel with Neo-Platonism and with various strains of Gnosticism. Propelled through the centuries in its comparison/contrast to Christian theology, the logos continued into modern philosophical discussion with diverse thinkers including Hegel (1770–1831), Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), Carl Jung (1875–1961), and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004).

Without the theology of the Gospel of John, it seems unlikely that logos would have remained popular into late medieval or modern thought. Logos is one of the very few Greek words of the New Testament to be transliterated into English and put into everyday Christian usage.

This post is adapted from Douglas Estes’ “Logos” entry in the Lexham Bible Dictionary. Read the full version and bibliography in the Logos desktop app.

Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University-Columbia. He’s the author or editor of eight books, and is the editor of Didaktikos. He contributes to publications such as Christianity Today and Bible Study Magazine. Douglas is a fellow in the Center for Pastor Theologians.

 

Comments

  1. The understanding of the Greek “logos” as equivalent to the Hebrew “memra” is significant. Below is Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s exposition on the subject:

    “THE WORD – JOHN 1:1-18

    The first passage is John’s introduction to his biography of Jesus the Messiah. John’s theme is: Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God. The section begins with verse 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    The Greek term, logos, that John used is translated by the English term “word.” Because John used the term logos, many commentaries on the Gospel of John, at this point enter into a rather lengthy dissertation to try to explain what logos meant in Greek philosophy.

    In the end, they all say the same thing: that in Greek philosophy, the logos had two concepts; the concept of reason and the concept of speech. They then claim that what John was trying to do was to show how Jesus fulfilled the goals of Greek philosophy in both areas, reason and speech. By “reason,” He was the very idea of God; and by “speech,” He was the very expression of God. That is all well and good to know except for one major problem: John, by profession, was not a Greek philosopher, he was a Jewish fisherman. What he really had in mind was not Greek philosophy, but Jewish theology of first century Israel.

    The rabbis of that day had a concept, which was referred to as the memra. The memra is an Aramaic term that means “word.” When John wrote his Gospel in Greek, he needed a Greek term to translate the Jewish term memra, and the only Greek term he had was logos. But John did not mean the logos of Greek philosophy, rather, he meant the memra of Jewish theology. The writings of the rabbis of that day taught that there were six things, which were true about the memra.

    A. The Same but Distinct From God

    First, the memra was sometimes the same as God, but sometimes it was distinct from God. The rabbis never tried to explain away the obvious paradox: How was it possible for the memra on one hand to be the same as God, but on the other hand be distinct from God? They simply taught both statements as being true and left it there.

    This is the same thing that John said in verse 1. By stating that the Word was with God, it means Jesus was distinct from God. By saying the Word was God, it means Jesus was the same as God. Like the rabbis, at this point John did not try to explain away the obvious paradox: How is it possible for the Word to be the same as God, yet be distinct from God? This is explained only later in the Gospel in terms of the Triunity. The logos is distinct from God in that He is not God the Father, nor is He God the Holy Spirit. But He is the same as God in that He is the Second Person of that Triunity; He is God the Son and, therefore, the same as God. Only in terms of the Triunity can the rabbinic paradox of the memra in Jewish theology be explained.

    B. The Agent of Creation

    The second thing the rabbis taught about the memra was that the memra was also the agent of creation. Everything God created, He created by means of His memra, by means of His Word; so without the memra nothing would exist that now exists. In verse 3, John wrote: All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that has been made.

    What is true of the memra in Jewish theology is true of the logos of whom John wrote. Everything was made through him, and without him was not anything made that has been made, and so without Him nothing would exist that now exists: He is the agent of creation.

    C. The Agent of Salvation

    The third thing the rabbis taught about the memra was that the memra was the agent of salvation. Whenever God saved throughout the history of the Old Testament, whether it was a physical salvation such as the Exodus out of Egypt or a spiritual salvation, God always saved by means of His memra, by means of His Word. In John 1:12, John said: But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: …

    As with the memra of Jewish theology, so with the logos of John: He is the agent of salvation. For it is those who personally believe in His Messiahship and receive Him who become the children of God and receive spiritual salvation from Him, the agent of salvation.

    D. The Visible Manifestation of God’s Presence

    The fourth thing the rabbis taught about the memra was that the memra was the agent or the means by which God became visible throughout the pages of the Old Testament. In Christian theology, this phenomenon is called a “theophany.” A theophany is the visible manifestation of God that occurred throughout the history of the Old Testament.

    The rabbis had a different term, Shechinah or the Shechinah Glory; the Shechinah Glory is the visible manifestation of God’s presence. Whenever the invisible God took on a visible form, whenever the omnipresence of God became localized, this visible, localized presence was the Shechinah Glory. Throughout most of Old Testament history, the Shechinah Glory took on the form of a light or fire or cloud or some combination of these things. According to rabbis, this came by means of the memra.

    In verse 14, John wrote: And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us … The Word, that in verse 1 was in the beginning with God–always was with God, and always was God–at a certain point in human history, took on visible form. But this time He did not come in the form of a light, fire, or cloud; rather, He came in the form of flesh. He became human; He became man, and Yeshua, as a man, was the visible manifestation of God’s presence.

    John went on to say: He dwelt among us. The term that John used which is translated by the English term “dwell” is not the regular Greek term for “dwelling.” Rather, it is a Greek term that was actually borrowed from the Hebrew, skeinei. When the Greeks came in contact with the Jewish world, they came across the term Shechinah and liked what it conveyed. They wished to incorporate it into their language because, in Greek mythology, there were stories of the gods coming down from Mount Olympus, taking on some kind of visible form and, for awhile, intermingling with men. The problem was that the Greek language had no “sh” sound. Hebrew has a letter called shin, by which the “sh” sound is made. English requires the combination of two letters, “s” and “h,” to produce the “sh” sound. But in Greek one cannot combine any letters to get the “sh” sound. The Greeks could make a hard “s”; they could say, “sssss,” but they could not say, “shhhh.” They took the Hebrew word Shechinah, Hellenized it, and it became the Greek word skeinei; this is the term John used here. Literally, it does not mean, “to dwell,” but “to tabernacle.” It has its origins in the account of Exodus 40, where the Shechinah Glory, in the form of a visible cloud, took up its residence within the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle. In Hebrew, mishkan is the same Hebrew root as Shechinah.

    So for the next several centuries, the Shechinah Glory “tabernacled” with the people of Israel until it left in the days of Ezekiel 8-11. Now, the Shechinah Glory has reappeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Once again, for a period of time, He “tabernacled” among us. Like the rabbis, John also connected the Shechinah with the glory of God; for he goes on to say in verse 14: … (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.

    Yeshua was that new Shechinah Glory: He was the visible manifestation of God’s presence.

    The fact that Jesus was the Shechinah Glory light was developed briefly in John 1:4-10, when he wrote:

    In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lights every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not.
    With these words, John emphasized that Yeshua was that new Shechinah Glory light. He is the source of life and He is the source of light for all men because He is the creator of all men.

    E. The Agent of Revelation

    The fifth thing the rabbis taught about the memra was that the memra was the agent of revelation. Whenever God revealed Himself, He always did so by means of His memra, or by means of His Word. John 1:18 states: No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him [or has revealed Him].

    Throughout his Gospel, John’s main theme is: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

    But John also has several sub-themes that run throughout his Gospel, and one of these is that Yeshua came for the purpose of revealing the Father to men. That is why John, more than Matthew, Mark or Luke, gives what Yeshua taught and said. There are more of His teachings and sermons in John than in Matthew, Mark and Luke combined. In these sermons and discourses, He revealed the Father to men.

    It is no accident, then, that it was John who recorded the incident of one of Jesus’ disciples asking Him in John 14:8: show us the Father. In verse 9, He answered, If you have seen Me you have seen the Father. Everything that is true of the divine nature of the Father is also true of the divine nature of the Son. Because of His very nature, He revealed the Father. The same point is made in Hebrews 1:1-3, where the writer pointed out that whereas in previous history God had revealed Himself in various portions and in various ways, He has in these last days revealed Himself by means of his Son. The Son is the agent of revelation.

    F. The Seal of the Covenants

    The sixth and last thing the rabbis taught about the memra was that the memra was the means by which He signed and sealed His covenants. In the Old Testament God made eight covenants, three with the world in general and five with Israel in particular. His covenants, whether they were made with the world in general or with Israel in particular, were signed and sealed by means of His memra, by means of His Word.

    The sixth point does not come out as clearly as the first five points do, but it is hinted at it in verse 17: For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

    The Dispensation of Law was based upon the Mosaic Covenant, which was signed and sealed by the Shechinah Glory in Exodus 24. The Dispensation of Grace is on the basis of the New Covenant, which was signed and sealed by the shedding of the blood of the Son of God. In that sense, He is the agent, the means, by which a covenant is signed.

    John’s point was not that Jesus came for the purpose of fulfilling the goals of Greek philosophy, but that He came for the purpose of fulfilling the Jewish Messianic hope. The six things which were taught about the memra in rabbinic writings are true of this One about whom John is writing: Jesus of Nazareth: He is the memra, the logos, the Word.

    Summary: John’s introduction of verses 1-18 can be summarized in four points. First, the Word, the logos, the memra, finally came in visible form, in the form of flesh, in the form of a man. Secondly, unfortunately, the world in general did not know Him; it did not recognize the light that had arrived. Thirdly, even more tragically, His own people, the Jewish people, did not recognize Him either. However, fourthly, those individual Jews and Gentiles who did recognize Him are the ones who became the children of light; they are the ones who received spiritual salvation from Him, the agent of salvation.”

    [excerpted from manuscript entitled “The Birth and Early Life of Messiah” by Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum]

    • Ron Harris says:

      Very good reply Terry. I’m in agreement with you and Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum. The fact that Jesus and John, being Jews raised in the Northern territory of Galilee, spoke Aramaic and that being the case, Memra was their understanding though the Greek Logos was the word used to communicate the larger audience of the prevailing language of the time.

      If John’s use of Logos was not based on Philo’s philosophical concept, which is evident, then what was it based on? I think John was very clear; the Memra.

      Good article follow-up by Dr. Michael Heiser http://drmsh.com/the-naked-bible/two-powers-in-heaven/

  2. The article peeks under several rocks which is always a good thing and the scriptural usage of this word deserves much scrutiny so it is heartening that you posted the article.

    One think that the author said seems to be misleading and that is this:

    The Greek word logos simply means “word.”

    In reality, that isn’t what the word “means” but is rather just a single gloss. Words don’t have meanings, only authors have meaning and they are free to use a word in any way they want as long as they know their audience will, or should understand them. For example, these are the glosses of the word “word” in an English dictionary:

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/word

    The article clarifies itself somewhat but without a context a word does not really communicate anything.

    BDAG mentions the gloss “word” but it appears to me he does so specifically as a synonym for “utterance”:

    …① a communication whereby the mind finds expression, word…

    Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 599). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    For those who know Latin, it is “sermo” not “verbum”.

    This was discussed at some length on the B-Greek site (“Biblical Greek”):

    http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/forum/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=4625

    This discussion includes a link to my answer on another discussion on Stack Exchange:

    https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/34569/in-john-114-how-can-the-word-be-a-person/34570#34570

    And it also provides a link to an article on Jstor which is extremely relevant and informative:

    http://www.rrb3.com/PDF%20files/ArtcileOnVerbumVsSermo_Complete.pdf