“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.
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:
- Logos in its standard meaning designates a word, speech, or the act of speaking (Acts 7:22).
- Logos in its special meaning refers to the special revelation of God to people (Mark 7:13).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Philo never appears to personify logos in the same way John does (perhaps due to his strict monotheism).
- Philo’s philosophical system is complex and frequently at odds with the Bible’s worldview.
- Philo was not influential in his lifetime.
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.
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.
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.
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.