Why did John call Jesus “the Logos”? This question has puzzled biblical scholars for millennia; it is not a debate that is easily settled.
One of the most compelling views is that John borrowed this idea from Greek thought. But theologians across history—from Irenaeus to J. C. Ryle—have resisted this view. Some have felt that it was beneath the apostle to lean so heavily on Greek ideology.
However, there may be biblical precedent for this sort of thing. In Acts 17:28, the apostle Paul quotes a Greek poet, likely Aratus, to make a theological point. Could it be that this was what the apostle John was also doing?
John’s fascination with the concept of Logos is undeniable. He mentions it at the beginning of his first epistle, too—and even in Revelation. What, then, is the Logos?
Logos in Greek means, most literally, “word.” But as with countless words in all languages, logos picked up other senses. Logos could also be used in a more metaphorical way. The famous mathematician Pythagoras named logos as the law that made math work. Philosophers Heraclitus and Aristotle, along with Hellenist and Stoic groups, generally viewed the logos as the divine principle that created and sustained the world.
The high view that the Greeks had of the Logos is seen in our English words ecology, psychology, theology and so on, all of which have remnants of logos in their suffixes. In Greek thought, the Logos was the Reason behind all reason.
Perhaps the most striking view of the Logos was Philo’s—because of how similar it was to what John the apostle said (even though they were probably unaware of each
other’s work). This Hellenistic Jewish philosopher regarded the Logos as the begotten
son of God who governed creation and mediated between creature and creator.1 John the apostle had an obviously similar idea, but he fleshed it out in accordance with specifically Christian truth.
Again, there is precedent for this. Paul in Acts 17 identifies “the unknown God” to whom the Athenians built an altar as Yahweh. Both apostles felt free to tap into Greek ideas and gestures and use them to convey the truth of God and Jesus Christ.
If indeed John was borrowing the concept of the Logos from Greek thought—but then taking that concept captive for Christ—then the opening words of his Gospel are ingenious. Any Greek reader would recognize the use of Logos (“In the
beginning was the Logos”) as their concept of a transcendent entity and would understand that John was proclaiming Jesus to be the embodiment of Logos.
Similarly, any Jewish reader would recognize John’s opening words in John 1:1 as a reference back to Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning”) and would understand that John was proclaiming Jesus to be God and creator.
In a few brief opening words, therefore, John captures the attention and instructs the minds of both Jews and Greeks. Internal evidence abounds showing that John had both audiences in mind for his gospel. It could very well be that John tapped into Greek ideology and redeemed it to point Greeks to the Savior.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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