The Unique Johannine
Concept of the Logos

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 1998

The Johannine Logos bears an interesting relation to earlier Hellenistic and Jewish thought. The Evangelist appears to use familiar concepts as points of contact to capture the attention of the people of his day. The most effective being the Logos. Heraclitus (6th century B. C.), was the first philosopher to express belief in a logos. In his writings (which are only fragmentary), it was a principle of reason at work in the cosmic order of the universe.1 For him, this logos seems to have been connected with the image of fire.2 Heraclitus was to prepare the way for logos philosophy in the minds of later Greek thinkers.

The philosophers Plato (429-347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384-322) used the word logos in a most complex manner throughout their writings. At its most philosophical, the word denoted discourse, or rational explanation. 3 Plato identified thinking (dianoia) and discourse (logos) with what was formed in the mind and expressed rationally through the lips.4 According to Plato, the visible universe itself is a perfect reflection of invisible ideas.5 Aristotle, also used the word logos to refer to speech and thought, but also described it as 'definition', 'proportion', or 'ratio'.6 Plato and Aristotle certainly had a great influence on later ideas about the logos, although their particular type of philosophy was distinct from the latter schools.7

Plato's and Aristotle's concept of thought and outward expression played an influential role in the shaping of Stoic belief. The Stoics believed that the logos was the divine immanent reason behind the creation and regulation of the universe.8 Along with Heraclitus, the Stoics also related the logos with the image of a cosmic fire.9 Lightfoot observes that in Stoicism, individuals were able to raise themselves to the contemplation of this divine reason through acts of rectitude and morality; which for some, could even result in a form of personal union.10 Because the logos of Stoicism expressed itself in material objects, pantheism inevitably became an inseparable part of its fundamental principles.11 Harris notes that for this reason, it is not possible that John was directly influenced by Stoic philosophy because for him the logos was distinct from the material world and incomparable with that which was created.12

In the Jewish world, the greatest of Alexandrian philosophers was undoubtedly Philo Judaeus (25 B.C-50 A.D.). His works reflect the influence that Hellenistic thought and culture had on the Jews of the dispersion.13 Being a theist, Philo believed in a creator God who unlike the god of Stoicism was transcendent above his creation.14 However, there can be no doubt that although he firmly rejected Pantheism, Philo was greatly influenced by Stoicism and Platonism in his doctrine of the logos.15

Philo was similar to Plato in his thinking by making a distinction between the material world and the ideal world of eternal forms. But he took the important steps of interpreting Plato's eternal forms as being the very thoughts of God Himself, whereas Plato had left any hope of relationship between God and the ideal world somewhat uncertain.16

Dodd notes that as well as Philo's logos doctrine, there are also many other similarities with Johns gospel throughout.17 For example, both use the word 'light' as a symbol of deity (John 1:9, 8:12. c.f. De Somn 1:75). Also symbolized is the idea that God is the fountain from which all life streams (John 5:24-26 c.f. De Somn I1:245).18 Although the similarities between John and Philo are undoubtedly remarkable, there is no evidence that John was directly influenced by his writings.19 But it is certainly plausible that John's use of a familiar Greek philosophy was in mind. The evangelist assumes that when he used the word 'Logos',20 his readers would understand its meaning in different ways. This is clearly seen in view of the fact that the prologue does not explain the meaning of the word.21

Philo also differed from John in his use of logos in a number of ways. Philo believed that God's involvement with the world came through the means of a number of intermediary beings of which the greatest was the logos.22 Nash points out the lack of consistency in the way Philo uses the logos. Sometimes he applies it exclusively, but at other times he uses it to refer to any of several mediators, as well as describing a principle subordinate to God.23 Harris notes how Philo's logos tends to lack "the full personality and explicit pre-existence" that is evident in John (1:1, 14, 8:58).24 Probably the most obvious difference was that Philo reasoned that the logos could be called a second god, something that was far removed from John's Jewish/Christian monotheistic background.25

Before Philo, the Old Testament already had a theology of the word (dabar) of God. This word of Yahweh was of the supreme importance to the Jewish people because it represented a force or divine power that went fourth to accomplish His will (Ps. 33:9, Isa. 55:11).26 This word was active in the creation and ordering of the universe (Ps. 33:6 c.f. Gen. 1:3). This same word was also seen as having a significant function in the work of the prophets as they proclaimed God's revelation and warned of coming judgment ( Jer. 2:1).27 Dodd observes that in Hebrew thinking, there was a tendency to ascribe an existence to the word of God that would lead an individual to view it as having a substantive existence and activity of its very own.28 This expression of Yahweh's word is in accordance with the emphasis that the Jews would place on will and action as being an essential manifestation of life.29

Within the wisdom tradition, of inter-testamental literature, there are closer similarities between the characteristics of 'wisdom' (sophia) and the Johannine Logos than what is found in the dabar of the Old Testament (although the concept of wisdom as a personification does first appear in Proverbs 1:20-33, 8:22-36). It is also evident that there is a greater degree of hypostatization than what is generally found in the Old Testament scriptures.30 For example, the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus speaks of a pre-existent wisdom whom the author associates with the Torah;31 while the Wisdom of Solomon speaks of it in terms of being God's companion and present at creation;32 as well as having the following attributes: intelligence, holiness, love, goodness, and care.33

In his studies of the Logos, Bultmann came to the conclusion that John was more influenced by early oriental Gnostic thinking than by Hellenistic and Jewish traditions; believing that the closest parallels are in the Mandaean writings. 34 His analysis comes from the thought that the source of the Prologue was derived from a cultic hymn to John the Baptist, which was eventually given Christian meaning and interpreted as being a hymn to Jesus.35 Also important for Bultmann, is the idea of the Gnostic Redeemer myth whereby the Logos lowers himself to the material world in the disguise of a human being, successfully passing evil spiritual forces, and comes to redeem the human race.36

Murray has observed that the basic elements behind this system are cosmic dualism, which according to Bultmann's hypothesis is utilized into John's Gospel throughout.37 However, many scholars feel that Bultmann looks for connections between Gnosticism and the Fourth Gospel too readily; and at the same time fails to recognize the differences that are evident between the two.38 Regarding this, Schnackenburg explains how Gnostic Mandaean literature has a much more divergent structure; and that the full reality of a salvation history brought by the Logos is completely absent.39

Despite all of these possibilities as to a background, or influence in Johannine thought, it is evident that John's concept of the Logos was unique. He moves beyond Hellenistic and Jewish speculations by identifying the Logos with Jesus of Nazareth.40 However, the Prologue of the Gospel is not so concerned with the earthly origins of Jesus, but with His heavenly pre-existence as the transcendent Logos, which is seen in view of the fact that the title does not occur as Christolgical designation in the rest of the Gospel.41

In John 1:1, the Logos is not merely seen as a thought, or wisdom, or a Gnostic demi-urge, but as God Himself (c.f. v. 18, 20:28). Barrett observes how the whole of John's Gospel is to be read in the light of this opening verse to introduce the reader to the reality of the words and deeds of Jesus as being the words and deeds of God Himself.42 Barrett also recognizes that if Jesus is not God, the entire Fourth Gospel would have to be dismissed as blasphemous.43

Because of the absence of the definite article in the Greek text of John 1:1, some have argued that the text should be translated 'a god', and not 'the' God (most notably the Jehovah's Witnesses). With regards to this, Michaels correctly notes that there are good reasons why Word has the definite article and God does not: "To indicate that the Word is the subject of the clause, even though in Greek it follows the verb to be (i.e., "...the Word was God" and not 'God was the Word')"44 It should also be observed that the evangelist intended to distinguish the Word from the Father, although both are God and share the same nature and attributes.45 Even liberal scholars, like Bultmann, strongly reject any polytheistic translation of John 1:1 and recognizes that the status of the Logos is one of equality with God.46

Verse 2 of the prologue emphasizes the eternal nature of the Logos, and with the appearance of the Greek word 'egeneto' in v. 3, prominence is then given to the role that the Logos has in creation (c.f. Col. 1:15-20). It is evident that all of creation bears the impression of God's Word, and is clearly discerned by humanity (Rom. 1:19, 20). Moreover, this role of creation means that Jesus has the right of ownership to it, but as v.v. 10, 11 state, this ownership is rejected.47 The full revelation of God's grace is seen in the climax of the prologue where the Logos takes on flesh and pitches his tent amongst humanity (v. 14).48 The incarnation of the Logos drew a tangible distinction between all previous Logos philosophy, declaring that the Son of God was made flesh. In the light of this verse, the Johannine concept of the Logos stands unique in the historical person of Jesus, providing the ultimate possibility for the salvation of humanity.49

There can be no doubt that the Logos was a familiar concept meaning different things for different people; having a rich philosophical background in Hellenistic and Jewish thinking. Knowing this, the Evangelist startles those familiar with the word when he proclaims how this Logos took on flesh and became incarnate in the historical person of Jesus Christ, to bring redemption to the world.


1  J. Hastings, Ditionary of Christ and the Gospels vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909), 50.

2  D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 438.

3  Ibid., 438.

4  Ibid.

5  R.H. Lightfoot, St. John's Gospel (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 53.

6  Freedman, 438.

7  Hastings, 50.

8  C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John 2nd. ed. (London: S.P.C.K. , 1978) 35.

9  R.H. Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 69.

10  Lightfoot, 53.

11  Barrett, 35.

12  E. Harris, Prologue and Gospel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) ,197.

13  Nash, 83, 84.

14  C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 66.

15  Ibid.

16  Nash, 83, 84.

17  Dodd, 55.

18  Ibid., 56.

19  B. Murray, John (Waco: WBC, 1987), 1iv, 1v.

20  Capitalization indicates John's concept of the Logos.

21  Lightfoot, 51, 52.

22  Nash, 83.

23  Ibid., 84.

24  Harris, 199.

25  Ibid.

26  Lightfoot, 52.

27  Harris, 197.

28  Dodd, 264.

29  Lightfoot, 53.

30  Harris, 198.

31  Nash, 86.

32  D.Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 6.

33  Ibid., 43.

34  R.Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971), 8.

35  Freedman, 353.

36  Murray, 1v.

37  Ibid.

38  Harris, 200.

39  R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, vol.1 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), 248.

40  Freedman, 353.

41  R.E. Brown, Gospel of John vol.1, (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 18, 19.

42  Barrett, 156.

43  Ibid.

44  J. R. Michaels, John (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1985), 25.

45  Ibid., 25.

46  Bultmann, 33.

47  Brown, 25.

48  Schnackenburg, 266.

49  Ibid., 268.


Barrett, C.K. The Gospel According to John, 2nd. ed. London: S.P.C.K., 1978.

Brown, R.E. Gospel of John, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Bultmann, R.F. The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971.

Dodd, C.H. The Interpretation of the Forth Gospel. London: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Freedman, D.F. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Harris, E. Prologue and Gospel. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

Hastings, J.H. Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909.

Lightfoot, J.H. St.John's Gospel. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Michaels, J.R. John. Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1995.

Murray, B. John. Waco: WBC, 1987.

Nash, R.H. Christianity and the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.

Schnackenburg, R. The Gospel According to St. John, Vol. 4. New York: Herder & Herder, 1968.

Winston, D. The Wisdom of Solomon. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

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