Are the Semitic religious concept of the Word (מֵימְרָא/דָּבַר) and the Greek philosophical concept of the Logos (λόγος) – all three literally translatable as “Word” – interchangeable? We seem to get the impression from John chapter 1 that they are… but is the Greek “Logos” what was meant in that Gospel’s use of the word λόγος? It has been argued more often in the affirmative, but also in the negative.
In Hebraic thought, Thorleif Boman notes:
‘True being’ for the Hebrews is the ‘word,’ דָּבַר, which comprises all Hebraic entities: word, deed, and concrete object…. Since the Word is connected with its accomplishment, דָּבַר could be translated ‘Effective Word’ (Tatwort in German); our term ‘Word’ is thus a poor translation for the Hebrew דָּבַר, because for us ‘word’ (wort) never includes the deed within it.
He lauds Goethe for being “on solid linguistic ground” with his translation of John 1:1 in Faust for rendering the word λόγος (assuming he worked from the Greek text) as “Tat,” thus:
Im Anfang war die Tat.
(tr. “In the beginning was the Deed”).
It is worth noting that the Aramaic of John uses a different word – ܡܶܠܬ݂ܳܐ (Miltha), which means “Word, Manifestation, Instance, or Substance.” The range of meaning is virtually identical between the two.
The Targumim offer an insight into the meaning of מֵימְרָא. The word has a special usage as a substitute for the ineffable Covenant Name of G-d. Genesis 3:8, in Hebrew, reads, in part:
…. וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֞וּ אֶת־קֹ֨ול יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהִ֛ים
And they heard the voice of HaShem G-d….
There is an Aramaic rendering, in Targum Onqelos, Targum Yonatan, and Targum Neofiti, which reads a bit differently:
…. וֻשמַעוּ יָת קָל מֵימְרָא
And they heard voice of the Memra….
We see here that מֵימְרָא is used as a representation for Hashem in Aramaic, just as λόγος does in the Greek of John 1:1ff.
But… does this align with the concept of λόγος in Greek philosophy? An examination of that concept will aid in making that determination.
In Greek, nouns derive from verbal roots, and the root of λόγος (word) is the verb λέγω (I speak). Passow notes that the basic meaning of λεγ- is “to put together in order, arrange,” thus “the word not according to its external form, but with respect to the ideas attaching to the form.” This Greek concept seems to lack the Semitic concept found in the idea of מֵימְרָא/דָּבַר of an adjoined concrete deed.
The classical definition of the term λόγος, dating back to Heraclitis (6th century BCE) is “the rationality in the human mind which seeks to attain universal understanding and harmony.” This is certainly not what John 1:1 is referencing.
Boman and Bultmann, independently of one another, both assert that the Hebraic conception of “the Word” is the opposite of the Greek conception, and the present author stands in agreement with them. The religious מֵימְרָא/דָּבַר and secular λόγος most certainly constitute a clash between the set apart and the ordinary, the holy and the worldly – opposites indeed.
- E.g., Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1985), 302-310.
- Thorleif Boman, Das hebräische Denken im Vergleich mit dem griechischen (2nd ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1960; orig. 1954), 56, 66.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808), Part I, Scene 1.
- Andrew Gabriel Roth, Aramaic English New Testament (Jerusalem: Netzari Press, 2012), 232fn2.
- s.v. λόγος, in Franz Passow, Handwörterbuch der griechischen Sprache (Leipzig: F. C. W. Vogel, 1931), vol. II: 57-59; cp. s.v. λόγος, Émile Boisacq, Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Grecque (4th ed.; Heidelberg: B & W. O. Bloch & W. von Wartburg, 1950; orig. Paris: Klincksieck, 1938).
- “Logos,” PBS Faith & Reason (online: http://pbs.org)
- Boman, op. cit., 58f.; Rudolph Bultmann, “Der Begriff des Wortes Gottes im Neuen Testament,” in Ernst Lohmeyer, ed. Deutsche Theologie III (Göttingen, 1931), 14-23.