Concerning The Logos

Date of last revision: 29 Dec 96

The Greek word -- transliterated logos -- which was used by John in the prologue to his gospel, is often translated as word. Taken literally, that meaning is problematic, for how could a mere word exist from the beginning of time? How could a word be God? And how could such a word become human, in particular, the man, Jesus Christ? To properly understand John's prologue and, in fact, to fully understand his gospel and the whole New Testament, one must know something of the interpretation a literate, first century citizen of the Roman Empire -- one thoroughly steeped in Greek philosophy and culture -- would attach to the term.

Literally, logos, did mean word. It could also mean utterance, speech, logic, or reason, to name but a few. Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived in the sixth century, BC, was the first philosopher we know of to give logos a philosophical or theological interpretation. Heraclitus might in fact be called the first western philosopher, for his writings were perhaps the first to set forth a coherent system of thought akin to what we now term philosophy. Although his writings are preserved only in fragments quoted in the writings of others, we know that he described an elaborate system touching on the ubiquity of change, the dynamic interplay of opposites, and a profound unity of things. The Logos seemed to figure heavily in his thought and he described it as a universal, underlying principle, through which all things come to pass and in which all things share.

This notion of The Logos was further developed by Stoic philosophers over the next few centuries. The Stoics spoke of The Logos as the Seminal Reason, through which all things came to be, by which all things were ordered, and to which all things returned.

Perhaps the most extensive accounting of The Logos was by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew who lived around the time of Christ. Philo wrote allegories of Old Testament books authored by Moses, interpreting them in the light of Greek philosophy. He used the term, logos,refer more than 1300 times in his writings, in many varied ways. Of particular note are his references to The Logos as the Divine Reason, by participation in which humans are rational; the model of the universe; the superintendent or governor of the universe; and the first-born son of God. Although there is no direct evidence that John ever even read Philo, it seems clear that the concepts he articulated were firmly in the mind of the evangelist when he wrote his gospel.

The understanding of The Logos by an intended reader of the prologue to the fourth gospel may be summarized as follows.

The Logos is

If it is true that there is a single, unifying principle eternally at work in the universe, through which all things come into being and by which all things are ordered, one would expect that it would be attested to by other sources. That is in fact the case. For example, in The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote of such a principle he called the tao, or 'the way of life'. In the Upanishads, ancient Hindu philosophers wrote of the ultimate reality and called it Brahman, which is manifested in the individual as Atman, much as The Logos manifests itself in the individual human's intellect or reason. Today, modern physicists acknowledge a single, fundamental principle of the universe and seek to articulate it in the form of a complete, unified theory of physics.

I believe that these sources reflect a valid yet severely limited comprehension of The Logos. A more complete understanding comes from recognizing, as John states in his gospel, that The Logos became flesh at a particular time in history: about 4 BC; in a particular place: Palestine; as a particular man: Jesus Christ; and for a particular purpose: to reconcile humankind with God through his human life, death, and resurrection.


(see also Logos Sources, below)

Anonymous (1967). "lego, logos, rhema, laleo" in G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. IV (translated and edited by G.W. Bromiley), pp. 69-136. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Davies, P.C.W. (1992). The Mind of God. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dodd, C.H. (1953). The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, C.F. (1959). "LOGOS" in Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 14, pp. 334-336.

Hawking, S.W. (1988). A Brief History of Time. Toronto: Bantam.

Lao Tzu (1944). The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (translated by Witter Bynner). New York: Capricorn Books.

Radhakrishnan, S. & Moore, C.A., eds. (1957). A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Logos Sources


Wheelwright, P. (1959). Heraclitus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [B223.W5]

Heraclitus was a native of Ephesus who lived in the sixth century, BC. He was among the first western thinkers to set forth what could be called a systematic philosophy. His writings exist now only in the form of fragments, preserved by later writers, such as Sextus Empiricus.

Heraclitus, fr. 1 (p. 19)

Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it -- not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos , men seem to be quite without any experience of it -- at least if they are judged in the light of such words and deeds as I am here setting forth. ...

Heraclitus, fr. 2 (p. 19)

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each had a private intelligence of his own.

Heraclitus, fr. 64 (p. 68)

Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it.

Heraclitus, fr. 118 (p. 102)

Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.

Sextus Empiricus (1935). Sextus Empiricus, Vol. II (translated by R.G. Bury), Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [PA4410.S5]

Sextus Empiricus was one of the philosophers who preserved the fragments of Heraclitus, in the form of quotations used in his own works.

Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians I, 131 (pp. 70-71)

... Heracleitus, then, asserts that this common and divine reason [logos], by participation in which we become rational, is the criterion of truth. ...

The Stoics

Diogenes Laertius (1931). Lives of Eminent Philosophers (translated by R.D. Hicks), Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinmann Ltd. [PA3612.D5]

Diogenes Laertius summarized the thoughts of early philosophers. He wrote probably in the third, perhaps as late as the fourth, century BC. Though probably not a Stoic himself, the following excerpts summarize some Stoic beliefs.

Diogenes Laertius, VII, 134 (pp. 238-239)

They [the Stoics] hold that there are two principles in the universe, the active principle and the passive. The passive principle, then, is a substance without quality, i.e., matter, whereas the active is the reason [logos] inherent in this substance, that is God. For he is everlasting and the artificer of each several things throughout the whole extent of matter. ...

Diogenes Laertius, VII, 136 (pp. 240-241)

In the beginning [God] was by himself; he transformed the whole of substance through air into water, and just as in animal generation the seed has a moist vehicle, so in cosmic moisture, God, who is the seminal reason [logos] of the universe remains behind in the moisture ...

Diogenes Laertius, VII, 149 (pp. 252-253)

... all things happen by fate ... Fate is defined as an endless chain of causation whereby things are, or as the reason [logos] or formula by which the world goes on. ...

Plutarch (1936). Moralia (translated by F.C. Babbitt), Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [PA4368.A2]

Plutarch was a philosopher of the first and second centuries AD. He was an independent thinker, but was known best for his biographies of other philosophers.

Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 377-378 (pp. 156-157)

... just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality [logos] which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honors and appellations. ...

Marcus Aurelius (1916). The Communings With Himself of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome (translated by C.R. Haines), Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [PA3939.A2]

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher of the third century, AD. His philosophy, while not entirely systematic, was a practical rule of life rather than an esoteric doctrine. Though he lived and wrote long after the time the fourth gospel was written, it is believed his thoughts on The Logos were pretty representative of Stoic thought around that time.

Marcus Aurelius, IV, 4 (pp. 70-71)

If the intellectual capacity is common to us all, common too is the reason [logos], which makes us rational creatures. If so, that reason [logos] also is common which tells us to do or not to do. ...

Marcus Aurelius, IV, 29 (pp. 82-85)

... He is an exile who exiles himself from civic reason [logos], ... he who renounces, and severs himself from, the reason [logos] of our common Nature, because he is ill-pleased at what happens -- for the same Nature brings this into being, that also brought thee; a limb cut off from the community, he who cuts off his own soul from the soul of all rational [logical] things, which is but one.

Marcus Aurelius, V, 27 (pp. 122-123)

Walk with the Gods! And he does walk with the Gods, who lets them see his soul invariably satisfied with its lot and carrying out the will of that 'genius,' a particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man as his captain and guide -- and this is none other than each man's intelligence and reason [logos].

Marcus Aurelius, V, 21 (pp. 124-125)

... What soul, then, has skill and knowledge? Even that which knoweth beginning and end, and the reason [logos] that informs all Substance, and governs the Whole from ordered cycle to cycle through all eternity.

Marcus Aurelius, VI, 1 (pp. 130-131)

The Universal Substance is docile and ductile; and the Reason [Logos] that controls it has no motive in itself to do wrong. For it hath no wrongness and doeth no wrong, nor is anything harmed by it. But all things come into being and fulfill their purpose as it directs.

Marcus Aurelius, VII, 53 (pp. 184-187)

A work that can be accomplished in obedience to that reason [logos] which we share with the Gods is attended with no fear. For no harm need be anticipated, where by an activity that follows the right road and satisfies the demands of our constitution, we can ensure our own weal.

The Hellenistic Jews

Philo of Alexandria (1993). The Works of Philo, translated by C.D. Yonge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Philo was a Jew of Alexandria who lived around the time of Christ. He wrote elaborate allegories of the books of the Bible attributed to Moses, interpreting Mosaic writings in terms of Greek philosophy. As such, his writings constitute a summary of Greek thought prevalent up to his time.

Philo, On the Creation V (20) (p. 4)

As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner neither can the world which existed in ideas have had any other local position except the divine reason [logos] which made them ...

Philo, On the Creation X (36) (p. 6)

The incorporeal world then was already completed, having its seat in the Divine Reason [Logos]; and the world, perceptible by the external senses, was made on the model of it; ...

Philo, On the Creation XLVIII (139) (p. 20)

... For God does not seem to have availed himself of any other animal existing in creation as his model in the formation of man; but to have been guided, as I have said before, by his own reason [logos] alone. ...

Philo, On the Creation LI (146) (p. 21)

... Every man in regard of his intellect is connected with divine reason [logos], being an impression of, or a fragment or ray of that blessed nature ...

Philo, Allegorical Interpretation III XXXI (96) (p. 61)

... But the shadow of God is his word [logos], which he used like an instrument when he was making the world. And this shadow, and, as it were, model, is the archetype of other things. ...

Philo, On the Cherubim -- Part 1 XI (35) (p. 84)

... it is not the pursuits which you follow that are the causes of your participation in good or in evil, but rather the divine reason [logos], which is the helmsman and governor of the universe ...

Philo, On Husbandry XII (45) (p. 178)

... For God, like a shepherd and king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the fire, and the air and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason [logos], his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king; ...

Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things XXVI (130) (p. 287)

... it was the untaught God who divides them, and that he divided all the natures of bodies and things one after another, which appeared to be closely fitted together and united by his word [logos], which cuts through everything; which being sharpened to the finest possible edge, never ceases dividing all the objects of the outward senses, ...

Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things XXVII (140) (p. 287)

... God, having sharpened his own word [logos], the divider of all things, divides the essence of the universe which is destitute of form, and is destitute of all distinctive qualities, and the four elements of the world which were separated from this essence, and the plants and the animals which were consolidated by means of these elements.

Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things XXXVIII (188) (p. 292)

... if there is anywhere anything consolidated, that has been bound by the word [logos] of God, for this word is glue and a chain, filling all things with its essence. And the word, which connects together and fastens every thing, is peculiarly full of itself, having no need whatever of any thing beyond.

Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things XLVIII (234) (p. 296)

... the two natures are indivisible; the nature, I mean, of the reasoning power in us, and of the divine Word [logos] above us; but though they are indivisible themselves, they divide an innumerable multitude of other things.

Compiled by Ken Funk.

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