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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This sentence, the first verse in the Gospel of St. John, should be familiar, and the same can be said for this excerpt from that Gospel’s 14th verse, alluding to the birth and life of Christ: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Less well known, however, is the fact that these verses in The King James Bible constitute a mistranslation of the original. The ultimate source of this error was St. Jerome — who chose the Latin word Verbum as a translation for the Greek word Lógos, substituting a term with an exceedingly narrow and precise meaning for a term much broader in its implications.
In Greek, lógos means, first and foremost, rational speech. Herodotus employs it to refer to the various “accounts” he wrote up concerning the Medes, the Egyptians, the Scythians, and the like. Others, such as Plato’s Socrates, use it to describe an “argument” being advanced. In his Politics, when he asserts that man is by nature a political animal, Aristotle points to the human capacity for lógos. Other animals possess phonḗ — a capacity to express pain or pleasure by way of making “noise.” But humans alone can make arguments to one another in public deliberation concerning the advantageous, the just, and the good. It is this, the peripatetic explained, that distinguishes them from the other animals — and in making this claim, as I argue in the video immediately below, he articulated the fundamental principle underpinning Greek civilization: the presumption that human beings have a capacity for self-government rooted in their capacity for rational collective deliberation.
Thus, when St. John equated God with Lógos, he was making an extraordinary claim. Greek civilization was built, initially, on the presumption that human beings could cope with political reality via the collective exercise of their capacity for lógos. The practices associated with this supposition gave rise to philosophy when the pre-Socratic philosophers transferred this presumption from the sphere of human action to the study of the natural world.
In the process, these embraced, so Aristotle tells us, a species of monotheism. Nowhere is the character of this monotheism made as clear as it is in the writing of the pre-Socratic Xenophanes of Colophon:
- One god there is, greatest among gods and men, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind.
- The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears.
- He stays motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that.
- But effortlessly he wields everything with the thought of his mind.
- But mortal men imagine that the gods are begotten, and that they have human dress and speech and shape.
- If oxen or horses had hands to draw with and to make works of art as men do, then horse would draw the forms of gods like horses, oxen like oxen, and they would make their gods’ bodies similar to the bodily shape that they themselves each had.
- The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black-skinned, the Thracians that they are blue-eyed and red-headed.
- Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything which brings shame and reproach among men: theft, adultery, and fraud.
Such is the god of the philosophers. He is lógos embodied — and he is in his universality like and in other ways quite unlike the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
As I argue in the video below, when St. John in the first chapter of his Gospel identified God with Lógos and described Jesus Christ as “the Lógos made Flesh,” he effected a great revolution in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to be identified with the god of the philosophers and reason and revelation became allies. It was this revolution that laid a foundation for the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem that produced the Christian Rome, and it was this revolution which rendered theology (lógos applied to théos) not only possible but necessary.
At Christmastide, when we celebrate the anniversary of the day when “the Lógos was made flesh and came to dwell among us,” we might want to contemplate the significance of this event.