Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Was It “the Word” That Was Made Flesh — Or Something Else?

 

“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.

There are 12 comments.

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  1. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I read somewhere before that “beautiful order” is a fair translation. God is love (as Trinity, a relationship in Himself), and love is both reason and beauty. Order makes a garden of wilderness, makes music of noise… but only as an expression of love.

    Plato was a dreamer. Socrates was a friend of his pupils. Socrates was a theorist of art and virtue. Like the ancient greeks, Christians see more in logic than math, more in faith than hope.

    Merry Christmas!

    • #1
    • December 24, 2017, at 5:25 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    English translations have also suffered at times from our language’s careless reiteration of “love” in diverse circumstances. The greeks had agape, eros, and philia to distinguish aspects of the concept. We just repeat love over and over again — though this practice might occasionally aid us by assuring a connection between variations of the concept.

    One wonders if there are other ways in which an English translation shines. Every language reflects its people’s particular needs and qualities. What in English is helpful to illuminate the Logos toward which we strive?

    • #2
    • December 24, 2017, at 6:02 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    Paul A. Rahe: reason and revelation became allies

    These words are the best description I’ve ever read of my own conversion experience.

    • #3
    • December 24, 2017, at 8:11 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Clavius Thatcher

    The King Prawn (View Comment):

    Paul A. Rahe: reason and revelation became allies

    These words are the best description I’ve ever read of my own conversion experience.

    Mine as well. I am also reminded of St. Anselm’s motto “faith seeking understanding.” With this revised translation and explanation, how through deepens faith is well explained.

    • #4
    • December 25, 2017, at 11:10 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. The Reticulator Member

    Paul A. Rahe: 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.

    Is there any single word in Latin that would have been a better choice available to St. Jerome?

    • #5
    • December 25, 2017, at 2:30 PM PST
    • Like
  6. Peter Robinson Founder

    Magnificent: erudition, the patience of a true teacher, and faith.

    Only Dr. Rahe.

    Merry Christmas, Paul!

    • #6
    • December 25, 2017, at 5:42 PM PST
    • 1 like
  7. Manny Member

    While “rational speech” slightly expands the definition of “the Word” I don’t think you have altered very much. I hardly think it’s an “error” to say “the Word” instead of “rational speech.” The nuance is nearly indistinguishable. But you have certainly given me something to think about. Merry Christmas!

    • #7
    • December 25, 2017, at 5:55 PM PST
    • Like
  8. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Paul A. Rahe: 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.

    Is there any single word in Latin that would have been a better choice available to St. Jerome?

    Cicero translates logos as ratio et oratio (reason and speech). Verbum just means word (or speech). Poetically, verbum is better. But something vital is lost.

    • #8
    • December 25, 2017, at 6:30 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. The Reticulator Member

    Paul A. Rahe (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Paul A. Rahe: 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.

    Is there any single word in Latin that would have been a better choice available to St. Jerome?

    Cicero translates logos as ratio et oratio (reason and speech). Verbum just means word (or speech). Poetically, verbum is better. But something vital is lost.

    Maybe it’s hard to tell at this distance, but would it have worked for Jerome to just adopt the Greek word?

    I checked a couple of Russian versions of John 1:1, and they use “word” (слово).  A literal translation into English comes out much like our most common English versions. A couple of French bibles I looked at use “parole”, and Luther used “wort”. No surprises there. I see that modern Greek uses logos, though!

    • #9
    • December 25, 2017, at 10:30 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. Ralphie Member

    This section of the Bible reminds me that Jesus, the word, was in the beginning, when God spoke, “Let there be”, there was.

    • #10
    • December 26, 2017, at 9:24 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Manny Member

    Manny (View Comment):
    While “rational speech” slightly expands the definition of “the Word” I don’t think you have altered very much. I hardly think it’s an “error” to say “the Word” instead of “rational speech.” The nuance is nearly indistinguishable. But you have certainly given me something to think about. Merry Christmas!

    After thinking about this for a while, I think “the Word” is a much more accurate translation for what St. John was after. The specificity of “rational speech” is a limitation to the expansiveness of God’s Word. In addition, the Word resonates with many other places in the Old and New Testaments that “rational speech” does not. It may not be the most precise translation of the Greek, but Word (with a capital “W”) embraces much more of the nuances, and therefore more accurate.

    • #11
    • January 3, 2018, at 9:17 AM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Manny Member

    Ralphie (View Comment):
    This section of the Bible reminds me that Jesus, the word, was in the beginning, when God spoke, “Let there be”, there was.

    That’s right. To dovetail with what I just said above this, Jesus was not “the rational speech.” He was the Word.

    • #12
    • January 3, 2018, at 9:19 AM PST
    • Like

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