Logos as Fulfilment of Wisdom in Israel

Ronald Walls FAITH Magazine September-October 2009

Fr Ronald Walls discusses the roots of the Johannine concept of Logos, one much used by Pope Benedict. He discerns as much influence from the experience of the People of Israel as from Greek philosophy. Fr Walls converted from Presbyterianism sixty years ago, and now ministers in the Orkney Islands. He has written several biblical/homiletic works and an autobiography — Love Strong as Death, Fordham University Press.

In the mid-1920s it was fashionable amongst many theologians and students of theology - certainly in the divinity faculty at the University of Edinburgh - to be suspicious of the Gospel according to John, because, it was thought, this Gospel had imported a manner of thinking that was alien to the tradition embodied in the Old Testament Scriptures. Suspicion was focused upon the word logos, which symbolised the Greek mode of metaphysical reflection on God and mankind's knowledge of God. The Greek mode of thought was regarded as abstract and metaphysical - at odds with the Hebrew concept of a living God.

This fear of the Greek way of thinking and suspicion of the word logos rested upon a very careless reading of the Old Testament. More thought should have been given to the meaning of the phrase "the word of God". Had this been done, it would have led to the conclusion that the word logos did not embody a concept alien to Old Testament revelation but could be used to sum up the completion of revelation as understood by the Old Testament. This completion is expressed in the Prologue of the Gospel according to John where the word logos is prominent and is translated into English as "Word". In order to establish this fulfilment it would seem appropriate to begin by looking at the word "word" as it occurs in the Old Testament.


To many people, especially those brought up in the Reformed tradition, the phrase "the word of God" is taken to denote the words of Holy Scripture. Many Catholics, too, share this notion, for at every celebration of the Eucharist, after the readings from Scripture, they hear the words "This is the word of the Lord". These words do come from God, through the inspiration of the sacred authors, but they are not the logos of the Prologue to the Gospel according to John. They are words that come by inspiration of the Holy Spirit but they are not the Word of God. The following sentence from the end of the Book of Consolation, written towards the end of the sixth century B.C. introduces a deeper concept denoted by the word "word".

"The word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do" (Isaiah 55: 11).
The words spoken through the prophets will, it is true, accomplish their purpose; but this saying from Isaiah means more than that. The text carries this footnote in the

Jerusalem Bible: "The word is personified here, see Pr. 8:22+"; and in the passage from Proverbs to which reference is made, which was written, it is thought, a century later than the text from Isaiah, the word "Wisdom" appears and is equivalent to "word" in the Isaiah text. The word, now equated with Wisdom, is not a mere messenger but is also a sharer in God's creative power; and it has become personified.

"The Lord created me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works. From everlasting I was firmly set, from the beginning, before earth came into being. The deep was not, when I was born, there were no springs to gush with water" (Prov 8: 22-24).
The Wisdom of God, according to Proverbs, is generated from God, but is not a part of the creation; indeed, Wisdom takes part in the work of creation.

"When he laid down the foundations of the earth, I was by his side, a master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world, delighting to be with the sons of men" (Prov 8: 29-31).
It is this sharing in the work of creation to which Isaiah refers in the above sentence from the Book of Consolation. We learn also from this passage in Proverbs, and from other passages in Scripture, that the creation, because it comes about through Wisdom, is not chaotic but a rationally ordered system. It is also clear from the Wisdom writings in the Old Testament that the wisdom which Wisdom imparts to men and women is practical; it is the ability to align one's life according to the truth.

The function of Wisdom is thus not simply to bring about the creation as an ordered whole, but also to enable men and women to share in the wisdom that flows from God, to become able to understand the creation and live in it according to its laws and so find happiness. The Wisdom of God desires to share itself with the human race, enabling it to come close to him. The image of children at play shines out from this passage in Proverbs. Already, in this fifth century B.C. passage from Holy Scripture, we have an adumbration of the joy of the Good News that is announced in the New Testament. In the passage from the eighth chapter of Proverbs, especially the final phrase "delighting to be with the sons of men" are we being given a hint of the incarnation of the Wisdom of God?.

In the mid-second century B.C. we find in the book of Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Ben Sirach), an even more explicit expression of the desire of Wisdom to come down from heaven and take part in human life. Wisdom speaks:

"I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and I covered the earth with mist. I had my tent in the heights, and my throne in a pillar of cloud. Alone I encircled the vault of the sky, and I walked on the bottom of the deeps. Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I searched for rest, and looked to see in whose territory I might pitch camp. Then the creator of all things instructed me, and he who created me fixed a place for my tent. He said, 'pitch your tent in Jacob, and make Israel your inheritance'.

I have taken root in a privileged people in the Lord's property, in his inheritance.

I am like a vine putting out graceful shoots, my blossoms bear the fruit of glory and wealth. Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my fruits, for memories of me are sweeter than honey, inheriting me is sweeter than the honeycomb. They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me will thirst for more. Whoever listens to me will never have to blush, whoever acts as I dictate will never sin" (from Ecclesiasticus 24: 3-22).

In his famous 2006 Regensburg lecture Pope Benedict XVI stated "The truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf". This is an apt comment upon what Holy Scripture says concerning the Wisdom of God. God reveals himself in the ordered Universe as this Wisdom or logos, and this logos accompanies and cares for the creation thereafter. In particular the logos cares for and guides the human race, notably those within that race whom God has chosen as the vehicle of his revelation and the bringer of blessings to the whole of humanity. It is this Wisdom that is the logos of the Prologue in St John's Gospel, a word translated into English as "Word".

The first piece quoted above from the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 8:22) was written in the fifth century B.C. It was in that century, when Israel was re-establishing itself as a nation in Judaea, after their seventy years exile in Babylon, that the Old Testament as we now have it was put together. The Wisdom literature had been assimilated by the teachers of Israel, so that the teaching of the Wisdom literature was not something alongside the general teaching of the Old

Testament but the teaching that provided its underlying concept - that God was always with his people, seeking to share his mind and life with them. There is an article entitled "Wisdom Literature" in "Dictionary of the Bible" by John L. McKenzie, S.J., which states briefly and boldly: "The style and content of wisdom and wisdom literature run through most of the books of the O.T"

This style and cast of mind is seen very clearly in the way that the history of Israel is presented not as the record of a sequence of events but as a philosophy of history - the meaning of the events encourages or corrects the people. The cast of mind or style of the authentic Old Testament revelation, as shown in the final redaction of the Scriptures in the 5th century B.C., can be seen much later in St Paul, who was a strict Pharisee and more zealous for the tradition of his people than any Jew of his time. He wrote:

"I want to remind you, brothers, how our fathers were all guided by a cloud above them and how they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in this cloud and in this sea; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:2-4).
St Paul knew that Christ was the incarnate logos, and he knew also that this logos had not retired into inactivity after the creation of the world but had been ever present in the care and guidance of his people. The Wisdom of God, to become the logos in the New Testament, had been guiding the history of Israel, of all mankind, since the beginning of time.

The principle underlying the teaching of the Wisdom literature, so beautifully expressed in Ecclesiasticus chapter 24, is the same as that expressed by Pope Benedict XVI: "The truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf."

The cast of mind, which was the product of Wisdom literature can be seen also, although expressed indirectly, in the very first lines of the Old Testament. This concept of Wisdom, later to become logos, regarded as a Person who mediates the creative power of God, opens the way to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In Genesis chapter 1 the transcendence of God, the almighty Father, is stressed by his invisibility, and the nothingness of what is other than God is described by reference to dark emptiness and water, and the Spirit of God is there too, unseen and hovering, ready to do the work appointed to it by the Father. (It is worth noting that in this narrative of creation Father, Word and Spirit are all mentioned. This accords well with the classic dictum that all actions ofGod ad extram are acts of the Blessed Trinity and not of individual Persons.)

It may be accepted that the Old Testament Scriptures are cast in a mould that was formed by the Wisdom literature, but the question might be asked: Did the logos as used in the Gospel according to John have exactly the same connotation as the word "Wisdom" as used in the Old Testament, or had it brought in new connotations?

It is true that the wisdom that divine Wisdom wishes to impart to men and women possessed a strong ethical element. In his book, Israel's Wisdom Literature (T. &T Clark, Edinburgh, 1936), Prof OS. Rankin lists the features attributed to divine Wisdom in Proverbs chapters 1-9. Among these are: "a proclamation of Truth (Emeth), Righteousness (Zec/e/c), Knowledge (Da'ath), and Judgment (Mishpat). The emphasis is certainly on practical reason but it is on reason; all of these features are concerned with truth. To possess wisdom, according to the Wisdom literature, was to be able to align one's mind and will with the designs of God, that is to live according to the truth. Greek philosophy and Israelite pursuit of wisdom both seek to find the truth.Differences in their goals, if there be any, are only about minor matters.

The Greek Concept

The conclusion must not be too hastily made that St John's substitution of the Greek word logos for the Old Testament word "Wisdom" signified the importation of Greek philosophical concepts. Logos is a Greek word, but by the time it had been received into the Judaeo-Christian theological vocabulary, it had already been modified in meaning by influences that were not purely Greek. We have to ask what those who used the word logos or its equivalent in their own vernacular - Greek included - meant by it when used in a religious context. The word logos cannot be taken to mean simply what Greek philosophers had meant by it. The development outside Israel of the concept of Wisdom, which eventually became the 'Word' of St John's Gospel, is the theme of chapter9 of Prof. Rankin's overlooked classic (written when he was a Presbyterian minister in a little parish in Wigtonshire). Rankin's argument is very detailed and its cogency depends upon that detail. The few quotations given here may, however, give some idea of the main thesis.

Rankin places his discussion of the development which ended in the prologue to the Gospel according to John against the background of the rise of a definite monotheism and the concept of the transcendence of El Shaddai (The Highest'). Rankin then writes:

"Under the necessity of connecting the world of men with the God, who in majesty and nature was so far above this world, there were two courses which Judaism could take and which it took. It transformed the deities of foreign worship into angels, who were more or less equivalent to abstract ideas or divine attributes, and on the other hand it turned such abstract ideas into what may be called hypostases or personifications of the divine activity and power. It is sufficiently evident in the literature concerned that Wisdom is regarded as a Being dependent on God but in some sense separate from Him."

According to Rankin, it is Wisdom who appears in the Prologue to John, and the question is now asked: "Why did the Evangelist substitute "the Word" for "Wisdom"? The answer usually given, and which seems to carry most probability with it, is that the writer of the Prologue applied the Logos speculation of Alexandrian Judaism, perhaps indeed that of Philo. Bultmann acknowledges that Stoic teaching, which influenced Hellenistic Jewish writers, was able to do ample justice to the idea of the Logos as a cosmic power, and that in the Wisdom literature of Judaism there is the idea of Wisdom as an immanent power of understanding and knowledge. But he argues that there is reason to search for the richer idea of the Logos or Word as the deity of revelation, as thedivine Bearer of revelation, in sources of religious belief of a much earlier date than that of Hellenistic Judaism. In seeking for this Bultmann draws attention to the Mandaean doctrine of the cosmic, or heavenly Man, Enosh-Uthra, who is described as 'a (or, the) Word, a son of words.' This means that, since Mandaean sources reflect Iranian religious thought, Persian mythology is probably the ultimate source of the concept of the Word as divinity of revelation."

The Rankin argument then cites H.H. Schraeder, who follows up the lead given by Bultmann: "The prologue of the fourth Gospel is a reconstruction and Christianising of a Gnostic Aramaic hymn in which the term translated by the Greek 'Logos' was the Aramaic 'Memra'." This author believes also that this Jewish Gnostic hymn extols the identity of the divine Messenger who should come into the world - that is the cosmic Man - Enosh. This author would also consider that the Enosh tradition as preserved in the Mandaean sources has its counterpart in the account of the heavenly Man (Aramaic: son of Man) in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel. Rankin ends his paraphrase of Schraeder's argument:

"In regard to the origin of the conception of the cosmic Man (Urmensch), Schraeder indicates this when he says that the idea connects with 'the only religious speculation of ancient Oriental religion which had fully developed the idea and had given it a central position in its teaching, namely, the religious speculation of Iran'."
Rankin sums up by giving his own assessment of the value of the views of those he has been quoting:

"The aspect of Schraeder's conclusions which is of immediate interest to our enquiry into the character of Wisdom and its origin is his view that the Word (Memra) which he takes to be substantially the same as the personified Wisdom of the Wisdom literature was united by Jewish Gnosticism with the heavenly Man. [...] The conception of the heavenly, pre-existent Man, which was of such consequence for Jewish Apocalyptic and Christian thought, is, if Schraeder is right, derived from Persian religion. [...] Indeed, it is in Iranian religion in the form this took under the reformer Zoroaster, Bousset and others think, that Wisdom arose."
The Children of Israel were chosen to be a particular agent in the salvation of the world. The considerations presented in this article show us that, none the less, they were not cut off from the universal search of mankind for God. A sign of this was that they shared in the production of and respect for the Wisdom literature, which was to be found in the whole oriental world of the time of Israel. The Children of Israel were a people set apart but their minds were open to all serious speculation on matters of faith. During their seventy years sojourn in Babylonian exile they were able to reflect upon and assimilate wisdom that reached back into the distant past. They were aware that almighty God -El Shaddai - did not begin to care for and direct humanity with his calling ofAbraham. Ever since man fell the Lord had been with him, and knowledge of God, even if at times only dim, was always accessible to the human spirit. The Prologue to St John's Gospel tells us that "The Word was the true light that enlightens all men; and he was coming into the world." He was coming at last in flesh but he had

always been with mankind; his Wisdom guiding mankind in all serious religious speculation, including the ancient myths. In fact the presence of the Word of God in men and women was because they are made in God's image. God's image is his Wisdom or Word, present in every human being. The Judaeo-Christian tradition uniquely purifies and founds the truth of all this through its recognition of the truly transcendent nature of God's Being, who deigns to come into his creation.

Our salvation is no less than the perfect realization of this image of the transcendent God in our souls. St Paul sums up the meaning of salvation in his letter to the Ephesians, where he describes the Church as "The fulness of him who fills the whole creation" (1:23); and again where he says: "In this way we are to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fulness of Christ himself" (4: 13). Here St Paul is speaking in language that fits well into the idiom of the Wisdom literature; and maybe he is, without knowing it, speaking of the fulfilment of the ancient Iranian myth of the cosmic Man, Enosh Uthra, when mankind, through the Word Incarnate and under his rule, will become kith and kin of almighty God.

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