There is nothing so profound and so beautiful as the beginning of John’s Gospel. Mirroring the beginning of Genesis but conscripting the language of the Greek philosophers, John begins, “In the beginning was the Logos.” My own style is more like Luke’s: “The time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was not room for them in the inn.” But I just have to marvel at the profound beauty of “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (I’m quoting from memory here.)
Of course, we are all aware that translations usually say, “In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh….” And I’m sure we’re all aware that “Word” here is a stand-in for the Greek Logos. Logos means “word” and “word” means logos, right? This is one of those cases where human language seems inadequate, and it is not just that the Greek can’t be expressed well in translation, but that human language is inadequate to express who God is and what God has done for us. Who or what is this Logos? The Greeks knew it was out there. Just as Paul on Mars Hill met the Epicureans and Stoics where they were, and addressed their desire to honor the unknown God, John addressed the Greek sense that there was a logic to the universe, an organizing principle, a master plan, a blueprint, a perfect model from which the cosmos flowed. How to express that? To the Greeks, it was the logos. In English, we have locked in to a tradition of saying “the Word” to translate logos in John chapter 1. Is that what logos means? Well, no, if by “word” we mean a lexical unit, a minimal utterance, what goes between spaces on a written page. It is a little closer to what we mean when we say, “May I have a word with you?” (What’s the longest word in the English language? The one that comes after “And now a word from our sponsor.”) Even just looking at a single English translation–the Authorized Version–Greek logos is translated in different contexts as “word,” “cause,” “communication,” “sayings,” “account,” “talk,” “treatise,” “intent,” “tidings,” “speech,” “reason,” “utterance” and “preaching.” But “word” is used in most contexts, and that works pretty well in English, because “word” has a wide range of meanings in English, like logos in Greek, though the ranges of meaning do not map perfectly from one language to the other.
Heraclitus, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, is credited with starting to develop this concept of the logos. Then Philo worked further with the Greek philosophical concept and applied it to Jewish theology. But the Greeks saw an unbridgeable gap between the logos and the cosmos, which is only right, if you think in terms of the creation’s ability to reach out to the Creator. Philo drew a picture of the Logos as the firstborn of God, the archetype, the interpreter of God’s designs, a mediator between God and humanity who holds all things together, Platonically describing him as “a kind of shadow cast by God, having the outlines but not the blinding light of the Divine Being” (cited in the Jewish Encyclopedia, among other places).
When you think about all the rich history and philosophy behind this Greek concept of the Logos, that makes it an even more daunting task to translate it into English. It seems like “logic” would be a natural English counterpart for logos. Maybe that is too impersonal, though. How about “reasoning” or “intelligence” or “idea” or “order” or “source” or “organizing principle” or “utterance” or “discourse” or “communication” or “narrative” or “statement” or “message“? When you think about it that way, could it give a new meaning to the expression, “The reason for the season”? We’ve locked into a pretty solid tradition of saying “Word” in English, and virtually every English translation translates it that way. An exception is Phillips: “At the beginning, God expressed himself.”
In French, the Logos in the first chapter of John is translated as la Parole. I like that. Again, parole is a little difficult to translate that into English, but it means something like “(the faculty of) speech.” Some Spanish translations translate Logos here as la Palabra, which I believe fairly well corresponds to English “word.” But then these Spanish and French translations switch to using a masculine pronoun in the subsequent context to refer to a noun that is grammatically feminine. Other Spanish translations use el Verbo, continuing in the tradition of the Latin verbum.
So what did John say about this Logos? Was he just plagiarizing? No, he took the given concept of the Logos and turned it on its head: “And the Logos became flesh.” What!? That was considered impossible. Remember Philo: “a kind of shadow cast by God, having the outlines but not the blinding light of the Divine Being”? Compare John: “…and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen this Logos and have witnessed his glory. He is Immanuel, God With Us. His story is the story John is about to tell.