The Gospel of John, part 2, John's Hebrew perspective
Sep 11, 2019
John was from a priestly family, and “was known to the high priest and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest” (John 18:15). Later, he was also able to speak to “the slave-girl” acting as the doorkeeper to allow Peter into the courtyard where the trial was being held (John 18:16, 17).
Further, John was the only one of the twelve disciples who remained at the foot of the cross with the women while Jesus suffered and died (John 19:25, 26).
James and John were sons of Zebedee. Jesus called them “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). The fact that they were fishing in the sea of Galilee when Jesus called them suggests that Zebedee himself was not a priest. However, his wife, “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” seemed to think that her sons were worthy of a higher place in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20, 21) may reflect her earlier upbringing in a priestly family.
The point is that John had priestly connections, however obscure from a biblical standpoint. Yet Eusebius says that “he wore the petalon,” which was a high priest’s mitre, or headpiece, which seems to suggest a priestly background, for such terminology was used of no other disciple, not even Peter or Paul.
It is always helpful to know the background of a book’s author, for even though the Holy Spirit inspires certain ones to write Scripture, the personality, education, and writing ability of the human author remains intact. In this case, by understanding John’s family connection to the temple priests in Jerusalem, we may deduce that he was more familiar than most with the temple rituals, rules, and procedures.
Because the temple in the first century was ruled by the Sadducee sect, which was heavily influenced by Greek thought, we can say with certainty that John was fluent in Greek long before he left Galilee to live in Ephesus. Yet John’s beliefs differed from the Sadducees—perhaps because of Jesus’ training—for shortly after Christ’s ascension we find him (with Peter) teaching the resurrection of the dead (Acts 3:1; 4:1, 2). The Sadducees arrested them for this. Years later, Paul was tried before the Sanhedrin, where we read in Acts 23:7, 8,
7 And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.
From a purely doctrinal point of view, Paul and John agreed with the Pharisees in these divisive issues. By extension, we may also say that their view contrasted with Greek theology as well. Therefore, in reading John’s Gospel, we must understand his Greek words through his Hebrew thought process, rather than through the Greek mindset.
The most important term to understand at the outset is the Logos, which is how John starts his gospel. “In the beginning was the Logos,” and understanding the Logos is the beginning of his revelation set forth in his gospel.
The Greek Logos
The Greek idea of the Logos began with the philosopher, Heraclitus, who lived from 535-475 B.C. He defined it as the organizing force behind an ever-changing universe. A century later, his successors, Plato and Aristotle, saw it as the principle that gave life to all creation, as well as the faculty of reason in men.
The Greeks did not distinguish between soul and spirit, as did the Hebrews, and so they believed the mind (i.e., soul) was spiritual and divine. To them, the soul was the seat of the Logos in men, which gave them the power of reason, and this formed the basis of their love of wisdom, i.e., philosophy.
Yet John did not come from a Greek background. His thought process was Hebrew. In those days the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language provided their Hebrew-Greek dictionary. The Septuagint standardized the way in which Hebrew words were translated into Greek.
These Hebrew-Greek equivalents did not mean that the Hebrew concepts ought to be changed to fit Greek thought or theology. For example, the Hebrew concept of sheol (the grave or the state of the dead) cannot be redefined according to the Greek equivalent, hades. Although the New Testament often uses the word hades, it must be thought of in terms of sheol. Otherwise, we will think of it in terms of immortal souls crossing the underground River Eridanus into the realm of the god named Hades, who was said to be the brother of Zeus and Poseidon.
Neither does sheol have a three-headed dog named Cerberus accompanying the god of the underworld.
The Perfect Man and Sonship
For our purpose, we must understand that the Greek Logos was not the same as the Hebrew Logos, even though there is certainly a limited similarity. The idea that the Logos was the Intelligent Cause of all things and that Divine Reason brought all things into being was indeed a biblical concept. Likewise, the Platonic idea that the Logos gave life to all creation is reflected in John 1:4, “In Him was life.”
The Greeks were concerned about describing “the perfect man” and how to attain such perfection through the acquisition of wisdom in the schools of philosophy. John presented Jesus Christ as being that ideal Man, and he showed also how the rest of us may attain the same perfection through Him, His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Christ is the “Door” (John 10:9) through which all men must pass.
The door was not mere philosophy, nor could any man reach perfection through the soulish study of wisdom, which characterize works-based religion based on the will of man. The Door of Christ depends fully upon the work of Christ and the fact that He fulfilled all of the laws that prophesied of Him—the most prominent being the laws of sacrifice. Hence, John leads the reader back into the word of God and into the Torah (law), which laid the foundations for Christ’s ministry and how to become the sons of God.
The Greek search for “the perfect man” is answered in John’s gospel in terms of becoming the sons of God (John 1:12, 13). By structuring his gospel according to the eight days of the feast of Tabernacles, John also shows how that feast prophesies of sonship from birth to the presentation of the sons on the eighth day, according to the law (Exodus 22:29, 30). For this reason, the first miracle-sign is the wedding feast of Cana, which, when calculated into modern measures, tells how Jesus turned 153 gallons of water into wine. The eighth sign, which is its parallel, presents 153 mature fish (John 21:11), because 153 is the biblical number representing the sons of God. The Hebrew phrase, beni h' elohim, "sons of God," has a numeric value of 153.
The transformation from water to wine speaks of the atomic change that will occur in our bodies through the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52). What was thus begun on the first day of Tabernacles (i.e., the first miracle-sign) is to be completed on the eighth day when the sons of God are presented to the Father, so that they may be manifested to the world.
John was not adopting the Greek view of things but was instead appealing to His Greek readers to adopt the truth of the Hebrew scriptures. What the Greeks were seeking could never be attained through philosophy or through the will of their souls. It could be attained not by classroom study but only by being begotten by the Spirit. It is a matter of becoming part of the family of God, where all recognize the Fatherhood of God (Ephesians 3:14, 15).
The Hebrew Logos
The Septuagint uses the word logos as the equivalent of the Hebrew dabar, “the word.” For example, in Numbers 11:23 God says, “Now you will see whether My dabar will come true for you or not.” The Septuagint reads, “Now shalt thou know whether My logos will come to pass to thee or not.”
Again, speaking in the plural, Deuteronomy 1:1 begins with “These are the dabarim” (NASB), and the Septuagint reads, “These are the logoi.”
The Hebrews went beyond the surface meaning of dabar by applying it to the concept of the Memra. The Memra was the creative word of God and was also used in the Targum as a substitute for “the Lord.” In other words, God Himself was also His word, because His word expresses who He is. God will always be true to His word because He must always be true to Himself. Hence, the Memra was said to be the manifestation of God.
The Memra, when used to describe God’s rule over the destiny of man (i.e., predestination), was “the agent of God.” The Targum states also, “My Memra shall be unto you for a redeeming deity” (The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. III, pp. 464-465, 1904 ed.). We are also told that the Greek equivalent of Memra was Logos.
The concept of the Memra was surely well known to John himself, and through John the church too came to understand it. In fact, because the early church used the term logos to apply to Christ, the Jews themselves nearly abandoned the term. The Jewish Encyclopedia says,
“In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term ‘Logos’…. was changed into ‘Christ’…. Possibly on account of Christian dogma, rabbinic theology, outside of Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra’.” (p. 465)
There was only a slight comparison between the Logos of the Greek mindset and the Memra in Hebrew thought. The Greeks had little or no knowledge of biblical law, and they sought worldly wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:20, 24) rather than the wisdom of God contained in the law (Deuteronomy 4:5, 6).
In fact, neither Jews nor Greeks sought perfection through spiritual begetting. Both sought perfection by the will of the flesh and the will of man in their own ways. John, however, presents another way, another path, through the only Door, Jesus Christ. That Door is understood by the revelation in the word of God (including the Torah).
When John begins His gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Logos,” he was explaining Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created.” He was also presenting Christ as the Memra of God, the One so filled with the word that He became the living word, the embodiment of the word, the word made flesh. In so doing, Christ was the perfect image of God and “the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3).
This was what Adam was supposed to be. He failed, because he had been created (Genesis 1:27) in the image of God and formed (or shaped) from the earth (adamah) in Genesis 2:7. So Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 says,
45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit… 47 The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.”
It would take a begotten Son to succeed where a created son had failed. Adam thus was not the Memra; only Christ is the Memra.
This is part 2 of a series titled "The Gospel of John" To view all parts, click the link below.