In the Gospel of John, Jesus is cast as the Word (the logos in Greek). John’s use of the concept of the Word conveys the ideas that Jesus is preexistent (John 1:1–2) and divine—one with God the Father, yet a distinct person.
The Greek term logos, as used in the Gospel of John, draws on a wide range of Jewish and Greek concepts, evoking associations with the Old Testament, Hellenistic Jewish literature, and Greek philosophy. Using the title “the Word” for Jesus simultaneously evoked and subverted the assumptions of John’s Jewish and Greek audiences. His use of the term was a deliberate attempt to persuade them of the divinity of Jesus using categories of thought they would have found familiar.
For Jews, John’s use of logos would have evoked the phrase “the word of Yahweh.” This title was an important part of biblical traditions about Yahweh and His effective power over the universe. The phrase was regularly used to refer to Scripture as divine law (Isa 2:3), written instruction (Psa 119:11), and prophetic revelation (Hos 4:1; Ezek 6:1). More important, the “word of Yahweh” was depicted as an active force at work in the world to accomplish His will (Isa 55:11; Jer 23:29). This force was the agent through which Yahweh created the world (Psa 33:6, 9; Gen 1:3, 6, 11).
A Jewish audience in the first century ad would also likely have accepted “the Word” as a divine title based on the regular substitution of memra (Aramaic for “the Word”) for the divine name in Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, also called Targumim. The Aramaic translators used this title to avoid instances where Yahweh was described in human terms (i.e., with an arm or hand). This tradition connected “the Word” with creation even more: The Targum for Isaiah 48:13a reads, “By my word I have founded the earth” (replacing “my hand” in the Hebrew text with memra).
For Greeks, the idea of “the Word” as God’s active agent on earth would have resonated with the Greek notion that the Logos was the stabilizing principle of the universe. In Greek, logos can mean reason or rational thought; in Greek philosophy, logos referred to the ordering principle behind the universe, the all-pervasive creative energy at the source of all things. The philosopher Heraclitus (sixth century bc) declared this principle always existed and was responsible for all things. The Logos was ultimate reality, the ever-present wisdom organizing the universe. The Stoic philosophers developed this idea further in the third century bc, envisioning the Logos as the rational principle of the universe that made everything understandable. The Logos was the impersonal power that originated, permeated, and directed everything.