The Divine Word

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg two weeks ago made headlines because of an anti-Islamic passage cited by the pope from a book by the medieval Byzantine emperor Manuel II. However, as more thoughtful commentators have noted, this passage did not stand at the center of the pope’s talk, What did stand there was the symbiotic relationship, as Benedict saw it, between faith and reason in Catholic thought, as expressed in Manue’s remark that for a Catholic, “Not to act with logos is contrary to the nature of God.” The pope explained:

“Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, [the New Testament evangelist] John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: ‘In the beginning was the logos.’ This is the very [Greek] word used by the emperor. God acts syn logo, with logos. Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason…. [Hence] the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.”

The concept of the logos, the divine word by which God made the world in the six biblical days of Creation, and which is therefore also the world’s plan, or rational structure, as revealed in Nature and its laws, was indeed central to the theology of the early Church Fathers and, subsequently, to that of both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. It was the bridge for early Christianity between the domain of Greek philosophy and the domain of biblical faith — for if the mind of God is explored in the act of exploring the natural universe, then scientific inquiry and religious faith, as the pope argued in his address, are partners rather than adversaries.

Yet, had Benedict been more scrupulous about giving credit where credit is due, he would not have stopped at John, generally considered to be the last of the four gospels, composed in the late first-century C.E. He would have gone further back to the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who was born a century before the composition of John and who, as part of his enormous influence on early Christian thought in general, was the first to articulate the concept of the “word of God,” or theion logos, as he put it in Greek, as the “Divine Reason” by which the world was created. As Philo, who was himself greatly influenced by Plato and the neo-Platonists, wrote in his treatise “On the Creation”:

“When God willed to create this visible world He first fully formed the intelligible world in order that He might have the use of a pattern wholly God-like and incorporeal…. As, then, a city is fashioned beforehand within the mind of the architect and [at first] has no place in the outer world… even so the universe first had no other location than the Divine Reason [theion logos]…”

Clearly, John’s logos derived from Philo’s. But why did Philo himself, in attempting to harmonize Plato with the Hebrew Bible, use the term logos, of which the original meaning was “word” or “speech,” in the sense that he did?

The answer to this is obvious, too. Philo found theion logos in the Septuagint, the third-century BCE Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek, where it occurs regularly as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew d’var adonai, “the word of the Lord.” Thus, to take one of many possible examples, when the prophet Jeremiah relates his first vision by beginning, Vayehi d’var adonai elai leimor, “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying,” the Septuagint has, Kai egeneto logos kyriou pros auton.

Davar, of which d’var is the construct or genitive form, is a curious word in Hebrew because it, too, has two meanings that are at first glance even more removed from each other than are the two meanings of logos: “word” or “speech,” on the one hand, and “thing,” ‘matter” or “event”” on the other. For instance, when Jeremiah says to God in another chapter, Lo yipalei mimkha davar, “Nothing is too hard for Thee,” he is using davar in the sense of “thing.”

This is precisely what caught Philo’s attention, just as it caught the attention of many rabbinic commentators. The double sense of davar is highly significant. In the Book of Genesis, God creates the universe — which is, in the final analysis, a vast assemblage of “things” — by words alone, e.g .: “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth: And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” A davar is thus both a divine command and the result of that command. Like a law of Nature, it can be phrased in words only, but these words are then responsible for such “things” as the speed of light and the time it takes a photon to reach the earth from the sun.

These are not inappropriate thoughts for Rosh Hashanah and the days after it, in which, according to Jewish tradition, Creation took place. A good and happy New Year to you all!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.