Michael S. Heiser
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 is, by far, one of the most familiar verses in the Bible. We know “the Word” speaks of Jesus (John 1:14), but where did John get the idea that “the Word” could refer to God as a person?
Part of the answer concerns the translation John used. While John used the Greek word logos (λόγος) when referring to “the Word,” he himself was drawing on Aramaic translations of the Old Testament. In Jesus’ day, Aramaic was the native language of the Jewish people.
While the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek, the language of the wider Gentile world, it was also translated into Aramaic. These Aramaic translations are called Targums. One specific Targum of the Torah, Targum Onkelos, was sanctioned by Jewish religious authorities for use in the synagogue.
The Targums telegraph the idea of God as “Word” in many places—in vivid, sometimes startling ways. Many Jews of John’s day would have been familiar with the idea. The Aramaic term for “word,” memra, was often used as another way to refer to God. Consider Numbers 14:11, noting the underlined and bold portions:
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”
The Targum (Neofiti) renders part of this Old Testament verse as follows:
“How long will they not believe in the name of my Word in spite of all the signs of my miracles which I have performed?”
In the Targum rendering, the Lord refers to Himself as “my Word,” using the Aramaic term memra.
John calls Jesus “the Word made flesh” in John 1:14, referring to Numbers 14:11. He does this because the translations he had heard so many times in the synagogue had taught him that God was the Word—the memra—and he believed Jesus was God. John even echoes the Targum rendering of Numbers 1:14 later on:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him (John 12:36–37).
Memra is used more than 600 times in the Aramaic Targums to describe God, often in passages where the language presumes God is present in physical, human form:
And they heard the sound of the memra of the Lord God walking in the garden … (Gen 3:8).
Because of the Targums, Jews in the days of Jesus and John would have understood the notion that God could come to them in human form. John believed that was exactly what he and the disciples had witnessed in Jesus, so it was natural for him to refer to Jesus as the Word. John wrote his Gospel in Greek, but his theology was Jewish, conveyed to him through Aramaic. Therefore, both Jews and non-Jewish people got the point in unmistakable terms: The Word of the Old Testament had been made flesh (John 1:14) and walked among us.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Targum quotations were translated by the author.
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