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The Greek Word Mistranslated as "Word"
Sorry, but John never said that the "Word" was God.
This article discusses the Greek word, logos, which is usually mistranslated in English Bibles as “word.” As we will see, the Greek word has a variety of connected meanings, but logos does not mean “word.” The people of Jesus’s era would have never heard it that ways, certainly not in the sense of referring to the Bible or Jesus’s words.
The Greek word the means “word” is lexis, familiar to us as the source of English words such as lexicon. Jesus never uses lexis. It does not appear in any version of the Greek New Testament. It occurs once in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, in Job 36:2. So, we know that the Judeans used it, but lexis isn’t even listed in Strong’s Biblical Concordance.
The Meaning of Logos
In the English Bible, logos is translated as “word” whenever “word” can work in the context and even when it clearly shouldn’t be translated that way. However, the meaning of the Greek logos is much broader, It is translated in different contexts as “computation", "relation", "explanation", "law", "rule of conduct", "continuous statement", "discussion," and so on. Logos is the source of our English word "logic." It is also the root word for all the English words that end in "-ology," which we use to mean "the study of" something.
Yet, the KJV translates logos is translated as "word" two hundred and sixteen times. Since “word” can’t always be made to work, it is also translated as "saying," fifty times, account (8x times), speech (8x), thing (5 times), and miscellaneous (32 times). Two times, it is not translated at all. Because of this, we cannot tell from the English Bible when the word logos is used.
Not only can we not tell when the word logos is used, but we also cannot tell when we see “word” that it is translated from logos. Another Greek word, is often translated as "word." It means "that which is spoken", "saying", "subject of speech", and so on. Jesus uses this word in ten verses. It is the source for our word "remark.”
What Did Jesus Mean?
Jesus uses logos eighty times. The English words that come closest to capturing its meaning, as Jesus uses it, are "idea", "concept", “lesson,” “analysis,” or "explanation." The English word most directly descended from logos, "logic," doesn't work. It has become too closely associated with reasoning, especially formal reasoning. Personally, I tend to gravitate to the words “idea" and “concept” because they are simple, broad, and pithier.
Jesus seems to like words like logos, because of their different shades of meaning, allowing for various plays on words. In translation, however, we seek consistency so people can relate one part of the translated text to other parts. In some verses, Jesus uses logos in the sense of "accounting" or “calculation,” for example, in Matthew 18:23:
NIV: Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
Listeners Heard: By this, it is compared, this realm of the skies, to a person, a king, who desired to take part in an analysis with those servants of his.
We could use “calculation” as well but in this verse, the verb used means “take part” which works better with the broader idea of “analysis. ”We see something similar in Matthew 25:19, (“the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them”). The sense is clearly numerical amounts, so "explanation" and “analysis” still works even though “idea” doesn’t. In any case, the general feeling is that of “getting an idea” of the situation.
What Did John Mean?
If we used “idea,” John 1.1, that verse is transformed from the vague and poetic into the one of very logical, almost scientific, philosophy:
Listeners Heard: In a beginning, was the idea and the idea was from the Divine and divine was the idea.
The last translation is word-for-word in the original word order.
Notice how the final “divine” does not have a definite article before it as it does when it is used to refer to God. This makes it as statement about the characteristic of “divine” instead of a particular entity.
Let us look at how some of Jesus’s sayings are transformed by more literal translation and the consistent translation of logos as “idea.”
Matthew 12:37 changes from: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” To “Because from those ideas of yours, you will be made right, and from those ideas of yours, you will be condemned.”
In Matthew 19:11, where logos is translated as “saying,” the verse changes from: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.” To: “Not everyone digests this idea, rather, for those ones, it has been given.”
Matthew 24:35 changes from: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” To: “This sky and this earth will pass away, but my ideas should never pass away.” In this verse, the “might” is from the subjunctive form of the verb, which requires a “should” or “might.” The “never” is from a double negative form, the objective and subjective Greek negatives together, creating a stronger negative that we really don’t have in English.
My work here is about the “word.” I write about the meaning of words, their grammatical form, how context affects their meaning, and so on. I find it rather tragic that this particular word, so important to Jesus’s ideas, has been translated so inconsistently, so distant in meaning from what Jesus’s listeners heard, making it more difficult for us to appreciate his message.
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