The Word Became Man At Christmas: A Jewish Roots Perspective
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
Charles Wesley wrote my favorite Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It is a theological masterpiece. One noteworthy phrase is “Veiled in flesh the godhead see; hail the incarnate deity.” Most of us would never join a church that denied that Christ is God in the flesh. Yet we may wonder about why John’s Gospel first presents the Messiah as “the Word.” The short answer is this: “The Jewish understanding of the living Word was that of one who was divine yet distinct from the Father.” Let me elaborate.
A New Testament midrash is a Jewish explanation, teaching, interpretation, or application of an Old Testament text. When Jesus talks about how He will be lifted just as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up (John 3:13-17), I consider His words a midrash on Numbers 21:8-10. My book, The Midrash Key, demonstrates how we can better understand New Testament texts when we couple them with their Old Testament source texts. This article about “the Word” could have been another chapter in its own right!
Sometimes a midrash is not merely based upon a single Old Testament text, but, rather, on a series of scattered verses. Such is the case with John’s assertion about the pre-existence of the Messiah as the Eternal Word of God and as God Himself.
Note the background to the Concept of God’s Creative Word in John 1:1-3. The ESV reads,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made..
We can see that the Word was always with God (1). This takes us back to Genesis 1, where we repeatedly read, “And God said…” Most readers with any fluency in the Old Testament would make this connection.
In the very center of Genesis 1:1, (“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”) is a word that is considered an object marker, a word particle that is not translated. Although not translated, this word helps us understand how to translate another word. This “hidden word” consists of the first and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph and Tav. Is it possible that John the Apostle is playing on this hidden word? He might be.
In Revelation, Jesus refers to himself as the Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). If we go from Greek to the Hebrew alphabet, then we might conclude that God the Son is present (hidden) in the center of first verse of the Bible as Aleph Tav. This is an intriguing possibility, even if admittedly speculative.
Moving on to surer footing, observe that the Greek New Testament word for “word” is “logos,” the title used here for the Son of God. The Word (God the Son) has always existed. Although the Word is God, He is distinct from God the Father because He is with Him, face to face.
When speaking of myself, I refer to myself as “I” or “me,” not “he” or “him.” But God does both. In several places in the Old Testament, God refers to Himself in both the first and third persons (Zechariah 2:8-10 and 12:8-10 come to mind). Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is laced throughout Scripture, or at least room for that doctrine. God is one, yet He is more than one person. Heh He is three distinct persons (Matthew 28:19-20). We will find that John’s teaching about the Word (logos) is not unique to Christianity, but part of ancient Judaism.
- The idea that the Word is God and yet distinct is seen in Judaism (John 1:1)
The Word is both deity and yet distinct from God (the Father). This is demonstrated in the fact that it was appropriate for the Psalmist to direct praise to the Word. In a religion whose pillar was worshiping God alone, David makes what could be considered a blasphemous statement if the Word were not God. In Psalm 56:4 he says, “In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” David understood what later Jews understood, that the Word of God was personal, distinct from the Father, and yet God.
Let me share some quotations from the Targums (Jewish paraphrases and expansions of Scripture written in Aramaic; these were written by Jews for Jewish communities before, during, and after the time of Jesus). These Targums are not merely paraphrases (like The Living Bible), but include interpretational additions to help readers understand the meaning. Although these interpretations are debatable, they show the thinking of the ancient Jewish community, thinking that was part of the Jewish context during the New Testament era.
The Targum on Genesis 28:20-21 reads, “If the Word of the Lord will be with me…then the Word of the LORD will be my God…”
The Targum on Genesis 1:27, “The Word of the Lord created man…”
The Targum on Exodus 20:1, “And the Word of the Lord spoke all these words…”
The Targum on Deuteronomy 1:30, “The Lord your God who leads before you, his Word will fight for you…
The Targum on Deuteronomy 4:7 places the Word on the throne of God, “The word of the Lord sits upon his throne high and lifted up and hears our prayer whenever we pray before him and make our petitions.” (Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol. 2. pp. 19-22)
Michael Brown also quotes Larry Hurtado’s summary of the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo:
Philo calls the Logos (word) ‘the second god’…and states that the ‘God’ in whose image Adam was created in Genesis 1:27 is actually the Logos, which the rational part of the soul resembles (Brown, p. 22)
Although we rightly make a distinction between the eternal personal Word and the written Word (Scripture), the connection is also clear. This is why true Christianity is a religion of the Book, one in which Jesus’ disciples have their noses in their Bibles.
- The idea that all things were made through the Word also exists in Judaism (John 1:2-4)
If all things are indeed created by the Word, then the Word must be uncreated.
Psalm 33:6 asserts, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Thus all things were created by Him (the Word).
…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.… (1 Corinthians 8:6)
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:2)
The Word is not only the agent of creation, creation exists for Him and He holds creation together. Colossians 1:16-17 states, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
The first entity the Father made through the agency of the Word was light (Gen. 1:3). In John 1:4-13, John presents the Word as repeating the process, this time bringing spiritual light. As John puts it in verse 4, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
By the way, not only is the Word God and with God, but so is the Spirit. Genesis 1:2 reads, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Here we have an uncreated entity (the Spirit) who exists during a time when only God existed, and yet He is presented as a distinct person.
The more I study the Bible, the more I see that most New Testament teaching finds its origin in the Hebrew Scriptures. And why should it not be so? The one God is the God of both Testaments. This Christmas, remember Who Jesus is: God in human flesh.