RE: "In the beginning was the word" (Jn 1:1a)

From: Pete Phillips (
Date: Wed Feb 16 2000 - 03:36:12 EST

This topic has been covered loads of times and you will probably be pointed to the archives. But you are completely write to suspect the translation of 'logos' as 'word'='lexeme'. Most of the modern commentators are now stressing this anomaly - e.g Davies, Moloney, Stibbe, Staley. I think that it is all Jerome's fault because he translated the diffuse semantic domain of the Greek LOGOS with the rather narrow Latin 'verbum'. Hence the beginning of the decline into the imperialistic English versions. You will note from you study of LSJ and Louw-Nida that there are a number of alternatives including 'utterance', 'message', 'fable' and some (Lamarche, Ashton, even Barrett mentions it) have suggested 'plan' in line with the Community Scroll (1QS11.11).
The problem is that the Word is now enculturated and this poor translation will never, I fear, be undermined.

Pete Phillips
NT Lecturer,
Cliff College,
Sheffield, UK

-----Original Message-----
From: Steven Craig Miller []
Sent: 15 February 2000 22:10
To: Biblical Greek
Subject: "In the beginning was the word" (Jn 1:1a)

To: the participants of B-Greek,

Myron C. Tuman, in his "A Preface to Literacy: An Inquiry into Pedagogy,
Practice, and Progress" (The University of Alabama Press, 1987), writes:

<< Few languages of the world without a written form have a word for
'word,' that is, have a word by which to refer to the concept of discrete,
meaningful verbal units that are combined to form utterances >> (95).

Tuman continues:

<< Scribner and Cole, for example, discuss the difficulty they had asking
native Vai speakers to name the longest word they knew, since the Vai
language has no word for "word" and since the subjects themselves were
often unaware of the underlying concept. The closest Vai equivalent,
Scribner and Cole note, literally meant "a piece of speech" or "utterance,"
and they discovered when they asked an expert in Vai script to divide a
piece of writing into such "pieces" what we might expect--that he grouped
units together on the basis of the way in which they were used in a
specific context. The minimal unit of speech for this expert was not
individual words as we know them but clusters of meaning. In studying
another West African language, Jack Goody notes that the native term for
"word" was best translated as "'bit' of speech" (1977:115), leading him to
conclude that "in the beginning was not the word but speech" >> (95).

One common definition of the term "word," for example, as given by John
Lyons in his "Semantics" (2 volumes; Cambridge University Press, 1977), is
as follows:

<< ... a word is any sequence of letters which, in normal typographical
practice, is bounded on either side by a space >> (1:18).

Of course, such "normal typographical practice" simply did not exist for
our earliest Greek MSS.

Under the entry on LOGOS in LSJM, they note the following:

<< VI. 'verbal expression' or 'utterance' ..., rarely a single 'word,' v.
infr. b, never in Gramm. signf. of vocable (EPOS, LEXIS, ONOMA, RHMA), usu.
of a 'phrase' ... >>

And it is interesting to note that although Louw & Nida [1988] give "Word"
as one of a number of possible meanings for LOGOS, they don't give "word"
as one of them.

Although "Word" as a translation of LOGOS is enshrined in tradition, I
wonder if perhaps "utterance" (or even "Utterance" -- I'm not trying to
raise any Christological issues here) might be a better translation of
LOGOS at John 1:1a. Similarly, I wonder if Psalms 33:6a might be better
translated as: "by the utterance of Yahweh the heavens were made." (BDB
gives "utterance" as a meaning for the Hebrew word DBR.)

I'll note that Tyndale [1534] translated LOGOS at John 1:1 as "word." Does
anyone have any idea why Tyndale made such a choice? And is it possible
that for Tyndale, the term "word" might have meant "utterance"? OED1 seems
to suggest that the notion of "word" referring to "a combination of vocal
sounds, or one such sound, used in a language to express an idea (e.g. to
denote a thing, attribute, or relation), and constituting an ultimate
minimal element of speech having a meaning as such; a vocable" dates back
to 1000 CE (I have the small print edition of OED1 and I hope my eyes
aren't playing tricks on me).

What do you think?

-Steven Craig Miller
Alton, Illinois (USA)
FWIW: I'm neither a clergy-person, nor an academic (and I have no post-grad

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