Descent of the Word

The Stoic philosophers are known for insisting that the Passions be ruled by Reason, and that one should avoid fretting over anything one can't control.  What is less well known is that they believed in Ethical Monotheism, or something close to it.

Greek religion, not being based on revelation, did not have clear and precise doctrines about the divine.  When a Greek person said "Zeus" they might mean the limited mythological god that appears in Homer (the one who was born at a particular time, squabbled with other deities and had scandalous love affairs) or they might mean the Highest God, who is above all and created everything—what we would call God.  Sometimes one and the same document is inconsistent enough to have it both ways; e.g. the Phaenomena of Aratus, which begins by invoking the Zeus who fills all of Nature and provides all blessings, later (with a somewhat embarrassed "if,  indeed, the story be true") recounts myths about Zeus being hid in a cave during his childhood!

When St. Paul preached his Sermon on Mars Hill to the Athenians, he could have told them that their religion was completely false and wrong, that Zeus was completely different from the God of Christianity.  Instead he chose to begin with those aspects of Greek culture which pointed to the true God.

There have been pious men in all cultures who have realized that there is one highest God, worthy of all worship.  And whether they prayed to El or Yahweh or Zeus or Brahman or Allah, he heard them.  (If it were forbidden to use the name of pagan deities to refer to Yahweh, then we'd better stop using the term Deity, since Deus is just another form of Zeus.  For that matter we'd better stop saying "God", since that term also originally came from pagan worship ceremonies.  And we would have to throw out the New Testament as well, since it uses θεος (theos), which was also used for polytheistic gods!)  Please note, I am not saying that all religions are the equal or the same; there are many important differences between religions and it matters which one we believe.  Yes, the Jews are the Chosen People.  But God is not only the god of the Jews, but of the pagans also.

With that excessively long introduction, I now present the "Hymn to Zeus", written by Cleanthes (c. 330 - c. 230 BC), the second leader of Stoicism:

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.

Cleanthes recognizes that God created the world through his Word, that we are created in his image, that we ought to behave rationally but are foolishly drawn to evil, and that we need for God to intervene to show us the true way, and to save us.

About 250 years later, the Deity heard this prayer and answered it by sending his Word to save us from our sins.  The Word had always existed and was the light of the world.  But now it entered the world.  St. John writes:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created.
Life was in Him,
and that life was the light of men.
That light shines in the darkness,
yet the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man named John
who was sent from God.
He came as a witness
to testify about the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but he came to testify about the light.
The true light, who gives light to everyone,
was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and the world was created through Him,
yet the world did not recognize Him.
He came to His own,
and His own people did not receive Him.
But to all who did receive Him,
He gave them the right to be children of God,
to those who believe in His name,
who were born,
not of blood,
or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man,
but of God.

The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning Him and exclaimed,
“This was the One of whom I said,
‘The One coming after me has surpassed me,
because He existed before me.’”)
Indeed, we have all received grace after grace
from His fullness,
for the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The One and Only Son—
the One who is at the Father’s side—
He has revealed Him.

No one has ever came to God, except through his Word; the Word which existed beforehand and gave light to Enoch, Melchizedek, Jethro, Job, Epimenides, Socrates, Plato, Cleanthes, and any of the other pagans who sought after God but who lived before Christ's birth.  But now that Jesus has come into the world, we are rescued from ignorance, and we can now place our faith explicitly in a tangible salvation which was revealed to us from Heaven.

"But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.  For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it."  (Matt. 13:16-17)

Thank you, Jesus for coming into the world.  And Merry Christmas to everyone!

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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9 Responses to Descent of the Word

  1. Philip Wainwright says:

    Amen! and Merry Christmas to you too. And thanks for this blog, which never fails to stimulate the image of the universal Word of Reason in me.

    Whose translation of Cleanthes is that?

  2. Bob Kurland says:

    Thank you Aron for a beautiful, timely and moving post. I see that St. John's has worked its wonders well.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours and to all who read this.
    Bob Kurland

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Merry Christmas to both of you!

    Sorry, I meant to include a link to the webpage I got it from, and then didn't [now fixed]. According to

    it's "M. A. C. Ellery 1976".

    If you want to compare to other translations, here's another, and yet another in a pdf of an old book by a certain E. H. Blakeney, which also has the original Greek.

    I picked the translation I did because I wanted one which emphasized the translation of λόγος as the divine Word, to match the Gospel of John. But I can't vouch for its accuracy in other respects, and I'm a little perplexed about why "Word of Reason" reappears on the last line, which I don't see in any of the other translations or (so far as I can tell) a derivative of λόγος in the last line. I do see νόμος (law), but it seems spotty to translate this in the exact same way as λόγος!

    But regrettably I've forgotten most of what I learned about Greek from St. John's; foreign languages were never my strong suit. So I'm not the right person to accuse M. A. C. Ellery of giving me the NLT of Cleanthes. (And if it turns out it's The Message version of Cleanthes, I apologize to everyone...)

  4. Scott Church says:

    I'm looking forward to reading this soon as I'm able... it looks fascinating.

    Aron, let me take this opportunity to wish you, Ste. Nicole and your family a merry and blessed Christmas. Thank you so much for this blog, for your mind and heart, and for the blessing you've been in my life. Truly God has raised you up in an age of need, where so many wander lost, confused, misled, and grace and light are so scarce, and made you a blessing to many. Thank you!

  5. g says:

    Is it quite right to say that Cleanthes sees the world being created through the Logos, as in John 1? I don't see that in his hymn. The thing through which all things are created is the two-edged thunderbolt. He has the Logos (1) moving through all things, (2) mingling with the sun and stars, and (3) somehow brought into being, or into unity with everything, or into control of everything, by Zeus's joining all things, good and bad, into one, and that's it. Am I missing something?

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Hi g, long time no see.

    Looking back over the text, I think I agree with you that poem doesn't explcitly say that the universe was created through the λόγος, if by that we mean that the λόγος pre-existed creation and was the an agent in that act (as in John 1). But one should bear in mind that the meaning of λόγος is Greek is not just "word", but also ratio, rationality, meaning, etc. If Cleanthes is identifying the λόγος with the divine order or reason, immanent in Nature, then perhaps giving the universe order, and instilling it with the λόγος, are in fact synonymous acts.

    In any case, we should probably not read back into the poem a clear doctrine of creation ex nihilo, in the Christian sense, since I think the usual Greek view was that the universe is eternal. Also, the scholarship on Stoicism seems to say that they tended towards a pantheistic view of the relationship between God and the universe, although I'm not sure what they base this on. Certainly in this text, God seems to be at least morally distinct from finite creatures such as ourselves...

    Anyway, it would be interesting to study the continued use of the concept λόγος in later Greek philosophy. By the time we get to Philo of Alexandria, the λόγος is identified as a pre-existing agent of creation, but he was a Hellenistic Jew so it's not surpising his take was closer.

  7. g says:

    Yes, if logos = order in the universe, or (for different reasons) if logos = divine mind, then creation (either ex nihilo or, as it were, ex tohu bohu) is more or less the same thing as imbuing with logos. But of course that means that if Cleanthes doesn't see what's happening with what-he-calls-the-logos that way -- if, e.g., he sees the logos as guided by Zeus through an already-existing and already-structured universe, which seems to me to be what's going on here -- then he probably isn't using "logos" quite like that :-).

    There surely must already be great heaps of scholarship on the history of this sort of use of "Logos"; it's much too interesting -- and much too obviously interesting, especially as one part of the history would appear to be one of the more intriguing foundational documents of what turned into the world's dominant religion -- to have been neglected. A bit of googling finds, e.g., that Philo talks about "a man whose name is the East", "who in no respect differs from the divine image", whom he also calls "the firstborn", apparently the creator of at least some things, and he probably means what-he-calls-the-Logos, so there's no shortage of parallels here with the chap to whom St John gave the same title!

    It seems clear to me that John and Paul have both read Philo, or read people who have read Philo, or heard from people who read works of others who were read by Philo, or some such thing. You might prefer a differently-flavoured explanation where all of them are reporting divine revelations of some sort. At any rate, the similarities surely aren't outright coincidence.

  8. Aron Wall says:

    I've read a number of New Testament commentaries which referred to Philo at one point or another, so I'm pretty sure his role hasn't been entirely neglected.

    I am travelling so I don't have my print copy of Philo's works on me, but you seem to be referring to the following passage:

    I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: `Behold, a man whose name is the East!' A very novel appelation indeed, if you consider it spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the East has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his Father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypical patterns."

    It would seem from this quote that Philo explicitly denies that this "man" is in fact an incarnate, fleshly human being, but rather he thinks it refers to the immaterial Logos.

    The "man in the East" appears to be the Septuagint form of Zech 6:12 , so the "companion of Moses" must mean not a contemporary, but a fellow member of the band of prophets.

    This is in the context of a Messianic prophecy in which Zechariah puts a crown on the head of the high priest at the time of the return from exile (who happened to be named Jesus) and indicated that he prefigured somebody yet to come (cf. Zech 3) who would build the temple of the Lord and rule as both a king and a priest. The Christian interpretation of this is obvious.

    The interesting thing about Philo's take is that he seems to acknowledge that the Messianic prophecies refer to an divine or quasi-divine individual, but denies that they refer to a literal flesh and blood human being. This is exactly the opposite of how a modern day rabbinic Jew would read the passage.

    As for the role of divine revelation in all this, I certainly wouldn't use it to avoid postulating a literary relationship between St. John and these previous sources. But I do think that God was somehow behind this process of development. Most obviously in the Hebrew prophets, but more subtly in the development in Greek philosophy of ideas related to ethical monotheism. (This can be traced at least as far back as Socrates, who did after all say at his trial that "the god" had told him to go around asking people annoying questions.) If God exists, then reflection about his role in creation should have at least the potential, especially with his guidance, to end up on the truth. I think there are situations that are intermediate between God dictating doctrine to you out of the blue, and having to figure things out without help.

    On the other hand, even if we suppose hypothetically for the sake of argument that there had been no prior divine revelation before Jesus, it still seems natural that John would use the existing ideas in his culture to try to explain the meaning of what he had personally seen and witnessed. No idea is so new that we don't draw on an existing stock of ideas when we try to explain it to other people.

  9. Calvin Marshall says:

    Very nice, Aron. Thanks for this post. I am jealous of your Great Books education. What a treasure.

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