The Divine Name

By Jørgen Christensen-Ernst

(An article in the Danish newspaper Jyllandssposten 26th of April 1998 by the same author re-written in English.)

In an article in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten 22.03 Bachelor of Divinity Henning Astrup presents his opinion on the use of God’s name. In the article he for example states that the Jews regarded God’s name as too holy to be pronounced.

It is true that Jews to a great extend avoid using God’s name. It is replaced by “adonay” (Lord), “hash-shem” (the Name) and at times even with a fusion of the two (adoshem). According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who was a younger contemporary of Jesus, the Divine Name was not used at the time of Jesus either (Antiquities, 2. book, chapter 12, paragraph 4). On the other hand, in a footnote to this section the translator William Whiston states: “It is however no doubt but both these cautious concealments were taught Josephus by the Pharisees, a body of men at once very wicked and very superstitious.”

The name was known

Even if one would disagree with this viewpoint one would still have to admit that Jesus was not likely to adjust to the Pharisees or to respect local taboos. Nor does it mean that the Jews never had pronounced the divine name. The name is found in a text engraved by a neighbouring king, namely Mesha of Moab during the time of the kings in Israel.[1] The divine name occurs in this text written with its four consonants. As king Mesha hardly was a reader of Israelite literature, one has the right to suppose that he knew the name because it was commonly used in his day.

This assertion is supported by the fact that the unwillingness of the Jews to use God’s name did not prevent them from using it in proper names. For instance the name “Nethanyahu” has the meaning “Yahuh (or Jehovah or Yahveh) has given.”

The divine name and its shortened for was and still is an element in many proper names of Jewish origin used by both Jews and Christians.[2] The reason for this is that people originally had no fear of using God’s name and that the proper names that contain it in time have become “common property.”

This takes us to the question of the correct pronunciation of the name.

In a footnote to the text quoted above William Whiston states that God’s name “seems to have been originally pronounced Jahoh og Jao.”[3] This would be consistent with the form it takes when it is a part of Hebrew names. Perhaps the last “h” has had a patach furtivum so that it has been pronounced something like Yahûah.

An artificial pronunciation

Personally I doubt the common explanation that God’s name originally was a hiphîl or causative and therefore pronounced Yahweh. This would not match the forms it takes when it appears in Hebrew proper names and when the meaning of the name is discussed in the Old Testament no causative sense is implied.

But even if the form Jehovah is not the correct pronunciation of the name and even if it is an “artificial pronunciation” this would not mean that the pronunciation is far from the original. (Please try to say Yahûah fast and try the same with Yahwah as the hiphîl may have sounded!) If though the pronunciation is far form the original this would still be no valid reason for removing the name or for pretending that the Bible has no proper name for God.

Wrong pronunciation

The way the name Jesus is pronounced in most languages is wrong. In English and in French the first phoneme in the name does not exist in Hebrew or Greek. In Spanish the first phoneme of the name belongs to a totally different letter in both Hebrew and Greek. In Turkish the Protestant Bible translators have used the form İsa which is taken directly from the Qur’an.[4]

Even the Greek form Yesous[5] that is used in the Greek New Testament is an incorrect form of the Hebrew Yeshûa[6] where the “a” represents a sound a little similar to “r” in the word “or” in British English.

God’s name is one of the most frequently used words in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (cf. Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, George V. Wigram, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, appendix pages 20 – 23). To remove the name is a sign neither of honesty nor of professionalism.

When we read the Letter of Paul to the Romans chapter 10 it may look as if Henning Astrup has got a point. The word Lord is used as if it in all cases refers to Jesus. But this is only apparently so.

We have to keep in mind that the author of the Letter to the Romans was the apostle Paul who could read and speak Hebrew (cf. Acts chapter 22) and who had received instruction from the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. So when Paul quoted the Old Testament he knew where God’s name occurred in the text and when Franz Delizsch (who was not one of Jehovah’s Witness) translated the Letter to the Romans from Greek into Hebrew he inserted God’s name where it occurred in quotations from the Old Testament. If one reads Romans 10 with God’s name – or just its four consonants – inserted in the right places, the reading gives a different result from what is suggested in the authorised Danish translation and other translations where God’s name is hidden. In the chapter there is a clear distinction between the Lord God (Jehovah – Yahweh – Yahûh) and Jesus whom God “hath made … both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2;36)

Now of course someone could claim that those two in reality are the same one, but that would look like Sabellianism, wouldn’t it?

[1] The 9th century B.C.E.

[2] And by Muslims as well, for example Zakariyya [زكرّيا ] from the Hebrew name Zakaryahu [זכריהו]

[3] As the phoneme J does not exist in Hebrew J has to be replaced with Y.

[4] عيسى

[5] Ιησους

[6] יהושׁע [yehôshua] or the shorter form ישׁוע  [yeshûa]

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Islam and laicism in Turkey

By Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, Istanbul 2002 (Translated 2007)

When people in the West discuss Islam they usually discuss its classical version as it appears in the Quran and Islamic law. Muslims in Turkey, however, cannot be lumped together with Muslims from other Islamic countries. Many, Turks included, feel that the country suffers from a sort of split personality because it has placed one leg in the West and the other one in the Islamic world.

One does not need to read a lot of Turkish newspapers of various political and religious persuasions to understand that people in Turkey recognize the existence of the problem, but they naturally disagree as to its causes as well as to its solution. Some devout Muslims complain about encroachments on their religious freedom and even about being worse off than the Christian minorities in the country. On the other hand, Muslims who are oriented towards the West claim that the practicing Muslims intend to slip in Islamic law through the back door.

One may ask whether the religious problems in Turkey are to be found in Islam or in the special brand of secularism in this country. Or perhaps the root of the problem is to be found in the peculiar attitude to religious freedom found with both the practicing Muslims and with those who support secularism. Understanding of this bifurcation within the culture of Turkey is important as this problem affects nearly everything that is going on in the country from domestic and foreign politics to art and literature.


According to some Western scholars, and many Muslims too, Islam is not just another religion as for instance Christianity. It is also a political and social ideology comprising all aspects of society and human life. Some try to find the reason behind this in the so-called “principle of Divine Unity” or “tevhit” as it is found in the primary sources of Islam. Some even claim that because of this idea Islam is imbued with totalitarian ambitions.

In this connection one should not forget that the opinion and practice of most religious people have nothing to do with the primary sources of their faith. In spite of the merciful and nearly pacifistic background of Christianity Christendom has seen the most atrocious outrages against humanity. So instead of seeking the answers in the primary sources of Islam it might be more obvious to look for the answer in the understanding of Islam found with the believers. And here things get complicated.

Contrary to what is assumed in Western Europe the Turks often disagree on religious matters. This applies to both doctrine and practice. The majority of the population in Turkey is Sunni Muslim, but there is also a considerable Alevite minority. These are regarded as heretics by many of the Sunnites. The Alevites normally do not frequent the mosques, they do not fast and they have their own rituals. They are naturally not interested in having Islamic law as this would make them fall out with the state.

But also the Sunni Muslims disagree. Among them one can find anything from deists to radical Islamists. The liberal Muslims are not interested in having an Islamic state that interferes with their lifestyle. These Muslims are often the target of criticism from Islamists like Abderrahman Dilipak who writes (1991, page 175): “If Islam will come, will it be prohibited to drink alcohol? And what about our relationship to women and girls …? These are their biggest problems. ‘Are we also going to wear a headscarf,’ they ask. … Nobody is forced into being a Muslim. Still they do not want to leave their religion. They say: ‘Let us keep our religion, but continue to do what we always did. Let us not adjust to religion, but let religion adjust to us.'”

Dilipak argues in favour of religious freedom with the words (1991, page 176): “Let people live according to what they believe and freely express what they think. Let people live in freedom. Let us live together in peace.” But the following words of his make Muslims with a secular approach uneasy (page 90): “It is without discussion both logical and consistent for a Christian to be a secularist. But this would be inconsistent on the part of a Muslim. To claim to be both a secularist and a Muslim is a ludicrous claim that is both self-contradictory and inconsistent.”

Political Islam

The support behind parties with an Islamic programme witnessed since the eighties indicates that many Muslims in Turkey want Islam to play a greater role in the legislation. Many Alevites and liberal Sunnites are uncertain about what is going to happen if the religiously inclined politicians get more power. Their fears are sought justified by the experience they have had with radical Muslims, especially with the religiously inclined Refah party in the middle of the nineties. A mayor in Konya for example suggested having separate school busses for girls and in Sivas Sunnite extremists set fire to a hotel where a meeting was held by a group of intellectuals. People in the Refah party have not tried to conceal their intention of limiting the sale of alcohol. At some universities students who do not fast during the month of Ramadan are beaten up by religious radicals.

Concerning the situation in the nineties David Shankland observes (1999, page 116): “The rise of political Islam in Turkey has created a situation where plurality of religious belief is not bolstered, but threatened. In effect, this means that where people do not wish to conform to matters of religion, they may be threatened, forced to accede against their will, or worst killed. It is painful to liberal sensivities to spell these things out but absurd to ignore them.” With these words he also expresses the feelings of Muslims with a secular approach. They are convinced that freedom can only be upheld if secularism is forced upon the country. They are satisfied with the interference of the National Security Council on the 28th of February 1997 where political Islam for the time being was checked.

In whichever way the primary sources of Islam are interpreted, it is certain that many Turkish Muslims regard their religion as a totalitarian ideology. Professor Sırma (1997, page 101) writes: “Contrary to the secular opinion religion comprises all aspects of human existence from education to politics, from worship to social activities.” In the foreword to his book the same author writes (page 9 ): “What we want is emri bi’l-ma’ruf.” This Arabic term in its Turkish variation means ‘to impose what is good.’ This of course sounds quite acceptable, but to a secular Muslim this means ‘Islamic law.’ As Dilipak observes (191, page 160): “Islam is a religion where worship is politics and politics worship.” This thought is expressed in another way by Ziyaüddin Serdar (202, page 8): “If equal rights are given to Islam and to the state, there is a danger of an authoritarian and despotic system because all power will be left with those who rule.”

 İçtihat, tarikat and takiye

The misgivings of secular Muslims when it comes to Islamic law has to do with the idea that the door of “içtihat” is closed. This means that the legal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam has been closed and is final. This constrains the believer within the traditional interpretation of Islamic law that is more than a thousand years old. True, intellectual Muslims like Professor Yaşar Nuri Öztürk have argued in favour for a reopening of the ‘door of interpretation,’ but most of the practicing Sunnites in Turkey are traditionalists, so there is no sign of any immediate change.

Another reason for the concern of the secularists is found with the Muslim brotherhoods, the so-called “tarikat.” These brotherhoods usually have their roots in Sufism and they are very influential among the faithful. These brotherhoods claim that they have no political ambitions, but secularists fear that their influence will push the country towards Islamism.

This fear is often sought justified by claiming that the brotherhoods, the religious movements and many radical Muslims practice “takiye.” This means that they on purpose express themselves in a way that conceals their real intentions and ambitions. In other words, the secularist accuse the Muslim activists of being basically untrustworthy: They claim that many of them pretend to support democracy and religious freedom, but one cannot trust them. This suspicion has automatically turned into mutual distrust and has resulted in mutual dislike.

Secularism in Turkey

The word secularism normally denotes at total separation of “church and state,” but this does not apply to the secularism of Turkey. Dilipak scornfully calls it “byzantinism” and thus implies that religion is controlled by the state.

It is correct that secularism in Turkey has been mixed with “devletçilik” (etatism, centralism) which is one of the basics of Kemalism. By bringing matters of religion under the control of the state both Muslims and non-Muslims should be guaranteed religious freedom. This should furthermore ensure that religion would remain a private matter and that Islam would ‘stay inside the mosque.’ According to the jurists S.M. Ünal and A. Akdamar the problem is relevant and acute because Turkey was a theocracy before it became a secular system. (1983, page 35) Two of the most fundamental concepts of the Ottoman world scheme were ümmet (the community of believers) and din-u-devlet (religion and state) which put anybody calling himself a Muslim under obligation to live according to the rules and the state under obligation to enforce them.

Many practicing Muslims do not want their religion to ‘stay inside the mosque.’ They would like Islam to play a more active role in the political and social life of Turkey (Özek 1962, page 14). But every time they try to change things in that direction, they are checked – usually by the military and to the satisfaction of liberal Muslims. This has made them say that the new religion of Turkey consists of Kemalism and secularism. They complain that their religious freedom is violated, for instance by the prohibition of women wearing head covering in the universities. According to Ocak (1999, pages 134, 135) the situation has resulted in a bifurcation of society with two sorts of Turkish, two sorts of history and two sorts of Islam as the official Islam does not match the religion of the people. Başgil (1996, page 183) observes that this situation makes civil servants and politicians play the role of reformers and doctors in divinity.

A solution?

It seems that the problem is created by the attitude of the parties involved. The religious are not inclined to relinquish their totalitarian demands on their fellow believers and the secularists do not dare to grant the devout Muslims full religious freedom. Both parties are uneasy about freedom of religion: The religious feel that freedom of religion for the liberals would be contrary to Islamic law. The liberal are certain that full religious freedom would be a deathblow to democracy. Başgil speaks about religious and political fanaticism (page 172). Perhaps fear would be a better word than fanaticism: Fear of abandoning tradition and fear of abandoning modernity.

The wound that has been caused by the clash between traditionalism and modernity can only be healed if both parties unreservedly accept religious freedom. But this would mean accepting that the state, whether it is Islamic or secular, has no right to interfere with the conscience of the individual citizen.


This article was written in 2002. In the meantime many things have changed. However, many of the problems discussed are still of current interest.


Başgil, A.F.: Din ve Lâiklik (Istanbul 1996)

Berkes, Niyazi: The Development of Secularism in Turkey (London 1964)

Dilipak, Abderrahman: Laisizm (Istanbul 1991)

Mardin, Şerif: Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey, in J.P. Piscatori (ed.): Islam in the Political Process (Cambridge 1983)

Ocak, A.Y.: Türkler, Türkiye ve İslam (Istanbul 1999)

Özek, Çetin: Türkiyede lâiklik (Istanbul 1962)

Serdar, Z. and M. Gaiberi: Devlet ile din bir olursa faşizm gelir! (Radikal, 13. May 2002)

Shankland, David: Islam and Society in Turkey (Eothen Press 1999)

Sırma, İ.S.: Alaturka Demokrasi – Alaturka Laiklik (Istanbul 1997)

Turkish Daily News, Ankara (Daily newspaper)

Ünal, S.T. and A. Akdamar: Türkiye’de Laiklik İlkesi ve Yehova’nın Şahitleri (Istanbul 1983)

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This paper was written in 2002 in connection with a research project at the Bosperus University in Istanbul. While some of the observations may be outdated, the subject still has some interest to students of Middle Eastern affairs.

Jorgen Christensen-Ernst

Within the last 25 years the world has witnessed a steady growth in manifestations of Muslim self-assertion. Turkey provides an excellent field for studying the recent Islamic development. Turkey has functioned as a secular republic for nearly eighty years although the large majority of the populace is Muslim. Studying the reasons behind the upsurge of traditional and militant Islam in this country may help countries with large Muslim minorities to understand and deal with the related problems. As said by Professor İlter Turan: “It may be useful to study each country individually to understand how religion and politics are related, and how religion influences political culture and why. Turkey is an interesting case in this context, because, since the founding of the Turkish Republic, a conscious effort has been made to separate the religious and political domains of societal life.”[1]

In this paper I do not intend to explain the political aspect of Islamism, although the context makes it impossible not to touch upon it. All I want to do is to explore the basis for and the various stimulants behind the resurgence of Islamic self-assertion in Turkey, especially since 1980, and thus gain an insight into the situational context while leaving analysis of the vocabulary and discourse to another paper.

The Historical Background

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal (later named Atatürk) started a project of reducing the power of traditional Islam in the lives of the Turks. He had the opinion that if religion was allowed to play the same role as before, the country would not be able to modernise.[2] He himself had been referring to Islamic values to mobilise the nation during the war of liberation from 1920 to 1922,[3] but after he came to power he began to have Islamic institutions removed and certain traditional Muslim habits prohibited. In 1924 the Caliphate was abolished and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the religious schools (medrese) and the religious courts closed. In this way he neutralised the ulema class of scholastic Muslim scholars and jurists who had been monitoring the tradition in Islam. The reaction came immediately. Already next year a rebellion in Eastern Turkey led by a sheikh of the religious Nakşibendi brotherhood had to be suppressed, and shortly after, the lodges of the Sufi brotherhoods were closed and the tombs used for popular worship and the religious brotherhoods themselves were banned.[4]

These steps taken by Atatürk and his men have been interpreted as anti-religious and even atheistic, but evidently it was not religious faith and worship that was the target. In his hand-written notes on the subject “Freedom” (dated 27/1 1930) he wrote under the subheading “Tolerance”: “In the Turkish Republic everybody worships god [sic.] the way he wants. Nothing is done to anybody because of his religious ideas. The Turkish Republic has no official religion. In Turkey there is nobody who tries to impose the religious ideas of anybody on anybody else by force. This will not be tolerated.”[5] One might say that what Atatürk and his associates were after, was a sort of Islamic reformation where faith – brought into harmony with its original sources – was a personal conviction which in no way could be forced upon or direct the state and its subjects.[6] In Atatürk’s opinion it was the scholastic interpretation of Islam and the irrational approach to religion that were to be blamed for the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in order to break with the past he went even further. In 1926 a secular Civil Law code was adopted. In 1928 the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet. The year 1932 saw the foundation of Türk Dil Kurumu (The Turkish Language Society). One of the purposes of this institution was to clean out Arabic and Persian words with their connotations from the language of the Turks and replace them with words of Turkish or Western origin and thus sever the mental and emotional ties to the past. In 1937 the state was called “laic” by amendment to the constitution.

After the death of Atatürk in 1938 the reforms were carried on, but already before the party he had founded, the Cumhuriyet Halk partisi (CHP, “the Republican Peoples Party”), lost the election to the liberal Demokrat Partisi (DP, “the Democrat Party”) in 1950 the strong secular stand of the state was relaxed. The new government was more inclined to follow a religious discourse although the tarikats, or religious brotherhoods, were still suppressed. However, during the 1957 elective campaign the party made an alliance with the religious Nurcu movement,[7] but on the 27th of May 1960 the military made a coup and closed the DP. In 1961 a new constitution reaffirmed the secular stand of the Republic. The successor of DP was Adalet Partisi (AP, “the Justice Party”) which also had a relaxed attitude towards religion. In 1970 the Millî Nizam Partisi (MNP, “the National Order Party”) was founded by Mr. Necmettin Erbakan. This party was sponsored by the Nakişbendi tarikat and was closed down by the constitutional court in 1971 after a second military coup. In 1972 it was resurrected with the name Millî Selamet Partisi (MSP, “the National Salvation Party”) which functioned until it was closed down by the military coup on the 12th of September 1980. During this period Islamism had been active, but not overwhelmingly so.

This changed when the military stepped down and the country returned to democracy with the new constitution in 1982. Some still supported the successor of AP, as did people from the Nurcu movement. Others from this movement supported the new Anavatan Partisi (ANAP, “the Motherland Party”) or the heir of MSP, the Refah Partisi (RP, “the Welfare Parti”) which was founded in 1983. The first party to win an election after the coup was ANAP whose founder Mr. Turgut Özal became the prime minister. Later, during the election in 1995 RP managed to get 22 percent of the votes and Mr. Erbakan became prime minister, partly because of his religious programme.

During the 20 years since the return to democracy after the coup in 1980, Islam has become increasingly visible in the public sphere in Turkey.[8] This visibility is not just a question of personal choice in ways of dressing as for example in the head-covering of women. Like DP and its successor AP, their successor has been supported by people from the religious Nurcu movement while others from this group have supported ANAP.[9] Mr. Necmettin Erbakan who has now been the driving force behind several parties with Islamic views, was in the beginning supported by the İskender Paşa group of the Nakşibendi group. Later this tarikat’ group fell out with Mr. Erbakan and started to support another political party.[10] The late president of the Turkish Republic and founder of ANAP, Mr. Turgut Özal, is said to have been a member of the Nakşibendi tarikat.[11] To be regarded as a Turk one must have an Islamic background.[12] “To be Islamic has become as important as to be Turkish.”[13] To convert to another religion is frowned upon. In Sivas a mob of Sunni Muslims set a hotel on fire where a group of intellectuals held a conference with the excuse that they were heretics. Many were killed in the flames. Scores of people have been assassinated by militant Islamic groups as the Hizbullah.[14] The Refah Partisi with its religious programme managed to get 22 percent of the votes at the election in 1995.[15] (In 1998 RP was banned by court, and Mr. Erbakan was suspended from politics.) As late as in 2001 the chief of police in the province of Diyarbakır was killed together with five policemen by the Hizbullah.

Reasons behind the Islamic development

Several reasons may be given for the religious “revival” which came off with a slow start in the fifties but has gained momentum especially within the last twenty years, and the explanation is without any doubt to be found in a combination of these.

Social reasons

Since the middle of the 20th century there has been a development of industrial capitalism in Turkey. As a result many have left the villages and migrated to the big cities. The development of capitalism resulted in loss of income and status to a large group with a traditional Islamic background who came to blame the West and westernised institutions in Turkey for their problems. They felt that the changed situation in the country and the increase of dishonesty and loose conduct was brought about by Western decadence. Their reaction against the West came to be a reaction in favour of Islam and in favour political parties who promised a return to lost traditional values.[16] This has not just been interpreted as ‘the underprivileged finding comfort in religion.’ Religion has also provided them with an identity and with a network of social relations.[17]

Influence from other Muslim countries

The Muslims in Turkey may be divided into three groups: the modern, the traditional and the radical Muslims. It is especially with the radical group one finds a direct influence from outside the country. These circles have often referred to and quoted from men like Abul Ala al-Mawdudi, Ali Shariati and Sayyid Qutb.[18] Groups as Hizbullah and Menzil have been proven to have had very close links to Iran.[19]   Dr. Yalçın Akdoğan draws attention to the activity of translating foreign Muslim authors into Turkish, especially since 1980.[20] These translations appeared in articles that were read, not by radical Islamists only, but also by people with a traditional Muslim background.

Islam used against communism

After the coup on the 12th of September 1980 the people in charge tried to revive what they called “manevî değerler” (moral values) as a bulwark against the communistic world view.[21] In his speeches the new president of the Republic, Kenan Evren often referred to Islam and to traditional values. Religious lessons in school were made compulsory, even for children with a non-Muslim background, and this has been claimed to have contributed to the fast development of Islamism during the following years.[22]

It should be mentioned that also Atatürk used Islam to mobilise the people around his cause, but he evidently had a very clear notion about what he intended to do next to keep the country on the secular rail.[23] The development since 1980 may indicate that this was not the case then.

Political reasons

In a democracy voters are important. Consequently persons and parties who want to come to power have – at least to some extent – to promise to give people what they want. In 1946 green light had been given for a multiparty system in Turkey. Until then the reforms of the Kemalists had especially affected the cities, while people in the countryside had continued in their old ways. As the religious evidently were going to give their votes to the Demokrat Partisi (DP), some in the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP), which had been the only party in power, thought that it was time to make concessions to religion. They lost the election to DP, but also this party started a religious discourse when their government faced economic problems in the late fifties. Since 1970 Turkey has had a party with an Islamic programme that has been closed down several times and re-emerged with another name. In 1995 it managed to get 22 percent of the votes. The popularity of a party stating that it is in favour of strengthening religion further easily tempts other parties to do the same. Yalçın Akdoğan observes: ”After the 12th of September a merciless fight started between the three parties ANAP, DYP [Doğru Yol Partisi][24] and RP to carry off the votes of these [mentioned] tarikats and religious groups.”[25]

But something else was at work. After the turbulent years in the late 1970s the people behind the coup in 1980 sought ways to calm the political sentiments of the country. On the period after the coup Binnaz Toprak and Faruk Birtek from the Bosphorus University observe: “Both the legislation and the political discourse of the post-1980 period revolved around the key concepts of national unity, ideological uniformity, and political stability. These aims were to be achieved by a process of depolitization, coupled with a concerted effort to socialize the new generation within the framework of the neo-republican ethos. The idea of the Islamic umma, a community of believers who are united by the same faith, seems to have set the model for a new sense of community which can consolidate social unity and solidarity and thereby eliminate the conflicts of opposing ideologies.”[26]

When speaking of the political reasons behind the resurgence of Islamism in Turkey we have to discuss a phenomenon based on clientelism called kadrolaşma in Turkish. This institution works the following way: When a person comes into power, he tries to get as many of his people as possible into a position of responsibility under him. When a political party comes into power, it is a normal procedure that it tries to replace civil servants with its own people. This can be done either by pensioning the old crew or by assigning them to positions where they have no influence. This may naturally have huge consequences for the future and development of a country. When RP was in power in the middle of the nineties, this party is said to have instituted a ‘wholesale change of personnel in the bureaucracy’, even trying to replace judges and prosecutors.[27] In 1998 it was closed down by the Constitutional Court and was replaced by Fazilet Partisi (FP),[28] and when this was closed the Saadet Partisi (SP, the Prosperity Party) followed.

Ideological reasons

The Kemalists wanted ethics based on nationalism, and although nationalism has been widely accepted on the expense of the ümmet [or umma] idea, this has not been enough to “provide a social ethos that appealed to the heart”.[29] This resulted in a mental bifurcation of society: The Westernisers, mostly concentrated in the bigger cities, who looked ahead optimistically expecting a future in a modern secular society where religion would have the same functions and influence as in Protestant Western countries, and the traditionalists whose world view and ethics were based on their historical background and who were mainly concentrated in the countryside. In this section of the population Islam remained unreformed. When these people moved into the big cities due to changes in the economic situation in the country, they took with them their traditional ways, their ethics and to some extent their ümmet oriented world view.

This found together with an ideology based on the concept of Turkish-Islamic synthesis that had been developed in the 1970. This ideology where the religious aspect was highlighted “saw the uniqueness of Turkish culture in its synthesis of sunni Islam and the historical heritage of Turcic peoples: a synthesis of family, the mosque, and the barracks.” At the same time and for the reasons mentioned above, a “hidden Islamic discourse” in the state ideology should serve to unify the society.[30] In this way the radical secularism of the republicans was to some extent abandoned. Consequently the state itself became the planner of the religious life of the population with the ümmet-idea as the foundation.


With the closing of the madrasas in 1924 all education came to be in the hands of the government. Still the secular way of teaching was rather old-fashioned consisting in making the children memorise and without any ambition of teaching them how to analyse. In spite of a lot of efforts and good intentions on the part of politicians, civil servants and teachers, the results were as weak as the basis.

But it is not only the system that has fallen short when it comes to supporting or improving the level of education in Turkey. Some villagers do not send their children to school, and it is especially the girls who are kept at home. The newspaper Radikal (28.01 2002, page 5) reported that in the town of Niğde alone 1,800 families had been fined for not sending their children to school.

The other side of the coin is the religious education: The imam-hatip schools. These schools should supply traditional religious education to men who were going to serve in the mosques. The curriculum was traditionally Islamic and thus a continuation of the madrasa tradition from the Ottoman period. The number of these schools rose from 7 in 1952 to 464 in 1997, and they have been claimed to strengthen the influence of the orthodox and make the problem of polarisation in the modern society worse.[31]   These schools, that especially have been popular among parents of with a rural or lower-middle-class background who want their children to learn the traditional values, have served a purpose beyond the original intention. The graduates from the imam-hatip schools are far too numerous to find work in the mosques of Turkey. Besides, many of the students are girls who from the very start are barred from working as imam. Many of these graduates have found jobs as civil servants in governmental institutions. This, combined with the institution of kadrolaşma described above, has prompted concern in secular circles.[32] By the year 1999 it was recommended that at least the middle-school part of these schools be closed.[33]

The imam-hatip schools have added impetus to another interesting phenomenon in Turkey: The many Islamic periodicals. Many graduates from these schools have started producing and writing for radical Islamic journals, which again are read by students and by parents of prospective students and thus snowballing the effect.[34]

Another way of Islamic education in Turkey has been provided is by the private Koran Courses.   As seen from the National Security Council Recommendations of the 28th of February 1997, these courses are regarded as a potential danger for the secular republic and are monitored closely.[35]

The tarikats and other Islamic movements[36]

The tarikats or religious brotherhoods, many of them of Sufi orientation, were banned in 1925 and have been illegal ever since. However, the growing permissiveness of the state has made them surface again. Not all of them are equally strong, and not all of them are regarded as equally dangerous. It is mainly the Nakşibendi groups[37] that give reason for concern, partly because they functions well without the lodges and rituals used by other tarikats, and therefore thrive very well under cover. There has been some disagreement on the extent to which these groups have political ambitions. Some find that the groups are harmless, only interested keeping Islam within orthodoxy. Others agree with Şerif Mardin who observes that “the Nakşibendi case leads us to think of Islam as the primary, ideological anchor, the matrix for thinking and action which has the basic ideological role to play, and of Muslim political activism, as well as diffuse democratization, as something generated in the interstices of the faith.”[38] It was one of the Nakşibendi groups who helped Mr. Necmettin Erbakan to found the religiously oriented Millî Nizam Partisi (MNP) in 1970[1],[39] and it has also supported the Anavatan Partisi (ANAP).

There are more tarikats in Turkey than the Nakşibendi tarikat, but they are not thought to be as strong. Only the Nurcu movement, whose eponym is Said Nursi (1873 – 1960) from Bitlis in Turkey, seems to be equally powerful. This group is not considered a traditional tarikat but can be described as a movement which tries to unite Western technical and scientific advancements with traditional Islamic values. The members are not bound to any sheikh the same way as in the tarikats based on Sufism, but rather to the Nur Risaleleri, the writings of Said Nursi.[40] Also this group has given evidence of political involvement. The Nurcu movement has generally supported DP and its successors AP and DYP, although some from the group have preferred ANAP.[41] In a letter Said Nursi himself has written: “We find ourselves under obligation to keep the Democrats in power for the sake of the benefits to the Koran.”[42]

Globalisation and post-modernism[43]

It has been held that religion will decline as a result of economic development and Islam has been viewed as an ideology of protest as small traders and artisans lose income and status due to globalisation. It seems though that some in these groups thrive quite well in this new situation due to their small industries and to subcontracting. Still they complain because of lack of support from the government that has been more inclined to support larger companies.[44] Before the 1980s the state intervened mainly by means of its bureaucracy, but this has changed. “In the 1980s, the locus of decision-making shifted from the traditional bureaucratic elites to the political elites,” and now “[t]here was a constant and particularistic state invention, despite the rhetoric of ‘free interprise,’ ‘market liberalism,’ and so on.” At the same time the country has witnessed a series of corruption scandals. All this has made it easy for the Refah Partisi with its promises of an “adil düzen” (a just system) in “an egalitarian petit-bourgeois society composed of individual entrepreneurs” to attract people from this segment. Also immigrants from the countryside who have been unable to find work after moving to the cities have been attracted by the message of political Islam, partly due to its populist propaganda.[45]

Apart from this there are the influences of postmodernist tendencies.   Modernism has been described as a “Western project,” forward looking, progressive, scientific, rational, universal, and with no room for religion. Postmodernism is anti-authoritarian and sceptical. It does not accept the “grand narratives,” theories which claim to provide universal explanations and trade on the authority this gives them.

In several Muslim countries scepticism about modernism has developed since the 1960s, often because of disappointment over the outcome. This coincides with the development of radical Islam in countries as Egypt and Syria, and with the organisation of political Islam in Turkey. Until then Kemalism had been the “grand narrative,” with its goal of making Turkey a modern country at all costs.

During the last thirty years Turkey by means of television has been bombarded with Western values, Western lifestyle and Western opinion. To the extent people already have accepted the discourse of modernism, this has been a reinforcement of their ideals, but to the extent people have kept their traditional values, the grand narrative of Western modernism is met with scepticism and is rejected. One may then ask why the “grand narrative” of Islam is not met with the same scepticism.


There is an interesting aspect to the development of Islam in the Turkish Republic: The real resurgence of Islamic self-assertion did not happen immediately after the return to a multiparty system and democracy around 1950. One should have expected an eruption of Islamic ethos and discourse as soon as the pressure was relaxed. But this especially happened after the return to democracy in the 1980s. To examine why, I suggest that two aspects of the situation be taken into consideration: The basis, or breeding ground, for the development, and the stimulants.

  1. The basis: The carriers of the ideology of Kemalism were mainly concentrated in the towns. Although efforts were made to reach people in the villages, the influence was not strong enough to change the world view, ethos and values there. One of the reasons was that this task was too overwhelming for the educational system. Since 1932 Türk Dil Kurumu has been working to change Arabic words in the Turkish vocabulary into Turkish words. For some time Turkish was even used when calling to prayer from the mosques. In spite of that, many Arabic words relating to religion were kept and even used in the by the administration of the secular republic. As a result especially people in the countryside kept to their tradition which they regarded as Islamic. When people from this group later moved into the big cities due the changes in the economic situation, they were confronted with the modern ethos and discourse that were the natural consequence of Kemalism’s idea of a modern society, and they reacted against it. Some of the immigrants landed in the lowest social stratum of society losing both income and status. Others managed to become self-employed and run their businesses according to traditional values. Both groups were for different reasons ready to support a party that was promising a just system based on traditional values. This historically meant support to a party with an Islamic programme. This again would give this party a change to develop its influence in governmental institutions by means of kadrolaşma and thus prepare an Islamist breeding ground in the country. This was facilitated by the ideology of Turkish-Islamic synthesis which had been present since the 1970s.
  2. The stimulants: After the coup in 1980 the traditional values (manevî değerler) were promoted as a weapon against communism. As the traditional values had not changed a lot since Ottoman times, these meant Islamic values. These have been promoted partly by the importance given to religious education in popular schools, in the imam-hatip schools and in the private Koran-courses, partly by the more relaxed attitude towards the tarikats. At the same time radical Islam celebrated its successes in neighbouring countries, and many articles of foreign radical Islamists were translated into Turkish. In the West the scepticism of the grand narratives started to let itself be heard. To people with a traditional Muslim background in Turkey the grand narrative was Kemalism. It is true that it was mainly university students and intellectuals who were aware of postmodernist scepticism, but they in turn as new Muslim intellectuals made this way of approach available to others. This was done by means of the numerous Islamic periodicals and magazines that started to be published by radicals and by traditionalists in the 1980s. Many of the articles in these magazines were written by graduates from the imam-hatip schools. Other graduates from these schools found their way into the educational system and governmental institutions where they functioned as stimulants of Islamic ethos and discourse.

This development was very disquieting both to the Kemalists and to others who felt that this situation combined with a strong Islamic party might be damaging to the democracy and to human rights. The political aspect of this development was stopped in 1997 when the RP was closed. New parties with an Islamic tilt have appeared, but their front is divided.

But one thing has hardly changed, namely what David Shankland calls “the intensity and sheer determination of the Islamic movement.”[46] At the same time, as Şerif Mardin says: “It is doubtful, however, whether either the generals or the Turkish secular intelligentsia have a precise understanding of the admittedly diffuse and protoplasmic social forces which shape Turkish religion.”[47] It is hard to predict the effect these two elements brought together are going to have on the future of Turkey.

[1][39] Shankland (1999), page 68; Ruşen Çakır “Ne Şeriat Ne Demokrasi – Refah Partisini Anlamak” (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları 1994), pages 19 – 21; see also the speech Nakşibendi sheikh Professor M. Esad Coşan gave when his group fell out with Necmettin Erbakan, quoted in Çakır (1990), pages 48 – 54

[1] Turan, Ilter “Religion and Political Culture in Turkey” in Richard Tapper (ed.) “Islam in Modern Turkey” (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 1991), page 32.

[2] Javaid Saeed, “Islam and Modernization” (Westport, US: Praeger Publishers 1994), page 196.

[3] Doğu Perinçek, ed. “Atatürk – Din ve Laiklik Üzerine” (Istanbul: Kaynak Yayınlar 1997), pages 23-26.

[4] Davıd Shankland, Islam and society in Turkey (Eothen Press, 1999), page 19.

[5] Quoted from Perinçek (1997), page 215.

[6] Faruk Birtek and Binnaz Toprak“The Conflictual Agendas of Neo-liberal Reconstruction and the Rise of Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Hazards of Rewriting Modernity” Praxis International, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, July 1993, Vol 13 No 2) page 195.

[7] The founder of the movement shall have said: “We feel under obligation to keep the Democrats in power due to the interests of the Koran.” – A. Yücekök, 100 Soruda Türkiye’de Din ve Siyaset (Gerçek Yayınevi, 1971), page 96-.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of the “re-Islamization” and the role of the army, see Ben Lombardi “Turkey: The Return of the Reluctant Generals?” Political Science Quarterly, 112, no. 2, (Summer 1997), pages 191-215.

[9] Ruşen Çakır, “Ayet ve Slogan – Türkiye’de İslami Oluşumlar” (Istanbul: Metis Yayınlar 1990), pages 97, 98.

[10] Çakır (1990), pages 44 – 54.

[11] Shankland (1999), page 40.

[12] Tapper (1991), page 38.

[13] Shankland (1999), page 25.

[14] Shankland (1999), page 116-118.

[15] This does not mean that 22 percent of the electorate favoured an Islamic turn in Turkish politics. Many may have voted for RP in protest against the other political parties in spite of the religious programme of RP. Still this meant a stimulus to the Islamic ethos in the country.

[16] Yücekök, 100 Soruda Türkiye’de Din ve Siyaset (Gerçek Yayınevi, 1971), pages 74 – 78.pages 74 – 78.

[17] Yalçın Akdoğan, “Siyasal İslam – Refah Partisi’nin Anatomisi” (Istanbul: Şehir Yayınları 2000), page 148.

[18] This especially applies to the circle around the periodical Girişim. See Çakır (1990), page 144 and Ayşe Güneş-Ayata, “Pluralism versus Authoritarianism: Political Ideas in Two Islamic Publications” in Tapper (1991), pages 258 – 262.

[19] Ruşen Çakır, “Derin Hizbullah – İslamcı Şiddetin Geleceği” (Istanbul: Metis Yayınlar 2001), pages 28, 32, 162.

[20] Akdoğan (2000) pages 152, 153.

[21] Shankland (1999), pages 9, 43; Akdoğan (2000), pages 170 –179.

[22] “Islamic culture and religious discourse became a part of the culture of the centre. At first sight this was a new phenomenon. … After the 12th of September important opportunities were provided for the tarikat and the religious groups in Turkey. It was desired that the integrity of the nation be ensured within a Islamic framework. Making the religious education in school obligatory, and policies similar to that, enhanced the power and prestige of such groups.” – Akdoğan (2000), page 179.

It is interesting to notice that CIA during the same period tried to fight communism in Afghanistan by supporting the Islamic development in the country and the “jihad” of people like Bin Laden. (Kenneth L. Woodward “A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic Few,” Newsweek, September 24, 2001, page 78, and Evan Thomas “The road to September 11,” Newsweek, October 1, 2001, page 47.)

[23] See Nutuk, quoted in Perinçek (1997), pages 96, 111.

[24] This has been translated the “True Path Party.” Personally I disagree with this translation, as the Turkish equivalent of this would rather have been “Hakkikî Yol Partisi”. There seem to be connotations to the Koranic “the straight path” in Sura 1;6. Translation of Marmaduke Pickthall, (1930; 1999 edition, Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınları 1999) I would have preferred this rendering, or ”the right path.”

[25] Akdoğan (2000), page 179.

[26] Birtek (1993) page 195.

[27] Shankland (1999), pages 51, 52, 106.

[28] The “Virtue Party”. The Turkish word translated with ‘virtue’ has the connotations of honesty, philanthropy, heroism, wisdom and humility. The Turkish word for virtue with sexual connotations is not fazilet, but iffet.

[29] Yücekök (1971), pages 8 –20; Piscatori (1983), pages 155, 156; Lâle Yalçın-Heckmann, “Ethnic Islam and Nationalism Among the Kurds in Turkey” in Tapper (1991), page 113.

[30] Birtek (1993) page 196.

[31] Saeed (1994), pages 183, 199; Shankland (1999), pages 26 – 28.

[32] David Shankland (1999, page 70) observes that tarikats and other Islamic groups support students who later serve the interest of this group when they find employment within the framework of the state.

[33] Shankland (1999), page 112.

[34] For a detailed discussion on the imam-hatip schools, see Bahattin Akşit: “Islamic Education in Turkey: Medrese Reform in Late Ottoman Times and the Imam-Hatip Schools in the Republic” in Tapper (1991), pages 145 – 170.

[35] Quoted in Shankman (1999), pages 204 – 208.

[36] For a detailed discussion on the role of the tarikats in politics and their effect on upward social mobility, see Birtek (1993) pages 198 – 201.

[37] For a detailed discussion, see Şerif Mardin: “The Nakşibendi Order in Turkish History” in Tapper (1991) pages 121 – 142 and Çakır (1990), pages 9 – 65.

[38] Tapper (1991), page 139.

[39] Shankland (1999), page 68; Ruşen Çakır “Ne Şeriat Ne Demokrasi – Refah Partisini Anlamak” (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları 1994), pages 19 – 21; see also the speech Nakşibendi sheikh Professor M. Esad Coşan gave when his group fell out with Necmettin Erbakan, quoted in Çakır (1990), pages 48 – 54.

[40] Çakır (1990), page 84.

[41] Çakır (1990), page 92.

[42] Yücekök (1971), page 96; see also Shankland (1999), page 70 where it is claimed that Said Nursi “urged [the prime minister from DP] Menderes to declare an Islamic Republic before it was too late.”

[43] For a detailed discussion of political Islam in Turkey and globalisation, see Haldun Gülalp,”Globalization and Political Islam: The Social Basis of Turkey’s Welfare Party” in Journal of Middle East Studies 33 (2001), pages 433 – 488. For a detailed discussion of postmodernism, see Stuart Sim (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, (London: Routledge 2001).

[44] Gülalp (2001), pages 435 – 438.

[45] Gülalp (2001), pages 438 – 445.

[46] Shankland (1999), page 122.

[47] Piscatori (1983), page 146.

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The criterion for Christianity

In an article on, [priest at the Orthodox Church in Copenhagen] Poul Sebbelov has written as follows:

”As to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the fact that this unholy sect calls themselves Christians does not confer on them any Christian authority or credibility at all.”

Naturally, Pouls Sebbelov is entitled to have an opinion. However, it would have been nice to know on what he has based it. Maybe we are back to the discussion about what it means to be a Christian.

It is my guess that Poul Sebbelov requires a Christian denomination to accept the various synods, as for example the one held in Nicaea (now Iznik) in 325. Here it was agreed that Christian should accept that the Father and the Son are ‘ομοουσιοι, being of the same substance. This notion had been introduced by the then unbaptized emperor Constantine the Great. Another similar synod was held in Constantinople, now Istanbul in 381 where the doctrine of Trinity was adopted.

If this is the argument of Poul Sebbelov, Jehovah’s Witnesses are in good company. In the latter half of the third century, a synod was held in Antioch, attended by seventy bishops, priests and deacons from the area. These men anathemised the idea of ‘ομοουσιος (of same substance), very likely because it had been used by the Gnostics at an earlier point of time. (H. Chadwick, The Early Church. (London: Pelican, 1971) pages 113 and 114.)

As to the doctrine of trinity, it is correct that Theophilus of Antiochia had used the word τριας (triad) on God.’ But not in the sense the word /trinity/ later got. After explaining that Teophilus did not regard the Son and the Holy Spirit as equal with the Father, D.S. Wallace-Hadrill writes:

”Despite of his distinction of being the first Christian writer known to use the term Trinity, it is hard to regard Theophilus as a Trinitarian at all.” (D.S. Wallace-Hadrill, Christian Antioch – A Study of Early Christian Thought in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pages 68 and 69).

Most priests and bishops during the first three centuries of church history believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father: ”The formulae which defined the relation of the Father and the Son in the Trinity continued to be characterized by the subordinationism which marks most Christian thinkers of the pre-Nicene period.” (J. Daniélou, A.H. Couratin and John Kent, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, Volume 2 (Baltimore: Pelican, 1969), page 79.)

In case acceptance of the verdict of the synods from 325 and forward is a criterion for Christianity, then the question must naturally be: what about people here in Antioch before 325 whose beliefs were different of those adopted later on? And what should we call Jehovah’s Witnesses and others whose faith is similar to that of Christians during the first two centuries of church history?

Doctrines are important, as shown by Jesus at his confrontation with the Sadducees reported in Matthew 22, verses 23-33. But there is another criterion for Christianity that is equally important: the honest attempt to imitate Christ. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount concludes with calling those wise who live according to the Words of Jesus, and those stupid who do not. This principle is repeated several times by the apostle Paul, well aware that one cannot fully succeed. But this is where grace or – as Jehovah’s Witnesses call it – underserved kindness comes into the picture. The idea of following the example of Christ was later taken up by [the Danish philosopher] Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote that many church-goers are merely “playing Christians.”

Are those the criteria Poul Sebbelov is looking for? Or is it perhaps something different that makes him call Jehovah’s Witnesses “unholy”?

After all, to be taken seriously even criticism must have a basis.

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Logos and Memra


The word is Greek, and according to Berg’s Greek dictionary, it has a wide range of meanings. Generally speaking it has the meaning of ‘word’ or ‘speech,’ often with a stress on the subject matter of speech.

As understood, logos is a word with many connotations, and some of them have been imported into English and other European languages. We find it as a derivation in the word ‘logic’ and as a part of words like ‘theology,’ ‘logistics,’ and ‘logarithm.’ Generally, though, the word logos has the connotations of various mental activities or the expression of these.


The Greek Philosophers

Early in the history of science and learning we find a logos concept with the Ionian philosopher Heraclitus who was living in Ephesus on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (d. ca. 475 BC). With him logos was “an ordering principle of the world.”[1] To quote Geschichte der Philosophie: “Against [the anthropomorphic description of the gods] Heraclitus put forth the ground-breaking idea of a divine world reason – the lógos – that is behind all what happens in the world.[2]

Also Plato (d. ca. 347 b.c.e.), quoting Socrates, kept the logos concept within the human sphere of experience. On Theaetetus of Plato, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes: “Now, turning to the fourth definition of knowledge as true judgment accompanied by Logos, Socrates wishes to examine the meaning of the term Logos, and comes up with three possible definitions. First, giving an account of something is ‘making one’s thought apparent vocally by means of words and verbal expressions’ (206c). The problem with this definition is that Logos becomes ‘a thing that everyone is able to do more or less readily,’ unless one is deaf or dumb, so that anyone with a true opinion would have knowledge as well.”[3]

Aristotle (d. 322 b.c.e.) kept the logos concept within man’s social framework: “For Aristotle, lógos is something more refined than the capacity to make private feelings public: it enables the human being to perform as no other animal can; it makes it possible for him to perceive and make clear to others through reasoned discourse the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil.”[4]

However, the Stoic philosophers had a different idea of logos: “The centerpiece of Stoic philosophy was the concept of the logos. The universe is ordered by God and this order is the logos , which means ‘rational order’ or ‘meaning’ of the universe… Logos is a linguistic term; it refers particularly to the meanings of words. The meaning of an individual word all by itself is semeion ; the meaning of an individual word in the context of a sentence is logos . For the Stoic, the meaning (logos ) of each individual life, action, and situation is determined by its place in a larger whole, which is, of course, the whole course of history. In this view, history becomes a kind of speech by God.”[5]


The Hellenized Jews

In time, this logos model was taken up by some Jews. Especially the Greek speaking Jews in Alexandria, who were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, found the idea interesting. At some time between 220 and 115 B.C. a book called the Book of Wisdom was written. The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following observation: “Whoever examines attentively the Book of Wisdom can readily see that its unknown author was not a Palestinian Jew, but an Alexandrian Jew. Monotheistic as the writer is throughout his work, he evinces an acquaintance with Greek thought and philosophical terms (he calls God ‘the Author of beauty’: 13:3; styles Providence pronoia: 14:3; 17:2; speaks of oule amorphos, ‘the formless material’ of the universe, after Plato’s manner: 11:17; numbers four cardinal virtues in accordance with Aristotle’s school: 8:7; etc.), which is superior to anything found in Palestine.”[6]

In the Book of Wisdom we find both God’s wisdom and His word active at creation. In chapter 9 verses 1 and 2 we read: “God of our fathers, merciful Lord, who hast made all things by thy word, and in thy wisdom hast fashioned man, to be master of thy whole creation.”[7] In chapter 18 verse 15 we find Gods word personified in connection with the death of the firstborn of Egypt: “All things were lying in peace and silence, and night in her swift course was half spent, when thy almighty Word leapt from thy royal throne in heaven into the midst of that doomed land like a relentless warrior, bearing the sharp sword of thy inflexible decree, and stood and filled it all with death, his head touching heavens, feet on earth.”[8]

The term was taken up by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. ca. 40 AD) who tried to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Old Testament. After his death, he was to exert a heavy influence on certain Christian thinkers. Philo, influenced by Plato’s philosophy of ideas, makes the following comment in connection with the ritual dress of the Israelite high priest: “But this seal is an idea of ideas, according to which God fashioned the world, being an incorporeal idea, comprehensible only by the intellect.”[9] In other words: “In his doctrine of God Philo interprets the Logos, which is the Divine Mind, as the Form of Forms (Platonic), the Idea of Ideas or the sum total of Forms or Ideas. Logos is the indestructible Form of wisdom comprehensible only by the intellect.”[10]

Without using the term logos, Philo also speaks of a ‘firstborn son’: “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 archetypal patterns.”[11]

In his Questions and Answers on Genesis II, Philo is more direct:

“Why is it that he speaks of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image?

“Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal being could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word of the supreme Being; since it is fitting that the rational soul of man should bear it the type of the divine Word; since in his first Word God is superior to the most rational possible nature. But he who is superior to the Word holds his rank in a better and most singular pre-eminence and how could the creature possibly exhibit a likeness of him in himself?”[12]

All this may sound both similar and dissimilar to people with a Christian background. Let us not forget, though, that the idea of a secondary agent at the creation of the world was not foreign to pre-Christian Jews. In Genesis chapter 2 verse 26 God says: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” (Italics ours). Also the Greek Septuagint version, which was very likely the translation used by Philo, used plural, saying: “Ποιησωμεν αθρωπον κατ’ εικονα ͑ημετεραν και καθ’ ͑ομοιωσιν.”[13] One may claim that the plural used in this verse is the plural of majesty. It should be remembered, though, that when God the Almighty appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, he did not use any plural pronoun but only first person singular.[14] It is therefore safe to conclude that in Genesis God speak to somebody else.

Here the Bible book of Proverbs chapter 8 comes to mind. There the verses 22 to 31 read:

“The LORD [Hebrew: YHWH] created me the beginning of his works, before all else that he made, long ago. Alone, I was fashioned in times long past, at the beginning, long before earth itself. When there was yet no ocean I was born, no springs brimming with water. Before the mountains were settled in their place, long before the hills I was born, when as yet he had made neither land nor lake nor the first clod of earth. When he set heavens in their place I was there, when he girded the oceans with the horizon, when he fixed the canopy of clouds overhead and set the springs of ocean firm in their place, when he prescribed its limits for the sea and knit together earth’s foundations. Then I was at his side each day, his darling and delight, playing in his presence continually, playing on the earth, when he had finished it, while my delight was in mankind.”[15]

In these verses the quality of wisdom is personified. As the gender of wisdom [in Hebrew: ח֗כְמַה: ḥoḵmah] is feminine, some claim that the agent I question is a feminine being. However, it should be remembered that there is a difference between sex and gender. This is also the case in other Semitic languages that Hebrew. For instance, the Arabic word for Caliph (خليفة: alīfe) is a word in the feminine gender although it always refers to a male.[16]


Hellenized Christians

With the second century Christians the wisdom personified in Proverbs chapter eight was believed to be Jesus in his pre-human existence. In his book The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, Bruce K. Waltke writes: “Beginning at least as early as the apologist Justin Martyr (A.D. 125), Christians, almost without exception, identified Sophia (the Greek equivalent of Heb. ḥoḵ) in Proverbs 8 with Jesus Christ.”[17]

Of Justin Martyr, who is famous for his logos-theology, the theologian Henry Chadwick writes:

“Justin’s debt to Platonic philosophy is important for his theology in one respect of far-reaching importance. He uses the concept of the divine Logos or Reason both to explain how the transcendent Father of all deals with the inferior, created order of things, and to justify his faith in the revelation made by God through the prophets and in Christ… It is implicit in Justin’s thesis that the distinction between ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ corresponds to the distinction between God transcendent and God immanent.”[18]

This was an idea inspired by Greek philosophy. In Hellenistic Greek the primary meaning of the word logos is the intelligent order of or reason displayed in the universe while certain philosophers regarded it is as a sort of person, the ‘world soul.’ This philosophical approach was taken up by later Christian writers, where some, such as Theophilus of Antioch (d. 181), preferred to regard the logos as God’s thoughts.[19] “ In Stoic thought the Word is reason expressed in voice or word, and in Theophilus we find a distinction between the Word of God residing in the Deity and the Word of God uttered or expressed in divine activity.”[20] Others, such as Origen (d. 234) regarded the logos as a sort of mediator between a transcendent God and the physical universe.[21] Interestingly, most of the Christian writers of the second and third centuries did not regard the logos as equal to God.[22]

But Hellenized Christian writers were not the only ones who took up the philosophical denotation of the word logos. So did the Gnostics.

The Gnostics were “a number of unorthodox sects that flourished in the Roman empire and western Asia in the first few centuries of the Christian era. Its chief diffusion centre was Alexandria.”[23] Unlike the early Christians, the Gnostics were rabid dualists. According to them, the world was split up in two opposites: the good and the bad. The good was all what is spiritual and the bad all what is physical, the visible world and everything related to it. They believed that this world originally was created, not by God Almighty, the loving Father, but by some malevolent demiurge. Consequently some of them believed that Jesus was the logos, but not with a human body. He just looked like a man, they said.[24]


First century Christians

In early Christian writings, we find a logos concept in the Gospel of John chapter 1 verse 1: “εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος.” A litteral translation would be: ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with the god and the word was a god.’

Please notice that in the first instance the word ‘god’ has the definite article in accusative (τον θεον). In the second instance the definite article is missing (θεος). Thus, the writer made a distinction between ‘the god’ and ‘god.’ As people back they did not spell the word ‘god’ with capital letter when referring to the Creator, they often used the definite article instead. We therefore see that ‘ὁ θεος’ is used for God (the god) and ’θεος’ for a god.

Some claim that that the inverted word order of John 1:1b makes the definite article of ’θεος’ implicit. While it may be true that the article in certain cases of inversion may be omitted, this does not mean that it is automatically implicit. Please consider the following sentences from the Gospel of John:

  • John 4:19: Κύριε, θεωρῶ ὅτι προφήτης εἶ σύ: “Lord, I see that you are a prophet.” In spite of inversion, translators do not write ‘the prophet’ as if the definite article was implicit.
  • John 4:24: πνεῦμα ὁ Θεός: “God is spirit” (NEB). Inversion, but ‘spirit’ has no article.
  • John 18:37: οὐκοῦν βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ: “You are a king, then?” (NEB) Inversion without any implicit article before ‘king.’


The context of John 1 verse 1 reveals that the logos mentioned is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the chapter shows us that the writer believed that Jesus had a prehumen existence with God and that he was divine. In verse 18 we read according to the King James Version: “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Interestingly, some of the oldest Greek manuscripts (such as Sinaiticus from the fourth century, Vaticanus from the fourth century, Ephraemi Rescriptus from the fifth century) do not say “only-begotten son” but “only-begotten god.” That the logos was regarded as having divine nature should not surprise us. After all, according to the first letter ascribed to the Apostle Peter, even the early Christians expected to “be partakers of divine nature,” (KJV) or, as The New English Bible puts it, “to share in the very being of God.” (The Greek text has “γένησθε θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως.”)[25]

Consequently, we understand from the Gospel of John that the early Christians believed that Jesus Christ had had a pre-human existence with God and that he had had divine nature. But why did they call him logos or the Word?

Many claim that the term had been borrowed from Greek philosophy. After all, the Stoics had a logos concept although they (following Heraclitus) thought that logos is fire. [26] Furthermore, the (Middle) Platonist philosopher Philo of Alexandria had identified the logos with the personified Wisdom in Proverbs chapter 8:

“God freely willed the creation of the cosmos, first in a purely intellectual manner, and then, through the agency of His Logos (Philo’s philosophical term for the Wisdom figure of Proverbs 8:22) He brought forth the physical cosmos. Philo describes the Logos in a two-fold manner, first as the sum total of the thoughts of God, and then as a hypostatization of those thoughts for the purpose of physical creation. Thus we see Philo linking the cosmos to the intellectual realm by way of a mediating figure rather like the Platonic World-Soul. Borrowing a term from Stoic philosophy, Philo calls the thoughts of the Logos “rational seeds” (logoi spermatikoi), and describes them as having a role in the production of the cosmos which, he insists, was brought into being out of non-being by the agency of God.”[27]

Therefore the question is: What did early Christians think when they heard the Greek word logos?

We have to remember that various groups or interpretative communities may use the same word on different concepts, or about concepts with different connotations. An example of this is the word Allah. To an Arab member of the Maronite Church, this word refers to a triune God consisting of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To a Muslim the same word refers to the Supreme Being who can be neither a father nor a son. To Greek philosophers in the first century the word soul (ψυχη) refers to something spiritual, while the Christian Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 regards it as material, contrasting the concept of soul to something spiritual.[28] The reason is that Paul, although born and raised in Tarsus, a center of Stoicism, had his connotations of the word soul (ψυχη) from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

As seen from the New Testament, the early Christians were not much influenced by Greek philosophy. Contrary to the Platonists and the Stoics, they believed in a very personal God who had created the physical world. They were monists, that is, they did not subscribe to the idea of dualism. They did not believe in some immortal soul within man.[29] They had their vocabulary and concepts, not from the writings of philosophers, but from their Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.



Apart from this, the Jews in Aramaic speaking countries had a logos concept different from that of philosophically minded Jews in Egypt. The article “In the beginning was λόγος …” in Bible Researcher has this observation:

“After the Babylonish captivity the Jewish doctors combined into one view the theophanies, prophetic revelations and manifestations of Jehovah generally, and united them in one single conception, that of a permanent agent of Jehovah in the sensible world, whom they designated by the name Memra (word, λόγος) of Jehovah. The learned Jews introduced the idea into the Targums, or Aramæan paraphrases of the Old Testament, which were publicly read in the synagogues, substituting the name the word of Jehovah for that of Jehovah, each time that God manifested himself. Thus in Genesis 39:91, they paraphrase, “The Memra was with Joseph in prison.” In Psalms 110 Jehovah addresses the first verse to the Memra. The Memra is the angel that destroyed the first-born of Egypt, and it was the Memra that led the Israelites in the cloudy pillar.”[30]

In the Septuagint version the word logos is often used, but mostly in connection with the content of a message and in many places similarly to the use of Memra, as mentioned above.

The Jewish Encyclopedia writes:

“‘The Word,’ in the sense of the creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for “the Lord” when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided…

“In the Targum the Memra figures constantly as the manifestation of the divine power, or as God’s messenger in place of God Himself, wherever the predicate is not in conformity with the dignity or the spirituality of the Deity.” [31]

Some scholars claim that in the Jewish scriptures the memra cannot be regarded as personal, but this is contradicted by others.[32] Whatever the case, as we have seen above, terms such as wisdom and logos have been personified in the Bible although not originally personal beings.

The question therefore is: did John, who evidently had Aramaic as his mother tongue,[33] use the word logos because of its connotations in Greek philosophy or were the connotations of John’s logos similar to those of the Aramaic memra?[34]


The Septuagint

It is interesting to consider how the Greek word logos is used in the Septuagint Version. In the first chapters of Genesis of the Septuagint, the word logos is not used in connection with the creation of this world. In the sentences beginning with “And God said …” the word used for ‘said’ is not the verb λεγω, which is related to logos, but the word ειπεν. It is true this word is only used in present and imperfect tenses, and that it is therefore ειπεν is used. Still, by using ειπεν the immediate connotations of logos are lost.

The first time logos occurs in the Pentateuch is in Exodus 33:17 where it is used in the sense of subject matter: “I will do this thing [logon] that you have asked.”[35] Apart from this, the word mostly has the meaning of ”das Wort, im logishen, nicht i. grammatischen Sinne.”[36] Consequently, we often find logos with the connotations of ’message,’ such as in Judges 3:19, 20 and 2 Samuel 1:4. It may also be used with the connotations of ‘action’ such as in Judges 18:28 and 21:11. In Psalm 33:6 logos is used in connection with creation: “τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ κυρίου οἱ οὐρανοὶ ἐστερεώθησαν“ (By the word of the LORD were the heavens made. KJV) [37]

The word logos is repeatedly used in the prophetic books of the Bible. To quote a couple of examples:

Jeremiah 35:1: “The word [λόγος] which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD.” Jeremiah 35:12: “Then came the word [λόγος] of the LORD unto Jeremiah.” Jeremiah 36:1: “This word [λόγος] came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, saying.” Hezekiel 1:3: “The word [λόγος] of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel.” Hosea 1:1: “The word [λόγος] of the LORD that came unto Hosea.” Joel 1:1: “The word [λόγος] of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.” Jonah 1:1: “Now the word [λόγος] of the LORD came unto Jonah.” Micah 1:1: “The word [λόγος] of the LORD that came to Micah.” Zepheniah 1:1: “The word [λόγος] of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah.” Haggai 1:1: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, came the word [λόγος] of the LORD by Haggai the prophet unto Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah,.” Zechariah 1:1: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word [λόγος] of the LORD unto Zechariah.” Malachi 1:1: “The burden of the word [λόγου] of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.” [38]

As seen from this, the word logos is mostly used in the sense of a communicated message. In some of the cases, as in Jeremiah 36:1, it could be interpreted as the name or the title of the one who communicated the message. When considering the usage of logos in the New Testament, one should bear in mind that this part of the Bible was written by people in an interpretative community[39] that was accustomed to the vocabulary of the Septuagint. Consequently, we would expect them to decode the terms which the Septuagint happened to have in common with Greek philosophy according to what they had read in their Greek Bible, not according to pagan philosopher they had never read.

With this in mind, let us take a look at the New Testament writings attributed to John.


Logos according to John

There is no doubt that first century Christian believed that Jesus had had a pre-human existence and had been active in the process of creation. This is clear from the writings of the Apostle Paul, who evidently died about AD 67 during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Nero. Therefore it is not surprising to find the same belief with John, who evidently died more than thirty years later. Does that mean, though, that John uses the term logos with the connotations of pagan philosophy?

If the writer of the Gospel According to John had been influenced by the Stoic concept of logos, it is peculiar that he lets the main character of the gospel act in a way quite contrary to the Stoic ideal of απαθεια or indifference. The Gospel of John shows us an angry Jesus, a crying Jesus, and an annoyed Jesus. The Alexandrian theologian Origen (d. ca. 254) regarded these incidences as allegoric or anagogic, partly because this was his general method of interpretation in Alexandria, partly, no doubt, because he found it difficult to imagine that the divine logos could have human emotions.

Also the way God is described in the Gospel is different from the Stoic idea of God: “The Stoics also understand God as identical with the cosmos. They conceive of the cosmos, defined as the totality of all entities, as if it were a single entity, or subject, that has predicates. This ultimately allows the Stoics to deify the cosmos, a view that is commonly known as pantheism.”[40] This approach is rather different from what we find for instance at John 3:31-35. Naturally, explanations for this may be found. However, it is evident that the writer did not try to squeeze Jesus into a Stoic mold.

So if logos in John 1:1 is not a Stoic concept, what is it?

The word logos is used quite often in the writings ascribed to John: 39 times in the Gospel, 7 times in the First letter of John and 1 time in the Third letter of John. In the Book of Revelation, which has also been ascribed to John, we find the word 17 times. Interestingly, the only place where the word logos may give Stoic connotations is John 1:1.

It should be noticed that the introduction to the Gospel of John is very similar to that of John’s first letter. It reads (verses 1-3): “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life [περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς]; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”[41]

Here we again meet the logos, but here its meaning is explained: It is the word (or the message) of salvation.



While the Hellenistic philosophers two thousand years ago operated with a concept of logos or divine reason, this does not in itself prove that the writer of the Gospel of John took the concept from popular philosophy, even if his logos is described as having been active at the creation of the world. Also the Apostle Paul, who came from the city of Tarsus, known for its Stoic philosophers,[42] believed that Jesus in his prehumen existence was active at the creation of the world, but he did not use the word logos in this context. Evidently, first century Christians did not believe in a Stoic logos.

On the other hand, in the Septuagint Version (which was the Greek Bible of the early Christians) the word logos is mainly used as message. This is similar to how the word is used in the New Testament, beautifully illustrated by 1 John 1:1-3.

The parallel to logos the Aramaic speaking Jews after the captivity in Babylon used the word memra. This concept was at times personified and used on a sort of representative of God. As we have seen above, “In Psalms 110 Jehovah addresses the first verse to the Memra.”[43]

Consequently, when John uses the word logos on Jesus, it is either to say that this person, who was active at the creation the world, visible as well as invisible, is the embodiment of earlier prophecies and promises, or, even more likely, that he was called logos because he was the spokesman or representative of God.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if second and third century Christians had based their interpretation of John 1:1, not on the connotations of the Word in Greek philosophy, but on those of the Word in Jewish Aramaic tradition.



[1] “Heraclitus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed June 8, 2014,

[2] Christoph Helferich, Geschichte der Philosophie (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhaandlung, 1985) 77.

[3] “Plato: Thetaetus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed June 8, 2014,

[4] Paul Anthony Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: The Ancien Régime in Classical Greece (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) 21.

[5] “Ancient Roman Philosophy,” Crystalinks, accessed June 10, 2014,

[6] Martin Vcelak, ed. Catholic Encyclopedia, “Book of Wisdom” (iPad edition 1.4:).

[7] The New English Bible (Harmonsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1974), 105, 106.

[8] Ibid. 115.

[9] Philo, “On the Migration of Abraham,” The Works of Philo (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 263.

[10] “Philo of Alexandria,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed June 10, 2014,

[11] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues,” The Works of Philo, 240.

[12] Ibid., 834.

[13] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (New York: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, (no year)), 2.

[14] Exodus chapters 3 to 6.

[15] The New English Bible (NEB)(Harmonsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1974), 756, 757.

[16] ”A few nouns ending in َة, and those verbal adjectives to which َة is added to intensify their signification, are masc., because they apply to males.” – W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 179. (The Arabic ending َة equals the Hebrew feminine ending of ־ה in ח֗כְמַה.) Similar to this, the feminine word קהלת (koheleth: Ecclesiastes) refers to a male.

[17] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Michigan: Wm. B. Erdmann Publishing Co., 2004), 127.

[18] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd. 1971), 77.

[19] D. S. Wallace-Hadrill, Christian Antioch: A study of early Christian thought in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 44: “To Theophilus the Word is impersonal, an attribute of the Father analogous to his wisdom, strength and power, and only attends limited independence when it is emitted with his wisdom for the purpose of creation.”

[20] Ibid., 68.

[21] Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, Antioch on the Orontes: A History and a Guide (Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2012), 167.

[22] J. Daniélou, A.H. Couratin & John Kent, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, Volume 2 (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1971), 79: ”The formulae which defined the relation of the Father and the Son in the Trinity continued to be characterized by the subordinationism which marks most of the Christian thinkers of the pre-Nicene period.”

[23] Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism – Its History and Influence (Wellingborough, England: Crucible, 1983), 11.

[24] Joan O’Grady, Heresy (Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1985), 22, 23, and Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism – Its History and Influence (Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989) 76.

[25] For a discussion of the word GOD, please see and .

[26] ”Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed July 9, 2014,

[27] ”Middle Platonism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed July 9, 2014,

[28] Chapter 15 verse 44 reads in Greek: ”σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. ἔστι σῶμα ψυχικόν, καὶ ἔστι σῶμα πνευματικόν.”

[29] This subject will be dealt with later.

[30] “In the beginning was λόγος …”, Bible Researcher, accessed July 14, 2014,

[31] ”Memra, ”, accessed July 29, 2014, July 29, 2014,


[32] For a discussion on this subject, please see Daniel Boyarin, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John, The Harvard Theological review, Vol. 94, no. 3 (Jul. 2001) 253-256 and George Foot Moore, “Intermediaries in Jewish Theology,” The Harvard Theological review, Vol. 15, no. 1 (Jan. 1922) 41-56.

[33] It seems that people living at the Sea of Galilee at the time of Jesus spoke Aramaic. When Jesus gave his disciple Simeon (Peter) a nickname, he called him Kephas (Kephas; Aramaic Kipha, rock).– “St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles,” Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed July 30, 2014, John came from the same area as Peter.

[34] Some would claim that the Gospel of John was not written by John himself. However, the author of the Muratorian Fragment, which is believed to be from the second century, regards the gospel as authentic, and papyri written about 100 years after the death of John ascribe the gospel to him. The oldest fragment of the gospel we have (called p52) was written about 25 years after his death. The fact that its Greek text is well written does not disprove John’s authorship. He could have used a secretary as did Paul for other reasons. Whatever the case, even if the author would have been somebody else, the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, who died soon after John, show that the ideas presented in the gospel were widely accepted by the Christians in the East towards the end of the first century.

[35] NEB, 99.

[36] ”The word, not in its grammatical but its logical sense.” Erwin Preuschen, Volständiges Griechisch-Deutsches Handwörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neues Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur (Giessen: Verlag von Alfred Töpelmann, 1910), 666, 667.

[37] Translated from: בדבר יהוה שׁמים נעשׂו וברוח פיו כל־צבאם.

[38] The quotations are from KJV, the Greek part from LXX.

[39] Interpretative community: Those who share the same codes are members of the same ‘interpretative community’ – a term introduced by the literary theorist Stanley Fish to refer to both ‘writers’ and ‘readers’ of particular genres of texts (but which can be used more widely to refer to those who share any code). Linguists tend to use the logocentric term, ‘discourse community’. Thomas Kuhn used the term ‘textual community’ to refer to epistemic (or epistemological) communities with shared texts, interpretations and beliefs. Constructivists argue that interpretative communities are involved in the construction and maintenance of reality within the ontological domain which defines their concerns (see Discourse). The conventions within the codes employed by such communities become naturalized amongst its members. Individuals belong simultaneously to several interpretative communities. – Daniel Chandler, “Glossary of Key Terms,” Semiotics for Beginners, accessed July 28, 2014,

[40] Crandall University, ”2.2.3. God as identical to the Cosmos,” Stoicism, accessed July 28, 2014,

[41] KJV.

[42] Strabo, Strabo’s description of Tarsus, 14.5.14, Crandall University, accessed July 28, 2014,

[43] “In the beginning was λόγος …”, Bible Researcher.

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The word ‘god’ in the Roman Empire

The following is an English translation of the Danish edition of the book The Complete Roman Emperor – Imperial Life at Court and on Campaign:

“Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus were all declared divine after their death. Deceased emperors had their own cults, shrines and priests, the so-called SodalesAugustales…

Did the worshipers really believe in the divinity of the emperor? After all, he was a human being. In the Roman world the idea of divinity was quite different from that of modern, and mainly monotheist religions. To a Roman it was absolutely lawful to ascribe divine honour to somebody whose social status was far above his own: the master over his slave, the general over his soldiers, the emperor over his subjects. Divinity was not an absolute but a relative category.”[i]

It is therefore not surprising that early Christians regarded Christ as divine without identifying him with God the Almighty.  After all, even in the Hebrew Bible the word ‘god’ was used on men and angels.

Still, the Christians refused to offer incense to the image of the emperor. Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus himself had said: “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.” (The Gospel of Matthew chapter 4 verse 10.)[ii]

One thing is to call somebody a god, something else to offer him a service that exclusively belongs to God the Almighty.[iii]



[i] Michael Sommer, Romerske kejsere – Livet ved det kejserlige hof og under felttog (Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck, 2010), 37.

[ii] The New English Bible (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970). Jesus quoted from Deutoronomy chapter 6 verse 13, where the Hebrew text has the Divine name (יהוה: YHWH) where The New English Bible has “the Lord.” (את־יהוה אלהיך תירא ואתו תעבד)

[iii] Compare the Bible book of Exodus chapter 20 verses 2-6.

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The term LORD in the New Testament


Let us return to the language of the early Christians of Antioch. As mentioned earlier, they spoke mainly Greek and Aramaic. Some may have known Latin, and the Jews, Hebrew. We have already discussed the problem early Christians of Greek origin had with the word GOD. Let us now consider the word LORD.

Hebrew speaking Jews used the word adōn (אדון) for LORD. It is frequently used on humans who were regarded as superior in one way or another and also often to express politeness. In Genesis 18:12 Sarah is using this term on Abraham although she is not addressing him: “Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am vaxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord [adōn] being old also?”[i]

In Genesis 23:6 it is used by “the sons of Heth” addressing Abraham: “Hear us, my lord [adōn]: thou art a mighty prince among us.”[ii] In the Book of Ruth 2:13,[iii] Ruth uses the term on the landowner Boaz, and it is very frequently used in the phrase “my lord the king” [adonī hammelek].[iv] The word a adōn is also used about God, such as in Deuteronomy 10:17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords.”[v]

The quotation from Deuteronomy is interesting, and to a certain extent it illustrates the problem interpreters had to cope with. In Hebrew, the first “Lord” is not adōn but YHWH. This is the proper name of God as used in the Bible. Some claim that it is the causative form of the Hebrew verb ‘to become’ and was pronounced Yahweh. Others suggest it was pronounced Yahūh. The common form today is Jehovah. For reasons irrelevant for this discussion, the Jews eventually stopped pronouncing it. Instead, the divine name, when read, was replaced with a plural form of the Hebrew word for LORD. Consequently the original pronunciation was forgotten. (However, Bible writers do not seem to have been too occupied with the correct pronunciation of names. Thus, the New Testament writers consistently used the name Jesus, although it was pronounced Yeshūa.)

In the other two occurrences of the word LORD in Deuteronomy 10:17, the words are in plural ın Hebrew. Thus the text would read: For YHWH your gods, he is gods of the gods and lords of the lords.[vi] This is typical usage in connection with the in Hebrew word for LORD. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Hebrew word for GOD, when used on the Creator, was in plural. The accompanying verb, however, was in singular. It is therefore held that the plural form was a plural of respect.[vii] This is also the case with the plural of the word LORD [adōn] in this context.

In the Hebrew Old Testament the word adōn [lord] usually has the suffix –ay when used about the Creator. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language  has this explanation:  “אֲדֹניָ  m. n. pl. the Lord, God. [Lit. ‘my Lord’, the pl. of majesty of אׇדוֹן (= Lord), with the suff. of the first person. The spelling with Qamatz[viii] serves to distinguish it from אֲדֹניַ (= my lords. See אׇדוֹן.]”[ix]

According to this, the word LORD in the Old Testament can refer to the following concepts: to God the Almighty, to gods in general, to angels, and to man.  When applied to God, the plural of respect is used together with the possessive suffix of 1. person singular in pausal.

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the bırth of Jesus, the translators chose to translate the singular form of the Hebrew word adōn [lord] with kürios [κυριος, lord] whenever a single person was in question and with the same word in plural when more than one person was in question. However, in the beginning the translators chose to keep God’s personal name written with Hebrew characters in the Greek text. Later, when this practice was discontinued, curious problems arose.

An example is Psalm 110:1 as rendered in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament: “Ειπεν ο Κυριος τω Κυριω μου, καθου εκ δεξιων μου.”[x] [The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand.] Had it not been for the explanation Jesus gave in the Gospel of Matthew (22:41-45), Christians today would not have known how to interpret this text.

According to the church historian Eusebius (d. ca. 339), Matthew did not write his gospel in Greek: “For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.”[xi] Furthermore, to our knowledge, the native language of Jesus was Aramaic,[xii] but he knew Hebrew. He was able to read and interpret a text form the Hebrew prophet Isaiah while visiting his hometown.[xiii] (We are aware of the fact that some scholars believe that the mother tongue of Jesus was Hebrew. He no doubt knew Hebrew; but whenever he is quoted in another language than Greek, the language is Aramaic. Thus, when he renamed his disciple Simeon, he used the Aramaic word for rock, Keepa [Cephas]).[xiv] Consequently, in his discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus did not quote Psalm 110 from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. We have good reason to believe that he quoted the Hebrew text where it says “YHWH said to my lord [adōnī] …” No ambiguity at all!

As mentioned above, even early copies the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament kept God’s personal name with archaic Hebrew characters in the Greek text.


God’s name in the Greek text is marked with an arrow.[xv]

We have good reason to assume that the Christians of the first century knew the difference between the words LORD and YHWH. Many of them, those in Antioch included, were Arameans, who spoke a language close to Hebrew. Those of them who had a Jewish background could at least read Hebrew. Although we have no proof that they made a distinction between the two words kürios and YHWH in the original Greek copies of New Testament books, we have all reasons to believe that they did.

In his paper “The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians,” Gérard Gertoux writes: “Did early Christians pronounce the Name? The answer depends on what kind of Christians we are talking about: “Yes” for the Judeo-Christians (Christians of Jewish origin, before 70 CE) because many of them knew Hebrew and “No” for the Pagano-Christians (Christians of heathen origin, mainly after 100 CE) most of whom only knew Greek.”[xvi] Gertoux also observes: “In the papyrus P90 dated around 150 CE which contains 45 the verses of John 18:36-19:7, the name of Jesus is this time shortened into JS according to the process of nomina sacra, like the word kyrios (Lord) which is written KS. So, when the sacred name was absent the word ‘Lord’ had to be written without abbreviation. For example, in this codex the verse of John 12:38 have appeared:




ΦΘΗ (John 12:38)

However this part of the gospel of John quoted a verse from the book of Isaiah and in all the Septuagints of this period (before 150 CE) there are none with the name kyrios (Lord) instead of the tetragram.”[xvii]

If this is correct, it is safe to assume that first century Christians knew the difference of meaning between the Greek word for LORD when used on YHWH and when it was used on other persons. In Matthew 11:25, for instance, Jesus uses this word on his Father, in Matthew 10:25 on slave owners, and in 8:21 on himself.

Leaving out the places where the New Testament has direct or indirect quotations from verses in the Old Testament where YHWH occurs, let us now take a look at how the term LORD (kürios) is used in the New Testament and how the early Christians understood it.

We have already mentioned that it was used on slave owners. It is also seen from Acts 16:16 where the King James Version has “masters” instead of “lords” (κυρίοις > plural, dative of κυριος. A Hebrew translation of the New Testament has אדניה “her lords”[xviii]). In the First letter of Peter 3:6, Sarah uses the word on Abraham.

In most of the cases in the New Testament where the word LORD [κυριος] is used, it is referring to Jesus. Nevertheless, the word is used on God the Father as well. Thus, in Revelation 11:15 we read: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” (KJV) [ἐγένετο ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ κόσμου τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν καὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ αὐτοῦ.] In spite of this, the Apostle Paul could say that “to us there is but … one Lord Jesus Christ.”[xix] How is this to be understood? Did the early Christians use the word LORD inconsistently?

It depends on what we mean by inconsistency.

Let us first take a look at the semiotic aspect of the matter. The Russian linguist Roman Jakobson has left us with this communication model:


The addresser (or sender) speaks to a group of people or sends them a letter. He wants them to understand his message. He therefore gives his message a form he knows that they should be able to understand. This he does by using codes the addressees are familiar with. Subsequently, when reading the message or listening to the words of the addresser, the addressees subconsciously take the context of the message into consideration, and they decode the message according to the codes applied by the addresser.

This is easy if both addresser and addressee belong to the same interpretive community. “A term introduced by Fish to refer to both writers and readers of particular genres of texts (but which can be used more widely to refer to those who share any code)…  The conventions within the codes employed by such communities become naturalized amongst its members. Individuals belong simultaneously to several interpretive communities.”[xx]

If, for instance, a Turk calls a man ‘a bear’ [ayı], he is not speaking about the strength or joviality of the person, but about his unpleasant rudeness. If you are familiar with the codes, you know what the Turk is speaking about. In Danish, on the other hand, ‘to carry a bear’ [at have en bjørn på] has the meaning of being gloriously drunk. To be able to decode a text, spoken or written, you have to know, not just the denotations of the words used, but also their connotations. Within an interpretive community the individuals are familiar with the codes used by an addresser who belongs to the same community or who is familiar with its codes.

The book Key Terms in Semiotics has this explanation: “In order to function properly, that is, in order for it to be effectively transmitted a message must contain a code that is understood by both sender (addresser) and receiver (addressee).”[xxi] One is born into an interpretive community. However, things get more difficult when you read a text that originally was addressed to a different interpretive community, perhaps even a community that existed 2,000 years ago. This takes us to the New Testament.

The New Testament was mainly, or perhaps exclusively, written by Jews. The addressee was Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians who had acquainted themselves with the Old Testament and with the principles of early Christianity. It is evident that the “Bible” of first century Christians was the Old Testament. Throughout the New Testament, the writers refer to the authority of the Old Testament. Eventually New Testament books were used in the same way. Whether Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, they shared the same codes, thanks to a concept called intertextuality: “The notion of intertextuality refers to close relationships of content and/or form between texts. No text stands on its own. It is always linked to other texts. Texts create contexts within which other texts are created and interpreted.”[xxii] Interestingly, Wikipedia has this comment: “While the theoretical concept of intertextuality is associated with post-modernism, the device itself is not new. New Testament passages quote from the Old Testament and Old Testament books such as Deuteronomy or the prophets refer to the events described in Exodus.”[xxiii]

Consequently, when we have to find out how and why certain words in the New Testament are used the way they are, we have to turn to their usage in the Old Testament. Those of the early Christians who were familiar with the way the word LORD (κυριος) was used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, would use this word with the same denotation, and they would automatically actualize the connotations they knew from there. About actualization, the following explanation has been given: “With regard to language, actualization denotes the operation by which any given language unit is rendered ‘present’ within a particular linguistic context.’[xxiv]

In other words, a reader of New Testament books – say, in Antioch towards the end of the first century – who came across word LORD (κυριος), would do the following: As a member of an interpretive community with its background in the Old Testament, where the word LORD according to the context of the word was used on God, angels, and men alike, he would automatically actualize the relevant meaning.

Let us now take a look at chapter 10 in Paul’s letter to the Romans. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, it is likely that this letter was written in the 50’s AD, [xxv] and it was no doubt known in Antioch about 50 years later.[xxvi] In this letter the Apostle Paul writes (Chapter 10, verses 9 – 16):


9.  That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

10. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

11. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

12. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.

13. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?

15. And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

16. But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?


In verse 9 we have the expression “Lord Jesus” [Κύριον ᾿Ιησοῦν]. In verses 12 and 13 we have “Lord” twice [Κύριος and Κύριου], and in verse 16 we have the same word in vocative [Κύριε]. This would seem to identify Jesus with the God of the Old Testament.

Nonetheless, we have to remember that many of the early Christians, Paul included, knew the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Consequently, they knew that in some of Paul’s quotations from the prophet Isaiah the four Hebrew letters for God’s name occurred.

Interestingly, the Protestant translation of the New Testament from Greek to Hebrew, Tōrah, Nabī’īm, Katūbīm, Berīt Ḥadaşah, has translated kürios with adōn [אדון] when Paul is speaking of Jesus. In this context it does not use adōnay, which is the Hebrew word for LORD exclusively used when referring to God the Almighty. In the places in Paul’s letter where κυριος [kürios] is a replacement of the Divine Name, such as in verses 13 and 16, this same Hebrew translation is using the four Hebrew letters of the Divine Name (יהוה). Thus, any confusion about identity is avoided.

Nevertheless, it is true that the New Testament uses the word LORD [κυριος] on both Jesus and his Father. But so it does on Mammon in Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters [κυρίοις].” In Acts 16:16, 19 the word is used on slave owners, and so it is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 6 verses 5 and 9. It is therefore no wonder that the same word can be used on Jesus without thereby identifying him with God. All the more so as the Apostle Peter is quoted saying in Acts chapter 2 verse 36: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord [κυριος] and Christ.”

Later, when the four Hebrew letters representing God’s name was removed from the Greek Bible and when the majority of the Christians were of gentile background and therefore unacquainted with the use of the word LORD in the original Hebrew and Greek, they started to identify Jesus with God. The reason behind this was that they were not familiar with the codes of the original addressee, or interpretive community, and instead they decoded the text according to their own codes.

This, however, was aberrant decoding and led the development of Christian doctrine in a totally new direction, a direction not intended by New Testament writers.

[i] John Stirling, ed. The Bible: Authorized Version (KJV) (London: The British & Foreign Bible Society, 1960), 13.

[ii] Ibid. 17.

[iii] Ibid. 207.

[iv] The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited (no year)), 16.

[v] The Bible: Authorized Version, 142.

[vi] The Holy Scriptures [in Hebrew] (Middlesex, England: The Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures, (no year)), 342-43.

[vii] Something similar is observed when a Turk refers to his mother as annelerim [my mothers].

[viii] The “T” like symbol under the letter י .

[ix] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), 8. See also Johs. Pedersen, Hebræisk Grammatik (Copenhagen: V. Pios Boghandel – Povl Branner, 1926), 93, where the qamatz is explained as a pausa.

[x] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, (no year)), 767.

[xi] Eusebius Pamphilius, Philip Schaff, ed. Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1890, 265.

[xii] As understood from the his words ”Talitha qumi” (Mark 5:41) and “Eli, Eli, lama sabakhthani” (Mark 15:34). (Qumi is normally written cumi from the Greek κουμι.

[xiii] Luke 6:16-12.

[xiv] “Saint Peter,” Wikipedia, accessed January 20, 2014,

[xv] ”Septuagint Manuscripts,” Wikipedia, accessed January 6, 2014,

[xvi] G. Gertoux, The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians, (International Meeting – Society of Biblical Literature) 2.

[xvii] Ibid., 10.

[xviii] Tōrah, Nabī’īm, Katūbīm, Berīt Ḥadaşah (Jerusalem: Qeren Aḥawah Maşīḥīt, 2010),144.

[xix] First letter to the Corinthians 8:6 (KJV).

[xx] ”Interpretive community,” Oxford Reference, accessed January 13, 2014,

[xxi] Martin Browen and Felizitas Ringham, Key Terms in Semiotics (London: Continuum, 2006), 42.

[xxii] Ibid., 108.

[xxiii] ”Intertextuality,” Wikipedia, accessed January 20, 2014,

[xxiv] Browen and Ringham, Key Terms in Semiotics, 21.

[xxv] ”Epistle to the Romans,” New Advent, accessed January 22, 2014,

[xxvi] The Antiochene bishop Ignatius (d. at a point between 98 and 117 AD) was acquainted with the letter. Ignatius, “Epistle to the Romans,” Philip Scharff ed. The Apostolic Farthers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Edinburg: 1867; copyright: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 172, 174.

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