The Best Word for “Word”: Incarnation and Translation

 on December 3, 2020

Soon we will be hearing again those wonderful Christmas words, “In the beginning was the Word.” For many of us, Christmas would not be Christmas without the words, “And the Word became flesh.” 

But what on earth is this word “Word”? I have a hunch that almost every sermon preached on this chapter tries to explain that the word “Word” does not really mean what we mean by “word.” My father-in-law, who struggled with faith his whole long life, and read many Bible translations, complained regularly, “If they don’t mean ‘word,’ why do they say ‘word’?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question. 

You may know (because many sermons will tell you) that the Greek word John used was logos, which has several layers of meaning—none of them what we mean by “word.” William Temple, the one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, says logos combines two basic meanings:

It is the Word of the Lord by which the heavens were made, and which came to the prophets. It is also the Rational Principle which gives unity and significance to all existing things.

Don’t worry: this is not going to turn into a lesson in Greek philosophy. I just want to ask, why on earth would John use what is (to us) such an obscure word? The answer is simple: using that single word in the very first sentence of his book told the original readers that this was a book for them. It used a word that was both familiar and yet mysterious, so would have connected with them immediately.

Most people outside the church today feel that the church is totally irrelevant to their lives. Many would say they are “exploring their spirituality,” but few would think that a church might be helpful in that exploration. And if they venture inside the doors of a church at Christmas time, for whatever reason, hearing a term from ancient Greek philosophy is hardly going to help them. 

To John, the word must have seemed a gift, a ready-made bridge into a community where, if people thought about Christianity and this new “church” thing at all, they assumed it was just another obscure Jewish revival sect, and nothing to do with them. Hearing that Jesus was the logos would have piqued their interest: “Wow! Tell me more.” 

I wonder if there were nay-sayers in the John’s community who cautioned John against using the word: “It could actually mislead people about who Jesus is.” But John went ahead anyway, and the world was changed. Frankly, choosing the word logos was a risk. But it is the kind of risk that is typical of a translator. 

The problem is, the more a word communicates clearly in one specific culture, the less it will mean in a different culture. My students laughed when I took into class an edition of the New Testament from the 1960s, with pictures of long-haired hippies on the front cover. At the time, of course, it was not anachronistic. It gave people a visual message, “This book is about you and for you.” And that was powerful—at the time. Now, well, not so much. 

So for John to call Jesus the logos was brilliant, a masterstroke of translation. But once John’s Gospel moved outside the ancient world to which it spoke so powerfully, every translator, into whatever language, has had a problem knowing how to translate the word. Most still translate it as “word”—which is, frankly, lame. One recent Bible translator, David Bentley Hart, discovered this for himself: “Word is so inadequate as to be practically meaningless.” 

The problem, of course, is that there really is no single English word which can even remotely convey all the shades of meaning of the word logos. And in case, there aren’t too many ancient Greek philosophers around to appreciate John’s brilliance. 

When a translation actually hinders someone who is trying to understand Christian faith instead of doing its basic job of clearing the way—so that they say, “Oh, now I understand!”—something is wrong. 

Is there a better word than Word? The most original translation I have come across is in the one called The Voice. The authors begin John 1 like this: 

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God. This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos. . . . The Voice took on flesh and became human (Jn. 1:1-3, 14).

Is “voice” an accurate translation of logos? It depends, I suppose, on what you mean by accurate. There will never be precise one-to-one equivalence between a word in one language and its equivalent in another. We are always working with approximations. It is no use asking, “Is this the correct translation?” There is seldom if ever any such thing. We can only ask, “Is this an adequate translation? Will it help the reader to grasp the point? Is there enough overlap with the meaning of the original?” 

Personally, I think the word “voice” works well. For one thing, the word is easily understood, and it is one we use every day. It also conveys the idea of communication: in the beginning, God was a communicator. Does it convey everything that logos would have conveyed to the original hearers? Certainly not. There’s no way that “voice” can mean “the Rational Principle which gives unity and significance to all existing things,” as logos does. It’s a trade-off and, I would say, not a bad one.

Our concern should be: What will help people get started in their understanding of the Gospel and their engagement with Jesus? If “voice” works, then let’s use “voice.” If we worry about what is lost by replacing Word with Voice, well, there are other parts of the New Testament which speak of the cosmic significance of Jesus. Someone who is exploring Christian faith will discover them in time. Ah, you may say, but that’s a very pragmatic approach. It certainly is. But it is a careful, reflective pragmatism. Frankly, translators do not have a choice but to pray, consult widely, try their best—and trust the Spirit of Jesus, the self-translation of God.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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