Friday, January 08, 2010

Anathem and John's Prologue

I just mentioned that my current audiobook is Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

My current paper book is Craig Keener's commentary on the Gospel of John.

Surprisingly, as I was listening and reading today, the two totally different books mentioned the same concept, albeit from completely different angles.

In Anathem, one of the weird things in the book's setting is a group of philosophers who believe in a literal "world of geometry".

According to these fictional academics, there is a reason that everyone who is taught about abstract shapes naturally thinks in quite identical ways about them. There is a real world inhabited by perfect geometrical ideals that influences our world, both in inspiring patterns in nature and in affecting human thought.

Keener discusses the gospel's prologue, specifically the context of John's choice of the word logos. Today, most Christians read John's prologue and think something like, "Well, I know lots about Jesus. I'm a lot less certain what it means that Jesus is God's word, so I'll use what I know about Jesus to put meaning into that strange phrase." This is the opposite of how John's original readers would meet the text.

The three terms logos (word), sophia (wisdom), and nomos (law) mean very specific things in the standard Greek philosophy of John's day. Among Hellenized Jewish writers these meanings changed slightly to related but significantly different concepts. Among non-Hellenized Jews the three terms meant yet something else.

What does it mean that John uses logos instead of sophia or nomos when describing Jesus's role in creation? That word choice would seem incredibly significant to John's original readers who knew nothing about Jesus yet. It forms a first impression that would affect how they understood the rest of the gospel.

Keener's uses two chapters to answer this question. I'm not about to try to summarize his satisfying conclusion.

The relevant section of Keener's discussion has sentences like these, from pages 377-378:
A later neoplatonist like Plotinus could declare that the world of intellect formed the universe, which is now held together by the Logos... For Philo, too, God used the world of intellect as a pattern for the rest of the world...In Philo, Logos is not only divine Reason structuring matter, but as in some middle Platonic thought a determinate pattern which is God's image.
Don't worry that out of context this quotation is pretty meaningless.

After probably too much build-up, my point is simply that some of John's contemporaries were Greek philosophers who also believed in a literal "world of intellect" inhabited by the patterns that the material world is based upon.

There's no inspired conclusion to this musing. It was just amusing that my entertainments had unexpected similarities today.

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