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Chapter 8. “The Word” is “the Memra”

Chapter 8

“The Word” is “the Memra”

The Aramaic Old Testament, the Memra (the Word)

In the last chapter we considered the OT roots of the Word/Logos in the Hebrew Bible. In this chapter we consider the roots of the Logos in the Aramaic OT. Since most Christians know practically nothing about the Aram­aic background of the early church, we will here provide a brief “inten­sive” introduction to this matter which is so important for a proper under­standing of the gospels and John 1 in particular.

Aramaic, the language of Palestine and the primary language of Jesus

The learned Jewish scholar Rabbi Samuel Sandmel (who, unlike many other rabbis, exercised a more understanding attitude to­wards the New Testa­ment) wrote,

Christianity was born in Palestine, within Judaism. The language spoken by Jesus and his immediate followers was Aramaic, a language as closely related to Hebrew as one might say, Portuguese is to Spanish.

The New Testament itself attests to the knowledge that the beginnings of the Christian movement were in a locale linguis­tically Aramaic, for it preserves within its Greek text Aramaic words in quot­ation. Somewhere in the line of development of Christianity, probably while its accumulat­ing tradition was still being carried on orally, translation of some things from Aram­aic into Greek took place. (Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, p.13)

Rabbi Sandmel compared the relationship of Hebrew and Aramaic with that of Portuguese and Spanish. The prolific (having written over 70 books) Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops wrote that Aramaic was “in no way at all a corrupt form of Hebrew, a kind of degenerate dialect that the Jews brought back with them from Babylon. Aramaic was just as much a true language as Hebrew: it was the language of those active, stirring tribes which moved about the Fertile Crescent from the earliest times—those tribes from which the Israel­ites claimed descent.” (H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, p.267.)

Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, wrote in his recent book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, Penguin 2004: “Ideally this analysis [of the gospel of Jesus] should be applied to the original language of the teach­ing of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic; Aramaic was the Semitic tongue used by most of his compatriots.” (A Note on the Sources, p.x)

Here Prof. Vermes, one of the foremost authorities on Jewish studies, states three things:

  1. The language which Jesus spoke was Aramaic, therefore
  2. Jesus’ original teaching was in Aramaic, because
  3. Most of the people of Palestine in his time spoke Aramaic.

However, the Gospels are now available to us only in Greek, so the task of the scholar is to try to understand the underlying Aramaic forms of express­ion, and even words (e.g. ‘Abba’, meaning ‘Father’), in order to attain a clearer under­standing of Jesus’ teaching. For this purpose, Vermes men­tions three sources which provide ex­tremely valuable material:

The most important Bible commentaries are [1] the Tannaitic Midrashim (plural of Midrash, works of Scripture exegesis) on the Law of Moses…; [2] the Midrash Rabbah, the Large Midrash…; and [3] the Targumim (plural of Targum, tran­slation) covering a variety of popul­ar Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible classified as the Targum of Onkelos on the Torah, various recensions of the Palestinian Targum on the Torah, the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, etc. (page xvi, numbers in square brackets added).

But few Christian scholars are acquainted with this large body of material. For those able to read German, a standard reference work in 4 volumes by H.L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, has long been available. For those unable to read German, there is the much smaller and older work by John Lightfoot, A Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, which was pub­lished by Oxford University Press in 1859. Few people, however, perceive the import­ance of all this material for understanding the NT, so references to it even in scholarly works are sparse. To this can be added the fact that some of the most important Aramaic material, notably Targum Neofiti, were discovered only 50 years ago, and the Dead Sea scrolls (containing significant Aramaic writings) just 60 years ago.

General Observations on Aramaic

The learned Catholic scholar and expert on the Aramaic Targums, Martin McNamara, reminds us of the Jewish origin and character of the gospel:

Yet we can never lose sight of the fact that the preaching of the gospel had its origins within Judaism. Christ and the Apos­tles were Jews. The gospel tradition, too, was formed in a Jew­ish atmosphere within Pales­tine during the early years of the nascent Church. And this tradition was formed by men who for the greater part were themselves Jews. And even when Christ­ianity moved beyond Palestine to the Greek world, it was brought there by Jews. They may preach to Greeks, but they would naturally have thought as Hebrews. (McNamara, Targum and Testament, p.1f)

Elsewhere McNamara speaks of “the early Aramaic-speak­ing Church” and “the nascent Aramaic stage of the Church” (both p.130, Targum and Testa­ment); and again, “the language used by Christ and by the Aramaic-speaking nascent church” (p.164).

To underscore these points, consider the following information provided in the Encarta Reference Library on “The Aramaic Targums”:

In Judaism, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of every­day life, translations became necessary, first accom­pany­ing the oral reading of Scriptures in the synagogue and later set down in writ­ing. The Targums were not literal translations, but rather paraphrases or interpretations of the original.

When, after the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century bc, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the generally spoken language, it became necessary to explain the meaning of readings from the Scriptures. These were the Targums; the word “targum” means “interpretation”. (Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2005)

The names of people mentioned in the gospels often used the Aramaic prefix “bar” (instead of the Hebrew “ben”) for the word “son” (as in “son of”); this clearly shows that Aramaic was the language of the common people. Consider, for example, these well-known names in the NT: Barab­bas; Bar-Jesus; Bar-Jonah; Barnabas; Barsabbas; Bartholomew; Bartimeus, etc. Also words like Maranatha (1Cor.16:22), “Our Lord, come,” a common prayer in the church.

Jesus’ hometown Nazareth was in Galilee, situated in the north­ern part of the land of Israel. It was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt.4:15) probably because it was that part of Israel which had the most contact with the neighbor­ing Gentile populat­ions, namely, the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis to the east and Scythopolis in the south. What language(s) then did the Galileans speak? This question is important for us because many of the twelve apostles were, like Jesus, from Galilee. Freyne’s standard work on Galilee provides the following answer:

While Greek was certainly widely used even among the lower, uneducated classes, we have allowed, there seems little doubt that Aramaic remained the most commonly spoken language of the vast major­ity of the inhabitants of Galilee throughout the whole period of this survey. There is a growing consensus that Mishnaic Hebrew too was spoken in first century C.E. Palestine, and in fact had developed from spoken Hebrew of earlier times that had never been totally replaced. Given the close affinity of Hebrew and Aramaic it is quite possible that a situation of diglossia [simultaneous use of two languages] existed, namely Aramaic as the ordinary language for every­day speech and Hebrew for formal occasions, especially the cult [i.e. worship]. (Sean Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E, p.144; italics and explanatory words in square brackets mine. Freyne was Professor of New Testament studies at Loyola University, New Orleans.)

Professor M. Black described it in this way:

Four languages were to be found in first-century Palestine: Greek was the speech of the educated ‘hellenized’ classes and the medium of cultural and commercial intercourse between Jew and foreigner; Latin was the language of the army of occupation and, to judge from Latin borrowings in Aramaic, appears also to some extent to have served the purposes of commerce, as it no doubt also did of Roman law; Hebrew, the sacred tongue of the Jewish Scriptures, continued to provide the lettered Jew with an important means of literary express­ion and was cultivated as a spoken tongue in the learned coteries of the Rabbis; Aramaic was the language of the people of the land and, together with Hebrew, provided the chief literary medium of the Palestinian Jew of the first century; Josephus wrote his Jewish War in Aramaic and later translated it into Greek. (Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3rd edition), p.15f; italics added)

Aramaic still evident in the Greek (and English) Gospels

Those who read the gospels will often come across names and other words without knowing that these are Aramaic. For the reader’s convenience, the following material is ex­tracted from the detailed study in Wikipedia: [1]

— Start of Wikipedia article —

Talitha qoum (Ταλιθα κουμ)

And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, get up”. (Mark 5:41)

The Aramaic is tlīthā qūm. The word tlīthā is the feminine form of the word tlē, meaning “young”. Qūm is the Aramaic verb ‘to rise, stand, get up’.


Ephphatha (Εφφαθα)

And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” which is ‘be opened’. (Mark 7:34)

Once again, the Aramaic word is given with an attempted transliter­ation, only this time the word to be transliterated is more complicated. In Greek, the Aramaic is written εφφαθα. This is from the Aramaic ‘ethpthaħ,’ the passive imperative of the verb ‘pthaħ,’ ‘to open’.


Abba (Αββα)

And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:36)

Abba, an Aramaic word (written Αββα in Greek, and ’abbā in Aramaic), is immediately followed by the Greek equivalent (Πατηρ) with no explicit men­tion of it being a translation. The phrase Abba, Father is repeated in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6.

Note, the name Barabbas is a Hellenization of the Aramaic Bar Abba (בר אבא), literally, “Son of the Father”.


Raca (Ρακα)

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and who­soever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)

Raca, or Raka, in the Aramaic of the Talmud means empty one, fool, empty head.


Mammon (Μαμωνας)

No one can serve two masters: for either they will hate the one, and love the other; or else they will hold to the one, and des­pise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into ever­lasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If there­fore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will com­mit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16:9-13)


Rabboni (Ραββουνει)

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. (John 20:16, KJV)

Also in Mark 10:51. Hebrew form rabbi used as title of Jesus in Matthew 26:25,49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:49, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8. In Aramaic, it could be (רבוני).


Maranatha (μαρανα θα)

If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha. (1 Corinthians 16:22)

In Aramaic (מרנא תא) it means Lord, come! or Our Lord, come!


Eli Eli lema sabachthani (Ηλει Ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει)

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

This phrase, shouted by Jesus from the cross, is given to us in these two ver­sions. The Matthean version of the phrase is trans­literated in Greek as ηλει ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει. The Markan version is similar, but begins ελωι ελωι (elōi rather than ēlei).

The lines seem to be quoting the first line of Psalm 22. However, he is not quoting the canonical Hebrew version (êlî êlî lâmâ `azabtânî), but is using an Aramaic translation of it (targum).

In Aramaic, it could be (אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני).


Jot and tittle (ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία)

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law (that is, the Torah) till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18)

The quotation uses them as an example of extremely minor details. “Jot and tittle” is iota and keraia in the Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet (ι), but since only capitals were used at the time the Greek New Testament, written (Ι), it probably represents the Aramaic yodh (י) which is the smallest letter of the Aramaic alphabet.


Korbanas (κορβανας)

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury (Gk. text: korbana), since they are blood money.’ (Matthew 27:6)

In Aramaic (קרבנא, korbana) it refers to the treasury in the Temple in Jerusalem, derived from the Hebrew Corban (קרבן), found in Mark 7:11 and the Septuagint (in Greek transliteration), meaning religious gift.


Sikera (σικερα)

for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink (Gk. text: sikera); even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:15)

In Aramaic (שכרא, sikera) it means barley beer, from the Akkadian shikaru.


Hosanna (ὡσαννά)

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! (Mark 11:9)

According to the Bauer lexicon, see references at end, this word is de­rived from Aramaic (הושע נא) from Hebrew (הושיעה נא) (Psalm 118:25, הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא), meaning “help” or “save, I pray”, “an appeal that became a liturgical formula; as part of the Hallel… familiar to everyone in Israel.”

Aramaic personal names in the New Testament

The most prominent feature in Aramaic names is “bar” (Greek trans­literation βαρ, Aramaic bar), meaning ‘son of,’ a common patronym prefix. Its Hebrew equivalent, ‘ben,’ is conspicuous by its absence. Some examples are:

Matthew 10:3—Bartholomew (Βαρθολομαιος from bar-Tôlmay, perhaps ‘son of furrows’ or ‘ploughman’).

Matthew 16:17Simon bar-Jona (Σιμων Βαριωνας from Šim`ôn bar-Yônâ, ‘Simon son of Jonah’).

John 1:42Simon bar-Jochanan (‘Simon son of John’).

Matthew 27:16—Barabbas (Βαραββας from bar-Abbâ, ‘son of the father’).

Mark 10:46—Bartimaeus (Βαρτιμαιος from bar-Tim’ay, per­haps ‘son of defilement’ or ‘son of a whore’).

Acts 1:23—Barsabbas (Βαρσαββας from bar-Šabbâ, ‘son of the Sabbath’).

Acts 4:36—Joseph who is called Barnabas (Βαρναβας from bar-Navâ meaning ‘son of prophecy, the prophet,’ but given the Greek translation υιος παρακλησεως; usually translated as ‘son of consolation/encourage­ment’).

Acts 13:6—Bar-Jesus (Βαριησους from bar-Yêšû`, ‘son of Jesus/Joshua’).

Mark 3:17—Boanerges (Βοανηργες): And James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James, and he gave them the name Boanerges, which is Sons of Thunder.

Jesus surnames the brothers James and John to reflect their impet­uosity. The Greek rendition of their name is Βοανηργες (Boanērges). Given the Greek trans­lation that comes with it (‘Sons of Thunder’), it seems that the first element of the name is ‘bnê’, ‘sons of’ (the plural of ‘bar’), Aramaic (בני). The second part of the name is often reckoned to be ‘rğaš’ (‘tumult’) Aramaic (רניש), or ‘rğaz’ (‘anger’) Aramaic (רנז). The Peshitta reads ‘bnay rğešy’.


Cephas (Κηφας)

He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John, you shall be called Cephas,” which is translated ‘Peter’. (John 1:42, NIV)

But I say that each of you says “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ”. (1 Corinthians 1:12)

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days (Galatians 1:18, NRSV)

In these passages, ‘Cephas’ is given as the nickname of the apostle better known as Simon Peter. The Greek word is trans­literated Κηφᾶς (Kēphâs).

The apostle’s given name appears to be Simon, and he is given the Aramaic nickname, kêfâ, meaning ‘rock’. The final sigma (s) is added in Greek to make the name masculine rather than feminine.


Thomas (Θωμας)

Then Thomas, who was called Didymus, said to his co-disciples, “Now let us go that we might die with him!” (John 11:16)

Thomas (Θωμᾶς) is listed among the disciples of Jesus in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. However, it is only in John’s Gospel that more inform­ation is given. In three places (John 11:16, 20:24 and 21:2) he is given the name Didymus (Δίδυμος), the Greek word for a twin. In fact, “the Twin” is not just a surname, it is a translation of “Thomas”. The Greek Θωμᾶς—Thōmâs—comes from the Aramaic tômâ, “twin”.


Tabitha (Ταβειθα)

In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is trans­lated Dorcas. (Acts 9:36)

The disciple’s name is given both in Aramaic (Ταβειθα) and Greek (Δορκας). The Aramaic name is a transliteration of Tvîthâ the female form of טביא (Tavyâ). Both names mean ‘gazelle’.

Aramaic place names in the New Testament

Gethsemane (Γεθσημανει)

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane. (Mt 26:36)

And they went to a place that has the name Gethsemane. (Mark 14:32)

The place where Jesus takes his disciples to pray before his arrest is given the Greek transliteration Γεθσημανει (Gethsēmani). It repres­ents the Aramaic ‘Gath-Šmânê’, meaning ‘the oil press’ or ‘oil vat’ (referring to olive oil).


Golgotha (Γολγοθα)

And they took him up to the place Golgotha, which is trans­lated Place of the Skull. (Mark 15:22)

And carrying his cross by himself, he went out to the so-called Place of the Skull, which is called in ‘Hebrew’ Golgotha. (John 19:17)

This is clearly Aramaic rather than Hebrew. ‘Gûlgaltâ’ is the Aramaic for ‘skull’. The name appears in all of the gospels except Luke, which calls the place simply Kranion ‘the Skull,’ with no Aramaic. The name ‘Calvary’ is taken from the Latin Vulgate trans­lation, Calvaria.


Gabbatha (Γαββαθα)

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew, Gabbatha. (John 19:13)

The place name appears to be Aramaic. According to Josephus, War, V.ii.1, #51, the word Gabath means high place, or elevated place, so perhaps a raised flat area near the temple.


— End of Wikipedia article —

The Aramaic Old Testament: the Targums

The following explanation is from Encyclopedia Britannica 2003, article “Targum”:

The earliest Targums date from the time after the Babylon­ian Exile when Aramaic had superseded Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews in Palestine. It is impossible to give more than a rough estimate as to the period in which Hebrew was displaced by Aramaic as a spoken language. It is certain, how­ever, that Aramaic was firmly established in Palestine by the 1st century AD, although Hebrew still remained the learned and sacred language. Thus the Targums were designed to meet the needs of unlearned Jews [i.e. the great majority] to whom the Hebrew of the Old Testament was unintelligible. (italics added)

Further observations about the Targums

McNamara, one of the foremost experts on the Targums, provides the follo­wing explanation:

A targum is an Aramaic translation of a book or books of the Old Testament, Aramaic being the language spoken rather gen­erally in Palest­ine in the time of Christ, and indeed for some centuries preceding it. In the regular synagogue service, sect­ions of the Pentateuch and of the Prophets were read out in Hebrew and were immediately translated into Aramaic. It is for this reason that we refer to these translations as litur­gical ren­derings.

There are still extant two distinct Jewish targums of the Pentateuch. The first is a rather literal rendering and is known as the Targum of Onkelos. The other, an extremely paraphras­tic version, is called the Palestinian Tar­gum of the Pentateuch. This Palestinian targum is now found in its entirety in Codex Neofiti, and in part in the texts of Pseudo-Jonathan, the Fragment Targum, and in Fragments from the Cairo Geniza. Being a paraphrase rather than a translation proper, this tar­gum contains much additional mat­erial and conse­quently gives us a good idea of the religious concepts current when it was composed. This latter targum is written in the language known as Palestinian Aramaic….Targums, stand at the very heart of Jewish religion.” (Targum and Testament, p.11f, italics added).

“The targumic tradition was a sacred tradition, originating in the liturgy. The Palestinian Targum, being recited every Sab­bath in the synagogues, would have been well known to Christ and his Apostles [including John], as well as to the Jewish con­verts to Christianity. That Christ should have made use of the religious traditions of his people when addressing his mess­age to them is altogether natural. He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it, to bring it to perfection… Jesus was a Jew of the Jews. His language and mental make-up were theirs. It is, then, not surprising that the manner in which he, and later the Apostles [including John], presented the gospel to the Jews was that already known to them.” (McNamara, p.167, italics and square brackets added)

The Jewish background of the Word, the Glory, etc.

In order to help us better understand the Jewish background of such terms as “the Word” (the Memra), “the Glory,” etc., I quote further from McNamara:

The expression of divine truths in human language will always present a problem to mortals. The Yahwist [Bible writer(s) who used the Tetragram­maton] has given us both a deep psycho­logy and a profound theology in anthropomor­phic and mythical dress. Yahweh fashions man from clay, con­verses with him, walks in the Garden of Eden, des­cends from heaven to see the tower of Babel. This manner of speaking about God must have appeared to many as not entirely becoming.

This led the targumists to remove anthropomorphisms, substituting refer­ences to the ‘Word’ (Memra), ‘Glory’ (Yeqara, ’Iqar) or ‘Presence’ (Shekinah; Aramaic: Shekinta) of the Lord when speaking of his relat­ions with the world. In communicating his will to man we read of ‘the Holy Spirit’ or the Dibbera (Word) rather than the Lord himself. For a Jew, of course, these were merely other ways of saying ‘the Lord’. They were rever­ential ways of speaking about the God of Israel.” (Targum and Testament, p.98)

In some texts of [Targum] Neofiti ‘Glory of the Lord’ is a metonym for God and one which could equally well be re­placed by ‘the Word (Memra) of the Lord’. Thus, for example, in Genesis:

The Word of the Lord created the two large lumin­aries… (1:16)… and the Glory of the Lord set them in the firmament (1:17)… the Word of the Lord created the son of man [i.e. man]… (1:27)… And the Glory of the Lord blessed them and the Word of the Lord said to them: ‘be strong and multiply’ (1:28)… And on the seventh day the Word of the Lord com­pleted the work which he had created… (2:2)… and the Glory of the Lord blessed the seventh day (2:3).’” (Targum and Testament, p.99)

In the Palestinian Targum the usual expression is not ‘the Glory of God’ but ‘the Glory of the Shekinah of God’, or ‘the Glory of the Shekinah of the Lord’. The insertion of ‘Shekinah’ may be a further attempt to remove any trace of anthropo­morphism…. ‘Shekinah,’ i.e. presence, dwelling, calls to mind ‘Glory of the Lord,’ or his dwelling presence with Israel.” (McNamara, p.100)

All this makes it perfectly clear that “Word” (Memra), “Glory,” and “Shekinah” were “reverential ways of speaking about the God of Israel”. The Word was never thought of as a personal being distinct from Yahweh, the God of Israel. The Logos in Greek philosophy was also not a personal being, as is also true in the writings of the Jewish philo­sopher Philo. The Word as a person distinct from Yahweh simply did not exist any­where. This proves beyond doubt that the trinitarian interpret­ation of the Word in John 1 as a divine person distinct from Yahweh God is without any foundation what­soever; it is the result of a serious mis­interpretation of Scripture. This will be considered in greater detail in the following chapters.

Trinitarianism and the Memra

With regard to the question of what John meant by “the Word,” John Lightfoot, the learned British scholar wrote:

There is no great necessity for us to make any curious inquiry, whence our evangelist should borrow this title, when in the history of creat­ion we find it so oft repeated, אְֶלֹהִים מֶר וַיּא And God said. It is observed almost by all that have of late un­dertaken a commentary upon this evangelist, that דיי מימרא, the Word of the Lord, doth very frequently occur amongst the Targumists, which may something enlight­en the matter now before us. (A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica)

With these words Lightfoot brushes aside the idea that the Logos in John 1:1 derives from Greek philosophy. He sees the Logos as the Greek equi­valent of the Memra (מימרא), which occurs frequently in the Targums. Lightfoot evidently understood that Memra refers to “The Lord himself,” as he says, but like so many trinitarians, his ambivalent concept of “Lord” (Yahweh or Jesus?) seemed to have confused him to the extent that at least at one point he seemed to write as if Christ was the trinitarian Logos and that “the second person of the holy Trinity” was meant (Vol.3, p.237)! As a scholar he knew very well that Memra was a metonym for “the Lord (Yahweh) himself,” yet he allowed himself, at least in this instance, to be confused into thinking that it was “the Lord (Jesus) himself”. Memra absolutely never referred to another person dis­tinct from Yahweh, yet such is the “bewitching” power of error, as the Apostle Paul aptly described it in Galatians 3:1, that the capacity to dis­tin­guish between truth and error becomes gravely blurred.

The Memra (Word) rejected because it does not support trinitarian dogma!

C.K. Barrett, however, rejects Lightfoot’s identification of the Logos with the Memra on the grounds that the Memra is not a divine hypostasis but a substit­ute for the divine Name. Barrett writes:

In the Targums of the Old Testament frequent use is made of the Aramaic word מימרא (memra, word). It has sometimes been supposed that this מימרא is a divine hypostasis capable of furnishing a true par­allel to John’s thought of a personal Logos incarnate in Jesus. מימרא [memra] however was not truly a hypostasis but a means of speaking about God without using his name, and thus a means of avoiding the numerous anthropo­morphisms of the Old Testament. One example will show both the true meaning of מימרא [memra], and also the way in which it might erroneously be taken as a hypostasis: Gen.3:8: for, They heard the voice of the Lord God, Targ. Onkelos reads, They heard the voice of the memra of the Lord God. Memra is a blind alley in the study of the biblical back­ground of John’s logos doctrine. (The Gospel According to St. John, p.128. In this quotation from Barrett, I have left out the Hebrew of the phrase he quotes from Gen.3:8 and the Aramaic of the Targum of Onkelos, which are in his text, but the rest of the quotation is exactly as it is in his text; italics added).

I quote this passage from Barrett both to show that he correctly under­stood the meaning of Memra and to illustrate how completely dogma determined his exegesis. Regarding the latter point, it is deter­mined in advance by trinitarian­ism that John’s thought about the Logos is, speci­fically, “John’s thought of a personal Logos incarnate in Jesus.” Following this reasoning, it means that we do not need to find out through careful exegesis whether indeed John’s thought of the Logos is to be understood in personal terms, this has already been deter­mined in advance by our dogma; and because the Memra cannot be shown to be personal, it is irrelevant for our purpose, it is “a blind alley in the study of the biblical background of John’s logos doc­trine.” Why is it a “blind alley”? Because it will not lead to the trinitarian dogma which Barrett wants to get to. But is it not our responsibility to dis­cover how Logos in John 1 was meant to be understood rather than to look for a meaning which may help to get us to the meaning which we want to get to, namely, trinitarianism?

Barrett understands that the Memra was “not truly a hypo­stasis,” and illus­trates this with an example from Targum Onkelos, by which he wants to show how the Memra “might erroneously be taken as a hypo­stasis.” Yet he shows no concern about falling into precisely the same error by assuming without further ado that the Logos in John must be understood as a divine hypostasis.

Having in this rather cavalier fashion thrown out the possibility of the Memra as providing a background to our understanding of the Logos in John 1, Barrett considers what options are left. He looks more favorably on Wisdom (as in Proverbs 8:22), ignoring the fact that Wisdom is feminine in both Hebrew and Greek while Logos is masculine. He also ignores the fact that the language of Proverbs 8 is metaphorical, as is common knowledge, which means in Barrett’s words that Wisdom, like Memra, “was not truly a hypostasis” or person. How exactly, then, does Wisdom provide a better support for his hypostasized Logos than Memra? To this question he provides no answer.

Apart from Wisdom, Barrett like other trinitarian scholars, pointed to Philo’s Judaized Stoic-Platonic Logos and the hypostatic language used of the Torah [the Law] in rabbinic Judaism (but whose language he considered “fanciful”); but the main point about these ideas is that none of them, as in the case of Memra, can be shown to be divine hypostases. So he proceeded to the conclusion that John had manufactured his own synthesis of these ideas in the form of a divine hypostasis, the Logos. This is what Barrett called the “Johan­nine synthesis”—a synthesis of ideas drawn from Wisdom literature, “Sophia and Torah speculations,” and Philo’s interpretations—producing an “amal­gam” which John applied to Christ as “the Johannine Logos” as Barrett called it (The Gospel According to St. John, p.129). But this is pure conjecture; or stated more accurately, even if more sternly, this alleged synthesis is Barrett’s fabrication, not John’s. We can only wonder which is the more “fanciful”: some of the Rabbinic language about the Torah or Barrett’s “Johannine synthesis”? Yet this is the found­ation of the trinitarian interpretation (we cannot call this exegesis) of John 1:1ff. This is basically the same kind of interpretation (even when the term “Johannine synthesis” is not used) found in most trinitarian comment­aries on John’s Gospel. After all, trinitarianism has no other alternative but to take this path of interpretation.

Barrett does not, however, make Lightfoot’s mistake of identi­fying the Memra with “the second person of the Trinity”; he rejects it on the grounds that the Memra is not a person but “a means of speaking about God without using his name (i.e. YHWH).” (John, p.128)

Barrett was entirely correct on this last point concerning the meaning of Memra, as can also be confirmed by consulting M. Jastrow’s authoritative work Dictionary of the Talmud, where the definition of Memra given is:

1) word, command Targ. Gen.XLI.44. Targ. Ps.XIX.4;—2) (hyposta­tized) the Word, i.e. the Lord (used in Targum to obviate anthropomor­phism). Targ. Gen. III.10. Targ. Y. ib. 9” (p.775). “‘The Word’ or ‘the Word of the Lord’ in the Targums is thus a respectful circumlocution for ‘Yahweh’. (italics added only in the last sentence)

Looking at the definition of Memra, it is clear that there is one point on which Lightfoot is unquestionably correct: the identifi­cation of Logos with Memra. Both these words mean exactly the same thing: word. Barrett cannot, and does not deny, this fact; he just does not want to accept it because it cannot lead to trinitar­ianism. It is, there­fore, for him a dead end road, or a “blind alley,” as he put it. Unable to find any road forward that could lead to the trinitarian object­ive he was trying to reach, he put forward the idea of a “Johannine synthesis,” a road constructed out of pure specu­lation! [2]

Here is another example from the well-known German com­mentary by Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash [A Commentary on the NT using the Talmud and Midrash]. I will quote from Martin McNamara’s work Targum and Testament, in which he provides an English translation of the relevant section. Under the heading Memra of Targums and Logos of John, McNamara writes:

At the end of a very long excursus on ‘The Memra of Yahweh’ (Jn 1:1), P. Billerbeck concludes: ‘The inference that follows from the foregoing statement with regard to the Logos of John can be in no doubt: the ex­pression ‘Memra of Adonai’ was an empty, purely formal substitution for the Tetragram­maton and is consequently unsuitable to serve as a starting-point for the Logos of John. (Targum and Testament, p.101, quoting from Strack-Billerbeck, II, p.333).

Billerbeck’s statement defies logic and understanding—except, of course, for the trinitarian. Let us look at that statement again: “the expression ‘Memra of Adonai’ was a… substitution for the Tetra­grammaton and is consequently [!] unsuitable…” (italics and exclam­ation mark added). Why is it “unsuit­able”? Because it is not the hypostasis that the trinitarian dogma requires and therefore does not suit its purpose, so throw it out!

Interestingly, McNamara (a noted Catholic priest and scholar) does not agree with the kind of views expressed by Barrett and Billerbeck, which he con­siders “unfortunate”. He does not accept their rejection of Memra even though he confirms that it was a standard way of referring to “the Lord (Yahweh)”. On the latter point he writes: “That the Memra of the Lord is merely a reverent circumlocution for ‘the Lord,’ another way of expressing the same thing and in no way a hypostasis [i.e. one different from ‘the Lord’], is now generally held by students of Judaism. As H.A. Wolfson says: ‘No scholar nowadays will en­tertain the view that it is either a real being or an intermediary’.” (Targum and Testament, p.101)[3]

McNamara then continues:

Present-day scholars tend to reject the targumic Memra as a back­ground to, or contributing factor towards, John’s doc­trine of the Logos. This they prefer to see prepared in the prophetic word (dabar) and in the Wisdom literature. This neglect of tar­gumic evidence is unfortun­ate. Granted that the Memra of God and the Lord is but another way of saying ‘God’ or ‘the Lord,’ it by no means follows that John was not influenced by targumic usage in his choice of Logos as a designation for Christ. For John too, ‘the Word was God’ (Jn 1:1). (p.102f.)

The Memra was certainly not a divine hypostasis in the sense Barrett required, namely, a second person coequal with Yahweh. But is Yahweh (whose Name is represented by “Memra,” “Logos,” or “Word”) not “divine hypostasis” par excellence? Certainly a name (or, in the case of Memra, a substitute or circum­locution of that name) is not a person; it designates a person. Memra is a metonym not a person, but it design­ates the Person of Yahweh. This may be stating the obvious but, where the Memra is con­cerned, it would help to be able to grasp the obvious!


The Memra, as we have seen, is the Aramaic word for “word” or logos. Closer attention must be given to the meaning of the Memra in the thought world of Jesus’ time and John’s time if we are to gain a proper understanding of what the important message is in the Prologue of John. A convenient and extensive source of inform­ation is the Jewish Encyclopedia. In the following section, I shall quote exten­sively from its article on the Memra. The funda­mental point which is made at the beginning of its study is this:

In the Targum the Memra figures constantly as the mani­festation of the divine power. (italics added)

It is essential to keep this point in mind because the Gentile mind, with its tendency to polytheism, is easily misled by the hypo­stasizing language used when referring to the Memra and quickly starts assum­ing that it is a hypo­stasis independent of Yahweh. From the Jewish Encyclopedia we learn the following:

MEMRA: ‘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. [Bold lettering added]

—Biblical Data:

In Scripture ‘the word of the Lord’ commonly denotes the speech add­ressed to patriarch or prophet (Gen. xv. 1; Num. xii. 6, xxiii. 5; I Sam. iii. 21; Amos v. 1-8); but frequently it denotes also the creative word: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Ps. xxxiii. 6; comp. “For He spake, and it was done”; “He sendeth his word, and melteth them [the ice]”; “Fire and hail; snow and vapors; stormy wind fulfilling his word”; Ps. xxxiii. 9, cxlvii. 18, cxlviii. 8). In this sense it is said, “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps. cxix. 89). [Bold lettering added]

‘The Word,’ heard and announced by the prophet, often be­came, in the conception of the seer, an efficacious power apart from God, as was the angel or messenger of God: ‘The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel’ (Isa. ix. 7 [A.V. 8], lv. 11); ‘He sent his word, and healed them’ (Ps. cvii. 20); and comp. ‘his word runneth very swiftly’ (Ps. cxlvii. 15).

Personification of the Word—In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature:

While in the Book of Jubilees, xii. 22, the word of God is sent through the angel to Abraham, in other cases it becomes more and more a person­ified agency: ‘By the word of God exist His works’ (Ecclus. [Sirach] xlii. 15); ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, created the world by the “Ma’amar” [speech]’ (Mek., Beshallah, 10, with reference to Ps. xxxiii. 6).

The repeated references in Jewish literature to the involvement of the Word in creation, just as in John 1:3,10, are seen in the follow­ing in Jewish Encyclopedia:

Quite frequent is the expression, especially in the liturgy, ‘Thou who hast made the universe with Thy word and ordained man through Thy wisdom to rule over the creatures made by Thee’ (Wisdom ix. 1; comp. ‘Who by Thy words causest the evenings to bring darkness, who openest the gates of the sky by Thy wisdom’; … ‘who by His speech created the heavens, and by the breath of His mouth all their hosts’; through whose ‘words all things were created’; see Singer’s ‘Daily Prayer-Book,’ pp. 96, 290, 292). So also in IV Esdras vi. 38 (‘Lord, Thou spakest on the first day of Creation: “Let there be heaven and earth,” and Thy word hath accomplished the work’).

The Mishnah, with reference to the ten passages in Genesis (ch. i.) beginning with ‘And God said,’ speaks of the ten ‘ma’amarot’ (= ‘speeches’) by which the world was created (Abot v. 1; comp. Gen. R. iv. 2: ‘The upper heavens are held in suspense by the creative Ma’amar’).

Out of every speech [“dibbur”] which emanated from God an angel was created (Hag. 14a). ‘The Word [“dibbur”] called none but Moses’ (Lev. R. i. 4, 5). ‘The Word [“dibbur”] went forth from the right hand of God and made a circuit around the camp of Israel’ (Cant. R. i. 13).

‘Thy word, O Lord, healeth all things’ (Wisdom xvi. 12); ‘Thy word pre­serveth them that put their trust in Thee’ (l.c. xvi. 26). Especially strong is the personification of the word in Wisdom xviii. 15: ‘Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of Thy royal throne as a fierce man of war.’

Comment: The words, “Thy word, O Lord, heals all things” (Wisdom 16:12) would have helped the Jews to understand that Yahweh’s word was embodied in Jesus such that in and through him all manner of sick people were healed; healing was a prom­inent part of his ministry. The following words from Psalm 107 could well be applied to Jesus’ healing ministry:

17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquit­ies suffered affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he deli­vered them from their distress; 20 he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! (RSV)

See also Matthew 8:16:

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. (cf. also Mt.8:8; Lk.7:7, RSV)

A thorough understanding of the Memra, the key to understanding the Logos in John 1

The root of the problem of the Gentile’s failure to understand John 1:1 in particular, and NT Christology as a whole, stems from the failure to under­stand Jewish literature and thought as a whole.

Another fact of great importance emerged after the Babylon­ian exile: Israel for the first time truly and wholeheartedly em­braced monotheism, specifically the worship of Yahweh. From the 6th cen­tury BC onwards one could say that Israel had become fiercely monotheis­tic, in sharp contrast to their spiritual way­ward­ness prior to the Exile. But now they had such a sense of awe and reverence for God that they would not speak His Name or refer to His Person directly, but only by way of circumlocution such as HaShem (the Name), or more frequently Adonai, which is the plural form (i.e. of majesty) of “Lord” (Adoni), etc. But Memra (Word) is the one of particular importance for us because it corresponds exactly to the Logos of John 1.

The Jewish Encyclopedia provides a large section illustrating the use of Memra in the Targum; we would be wise to go through it patiently if we wish to grasp the fact that the Memra and the Logos are precisely the same in both word and concept, though in differ­ent languages.

The following material is given as one continuous section in the Jewish Encyclopedia but I have broken it down into its indiv­idual compo­nents to make it somewhat easier to read and to comment on (within square brackets) where needed:

The Jewish Encyclopedia:

In the Targum:

Instead of the Scriptural ‘You have not believed in the Lord [Yahweh],’ Targ. Deut. i. 32 has ‘You have not believed in the word of the Lord’; [i.e. “the word of the Lord” instead of “the Lord”]

Instead of ‘I shall require it [vengeance] from him,’ Targ. Deut. xviii. 19 has ‘My word shall require it.’ [“My word” instead of “I”]

The Memra,” instead of “the Lord [Yahweh],” is “the consum­ing fire” (Targ. Deut. ix. 3; comp. Targ. Isa. xxx. 27).

The Memra “plagued the people” (Targ. Yer. to Ex. xxxii. 35). “The Memra smote him” (II Sam. vi. 7; comp. Targ. I Kings xviii. 24; Hos. xiii. 14; et al.). [In both these instances “the Memra” stands for “Yahweh” in the Hebrew text]

Not “God,” but “the Memra,” is met with in Targ. Ex. xix. 17 (Targ. Yer. “the Shekinah”; comp. Targ. Ex. xxv. 22: “I will order My Memra to be there”).

“I will cover thee with My Memra,” instead of “My hand” (Targ. Ex. xxxiii. 22).

Instead of “My soul,” “My Memra shall reject you” (Targ. Lev. xxvi. 30; comp. Isa. i. 14, xlii. 1; Jer. vi. 8; Ezek. xxiii. 18). [It is significant that “My Memra” in the Targum stands for “My soul” in the Hebrew text.]

“The voice of the Memra,” instead of “God,” is heard (Gen. iii. 8; Deut. iv. 33, 36; v. 21; Isa. vi. 8; et al.).

Where Moses says, “I stood between the Lord and you” (Deut. v. 5), the Targum has, “between the Memra of the Lord and you”; and the “sign between Me and you” becomes a “sign between My Memra and you” (Ex. xxxi. 13, 17; comp. Lev. xxvi. 46; Gen. ix. 12; xvii. 2, 7, 10; Ezek. xx. 12).

Instead of God, the Memra comes to Abimelek (Gen. xx. 3), and to Balaam (Num. xxiii. 4).

His Memra aids and accompanies Israel, performing won­ders for them (Targ. Num. xxiii. 21; Deut. i. 30, xxxiii. 3; Targ. Isa. lxiii. 14; Jer. xxxi. 1; Hos. ix. 10 (comp. xi. 3, “the messenger-angel”). [“His Memra” refers to Yahweh, as e.g. in Deut.1:30f. etc]

The Memra goes before Cyrus (Isa. xlv. 12). [The reference here should be Isa.45:1,2; the Hebrew text refers to Yahweh]

The Lord swears by His Memra (Gen. xxi. 23, xxii. 16, xxiv. 3; Ex. xxxii. 13; Num. xiv. 30; Isa. xlv. 23; Ezek. xx. 5; et al.). It is His Memra that repents (Targ. Gen. vi. 6, viii. 21; I Sam. xv. 11,35). [Gen.22:16f: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you…” Comp. Targ. Ps. Jon.: “By My Word have I sworn, saith the Lord, forasmuch as thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thy only begotten, that in blessing I will bless thee…”]

Not His “hand,” but His “Memra has laid the foundation of the earth” (Targ. Isa. xlviii. 13); [Cf. again John 1:3,10]

For His Memra’s or Name’s sake does He act (l.cxlviii. 11; II Kings xix. 34). [Targ. Isa.48:11 “for my own sake,” so also 2Ki.19:34]

Through the Memra God turns to His people (Targ. Lev. xxvi. 90; II Kings xiii. 23), becomes the shield of Abraham (Gen. xv. 1), and is with Moses (Ex. iii. 12; iv. 12,15) and with Israel (Targ. Yer. to Num. x. 35, 36; Isa. lxiii. 14).

It is the Memra, not God Himself, against whom man offends (Ex. xvi. 8; Num. xiv. 5; I Kings viii. 50; II Kings xix. 28; Isa. i. 2, 16; xlv. 3, 20; Hos. v. 7, vi. 7; Targ. Yer. to Lev. v. 21, vi. 2; Deut. v. 11); [The statement “It is the Memra, not God Him­self, against whom man offends” is somewhat mis­leading, for in offending against the Memra one offends against God, for the word “Memra” merely stands in for the words “the Lord”. This is clearly seen already in the first example which is sup­plied in the text: “the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” The Targum has: “against the Memra” (Ex.16:8)]

Through His Memra Israel shall be justified (Targ. Isa. xlv. 25); (Isa.45:25: “In the Lord all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory,” NKJB)

With the Memra Israel stands in communion (Targ. Josh. xxii. 24, 27);

In the Memra man puts his trust (Targ. Gen. xv. 6; Targ. Yer. to Ex. xiv. 31; Jer. xxxix. 18, xlix. 11). [Gen.15:6: “he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” Targ. Gen. 15:6: “he believed in the Lord, and had faith in the Word (Memra) of the Lord, and He reckoned it to him for righteous­ness”. “Believe in the Lord” and “faith in the Memra of the Lord” are synonymous parallels.]

— End of quotation from Jewish Encyclopedia —

This is how Genesis 1:27 reads in the Jerusalem Targum: “And the Word of the Lord created man in His likeness, in the likeness of the presence of the Lord He created him, the male and his yoke-fellow He created them.” The Targums, being in the language of the Jews of Palestine, were the versions of the Bible which they would have been familiar with. So whether the Lord created all things through His Word, or did so directly, either way would have been unprob­lematic for them.


In these many references cited in Jewish Encyclopedia (a few of the references appear to be incorrect, probably due to typing errors), we have seen that where the Targum has the “Memra,” in the Hebrew text we see “the Lord (YHWH)”. It is useful to check the Biblical references quoted in each instance above to ascertain this for oneself. This should make it perfectly clear that in the most instances by far, the word “Memra” is used as a refer­ence to or a metonym for the Name “Yahweh”. In a few instances Yahweh’s Memra stands for “His soul,” or “His hand”.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the references given in the Jewish Encyclopedia represent a very small proportion of the large number of occur­rences of Memra in the Targums where Yahweh (YHWH) appears in the Hebrew text. Charts at the end of this book provide a convenient and com­prehensive overview of all the occur­rences of Memra in the Pentateuch. (These are found in Appendix 12.)

[1] For further details see the Wikipedia article, “Aramaic of Jesus,” which is located at; we quoted from the 2009 version of this article. When the Hebrew words in this article are pasted into Microsoft Word, they run left to right (not right to left) even though the Hebrew consonants within a word remain right to left. We made no attempt to rectify this.

[2] Should not this way of mishandling and misinterpreting Scripture justi­fiably call forth stern condemnation? After all, if this way of handling Scripture is accept­able, what kind of error and falsehood cannot find sup­port by means of this kind of specul­ative “interpretation”?

[3] McNamara provides two examples from Targum Neofiti of “the Word of the Lord” as being “a reverent circumlocution of ‘the Lord’ (Yahweh)”: “And the Word of the Lord said: ‘Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living creatures…’ And the Lord created… every living creature which the waters swarmed forth (Gen 1:20f, Neofiti). And the Lord said: ‘Let us create man…’ And the Word of the Lord created the son of man [=man] … and the Glory of the Lord blessed them… (Gen 1:26f, Neofiti).” (p.101)



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