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Memra (The Word)

In his Gospel, the Apostle John tells us that, in the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. Christians understand that John was speaking about Jesus. A new convert may be taught that this is correct, but would he understand why? Do you understand why the Word is Christ?

When the Jews (the houses of Judah and Benjamin) returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian and Persian captivity, they began to read the law. Ezra, the scribe, (ספר, saphar) and several other scribes began to teach the people the law. They set the text in order so that it could be read and understood and make sense to the people. Those scribes are named in Nehemiah 8:6-7, “And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. {7} Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place.” These scribes, or sopherim, (ספרים-sapharym, the plural of saphar) preferred, out reverence for His Ineffable Name, not to express the Name of God, Yehovah (יהוה). They preferred not to speak it, or write it. Therefore they substituted Adonai (אדני), or LORD in many instances where the word Yehovah occurred. My source for this information is Dr. E.W. Bullinger. He wrote,

“Out of extreme (but mistaken) reverence for the Ineffable Name “Jehovah”, the ancient custodians of the Sacred Text substituted in many places “Adonai” (see Ap. 4. viii. 2). These, in the A.V. and R.V., are all printed “Lord”. In all these places we have printed it “LORD*”, marking the word with an asterisk in addition to the note in the margin, to inform the reader of the fact.”

According to Bullinger, there were 134 substitutions:

“The official list given in the Massorah (§§ 107-15, Ginsburg’s edition) contains the 134.”

They also changed the word God ( אלהים, elohim) into Adonai in several places where it was obvious that the text was speaking of Yehovah.

For the very same reason, that God’s Holy name was unspeakable, the Targums, which are the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, changed all instances (according to Karol Joseph, at Jews for Jesus) where God appeared in person to man. They changed the word Yehovah or Yehovah Elohim, in those cases, to the ‘Word’ or the memra. (The Aramaic for ‘word’ is memra, which we will learn about in this study.)

View the Bibliography, if you wish.

Definitions:

Memer, or ma’amar מאמר, Strong’s 3982 and 3983, an Aramaic word meaning: word, command, appointment.

It comes from the Aramaic, אמר, Strong’s 565, ‘imrah, or ’emrah (em’-raw). It means commandment, speech, or word. It is the equivalent of logos (λογος), Strong’s 3056, in the Greek.


It is clear from the Scriptures that no human can see God face to face and survive. Here are some examples:

Gen 32:30 “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Exo 33:20 “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”

Judg 6:22-23 “And when Gideon perceived that he was an angel of the LORD, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord GOD! for because I have seen an angel of the LORD face to face. {23} And the LORD said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die.”

Isa 6:5 “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

(Alas is an expression usually uttered at death or impending death)

But there are many places in the Bible where men did see the LORD and live. For example, Jacob wrestled with God and did not die. The LORD appeared to Abraham at the trees of Mamre. There He made a covenant with Abraham. It was also there that Abraham pleaded with the LORD for Lot who resided in Sodom. Abraham did not die. Appearances of God to men are called Theophanies. There are many Theophanies in the Bible. The Lord appeared face to face to Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Manoah and his wife, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others. Sometimes it is an appearance of the LORD Almighty on His throne in glorified form (such as in Isaiah and Ezekiel) and other times He appears as the Angel of the LORD and yet other times He appears as a man. But He did appear to many men and women in the Bible.

Theophanies were a problem for the Israelites (which are Jews in this context–the return from captivity). They did not want to make God to seem human. The Sopherim were the scribes who set the text of the Hebrew Bible in order after the return from Babylonian captivity. Because of their exceptional reverence for the inexpressible Name of Yehovah they substituted the name Adonai (LORD) in the place of Yehovah. Every place in the KJV and several other versions that you see the word ‘LORD’ (some versions, LORD) in all caps, that is where the Sopherim substituted Adonai for Yehovah. That is why the King James Version uses the word LORD in the place of most uses of the name Yehovah (more commonly, Jehovah). That is also why many Jews will write the words LORD and God thus: L_ _D and G_d. This same reverence for the Name of God can be seen as reverence of His Person as well.

In those cases mentioned above, the memra, or Word, shared the nature of God and at the same time was a messenger from God. Hence the phrase, the Angel of the LORD, because an angel is a messenger of God. The Angel of the LORD is a theophany or a manifestation of God to man, that is, God coming face to face with man. A good example is the Garden of Eden:

Since the Jews did not like Theophanies, they also substituted another word for God when He appeared to men. In the Targums, which are the Aramic versions of the Old Testament, the word memra is used in every instance of an appearance of God to men or God speaking to a man. This use of the memra rationalized every appearance of God to man. For example, in Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden”, the Targums replace the phrase “the LORD God” (יהוה אלהים-yehovah elohim) with מימרא (memra, spelled mymra or mimra).

Masoretic: וישׁמעו את־קול יהוה אלהים, wayisme-u et-qol yhwy elohim, “So heard they the voice of Yehovah Elohim.” In the Hebrew here, Yehovah Elohim is underscored.

Targummim: ושׁמעו ית קל מימרא, usme-u it qol mimra, “So heard they the voice of memra“, or “They heard the voice of the Word.” In the Hebrew here, memra is underscored. (This information is from The Targummim of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project. See Bibliography.)

Memra is the Aramaic for “word”, which, in the Greek, is Logos. The concept of the memra is derived from Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” The root Hebrew for ‘word’ here is dabar. In the text, the inflected word is bidabar-“by the word”. This verse accurately correlates with John 1:3, “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Examples:

Psa 147:15 “He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word runneth very swiftly.”

Isa 55:10-11 “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: {11} So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

In the passage from the Psalms, the Word is shown as running like a man. And in Isaiah the Word goes out and accomplishes the will of God.

According to the Jews for Jesus site, the Targums are filled with the memra, the Word of God, but the Talmud is silent on the issue. That is because the Talmud was written after the advent of Christ and the rabbis suppressed it in reaction to Christianity. They did not wish to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the memra. That would have been an admission that Jesus was indeed God with us, for the Word or memra is a Theophany. Jesus the Christ was the ultimate Theophany.

Let me quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

“In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term Logos, (this is the Greek word for the memra) in the sense of ‘the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,’ was changed into ‘Christ.’ Possibly on account of the Christian dogma, rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra.'”

The Jewish Encyclopedia, New York and London, 1904, p. 465.

And from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“In Palestinian Rabbinism the Word (memra) is very often mentioned, at least in the Targums: it is the memra of Jahveh which lives, speaks, and acts, but, if one endeavour to determine precisely the meaning of the expression, it appears very often to be only a paraphrase substituted by the Targumist for the name of Jahveh. The memra resembles the Logos of Philo as little as the workings of the rabbinical mind in Palestine resembled the speculations of Alexandria: the rabbis are chiefiy concerned about ritual and observances; from religious scruples they dare not attribute to Jahveh actions such as the Sacred Books attribute to Him; it is enough for them to veil the Divine Majesty under an abstract paraphrase, the Word, the Glory, the Abode, and others. Philo’s problem was of the philosophic order; God and man are infinitely distant from each other, and it is necessary to establish between them relations of action and of prayer; the Logos is here the intermediary.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia Copyright © 1907-1914 by Robert Appleton Company Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight.

We can see that the Divine Logos was a concept fully accepted by the Jews at the time of Christ. When John wrote his Gospel, he was fully aware of the use of the word memra as an appearance of God to men. It was common usage during his day. When he penned these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1 and 14), he was using the exact theme as the writers of the Targums did when they translated the text into Aramaic. In fact, if he had written in Aramaic, he would have actually used the word, memra. By doing so he was portraying Christ as sharing the nature of God (that is being God) and also as a messenger from God (This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him-Matthew17:5).

Jewish theologians of John’s era have ascribed six attributes to the memra. John assigned every attribute to Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel. The attributes are:

  1. The memra is individual and yet the same as God (John 1:1-“and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).
  2. The memra was the instrument of creation (John 1:3-“All things were made by Him” and John 1:10-“the world was made by him”).
  3. The memra was the instrument of salvation (John 1:12-“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name”).
  4. The memra was the visible presence of God or Theophany (John 1:14-“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”).
  5. The memra was the covenant maker (John 1:17-“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”).
  6. The memra was the revealer of God (John 1:18-“No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him”).

John 1:1-18 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} The same was in the beginning with God. {3} All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. {4} In him was life; and the life was the light of men. {5} And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. {6} There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. {7} The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. {8} He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. {9} That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. {10} He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. {11} He came unto his own, and his own received him not. {12} But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: {13} Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. {14} And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. {15} John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. {16} And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. {17} For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. {18} No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

These attributes are proof positive that John was following the Jewish model and he was showing that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

One other point. Philo of Alexandra (AKA Philo Judaeus) was a Jewish philosopher of the early first century. He is known as the Greatest Jewish Philosopher. He was also a Greek philosopher. Philo tried to explain the Theophanies as the Word of God to the Greeks. When he did so, he used the Aramaic word memra. Modern Jewish apologists will try to tell you that because Philo used the concept, the Divine Word of God was appropriated from the pagan religions of the Hellenistic world at the time. They want to belittle Christianity as a man made religion derived from paganism. The fact is that in the Targums, the word memra is extant even today. The writers of the Targums were fully aware of this concept. Therefore, when you hear the Philo argument, it is a false argument. Just remind the person trying to tell you this that the Word of God was a Jewish concept and not a pagan concept. Remind him of the Targums. Tell him about this study.


Bibliography.

Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Public Domain

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Copyright © 1907-1914 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition © 1999 by Kevin Knight.

The Companion Bible, King James Version, 1990, Kregel Publications, Appendices 30-33.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary, © 1992 By AMG International, Inc. Chattanooga, TN 37422, U.S.A., Revised edition, 1993

Correspondence About The Trinity, by Karol Joseph, © 2001, Jews For Jesus, Inc.

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), Third Edition, © 2000 by The University of Chicago Press

The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), © 1994 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. All rights reserved

The Jewish Encyclopedia, © 1904, New York and London

John, the Pharisees, and Memra, © 2000, Carl J. Stevens

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, © 1990, Thomas Nelson Publishers

The Targumim, Dr. Stephen Kaufman, © 2003 by the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project, 3101 Clifton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45220

Updated March 4, 2008

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