Gender Remixed: Sophia and Word

Studies in John’s Gospel, Bible study lesson 2

by Reta Halteman Finger

Sophia - Illustration by Kari Sandhaas
Illustration by Kari Sandhaas, published Nov/Dec 1988 issue of Daughters of Sarah. Reprinted with permission.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…(Genesis 1:1)
Ages ago, before the beginning of the earth, I, Wisdom, was set up… (Proverbs 8:23)
In the beginning was the Logos…(John 1:1)

In the beginning was Sophia…

Our Fourth Gospel begins like no other. Matthew opens with a human genealogy; Jesus descends from the kingly line of David, his DNA reaching back to Abraham, father of the Hebrews. Luke sets the stage with unexpected embryos and the unusual women who carry them; Jesus begins life as a human baby. Mark’s adult Jesus bursts on the scene on the wings of prophets who simply identify him as a messenger crying in the wilderness.

But John is a philosopher, a seer, and a mystic. He has penetrated the earthly story of the human Jesus to articulate its profound implications. The question is not, “What happened?” but “What does what happened mean?

To push the significance of Jesus, the author takes us back beyond Abraham or Adam—to the ancient equivalent of the Big Bang. Read John 1:1-5. If not astrophysics, it could easily pass for abstract Greek philosophy.

But let’s first explore the implications of that first sentence. Our author uses the masculine Greek noun logos, a term which NT scholar David Barr insists has no English equivalent. It can mean “a word, a saying, a statement, a speech, a conversation, a story, language itself, the process of communication, or reason as the presupposition of communication” (New Testament Story: An Introduction, p 400). Transposing the Greek text into literal English would read thus: When things began the Logos was; the Logos was with God; and as God was the Logos. That one was with God when things began… 

A Multivalent Interpretation

What would Greek-speaking Jewish readers have drawn from this opening reflection on logos? Barr lists three possibilities. First, Logos was Torah, the Revelation of God, their Scriptures. Whenever the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) uses the term “word of God” to mean either the law or the prophets, it was called logos. The term, “in the beginning,” from Genesis 1:1, would have further implied that the logos of John 1:1 was Torah.

Second, a Hellenized Jew could identify logos with Reason, the all-pervading order that governs the universe. In the marketplaces of Mediterranean cities, Stoic philosophers aggressively advocated living by logos, an expression of the divine will.

Third, logos was Wisdom. Hebrew sages of old were part of a movement that emphasized gaining wisdom through close observation of the natural world. See, for example, Proverbs 6:6-11, about observing the behavior of ants in order to live well. But these sages were not inventing wisdom; they were discovering it. For Wisdom was personified as a woman co-creating with God from the very beginning. Read her exquisite poem in Proverbs 8:22-31. Before all of God’s creative acts, “I was beside him as a master worker, and I was daily his delight…” (v 30).

Does Gender Matter?

Both Hebrew and Greek have gendered nouns (Greek also includes a neuter gender). Although logos is masculine, torah and hokmah/sophia are feminine. Sometimes gender is insignificant; other times it matters. In Greek, for example, characteristics like truth, beauty, folly, or honor are always feminine. But Wisdom in both Hebrew and Greek has been expressly personified as a woman—no doubt to attract young men. This can be seen throughout Proverbs 1-9 and in the inter-testamental book of Sirach (see chapters 1, 24, 51).

To a Greek-speaking Jewish reader, Logos would have been interchangeable with Sophia. Thus it is appropriate and meaningful for both women and men today to insert “Sophia” into the Prologue of this Gospel. “In the beginning was Sophia, and Sophia was with God, and God was Sophia.”

This move is consistent with John 1:10-11, which describes Logos/Sophia’s rejection by her own people. Here the author draws from the inter-testamental writing called 1 Enoch, where Wisdom is rejected and homeless. “Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place. So Wisdom returned to her place, and she settled permanently among the angels (42:1-2).

From Concept to Human Flesh

But the Fourth Gospel is not simply a philosophical treatise. Nor is it a Gnostic writing where disembodied spirit is good, and matter is evil. It is definitely dualistic, with an Above and a Below—but the relationship between them is never black and white, even in this rather heady Prologue. In verse 6 we meet John (the Baptist) who is obviously earthly and only a witness to “the Light” (phos, a neuter noun!). Verse 14 is one of the most important texts in this entire Gospel: “Logos/Sophia became flesh and lived among us.”

Here we find, first, the mystery of incarnation. Divinity clothes herself in human skin. No Gnostic thinking here! This theme of descent in order to embrace the Below will permeate the first half of this Gospel. Second, we are also confronted with the mystery of gender. The descent of Word/Sophia implies that the human, fleshly Jesus, though male, will also reflect the feminine characteristics of a personified Sophia. Watch for these motherly tendencies in the lessons to come!

Questions for reflection:

1. If you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, how would you describe your understanding of, or relationship to, Jesus?

2. Is the idea of Jesus as Sophia helpful to you as female? Or to you as male?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Jesus Christ also tells us that in heaven there is no male or female, therefore gender is only relevant to humanity who live in this dual world. Jesus is neither male or female, and neither is wisdom and just because someone somewhere thought we have to differentiate between the two is meaningless really. Sophia being already attached to Greek goddesses is a pagan belief in idols to whom the attribute of wisdom are attached. Sophia therefore has connotations, however when looks at the fact that the word Logos and Sophia are interchangeable, it shows that the two are one, and therefore neither male or female. Christian men can today accept being considered the bride of Christ without batting an eyelid, because there gender in language is merely symbolic. God appeals to men and women. As a Christian woman, Jesus is the lover of my soul. The story between God and humanity is a love story. At the same time I know that the lover of my soul is also the lover of every other soul out there too, yet he can love me as if I am the only person in the world.

  2. I have just finished reading Travelling with Sophia by Catherine Chrisp. She states that the wording in John 1:1 In the beginning was the word, ….. in the original text the feminine Sophia was used but this has been changed to the masculine Logos. In the English translation we read it as “word” Did the original read “In the beginning was Sophia. and Sophia was with God and Sophia was God.” Sophia meaning wisdom? Can you please confirm this for me. I find this very interesting. The feminine certainly seems to have been written out in many places in the new testament. Thanks Heather

  3. Hello, Heather,
    I am not familiar with “Traveling with Sophia,” but I have not heard elsewhere that the words “Sophia” and “Logos” were deliberately exchanged after the author’s original text was written. Did Chrisp have any evidence of this? I was using primarily David Barr’s “New Testament Story” in my above lesson.

    However, the feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has done a great deal more work on Sophia in her book, “Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum, 1994). And there is a lengthy article online called “Wisdom in the Synoptic Gospels” by John Charles Reed, where Fiorenza’s work, among many others, is included.

    Schussler Fiorenza notes that in various places in the “Q” tradition in the Synoptics (esp. Matthew) that Jesus uses wisdom sayings or identifies himself as Lady Wisdom/Sophia.

    Because “Logos” means far more than the English word “Word,” and also encompasses Sophia, the author may have used it rather than “Sophia”–even though s/he does use Sophia language in the overall Prologue (1:1-17). Or the author may have wanted to also include Torah and Reason by using the term “Logos.”

    It also makes sense to me that, if “Logos” also means “Wisdom,” then why not use a linguistically masculine noun to describe a physically masculine person? But if you have evidence that an earlier manuscript of the Gospel of John uses “Sophia” in John 1:1, I’d like to know about that.
    Thank you for your response!

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