Deciphering the Columbia Seal, Motto, and More


Joel Chodos’79

This year is the 250th anniversary of the founding of Columbia’s medical school in 1767, known since 1814 as the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons—“P&S” for short—but previously known as the medical department of Columbia College. I visited P&S in May for its 2017 commencement as an alumnus and marched with notable alumni as we saw freshly minted MDs being graduated.

The seal of Columbia and other schools became an interest of mine as a student of history, language, and religion. The seal is a cornucopia of classic and religious references that likely escape most casual observers. It draws on Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and both Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as Greek mythology. The P&S seal is the Columbia University seal with an added outer circle in English for the name of the medical school instead of Latin for the name of Columbia University.

The Columbia seal was designed by the Rev. Samuel Johnson (not the lexicographer), the first president of Columbia when it was known as King’s College and located in Trinity Church in what is now downtown Manhattan and the financial district. Raised in Connecticut and educated in Hebrew at the age of 5, Rev. Johnson attended what is now Yale University, then located in Saybrook, Conn., and was a minister and educator. His vision for the University was an enlightened education with moral structure. 

Biblical and religious references in the seal are many. The central figure is a majestic maternal figure surrounded by the young babes she is educating. She holds a book in her right hand with the Greek words “Logia Zonta,” which, roughly translated, mean “living oracle or living words,” alluding to the words Moses received on Mount Sinai and which he passes down to us, in a likely reference to Acts 7:38: “He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.” 

Although the central maternal figure is not explicitly named “Alma Mater” as is the Low Library statue and iconic image of Columbia by Daniel Chester French, she clearly is the inspiration for it. Alma Mater in Latin means “nourishing mother” and the maternal figure nourishes her children (the young babes that surround her) with her knowledge. The root for alma meaning nourishment can be recognized in the English word alimentation for nourishment or alimentary tract as a synonym for the GI tract. The seated female figure is based on Athena, Greek goddess of, among other things, wisdom.

Above the female’s head inscribed within a partial gold circle with rays of gold emanating from it is the holy name of G-d in Hebrew consisting of the four Hebrew letters “yud-hay vov-hay,” also known as the tetragrammon. This is G-d’s name that is too holy to be spoken so it is often referred to indirectly by other names such as “adonoy,” meaning Lord, or “Hashem,” meaning “the name.” The name of G-d at the top of the seal indicates G-d’s preeminent importance. The banner to Alma Mater’s left has the Hebrew words, which are pronounced “Ori El,” meaning “G-d’s light.” 

The scene of the maternal figure nourishing her children alludes to the biblical citation from the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:2-3, listed at the bottom of the seal. “Like newborn babies crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Again a metaphor of spiritual food—milk—from a mother to her children—students. 

The school’s motto, “In Lumine Tuo Videbimis Lumen,” is a Latin translation of Psalm 36: 9 from the Hebrew book of Psalms (known as Tehillim in Hebrew, which means “Praises”). The Psalms were believed to be written by King David. The words of the motto mean “In your light we see the light,” a reference to G-d’s light. Light figures prominently in school seals and mottos. Yale’s motto is “Lux et veritas,” meaning light and truth. UC Berkeley’s motto is “Fiat Lux,” a Latin translation of the Hebrew words “yehi or” meaning “Let there be light” from Genesis 1:3. The Yale seal in its center contains the Hebrew words Urim and Thummim written in a book in Hebrew. This was roughly translated as light and truth but more literally refers to light and perfection. For those who think Yale co-opted and modified Harvard’s “Veritas” motto, Yale’s use of Lux and Veritas actually predates Harvard’s use of Veritas as its motto.

Urim and Thummim were actual objects somewhat shrouded in mystery but according to some sources were jeweled stones, 12 in number, on the breast plate of the high priest (Kohen Gadol) of the Holy Temple (the only one who could use the stones) and the patterns of the rays of light emanating from the jewels in response to a question posed by the high priest to the Almighty were used to seek answers to binary questions to determine G-d’s will in a matter of great importance, such as whether to go to war. This can be seen as a divine “oracle” of sorts to inquire into G-d’s will. Urim and Thummim are first mentioned in Exodus 28:30 in describing the high priest’s (Aaron’s) vestments.

Hebrew was a required classic language for all freshman at Yale beginning in 1777. This can be traced back to the Rev. Ezra Stiles, a president of Yale. While residing in Newport, R.I., before he became president of Yale, Rev. Stiles learned Hebrew from Rabbi Chaim Carigal, who resided at the famed Touro synagogue in Newport for six months. While mandatory Hebrew courses were not popular with all Yale students, Yale’s valedictory (valedictorian means “farewell speaker”) addresses in 1785 and 1792 were in Hebrew. 

The Columbia seal is rich in religious symbolism (Jewish, Christian, and Greek pagan religions) in a way that would never be accepted in today’s politically correct climate, but it shows our heritage and sees knowledge as a gift ultimately bestowed on us under G-d and delivered through a maternal nourishing figure that embodies the university.

The inscription, “For of the most high cometh healing,” over the portal to the original Presbyterian Hospital building is taken from the Hebrew book, the “Wisdom of Ben Sirach,” better known by its Christian name Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with the book Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew), written sometime around 200 to 175 BCE. It directly refers to physicians. We try as physicians to live up to that quote each day and it continues to move me when I pass by or through the portal beneath that inspiring inscription written more than 2,000 years ago.

Joel Chodos, MD, JD, is a 1979 graduate of P&S and a practicing gastroenterologist. He is self-taught in etymology and biblical studies. He was a biochemistry major at Columbia College but his love of history and language that began at Bronx High School of Science was cultivated in his postgraduate GI training. He can be reached at