The location of the authorship of the Gospel of John is debated among Ephesus, Patmos, or some smaller place in Asia Minor. It’s time of authorship is estimated around 90 AD. As this time is later than the dispersion of the Jews it is not unreasonable to think that many Jews, and the sect of Judaism called Christianity were now more affected by Greek culture than Jewish. No matter whether you believe that the gospel of John was divinely inspired and written, or a human memoir of a first century disciple also named John, there is no doubt that that the prologue to the gospel was culturally relevant, and as such presented Jesus in relation to the very popular Greek philosophical concept of the Logos.
As we have seen in previous articles, Stoicism was the most popular of the philosophies at that time and presented the Logos as the energizing framework of the universe, the Divine Reason. Before the Stoics philosophers like Plato and Heraclitus had written about the Logos as the divine reason or plan.
Philo was a Jewish writer writing at the same time as some of the events of the Book of Acts and before the gospels were penned. He was an influential Jew living in perhaps the intellectual center of the world at that time, Alexandria. Philo wrote extensively about the theology of the Old Testament being the greatest of the philosophies. He also focused heavily on the Word of God as the “Logos” and heavily integrated this concept with Judaism.
The Logos was therefore a controversial topic of the first century much like evolution, communism, and hate crimes are controversial topics today.
In the first 14 verses of the Gospel of John we have a cultural link between Christianity and Greek philosophy.
In the following verses I have substituted “Logos” for “word”:
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The Logos was in the beginning with God. All things were made through the Logos; and without the Logos was not anything made that hath been made. In the Logos was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not.
There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Logos became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-14)
As a result of this prologue I see the first century conversation going something like this:
You Stoics, Platonists, and many others of you philosophers talk about the Logos. Yes, God, in an instant, planned as only he could plan. And in that instant, that plan, that divine reasoning, that Logos, created all that ever was, is, and will be. True life exists in knowing and walking in the Logos. And that Logos, in the fullness of times, generated a man, born of flesh, but a perfect living fulfillment of the Logos. Just as the Logos is the light, so this man is the living light of the world. Many cannot see that he is the living manifestation of the Logos, the light of the world. But to those of you who do, you will become the children of God.
So the Logos that you have been talking about, the Divine Reason, exists, and the perfect form of the Logos exists in the person of Jesus Christ.
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.
Among other things, we have been looking at the Greek word “Logos” in our quick overview of ancient philosophy, and how philosophy relates to the development of Christianity. We have already discussed how Logos has different meanings. A simple definition of the word just means reason, purpose, plan, or design. In some religious and philosophical contexts, however, the word takes on much more meaning. In the Old Testament when it says the “word of God” came to a prophet it is talking about the Logos. While the meaning of “word” here might just mean “message”, there are verses that attribute power to the “word of God”, thus going beyond, at least metaphorically, the simple definition of Logos as “message.” The Stoics viewed the Logos as the energizing framework of the universe, the Divine Reason. Here we will look at how at least one Jew, Philo of Alexandria, perceived the Logos in a similar manner.
The Logos dominates Philo’s writings. In “On The Creation”, in which Philo discusses the creation account of Genesis, Philo uses the analogy of an architect’s plan to describe how the Logos, this Divine Reason of God, works. Philo talks about how the architect
“sketches out in his own mind nearly all the parts of the city which is about to be completed – the temples, the gymnasium, the prytanea, and markets, the harbour, the docks, the streets, the arrangements of the walls, the situations of the dwelling houses, and of the public and other buildings.”[i]
This architect then having this whole city structured in his mind goes about the business of building this incredible artifice stone by stone. This is Philo’s analogy of the divine reason, the Logos. The Logos is not God per se. The Logos is the interaction of an incomprehensible God with his creation. God’s architectural plan of creation being carried out is the Logos. As such, the Logos has an incredible scope and power. Thus we have this focus on the reason of God, which Philo presents as this incredible philosophy which is the philosophy of all philosophies. This philosophy, the Logos and the wisdom of Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament is the predecessor of Greek philosophies, the predecessor of any true philosophy anywhere.
The above is an over simplification really. In actuality, Philo weighs and criticizes the arguments of various philosophers throughout his works. For example in “On The Eternity Of The World” Philo systematically discusses the views of Democritus, Epicurus, “the principle number of the stoic philosophers”[ii], Aristotle, and Plato on whether the world is eternal, or subject to destruction. He notes that
“Democritus, Epicurus and the principle number of the stoic philosophers affirm both the creation and the distractibility of the world…”[iii]
On the contrary he notes that Aristotle declared the world was uncreated and indestructible and accused anyone who argued with this “terrible impiety”[iv]. He then says that Plato also affirms that the world is created and indestructible, and credits Aristotle’s position to being a pupil of Plato. After stating these positions Philo goes on to argue against the Aristotelian – Platonist tenet that the world is indestructible. In the process, Philo is presenting the “Logos” as an expression of God, a divinely energized plan.
So in reality what Philo is doing is picking and choosing from among the philosophers those tenets that agree with his interpretation of Scripture.
Philo refers to the Logos as the Divine Reason and as the idea of ideas, “the” Form (Platoism):
“And if any were to desire to use more undisguised terms, he would not call the world, which is perceptible only to the intellect, anything else but the reason of God , already occupied in the creation of the world ; for neither is a city, while only perceptible to the intellect, anything else but the reason of the architect, who is already designing to build one perceptible to the external senses, on the model of that which is so only to the intellect – (25) this is the doctrine of Moses, not mine. Accordingly he, when recording the creation of man, in words which follow, asserts expressively, that he was made in the image of God – and if the image be part of the image, then manifestly so is the entire form, namely, the whole of this world perceptible by the external senses, which is a greater imitation of the divine image then the human form is. It is manifest also, that the archetypal seal, which we call that world which is perceptible only to the intellect, must itself be the archetypal model, the idea of ideas, the reason of God.[v]
“The idea of ideas, the reason of God” above is the Logos. The above quote shows how Philo can be shown to be expressing Plato’s Forms’ theory of philosophy (“if the image be part of the image, then manifestly so is the entire form”). The image of God is a Form. Man is an expression of the Form of God. It also is another expression of Philo’s example of God as the divine architect, with his Divine energizing plan being the Logos.
Philo discusses the Logos as having a life of its own in a sense in the next quote. Philo describes the Logos as an indestructible Form of wisdom:
“For as, whence a musician or grammarian instead, the music and grammar which existed in them dies with them, but their ideas survive, and in a manner live as long as the world itself and doors; according to which the existing race of men, and those who are to exist hereafter in continual succession, will, to the end of time, become skillful in music and grammar. Thus, also, if the prudence, or the temperance, or the courage, or the justice, or, in short, if the wisdom of any kind existing in any individual be destroyed nevertheless the prudence existing in the nature of the immortal universe will still be immortal; and every virtue is directed like a pillar in the imperishable solidity, in accordance with which there are some good people now, and there will be some hereafter. (76) unless, indeed, we should say that the death of any individual man is that instruction of humanity and of the human race, which, whether we ought to call it a genus, or a species, or a conception, or whatever else you please, those who are anxious about the investigation of proper names may determine. One seal has often stamped thousands upon thousands of impressions in infinite number, and though at times all those impressions have been effaced with the substances on which they were stamped, still the seal itself has remained in its pristine condition without being at all injured in its nature.”[vi]
This again follows the model of Plato’s Forms theory. Men, being created in the image of God, are examples of the divine Form to the extent that they show temperance, encourage, justice, or wisdom of any sort. Philo’s example of the seal being used “thousands upon thousands of impressions” shows his application of Plato’s theories of Forms where God is a seal, and we each are stamps of that seal.
In the next quotation we see Philo describing the Logos as the agent of creation:
For God, while he spake the word, did at the same moment create; nor did he allow anything to come between the word and deed; and if one may advance a doctrine which is pretty nearly true, his word is his deed.[vii]
Here Philo represents the Logos as a God-energized plan. The plan was spoken, the plan energized, creation happened. The above quote shows the Logos as the agent of creation in general. The quote below shows the Logos as the energizing force of the details of creation:
“thus God, having sharpened his own word, the divider of all things, divides the essence of the universe which is destitute of form, and destitute of all distinctive qualities, and the four elements of the world which were separated from this essence, and the plants and animals which were consolidated by means of these elements.”[viii]
So here we have the mental image of the Logos of God. It’s not only that when God spoke creation happened, but creation to the nth degree was energized in the moment that God thought; every plant, animal, tree, mountain, star and all of creation that would ever exist came into being at that moment.
Philo continues to differentiate the Logos. Marian Hillar, in describing the complexity of Philo’s concept of the Logos, delineates all of the following as elements in Philo’s concept of the Logos:
- the utterance of God
- the divine mind
- God’s transcendent power
- First-born son of God
- the bond that holds together all the parts of the world
- immanent reason
- immanent mediator of the physical universe
- the angel of the Lord, revealer of God
- multi-named archetype
- soul nourishing manna in wisdom
- intermediary power
People familiar with Christian theology will recognize the similarity of Philo’s concept of the Logos as seen in the above list to modern Christian theological definitions of the “word of God”. But there is a distinct difference between Philo and modern Trinitarian Christianity in that, Philo presents the Logos as subordinate to the supreme God. This Logos, while existing before all else in creation is still generated and is thus a “first born”, an eldest son.[x] When talking about God’s use of the word “we” Philo doesn’t argue that this or any other part of the doctrine of the Logos are arguments for the deity of the Messiah, or have elements of a triune God. Rather he is more closely aligned with the stoic philosophy of the Logos as a divine framework of energized reasoning that is an intermediary between God and men.
[i] THE WORKS OF PHILO, Complete And Unabridged, New Updated Version, Translated by C.D. Yonge, Forward by David M Scholer, Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, p . 4 (On The Creation(17))
[ii] ibid, p. 708 (On The Eternity Of The World (8-16))
[v] ibid, p . 4 (On The Creation(24-25))
[vi] ibid, p. 120 (The Worse Attacks The Better (75-76))
[vii] ibid, p.102 (The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel (65))
[viii] ibid, p.287 (Who is the Heir of Divine Things(140))
[ix] Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE—40 CE), Marian Hillar, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/
[ix] THE WORKS OF PHILO, p . 240 (On the Confusion of Tongues(23))
© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.
Philo of Alexandria was a Jew that lived from about 20 BC to 50 A.D. As such he lived at the same time both as Jesus Christ, and Paul the apostle.
Philo is a source of information about Hellenistic Judaism. (That is not to say that he is especially well regarded among the Jews. I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Rabbi about some of these matters. This Rabbi had never heard about Philo, and proceeded to refer me to Maimonides, or Moses Ben Maimon, considered by some to be the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period. The Rabbi I was talking to credited Maimonides with introducing the Western world to the ideas of Hellenistic Judaism. In fairness Philo is not well-known to Christians either. There are only a couple of translations of his work. Josephus is a much more well known writer of the period.)
Philo is considered a significant source for studying Hellenistic philosophy because of his participation in middle Platonism and other Hellenistic philosophical traditions. He is also significant for insight into first century Hellenistic Judaism, and for insights into the early church and writings of the New Testament. [i]
Philo was “spoken of by Josephus is one of the most eminent of his contemporary countrymen and as the principle of the embassy which was sent to Caligula to solicit him to recall the command which it issued for the erection of this statue in the Temple at Jerusalem. The embassy was unsuccessful, though the death of the Emperor saved the sacred edifice from the meditated profanation; but we see that Philo suffered no diminution of his credit from its unsuccessful result, since, at a subsequent period, his nephew, Tiberius Alexander, married Berenice, the daughter of King Agrippa.”[ii]
Some say Philo was the first of the Neo-Platonists, the attempt to reconcile the doctrines of the Greek philosophies with the revelations contained in sacred Scriptures. In the process he introduced to Platonism eastern traditions. [iii]
Alexandria at the time of Philo was a huge center of learning, and half of its population (estimated at 1 million people) was Jewish. The library at Alexandria is historically famous. It is accepted that when these Jews recognized similar wisdom in many of the sayings of the philosophers that they tried to reconcile the wisdom of the philosophers to that of the Scriptures.
The impact of the observance of the Hellenization of Judaism to a study of original Christianity is that shows how prominent philosophy was in the Jewish World at large at the time this small Jewish sect called Christianity was forming. Just as these Jewish Christians were influenced by their Jewish background, part of this Jewish background is Hellenized Judaism where philosophy is highly esteemed, and the integration of philosophy and matters of faith is a widespread subject of investigation.
Philo the Philosopher and Platonist
Philo’s writing is focused on philosophy and its integration with the books of the Bible. From the beginning of his writing (starting with his work “On The Creation”), Philo’s exposition of everything in the Bible focuses on the Bible as the supreme philosophy, and he even names Moses as the very highest philosopher:
But Moses, who had early reached the very summits of philosophy…[iv]
Plato is openly revered in Philo’s works:
“And since, as that sweetest of all writers, Plato, says…”[v]
Philo credits Moses with being the predecessor to the Greek philosophers. Here Heraclitus is named:
“Is not this the thing which the Greeks say that Heraclitus, that great philosopher who is so celebrated among them, put forth as the leading principle of his whole philosophy, and boasted of it as if it were a new discovery? for it is in reality an ancient discovery of Moses, that out of the same thing opposite things are produced having the ratio of parts to the whole, as has here been shown.” [vi]
Philo was not the first to make these claims:
“He was no innovator in this matter because already before him Jewish scholars attempted the same. Artapanus in the second century B.C.E identified Moses with Musaeus and with Orpheus. According to Aristobulus of Paneas (first half of the second century B.C.E.), Homer and Hesiod drew from the books of Moses which were translated into Greek long before the Septuagint.”[vii]
Here in the writing of Philo and his contemporaries we have a perspective that spiritualizes philosophy contrary to the perceived attitude of Paul in writing disparagingly of Philosophy, talked about in the article Paul Wrote About the Lure and Futility of Philosophy. Whereas in that article the philosophies of the world are placed at odds with the wisdom of the faith, it is important to recognize that there was a large contingent of Jews that promoted concepts such as Moses was the greatest philosopher, Moses was the teacher and inspiration of the Greek Philosophies, and there is a way to reconcile the philosophy of the Greeks with the wisdom of the Scriptures.
Philo the Historian
While Philo is writing more as a philosopher than a historian, his writings do provide a source for historical facts. For example in The Special Laws, III, Philo discusses the norms of marriage and sexuality in the world at the time. Of course his purpose is to show that Moses as the supreme philosopher provides a better philosophy in the law regarding these areas than the leaders in the other countries around Israel. But the side effect is that we learn what some of the practices were in these other countries.
“for the magistrates of the Persians marry even their own mothers, and consider the offspring of such marriages the most noble of all men, and as it is said, they think them worthy of the highest sovereign authority.”[viii]
Philo goes on to elucidate some of the problems with this marital philosophy. With this marital structure a man can be both the son and the husband of the same woman. The children of this marriage produce brothers to the fathers, and grandchildren to the mothers. What is so fantastic about it is that as the above quote declares these children are considered “the most noble “.
Philo continues to go on about places where men are permitted to marry their sisters by one parent, but not the other. Notably the Athenian lawgiver, Solon, was famous for enacting one of these laws. And Philo writes at length about how the philosophy of some cultures promotes the sexual love of boys. Interestingly, he calls that pleasure one which is “contrary to nature.”[ix]
Of course, we are presented with these facts to show their inadequacy against what Philo presents as the superior philosophy of Moses regarding these matters. Nevertheless records like this give us valuable insight into the practices at the time that Christianity was forming.
This article demonstrates how Philo esteems philosophy and integrates the spirituality of the Old Testament with Greek philosophy. Of particular interest to our study is Philo’s handling of the Logos which we will examine in the next article.
[i] THE WORKS OF PHILO, Complete And Unabridged, New Updated Version, Translated by C.D. Yonge, Forward by David M Scholer, Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, p . xix (Preface to the Original Edition)
[iv] ibid, p.3 (On the Creation, (8))
[v] ibid, p.683 (Every Good Man Is Free, (13))
[vi] ibid, p. 294, (Who Is The Heir Of Divine Things,(214))
[vii] Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE—40 CE), Marian Hillar, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/
[viii] THE WORKS OF PHILO, p. 595, (The Special Laws, III(12))
[ix] ibid, p. 598, (The Special Laws, III(39))
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.