Philo of Alexandria on the Logos

The following article gives us insight into the process of Hellenization, the incorporation of Greek concepts and ideas into another culture.  In this case, the culture being Hellenized is Judaism.  The Old Testament is a book about how Yahweh leads and communicates with his people.  The source of knowledge is by revelation:

Surely the Lord Yahweh will do nothing, unless he reveals his secret to his servants the prophets. (Amo 3:7 WEB)

Wisdom likewise is given by God, and the source of God’s wisdom is God.

For Yahweh gives wisdom. Out of his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. (Pro 2:6 WEB)

The wisdom of the philosophers came from their own investigations.  Now some even say that some of the philosophers went to Israel and got ideas from the writings of Moses and the prophets, but clearly, much of the wisdom of the philosophers is from other sources including their own ideas.  However in the world at that time, and even now, to some degree, Greek philosophies were highly respected and followed.

Philo was one of a number of philosophers who tried to reconcile the Bible with the writings of the philosophers.  As such Philo was a Hellenized Jew, and his writings reflect that.

In our study, we have been looking at the Greek word “Logos” in our quick overview of ancient philosophy, and again, 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. The Logos is God’s architectural plan of creation being carried out. As such, the Logos has 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 oversimplification 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 uncreated 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, encouragement, 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 at 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
  • The 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
  • “God”[ix]

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 “firstborn”, 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))
[iii] ibid
[iv] ibid
[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
[ix] THE WORKS OF PHILO, p . 240 (On the Confusion of Tongues(23))

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

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