PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA, THE RABBIS, AND THE GOSPELS
THE FINAL DEVELOPMENT OF HELLENISM IN ITS RELATION TO RABBINISM AND THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN.
It is strange how little we know of the personal history of the greatest of uninspired Jewish writers of old, though he occupied so prominent a position in his time. 1 Philo was born in Alexandria, about the year 20 before Christ. He was a descendant of Aaron, and belonged to one of the wealthiest and most influential families among the Jewish merchant-princes of Egypt. His brother was the political head of that community in Alexandria, and he himself on one occasion represented his co-religionists, though unsuccessfully, at Rome, 2 as the head of an embassy to entreat the Emperor Caligula for protection from the persecutions consequent on the Jewish resistance to placing statues of the Emperor in their Synagogues. But it is not with Philo, the wealthy aristocratic Jew of Alexandria, but with the great writer and thinker who, so to speak, completed Jewish Hellenism, that we have here to do. Let us see what was his relation alike to heathen philosophy and to the Jewish faith, of both of which he was the ardent advocate, and how in his system he combined the teaching of the two.
To begin with, Philo united in rare measure Greek learning with Jewish enthusiasm. In his writings he very frequently uses classical modes of expression; 3 he names not fewer than sixty-four Greek writers; 4 and he either alludes to, or quotes frequently from, such sources as Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Solon, the great Greek tragedians, Plato, and others. But to him these men were scarcely ‘heathen.’ He had sat at their feet, and learned to weave a system from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. The gatherings of these philosophers were ‘holy,’ and Plato was ‘the great.’ But holier than all was the gathering of the true Israel; and incomparably greater than any, Moses. From him had all sages learned, and with him alone was all truth to be found – not, indeed, in the letter, but under the letter, of Holy Scripture. If in Numbers 23 v 19 we read ‘God is not a man,’ and in Deuteronomy 1 v 31 that the Lord was ‘as a man,’ did it not imply, on the one hand, the revelation of absolute truth by God, and, on the other, accommodation to those who were weak? Here, then, was the principle of a twofold interpretation of the Word of God – the literal and the allegorical. The letter of the text must be held fast; and Biblical personages and histories were real. But only narrow-minded slaves of the letter would stop here; the more so, as sometimes the literal meaning alone would be tame, even absurd; while the allegorical interpretation gave the true sense, even though it might occasionally run counter to the letter. Thus, the patriarchs represented states of the soul; and, whatever the letter might bear, Joseph represented one given to the fleshly, whom his brothers rightly hated; Simeon the soul aiming after the higher; the killing of the Egyptian by Moses, the subjugation of passion, and so on. But this allegorical interpretation – by the side of the literal (the Peshat of the Palestinians) – though only for the few, was not arbitrary. It had its ‘laws,’ and ‘canons’ – some of which excluded the literal interpretation, while others admitted it by the side of the higher meaning. 5
To begin with the former: the literal sense must be wholly set aside, when it implied anything unworthy of the Deity, anything unmeaning, impossible, or contrary to reason. Manifestly, this canon, if strictly applied, would do away not only with all anthropomorphisms, but cut the knot wherever difficulties seemed insuperable. Again, Philo would find an allegorical, along with the literal, interpretation indicated in the reduplication of a word, and in seemingly superfluous words, particles, or expressions. 6 These could, of course, only bear such a meaning on Philo’s assumption of the actual inspiration of the LXX. version. Similarly, in exact accordance with a Talmudical canon, 7 any repetition of what had been already stated would point to something new. These were comparatively sober rules of exegesis. Not so the licence which he claimed of freely altering the punctuation 8 of sentences, and his notion that, if one from among several synonymous words was chosen in a passage, this pointed to some special meaning attaching to it. Even more extravagant was the idea, that a word which occurred in the LXX. might be interpreted according to every shade of meaning which it bore in the Greek, and that even another meaning might be given it by slightly altering the letters. However, like other of Philo’s allegorical canons, these were also adopted by the Rabbis, and Haggadic interpretations were frequently prefaced by: ‘Read not thus – but thus.’ If such violence might be done to the text, we need not wonder at interpretations based on a play upon words, or even upon parts of a word. Of course, all seemingly strange or peculiar modes of expression, or of designation, occurring in Scripture, must have their special meaning, and so also every particle, adverb, or preposition. Again, the position of a verse, its succession by another, the apparently unaccountable presence or absence of a word, might furnish hints for some deeper meaning, and so would an unexpected singular for a plural, or vice versâ, the use of a tense, even the gender of a word. Most serious of all, an allegorical interpretation might be again employed as the basis of another. 9
We repeat, that these allegorical canons of Philo are essentially the same as those of Jewish traditionalism in the Haggadah, 10 only the latter were not rationalising, and far more brilliant in their application. 11 In another respect also the Palestinian had the advantage of the Alexandrian exegesis. Reverently and cautiously it indicated what might be omitted in public reading, and why; what expressions of the original might be modified by the Meturgeman, and how; so as to avoid alike one danger by giving a passage in its literality, and another by adding to the sacred text, or conveying a wrong impression of the Divine Being, or else giving occasion to the unlearned and unwary of becoming entangled in dangerous speculations. Jewish tradition here lays down some principles which would be of great practical use. Thus we are told, 12 that Scripture uses the modes of expression common among men. This would, of course, include all anthropomorphisms. Again, sometimes with considerable ingenuity, a suggestion is taken from a word, such as that Moses knew the Serpent was to be made of brass from the similarity of the two words (nachash, a serpent, and nechosheth, brass.) 13 Similarly, it is noted that Scripture uses euphemistic language, so as to preserve the greatest delicacy. 14 These instances might be multiplied, but the above will suffice.
In his symbolical interpretations Philo only partially took the same road as the Rabbis. The symbolism of numbers and, so far as the Sanctuary was concerned, that of colours, and even materials, may, indeed, be said to have its foundation in the Old Testament itself. The same remark applies partially to that of names. The Rabbis certainly so interpreted them. 15 But the application which Philo made of this symbolism was very different. Everything became symbolical in his hands, if it suited his purpose: numbers (in a very arbitrary manner), beasts, birds, fowls, creeping things, plants, stones, elements, substances, conditions, even sex – and so a term or an expression might even have several and contradictory meanings, from which the interpreter was at liberty to choose.
From the consideration of the method by which Philo derived from Scriptures his theological views, we turn to a brief analysis of these views. 16
But side by side with this we have, to save the Jewish, or rather Old Testament, idea of creation and providence, the Stoic notion of God as immanent in the world – in fact, as that alone which is real in it, as always working: in short, to use his own Pantheistic expression, as ‘Himself one and the all’ (eiV kai to pan). Chief in His Being is His goodness, the forthgoing of which was the ground of creation. Only the good comes from Him. With matter He can have nothing to do – hence the plural number in the account of creation. God only created the soul, and that only of the good. In the sense of being ‘immanent,’ God is everywhere – nay, all things are really only in Him, or rather He is the real in all. But chiefly is God the wellspring and the light of the soul – its ‘Saviour’ from the ‘Egypt’ of passion. Two things follow. With Philo’s ideas of the separation between God and matter, it was impossible always to account for miracles or interpositions. Accordingly, these are sometimes allegorised, sometimes rationalistically explained. Further, the God of Philo, whatever he might say to the contrary, was not the God of that Israel which was His chosen people.
The manifestations of God! But neither Eastern mystical Judaism, nor the philosophy of Philo, could admit of any direct contact between God and creation. The Kabbalah solved the difficulty by their Sephiroth, 21 or emanations from God, through which this contact was ultimately brought about, and of which the EnSoph, or crown, was the spring: ‘the source from which the infinite light issued.’ If Philo found greater difficulties, he had also more ready help from the philosophical systems to hand. His Sephiroth were ‘Potencies’ (dunameiV), ‘Words’ (logoi), intermediate powers. ‘Potencies,’ as we imagine, when viewed Godwards; ‘Words,’ as viewed creationwards. They were not emanations, but, according to Plato, ‘archetypal ideas,’ on the model of which all that exists was formed; and also, according to the Stoic idea, the cause of all, pervading all, forming all, and sustaining all. Thus these ‘Potencies’ were wholly in God, and yet wholly out of God. If we divest all this of its philosophical colouring, did not Eastern Judaism also teach that there was a distinction between the Unapproachable God, and God manifest? 22
Another remark will show the parallelism between Philo and Rabbinism. 23 As the latter speaks of the two qualities (Middoth) of Mercy and Judgment in the Divine Being, 24 and distinguishes between Elohim as the God of Justice, and Jehovah as the God of Mercy and Grace, so Philo places next to the Divine Word (qeioV logoV), Goodness (agaqothV), as the Creative Potency (poihtikh dunamiV), and Power (ezousia), as the Ruling Potency (basilikh dunamiV), proving this by a curious etymological derivation of the words for ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ (QeoVand kurioV) – apparently unconscious that the LXX., in direct contradiction, translated Jehovah by Lord (kurioV), and Elohim by God (QeoV)! These two potencies of goodness and power, Philo sees in the two Cherubim, and in the two ‘Angels’ which accompanied God (the Divine Word), when on his way to destroy the cities of the plain. But there were more than these two Potencies. In one place Philo enumerates six, according to the number of the cities of refuge. The Potencies issued from God as the beams from the light, as the waters from the spring, as the breath from a person; they were immanent in God, and yet also without Him – motions on the part of God, and yet independent beings. They were the ideal world, which in its impulse outwards, meeting matter, produced this material world of ours. They were also the angels of God – His messengers to man, the media through whom He reveled Himself. 25
If we now turn to the views expressed by Philo about the Logos we find that they are hesitating, and even contradictory. One thing, however, is plain: the Logos of Philo is
not the Memra of the Targumim. For, the expression Memra ultimately rests on theological, that of Logos on philosophical grounds. Again, the Logos of Philo approximates more closely to the Metatron of the Talmud and Kabbalah. As they speak of him as the ‘Prince of the Face,’ who bore the name of his Lord, so Philo represents the Logos as ‘the eldest Angel,’ ‘the many-named Archangel,’ in accordance with the Jewish view that the name JeHoVaH unfolded its meaning in seventy names for the Godhead. 38 As they speak of the ‘Adam Qadmon,’ so Philo of the Logos as the human reflection of the eternal God. And in both these respects, it is worthy of notice that he appeals to ancient teaching. 39
What, then, is the Logos of Philo? Not a concrete personality, and yet, from another point of view, not strictly impersonal, nor merely a property of the Deity, but the shadow, as it were, which the light of God casts – and if Himself light, only the manifested reflection of God, His spiritual, even as the world is His material, habitation. Moreover, the Logos is ‘the image of God’ (eikwn) upon which man was made, 40 or, to use the platonic term, ‘the archetypal idea.’ As regards the relation between the Logos and the two fundamental Potencies (from which all others issue), the latter are variously represented – on the one hand, as proceeding from the Logos; and on the other, as themselves constituting the Logos. As regards the world, the Logos is its real being. He is also its archetype; moreover the instrument (organon) through Whom God created all things. If the Logos separates between God and the world, it is rather as intermediary; He separates, but He also unites. But chiefly does this hold true as regards the relation between God and man. The Logos announces and interprets to man the will and mind of God (ermhneuV kai projhthV); He acts as mediator; He is the real High-Priest, and as such by His purity takes away the sins of man, and by His intercession procures for us the mercy of God. Hence Philo designates Him not only as the High-Priest, but as the ‘Paraclete.’ He is also the sun whose rays enlighten man, the medium of Divine revelation to the soul; the Manna, or support of spiritual life; He Who dwells in the soul. And so the Logos is, in the fullest sense, Melchisedek, the priest of the most high God, the king of righteousness (basileuV dikaioV), and the king of Salem (basileuV eirhnhV), Who brings righteousness and peace to the soul. 41 But the Logos ‘does not come into any soul that is dead in sin.’ That there is close similarity of form between these Alexandrian views and much in the argumentation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, must be evident to all – no less than that there is the widest possible divergence in substance and spirit. 42 The Logos of Philo is shadowy, unreal, not a Person; 43 there is no need of an atonement; the High-Priest intercedes, but has no sacrifice to offer as the basis of His intercession, least of all that of Himself; the old Testament types are only typical ideas, not typical facts; they point to a Prototypal Idea in the eternal past, not to an Antitypal Person and Fact in history; there is no cleansing of the soul by blood, no sprinkling of the Mercy Seat, no access for all through the rent veil into the immediate Presence of God; nor yet a quickening of the soul from dead works to serve the living God. If the argumentation of the Epistle to the Hebrews is Alexandrian, it is an Alexandrianism which is overcome and past, which only furnishes the form, not the substance, the vessel, not its contents. The closer therefore the outward similarity, the greater is the contrast in substance.
The vast difference between Alexandrianism and the New Testament will appear still more clearly in the views of Philo on Cosmology and Anthropology. In regard to the former, his results in some respects run parallel to those of the students of mysticism in the Talmud, and of the Kabbalists. Together with the Stoic view, which represented God as ‘the active cause’ of this world, and matter as ‘the passive,’ Philo holds the Platonic idea, that matter was something existent, and that is resisted God. 44 Such speculations must have been current among the Jews long before, to judge by certain warning given by the Son of Sirach. 45 46 And Stoic views of the origin of the world seem implied even in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon (i. 7; vii. 24; viii. 1; xii. 1). 47 The mystics in the Talmud arrived at similar conclusions, not through Greek, but through Persian teaching. Their speculations 48 boldly entered on the dangerous ground, 49 forbidden to the many, scarcely allowed to the few, 50 where such deep questions as the origin of our world and its connection with God were discussed. It was, perhaps, only a beautiful poetic figure that God had taken of the dust under the throne of His glory, and cast it upon the waters, which thus became earth. 51 But so far did isolated teachers become intoxicated 52 by the new wine of these strange speculations, that they whispered it to one another that water was the original element of the world, 53 which had successively been hardened into snow and then into earth. 54 55 Other and later teachers fixed upon the air or the fire as the original element, arguing the pre-existence of matter from the use of the word ‘made’ in Gen. i. 7. instead of ‘created.’ Some modified this view, and suggested that God had originally created the three elements of water, air or spirit, and fire, from which all else was developed. 56 Traces also occur of the doctrine of the pre-existence of things, in a sense similar to that of Plato. 57
Like Plato and the Stoics, Philo regarded matter as devoid of all quality, and even form. Matter in itself was dead – more than that, it was evil. This matter, which was already existing, God formed (not made), like an architect who uses his materials according to a pre-existing plan – which in this case was the archetypal world.
This was creation, or rather formation, brought about not by God Himself, but by the Potencies, especially by the Logos, Who was the connecting bond of all. As for God, His only direct work was the soul, and that only of the good, not of the evil. Man’s immaterial part had a twofold aspect: earthwards, as Sensuousness (aisqhsiV); and heavenwards, as Reason (nouV). The sensuous part of the soul was connected with the body. It had no heavenly past, and would have no future. But ‘Reason’ (nouV) was that breath of true life which God had breathed into man (pneuma) whereby the earthy became the higher, living spirit, with its various faculties. Before time began the soul was without body, an archetype, the ‘heavenly man,’ pure spirit in Paradise (virtue), yet even so longing after its ultimate archetype, God. Some of these pure spirits descended into bodies and so lost their purity. Or else, the union was brought about by God and by powers lower than God (dæmons, dhmiourgoi). To the latter is due our earthly part. God breathed on the formation, and the ‘earthly Reason’ became ‘intelligent’ ‘spiritual’ soul (yuch noera). Our earthly part alone is the seat of sin. 58
This leads us to the great question of Original Sin. Here the views of Philo are those of the Eastern Rabbis. But both are entirely different from those on which the argument in the Epistle to the Romans turns. It was neither at the feet of Gamaliel, nor yet from Jewish Hellenism, that Saul of Tarsus learned the doctrine of original sin. The statement that as in Adam all spiritually died, so in Messiah all should be made alive, 59 finds absolutely no parallel in Jewish writings. 60 What may be called the starting point of Christian theology, the doctrine of hereditary guilt and sin, through the fall of Adam, and of the consequent entire and helpless corruption of our nature, is entirely unknown to Rabbinical Judaism. The reign of physical death was indeed traced to the sin of our first parents. 61 But the Talmud expressly teaches, 62 that God originally created man with two propensities, 63 one to good and one to evil (Yetser tobh, and Yetser hara 64). The evil impulse began immediately after birth. 65 66 But it was within the power of man to vanquish sin, and to attain perfect righteousness; in fact, this stage had actually been attained. 67
Similarly, Philo regarded the soul of the child as ‘naked’ (Adam and Eve), a sort of tabula rasa, as wax which God would fain form and mould. But this state ceased when ‘affection’ presented itself to reason, and thus sensuous lust arose, which was the spring of all sin. The grand task, then, was to get rid of the sensuous, and to rise to the spiritual. In this, the ethical part of his system, Philo was most under the influence of Stoic philosophy. We might almost say, it is no longer the Hebrew who Hellenises, but the Hellene who Hebraises. And yet it is here also that the most ingenious and wide reaching allegorisms of Scripture are introduced. It is scarcely possible to convey an idea of how brilliant this method becomes in the hands of Philo, how universal its application, or how captivating it must have proved. Philo describes man’s state as, first one of sensuousness, but also of unrest, misery and unsatisfied longing. If persisted in, it would end in complete spiritual insensibility. 68 But from this state the soul must pass to one of devotion to reason. 69 This change might be accomplished in one of three ways: first, by study – of which physical was the lowest; next, that which embraced the ordinary circle of knowledge; and lastly, the highest, that of Divine philosophy. The second method was Askesis: discipline, or practice, when the soul turned from the lower to the higher. But the best of all was the third way: the free unfolding of that spiritual life which cometh neither from study nor discipline, but from a natural good disposition. And in that state the soul had true rest 70 and joy. 71
Here we must for the present pause. 72 Brief as this sketch of Hellenism has been, it must have brought the question vividly before the mind, whether and how far certain parts of the New Testament, especially the fourth Gospel, 73 are connected with the direction of thought described in the preceding pages. Without yielding to that school of critics, whose perverse ingenuity discerns everywhere a sinister motive or tendency in the Evangelic writers, 74 it is evident that each of them had a special object in view in constructing his narrative of the One Life; and primarily addressed himself to a special audience. If, without entering into elaborate discussion, we might, according to St. Luke i. 2, regard the narrative of St. Mark as the grand representative of that authentic ‘narration’ (dihghsiV), though not by Apostles, 75 which was in circulation, and the Gospel by St. Matthew as representing the ‘tradition’ handed down (the paradosiV), by the Apostolic eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, 76 we should reach the following results. Our oldest Gospel-narrative is that by St. Mark, which, addressing itself to no class in particular, sketches in rapid outlines the picture of Jesus as the Messiah, alike for all men. Next in order of time comes our present Gospel by St. Matthew. It goes a step further back than that by St. Mark, and gives not only the genealogy, but the history of the miraculous birth of Jesus. Even if we had not the consensus of tradition every one must feel that this Gospel is Hebrew in its cast, in its citations from the Old Testament, and in its whole bearing. Taking its key-note from the Book of Daniel, that grand Messianic text-book of Eastern Judaism at the time, and as re-echoed in the Book of Enoch – which expresses the popular apprehension of Daniel’s Messianic idea – it presents the Messiah chiefly as ‘the Son of Man,’ ‘the Son of David,’ ‘the Son of God.’ We have here the fulfilment of Old Testament law and prophecy; the realisation of Old Testament life, faith, and hope. Third in point of time is the Gospel by St. Luke, which, passing back another step, gives us not only the history of the birth of Jesus, but also that of John, ‘the preparer of the way.’ It is Pauline, and addresses itself, or rather, we should say, presents the Person of the Messiah, it may be ‘to the Jew first,’ but certainly ‘also to the Greek.’ The term which St. Luke, alone of all Gospel writers, 77 applies to Jesus, is that of the paiVor ‘servant’ of God, in the sense in which Isaiah has spoken of the Messiah as the ‘Ebhed Jehovah,’ ‘servant of the Lord.’ St. Luke’s is, so to speak, the Isaiah-Gospel, presenting the Christ in His bearing on the history of God’s Kingdom and of the world – as God’s Elect Servant in Whom He delighted. In the Old Testament, to adopt a beautiful figure, 78 the idea of the Servant of the Lord is set before us like a pyramid: at its base it is all Israel, at its central section Israel after the Spirit (the circumcised in heart), represented by David, the man after God’s own heart; while at its apex it is the ‘Elect’ Servant, the Messiah. 79 And these three ideas, with their sequences, are presented in the third Gospel as centring in Jesus the Messiah. By the side of this pyramid is the other: the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God. The Servant of the Lord of Isaiah and of Luke is the Enlightener, the Consoler, the victorious Deliverer; the Messiah or Anointed: the Prophet, the Priest, the King.
Yet another tendency – shall we say, want? – remained, so to speak, unmet and unsatisfied. That large world of latest and most promising Jewish thought, whose task it seemed to bridge over the chasm between heathenism and Judaism – the Western Jewish world, must have the Christ presented to them. For in every direction is He the Christ. And not only they, but that larger Greek world, so far as Jewish Hellenism could bring it to the threshold of the Church. This Hellenistic and Hellenic world now stood in waiting to enter it, though as it were by its northern porch, and to be baptized at its font. All this must have forced itself on the mind of St. John, residing in the midst of them at Ephesus, even as St. Paul’s Epistles contain almost as many allusions to Hellenism as to Rabbinism. 80 And so the fourth Gospel became, not the supplement, but the complement, of the other three. 81 There is no other Gospel more Palestinian than this in its modes of expression, allusions, and references. Yet we must all feel how thoroughly Hellenistic it also is in its cast, 82 in what it reports and what it omits – in short, in its whole aim; how adapted to Hellenist wants its presentation of deep central truths; how suitably, in the report of His Discourses – even so far as their form is concerned – the promise was here fulfilled, of bringing all things to remembrance whatsoever He had said. 83 It is the true Light which shineth, of which the full meridian-blaze lies on the Hellenist and Hellenic world. There is Alexandrian form of thought not only in the whole conception, but in the Logos, 84 and in His presentation as the Light, the Life, the Wellspring of the world. 85 But these forms are filled in the fourth Gospel with quite other substance. God is not afar off, unrecognisable by man, without properties, without name. He is the Father. Instead of a nebulous reflection of the Deity we have the Person of the Logos; not a Logos with the two potencies of goodness and power, but full of grace and truth. The Gospel of St. John also begins with a ‘Bereshith’ – but it is the theological, not the cosmic Bereshith, when the Logos was with God and was God. Matter is not pre-existent; far less is it evil. St. John strikes the pen through Alexandrianism when he lays it down as the fundamental fact of New Testament history that ‘the Logos was made flesh,’ just as St. Paul does when he proclaims the great mystery of ‘God manifest in the flesh.’ Best of all, it is not by a long course of study, nor by wearing discipline, least of all by an inborn good disposition, that the soul attains the new life, but by a birth from above, by the Holy Ghost, and by simple faith which is brought within reach of the fallen and the lost. 86
Philo had no successor. In him Hellenism had completed its cycle. Its message and its mission were ended. Henceforth it needed, like Apollos, its great representative in the Christian Church, two things: the baptism of John to the knowledge of sin and need, and to have the way of God more perfectly expounded. 87 On the other hand, Eastern Judaism had entered with Hillel on a new stage. This direction led farther and farther away from that which the New Testament had taken in following up and unfolding the spiritual elements of the Old. That development was incapable of transformation or renovation. It must go on to its final completion, and be either true, or else be swept away and destroyed.