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 Emperior 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 Numb. xxiii. 19 we read 'God is not a man,' and in Deut. i. 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 occassionally 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 punctuation8 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
1. Theology. - In reference to God, we find, side by
side, the apparently contradictory views of the Platonic and the Stoic schools.
Following the former, the sharpest distinction was drawn between God and the
world. God existed neither in space, nor in time; He had neither human
qualities nor affections; in fact, He was without any qualities (
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' (
2. Intermediary Beings. - Potencies (
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' (
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 (
3. The Logos. - Viewed in its bearing on New Testament teaching, this part of Philo's system raises the most interesting questions. But it is just here that our difficulties are greatest. We can understand the Platonic conception of the Logos as the 'archetypal idea,' and that of the Stoics as the 'world-reason' pervading matter. Similarly, we can perceive, how the Apocrypha - especially the Book of Wisdom - following up the Old Testament typical truth concerning 'Wisdom' (as specially set forth in the Book of Proverbs) almost arrived so far as to present 'Wisdom' as a special 'Subsistence' (hypostatising it). More than this, in Talmudical writings, we find mention not only of the Shem, or 'Name,'26 but also of the 'Shekhinah,' God as manifest and present, which is sometimes also presented as the Ruach ha Qodesh, of Holy Spirit.27 But in the Targumim we get yet another expression, which, strange to say, never occurs in the Talmud.28 It is that of the Memra, Logos, or 'Word.' Not that the term is exclusively applied to the Divine Logos.29 But it stands out as perhaps the most remarkable fact in this literature, that God - not as in His permanent manifestation, or manifest Presence - but as revealing Himself, is designated Memra. Altogether that term, as applied to God, occurs in the Targum Onkelos 179 times, in the so-called Jerusalem Targum 99 times, and in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 321 times. A critical analysis shows that in 82 instances in Onkelos, in 71 instances in the Jerusalem Targum, and in 213 instances in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the designation Memra is not only distinguished from God, but evidently refers to God as revealing Himself.30 But what does this imply? The distinction between God and the Memra of Jehovah is marked in many passages.31 Similarly, the Memra of Jehovah is distinguished from the Shekhinah.32 Nor is the term used instead of the sacred word Jehovah;33 nor for the well-known Old Testament expression 'the Angel of the Lord;'34 nor yet for the Metatron of the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and of the Talmud.35 Does it then represent an older tradition underlying all these?36 Beyond this Rabbinic theology has not preserved to us the doctrine of Personal distinctions in the Godhead. And yet, if words have any meaning, the Memra is a hypostasis, though the distinction of permanent, personal Subsistence is not marked. Nor yet, to complete this subject, is the Memra identified with the Messiah. In the Targum Onkelos distinct mention is twice made of Him,37 while in the other Targumim no fewer than seventy-one Biblical passages are rendered with explicit reference to Him.
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' (
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 speculations48 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 intoxicated52 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 (
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 helplesss 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 hara64). 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 rest70 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' (
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, uncognisable 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.