The Logos of Philo and John
A Comparative Sketch
By Adam Davis
Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - 40 A.D.) occupies a unique place in the history of philosophy. He was a Jewish thinker living in one of the most important cities of the ancient world during a pivotal time. Much of Philo's work is focused on the transcendence of God and the "Logos." The notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy during the first century. But what makes the Philonic Logos particularly compelling is that the Gospel of John (the Evangelist) calls Jesus Christ the "Logos" (John 1:1-3). Questions have subsequently arisen regarding what extent, if any, Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation are derivative of Philo. The aim of this article is to provide a brief sketch of the Philonic Logos and compare it with the Johannine* Logos. A close analysis shows only surface level similarities between these two conceptions.
The Philonic Framework
Philo was committed to the Jewish faith and found no conflict harmonizing Jewish theology and Greek philosophy. The term "Logos" is used a great deal in the Old Testament, although it does not have a univocal meaning. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, renders Logos hundreds of times across various books. For example, Deuteronomy 32:45-47 reads:
And Moses...said unto them, Set your heart unto all the words [logos] which I testify unto you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do...For it is no vain thing [logos] for you; because it is your life, and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land...Logos was often understood theologically in terms of personified divine wisdom (Job 28:12, Proverbs 8, 9). Philo adopts these, and also identifies the Logos as The Angel of the Lord. (1) The Angel of the Lord is understood by Philo in some contexts as distinct from YHWH and other times identical (Genesis 16:7-13, 32:24-28; Exodus 23:20; Hosea 12:4-5; Malachi 3:1).
The Jewish Targums merged the idea of Scriptural theophanies and prophesy into a single concept, Memra. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains as follows:
"The Word," in the sense of the creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for "the Lord" when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided. (2)Shekinah and Jekara are also used in this context. (3) Due to the Jewish influence in Alexandria during his time, it is likely Philo had access to or intimate knowledge of these writings. The extent to which the rabbinical literature and/or Targums influenced Philo would have to be determined based on a detailed assessment that is beyond the scope here. But Philo's commitment to the transcendence of God and the allegorization of the Hebrew Scriptures are prominent themes. When the Scriptures conflict with philosophical rationale, the former is subsumed under the latter.
It is from a distinctly Platonic philosophical framework that Philo fully explicates the Logos. The Philonic Logos is the bridge between the infinite God and finite creation. God is revealed to His creation through the Logos, though not in a personal way. The Logos is the wisdom of the divine and the organizing principle of matter. The Platonic Ideas (i.e. Forms) are situated within the Logos, and the material world is formed according to these templates.
The Philonic Logos is metaphysically necessary, for the absolute Being cannot pass into creation without corrupting His essence. The Logos does not go beyond creating and preserving the world. The ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an emanation from the divine essence; it is the highest of the intermediary beings between God and man. The Logos is the "first-born" of God, but inferior to God. God expresses Himself and His acts through the Logos. (4)
The Logos and Messiah
Whether Philo connected the Logos with the Jewish Messiah is an interesting question. But answering in the affirmative seems speculative at best, and anachronistic at worst. For example, Ronald Williamson cites various scholars who doubt the hypothesis that Philo identified the Messiah with the Logos. (5) The chief reason is that Philo does not express the Logos as a person. Philo might be understood as conceiving of the Messiah as an allegory for the Logos. If the Messiah was to be an actual person, then the Logos might act through such a person. But it seems Logos cannot be identified with Messiah on pain of contradicting fundamental principles of the Logos' nature.
The Logos of John the Evangelist stands in stark contrast to the Philonic Logos. The Johannine Logos is identified as God Himself who took on human flesh (John 1:1-3, 14). This is what Christians refer to as the doctrine of the Incarnation. Codified at Chalcedon in 451 A.D., this doctrine maintains that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. He is one Person with two distinct natures. Thus, the Johannine Logos is the divine substance. In contradistinction, the Philonic Logos is not of the same substance as God.
Other New Testament writers elucidate the Incarnation with great consistency to that of the Evangelist. Prominent in these accounts are key traits exemplified by the Johannine Logos, such as being personal and loving. The Johannine Logos gives His life to save sinners. None of these can be predicated of the Philonic Logos. The Johannine Logos is prior to matter; the Philonic Logos is consequent to matter as the organizing principle of primordial chaos. The Johannine Logos acts freely in both natures; the Philonic Logos cannot act in such a way.
It is possible the Evangelist knew of the Philonic Logos, or was at least familiar with the basic philosophical precepts. Thus, one might see the Johannine Logos prominently placed to demonstrate the theological and philosophical impotency of the Philonic doctrine. The Johannine Logos is superior because He is God. The "how"' of this proposition is indeed mysterious, but it is necessary considering redemptive revelation.
Philonic influence on New Testament writers is beyond the scope of this article. But one cannot deny that the Philonic Logos undoubtedly influenced the early church from a philosophical standpoint. Important figures such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr all incorporate threads of Philo into their work. As these Christian thinkers tried to expound on revealed truths such as the Incarnation and Trinity, they were bound to integrate biblically reconcilable notions with Philo and other philosophy of their time.
A sound argument can be made that certain aspects of Philonic thought were "baptized" as Christian. And to the extent this philosophy comports with biblical revelation, such moves are unproblematic. However, to claim the Incarnation is derivative of Philo betrays the work of the latter and badly misunderstands the former. Similarities between the Johannine and Philonic Logos end when the nature of the subject is carefully considered.
* "Of John"
1. "Philo of Alexandria; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2. "Memra"; Jewish Encyclopedia.
4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome, (New York: Doubleday, 1946), 458-462.
5. Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970).
Image Credit: Tommy Tang; Cleary Summit Aurora Viewing Area, Fairbanks, United States; Creative Commons
Tags: Biblical-Truth | God-Father | History-Apologetics | Jesus-Christ
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