Tag Archives: Philo

Understanding Mark’s Jesus through Philo’s Moses?

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) b...

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I posted an introduction to Burton Mack’s and Earle Hilgert’s suggestion that the pre-Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark has striking affinities with Philo’s first volume of On the Life of Moses. I have since caught up with more of the background reading to their argument, but I have also taken their suggestions further and wonder if there is a plausible case to be made that the evangelist was influenced by Philo’s account of Moses in the way he portrayed the character and roles of Jesus through his teaching and controversial exchanges with others. This post is exploratory. The views expressed are in flux.

But I must address one point in particular before continuing. Some people reject any argument that a gospel’s narrative content was imitating or influenced by other specific literature on the grounds that it is possible to argue for influences or imitations of more than one other literary source. It is not difficult to find places where the Gospel of Mark has adapted tales from the Old Testament (e.g. Jesus’ call of the disciples being modeled on Elijah’s call of Elisha; the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead owing much to Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite’s son.) But we have also recently seen a study that argues for the influence of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. Is it not going too far to bring in yet another source into the mix? Spectres of “parallelomania” are raised. But this objection is ill-informed. Thomas L. Brodie in The Birthing of the New Testament demonstrates that it was common practice for authors of the time to draw upon and assimilate multiple sources in their composition of new works. (This will be addressed in a future post.)

Start with the Transfiguration

Mark’s transfiguration scene is teasingly alike yet unlike the biblical scenes of Moses atop Mount Sinai. read more »

A Pre-Christian Heavenly Jesus

A little exchange of views (beginning here) on Larry Hurtado’s blog (Hurtado generously offers a platform for some interesting resources for those interested in mythicist arguments ;-)  ) has alerted me to something no doubt many who follow Richard Carrier’s writings more attentively than I have done will already know that Carrier writes:

Nor was the idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God a novel idea among the Jews anyway. Paul’s contemporary, Philo, interprets the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 6:11-12 in just such a way. In the Septuagint this says to place the crown of kingship upon “Jesus,” for “So says Jehovah the Ruler of All, ‘Behold the man named ‘Rises’, and he shall rise up from his place below and he shall build the House of the Lord’.” This pretty much is the Christian Gospel. Philo was a Platonic thinker, so he could not imagine this as referring to “a man who is compounded of body and soul,” but thought it meant an “incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image” whom “the Father of the Universe has caused to spring up as the eldest son.” Then Philo says, “In another passage, he calls this son the firstborn,” and says “he who is thus born” imitates “the ways of his father.” (Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 250-251)

Carrier then quotes the passage from Philo, and I quote it here from the Yonge translation available online. The word “East” has since been better understood as “Rises”, as in the rising of the sun:

“Behold, a man whose name is the East!” A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. (63) For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father . . . . (On the Confusion of Tongues, Book 14:62, 63)

Before adding my own discussion I’ll quote the next paragraph from Carrier, too: read more »

Mark’s (Unclean) Bartimaeus and Plato’s (Honoured) Timaeus

English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfie...

English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfields Eye Hospital The words here,’Domine, ut videam’ (Lord, that I may see!), comprised the answer, according to the Gospel of Mark, to Jesus’s question to the blind beggar Bartimaeus who called out to him in Jericho. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always been shy of accepting the argument one sometimes reads that the blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark came by his unusual name (along with its unusual manner of its explanation) from the influence of Plato’s Timaeus.

But a passage in Earle Hilgert’s chapter, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark”, in Reimagining Christian Origins has for the first time opened my mind to the possibility that Plato’s famous work could be behind the name after all. (I’m not saying I am sure it is. Only that I am more open to the possibility.)

After discussing the usual things I have read before in favour of the connection — that Plato’s Timaeus includes a lot of discussion about eyesight and its ability to lead us through observation of those mysterious moving lights seen above the world to come to know the great Eternal Truths of God — Hilgert writes this:

Runia has identified some dozen passages in Philo which are clearly influenced by this encomium, not to speak of its broader impact on Hellenistic thought. Of the Timaeus as a whole, he declares,

Its influence inevitably filtered down to men of letters and even those who had received only a smattering of learning. Indeed the Timaeus was the only Greek prose work that up to the third century A.D. every educated man could be presumed to have read.

In view of such widespread conversance in the Hellenistic world with the Timaeus and with its praise of eyesight, we should not be surprised if Mark reflects acquaintance with it. (pp. 190-191)

Now I’ve been trapped. I have been catching up with some background reading to Hilgert’s chapter — Burton Mack’s 1972 Studia Philonica article and chapters by Hilgert, Mack and others in The School of Moses: Studies in Philo and Hellenistic Religion — with a particular interest in the question of any direct or indirect relationship between what we read by Philo and in the Gospel of Mark. I had not till now fully appreciated the extent of the influence of the Timaeus apparently even in the time of the Gospel’s composition. I would like to track down the evidence on which Runia’s Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus. Hopefully the Google preview will give me enough detail to satisfy my curiosity.

A multilingual pun

Another detail Hilgert goes on to mention is something I know I must have read in Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence some years ago but had unfortunately forgotten: read more »

Is the Gospel of Mark Creatively Emulating Philo’s Life of Moses?

Moses Jesus action figures

Did the Jewish philosopher Philo influence the story-line and character-portrayals that we read in the Gospel of Mark? I cannot yet commit myself to believing he did but I am keen to follow up the question since encountering it in Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack. (Mack, of course, is famous for his works on Christian origins and particularly on the Gospel of Mark.) Specifically it was in chapter 11, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark” by Earle Hilgert. He writes on page 187:

Particularly in the thought of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E. to c. 50 C.E.) the myth of ascent vision combines with the epic figures of Israel’s history, who are seen as models of this experience. As models, they are to be imitated; thus their stories become stories of the psyche, paradigms of the possibilities available to the individual. Mack has pointed out a striking formal parallel between Philo’s De Vita Mosis and the Gospel of Mark.

The work by Mack cited here is “Imitatio Mosis: Patterns of Cosmology and Soteriology in the Hellenistic Synagogue,” Studia Philonica, 1 (1972): 34. Since I do not have access to this article I decided to refresh my memory of Philo’s Life of Moses and compare with the Gospel of Mark myself. But Earle Hilgert does give us a head start when he lists the main points of apparent contact between the two works according to Mack:

Life of Moses 1 Gospel of Mark
The call-vision of Moses at the burning bush (1.65-70) The call vision of Jesus at his baptism
The secret announcement to the elders of Israel of an impending departure to a better land (1.86) Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom
The legitimization of Moses’ authority through miracles (1.91-139) Jesus’ miracles
Moses’ ascent and admission to the presence of God on Sinai — a model for all who are willing to copy (1.158) Jesus’ transfiguration
The journey through wilderness with its trials (1.164, 171, 183) The journey to Jerusalem
Moses’ ascent to heaven at his death (2.288-91) melded with his ascent to the divine presence at Sinai Jesus’ paradigmatic death

That’s Burton Mack and Earle Hilgert. My own reflections follow. The purpose of the following is not to argue dogmatically a particular point. It is to invite anyone interested into a consideration of another way of thinking about an old question, and that need not be limited to a direct cause and effect option.

read more »

Did they really think like this?

Reading ancient texts quite often brings little eyebrow-raising surprises and curiosities — like this passage from Philo’s On the Life of Moses, II. He explains that the unique beauty of the sabbath resulted from it having “no female” element in it whatsoever:

XXXIX. (209) Moreover, in accordance with the honour due to the Creator of the universe, the prophet hallowed the sacred seventh day, beholding with eyes of more acute sight than those of mortals its pre-eminent beauty, which had already been deeply impressed on the heaven and the whole universal world, and had been borne about as an image by nature itself in her own bosom;

(210) for first of all Moses found that day destitute of any mother, and devoid of all participation in the female generation, being born of the Father alone without any propagation by means of seed, and being born without any conception on the part of any mother. And then he beheld not only this, that it was very beautiful and destitute of any mother, neither being born of corruption nor liable to corruption; . . . .

So one born of a mother is inferior because it is produced by means of “seed”?

It’s enough to make one wonder why the Christians didn’t concoct a myth of Jesus springing forth from the Father himself. Come to think of it, some Christians did believe this. Moreover, I supposed the virgin birth was beautiful because it was not the semen of a pagan god that initiated the process, but the Spirit of God himself. So even the virgin birth is entirely in keeping with this Platonic philosophy.

When Bart Ehrman tries to have us believe that the Christian nativity scene is without any counterpart in the world of pagan myths because there is no “seed” from a god involved in the process, he is surely falling behind the times. By the time of Christianity the learned ones had discovered, with the help of Platonic philosophy, a far higher and purer state of being and generation than was ever possible with anthropomorphic deities. But it’s still the same story, the same motif. Only moved up to a “higher” philosophical plane.

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? — Part 2

Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

Over a week ago I posted Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1 — a discussion drawn principally from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel. That first post covered the evidence that “Jewishness” originated as a religious rather than an ethnic label:

  1. the origin myth of Israel being unlike any other national or ethnic origin myth in that it is an etiology of a religious cult
  2. the fact that there has been far more continuity of the population of Palestine than commonly understood
  3. the worship of Yahweh was not unique to any one people in the ancient Near East, nor was Yahweh the sort of god often depicted in the Bible
  4. Jewishness was not a concept that was limited to a particular ethnic group or even “the Jerusalem cult” exclusively, as witnessed by the surviving evidence from diaspora groups
  5. the concept of Israel in the Bible’s narrative is theological and not political or ethnic (prohibitions on mixed marriages were a safeguard for the preservation of the religious cult rather than an ethnic group)

Thompson argues that modern readers have tended to overlook the literary character of the biblical stories and traditions, and the fact that Israel in these stories is a theological (not historical) construct or metaphor. The same misreading applies to the New Testament, too.

This post addresses the second part of Thompson’s argument, the evidence from Josephus and to a lesser extent from Philo.

In book 12 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an etiology of the Jews of Egypt from deportations under Ptolemy ‘from the mountains of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem, Samaria and near Mount Gerizim.‘ These he describes as ‘two groups’ — nevertheless Jews all — who dispute about whether they should send their tribute to Jerusalem of to Samaria (Ant. 12.1.1). (p. 259-60, The Mythic Past, my emphasis)

What is the significance of this? It shows that in Josephus’ mind it was quite acceptable to think of a single functioning Jewish community in the diaspora that was made up of Jews of disparate origins and loyalties. (Thompson, p. 260) read more »

Ascents to the Celestial Temple and Heavenly Descents, and what any of this has to do with early Christianity

Stairway to Heaven

Image via Wikipedia

One of the reasons I am interested in this topic of visionary experiences is that they help flesh out a tangible environment, on the basis of concrete evidence, from which Christianity emerged. This is in contrast to the model of “oral traditions” being the roots of the canonical gospel narratives. The gospel narratives stand at an opposing polarity from the idea of salvation through a heavenly vision of the divine. April DeConick’s book, Voices of the Mystics, around which this and my previous posts are put together, argues that in the Gospel of John we find strong indications of a debate with Thomasine Christians who did uphold a central importance of the visionary experience. (Note, for example, the criticism of Thomas for believing only because he has seen.)

Enochian traditions in the Synoptic Gospels

But there is a somewhat different story and approach to visions in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  read more »

The Second God among ancient Jewish philosophers and commoners

Angel of the Revelation

Image via Wikipedia

The Jewish philosopher Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of Jesus and Paul were said to have lived, and wrote many works arguing that the Bible stories were allegories of higher truths that had counterparts in Greek philosophy. One of the more striking features of Philo’s work is his concept of the Logos (or “Word”) of God. His discussions of the Logos find parallels in Gospel of John that begins with the Logos or Word of God existing with God, but also as God, and it was this Logos that created everything on God’s behalf. Philo’s discussion of the Logos or Word of God shares the same understanding as we find in John’s Gospel. Philo even calls the Logos “a Second God”.

Philo’s views are often considered esoteric and probably alien to the normal beliefs of the common Jews in Palestine and elsewhere (e.g. Casey). Some scholars (e.g. McGrath) go to great lengths to argue that when Philo spoke of a “second God” he was not really deviating from Jewish monotheism, and that modern readers simply need to adjust their definition of “monotheism” as it existed in early Judaism in order not to compromise the conventional wisdom about Judaism.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, in The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, has tackled these beliefs of Philo and compared them popular Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures that in some cases date back to pre-Christian times. read more »

Two Adams, Human-Divine Mediators and Angels, and a very different view of early Judaism

The point of this post is to highlight, with reference to the sources, some of the less widely known beliefs among Jews around the time Christianity was emerging, and that would seem to have some resonances among Christian ideas we find in Paul and other early letters and gospels.

The Jewish world from which Christianity emerged is infinitely more complex than our traditional readings of the Old Testament and the beliefs of current Judaism. I would love to compile an outline of all its variations — or better still, find a book where this is already done. Till then, here are a few snippets that are worth keeping in mind whenever the subject of Christian origins is addressed.

  1. The human form of the Logos, God’s first-born, and Heavenly Man
  2. The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man
  3. The human form of Wisdom
  4. The heavenly Adam
  5. Melchizedek and other vice-regents of God
  6. Divine Heavenly Patriarchs

The following is taken primarily from a chapter on Jewish sectarian texts (and from a few references in a chapter on Philo) in Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. read more »

Philo’s Spiritual Messiah: allegorical and personal?

Spiritual Logos

Spiritual Logos from http://www.thelogocreator.com/spiritual-logos.html

Philo does not mention the term “christos” (“messiah”). But he does use a lot of messianic terminology to describe how the Logos converts people, through an inner personal war against the flesh, into the divine image. The message reminds me of Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s more detailed discussion of Paul’s concept of the Stoic-Logos-like function of the heavenly Christ in converting his followers to a “life in Christ”. (I return to this point at the end of this post.)

This post is another that attempts to “wikileak” what scholars themselves publish about the diverse nature of the ideas surrounding the origins of Christianity.

Philo allegorizes the narratives in the Jewish Scriptures: the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Temple. Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB, Richard D. Hecht, asks:

Why should he take the eschatological future any more “realistically” and thereby less spiritually than other elements in this thought? (Philo and Messiah, in Judaisms and their Messiahs at the turn of the Christian Era, p.148)

Hecht points to two different interpretations of messianic tropes in Philo:

  1. Messianic terms are used as symbols for the Logos, or for how virtue is stimulated in the human soul;
  2. Philo draws on Stoic ideas to describes an end-time Golden Age, but this is again a “spiritualization” of history, not an attempt to place a messiah in a real historical context. This description also concludes with a return to his primary interest (in 1 above) by comparing this Messianic Era to a “little seed” that generates “the most honorable and beautiful qualities among men.” (On Rewards and Punishments, 172)

It is the first of these that I focus most on in this post. Hecht argues that the Messiah in Philo is, for the spiritually discerning, the Logos working in “man” to save him spiritually by transforming him into the divine character image.

In On the Confusion of Tongues Philo attributes a messianic name to the Logos itself. read more »

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports: read more »

An overlooked source for Mark’s gospel?

I don’t recall hearing many references to the works of Philo as a source for the Gospel of Mark. Maybe there are good reasons for this that I have yet to learn.

Philo was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early part of the first century. He would have been in his late 40′s when Jesus was supposedly 30 years old.

Last month I posted what looks to me like an instance where the author of the Gospel of Mark drew on a particular image and thought that we also find in Philo. Who said this? was about a parable or riddle of Jesus in Mark:

Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean. (Mark 7:15)

In that post — and it was further elaborated with contributions from others in the comments, if I recall — I noted the same idea expressed as its converse in similar imagery:

as Plato says, mortal things find their entrance, and immortal things their exit. For into the mouth do enter meat and drink, perishable food of a perishable body; but from out of it proceed words — the immortal laws of an immortal soul, by means of which a rational life is regulated. (Philo, On the Creation, 119)

There is another saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that also comes to mind when reading the same work of Philo, On the Creation (or Opus Mundi).

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)

The Jesus Seminar voted that this is something very like what Jesus probably said. Maurice Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel) discussed it at length to argue that “the cultural context” should inform readers that Jesus implied that his use of “man” or “mankind” here was nonetheless applicable to Jews only. He quotes the 1947 CNT (presumably the Commentaire du Nouveau Testament?) to confirm that Jesus would not have meant to include non-Jews in this sabbath saying:

As a matter of historical fact the Sabbath was not made for man in general. At the time when the saying was uttered the sabbath was a distinctive peculiarity of the Jews: and our evidence goes to show that they regarded it as such and resented any non-Jewish observance of it. (T. W. Manson, `Mark II. 27f’, CNT 11, 1947, 138-46, at 145, followed by Beare, `Sabbath’, 132.)

He also cites the Mekhilta Shabbath I, Exod. 31:12-17:

R. Simeon ben Menasya says: Look! It says, `And you shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy to you’ (Exod. 31.14). The sabbath is delivered to you and you are not delivered to the sabbath.

That last sentence is famous for its similarity to the passage in the Gospel of Mark.

Some scholars (e.g. Casey, Crossley and no doubt others) use this late rabbinic passage as part of their efforts to set the scene for Jesus’ day. But this does not work. The Jewish Encyclopedia says R. Simeon ben Menasya was a contemporary of R. Judah ha-Nasi I, and Wikipedia informs me that he lived and died around the late second century or early third century — assuming that this Wikipedia article is about the same rabbi. So the Mekhilta does not appear to trace the saying any earlier than a rabbi who lived in the late second or early third century. To use this passage to help reconstruct the ideas floating around in the time of Jesus is a bit like taking a text from a Chinese author in today’s Singapore and attempting to use it to reconstruct a thought extant in imperial Shanghai in 1800. It may be an accurate match, but we can’t bet on it without additional evidence. It is just as likely that the late rabbinic saying found its way into Jewish thought via Christian contacts.

But Philo wrote something in the first half of the first century, in Egypt, that also suggests the same idea Mark’s gospel attributes to Jesus:

XXX. (89) But after the whole world had been completed according to the perfect nature of the number six, the Father hallowed the day following, the seventh, praising it, and calling it holy. For that day is the festival, not of one city or one country, but of all the earth; a day which alone it is right to call the day of festival for all people, and the birthday of the world. (On the Creation)

Now that to me is clear evidence that the 1947 CNT article quoted above is not the whole story when it says there is clear evidence “that they (the Jews) . . .  resented any non-Jewish observance of it (the sabbath).” Philo here could hardly have resented it if gentiles celebrated the sabbath day. He suggests here that he would find gentile observance extremely praiseworthy.

And here we have a Jewish intellectual writing that the sabbath is a day that is given to all mankind. So one must ask how original is the verse in Mark?

But how likely is it that the author of Mark might have known Philo’s writings?

If we knew who wrote the gospel we could answer that without much difficulty.

Irenaeus associates the Gospel of Mark with the gnostic teacher Basilides — who happened to live in the same Alexandria as Philo a generation or two earlier. Clement of Alexandria wrote that Basilides was a disciple of Glaucias, “the interpreter of Peter”, and that he wrote a gospel himself. It’s a long shot, but one is reminded of other early “traditions” that Mark was composed from the memories of Peter. All of this is speculative, and there are other speculations from equally thin slivers of evidence that Mark was composed in Rome. There are reasons also to locate its author in Syria.

In the meantime, I think we now have two passages — closely positioned — in one work of Philo’s, On the Creation, that strike me as having resonance in the Gospel of Mark.

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