Philo’s Spiritual Messiah: allegorical and personal?

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by Neil Godfrey

Spiritual Logos from http://web.archive.org/web/20100730211306/http://www.thelogocreator.com:80/spiritual-logos.html
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.

(62) I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East![Literally: The Rising] {Zechariah 6:12.} 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, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.

As shown in my previous post, in Philo the firstborn of the divine mind is the Logos; and this Logos, by imitating his divine “father”, is the agent by which all things are created.

In On the Creation Philo explains that the reason man is said to have been created last of all is to represent the end time (=messianic era) as an internal experience, “a war of the soul”, of overcoming base passions with righteousness.

(79) And there is another [reason for being last created] not altogether unreasonable, which I must mention. At the moment of his first birth, man found all the requisites for life ready prepared for him that he might teach them to those who should come afterwards. Nature all but crying out with a distinct voice, that men, imitating the Author of their being, should pass their lives without labor and without trouble, living in the most ungrudging abundance and plenty. And this would be the case if there were neither irrational pleasures to obtain mastery over the soul raising up a wall of gluttony and lasciviousness, nor desires of glory, or power, or riches, to assume dominion over life, nor pains to contract and warp the intellect, nor that evil councilor–fear, to restrain the natural inclinations towards virtuous actions, nor folly and cowardice, and injustice, and the incalculable multitude of other evils to attack them.
(80) But now that all the evils which I have now been mentioning are vigorous, and that men abandon themselves without restraint to their passions, and to those unbridled and guilty inclinations, which it is impious even to mention, justice encounters them as a suitable chastiser of wicked habits; and therefore, as a punishment for wrong doers, the necessaries of life have been made difficult of acquisition. . . .
(81) But if the immoderate violence of the passions were appeased by temperance, and the inclination to do wrong and depraved ambition were corrected by justice, and in short if the vices and unhallowed actions done in accordance with them, were corrected by the virtues, and the energies in accordance with them, the war of the soul being terminated, which is in good truth the most grievous and heavy of all wars, and peace being established, and founding amid all our faculties, a due regard for law, with all tranquility and mildness, then there would be hope that God, as being a friend to virtue, and a friend to honor, and above all a friend to man, would bestow upon the race of man, all kinds of spontaneous blessings from his ready store. For it is evident that it is easier to supply most abundantly the requisite supplies without having recourse to agricultural means, from treasures which already exist, than to bring forth what as yet has no existence.
Hecht comments that this text amplifies the cultivator in On Dreams, and regarded by one of the two “great interpreters of Philo of our century”, Goodenough, as a messianic figure:
(2.64) for as superfluous shoots do grow on trees, which are a great injury to the genuine useful branches, and which the cultivators destroy and cut out from a prudent foreknowledge of what is necessary: so likewise the life of falsehood and arrogance often grows up by the side of the true life devoid of pride, of which, to this day, no cultivator has been found who has been able to cut away the injurious superfluous growth by the roots.

He further notes another parallel thought in On the Life of Moses II, which the other of the two “great interpreters of Philo of our century”, Wolfsen, “cites as indicative of the transformation of the situation of the Jews during the Messianic Era” (p.151). Hecht’s observation is that this particular text is “instead a description of an internal transformation reflected in the communal or national destiny.”

(44) and then, if they make any fresh start and begin to improve, how great is the increase of their renown and glory? I think that in that case every nation, abandoning all their own individual customs, and utterly disregarding their national laws, would change and come over to the honor of such a people only; for their laws shining in connection with, and simultaneously with, the prosperity of the nation, will obscure all others, just as the rising sun obscures the stars.

Again in the same work, Philo writes of Moses being transformed into “pure mind” and prophesying to individual tribes rather than the nation as a whole:

(288) And some time afterwards, when he was about to depart from hence to heaven, to take up his abode there, and leaving this mortal life to become immortal, having been summoned by the Father, who now changed him, having previously been a double being, composed of soul and body, into the nature of a single body, transforming him wholly and entirely into a most sun-like mind; he then, being wholly possessed by inspiration, does not seem any longer to have prophesied comprehensively to the whole nation altogether, but to have predicted to each tribe separately what would happen to each of them, and to their future generations, some of which things have already come to pass, and some are still expected, because the accomplishment of those predictions which have been fulfilled is the clearest testimony to the future.

Hecht writes of this passage:

Here again the prophecies imply first internal transformation and only then its reflection in the destiny of the tribes. The transformation is again accomplished by the Logos. (p.151)

Finally, Hecht writes that Philo, in On the Virtues,

directly states that God provides exhortations for the future in the Law in order to evoke a sounder mind in man. Here, the Logos is the exhortation.

Unfortunately I only have the very old online translation here, and I don’t quite follow Hecht’s discussion of it. I’d need to be proficient in Greek, or another translation, to do so. But here is the online version:

(75) And the declarer of the will of God being thus placed amid the beings who form the host of heaven, mingled with his grateful hymns of praise to God proofs of his own genuine affection and good will towards his nation, while he reproved them for their previous sins, and gave them admonitions, and advice, and precepts for the present occasion, and exhortations for the future, inspiring them with favorable hopes, which it was inevitable that favorable events would of necessity follow.

In conclusion of his discussion of this messianic terminology being used as allegorical designators of the Logos, Hecht writes:

In each of these cases, the texts suggest that Philo spiritualized the figure of the Messiah and the Messianic Era. This conforms to the larger philosophical themes in the corpus and, in short, in this messianic scenario, it is the Logos that brings deliverance, without either the leadership of a human warrior-king or the conquest of nations. It is a deliverance of the human mind and soul by the quelling of the passions and initiating the ascent to the divine mind. It is a profound noetic experience and thoroughly ahistorical.

Messianic terms describing an Unhistorical and Idealized time

This is the second usage of Messianic terminology in Philo. It is found in On Rewards and Punishments, 79-172. This is Philo’s description of an end-time Golden Age. I avoid the same detailed discussion of this section, but will comment on Hecht’s (and others’) main observations.

The first point of note is that Philo “deshistoricizes the human situation”:

The enemies are unnamed; they are abstractions. . . . Philo also turns the initial conflict with the enemies into a “bloodless” battle. . . . the portrayal is not only a dehistoricization, but also an idealization, where the particular qualities of the conflict are covered over for a possible Stoic description of political turmoil. (p. 154)

The sequence of messianic events described are as follows:

  1. Without mentioning Israel, he describes its exemplary status (114), and how “Israel” provides a model for nations that imprints itself in individual souls.
  2. There is the leadership of “a man” based on Numbers 24:7 (LXX) who will pursue and subdue enemies, be courageous, all-powerful, win bloodless battles, have uncontested sovereignty, benefit his subjects according to their affections.
  3. Description of the ingathering of the exiles (again Israel is not explicitly mentioned)
  4. The passage out of the wilderness,  accompanied by divine manifestations (165)
  5. Description of the people arriving at the destroyed and ruined cities (168) — a scene of total destruction that is about to be restored to abundance once again. Everything will be suddenly reversed from curses to blessings.

Philo’s vision of the messianic era is thus “thoroughly dehistoricized”. It is quite a generalized vision of a Golden Age.

Compare, for example, Philo’s description of the ingathering of the exiles with three subsequent rabbinical descriptions of the same event. Philo writes:

(165) But when they have received this unexpected liberty, those who but a short time before were scattered about in Greece, and in the countries of the barbarians, in the islands, and over the continents, rising up with one impulse, and coming from all the different quarters imaginable, all hasten to one place pointed out to them, being guided on their way by some vision, more divine than is compatible with its being of the nature of man, invisible indeed to every one else, but apparent only to those who were saved . . .

For Philo, the liberation of the exiles is unexpected, sudden. They arise en masse to virtue. Later rabbinic texts, however, always attempt to create a more realistic scenario of historical relevance to themselves: Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael – Beshallah 14 says that this event is a reward for their steadfast faith in God, and is by no means unexpected; Wayyikra Rabbah 7:3 links the restoration of the exiles to their diligent and prolonged study of the Mishnah, and can only be described in terms of Israel itself, and the Temple;  Yalqut Shemoni – Isaiah 469 also links the liberation to specific geographical place names and features.

Hecht’s observations strike me as consistent with others of Thompson’s et al that I have cited in other posts — that there is little, if any, evidence that the messianic idea was applied to specific historical situations until the time of the Bar Kochba war in the early second century.

For Philo, there is not even a specific reference to “Israel” (or any national identity) in his depiction of the Jewish Messianic Era/Stoic Golden Age.

At the conclusion of his idealized and dehistoricized account, he returns once again to his favoured spiritualized interpretation:

(172) For as, when the trunk of a tree is cut down, if the roots are not taken away, new shoots spring up, by which the old trunk is again restored to life as it were; in the very same manner, if there be only left in the soul ever so small a seed of virtue, when everything else is destroyed, still, nevertheless, from that little seed there spring up the most honorable and beautiful qualities among men; by means of which, cities, which were formerly populous and flourishing, are again inhabited, and nations are led to become wealthy and Powerful.

Historical contexts of messianism in Alexandria, Egypt

Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the earlier decades of the first century. He was supposedly a contemporary of Jesus.

I have been on the lookout for evidence of the kind of historical messianism that we see in the Bar Kochba war in earlier periods, particularly in the first half of the first century. I have yet to find it. It is in that context that I am noting this section of Hecht’ discussion. What was the range of messianic ideas at this time? What is the evidence for each?

Studies have been made of the role of Messianism in the second century revolts of Jews under Trajan and Hadrian (Martin Hengel):

Hengel had many documents to demonstrate the messianic nature of the last rising and to reconstruct the outline of its religious ideology. This is not the case with the popular messianic movements of Alexandria a century before. Already Tcherikover had argued that messianism had penetrated the worldviews of the “lower classes” at many places within the Jewish Diaspora, but most importantly in Alexandria. However, there is little or no documentary material about it. The papyri hint at its presence, but they are silent about its structure or nature. We may assume that the messianism in Philo’s [On Rewards and Punishments] is a reflection of the ideas of popular messianists. This would begin to explain the differences between his identification of the messianic figure with the Logos and the heavily influenced Stoic portrayal of the Golden Age. The former was intended for those who really understood the Law of Moses and the latter was his effort to include popular rumblings and ideas of political and religious liberation on political radicalism, although transformed by the ever-present spiritualization of history. (pp. 160-161)

Or maybe Philo’s portrayal of the latter was nothing more than an extension of the literary tradition of messianic motifs that had dotted the literature of the middle east for centuries.

The effect of allegorizing Messianism

By allegorizing the messianic idea, by making it a mystical personal concept as the later Hasidism movement did, robs messianism of all its political and apocalyptic force.

Human action is removed to the periphery and it is God alone who moves the people by the collective and unseen vision to give up their places and nations in the Diaspora. No personal figure is needed here, for it is God who will reverse everything that is part of the past and present . . . The relative absence of overt messianism and political disturbances in Alexandria until the revolts of 66 ce and 116 ce suggest something of the success of Philo’s neutralization of messianism. (p.162)

All this talk of Stoicism, and the Christ being a Logos-like personal conversion mechanism, reminds me of a post I made last year, Christian Conversion — An Idea Crafted by Paul from Ancient Philosophy. This explains how Christ — a mystical or heavenly entity alone — was used by Paul as the agent for converting neophytes from their old ways to a new being with a new fellowship “in Christ”.

That post elaborates on Hecht’s more general observation of how Philo’s “messianic” Logos converts the soul. Both stress the “inner experience in which the soul [or personal identity] is transformed” from “the chaos of the senses and pleasures toward the intelligible world.”

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Philo’s Spiritual Messiah: allegorical and personal?”

  1. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Logos concept shows Christ to be the respresentation of God’s creative activity and ultimate design for man and more than that it is said to be an evidence of God’s love for the kosmos in its entirety. All created things were declared ‘good’.

    Christ on the cross is representing not only a fallen state of man but the larger fallen deteriorating state of the kosmos, universe. Paul claims that Christ was reconciling the world to himself and that in Christ all was contained. That is a mystery of course. We believe it or we don’t.

    That such parallels can develop in Hebrew, Christian and non-Christian thought is significant in and of itself, the slight differences should not be enough to cause discord after all faith is personal and no one knows for sure.

    What I see in the Logos concept is that the gospel is the declaration of the character and intent of God. It is indeed good news because in the concept of the Logos can be seen that the Alpha and Omega included all creation under the umbrella of the Logos from eternity. In other words the Logos is the concept that shows that the will of God is loving kindness and benevolence. Once a person understands that they can have faith.

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