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.
- Like Moses, Jesus ascends the mountain with three confidants.
- In both stories there is a period of six days before God enters the scene to speak.
- Both Moses and Jesus descend the mountain to be met by faithlessness and failure among those who had been waiting below.
- God gave Moses instructions for building a tabernacle but the idea of building tabernacles in the latter narrative is completely wrong.
- God gave Moses laws to deliver to the people below, but Jesus receives no laws. The only message given is to listen to Jesus as the Son of God. He is the authority.
- Moses’ transfiguration was an after-effect of being in the presence of God, while Jesus’ transfiguration is placed centre-stage as the main event.
- Moses stayed at the mountain for a full year after receiving the Ten Commandments and other laws from God; after the transfiguration Jesus immediately sets out for Jerusalem to fulfil his reason for coming.
Burton Mack, however, drew attention to Philo’s curious handling of Moses’ ascent narrative and suggested Mark’s Transfiguration scene may have been influenced by Philo’s interpretation:
- Philo moves Moses’ communication with God on the mountain to early in the narrative, just prior to the Exodus
- This new location puts Moses’ ascent, communication and glorification (“transfiguration”) prior to the actual Exodus (crossing of the Red Sea) and at the beginning of his assuming the leadership of his people and leading them on their journey to the promised land — through severe trials, even to death
- In Philo’s account the purpose of Moses’ ascent is not to receive the ten commandments (they are not mentioned), but to acquire “supreme authority” over the people of Israel.
The transfiguration in Mark’s gospel is not a stand-alone. It is the culmination of a series of events that have structural similarities with events leading to Moses’ ascent in Philo’s Life of Moses.
Philo used Moses’ ascent of Sinai as a turning point in his narrative. It was from this meeting with God and Moses’ transfiguration that he was invested by God with the authority to be the appointed leader and king over Israel. It was from this moment that Moses proposed to lead the people to their promised destiny. Philo is stressing throughout the paradigmatic career of Moses: he is the spiritual ideal whom his readers should follow. (p. 28, IM) In a footnote he makes the comparison with Mark’s Gospel:
The formal parallel to the position of the transfiguration pericope in the Gospel of Mark is intriguing. Prior to this scene in Mark,
- Jesus has had a call-vision (baptism),
- announced the Kingdom of God,
- and manifested his authority in miracles.
- A following has gathered
- but only now “confesses”
- and is introduced to the theme of the journey to Jerusalem and the death of the Son of Man, which is paradigmatic for his followers.
In the Vita Mos there has been
- a call-vision (the burning bush – the only other event in the story that receives allegorical treatment, Vita Mos I 65-70),
- the announcement in secret to the elders of the imminent departure to a better country (86),
- and the legitimization of his authority in miracles (91-139).
- Through all of this, however, the Hebrews were only “spectators” of the sufferings of others [i.e. the Egyptians suffering the plagues]” (146).
- Only now (148-162) is the question of Moses’ authority for the Hebrews themselves raised and answered by the declaration quoted above that they willingly gave him leadership (163).
- A description of the way ahead with intimations of testing and death follows (cf. 164, 171, 183).
In both Mark and the Vita Mos it appears that the ascent-vision and (trans)figuration of the leader constitute a significant transition in the narrative. The function of this passage within the story and for the reader needs now to be explored. (p. 43, n. 9 — my own formatting)
It should also be noted that the culmination of the transfiguration scene in Mark comes when God declares Jesus to be the supreme authority. In the presence of the disciples, Moses and Elijah, God commands that all are to listen to and follow Jesus alone: “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
2. Let’s backtrack a little now and look more broadly at the way Philo re-wrote the Moses story. We’ll then return to possible Gospel implications.
In “Moses on the Mountaintop: a Philonic View” (chapter 2 of The School of Moses: Studies in Philo and Hellenistic Religion) Mack explains Philo’s allegorical views. But it needs to be kept in mind that any view of Philo does not serve as a substitute for the biblical narrative. Philo was explaining the biblical narrative’s “deeper” meaning: one needs to know the Pentateuch and Philo, not Philo alone.
Now one of Philo’s favourite patterns was a three-stage journey to spiritual maturity.
It was used, for instance, to interpret the exodus story as the story of the soul
- (with Egypt as the body and passions;
- the wilderness as a time of testing and instruction;
- and the land as the goal of perfection). (p. 17, my emphasis and formatting)
Similarly it is found in Philo’s allegorical understanding of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai. In Questions and Answers on Exodus Philo speaks allegorically — stumbling along “trackless ways” and “paths” and “roads” — of the many temptations and falls along the way to spiritual perfection. He then comes to the question of why God commanded Moses and his three companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, to climb Mount Sinai. His answer lay in the symbolic meanings of the number four and the meanings hidden in their respective names.
The next question is:
Why does He say, ” Moses alone shall come near to God, and they shall not come near, and the people shall not go up with them”?
The answer came in three corresponding parts, each representative of a stage of spirituality. Moses was in fact experiencing an “ascent vision” in which he literally becomes divine:
O most excellent and God-worthy ordinance, that the prophetic mind alone should approach God
and that those in second place should go up, making a path to heaven,
while those in third place and the turbulent characters of the people should neither go up above nor go up with them but those worthy of beholding should be beholders of the blessed path above.
But that “(Moses) alone shall go up” is said most naturally, For when the prophetic mind becomes divinely inspired and filled with God, it becomes like the monad, not being at all mixed with any of those things associated with duality. But he who is resolved into the nature of unity is said to come near God in a kind of family relation,” for having given up and left behind all mortal kinds,” he is changed into the divine, so that such men become kin to God and truly divine.
I find this interesting. I have posted not so long ago on the place of ascent-visions in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, how the visionary would ascend to the presence of the divine and by virtue of seeing the divine the visionary would be transformed into an angel or the divine. (See, for example: Divinities appearing like men and men appearing like divinities; Heavenly visions: the foundations of Paul’s Christianity; Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth; Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation; Ascents to the celestial temple and heavenly descents; Vision mysticism among first and second century Jews and Christians; Jewish mysticism and heavenly ascent legends and the context of Christian origins.)
Philo interpreted Moses’ ascent of the mountain where he made contact with God as an allegory of the soul’s ascent-vision to become one with the divine. This was in his Questions and Answers on Exodus.
In Life of Moses, however, Philo offers a different allegory. Instead of three-stages of ascent Philo informs us that by virtue of the ascent Moses was imbued with authority over Israel. Not only is he given authority, but he is at the same time made divine and given ownership of everything that had belonged to God:
Therefore, as he had utterly discarded all desire of gain and of those riches which are held in the highest repute among men, God honoured him, and gave him instead the greatest and most perfect wealth; and this is the Wealth of all the earth and sea, and of all the rivers, and of all the other elements, and all combinations whatever; for having judged him deserving of being made a partaker with himself in the portion which he had reserved for himself, he gave him the whole world as a possession suitable for his heir: therefore, every one of the elements obeyed him as its master, changing the power which it had by nature and submitting to his commands. And perhaps there was nothing wonderful in this; for if it be true according to the proverb, —
“That all the property of friends is common;”
and if the prophet was truly called the friend of God, then it follows that he would naturally partake of God himself and of all his possessions as far as he had need; . . . he very appropriately has for his inheritance not a portion of a district, but the whole world.
. . . . For he also was called the god and king of the whole nation, and he is said to have entered into the darkness where God was . . . .he established himself as a most beautiful and Godlike work, to be a model for all those who were inclined to imitate him. (On the Life of Moses, 155-158)
Compare the passage from Questions and Answers on Exodus above which I repeat here:
But that “(Moses) alone shall go up” is said most naturally, For when the prophetic mind becomes divinely inspired and filled with God, it becomes like the monad, not being at all mixed with any of those things associated with duality. But he who is resolved into the nature of unity is said to come near God in a kind of family relation,” for having given up and left behind all mortal kinds,” he is changed into the divine . . . .
The biblical account, on the other hand, is all about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and then relaying these to his people. But such a detail would complicate Philo’s allegory, as Mack points out:
One wonders how the path to heaven would look if Philo had said . . . that, then, Moses received the law, gave it to the elders, and they in turn instructed the people. Not only would the scheme of the soul’s path to heaven lose its power; the reflection of Philo’s actual program of instruction in the Alexandrian synagogue would be too obvious for comfort. It is at least most interesting that Philo did not tell the story of Moses on the mountain as the story of Moses’ reception of the law. (p. 17, “Moses on the Mountaintop”)
If Mark is drawing upon Philo at all it is clear that he is nonetheless composing something that contains a sharp difference from anything we find in Philo’s Life:
- Below the mountain that Jesus ascends with his three leading disciples are the hard-hearted “turbulent characters”. When Jesus returns he groans at their unbelief and rhetorically asks how long he must put up with them.
- Unlike Moses Jesus brings his three companions all the way to the summit with him. Those three see the vision of the divine Jesus. According to the “rules” of ascent-visions, Peter, James and John should be transformed into the same divine glory as Jesus. But they fail the test. All they can think of is doing what they knew Moses did according to the Pentateuch — take instructions for building a tabernacle (each).
- Thus the three companions who ascend all the way with Jesus are as blind or hard-hearted as those who remained below.
But there are also distinct resonances between Mark’s and Philo’s scenes:
- Moses is changed into a divine being and said to “kin to God” and in a family relationship with God, and Jesus is shown and proclaimed to be the (divine) Son of God.
- Moses is said to have been the god and king of the whole nation of Israel; Jesus’s words are declared to have the authority of God.
- Further, we know from Philo that “the prophetic mind alone should approach God”, and Jesus in this context speaks as a prophet. He has said, and will say again, that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, be killed and rise again.
And it is from this moment that Jesus sets out on his journey to Jerusalem, leading his disciples, to fulfill his destiny. In Philo’s account Moses’ ascent immediately preceded the Exodus. Jesus’ ascent marks the turning point in the Gospel of Mark and also preceded the “new exodus” and the journey to Jerusalem. (Mark does not directly refer to Jesus’ death and departure from this world as an Exodus — unlike Luke 9:31 — but he certainly does weave into his narrative many Exodus, including Isaianic “New Exodus”, motifs. Again, this is a topic for another post.)
Ideal Lawgiver, Priest and Prophet
Philo depicted Moses as the perfect leader (or shepherd or king), the perfect lawgiver, the perfect priest and perfect prophet. Much of his first book of the Life of Moses explicitly points out the kingly qualities of Moses in action. The second book elaborates the ways Moses exemplified the ideal in the three remaining roles.
As a lawgiver, Moses was superior to all others in history, as Philo explains:
Now what has been here said is quite sufficient for the abundant praise of Moses as a lawgiver. But there is another more extensive praise which his own holy writings themselves contain, and it is to them that we must now turn for the purpose of exhibiting the virtue of him who compiled them. . . . .
[H]e traced back the most ancient events from the beginning of the world, commencing with the creation of the universe, in order to make known two most necessary principles.
First, that the same being was the father and creator of the world, and likewise the lawgiver of truth;
secondly, that the man who adhered to these laws, and clung closely to a connection with and obedience to nature, would live in a manner corresponding to the arrangement of the universe with a perfect harmony and union, between his words and his actions and between his actions and his words. (Life of Moses II. 45-48)
Now I wonder. Is it possible that this has anything to do with the first teaching Jesus gave the multitudes after his transfiguration and commencing his journey to Jerusalem? Mark 10:1-9
 And he arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan: and the people resort unto him again; and, as he was wont, he taught them again.
 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.
 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?
 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.
 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.
 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Is Mark telling his readers that evidence that Jesus is a greater lawgiver than Moses lies in that he exceeded Moses in establishing laws that “commenced with the creation of the universe”, such that those who kept these laws would be living in harmony with creation as God intended? Philo would have been impressed.
Of the high priest Philo said that this office was superior to all other offices, even that of kings. The mountain ascent scene draws together motifs of all four roles: kingship, lawgiver, priesthood and prophet. Moses is being given complete authority over Israel. Philo explains that Moses has deserved this authority because he willingly left all his past home, riches and hopes behind him when he left Egypt. (He had been heir to Pharaoh’s throne.) He forsook riches, and even “utterly discarded all desire of gain”. As a result God gave him everything — citizenship of the entire world and ownership of the entire universe. We find the same theme, of course, in the exchange between Jesus and the rich man that is followed by Jesus explaining to his disciples that they will inherit houses, families and lands in this life and the next.
Mark sometimes portrays Jesus as a king, as when he enters Jerusalem being welcomed as the Son of David, Other times he is acting like a priest, as when he instructs others in the way to eternal life and when he enters the Temple to cleanse it and restore pure worship there: these are the functions of the priest, Philo explains. Mark’s Jesus is also a prophet, not only by regularly making announcements about the future, but also divinely inspired teaching and in question and answer situations that require divine wisdom for appropriate answers:
of the sacred oracles some are represented as delivered in the person of God by his interpreter, the divine prophet, while others are put in the form of question and answer, and others are delivered by Moses in his own character as a divinely-prompted lawgiver possessed by divine inspiration. (Life, II, 188)
In this respect, several of Jesus’ exchanges with his disciples and again with the scribes and Pharisees read very much like Philo’s illustrations of Moses showing divinely inspired wisdom in solving difficult questions put to him.
There are other reasons to suspect Mark was influenced by Philo and one of these was alluded to in another recent post about the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Earle Hilgert sets out a table comparing the way Plato, Philo and Mark respectively treat blindness, and its healing, as a metaphor. Philo is speaking, in one place, of Genesis 15 (LXX) and Abraham’s vision of the heavens (Heir, 76). God “led him outside” and told him to “look up” (anablepein) at the heavens. Philo proceeds to play upon the double meaning of the Greek word: it can mean both “look up” and “(re)gain sight”. Of Jacob (Gen. 28:21) Philo wrote that he was blind in his soul and only gradually was granted true sight by God until he saw a vision of God himself (On Dreams, 1.164; Rewards, 36-39 — though the archaic translation does not convey the full idea Hilgert is arguing.)
|Eyes lifted to the light(anablepein)||Gift of sight(anablepein)||Gift of sight(anablepein)|
|Being dragged upward||Being led upward by a guide||Being led upward by a guide|
|Beholding the idea of the Good||Beholding the One who is, the primal Good||Beholding the glorified Jesus|
As an aside, there’s another interesting little passage in On Dreams (probably expressed elsewhere by Philo, too):
Now is it not fitting that even blind men should become sharpsighted in their minds to these and similar things, being endowed with the power of sight by the most sacred oracles, so as to be able to contemplate the glories of nature, and not to be limited to the mere understanding of the words? But even if we voluntarily close the eye of our soul and take no care to understand such mysteries, or if we are unable to look up to them, the hierophant himself stands by and prompts us. And do not thou ever cease through weariness to anoint thy eyes until you have introduced those who are duly initiated to the secret light of the sacred scriptures, and have displayed to them the hidden things therein contained, and their reality, which is invisible to those who are uninitiated.
Is not that what Paul himself taught was the only way to know the Gospel of God? Is this not what “Mark” is doing when he rewrites biblical passages to bring out new understanding? Is this not a primary message of his Gospel?
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