The table sets out my distillation of Deborah Forger’s four points of comparison between the Logos of Philo and the author of the Gospel of John in her doctoral thesis, Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering the Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ.
Alexandria, Egypt, during time of the Jerusalem Temple
Probably Asia Minor, after destruction of the Temple
|Logos is a “constitutive element of the Creator God’s identity…. Just as a person cannot exist without his or her cognitive abilities, so too Philo claims that God cannot exist without God’s logos. This is because . . . the logos functions as the very “thoughts,” “rationality,” “creative logic,” and “mind” of Israel’s supreme God. . . [Philo employs] the same titles to describe God and the logos.”||“John similarly presents the logos as being integral to the divine identity. . . Whereas Philo establishes a temporal distinction between God and the logos, John makes no such differentiations between the two. . . Instead, John presents the logos as being divine and co-eternal with the Israel’s supreme God. The difference|
|“Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God. . . To preserve the absolute transcendence and otherness of God, he depicts the logos in this intermediary role.”
God is immutable. The divine logos is mutable. The logos can enter the corporeal realm.
God is unknowable. The divine logos is made known.
Logos pleads with God on behalf of humankind, and Logos is the ambassador from God to humankind. Though technically a part of God (=the mind of God) the Logos stands on the border between God and everything he has made.
|Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God.
The Septuagint depicts the world coming into being directly by the act of God, but for John the Logos is personified and becomes the means by which God creates the world.
Goes one step further than personifying the Logos and claims that the Logos becomes flesh in the person of Jesus.
|The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.
Though sharing the divine identity with God, the logos is subordinate as indicated by being “the eldest of all created things” ((Leg. 3, 61, 173; Migr. 6), “the first-born of God” (Agr. 12, 51),, the “man of God” (Conf. 11, 41; cf. 14, 62; 28, 146), the “image of God” (Conf. 28), the “second God” (QE II, 62, Marcus, LCL).
|The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.
Jesus as the logos is one with the Father but also subordinate to the Father. The Father “has given all things into his hand”, “has given him authority to judge” yet for all he does he needs the Father’s permission; also as an indicator of Jesus’ subordinate role, he always calls God his Father — even though he and the Father are one from the beginning of time.
|The logos is able to enter into the created, corporeal world that God has made.
The logos is thus the judge and mediator of the human race, and the interpreter of God to the world. The logos thus interacts with the world in a way the supreme God cannot. “The logos thus functions as both a tool by which God creates the sense-perceptible world and as an intermediary figure whose immanence in that same realm enables him to exert God’s divine providence in every aspect of it.”
Philo never claims the logos becomes flesh. Rather, God has placed the logos within creation to be the agency of divine providence in every part of it.
|Similarly, God implanted the logos within the created realm, but John goes one step further and has the logos actually becomes flesh in a specific person and is part of the created realm itself.
For Philo the logos embodies God’s presence in the world by acting as the mediator, but for John the logos becomes part of the created world in the person of Jesus.
The Gospel of John is unique among Jewish texts (including the other gospels) of the first century CE in declaring that the logos became flesh.
Because we know that these two authors operated at slightly different time periods (i.e. before and after the destruction of the Second Temple), and likely lived in slightly different geographical spheres (i.e. Alexandria and Asia Minor), the striking paradoxical similarities between them are all the more remarkable. And yet, since we know that new ideas, even novel theological ones, do not arise in a vacuum, but are predicted upon past insights and emerge only as an amalgamation of previous thoughts, what all of this suggests to me is that by the early first century CE, a larger discussion was occurring within Jewish circles, particularly around Alexandria, Egypt with respect to how the divine, especially the logos, could be embodied within the material realm and that by the time of the early second century CE this idea had circulated or emerged in Asia Minor as well. Thus, strange as this might seem today, what emerges in later Christianity with respect to the Incarnation, started out as a Jewish thought.
(Forger, 231 f.)
For both the ancient Israelites and the rabbis, there was much more fascination with God’s own body; with specific descriptions, for instance, of God’s eyes, ears, mouth, noses, and other body parts. For Jews living around the first century CE, however, God’s embodiment occurred through mediatorial figures — namely, humans like Moses and Enoch and the Jewish high priest — who represented the physical manifestation of God on earth or who could approach God in the heavens. Or God’s embodiment happened through personified divine attributes — like Sophia and the logos — who could enter into the created realm, at times even entering into corporeal humans. But in all of these examples these other mediatorial figures never fully transverse the boundary between Israel’s supreme, uncreated God and the creation that God had made. Even the Gospel of John does not do so, for it presents Jesus as the embodiment of the divine logos and not of Israel’s high God himself.
Set within this historical context, the Gospel of John’s articulation of Jesus as the divine logos become flesh takes on new meaning (John 1.14). That is to say — far from being antithetical to Judaism as scholars long assumed, or from being the moment when John’s Gospel differentiated itself from its “Jewish Koine” and instead started to articulate a distinctive “Christian kerygma,” as Dunn and Boyarin have argued — John’s description of the divine world become flesh was actually a very Jewish way of conceiving of how God could become embodied on earth. Now Now to be sure, there were clear differences between how Philo understands God’s embodiment through the logos and how the Gospel of John conceives of the same idea. For instance, while Philo suggests a temporal distinction between the different stages of the logos, John reiterates throughout his Gospel how Jesus as logos is both part of God’s very identity and part of the creation, simultaneously. But part of what I am arguing here is that just because John’s version is distinctive, that does not mean that it is no longer Jewish. Rather, the two different descriptions of the logos simply reflect the diversity of Jewish thought with respect to these matters.
In this section, I sketched a broad-range view of the striking similarities between how Philo and the author of the Gospel of John portrayed the logos. In particular, I have shown how certainly by the time of Philo, if not before, the divine logos was able to become immanent in the created, corporeal world, both in terms of his instrumental role in enabling the creation to come into being and in terms of his ongoing acts of overseeing it after it had originated.
(Forger, 233 f.)
Boyarin, Daniel. 2001. “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John.” The Harvard Theological Review 94 (3): 243–84.
Forger, Deborah. 2017. “Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering the Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ.” PhD Thesis, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/138783.
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