2019-01-28

Comparing Philo’s and the Gospel of John’s Logos (The Word)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The consequences of this point are formidable. Philo was clearly writing for an audience of Jews devoted to the Bible. If for these, the Logos theology was a virtual commonplace (which is not to say that there were not enormous variations in detail, of course), the implication is that this way of thinking about God was a vital inheritance of (at least) Alexandrian Jewish thought. It becomes apparent, therefore, that for one branch of pre-Christian Judaism, at least, there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a deuteros theos, and nothing in that doctrine that precluded monotheism.  — Boyarin, 249

 

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.

Philo

Alexandria, Egypt, during time of the Jerusalem Temple

“John”

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.

The Incarnation started out as a Jewish thought.

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.


 

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

13 Comments

  • 2019-01-28 17:57:37 GMT+0000 - 17:57 | Permalink

    So does Forger claim that John was influenced by Philo or no? It seems from what you posted that the answer is not. But why would that be? I would assume the answer is yes. You figure that Philo’s workers were in existence for at least 50 years before John was written, it seems that the likely-hood of direct influence is pretty high.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-01-28 18:46:07 GMT+0000 - 18:46 | Permalink

      Check the last paragraphs of that post. Forger discusses what she sees as having happened in the discussion circles in Egypt and Asia Minor, from the early to late first century.

    • Joseph
      2019-01-28 18:59:53 GMT+0000 - 18:59 | Permalink

      Seems to verge on it? The logos is not God entirely, but part of him.

      So we might need to add non-Jewish Platonism, marcionsm, to come up with a final Jesus. Philo possibly thinking of Roman emperors who declared themselves to be sons of God, when Philo spoke of what a son of God should be like, if that is what some call themselves.

      When Jesus was said to be alive, Jerusalem had been in the charge of Rome since 64 BC; three generations. And in spite of some resistance, no doubt their Greco Roman beliefs eventually, subtly, influenced their Jewish servants and subordinates.

      • nightshadetwine
        2019-01-28 20:00:20 GMT+0000 - 20:00 | Permalink

        I think there is a connection between the Logos and the king. Philo and John describe the Logos as:

        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)… 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.

        Compare that to the Egyptian king:

        Temples of Ancient Egypt Edited by Byron E Shafer

        The royal ka was the immortal creative spirit of divine kingship, a form of the Creator’s collective ka. The ka of a particular king was but a specific instance, or fragment, of the royal ka…Possessing the royal ka and being possessed by it were potential at a person’s birth, but they were actualized only at his coronation, when his legitimancy upon the Horus Throne of the Living was confirmed and publicly claimed. Only at a person’s coronation did he take on a divine aspect and cease to be solely human. Only in retrospect could he be portrayed as predestined by the Creator to rule Egypt as truly perfect from the beginning, as divine seed, son of the Creator, the very flesh of god, one with the Father, god’s incarnation on earth, his sacred image.

        Becoming Divine: An Introduction to Deification in Western Culture By M. David Litwa

        In an inscription from western Thebes (modern Luxor), the god Amun-Re hails Pharaoh Amenhotep III as “my son of my body, my beloved Nebmaatra, my living image, my body’s creation.”

        I wouldn’t be surprised if Greco-Roman kings were described the same way.

  • nightshadetwine
    2019-01-28 18:47:54 GMT+0000 - 18:47 | Permalink

    Although Philo doesn’t say the logos became flesh, Plutarch does.

    The Gospel of Thomas and Plato : A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the Fifth Gospel By Ivan Miroshnikov

    The double role of Plutarch’s Osiris is determined by his intermediary status: in order to act as an intermediary between the transcendent God and the world, he needs to participate in both transcendence and immanence. The very same double role is ascribed to Logos in Philo: according to Mos. 2.127, the cosmic Logos deals with both “the incorporeal and paradigmatic forms” and the visible objects that imitate these forms. The fact that Philo’s Logos and Plutarch’s Osiris are functionally identical and that Osiris can also be called Logos demonstrates that Philo’s philosophy of Logos was part of a larger Middle Platonist tradition and that this tradition as a whole should be recognized as a possible background for the Johannine Logos…

    The two aspects of Osiris are also identified with his body and soul. Whereas the soul of Osiris is eternal and imperishable, his body suffers dissolution and destruction. According to Plutarch, “that which is and is intelligible and good is superior to destruction and change; but the images from it with which the sensible and corporeal is impressed, and the principles, forms, and likenesses which this takes upon itself, like impressions of seals in wax, are not permanently lasting, but disorder and disturbance overtakes them” (Is. Os. 373a; trans. F. C. Babbitt, altered). Thus, the body of Osiris is the sum-total of forms immanent in matter.201 His soul, in turn, should be understood as the sum-total of the transcendent forms, described in 375a–b, where Plutarch says that whereas “the things that are scattered in objects liable to be affected” (trans. J. G. Griffiths) are subject to destruction, “God’s principles, forms, and emanations abide in heaven and stars and never change.”

    Platonists saw Dionysus in the same role as Osiris.

    Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods By Dwayne A. Meisner

    Dionysus…is the soul of the universe, which is divided and yet retains it’s indestructible unity. The Titans represent the evil principle of division which is hostile to the abiding aspiration of the universe toward unity…More precisely, the Titans represent the division that occurs as the forms proceed from soul into matter…Having
    been dismembered and brought back to life, Dionysus represents the center-point between these two where the processes of preceding and reversion intersect…In this way, Dionysus is the center-point between Zeus and the many…The spiritual interpretation is basically a consequence of the metaphysical interpretation since, as
    encosmic soul is distributed throughout the universe into physical matter one of the natural results of this “Titanic Division” is the insertion of human souls into bodies.

    Dennis R. MacDonald points out the similarity between John’s Logos and Euripides’ Dionysus.

    The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides by Dennis R. MacDonald

    John sounds themes that would have instantly been recognized as proper to the Greek god Dionysos (the Roman Bacchus), not least as he was depicted in Euripides’s play The Bacchae. A divine figure, the offspring of a divine father and human mother, takes on flesh to live among mortals but is rejected by his own.

    • Steven Watson
      2019-02-10 17:11:31 GMT+0000 - 17:11 | Permalink

      Regarding the Gospel of Thomas: It should be kept in mind that the fuller Coptic text is probably a fourth century writing. Comparison with the Greek text from Oxyrhychos, which is very incomplete, shows considerable development of the text over the approximately two centuries between the two.

  • James Barlow
    2019-01-28 20:26:07 GMT+0000 - 20:26 | Permalink

    Given the purely ostensible validity of this comparison, one has to ask oneself—as many of us always have—just why it is that biblical scholarship has for aeons [sic] failed to acknowledge an obvious ‘link of influence’ running from Philo to the Johannine prologue.

    • Joseph
      2019-01-28 22:38:06 GMT+0000 - 22:38 | Permalink

      Christian scholarship is normally heavily indebted to church, biblical theology. Which firmly suggested that Jesus was solely and only related to, descended from, the Old Testament God. So any historians’ suggestion that Jesus might be partly derived from pagan sources, philosophies, was (and is) attacked, and squelched.

      Many classics scholars had long suggested such origins. And historians of comparative religion. But by c. 1990, biblical dogma was reasserted by defensive believers and seminaries and “objective” religion departments, colleges. And the only other origin that was considered for Jesus, was Judaism, and its God .

      Though for that matter, an obscure doctrine in even The Church allows that some kind of Christian inspiration appeared in Greece, before Jesus.

  • Attila Csanyi
    2019-01-28 21:47:58 GMT+0000 - 21:47 | Permalink

    This is one of the best analyses of the development of Philo’s ideas into the JOHN gospel. I have found it clear that the Johannine preamble differentiates between “the God” and the Logos as just simply “god”. Philo is quoted as asserting that . “When the scripture uses the Greek term for God ho theos, it refers to the true God, but when it uses the term theos, without the article ho, it refers not to the God, but to his most ancient Logos (Somn. 1.229-230).
    This is exactly what is done in JOHN 1:1-2 “The logos was “theos” (god or divine) but it was “with the God (ton theon) (Somn.1.230 – De Somniis – ” concerning the [doctrine] that dreams are sent by God,” (https://archive.org/stream/jstor-1451071/1451071_djvu.txt)

    Similarly, the author of the Philippian hymn shows the development of the “incarnation christology.” That author (Paul?) is also very careful never to attribute to the Jesus the title of θεός (God), which was unique to the Father, although he does state that he was “in the form of god” (μορφῇ Θεοῦ) did not even consider to be “equal to God” (εἶναι ἴσα Θεῷ)
    This is further clarified with the differentiation between God and Lord, as
    “in fact there are many θεοί and κύριοι—yet for us there is only one θεός, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one κύριος, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:5-6)
    It is hard to see who started it, but the connection of JOHN and PAUL with Philo seems undeniable.

    • db
      2019-01-28 23:14:49 GMT+0000 - 23:14 | Permalink

      “in fact there are many θεοί and κύριοι—yet for us there is only one θεός, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one κύριος, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:5-6)

      I interpret 1 Cor. 8:6 in the context of “Middle-Platonism”:

      8:6 ...ἡμῖν εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατήρ ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς αὐτόν

      καὶ εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός δι᾽ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς δι᾽ αὐτοῦ

      8:6 ...imín eís theós o patír ex oú tá pánta kaí imeís eis aftón

      kaí eís kýrios Iisoús Christós di᾽ oú tá pánta kaí imeís di᾽ aftoú

      8:6 ...there is but one first-god, the "All Father", of whom are all things, and in him;

      and one Lord [i.e. second-god] Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and by him.

      • db
        2019-01-29 06:13:56 GMT+0000 - 06:13 | Permalink

        Leese, J. J. Johnson (2018). Christ, Creation and the Cosmic Goal of Redemption: A Study of Pauline Creation Theology as Read by Irenaeus and Applied to Ecotheology. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9780567684752.

        As an isolated text, 1 Cor. 8.6, and particularly the parallel phrases εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ … εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, have received a great deal of scholarly attention, especially from a history-of-religions approach. This verse stands in stark contrast to the prose of the larger literary unit and such features as ellipsis of verbs, anacoluthon, terse prepositional phrases and structural parallelism have led many scholars to suggest that this is a pre-Pauline confession, creed or acclamation. Some have recognized parallels with Stoic cosmological texts and/or Jewish philosophical and sapiential literature; a few suggest that Paul created this creedal-like text himself. Without oversimplifying the issues related to source critical theories or diminishing their significant contributions, the salient reality is that we cannot know with certainty the history of this text prior to its occurrence in this letter. What is clear is that the author intentionally reconfigured the monotheistic Shema (Deut. 6.4) by incorporating a distinct Christological component. Paul’s strategic placement of the modified Shema at this point in the letter confirms that it serves a theological function: to juxtapose the one God/one Lord with the ancient view of many gods/many lords, as well as to establish a Christological framework from which to probe the believer’s relationship to God and the creation.

      • Steven Watson
        2019-02-10 17:29:15 GMT+0000 - 17:29 | Permalink

        <

        blockquote>the “All Father” How does Odin get in here? 🙂 I understand you want to emphasise the following phrases but haven’t you inadvertantly imported something into the text that wasn’t there originally?

  • Martin Lewadny
    2019-01-29 06:21:58 GMT+0000 - 06:21 | Permalink

    Allow me to note something here re: greek grammar and the presence or absence of the article.

    If as Philo? says…the presence of the article with Theos makes it the true God…not sure of that, given that context must often decide syntactical decisions. Sometimes greek raises more problems than solving them.

    The Jn. 1:1 stuff is very difficult to nail down even if you do know a lot of Greek. Btw see the work of Jason BeDuhn on John 1:1 in his book called “Truth in Translation. “The JW’s translation may not be too bad actually.

    Also if it is the case that every time the definite article occurs with Theos does not necessarily ipso facto mean that the only real or true god is in view. Words don’t carry meaning so much as they do “usage”. Everyone should read James Barr’s book to guard themselves from stupidly based word studies and syntax. It is called The Semantics of Biblical Language.

    Here is one I am working on right now for my book in process re: the identity of the satan..in the canonical texts.

    In 2 Cor. 4:4 Paul speaks of “the god of this age”… Is it satan…? Many scholars think so. I am not sure…If you examine the context it could well mean Yahweh who blinds people…the text is referring to Isaiah where god blinds people…!!!

    So in caution one must be careful not to make too much out of the presence or absence of the article, even including its use with respect to satan in both the OT and NT.

    As for John’s Gospel we must be careful to note that it was the Logos which was in relation to God (the prep has the idea of intimate relation), NOT Jesus…. The Word made a transition into the world of “flesh” .. in a character in the story called “Jesus”… Jesus was not pre-existent from the beginning. The Logos was pre-existent and was given birth to from the kolia of the Father…And notice Jesus’ or the writer’s theology….This Logos is still present in the Father’s kolia and was brought to birth from the inner recesses of God’s bosom, so to speak…And so all the logoi that come from Jesus or his followers have the creative power of the logos working in them and through them.

    Again, one must given attention to all the occurences of logos and logoi in the Gospel and note their careful collocations throughout!!!

    Hope this stimulates some thought.

    cheers….

  • Leave a Reply to Attila Csanyi Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.