“Neither Greek nor Jew”1
There is just One God. By creating the universe and mankind (male and female), the One God began abandoning self-existence — for self-existence not only requires nothing but also excludes everything else. Furthermore, the One God began adopting the “other.” He thus proceeded to walk, talk, argue and even wrestle with mankind — “Adam,” “Noah,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He also entered into covenant with the patriarchs. These contractual agreements involved such gifts as human democracy, individuality, relationality, freedom and responsibility, historicity, innovation, education, justice, and compassionate selfhood.2 Grounded in compassionate love, the most fundamental implication of the covenant is that the covenantal Creator pledged to irrevocably “empty” himself of self-existent divinity and “give” himself to become relationally human. In return, the covenantal creature implicitly pledged to allow itself to be forever “emptied” of self-existent animality and “give” itself to likewise become fully human.
In stark contrast, the so-called pagan world remained committed to the deceptive self-existence of animality, making predatory gods in the image of their own cultural and political structures. As George Mendenhall observed, “. . . god . . . was simply the ideological projection of the political state itself.”3 Not surprisingly, these gods were overtly hostile, violent and oppressive to mankind.
Tragically, the chosen people of Israel gradually departed from their commitment to a covenantal worldview and tried to separate themselves from their covenantal Partner. So they cried to the prophet Moses, “Let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). To further distance themselves from God, Israel later insisted on interposing the “wall” of a theocratic king and kingdom and a governing priesthood. Then, interposing still further distance, Israel silenced the prophets by canonizing the Scriptures and installing sages to interpret the past. With the passage of time, Judaic sects such as the Pharisees began to claim that “God . . . is not anthropomorphic [human], but incorporeal and intangible, and . . . has attributes instead of names. . . . [Thus,] the God concept became refined, and YHWH was now believed to be not only intangible, but also absolutely incorporeal.”4 Finally, the Pharisees claimed that they possessed immortal souls, believing that the distance between the incorporeal God and their own immortal souls was bridged by the risen and divinized Moses along with the Mosaic Law and the uncreated and inexpressible presence of the divine Shekinah. In these respects the Pharisees went a long way toward adopting Greek philosophy and the theomorphic (self-existently divine) gods of the global Axial Age (800-200 BCE).
Nevertheless, Pharisaism did not complete the theomorphizing of God and man within Judaism. That process was to continue into the first century of the Common Era and was contemporary with the life and ministry of Jesus.
Surprisingly, at the beginning of the Common Era, Palestinian Judaism was flourishing.
The accession of Herod, a Roman protégé and an Edomite, [had] brought to Palestine the peace that . . . the years of independence . . . had often lacked. His long reign (37-4 BCE) was marked by general prosperity . . . [O]n his death in 4 BCE the country again entered a period of divided rule . . . 5
Herod’s successors included three sons — Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip. Later, his grandson, Agrippa I, ruled. Meanwhile, the governorship of Judea, Samaria and Edom passed from Archelaus to a series of Roman prefects who included Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE).6
With an estimated world population of 300 million, the Roman Empire alone had approximately 70 million people. About seven million of these were Jews in either Palestine or the Diaspora — principally scattered across the Roman Empire.7,8 A significant proportion of urban Jews, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, had adopted the Greek language, ideas and culture. Although they continued to worship in the Temple and synagogues and remained more or less faithful to Jewish ritual, they educated their children in Greek schools, attended Greek theaters, indulged Greek bathhouses, and enjoyed Greek athletics. In short, they were known as Hellenistic Judaism.9-11 These Hellenistic Jews, particularly of the Diaspora, were to have an enormous impact on developments associated with the Christ event and the subsequent emergence of orthodox Christianity.
Alexandria, the most populous and influential Hellenistic Jewish community in the Diaspora, had its origin when Alexander the Great assigned a quarter of the city to the Jews. . . . [O]f the 116 Jewish inscriptions from Egypt, all but five are written in Greek. The process of Hellenistic acculturation is thus obvious.
The most important work of the early Hellenistic period, dating, according to tradition, from the 3rd century BCE, is the Septuagint, a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. (The translation of the whole Hebrew Bible was completed during the next two centuries.) The fact that . . . this translation was itself regarded as divinely inspired led to the neglect of the Hebrew original. The translation shows some knowledge of Palestinian exegesis and the tradition of Halakha (the Oral Law). . . .
The chief religious institutions of the Egyptian Diaspora were synagogues. As early as the 3rd century BCE there were inscriptions mentioning two proseuchai, Jewish prayerhouses. In Alexandria there were numerous synagogues throughout the city, of which the largest was so famous that it is said in the Talmud that he who has not seen it has never seen the glory of Israel.12
In Egypt the Jews produced a considerable literature . . . intended to inculcate in Greek-speaking Jews a pride in their past and to counteract an inferiority complex that some of them felt about Jewish cultural achievements. In the field of history, Demetrius, near the end of the 3rd century BCE, wrote a work On the Kings in Judaea. . . . In the 2nd century BCE . . . Hecataeus wrote On the Jews. Another, Eupolemus (c. 150 BCE), like Demetrius, wrote On the Kings in Judaea. [In this work Eupolemus claimed that] Moses [had] taught the alphabet not only to the Jews but also the Phoenicians and to the Greeks. . . .
[However, t]he greatest achievement of Alexandrian Judaism was in the realm of wisdom literature and philosophy. In a work on the . . . Law of Moses, Aristobulus in the 2nd century BCE . . . [attempted] to harmonize Greek philosophy and the Torah, in using the method of allegory to explain anthropomorphisms in the Bible, and in asserting that the Greek philosophers were indebted to Moses. The Wisdom of Solomon, dating from the 1st century BCE, shows an acquaintance with the Platonic doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. . . . During the same period, the author of IV Maccabees showed an intimate knowledge of Greek philosophy, particularly of Stoicism.
By far the greatest figure in Alexandrian Jewish literature is Philo, who has come to be recognized as a major philosopher. His synthesis of Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, and of the Torah, and his formulation of the Logos (Word, or Divine Reason) as an intermediary between God and the world, helped lay the groundwork for Neoplatonism (a philosophy dealing with levels of being), Gnosticism (a dualistic religious movement teaching that matter is evil and that spirit is good), and the philosophical framework of the early Church Fathers. Philo was a devotee of Judaism neither as a mystic cult nor as a collateral branch of Pharisaic Judaism; he was a Diaspora Jew with a profound knowledge of Greek Literature who . . . tried to find a modus vivendi [manner of getting along] between Judaism and secular culture.13
Philo of Alexandia
If we are to appreciate the startling developments that led to the subsequent emergence of orthodox Christianity, we need to focus on the life and work of Philo. Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (15/10 BCE – 45/50 CE) was contemporary with Jesus and his disciples. Philo came from a prominent Jewish family who had migrated to Alexandria from Palestine. The family was not only economically wealthy but politically influential. Philo’s brother, Alexander Lysimachus, was one of the wealthiest persons in the Roman Empire. He furnished the gold and silver to cover nine of the ten doors to Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, became a prominent Roman official and army officer. Eventually, he helped lead the Roman assault on Jerusalem and participated in the destruction of that city and its Temple in 70 CE. Although a philosopher, Philo himself became involved in politics and was, in fact, a leader of a delegation to Rome who appealed to Emperor Gaius Caligula to grant freedom for the Diaspora Jews. When Caligula refused the appeal, Philo turned to the other members of his delegation and predicted Caligula’s early death. Caligula was assassinated soon thereafter.
A highly educated scholar, Philo influenced philosophic thought for many centuries to follow. He determined to demonstrate that the Jews had invented philosophy long before the Greeks had even heard of it. In fact, he purposed to show that Moses was the Father of Philosophy and that Mosaic philosophy was embodied in the Written and Oral Torah. Philo therefore embarked on a career to demonstrate that philosophy had its roots in Judaism.14,15
However, in order to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Jewish canon, Philo had to resort to allegory. To him every historical incident in the Scriptures had an allegorical or symbolic meaning — that is, a historical subject concealed “some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.”16 For example, he stated that the historical gift of manna to feed the children of Israel in the wilderness was actually a symbol or allegory for “Jewish wisdom from the Torah.”17 Ultimately, Philo used allegory to redefine the nature of God himself. Historically, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was anthropomorphic (human). He was the God of action. He walked, he talked, he argued, he acted with his covenantal partners. In contrast, Philo defined God as theomorphic. He was the unknowable, inexpressible, invisible, unchangeable, unapproachable, cosmic mind or nous. Such a God could not act and remain true to his own essence or ousia. Philo’s God was therefore synonymous with the theomorphic gods of the Greek philosphers.
Thus, Philo abandoned the exalted but anthropomorphic God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for a wholly theomorphic, self-existent God. Of course, this understanding made it impossible for (anthropomorphic) mankind as embodied creatures to enter into “human” relationship with an uncreated and inexpressible (theomorphic) God. Philo therefore adopted the Egyptian concept of emanational intermediaries between God and man who could act for God to man and act for man to God. These intermediary agencies assumed various identities in Philo’s thinking. They included patriarchs, prophets and priests of Israel — such as Abraham, Moses, Aaron and others who supposedly had been raised to a spirit-existence subsequent to death. They also included various levels of heavenly angels or messengers and involved various “powers” or “energies” and different forms of souls, minds and spirits.18-21
However, Philo’s principal contribution was to borrow the metaphor of logos (word) from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus.22 For Philo there were three levels (trinity) of logoi (words) between God and mankind:
1. God was ultimately ousia (essence) or nous (mind) that preceded and preexisted everything and everyone else. However, a mind can only be a mind if it has thoughts or words — and therefore logos. Thus, to Philo the first level of logos was the word as it existed with God from the beginning. While derived from God, logos coexisted with God.
2. Logos was the subsequent existence of the word in heaven as the architectural patterns or ideas by which and with which God would create the universe. This second-level logos therefore represented the uncreated but “begotten” archetypes or heavenly patterns of all reality that would henceforth come into being.
3. The third-level logos or word represented the actual manifestation or revelation of God’s uncreated ideas as they became immanent (indwelling) in the material, created order and, particularly, in individual minds.23,24
Thus, for Philo the concept of logos was trinitarian: (1) It included the product of God’s mind within God’s mind. (2) It included the product of God’s mind as it existed beside God as heavenly patterns. (3) It also included the product of God’s mind as it existed within the earthly, created order. For Philo this trinitarian logos was essential to continued communication between an otherwise unapproachable, uncreated God and material, created beings such as mankind.
As a consequence of Philo’s incorporation of Greek thinking into the Judaic religion of YHWH, God was now wholly inexpressible, incorporeal and unapproachable. Mankind ultimately consisted of an immortal and potentially divinized soul(s). And God and mankind were joined by uncreated, archetypal intermediaries called logoi. Finally, mankind’s created body was disposable and destined for death.
Philo . . . considered that only the soul was important, the body being merely a vessel representing the material aspects of life. Thus for him the life of the soul is the only true life.25
[Declared Philo:] The body is wicked and a plotter against the soul, and is always a corpse and a dead thing. . . . Each of us does nothing but carry a corpse about, since the soul lifts up and bears without effort the body which is in itself a corpse.26
Philo, therefore, was a proto-Gnostic. Religious experience or piety did not consist in bodily action but in mental reflection.27
In developing his philosophy, Philo ultimately wrote between 40 and 60 manuscripts consisting of more than 3,000 documentary pages. While he was a contemporary of the Judaic sects — Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. — these sects refused to recognize either him or his work. They were offended by his use of the Greek language and his affinity for Greek customs and philosophy. Rabbinic Judaism therefore continued its developmental journey independently of Philo. In fact, Jewry refused to acknowledge him until some time in the 16th century.28
Meanwhile, as we shall see, emerging orthodox Christianity would wholeheartedly embrace Philo’s view of Judaism and make it the foundation of its own existence. The astounding fact is that, without Philo of Alexandria, orthodox Christianity would never have emerged or even continued to exist. Philo — not Jesus or even Paul — is the real father of orthodox “Christianity.”
It seems paradoxical that nevertheless Philo’s works owe their preservation not to the Jewish tradition but to that of the Greeks. However, he was preserved not as part of the secular literature of the Greeks but along with the Greek church fathers and ecclesiastical literature. For Christian theology he was of the greatest interest.29
This was true not only of early church fathers. Philo’s thought also remained dominant in “Christian” philosophy down through the medieval age and until the time of the Jewish philosopher, Spinoza, in the 17th century.30 Somehow, it took one Jewish philosopher to overcome the other.
Tragically, the truth of the Christ event has been almost wholly concealed by the presuppositions of sectarian and Philonic Judaism and by the later emergence of orthodox Christianity. Now that this concealment is being stripped away, the time has come for us to turn away from these distortions of our past. For the truth of Jesus Christ can only be understood in light of the inaugural commitment of God and patriarchal Judaism to covenantal gifts and anthropomorphic (human) relationships. It can only be understood over against the radical theomorphism (self-existent divinity) advocated by later sectarian Jewry and Hellenistic (Greek) Judaism. In this sense there is indeed “neither Greek nor Jew.”
- See Colossians 3:11, KJV. (go back)
- See “The ‘World of the Journey,’” Outlook (Prequel 1999.3). (go back)
- George Mendenhall, “The Suzerainty Treaty Structure: Thirty Years Later,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 90. (go back)
- Moses A. Shulvass, The History of the Jewish People, vol. 1, The Antiquity (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1982), pp. 93, 118. (go back)
- Britannica Online, s.v. “Palestine: History: From Alexander the Great to 70 CE: The Herodian house and the Roman procuators,” at www.britannica.com/place/Palestine/From-Alexander-the-Great-to-70-ce. (go back)
- See ibid. (go back)
- See Britannica Online (early edition), s.v. “Trends in World Population.” (go back)
- See Stephen M. Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), p. 42. (go back)
- See Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Hellenism.” (go back)
- See Britannica Online, s.v. “Judaism: The History of Judaism: Hellenistic Judaism: The Greek period (332-63 BCE),” at www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism/Hellenistic-Judaism-4th-century-bce-2nd-century-ce. (go back)
- See Britannica Online, s.v. “Judaism: The History of Judaism: Hellenistic Judaism: The Roman period (63 BCE-135 CE),” at www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism/The-Roman-period-63-bce-135-ce. (go back)
- Britannica Online, s.v. “Judaism: The History of Judaism: Hellenistic Judaism: The Greek period (332-63 BCE): Religious and cultural life in the Diaspora,” at www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism/Hellenistic-Judaism-4th-century-bce-2nd-century-ce. (go back)
- Britannica Online, s.v. “Judaism: Egyptian Jewish literature,” at www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism/Religious-rites-and-customs-in-Palestine-the-Temple-and-the-synagogues#ref35191. (go back)
- See Britannica Online, s.v. “Philo Judaeus,” at www.britannica.com/biography/Philo-Judaeus. (go back)
- See Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, s.v. “Philo Judaeus.” (go back)
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Allegory.” (go back)
- Paul N. Anderson, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), p. 53. (go back)
- See Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 69. (go back)
- See W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 95. (go back)
- See Karl W. Luckert, Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire: Theological and Philosophical Roots of Christendom in Evolutionary Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 275. (go back)
- See Jennings B. Reid, Jesus: God’s Emptiness, God’s Fullness: The Christology of St. Paul (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 49, 50, 132. (go back)
- See ibid., pp. 45-47. (go back)
- Bernard J. Lee, Jesus and the Metaphors of God: Conversation on the Road Not Taken (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), pp. 150-157. (go back)
- See Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947), 1:289. (go back)
- D. Zeller, “The Life and Death of the Soul in Philo of Alexandria: The Use and Origin of a Metaphor,” in David Runia, ed., The Studia Philonica Annual: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, Brown Judaic Studies 305 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 7:19-55. (go back)
- E. R. Goodenough, “Philo on Immortality,” Harvard Theological Review 39 (1946): 97, quoted in Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 56. (go back)
- See Hans Küng, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980), pp. 603-607. (go back)
- See Shulvass, History of the Jewish People, 1:219. (go back)
- Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 120. (go back)
- See Wolfson, Philo, 2:460. (go back)