God’s Debt to Philo

Those who have been frequent readers of my blog essays will note that I have an abiding interest in spirituality and those quaint offshoots of spirituality that we know as religions. Most religions, but certainly not all, are defined by their particular conception of gods or God. If we delve into the history of religions we can see how that conception has developed or evolved over time. (If you wish to know more of this history a good place to start is to read Karen Armstrong’s engaging book The History of God.)

[A Note of Caution. In what follows I will probably refer to God in the masculine gender. I know that any credible God has no gender. God has been traditionally written about in the male gender and I will adopt that convention. I am too old to be concerned with political correctness and would rather spend my time pursuing ideas of consequence! I also can’t be bothered editing to ensure I have used capitals in all the appropriate places!]

Most of us, unthinkingly, would believe that the gods or God have been what they are from time immemorial. But this is not at all true. And there is no better example than the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the beginning the Bible has God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the afternoon conversing with Adam and Eve. Then God becomes more remote so that his subjects may not look upon his face or sometimes even utter his name. This was a pretty hard time for God. This is a God who has to compete with Marduk, Baal and the great Assyrian God, Assur – sometimes dominating and sometimes not. This was a time when the Jews engaged in monolatry – ie they believed their God, now known as Yahweh (but previously known by other names), was the dominant God among many.

The Hebrew history was a difficult one and it took a rather perverse rationale for Yahweh’s followers to maintain their belief in Him. The convoluted logic was as follows: when Israel prospered, and particularly when it won battles, Yahweh was on their side and all-powerful – but when Israel suffered adversity, particularly when it was defeated and its inhabitants sent into exile, it was because their God was punishing them for their sins, usually associated with worshipping other gods. Under such circumstances Yahweh was so powerful He could successfully direct the efforts of the enemies of the Hebrews and thus imposing his will on their gods to teach the Israelites a lesson! In this way Yahweh’s preeminent power could never be questioned!

But Yahweh was, to start with, a particularly parochial God. He had little interest in anyone other than the Jews except as it might affect their history. Even as the generations passed and the Jewish people began to be inclined more towards monotheism rather than monolatry their God seemed to take little interest in the welfare of the other peoples of the earth.

Some historians believe it needed the logic of the Greeks to temper the religious zeal of the Jews to fashion a truly universal God. (Karen Armstrong makes a good case for ensuring Logos and Mythos both play a part in religion.) This productive amalgam came through the medium of Philo of Alexandria. It was Philo who seemed to inspire some real moral growth in the Abrahamic God. Yahweh may have been bent on punishing infidels during the period of Josiah’s reforms and exacting revenge and retribution during Isaiah’s time but through Philo’s influence he was to become more loving and, tolerant and hence universalist.

Philo was born near the end of the first century BCE. Philo, a devout Jew, drew his inspiration from the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament completed a century or so before his birth. Philo, drawing on his knowledge of the Septuagint, which opened up various alternative translations of key passages, was tolerant of those of other beliefs. In Philo’s opinion, even whilst he was a fervent monotheist, he was still able in his own writing to offer “support to those of different opinion by accepting and honouring those whom they have from the beginning believed to be gods.” This was because Philo interpreted the famous line from Moses “You shall not revile God” in his Greek version as “You shall not revile gods.” Consequently he took a far more conciliatory position with those whose beliefs differed from his own.

What’s more, Philo refused to take the Old Testament literally. Many of the cruellest passages he was able to reinterpret as metaphors and allegories. His concept of God was more benign than those who went before him. Take for example the gruesome biblical scene where Yahweh drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. He seemed to believe that the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt represented the bondage mortals experience by the flesh. Hence the escape from Egypt became a metaphor for the soul’s liberation from the flesh. Using such allegories Philo was able to interpret the scriptures in a more modern and moral way. In the history of the world’s religions such reinterpretation is not unusual as people tried to make more sense of their religious histories.

But Philo’s claim to fame arose when his tolerance was pushed to the limit. Jewish monotheism was strongly challenged by the Roman Emperors’ claim to divinity. At times such Roman leaders deemed themselves divine and therefore demanded worship by their subjects. One such Emperor was the psychopathic Caligula who ruled Alexandria from Rome in Philo’s time. Caligula wished to have statues of himself mounted in Alexandria’s synagogues so that the Jews might worship him as well as Yahweh. When the Jews of Alexandria refused to comply there was rioting resulting in some of the Alexandrian Jews being burnt to death.

Courageously, (perhaps foolhardily), Philo mounted a delegation to go to Rome to argue his case with Caligula. In case you may not know, Caligula was infamous for his cruelty, extravagance and sexual perversity. There are many who have implied that he was indeed insane. Therefore a delegation to Rome to question his beliefs about his divinity was a very risky venture! But Philo, as tolerant as he was, wouldn’t countenance an effigy of the Roman Emperor in his local synagogue. And whilst he did not revile the gods of others he was still a convinced monotheist. To him there was no God but Yahweh and Yahweh’s authority was not to be challenged and certainly not by a mere mortal Emperor. It is said that Philo was chosen to head the delegation to Rome because of his education, wisdom and age – and it seems that Philo was indeed an old man when he sojourned to Rome.

The outcome of Philo’s delegation seems uncertain. Philo’s own account records him deriding Caligula for taking such an action as he knew would be sure to offend the Greeks. At least one writer has suggested Caligula may have backed down because the Greek colony in Alexandria paid its taxes and apart from this particular upset was not in any way troublesome. Knowing Caligula’s reputation one can only believe that Philo was lucky to return as he did with his life.

Notwithstanding the unknown outcome of Philo’s delegation, he is still widely attributed with assisting to develop a notion of Yahweh that was:

  • More tolerant,
  • Less vengeful, and
  • Broadly accessible to all of Mankind and not just his special chosen people.

This was part of a movement which created a more attractive religious product for later evangelists to sell, in fact a more believable God.

More traditional believers will no doubt take issue with me here. They will point out that God is immutable and eternal. I won’t even attempt to dispute this. But the point I would make is that what we know about God we have largely learnt from the scriptures all of which have been written by men. More than that, the great bulk of the scriptures were written in the past far removed from us. They were written by people in various different cultural contexts to ours and by writers with little understanding of how the physical universe works. It is unlikely they could write about anything other than a God for their times and circumstances. Under these circumstances, even if God is not evolving, our understanding of him is. There is therefore a great danger in basing our fundamental belief systems on the writings of fallible mortals from the remote past.

God should be truly grateful that people like Philo gave our concept of him some more endearing and believable traits than those possessed by the God of Abraham!

2 Replies to “God’s Debt to Philo”

  1. Hello there! This blog post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this article reminds me of my previous
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    I’ll forward this information to him. Fairly certain he’ll have
    a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  2. I have missed your blogs Ted. Nice to have you back.

    When it comes to religion I have always found it amusing that we believe without question what was written a few thousand years ago and tear apart anything that is written today if it in anyway contradicts with it. If any of the religious texts were written today all of the established religions would reject them even if they were reportedly based on eye witness accounts. This in my opinion is not unreasonable as most of the texts are pretty hard to believe if you take them literally. Do we really believe that people living two or thee thousand years ago are more reliable than modern day folk?

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