Philo, Part IV of Ineffable God: The Jewish (rather than Platonic) Roots of Gnosticism

1584 European depiction of Philo
1584 European depiction of Philo

Philo’s work is somewhat enigmatic. For instance, he uses Plato’s theory of Ideas in De specialibus legibus I.329 to explain how the Hebrew God made the cosmos:

“God created the universe, but without being personally involved in this task, because he, being perfectly blessed, could not enter into contract with indefinite and confused matter. He made use of his incorporeal powers, the true name of which is ‘Ideas’, so as to allow each category to take the form that was appropriate to it.”

However, Philo’s use of “Ideas” bears little resemblance to Platonism. his primary concern, as I will demonstrate, was securing the ineffability, omniscience and power of the Hebrew God as the one, solitary Creator; to do this, however, he needed to introduce mediators between YHWH and the material world without sacrificing monotheism. This was a common problem for many thinkers of this period (modern theologians tend to ignore it, especially as Christ introduces, at the very least, a dualistic system).

This is a series on the relationship between Greek philosophy and gnostic literature. To start with the first post, please go here.

This post focuses on the exegetical work of Philo of Alexandria, who used Platonic and Stoic concepts in his exegetical work, bridging the gap between Jewish and Greek thought for early Christianity (and possibly for gnostic thought and Neoplatonism). Philo’s most significant divergences from Greek thought (the concepts of logos, “incorporeal” and “ineffable”) are clearly exegesis of Jewish textual traditions (Carabine, The Unknown God, 221). For more information on the state of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity at the turn of the era in Alexandria, please see here.

Philo (ca. 25 BCE-ca. 50 CE) was a Jew living in the Diaspora community of Alexandria, Egypt, a social elite from a prominent family (Cristina Termini, “Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism”, 96), who probably received both a classical Greek education (primarily Plato, but also Pythagoreanism and Stoicism) and thorough Jewish instruction based on the Septuagint (commonly called the LXX, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). He equated the “righteous” man (he who follows the Torah) with the philosopher (the Platonic “sage”), arguing that “Jewish law corresponds to the order of nature” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 112), so that the goal of this “sage” should be to seek “the gifts of wisdom and the spirit that provide man with the ability to enjoy communion with God and to practice a life of virtue” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 106). The Platonic/Philonic sage seeks this wisdom through God’s emanating logos, which “illuminates the revealed aspect of God” and God’s emanating powers, which “allow at least a glimpse of the mysterious essence of God” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 101). God remains ineffable and fully removed from the cosmos, only accessible through emanations, yet, Philo asserts, “God comes to meet the soul that seeks Him out” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 107), through the logos (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 163). In other words, God is fully transcendent and ineffable, available only through revelation. Influenced by Platonism, which elevated the realm of “thought” above the material realm, Philo “was reluctant to conceive of a pure, eternal God who participates directly in the affairs of the corruptible world”, and so employs the Stoic term “logos” as “the sum total of all the forms of the intelligible world and equal to the mind of God” (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 165), evidence of Philo’s eclectic thought. More expansive than the Platonic nous, the logos is “the powerful word that gives solid consistency to the universe”, serves as guide for the heavenly journey “that brings man to the true knowledge of God” and is the image of God from which human intelligence is modeled (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 99).

Although Philo seems to use Stoic terminology to reconsider Platonic thought, his characterization of logos is also based on the LXX, where the Greek word logos is used as a translation of devar, which can mean “word” or “thing” in Hebrew. For instance, devar YHWH (the “word of God”) is “a phrase which encompasses the thought, will, and action of God” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 98) in Hebrew. In the LXX, the logos, as a translation of devar, creates heaven and earth (Ps. 32:6; Sir 42:15; Wis 9:1), is dispatched to man (Isa 2:1; Jer 1:2; Ezek 3:16), and finds expression in the deka logoi (‘Decalogue’ = ten words: Exod 34:28; Deut 10:4) and in the law (Ps 118:9, 16, 17, 25). The personified Logos appears in the retelling of the exodus story in Wis 18:14-16 as the “all-powerful word” of God that brings death with the sword (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 98). In these texts, logos can be interpreted as a hypostasis of God, a mediating power parallel to its appearance in Philo. For Philo, God’s thoughts are actions and logos is the “thinking faculty of God”, created to exist “outside of God as well as containing the forms of the whole world” (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 165), a function of the logos based on the history of its use in the LXX to preserve the wholeness of God as separate from creation.

Likewise, Philo’s concept of “two Gods” is derived from exegesis of the LXX. In De Somniis i 234-237, for example, Philo explains that anthropomorphic descriptions of God, which attribute “face, hands, feet, mouth, voice, wrath and indignation, and over and beyond these, weapons, entrances and exits, movements up and down and all ways”, provide untenable imagery for students who are “altogether dull in their natures, incapable of forming any conception whatever of God as without a body” (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 160), “material” descriptions of God provided for the education of the less astute. In contradistinction to Stoic conceptions and Biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God, Philo asserts throughout his work that “God is not as man”, based on his reading of the LXX (Num 23:19; Hos 11:9; Ex 15:11; Is 55:8-9), proof that God does not have a body. Further, he interprets the text to indicate “two Gods” according to the presence or absence of a definite article, so that “a god” refers to an emanation of God (such as the logos), while “the God” indicates the incorporeal “High, ever-existing God” (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 164), exegesis that further preserves the indivisible and transcendent “oneness” of God while also explaining examples of anthropomorphism and the variety of divine beings in the LXX. And although Philo often used the Pythagorean term “monad” to refer to God’s unique oneness, he also claims that God is “prior to all number [Her 187; Gen ii:12; Spec ii: 176, iii: 180; Leg ii:3]” (Carabine, The Unknown God, 202-204). Philo’s reasoning for God’s oneness, uniqueness and transcendent nature derives from a reading of the LXX (Deut 6:4, Deut 32:39; Is 43:10-12, Is 44:16, Is 45:14-15). From Job (Job 36:26, 11:7-8, 28:12-28) and the prophets (Is 1:4, 5:19, 12:6, 19:17, 43:14, 47:4), Philo also argued for God’s ineffable and distant nature, inaccessible to human understanding.

Ultimately, though, God’s unknowable nature was best explained for Philo by his unspeakable name, which Philo interprets to mean “my nature is to be, not to be spoken” (Carabine, The Unknown God, 209). It is here, in his exegesis of Exodus 3:14, that Philo introduces the term arrētos (“ineffable”) as the foundation of his metaphysical system: “he attributes the innominability of God not just to the limitations of human language, but to God’s infinite ontological superiority with respect to man and the world. God is in every sense ‘the other’ with respect to everything that is known to us. As Philo puts it, there is nothing that is similar to God (Leg. 2.1; Somn 1.73). This theme of the ineffability of God is very important because it leads Philo to introduce in a systematic fashion the kind of negative theology that would have great influence on later thought, especially that of the Neopythagoreans of the imperial age and Plotinus” (Roberto Radice, “Philo’s Theology and Theory of Creation”, 127).

Although this use of the term arrētos in Greek philosophy seems to have originated with Philo (Carabine, The Unknown God, 209) and is otherwise only attested in Paul (2 Corinthians 12:4, the “heavenly ascent” scene, written around the time of Philo’s death), Carabine argues that “we cannot suggest that he was responsible for its entry into the vocabulary of the Middle Platonists” (Carabine, The Unknown God, 210). Her motivation for saying so is simply that she wants to preserve the legacy of Platonism; there is no evidence to support or refute her claim, except that important concepts from Philo’s thought appear among the Platonists only after him. Even so, whether Alcinous, Numenius, gnostics or Plotinus were directly influenced by Philo, the survival of his work is important to us now as a witness to trends of thought that existed among Hellenistic Jews in the first century (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 180), and his work was cited by early Alexandrian Christians Clement and Origen.

Regardless the mode of transmission for these ideas, use of the term arrētos among Platonists did not appear until after Philo and, as has been said, no Greek thinker before Plotinus would suggest a fully transcendent deity beyond the reach of the human nous. After all, the inaccessible deity was an indefensible concept in the history of Platonism, a system dedicated to knowable categories of thought. For Philo, however, such a God (unnamable, ineffable and incomprehensible) derived from Jewish literature, a king and a father who could only be reached through revelation, as in gnostic thought.

This article marks the end of this survey. In the next post, I will conclude the series with new thoughts on gnosticism based on the evidence provided so far. Until then, thanks for reading and please let me know what you think.


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