Philo’s Cabinet

This week’s important personage in the history of religion is someone I can’t recall having learned about prior to reading about him in a book a few months ago, but what I learned about him there made me wonder why I hadn’t seen more references to him in the past. This would be Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus who attempted to harmonize the Jewish religion with Greek philosophy. He was influenced by Plato, Aristotle, and the schools of Stoicism and Neopythagoreanism. To him, combining the two was totally logical, and he insisted that philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato were influenced by the teachings of Moses. Really, though, from what I’ve read of his ideas, he couldn’t find as many actual connections as he let on. In Philo’s philosophy, God was unknowable, and existed in Plato’s world of the forms, the true universe behind the physical copy in which our bodies dwell. Like Plato, he considered the physical body not to be a person’s true self, and while the needs of the body could not be ignored during life, it was the soul that truly mattered. Philo also emphasized and reinterpreted the Logos, which in Greek thought was basically the rational, creative force at work in the universe. To Philo, the Logos was the manifestation of God in the physical world, and it was the Logos that humans could know, and which could interact with them. The Logos created the world from already existing materials, a Platonic idea that the Alexandrian claimed had a parallel in how Genesis has formless waters predating the actual creation. The creation was an ongoing process, reflecting the work done by the true God in the world of the forms. Unlike Aristotle, Philo thought that the physical world could come to an end, as various scriptural passages suggest.

Philo’s attempts to tie together the philosophies of the two different cultures in which he was raised were not popular among the Jews of his time. They were, however, taken to heart by the early Christian community. As made explicit in the Gospel of John, Christians came to regard Jesus as the Logos in the flesh (generally translated into English as “the Word made flesh,” which is basically accurate but doesn’t quite hold the same meaning). Some of Philo’s other ideas are reflected in other teachings of Christianity, and even today some Christians insist that the body and the physical world are essentially evil, perhaps not even being aware that they’re reflecting the ideas of Plato much more than those of Jesus.

With Paul and others who followed in his footsteps spreading the Gospel through the Greek-speaking world, perhaps it was inevitable that Greek philosophy would be incorporated into Christianity, but Philo’s writings almost certainly set the stage for much of it.

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7 Responses to Philo’s Cabinet

  1. vilajunkie says:

    The Zoroastrians, or at least Zaathustra himself, believed in almost the inverse: the material world was inherently good, and everyone and everything would return to the physical plane after Ahriman was defeated forever. There are some evil things in the physical plane, but those were created by Ahriman and his demons opening a rift into the earth from Hell. And the earth itself was originally a flat plain (not counting the mountain or pillar in the center of the earth), but mountains and valleys and so on were formed from the great war between Ahura Mazda and Mazda at the beginning of time. A great flood or rain of molten metal will wash over the earth at the end of Ahriman’s reign and return everything to its perfect form, both physically and spiritually, so that any evil in the hearts of living things will be cleansed.

    • Nathan says:

      Early Christianity seems to have tried several different takes on whether the physical world is a good or bad place. Paul writes of the physical resurrection of the dead (as mentioned in Daniel, as well as in Zoroastrian writings) as something that he thinks will happen soon, while the Gnostics favored the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven already exists inside the believers. Modern Christian beliefs on the subject vary, but the most common view appears to be somewhat of a combination of these beliefs, with the physical world being inherently sinful NOW, but the faithful being given perfect bodies on a perfect Earth after the second coming.

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