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Platonism, Paganism and Early Christianity


Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-50 A.D.)


In the first century A.D., there were more Jews living in the Greek city of Alexandria, Egypt than in Judea. This large Jewish community included many scholars who were thoroughly grounded in Greek philosophy as well as Jewish theology. These scholars both spoke and wrote in Greek; indeed, a vast Jewish literature, written in Greek, has survived down to the present day.  The most famous of these Jewish scholars is known to us as Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - 50 A.D.), also known as the "Jewish Plato."

Philo developed speculative and philosophical justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy, and produced a synthesis of both traditions. His Hellenistic interpretation of the then prevalent messianic Hebrew belief system significantly influenced the thought of many early Christian Church Fathers such as: Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Origin. He influenced his near contemporary, the Apostle Paul, and also the authors of the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the process, he laid the foundations for the development of Christian theology within the Roman Empire, both East and West.

Although Philo's primary audience was the Hellenized Jewish community, his writings have been preserved by the Christians not the Jews. The church preserved Philo's writings because Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, believed that the ascetic monastic group discussed in Philo's The Contemplative Life, were Christians. Eusebius also promoted the legend that Philo met Peter in Rome. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) even refers to him as a Church Father. Conversely, Jewish scholars did not care for his philosophical speculation and did nothing to preserve Philo's writings.

Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture and possessed a superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as "the most holy Plato."  Philo's philosophy was an eclectic combination of Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelian logic, and several concepts originated by Pythagoras.   Philo also held the teachings of the Hebrew lawgiver, Moses, in high regard. Indeed, Philo seemed to believe that Moses had been the teacher of Pythagoras and other notable Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus and Lycurgus.  For Philo, Greek philosophy was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses.

The most important concept in Philo's entire philosophical system, was his doctrine of the Logos. In this doctrine he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought.  He provided a theological basis for many beliefs later found in the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospel of John, and subsequently in the Christian Logos and Gnostic writings of the second century A.D.

The term Logos was widely used in the Greco-Roman world. At its most simple level of meaning it could be translated as "word." However, the term, as used in Greek philosophy, was an extremely complex concept. The Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, was the man most responsible for the philosophical development of  the Logos concept. Subsequently, the concept became a major element of Stoic Philosophy.  The Stoics used this term to designate an impersonal, rational, intelligent, organizing principle of the Cosmos. This principle was deduced from their understanding of the Cosmos as a living, organic entity. Prior to the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century A.D., most people did not have any concept of dynamic, physical "force" or "forces" which caused change or flux in the Cosmos; therefore, every phenomenon was believed to have an underlying factor, agent, or principle responsible for its occurrence.

In the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the term logos (Hebrew davar) was used frequently to describe the Hebrew God's utterances or actions; the term was also used when referring to the messages of Hebrew prophets, the means by which the Hebrew God communicated his will to his people. However, in these cases, logos was used only as a figure of speech designating divine activity or action.

In the Jewish "Wisdom Literature" we frequently find the concept of Wisdom (in Hebrew = hokhmah, in Greek = sophia) interpreted as a separate personification or individualization (hypostatization). "Wisdom" was described in Hebrew metaphorical and poetic language as a divine attribute of God; however, it clearly referred to a human characteristic in the context of human earthly existence.

The Greek, metaphysical concept of the Logos is in sharp contrast to the Hebrew concept of a personal God. However, Philo made a synthesis of the two systems and attempted to explain Hebrew thought in terms of Greek philosophy by introducing the Stoic concept of the Logos into Judaism. In the process the Logos became transformed from a metaphysical, abstract entity into a divine and transcendental anthropomorphic being -- the mediator between God and men.

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