Was the New Testament Influenced by Philo?

Article ID: DA242 | By: Ronald Nash

The following is an excerpt from Christian Research Journal article DA242 by Ronald Nash. The full article is available by clicking the link below.


At the beginning of the Christian era, Alexandria, Egypt — an important center of the Jewish Dispersion — had become the chief center of Hellenistic thought. The large colony of Jews who claimed Alexandria as their home became Hellenized in both language and culture. While still observing their Jewish faith, they translated their Scriptures into the Greek language (the Septuagint). This tended to increase their cultural isolation from their Hebrew roots because they now had even less incentive to remain fluent in the Hebrew language. Given the intellectual interests of the Alexandrian Jews, it was only natural that the arrival of such philosophical systems as Platonism and Stoicism in Alexandria would eventually affect them. The greatest of the Alexandrian Jewish intellectuals was Philo Judeaus, who lived from about 25 B.C. to about A.D. 50. Philo’s work illustrates many of the most important elements of the synthesis of Platonism and Stoicism that came to dominate Hellenistic philosophy during and after his lifetime. He is the best example of how intellectual Jews of the Dispersion, isolated from Palestine and their native culture, allowed Hellenistic influences to shape their theology and philosophy.18 Philo has become famous for his use of the term logos.19 It is impossible, however, to find any clear or consistent use of the word in his many writings. For example, he used the word to refer to Plato’s ideal world of the forms,20 to the mind of God, and to a principle that existed somewhere between the realms of God and creation. At other times, he applied logos to any of several mediators between God and man, such as the angels, Moses, Abraham, and even the Jewish high priest. But putting aside his lack of clarity and consistency, his use of logos has raised questions about a possible influence of Alexandrian Judaism on such New Testament writings as John’s Gospel and the Book of Hebrews. Sixty years ago, the view that the writer of the fourth Gospel was influenced by Philo’s use of logos was something of an official doctrine in certain circles.21 With few exceptions, however, the drift of scholarship has been away from Philo as a source for John’s Logos doctrine. But as happens so often, news of this change in scholarly opinion was slow in reaching some. And so, John Herman Randall, Jr., wrote in 1970 that “in his Prologue about the Word, the Logos, [John] is adopting Philo Judaeus’ earlier Platonization of the Hebraic tradition.”22 And in his history of philosophy textbook that is still widely used, even in some evangelical colleges, W. T. Jones claims that the “mysticism of the Fourth Gospel was grounded in the Platonism of Hellenistic Alexandria.”23 Most contemporary New Testament scholars see no need to postulate a conscious relationship between Philo (or Alexandrian Judaism) and the New Testament use of logos. They point out that alongside the philosophical and Philonic views of logos, there were two similar but independent notions in the Judaism of the time. One of these was a pre-Christian Jewish speculation about a personified Wisdom that appears in Proverbs 8:22-26.24 Other scholars advance a different theory that sees a connection between the New Testament use of logos and such Old Testament expressions as “The Word of God” and “The Word of the Lord.” In many Old Testament passages, such expressions suggest an independent existence and personification of the Word of God.25 These two lines of thought may have merit and the reader is encouraged to examine them more fully. However, for a number of years I have been recommending a different approach to the problem, one that recognizes a possible link between the implicit Logos-Christology26 of the Book of Hebrews and the Prologue to John’s Gospel. In Chapter 6 of my book, The Gospel and the Greeks, I explore a number of fascinating connections between the author of the Book of Hebrews (whom I take to be Apollos) and Alexandrian Judaism. I point to indications that the author of Hebrews may have been an Alexandrian Jew trained in Philo’s philosophy prior to his Christian conversion. His purpose in writing Hebrews was to warn other members of his community of converted Hellenistic Jews against an apostasy that would result in their rejecting Christ and returning to their former beliefs. In the course of his message, the writer (Apollos?) argues that since Christ is a better Logos (or mediator) than any of the mediators available to them in their former beliefs,27 a return to the inferior mediators of their past would make no sense. If the argument in my book is correct, then several interesting possibilities open up. For one thing, the author of Hebrews (whoever he may be) deserves the title of the first Christian philosopher, since he was clearly trained in the details of Alexandrian philosophy. But the writer of Hebrews does not use this philosophical background to introduce Alexandrian philosophy into Christian thinking; rather he uses Christian thinking to reject his former views. Furthermore, this reading of Hebrews points to the existence of a Christian community that had a highly developed Logos Christology. But their application of the concept of logos to Jesus Christ did not amount to an introduction of pagan thinking into Christianity. On the contrary, their Christian use of Logos was developed in conscious opposition to every relevant aspect of Philo’s philosophy. Once this possibility is recognized, the proper source of John’s use of logos in John 1:1-14 may reflect his own contact with the thought of this community of converted Hellenistic Jews. Wholly apart from my own speculation on this matter, Philo’s Logos could not possibly function as a direct influence on the biblical concept of Logos.28 (1) Philo’s Logos-Mediator was a metaphysical abstraction while the Logos of the New Testament is a specific, individual, historical person. Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle, postulated to solve various philosophical problems. (2) Given Philo’s commitment to Platonism and its disparagement of the body as a tomb of the soul, Philo could never have believed in anything like the Incarnation. Philo’s God could never make direct contact with matter. But the Jesus described in Hebrews not only becomes man but participates in a full range of all that is human, including temptation to sin. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking. (3) Philo’s Logos could never be described as the Book of Hebrews pictures Jesus: suffering, being tempted to sin, and dying. (4) The repeated stress in Hebrews of Jesus’ compassionate concern for His brethren (i.e., Christians) is incompatible with Philo’s view of the emotions. Philo was influenced by the Stoic disparagement of emotion, and it is clear that he views the attainment of apathy (freedom from passion, emotion, and affection) as a much more important achievement than sympathy and compassion. Readers may pursue these matters more fully in the works cited in the sidebar (“Suggested Reading”), and in the hundreds of works cited in the bibliographies in those books. The purpose of this article has been merely to introduce the reader to the fact that over the past century, various writers have attempted to undermine the authority of the New Testament by affirming that some of its teachings were borrowed from pagan philosophical systems of the day. A careful study of this issue reveals this claim to be false. Perhaps the most serious question still remaining is what we should think of the scholarship of authors and professors who continue to make these long-discredited claims.

Dr. Ronald Nash is Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando. The latest of his 25 books are Beyond Liberation Theology (Baker), World-Views in Conflict (Zondervan), and Great Divides (NavPress).

NOTES

1 An essential Christian belief is one which, if false, would falsify the historic Christian faith. For example, if either the incarnation or the atonement or the resurrection of Jesus should turn out to be false, the Christian faith as it has been known from its inception would be false. 2 See Edwin A. Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1951), 35-36. 3 See W. T. Jones, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969), Chapters One and Two. 4 See Thomas W. Africa, The Ancient World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 460. See also Thomas W. Africa, The Immense Majesty: A History of Rome and the Roman Empire (New York: Crowell, 1974), 340-42. 5 In its most narrow sense, the adjective “Hellenistic” is applied to the period of history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and the Roman conquest of the last major vestige of Alexander’s empire, the Egypt of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. But in a broader sense, the term refers to the whole culture of the Roman Empire. While Rome achieved military and political supremacy throughout the Mediterranean world, it adopted the culture of the Hellenistic world that preceded Rome’s rise to power. 6 See Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks (Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1992). 7 For more on this, see Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey (Jefferson, MD: Trinity, 1989), 210-17. 8 See George Holley Gilbert, Greek Thought in the New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 85-86. 9 See William Fairweather, Jesus and the Greeks (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1924), 290. 10 Clark, 192. 11 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 275-76. 12 See Gilbert, 86-87. 13 Clark, 193. 14 John Herman Randall, Jr., Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), 155. 15 Fairweather, 296. 16 See J. B. Lightfoot, “St. Paul and Seneca,” in J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (1913; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 270-333. Lightfoot argues against the possibility of a Stoic influence in this old essay. His polemic serves as an example of the importance once attributed to such views. 17 Clark, 191. 18 For more details, see Clark, 195-210 and Nash, Chapters 5-6. 19 The Greek word logos was a technical term in several ancient philosophical systems. Its philosophic usage goes back to Heraclitus (about 500 B.C.). It was then used by the Stoics, several hundred years later, some of whom influenced Philo. 20 For an explanation of Plato’s theory of the forms, see Nash, Chapter 2. 21 Typical of these older works is G. H. C. MacGregor and A. C. Purdy, Jew and Greek (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1937), 337ff. 22 Randall, 157. 23 Jones, 52. 24 For more on this, see Nash, 84-86. 25 See Nash, 86-88 and James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 218.26 When I say that the Logos-Christology of Hebrews is implicit, I am really making two points: (1) the Christology of Hebrews relates Jesus Christ to a Logos-concept that does have affinities to things the writer could have learned from Philo; (2) but since the term Logos is not actually applied to Jesus in Hebrews, it is implicit in the sense that it must be derived from a careful examination of the author’s language. That is, a number of very special Greek words that Philo applied to his Logos are used by the writer of Hebrews to describe Jesus. See Chapter 6 of my Gospel and the Greeks. 27 To restate a point made earlier, Philo applied the term logos to all of the following: the angels, Moses, Abraham, and the Levitical high priest. It should be noted that the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is better than each of these. 28 The points that follow are perfectly consistent with my theory that Christian Hellenists advanced their view of the Logos in conscious opposition to Philo’s system.

SUGGESTED READING

  • A.H. Armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (Boston: Beacon, 1963).
  • Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1989).
  • Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks (Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1992).
  • Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Leiden: Brill, 1970).