Philo: The Logos
What is God?
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If you’re wondering what the Logos is, you are not alone. Most people, Jewish or non-Jewish, have never heard the term before. So what is the Logos? It is an ancient Greek word that goes back over 2,500 years. In its first usage in Greek literature it meant ‘reason’, and became a general term for ‘philosophy’. The subject of this essay, Philo, took the term and applied it to the Bible. His philosophical goal was to unite Greek wisdom with Judaism. His method for accomplishing this questionable aim was to reinterpret the Torah in the form of one metaphor after another. He repeatedly asks questions on the text and answers them through his metaphorical interpretations. Admittedly, his answers frequently leave the reader puzzled over why he even bothered with the text of the Bible when he goes so far out on a limb to plug in his ideas.
The concept of the Logos figures prominently in Philo’s writings. It is a word that is difficult to translate. When the Latin speaking Church Fathers translated the Greek writings of Philo and the New Testament into Latin, they had major problems with this word. Eventually, the accepted translation settled on the word ‘word’, though by common consensus, this does not really do the word justice. It fell to Philo to make this word/concept a central part of western religion and to introduce a new image of God.
Philo describes the Logos in great detail: ‘But the divine Word which is above these does not come into any visible appearance, inasmuch as it is not like any of the things that come under the external senses, but is itself an image of God, the most ancient of all the objects of intellect in the whole world, and that which is placed in the closest proximity to the only truly existing God, without any partition or distance being interposed between them. For it is said, "I will speak unto thee from above the mercy seat (the cover of the Ark of the Covenant), in the midst, between the two Cherubim" (Exodus 25:22). So that the Word is, as it were, the charioteer of the powers, and He who utters it is the rider, who directs the charioteer how to proceed with a view to the proper guidance of the universe.’ ('The Flight', Sec. XIX).
In another book, Philo reaches the point where he can state: ‘And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, "And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and You;" (Deuteronomy 5:5), being neither uncreated like God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties: a hostage to the Creator, as a pledge and security that the whole race would never fly off and revolt entirely, choosing disorder rather than order; and to the creation, to lead it to entertain a confident hope that the merciful God would not overlook his own work’ ('Heir to Divine Things', Sec. XLII).
The Logos is a remarkable concept that would prove to be profoundly influential in the development of Christian theology, where it is openly acknowledged; and in Jewish theology, where the term, like Philo himself, is so suppressed as to be almost unknown. But it is there in between the lines, redefining the way that God interacts with creation, and even redefining God. It really wasn’t even remotely connected to the Biblical concept of God, which varied from a very palpable, almost physical presence, to a being that resided beyond the limits of the physical universe and encompassed everything. The Logos sat directly in between these two images. The second, the limitless being, is found all over Philo in the form of ‘The Father’ - a term that would be employed as one of the three persona of the Christian Trinity. The first, the physical presence, would morph into the Logos in Philo.
Assuming it is possible to make our way through those almost impenetrable philosophical quotes listed above, we can put together a picture of the Logos. First, it is invisible and undetectable by all the physical senses. It is, as Philo states explicitly, ‘itself an image of God, the most ancient of all the objects of intellect in the whole world, and that which is placed in the closest proximity to the only truly existing God, without any partition or distance being interposed between them’. It seems that the Logos is an image of God but not God. It is the closest thing to God, but it is not ‘the only truly existing God’, although the difference between them is by no means clear. This would prove to be one of the thorniest problems with the Logos – what was the dividing line, if indeed there was any, between it and God?
We have many clues to answer this important question. First is the analogy of the chariot/charioteer. In speaking from between the Cherubim that form the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, ‘the Word is, as it were, the charioteer of the powers, and He who utters it is the rider, who directs the charioteer how to proceed with a view to the proper guidance of the universe.’ There is a hierarchy of three things (sound familiar? – it should) – the rider who speaks the Word, the Word which is the charioteer, and the ‘powers’, which are the chariot, the forces that guide the universe. Why there is a difference between the ‘rider’ and the ‘charioteer’ is not clear. But there is a difference. It seems as though the rider is the like the soul/mind of the charioteer, while the charioteer is like the body. God is the software behind the computer called the Logos.
The Logos is the intermediary between God and the creation. It is the divine essence that, while not God, is not a part of creation either. Why Philo needed such an intermediary is obvious when viewed from the immediate post-Biblical mindset. God had to be perfect, above all physicality and change. God could no longer be immersed in the muck of the physical world, dirtying His divine hands with earthly mud and human failures. God had to be removed from all that. In place of the direct contact that is present all over the Tanakh, Philo inserts the Logos as the go-between that handles holding creation together so God can deal with loftier matters.
There are two relationships concerning the Logos that must be explained. One is between the Logos and God and the other is between the Logos and creation. Both of these are dealt with in the third paragraph above. ‘And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator.’ The relationship between the Father and the Logos is not that of Creator-created. The Logos is not a creation at all. It is something that was there from the beginning, an active force of creation that was an integral part of God’s reality. The Logos stands in between the Creator and the creation, ‘being neither uncreated like God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities’.
So what is the relationship between God and the Logos? The metaphor of the hostage is Philo’s method of explaining this difficult point. It is a ‘hostage, as it were, to both parties’. It is indebted and bound to God, tied to God’s will like a charioteer is tied to his own mind. It must serve ‘as a pledge and security that the whole race would never fly off and revolt entirely, choosing disorder rather than order’. The Logos is God’s ‘man on the street’, that makes sure creation stays within God’s plan and never ventures too far off the path. It is that divine power that is displayed all over the Bible, chastising and guiding, entering the mind of the individual while leading the entire world on its destined course.
But it has an equally important relationship with the creation – ‘to lead it to entertain a confident hope that the merciful God would not overlook his own work.’ The Logos is that spiritual sense that all will work out in the end, that God will never abandon us to our own devices and our own destruction. It is the messianic hope in ultimate goodness, and the non-messianic intuitive feeling that there is ultimate meaning to life. The Logos is bound to both God and creation in making sure that neither ever suspects that the other is no longer interested in maintaining the plan.
This is a strange image of God. It is God in the world, but not part of the created world. It is uncreated but not God. It is easy to see how Christianity used the Logos in forming its theology and equally easy to see why it never made very evident inroads into mainstream Judaism. What exactly is this image? Philo would have said that while it is not God, it is also not ‘not God’. It is the difference between the rider and the charioteer. One breathes the word while the other holds the whip.
Perceiving the Image
For Christians this image was Manna from heaven. For Jews it was like walking a tightrope. Both had to answer the fundamental question implied by Philo – how does the infinite God become immersed in the finite creation? God is Elohim and Hashem. Neither one is fully a part of the world and neither one is fully separate from it. Somehow, they are one. This is one of the great mysteries of Biblical Judaism – how that oneness can be?
Philo’s answer is that the ‘out there’ God, is called the ‘Father’. The ‘in there’ God is the Logos. This arrangement roughly parallels the twin Biblical images of Elohim and Hashem. Hashem is the image that we deal with on a day-to-day level. It is the image that accompanies the Israelites all over the Bible. It is the image that Jews pray to. The relationship between the two images, which has always been more than a bit murky, is clarified a little by Philo, but still left with one foot in the murky zone. The Logos can correctly be called God, being as it is God’s active principle in the world. It is God’s charioteer in the same sense that the created world is the chariot of the Logos. It is how God interacts with the world. If we are a thought in God’s mind, the Logos is the act of thinking.
But for the average Jew who doesn’t necessarily harbor any need or desire to penetrate lofty mysteries such as these, the Logos is a gateway to God. It enables the human soul to speak to God almost as an equal, but not quite. It brings God down into the world but allows God to remain holy – distinct from it. It is God’s glory, God’s hand, God’s arm, God’s wrath, God’s wisdom, God’s thoughts, all these and more. It is everything about God to everyone, but it is still not quite God’s essence. It is the Logos – as un-Jewish a term as can be found, but somehow as Jewish as the Bible itself.
The idea of the Logos was found to be incredibly useful in monotheistic theology. It formed the basis of post-Biblical Judaism and Christianity. How could such a basic idea be the foundation of two such theologically opposed religions?
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