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Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929], at



TWO religions of Egyptian origin have already been investigated: the cult of Isis and the garbled philosophy of "Hermes Trismegistus." Both were typical gentile systems, characteristic products of Hellenistic syncretism. Each cultivated its own peculiar type of individual regeneration: the Isiac a realistic, emotional experience conditioned by the proper performance of cult rites, and the Hermetic a subjective, intellectualized experience all but completely divorced from ceremonialism. At the beginning of the Christian era, there was a third Egyptian syncretism which was characterized by a mysticism peculiarly its own, yet resembling in important ways the other types of mystical experience current in Alexandria. This, strange to say, was a Jewish syncretism--the religion of Philo the philosopher, the great Jewish contemporary of Jesus and Paul.


There is no man of Paul's period more important for an understanding of the Christian Apostle or of Hellenistic Christianity than is Philo of Alexandria. Even the casual student of the times cannot but be impressed by certain outstanding similarities between the environments and experiences of Philo and Paul. Both were Jews of the Diaspora, and each was reared in one of the great centers of Graeco-Oriental civilization; for Alexandria, even more markedly than Tarsus, was a focal point for Hellenistic culture with its characteristic blend of elements oriental and occidental. Reared in similar environments each attained a certain prominence in his own racial group. For Paul it was an early attainment when, as a young rabbinical student of favored family, he "outstripped many of his own age and race in his special ardor for the traditions of his fathers," and became the zealous defender of Jewish orthodoxy against Hellenizing Messianists. As for Philo, being related to the Alabarch Alexander, he was a member of one of the "best families" in the Alexandrian Jewish community. This fact is fixed whether or not the assertion of Jerome that he was of priestly race is credited. That Philo himself, at least in his later years, rose to a position of influence on his own account is shown by the fact that when he was of advanced age he headed the Jewish embassy to the Emperor Caligula in A.D. 40. Thus Philo, like Paul, crowned his career with a journey to the imperial city, the Alexandrian as head of a delegation of protesting provincials, and the Tarsian as a propagandist on trial for his life.

Not only were Philo and Paul both Jews of the Diaspora prominent among their fellow-countrymen but they were also both thoroughly en rapport with the gentile life of the times. This their own writings certify even in matters of vocabulary and style. Paul wrote good Hellenistic Greek in a manner suggestive alike of the informal letterwriting of the period and of the fervent exhortations of popular street preachers. Philo, on the other hand, formed his diction according to that of Greek classical authors, the influence of Plato being particularly notable. He was familiar with the writings of the great Greek poets also, Homer and Euripides and the others, and on occasion he quoted from them. He was acquainted with the works of Phidias and mentioned them in no uncomplimentary manner--a remarkable thing for a Jew to do. To the varied play of contemporary gentile life he was also responsive. Like Paul he was well acquainted with the athletic festivals of the Graeco-Roman world, and had a detailed familiarity with the rules of the games and the habits of competitors. Also he possessed extensive knowledge of the ordinary curriculum of gentile education and discussed it with real insight. The art of music and the practice of medicine commanded his attention. Furthermore, he made extensive observations and pronouncements on political and social problems, thus displaying a keen interest in these important phases of the secular life. Because he, a prominent Jew of the Diaspora, was thus open to gentile influences, the study of his religious experience is especially significant in relation to the experiences of Hellenists generally.

Another reason why Philo is particularly important for a study of religious developments in first-century life is because his writings, like the Hermetic literature, represent a blend of philosophy and religion such as was characteristic of the age. Here there is contrast between Philo and Paul. The latter was consciously scornful of gentile philosophies. For the classical systems of Hellas he had little use, and it was to Stoicism chiefly that he was responsive. Philo, on the other hand, had a hearty admiration for the philosophy of the Greeks. Among gentile authors the philosophers were the ones whom he most highly esteemed. Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno, and Cleanthes seemed to him divine men and members of a sacred company. But he showed the greatest fondness of all for Plato "the great" and "the most sacred," and probably he would have declared himself to be more indebted to Plato than to any other thinker of Greece. Certainly his own system, if we may thus characterize it, bore many of the characteristic marks of Platonism. His prejudice in favor of this classical philosophy was generally recognized in early times and gave rise to the proverb, "Either Plato philonizes or Philo platonizes."

Notwithstanding this predilection, however, Philo borrowed freely from other systems as well wherever he found elements that were useful to himself. Pythagorean tradition was particularly attractive to him. He spoke of this school with veneration and was himself characterized as a Pythagorean by Clement, of his own city. But he was at least equally indebted to Stoicism, and recent writers have tended to emphasize his affinities in this direction. On the philosophical side, Philo presents a notable example of the eclectic tendencies of the time, and one reason why it is so difficult to reduce his thinking to a definite system is because of its syncretistic character.

In spite of his appreciation of Greek philosophy, Philo yet remained at heart a religionist consciously loyal to the practices of his fathers. It was not one of the thinkers of Greece but Moses himself who was the greatest of lawgivers and philosophers, he believed. The fundamental assumption on which his whole elaborate and disparate system was based was the absolute authority of the Mosaic Law. In the Torah he found the perfect and supreme revelation of the divine wisdom. Each word in it was written by Moses at specific, divine dictation, or at least under the direct inspiration of God. While the Pentateuch stood on a solitary level above all the other sacred writings, Philo regarded the prophets also as interpreters of God, who made use of them in revealing his will to men. This Jew of the Diaspora, living at a considerable distance from the Jerusalem center of his religion, still found himself in sympathy with the teachings of the prophets and maintained an intense loyalty to the Law.

With his admiration for Greek philosophy and his loyalty to his own religion, Philo found himself in a dilemma. He was unwilling to yield either the philosophy or the religion; so he sought to reconcile them. In this attempt he was but trying to do what other thoughtful men of his own race in the same environment had endeavored to do before him. Over a century and a half earlier, Aristobulus had worked out certain analogies between his ancestral faith and the speculations of Plato, which he explained by the assumption that the Greek philosopher borrowed his ideas from Moses. Taking this as his cue, Philo proceeded to read into the Pentateuch whatever he considered worth while in the different systems of gentile philosophy. This was, of course, a difficult and violent procedure; but Philo readily accomplished it by means of the allegorical method of interpretation, an instrument borrowed from the Stoics. Thus, partly to satisfy his own mind, doubtless, and partly to make the treasures of gentile philosophy available for his fellow countrymen, but most of all to commend the Jewish religion to fair-minded Gentiles, Philo wrote his voluminous works. To philosophical speculation he sought to lend the authority of religion and to religion, on the other hand, he endeavored to give intellectual respectability by the addition of philosophical accretions. In working out this blend of philosophy and religion, he was operating in harmony with the tendencies of the times as the development of Neo-Pythagoreanism, Hermetism, Gnosticism, and the inception of Neo-Platonism indicate. For the very reason that Philo interpreted religious experience in religio-philosophical terminology, his interpretation has peculiar interest and value.

In view of Philo's earnest endeavor to combine disparate elements, Jewish and Hellenistic, religious and philosophical, it is not strange that his formulations should contain many contradictory features. From the study of his writings it is impossible to reconstruct any clear-cut, consistent system of thought. In the reading of Philo one is continually encountering contradictions and discrepancies, and it is a constant problem to know just which of two incongruous statements represents the real thought of the writer or whether either does. If, however, it is impossible to derive from the study of his writings a consistent impression of his way of thinking, it is at least possible to get a comprehensive view of his thoughts. His writings are so voluminous that they are to be reckoned among the most extensive source materials for the period. The student of Philo has at least the advantage of being able to follow the author's thought through the most varied ramifications, even though he is in danger of losing his way in the mass of conflicting opinions.

In studying the religious experiences of Philo and his contemporaries, we are concerned primarily with a single phase of religious mysticism, the experience of regeneration. Since this experience, as then conceived, involved the immediate relationship of man with the divine, the study of the Philonian formulation of this experience may properly begin with an examination of Philo's thought of God.


According to Philo's own statement, there were for him two basic problems in theology. "One is whether there is any deity at all? .... The other question is, supposing there be a God, what is he as to his essence?" With the first of these problems Philo as a good Jew had no real trouble, but the second he pronounced "not only difficult but perhaps impossible." He struggled a great deal with this problem and generally succeeded in attaining a disheartening negative conclusion--that God is essentially unknown and unknowable. This, he argued, was not due to any obscurity on the divine side, but rather to human limitations. According to his theory, man must first become God--an impossibility--before he could hope to comprehend God. Philo's ultimate position concerning the essential nature of God was simply this: We know that God is, but we cannot know what he is. This bare conviction, he said, ought to satisfy the seeker after God. "It is sufficient for human reason to attain the knowledge that there is and exists something as the cause of the universe; but to press beyond this and inquire into essence or quality is superlative folly." In theory, at least, that was the conclusion of the whole matter for this Jewish thinker.

It is well known that Philo on occasion emphatically asserted that God is completely bare of all qualities. Then having emptied the term "God" of all qualitative content, he proceeded to fill it full again. He was not, after all, satisfied with the purely negative position that God is without quality. Instead he went on to make the assertion that God is at once the summation and source of all the good qualities known to men. In his account of the embassy to the emperor, he spoke of the Uncreated and the Divine as "the first good and beautiful and blessed and happy, or if one is to speak the truth, that which is better than the good and more blessed than blessedness itself and whatever is more perfect than these." Somewhat like a refrain in the writings of Philo there echoes the thought that "the active cause is .... better than virtue and better than knowledge and better than the good itself and the beautiful itself." This Philonian God, though the summation of all excellent and admirable qualities, was by that fact superlatively exalted above his creatures instead of united with them.

Certain other characteristics of Philo's deity completely differentiated him from men. Philo ascribed to him eternal causality and this, of course, put God into a class entirely by himself. Similarly, God was immutable while every created thing, by the very circumstance of creation, was subject to change. Philo's infinite God was further removed from his creatures by being superior to the conditions of time and place. In fine, the Philonian God was a personification of absolute perfection, the only perfect being in all the universe, a being full and complete in and of himself and entirely self-sufficient. "His nature is entirely perfect, or rather God is himself the perfection and completion and boundary of happiness, sharing in nothing else by which he can be rendered better." All of these characteristics peculiar to Philo's God: his creative power, his steadfastness, his superiority to time and place, his perfection, and self-sufficiency served to differentiate him completely from his creatures. The list of distinctive characteristics might be increased by reference to many other peculiar attributes. These, however, are sufficient to show on what a transcendent plane of solitary exaltation reposed the figure of Philo's God.

It is patent that the Alexandrian's conception of deity was an unusually exalted one. In view of the transcendence of the Philonian God, one might well question whether any relations were possible between the human and the divine. Admittedly, if Philo's abstract conception of the deity were carried to its logical conclusion, all mystical experience would be impossible for men.


Although Philo's God was far removed from humanity, man himself was not so far removed from the divine. The statement, paradoxical as it sounds, is no more contradictory than Philo's own thought as he expressed it. His idea of man was dualistic and very like the conceptions of human nature entertained by Orphics and Pythagoreans. In his opinion, man was a creature of higher and lower origin with a twofold nature to correspond with his beginnings. Following the Genesis account of creation, Philo affirmed that "the body was made by the Creator, taking a lump of clay and fashioning the human form out of it; but the soul proceeds from no created thing but from the Father and Ruler of all things." In another important passage in his writings, Philo emphasized the dual origin of man in mythological terminology obviously borrowed from a gentile source. Commenting on the Genesis story of the angels of God who became enamored of the daughters of men, Philo said that these angels were souls hovering about in the air. Some of the souls, attracted by the pleasures of sense life, left their pure abode in airy space and descended into material bodies to live. Engulfed in bodies as in a river and sometimes swept away by the life of the senses, these souls yet remained on the Godward side of man with a strong tendency to strive upward and return to the place whence they came. Whether Philo cast his thought in the gentile forms suggested by Plato or the Jewish forms suggested by Genesis, his emphasis was the same in both instances, on the dual origin of man, a being of heavenly origin on the one hand, of earthly origin on the other.

Corresponding with this view of the genesis of man was Philo's opinion of the constitution of human nature. Fundamentally, he believed man was a duad, consisting of a soul and a body. So far as his body was concerned, man was but a part of the material universe. His physical being consisted of the same four elements of which the remainder of the cosmos was constituted. "For he is composed of the same materials as the world," wrote Philo, "that is of earth, and water, and air, and fire, each of the elements having contributed its appropriate part." It is curious to find in the writings of an Alexandrian Jew this echo of the physical speculations of Empedocles and the Ionians.

Since man was thus a part of the physical universe, he shared in all the imperfections of matter. Philo was conscious of the religious problem involved by the earthy constitution of the human body, and his attitude on the problem was a mingled one. Although in one passage he spoke of the body in a Pauline figure as a "sacred temple of the rational soul," his usual language was very different in tenor. Like the Neo-Pythagoreans of his own day and the Orphics of an earlier age, Philo spoke of the body as the prison-house of the soul, a clog and a hindrance to religious experience. "Away my friend, from that earthy vesture of yours, he exhorted, "escape from that accursed prison, the body, and from its pleasures and lusts, which are your jailors." It was a matter of experience that the body, which was the seat of the sense life, actually weighed down the aspirations of the spirit. For the Alexandrian Jew, as for the Tarsian Christian, the body was a fertile seed bed for evil in which natural impulses, left unrestrained, would come to full fruition in specific sins. On occasion Philo took the extreme position that man's physical nature was inherently evil in and of itself. Thus, because of his physical constitution, man was far removed from the perfect God.

This, however, was only half of the story. Man was not only body but body plus soul, and by this circumstance he was raised above the level of mere earthly existence. As a compound being of dual origin, one part heavenly and the other part earthly, man stood on the borderland between two different realms, his citizenship in both. The higher element in the human constitution Philo emphasized equally with, if not even more strongly than, the lower part of his nature. "The body has been fashioned of earth," he granted, "but the soul belongs to the ether, a fragment of the divine." By reason of this higher element in his make-up, man had inherent within himself the possibility of some sort of relationship with the deity.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Philo's was not an unmodified dualism pure and simple. At one important point he complicated his theory by allowing for a twofold division of the higher element in man, the soul. On the one hand, Jew that he was, he viewed the soul as vital energy, the principle of life in matter, essentially irrational and possessed in common by both men and animals. On the other hand, like a Stoic, he viewed the soul as man's rational capacity, the impress of divine reason, an element linking the human with the divine. Of these two parts of the soul the latter was, or should be, the dominant and superior element.

Philo's conception of the irrational part of the soul with its troublesome sense-life need not concern us. Like the body it was a negative and deterrent factor in religious experience. Not so the rational part of the soul, the intellect. This element belonged pecullarly to man among created beings and served to differentiate him completely from other animals. Philo reiterated this point with emphasis: "Man is the noblest of animals by reason of the higher element among his component parts." This reasoning power not only differentiated man from the creatures of earth but gave him kinship in heaven and related him, in a way, to deity. God himself was the creator and archetype of the rational nature, and to this sovereign element in the human constitution he had assigned the governance of the lower elements in human nature.

Like contemporary Stoic teachers, Philo isolated in man's rational nature the all-important human factor in religious experience. In contrast to the material body and the animating principle, he viewed the intellect as a help rather than a hindrance in lifting man up to God. Instead of being an alien element, it was itself related to the divine, and was inherently capable of further fellowship with deity. Thus, while Philo's conception of God was so exalted as scarcely to admit of any interrelations between humanity and divinity, his conception of man was at once a lowly and an elevated one, humble in respect to man's body and sense life but exalted in respect to man's rational power. The latter element, Philo believed, itself closely akin to the divine, threw open to man the possibility for mystical religious experience.


Being a creature of dual nature man was, in Philo's thought, the scene of an incessant conflict between the higher and lower elements in his constitution. The body constantly hindered the soul in its aspirations, and the soul was ever seeking deliverance from the imprisoning body. The rational element constantly strove to maintain its supremacy and the irrational desires were ever struggling to free themselves from restraint. In man's lower nature there was a continual pull away from God.

But Philo also recognized man's yearning for God, by virtue of the rational soul which was the dominant part of his constitution. Granting that the endeavor for fellowship with the divine might prove a futile one, Philo was yet convinced of the worth-whileness of the effort. "There is nothing better," he said, "than to search after the true God, even if the finding of him should escape human capacity, seeing that even eagerness of desire to understand him in itself produces unspeakable pleasures and delights." Logically, then, the next task is to chart, following the lead of Philo's thought, the various steps in this upward striving of the soul.

For the man who had neglected his God-given rational heritage, and surrendered himself to the control of his lower nature, the first step was a realization of his position, an awakening to the consciousness that in surrendering to pleasurable cravings he had violated the divinely prescribed order of things for humanity and dethroned the rational element which should be supreme. In this process Philo usually thought of man's own intellect as playing the part of conscience. He spoke of it as the real man, the better self, who in all the critical, moral, and religious issues of life deserved to have the deciding voice. Philo did not, however, view this testing and convicting function of the intellect as a pure exercise of human endeavor, by any means. Recognizing the close kinship of the human and the divine at exactly this point, be considered the human understanding as "intimately related to the divine Logos, an impress or particle or effulgence of the blessed nature," and frequently in his writings Philo represented the Logos itself as exercising the functions of conscience and arousing man to a realization of his evil ways.

Under the promptings of this agency man became conscious of his positive wrongdoings, of his limitations, and above all of his utter humility in relation to the deity. This humble attitude of self-depreciation in the divine presence was, in Philo's opinion, a precondition of progress toward fellowship with God. In a paradoxical statement Philo testified that it was only in this humble frame of mind that he himself even dared approach the divine presence. "When I perceive myself to be but 'dust and ashes' and what is even more despicable, then I have the courage to meet Thee, having become humble, cast down to the ground." The, preliminary to the soul's progress toward God was the realization, in the glaring light of conscience, of man's utter inferiority.

The next important step was the active turning away from the life of sensation and passion, desire and pleasure, which had previously ensnared the soul and caused its defection. The human intellect, in order to wing its way upward to the divine, must be freed from all trammels of the body and material entanglements. Not only must the reason be freed from the domination of the senses and restored to its governing position in the human constitution, but it must also learn to distrust itself even and have confidence only in the Uncreated. In words that have a Neo-Pythagorean ring, Philo commented on Genesis 15:5.

"The mind that is to be led forth and set at liberty must withdraw from all things, from bodily necessities, from the instruments of the senses, from sophistical reasonings, from plausible arguments, finally from itself . . . . . For it is not possible for one who dwells in the body and among mortal men to have communion with God, but only for him whom God delivers out of his prison."

Later in the same work, Philo addressed an exhortation to his own mind to withdraw from all physical connections.

"If you seek God, O my mind, go forth out of yourself, and seek for him. But if you remain in the substance of the body, or in the vain opinions of the mind, you are then without any real wish to search into divine things, even if you do put on the appearance and pretense of seeking them."

Fundamentally, therefore, a profound distrust of sensation and a complete disregard of the body was at the basis of Philo's supreme religious experience, as it was in the case of Hermeticism.

This distrust of the world of sense was but the reverse of a very necessary positive attitude of mind. The turning away from the visible world as unreal must be accompanied simultaneously by a turning toward the invisible as the only reality. At this point Philo's indebtedness to Platonism became particularly evident. These two processes, the turning away from the phenomenal world and the turning toward God, were intimately associated with each other in Philo's thought and writings. He compared the way of sensation to a slippery path on which men stumble and fall, and the way of contemplation and trust in God to a dry high road on which men make progress without hindrance.

In thus disregarding both sensation and reason, man passed beyond the limits of ordinary rational processes. It required a great perseverance of will to follow this Philonian injunction, and Philo himself recognized the, difficulties of the situation. He said:

"If you choose to make a profounder search and not merely a superficial one, you will clearly discover that it is not easy to put faith in God alone without dragging in something else . . . . . To clear away all earthly influences and to distrust the world of becoming which is of itself wholly unworthy of confidence, and to have faith in God alone, who alone is trustworthy, requires a large and Olympian understanding, one which is no longer enticed by our worldly interests."

Philo, like Paul, used the word "faith" to denominate this attitude of trust in God, and if one may judge from the frequency and the emphasis of his references to faith this personal attitude was almost as significant for the Alexandrian Jew as it was for Paul himself. He characterized the attitude as that "of the soul resting and established on the Cause of all things, who is able to do anything, but who wills to do only the best." Philonian faith, then, not only presupposed a complete distrust of self and the world but it issued in a glad confidence centered in the invisible God.

In spite of the handicap with which man started in his whimsical nature, in spite of a constant tendency to yield to irrational desires and subordinate the reason itself to the dictates of passion, the rational soul of man, according to Philo, was constantly yearning for better things. Man's own intellect, itself an emanation of the divine Logos, was ever busy playing the part of conscience, arousing man to a realization of his weaknesses and inferiority. If, in response to this stimulus, man learned to distrust himself and the world and to throw himself on the invisible God in an abandon of confidence, Philo believed he was in a condition to come in contact with the divine. The question naturally follows, Was there from the side of the immutable God any response to this change of attitude of man's part? Did Philo allow for an approach to man by God to match man's yearning for God?


A priori it would seem that any such action from the divine side would be unthinkable to Philo. Considering the fact that the Jewish philosopher conceived of God as pure being, essentially incomprehensible, devoid of all qualities, except as he was characterized by certain attributes peculiar to himself alone, it would seem improbable that Philo should admit a generally gracious attitude on God's part toward mankind as a whole, or an especially favorable attitude toward those imperfect but yearning souls who were striving for communion with the divine. Yet such was the case.

In general Philo viewed God as the source of all good for humanity. From him, as from an exhaustless fountain, there streamed an overflow of divine mercy that was the cause of everything good in human experience. One of his favorite epithets for God was "He who loves to give," and he freely expressed the conviction that the only limit to God's graciousness was man's capacity to receive.

Upon those who had abused their God-given endowments but were conscious of their mistake, the deity looked with special favor. In a pertinent passage Philo said that God graciously "makes all things easy" for those who "feel shame and exchange dissoluteness for self-control and loathe the base phantoms which they impressed upon their souls." It was not without the definite assurance of divine help, according to Philo, that the soul started out in quest for the central experience of religion. In a comment on Genesis 46:4 he elaborated God's promise "I will go with you" as follows:

"This I do because of my pity for your rational nature, so that by my guidance you may be brought up out of the Hades of passion to the Olympian abode of virtue, for to all suppliant souls I have made known the way that leads to heaven, preparing for them a thoroughfare that they might not grow weary of the journey."

Like the father in Jesus' parable of the lost son, Philo's God went out to meet the soul that was returning to him, and again like a father he was not satisfied until the soul had been liberated from its bondage to the body and conducted in safety to the freedom of its heavenly mothercity. The God of Philo, beneficent in his attitude toward men in general, was especially helpful to those who turned away the world and earnestly sought fellowship with him.

Notwithstanding Philo's recognition of God's gracious attitude of helpfulness, there yet persisted a distinct emphasis on the transcendence of God. One fundamental assumption that ever remained in the background of his thought and not infrequently came out into the foreground was the conviction that the Uncreated could not come into contact with any created being. In spite of man's aspiration and God's beneficence, there remained a huge gap between the human and the divine according to the Philonian scheme of things. To bridge this chasm the Alexandrian religionist had recourse to the idea of mediation, a conception already familiar to Jews and Egyptians and Gentiles generally, and to philosophers as well as religionists in Philo's day.

To carry on this work of mediation Philo posited three different classes of beings operating between God and man. Chief among them was the Logos, a semi-personification of God's thought or reason. In the theological constructions of Philo, the Logos held quite as important a position as it earlier held in the ethical thinking of the Stoics or the physical speculations of Heraclitus. Next in order and subordinate to the Logos were the powers, manifestations of the divine energy, who worked what was unseemly for God himself to do in the world. The gnostic affinities of Philo's thought were apparent in this connection. Finally, there were the angels who constituted a much more vague category in Philo's thinking than was usual in the case of a Jew. In their mediatorial work Philo assigned these beings an important function altogether helpful to mortals.

He drew a picture of the soul following after God and having is the companions of its journey "those rational powers who are commonly called angels" and the Logos itself. In the progress of the soul toward God, Philo considered the apprehension of the Logos as a preliminary stage to the apprehension of God himself, and he even affirmed, "God can only be grasped by means of the powers which accompany and follow him." In spite of the gap that existed in Philo's thought between the human and the divine, he made ample provision for bridging it by means of mediatorial agencies a part of whose business was to assist the soul in its quest for communion with God.


When, however, it came to this central experience in religion, the mediating agencies were for the most part disregarded by Philo and the human soul was left alone with its God. At this point the one thing that mattered was man's real kinship with the divine by virtue of his intellect. In so far as that rational element came to self-realization, it strove for union with the, divine origin of its being; hence there was in the soul itself an inner urge that impelled it Godward. The ultimate goal of the soul's endeavor was an immediate vision of God himself. This, in Philo's estimation, was the supreme experience of the religious life. He compared it to the laurel wreath that awaited the victorious athlete. He asked:

"What lovelier or more fitting garland could be woven for the victorious soul, than the power, with clear vision to gaze on him who is? Truly splendid is the prize held out to the wrestling soul--to be equipped with eyesight so as to perceive without dimness him who is alone worthy of contemplation."

Since God was the ultimate being in all the universe, the apprehension of him was the very summation of privilege. He who had caught that vision, Philo said, might well pray to stay there without change.

Of the supreme importance of that vision for Philo there can be no doubt. However, when the modern student attempts to analyze the experience, he finds it very difficult to get a lucid idea of the thought of the Alexandrian philosopher. Nowhere does Philo himself analyze the experience in any comprehensive way, and his references to it are so confused and contradictory that it is not easy to comprehend his ideas on the subject. it is plain, however, that for Philo the basic conviction growing out of the experience was the realization that God is incomprehensible. "When the soul that loves God searches into the nature of the Existent, it enters into an invisible search, from which the chief benefit which accrues to it is to comprehend that God is incomprehensible and to see that he is invisible." The case of Moses was the classical example which Philo adduced to illustrate this point. In briefest terms, then, the Philonian vision of God meant a contemplation of the divine being eventuating in the conviction that he was incomprehensible.

With such a negative result, however, Philo himself was ill content, if we may judge from his other references to the subject. In the face of his own theory of the transcendence of God, he persistently asserted, though usually with some reservation, that the direct vision and the immediate apprehension of God were possible for humanity. Some there were who were able to overleap the bounds of the material universe and get a distinct impression of the Uncreated. Philo went farther and in terms of real enthusiasm attempted to describe such an immediate experience of God. In one passage, after prescribing certian preliminary conditions, he showed how the soul might be consecrated as a living sanctuary to God. This was the glorious possibility he pictured: "Then he may appear to you visibly, causing incorporeal rays to shine upon you, granting visions of his nature, undreamed of and ineffable, which are the overflowing sources of all other blessings. " The usual comparison that Philo employed in attempting to describe the vision was the simile of light, so familiar in the Hermetic literature. In a more extended description of the experience he said:

"A bright, incorporeal ray, purer than ether, suddenly shining upon the soul, revealed the ideal world as under guidance. But the Guide, encompassed by unstained light was hard to behold or divine, for the soul's vision was obscured by the splendor of the rays . . . . . Then the Father and Savior, seeing her genuine longing, pitied her, and imparting power to her sight, did not withhold the vision of himself, in so far as it was possible for a created and mortal nature to contain it."

The concluding qualification in this passage was typical of Philo's thinking. Within the limits of this reservation, he allowed for the immediate contact of the human and the divine and made a real effort to characterize the resultant experience. As in this instance the experience was usually described as a process of mental illumination.

Thus far we have considered primarily the intellectual aspects of Philo's vision of God. It hid for him, however, a large emotional content as well. The contemplation of the divine being eventuated in an ecstasy which Philo interpreted as a matter of divine possession. He told of rapturous moments in his own experience which especially illustrate this phase of his religious thinking. He wrote on one occasion:

"I am not ashamed to recount my own experience. At times, when I proposed to enter upon my wonted task of writing on philosophical doctrines with exact knowledge of the materials which were to be put together, I have had to leave off without any work accomplished . . . . . But at other times when I had come empty all of a sudden I was filled with thoughts showered down and sown upon me unseen from above, so that by divine possession I fell into a rapture and became ignorant of everything, the place, those present, himself and what was spoken or written. For I received . . . . the most vividly distinct view of the matter before me such as might be received through the eyes from the most luminous presentation."

This famous account from the writer's own personal experience presents an unusual case of mental illumination for a particular task; but the phenomena represented are, in the main, the same as those exhibited in accounts of mystical experiences to which Philo made impersonal reference. Here was the vacant mind, the steady contemplation of a great theme, the sudden flood of ideas, and finally the rapturous sense of possession by divine power. The last factor Philo emphasized in an address to his own soul. He urged:

"Go out from yourself filled with a divine frenzy like those possessed in the mystical rites of the Corybantes, and possessed by the deity after the manner of prophetic inspiration. For when the mind is no longer self-contained but rapt and frenzied with a heavenly passion . . . . this is your inheritance."

To state the matter very simply and perhaps over simply, as a consequence of forgetting himself in the thought of God, Philo experienced an ecstatic sense of divine possession.

One who is familiar with the Philonian vocabulary cannot doubt the importance of this emotional element in his experience or Philo's own high evaluation of it from a religious point of view. His language is unusually rich in the vocabulary of ecstasy. Some of his more familiar terms are enthousiazein, "to be divinely inspired," korubantian, "to be frenzied" (like the Corybantes), bakeuein, "to be seized with divine madness," katechesthai, "to be possessed by deity," and the noun forms ekstasis, "ecstasy," and katokoche, "divine possession," are of frequent occurrence. In describing mystical experience, particularly in its emotional aspect, Philo used the most glowing terms of enthusiasm. He characterized it as a happy intoxication. To quote his own paradoxical words, the spirit in a state of ecstasy "is kindled into a flame of thanksgiving to God and becomes drunken with that drunkenness which does not intoxicate." This comparison was a metaphor that Philo employed more than once. Commenting on the story of Hannah rebuked for drunkenness during her devotions, he said, "In the case of the God-possessed not only is the soul wont to be stirred and driven into frenzy, but to be flushed and inflamed, since the joy which wells up within and makes the spirit glow transmits the experience to the outward parts." The quotation suggests what a highly wrought emotional experience divine possession was for Philo, and that it was not without its physical accompaniments and manifestations.

It is possible, however, to exaggerate the emotional phase of Philo's mysticism. On the whole the impression one gathers from his writings is that his ecstasy, however deeply felt it may have been, was of a calm and controlled type that was experienced in the solitude of contemplation. Philo's whole emphasis was on the quiescence of the human soul, and his ecstasy was that of one who was being acted upon rather than acting. To state the differentiation in terminology that Deissmann has made classical, Philo, like Paul, was a reacting rather than an acting mystic. Primarily, he viewed the action of God as decisive in the process, and man's experience was but the reaction to this divine activity. The trance of Adam when Jahve removed a rib from his body and made woman therefrom was, to Philo's mind, the prototype of the soul's experience in ecstasy. "The going forth (ekstasis) of the spirit," Philo said, "is a deep sleep which falls upon it. It goes forth when it ceases to busy itself with the ideas which impinge upon it, and when it does not exercise activity upon them it slumbers."I With special emphasis on the solitary character of the experience, Philo affirmed, "The most secure method of contemplating the Existent is with the soul alone, apart from all utterance." In view of Philo's stress on the passivity of the human spirit in the process, one must conclude that his mysticism was of the quiescent type.

In summary it may be said that Philo's experience of communion with God involved the concentration of all man's mental processes on the contemplation of the divine being and the complete loss of self-consciousness in an exultant sense of divine possession.


Did Philo consider this an essentially transforming experience--one that radically changed human nature and made man a new and different creature? There are clear utterances by the Alexandrian Jew on this point which make it evident that he believed the experience was a transforming one as long as it lasted. Philo's theory in this regard was radical. His interpretation of the word "ecstasy" was a very literal one and at the same time quite distinctive. To him it meant that man's rational soul not only left the body but even got outside itself. And when it departed what took its place? Philo was clear on that point also. Nothing less than the divine spirit came in and replaced the human intellect. Commenting on Genesis 15:12, he wrote:

"As long as our own reason encompasses us with brightness . . . . filling our whole soul as it were with noon-day light, we remain in ourselves and do not experience possession. But when the light of reason sets . . . . ecstasy and divine possession and frenzy fall upon us . . . . . For the reason within us leaves its abode at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when the spirit departs the reason returns to its place. For it is not fitting that mortal should dwell with immortal."

In this passage Philo cited the case of the prophet as the supreme example of the replacement of human reason by the divine spirit. It was not the prophet, he said, who spoke, but rather the divine spirit who made use of the prophet's tongue and mouth to declare God's will. In view of Philo's sharp differentiation between the human and the divine and his remarkably high estimation of the latter in contrast to the former, it is somewhat surprising to find that he does not shrink from pronouncing his prophets divine. The high point of his appreciation of the prophetic type is found in the following statement:

"The prophetic mind, when it has been initiated in things and is inspired, resembles unity . . . . . . Now he who cleaves to the nature of unity is said to have approached God with the intimacy, as it were, of a kinsman. For, abandoning all mortal types, he is transferred into the divine type so that he becomes akin to God and truly divine."

By virtue of the replacement of the human mind by the divine spirit, Philo believed that a man might be changed from a human into a divine being.

It should be stated immediately, however, that for the generality of men this transformation was not a permanent one, in Philo's estimation, but temporary and intermittent. However much the soul might desire to remain in the ecstatic state of divine possession, most men could not keep so completely concentrated on God and estranged from the world as was necessary in order to retain the divine presence. "He does remain sometimes," Philo said, "but he does not dwell always with most of us." In a passage distinguished for its literary quality as well as for its religious feeling, Philo depicted the human spirit standing as in the holy of holies of the temple, completely enraptured with the sense of the divine presence there in the sanctuary. "But when its divine passion is stilled," Philo continued, "and its ardent yearning slackens, it retraces its course from the realm of the divine and becomes man, lighting upon those human interests which lie in wait for it at the entrance of the sanctuary." Such, Philo believed, was the experience of ordinary men: a temporary impact of the divine spirit which, for the time being, operated to divinize a mere man, but which soon departed, leaving him human as he was before.

Some there were, however, a very few, with whom the divine spirit remained as a permanent possession. These were men of such steadiness of purpose that they could once for all cast aside all interest in created things and mere opinions and reach God with unrestricted and open mind. Moses was the great example of this type of men. He had entered the inmost shrine and there been initiated into the sacred mysteries. And not only had he become an initiate but a hierophant in the mystic cult, a teacher of divine things to those who had been purified. "With such a man," Philo said, "the divine spirit is ever present, showing him the way in every straight path." Philo made many references to men of this type in his writings and characterized them variously. They were the immutable ones who alone had access to the unalterable God. They were the sinless ones who were called divine. These men, he said, were "something new, surpassing description and really divine, existing not by human conception but by inspired frenzy." Much as Philo had to say about them, they were few whom he numbered in this favored class. Only Abraham and Moses and a very few others of the great heroes of his own race were thus classified. But for these exceptions, the permanently spirit-possessed man of Philo, like the wise man of the Stoics, was an ideal figure.

The direct study of Philo's writings, therefore, reveals that while in his thought God and man were so widely separated that mediators were deemed necessary to bring them together, yet as a matter of religious experience Philo did make allowance for the possibility of an immediate contact between them. On the one hand he recognized a yearning for God on man's part that expressed itself in a realization of man's utter inferiority, a complete distrust of sensation and disregard of all bodily connections, and a glad trust in God. On the other band Philo believed that his beneficent God was especially favorable to those who thus sought communion with him. In solitary meditation upon the incomprehensibility of God, Philo experienced a mental illumination that was for him the vision of God. The consequent emotional exaltation he considered to be a case of divine possession. For the time being, at least, the divine spirit replaced the human intellect, and the inspired man became a divine being. The experience, however, was not a permanent one, but intermittent so far as most men were concerned. There were only a very few men, the great Jewish heroes, whom he believed to be permanently in this divine state. For the mass of mankind, however, the transforming experience of mental illumination and divine possession was but a temporary phenomenon. Philo did believe that individual regeneration was possible. Save in exceptional instances he did not believe it permanently possible.


It remains to inquire concerning the genetic relationships of this peculiarly intellectualized mysticism of Philo. How did it come about that this Alexandrian Jew conceived the possibility of purifying the human soul by various subjective operations and finally having it elevated and transformed to rank as divine? Whence came the influences that convinced Philo of the possibility of such complete possession by the divine spirit as would enable the inspired man to understand the secrets of the divine nature? There are in Philo's own writings references which point the way to a solution of this problem.

The ideal of the spirit-possessed man Philo himself associated with the Stoic theory of the wise man. With obvious reference to thinkers of the Stoic school Philo asked, "Are there not even to the present day some of those persons who have attained to perfection in philosophy, who say that there is actually no such person as a wise man?" But Philo himself would not say this. For him wisdom did exist, and in the prophets and patriarchs of his own race he found the embodiment of this high Stoic ideal. Such men Philo regarded as intermediary between the human and the divine, less than God yet more than man. His conception was strikingly like that expressed in the Stoic dicta: "The wise man alone is divine, a prophet; the wise man alone knows God, is a priest, and practices the divine cult."

Granting that Philo's theory of the inspired human intelligence was a Jewish reinterpretation of the Stoic ideal of the wise man, it is important to note the type of Stoicism to which the Alexandrian Jew was indebted. It was not a philosophy pure and simple but a philosophy that had been modified in the direction of religion. Just as Stoic thinkers of the Greek world had made use of allegory to transform myth into philosophy, so in Egypt religionists had made use of allegory to transform Stoicism itself into a semi-religious system. The union in Philo's land and in Philo's era of Egyptian religious theories and Stoic philosophy is exemplified by certain of his contemporaries. There was, foremost of all, Chaeremon the Stoic, Nero's tutor in philosophy and at the same time a priest of an Egyptian sanctuary. Hecateus of Abdera, a Stoic of an earlier period, who accompanied Ptolemy Soter Soter on an expedition to Syria, showed his religious propensities by introducing spirit into the constitution of the universe as a fifth element along with the traditional four. Finally, there was Apion, Philo's great opponent and the bitter enemy of the Jews generally. Himself an Alexandrian Stoic he exhibited the application of allegory to the Egyptian God Thoth, "Lord of Divine Words." The admission of Stoic influence upon Philo's thought therefore leads directly to a consideration of the specific religious environment in Egypt which operated to transmute Stoic philosophy into a semi-religions system.

Do the writings of Philo betray a sensitiveness to religious as well as philosophical influences proceeding from his immediate Alexandrian environment? There was one group of religious influences to which Philo's works prove at rather notable indebtedness on his part. These were the stimuli coming from the mystery religions. Scattered all through Philo's productions there are a great number of references which prove beyond peradventure of a doubt Philo's familiarity with this type of religion. Of course he roundly denounced the mystery cults with their secret ceremonies enacted under the cover of night. For him either the teaching or the learning of mystic rites was "no small profanation," and he laid down the absolute rule that none of Moses' disciples might either initiate or be initiated. No loyal Jew could or would assume any other attitude than this one of outspoken denunciation. Philo, with all his mystical yearnings, could adopt the extremist position just because he as a Jew achieved the satisfaction of those desires in his own reworking of his ancestral religion.

Philo found in the scriptures of his race the sacred discourse that conveyed to him the secret truth which was the essential feature of a mystery. For the interpretation of that sacred lore he made use of the allegorical method, just as allegory was used for explanation in the sacred discourse of the mystery cults. Philo knew, too, of the various functionaries in the mystery ritual and the characters in the mystery drama who assisted the initiates to master the divine wisdom which meant their salvation. But he telescoped these functionaries and summed them all up in a singIe personage, the guide to the initiate, whom he called hierophant or mystagogue without distinction. In the heroes of his race this Jew found the personalities who served as initiators for himself. Moses was the one to whom he repeatedly referred as the great initiator. God himself had initiated Moses while in the mountain, and thereafter he was "a hierophant of the ritual and a teacher of divine things." Philo acknowledged that he had been originally initiated into the sacred mysteries by Moses. He did not shrink from speaking of himself as a hieropliant also, and he urged others to serve in a similar capacity for the uninitiated.

As was the case in the mvstery religions, he demanded the fulfilment of certain preliminary conditions before one could attain initiation into his intellectual cult. It is fairly clear that the specific requirements he had in view were of a moral character. In addition to the natural endowment of a good disposition, there must be irreproachable conduct are one could find the path of life and be initiated into the true mysteries. Philo also followed mystery practice by laying upon his disciples the charge of secrecy. Those who were adept in the lore of his cult were regarded as an esoteric group, and he addressed them with formulas that were familiar to mystery initiates. From their company all the unworthy were rigidly excluded. He reiterated the command that the initiated must not divulge the secrets of "the veritably sacred mysteries" to any of the uninitiated, lest the ignorant should misrepresent what they did not understand and in so doing expose it to the ridicule of the vulgar. Like the officials of the mystery religions, Philo insisted oil secrecy.

For Philo initiation into his intellectualized cult was the entrance into a new world, an invisible country, the intelligible world where "the purified mind could contemplate the pure and untainted nature of those things which are invisible and which are only discernible by the intellect." Hither Abraham went when he "returned to his fathers" and Enoch when "he was not." This was none other than the divine and heavenly region that was the locus of immortal life where Abraham and Isaac, having received immortality, had become the equal of the angels. Thus it was possible, through participation in the Philonian cult, to experience a foretaste of the immortal life. The significance of this fact in relation to the mystery religions of Philo's environment is that they too, in their ritual featured the passage of the soul to another world and in so doing gave a present guaranty of immortality.

Thus the cults of Philo's Egyptian environment exerted a large influence on his figures of speech and his thought-forms as well. When we inquire more particularly for the immediate religious influences that stimulated his ecstatic experience of regenerition and guided him in his rather elaborate theorizings on the subject, the natural place to look for them is in this same religious environment.

The characteristic contribution of Philo's land to the religious syncretism of the Roman Empire was the cult of Isis. We seen how this cult gave to the individual religionist the assurance of spiritual rebirth and the guaranty of immortality even while he was alive on earth. By means of certain initiatory rites of great spiritual potency, the neophyte who assumed the role of Osiris died to the old life of earth and was revived again to new life, reborn for eternity. These venerable Egyptian rites which from antiquity had been performed in the land of the Nile, for the benefit of the dead and of a privileged few among the living, were in the days of Philo practiced on ordinary folk who sought initiation into the cult.

In the ritual regeneration of this mystery religion, we undoubtedly have an important and immediate source of Philo's theory of mental regeneration. He was acquainted with the potent cult practices of the Isiacists--at least in a general way. He himself was conscious of mystical longings for contact with the unseen, fellowship with the deity, and the transformation of his ephemeral human nature into something more permanent and divine--desires which the Isis cult aimed to satisfy by its elaborate and impressive ritual. As a true Jew, even though a liberal Jew of the Diaspora, Philo could not think of participating in those rites. So he did the next best thing. He rationalized and intellectualized them and found in the experiences of his own mental and emotional life the satisfactions and guaranties that others found in cult practices.

In the rational part of man's nature he isolated a human element which he believed to be capable of exaltation and transformation and ultimate fellowship with the divine. As conditions preliminary to this process, he demanded a profound distrust of sensation, a great trust in God, and other requirements of similar character. These exercises corresponded to the physical and moral rigors prescribed for Isiac initiation. In the individual's quiet and steady contemplation of the divine perfections, a process which lifted the mind far above earthly considerations and ended in an ecstatic vision of God, he found the regenerative process in the course of which human intelligence was replaced by the divine spirit and man became a divine being. Much more realistically the devotee of Isis, in the rites of his cult, was given a vision of things divine, and, playing the part of a dying and rising god, he believed himself transformed into a divine being. A rite of deification and various other festivities left no doubt in his mind that the regenerative process was complete. For Philo also there were similar assurances. His vision of God eventuated in an emotional exaltation, a sense of being lifted far above earthly things and possessed by divine power. In this state of ecstasy Philo believed himself actually God-possessed, no longer human but divine.

For each important step in the process of Isiac regeneration, Philo had a parallel in his mystical religion. Only he was not at all dependent upon the external stimuli of cult practices. Philonian regeneration was largely self-induced and was normally experienced in solitude. It is altogether probable, therefore, that for his theory of mental regeneration Philo was directly in debt to the Isiac and other mystery religions of his immediate Egyptian environment, and that his own very private cult was a rationalization on the basis of his personal experience of mystery practices with which he was familiar.

The Egyptian origin of the Philonian theory of mental regeneration becomes all the more obvious when the writings of the Jewish thinker are compared with the Hermetic tractates. In both literatures the experience was described as an inward one, involving the phenomena of the mental and emotional life. For the disciple of Hermes, external rites had but slight meaning and for Philo, too, they had scarcely no meaning at all. The items of self-preparation for this experience were practically the same in both cases: man must train himself to consider the world as illusory, to disregard sensation, and to despise his body. In this process of self-discipline the Trismegistic prophet and the Jewish teacher alike stressed the element of human volition. "Have the will, deny the senses, purge yourself!" they commanded. Yet with all this volitional emphasis the transforming experience itself was in the last analysis conceived as a supernaturally conditioned affair. Philo and the Hermeticist as well came to a realization of this regeneration during a period of reverent silence and quiet meditation. They both described the experience in glowing terms of light as a great mental illumination in which they glinipsed a vision of God himself. The immediate result for the Jew as for the Egyptian was an ecstasy which each interpreted as divine possession. In that culminating moment the divine spirit flooded the human soul and temporarily, or permanently, transformed it into divine essence. From start to finish, therefore, Hermetic regeneration and the Philonian vision of God exhibited the most striking parallels.

It is altogether probable that the two were genetically and closely related. Although the Hermetic writings as they stand were later than those of Philo, they preserved antique elements embedded in them which date the beginnings of this religious movement far back in Hellenistic times. Hence, if these two intellectual cults were directly related to each other, Hermetism must be considered the original and Philonism the derived system. Waiving, however, the problem of direct relationship, it is certain that both came from the same Egyptian milieu and were both alike largely influenced by Hellenistic-Egyptian mystery speculation.

Thus the investigation of Philo's mysticism in relation to his immediate Alexandrian environment reveals the fact that in significant ways the thought and the experience of this Jew were influenced by the gentile religions about him. Consciously he remained intensely loyal to the religion of his forefathers. But he was a man of Hellenistic culture and broad sympathies. Hence his writings exhibited a marriage of Hebrew loyalty and Hellenistic spirit. Under the influence of gentile religions he learned to detach the individual man. He came to understand the general longing of Gentiles for personal salvation and the craving of many for mystical experience in particular. The latter desire was his own, also, and in somewhat intensified form. Taught by Egyptian mystery speculation and cult practice, he learned further to interpret his own religious experience in such a way as to allow for a mental regeneration that would bring man into direct contact with God. The Philonian literature, like the Hermetic, shows how strong and extensive was the influence of the mystery religions even among those who were not members of a mystery brotherhood. Of the two the Philonian literature has the greater significance in this particular, because it reveals the influence of gentile mystery practices on the religious thinking of a Jew.

Next: Chapter X: The Social Significance of Mystery Initiation