Beginning Goodenough’s By Light, Light

I started Erwin Goodenough’s 1935 book, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  In my latest reading, Goodenough covered a variety of topics.

1.  One topic that Goodenough discussed was Philo’s belief that God had different powers or aspects (i.e., being, logos, creative power, royal power, law-making power, and the power of mercy).  Goodenough denies that Philo thought that these powers were independent beings in themselves, and Goodenough refers to Christian modalism (perhaps as a parallel), which held that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three roles that one person—-God—-performed, rather than three separate persons.  And yet, Goodenough also compares the logos to Hera, who ruled for Zeus and had attendants (i.e., justice, law, peace, etc.), and my impression is that Hera was a separate being from Zeus.  Goodenough also says on page 71 that God as being “towers in brooding mystery even beyond the Logos.”  Goodenough may think that, according to Philo, God has different dimensions.  God has a transcendent existence, but a part of God (the logos) acts in the world, and God also shows justice and mercy, gives laws, etc.  But it’s the same God.  And yet, did not Philo refer to the logos as the “second God”?  He did, but was he in doing so intending to describe an independent being from God, or rather an aspect of God?

(UPDATE: On page 169, Goodenough distinguishes God in Philo’s thought from God’s “attendant Powers”, which seem to be like angels.  On pages 243, Goodenough says that, according to Philo, the logos radiates from God and differentiates itself into the powers.  God acts through the powers, and yet the logos is technically distinct from God.)

2.  Another topic that Goodenough engages is the relationship of natural law to the Torah, according to Philo.  Greek philosophy and Stoicism held that there was a natural law about the way things were and how people should act.  But it was believed that statutory law was a derivative of natural law rather than natural law itself, and that “As a universal existence the Law of nature seems to be everywhere present and active, but not everywhere in the same sense” (page 55).  Goodenough’s point may be that, in the mind of certain ancients, statutory law was an imperfect reflection of natural law.  How did this relate to the Torah?  Goodenough says regarding Philo on page 72: “By magnifying Law, and by orienting Jewish Law with Natural Law as the Law of God, the Jew could present his religion as the solution of the Greek problem, or of the mystic search of the Hellenistic Age.”

And yet, there was more to Philo’s thoughts regarding the Mosaic Torah, according to Goodenough.  Philo appeared to differentiate the Torah from a higher law, and, while Philo held that the Torah was closer to natural law than anything the Gentiles had, he still thought that “the Torah…is inadequate for a spiritually minded man, who would aspire, like Proclus, to become a [nomos empsuchos], not by obeying copies, but by getting [hoi alethes nomoi] to abide within the soul” (Goodenough on page 88).  Philo looked (at least in part) to the patriarchs, as he regarded the Torah as an “imitation of the true laws incarnate” in them (page 90).  Moreover, Philo believed that there was deeper spiritual meaning in the Torah—meaning that was consistent with Greek philosophical ideas about encountering the divine and subduing passions—-and thus Philo held that the stories in the Torah, not just the laws, could function as law.

I have questions.  Is Philo essentially saying what many Christians say—-that obeying an outward code is not enough, for people need the law to be written on their hearts?  I took a class on Philo, and what I learned seemed to suggest that Philo was sensitive to the issue of trying to become better through learning and practice, as opposed to becoming better by an act of supernatural grace.  Is Philo also overlapping with another belief held by many Christians—-that the Torah is a reflection of something else? 

(UPDATE: Goodenough clarifies Philo’s perspective on the Mosaic law and the patriarchs on page 121: “It has already appeared that Philo is by no means satisfied that the Jewish Law, as a literal revelation of the will of God, can be an adequate approach to Deity…[T]he literal Law was a thing designed for men in a material and essentially inferior state of being…[T]o Philo the way of approach to God in His immaterial aloofness has been revealed in the lives of the Patriarchs.  They had become the [vomoi empsuchoi], the incarnations of the will of God and of the life and nature of God…and as they had lived without the code in immediate experience of God, so they became at once the patterns for the code and the revelation of the higher and direct way to God by which they themselves had achieved union with Him.  The exposition of the mystic higher teaching of the Torah was to Philo largely an exposition of their lives.”)

3.  I’d like to turn now to a passage that I liked on page 16:

“Now it must be noted that in the Classic Age the Greeks had developed a tremendous sense that unaided humanity is helpless without some sort of human intervention.  Man is sinful by his very nature, and only as he can get out of that nature into the divine nature can he hope to really live, since life in the body is death.  A divine savior is at hand to give him this life, the Son of the supreme God and ‘the Female Principle,’ and into the very being of the savior the mystic can rise.  The means thereto are at hand, the sacraments…”

On page 17, Goodenough says that the Eastern church is more like the Orphist mystery religion than is the Western church, for, while the Eastern church looks at sin more as a contamination, the Western church sees it more in terms of guilt.

I have questions about what Goodenough says.  First, is there evidence for what the mystery religions did?  Goodenough refers to the Orphic Hymns, and so perhaps we have something.  And yet, there are scholars today (such as Bart Ehrman) who contend that we cannot look at Mystery Religions in seeking to understand the origins of certain concepts within Christianity, for there is much about the Mystery Religions that we do not know.  Second, did the Western church lack a notion of sin as a contamination from which people needed to be healed?  Irenaeus was in the West, and he seemed to hold to such a concept, for he focused on Jesus’ incarnation creating a new humanity.  Moreover, the belief that people could somehow unite with the divine nature was present in Western Christianity, if I’m not mistaken, for the argument that God became as we are that we might become as God is was not solely an Eastern idea.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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