A Comparison of Philo’s Special Laws I with the Epistle to the Hebrews

I recently finished Philo’s Special Laws I for my daily quiet time.  Yesterday, I moved on to Special Laws II.  Philo was a first century C.E. Jewish thinker in Alexandria, Egypt.  He interpreted the Torah in light of Greek philosophy.

Special Laws I largely focuses on the sacrifices within the Torah.  In going through Special Laws I, I thought about the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews.  In this post, I would like to draw some informal comparisons between the two.

A.  For Philo, the animal sacrifices are largely symbolic of the way that people should be, spiritually-speaking.  The sacrifice is a symbol for the person offering it.  The sacrifice is to be perfect, and that symbolizes how the person offering it is to be perfect: free from the slavery of human passions and appetites and clearly and rationally seeing God in God’s beauty.  The offering of the sacrifice represents the worshiper offering himself to God.  Philo even calls a person’s righteousness a mediator between that person and God.  Philo also says more than once that people need to approach God in a state of virtue, free from sinful attitudes (i.e., covetousness). 

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, by contrast, the focus is more on how the sacrifices prefigure Christ’s cleansing of people.  Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament sacrifices.  Christ also intercedes for believers as a high priest, one who knows their weaknesses because he himself was a human and was tempted as they are.

At the same time, one cannot take this observation in the direction of saying that Philo supports people saving themselves by their good works, whereas Hebrews is about God in Christ saving people by grace.  Philo acknowledges that God transforms people, which is an act of divine grace.  Philo realizes that even perfect people are not sinless, for nobody is perfect.  Philo states that there are sacrifices that bring about forgiveness of sin.  Philo knows that the high priest is an intercessor for worshipers, and he believes that the high priest is an intercessor, in part, on account of his virtuous life.

Themes like divine grace and forgiveness are not absent from Special Laws I.  It’s just that Philo’s focus is on how the sacrifices symbolize how human beings should be, spiritually-speaking.  Hebrews, by contrast, like much of Christianity, tends to focus on how humans are sinful and need a perfect sacrifice to bring them acceptance from God.  The sacrifice is not the human being, so much, as it is something perfect that brings salvation to the sinful human being.

And yet, the Epistle to the Hebrews does not limit its understanding of sacrifices to atonement.  Hebrews 13:16 states that doing good and sharing with others are sacrifices to God.  (I should also note that Romans 12:1 exhorts believers to offer themselves as a living sacrifice.  This can remind one of Philo’s belief that many of the sacrifices represent people offering themselves to God.)  Hebrews also has ethical exhortations about doing good and avoiding evil, so Hebrews does believe in trying to be virtuous, as Philo does.

B.  The Epistle to the Hebrews has scary passages about apostasy.  According to Hebrews, one can get to the point where one cannot sincerely repent, even if one wants to do so.  One can sin willfully, which is different from sinning out of weakness.  In Hebrews, willful sin after a person has learned the truth results in there being no more sacrifice for sin for that person.

In Special Laws I, I did not see anything about apostasy.  Philo does talk about God’s grace transforming people, and that stood out to me after I read John Piper’s comments on Hebrews 12:14-17.  Hebrews 12:14-17 states:

14 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:
15 Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;
16 Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.
17 For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
(KJV)

John Piper states regarding this passage in his article, “Has My Sexual Sin Made Me Unsavable?”:

There came a point where God withdrew from Esau. This meant that Esau was so hardened in his heart that even his weeping in search of repentance was phony at the root. He sought repentance with tears and they were fake. They weren’t penitent tears. He couldn’t cry real tears of repentance anymore. His tears were not true. He wanted the blessing. He wanted the safety. He wanted the gifts. He wanted the inheritance. He wanted heaven. But he did not want God. He loved this world. He traded something infinitely valuable for a single meal.

When I read Piper’s comments here, I wondered why God could not transform Esau in Esau’s state of spiritual helplessness.  That is why Philo’s statement about God transforming people stood out to me.

At the same time, near the end of Special Laws I, Philo takes a rather exclusivist stance.  Philo states that certain people should not approach the virtuous God.  Deuteronomy 23 excludes certain people from entering the congregation of the LORD: people with crushed testicles, or those born from fornication.  Philo in Special Laws I interprets this spiritually: God excludes people who are so enamored with their senses and their faculties that they forget God.  That attitude somewhat overlaps with what John Piper says Hebrews is saying about Esau.  The question would still be, however, if Philo believes that there is hope for such people, or if he thinks that one can arrive at a state of spiritual hopelessness.

C.  The Epistle to the Hebrews interacts with the concept of intentional and unintentional sin in the Torah.  In the Torah, there is atonement for sins committed unintentionally, but death for sins committed presumptuously (Leviticus 5; Numbers 15:27-31).  The Epistle to the Hebrews seems to draw from this concept: for the author of Hebrews, there are sins committed from weakness or out of ignorance, and these can be atoned for.  But sins committed willfully, and after a person has learned the truth and been enlightened, may not be atoned for.  See here for a post that I wrote on this topic.

Philo, too, interacts with the concept of intentional and unintentional sins.  Like rabbinic Judaism (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86b; see here for other references), Philo in Special Laws I holds that repentance can convert an intentional sin into an unintentional sin, making the sin forgivable. 

D.  One can conclude that the Epistle to the Hebrews believes that the physical Temple is null and void after the coming of Christ.  After all, why offer sacrifices at the physical Temple, when its sacrifices could not really take away people’s sins in the first place, and the fulfillment of those sacrifices, Christ, has come?  Why go to the Temple when Christ’s sacrifice brings about forgiveness of sins?

One may wonder, though, if Philo, too, believes that the physical Temple is superfluous.  Philo, after all, thinks that the Temple rituals symbolize the spiritual life: becoming virtuous and seeing God.  If a person can do these things apart from the physical Temple, is the physical Temple actually needed?

Philo in Special Laws I still seems to believe that the physical Temple plays an important role.  He thinks that the virtuous priests intercede for the people.  He also believes that the Israelites offering sacrifices and giving offerings brings physical and material blessing to the Jewish people: they preserve them and help things to go well in their lives.  For Philo in Special Laws I, the physical rituals are important, even if they symbolize something deeper. 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I 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. 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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Greco-Roman, Hebrews, Leviticus, Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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