Ramblings on Philo and “Only One Way”

In this post, I will use as my starting-point something that Philo of Alexandria says in Special Laws IV:109.  Philo of Alexandria was a first century Hellenistic Jewish thinker.  Special Laws IV:109 is part of Philo’s larger discussion about the symbolism of the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

Leviticus 11:3 permits the Israelites to eat animals that have divided hooves and chew the cud.  By implication, according to Philo, the Torah prohibits the Israelites to eat land mammals that do not have divided hooves.  These prohibited animals would include those with solid, unsplit hooves, and those with toes.  (Note: Leviticus 11:27 prohibits the Israelites to eat animals that have paws.)

For Philo, each of these animals has symbolic value.  Land mammals that have divided hooves and that chew the cud, which are permitted as food, represent a lifestyle of distinguishing between good and evil (presumably in one’s walk) and meditating on wisdom.  The prohibited land mammals with unsplit hooves represent a failure or unwillingness to distinguish between good and evil.  The prohibited animals with toes represent the opposite extreme: the toes represent the existence of so many options out there, that one cannot determine which path is the best.

I can certainly identify with the problem of there being so many options out there, that it is difficult to determine which is the best.  This difficulty can apply to looking for a job or a health care plan, buying products, researching, and the list goes on and on.  There are so many dead ends.  One can be on a path and wonder if that is the best path to be on.

When I was thinking about Philo’s statement about many options, I thought about passages in the New Testament.

Jesus said in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him.  Here, Jesus is the only path to God.

In Luke 13:24, Jesus exhorts people to strive to enter the strait gate, for many will try to enter but will not be able.  Here, the strait gate seems to represent believing in Jesus and avoiding iniquity.  Jesus in vv 25-30 envisions a time when people who were aware of Jesus when Jesus was on earth would ask to be let into the Kingdom, but they would be turned away.  They are called workers of iniquity.  The people cast out are probably the religious leaders who rejected Jesus when he was on earth.

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus exhorts people to enter the strait gate that leads to life.  Here, the narrow gate probably refers to obeying Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and avoiding false prophets.  Calling Jesus “Lord” is not enough; one needs to be on the narrow way.

There are many evangelical Christians who believe that faith in Jesus is the only path to God.  For Christian exclusivists, this implies that people of non-Christian religions do not have access to God, or they lack a genuine relationship with God.  For Christian exclusivists, they are doing to hell.

Of course, Philo did not believe in Jesus.  But did Philo have a similar view, albeit one that regarded the Torah or belief in the God of Israel as the only path to God?

Philo did believe in a right path, which includes asceticism, not being weighed down by passions, virtue, contemplation of God and nature (which is orderly), and seeing God.  Philo apparently believed that the Torah was the best exemplar of that path.  In Life of Moses 2.44, he envisions a time when the nations will abandon their customs and embrace the Torah.  Yet, Philo did acknowledge the existence of wise, virtuous people in other cultures.  In “Every Good Man Is Free” I:73-74, Philo refers to Greeks, Persians, and Indians who were virtuous, contemplative, and wise.

Because there are different kinds of people, Philo also acknowledged that people could be on the path of truth in different ways, or at least that they could relate to that path differently.  A while back, I blogged through Erwin Goodenough’s By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  See especially my post “Grace and Philo.”  For Philo, Noah was a person who was virtuous, yet Noah failed to elevate his thoughts to the immaterial realm.  In a class that I took on Philo, I learned that, for Philo, the three patriarchs represented three different approaches to the spiritual life.  Abraham was one who gained spiritual enlightenment as a result of training and education.  Isaac had it by divine grace.  Jacob, by contrast, had to work hard to attain it and often fell, which is why he is sometimes called “Jacob” and sometimes called “Israel” (which relates to seeing God).  Philo also thought that a person’s path could encompass all three of these features: a person may be learning (Abraham) and struggling (Jacob), and God could then decide to give that person divine grace (Isaac) to make the path easier—-not by downgrading the path but by elevating the person and giving that person the insight and grace to walk the path successfully.

Is there only one way to God?  For exclusivist Christians, that one way is belief in Jesus.  This includes believing Jesus is God and accepting his sacrifice for forgiveness of sins.  But exclusivist Christians would acknowledge diversity among Christians who embrace that one way: Christians are at different stages and levels of understanding; they have different experiences.

For Philo, the one way, or the best way, was a spiritual path of contemplation, virtue, and asceticism.  Were beliefs unimportant in his conceptualization of that way?  Well, Philo did apparently believe that a person could walk that way without explicit belief in the God of Israel.  At the same time, he also probably held that certain Gentile beliefs and practices were inconsistent with the right way: idolatry, for example, which, according to Philo, brought the divine down to people’s level and treated the natural as supernatural.  In the first century, there were Gentiles who disdained idolatry and gravitated towards an abstract or monotheistic conception of the divine.  Philo may have held that they were close to the truth, if not on the true path.  In that case, a belief in monotheism, on some level, would be important to Philo.

Philo’s focus on the true path as a way of life more than a belief system (or a system of doctrines) is tempting to me.  I often wonder: Why stress out over beliefs?  Why not focus on the righteous path itself?  John Hick emphasized the commonality among religions of a respect for the transcendent and ethics.  Could not that be the righteous path, which is manifested in various ways across religions?

Yet, the exclusivist evangelical Christian view can be tempting, too.  The fact is that we do not walk that righteous path consistently.  If a path to God were to require asceticism, rigorous contemplation, and virtue, I would fall short.  Believing in Jesus looks much easier!  That is still consistent with a righteous path, though, for it entails belief in a Jesus who himself is righteous and who encourages our righteousness through his grace towards us, the hope that he provides for us, and his teachings and example.

Of course, things are messy.  Many of us are close to righteousness in some areas, but not in others.  I think of Jesus’ statement to the scribe in Mark 12:34 after the scribe affirmed the importance of loving God and neighbor: You are not far from the Kingdom of God.

There may be one path, but different ways of being on it.  With all the subjectivity and differences among people, one can ask if that in effect means different paths.  I think there is some commonality, even if there are differences.

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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