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Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived at the same time as Jesus (albeit in Egypt) and during the time of the early church, taught a trinity very similar to what the Scriptures teach concerning the Trinity.

Philo taught that there were three divine Beings, the first, God, the second, the Logos, and the third, the Divine or Holy Spirit, and that God created the Logos and the Divine Spirit from his own "essence".

He said that God created through the Logos, and he said that the Logos was the "first-born", the Governor and Administrator of All Things, a High Priest, and that Adam was made in his image. He also said that the Logos would be the Messiah, sent as a son to do the will of his father, who is God.

Philo taught that the Divine or Holy Spirit would possess people, be breathed on people, and would lead them to seek God, and that it proceeds from God.

Christian doctrine teaches all of these things, except that the Logos and the Holy Spirit were created by God, but instead teaches that they themselves are God, although subordinate to the Father. Philo, however, was born significantly before the advent of Christianity, and died just around the time that Saint Paul would begin writing his letters; in other words, he came before Christianity.

How can it be shown that Christian theology was not influenced by Philo's philosophy, or that they at least came to the same conclusions using that same source, namely, the Old Testament?

  • Possible duplicate of Philosophical proofs that God must be triune? – Geremia Nov 16 '18 at 20:21
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    @Geremia No, it is not. I am not looking for proofs that God is truine, but instead am asking if Philo's philosophy indluenced the Christian idea of the Trinity. – CMK Nov 16 '18 at 22:20
  • @CMK Since there is a notable difference in the questions of the doctrine of the Trinity being "inspired by" or "influenced by", could either change the question in the header or the question at the bottom of your explanation of the question to be the same wording? I think there isn't much of a question that the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity was influenced by Philo, but the Christian concept of the Trinity being inspired by Philo (as in Christian doctrine wouldn't include the Trinity if it weren't for Philo) is a distinct question. I geared my answer more toward the 2nd option. – Alex Strasser Nov 18 '18 at 6:28
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    @AlexStrasser I do recall using the phrase, "inspired by" in my question, and I cannot see it there, although I am perhaps overlooking it. However, if I did use the term, I would use it to mean the same thing as "influence by". – CMK Nov 18 '18 at 7:19
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    @SolaGratia I changed it back. I agree that that new wording assumes that the concept of the Trinity was influenced by Philo's philosophy, and I was asking whether or not this was the case in the first place. – CMK Nov 19 '18 at 10:37
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From the introduction of The Trinity, Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., gives the following objection and responds to it:

The five following truths, then, are announced in the Prologue of St. John's Gospel: the Son of God is

  1. distinct from the Father,
  2. equal and consubstantial with the Father,
  3. the Creator,
  4. the author of both the natural and the supernatural life,
  5. the Redeemer and the author of salvation.

In this way the divinity of the Word is proclaimed.

Objection. The rationalists and liberals say that this doctrine of the Word apparently stems from Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, born about 20 B. C., who tried to conciliate the monotheism of the Jews with the Neoplatonism in vogue at the time in Alexandria. Relying on the Old Testament, Philo admitted the existence of one personal God, the Provider, but in accord with the Greek philosophers of Alexandria he held that the most high God could not produce this finite world except through some intermediate being [Demiurge], which he called the λόγος (logos). As a Jew, Philo tried to reconcile two contradictory teachings, namely, monotheism and free creation with the pantheistic doctrine of necessary emanation. Thus, when he considers the λόγος under the Neoplatonic aspect he speaks of him as an intermediate being, but when he considers the λόγος in the light of the New Testament and Jewish monotheism he speaks of him as a divine attribute.

Reply. The Catholic reply to this difficulty is the following. A great difference exists between the λόγος of Philo and the Λόγος ["Word"] of St. John [ch. 1]. The Λόγος of St. John is neither a being beneath God nor a divine attribute, but He is properly the Son of God the Father, at the same time God, the Creator, and the Redeemer in the strict sense. Philo's λόγος, however, is in no way the Redeemer. St. John's teaching, therefore, is not derived from Philo, but from Christ's preaching, as explained by him, and as understood by the other apostles, as we see in the preaching of St. Peter and in the epistles of St. Paul. St. John could have found an adumbration of this mystery in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Wisdom, "for she is a vapor of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her. For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty" (7:25 f.).

As to the word "Λόγος" itself, St. John could have taken it from revelation, but it would not be derogatory to admit, as many do, that he derived it directly from Philo, for when the Evangelist was writing in Ephesus, Apollo was preaching there, and Apollo was widely versed in Alexandrian philosophy. Quite probably also the earliest heretics misused the word "λόγος" to designate a being midway between God and the world. St. John may have used the term to correct the current false interpretation, when he said, "The Word [Λόγος] was God." [John 1:1]

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Answer

Original question: Was the Christian concept of the trinity inspired by Philo's philosophy?

No, the Christian concept of the Trinity is not inspired by Philo's philosophy. It seems most probable that Philo based some of his writings on the Trinity from his knowledge of Jesus and Holy Spirit in the events of the Gospels, some writings as a philosophical expansion on the previous renderings of the Logos, and some writings based on the Old Testament, as the word Logos in the Septuagint appears quite often. See this link. Additionally, you asked

How can it be shown that Christian theology was not influenced by Philo's philosophy?

"Influenced by" is quite distinct that "inspired by," unless you meant these words to be synonymous. "Inspired by" generally entails being the source of something, vs an "influence" just affects something else in any way, shape, form, or extent. I would say that Christian theology is/was influenced by Philo, probably even a much smaller extent compared to Arian. So the exact answer would be I don't think it can be shown, because it seems probable that Christian theology was influenced by Philo, though not inspired by.

Discussion

The exact answer to your question depends on what exactly you mean by the "Christian concept of the Trinity." If you are referring to the creeds formulated at Nicaea, then it is probable that those were affected by Philo's heterodox teachings. If you are referring to the doctrine of the Trinity as believed by ante-Nicene church fathers, then it is also probable that Philo's writings affected them, since ante-Nicene includes all of 1st century up until 325 AD. If you are referring to the doctrine of the Trinity itself, then no...see below.

An important element of this question hinges on the dating of Philo's works, since he lived 20 BC to AD 50. If the Christian concept of the Trinity is inspired by Philo's writings, then his relevant writings should be prior to when the Christian concept of the Trinity was established. I have unsuccessfully attempted to find any date given to Philo's writings, of which the ones including the Trinity and the Logos being the most relevant and central to this question. Philo spent a large portion of his writings and his life on Genesis and the Pentateuch rather than the Trinity.

The concept of the logos is familiar to Greek philosophy prior to Jesus' time and starting in the 5th century BC with Heraclitus, though with somewhat of an inconsistent and transient usage. Aristotle used logos in combination with ethos and pathos in his writings on persuasion. Read more here. Philo's discussion of the Logos could be a purely philosophically-based expansion on the previous philosophical/theological renderings of Logos, as the Logos had already had theological implications at least with the Stoics in the 4th century BC.

The New Testament writings were most likely all written after the death of Philo in AD 50; however, the events of the Gospels all happened by AD 30. The earliest church father I am aware of besides the New Testament writers, Ignatius of Antioch, was born in AD 35. I doubt he would have been able to write a treatise on Jesus as the Logos before Philo did. I don't know if we can know how the apostles applied the term Logos to Jesus before the Gospel accounts. In Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, Peter and Philo supposedly met, which is relevant. It is also possible that Philo was familiar with the events occurring with Jesus, including the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, "breathing" the Holy Spirit on the disciples, etc., which explains some of Philo's writings on the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) and the Trinity. He probably (possibly?) would have been familiar with what the Christians taught and believed about Jesus, so that most likely would have affected his writings.

You could prove me false by demonstrating that Philo's writings on the Trinity pre-date the events of the Gospels (before ~AD 25). It is difficult to otherwise separate what Philo knew of Christian beliefs at the time of his writings. Jesus was born around 4-6 BC, so his ministry started around AD ~25-27, so if Philo wrote extensively on the Trinity (especially and specifically pneumatology) before the events described in the Gospels, then I would be wrong. Otherwise, I would think it is the Gospel events (not the books) that are Philo's primary basis for his doctrine. To have such sophisticated work on the Trinity would be extremely surprising based on the Old Testament alone.

Conclusion

In short, this is a great and difficult question; I don't think we have the data to come to a solid conclusion on this. And this was a terrible answer but just wanted to give you some information for your consideration in finding an answer to this question. Summary: I think Philo based his writings on the Logos from the Old Testament and philosophy, but his writings on pneumatology the events contained in the Gospels that he would have heard about.

Edit: This link (also linked in the Answer section) helped me see you could have some substantive writings on the Logos from the Old Testament alone, especially with a philosophical background because Logos appears a decent amount in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

Therefore, it seems that Philo bases his ideas of the Logos on philosophy + Old Testament considering that he does quote it, see this answer, but the ideas of pneumatology on Gospel events since those seem to be very specifically from Jesus' ministry and teachings, and probably some overlap between the two. Jesus often referred to the Old Testament to reveal the Trinity, so Philo could have been aware of that.

P.S. if someone can give me dates for any/all of Philo's writings, that would be wonderful.

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    Thanks for your answer. I agree that if Philo's works were written after 30 AD, there is good reason to believe that they were influenced by the life of Christ. I didn't find any dates for Philo's writings either, although the sources that I looked at were eager to say that Christianity was influenced by Philo. Thanks for the resources as well. – CMK Nov 17 '18 at 1:19
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    Philo never met Christians... – Joseph Hinkle Nov 17 '18 at 2:31
  • @JosephHinkle How do you know, exactly? This would be a defeater to the argument, of course. – CMK Nov 17 '18 at 6:32
  • @CMK The OP made that claim, and that claim needs to be substantiated. The only historical data I know of which claims Philo met Christians is a forged document of a conversation between him and Paul. – Joseph Hinkle Nov 17 '18 at 21:52
  • Really a proper answer should discuss how proto-orthodox Christians such as Origen quoted Philo. In that sense you could say Philo contributed to the proto-orthodox understanding of the Logos and the Trinity, and then how those understandings led to the final development found at Nicea. – Joseph Hinkle Nov 17 '18 at 21:54
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Although Philo's philosophy may have some similarities to the doctrine of the Trinity (there are other like examples), it did not contribute to this doctrine, as even Moses and Abraham "implicitly and under a veil" knew of the Trinity.

  • Thank you for your answer, but that is only an assertion. How can it he shown that Philo's conception of a trinity is sufficiently different the Christian conception of the Trinity? – CMK Nov 16 '18 at 22:24
  • @CMK The question of the difference between Philo's idea of the Trinity and orthodox Trinity would probably be better addressed with this or the general trinity questions like this. There are several important differences, including the ones you mentioned in the question. I also attempted an answer to your original questions. – Alex Strasser Nov 16 '18 at 23:27

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