Did Philo influence the Bible's description of the Son of God?
The Old Testament (OT) presents only one God. But then Jesus Christ appeared and claimed to be the “only-begotten Son” of God (John 3:16; 10:36), to have received all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18), and even implied to be the “I am” of the OT (John 8:58). This “I am” may be understood as “the angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush,” who is also called “God” and who said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exo 3:2, 4, 14).
So, the writers of the New Testament (NT) had to figure out who Jesus is relative to God. They wrote things of Jesus that Jesus never said of Himself, such as that:
- He is the “Logos” (John 1:1), the image of God (Col 1:15), and the “mediator … between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5).
- He was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1).
- God created and still maintains all things through Him (e.g., John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2-3; 1 Cor 8:6).
- God gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18).
As Christians, we like to think that this message of the only begotten Son of God is unique to the New Testament. It is then a little disquieting to discover that, before the NT was written, Greek philosophy, as interpreted by Philo, also spoke about a Logos who always existed, through whom God created all things, who is the image of God and the mediator between the Uncreated and created.
Given these similarities, the Internet Encyclopaedia article on Philo (IE) claims that the NT descriptions of Jesus are derived from Greek philosophy via Philo and therefore that Christianity is based on Greek philosophy. The purpose of this article is to evaluate this claim. For this purpose, this article discusses the similarities and differences between Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ and attempts to explain why such concepts existed even before the New Testament was written.
Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who wrote a few decades before the NT was written. “Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy. … He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’.” But Philo was also committed to the Jewish faith. By using “an allegorical technique for interpretation of the Hebrew (Bible),” he produced a synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy.
Foundations of Christianity
Philo is not important for Judaism. “Philo’s primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity.”
IE claims that the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) used Philo’s synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy to formulate the Logos theology. To explain:
The church began as a Jewish-dominated movement. After the church
became Gentile-dominated in the second century, Logos Theology became
the standard explanation of who Jesus Christ is and of His
relationship with God. We cannot deny that that theology was
substantially influenced by Greek philosophy.
But IE goes much further and even claims that Philo may have influenced the New Testament itself, particularly the writings of Paul, the gospel of John, and the epistle to the Hebrews.
By reading the Greek philosophy of his day into the Old Testament, Philo gave Greek philosophy a Biblical appearance. Therefore, what IE effectively claims is that Christianity grew out of Greek philosophy via Philo.
First, consider some of Philo’s views concerning God, namely:
- No other being, not even the Logos, is able to fully understand the One who exists without cause: Only God is able to fully understand God.
- God also created time and, therefore, for Him, “nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only.”
- “There never was a time when he did not create.”
Philo’s most important doctrine
When Philo lived, “the notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy” and Philo included the Logos in his interpretation of the Old Testament. Philo’s entire philosophical system hinges on his doctrine of the Logos. The Logos was his means of synthesizing the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. Furthermore, IE claims that it was also Philo’s doctrine of the Logos that created “the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century.”
The Logos in the Old Testament
Philo found the Logos in the Old Testament in:
- “The Word of the LORD” that is often said to come to the prophets and by which "the heavens were made,"
- The personified “Wisdom” (Proverbs), and in
- The Angel of the Lord.
A Personal Being
"Logos" is the common Greek word for “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” But, in Greek philosophy, the word Logos had a very specialized meaning, namely, “a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe.”
IE claims that Philo, by introducing the concept of the Logos into Judaism, has transformed the Logos from a metaphysical theoretical entity into a humanlike being and mediator between God and men.
Other prominent scholars (Ronald Nash, RPC Hanson, Rowan Williams) disagree. They say that “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.” The descriptions in Philo of “an individually subsistent Logos, distinct from the Father” are not literal but metaphorical.
My understanding is that Philo illogically describes the Logos as both a “metaphysical abstraction,” as in Greek philosophy, and as a Personal Being, as he interprets the Logos in the Old Testament to be. Rowan Williams adds, “To look for a clear definition or identification of the Logos in his writings would be … fruitless” (RW, 124).
Has always existed.
Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ have always existed:
Philo holds that “the Logos … constitutes the manifestation of God’s
thinking, acting.” Consequently, the Logos has been brought into
existence by God but always existed (because God has always existed
and never began to think or do).
Similarly, in the NT, the Son was "begotten," meaning that He has been
brought into existence by God. At the same time, the Son "was" in “the
beginning” (John 1:1-2) and is “the First and the Last” (Rev 1:17),
implying that He has always existed.
Literally first in time
Since, in both Philo and the NT, the Logos has always existed, the Logos has existed first in time. For that reason, Philo described the Logos as “the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father.” Jesus Christ, similarly, is “the ‘first-born’ of God” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), although this might also be interpreted symbolically
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has been uniquely generated:
Philo used “begotten” and “created” as synonyms but he says that the
Logos is neither uncreated as God nor created as men. In other words,
He was generated differently from created beings.
The NT, by saying that the Son is “the only begotten” and not only
“the first begotten” as in Philo, makes a distinction between
“begotten” and “created” and indicates that the Son was uniquely
Direct Agent of Creation
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the direct Agent of creation:
In Philo, “the direct agent of creation is not God himself … but the
Logos. … the Logos … was used as an instrument and a pattern of all
In the NT also, God created all things through the Logos (John 1:1-3;
cf. Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6).
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos maintains the universe:
In Philo, “the Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the
world” and “produces a harmony … between various parts of the
Similarly, in the NT, God maintains all things through His Son (Heb
1:3; Col 1:17).
Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ are subordinate to God:
In Philo, the Logos is “inferior to God” (Davis). “The supreme being
is God and the next is Wisdom or the Logos of God” (IE).
In the NT, the Father sent the Son and Jesus said, "the Father is
greater than I" (John 14:28). See - The subordination of the Son.
However, the orthodox teaching of the church accepts that the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father. The real question is whether the Son is also ontologically subordinate to the Father:
In Philo, “the ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an
emanation from the divine essence” (Davis). Therefore, He is also
ontologically subordinate to the High God.
The Bible nowhere explicitly teaches anything about the substance of
God or ontological equality.
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the mediator between God and man:
Philo described the Logos as the “mediator between God and the world,”
“continually a suppliant (pleading) to the immortal God on behalf of
the mortal race,” “to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of
Similarly, in the NT, “there is one God, and one mediator also between
God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15).
The Light of the World
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos illuminates the soul. In Philo, “the Logos … in the mind of a wise man … allows preservation of virtues” (IE). Similarly, John wrote: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.”
The Logos in our God.
In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is our God:
In Philo, “God is revealed to His creation through the Logos.” Due to
“the utter transcendence of the First Principle [the One who exists
without cause],” “man’s highest union with God is limited to God’s
manifestation as the Logos.” For Philo, the Logos is the only
experience of God that man will have. Effectively, therefore, the
Logos is our God.
Similarly, in the NT, God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man
has seen or can see” but the Son is “the (visible) image of the
invisible God” (Col 1:15). As the direct Agent of our creation and our
continued existence, and since we will never be able to "see" or
directly experience God, the Son is effectively the God of all created
Cannot become Flesh
Philo would never have accepted that the Logos “became flesh” (John 1:14) because “Philo disdained the material world and physical body. The body was for Philo … ‘an evil and a dead thing’.”
Philo also taught that “a wise man ... should be free of … pleasure, desire, sorrow, and fear.” But Jesus suffered sorrow and fear. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking.
For Philo, “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is” an indivisible part of the Logos. For this reason, the “Logos is apportioned into an infinite number of parts.” For that reason also, the human mind is imperishable and has the power of free will.
Did Philo influence the NT?
The following support the view that Philo influenced the NT:
The NT says things about Christ that Christ never said of Himself
but which Philo did say about the Logos, for example, that God created
and maintains all things through Him.
Since the word Logos had a very specialized meaning in Greek
philosophy, and given the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy at
the time, John’s description of Jesus Christ as “the Logos,” must mean
that John identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek Philosophy.
There are many other similarities between Philo’s Logos and the
Biblical Son of God. For example, both have an origin, have always
existed, are the direct Agent of creation, are subordinate to God,
have been uniquely generated, and are the mediator between God and
The differences between them do not take away the astounding similarities or our duty to explain these similarities.
So, how do we explain the similarities?
The Bible is not inspired.
In the view of Critical Scholars (theologians who do not believe in the supernatural), the NT is simply the result of the evolution of human thought and the reliance on Philo is proof thereof.
A Different Logos
An alternative is to argue that the differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God are great and that Philo, consequently, did not influence the NT writers. However, the similarities between them are too substantial and too specific to deny the influence of Greek philosophy.
A fourth possibility is that the writers of the NT used concepts from Philo to explain Jesus Christ to Greek readers in their own language. However, the similarities are too extraordinary (out of the ordinary, e.g., eternal, creator) to be simply explaining truths in Greek thought forms.
To oppose pagan theology
Nash proposes that the significant number of similarities between Philo and the letter to the Hebrews can be explained as that the writer of Hebrews uses the language of philosophy to describe the Christian message as better than philosophy; not bring philosophy into Christianity.
This may be part of the answer but it is very far from explaining all the similarities. For example, the description of the Logos in both as the direct Agent of creation cannot simply be an argument that Christ is a better mediator than the mediators of pagan philosophy.
Therefore, I propose that:
Greek Philosophy was inspired.
The large number of significant conceptual similarities between
Philo and the NT means that Philo was right in some respects about the
Logos. Since Philo’s writings were based on Greek philosophy, it means
that Greek philosophy was right in some respects.
God elected Israel to take His message to the nations of the world.
So, God worked particularly and extraordinarily with the Jewish
nation. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not working
with and inspiring people from other nations as well.
In contrast to the multiplicity of gods in the Greek pantheon,
Greek philosophy is monotheistic. Where did the Greek philosophers get
I propose as follows:
Firstly, to prepare the non-Jewish world to receive "the kingdom of
God" from the Jews, God, through His Holy Spirit, inspired Greek
philosophers, either through contact with Judaism or directly through
the Holy Spirit, to move away from Greek polytheism to monotheism and
with many truths concerning the nature of God.
Secondly, to make it easier for the writers of the NT to understand
who Jesus is, God inspired Philo to harmonize Greek philosophy with
the Old Testament.
Thirdly, through His Holy Spirit, God inspired the writers of the NT
to selectively accept Philo’s teachings and to explain Jesus Christ as
the Logos of Greek philosophy, as harmonized with the Old Testament by
I would like to support this proposal as follows:
Firstly, nothing prevents the Holy Spirit from using Pagan
philosophers for revealing truths to the people of the world.
Secondly, the Logos Theology that the second-century church fathers
developed explicitly explains Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek
philosophy. See - The Apologists. That implies that they assumed
that Greek philosophy was inspired.
Thirdly, the Nicene Creed is influenced by Greek philosophy. RPC
Hanson described words substance (ousia), same substance (homoousios),
and hypostasis as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the
day” (RH, 846). These concepts do not appear in the Bible.
Fourthly, since the Arian Controversy was caused by objection to these
pagan concepts in the Nicene Creed, the “discussion and dispute
between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek
philosophy” (RH, xxi).
Fifthly, even today many philosophical concepts from ancient Greek
philosophy, such as that God is immanent, transcendent, simple,
immutable, impassable, and timeless, are generally accepted by church
theologians even though NOT stated in the Bible. This is called
For the full article, of which the above is a summary, see here.