Philo and the Logos of John 1:1ff

Philo and the Logos of John 1:1ff

This article is supplemental to the current study on John 1:14 (and the Johannine Gospel Prologue, 1:1-18), cf. part 4. In that study, I have mentioned how the writings of Philo of Alexandria (c. B.C. 20-c. 50 A.D.) provide the closest parallels to the use of the word lo/go$ in the Prologue. In order to demonstrate this, I will present and discuss a number of relevant passages from Philo’s writings. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations of Philo are taken from the edition by C. D. Yonge, which is less elegant and readable than the LOEB translation, but in many ways more literal and accurate.

With regard to the use of the word lo/go$, see the discussion in part 2 of the aforementioned study on John 1:14. Given the range of meaning of the word, it is not surprising that lo/go$ came to be used in specialized philosophical and theological contexts. It is most often associated with Stoic philosophy, but this usage goes back at least as far as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraklitos (c. 540-480 B.C.). In a number of surviving fragments, quoted by later authors, Heraklitos uses the term lo/go$ to refer to the divine power/presence that binds the universe together, giving it order and holding its different components and aspects in balance. In fragment 1 (Sextus Empiricus VII.132), he states that “all things (are) coming to be according to the lo/go$” (ginome/nwn pa/ntwn kata\ to\n lo/gon). The same author (VII.129) quotes Heraklitos as referring to this “divine lo/go$” (o( qei=o$ lo/go$). The logos is thus divine, a manifestation of God, a rational intelligence that gives order to all things in creation, providing a balanced arrangement that holds and binds the universe together. This generally corresponds with the later Stoic use of the term for the mind of God that penetrates creation, ordering and controlling all things.

Hellenistic Jewish philosophers—of whom Philo of Alexandria is the most notable example—blended this Logos-concept together with a line of Old Testament Wisdom tradition that reaches back to the famous passage in Proverbs 8:22-31. Wisdom (Hebrew hm*k=j*), personified as a divine or heavenly being, was with God at the beginning of creation, and functioned as the means/instrument through which YHWH created the universe. Later Jewish tradition expanded upon this idea, developing the concept of the divine Wisdom (Grk Sofi/a) that created, pervades, and sustains the universe (Wisdom 7:22-8:1; 9:2ff; 10:1ff; Sirach 1:3-10; chap. 24; 33:7-8ff; 42:21; Baruch 3:15ff, etc).

As I have mentioned, Philo subsumed this Wisdom tradition under the Logos concept. Philo’s discussion in On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain §§64-68 is a good example of this. The Wisdom of God, which allows a person to depart from the passions and to cultivate virtue (63), is identified with God’s Word (lo/go$)—the same Word which He spoke to create the universe (65). The Divine nature and pre-existence of this Word is stated in §67, by way of an allegorical interpretation of Exod 17:6; the statement that the Word “stood before any created being” would seem to allude to Prov 8:23.

In On Flight and Finding §§108-112, this role of Wisdom in creation is described as that of a mother, drawing upon the feminine gender of the word sofi/a (as also the Hebrew hm*k=j*). The companionship of God and Wisdom in Prov 8:22-31 is thus framed as that of man and wife, father and mother, who together bring forth creation (and, in particular, the human soul). This same imagery is used in On Allegorical Interpretation II.49ff, and also On Drunkenness §30-31, where Prov 8:22-23 is specifically quoted.

In §§110-112, the term lo/go$ takes the place of sofi/a, as Philo utilizes the Stoic concept of the Logos, with its roots going back to the pre-Socratic Heraklitos (cf. above), referring to the Logos as “the word of the living God” which “being the bond of every thing…holds all things together, and binds all the parts”. The Word of God has clothed itself with the created world, like a garment. Similarly, a created soul is clothed with a body; and, at a higher level, the purified mind of the wise person (the one guided and inspired by the Logos) is clothed with the virtues, garments that can never be taken off.

Philo often deals with sort of macro-/micro-cosm parallel; indeed, it is fundamental to much of his allegorical interpretation of Scripture. The role of the Logos in relation to God, and in the broader creation, has its parallel at the level of the human soul/mind. In On Dreams II.237ff, a four-fold correspondence is established: (1) God, (2) the living Word/Wisdom, (3) the wise man, and (4) the person who beginning to advance toward perfection. This relationship is described as emanating, one to the other, using the image of a flowing river (by way of an allegorical interpretation of Gen 2:10 [explaining the name Eden as meaning “delight”], combined with Psalm 37:4 [“Delight yourself in the LORD…”]). Wisdom is the delight of God, flowing forth from Him; and the Word flows from Wisdom like an irrigating spring, communicating the four virtues to the human mind/soul. In this imagery, sofi/a and lo/go$ would seem to be distinct, and yet (at the same time) they clearly represent a single Divine stream. There is a cosmic aspect to this activity of the living Word—

“the continual stream of the divine word, being borne on incessantly with rapidity and regularity, is diffused universally over everything, giving joy to all. And in one sense he calls the world the city of God, as having received the whole cup of the divine draught” (247-8)

but there is also a parallel (and connected) activity in the human soul (especially the purified soul of the wise person):

“But in another sense he applies this title to the soul of the wise man, in which God is said also to walk, as if in a city, “For,” says God, “I will walk in you, and I will be your God in You.” (Lev 26:12) And who can pour over the happy soul which proffers its own reason as the most sacred cup, the holy goblets of true joy, except the cup-bearer of God, the master of the feast, the word? not differing from the draught itself, but being itself in an unmixed state, the pure delight and sweetness, and pouring forth, and joy, and ambrosial medicine of pleasure and happiness” (248-9)

Philo seems to envision the Logos as carrying or communicating the Wisdom of God to the world (and to the human soul). In Who Is the Heir of Divine Things? §§201-8, the image of that of a runner, rather than a flowing stream, carrying the wisdom (cf. §199f). This wisdom enables the enlightened soul to separate from the dead passions and the things of this world, advancing toward the Divine life of holiness and virtue (cf. Philo’s allegorical use here of Num 16:48). The Divine nature of the Logos, as a heavenly (and uncreated) entity, and yet distinct from YHWH, is clear from 205-6:

“And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and You;” (Num 16:48) neither being uncreate as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties…”

Again the influence of the Prov 8:22-31 is clear, and it is easy to see why this conception of the Logos would have been attractive to early Christians as a way of expressing their view of Christ as the Son of God.

In a number of passages, Philo refers to the Logos as the “image” (ei)kw/n) of God. In Allegorical Interpretation III.95ff, we find a line of interpretation that is heavily indebted to Platonic thought, as Philo draws upon the Scriptural account of the designing and building of the Tabernacle. At 95ff, he works from Exod 31:2, which refers to the wisdom and knowledge that God gave to Bezalel, allowing him to build the Tabernacle. Philo treats Bezalel as a symbol for the Logos, explaining the name as meaning “God in His shadow”, and declaring:

“the shadow of God is his word, which he used like an instrument when he was making the world. And this shadow, and, as it were, model, is the archetype of other things. For, as God is himself the model of that image which he has now called a shadow, so also that image is the model of other things” (96)

The Word is thus the image of God, but also serves as the image and pattern for the created world—an aspect of the philosophical use of lo/go$ that goes back to the time of Heraklitos (cf. above). In particular, the Logos is the image/pattern for the human soul, according to Gen 1:26; commenting on that famous verse, Philo states: “the image was modelled according to God, and as man was modelled according to the image, which thus received the power and character of the model”. It is thus by and through the Logos that humankind can be said to be made “in the image of God”. The same thought and line of imagery occurs in On the Creation §§24-25.

This represents another point at which the Logos concept ties back to Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition. A notable example comes from the Book Wisdom, and the praise of Wisdom in 7:22-8:1; in particular, the wording of verse 26 is worth noting:

“For she is a shining forth of eternal light,
a spotless looking(-glass) of (the) working of God,
and an image [ei)kw/n] of His goodness.”

The idea of the Logos as the image of God, and as an emanating emission (like a stream of water) from Him, might naturally bring to mind the concept of a child (or son) born/begotten from the Father. Since the son tends to resemble the father, and thus serves (to some extent) as an image of him, the metaphor is appropriate. This certainly applies to the Johannine Prologue (vv. 14, 18); and, as it happens, there is a parallel in Philo’s writings as well. In On the Confusion of Tongues §§146-7, we read:

“And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word [prwto/gono$ lo/go$], the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.” (cf. also On Dreams I.215)

The wise person, the purified soul who is guided and inspired by the Logos, can also, having been formed according to that image, be called a child of God:

“For even if we are not yet suitable to be called the sons of God, still we may deserve to be called the children of his eternal image, of his most sacred word; for the image of God is his most ancient word.” (147)

This offers another parallel to the Johannine Prologue (vv. 12-13). And we might also note the idea expressed in v. 1, of the Logos being in the presence of God, in intimate relationship to Him (“toward [pro/$] God”), which is comparable to what Philo says of the Logos in On Flight and Finding §101:

“the divine word…is itself an image of God, the most ancient of all the objects of intellect in the whole world, and that which is placed in the closest proximity to the only truly existing God, without any partition or distance being interposed between them”

In the same passage, Philo draws upon the image of God’s manifest presence between the two cherubim of the ark (Exod 25:22), where He speaks to Moses. This allows Philo to interpret the verse in terms of the presence of the Logos, with Moses representing the ideal (and archetype) of the purified soul that has been made perfect in wisdom and virtue. The two cherubim are explained using the tried-and-true philosophical motif of the reigns for the two horses of the chariot, by which the charioteer guides them. The Word/Wisdom of God thus functions as the charioteer guiding the enlightened soul: “the word is, as it were, the charioteer of the powers, and he who utters it is the rider, who directs the charioteer how to proceed with a view to the proper guidance of the universe”.

The Logos for Philo functions as a mediator between God and man. As discussed above, the Logos is the image of God, but also the pattern for that image in the soul/mind of human beings. To the extent that the soul is purified and enlightened, advancing in holiness and virtue, it more completely reflects the Divine image. For the wise, then, those who are guided by the Word/Wisdom of God, the Logos is present within (microcosm) even as it is present in the universe without (macrocosm), binding all things together. One may thus speak of two men—with the Logos, as the Divine archetype and guiding presence within the soul, being the true man. For a selection of passages where one finds these ideas expressed, cf. Who Is the Heir of Divine Things? §§230ff; On Dreams I.215; On Flight and Finding §§71ff; On the Creation §69; Questions and Answers on Genesis II.62;  On Noah’s Work as a Planter §§18-20ff; The Worse Attacks the Better §§22-23; On the Giants §34

Elsewhere, Philo also identifies the Logos with the Divine Spirit (pneu=ma), which is another aspect of the Logos-concept that is of significance of the Johannine writings, if not particularly the Prologue. It is noteworthy that, in addition to the identification being essential to the Divine nature of the Logos, it also reflects the traditional Scriptural view of the Spirit as representing God’s inspired guidance of his people (the chosen ones). So also the purified soul of the wise person is inspired and guided by the Logos. For some passages containing statements along these lines, cf. Allegorical Interpretation I.33-38ff; On Noah’s Work as a Planter §§ 18-20ff; On Dreams I.30-34ff; On the Special Laws IV.123ff; Who Is the Heir of Divine Things? §56.

For assisting me in (more quickly) locating some of the most relevant passages in Philo, I must give credit to the work by J. Jervell, Imago Dei, Gen. 1:26ff in Spätjudentum, in der Gnosis und in den paulinischen Briefen, F.R.L.A.N.T. 76 (Göttingen, 1960), pp. 49-70, 130-6, as cited by R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man: A Study of the Idea of Pre-Existence in the New Testament, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series no. 21 (Cambridge University Press: 1973).

Moses in Philo and Paul (2 Cor 3:7-18)

In my recent notes on 2 Cor 3:7-18, I have mentioned on a number of occasions, some interesting parallels between Paul and Philo of Alexandria, in the way that certain Moses traditions are interpreted and applied. In this regard, I felt it worth examining the key Philonic passages in a bit more detail. The parallels most relevant to 2 Corinthians 3, particularly those involving the same Moses tradition (Exod 34:29-35) utilized by Paul, will be given special attention. In guiding the presentation here, I have consulted a recent study by Volker Rabens, “Pneuma and the Beholding of God: Reading Paul in the context of Philonic Mystical Traditions,” in The Holy Spirit, Inspiration, and the Cultures of Antiquity: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Jorg Frey, John R. Levison [part of the series Ekstasis: Religious Experience from Antiquity to the Middle Ages] (de Gruyter: 2014), pp. 293-329. This study is referenced as “Rabens” below.

Philo was a Jewish contemporary of Paul, and many of his surviving writings essentially function as commentaries on the Torah (Pentateuch), but providing a special kind of exposition of the Scriptural traditions—from a philosophical, religious-ethical, and mystical standpoint. In this regard, Philo’s treatment of the Moses traditions is similar to that of Paul in 2 Cor 3:7-18 (cp. 1 Cor 10:1-10ff). The main difference is that Paul, as a Christian, tends to interpret the Old Testament from a Christological standpoint. It is Paul’s Christology that informs and guides his interpretation, making it quite distinctive from Philo’s, regardless of the other interpretive features they may have in common.

Note: Most of the translations of Philo below are from the edition by C. D. Yonge, which is a reasonably literal rendering of the Greek (compared with the looser, and more readable, translation[s] in the LOEB volumes). The other translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

a. On the Posterity and Exile of Cain §§12-13

A good example of the way that Philo expounds Scriptural tradition, applying the figure of Moses to the indvidual soul that is being purified and enlightened, is found in the treatise On the Posterity and Exile of Cain. Note, in particular, the way that Moses is associated with the idea of seeing God:

“(So) then, (upon) Cain, having removed himself from the face of God, justice, (the) upholder of honor against (the one)s without fear (of God), will execute justice; but Moses, to the (one)s knowing him, sets down under (their feet) a message most fine: ‘to love God and to listen to (Him) and to hold (close) to Him’ (Deut 30:20), for this is to be the life that, for truth, (has) both a good day and a long age. Most emphatically he calls (us) to the honor of the (One) thrice-desired and most worthy of love, saying (we are) to hold ourselves (close) to Him, placing along (to us) the (word of how this) holds together, one after the other, without division, of the harmony and union (that comes with) making (Him) our own. These (thing)s now he recommends to the others…but he himself unceasingly reaches for the seeing (of Him), and to be seen by Him, so that he seeks (for Him) to make knowingly clear His own nature (cf. Exod 33:18), being so hard to guess at, (so) that even at some time, having received a share of (the) do/ca without (anything) false, he might have firm trust in exchange for firmless doubt.” (§§12-13)

Philo here alludes to the same Moses traditions (in Exod 33-34) that Paul draws upon in 2 Corinthians 3. It is interesting the way that he plays on the range of meaning of the word do/ca. In Exod 33:18 (LXX), Moses asks God: “show to me your own do/ca,” referring to the glory/splendor of God’s presence. However, the fundamental meaning of do/ca has to do with the exercise of the mind—i.e., what a person thinks. In Philo’s application of the Scriptural tradition, the vision of God (His glory) is explained primarily in terms of a true knowledge of God. Moses thus serves as the type-pattern for the enlightened person who seeks the true knowledge that can only come from God Himself. This is stated, in more direct philosophical terms, a bit further on at §§15-16 of the same treatise:

“When, therefore, the soul that loves God seeks to know what the one living God is according to his essence, it is entertaining upon an obscure and dark subject of investigation (cf. Exod 20:21), from which the greatest benefit that arises to it is to comprehend that God, as to his essence, is utterly incomprehensible to any being, and also to be aware that he is invisible. And it appears to me that the great hierophant had attained to the comprehension of the most important point in this investigation before he commenced it, when he entreated God to become the exhibitor and expounder of his own nature to him, for he says, ‘Show me thyself;’ showing very plainly by this expression that no created being is competent by himself to learn the nature of God in his essence.” (Yonge translation)

To a large extent, Paul shares this noetic emphasis; cf. the recent note on 2 Cor 4:6 (and Paul’s use of the word gnw=si$, “knowledge” in that verse).

b. On the Change of Names §§7-10

Philo similarly brings together the motifs of Moses entering into the darkness to meet God (Exod 20:21) and his request to see God’s glory (Exod 33:18), in the treatise On the Change of Names. Again, his interpretation is very much cast in philosophical language and terminology. The attribute of Divine invisibility (and inscrutability) is emphasized at the opening of the passage in question (§§6-7); moreover, God is not perceived through the external senses—i.e., seen by ordinary light—but only to the mind within:

“When therefore you hear that God has been seen by man, you must consider that this is said without any reference to that light which is perceptible by the external senses, for it is natural that that which is appreciable only by the intellect should be presented to the intellect alone; and the fountain of the purest light is God; so that when God appears to the soul he pours forth his beams without any shade, and beaming with the most radiant brilliancy.” (Yonge translation)

As if to drive the point home, Philo makes the following declaration:

“You should not think (that) the (One) Being, who is in truth being, is taken down (in the mind) [i.e. comprehended] by any man. For we do not hold any instrument in ourselves by which we have power to bring (forth) an image of That (One), neither (any) sense-perception—for He is not (something) perceived (by the senses)—nor (even the) mind (itself).”

This means that even the mind, by its own power, is incapable of seeing God. Moses, who “sought to see clearly [thlaugw=$] the much-desired and only good”, that is, to glimpse somehow the “unseeable nature” of God, entered into the ‘darkness’ (Exod 20:21), being unable to see anything. It is at this point that Moses asks God to show Himself to him (33:18); however, even with the revelation of God’s glory to him, Moses still only sees the “back parts” of the living God’s essence.

c. Allegorical Interpretation III.100-101

This passage is part of a section commenting on the calling of Bezalel by God, giving to him wisdom and knowledge to serve as architect of the Tent-shrine (Exod 31:2). Philo interprets the figure of Bezalel as symbolizing the word (lo/go$) of God, by which He created and fashioned (as a builder) the world (§96). It functions as a type and pattern by which the created world was designed, and is thus referred to as God’s image (ei)kw/n). Humankind, in particular, was made according to this image (Gen 1:26), by which Philo primarily means the mind/intellect and the reasoning ability in human beings. This reasoning allowed people to conceive of God in various ways (§§97-99); from the pattern we perceive in the created world (including within ourselves), we are able to understanding something about the Creator (cp. Rom 1:19-20ff). However, in this way God is only perceived imperfectly, through His ‘shadow’ (skia/).

By contrast, Moses represents a “more complete” (telew/tero$) kind of philosopher, one initiated in the “great secrets” (ta\ mega/la musth/ria), and who would not perceive the Creator merely through the ‘shadow’ of created things (§100). Instead, he “receives a clear/distinct [e)nargh/$] impression” of the Uncreated One (lit. without coming-to-be, a)ge/nhto$). The adjective e)nargh/$ can refer to a visible manifestation of a deity; Philo draws upon this usage, but applies it to the vision of God at the spiritual level (of the intellect), in much the same way as Paul in 2 Cor 3:18ff (discussed in recent notes).

Indeed, just like Paul, Philo draws here again upon the Moses traditions in Exod 33-34—citing (again) the request by Moses in 33:18. True comprehension of God can only take place through a direct manifestation by God Himself. Indeed, Philo expounds Moses’ request as saying:

“…do not thou be manifested to me through the medium of the heaven, or of the earth, or of water, or of air, or, in short, of anything whatever of created things, and let me not see thy appearance in any other thing, as in a looking-glass, except in thee thyself, the true God. For the images which are presented to the sight in executed things are subject to dissolution; but those which are presented in the One uncreate may last for ever, being durable, eternal, and unchangeable. On this account God called Moses to him and conversed with Him.”
(§101, Yonge translation)

The words in italics translate katoptrisai/mhn, a form of the rare verb katoptri/zomai, also used by Paul in 2 Cor 3:18. It is derived from the noun ka/toptron (from the verb kaqora/w), and essentially refers to something a person looks down into—spec. a looking-glass or mirror. The middle (reflexive) form (katoptri/zomai) of the verb katoptri/zw denotes a person looking at one’s own reflection (in a mirror). However, both Philo and Paul use it in the sense of seeing God’s reflection. For Paul, Jesus represents a perfect reflection of God, while here Philo refers to the created world as providing only a partial and very imperfect reflection.

d. On the Special Laws I.41-50

A similar passage is found in On the Special Laws I.41-42ff:

“…that interpreter of the divine word, Moses, the man most beloved by God…besought God and said, ‘Show me thyself’ —all but urging him, and crying out in loud and distinct words— ‘that thou hast a real being and existence the whole world is my teacher, assuring me of the fact and instructing me as a son might of the existence of his father, or the work of the existence of the workman. But, though I am very desirous to know what thou art as to thy essence, I can find no one who is able to explain to me anything relating to this branch of learning in any part of the universe whatever. …for as the light is not known by the agency of anything else, but is itself its own manifestation, so also thou must alone be able to manifest thyself. For which reason I hope to receive pardon, if, from want of any one to teach me, I am so bold as to flee to thee, desiring to receive instruction from thyself.'” (Yonge translation)

A dialogue follows, between God and Moses, as God repeatedly states that it is impossible for any created being truly to comprehend the Divine Being. Even so, Moses desires the most complete and thorough understanding possible; to which God informs him:

“The powers which you seek to behold are altogether invisible, and appreciable only by the intellect; since I myself am invisible and only appreciable by the intellect. …not those which are already comprehended by the mind, but those which, even if they could be so comprehended, are still such that the outward senses could not at all attain to them, but only the very purest intellect.” (§46, Yonge translation)

Again we see the noetic emphasis of Philo: the purest vision of God possible to a human being is realized entirely by the mind/intellect. Paul shares this aspect of Philo’s spiritualism only in part, since the mind (nou=$) represents only one component of the ‘inner man’ that encounters God through the Spirit.

e. On the Migration of Abraham §§34-36, etc

There can be no doubt that Philo has in mind a distinct form of mystical philosophical experience, such as he describes (from his own experience) in On the Migration of Abraham §§34-36, when his mind is

“…filled with amazement at the power of the living God, by whom the womb of the soul is at times opened and at times closed up; and sometimes when I have come to my work empty I have suddenly become full, ideas being, in an invisible manner, showered upon me, and implanted in me from on high; so that, through the influence of divine inspiration, I have become greatly excited, and have known neither the place in which I was nor those who were present, nor myself, nor what I was saying, nor what I was writing; for then I have been conscious of a richness of interpretation, an enjoyment of light, a most penetrating sight, a most manifest energy in all that was to be done, having such an effect on my mind as the clearest ocular demonstration would have on the eyes.” (Yonge translation)

This mystical experience of ‘seeing’ God is mentioned or alluded to by Philo in a number of passages in other treatises. Both Philo and Paul express the idea that the renewal of the mind (cf. Rom 12:2) leads to a further (ethical-religious) transformation of the person. Thus, ‘seeing God,’ in a noetic sense leads to moral enlightenment and growth in virtue. Some of the notable Philonic passages are (cf. Rabens, p. 301): On the Embassy to Gaius §§4-5; Questions and Answers in Genesis 4.4, 25, 29, 140; Questions and Answers in Exodus 2.7; On the Unchangeableness of God §§3-4; On the Giants §§48-49; Noah’s Work as a Planter §§64-66; Who Is the Heir…? §§70-71; On Abraham §§57-59; On Rewards and Punishments §§41-48; On the Cherubim §§48-49; On Dreams I.148; II.228-33; On the Virtues §§163-4; 213-7.

f. Questions and Answers in Exodus 2.29, etc

Finally, we should consider how Philo interprets (and applies) the figure of Moses, both in terms of the traditions (a) regarding his prophetic inspiration, and (b) as the mediator who experienced the manifestation of God on mount Sinai/Horeb. Cf. Rabens, pp. 302-4.

In Questions and Answers in Exodus (2.29), Philo comments on Exodus 24:2, referring to the injunction that Moses alone is to approach God on the mountain:

“For when the prophetic mind becomes divinely inspired and filled with God, it becomes like the monad, not being at all mixed with any of those things associated with duality. But he who is resolved into the nature of unity, is said to come near God in a kind of family relation, for having given up and left behind all mortal kinds, he is changed into the divine, so that such men become kin to God and truly divine.” (LOEB translation [Ralph Marcus])

The visionary/revelatory encounter with God leads to Moses being “filled with the Spirit”. This is similar, in some respects, to Paul’s application of the Moses tradition(s) in 2 Cor 3:7-18, in the explicit association between ‘seeing God’ and the presence/activity of His Spirit.

Several passages in Philo’s Life of Moses express the same idea regarding Moses being filled by the Spirit, with the result that the Divine Spirit came to abide in him. We may note, in particular, 1.175:

“But after a short time he became inspired by God, and being full of the divine spirit and under the influence of that spirit which was accustomed to enter into him, he prophesied and animated them thus…” (Yonge translation)

Note also 2.69ff, where Moses’ prophetic inspiration is again associated specifically with his ascent upon the mountain (where he encounters God):

“For, having gone up into the loftiest and most sacred mountain in that district in accordance with the divine commands, a mountain which was very difficult of access and very hard to ascend, he is said to have remained there all that time without eating any of that food even which is necessary for life; and, as I said before, he descended again forty days afterwards, being much more beautiful in his face than when he went up, so that those who saw him wondered and were amazed, and could no longer endure to look upon him with their eyes, inasmuch as his countenance shone like the light of the sun. And while he was still abiding in the mountain he was initiated in the sacred will of God…” (2.70f, Yonge translation)

Finally, we may mention On the Giants §§53-55, which well summarizes Philo’s mystical-philosophical ideals, as represented by the figure of Moses:

“…among men in general, that is to say, among those who propose to themselves many objects in life, the divine spirit does not remain, even though it may abide among them for a very short time, but it remains among one species of men alone, namely, among those who, having put off all the things of creation, and the inmost veil and covering of false opinion, come to God in their unconcealed and naked minds. Thus also Moses, having fixed his tent outside of the tabernacle and outside of all the corporeal army, that is to say, having established his mind so that it should not move, begins to worship God, and having entered into the darkness, that invisible country, remains there, performing the most sacred mysteries; and he becomes, not merely an initiated man, but also an hierophant of mysteries and a teacher of divine things, which he will explain to those whose ears are purified; therefore the divine spirit is always standing by him, conducting him in every right way…” (Yonge translation)

The Monotheistic Revolution: Introduction

This marks the beginning of a new series I have long been considering, entitled The Monotheistic Revolution. The purpose is to provide a comparative religious study of the Old Testament and Israelite religion in the context of other ancient Near Eastern religions. For this reason, I am including it as part of the “Ancient Parallels” feature on this site.

The title of the series (and the use of the word “revolution”) has to do with the fact that ancient Israelite religion stands virtually alone among the religions of the Near East in its monotheistic orientation. This emphasis on a single deity, more or less to the exclusion of all others, marks a radical departure from the surrounding cultures, whose religion is thoroughly polytheistic. The term “revelation” could just as well be used, since Israelite religion, at least as it is presented in the Old Testament Scriptures, is based upon a unique revelation of the one true God to his people. In Old Testament historical tradition, this revelation goes back to the time of Abraham, from whom all three of the major monotheistic religions today—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—can be said to trace their origins. Certainly, the monotheistic conception of God found among Jews, Christians, and Muslims has much in common.

A study of this sort may seem of little relevance for Christians today, mainly because polytheism, in anything like a meaningful sense, is quite foreign to modern thinking, especially in the Western nations. The Western world has been dominated for centuries by monotheistic tendencies, not only due to the influence of Christianity and Judaism, but also certain (mono)theistic aspects of Greco-Roman philosophy and scientific thought. Even for atheists and other non-religious persons today, to the extent that they have a conception of God, it likely corresponds to a general monotheistic pattern. The worldwide spread of Christianity and Islam, whether by conquest, missionary work, or other means, has served to introduce monotheism to many traditional societies which had previously been polytheistic to some degree. This is also true, of course, in the Near East, where only the faintest vestiges of the ancient polytheism survives at all. One must look a bit further east, to India, to find an example of a complex, developed polytheism that has survived from ancient times, and which continues to thrive today.

I would argue that it is, in fact, our familiarity with monotheistic patterns of thought which makes a study of this kind so valuable. How can we properly understand the Old Testament without a clear sense of what made the religion of Israel so distinct from that of the surrounding nations? For most students of Scripture today, the ancient polytheistic way of thinking is completely foreign, and it can be most difficult to gain an accurate sense of what the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East were attempting to express (about the nature of deity and the universe), and how this relates to what the Old Testament expresses. For this reason, I maintain that, when approached in a sound and objective manner, a careful study of the polytheism of the ancient Near East can be rich and rewarding, opening a new window on the Old Testament Scriptures.

That, indeed, is the purpose of this series. However, it is an immense area of study, and, in order for these articles to be of optimal value for many readers, it is necessary to narrow the scope and sharpen the focus. This I will do by using the Genesis Creation account as a starting point (and as a guiding point of reference). Beginning with a verse or segment of this famous text, we will bring in certain relevant aspects of the (polytheistic) religious thought of the surrounding peoples of the ancient Near East. Special attention will be given to the religion of Egypt, since it represents by far the most comprehensive and detailed polytheism known to us. This is so for two reasons: (1) it is the area of the ancient Near East for which we have the most information available (in terms of texts, inscriptions, and works of art, over a long period of time), and (2) there are certain aspects of Egyptian thought and practice which genuinely seem to be more complex and sophisticated than those of other neighboring societies.

Indeed, much of the strangeness of ancient polytheism lies in its complexity—especially in terms of the sheer number of deities, the multitude of names, titles, forms, and images. This can be explained to a great degree if we keep in mind that the polytheistic religious structures that developed in ancient cultures were rooted in an attempt to understand the powers that seemed to be at work in the universe. Since the world is made up of many different components, it stood to reason that there must be as many different powers, or deities. The complex dynamics evident in the natural world indicated to the ancient peoples that there must be similar dynamics at work among the deities. Mythologies arose as a result of attempts to explain the universe in terms of the relationship between these deities. This point will be discussed further as we proceed through this series.

Before concluding this introduction, I feel it important to distinguish between what we might call an absolute and a relative monotheism. An absolute monotheism can be summarized by the propositional belief that only one deity exists at all. A relative, or qualified, monotheism would fundamentally focus on worship of a single deity—i.e., a high Creator God—but would affirm, or allow for, the existence of other divine beings. Many commentators and historians of religion would maintain that, through much of Israel’s early history, it was a relative (rather than absolute) monotheism that was in view. By comparison, later Israelite (and Jewish) religion—not to say that of Islam—came to hold to an absolute monotheistic outlook. The extent to which the Old Testament expresses a relative monotheism may be debated; it is a sensitive subject, and an objective treatment requires that the matter be considered on a passage-by-passage basis, rather than by relying upon dogmatic presuppositions.

Related to this sort of qualified monotheism is a religious phenomenon known as henotheism, whereby, through the worship and veneration of a specific (single) deity, that deity comes to be regarded as supreme over all others. This may at times be expressed through language suggesting other deities have only contingent existence, or are simply manifestations of the supreme deity. Other sorts of monotheistic tendencies may be cited, occurring within the wider framework of ancient polytheistic thought. Such instances can be quite confusing, as we are accustomed to a simple distinction of monotheism vs. polytheism. The situation in ancient Egypt is especially complex, due to its highly syncretistic character, a point that will discussed (and illustrated) in more detail as we proceed in this series. The whole issue of religious syncretism will be addressed in a separate article.

So, I invite you to join me in this exciting new series—a journey to the domain of comparative religion—which I hope (and trust) will bring new insights into the text of Scripture and expand the horizons for a study of biblical theology. We will begin with the opening statement of the Creation account, in Genesis 1:1.

 

 

Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth

Overview

In recent notes on the Book of Revelation (the visions of chapters 13-17), we have had occasion to explore the “Sea” as a symbol. In my view, within the visionary language of Revelation, it rather clearly represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil that are at work in the world. This symbolism derives largely, and primarily, from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. The ancient cosmology, widespread throughout the Near East, extending to Greece in the West and India in the East, can be summarized as follows:

In the beginning there was only a great (and dark) mass of water. The universe came to take shape within the midst of these primeval waters, like a bubble surrounded by water. This space effectively separated the water ‘above’ from the water ‘below’, even as the heaven/sky above would be separated from the earth (and underworld) below in the developing universe. The universe itself was geocentric (very different from our modern understanding of the universe) and spherical (or hemispherical) in shape; only the spherical shape of the upper half is definite, since it was much harder to be sure of the shape of things below the earth. The “earth” in its narrow sense was generally viewed as a flat disc or cylinder, with a hemispheric ‘dome’ above, and a similar (or roughly comparable) space below. The waters above manifested themselves primarily through rain and snow, etc, while the waters below by way of underground springs, and so forth. There were also waters (rivers, lakes, etc) on the surface of the earth. In some cosmologies, the earth/universe was also surrounded by a ring of water, related to primitive conceptions of the great oceans. Only a few brave souls would have ventured out into the oceans far enough to realize the lands and peoples beyond; for most the oceans represented the boundary of the known world.

Thus the “Sea”, as the primeval waters, was central to the ancient cosmology. An important related concept had to do with the creation of the universe in terms of establishing an order within the natural world. This order is reflected and expressed several ways, one of the most fundamental being that of separation—dividing and arranging the universe into distinct shapes, regions, livable domains, etc. By contrast, the primeval waters represent the opposite of order—the condition of things before the natural order of creation was established. The waters are now generally outside of the created order, manifest and breaking through only at its boundaries (above, below, and the oceans beyond). When it does ‘break through’ often chaos and destruction is the result (i.e. through rain-storms, flooding, tidal waves, etc), endangering life on earth. To make human life, in particular, sustainable requires that these primeval forces be controlled and regulated—i.e. rain and flooding in its proper season, and limited in scope.

To the ancient mind, there were many powers and forces in the universe, easily observable and manifest to human beings. Simply put, this is the basis for the widespread polytheism in the ancient world (and still characteristic of many traditional societies even today). Creator deities established the initial order of the universe, controlling and regulating its processes, which are also governed by many local “gods” or intelligent powers. Stories were told in an attempt to describe all of this, and we may refer to these as cosmological myths—tales meant to explain how the universe came to be, and how/why it operates as it does.

The religion of ancient Israel represented a distinctive break from this common polytheistic worldview. The earliest forms of Israelite monotheism were not as stark or absolute as its later, more developed forms, but still required a very different way of expressing the ancient cosmology. Vestiges of ancient cosmological myth are preserved in the Old Testament, but sublimated under the idea of the Creator El-Yahweh as sovereign over all things.

This brings us back to the primeval waters, the “Sea”, in ancient Near Eastern myth. In establishing the natural order of the universe, the Creator deity was seen as having to gain control over the waters. This was often expressed in stories of conflict, military action or battle by a great hero-figure—i.e. conflict with the Sea. This was a mythic story-pattern that was truly widespread, with variations and versions of it as far afield as Greece and India. Some scholars theorize that these specific conflict-myths—especially those which involve a heroic deity doing battle with a sea-creature—derive from the Semitic world.

Marduk and the Babylonian Creation Epic

Perhaps the best known of the surviving texts is the Babylonian “Epic of Creation” (also known by a transliteration of its opening words En¥ma eliš). The tablets date from the time of the great Babylonian and Assyrian empires in the 1st millennium B.C., but they doubtless contain traditions and poetic elements that are centuries earlier, into the 2nd millennium, perhaps as far back as the kingdom of Hammurabi (mid/late-19th century). At some point, the epic poem was recited at the New Year’s festival in Babylon, ritually signifying the ‘renewal’ of creation (and the created order).

Following the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above), in the beginning there was a great mass of water, depicted as a pair of beings joined together—Apsu (male, fresh water) and Tiamat (female, salt water). The creation of the universe within this water is narrated in terms of a great family conflict that turns into a military battle, pitting children against their parents. It begins with a disturbance in the belly of the ‘mother’ Tiamat; eventually the ‘father’ Apsu is slain by one of ‘sons’ (Ea)—this is a common feature in ancient theogonic myths, in which a new generation must take the place of the old as the universe develops and comes into being. With the ‘death’ of Apsu, the gods come into prominence. Tiamat then rages against them, producing monstrous beings (including a horned serpent and fierce dragons) to fight for her. Ultimately the gods choose Marduk as their champion, who will lead the battle against Tiamat on their behalf. The great battle ends with the ‘death’ and dismemberment of Tiamat, and the establishment of Marduk’s rule as supreme deity; out of Tiamat’s ‘body’ (i.e. the primeval waters), the universe as we know it is formed, along with the natural order of the world. This is all narrated in the first four tablets (I-IV) of the standard imperial version of the Epic.

Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon, who gained in prominence when the city-state became a larger regional empire. He was primarily associated with farming and the establishment of agriculture; this, of course, meant the need to control and regulate the waters—rain in its season (and in the right amounts), flooding of the rivers, etc. Marduk appears to have been more or less identified (and assimilated) with the Sumerian deity Ninurta, who played a similar role in governing agriculture, including control of storms, etc. Ninurta was considered the “son” of En-lil, one of the supreme deities in Sumerian religious thought. The name En-lil is usually translated as “Lord Wind” or “Lord Air”, indicating a domain that governs the ‘world’, the atmosphere, etc, that comes in contact with the earth below (governed by a different deity En-ki). The precise etymology is disputed (in terms of the meaning of the word lil); however, Ninurta as the “son” of “Lord Wind/Air” would certainly fit his association with the storm and the fertility of the land that results from rainstorms, etc. Marduk’s battle against Tiamat is similar in many respects to that narrated of Ninurta in the Anzu epic. Ninurta battles Anzu, a hybrid bird-figure (also known as Imdugud), associated with the winds and storms and a guardian for En-lil. By conquering the Anzu, Ninurta establishes control over the storms; he is also said to have slain a seven-headed Serpent (cf. below) and the “bull-man” of the Sea.

Other Ancient Versions of the Conflict-Myth

There are other Near Eastern myths in which a heroic deity, associated with the storms (wind and rain, etc), battles a hybrid monster who represents, in some fashion, the Sea and its primeval waters. There are, for example, relatively simple myths from Hittite (or Hattian) sources in Anatolia (Asia Minor), in which the “Storm God” battles (and kills) the Serpent-being Illuyanka, usually connected with the Sea, though this is not always clearly indicated in the tale. The episode played a role in the Purulli festival (about which little is known), even as the Epic of Creation featured in the Babylonian New Year festival.

These stories contain clear ritual elements in them, much more so than we find in the developed Epics. In particular, the Storm deity (Hittite Tar—una, Hurran Teshub) requires the assistance of a human being to defeat the Serpent. Similarly, in tales of the “disappearance of the Storm God”, ritual formulae are included within the narrative, performed by a human priest-figure, to appease the deity and bring him back, thus restoring/ensuring the fertility of the land. In all likelihood these Serpent-conflict myths spread westward into Anatolia, where they were inherited (and adapted) by the Indo-European Hittites.

The mythic-pattern spread even further west, among the Greeks, where there are several notable examples, such as Apollo’s slaying of the Python-figure at Delphi; however, in that tradition the Serpent is more of a chthonic Earth-being, rather than connected to the Sea. Closer to the Near Eastern cosmological myth is the episode made famous in the Theogony of Hesiod. Dating from c. 700 B.C., Hesiod’s work is a compendium of ancient Greek cosmological tradition, some of which, almost certainly, was inherited from the Near East (via the Greek colonies on the Anatolian coast, etc). The poem begins with the initial creation—which does not follow the Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above)—and climaxes with the establishment of Zeus’ rule over the universe as king of the gods. His battle with the Typhoeus (Tufweu/$, also called Typhon, Typhos), a multi-headed Serpent-creature, is narrated in lines 820-885, after which Zeus is declared “king” of the gods (886). Zeus (Zeu/$) is the Greek reflex of the Indo-European high deity associated with the Sky (dyeus), especially in its bright and shining aspect; the ancient derivation is preserved in the form Dio/$ (in Latin as Deus). Zeus took on traditional characteristics of the storm theophany—i.e. the deity manifest in storms—making use of thunder and lightning, winds and rain, etc, especially when exercising his authority or engaged in battle.

Even further afield, from the Indo-Aryan regions of India, are mythic traditions associated with the figure of Indra, a deity similarly connected with the storm (he had the title “wielder of the thunderbolt”). In one set of ancient tales, Indra slew the serpent being Vr¤tra (“restrainer”), who holds back (“restrains”) the waters need for the fertility of the earth. In slaying Vr¤tra, Indra releases the waters (locked up on the mountains, presumably in the form of snow). In other tales it is the demon Vala who had held back the waters (“seven rivers”, also depicted as cows). These traditions are clearly quite ancient, as they go back to the Rg¤ Veda (c. 1200-900 B.C.)—cf. 1.32; 2.12; 10.124.6ff.

The Canaanite Epic of Baal

Perhaps the clearest ancient version of this conflict-myth, and the one most relevant to the Old Testament and Israelite tradition, is the so-called Baal Epic. This work is preserved on six tablets (and other fragments) uncovered at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit). They date from the mid-14th century B.C.; however, as an extended epic poem, the Baal Epic is almost certainly the product of centuries of development, during which time various traditions, poetic elements, and even shorter individual tales, were brought together to give shape to the text as we have it. There is still some question whether all six tablets belong to a single composition; in particular, the place of the first tablet (CAT 1.1) is quite uncertain. Due to the fragmentary nature of the tablets, requiring reconstruction based on parallel passages, it is not possible to discern all the details of the narrative, but the basic outline is clear enough.

The central character is Baal-Haddu—the deity Haddu (Hadad/Adad) who controlled the weather and personified the storms needed to give life and fertility to the land. He was thus the prominent deity among farming societies in Palestine and Syria, in many ways supplanting the Creator god °El in importance. The title “Baal” (Heb lu^B^) means “lord, master” (cf. my earlier article), and is thus an honorific that could be applied to any deity. There is some indication that this title had once been used for YHWH in Israel; however, in the face of the danger of syncretic assimilation of Canaanite religious elements (esp. worship of Haddu), such use soon disappeared, the title being reserved for the pagan/false deity Baal-Haddu. In Israel, YHWH was more or less identified with the Creator °El (“Mighty One”), though very different in character than the °El portrayed in many of the Canaanite myths. With Baal-Haddu, the situation was different; a sharp conflict arose between adherents of exclusive worship of the Creator El-Yahweh (i.e. Yahwists), and those willing to adopt (and assimilate) Canaanite religious beliefs and practices (e.g. “Baal-worship”). The agricultural fertility rites practiced among Canaanites (and devoted to Baal-Haddu) were especially problematic for devout Yahwists. This conflict is well-attested in the earlier Old Testament Prophets and the Deuteronomic History (Samuel–Kings), as also in the book of Judges.

The Baal Epic itself is clearly cosmological—that is to say, it deals with the universe and the natural order established in creation. As with the other myths cited above, the Epic centers around a conflict; actually there are two great conflicts which serve to structure the poem: (1) between Baal and the Sea (Yamm = Heb <y`), and (2) between Baal and Death (Mot = Heb tom). The first conflict relates to the establishment of the created order; the second relates to the cyclical nature of the current order (i.e. life-death-rebirth). As in the Babylonian Creation Epic (cf. above), the storm-bringing deity (Marduk / Baal-Haddu), following his conquest of the Sea (the primeval Waters), becomes king and ruler over the created order. The “Sea” is conquered and dismembered (or cut up), which allows for the waters to enter into the natural world safely, on a limited basis (i.e. scattered as rain), and in different locations (rivers, with local flooding, etc). Baal’s rule (over these waters) is marked by the construction of a great palace—the palace symbolizing his domain over the natural world.

The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), the construction of his palace extends over the third and fourth tablets (III-IV, CAT 1.3-4). At the end of tablet IV (column 8) Baal’s kingship is announced to Mot (i.e. Death personified), which sets the stage for the conflict in tablets V and VI. Interestingly, in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister. As a deity-figure Anat is difficult to define; she is depicted as an adolescent (virginal) maiden, but also as a fierce warrior. It is probably best to view her as a kind of personification of battle. This makes her similar in many respects to the Greek Athena, the Hindu Kali/Durga, and the savage hilds of Germanic myth. The episode in III.2, where Anat ‘hosts’ a bloody battle between two (human) armies, does not appear to be integral to the narrative; rather, it is a symbolic scene that establishes the setting for her character (conflict/battle), along with the peace that must follow warfare (III.3.4-31). Thus, in Baal’s doing battle with Yamm, his ‘sister’ Anat is also present; after the battle, he comes to her directly to set forth peace in the world (cf. the beautiful lines III.3.14-31, repeated as a refrain throughout the poem).

Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea (like the creatures of Tiamat, cf. above). In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu (cf. below).

The Old Testament and Israelite Tradition

Only vestiges of the conflict-myth are preserved in the Old Testament, the Canaanite-style myths being generally incompatible with Israelite monotheism. The ancient cosmology (cf. above) is quite clearly present in the Genesis 1 creation narrative, but shorn of nearly all mythological features. The primeval waters are divided and the created order established simply by the command of God, without the slightest sense of conflict. The situation is different in Old Testament poetry, where the mythic language and imagery is better preserved. However, even in those passages, they have been detached from their earlier (mythological) context, floating as vivid and colorful references to El-Yahweh’s sovereign power and control over the created order.

First, it must be noted that YHWH is often described in storm-theophany imagery that would similarly be associated with Baal-Haddu in Canaanite tradition. This includes all aspects of control over meteorological phenomena—wind, rain, thunder, lightning. The “voice” (loq) of YHWH is thunder (cf. above). YHWH’s control over the ancient, primeval waters is clearly expressed in poetic declarations such as Psalm 29:3 and 93:3-4; He is seated above the flood-waters, signifying His dominion over them (Ps 29:10), and exercises control over them at will (Job 26:5ff; 28:25; Psalm 33:7; 104:3; 136:6; Prov 8:29; 30:4, etc). This cosmological imagery was applied to the episode at the Reed Sea in the Exodus narrative (cf. especially the poetic references in Psalm 77:16ff; 78:13).

As far as depicting YHWH’s control in terms of the conflict-myth pattern, there are two main passages where this is preserved: Psalm 74:13-14 and Isaiah 27:1. Consider each of these:

Psalm 74:13-14:
“You broke apart the Sea [<y`] with your strength,
you broke in pieces the monsters [<yn]yN]t^] upon the waters;
you crushed (completely) the heads of Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!],
you gave him as (something) eaten by the people (dwell)ing in (the) desert!”

Isaiah 27:1:
“In that day YHWH will oversee (the judgment) with His sword, great and hard, upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) fleeing [j^r!B*] serpent, even upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) twisting [/otL*q^u&] serpent, and He shall slay the monster [/yN]T^h^] that (is) in/on the sea [<y`].”

To this may be added Job 26:12-13:

“With His power He stilled the (raging) Sea,
with His skillfulness He shattered Rahab;
with His breath He made the Sea clear,
with His hand He pierced the fleeing Serpent.”

The italicized words all refer to mythic beings, associated with the Sea, that also were mentioned in the Baal Epic (cf. above). Clearly we are dealing with very ancient cosmological traditions, which survived even in the context of Israelite monotheism. Isaiah 27:1 brings together four of the names and expressions; though, in all likelihood, they are meant to refer to a single mythological creature, the Liwy¹t¹n (/t*y`w+l!, “Leviathan”), Caananite L£t¹n¥, a serpentine Sea-monster also called by the more general term tannîn (/yN]T^). This creature has the parallel labels “fleeing serpent” (j^r!B* vj*n`) and “twisting serpent” (/otL*q^u& vj*n`), just as in the Baal Epic. The reference to the “heads” (plural) of Liwy¹t¹n in Psalm 74:14 suggests that a seven-headed creature may be in view, corresponding to the “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm) in the Baal Epic, and similar ancient traditions (cf. above). It is probably best to see all of these expressions as relating to a single multi-headed serpentine Sea-creature—the very image that is utilized in the book of Revelation for the Dragon and its Creature from the Sea.

Isaiah 27:1 is also significant for the way it utilizes these elements of ancient cosmological myth—the conflict with the Sea—in an eschatological setting. Apocalyptic literature, with its colorful imagery, tended to recycle older/archaic elements, setting them within a new context. The immediate precursors of Jewish apocalyptic lie in the Old Testament Prophets, with passages such as Isa 27:1. In a way, the use of cosmological myth was appropriate for eschatological narrative, to express the end of things in terms of their beginning. Just as a battle with the Sea marked the beginning of creation, the start of the current Age, so another kind of conflict with the “Sea” would characterize the end of the Age. This is very much the dynamic we see at work in the book of Revelation.


Trinity/Triad in Ancient Egypt

In commemoration of Trinity Sunday (June 7, 2020), and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is worth considering some interesting, albeit rather loose, parallels to the idea (and mode of expression) attested in other ancient religious traditions. Perhaps the most noteworthy examples come from ancient Egypt, where the symbolism of the number three was, in a variety of ways, consistently applied to concepts of deity, especially in terms of triadic structures and formulae—involving groups of three deities. In ancient Egypt, as in other cultures, the number three could be used as a shorthand to indicate plurality and multiplicity (i.e. the first number after two, beyond duality). In Egyptian script, the plural could be indicated by three strokes or by repeating a sign three times.

Triads of Egyptian deities are well-known, with numerous and varied examples at hand in the surviving texts and inscriptions. What is significant is the way that these triads express both unity and multiplicity—the one and the many (three)—at times using both singular (“he”) and plural (“they”) pronouns when referring to the triad. This will be discussed further below.

Different sorts of triads, typical of the syncretistic tendencies in Egypt whereby deities (and/or conceptions and manifestations of deity) are combined and united in various ways. This fundamental syncretism distinguished Egyptian religion from the other cultures of the Ancient Near East, where such combinations are attested much less frequently. Three kinds of triads may be mentioned:

    • Mythological—that is, deities described in the manner of human beings (with personalities, etc) about whom tales (i.e. “myths”) may be told
    • Cosmological—the work of creation and natural phenomena described in terms of the actions of, and relationships between, divine powers
    • Theological—i.e., deities related to one other conceptually, in an attempt to describe the nature and characteristics of deity, often in somewhat more abstract terms.

One common “mythological” triad in ancient Egypt is the natural combination of father, mother, and child (son), reflecting the dynamic of the human family. The best known examples of this sort are: Amun-Mut-Knonsu (from Thebes), Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem (from Memphis), and Osiris-Isis-Horus (from Abydos). The king (Pharaoh) is often identified with the son in this triad, understood as a manifestation (or ‘incarnation’) of the deity on earth. A similar incarnation, in animal form, is the Apis bull; the Memphite theology surrounding the Apis identified it, for example, with the divine triad of Osiris-Atum-Horus, or Ptah-Re-Horus (cf. Morenz, p. 143).

Perhaps the most famous (and well-known) cosmological triad involves the manifestation of the Creator deity [Re] in the form (or symbol) of the sun during its daily course: Khepri in the morning, Re in midday, and Atum in the evening. These associations are known as early as the Pyramid Texts, but find their definitive formulation in the later Turin papyrus, in which the deity says “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, Atum in the evening”. In the Book of the Dead, the Creator deity (represented by the Sun), is called “the aspect of the three” (Morenz, p. 145). With the setting of the sun, the deity Re is united with Osiris in the underworld (as Re-Osiris). A similar sort of combination was expressed, at Memphis in the late period, by the triad of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

A triadic construct, both cosmological and theological in nature, is the famous Ennead (group of nine deities) of the Heliopolitan theology. According to this cosmology, the universe is represented by three generations (comprised of four male-female pairs) of offspring from the Creator deity Atum, with whom they are ultimately identified. The best known theological triad from ancient Egypt is found in the Leiden Hymn to Amun (late 14th-century B.C.), which gives definitive expression to the identification of the Creator deities Re and Ptah with the high deity Amun (whose name means something like ‘the Hidden One’):

“All gods are three: Amun, Re, Ptah; they have no equal. His name is hidden as Amun, he is Re before (humankind, i.e. visible to them), and his body is Ptah.” (stan. 300)

This dates from the revivial of Amun-religion, in the time of Tutankhamun (following the reign of Akhenaten), and is similarly expressed, visually, on a trumpet from his burial treasure (cf. Hornung, p. 219):

Admittedly, these Egyptian triads, are quite different from the Christian trinity, in two important respects: (a) they are part of a highly developed polytheistic religious outlook, and are ultimately tri-theistic rather than trinitarian; and (b) there is no parallel whatever for the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Something roughly comparable to the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is, up to a point, found in Egyptian religious thought—i.e. the king (or the deceased) as the incarnate Son of the Creator (Re/Ptah/Atum)—but nothing like the Holy Spirit. What Christianity and Egyptian religion have most in common is the basic conceptual vocabulary of “one in three, three in one”, as applied to God, however different the overall religious culture might otherwise be. It is possible that this theological language (mode of expression) in Egypt exercised some influence on Christian theology during the two centuries prior to the council of Nicaea (and the establishment of the Nicene Creed). The importance of Alexandria is often cited as the connecting point with Egypt’s past, preserving ways of religious thinking and formulating that go back centuries. The first-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Philo of Alexandria offers an interesting comparison for how the ancient Egyptian triadic theological expression might have been preserved. In his Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo comments on God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three persons (Gen 18:1-2ff), and seeks to explain this in a manner not too dissimilar from the ancient Egyptian triadic formulation:

“…it is reasonable for one to be three and for three to be one, for they were one by a higher principle [kat’ a)nw/teron lo/gon]; but, when counted with the chief powers…He makes the appearance of three to the human mind. …. the spiritual eyes of the virtuous man are awake and see….he begins to see the holy and divine vision in such a way that the single appearance appears as a triad, and the triad as a unity.” (IV. 2, Loeb translation)

This statement by Philo lacks the ontological and metaphysical basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but, in its clear expression of God as both one and three—trinity (triad) and unity—it points in the direction the Trinitarian language utilized by believers, even to this day, as we attempt to approximate and express, in some manner, the mystery of the Godhead.

References above marked “Hornung” are to Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, transl. John Baines (Cornell University Press: 1982). Those marked “Morenz” are to Siefried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, transl. Ann E. Keep (Cornell University Press: 1973).

It has proven a challenge for Christians, over the centuries, to represent the Trinity visually in works of art; however, there have been a number of notable and worthy attempts. One of the most famous, to be sure, is the icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the early 15th century (c. 1410?). It draws upon the same Old Testament narrative (“The Hospitality of Abraham”, Gen 18:1-8) commented on by Philo (cf. above), but has been turned into a beautiful, stylized depiction of the Trinity. The tendency toward a kind of visceral realism in Western art, in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, made the Trinity a more difficult subject matter for the visual arts; however, a pattern was established by Masaccio (c. 1427) in his altar fresco for the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (second, below). This pattern, depicting the Father, Son (Christ on the cross), and Spirit (as a dove), was followed by Albrecht Dürer, in his magnificent “Adoration of the Trinity” altarpiece (1511) for the All Saints Chapel of the Landauer “Twelve Brothers House” in Nürnberg (third, at bottom).

John the Baptist in Josephus’ Antiquities

The general historical accuracy of the Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist, including the background to the narrative in Mark 6:14-29 par, is confirmed by the information in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.116-119—the only other contemporary reference to John outside of the Gospels and book of Acts:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent as prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the citadel I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (LOEB translation)

The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).

Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.

Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.

Hallelujah.

Charlesworth (1977)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

2 The Son is the cup,
And the Father is He who was milked;
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
And she received conception and gave birth.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.

Hallelujah.

Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.

Hallelujah.

This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:

  • Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
  • Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth

The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).

It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:

5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]

One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:

  • God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
  • The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)

This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father).  We can, I think, qualify the parallel:

  • In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
  • The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God

There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.

Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.

For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff

The Birth of Jesus and Virgil’s 4th Eclogue

One of the most interesting Greco-Roman parallels to the birth of Jesus is found in the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Written at the time of the Peace of Brundisium (40 B.C.), following decades of civil war, it is an ode to a coming “Golden Age” (for the cycle of Ages—Gold to Iron—cf. Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 106-201, and the similar concept in many cultures worldwide).

SICILIAN Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. 2Not all do the orchards please and the lowly tamarisks. 3If our song is of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.
4Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; 5the great line of the centuries begins anew. 6Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; 7now a new generation descends from heaven on high. 8-10Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!
11-12And in thy consulship, Pollio, yea in thine, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; 13under thy sway, any lingering traces of our guilt 14shall become void, and release the earth from its continual dread. 15He shall have the gift of divine life, 16shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, 17and shall sway a world to which his father’s virtues have brought peace.
18-22But for thee, child, shall the earth untilled pour forth, as her first pretty gifts, straggling ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the smiling acanthus. Uncalled, the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall fear not huge lions; 23unasked, thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. 24The serpent, too, shall perish, and the false poison-plant shall perish; 25Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil.
26But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, 27and canst know what valour is, 28slowly shall the plain yellow with the waving corn, 29on wild brambles shall hang the purple grape, 30and the stubborn oak shall distil dewy honey. 31Yet shall some few traces of olden sin lurk behind, 32-33to call men to essay the sea in ships, to gird towns with walls, and to cleave the earth with furrows. 34-35A second Tiphys shall then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen heroes; a second warfare, too, shall there be, 36and again shall a great Achilles be sent to Troy.
37Next, when now the strength of years has made thee man, 38-39even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. 40The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; 41the sturdy ploughman, too, shall now loose his oxen from the yoke. 42Wool shall no more learn to counterfeit varied hues, 43but of himself the ram in the meadows shall change his fleece, 44now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; 45of its own will shall scarlet clothe the grazing lambs.
46“Ages such as these, glide on!” cried to their spindles the Fates, 47voicing in unison the fixed will of Destiny!
48Enter on thy high honours—the hour will soon be here—49O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty descendant of Jupiter! 50Behold the world bowing with its massive dome—51earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! 52Behold, how all things exult in the age that is at hand! 53O that then the last days of a long life may still linger for me, 54with inspiration enough to tell of thy deeds! 55-57Not Thracian Orpheus, not Linus shall vanquish me in song, though his mother be helpful to the one, and his father to the other, Calliope to Orpheus, and fair Apollo to Linus. 58-59Even Pan, were he to contend with me and Arcady be judge, even Pan, with Arcady for judge, would own himself defeated.
60Begin, baby boy, to know thy mother with a smile—61to thy mother ten months have brought the weariness of travail. 62-63Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed!
(transl. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb edition, 1916).

This “Golden Age” is connected with the birth of a child, somewhat similar, perhaps to situation in Isa 7:14 and 9:6-7 (cf. the earlier articles on these passages). Indeed, there are a number of images and motifs in this poem that could almost have been lifted out of Isaiah. It has been suggested that Virgil is drawing upon Jewish or related Near Eastern sources in some fashion (note the details in lines 18-25); though overall the idyllic pastoral picture owes more to Theocritus and other Greco-Roman poets than it does to foreign works. As with Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, the identity of the child here is uncertain; many proposals have been made, the most common of which are:

  • The son of Asinius Pollio (the consul in lines 3, 11-12)
  • A son of Octavian (Augustus)—his wife Scribonia was pregnant at the time (but she would bear a daughter)
  • The child is symbolic of the Golden Age

Certainly, Augustus would come to be associated with a reign of peace (Pax Augusta) and be called “savior of the world” (on this Imperial background to the birth of Jesus esp. in the Gospel of Luke, see a previous Christmas season note). Not surprisingly, some Christians saw in this poem a (pagan) prophecy of Jesus’ birth (e.g., Lactantius, Institutes 7:24; Oration of Constantine §§19-21; but cf. Jerome, Epistle 53, for a contrary opinion). There are likely several reasons for this:

  • Reference to the Cumaean Sibyl in line 4—the Sibyls were seen as predicting the coming of Christ in other early Christian traditions (see below)
  • The “Virgin” in line 6 (here the virgin is ‘Justice’)
  • The child’s connection to the new age, especially the miraculous fertility which comes upon the earth (lines 18-25ff, 40-45)
  • Divine (honorific) attributes seem to be given to the child in lines 15-17
  • The (very) rough similarities with details in Isaiah 7:14ff (cf. the time indicators related to the child’s age in lines 26ff, etc)
  • The depiction of the birth and connection with the mother in lines 60-63 may have conjured up associations with Mary and the virgin birth.

Mention of the Sibyl, along with the possibility of Jewish (or Near Eastern) influence in parts of the poem, have led some scholars to theorize that Virgil may have had access to Sibylline “oracles” similar to those which have come down to us today (cf. especially the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracles). As I discussed in a previous note, these surviving books are a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material—the pseudepigraphic Christian books and sections are largely a reworking of the Jewish oracles, meant to integrate the birth and life of Jesus into the fabric of biblical and world history.

The Births of Augustus and Jesus

The announcement of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is related in some way to that of the Roman emperor (Augustus). This is not just a matter of a chronological setting for the narrative; the mention of Augustus (2:1, cf. parallel reference to rulers in 1:5; 3:1f) almost certainly is of theological (christological) importance. Consider the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:

1. Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).

2. Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).

3. Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (swth/r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou) in an inscription from Myra (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72).

Most notably, the Roman government established a new calendar (the Julian) which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, reads as follows (abridged):

It is subject to question whether the birthday of our most divine (emperor) Caesar spells more of joy or blessing, this being a date that we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in, terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: CAESAR. Therefore people might justly assume that his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living and marks the end and boundary of any regret that they had themselves been born. And since no other day affords more promise of blessing for engagement in public or private enterprise than this one which is so fraught with good fortune for everyone…. it is my judgment that the one and the same day observed by all the citizens as New Year’s Day be celebrated as the birthday of Most Divine Caesar, and on that day, September 23, all elected officials shall assume office, with the prospect that through association with observances connected with the existing celebration, the birthday observance might attract all the more esteem and prove to be even more widely known and thereby confer no small benefit on the province. Therefore it would behoove the Asian League to pass a resolution that puts into writing all his aretai, so that our recognition of what redounds to the honor of Augustus might abide for all time. And I shall order the decree to be inscribed in (Greek and Latin) on a stele and set up in the temple.

Along with the letter is the decree, which reads (in part):

Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apollonios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. (proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus) has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.

I have emphasized several phrases above in bold. Even more well-known is the so-called Priene Calendar Inscription, related to this decree, of which note especially lines 31-42 (again key phrases emphasized below, along with the corresponding Greek):

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [swth/r], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [e)pifanei=n] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

For the above letter of Paulus Fabius Maximus and the Asian decree, see Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (1982), p. 217;
the translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription is courtesy of Craig A. Evans, Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel

The birth(day) and appearance of the ‘savior’ is called “good news/tidings”, the same word typically translated as “gospel”. The closest Gospel parallel is found in the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 (note the italicized portions):

10And the Messenger said to them, “Do not fear! For see—I bring a good message [eu)aggeli/zomai] to you of great joy which will be for all people: 11that today is brought forth for you a savior [swth/r]—which is Anointed, Lord—in the city of David! 12And this (is) the sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in cloth-bands [i.e. swaddled] and lying (down) in a feeding-(trough).” 13And suddenly there came to be with the Messenger a full crowd of (the) heavenly army praising God and saying,

14do/ca in the highest (places) to God,
and upon earth peace in [i.e. among] men of (his) eu)doki/a.”

(For more on the translation of this passage, and other critical notes related to the Infancy Narratives, see the recent Christmas article)

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Gospel here has such points of contact with the emperor Augustus (2:1). However, in order to understand the significance of this properly, the points of difference must be clearly brought out:

  • The announcement comes from a heavenly Messenger, and according to the pattern of angelic appearances elsewhere in Scripture.
  • The Savior is also called: (a) Anointed (Xristo/$), that is, an anointed ruler sent by God to his people; and (b) Lord (Ku/rio$), that is, the very title given to YHWH himself.
  • Though well-wrapped, the new-born Savior is lying in an animals’ feeding-trough—generally understood as a sign of humility and condescension, perhaps even as a symbol of Incarnation (see also Isa 1:3).
  • The message is especially addressed to the lowly in society.
  • Heaven and earth are united at the moment of revelation, in a powerful, mysterious way (verse 14)

do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$