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)

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