Saturday, July 10, 2010

Philo on Reviling Gods, or: Are Gods Really Magistrates

Common wisdom has it that in the Bible that elohim, the Hebrew word for gods, can refer to human judges or magistrates.

As noted in a previous post (Ye are Gods), this notion stems from Targum Onkelos, was developed by medieval exeggetes, and reigned uncontested until the 1920s. It has been thoroughly debunked in academic circles, yet persists among fundamental evangelicals and orthodox Jews.

It is worth looking beyond ibn Ezra, beyond Onkelos, examining different sources and different voices. I found an intersting Philo quote referenced in an essay by Eliezer Segal. "Aristeas or Aggadah: Talmudic Legend and the Greek Bible in Palestinian Judaism," in: W. O. McCready and A. Reinhartz, eds., Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 159-172, 286-292. The chapter is available by Segal in a free PDF.

Philo of Alexandria was a prolific Jewish writer contemporary with Christ. Philo came from an important family, his brother Alexander even serving as one of Alexandria's top officials. The Septuagint, the Bible that he used, rendered Exodus 22:28 (thou shalt not revile elohim) as theous ou kakologeseis. Philo himself when interpreting this passage does not allude at all to magistrates.

"But, as it seems, he is not now speaking of that God who was the first being who had any existence and the Father of the universe, but of those who are accounted gods in the different cities; and they are falsely called gods, being only made by the arts of painters and sculptors, for the whole inhabited world is full of statues and images, and erections of that kind, of whom it is necessary however to abstain from speaking ill, in order that no one of the disciples of Moses may ever become accustomed at all to treat the appellation of God with disrespect; for that name is always most deserving to obtain the victory, and is especially worthy of love."
-Philo of Alexandria, The Life of Moses 2.205, trans. C. D. Yonge.

Philo reads the word gods as (surprise, surprise) refering to gods, divine beings. That he does not believe in their existence does not change the definition of the word for him. Theous means divine beings, which is also a title of God, hence respect should be shown it even if applied to beings that exist only as a figment of gentile imagination.

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