Philo’s Moses as christological paradigm

Comparisons between Moses and Jesus usually focus on the contrast between Law and grace, not on the persons. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ radical revision of the Law given on Sinai. John says that the Law was through Moses, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). Jews who believe in Jesus are “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). The letter of the Law kills, Paul says, but the Spirit of the Lord Jesus gives life (2 Cor. 3:6, 17).

But there is a passage in Philo’s Life of Moses which has interesting christological implications, both positively and negatively (Mos. 1:155-58). Philo (c. 20 BC - c. AD 50) was a Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria. His goal was the intellectual accommodation of Jewish to Greek thought similar in many ways to what we see in the patristic period. It was very different to the apocalyptic hope of an annexation of the Greek-Roman world that we find in the majority New Testament witness. But allowing for that distinction, the parallels between this depiction of Moses and the story of Jesus are striking. The passage is quoted here from the Loeb translation.

And so, as [Moses] abjured the accumulation of lucre, and the wealth whose influence is mighty among men, God rewarded him by giving him instead the greatest and most perfect wealth.

Moses enjoyed high status and great wealth in the court of Pharaoh with every prospect of inheriting the kingdom (Mos. 1:32), but he blew his chances when he killed a taskmaster over the Jews and was forced to flee into the wilderness. A similar story of loss and reward is told not only about Jesus but also about those who followed him.

Without going into details, I take it that the impoverishment of Jesus described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9 is a reference to his acceptance of suffering and death: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” Like the Macedonians (2 Cor. 8:2) and the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:9), his “wealth” consisted in, or existed alongside, his self-giving.

The sense of Paul’s statement that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6) is much debated. Is “being like God” something that he already had but refused to exploit? Or something that he did not have but refused to seize? But roughly speaking, we may say that Jesus, like Moses, was rewarded for giving up high status and choosing to become a servant of God’s purpose.

Philo says that Moses received authority and kingship over the Jews, “not like some of those who thrust themselves into positions of power by means of arms and engines of war and strength of infantry, cavalry and navy, but on account of his goodness and his nobility of conduct and the universal benevolence which he never failed to show” (Mos. 1:148). Jesus, obviously, had no interest in violent means of establishing the kingdom of God, and of course what recommended him to God was not his “universal benevolence” but his obedience unto death.

Since Paul regarded himself as an imitator of Christ in his suffering (Phil. 3:10-11), we should also note his own rejection of high social-religious status: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). The exemplary nature of the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 for Paul and his colleagues is often noted by scholars.

That is the wealth of the whole earth and sea and rivers, and of all the other elements and the combinations which they form. For, since God judged him worthy to appear as a partner of His own possessions, He gave into his hands the whole world as a portion well fitted for His heir.

In both cases the reward consists in a share in what otherwise would be God’s alone to possess or exercise.

For Moses this is expressed as a share in the natural order, seemingly reflecting either the diaspora existence of the Jews or the cosmopolitan nature of the “good man”: “for he is a world citizen, and therefore not on the roll of any city of men’s habitation, rightly so because he has received no mere piece of land but the whole world as his portion” (Moses 1:157).

For Jesus it would be a share in the rule of God over the nations. In the language of Psalm 110:1, he would be seated at the right hand of God as Israel’s king to rule in the midst of his enemies. All the peoples of the oikoumenē would confess him as Lord.

Therefore, each element obeyed him as its master, changed its natural properties and submitted to his command, and this perhaps is no wonder.

Both men rejected high status and were appointed to bring about a saving action. They were given a share in the authority of God, and therefore the elements became subject to them. Moses brought water from a rock, for example; Jesus commanded a storm to cease.

For if, as the proverb says, what belongs to friends is common, and the prophet is called the friend of God, it would follow that he shares also God’s possessions, so far as it is serviceable.

The gain comes about because God chooses to share what he has—the created world, sovereignty over the nations—with the one who is exceptionally close to him. Moses does not participate in the divine identity.

For God possesses all things, but needs nothing; while the good man, though he possesses nothing in the proper sense, not even himself, partakes of the precious things of God so far as he is capable.

Philo generalises from Moses to the “good man” or “friend of God.” The authority and inheritance of Jesus are likewise extended to his disciples and to the churches among the Gentiles. They exercise the same prophetic power; they will inherit the world over which he will rule; they will sit on thrones with him.

Philo’s good man, who knows that he possesses nothing in his own right, will have a share in the precious things of God. The disciple who seeks first the kingdom of God will be clothed and fed by God (Matt. 6:33). Anyone who leaves possessions, family, and home to follow Jesus will “receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:30).

And that is but natural, for he is a world citizen, and therefore not on the roll of any city of men’s habitation, rightly so because he has received no mere piece of land but the whole world as his portion.

Philo’s ideal Mosaic-Platonic hybrid person was not confined to any particular city or territory, such as Jerusalem or Israel, but could be found throughout the ancient world.

In the New Testament there are, on the one hand, the largely Jewish-Christian communities of the “dispersion,” which regarded themselves as exiles in the world; and on the other, there are the Jewish-Gentiles communities of people who believed in the future rule of their Lord Jesus over the nations of the pagan empire.

Again, was not the joy of his partnership with the Father and Maker of all magnified also by the honour of being deemed worthy to bear the same title? For he was named god and king of the whole nation…

Philo reports that Moses was given the divine title, being “named god and king of the whole nation.” The reference is obscure, but in Exodus 7:1 (cf. 4:16) God says to Moses, “See, I have made you as a god to Pharaoh….”

Paul says that God bestowed on Jesus “the name which is above every name,” which may—or may not—have a similar connotation: Jesus is endowed with the name of “god” for a particular purpose or circumstance. If the author of Hebrews says of Jesus, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever…,” then it has reference to the “civilisation (oikoumenēn) to come, of which we are speaking” (Heb. 1:8; 2:5).

…and entered, we are told, into the darkness where God was, that is into the unseen, invisible, incorporeal and archetypal essence of existing things. Thus he beheld what is hidden from the sight of mortal nature, and, in himself and his life displayed for all to see, he has set before us, like some well-wrought picture, a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model for those who are willing to copy it.

Philo holds up Moses as the ideal man for imitation. Moses saw the invisible God and then proceeded to set forth—presumably in writing the Torah—his own life as a beautiful and godlike “paradigm (paradeigma) for those who are willing to imitate (mimeisthai) it.”

Paul presented the suffering Jesus as the image or pattern to be imitated by the apostles and the churches (e.g., Rom. 8:29).

Probably in a development of Jewish wisdom ideas, Jesus, as the beginning of a new world, is the “image (eikōn) of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15)—much as wisdom was understood to be “a reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image (eikōn) of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26).

According to John, no one has seen God, not even Moses (cf. Exod. 33:21-23), but “the only begotten, God” (𝔓75 ℵ1 33), or—more probably, in my view—“the only begotten Son” (A C3 K Γ Δ Θ Ψ), who is at the Father’s side, has seen him and has “made him known” (Jn. 1:18; cf. 6:46).

I’m not suggesting that there is any direct relationship between these two portrayals, but the comparison may help us to reframe our christology in a rather constructive fashion. Like Moses, Jesus renounced high status, was rewarded, was given a share in a uniquely divine attribute, and presented a godlike image to those who were willing to imitate him.

Kamil M. | Sat, 05/22/2021 - 10:02 | Permalink

As for the parallels between Moses and Jesus there is an important, and a bit unclear, text in Hebrews 11:

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

This is in parallel to Jesus’ suffering in view of the future glory and the heavenly Jerusalem to which the host of faithful martyrs of Israel looked forward to. I think that Hebrews is often overlooked as being platonizing in outlook, but in fact there is quite a lot of material fitting into the narrative-historical framework with apocalyptic dimension quite prominent.

The most puzzling element in the text quoted is the mention of the reproach of Christ. Sometimes this is believed to be referring to Israel as God’s anointed people. But there may be something you noticed about Philo’s depiction of Moses in play. Especially in the context of other faithful martyrs in Hebrews 11 Jesus seems to be the fulfilment of the divine calling of Moses as well as the model for the believing community of his followers. Earlier in the letter Jesus is contrasted with Moses, but here they are part of the same martyrological story with Jesus as the apex bringing the oikoumene about.

Kamil, thank you. I missed that.

I fully agree with your point about the narrative-historical potential of Hebrews.

The relation of the portrait of Moses in Hebrews to Jewish tradition is complex, and I can’t say I’ve given a lot of thought to it. The focus in Hebrews 11:24-27 is on the renunciation of status, wealth and pleasure and the acceptance of the lot of a mistreated people. There is no reference to Moses’ godlike appearance before Pharaoh and only a fleeting mention of “reward”—presumably because Moses is only a servant; it is the Son who inherits (Heb. 3:5-6).

It does rather look as though the phrase “reproach of the anointed” (ton oneidismon tou christou) is meant to encapsulate the experience of suffering Israel all the way through to Jesus. An allusion to Psalm 88:51-52 LXX is often assumed:

Remember, O Lord, the reproach (oneidismou) against your slaves, which I bore in my bosom, from many nations, with which your enemies reproached (ōneidisan), O Lord, with which they reproached (ōneidisan) what had been exchanged for your anointed (tou christou sou).