Figures like the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.–A.D. 50) moved comfortably between the Hellenic and Jewish worlds. A member of a priestly family, Philo was also a Roman citizen and deeply involved in Roman politics. His brothers and nephews served as Roman officials. But Philo categorically understood himself to be a Jew and visited Jerusalem at least once.
Logos and dabhar: parallel concepts
Throughout his writings, Philo employs Greek concepts to elucidate aspects of Jewish belief. The word logos signifies at least eleven ideas in Philo’s reflections. It is one of his ways to describe the Word of God, linking it to the Jewish understanding of a personal and rational Creator who remains active in his creation, giving it meaning and order. Philo also uses logos to explain how human reason reflects God’s reason as the all-pervading Divine Logos. This unique gift of God, Philo writes, enables men to “comprehend the nature of all bodies and of all things” and, unlike other created life forms, to enjoy the power of free volition. Philo’s effort to bridge the Jewish and Greek worlds was aided by a Hebrew concept that in certain ways paralleled logos.
The Hebrew word dabhar joined the notion of “dynamic deed” and the concept of “word.” Dabhar’s most basic meaning was “dynamism,” or what drives forward from behind. But the Israelites also used dabhar to describe how Yahweh made his essence recognizable to human beings, an essence that always had moral and spiritual content. This is one reason the Decalogue is called “the ten words” (Exodus 34:28). Hence the dabhar of Yahweh, the philologist Thorleif Boman stresses, is “never a force of nature.” Rather, it is “always the function of a conscious and moral personality.”
This distinguished Yahweh from the gods of other Middle Eastern peoples, whose deities were personified forces of nature. By contrast, dabhar was the act not of many beings but of one mind. Boman finds in dabhar something resembling “the Greek logos idea.”
The correspondences between dabhar and logos are thus clear. The former stresses dynamism more than the latter. But we can see why someone like Philo regarded logos as a way of conveying some of the associations of dabhar to diaspora Jews.
Given the interpenetration of Greek and Jewish thought, we need to ask, What kept those Greeks and Romans, increasingly convinced of the pagan religions’ irrationality, from embracing Judaism?
The friction between Jew and Gentile
While there is evidence of a sizable number of converts to Judaism (called “proselytes” by the Jews) throughout the Roman Empire by the first century A.D., there were considerable deterrents to conversion, such as the Jewish revolts against Roman rule, which made many doubt that Jews could be loyal to the emperor.
These suspicions were magnified by the Jews’ exemption from military service and, most importantly, from participation in the imperial state cult, from the reign of Augustus onward, of Caesar as the divi filius (son of the divine one). Even the bargain struck between the Jews and Rome for the sake of civil peace – that Jews would pray to Yahweh for Rome and the emperor – did not dispel the sense that Jews were insufficiently patriotic.
Then there was the fact that while the imperial authorities granted various concessions to Jews, Romans and Greeks didn’t particularly like Jews. For many Romans and Greeks, Jews were another species of barbarian because they weren’t Roman or Greek. And, as always, Jewish economic success aroused antipathy.
Another deterrent was that, while Judaism proclaimed a universal God who had worked wonders inside and outside Israel and thus exercised authority in all places and times, this same God was bound by a special link to a particular nation. Jewish rituals and worship were closely connected to specifically Jewish historical events and locations, such as the Temple in Jerusalem, which were largely closed to non-Jews.
Certainly Jews interacted daily with Greeks and Romans. Even those who were strictly observant didn’t live in isolation from pagans. Jews argued among themselves not about whether but about how much they could engage with non-Jews. Nonetheless, they retained a deep sense of “us” and “them.” Even as Hellenized a Jew as Philo appreciated the huge gulf between him and the non-Jew.
It was Christianity that upended this apparently intractable situation, forever.
The revolutionary ideas of Christianity
From the beginning, Christianity taught that being born a non-Jew was no longer an impediment to a full relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The universal mission of the Christian church was reflected in its dispensing with most of the rituals and prohibitions of the Mosaic Law, but without contradicting the revelation given to the Jews. Instead Christianity imparted the essence of this message in its fullness to all men. The Christian religion maintained the Hebrews’ understanding of God as Creator, of man as a created being with reason and free will, and of the material world as subordinate to man, who would no longer worship creatures as gods. It also underscored the Decalogue as the core moral code for all peoples.