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The Second God among ancient Jewish philosophers and commoners


The Second God among ancient Jewish philosophers and commoners

The Jewish philosopher Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of Jesus and Paul were said to have lived, and wrote many works arguing that the Bible stories were allegories of higher truths that had counterparts in Greek philosophy. One of the more striking features of Philo’s work is his concept of the Logos (or “Word”) of God. His discussions of the Logos find parallels in Gospel of John that begins with the Logos or Word of God existing with God, but also as God, and it was this Logos that created everything on God’s behalf. Philo’s discussion of the Logos or Word of God shares the same understanding as we find in John’s Gospel. Philo even calls the Logos “a Second God”.

Philo’s views are often considered esoteric and probably alien to the normal beliefs of the common Jews in Palestine and elsewhere (e.g. Casey). Some scholars (e.g. McGrath) go to great lengths to argue that when Philo spoke of a “second God” he was not really deviating from Jewish monotheism, and that modern readers simply need to adjust their definition of “monotheism” as it existed in early Judaism in order not to compromise the conventional wisdom about Judaism.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, in The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, has tackled these beliefs of Philo and compared them popular Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures that in some cases date back to pre-Christian times. (Many of them appear to have been translated for some centuries after the supposed time of Christ, too.) These are called the Targums, a word meaning “translations”. They were apparently composed when Aramaic was becoming more commonly spoken than Hebrew among Jews. There are two versions of Targums: a Babylonian and a Palestinian. The Palestinian Targums contain more non-biblical content in the notes accompanying the translations, and many more references to Memra, meaning Word, than the Babylonian Targums. Barker suggests that the reason for this is that the Palestinian Targums were written in defensive response to Christian teachings, while the Babylonian Jews were for long free from similar Christian proximity and influence.

Barker compares Philo’s discussion of the Word or Logos with the Targum word for “Word”, Memra, and finds that the Targums indicate that ordinary Jews, even in Palestine, had an understanding of Memra that was “strikingly” similar to Philo’s understanding of his “second God”, the Logos:

The correspondence is striking, and, since Philo’s Logos was the ‘second God’, the original significance of Memra becomes a very interesting question. It is not possible to say that Philo’s Logos was a second divine being, therefore it cannot have been true to the Old Testament tradition, and it cannot represent anything within what may reasonably be called Judaism. The ‘assured result’ of modern rabbinic scholarship is that Memra could not be a hypostasis only because this is the concealed premise of the investigation. The monotheism of mainstream rabbinic Judaism which is now reflected in the Targums may not have been the Judaism of the people to whom they were originally addressed. The fact that Memra is opaque to us, even though originally intended as a translation and clarification, must stand as a warning.(p. 148, my emphasis)

The Targums present Exodus 6:3 as

And I was revealed in my Memra to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as the God of the heavens, but by my mighty name the Lord I did not make known to them.

Compare the translation of the Hebrew via the link above.

The Targums also describe the Memra (Word) of God being the agent who created man in his (not God’s) likeness. It was also the Memra who was associated with the Tabernacle and was the Angel accompanying Israel in the wilderness.

The Wisdom of Solomon (another Second Temple text) says the Word was the warrior who killed the firstborn of Egypt:

Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction, 
And brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death; . . . . (Wisdom 18:15-16)

Similarly the Memra (Word) in the Targums slays the firstborn.

Philo writes of the Logos being the agent that “severs” soul and spirit as the Judge of all things. Memra in the Targums has the same function.

These and other similarities are listed in the table below that I have adapted from Barker’s work.

The point of this post is to draw attention to the evidence that Philo’s notion of the Logos, very un-Jewish though it seems to us, was possibly not so alien among even the common Jews before the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. It was from that time on that rabbinic Judaism emerged as a more unified or monolithic religion than may have been the case before.

I have written several times on other chapters in Barker’s book, and these can be found in the Categories drop-down list in the right margin of this blog. Those chapters address other evidence for a pre-70 Judaism being much more diverse in its beliefs, even its beliefs about God, than we have come to assume on the basis of what Judaism looked like after that time.

The significance of all this for the origins of Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ as Logos, mediator, creator, etc scarcely needs to be pointed out.


On the Confusion of Tongues 146 


(146) 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, 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.

(147) . . . . for the image of God is his most ancient word.


T.N. to Exodus 6.7 


And I will separate you to my Name as a people of holy onesand my Word will be to you a redeemer God

Both Philo’s Logos and the Palestinian Targum’s Memra were the Name.
Questions and Answers on Genesis 2.62 


(62) Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word of the supreme Being; since it is fitting that the rational soul of man should bear it the type of the divine Word; since in his first Word God is superior to the most rational possible nature. But he who is superior to the Word holds his rank in a better and most singular pre-eminence, and how could the creature possibly exhibit a likeness of him in himself? Nevertheless he also wished to intimate this fact, that God does rightly and correctly require vengeance, in order to the defence of virtuous and consistent men, because such bear in themselves a familiar acquaintance with his Word, of which the human mind is the similitude and form.


F.T. to Genesis 1.27 


And the Memra of Yahweh created man in his likeness.

Man was made in the image of Logos or Memra — the Word of God.  


Philo betrays his embarrassment with this and rationalizes this to mean that it is only the mind or rational soul of man that is in the image of the Word.

On Dreams 1.241; On Agriculture 51 


(1.241) on which account he says himself, “I am the Lord God,” I whose image you formerly beheld instead of me, and whose pillar you set up, engraving on it a most sacred inscription; and the inscription indicated that I stood alone, and that I established the nature of all things, bringing disorder and irregularity into order and regularity, and supporting the universe firmly, so that it might rest on a firm and solid foundation, my own ministering word.

(51) and let every one in his turn say the same thing, for it is very becoming to every man who loves God to study such a song as this, but above all this world should sing it. For God, like a shepherd and a king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the air, and the fire, and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing, as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason, his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king; for it is said somewhere, “Behold, I am he! I will send my messenger before thy face, who shall keep thee in the Road.”

T. Ps-J. to Exodus 17.15; T. Ps-J to Deuteronomy 4.7 


. . . theMemra of Yahweh hath sworn by the throne of his Glory

. . . the Memra of Yahweh sitteth upon his throne high and lifted up and heareth our prayer what time we pray before him and make our petitions


Logos/Memra was viceroy of a great King
On the Migration of Abraham 174 


(174) for until a man is made perfect he uses divine reason as the guide of his path, for that is the sacred oracle of scripture: “Behold, I send my angel before thy face that he may keep thee in the road, so as to lead thee into the land which I have prepared for thee. Attend thou to him, and listen to him; do not disobey him; for he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in Him.”

T. Ps-J to Deuteronomy 31.6 


And theShekinah of the Memra of Yahweh will go before thee.

Logos/Memra was the angel who guided Israel in desert. 



Questions on Exodus 2.13 


What is the meaning of the

words, “Behold, I am sending My angel before thy face, that he may guard thee on the way, in order that he may lead and bring thee to the land which I have prepared for thee. Give heed and listen and do not disobey. For he will not show consideration for thee,”for My name is uponhim” . . . . (Therefore) of necessity was the Logos appointed as judge and mediator, who is called ” angel.” . . . .


T. Ps-J. to Numbers 24.23; T. Isaiah 8.14 


Woe to them that are alive at the time when theMemra of Yahweh shall be revealed to give the good reward to the righteous and to take vengeance on the wicked . . .

His Memra will be among you for vengeance


Logos/Memra was the heavenly judge
Questions on Exodus 2.13, 68 


. . . . (Therefore) of necessity was the Logos appointed as judge and mediator, who is called ” angel.” . . . .

. . . . The divine Logos, inasmuch as it is appropriately ” in the middle, leaves nothing in nature empty,” but fills all things and becomes a mediator and arbitrator for the two sides which seem to be divided from each other, bringing about friendship and concord


T. Isaiah 65.1 


I let myself be entreated through my Memra by them that enquired not from before me.


Logos/Memra was the mediator.
On Dreams 1.215 


(1.215) For there are, as it seems, two temples belonging to God; one being this world, in which the high priest is the divine word, his own firstborn son. The other is the rational soul, the priest of which is the real true man, the copy of whom, perceptible to the senses, is he who performs his paternal vows and sacrifices, to whom it is enjoined to put on the aforesaid tunic, the representation of the universal heaven, in order that the world may join with the man in offering sacrifice, and that the man may likewise co-operate with the universe.


T. Ps-J. to Deuteronomy 32.43 


By his Memra he will make atonementfor his land and for his people.

Logos/Memra was the high priest
On the Special Laws 1.81 


(81) For if it was necessary to examine the mortal body of the priest that it ought not be imperfect through any misfortune, much morewas it necessary to look into his immortal soul, which they say is fashioned in the form of the living God. Now the image of God is the Word, by which all the world was made.

T. N. to Genesis 1.3 and passim; T. N. to Deuteronomy 32.15; T. Isaiah 45.12; T. O. to Deuteronomy 33.27 


The Memra of Yahweh said: Let there be light.

They forgotthe Memra of Yahweh who had created them.

I have made the earth by my Memra.

>The world was made by his Memra.

Logos/Memra was the agent of creation
On Dreams 2.237 


(2.237) Since then all steadiness, and stability, and the abiding for ever in the same place unchangeably and immovably, is first of all seen in the living God, and next in the word of the living God, which he has called his covenant . . . .


T. Ps-J. to Genesis 9.12; T. Ps-J. to Gen. 17.2; T. Malachi 3 


The covenant between my Memra and the earth

I will set my Covenant between my Memra and thee

[cf the angel of the Covenant is the Memra]

Logos/Memra was the Covenant
On Flight 101; Who is the Heir? 166 


(101) But the divine word which is above these does not come into any visible appearance, inasmuch as it is not like to any of the things that come under the external senses, but 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: for it is said, “I will speak unto thee from above the mercyseat, in the midst, between the two Cherubim.” . . .

(166) the one his beneficent power, in accordance with which he made the world, and in respect of which he is called God; the other his chastening power, according to which he rules and governs what he has created, in respect of which he is further denominated Lord, andthese two he here states to be divided in the middle by him standing above them both. “For,” says he, “I will speak to you from above the mercy-seat, in the midst, between the two Cherubims;”that he might show that the most ancient powers of the living God are equal; that is to say, his beneficent and his chastising power, being both divided by the same dividing Word.


T. N. to Exodus 25.22 


And I will appoint my Memrawith thee, and will speak with thee from above the mercy seat, between the two cherubim

Logos/Memra spoke from the above cherubim
Allegorical Interpretation 2.86 


(86) Moreover, the soul falls in with a scorpion, that is to say, with dispersion in the wilderness; and the thirst, which is that of the passions, seizes on it until God sends forth upon it the stream of his own accurate wisdom, and causes the changed soul to drink of unchangeable health; for the abrupt rock is the wisdom of God, which being both sublime and the first of things he quarried out of his own powers, and of it he gives drink to the souls that love God; and they, when they have drunk, are also filled with the most universal manna; for manna is called something which is the primary genus of every thing. But the most universal of all things is God; and in the second place the word of God. But other things have an existence only in word, but in deed they are at times equivalent to that which has no existence.

11 QtgJobMemra was Wisdom 



Logos/Memra was Wisdom, the chief power

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