In the book of Exodus, God issues this guidance to the Israelites via Moses: “You shall not revile God.” At least, that’s the way it comes off in most modern versions of the Bible—as yet another demand for devotion to Yahweh. But in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible made during the third and second centuries BCE, the verse has a different flavor: it says you should not revile “gods.”
One Jew of ancient times used this version of the verse as a window into God’s soul. Philo of Alexandria, who was born near the end of the first century BCE, saw a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh. By Philo’s lights, the divine law, even while asserting the existence of only one true God, offered “support to those of different opinion by accepting and honoring those whom they have from the beginning believed to be gods.”
Philo didn’t believe in the existence of other people’s gods. He was a devout Jew and a fervent monotheist. Still, he believed that God’s law “muzzles and restrains its own disciples, not permitting them to revile these [gods] with a loose tongue, for it believes that well-spoken praise is better.”
What led Philo to this interpretation of Exodus 22:28? Some would answer, “Whoever translated Exodus 22:28 into Greek.” In other words: Philo, fluent in Greek, read the Septuagint’s injunction against reviling “gods,” interpreted it straightforwardly, and the rest is history. Certainly this would be the spin placed on Philo’s story by “scriptural determinists,” people who think that scripture exerts overwhelming influence on the religious thought of believers, and that their social and political circumstances matter little if at all.
“Scriptural determinism” sounds like an arcane academic paradigm, but it is deployed by nonacademics in a consequential way. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as Americans tried to fathom the forces at work, sales of several kinds of books rose. Some people bought books about Islam, some bought books about the recent history of the Middle East, and some bought translations of the Koran. And of course some bought more than one kind of book. But people who bought only translations of the Koran were showing signs of scriptural determinism. They seemed to think that you could understand the terrorists’ motivation simply by reading their ancient scriptures—just search the Koran for passages advocating violence against infidels and, having succeeded, end the analysis, content that you’d found the essential cause of 9/11.
Some people, in the sway of scriptural determinism, have a very dark view of the future. They note that the scriptures of all three monotheistic faiths embrace the slaughter of infidels. If these scriptures have the final say in a world of nuclear and biological weapons, we’ll see carnage that makes the Crusades look tame.
Fortunately, there is a different interpretation of the Philo story, one that doesn’t see the Septuagint’s translation of Exodus as determinative. After all, Philo didn’t have to stop and dwell on the meaning of that verse. He didn’t have to use it as the occasion for a sermonette about how the preservation of “peace” and “dignity” demands respect for the opinion of others. Maybe there was something about his circumstances that encouraged him to seek and highlight these themes. And maybe, if he hadn’t found them in Exodus, he would have found them somewhere else in the Bible.
What were the circumstances in question? What made tolerance attractive to Philo, even as some other Jews were less tolerant? For that matter, what makes tolerance attractive to some Jews, Christians, and Muslims today even as others of the same faith denounce or kill infidels? As it happens, the answers to these two questions are basically the same. The story of Philo illustrates the generic circumstances that lead people toward peaceful coexistence; it helps us add a new level of detail to the “law of religious tolerance” sketched in chapter 6.
In the process, Philo’s story displays the ingredients of a god’s moral growth. Gods speak through their followers, so when prevailing interpretations of a god change, the very character of the god changes. Yahweh may have been bent on punishing infidels during King Josiah’s reforms, and he may have been focused on retribution at the moment monotheism was born, but whether he stayed in a bad mood would depend on what people who believed in him believed about him. Philo believed in Yahweh with all his heart and soul—believed that he was the one true god—and didn’t believe he was a god of intolerance and vengeance. To the extent that this view spread, God could grow—become more morally inclusive, even more spiritually deep.
And to the extent that this view was likely to spread, favored by basic tendencies in human history, then maybe God’s growth is in some sense “natural”—an intrinsic part of the human story, if disconcertingly fitful, prone to phases of stagnation and even regression. Philo’s story suggests that this is the case. It shows why forces fostering God’s moral growth have indeed often been stronger than forces favoring stagnation or regression. And it shows why, in the twenty-first century, the forces of goodness could once again win out.
You might think that illustrating—indeed, embodying—a moral directionality that’s built into history would be enough accomplishment for one man. Philo’s legacy goes much further. If a moral direction is indeed built into history, three questions arise: First, is this evidence of some “higher purpose,” some unfolding plan that humankind is now climactically involved in? Second, is this plan in some sense divine? And, if so, could it be worked into a modern theology—a theology that didn’t involve some anthropomorphic deity sitting on a throne, but instead conceived of the divine more abstractly; a theology that left room for scientific laws to hold sway on this planet? Remarkably, Philo, writing nearly two millennia before modern science would create a pressing need for such a theology, provided a rough draft of one.
But first things first. Before looking at how Philo helped give us an intellectually modern God, let’s look at how he helped give us a morally modern God.…