Original Research - Special Collection: Cosmological Perspectives

Elements of the universe in Philo’s De Vita Mosis: Cosmological theology or theological cosmology?

Gert J. Steyn
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 47, No 2 | a699 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v47i2.699 | © 2013 Gert J. Steyn | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 14 February 2013 | Published: 07 November 2013

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Gert J. Steyn, Department of New Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa


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Abstract

It is the intention of this article to investigate how Philo’s understanding of the universe, and particularly its four basic elements as taught by the Greek philosophers, influenced his description of the God of Israel’s world in which the Moses narrative unfolds. Given the fact that Philo was a theologian par excellence, the question can be asked whether Philo’s approach is closer to what one might call ‘theological cosmology’ or rather closer to ‘cosmological theology’? After a brief survey of Philo’s inclination to interpret Jewish history in the light of Greek cosmology, the study proceeds with his universe as symbolised in the high priest’s vestments. The τετρακτύς with its 10 points of harmony is a key to Philo’s symbolism and numerology. The article concludes that Philo is not writing cosmology per se in his De Vita Mosis, but he is rather writing a theology that sketches the cosmic superiority and involvement of Israel’s God against the backdrop of Greek cosmology as it was influenced by Pythagoras’ geometry and numerology as well as by Plato’s philosophy. In this sense his account in the De Vita Mosis is closer to a cosmological theology. He utilises the cosmological picture of the Greco-Hellenistic world in order to introduce and present the powerful nature and qualities of Israel’s God.

Hierdie artikel het ten doel om ondersoek in te stel na Philo se begrip van die heelal en veral die vier basiese elemente soos dit deur die Griekse filosowe geleer is. Dit het verder ten doel om vas te stel tot watter mate hierdie denke sy beskrywing van die God van Israel se wêreld, waarbinne die Moses-vertelling ontvou, beïnvloed het. Gegewe die feit dat Philo ’n teoloog par excellence is, kan die vraag gevra word of Philo se benadering nader is aan wat ’n mens ’n ‘teologiese kosmologie’ kan noem, of eerder nader aan ’n ‘kosmologiese teologie’ is? Na ’n kort oorsig oor Philo se neiging om die Joodse geskiedenis in die lig van die Griekse kosmologie te interpreteer, analiseer die artikel Philo se heelal soos dit gesimboliseer word in die hoëpriester se klere. Die τετρακτύς met sy 10 punte van harmonie is ’n sleutel tot Philo se simboliek en numerologie. Die artikel kom tot die gevolgtrekking dat Philo nie kosmologie per se in sy De Vita Mosis beskryf nie, maar eerder ’n teologie wat die kosmiese superioriteit en betrokkenheid van Israel se God skets teen die agtergrond van Griekse kosmologie soos dit deur Pythagoras se geometrie en numerologie sowel as deur Plato se filosofie beïnvloed is. In hierdie opsig is sy weergawe in die De Vita Mosis nader aan ’n kosmologiese teologie. Hy maak gebruik van die kosmologiese beeld van die Grieks-Hellenistiese wêreld ten einde die kragtige aard en eienskappe van Israel se God voor te stel en aan te bied.


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