In this post, I will use as my starting-point something that Philo of Alexandria says in Special Laws IV:109. Philo of Alexandria was a first century Hellenistic Jewish thinker. Special Laws IV:109 is part of Philo's larger discussion about the symbolism of the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
11:3 permits the Israelites to eat animals that have divided hooves and
chew the cud. By implication, according to Philo, the Torah prohibits
the Israelites to eat land mammals that do not have divided hooves.
These prohibited animals would include those with solid, unsplit hooves,
and those with toes. (Note: Leviticus 11:27 prohibits the Israelites
to eat animals that have paws.)
each of these animals has symbolic value. Land mammals that have
divided hooves and that chew the cud, which are permitted as food,
represent a lifestyle of distinguishing between good and evil
(presumably in one's walk) and meditating on wisdom. The prohibited
land mammals with unsplit hooves represent a failure or unwillingness to
distinguish between good and evil. The prohibited animals with toes
represent the opposite extreme: the toes represent the existence of so
many options out there, that one cannot determine which path is the
I can certainly identify with the
problem of there being so many options out there, that it is difficult
to determine which is the best. This difficulty can apply to looking
for a job or a health care plan, buying products, researching, and the
list goes on and on. There are so many dead ends. One can be on a path
and wonder if that is the best path to be on.
When I was thinking about Philo's statement about many options, I thought about passages in the New Testament.
said in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no
one comes to the Father but by him. Here, Jesus is the only path to
In Luke 13:24, Jesus exhorts people to strive to enter the
strait gate, for many will try to enter but will not be able. Here, the
strait gate seems to represent believing in Jesus and avoiding
iniquity. Jesus in vv 25-30 envisions a time when people who were aware
of Jesus when Jesus was on earth would ask to be let into the Kingdom,
but they would be turned away. They are called workers of iniquity.
The people cast out are probably the religious leaders who rejected
Jesus when he was on earth.
7:13-14, Jesus exhorts people to enter the strait gate that leads to
life. Here, the narrow gate probably refers to obeying Jesus' teachings
in the Sermon on the Mount, and avoiding false prophets. Calling Jesus
"Lord" is not enough; one needs to be on the narrow way.
are many evangelical Christians who believe that faith in Jesus is the
only path to God. For Christian exclusivists, this implies that people
of non-Christian religions do not have access to God, or they lack a
genuine relationship with God. For Christian exclusivists, they are
doing to hell.
Of course, Philo did not believe in Jesus. But did
Philo have a similar view, albeit one that regarded the Torah or belief
in the God of Israel as the only path to God?
did believe in a right path, which includes asceticism, not being
weighed down by passions, virtue, contemplation of God and nature (which
is orderly), and seeing God. Philo apparently believed that the Torah
was the best exemplar of that path. In Life of Moses 2.44, he envisions
a time when the nations will abandon their customs and embrace the
Torah. Yet, Philo did acknowledge the existence of wise, virtuous
people in other cultures. In "Every Good Man Is Free" I:73-74, Philo
refers to Greeks, Persians, and Indians who were virtuous,
contemplative, and wise.
are different kinds of people, Philo also acknowledged that people could
be on the path of truth in different ways, or at least that they could
relate to that path differently. A while back, I blogged through Erwin
Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism. See especially my post "Grace and Philo."
For Philo, Noah was a person who was virtuous, yet Noah failed to
elevate his thoughts to the immaterial realm. In a class that I took on
Philo, I learned that, for Philo, the three patriarchs represented
three different approaches to the spiritual life. Abraham was one who
gained spiritual enlightenment as a result of training and education.
Isaac had it by divine grace. Jacob, by contrast, had to work hard to
attain it and often fell, which is why he is sometimes called "Jacob"
and sometimes called "Israel" (which relates to seeing God). Philo also
thought that a person's path could encompass all three of these
features: a person may be learning (Abraham) and struggling (Jacob), and
God could then decide to give that person divine grace (Isaac) to make
the path easier----not by downgrading the path but by elevating the
person and giving that person the insight and grace to walk the path
Is there only one way to
God? For exclusivist Christians, that one way is belief in Jesus. This
includes believing Jesus is God and accepting his sacrifice for
forgiveness of sins. But exclusivist Christians would acknowledge
diversity among Christians who embrace that one way: Christians are at
different stages and levels of understanding; they have different
For Philo, the one way, or the best way, was a
spiritual path of contemplation, virtue, and asceticism. Were beliefs
unimportant in his conceptualization of that way? Well, Philo did
apparently believe that a person could walk that way without explicit
belief in the God of Israel. At the same time, he also probably held
that certain Gentile beliefs and practices were inconsistent with the
right way: idolatry, for example, which, according to Philo, brought the
divine down to people's level and treated the natural as supernatural.
In the first century, there were Gentiles who disdained idolatry and
gravitated towards an abstract or monotheistic conception of the
divine. Philo may have held that they were close to the truth, if not
on the true path. In that case, a belief in monotheism, on some level,
would be important to Philo.
Philo's focus on the true path
as a way of life more than a belief system (or a system of doctrines) is
tempting to me. I often wonder: Why stress out over beliefs? Why not
focus on the righteous path itself? John Hick emphasized the
commonality among religions of a respect for the transcendent and
ethics. Could not that be the righteous path, which is manifested in
various ways across religions?
Yet, the exclusivist evangelical
Christian view can be tempting, too. The fact is that we do not walk
that righteous path consistently. If a path to God were to require
asceticism, rigorous contemplation, and virtue, I would fall short.
Believing in Jesus looks much easier! That is still consistent with a
righteous path, though, for it entails belief in a Jesus who himself is
righteous and who encourages our righteousness through his grace towards
us, the hope that he provides for us, and his teachings and example.
Of course, things are messy. Many of us
are close to righteousness in some areas, but not in others. I think of
Jesus' statement to the scribe in Mark 12:34 after the scribe affirmed
the importance of loving God and neighbor: You are not far from the
Kingdom of God.
There may be one path, but
different ways of being on it. With all the subjectivity and
differences among people, one can ask if that in effect means different
paths. I think there is some commonality, even if there are