Preexistence in Hellenic, Judaic, and Mormon Sources

David Winston

David Winston, “Preexistence in Hellenic, Judaic, and Mormon Sources,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 13–35.

The idea of the premortal existence of man is rather rare in Western religion and all but absent in modern Christianity. Most Christians tend to the view, in one form or another, that Christ himself was preexistent as Lord and God; so do the Mormons. But except for a few preexistent But except for a few suggestive verses in the Bible—such as Jeremiah’s, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee,” and Job’s more-than-rhetorical query, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?—there is little biblical support for the Mormon understanding that man lived in divine family prior to mortality.

But as early Christian and Jewish writings have accumulated in recent decades, and especially in the genre now called apocalyptic, the idea that man himself had a premortal life has shown up repeatedly. One scholar estimates that there are well over eight hundred references to the premortal existence of mankind in Jewish and Christian source materials, and these references give new vividness to other long-standing traditions in Western literature: the idea of the “wandering folk” of God, the Rechabite legends, Greek writings ranging from Pindar to Plato, Wordworth’s well-known poem, Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, and the work of Eichendorff, and so on.

In this essay Professor David Winston, a Hellenist with special expertise in rabbinic literature and the philosophy of Philo, selects three ideas for close comparison: man’s premortal life, creation from element already existing, and mortality viewed as a soul-refining obstacle course or probation.

T. G. M.

According to the Mormon view, all the spirits that ever were or ever will be upon this earth were begotten by God. Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young). There never was a time when there was not intelligence, for intelligence is coequal and coeternal with our Father in heaven. Nor was there a time when this matter of which you and I are composed was not in existence. Indeed, spirit itself is material, though purer and more refined than the body (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young).

Moreover, we have been placed on earth for a purpose, to overcome the evil temptations placed in our way, so that we may be worthy to enjoy the blessings that our Father has in store for the faithful. Incarnation is not a catastrophe caused by the sin committed in an earlier life. We are here because of our faithfulness in having kept our first estate. We are here because we are worthy to be here (Lorenzo Snow and Hugh Nibley). In short, Mormons believe in the preexistence of spirits eternal generated by God and placed through their own volition upon earth for their testing. The physical universe was created by God not ex nihilo, but out of eternal formless matter. Finally, there is no sharp discontinuity between matter and spirit, the latter being nothing but a purer and more subtle form of the former.

Analogous doctrines may be found in Greek and Jewish literature, though with subtle and important variations. We shall find, for example, that the notions of preexistence, the creation of the world out of primordial matter, and the placing of human life on earth for moral testing, are in one form or another common to Mormonism and the Hellenic and Jewish traditions. The eternal generation of spirits by God may be partially paralleled in Greek and Jewish-Hellenistic writings, though not in rabbinic literature. The incarnation of spirits as an opportunity for accomplishing their exaltation and glory has no exact parallel in either Greek or Jewish literature, but to the extent that incarnation was not viewed as a catastrophe but rather as a positive part of the divine plan it does have Greek and Jewish parallels. The notion that spirit is only a purer and more subtle form of matter is attested in Greek though only for the philosophy of the Stoics and the Epicureans, but the lack of a pejorative attitude towards matter was characteristic of both the Jewish and Iranian traditions. In this paper well shall focus our attention on the concepts of preexistence and creation out of primordial matter in The Wisdom of Solomon and in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, with a sideward glance at the rabbinic writings.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Preexistence and immortality.

It has been suggested by a number of commentators that, in his attempt to point out the superior endowments of young Solomon, the author of Wisdom was led to the designation of the body as the personal subject which receives the soul, inasmuch as he was referring to the origins of his existence (8:19: “I was, indeed, a child well-endowed, having had a noble soul fall to my lot”). Since, however, in his view, it was with the soul rather than with the body that the personal “I” is to be connected, he proceeded to correct his initial formulation in verse 20 (“or rather being noble I entered an undefiled body”), which nevertheless went somewhat beyond his original intention (Larcher, Ètudes: 273–74). The preexistence referred to here is therefore not to be taken in its Greek philosophical sense but to be understood only as consisting in the creation of the soul immediately before its coming into a determinate body, as in the case of Adam (ibid., 277).

It seems to me, however, that, had the author merely wished to emphasize the primacy of the soul in the identity of the personal “I,” his initial formulation would have been completely apt and in need of no further revision. For once having asserted that the body-soul complex constituting the child Solomon could be called well endowed merely by virtue of its being allotted a noble soul, he had already thereby clearly indicated the primacy of soul over body. (Larcher’s statement that pais apparently refers to the “état embryonnaire” is completely unwarranted.) Since he was not indeed satisfied with his initial formulation, and felt constrained to correct it, we must conclude that the words “I entered an undefiled body” are meant to suggest the preexistence of souls of varying spiritual capacities, and that in the case of Solomon it was a noble soul that had taken the initiative of entering an undefiled body. In this the author was plainly associating himself to some extent with Platonic doctrine, though at the same time suppressing the major elements of Plato’s myth about the procession of souls and the fall of some of them into bodies. (That this is so may be further inferred from the fact that in 9:15 he reproduces the distinctive Platonic dualism regarding body and soul, replete with verbal echoes from the Phaedo.) According to the myth of Er, Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity, addresses the souls marshaled before her as follows:

Souls that live for a day, now is the beginning of another cycle of mortal generation. . . . Let him to whom falls the first lot first select a life to which he shall cleave of necessity. . . . The prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them . . . and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength otherwise and prowess and the high birth of their ancestors. (Rep. 617E–618B.)

It is essential at this point to emphasize those elements in Plato’s theory of soul which are conspicuously absent in Wisdom. We have already alluded to the author’s suppression of the conception of the soul’s “fall.” This particular omission, however, is neither surprising nor really at variance with Middle Platonism. Although in the Phaedrus the incarnation of souls seems to be the result of an intellectual “fall,” in the Timaeus (41B–C) the soul seems to be destined from the beginning to give life to a body. Mortal creatures came into being so that the heaven or universe be not imperfect (atel?s), which would be the case if it did not contain all the kinds of living beings (cf. Plot.4.8.1). Middle Platonists had already noted this inconsistency in Plato’s writings and attempted to resolve it by emphasizing one or the other of these positions, the majority apparently opting for the pessimistic rather than the optimistic view. Taurus was one of the few who adopted the optimistic attitude. We read in Iamblichus’s De Anima (ap. Stob.1.378, 24 ff., Wachs.):

The Platonists “about” Taurus say that souls are sent by the gods to earth, either, following the Timaeus, for the completion of the universe, in order that there may be as many living things in the cosmos as there are in the intelligible realm; or declaring that the purpose of the descent is to present a manifestation of the divine life. For this is the will of the gods, for the gods to reveal (ekphainesthai) themselves through souls; for the gods come out into the open and manifest themselves through the pure and unsullied life of souls. (Dillon’s translation, in Middle Platonists: 245.)

In his discussion of this issue, Albinus enumerates four reasons (unfortunately highly compressed) for the soul’s descent, two of which appear to be similar to those given by Taurus (Did.25.6), Louis: “either awaiting their numbers, or by the will of the gods”). The other two are “wantonness” (akolasia), i.e., sinful willfulness on the part of the soul, and “love of the body” (philosomatia), which indicates a natural affinity or weakness for embodiment. “Body and soul have a kind of affinity towards each other,” writes Albinus, “like fire and asphalt” (ibid.).

To judge from Iamblichus, it was the theory of “wantonness” that Albinus favored, thus taking the pessimistic view (Dillon, Middle Platonists: 246). Philo seems to allude to all four of Albinus’s explanations. At Somn.1.138, he speaks of souls that are “lovers of body” (philosomatoi); at Her.240, of souls “unable to bear the satiety (koron) of divine goods” (a variation of Albinus’s akolasia); at QG 4.74 (cf. Op. 135), he suggests that the reason for descent might be in order that even terrestrial things might not be without a share in wisdom to participate in a better life (this is similar to Taurus’ s second reason, “the will of the gods to reveal themselves”); and at Plant. 14, we are told that some souls enter into mortal bodies and quit them again according to certain fixed periods (kata tinas h?rismenas periodous). (Cf. Somn.1.138, where we hear of souls selected for return according to the numbers and periods determined by nature: kata tous hypo physeos horisthentas arithmous kai chronous.) This emphasis on numbers and periods implies that the incarnation of souls is part of the mathematical structure of the universe and is thus similar to Taurus’s first reason, “for completion of the universe” and Albinus’s “souls awaiting their numbers” (arithmous menousas). At QG 4.74, Philo even suggests a fifth reason, namely, “in order that it might be akin to created beings and not be continuously and completely happy.” Undoubtedly regarding this matter as an impenetrable mystery, Philo vacillates and simply retails to his readers the various explanations which he found before him in the Middle Platonic tradition.

As for Plotinus, as Armstrong has pointed out, he

firmly resolves the contradiction which appears in Plato’s thought between the ideas of embodiment as a fall of the soul and as a good and necessary fulfillment of its function to care for the body, by maintaining that it is both. It is in accordance with the universal order, which requires that everything down to the lowest level should be ensouled, that souls descend, and appropriate bodies and lower selves are prepared for them. But they want to descend, and are capable of descending, only because they have already a weakness, a tendency to the lower, which seems to be a development of the original tolma which carried Soul outside Intellect. (Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy ed. A. H. Armstrong [Cambridge, 1967], 255.)

It is thus evident that, in suppressing the pessimistic view of the soul’s “fall,” the author of Wisdom, though clearly under the influence of Jewish tradition, was not necessarily being innovative even from the Greek point of view but was simply aligning himself with that Middle Platonic position which was most congenial to his own way of thinking. The Jewish attitude towards this question is well illustrated in a late midrash:

The angel immediately fetches the soul before the Holy One blessed be He, and when she arrives she bows forthwith before the King of Kings, whereupon the Holy One blessed be He commands the soul to enter into the drop of semen contained in so and so; but the soul replies, “Lord of the universe, sufficient for me is the world in which I have dwelt from the moment you created me, why do you wish to install me in this fetid drop, since I am holy and pure and hewn from your glory?” The Holy One blessed be He answers, “The world into which I am about to place you will be more lovely for you than the world in which you have dwelt hitherto, and when I created you, it was only for this seminal drop that I created you.” The Holy One blessed be He then immediately installs her against her will. (Mid. Tank. Pekude 3.)

On the other hand, there is no allusion in Wisdom to Plato’s elaborate doctrine of metempsychosis, which involves certain souls over a period of ten thousand years in a series of reincarnations according to their order of merit, with some transmigrating into animal bodies, though souls of philosophers escape the “wheel of birth” after three thousand years. It should be noted, however, that there is also no mention of this doctrine in two Ciceronian treatises, Tusculan Disputations I and The Dream of Scipio, which contain an elaborate theory of immortality presented along Platonic lines, though with Stoic characteristics. Nor is there any reference to Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis, according to which the acquisition of knowledge during one’s earthly existence is seen as a process of recollecting the knowledge which the soul had once attained through its partial vision of true Being during its preexistent state (Phaedr.247C–248E). As to the parts of the soul, although there is no reference to the formal Platonic tripartition into rational, spirited, and desiderative (Rep.4), there may be a passing allusion in 4:12 (“the giddy distraction of desire perverts the guileless mind”) to two parts of the soul, reflecting either the actual bipartition of the soul into rational and irrational common in Middle Platonism (epithymia representing the irrational and nous the rational; similarly, in 4:11, dolos may represent the irrational soul and psyche the rational [cf. Philo, LA 3.161; Her.55]), or the Stoic division of the unitary soul into the ruling element (hegemonikon or nous) and its seven physical faculties (all of which, including the passions, represent various states of the same psychic pneuma).

Although it is usually claimed that the author of Wisdom never speaks of the immortal nature of the soul as such, as Greek philosophers do, and makes immortality depend on the practice of justice, this assertion thus baldly stated is incorrect. In the first place, Wisdom 2:23, according to which God created man for immortality and made him an image of his own proper being, clearly implies that man’s immortality derives from the fact that his soul is an image of the Divine Wisdom, the “proper being” of the Deity. Second, even according to some versions of the Platonic myths concerning the soul, we are told that some souls are “judged incurable because of the enormity of their crimes and are hurled into Tartarus, whence they never more emerge” (Phaedo 113E; cf. Gorg.525C; Rep.615E).

Nevertheless it is true that, for Plato, the majority of souls are eventually purified through a process of purgation and thus have a natural claim to immortality, and that the Platonists usually offer proofs for immortality from the very nature of soul, whereas the author of Wisdom places the emphasis not on this natural claim but on whether or not one has lived a life of righteousness. In so doing, however, he may (if our dating is accepted) have been following in the footsteps of Philo, who implies that only the souls of the wise enjoy immortality (QG 1.16). Both he and Philo were undoubtedly influenced at this point by biblical tradition, but at the same time could claim to be following the Stoic view adopted by Chrysippus, though without the latter’s limitation on the preservation of wise souls only until the next ekpyrosis or world conflagration (SVF2.809, 811).

One of the distinctive features of the Greek concept of immortality which acquires a new emphasis in the Ciceronian treatises mentioned above and again in Seneca, is equally characteristic of Wisdom, although there is only a brief allusion to it in the eschatological section of the book. Plato had already glowingly described the region above the heavens where with varying degrees of success the souls attempt to obtain a vision of true Being, many of them being sucked downward in the process and suffering incarnation. After a series of purgations, however, they ultimately return to their heavenly home and presumably achieve the vision which had largely eluded them theretofore. This luminous goal comes into sharper focus in Cicero Tusc. 1.47:

Surely objects of far greater purity and transparency will be discovered when the day comes on which the mind is free and has reached its natural home. For in our present state, although the apertures which are open from the body to the soul, have been fashioned by nature with cunning workmanship, yet they are in a manner fenced in with a compound of earthy particles: when, however, there shall be soul and nothing else, no physical barrier will hinder its perception of the true nature of everything. (Cf. ibid. 45: “What, pray, do we think the panorama will be like when we shall be free to embrace the whole earth in our survey, its situation, shape, and circumference?” Cf. Somn. Scip. [Rep.] 6.16.)

Seneca’s eloquent description of the soul’s future knowledge reaches the heights of religious rapture:

Some day the secrets of nature shall be disclosed to you, the haze will be shaken from your eyes, and the bright light will stream in upon you from all sides. Picture to yourself how great is the glow when all the stars mingle their fires; no shadows will disturb the clear sky. The whole expanse of heaven will shine evenly; for day and night are interchanged only in the lowest atmosphere. Then you will say that you have lived in darkness, after you have seen, in your perfect state, the perfect light. (Ep.102.28.)

The author of Wisdom similarly promises the immortal righteous: “In the moment of God’s gracious dispensation they will blaze forth. . . . They will judge nations, and hold sway over peoples. . . . Those who have put their trust in Him shall attain true understanding” (3:7–9). There are passages in the Qumran Hodayot that breathe a spirit similar to that which had moved Seneca, and which recall the author of Wisdom’s passionate eloquence when he speaks of his beloved Sophia. We read in 1QH 3.19–23:

I give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast freed my soul from the pit, and drawn me up from the slough of hell to the crest of the world. So walk I on uplands unbounded and know that there is hope for that which Thou didst mold out of dust to have consort with things eternal. For lo, Thou hast taken a spirit distorted by sin, and purged it of the taint of much transgression, and given it a place in the host of the holy beings, and brought it into communion with the sons of heaven. Thou hast made a mere man to share the lot of the Spirits of Knowledge, to praise Thy name in their chorus.

Here the writer is convinced that he already enjoys eternity and walks with the angelic hosts. His fervor soon reaches an even higher pitch:

For Thou hast made them to know Thy deep, deep truth, and divine Thine inscrutable wonders . . . to be one with them that possess Thy truth and to share the lot of Thy Holy Beings, to the end that this worm which is man may be lifted out of the dust to the height of eternal things, and rise from a spirit perverse to an holy understanding, and stand in one company before Thee with the host everlasting and the spirits of knowledge and the choir invisible [literally, “those versed in concerted song”], to be forever renewed with all things that are. (1QH 11.9–14, Gaster.)

Like the composer of the Hodayot, and like Philo (for whom mystical experience of God is obtainable in this life), the author of Wisdom experiences the raptures of Divine Knowledge in his present existence (ch. 7) and already enjoys his prize of immortality.

Wisdom’s theory of immortality does not represent a new departure within Jewish tradition, but may be seen as part of a continuous development in Jewish Hellenistic thought. According to 1 Enoch 102:5, the spirits of the righteous descend to Sheol, but at the judgment will ascend to a life of joy as companions of the hosts of heaven (103:3–4; 104:6). Jubilees 23:31 (“and their bones will rest in the earth, and their spirits will have much joy”) seems to presume an immediate assumption of the spirit, and in Test Asher 6:5–6 the soul of the righteous is led by the angel of peace into eternal life. Finally, in IV Macc, a book which may be roughly contemporary with Wisdom, the patriarchs are already in heaven ready to receive the souls of those who have died for the sake of God (7:19; 13:17; 16:25; cf. 7:3; 9:22; 14:5; 15:3; 16:13; 17:12; 18:23).


The author’s eschatological descriptions form a sort of chiaroscuro, lacking any clear definition. He moves fitfully through alternating patches of darkness and light, almost deliberately blurring the points of transition. The picture which emerges is somewhat confused, but its broad outlines are nevertheless not difficult to draw. The just souls, after passing through the crucible of suffering during their earthly existence, are portrayed as being in the hand of God and perfectly at peace (either in some neutral zone in Hades, or more likely in heaven). The wicked, on the other hand, who had oppressed their weaker brothers with apparent impunity, become an ignominious carcass, an eternal object of outrage among the dead.

The picture is now abruptly transposed to the “moment of God’s gracious dispensation,” when the just will blaze forth and, in contrast to their formerly passive though peaceful state, will be rendered eminently active. Taking his indignation as full armor, and employing the elementary forces of nature as his weapons, God will now devastate and smash the lawless kingdoms of the earth, thus inaugurating a new, transhistorical era of divine rule. Screened by the divine power, and in receipt of royal insignia of the highest majesty, the just souls (now clearly among the angelic hosts) will, as God’s agents, judge the nations of the world, while enjoying an unsurpassed vision of the truth.

But what was a gracious dispensation for the just will constitute the day of reckoning for the souls of the wicked, who are pictured as coming forward cringing, to be convicted to their face by their own criminal acts. As is common in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the wicked and the just are thought to be able to readily witness each other’s reversed roles under the new divine dispensation. The righteous are therefore pictured as taking their stand with poised confidence to outface their former oppressors, who, in turn, are pictured as full of remorse and given to long self-deprecating monologues. It is not clear, however, whether the wicked face a double judgment, one immediately after death and a second one at the time of the gracious visitation of the just, or whether they are at first automatically hurled speechless into the depths of Hades, only later to face formal charges in the presence of their former victims (cf. Nickelsburg, Resurrection:88–89).

Logos and Sophia

The most remarkable feature about the author’s description of Sophia is that he depicts her as an effluence or emanation of God’s glory. Most Middle Platonists (at least those of whom we have any knowledge) seem to have avoided such a conception, but it was apparently adopted by some of the Neopythagoreans, and was clearly implied by Philo, who often “Pythagorizes,” though in this case he may very well have gotten the notion from the Middle Stoa. Since, according to the writer, Wisdom pervades the entire cosmos and yet at the same time enjoys intimacy with God (7:24, 8:1, 3), it may be said that there is an aspect of God’s essence in everything (including the human mind), which remains nevertheless inseparable from God. The only thing comparable to this view in ancient Jewish thought is Philo’s similar notion of an all-penetrating Divine Logos which reaches into each man’s mind, thus converting it into an extension of the Divine Mind, albeit a very fragmentary one (Det.90; Gig.27; LA 1.37–38; cf. M. Aurel.8.57; CH 12.1).

Like Philo, too, the author of Wisdom evidently teaches that God created the world by means of Wisdom. Although it is true that his statement that “God made all things by his ‘word’ (logo), and through his ‘wisdom’ (sophia) formed man” (9:1–2) is in itself ambiguous, since it is by no means clear that “word” and “wisdom” here refer to Logos-Sophia and are therefore to be capitalized, the matter is, I think, settled by the description of Wisdom as “chooser of God’s works” (8:4), which clearly implies that Wisdom is identical with the Divine Mind through which the Deity acts. In the light of this, the assertion that “with you is Wisdom who knows your works and was present when you created the world” (9:9) must signify that Wisdom contains the paradigmatic patterns of all things (cf. 9:8) and serves as the instrument of their creation. The author further specifies that God created the world “out of formless matter” (11:17), and we must now further inquire whether he believed that this formless matter was itself created by God, thus espousing a double creation theory, or whether he considered it to be eternal.

There is considerable evidence, both internal and external, which makes it unmistakably clear that the latter alternative is the correct one. First, since no explicit theory of creation ex nihilo had theretofore been formulated in either Jewish or Greek tradition, we should expect an emphatic and unambiguous statement from the author in this matter if that were indeed his position. Second, as Grimm had already pointed out long ago (in his comment on 11:17), it was the author’s object to adduce as great a proof as possible of the power of God. Since creation ex nihilo would be an even greater marvel than that of conferring form on an already existent matter, he could hardly have failed to specify the former had he thought it possible. Third, in his account of some of the miracles performed by God on behalf of the Israelites (especially the splitting of the Red Sea) the author employs a Greek philosophical principle in order to make the notion of miracles more plausible, but had he held the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo he could hardly have been troubled by lesser miracles and sought a philosophical principle to explain them, for creatio ex nihilo is the miracle of miracles. It quickly became the paradigm for God’s miraculous powers, and its denial was taken to betoken the undermining of revealed religion (cf. Maim.Guide 2.22, 25; Albo, Iqqarim 1.12.1; Abravanel, Mifcalot Elohim 6a).

It is true that Eudorus of Alexandria (fl. c. 25 B.C.E.), alone among the Middle Platonists, held the view, under the influence of Neopythagoreanism, that the One or Supreme God is the cause both of the “Ideas” and of matter, but unfortunately we lack further information as to how this was understood by him (Simplicius, In Phys.181,10 ff., Diels; Alex. Aphr., In Met. 988a, 10–11, Hayduck; Dillon, Middle Platonists: 126–28). If, as is likely, he conceived of the One as emanating both the Monad and the Dyad, it would be difficult to imagine that the author of Wisdom could be comfortable with such a notion. To conceive of Wisdom as part of God’s essence is one thing, but to allow that the material principle is itself also part of the divine essence would probably have been too much for him to swallow. In any case, the concept of creation ex nihilo formed no part of Greek philosophical thought nor of Jewish-Hellenistic or rabbinic thought, and its first explicit formulation appeared in second-century Christian literature, where (undoubtedly under the impetus of the Gnostic challenge) the argument for a double creation is made on the grounds that creation out of an eternal primordial element would compromise the sovereignty of God (Tat. Ad Gr.5; Theoph.Ad Autol.2.4, 10 ad fin.).

Finally, we must raise the question of the author’s conception of the nature of God’s creative act. Is it temporal or is it eternal? The author nowhere addresses himself to this question, and all we can do is indicate what his answer would be if he were a consistent Middle Platonist. With the exception of Plutarch and Atticus, the Middle Platonists denied that Plato had taught the temporal creation of the world, maintaining that the description given in the Timaeus was only for the sake of “clarity of instruction.” Since the temporal interpretation of Plutarch and Atticus was based on their dualistic notion of a Maleficent Soul which had (at least in Plutarch’s version), before God created the cosmos proper, itself created a dim prefiguration of the cosmos, which was then brought to completion by Logos, it is plain that the monotheistic author of Wisdom could not have been following in their footsteps.

For most Platonists, there could be no adequate explanation why God should wait before beginning to improve the eternal formless matter. Moreover, since the author of Wisdom conceives of Sophia as a continuous emanation of the Godhead, and since it contains the paradigmatic forms of all things and is the instrument of creation, it would be reasonable to presume that its creative activity is also continuous. The fact is, however, that there are no grounds for assuming such philosophic consistency in a writer who seeks boldly to bridge between two diverse traditions and must constantly maintain a delicate balance between them (and who, we might add, is more of a rhetorician than a philosopher). Even the redoubtable Philo falters on this issue; and, although asserting a theory of eternal creation in his treatise On Providence (1.6–9), elsewhere he adopts the formula that “there was a time when the world was not” (Decal. 58). But while in the case of Philo it might perhaps not be unreasonable to brush aside those passages which adopt the biblical idiom of temporal creation, we could feel no such confidence with regard to our author, and so, I think, the question must be left unresolved.

Philo of Alexandria

According to Philo, between God and man, and subordinate to the Logos—who receives at some points the title archangelos, in the sense of “leader of the angels” (Her.205; Somn.1.157)—are battalions of intermediate entities. Philo presents his theory of daemons or angels on several occasions in the course of his biblical exegesis, but his most extensive account is in Somn. 1.133–43, where he comments on Genesis 28:12: “He dreamed, and behold a stairway set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to the heavens and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it; and the Lord stood firmly upon it.” Philo comments:

Stairway when applied to the universe is a figurative name for the air; whose foot is earth and its head heaven The air is the abode of incorporeal souls, since it seemed good to their Maker to fill all parts of the universe with living beings. We see land-animals on the earth, aquatic creatures in the seas and rivers, and in heaven the stars, each of which is said to be not a living creature only but mind of the purest kind through and through; and therefore in air also, the remaining section of the universe, living creatures exist. If they are not to be apprehended by sense, what of that? The soul too is a thing invisible. Indeed it is more to be expected that air should be the nurse of living creatures than that land and water should, seeing that it is air that has given vitality to the creatures of land and water. . . . So far is air from being alone of all things untenanted, that like a city it has a goodly population, its citizens being imperishable and immortal souls equal in number to the stars [cf. Tim.41DE]. Of these souls some, such as have earthward tendencies and are lovers of body, descend to be fast bound in mortal bodies, while others ascend according to numbers and periods determined by nature. Of these last some, longing for the familiar and accustomed ways of mortal life, again retrace their steps, while others . . . call the body a prison and a tomb, and escaping as though from a dungeon or a grave, are lifted up on light wings to the upper air and range the heights for ever [cf. Conf.77; QG 3.10, 45]. Others there are of perfect purity and excellence, gifted with a higher and diviner temper, that have never felt any craving after the things of earth, but are viceroys of the Ruler of the universe, ears and eyes, so to speak, of the great King [Cf. Xen.Cyr.8.2.10; Ps-Arist.De Mundo 398a, 20ff.]. These are called daemons by the other philosophers, but the sacred record is wont to call them “angels” or messengers, employing an apter title, for they both convey the biddings of the Father to his children and report the children’s need to their Father [cf. Plato, Symp.202E]. In accordance with this theory they are represented by the lawgiver as ascending and descending: not that God, who is already present in all directions, needs informants, but that it was a boon to us in our sad case to avail ourselves of the services of “logoi” action on our behalf as mediators, so great is our awe and shuddering dread of the universal Monarch and the exceeding might of his sovereignty. (Cf. Gig.6–9; Plant.11–14; AristGenerat.Anim.3.762a, l8–21; Epinomis 984; Cic.ND 2. 42; Apul.De Deo Socr. c.8.)[1]

The upper atmosphere, then, is full of souls equal in number to the stars, but consisting of distinctive spiritual grades. Some are constituted of such a degree of purity that they are totally exempt from descent into bodies, others are destined to be incarnated for a brief period of time only, after which they return to their aerial home forever, while others yet are caught in the “wheel of rebirth,” and suffer a series of reincarnations. It is clear from Philo’s various explanations for the descent of souls that the body, in his view, is at best a necessary evil, for, as he never tires to inform us, it is a corpse, a shell-like growth, the dwelling place of endless calamities, wicked by nature and a plotter against the soul (LA 3.69, 72–74; Conf.177; Agr.25; Mig.21; Somn.2.237; Flac. 159). It is the source of both agnoia and amathia.[2]

Souls that are free from flesh and body spend their days in the theatre of the universe and with a joy that none can hinder see and hear things divine, which they have desired with love insatiable. But those which bear the burden of the flesh, oppressed by the grievous load, cannot look up to the heavens as they revolve, but with necks bowed downward are constrained to stand rooted to the ground like four-footed beasts. (Gig.29–31; cf. Plato, Phaed. 66B; Tim.90A; Plant.16–27; QG 4.46; Wisdom 9:15.)

Philo quotes with approval Heraclitus’s saying “we live their death, and are dead to their life.” “He means,” explains Philo, “that now, when we are living, the soul is dead and has been entombed in the body as in a sepulcher, whereas should we die, the soul lives forthwith its own proper life, and is released from the body, the baneful corpse to which it was tied” (LA 1.108; cf. Plato, Gorg.493A; Craty400B). There is a veiled reference here to that unpleasant story about the Etruscans who tortured captives “by chaining dead bodies face to face with the living” (Arist. Protrep. B 107), an exemplum which had plainly by this time become a Sophistic commonplace. The soul that loves God will therefore disrobe itself of the body and the objects dear to it (LA 2.55. Isaac, indeed, does not become naked, but is always naked and without body—ibid., 2.59.); it will kill the body and its senses (Ebr.69–70), and devoting itself to genuine philosophy will “from first to last study to die to the life in the body” (Gig. 14; cf. Plato, Phaed.67E, 64A; Her.292, 239–40; Contemp.34; Conf. 106; Mig.9, 16, 204; Deus 2; Fug.91; LA 1.103).

Although the irrational part of the soul is mortal, Philo believes with Plato and in opposition to the Stoics that the rational part is immortal. After weeping for a little over the corpse of his wife Sarah, writes Philo, Abraham quickly rose up from it, holding further mourning to be out of keeping with wisdom, which taught him that death is not the extinction of the soul but its separation and detachment from the body and its return to the place whence it came; and it came, as was shown in the story of creation, from God. And, as no reasonable person would chafe at repaying a debt or deposit to him who had proffered it, so too he must not fret when nature took back her own. (Abr. 258–59; cf. Her.276.)

In QG 3.11, which is an exegesis of Genesis 15:15 (“But thou shalt go to thy fathers with peace, nourished in a good old age”), Philo tries to identify the soul’s ultimate destination:

Clearly this indicates the incorruptibility of the soul, which removes its habitation from the mortal body and returns as if to the mother-city, from which it originally moved its habitation to this place. For when it is said to a dying person, “Thou shalt go to thy fathers,” what else is this than to represent another life without the body, which only the soul of the wise man ought to live? And Scripture speaks of “the fathers” of Abraham, meaning not those who begot him, his grandfathers and forefathers, for they were not all worthy of praise . . . but in the opinion of many it seems that “the fathers” indicate all the elements into which the dissolution of the body takes place. To me, however, it seems to indicate the incorporeal Logoi [or inhabitants] of the divine world, whom elsewhere it is accustomed to call “angels.” (Cf. Sacr.5.)

Accordingly, the native home of the soul to which it returns after death is the heavens, consisting of the fifth element aither which partakes “of a wonderful and divine essence” (QG 4.8), where it joins the daemons who are pure souls which have never entered into bodies (cf. Her. 283).

In Her. 280, Philo mentions several other views regarding the soul’s destination. “Some,” he says, “affirm that ‘thy fathers’ refers to the sun, moon and other stars to which it is held that all things on earth owe their birth and framing. Others think it refers to the archetypal ideas which, invisible and intelligible there, are the patterns of things visible and sensible here—the ideas in which, as they say, the mind of the sage finds its new home.” In Sacr.6, Philo reserves the translation of the soul to live among the ideas for Isaac alone, of whom scripture writes (Genesis 35:29, LXX) that he was added to his “race” or “genus,” the term used by Philo as a description of the ideas (LA 1.23). Isaac, however, represents for Philo those who were granted the higher gift of self-learned knowledge. “Theirs,” he writes, “is a happier lot than the lot of the people, and in this sacred band Isaac stands confessed as a chorister.” Similarly, he says of Enoch, of whom scripture writes that “he was not found, for God had translated him,” that his immortal soul was translated “from a sensible and visible place to an incorporeal and intelligible form” (QG 1.85–86). There are still others, continues Philo, whom God has advanced even higher, and has trained them to soar above species and genus alike and stationed them beside himself. Such is Moses to whom He says, “stand here with Me” (Deuteronomy 5:31). Therefore we are told that no man knows his grave (Deuteronomy 34:6), for who has powers such that he could perceive the passing of a perfect soul to Him that “is”? (Sacr.8–10).

Although it is not completely clear what Philo had in mind for the soul of the evil man, from QG 1.16 one might reasonably infer that he denied such a one immortality:

The death of worthy men is the beginning of another life. For life is twofold; one is with corruptible body; the other is without body and incorruptible. So that the evil man dies by death even when he breathes, before he is buried, as though he preserved for himself no spark at all of the true life, and this is excellence of character. The decent and worthy man, however, does not die by death, but after living long, passes away to eternity, that is he is borne to eternal life.

From this one might conclude a fortiori that the evil man perishes after death and has no share in immortality (cf. Post. 39, where he says that awaiting the impious is eternal death).

On the other hand, although he never explicitly says so, Philo may have thought that a lengthy series of reincarnations might ultimately purge even the souls of the wicked (possibly implied in Somn. 1.138–39), although he may also have agreed with Plato’s view in the Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic that some were incurable and were doomed never to emerge from Tartarus, i.e., an endless series of evil incarnations. Furthermore, since, unlike the Stoics, he recognized the average man as a special intermediate category (meson), i.e., one who is neither bad nor good (LA 1.93), we may perhaps wonder whether he believed that such individuals enjoyed immortality. Again we may surmise that it was his view that their souls too required some purging through a number of reincarnations before they could return to their source. The fact remains that, on the whole, Philo refers only very sparingly to reincarnation and apparently felt somewhat uncomfortable with this concept.

It seems quite clear, however, that he understood Hades or Tartarus figuratively. In Congr.57 he writes: “God banishes the unjust and godless souls from himself to the furthest bounds, and disperses them to the place of pleasures and lusts and injustices. That place is most fitly called the place of the impious, but it is not that mythical place of the impious in Hades. For the true Hades is the life of the bad, a life of damnation and blood-guiltiness, the victim of every curse” (cf. Her.45, 78; Somn. 1.151; 2.133; cf. Cic.Tusc. 1.48–49).

Finally, we must raise the question of the nature of the soul’s survival after death. It is clear that for Philo, as for Plato, physical desire and feelings do not survive, so that the human personality as we know it ceases to be at death. There is not a word, however, in Plato of the surviving intellect’s ultimate reabsorption into a world-soul (cf. Rep. 611A), so that it presumably lives on as a focus of soul force. “No doubt,” writes Hackforth, “belief in individual immortality should involve belief in the continuity of memory, and Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis does not involve any personal memory, memory, that is, of personal experiences in a former life” (Plato’s Phaedrus [Cambridge, 1952], 87–88). The nature of the individuality of this focus of soul force is therefore by no means clear in Plato, and the same may be said for Philo. Indeed, in Cher. 113–18 Philo eloquently describes the elusive nature of the human ego:

I am formed of soul and body, I seem to have mind, reason, sense, yet I find that none of them is really mine. Where was my body before birth, and whither will it go when I have departed? What has become of the changes produced by life’s various stages in the seemingly permanent self? Where is the babe that once I was, the boy and the gradations between boy and full-grown man? Whence came the soul, whither will it go, how long will it be our mate and comrade? Can we tell its essential nature? When did we get it? Before birth? But then there was not “ourselves.” What of it after death? But then we who are here joined to the body, creatures of composition and quality, shall be no more, but shall go forward to our rebirth, to be with the unbodied, without composition and without quality.

Philo continues to say that from God’s point of view we are all aliens and sojourners in this world, God alone being in the true sense a citizen. He then concludes in language virtually identical with Stoic pantheism: “For we are the instruments, wielded in varying degrees of force, through which each particular form of action is produced; the Craftsman it is who brings to bear on the material the impact of our forces, whether of soul or body, even He by whom all things are moved” (ibid. 128). In short, for Philo, man has in reality no independent existence at all, God alone being the only true Existent. From such a perspective, the notion of “personal” survival could be nothing but a childish illusion.

Creation out of Primordial Matter in Rabbinic Literature

The question of creation appears as a subject of discussion between Rabban Gamaliel II and a “philosopher”:

A philosopher said to R. Gamaliel: Your God was a great craftsman, but he found himself good materials which assisted him: Tohu wa-Bohu, and darkness, and wind, and water, and the primeval deep. Said R. Gamaliel to him: May the wind be blown out of that man [a euphemism for “drop dead!”]. Each material is referred to as having been created. Tohu wa-Bohu: “I make peace and create evil” (Isaiah 45:7); darkness: “I form the light and create darkness” (Isaiah 45:7); water: “Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters”—why?—”For He commanded, and they were created” (Psalm 148:4–5); wind: “For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and created the wind” (Amos 4:13); the primeval deep: “When there were no depths, I was brought forth” (Proverbs 8:24). (BR 1.9, Th-Alb:8.)

It is essential to note that the “philosopher” insists that God, though a great craftsman, was “assisted” by five materials, all of which had a cosmogonic function in pagan mythology. The violent reaction of Rabban Gamaliel II is inexplicable on the assumption that the “philosopher” merely alludes to creation from formless matter. As a matter of fact, both Bar Kappara and R. Judah b. Pazzi interpreted the Genesis account as describing creation out of primordial matter (BR 1.5; PT Hag.2.1; cf. Sh.R.15.7, 22; 50.1; Koh.R. 13.15; BR 10.3). Bar Kappara’s use of the formula “were it not written, it would be impossible to say so” indicates, however, his great concern for the danger lurking in such a scriptural formulation. What bothered the rabbis were the Gnostic heresies that insisted on multiple creative powers. Many passages attest to the continuing rabbinic debate with these Gnostics. We read, for example, in BT Sanhedrin 38a (Tosefta 8.7): “Man was created alone, so that the Sadducees [i.e., heretics] might not say: There are multiple sovereignties in Heaven.” Adam was created (last of all beings) on Sabbath eve, lest the Sadducees say: “The Holy One, blessed be He, had a partner in cosmogony.”

A pointed admonition against heretical cosmological speculations seems to be reflected in the statement of R. Simon b. Menasya, a contemporary of the Patriarch R. Judah I: “Drink of the water of thy Creator and not turbid water, so that you may not be dragged into heretical teachings” (Sifre Deut.48). Moreover, we know that the Gnostics actually tried to find biblical identifications for many of their various “aeons.” According to the Valentinians, the first eight aeons, the Ogdoad, can be found in Genesis, where Beginning, God, Heaven, and Earth are mentioned first (the first Tetrad), then Abyss, Darkness, Water, and Spirit (the second Tetrad) (Iren.Haer. 1.18.1).

In sum, there is no evidence that the normative rabbinic view was that creation was ex nihilo. Rabban Gamaliel’s formulation came only under the impact of a polemic with someone who was undoubtedly a Gnostic. In the context of such a confrontation, it would only be natural for R. Gamaliel to counter with the notion that even the apparently primordial elements to which the Gnostic ascribed a dynamic cosmogonic function were created by God. Nothing may be inferred from this discussion as to the common rabbinic view of creation. Indeed, there is a passage in the Mekilta (Shirta 8), which provides strong prima facie evidence that the rabbis did not subscribe to the notion of creation ex nihilo. Eight examples are given there for the uniqueness of God’s acts in contrast with those of man. The best example of all, however, that God can create ex nihilo, is not given. Moreover, example four states that to ceil man requires wood, stones, dirt, and water, whereas God, on the other hand, ceils only with water (cf. BR 4.1). In other words, when he created the heavens, he used water.[3]


We may now briefly summarize the similarities and differences between Mormon and Jewish-Hellenistic teachings on our chosen themes. Although Philo teaches the incarnation of pre-existent souls,[4] he apparently considers the place of this phenomenon in the divine economy a mystery, since incarnation represents for him the imprisonment of the soul. The Mormon view that incarnation provides the spiritual offspring of God with opportunity for “enhancing their treasure in heaven” (Nibley) is completely incongruous with Philo’s entire approach. On the other hand, the emphasis of the author of Wisdom on earthly life as a moral test, is similar to the Mormon view. (Wisdom 3:5–6 reads: “For God has tried them and found them worthy to be his. As gold in a blast furnace he tested them, and as a whole burnt-offering he accepted them” [cf. Daniel 11:35; 12:10; Zechariah 13:9; Psalm 66:10; Sir 2:5; 1QH 5:15–16; Sen.De Prov. 16.1.6]). The Mormon theory of the eternal generation of souls is paralleled to some extent in Middle Platonism and in Philo, but the Platonist version involves a theory either of Logos or of a world-soul which would be foreign to Mormonism. Finally, the Mormon theory of the creation of the world out of primordial matter finds its parallel in The Wisdom of Solomon, in Philo, in Platonism, and in rabbinic literature.


[1] In Apuleius’s De Deo Socratis, ch. 6, we have the doctrine that the world does not tolerate a gap, in this case between Man and God; there must be intermediaries, and these are the daemons. Again (ch. 8), all the other elements have their proper inhabitants—even fire, as Aristotle tells us; it is unreasonable that air alone should be devoid of them. (See J. Dillon, Middle Platonists [London, 1977], 317–18.)

[2] Plato had already made a sharp distinction between agnoia and amaihia. The former designates a lack of episteme, “a kind of emptiness of habit of the soul” (Rep.585B; cf. Her.297), which can be filled by nous and trophe (reason and training). The latter, on the other hand, is a condition of fundamental ignorance (cf. Ebr. 162) produced by improper training and a faulty habit of body due to a physiological defect (Tim. 86B ff.; cf. Soph.228)

[3] For a full discussion, see my article “The Book of Wisdom’s Theory of Cosmogony,” History of Religions 11:2 (1971), 185–202. For Philo’s theory of creation from primordial matter, see my article “Philo’s Theory of Cosmogony,” in Religious Syncretism in Antiquity, ed. B. A. Pearson (Scholars Press: Missoula, Montana, 1975), 157–71.

[4] The doctrine of preexistence is explicitly stated in II Enoch 23:4–5: “For all souls are prepared to eternity, before the formation of the world.” For the Essene belief in the preexistence of the soul, see Joseph.BJ 2.8.11 (his description, however, may be contaminated by Greek influences), and for a similar rabbinic view, which appears only in the Amoraic period, cf. BT Hag. 12b; A.Z.5a; Yebam.62a; Nid.13b; BR8.7, Th-Alb:61; Tanh.Nisavim 3; ibid. Pekude 3.