This is Part 4 of David Burnett’s guest blogging series
Philo’s Spec. Law 4.187, 2 Baruch 21:4; 48:8, and Romans 4:17: Misconstrual and a Missing Link?
This passage is frequently cited by commentators on Rom 4:17, rightly recognizing the parallel language regarding God’s calling “the non-existent things into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” (Spec. Laws 4.187) and Paul’s recounting of the God of Abraham who “calls into existence the things that do not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα)” (Rom 4:17b). Most commentators on Rom 4:17 understand this particular passage in Spec. Laws 4.187 as a reference only to creatio ex nihilo while not taking into account the wider context of the citation as a reference to the establishment of God’s celestial government over the cosmos. In this particular context, Philo’s language of calling the non-existent into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι) has nothing to do with the creating of all things out of nothing, but with the creation (in the sense of establishing) of the order or government of the cosmos (κόσμου γένεσίς τε καὶ διοίκησις). This should be read and understood in light of what Philo has already stated earlier in Spec. Laws 1.13-19 (see above), that the κόσμος was created or established (γενητός) as the “greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη),” where the celestial bodies were appointed as the delegated rulers (ἄρχόντας), Philo sharing the Deuteronomic vision. Calling “the non-existent into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” is connected to “bringing order out of disorder;” for Philo these are part of a long list of acts of cosmic beneficence that are not works of God alone, but of “He and His beneficent powers (δυνάμεσι)” who in their governance of the κόσμος, “ever make it their business to transmute the faultiness of the worse wherever it exists and convert it to the better (Spec. Laws 4.187).”
So then for Philo, the language of God’s calling “the non-existent things into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι)” in Spec. Laws 4.187 should be understood more in terms of the ancient near eastern archetypical idea of creation as bringing order to the chaos, withstanding the idea of the act of bringing things that do not exist into existence. The thrust of the reference to creation here is an establishing of the cosmic government, seeing the κόσμος as “the greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη),” in which the celestial bodies, or powers (δυνάμεσι), are delegated to the nations of the earth as rulers (ἄρχόντας) who are to rule as a father over his children (πατέρα παίδων), imitating (μιμεισθαι) the rule of the Father of all (πάντων πατρός). It is through the mimicking (μιμεισθαι) of this rule that the earthly ruler (of any kind) may be “assimilated to God (ἐξομοιώσεωσ της πρὸς θεόν),” becoming like the celestial “fathers (πατέρας)” or even the “Father of all (πάντων πατρός).”
The same argument as above can be made with regard to the commentators’ use of 2 Baruch 21:4 and 48:8 as examples of creatio ex nihilo in relation to Romans 4:17. 2 Bar. 21:4 reads: “O, you who have made the earth, hear me, who has (fi)xed the (fi)rmament by the word, and have set the height of heaven in place by the Spirit, which has called from the beginning of the world things which did not previously exist, and they obey you.” Here, in context, the calling into being of “things which did not exist” speaks of the fixing of the “firmament” and “the heights of heaven” which are actually personified saying, “they obey you.” Reading a bit further into the context may make clear what is being discussed here. Immediately following in 2 Bar. 21:5-6, “You have commanded the air by your nod, and have seen the things which are to come as those which have occurred (already). You who rule the hosts that stand before you with great reckoning and who rules with indignation the countless holy beings which you created from the beginning with (fl)ame and (fi)re which stand around your throne.” In context, the language of the personified “heights of heaven” that “obey you” that “previously did not exist” (2 Bar. 21:4), are referring to the celestial bodies or the heavenly host; the countless holy beings that “he created from the beginning.”
Again, when 2 Bar. 48:8 is read in context, the “bringing to life of that which did not exist” takes on a new dimension. 2 Bar. 48:8-10 reads:
“With signs and fear and indignation you command the (fl)ames, and they change into spirits. And with a word you bring to life that which does not exist, and with mighty power you hold that which has not yet come. You instruct created things in your understanding, and you make wise the spheres so as to minister in their orders. Armies without number stand before you and minister in their orders quietly at your sign.” (2 Bar. 48:8-10)
What is brought to life that has not existed before in this text, like above, are the celestial bodies and their role in the ordering of the cosmic government. Once he has brought them into existence, he “makes wise the spheres so as to minister in their orders.” Both of the texts from 2 Baruch refer not merely to creatio ex nihilo, but to the establishment of the order of the cosmos, giving the celestial bodies wisdom to “minister in their orders.”
It is important to keep in mind this interpretation when considering how 2 Baruch later discusses the vindication of the righteous. After the dead are raised in 2 Bar. 50:1-4, the destiny of those that were righteous is discussed in 2 Bar. 51:
“their splendor will be glori(fi)ed in changes, and the appearance of their face will be turned into the light of their beauty, so that they may be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them (51:3) … When, therefore, they [speaking of the unrighteous] see that those over whom they are now exalted, who will then be exalted and glori(fi)ed more than they, they will be transformed: the latter into the splendor of angels (51:5) … and time will no longer age them (51:9). For they will dwell in the heights of that world, and they will be made like the angels. And they will be made equal to the stars … and from light into the splendor of glory (51:10) … and there will then be excellence in the righteous surpassing that in angels (51:12).”
Here in 2 Baruch, the angelic transformation of the righteous is spoken of in terms of “being made equal to the stars” (51:10). Baruch’s reason for this is so that “they may be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them” (51:3).
So in 2 Baruch 21:4 and 48:8, the language of being “called from the beginning of the world things which did not previously exist” referred to the establishment of the cosmic order and the celestial bodies who obey him, similar to that of Philo’s Spec. Laws 4.187. Later in 2 Baruch 51, the righteous after the resurrection must be changed into the likeness of the stars or angels so that they might be exalted and “be able to acquire and receive the world which does not die, which is promised to them” (51:3). In both Philo Spec. Laws 4.187 and 2 Bar. 21.5 and 48:8, the bringing into being of that which did not exist referred not merely to creatio ex nihilo in a general sense, but more specifically of the establishment of the celestial bodies and their orders, akin to that of the Deuteronomic vision. It is also important to note that in both texts there was the hope of deification (or angelomorphism), whether in terms of assimilation to God or to become like the stars or angels. This reading of Spec. Laws 4.187 and 2 Bar. 21.5 and 48:8 may provide a missing link with Rom 4:17b and the constellation of language and concepts found there.
Sirach’s Reception of the Deuteronomic Vision
Sirach also appears to share in the Deuteronomic vision. Sirach 17:17, speaking in context of Yahweh’s election of Israel, states: “He appointed a ruler for every nation (ἑκάστῳ ἔθνει κατέστησεν ἡγούμενον), but Israel is the Lord’s own portion (καὶ μερὶς κυρίου Ισραηλ ἐστίν).” Though the term ἡγούμενον is used frequently in the LXX of human rulers, there seems to be a clear echo of Deut 32:9 here in Sirach 17:17, “but Israel is the Lord’s own portion (καὶ μερὶς κυρίου Ισραηλ ἐστίν)” (see Deut 32:9, “καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ”). This is significant in light of Sirach’s understanding of the Abrahamic promise of Gen 22:17, as discussed above, that God would “exalt (ἀνυψῶσαι) his seed as the stars, giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Sir 44:21). The reception of the Deuteronomic vision in Sirach makes clear how the author can read the promise God makes to Abraham in Gen 22:17, to “multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (πληθυνῶ τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ),” as “exaltation (ἀνυψῶσαι).” In Sirach 44:21, the connection made between the Abrahamic and Davidic promises is that the inheritance (κληρονομήσει) of the “governments of your enemies (πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων)” in Gen 22:17 is understood as receiving dominion (κατακυριεύσει) from “seas to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” In the Deuteronomic vision, the stars were understood as the “gods (θεοῖς)” or “angels of God (ἀγγέλων θεοῦ)” who had been “allotted (ἀπένειμεν)” to rule all the “nations under heaven (πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς ὑποκάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ),” but Israel was to be ruled over directly by Yahweh as his own inheritance (κληρονομίας) (Deut 4:19; 17:3; 29:6 ; 32:8-9). It can be argued then that Sirach 44:21 reads the Abrahamic promise of Gen 22:17 qualitatively through the lens of the Deuteronomic vision, seeing the promise of celestial glory as usurping the rule of the gods or angels of the nations and exalting (ἀνυψῶσαι) the seed of Abraham as the stars to receive the inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) of the all nations of the earth “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Wisdom of Solomon’s Reception of the Deuteronomic Vision
The Wisdom of Solomon, a text scholars have mined for parallels to Romans, speaks of the vindication of righteous dead in 3:7-8: “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth (ἀναλάμψουσιν), and will run like sparks (σπινθῆρες) through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever (κρινοῦσιν ἔθνη καὶ κρατήσουσιν λαῶν, καὶ βασιλεύσει αὐτῶν κύριος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας).” Later in 5:5 the unrighteous who are amazed at the unexpected salvation of the righteous say, “Why have they been numbered among the sons of God (υἱοῖς θεοῦ), and their lot among the holy ones (ἁγίοις ὁ κλῆρος)?” In Wisdom, common to texts that share the Deuteronomic vision, the connection again is seen between heavenly shining (ἀναλάμψουσιν) in the afterlife and the rule of the nations (κρινοῦσιν ἔθνη) (Wis 3:7-8). The connection is only strengthened when it is recognizes that they are seen to be among the “sons of God (υἱοῖς θεοῦ)” and the “holy ones (ἁγίοις),” both commonly denotations for the angelic hosts of the heavenly court.