Philo Judaeus

views updated May 08 2018


The greatest Jewish philosopher and theologian of the Greco-Roman period; b. Alexandria, Egypt, c. 13 b.c.; d. there, between a.d. 45 and 50. To distinguish him from other Philos of antiquity, he is known as Philo Judaeus (the Jew) or Philo of Alexandria. His family was wealthy and influential. Although attracted to a life of speculation and contemplation, he was forced into an active, political life for the sake of defending his coreligionists who were victims of anti-Semitic movements or discriminatory legislation. He fought to have their rights recognized and to strengthen them in the faith of their fathers. About a.d. 40 he was senior member of a delegation sent to Rome to have Emperor Caligula grant the Jews the right to live according to their own laws and to be dispensed from the obligation of taking part in the rites of emperor worship. These are about the only facts known concerning his life.

His Works and Their Nature. The principal writings of Philo, some of which are preserved only in part or in ancient translations, can be divided into four groups:(1) historical and apologetic: In Flaccum, De legatione ad Gaium, De vita contemplativa (hereafter Contempl. ), Apologia pro Iudaeis, De vita Mosis ; (2) philosophical: De aeternitate mundi, Quod omnis probus liber sit (hereafter Prob. ), De providentia, De Alexandro ; (3) expository on the Pentateuch: De opificio mundi (hereafter Opif. ), De Abrahamo (hereafter Abr. ), De Josepho (hereafter Jos. ), De decalogo, De specialibus legibus (hereafter Spec. ), De virtutibus (hereafter Virt. ), De praemiis et poenis ; (4) Legum allegoriae (hereafter Leg. ), an allegorical commentary on Genesishis most important work. Some of his other works are referred to in the course of this article.

As a commentator on the Scriptures, Philo limited himself almost entirely to the Books of Moses (according to the Septuagint translation); he seldom even cited the other books of the OT. For him the Prophets were but the "disciples of Moses."

Allegorical interpretation is characteristic of Philo's method. This manner of exposition seems to have been customary in the schools of that period, both among the Greeks, who used it to draw a moral lesson from the poets or to give meaning to the religious myths (the "physical" allegory of the Stoics), and among the rabbis. By means of his commentaries Philo seems to have wished to reduce the symbolic "philosophy" of Moses to formulas drawn from that syncretism of which Posidonius was the outstanding representative and which contained Platonic, Neo-Pythagorean, and Stoic themes. The extent and variety of Philo's vocabulary have led scholars to discover in him the most diverse influences: Greek (of various schools of philosophy), Jewish (of both Palestinian and Alexandrian Judaism), Egyptian, and Oriental (mystery religions). He can be regarded as a witness of the development of classical thought toward the different forms of later neoplatonism, which are actually in germ in his works. He can also be considered another kind of witnessone showing the fermentation of Jewish thought at the very time when Christianity came into being. He, in turn, certainly had great influence on the early Fathers of the Church. Since lack of space here prevents even a summary exposition of the many studies that have been made on these different points of view, the rest of this article is limited to an endeavor to show in what the originality of Philonic thought consists.

His Education and Teaching on Education. Philo is a good representative of the intellectual training that a man of the cultured class received in Alexandria at the dawn of the Christian Era. In this cosmopolitan city, education was fostered and flourishing. Philo makes allusion to it when he speaks of the γκύκλιος παιδεία. This "general education," or preliminary instruction, has a special meaning in his system, although several passages seem to refer to the historical reality of this institution. Philo calls it also μέση παιδεία (intermediate education) to indicate that it is a middle stage between unculture and perfect knowledge [De congressu quaerendae eruditionis gratia (hereafter Congr. ) 22]. He lists the program of studies [De agricultura (hereafter Agric. ) 18; Congr. 11, 15, 74; De somniis (hereafter Somn. ) 1.205] as consisting, in an ascending order, of grammar, the study of the poets and historians, arithmetic and geometry, music, rhetoric, and dialectics. These serve as preparation for philosophy, which in turn has two phases: the lower one gives to the different individual sciences their principles and basic definitions (Congr. 146) and furnishes the moral principles for governing the passions in self-control, the γκράτεια of the Stoics (Congr. 80); the upper one is concerned with the knowledge of God and leads to Wisdom [De fuga et inventione (hereafter Fug. ) 141; Congr. 79]. The "profane" studies that Philo made extended from the course in grammar to instruction in the lower phase of philosophy. This school philosophy was nothing else than the syncretism then in fashion.

A good student, Philo retained much of his early education, and in his system he allotted to the common truths thus acquired the "intermediate" place that belonged to them. All this, however, was merely his intellectual equipment; it was not his own thought. To investigate the sources that he used is an interesting enough enterprise, but it is of little utility for understanding Philo himself. What belonged to him as his own lies in the upper phase of philosophy, his religious doctrine that directed the organization of all his knowledge and reflection. No doubt, on this level also he was subject to certain influences, some of them more purely Platonic, others of Jewish origin. His tendencies were not foreign to those that are dominant in sapiential literature (the idea of Wisdom). His purpose was the same as that expressed by Ben Sirach's grandson in his Prologue (Sir Prol.) to his Greek translation of the Book of Sirach: to instruct the Jews of the diaspora, who were in danger of losing the faith of their fathers and to render them fit to help "those out-side" (καί το[symbol omitted]ς κτος: Sir Prol. 4), i.e., the Gentiles.

Philo's display of profane learning does indeed too often mask the fidelity of his thought to the heritage of his faith; his skill in the use of allegory runs the risk of making one suspect that he is juggling the content of the Mosaic revelation; his rather simplistic moralism gives the impression of a banal spirituality and hides the originality of his mystical ideal. Learned investigations of his sources have made no small contribution in setting in bold relief the personal traits of his thought. The works of E. R. Goodenough and H. A. Wolfson, each in its own way, by showing the Alexandrian-Jewish and Palestinian-Jewish side of Philo, have brought light to bear on this question. In recent years detailed studies of Philonic ideas and images have been made directly in the texts themselves, so that now one recognizes more clearly that Philo was a genuine thinker who had a doctrine quite his own.

Active and Contemplative Life and Their Union. At the beginning of the third book of the Special Laws, Philo conjures up the time of his youth when he devoted himself to speculative philosophy: "I imagined myself raised in the air on high and ever carried away by divine inspiration. Then I leaned over from the heights of the heavens and, as if looking down from a summit, I fixed the eyes of my soul and viewed the innumerable theories regarding the beings that are on earth. I was glad at heart to have fled, as far as possible, from the miseries of mortal life." But "discontent, the enemy of good," forces him to mix in political life. Although he suffers from it, he thanks God that he was not submerged in it and that he kept enough vision to understand the Holy Commentaries of Moses and make them known to the multitude who were ignorant of them.

Philo was drawn by nature to contemplation. In the De vita contemplativa he speaks with sympathy of the therapeutae, their way of life, and their manner of meditating on the Law as understood allegorically. Besides, the ideal of the essenes seems to have been his; of the three parts of philosophy, they neglected both logic, as being useless for the acquisition of virtue, and physics, as surpassing the possibilities of human nature (except when it treats of the existence of God and of creation); but they applied themselves to ethics in a study of the laws of their forefathers, inspired laws that human nature of itself could not attain to (Prob. 80). It is a matter, therefore, of revealed, religious morals. This is precisely the order of values that Philo respected: to meditate on God and His powers (creative, royal, and legislative) and to return to God both by a literal observance of the Law and by an effort to conform interiorly to the real values that are revealed there by means of symbols. Therefore, it is necessary to flee the corporeal for the incorporeal realities, the sensible for the intelligible world.

Philo, however, saw the insufficiency of this naïvely Platonic schema. Plato wanted the wise man to go down again into the cave; Philo wished to keep him there only for a certain time. He merely delayed his departure for the heights. As a young man, he could think that, in order to realize his ideal, he would have to retire to the desert, far from human affairs. Yet he did not neglect the course of studies established in his city; he saw in this a means by which he could attain to philosophy. "As for me, when I began to be urged on by Philosophy's goads to desire knowledge, I frequented, while still young, one of her handmaids, Grammar, and all that I engendered from her I offered to her mistress " (Congr. 74). He then passed in review all the branches of study. But the profit he drew from them he did not devote to the search for worldly interests; he turned it toward philosophical activity. This preparation was indispensable, since it is dangerous for a soul to cast itself too quickly into research of the purely intelligible.

Commenting on Gn 27.4245, Philo imagines Rebecca speaking thus to Jacob: "When you see a wicked man breaking out in invectives against virtue and making much fuss over things that should be held of no account, such as good fortune, glory, or pleasure, or when you hear him praising injustice as the means for winning such things , do not turn forthwith in the opposite direction, toward renouncing wealth and pride and striving to lead a life of austerity in the desert, for thus you will only provoke your enemy and arm him as a still more dangerous foe against you" (Fug. 25). It is necessary to know the world in order to fight against it and make it better: "Truth would rightly censure those who, without looking into it, would abandon the business of political life" (Fug. 33). "Become acquainted with your body, know yourself and the parts of which you are composed, understand what each one is, the purpose for which it was created, how it acts according to its nature, and who He is who puts its wonderful mechanism in motion and who, Himself invisible, invisibly cares for His childrenis this the spirit that it is in you or the Spirit of the universe? When you have examined yourself, study closely that which stands out as proper to Laban and his successful deeds, which vain opinion thinks are brilliant.When, having become involved in a troubled, political life, you show that you have a strong character, sustained by a good education, I will take you back from down there" (Fug. 46). There is, then, a relationship between practical life and education (Leg. 2.89).

The same idea is developed in his treatise De ebrietate (3380). Philo well saw that education receives its definitive form from the political regime, from the social and moral state of the city that gives it. Thus it may be used for merely human ends; of itself it does not attain to perfection. But if God comes to its aid, it becomes an indispensable basis and means. Besides, he who rises directly to the vision of truth in itself can no longer speak to men in their language (cf. Moses and Aaron).

Thus, the originality of Philo consists in having discovered a middle term in education, wisdom, virtue, the soul, and life [De plantatione (hereafter Plant. ) 94; Leg. 1:93; Opif. 154; De mutatione nominum (hereafter Mut. ) 30; Quod deterius potiori insidiari solet (hereafter Deter. ) 68]. Indeed, he found in Plato, in Aristotle, and in the development of the moral teaching of the Painted Porch school toward a new Stoicism examples of an opening on the material reality of human life that would soften the rigors of a pure spirituality or an absolute rationalism. For the philosophers, however, it was merely a matter of making concessions to ordinary human conditions; for Philo, since the creative act reaches all creatures in their most material and insignificant reality, it is from this lowest level of their being that they must return to God. In a sense, everything in them is good, for God devoted the same art and the same care in forming all of them [Quis rerum divinarum heres (hereafter Her. ) 159].

Good and Evil. This being the case, all that is required for a being to be good is that it return and be united with God. Philo writes: "The perfect take their point of departure in the body, in sensation, in the different parts of their organism without which it is not possible to live (for these parts are useful to education applied to the life that accompanies the body), and they come to their end at the side of the wisdom of God. Beginning with what is mortal, improvements are produced in the direction of what is incorruptible" (Her. 315316). "It is good to bring to an end the combats of practical life before struggling for the contemplative life; this serves as a prelude to a more perfect combat" (Fug. 36). The whole moral and religious system of Philo is swept by a fresh breeze of hope, improvement, and progress, which end in joy and goodness. But this presupposes effort and asceticism, for evil must be conquered. evil is out of place in creation inasmuch as it contrasts with the creative power that is all good. By this power God satisfies ontologically and physically the needs of all creatures; to none of them does He refuse anything that they can receive, since He loves to give. Evil is not in matter, the existing thing that, bereft of quality, form, and activity, God has completed by giving it what it lacked. Nor is evil in sensation or even in the pleasure taken in it. Evil is pure disorder, a turning upside down of order. It comes from the fact that creatures, which should be subordinate to God, are taken for primary causes and last ends. Man's free will is responsible for this. In this sense the possibility of evil is enveloped in creation and in God who knew it beforehand. Having made in His logos the intelligible plan of the universe, He wished to give to all the forms that the material world could receive at its various levels a definite place, so as not to leave any void in the projected ensemble. Minerals, which are ruled by their ξις (state of being), involuntarily follow their own laws; the same for vegetables, with their φύσις (natural instinct), and for irrational animals, with their ψυχή (animal life). All these are still in the domain of the involuntary. At the other extreme, pure intelligences are constantly attached to truth and intelligible goods. But man is an intermediate being, made of a mixture, and he must be so in order that there may not be a discontinuity in the universe [De confusione linguarum (hereafter Confus. ) 176179]. The reason for the disorder in man lies in his φιλαυτία (self-love), which is present both on the level of sensation, attaching itself then to sense pleasure, and on the level of intelligence when, unmindful of God, it thinks itself superior to everything else (Spec. 1.333338). Another form of this evil is οίησις (self-conceit, presumption). Besides these vices, which come from the πθυμίαι (sensual desires) that nothing can satiate, there is a false wisdom by which a man regards everything from his own viewpoint, the wisdom of the δοκησίσοφος (selfconceited sage), portrayed by Cain and Jethro. True wisdom is the fruit of the upper phase of philosophy, all turned entirely toward God. Evil results, therefore, from a voluntary choice of a center of life that is something other than God.

Thus, even though Philo makes no place for any sin of the angels (who are divine λόγοι, forming an army that cannot disobey), Adam's trespass brought into the world a permanent principle of subversion and corruption that has effects just as serious as those of original sin in Christianity. It entrains the dissolution of being. The Logos, transcendent intelligible unity of the world, enjoys, on the plane of immanence, the role of τόνος (cohesive force); it is a bond, a "glue" (Her. 188; Fug. 110111; Plant. 810). It binds beings to their Creator even while making them distinct from Him. It is also called God's "angel" or archangel [Her. 205; Somn. 1.239; Quod Deus immutabilis est (hereafter Deus ) 162; Leg. 3.177; De Cherubim (hereafter Cher. ) 35]. Wrongdoing, however, withdraws man from this unifying action, for it detaches him from the creative plan and from God. Thus, he cannot save himself; he needs a savior. By himself he cannot attain to the light; he needs inspiration and revelation. In the order of creation man was penetrated with this light, which poured forth in him all the graces of the God of goodness. It is so no longer; θεός (God, name of the Creator) has become for him Κύριος (the Lord), who, while not abandoning him, rules him henceforth by another of His powers, the royal power that is legislative and punitive. This restores and saves what is good.

Ontology of Salvation. Being is not divided up between the creative power and the royal power; these two are united in the divine Logos, the firstborn, the elder brother of the world (Cher. 27). These powers manifest their duality and distinctness only in regard to man (Fug. 94104). They are arranged in hierarchical order on the way of salvation. Man meets first the power of punishment, then that of mercy, and finally that of creative goodness. He finds them first in himself, within his conscience, and then in themselves. Having arrived at perfection, man is in relation to both the creative power and the royal power, since he is united to the Logos that embraces both (Mut. 19). To create the mixed nature of man in his intermediate condition, God made use of assistants: "Let us make man," it is writtenin the plural; for the Father cannot be the cause of the evil that He knows must be born of His creature. He made man in His image, which is His Logos. Man, therefore, because of his complex nature, cannot escape from the royal power that sets him aright. But the perfect one, united to the Logos and unified by it against the disintegrating force of evil, recovers a state of innocence, as if he came forth, like the firstborn Logos, from God alone. This state of perfection is a result, not of nature, but of a grace of adoption that bestows on man, as on the Logos, the whole heritage of God. So it is explained in the De mutatione nominum. Thus, whereas Jacob, who had attained to virtue through effort and exercise, received the name of Israel but continued to be called Jacob also, since effort, even when sustained by God, does not guarantee an unchangeable result, Abraham, who by a pure gift of grace begot perfect virtue, joy (Isaac, who did not change his name, which means "he laughs"), was no longer called Abram. Therefore, the punitive power corrects the wicked; the creative power sustains man in progress. But the two powers in union, that is, the Logos, bring definitive salvation to the man who thus receives the lot of perfection.

Man's Need of God's Grace. It would be too much to say that in Philo there is a doctrine of the supernatural life in the Christian sense. Yet it is certain that beyond the mixed nature of man there is a transcendent nature, pure light, the light of the Logos in which the "friend of God" can participate by a gift of grace. The immanentism of the Stoics has no real value. The virtues defined by the Porch were taken up by Philo, but with this correction, that man by his own efforts cannot practice them consistently. The Stoic ideal (see stoicism) can be realized only as a result of an absolute divine initiative. Inasmuch as man is mere man, he remains a mixed being, and his virtues are never perfectly pure. He must become a "man of God." True virtue is not a moral qualification of the soul; it is a sharing in the divine virtue and in the power that God has to create what is good. Man, in his intermediate condition, cannot truly do good; he is fortunate if he does not do evil. Intermediate education has value only if it is assumed by God, through His call and the φορμή (start) that He gives to the soul.

Man's Cooperation. God, however, does not do it all; He demands an effort, and He urges one on through the Law. Philo used the image of athletic combat to express the fight against the body and its passions. This dualism of the intelligible and the sensible has meaning only in the intermediate phase of progress. Here the victory remains precarious, and it does not give access to a higher order of reality. The fight may even wear one out, and one should not become stubborn about it (De migratione Abrahami 26). Should one flee from it? A flight from the passions, when it is a human undertaking, suits those souls that love virtue without perfection (Leg. 2.9091). There is another flight, one that is in answer to a divine call. In this case, the Logos "congeals" the passions, like the waters of the Red Sea, and he who looks to God can pass through them (Leg. 3.172). Having reached his goal, man, like the Logos that he shares in, does not retreat from the troubled world, but wages an all-out war against evil (Leg. 2.91). From God and His Logos comes the victory that consists not in resisting by such-and-such particular virtue such-and-such particular assault of evil, but in reestablishing the universal order thanks to the most generic virtue that begets, rules, and unifies all the others (Leg. 1.59).

Man's Need of Divine Revelation. What is true of virtue is true also of truth. Both are ontological realities in God before being human moral or intellectual values. Truth is the splendor of virtue (Contempl. 26; Spec. 1.209; Virt. 102; Fug. 139; Somn. 1.216218; Deus 96; Jos. 68). Just as man, in the acquisition of virtue, cannot surpass the limits of his own efforts without divine aid, so also he cannot advance beyond the intermediate education without a revelation from God. True wisdom is connected with prophecy. Human language cannot express sublime realities unless God lets man hear an echo of them here below. The verb [symbol omitted]πηχε[symbol omitted]ν (to echo) is often used by Philo. It is to be compared with the noun [symbol omitted]πόνοια (conjecture, hidden meaning) used in regard to symbolism and allegory. The allegorical method is connected with this concept of prophecy and with the idea of a sudden and gratuitous intervention of God. The prophet, who is a "seer," must have an interpreter who speaks for him (as Aaron spoke for Moses). The commentator on God's word goes in the opposite direction: starting with the words, he goes on to unveil the light.

Relation between the Sensible and the Intelligible. Having made use of the Stoic formulas to speak of the immanence of this world, Philo employs a Platonic vocabulary to express his religious thought. But it is still merely a matter of language. If Philo sets the intelligible in opposition to the sensible, he does not construe the former by means of a dialectic; God has created it in His Logos with all the relations that it implies. Plato made the sage descend again into the cave, to organize the demotic virtues there in the image of the dialectic virtue; in Philo's view, the perfect man, united to the Logos and armed with its power, contributes to the accomplishment of its work on earth, and he is then "pleasing in the eyes of God" (Mut. 3940). He does good to men as God does good to His creatures. The relationship between the sensible and the intelligible becomes a personal relationship between man and God in the work of salvation. Even the break between human effort and divine grace has a Platonic aspect. In Plato's Symposium (210E), at the last stage of a man's ascent toward the beautiful in due order and succession (φεξ[symbol omitted]ς), he has a sudden (ξαίφνης) revelation of Beauty in itself; Philo writes: "When God bestows on us the gift of the precepts of eternal wisdom, suddenly, without expecting it (ξαίφνης ού προσδοκήσαντες), we find the treasure of perfect happiness." He means the true gift of grace of a personal Being.

Conclusion. Despite these resemblances, Philo's profound thought remains just as foreign to the Platonic as to the Stoic system. Philo's God is the living God of the Bible. His God cannot be brought into comparison with the παντελ[symbol omitted]ς ν (absolute being) of Plato's Sophist (248E249A) that lives and has life but is only a notion (τ ν, beingin the neuter). Philo's God is He who is ( ν, the Beingin the masculine: Somn. 1.231; Mos. 1.75; Opif. 173; etc.). He is the cause of all life and the source of eternal life (Fug. 198). He is "faithful" because He is unchangeable, and all confidence must be placed in Him. Faith in God gives consolation and encouragement in life (Abr. 268). Here is a theology of faith, hope, and love that shows the man essentially engaged in the word of God (cf. Cher. 85; Spec. 1.310; Fug. 58). Between God and man there is a perpetual exchange of gifts from the One and acts of thanksgiving from the other, of which the Jewish cult is the symbol.

Philo thus does right by all the philosophical tendencies of his time: he puts each one in its place, using it where it can express a partial truth. But his religious thought is well above all this, and that is what he wished to show in thus justifying his basic faith in the preeminence of Moses, who infinitely surpasses all the other philosophers.

Bibliography: Editions. Philonis Alexandrini Opera quae supersunt, ed. l. cohn et al., 7 v. in 8 (Berlin 1962), with complete index verborum; Philo, tr. f. h. colson and g. h. whitaker, 10 v. (Loeb Classical Library; London-New York-Cambridge, Mass. 192962); Philo: Supplement, tr. r. marcus, 2 v. (Loeb Classical Library; London-New York-Cambridge, Mass. 1953), fragments preserved only in Armenian; Oeuvres de Philon d'Alexandrie, tr. r. arnaldez et al. (Paris 1961). Bibliographical studies. j. haussleiter, "Nacharistotelische Philosophen 19311936," Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft 281282 (1943) 107116. r. marcus, "Recent Literature on Philo (19241934)," Jewish Studies in Memory of George A. Kohut, ed. s. w. baron and a. marx (New York 1935). e. r. goodenough and h. i. goodhart, The Politics of Philo Judaeus, Practice and Theory (New Haven 1938). l. h. feldman, "Scholarship on Philo and Josephus (19371959)," The Classical World 54 (196061) 281291; 55 (196162) 3649, reprinted with some unauthorized changes by Yeshiva University, Scholarship on Philo and Josephus, 19371962 (New York 1963). Literature. É. brÉhier, Les Idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie (2d ed. Paris 1925; reprint 1950). e. r. goodenough, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven 1935); An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (2d ed. rev. New York 1963). h. a. wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2 v. (Cambridge, Mass. 1947). j. daniÉlou, Philon d'Alexandrie (Paris 1958). c. mondÉsert and r. arnaldez, "Philon d'Alexandrie," Dictionnaire de la Bible,, suppl. v.7, ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928).

[r. arnaldez]

Philo Judaeus

views updated May 29 2018


PHILO JUDAEUS (c. 20 bce50 ce), Hellenistic Jewish thinker, author of an elaborate synthesis of Jewish religious thought and Greek philosophy. Although the church fathers know him as Philo Judaeus (Jerome, De viris illustribus 11), modern scholars often designate him Philo of Alexandria, to distinguish him from various pagan Greek authors of the same name. Philo's work marks the climax of a long chain of Hellenistic Jewish writings. His mildly atticized Greek, which is marked by a strong Platonic coloring, is unexceptionable; his encyclopedic knowledge of Greek literature and rhetoric is impressive. Disdaining a philosophically systematic exposition of his reinterpretation of Judaism, Philo assumed instead the role of scriptural exegete. He may have believed that the success of his entire enterprise was largely dependent on his ability to convince his readers that the mystical Platonism through which his Jewish understanding was refracted was no arbitrary construct imposed on the Mosaic text, but could readily be deduced from every one of its verses.

Although fully acquainted with the Greek philosophical texts firsthand and in no way restricted to manuals or digests, Philo is clearly not to be regarded as an original philosopher. He saw his task more modestly, as that of the great reconciler who would bridge two apparently disparate traditions. Although there is still no consensus, the view is gaining ground that the apparent eclecticism of his thought is in fact representative of the Middle Platonic tradition (stretching from c. 80 bce to c. 220 ce), a highly stoicized form of Platonism, streaked with Neo-Pythagorean concerns, which included a large dose of arithmology, or number symbolism.

Life and Works

Philo belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic Jewish family (of priestly descent, if Jerome is to be credited) that was readily attracted by the glitter of the Hellenistic world. His brother Alexander was an alabarch (usually equated with arabarch ), or customs agent, for the collection of dues on all goods imported into Egypt from the East, and his wealth was such that he could grant Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, a loan of two hundred thousand drachmas (equivalent to fifty-four thousand dollars); thus was established a connection that ultimately led to the betrothal of Agrippa's daughter Berenice to Alexander's son Marcus. His great wealth is further attested by his provision of silver and gold plates for nine gates of the Jerusalem Temple. His other son, Tiberius Julius Alexander, to whom Philo addressed his dialogue On Providence and who was described by Josephus Flavius as "not remaining true to his ancestral practices," served as procurator of the province of Judaea (4648 ce) and as prefect of Egypt under Nero.

Of Philo himself, aside from the fact that he headed the embassy to (Gaius) Caligula in 3940 ce and visited the Jerusalem Temple, very little is known. Though silent with regard to his Jewish education, he speaks enthusiastically of his Greek training and with engaging melancholy of his having been torn at some point from his "heavenly lookout," where he had consorted with divine principles and doctrines, to be hurled into a vast sea of civil cares. His constant use of athletic imagery, including references to specific athletic and theatrical events that he himself had attended and a triple reference to God as the "president of the games," shows him to have been an aficionado of the sports world. When this trait is coupled with his passionate devotion to speculative philosophy, one recognizes the presence of a Diaspora Jewish intellectual of a type utterly foreign to his Palestinian counterpart.

The Philonic corpus may be divided into three groups: historical or apologetic, philosophical (comprising four treatises, two of which are in dialogue form and preserved only in Armenian and some Greek fragments), and exegetical. The last is subdivided into three Pentateuchal commentaries: the Allegory of the Law or those treatises which begin with a scriptural passage; the Exposition of the Law or those treatises whose structure is shaped by a broad theme indicated in their title; and Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus. There are also references in Philo to a number of his treatises that are no longer extant. The question of the chronology of Philo's works remains problematic but the earlier tendency to assign his philosophical works to a youthful period is no longer accepted.

Exegetical Technique

Philo's attempt to read Greek philosophy into Mosaic scripture was no innovation on his part. He was fully aware of the earlier and less ambitious attempts by Pseudo-Aristeas (c. 130 bce) and Aristobulus (c. 175 bce), though he was also undoubtedly heir to a rich body of scholastic tradition that has vanished but to which he frequently makes allusion. He was also fully alert to the techniques employed by many Middle Platonists in their attempt to foist post-Pythagorean doctrines, including even their own, on Pythagoras (fifth century bce) himself. Following in their footsteps, Philo put Moses forward as the greatest authority of all, as the teacher of Pythagoras and, indeed, of all Greek philosophers and lawgivers.

The main exegetical technique for Philo's vast enterprise, however, was provided by the Greek allegorical tradition, which had been initiated by Theagenes of Rhegium (sixth century bce) in order to defend Homer against the detractors of his theology; the gods' names were made to refer to various dispositions of the soul, and their internecine struggles to the opposition between the natural elements. The Stoics expanded the Cynics' employment of Homeric allegory in the interests of a philosophical system and made much use of the etymologizing of names (of the gods, though not of the heroes), a procedure that had much appeal for Philo. For an important reassessment of Stoic allegorizing, see A. A. Long, "Stoic Readings of Homer," in Homer's Ancient Readers, ed. Robert Lamberton and John J. Keaney (Princeton, 1992) 4166. Moreover, his preoccupation with the "allegory of the soul" is very similar to the later Neoplatonic allegories clustering around Odysseus, which detect in his adventures the mystical history of the soul on its way to its homeland.

John Dillon in 1977 noted the essential unity in the tradition of commentary that Philo's exegetical works and the Neoplatonic commentaries exemplify and has concluded that their common source was the Stoic exegesis of the last two centuries bce, especially that by Crates of Mallus and Herodicus of Babylon. Thomas H. Tobin pointed out in 1983 that Stoic and Middle Platonic allegory did not include the recognition of different levels of interpretation: the allegorical interpretations involved either a rejection of the literal or complete obliviousness to it. Philo is the earliest extant example of a writer who tries to maintain the validity of both levels; thus he involved himself in a controversy with other Jewish allegorists.

A novice in the use of Hebrew texts, Philo relied on the Septuagint, which he happily considered inspired. D. W. Gooding has demonstrated that Philo shows no awareness of the Hebrew underlying the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for he uniformly cites the Septuagint, which, given its frequent inadequacy, he would surely not have done without explanation had he known the underlying Hebrew, and he occasionally offers expositions of the Greek that the Hebrew would have forbidden (see David Winston and John Dillon, Two Treatises of Philo of Alexandria, Chico, 1983, pp. 119125).

Thought and Influence

Philo's understanding of biblical thought is rooted in his abiding confidence in the existence of God as a supremely transcendent being, one absolutely without quality, whose pervasive immanence rules and directs all. The first half of this seemingly paradoxical concept of transcendent immanence has its source in the Old and Middle Academies, apparently going back to Plato's successor Speusippus (d. 339/8 bce), and was more fully elaborated by some of the Neo-Pythagoreans as well as by the Middle Platonist Eudorus of Alexandria (fl. 25 bce), who postulated a supranoetic First Principle above a pair of opposites, the Monad and the Dyad. The second half derives from a central emphasis of Stoic teaching, which envisions the omnipresent vitality of an all-traversing Logos whose highest terrestrial manifestation is the human intellect, which is identified by both Philo and the Stoics as an inseparable portion of the divine mind. Humans are thus akin to the divine and has unbroken access to it from within.

Philo defines two paths that lead to a knowledge of God's existence. In On Rewards and Punishments 41 he speaks of those who have apprehended God through his works as advancing on a sort of heavenly ladder and conjecturing his existence through plausible inference. The true friends of God, however, "are those who have apprehended him through himself without the cooperation of reasoned inference, as light is seen by light" (ibid.), a formula later used by Plotinus. Although there is no consensus concerning the precise significance of Philo's second way to God, it is very likely based on his notion of humanity's direct access to God from within and may perhaps be viewed as an early form of the ontological argument. A similar argument for God's existence seems to be found in both the works of the Stoics and in Plotinus.

Philo's theory of creation is based on Plato's Timaeus as interpreted by Middle Platonism. God created the universe out of a relatively nonexistent and qualityless primordial matter that contains nothing lovely and is utterly passive and lifeless. All things were created simultaneously, and the sequential account of creation in Genesis is only meant to indicate the logical order in God's design.

Although the human soul, as a fragment of the Logos, might be thought to have a natural claim on immortality, the latter can be forfeited if the soul is not properly assimilated into its divine source. From Philo's Platonist perspective, the body is a corpse entombing the soul, which at its death returns to its own proper life. The gradual removal of the psyche from the sensible realm and its ascent to a life of perfection is represented for Philo by two triads of biblical figures: Enoch, Enosh, and Noah; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Abraham of Philo's allegory is a mystical philosopher who, after having mastered the encyclical or general studies (symbolized by Hagar), in which stage all he could produce was sophistry (Ishmael), abandoned the realm of sense (symbolized in his parting with Lot) for the brighter regions of intelligible reality and, despite his initial flirtation with Chaldean pantheism, has attained to the highest vision of deity, resulting in his transformation into a perfect embodiment of natural law.

In a 1965 work, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, E. R. Dodds has correctly noted that the ecstatic form of prophecy as defined by Philo is not a description of mystical union but a state of temporary possession (p. 71f.). Philo, however, speaks also of another form of prophecy, which may be designated "hermeneutical" and is mediated not through ecstatic possession but through the divine voice. Whereas in the state of possession the prophet's sovereign mind is entirely preempted, it is clear from Philo's analysis of the giving of the Decalogue, the paradigm of hermeneutical, or divine-voice, prophecy, that in the latter the inspired mind is extraordinarily quickened. Since ecstatic possession is employed by Philo for the explanation of predictive prophecy alone, whereas the core of the Mosaic prophecy, the special laws, is delivered by him in his role of hermeneutical prophet, it is in this form of prophecy that one must locate Philo's conception of mystical union. In his allegorical interpretation of the divine voice as the projection of a special "rational soul full of clearness and distinctness" making unmediated contact with the inspired mind that "makes the first advance," it is not difficult to discern a reference to the activation of human intuitive intellect (On the Decalogue 33, 35). In Philo's hermeneutical prophecy, then, one may detect the union of the human mind with the divine mind, or, in Dodd's terms, a psychic ascent rather than a supernatural descent.

Philo's mystical passages contain most of the characteristic earmarks of mystical experience: knowledge of God as humanity's supreme bliss and separation from him as the greatest of evils; the soul's intense yearning for the divine; its recognition of its nothingness and of its need to go out of itself; attachment to God; the realization that it is God alone who acts; a preference for contemplative prayer; a timeless union with the All and the resulting serenity; the suddenness with which the vision appears; the experience of sober intoxication; and, finally, the ebb and flow of mystical experience. Philo was thus, at the very least, an intellectual, if not a practicing, mystic.

Philo never had a major impact on Jewish thought. His name appears nowhere in rabbinic literature, and were it not for the preservation of his works by the church, they would surely have perished. In the Middle Ages Jews had access at best to an Arabic or Syriac translation of a small portion of his works. It was not until the sixteenth century that Philo was rediscovered, by ʿAzaryah dei Rossi, who read his work in a Latin translation and outlined a number of his characteristic doctrines in his Me'or ʿeinayim (Mantua, 1573). His attitude toward Philo, however, though appreciative, is at best ambivalent. Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo (15911655) read Philo in the original Greek and made a Hebrew translation of excerpts from his writing, which unfortunately was stolen from him and never recovered. Simone Luzzatto, in his Italian Discorso (1638) on the Jews of Venice, admired Philo, whom he cited from a Latin version, and believed that his motive for allegorizing the scriptures was to attract his pagan audience. Finally, Nahman Krochmal (17851840) includes in his Moreh nevukhei ha-zeman (Guide for the Perplexed of the Time, 1851) a Hebrew translation of the account of Philo by J. A. W. Neander (17891850, née David Mendel), a baptized Jew who was a professor of church history in Berlin.

See Also



The older literature on Philo is fully detailed in Erwin R. Goodenough's The Politics of Philo Judaeus (1938; reprint, Hildesheim, 1967), pp. 127348. An excellent annotated bibliography for the years 19371962 is provided by Louis H. Feldman in Scholarship on Philo and Josephus, 19371962 (New York, 1963). Earle Hilgert's "Bibliographia Philoniana, 19351975" appears in volume 2.21.1 of Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (Berlin and New York, 1984) a volume completely devoted to Philo.

Exhaustive bibliographies of Philo with annotation are provided by Roberto Radice and David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: An Annotated Bibliography 19371986 (Leiden, 1988); and David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: An Annotated Bibliography 19871996 (Leiden, 2000). These two annotated bibliographies of Philo are continued in The Studia Philonica Annual ed. by D. T. Runia and Gregory E. Sterling (1989). Günter Mayer's Index Philoneus (Berlin, 1974), and Peder Borgen et al., The Philo Index: A Complete Greek Word Index to the Writings of Philo of Alexandria (Grand Rapids, 2d ed., 2000)] supplement Hans Leisegang's index (vol. 7) of the Editio maior of Philo, 7 vols. in 4, edited by Leopold Cohn and Paul Wendland (Berlin, 18961930).

For German, French, and English translations of Philo, with very useful notes, see Die Werke Philos von Alexandria, 7 vols., edited by Leopold Cohn et al. (Breslau, 19091964); Les œuvres de Philon d'Alexandrie, 36 vols., edited by Roger Arnaldez et al. (Paris, 1961); and Philo, with an English translation by F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, "Loeb Classical Library" (Cambridge, Mass., 19291962), plus two supplementary volumes translated by Ralph Marcus (Cambridge, Mass., 1953). Fully annotated editions of Philo's works include In flaccum, by Herbert Box (Oxford, 1939); Legatio ad Gaium, by E. Mary Smallwood (Leiden, 1961); De animalibus, by Abraham Terian (Chico, Calif., 1981); De gigantibus and Quod Deus sit immutabilis, by David Winston and John Dillon (Chico, Calif., 1983); and David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Leiden, 2001), which has become the definitive commentary of this work. A useful anthology of Philo's writings, translated by the author of this entry, is Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, Giants, and Selections (New York, 1981).

The most balanced general book on Philo is Émile Bréhier's Les idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie, 2d ed., rev. (Paris, 1925). The large monographs by Walther Völker, Fortschritt und Vollendung bei Philo von Alexandrien (Leipzig, 1938), and Harry A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 2 vols., rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), are indispensable for their very rich presentations of data but are somewhat one-sided in their interpretations. Philon d'Alexandrie: Colloque, Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Lyon, 1115 septembre 1966 (Paris, 1967) offers a splendid series of articles on Philo.

Valentin Nikiprowetzky's Le commentaire de l'écriture chez Philon d'Alexandrie (Leiden, 1977) is a rich study of Philo's exegetical approach. It is now supplemented by David T. Runia, Exegesis and Philosophy (Variorum, 1990); Peder Borgen, Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time (Leiden, 1997); David M. Hay, ed., Both Literal and Allegorical: Studies in Philo of Alexandria's Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus (Atlanta, 1991); John P. Kenney, The School of Moses: Studies in Philo snd Hellenistic Religion In Memory of H. R. Moehring (Atlanta, 1995); and A. Kamesar, "The Literary Genres of the Pentateuch as Seen from the Greek Perspective: The Testimony of Philo of Alexandria," in The Studia Philonica Annual 9 (1997) 143189. For Philo's etymologizing of biblical names, see Lester L. Grabbe's thoroughgoing study Etymology in Early Jewish Interpretation: The Hebrew Names in Philo (Atlanta, 1988). Excellent accounts of Philo's Platonism are John Dillon's The Middle Platonists (London, 1977), pp. 139183, and David T. Runia's Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (Leiden, 1986). A very stimulating study of the exegetical sources of Philo's cosmological exegesis is Thomas H. Tobin's The Creation of Man: Philo and the History of Interpretation (Washington, D.C., 1983).

Important studies of Philo's relationship to Judaism are Isaak Heinemann's Philons griechische und jüdische Bildung (1929; reprint, Hildesheim, 1962); Yehoshua Amir, Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1983); Ellen Birnbaum, The Place of Judaim in Philo's Thought: Israel, Jews, and Proselytes (Atlanta, 1996); Naomi G. Cohen, Philo Judaeus: His Universe of Discourse (Frankfurt am Main, 1995); Alan Mendelsson, Philo's Jewish Identity ; Jutta Leonhardt, Jewish Worship in Philo of Alexandria (Tübingen, 2001); and Maren R. Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture (Tübingen, 2001). For a study of Philo's mysticism, see E. R. Goodenough, By Light Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven, 1935; reprint by Philo Press, Amsterdam, 1969), which is very stimulating but highly speculative; my book Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria (Cincinnati, 1985); and Christian Noak, Gottesbewusstsein (Tübingen, 2000).

For Philo's theory of Mosaic prophecy, see the excellent study of Helmut Burkhardt, Die Inspiration heiliger Schriften bei Philo von Alexandrien (Giessen, 1988); D. Winston, "Two Types of Mosaic Prophecy According to Philo," Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 4 (1989): 4967; "Philo and the Wisdom of Solomon on Creation, Revelation, and Providence," in James L. Kugel, Shem in the Tents of Japhet: Essays on the Encounter of Judaism and Hellenism (Leiden, 2002) 109130, esp. 116127. For Philo's views of sex, see Dorothy Sly, Philo's Perception of Women (Atlanta, 1990); Gregory E. Sterling, ed., The Ancestral; Philosophy in Second Temple Judaism: Collected Essays of David Winston (Providence, 2001) 199219. For Philo's rhetoric, see T. M. Conley, "Philo of Alexandria," in A Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, ed. S. E. Porter (Leiden, 1997); and Manuel Alexandre, Jr., Rhetorical Argumentation in Philo of Alexandre (Atlanta, 1999). For the role of the encyclical studies in Philo, see the good study by Alan Mendelson, Secular Education in Philo of Alexandria (Cincinnati, 1982), and for Philo and the Sophists, see Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul Among the Sophists (2d ed., Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002). A good account of Philo's doctrine of divine providence is Peter Frick, Divine Providence in Philo of Alexandria (Tübingen, 1999). A very useful account of Philo's works and the manuscript tradition is that of Jenny Morris in Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Christ (Edinburgh, 1987), revised and edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Martin Goodman, vol. 3.2, pp. 809870.

David Winston (1987 and 2005)

Philo Judaeus

views updated May 08 2018


PHILO JUDAEUS (Philo of Alexandria ; c. 20 b.c.e.–50 c.e.), Jewish exegete and philosopher of outstanding importance for Jewish Hellenism and early Christianity. Little is known about the details of his personal life. It is clear, however, that he belonged to an extremely wealthy and distinguished Alexandrian family with connections to the Herodian dynasty and the Roman court. His brother was the high official and banker Alexander, known through Josephus, and his nephew, Alexander's son, was *Tiberius Julius Alexander. In 40 c.e. Philo headed a delegation of the Jewish community of Alexandria to the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula, in order to alleviate the situation of the Jews after the outburst of violence in the city. Moreover, Philo once visited Jerusalem, offering a sacrifice in the Temple. Philo's works, which he wrote in Greek, show intimate familiarity with Hellenistic culture and education. His Jewish training seems to have derived from growing up in a traditional Jewish home, but apparently did not include knowledge of the Hebrew language.

Living at a crossroad of cultures in Alexandria, just before rabbinic Judaism emerged and Christianity became a visible phenomenon, Philo is highly significant for a variety of reasons. Initially, he made a clear statement on Jewish identity in the midst of a multicultural metropolis, indicating patterns of negotiating Judaism with general culture. Moreover, Philo's Bible exegesis was extremely rich and methodologically diverse, offering invaluable insights into the state of Jewish Bible interpretation before rabbinic exegesis became normative. His philosophy is intrinsically connected to his exegesis, having developed mostly in the context of interpreting Scripture. Philo engaged in the contemporary discussion, offering an original approach that became especially relevant for subsequent Christian thinkers. His eyewitness reports of the events under Tiberius and Caligula, as well as his descriptions of the *Essenes and the *Therapeutae, are precious and in many respects exclusive sources of information. The former two provide a particular Jewish perspective from the province of the Roman Empire, which complements Josephus Flavius' reports from the capital. Finally, Philo's statements on women are crucial for a proper understanding of the history of gender issues.


Most, but not all, of Philo's vast output has been preserved by the Christian Church in the original Greek. Some treatises have survived only in Armenian and Latin translations. Philo's works are usually divided into the following categories:

i. Philo's exegetical works, probably written for a Jewish audience.

These are again subdivided into three categories, which, however, should not be seen as absolute divisions, since each contains pieces of exegesis belonging to the other categories.

1) The Exposition of the Pentateuch, beginning with the creation story and leading through a treatment of the Patriarchs to a systematic discussion of the legal material. Philo explains that the Pentateuch, although a law code, opens with the story of creation, because this story shows that Mosaic Law is in harmony with the Law of Nature. Everyone living in accordance with the Torah thus becomes a "loyal citizen of the world."

2) The Allegorical Commentary on select biblical passages from the book of Genesis, consisting of 18 extant treatises. Disregarding the plot and context of the biblical stories, Philo progresses in a highly associative manner, transposing biblical verses into philosophical-mystical concepts.

3) Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus (pre-served fragmentarily in an Armenian and Latin translation). Following the Hellenistic genre of Question and Answer Literature, which flourished in Alexandria, especially in connection with the interpretation of Homer, Philo closely follows the biblical text, raising difficulties on certain details and providing answers that confirm Scripture. These treatises are valuable also for their numerous references to other Jewish exegetes whose work has not survived in any other source.

ii. General philosophical writings, probably addressed to a non-Jewish as well as a Jewish audience. In these treatises Philo hardly ever refers to Scripture, instead discussing themes of topical concern, such as The Eternity of the World or Providence. In another work he focuses on the notion of Every Good Man Being Free. These treatises show intimate familiarity with Hellenistic genres of philosophical discourse, such as the dialectical style, which demands that divergent views be discussed before the writer presents his own ideas. These works moreover indicate Philo's desire to participate in the general discussion, reaching out to contemporary intellectuals in Alexandria.

iii. Eye-witness reports of contemporary events. Two extant treatises describe the turbulent years of unrest and violence in Alexandria (Flaccus, On the Embassy to Gaius). These are not historical treatises in the strict sense, because they did not aim at describing contemporary reality or discussing the reliability of the sources at hand, but rather at encouraging fellow Jews by a theologically appealing narrative. Philo also described a group of Jewish philosophers, both women and men, who had settled near Alexandria (On the Contemplative Life). Highly sympathetic to their life-style, he provides the only extant information about this group (*Therapeutae).

Jewish Identity

It has often been assumed that Hellenistic Jews were confronted with an existential dilemma of having to choose between two diametrically opposite cultures: Jewish monotheism, commitment to a specific people, legal code, and revealed Scriptures, on the one hand, and Greek rationalism, sense of beauty, and universal individualism, on the other. This image has increasingly been challenged. It has become clear that ancient Jews living in Alexandria may not have felt such a dichotomy. Instead, they seem to have been proud of both their heritage and their participation in the general culture. They creatively modernized their Scripture and tradition, choosing from the diversity of the Hellenistic environment whatever seemed suitable.

Philo expressed his pride in the Mosaic tradition by claiming that it is the best constitution. The particular laws of Judaism, such as Sabbath observance and kosher food regulations, reflect in his view Natural Law (Opif. 1–5). Anyone seeking to live a rational life in accordance with Nature will come to accept the Torah. The Jews are thus placed at the top of a hierarchy of cultures. Next rank the Greeks whose culture and philosophy Philo deeply appreciated. His numerous references to the sports and theater suggest that he regularly participated in these activities. He was moreover familiar with Homeric, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Pythagorean writings. These, however, were not seen as alternatives, challenging his own tradition, but rather as expressions of ideas akin to the highest truth which Moses had recognized. Of the Stoics Philo explicitly said that they copied certain ideas from the Torah (Lib. 57). Plato's Timaeus was quoted in his interpretation of Genesis as if it naturally belonged to the Jewish hermeneutic endeavor (Opif. 21).

At the bottom of humanity, in Philo's view, are the Egyptians. Reflecting contemporary Roman prejudice, he never tired of stressing their unreliability, the beastly nature of their religious life, their materialism, and their inherent tendency to political unrest (Dec. 79–80, Fuga 19, Mos. 2:194–95). The Egyptians became Philo's ultimate Other against whom he outlined the contours of Jewish identity. The Romans also played a special role. Unlike the Egyptians, however, they appear as benefactors, who brought civilization and proper government to the world. Philo praised especially Augustus, even to the extent of describing and celebrating the temple in his honor in the harbor of Alexandria (Legat. 143–51). Philo felt that the Jews are akin to the rulers of the world, sharing their values as well as their wide physical distribution throughout all civilized countries.

Philo defined Jewish existence in the Diaspora by reference to the model of the metropolis. For Jews, he writes, "the holy city where stands the sacred Temple of the most High God" is the mother-city whence they have gone to settle in numerous other places, which have become their "fatherland" (Flac. 46). Jews living outside the homeland thus have a twofold commitment, namely to their place of living as well as to Jerusalem. This, however, does not imply a "Zionist" orientation, because Philo considered Diaspora Jews to be intellectually more at leisure and, therefore, better equipped to engage in the elevation of the mind commanded by Moses. He neither recommended living in Ereẓ Israel nor did he look to Jerusalem for spiritual guidance. Other exegetes mentioned by him, as far as can be established, are fellow Alexandrians rather than teachers from Ereẓ Israel. The Temple played a central symbolical role, uniting the Jews all over the world, but was also of concrete theological importance, as Philo did his best to prevent its desecration by Caligula's statue.

Philo was observant and encouraged his fellow Jews to be so as well. His treatises on the Decalogue and the Special Laws discuss the mitzvot under 10 headings, providing spiritual justifications for each one of them. Unlike medieval Jewish philosophers, such as *Saadiah Gaon and *Maimonides, Philo did not yet distinguish between rational and revealed commandments, but stressed self-restraint (enkrateia) as the value underlying all of Mosaic legislation. Philo also confronted a group of radical allegorizers among the Jews of Alexandria, who argued that the law no longer needs to be implemented once its spiritual meaning is recognized (Migr. 89–93). Philo responded to this approach by stressing the need of community life based on the halakhah. The latter, however, was locally colored and not necessarily identical to the halakhah in Ereẓ Israel. In Leg. 2:232, for example, Philo, in accordance with Roman law in Hellenistic Egypt, assumes that the death penalty for the stubborn and wicked son is to be decided by both parents rather than a law court.

Philo's construction of Jewish identity was only one of the many voices of Alexandrian Judaism. While the works of most other Jews have not survived and can only fragmentarily be reconstructed, Philo's writings are largely extant thanks to his popularity among the Christians. His statement on Jewish identity, however, was unheard for many centuries. It was during the Enlightenment and the period of *Wissenschaft des Judentums that his position became relevant again. Isaac M. *Jost, Heinrich *Graetz, and others identified him as a paradigmatic "modern" Jew who successfully combined Jewish tradition and general culture, thus foreshadowing the Golden Age of Spanish Judaism in the Middle Ages. In the eyes of some he also appeared as a welcome alternative to rabbinic Judaism, providing an early example of the dichotomy that many German Jews felt between their own "enlightened" religion and the "primitive" traditionalism of Polish Jews. The philosopher Moses *Mendelssohn could thus appear as a "German Philo."


Philo's exegesis must be appreciated against the background of the ongoing hermeneutic efforts among Egyptian Jews. In the third and early second century b.c.e., the main types of Philonic exegesis are already visible in the sources: *Aristobulus is the first known interpreter who suggested an allegorical approach to Scripture which, he hoped, would solve the problem of the biblical anthropomorphisms; *Demetrius for the first time recorded difficulties in the biblical text for which he provided learned answers; *Artapanus wrote free paraphrases of biblical stories, adapting them to the ideals of his own time and environment. Philo also mentions numerous other interpreters without, however, identifying them more specifically. They seem to be contemporaries living in Alexandria and can be divided into two main groups: allegorical readers whose work Philo generally appreciates, and literal readers some of whom provoked Philo's anger, apparently because they adopted text-critical methods from Homeric scholarship. Philo thus assumes a relatively conservative position, insisting on the integrity of the biblical text and the absolute value of its contents. He is in fact the first Jew known to have formulated ideas of canonicity, suggesting that the Torah in its Greek translation (*Septuagint) was a perfect emanation of the Divine Logos.

Most famous and influential are Philo's interpretations of the story of creation and the Patriarchs. In both areas he enriched Scripture with motifs from Greek literature. Philo rewrote the story of creation by inserting a distinctly Platonic perspective. Relying on Plato's Timaeus, he argued that such a beautiful world could only have been created as a copy of an ideal model. Distinguishing between an active cause and the passive material, which is shaped into ever new forms, Philo describes the activity of God as initially creating the ideal cosmos in His own mind and then modeling the material cosmos in its image (Opif. 1–25). The question of creatio ex nihilo is not yet on the horizon, and Philo naturally seems to assume preexisting matter on the basis of Gen. 1:2. Furthermore, raising the same question as the rabbis in Genesis Rabbah (chap. 8), Philo contemplates the expression "let us make man" (Gen. 1:26). He solves the problem of the plural expression "us" by suggesting that God left the creation of man with his obvious imperfections to assistants, so as not to be responsible for the origin of evil (Opif. 72–76).

The stories of the patriarchs and Moses are retold with a view to producing biographies of ideal heroes. While the biographies of Jacob and Isaac are lost, the extant examples show a definite pattern. Philo distinguishes a main feature in each character and arranges the biblical material accordingly. Joseph, for example, is treated as the perfect statesman, whereas Moses is identified as the paradigmatic legislator and prophet of the Jews. This style of biography according to types of careers anticipates Plutarch's famous series of Greek and Roman biographies a generation later. In this framework particular attention is paid to the childhood of each hero, taken to indicate the talents that will later become publicly visible. Moses is thus said to have avoided any childish play or Egyptian dainties while growing up at Pharaoh's court. Fitting his future role, he was from the beginning drawn to serious learning, recollecting in his soul rather than acquiring outside knowledge from his teachers (Mos. 1:18–24). Abraham became the prototype of the person elevating himself above the material realm, recognizing God and even experiencing His gracious presence in what must be identified as a mystical experience (Abr. 68–80).

Worthy of particular attention are also Philo's allegorical interpretations. Sarah and Hagar, for example, are interpreted respectively as sovereign philosophy and servile school studies (Congr. 1–126). Anticipating some of Moses *Mendelssohn's thoughts in the Biur, Philo moreover interpreted the tree of knowledge as the virtues planted by God in man's soul (All. 1:56–62). The snake in the Garden allegorically represents lust (All. 2:59). Joseph's colorful coat is allegorized as a symbol of the politician's diversity and ultimate lack of principles (Somn. 1:210–20, 2:10–14). Sarah's pregnancy prompted by God symbolizes for Philo the soul's impregnation by the Divine spirit (Abr. 99–102). These examples show that Philo's allegorical exegesis usually translates biblical motifs into narratives about the human soul, which are meant to complement their literal sense. In this area Philo often refers to other interpreters, sometimes calling them "natural philosophers" (Abr. 99). He is thus in good company, providing his own particular perspective in a well-established field of Jewish Bible exegesis in Alexandria.


Living in the capital of Hellenistic scholarship, Philo was familiar with the philosophical discussion of the day. He was immensely well read, reaching even such minor treatises as Ocellus' still extant On the Nature of the Universe (Aet. 12). While he has often been described as an eclectic writer, who gathered more or less randomly ideas floating around, he actually has a special philosophical profile. His most outstanding characteristic is his enthusiastic appreciation of Plato as distinct from Aristotle. This position must be recognized as an unusual and novel preference in an environment overwhelmingly dominated by a deep syncretism with a strong Aristotelian orientation. It was this preference for Plato that rendered Philo particularly popular among Christians. The Church historian *Eusebius relied on Philo when interpreting Christianity as a religion akin to Platonism, but diametrically opposed to Aristotle. These Platonic tendencies later also suggested to Azariah de *Rossi that Philo may be a proto-type of Medieval Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).

Philo was familiar with the ongoing discussion of the classical philosophical works and hoped to make a lasting contribution to it. He took a particularly pronounced position on the hotly debated issue of the nature of the cosmos. Rejecting the Aristotelian notion of an eternal world and the Stoic assumption of ever recurring destructions and re-creations of the cosmos as well as Epicurean atomism, Philo emphatically called for a return to Plato's Timaeus (Aet. 7–16). He complained, however, that even among Plato's students this treatise was commonly read metaphorically, and thus taken as supporting Aristotle's notion of an eternal cosmos (Aet. 7–16). Philo dismissed such readings as "falsifying" Plato's original intention, which he hoped to recover. He stressed that, according to Plato, the world had really been created as an image of an ideal model, and under the "providence" of the creator god, who was therefore called "Father and Maker." This view of things, Philo insisted, closely corresponded to the Mosaic version, which, however, had been written down much earlier. Fending off Aristotelian influence was also a major concern when Philo interpreted the biblical creation account for a Jewish audience. Obviously fearing that Aristotle had already left a deep impression on the Jewish community of Alexandria, he urged his readers not to abandon the idea of a real creation. He urged that the assumption of an eternal cosmos eliminates the notion of Divine providence and thus renders true piety impossible (Opif. 9–11).

Philo's Platonic tendency is moreover visible in his distinction of a spiritual realm which is opposed to the world of the senses and material entities. Truth can only be attained on the upper, intelligible level, while the concrete world of common experience is governed by "opinion" or "probability." Given the imperfection of the material realm, Philo maintains an extreme transcendentalism regarding God whom he describes as "…transcending virtue, transcending knowledge, transcending the good itself and the beautiful itself " (Opif. 8) and as "…better than the good, more venerable than the monad, purer than the unit…" (Praem. 40). Whereas Philo sometimes speaks of God's goodness and other attributes (All. 1:5), he generally insists that God is "without quality," has no name, and is unknowable (ibid 36). This last tenet is not meant in an agnostic way. On the contrary, man has to strive to know God and God is the only object worth knowing. But whereas it is easy to know that God is, we cannot know what He is (Spec. 1:32).

Man can hope to make progress in this area when looking at God's intermediary powers and involvement in the world. God's foremost intermediary is the *Logos, His rational part as well as His speech. Philo adopted this term from Stoic philosophy, where it referred to the Divine power immanent in the world and was sometimes identified with Zeus. Philo used this term in a new way, referring to that aspect of God which is active in the creation of the world and remains involved in earthly matters. At times the Logos is identified with the place in the mind of God where the ideal cosmos is created (Opif. 24), while on another occasion it is identified with the high priest (Somn. 2:185ff.). Similarly, the doctrine of God's two "powers," mercy and justice, is built up into a system of intermediaries. Abraham's three guests, mentioned in Gen. 18:2, are thus identified as God and His two powers (Q Gen. 4:2). Only at a close look does Abraham discover that they are one.

Man being created in the image of God, and thus with a divine spark, he can hope to encounter Him and, on occasion, even enter into a Corybantic trance which allows for a temporary union of the human mind with God. Following the example of Abraham, man has to leave for this purpose "his land, his kinfolk and his father's home," i.e., the body, the senses, and the whole material realm, as far as humanly possible (Migr. 1ff.). Unlike the moral struggle of the Stoic sage, which leads to "apathy" and freedom from the passions, Philo's student becomes jubilant and even surging into frenzy (Plant. 38). His soul becomes ecstatic, being filled with Divine spirit (Somn. 2:254) This experience is described in intensely erotic terms, which recall the terminology of contemporary mystery cults, namely as a union between God and the soul issuing forth Divine ideas in man's mind (Cher. 43–50).

Some Pythagorean features can be identified in Philo's philosophy. Foremost among these is his interest in numbers and their metaphysical significance. Philo, for example, makes a long excursion in his interpretation of the biblical creation account, devoting approximately 40 paragraphs to the meaning of the number 7 (Opif. 89–128). Adducing evidence from diverse realms, Philo thus hopes to show that the Mosaic account discloses the deeper structure of the cosmos, which can be expressed in numerical terms. Furthermore, Philo mentions some precious pieces of Pythagorean exegesis. Their original writings all having been lost, he is the earliest extant writer to mention Philolaus and the Pythagorean interpretations of Athena and Zeus as numbers (Opif. 99–100, Leg. 1:15). It has sometimes been suggested that Philo's ascetic tendencies may be Pythagorean in origin. Yet his position significantly differs from theirs: while they recommended asceticism as an end in itself, prescribing for their students long periods of abstention from sex, food, and other instinctual needs, Philo never doubted the legitimacy of bodily needs. On the contrary, he recognized sexuality as a necessary requirement of marriage as well as reproduction, and therefore did not worry about an excess of lust within that framework (Spec. 3:32–63).

Eye-Witness Accounts of Contemporary Events

Philo witnessed important events of the Second Temple Period and, like virtually all upper-class intellectuals during the Hellenistic period, he took an active part in politics. Philosophy and involvement in real life were by no means mutually exclusive, even though Philo once complained in an often quoted sentence that politics took him away from contemplation (Spec. 3:1). The titles of Philo's extant accounts, The Embassy to Gaius and Flaccus, suggest that they contain the proceedings of the embassy, which Philo himself headed, as well as a profile of the Roman governor. The truth, however, is that both treatises are focused elsewhere. In the Embassy Philo is overwhelmingly concerned to explain the benefits of Roman rule, while in Flaccus he shows Divine retribution effecting initially the punishment of Flaccus and then his religious conversion. Both reports are often seen as apologetic texts addressing a Roman audience, perhaps even the emperor himself. But it is rather obvious that they were not intended for foreign readers, but for Jews back home. Philo was confronted with increasing criticism from Alexandrian Jews, who even sent a second embassy in order to present a more militant view in Rome. Others altogether despaired of Roman rule and took to armed street fights. Philo made efforts to counter these trends, explaining how benevolent Rome was for the whole civilized realm. God, moreover, providentially protected the Jews and liberated them from such aberrations as Gaius and Flaccus.

Philo's reports are often compared to those of the historian Flavius *Josephus. Scholars argue which one is the more authentic and original, some opting for Josephus' copying from Philo, while others suggest that Josephus' account, even though written later, is closer to the truth. One example may suffice to illustrate the difficulty. Philo tells us that Gaius was so adamant about his plan to set up his statue in the Jerusalem Temple that Agrippa's intervention only produced a feigned reversal, while in reality Gaius continued to make preparations until God caused his assassination (Legat. 333–37). Josephus, on the contrary, reports that Agrippa's intervention was truly successful (aj 18:289–304). Philo's version may well have originated from his overall desire to stress Divine providence, reassuring his readers that patience was called for. In any case, Philo's account perfectly fits his overall story of a beneficial Roman government that was temporarily deranged by an emperor who had given in to Egyptian lures.

Gender Issues

Philo has sometimes been identified as the "father of Western misogyny," because he embedded Classical Greek prejudices in authoritative Scripture and thus transmitted them to the Church Fathers as well as the rest of European culture. Such judgment can rely on Philo's acceptance of Aristotelian biology. He assumed that the role of the female in procreation is merely passive, providing a material and nourishing environment for the active sperm donated by the male (Ebr. 73, 211). Philo applied this concept to the spiritual realm, suggesting that virtue and enkrateia belong to the masculine and thus active realm (Abr. 100–1). God is conceived of as masculine, while the soul of the male student is "impregnated by His sperm" (Cher. 43–45). Philo's view of Eve was anything but egalitarian: he considered her to be the addition of sense-perception and lust to a mind that had hitherto enjoyed the bliss of pure spirituality and masculinity (Opif. 151). Philo moreover had little sympathy for contemporary Jewish women, whom he was happy to confine to the culturally and inferior gynaikon (Flac. 89). His position in this respect is especially remarkable, since the Classical ideal of a wife never leaving her quarters had in Hellenistic Egypt been replaced by a far more open atmosphere, where women could assume public roles, such as queen, priestess, and even head of a philosophical school.

On the other hand, however, one must appreciate that, within an obviously patriarchal framework, Philo showed a relatively great interest in biblical women. Sarah, for example, was treated by him with remarkable empathy and respect. He praised her for her stoic endurance of hardships (Abr. 245–46) and suggested that she immediately grasped the Divine nature of the visiting "messengers" whom Abraham still took as regular guests (Abr. 111). Josephus, by contrast, consistently minimized all references to Sarah (as well as other biblical women), taking her, for example, altogether out of the scene with the messengers by stressing the presence of other servants who prepared the cakes for the guests (ja1:197). Moreover, we owe to Philo the earliest extant testimony to Jewish women philosophers, who were part of the Therapeutae. These women were not only versed in reading and writing, but also participated in the regular spiritual and exegetical activities of the group. Philo, on the whole, was highly sympathetic to this group. Nothing in his description suggests ambivalence concerning the women's activities.


Apart from Josephus, no ancient Jewish source mentions Philo, although there may be traces of Philonic influence in rabbinic Midrash, such as R. Oshaiah Rabbah's saying in Genesis Rabbah 1:1 echoing Philo, Opif. 16. The medieval Midrash Tadshe (in: A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 3 (1967), 164–93) draws largely on Philonic material, while the first Jewish writer who mentions him is Azariah dei *Rossi. Philo had a much greater influence on Christianity, not on the New Testament itself but on the Church Fathers, such Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, and many others. They eagerly drew on his exegesis and adopted many of his concepts. However, owing to their different approach, many of his distinctly Jewish notions were translated into Christian terms. H. Wolfson estimated Philo's influence to be very significant, arguing that his reconciliation of philosophy and revelation resurfaced in all monotheistic religions, whether it was with or without direct knowledge of his texts. This thesis, however, can hardly be proven, since Philo is not directly mentioned and the "Philonic" structure of thought which Wolfson identifies may well have developed out of a parallel synthesis of the Bible and Greek philosophy.


F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker (tr. and eds.), Philo (Complete Works), 12 vols. (1953–63). add. bibliography: J. Morris, The Jewish Philosopher Philo, in: G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Goodman. Emil Schürer. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (1987) vol. 3, 2 809–90; M.R. Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture (2001); E. Birnbaum, The Place of Judaism in Philo's Thought. Israel, Jews, and Proselytes (1996); D.T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria. On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses. Introduction, Translation and Commentary (2001); P. Borgen, Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time (1997); Carlos Lévy (ed.), Philon d'Alexandrie et la Langage de la Philosophie (1998); J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists (1977); P.W.V.D. Horst, Philo of Alexandria. Philo's Flaccus. The First Pogrom. Introduction, Translation and Commentary (2003); J.E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria (2003); D. Sly, Philo's Perception of Women (1990); G. Sterling, The Jewish Plato. Philo of Alexandria, Greek-speaking Judaism and Christian Origins (forthcoming). classical works of continuous importance: H.A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2 vols. (1940); S. Belkin, Philo and the Oral Law (1940). add. bibliography: I. Heinemann, Philons griechische und juedische Bildung (1932); E. Bréhier, Les Idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie (1925); D.T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (1986); Y. Amir, Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandria (1983).

[Yehoyada Amir and

Maren Niehoff (2nd ed.)]

Philo Judaeus

views updated Jun 27 2018

Philo Judaeus

Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.-ca. A.D. 45) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher. An important example of philosophical syncretism, he was a Diaspora Jew prepared to concede a good deal to Hellenism in his interpretation of the Scriptures.

Philo Judaeus was born in Alexandria, but the exact date of his birth is unknown. The only public event in his life occurred when he led a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the emperor Caligula in A.D. 40 to protest the recent ill treatment of Jews by Greeks in their city. His account of the proceedings survives in the treatise entitled Legatio ad Gaium.

This remarkable document almost certainly tells less than the whole story about why friction arose between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria. But it provides an interesting portrait of the emperor Caligula and his attitude toward the problem of Jews and emperor worship. Whether through boredom at the length of the delegation's pleas or through genuine conviction, he observed of the Jews' refusal to worship him as a god, "I think that these people are not so much criminals as lunatics in not believing that I have been given a divine nature." The delegation, which had been understandably alarmed when Caligula brought up the question of emperor worship in his opening remarks, was heartily relieved when his concluding statement suggested merely pity and condescension rather than ill will.

Treatises and Essays

Philo's major writings, however, consist largely of moral treatises and philosophico-theological essays on topics of scriptural interest. As a religious believer, he was convinced that the truth of things was to be found ultimately in the teachings of Moses; as a philosopher, he felt a need to express this truth in terms that were intelligible to a world imbued with the ideas of Greek philosophy. His works consequently suggest frequent tension between an attempt to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Greek philosophy and an attempt to criticize Greek philosophy in the light of scriptural truth.

The latter is particularly clear in Philo's doctrine of God. For Philo the believer, God is the only reality that is eternal; He is also totally "other" and unknowable. His providence is "individual, " manifesting itself in direct intervention in the universe, with suspension, if need be, of laws of nature for the benefit of meritorious individuals. Of His own goodwill, He endows the human soul with immortality. These views were strongly contrasted by Philo with Greek views, such as those found in Plato's Phaedo and Timaeus, in which both matter and the Ideas are said to be coeternal with God; Providence is said to be manifested in the basic laws of nature, and the human soul is said to be of its very nature immortal.

Philosophical Eclecticism

"Nonnegotiable dogma aside, however, Philo was more than willing to use the thought forms of Greek philosophy on those many matters on which honest disagreement among believers seemed to him allowable. The Greek philosophy in question is an amalgam drawn from many sources. His stress on the symbolic importance of certain numbers (4, 6, 7, 10, for example) suggests contemporary neo-Pythagorean influence. The views that causality is fourfold, that virtue lies in a mean, that God is to be seen as the prime mover of the universe, show the clear influence of Aristotle.

The spirit of Plato emerges clearly in Philo's general acceptance of notions such as the theory of Ideas, and the belief that the body is a tomb or prison, that life for man should be a process of purification from the material, that cosmic matter preceded the formation of the cosmos, and that the existence of God can be inferred from the structure and operations of the universe. The influence of stoicism emerges in his doctrines of man's "unqualified" free will, of the need to live in accord with nature, of the need to live free from passion, and of the "indifference" of what is beyond one's power.

In his interpretation of Scripture, Philo seems to have adhered to its "spiritual" rather than to its literal truth. Thus the literal idea of a 6-day creation is rejected, and the story of Adam's rib is written off as mythical. Less acceptable to modern taste, perhaps, was his pervasive use of allegorical interpretation.

Doctrine of the Logos

Among non-Jews Philo was probably best known for his doctrine of the Logos, which was widely thought to have influenced (whether directly or indirectly is not known) the author of the Fourth Gospel. This doctrine seems to have been born of Philo's attempt to reconcile both his belief in a uniquely transcendent, eternal creator and his general acceptance of the Platonic theory of Ideas. He rejects the Ideas as eternal, transcendent entities. Rather, they are temporal and part of God's creation. Their exemplars, however, do exist eternally—as thoughts in the mind of God. The home of the Ideas he called the Logos, or Reason, and this Logos, like the Ideas, was said to exist both transcendentally, as an eternal exemplar in the mind of God, and temporally, as part of God's creation. With this doctrine Philo attempted to bridge the gap between a God who is totally "other" and the material universe; the Logos, being (unlike God) both transcendental and temporal, was the all-important intermediary linking man and the universe to their creator.

Further Reading

A Greek text and translation of Philo's complete works is in the Loeb Classical Library edition, Philo (10 vols., 1929-1962), of F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker. A useful shorter work is Philo's Philosophical Writings (1946), selections edited by Hans Lewy. Harry A. Wolfson, Philo (2 vols., 1947; rev. ed. 1948), is the major English-language work on the philosopher. For a sympathetic general introduction in English see Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (1940; rev. ed. 1963). □