Philo Judaeus: Philosophical Pilgrim

Philo worked to reconcile Hellenism and the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Hellenistic Jewish literature is dominated by a unique and overarching figure, the Alexandrian Jew Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.E.‑ca. 50 C.E.). It was he who seized the opportunity to fuse Judaism systematically with the thought of the Hellenistic world in a corpus which today occupies some twenty‑five hundred printed pages. This contribution would be passed on by the church fathers and virtually ignored by the Jewish people, only to be rediscovered by them during the Italian Renaissance. 

Philo was born into a noble family in Alexandria and received an education both Jewish and Greek. In 38 or 39 C.E., when the Jewish community of Alexandria sent an embassy to the em­peror Caligula in Rome because of the anti‑Jewish riots that had taken place in the city, Philo was appointed the delegation's leader. Although their mission was unsuccessful, this shows the high regard in which he was held by his compatriots and his willingness to stand up for his people. Thereafter he continued his literary work until his death in about 50 C.E.

philo judaeusPhilo wrote in an extremely discursive style, jumping back and forth between biblical exegesis, which endows most of his treatises with their form, and philosophical exposition, which provides the intellectual backdrop for his interpretations. His philosophy, much of it in the Platonic mold, is a blend of the personal God of the Hebrew Bible and the abstract, perfect deity required by Greek metaphysics. Both of these merge in the divine logos, the Word and Wisdom of the Supreme Being. The notion that the logos was the firstborn son of the deity led to the popularity of Philo among the early Christian fathers.

A number of Philo's works concern biblical narratives and are a mixture of legal and philosophical expositions. His On the Creation argues that the laws of the Bible accord with those of nature. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Joseph, are the subject of special treatises in which Philo deals with them as embodiments of the law and archetypes of virtue. In the Life of Moses Philo casts Moses as the ideal lawgiver, priest, and prophet in Platonic terms. His On the Decalogue and Special Laws are expositions of Jewish law and practice inter­preted in Greek philosophical terms.

In Allegorical Interpretation, Philo's Greek philosophical background is put to best use, for here he interprets the first seventeen chapters of Genesis as presenting a set of philosophi­cal andeven quasi‑mystical concepts. Purely philosophical issues are raisedin a number of treatises, such as On the Eternality of the World and On Providence. Against Flaccus details the pogrom against the Jews in 38 C.E., and On the Embassy to Gaius reports on Philo's above‑mentioned trip to Rome to protest the pogrom, a journey which coincided with the empe­ror's order to erect a statue in the Jerusalem Temple.

Philo believed in a transcendent God. His concept of the logos bridges the gap between man and God, making possible the close relationship of the Jewish people to God, as described in the Bible. The search for an understanding of God becomes the goal of Jewish piety. The Bible, allegorically understood, is an account of the soul's striving for God.

Accordingly, Philo ex­plains the Bible on two levels, the literal and the symbolic. When the literal was unacceptable to him, he used only the allegorical. This method allowed him to radically recast the biblical narra­tives in Hellenistic garb. Throughout his work Philo calls for the strict observance of Jewish law, which he sometimes interprets in a unique manner and sometimes in accord with views also evidenced in Palestinian sources of his day.

Also significant is his view of the soul. According to Philo, the soul has descended into the world of matter, and it is up to each individual, by stripping himself of earthly passions, to bring about the his soul's ascent to God. This process is helped by the striving for intellectual appreciation of God, but it is clear from Philo's descriptions that the final stage is that of a mystical experience of union with the Divine. Indeed, for him, prophecy is an act of ecstasy, in which man receives the effulgence of divine light.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.