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This article is to be referred to as David T. Runia, "Philo, Alexandrian and Jew," Idem, Exegesis and Philosophy: Studies on Philo of Alexandria (Variorum, Aldershot, 1990), pp. 1-18.©



‘What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?’ was the question posed by the Church Father Tertullian in one of his powerful attacks on pagan culture. The answer he expected his rhetorical question to receive was, of course: ‘nothing at all’. Our answer in the context of this article might rather be: ‘Alexandria has to do with them both’. Although the city of Alexandria has gained its own niche in the history of Western culture, it could be argued that the important role played by this city in the history of Judaism and Christianity receives less attention than it deserves. First the Jewish community and later the Christian Church flourished there for a period that spanned nearly a millenium. These two communities had their own Bible in a version which has remained canonical in the Eastern Church to this very day. The recent initiative of Marguerite Harl and her team of collaborators to prepare translations and commentaries on the books of the Septuagint under the title La Bible d’Alexandrie deserves the highest praise.1
The aim of this contribution is to introduce the reader to one of the most outstanding figures in the long history of Alexandria, the Jew Philo. The main reason we are in a position to know so much about this man and his thought is that about fifty of his writings have been preserved. This introductory account will chiefly concentrate on Philo’s thought as seen from the perspective of the interaction between Greek and Jewish ideas that takes place in the above-mentioned works. But first we shall have to find out a little more about the city and the man who lived his entire life there.
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The Jews in Alexandria

In the first decades after the death of Alexander the Great, when the Ptolemaic dynasty came to power in Egypt, a large number of Jews emigrated from Palestine to Egypt.2 Jews settled there as mercenaries, labourers, farmers, merchants; sometime they were brought along or purchased as slaves. It did not take long before a considerable number of Jews settled down in the Egyptian capital, which at that time had only recently been founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. In time this community became the most important and influential in the entire Jewish diaspora. In Alexandria the Jews formed, after the Greek-Macedonian citizen body and the native Egyptian populace, the most important ethnic minority group. They gained the right to form their own politeuma, i.e. they possessed limited rights of self-administration.
It is particularly striking how quickly Greek became the primary language of the Alexandrian Jewish community. From the second century B.C. onwards there were probably few Jews there who could still speak or read Hebrew. That Philo himself had no knowledge of Hebrew is almost certain. It was therefore an event of enormous importance for the Jewish community in Alexandria that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. In the so-called Letter of Aristeas3 and in one of Philo’s writings we read an account of how King Ptolemy Philadephus, who reigned from 283 to 246, invited the High Priest in Jerusalem to send a delegation of wise men who could translate the Jewish Law, and how through providential intervention all 72 translators achieved an identical result. Not all aspects of this story, we may presume, are equally legendary. Elias Bickermann put forward strong arguments for the possibility that the King did indeed take such an initiative.4 It is clear that we have here a kind of ‘foundation-myth’ of the Alexandrian Jewish community. From now on the Jews could live in accordance with their patria eqh; by means of the authorized translation these had, as it were, received a divine imprimatur.
But when Philo was born into this community its finest years already belonged to the past. The paternalistic government of the Ptolemies had given way to a stricter Roman regime. The harmonious picture of a community that lived in peace with its ethnic neighbours no longer
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represented the reality of the existing situation. Moreover it is apparent from the evidence in Philo’s writings that there were important divisions within the Jewish community itself. Some of its members were all in favour of virtually complete acculturation; others, including Philo, wanted to restrain such a process within carefully circumscribed limits. Philo we know to have been a member of a wealthy and highly influential family. His brother was alabarch (probably the official responsible for the collection of Jewish taxation). His nephew was the notorious Tiberius Julius Alexander, who, as an apostate from his Jewish beliefs, later became Governor of Egypt. Philo thus belonged to the elite of Alexandrian Jewish society. But about the actual details of his life we are almost completely in the dark, with the exception of a single important incident. In 38 A.D. a kind of pogrom took place in the Jewish quarters of Alexandria, condoned or even encouraged by Flaccus, the praefectus of Egypt. In response the Jews decided to defend themselves at the very highest level, sending a delegation, of which Philo was appointed leader, to the Emperor Gaius Caligula in Rome. A vivid description of the riots in Alexandria and the considerable dangers of the embassy are portrayed by Philo in the two works by which he is best known to classicists, the In Flaccum and Legatio ad Gaium. At the beginning of the latter work Philo informs his reader that he is an old man with white hair. This is a topos, to be sure, with a clear allusion intended to Plato Timaeus 22b, but all the same we may deduce that he was no longer young. It can be assumed that he was born in about 15 B.C. He thus lived during the reigns of the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and presumably into the reign of Claudius, an exact contemporary of Jesus Christ and about two decades older than Seneca and Paul. It was a time of decisive importance for the history of Western civilization, a period with consequences that Philo will certainly not have foreseen.5

Philo’s two names

 Philo is one of the very few personalities from the ancient world who in the course of time has acquired a double name. He is known both as
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Philo Alexandrinus and Philo Judaeus. It is in fact interesting to observe how classicists use these two names. My impression is that there is a very definite preference for the former, usually in the form of Philo of Alexandria. But every now and then, when a scholar feels a (perhaps unconscious) need to indicate that Philo is really an odd fish in the classical pond, the other name suddenly appears. As far as we are concerned, both names are equally appropriate, for they both express essential aspects of his life and work.
Philo can be called Alexandrinus, not only because he spent his entire life in the Egyptian metropolis, but also because of his great knowledge of and love for Greek culture, and especially Greek philosophy. This positive attitude to Greek culture he holds in common with Alexandrian Judaism in general. But we can be certain that his extensive knowledge of Greek literature, science and philosophy was quite exceptional in the Jewish context, as is indicated in a brief notice on him in Josephus’ Antiquities (18.259). In a rare autobiographical passage he tells us that he gained acquaintance with the various subjects of the so-called encyclical or intermediate studies (egkuklion paideia), such as grammar, geometry and music. But, driven on by the goads of philosophy, he was convinced that he should not tarry among these subjects for too long, but should move on to the higher study of ‘things divine and human and their causes’.6 The extent of Philo’s knowledge of philosophy has been a matter of some debate. The well-known French classicist A.–J. Festugière maintained that Philo was no more than ‘un homme moyen cultivé’, a typical product of the Hellenistic schools.7 Further research during the last twenty years has demonstrated that this judgment is too negative.8 Philo’s knowledge of Greek philosophy, and particularly of Platonism and Stoicism, is by no means superficial. But the purposes for which he used this knowledge were quite different than those of other philosophers and scholars of his day. This has to do with his Jewish background.
Although Philo was deeply impressed with the achievements of Greek culture and philosophy, this did not mean that his loyalty towards his Jewish heritage was diminished or undermined. In a time of crisis, as we saw, he did not shirk from political involvement. But it is clear that his preferences lay elsewhere, namely in the domain of ideological activity. His entire æuvre is really a gigantic attempt to show
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that the Jewish people did not need to be ashamed of their cultural and religious heritage, that in fact the highest wisdom attainable by man is to be found in the Law of the great Hebrew prophet Moses. Philo was in the first place an apologist and defender of Judaism. His great knowledge of Greek culture and philosopher is placed entirely at the service of this apologetic task.
The question has often been posed who the group of people were at whom Philo’s apologetic efforts were primarily directed. Did he above all wish to persuade those among his own people, such as his nephew Alexander, who showed an inclination to abandon the faith of their fathers that they should maintain their loyalties in a time of crisis? Such an aim will certainly have been present in his mind. Nevertheless we should take into account that during this period Judaism exercised a greater force of attraction on Greek and Roman intellectuals than is often realized.9 As an example one might mention the anonymous author of De sublimitate – probably a contemporary of Philo – who in a well-known passage does not hesitate to cite some verses from the creation account of Moses as an example of sublimity in literature. Philo, I would argue, has both groups in mind. His second name Judaeus is any case entirely appropriate.

Philo’s writings

 Philo’s literary productivity was certainly impressive. 48 of his writings are still extant. The majority of these are preserved in the original Greek, but a group of nine treatises is only available in an Armenian translation made in the 6th century. The nature and contents of these writings can tell us a lot about both the man and his thought.
It is customary to divide Philo’s writings into three groups: the exegetical, the historical-apologetic, and the philosophical writings. The first group, consisting of works which are exclusively concerned with the exposition of scripture, is by far the largest (39 books). This group in turn consists of three large series, which both in form and content differ quite markedly from each other.
In the so-called Allegorical Commentary, which contains 21 books, Philo gives an elaborate commentary on the first 17 chapters of the book Genesis from a purely allegorical perspective. These chapters are not interpreted in terms of the primal history of man and God’s election of the people of Israel, but are read at a ‘deeper’ level as a profound account of the nature of the soul, her place in reality, and the
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experiences she undergoes as she searches for her divine origin and gains knowledge of her creator. Considerable exertion is demanded from the reader. Philo generally begins in a straightforward way by citing a single verse from the Pentateuch and making comments on it. But in his explanation he tends to invoke a continual stream of other Mosaic texts, which amounts to the method of explaining Moses via Moses, with as fundamental assumption the unity of scripture. The resultant exposition is often extremely complicated. The reader is advised, while reading, to consult the structural analyses supplied by most translators.
The second series has been given the name Exposition of the Law, and consists of 12 books. Philo’s chief aim is to introduce the reader to the Jewish Law, as contained in the Books of Moses, with special emphasis on the symbolic meaning and value of its various rituals and injunctions. But he also feels the need to place the Law in a wider context. Because he is convinced that there is a direct relation between the Law of Moses and the Law of Nature, he begins the series with an exposition of the Mosaic creation account in the treatise De opificio mundi, the best known of all his writings.10 Moreover he regarded the Patriarchs of the Jewish people as ‘living laws’, i.e. men who embodied the Law in their way of life even before it came into existence as the Law of Moses. For this reason he also included bioi of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses in the series.11 In terms of literary form and style these writings are much closer to the usual method of the Hellenistic suggramma. They reveal a lucid didactic structure, and most of their references to the Septuagint are in the form of paraphrase rather than direct quotation. The result is a group of writings that is far more accessible to the uninitiated reader than the other two exegetical series.
The third series of exegetical writings, the Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus or the Quaestiones, is much less well known than the others, chiefly because it has only been transmitted to us in an Armenian translation. As its title indicates, this work consists of questions that are raised in relation to the biblical text, to which Philo then proceeds to give suitable answers. The method used is first to give a literal response to the question, followed a figurative or allegorical
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one. As far as the form of the work is concerned one can detect both a Greek and a Jewish background. The genre of aporiai kai luseij applied to the Homeric writings is clearly relevant, but also the method of scriptural exposition practised in the Hellenistic-Jewish synagogue.
Two smaller groups of Philonic writings remain. The first of these contains four writings which are generally called the historic-apologetic treatises. Two of these have already been mentioned, namely the works describing the events of 37-39 A.D. The second group consists of five philosophical treatises on diverse subjects (two of these are dialogues with his nephew Alexander). In these works there are scarcely any references to scripture. It is almost impossible to detect that they have been written by a devout Jew. The claim has often been put forward that these are youthful works, written before Philo discovered the value of his own Jewish heritage. This hypothesis is not only contradicted by various details in the works themselves, but is also quite unnecessary. Philo does not envisage a conflict between scriptural exegesis and philosophical discussion, but rather a difference in method and purpose. These treatises reveal the considerable knowledge and erudition that Philo possessed in certain areas of Hellenistic philosophy. It is no surprise, therefore, that they yield valuable evidence for the study of ancient philosophy.

Central themes in Philo’s thought

It is by no means an easy task to summarize Philo’s thought in the space of a few pages. He was a prolific writer, as we have just seen, and these writings are not written in a way that facilitates systematic exposition of their contents. Philo regards himself as primarily an interpreter, not an original thinker. His task is to elucidate the wisdom of Moses. It is thus with the figure of the Jewish lawgiver that we should commence.
    Moses is regarded by Philo as the author of the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew bible. It is clear that he conceives of Moses as an historical figure. He even describes the thorough education in both science and philosophy that he received at the court of Pharaoh. But, totally a-historical thinker that he is, Philo does not stop to think how Moses could be the source of all wisdom, including that of Greek thought. This is for him an article of faith, the foundation of his entire attempt to defend Jewish wisdom. Moses combined in the one person the offices of king, priest, lawgiver and prophet. The words that he wrote down were inspired by God. It is the task of the exegete to uncover and expose to view the profound truths that lies
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concealed in his books.
The immediate reaction one might have to this is that it is quite an uphill task to discover the highest wisdom in writings that contain little besides the stories of the wanderings of nomadic Patriarchs, the exodus of an oppressed people, the archaic laws and rituals of a primitive society. The problem can be solved, however, through the use of the allegorical method of scriptural exegesis, invented by Stoic philosophers in their defence of Homer’s poetry, and now applied to Jewish writings by Philo on a grand scale. ‘Nature is wont to conceal itself’, was the profound maxim of Heraclitus, but no doubt – says Philo – he learnt it from Moses. allhgoria is a grammatical term that simply means ‘saying something else than you actually mean’. The truth is not located on the surface; the reader has to exert himself in order to discover it. In general Philo does not deny that the literal meaning of text has its own value. But it is incumbent on the reader to search for a deeper meaning. As we noted earlier when outlining the purpose of the Allegorical Commentary, at the deepest level the Pentateuch is concerned with the fate of the soul, how she gradually emancipates herself from the deceptive attractions of earthly existence and returns to the promised land, i.e. a heavenly or even divine existence.
For Philo the philosophical exegete it is a source of wonder that the book of Genesis commences with a creation account. In his work De opificio mundi he shows how the seven days of creation disclose with remarkable precision the structure of created reality. It emerges that Moses’ intentions in his account correspond to a large degree to what Plato presented in his cosmological dialogue, the Timaeus.12 God the creator bears a definite resemblance to the Platonic demiurge, who creates order out of an already existing chaos. Philo nowhere explicitly indicates that God himself first created the primordial matter, as would later be formulated in the classic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. What is very surprising is that according to Philo the first day – day ‘one’ in the Septuagintal text – is not concerned with the creation of the visible cosmos as we know it. Before God commenced his creative task, he first made – just like a good architect – a plan or blue-print, an intelligible or noetic cosmos which he placed in his Logos. When we read about ‘heaven’, ‘earth’, ‘darkness’, ‘the deep’, ‘spirit’, ‘waters’ and ‘light’ in Gen. 1:1-3, we should not think of the parts of the world we can see and experience, but rather regard these as the most important components of the rational plan of the cosmos, which is carried out
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during the remaining five days of the creation account (on the seventh day the Creator takes his rest, although that should not be taken in the literal sense, since any form of tiredness of laziness is foreign to the divine nature). Philo’s dependence on the Timaeus of Plato, in which the divine demiurge contemplates a pre-existent intelligible model, is apparent. A striking difference, however, is that Philo locates the plan, which is equivalent to the Platonic world of ideas, in God or his Logos, whereas for Plato the ideas are quite independent of any deity for their existence.
The doctrine of creation plays an central role in Philo’s thought. The correspondences which he could find between a important philosophical work such as the Timaeus and scripture was of crucial importance for his attempt to show that Moses was the source of the highest wisdom. Philo’s theology, however, is more complex than the above account might suggest. Through the contemplation of the created reality man is able to gain knowledge of God’s existence. Philo is struck by the fact that in the biblical creation account Moses repeatedly uses the divine name o qeoj (‘God’). This term indicates God’s creative power (indicated by the etymological root qe-as found in the verb tiqhmi, ‘place’ or ‘establish’). Once the first man and woman have been placed in Paradise, the second chief divine name in the Greek Old Testament occurs for the first time, o kurioj(‘Lord’). This name represents the ruling, administering, or also the retributive power of God. By means of these two dunameij (powers) God stands in relation to created reality. But God himself actually has no name in the strict sense; he transcends all knowledge or description. The only name that is in any way adequate to describe him is the name with which he revealed himself to Moses at Mount Horeb, when he said ‘I am the one who is’ (egw eimi o wn, the remarkable translation of Ex. 3:14 in the Septuagint). In his theology, therefore, Philo attempts to justice to both God’s transcendence and his relation to the cosmos as creator and providential maintainer.
It is in this context that we should place the doctrine for which Philo is perhaps best known, the doctrine of the Logos. The divine Logos has already been mentioned as the place of the intelligible cosmos in the act of creation. The Logos is also presented as God’s instrument both during creation and in the cosmos’ providential administration. In the most general terms it can be said that the Logos represents the face of God turned towards reality. Sometimes the Logos is talked about in terms of an independently existing entity (a ‘hypostasis’), sometimes he is more like an aspect of God, just like the powers mentioned above. It is apparent that Philo’s theology is somewhat caught between the
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Jewish emphasis on God’s unicity (‘thou shalt have no other gods other than me’) and the Greek tendency to solve the problem of divine transcendence and immanence by means of a hierarchy of divine beings. The solution brought forward in the doctrine of the Logos is not in all respects satisfactory. But from the historical point of view it proved to be of the greatest importance. Less than half a century the Evangelist John was to identify Jesus with the Logos, who ‘was in the beginning with God’ and ‘through whom all things were made’ (John 1:2-3). It is perhaps unlikely that John was impelled, even in part, to write these words through an acquaintance with the thought of Philo. But later Christian thinkers did see a connection between John’s christology and Philo’s Logos, and it encouraged them to regard Philo as a Christian avant la lettre.
The conception of the universe that emerges from Philo’s exegesis of the Mosaic cosmogony shows a strong resemblance to the hierarchical and geocentric model that became the standard view in the centuries after Plato and Aristotle. Specifically Jewish (or ancient Middle-Eastern) aspects of the creation account, such as the waters under and above the firmament, are passed over in silence. At the apex stands God, his Logos and the powers. The heavenly bodies and the angels (who replace the demons in Greek cosmology) are also divine beings. Then follow man, the animals, birds, fishes, plants, and at the very bottom of the scale, lifeless things. In this hierarchy of being man has a very special place. He is a meqorioj, border-dweller, situated on the borderline between the divine and the non-divine. This special status also emerges, according to Philo, in the remarkable account that Moses gives of his creation.
It is well known that in Genesis the creation of man is described twice, in 1:26-27 and 2:7. Philo, who of course cannot envisage an explanation in terms of differing sources – he accepts Moses as the single author of the entire Pentateuch –, interprets this in terms of a double creation of man. In the first account the ‘heavenly man’ is created, the man who is nothing but mind, lacking the specific characteristics of corporeality, such as the distinction between the sexes. In the second account, when God shapes man’s body out of clay and breathes in him his Spirit, the ‘earthly man’ is created, a sunamfoteron of mind (or rational soul) and body, a being that can orientate itself toward its heavenly origin, or can remain mired in the earthy nature of bodily existence.13
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The essential features of Philo’s doctrine of man emerge clearly in his exposition of the creation of man. The influence of Platonic dualism is strong. The body belongs to the earth here below, the mind or spirit to the heavens or divine realm above, while the soul – which has both a rational and an irrational part – functions as a bridge between the two. In order to attain a life of virtue and piety man must seek a right relation between rational thought and irrational passions. In the Garden of Eden, right at the very beginning, things already went wrong. Eve, representing the irrational, was seduced by the serpent, symbolizing pleasure, and dragged Adam, the rational element, down to perdition. When Cain, the noujwho thinks it can act as god, killed his God-loving brother Abel, the situation deteriorated even further. It is only when Seth is born, and later also Noah, that the decisive reversal occurs. The same basic interpretation can be made of Israel’s later flight out of Egypt. The entire Pentateuch can thus be interpreted as a long journey from the domain of the body and the earthly regions to the heavenly and spiritual realm.
Yet it would be one-sided if I were to give the impression that Philo’s exposition of the Law of Moses amounts to no more than a purely intellectualistic, anti-materialistic and anti-hedonistic system of ethics. Following in the footsteps of Plato, Philo regards man’s goal or telojas omoiwsij qew, becoming like God. Man can reach this goal by searching for God and attempting to gain knowledge of him to the extent that that is humanly possible. No one came further in this quest that the prophet Moses himself, yet even he could only see the ‘rear side’ of God (Ex. 33:13-23). Apart from the exegetical aspect, two themes betray biblical and Jewish influence. Firstly knowledge of God is for Philo not merely the recognition of an abstract philosophical concept, such as ‘absolute being’. For Philo God is, in spite of his utter transcendence, still a personal being with which man has a reciprocal relation. Significant in this regard is that he denotes God both with the biblical personal masculine o wn and the philosophical abstract neuter to on (in the genitive and dative cases they are of course indistinguishable). For a Greek philosopher such a vacillation would surely be problematic.14 Secondly a strong emphasis is placed on the role of divine grace. Without God’s gracious condescension man’s quest for
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knowledge of and intimacy with him would be in vain. Such condescension only takes place if man abandons any delusions of autonomous grandeur he might have and recognizes his own nothingness (oudeneia).
Does any special place remain for the people of Israel with whom God made a covenant in this philosophically orientated interpretation of scripture? The name Israel is rather dubiously etymologized by Philo as meaning ‘the one who (or the race that) sees God’ (o orwn qeon). It is clear that this description cannot be confined to Jews alone. Universalism weighs more heavily in Philo’s balance than particularism. Both apocalyptic and messianic ideas have no role to play in his thought. Nevertheless Philo would not deny that the people of Israel have a special task. The Jews are there to lead the way, but unfortunately they have fallen on difficult times and the important contribution they can make is not recognized by the nations that surround them. A crucial question here is what should happen with the ritual injunctions of the Jewish Law. In a truly universal perspective, such as was soon to be developed by Christianity, these would have to be abandoned. But for Philo this would definitely be going too far. In a famous passage (De migratione Abrahami 89-93) he embarks on a fierce attack against those who wish only to recognize the spiritual meaning of the Law and neglect the practice of circumcision, the celebration of the sabbath and other feasts. This attitude might seem to be somewhat inconsistent, especially in the light of a strictly rational philosophical perspective (but one might compare a similar attitude of certain Hellenistic philosophers towards the cult of the gods in the Greek polis). Philo’s reply would be that the symbolic and almost sacramental value of certain ritual actions would disappear if these were no longer practised by the majority of believers. Moreover it should be recognized that the Law of Moses takes into account the moral and intellectual weakness of the human race. It is true, no less then than now, that most people find it quite impossible to spend very long in the rarified air of pure philosophy.
Of crucial importance for Philo’s view of Judaism, in my opinion, is the fact that he shows absolutely no interest in history. In his thought all emphasis is placed on structural elements, on the place of man in reality and his relation to the divine. He is interested in the question of the relation between time and eternity, but does not consider the possibility that an event of shattering importance could take place in the course of time as experienced here on earth. This separates him to quite a marked degree from other Jewish groups of his day, and of course also from the incipient world of early Christian thought.
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The originality of Philo’s thought

A question that has stood at the centre of recent scholarly discussions on Philo’s achievement is the extent to which his thought is an original construct of his own. It is interesting, for example, that he makes extensive use of the etymologization of biblical Hebrew names in order to supply a foundation for his allegories. If he was unacquainted with the Hebrew language, which almost certainly was the case, then he must have had assistance in this task. Naturally he could make use of the so-called onomastica, which contained long lists of Hebrew names and corresponding Greek etymologies. Nevertheless one would expect someone who develops an allegorical system to have more control over his material and not just consult a list that may have been drawn up for quite a different purpose. Many scholars have come to the conclusion that Philo must have had important predecessors, and that it is very likely that his work continues a long tradition of allegorical exegesis in the Jewish community of Alexandria.
Very recently the French-Canadian scholar Richard Goulet has published a massive study which puts forward the hypothesis that Philo makes extensive use of a continuous allegorical commentary on the Pentateuch which presented an extremely radical and daring allegorical interpretation of Mosaic thought.15 The writer(s) only wanted to retain the deeper symbolic and universal meaning of the Law, while everything else that was specifically related to Jewish traditions was jettisoned. Even the creation account itself was allegorized in terms of the structure of the cosmos and man.16 God himself is allegorically interpreted in basically Stoic terms as the orqoj logojor directive Soul or Logos of the cosmos, or even the rational element in man in himself. Philo, who in Goulet’s view probably underwent a conversion which led him to recognize the value of his Jewish heritage, was forced to use the system constructed by his predecessors, but continually endeavoured to adapt it in a direction that was more consonant with essential aspects of Jewish piety. Recognition of this concealed background, Goulet argues, enables one to explain a number of fundamental contradictions in Philo’s thought.
Further reactions to this enormously challenging hypothesis will have to be awaited. My own view is that Goulet goes far too far in his
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assertions and fails to do Philo’s intentions justice.17 In the first place he has not been able to demonstrate that Philo only made use of a single main source; the prehistory of his allegorical exegesis was probably much more complex.18 Presumably Philo perceived that he stood at the end of a rich period of exegetical activity in Alexandria, and so felt the need to record, and integrate where possible, as many interpretations of his predecessors as he could in his three great series of commentaries.19 It is undeniable that this sometimes leads to a variety of explanations and philosophical theories that are not easy to harmonize with each other. Due to Philo’s intervention, however, we are given the chance to observe the intellectual achievements of a flourishing and quite exceptional Jewish community. In the second place Goulet’s sharp division between philosophical (i.e. pre-Philonic) and religious (i.e. Philonic) thought prevents him from doing justice to the central role of Platonism in Philo’s thought. It is precisely by means of ideas derived from contemporary Platonism that Philo thinks it possible to reconcile Greek rationalist thought with the religious heritage of Judaism.

The fate of Philo’s writings

How did it happen, then, that the Philonic corpus did not disappear just like almost all the rest of the rich body of Alexandrian Jewish literature. The Jews themselves decided Philo was not for them. There was no room for his philosophical interpretations of scripture in the Rabbinic Judaism that, after the severe pogroms in Alexandria and the fall of Jerusalem, slowly but surely began to dominate Jewish intellectual life. It was not really until the 19th century that Jews began to rediscover their long-forgotten compatriot. But exegetical activities in Alexandria did not die out. They were continued in a slightly revised form by a different group of people, the early Christians. By the end of the 2nd century a catechetical school had been established by the Alexandrian church, and it was here, in all likelihood, that the writings of Philo were saved from oblivion. Church Fathers such as Clement, Origen, and later Eusebius, Didymus the Blind and Ambrose, came to regard Philo as a ‘brother in the faith’, and did not hesitate to take over a great number of ideas and themes from his writings. Origen
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took copies of nearly all Philo’s writings with him when he moved from Alexandria to Caesarea in Palestine in 233 A.D. In his Church History Eusebius gives a catalogue of the Philonic writings present in the Episcopal Library of Caesarea (2.18). It is certainly no coincidence that these writings are almost exactly those which we still possess. Philo was thus not only a Philo Alexandrinus and a Philo Judaeus, but ultimately also became a Philo Christianus. It is through the medium of Patristic thought that Philo exerted a not inconsiderable influence on Western philosophy and theology, the contours of which are still far from being fully understood.

Philo, conqueror or conquered?

Of all the peoples in the Near East in the centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Jews were the only nation who had the courage to defy the ‘cultural imperialism’ of Greek thought and even attempted to challenge it with apologetic material of their own.20 The centre of such activities was Alexandria. Some Jews wrote epic poems (Philo Epicus), others composed dramas (Ezechiel Tragicus), others concentrated their efforts on historiography (Artapanus) and chronography (Demetrius). Philo too wished to defend the cultural and religious heritage of his people; he too decided that attack was the best form of defence. The source of all wisdom, including that of the Greeks, was the God-beloved prophet and lawgiver Moses. Philo was deeply convinced that if intellectuals took the trouble to plumb the depths of the Mosaic writings in a serious way, they would be forced to agree with him.
Nevertheless it has become abundantly clear, even in this short survey of his thought that we have presented in this article, that Philo himself was deeply influenced by Greek culture, and above all by Greek philosophy. His greatest debt is, as we have seen, to Plato, especially in the areas of theology and anthropology. He has made a careful reading of Plato’s more important dialogues, but his interpretation is heavily dependent on the so-called Middle Platonist movement, which began to make headway during his lifetime, and for which – in the absence of other material – he is an important witness. Also the ethical ideas which Philo takes over from the Stoa and certain sceptical ideas often have a Platonizing ring. But does this mean that we should label Philo a ‘Middle Platonist’, as certain scholars have done recently.21
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Personally I would hesitate to do this. In the first place because there are certain elements in his thought – such as his emphasis on piety, on the role of divine grace, on human ‘nothingness’ before God – which are definitely not Greek. Secondly because it was not at all his intention to present himself as a Greek philosopher, but rather as a devout and Law-abiding Jew.
Would it then be more correct to conclude that Philo made an attempt to reach a synthesis of Jewish and Greek thought? Here too I have strong reservations, since there is no evidence to suggest that what Philo sought was a kind of harmonization between two different kinds of thinking. It is true that in his view there are two opposed worlds of thought, the one representing the truth, the other falsehood. But these are not simplistically to be identified with Jewish and Greek thought respectively. The truth is to be found in Moses. He is the standard against which other thinkers need to be tested. If it is possible to make use of the sophisticated philosophical systems of the Greeks in order to expound the truth, then such a procedure is entirely legitimate.
The paradox of Philo’s far-reaching acculturation has now come clearly into view. The aphoristic formulation of this paradox by the Norwegian scholar Peder Borgen can hardly be bettered:22 ‘Philo is a conqueror, on the verge of being conquered.’ Philo aims to conquer by showing that what is valuable in Greek thought is already present in Judaism. Yet the attraction that Greek philosophy exerts on him is so strong that he does not even realize that he is in danger of being swept off his feet. It would be going too far to assert that he has been conquered by the force majeure of Greek thought. But it is surely a near thing.


A complete bibliography of scholarship on Philo, including listings of editions and translations can be found in two works:

H. L. Goodhart and E. R. Goodenough, ‘A general bibliography of Philo Judaeus’, in E. R. Goodenough, The Politics of Philo Judaeus: Practice and Theory (New Haven 1938, reprinted Hildesheim 19672) 125-321.
R. Radice and D. T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: an Annotated Bibliography 1937-1986, Vigiliae Christianae Supplements 8 (Leiden 1988).
An excellent anthology with copious annotation is:
Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, The Giants and Selections, translation and introduction by D. Winston, preface by J. Dillon, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York-Toronto 1981).
In the following list I include all works cited in the notes, as well as some important studies that will orientate the reader in recent scholarship on Philo. Studies that can serve as an introduction to his writings and thought are marked with an asterisk.
Y. Amir, Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien, Forschungen zum jüdisch-christlichen Dialog 5 (Neukirchen 1983).
E. Bickermann, ‘The Septuagint as Translation’, in Studies in Jewish and Christian History (Leiden 1976) 1.167-200.
R. A. Bitter, Vreemdelingschap bij Philo van Alexandrië: een onderzoek naar de betekenis van pãroikow (diss. Utrecht 1982).
P. Borgen (1984a), ‘Philo of Alexandria: a critical and synthetical survey of research since World War II’, in Haase (1984) 98-154.
  — (1984b), ‘Philo of Alexandria’, in M. E. Stone (ed.), Jewish writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus, CRINT II 2 (Assen 1984) 233-282.*
J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D. 220 (London-Ithaca-New York 1977).*
A. J. FestugiÈre, La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, vol. 2, Le Dieu cosmique, Études Bibliques (Paris 1949) 521-585.
J. Gager, The Origins of Anti-semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York-Oxford 1983).
E. R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (Oxford 19622).*
R. Goulet, La philosophie de Moïse: essai de reconstitution d’un commentaire philosophique préphilonien du Pentateuque, Histoire des doctrines de l’Antiquité classique 11 (Paris 1987).
L. Grabbe, Etymology in Early Jewish Interpretation: the Hebrew Names in Philo, Brown Judaic Series 115 (Atlanta 1988).
W. Haase (ed.), Hellenistisches Judentum in römischer zeit: Philon und Josephus, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Teil II Principat: Band 21 (Berlin-New York 1984).
M. Harl, La Bible d’Alexandrie. La Genèse: traduction du texte grec de la Septante, introduction et notes (Paris 1986).
M. Harl, G. Dorival & O. MunnicH , La Bible grecque des Septante du Juda-
ïsme hellénistique au Christianisme ancien, Initiations au Christianisme ancien (Paris 1988).
P. Harlé & D. Pralon, Le Levitique, La Bible d’Alexandrie 3 (Paris 1988).
M. Hengel, Jews, Greeks and Barbarians (London 1980).
A. Le Boulluec and P. Sandevoir , L’Exode, La Bible d’Alexandrie 2 (Paris
J. Ménard,La gnose de Philon d’Alexandrie, Gnostica (Paris 1987).*
A. Mendelson, Philo’s Jewish Identity, Brown Judaic Series 161 (Atlanta 1988).*
A. Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: the Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge 1975).
V. Nikiprowetzky, Le commentaire de l’Écriture chez Philon d’Alexandrie: son caractère et sa portée; observations philologiques, Arbeiten zur Literatur und Geschichte des Hellenistischen Judentums 11 (Leiden 1977).
G. Reale & R. Radice, Filone di Alessandria. La filosofia Mosaica (Milan 1987).
D. T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato, Philosophia Antiqua 44 (Leiden 1986).
D. T. Runia, review of R. Goulet, La philosophie de Moïse, Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989) 590-602.
S. Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria: an Introduction (New York-Oxford 1979).*
M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. (Jerusalem 1974-84).
T. H. Tobin, The Creation of Man: Philo and the History of Interpretation, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 14 (Washington 1983).
J. Whittaker, ‘Moses Atticizing’, Phoenix 21 (1967) 196-201.
  —, ‘Numenius and Alcinous on the First Principle’, Phoenix 32 (1978) 144-154.
R. Williamson, Jews in the Hellenistic World, vol. 2 Philo, Cambridge
Commentaries on the Writings of the Jewish and Christian World 200 B.C. to A.D. 200 (Cambridge 1989).*
D. Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria (Cincinatti 1985).*
H. A. Wolfson, Philo, Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 2 vols. (Cambridge Mass. 1947, 19684).