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Philo

Category: Philosopher

Philo of Alexandria (Greek: Φίλων, Philōn; c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Roman Empire.  The few biographical details known about Philo are found in his own works, especially in Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius), and in Josephus. The only event in his life that can be decisively dated is his participation in the embassy to Rome in 40 CE. He represented the Alexandrian Jews before Roman Emperor Caligula because of civil strife between the Alexandrian Jewish and Greek communities.

James C. VanderKam - An Introduction to Early Judaism, p. 138

"Although many of Philo's writings have survived, little is known about his life. We do not even know when he was born or when he died. The few facts about his life come from occasional hints in his own books and a small number of external references (e.g., Josephus mentions him). His brother Alexander held the position of alabarch, apparently a high office that involved supervising the collection of revenues, and was so wealthy that King Agrippa I often borrowed money from him. A clear implication is that Philo belonged to an extremely prominent family in the large Jewish community at Alexandria. Philo's nephew Tiberius Julius Alexander, Alexander's son, abandoned his ancestral religion, became the Roman procurator in Judea in 46-48 CE, and played an important role for the Romans in their suppression of the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE—another indication of the status enjoyed by the people in Philo's family. Josephus considered him prominent in every way and skilled in philosophy."

According to Wikipedia “His ancestors and family were contemporaries to the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Although the names of his parents are unknown, Philo came from a family which was noble, honourable and wealthy. It was either his father or paternal grandfather who was granted Roman citizenship from Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar.  His ancestors and family had social ties and connections to the Priesthood in Judea; and Philo visited the Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his lifetime.  He would of course have been a contemporary to Jesus”.

The main reason why Philo is of especial interest for this site is that he attempted to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy with Jewish philosophy. Although the results appear to have had some influence on several Christian Church Fathers, he is barely recognised within Judaism.   The attempts to fuse ideas was not restricted to just Greek and Jewish philosophy, Philo along with his brothers were educated to a degree in Ancient Egyptian culture, as such there would have been some remnant understanding on the Mysteries – the common thread in Judaism, Greek philosophy and Ancient Egyptian philosophy.  If the quotations I could find are a guide, he was well aware of the symbolism behind the Old Testament and recognised the common symbolism in all three cultures.

Raymond F. Surburg - Introduction to the Intertestamental Period, pp. 155-156

Philo represents a strange fusion. By nature and upbringing he was a Jew; by residence in Alexandria a mystic; by higher education a Greek humanist; by contact and social position an ally of the Roman aristocracy. …….He endeavored to justify the jewish religion to the cultured people of Graeco-Roman society. In view of the deterioration of pagan society and religion, he had a splendid opportunity to portray the Jewish faith as fulfilling 'the desire of all nations.' On the other hand, he tried to show and persuade his strict coreligionists that Greek philosophy and learning were not actually hostile and opposed to the tenets of the Hebrew religion but that each stood for practically identical principles. Philo thus adopted an eclectic viewpoint, one in which he blended Old Testament theological concepts with Greek philosophical principles. ……While Philo spoke philosophically with the intention of bringing home dogmatic and ethical truths, in so doing it involved on his part a dilution of the religious substance of divine revelation. Likewise his religious convictions were modified by philosophical inheritance."

But he did not live in an age prepared to accept unity and essentially mystic ideas.  This was a time of division and the formation of political empires based on supposed God given authority.  The Roman emperor Gaius Caligula, for example, was at that very time claiming that he was a god, and was ruling by divine right.  Much of the civil strife at that time was because Philo and the larger Jewish community refused to treat the emperor as a god, to erect statues in honour of the emperor, and to build altars and temples to the emperor.

It was also, it appears, a time of considerable cruelty and bloodshed in the name of political beliefs based on belief systems – religion.  A time when religion became political.  Philo says that the mobs "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one ... while the populace, overrunning their desolate houses, turned to plunder, and divided the booty among themselves as if they had obtained it in war." In addition, Philo says their enemies, "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties, for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks". Philo even says, "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city, sparing neither age nor youth, nor the innocent helplessness of infants." Some men, he says, were dragged to death, while "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers, like people employed in the representation of theatrical farces". Other Jews were crucified.

So poor Philo preaching unity, commonality of belief, and other spiritual messages, was up against impossible odds.

References

Most of Philo's surviving work deals with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Within this corpus are three categories:

  • Quaestiones ("Inquiries") – short verse-by-verse exposition: four books on the Book of Genesis and two on the Book of Exodus. All six books are preserved through an Armenian translation, which was published by Jean-Baptiste Aucher in 1826. Comparison with surviving Greek and Latin fragments recommends the translation as literal and accurate so far as it goes, but suggests that some of the original content is missing. There are thought to be twelve original books, six on Genesis and six on Exodus.
  • Allegoral Commentary – longer exegesis explaining esoteric meanings; the surviving text deals only with the Book of Genesis, with the notable omission of the Genesis 1.
  • "Exposition of the Law" – more straightforward synthesis of topics in the Pentateuch, probably written for gentiles as well as Jews.

 

Philo is also credited with writing:

Apologies for Judaism including On the Life of Moses, On the Jews, and On the Contemplative Life.
Historical works (describing current events in Alexandria and the Roman Empire), including Against Flaccus and Embassy to Gaius.
Philosophical works including Every Good Man Is Free, On the Eternity of the World, On Animals, and On Providence, the latter two surviving only through Armenian translation.

Observations

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