Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria was a Jew that lived from about 20 BC to 50 A.D. As such he lived at the same time both as Jesus Christ, and Paul the apostle.

Philo is a source of information about Hellenistic Judaism.  (That is not to say that he is especially well regarded among the Jews. I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Rabbi about some of these matters. This Rabbi had never heard about Philo, and proceeded to refer me to Maimonides, or Moses Ben Maimon, considered by some to be the greatest Jewish  philosopher of the medieval period.  The Rabbi I was talking to credited Maimonides with introducing the Western world to the ideas of Hellenistic Judaism.  In fairness Philo is not well-known to Christians either. There are only a couple of translations of his work.  Josephus is a much more well known writer of the period.)

Philo is considered a significant source for studying Hellenistic philosophy because of his participation in middle Platonism and other Hellenistic philosophical traditions. He is also significant for insight into first century Hellenistic Judaism, and for insights into the early church and writings of the New Testament. [i]

Philo was “spoken of by Josephus is one of the most eminent of his contemporary countrymen and as the principle of the embassy which was sent to Caligula to solicit him to recall the command which it issued for the erection of this statue in the Temple at Jerusalem. The embassy was unsuccessful, though the death of the Emperor saved the sacred edifice from the meditated profanation; but we see that Philo suffered no diminution of his credit from its unsuccessful result, since, at a subsequent period, his nephew, Tiberius Alexander, married Berenice, the daughter of King Agrippa.”[ii]

Some say Philo was the first of the Neo-Platonists who attempted to reconcile the doctrines of the Greek philosophies with the revelations contained in sacred scriptures. In the process, he introduced eastern traditions to Platonism. [iii]

Alexandria at the time of Philo was a huge center of learning.  Half of its population (estimated at 1 million people) was Jewish. The library at Alexandria is historically famous. It is accepted that these Jews recognized similar wisdom in many of the sayings of the philosophers and consequently tried to reconcile the wisdom of the philosophers to that of the Scriptures.

The impact of comparing the Hellenization of Judaism to a study of original Christianity is that it shows how prominent philosophy was in the Jewish World at large at the time this small Jewish sect called Christianity was forming.  Just as these Jewish Christians were influenced by their Jewish background, part of this Jewish background is Hellenized Judaism where philosophy is highly esteemed.  Thus the integration of philosophy and matters of faith needs to be investigated.

Philo the Philosopher and Platonist

Philo’s writing is focused on philosophy and its integration with the books of the Bible.  From the beginning of his writing (starting with his work “On The Creation”), Philo’s exposition of everything in the Bible focuses on the Bible as the supreme philosophy, and he even names Moses as the very highest philosopher:

But Moses, who had early reached the very summits of philosophy…[iv]

Plato is openly revered in Philo’s works:

“And since, as that sweetest of all writers, Plato, says…”[v]

Philo credits Moses with being the predecessor to the Greek philosophers.  Here Heraclitus is named:

“Is not this the thing which the Greeks say that Heraclitus, that great philosopher who is so celebrated among them, put forth as the leading principle of his whole philosophy, and boasted of it as if it were a new discovery?  for it is in reality an ancient discovery of Moses, that out of the same thing opposite things are produced having the ratio of parts to the whole,  as  has here  been shown.” [vi]

Philo was not the first to make these claims:

“He was no innovator in this matter because already before him Jewish scholars attempted the same. Artapanus in the second century B.C.E identified Moses with Musaeus and with Orpheus. According to Aristobulus of Paneas (first half of the second century B.C.E.), Homer and Hesiod drew from the books of Moses which were translated into Greek long before the Septuagint.”[vii]

Here in the writing of Philo and his contemporaries, we have a perspective that spiritualizes philosophy contrary to the perceived attitude of Paul in writing disparagingly of philosophy, see Paul Wrote About the Lure and Futility of Philosophy for more. Whereas in that article the philosophies of the world are placed at odds with the wisdom of the faith, it is important to recognize that there was a large contingent of Jews that promoted concepts such as Moses was the greatest philosopher, Moses was the teacher and inspiration of the Greek philosophies, and that there is a way to reconcile the philosophy of the Greeks with the wisdom of the Scriptures.

Philo the Historian

While Philo is writing more as a philosopher than a historian, his writings do provide a source for historical facts.   For example in The Special Laws, III, Philo discusses the norms of marriage and sexuality in the world at the time.   Of course, his purpose is to show that Moses as the supreme philosopher provides a better philosophy in the law regarding these areas than the leaders in the other countries around Israel.  But the side effect is that we learn what some of the practices were in these other countries.

For example:

“for the magistrates of the Persians marry even their own mothers, and consider the offspring of such marriages the most noble of all men, and as it is said, they think them worthy of the highest sovereign authority.”[viii]

Philo goes on to elucidate some of the problems with this marital philosophy. With this marital structure, a man can be both the son and the husband of the same woman. The children of this marriage produce brothers to the fathers, and grandchildren to the mothers.  What is so incredible about it is that as the above quote declares these children are considered “the most noble “.

Philo continues to go on about places where men are permitted to marry their sisters by one parent, but not the other. Notably, the Athenian lawgiver, Solon, was famous for enacting one of these laws.  And Philo writes at length about how the philosophy of some cultures promotes the sexual love of boys.   Interestingly, he calls that pleasure one which is “contrary to nature.”[ix]

Of course, we are presented with these facts to show their inadequacy against what Philo presents as the superior philosophy of Moses regarding these matters.  Nevertheless, records like this give us valuable insight into the practices at the time that Christianity was forming.

This article demonstrates how Philo esteems philosophy and integrates the spirituality of the Old Testament with Greek philosophy. Of particular interest to our study is Philo’s handling of the Logos which we will examine in the next article.

[i] THE WORKS OF PHILO, Complete And Unabridged, New Updated Version, Translated by C.D. Yonge, Forward by David M Scholer, Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, p . xix (Preface to the Original Edition)
[ii] ibid.
[iii] ibid.
[iv] ibid, p.3 (On the Creation, (8))
[v] ibid, p.683 (Every Good Man Is Free, (13))
[vi] ibid, p. 294, (Who Is The Heir Of Divine Things,(214))
[vii] Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE—40 CE), Marian Hillar, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
[viii] THE WORKS OF PHILO, p. 595, (The Special Laws, III(12))
[ix] ibid, p. 598, (The Special Laws, III(39))

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