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.

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

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