Gregory E. Sterling on Philo of Alexandria
“What should I say about Philo whom critics call…the ‘Jewish Plato’?” So said Saint Jerome, who spent the later years of his life as an ascetic in the cave traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus. He went on to defend Philo’s integration of philosophy and biblical interpretation and was the first to report the widely circulated bon mot among early Christian authors: “either Plato philonizes or Philo platonizes,” recognizing the degree to which Philo had incorporated Hellenistic philosophy–especially Platonism– into Judaism.
It was the knowledge of God that most interested Philo. While he did not restrict this to Platonism, he was particularly attracted to it, especially in the form in which the tradition developed in Alexandria in the first century BCE. Philosophers like the little known Eudorus (flourished ca. 20 BCE) thought that there was a transcendent God beyond all else and that the ultimate reality was not the physical world. Philo agreed.
Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE-ca. 50 CE) was born into one of the most significant Jewish families of what was probably the largest Jewish community in a single city within the Roman empire. While it is notoriously difficult to estimate the populations of ancient cities–let alone the size of a subgroup within one–it is safe to say that Alexandria was the second largest city in the first century Roman empire and the size of the Jewish community within it exceeded the entire population of Jerusalem.
Philo’s brother, Gaius Julius Alexander, was one of the wealthiest persons in Alexandria and probably in the region. His full name, and that of his two sons, Tiberius Julius Alexander and Marcus Julius Alexander, suggest that they were Roman citizens. The most likely explanation for this–although it is only a conjecture–is that Philo and Alexander’s grandfather (or father) helped Julius Caesar in the Alexandrian War (48-47 BCE) when Caesar encountered stiff opposition. The assistance was rewarded with Roman citizenship by a grateful Caesar and is reflected in the similarity of names–the Roman dictator’s tria nomina was Gaius Julius Caesar. Whether this guess is correct or not, the family became Roman citizens and were prominent enough that three of the family members (Philo, Alexander his brother, and Tiberius Julius Alexander his nephew) were selected as members of the Jewish embassy sent to Gaius Caligula after a pogram had erupted in Alexandria in 37 CE. The visit of the Jewish king Agrippa I was the spark that lit the tinderbox of troubled relations between Jews and their neighbors. When the Roman governor Flaccus failed to address the matter decisively, embassies from both the Jews and the Alexandrians were sent to Rome to ask the emperor to adjudicate.
Philo’s role in the embassy was not without risk; the emperor Gaius threw his brother Alexander into prison in a fit of rage according to Josephus. Both brothers were committed to Judaism and willing to risk their well-being for their way of life. At the same time, they pursued their ancestral faith in different ways. Alexander pursued the active life and was the principal customs officer in Alexandria, an active business person, and the owner and manager of estates–including the Egyptian estates of Antonia, the mother of the emperor Claudius who freed his friend Alexander from prison when he replaced Gaius as emperor. Alexander was wealthy enough that he covered nine gates in the Jerusalem temple with gold and silver.
In contrast to his brother, Philo elected to cultivate the contemplative life. While he must have been wealthy to have such leisure, he would not have been as wealthy as his brother. In a famous passage in which he broke with his normal autobiographical reserve, Philo offered us a glimpse into his heart as he describes the transition of his life from a scholar to an ambassador in Rome:
“There was once a time when I had the leisure for philosophy and the contemplation of the universe … But the most vexatious of evils, good-hating envy, laid in wait for me and suddenly fell on me. It did not quit violently pulling me down until it had thrown me into the ocean of civil concerns in which I am being swept away–unable even to rise to the surface.”
Yet in spite of the overwhelming nature of his civic duties, he concluded with a note of optimism: “So look, I dare not only to read the sacred interpretations of Moses, but through love of knowledge to peer into each and to open up and disclose what is not known to the general public.”
The reluctant ambassador was a prolific author. During his lifetime, he wrote more than seventy works of which approximately two-thirds have come down to us in their original Greek or in a sixth century Armenian translation. To put the quantity of his literary œuvre in perspective, he wrote considerably more than Plato or Plotinus (the founder of Neoplatonism), although appreciably less than Aristotle or Plutarch. If, on the other hand, we compare the scale of his work to Jewish authors, he is without peer. His preserved corpus is the largest body of material that we have from a single Jewish author in antiquity: it is larger than the works of Josephus and even rivals the fragmentary manuscripts that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls–although the latter would have been much larger had all 950 works been fully preserved.
Philo never indicates the social setting in which he wrote and people read his works, but the most likely setting for their production is a private school in which a small group of students studied with him. Such schools were common among philosophers outside the institutions of Athens (the Platonic Academy, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Garden of Epicurus, or the Painted Porch of the Stoics). Philo’s school would have been like the school of the Epicurean Philodemus in Herculaneum (Italy) or the Middle Platonic philosopher Plutarch who had a school in his hometown of Chaeronea (Greece) or the Stoic Epictetus in Nicomedia (Turkey) or Plotinus in Rome. These private schools typically met in large private homes in which one room served as a library and another room a place for instruction. Alternatively, Philo might have had an arrangement with a Jewish “house of prayer” as they were called in Alexandria or synagogue as they were known in Judea.
Philo shared the goal of Platonic philosophers who took their cue from Plato’s Theaetetus and defined the goal of philosophy as “likeness to God.” His school and works were therefore about shaping the soul of a student through virtue with the goal of enabling their minds to see beyond the temporal to the eternal.
Philo’s works fall into five broad groups: a group of apologetic or historical works written in connection with the embassy, a group of philosophical treatises, and three sets of commentaries. The commentaries comprise the richest collection of Jewish biblical interpretations that we have from the first century CE.
The first set of commentaries, The Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus, works sequentially through the biblical texts of the first two books of the Pentateuch–although they are far from complete–raising questions and providing answers, often on both literal and allegorical levels. The list of multiple answers gives the impression of offering reading options and was probably intended for beginning students in Philo’s school.
The second set, the Allegorical Commentary, is Philo’s magnum opus. It is a running commentary on Genesis 2-18 that provides elaborate allegorical interpretations. Philo opens each treatise by citing a select biblical text and then works through it clause by clause. The extent of the biblical text that he selects varies appreciably, ranging from an entire chapter to a half a verse. When he selects longer texts he breaks them up into sections within his treatise, but still follows the same pattern of citing the text and then offering clause by clause explanations.
Philo chose the text based on a theme or a couple of themes that he wanted to develop in the treatise, a decision that gives his commentaries an unusual thematic unity. One of the advantages this offers is that the titles that have come down to us for each treatise often point to a central concern of the treatise, e.g., On the Change of Names uses etymologies of Abram (“uplifted father”) for the Chaldean astrologer and Abraham (“elect father of sound”) for the father of speech or the wise mind to chronicle how Abraham moved from astrology to piety and Sarai (“my sovereignty”) to Sarah (“sovereignty”) to show how individual wisdom is superseded by wisdom more generally.
As Philo works through each clause on which he has decided to comment, he often expands his treatment by adding other biblical texts (secondary texts) that share a common word or have a common theme and develops a commentary on them. The commentary on the secondary texts creates a second level of discussion. Philo can even extend this to a third level, a technique that makes reading his allegorical commentaries challenging.
A reader needs to remember the biblical text on which Philo is commenting and how it relates to the text of Genesis. The complexities of the Allegorical Commentary suggest that it was intended for advanced students in the school, as Philo’s allegorical interpretations relate the text to the soul. The ultimate goal of his writing was to lead the reader to the experience of God.
The third commentary set, the Exposition of the Law, is a comprehensive treatment of the Pentateuch from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Unlike the first two sets, this series does not quote the biblical text verbatim but retells it and offers an allegorical commentary on the retelling. It may have been based on public lectures that Philo gave in much the same way that Aristotle and Theophrastus lectured in the Lyceum or the Stoic Epictetus in his school. The envisioned audience is more general and could have included non-Jews as well as Jews.
The use of allegorical interpretation (literally “saying something other”) to illuminate sacred texts was a means by which those fascinated by Eastern religious traditions could make sense of them via Hellenistic philosophy. For example, Plutarch did this with Egyptian myths in On Isis and Osiris and Numenius, a second century CE philosopher, used allegory for a wide range of Eastern sacred texts.
The basic assumption was that there was a form of primitive wisdom that was shared by many national traditions. Celsus, the second century CE critic of Christianity, offered one of the most straightforward articulations of the perspective: “There is an ancient doctrine from the beginning of time, that has always been maintained by the wisest nations and cities and wise men.” Plutarch expressed the same thought in these words: “Ancient natural philosophy among both Greeks and barbarians, took the form of an account of nature hidden in mythology, veiled for the most part in riddles and hints.” The task of the interpreter was to uncover the philosophical meaning buried in the texts through allegory.
This framework gave Philo an opportunity to show how Greek philosophy was embedded in the texts written by Moses. Unlike some earlier Jewish authors–like the second century BCE Jewish philosopher Aristobulus–who used the “theft of philosophy” argument to make the case that the Greeks had stolen their best ideas from Moses, Philo preferred to argue that both Hellenistic philosophers and Moses understood reality alike, especially in their understanding of God. He wrote:
“For what comes to the adherents of the most esteemed philosophy, comes to the Jews through their laws and customs, namely the knowledge of the highest and most ancient Cause of all and the rejection of the deception of created gods.”
Philo made God the center of his thought: he used the noun God nearly 2500 times. He thought that God was so far above humans that there needed to be a second principle (God is the first principle) who served as God’s face to humanity and humanity’s access to God; he called this second principle the Logos.
The Jewish interpreter did not restrict the knowledge of God to metaphysics, but understood it mystically as well. The experience is best described in a group of texts that we call the “flight of mind” texts. These texts understand the mind to be the core of what it means to be created in God’s image. The goal of the mind is to ascend to God. Philo used Plato’s myth of the chariot in the Phaedrus, but reversed the perspective by explaining how the soul can fly upward rather than lose its wings.
In the fullest version of the “flight of the mind” the soul (mind) ascends through five stages: 1. the earth and sea, 2. the atmosphere, 3. the ether, 4. the intelligible realm, and 5. the highest vault. When it reaches the third stage (ether), it “dances with the stars” and gazes down on the entire sense-perceptible realm. It is, however, drawn by the “love of wisdom” to go higher where it is possessed “by sober intoxication,” a state of ecstatic inspiration. Yet it longs to ascend yet higher to the Great King. “As the mind strives to see, pure and unmixed beams of dense light pour in like a winter torrent so that the eye of the intellect becomes dizzy by the flashes.” The soul can know for certain that God exists, but can not know exactly what God is: we are blinded by the light.
The experience of God was not limited to ethnic Jews. Philo explained the presence of the ancestors of Israel who lived prior to the law of Moses by arguing that they were models of different avenues to virtue: Abraham by learning, Isaac by birth, and Jacob by training. Philo suggested that Moses
“wanted to show first that the stipulated commands are not out of harmony with nature and, second, that it is not a monumental effort for those who want to live by the existing laws since the earliest ancestors easily followed unwritten legislation before any of the individual laws began to be written.”
In other words, someone could keep the law of nature without being an ethnic Jew. In fact, Philo employed the term “Israel” to refer to anyone who saw God: “to see the best, the one who is Being, belongs to the best race, for Israel means ‘seeing God’.”
At the same time, Philo was unambiguously and unashamedly Jewish. He did not comment on Plato’s treatises, but on Moses’s scrolls. He chastised a group of Jews who argued that laws such as circumcision or Sabbath observance were only symbols and therefore not essential: “I fault such persons for their indifference … The sacred Word teaches them to take note of good opinion and not to violate any of the things in our customs that divinely inspired men and those even greater have set out.” Philo understood that the laws were community identity markers, an identity that he did not take lightly even if he agreed that the rituals were symbols pointing to more profound realities.
Philo represents the apex of a long-standing tradition of Jewish interpreters who extended back into the third century BCE. While he never named any of these predecessors or contemporaries, he alluded to them frequently. Unfortunately, this community and their literary works were so thoroughly destroyed by the Romans in 115-117 CE that little if anything of this community survived. Fortunately, Philo’s works had already began circulating beyond Alexandria.
There is good reason to believe that Josephus knew and used some of his works when he wrote his histories in Rome. However, after Josephus, Philo disappears from Judaism. The next Jewish author who clearly used Philo was the sixteenth century Azariah de’ Rossi in his The Light of the Eyes who valued Philo but considered him heretical. Solomon Judah Rapoport, an important figure in the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement of the nineteenth century, attempted to overturn this judgement. In spite of Rapoport’s efforts and those of others, Philo’s influence remained limited in Jewish circles. However, in recent decades his Greek works were fully translated into Hebrew, and today there are several Israeli scholars who work on Philo.
It is also quite possible that Philo exercised some influence on pagans who were open to Eastern traditions. The ancient novelist Heliodorus quoted Philo’s Life of Moses 2.195 in his Aethiopica 9.9, demonstrating that Philo’s works were in broader circulation. Philo appears to have had some–although limited–influence on philosophers. Celsus probably knew some of Philo’s works even though he was critical of Jews as well as Christians The most convincing proof of influence was on Numenius, whose understanding of God was shaped in a limited way by Philo. And it is worth remembering that G. F. W. Hegel chose to comment on Philo in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy and in multiple places in his Lectures on Religion 3.
At a point prior to the Roman destruction of the Alexandrian Jewish community, copies of Philo’s works began circulating among Christian communities. Origen carried a copy of many of them from Alexandria to Caesarea (ca. 232 CE) where they became part of the Episcopal library, the primary source of their preservation. Philo’s thought had a significant impact on early Christians in the Alexandrian and Cappadocian traditions, especially on authors like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Gregory of Nyssa. Perhaps Philo’s greatest contribution was that he taught these Christians how to interpret Scripture in light of Hellenistic philosophy. His Platonic orientation was attractive because it turned them towards a transcendent God. These authors quickly identified the Logos with Christ and found a great deal of compatibility with their Platonizing Jewish predecessor.
While Philo’s specific orientation is rooted in the ancient world, he is still of value today. His approach to ancient wisdom reminds us that more than one tradition may understand the same metaphysical realities. More specifically, his understanding of the divine recognizes that it is a matter of experience: the mind can experience God through virtue and contemplation. This coalescence of Hellenistic philosophy and Judaism makes Philo an important figure in the history of intellectual thought. It is the love of this ancient and shared wisdom of a world beyond this one that sets him among history’s philosophers and teachers pointing the way to the divine.
Gregory E. Sterling is the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament. He assumed the deanship in 2012 after more than two decades at the University of Notre Dame, where he served in several capacities at the College of Arts and Letters and as the first dean of the independent Graduate School. Centrating his scholarship in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity, Dean Sterling is the author or editor/co-editor of eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles and essays. He has held numerous leadership positions in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Studiorum Novi Societas, and the Catholic Biblical Association. He is a minister in the Churches of Christ and serves in several leadership roles for his own denomination.