A note on Philo of Alexandria

A note on Philo of Alexandria September 29, 2019


Alexandria at dusk
Sunset in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2006  (Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


I first published this column in the Provo Daily Herald back sometime in 2007:


A rough contemporary of Jesus, Philo of Alexandria has had enormous influence on the development of religious thought not only among his fellow Jews, but in Christianity and Islam as well.  Yet he is little known, except among specialists.

Philo Judaeus, as he is sometimes called, received a superb education in Greek literature and philosophy and rose to prominence in the large Jewish community of ancient Alexandria.  He dedicated his life to the service and defense of Judaism.  Indeed, in 40 A.D. he was chosen to lead a Jewish delegation to Rome, where he appealed to the emperor Caligula to intervene on behalf of Egyptian Jews who were being persecuted by their Gentile neighbors and leaders.

But Philo’s real interests were not political.  He sought to defend Judaism against the charge of sophisticated pagans that it was primitive and backward.  This he did by writing a vast, multi-volume commentary on what we now know as the Old Testament, in which he attempted to show that, in fact, all of the wisdom and insight of Greek philosophy — the most prestigious thinking, the “science,” of his day — actually originated in the writings of Moses. 

Philo seems to have read the Bible only in Greek.  And he did so using an allegorical technique that he had borrowed from the leading scholars of his homeland, pagan Hellenistic Egypt.  They were embarassed by the rather crude stories about the gods that they found in their beloved Homer, and they wanted to save that poet from himself.  Philo, too, was embarassed by some of what he found in scripture.  Among the things that he particularly disliked was the notion that God might have a physical body.  Thus, Philo read the stories and rules of the Bible as allegories that really taught the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  The historical personalities and events described in Jewish scripture faded into relative insignificance and became, at his hands, personifications of abstract ideas and ethical virtues.  The ancient Hebrew prophets, it turned out, were really Middle Platonic philosophers.

Philo was among the principal developers of what is known as “negative theology.”  According to this approach, we can or should say nothing positive about God.  We should not call him “just,” for instance, since that would seem to mean that his justice has some kinship to human justice.  We should not call him “wise,” for his wisdom is utterly different from ours.  We should only deny that he is unjust, and say that he is not unwise.  In this way, by removing attributes from God in much the way that a sculptor chips away marble from his statue, we can eventually reach a quite accurate notion of God by knowing completely what he is not.

Another doctrine associated with Philo is that of the “Logos,” or (as it is commonly but inadequately translated) the “Word.”  (This same term appears in the first chapter of the gospel of John.)  Philo’s God was so exalted above human conceptions, so transcendent, that Philo was obliged to speak of an intermediate divine being, the Logos, who connected that distant God with us and the world we live in.  Scholars debate whether Philo invented this idea, or whether he was reflecting much more ancient Jewish notions of a secondary God who was subordinated to the higher God like a son to a father.

Philo seems to have had no disciples among Jews in his own day, but his impact on Christianity may have been enormous.  It is probably no coincidence that Clement and Origen of Alexandria, when they opened their famous Christian school there in the third century, applied the tools of allegorical interpretation to the Bible in order to neutralize its anthropomorphisms and other embarrassments.  And, later, after the rise of Islam, Philo’s style of allegorizing became very influential among Muslims — particularly among the Shi‘ite sect known as the Isma‘ilis, who, in the form of the medieval Fatimid dynasty, ruled Egypt for approximately two centuries.

If Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all offspring of Abraham, they are also — at least in today’s mainstream forms — the descendents of a relatively little known Alexandrian named Philo.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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