Reading Philo in Greek

Reading Philo in Greek November 27, 2012

I just recently started meeting with some colleagues and a student in a Greek reading group. I suggested to a colleague in Classics that it might be interesting to read Philo of Alexandria together, and she got very excited about the idea, and some other colleagues in Religion also expressed an interest.

And so lately, I have felt disconcertingly like I am back in Greek class, wondering why the verses that I end up with when it is my turn to read and translate are so difficult, while those others end up with seem comparatively easy. Of course, if I had been preparing for “class” as I should have been, I probably would not have felt that way. 🙂

But kidding aside, it is intended to be a low-pressure, enjoyable experience in which we read and if necessary muddle through together. Although we’ve only met twice, I am already finding it a really rewarding experience. Doing this is relatively straightforward thanks to the availability online without cost of editions of the Greek text, as well as Yonge’s older English translation.

We are reading his “On the Creation” (known in Latin as De opificio mundi and in the original Greek as Περι της κατα Μωυσεα κοσμοποιιας). It is worth reading for many reasons, not least of which is the clear evidence it provides that the so-called literalism of some contemporary interpreters is not “the traditional approach” to the creation accounts in Genesis. III.13 is particularly illustrative:

Ἓξ δὲ ἡμέραις δημιουργηθῆναί φησι τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἐπειδὴ προσεδεῖτο χρόνων μήκους ὁ ποιῶν – ἅμα γὰρ πάντα δρᾶν εἰκὸς θεόν, οὐ προστάττοντα μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ διανοούμενον – , ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὴ τοῖς γινομένοις ἔδει τάξεως. τάξει δὲ ἀριθμὸς οἰκεῖον, ἀριθμῶν δὲ φύσεως νόμοις γεννητικώτατος ὁ ἕξ· τῶν τε γὰρ ἀπὸ μονάδος πρῶτος τέλειός ἐστιν ἰσούμενος τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ μέρεσι καὶ συμπληρούμενος ἐξ αὐτῶν, ἡμίσους μὲν τριάδος, τρίτου δὲ δυάδος, ἕκτου δὲ μονάδος, καὶ ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν ἄρρην τε καὶ θῆλυς εἶναι πέφυκε κἀκ τῆς ἑκατέρου δυνάμεως ἥρμοσται· ἄρρεν μὲν γὰρ ἐν τοῖς οὖσι τὸ περιττόν, τὸ δ’ ἄρτιον θῆλυ· περιττῶν μὲν οὖν ἀριθμῶν ἀρχὴ τριάς, δυὰς δ’ ἀρτίων, ἡ δ’ ἀμφοῖν δύναμις ἑξάς.

I’ll offer my own rough translation of the first sentence: “He says that in six days the world was fashioned – not  because the Maker required a length of time (for it is natural for God to accomplish everything at once, not only in commanding but even in thinking), but because the things being brought into being required arrangement. And numbers administer arrangement…”

The rest finds mathematical significance in the number six. None of what Philo writes on this topic in the passage bears even the slightest resemblance to how modern-day fundamentalists approach the text.

I wonder how many people who read this blog have ever read Philo in Greek. This is my first time trying to read an entire work of his in the original language, and is an expression of my longstanding desire to read more in Greek beyond the New Testament. I am grateful to colleagues in Classics for joining me in doing so – and hope we can keep it up!

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  • Jared Calaway

    I would have started with “On Mating with Preliminary Studies,” if only for the title!

  • James Pate

    I took a class where we read “That the Worse is Wont to Attack the Better”. Not easy!

    • Jason

      I also took a class where we read the same treatise! Couldn’t be that common…

      I’m also a classicist. Good to hear about the collaboration.

  • Philo’s sentences can definitely get tangled, and his vocabulary is enormous. I posted on De opificio here:

    • Indeed, even Classicists reading him for the first time found him challenging to disentangle – and I did even more so than they!

  • arcseconds

    I think it would be a bit disingenuous to offer Philo as a typical example of biblical interpretation around about the time of Christ. He was a neoplatonist (I use the term widely to mean anyone following the aristotelean/platonist synthesis), and neoplatonists very often took non-literal readings of religious texts.

    All it really shows is that not everyone took a literal interpretation two millenia ago, so dirty sneaky postmodern liberals have been around for a while!

    That might surprise a biblical literalist a bit, but it doesn’t need to rock their boat overmuch. What would be more worrying for them is if you could show that no-one took the bible literally in those days, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Why, right there on the second paragraph of the wikipedia page we see Philo complaining about biblical literalists:

    • It is certainly true that Philo was not typical. But if we add the Rabbis, and Augustine (even when discussing the “literal” meaning), and any number of others, we see that there is a long and broad tradition of approaching the text very differently than modern fundamentalists.

      My reason for focusing on Philo is not that he is typical in his interpretations, but simply the fact that I’ve been reading him lately! 🙂

      • arcseconds

        Ah, I was assuming that you were intending that remark as a jab against a notional fundamentalist. I guess I was inclined to interpret your remark like that because the notion of early non-literal readings of the Bible doesn’t seem especially remarkable to me…

    • GakuseiDon

      arcseconds wrote, “What would be more worrying for them is if you could show that no-one
      took the bible literally in those days, but that doesn’t seem to be the

      While I don’t think that we can say that no-one took the whole Bible non-literally in those days, the strict literal interpretation of modern fundamentalists wasn’t there either.

      Origen in the 3rd C CE wrote in “De Principiis”, Book 4:

      “And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east… and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”

      Note his statement “I do not suppose that ANY one doubts”. That’s a fairly blanket statement about an allegorical approach to the Bible in his time, at least among the literate.

      Note also Eusebius of Caesarea who wrote in the 4th C CE:

      “Now you may find in the Hebrew Scriptures also thousands of such
      passages concerning God as though He were jealous, or sleeping, or
      angry, or subject to any other human passions, which passages are
      adopted for the benefit of those who need this mode of instruction.”

      Again, it suggests that allegorical interpretations were non-controversial among the Christians of the day. Both Origen and Eusebius of C were important writers of their day, and even though Origen was later declared a heretic, AFAIK it was over his stance on universalism and other things than on whether the Bible should be regarded as literal or not.

      • arcseconds

        I’m quite sure that allegorical interpretations were commonplace in Christianity, especially by the 3rd century. There had been a heavy influence of neoplatonism by that stage, with many Christian writers themselves being neoplatonists, including Augustine, and there’s even a strong influence on one of the Gospels!

        Given that neoplatonism was more or less synonymous with philosophy at that time, anyone working in literate, scholastic circles could not have avoided this kind of influence.

        (I suspect again, though, that a modern-day literalist is again going to be relatively unmoved by this. Wouldn’t they just shrug their shoulders and say “so the postmodern plauge infected Christianity really early!”? They’re already happy with wiping off a millennium or more of Catholic interpretation. Do they generally care at all about the Church Fathers? )

        I guess what question this discussion has raised for me is what attitude 1st century Jews had to scripture, and also the very earliest Christians.
        Apart from being an interesting question in its own right, if it could be shown that they also typically (or even often) didn’t have a literal interpretation, then that should worry a modern-day literalist.

        • The so-called literalists are quite happy to say that, even if their stance is the minority one, the minority can be right. And so even if it could be shown to them that almost no one understood the text as they do, many would probably still resist rethinking their views.

  • arcseconds

    It occurs to me that actually Philo’s doing something not dissimilar from that of modern liberal Christians: reading the religious texts of his traditions in a way that allows them to be compatible with the high-brow modern ‘science’ of his day (i.e. neoplatonism, which I understand was synonymous with philosophy at that time. Of course science wasn’t considered a separate discipline until much later).

    One notable difference is that liberal non-literal interpreters of the Bible situate Genesis in a historical context and allow it to be a middle-eastern creation myth (whatever else it may say), whereas Philo is interpreting it as though its contents include highly detailed metaphysical truths, albeit expressed in a highly figurative language. He seems to think Genesis is true in the same kind of way ‘literalists’ often think Revelations is true.

    One thing it occurs to me that a literalist might say about this is that while there may have been non-literalists for 2 millennia or more, how the non-literalists interpret the bible meanders over time with whatever fads are popular with the intellectual philosophy of the age, whereas literalists have always remained loyal (they could argue) to the plain truth of the bible.

    • They could argue that last point, but hopefully the claim would not be allowed to go unchallenged! 🙂 Clearly the attempt to treat Genesis as offering scientific information is itself an embracing of the importance of science as an approach to knowledge, even as it rejects the methods and conclusions of that way of knowing.

  • Ian

    My NT Greek is passable, I can scrape by in many bits of the LXX. I’ve tried on a few occasions to read beyond the NT, and each time I’ve felt like I knew nothing. It really is an utterly different beast.