PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 20 B.C.-A.D. 50)
An Alexandrian Jewish statesman and philosopher. He was of priestly descent, but otherwise little is known of his career, except that he took part in the Alexandrian Jewish embassy to the emperor Caligula in A.D. 39-40, following the anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria in 38.
Philo’s native language was Greek, and he probably knew little Hebrew. Despite his acceptance of current Platonic and Stoic philosophy as the medium through which he interpreted the scriptures, he was completely loyal to Judaism and, when opportunity arose, was a fervent missionary for his faith. Some of the inner characteristics of Philo come to the surface in his De Legatione ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius) written immediately after the abortive Jewish embassy to that emperor. He regarded the Jews as representatives of the human race and as suppliants to God for the remainder of humanity.
The Jews “saw God” and hence were of particular value to humanity as a whole. With this high view of the Jewish people, he warned the emperor that Jews would go cheerfully to martyrdom rather than see their temple desecrated. “A glorious death met in the defense of the Law is a kind of life,” he urged. Far from being “barbaric,” the Jews of Palestine were “mentally courageous, and prefer to die for their traditions in a spirit which some of their traducers would call barbaric but which in actual fact is free and noble.” In these and other similar statements Philo showed himself a Jew, in every way as patriotic and assured of the value of his people as Josephus and the author of the fourth book of Maccabees, his near contemporaries.
He combined this underlying dedication to the cause of his people with an equally intense concern to interpret that cause in a way intelligible to his Alexandrian contemporaries—namely, through current philosophy. He was, however, a mystic as well as a philosopher and interpreter of scripture, describing his soul as being “on fire,” and his language at times vibrates with emotion. He saw the relation between Hellenism and Judaism as one of progress from an obscured appreciation to a clear appreciation of the truth.
Like Jewish and Christian apologists, he believed that Plato had borrowed his best ideas from Moses, and reflected that in his work, De opificio mundi, On the Creation of the World. He felt similarly regarding Zeno, as expressed in Quod omnis probus liber sit (Every Good Man Is Free). Philo’s conversion to Judaism was therefore a step toward a better way of life and a deeper understanding of the mystery of God, as indicated in De specialibus legibus, On Special Laws; De praemiis et poemis, On Rewards and Punishments. He compares unfavorably Greek interpretations of the ascetic ideal with the practical asceticism and social concern of the Essenes.
Philo’s understanding of God, however, was not the tribal Jehovah of many of his Jewish contemporaries. God was “the prime Good, and Beautiful and Happy and Blessed,” God described in Platonic terms, yet as Philo indicates, beyond description. God was the creator of the universe, its fashioner out of nonbeing, ordering formless and chaotic matter and imposing upon it the pattern of order and rationality, His Logos. God was both Fashioner (Demiourgos) and Creator (Ktistes) of the world, a unique creation created and dependent on its Creator.
Philo also understood the Logos in Platonic terms as “the Idea of Ideas”—that is, the absolute of truth, beauty, and goodness on which rational existence depended. He was the father and mediator of creation to its creatures, in fact, a “second God,” the heavenly Adam and archetype of mankind holding together the essential hierarchy of the created order. Philo concentrated his thought and interpretation of scripture on the Pentateuch, in particular on Genesis. The commentary is allegorical, always portraying the soul as pilgrim and sojourner in this world. Just as Abraham migrated from Ur to the Promised Land, so the human soul would move toward perfection. The body held the soul in bondage, preventing it from achieving freedom from earthly passions. He saw Moses as the supreme example of the Logos dwelling in a person, not only a great leader but the recipient of the gift of deification and one with whom the Logos Himself conceived.
Even so, Philo was also loyal to the Roman emperor, accepting that the emperor had the capacity to rule as godly monarch, imitating the Divine Logos. He saw his ideal fulfilled by Augustus who had given peace to the war-torn peoples of the world and established the empire. “His every virtue outshone human nature,” and his valor and the greatness of his imperial rule bestowed on him the title of Augustus. This concept of the “godly monarch,” derived from Stoicism, was to have a long history in Christian thought, especially in the East, inspiring alike Justin Martyr, MELITO OF SARDIS, ORIGEN, and, above all, EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA.
In fact, Philo’s importance lies less with Judaism than with Eastern, and especially Alexandrian, Christianity. In his hostility to the body and his contrast of the “vision of reason” with bodily “drunkenness and gluttony,” the hallmarks of “the greatest evil of all, namely ignorance,” he anticipated some of the ideas of the Alexandrian Gnostics. In other respects he “looks like a blueprint for Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite” (Chadwick, 1967, p. 154).
A century and a half after Philo’s death, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA was greatly indebted to him. In Origen above all, one finds a Christian counterpart, one who, though penetrated through and through with Platonic philosophy, remained fundamentally a Christian. Philo’s influence on his Jewish contemporaries was, however, cut short by the outbreak of the Jewish war with Rome of 66-74. Out of that, rabbinic, not philosophic, Judaism emerged as the guide and interpreter of Jehovah to the Jewish people. It is indicative, rather, of the towering influence of the philosophical schools of Alexandria that an Alexandrian Jew, Philo, should have become, despite himself, the founder of Christian philosophy.
- Chadwick, H. “Philo and the Beginnings of Christian Thought.” In Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, ed. A. M. Armstrong. Cambridge, 1967.
- Goodenough, E. R. Politics of Philo Judaeus. New Haven, Conn., 1938.
- ____. An Introduction to Philo Judaeus. New Haven, Conn., 1940.
- Philo. De vita contemplativa, ed. F. C. Conybeare. Oxford, 1895.
- ____. De somniis, trans. F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library 5. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1935; repr. 1939.
- ____. De vita Mosis, trans. F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library 6. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1935; repr. 1950.
- ____. De opificio mundi, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker. Loeb Classical Library 1. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1937; repr. 1950.
- ____. De specialibus legibus, trans. F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library 7. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1937; repr. 1950.
- ____. Philonis Alexandrini in Flaccum, ed. and trans. H. Box. London, New York, and Oxford, 1939.
- ____. De legatione ad Gaium, trans. F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library 10. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1962.
- ____. Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim, trans. F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library 11, London and Cambridge, Mass., 1962. Schriver, E. The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Vol. 3, pt. 2, pp. 809-890. Rev. and ed. by G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Goodman. Edinburgh, 1986. Wolfson, H. A. Philo, 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1947.
W. H. C. FREND