Philo of Alexandria

According to the great Church historian Eusebius, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50) “became widely known as one of the greatest scholars, not only among [the Christians] but also among those brought up as pagans.”  This Hebrew polymath wrote prolific commentaries on Jewish Scripture as well as philosophical works which were attractive to later Christian apologists.

Hans Lewy, editor of the Selected Writings: Philo of Alexandria sums up the Jewish philosopher this way: “If the extent of the influence exercised by an author formed a true measure of his eminence, Philo would probably rank with the greatest not only of Jewish, but also of Greek thinkers.” Lewy calls him the first theologian and “the first psychologist of faith, the first mystic among professors of monotheism… the first systematizer of Biblical allegory….” Though his fame faded with time, the Alexandrian thinker laid the groundwork for much later thought. In one passage we read

Moses tells us that man was created after the image of God and after His likeness (Gen. i. 26)…. [I]t is in respect of the Mind, the sovereign element of the soul, that the word “image” is used….

This exegesis was repeated almost verbatim centuries later by Moses Maimonides in the opening lines of his famous Guide for the Perplexed.

At the same time, Lewy notes Philo’s short-comings: “we can hardly credit him with any great depth or originality of thought. He owes his dominant position less to his own personal qualities than to the circumstances of the time in which he wrote.” The Dover anthology is a useful gleaning of the more interesting passages from the mountains of Philo’s often ponderous and flowery prose.  This slim volume captures some genuinely useful insights. One of my favorite passages deals with the age old debate about the “spirit” and “letter” of the law.

There are some who, regarding laws in their literal sense in the light of symbols [e.g. allegory]… are over punctilious about the latter, while treating the former with easy-going neglect…. [W]e should look on all these outward observances as resembling the body, and their inner meaning as resembling the soul. It follows that, exactly as we have to take thought for the body, because it is the abode of the soul, so we must pay heed to the letter of the laws. If we keep and observe these, we shall gain a clearer conception of those things of which these are the symbols….

Philo astutely discerned that when people leave off with the letter of the law it is because inwardly they have already abandoned the spirit of their beliefs.

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