The Platonic Judaism of Philo

Philo of Alexandria, or Philo the Jew (Philo Judaeus), was born c. 25 B.C. and lived until perhaps the middle of the first century A.D. In his 1979 study for Oxford University Press, Jewish classical scholar Samuel Sandmel does a wonderful job of describing Philo and his milieu – the world of Greco-Roman Egypt and its sizable colony of Hebrews.

One of the key aspects of Philo’s writings, especially in Biblical exegesis, is the use of allegory. This is the method of describing a text as meaning something more, or something else, than what it says literally. Sandmel refers to the pagan Stoics as the inventors of allegory especially in their interpretation of the Homeric myths which they found to be morally gross and even scandalous if taken at face value. They could then reinterpret them in a way to draw some ethical lesson so that, for example, Odysseus’ journey can be seen as a metaphor for philosophical discovery. Likewise, Sandmel says of Philo that he reinterprets Scripture in a way that it is no longer about remote individuals and incidents of the past, but a “map for the journey each of us can make to spiritual perfection.”

The drawback of this is that Philo tends to “dissolve the history in Scripture.” For example, the Alexandrine philosopher “denies that Sarah and Hagar [the respective wife and concubine of Abraham] are historical persons.” Instead, Philo represents the patriarch’s mating with the handmaid as life of a lower order, while his mating with Sarah stands for the life of intellectual perfection. Philo is clearly Platonic in his notion that the material (sensible) world is evil while the spiritual (intelligible) world is good. Thus a life of moral perfection is one that rises above all physicality. Such a harsh dualism is at odds with aspects of Christian thought, such as belief in an incarnate God and the bodily resurrection. As with Judaism in general, there is lacking a strong emphasis on a personal afterlife and judgment, and Philo adopts Hellenic ideas of the soul (intelligence) being rejoined to the deity or else dwelling with the angels after death.

As an aside Sandmel notes that “Philo would never have admitted to reading Plato into Scripture; he would have insisted that Platonism and Stoicism came out of Scripture. He and his Christian successors [e.g., early apologists like Justin Martyr] assert that Philo was right because Plato derived his views from Moses….” In one respect, however, Philo seems to have advanced a view superior to the legalism of the Pharisees. To quote Sandmel once more: “In Rabbinic Judaism the Laws are an end in themselves; in Philo they are a means to what he conceives as a greater end.”

See related comments in my earlier post, Philo of Alexandria.

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