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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Philo

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Philo of Alexandria, the Jew, a contemporary of the apostles, was so highly esteemed by early Christian theologians as to be counted among the Christian authors (Jerome, de Vir. Ill. 11), and his significance for the Apostolic Age is no less clearly recognized by modern scholars.

1. Life.-About the life of Philo we have only very scanty information; apart from occasional remarks in his own writings (in particular in Flaccum and de Virtut. et Leg. ad Gaium) one has to refer to Josephus, Ant. XVIII. viii. 1 [259 f.], and, for the background, to the papyri dealing with persecutions of the Jews in Alexandria._ The Rabbinical literature does not mention this Hellenistic leader of Alexandria.

Philo belonged to one of the noblest and wealthiest Jewish families of Alexandria. His brother Alexander was alabarch (or arabarch, i.e. in control of the custom-houses on the Arabian, frontier), and he presented the magnificent brazen doors for the inner court of the Temple in Jerusalem (Jos. BJ_ v. v. 3 [205]). His nephew Tiberius Alexander took service with the Romans, and, renouncing his Judaism, became a high official; he was governor of Judaea before a.d. 48, and afterwards governor of Egypt. In 69-70, at the siege of Jerusalem, he was chief commander in Titus’ headquarters (Jos. Ant. XX. v. 2 [100]; BJ_ II. xv. 1 [309], xviii. 7 [492]; IV. x. 6 [616]; V. i. 6 [45], xii. 2 [510]; VI. iv. 3 [237]). Philo had had the usual training of a Greek boy of good family: he had studied grammar, mathematics, music, and rhetoric; he had acquired a good knowledge of Greek literature and obtained a fairly profound philosophical education. His style is near to Attic classicism; he imitates Plato so much that people said: ἢ Πλάτων φιλωνίζει, ἢ Φίλων πλατωνίζει (Jerome, de Vir. Ill. 11): the one must have copied the other. But, in accordance with the prevailing literary taste, he uses any kind of style that may be appropriate to his purpose. He had also heard Jewish interpreters of the Torah, probably in the synagogue; and it seems as if, like other serious young men, e.g. Josephus and Seneca, he had entered into temporary retreat and held intercourse with ascetic circles in order to gain perfection in theosophy (de Spec. Leg. iii. 1 [ed. Mangey, ii. 299]). Incidentally he mentions a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (de Providentia [ap. Eus. Praep. Evang. VIII. xiv. 64]). In his later life he came into publicity much against his own desire. In consequence of the anti-Semitic riots at Alexandria under Flaccus, Philo, as the leader of a Jewish embassy, went to Rome to see the Emperor Caligula. His mission, according to his own report, was not successful. His opponent was the same Alexandrian littérateur, Apion, against whom Josephus wrote his two books.

From Eus. HE_ II. xviii. 8 one might infer that Philo remained at Rome until the time of Claudius (Jerome thinks rather of a second voyage), and that under the new régime Philo was honoured by the Senate, while his works, (in particular in Flaccum and de Legatione ad Gaium) found a place in the public library. That Philo, while at Rome, met the apostle Peter (ib. xvii. 1) is a legend of the same kind as the legends of an exchange of letters between St. Paul and Seneca, or of relations between St. Luke or Mary Magdalene and Galen the famous physician. The papyri report, in the time of Claudius, a hearing of the Alexandrian anti-Semites against King Agrippa, but do not mention Philo.

Philo’s significance does not rest so much upon his personality as upon his numerous writings. He represents a mode of thought evidently widespread at the time.

2. Works.-Philo is (1) an interpreter of Holy Scripture, (2) an apologist for Judaism. The earlier editions of his works contain a large number of individual treatises of which Eusebius (HE_ ii. 18) and Jerome (de Vir. Ill. 11)_ give a long list. But it has been shown by Schürer, Massebieau, and Cohn that they fall into two or three groups. The first and largest deals with the Pentateuch under three heads: a short interpretation, a long allegorical commentary, and an exposition in systematic order (the second and third of these may be called, with O. Holtzmann, a kind of Midrash and Mishna). The second consists of philosophical tractates in dialogue form, probably belonging to the earliest period of Philo’s literary activity.

The text of Philo’s works has come down to us in an extremely unsatisfactory condition, some tractates being specially unfortunate. As some treatises are known only from one MS_, others may still await discovery; about some we know nothing but the title; of others we have only fragments; some are preserved only in Armenian or in Latin. It is entirely due to the Christian Church that Philo’s works have been preserved. Cohn thinks he can prove that all our MSS_ go back to the famous library of Pamphilus at Caesarea, or rather to the work of the two presbyters Acacius and Euzoїus, who about a.d. 350 copied the papyrus rolls of this library into parchment books. This shows the importance of the indirect transmission by quotations in the works of early Church Fathers, as, e.g., Eusebius and Ambrosius, and by Catenae and Florilegia.

3. Religion.-‘Philo the Jew’-that is his main characteristic. He is a faithful, nay an enthusiastic, adherent of Judaism, both as a nation and as a religion. He is an apologist of Judaism, trying to convert the heathen or at least to destroy their prejudices. He is a Jew in his strict monotheism, his faith in God’s providence, and his high moral standard. As a Jew he is devoted to the Law and the Lawgiver. Most of his writings are given up to the glorification of the Law. Notwithstanding his allegorical interpretation, he firmly believes the biblical stories to be historically true; and he protests against the inference that the Law loses its claim to be observed in the letter once it is understood spiritually. Philo’s position does not differ much in this respect from that of the Palestinian Rabbis. He knows and uses their Halâkhâ as well as their Haggâdâ. One may prove from his writings a close affinity between the Hellenistic and Palestinian parts of Judaism.

On the other hand, Philo is a typical Jew of the Diaspora. He feels as a Greek. To him Greek is his mother tongue; his Bible is the Greek translation of the Pentateuch. We do not know whether he knew Hebrew, or, if so, how much. His Judaism is weakened and enlarged; it has lost its strictness and national narrowness. In the former respect it is notable how little attention Philo pays to the Temple at Jerusalem (he never mentions the temple at Leontopolis in Egypt); he is concerned with the cultus only in so far as it is prescribed in the Law; the true sacrifice is prayer. Still more surprising is his neglect of the national hope. The Messiah is mentioned only occasionally (de Praemiis et Paenis, xvi. 95 [ed. Mangey, ii. 423]; cf. de Exsecr. viii. 164 [ed. Mangey, ii. 435]). His religion has lost its national limitation: it has become a universal reasonable religion.

But Philo’s religion has borrowed new features from Hellenism, as, e.g., the notion of mystery (i.e. a hidden wisdom to be revealed only to the initiated [or, with Philo, the susceptible]), and the mystical ecstatic visions. True, there are examples of this in Palestinian Judaism (e.g., the Merkaba, God’s chariot in Ezekiel; for visions of Paradise cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Baba Hagiga, xiv. 6), but these are exceptions; with Philo such things are the rule: all religion comes to perfection in the vision of God (Quis rer. div. her. sit, ed. Mangey, i. 508).

In de Vita Contemplativa Philo describes his own ideal; and it is of no consequence whether the ascetic circles there described really existed in Egypt or whether he is drawing an ideal picture. It is unnecessary and incorrect to thing that Christian monks are in view, as the Fathers did, who praised Philo as the oldest authority for Christian monasticism; modern critics do the same even when they deny Philo’s authorship of the treatise. From the existence of Essenes in Eastern Palestine known to Philo himself (Quod omnis probus liber and Apologia pro Judaeis [ap. Eus. praep. Evang. viii. 11]) we may infer how many possibilities there were in Judaism at this period.

4. Philosophy.-Philo was no prophet; he is interested not so much in religion as in philosophy. Philo the Jew has a place among the Greek philosophers. To be sure, he is not an original thinker. He belongs to the eclectics, deriving his notions from all the different schools and combining them. Sometimes, indeed, he does not go direct to the primitive sources but to selections._ The way, however, in which he combines Platonic, Pythagorean, Stoic, Aristotelian, and Sceptic elements is very significant-significant also for contemporary philosophy. Some elements Philo Probably found already combined by Posidonius of Apamea, the leader of later Stoicism. In whose philosophy the religious element is very prominent. The characteristic feature with Philo is the combination with Jewish religion: as this rests on revelation, a certain character of authority alien to ancient philosophy is impressed upon Philo’s speculations.

From Plato, whom he mentions next to Moses and with nearly equal reverence, Philo borrows the doctrine of the Ideas, combining them, however, with the Stoic doctrine of the Logos and the logoi, and clothing it in the form of the biblical doctrines of Wisdom and of angels (it is still disputed whether in this late Jewish theory, as well as in the Stoic theory, there is a reminiscence of polytheism, ancient gods being turned into divine attributes, or only a poetical mode of personification._ Platonic is the dualistic view of the world: spirit being strictly opposed to matter. With Philo, besides the one transcendental God, who rules over all without mixing in it, there stands a second Divine Being, the Logos, sometimes viewed as God’s plan of the world, but more frequently as a personal creative being: he calls it a second God, God’s firstborn son, or archangel, begotten, produced, created by God. This Logos is the maker of the world (Demiurge) and at the same time its preserver: He forms the cosmos by dividing, and sustains it by keeping it together. He is the mediator between God and man: revealing God to man, and protecting man against God through priestly intercession-a true paraclete. He guards and governs man, being the norm of his ethical behaviour. In this way the Logos is pre-eminent in all departments of philosophy and human life. From the Logos come the individual logoi, or Ideas or Angels. Entering the material world and forming it, they produce: the visible cosmos. Matter is not created: it is eternal in the shape of an unformed substance (chaos). Creation means form-giving (cosmos).

From the Pythagoreans comes the symbolism of numbers, which finds ample support in the Pentateuch. God has ordered everything according to measure, number, and weight, as already in Wisdom of Solomon 11:20. The monas (one) is the divine number, the dyas (two) the number of creature and of sin; the trias (three) is the number of the body; tetras (four) and dekas (ten) mean perfection, possible and real (10=1+2+3+4); five signifies senses, sensuality; there is no end of speculation on seven.

From the Sceptics Philo borrows the criticism of sense perception; their doubts at the same time are helpful for refuting Stoic fatalism, which is incompatible with the Jewish faith in God.

In ethics Philo accepts the doctrine of the four main virtues as proposed by Plato, and the Stoic principle of life according to nature; he discovers both in the Mosaic Law, which represents to him the true reasonable morality. But his religion inclines him towards asceticism: the ideal man is created sexless; sin arises when unity is split into male and female.

Complicated as this system may seem owing to its eclectic character, it appears to its author as a unity. And it is this unity which Philo finds represented in his Bible, i.e. in the Pentateuch, compared with which the books of the prophets, Psalms, and other books are of but secondary importance.

5. Philo as interpreter.-The most important point to note in Philo is his method of reading the above system into the Law of Moses or the Pentateuch by means of allegorical interpretation. He did not invent this allegorical method: he borrowed it from the earlier Stoics; but he makes the most ingenious use of it. The Rabbis of Palestine were no less skilful in finding their own thoughts in the biblical text by means of their interpretations. But Philo’s allegory is of a different type. They try to extract from every word all that is possible; he has a complete philosophical system ready for combination with whatever words he is explaining. With the Rabbis one never knows what fresh and surprising combination will spring from their unlimited imagination. With Philo one can tell beforehand what result he will reach, if only one is familiar enough with his writings. It is, in fact, one and the same system all through; it is his philosophy, his doctrine of the Logos, that he finds everywhere; but the method of combination varies, and thus there is scope for ingenuity. Philo pays attention to every point in the text, even the smallest feature, and by skilful combination he always discovers fresh light. Long before Astruc he remarked the interchange of the two Divine names in the Law-‘God’ (θεὸς = Elohim) and ‘Lord’ (κύριος = Jahweh); he explains them as indicating the two main powers in God-goodness and might, the former creating and saving, the latter judging and punishing. He sees that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis 1:2 : he understands the first of the ideal man. The use of the plural in Genesis 1:26 proves that there is a Logos beside God; he is the likeness of God; and it is after this likeness that man is formed. It is the Logos along with the two main powers of God which together appear to Abraham as three angels. The Logos is represented by Melchizedek; the manna and the water from the rock both represent the Logos. The two powers of God are represented by the two cherubim. Paradise, ark, tabernacle are representations of the world. Man himself is microcosmus. It is by his identifications in connexion with the manifold significance of the Logos that Philo’s interpretation gains further variety by application to physical cosmology, to anthropological psychology, and to human ethics. This variety is not, however, thereby reduced to a system. By this method the Law is spiritualized, on the presupposition that nothing could be contained in it which would not be in harmony with the supreme thought of God. It would be unfair, according to Philo, to understand the laws regarding food literally, whereas, in the case of other laws, he tries to prove that even the literal meaning witnesses to practical wisdom, while the allegorical interpretation, brings out the true philosophy. Philo does not approve of the polygamy of the patriarchs-he would prefer celibacy!-so he declares the wives to represent something spiritual: Hagar general culture (ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία), Sarah true philosophy: the wise man must have intercourse with both. Etymology of names is of course indispensable for this method of interpretation: the beginnings of the Onomastica sacra may be found with Philo, who almost always gives ‘seeing God’ as the meaning of the name when he speaks of Israel, or ‘confession’ when he mentions Judah.

It is owing to this method of interpretation that Philo had such an astonishing vogue in later centuries: almost all Christian writers of the early and mediaeval Church followed in his footsteps, in particular the interpreters of the Alexandrian School, from the author of the so-called Epistle of Barnabas down to Cyril. There is but one difference: Christianity, while maintaining the underlying allegory, nevertheless insists upon the historicity of the facts; for it rests upon historical revelation. So Origen systematizes the various ways of applied interpretation, by means of the anthropological trichotomy: historical, moral, and mystical interpretation are combined in the Scripture as body, soul, and spirit are combined in man. Historical feeling, a prerogative of the Semitic race as compared with the Greeks, is still more predominant with the Antiochene School of interpretation: here typological interpretation is favoured. The result is another combination: the theory of the four-fold meaning of Holy Scripture. It was through Augustine that this theory entered the Western Church.

6. Philo’s significance for the Apostolic Age.-The Fathers esteemed Philo as a witness in favour of early Christian monasticism; besides, they used his doctrine of the Logos and his method of interpretation for their Christological constructions. His influence is undeniable, from the apologists of the 2nd cent. onwards. It is open to question, however, how far his influence extended in earlier Christianity, e.g. on St. Paul and St. John, and in particular on the author of Hebrews. Former generations of critics, e.g. Gfrörer and the Tübingen School, made the mistake of taking Philo as the one exponent of Hellenistic thought. They did not realize that he was neither the only nor the earliest representative of a Jewish Philosophy of religion. They did not know, nor could they, that non-Jewish Hellenism had produced something similar, and that it also influenced early Christianity independently. As for St. Paul, it is not Philo but at best his forerunner, the Book of Wisdom, that accounts for certain Hellenistic thoughts; but even this has not been proved (see, against, E. Grafe, ‘Das Verhältnis der paulinischen Schriften zur Sapientia Salomonis,’ in Theologische Abhandlungen, C. von Weizsäcker zu seinem 70ten Geburtstage gewidmet, Freiburg i. B., 1892, pp. 251-286; F. Focke, ‘Die Entstehung der Weisheit Salomos,’ in Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, new ser., v. [1913] 113-126). Apollos, a certain Jew born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, mighty in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24), was not necessarily a pupil of Philo; there were other interpreters of the Scriptures at Alexandria besides him, as Philo himself mentions occasionally._ Hebrews after all shows more traces of Palestinian than of Alexandrian interpretation. In recent discussion the Corpus Hermeticum (or the writings collected under the name of Hermes Trismegistos) and Posidonius of A pamea are often referred to where scholars in former times would have referred to Philo. The prologue of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1-18), treated for a long time by many scholars almost as a Philonean piece, is often interpreted now without any reference to Philo, by recurring immediately to the popular philosophy of the time. Thus Philo’s importance is becoming less and less prominent, even with those scholars who are prepared to find foreign influence active in primitive Christianity. Nevertheless, Philo will always be a good witness to the amalgamation of OT religion with Hellenistic thought. He is not a source of but a parallel to the same mixture in early Christianity; and it is certain that he prepared the soil for its seed.

Literature.-(1) Editions of Philo’s works: T. Mangey, 2 vols., London, 1742; L. Cohn and P. Wendland, Berlin, 1896 (in course of issue, 6 vols.; 2 or 3 more to follow); C. E. Richter, 8 vols., Leipzig, 1823-30; Tauchnitz ed., 8 vols., do., 1851-53; J. R. Harris, Fragments of Philo Judaeus, Cambridge, 1886; P. Wendland, Neuentdeckte Fragmente Philos, Berlin, 1891; F. C. Conybeare, Philo about the Contemplative Life, Oxford, 1895; Germ. tr._ by L. Cohn and others, 2 vols., Breslau, 1909-10; Eng. tr._ by C. D. Yonge, 4 vols., London, 1854-55.

(2) G. L. Grossmann, Quaestiones Philoneae, Leipzig, 1829; A. Gfrörer, Philo und die alexandrinische Theosophie2, Stuttgart, 1831-35 (= Kritische Geschichte des Urchristentums, i.); C. Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria als Ausleger des Alten Testaments, Jena, 1875; H. Windisch, Die Frömmigkeit Philos und ihre Bedeutung für das Christentum, Leipzig, 1909; J. Réville, Le Logos d’après Philon d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1877, La doctrine du Logos dans le quatrième Evangile et dans les aeuvres de Philon, do., 1881; M. Heinze, Die Lehre vom Logos, Leipzig, 1872; A. Aall, Der Logos, do., 1896-99; T. Simon, Der Logos, do., 1902; H. J. Flipse, de Vocis quCE est Λόγος significatione atque usu, Leiden, 1902; L. Cohn ‘Die Lehre vom Logos bei Philo,’ in Festschrift Cohen (Judaica, Berlin, 1912, pp. 303-331); E. Bréhier, Les idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1907; M. Freudenthal, Die Erkenntnislehre Philos von Alexandria, Berlin, 1891; L. Massebieau, Le classement des aeuvres de Philon, Paris, 1889; L. Cohn, ‘Einteilung und Chronologie der Schriften Philos’ (Philologus, Suppl. vii.), Leipzig, 1899; H. von Arnim, Quellenstudien zu Philo von Alexandria, Berlin, 1888; B. Ritter, Philo und die Halacha, Leipzig, 1879; P. Krüger, Philo und Josephus als Apologeten des Judentums, do., 1906; P. Heinisch, ‘Der Einfluss Philos auf die älteste christliche Exegese,’ Alttestamentliche Abhandlungen, Münster, 1908; E. Schürer, GJV_ iii.4 [Leipzig, 1909] 633-716; W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums2, Berlin, 1906, pp. 503-524.

E. von Dobschütz.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Philo'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/philo.html. 1906-1918.

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