the Fifth Sunday of Lent
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
While there were many earlier settlements of Jewish immigrants in Egypt, it was reserved for King Ptolemy I. to establish a large Jewish colony in Alexandria, either by compulsory deportation or by the encouragement of voluntary settlers, and thereby to lay the foundation of the historically important development of the Jewish diaspora in that part of the world. If Palestinian Judaism, up to the time of the Maccabees, failed to maintain rigid barriers against the powerful onslaught of Hellenism, and found it could not restrain the tide of foreign influences, still less could this distant Alexandrian colony avoid reckoning with Greek culture and intelligence. Constant intercourse with non-Jews would alone have led to the abolition of many religious observances, impracticable under the new conditions, and so have brought about a species of adaptation, voluntary as well as involuntary, leading, moreover, to the modification of all nationalist and separatist conceptions or prejudices.
Influence of Hellenism.
Although such influences would naturally first find expression in the affairs of daily life, particularly through the ensuing neglect of the national language and the adoption of the Greek tongue, higher departments, especially literature, could not long thereafter escape the effect of this contact with foreign culture. From the time of Ptolemy I., Greek writers evince a keen interest in Jewish history and Judaism. And the latter likewise, on its side, for its own edification and for purposes of propaganda, is soon found adopting the outward forms of Greek literature. The Greek translation of the Torah, which is probably the oldest example of Jewish-Hellenic literature, arose essentially, no doubt, out of the religious requirements of the diaspora, and certainly had not that exclusively polemic purpose which later legend loves to see in it. It laid the foundation, however, of the free development of a literature no longer bound to national forms; and in addition it provided the linguistic material for such development. Jewish writers soon began to reproduce and amplify their sacred annals in the approved style of the Greek historians. The oldest fragment of the Jewish "Sibyllines" exemplified, in the middle of the second century B.C., the imitation of Greek poetical forms. Various attempts in epic and even dramatic form soon followed. According to some critics, indeed, the "Sibyllines" themselves were modeled after the considerably older fragments of Pseudo-Hecatæus, likewise composed for the purposes of Jewish propaganda and in the form of forged poetical "extracts" (Schürer, "Gesch." 3:461 et seq.).
Judaism and Hellenism.
It took a long time, of course, for Judaism, under the influence of cosmopolitan Hellenism, to rise to the highest altitudes of Greek intellectual life, and to recast its own world-conceptions in the molds of Greek philosophy. One can readily understand that Judaism felt itself powerfully attracted by Greek philosophy. Wellhausen ("I. J. G." pp. 217, 218) has very rightly noted how the intellectual development of Judaism, with its tendency to become a purified monotheism, moves in the same direction toward which Greek thought tends, in occupying itself with speculative consideration of the universe. In monotheism, as well as in the abstract God-idea of Greek philosophy, the Jew could see the logical result and completion of that which his own great prophets had yearned for and declared. His delight in the purity of the Platonic conception of God, or the strict logic of the Stoic theodicy, would blind him to the fact that both in the Platonic transcendentalism and the Stoic pantheism the living personality of the Deity—a self-understood axiom of his conception—was well-nigh lost. In many respects, Greek philosophy must have appeared to him far superior to anything which the Jewish mind had ever evolved. There, in Judaism, was a scheme of thought concentered in the relation of God to the world and to His chosen people. Here was a philosophy which was not only a theology at the same time, but which, in response to a broader interest felt now by Judaism too, sought to penetrate with its investigations into every department of the universe and of life. There, in Judaism, was a collection of sacred books, of different ages and differing views; a disconnected mass of proverbial wisdom; an abundance of ceremonial usages which were tending more and more to resolve themselves into mere unintelligible customs; a system of casuistry regulated more by ritual than by ethical considerations. Here, on the other hand, was a logical system, ruling moral life through sound and noble principles; there, a sacred literature written in popular and unsophisticated form, without regard to artistic rules or laws of logic; here, a language which exhibited the influence of centuries of artistic development, and whose skilfully constructed periods charmed the ear.
Supposed Antiquity of Philonic Method.
It is, however, a very difficult question to decide just when Judaism attained to the dignity of a systematic idea of the universe (cosmogony) in the sense of the Greek philosophy, and under its influence. We refer, of course, to a perfect adaptation to Greek philosophy, not to the adoption of a few stray conceptions, or of a few trite commonplaces of prover-bial wisdom. Let that opinion be first presented which until recently was the generally adopted one (see especially Gfrörer and Dähne: Zeller and Drummond inaugurated a reaction against this view, which still, however, predominates in many quarters). According to this theory, Philo's philosophicalsystem was already extant, at least in all its fundamentals, in the third century B.C. Underlying a large portion of the Jewish-Hellenic literature, this philosophy maintained itself through three centuries of continuous tradition and then found in Philo its most important, though not always original, exponent. The fundamental principles of this system are the following: the strict transcendence of God; the resulting necessary interposition of "middle causes" between God and the world (whether the same be called "Logos," "Powers," or "Wisdom"); mystic union with the Deity, with asceticism as the means thereunto; finally, the allegorical interpretation of Holy Scriptures, by means of which the truths of Greek wisdom are presupposed and demonstrated to be the true meaning and deeper sense of the divine revelation.
Review of the Literature.
In order to render an intelligent judgment on the theory of the religious philosophy underlying Hellenic Judaism, it will be proper to review the several products of the literature, which would have to be explained under this assumption, and particularly to notice the various objections arising against it.
(a) Freudenthal, in opposing the statement that the Septuagint is the oldest exponent of Alexandrian religious philosophy, shows that a whole series of general terms are therein employed, not in the mode of philosophical terminology, but quite in the ordinary and popular use of the words; and that the tendency to avoid all anthropomorphisms does not prove the influence of Greek philosophy ("Jew. Quart. Rev." 2:205-222).
(b) Consideration of the Greek Esdras, II and III Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, and the "Sibyllines," may be omitted, because only scattered resemblances have been claimed in them, and these, upon closer examination, to some extent disappear; and because, for the earlier periods, only the last two can necessarily be of any service.
(c) Whatever opinion be held about the date of the "Letter of Aristeas" (probably the beginning of the first century), it exhibits evidences of the adoption of only the most trivial views and conceptions. It is impossible to speak of any philosophical system in connection with it. But in one particular it is very instructive. It contains an allegorical interpretation of the Jewish dietary laws, such as is repeated in Philo, Aristobulus, and Barnabas, without any evidence that these writers had made use of Aristeas. From this, and from the general lack of independence in Aristeas, it may be concluded that already in his time the allegorical exposition of Scripture (and particularly a moralizing interpretation of the ritual laws) was extant. Philo himself tells us that herein he had tradition before him.
(d) Aristobulus would indeed be a witness of the greatest weight, even though a solitary one, as he would prove, not indeed the existence of a continuous tradition, but at least the possible extension of Greek philosophical influence among Alexandrian Jews in the second century B.C. But if Aristobulus is a Christian forgery of the second century (see ARISTOBULUS (2))—though this is denied by Schürer and many other scholars—he can not be adduced as a witness.
(e) The author of the Book of Wisdom betrays the fact that Platonic and Stoic philosophy had greatly influenced him. But he rather disproves the theory of the existence of a definite traditional system. For, though he shows himself closely akin mentally to Philo in general tendency, in fundamentals (as, e.g., Bois demonstrates), he exhibits quite remarkable divergences from him. He is totally unaware of Philo's chief doctrines; and his few utterances concerning the Logos go no further than the Old Testament use of the word. These divergences are of so much the less importance as the book seems to have been written only a short time before Philo, who does not appear to have been acquainted with it.
Not from Essenism.
(f) Those who explain Essenism as arising not from an internal Jewish origin and development, but from the influence of Orphic communities, can only claim for it the adoption of the Orphic mode of life and Orphic ritual. That it sprang from Greek philosophical influence can at least not be proved. The Pythagorean circles, from which some authorities insist on tracing many Essenic usages and notions, possessed no philosophical system whatever to transmit. What is told about the allegorical interpretation of Scripture by the Essenes leads no further than what is stated above concerning the "Letter of Aristeas." The mere existence of an esoteric wisdom, and the little one hears of it, do not permit the inference that it arose in essentials from any body of traditional philosophy; nor are its teachings indicated in any extant work, such as Kohler lately attempted to show in his essay on "The Testament of Job" ("Semitic Studies in Memory of A. Kohut," pp. 264-338). The same conclusion holds concerning the Therapeutæ, that neither the connection of this sect with the Essenes, nor the date of its establishment, can be proved. Great caution must always be observed in making use of the biased and Hellenic-colored statements of Philo and Josephus.
It is evident that violence has been done to texts, in order to compel them to testify for Alexandrian philosophy. Freudenthal effectively pointed out the arbitrariness of this procedure, and rightly showed that such testimony, in point of fact, presented rather a motley picture, tinged by the most divergent religious and philosophical conceptions ("Die Flavius Josephus Beigelegte Schrift über die Herrschaft der Vernunft," pp. 38, 39, 109, Breslau, 1869).
Platonic Elements Present.
General considerations would also seem to indicate the improbability of the construction of a definite system by Jewish-Alexandrian philosophy. Both this philosophy in general and Philo, its chief representative, show an admixture of Platonism with Peripatetic and Stoic elements, quite similar to the systems of the later Platonists (see Freudenthal, "Der Platoniker Albinas," Berlin, 1879). It may, therefore, be inferred that Philo drew upon Platonism as it existed in his time. For it is unlikely that he could have embodied the identical admixture of diverse elements accepted by the later Platonists. To make the latter dependent upon Philo, as former writers have attempted to do, is impossible.
The genesis of Philo's attempt to harmonize Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy is only intelligible, if he is considered to have based it, not upon a Platonism of his own construction, but upon the eclectic Platonism of his day, as he learned it perhaps from Areius, Didymus, and Potamon. This eclectic Platonism, like the kindred syncretism of Aristobulus (inconceivable in the second century B.C.), presupposes the approximation of the Middle Stoa to Platonic and Peripatetic views, a breaking down of all scholastic barriers, demonstrable also in the Platonists and Peripatetics of the first century. Such an admixture would only be possible, at the earliest, in the middle of the first century B.C., and it can only be explained by the eclectic spirit of thatage. Against placing this movement as early as the third century B.C., the fact obtains that philosophy held no firm footing in Alexandria until a considerably later period.
Philo and the Extremists.
Before Philo there had existed a more or less powerful leavening of the Jewish-Hellenic literature by Greek philosophy, not necessarily limited in its effects to literary productions in Alexandria. But it is only in connection with Philo that an actual system can be indicated. No mention is made of any Jewish-philosophical school in Alexandria, and in a certain sense heathen philosophers should rather be considered to have been Philo's forerunners. One may speak of his Jewish forerunners, of course, but the term can mean only those who followed a similar method of Biblical interpretation with regard to certain loose and disconnected philosophical ideas, and who were not exponents of any complete system of interpretation (Cohn, "Philo von Alexandria," in "Neue Jahrbücher," 1898, 1:514-540,525 et seq.). It has been mentioned above that there existed an allegorical method of Scripture exposition, consisting in the main, probably, of a moralizing, paraphrastic interpretation of ritual laws, long before Philo. Philo himself refers to such. He protests ("De Migratione Abrahami," 89 et seq.) against those who regarded the precepts as mere symbols of truths, accepting which they refused obedience to the literal precept. Because the Sabbath points out the working of the creative power in the unformed, and the repose of the formed, universe; or because the festivals are types of rejoicing and of gratitude to God; or because circumcision symbolizes the uprooting of lusts and passions, these ordinances are not by any means to be neglected as such. Adopting thus a two-fold meaning for Scripture, Philo stands between the extremists of both sides—those who recognize only the deeper meaning, and those who believe in the letter only, of the Law. The latter of these he frequently reproves. And though he may have indeed chosen his illustrations not from any predecessors, but out of his own consideration of the subject (see the important passage, "De Circumcisione," , 2:211), he himself testifies that he had fore-runners in the art of allegorical interpretation; and that their method was determined by philosophical influence is in itself quite probable. In the passage "De Abrahamo," 20:20, Philo mentions allegorists who had interpreted the whole history of Abraham and Sarah as a moral allegory. In "De Specialibus Legibus," 3:32,329, he gives a philosophical allegorization of Deuteronomy 25:11 et seq., which he ascribes to the venerable men who consider most of the utterances of the Law to be "manifest symbols of things invisible, and hints of things inexpressible."
The Wisdom of Solomon.
Many attempts, then, to expound the Law allegorically and to read into it the dicta of Greek philosophy had been made before Philo. That such, however, were the expressions of any regular system of world-conception at all resembling a full-fledged philosophy can not be shown, and is improbable. Philo borrowed a few such expositions; but it can not be said that he adopted the greater part (Dähne, c. 1:69). What has been said must not be interpreted as a denial that any influence whatever was exercised by philosophy over Hellenic Judaism, but only as negativing the existence of any systematic and well-defined school of Jewish-Alexandrian thought. The degree in which this influence was exercised, and in what directions, will perhaps be best exhibited by the consideration of the two books which are acknowledged to show it most markedly, the Wisdom of Solomon and IV Maccabees. The personification of Wisdom had its origin, of course, in the Jewish mind (compare Proverbs 1:20-33); but in the delineation of its characteristics and effects Stoic materials are considerably employed. Wisdom is represented as equivalent to the Stoic πνεῦμα; like it, Wisdom permeates the universe as the original Divine Power. And though the predominant religious bent of the author decks Wisdom out with a multitude of moral attributes, many of them betray the effects of Stoic materialism. He does not consider the problem whether God's wisdom is immanent in the universe, or whether it has an independent existence. The Logos plays a very insignificant part beside Wisdom; the latter, and not, as in Stoic fashion, the Logos, being considered the source of all human reason. What is said of the Logos (Wisdom, 9:1, 12:9,12, 18:15) is based far more completely on Biblical foundations than is Philo's philosophy; and how vaguely the Logos is conceived is apparent from the fact that to it is assigned equal value with Wisdom, and that in 16:26 the ῤῆμα ϑεοῦ (divine word) appears with identical functions. To these ingredients must be added the Platonic conceptions of formless matter (11:17), of the preexistence of the soul (8:19,20), of the body as a clog upon the soul; the four cardinal virtues, the Euhemerus-like criticism of polytheism (14:15-21), and the adoption of Epicurean views in the description of the godless (2:3-8; see Usener, "Epicurea," p. 227).
The author of IV Maccabees presents very faint reflexes of philosophical influence in his conception of the divine beings and attributes; but his psychological and ethical utterances are strongly colored by the later Stoa. In his consideration of the emotions, for instance, he is quite a Stoic—they are to him independent of the intellect—also in his theory of a material soul, in his intellectualism, and in his doctrine of the virtues. Nor are suggestions of other philosophical schools altogether wanting; his view of the immortality of the soul is undoubtedly tinged with Grecian thought.
It can not, therefore, be supposed that either the "Wisdom of Solomon" is a forerunner of Philo, or that IV Maccabees is a disciple of his school. They are both quite independent, and have nothing in common with Philo's characteristic metaphysics. If their intermediary Wisdom reminds one at times of Philo's intermediary Logos, a strong argument against the resemblance is the fact that they are essentially different beings, with only partially similar attributes and influence. Philosophy is here only forcibly interjected into the original Jewish conception of the universe, and shows it, even externally, so to speak, by taking up very little room in it. A firm religious consciousness far outweighs any mere philosophical interest: the national conception of the divine rule of the universe, fortified by historical reflection, permits only scanty consideration of mere speculative questions. Accordingly, only passing references are found herein, only scattered components of Greek philosophy; and other writings of Jewish-Hellenic philosophy, now lost, would probably have given no more. Many works before Philo's time may indeed have exercised a species of preparatory or pioneer influence, providing for the consideration of the Jewish mind both philosophical problems and a strict philosophical phraseology for their discussion; and may have suggested to Jewish thought, moreover, a reconciliation and approximation of Greek and Jewish conceptions. But the firstman to formulate such harmonization consistently, and thus to found a system, was undoubtedly Philo.
Possible Hellenic Midrash.
It remains now to examine how these ideas may have come to Philo. He never refers, as Cohn shows, to a written source: he refers to his predecessors only in general terms, never by name. Both Cohn and Freudenthal ("Alexander Polyhistor," pp. 57 et seq., Breslau, 1875; compare also Ritter, "Philo und die Halacha," Leipsic, 1879), starting from quite distinct standpoints, have arrived at the same conclusion; namely, that there must have existed a Hellenic Midrash, containing the most dissimilar elements in gross confusion. Since Greek had displaced Hebrew in the reading from the Law in the Hellenic synagogues, the homiletic addresses founded on it must also have been in Greek. Wittingly as well as unwittingly, Greek conceptions must have been infused into these sermons. In one place, for instance, it might be desired to harmonize two conceptions whose inherent mutual contradiction was hardly suspected, because so much that was new had already been added to the ancestral inheritance, being drawn in daily with the surrounding air. Here would arise at once that mental division, that opposition of parties, which has already been mentioned as being so often testified to by Philo. Traveling teachers and students would effect a lively interchange of Palestinian and Hellenic views on exegesis; and many Greek ideas, no doubt, thus found their way to the Palestinians through the Hellenic Midrash. One can indeed consider Philo's works in part as the precipitated deposit, or crystallization, of these public addresses (just as the Talmud is the great "hold-all" for the discussions of the rabbinical colleges lasting over many centuries; Cohn, p. 525). Some of his writings are actually nothing but such homilies (Freudenthal, "Das Vierte Maccabäerbuch," pp. 6 et seq., 137 et seq.).
Philo borrowed his method from the synagogue sermons. The allegorical mode of interpretation was a means toward demonstrating specifically the presupposed identity of Jewish and Greek wisdom; this method was the recognized one in vogue among Greeks, and was the instrument most skilfully employed by the Stoics to reconcile the popular religion with philosophy. It was an excellent instrument wherewith to build a common foundation of Hellenic culture for all that agglomeration of conflicting philosophies and religions, and to make propaganda for cosmopolitanism. It was certainly a priori probable, and, moreover, demonstrable from a whole series of etymologies and allegorical explanations of the names of heathen deities, mentioned by Philo, that he was acquainted with this method of interpretation, as applied philosophically to Greek mythology, and particularly to Homer; just as his Greek successor Origen, according to the testimony of Porphyry, learned of it from the Stoic Chæremon.
System of Philo.
But what distinguishes Philo above all his Jewish predecessors (as far as one can judge of these) is the fact that he collects the scattered elements of this method, and tries to give them a systematic coordination, in his mind, at least; not that he has merely picked up and adopted philosophical ideas from all sides, but that he has consistently molded his whole exegesis upon definite philosophical lines. That his philosophy can be described in its essentials without naming any specifically Jewish constituents as such is the best proof (as has well been observed) how thoroughly he had become saturated with the influence of the dominant thought of his day, though still rooted in Judaism, and remaining the Jew in his own consciousness and in his manner of dovetailing his ideas into Scriptural passages. However essential to the understanding of his mode of thought the consideration of this Jewish homiletic method may be, it is only his thorough permeation by Greek philosophy which makes him the master in it that he is—not master alone indeed, but actually its only literary representative of any account. It is probably not mere accident that no similar literature, either before or after him, is known of. Christian philosophy, germinating in earlier days, and hastening in Alexandria toward its blossoming, owed much to Philo: its nourishment was drawn from his method and his ideas. It is not likely that Christian thinkers, had there been any other considerable representative of this philosophy, would have allowed his thoughts and suggestions to escape them. Philo seems to have been the only one to transmit to the outer world, in skilled literary form, the ideas nurtured by the Synagogue and matured by him.
Hence Alexandrian Philosophy, in the strict sense of the words, seems entirely centered in Philo's name and confined to him. Nor did he found any school. Greek ideas, it is true, penetrated, after him, into Talmudic writings, but probably through other channels than Philo. The prophet had no honor in his own country; his name would have disappeared, because his philosophy led away from the pure monotheism of the Jew, had not his mental bent persisted in the development of Christian doctrine.
- A. Gfrörer, Kritische Geschichte des Urchristenthums, I. Philo und die Alexandrinische Theosophie, Stuttgart, 1831;
- A. F. Dähne, Geschichtliche Darstellung der Jüdisch-Alexandrinischen Religionsphilosophie, Halle, 1834;
- E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, 3d ed., 3:2,242-418, Leipsic, 1881;
- C. Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria als Ausleger des A. T., Jena, 1875;
- J. Drummond, Philo Judœus, or the Jewish-Alexandrian Philosophy, 2 vols., London, 1881;
- H. Bois, Essai sur les Origines de la Philosophie Judéo-Alexandrine, Paris, 1890;
- E. Herriot, Philon le Juif, Essai sur l'École Juive d'Alexandrie, Paris, 1898;
- Schürer, Gesch. 3:3, Leipsic, 1898 (contains a full bibliography of the subject);
- L. Cohn, Philo von Alexandria, in Neue Jahrbücher für des Klassiche Alterthum, 1:514-540, Leipsic, 1898.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Alexandrian Philosophy'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/alexandrian-philosophy.html. 1901.