Philo and his Sources
by John Drury
The most well-known Jewish philosopher of the Hellenistic period is Philo of Alexandria. He lived in the first century after Christ, and sought to build a bridge between the Jewish Scriptures and his own philosophical training. He is most often regarded as being primarily influenced by the Middle Platonists.[i] We will first discuss the thought of the Middle Platonists, after which we will discuss their influence on Philo. We will conclude with a critical examination of his methodology.
What is Middle Platonism?
Middle Platonism was a very eclectic school of thought.[ii] Plato was the Middle Platonists’ most dominate influence, but they in no way felt limited to him.[iii] Rather, they integrated ideas from the Neo-Pythagoreans as well as the Stoics.[iv] The Neo-Pythagoreans emphasized divine transcendence and the existence of mediators between God and humans.[v] Nevertheless, they retained basic Platonic concepts like the immortal, tri-partite soul as well as the primacy of reason.
Probably the most famous Middle Platonist was Plutarch. He believed strongly in the transcendence of God, which implied for him the existence of intermediary beings.[vi] This solved the question of evil for Plutarch, because the world was created through these lesser beings. God also communicates with the world through them.[vii]
The concept of the Logos was developed within Middle Platonism. This idea has part of its heritage in the Stoic tradition. The Logos (or “Word”) is the greatest intermediary being, the form of all things, and the substance of reason. Through it all other things are created and sustained. It is God’s primary agent for interaction with the world.
Another significant influence for the Middle Platonists, and even more so for Philo, were the Stoics. Zeno, the founder of the Stoics, and his followers promoted a natural law which was dominated by reason.[viii] For them, God is in all things through the logos and rationality comes from his presence in the world.[ix] Humanity is therefore a fragment of the divine with the potential for good or evil. In contrast with the Neo-Pythagoreans, God’s immanence is stressed by the Stoics. These two traditions were integrated by Plutarch, and eventually by Philo, through the use of the concept of the Logos.[x]
Middle Platonism in Philo
Bertrand Russell declares simply that “Philo is, in philosophy, primarily a Platonist; other important influences are those of the Stoics and Neo-Pythagoreans.”[xi] Certainly all these traditions can be found in Philo’s writings. Most striking is the way by which he connects their ideas with what is found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Even before delineating the influence of Middle Platonism in Philo, his simple Hellenism can be pointed out. For instance, he believes in Empodocles four elements, referring to the world as being made up of “the earth, the water, the air, and the fire.”[xii] Equally striking is his direct Platonic influence, as is illustrated by his elevation of the intellect: “the mind is the dominant portion of the soul.”[xiii] One can also note Philo’s believe in the immortality of the soul in the following quote: “These then are the things of the body; but the intellectual and heavenly race of the soul will ascend to the purest aether as to its father.”[xiv] He acknowledges the independence of the soul by saying, “there is also in the air a most sacred company of incorporeal souls as an attendant upon the heavenly souls.”[xv]
Philo’s picture of the human soul is overwhelmingly Platonic. First of all, he agrees that “the soul is divisible into three parts.”[xvi] He also says, “I imagine the heaven is in the world the same thing that the soul is in the human being.”[xvii] This sets up an analogy between the divisions in the human soul and the divisions of the world similar to that of Plato’s Republic. Just like Plato, rationality is regarded as the highest of these parts of the soul.
Philo followed in line with the Middle Platonist with the emphasis on the radical transcendence of God.[xviii] God is transcendent and unknowable and therefore communicates through mediums.[xix] “God, being one, has about him an unspeakable number of powers, all of which are defenders and preservers of every thing that is created.”[xx] Just as for Plutarch, these intermediary beings provide an explanation for evil in the world. This is because “it is by means of these powers that the incorporeal world ... has been put together.”[xxi] Wolfson claims these ideas to be a unique conception of Philo.[xxii] However, the idea of intermediate beings between God and the earth is a basic tenant of Middle Platonism.[xxiii]
Philo integrates Platonic ideas into his doctrine of creation. He interprets the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 as the creation of the forms and the creation of the physical world.
“Must not this man who was created according to the image and idea of God have been a different man from the other, so that two men must have been introduced into the Paradise together, the one a fictitious man, and the other modeled after the image of God?”[xxiv]
The first Adam that is mentioned is “not earthly but heavenly.”[xxv] Philo also reads into Genesis the idea of a divisible person by proclaiming that God breaths into Adam morality and intellect.[xxvi]
Since God is transcendent, creation is performed through the Logos, who is the shadow of God. Philo interprets Bezaleel in the Torah to be this creating Logos:
“Now, Bezaleel, being interpreted, means God in his shadow. But the shadow of God is his word, which he used like an instrument when he was making the world. And this shadow, and, as it were, model, is the archetype of other things. For, as God is himself the model of that image which he has now called a shadow, so also that image is the model of other things, as he showed when he commenced giving the law to the Israelites, and said, ‘And God made man according to the image of God,’ as the image was modeled according to God, and as man was modeled according to the image, which thus received the power and character of the model.”[xxvii]
The Middle Platonic language of this quote is undeniable. Philo also explains the role of the Logos in the preservation of creation, because it is the greatest of all the intermediary beings:
“And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, ‘And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you;’ neither being increate as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties.”[xxviii]
The Stoic influence on Middle Platonism can also be detected in Philo. For instance, Philo claims that “the earthly mind ... is neither bad nor good, but of an intermediate character.”[xxix] He also says, “man is almost the only one of all living things which, having a thorough knowledge of good and evil, often chooses that which is worst, and rejects those things which are worst.”[xxx] This sort of open-ended moral status of humanity is directly in line with Stoic doctrines. He also shares with the Stoics the view that humans are divine emanations: “they who have real knowledge, are properly addressed as the sons of the one God, as Moses also entitles them, where he says, ‘Ye are the sons of the Lord God’.”[xxxi] He even says that “the human soul is a fragment”[xxxii] and that each person is “borrowing small portions from each essence.”[xxxiii]
Philo’s Methodology: Integration or Accommodation?
It is evident that Philo is overwhelmingly influenced by Middle Platonism as well as the general Hellenistic environment of Alexandria. What is more intriguing is the way in which Philo integrated this philosophical background with Jewish scripture and tradition. The attempt to reconcile the two led “on the one hand to the selection of those elements in Greek speculation that harmonized best with Jewish religion and on the other hand to the practice of allegorizing the Jewish Scriptures and interpreting them in such a way that they would harmonize with Greek thought.”[xxxiv] This two-way harmonizing, the hallmark of Philo’s methodology, is what we wish to critically examine.
The primary manner for finding philosophical truths in the simple narratives of the Torah was by the method of allegorical interpretation. Take, for example, Philo’s allegorizing of the Jewish temple:
“For there are, as it seems, two temples belonging to God; one being this world, in which the high priest is the divine word, his own first-born son. The other is the rational soul, the priest of which is the real true man, the copy of whom, perceptible to the senses, is he who performs his paternal vows and sacrifices, to whom it is enjoined to put on the aforesaid tunic, the representation of the universal heaven, in order that the world may join with the man in offering sacrifice, and that the man may likewise co-operate with the universe.”[xxxv]
The allegorical meaning is regarded as even more important than the literal.[xxxvi] The Rabbis of Philo’s time too used a somewhat allegorical interpretation of the Torah.[xxxvii] However, Philo was more of a “rationalist” and “elitist” and therefore was steered toward more philosophically acceptable interpretations of the Torah.[xxxviii] His Hellenistic presuppositions even led him expound on non-philosophical issues differently than the Rabbis.[xxxix]
Philo can turn this allegory to prove any point he wishes. For instance, Philo interprets a host of phrases as being names for the Logos:
“And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labor earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.”[xl]
By pointing out one single meaning behind this long list of Biblical phrases, Philo is able to change the meaning of an endless number of passages for the sake of his own philosophical ends. He will also uses scriptural proof-texts to prove things like the immortality of the soul.[xli]
This method sprang forth from Philo’s “all consuming desire to put his hand to the great task of reconciling Judaism and Hellenism.”[xlii] He goes as far to treat Moses as a philosopher, illustrated by the following quote: “Moses wished to represent all the actions of the Deity as just.”[xliii] Was Moses really asking these kind of questions? Does Philo compromise the actual meanings and truths in scripture by looking so intently for philosophical ideas?
Philo not only asks philosophical questions, he answers them philosophically. He seems to be controlled by rationalism. This has the positive effect of a mature understanding the metaphorical nature of scripture, exemplified by his acknowledgment of the anthropomorphisms in the Torah:
“For let us take care that we are never filled with such absurdity as to think that God employs the organs of the mouth or nostrils for the purpose of breathing into anything; for God is not only devoid of peculiar qualities, but he is likewise not of the form of man, and the use of these words show as some more secret mystery of nature.”[xliv]
On the other hand, Philo’s rationalism equally lends itself to a sort of esoteric attitude toward “lesser knowledge.” For example, he says that certain “things are not comprehensible by the outward senses ... for the soul is also invisible.”[xlv] Instead of seeing knowledge as apprehensible to all, it is only for those with great intellects.
Philo’s integration of Greek thinking with the Hebrew Bible is modeled in the New Testament. For instance, the conception of creation in 1 Corinthians is very similar to that of Philo’s.[xlvi] The idea of the Logos finds its way into the opening chapter of the Gospel of John.[xlvii] In addition, “the Christian Fathers found that he had shown the ways to reconcile Greek philosophy with acceptance of the Hebrew Scriptures.”[xlviii] Clement and Origen also make use of Philo’s allegorical method for making philosophical interpretations of the scriptures.[xlix] Christianity is highly influenced by Philo’s methodology and the traditions which do so ought to be critiqued along with him.
Despite the impressive nature of Philo’s integration of philosophy and the Scriptures, we must beware of his methodology. All religions, including Christianity, have faced the issue of how sacred theology and secular philosophy ought to interact. When one is too quick to integrate, the chances of accommodation increase. Also, it is very easy to trust the principles of philosophy over those of one’s religion. However, Philo open the doors to dialogue between different ideas, an attitude which is to be appreciated.
[i] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. I (New York: Doubleday, 1985) 459.
[ii] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 451.
[iii] The tension between orthodox following of Plato and eclectic integration was primary conflict in Middle Platonism. F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 451-452.
[iv] The varieties within Middle Platonists is illustrated in that, despite the influence of the Stoics, some still wrote treatises against the them. F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 451.
[v] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 451.
[vi] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 453.
[vii] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 453.
[viii] Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999) 106.
[ix] S. E. Stumpf, Socrates to Satre 108.
[x] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 453.
[xi] Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972) 322.
[xii] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things,” The Works of Philo, Transl. by C. D. Yonge (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993) 300. Additional Philo quotes will be taken from this collection as well.
[xiii] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” I 29.
[xiv] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 300.
[xv] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 250.
[xvi] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 295.
[xvii] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 295.
[xviii] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 458.
[xix] Henry Wolfson, Philo Vol. II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) 110.
[xx] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 249.
[xxi] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 250.
[xxii] Henry Wolfson, Philo Vol. II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) 111-112.
[xxiii] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 453.
[xxiv] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 30.
[xxv] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 35.
[xxvi] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 29.
[xxvii] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, II” 61.
[xxviii] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 293.
[xxix] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 35.
[xxx] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 250.
[xxxi] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 247.
[xxxii] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 301.
[xxxiii] Philo, “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” 300.
[xxxiv] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy 457.
[xxxv] Philo, “On Dreams, That They Are God-Sent” 385.b
[xxxvi] Henry Wolfson, Philo Vol. I (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) 123.
[xxxvii] Samuel Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) 129.
[xxxviii] Samuel Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria 133.
[xxxix] Take for instance his interpretation of Exodus 21 as expounded on by Stanley Isser in “Two Traditions: The Law of Exodus 21:22-23 Revisted.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:1 (1990) 33.
[xl] Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues” 247.
[xli] Henry Wolfson, Philo Vol. I, 396-397.
[xlii] David Winston, Philo of Alexandria (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) 4.
[xliii] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 29.
[xliv] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation, I” 29.
[xlv] Philo, “On Dreams, That They Are God-Sent” 377.
[xlvi] Gregory E. Sterling, “Wisdom Among the Perfect: Creation Traditions in Alexandrian Judaism and Corinthian Christianity.” Novum Testamentum 37:4 (1995) 365-367.
[xlvii] Thomas H. Tobin, “The Prologue of John and Hellenistic Jewish Speculation,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:2 (1990) 257.
[xlviii] Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy 322.
[xlix] Annewies van den Hoek, “The Catechetical School of Early Christian Alexandria and its Philonic Heritage,” Harvard Theological Review 90:1 (1997) 59-87.
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Philo of Alexandria. Transl. by David Winston. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Vol. I. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
Isser, Stanley. “Two Traditions: The Law of Exodus 21:22-23 Revisted.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:1 (1990) 30-45.
Russel, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Sandmel, Samuel. Philo of Alexandria. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Sterling, Gregory E. “Wisdom Among the Perfect: Creation Traditions in Alexandrian Judaism and Corinthian Christianity.” Novum Testamentum 37:4 (1995) 355-384.
Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. Socrates to Sartre. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Tobin, Thomas H. “The Prologue of John and Hellenistic Jewish Speculation.” Catholic
Biblical Quarterly 52:2 (1990) 252-269.
van den Hoek, Annewies. “The Catechetical School of Early Christian Alexandria and its Philonic Heritage.” Harvard Theological Review 90:1 (1997) 59-87.
Winter, Bruce W. Philo and Paul among the Sophists. Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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