The Strange Case of Philo of Alexandria
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

The Strange Case of Philo of Alexandria

Rabbi Baroff discusses the legacy of the first Jewish philosopher.

Rabbi Richard Baroff
Rabbi Richard Baroff

Students of Jewish philosophy tend to focus on the Middle Ages: Saadia Gaon, Judah HaLevi and Maimonides, among others. But the first Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, lived long before them. He was born perhaps 10 years or so after Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide and grew up during the time when Octavian became Caesar Augustus, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. He was a contemporary with Hillel the Elder and with Jesus, living most of his life in the first century of the common era.

When he was about 60, Philo went with other luminaries from the large and wealthy Jewish community of Alexandria as a delegation to the third Roman emperor – the infamous Caius Caligula. The mission of the delegation was to gain relief from the antisemitic riots which had broken out in Alexandria, the crowds whipped up by Apion and others. Embassy to Caius recounts Philo’s futile mission to the unstable Caligula.

Philo wrote quite a lot about many different topics, always in the Greek language of his day. Philo authored works about philosophy and theology, biblical commentary, and history. His two greatest efforts are perhaps, “The Contemplative Life” and “The Giants.” The former explores the spiritual benefits of monasticism while the latter describes the upward ascent of humanity from the earthy to soulful realms of being.

The scripture which he read certainly would have consisted of the Torah and the Prophets, but not yet all the Writings, as the TaNaKh, the Hebrew scriptures as we know them, would not have taken their final form yet. He would have read some form of the Septuagint-the Greek translation first of the Torah, then incrementally, of the entire Jewish Bible as it took form over the centuries.

Philo came from one of the wealthiest families in Alexandria, the richest city in the Hellenistic world. As a result, Philo was extremely well connected, not only in Alexandria but beyond. He made time for his many literary and intellectual pursuits. His mental frame of reference was formed by Plato, student of Socrates and teacher to Aristotle, the supreme writer and thinker in Greek. Platonic metaphysical ideas suffuse Philo’s writings. Philo was compelled especially by Plato’s idealism: the idea that everything we experience in the world is a reflection of, and generated by, a more perfect realm of the Forms. The Forms were eternal and changeless for Plato but not quite for Philo.

Philo believed that the world of Plato’s Forms was created by the G-d of Israel. For Philo had a love of Judaism which mixed in his mind with the wisdom of the Greeks – especially Plato. Long before the medieval scholars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam meshed together faith and reason, scripture and science (Greek wisdom), Philo wrestled with these topics, these two worlds. He was the first to do so by many centuries. Philo was content to mix and match content from the Greek writers and scripture, harmonizing the two through his explanations. He held that G-d created the cosmos from some eternal material. He taught that the Divine is apprehended in the human mind through the deepest contemplation. Philo taught that Logos – an organizing structure which the mind can apprehend, stands between the Creator and the Creation – that is, that G-d creates the world not directly, but rather, through a mediating agency.

For Philo, the Torah should be seen as a source of lessons regarding right and wrong in many instances. When it cannot be viewed morally in a clear way, Torah should be read metaphorically. The language of the Bible is thus allegorical and spiritual, leading the ethical life and mystical contemplation of the Divine.

Philo believed that the commandments of the Torah reflect the mind of the Divine, and as such are a gateway for the human soul towards pure spirituality and salvation. In this way, Neoplatonism is anticipated by Philo’s writings.

Christian theology, especially as manifested in the Gospel of John, is also anticipated by Philo’s doctrine of a mediating Logos. Ironically, the impression Philo would make on the church fathers was greater than that which he made on the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud. The early Christian theologians called the Jewish writer Philo Judaeus and saw him as almost one of them—a Jewish philosopher who foreshadowed the doctrine of the Trinity.

Thus, the strange case of Philo, Judaism’s first philosopher, became, in time, an inspiration for the scholars of the church.

read more: