Philo Judaeus

Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.-ca. A.D. 45) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher. An important example of philosophical syncretism, he was a Diaspora Jew prepared to concede a good deal to Hellenism in his interpretation of the Scriptures.

Philo Judaeus was born in Alexandria, but the exact date of his birth is unknown. The only public event in his life occurred when he led a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the emperor Caligula in A.D. 40 to protest the recent ill treatment of Jews by Greeks in their city. His account of the proceedings survives in the treatise entitled Legatio ad Gaium.

This remarkable document almost certainly tells less than the whole story about why friction arose between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria. But it provides an interesting portrait of the emperor Caligula and his attitude toward the problem of Jews and emperor worship. Whether through boredom at the length of the delegation's pleas or through genuine conviction, he observed of the Jews' refusal to worship him as a god, "I think that these people are not so much criminals as lunatics in not believing that I have been given a divine nature." The delegation, which had been understandably alarmed when Caligula brought up the question of emperor worship in his opening remarks, was heartily relieved when his concluding statement suggested merely pity and condescension rather than ill will.


Treatises and Essays

Philo's major writings, however, consist largely of moral treatises and philosophico-theological essays on topics of scriptural interest. As a religious believer, he was convinced that the truth of things was to be found ultimately in the teachings of Moses; as a philosopher, he felt a need to express this truth in terms that were intelligible to a world imbued with the ideas of Greek philosophy. His works consequently suggest frequent tension between an attempt to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Greek philosophy and an attempt to criticize Greek philosophy in the light of scriptural truth.

The latter is particularly clear in Philo's doctrine of God. For Philo the believer, God is the only reality that is eternal; He is also totally "other" and unknowable. His providence is "individual, " manifesting itself in direct intervention in the universe, with suspension, if need be, of laws of nature for the benefit of meritorious individuals. Of His own goodwill, He endows the human soul with immortality. These views were strongly contrasted by Philo with Greek views, such as those found in Plato's Phaedo and Timaeus, in which both matter and the Ideas are said to be coeternal with God; Providence is said to be manifested in the basic laws of nature, and the human soul is said to be of its very nature immortal.


Philosophical Eclecticism

"Nonnegotiable dogma aside, however, Philo was more than willing to use the thought forms of Greek philosophy on those many matters on which honest disagreement among believers seemed to him allowable. The Greek philosophy in question is an amalgam drawn from many sources. His stress on the symbolic importance of certain numbers (4, 6, 7, 10, for example) suggests contemporary neo-Pythagorean influence. The views that causality is fourfold, that virtue lies in a mean, that God is to be seen as the prime mover of the universe, show the clear influence of Aristotle.

The spirit of Plato emerges clearly in Philo's general acceptance of notions such as the theory of Ideas, and the belief that the body is a tomb or prison, that life for man should be a process of purification from the material, that cosmic matter preceded the formation of the cosmos, and that the existence of God can be inferred from the structure and operations of the universe. The influence of stoicism emerges in his doctrines of man's "unqualified" free will, of the need to live in accord with nature, of the need to live free from passion, and of the "indifference" of what is beyond one's power.

In his interpretation of Scripture, Philo seems to have adhered to its "spiritual" rather than to its literal truth. Thus the literal idea of a 6-day creation is rejected, and the story of Adam's rib is written off as mythical. Less acceptable to modern taste, perhaps, was his pervasive use of allegorical interpretation.


Doctrine of the Logos

Among non-Jews Philo was probably best known for his doctrine of the Logos, which was widely thought to have influenced (whether directly or indirectly is not known) the author of the Fourth Gospel. This doctrine seems to have been born of Philo's attempt to reconcile both his belief in a uniquely transcendent, eternal creator and his general acceptance of the Platonic theory of Ideas. He rejects the Ideas as eternal, transcendent entities. Rather, they are temporal and part of God's creation. Their exemplars, however, do exist eternally—as thoughts in the mind of God. The home of the Ideas he called the Logos, or Reason, and this Logos, like the Ideas, was said to exist both transcendentally, as an eternal exemplar in the mind of God, and temporally, as part of God's creation. With this doctrine Philo attempted to bridge the gap between a God who is totally "other" and the material universe; the Logos, being (unlike God) both transcendental and temporal, was the all-important intermediary linking man and the universe to their creator.


Further Reading on Philo Judaeus

A Greek text and translation of Philo's complete works is in the Loeb Classical Library edition, Philo (10 vols., 1929-1962), of F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker. A useful shorter work is Philo's Philosophical Writings (1946), selections edited by Hans Lewy. Harry A. Wolfson, Philo (2 vols., 1947; rev. ed. 1948), is the major English-language work on the philosopher. For a sympathetic general introduction in English see Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (1940; rev. ed. 1963).