Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Philo Cheat Sheet

I recently reviewed Adam Kamesar's (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Philo for the American Journal of Philology.  It occurred to me that I could create a (more or less) one page "cheat sheet" on Philo that really would go a very long way.  Here's my first draft:

  • Prominent Jew of Alexandria, Egypt, ca. 20BCE-50CE.  More Jews lived in 2 of the 5 quarters of Alexandria than in all of Jerusalem.
  • Alexandria had a very significant synagogue and the city had a history of a mixture of philosophy with biblical interpretation that preceded Philo by centuries (e.g., Aristobulus, 2nd century BCE).  Eudorus of Alexandria (not Jewish) may be the fountainhead of "Middle Platonism," the transition from earlier Platonism/Stocisim to Neoplatonism.
  • Very wealthy family, brother Alexander was chief customs official for Egypt (alabarch), nephew Tiberius Julius Alexander apostacized from Judaism and was procurator of Judea from 46-48.  Philo likely had a Greek gymnasium education.
  • Philo himself protests that he did not like having to engage in politics, but perhaps he protests too much.  It was Philo that led a delegation to Rome for the Jews of Alexandria after the crisis of 38CE.  This trouble is sometimes called a "pogrom" in which some Jews were killed, their property was plundered, and they were quasi-ghettoized to escape the violence.  It seems precipitated by a trip from Herod Agrippa I to the city that created ethnic tensions.
  • The outcome of the crisis was that Jews by and large were not considered citizens of the city, as attested by a copy of Claudius' decision.  They had at least liked to consider themselves such before.  The Romans added an extra top layer on the previous social stratification when they took over the city.  Previously Greeks had been upper class with Egyptians and Jews vying for second place.
  • Philo did not know Hebrew.  The Hebrew knowledge he seems to have probably came from cheat sheets of the day.
  • Philo valued the Jerusalem temple as a Jew and Jewish customs, although he considered their literal value far inferior to their allegorical significance.
  • Philo had little place in his writings for a Jewish Messiah, although there are a couple potential allusions.
  • Philo had no place for bodily resurrection in his thought.  Indeed, only the most virtuous had a meaningful destiny among the stars (heavenly beings).  Angels are also disembodied spirits.
  • Philo dabbled in philosophy, but he is more than anything else an interpreter of the Jewish Scriptures, and he mixes together various philosophical threads depending on the passage he is interpreting.
  • Only 48 of Philo's writings have survived.  We know of some that are missing.  They were largely preserved by Christians, ignored by Jews (perhaps because they were in Greek, in part; perhaps because Christians liked them, in part).  Origen took them to Caesarea around 200CE and they were preserved there.
  • Philo wrote 3 great commentary series with increasing level of demand and expertise: The Exposition on the Law is most basic, Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus serve to teach a beginning Jewish audience, and The Allegorical Commentary is most esoteric and allegorically demanding.
  • The rest are usually grouped into "apologetic/historical writings" and "philosophical writings."  The best books to start reading in Philo's corpus are his writings Against Flaccus, The Embassy to Gaius, and his two book Life of Moses.  To transition to his more advanced works, On the Creation of the World is interesting.  Students of the New Testament may find his surviving books On Dreams and Who is the Heir of All Things interesting.
  • Philo's canon is largely limited to the Torah, perhaps an artifact of when Jews first moved to Egypt.  He has nice words to say about Jeremiah in a second category.
  • Philo is somewhat unique in that he believed Scripture could have both a literal and an allegorical meaning (vs. Stoics).  As others, he often shifted to allegory when the literal seemed impossible to him ("defect of the letter").  The allegorical often related to the literal as the body to the shadow (cf. Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5).
  • Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were allegories for moral progress (prokopton).  Abraham is the person who learns virtue by being taught. Jacob learns virtue through practice.  Isaac does not need to learn because he is self-taught.
  • Adam, Eve, and the serpent constitute an "allegory of the soul," where Adam represents the mind arbitrating between our senses (Eve) and pleasure (serpent).  Philo accepts on a practical level the Aristotelian goal of moderation of passion (metriopathea) but prefers the Stoic complete removal of them (apatheia).
  • The logos for Philo is a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism.  When he speaks of it (Middle) Platonically, it is the copy of God as pattern (the "image of God"), while the world is the copy of the logos as pattern.  When he speaks of it Stoically, it is a fragment/seed of the divine in all of us.  
  • The Adam of Genesis one is thus the ideal pattern of humanity (neither male nor female) while the man of Genesis 2 is the shadowy, physical copy.
  • The logos is the instrument God used in creation, the collection of ideas God used in making the world.  It is the glue that holds all things together.  The parallels to John 1 and Colossians 1 are clear.
  • The logos was a "second God."  It was created but not created like the rest of creation.  It is intermediary, a quasi-hypostasis.  Philo also interpreted the words Yahweh and Elohim as powers of God, namely, his royal and creative powers respectively.
  • The goal of ethics for Philo is godliness, the progress of the soul (prokopton) embodied in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob taken allegorically.  He disagreed thus with the Stoics, who saw the goal as coming to grips with who you are (oikeiosis).
  • Philo clearly had an impact on formative Christianity of the second through fifth centuries.  Whether his ideas had an impact on the New Testament, directly or indirectly, is debated.  Clearly there are a number of parallels, among which Hebrews is regularly mentioned.
  • It is often suggested that Philo does know of some interpretive traditions in Palestine that would flow into the rabbinic tradition of the following centuries.  In general, however, the rabbis do not engage his thought much at all.
There you have it, in 30 minutes ;-)


Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems history never changes, does it? Ethnic tensions, political alliances, persecution, and people trying to understand it all!

Obviously, leadership is most important to prevent these political maladies....

Bob MacDonald said...

Brilliant - you almost make me want to read him