Wednesday, July 22, 2015

6. Philo and Society

Only one chapter today of Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria, edited by Torrey Seland. Three more chapters by the end of the week to go.

Philo the Jew
Philo the Citizen
Philo the Interpreter of the Law and Educated Jew
Philo the Philosopher and how to study Philo

1. This was another excellent surprise by Adele Reinhartz. The actual name of the chapter is, "Philo's Exposition of the Law and Social History." To me this chapter seemed an area of emerging Philo studies and clearly a general field that would be of great interest for upcoming researchers.

Reinhartz, a Canadian scholar, is thus developing a method for a new area of Philonic research. She is interested in using Philo to explore the "social history" of Judaism in Alexandria at the time of Christ. Social history is "the study of 'people's relationships with each other in families, kinship groupings, status groupings, villages, urban neighborhoods, regions and politics" (180).

Of course it is not that researchers in Philo have not touched on these matters in an ad hoc way. But Reinhartz develops a cogent method for studying such elements of Philo's writings and then suggests some key conclusions one might reach. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

2. One key methodological obstacle is the fact that Philo's topoi are largely generated from the texts he is interpreting. So can we infer from Philo's strong stance against homosexual practice that there was significant homosexual practice in the Jewish community/Alexandria, or is it simply that the issue is raised by the biblical text he is interpreting (Spec. 2.50; 3.37-42)?

She gives a couple examples of comments by Roman outsiders like Strabo that indicate that non-Jewish sources are generally unreliable in this area. Are we really to believe that Jews practiced female circumcision like the Egyptians apparently did?

3. In the end, there are two views of Philo among scholars. One is that he had no real interest or involvement in the life of the Jewish community and was just an ivory tower blogger who had little interest in the real world (e.g., Samuel Sandmel). Others, like Borgen, believe he was squarely involved in both the Jewish and Alexandrian communities.

[By the way, there is a serious error in a quote of Samuel Belkin on p. 185. The word "no" was omitted, making the sentence sound like it says the opposite of what it was meant to say. Belkin wrote, "The general view prevalent among scholars that Philo had no interest in communal affairs and was, as is sometimes said, an 'individualist' by nature is open to doubt" (185).]

Reinhartz clearly takes the latter view. We can infer realia about Jewish community life in Alexandria from Philo.

4. So she sets down a method. True, Philo sometimes is just interpreting the text in front of him rather than addressing contemporary issues. BUT, she plausibly suggests, we can see hints of his contemporary situation in a) his rationales for the laws, especially when the text doesn't give them, b) his extensions of the laws to areas they do not directly address, c) his reinterpretations of laws that no longer applied to his day, and d) when he gives specifics to general formulations.

In the rest of the chapter, she applies these criteria to Philo's texts. She concludes that some of the realities of Philo's day included things like a) a strong patriarchal culture. She actually argues that b) infanticide may have been an issue among some Jews.

One of the things I appreciated about the chapter is her critique of dreamy descriptions of ancient Jews as obviously untouched by non-Jewish practices such as this. But she is a model of objectivity. Beware when someone in a group is giving the story of that group. There becomes a strong motivation to give a sugar coated version.

She finds evidence of c) monogamy as standard Jewish practice by this time and d) the difficulty of daughters inheriting when a father has deceased.

In general, a fascinating and another outstanding chapter in the book. Great stuff!

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