Tuesday, July 21, 2015

5. Philo the philosopher and more

Two more chapters today here of Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria, edited by Torrey Seland. Four more chapters by Thursday to go.

Philo the Jew
Philo the Citizen
Philo the Interpreter of the Law and Educated Jew

1. I have found Greg Sterling to be an imposing scholar. He was at Notre Dame for some twenty years before he recently went to be Dean of Yale Divinity School. How he has been able to produce the academic works he has while being Dean at Notre Dame and now Yale is incomprehensible to me.

His knowledge of the details of Hellenistic philosophy astounds me and thought of him when I read this sentence in the chapter: "Philo knew a good deal about Hellenistic philosophy, considerably more than all but a handful of scholars today" (147). Sterling is one among that handful, as are many of the scholars who make up the Philo guild.

I've never really liked the opinio communis that Philo was an exegete rather than a philosopher, despite Nikiprowetzky. I know what is being said, and it is true. Philo uses philosophy in the service of his exegesis. He is not a professional philosopher.

Yet it seems to me that this distinction may worry too much about modern categories and distinctions. Certainly many ancients thought of him as a philosopher, among other things. We may be preoccupied with the form of his writings, but that says more about us than Philo, I suspect.

2. Philo interpreted Moses by way of philosophy. Plato was his chief source, but he also draws on the Stoics, Pythagoreans, and even on Aristotle. He knows them all and draws on them in an eclectic fashion--"he drew on what he considered to be the best from each tradition and incorporated it into his own thought" (137). Sterling gives an impressive sweep of Philo's engagement with Greek philosophers.

3. Sterling also gives a very helpful overview of Jewish philosophical thinkers in Egypt prior to Philo--chiefly Aristobulus and pseudo-Aristeas. There were also the unnamed Jewish literalists and allegorists of Philo's world.

At the end of the chapter, we get an overview of the different types of work Philo wrote and how philosophy played in each. Interestingly, it is in the Allegorical Commentary that we get the most use of philosophy, namely, in Philo's allegorical interpretation.

Sterling is just an excellent writer. Clear, organized, comprehensive, insightful.

4. Now we arrive at the second half of the book, which has to do with how to study Philo, especially when you are coming to him from another discipline.

The next chapter, "Why Study Philo? How?" is another winner. This is really turning out to be the definitive bridge work for MA or PhD engagement with Philo, although an undergraduate course could easily work through the book as well. If you are just getting into Philo, I would recommend that you read this chapter first.

Seland does an excellent job in this chapter. Following in the tradition of Goodenough (and I might add my own book), Torrey suggests a good order in which to read through Philo's works. He gives David Runia's four recommendations for interpreting passages in Philo. He gives a definitive overview of the differing texts and translations of Philo in multiple languages. In a section that is indicative of our age, he even talks about Google Books, Google Scholar, and other electronic resources, such as his own well-known website.

The chapter is just a great catalog of resources on Philo, including my own book, about which he is kind. :-)

More tomorrow...

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