Thursday, July 23, 2015

7. Philo and Judaism

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
Philo and Society

1. Our next chapter moves on to the insights Philo might shed on Judaism, both locally and in the wider Jewish world of his day. None other than Ellen Birnbaum is our next author, "Philo's Relevance for the Study of Jews and Judaism in Antiquity."

She begins with all the cautionary tales. Is Philo typical of the Judaism of his day? Can we even speak of a common Judaism? With what other sources should Philo be compared?

She then proceeds to look at Philo in terms of practices, beliefs and ideas, community institutions, biblical interpretation, Jewish identity, interaction with non-Jews, and historical events pertaining to Jews.

2. For example, with regard to Passover, it is interesting that Philo does not focus on the "passing over" of the Israelites while the Egyptian firstborn die. For Philo, celebration of the Passover has to do with crossing the Red Sea. It's a crossing feast. In this case, she does not consider the evidence great enough to generalize that all Alexandrians had this view. She only muses whether the Therapeutae, a group in Egypt Philo mentions, might have.

She asks the same question of whether Alexandrians might have observed a kind of proto-Seder there. Did they offer their own sacrifices in Alexandria? Of course she mentions in this chapter the fact that Philo never mentions the temple at Leontopolis.

3. Next she treats how Philo might inform our understanding of Jewish beliefs and ideas at the time. For example, Philo's view of divine powers has enough similarity to later rabbinic views that we must surely think there is some common tradition here. For him, two names of God are "Lord" and "God," which represent his royal and creative powers respectively. The rabbis also correlated God's names with his merciful and punitive sides (but they flipped the names).

Covenant is not a major category for Philo. In this he is not alone among Jews of the time, which warns the E. P. Sanders' and N. T. Wright's of the world not to overgeneralize.

4. With regard to the temple, Philo shows that even a Diaspora Jew could be invested in its significance. He provides significant evidence for the ancient synagogue and house of prayer. We learn a bit about the gerousia at Alexandria, its Jewish ruling council.

Throughout the chapter, Ellen points out possibilities for further research, indeed one of the great strengths of this book.

5. Philo not only considered the Pentateuch inspired, but its Greek translation as well, like the Letter of Aristeas. She mentions some evidence that Philo at one point refers to the traditional Jewish division of Scripture into Torah, Prophets, and Writings (Contempl. 25). I have missed so far in the book Philo's reference to Jeremiah as also initiated in the mysteries (Cher. 48-49). I think the question of Philo's "canon" might have born more discussion.

 Philo's exegetical method has been deeply explored by scholars. It bears both similarities and differences with other interpreters. These aspects of Philo have of course been treated extensively already in the book in the chapters by Borgen (on the Jewish side) and Sterling (on the Hellenistic side).

6. Next we have a section on what insights Philo might bring to Jewish identity at the time. His mention of the Essenes and Therapeutae are here, as well as insights he might offer to our understanding of how one became a proselyte to Judaism. Ellen has some fun comments on "once-a-year" Jews in this section, Jews Philo bemoans as only observing their Judaism on the Day of Atonement. This sentence is worth quoting:

"Some have observed that Alexandria, with its remarkably varied range of Jews, calls to mind the similarly diverse Jewish population of a modern American city like New York, albeit twenty centuries later" (218).

7. Philo's views toward non-Jews is quite negative, especially in Alexandria. He despises Egyptians and most Alexandrians, although positive toward the Ptolemies of older days. Another area ripe for further research. Ellen mentions that he may have been educated in the gymnasium, harkening  back to the chapter by Koskenniemi.

The chapter ends with a hat tip to Philo's writings about historical events involving the Jews, the pogrom and attempt of Caligula to put a statue in the temple being the main suspects. She mentions that Philo does not mention the laographia or poll tax, one possible reason for tensions between Jews and the city at the time.

So there you have it, a taste of the kinds of issues involved in asking how Philo's writings might illuminate the Judaism of his day, common or otherwise.

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