Philo of Alexandria Sought to Combine Greek Thought with Sacred Scripture

April 16 2021

Born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, at the time home to the largest Jewish community in the Roman empire, Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 BCE-50 CE) was the first person to write a book about Jewish theology. Apparently holding him in high regard, Alexandrian Jews chose him to be part of a delegation to Emperor Caligula in 37 CE after a pogrom in that city. Gregory Sterling analyzes the central ideas of his work and its legacy:

Philo shared the goal of Platonic philosophers who . . . defined the goal of philosophy as “likeness to God.” His school and works were therefore about shaping the soul of students through virtue with the goal of enabling their minds to see beyond the temporal to the eternal. This framework gave Philo an opportunity to show how Greek philosophy was embedded in the texts written by Moses. Unlike some earlier Jewish authors—like the 2nd-century BCE Jewish philosopher Aristobulus—who used the “theft of philosophy” argument to make the case that the Greeks had stolen their best ideas from Moses, Philo preferred to argue that both Hellenistic philosophers and Moses understood reality alike, especially in their understanding of God.

At the same time, Philo was unambiguously and unashamedly Jewish. He did not comment on Plato’s treatises, but on Moses’ scrolls. He chastised a group of Jews who argued that laws such as circumcision or Sabbath observance were only symbols and therefore not essential. . . . Philo understood that the laws were markers of communal identity, an identity that he did not take lightly even if he agreed that the rituals were symbols pointing to more profound realities.

There is good reason to believe that Josephus knew and used some of his works when he wrote his histories in Rome. However, after Josephus, Philo disappears from Judaism. The next Jewish author who clearly used Philo was the 16th-century Azariah de’ Rossi, . . . who valued Philo but considered him heretical.

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More about: Ancient Egypt, ancient Judaism, Jewish Thought, Judaism, Philo, Philosophy

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship