Philo of Alexandria Sought to Combine Greek Thought with Sacred Scripture

April 16, 2021 | Gregory Sterling
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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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