Reflections on Philo
During a family visit about ten years ago, I pulled a book off my parents’ shelf entitled The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith. The book contains a list of works in chronological order from the I Ching (written anywhere between 1500–1000 BCE) to B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (published in 1971) and contains a host of religious texts, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, theologians, and literary authors. A Buzzfeed list for intellectuals and academics. Seymour-Smith argues for the influence of each piece using pretty subjective although interesting criteria. I had read or read from several of the works at first glance, and as a younger man who fancied themselves a budding intellectual, it seemed like a good place to start reading.
Recently, I finished reading the 17th work on that list, Philo’s Allegorical Interpretation, a three-volume treatise looking at scientific and philosophical truths hidden within the story of the Garden of Eden. While looking for a paper copy, I had found a copy of Philo’s complete and unabridged works, which turned out to be a first edition review copy in decent condition. I was surprised by its heft, and the sheer amount of tiny, serifed font set in two columns on each page. I could have left it with Allegorical Interpretation, in terms of the personal challenge I had set for myself but decided to persist with reading everything over the course of six months.
Here are some reflections upon finishing Philo’s complete works, reflecting on Philo himself, his process of allegorical interpretation, and his contributions to the historical record. I’ll list some recommended works at the end to save you the time I spent reading everything. I’m working on another piece specifically about Allegorical Interpretation and will be using Philo’s works as part of a historical novel I am researching. I have already written one piece based on my reading of Philo, regarding Hagar, the Handmaid of Sarah, which you can find here.
The Handmaid’s Tale: From Genesis to Gilead
An essay considering the story of Hagar from the earliest version in Genesis through the modern literary interpretation…
Philo of Alexandria
Philo was born somewhere between 20 and 10 BCE during a chaotic time in Mediterranean history. Caesar Augustus ruled as Rome’s first emperor, expanding into Europe, Asia, and Africa, establishing colonies, and appointing governors. One of those cities was Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, which became a major center of commerce and culture on the shores of the Mediterranean, and home to the famous Library of Alexandria, housing all the known world’s knowledge. Alexandria was divided into three major populations (Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Egyptian) as a means of maintaining peace and commerce, and it was into one noble family in the Jewish Quarter that Philo was born.
Philo would receive a thorough education in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish culture, along with extensive study in natural philosophy and Jewish scriptures. Very few details exist about his actual life, but his treatises are a testament to his uniquely cosmopolitan education and serve as a means of understanding his philosophical, religious, and scientific views. Some provide valuable insight into the historical record, particularly the antisemitic persecution of the Roman Empire leading up to the Roman-Judea Wars. Aside from his contributions to the historical record, Philo spent a great deal of his writing exploring the Torah and working to fuse scripture with philosophy in a process called allegorical interpretation. Both contributions will be discussed in detail later.
If there’s anything I’ve gained from this long-term reading challenge, it is a greater appreciation for just how intellectual the Ancient Europeans were. Reading all of Aristotle (yes, all), Euclid’s Elements, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Lucretius’ On The Nature of Reality, and others shows that while they did not have the scientific understanding we have today, they did develop the tools and means which would be rediscovered after the Dark Ages to usher in the Scientific Revolution. Philo had access to all these works and more, including many likely lost to time, and it shows in his writing, with references to Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Timaeus, and allusions to the arguments, if not the works, of other schools of philosophy. Philo’s writing sort of brings all these works I’ve been reading together, while also showing an unabashed look at the cultural notions of the Ancient Europeans and the Jewish nation during the Roman Empire, specifically their patriarchal norms, misogynistic beliefs, and an undercurrent of resentment and distrust among all three major populations within Alexandria.
One major contribution by Philo to human history is the process of allegorical interpretation, which interprets religious scriptures allegorically to reveal scientific or philosophical truths about ourselves and the world. Most Jewish religious scholars interpreted the Torah as literally true, which Philo believes for the most part as well. In addition to its literal truth, some passages or stories could also be morally interpreted to reveal ethical truths. But Philo goes beyond these interpretations to interpret scripture in ways that reveal, or perhaps confirm, the philosophical and scientific truths understood at the time through observation and reason.
In his work entitled Allegorical Interpretation, Philo examines the hidden truths within the stories of the Garden of Eden. One story receives a great deal of consideration, when the serpent tempts Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, resulting in their expulsion from the Garden. Taken morally, it is a story about the consequences of disobeying God, namely mortality, painful childbirth, and having to work for everything in the world. Philo, however, sees a deeper meaning, where Adam represents reason, Eve represents the external senses, and the serpent represents pleasure. Now the story can also be interpreted as the relationship between reason and the external senses when it comes to pleasure and concluding that reason should always be in control of the external senses to prevent the tragedy of indulgence. Allegorical Interpretation is the second in a long series of treatises that cover everything from Creation in Genesis through Moses’ death in Exodus, attempting to synthesize Jewish theology with Greek natural philosophy. Many of Philo’s allegorical interpretations were collected into two treatises using a catechetical format: Questions and Answers on Genesis, of which only the first three of five volumes remain aside from fragments, and Questions and Answers in Exodus, which has been lost to time aside from a few fragments and references.
Philo uses standard rational and rhetorical methods, heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle, with a theological and teleological outlook, i.e., everything has a purpose in God’s Creation. He also uses etymology and numerology extensively within his treatises. Etymology is the study of meaning found within language, particularly the names of people, places, or locations. Philo uses this most notably in On the Change of Names when God renames Abraham and Sarah, but peppers it in when convenient throughout his work, usually as supplemental evidence while making a point. Numerology finds symbolic meaning in the numbers used within scripture, similar to some Kabbalistic methods although not directly related. Philo tends to lean more on Pythagorean number theories to show, or perhaps more realistically, to invent relationships and reasons for seven days of creation/rest, forty days of flooding, and a fascination with the numbers ten and one hundred. On the Creation, which covers the creation story, is chock full of numerological arguments. His reliance on these methods has problems though, particularly when he divides the human senses into sometimes five parts, other times six or seven, depending on what might be needed to fit with the current argument.
I find all this fascinating for a few reasons. My own spiritual education was very patchwork, stitched together based on cursory readings and understandings from various sources. College made it more confusing, but with the discovery of philosophy, I had dreams of finding the missing bridges between science and religion by way of philosophy. Every treatise felt like a glimpse into an alternate reality, where I had pursued a religious or academic life. But this full reading of Philo, along with my own experience in life, has taught me that trying to reconcile science and religion is pure folly if both sides are to remain objectively true.
For Philo, scripture nearly always must be literally true, although he does sometimes challenge that literal truth in the face of overwhelming scientific/philosophical evidence. This often results in a lot of efforts to shoehorn scientific/philosophical understanding into scripture. I shudder to think exactly how Philo would reconcile the evidence of the universe being 15 billion years old and the planet being created in a slow process over hundreds of millions of years into a six-day creation story. Probably something akin to the so-called “Creation Science” of today.
Philo’s second major contribution was to the historical record, specifically on the antisemitic attacks on Jewish populations throughout the Roman Empire. Two major treatises cover this tragedy: Flaccus, which looks at the reign of the Egyptian governor leading up to the Alexandrian Riots of 38 CE, and On the Embassy to Gaius, which looks at Philo’s part in an embassy to Caligula to prevent the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem.
Flaccus is gruesome. Philo first presents the life of the Egyptian governor Flaccus, from his upbringing to the political ramifications of the death of Tiberius Caesar and the rise of Gaius Caesar, aka Caligula. Philo seems almost generous with his assessment of Flaccus, until he describes the nature of Flaccus’ new political allies and the series of actions taken to socially and politically isolate the Jewish population in Alexandria and for a number of small monastic communities of Essenes. This political pressure erupts into the Alexandrian Riots of 38 CE, the first recorded pogrom (organized massacre) against the Jewish people. Philo documents the ghettoization, looting, ransom, public humiliation, destruction of synagogues, and mass executions which happened within Alexandria and throughout Egypt. It is the only surviving record of the events, and really drives home the fact that despite being the intellectual center of the Empire, with nearly all the known world’s knowledge available for everyone to read or hear, that humanity can still devolve into ignorance and violence based on tribalism and hierarchical power.
On the Embassy to Gaius begins with the story of Caesar Gaius, aka Caligula, from his dubious ascension to emperor through internal fighting, to his maniacal, magpie mind approach to leading the Roman Empire. Philo covers a lot of historical context in this treatise, including the special relationship between Tiberius Caesar and the Jewish people, and the antisemitic politics that went into the larger wave of discrimination and segregation of the Jewish people after the death of Tiberius Caesar. What ultimately becomes intolerable is when Caligula orders a statue of himself, dressed as Jupiter, to be erected within the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Massive demonstrations and an embassy to plead with Caligula follows to stop this effort. On the Embassy to Gaius also works as an apologia for the Jewish nation, working to debunk many of the rumors spread by Flaccus and the antisemites among Caligula’s advisors. These events become the basis for European antisemitism, well before the rise of Christianity as a political force within the Roman Empire and would lead in the shorter term to the Roman-Judea War between 66 and 73 CE, along with two conflicts that followed in the next century.
Reading this history gave me a whole new perspective into the events of the New Testament, particularly those surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. Philo gives some insight into the distinction between the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people and the political leadership appointed or recognized by the Roman Empire, along with when and why someone like Pilate would have to make rulings. Philo also explains just how many Jewish communities had been established throughout the Roman Empire, and a sense of their relationship to each other and to the larger empire. I’m sort of looking forward to seeing how it affects my upcoming reading of the New Testament, next in line after Philo.
I’m going to close with some reading recommendations from Philo’s complete works. You can find most of these online at the following resource. The translations are identical to the paper copy I read, although the formatting could use some work.
Philo of Alexandria
James C. VanderKam writes: "Although many of Philo's writings have survived, little is konwn about his life. We do not…
On the Creation / Allegorical Interpretation
Both works provide the foundation for Philo’s concept of allegorical interpretation, along with examples using the stories of Creation and the Garden of Eden. You’ll also get a healthy taste of his penchant for numerology and a dash of his love for etymology.
On Abraham / On Joseph / On the Life of Moses
Three narrative works exploring the life of three major patriarchs of the Jewish nation. Philo mostly eschews allegorical interpretation in these three treatises to just tell the story of each man. You’ll get a taste for Philo’s wonderful narrative skills, assuming you can look past all the patriarchal misogyny. You’ll also get some fascinating background on each story not found in scripture, like details on Abraham’s Chaldean origins and his understanding of mathematics and astronomy.
On the Contemplative Life
Philo uses this work to describe the contemplative life of the Essenes, a group of small monastic Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire but located mostly near Israel. The Essenes have communal and egalitarian practices when it comes to managing the affairs of daily life, along with weekly days to gather and study, which feel very proto-communistic. Some scholars argue that John the Baptist was an Essene, and many parallels have been found between the Essenes and early Christian communities.
On the Eternity of the World
This is Philo at his most philosophical, a treatise which not only argues that the universe was created and indestructible, but also contains the theories and arguments of many other philosophers of the time, complete with Philo’s analysis and refutations. Philo references so many works in this treatise and ends up providing a halfway decent primer for cosmological theories of the Ancient Europeans. For the philosophers and classics fans in your life.
Flaccus / On the Embassy to Gaius
Both historical works are elegantly written and provide key insights into the antisemitism of the Roman Empire. Both works also deserve all the content warnings for their graphic depictions of the pogroms which followed, not to mention a few twisted acts taken by Caligula against his own family. Important reminders that pride and ignorance can destroy whatever community and wisdom might create.