Judaism’s first non-biblical philosopher

                                            

Scholars have recognized long ago that the Bible has “wisdom books,” books that contain philosophy. They are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (also called Qohelet), and Ben Sira (also called Sirach and Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Only the first three are in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles. The Catholic Bibles include many writings not in these two Bibles, including the last two wisdom books. The philosophical writings of Philo are the first post-biblical philosophical works that still exist today, although there were other post-biblical philosophical writers before him.

 

Philo

Until recently, it was Harry Wolfson’s 1962-1968 two volume books “Philo” that was considered the authoritative book on Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE). Today, because of the wealth of scholarly material contained in his five volumes and their presentation in a very readable manner, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s books can now be considered the authoritative work on the great Greek Jewish philosopher.

Because only Philo’s philosophical writings still exist from the early philosophical writings after the Bible was codified, Philo is considered the first post-biblical philosopher. He was the first Jewish philosopher who contributed anything new to Jewish-Greek philosophy. His philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that he wrote still exist. They do not offer a systematic philosophy; they are a collection of sermons.

Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning; words mean what they say. The second, his contribution, is an underlying allegorical layer, which requires that the alert more intelligent reader go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers, and events. Maimonides also understood that parts of the Bible contain allegory and even parables, but he did not identify as many allegories as Philo.

Rabbi Samuel has made a huge necessary contribution to the thinking and understanding of all people, Jews and non-Jews, concerning the Bible, by collecting the commentaries of Philo from Philo’s many sources and arranging them systematically, according to the Bible chapters. Rabbi Samuel tells us what Philo states and compares Philo’s views with what others say: other ancient and modern philosophers, ancient Greeks and Romans, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Midrashim, Zohar, and many others.

The following are some examples of Rabbi Samuel’s contribution to understanding Philo, the Bible, and philosophy.

Among much else, in his Exodus book, Rabbi Samuel discusses Philo’s views on telling the truth, how Philo, the rabbis, and Christians treated the issue that the Bible states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the different order of the Ten Commandments in the third century BCE Greek translation called the Septuagint, Philo’s thinking about the Ten Commandments and how it differs with the thinking of many people today, his view of the prohibition of not cooking meat and milk together, his remarkable ideas about sacrifices, and such subjects as “You shalt not let a witch live”  (Exod. 22:18), where the Septuagint interprets the Hebrew machasheifa, “witch,” as  “pharmakous,” from which the common English word “pharmacist” comes. Philo explained that the pharmacon was really a drug dealer in Late Antiquity. Rabbi Samuel reveals that Greco-Roman society had a drug culture – much like we have today – and Philo regarded drug-dealers as a serious threat to any civilized society.

Among a wealth of fascinating material in Rabbi Samuel’s Leviticus book, to offer other examples, we read about Philo’s condemnation of pedophilia, the spiritual significance of circumcision, the role of ritual and its effect on ethics, the meaning of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac (the Akedah), why salt was offered as a sacrifice, did Aaron have personal excellence, can a sinful priest function in the temple (and the synagogue today), the symbolism of kosher foods, the symbolism of circumcision, Philo’s defense of the Holy of Holies that he made when he met the Roman Caesar Caligula, the role of the high priest, why fast on Yom Kippur, why not marry sisters, what does it mean to love a neighbor, the prohibition against castrating animals, the meaning of the various holidays and the Sabbath, his warning to never reject wisdom, the concept of the equality of all people, how does forgiveness work, what is ethics, Philo’s thoughts on prenatal life, the unwritten law, and much more.

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