Philo: The first important Jewish philosopher

Torah from Alexandria:

Philo as a Biblical Commentator

Volume 1: Genesis

Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Kodesh Press, 2014, 356 pages

 

The philosopher Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (who lived from about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) was a man who is unfortunately little known today other than by scholars, but people, Jews and non-Jews, should know about him. The famed scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo 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). He frequently rejected the rational views of the outstanding pagan and later Jewish philosophers Aristotle (384-322, the student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great) and Maimonides (1138-1204). About forty of his books still exist. They do not offer a systematic philosophy, but are, in essence, a collection of sermons.

Philo’s works are based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, composed around 250 BCE, and some scholars insist that he did not know Hebrew. Yet all agree that his ideas, even many that are considered too mystical by rationalists to be acceptable, are significant. He was convinced that the Bible should generally be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning, words mean what they say. The second is an underlying allegorical layer, which requires 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.

Philo insisted that despite some parts of Scripture being only allegories, biblical stories are not lies. They are the work of a compassionate God and contain and transmit the real truth. For example, Philo states that the tales of creation, which are not true facts or even remotely real science, are parables with profound truthful life-essential significance below their false literal surface; the tales highlight that divine law agrees with natural law.

For nearly fifteen hundred years, only the church preserved Philo’s writings. It was not until the Jewish scholar Azariah de Rossi (1513-1578) quoted Philo extensively in his Me’or Einayim that Philo was readmitted to the Jewish intellectual scene. This was because rabbis feared that any kind of glorification of Hellenism might lead to apostasy and assimilation, and they disliked what they considered Philo’s over-use of treating scripture allegorically.

Rabbi Samuel’s book is the first in an up-coming series in which he gives readers selections from Philo’s views on the Hebrew Bible. This volume is on the first book, Genesis. He tells reader that he “carefully selected those portions of his vast works that correspond to the straightforward meaning of the biblical text.” In other words, Samuel did not include the many allegorical Philo interpretations. He offers readers a biography of Philo and he explains, with notes, what Philo is saying, thereby making his book not only very informative but very readable.

The following are some examples from Rabbi Samuel’s book:

  • God formed the world from preexisting matter, as Genesis 1:2 states that before creation “the earth was formless.”
  • The Bible states that humans were made in God’s image. This means they were created with intelligence. (Rabbi Samuel frequently compares what Philo wrote to what others said. This parallels the teaching of Maimonides.)
  • As the Greek Plato taught, the human soul has an independent existence separate from the body.
  • The biblical phrase “male and female he created them” teaches that both sexes are equal and should be treated equally.
  • The Garden of Eden story is an allegory, and when it states that humans should “till it (the garden) and keep it,” it is teaching that “even paradise could be spoiled through laziness.” (Maimonides also understood that the tale is an allegory, but interpreted it differently.)

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