Is the Bible Really the Source of Philosophy?
One of the fundamental questions posed by Jewish philosophers has always been, ironically, whether Judaism has a philosophy at all and where that philosophy stems from. Many people consider Philo the first Jewish philosopher, claiming that he introduced Greek ideas into Jewish thought. Yet he and his work are hardly known today among the Jewish people. This raises several questions.
- Does the Torah – that is, the five books of Moses, called the Pentateuch – contain a philosophy of Judaism?
- Did any philosophic writings exist in Judaism prior to Philo?
- Is it correct to say that Philo introduced an organized system of Jewish philosophy?
- Philo’s ideas are associated with Greek philosophy. When did Jews first come into contact with Greek culture?
- What elements of Plato and Aristotle’s thought did Philo accept and incorporate into his writings?
- Philo’s work is associated with allegories. What are allegories?
- What are examples of how Philo employs allegories?
- Why did Judaism reject Philo?
Does the Torah Contain a Philosophy?
Scholars debate whether the first five books of the Tanach, the Pentateuch, contain a philosophy. Philosophy, for our purposes, is defined as the study or the science of the truth, the search for the principles underlying all knowledge and reality. The emphasis of philosophers is on study, thinking and knowledge.
The Bible: A Book with No Philosophy
Baruch Spinoza, (1632–1677), in his A Theologico-Political Treatise, insisted that a profound difference exists between the Bible and philosophy. The first, according to Spinoza, is a system that disallows thought and requires one to obey in robot-like fashion, without employing any thought at all. He certainly overstated his point. In many instances in the Bible people are described as thinking. Abraham, for example, goes so far as to argue with a decision made by God and stand up for his beliefs. Moses and other prophets declare that they cannot fulfill missions that God is sending them to perform.
Yet there is some truth to Spinoza’s contention. The Torah is not a structure organized to elucidate how the world functions. The fact that so many people have read differing and even conflicting ideas in the scriptural words can be seen to demonstrate that there is no clear biblical philosophy at all.
Moses Maimonides also seems to refute the idea that the Bible expresses an identifiable philosophy. Maimonides discusses the subject of the origin of the world in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:25. He states that the wording of the Torah itself could be interpreted to mean that God formed the world from pre-existing matter that God did not create. One can, for example, define bara, “created,” as “formed,” and read the opening biblical sentence as, “In the beginning when God formed the heaven and the earth, [at that time] the earth was formless….” Thus Maimonides is expressing the belief that the Bible has no clear philosophic view on the matter.
To cite another example, many people are certain that they can find within Scripture a biblical view about women. Yet scholars such as Tikva Frymer-Kensky remind us that the Bible presents a neutral portrayal of women, and that the negative portrayal entered Judaism during the Second Temple period as a result of Greek and Roman influences.
These and other scholars felt certain that the Torah was not written to teach a specific philosophy.
The contention that the Torah does not teach philosophy does not in any way diminish the Torah. The belief is simply that the Torah does not teach philosophy because this is not – nor was it ever – the Torah’s purpose.
The Bible: A Defined Philosophy
There are, of course, many who hold a contrary view, maintaining that the Torah is the basis for Jewish thought. The fourth-century BCE Greek thinker Theophrastus stated, “Jews are a people of philosophers.” Similarly, the poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) wrote “they pray in metaphysics.” Both of these scholars were focusing on the Jewish teachings about God and preferred behaviors, but these and other scholars felt that the Torah was not written to teach a specific or organized philosophy. It is certainly possible, as we will see below, to derive lessons of proper behavior from the Torah, such as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18), but statements such as this are not an organized philosophical system.
It is known that scriptural prophetic writings that include ethical statements exist, as do several biblical and post-biblical books that are called “wisdom literature.” The latter include the book of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon. Proverbs, for example, states: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7), “Let not kindness and truth forsake thee” (3:3) and “the lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but her end is bitter as wormwood” (5:3). However, the question remains: do these constitute philosophy?
Philo: Using Greek Philosophy to Interpret the Torah
The first attempt to introduce non-Jewish philosophy into Judaism in written documents occurred in Alexandria, Egypt. During their exile in Babylon (beginning in 586 BCE), Jews absorbed Babylonian ideas, but no treatise was composed incorporating these notions. Examples of this include the acceptance of the Babylonian names of the months and the belief in a soul.
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered Egypt. In doing so, he passed through or near the area of Judea. Many intellectual Greeks were present with the invading Greek forces, affording both the Greeks and Judeans ample opportunity to learn from one another. This contact intensified the already existing relationship between Jews and Greeks as well as the intellectual exchanges between the two cultures. Alexander died in 323 BCE and Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Egypt, later becoming Pharaoh. Ptolemy brought many Jews to Egypt. These Jews settled in several areas, in particular Alexandria, the city that Alexander had begun to build and that Ptolemy completed. Ptolemy’s son, Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus, established a large library in Alexandria, and it was under his reign that the Bible was translated into Greek around 250 BCE, a translation called the Septuagint.
Amongst the Greeks were several prominent philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle as well as Hellenistic schools of thought such as Stoicism and Epicureanism.
The first Jewish writer to draw philosophic teachings from these philosophers and relate Judaism to Greek philosophy, in this case the rational Aristotle, was Aristobulus of the first century BCE. However, only fragments are left of his works. Whether he wrote more than these is not known, and most scholars doubt the authenticity of the surviving fragments.
Philo was the first Jew to develop a systematic philosophy based on Greek ideas. Philo was influenced by the somewhat mystical works of Plato. A leader of the Alexandrian Jewish community, Philo lived from about 20 B.C.E. to about 50 C.E. The community used him, for example, to argue their case before the Roman emperor when they felt that they were being mistreated by the Roman officials who ruled Egypt at the time.
Harry Wolfson, the noted Harvard professor, wrote a monumental study of the philosopher called Philo. Wolfson points out that Philo presented his understanding of Plato’s philosophy in his interpretation of the Torah. This he did in many books, which were generally written as sermons.
Philo interpreted the Bible in allegorical fashion. He accepted the Bible as divinely inspired, but maintained that it hinted at the ideas that the Greek philosopher Plato articulated. The early rabbis disliked Philo’s allegorical approach – they feared that once a Jew began to explain the Bible in a non-literal allegorical fashion, it would lead Jews away from Judaism – but the early Christian church accepted Philo’s method and ideas.
This same allegorical approach was later used by Maimonides to interpret many biblical texts, but not to the same extent or in the same manner as Philo. Philo’s interpretations were on the whole mystical, while Maimonides’ approach was rational. The rabbis in Maimonides’ time disapproved of this method as well, but they did not dismiss Maimonides as they did Philo. The rabbis were more accepting of Maimonides because of his obvious broad knowledge of Judaism generally and halakhah in particular.
Philo’s Understanding of Scripture
Philo’s allegorical understanding of Scripture was comprised of many elements. Most significantly:
- Philo insisted that although he allegorized even the historical parts of Scripture – such as the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – these stories should also be understood literally.
- Abraham was the prototype of the seeker of knowledge of both God and philosophy, what might collectively be called a seeker of truth. He had relations first with the foreign woman, Sarah’s servant Hagar, and had an offspring with her. It was only later, in his mature years, that he had an offspring with Sarah. In the same way, seekers of truth must apply themselves first to outside culture, learn to think, enlarge their understanding of the world, and then move on to the sublime philosophy of the divine law. Maimonides would later agree that this was the only way that a person could understand higher-level ideas; however, most rabbis rejected this view.
- Philo felt that the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was the essential message of the Torah. Each of the Decalogue’s commandments epitomized and summarized other biblical commandments. Therefore, he, like Saadiah Gaon (882–942) after him, categorized the Torah’s commandments according to the Decalogue’s headings. For example, the biblical dietary laws were placed under the category of “do not covet” because the purpose of the dietary laws is to teach self-restraint and temperance.
- When Deuteronomy 19:14 mandates “thou shalt not add to or take away from the law [of the Torah]” it is teaching the Aristotelian principle of the “golden mean” – the value of avoiding all kinds of extremes.
- Genesis 2:4 states, “God made every green herb of the field before it was upon the earth.” Philo notes that the verse states “before it was upon the earth” and relates the verse to Plato’s notion of “ideas.” In Plato’s philosophy, all ideas already exist in a metaphysical world; people’s understanding of those ideas amounts to representations of the “real” ideas that preexist in the world of ideas.
Judaism’s Protracted Rejection of Philo
As mentioned, Philo, the first Jewish philosopher, was not accepted by mainstream Judaism. Between the first and sixteenth centuries, no Jewish writer mentions him. In the sixteenth century, Azariah dei Rossi wrote about Philo in his Meor einayim. He objected to Philo’s allegorization of the historical parts of Scripture and the absence of traditional Jewish interpretations in his commentaries. He gave Philo a Jewish name, Yididya the Alexandrian, a Hebrew translation of the Greek Philo, for both mean “lover of God.” Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840) echoed Azariah dei Rossi’s assessment. In his Guide for the Perplexed of the Time, he called Philo’s allegories “far-fetched.”
The question of whether Jewish philosophy stems from the Tanach has been much debated over the centuries; Jewish thinkers hold opinions that are diverse and even, in some cases, diametrically opposed. The development of Jewish philosophy was influenced by contact between the Jews and the Greeks surrounding them. Greek culture began to impact Jews before Alexander entered the region in 332 BCE, but his arrival intensified the cultural exchanges.
The Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, may not have been the first philosopher to use non-Jewish interpretations in understanding the Torah, but he was clearly the first whose writings are still extant. Philo introduced the concept of allegorizing Scripture, angering many rabbis and causing them to reject his approach and his interpretations. As a result, Philo was better accepted by the Christian community, a group that had an interest in using allegory to interpret the Bible according to its own notions, predicting the advent of Jesus. It was not until the sixteenth century, some 1500 years after his death, that Jews began to reapproach, reexamine and respect Philo. The initial reexamination prompted negative assessments; however, since Harry Wolfson’s monumental study of Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher has begun to receive positive assessments.
Maimonides the rationalist and follower of Aristotle was radically different than Philo the mystic and student of Plato. Although both were strong lovers of everything Jewish and were observant Jews, many scholars question how much of Judaism Philo really knew. For example, some readers of Philo’s writings are convinced that he only knew the Bible in its Greek translation. Maimonides, on the other hand, was well versed in all aspects of Judaism. The rabbis disliked Philo. They also feared Maimonides’ interpretations, usually because they were more rational than the general masses could understand, a fact that Maimonides understood as well, as I will discuss in a future essay.
 Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism.