Philo as a Biblical Commentator


Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of Judaism’s great philosophers. The noted scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo was the first Jewish philosopher who “contributed anything new” to Jewish-Greek philosophy. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel offers readers a good introduction to this famous thought-provoking philosopher in the third volume in his series “Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator.” Samuel’s prior two volumes were on Genesis and Exodus. This one is on Leviticus. Samuel gives us an easy to read translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive explanatory notes.

Philo’s philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that Philo wrote still exist. They were not composed as a systematic philosophy, as is Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, who based his philosophy on Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Philo’s books are, in essence, a collection of intelligent sermons and commentaries in which he explains the Bible frequently from an allegorical perspective.

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 is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires that the alert 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 read Scripture on two levels, but his second level was rational, not as mystical as those of Philo, and he used far less allegory.

Philo taught that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, for they transmit truth. Unrealistic tales, such as a snake enticing Eve or Balaam’s donkey having a conversation with him, can be mined and understood by using the allegorical or metaphorical approaches. Thus, 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.

Samuel states that Philo’s ultimate aim in interpreting Leviticus is “to teach us how to instill virtue in our daily lives.” One of many instances is the law prohibiting the slaughter a mother animal and its young on the same day which teaches that even among animals a mother feels for its young, and we must treat all God’s creations with respect.

The following examples are only a few of the many Philo ideas contained in this book on Leviticus on just the subject of food laws:

Philo saw the teachings of moderation and self-control in many biblical laws. During the temple days, for instance, the Torah forbid the Israelites from even tasting any foods before separating the first fruits and bringing it to the temple, for this teaches temperance and self-control. The Torah forbids consuming certain animal fats because fat represents gluttony and self-indulgence. Animals in the air, land, and water that are fleshy, fat, and tasty, such as swine and fish that have no scales, are forbidden because they are likely to excite treacherous pleasures. Also, carnivorous animals that feed on other animals are proscribed with only domestic animals being permitted to teach Jews to be gentle, not plot evil, and treat others, Jews and non-Jews, humans and animals, humanely.

Philo goes deeper into this subject by reading the laws allegorically. Scripture gives two signs concerning the animals that may be eaten: they must have split hoofs and chew the cud.  The split hoofs teaches that “the course of life is two-fold, one leading to wickedness and the other to virtue,” and we must renounce the first and never forsake the other. The chewing of cuds teaches that just as animals chew the cud slowly, softening it, and then allowing it to descend unhurriedly to the belly, so people must consider new ideas carefully and hold the idea in mind until it is fully understood.

Similarly, fish must have fins and scales which make the fish capable of navigating difficult waters. This teaches allegorically that humans should fight against the turbulence of self-indulgence and incorrect philosophies that lead people astray. Only two classes of birds may be offered as sacrifices, turtledoves and pigeons, because these are gentle birds. Similarly only three species of animals may be offered – cattle, sheep, and goats – because these animals are domestic, even a child could lead them. People are forbidden to eat dead animals torn by wild beasts because it is not fitting for people to share a feast with untamable beasts and become a fellow reveler in carnivorous activities and, besides, it may cause disease.

Leaven bread is banned in temple sacrifices as well as honey. Philo writes that leaven represents arrogance and honey is outlawed because a bee is not a kosher animal and, again, because sweetness and pleasure needs to be moderated.

Modern readers may not agree with every Philo interpretation, especially his overuse of allegory. Maimonides, for example, gave radically different rational reasons for the food laws. Philo’s view that only male animals could be sacrificed because “the female is imperfect” and overly passive, is certainly sexist, as Samuel notes. Samuel explains that Philo was influenced by the Greek misconceptions of women. But even when we disagree this does not detract in any way from learning Philo’s views and certainly not from Samuel’s interpretations of them, because the book teaches us new ideas, many clearly acceptable, and prompts readers to think.