Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria, volume IV, Numbers

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel


Rabbi Michael Leo Samuels has just published his fourth informative volume on the pioneer philosopher Philo, a volume is on the biblical book Numbers. He drew Philo ideas from a wealth of this philosopher’s exegetical comments and arranged them according to biblical verses. He gives readers an easy to read translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive explanatory notes, which frequently includes opinions about the subject from modern scholars, extensive parallels with the writings of rabbis in rabbinical literature, Christian theology, and Greek, Roman, and Jewish philosophers and historians such as Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Josephus. He includes an informative thirty-three-page introduction to Philo’s life and thought.

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.

Philo’s philosophy is based in large part on 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 very 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 alert intelligent readers 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 mystical as those of Philo, and while he saw allegory in the Bible, such as the story of Adam and eve in the Garden of Eden, he saw far less allegory than Philo. It was Philo’s extensive use of allegory that led rabbis to ignore his writings until the modern era. These same rabbis ignored Maimonides’ philosophical writings and his allegorical interpretations, but while Philo uses allegory to interpret scripture on virtually every page, or so it seems, Maimonides does so much less frequently, one can even say, rarely. Whether one agrees that the Torah was meant in each instance to be understood allegorically, Philo’s ideas are interesting, incisive, and though-provoking.

Philo’s view of allegory was that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, and they transmit truth by these methods. Often truths that can be applied to other situations. Thus, to cite an 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. Other examples of the need for allegorical interpretations include the ass speaking to Balaam and the snake talking to Eve. Examples of subjects that one may think do not need an allegorical interpretation, but become more insightful by using this technique are seeking to understand why God kept the Israelites in the desert for forty years, the law of the accused wife and the procedure used to discover whether she committed adultery, was Cain guilty for murdering his brother Abel and Moses for killing an Egyptian taskmaster, was the shofar blown outside the tabernacle, and when does the new year begin according to the Bible.

Samuel’s series on Philo, in short, is a much needed contribution to the understanding of the Bible and the thinking of more than a dozen well-respected scholars on what the Bible is teaching and why it is doing so.