Philo, Judaeus

fi-'lo, joo-de'-us:

1. His Life

2. Importance of the Period

3. The Task of Philo

4. Changes and New Problems

5. Three Subjects of Inquiry

(1) The Conception of God

(2) God's Relation to the World

(3) Doctrine of Man

6. Philo's Works


1. His Life:

Born probably in the first decade of Augustus Caesar, who became emperor in 27 BC. He died possibly in the last years of Claudius (41-54 AD), more likely in the early years of Nero (54-65 AD). We have no exact information about either date. He was a native of Alexandria, Egypt. His relatives were wealthy and prominent, probably sacerdotal, Jews. He received the best Jewish education, and was trained also in Gentilelearning--grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, geometry, poetry, music. Enjoying ample means, he was enabled to devote his career to scholarship. The Alexandrian Jews wielded great influence in the contemporary Roman empire, and the prominence of Philo's family is attested by the fact that his brother, Alexander Lysimachus, was Alabarch of Alexandria. The single date in Philo's life which we know accurately is connected with their leadership. In the winter of 39-40 AD, he was spokesman of the deputation sent to Rome to protest against imposition of emperor-worship upon fellow-citizens of his faith. The mission failed, Philo, with his two colleagues, meeting rebuff, even insult. It was little likely that Caligula would heed grievances which included specifically dissent from worship of himself. Philo records his distaste for political activity, and, so far as we know, the Roman incident excepted, he devoted himself principally to letters. As a young man probably, he had undertaken a journey to Jerusalem, almost in the nature of a pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of his religion. He paid a second visit to Rome possibly after 50 AD, at all events, in the reign of Claudius. For the rest, our knowledge of his life is scanty and, sometimes, legendary.

2. Importance of the Period:

The period covered by his career coincides with one of the most momentous epochs in history. For it witnesses, not only the foundation of the Roman imperial system, but also the beginning of the end of ancient classical civilization in its dominant ideas, and the plantation of Christianity. Preeminently an era of transition, it was marked by significant displacements in culture, the effects of which continue to sway mankind even yet. Minor phenomena aside, three principal movements characterized the time: the Pagan reaction, or reversion to forms of religion that had sufficed the peoples of the Rom empire hitherto--this manifested itself strongly with Augustus, and entered its decline perhaps with the death of Plutarch (circa 120 AD); the appearance of Christianity; and what is known as Syncretism, or interfusion between the conceptions of different races, especially in religion, philosophy and morals--a circumstance which affected the fortunes of Christianity deeply, found its chief exponent in Philo, and maintained itself for several centuries in theosophical systems of the Gnostics and neo-Platonists. Thus, to understand Philo, and to realize his importance, it is essential to remember the internal spirit of his age. The "universalism" of the Roman empire has been so named because, within the political framework, various peoples and divergent civilizations commingled and came eventually to share something of a common spirit, even of a common language. Philo's prominence as a figure in the world of thought, and as an authority for the general culture of New Testament times, is out of all proportion to the fragmentary information available about his external career. Contemporary currents, subtle as they were, perplexing as they still remain, met and fused in his person. Hence, his value as an index to the temperament of the period cannot well be overrated.

3. The Task of Philo:

A Jew by nature and nurture, an oriental mystic by accident of residence, a Greek humanist by higher education and professional study, an ally of the Rom governing classes, familiar with their intellectual perspective, Philo is at once rich in suggestion and blurred in outline. Moreover, he addressed himself to two tasks, difficult to weld into a flawless unity. On the one hand, he wrote for educated men in Greek-Roman society, attempting to explain, often to justify, his racial religion before them. The ancient state religion having fallen upon inanition, he enjoyed unusual opportunity to point the merits of the Jewish faith as the "desire of all nations," the panacea of which the need was everywhere felt. On the other hand, he had to confront his orthodox coreligionists, with their separatist traditions and their contempt for paganism in all its works. He tried to persuade them that, after all, Greek thought was not inimical to their cherished doctrines, but, on the contrary, involved similar, almost identical, principles. He thus represented an eclectic standpoint, one in which Greek philosophy blended with historical and dogmatic deductions from the Jewish Scriptures. The result was Philo's peculiar type of theosophy--we cannot call it a system. Taking the Old Testament for text, he applied the "allegorical" method, with curious consequences. He taught that the Scriptures contain two meanings: a "lower" meaning, obvious in the literal statements of the text; and a "higher," or hidden meaning, perceptible to the "initiate" alone. In this way he found it possible to reconcile Greek intellectualism with Jewish belief. Greek thought exhibits the "hidden" meaning; it turns out to be the elucidation of the "allegory" which runs through the Old Testament like a vein of gold. Moses, and the rest, are not merely historical figures, the subjects of such and such vicissitudes, but representative types of reason, righteousness, the virtues, and so forth. The tendency to fusion of this kind was no new thing. It is traceable for some three centuries before Philo, who may be said to complete the process. It had been familiar to the rabbis, and to the Hellenistic philosophers, particularly the Stoics, who applied this method to the Greek poetical myths. Philo reduces it to an expert art, and uses it as an instrument to dissipate all difficulties. He believed himself to be thoroughly true to the Old Testament. But, thanks to his method, he rendered it malleable, and could thus adjust its interpretation to what he considered to be the intellectual necessities of his generation. Nay more, he felt that, when at his best in this process, he became a vehicle of Divine possession. He says, "Through the influence of divine inspiration I have become excited profoundly .... then I have been conscious of a richness of interpretation, an enjoyment of light, a most penetrating sight, a most manifest energy in all that was to be done." Again "I am irradiated with the light of wisdom," and, "all intellect is a divine inspiration." Little wonder, then, that we have a strange mixture of philosophy and religion, of rationalism and piety, of clear Greek intellectualism with hazy oriental mysticism. Hence, too, the philosophy of Philo is subordinate to his explanation of the Scriptures, and compromise, rather than logical thinking, marks his leading positions.

4. Changes and New Problems:

After the death of Cicero (43 BC) a change, long preparing, asserted itself in ancient thought. Mixture of national, or racial, characteristics was consummated, and thoughtful men, irrespective of race-origin, became persons to each other. A reorganization of standards of ethical judgment was thus rendered inevitable, and Judaism came to interfuse more freely with Greek philosophy as one consequence. While it is true that "reason" preserved its traditional supremacy as the means to solve all problems, the nature of the chief quest underwent transformation. The old association of man with Nature gave way to a dualism or opposition between the world-order and another existence lying behind it as its originator or sustainer. The system of Nature having disappointed expectation, thinkers asked how they could escape it, and assure themselves of definite relations with the Divine Being. They sought the desiderated connection within their own souls, but as a distant ideal. This was the problem that confronted Philo, who attacked it from the Jewish side. Now Judaism, like Greek thought, had also experienced a change of heart. Yahweh had been the subject of an idealizing process, and tended, like the Stoic deity, to lose specific relation with the world and man. Accordingly, a new religious question was bringing the philosophy and the faith into closer contact. Could they join forces? Philo's consequent embarrassment rooted, not simply in this fresh problem, but in the difficulties inseparable from the adjustment of his available methods and materials. For, while the Jewish Messiah had passed over into the Greek Logos, the two systems preserved their separation in no small measure, Philo being the most conspicuous mediator. He was familiar with the mystic, transcendent concept of Deity extracted, thanks to long misinterpretation, from Plato's cosmogonic dialogue, Timaeus. Here God was elevated above the world. His conception of the presence, or immanence, of the Deity in the world came from the Stoics. The Jewish religion gave him the doctrine of a righteous (pure) Deity, whose moral inwardness made relations with men possible. Moreover, contemporary angelology and demonology enabled him to devise a scheme whereby the pure Deity could be linked with the gross world, notwithstanding its ineradicable evil. Little wonder, then, that he compassed an amalgamation only, and this in consonance with theosophical drift of the age. Nevertheless, he counteracted the deistic tendencies of rabbinical speculation by reference to Hellenistic pantheism, and, at the same time, counteracted this pantheism by the inward moralism of his national faith. The logical symmetry of the Greek mind was reinforced by Hebraic religious intuition. The consequence was a ferment rather than a system, but a ferment that cast up the clamant problem in unmistakable fashion. The crux was this: Man must surmount his own fragmentary experience and rise to an absolute Being; but, its absoluteness notwithstanding, this Being must be brought into direct contact with the finite. Philo was unable to reconcile the two demands, because he could not rise above them; but the effort after reconciliation controls all his thought. As a result, he concentrated upon three main subjects of inquiry: (1) the conception of God; (2) the manner of God's relation to the world; (3) human nature.

5. Three Subjects of Inquiry:

(1) The Conception of God:

Philo's doctrine of God, like that of the neo-Platonic school, which he heralded, is thoroughly dualistic. No doubt, it is determined largely by certain human analogies. For example, God's existence is necessary for the control of the world, just in the same way as man's mind must exist to furnish the principle of all human action; and, as matter is not self-determined, a principle, analogous to mind, is demanded, to be its first cause. Further, as the permanent soul remains unchanged throughout the vicissitudes of a human life, so, behind the ceaseless play of phenomena, there must reside a self-existent Being. Nevertheless, the human analogy never extends to God in His actual Being. No human traits can attach to the Deity. Language may indicate such parallelism, nay the Scriptures are full of instances, but we must view them as concessions to mortal weakness. These accommodations eliminated, it becomes evident that man can never know God positively. Any adjective used to describe Him can do no more than point the contrast between His relationless Being and the dependence of finite things. That God is, Philo is fully persuaded; what He is, no man can ever tell. He is one and immutable, simple and immeasurable and eternal, just as man is not. "For he is unchangeable, requiring nothing else at all, so that all things belong to Him, but He, speaking strictly, belongs to nothing." This doctrine of the transcendence of Deity was an essential postulate of Philonic thought. For, seeing that He expels all the imperfections of the world, God is precisely in that condition of Being for which the whole creation then yearned. In a word, the dualism, so far from being a bar to salvation, was rather a condition without which the problem of salvation could neither be stated nor solved. Men stood in necessary relation to this Being, but, as yet, He stood in no relation whatever to them. Yet, men must return to God, but He abides so remote, in the realm of pure contemplation and completion, that He cannot approach them. Philo's familiarity with logical Greek thought debarred him from surmounting the difficulty after the manner of Jewish religion. An otiose reference to "God's choice," as distinct from His nature, could not suffice a mind trained in Hellenic methods. The question therefore was, How could mediation be effected?

(2) God's Relation to the World.

At this point Philo's thought assumes a phase of great interest to readers of the New Testament. God, being above created things, is incomprehensible and immaterial. Accordingly, He cannot be connected with the world directly. Therefore He created it and sustains it by intermediate powers. These agencies were suggested to Philo by the Platonic Ideas. But he personalized them more or less and, as a characteristic addition, included them in the Logos. He substituted the term "Logos" for the Platonic term "Idea" on the basis of the Scripture phrase, "Word of God." The conception was influenced further by his Hellenistic psychological notion, that a word is a "shadow" of a deed. Accordingly, the Logos is the "shadow of God"--God being the "deed" whereby the "shadow" is cast. As a direct issue, the Logos presents two aspects. On the one side it is internal and indwelling; on the other, it is external and mediating. The scope of this distinction is indicated very well by the epithets which Philo applies to each aspect respectively. The internal Logos is the "Firstborn," the "Second God," the "Mediator" the "Ransom," the "Image of God" "Member of the Trinity," "High Priest." The external Logos "abides in man," is the "Prophet," "Shepherd," "Ambassador," "Artist," "EIder," "Interpreter," "Shadow of God." The former represents Philo's conception of the unity of the Logos with God, the latter his provision for the manifestation of the Logos in created things. He thus tries to preserve the transcendence of God equally with His immanence. No doubt, in previous times, the mysteriousness of the Divine nature had impressed itself upon men with at least as much force as now. But with one of two consequences. Either the particular finites and the Deity were mixed in inextricable confusion, as by oriental pantheism, or God was banished from the world, as by the extreme developments within Greek dualism. Philo attempted to combine the two tendencies, and was able consequently to face the obvious contradiction between the idea of an absolute Being and the cloudy conception of a multiplicity of phenomena in which this Being ought to be present somehow, despite transcendence. He demands a God who, in His exaltation, shall be a worthy Deity; this is the Jew in him. But he also demands a definite relation between this God and His creation; this is the Greek and, in part, the Oriental, in him. Thanks to the former, he could not be satisfied with mere naturalism; thanks to the latter, no fable or picture could suffice. A real mediator was required, who would link the world and its heart's desire. But Philo could not surmount one difficulty peculiar to contemporary thought. He was unable to connect God directly with creation and preserve His purity unsullied. Hence, the obscurity which surrounds his conception of the Logos, likewise his vacillation with respect to its personality. So we find the different intellectual forces which he inherited playing upon him--now one, now another. Sometimes the Platonic theory of Ideas dominates him; sometimes he leans to Stoicism, with its immanent world-reason; and here he even seems to foreshadow the doctrine of the Trinity; again, the ramifications of rabbinical lore cause him to bestow upon the Logos a priestly function or an atoning office. No single aspect achieves supremacy, although on the whole mystical Platonism may be said to predominate. Thus, "The world of Ideas has its place in the Divine Logos, just as the plan of a city is in, the soul of the master-builder." Accordingly, God's thought may take its place in the world by being impressed upon things; yet, on account of its subjective nature, it must be apprehended subjectively, that is, by one who is capable of entering this sphere. The Logos thus seems to exist entirely in the same realm as Deity; thus, it can mediate between Him and creation only if an element proper to Deity be discernible in mundane things. In other words, the Logos mediates between God and the world, but partakes of the Divine nature only. This, in any case, is the inner logic of Philo's view. It accounts for creation, but has no power to persuade man to overpass the limitations placed upon him by his bodily prison. Thus the question of the personality of the Logos is never cleared. In so far as Philo needs Logos to connect God with the world, he inclines to a doctrine of personality. In so far as he makes it the principle of all activities within the world, he inclines away from personality. In short, we have a "world-soul." And, as a consequence, there is an inherent tendency to reduce all finite being to illusion. Indeed, one might term the Logos a reply in some sort to Aristotle's question--which of the Platonic Ideas could connect the other Ideas with sensible things? Salvation is conceived as wrought out, not by a person, but by an abstract essence flowing from Deity, an essence that found due expression rather in the cosmic order than in a person. While, therefore, Philo thinks in a cultural perspective akin to that characteristic of the author of the Fourth Gospel, two vast differences sway his doctrine. On the one hand, it is speculative, not ethically personal. On the other hand, it fails completely to determine the nature of his mediator in itself, vacillating in a manner which shows how vague and fluid the conception really was.

(3) Doctrine of Man.

This appears further in the doctrine of man. Following current interpretations of Plato, Philo makes man partake in the rational nature of God, but denies that he embodies the highest species of reason. That is, the ideal man and the man known to us in common experience are distinguished. The former is rational as God is. The latter is partly rational, partly irrational. The body vitiates the original angelic purity of the soul and, similarly, reason is alloyed. And yet, although the higher nature becomes more and more debased as the years lapse, a seed of Divinity is present, ready to burst forth. Thus man must crush the flesh and its desires. At this point we note the effect of the Stoic ideal of imperturbability. When he has attained this apathy, man can enjoy the life of contemplation. This, in its turn, culminates in ecstasy, when the human soul attains sudden and momentary union with the Divine. For a "fair moment" man escapes the thralldom of sense. Yet the doctrine remains intellectual even here. He "who escapes from his own mind flies to the mind of the universe, confessing that all the things of the human mind are vain and unreal, and attributing everything to God." Philo's anthropology therefore ends in contempt for this life, which is in no wise worth while, and in a counsel of perfection available only for a select elite. Accordingly, the conclusion of the whole matter is, that he never saw how the divine and the human can be united, although he stated the factors of the problem with great clearness, and felt profoundly the urgency of a solution. His gospel was for the children of culture. He saw the eternal in the temporal, and hoped that good might lurk in evil. But he never understood that "love for a Divine Person" might be so diffused throughout a human soul as to render evil and unreality the means to the attainment of good and to the revelation of truth. The salvation he contemplated was from self, not in self. Hence, as he asserts himself, harmony with God "is an incomprehensible mystery to the multitude, and is to be imparted to the instructed only." Nor is this wonderful. For a God who is the reasonable "form" of the world; a "matter" which begins as an indistinguishable mass and ends as a "second principle"; and objects of sense rendered apparent by the operation of many curious intermediate forces, ranging from "angel-words" to the human soul, constitute a combination beyond the reach of any save the "initiate." More practicable is Philo's conception of the moral life--as a warfare of the soul against passion, pleasure and sensuality. Yet, even this contest is hopeless unless it be waged with the equipment of the "philosopher athlete." Escape from the "prison-house" of flesh would seem to be consequent only upon profound knowledge.

6. Philo's Works:

The probability is that Philo's works were written previous to his Roman embassy. They show how he tried to apply Greek philosophical conceptions to Jewish beliefs, history, and usages exclusively. The voluminous remains which have come down to us appear to belong to three commentaries on the Pentateuch and the Mosaic Law. In all likelihood, they are portions of Philo's popular presentation, written for the instruction and information of educated Hellenistic circles rather than for the trained "initiate." The treatises most important for Philo's religio-philosophical views are as follows: On the Creation of the World; On the Allegories of the Sacred Laws; On the Unchangeableness of God; On the Confusion of Languages; On the Migration of Abraham; On the Meeting for the Sake of Receiving Instruction; On the Life of the Wise Man Made Perfect by Instruction; The Unwritten Law; Abraham; On Special Laws; On Rewards and Punishments; That Every Man Who Is Virtuous Is Also Free; Concerning the World; and the Fragments. Some 8 works attributed to Philo are in dispute. Most conspicuous of these is Concerning the Contemplative Life, with its ascetic view of morality, and its description of the ideal community of the Therapeutae.


E. Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Division II, Volume III, pp. 321 f (Edinburgh, 1886); E. Schurer, "Philo" in EB; James Drummond, Philo Judaeus, or, The Jewish-Alexandrian Philosophy in Its Development and Completion (2 volumes, London, 1888); R. M. Wenley, Socrates and Christ: a Study in the Philosophy of Religion, chapters vii, viii (Edinburgh, 1889); H. Ewald, The History of Israel, VII, 194 f (London, 1885); A. Haursrath, A History of New Testament Times, division II, volume I, chapters iv through vi (London, 1885); H. Graetz, History of the Jews from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, II, 183 f, 206 f (London, 1891); E. Caird, The Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, II, lectures xx-xxi, xxvii (Glasgow, 1904); article "Philo" in Jewish Encyclopedia; Ernest F. Scott, The Fourth Gospel, Its Purpose and Theology, 54 f, 145 f (2nd edition, Edinburgh, 1908); F.C. Conybeare, Philo: About the Contemplative Life (Oxford, 1895). An English translation has been made by C.D. Yonge in the Bohn Library (London, G. Bell and Sons). The text cited usually is that of T. Mangey. The best modern text is that of Cohn and Wendland.

R. M. Wenley

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