Philo of Alexandria

The first-century c.e. Jewish author and philosopher Philo of Alexandria is an important figure for both Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity. He was born around 20 b.c.e. in Alexandria into one of the wealthiest and most distinguished Jewish families.

Alexandria had a thriving Jewish community and was known for its intellectual vigor. In addition to his Jewish education, therefore, Philo received schooling in the Greek custom, including the philosophy of Plato, Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Stoicism, as well as Greek literature and rhetoric, all of which are evident in his work.

For example, he refers to God with the Greek term logos when discussing the divine creation of the world. The influence of Greek traditions on Judaism in Philo’s work becomes in part representative of what is generally known as Hellenistic Judaism in distinction from Palestinian Judaism and its rabbinic traditions.

While Hellenism infl uenced Philo, he remained a pious and loyal Jew who used his education to explain and defend Judaism and its beliefs. To this end he was very involved with the synagogues in Alexandria.

His writings consist largely of philosophical, apologetic, and exegetical works. In addition to his intellectual pursuits, belonging to a prominent family ensured that Philo had public and political responsibilities as well.

In a well-known incident around 39 c.e., Philo unsuccessfully led a Jewish delegation to the emperor Gaius Caligula in Rome, seeking rights for Jews, who were being severely mistreated by Alexandrians, who wished to deny Greek citizenship and its privileges to Jews. We also know that Philo traveled at least once on pilgrimage to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He died around the year 50 c.e.

Much of Philo’s work is exegetical in nature, and many individual writings include or consist entirely of commentaries on the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with a special focus on the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and the laws of Moses.

Working with the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint, Philo sought to demonstrate that the Jewish teachings in these books, especially Mosaic law, were compatible with and indeed were ultimately the source of the wisdom, natural law, and virtues of classical Greek philosophy. Thus, one must study divine revelation in scripture to gain knowledge of true philosophy.

Philo’s exegesis is characterized by the allegorical method, which begins with the literal or historical level of meaning and then moves to the allegorical or spiritual level of meaning.

Greek authors had used allegory for centuries, mainly to discover philosophical meanings in the writings of Homer, and Philo realized that it would help to uncover the higher meanings of scripture. This allegorical or spiritual meaning aids in the quest for spiritual perfection and knowledge of God, or in Philo’s terms, the transcendence of the soul above the body.

With the decline of Alexandrian Jewish writings and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, ironically, Christians rather than Jews tended to read Philo. Well-educated Christians in Alexandria such as Clement and Origen also used allegory, and traces of Philo’s influence are evident in their exegesis of Genesis, for example.

Subsequent Christians like Ambrose and Jerome either read Philo or those authors infl uenced by Philo. Early Christians are responsible for preserving many of Philo’s works, and some even refer to Philo by the honorary status of "Philo the Bishop" or "Philo Christianus".