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Philo of Alexandria

Peder Borgen

Philo Judaicus, Philo of Alexandria
Philo illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE), known also as Philo of Alexandria, Philo the Jew, etc., was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria. He used allegory to blend Greek philosophy and Judaism.

JAFAR JAFARNEJAD: Why does Philo appeal to a Norwegian scholar?

   Peder Borgen: Philo appeals to me for several reasons. Let me here at the outset indicate two: In him main cultural streams meet, in particular the Hebrew-Jewish tradition and the Greek-Hellenistic tradition, which also are basic factors in our culture today.

Moreover, a large number of his writings have been preserved, and they therefore represent a major source to events and ideas in the 1st century AD, the century of Jesus, Paul and Josephus. Together with Josephus and Paul Philo testifies to the variety of emphases and movements within Judaism at that time.

JJ: What do we know about his life?

PB: We do not know much about his life, but a few glimpses may be given: Philo was a prominent member of the Jewish community of Alexandria, the largest Jewish settlement outside of Palestine. A certain date known from his life comes from his account of the great pogrom in Alexandria which started in AD 38 under the prefect Flaccus, during the reign of the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. Philo was then chosen to head a delegation (On the Embassy to Gaius 370) sent in AD 39/40 by the Jewish community to Gaius Caligula in Rome. The time of Philo's death should probably be set around AD 50, and his birth to around 20-15 B.C.

Philo belonged to one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Alexandria. His brother, Alexander, was probably chief of customs (alabarch) of the Eastern border of Egypt and guardian of the Emperor Tiberius' mother's properties in Egypt. Alexander was rich enough to lend money to the Jewish king Agrippa 1, and to plate the gates of the Temple of Jerusalem in gold and silver.

Alexander's apostate son, Tiberius Julius Alexander, born ca. AD 15, had a public career which took him to the highest post of a Roman official in Egypt, that of prefect (AD 66-70). He had then already served as procurator of Judaea (AD 46-48) and served as chief of staff under Titus during the siege of Jerusalem AD 70.

JJ: What aspects of his personality attract you most?

  PB: I am impressed by the fact that Philo was a learned person, a religious person, and even a trusted political leader in a time of crisis.

  He was a learned person. He was well versed in the Laws of Moses and other Jewish scriptures. In his youth he received the Greek general education of the encyclia. This general education consisted of literature, rhetoric, mathematics, music, and logic. Philo's writings show that he had a broad education also beyond the encyclia. He had an excellent command of Greek language and literary style, and was well acquainted with Greek authors and philosophers.

Philo was a religious person, loyal to Judaism and its institutions. Thus his engagement in philosophy did not separate him from the activities of the synagogues, which, according to Philo, were schools of philosophy. His writings prove that his philosophical interest largely was expressed in exegesis of the laws of Moses. At times Philo had mystical experiences in connection with his exegetical activity. At least once in his life he made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem to offer up prayers and sacrifices.

  In connection with the persecution of the Alexandrian Jews during the reign of the emperor Gaius and the prefect Flaccus Philo had the political role of being the leader of the Jewish embassy to Rome. This fact is impressive and proves to me that he was a trusted person in his community. Even more important to me is his attempt to interpret the laws of Moses for his time, with emphasis both on philosophy and on religious life.

  JJ: What are the significance of Philo's writings, and how do you classify them?

PB: There has long been general agreement among scholars on the classification of Philo's expository writing. These fall into two main groups, 1) his rewritten version of the laws of Moses, and 2) his exegetical commentaries.

  JJ: What is his rewritten version of the laws of Moses?

  PB: Several of Philo's treatises follow basically the books of the laws of Moses from the story of the creation and onwards. These are On the Creation; On Abraham; On Joseph; On the Decalogue; On the Special Laws; On the Virtues; On Rewards and Punishments. Today these treatises are together called the Exposition of the Laws of Moses.

These writings are but parts of one comprehensive rewriting of the law of Moses. On the basis of Philo's own terminology and outline, the Exposition can be divided in three parts: the story of creation, the historical part, and the legislative part. The two books on the Life of Moses are independent companion works which supplement the Exposition.

JJ: I would like to hear more about Philo's exegetical commentaries.

PB: Many of his books belong under this heading, and they fall into two subordinate series:

The first series is Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus, which is a brief commentary in the form of questions and answers on parts of the first two books of the Pentateuch. Most of the Greek original has been lost; modern editions depend mainly on the ancient Armenian version.

The second series is The Allegorical Commentary on Genesis, which consists of a large number of treatises. This series covers the main parts of the Book of Genesis chapters 2-41. They have the form of a verse-by-verse commentary on the biblical texts. These commentaries vary in length and are more complex in form than Questions and Answers. The question-and-answer form is also used in the Allegorical Commentary, however, but here as one among several forms used.

Scholars have suggested that the Questions and Answers Commentary is catechetical, while the Allegorical Commentary is more scholarly. Some observations speak against this view: a) mostly, where the Questions and Answers Commentary overlaps with sections of questions and answers in the Allegorical Commentary, there is no substantial difference. Moreover, the question-and-answer form also occurs in the Exposition of the Laws of Moses, where it does not serve catechetical aim.

   Scholars have observed that the question-and-answer form is also found in Greek commentaries on Homer. But it equally occurs in Palestinian exegetical tradition, and Philo may therefore share this influence from Greek exegetical forms with Jewish tradition in general.

JJ: What about the other writings which do not fall under these two groups?

PB: The remaing writings vary much, and therefore there has been more uncertainty about their classification. They consist of On the Eternity of the World; On Providence; Whether Animals Have Reason; Every Good Man is Free; Against Flaccus; On the Embassy to Gaius; On the Contemplative Life and The Apology of the Jews.

Also here it seems pertinent to start from the fact that Philo was an exegete. Against this background the classification of these writings should be given the heading: Principles from the laws of Moses applied to contemporary philosophical ideas, issues and events.

Philo lived all his life in the double context of the Jewish community and the Alexandrian Greek community. The Jewish Laws of Moses and Greek philosophy were both Philo's life interest.

JJ: What are his sources?

PB: This is a difficult question to answer. Philo clearly uses a wide range of sources, but often in such a way that they are difficult to identify. His main source is easy to identify, of course, namely the Greek translation of the laws of Moses, called the Septuagint. According to Philo this translation plays a central role since it serves as a revelation of the sacred writings to the Greek-speaking part of mankind. Philo often indicates that he uses other Jewish sources besides the Bible. He refers to what he has learned from the elders of the nation, and he at times criticizes the viewpoints of anonymous Jewish exegetes.

Some conclusion about Philo's knowledge and use of Greek philosophy may be drawn from explicit quotations, and from the philosophical ideas he uses. Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonic traditions predominate. Philo's view that general education prepares for philosophy and his definition of philosophy as "the practice or study of wisdom which is the knowledge of things divine and human in their causes" are Stoic, as is also his division of philosophy into logic, ethics, and physics. From the Platonic tradition he takes over the distinction between the "forms" or ideas and the visible world, and between soul and body. His idea of Logos shows kinship both with Platonic and Stoic thinking. From the Pythagoreans come speculations on numbers.

Such non-Jewish sources have been incorporated into his exposition of the Laws of Moses in such a way that on the whole little identification of authors seems possible, but in some cases names of philosophers and authors are given.

JJ: How does Philo interpret Scripture?

PB: Philo's interpretations are so many-facetted that it may seem impossible to characterize his approach in a few sentences. But let me try: Philo has a two or three level interpretation of Scripture: 1) the concrete aspect of Scripture, that is its literal meaning including the concrete meaning of biblical events. 2) The deeper general ideas and principles of the text, for example as general ethical principles and virtues, general universal ideas which comprise all peoples and also nature. 3) The beyond, the divine dimension beyond the dimension of creation.

The deeper meaning reached by means of the allegorical method has been much discussed. Did he draw on Greek allegorical methods, especially as employed by the Stoics on Homer, or on Jewish traditions? He undoubtedly followed the Stoics, who read natural phenomena and ethical norms into Homer, though Philo emphasized the ethical, which he based on his concept of God. But other parallels are found in Jewish traditions, especially as regards the idealization of the patriarchs and other biblical persons, often by means of etymologies.

It may be maintained that Philo attempts to make the allegorical method serve his aims as a Jewish exegete. He spells out the abstract principles which he sees in the biblical text. These principles in turn can be applied to his own time.

  JJ: What are some of his central Ideas and perspectives?

  PB: Let me first say a few words about Philo's ideas about God. At times he maintains that God is unknowable, transcending virtue and the good and the beautiful. He is "that which exists" (to on), or "he who exists" (ho on). But, although God himself is unknowable, his activities, which are called his powers (dynameis) can be known. Central powers are: God's activity in creating the world, represented by the name "God" (Theos), and his continued activities in governing the world, indicated by the name "Lord" (Kyrios). The universe consists of the intelligible and the sensible world, both created and governed by God. God's powers are in the intelligible sphere, but reach into this world and are knowable by man.

JJ: How does he use the term 'Logos'?

PB: The term 'Logos' is central to Philo. His technical use of the term connotes God's mental activity during the act of creating. He uses a parable of the architect to illustrate this point: Philo tells about an architect who made a model of the various parts of the city he was to build. According to Philo, the architect thought out in his mind how he should build. Philo applies this picture to the creation of the world; he identifies the intellectual planning of the architect with Logos, meaning God's mental activity during the act of creating. Philo develops a philosophical exegesis on this basis. He focuses the attention on the intellectual activity of the architect, and in this way the model is not an "empirical" sketch or model, but the image of the city in the mind of the architect. Thus, the parable expresses the idea that the model of the world is the intelligible world (of ideas) conceived by God before he created the world perceived by the senses. Here Jewish exegetical tradition about God as creator and Stoic and Platonic terminology and thought categories are brought together in a synthesis. The Logos, as one of the powers of the intelligible world, reaches into our world. The plural logoi can indicate the heavenly principles which are made known in the laws and precepts given to the Jews through Moses.

JJ: Is it true that Philo uses sexual imagery to explain the relation between God, human beings and the world?

PB: Yes, he sometimes uses sexual imagery to describe the relationship between God and the world. The contrast between male and female means the contrast between the spiritual and the irrational or between the eternal and the transitory. Matter is female, while form and logos is male. The highest Logos and God himself are essentially asexual.

In Philo's anthropology, humans consist of soul and body, but Philo utilizes a variety of concepts such as soul, mind, and spirit. He distinguishes between the lower mind and soul, which operate within the context of sense perception and are mortal, and the higher mind and soul which are indestructible and immortal.

JJ: Is he a dualist? If so, how do you characterize his dualism?

   PB: Philo at times seems to entertain a dualism between soul and body, but here several distinctions must be made. One important observation is that his dualism is connected with the distinction made between the chosen people, the Jews, and other nations. Philo combines an ethical dualism between heaven and earth and between soul and body with the dualism between Judaism and the pagan world. For example, the Jews who make the bodily sphere, education, wealth, and office serve the heavenly values, primarily as made manifested in the laws of Moses, bring heaven to rule over earth. If, on the other hand, the Jews have luxurious living, political careers, and licentiousness as their objectives, they join with the earthly, disorder where earth and heaven have been put upside down. Accordingly, when Philo interprets references to Egypt and Egyptians allegorically to mean the body and passions, he combines these two aspects of his dualism: Egypt and Egyptian represent the pagans in contrast to the Jewish nation, and at the same time they represent the veneration of earth and body – as seen in their worship of animals – over against the Jewish nation that has the heavenly quality of the soul. When Jews yield to the somatic passions and other evils, they then join with the Egyptians in their vices and worship of bodily matters.

JJ: Is there a dominant feature in Philo's thought?

  PB: On this question there is quite a debate among scholars. Some see the dominant feature to be the tendency to bridge the gap between the transcendent God and human beings by intermediaries, such as Logos, the powers, osv. This is correct. The precision should be made, however, that to Philo the revealed wisdom in the Jewish Scriptures mediates between God and man. In this way a notion of the cosmic and universal significance of Israel is present in this thought.

JJ: How does he evaluate philosophers and others outside the Jewish circles?

PB: In his references to examples and persons outside Judaism, Philo can use various lines of argumentation. In his discussion of the free men he says that the various levels of freedom of the worthy man receives their full dimension and true expression in Moses and in those who follow him in worshipping the Self-Existent only. At several places Philo maintains that the Greek philosophers drew their thought from Moses and his Laws. In agreement with this, Philo pictures Moses as the embodiment of all knowledge and wisdom. Although Moses had Egyptian and Greek teachers, he was independent in his apprehension so that he seemed a case rather of recollection than of learning.

Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish race, is at the same time the prototype of proselytes, since he left his native country and its polytheism to discover the One God.

Through reason humans in general may gain insights about themselves, about ideas and principles and about earthly and cosmic matters. They have the ability of seeking God, but easily are led astray by attributing divine qualities and functions to aspects of creation.

When persons seek to know themselves, scepticism is the result: human beings are creatures made of clay and dust. When they realize this, they are prepared to receive God's revelation as it happened to Abraham: God called Abraham who with his Chaldean background had sought up to the cosmic insights, but without regarding the heavenly bodies to be gods, as was the mistake made by his fellow Chaldeans.

JJ: What is the significance of Philo?

PB: Scholars have interpreted Philo in a variety of ways. He has been seen as a great (Pharisaic) system builder and philosopher (Wolfson); as a representative of anti-normative Hellenistic Judaism, a Jewish mystery religion (Goodenough); as a representative of gnosticism (Jonas, Klein, Käsemann, etc.); or as a representative of Middle Platonism (Theiler, Früchtel, Dillon, Pearson). Since Philo combines motifs of Platonic/Pythagorean and Stoic nature, he shows obvious kinship with Middle Platonism. These Greek elements of Middle Platonic background are woven together with biblical and Jewish notions. His writings reflect the fact that different streams and traditions were present in Alexandrian Judaism. Philo's own emphasis on heavenly ascent suggests that he draws on traditions from early Jewish mysticism.

Was Philo then fundamentally Greek or Jewish? His loyalty to the Jewish institutions, the laws of Moses, his idea of Israel as the priesthood of the world shows that he was fundamentally a Jew. When Philo draws on Greek philosophy and various notions from pagan religions, his own intention was not to compromise Jewish convictions and aims. He even at times suggests that whatever good there was in philosophy had its authentic expression in Scripture As a consequence, however, he was on the verge of being overcome by the ideas he wished to claim for the laws of Moses. In this way Philo's particularism risked ending up in a universalism where Jewish distinctiveness was in danger of being lost.

Philo may have belonged to an elite group, small in number within the Jewish community of Alexandria. Nevertheless his place is clearly within the community in such a way that he took part in debates and conflicts among different Jewish streams, and understood himself to represent traditions and interpretations of the synagogues, the Jewish schools of philosophy.

JJ: How were Philo's writings preserved and used?

  PB: Philo remained almost unknown in Jewish tradition until the 16th century. It was the Christian Church which preserved and adopted Philo; Byzantine anthologies even cite excerpts of Philo under the heading "of Philo the Bishop." Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Ambrose were influenced by Philo in their allegorical exegesis and their use of such concepts as wisdom, Logos, and faith.

In modern historical research, Philo is studied as a source for Greek philosophy, as a representative of Second Temple Judaism and as a forerunner of early Christian thought. As for the latter, Philo has especially been studied to throw light on the concept of Logos in the Gospel of John, on Platonisms in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and on exegetical techniques and forms used in the New Testament. Philo's writings reflect a variety of movements within Judaism in the time of the beginnings of Christianity, and this observation has also thrown light on some of the conflicts and debates in early Christianity, particularly in relation to Judaism and the Hellenistic world. Books:

  • E. R. Goodenough, By Light, Light. The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1935; repr. Amsterdam, 1969).
  • H. A. Wolfson, Philo, 1-2 (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1948).
  • P. Borgen, Philo of Alexandria, An Exegete for His Time (Leiden; Brill Publishers, 1997)


PEDER JOHAN BORGEN (born 1928) is professor emeritus at the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, at NTNU. In 2003 he was awarded the Gunnerus Medal, which is the highest honour given by The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters. He is also a fellow of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.


Peder Borgen, Philo of Alexandria, Jafar Jafarnejad, Veien til vitenskap, litteratur  

Jafarnejad, Jafar, hovudred. Veien til vitenskap. Band 1-3. Trondheim: Privat forlag, 1999.

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    © 1999: Peder Borgen (author), Jafar Jafarnejad (main editor) and Tormod Kinnes (editor)
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