Who Was Philo of Alexandria? Originally Published August 28-29, 2020.

Born around 20 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt, Philo was also known as Philo Judæus.  He was a (Jewish) philosopher.  We know about him through what tidbits he left behind in his own philosophical writings, and through Josephus the historian who lived around the same time.

The author of such works as Legatio ad Gaium (Delegation to Gaius) and De Specialibus Legibus (About the Special Laws), Philo studied both Torah and the Greek philosophers.  His writings have been compared with the standard Jewish exegesis (interpretation style) and with Stoic philosophy.  He also used allegory (especially in a work entitled Allegorical Interpretation), which was later taken up by Christian leaders.  His collected works take up some modern 2500 pages.

Philo was in fact a part of the delegation to Rome in 40 CE representing the Alexandrian Jews to Roman Emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus)  after civil discord arose between the Greek and Jewish communities (actually there were likely anti-Jewish riots).  The five volumes of Legatio ad Gaium (of which only two survive) told the story.

Philo apparently came from a “connected” family, and he and his two brothers, Alexander the Alabarch and Lysimachus, were well educated, and had sufficient wealth.  One nephew married royalty.  An ancestor had been granted Roman citizenship by Julius Caesar.  One contemporary source reported they were kohanim

Contemporary Jews were not generally accepting of Philo’s philosophy.  Greek science was being suppressed by the Pharisees, and secular knowledge and religion were being separated.  In his work De Somniis, which may be translated as “about dreams” or “about foolishness,” he writes, “The sophists of literalness opened their eyes superciliously.”  (“Supercilious” comes from the Latin, meaning “above the eyebrows.”)  (Your correspondent would like to read De Somniis.)

In fact, Philo’s work was not appreciated much by Jews until it was rediscovered (as preserved by the Church) during the Italian Renaissance (around the 1400s).  The Church is interesting, in that the classical Greeks contemplated a universal divine reasoning, the “Divine Logos,” which would transcend all oppositions and imperfections in the cosmos and in humanity, almost a river of truth into which anyone could wade.  That idea was reflected in Philo’s works, especially in terms of understanding God, and it is what the early Christians found supportive of their developing religious outlook (especially in the potential embodiment of the logos).

In On the Creation, Philo put forth that the laws of the Bible are in harmony with those of nature.  He wrote on the Patriarchs, on Moses, and on the Decalogue.  His most popular work may have been Allegorical Interpretation, in which he interprets the first seventeen chapters of Genesis as a set of philosophical concepts.  He also wrote On the Eternality of the World and On Providence

His work Against Flaccus (about Aulus Avilius Flaccus) tells of the pogrom against the Jews in 38 CE, preceding his appointment as ambassador.  The mission, by the way, saw little success, and it came at the same time as the Emperor was ordering a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple (apparently Flaccus’ suggestion), which was ultimately thwarted by a long sit-in of Jewish residents and farmers.  Philo wrote that Caligula “regarded the Jews with most especial suspicion, as if they were the only persons who cherished wishes opposed to his.”  He also wrote that Caligula was self-absorbed, short-tempered, killed on a whim, and indulged in too much spending and sex.  (The story of Caligula ends the following year with his murder, after he reportedly committed several additional ostentatious horrors.)

Philo felt that our souls descend into the world of earthly things, and each of us must bring about our soul’s ascent to God by striving for holiness, toward an intellectual appreciation of and ultimate divine union with God.  One major thrust of his philosophical writings is that the Bible is a source of philosophic truth, and he asserted that the Greeks may have borrowed from it.

Before his death around 50 CE, Philo also wrote a work titled Every Good Man Is Free.  Some of his works survive only in translation through Armenian, and others have been lost.