An ancient scroll

Philo of Alexandria

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Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post. Today we’re going to be looking at a Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, who influenced later Christian thinkers with his unusual approach to the Scriptures.

Who Was He?

Philo lived c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE and was a Jew by birth and upbringing. His family was very powerful in the Jewish colony of Alexandria in Egypt. Philo’s education was not only Jewish, but also Greek; his interest in philosophy was kindled via the study of poetry, rhetoric, dialectics, and other philosophical subjects.

He is mostly remembered for his philosophical commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures. His work would go on to be used by the Christian church fathers (including Origen and Ambrose) in a variety of ways – sometimes with admiration and sometimes with disdain.

What’s the Big Idea?

According to Philo, man is first conceived in the mind of God, and then becomes a physical being with a non-physical soul. Man is subsequently situated on the borderline between the divine and the non-divine. Philo believed that the body belongs to the world, and the mind to the divine. Furthermore, he believed there are two parts to the soul, the rational and the irrational, somehow fused together by the spirit. It’s worth nothing that Philo’s philosophy was influenced by Plato and the Stoics, whose thought he attempted to incorporate into Jewish thinking.

Philo believed that the Scriptures shouldn’t be taken literally, but contained hidden meanings, which could be brought to light via philosophical exegesis and those with the patience and focus to find them.

My Reflections

I can imagine how the mixed Jewish and Greek cultural influences might have been difficult for Philo, and he seems to have spent a great deal of time attempting to reconcile the two. This is a difficult task, because the two schools of thought are in certain respects very different. For instance, the books of Moses present a creation narrative and focus on the human being’s relationship with a specific God – Yahweh – while many Greek philosophers believed in multiple gods and focused their attention on acquiring knowledge through reasoned debate. The Greeks had no concept of sacred scriptures and revelation in the way the Jews did.

I would anticipate both my Christian and Jewish readers taking issue with any unusual attempts to read meaning into the Scriptures based on philosophy that would have been alien to Moses. Arguably, the words of the Torah are inspired by God, and so have an importance and sacredness that those outside of Judeo-Christian circles should not attempt to alter in any way. It’s easy to see how, in attempting to fuse Greek and Jewish thought, Philo became a highly controversial figure in the centuries following his death.


I hope you enjoyed reading about Philo! Next Friday my philosophy series will continue with a look at a big idea by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Roman rhetorician. Please consider subscribing to this blog so you never miss a post. Thank you for reading!

9 comments

  1. I agree with David, great job Steven!

    Philo was caught in the popular thought-trains of his day, but, unlike Paul before the thinkers on the Areopagus, Philo tries to reconcile and have both the popular thinking and his faith. It makes a certain amount of sense, and we do the same thing today, only we call it “enculturating” the gospel. It’s a process that only works to the extent we use the culture to find metaphors. When the culture becomes the, or a lens, as it did for Philo, and as it does for many in Western Culture, then the culture distorts our understanding of the gospel.

    One of the important lessons I learn from Philo is that it’s very difficult to reconcile what our Master has revealed with cultural differences. On the other hand, it’s nearly equally difficult, or possibly more difficult, to disentangle my cultural bias from my understanding of Scripture. That’s one of the reasons I try to go so far afield in my study. I’m trying to get as far away from what I’ve been taught to see if it looks different from some other angle. Unfortunately, most of my angles are still culturally biased. It’s hard to unlearn what I’ve learned, and been imprinted with from childhood. It’s still good to struggle with it. I get more clarity the more I try to see passed rather than through my culture.

    Thanks again for the entry!

    Blessings,

    matt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Matt!

      Thanks for this! I admire your attempt to examine your understanding of Scripture from other angles, sounds like a great idea to me.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for reading!

      Steven

      Like

    1. Hi Jenny! You realise I’m a theist, right? I’m not sure I like the idea of you following my blog simply to ridicule my beliefs… that wouldn’t be very nice… but of course if you have a genuine and kind-hearted interest in my writing then that’s great, and you’ll be very welcome.

      Like

      1. I am not ridiculing. I believe in the right to belief. Without A Faith we are empty. I believe that we should all connect, read the piece again. Belief doesn’t matter. Faith does. I admire your points of view and your conviction and you are an inspiration to those that will not speak out. I speak from a a different point of view. If I have caused offence I apologise. There is more to this than just religion.

        Liked by 1 person

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