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Philo Reconsidered

Philo Reconsidered

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Published by Frank Dyer
Philo Judaeus was a first-century Alexandrian philosopher, religious allegorist, and political figure whose accomplishments merit wider recognition than they have received to date. Philo was the first individual in history to present a religious creed. He was the first to employ negative theology, espoused by Maimonides more than a thousand years later. He reconciled Platonic concepts with the Torah. He developed allegorical interpretations of the Torah. He described the first nonviolent protest in recorded history. He led a mission to the Roman emperor Caligula to save the Alexandrian Jewish community. He influenced early Christian writers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
Philo Judaeus was a first-century Alexandrian philosopher, religious allegorist, and political figure whose accomplishments merit wider recognition than they have received to date. Philo was the first individual in history to present a religious creed. He was the first to employ negative theology, espoused by Maimonides more than a thousand years later. He reconciled Platonic concepts with the Torah. He developed allegorical interpretations of the Torah. He described the first nonviolent protest in recorded history. He led a mission to the Roman emperor Caligula to save the Alexandrian Jewish community. He influenced early Christian writers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

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Published by: Frank Dyer on Jan 25, 2009
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09/22/2010

 
DYER/Philo Reconsidered Page 1
Philo Reconsidered
Frank J. Dyer, Ph.D.Ask anyone who the most influential Jewish religious thinker was, and it is likely thatyou will hear the name Moses Maimonides, also known as the Rambam. While other names, such as Rashi, may come up in response to this question, there is one name that isnot all likely to be mentioned, Philo Judaeus. Just about everybody who has had even asmattering of Jewish education has heard of Philo; but hardly anybody attributes any realimportance to him.The sound-bite most commonly associated with Philo today is that he was a “HellenizedJew” living in Alexandria Egypt, and that he was typical of the highly assimilated Jewish population of that time and place. Occasionally there might be some mention in atextbook or presentation of the fact that Philo’s writings provide the only realdocumentation of Jewish life at that time, apart from the writings of the Jewish historianJosephus. One might also hear that Philo was interested in Greek philosophy. Philo isnever cited, however, as being in the mainstream of Jewish thought.Perhaps the Reform Jewish perspective on the Philo is best represented by the commentsof Abba Hillel Silver in his classic work Where Judaism Differs. Rabbi Silver presentsPhilo’s work as being Judaism “in a foreign idiom,” overly influenced by Greek cultureand lacking the “distinctive Hebraic grain.” As proof of the insignificance of Philo’srather large body of work, Silver cites the fact that there is absolutely no mention of Philo
 
in any Jewish writings until the sixteenth century. Silver concludes that rabbinic scholarssimply dismissed Philo’s work as not important enough or not relevant enough to beincluded in religious and philosophical dialogue within the rabbinic Jewish community.
i
In contrast to Philo, the work of Moses Maimonides is universally esteemed, and he iscredited with a number of achievements and advances in Jewish thought. Among themore widely celebrated achievements of Maimonides are his development of a creedconsisting of 13 articles of the Jewish faith (familiar in the liturgy of the present-daysynagogue as the hymn Yigdal), Maimonides’s use of negative theology, or the so-called
via negativa
,” his focus on allegorical interpretation of Scripture going beyond theliteral meaning of passages in the Torah, his reconciling of Aristotelian philosophy withJewish thought, and his influence on non-Jewish thinkers including the Christiantheologians Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.Philo Judaeus produced a voluminous body of religious and philosophical writings thatclosely parallel those of the Rambam. In addition, Philo has the distinction of havingdocumented the first pogrom in recorded history, as well as the first mass nonviolent protest in history. Beyond that, as an actual player in the bare-knuckle world of Romanimperial politics, Philo led a death-defying diplomatic mission to a mentally unstabledictator to save the Temple in Jerusalem from desecration and the Alexandrian Jewishcommunity from destruction.
Creeds, Theology, and Philosophy
 
DYER/Philo Reconsidered Page 3
Approximately 1200 years before the Rambam, Philo, in his well-known essay on theCreation, developed a Creation Creed, listing five articles of the Jewish faith having to dowith that topic.
This is the first instance in recorded history of someone publishing acreed.
Philo is also the first person in history to employ the
via negativa
in theologicalwritings. This concept of negative theology refers to Philo’s notion of God’s being soutterly transcendent that concepts and labels from our manifest universe simply do notapply. God, therefore, is best described by what God is not. Philo refers to God as“unnameable,” unutterable,” and “incomprehensible by any idea.”
Philo is also wellknown as an allegorist, stressing that the literal meaning of scriptural passages cloaks amuch more profound philosophical subtext. In fact, the major series of Philo's writings isa set of allegorical commentaries on the Torah.One of the things for which Moses Maimonides is best known is his reconciling of Aristotelian rationalism with Jewish religious concepts. Approximately 1200 years before Maimonides took up the subject of Aristotle’s relation to Jewish thought, Philowas the first to reconcile Greek philosophy, in the form of Plato’s ideas, with concepts of the Torah. Philo’s discussion of Platonic ideas in relation to biblical writings profoundlyinfluenced Gnosticism and the authors of the various works that collectively make up theKabbalah. One example of this is Philo’s analysis of the “two Adams” presented inGenesis. Philo views the first Adam, who appears in Genesis 1:27 as the Platonicarchetype of the human being, while the “second Adam” appearing in Genesis 2:7 is, inPhilo’s view, the particular man created from the clay of the earth.
v
Philo’s view of thefirst Adam figure provides a basis for the concept of Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, the

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