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Goodenough Wolfson's Philo

Goodenough Wolfson's Philo

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Published by: pricopi on Jul 21, 2014
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Wolfson's PhiloAuthor(s): Erwin R. GoodenoughSource:
Journal of Biblical Literature,
Vol. 67, No. 2 (Jun., 1948), pp. 87-109Published by:
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Accessed: 26/04/2013 19:11
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scholars these days try to produce anything which could be called a magnum opus. Wolfson is one of the few; and when it is remembered that the two large volumes before
represent a relatively small part of his total undertaking, he must be put into the forefront of even that little group. For it is Wolfson's plan to present a history of philosophy which will begin with at least one volume on the Greeks, then consider Philo as here, then give the whole development of philosophy in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish circles of the Middle Ages, and finally show the beginnings of the new age where Spinoza breaks the pattern of medieval thought and returns to the Greek approach. Wolfson believes that medieval philosophy had a distinctive character because it had a distinctive source of knowledge quite foreign to both the Greek and modern thinkers, the source we usually call "revelation," but which Wolfson calls the "preamble of faith" (p. v). The moderns, like the Greeks, try by observation, hypothesis, and intuition, whatever these words mean, to discover the truth about the nature of man, and the nature of his environment up to and including God himself. The medieval world had to square all such data of "reason" with the data of their inspired Scriptures where the answers were all given. More than this, the medievalists had to square their reasons with a philosophical tradition which determined how Scripture itself was to be interpreted, Wolfson says, for in
I Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza, II). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1947. Pp. I, xvi+462; II, 531.
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religion they had "a set of inflexible principles of a divinely revealed origin, by which philosophy, the product of erring human reason, had to be tested and purged and purified." These inflexible principles, Wolfson continues in his Preface, were all worked out by none other than Philo himself, and so "the philo- sophy of Philo" came to be "the most dominant force in the history of philosophy down to the seventeenth century." Even as ardent a Philonist as myself must blink at so great a claim for our hero. That the Philonic school, or hellenized Judaism, was one of the most important formative influences in the making of Christianity; that it set a tendency and method whose elaboration does distinguish medieval thought from the thinking of ancient and modern times; that this was largely a requirement to hold reason within the limits of revealed religion- these seem to me clearly indisputable, though medieval thinkers steadily forced so much into the words of Scripture that the "limits of revealed religion" became highly debatable entities. Wolfson, however, wants to go farther and to see in a single "set of inflexible principles," a single "philosophy," that of Philo, the dominating force in all later medieval thinking. Wolfson's volumes on Philo attempt to show how this "philosophy," these "inflexible principles," came into existence in the mind of one who was, Wolfson says (I, 114) "a philosopher in the grand manner." The volumes on Philo are so impressive as they stand on the shelves, and as one reads their amazingly detailed exposition, that already it is being said on many sides that the "definitive" work on Philo has at last appeared. Since Philo is (or should be) carefully studied by NT scholars as well as by historians of Judaism, it is well to give the work a closer scrutiny than is allowed in an ordinary review. Wolfson approaches his task with what seems to be an inex- haustible knowledge of the writings of all ancient and medieval writers. Out of this universe he has come to abstract elements common to all these writers which he is right in seeing brought together for the first time in Philo's writings. Wolfson takes this preconceived distillation of medieval philosophers, and find- ing most of it in Philo he calls it "Philo" himself. Philo is to him 88
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