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Philo Reconsidered
Frank J. Dyer, Ph.D.

Ask anyone who the most influential Jewish religious thinker was, and it is likely that you 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 is not all likely to be mentioned, Philo Judaeus. Just about everybody who has had even a smattering of Jewish education has heard of Philo; but hardly anybody attributes any real importance to him.

The sound-bite most commonly associated with Philo today is that he was a “Hellenized Jew” 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 a textbook or presentation of the fact that Philo’s writings provide the only real documentation of Jewish life at that time, apart from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. One might also hear that Philo was interested in Greek philosophy. Philo is never cited, however, as being in the mainstream of Jewish thought.

Perhaps the Reform Jewish perspective on the Philo is best represented by the comments of Abba Hillel Silver in his classic work Where Judaism Differs. Rabbi Silver presents Philo’s work as being Judaism “in a foreign idiom,” overly influenced by Greek culture and lacking the “distinctive Hebraic grain.” As proof of the insignificance of Philo’s rather 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 scholars simply dismissed Philo’s work as not important enough or not relevant enough to be included 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 is credited with a number of achievements and advances in Jewish thought. Among the more widely celebrated achievements of Maimonides are his development of a creed consisting of 13 articles of the Jewish faith (familiar in the liturgy of the present-day synagogue 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 the literal meaning of passages in the Torah, his reconciling of Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish thought, and his influence on non-Jewish thinkers including the Christian theologians Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

Philo Judaeus produced a voluminous body of religious and philosophical writings that closely parallel those of the Rambam. In addition, Philo has the distinction of having documented 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 Roman imperial politics, Philo led a death-defying diplomatic mission to a mentally unstable dictator to save the Temple in Jerusalem from desecration and the Alexandrian Jewish community from destruction.

Creeds, Theology, and Philosophy

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Approximately 1200 years before the Rambam, Philo, in his well-known essay on the Creation, developed a Creation Creed, listing five articles of the Jewish faith having to do with that topic.ii This is the first instance in recorded history of someone publishing a creed.iii Philo is also the first person in history to employ the via negativa in theological writings. This concept of negative theology refers to Philo’s notion of God’s being so utterly transcendent that concepts and labels from our manifest universe simply do not apply. God, therefore, is best described by what God is not. Philo refers to God as “unnameable,” unutterable,” and “incomprehensible by any idea.”iv Philo is also well known as an allegorist, stressing that the literal meaning of scriptural passages cloaks a much more profound philosophical subtext. In fact, the major series of Philo's writings is a 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, Philo was 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 profoundly influenced Gnosticism and the authors of the various works that collectively make up the Kabbalah. One example of this is Philo’s analysis of the “two Adams” presented in Genesis. Philo views the first Adam, who appears in Genesis 1:27 as the Platonic archetype of the human being, while the “second Adam” appearing in Genesis 2:7 is, in Philo’s view, the particular man created from the clay of the earth.v Philo’s view of the first Adam figure provides a basis for the concept of Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, the

“supernal man” who provides the model for individual humans. While some writers have criticized Philo for attempting to shoehorn concepts of the Torah into a Platonic philosophical mold, a careful reading of some of his allegorical passages reveals a wisdom that enhances our understanding of this central work of Judaism.

The remarkable stature of Moses Maimonides as a philosopher and religious commentator, and the intellectual value of his writings, are reflected in his influence on non-Jewish writers including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, both medieval scholastic Christian philosophers. Similarly, Philo’s influence extends well beyond the Jewish world. He is universally acknowledged as having made major contributions to the thinking of early Christian writers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Philo’s philosophical ideas concerning the concept of the Logos, which some have equated with the Wisdom of God appearing in the Psalmsvi, also influenced the initial philosophical portion of the Christian Gospel of John.

Being that Philo achieved all of these things more than a thousand years before the Rambam, we may well ask why his writings were apparently ignored by Jewish scholars until the 1600’s. After all, Abba Hillel Silver cites this neglect of Philo by the Jewish intellectual community as a testament to the insignificance of his work. Recent scholarship, however, discloses that the situation was not one in which rabbis and other Jewish scholars had access to Philo's work and deliberately ignored it. Noted researcher Moshe Idel, winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for excellence in Jewish philosophy, makes the point that the figures who laid the foundations for what was later to become

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rabbinic Judaism actively suppressed Philo's writings, as they contained concepts that were inconsistent with what these early rabbis were teaching.vii We may also note that Maimonides’s writings nearly met the same fate when three leading French rabbis opposed to the Rambam’s ideas denounced him to the French Inquisition, who burned some of his books.

Historical Firsts

Separate and apart from issues pertaining to philosophy and biblical interpretation, Philo is important as a historian of the Jewish experience in the first century CE. Reading Philo is like looking at 19th and 20th century Jewish history through Barbara Tuchman’s “distant mirror.” The pogroms of the Russian Empire that resulted in the migration of millions of Jews to the United States find a chilling parallel in Philo’s detailed account of the first anti-Jewish pogrom in recorded history. The pogrom was triggered by the visit of a Jewish king, Herod Agrippa I, to Alexandria in 38 CE. Philo reports that the Alexandrian Greeks reacted to the presence of such a prominent Jew in the city by engaging in synagogue desecrations, public burning and flogging of Jews, and raiding Jewish shops and other properties. These persecutions eventually forced the entire Alexandrian Jewish population, originally distributed in all five sections of the city, into a single section, thus creating a ghetto.viii

Philo also documents the first mass nonviolent protest in history, which was undertaken

by Palestinian Jews in response to Caligula’s plan to install a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. Caligula had recently christened himself the New Epiphany of Zeus, and demanded that all nations in his empire worship him as a god. While there was nearly universal acceptance of this deification with pledges to worship Caligula alongside local deities, there was one holdout, the Jews.

Caligula set out to punish the Nation of Israel by installing a huge statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, an egregious imposition of idolatry that the community found intolerable. The Jews of the Second Temple period, whether in Israel, Egypt, or elsewhere, believed that Judaism was the one true religion and that the Temple in Jerusalem was humanity’s only direct connection to God. Therefore, not only would the installation of a statue of Caligula be an intolerable desecration of the center of the Jewish faith; it would also be a catastrophic loss for the entire human race if its nexus to the Creator were defiled in that manner.

The Jews of Palestine attempted to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner in what was the first mass nonviolent protest in recorded history. It was a demonstration of which Gandhi and Martin Luther King would have been proud. According to Philo, the Nation of Israel approached the Roman governor Petronius in “a countless multitude,” and when the governor appeared before them, they all fell to the ground, “howling lamentations, weeping, and scattering dust upon their heads.” They assumed a submissive posture and told the governor to put them to death, as they refused to prostrate themselves before the deified Caligula. They stressed to Petronius that they were a peaceful people both by

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natural disposition and by “the education which has been industriously and carefully instilled in us....from our very earliest infancy.” They reminded him that theirs was the first temple in the empire to offer sacrifices upon hearing the news that Caligula had assumed imperial power. Philo notes that this demonstration succeeded in persuading Petronius to tell the artisans who were crafting the statue of Caligula to proceed very slowly and carefully, which was a tactic that bought the Jews, and Petronius, time to work on resolving the matter.ix

Mission to a Mad Emperor Philo was not merely a historian of the above events; he played an active role in petitioning Rome to intervene on behalf of the Jews. At the request of the Alexandrian Jewish community, Philo led a delegation to appeal to Caligula to take action to stop the persecution by the Alexandrian Greeks and to abandon the project to install the huge statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Philo’s mission was as far removed from our usual notion of a diplomatic contact as one can imagine. Caligula was a totally narcissistic, murderous, emotionally unbalanced dictator with no shred of conscience. Typical of his capriciously brutal style was his behavior toward his sister, Drusilla. Caligula murdered Drusilla and then promptly had her declared a goddess. Philo points out that he had a habit of befriending people, and then summarily murdering them.

Compounding the personal danger to Philo and the small delegation that accompanied

him was the fact that Caligula was furious with the Jews for refusing to worship him as a god. When an egomaniacal psychopath with absolute power deifies himself, it is a very risky proposition to argue, as the sole holdout against worshiping him, that he should not put his statue in your temple.

An additional task of Philo’s diplomatic mission to the self-deified emperor was to plead for his intervention on behalf of the Jews of Alexandria. The persecutions of the Jewish community by the Alexandrian Greeks continued, with the approval of the Roman governor Flaccus. Flaccus had also denied the Jews any legal recourse against their persecutors, who had murdered scores of prominent Jews and looted Jewish businesses and homes.

Philo’s delegation was granted an initial brief meeting with Caligula upon their arrival in Rome. Caligula’s moderately friendly reception to them and his assurance that he would speak to them about their petition as soon as an opportunity arose elicited an optimistic response from all of the members of the delegation, except Philo. His skepticism turned out to be well-founded, as Caligula in effect left the Jewish delegation in limbo for nearly a year, obliging them to remain in Rome awaiting an audience with him while the persecutions were still being waged in Alexandria and preparations were underway to install the gigantic statue of Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem.

When Caligula finally chose to meet with the delegation formally, he behaved in a manner that was entirely consistent with his self-absorbed, puerile personality. Rather

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than discussing issues of substance with the Alexandrian Jewish ambassadors, Caligula had them accompany him through one of his imperial residences, examining the various rooms and commenting on their furnishings and other appointments with the ambassadors in tow. At the same time, Caligula had summoned a rival delegation representing the Alexandrian Greeks, who openly taunted the Jews in response to Caligula’s comments such as “You are haters of God because you do not think that I am a god. Every other nation worships me as a god, yet you refuse to do so.”

Philo comments on the humiliation of being forced to follow the emperor up and down through the entire palatial residence while being ridiculed by the rival delegation, almost as though they were in a courtroom before a judge who had assumed the part of the accuser. In this case, the judge had absolute power, and could order their deaths on the spot, if that had been his whim. Caligula barked out some orders about the buildings that he was inspecting, and then abruptly asked the Jews why they did not eat pork. This question on the part of the emperor provoked howls of laughter from the Greeks present. Caligula then mocked the answer of the delegation, which was simply that different nations have different laws.

Caligula then questioned the Jews about their system of justice; but before they could give a substantial reply, he simply turned his attention to the maintenance crew in one of the larger rooms, and told them to install translucent pebbles to let in the light and to keep out the wind and the heat. When the Jewish delegation attempted to continue their explanation of their system of justice and to connect it to the two principal objects of their

mission, Caligula walked away from them and occupied himself with the inspection of another house in the compound.

Philo writes that their pleadings on behalf of Justice were broken up, interrupted, and crushed. He states that Caligula’s last comments regarding them were that the Jews did not appear to him to be wicked, so much as unfortunate and foolish because of their refusal to accept him as a god. After that, the emperor dismissed the delegation and commanded them to leave Rome. Philo writes that as they left the grounds, he and other members of the delegation were roughed up by the thuggish attendants of the emperor, who were emboldened by Caligula’s mockery of the Jews.x

The delegation departed Rome without having accomplished anything of substance. Shortly after their unsuccessful mission, however, Caligula was stabbed to death, and the more rational Claudius was installed as emperor. Claudius refused to assign guilt for the pogroms of 38 CE and subsequent persecutions. He instructed the Jews not to bring prominent individuals like Herod Agrippa into the city again, and told them not try to gain entry into the gymnasium, from which the Roman governor Flaccus had barred them. At the same time, Claudius told the Alexandrian Greeks to respect the religion and customs of the Jews. Owing to Caligula’s death, the gigantic statue of him was never installed in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a short-lived respite; however. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans about 30 years later. Philo, who died around 50 CE, did not live to see this.

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Philo, Halacha, and Reform Judaism The popular notion, endorsed by Abba Hillel Silver, that Philo was too foreign and insufficiently Hebraic in his ideas is falling out of favor. Modern research on Philo demonstrates that the view that he was excessively assimilated and therefore too alienated from traditional Jewish thought to be taken seriously as a contributor to the intellectual life of the Jewish People is in error. Classicist Naomi Cohen points out that it is easy to be thrown off the track by Philo’s use of Greek philosophical terms in discussing biblical topics. Cohen says, however, that once the veneer of Greek philosophical language is peeled away, Philo’s ideas are found to be very much in line with halacha (traditional Jewish law).xi

Scholars are coming to an ever-increasing appreciation of the fact that from the supreme religious authority of the Second Temple there flowed a number of distinct streams of philosophy and theology. Some of these trends coalesced to form what we know as rabbinic Judaism. Others, such as the views of Philo, were lost to the Jewish People for centuries, but are now the subject of serious study. As a Diaspora Jew who lived a fully religious life while engaging intellectually with the classical Greek philosophical tradition and taking an active part in the political life of the community, Philo has a great deal to offer today’s Reform Jews. Alongside Reform Judaism itself, Philo stands as a powerful example that there is more than one way to be authentically Jewish.

i Silver, A.H. (1956) Where Judaism Differs. (Original title: Where Judaism Differed). New York: Collier Books, Macmillan. ii Philo Judaeus (1854/1993) De Opficio Mundi (C.D. Yonge Ed. and Translator) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers iii Schenck, K. (2006) A Brief Guide to Philo. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. iv ibid. v Philo Judaeus, .De Opficio Mundi, op. cit. vi Schenck, op.cit. vii Idel, M. (2007) Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism. London: Continuum Books. viii Philo Judaeus (1854/1993) In Flaccum (C.D. Yonge Ed. and Translator) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers ix Philo Judaeus (1854/1993) Legatio ad Gaium x Philo Judaeus, Legatio ad Gaium, op.cit. xi Cohen, N. (1995) Philo Judaeus: His Universe of Discourse, cited in Schenck, op.cit.