Question: "Who was Philo of Alexandria?"

Answer: Philo of Alexandria, sometimes known as Philo Judaeus, was a first-century philosopher who was born sometime between 15–30 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. A member of the Jewish Diaspora, he was raised with a Jewish and Greek education, giving him an impressive status in a non-Jewish city like Alexandria. Biblical tradition has it that Philo’s nephew Marcus married Bernice, daughter of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 25:13, 23; 26:30).

In his work The Contemplative Life, Philo mentions being involved with a monastic Jewish sect at Lake Mareotis. In the second fragment of On Providence, Philo comments that he was at the “city of Syria, on the sea shore, Ascalon by name. . . . I was there, at the time when I was on my journey towards the temple of my native land for the purpose of offering up prayers and sacrifices therein.” This occurred before another important episode in Philo’s life, encountering Roman emperor Caligula (sometimes known just as Gaius) in AD 39 (Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius). This was because he was chosen by a Jewish embassy to confront the emperor in the wake of Caligula’s introduction of his statues in Jewish synagogues.

In Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (18.8.1), the well-known Jewish historian notes that “Philo, the principal of the Jewish embassage, a man eminent on all accounts, brother to Alexander the alabarch, and one not unskillful in philosophy, was ready to betake himself to make his defense against those accusations; but Gaius prohibited him, and bid him begone; he was also in such a rage, that it openly appeared he was about to do them some very great mischief. So Philo being thus affronted, went out, and said to those Jews who were about him, that they should be of good courage, since Gaius’s words indeed showed anger at them, but in reality had already set God against himself.” Later rumors have Philo meeting the apostle Peter (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Book II, Chapter XVII), while Christian commentators such as Jerome, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville believed that the mysterious author of the apocryphal The Wisdom of Solomon may have been Philo. But this theory is little more than speculation. Despite there being much information on Philo’s life, there appears to be no information on his death (which tradition suggests occurred in AD 50), so one can only speculate a natural death or death by the hands of Rome.

It is during Philo’s earlier years that his interest and knowledge of Stoic and Platonic thought grew and began to construct, what he declared, a clearer understanding of the Septuagint (being the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Philo believed it was a history of his people and God that demanded the reader to perform an allegorical interpretation. Philosophy was an important aspect of Philo’s train of thought, becoming a tool with which he established a clearer interpretation of the theology that both he and his ancestors had been a part of for several centuries. During an allegorical reading of the Septuagint, Philo’s fundamental interpretation was that Hebraic Scriptures and Greek philosophy were not only compatible, but revealed the superiority of Jewish ethics. For Philo did not believe that all the stories in the Septuagint were literally real, but were constructed in the same manner as Greek texts such as The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Since Philo wrote several books, we can formulate several major doctrines that emerge from the body of his work. One would be the doctrine of Moses, in which it is evident that Philo regards Moses as not only a real historical figure who wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, but a heavenly figure because of his role in distributing the Law to the Jewish people directly from God. Philo wrote a considerable amount on Moses and interpreted him as the ultimate philosopher from which all philosophy, in particular Greek, originated. Another would be the doctrine of Creation, in which Philo enforces biblical creationism in a Greek context. Philo planted the seeds of what would later evolve into the concept of creation ex nihilo, a concept implicitly stated in Hebrews 11:3. Then there was the doctrine of the logos.

In reading the way God dictates in Genesis 1 (in particular saying “us” in Genesis 1:26) and foreshadowing John 1 in which the “Word” (the Greek being logos), Philo is adamant that creation was created by logos, which, while a part of God’s being, is individualistic. Although his celebrated idea of logos was not entirely new, Philo personified the term. Philo believed that logos made God known, as cited in Questions in Exodus 25.22. The doctrine of man is also evident. Philo was not adverse to dualism and the idea that man’s material and immaterial natures were conclusive (as also believed by Plato) and that through God this union will be peaceful and was intentional. This also enforces the conclusion that, as the serpent in Eden corrupted the physical, mankind’s focus should be on the spiritual (and intellectual) relationship with God.

It is somewhat difficult to assess Philo’s importance in a contemporary context as today, few mainstream Christians have heard of him. Perhaps the greatest contribution to Christian theology Philo made, in addition to being such a prominent Jewish biblical scholar in the emerging West, is that he was one of the first to initiate a strong allegorical reading of Scripture. While not all Scripture is to be read in this manner, there is clear allegory in many books from the Old and New Testament (from Daniel to Revelation), and Philo was one of the first to emphasize this approach and to be wary of reading everything literally. This technique of exegesis was unique for its time, and Philo could be declared one of the first Bible commentators ever in history. In fact, his allegorical approach to Scripture later influenced Christian theologians such as Clement, Origen, and Didymus the Blind. His allegorical readings of the Old Testament set the stage for future theologians to consider non-literal readings of the texts, and, while Christianity today may dispute some of Philo’s interpretations, his approach did highlight the implicit nature of the biblical texts and helped pioneer biblical criticism.