Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


We are now ready to consider one to whom frequent reference has been made—the greatest of the Alexandrian Jewish missionary philosophers, styled the "noblest Judean of his age"—Philo-Judeus. He was born in Alexandria of good family, about 15 B. C., just when Herod was ruling and Hillel was teaching in Jerusalem. His brother, Alexander, was given the influential post of farmer of taxes. Both received the best education the times afforded in literature, music, mathematics and natural science. Philo early showed a taste for literature in general, and philosophy in particular. His circumstances enabled him to devote himself to a literary life, for which he was peculiarly gifted. He showed his warm interest in the cause of his people in his journey to Rome as one of the ambassadors to plead before the mad Emperor Caligula (to be told in the next chapter). Of this whole incident he himself gives a graphic account in his chronicles of the Jewish events of his time.

His Bible Commentary.

A many-sided genius, he was the best exponent of that Hellenistic school that sought to harmonize the revealed religion of the Torah with the conclusions of Greek philosophy. He was thoroughly versed in both. His works, as those of all this school, were written in Greek. While the form may be that of Plato, the spirit is that of the prophets. In his commentary on Scripture, following the allegorical method already referred to, he treats all the incidents in Genesis, for example, as symbolic of human development and moral truths underlying the historic facts on the surface. He did not, however, go to the extreme of neglecting Jewish observance on the strength of metaphoric interpretation. Indeed, he even rebuked those who did. He writes "just as we must be careful of the body as the house of the soul, so must we give heed to the letter of the written laws. For only when these are faithfully observed, will the inner meaning of which they are the symbols become more clearly realized."

But he warningly adds "If a man practice ablutions and purifications, but defiles his mind while he cleanses his body ... let him none the more be called religious."

In his interpretation of the Mosaic Law in the Pentateuch, he has the education of the heathen chiefly in mind. He reveals the harmony of its precepts with the laws of nature. He groups all duties under the Ten Commandments. He points out with enthusiasm the humanity of the Law, and completely refutes slanders against Judaism by citing examples of its purity, breadth and philanthropy, such as the Sabbatic year and the jubilee to eliminate poverty, the freeing of slaves, the boon of the Sabbath for the servant, the social equality in the festival rules, the restraints of the dietary laws, the tenderness and consideration for all human needs in the code of Deuteronomy. His contrasts are the severest condemnation of Greek and Roman morals.

His Philosophy.

In his philosophy he again applies the allegorical method to the Pentateuch. In this field of Midrash (homiletic exposition) he may have influenced the later rabbis of the Talmud, even though rejected by them. He attempts to show that the lofty ideas found in the Platonic, Stoic and Neo-pythagorean philosophies were already taught in the Jewish Scripture. From Moses, the greatest teacher of mankind, the Greek philosophers derived their wisdom. From Mosaic Law comes the highest and truest religious revelation. Thus he endeavored to win Jews to an appreciation of Greek literature, and Greeks to an appreciation of Jewish Scripture.

Philo is the first Jew to present a complete system of philosophy, yet he weaves it out of the Bible. Just a word about it. It is hard to treat the philosophy of any one writer separately, for it is usually linked with a whole chain of theories of earlier schools. A deep believer in the spiritual God of his fathers, it was one of the aims of his life to attain fuller knowledge of Him. While in his treatment of the divine idea he shows the influence of the Greek philosopher Plato, yet as Jew he brings to the philosophic abstraction the religious warmth of a believer in the living God.

God alone is perfect, unchangeable, devoid of all qualities and indefinable. Absolutely perfect, He cannot come in contact with matter, which is defiling. How does Philo bridge the gap from the spiritual God to the material world? God acts on the world indirectly through intermediary causes or powers, which He first created.

The Logos.

These intervening powers he at times calls angels and at times ideas. He uses a Greek word logos meaning Reason. Whence comes this logos which we are to think of partly as a spirit and again as a thought? It is a product; or as he expresses it in a Greek idiom, a child of divine intelligence. By means of this logos, the perfect spiritual divinity creates the world.

This sounds unfamiliar, but the eighth chapter of Proverbs and some of the books of the Apocrypha speak of Wisdom as though it were a kind of being and that with it God laid the world's foundation. Of course, this is only figurative. But later the fathers of the Church put a new and startling construction upon Philo's Logos and read into it a literalness he never intended. They changed the logos into an actual human being. Unlike Philo they did not call it a child of divine intelligence in the Greek idiomatic sense, but a "son of God" in an actual and physical sense. It was then but a step for the Church to declare that Jesus, its Messiah, was the Logos! He was therefore a species of divinity too. It was not till Christianity's second stage that Jesus of Nazareth was in this way raised from a real man into an imaginary divinity. Thus the link with Judaism was broken in the rejection of its fundamental principle of monotheism—the belief in one indivisible God.

Philo is, of course, only unconsciously the cause of this doctrinal change, for he did not come in contact with the new sect of Christians and never mentions it, and this idea developed after his day. In fact, the divinity of Jesus had already been adopted, and Philo's writings were later construed to fit it.

His Ethics.

A word on his ethics. Evil is a necessary consequence of our free will. Without it there could not be the contrast of good. Evil is associated with the body which he depicts as the opponent of the soul. The soul emanates from God like the logos, but attracted by sensuous matter it descends into mortal bodies. This earthly body then is the cause of evil. But Philo was too wise to infer from that the duty of asceticism. He did not teach that man must suppress his desires and passions and earthly longings, but that he should suppress them. For this, man needs the help of God. The wise and virtuous are uplifted out of themselves to a closer knowledge of God, and God's spirit dwells in them. This is highest happiness. While we cannot quite accept his theories, his conclusions ring true with all the inspiring elements of lofty religion.


The Logos:—The Greek logos also means Word. Just as Proverbs personifies wisdom, so the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Bible) identifies the "word of God" with the divine presence. Here again the Christian mystic goes a step further and changes a metaphor into a fact. "The Word of God became flesh; Jesus is that Word!" (Gospel of St John.)

In his popular but exhaustive work on Philo-Judaeus, (J. P. S. A. 1910) Norman Bentwich writes:

"It is idle to try and formulate a single definite notion of Philo's Logos. For it is the expression of God in His multiple and manifold activity, the instrument of creation, the seat of ideas, the world of thought, which God first established as the model of the visible universe, the guiding providence, the sower of virtue, the fount of wisdom, described sometimes in religious ecstacy, sometimes in philosophical metaphysics sometimes in the spirit of the mystical poet."

Philo:—Philo represents an important type, then new—a Jew loyal to his faith when living in a non-Jewish atmosphere. Not all so nobly withstood these surrounding allurements. His own brother drifted from the fold. Philo wrote for indifferent Jews as well as for pagan Greeks.

According to Montefiore, the Greek, according to Bentwich, the Hebrew note in Philo, is the more pronounced.

Greek Law and Jewish:—Philo brings out the following contrast. The Greeks were bidden not to refuse fire and water to those who needed it, but Judaism bids its followers to give to the poor and weak all that life requires.

For examples of Philo's teaching read "Florilegium Philonis," by Montefiore, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. vii; in the same volume, "Philo Concerning the Contemplative Life," Conybeare; and in Vol. v, "Latest Researches on Philo," Cohn.

Theme for discussion:—Why did rabbinic Judaism neglect Philo?