Philo Judeus

(c. 20 BC–AD 50)
   Hellenic Jewish philosopher. At the beginning of the Christian era the most important of the Jewish Diaspora communities was in Alexandria, the foremost city in the eastern part of the Roman empire. A large proportion of its inhabitants were Jews, and they played a prominent part in the business and artistic life of the city. Among the Jewish intellectuals there was a constant effort to reconcile the tenets of their ancestral religion with the fashionable Greek philosophy, science and literature. Philo’s works were the major expression of this synthesis. The known facts about his life and background are scanty. He was born into an influential Alexandrian family; his father was a rich tax-farmer; his brother Alexander, a banker, became the official head of the Jewish community; his nephew, TIBERIUS JULIUS ALEXANDER, was a high-ranking officer in the Roman army and served as procurator of Judea from 46–8. In the year 40, Philo himself led a Jewish deputation from Alexandria to the mad emperor Caligula in Rome, to appeal against a decree that the emperor should be worshipped as a god. This mission is the only event in Philo’s life that can definitely be dated, from his own account of it.
   Drawing mainly on Plato, with elements of other Greek philosophers, Philo elaborated a complex philosophical system. God can never be known by man, nor can he be directly concerned with human affairs. Man’s nature is dual, with a higher spiritual being, his soul, imprisoned in a lower material being, his body. The soul comes from God, and struggles to liberate itself from matter and the senses in order to be reunited with God. Some steps towards this release can be achieved through ecstasy and love of God. On death, the soul reverts to the higher sphere, or if it is not yet sufficiently purified of the evils of matter, it transmigrates to another body.
   Such abstract concepts were natural to classical Greek philosophy, but not to the Hebrew Scriptures, which pictured God as a father-figure having an intimate relationship with his chosen people, who were rewarded or chastized according to the way they behaved. Philo set himself the task of interpreting the Pentateuch in the light of Hellenic ideas. This he did in the extensive series of treatises that form the main body of his work. The emphasis is on bringing out allegorical meanings underlying the literal text in order to establish moral and philosophical concepts in the Scriptures.
   Philo’s ideas were outside the mainstream of Jewish religious development and caused hardly a ripple on it. In the ensuing period, the great compilations of the Mishnah and the Talmud were produced in the rabbinical academies of Palestine and Babylonia, with no reference to Philo’s works. However, he influenced a new faith founded in his lifetime by two of his Jewish contemporaries, JESUS of Nazareth and PAUL of Tarsus. The early Christian Fathers studied Philo’s writings with deep interest, and translated some of them into Latin. In his allegorical interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in his philosophical concepts, they found affinities with the emerging doctrines of the Church. It is due to this circumstance that so much of Philo’s work was preserved.
   Recently there has been revived Jewish interest in Philo. In modern times Jewish Diaspora minorities, like the Jews of ancient Alexandria, face the problem of adjusting to gentile society while trying to maintain their own faith and identity.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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