Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Who Was Philo Of Alexandria?

AP: Philo was born around 15 BCE in Alexandria in a hellenized Jewish family. He was educated in the customary Greek way, and, since his parents were well-to-do, had the best teachers. He had an excellent knowledge of Greek, history and Greek philosophy, and easily quoted poets and tragedians. Of his Jewish training we know little: he knew only a few words and phrases of Hebrew. Thanks to the synagogue, he became familiar with Jewish worship and with hellenistic Jewish exegesis and apologetics. From the dense clouds that surrounds his life, the years 37–41 stand out. The Jewish community in Alexandria, suddenly exposed to the suspicion of the governor Avilius Flaccus, experienced weeks of panic. Flakes, the Roman prefect of Egypt, handed the Jews of Alexandria over to the anger of the people, because they refused to worship the cultic images of the divinized emperor. Philo describes those events in his works Ad Flaccum and Legatio ad Gaium. Philo, an important personality in his community, was sent as a delegate to Rome, met Caligula (his proposals were unsuccessful), and then met his successor Claudius (with better success). The period of his late adult life coincided with the events described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Philo's writings are important for the history of ancient philosophy, since they represent the first extensive philosophical corpus since Aristotle to have been preserved, both in medieval manuscripts and also in some papyri and many quotations by the Church Fathers.

The Jews, for their part, preferred very soon to ignore him, because the Christians made him in a sense their first theologian. His work was very important in the formation of Christian exegesis. The Fathers admired this Jewish commentator on the Pentateuch for his high tone and moral demands. They saved his works from oblivion and adopted many of his exegetical interpretations. his allegorical interpretation of the Pentateuch, the part of the Bible to which Philo's commentary was devoted, was based on the Greek text, and often used images and associations from the hellenistic linguistic field, but he never ceased to be a Jewish believer. The Greek text on which he comments is identical to the LXX that we know, the Christian Bible, although from time to time it has readings all its own, which may arise from intentional glosses or emendations introduced to meet the needs of the commentary. Although Philo practices allegorical exegesis, he does so within the framework of an authentically Jewish spirituality.

Philo's work is very extensive. It includes historical and philosophical writings, exegetical expositions, essays, and commentaries.

His work contains an immense collection of data, knowledge that helps the reader to penetrate more deeply into first-century Jewish religious thought. The following themes stand out as of special interest for the exegesis of the New Testament: questions of Alexandrian halaka (or legal principles); ideas of God and the powers that proceed from him; the concepts of Logos, Sophia, and Dynamis (or divine power); the being and nature of humanity; teaching about virtues, and the acceptance by hellenistic Judaism of Stoic-Cynic ethics; teaching about grace as the foundation of virtues; the forgiveness of sins and the purification of the soul; the global mission of the Jewish people; the universal importance of the Torah; similarities and differences between Judaism and the mystery religions; questions about worship and its spiritual interpretation; etc.

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*The above is taken, with only slight modification, from Antonio Piñero and Jesús Peláez, The Study of the New Testament: A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. David E. Orton and Paul Ellingworth, Tools for Biblical Studies 3 (Leiden: Deo, 2003), 270-272.

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