Friday, April 1, 2016

More On Philo Of Alexandria

TWH: James Ronald Royse writes this about Philo:
"The works of Philo of Alexandria have been a rich source of material for Christian thought, and it is within the Christian tradition that his words have been preserved. In fact, the Christian utilization of Philo was so extensive that it was inconceivable to some that Philo had not actually become a Christian; and so we find stories of Philo's conversion to Christianity, and occasional references in manuscripts to 'the Bishop Philo.'" (The Spurious Texts of Philo of Alexandria: A Study of Textual Transmission and Corruption with Indexes to the Major Collections of Greek Fragments [Leiden: Brill, 1991], 1)
Some have even referred to Philo as a Church Father Honoris Causa. He is important. There's no question about that. From the standpoint of philology, we have to understand who this person is. From the standpoint of an interpreter of Scripture, we have to exercise the greatest caution so we don't incorporate his hermeneutic. 

So what did it mean to be a hellenized Jew? Hellenization refers to the spread of ancient Greek culture on foreign groups of people and the ways in which that culture, as it was absorbed, impacted or reshaped the worldview and culture of those peoples. This involved speaking Greek, but it extended in so many more ways. Socio-political impacts were seen on the minting of coins in places, including Judea, where Hebrew was at times striken and replaced with Greek inscriptions. Hellenization brought new literature, new philosophies, and new ways at looking at things to different cultures. Part of this was accomplished by mixing people groups, for example, with the influx of soldiers. New commerce structures afforded new opportunities that attracted trade and even immigration. Hellenization of a region also included Greek education and the imparting of Greek ideas that came with it.

"Acting as a Hellenized Jew," Karl Olav Sandnes writes, "involved issues such as Greek language, temples and cults, theater, festivals and Greek paideia." He goes on to say, "Religion was interwoven into the fabric of social life. Diaspora Jews took different attitudes to these challenges, from strict rejection to various degrees of participation, and some were lenient even to the point of jeopardizing their Jewish belief" ("A Missionary Strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23," in Paul as Missionary: Identity, Activity, Theology, and Practice, 134). When we say that Philo was a hellenized Jew, we are making two declarations. Philo was actually Jewish. And he was to some extent impacted (a lot!) by the hellenization of Egypt. He was what we call a diaspora Jew. He did not live in Judea. He was born, raised, and lived his life in Alexandria. His writings and his interpretation of Scripture bear the stamp of all this.

In one sentence, Philo is one of the chief sources we have for picturing a hellenized Judaism, and more specifically an Alexandrian hellenized Judaism. Nevertheless, Philo is just one individual. No doubt, he wouldn't be the only Jew in Alexandria embracing the type of mysticism that he exhibits in his writings. Of course there had to be others, and in fact there were. Philo himself discusses them in his writings, contrasting them to traditional Jews. But that doesn't mean that all Jews in Alexandria (or dispersed elsewhere) were as hellenized as Philo or had been influenced as much by the same ideas that had obviously shaped Philo. 

What did being a hellenized Jew in Alexandria mean for Philo's approach to looking at Scripture? It meant throwing out a historical-grammatical hermeneutic for one thing. Philo's thinking is full of typology and allegory. Discussions on biblical matters are framed in philosophical explorations and arguments. For Philo, the goal was to get under or go beyond the literal understanding of a passage in order to arrive at the spiritual meaning. Hints of Gnosticism doesn't it? There's a secret knowledge out there, but it's couched in saying what the text says. The problem is his interpretations of any given text are made at his own discretion. Meaning is hidden, that is, until he makes it known.

What about Philo so resonated with the early church? We can compare to some extent Philo and the apostle Paul and Apollos, the latter being mentioned in Acts 18:24. Be sure to check out my discussion on Apollos here. V. George Shillington, referring to Luke's description of Apollos, rightly says, "This could just as well be a description of Philo of Alexandria" (The New Testament in Context, 138). Of course, there was something different about Apollos. Priscilla and Aquila were able to "explain the way of God more accurately to him," and the result was satisfactory. The primary thrust of that explanation dealt with the gospel and the significance of Jesus' death on the cross. There wasn't something irredeemable about Apollos' theology or his hermeneutic. In this sense, Apollos is distinct from Philo. Much of Philo's thought and argumentation would not have sat well with Jesus, the apostle Paul, or the rest of the early church. The level of mysticism found in his writings is advanced and crosses a hermeneutical line. Philo's impact on the early church can be traced, by and large, to Clement of Alexandria and Origen. These two men embraced Philo's hermeneutic and channeled the theological implications of that hermeneutic into the life of the early church.

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