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1584 European depiction of Philo
Born c. 25 BCE
Alexandria, Egypt, Roman Empire
Died c. 50 CE (age c. 75)
Era Ancient philosophy
School Middle Platonism

Philo of Alexandria (/ˈfl/; Greek: Φίλων, Philōn; Hebrew: ידידיה הכהן‎, Yedidia (Jedediah) HaCohen; c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt.

Philo used philosophical allegory to attempt to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy with Jewish philosophy. His method followed the practices of both Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy. His allegorical exegesis was important for several Christian Church Fathers, but he has barely any reception history within Rabbinic Judaism. He believed that literal interpretations of the Hebrew Bible would stifle humanity's view and perception of a God too complex and marvelous to be understood in literal human terms.[citation needed]

Some scholars hold that his concept of the Logos as God's creative principle influenced early Christology. Other scholars, however, deny direct influence but say both Philo and Early Christianity borrow from a common source.[1]

The few biographical details known about Philo are found in his own works, especially in Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius), and in Josephus.[2] The only event in his life that can be decisively dated is his participation in the embassy to Rome in 40 CE. He represented the Alexandrian Jews before Roman Emperor Caligula because of civil strife between the Alexandrian Jewish and Greek communities.

Ancestry, family and early life

Philo was probably born with the name Julius Philo. His ancestors and family were contemporaries to the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Although the names of his parents are unknown, Philo came from a family which was noble, honourable and wealthy. It was either his father or paternal grandfather who was granted Roman citizenship from Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar. Philo had two brothers, Alexander the Alabarch and Lysimachus.

His ancestors and family had social ties and connections to the priesthood in Judea, the Hasmonean Dynasty, the Herodian Dynasty and the Julio-Claudian dynasty in Rome. Philo visited the Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his lifetime.[3] Philo would have been a contemporary to Jesus of Nazareth and his Apostles. Philo along with his brothers received a thorough education. They were educated in the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria and Roman culture, to a degree in Ancient Egyptian culture and particularly in the traditions of Judaism, in the study of Jewish traditional literature[4][citation needed] and in Greek philosophy.

Philo, through his brother Alexander, had two nephews Tiberius Julius Alexander and Marcus Julius Alexander. Marcus Julius Alexander was the first husband of the Herodian Princess Berenice. Marcus died in 43 or 44. (For the sources regarding this section see article Alexander the Alabarch).


Woodcut from Die Schedelsche Weltchronik

We find a brief reference to Philo by the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of Philo's selection by the Alexandrian Jewish community as their principal representative before the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. He says that Philo agreed to represent the Alexandrian Jews in regard to civil disorder that had developed between the Jews and the Greeks in Alexandria, Egypt. Josephus also tells us that Philo was skilled in philosophy, and that he was brother to an official called Alexander the alabarch.[5] According to Josephus, Philo and the larger Jewish community refused to treat the emperor as a god, to erect statues in honor of the emperor, and to build altars and temples to the emperor. Josephus says Philo believed that God actively supported this refusal.

Josephus' complete comments about Philo:

"There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks; and three ambassadors were chosen out of each party that were at variance, who came to Gaius. Now one of these ambassadors from the people of Alexandria was Apion, (29) who uttered many blasphemies against the Jews; and, among other things that he said, he charged them with neglecting the honors that belonged to Caesar; for that while all who were subject to the Roman empire built altars and temples to Gaius, and in other regards universally received him as they received the gods, these Jews alone thought it a dishonorable thing for them to erect statues in honor of him, as well as to swear by his name. Many of these severe things were said by Apion, by which he hoped to provoke Gaius to anger at the Jews, as he was likely to be. But Philo, the principal of the Jewish embassage, a man eminent on all accounts, brother to Alexander the Alabarch, (30) 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." [6]

Our remaining information about Philo is based upon his own writings. Philo himself claims in his Embassy to Gaius to have been part of an embassy sent by the Alexandrian Jews to the Roman Emperor Caligula. Philo says he was carrying a petition which described the sufferings of the Alexandrian Jews, and which asked the emperor to secure their rights. Philo gives a detailed description of their sufferings, in a way that Josephus overlooks, to assert that the Alexandrian Jews were simply the victims of attacks by Alexandrian Greeks in the civil strife that had left many Jews and Greeks dead. Philo says he was regarded by his people as having unusual prudence, due to his age, education, and knowledge. This indicates that he was already an older man at this time (40 CE). Philo considers Caligula's plan to erect a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem to be a provocation, saying, "Are you making war upon us, because you anticipate that we will not endure such indignity, but that we will fight on behalf of our laws, and die in defence of our national customs? For you cannot possibly have been ignorant of what was likely to result from your attempt to introduce these innovations respecting our temple." In his entire presentation, he implicitly supports the Jewish commitment to rebel against the emperor rather than allow such sacrilege to take place. This reveals Philo's identification with the Jewish community.[7]

In Flaccus, Philo tells indirectly of his own life in Alexandria by describing how the situation of Jews in Alexandria changed after Gaius Caligula became the emperor of Rome. Speaking of the large Jewish population in Egypt, Philo says that Alexandria "had two classes of inhabitants, our own nation and the people of the country, and that the whole of Egypt was inhabited in the same manner, and that Jews who inhabited Alexandria and the rest of the country from the Catabathmos on the side of Libya to the boundaries of Ethiopia were not less than a million of men." Regarding the large proportion of Jews in Alexandria, he writes, "There are five districts in the city, named after the first five letters of the written alphabet, of these two are called the quarters of the Jews, because the chief portion of the Jews lives in them." Other sources tell us that Caligula had been asking to receive the honors due to a god. Philo says Flaccus, the Roman governor over Alexandria, permitted a mob to erect statues of the Emperor Caius Caligula in Jewish synagogues of Alexandria, an unprecedented provocation. This invasion of the synagogues was perhaps resisted by force, since Philo then says that Flaccus "was destroying the synagogues, and not leaving even their name." In response, Philo says that Flaccus then "issued a notice in which he called us all foreigners and aliens... allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war." Philo says that in response, the mobs "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one ... while the populace, overrunning their desolate houses, turned to plunder, and divided the booty among themselves as if they had obtained it in war." In addition, Philo says their enemies, "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties, for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks". Philo even says, "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city, sparing neither age nor youth, nor the innocent helplessness of infants." Some men, he says, were dragged to death, while "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers, like people employed in the representation of theatrical farces". Other Jews were crucified. Flaccus was eventually removed from office and exiled, ultimately suffering the punishment of death.[8]


Philo bases his doctrines on the Old Testament, which he considers as the source and standard not only of religious truth but in general of all truth. Its pronouncements are for him divine pronouncements. They are the words of the ἱερὸς λόγος, θεῖος λόγος, ὀρθὸς λόγος [holy word, godly word, righteous word] [9] uttered sometimes directly and sometimes through the mouth of a prophet, especially through Moses, whom Philo considers the real medium of revelation. Although he distinguishes between the words uttered by God Himself, as the Decalogue, and the edicts of Moses, as the special laws,[10] he does not carry out this distinction, since he believes in general that everything in the Torah is of divine origin, even the letters and accents.[11] The extent of his canon cannot be exactly determined.... He does not quote Ezekiel, Daniel, Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, or Esther.... Philo regards the Bible as the source not only of religious revelation, but also of philosophic truth; for, according to him, the Greek philosophers also have borrowed from the Bible: Heraclitus, according to "Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit" § 43 [i. 503]; and Zeno, according to "Quod Omnis Probus Liber," § 8 [ii. 454]. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. A study concluded in 2015 by Gott and Licht suggests that Philo’s method of exegesis may have been based on Pythagorean and Platonic models of allegorical and enigmatical writing. Philo associated “enigmatical modes of expression” with the Essenes. [12] Two generations later, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 45 - 120 CE) associated enigmas with “Pythagorean doctrines.” [13]Church Father Irenaeus (c.130-202 CE) argued against a heretical method that used Homer to interpret scripture. [14]The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia lists twenty-one “Rules” for exegesis that were teased from Philo’s extant works.[15] Using the information gleaned from these sources, Gott and Licht formulated an experiment in 2002 to test “Philo’s Method” on Hebrew and Christian scripture, and on stories about Romans believed to be gods and goddesses. They report a previously unknown layer of “history” shrouded in enigmas that identifies “Philo” as “Cleopatra Thea Philo Pater IX, Queen Cleopatra VII’s granddaughter.[16]


Philo represents the apex of Jewish-Hellenistic syncretism. His work attempts to combine Plato and Moses into one philosophical system.[17] His ethics were strongly influenced by Aristotelianism and Stoicism, preferring a morality of virtues without passions, such as lust/desire and anger, but with a "common human sympathy".[18]

Philo evolved an original teaching of Logos. The polysemic profusion of this word provided for its use in different connotation. Complying with the anthropomorphic description of God in Tanakh, Philo used logos in the meaning of an utterance. In Philo’s philosophy, God is absolutely transcendent: his notion is even more abstract than that of the Monad of Pythagoras or the Good of Plato. Only God’s existence is certain, no appropriate predicates can be conceived.[19] Following Plato, Philo equals matter to nothingness and sees its effect in fallacy, discord, damage, and decay of things.[20] This view enables Philo to combine the Jewish belief in creation with the Greek conviction about the formation of all things from the permanent matter.

Philo thought that God created and governed the world through mediators. Logos is the chief among them, the next to God, demiurge of the world. Logos is immaterial, an adequate image of God, his shadow, his firstborn son.[21] Being the mind of the Eternal, Logos is imperishable.[22] He is neither uncreated as God is, nor created as men are, but occupies a middle position. He has no autarkic power, only an entrusted one.[23]

Philo probably was the first philosopher who identified Plato’s ideas with Creator’s thoughts. These thoughts make the contents of Logos; they were the seals for making sensual things during world creation.[24] Logos resembles a book with creature paradigms.[25] Architect’s design before the construction of a city serves to Philo as another simile of Logos.[26] Since creation, Logos binds things together.[27] As the receptacle and holder of ideas, Logos is distinct from the material world. At the same time, Logos pervades the world, supporting it.[28]

Logos has the function of an advocate on behalf of humanity and also that of a God’s envoy to the world.[29] He puts human minds in order.[30] The right reason is an infallible law, the source of any other laws.[31] The angel closing Balaam’s way (Numbers XXII, 31) is interpreted by Philo as manifestation of Logos, which acts as man’s conscience.[32]

Knowledge of Hebrew

Philo read the Jewish Scriptures chiefly in the Septuagint Greek translation.[33] His knowledge of Hebrew has been a matter of scholarly dispute, with most scholars arguing that he did not read the language. One piece of evidence that supports that hypothesis is Philo's creative (often fanciful) use of etymologies.

See also

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  2. Antiquities xviii.8, § 1; comp. ib. xix.5, § 1; xx.5, § 2
  3. On Providence 2.64.
  4. In addition to the familiar texts that form the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah (or rather the oral Jewish law, since the Mishnah was first redacted and written down in 220AD) and a range of non-canonical literature.
  5. Josephus, Antiquities xviii. 8. 1.
  6. Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.8, § 1, Whiston's translation (online)
  7. Embassy to Gaius, Chapter 28-31, Yonge's translation (online)
  8. Flaccus, Chapters 6 - 9 (43, 53-56, 62, 66, 68, 71-72), Yonge's translation (online)
  9. "De Agricultura Noë," § 12 [i. 308]; "De Somniis," i. 681, ii. 25
  10. "De Specialibus Legibus," §§ 2 et seq. [ii. 300 et seq.]; "De Præmiis et Pœnis," § 1 [ii. 408]
  11. "De Mutatione Nominum," § 8 [i. 587]
  12. Philo, “Every Good Man is Free (12.82), 690.
  13. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, “Introduction,” (Loeb Classical Library, 1914, Babbit trans.)
  14. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” Alexander Roberts, ed., The Gnostic Society Library Online (1995), 1.9.5.
  16. P.J.Gott and Logan Licht, Following Philo: The Magdalene, The Virgin, The Men Called Jesus (Bolivar: Leonard Press, 2015), 279-81.
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  19. On the Unchangeableness of God, XIII, 62
  20. Who is the Heir of Divine Things, XXXII, 160
  21. On the Confusion of Tongues, XIV, 61-62
  22. On the Confusion of Tongues, XI, 41
  23. On Flight and Finding, XX, 111
  24. On the Creation, XLIV, 129
  25. Allegorical Interpretation, I, VIII, 19
  26. On the Creation, VI, 24
  27. On Flight and Finding, XX, 112
  28. On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile, V, 14; On Dreams, XXXVII, 2.245
  29. Who is the Heir of Divine Things? XLII, 205-206
  30. On the Creation, LI, 145-146
  31. Every Good Man is Free, VII, 46-47]
  32. On the Unchageableness of God, XXXVII, 181-182
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Works by Philo

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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. [Online Greek text of Volumes 1-7 above. Under "Graecum - Greco - Greek" section]
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Secondary sources

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External links

  • Lecture on Philo Judaeus of Alexandria: Jews in the Greek World by Dr. Henry Abramson
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  • Open source XML versions of Philo's works have been made available by the Open Greek and Latin Project at the University of Leipzig. English translations of Philo's writings are also available here.
  • Works by Philo at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Philo at Internet Archive