Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria: A First Century Jewish Philosopher
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has made a significant contribution to philosophy in general and Philo of Alexandria in particular. Samuel knows Judaism well and is an expert on the first-century philosopher Philo. This is his fifth very informative volume on the pioneer philosopher Philo. With this book, he has completed his collection of Philo’s ideas on all five books on the Pentateuch.
His series on Philo is a much needed contribution to the understanding of the Bible. Samuel drew Philo’s ideas from the wealth of this philosopher’s exegetical comments and arranged them according to biblical verses. He gives readers a very readable translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive easy to read explanatory notes, which frequently include opinions about the subject being discussed from modern scholars, the writings of rabbis in rabbinical literature, Christian theology, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and non-Jewish philosophers and historians such as Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Josephus. As a result, readers get a multi-dimensional understanding of the biblical text.
He includes an informative sixteen-page introduction to Philo’s life and thought, about the book of Deuteronomy, a general discussion of how Philo treats this fifth book, the structure of Philo’s Special Laws, thoughts on when Judaism began to actively proselytize, the Jewish temple of Onias vs. the temple in Jerusalem, and much else. Who was Philo?
Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of Judaism’s great philosophers. The noted scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo was the first Jewish philosopher who “contributed anything new” to Jewish-Greek philosophy.
Philo’s philosophy is based in large part on the somewhat mystical opinions of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that Philo wrote still exist. His books are, in essence, a collection of intelligent sermons and commentaries in which he explains the Bible very frequently from an allegorical perspective.
Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning: words mean what they say. The second is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires alert intelligent readers go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers, and events. Philo’s opinion of allegory was that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, and they transmit truth by these methods, often truths that can be applied to other situations.
In this book, for example, commenting upon the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), Philo explains why the last command prohibiting coveting is the most grievous and harmful passion to oneself and others. Samuel tells us of the numerous scriptural references that support Philo’s point: David’s covetous desire of Bathsheba, Ahab’s of Naboth’s vineyard, the prophet Elisha’s servant Gehazi who desired a handsome reward for Elisha’s healing of Naaman, and more; and Samuel compares these biblical teaching with the Greek myth of Tantalus, gives the teaching of Ecclesiastes, Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, and much more, all on this one issue.
Samuel tells us about Philo’s explanations of the divine names, how the Greeks handled divine names, how the Jews copied the Greeks in translating God’s names in the Bible, the discussion on the subject by the scholar Harry A. Wolfson, and more.
He informs readers about the Greek Historian Hecataeus who visited and wrote about the Temple of Jerusalem around the fourth century BCE. We read also the understanding of Philo, Maimonides, Josephus, and others opposing augury (divination); and Samuel includes a fascinating story about a Jew Mosollamos who proved that augury does not work. Samuel tells Philo’s explanation on how Moses could have written about his death and compares Philo’s idea to the one in the Talmud. He explains why the order of the Ten Commandments is different in the Greek translation called Septuagint and in Philo than in the Hebrew Bible. He gives the metaphorical interpretations of the Shema in Philo, Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and biblical scholarship.
These few examples show the scholarship contained in Samuel’s book, scholarship presented in easy-to-read English, information that will fascinate and inform Samuel’s readers.