Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E. - 50 C.E.)

Philo of Alexandria was born in the bustling and cosmopolitan city of Alexandria toward the end of the first century before the Common Era. A philosopher and theologian, he lived at a time and in a place where Greek philosophy flourished. The Roman Empire was at its zenith, and the Jewish nation was besieged by a powerful empire which sought its dissolution.

Little is known of Philo's personal life, but it is presumed that he was born into a wealth and assimilated family which afforded him an excellent education in philosophy and science. It is apparent from his writings that he lived and wrote in a milieu well versed in the various schools of Hellenistic discourse: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Aristotelianism, and Platonic thought.

Greek philosophical modes of thought and underlying assumptions were not compatible with Judaism. Where Greek philosophy presumed that human beings can discern and comprehend truth through human reason and logic, Judaism held that truth was accessible through written revelation: Torah.

Philo wrote in Greek, the language of philosophers. It is not clear whether he even knew Hebrew. The Jews of Alexandria relied on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture) which was completed some time shortly after 100 B.C.E. In keeping with the Greek philosophical approach, Philo wrote what is essentially a Greek apology for Torah, an attempt to reconcile the two. As Greeks were inclined to understand literature allegorically, so Philo interpreted the Torah in kind. The stories in the Torah are not to be understood literally, he wrote, but rather allegorically. Adam represents reason, for example, and Eve sensuality. The snake in the Garden of Eden symbolizes lust. Lust appeals to the sensual side of humanity and when humans give into lust, reason is defeated. Philo went so far as to claim that Greek wisdom was based on Jewish teachings and postulated that there had been early Jewish philosophical Jewish writings which had been lost when the Jews went into Exile in Babylonia in the sixth century before the Common Era. He offered a complex chain of transmission, from Chaldeans to Persians, later to Greeks and then Romans. Philo's scheme was designed to make the claim that the wisdom and modes of thought of the Greeks had originated with Judaism and arrived in the Greek world via a circuitous route. A proper allegorical examination of the Hebrew Scripture would readily reveal this truth.

Philo's writings, while fascinating for a student of Judaism and the Jewish community in the first century, are not quoted by the classical Jewish sources. His ideas were foreign to the Sages in Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia. Whether his writings served to stave off assimilation in the Alexandrian Jewish community is a matter of conjecture. He is not mentioned by Jewish medieval philosophers either. The one group who enthusiastically received his ideas were the early Church Fathers, where his influence was deeply felt.

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