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date: 28 June 2022

Philon (4), ‘Philo’free

Philon (4), ‘Philo’free

  • Maren Niehoff


Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 bce–45 ce) was a Jewish philosopher, Bible interpreter, and diplomat who produced one of the most voluminous and diverse oeuvres extant from antiquity. He started his career as a Bible commentator in the Jewish community of Alexandria, combining methods of Homeric scholarship with Platonic allegory and a transcendental theology of the God of Israel. As a budding philosopher, Philo significantly contributes to Middle-Platonism. Following an embassy to Gaius Caligula in Rome, Philo began to address wider Roman audiences and interpreted the Jewish tradition in the mode of Roman Stoicism. He provides a glimpse into the development of Roman Stoicism from Cicero to Seneca. His biographies of the biblical forefathers focus on characteristic anecdotes and anticipate Plutarch’s work. Philo’s works from his Roman period are paradigmatic for a broader merging of the Greek East with the Roman West and illuminate similar developments among the writers of the Second Sophistic.


  • Jewish Studies

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Philo of Alexandria left behind one of the most voluminous and diverse oeuvres of antiquity, one which illuminates Hellenistic Judaism, early Christianity, and the Second Sophistic. The chronology of his works has been established and it has become clear that he played a significant intellectual role not only in his home town, Alexandria, but also in Rome, where he spent several years as the head of a Jewish embassy to Gaius Caligula (38–41 ce). While Philo started his career as a Bible interpreter in the Jewish community of Alexandria, he used his time in the capital of the empire to address Roman audiences and offer a distinctively Roman interpretation of the Jewish tradition.1 His keen engagement with Roman intellectual discourse renders Philo comparable to many other Greek-speaking intellectuals in the empire, including Plutarch, Lucian, and Paul, who subsequently also developed hybrid identities and actively participated in the merging of the Greek East with the Roman West. As an allegorical reader of the holy scriptures, Philo also had a significant impact on Christian Bible exegesis, especially on Origen, who adopted his Platonizing interpretations of the biblical heroes as symbols of the soul.2

Philo’s intellectual profile must be assessed in relation to the different geographical contexts and stages of his career. He was initially active in the Jewish community of Alexandria and composed the Allegorical Commentary, a series of treatises offering a verse-by-verse commentary on the book of Genesis. Philo uses methods of Homeric scholarship which had been developed at the Museum to analyze problems in the biblical text and to offer allegorical solutions which rely on Platonic philosophy. At this stage, Philo contributed significantly to the movement called Middle Platonism. Following the embassy to Rome, however, Philo turned to broader Greco-Roman audiences and used more familiar literary genres easily accessible to readers not versed in the Bible. At this stage he recounted (in the Embassy and Against Flaccus) the political events in which he had been involved, and he explained Judaism in terms of Roman Stoicism and Roman culture more generally. In the Exposition, he fashions the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as heroes of ethical biographies and explains Jewish law as natural law. His independent philosophical treatises from this period address philosophical issues popular in Rome, such as the questions of the creation of the world and the rationality of animals. Throughout all his writings, Philo shows a strong belief in the God of Israel, whom he initially conceives in strongly transcendental terms, insisting, that nothing can be said about him. In Philo’s later writings, God is prominent as the creator of the world and protector of the Jews in real life.

Philo as a Platonic Bible Interpreter at the Beginning of his Career

Philo began his career as a Bible interpreter in the Jewish community of Alexandria, where he participated in a thriving hermeneutic tradition which had been inspired by Alexandrian scholarship at the Museum. Generations of Alexandrian Jews had read the Bible in its Greek translation (see Septuagint) and had raised critical questions regarding the canonical text. Demetrius, for example, pointed to problems of plausibility and contradictions between verses, solving them by offering stories that allegedly happened between the verses and explain their discrepancy. This method had been introduced by Aristarchus, the leading Homeric scholar of Alexandria.3 The importance of the Library and scholarly text-criticism for Jewish identity is also attested by the Letter of Aristeas.4

Philo’s Allegorical Commentary is an important contribution to the tradition of Jewish Bible exegesis in Alexandria. He combines here for the first time a literary analysis of the text, based on Homeric models, with allegory in a Platonic spirit. In his hands, the biblical stories become narratives about the soul in its flight from the world to the divine realm. For example, Philo was already aware of the contradiction between Genesis 11:31, where Abraham is said to be taken by his father Terach from Chaldea, and Genesis 12:1, where God commands Abraham to leave Chaldea and go to the land of Israel. Philo says that “nobody versed in the Scriptures” will be oblivious to the difficulty of the overlapping journeys, and he concludes that Genesis 11:31 must not be taken as a “historical account” (Migr. 177; Somn. 1.52). According to Philo, Abraham’s travel must instead be appreciated as a journey of the soul, which departs from the material realm (as well as from astrology) and arrives at the spiritual realm, which implies faith in the one God (Migr. 43). While Philo dwells on text-critical problems and acknowledges Moses as the author of the Torah, whose style deserves investigation, he ultimately resolves all problems and rejects text emendation or source criticism. The latter two methods had been practiced by his more radical colleagues, against whom Philo polemicises, dismissing, for example, their comparison between the story of the Tower of Babel and a passage in the Odyssey (Conf. 4).

Philo’s allegorical interpretations of biblical women are of special interest. On his reading, the creation of Adam and Eve symbolizes the creation of a manly mind and of feminine sense-perception, which passively receives impressions from outside and threatens to alienate man from God (All. 2.44–52).5 Philo also celebrates Sarah’s menopause, reported in Genesis 18:11, as a transformation of the soul from a lower, emasculated state to a higher, spiritual one which enables God to visit and unite with it (Cher. 50). The offspring that Sarah and Hagar bear to Abraham emerge in Philo’s account as different types of learning: while Sarah represents the highest form of learning, namely philosophy and wisdom, Hagar stands for the lower, introductory studies (Congr. 71–79). The learner, Abraham, needs first to unite with Hagar and prepare himself via encyclical studies for the ultimate goal of attaining philosophy.

Philosophically, the Allegorical Commentary is oriented towards a distinctly Alexandrian form of Platonism, which is characterized by strong transcendental and dogmatic tendencies as well as Pythagorean elements. Quoting the famous digression in the Theaetetus, a dialogue which was systematically commented upon in Alexandria, Philo defines the goal of ethics as a flight from the world and an imitation of God “as far as possible” (Fuga 63). Following the Middle Platonist Eudorus, Philo developed a stringent form of Platonic transcendentalism, which he further developed into a theology that denies any description of the Divine (All. 3.206). His emphasis on God’s purely spiritual nature prompted him even to disconnect God from the creation of the world, thus anticipating a Gnostic dualism. In this context of a deep chasm between the divine realm and the material world, Philo introduces the idea of the Logos as a mediator between the two (All. 1.19–20).

Philo’s combination of literary scholarship and Platonic allegory in the Allegorical Commentary was highly innovative in the 1st century ce and significantly anticipates the work of Porphyry and Origen. At the same time, Philo’s approach generally differs from Stoic allegory, which tended to ignore the author’s intention in a text and to introduce aspects of natural science in its interpretations (see, e.g., Cornutus).

Philo as a Diplomat and Writer in Rome

In 38 ce, the Alexandrian Jews experienced a pogrom which included enormous damage, humiliation, and physical violence. Scholars still discuss the precise causes of this event, which seems to have resulted from a tragic constellation of internal tensions within the Roman administration and other political factors. Philo interpreted the events as an expression of Egyptian jealousy towards the Jews and speedily departed for Rome as the head of a Jewish embassy seeking imperial support and confirmation of Jewish civil rights (38–41 ce). Some of the events which he narrates in the Embassy and Against Flaccus are later also reported, with significant variation in detail, by the Jewish historian Josephus. One of the burning questions of modern scholarship is whether Philo is necessarily more reliable thanks to his personal participation in the events. His historiography is characterized by a strong tendency towards dramatic effect, which is given priority over chronological sequence, and towards theological messages. Philo presents human diplomacy as doomed to failure and ignores the considerable achievements of the Jewish king Agrippa I, whom Josephus highlights in his narrative. For Philo, politics is nothing but a grotesque theatre (Leg. 182–198, 349–362). Salvation, in Philo’s view, comes only from God. Rome plays a positive role in Philo’s historical narrative, with Gaius figuring as an aberration from Roman norms and Claudius restoring law and order. Philo’s commitment to benign monarchy and his conceptions of politics, exile, and religion strikingly resemble the views held by Seneca, his slightly younger Roman contemporary.

Philo used his time in Rome to address Roman audiences and counter the influence of the leaders of the rival Egyptian embassy, Apion, and most probably also Chaeremon, both of whom had written vicious treatises against the Jews. In arguing against them, Philo portrayed Judaism as a religion sharing the values of the empire and educating excellent citizens. During this later stage in his career Philo produced an impressive number of works. These may be divided into independent philosophical treatises, on the one hand, and the Exposition of the Law, on the other. The latter is a series of writings ranging from On the Creation of the World to biographies of Moses, Joseph, and Abraham as well as The Decalogue and the four books On the Special Laws. Both series of writings engage with prevailing Roman intellectual discourse and offer unique insights into Rome as an intellectual centre which attracts Greek intellectuals and inspires them with new ideas. In these works, Philo throws important new light on the development of Roman Stoicism between Cicero and Seneca.

Among Philo’s philosophical treatises, On the Rationality of Animals is one which illustrates especially well his engagement with Roman intellectual discourse. This treatise addresses the question of human rationality in comparison with that of animals, a topic of lively debate in Rome but one which attracted no interest in Alexandria. In the treatise, Philo presents a discussion he had with his nephew Alexander Tiberius, who argued that animals’ rationality was equal to that of humans. Alexander rejects the common assumption of human superiority and shares his observations of intelligent behaviour in animals. These views are harshly dismissed by Philo as unsound, childish, fashionable, and even a “sacrilege.” In Philo’s view, animals cannot be evaluated in the way suggested by Alexander, because they act “neither by means of skill in the arts nor by innate reason; they have no particular accomplishment, to tell the truth, except that they work diligently” (Alex. 75, 77–80, 82–85, 100). Philo places man on a fundamentally higher level, because only he is capable of conceiving of God and thinking in abstract terms. This debate within Philo’s family is informed by wider discussions in Rome, and Philo turns out to defend a known Stoic position already presented by Cicero’s Stoic spokesman Balbus (Cic. Nat. D. 2.140–147, 3.70–79). Like Seneca (Ep. 121), Philo stresses man’s learning, self-determination, and proximity to God. The arguments attributed to Alexander, on the other hand, resurface in Roman discussions as Platonic positions which are of continuous interest until the time of Seneca’s work. Philo thus assumes the majority Stoic position, while Alexander plays the role of the Platonic “Other.” Philo’s move to Rome and consequent adoption of a specifically Roman perspective on animals illuminate broader developments within the empire, especially in increasing emphasis on man’s superiority over animals.

Philo’s Exposition of the Law casts the Jewish tradition in a new form, one which was easily accessible to Roman audiences. This series covers some of the biblical material already treated in the Allegorical Commentary, but unlike the earlier work, it does not quote verses or systematically comment on them. Instead, it provides a consecutive narrative suggesting that Jewish customs are grounded in the creation of the world and thus in nature. The biblical patriarchs constitute a bridge between the two realms of nature and law, as they implement Jewish law even before it was revealed. Philo’s biographies of Moses, Joseph, and Abraham are of special interest, since they anticipate Plutarch’s work and reflect Roman views of women as active spouses and mothers. Strikingly, Philo defines biography as a genre which deals with characteristic anecdotes. His insistence that he “will describe an action he [Moses] did at that time, which may appear to be small, but was performed out of no petty mind” (Mos. 1.51) directly anticipates Plutarch’s famous introduction to the biography of Alexander, where he says that

it is not histories that I am writing but lives; and in the most illustrious actions there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice. Yet a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes the greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall or the greatest armaments or sieges of cities. (Alex. 1.2)

Philo assigns biblical women an unprecedented role in his exposition of Jewish history, which reflects Roman ideals of conjugality. Sarah is praised as a loving spouse who actively supported her husband, turned in pious prayer to God, and put procreation before her personal interests (Abr. 245–257).

Philo developed his biographies in the context of Roman intellectual discourse about moral exemplarity.6 Cicero and Nepos had begun to promote studies of outstanding personalities, the latter already presenting simple biographies of historical figures. Even earlier, the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, who spent much of his time in Rome, had powerfully argued for the self as a specific individual with characteristics that went beyond participation in universal rationality. Following Panaetius as transmitted by Cicero, the discussion in Rome shifted from notions of universal rationality to a concern for “our own nature,” “individual particularity,” and the self’s “proper” characteristics. Already at birth, men differ with regard to their physical qualities as well as their dominant personality traits, both of which subsequently determine their career (Cic. Off. 1.107–112).7 Seneca continues this Stoic discussion, adding a historical dimension which is significant with respect to Philo. In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca proposes that people should move beyond the limitations of their own experience by associating with figures from the past. He recommends that his readers take a great thinker such as Zeno and Aristotle as “their most intimate friend every day.” One should become the “client” of such thinkers and adopt them as teachers and friends “from whom we may seek counsel on matters great and small.” Most importantly, the reader should “fashion himself in the likeness” of such thinkers (Sen. Dial. 10.15.2–5). Inspired by such Roman intellectual discourse, and writing at the same time as Seneca began to formulate his philosophy, Philo offers in the Life of Moses a sophisticated and innovative example of a biography, one which seriously engages Stoic notions of the individual. The opening of the Life places Moses in the wider context of the biographical tradition and would have struck any educated reader in Rome as most appropriate (Mos. 1.5–7).

The significance of Philo of Alexandria must be appreciated with reference to Judaism, Greek culture in the Roman Empire, and early Christianity. Philo is essential to any study of ancient Judaism. Not only the most prolific writer among the Alexandrian Jewish community, he also throws important light on Josephus, who arrived in Rome one generation later, and on the rabbis, who constituted themselves as a distinctly urban elite in the Roman empire following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Philo is also helpful to the study of Greek literature in the Roman Empire, sometimes subsumed under the umbrella term “the Second Sophistic.” It has become clear that Greek culture was deeply entwined with Roman intellectual discourses and structures of power. Writers such as Plutarch and Lucian cannot be properly understood without addressing the question of their involvement in Roman intellectual life and its impact on their construction of Greek identity. The hybridity of Philo’s identity illuminates the similar complexity of these Greek authors. Finally, early Christian studies can benefit from Philo’s work, because he set up paradigms of allegorical Bible interpretation and showed the way to combine monotheism with Roman ethics. Given that Philo addressed Roman audiences only a few years before Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, comparative studies seem to be a crucial desideratum.

Primary Texts

  • Cohn, Leopold, and Paul Wendland, eds. Philonis Alexandrini opera quae supersunt. 6 vols. Berlin: Typis et Impensis Georgii Reimeri, 1886–1915.
  • Colson, F. H., and Whitaker, G. H., eds. Philo. 10 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966–1981.


    Introductions, Handbooks, and Commentaries
    • Birnbaum, Ellen and John Dillon. Philo of Alexandria. On the Life of Abraham. Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2021.
    • Geljon, Albert C., and David T. Runia. Philo of Alexandria: On Cultivation. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
    • Hadas-Lebel, Mireille. Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora. Translated by Robyn Fréchet. Leiden: Brill, 2012. French original 2003.
    • Kamesar, Adam, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philo. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
    • Runia, David T. Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
    • Smallwood, E. Mary. Philonis Alexandrini Legatio ad Gaium. Leiden: Brill, 1961.
    • Taylor, Joan E., Philo of Alexandria. On the Contemplative Life. Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2021.
    • Van der Horst, Pieter W. Philo of Alexandria. Philo’s Flaccus: The First Pogrom. Leiden: Brill, 2003.
    • Wilson, Walter. Philo of Alexandria: On the Virtues. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
    Secondary Literature
    • Alesse, Francesca, ed. Philo of Alexandria and Post-Aristotelian Philosophy. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
    • Birnbaum, Ellen. The Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.
    • Bréhier, Emile. Les idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d’Alexandrie. Paris: J. Vrin, 1950.
    • Daniélou, Jean. Origène. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1948.
    • Dillon, John. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220. London: Duckworth, 1977.
    • Fraser, M. P. Ptolemaic Alexandria. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.
    • Griffin, Miriam T. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
    • Langlands, Rebecca. Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
    • Niehoff, Maren R. “Alexandrian Judaism in 19th Century. Wissenschaft des Judentums: Between Modernity and Christianity.” In Jüdische Geschichte in hellenistisch-römischer Zeit. Wege der Forschung: Vom alten zum neuen Schürer. Edited by Aharon Oppenheimer, 9–28. Munich: R. Oldenburg, 1999.
    • Niehoff, Maren R. Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
    • Niehoff, Maren R. Philo of Alexandria: An Intellectual Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
    • Reydams-Schils, Gretchen. Demiurge and Providence: Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s Timaeus. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.
    • Roller, Matthew. Models from the Past in Roman Culture: A World of Exempla. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
    • Roller, Matthew. “Selfhood, Exemplarity, and Cicero’s Four Personae: On Constructing Your Self after Your Model and Your Model after Your Self.” In Self, Self-Fashioning and Individuality in Late Antiquity. Edited by Maren R. Niehoff and Joshua Levinson, 49–68. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019.
    • Runia, David T. Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato. Leiden: Brill, 1986.
    • Runia, David T. Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
    • Schironi, Francesca. “Theory into Practice: Aristotelian Principles in Aristarchan Philology.” Classical Philology 104 (2009): 279–316.
    • Sly, Dorothy. Philo’s Perception of Women. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
    • Sterling, Gregory. “Platonizing Moses: Philo and Middle Platonism.” Studia Philonica Annual 5 (1993): 96–111.
    • Sterling, Gregory. “The Interpreter of Moses: Philo of Alexandria and the Biblical Text.” In A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism. Edited by Matthias Henze, 415–434. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.
    • Taylor, Joan E. Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s “Therapeutae” Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
    • van den Hoek, Annevies. “Philo and Origen: A Descriptive Catalogue of their Relationship.” Studia Philonica Annual 12 (2000): 44–121.
    • Whitmarsh, Tim. Greek Literature and the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
    • Wright, Benjamin G. The Letter of Aristeas. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015.