Philo and Early Christian Thought

A paper I wrote for a class. Because it'd be too complicated, I'm not going to worry about formatting.

Philo and Early Christian Thought

Whatever its claims to divine inspiration, Christianity cannot pretend to have arisen independently of the intellectual and cultural landscape from which it emerged. The omnipresence of Judaism and Jewish thought within early Christian writings is obviously undeniable, and the influence of (and exposure to) Greek philosophy can also be witnessed from the very beginning; St. Paul himself is reported to have debated Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens,1 and St. John began his Gospel with the proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word [λόγος],”2 identifying Jesus Christ with a term from Greek philosophy denoting rationality and animating power. According to Runia, “Christianity could not have become the Christianity that we know, if it had not accepted the challenge posed by Greek philosophy with its trust in a world-view based on rational thought.”3

In particular, Mack has identified Hellenistic Judaism, which incorporated elements of Greek philosophy into the Jewish faith (thus synthesizing the two primary traditions from which Christian thought sprung), as the “religious milieu in which many of the theological concerns and language forms common to [early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism] were first molded.”4 And by far the most prominent Hellenistic Jewish figure in early Christian thought (and probably in all of antiquity) was Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 AD), a philosopher and exegete who wrote extensively on Mosaic scripture and, as the Jesuit scholar Thomas Tobin describes it, “clearly influenced the interpretation of the Bible for centuries. His impact on patristic exegesis was immense.”5 The Church Fathers' respect for him, though not universal, was impressive; St. Jerome placed him among the “ecclesiastical writers,”6 and Eusebius mentioned a legend (whose plausibility he does not dismiss) in which Philo spoke to St. Peter in Rome.7,8 (Not coincidentally, we owe the breadth of the extant Philonic corpus – if not its very existence – to the early Christians, who included him in the incipient Christian tradition: “Had [Origen] not taken copies of Philo's treatises with him when he moved from Alexandria to Caesarea in 233, then these would have gone lost, together with the remainder of the Hellenistic-Jewish literature of Alexandria.”)9,10 No one contests that Philo had an enormous impact upon early Christian thought.

In this essay, I intend to probe the extent of that impact, analyzing both Philo's role within the larger Hellenistic-Jewish tradition and his place in Christian intellectual history. Doing so will allow me to determine and compare Philo's and Hellenistic Judaism's effects upon Christian thinking.

Philo is often (vaguely) classified as a “philosopher”; however, his main intention was not to construct a systematic philosophy, but instead to understand the Torah;11 in fact, twenty-six of Philo's thirty-three surviving works consist of interpretations of biblical texts.12 Though his œuvre provides us with our “first sustained reflection about pentateuchal literature and how it should be read,”13 Philo, unsurprisingly, drew upon a longstanding tradition of Jewish exegesis in his work. (For example, in his Quæstiones et solutiones in Genesim alone, Philo specifically attributed certain interpretations to previous Jewish thinkers over a dozen times.)14

Unfortunately, “this rich literature [of Hellenistic Jewish thought] has almost entirely disappeared,” and it is therefore frequently difficult to distinguish between the Philonic and the pre-Philonic in Philo's works, especially because Philo “is the most important and most vital representative of a wider movement, in which the biblical tradition was first brought in direct contact with the philosophical thought that was developed in Greek culture.”15 Consequently, although several pre-Clementine Church Fathers discussed topics that undoubtedly relate to themes which Philo also explored, it remains uncertain whether these connections stem from a patristic familiarity with Philo himself or from a knowledge of other related sources.16 (This confusion potentially arises even with St. John; Dodd suggests that “the cast of the [the thoughts of the author of the Gospel of John] clearly suggests that he was acquainted, if not with Philo, at least with Jewish thought proceeding on similar lines.”17 Furthermore, Philo was quite comfortable with giving multiple interpretations of single texts, often listing previous interpretations which he would sometimes qualify but rarely reject.18 Because he valued the interpretations of his predecessors enough to assimilate them into his works even when they were not altogether concordant with his own, we must wonder “at what point in this history of interpretation Philo [appeared].”)19

All of this complicates the task of separating Philo's personal influence upon Christianity from the effects of the broader Hellenistic Jewish tradition. It would be an exceedingly onerous endeavor to parse the two with any success, and I will not attempt to do so here; instead, I have merely flagged some of the obstacles preventing an elucidation of the relationship between Philo and Hellenistic Judaism.

Of course, these obstacles themselves only lead to more questions: What exactly is “Hellenistic Judaism”? In what sort of intellectual environment does Philo write? As Bentwich remarks, “It should be remembered that until the second century of the common era the mass of Jewish tradition was a floating and developing body of opinion not consigned to writing or formalized, but handed down by word of mouth from teacher to pupil, and preacher to congregation.”20 Philo was not a Jewish thinker who subscribed to a particular “Hellenized” branch of Judaism; rather, Philo lived in a time (the first centuries BC and AD) when Greek philosophy had enmeshed itself into Jewish thought and in a place (Alexandria) that was the center of exchange between those two traditions.

Not much is known of the philosophical atmosphere in Alexandria before the first century BC.21 However, we know of several Alexandrian philosophers who wrote slightly before Philo's lifetime, one of whom, Aenesidemus of Knossos, founded a Skeptical school of philosophy around 45 BC; Stoic and Peripatetic schools also existed.22 Philo employed some of Aenesidemus' methodology in De ebrietate, drawing upon Peripatetic and Stoic doctrines as well.23 However, the main Greek influence upon Philo was Middle Platonism, “in which the central position [was] given to Plato's physics or, more importantly, to certain interpretations of Plato's physics.”24 Though the origins of Middle Platonism are unclear, what is known is that first-century Alexandria saw a turn away from Skepticism, an emphasis on Plato's Timaeus (which sketches much of Plato's physics and theology), and a “return of the notion of transcendence” – often including “an intermediate figure between that transcendent deity and the world.”25 Elsewhere, Middle Platonists accentuated Plato's formulation of the purpose of life as “likeness or assimilation to God.”26 Moreover, Middle Platonism possessed a thoroughly religious flavor and a propensity for allegorization of religious stories and rituals:

In general...the Middle Platonic thought of the latter part of the first century B.C., especially in Alexandria, is deeply affected by a Platonism (influenced by Neopythagoreanism) in which cult myths and mystery rites are reinterpreted and allegorized. This interest in the reinterpretation of cult myths and mystery rites...reflects the intensely religious character of much Middle Platonic thought. The attraction, then, of Middle Platonism for Jewish interpreters was not simply its conceptual structure but also the religious sensibility that was a crucial part of that framework.27

All of these developments in first-century Greek philosophy, many of which became fundamental for Philo, primed it for consolidation with (and application to) religious texts. They were vital for Middle Platonism, Hellenistic Judaism, and – eventually – Christianity.

Admittedly, neither Philo nor the early Christians derived the idea of a transcendent God from Greek philosophy; that concept was present enough in the Jewish tradition. However, even before examining the Philonic texts themselves, some salient points can be made about Philo's (and, by extension, Hellenistic Judaism's) importance to Christian thought.

First, as Runia recognizes, The Church Fathers did not learn Platonism from Philo, but rather a means of

[establishing a link] between Platonist ideas and the contents of scripture. ... [Philo and Hellenistic-Jewish thought] showed how insights from the Greek philosophical tradition could be localized in the authoritative words of scripture. ... The history of [Philonic thought] in the church fathers is the process in which a long sequence of apologists and theologians takes over themes and ideas from Philo and the broader Hellenistic-Jewish tradition. These ideas are seldom abstractly philosophical. They are connected to the exposition of the biblical text or – as occurs later – introduced in polemical dogmatic discussions.28

Even where Philo did not provide specific interpretations or hermeneutical principles, his writings illustrated the centrality – indeed, the necessity – of a balanced integration and synthesis of philosophy and scriptural religion. (To borrow Bentwich's bon mot, Philo offered the Greeks a “philosophical religion” and the Jews a “religious philosophy.”)29 Importantly, the early Christians employed a similar methodological equilibrium that allowed them to preserve the distinctiveness of the faith while engaging the surrounding zeitgeist.

Such engagement, crucial both for Philo and for the early Christians, required a noticeably apologetic exegesis – one for believers and non-believers alike. And Philo exemplified this approach:

Why, it must be asked, does Philo artificially attach his philosophy to the Scriptures? He does so for two reasons: first, because he holds and wishes to prove that between faith and philosophy there is no conflict, and his generation worked out the agreement by his method; he does so also because he wishes to establish the Torah and Judaism upon a sure foundation for the man of outside culture. ... A superficial knowledge of the materialistic or rationalistic theories...was made the excuse for indifference to the law. ... The dominating motive of Philo's work is to show that the Bible contains for those who will seek it the richest treasures of wisdom, that its ethical teaching is more ideal and yet more real than that which hundreds of sophists poured forth daily...and lastly that the cultured Jew may search out knowledge and truth to their depths, and find them expressed in his holy books and in his religious beliefs and practices.30

This external and even evangelistic focus of Philo's (with which the Fathers would, of course, wholly empathize) served as a primary impetus for his thought, as it would for the Church Fathers.31

But what exactly did Philo say to become so singular a figure in Christian history? What was the substance of his conclusions? How did he come to them? And in what ways did the Church Fathers agree with him?

Runia proposes two Philonic doctrines, God's immutability and his “exaltedness” (or transcendence), as partial answers to these questions; the former “gave expression to the conviction of God's faithfulness and reliability,” while the latter stresses the notion that “God, as he really is, is known only to himself.”32 (Or, as Philo has God says to Moses when asked to reveal Himself: “I bestow what is appropriate for the one who is to receive it.”)33 According to Runia, this second idea of transcendence was particularly popular with the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa – so popular, in fact, that he appropriated the title of a Philonic text for his work on the subject, De vita Moysis.34

Philo also “furnish[ed] the church fathers with numerous allegorical themes and schemes, especially in the area of physical (or cosmological), psychological and moral exposition.”35 Pointing out that Philo refuses to allegorize God, Runia nevertheless cites the abilities “to connect up with and exploit contemporary philosophical ideas” and “to preserve at least partly the narrative element of the biblical text, but then at the more general level of the quest of the soul for God” as critical advantages of the allegorical method; it promotes flexibility and unity of message.36 (This essentially is why Bentwich names Philo's allegorical commentaries as “the crowning point of his work.”)37

Several features of Philo's allegorical method bear mentioning. For Philo, “the Torah [was] a unity, and every part of it [had] equal value”;38 in Philo's words,

[T]he giving of the law...is a sort of living unity, the whole of which one ought to examine carefully with all one's eyes, and so discern with truth, and certainty, and clearness, the universal intention of the whole of the scripture without dissecting or lacerating its harmony, or disuniting its unity.39

For Philo, no other hermeneutical perspective can be valid: “[B]y any other mode everything would appear utterly inconsistent and absurd, being dissociated from all community or equity.”40 This means that almost every passage in scripture must have a symbolic meaning – and, indeed, Philo devoted his Quæstiones et solutiones in Genesim to answering hundreds of questions about allegorical interpretations of specific pentateuchal clauses, including the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God's indignation with Noah's generation, and such esoterica as the ordering of Shem, Ham, and Japheth's names.41 Interestingly, he (following interpreters before him) differentiated between the man created in Genesis i. 26-27 and ii. 7; one symbolized the mind, the other virtue.42 This is part of Philo's “allegory of the soul,” which “emphasize[d] that the figures described in the text of Genesis are also symbols of faculties and processes that are within each individual.”43 Significantly, Philo considered “both [the 'literal' and the 'allegorical' or 'symbolic'] levels of interpretation legitimate,” and sought to maintain both when possible.44 (Important exceptions include Philo's aforementioned refusal to allegorize God on the one hand and his non-literal readings of potentially anthropomorphic passages on the other.)45,46 This method of double allegory is perhaps the defining characteristic of Philonic exegesis.

There is no room here for an exhaustive survey of the Fathers' use of allegory in biblical interpretation; however, as a representative case, we can consider interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts in Philo and in some of the Church Fathers. Are the six days of the creation story literal days? Philo offers a numerological, non-literal exposition:

It would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in time; because all time is only the space of days and nights, and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does necessarily make. ... When...Moses says, 'God completed his works on the sixth day,' we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number.47

Origen, who is closely associated with Philo and is known to have studied his works thoroughly,48 echoes Philo's view, lambasting literal interpretations as absurd:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? ... And who is so foolish as to suppose that God...planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life...so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? ... And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.49

But Origen's rather dismissive tone belies the variety of opinions the Fathers held.50 St. Basil, for instance, holds a view diametrically opposed to Origen's, and specifically eschews the allegorical approach:

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”51

It is clear, then, that Philo's writings did not sway all patristic writers. Furthermore, even those fathers who were more inclined toward allegorical interpretations often approached the Old Testament in deliberately Christian (and thus non-Philonic) ways. Bentwich (somewhat of a Jewish apologist) laments that the early Christians “[learned] from Philo to trace in the Bible principles of universal thought and profound philosophy; but...used his method and his lessons to support notions of God and the Logos which were alien to his spirit.”52

Indeed, the Christian appropriation of the concept of the Logos presents another fascinating glimpse at the relationship between Philo and the Church Fathers.53 For Philo, “The logos was both the power through which the universe was originally ordered and the power by which the universe continued to be ordered.”54 It is referred to as the “idea of ideas, according to which God fashioned the world,”55 “the man of God, who being the reason of the everlasting God, is of necessity himself also immortal,”56 and the “second deity, who is the Word [λόγος] of the supreme Being.”57 Unquestionably, it is central both to Philo's thought and to the thought of the early Christians; after all, Jesus himself is identified with the Logos in the Gospel of John.58 Yet Philo obviously did not have any specific human in mind when he wrote about the Logos, nor did he ever identify the Logos with the Jewish Messiah.

Based on these two (hastily covered) examples, we can safely conclude a few things. The Church Fathers plainly felt no qualms recasting Greek philosophical (or, for that matter, Jewish) concepts in a Christian light, even if this reinterpretation was far removed from the original. (The Philonic Logos may be superficially similar to the Christian Logos, but the two are fundamentally different.) For all of the Hellenistic and Jewish influences that supplied the material (as it were) for the Christian faith, something uniquely Christian egressed of the early writings and creeds. Its vocabulary, methodology, and philosophical outlook may have been Jewish and Greek – but Christian thought cannot be reduced to the two traditions upon which it was founded.

What, then, is Philo's ultimate significance? His allegorical method granted a hermeneutical versatility that allowed the early Christians (including many of the New Testament authors) both to connect Christian ideas symbolically to Old Testament figures and events and to accommodate contemporary philosophical (and, later, scientific) trends. His exposition of Hellenistic Jewish philosophy furnished them with the philosophical lexicon and world-view necessary for Christianity to flourish in the classical world. Finally, he supplied the Church Fathers with a paradigmatic illustration of philosophically grounded exegesis, in which foundational scriptural and philosophical assumptions illuminated each other and coalesced into one truth.59 Christianity could not have established its intellectual footing without the possibility of such a religio-philosophical synthesis, and Philo provided early Christendom an excellent rubric for such an integration. This means of unifying reason and faith set the course for the tradition which would come to dominate and define Western society for the next two thousand years.

References: Secondary Sources

Bentwich, Norman De Mattos. 1910. Philo-Judæus of Alexandria /. Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Bouteneff, Peter. 2008. Beginnings : Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives /. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic.

Mack, Burton L. “Exegetical Traditions in Alexandrian Judaism.” Studia Philonica, no. 3 (1974-1975).

Dodd, C. H. 1953. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge Eng.: University Press.

Runia, David T. 1995. Philo and the Church Fathers : A Collection of Papers /. Vol. . 32. New York : E.J. Brill.

Tobin, Thomas H. 1983. The Creation of Man : Philo and the History of Interpretation /. Vol. 14. Washington, DC : Catholic Biblical Association of America.

References: Primary Sources

Basil. 378 AD. Homily IX.

Eusebius. c. 4th century AD. Historia Ecclesiastica.

Jerome. 392 AD. De viris illustribus.

Origen. c. 220-230 AD. De principiis.

Philo. c. 1st century AD. De specialibus legibus.

Philo. c. 1st century AD. De confusione linguarum.

Philo. c. 1st century AD. De migrationi Abrahami.

Philo. c. 1st century AD. Legum allegoriae.

Philo. c. 1st century AD. Quæstiones et solutiones et Genesim.

Stobaeus. c. 5thc entury AD. Eclogarum physicarum et ethicarum.

1cf. Acts xvii. 16-34

2Jn i. 1

3David T. Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers: A Collection of Papers (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 16.

4Burton L. Mack, “Exegetical Traditions in Alexandrian Judaism,” Studia Philonica, no. 3 (1974-1975): 71.

5Thomas H. Tobin, The Creation of Man: Philo and the History of Interpretation (Washington: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1983), 1.

6Jerome, De viris illustribus, XI.

7Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, II.16-17.3

8Tobin discusses Jereome's and Eusebius' opinions of Philo slightly more expansively at the beginning of The Creation of Man: Philo and the History of Interpretation.

9Runia, 7-8, 117. To be fair, Runia himself notes in his Philo in Early Christian Literature that at least one pagan author, Heliodorus of Emesa, almost certainly was acquainted with Philo; a passage from Heliodorus' Æthiopica virtually mirrors a passage from Philo's De vita Moysis.

10In his Philo-Judæus of Alexandria, Bentwich observes that one very essential part of Philo's work, referred to as “The Hexameron” (τό 'Εχημερὸν), has been lost. In this treatise, Philo apparently gave his “philosophical account of the first chapter of Genesis.”

11“For Philo scripture was limited to the books of Moses.” Runia, 15.

12Tobin, 2.

13Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 27.

14cf. Tobin, 5. Tobin lists sixteen relevant passages from the Quæstiones.

15Runia, 11, 12. Philo and Hellenistic Jewish thought are actually so intertwined in the extant literature that Runia proposes categorizing the former as “Philo” and the latter as “Philonism,” acknowledging the centrality of Philo's writings to the preservation of Hellenistic Jewish thought while differentiating his contributions from the broader tradition.

16Ibid., 10-11. “Philo is first explicitly mentioned and cited by Clement of Alexandria.” Runia cites Justin and Theophilus as specific examples of Fathers possibly acquainted with Philo's corpus before the time of Clement.

17Charles H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 41.

18cf. Norman Bentwich, Philo-Judæus of Alexandria (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1910), 100; Tobin, 32.

19Tobin, 32.

20Bentwich, 200-201.

21Tobin writes, “Serious philosophical discussion seems to have come into its own in Alexandria only in the first century B.C. There was probably no lack of philosophers in the third and second centuries in Alexandria, yet, apart from the polymath Eratosthenes (ca. 274-194 B.C.), no prominent philosophical figure was associated with Alexandria during these two centuries.”

22Tobin, 11.

23Ibid., 11. cf. Philo, De ebrietate, 171-205.

24Ibid., 11.

25Tobin, 12-17.

26Stobaeus, Eclogarum physicarum et ethicarum, II.49, 8-12.

27Tobin, 19. For a more thorough analysis, Tobin refers the reader to Antonie Wlosok's Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis.

28Runia, 15. Runia writes this about one specific Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, not the Fathers as a wholel; however, because he is considering Clement as a “striking example” of the wider relationship between Philonic and early Christian thought, I have taken his words as referring not just to Clement, but to the Church Fathers in general.

29Ibid., 96.

30Bentwich, 92-23.

31It should be noted, however, that Bentwich mentions a polemical side to Philo which “is directed less against the Greek schools in themselves than against the Jewish followers of the Greek schools.” Bentwich, 95.

32Runia, 17-18.

33Philo, De specialibus legibus, I.8.

34Runia, 18. Also, cf. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), 256. Runia observes that this is “the first time we have a patristic writing with almost exactly the same title as a Philonic work and covering exactly the same ground.”

35Runia, 13.

36Ibid., 13-14.

37Bentwich, 96.

38Ibid, 107.

39Philo, Quæstiones et solutiones et Genesim, III.3.

40Ibid., III.3.

41cf. Genesis ii. 9, vi. 7, x. 1; Philo, Q.G I.11, I.95, II.79.

42cf. Tobin, 32-33.

43Ibid., 34.

44Ibid. 34-35.

45cf. Runia, 14.

46cf. Tobin, 36-55. Tobin cites Genesis i. 26-27 and ii. 7 as important passages interpreted allegorically by Philo to avoid the taint of anthropomorphism.

47Philo, Legum allegoriae I.2.

48cf. Runia, 117, 120-121. Runia writes, “Clearly one of the most prominent Church Fathers who was well acquainted with Philo was Origen.”

49Origen, De principiis, IV.3.1.

50For one discussion of different early Christian perspectives on Genesis i-iii, cf. Bouteneff, 55-87.

51Basil, Homily IX.1. The scriptural quotation is from Romans i. 16.

52Bentwich, 195.

53Before I begin this discussion, I should note Bentwich's argument that the personality of the Logos was only ever intended to be figurative, and that several passages concerning the Logos in the Philonic corpus are “probably spurious.” cf. Bentwich, 155-156.Andrew Wiese, “‘The House I Live In’: Race, Class, and African American Suburban Dreams in the Postwar United States,” in The New Suburban History, ed. Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 101–2.

54Tobin, “Creation in Philo of Alexandria” in Creation in the Biblical Tarditions, ed. Clifford and Collins (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1992), 116.

55Philo, De migrationi Abrahami, 18.

56Philo, De confusione linguarum, 11.

57Philo, Q.G. II.62.

58cf. John i. 1-18.

59Not that Philo was by any means systematic in his approach. cf. Bentwich, 167.