Philo of Alexandria

Philo was a Hellenistic philosopher born in Alexandria in 20 BC. He was a Roman citizen, raised in both a Jewish as well as a Greek cultural background. His philosophy sought to combine the two by interpreting the Hebrew Bible (exegesis) through the lens of Greek philosophy. His philosophy and approach would serve as the basis for later developments in Christianity. Philo referred to Moses as “the summit of philosophy,” and considered him to be the original source for Greek philosophy. By interpreting religion philosophically, he is a founder of what is known as religious philosophy. He is best known for his understanding of Logos as God’s creative principle, through which He governs the world.

Philo was both a Roman citizen as well as one of the million Jews living in Alexandria at the time. The Jews were being persecuted by the Roman governor Flaccus, during the reign of Caius Caligula. Flaccus had put up statues of Caligula in Jewish temples across Alexandria, requiring the Jews to revere him as a God, which was against their religion. When the Jews resisted, thousands were killed cruely, while the rest were forced into a ghetto. Philo had come from an influential family and was respected for his wisdom. He served as a representative to the Jewish community, visiting Caligula and requesting for the persecution to end.

Philo used his extensive background in Greek philosophy to justify and explain the religious truths of the Hebrew Bible. He called Plato “the most holy” and embraced his understanding of creation as taking place outside of time, since time only begins with the world. Like the Platonists, he understands matter as dead in contrast to the soul which is alive, and like the Neo-Pythagoreans sees the soul as divine while the body is the source of all evil. He was influenced by the Stoics belief that the world is governed by divine reason (logos). In this way, he makes use of a variety of Greek philosophies to support his beliefs, while rejecting those that do not harmonize with his understanding of Judaism, such as Aristotle’s belief that the world is eternal.

Philo believed that the Bible has two meanings, one literal and another allegorical. This means that those who understand the truth of reality can see in the Bible the expression of these truths. For example, the Garden of Eden is an allegory for God’s wisdom. The figures in the Bible are seen as representing a spiritual progression, where Noah is only good relative to the wickedness of others, Abraham is better in that he turns from sensuality to reason, and finally Isaac represents a man who has achieved perfection. Based on things like a repetition of a phrase, a striking statement, or a numerical significance, Philo would use these occasions to interpret the Bible allegorically. He both saw the Bible as expressing the truths of ancient Greece, as well as considered Moses’ revelation to be the foundation for all the truths of Greek philosophy.

Philo was influenced by the Pythagoreans‘ interest in numbers. In Hebrew, every letter is equal to a number (for example: aleph is one, bet is two). Therefore, every letter, word and passage of the Hebrew Bible is comprised of a series of numbers. Philo used these numbers to see deeper meanings in the Bible (this is known as gematria). He considered one to be God’s number, two represents separation such as the heavens and the earth, or the soul and the body, and ten is deemed the number of perfection.

Like the Stoics, Philo believes the goal is to be like a wise man who lives in a state of apatheia, free of unnecessary and irrational emotions such as desire or anxiety. By focusing on positive emotions (eupathia) such as joy and serenity, one can remain rational. In this way, by using reason, moderation, and self-control, one can overcome the concerns of the physical world and focus one’s attention on the higher, spiritual realm of God. Philo believed it is also possible, through meditation and the practice of virtue, to ultimately be able to have a direct mystical experience of the divine as One.

Philo believed that God’s reason, which he calls logos, exists everywhere in the world. In the Greek philosophical tradition, such as Stoicism, logos meant divine reason, while in the Hebrew tradition logos meant the word of God. Philo combines these two understandings, seeing God’s words and deeds as synonymous with his thoughts, or reason. With his mind, God therefore causes all things. In this way, God’s anthropomorphic (human-like) actions in the Bible, such as speaking the world into existence, are allegorically understood as the divine logos which governs the world according to reason. As humans, we possess rational and immortal souls, which Philo sees as being the divine breath of God as the Father, Creator, and logos of the world.

Philo understands creation as having taken place from an early, shapeless matter (chaos or darkness), which God gives order through the incorporation of Forms. In this way, Philo connects the Biblical creation story, with God hovering over the dark waters, with Plato’s account as described in the Timaeus, as well as his Theory of Forms. Philo also understands the world as being constantly created by God. This is known as the doctrine of eternal creation, and allows Philo to maintain that the world exists but has no reality of it’s own, since it’s continued existence depends in every moment on God.

Philo understands miracles as acts of God, but not in supernatural terms. The miracles of the Bible either refer to natural events, or are to be interpreted allegorically. For example, Philo believes the plague of darkness which befell the Egyptians was the result of an eclipse. A miracle is therefore not supernatural, but rather an expression of divine reason (logos). Supernaturalism is seen as a misunderstanding of the world, since for God to go against his own laws (the laws of nature) doesn’t make sense. At the same time, Philo recognizes that human understanding is limited, and there are therefore times when it is best to “suspend our judgment.”

Philo was a contemporary of Jesus and his apostles. The merging of Greek and Hebrew cultures in Hellenistic times would result in the unique synthesis of ideas, such as Philo. By interpreting the Bible according to Greek philosophy, as well as understanding Greek philosophy as originating in the truths of religion, Philo would pave the way for developments in Christian theology and philosophy.