Friday, July 23, 2010

Philo of Alexandria

Philo (20 BCE - 40 CE), known also as Philo of Alexandria and as Philo Judeaus, was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt. The few biographical details concerning him are found in his own works, especially in Legatio ad Caium, ("embassy to Caius") and in Flavius Josephus.

The only event that can be determined chronologically is his participation in the embassy which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the emperor Caligula at Rome for the purpose of asking protection against the attacks of the Alexandrian Greeks. This occurred in the year 40 CE.

Philo included in his philosophy both Greek wisdom and Judaism, which he sought to fuse and harmonize by means of the art of allegory that he had learned as much from Jewish exegesis as from the Stoics. His work was not widely accepted. "The sophists of literalness," as he calls them (De Somniis, i. 16-17), "opened their eyes superciliously" when he explained to them the marvels of his exegesis. Philo's works were enthusiastically received by the early Christians, some of whom saw in him a Christian. Eusebius speculated that the Therapeutae, the Jewish group of ascetic hermits in the Egyptian desert that Philo describes in De vita contemplativa ("Contemplative Life") was in fact a Christian group.

We have a brief reference to Philo by the first century Jewish historian Josephus. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of Philo's selection by the Alexandrian Jewish community as their principal representative before the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. He says that Philo was sent to represent the Alexandrian Jews in regard to civil disorder that had arisen between the Jews and the Greeks in Alexandria (in Egypt). Josephus tells us also that Philo was skilled in philosophy, and that he was brother to an official called Alexander the alabarch. According to Josephus, Philo and the larger Jewish community refused to treat the emperor as a god, to erect statues in honor of the emperor, and to build altars and temples to the emperor. Josephus says Philo believed that God actively supports this refusal. This portrait of Philo matches the character of Philo that is expressed in his own writings, as discussed below.


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