Sunday, April 26, 2009

Philo was an observant Jew. He kept the commandments as they are described in the Bible. He lived in Alexandria in the 1st century C.E. Philo was one of the few Jews of the Hellenistic and Roman world whose works survive relatively intact, although they were preserved not by the Jewish community, but by the Christian Church.

This was the case for most Jews who wrote in Greek, such as the historian Josephus. The Jewish community, for one reason or another, did not embrace these works. They did not include them not only in their canon, but even in the Jewish library. We were fortunate enough to have them preserved by the Christian Church.

A New Interpretation of the Bible

Philo tried to reconcile his Greek philosophical training with a comprehensive knowledge of Jewish religious tradition. He read the Bible most probably not in its original Hebrew. He probably read the Bible in its Greek translation known as the Septuagint. This was the standard Greek translation that would be used by Jews in the Hellenistic world and would be also ultimately be embraced by the Church.

Much of Philo’s writings are in the form of a commentary to the Bible. He employed, as he was explaining the Bible, an allegorical approach as a means of presenting the laws, and even the stories, with a far deeper meaning that it would appear at face value. For instance, if Abraham was told to migrate from his land, for Philo this is not simply a physical migration, but it came to symbolize the soul departure from bodily confinement. This is clearly a well-known Greek idea, in particular part of Stoic philosophy. The soul is within a sort of a jail and is constantly yearning to brake away.

In Abraham’s case, his soul was yearning to brake away from the confinement of an idolatrous world. Abraham comes from Ur of the Chaldeans. The word Chaldean in the Greek mind always represented astrology. This is a spiritual migration for Philo. This is the type of interpretation that Philo uses as he reads the Bible. In other words, there are stories but these have a spiritual meaning to them .

Rabbis could live with that type of interpretation were they only used to interpret the story parts of the Bible. Philo, however, employed allegory to show that the laws of the Bible also posses a deeper and more profound meaning than what meets the eye.

Spiritualizing Law?

Philo knows that the signs of a kosher animal, an animal that may be eaten, are two: a cloven hoof and a chewing of the cud. For instance, a pig has a split hoof, but it does not chew its cud, so it may not be considered a kosher animal. Philo say that these are the signs that are in the Bible as you read it, but they really come to suggest spiritual traits that all of mankind should strive for. The split hoof symbolizes the capability of distinction between good and evil. The chewing of the cud is the power of constantly going over things, rethinking things. Here he is spiritualizing the Bible. He is attributing to it a far deeper meaning.

Rabbinic Judaism would frown at such exercises. The rabbis would be very uncomfortable with this, because if there is a deeper meaning to the text and things are not quite how they appear, where will that leave us with he practical face value imperative? Maybe once I derive the deeper meaning, the practical is no longer imperative. The potential for doing away with the practical keeping of the religious law was obvious. Philo, however, never drew those conclusions. He continued to keep the law.

It is not surprising that it was the Christian Church and not the rabbis that would preserve his writings.