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Philo Judæus

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Born about 25 B.C.. His family, of a sacerdotal line, was one of the most powerful of the populous Jewish colony of Alexandria. His brother Alexander Lysimachus was steward to Anthony's second daughter, and married one of his sons to the daughter of Herod Agrippa, whom he had put under financial obligations. Alexander's son, Tiberius Alexander, apostatized and became procurator of Judea and Prefect of Egypt. Philo must have received a Jewish education, studying the laws and national traditions, but he followed also the Greek plan of studies (grammar with reading of the poets, geometry, rhetoric, dialectics) which he regarded as a preparation for philosophy. Notwithstanding the lack of direct information about his philosophical training, his works show that he had a first hand knowledge of the stoical theories then prevailing, Plato's dialogues, the neo-Pythagorean works, and the moral popular literature, the outcome of Cynicism. He remained, however, profoundly attached to the Jewish religion with all the practices which it implied among the Jews of the dispersion and of which the basis was the unity of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Toward the Alexandrine community and the duties which it required of him, his attitude was perhaps changeable; he possessed in his youth a taste for an exclusively contemplative life and solitary retreats; and he complains of an official function which forced him to abandon his studies. Later he became engrossed with the material and moral interests of the community. His "Allegorical Commentary" often alludes to the vocations to which the Alexandrine Jews were subjected; a special treatise is devoted to the persecution of Flaccus, Prefect of Egypt. The best-known episode of his life is the voyage he made to Rome in 39; he had been chosen as head of the embassy which was to lay before Emperor Caius Caligula the complaints of the Jews regarding the introduction of statues of the emperor in the synagogues. This hardship, due to the Alexandrians, was all the more grievous to the Jews, as they had long been known for their loyalty, and their attachment to the empire was doubtless one of the chief causes of anti-Semitism at Alexandria. The drawing up of the account of the embassy shortly after the death of Caius (41) is the latest known fact in the life of Philo.


These contain most valuable information, not only on the intellectual and moral situation of the Jewish community at Alexandria, but still more on the philosophical and religious syncretism prevailing in Greek civilization. They may be divided: (1) exposition of the Jewish Law; (2) apologetical works; (3) philosophical treatises.

(1) The expositions of the Law are in three works of varied character: (a) "The Exposition of the Law", which begins by a treatise on the creation of the world (Commentaries on the first chapter of Genesis) and continues with treatises on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (those on Isaac and Jacob are lost). Each of the patriarchs is considered as a type of a virtue and the life as a natural or unwritten law. Then follows a series of treatises on the laws written by Moses, grouped in order according to the Ten Commandments. The Exposition closes with the laws referring to general virtues (On Justice and Courage), and a treatise on the reward reserved to those who obey the Law. (See "De Præmiis et Pœnis", §§ 1, 2.) (b) The great "Allegorical Commentary on Genesis" is the chief source of information regarding Philo's ideas; in it he applies systematically the method of allegorical interpretation. The commentary follows the order of verses from Genesis 2:1 to 4:17, with some more or less important lacunæ. It is not known whether the work began by a treatise on chapter 1, concerning creation; in any case, it can be seen from the allusions to this chapter that Philo had a system of interpretation on this point. Notwithstanding its form, this work is not a series of interpretations strung together verse by verse; the author considers Genesis in its entirety as a history of the soul from its formation in the intelligible world to the complete development of wisdom after its fall and its restoration by repentance (see ed. Mangey, "De Posteritate Caini", p. 259). The object of the allegorical method is to discern in each person and in his actions the symbol of some phase either in the fall or in the restoration of the soul. (c) "Questions and Solutions" are a series of questions set down at each verse of the Mosaic books. An Armenian translation has preserved the questions on Genesis (Genesis 2:4-23:8, with lacunæ) and the questions on Exodus (Exodus 12:2-28:38), some Greek fragments of these works and of the questions on Leviticus, a very mediocre Latin translation of the last part of the questions on Genesis (iv, 154 sq.). In Samson and Jonas, there is much less unity than in the preceding ones. This first group of works is addressed to readers already initiated in the Mosaic Law, i.e. to the author's coreligionists.

(2) It is quite different with his apologetical writings. The "Life of Moses" is a résumé of the Jewish Law, intended for a larger public. The treatise "On Repentance" was written for the edification of the newly converted. The treatise "On Humanity" which followed that "On Piety" seems from its introduction to pertain to the "Life of Moses" and not to the "Exposition of the Law" as tradition and some contemporaneous scholars maintain. The Upothetiná (fragments in Eusebius, "Evangelical Preparation", VIII, v, vi) as well as the "Apology for the Jews" (ibid., VIII, x) were written to defend his coreligionists against calumnies, while the "Contemplative Life" was to cultivate the best fruits of the Mosaic worship. The "Against Flaccus" and the "Embassy to Caius", with another work lost in the persecution of Sejanus, were intended to establish the truth about the pretended impiety of the Jews.

(3) Finally, we have purely philosophical treatises: "On the Liberty of the Wise", "On the Incorruptibility of the World" (authenticity contested by Bernays, but generally admitted now), "On Providence", "On Animals" (these last two in the Armenian translations). The small treatise "De Mundo" is merely a compilation of passages from other works. The question of chronology is more difficult than that of classification. The solution of the difficulty would be of great value especially for the subdivisions of the first group of writings, in order to understand the development of Philo's doctrines; but on this point there is a wide divergence of opinion. It is probable, however, that the "Exposition of the Law" with the frequent appeals to the authority of the masters and its cautious way of introducing the allegorical interpretation is anterior to the "Allegorical Commentary" which shows more assurance and independence of thought.


Philo's work belongs for the most part to the immense literature of commentaries on the Law, and it is especially as a commentator that he must be considered. But in this regard he holds a unique place. First of all, he uses the Greek translation of the Septuagint. The variations that have been pointed out between his text and that which we now possess of the Septuagint may be explained to our satisfaction, not by the reading of the Hebrew text (Ritter), but by the fact that our recension is of a later date than the one he used. Furthermore, his method of interpretation appears as something new and original among the juridical commentaries of the Palestinian rabbis. Eliminating what formed the common basis of all commentaries of this kind—the interpretation of the Hebrew proper names (Philo gives them at times a Greek etymology), the particular rules for the signs which indicate that Moses intended us to look beyond the literal sense (Siegfried), the oral traditions added to the account of the Pentateuch (and again, at the beginning of the "Life of Moses" these traditions are clearly of Alexandrine origin), and the prescriptions of the worship in Jerusalem—two essential features remain: first, the conviction that the Jewish law is identical with the natural; and then the allegorical interpretation. The first, according to which the acts of the prophets and the prescriptions of Moses are regarded as ideals conformable to nature (in the Stoic sense), gives to the Jewish religion a universality incompatible with the narrow national Messianism of the Jewish sibyls. Philo thus abandons entirely the Messianic promises; there is no national tradition to exclude the Gentile from Judaism. To find his precursors one must go back to the Prophets; tradition he revives, but only with serious modifications. To the idea of moral universality he adds the idea of nature which he received from the Stoics. His interpretation is wholly bent on identifying the Mosaic prescription with natural law.

The second feature is the allegorical interpretation. Without doubt Philo had his predecessors among the Alexandrines. The proof of this is found not in the fragments of Aristobulus (which are grossly false and later than Philo), but in the work of Philo himself, which is based sometimes on the authority of his predecessors, in the "Wisdom of Solomon" (an Alexandrine work of the first century B.C., which contains some traces of this method), and finally in the description Philo has given us of the occupations of the Therapeutæ and the Essenes. The tradition, however, thus formed cannot have amounted to much, for it does not prevail against personal inspiration and it lacks unity. This interpretation appears to us rather as a day-by-day creation of that age, and in Philo's works we can follow an allegory in process of formation, e.g. the interpretation of man "after the image of God". The development of the interior moral life as Philo conceived it is always bound up with his allegorical method. This method differs from that of most of his Greek predecessors who sought an artificial means to bring out the philosophical conceptions in time-honoured texts, such as that of Homer. As a rule he does not search in the sacred text for any strictly philosophical theory; more often he puts forth these theories directly on their own merits. Though at times enthusiastic in his admiration of Greek philosophers, he does not try to represent them as unavowed disciples of Moses. What he seeks in Genesis is not this or that truth, but the description of the attitudes of the soul towards God, such as innocence, sin, repentance. The allegorical method of Philo neither proves nor attempts to prove anything. It is not a mode of apologetic; in the "Life of Moses" e.g. this method is seldom employed; the only apologetic feature is the presentation of the high moral import of the Jewish laws taken in their literal sense. But the method is indispensable for the interior life; it gives the concrete image which the mystic needs to explain his effusions, and it makes the Jewish books profitable in the spiritual life. The spiritual life consists in the feeling of confidence which gives us faith in God, a feeling which coincides with that of the nothingness of man left to his own strength. Faith in God is not in itself the condition but the end or crowning of this life, and human life oscillates between confidence in self and confidence in God. This God conceived in His relations with the moral needs of man has the omnipotence and infinite goodness of the God of the prophets; it is by no means the God of the Stoics, in direct relation with the cosmos rather than with man.

Under this influence the Philonian cult became an eminently moral one: the originality of Philonism consists in its moral interpretation of the actions of the divinity upon the world, which till then had been regarded more in their physical aspect. The fundamental idea is here that of Divine power conceived according to the manner of the Jews as goodness and sovereignty in relation to man. It is remarkable that with this idea the cosmic power of philosophy or of Greek religion is transformed by Philo into moral power. Divine wisdom is without doubt like the Isis in Plutarch's treatise, mother of the world, but above all mother of goodness in the virtuous soul. The "Man of God" is the moral consciousness of man rather than the prototype or ideal. The Divine spirit is transformed from the material ether into the principle of moral inspiration. We recognize, it is true, the traces of the cosmic origin of the Divine intermediaries; the angels are material intermediaries as well as spiritual, and Philo accepts the belief in the power of the heavenly bodies as an inferior degree of wisdom. Nevertheless he did his best to suppress every material intermediary between man and God. This is quite evident in the celebrated theory of the Logos of God. This Logos, which according to the Stoics is the bond between the different parts of the world, and according to the Heracliteans the source of the cosmic oppositions, is regarded by Philo as the Divine word which reveals God to the soul and calms the passions (see LOGOS). It is finally from this point of view of the interior life that Philo transforms the moral conception of the Greeks which he knew mainly in the most popular forms (cynical diatribes); he discovers in them the idea of the moral conscience accepted though but slightly developed by philosophers up to that time. A very interesting point of view is the consideration of the various moral systems of the Greeks, not simply as true or false, but as so many indications of the soul's progress or recoil at different stages.


Consult various editions of Philo's works: MANGEY (2 vols., London, 1742); COHN AND WENDLAND, I-V (Berlin, 1896-1906); CUMONT, De Æternitate Mundi (Berlin, 1891); CONYBEARE, Philo about Contemplative Life (Oxford, 1895); HARRIS, Fragments of Philo Judæus (Cambridge, 1886); WENDLAND, Neuentdeckte Fragmente Philos (Berlin, 1891). Writings: GROSSMANN, De Philonis operum continua serie, I (Leipzig, 1841), II (1842); MASSEBIEAU, Le Classement des Œuvres de Philon in Biblioth. de l'Ecole des hautes études, I (1889), 191; MASSEBIEAU AND BRÉHIER, Chronologie de la Vie et des Œuvres de Philon in Revue d'hist. des Relig. (1906), 1-3. Doctrine: DRUMMOND, Philo Judæus (2 vols., London, 1888); HERRIOT, Philon le Juif; Essai sur l'Ecole Juive d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1898); MARTIN, Philon (Paris, 1907); BRÉHIER, Les Idées Philosophiques et Religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1908); SCHÜRER, Gesch. des Judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (3rd ed., Berlin, 1909); SIEGFRIED, Philo v. Alexandria als Ausleger d. A. T. (Jena, 1875).

About this page

APA citation. Bréhier, E. (1911). Philo Judæus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Bréhier, Emile. "Philo Judæus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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