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The Works of Philo

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The Works of Philo

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The Works of Philo
By Philo of Alexandria
Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, 924 pages
ISBN-10: 1565638093
ISBN-13: 978-1565638099

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 3, 2010

Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, was, according to Harry Wolfson's Philo, the first Jewish philosopher who "contributed anything new" to Jewish-Greek philosophy. His philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that he wrote still exist that do not offer a systematic philosophy; they are, in essence, a collection of sermons.

Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning, words mean what they say. The second is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires that the alert more intelligent reader go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers and events.

Philo argued that biblical allegories differ radically from Greek myths. Myths are man-made and false. They are invented stories designed to deceive the masses with what the educated philosopher knows is nonsense, because the masses are unable to understand and deal with the truth. The masses need myths to help them live without fear. Thus, myths do not teach the real truths of nature and how it functions; they only make people feel good and they stop or at least hinder people from committing many wrongs.

But, Philo insists, biblical stories are not lies. They are the work of a compassionate God and contain and transmit the real truth. Even biblical tales that were never designed to be taken literally have an underlying level of true divine doctrine, which can be mined and understood by using the allegorical method. Thus, for example, Philo states that the tales of creation, which are not true facts or even remotely real science, are parables with profound truthful life-essential significance below their false literal surface. The following are some examples where Philo interprets the Bible allegorically:

Philo's overuse of allegory made the rabbis very uncomfortable. They were concerned that Jews reading his books would begin to ignore the biblical laws. As a result, his books were ignored by Judaism for many centuries, until the middle ages, although they were accepted by Christians.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on and on His website is

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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