The Works of Philo
By Philo of Alexandria
Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, 924 pages
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:
1.Genesis 6:6 states that after viewing the evils that humans committed God "reconsidered that He made man on earth, and He was sad of heart." Taken literally, the passage is stating that the all-knowing deity changed His mind and decided to destroy the human race. It also describes Him suffering a bout of sadness. This is contrary to the philosophical understanding of a God without defects and the view contained in I Samuel 15:29 – that God is not like man and does not change His mind. Thus, Philo could not accept the literal meaning of this verse. He realized that Scripture is speaking metaphorically: the human behavior resulted in horrific and harmful natural consequences, and it was as if God changed His mind and decided to no longer treat humans mercifully.
2.Deuteronomy 21:18 describes a case of parents with a stubborn and rebellious son who refuses to obey them. Philo felt that the biblical punishment, that the child be killed, was overly harsh. He offered a couple of allegorical interpretations, including interpreting the father as God, the mother as philosophy, and the child as a person who refuses to study philosophy to understand God and truth. The failure to study and understand philosophy, the allegory indicates, is tantamount to death.
3. Philo, as previously stated, used allegory in interpreting everything in Scripture, even when there was no contradiction with rational thought. Thus for example, he accepted the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob literally, but also insisted that they should be understood as allegory, each patriarch represented a different type of behavior.
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.