Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50)

Philo of Alexandria is an interesting character.  He is claimed by modern Gnostics, Philosophers and to some extent Christians.  In truth he probably should not be listed among the Gnostic teachers but he is here because I first learned of him when looking at Gnostisism. 

He was a Hellenized Jew (a Jew educated and immersed in Greek culture) who produced what is thought by some to be the first to attempt to combine Hebrew mystical thought with Greek philosophical thought.  According to some he developed a speculative and philosophical justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. According to others he departed from his Jewish roots to produce an unhappy hybrid that was more philosophical than faithful.  We find that his writings were not preserved in Jewish circles but they were preserved by the Church. 

The Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c 263 – 339) labeled the monastic ascetic group of Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, described in Philo's The Contemplative Life, as Christians.  (Modern scholars say that it is highly unlikely that they were Christians.) Eusebius also says that Philo met Peter in Rome. Jerome (345-420) even lists him as a church Father.

In his melding of Hebrew and Greek thought he taught give us the following bullets:

  • The teachings of Moses, were "the summit of philosophy." 
  • He considered Moses the teacher of Pythagoras (b. ca 570 B.C.) and of all Greek philosophers and lawgivers (Hesiod, Heraclitus, Lycurgus, to mention a few).
  • Greek philosophy was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses.

There is apparently a longer tradition in some of this as before Philio some Jewish scholars attempted the same. Artapanus in the second century B.C. identified Moses with Musaeus and with Orpheus. According to Aristobulus of Paneas (first half of the second century B.C.), Homer and Hesiod drew from the books of Moses which were translated into Greek long before the Septuagint.

Philosophers today say that Philo produced a synthesis of Jewish and Greek traditions developing concepts for future Hellenistic interpretation of messianic Hebrew thought, especially by Clement of Alexandria, Christian Apologists like Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and by Origen. Modern scholars think that he may have influenced Paul, his contemporary, and perhaps the authors of the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews. If this is true, he laid the foundations for the development of the rational approach to Christianity that is common today.

The Gnostics point to Philio's teaching as foundational and the fact that he seems to have been accepted by the early church as something of a legitimizing connection of Gnostisism to orthodox Christianity.

Christians of today acknowledge that the teachings of Philio were extant during the New Testament time without necessarily accepting that his influence was foundational (Kelly 1978).  If Philio were reacting to the intellectual climate around him and trying to find common ground that is substantially different than allowing his thinking to be influenced.  Similarly we see the apostle Paul using examples from Greek philosophy when that is the appropriate frame of reference for his audience.  Philosophy, after all, relies on general revelation which is common experience of all men.

Christianity has a wider appeal than just a single culture, people or time. Communicating the Gospel across cultures has necessitated the borrowing of certain vocabulary and ideas.  That is the relationship that the orthodox claim with Greek Philosophy generally and Philio in particular.

(  4/10/08)