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Philo of Alexandria (c.15 BC–c. AD 50)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A081-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Philo of Alexandria is the leading representative of Hellenistic-Jewish thought. Despite an unwavering loyalty to the religious and cultural traditions of his Jewish community, he was also strongly attracted to Greek philosophy, in which he received a thorough training. His copious writings – in Greek – are primarily exegetical, expounding the books of Moses. This reflects his apologetic strategy of presenting the Jewish lawgiver Moses as the sage and philosopher par excellence, recipient of divine inspiration, but not at the expense of his human rational faculties. In his commentaries Philo makes extensive use of the allegorical method earlier developed by the Stoics. Of contemporary philosophical movements, Philo is most strongly attracted to Platonism. His method is basically eclectic, but with a clear rationale focused on the figure of Moses.

Philo’s thought is strongly theocentric. God is conceived in terms of being. God’s essence is unreachable for human knowledge (negative theology), but his existence should be patent to all (natural theology). Knowledge of God is attained through his powers and, above all, through his Logos (‘Word’ or ‘Reason’), by means of which he stands in relation to what comes after him. In his doctrine of creation Philo leans heavily on Platonist conceptions drawn from reflection on Plato’s Timaeus. The conception of a creation ex nihilo (‘from nothing’) is not yet consciously worked out. Philo’s doctrine of human nature favours the two anthropological texts in Genesis 1–2, interpreting creation ‘according to the image’ in relation to the human intellect. With regard to ethics, both Stoic concepts and peculiarly Jewish themes emerge in Philo’s beliefs. Ethical ideals are prominent in the allegorical interpretation of the biblical patriarchs.

Philo’s influence was almost totally confined to the Christian tradition, which preserved his writings. He was unknown to medieval Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides.

Citing this article:
Runia, David T.. Philo of Alexandria (c.15 BC–c. AD 50), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A081-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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