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published: 1/14/05
updated: 7/3/13

Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judaeus)

Who was Philo of Alexandria?

Born: 15–10 BCE, Alexandria
Died: 45–50 CE, Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria was a Greek Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt, and the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism. His work was not accepted by contemporary Judaism, but Philo was enthusiastically received by the early Christians.

Life of Philo

The few biographical details concerning him are found in his own works, especially in "Legatio ad Caium," and in Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 8, 1; comp. ib. xix. 5, 1; xx. 5, 2).

The only event that can be determined chronologically is his participation in the embassy which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the emperor Caligula at Rome for the purpose of asking protection against the attacks of the Alexandrian Greeks. This occurred in the year 40 CE.

Hellenistic Influences

Philo quotes the epic poets with frequency, or alludes to passages in their works. He has a wide acquaintance with the works of the Greek philosophers. He holds that the highest perception of truth is possible only after a study of the encyclopedic sciences. Hence his system throughout shows the influence of Greek philosophy. The dualistic contrast between God and the world, between the finite and the infinite, appears also in Neo-Pythagorism. The influence of Stoicism is unmistakable in the doctrine of God as the only efficient cause, in that of divine reason immanent in the world, in that of the powers emanating from God and suffusing the world. In the doctrine of the Logos various elements of Greek philosophy are united.

As Heinze shows (Die Lehre vom Logos in der Griechischen Philosophie, 1872, pp. 204ff), this doctrine touches upon the Platonic doctrine of ideas as well as the Stoic doctrine of the γενικώτατόν τι and the Neo-Pythagorean doctrine of the type that served at the creation of the world; and in the shaping of the λόγος τομεύς it touches upon the Heraclitean doctrine of strife as the moving principle. Philo's doctrine of dead, inert, non-existent matter harmonizes in its essentials with the Platonic and Stoic doctrine.

His account of the Creation is almost identical with that of Plato; he follows the latter's "Timaeus" closely in his exposition of the world as having no beginning and no end. Like Plato, he places the creative activity as well as the act of creation outside of time, on the Platonic ground that time begins only with the world. The influence of Pythagorism appears in number-symbolism, to which Philo frequently refers.

The Aristotelian contrast between δύναμις and ἐντελέχεια ("Metaphysics," iii. 73) is found in Philo, "De Allegoriis Legum," i 64 (on Aristotle see Freudenthal in "Monatsschrift," 1875, p.233). In his psychology he adopts either the Stoic division of the soul into eight faculties, or the Platonic trichotomy of reason, courage, and desire, or the Aristotelian triad of the vegetative, emotive, and rational souls.

The doctrine of the body as the source of all evil corresponds entirely with the Neo-Pythagorean doctrine: the soul he conceives as a divine emanation, similar to Plato's nous (see Siegfried, Philo, pp. 139ff). His ethics and allegories are based on Stoic ethics and allegories.

Greek allegory had preceded Philo in this field. As the Stoic allegorists sought in Homer the basis for their philosophic teachings, so the Jewish allegorists, and especially Philo, went to the Old Testament. Following the methods of Stoic allegory, they interpreted the Bible philosophically (on Philo's Predecessors in the domain of the allegoristic Midrash among the Palestinian and Alexandrian Jews, see Siegfried, l.c. pp. 16-37).

Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths. These truths he regarded as fixed and determinate; and philosophy was used as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it. With this end in view Philo chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, refusing those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion, as, e.g., the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity and indestructibility of the world.

Philo's Thought

Attitude Toward Literal Meaning

Philo bases his hermeneutics on the assumption of a twofold meaning in the Bible, the literal and the allegorical.

The two interpretations, however, are not of equal importance: the literal sense is adapted to human needs; but the allegorical sense is the real one, which only the initiated comprehend. Hence Philo addresses himself to the ??ta? ("initiated") among his audience, by whom he expects to be really comprehended ("De Cherubim," 14 [i. 47]; "De Somniis," i. 33 [i. 649]).

A special method is requisite for determining the real meaning of the words of Scripture ("Canons of Allegory," "De Victimas Offerentibus," 5 [ii. 255]); "Laws of Allegory," "De Abrahamo," 15 [ii. 11]); the correct application of this method determines the correct allegory, and is therefore called "the wise architect" ("De Somniis," ii. 2 [i. 660]).

As a result of some of these rules of interpretation the literal sense of certain passages of the Bible must be excluded altogether; e.g., passages in which according to a literal interpretation something unworthy is said of God; or in which statements are made that are unworthy of the Bible, senseless, contradictory, or inadmissible; or in which allegorical expressions are used for the avowed purpose of drawing the reader's attention to the fact that the literal sense is to be disregarded.

He has special rules that direct the reader to recognize the passages which demand an allegorical interpretation, and which help the initiated to find the correct and intended meaning. These passages are such as contain: (1) the doubling of a phrase; (2) an apparently superfluous expression in the text; (3) the repetition of statements previously made; (4) a change of phraseology-all these phenomena point to something special that the reader must consider. (5) An entirely different meaning may also be found by a different combination of the words, disregarding the ordinarily accepted division of the sentence in question into phrases and clauses. (6) The synonyms must be carefully studied. (7) A play upon words must be utilized for finding a deeper meaning; e.g., sheep (p??at??) stand for progress in knowledge, since they derive their name from the fact of their progressing (p??a??e??), etc. (8) A definite allegorical sense may be gathered from certain particles, adverbs, prepositions, etc.; and in certain cases it can be gathered even from (9) the parts of a word. (10) Every word must be explained in all its meanings, in order that different interpretations may be found. (11) The skillful interpreter may make slight changes in a word, following the rabbinical rule, "Read not this way, but that way." Philo, therefore, changed accents, breathings, etc., in Greek words. (12) Any peculiarity in a phrase justifies the assumption that some special meaning is intended: e.g., where ?a ("one") is used instead of p??t? ("first"; Gen. i. 5), etc. Details regarding the form of words are very important: (13) the number of the word, if it shows any peculiarity in the singular or the plural: the tense of the verb, etc.; (14) the gender of the noun; (15) the presence or omission of the article; (16) the artificial interpretation of a single expression; (17) the position of the verses of a passage; (18) peculiar verse-combinations; (19) noteworthy omissions; (20) striking statements; (21) numeral symbolism. Philo found much material for this symbolism in the Hebrew Bible, and he developed it more thoroughly according to the methods of the Pythagoreans and Stoics. He could follow in many points the tradition handed down by his allegorizing predecessors ("De Vita Contemplativa," 8 [ii. 481]).


Philo analyzed the usage of numbers of the Bible, and believed that certain numbers symbolized different ideas.

  • Philo regards number one as God's number, and the basis for all numbers ("De Allegoriis Legum," ii. 12 [i. 66]).
  • Philo regards number two as the number of schism, of that which has been created, of death ("De Opificio Mundi, 9 [i. 7]; "De Allegoriis Legum," i. 2 [i. 44]; "De Somaniis," ii. 10 [i. 688]).
  • Three is the number of the body ("De Allegoriis Legum," i. 2 [i. 44]) or of the Divine Being in connection with His fundamental powers ("De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini," 15 [i. 173]).
  • Four is potentially what the number ten actually is, the perfect number ("De Opificio Mundi," 15, 16 [i. 10, 11], etc.); but in an evil sense four is the number of the passions, p??? ("De Congressu Qurend Eruditionis Gratia." 17 [i. 532]).
  • Five is the number of the senses and of sensibility ("De Opificio Mundi," 20 [i. 14], etc.).
  • Six, the product of the masculine and feminine numbers 3 2 and in its parts equal to 3+3, is the symbol of the movement of organic beings ("De Allegoriis Legum," i. 2 [i. 44]).
  • Seven has the most various and marvelous attributes ("De Opiticio Mundi," 30-43 [i. 21 et seq.]).
  • Eight, the number of the cube, has many of the attributes determined by the Pythagoreans ("Qustiones in Genesin," iii. 49 [i. 223, Aucher]).
  • Nine is the number of strife, according to Gen. xiv. ("De Congressu Qu. Eruditionis Gratia," 17 [i. 532]).
  • Ten is the number of perfection ("De Plantatione No," 29 [i. 347]).

Philo determines also the values of the numbers 50, 70, and 100, 12, and 120.


Philo's conception of the matter out of which the world was created is similar to that of Plato and the Stoics. According to him, God does not create the world-stuff, but finds it ready at hand. God cannot create it, as in its nature it resists all contact with the divine. Sometimes, following the Stoics, he designates God as "the efficient cause,"and matter as "the affected cause." He seems to have found this conception in the Bible (Gen. i. 2) in the image of the spirit of God hovering over the waters ("De Opificio Mundi," 2 [i. 12]).

Philo, again like Plato and the Stoics, conceives of matter as having no attributes or form; this, however, does not harmonize with the assumption of four elements. Philo conceives of matter as evil, on the ground that no praise is meted out to it in Genesis ("Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit," 32 [i. 495]). As a result, he cannot posit an actual Creation, but only a formation of the world, as Plato holds. God appears as demiurge and cosmoplast.

Philo frequently compares God to an architect or gardener, who formed the present world according to a pattern, the ideal world. Philo takes the details of his story of the Creation entirely from Gen. i. A specially important position is assigned here to the Logos, which executes the several acts of the Creation, as God cannot come into contact with matter, actually creating only the soul of the good.


Philo regards the physical nature of man as something defective and as an obstacle to his development that can never be fully surmounted, but still as something indispensable in view of the nature of his being. With the body the necessity for food arises, as Philo explains in various allegories. The body, however, is also of advantage to the spirit, since the spirit arrives at its knowledge of the world by means of the five senses. But higher and more important is the spiritual nature of man. This nature has a twofold tendency: one toward the sensual and earthly, which Philo calls sensibility, and one toward the spiritual, which he calls reason (nous).

Sensibility has its seat in the body, and lives in the senses, as Philo elaborates in varying allegoric imagery. Connected with this corporeality of the sensibility are its limitations; but, like the body itself, it is a necessity of nature, the channel of all sense-perception. Sensibility, however, is still more in need of being guided by reason. Reason is that part of the spirit which looks toward heavenly things. It is the highest, the real divine gift that has been infused into man from without ("De Opiticio Mundi," i. 15; "De Eo Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiatur," i. 206); it is the masculine nature of the soul. The nous is originally at rest; and when it begins to move it produces the several phenomena of mind. The principal powers of the nous are judgment, memory, and language.

More important in Philo's system is the doctrine of the moral development of man. Of this he distinguishes two conditions: (1) that before time was, and (2) that since the beginning of time. In the pretemporal condition the soul was without body, free from earthly matter. Without sex, in the condition of the generic (?e?????) man, morally perfect, i.e., without flaws, but still striving after a higher purity. On entering upon time the soul loses its purity and is confined in a body. The nous becomes earthly, but it retains a tendency toward something higher.

Philo is not entirely certain whether the body in itself or merely in its preponderance over the spirit is evil. But the body in any case is a source of danger, as it easily drags the spirit into the bonds of sensibility. Here, also, Philo is undecided whether sensibility is in itself evil, or whether it may merely lead into temptation, and must itself be regarded as a mean (?s??). Sensibility in any case is the source of the passions and desires. The passions attack the sensibility in order to destroy the whole soul. On their number and their symbols in Scripture see Siegfried, l.c. pp. 245 et seq. The "desire" is either the lustful enjoyment of sensual things, dwelling as such in the abdominal cavity, or it is the craving for this enjoyment, dwelling in the breast. It connects the nous and the sensibility, this being a psychologic necessity, but an evil from an ethical point of view.

According to Philo, man passes through several steps in his ethical development. At first the several elements of the human being are in a state of latency, presenting a kind of moral neutrality which Philo designates by the terms "naked" or "medial." The nous is nude, or stands midway so long as it has not decided either for sin or for virtue. In this period of moral indecision God endeavors to prepare the earthly nous for virtue, presenting to him in the "earthly wisdom and virtue" an image of heavenly wisdom. But man (nous) quickly leaves this state of neutrality. As soon as he meets the woman (sensibility) he is filled with desire, and passion ensnares him in the bonds of sensibility. Here the moral duties of man arise; and according to his attitude there are two opposite tendencies in humanity.


The soul is first aroused by the stimuli of sensual pleasures; it begins to turn toward them, and then becomes more and more involved. It becomes devoted to the body, and begins to lead an intolerable life. It is inflamed and excited by irrational impulses. Its condition is restless and painful. The sensibility endures, according to Gen. iii. 16, great pain. A continual inner void produces a lasting desire which is never satisfied. All the higher aspirations after God and virtue are stilled. The end is complete moral turpitude, the annihilation of all sense of duty, the corruption of the entire soul: not a particle of the soul that might heal the rest remains whole.

The worst consequence of this moral death is, according to Philo, absolute ignorance and the loss of the power of judgment. Sensual things are placed above spiritual; and wealth is regarded as the highest good. Too great a value especially is placed upon the human nous; and things are wrongly judged. Man in his folly even opposes God, and thinks to scale heaven and subjugate the entire earth. In the field of politics, for example, he attempts to rise from the position of leader of the people to that of ruler (Philo cites Joseph as a type of this kind). Sensual man generally employs his intellectual powers for sophistry, perverting words and destroying truth.

The biblical patriarch Abraham is seen by Philo as the symbol of man leaving sensuality to turn to reason ("De Migratione Abrahami." 4 [i. 439]). Philo holds that there are three methods whereby one can rise toward the divine: through teaching, through practice and through natural goodness.


Philo holds that good moral endowment takes precedence of teaching and practise. Virtue here is not the result of hard labor, but is the excellent fruit maturing of itself. The biblical character Noah represents the preliminary stage. Noah is praised, while no really good deeds are reported of him, whence it may be concluded that the Bible refers to his good disposition. But as Noah is praised only in comparison with his contemporaries, it follows that he is not yet a perfect man.

Philo holds that there are several types in the Bible representing the perfect stage. It appears in its purest form in the biblical patriarch Isaac. Isaac is perfect from the beginning: perfection is a part of his nature (f?s??); and he can never lose it. With such persons, therefore, the soul is in a state of rest and joy.

Philo's doctrine of virtue is Stoic, although he is undecided whether complete dispassionateness ("De Allegoriis Legum." iii. 45 [i. 513]) or moderation ("De Abrahamo," 44 [ii. 137]) designates the really virtuous condition. Philo identifies virtue in itself and in general with divine wisdom. Hence he uses the symbols interchangeably for both; and as he also frequently identifies the Logos with divine wisdom, the allegoric designations here too are easily interchanged.

The Garden of Eden is "the wisdom of God" and also "the Logos of God" and "virtue." The fundamental virtue is goodness; and from it proceed four cardinal virtues-prudence, courage, self-control, and justice - as the four rivers proceed from the river of Eden.

An essential difference between Philo and the Stoics is found in the fact that Philo seeks in religion the basis for all ethics. Religion helps man to attain to virtue, which he can not reach of himself, as the Stoics hold. God must implant virtue in man ("De Allegoriis Legum," i. 53 [i. 73]). Hence the goal of the ethical endeavor is a religious one: the ecstatic contemplation of God and the disembodiment of souls after death.


  1. "Philo." Wikipedia. Jan. 14, 2005. <>
  2. "Philo Judaeus." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service
    14  Jan.  2005 <>.

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