Reviews of

René Bloch, “Who was Philo of Alexandria? Tracing Autobiographic Passages in Philo”

In Durham, Judaism, Justin A. Mihoc, Philo, René BLOCH, SEMINAR REPORTS on October 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Professor René Bloch, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Bern, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 24th of October 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here. You can find RBECS on facebook, here.

Prof Bloch presented a very interesting and engaging paper on a difficult topic, the identity of Philo, an important author for Philosophy, New Testament, Classical and Jewish studies. Following Gregory Sterling, Bloch proposed a study of ‘Philo for Philo’. He commenced his analysis by providing some general information on Philo and his oeuvre. Philo of Alexandria, the most prolific Jewish-Hellenistic writer and the first Jewish philosopher sufficiently known to us through his works, left us a number of 40 extant tractates written in Greek and translations in other languages. Many of Philo’s works were preserved in the writings of the Church Fathers. Prof Bloch also introduced the most important editions and translations of Philo’s work, emphasising the fact that Leopold Cohn’s critical editions remain unsurpassed. Torah appears to be central to Philo’s thought, with no less than three commentary series being devoted to the interpretation of the Pentateuch. Bloch divides Philo’s writings into three categories: (1) commentaries on the Pentateuch, subdivided into (a) the exposition of the Law (e.g. De Opificio Mundi, De Decalogo, De Specialibus Legibus), (b) the Allegorical Commentary on the Pentateuch (Legum Allegoriae, De Cherubim, etc.), and (c) the Questiones in Genesim et Exodum; (2) historical and apologetic works (Legatio ad Gaium, De Vita Contemplativa, Apologia pro Judaeis, etc.), and (3) philosophical works (which were treated with suspicion in the past because of the few Jewish references they contained; Quod omnis probus liber sit, De Animalibus, De Providentia, De Aeternitate Mundi). It is difficult to place De Vita Mosis in terms of category and time, and it is especially here that Prof Bloch made some interesting suggestions

In his attempt to find elements of identity, Prof Bloch concentrated on Philo’s De Vita Mosis and Legatio ad Gaium. Philo never talked about himself, and the information about his life is brief and fragmentary. We know that he once visited the Temple in Jerusalem, that he attended the theatre, and that he was part of a delegation to the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula to defend the Jews in Alexandria. Josephus devotes a few lines to the philosopher whom he presents as being a very famous man, ‘no novice in philosophy’, and the head of that Jewish delegation (Jewish Antiquities 18.258). From that same description we learn that Philo’s brother, Alexander, was the ‘alabarch’ (probably a misspelling of τοῦ ἀραβάρχου), meaning a senior official, in Alexandria.

Turning to De Vita Mosis, Prof Bloch argued that the figure of Philo appears in the background, alongside his role and involvement in the Jewish politics. By reading it in the context of the Jewish riots in Alexandria in 38 CE, Philo, it seems, stepped into the role of Moses as a delegate to the Emperor (Pharaoh) in order to defend his people and to argue on their behalf. Both the Roman Emperor Caligula and the Egyptian Pharaoh are seen as tyrants. It seems clear that Legatio ad Gaium connects the situation of the Jews in Alexandria with the similar situation of the Jews in the biblical narrative of the Egyptian exile. The Jews are treated as prisoners of war and ‘made slaves by the ruler of the country’ (Vita Mosis 1.36 // Legatio ad Gaium 121-124). Moses is depicted as the perfect wise man, and Philo aspires to this figure which represents a role model for those who want to imitate him. Therefore, Philo’s Moses is built upon Philo’s philosophy. He was made head of the Jewish delegation certainly because of his erudition, age and experience, and those were Moses’ prerogatives also. Philo’s Moses was trained by ‘learned Egyptians’ in the classical disciplines of ‘arithmetic, geometry, the lore of metre, rhythm and harmony, and the whole subject of music as shown by the use of instruments’ (Vita Mosis 1.23). Nonetheless, he received philosophical teaching and learned astrology, mastering ‘the lore of both nations’ (Vita Mosis 1.23-24). On Moses’ youth in Exodus we find virtually nothing, this later giving the Rabbis the opportunity to fill in the gaps. Prof Bloch substantiated that Philo applied his classical training of his time to Moses’ figure, giving a description of the ideal Jewish-Hellenistic paideia. He creates the image of Moses as a sage or even as the inventor of philosophy, which in Philo’s time must have been a cliché. Moses’ philosophy stands for true philosophy and leads naturally to wisdom and a happy life.

Another very relevant topic approached in this paper was the problem of dating De Vita Mosis. It is a difficult book to track, largely regarded by the modern scholars as an introduction of Moses and Judaism to the Jews of Alexandria. Yet others see it as an apologetical and historical work, overestimating its apologetic purposes. In Bloch’s view, it represents a mature work, written around the same time as Legatio ad Gaium and, therefore, cannot be an introduction. Following this, he suggested that through De Vita Mosis, Philo intends to present the painful times of the Jews in Alexandria.

In conclusion, Prof Bloch highlighted the parallels between Philo’s and Moses’ lives. The attraction and great admiration that Philo nurtured for his great biblical hero subsequently required him not to remain indifferent to the suffering of his people and to involve himself in politics as his role model did.

(Prof Bloch’s paper attracted many positive reactions, questions, remarks and suggestions. These were raised among others by Dr William R. Telford, Prof John Moles, Prof Francis B. Watson, Prof John Barclay, Dr Jane Heath and Dr Lutz Doering.)

Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

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