Why Evangelicals Don’t Read Philo Judaeus

It’s the New Year again, time to look at something substantive.  This topic may seem a little arcane, but rest assured there’s a grenade with a pin waiting to be pulled.

Evangelicals are generally suspicious of the whole concept of relating the Bible to the ancient world around it, except archaeologically.  But there are two Jewish authors more or less contemporaneous with the New Testament that get mentioned frequently: Flavius Joesphus and Philo Judaeus.  Getting past mention, Josephus gets quoted frequently, although he sold out God’s Chosen People at Jotapata during the Jewish War.

Philo is another matter.  When Hendrickson published The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, the publisher noted “the relative lack of availability of Philo’s works.”  The internet has solved that problem (although reading the hard copy is a lot easier than doing so on an iPad, for instance) but Philo is still someone you don’t hear cited very often.  Lack of availability isn’t the problem: what Philo has to say is.

One issue that hasn’t quite been tidied up is Philo’s influence on the New Testament.  Simply put, did the New Testament’s authors (especially John and the author of Hebrews) read Philo and be influenced by him, or did all of them simply work out of the same Platonic play-book? The jury is still out on this question; I tend to side with the latter.  The idea that the New Testament has any Hellenistic philosophical or cultural influence–and the whole subject of Hellenistic vs. Palestinian Judaism–is a complicated one that spills into our understanding, for example, of the early part of the Book of Acts.  These days its more fashionable to denigrate any Hellenistic influence, and this denigration runs from the successors of Darby to N.T. Wright.  So chalk up one reason why Evangelicals leave Philo to gather dust on the shelf.

Philo’s writings cover the interpretation of some important parts of the Old Testament, especially the early parts.  His influence on Patristic Biblical hermeneutic, especially with the likes of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, is enormous, if, like Tertullian, not gratefully acknowledged.  So what did he have to say?

Let’s start with the easy part: Philo had a high view of the truth content of the Scriptures.  He routinely refers to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, and in that context states the following:

And this same man (Moses) was likewise a lawgiver; for a king must of necessity both command and forbid, and law is nothing else but a discourse which enjoins what is right and forbids what is not right; but since it is uncertain what is expedient in each separate case (for we often out of ignorance command what is not right to be done, and forbid what is right), it was very natural for him also to receive the gift of prophecy, in order to ensure him against stumbling; for a prophet is an interpreter, God from within prompting him what he ought to say; and with God nothing is blameable. (On Rewards and Punishments, 55)

Philo pushes toward what we would call a “mantic” concept of the inspiration of the Scriptures, which is discussed elsewhere.  That may not be what Evangelical scholars think when they consider inspiration, but a mantic concept is implied in most everyday Evangelical teaching and preaching.

So much for the easy part: so how does this play out in Philo’s commentary on the Scriptures? Let’s consider the six days of creation–a hot topic these days–and here is where things get interesting:

And he says that the world was made in six days, not because the Creator stood in need of a length of time (for it is natural that God should do everything at once, not merely by uttering a command, but by even thinking of it); but because the things created required arrangement: and number is akin to arrangement; and, of all numbers, six is, by the laws of nature, the most productive: for of all the numbers, from the unit upwards, it is the first perfect one, being made equal to its parts, and being made complete by them; the number three being half of it, and the number two a third of it, and the unit a sixth of it, and, so to say, it is formed so as to be both male and female, and is made up of the power of both natures; for in existing things the odd number is the male, and the even number is the female; accordingly, of odd numbers the first is the number three, and of even numbers the first is two, and the two numbers multiplied together make six.

It was fitting therefore, that the world, being the most perfect of created things, should be made according to the perfect number, namely, six: and, as it was to have in it the causes of both, which arise from combination, that it should be formed according to a mixed number, the first combination of odd and even numbers, since it was to embrace the character both of the male who sows the seed, and of the female who receives it.

And he allotted each of the six days to one of the portions of the whole, taking out the first day, which he does not even call the first day, that it may not be numbered with the others, but entitling it one, he names it rightly, perceiving in it, and ascribing to it the nature and appellation of the limit. (On the Creation, 13-15)

Philo basically turns the whole narrative into a numerological exercise, extracting the meaning from the numbers that come up.  It should be noted that Philo wasn’t just making all of this up on his own; the significance of numbers was intertwined with Greek mathematics, as anyone who has read Nicomachus of Gerasa (who came from the Decapolis and lived in the years after the New Testament) will attest. It was a tradition that went back to Pythagoras himself.

“And on the sixth day God finished his work which he
had made.” It would be a sign of great simplicity to think
that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in
time; because all time is only the space of days and nights,
and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does necessarily make. But the sun is a part of heaven, so that one must confess that time is a thing posterior to the world. Therefore it would be correctly said that the world was not created in time, but that time had its existence in consequence of the world. For it is the motion of the heaven that has displayed the nature of time.

When, therefore, Moses says. “God completed his works on the sixth day,” we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number. Since it is the first number which is equal in its parts, in the half, and the third and sixth parts, and since it is produced by the multiplication of two unequal factors, two and three. And the numbers two and three exceed the incorporeality which exists in the unit; because the number two is an image of matter being divided into two parts and dissected like matter. And the number three is an image of a solid body, because a solid can be divided according to a threefold division. (Allegorical Interpretation, I, 2-3)

Here he basically denies the creation in six literal days.  After you pass Ken Ham the smelling salts, you might ask: how can he state in one place that Moses put this all down without error and in the other deny the six literal days? The answer is the key to understanding how both Philo himself and those who came after him interpreted the Scriptures.

Virtually any Neoplatonist–and that includes Philo and many others–held as axiomatic the idea that the ultimate reality of the universe was beyond the physical world.  That may seem odd to us, but the one place where that concept is entertained in the sciences–mathematics–developed in the same milieu with Neoplatonic philosophy, as a quick perusal of Philo’s quotes above will attest.  That in turn was not only infused into Judaism and Christianity but also Islam, especially in Persia, where it appears in many of the Sufi writings.  (A Persian was also one of the first to write a book on algebra).

Given that, the primary role of the Scriptures is not as a proof-text but as a window to God’s truth.  In this context the words of scripture and the acts recorded there are merely signs of the heavenly, incorporeal truths that are behind them.  Philo’s method is allegorical, i.e., the words of Scripture are allegories for a spiritual truth behind them.  In fact, in this context a good argument can be made that allegory/typology as the first meaning of Scripture is also a sign that it is inspired.

This method, for all of its well-documented weaknesses, has one main advantage: it simplifies the interpretation of texts when the “literal” meaning is difficult.  We see this in the passage on Genesis above; the same passage is often interpreted in a more-than-literal way by “old earthers” of all stripes.  In a New Testament context, Origen frankly discusses this subject in favour of an allegorical method.  “Difficult” can also include things that no longer are favourable to a new audience, such as the wars in the Old Testament.  These problems existed for the ancients as well, albeit they prioritised the problems differently than we do.

Additionally the method enables the interpreter to apply historical passages to the moral, personal and spiritual betterment of its hearers.  Most people (especially Americans) don’t have a really good sense of history; this application enables people to relate the truths of Scripture to their own lives when they otherwise would not.  This part of the method is alive and well, especially in the Charismatic world.

The viable alternative to this is to use the “progressive revelation” concept, such as we see in Daniel-Rops’ Sacred History.  Most evangelicals are even more afraid of this than allegory, in no small measure because a) it too is hard for people to understand and b) many liberals have misused it for their own foul purposes.

Instead what we have these days is a hermeneutic which is literal, in concept at least, which has as high of a view of inspiration as Philo had but insists that the literal interpretation (which doesn’t necessarily equal the author’s intent) is it, difficulties or not.  The largest drawback to this is that, in instead of seeing the Old Testament as a type and preparation for the New, they elevate the commands of the two to a nearly equal level, which is one reason why we end up with “synthetic Judaism” more often than not.

The Bible deserves better than what we’re giving it these days.  Philo’s method has problems of its own, but it’s time that we look for a better way than the one we’re using, and in that regard Philo–and the whole Patristic tradition that, to varying degrees, drew from him–is as good of a place to start as any.

3 thoughts on “Why Evangelicals Don’t Read Philo Judaeus”

Leave a Reply