In This Article Philo of Alexandria

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Commentaries on Philo’s Works
  • Philo’s Life and Historical Circumstances
  • Different Series of Philo’s Works
  • Mysticism
  • Sexuality and Gender

Jewish Studies Philo of Alexandria
by
Maren R. Niehoff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0061

Introduction

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE–45 CE) is the first Jewish philosopher and Bible commentator, whose works have survived in large numbers. His main achievement is a comprehensive synthesis between the Jewish Scriptures and general culture, especially Greek philosophy, that became a source of inspiration for liberal Jews in modern times. The works of Philo are very diverse, ranging from systematic commentaries on the books of Genesis and Exodus to biographies of biblical heroes, independent philosophical treatises, and an exposition of the law as well as two works on a political crisis caused by an outbreak of violence in Alexandria (38 CE). Philo is crucial for our understanding of early Judaism, before the rabbinic movement took shape and Christianity emerged as an independent religion. His works illuminate an especially rich form of Judaism and throw important light on a period of great changes, which had a visible impact on the development of subsequent Judaism and Western civilization as a whole.

General Overviews

Philo has increasingly been recognized as an important writer with significant implications for a variety of fields, especially early Judaism and Christianity as well as Hellenistic philosophy and culture. As a result, several excellent overviews have recently been produced: Kamesar 2009 provides synthetic essays by a team of experts, which introduce the student to the main themes of Philo’s work as well as to the current state of research. Hadas-Lebel 2012 offers a more descriptive introduction to Philo as a Jewish thinker in the Diaspora with emphasis on the cultural situation in Alexandria and issues of Jewish identity. Calabi 2013 provides a highly readable and informative introduction to Italian readers, which emphasizes philosophical and exegetical subjects. Earlier comprehensive studies of Philo include the monumental Wolfson 1947 on his philosophical thought, which must be read with some caution, especially regarding his assumption that Philo directly shaped Western philosophy and represented a rabbinic type of Judaism. Morris 1987 provides a more specialized overview for researchers, Amir 1983 offers a concise and well-balanced introduction for Hebrew readers, while Goodenough 1940 has left a highly readable, yet controversial introduction; some of the concerns of the author have recently become topical again.

  • Amir, Y. “Philo of Alexandria.” In The Jewish Diaspora in the Greco-Roman World (פילון האלכסנדרוני, בתוך: הפזורה היהודית בעולם ההלניסטי-רומי). Edited by Menahem Stern and Zvi Baras, 238–264. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1983.

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    A concise and highly informative overview of Philo’s life and works, giving equal attention to historical, exegetical, and philosophical issues. The title of the book in translation is “The Diaspora in the Hellenistic-Roman world.”

  • Calabi, Francesca. Filone di Alessandria. Roma: Carocci editore, 2013.

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    This is a highly readable, informative and balanced introduction, which treats Philo’s works thematically and pays special attention to the interaction between Bible interpretation and philosophy. The author also integrates a wealth of references to later Jewish traditions. At the end of the book there is a very helpful list of Philo’s works with a short introduction to each.

  • Goodenough, Erwin R. An Introduction to Philo Judaeus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940.

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    This introduction gives emphasis to Philo’s historical circumstances, distinguishes between his different series of works, and pays attention to such topics as mysticism, which was rarely discussed at that early stage of Philonic research. This introduction is still worth reading because its historical contextualization of Philo has recently become topical again. Goodenough’s conclusions about Philo’s double role vis-à-vis Rome and his hidden agenda have remained controversial.

  • Hadas-Lebel, Mireille. Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004232372E-mail Citation »

    This is a very clear introduction for students of Philo as a Hellenistic Jew. The author pays special attention to the historical and cultural context of Alexandria, showing how Philo struck a synthesis between Judaism and Hellenistic culture. The book is descriptive rather than analytic, especially in the parts dealing with Philo’s works. Originally published in French in 2003 (Paris: Fayard) and translated into Hebrew in 2006 (Tel Aviv: Yediot Acharonot).

  • Kamesar, Adam, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philo. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521860901E-mail Citation »

    This is a very helpful handbook that navigates students and nonspecialist researchers through the bulk of Philo’s works and the enormous research on him. The book provides synthetic essays on central issues of historical, philosophical, and exegetical interest and succeeds well in providing both introductory information and updates on the current state of scholarship.

  • Morris, J. “The Jewish Philosopher Philo.” In The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. Rev.ed. Edited by Emil Schürer, Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and M. Goodman, 909–989. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987.

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    This work gives a dense overview with many technical and biographical details, appropriate for advanced students. The author provides information about each of Philo’s works and then offers a summary of his thought on God, the Logos, the creation, and ethics, pointing to a wealth of secondary sources in numerous European languages.

  • Wolfson, Harry A. Philo. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947.

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    This is a comprehensive study of Philo’s thought, providing a wealth of information according to topical arrangement. The book has been influential, not least because it pays equal attention to Greek philosophy and Philo’s Jewish identity. Needs to be read with caution, especially regarding the author’s assumption of Philo’s direct influence on Western philosophy and the rabbinic nature of his Judaism. Translated into Hebrew in 1970 (Jerusalem: The Rab Kook Institute).

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