In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philo of Alexandria

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Editions
  • Comprehensive Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Jewish Community in Alexandria
  • Philo’s Life and Family
  • Philosophy
  • Biblical Exegesis
  • Mysticism and Religious Thought
  • Philo and the New Testament
  • The Early Christian Reception

Classics Philo of Alexandria
Gregory E. Sterling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0205


Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCEc. 50 CE) was the most prolific commentator on the Pentateuch in the Second Temple Jewish period (539 BCE–70/135 CE). Philo was a member of a prominent Jewish family in one of the largest Jewish communities in the early Roman world. An observant Jew who made at least one pilgrimage to the temple, Philo led the Jewish embassy before Caligula following the pogrom in Alexandria in 38 CE. His real contribution lay in his writings; he wrote more than seventy treatises, although a third of these have been lost. The bulk of the treatises belongs to three series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. It is possible, although not provable, that Philo produced these in a school setting similar to the schools of ancient philosophers. His writings constitute a rich deposit of exegetical traditions. He inherited a large number of these exegetical traditions that began as early as the 2nd century BCE with the works of Aristobulus and Pseudo-Aristeas. He also developed his own interpretations that primarily focus on the ascent of the soul to God. This point of orientation reflects his familiarity with Hellenistic philosophy, especially Middle Platonism. He had read and digested a number of Plato’s treatises, although he also knew other traditions as well. His creative blend of philosophy and exegesis made him attractive to early Christians who preserved the writings that have come down to us.

General Overviews

Philo can be a daunting author, and the challenge exists at multiple levels. He wrote impeccable Atticizing Greek with a vocabulary of about 12,000 words excluding proper names. His syntax is clean, but complex so beginning students find challenging. Philo has a specific way of handling the biblical text that varies in the three commentary series, although he is consistent within a series. It is critical to understand how he is operating in a specific treatise. Similarly, his thought is complex. He used multiple traditions of Hellenistic philosophy and adopted what he found most useful to his exegesis, although he was Platonic in his ontology and epistemology. Within the commentary series, he is not always consistent in his interpretations of texts for a variety of reasons. These qualities make it important to have a general idea of Philo’s method and thought before reading individual treatises. This has led to a number of general introductions. Seland 2014 is an excellent intermediate-level introduction that covers a wide range of the most important issues. Morris 1987 and Kamesar 2009 are more advanced introductions that have a great deal of detail. Haase 1984 is still a useful collection of essays on specific topics—some specialized—that is valuable for advanced work.

  • Haase, Wolfgang, ed. 1984. Religion: Hellenistisches Judentum im römischer Zeit: Philon und Josephus. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.21.1. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.

    This is part of a magisterial series that provides treatments of most major figures and movements in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The volume devoted to Philo and Josephus contains a series of essays that are both general and specific. Some of the specific essays on Philo are still standard treatments of those specific topics.

  • Kamesar, Adam, ed. 2009. The Cambridge companion to Philo. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521860901

    This is one of the most helpful introductions to Philo available today. In keeping with the format of the series, it contains discrete essays that together provide a comprehensive introduction to Philo. The contributors are an international team of leading experts that cover their assignments well, although there is some unevenness in the quality of the essays.

  • Morris, Jenny. 1987. The Jewish philosopher Philo. In The history of the Jewish people in the age of Jesus Christ. Vol. 3, Part 2. By Emil Schürer. A new English version revised by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Martin Goodman, 809–889. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

    This is a learned and clearly written comprehensive introduction to Philo. The greatest contribution that it makes is in the treatment of the Philonic corpus. Morris collected virtually all of the evidence available and presented it succinctly and responsibly. It is a work to which even experienced Philonists return again and again.

  • Seland, Torrey, ed. 2014. Reading Philo: A handbook to Philo of Alexandria. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

    This is another significant introduction. The essays were written by an international group of experts, although with a pronounced Scandinavian orientation. The essays differ from the Cambridge Companion (Kamesar 2009) by focusing more on Philo in his context. The Handbook strikes a balance between an advanced introduction and a beginning introduction by providing significant detail but not presupposing a great deal on the part of the reader.

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