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Philo Judaeus
c. 20 B.C. to 50 A.D.
Ancient Christian Church
Alexandria/Egypt


Philo Judaeus remains one of the genuinely significant Greek authors, especially from that creative period at the turn into the Christian era. At least forty named titles from his hand are in whole or part preserved, along with a variety of fragments, for a total extent of literature greater than three times the size of the New Testament. For partial listings of titles within Philo's corpus, see those included by Eusebius (H.E. 2.18; Oulton 1927: 52-53; Lawlor 1928: 69-70, with commentary) and by Jerome ("On Illustrious Men" 11.4-6; with notes by Halton, FOTC 100: 25-26). For ample citations of otherwise unpreserved examples from Philo's extensive corpus, see Eusebius "Preparation for the Gospel" [7.21 (336b-337a) and 8.14 (386a-400a) in Gifford 1903: 365, 417-432 (quoting Philo's De Providentia "On Providence"; cf. Yonge 1993: 747, 748-756); and 8.6-7 and 11 (355c-361b, 379a-381b) in Gifford 1903: 385-391, 409-412 (quoting Philo's Apologia pro Iudaeis "Apology for the Jews"; cf. Yonge 1993: 742-746)]. In the same work, Eusebius gives substantial selections from two other works of Philo which are well preserved in the manuscript-tradition [8.12 (381b-384b) in Gifford 1903: 412-415 (Philo's Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit "That Every Good Man Is Free" XII-XIII <75-91>; cf. Yonge 1993: 689-690); and 8.13 and 11.24 (384d-385d, 546d-548c) in Gifford 1903: 416-417, 591-593 (Philo's De Opificio Mundi "On the Creation of the World" II <7-12>, VI-VII <24-27>, VII-VIII <29-31>, IX-X <35-36>; cf. Yonge 1993: 3-4, 5-6)]. And Eusebius cites briefly four others: De Agricultura, "On <Noah's> Husbandry" XII (51) in Gifford 1903: 349 (cf. Yonge 1993: 178); De Plantatione, "On Noah's Work as Planter" II (8-10), V (18) in Gifford 1903: 350, 359 (cf. Yonge 1993: 191-192); De Confusione Linguarum, "On the Confusion of Tongues" XX (97), XXVIII (146-147), XIV (62-63) in Gifford 1903: 575 (cf. Yonge 1993: 242, 247, 239-240); and Questiones et Solutiones in Genesin II (62) in Gifford 1903: 349 (cf. Yonge 1993: 834).

Philo Judaeus is exceeded within the whole of preserved Classical Greek authors by only a small handful of other writers, including but three names, Plato (c.429-347 B.C.), Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Diodorus Siculus (1st century B.C.), from before his own lifetime, and but two others, Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.) and Plutarch (c. 50-120 A.D.), immediately afterwards. That a large portion of the specific treatises from Philo's hand relates to material derived from the Hebrew Bible -- or perhaps more specifically from his study of its Greek translation, the Septuagint [cf. Philo De Vita Mosis "On the Life of Moses II" V-VII (25-44), in Yonge 1993: 493-494; Grant 1993: 25], itself but half again more extensive than his total works -- and in so relating provides the basic method for studying these biblical sources, made of Philo one of those two Jews, along with Flavius Josephus, from the era of Jesus and Paul, who came to be incorporated within the canon of "illustrious men" respected and read by Eusebius, Jerome, and many another early Christian author, and thus named among the noteworthy figures significant for the history of the earliest church.

Philo Judaeus does not properly belong in any "Dictionary of Christian Biography," be it ancient or other, though by virtue of his mistaken incorporation within Eusebius' "Ecclesiastical History" and within Jerome's "Lives of Illustrious Men," it is necessary to consider why such should have occurred. And therefore, it is not inappropriate that such a consideration might be found within a "Dictionary of African Christian Biography," since Philo Judaeus was not only one of the truly great intellects of Alexandria in Egypt, but precisely that one whose study of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in their Hellenized Jewish translation, provided much of the allegorical methodology for interpretation (Legum Allegoriae, in Yonge 1993: 25-79) by which Christianity, as it fully emerged, was able to incorporate those same Scriptures within its basic corpus as an "Old Testament" without which there could hardly have become a "New Testament."

Moreover, in the specific sense that Philo Judaeus had mistakenly been named among the illustrious predecessors of the Christian Church, it is necessary to observe how his comments upon a relatively poorly known component of the first century's splintering sectarian situation within a not-yet fully defined Judaism, namely that of the so-called "Therapeutae," had by both Eusebius and Jerome been misunderstood to be the mode by which Philo was thought to have referred to incipient "Christians," or to followers of this new movement otherwise called "The Way" or identified in relation to the Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate [on whom, and placed correctly in the imperial administration of Tiberius Caesar, see Philo's De Legatione ad Gaium "On the Embassy to Gaius" XXXVIII (299), in Yonge 1993: 784], to which, however, relative to the "Therapeutae," Philo makes no such association. Some observation, then, of "Therapeutae" remains necessary, as seen in Philo, followed by some reference to Philo's place within the history of biblical exegesis.

But we begin first with his place in time and space, for that has a definite New Testament connection. According to Acts, Paul appeared for trial in Caesarea before "Agrippa the king and Bernice" who had come to welcome Porcius Festus as the new procurator of Judaea and replacement for the outgoing Marcus Antonius Felix (24:27; 25:13, 23; 26:30), which can be dated to 60 A.D. The Agrippa and Bernice named were respectively brother and sister, children of Marcus Julius Agrippa I (10 B.C. - 44 A.D.), who ruled from 37 A.D., and, being grandson of Herod the Great (40 - 4 B.C.), was also called "Herod" (Acts 12:1; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4, in Whiston 1960: 383). The younger Marcus Julius Agrippa II (27-c.93 A.D.) ruled from 53 A.D. until his death (Antiquities 20.8.4, in Whiston 1960: 421), being accompanied by his sister Bernice (28-c.79 A.D.) from 48 A.D., after her succession of marriages and including her subsequent liaisons (Antiquities 20.7.3, in Whiston 1960: 420-421). It was, however, her first marriage in 41 A.D. to Marcus Julius Alexander, the brother of Tiberius Julius Alexander, who became procurator of Judaea (46-48 A.D.), that makes the significant connection (Antiquities 19.5.1, in Whiston 1960: 409).

For these were the sons of Gaius Julius Alexander Lysimachus, known as the alabarch ("a controller of customs"; cf. Lawlor 1928: 63, on H.E. 2.5.4), who had gilded the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem, a man of sufficient means to lend money to Bernice and Agrippa II (Antiquities 18.6.3; 19.5.1; and 20.5.2, in Whiston 1960: 384, 409, 418), and probably named among the Jerusalem priestly hierarchy (Acts 4:6). Now Philo, though born in Alexandria, was the brother of Alexander Lysimachus, so we can understand his status among the Jews of that era, and the probable span of his life, even if the only fixed date (39/40 A.D.) occurred when as an older man he led the Jewish embassy from Alexandria to Rome, appearing before the emperor Gaius Caligula to appeal Roman actions against the Jews (cf. In Flaccum and Quod Est De Legatione Ad Gaium, respectively translated in Yonge 1993: 725-741, 757-790; Josephus, Antiquities 18.8.1, in Whiston 1960: 389). Of his personal life, the only other incident narrated occurred on his one undated visit to Jerusalem (cf. De Providentia, in Yonge 1993: 755). Tiberius Julius Alexander, known while procurator of Judaea as the one who crucified the two sons of Judas the Galilean (probably part of the garbled narration found in Acts 5:37; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.2, in Whiston 1960: 418), went on to become prefect of Egypt under the emperor Nero (Josephus, War 2.15.1, in Whiston 1960: 485), where he took an oath of loyalty to the emperor Vespasian (1 July 69 A.D.; War 4.10.6, in Whiston 1960: 545) and became chief of staff (praefectus praetorio) to Titus until the end of the Jewish War (War 5.1.6, in Whiston 1960: 548-549). But earlier, as nephew to Philo, he appears as antagonistic interrogator within his uncle's dialogues "On Animals" (Grant 1999: 44-45; cf. Grant 1952: 90-91) and "On Providence" (Colson 1941: 447-453).

Josephus' identification of Philo's relationship to his brother, of his place of birth in Alexandria, and of his role in the embassy to Gaius, takes us directly into the Christian sources, for it is this notice that Eusebius quotes directly from Josephus (cf. H.E. 2.5.2-5) which led the former into both his great respect for Philo as well as his misappropriation of Philo's significance for the earliest history of the Christian church. For as it has been well observed, Eusebius "had no really early source materials (apart from Philo's account of the Therapeutae)" for "the history of the church and school of Alexandria," so that "oral tradition," for example with reference to "Mark's mission as evangelist at Alexandria," had to be employed "on the basis of what `they say' (II.16)" (Grant 1980: 61) -- a minimalist position were it not for the creative use of Philo's De Vita Contemplativa ("On the Speculative Life," in Yonge 1993: 698-706). The same text appealed to Jerome, who is directly dependent upon Eusebius (J 11; FOTC 100 23-26) for his perspective, though perhaps Jerome also was more attracted to the assumption that what Philo was describing was not merely incipient Christianity but also incipient monasticism! Admittedly, Philo used the Greek term monastêrion, but only in the sense appropriate to his time: "a room intended for one person" which occurred in every house of the "Therapeutae" as a "holy place" (semneion) for private prayer [Lawlor 1928: 68, commentary on H.E. 2.17.9 citing De Vita Contemplativa III (25), in Yonge 1993: 700, compares the "inner chamber" (tamieion) of Matthew 6:6].

The last century before, and the first century of, the Christian era, which encompassed the lifespan of Philo Judaeus, have been described, by virtue of those developments within that larger tradition fundamentally concerned with the religion and worship of the one ancient Hebrew God Yahweh, as "Exciting Times" (Akenson 2000: ch. 2 = pp. 15-54). Within the larger parameters of that perspective, a wide variety of literary sources provide a spectrum of diverse splinterings which ultimately define the normative limits of both Christianity and Judaism along with a vast assortment of alternate possibilities on either side, or falling between, both (Akenson 2000: 16-17 especially). The New Testament knew Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, Herodians, Zealots, and Sicarii, as well as its own varieties somewhere among the kinds of converts who responded to James, Peter, Apollos, Paul and others with respect to the acknowledgement of the primacy of Jesus. Flavius Josephus defines specific attributes for three or four of these alternatives: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Antiquities 13.5.9, in Whiston 1960: 274); or Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the followers of Judas the Galilean (Antiquities 18.1.2-6, in Whiston 1960: 376-377); or Pharisees, Sadducees, and two kinds of Essenes distinguished by celibacy or marriage (War 2.8.2-14, in Whiston 1960: 476-478). The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha to the Old as well as the New Testament illustrate the thinking of other examples, some no longer capable of exact identification (Akenson 2000: 21-34). The texts found in caves along the Dead Sea or at Nag Hammadi in Egypt enlarge and enrich these numbers. But it is the specific instancing of the "Therapeutae," exclusively denominated by Philo, which produced such a response among the later Christian historians, that their denominator became absorbed within the "illustrious men" of originating Christianity.

While an exclusive source for the "Therapeutae," Philo also knew and described, like Flavius Josephus, one of the other groupings within the Judaism of his day -- those he also calls "Essenes" [Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit XII-XIII (75-91), in Yonge 1993: 689-690; cf. Apologia Pro Iudaeis 11, in Yonge 1993: 745-746]. In fact, by his own connecting narration [De Vita Contemplativa I (1), in Yonge 1993: 698], Philo is led from his discussion of these "Essenes" into his discusion of "those who have embraced the speculative life," which is his context for those he calls "Therapeutae," of whom he would identify their greatest number as being found "in Egypt, in every one of the districts, or nomi as they are called, and especially around Alexandria" [De Vita Contemplativa III (21), in Yonge 1993: 700]. But just as Philo knows of Jews in general scattered around the world [De Legatione Ad Gaium XXXVI (281-282), in Yonge 1993: 782-783], so those he identifies among the Jews as "Therapeutae" "may be met in many places, for it was fitting that both Greece and the country of the barbarians should partake of whatever is perfectly good" [De Vita Contemplativa III (21), in Yonge 1993: 700]. With such a geographic spread as well as this singling out from among other Jews of his time, it is no wonder that Christian writers could only equate his "Therapeutae" with their own history.

By contrast the "Essenes" were of minimum number, according to Philo "something more than four thousand in my opinion," found exclusively in "Palestine and Syria," deriving "their name from their piety" based on their devotion "to the service of God, not sacrificing living animals, but studying rather to preserve their own minds in a state of holiness and purity" [Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit XII (75)]. Philo thought the "Essenes" lived "in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness" of urban inhabitants, "some cultivating the earth, and others devoting themselves to those arts which are the result of peace" [XII (76)], hence manufacturing neither arms nor armaments [XII (78)] nor keeping slaves [XII (79)]. To Philo, their way of life was "philosophical," though in contrast to specific Greek alternatives, in his sense of giving focus through the study of Scripture to "the contemplation of the existence of God and of the creation of the universe" [XII (80)]. Their lifestyle itself was communal [XII (85-87)], though those being described by Philo seem to be analogous to the later Josephus' celibate rather than married variety. (See Colson 1941: 2-9.)

Thus, while much that Philo says about the "Therapeutae" could seem similar to his description of the fewer "Essenes," the former, aside from being much more extensive, quite definitely include both men and women [De Vita Contemplativa III (32-33)], even though these are segregated within that "common holy place to which they all come together on the seventh day" in order to hear the reading and the explication "with minute accuracy the precise meaning of the laws" by "the eldest of them who has the most profound learning in their doctrine" who "comes forward and speaks with steadfast look and with steadfast voice" [III (30-31)]. The remainder of his description deals with their simplicity of life, including raiment, and "their very cheerful meeting at convivial parties" where decorum prevails [V (40)]. In language almost equivalent, though a century or more earlier, to that found in Justin Martyr's description of the Christian celebration of the eucharistic meal [Apology 65, 67; Greek text in Wikgren 1947: 121-123], Philo gives account of their coming "together clothed in white garments" [De Vita Contemplativa VIII (66)], of their sitting down to meal "after having offered up these prayers" [VIII (67)], and finally of a "president" (proedros, subsequently used within Christianity for leading officials in the church, such as "bishops," and from the fifth century of "patriarchs"; cf. Lampe 1968: 1144-1145) who, when having "spoken at sufficient length" receives applause from all those gathered [X (79)], who then rise in individual succession to sing "a hymn which has been made in honour of God . . . while everyone else listens in decent silence, except when it is proper for them to take up the burden of the song, and to join in at the end; for then they all, both men and women, join in the hymn" [X (80)]. An oscillation of chorus and communion, noting the diversity of the male and female voice, as well as the continuation of this feasting throughout the night without raucus consequences, appears to have impressed not only Philo, but also Eusebius and Jerome who saw therein what no Christian sources provided, namely the origin of the Christian Church as worshipping community devoted to the God who, with His Law, was being studied and celebrated -- a community composed of "citizens of heaven and of the world" [XI (90)]. (See Colson 1941: 104-111.)

Among earliest Christian authors, Philo's extensive studies of Scripture (see the "Scripture Index" to Yonge 1993: 913-918 and by Earp in Colson 1962: 189-265, which indicate his extensive focus on the "Law," especially Genesis and Exodus, followed by the remainder of the Pentateuch, with but minimal citations from the rest of the "Hebrew" Bible) were certainly known and used by Titus Flavius Clemens of Alexandria (160-215 A.D.; J 38), as is evidenced from his specific citation of Philo by name [Stromateis 1.15 (72.4) <cf. 1.5.31; 1.23.152; 2.19.108>; see Oulton 1927: 188 n.5; Grant 1988: 180-181; van den Hoek 1988]. From Clement there is no question that the significance of Philo was transmitted to his most important student, the prolific author, Adamantios Origenês (c. 185-254; J 54), who also cites Philo by name [Contra Celsum VI.21 with specific reference to Philo's De Somniis], and through Origen to others of the schools of Alexandria [such as Dionysius the Bishop (r.248-265; J 69) or Didymus the Blind (c.313-398; J 109)] and of Caesarea [such as Eusebius (c.260-340; J 81), who has already been extensively noted]. At a later date, those who knew and used Philo include minimally but significantly Ambrose of Milan (c.339-397; J 124), Gregory of Nyssa (c.340-395; J 128), Photios (c.810-893), and Theodore Metochites (14th c.), as well as others who quote him or preserve fragments of his work [e.g., John of Damascus (c.650-749), in Yonge 1993: 880-886], or operate exegetically like him. It is possible several earlier than Clement, due to overtones within their works of ideas or concerns or style like that of Philo, were employing him, or at least coming out of a common background, especially in Scriptural exegesis. Such have been thought to include the author of the "Epistle to the Hebrews" (Grant 1957: 54-56), perhaps Justin Martyr (d.c.165; Grant 1957: 75-77) though it is only within a work spuriously assigned to Justin and coming from the later third century that Philo is named (Cohortatio ad Gentiles 9-10; Grant 1988: 192). For surveys of Philo's methodology in a context of his influence upon these Christian authors, see Grant (1957: 32-38; 1988: 12-14) and Runia (1993) who, with others, has also prepared extensive annual bibliographies (cf. Scholer in Yonge 1993: xviii).

Clyde Curry Smith



Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

J 11; FOTC 100 18, 23-24, 28
TLG 0018
ODCC 1065-1066; NIDCC 776-777 (GCNeal); ODByz 1655 (SBBowman); OEEC 682-683 (HCrouzel): GEEC 912-914 (RMBerchman); OCD 1167-1168 (TRajak); <P1>
<"Therapeutae": ODCC 1346; NIDCC 968 (KJHardman); GEEC 1124-1125 (EFerguson)>


Supplementary Bibliography:
Akenson 2000 Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, by Donald Harman Akenson. Oxford: University Press.
Colson 1941 Philo, with an English translation by F. H. Colson. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Volume IX.
Colson 1962 Philo, with an English translation by F. H. Colson. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Volume X.
Gifford 1903 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press. 2 volumes. Reprinted; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981.
Grant 1952 Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought, by Robert McQueen Grant. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
Grant 1957 The Letter and the Spirit, by Robert McQueen Grant. London: SPCK.
Grant 1980 Eusebius as Church Historian, by Robert McQueen Grant. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Grant 1988 Greek Apologists of the Second Century, by Robert McQueen Grant. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Grant 1993 Heresy and Criticism: The Search for Authenticity in Early Christian Literature, by Robert McQueen Grant. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press.
Grant 1999 Early Christians and Animals, by Robert McQueen Grant. London & New York: Routledge.
Lampe 1968 Patristic Greek Lexicon, by Geoffrey William Hugo Lampe. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).
Runia 1993 Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey, by David T. Runia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
van den Hoek 1988 Clement of Alexandria and his use of Philo in the Stromateis, by Annewies van den Hoek. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Whiston 1960 Josephus: Complete Works, translated by William Whiston, with a Foreword by William Sanford LaSor. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications.
Wikgren 1947 Hellenistic Greek Texts, by Allen Wikgren in collaboration with Ernest Cadman Colwell and Ralph Marcus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Yonge 1993 The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, translated by Charles Duke Yonge. New updated edition; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.


This article, received in 2002, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.


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