Hellenistic Judaism – Judaism in Greek – was a major form of Jewish culture in the period before the destruction of the second temple. Greek Judaism would have a major influence on the development of Christianity, especially Christian theology. Hellenistic Judaism is known to us first and foremost through the extensive and influential writings of the Platonist philosopher Philo of Alexandria.
Philo of Alexandria
Philo of Alexandria was an influential Jewish philosopher who practiced Hellenistic Judaism. Philo was a Jew who lived in the age of Jesus and Paul. Philo did not receive much attention within Judaism. His brand of Hellenistic Judaism was compromised by the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. However, his works would be well received within Christianity; they would be fundamental for early Christian scholars seeking to incorporate Greek philosophy into Christian thought. It is chiefly in this role, as a conduit of Platonic philosophy, that we remember Philo.
Philo was born around 20 BC, in the age of Herod, and he died around 58 AD, around the Conference of Jerusalem. He was an extensive writer and a major religious and political figure. We know Philo chiefly through his own writings, but there are other sources as well, such as Josephus. Josephus tells us that Philo was from a large Jewish community in Alexandria, one of the major centers of Hellenism. Philo was part of a Alexandrian Jewish delegation to Rome when conflicts between Alexandrian Jews and Greeks became severe enough to warrant Roman intervention. From Josephus, we also learn that Philo’s brother joined the Romans and apostatized from Judaism.
However, Philo is principally known through his own words. He was deeply educated in Greek knowledge, Greek language, and Greek philosophy. Philo thought that Greek philosophy is an expression of Jewish wisdom. He believed that Moses in particular is the fountain of wisdom. He certainly did not think that bringing in Greek philosophy was wrong, because it is part of the one truth.
The Philosophy of Philo
Philo sought to blend Greek philosophy with Judaism, combining Jewish exegesis with Platonic thought. Philo interpreted scripture allegorically, believing that literal interpretations of scripture would limit the ability to understand God. Borrowing precepts from Platonism, Philo thought that God was immaterial, incorporeal, and transcendental.
According to Philo, God is not anthropomorphic like the Greco-Roman deities; God does not have human-like forms or emotions. In fact, God is utterly incomprehensible within the material world. Only with the mind can humans come close to appreciating and knowing God. Philo uses the creation account found in Genesis to illustrate this point:
“Having previously related the creation of the mind and of sense, Moses now proceeds to describe the perfection which was brought about by them both. And he says that neither the indivisible mind nor the particular sensations received perfection, but only ideas, one the idea of the mind, the other of sensation. And, speaking symbolically, he calls the mind heaven, since the natures which can only be comprehended by the intellect are in heaven. And sensation he calls earth, because it is sensation which has obtained a corporeal and some what earthy constitution. The ornaments of the mind are all the incorporeal things, which are perceptible only by the intellect. Those of sensation are the corporeal things, and everything in short which is perceptible by the external senses.”
This interpretation borders on the Platonic concept that the world of sensation is a world of false reality – that only rationality and human reason can lead to true understanding. Within this passage, it is evident that Philo has borrowed from Plato, but Philo would argue that it was Moses who originated the idea of the incorporeal world. This idea finds manifestation in Philo’s discussion of the immaterial nature of God.
Philo constructs his theology by interpreting scripture allegorically. He supports his idea of an immaterial God by looking at Exodus 20, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). He cites the third commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Philo expands the meaning of this commandment by arguing that it is not only wrong to make idols of God, but it is also impossible. There is nothing in the material world which could represent God. God has no image and no parallel.
Philo sees the parallel between Plato’s immaterial God and the unrepresentable God of Moses not as a coincidence, but as a logical consequence of the Greeks borrowing philosophic ideas from Mosaic Judaism. Philo would say that the Jews had figured out the immaterial nature of God long before Plato. Judaism and Platonism were compatible because they were derived from the same essential truth. However, while Plato could come close to God with his reason, a full understanding of God requires the divine law revealed through Moses.
Philo’s philosophy argues for an incorporation of Platonic reasoning and metaphysics, but his philosophy does not abandon scripture. He creates a precedent of combining Hellenic learning with Judaic scripture. Though his ideas will lose influence within Judaism after the destruction of the temple, Philo’s writings will be picked up by Christian theologians and incorporated into Christian concepts of God and the soul.