Philo of Alexandria Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


The only firmly dated event known in Philo (FI-loh) of Alexandria’s life is his participation in a delegation sent by Alexandrian Jews to the emperor Caligula in 39-40 c.e. He seems to have been prominent in the Alexandrian Jewish community, but that is all that can be said about him. He wrote commentaries on selected passages or topics in the Jewish scriptures and essays on standard philosophical topics such as the “eternity of the world.” He read the Scriptures allegorically, enabling him to find connections between Jewish thought and Greek philosophy. In his eclectic system, God governs the world through his providence but is completely transcendent and communicates with creation only through intermediary beings, such as the Logos (“word”). It was this Logos, not God, who spoke to Moses in the burning bush. The goal of philosophy and theology, for Philo, was mystical union with God.


Little read in his own lifetime, Philo’s work strongly influenced later Christian writers from Alexandria, especially Clement of Alexandria and Origen. They transmitted his ideas to other Greek and Latin theologians.

Further Reading:

Colson, F. H., and G. H. Whitaker. Philo. 12 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966-1981. These volumes provide the original Greek with English translation on facing pages. They supply ample introductory sections, copious...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Philo of Alexandria Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Alexandrian philosopher{$I[g]Alexandria;Philo of Alexandria} Philo harmonized Old Testament theology with Greek philosophy, especially Platonism and Stoicism; his thought contributed much to that of Plotinus, originator of Neoplatonism, and to the ideas of the early church fathers.

Early Life

Philo (FI-loh) came from one of the richest and most prominent Jewish families of Alexandria. The city had a large Jewish community, with privileges granted by its founder, Alexander the Great, and confirmed by his successors, the Ptolemies. The intellectual climate was Greek, and the resident Jews read their Scriptures in the Greek Septuagint version. According to ancient sources, the Greek population of Alexandria showed great hostility toward Jews.

Philo’s brother Alexander held the Roman post of alabarch and collected taxes from Arab communities. He also managed the financial affairs of Antonia, mother of Emperor Claudius, and supplied a loan to Herod Agrippa, Caligula’s choice as Jewish king.

In 39 c.e., anti-Semitism flared in the city, touched off by the visit of Herod Agrippa. The ensuing pogrom, permitted by the Roman governor Aulus Avilius Flaccus, resulted in a mission of opposing delegations to Caligula in Rome. The delegations consisted of three Greeks, led by the famous anti-Semite Apion, and five Jews, of whom Philo was eldest and spokesman. Caligula rudely dismissed the Jews and ordered his statue placed in their temples. In 41, under Claudius, Jewish rights were restored.

Life’s Work

At least sixty-four treatises attributed to Philo are known. Only four or five are spurious; a few others, whose names have survived, no longer exist. The dates of the treatises, and even the order of their composition, are not known, except when a treatise refers to a previous one or to a dated event, such as the delegation to Rome. All the treatises have been translated into English (1854-1855), but some retain their original titles.

Foremost among Philo’s writings are the exegetical works on the Pentateuch. These were arranged by Philo himself. Of the cosmogonic works, De opificis mundi (On the Creation, 1854), an allegorical explanation of Genesis, is most important. The historical works, allegorical commentaries on various topics in Genesis, are known as Quod Deus sit immutabilis (On the Unchangeableness of God, 1854), De Abrahamo (On Abraham, 1854), De Josepho (On Joseph, 1854), De vita Moysis (On the Life of Moses, 1854), and De allegoriis legum (Allegorical Interpretation, 1854). Philo also wrote legislative works, commentaries on Mosaic legislation, such as De Decalogo (On the Decalogue, 1854) and De praemiis et poenis (On Rewards and Punishments, 1854). Philosophical writings, such as De vita contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life, 1854), and political writings, such as In Flaccum (Against Flaccus, 1854) and De legatione ad Gaium (On the Embassy to Gaius, 1854), are attributed to Philo as well.

As a devout Jew, Philo’s intent was to reconcile the prevalent Alexandrian philosophical thought of Platonism and Stoicism with the sacred law of Israel (the Old Testament). He wanted to show the identity of the truths of philosophy and of revelation—and the priority of the latter. He thus suggests not only that Moses had been a consummate philosopher but also that the “holy assembly” of Greek philosophers (Philo includes Plato, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles—and the Stoics Zeno and Cleanthes) had access to Holy Scripture.

Beyond the notion of the unity of God, on which the Bible, Stoicism, and Plato’s Timaeos (365-361 b.c.e.; Timeaus, 1793) clearly agree, the Old Testament bears little relation to Greek philosophy. Philo thus adopted for the Old Testament the Stoic technique of reading the Greek myths as allegories illustrating philosophical truths. Even as a Jew he was not original in this, for the Jewish philosopher Aristobulus (fl. mid-second century b.c.e.) and others had employed this method. Jews, however, could not gratuitously disregard the literal sense of the Old Testament stories. Philo resolved the problem by asserting that Scripture has at least two levels of meaning: the literal, for the edification of simple folk, and a deeper spiritual meaning, of which the literal account was merely an allegory. This higher meaning was available to subtler minds capable of comprehending it. Indeed, the allegorical method seems imperative when the literal sense presents something unworthy of God or an apparent contradiction and when the text defines itself as allegorical.

Philo rejects the anthropomorphism of...

(The entire section is 2001 words.)

Philo of Alexandria Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Philo of Alexandria, also called Philo Judaeus, a Jewish Hellenistic writer from Alexandria, is best remembered as an allegorist who attempted to bridge the gap between Greek philosophy and Hebrew Scripture. Thus, for example, he harmonized Plato’s Timaeus with the scriptural account of creation by articulating a view that the Logos, or the world of intelligible ideas, existed first as God’s thoughts and then as the way in which God leads creatures to know him. Philo wished to reconcile natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, laws of nature and miracles, and causality and free will.

Philo’s attempt to blend Greek and Jewish ideas affected his moral philosophy. On the one hand, his writings are filled with expressions of Jewish piety. In his personal life, he practiced renunciation of the self and sought immediate communion with God through the Logos. On the other hand, much of Philo’s teaching shows clear signs of Stoic origins; for example, in the attention that he gives to virtue.

Philo differed from the Stoics in that he did not believe that emotions needed to be rooted out. Again harmonizing Greek philosophy with Hebrew Scripture, Philo held that most people were neither completely virtuous nor completely wicked. God’s grace led people to improve. Also, based upon his reading of Scripture, Philo included faith; philanthropia, or giving help to those in need; and repentance...

(The entire section is 490 words.)