Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.16

David T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey. Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum section 3, volume 3. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Pp. xvi + 419. ISBN 90-232-2713-1 bound (Van Gorcum). ISBN 0-8006-2828-4, Code AC1-2828 (Fortress). $35.00.

Reviewed by Allen Kerkeslager, University of Pennsylvania (

David Runia is well known in the field of scholarship on the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Once again he has rendered a service to students of Philo. Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey is an indispensable tool for anyone studying the history of the transmission and influence of Philo's works. The focus of the book is the impact of Philo on Christian literature until 400 CE. But Runia also briefly traces the use of Philo in Christian, Jewish, and other circles until the rise of critical research on Philo in the 19th century.

The opening chapter describes the rise and development of the legend that claimed Philo was a convert to Christianity. Runia places the origin of this legend in a lost work of Clement of Alexandria (p. 7). The chapter includes an overview of the influence of Philo on Jewish and other western traditions. This chapter also contains an important discussion of the textual transmission of Philo's works with good photographs of the key manuscript evidence. Runia argues that copies of Origen's volumes of Philo that were made in Caesarea in the late fourth century played the dominant role in the later textual history of Philo's works (cf. p. 158). Chapter 2 presents general statements of scope and methodology, expressing the unfortunate need to rely on secondary sources in view of the vast terrain involved. Chapter 3 gives a brief critique of other major attempts to evaluate Philo's impact on later western traditions. Chapters 4-15 survey the use and influence of Philo from the first century to the beginning of the fifth century. The concluding chapter 16 synthesizes the results of the study. This chapter notes how the variety of relations between Christians and Jews often may have been partly the cause for the variety of ways in which Philo was used by early Christian authors (p. 345). An appendix lists explicit references to Philo in Christian literature to ca. 1000 CE. The bibliography does double duty as an index by listing after each bibliographical entry the pages on which the source was used. The book ends with an index of biblical passages, an index of Philonic passages, and a general index. There is unfortunately no index of passages in ancient texts outside of Philo and the Bible. One of the editing errors that is potentially confusing is on p. 180 note 130, where the second "Philo" should be replaced with "Origen."

The book is primarily an adroit synthesis of the state of research on a wide variety of textual, thematic, and historical issues. The vast body of secondary material surveyed in this book would be enough in itself to render the book useful. Quotations from secondary sources are usually well chosen and illuminating. But Runia does attempt to contribute some of his own thoughts to the study of each ancient author's use of Philo. Runia tries as much as possible to treat each ancient author on the author's own terms. This approach precludes the extended pursuit of a unifying thesis throughout the book. The absence of any more than an inchoate thesis coupled with the lengthy summaries and critiques of secondary research often make for tedious reading. One breathes a sigh of relief when Runia discusses ancient works on which little relevant research has been done. In these cases Runia is able to present some of his own fresh insights supported by helpful quotations of neglected ancient sources (e.g., pp. 184-89; 266-70). Most quotations from Latin and Greek are given in both the original and in modern (not necessarily English) translation. Occasionally untranslated German and French do appear within the body of the text, especially in the lengthy quotations from modern scholarship.

Despite the limitations imposed by the nature of the study, Runia is able to come to a number of general conclusions that few will dispute (pp. 335-42). (1) Philo was used by early Christian authors as a source for historical and apologetic material. (2) Philo was important to early Christian authors because of his role as an interpreter of the Bible. (3) Philo was important in early Christianity as a philosopher and theologian. Runia concludes, "The importance of Philo's contribution to Patristic thought lies above all in his role as a mediator between the biblical and the philosophical tradition" (p. 339; cf. pp. 155-56, 169-70, 174-78).

Runia recognizes that the study of an ancient text is inseparable from the study of its transmission and preservation. This point is made especially clear in the instances in which he discusses how an ancient author's comments provide a witness to the text of Philo (e.g., pp. 297-300). One might even suggest that Runia's book is largely an elaboration of the stemma of the textual transmission of Philo's works presented at the beginning of the book (p. 18). Not all will agree with Runia's emphasis on the pivotal role of Origen in the history of Philo's text and ideas. But Runia's manner of presentation makes it difficult to criticize him on this issue. He qualifies every tenuous point in his argument with characteristic caution and with discussions of other possible avenues of development. He indicates that one of these avenues is the direct access to Philonic material in Alexandrian traditions that were not mediated through Origen (pp. 184-211). He does not hesitate to supply evidence for other possible indications of variant textual traditions (pp. 275, 297-300). One is left wondering if these discussions do not indicate that the transmission of Philo's works and ideas might be a bit more complicated than Runia would like to admit. The departure of Origen from Alexandria did not bring to an end either the intellectual ferment in Alexandria or the intense trade between Alexandria and other intellectual centers of Late Antiquity.1

Runia's emphasis on the model of textual transmission and literary dependence for explaining Philo's "reception" in Christian literature is occasionally frustrating because of the kinds of questions it fails to raise. Word counts and parallel columns that set the language, ideas, and words of one author next to those of another are extremely helpful tools when one is seeking to trace the direct dependence of one author on another (pp. 108-109; 115; 117; 223, 227; 257; 263; 287; 303). It is definitely one of the safest ways to demonstrate historical relationship. It preserves Runia from the need to argue the more ambitious kinds of theses such as those proposed by Wolfson and others criticized in chapter 3. But literary dependence or its absence does not necessarily provide an accurate index of the influence of an author. Freud's impact on modern literature goes well beyond what may be discerned by the use of quotations or phraseology. Philo's impact on Christian literature also may go well beyond what Runia has been able to identify through his approach.

Runia's approach is partly shaped by his expertise in the study of philosophy and the history of ideas. His approach assumes that early Christian "literature" may be defined as the product of thinking authors who are conscious of the intellectual debt that they owe to the writings of the great thinkers that they have studied. One may, however, define "literature" in terms other than the product of a thinking author. Literature also may be viewed as the epiphenomenon of social developments, as the instrument of rhetorical strategies, and as the deposit of new traditions in the history of an artistic form. A socio-historical approach or some other approach may suggest a number of other avenues for explaining the influence of Philo.

For example, Runia's discussion of Paul and his opponents focuses primarily upon parallels and oppositions in the use of terminology shared with Philo (pp. 66-74). What might have been more helpful is a discussion of the way that Philo's references to various social groups that practiced different styles of hermeneutics may be used to understand the social setting of Paul's opponents and the rhetorical strategy by which Paul opposed them.2 In another discussion Runia describes a "gulf that separates the hermeneutical theory and practice of the Alexandrian and the Antiochene schools" in the fourth century (p. 269). Philo's references to various hermeneutical groups might have illuminated an early stage of the developments that led to this gulf. Runia discusses the influence of Philo on a number of early Christian apologists. But he only hints at the possible contribution of Philo to the history of the apologetic enterprise itself (pp. 97, 116, 337). William Schoedel's work implies that even Christian apologists who did not read Philo may have been part of an apologetic tradition that Philo helped to shape.3

Another weakness is Runia's preference for "canonical" authors in his definition of "early Christian literature." One striking example is the complete absence of any discussion of the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions.4 Although the theology of the Recognitions is quite orthodox, there is no certain evidence that it was produced by one of the recognized "fathers." Recognitions 1.32.3-4 may echo Philo when it describes Abraham's reasoning to the knowledge of God from his understanding of astrology (Philo, Cher. 4; Ebr. 94; Mig. 177-87; Quis Her. 96-99; Mut. 67-76; Abr. 68-72; Virt. 212-14; Praem. 58). Recognitions 8.9.1-8.34.8 contains a long philosophical discussion that climaxes in an argument for the existence of God from creation (8.20.1-8.34.8). This argument follows Philo in its favorable use of Plato's Timaeus. It also uses an image of God as an architect that is similar to Philo's Opificio Mundi 15-20. The main point of the argument reflects the Philonic emphasis on the wisdom (sapientia = Gk. sophia) and reason (ratio = Gk. logos) that the Creator displayed in creation. The conclusion of the philosophical discussion epitomizes this major Philonic theme. The speaker asserts that creation implies " ratio, id est logos" (Recognitions 8.34.8). The gloss on ratio was probably inserted by the Latin translator in an effort to retain the language of the Greek original. The context places the logos of this passage squarely within the symbolic universe of Philo.

The absence of texts such as the Recognitions from Runia's discussion should warn the reader that Runia's book is only a starting place for research on its stated topic. Runia himself is quite aware that much remains to be done even on the authors he does discuss (pp. 342-44).

Despite the weaknesses that are inevitable in a work of this scope, Philo in Early Christian Literature is essential reading for anyone engaged in research related to the concerns of the book. The book is probably too technical and too narrowly focused for use by most undergraduate students, but it will serve as a useful tool for advanced scholars who are initiating any project relating to the use of Philo in later texts. Specialists interested only in Philo will also not want to miss the book because of its importance for research on the history of the text of the Philonic corpus.


  • [1] Christopher Haas, Late Roman Alexandria: Social Structure and Intercommunal Conflict in the Entrepot of the East (Ph.D. Dissertation; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1988).
  • [2] E.g., in Gal 4:21-31 Paul's use of allegory is uncharacteristic. Paul may have felt compelled to shift to allegory because his opponents, like some of the hermeneutical groups mentioned by Philo, prided themselves on their insight into the allegorical meaning of the Jewish Scriptures and denigrated those who emphasized a more "literalistic" hermeneutic (such as Paul used in Gal 3:13, 16). For a survey of research on allegorizers, "literalists," and other groups mentioned by Philo, see Burton L. Mack, "Philo Judaeus and Exegetical Traditions in Alexandria," ANRW II.21.1 (1984) 227-71.
  • [3] William R. Schoedel, "Apologetic Literature and Ambassadorial Activities," Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989) 55-78. This article is not discussed by Runia, though some of Schoedel's other work receives attention.
  • [4] The passing mention of "the Pseudo-Clementines" on p. 327 has little to do with the Recognitions. The context requires reference to the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and a document known as the Kerygmata Petrou. The Kerygmata Petrou is a reconstructed source document derived primarily from material in the Homilies. This reconstructed document has a very different emphasis than the Recognitions. The Kerygmata Petrou should not be confused with the Kerygma Petrou mentioned on p. 122. The Kerygma Petrou is an entirely different work known from excerpts quoted by Clement of Alexandria.