Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.13
Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora. Studies in Philo of Alexandria, 7. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. 240. ISBN 9789004209480. $140.00.
Reviewed by Maren R. Niehoff, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mt. Scopus (email@example.com)
This guide to Philo’s life, thought and political activity is an important addition to Philonic scholarship, which has been flourishing and reaching out to other disciplines. While A. Kamesar has recently collected introductory essays on Philo by a team of international researchers, who highlight the status quaestionis in their respective fields,1 Hadas-Lebel singlehandedly offers a comprehensive study of Philo, lucidly outlining the different aspects of his personality without striving to provide an updated picture of Philonic research. She initially describes his historical context in Alexandria and then provides an analysis of his writings and thought, concluding with an overview of his influence among early Christians. Hadas-Lebel forcefully argues for a significant connection between Philo’s Diaspora setting and his thought: he cannot be subsumed within rabbinic Judaism, but is the main exponent of a form of Judaism that took Greek culture very seriously into account, while maintaining a strong and visible Jewish identity.
The present volume is an English translation of an originally French book, which has already been translated into Hebrew.2 The English translator, Robyn Fréchet, wisely remained close to the French original, maintaining both its title and its division into rather small sub-chapters. The Hebrew translator, Amots Giladi, by contrast, rendered the subtitle of the book “a thinker in the Jewish Diaspora” as “between Judaism and Hellenism”, thus introducing the notion of an inherent contrast between the two cultures. Moreover, the Hebrew version of the book no longer maintains the detailed subdivision of the chapters, thus making the reader’s orientation more difficult. The English version is thus as readable as the French, enabling Anglo-Saxon students of Philo to gain access to the complexity of his person and thought as well as to much French scholarship often less known in the English speaking countries. The general reader and undergraduate students will especially benefit from this book.
Hadas-Lebel tells the story of Alexandria with great passion and sympathy. She brings to light the foundation and cultural institutions of the city as well as its rich intellectual climate. Placing Philo into this context of thriving urbanity, she draws the picture of a strikingly modern form of Judaism. The portrait of Philo as a Jew in Alexandria is sketched with similar sympathy, drawing on the slim and mostly indirect evidence we have about his person from his own writings. Hadas-Lebel celebrates the “Judeo-Hellenistic symbiosis” to which Philo was passionately committed, while also drawing attention to its limits and final disruption in the pogrom of 38CE.
In an important chapter on “Philo’s Judaism” Hadas-Lebel introduces the notion of “practice and ethics”, showing that Philo combined halachic observance with an individualistic and spiritual interpretation of the laws. The universal dimension of his project is well explained within the context of a firm Jewish identity. This chapter could have benefitted from a comparative perspective on some halachic material in the Land of Israel. While it is clear that Philo developed his ideas independently of the rabbis, thus not calling for a study of Palestinian material as source of his thought, it would have been helpful for the reader interested in Jewish observance to know how Philo’s interpretations compare to those of his colleagues in the Land of Israel. The latter were to determine the more normative form of Judaism, acknowledged until today.
Two central chapters deal with Philo’s Bible Interpretation and philosophical doctrine. While distinguishing between Philo’s different series of writings, Hadas-Lebel prefers to treat the subject of exegesis and philosophy by topics rather than by treatises. She has chosen natural topics such as the creation of the world, man, woman, and the serpent as well as God, Logos, and Powers, and the Law of Nature, Law of Moses. While these sections introduce the reader to many interesting passages, Hadas-Lebel’s discussion amounts too often to a kind of paraphrase of the Philonic material. More analysis would have been very welcome in these sections.
In conclusion, this is a highly readable and reliable guide to Philo, which will hopefully rouse the interest of readers outside the field of Philonic scholarship. As Philo has no natural home in any particular discipline, one wishes that this guide will help make him become a regular guest in departments of Classics, Religious Studies, Jewish Studies and History.
1. A. Kamesar (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
2. M. Hadas-Lebel, Philon d’Alexandrie. Un Penseur en diaspora (Paris: Fayard, 2003); Philon Ha-Alexandroni (Tel Aviv: Yediot Acharonot, 2006).