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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.61

Albert C. Geljon, David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On Cultivation. Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Philo of Alexandria commentary series, 4.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xxii, 312.  ISBN 9789004243033.  $156.00.  

Reviewed by Yakir Paz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (

The volume under review is the fourth installment in the Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series under the general editorship of Gregory E. Sterling.1 Its title – On Cultivation (de agricultura) – might lead one to expect a manual dealing with agricultural advice and guidance, as was common in antiquity (p. 85). It would thus have most probably come as a surprise for the Greco-Roman reader (and for the modern reader too), to discover that it has little to do with cultivation of the soil, but rather with the cultivation of the soul.

The treatise focuses on an extensive allegorical interpretation of the first half of Gen. 9:20: "And Noah began to be a human being who cultivates the earth". The first part of the treatise deals with Noah as a cultivator of the soul, and the second part with Noah as a beginner on the path towards spiritual and ethical perfection.

Although the treatise seems to be centered on only half a verse it contains much more. It boasts many biblical quotations and displays a dazzling array of themes and technical terms including agriculture, horse training, cattle rearing, fishing, medicine, military, shipping, theater, boxing, chariot racing, as well as politics, music, psychology, philosophy, geometry, logic, ethics, grammar and physics. This indeed poses major difficulties for any translator and commentator. Yet, despite these daunting challenges, Albert Geljon and David Runia have presented an admirable achievement in translating, elucidating and contextualizing the various themes and terms in a clear and accessible fashion.

The book itself is divided into an introduction, translation with short notes on text and translation, and a comprehensive commentary.

The introduction includes, inter alia, a discussion on the genre of the treatise, a detailed outline of its exegetical structure, and an overview of its various themes. This is followed by an important account of Philo's literary style and language as well as his philosophical and religious context (pp. 25-32). The authors outline Philo's intellectual environment which was made up of Hellenistic Judaism and the prevalent schools of thought of the period: Middle Platonism, Stoicism, Peripatos, and Neo-Pythagoreanism. The bibliographical survey which follows (p. 38) shows how little scholarly attention this treatise has previously received, further emphasizing the importance of this commentary.

Philo's is notorious for his extravagant and verbose Greek prose. Yet, the current translation succeeds in being both elegant and readable while faithfully conveying the flavor of the original style. It thus surpasses the much less literal translation in the Loeb Classical Library by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker.

The commentary on each section is divided into four parts: The first is an analysis and general comments – outlining Philo's argumentation with some relevant context. The second and main part includes the detailed comments in which the authors "elucidate exegetical and philosophical themes, both in relation to Philo's thought and further Jewish and Greek background" (p. 40). Special emphasis is put on the biblical citations including an analysis of the differences between Philo's citations and the versions of the LXX. Much attention is also given to Philo's vocabulary. The third part includes parallel exegesis within the Philonic corpora and the fourth focuses on the Nachleben of Philo's exegesis in Christian writers.

The volume is full of insightful and important analyses but I would like here to single out some of its major contributions.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this commentary to the understanding of this treatise in particular and of Philo's allegorical works in general is the authors' method of uncovering the 'Exegetical Structure of the Treatise'. This method, previously outlined by David Runia,2 which is used here in a systematic manner functioning as the backbone of the entire commentary, regards all the biblical quotations as vital for determining the exegetical structure and form of the treatise. A clear distinction and hierarchy is made between the Main Biblical Lemma (MBL) – "the main biblical verse on which Philo comments" (p. 10, here Gen. 9:20); Secondary Biblical Lemma (SBL) – "an additional biblical verse that is quoted to explain the MBL" (ibid); and Tertiary Biblical Lemmata (TBL) – "another biblical text that is quoted to explain a SBL" (ibid). The way Philo links the various quoted verses is highlighted by Mode of Transitions (MOT) which distinguish between verbal MOT and a thematic MOT. So, for example, the MOT between SBL Ex. 15:21 (§82) and SBL Deut. 17:15-16 (§84) is verbal based on the common use of ἵππον, whereas the MOT from MBL Gen. 9:20-21 (§124) to SBL Gen. 4:7 (Cain's sacrifice, §127) is thematic since the theme of διαίρεσις is picked up by διέλῃς in Gen. 4:7. This might at first seem overly technical but it proves invaluable for following Philo's at times tortuous train of thought and for accounting for what might seem inexplicable digressions. It exposes the many inter-textual connections between the various quotations and reveals that Philo's structure is much more orderly and planned than initially perceived.

To the list of direct and indirect biblical quotations used by Philo (neatly summarized on pp. 16-17) one could add yet another: In §89 Philo describes how the soul which is overcome by the violence of the passions drowns: "The depth (βυθός) into which it sinks (καταδύεται) and drowns is the body that is likened to Egypt". Philo seems to be alluding to Ex. 15:5, where the drowning of the Egyptians is depicted: "they sank to depth (κατέδυσαν εἰς βυθόν) like stone". Through this allusion Philo further discloses his allegorical reading of the rest of Song on the Sea, the beginning of which he cites in §82. The same verse is alluded to also in §169.

Another important contribution of the commentary is the systematic analysis of the vocabulary and literary allusions. Being well versed in Greek literature, Philo display many direct and indirect references to, among others, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato, Stoic doxographies and Jewish Hellenistic writers. Geljon and Runia duly note the interesting relation between Philo and the more or less contemporaneous 4 Maccabees. However, they only point out the similarity in the athletic image in §120 and 4 Mac. 17:11-17 (pp. 205-206), overlooking the very important parallels between Philo's description of the cultivation of the soul and the agricultural imagery in 4 Mac. 1:13-3:5 which focuses on the παγγέωργος λογισμός (reason, the chief gardener).

The authors are also meticulous in noting when Philo employs Hellenistic vocabulary first attested in the writings of such authors as Polybius, Strabo and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Of particular interest are the words which are attested for the first time in Philo's writings. Although it is difficult to determine whether Philo coined these words or had access to sources which have not come down to us, yet, based on criteria previously laid out by Runia,3 the authors convincingly argue that the following words should be considered as verba philonica: ἀγελάρχης (§28), ἀφηνιαστής (§84), πανηγέμων (§50), νεκροφορέω (§25), φιλοπαθής (§§83,88).4

Another point of importance of the commentary is the detailed presentation of the Nachleben of this treatise in the works of church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius (who is the only author to mention this treatise by name), Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose.5 Interestingly, Didymus the Blind in his commentary on Genesis is the church father who makes the most extensive use of this treatise (p.33).

Only once in their surveys of the Nachleben, and in fact in their entire commentary, do the authors refer to a rabbinical text (Genesis Rabba 36.3 on p. 119).6 It is true that Philo's commentary differs markedly from that of the rabbis (p. 27), yet it could have been useful to note further parallels between Philo and the rabbis. So, for example, in §64 Philo distinguishes between παροικέω ('sojourn') in Gen. 47:4 and κατοικέω ('live permanently', cf. p. 161). A similar distinction concerning the same verse is made by the rabbis in Sifre Deut. 319 and in the Passover Haggadah. Another instance where rabbinic literature could be of use regards the word μωμοσκόπος (defect- viewer), first attested in this treatise (§130 and pp. 214-215). It would seem that this is a calque of the Hebrew title of a priestly guild at the Jerusalem Temple, preserved in both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud (y.Sheqalim 4:2 48a; b.Ketubot 106a).7

These, however, are minor points when put into the context of the formidable achievements of this volume, which shall surely become indispensable for Philo students and scholars. Moreover, this fresh and lucid translation and commentary will hopefully also render Philo more accessible and highlight his importance for scholars from adjacent fields such as Classics, Patristics, Jewish Studies and History, who still do not make enough use of the wealth of information that can be gleaned from his treatises.

The bar has been set high. One can only hope the next installments in this series will maintain similar standards. This work is both erudite and clear, and may serve, in the words of Philo: "beginners, those making progress and those who have reached perfection" (§159).


1.   Preceded by On the Creation of the Cosmos (D.T. Runia, 2001), Flaccus (P. W. van der Horst, 2003) and On Virtues (W.T. Wilson, 2010) all published by Brill.
2.   For references see p. 10 note 40.
3.   D. T. Runia, 'Verba Philonica, ΑΓΑΛΜΑΤΟΦΟΡΕΙΝ, and the Authenticity of the De Resurrectione Attributed to Athenagoras,' Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 313-327.
4.   See further pp. 31 note 85; 117-118, 124, 177, 180, 188.
5.   Both authors have previously analyzed Philo's Nachleben. See especially D.T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature: a Survey. CRINT III 3, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993 and A.C. Geljon, Philonic Exegesis in Gregory of Nyssa's De Vita Moysis, SPhM 5. Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2002.
6.   On p. 27 they note: "We have not found any comparative material from the rabbinic period of interest for these section". They do though distinguish between terms of content to those of exegetical methods, where one might find links to the rabbinical methods (ibid).
7.   The similarity has been briefly noted by Yehoshua Amir in his translation of Spec. 1.166: S. Daniel-Nataf (ed.), The Writings of Philo of Alexandria, vol. 2, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1991, p. 265 note 237 [Hebrew]. See now Y. Paz, 'Examining Blemishes: The μωμοσκόποι and the Jerusalem Temple,' (forthcoming).

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