Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.05

David T. Runia, Gregory E. Sterling (ed.), Studia Philonica Annual: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, Volume XXVI.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2014.  Pp. ix, 274.  ISBN 9781628370195.  $51.95.  

Reviewed by Matthew Kraus, University of Cincinnati (

Table of Contents

The Studia Philonica Annual celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last November, a fitting indication of the flourishing state of Philonic studies and a far cry from the short-lived and less polished Studia Philonica of the 1970s. The annotated (2011) and provisional (2012-2014) bibliographies of works directly or significantly addressing Philo and eight book reviews are preceded by eight articles. The articles reflect a range of interests: philosophical/theological issues, Philo’s patristic Nachleben, and a Special Section on non-biblical Hellenistic Jewish and non-Jewish sources. The conceptual and methodological sophistication of these articles appears throughout.

While all the articles are intelligent and scholarly, a few stand out. Particularly noteworthy is “The Deification of Moses in Philo of Alexandria” by M. David Litwa. Weaving together Philo’s biblical and classical Greek influences, Litwa settles a long-standing conundrum about Moses. Although Philo unequivocally states at the end of The Life of Moses (Mos. 2.288) that Moses becomes a god (becoming immortal [ἀπαθαντίζεσθαι] “transforming [him] wholly and entirely into most sun-like νοῦς” [p.21]) and refers to Moses as god in accordance with Exod 7:1, recent scholars like Louis Feldman, Richard Bauckham, and Ian Scott reject Moses’ deification. Eschewing the possibility that Philo violates the canons of monotheism, they read his “deification” figuratively. Litwa convincingly lays to rest these apologetic claims primarily by applying Philonic metaphysics instead of modern notions of monotheism. For Philo, then, monotheism allows for inferior deities who do not undermine God’s supremacy. Utilizing Philo’s concept of “noefication” (coined by Litwa), classical sources (the Neopythagorean Diotogenes), and classical motifs (the shining countenance signifies divinity) in concert with uniquely Jewish biblical conceits, Litwa rescues Philo from the straitjacket of post-Philonic theologies that relegate him to internal contradiction rather than viewing him as representative of (often underdetermined) ideologies of Second Temple Judaism.

Several pieces in the Special Section on “Philo’s Hellenistic and Hellenistic Jewish Sources” also merit high praise. While the influence of Hellenistic (Jewish and non-Jewish) literature on Philo has long been recognized, the character of this relationship requires more precise understanding. David Lincicum’s “Philo’s Library” utilizes statistical analysis of quotations from and allusions to non-biblical authors to conclude that Philo had his own personal library and a more than elementary familiarity with Euripides, Heraclitus, Homer, Aristotle, and of course, Plato. In “From the Thick Marshes of the Nile to the Throne of God: Moses in Ezekiel the Tragedian and Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory Sterling persuasively argues that Philo was familiar with (as opposed to heavily influenced by) Ezekiel’s Exagoge because of several striking verbal, exegetical, and thematic parallels. For example, both have baby Moses “exposed” on the riverbank rather than in a basket. Attentiveness to generic considerations explains why Philo emphasizes the lack of Egyptian survivors from the Red Sea in response to Ezekiel, who needs a survivor to provide the traditional messenger speech. Similarly impressive is “Philo and Greek Poetry” where Pura Nieto Hernández convincingly delivers on her twofold contention that Philo saw archaic and classical Greek poetry as valuable for moral education and that his use of poetic language and motifs reflects “deep engagement with the classical tradition” (p.135). The author follows here the important work of Niehoff and Barthelot, who have demonstrated Philo’s relationship to Alexandrian scholarship on Homer.1 While the idea that poetry helps educate children (Prob. 143), controls the passions (Spec. 1.343), and offers examples of behaviors to be avoided may not be surprising, I was struck by Hernández’s astute observation that Philo writes poetically. Rather than pretentiously dropping a classical bon mot, Philo combines terms to produce unique poetic collocations (describing the Logos as an ἀμβρόσιον φάρμακον [Somn.2.249], based on Od. 9.359 and Od. 1.261, for instance). For those who have slogged through Philo’s redundant and metaphorical Greek, this could lead to a new appreciation of his style.

The two articles dealing with patristics make strong cases for the influence and adaptation of Philo in later Christian authors. Ilaria Ramelli (“Philo’s Doctrine of Apokatastasis: Philosophical Sources, Exegetical Strategies, and Patristic Aftermath”) astutely explains how the concept of apokatastasis develops in Philo and Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Apokatastasis refers to the “restoration…into an original condition” that had been lost (p. 29). Although perhaps aware of the cosmological and political valences of this term in Greek tradition, Philo’s ethical reading as a restoration of the soul to Israel rests on different foundations: Greek medical and philosophical motifs of returning a sick soul to health as well as biblical references to the restoration of the Israelites to their land and verses like Ps. 34:17 “restore [ἀποκατάστησον] my soul.” Origen and Gregory similarly focus on the return of the soul to virtue, but unlike Philo, they have a Pauline eschatological vision of all imperishable souls being restored to God. For Philo, evils souls can actually die. In his excellent “Philo and the Pauline: Hagar and Sarah in the Exegesis of Didymus the Blind,” Justin Rogers demonstrates that Didymus is the first to combine Pauline and Philonic exegesis of the story of Sarah and Hagar. For Philo, Hagar represents the secular preliminary studies required to make virtue (Sarah) productive. For Paul, in his famous allegorical reading in Galatians, Hagar symbolizes the shadowy old covenant that is supplanted by the new (Sarah). Didymus, who explicitly refers to Paul and Philo on Hagar and Sarah, skillfully weaves together both readings anagogically. The old covenant and literal reading of Scriptures are necessary for leading the soul to virtue and the spiritual understanding of Scriptures, i.e., the Gospel.

In the final essay of the article section, “Philo and Plutarch on the Nature of God,” Frederick E. Brenk seeks to locate Philo and Plutarch within the landscape of “religious monotheism” since both share a Platonic background and create a theology, one monotheistic, the other polytheistic, for their faiths. I found this rather dense essay the least satisfactory in part because the connection to Philo seemed forced. Rather, Brenk is primarily interested in arguing that Plutarch exhibits a form of pagan monotheism in a middle-Platonic vein. Because the monotheistic element of Plutarch is not self-evident, the comparison with Philo is not fruitful and the argument difficult to follow. For example, in discussing On the E at Delphi as expressing the “clearest and most extreme views in Plutarch’s corpus” (p.85), Brink cites a reference to “powers” similar to Philo without indicating that it comes from On Isis and Osiris (the citation is simply 377F-378A). In fact, the essay is more of an idiosyncratic reading of Ammonius's speech in On the E at Delphi that confuses monotheism with monadism. Ammonius is not suggesting that Apollo is veiling the demiurge, but rather explicitly claiming that despite his many epithets Apollo is one unified entity (a-pollo ‘not multiple’). In this sense, the comparison with Philo actually reminded me more of Litwa’s description of Moses’s deification as a monadic “noefication” that does not subvert Jewish monotheism.

The last piece in the Special Section was also somewhat problematic. In “The Sun and the Chariot: The Republic and the Phaedrus as Sources for Rival Platonic Paradigms of Psychic Vision in Philo’s Biblical Commentaries,” Michael Cover uses Platonic sources to answer the question of whether the sage sees God, the Logos, God’s powers or some combination. He rightly observes that scholarly focus on the use of the Republic tends to confirm divine transcendence whereas the underinvestigated Phaedrean image of the chariot soul in Philo (Leg. 3.100-101) suggests the possibility of an “unmediated image of God” (p.154). The problem is that Leg. 3.100-101 has the unmediated vision, but lacks the chariot imagery, in contrast to the far more explicit reference to Phaedrus in Praem. 36-46, in which Philo refers to the charioteer but also argues that God cannot be perceived. While Cover is probably correct that a vision of God need not depend on the Logos, Platonic chariot imagery is not Philo's source. Rather, as Cover himself argues, the difference in Philo depends on the biblical character being discussed. For the more typical Israelite (Jacob), the vision of the divine is mediated, but not so for Moses. In fact, rather than resorting to Plato, I think that Litwa's article, which highlights Philo's particular understanding of Moses's uniqueness, offers a far more compelling explanation for why Moses directly sees God.

Normally, one does not expect articles in a periodical to have such complementary connections, which often elude even intentionally thematic collections of essays. Yet the natural interplay between Litwa and Cover is not unusual in this volume. Hernández’s “Philo and Greek Poetry” correlates well with Lincicum’s and Sterling’s articles, which similarly argue for Philo’s more than passing engagement with non-biblical and non-philosophical writers. Both Ramelli and Rogers show how Patristic authors rework Philo in a way that is exegetically informed by the New Testament. The influence of medical traditions on apokatastasis (Ramelli) complements the characterization of Philo as engaged in Alexandrian Greek culture (Sterling and Hernández). The editors, in fact, should be commended for bringing together a number of pieces that make sense together.

I do have a few minor quibbles. While the Greek is translated throughout the Annual, it was strange that Ramelli left the Latin quotation of the 4th/5th century Greek theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia (preserved in Marius Mercator) untranslated and unexplained (one would not expect all readers to recognize Mercator as his 5th century contemporary who translated excerpts in his Symbolum Theodori Mopsuesteni et eius Refutatio).2 Also, it would have been useful for Hernández on p.138 to draw on Kamesar, who shows that Philo viewed the Pentateuch as a didactic work wholly different from Greek myth and therefore subject to allegory for educational purposes not simply to “heal” the text from ethically inappropriate narratives. This would help account for the puzzling contrast between Philo’s differentiation of false Greek myth from Moses’ truthful Pentateuch, and would explain the application of allegory, a Greek response to unacceptable myths, to clarify the Bible.3

Despite some weaker pieces, the Annual as a whole is a quality publication. The bibliographies are quite helpful and even the book reviews deserve special mention. Kudos to the editors for including the critical remarks of John J. Collins on Sarah J. K. Pearce’s recent book on Deuteronomy in the Second Temple period even though she happens to be associate editor of Annual. Ultimately, the Annual adheres to its vision of comprehensively and critically addressing all aspects of Philonic scholarship. While individual pieces will primarily appeal to the relevant specialists in Hellenistic Judaism, middle-Platonic philosophy, and Patristics, this most recent edition of the Studia Philonica Annual will provide ample sustenance for the “philo-Philonist.” For those who prefer their Classical philology, history, and philosophy seasoned with a dose of post-modern theory, they may find the volume somewhat lacking. For this reader, however, Philo himself provides enough abstraction to supplement the currently fashionable diet of meta-thinking.


1.   Maren R. Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Katell Berthelot, “Philon d’Alexandrie, lecteur d’ Homère: quelques elements de réflexion,” in Prolongements et renouvellements de la tradition classique, (eds. Anne Balansard, Gilles Dorival, Mireille Loubet; Textes et documents de la Méditerranée antique et medieval; Aix-en Provence: Université de Provence, 2011), pp. 145-157.
2.   Ramelli also omits Mercator’s et post paululum after inferatur, thereby obscuring that there are two quotations from Theodore, not one.
3.   Adam Kamesar, ‘The Literary Genres of the Pentateuch as Seen from the Greek Perspectives: The Testimony of Philo Alexandria,’ Studia Philonica Annual (1997), pp. 143-189 and “Biblical Interpretation in Philo” in the Cambridge Companion to Philo, edited by Adam Kamesar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp.74-81.

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