Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.16

Gregory E. Sterling (ed.), Studies in Philo in Honor of David Runia. Studia Philonica Annual: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, volume XXVII (2016).   Atlanta:  SBL Press, 2016.  Pp. x, 465.  ISBN 9780884141815.  $61.95.  

Reviewed by Ilaria Ramelli, Catholic University; Angelicum; Princeton (


The essays that compose this very interesting Festschrift, opened by a fine painting portraying the honorand, are grouped into five main sections: an introduction by Gregory E. Sterling (3-46), containing an overview of the career and impressive bibliography of David Runia, a section on the text of Philo’s works (49-108), a rich section on Philo’s relation to Hellenistic philosophy (111-68), another on Philo’s links with the world of Rome (171-226), one on Philo’s exegesis of the Pentateuch (229-348), and a two-paper section on Philo and early Christianity (351-92). Since it is impossible to discuss all contributions here, given the word limit, I shall focus on some that I found especially interesting and close to my research areas. However, all the essays are of consistently high quality.

Within the textual section, Abraham Terian (77-108) offers a very useful introduction to, new edition and translation of, and annotations on Philo’s De Deo, preserved in Armenian. He proposes a new and more appropriate title, De visione trium angelorum ad Abraham, for this large fragment of a lost work, which is a concentrate of major Philonic themes. In this way, Terian offers a fine service to all Philo scholars who are not well steeped in Armenian. But those who know Armenian, too, will surely benefit from the textual points made and the new translation and commentary.

In the section devoted to Philo and Hellenistic philosophy, Carlos Lévy (121-36) compares the approaches of Philo and Plutarch to the Epicurean ideal of imperturbability (ἀταραξία). Although Philo, unlike Plutarch, refrained from using the very word ἀταραξία, an attitude common to both of these “Middle Platonists” is detected: because pleasure is fundamentally in movement, it cannot bring stability to humans. This, one would surmise, was a rejection of the Epicurean ideal of catastematic pleasure. Sterling (137-50) analyses the respective stances of Philo and Plutarch toward Eastern religions and Western philosophy: he argues that both Philo and Plutarch perceived a unity between Eastern and Western traditions in relation to philosophical “monotheism”—what we could call henotheism. Sterling prudently claims that Plutarch was not directly acquainted with Philo’s oeuvre, but shows an analogous position. Both Philo and Plutarch considered ancient religious texts from the East to be bearers of philosophical truths. The same idea, I note, was shared by the first-century Stoics Cornutus and Chaeremon, whose philosophical allegoresis anticipated the “Middle Platonist” one—and, according to Porphyry, Contra Christianos F39, directly inspired Origen’s philosophical allegoresis, which he, like Philo, applied to the Biblical text.

While all other essays in this Festschrift reflect the honorand’s main interest in Philo, only one deals with Runia’s other research focus, namely on doxography: Jaap Mansfeld (151-68) defends the figure of Aëtius from attempts at deconstruction, and analyses Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Curatio as a source for Aëtius’ Placita.1 The section on Philo and the world of Rome is comprised of a joint article by Annewies van den Hoek and John J. Herrmann Jr. about the use that both historians and archaeologists studying the city of Rome can make of Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium (171-204, with a rich collection of photographs), and a thorough analysis by Sarah Pearce of the terms ἔθνος and λαός in Philo’s oeuvre, both referring to the Jewish people (205-26). Pearce takes her cue from Ellen Birnbaum’s The Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought, from which it emerges that Philo prevalently presented Israel as a γένος, characterized not by common descent, but by the ideal of “seeing God,” according to the traditional etymology of the name “Israel.” Pearce’s examination leads to the conclusion that Philo’s use of ἔθνος, applied to the Jews and their ancestors, emphasizes the piety and theological conceptions that characterize this ἔθνος, whose most ancient member was Abraham (Virt. 212), the first ever mentioned to believe in God (ibid. 216). Now, the exceptional piety of this ἔθνος is performed on behalf of the whole cosmos and its inhabitants. This universalistic trend in Philo, I think, did not escape Origen, whose universalism turns out to be stronger, especially from the soteriological viewpoint.

The six studies on Philo’s interpretation of the Pentateuch are all detailed and engaging. Adam Kamesar (229-38) revisits the relation between Philo and the author of Περὶ ὕψους, “Pseudo-Longinus,” with respect to their notion of sublimity, and suggests that Philo derived his statement about sublimity from a predecessor, possibly Caecilius of Calacte, a Jew whose work may have been known in Alexandrian Jewish circles. Francesca Calabi (239-56) examines Philo’s exegesis of Gen. 2:18 in Legum Allegoriae and argues that this should be read in an Aristotelian perspective. This is because μόνος in the sentence, “it is not good that the man should be alone,” seems to refer to the Aristotelian notion of potency (Adam’s being μόνος, unlike God’s being μόνος, means “being in potency, potentially”), and the very presentation of sense-perception and passions as “helpers” and the terminology of ἕξις and ἐνέργεια contribute to the general Peripatetic hue of this passage.

The final section, on Philo and early Christianity, consists of two particularly dense essays. Thomas H. Tobin fruitfully compares Philo’s and Paul’s eschatological ideas (351-74). He rightly highlights Paul’s universalism, which I have pointed out elsewhere,2 and which inspired later universalists such as Origen, but he refrains from asking whether Philo also was a universalist—probably wisely so, since Philo’s eschatology is somewhat elusive. Even in De praemiis et poenis, which makes the object of Tobin’s analysis in a comparison with Sibylline Oracles, Philo’s eschatology is very much this-worldly, concerning the fate of the Jewish people on earth, as Tobin himself remarks (352). In Rom. 11:25-6, the translation “the fullness of the gentiles” for τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν (374) is correct and indeed widespread, although on the basis of the use of πλήρωμα in the LXX a case could be made for the rendering, “the totality of the nations/gentiles,” which is a perfect pendant to “the whole of Israel / all of Israel” (πᾶς Ἰσραήλ). Once the totality of the nations has entered, all of Israel will be saved. Patristic interpretations of this Pauline prophecy will range from the maximalist position of Origen to the minimalist one of Augustine. While the latter will interpret Israel as verus Israel, i.e. the Christian elect, Origen insisted that Paul meant that all the Jews and all the gentiles will eventually be saved.

Maren R. Niehoff (375-92) innovatively compares Philo’s with Justin’s reception of Plato’s Timaeus. She thinks, plausibly, that Justin encountered Philo’s works in Rome. Regarding the importance of the Timaeus in early Christian Platonists, I would bring into the discussion Bardaisan of Edessa too († 222), a Christian Middle Platonist who offered an interpretation of the Genesis cosmogony in light of Plato’s Timaeus.3 Niehoff rightly points out Justin’s interesting reinterpretation (1 Apol. 60.5) of Plato’s statement in Tim. 36b that the Godhead “placed crosswise in the universe” (ἐχίασεν ἐν τῷ παντί) the power next to it. According to Justin, Plato did not realize that this chi-figure (X) was in fact the cross. I note that Bardaisan also assigned the same cosmogonic value to the Cross, claiming that God’s Logos created the universe “in/through the mystery/sign/symbol of the Cross” (as reported by Barhadbshabba ‘Arbaya and Moses bar Kepha, and also confirmed by Porphyry’s quotations from Bardaisan in his De Styge). Even the word raza, used by Bardaisan in reference to the mystery/sign/symbol of the Cross, perfectly corresponds to τύπος used by Justin. It seems to me that the absorption of the Timaeus into the Christian tradition, highlighted by Niehoff for Justin and parallel to its absorption into the Judaic tradition by Philo, is the same operation performed immediately afterwards by Bardaisan. It would be very interesting to know whether Bardaisan knew Justin and/or Philo.

There are some typos, e.g. Basilius for Basil (375), and doubtful statements, such as that Musonius “met a violent death” (385). It is true that Musonius was “counted among the pagan martyrs” (305), and I would add Origen’s description of Musonius as “example of the best kind of life” (παράδειγμα τοῦ ἀρίστου βίου, Cels. 3.66) along with Socrates. But Justin’s inclusion of Musonius among those hated because of the Logos due to the hostility of demons (2 Apol. 8.1) should be taken as a description of a person who testified to the Logos and was hated because of this – more as a reference to his exile and its hardships than to his death. Musonius, indeed, was exiled twice qua philosopher, under Nero and under Vespasian, but we have no information that he was killed or put to death; he returned from both exiles and the first author who mentions him as dead is Pliny, Ep. 3.11. Justin’s list also includes philosophers who were killed, but this does not seem to apply to Musonius—at least, we seem to have no information that he met a violent death.

The foremost example of a philosopher unjustly put to death is—as in Origen but also in the Letter of Mara bar Serapion —Socrates (2 Apol. 10.1-8) who, according to Justin, urged people to recognize the unknown God through rational investigation, stating that it is difficult to find the Father and Creator of all, and even more to declare him to everybody. Due to this quotation of Tim. 28c, Niehoff suggests that “Justin conflates Socrates and Plato, speaking about the Timaeus as if it were written by Socrates” (385). Justin, when stating that Socrates said that God is difficult to find and so on, may simply have referred to Socrates as a speaking character in the Timaeus, without implying that Socrates was the author of this dialogue. Tim. 28c is in fact uttered by Timaeus, who is the main character of the dialogue along with Socrates himself, but either Justin was mistaken and remembered those words as uttered by Socrates or, in a more general fashion, he attributed to Socrates the teaching of Plato as to his master and the source of his doctrines. Indeed, in the First Apology, as Niehoff herself acknowledges, Justin shows his awareness that Plato was the author of the Timaeus.

These, however, are marginalia, and I found this essay very stimulating, especially for bringing up the Roman connection. According to Niehoff, both Philo’s and Justin’s exegesis of the Timaeus was influenced by the debates going on in Rome at their time. But she also highlights important differences between the two: while Philo quoted Plato’s Timaeus in a precise manner and discusses its various interpretations, Justin often referred to it generally and quoted from memory, sometimes conflating passages. Also, both Philo and Justin highlighted the affinity between Plato and Moses, but Justin was more prone to deploying the dependency theme than Philo. In this respect, I think, Origen will be closer to Philo than to Justin.

In sum, this is a rich and inspiring volume, well suited to the celebration of an eminent Philo scholar, who has done perhaps more than anyone else for the promotion of the scientific study of Philo of Alexandria. Philo’s importance is hard to overestimate in itself, and all the more so on account of the incalculable influence that he exerted on patristic exegesis and theology—starting with Clement of Alexandria and Origen.


1.   On Aëtius see Jaap Mansfeld and David Runia, Aëtiana: The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxagrapher (Leiden: Brill, 1996; 2009–10), examining the evidence adduced by Diels in Doxographi Graeci and confirming Diels’ basic hypothesis, but with revisions; Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, “Aëtius et Arius Didyme sources de Stobée”, in Thinking Through Excerpts. Studies on Stobaeus, ed. Gretchen Reydams-Schils (Turnhout:  Brepols, 2011), 143-189, doubting Theodoret’s role as a source for Aëtius; Jaap Mansfeld, “Doxography of Ancient Philosophy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016), "Doxography of Ancient Philosophy".
2.   In The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Leiden: Brill, 2013); “Paul on Apokatastasis: 1 Cor 15:24-28 and the Use of Scripture,” in Paul and Scripture, eds. Stanley Porter and Gregory Fewster (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).
3.   As thoroughly argued in Ilaria Ramelli, Bardaiṣan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation (Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009); Bardaisan on Free Will, Fate, and Human Nature. The Book of the Laws of Countries (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).

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