Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.36

Maren R. Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria: An Intellectual Biography.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2018.  Pp. xi, 323.  ISBN 9780300175233.  $38.00.  

Reviewed by Gretchen Reydams-Schils, University of Notre Dame (


Only every once in a while (and not that often in one scholarly generation) a book comes along that not only changes fundamentally the perspective on its chosen topic, but, through its novel methodology, will have major repercussions for other fields of scholarship as well. Maren Niehoff’s intellectual biography of Philo of Alexandria is such a work.

As someone who herself has been guilty of ‘the eclecticism of modern scholars, who use passages from Philo’s later and earlier works interchangeably, without awareness of their respective historical and philosophical contexts’ (p. 226), this reviewer is in a good position to assess how, indeed, Niehoff’s reconstruction of the sequence of Philo’s work would change profoundly the way in which we read him. The crux of Niehoff’s new approach is the claim that Philo’s embassy to Rome (38-41CE) on behalf of the Jewish community in Alexandria, after an outbreak of ethnic violence, is a watershed for his oeuvre. From then on, the author claims, Philo will go on to inscribe his self-fashioning and Jewish identity into distinctly Roman discourses, in which the form of Stoicism exemplified primarily by Seneca plays a central role.

Starting, in Part One of the study, from Philo’s historical writings (about the context of his embassy to Rome) and his philosophical writings, in which Niehoff detects this new voice, she then, working her way back, goes on to argue for the fundamental shift in Philo’s world view between the works that belong to the earlier Allegorical Commentary, discussed in Part Three, and the works that belong to the so-called Exposition of the Law (which also includes biographies of the patriarchs), discussed in Part Two. It is essential to her hypothesis that the work On the Creation of the World, which in the Loeb series, for instance, is published as the first work, preceding the Allegorical Commentary, in reality should be read together with the Exposition of the Law. In keeping with his new voice in the historical and philosophical writings, Niehoff argues, Philo turns from a predominantly Platonic perspective in his Allegorical Commentary, and from concerns that were prevalent in Alexandria, to a perspective in the Exposition of the Law for which Stoicism is central, as well as themes and genres that figured prominently in Rome. Among the many fruitful insights this approach yields, the chapter on Philo’s portrayal of the biblical women characters in the later series is especially noteworthy and convincing: these portraits of exemplary wives, devoted mothers, and competent daughters (to use Niehoff’s own subheadings) reflect distinctly Roman and Stoic contemporary discourses.

While Philo of Alexandria’s philosophical affiliations have received significant renewed interest in recent decades of scholarship, Niehoff’s argument for a Roman turn is much more far-reaching. This stance allows one not only to reassess the role and importance of Stoic thought in Philo’s work, but also to connect him to other crucial cultural developments of the era. First, Niehoff establishes such a connection between Philo’s endeavor and the analogous attempt to inscribe Greek culture into a Roman imperial context by the so-called Second Sophistic, with which Niehoff also associates authors such as Plutarch. (For this angle, a closer study of Dio Chrysostom may also prove fruitful in future research.) Second, Niehoff relates this turn to developments in Early Christianity (Luke-Acts, Justin Martyr, and Origen), also in response to Gnosticism. Thus, as the title of the Epilogue indicates, Niehoff resolutely puts Philo at the ‘crossroads of Judaism, Hellenism, and Christianity.’

In what follows I would like to focus on the issue of the strands of Platonism and Stoicism in Philo’s writing, and on the case for a shift from a radically transcendent Platonism, under which some Stoic elements had been subsumed, in the Allegorical Commentary, to a more immanent Stoic view of the divine and the goal of human life, in the Exposition. A very strong argument in favor of Niehoff’s thesis (chs 5, 8, 11, 12), for instance, can be found in the contrast between Philo’s rejection of what came to be known as the argument from design, which infers the existence of god from the order of the universe, in the Allegorical Commentary (as in All.1.51; Migr. 150, 170, 183-85; Congr. 133-34), and his much more positive valorization of this approach in the Exposition (as in Opif.).

The author argues (ch. 10) that the central Platonic text for Philo in the Allegorical Commentary is the Theaetetus, and especially its so-called ‘digression’ on becoming like God (esp. 176a-b). So, instead of focusing their attention on the order of the universe, humans should turn inwards, to their souls, in order to find God. In a brilliant analysis of Fug. 82 (p. 196) Niehoff shows how Philo’s rendering of Plato’s passage makes human beings even more dependent on God: whereas Plato says that ‘the true excellence of a man depends on this’ (περὶ τοῦτο, i.e. the process of self-elevation), Philo has περὶ τοῦτον, ‘on him,’ turning excellence into a gift from God.

Given Niehoff’s own assessment of the presence of Stoic elements even in the earlier Allegorical Commentary, albeit in a more muted key (ch. 12), future research on Philo might want to revisit the question of possible conceptual bridges between the work from before Philo’s embassy to Rome and the later writings. Here I would like to suggest some avenues for that research. A first bridge could be constituted by Plato’s Timaeus, the influence of which makes itself felt throughout Philo’s writings. In the reception of that work by both Philo and Seneca, as I have argued elsewhere, Platonic and Stoic elements had already been combined before the account reached these later authors. (So it might also be worthwhile to engage in a comparative study of Seneca’s and Philo’s reception of the Timaeus.) And in other contexts in so-called Middle Platonism, too, we can detect a tension between the more transcendental and noetic aspect of Plato’s Demiurge, as nous and insofar as he turns his attention to intelligible reality, and his more relational aspect, as manifested in his ordering of the world. Second, we have evidence that Plato’s Laws may have been important for the Stoics as well, and that work, in an echo of the Theaetetus, revisits the theme of ‘man being the measure of all things’ in connection with a critique of self- love (715e-716d and 731d6-732b4) that has many features in common with Philo’s rejection of that attitude especially in the Allegorical Commentary.

Third, one could argue that it is precisely the system of God, his Logos, and his powers, fully developed in the Allegorical Commentary (see esp. Fug. 94), that also paves the way for the expression of human beings’ piety through imitating the Logos and these powers as modes of being active in the world. And while it is true that this way of relating to the divine, rather than the radically transcendent one, gets emphasized in the later Exposition of the Law (as well as in the historical and philosophical works), the kernel of this notion, that one expresses piety also through imitating the beneficial and kingly powers of God, can already be found in the Allegorical Commentary (as in All. 1.58, Post. 181, Ebr. 91-92).

Finally, as Niehoff also notes, even in the Allegorical Commentary Philo combines the Platonic motif of ‘becoming like God’ with the Stoic injunction of ‘living according to nature’ (p. 158, pp. 238-39). In this instance the author argues that Philo could well have followed Cleanthes’ emphasis on ‘common nature’ (that is, the nature of the universe) rather than Chrysippus’ focus on the relation between individual and common nature (Diogenes Laertius 7.89). But the question of what exactly this alleged difference between Chrysippus and Cleanthes amounts to, also in connection with the Stoic notion of ‘appropriation’ (oikeiôsis), is open to debate. Moreover, even Cleanthes’ version of ‘living according to nature,’ and his emphasis on Zeus as ‘universal law’ in his Hymn to Zeus, already opens the door to a view of God that takes into account his more immanent aspects.

Scholars have long since noted that the audience of the Exposition of the Law is broader than that of Philo’s earlier works, and that in his later works he adopts an apologetic tone intended to show that the Jews can be seen as exemplary also in the broader context of imperial Rome. Maren Niehoff’s study provides us with the richest understanding to date of what could have motivated and shaped, in terms of contemporary socio-cultural trends, this watershed moment in Philo’s career—which, as she argues convincingly, then also became a watershed moment for Antiquity.

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