BMCR 2021.11.08

Philo of Alexandria “On the contemplative life”: introduction, translation, and commentary

, , Philo of Alexandria "On the contemplative life": introduction, translation, and commentary. Philo of Alexandria commentary series, volume 7. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xxviii, 427. ISBN 9789004438149 €155,00.

Philo of Alexandria is far from being an easily accessible author, and since he is Jewish, he is often regarded as being of less or no interest for classical studies. For that reason his writings, though in Greek, are definitely not the daily fare of most classicists. That is regrettable because he is an interesting and important author of whom more than fifty writings are extant. It was, therefore, an excellent initiative of Gregory E. Sterling, who, with David Runia, has for many years been the editor of The Studia Philonica Annual, to launch a series of English commentaries on Philo’s works with fresh translations.  In the ’90s of the previous century, they asked David M. Hay to write the commentary on Philo’s De vita contemplativa, but at his untimely death he left behind only a series of notes and jottings meant to be used in the commentary. Thereupon the editors invited Joan Taylor (King’s College London), who had published a magnificent study of this treatise in 2003,[1] to bring this job to completion. Taylor is a scholar with a wide range of knowledge and experience: archaeology, biblical studies, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity.

In De vita contemplativa, Philo describes the way of life of a group of Alexandrian Jewish men and women, called Therapeutae, who are leading a strictly ascetic life: no sex, little and very simple food (only vegetarian) and drink (only water); they have a radical devotion to the solitary study of the Bible, searching for its hidden deeper meaning by the application of allegorical exegesis. Only on the sabbath do they meet in a common room to celebrate the holy seventh day. It is clearly a highly idealizing picture, drawn by Philo, according to Taylor, when he spent a long time at Rome as leader of the Jewish delegation to the emperors Caligula and Claudius in the years 39-41 CE after the anti-Jewish pogrom in Alexandria in 38 CE. The sometimes exaggerated idealization of the way of life of this group and the work’s strongly apologetic character have led several scholars to the conviction that the treatise is completely fictional, an unhistorical “philosopher’s dream.” But already in her book of 2003, Taylor had written a spirited defence of the thesis that in spite of the many embellishments, Philo wrote about an actually existing group. Two of her main arguments, repeated and refined in the introduction to this new commentary, are: first, if Philo had wished to present a Jewish utopia, he would have situated it in a faraway region beyond the inhabited world, but certainly not in a well-defined spot, on the eastern shore of Lake Mareotis, very close to Alexandria, so that anyone could easily check the veracity of his account; and second, Philo pictures a group in which women stood on equal footing with men, whereas elsewhere in his writings Philo takes an outspoken misogynistic stance and promotes the idea of the inferiority of anything female. So these women certainly were there, and Philo could not possibly leave them out of the picture.

In the Introduction (1-70), Taylor deals with the tumultuous historical situation in which Philo wrote this work, the question of its genre, the problem of its position within the Philonic corpis (a surprisingly complicated matter), his use of the motif of the Two Ways, the textual transmission, the Nachleben (especially in early Christian circles that regarded the Therapeutae as a group of Christian monks and nuns and – hence – Philo as a Christian), and the meaning of the name Therapeutae (both ‘servants’ of God and ‘healers’ of the human soul).

A very valuable section of the introduction is a detailed and sustained comparison (also found throughout the Commentary) of Philo’s description of the lifestyle of the Therapeutae with the description of the way of life of Egyptian priests by his contemporary and opponent during the embassy, Chaeremon. The numerous striking parallels strongly suggest that Philo’s treatise is a rejoinder to the work of this anti-Jewish agitator, priest, and (semi-)philosopher.[2] Hereafter Taylor presents her new (sometimes overly literal) translation (75-89), followed by a 15-page section on the most important text-critical problems.

The commentary is rich, detailed, almost line by line, and comprises more than 250 pages. Although sometimes Taylor’s text tends to be somewhat wordy and repetitive, on the whole her commentary is eminently readable and demonstrates her skill as a historico-philological exegete. She has a keen eye for Philo’s rhetorical strategies and makes him come alive as a spirited defender of Judaism and the Jewish people. Taylor is at her best in her treatment of the closing chapters of De vita contemplativa on the communal gender-mixed singing and ecstatic dancing of the male and female members and on the biblical basis (thus Philo) of this festive all-night event that takes place on every seventh sabbath. This is without doubt the best commentary ever written on this text.

But there are also mistakes, though often minor. For example, “Dichaerchus” should be “Dicaearchus” (29 and 103); Epiphanius was not active at the end of the 5th century but at the end of the 4th (47); to ontôs on does not mean ‘the existing being’ but ‘that which truly is’ (115); using the term Neoplatonism for Philo’s philosophical context is anachronistic (128); “Corpus Hermetica” (sic, 140); the sentence beginning with hois de is not a case of ‘dative of attraction’ for here this relative clause is the grammatical subject of the main verb: ‘those who have no relatives leave..’ (146); at 150 some Greek words have been left untranslated; and gynai is not the plural of gynê (159); hypomeinai is here not an aorist infinitive but aorist optative (162); Wisdom 8:22-30 should be Proverbs 8:22-10 (163); epimixias should be taken to be the object of eidotes (165); Philo’s remark on the temperate climate (aeros eukrasia) at Lake Mareotis is not just a meteorological communication but is an instance of the widespread theory about how a healthy climate contributes greatly to one’s spiritual wellbeing, an idea first developed in the Hippocratic treatise On Airs, Waters, Places – Taylor only remarks that according to Eusebius, PrEv 8.14, Hippocrates stressed the importance of good air (172)[3]; mnêmeia apolipein is not ‘leaving behind reminders’ but ‘leaving behind records’ (186); plêsiazein does not mean ‘to fill’ but ;to draw near’ (214); chlaina is not related to chliainein but to chlainoun (216); the plural of ‘man’ is not androi but andres (235); techniazomai does not mean ‘to have children’ since it is not related to teknon but to technê  (260); for Jewish hebdomadic speculations reference could be made to Censorinus’ remark in De die natali 11.6 that the Jews were fond of the number seven (267); at 340 eumeria should be eu(h)êmeria etc. Further, there are dozens of mistakes in the Greek accents, spiritus, and spelling. Finally, when Taylor mentions Jewish inscriptions, she regrettably only refers to the completely outdated Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, never to the many newer critical editions.[4]

Although these errors and omissions are unfortunate, they hardly ever affect the interpretation of Philo’s text, so they certainly do not detract from the great value of this commentary. I unreservedly recommend Taylor’s book to both classical and Judaic scholars for use as a good guide to De vita contemplativa.


[1] See J.E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers in First-Century Alexandria (Oxford: OUP, 2003); see my review in Gnomon 76 (2004) 634-636.

[2] Taylor uses my edition of Chaeremon (Chaeremon: Egyptian Priest and Stoic Philosopher. The fragments collected and translated with explanatory notes (EPRO 101; Leiden: Brill, 1987, 2nd ed.), but she overlooks my study of this important fragment (fr. 10): ‘The Way of Life of the Egyptian Priests According to Chaeremon,’ in M. Heerma van Voss e.a. (edd.), Studies in Egyptian Religion in Honour of Professor Jan Zandee (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 61-71.

[3] The best treatment of this ‘environmental theory’ is now B. Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 55-109.

[4] For the most recent survey of new editions, see my ‘Early Jewish Epigraphy,’ in M. Henze and R. Werline (edd.), Early Judaism and its Modern Interpreters, second edition, (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2020), 183-205.