BMCR 2022.03.45

Philo of Alexandria and Greek myth: narratives, allegories, and arguments

, , Philo of Alexandria and Greek myth: narratives, allegories, and arguments. Studies in Philo of Alexandria, 10. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xvi, 291. ISBN 9789004411609 €116,00.

The two Italian scholars, Francesca Alesse and Ludovica de Luca, are to be congratulated for assembling a stimulating collection of articles on the reception of Greek myth in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (1st century CE). The latter is known not only as the most important representative of Alexandrian Judaism, but also as an exquisite connoisseur of the Greco-Roman world and its literature. Given these factors, his testimony is of special importance and potentially illuminates two movements which emerged just after him: Christianity and the Second Sophistic. The volume under discussion is unusual in Philonic studies: not only are the two editors women but also five of the eleven contributors. Moreover, the editors themselves and most contributors come from outside the English-speaking realm and approach Philo from broader disciplinary perspectives, often from Classics. These matters are not trivial—they represent a fresh breeze to the field.

The topic of Philo and Greek mythology has exercised generations of scholars, who have noted tantalizing discrepancies in his views. While Philo associates myth with inferior forms of human creativity and polytheism, he also engages it seriously in his interpretation of the Bible. Scholarship has traditionally framed the nature of myth for Philo in the context of a sharp dichotomy between monotheism and polytheism or between Philo’s Jewish identity and his participation in the broader culture of his environment. As such, it has often been concluded that he attempts to combine things that cannot be combined. The clearest echo of such a traditional approach in the present volume is Geert Roskam’s contribution, which associates Greek myth with Hagar, the symbol of the encyclical studies in Philo’s exegesis. Speaking of Philo’s attachment to this problematic use of myth, he concludes: “The truth is that Hagar was an ordinary handmaid who could be despised as a whore. The other truth is that Philo married her and, in spite of himself, always continued to love her” (p. 41). The author is to be thanked for this clear formulation because it articulates assumptions that often go unnoticed. In particular, the unfounded suggestion that Hagar could or perhaps should be seen as a whore reflects emotional residues which generally inform sterile distinctions with strong value judgements.

Fortunately, other articles in this collection engage the topic of Philo and Greek myth in exciting new ways. The main value of these articles consists in moving beyond the measuring of Philo’s loyalty to a supposedly pure monotheism. The scholars whose articles are assembled here endeavor to interpret his views in the context of their time and the hermeneutical tradition of the Greco-Roman world. The collection thus offers a welcome integration of Philo into broader scholarly discourses and appreciates his specific voice in the choir of ancient authors.

Erich S. Gruen opens the collection with an elegant and characteristic “yes, but” argument (pp. 3-18). He initially acknowledges Philo’s criticism of Greek myth and describes his position as “defensive,” but then points to “another angle to Philo’s grappling with myth” (p. 5). He draws attention to the frequency with which Philo mentions individual myths in an “off-handed manner, with the presumption that his readership is fully familiar with them” (p. 9). After presenting several examples of Philo using Greek myth for his own purposes, Gruen concludes with an interesting observation on a specific tractate, namely Every Good Man Is Free (Probus). He draws attention to Philo’s free engagements with the myth of the Argonauts, who are neither criticized nor allegorized out of historical existence but used for a political lesson. Most interestingly, Philo is observed as “effectively turn[ing] Plato on his head. Whereas the great Athenian philosopher asserted that poets should be expelled from society because they filled youthful minds with fancy stories and falsehoods, Philo praises them as wise mentors to the state” (p. 16). This is an important insight which situates Philo within the Greek tradition rather than within a narrower dichotomy between monotheism and paganism. It implicitly also pays attention to the different series of Philo’s works, the importance of which has recently been recognized.[1] The argument would have further benefited from investigating why Philo develops a non-Platonic and even anti-Platonic view on Greek mythology in some writings, while being a committed Platonist in others.

Three women scholars offer innovative historical analyses, one of them, Marta Alesso, with welcome feminist perspectives both on Philonic scholarship and ancient mythology (p. 232, 234). In one of the first chapters of the collection Giulia Sfameni Gasparro proposes reading Philo as a “historian of religion” (pp. 72–106). She argues that his references to specific Greek myths, even if they are made in a critical spirit, show his inclination to compare narrative and religious structures. The reader is invited to note “Philo’s constantly vigilant attention to the mythological Greek heritage as a possible referent—by analogy or contrast—of biblical revelation” (p. 77). Even when denying that certain myths are alluded to in the Bible, Philo “reveals himself fully aware of the formal analogies between the two” and demonstrates a “peculiar ‘comparatist’ sensibility” (pp. 84–85). Moreover, Sfameni Gasparo uncovers an implicit historiography of religions in Philo’s writings. Assuming a fundamental truth available at the beginning of humanity, she suggests that the natural phenomena distracted many and misled them to worship the elements rather than the one creator God. A scheme of degradation or decline thus emerges. This comparative approach to Philo’s view on myth is very illuminating and places him at an interesting juncture of ancient discourses. The argument could have been strengthened through a comparison to Varro, the Roman polymath of the first century BCE, who offered a comparative and distinctly historical study of religion, with remarkably positive perspectives on Judaism.[2]

Pura Nieto Hernandez investigates the topic of “Philo on the Greek heroes” and shows his contribution to the ancient endeavors to clarify their ambiguous position between human and divine beings (pp. 153–175). Paying much attention to the Probus, she starts with Philo’s definition of the term “hero” and stresses the rarity of such a definition, which in this case captures well the heroes’ dual nature (Prob.105). Heracles is discussed in considerable detail and presented as one of the heroes with whom Philo was intimately familiar. His attitude to these heroes is unambiguously positive, even though he does not mention them frequently. Most importantly, Nieto Hernandez draws attention to the fact that Philo praises poets and prose writers for providing heroes as role models of virtue, often in distinctly political contexts, which show the vibrancy of the myths. Gaius Caligula, for example, is compared to the Greek heroes and seen as emulating their virtues and beneficence. Philo’s Greek heroes are also contextualized in the tradition of Greek hermeneutics. Heracles’ image, for example, is found to be compatible with Stoic interpretations (p. 163). This comparative, historical perspective is illuminating. Initially, I was also convinced by Stoic context of Philo’s Heracles, but in the course of my own work on a commentary on the Probus for the Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series (Brill) I have reached a different conclusion. Philo does not engage Stoic allegories of Heracles, which focused on human efforts to eradicate the emotions, but rather Cynic notions of freedom.[3] As Hoistad felicitously puts it, Heracles served as a kind of “Cynic saint,” who inspired numerous authors ranging from Diogenes of Sinope to Dio Chrysostom and Lucian of Samosata.[4] Philo presents a burlesque image of him and celebrates his provocative freedom of speech vis-à-vis Syleus, who formally bought him on the slave market (Prob. 99–104). Philo’s extended discussion of Heracles in a literal and burlesque sense throws crucial light on the development of Cynic hermeneutics in the first century CE and has considerable implications for the New Testament as well as the Second Sophistic.

Marta Alesso offers a fascinating study of “Homer in Philo: Scylla’s Myth in Philonic Philosophical Context” (pp. 231–251). Alesso starts her discussion with the status of Homer as a source of inspiration around the turn of the era and then focuses on the specific myth of the Scylla, a threatening and enticing sea-monster, which devours Odysseus’s companions (Od. 12.247–259). Before Philo is introduced, Plato’s interpretation of the myth is presented in detail (pp. 235–238). This historical foregrounding is useful, as the reader thus encounters another ancient philosopher who denies myth on one level, but uses it on another.[5] Plato moreover provides an ethical interpretation which influences Philo. In Rep. 588b-c, the Scylla as well as other monsters are interpreted as an “image of the soul” and represent its enslavement to evil. The ever-growing heads of the Scylla indicate the enormous dangers of injustice to the soul. Alesso then moves to an analysis of Philo’s Scylla, noting initially that he twice quotes the hexameter line from Od. 12.118 and once paraphrases it with explicit reference to the monster (Fug. 61, QG 1.76, Det. 178). These three passages are submitted to a detailed analysis, which highlights not only their engagement with Platonic notions of virtue, but also Philo’s “double allegorical reading,” namely of both the Bible and Homer (p. 246). Philo emerges as an innovative exegete, who offers an “original development of the metaphor of the death of the soul, especially related to the figure of Cain who is always dying” (p. 248). Alesso concludes her article by noting Philo’s deep familiarity with Homer’s epics, especially the Iliad. Her article makes an important contribution to the study of Philo as a reader of Homer and introduces Plato not only as a philosopher, as is usually done, but also as an influential exegete of Greek myth. Philo’s importance in the tradition of Platonic mythography could have been further highlighted by noting that Plutarch, another Platonist of the first century CE, mentions the Scylla only twice (Quaest. Conv. 665d, 668c). In both cases he refrains from engaging the myth and only refers to a painting of the sea-monster that accentuates in realistic style the fish around her. By comparison to Plutarch, Philo’s distinctive fascination with the myth and its philosophical potential emerges clearly.

Other articles in the collection deserve mention. Francesca Calabi, in a French contribution, argues convincingly that for Philo Greek myths present “pas des mythes qui doivent être rationalisés, mais des vérités cachées qu’il faut rendre manifestes” (p. 49). René Bloch summarizes the insights of his monograph Moses und der Mythos (2011) and shows that Philo, despite his criticism, looks for “patterns of identification and enduring symbolic wisdom” in Greek myth (p. 124). Erkki Koskeniemi provides highlights of his monograph Greek Writers and Philosophers in Philo and Josephus (2019). He argues that Philo “loved” the poets and considered them as “our’ educators,” thus joining like-minded Greek authors (p. 150). Courtney J. P. Friesen provides a detailed study of Heracles in Philo, drawing attention to his unique preservation of lost lines from Euripides’ lost satyr play Syleus in Prob. 99–103 (pp. 188–195). Some more traditional echoes resurface when it is suggested that the image of Heracles’ drinking and excessive eating is “incongruous” and “downgrade[s] the status of his moral character” (p. 193). Benjamin Garstad addresses the topic of “The Greek Character of Philo’s Biblical Giants” (pp. 200–230) and offers a close reading of one passage and its implications throughout the Philonic oeuvre (QG 2.82). He convincingly argues for Philo’s positive, philosophical reading of the myth of the giants, but neglects to adduce first-hand evidence (the brief reference in n. 4 is not sufficient). Finally, in a second French contribution in the collection Lucia Saudelli investigates a reference in Prov. 2.24 to a verse by Empedocles concerning the Keres, the goddesses of doom, who inflict wounds on humanity (pp. 252–270). She initially uses Philo’s witness to reconstruct the highly fragmentary passage of the pre-Socratic philosopher and then contextualizes Philo’s interpretation within the Platonic tradition. She shows convincingly that he reads Empedocles through Platonic glasses, imposing on him a notion of the soul which was foreign to his own physics.

The collection concludes with numerous indices, which help to locate the different discussions of the same motif or text; as there are several overlaps between the articles, these tools are very helpful indeed. Two aspects of the collection, however, distract from its overall quality. The preface by Alessa is very short and virtually amounts to a summary of the contributions (pp. vii–xvi). Given the value of the topic and the history of scholarship, one would have expected a more substantive introduction. Moreover, the English style of the nonnative speakers has not been sufficiently edited. Even the names of some ancient authors are spelled in non-English style, such as “Celso” (p. 231). For a project like this, which builds a bridge between the different scholarly communities, it would have been advisable to be as communicative as possible also on the linguistic level. Nonetheless, the collection of articles assembled by Alessa and de Luca is warmly recommended. It is hoped that it will stimulate further innovative discussions of Philo of Alexandria in his broader intellectual context.

Authors and titles

Preface Francesca Alesse
Part 1: Philo of Alexandria and Myth-Telling
1. Philo’s Refashioning of Greek Myth. Erich S. Gruen
2. Philo’s Reception of Greek Mythology. Geert Roskam
3. Histoires grecques, récits bibliques. La lecture des mythes chez Philon d’Alexandrie. Francesca Calabi
4. Polytheos doxa and Mythologein: Philo of Alexandria as a “Historian of Religions.” Giulia Sfameni Gasparro
5. Philo’s Struggle with Jewish Myth. Rene Bloch
Part 2: Gods, Heroes, and Some Monsters
6. The God of the Philosophers, and the God of Israel. Erkki Koskenniemi
7. Philo of Alexandria on Greek Heroes. Pura Nieto Hernández
8. Heracles and Philo of Alexandria: The Son of Zeus between Torah and Philosophy, Empire and Stage. Courtney J. P. Friesen
9. The Greek Character of Philo’s Biblical Giants: A Reading of QG 2.82. Benjamin Garstad
10. Homer in Philo: Scylla’s Myth in Philonic Philosophical Context. Marta Alesso
11. Les “plaies” d’Empédocle et la mythologie infernale chez Philon d’Alexandrie. Lucia Saudelli


[1] See esp. Ellen Birnbaum, The Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996); Maren R. Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria. An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] See esp. Hubert Cancik, “Historisierung von Religion – Religionsgeschichtsschreibung in der Antike,” in Historicization – Historisierung, ed. Glenn W. Most (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2001) 1–13; George van Kooten, “The Aniconic, Monotheistic Beginnings of Rome’s Pagan Cult – Romans 1:19–25 in a Roman Context,” in Flores Florentina: Dead Seas Scrolls and Other Early Jewish Studies in Honour of Florentino Garcia Martinez, ed. A. Hilhorst et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2007) 633–51.

[3] For Stoic interpretations of Heracles, in contrast to Epicurean notions of him, see Cic., Fin. 2.118; Corn., Gr. Theol. 31; Sen., Const. 2.1–2; Heracl., Hom. Probl. 33; Epict., Disc. 1.6.36.

[4] R. Hoistad, Cynic Hero and Cynic King. Studies in the Cynic Conception of Man (Uppsala: Uppsala University Press, 1948), 33.

[5] For details, see Diskin Clay, “Plato and Homer,” in The Homer Encyclopedia, ed. Margalit Finkelberg (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 2.672–75.