BMCR 2024.02.31

Philo of Alexandria: collected studies 1997-2021

, Philo of Alexandria: collected studies 1997-2021. Texts and studies in ancient Judaism, 187. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2023. Pp. xiii, 555. ISBN 9783161618765.

This mighty volume, covering just about a quarter-century of David Runia’s work on Philo, is a joy to have in hand, and a great resource for Philonists, adding up, as it does, to a fairly comprehensive discussion of all aspects of Philo’s work. It consists of twenty-six papers: it will hardly be feasible, in a review of moderate length, to do full justice to all of them, but I will list them, and pick out a series of salient themes for discussion. As Runia himself points out in the introduction, since his early days as a scholar, when he produced Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (1983), and Philo in Early Christian Literature: a Survey (1993), a great deal of progress has been made in Philonic studies (to which he, of course, has contributed significantly), but since then he has not devoted a further major work to Philo, so this collection is by way of a compensation.

The collection begins (after an introduction) with a pair of “introductory essays”:  “Why Philo of Alexandria is an Important Writer and Thinker”, and “Half a Century of Philonic Research since the Lyon Colloque: Some Evaluatory Reflections”—both keynote addresses to Philo conferences that provide excellent surveys of the course (and growth) of Philonic scholarship since the ground-breaking Lyons colloquium of 1966, and constituting an appropriate introduction to the subsequent essays. Runia usefully highlights the wide range of areas of study within Classics, Judaic studies, Philosophy and Patristics which may have light cast upon them from a study of Philo’s works.

The next section, titled “Philo and Ancient Philosophy”, comprises a total of seven essays, covering a wide range of topics in which Philo’s deep knowledge of Greek philosophy (primarily Platonism, but also Stoicism), as well as his judicious reticence in acknowledging this, is on view to the well-trained mind, as follows:

  1. Philo of Alexandria and the Hairesis Model
  2. The Beginnings of the End: Philo of Alexandria and Hellenistic Theology.
  3. Plato’s Timaeus, First Principle(s) and Creation in Philo and Early Christian Thought
  4. The Rehabilitation of the Jackdaw: Philo of Alexandria and Ancient Philosophy
  5. Philo and Hellenistic Doxography
  6. Is Philo Committed to the Doctrine of Reincarnation?
  7. The Reception of Plato’s Phaedo in Philo of Alexandria

There is much of interest here, and I am in full agreement with most of it. As regards essay 3, it is a nice point whether Moses would be regarded by Philo as inaugurating a philosophical hairesis (sect). As Runia argues, probably not; rather, the unifying nature of his wisdom is to be contrasted with the divisiveness of the Greek philosophical tradition, highlighting the superiority of Jewish wisdom. Essay 6 is a fine refutation of the gibe of E. R. Dodds, in the course of his important article “The Parmenides of Plato and the Neoplatonic One”, that the eclecticism of Philo is that of the jackdaw rather than the philosopher. All I would dispute with Runia is the claim, in which he follows Valentin Nikiprowetsky, that Philo is a commentator rather than a philosopher. Certainly, Philo wishes to be only, or primarily, an interpreter of the wisdom of Moses, but I think that he is, in his modesty, selling himself rather short. How, one may ask, could one embark on such a comprehensive allegorisation of the books of Moses if one were not fortified by a coherent philosophical position of one’s own, much as one might wish to downplay this? But this is a matter to be argued about elsewhere, over a convivial bottle of wine!

Essay 7—and indeed many other passages, we may note—is much enriched by Runia’s other great enterprise of recent decades, undertaken with the cooperation of his colleague Jaap Mansfeld, namely, a comprehensive edition and study of the Greek doxographical tradition, resulting in the multivolume Aetiana, and this contributes useful insights into Philo’s philosophical method.

The next section of the work, once again comprising seven articles, is titled “Biblical Interpretation in an Alexandrian Context”, and comprises the following:

  1. The Idea and the Reality of the City in the Thought of Philo of Alexandria
  2. Eudaimonism in Hellenistic Jewish Literature
  3. The Theme of Flight and Exile in the Allegorical Thought-World of Philo of Alexandria
  4. Dogma and Doxa in the Allegorical Writings of Philo of Alexandria
  5. Philo and the Gentiles
  6. Cosmos, Logos and Nomos: The Alexandrian Jewish and Christian Appropriation of the Genesis Creation Account
  7. The Doctrine of Creation in Philo’s Allegorical Commentary

Once again, many themes of basic importance are dealt with here. In the first essay, Runia sets out Philo’s views on the ideal and the reality of the city, as well as his ambivalence toward living in the city of Alexandria itself. Philo appreciates a well-administered city, but he loves also to escape at intervals to the countryside, or even the desert, to visit his beloved Therapeutae.

The next essay studies Philo’s appropriation of the distinctively Greek concept of eudaimonia, or “prospering”, as the ideal of human existence, and his efforts to fit this into a Jewish tradition that did not possess it. Runia deals with this excellently, raising in particular the conundrum as to whether God himself is eudaimôn, a thought alien to the Mosaic tradition. He argues well that Philo regards him as such, since this is tied up with our likeness to him.

The other four papers do their respective jobs very well, and I need not dwell on them, except to note his fine analysis of Philo’s creation account as primarily an allegory on the nature of the human soul. We may turn to the next (short) section, titled “Further Theological Themes,” and comprising the following:

  1. Theodicy in Philo of Alexandria
  2. Philo of Alexandria on the Human Consequences of Divine Power
  3. The Virtue of Hope in Philo of Alexandria

As previously, Runia contributes much of interest. Theodicy is, once again, a distinctively Hellenic concept, which Philo adopts with the aim of arguing that God, being good, can only act for the best even when he is punishing wrong-doers.

Essay 18, on Philo’s theory of divine power (dynameis) as conduits of God’s creation and administration of the cosmos, addresses the topic, interestingly, not from the top down, but, as he says, from the bottom up, putting the emphasis on how the human products of divine power experience that power in their lives, and that results in a most interesting line of enquiry —highlighting such episodes as the visit of the three strangers to Abraham in Genesis 18. And lastly, in this section, we have a most useful exposition of the Philonic virtue of hope, arising as it does largely from a Septuagintal mistranslation of Genesis 4:26: “this one (sc. Enos) hoped to call upon the name of the Lord” (where the original Hebrew actually says: “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord”!). Runia shows well how Philo adapts the traditional system of virtues to accommodate the biblical trio of Hope, Trust (pistis), and Prayer.

The final section of the collection, “Studies on Philonic Texts,, comprises seven papers, as follows:

  1. The Reward for Goodness: Philo De Vita Contemplativa 90
  2. The Text of the Platonic Citations in Philo of Alexandria
  3. Philo’s Reading of the Psalms
  4. Philo of Alexandria, Legatio ad Gaium, 1–7
  5. Philo, Quaestiones in Genesim 2.62 and the Problem of Deutero-Theology
  6. The Place of the De Abrahamo in Philo’s Oeuvre
  7. From Stoicism to Platonism: The Difficult Case of Philo of Alexandria’s De Providentia 1.

We cannot do proper justice to all of these, concerned as they are with details of Philo’s texts. The first (from a volume of essays in honour of David Winston) is an exegesis of the last section of Philo’s treatise on the Therapeutae, in which that interesting sect are declared, through their virtuous and pious way of life, to have attained the summit of eudaimonia, and Runia gives us a most perceptive analysis. The next, in honour of John Whittaker, is a most useful study of Philo’s  modes of quoting and referring to Plato, which he does on just thirty-two occasions. He pays due attention here to Whittaker’s principle of “the art of misquotation”, whereby later authors seem intentionally, for whatever reason, to insert little variants into their citations of authorities.

There follows a most useful discussion, this time in honour of the New Testament scholar David Hay, of Philo’s use of the Psalms—which indeed he quotes only twenty times in all. He raises here the interesting question as to what status Philo would have granted to the later segments of the Bible, following on the Mosaic Torah. An analogy that occurs to me would be, perhaps, the status of treatises of the later heads of the Old Academy, in comparison with the works of Plato himself, but that may not be quite apposite.

Next we have a fine study of the opening sections (1-7) of the Legatio ad Gaium, which have long been an object of puzzlement among scholars, namely, as to how they relate to the body of the work. Runia shows very well that, if one focuses on the motif of divine providence aired there, the passage forms a suitable exordium to the whole work. Another significant text is examined in the next essay (24), which concerns a reference, at Questions on Genesis  2:62 (which is an exegesis of Gen. 1:27, where it is said that “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him”) to God apparently creating man in the image, not of himself, but of a secondary god—which Philo, of course, interprets as the Logos, this constituting the “deutero-theology” of the title. Of this, Runia provides a most persuasive and informative discussion.

The following paper (25), on the De Abrahamo, is of particular interest to me (though I had the pleasure of hearing its original at a Philo meeting in San Diego), as it constitutes a sort of lead-in to the edition of that treatise later produced by Ellen Birnbaum and myself. Runia lays out well the chief themes of the work and its place in the sequence or works known as “The Exposition of the Law”, showing, not least, how it relates to the De Opificio Mundi, which leads off the sequence.

The final essay of the collection addresses the role played by Stoic philosophy in Philo’s thought, which first appeared as part of a volume on the theme of the transition from Stoicism to Platonism in the period 100 BCE to 100 CE. There Runia focuses on Philo’s treatise On Providence, which adopts the Stoic concept of divine pronoia as directing the cosmos, but adapts it to a Platonist (or, as Philo would claim, a Mosaic) framework. It thus constitutes a good example of the interplay between Stoicism and Platonism in the period under review.

All in all, this collection provides a fine record of David Runia’s research on Philo in the last quarter-century, along with useful insights into both the later patristic and doxographic traditions. The volume is completed by a list of the original publications, a comprehensive bibliography, and indices.