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Philo of Alexandria—Mixing Scripture With Speculation

Philo of Alexandria—Mixing Scripture With Speculation

 Philo of Alexandria​—Mixing Scripture With Speculation

IN 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great advanced into Egypt. Before marching eastward on the road to world conquest, he founded a city that he called Alexandria. It became a center of Greek culture. There, about 20 B.C.E., another conqueror was born, one whose weapons were, not swords and lances, but philosophical reasonings. He is known as Philo of Alexandria, or Philo Judaeus because of his Jewish background.

The Diaspora, which occurred after Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 B.C.E., resulted in many Jews living in Egypt. Thousands lived in Alexandria. There were problems, however, between the Jews and their Greek neighbors. The Jews refused to worship the Greek gods, while the Greeks ridiculed the Hebrew Scriptures. With his Greek education and Jewish upbringing, Philo was familiar with the controversy. He believed that Judaism was the true religion. But unlike many, Philo looked for a peaceful way to lead the Gentiles to God. He wanted to make Judaism acceptable to them.

New Meaning to Old Writings

Philo’s first language was Greek, as was true of many Jews in Alexandria. So the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures was the basis of his study. As he examined the Septuagint text, he became convinced that it contained elements of philosophy and that Moses possessed “the genius of the philosopher.”

Centuries earlier, Greek intellectuals had found stories of gods and goddesses​—giants and demons of their ancient Greek mythology—​hard to accept. They started reinterpreting those old stories. Classical scholar James Drummond said this about their method: “The philosopher would begin to look for subtle meanings hidden beneath the surface of the mythological tales, and to infer from their very grossness and absurdity that their authors must have intended to exhibit through their sensuous imagery some profound or edifying truth.” This process is called allegorical interpretation, and Philo tried to use it to explain the Scriptures.

As an example, think about Genesis 3:21 3:22 in Bagster’s version of the Septuagint, which says: “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and clothed them.” The Greeks felt that making clothes was beneath the dignity of the Supreme God. So Philo found symbolism in that verse and stated: “The garment of skins is a figurative expression for the natural skin, that is to say, our body; for God, when first of all he made the intellect, called it Adam; after that he created  the outward sense, to which he gave the name of Life. In the third place, he of necessity also made a body, calling that by a figurative expression, a garment of skins.” Thus Philo attempted to make God’s act of clothing Adam and Eve a philosophical point to ponder.

Consider also Genesis 2:10-14, which describes the water source for the garden in Eden and mentions four rivers that flowed out of the garden. Philo attempted to penetrate the words and look far beyond the landscape. After commenting on the land itself, he said: “Perhaps this passage also contains an allegorical meaning; for the four rivers are the signs of four virtues.” He speculated that the river Pishon represents prudence, the river Gihon is the symbol of sobriety, the Tigris symbolizes fortitude, and the Euphrates denotes justice. Thus allegory supplants geography.

Philo used allegorical interpretation to analyze the creation account, the record of Cain murdering Abel, the Flood of Noah’s day, the confusion of languages at Babel, and many precepts of the Mosaic Law. As the example in the preceding paragraph shows, he often acknowledged the literal point of a Bible verse and then introduced his symbolic understanding with such words as: “Perhaps we ought to look on these things as spoken in an allegorical sense.” In Philo’s  writings, symbolisms stand out while, sadly, the obvious meaning of the Scriptures fades away.

Who Is God?

Philo argued for the existence of God with a powerful illustration. After describing the land, rivers, planets, and stars, he concluded: “The world is the most artificial and skilfully made of all works, as if it had been put together by some one who was altogether accomplished and most perfect in knowledge. It is in this way that we have received an idea of the existence of God.” This was sound reasoning.​—Romans 1:20.

But when Philo expounded on the nature of Almighty God, he strayed far from the truth. Philo claimed that God “has no distinctive qualities” and that God “is incomprehensible.” Philo discouraged efforts to come to know God, saying that “to attempt to proceed further, so as to pursue investigations into the essence or distinctive qualities of God, is an absolute piece of folly.” This thinking came, not from the Bible, but from the pagan philosopher Plato.

Philo said that God is so far beyond comprehension that calling him by a personal name is impossible. Said Philo: “It was, therefore, quite consistent with reason that no proper name could with propriety be assigned to him who is in truth the living God.” How contrary to fact!

The Bible leaves no doubt that God has a personal name. Psalm 83:18 says: “You, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” Isaiah 42:8 quotes God as saying: “I am Jehovah. That is my name.” Why did Philo, a Jew with knowledge of these Bible texts, teach that God was nameless? Because he was describing, not the personal God of the Bible, but a nameless, inaccessible god of Greek philosophy.

What Is the Soul?

Philo taught that the soul is separate from the body. He speaks of man as “consisting of body and soul.” Can the soul die? Notice Philo’s explanation: “When we are alive, we are so though our soul is dead and buried in our body, as if in a tomb. But if it [the body] were to die, then our soul would live according to its proper life, being released from the evil and dead body to which it is bound.” To Philo, the soul’s death was symbolic. It never really dies. It is immortal.

Yet, what does the Bible teach regarding the soul? Genesis 2:7 says: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” According to the Bible, humans do not have souls; rather, they are souls.

The Bible also teaches that the soul is not immortal. Ezekiel 18:4 states: “The soul that is sinning​—it itself will die.” From these scriptures we can properly draw a conclusion: A human is a soul. Therefore, when a human dies, a soul dies.​—Genesis 19:19. *

After Philo died, the Jews paid little heed to him. Christendom, however, embraced him. Eusebius and other church leaders believed that Philo had converted to Christianity. Jerome listed him as one of the Church Fathers. Apostate Christians, rather than the Jews, preserved the writings of Philo.

Philo’s writings led to a religious revolution. His influence led nominal Christians to adopt the unscriptural doctrine of the immortality of the soul. And Philo’s teaching about the Logos (or, Word)  contributed to the development of the Trinity, a non-Biblical dogma of apostate Christianity.

Do Not Be Misled

In his study of the Hebrew Scriptures, Philo made sure that he was “not omitting any allegorical meaning which may perchance be concealed beneath the plain language.” However, as found at Deuteronomy 4:2, Moses said regarding God’s Law: “You must not add to the word that I am commanding you, neither must you take away from it, so as to keep the commandments of Jehovah your God that I am commanding you.” With all his apparently good intentions, Philo added layers of speculation that, like a thick haze, obscured the clear instruction of God’s inspired Word.

“It was not by following artfully contrived false stories that we acquainted you with the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ,” said the apostle Peter. (2 Peter 1:16) Unlike the writings of Philo, Peter’s instruction to the early Christian congregation was based on fact and on direction by God’s spirit, “the spirit of the truth,” which guided them into all the truth.​—John 16:13.

If you are interested in worshiping the God of the Bible, you need truthful guidance, not interpretations based on human thinking. You need accurate knowledge of Jehovah and his will, and you need the humility to be a sincere student. If you study the Bible with that wholesome attitude, you will get to know “the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through the faith in connection with Christ Jesus.” You will see that the Word of God can make you “fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”​—2 Timothy 3:15-17.


^ par. 18 Regarding the soul, The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1910 comments: “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”

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Philo lived and worked in Egyptian Alexandria. For centuries, that city was the world capital of books and scholarly discussions.

Students learned from famous scholars who taught in the schools of the city. Alexandria’s library became world renowned. Its holdings grew to hundreds of thousands of items as the librarians sought to obtain copies of every written document.

Later, the worldwide esteem for Alexandria and its stores of knowledge gradually diminished. Emperors in Rome gave preeminence to their own city, and the cultural center shifted to Europe. The decline of Alexandria climaxed in the seventh century C.E. when invaders conquered the city. To this day, historians lament the loss of the famous library, with some claiming that civilization was set back 1,000 years.

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L. Chapons/Illustrirte Familien-Bibel nach der deutschen Uebersetzung Dr. Martin Luthers

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Allegory usually is “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Accounts that employ allegory are said to be symbolic of more important things that are hidden. Like Philo of Alexandria, some modern-day religious teachers use allegorical interpretation to explain the Bible.

Consider Genesis chapters 1-11, in which human history from creation to the scattering of peoples at the tower of Babel is recorded. The New American Bible, a Catholic translation, says regarding that part of the Bible: “To make the truths contained in these chapters intelligible to the Israelite people destined to preserve them, they needed to be expressed through elements prevailing among that people at that time. For this reason, the truths themselves must therefore be clearly distinguished from their literary garb.” This is saying that Genesis chapters 1-11 are not to be taken literally. Rather, just as garb (clothing) covers the body, so the words cover a deeper meaning.

Jesus, however, taught that those early chapters of Genesis were literally true. (Matthew 19:4-6; 24:37-39) The apostles Paul and Peter did likewise. (Acts 17:24-26; 2 Peter 2:5; 3:6, 7) Sincere Bible students reject explanations that do not agree with the entire Word of God.

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The great lighthouse of Alexandria

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Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library