Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 BCE–50 CE), also known as Philo Judaeus, is the most important representative of the Greek‐speaking variety of Judaism that flourished in Alexandria from ca. 200 BCE to 100 CE. The historian Josephus tells us that he was highly respected in the Jewish community and was “not unskilled in philosophy.” The only event of his life known to us is his leadership of an embassy of Alexandrian Jews that appeared before the Emperor Gaius Caligula in 40 CE to protest against anti‐Jewish mob violence. Vivid descriptions of this event and its background are given in his treatises In Flaccum and Legatio ad Gaium.
By far the majority of his writings concentrate on the interpretation of the Law of Moses, or Pentateuch, as found in the Septuagint translation. These treatises can be divided into three lengthy series: the Allegorical Commentary, the Exposition of the Law, and Questions and Answers. In the Allegorical Commentary, Philo gives a very detailed and complex exegesis of Genesis 1–17, interpreting early history and Abraham's wanderings in terms of the moral life and religious quest of the soul. The Exposition of the Law is a more varied work, containing biographies of the patriarchs and an explanation of the Ten Commandments and the other ordinances of Mosaic law, with emphasis both on literal observance and symbolic interpretation. The third series, imperfectly preserved in an Armenian translation, poses questions and gives answers on the text of Genesis and Exodus; most of the usually short chapters contain literal followed by figurative or allegorical exegeses.
Philo's attention centers on the interpretation of scripture, but in his exegesis he demonstrates his considerable knowledge of Greek philosophy. Through the use of allegorical and symbolic interpretation, Moses is presented as the lawgiver, prophet, and even philosopher par excellence, who is the source of all later philosophy. The apologetic motive is clear: in his Alexandrian context Philo is eager to show that Jewish culture is not inferior to Hellenistic culture. In his doctrine of God, Platonic ideas of transcendence and immanence are prominent. God as Being (Exod. 3.14) is distinguished from his powers at work in the cosmos. Highly influential is the doctrine of the Logos, which builds upon Hellenistic Jewish wisdom speculation. The Logos can be described as that aspect of God which stands in relation to created reality. But Philo often talks about the Logos as if it were an entity with a separate existence from God himself, that is, a divine hypostasis.
Philo's thought and writings were warmly embraced by the early Christian church. His allegorical themes and theological ideas exerted a strong influence on Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and later patristic authors. In Byzantine manuscripts Philo is often called “the Bishop.” It was his popularity in Christian circles that caused his writings to be preserved.
David T. Runia