Philosophy 69 - 4.3.2 Early Jewish Philosophy

After Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle, conquered Persia in 332 BCE, his generals divided the empire’s vast lands in Asia, the Levant, northern Africa, and Europe into three states and spread Greek culture and ideas into these territories, Hellenizing these areas. As a result, wealthier Jews gained exposure to the Greek classics.

Philo of Alexandria

Born into a wealthy, Hellenized family in the Roman province of Egypt, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE–50 CE) published both his philosophical treatises and his personal accounts of his political experiences. Philo served as ambassador to Emperor Gaius Caligula on behalf of the one million Jews dwelling in Egypt. His work represents the first systematic attempt to make use of ideas developed by Plato and other Greek philosophers to explain and justify Jewish scripture. In Plato’s metaphysical vision, true reality is unchanging and eternal, with the world we experience only a temporary reflection of these eternal forms. But, Philo asked, how can the creation of a physical world be explained? How can eternal forms express themselves in a physical world? In reconciling Jewish and Greek doctrines of creation, Philo identifies Plato’s forms as logos, or the thoughts of God. Separate from the eternal divinity—Aristotle’s unmoved mover—logos serves as the mediator between God and the physical world. When in the Book of Genesis, God says, “Let there be light,” this is the logos of the unmoved mover. Philo’s fusion of Greek and Jewish philosophy lays the foundation for early Christian doctrine. In fact, his scholarship was preserved by the Christian community and only rediscovered by the Jewish community in the 16th century.

Sky at sunrise, with low clouds glowing brightly with reflected light.
Figure 4.7 Philo identified Plato’s forms as logos, or the thoughts of God. In this view, when God says, “Let there be light,” this is the logos of the unmoved mover. This interpretation is typical of Philo’s blending of Greek and Jewish philosophy. (credit: “Let There Be Light, and There Was Light” by rippchenmitkraut66/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Early Jewish Ethics and Metaphysics

At the time of Philo, the Jewish Bible consisted of the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the later books that make up the Tanakh. Much of Jewish theological, legal, and philosophical thought was passed down orally. Following the Roman Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin, a semiautonomous Jewish legal and judicial body that had been forcibly relocated to northern Israel, began transcribing the oral traditions so as not to lose them. These writings would later become the Talmud. Among these writings is the text Ethics of Our Fathers, which provides a moral guide to everyday life. Later, Jewish scholars also began to explore metaphysics, culminating in the Kabbalah, which examines the relationship between God—defined as the infinite, unchanging, and eternal—and the finite world we experience. Eventually, the brutal repression of Jews who remained in their homeland led to the collapse of the Hellenized Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire. As a result, the continuation of Philo’s work fell to a subgroup of Jews whose new religion, Christianity, would be adopted by Rome.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax