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Does it matter?

May 2010
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Does it matter who Philo wrote his treatises for? That is; does it matter whether it was for Jews or non-Jews, or perhaps both? Many scholars argue that Philo wrote primarily for his fellow Jews, while some also argue that the non-Jews might at least be be among the intended readers for some works.
But in general, the search for the addressees of Philo’s works seems to end up at the doors of the Jews, having the Greeks as close neighbors. The quest was rather dead for some years, but was reopened by D. T. Runia and D. M. Hay: Does it really matter? Can’t Philo’s works be read and interpreted without regard to his intended audience? In 1986 Runia surmised:

Philo is writing his long series of treatises in the first place for himself. They are a material record of his quest to fathom the depths of wisdom contained in scripture, a quest the result of which he was prepared to share with others. The question of Philo’s projected audience needs to be borne in mind, but it is not, in my view, going to to play a decisive role when we confront the question of how we should read Philo.

In Runia’s article, this statement seems primarily to concern the allegorical treatises, while the addresses of the others will have been “…well-educated Jews, but he would have welcomed interest from sympathetic outsiders” (p. 192). D.M. Hay, in an article from 1991, took Runia’s viewpoint a little further. Drawing on the notions in recent literary theory of implied author and reader, he suggested that these aspects may prove rewarding in characterizing the projected readers. He seems to end up, however, with the suggestion that “…it seems likely that Philo wrote his treatises for an `open-ended’ readership, one not limited to Alexandria and, perhaps, not limited to his own time….Perhaps Philo deliberately avoided inserting any very particular description of intended readers in his treatises because he expected, or at least hoped for, a wide and continuing audience” (p. 2).

A quest for the implied reader in Philo’s work has not yet been carried out. It may prove rewarding in order to get a clearer view of how the reader as created by the texts might be. This reader(s) should not, however, be confused with the real reader, but might be used as a foil against which one might consider the historical reader. Historical studies should still have the priority in this quest.

The main reason for this reluctance is grounded in the nature of Philo’s texts, at least as far as they are represented by the Expositio. The Expositio is, as the label says, an expository work. The works contained therein are not narratives, but exegetical expositions. Philo interprets the Torah for his prospected readers. Hence he has little need to directly address and characterize his readers.

So again, we seem to end up knocking at the doors of the Jews, still wanting to know how they really were. Literary, historical and sociological studies should join in the efforts to find these readers. The quest for the readers of Philo works should still be discussed. And what did the events of 38-41 CE have to say for Philo as a writer?

The articles referred to are:

D. T. Runia,
How to read Philo,”
Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 40 (1986), pp. 185-198.

D. M. Hay,
“Philo’s view of Himself as Exegete: Inspired, but not Authorative,”
The Studia Philonica Annual: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism
(Earle Hilgert Festchrift) 3 (1991), pp. 40-52.



  1. jerome says:

    Very interesting topic ! That’s a problem you can not miss when you try to understand Philo’s thought and purpose.
    Can you give us the titles of the articles you are quoting from ?
    Thank you !

  2. TorreyS says:

    See the references in the update note above.

  3. Ellen Birnbaum says:

    Hi, Torrey,
    Thanks for raising this issue! Philo’s implied and/or intended audience(s) has long been an interest and focus of mine. I’ve explored this issue in a few different places: an essay on method (“What Does Philo Mean by ‘Seeing God’? Some Methodological Considerations,” SBLSP 1995: 535-552); my book, in which Philo’s audience is a driving concern because I believe it shapes how and where he speaks about Israel, the Jews, and proselytes (The Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought, 1996); and another essay on Philo as a leader, in which I try to imagine the groups whom Philo hoped to influence (and how he hoped to influence them) on the basis of the readers he may have had in mind (“A Leader with Vision in the Ancient Jewish Diaspora: Philo of Alexandria,” in Jewish Religious Leadership, ed. Jack Wertheimer, 2004, 1:57-90). In her book on Philo’s treatment of the patriarchs, Martina Boehm (2005) also makes audience a central concern, as does Christian Noack in his book on divine inspiration (2000). The most explicit statement that Philo offers about his intended readers is in Mos. 1.1, in which he states that he would like to bring the story of Moses to the attention of those worthy not to be ignorant of him. This would suggest that he has at least some non-Jews in mind here. I think it matters very much whom Philo envisioned as his readers because this issue helps us to understand his explicit discussions and implied views about a range of topics that include right beliefs, worship, and approaches to reading Scripture. Regarding the last, Maren Niehoff currently has a book in press (Jewish Bible Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria) about other exegetes with whom Philo may have been in conversation, and the question of his audience will be important here as well.
    All good wishes,

  4. jerome says:

    Thank you very to the both of you, it gives me a lot to read and to think about.

  5. […] have commented on issues relating to the adressees and dating of the works of Philo. See here and here. One of the more challenging views, and perhaps speculative, someone will say, is the view set […]

  6. Hallo Torrey,
    zur Zeit arbeite ich mich wieder in die Philoforschung hinein und lese diesen so informativen Blog. Zur Leserschaft Philos habe ich mich ausführlich in “Gottesbewußtsein. Exegetische Studien zur Soteriologie und Mystik bei Philo von Alexandria”, Tübingen 2000 (WUNT II 116), geäußert und dabei auch von Ellen Birnbaum gelernt. Martina Boehm hat dann meine Thesen 2005 kritisch weiterentwickelt. M.E. muss man die drei Schriftenreihen Philos formgeschichtlich differenzieren und sie unterschiedlichen Hörer/Leserschaften und “Sitzen im Leben” zuordnen. In der Exposition Legis versetzt sich Philo immer wieder in Hörer/Leser hinein, die eine Außenperspektive haben – der implizite Leser ist also auch ein Nichtjude. Die Leitunterscheidung jüdisch/nichtjüdisch wird bei Philo m.E. sowieso durch die Leitunterscheidung ungebildet/gebildet dominiert.
    Vielen Dank für diesen so hilfreichen Blog
    Christian Noack, Darmstadt (Germany)

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