Birnbaum on Philo’s Relevance for the study of Judaism

“Philo’s exegetical and non-exegetical works can be and have been mined for their wealth of information about Jews and Judaism in antiquity. These areas include Jewish practices, beliefs and ideas, community institutions, holy writings and their interpretation, Jews and Jewish identity, Jews’ involvement with and attitudes toward non-Jews and their culture, and historical events. Philo occasionally shows strong commonalities with what we know about other Jews, but he also displays important differences and distinctive features. Rather than attempting to characterize Philo generally as representative or not representative of Jews and Judaism in antiquity, it is best to consider individual issues in all their complexity.

Scholars have produced many exemplary studies in all the above areas to advance our knowledge of the past. Many topics, however, remain unexplored or await further clarification and insight. As with any source, one must always be aware of how Philo’s own biases, aims and interests may shape his presentations. While some topics- like the anti-Jewish violence in Alexandria – may pertain especially to Philo’s own day, others – like observance of the Sabbath and other holidays – may shed light on both earlier and later periods. Philo’s relevance for the study of Jews and Judaism, then, need not be confined to a particular century. Indeed, the astute and careful researcher may find meaningful continuities and discontinuities between Philo and other Jews from the distant past past to our very own day.”


Ellen Birnbaum,
‘Philo’s Relevance for the Study of Jews and Judaism in Antiquity,’
in T. Seland, Reading Philo. A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria
(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014): 200-225, here quoted from p. 225 (Conclusion).