Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria?

Updated 31.03.15

In 2013, Sami Yli-Karjanmaa obtained his PhD at Åbo Akademi University, Faculty of Theology, Judaic Studies, on a dissertation on Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria. This is a topic I have read very little about, and I would have liked to be able to read this study. Alas, it is not downloadable, but has been accepted for publication in SBL’s Studia Philonica Monographs series; so we will have to wait for that.

The abstract and the table of contents are available here: (

Here is the abstract of the study:

This study examines Philo of Alexandria’s position on the doctrine of reincarnation. The usual view among theologians since the 17th century was that he endorsed the tenet. Since the 19th century, the issue has divided those scholars who have taken a stance on the matter into two groups whose answers to the question are mutually exclusive. What connects these groups, however, is that their views have not been based on research dedicated specifically to this issue. This work fills the gap.
Philo’s references to the post-mortem fate of imperfect souls are very rare, which necessitates taking into account all available indirect evidence, i.e., his anthropological, ethical and soteriological views more broadly. These views are in this study found to be such that – in spite of the occasional expression where an anti-reincarnational interpretation seems possible – they are well able to accommodate the doctrine of reincarnation. Philo’s dualistic view on the human being, his wholly immaterial understanding of salvation as well as his reliance on Plato’s views and the use of the latter’s reincarnational texts all testify to this.
Four passages are examined as direct evidence: Somn. 1.137–139, Cher. 114, QE 2.40 and fragment 7.3 in the collection of Harris. For each of them the conclusion is that Philo speaks of reincarnation, and does so with approval. Thus, the results of the examination of both the indirect and direct evidence coincide and lead to the conclusion that Philo embraced reincarnation.
In the final part of the study, this conclusion is applied to a significantly larger number of Philonic texts in order to make observations about the ways in which Philo writes about reincarnation. Veiled references to the tenet are found to form an organic part of an extensive network of interrelated terms, concepts, notions and images which he uses to characterize the journey of the soul back to incorporeal, eternal existence with God through its own toil and God’s grace.

Avhandlingen undersöker Filon av Alexandrias (ca. 20 f.Kr. – 50 e.Kr.) ståndpunkt gällande reinkarnationsläran. Från 1600-talet och framåt var den rådande uppfattningen att den judiske bibeltolkaren godkände läran. Sedan 1800-talet har det dock rått delade meningar bland de forskare som har tagit ställning i frågan och två grupper med sinsemellan motsägande svar har bildats. Gemensamt för dessa två grupper är emellertid att deras åsikter inte är baserade på forskning speciellt i den här frågan. Yli-Karjanmaas avhandling fyller det tomrummet.

Filons hänvisningar till de ofullkomliga själarnas öde efter döden är mycket sällsynta, vilket leder till att man nödgas ta i beaktande alla tillgängliga indirekta bevis, det vill säga Filons antropologiska, etiska och soteriologiska åsikter. Avhandlingen kommer fram till att dessa åsikter är sådana att de – trots enstaka textavsnitt som verkar medge en motsatt tolkning – gott och väl kan omfatta reinkarnationsläran. Filons dualistiska människosyn, hans fullkomligt immateriella förståelse av frälsningen samt det faktum att han stöder sig på Platons åsikter och tillämpar dennes texter om reinkarnation är alla tecken på detta.

Yli-Karjanmaa granskar fyra textavsnitt som direkta bevis (Somn. 1.137–139, Cher. 114, QE 2.40 och fragment 7.3 i Harris samling), och konklusionen blir att Filon i dem alla talar om reinkarnation och att han gör så med godkännande. Sålunda överensstämmer resultaten av granskningen av både de indirekta och de direkta bevisen, och leder till slutsatsen att Filon omfattade reinkarnationsläran.

Författaren tillämpar denna slutsats på ett betydligt större antal texter av Filon, i avsikt att reflektera över de sätt på vilka Filon skriver om reinkarnation. Förtäckta hänvisningar till läran visar sig utgöra en organisk del av ett omfattande nätverk av sammanlänkade termer, begrepp, föreställningar och bilder som Filon använder för att beskriva själens resa tillbaka till den okroppsliga, eviga tillvaron med Gud, genom sin egen strävan och Guds nåd.

Philo on education and personal formation

98 XXIX. Since, therefore, He thus invisibly enters into this region of the soul, let us prepare that place in the best way the case admits of, to be an abode worthy of God; for if we do not, he, without our being aware of it, will quit us and migrate to some other habitation, which shall appear to him to be more excellently provided.
99 For if when we are about to receive kings, we prepare our houses to wear a more magnificent appearance, neglecting nothing which may give them ornament, but using every thing in a liberal and unsparing manner, having for our object that they shall have an abode pleasant to them, and in all respects suitable to their majesty; what sort of habitation ought we to prepare for the King of kings, for God the ruler of the whole universe, condescending in his mercy and lovingkindness for man to visit the beings whom he has created, and to come down from the borders of heaven to the lowest regions of the earth, for the purpose of benefiting our race?
100 Shall we prepare him a house of stone or of wooden materials? Away! such an idea is not holy even to utter; for not even if the whole earth were to change its nature and to become on a sudden gold, or something more valuable than gold, and if it were then to be wholly consumed by the skill of workmen, who should make it into porticoes and vestibules, and chambers, and precincts, and temples– not even then could it be a place worthy for his feet to tread upon, but a pious soul is his fitting abode.
101 XXX. If therefore we call the invisible soul the terrestrial habitation of the invisible God, we shall be speaking justly and according to reason; but that the house may be firm and beautiful, let a good disposition and knowledge be laid as its foundations, and on these foundations let the virtues be built up in union with good actions, and let the ornaments of the front be the due comprehension of the encyclical branches of elementary instruction;
102 for from goodness of disposition arise skill, perseverance, memory; and from knowledge arise learning and attention, as the roots of a tree which is about to bring forth eatable fruit, and without which it is impossible to bring the intellect to perfection.
103 But by the virtues, and by actions in accordance with them, a firm and strong foundation for a lasting building is secured, in order that anything which may endeavor to separate and alienate the soul from honesty and make it such another haunt, may be powerless against so strong a defense,
104 and by means of the study of the encyclical branches of elementary education, the things requisite for the ornament of the soul are provided; for as whitewashing, and paintings, and tablets, and the arrangement of costly stones, by which men decorate not merely the walls, but even the lower parts of their houses, and all other such things as these do not contribute to strength, but only give pleasure to those who live in the house; 105 so the knowledge of the encyclical accomplishments decorates the whole habitation of the soul, while grammar investigates the principles of poetry and follows up the history of ancient events, and geometry labors at equalities according to analogy, and endeavors to remedy whatever in us is deficient in rhythm or in moderation, or in harmony, by giving us rhythm, and moderation, and harmony, by means of a polished system of music; and rhetoric aims at giving us acuteness in everything, and at properly adapting all proper interpretations to everything, claiming for itself the control of all intenseness and all the vehement affections, and again of all relaxations and pleasures, with great freedom of speech, and a successful application of the organs of language and voice.
106 XXXI. Such a house then being prepared in the race of mankind, all things on earth will be filled with good hopes, expecting the return of the powers of God; and they will come, bringing laws from heaven, and bonds, for the purpose of sanctifying the hallowing it, according to the command of their Father; then becoming the associates and constant companions of these souls which love virtue, they sow in them the genus of happiness: as they gave to the wise Abraham his son Isaac as the most perfect proof of their gratitude for the hospitality which they experienced from him.
(On the Cherubim 98-106