Torah from Alexandria

torah from alexToday I like to present a book I became aware of a few months ago. It was published in 2014, and is labelled:

Torah from Alexandria:
Philo as a Biblical commentator.
Volume 1: Genesis, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Kodesh Press, 2014.

The idea behind this book seems to be that by gathering all sayings of Philo concerning a particular passage in the Torah, you get are kind of biblical commentary on these passages as taught by Philo from Alexandria. Hence, the texts of Genesis are given from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 50:26 in bold types in the text, then follows a compilation of Philo’s sayings relevant for the particular verse from Genesis. These sayings from Philo may be taken from various Philonic books and are suggested to reveal something of how Philo considered the content of that verse.

The editor has a rather conservative Jewish view of Philo, and presents views that not all will subscribe to. On  the one hand he states that Philo’s sources are as dieverse as can be imagined; however the overwhelming majority of Philo’s biblical citations are from the five books of Moses. Philo also makes use of traditions that appear in the apocryphal of Ben Sirach, and he quotes extensive material that does not appear in the Bible. These interpretations appear in various Midrashim, as well as both Talmud’s and other collections of ethical teachings. In many of these cases, it cannot be known if the Rabbis are influenced by Philo, if Philo influenced the rabbis, or if they both drew from a common oral tradition (pp.12-13). In at least one case he quotes from Fragments in which Philo’s wife is supposed to speak about her husband (p.23).

Philo is credited by the editor for having written “the world’s first philosophical exposition of the Torah.” Furthermore, he finds several  parallells between the worls of Philo and the Rabbis; Philo probably had an indirect influence on the Midrashim or midrashic interpretation.

Why did Philo disappear from history? Sometimes during the second century CE, the Septuagint fell out of favour because the early Christian Church co-opted it, and claimed ownership of the text. With the demise of the Alexandrian community, Aramaic Targums began to grow in popularity as Aramaic supplanted Greek as the lingua franca of Judean and Babylonian Jews. Within a few centuries, attitudes regarding the greek Torah translation became increasingly negative (p. 29).

When we read Philo’s expositions of the Pentateuch, we discover how a first century Jewish thinker who was steeped in Hellenistic culture experienced the words of Torah through the prism of Greek philosophy, much like Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, Gersonides, and numerous other famous medieval Jews thinkers  would later do. Thus, in Philo, we receive a distinct impression of how intellectual and committed Jews of late antiquity reinterpreted Judaism in a manner that combined the worlds of tradition and modernity of that era. For modern Jews living in the 21st century and beyond, understanding this create symbiosis holds a valuable key in helping future generations keep the lessons of Torah relevant and philosophically meaningful. Hence, the editor says, “to facilitate this fusion of ideas, I have throughout this work created a dialogue for the reader to see Philo’s writings with comparisons to many of the great thinkers – Jewish and Christian –  who came after him . With the 21st-century tools of literary criticism, anthropological, mythical, and psychological theories of people like Freud, Jung, Eliade, Barth, Derrida, Campbell, and others, we can create a new context for us to hear the words of Philo cascading trough the waves of time” (p. 31).

While the publication of such a volume might be interesting to many, there remains also some questions. The one is, to what degree has the editor manages to vacuum Philo’s works for all the relevant sayings of Philo; second, the passages are taken out of their Philonic literary and ideological context; what consequences does that have for their interpretations. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read and see how the editor uses Philo, and how he adds comments and some other texts and views.

The publisher presents this volume thus:

“Philo lived at a time much like our own, with people struggling to find their place in a world challenged by rivaling philosophies. His deep spirituality and religious scholarship, coupled with his profound knowledge of a millennium of Greek literature, makes him a profoundly useful guide for the modern age.
Reclaiming Philo as an exegete of peshat puts him in company with the great luminaries of Jewish history—a position that Philo richly deserves. Philo remains as one of Jewish history’s most articulate spokespersons for ethical monotheism. Perhaps more importantly— and justly—Philo’s exegetical skills remain one of the most lasting contributions of the great Alexandrian Jewish community, whose legacy to Jewish history deserves honor and recognition.
Rabbi Michael L. Samuel has meticulously culled from all of Philo’s exegetical comments, and arranged them according to the biblical verses. He provides extensive parallels from rabbinic literature, Greek philosophy, and Christian theology, to present Philo’s writing in the context of his time, while also demonstrating Philo’s unique method of interpretation. Torah from Alexandria gives Philo a voice which he so richly deserves as one of the most profound Jewish exegetes and theologians.”

The second volume has also been published by now:
Torah from Alexandria:
Philo as a Biblical Commentator
Volume II: Exodus
Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Kodesh Press, 2015,

and a third volume, on Leviticus, is was published this summer.

Author: TorreyS


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