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Philo, Wisdom and Apocalypticism

The SBL Annual Meeting is already an event of the past, some weeks have, in fact, gone by since I left San Antonio, heading back to Norway.

Nevertheless, as some other duties have kept me away from blog writing, I will post two pages here about two events I enjoyed very much. Hence this is not going to be about everything I enjoyed or experienced, but two selected events.

This post concerns the papers delivered at a seminar session on Wisdom and Apocalypticism, and focusing especially on Philo of Alexandria.


The session was presided over by prof. Matthew Goff, Florida State University, and was one of several on Wisdom and Apocalypticism.The speakers, here seen seated as a panel, were from left, Ellen Birnbaum, Michael Cover, Archie Wright and Greg. E. Sterling. I am not going to present a summary of their lectures. Using the abstracts they handed in beforehand, their topics can be indicated thus:


Ellen Birnbaum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
“Is There Wisdom in Philo’s Rationales for the Book of Genesis? ”

Abstract: “Philo offers at least three different lines of argumentation to address the perplexing question of why the lawgiver Moses begins his legislation with the Book of Genesis, which starts with an account of the creation of the world, presents narratives about the patriarchs of Israel and their predecessors, and contains practically no legal material. These rationales resonate with such sapiential themes as nature as a source of knowledge about the divine, reward of the good and punishment of the bad, intuitive understanding of how to live a virtuous life, and review of virtuous exemplars. In this paper, I will outline Philo’s different rationales, highlight parallel notions in wisdom literature, and consider the significance of these parallels.”


Michael Cover, Marquette University; “Consecrating all the Excellences of Speech” (Mut. 220): Philo on the Right Use of Apocalyptic Tragedy and Gnomic Wisdom

Abstract: “This paper will explore Philo’s reception of contemporary currents in Jewish apocalypticism and wisdom literature by looking closely at two passages in his allegorical treatise, De mutatione nominum. In the first, Mut. 103–120, Philo engages in an extended allegorical interpretation of Exodus 2:15–22, the scene of Moses’ first meeting with Raguel and his seven daughters. According to Alexander Polyhistor, the same scene was dramatized sometime in the second century BCE by the Jewish Tragedian, Ezekiel, and a few fragments of this scene in the drama are extant. Raguel remains a major character in the tragedy, an idealized priest-king and exegete of Moses’ dream-vision in a manner reminiscent of an angelus interpres. Taking as a dual starting point that (1) Ezekiel’s Exagogue mediates or represents some form of apocalyptic Judaism to the Jewish community in Alexandria (VanderKam and Boesenberg [2014]; Orlov [2005]; Van der Horst [1984]; cf. Jacobson [1981]) and (2) that Philo himself had seen the play, appreciated it, and knew it well enough to engage it (Sterling [2014]; Jacobson [1983]), the first and major part of this paper will argue that Philo also undertakes to correct certain (real or potential) misappropriations of its apocalyptic elements. While previous scholarship has looked largely at the comparison of Moses in Ezekiel and Philo’s Vita Mosis (Sterling [2014]; Runia [1988]), this paper will focus in particular on Philo’s allegoresis of the figure of Jethro/Raguel in Mut. 103–120, in which the Alexandrian responds not only to the biblical text, but also to Ezekiel’s tragedy (see Mut. 114, 198; Jacobson [1983]). I will test the hypothesis that Philo wants to revise both the tragedy’s apocalyptic visionary mechanics as well as its potential misuse in Jewish political discourse. In a second passage, Mut. 197, Philo then goes on to offer a satirical portrait of gnomic wisdom of a sort similar to Pseudo-Phocylides. What unites these two criticisms in Philo? Both apocalyptic tragedy and gnomic wisdom have great rhetorical and psychagogic power, which render them either impotent or susceptible to sophistic misuse. While Philo would certainly not banish the poets from Alexandria, he does insist that one must “consecrate” (by way of allegory, dialectic, etc.) these various “excellences of speech” (Mut. 220) for the service of philosophy.”


Archie Wright, Regent University
Questions of Eschatology and other Apocalyptic Themes in Philo’s Demonology .

“Like many of his concepts, Philo presents his eschatology and other apocalyptic themes in relation to the realm of the Platonic world of forms; the “place” in which the material world participates with the other worldly realm. In doing so, we can see Philo’s integrated dualism at work in his cosmology in which his eschatology emerges. The eschatology of Philo begins with his anthropology which is found in Legum Allegoriae III.161 (among others; e.g. Somn. I.34). Here he states that the human is composed of soul and body; the soul belonging to the divine (Gen 2.7; Mut. 223) and the body is “fashioned out of the earth”. It survives on earthly food while the soul is conceived of an ethereal nature, “has on the contrary ethereal and divine food” (knowledge in its various forms). Following a form of the Pythagorean view of the transmigration of the soul, although not completely, upon true death Philo understands the body and soul separate (Leg. Alleg. I.105; II.77). The eschatological end of human existence was the return of a soul to the divine realm or for the “wicked soul” to Tartarus or Hades. Arising out of Philo’s anthropology is what we might call his demonology, although it differs significantly from other early Jewish and Christian demonologies. At times Philo appears to be reacting in a polemical sense to the emergence of demons in the Enochic tradition and other early Jewish literature including such works as, for example, the Book of Watchers, Jubilees, or the Testament of Solomon. Philo argues for a recognition of human responsibility in the existence of evil in the world rather than demonic or evil spirits. This paper will examine Philo’s writings in an effort to compare and contrast the various demonologies circulating in the 1st century CE and their roles in the apocalyptic eschatology of the period.”


Gregory E. Sterling, Yale Divinity School
When Ontology Meets Eschatology.

Abstract: “It is well known that Philo of Alexandria used Hellenistic philosophy as a framework for his thought, especially Middle Platonism. This led him to think primarily in ontological terms. However, in the final treatise of his Exposition of the Law, De praemiis, he offered what appears to be an eschatological vision–although the interpretation is disputed. This paper will attempt to understand Philo’s eschatological vision by exploring other texts that combine ontology with eschatology.”