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Divine Embodiment in Philo

The second last issue of Journal for the study of Judaism has an interesting article dealing with Philo of Alexandria:
Deborah Forger, ‘Divine embodiment in Philo of Alexandria,’ Journal for the Study of Judaism 49.2 (2018) 223-262.

Its abstract runs like this:

Because later polemics established Jews and Christians as binary opposites, distinguished largely by their views on God’s body, scholars have not sufficiently explored how other Jews in the early Roman period, who stood outside the Jesus movement, conceived of how the divine could become embodied on earth. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria often operates as the quintessential representative of a Jew who stressed God’s absolute incorporeality. Here I demonstrate how Philo also presents a means by which a part of Israel’s God could become united with human materiality, showing how the patriarchs and Moses function as his paradigms. This evidence suggests that scholarship on divine embodiment has been limited by knowledge of later developments in Christian theology. Incarnational formulas, like that found in John 1.14 were not the only way that Jews in the first and second century CE  understood that God can become united with human form.

In her conclusions, she also states that “Far from being one monolithic way that ancient Jews imagined that God could become embodied, what my analysis reveals is that there where likely multiply ways that Jews in the first few centuries of the Common Era envisioned that God, or a part of God, could become united with bodily, or material, form. By exploring a particular snapshot of Jewish history, instead of employing a teleological lens that works backward from a later known outcome in Christian theology, Philo’s descriptions of humanity’s divinely-inspired soul can be revealed for what they are: a competing model of divine embodiment.”

This is a challenging (and for some, perhaps, provocative?) thesis. My first impression is that she draws somewhat too far ranging conclusions base on a somewhat meagre basis. May be a closer reading will change my first impressions……

A mind in training

Elisa Uusimaki (University of Helsinki, Finland), has published an article dealing with the issue of “How does Philo of Alexandria depict the formation of a wise person?”

Elisa Uusmaki,’A Mind in Training: Philo of Alexandria on Jacob’s Spiritual Exercises,’ Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 27.4 (2018): 265-288.

Its abstract runs like this:

“How does Philo of Alexandria depict the formation of a wise person? This article pays attention to the centrality of spiritual training in Graeco-Roman philosophy, and argues that Philo likewise regards the process of seeking wisdom as entailing mental practice. The analysis focuses on two passages of Quis rerum divinarum heres sit and Legum allegoriarum where Philo attributes lists of spiritual exercises to the figure of Jacob. As such, these accounts illustrate how Philo makes use of scriptural interpretation as he imagines the execution of a life dedicated to wisdom. The listed exercises are largely familiar from Graeco-Roman philosophical traditions, yet they coexist with and contribute to the performance of Philo’s ancestral tradition. This melange of cultural elements suggests that Philo discusses Jacob’ s inner cultivation in order to enable his audience to grasp (one prospect of) how to lead a Jewish philosophical life in the Roman Alexandria.”

In order to wet your appetite even more, I quote this from her first paragraph (sorry, the Greek did not come through):

How did Philo of Alexandria’ imagine the practical performance of philosophical life, that is, the mental training considered to advance one’s search for wisdom (sofia)? In this article, I propose one answer to the question by demonstrating how Philo associates two narratives on Jacob, the eponymous and exemplary patriarch, with the practice (askesis) of diverse spiritual exercises (Her. 252-53; Leg. 3.18-19). In the context of Graeco-Roman philosophy, such exercises were undertaken to shape the mind and attitude of the practising subject who pursued wisdom. Before the textual analysis, further elaboration on the ancient conception of philosophy and Philo’s notion of the cultivation of a person towards being a philosopher (filosofos), or even a sage (sofos) who possesses virtue (arete), is needed.

Philo and the Ancient Theater

Philo of Alexandria has several comments on the ancient theater of his time, and a few studies have been published dealing with his views and attitudes (see e.g., Koskenniemi; now an issue of the Journal ‘Journal of Ancient Judaism‘ is devoted to the theme Jews and Drama, and included here are also a couple of articles o Philo and the theater:

  • Jeff Jay, ‘Spectacle, Stage-Craft, and the Tragic in Philo’s In Flaccum: A Literary-Historical Analysis,’ 222-240,
  • Courtney J. P. Friesen, ‘Virtue and Vice on the Stage: Theatrical Ambivalences in Philo of Alexandria,’ 241-256.

I have not seen this issue yet, and can not provide any further information, its website, alas, does not present any abstracts either.

Philo at the SNTS Meeting

IMG_0276At the last annual meeting of the SNTS in Athens, in Aug. 7-10, a seminar on Philo of Alexandria was run by profs Greg E. Sterling and Per Jarle Bekken. The dayly attendance were 10-12 persons, and there were three sessions/papers, submitted by Per Jarle Bekken, Ilaria L.E. Ramelli and Volker Rabens. The main focus of the seminar was Philo and Early Christianity.

Bekken’s paper dealt with “Paul in Negotiations on Abraham: Fresh Light on the Appropriation of Scripture in Gal 3:6–9 in Jewish Context.” A central part of his thesis was that ” Philo and Paul share an exegetical tradition based on Gen 15:6 interpreted in conjunction with other passages in terms of a continuum of the Abraham narrative in Genesis. Thus, both authors depend on a constellation of exegetical motifs associated with Abraham’s trust (Gen 15:6), manifested in the responsiveness of a corresponding faithfulness and oath of promise on God’s part to bless Abraham and his descendants (cf. Gen 22:18; 26:3–4). Such motifs appear in a context of Jewish discussions in which the authoritative figure of a Law-observant Abraham was conceived to serve as authoritative legal norm (cf. Gen 26:5).”(P. 47 ).

The next paper, by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, was on “Paul and Philo on Soteriology and Eschatology.” The paper offered was she called “a sygkrisis between two semi-contemporary Hellenistic Jewish theologians, Paul of Tarsus and Philo of Alexandria, both major inspirers of subsequent Christian philosophical theology. While other areas would be relevant to explore, for instance the knowledge of God, this essay will concentrate on soteriology and eschatology in Paul and Philo. The latter is more elusive than Paul in this matter, but both were familiar with the doctrine of apokatastasis or restoration, although they treated it in different ways, just as they had different views of the Law.”

The third paper, that by Volker Rabens, had as its title “Physical and Mystical Dimensions of Human Transformation in Philo and Paul.” I was not able to atttend this last session.

All papers were thoroughly researched and well footnoted. To some the papers were a little bit too long; 50 pages x 3 is demanding, especially if they are sent out just some few days before the meeting. But all in all, it is good to have Philo back at the SNTS meeting.

Beware the Evil Eye, II

In my former posting, way too long ago (see here), I gave some examples of how I in my own personal life had encountered the phenomenon of Evil Eye. It was supposed to function as an introduction to the great four-volume set of studies published by John H. Elliott.

The first volume was published in 2015:
John H. Elliott,
Beware the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World.
Volume 1: Introduction, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
(Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, an imprint of Wips and Stock, 2015.

The four volumes as such covers Mesopotamia, Egypt (vol.1), Greece, and Rome (vol. 2), the evil eye in The Bible and Related Sources. (vol. 3), and Postbiblical Israel and Early Christianity through Late Antiquity (vol. 4). A vast area of time, space, and material indeed. The focus in the present posting is primarily vol. 1.

Elliott defines the ‘evil eye’ phenomenon thus:

“…that some persons are enabled by nature to injure others, cause illness and loss, and destroy any person, animal or thing through a powerful noxious glance emanating from the eye.” (p. xi).

“”This belief holds that certain individuals (humans, gods, demons, animals, and mythological figures) possess an eye whose powerful glance or gaze can harm or destroy any object, animate or inanimate, on which it falls. Through the power of their eye, which can operate involuntarily as well as intentionally, such Evil Eye possessors (also known as ‘fascinatorsæ) are thought capable of injuring, withering, or obliterating the health and life, means of sustenance and livelihood, familial honor, and personal well-being of their hapless victims” (p. 3).

It is a central thesis in Elliott’s presentation that this phenomenon is an ‘international’ phenomenon, it is to be found in most cultures. In fact, on p. 16 he presents terms for Evil Eye in 39 languages, and ideas and practices associated with it span over five millennia and across the globe, though of course, there are cultural and temporal variations. Nevertheless, he presents 7 features inherent in the concept (p. 17):

  1. power emanates from the eye (or mouth) and strikes some object or person;
  2. the stricken object is of value, and its destruction or injury is sudden;
  3. the one casting the evil eye may not know he has the power;
  4. the one affected may not be able to identify the source of power;
  5. the evil eye can be deflected or its effects modified or cured bt particular devices, rituals, and symbols;
  6. the belief helps to explain or rationalize sickness, misfortune, or loss of possessions such as animal or crops;
  7. in at least some functioning of the belief everywhere, envy is a factor.

In societies, where such ideas were an acknowledged reality, the fear of being attacked, could be alarming and paralyzing; on the other hand, accusations of being a ‘fascinator’, one who throws evil eyes, would be just as alarming and scary, as such accusations would stigmatize the one accused as a social deviant and dangerous person. Hence apotropaic means also became important, as e.g., amulets. On p. 34-38 Elliott deals with several such items, gestures and defensive gestures prevalent.

It is impossible in a posting like this to deal with all of the features of this volume One. In many ways, it functions as an introduction to both the phenomenon as such and to the 4-volume book-set presented and written by Elliott. I especially found his chapters on ‘Research on the Evil Eye from Past to Present’ and ‘on ‘Method, aims, and Procedure of this Study’ interesting and valuable as it also lays the groundwork for the subsequent volume on ‘The Bible and related Sources’ (vol. 3). The focus of my next posting will thus be on that third volume.

Update: S19-138 Philo Seminar

All the papers for the S19-138 Philo of Alexandria Seminar are now available at my site here: http://torreys.org/philo_seminar_papers/

Beware the Evil Eye 1

During my years as a research fellow, I met for the first time the use of cultural anthropological models and perspectives in New Testament studies, and found it extremely interesting. I applied some models in my dissertation (published 1995), and in other works, and still find it interesting. In the years since my PhD work, such views have been very much accepted and integrated in Biblical studies. We now take them for granted.

One of the Mediterranean cultural aspects, however, that -at least to us Scandinavians- represents an issue rather unfamiliar to us is the evidence and practice of Evil Eye belief. I have, however, met it some times up through the years, but not always quite realized what it was, or how to read it:

  1. Visiting Greece in the early 1990-ies, when leaving the country, we were given an amulet in the form of a heart, with an eye in the middle. It was said to keep and protect us from the evil eye. I did not catch its meaning.
  2. For some time during my career I had a colleague that had worked in Palestine for some years, His wife told me that,  at one particular time, they had visited the home of some acquaintances there. When arriving, she looked at and praised some flower plants standing at their entrance. When they were about to leave some hours later, she discovered that the plants were standing at their car. They were supposed to take them with them, and it turned out that the reason was that she had looked at them and commented on their beauty.  It turned out it was the role of evil eye at work.
  3. My daughter spent a year at an US High School in 1994-95. At school, which had students from many different cultures, she discovered that looks could be problematic, even evoking aggression. Initially she did not understand the reason why. It was because of the fear of an evil eye.

Now we have been given a tremendous help in understanding the function of the evil eye phenomenon in ancient cultures, in Biblical times and cultures, and in fact, in many life situations of today. John H. Elliott has for many years studied the Evil Eye phenomenon, he has published several articles on the evil Eye and the New Testament (cf. his bibliography here, -up to 1997. See also here.), and now he has published a four-volume work dealing with the Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient world.

I am grateful to the publisher, (www.wipsandstock.com) who has provided me with these 4 volumes, and in a series of postings in the coming months I will present the volumes in some brief reviews. Hopefully, these will wet your appetite, and encourage you to read the volumes for your self.

These are the volumes concerned:
John H. Elliott,
Beware the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World.
Volume 1: Introduction, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, and imprint of Wips and Stock, 2015.

John H. Elliott,
Beware the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World.
Volume 2: Greece and Rome.
Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, and imprint of Wips and Stock, 2016.

John H. Elliott,
Beware the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World.
Volume 3: The Bible and Related Sources.
Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, and imprint of Wips and Stock, 2016.

John H. Elliott,
Beware the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World.
Volume 4: Postbiblical Israel and Early Christianity through Late Antiquity.
Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, and imprint of Wips and Stock, 2017.