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All about Philo

What did Philo contribute to the early Church?

We read last week of the ideas of Plato infliltrating the early Church. Now we are going to start to see exactly how this happened ...

It all started with the Jews, strangely enough, or one in particular. Philo was his name and he lived in Alexandria in Egypt, one of the most famous cities in the world at that time. It was just after the time of Jesus.

Philo may have been a Jew but his education was thoroughly Greek, in common with all Jews living in the Egyptian capital. Yet he was a loyal and proud Jew and his life's ambition was to bring together his religious heritage and his philosophic tendencies. He believed he saw continuity between Moses and Plato. The problem of his day was that many Jews, trained in Greek ways, were rejecting Moses and the Bible and so Philo worked hard to create a compromise that would be acceptable. His main work was in the creation of Bible commentaries, mainly of the Book of Genesis, and he was the first to do so with one finger figuratively in the pages of the Bible and the other in the life and works of Plato.

We can start at the Creation story. To Plato (and to Philo), the Universe came into being through the work of the Demiurge, not quite God as we know Him, but a lesser god. Remember Plato's Big Consequence, that the soul is good, the body is bad, the concept of dualism. This can be simplified further in saying that anything of the physical world is inferior to anything of the spiritual world. So this Demiurge, responsible for the Creation of the physical Universe, just has to be an inferior god, from Plato's point of view.

The concept of the Demiurge is a consequence of Platonism. It is a fudge to support a faulty philosophy. That is the problem if your starting point is a falsehood. Everything that follows from it is also false and you're just sinking further and further into the mire. This is even the case with techniques used to implement your ideas. The technique that Philo used most of all when he turned to the Books of Moses is the same one already used in the study of Greek texts, such as those of Homer. This tool is known as allegory and the damage it did to the Biblical text is incalculable.

Allegory. It's a key concept, so it's worth labouring the point in order to fully understand it in every way. It is defined as a way of representing a situation, giving it a meaning that is not a literal meaning. Examples are the best way of getting a grip of this:

George Orwell's Animal Farm is an allegory of the Soviet era of Stalin in the pre-war years. Whereas kids may have a hate figure in Napoleon the pig, there is a greater hate figure implied as Stalin himself. So, if we take the story literally, it's just a story of talking animals on a farm, but allegorically it's a political satire.

The movie The Wizard of Oz, gave a lot of joy to generations of kids, with its basic homespun philosophy. It also exercised the brains of generations of scholars and commentators who saw allegory all over the place in it. So, in its literal sense, it's just a good kid's yarn, but as an allegory it is mostly seen by economists as a critique of the gold standard (no time here to explain that one!)

One big question we need to ask is whether the author intended to create an allegory and, if so, what point is he making? In George Orwell's case, the allegory was clear and unambiguous. With The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, the author, never made it clear what the real meaning of the movie was.

So what about the Bible? Well, we know the author, God Himself. So when Philo went through the text of the early books of the Old Testament, he had to be sure that, if he saw allegory, then the author Himself would need to be in agreement. And, if He wasn't, then Philo was treading on dangerous ground indeed!

Why would Philo have to use allegory anyway and what's this to do with Plato? Well, it's back to Plato's "Big Idea", his dualism, and it's worth delving deeper to extract the core thinking behind it. When Plato says that the soul is good and the body is bad, he is declaring a basic principle that has many guises. In religious terms, he is saying that the physical world, the one in which we live, is bad (or evil) and the spiritual world (heaven and such places) is good, and therefore worth striving for. So, material world is bad ... spiritual world is good. This theme is going to pop up again and again, as you begin to realise how deep this idea has sunk into our collective minds.

Because of this, Philo was uncomfortable whenever, in the Bible, God (a spiritual being) mixes it with us on a human level (the material world), when He interacts with man personally, or shows human characteristics or emotions. You would expect that he would have had a real problem with Jesus ... their lifetimes actually overlapped. Perhaps they actually met each other? When Philo wrote of such God-man interactions in his Bible commentaries, he would look beyond any literal interpretations of the verse for deeper meanings, allegories. In fact this became a regular feature of his work, looking for deeper "spiritual" meanings behind Bible verses that the author (God) meant just to be taken literally. Often he accepted that Bible verses could have both a literal and an allegorical meaning. I wonder what God would have thought of this? Not too pleased, I suspect.

But Philo was just a stepping-stone in this unfolding story. There was a bigger fish on the horizon. More next week ...

Steve Maltz
July 2012

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