Philon of Alexandria

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Greek, Ancient: Φίλων
Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt
Death: Died in Alexandria, Egypt
Place of Burial: Alexandria, Egypt
Immediate Family:

Son of Father of Philo of Alexandria
Brother of Alexander Lysimachus, Alabarch of Alexandria and Julius Lysimachus

Occupation: Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher
Managed by: Private User
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About Philon of Alexandria

Philon (20 BCE – 50 ACE), known also as Philo of Alexandria (gr. Φίλων ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς), Philon Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Yedidia, "Philon", and Philo the Jew, was a Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher born in Alexandria.

Philo used philosophical allegory to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy and Jewish traditions. His method followed the practices of both Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy. His work was not widely accepted. "The sophists of literalness," as he calls them, "opened their eyes superciliously" when he explained to them the marvels of his exegesis.

Some scholars holds that his concept of the Logos as God's creative principle influenced early Christology. Others scholars, however, deny direct influence but say both Philo and early Christianity borrow from a common source. For Philo, Logos was God's "blueprint for the world", a governing plan.

The few biographical details concerning Philo are found in his own works, especially in Legatio ad Gaium ("embassy to Gaius"), and in Josephus. The only event in his life that can be determined chronologically is his participation in the embassy in which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the emperor Caligula at Rome as the result of civil strife between the Alexandrian Jewish and Hellenized communities. This occurred in the year 40 ACE.

Ancestry, family and early life

Philo was probably born with the name Julius Philo. Philo came from an aristocratic family which had lived in Alexandria for generations. His ancestors and family were contemporaries to the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Although the names of his parents are unknown, Philo came from a family who were noble, honourable and wealthy. It was either his father or paternal grandfather who was granted Roman citizenship from Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar. Philo had two brothers Alexander the Alabarch and Lysimachus.

His ancestors and family had social ties and connections to the Priesthood in Judea; Hasmonean Dynasty; Herodian Dynasty and Julio-Claudian dynasty in Rome. Philo was a contemporary to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the lives of The Apostles of Jesus, although in his writings he never made an explicit mention of any of them. Philo along with his brothers received a thorough education. They were educated in the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria and Roman culture, to a degree in Ancient Egyptian culture and particularly in the traditions of Judaism, in the study of Jewish traditional literature[4] and in Greek philosophy.

Philo, through his brother Alexander, had two nephews Tiberius Julius Alexander and Marcus Julius Alexander. Marcus Julius Alexander was the first husband of the Herodian Princess Berenice. Marcus died in 43 or 44. (For the sources regarding this section see article Alexander the Alabarch).


We find a brief reference to Philo by the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of Philo's selection by the Alexandrian Jewish community as their principal representative before the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. He says that Philo agreed to represent the Alexandrian Jews in regard to civil disorder that had developed between the Jews and the Greeks in Alexandria (Egypt). Josephus also tells us that Philo was skilled in philosophy, and that he was brother to an official called Alexander the alabarch. According to Josephus, Philo and the larger Jewish community refused to treat the emperor as a god, to erect statues in honor of the emperor, and to build altars and temples to the emperor. Josephus says Philo believed that God actively supported this refusal.

Josephus' comments about Philo are so brief that we can quote them here in full:

"There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks; and three ambassadors were chosen out of each party that were at variance, who came to Gaius. Now one of these ambassadors from the people of Alexandria was Apion, (29) who uttered many blasphemies against the Jews; and, among other things that he said, he charged them with neglecting the honors that belonged to Caesar; for that while all who were subject to the Roman empire built altars and temples to Gaius, and in other regards universally received him as they received the gods, these Jews alone thought it a dishonorable thing for them to erect statues in honor of him, as well as to swear by his name."

"Many of these severe things were said by Apion, by which he hoped to provoke Gaius to anger at the Jews, as he was likely to be. But Philo, the principal of the Jewish embassage, a man eminent on all accounts, brother to Alexander the alabarch, (30) and one not unskillful in philosophy, was ready to betake himself to make his defense against those accusations; but Gaius prohibited him, and bid him begone; he was also in such a rage, that it openly appeared he was about to do them some very great mischief. So Philo being thus affronted, went out, and said to those Jews who were about him, that they should be of good courage, since Gaius's words indeed showed anger at them, but in reality had already set God against himself." [Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.8, § 1, Whiston's translation]

Our remaining information about Philo is based upon his own writings. Philo himself claims in his Embassy to Gaius to have been part of an embassy sent by the Alexandrian Jews to the Roman Emperor Caligula. Philo says he was carrying a petition which described the sufferings of the Alexandrian Jews, and which asked the emperor to secure their rights. Philo gives a detailed description of their sufferings, in a way that Josephus overlooks, to assert that the Alexandrian Jews were simply the victims of attacks by Alexandrian Greeks in the civil strife that had left many Jews and Greeks dead.

Philo says he was regarded by his people as having unusual prudence, due to his age, education, and knowledge. This indicates that he was already an older man at this time (40 AD). Philo considers Caligula's plan to erect a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem to be a provocation, saying, "Are you making war upon us, because you anticipate that we will not endure such indignity, but that we will fight on behalf of our laws, and die in defence of our national customs? For you cannot possibly have been ignorant of what was likely to result from your attempt to introduce these innovations respecting our temple." In his entire presentation he implicitly supports the Jewish commitment to rebel against the emperor rather than allow such sacrilege to take place. This reveals Philo's identification with the Jewish community. [Embassy to Gaius, Chapter 28-31, Yonge's translation].

In Flaccus, Philo tells indirectly of his own life in Alexandria by describing how the situation of Jews in Alexandria Egypt changed after Gaius Caligula became the emperor of Rome. Speaking of the large Jewish population in Egypt, Philo says that Alexandria "had two classes of inhabitants, our own nation and the people of the country, and that the whole of Egypt was inhabited in the same manner, and that Jews who inhabited Alexandria and the rest of the country from the Catabathmos on the side of Libya to the boundaries of Ethiopia were not less than a million of men."

Regarding the large proportion of Jews in Alexandria, he writes, "There are five districts in the city, named after the first five letters of the written alphabet, of these two are called the quarters of the Jews, because the chief portion of the Jews lives in them."

Other sources tell us that Caligula had been asking to receive the honors due to a god. Philo says Flaccus, the Roman governor over Alexandria, permitted a mob to erect statues of the Emperor Caius Caligula in Jewish synagogues of Alexandria, an unprecedented provocation. This invasion of the synagogues was perhaps resisted by force, since Philo then says that Flaccus "was destroying the synagogues, and not leaving even their name." In response, Philo says that Flaccus then "issued a notice in which he called us all foreigners and aliens... allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war." Philo says that in response, the mobs "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one ... while the populace, overrunning their desolate houses, turned to plunder, and divided the booty among themselves as if they had obtained it in war."

In addition, Philo says their enemies, "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties, for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks". Philo even says, "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city, sparing neither age nor youth, nor the innocent helplessness of infants." Some men, he says, were dragged to death, while "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers, like people employed in the representation of theatrical farces". Other Jews were crucified. Flaccus was eventually removed from office and exiled, ultimately suffering the punishment of death. [Flaccus, Chapters 6 - 9 (43, 53-56, 62, 66, 68, 71-72), Yonge's translation].

It is likely that Philo only visited the Temple in Jerusalem once in his lifetime.

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Philon of Alexandria's Timeline

Alexandria, Egypt
Age 69
Alexandria, Egypt
Age 69
Alexandria, Egypt