Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria

Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria

philoA contemporary of both Jesus and the apostle Paul, Philo was a prolific Jewish theologian, philosopher, and politician — a fascinating, somewhat enigmatic figure — who lived his entire life in Alexandria, Egypt. His many books are important sources for our understanding of ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and the philosophical currents of that time.

Reading Philo is an excellent introductory guide to Philo’s work and significance. The contributors — all well-known experts on Philo of Alexandria — discuss Philo in context, offer methodological considerations (how best to study Philo), and explore Philo’s ongoing relevance and value (why reading him is important). This practical volume will be an indispensable resource for anyone delving into Philo and his world.

Read more about the book in a blog interview with its author, Torrey Seland, on Eerdword.

Torrey Seland has provided readers with one of the best, indeed, the best (that I have seen) introduction to Philo in the English speaking world.  Along with Per Jarle Bekken, Ellen Birnbaum, Peder Borgen, Erkki Koskenniemi, Addele Reinhartz, David Runia, Karl-Gustav Sandelin, and Gregory Sterling, Seland allows readers into the ‘inner sanctum’ of the academic study of Philo in a way that is professional and professorial and nonetheless accessible and comprehensible.

Two of the essays have appeared elsewhere but the remaining nine are all fresh productions.  Chapters include such topics as Seland’s “Philo of Alexandria: An Introduction”, Seland’s Philo as a Citizen: Homo politicus”, Seland’s “Why Study Philo? How?”, Bekken’s “Philo’s Relevance for the Study of the New Testament” and “Philo As A Jew” by Sandelin.

The contents are divided into three major headings which are “Introduction and Motivation”, “Philo of Alexandria in Context”, and “Why and How to Study Philo”.  The sensible organization of the volume is justified and illuminated by the essays within each section.  There is also a bibliography and an index of modern authors and biblical references and ancient sources.  A list of the contributors and their academic affiliations leads off the volume.

Curiously, the chapters are not numbered, they are simply listed.  Students and other users, accordingly, can’t be told ‘today read chapters 4-5 for a quiz tomorrow’.  Instead, they have to be told ‘read Borgen’s essay commencing on page 75 and follow it with Koskenniemi’s piece on pages 102 and following.’

There are plenty of footnotes to delight the researcher and these can safely be set aside by those reading the volume for its main ideas.  The majority, nay, the vast majority of the notes are to further literature or to sources cited in the body of the text.

The most useful segment of the book, and the one which, in my estimation, should be assigned to students first is actually Part III.  Not only is the section Why and How to Study Philo the longest, it is the most interesting (again, at least to this reviewer).  Here potential readers of Philo will be shown why such a study matters and how they can go about doing it in the most profitable way.

In his chapter “Why Study Philo? How?”, Seland offers his readers a general rationale and a specific methodology.  But he also gives practical guidance oh how to read those texts.  Each of Philo’s major writings (the ones students are most likely to encounter) are provided a key to unlock their meaning.  Seland also provides advice concerning editions of Philo he deems the most useful and translations he considers the most accurate.  And he does this not simply for readers of English, but Spanish, German, and French as well.  And, given our social location in the computer age, Seland also gives guidance as to the best websites and computer programs for Philo research.

He concludes this chapter writing

But whatever tools might be presented, it is Philo’s own texts that should be the primary focus (p. 179).

Within that sentence we discover the key to understanding Seland’s present work.  He loves Philo.  And because he does, he wishes others to love him to.  But to love him, they need to encounter and understand him.  Philo isn’t the kind of author one can appreciate before one spends the necessary time reading and digesting his works.

If Philo’s works were all lined up on a shelf and Seland’s volume needed a proper place next to them, it would be best found at the very beginning of the assembly.  It serves Philo research the same way an introductory chapter serves a collection of essays.  Readers can understand fairly well the contents of a book without reading the introduction- but once they read the introduction they really understand the book.

Likewise Philo’s works.  Readers and students may be able to glean something from Philo by diving right in.  But they will really understand Philo if they take advantage of the learning found in this collection.  I can think of no higher praise for an academic volume.