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A File o’ Philo

Philo of Alexandria (died around 50 A.D.) is one of those fascinating figures at the periphery of early Christian history — though there is no firm evidence that he was ever even dimly aware of the just-emerging Christian movement. A busy man, he served, in his long life, as a Jewish community official, a diplomat, a teacher, and a theologian. Profoundly influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato, Philo remained a devout Jew. Though he held fast to the literal meaning of the Scriptures, he believed that they also yielded an allegorical meaning — about God, about history, and about morals. Philo’s speculations took him far. He was daring in his contemplation of God. From Scripture, Philo discerned the existence of a divine Logos, or Word of God, whom he went so far as to call a “deuteros theos,” or “second God.” Christians have found his doctrine to be a breathtaking anticipation of the truth revealed in the Incarnation of the Son of God.

My friend Scott Hahn speaks often of Philo’s use of the Greek term eucharistia — which literally translates as “thanksgiving,” though for Christians, of course, it means so much more. The French patrologist Jean LaPorte believed that it meant more for Philo, too, and he wrote a book on the subject, Eucharistia in Philo. LaPorte points out that Philo and other Alexandrian Jews used “eucharistia” as an equivalent of the Hebrew “todah,” which is the term for the thanksgiving sacrifice of bread and wine. In later work, La Porte went on to connect Philo’s “eucharistic” writings with those of the later Alexandrian Christians.

The great Italian scholar Enrico Mazza sees, in Philo’s work “On the Contemplative Life,” the immediate precursor of the liturgy of Christian Alexandria. In that work, Philo describes a monastic community of Jews, called the Therapeutae, who met early in the morning for the hearing of the Scripture, the singing of antiphons, and a ritual meal that had a sacrificial character. Eusebius concluded, in his history, that this community eventually converted to Christianity and formed the foundational generation of the Alexandrian Church. Mazza finds Eusebius’s argument possible, at least, given the similarities between Philo’s description of the Therapeutae and what we know of later Egyptian liturgy and monasticism.

In any event, Philo had a profound influence on early Christian theology. Clement of Alexandria knew him well, and Philo’s allegorical method seems to provided the foundation for the distinctive biblical interpretation of Christian Alexandria. St. Jerome — who had little good to say about Christians like Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom — praises Philo to high heaven. In his “Lives of Illustrious Men,” he can’t find a negative word to say about him. (If you’ve read this brilliant but prickly saint, you know that this is an extremely rare occasion.)

It is, however, Ambrose who, more than any other Father, puts Philo to work for the Gospel. I remember someone once telling me that Ambrose counted Philo among the prophets of Israel, but I could not locate that passage as I was preparing this blog entry. (If you know where it is, please let me know.)

Jerome and Ambrose were content to work with Philo as a Jew who anticipated Christian themes and interpretive methods. Other authors, however, claimed more. Eusebius reported that Philo had met St. Peter in Rome and was favorably impressed, ever afterward looking kindly on Alexandria’s Christians. Epiphanius goes further and tells us that the “papal audience” in Rome led to Philo’s conversion. By the early Middle Ages, we find references to Philo not only as a Christian, but as a bishop! The process is well documented in David Runia’s book Philo in Early Christian Literature. You’ll find Dr. Runia’s excellent summary of Philo’s influence on early Christian thought right here.

I had planned this to be just a short entry, occasioned by my dipping into Philo this week at work. But here I am, several paragraphs deep. I’ll hit the pause button.