Philo and Midrash

By Cohen, Naomi G. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Philo and Midrash


Cohen, Naomi G., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


That midrash is the literary form that jewish thought and theology has most often adopted as the best medium for the exposition of ideas is an obvious but often forgotten fact. Although philosophical discourse and the midrashic style seem to be poles apart, midrash is often consciously chosen to express philosophical truths.

In the traditional Jewish world midrash is probably the genre most often used for theological dialogue. Although apologetics or an attempt to deal with anachronistic material may sometimes play a part in the creation of midrash, what inspires its use is primarily the positive emotional and ideational link to the sacred text felt by speaker, writer, and audience. Moreover, since Scripture was regularly read and publicly expounded, it was a natural and obvious means to transmit contemporary moral and social messages, and was ideal for conveying complex multivalenced messages that defy explication in simple logical discourse.

The thesis that Philo (c. 20 B.C.E. - 50 C.E.) was a writer of midrash and that his major works can be placed within the mainstream of Jewish midrashic tradition in no way compromises his stature as an original thinker. At the same time, no serious study of Philo can disregard the fact that his preferred medium was homiletic hermeneutics; the literary form of most of his writings was biblical exegesis, whether symbolic, allegorical, or literal, and he used this form to relay hortatory, expository, remonstrative, and didactic messages.

In Philo's day midrash was almost certainly the preferred form of public discourse in the Jewish world and a natural choice for anyone who wished to gain a heating. The relative proportions of Jewish and Greek "patterns" and topoi was of course not the same in Palestine and the Diaspora, but the same Zeitgeist-spirit of the times-moved the Jewish preacher and the Jewish audience in the Diaspora cities of Alexandria and Antioch on the one hand, and in Caesarea, Tiberias, or even Jerusalem on the other. The sources give no evidence that visiting preachers from Judea to Diaspora communities were hampered by cultural or linguistic barriers.

The notion that the knowledge of Hebrew was necessary for the existence of a joint Palestinian-Diaspora midrashic tradition is mistaken.(1) Not only was the Septuagint the property of Greek-speaking Jewry, but abroad spectrum of literature had been translated into Greek from Hebrew and Aramaic by Philo's time.

A well-known example of this is The Proverbs of Ben-Sira, which, as its translator informs us in his introduction, was translated in Alexandria for an already existing readership about a century before Philo was born. Much of what has survived to our day, has done so only due to its having been rendered into Greek.(2)

This weighs heavily against the argument that Philo could have had no significant contact with traditional midrashic lore because he knew no Hebrew, an assumption made because of his slavish dependence on the Septuagint - even using its text as the point of departure for his homiletic exegeses (derashot).

To argue like Samuel Belkin in his Philo and the Oral Law(3) that even "if he [Philo] himself had no knowledge of Hebrew, he must have been informed of the Hebrew text by Alexandrian adepts of Hebrew Scripture" is not necessary. As George Foote Moore wrote in his classic survey of Judaism in ancient times, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era,(4) Philo's knowledge of Hebrew is not crucial, since there is every reason to suppose that rabbinic tradition could and was conveyed in Greek - and indeed I have just pointed out that whether or not Alexandrian Jews knew Hebrew, they had at their disposal a veritable library of Jewish works in Greek translation.

Furthermore, the idea that Alexandrian Jewry in Philo's day was somewhat isolated from the contemporary social, cultural, and ideological ferment taking place in Judea can only be viewed as the product of narrow, specialized scholarship.

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