Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Greek and Jew: Philo and the Alexandrian Riots of 38-41 CE

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Greek and Jew: Philo and the Alexandrian Riots of 38-41 CE

Article excerpt

For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me. Job III:25

PHILO, THE JEW OF ANCIENT ALEXANDRIA, WAS PRODUCT and part of two worlds, Jewish and Greek. Much of his life and thought was devoted to sorting out the contradictions inherent in that situation and the personal dilemmas with which it burdened him. One answer he attempted was to seek tranquillity and quiet above the storm through a life devoted to the joys of philosophical contemplation and higher wisdom. However, although the dilemmas became more manageable, they did not disappear, and the wide world outside, impatient of philosophical solutions and ways, would intrude harshly, threatening to shatter Philo's contemplative calm, disrupting his peaceful and well reasoned order. Never was this more true than in the violent Alexandrian civil conflict of 38-41 CE between Jews and Greeks, perhaps a precursor to the Civil War of 115 CE, which concluded with the Roman destruction of the Jewish community.

Philo had been largely forgotten in Jewish studies until very recently. Neither Talmud nor Midrash mentions his name, and only in recent times have more secular Jewish scholars again taken an interest in him. In contrast, his essays and bible commentaries were known and used by the early fathers of the Church. His interest in allegorical interpretation and his synthesis of Greek and biblical wisdom perhaps fitted better with the direction of early Christianity's intellectual progression than with the rabbinic style of study. Modern writers are divided as to the importance of Philo's works. However, beyond the philosophical ideas, Philo occasionally lets slip into a scholarly essay a personal feeling or view, from which we can gain some insight into Philo as a man.

The essays in which he describes the riots in Alexandria differ from his other writings. Philo was now away from the world of ideas, thrust albeit reluctantly into the center of a nightmare. His narrative reveals much about himself in addition to being our only eyewitness account of those calamitous events. Let us set them in the context of the Hellenistic world.

The dilemmas of Phio's life recur not infrequently in history, particularly in the story of the Jews. In what measure can one mix religious loyalties with the pressures of the daily world? To what degree can the strong faith of the believer, even the intellectual believer, be reconciled to and modified by a knowledge of other ways to live? That Phio was a decent, intelligent man with his share of human weaknesses is clear even through the impersonal tone of his writings. Philo's life in first century Alexandria is intimately intertwined with the history of the large and important Jewish community there.

First planned by Alexander the Great during his triumphal march through Egypt in 333 BCE, the city of Alexandria soon became the jewel of the Mediterranean and capital of the Ptolemaic Empire. Its harbors bustled with the merchants of three continents and their babel of tongues. Exotic trade goods from far away mixed with the wealth of Egypt's fertile hinterlands. Travelers praised the city's pleasant climate, and her well planned grid of spacious lighted streets; her ready water supply and her beautiful buildings were the envy of all. Under the patronage of the Ptolemies, the Alexandrian Museum became a brilliant center of science and literature, boasting of Euclid, the geometrician, Aristarchus, the astronomer, and Callimachus, the poet and critic, among its many luminaries. The library was unsurpassed. Overlooking the harbors was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse of Pharos, 370 feet high, whose light guided mariners far out at sea.

However, the excitement of the city's life only masked some of the chronic tensions among its inhabitants. The predominant population was Greek in ethnic background, in language and in sentiment. …

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