The Place of Judaism in Philo's Thought: Israel, Jews, and Proselytes

By Borgen, Peder | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Place of Judaism in Philo's Thought: Israel, Jews, and Proselytes


Borgen, Peder, Journal of Biblical Literature


Bell & Howell Information and Learning: Foreign text omitted.

The Place of Judaism in Philo's Thought: Israel, Jews, and Proselytes, by Ellen Birnbaum. BJS 290; Studia Philonica Monographs 2.290. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996, Pp. xviii + 262. $39.95.

As stated by the author herself, this book is a lightly revised version of her 1992 doctoral dissertation at Columbia University under the guidance of Professor Alan Segal.

After an extensive introduction, the dissertation is organized in six chapters followed by summary and conclusions. The book deals with Philo's use of the term "Israel," the relationship between Israel and God, and finally Philo's views on proselytism as seen in relationship to God, Jews, and Israel. The book closes with bibliography and indices.

According to Birnbaum the etymological interpretation of "Israel" to mean "the one that sees God" opens the way for Philo to redefine the entity "Israel" beyond a specific ethnic group. She shifts the focus from many scholars' discussion of Philo's place in Judaism to the question of Philo's own attitude toward and understanding of being a Jew and whether he believes that all people can participate in seeing God and belonging to Israel. In this way Birnbaum enters a quest of the historical Philo.

Birnbaum rightly stresses that Philo is primarily an exegete. She realizes that scholars have -often focused exclusively upon his [Philo's] ideas without taking note of such other factors as the relationship between these ideas and the Biblical text he is interpreting, the possible influence of earlier exegetical traditions, the literary genre of the work, Philo's audience(s), and finally, the very nature of seeing God" (p. 86). Birnbaum makes several helpful observations in Philonic passages along these lines.

She relates her discussions to Philo's various groups of writings, the allegory, the exposition, the historical writings (On the Embassy to Gaius and Against Flaccus), etc. This is helpful, but when Birnbaum bases much of her argument on the idea that Philo's various works are directed toward different, though perhaps overlapping audiences, and are composed with different aims, then her study becomes weak, Birnbaum herself admits that at "best one can only attempt to make intelligent guesses about who these various readers are and what Philo's aims might be" (p. 18).

Birnbaum finds it striking that Philo refers to "Israel" only twice in the exposition (Abraham 57 and On Rewards and Punishments 44), while in the allegory he frequently speaks of "Israel." She also points to the circumstance that in the nonexegetical writings, "Israel" appears only once, in On the Embassy to Gaius 1-7. She makes many valuable observations in her discussion of these passages. As for On the Embassy to Gaius 1-7, Birnbaum notes that Philo here links "Israel," the one that sees God, with the Jews, and that he combines in this passage philosophical themes with Jewish traditions about God and the nation. God takes special thought for the Jews, who are "the suppliant's race," and are his portion. Philo probably alludes here to Deut 32:9, which is about Israel as God's portion. He counts the vision of God by the Jews as even higher than what can be reached by philosophy. According to Birnbaum, Philo speaks of "Israel" and the Jews together only here. She thinks the reason is his wish to impress a mixed audience of Jews and non-Jews by depicting the Jews as those who embody the ideal of seeing God.

It would have been helpful if Birnbaum more pointedly had pursued her quest for the historical Philo. On the Embassy to Gaius 1-7 represents with certainty Philo's own view. The material in the allegory is more problematic, since Philo in that series employs traditions in a more general way, and is also more closely tied to the wordings of biblical texts. …

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