Episode 57: The Esoteric Philo

In this episode we return to the thought of the great Philo of Alexandria, concentrating specifically on the contours of esotericism in his work. We look at three main topics:

  1.  Philo’s construction of a perennial, esoteric tradition, a conception which brings Jewish and Hellenic ideas into a fascinating synthesis which sets the stage for many later developments of perennialism in western esotericism,
  2. Philo’s esoteric hermeneutics, and
  3. The question of a doctrine of reincarnation in Philo, and the possible bearing this has on the question of whether we ought to read Philo as not only an exegete of a tradition which he believes to be esoteric, but also as an esoteric writer himself.

 Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Eco, U., 1995. The Search for the Perfect Language. Blackwell, Oxford. For pansemioticism, see p. 25 et passim.
  • Philo (for the title-abbreviations used, see the handy table appended to episode 56): Moses a theologos: Mos ii. 115. Barbarian sages: Prob. 73-74. Hellenic philosophers including Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno, Cleanthes, Heraclitus, and Plato divinely-inspired initiates: e.g. Prob. i, ii; Her. 43; etc. Philo uses the double-human myth from Plato’s Symposium for scriptural exegesis: Op. 24; L.A. ii. 24. Vulgar myths fictions, scriptures bearers of truth: Det. 125; Op. 1, 157. The Hellenic mysteries false and rejected by Moses: Spec. 319-323. Philosophic silence and privileging of philosophic mysteries: Q.E. 1. On the privileging of sacred knowledge which ought to be practiced by the scriptural exegete, and the select kinds of people eligible for initiation into the mysteries of scripture: L.A. 57; Spec. ii 50; Fug. 81; Cher. 42; 48; Deus 61; 63-9; Somn. I 82; Cher. 48 ff. Prohibition on speaking the holy Name outside of initiated circles: Mos. Ii 114; cf. mystic terminology of silence at L.A. iii 219. God ineffable (ἄρρητον): Mut. 14; 15; Her. 170. The ‘spoken’ (ῥητή) and ‘subtextual’ (δι’ ὑπονοιῶν) levels of scripture, and ‘symbolic’ method: Abr. 88 et sæp; cf. 147; cf. Spec. i 200; L.A. I 1; Mos. I 23. God’s judgement of humans during their lifetimes: Plant. 108; Her. 271-4; Mos. Ii 217-18; Spec. iii 52, iv 171-2. Cosmic afterlife: Conf. 78; cf. Her. 283, 280, Q.E. ii 114.
  • Platonist philosophic silence: see Banner, N., 2018. Philosophic Silence and the ‘One’ in Plotinus. The University Press, Cambridge.
  • Raphael, P. S., 2009. Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD., citing page 314.
  • Strauss, L., 1988. Persecution and the Art of Writing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Yli-Karjanmaa, S., 2015. Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA.

Recommended Reading:

  • Borgen, P., 1997. Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • Borgen, P.; Fuglseth, K. and Skarsten, R., 2000. The Philo Index: A Complete Greek Word Index to the Writings of Philo of Alexandria. Brill, Leiden.
  • Cohn, L.; Wendland, P. & Reiter, S. (Ed.), 1896-1930. Philonis Alexandrini opera quæ supersunt. Georg Reimer, Berlin.
  • Fischel, H., 1973. Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy: A Study of Epicurea and Rhetorica in Early Midrashic Writings. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • Grabbe, L. L., 1988. Etymology in Early Jewish Interpretation: The Hebrew Names in Philo. Scholars Press, Atlanta.
  • Kamesar, A. (2009). ‘Biblical Interpretation in Philo’. In: Kamesar, A. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press.
  • Litwa, M. D. (2014). ‘The Deification of Moses in Philo of Alexandria’, The Studia Philonica Annual 26 : 1-27.
  • Mayer, G., 1974. Index Philonicus. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY.
  • Orlinsky, H. M. (1975). ‘The Septuagint as Holy Writ and the Philosophy of the Translators’, Hebrew Union College Annual 46 : 89-114.
  • Pépin, J., 1987. La tradition de l’allégorie de Philon d’Alexandrie à Dante, Paris.

On the Philonic reincarnation debate, see:

  • Goodenough, E. R. (1946). ‘Philo on Immortality’, Harvard Theological Review 39 : 85-108.
  • Burnett, F. (1984). ‘Philo on Immortality: A Thematic Study of Philo’s Concept of Palingenesia‘, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 : 459-62.
  • Termini, C. (2009). ‘Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism’. In: Kamesar, A. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press.
  • Yli-Karjanmaa, S., 2015. Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA.


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