Monday, March 20, 2017


Markus Witte (ed.), Otto Kaiser, Studien zu Philo von Alexandrien. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 501. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. vi, 174. ISBN 9783110494570. €99,95. Sami Yli-Karjanmaa (ed.), Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria. Studia Philonica Monographs 7. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015. Pp. 316. ISBN 9780884141211. $42.95.

Reviewed by Maren R. Niehoff, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (

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These two volumes on Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher and exegete active in the first century CE, are in many respects opposites of each other. Kaiser offers a collection of articles, partly republished and partly newly written, which complements his recent monograph Philo of Alexandria. Denkender Glaube – Eine Einführung (Göttingen 2015) and marks the end of an exceptionally long and productive career. Yli-Karjanmaa, by contrast, has published his doctoral thesis, which is based on his MA thesis. While Kaiser introduces the reader to Philo by discussing a broad spectrum of topics, Yli-Karjanmaa makes one consistent argument for experts, taking one passage of Philo's work (Somn. 1.138-9) as his starting point and the hermeneutic lens through which he interprets his whole oeuvre. Moreover, Kaiser celebrates Philo as a Jewish theologian and observant Jew, who was familiar with a wide range of philosophies and texts but always defined his distinct way of addressing the God of Israel. Yli- Karjanmaa, on the other hand, focuses on one kind of philosophy and argues that Philo adopted Plato's theory of the soul's reincarnation, with all the implications this has in Plato's philosophy, even though he does not make all these aspects explicit. Finally, Kaiser easily draws from his vast knowledge of numerous texts and cultures, while Yli-Karjanmaa bases himself on advanced computer searches, which provide him with parallel expressions in other texts. Both authors invite us to explore Philo further and understand his intellectual context.

Kaiser's collection of articles makes for much smoother reading than his recent monograph, where he often got lost in too many and too mundane details. The present volume is organized around central topics of Philo's work and provides interesting insights into his notions of exegesis, cosmology, the priesthood, prayer, and ethics, including man's wellbeing in his body. The editor Markus Witte expresses the hope that this volume will arouse interest in Philo among broader circles beyond Old Testament students (p. 3). This hope is well founded, as Kaiser offers in each chapter preliminary explanations which introduce the uninitiated reader to Philo. The first chapter opens with an especially valuable summary of his life and works, contextualizing his ideas in the trajectory of historical events and the development of his work. Such a historical contextualization of Philo's thought is still rare today. Kaiser's main concern is to render Philo natural and familiar in the eyes of readers, whom he expects to be initially puzzled by his creative allegories and particular Sitz-im-Leben. Anticipating negative attitudes, he stresses the skillfulness of Philo's "mastery" and the high standards of his art (e.g. p. 27, 31).

The reader thus learns about Philo's cosmology, his sources of inspiration in Platonic and Stoic philosophy, especially the Timaeus and the Alexandrian Platonist Eudorus, while at the same time being encouraged to appreciate his own contribution to the discussion of the creation. Kaiser summarizes the vast scholarship on this much examined topic and even goes slightly beyond it, showing how Philo used philosophical themes for his own purposes in shaping a Jewish theology with emphasis on God's uniqueness. In another chapter Kaiser investigates the cosmological significance of the high-priest, a topic often treated in early Christian literature. Inviting the reader to enter Philo's particular world, which is distinct from Christian experiences, Kaiser starts with a detailed review of traditional Jewish life, including Temple rituals, and places his discussion of the priestly garments in this context of lived Judaism. While some of Philo's allegorisations may be familiar to the reader from later Christian authors, the distinctiveness and richness of his overall approach become clear. In order to strengthen his appeal for empathy Kaiser invokes Goethe to highlight the fact that Philo both offered an allegorical reading and also held on to Jewish observance (pp. 58-61). The essay concludes with a highly personal reflection on the destruction of the Temple, which Philo had not witnessed, and more generally on the suffering of the Jews up until recently in the Holocaust.

The chapter on prayer is of special interest (pp. 63-82). Kaiser reconstructs Philo's daily prayer-routine on the basis of Dan. 6.11 and, more importantly, on the basis of the Book of Psalms. In Philonic studies it is unusual to pay attention to the Psalms and even rarer to identify them as a form of prayer. Kaiser unfortunately refrains from explaining his methods and assumptions at this point, but rather assumes as self-evident that the Psalms quoted by Philo reflect Jewish liturgy in Alexandria. My own research has shown that Philo is indeed the first interpreter of the Bible who gives special attention to the Psalms, frequently using them in his commentary on the Book of Genesis.1 Anticipating Origen and Eusebius, who later wrote extensively on the Psalms as expressions of Christian spirituality, Philo was the first to discover them as a form of intensely personal, at times even mystical religiosity. Kaiser intuitively senses this dimension of Philo's exegesis and brings the Psalms to the readers' attention, thus enabling them to see for themselves whether they accept his assumption regarding their liturgical use.

Yli-Karjanmaa challenges the reader from a very different perspective, namely from the point of view of Philo's philosophical assumptions, which may have been so self-evident to him that he did not need to spell them out explicitly. Yli-Karjanmaa opens his book with a quotation of the passage, which has since the Italian Renaissance been recognized as a testimony to Philo's belief in the reincarnation of the soul. He says that some souls "that are closest to the earth and lovers of the body, are descending to be fast bound in mortal bodies, while others are ascending, having again been separated (from the body) according to the numbers and periods determined by nature" (Somn. 1.138). Yli-Karjanmaa surveys the scholarly literature on this issue, highlighting David Winston, an eminent Philo expert, who rightly argued for Philo's belief in reincarnation but who did not, in his view, explore all the available evidence. While Winston spoke of the "likeliness" that Philo assumed several transmigrations according to the souls' merits (p. 19), Yli-Karjanmaa seeks to achieve certainty and prove beyond doubt that Philo was a loyal Platonist, departing in nothing from his teacher.

For this purpose he adopts a method which yields the anticipated result and suggests that Philo indeed embraced Plato's theory without any reservations or adaptations. All the relevant passages are reviewed in increasing order of explicitness. Yli-Karjanmaa starts with passages that possibly allude to the doctrine and ends with the most explicit passage, quoted above, suggesting that, if all the ambiguous passages are read in light of the latter, they amount together to a complete doctrine. He formulates his task thus: "it is necessary to examine Philo's view of the origin, composition, incarnation, afterlife and salvation of the human being to see whether they are reconcilable with what reincarnation presupposes" (p. 6). Yli-Karjanmaa thus aims at "reconciliation" with a presupposed doctrine rather than at an examination of Philo's thought in its own right. The reception history of Plato's ideas is at the heart of his investigation. To be sure, Philo certainly knew Plato's doctrine of the soul's reincarnation. Occasionally, as in the above-quoted passages, he even mentions the idea in passing as a fact. The main issue, however, that requires explanation is his lack of systematic exploration and, more importantly, his lack of reference to it in central passages of his anthropology. Throughout the Allegorical Commentary, where Philo interprets the Book of Genesis in a Platonic mode as a story about the soul's ascent to higher realms, he stresses God as the provider of knowledge and the soul's "impregnator." Philo is so well versed in Plato's work that he explicitly quotes from the famous digression in the Theaetetus (Fuga 63, 82) and regularly uses Platonic images of the divided soul, such as the "reasonable", "appetitive" and "high-spirited" part. Philo also speaks in the language of the Phaedrus about the charioteer, namely reason, who drives a pair of winged horses, which represent the spirited and the covetous parts of the soul (e.g. All. 3.127, Plant. 22, All. 2.99-104, 3.132-7, 3.223).

Readers of Yli-Karjanmaa's monograph should be aware, however, that certain elements of Plato's theory of the soul are conspicuous by their absence or lack of exploration in Philo's work. All of them are connected to questions of boundaries vis-à-vis the eternal or divine realm, touching upon the status of humanity in the universe. Philo does not mention in these central contexts the notion of the soul's immortality, which places it on the same level as the gods and prompts it to enter ever new bodies. This idea is avoided by Philo, apparently because it challenges the exclusive status of the Jewish God, the only eternal Being, as he insists. Philo moreover ignores the Platonic idea of learning as a process of recollection, where the soul recovers Ideas grasped before entering a particular body. Philo is highly ambivalent about the prospect of an independent human mind and rejects the idea of man as a standard of epistemology and ethics. In his view, human beings are not endowed with direct access to absolute truth. The soul is instead dependent on God for insight, not seeing by itself the Ideal Forms and recollecting their contours in the lives of individual persons. God provides man with "secure knowledge" and draws him up to Him, "as far as possible", stamping the mind "with the impress of the powers that are within the scope of its understanding."2 Thus the notion of reincarnation, while mentioned in some places throughout Philo's vast oeuvre, does not play a Platonic role in his anthropology or ethics.


1.   M. R. Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria. An Intellectual Biography, forthcoming at New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
2.   All. 2.1-3, 1.89, 1.38, note also All. 3.93, where Philo uses the verb "to recollect" in the everyday sense of remembering, i.e. not forgetting.

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