Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

Philo JudaeusThe Jewish communities of the Greek-speaking world had an active cultural and religious life. Accordingly, they produced numerous literary texts, only some of which have been preserved for us, mostly through the efforts of the church fathers. These texts are of many different kinds, but a common thread runs through them, for they all represent an attempt to synthesize the ancient traditions of the people of Israel with the new “modern” life of the Hellenistic world.

The Septuagint

The Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX, “seventy”) is the Hellenistic Greek version of the Bible. Its name derives from a legend, preserved in both the Letter of Aristeas (probably to be dated to the late second century B.C.E.) and talmudic sources, attributing its translation to seventy-two elders brought from Jerusalem to Alexandria by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246 B.C.E.). This translation was preserved by the church and for most early Christians constituted what they termed the “Old Testament.” The canon of the Septuagint was wider than that of the Hebrew Bible in that it included various apocryphal works, some of which will be taken up below. Greek Bibles were organized into sections based on a distinction between the genres of law, history, poetry, and prophecy. For this reason the Septuagint’s order of books is radically different from that of the Hebrew Bible. The order of the Hebrew Bible is based on the date of canonization of each book and its subsequent placement in the Torah, Prophets, or Writings, and this reflects the degree of divine inspiration which the book or later tradition claims for its author.

The Septuagint began to take shape in the third century B.C.E. in response to the needs of the Alexandrian Jewish community. Initially all that was translated was a version of the Torah for worship and study. The translators may have included Palestinian scholars, and the project may even have been encouraged by the king. On the other hand, the text may have come about more informally, as an oral translation used in worship services, which later was edited and committed to writing. By the second century the books of the latter prophets, then the former, were translated as well. Some of the Writings had also been translated by the beginning of the second century B.C.E., whereas others were rendered into Greek only in the first century. The translations of the various biblical books circulated independently and in many differing manuscripts. The lack of a fixed, standard text may have been one of the factors that ultimately led the Greek-speaking Jews to abandon the Septuagint for other translations that emerged later. The differences between the Septuagint translation and the Hebrew text, which was taken as authoritative by the rabbis of the Yavnean period (ca. 80–100 C.E.), must have led to more strenuous objections to the use of this translation as time went on.

The Septuagint was not simply a literal translation. In many areas, the translators used Hellenistic Greek terms that made the text easier for Greek readers to understand but changed its meaning subtly. Elsewhere, the translators introduced Hellenistic concepts into the text. At times, they translated from Hebrew texts which differed from those current in Palestine, a matter now much clearer thanks to the evidence provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. At other points, the Septuagint reflects knowledge of Palestinian exegetical traditions which are enshrined in rabbinic literature.

Some modern scholars have maintained that the Hebrew text of the Bible should be revised on the basis of the textual differences in the Greek translation. It is indeed true that certain readings of the Septuagint have been confirmed by the discovery of ancient manuscripts. Yet care must be exercised in view of the complex history of the Greek biblical text and the fact that differing biblical texts are known to have existed in ancient times. In recent years scholars have emphasized the significance of the Septuagint as a document of Hellenistic Judaism. Seen from this perspective it offers evidence of a long tradition of biblical exegesis in the Alexandrian Jewish community, shows the spiritual links between the Egyptian Diaspora and the Palestinian homeland, and illustrates how Greek-speaking Jews read and studied their sacred Scriptures in order to preserve their Jewishness in an alien environment.

Two new Greek translations were produced in the second century C.E. by Aquila the Proselyte and Theodotion, both of whom were Jews. These translations were faithful to the Hebrew texts declared authoritative by the Palestinian rabbis and to the emerging tannaitic exegesis. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that there had been earlier attempts to revise the Septuagint. Symmachus, who somewhat later translated the Hebrew Bible into more idiomatic Greek, may have been a Samaritan or a Christian or may have been Jewish. All of these translations illustrate the new requirements of the common era. The Jews needed a translation in accord with the now dominant rabbinic approach to Judaism; the Christians sought one that would mirror their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philo Judaeus

Hellenistic Jewish literature is dominated by a unique and overarching figure, the Alexandrian Jew Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.E.–ca. 50 C.E.). It was he who seized the opportunity to fuse Judaism systematically with the thought of the Hellenistic world in a corpus which today occupies some twenty-five hundred printed pages. This contribution would be passed on by the church fathers and virtually ignored by the Jewish people, only to be rediscovered by them during the Italian Renaissance.

Philo was born into a noble family in Alexandria and received an education both Jewish and Greek. In 38 or 39 C.E., when the Jewish community of Alexandria sent an embassy to the emperor Caligula in Rome because of the anti Jewish riots that had taken place in the city, Philo was appointed the delegation’s leader. Although their mission was unsuccessful, this shows the high regard in which he was held by his compatriots and his willingness to stand up for his people. Thereafter he continued his literary work until his death in about 50 C.E.

Philo wrote in an extremely discursive style, jumping back and forth between biblical exegesis, which endows most of his treatises with their form, and philosophical exposition, which provides the intellectual backdrop for his interpretations. His philosophy, much of it in the Platonic mold, is a blend of the personal God of the Hebrew Bible and the abstract, perfect deity required by Greek metaphysics. Both of these merge in the divine logos, the Word and Wisdom of the Supreme Being. The notion that the logos was the firstborn son of the deity led to the popularity of Philo among the early Christian fathers.

A number of Philo’s works concern biblical narratives and are a mixture of legal and philosophical expositions. His On the Creation argues that the laws of the Bible accord with those of nature. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Joseph, are the subject of special treatises in which Philo deals with them as embodiments of the law and archetypes of virtue. In the Life of Moses Philo casts Moses as the ideal lawgiver, priest, and prophet in Platonic terms. His On the Decalogue and Special Laws are expositions of Jewish law and practice interpreted in Greek philosophical terms.

In Allegorical Interpretation Philo’s Greek philosophical background is put to best use, for here he interprets the first seventeen chapters of Genesis as presenting a set of philosophical and even quasi-mystical concepts. Purely philosophical issues are raised in a number of treatises, such as On the Eternality of the World and On Providence. Against Flaccus details the pogrom against the Jews in 38 C.E., and On the Embassy to Gaius reports on Philo’s above-mentioned trip to Rome to protest the pogrom, a journey which coincided with the emperor’s order to erect a statue in the Jerusalem Temple.

Philo believed in a transcendent God. His concept of the logos bridges the gap between man and God, making possible the close relationship of the Jewish people to God, as described in the Bible. The search for an understanding of God becomes the goal of Jewish piety. The Bible, allegorically understood, is an account of the soul’s striving for God. Accordingly, Philo explains the Bible on two levels, the literal and the symbolic. When the literal was unacceptable to him, he used only the allegorical. This method allowed him to radically recast the biblical narratives in Hellenistic garb. Throughout his work Philo calls for the strict observance of Jewish law, which he sometimes interprets in a unique manner and sometimes in accord with views also evidenced in Palestinian sources of his day.

Also significant is his view of the soul. According to Philo, the soul has descended into the world of matter, and it is up to each individual, by stripping himself of earthly passions, to bring about the soul’s ascent to God. This process is helped by the striving for intellectual appreciation of God, but it is clear from Philo’s descriptions that the final stage is that of a mystical experience of union with the Divine. Indeed, for him, prophecy is an act of ecstasy, in which man receives the effulgence of divine light.