Philo of Alexandria

An Intellectual Biography

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Maren R. Niehoff
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2018.
     336 pages.
     $38.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300175233.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Maren R. Niehoff is well known in Philonic circles for her insightful reading of Philo and other Jewish authors within their ancient historic and literary contexts. It is for this reason that scholars highly anticipated her biography of Philo, a project that had never previously been undertaken. This desideratum is not a result of Philo’s lack of importance, but due to the dearth of personal information offered by him in his writings as well as those subsequently written about him. Niehoff is aware of this issue, yet argues that an attempt to outline his life and development of his thinking needs to be made.

A significant event in Philo’s timeline is the attack on the Jewish people of Alexandria in 38 CE. Philo went to Rome as an embassy leader seeking to petition Caligula for justice and the restoration of Jewish rights. In part 1, “Philo as Ambassador and Author in Rome,” Niehoff begins her study with the “historical” works of On the Embassy to Gaius and Against Flaccus, written in the time she labels as Philo’s “mature period” (4-5). By starting here, Niehoff works from the most verifiable biographical evidence on Philo to seasons of his life which are less defined. Parts 2, “Philo’s Exposition in a Roman Context,” and 3, “Young Philo Among Alexandrian Jews,” examine this pivotal episode, with the former demonstrating how Philo incorporated elements of Roman Stoicism into his now outward-facing compositions, and the latter emphasizing Philo’s initial devotion to Platonic thought and the influences of his Alexandrian literary environment.

The central thesis of Niehoff’s work asserts that Philo’s travel to Rome and experiences there were transformative and resulted in distinctive changes to his writings. First, Philo moved from writing for an internal, Jewish audience and instead wrote for non-Jews who were unfamiliar with the scriptural texts and characters. Second, this change of audience resulted in the adoption of a new genre for his composition: historiography—especially biography which was in vogue in Rome (109-30). Third, Philo’s experiences in Rome resulted in a change of philosophical perspective and the increased usage of Stoic ideals alongside Platonism (16-18).

Niehoff’s comparative literary approach highlights the importance of Rome and Roman intellectual culture on the development of the Greek East and how it has been underappreciated by scholars (although this is changing). For example, in reading Philo’s historical writings within the context of the Second Sophistic, Niehoff demonstrates how Philo’s “self-fashioning” parallels the approach adopted by other Greek writers in subsequent centuries (41-51).

Philo of Alexandria: An Intellectual Biography is well written and provides a compelling theory for Philo’s intellectual development. Niehoff’s use of 38 CE as an anchor for Philo’s biography is exemplary, but her confidence in his clear and radical transformation could be viewed as problematic. Niehoff admits that the young Philo already had knowledge of Stoicism and employed Stoic concepts in his earlier Allegorical Commentary (225-42). Similarly, several of Niehoff’s ideas—such as Philo’s connection with Seneca, the clean division between the Allegorical Commentary and the Exposition of the Law, and the placing of all of Philo’s philosophical treatises after the Roman embassy (a helpful timeline is provided in Appendix 1, 245-46)—lack firm evidence and substantive argumentation against alternate proposals. Niehoff arrives at these positions through solid scholarly work and they are all possible, if not plausible. The dearth of bibliographical information suggesting when Philo wrote his treatises precludes firm conclusions, however Niehoff provides a viable reconstruction. Indeed, her careful reading through a chronological lens provides insights into the texts and Philo’s engagement with Roman ideas (e.g., Philo’s depictions of Jewish women, 131-46).

Finally, Niehoff is correct in emphasizing that Philo’s character and outlook were not static, nor was his thought process rigidly fixed. Events shape people and Philo, through his experiences at Rome, would have been changed in significant ways. Niehoff argues that this change was dramatic and fundamentally shifted Philo’s viewpoint and philosophical constructs. Although I would not follow her to the same extreme, the principle of change that she models should be recognized and her insights incorporated into a more holistic view of Philo. Ultimately, Niehoff’s biography of Philo is an important contribution to the field and is a work scholars of Philo need to engage with.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Adams is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Ancient Culture at the University of Glasgow.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maren R. Niehoff, Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trained in Jerusalem, Berlin, and Oxford and at the Harvard Society of Fellows. She is the author of Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, and The Figure of Joseph in Post-Biblical Jewish Literature. Niehoff received the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines at the Hebrew University in 2011 and is widely regarded as one of the leading Philonists today.

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