Philo of Alexandria and the Construction of Jewishness in Early Christian Writings

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Jennifer Otto
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $84.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198820727.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jennifer Otto’s book, Philo of Alexandria and the Construction of Jewishness in Early Christian Writings, is a revised version of her 2014 McGill doctoral dissertation. Otto’s focus is on the ways in which three key figures—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius—understand Philo’s Jewish identity. The introduction makes several interrelated claims. The main hypothesis is that the early Christian use of Philo reflects these church fathers’ ongoing efforts to establish continuity between a Christian way of life and humanity’s earliest history as well as to conceptualize and demarcate the difference between “Jewishness” and “Christianness” as two emerging and fluid collective identities. A second claim is that the fathers used Philo’s descriptions of the relationship between ascetic Jewish communities, such as the Essenes and the Therapeutae, and the masses of ordinary Jews to conceptualize a two-tiered structure of the Christian community (21). Third, Otto aims to show that the fathers cited Philo as a witness to the venerability of the Hebrew tradition and to support the claim that scriptures communicated truths on multiple levels, especially the allegorical, at the same time as they accused their Jewish contemporaries of misunderstanding their own scriptures. And, to answer her key question, Otto’s study demonstrates that Philo was important to these three church fathers as an in-between figure: as a wise allegorical interpreter, Philo was superior to other, more literal-minded Jews, and yet he fell short because he was not a Christian. 

Otto suggests that each of the three patristic figures constructed Philo in a slightly different way. Clement viewed Philo as a Pythagorean, Origen saw him as a Predecessor, and Eusebius referred to him as a Hebrew. Each of these epithets implies a particular understanding of the relationship between Christianness and Jewishness. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 take up each of these fathers in turn and elaborate on the epithets chosen by each. The chapters have similar though not identical structures. In each case, Otto begins with a short introduction to the church father in question and then discusses his usage of three key terms—Ioudaioi, Israel, and Hebraioi—in order to determine his construction of “Jewishness.” The chapters then turn to the father’s use of Philo—in which treatises, to what extent, in which contexts, and to what ends. Each chapter concludes with some comments on how Philo’s Jewishness relates to the value of his work to Christian discourse. Each chapter also discusses aspects that may be specific to their subject. So, for example, the chapter on Origen adds a section on his interactions with the Jews of Alexandria and Caesarea before discussing Origen’s use of the three “Jewish” terms. 

These three chapters make for interesting reading, whether one’s primary interest is in the fathers or in Philo. They clarify well the rhetorical roles that Philo’s exegetical method as well as specific interpretations play for a particular father in conveying their own deeply-held views to their audiences. Otto’s conclusion—that Philo’s liminal role of not quite Jewish and not quite Christian plays an important part in the fathers’ own rhetorical program—is well-argued and therefore convincing. 

Somewhat less successful is the first chapter, in which Otto examines the fascinating question of how Christians came to have access to Philo’s writings. Otto argues against the consensus position that the Alexandrian Christian community was in continuity with the Alexandrian community. Her critique of the consensus position is based on lack of evidence; she argues that the “attempts to reconstruct an original form of Alexandrian Christianity rests on an unstable foundation of insufficient evidence” (33). The same can be said, however, of her alternative theory. Certainly it is possible that, as Otto argues, the church fathers learned about Philo via the philosophical schools in which his treatises were already being read. She extrapolates this idea from an assumption that Philo’s prominence in the Alexandrian community was such that “it is not unlikely that his texts were exchanged by a variety of philosophically inclined readers” (46). Yet as Otto herself acknowledges, “the dearth of contemporary middle Platonic and Pythagorean texts makes it impossible to know whether Philo’s corpus was read there” (46). While it is important to address this basic question in a book on the fathers’ use of Philo, it would have been better simply to acknowledge that we do not have sufficient evidence to decide among these competing hypotheses, including her own. 

This issue aside, this study is a valuable contribution to a fascinating case of how the church fathers valued, deployed, and made sense of the works of Philo. The book will be helpful to scholars of patristics as well as of Philo. It will also appeal to anyone interested in the linguistic question pertaining to the usage of Ioudaioi, Israel, and Hebraioi, and more generally in the complex and nuanced issue of Jewish-Christian relations in the early centuries of the common era.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adele Reinhartz is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
September 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Otto is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge. She earned her PhD at McGill University in 2014, where she held a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. From 2015-2017, she was a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Erfurt. Her research interests include second and third century Christianity, early Christian biblical exegesis, and the intersections of Christianity and violence from antiquity to the present day.

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