History of religion

Philon of Alexandria and the Search for Meaning

(Published in GralsWelt 61/2010)

Around the same time as Jesus lived in Alexandria a Jewish theologian and philosopher whose works gained great importance for Christianity while they had little influence on the development of Judaism: Philo of Alexandria (approx. 13 BC - 50 AD . Chr.), Who learned nothing of the life and work of Jesus.

Philo lived during the Hellenistic period, when after the death of Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BC) Greek was the world language, and every educated person in the Mediterranean area was familiar with Greek philosophy. In order to bring the Jewish wisdom teachings closer to non-Jews, Philon wanted to combine the Jewish understanding of religion with Greek philosophy.

The Septuagint

The first attempt to make the books of the Old Testament accessible to non-Hebrew speakers was a translation into Greek. This was created at the suggestion of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphos (283 - 246 BC). According to tradition, 72 scholars in Alexandria spent 72 days translating the Hebrew Bible, hence the name "Septuagint" (Latin: seventy). This Greek text of the Old Testament was initially intended for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt; later this Alexandrian translation also became part of the Bible of the first Gentile Christians[i].

No translation can avoid interpreting the original text. The Septuagint also required interpretations and adaptations to the Greek linguistic world, and with it began the interpretation of the Old Testament also for Gentiles (non-Jews), to which Philo could connect.

A combination of philosophy, mysticism and religion

The pious, Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo took a new path in his endeavors to make the old teachings more understandable: Greek philosophy (especially Platonic and Pythagorean ideas), Hellenistic mysticism and Jewish beliefs were to combine to form a comprehensive philosophical-religious system.

Philon went to it from one double Sense of writing from: The literal sense is the legitimate understanding of the text for the many. In addition, the few can grasp the profound philosophical meaning. An allegorical interpretation allows the deeper penetrated not only standard problems such as anthropomorphisms[ii] to overcome. Rather, one can read it in the Torah[iii] recognize the structure of the world and, in its commandments, the natural law underlying the world.

Exegesis (biblical interpretations)

Philon's allegorical-mystical interpretation of the Bible influenced Christian church fathers. His idea of the double interpretation of scriptures, the literal and the allegorical, is still effective today. In late antiquity and the medieval church, Johannes Cassianus (approx. 360-430) gave rise to the doctrine of quadruple Sense of writing:

Above that literally historical Meaning rises (based on the Pauline trinity of faith - love - hope[iv]) a threefold spiritual sense: a more allegorical (more dogmatic), tropological (more moral) and more anagogical (eschatological)[v].

For example, Jerusalem means historically a city of the Jews, allegorically the church, tropologically the human soul, and anagogically the heavenly city of God. In this way, statements of the Holy Scriptures can be related to current situations of the church, the state or the individual in a variety of ways.

The search for meaning

With Philo began a new form of understanding the Bible (and other religious writings, e.g. the Koran).

The detachment from the direct wording and the search for the deeper meaning has led to innumerable ways of looking at things, innumerable interpretations, endless discussions, disagreements and divisions in all book religions. Because depending on your own point of view, any scripture can be interpreted one way or another; and who can decide which view is correct? The priests who often disagree with themselves? The bishops? The pope?

Quotations can be found for every situation, every situation in life. B. allegorical interpretations provide answers to questions of life. But are these answers correct and helpful? Can religious books answer all questions and for all time?

“Most religions in world history have a vicious claim to exclusivity, including Islam and Christianity. Both are based on sacred books. Because the Bible and the Koran need to be interpreted, both world religions have developed an extensive, sometimes quite controversial, theological science. The scribes on both sides watch over the preservation of their faith; on both sides they use a special theological language. But it seldom happens that one reads the other's books; instead, many scribes on both sides zealously contribute to mutual enmity. " (3, p. 165).

To this day, the interpretations of religious writings suggested by Philo - almost like in the Middle Ages - also serve to underpin claims to rule and are therefore also of political relevance:

This is where the skeptics separate from the believers, the realists from the fundamentalists:
Anyone who wants to see the inviolable word of God in the Bible or considers the Koran to be the "uncreated word of Allah" has no doubt that these denunciations contain universal, inviolable, eternal truths.

Those who do not strictly follow the wording can bring contradictions into agreement through interpretations; it is less a matter of the “superficial”, generally understandable text than of penetrating into the word and uncovering its deeper layers hidden in allegories.

Thus, the religious understanding is very personal, shaped by the level of education and knowledge, permeated by mystical inclinations, full of views, speculations and explanations that can only be understood by a special group that knows and recognizes the background of the interpretations. It's getting esoteric. Finally, only specialists (priests) are able to understand the underlying interpretations.

Outsiders and theologically untrained believers cannot follow the often complicated, sometimes confused interpretations, and skeptics see some statements as unfounded, even absurd assertions. They then question religion and religiosity as such, and "throw out the baby with the bathwater" to use an allegory.

What is truth

We are thus faced with basic religious questions that are not usually asked in the denominations:

  • What is the basis of the respective teaching - z. B. a "holy book" like the Bible or the Koran - legitimized?
  • How are the respective "Holy Scriptures" to be understood? Is literal reception the right path to knowledge, or do allegorical or even more complicated interpretations lead to understanding? The literal, direct is often inconvenient; z. B. if it does not fit with the prevailing theology or the zeitgeist. Then one is inclined to construct interpretations that correspond to contemporary tastes.
  • Is it purely a matter of faith, maybe just habit, whether you choose a certain religion, or are there reliable criteria for ascertaining the truth? For example your own feelings, supernatural perceptions, or visions?
  • In many religions there are other traditions besides the more or less reliably handed down “Holy Scriptures”. E.g. in Judaism the Talmud[vi]; in Christianity the writings of the church fathers, council resolutions, papal encyclicals; in Islam the Sunna[vii] etc. How are these traditions to be classified?
  • What is the significance of religious rituals? Are they just folklore? Or is transcendence expressed in them in a symbolic form, thereby opening up the possibility of inner experience, of attaining religious experience?

There can be no universally valid answers to this, and each individual must find his or her own personal approach.

So every serious seeker is thrown back on his own conscience decision, which no one can make for him. Because a person has a lot of intellectual freedom that he should use, but not abuse. Everyone is responsible for his own earthly and spiritual life. Wrong decisions or even crimes cannot be excused by scriptures, religious teachings, views of authorities, state laws or the internal morals of a group.

In most denominations, such views are extremely unpopular: They devalue the monopoly of the priesthood in questions of morality and belief, and undermine the authority and claim to power of leading persons in churches and other religious communities.

This dichotomy between denominations and people who think and feel independently is probably as old as religion itself, and it will probably arise again and again on earth.

(1) Benz Otto et al., Calwer Bibellexikon, Stuttgart 2003.
(2) Farados Georgius D., Kosmos and Logos after Philon of Alexandria, Edition Rodopi, Amsterdam 1976.
(3) Schmidt Helmut, The Powers of the Future, Siedler, Munich 2004.
(4) Volpi Franco, Großes Werklexikon der Philosophie Vol. 2, Alfred Kröner, Stuttgart 1999.
[i] The original Jerusalem community consisted of the first followers of Jesus who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew. The Greek-speaking Gentile Christians around Paul, on the other hand, were mostly unable to read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew text.
[ii] Anthropomorphism = the transfer of human behavior to the extra-human, e.g. B. Gods.
[iii] Torah (Hebrew "teaching") = the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), the core of the Jewish religion.
[iv] 1st Cor. 13, 13.
[v] Allegorical interpretation (Allegorese) = consideration of a text, which understands it as a concealing representation of a spiritual meaning.
Anagogic = related to the coming kingdom of God.
Dogmatic = according to the doctrines of the Church.
Eschatology = study of the last events, e.g. B. of the second coming of Christ.
Tropological interpretation of Scripture = words or actions are not interpreted physically and naturally, but morally, in the sense that they promote a moral way of life.
[vi] Talmud = the main post-biblical work of Judaism, a collection of religious laws that were initially only passed down orally.
[vii] Sunna = the traditions about the life, work and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, which were collected in hadiths. There are many thousands of such hadiths.