Philo – Jewish philosopher

During the last years of the Beis  HaMikdash, the city of Alexandria in  Egypt was home to the largest and most  prestigious Jewish community outside of  Eretz Yisroel. About 150,000 Jews lived  there amongst 800,000 gentiles. In general,  the Jews lived prosperously, except  once, when they were threatened with  being crushed by elephants, about sixty  years before the story of Chanukah.

However, beneath the surface things  were not as tranquil as they seemed. First  of all, the population was a volatile brew  of Egyptians, Greeks and Jews. The Egyptians  hated the elitist Greeks, who were  generally better off, and both the Egyptians  and Greeks resented the Jews who  were a foreign element in their midst.  From the Torah’s perspective, the Jews  were in danger because of their attraction  to Greek culture. Torah scholarship was at  such a low that historians believe that generations  of Alexandrian Jews knew no  Hebrew and studied the Torah only from  the newly translated Greek Septuagint.

Although the Jews were mitzvah observant,  they were also deeply involved in  Greek culture, studying its philosophy and  enjoying its entertainments.  Typical of this type of Jew was the  famous Philo of Alexandria, who wrote  dozens of books trying to synthesize the  Torah with Greek philosophy. Yet, according  to most historians, he was ignorant or  almost totally ignorant of Hebrew and  may have had to rely on ancient dictionaries  in his discussions of the Torah’s etymology.

Philo came from an important  Alexandrian family. His brother, Alexander,  was a major tax official who plated  the nine gates of the Beis HaMikdash with  silver and gold, while his nephew,  Tiberius Julius Alexander, later apostatized  and became the governor of Egypt.

Obviously, Philo’s writings were  ignored by learned Jews. Ironically, they  only survived because they were “adopted”  by the early Christians. Other Jewish-  Greek intellectuals of the time were Philo  Epicus, a poet; Yechezkel Tragicus, a  playwright; and Artapanus who wrote  about history and geography. 


In 3798/38 CE, seventy years after  Egypt came under Roman rule, things  came to a climax, when King Agrippa,  who had been raised in Rome, passed  through Alexandria on his way to Judea.  As Philo records in his book, “Against  Flaccus”:

“The Roman emperor, Gaius Caligula  Caesar, had given Agrippa, the grandson  of King Herod, the third part of Judea  under his sovereignty, advising him to  travel there via Alexandria. When he  arrived there, the gentiles of Alexandria  erupted with jealousy and ill-will. They  were filled with an ancient enmity  towards the Jews and indignant at any one  becoming a king of the Jews.

“Friends of the Roman governor, Flaccus,  infused him with envy, saying, ‘The  arrival of this man to take over his government  is tantamount to your  demotion. He has greater dignity of honor  and glory than you. He attracts all eyes  towards himself when they see the sentinels  and bodyguards around him,  adorned with silvered and gilded arms.’

“When the king heard this, he encouraged  the idle, lazy mob of the city to  abuse King Agrippa. They drove a madman,  named Carabbas, to the public  arena, setting him up there on high, and  flattened out a leaf of papyrus on his head  instead of a crown, clothed his body with  a doormat instead of a cloak and, instead  of a scepter, they put in his hand a small  stick of papyrus, and young men bearing  sticks on their shoulders stood on each  side of him as a parody of bodyguards of  a king. Then the multitude shouted out  ‘Maris,’ the name they call the kings  among the Syrians.

“After that, the mob demanded, as if at  a given signal, to erect idols in the synagogues.”

This was a shrewd measure, because, if  the Jews refused to set up these images of  the emperor, they would be insulting Caesar.  Flaccus seconded the proposal and  pogroms broke out when the Jews resisted.  In a terrible portent of the future, a  ghetto was created. Jews were herded  from the five sectors of the city into one  place. Their deserted homes were plundered,  and they were slaughtered in their  new ghetto.

“Flaccus issued a notice in which he  called us all foreigners and aliens, and  allowed anyone to exterminate the Jews  as prisoners of war,” Philo  recorded. “What then did they do? They  drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters  of the city, and crammed them all into  a very small portion of one, while the  populace plundered and divided the booty  among themselves. The enemies turned  into wild beasts and slew thousands with  all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly  invented cruelties.      “Flaccus arrested thirty-eight members  of our council and arranged them in a  splendid procession through the middle of  the marketplace, with their hands bound,  some with thongs and others with iron  chains. He led them into the theater, commanded  them to be stripped and scourged  with stripes so severe that some of them  died.” 

King Agrippa meanwhile informed  Emperor Gaius what was going on and he  had Flaccus arrested and banished to a  lonely island. However, by the time a  Jewish delegation of five dignitaries,  including Philo, reached Rome, Emperor  Gaius seems to have flip-flopped and he  was once again firmly in favor of the anti-  Semites.

Philo describes his journey to the  Emperor in his book, Embassy to Gaius.  At first, Gaius welcomed them warmly,  too warmly for Philo’s liking. Philo  reports what happened next:

“Afterwards, while we were anxiously  considering his intentions, a man arrived,  with bloodshot eyes and looking very  much troubled, out of breath and palpitating  and, leading us away to a little distance  from the rest, he said, ‘Have you  heard the news?’ And then, when he was  about to tell us what it was, he stopped,  because of the abundance of tears that  choked him. And beginning again, he was  a second and a third time stopped in the  same manner.

“And with difficulty, sobbing aloud  and in a broken voice, he spoke as follows:  ‘Our Temple is destroyed! Gaius  has ordered a colossal statue of himself to  be erected in the Holy of Holies, having  his own name inscribed upon it with the  title of Jupiter!’ And while we were all  struck dumb with astonishment and terror  at what he had told us, others arrived  bearing the same sad tale.

In a subsequent meeting with Gaius,  the Emperor accused the Jews of disloyalty.  Philo reports his ridiculous claims:

“‘You are haters of god,’ he told us,  ‘because you do not think that I am a god,  I who am already confessed to be a god  by every other nation!’ And immediately  all the ambassadors opposing us were  filled with joy, thinking that their  embassy was already successful. They  clapped their hands and danced for joy,  and called him by every title applicable to  the gods.

“And while he was triumphing in these  super-human praises, a flatterer said, ‘O  master, you will hate with still more just  anger these men whom you see before.  For when all other men were offering up  sacrifices of thanksgiving for your safety,  these men alone refused to offer any sacrifice  at all.’ And when we all cried out,  ‘O Lord Gaius, we are falsely accused,  for we did sacrifice,’ he retorted, ‘That all  this is true. You did sacrifice. But you sacrificed  to another god and not for my sake  and what good did you do me?

“And while he was saying this, he  entered into the outer buildings, examining  the chambers of the men and the  chambers of the women, and the rooms  on the ground floor, and all the apartments  in the upper story, and planning  alterations and suggesting designs. And  we followed him up and down through  the whole place, mocked and ridiculed by  our adversaries like people in a play in the  theater.

“And when he had given some orders  about the buildings, he asked us, ‘Why do  you abstain from eating pig’s flesh?’ And  at this question our adversaries laughed  violently, partly because they were  delighted, and partly as they wished to  flatter the Emperor. Gaius finally  declared, ‘These men do not appear to me  to be wicked so much as unfortunate and  foolish, in not believing that I have been  endowed with the nature of a god.’And so  he dismissed us and commanded us to  depart.” 


Josephus reports, in Antiquities of the  Jews (18.257), how the Jews in Judea  were ready to lay down their lives rather  than allow an idol to be put up in the Beis  HaMikdash:

“Emperor Gaius sent the governor  Petronius to invade Judea with a great  body of troops and erect Gaius’ statue in  the Beis HaMikdash. But tens of thousands  of Jews begged Petronius to desist.  ‘If you are resolved to erect this statue,  kill us first,’ they said. For forty days, living  off the tilling of their land, they threw  themselves down upon their faces and  stretched out their throats, saying they  were ready to be slain.

“Petronius wrote to Gaius and entreated  him not to kill so many people and lose  the revenue from them. In addition, King  Herod Agrippa (the grandson of the original  King Herod and Miriam, the Hasmonean  princess), who was a good friend  of Caligula, made him a sumptuous banquet.  When Gaius was merry with wine,  he said to Agrippa, ‘Everything that may  contribute to your happiness shall be at  your service, as my ability will reach,’  thinking he would ask for some large  country or the revenues of certain cities.  Instead, Agrippa said to him, ‘My petition  is this: that you no longer think of dedicating  that statue which you ordered to be  set up in the Jewish Temple.’

“Gaius granted his request. He also  wrote to Petronius stating, ‘If you have  already erected my statue, let it stand. But  if you have not yet dedicated it, do not  trouble yourself further about.’

“All this was before Gaius received  Petronius’ letter, informing him that the  Jews were very ready to be killed rather  than submit to the decree. But when  Petronius’ letter arrived, Gaius wrote  back to Petronius, ‘Because you value the  gifts given to you by the Jews more than  my commands, and have been insolent  enough to be subservient to them, I order  you to become your own judge and consider  what you should do now you are  under my displeasure (and kill yourself).’”

In the end, the Jews’ troubles miraculously  ended with Gaius’ sudden assassination,  in 3801/41 CE. Petronius was  reprieved. As Josephus reports:

“A letter informing Petronius of Gaius’  death came before the above letter commanding  him to kill himself with his own  hands. Whereupon he rejoiced at G-d’s  Providence, who, immediately gave him a  reward for the regard he had for the Temple,  and the assistance he rendered to the  Jews.”

Peace settled in Alexandria for another  twenty years until another pogrom broke  out, two years before the Churban  HaBayis. A few decades later, in  4915/115 CE, the Romans finally eradicated  the Jewish community during a  civil war. 

(Quotes from classical sources above  are abridged.)

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