Philo and the Decalogue


In his commentary on The Decalogue (De Decalogo), Philo presented an excellent example of the Jewish mind at work in the first centuries C.E. The key perhaps for having understood what Philo was doing comes no sooner than the opening graph where he stated that “knowledge loves to learn and advance full understanding and its way is to seek after the hidden meaning rather than the obvious” (7).

This hidden God who communicated in riddles stood at the center of Philo’s world as well as at the center of Philo’s exegetical work. This God never was plainer seen than in Philo’s excursus on the troubling instance of God speaking to his people as described in both accounts. Philo asked what shape or form this sound could have possibly taken. Was it a voice? “Surely not,” Philo asserted, “may no such thought ever enter our minds, for God is not a man needing mouth and tongue and windpipe” (23). This Most High God of the Israel stood in difference to gods of the Greeks. Here for example stands his discussion of idols:

“Surely to persons so demented [as to worship idols] we might well say boldly, ‘Good sirs, the best of prayers and the goal of happiness is to become like God. Pray therefore that you may be made like your images and thus enjoy supreme happiness with eyes that see not, ears that hear not, nostrils that never breathe nor smell, mouths that never taste nor speak, hands that neither give nor take nor do anything at all, feet that walk not… but kept under watch and ward in your temple-prison day and night, ever drinking in the smoke of the victims’ ” (43, 45).

These vain gods of the hated Stoics and Greeks stood in stark contrast to the God who brooked no other, and sought to “lead the human race… to the road from which none can stray, so that following nature they night win the best of goals, knowledge of Him that truly is” (47). The hidden God was not hidden in that He could not be found as His precepts were there in the text ready for anyone to find who might have eyes to see and ears to hear.

In this way Philo presented his work as an attempt to wrestle the important questions behind the text. Despite of or maybe because of this stated intent the opening sections seemed almost silly and contrived. The oblivious answers Philo so despised seem, well, oblivious. Why a desert? That was where they were. Why ten words? That was how many he wanted to give. Likewise exhausting in tendentiousness was the love of numbers in the work. God chose ten words, brilliant (15, 17)! Ten was a great number because it sums all things up. God used seven days, excellent (59, 61)! Seven contains all things, except for the number six which nobody liked anyway. At other times his verbose rhetoric seemed completely oblivious to the facts on the ground. His high opinion of the Isrealites seemed often at odds with the Israelites as presented in the actual text. Similarly his closing graphs argued that the ten were “simple commands or prohibitions without… any penalty” (98) and so seemed disconnected from the rest of the Exodus literature and Deuteronomic texts.

This Woody Allenesque nervousness seemed at first to deflate the text; yet, one might argue that the false positivism of these passages come over simply because they act as necessary boilerplate for the real work which Philo hoped to attend. After discussing his ‘pressing’ questions, Philo stated that “having said what was fitting” (15) and having examined what required “preliminary treatment” (31), he would press into the doctrine at hand. This turn to the text invigorated the whole of the passage, and made the pagess in question come alive with nuance and wit.

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Historical Papers

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