Friday, November 25, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- bad commentaries

One urban legend about Philo, repeated in one Amazon review after another, is that his work about Torah is valuable for understanding Judaism of his period. 
OK, granted that not all the people reviewing books on Amazon are scholars of the Judaism of the period from 20 BCE to 50 CE when Philo lived.  And a sadly large number of reviewers on Amazon don’t know how to write a useful review.  But I digress.
The only thing that Philo’s work is good for is evaluating Philo.
Philo was a neo-Platonist.  He uses the catchphrases common to that group, theos logos and so on.  It would take an expert on the neo-Platonists, which I am not, to determine whether Philo goes with the flow of that stream of thought at all times.  It would take an expert on Plato, which I am not, to determine how far the neo-Platonists diverge from his ideas.
But the one thing Philo is not, is an expert on Judaism.  And the signs are the same as for Septuagint. 
He uses unsuitable words for concepts well understood in passages of Mishnah that date before his time.  He misinterprets phrases in Torah.  He lags behind rabbinical understanding of passages in Torah.  He over-specifies what Torah leaves vague. 
Philo contradicts Jewish law.  He misreports quantities of tithing.  He mis-describes sacrificial procedure.  He contradicts Torah on lending.  He misrepresents how Jewish law treats prostitutes.  He is one of the first, if not the first, to describe lo yirtsach as “thou shalt not kill,” which I discussed to death long ago.
Philo misrepresents historic context by claiming that the stones on the efod relate to the Zodiac.  First, Jews are prohibited by law from divining by the heavenly bodies.  Second, the Zodiac dates only a century before Philo’s own birth, to the work of Berosus the Astrologer (NOT Berosus the Historian, they were different people).  Philo must have known that the efod description is no younger than the time of Ezra.  Maybe he didn’t know the exact span of time, but he had the opportunity to know, if he studied Jewish history, that Ezra came before the Hasmoneans.  And in fact, tradition in Philo’s times said that the efod came from the time of the Exodus, long before Ezra.
I had a dustup on Twitter with somebody who objected to my rejection of Philo; he said that Judaism has to address contemporary issues.  I pointed out that “addressing” an issue is not the same as writing commentaries that pretend the primary document explicitly caters to an issue from an external culture that did not exist until centuries after Torah was put into writing.  The latter is what Philo did in his work, and he was wrong, and that’s why he’s irrelevant both with respect to Judaism, and with respect to the importance of Septuagint – which he disagrees with whenever it’s convenient for his program.
Which is a habit that will crop up again in the fourth part of this blog.

But that's not the only way a commentary can go wrong.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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