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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Frick, Peter


Divine Providence in Philo of Alexandria.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 1999. XIII, 220 S. gr.8 = Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 77. Lw. DM 148,-. ISBN 3-16147141-5.


Peder Borgen

This monograph is a slightly revised and expanded version of a doctoral thesis written under the supervision of Alan Mendelson and Peter Widdicombe at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

In the introduction Frick states that in Philonic research no study has aimed at a comprehensive understanding of Philo's doctrine of providence. There is therefore a need to fill this lacuna in Philonic scholarship. F. then formulates his aim in this way: "We shall identify the various constituent elements of Philo's conception of providence, suggest how these elements amount to a coherent doctrine, and make explicit how the doctrine of providence functions as an essential pillar within the structure of Philonic thought as a whole" (1). F. rightly sees that Philo is foremost an exegete of Scripture and not a philosopher. To achieve as coherent as possible a doctrine of providence, F. finds it necessary to impose an organization or systematization on Philo's thought that is not part of his presentation of the theme of providence (18). Thus F. tends to treat Philo more as a philosopher than an exegete.

In Philo's summary statement in On the Creation of the World 171-72, F. recognizes three doctrines: the concept of God, the theory of creation, and the notion of providence. The concept of God is central in the sense that every other aspect of Philo's thought must be brought into correlation with it. Although God is transcendent and in no way directly apprehensible, His existence, but not His essence, can be deduced from the cosmos created by Him. The contemplation of the natural order proves that God is a providential God. The reason for the creation is God's goodness. The deeds of God's grace are administered through the guidance of the Logos by the divine powers, one of which is the gracious power or the providential power. As for providence and the doctrine of creation, Philo rejects the automatic genesis of the cosmos in favour of a temporal genesis brought about by the mind of God. The role of providence is that it is responsible for the design, administration and continuous existence of the created universe.

F. takes up two issues which go beyond the doctrines outlined by Philo in On the Creation of the World (171-72), the correlation between providence and astral fatalism and theodicy. Philo rejects astral fatalism because it supposes the divinity of the stars and renders absurd the notion of moral responsibility. As for Philo's theodicy, he agrees with the Platonic premise that God is not the cause for evil in any way. Physical evil is explained by means of the Stoic argument according to which it serves for the good of the whole cosmos or serves as a deterrent to keep a person from committing evil deeds. As for moral evil, Philo has placed both the origin and the responsibility for moral evil on human beings.

In the brief introductory survey of the notion of providence in Greek philosophy F. makes the observation that beginning with Plato and the Stoics and coming to a culmination with the Middle Platonists "the idea of providence was deliberately defined as divine providence or as the providence of God" (6). F. interprets Philo's concept of providence mainly within this Greek background. F. is at the same time aware of the fact that Philo belongs to Hellenistic Judaism, and in the introduction he has added a survey of the notion of providence in Hellenistic Judaism. Since one has to surmise that the issues of the governance of the world, God's sovereignty and human free will "must have been of significant interest in Jewish-Hellenistic circles, Philo's pursuit of the same issues, therefore, is not really innovative" (7). Against this background it is surprising to note that F. to a large extent ignores the Jewish background and context in his book, but for the brief chapter (14 pages) added to his doctoral dissertation, where he makes a sketch of what he understands to be Philo's description of the work of God's providence in the lives of individual people and in the history of the Jewish people.

F. bases his study on observations in selected texts and has in this way brought forth much relevant material. A more thorough examination of these texts and contexts would at times have added significantly to the analysis, however. For example, at various places (44 ff., 99, 121, 129-30, 182) F. draws on different parts of Virt. 212-16, where Philo relates that Abraham was the first person who grasped that there is one Cause above all, and that it exercises providence for the world and all there is therein. F. does not discuss the possible importance of Philo's identification in Virt. 212 of Abraham as the ancestor of the Jewish nation, and in Virt. 219 as ÎÓÒÓ standard and model of nobility for incomers/proselytes (âÀÏÙÈ) who abandoning strange laws and idolatry have come to settle in a commonwealth full of true life and vitality.

F. refers on pp. 26 and 59 to Spec. 2:165 and notices that Philo relates that the concept of God held by the Jewish nation is shared by all Greeks and barbarians, but he does not discuss Spec. 2:166-67 where Philo says that they went wrong and that the error which the rest committed was corrected by the Jewish nation. In connection with F.'s study of Philo's reference to the order of creation and employment of the cosmological argument, one would have expected that he had discussed how Philo explained that Moses began his law-book with the story of creation and of the patriarchs. Philo stated in different ways that the cosmos is in harmony with the law, and the law with the cosmos (Mos. 2: 47-48; Op. 3, and Abr 1-5). Thus more work seems needed in order to integrate more fully into the study the special connection between providence and the Jewish people, and the harmonious relationship between the Mosaic laws and the cosmos.

Another aspect which calls for a broader examination is the various ways in which human beings gain knowledge of God's providence. For example, F. refers to LA 3:99 where Philo states that those who base their reasoning on what is before their eyes, discern the Artificer by means of His works, the creation. The subsequent paragraph, LA 3:100, is not included in F.'s discussion, however. Here Philo tells that the more perfect mind gains its knowledge of the first Cause not from created things, but lifting its eyes above and beyond creation obtains a clear vision of the Uncreated One. Similarly, F. observes that in Praem. 42 Philo presents the opinion of some who by means of their contemplation of the created order acknowledge the Maker and Ruler of all, a position with which Philo seems to identify himself, Praem. 43. F. does not include in his analysis Praem. 43-46 where Philo says that others gain knowledge that God exists not from anything created, but from God Himself.

F. is to be commended for taking up a central theme in Philo's thoughts, and he has at times quite sophisticated analyses of relevant passages in Philo's writings. He illuminates in a fruitful way aspects of Philo's ideas on providence and their Greek background, but his discussion of the Jewish background is less satisfactory. He realizes that, since Philo was an exegete, the formulation of a coherent doctrine of providence imposes a systematization on Philo's thoughts. Although F.'s systematic presentation in this way does violence to the nature of the sources as exegesis of Scripture, his book can serve as an auxiliary tool in the study of ideas which are scattered in Philo's various expositions.