Next Event
PSCO Presentation: 27 April, 2006

“Ensouled Laws (Abraham and Moses): Sage as Text and Text as Sage in the Writings of Philo of Alexandria”
Professor Hindy Najman, University of Toronto

The fourth meeting of this year's PSCO will be held on 27 April, 2006 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm in the 2nd Floor Lounge of Logan Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. At that time, the Religious Studies and Jewish Studies programs at Penn join with PSCO to welcome Hindy Najman (University of Toronto).

There will be a cafeteria style kosher dinner in the Logan 2nd Floor Lounge at 5:30 pm sponsored by the Religious Studies and Jewish Studies programs. (Please let Bob Kraft know if you are likely to attend the dinner -- probably Chinese kosher.)

Prior to that, Dr. Najman will be available at an informal "open forum" question and answer period from 3:30 - 5:00 pm, centering on her book Seconding Sinai and her current research interests, in the same location, coordinated by Bob Kraft. Come and make a full afternoon and evening of her visit.


Philo of Alexandria calls Moses and Abraham ensouled laws. These biblical figures achieve such an elevated status because they intuit Natural Law on their own. What does it mean, for Philo, to be "like Moses" or "like Abraham" and is this possible or even desirable? And how does this all relate to Philo's claim that the text of Mosaic Law is a living thing that can guide its adherents towards becoming "soul alone"?

This presentation explores the conception of sages and texts as exemplars in the first century works of Philo. It seeks to deepen Peter Brown's analysis of late ancient holy men in two ways. (1) First, it complicates Brown's distinction between "'the divine man', of late classical times . . . [who] continued to draw his powers from a bottomless sense of occult wisdom preserved for him in and by society . . . [and] the holy man [who] drew his powers from outside the human race: by going to live in the desert, in close identification with an animal kingdom that stood, in the imagination of contemporaries, for the opposite pole of all human society" ("The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity," 131-2). In Philo's view, exemplary figures (or, in Brown's terms, "divine men") such as Abraham and Moses drew their powers directly from nature and God, not from socially transmitted wisdom, and life in the desert (as with Brown's "holy men") was an important way to effect the necessary separation from society. (2) Second, this presentation examines how those who acknowledge the exemplar's authority understood or experienced the situation. Whereas for Brown the focus is on the holy man's accrual of power (paradoxically through "dissociation" from humanity or in "splendid isolation") -- and similarly for David Frankfurter in "Dynamics of Ritual Expertise in Antiquity and Beyond: Towards a New Taxonomy of 'Magicians'" -- for Philo the power realized by the exemplars exists only as others attribute to them a pursuit of something other than power.

Suggested Readings

Primary texts from Philo of Alexandria:

Life of Moses 2.1-16 and 288-292;

The Contemplative Life 77-78 and 83-90;

On Abraham 2-6 and 275-276.

For background reading, see especially

H. Najman, ch. 3 "Copying Nature, Copying Moses" in Seconding Sinai: The Development of Masaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 77; Brill 2003), 70-107.

"A Written Copy of the Law of Nature: An Unthinkable Paradox?" in The Studia Philonica Annual 15: Law Stamped with the Seal of Nature: Law and Nature in Hellenistic Philosophy and Philo of Alexandria (Brown Judaic Studies 337; Brown University, 2003) 54-63.

For additional reading:

Peter Brown, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity," pp. 3-14 in Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society 2; Univ. of California Press, 1987).

Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE - 400 CE (Oxford University Press, 2001), ch. 7, "Torah in the Mouth in Galilean Discipleship Communities," 126-152, and ch. 8, "Epilogue," 153-156 (see also the endnotes on 201-209 that correspond to those chapters).

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (Harvard University Press, 2002) 220-233 (see also the endnotes on 313-314).