Looking for Philo's Abraham in all the Wrong Places?
A Step towards the Entry for Abraham in the New James

by Robert A. Kraft (University of Pennsylvania)


Introduction.-- For Philo, Abraham is an exemplar (to borrow a term from Hindy Najman). Listen to the closing words of Philo's treatise On Abraham:

(270) But not only do the oracles bear witness to his faith -- the queen of all the virtues -- in the Existent One,  but also he is the first whom they dub as "elder" [Gen 24.1], though those who preceded him had lived three times as long or even more, none of whom we recognize as worthy of the appellation. (271) And this is as it should be. For the one who is an elder in truth is considered such not with reference to length of lifetime, but to a praiseworthy and perfect life.  Those then, who have reached a great age in bodily existence without beauty and goodness are to be called "aged children," having never been schooled in the learning which is worthy of grey hairs. But the one who has been a lover of sound judgment and wisdom and faith towards God, one may justly consider to be "elder," a similar designation to "first." (272) For the wise man is the "first" of the human race in existence, as a pilot in a ship, a governor in a city, a general in a war, indeed soul in body, mind in soul; or again, heaven in world, God in heaven.
(273) . . . God no longer talked with him only as a god might with a man, but even as a friend with an aquaintance. . . .
(274) "Elder" then, and "first" let the worthy one be and be called. . .  .
(275) Let these things suffice on this subject. But to these great and many items of praise of the wise man is added as a crowning point, it says that "this man fulfilled the divine law, and all the commandments of God" [Gen 26.5], not having been taught by writings, but by what is unwritten in nature, hastening to obey all healthy and untainted impulses. And with regard to the things that God promises, what should people do but to believe them most firmly? (276) Such is the life of the "first" and  founder of the nation -- as some will say, law abiding,  but, as my discourse has shown, himself law and unwritten code.

Most of what Philo reports about Abraham is paralleled in the Greek text of Genesis 12-23, although not in the same order. The themes that appear most often in the writings that have been preserved from Philo are Abraham's "migration" from "Chaldea" and Har(r)an (Gen 12-15), the names that he and Sarah and Isaac receive (Gen 17), and the Hagar-Ishmael story (Gen 16-17). Apart from the treatise On Abraham, usually classified as "exposition,"  in the individual "allegorical" treatises such as Heir, Migration, and Names,  Philo focuses mostly on aspects of the Genesis 12-17 materials. Whether he wrote separate treatments as well on other themes of the Abrahamic story we do not know -- e.g. Sodom and Lot (Gen 18-19), death of Sarah (Gen 23), even the defeat of the kings (Gen 14). If Questions in Genesis had survived more fully (book 3 starts abruptly at Genesis 15 and ends in Genesis 17), assuming that more of this work was actually published by Philo, we would know more.

In the extant Philonic treatments of Abraham, however, there is sometimes material that is not paralleled in surviving texts of Genesis. Two of the most obvious such themes (to me at least) are Abraham's relationship to Chaldean astronomy and the etymologies associated with the Abraham traditions. Assuming that Philo did not simply make such things up himself, can we say anything about the sources (written or oral) with which he might have been familiar? Or to broaden the question in the context of the "new M.R.James" project, what other sources about Abraham do we have or know about from antiquity, and how do they relate to Philo's picture?

Philo's Abraham and astrological/astronomical traditions.-- Much of the relevant material is discussed by Annette Reed in her detailed article on "Abraham as Chaldean Scientist and Father of the Jews: Josephus, Ant. 1.154-168, and the Greco-Roman Discourse about Astronomy/astrology," JSJ 35 (2004) 119-158.  She shows Josephus in his role as apologetic historiographer functioning between Judaism and Greco-Roman traditions, but mentions Philo only in passing in this context. Yet Philo seems to reflect some of the same ambivalences found in Josephus on this topic. Philo's Abraham is from Chaldea and aware of things "Chaldean," a term with potentially dangerous associations in first century Roman contexts, where it gets associated with political tampering as well as with loosely conceived "magic."  Even after the embassy to Gaius around 40 ce, Philo can write that "in Chaldean," his own race is called "Israel," the meaning of which he then translates/interprets in Greek (Embassy 4). He uses a similar linguistic contrast at least twice in On Abraham as well as once in Life of Moses and once more in Rewards. This is especially interesting since he much more frequently speaks of "the tongue/language of the Hebrews" or more neutrally "the tongue/language of the patria" (πατρίῳ γλώττῃ) or both (Ἑβραῖοι πατρίῳ γλώττῃ) in similar onomastic-etymological contexts (including On Abraham).

There is no hint in surviving texts of Genesis that "Ur of the Chaldeans" is connected with any special ideas or traits. "Abram" first comes onto the scene without fanfare as Terah's son (Gen 11.26), he marries (11.29), and moves with wife and father and nephew Lot to Haran, where Terah dies (11.31-32). The LORD tells him to leave Haran and go to Canaan, where the LORD appears to him and promises him the land (Gen 12.1-7). Chaldea is entirely incidental and Haran is merely a stepping stone.

Many other sources, including Josephus, highlight the situation in Chaldea, where Abram learns the local wisdom and ultimately works through the study of the heavenly bodies to the recognition of the existence of the one God. Philo is familiar with this tradition, and in Abr 69ff  he relates it, somewhat dimly, as the context of  Abraham's enlightenment (Gen 12.7 "God appeared to Abraham" -- apparently in Haran, not Canaan!). A bit later, Philo returns to the theme (Abr 77). Although it is not entirely clear whether Philo's Abram received the  enlightenment while in Chaldea, or later in Haran (so Jubilees 12.16), or even in Canaan (78), Haran seems most likely. Possibly for Philo, Haran was also considered part of "the region of Chaldea."  Kugel fails to notice this (intentional?) ambiguity in Philo, who seems to want to have it both ways -- Chaldea for the astronomical learning and Haran (probably not Canaan, despite Gen 12.7) for the enlightenment. This fits his allegorization of the place names as well, where Chaldea gets philosophic reasoning to a certain level, and Haran adds the contact with the real world that produces the necessary enlightenment. The summary of Israel's history in Stephen's speech in Acts 7.2-4 also hints that this geographical situation was a point of discussion.  In any event, for Philo, it was against this background of Chaldean astronomy that Abram came to recognize the truth about God. As Annette Reed's article  shows, this sort of information was readily available from various sources, even if not from "scripture" itself. Philo even seems aware of this, as he focuses the attention of his learned readers on the move from Chaldea to Haran in Migr 176-177 -- "Abraham ... went out from Haran [Gen 12.4]. ... Noone acquainted with the laws would be unaware that Abraham when he left the Chaldaic land dwelt in Haran. ... When he moves from there, he has already left two places."

Philo's Abraham and onomastic-etymological traditions.-- Something similar was probably true of Philo's penchant for etymologizing, which shows itself strongly in the Abraham materials as well as elsewhere. Lester Grabbe's monograph, neatly collects the evidence. Grabbe suggests Cornutus and ps-Heraclitus as possible sources (Grabbe 79-83), and Nicholas de Lange thinks Philo may have received such materials along with his Greek text. In his list of Philonic writings, Eusebius attributes such a work to Philo himelf (HE 2.18.7 "interpretation of Hebrew names in the law and the prophets").  The practice of making word lists is well known from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, but these are not usually bilingual  translation lists. We do have some later examples of translation lists from named authors, but also from the Egyptian papyri such as PHeid 1359 and POxy 2745, and I suspect that this sort of scholarly "tool" was available to Philo, who does not seem to have known Hebrew well enough (if at all) to construct it himelf.

Summary.-- In short, for the identification of other traditions about Abraham than those widely attested in other literature from early Judaism and the Greco-Roman world, the surviving materials from Philo have little new to offer. Perhaps a closer exploration of his uses of "Chaldea" and "Haran" within his own thought world would shed more light on how he interpreted the early movements of Abram (including how Philo read the texts that uses as springboards), and Abram's insight into the true nature of God. Attention to Philo's use of the "Chaldea" word group in his first century Greco-Roman context is also worth pursuing, perhaps even helping to unlock some of the secrets of the dates of some of his writings (or their partial revision). In the aforementioned article,  C.K.Wong takes a step in that direction. Finally, further attention to the etymological onomastic traditions that came through Philo especially to his later Christian admirers might bear further fruit for understanding what scholarly tools were available to him in first century Alexandria.