Horst Moehring,
"Arithmology as an Exegetical Tool in the Writings of Philo of Alexandria,"
pp. 191-227 in SBL Seminar Papers 1978/1.

[[This section, pp. 200-205, has been modified somewhat in format, but not in content except as noted]]

The Number Seven In the Writings of Philo

Whenever Philo introduces a topic with a preliminary statement about its richness, importance, and difficulties, the reader is warned to expect a large amount of diverse materials collected from different sources. The Opificio Mundi contains one hundred and seventy-two sections, of which forty, or 23.26%, are devoted to a discussion of the many aspects of the number seven (i.e. Op 89-128). Philo supplies the reader with the following introductory remarks:

I doubt whether anyone could adequately celebrate the properties of the number seven, for they are beyond all words. Yet the fact that it is more wondrous than all that is said about it is no reason for maintaining silence regarding it. Nay, we must make a brave attempt to bring out all that is within the compass of our understanding, even if it be impossible to bring out all or even the most essential points. [Op 90]

These forty sections on the number seven give most of the arithmological interpretations possible, with much of the material being repeated in All. Leg. 1.8-16. A few points about this section are worth noting:

It contains only three short passages of unmistakably Jewish content:

a. Op 89: creation of the world in accordance with the properties of the number six, a perfect number;

b. Op 116: the law enjoins the keeping of the greatest national festivals at the time of the equinoxes, both of which fall into a seventh month;\45/

c. Op 128: Moses exceeded the scientists among the Greeks and other peoples in according honor to the number seven by incorporating it into the Law and by ordaining the observance of the seventh day as holy. But even in this perfunctory bow to Moses, Philo describes the purpose of the sabbath observance in purely universalistic and philosophical terms -- "giving their time to the one sole object of philosophy with a view to the improvement of character and submission to the scrutiny of conscience."

In contrast to these sparse references to the Jewish tradition, which could be excised without any effect on the section as a whole, Philo brings, in addition to the straightforward arithmological statements, a number of interesting quotations from Greek authors and allusions to Greek institutions. These form an integral part of the section and cannot be deleted without violating the structure of the whole. The most obvious of these passages are the following:

a. Op 100: Some philosophers liken seven to the motherless and virgin Nike (that is, Athena), who is said to have appeared out of the head of Zeus; the Pythagoreans, on the other hand, liken seven to Zeus, on which Philo quotes the 5th c bce Pythagorean Philolaus [see also below on LA 1.15]: "There is a supreme ruler of all things, ever one, abiding, without motion, himself (alone) like unto himself, different from the others."

b. Op 104: Long quotation from Solon's poem on the seven ages of man.

c. Op 105: Quotation from Hippocrates on the seven ages of man.

d. Op 119: Reference to Plato's Timaeus 75D: through the mouth mortal things have their entrance, immortal things their exit -- Plato actually establishes a contrast between A)NAGKAI=A (necessary things) and A)/RISTA (best things).

e. Op 124: Reference to Hippocrates for the time needed for the solidification of the seed and the formation of the embryo.

f. Op 126: Reference to the seven vowels of language (appropriate for Ionian).

g. Op 127: Etymologies for both the Greek and Latin words for seven, which prove that seven is a holy number.

h. Op 128: The most approved mathematicians and astronomers among the Greeks and other peoples pay honor to the number seven.

A similar, detailed sumary of the properties of the number seven is to be found in the Allegorical Interpretation 1.5-18. In the paragraph preceding this section, Philo states the purpose of his aritmological speculations, which of course, he ascribes to Moses himself: "Moses' wish is to exhibit alike the things created of mortal kind and those that are incorruptible as having been formed in a way corresponding to their proper numbers" (LA 1.4 -- the passage is important for understanding of the entire system of arithmology in Philo).

This discussion of seven includes a quotation from Euripides (frg 839: "Naught that is born does ever die,/ Its severed parts together fly,/ And yield another shape/") in which the author stresses the integral link between birth and death, an idea Philo will put to use in his discussion of the relationship between the numbers one and seven.

The section closes with a reference to Gen. 2.2, so that the predominantly Greek main part of the section is, as it were, framed by two specific references to things Jewish.

A quick summary of the purely arithmological statements on the number seven, without specific application to biblical texts, would have to include the following items. They constitute the basic material which Philo uses in his exegetical application of arithmology [for a schematic presentation of the Greek text and brief references to similar passages in ancient authors, see Karl Staehle Die Zahlenmystik bei Philon von Alexandreia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1931), pp. 34-50. Since Staehle is interested in reconstructing Philo's lost work on numbers and the history of Neopythagoreanism, he omits from his work all specifically Jewish data (p. III)]:

1. There are two types of "seven":

a. Op 91: within the decade -- consists of seven units and is determined by the sevenfold repetition of the unit;

b. Op 92-94: outside the decade: starting from one, it is obtained by doubling, tripling, etc., to the seventh place in the sequence:

n\1 n\2 n\3 n\4 n\5 n\6[=n\3\2; =n2\3]
e.g., (x2) = 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64
(x3) = 1, 3, 9, 27, 81, 243, 729
(x4) = 1, 4, 16, 64, 256, 1024, 4096
(x5) = 1, 5, 25, 125, 625, 3125, 15625
(x6) etc.

Op 92: Type (b) is superior; the seventh term of any regular procession, starting from unity and with a ratio of 2, 3, or any number, is both a cube and a square [the third item in the sequence will always be a square, the fourth a cube, and the seventh either a square of the cubed number or a cube of the squared number], combining both the corporeal and the incorporeal substance. (In other places such as QG 1.77 Philo will argue that the ones are prior to the tens both in order and in power, so that seven is more archetypal and elder than seventy.)

2. Op 99-100, LA 1.15, VMos 2.210, QG 2.12, SpecLeg 2.56, Heres 170, VCont 65, Praem 153, Decal 102:
The hebdomad within the decade is neither product nor factor.
For this reason some people,have likened it to the motherless, ever virgin Athena.

3. Op 100, QG 2.12:
Other writers liken it to Zeus. (Note that seven is likened to Athena or Zeus no fewer than eleven times. The use of motifs from Greek religion is obviously not a problem for Philo.)

4. LA 1.15; DeusImm 11, 13:
For this reason the hebdomad is related to the monad. (The affinity between one and seven plays an important role in Philo. He proves it on the basis of the biblical text. For detailed discussion, see below.)

5. Op 95, 96:
All partitions of the hebdomad produce musical harmony:

7 = 1 + 6 (6:1 greatest distance from highest to lowest note) 7 = 2 + 5 (5:2 fullest power in harmonies, almost like diapason)
7 = 3 + 4 (4:3 first-harmony, the sesquitertian or diates saron).

6. Op 107-110:
The hebdomad is absolutely harmonious, the source of the most beautiful scale, which contains all the harmonies:

that yielded by the interval of 4
that yielded by the interval of 5
that yielded by the octave.

7. Op 97:
In the right-angled triangle, 3 and 4 (components of 7) produce the right angle.

8. Op 98, 106, 102:
The hebdomad is the starting point of all plane and solid geometry, or: the hebdomad is the starting point of all things corporeal and incorporeal.

9. Op 101:
The hebdomad serves as a symbol in both the intelligible and the sensible world:

a. in the intelligible world it is a symbol, for "that which is exempt from movement and passion";
b. in the sensible world, the habdomad is a most essential force [in the movement of the planets], from which all earthly things derive advantage.

10. Op 112:
Heaven is girded by seven zones.

11. Op 113, LA 1.8, SpecLeg 2.57, Decal 102, QE 2.78:
There are seven planets. (In SpecLeg 1.16, Philo comes close to the basic principle of astrology, when he speaks of the sun, the moon, and the other stars "in accordance with their sympathetic affinity to things on earth acting and working in a thousand ways for the preservation of the All." At the same time he warns against "supposing that they alone are gods.")

12. Op 114:
Ursa maior consists of seven stars.

13. Op 115:
The Pleiades consist of seven stars.

14. Op 116:
The two equinoxes are seven months apart. (As indicated above, this is one of the three passages in Op 89-128 in which Philo introduces a clearly Jewish element. He actually says that "each of the equinoxes occurs in a seventh month." This allows him to adduce the sacred character of the hebdomad as a reason for the dates of the highest Jewish festivals.)

15. Op 101, LA 1.8, SpecLeg 1.178:
The phases of the moon last seven days.

16. SpecLeg 2.56f:
Because of its influence upon the stars the hebdomad is called KAIRO/S.

17. Op 124:
Semen solidifies in seven days (attributed to Hippocrates).

18. Op 124:
Menstruation lasts at most seven days (attributed to Hippocrates).

19. Op 124, LA 1.9:
Seven months' children survive (attributed to Hippocrates).

20. Op 104:
There are seven stages of ten years each in a man's life.

21. Op 105:
There are seven ages in a man's life (attributed to Hippocrates).

22. LA 1.10:
Man's life can be divided into stages of seven years each.

23. Op 117, LA 1.11, QG 2.12:
The irrational part of the soul has seven components.

24. Op 118, LA 1.12:
The body consists of seven inner and seven outer parts.

25. Op 119, LA 1.12:
The head has seven essential parts.

26. Op 120:
There are seven things that can be seen.

27. Op 121, LA 1.14:
There are seven different intonations of the voice.

28. Op 122, LA 1.12:
There are seven types of motion.

29. Op 128, LA 1.13:
There are seven bodily excretions.

30. Op 125, LA 1.13:
Illnesses reach their KRI/SIS on the seventh day.

31. Op 126, LA 1.14:
The lyre has seven strings.

32. Op 126, LA 1.14:
There are seven vowels.

A number of observations can be made about this list.

1. Philo almost certainly took it over from some Neo-pythagorean work either on arithmology in general, or on the number seven. The Greek origin of the list is obvious from the references to Greek mythology and the quotations from authors.

2. Although Philo has collected in the list a veritable armory of data, a glance at the list of the passages in which any of the items re-occurs outside the lists themselves in Op and LA, indicates that he actually made very little use of this material in his own exegetical work. Only items nos. 2, 3, 4, 11, 15, 16, and 23 occur in any of the other treatises of the Philonic corpus. Among these, the most frequently used statement is one of Greek provenance: the number seven can be likened to the goddess Athena. The rest of the repeated items all refer to the seven planets in general or to the moon in particular.

3. These observations seem to justify the conclusion that Philo occasionally introduced arithmological statements for their own sake, without putting them to work as exegetical tools in connection with specific biblical passages. It should be noted, however, that this is more obvious in the case of the hebdomad than with any other number, if for no other reason than that for no other number does he introduce so long and detailed a list of statements as he does in connection with the number seven.

4. The shorter list of statements on the hebdomad in the Allegorical Interpretation is based upon the longer one in the Opificio. Not only do many of the items occur in the same sequence, but even the transitional clauses are strictly parallel:

Op 101 // LA 1.8 transition to sensible world
117 // LA 1.9 transition to man
Op 126 // LA 1.14 transition to sciences

The only exception to this pattern is the transitional clause introducing the hebdomad within the decade, which is found only at Op 95. The introductory statement on the hebdomad quoted above also has no parallel anywhere in Philo.

A very important aspect of Philo's understanding of the number seven appears only as a subsidiary consideration in the list of arithmological statements given above: because seven has been likened to Zeus, it is related to the monad. And yet it is this peculiar relationship between one and seven that gives Philo an opportunity to interpret a number of biblical passages according to his own allegorical method.

[[Then a discussion of passages outside of Op // LA on one = seven applied to biblical interpretation.]]