Philo and Homer

Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986) 50-53.

Lamberton says that Greek philosophers sought to allegorize Homer to make his seemingly irreverent statements about the gods sound more pious. What’s interesting is that Lamberton states that Philo of Alexandria did this as well. Philo was a first century Jew of Alexandria, Egypt, and he interpreted the Torah in light of Greek philosophy.

I cannot find many of Lamberton’s references in my copy of C.D. Yonge’s Complete Works of Philo. That may be because Lamberton often uses an Armenian translation of a Greek text that has disappeared (49). In the version of On Providence that Lamberton quotes, Philo denies that Homer and Hesiod blaspheme the gods, asserting instead that the gods are symbolic for forces of nature (De Prov. 2.40-41). Philo views the Cyclopes as mythological (De Prov. 2.66), which may be an attempt on his part to de-mythologize Homer. He also seeks moral lessons from Homer–about avoiding greed and the Skylla, who represents “undying evil” (De. vit. cont. 17; Quod det. pot. insid. sol. 178). And Philo applies Homer to his own Jewish theology, as Lamberton notes:

Similarly, when Homer says “let there be one king” (…Il. 2.204), what he says is more appropriate to describing the relationship of God to the world (De conf. ling. 170); and when Homer says (of the Sun) that he sees and hears all (Il. 3.277, etc.), Philo, without comment on its original application, takes up the phrase and applies it to God (De Jos. 265).

I’ve said before that Homer was like a Bible for the Greeks. I can understand that being the case for “pagans.” But why is a Jew like Philo treating Homer like his writings are some sort of Bible, as he looks for Homer’s deeper meaning and lessons?

I’m not sure how Philo regarded Homer. Was he like Paul, who could quote a Stoic poet to support monotheism and find common ground with his Greek audience (Acts 17), without believing that the poet was divinely-inspired? Was he like the Christian thinker Clement of Alexandria, who held that pagan philosophers were in touch with the divine logos (Quasten, Patrology, Volume II 21-22), explaining how non-Jews could arrive at nuggets of truth before Christ’s coming? Did Philo believe that God could have inspired Homer in some way, shape, or form?

Did Philo believe that Homer was actually a monotheist? His belief that Homer’s gods are symbolic for forces of nature leans in that direction. But, when Philo applies Homer’s statement about the sun to God, does Philo think that Homer worships the sun but that what Homer says about the sun can be applied to the one true God? Or is his view that Homer’s “sun” is symbolic for the one true God?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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