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Philo of Alexandria on Torah Observance

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Philo of Alexandria on Torah Observance
By
James Scott Trimm

Many Christians teach a false doctrine that since the commandments of the Torah are symbolic of certain deep truths concerning Messiah, and since the Torah is a tutor leading us to Messiah and since the Messiah "fulfilled" the Torah, we no longer need to actually observe the commandments once we have come to the truth of Messiah.

Interestingly Philo of Alexandria encountered a similar false teaching.  Philo was an Alexandrian Jew who was born nearly 20 years before Yeshua and died around 20 years after his death. Philo was a “Hellenist Jew”. Not like the Hellenists of the Maccabean period who abandoned Torah for Paganism, but like Stephen (Acts 7) and the Hellenists in Acts 6. These Hellenists were Greek speaking Jews who remained Torah Observant (at least in there own understanding) while accepting Greek culture.

Philo wrote commentary, primarily on the Torah, which was highly midrashic.  Philo interpreted the texts in an allegorical manner, finding in them philosophic symbolism.  Philo saw the commandments of the Torah as pregnant with deep symbolic truths which he sought to express in his commentaries. 

Philo had encountered others in his day who taught that observing the actual commandments was not necessary at all, that all that was really important was to understand the deep truths which they, through symbolism and allegory, teach us. 

Philo responded to this false teaching as follows: 

(89) For there are some men, who, looking upon written laws as symbols of things appreciable by the intellect, have studied some things with superfluous accuracy, and have treated others with neglectful indifference; whom I should blame for their levity; for they ought to attend to both classes of things, applying themselves both to an accurate investigation of invisible things, and also to an irreproachable observance of those laws which are notorious. (90) But now men living solitarily by themselves as if they were in a desert, or else as if they were mere souls unconnected with the body, and as if they had no knowledge of any city, or village, or house, or in short of any company of men whatever, overlook what appears to the many to be true, and seek for plain naked truth by itself, whom the sacred scripture teaches not to neglect a good reputation, and not to break through any established customs which divine men of greater wisdom than any in our time have enacted or established. (91) For although the seventh day is a lesson to teach us the power which exists in the uncreated God, and also that the creature is entitled to rest from his labours, it does not follow that on that account we may abrogate the laws which are established respecting it, so as to light a fire, or till land, or carry burdens, or bring accusations, or conduct suits at law, or demand a restoration of a deposit, or exact the repayment of a debt, or do any other of the things which are usually permitted at times which are not days of festival. (92) Nor does it follow, because the feast is the symbol of the joy of the soul and of its gratitude towards God, that we are to repudiate the assemblies ordained at the periodical seasons of the year; nor because the rite of circumcision is an emblem of the excision of pleasures and of all the passions, and of the destruction of that impious opinion, according to which the mind has imagined itself to be by itself competent to produce offspring, does it follow that we are to annul the law which has been enacted about circumcision. Since we shall neglect the laws about the due observance of the ceremonies in the temple, and numbers of others too, if we exclude all figurative interpretation and attend only to those things which are expressly ordained in plain words. (93) But it is right to think that this class of things resembles the body, and the other class the soul; therefore, just as we take care of the body because it is the abode of the soul, so also must we take care of the laws that are enacted in plain terms: for while they are regarded, those other things also will be more clearly understood, of which these laws are the symbols, and in the same way one will escape blame and accusation from men in general.
(Philo; On the Migration of Abraham)

Philo pointed out that the literal meaning of the commandments was like a body and the symbolic meaning was like a soul.  Since the soul inhabits the body, the soul depends upon the care of the body.  Likewise the symbolic truths of the Torah depend upon the observance of the commandments to have any real meaning.   As we read in the Talmud that no passage loses its PASHAT (literal meaning) (b.Shab. 63a; b.Yeb. 24a).

For example the Passover was a shadow which Messiah fulfilled, yet rather than abolish the observance of Passover as a result, Paul says “therefore let us keep the feast” (1Cor. 5:7-8).

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