(For a short introduction to Philo, his family and their connections with Rome, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10.)
The treatise On the Life of Moses is part of Philo’s Exposition of the Law, a series containing “a treatise on the creation, three extant Lives of biblical patriarchs, four books on Mosaic law, and two concluding treatises on virtues and rewards and punishments,” which Maren Niehoff considers as having been composed after Philo’s embassy to Rome (Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria, p. 7-8). Moreover, René Bloch has convincingly shown that On the Life of Moses echoes the events of 38 CE; in particular, “Philo’s description of the suffering of the Hebrews in De Vita Mosis should be read in the context of the anti-Jewish riots in 38 CE and the subsequent embassy to Rome” (Bloch, “Alexandria in Pharaonic Egypt,” 74; on the riots, see the commentary on Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10). This treatise was thus written after 38 CE, and Philo’s long stay in Rome.
On the Life of Moses is divided into two books: the first one is a kind of rewriting of the biblical narratives related to Moses, from his childhood to the war against Balak and the events preceding the conquest of the Promised Land. Moses emerges as a royal figure, whereas in Book Two, he is described by Philo as a lawgiver, a high priest and a prophet. The passage under consideration here is located at the beginning of Book Two, and consists in a demonstration of Moses’s superiority as lawgiver (nomothetēs) over those of other nations. Philo could not be more affirmative: Moses is “the most admirable of all the lawgivers who have ever lived in any country either among the Greeks or among the barbarians” (§12). Philo often uses the pair “Greeks and barbarians” to speak about humankind as a whole. From his perspective, Israel is neither Greek nor barbarian; it has a special, separate status and is often contrasted with the rest of humankind (see further Berthelot, “Grecs, Barbares et Juifs”). However, here the relationship between Israel—or, more precisely, Israel’s lawgiver and laws—and humankind is not one of opposition. Rather, the reference to “Greeks and barbarians” serves to highlight the universality of the positive reception of the Mosaic laws among the nations.
In order to demonstrate that these laws are the most perfect ever written by men, Philo first claims that in spite of the passing of time and the vicissitudes of Israel’s history (including oppression by foreign powers), the laws given by Moses have never been altered (§§13-16, not reproduced here). His second (and, from his perspective, more decisive) argument consists in the universal admiration and honor that the Mosaic Law has received among the nations (§17). Philo argues that this is a paradox, because all peoples, be it among the Greeks or the barbarians, tend to consider their own laws as the best, and to disparage those of their neighbors (§18). He gives the example of the Athenians and the Lacedemonians, two peoples whose lawcodes were said to have been written by famous lawgivers, Solon and Lycurgus respectively. Nevertheless, Philo asserts, each rejected the customs and institutions of the other. Then he selects other examples among barbarian peoples, and opposes the Egyptians and the Scythians. In Greek literature, the latter stood for the most northern part of the earth, and, because they were nomads, represented the opposite of the Greek form of civilization, life in the polis (see Hartog, Le miroir d’Hérodote). Usually they were coupled with the Ethiopians, who were associated with the southern edge of the known world. Philo prefers to mention the Egyptians, and the fact of pairing the Egyptians with the Scythians suggests that the former are utterly barbarian (on Philo’s negative view of Egyptians, see Berthelot, “The Use of Greek and Roman Stereotypes”; Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, p. 45-74; Pearce, The Land of the Body, p. 54-80). Finally, Philo broadens his statement again, emphasizing the rejection of foreign laws in both Europe and Asia, among every people (ethnos) or city (polis) (§19).
The universality of the contempt shown toward foreign laws and institutions is then compared to the universal favor that the Jewish laws enjoy among peoples from Europe and Asia, East and West, islands and continents, etc. (§20). Philo uses the same stylistic device (pairs of contrasting terms) to highlight both the universal reception of the Mosaic law and the universal tendency to belittle the laws of others, thus drawing a sharp parallel and contrast between these two notions. He then gives two examples of laws that are admired (and possibly followed) by non-Jews all over the places: (1) the Sabbath, a law of freedom and rest for humans, animals and plants (§§21-22); and (2) the yearly “fast,” that is, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which he compares with the hieromēnia, or “sacred month,” a Greek notion designating a period associated with a feast, during which hostilities and legal proceedings were forbidden (Arnaldez et al., De Vita Mosis, p. 202, n. 2) (§§23-24). Philo associates Greek festivals with banquets, excessive eating and drinking, and the bodily passions, whereas the Jewish fast involves prayers, forgiveness of sins and divine blessings. Maren Niehoff highlights the convergence between Philonic/Jewish and Roman ideals of frugality and self-restraint (enkrateia), which contributes to integrate the Jews “among the Roman elite of the world” (Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, p. 105-106 and 109-110, quotation on p. 110).
The two examples put forward by Philo are found under the pen of Josephus too: “What is more, even among the masses for a long time there has been much emulation of our piety (eusebeia), and there is not one city of the Greeks, nor a single barbarian nation, where the custom of the seventh day, on which we rest, has not permeated, and where our fasts (nēsteiai) and lighting of lamps and many of our prohibitions with regard to food have not been observed” (Against Apion II.282; transation by John Barclay, Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, p. 327-328). In this case it seems that Josephus took his inspiration from Philo’s On the Life of Moses.
Philo’s claim, which has a clear apologetic dimension, is extremely bold. Although both proselytes and Judaizers seem to have been a frequent phenomenon in the Roman world of the first century CE, practices such as the Sabbath and the fast of Yom Kippur were far from being universally praised by non-Jews. Seneca, for example, knew about the Sabbath and associated it with the lighting of lamps as Josephus does (Letters 95.47), yet the Roman philosopher did not admire this custom. According to Augustine, Seneca wrote that the Jewish practice was “inexpedient, because by introducing one day of rest in every seven they lose in idleness almost a seventh of their life, and by failing to act in times of urgency they often suffer loss” (The City of God VI.11, translation by William M. Green, LCL, p. 361). The works of several Latin poets (some of whom were active slightly later than Philo) demonstrate both their familiarity with the Sabbath and the mocking reactions it arose among Romans (Horace, Satires I.9.60-78; Persius, Satires V.179-184; Juvenal, Satires XIV.96). Philo’s remark on the admiration expressed by non-Jews for the Sabbath and the fast was valid among proselytes and Judaizers but not universally.
In light of these testimonies, how does Philo’s assertion make sense? In my opinion, Philo’s claim that the Mosaic or Jewish laws are the best laws ever found among human beings is to be understood in light of Roman and pro-Roman discourses that described Roman laws as superior to all other legal systems. Although some Roman literary traditions conveyed the idea that the inspiration for the laws of the XII Tables came from the Greeks, in general Romans tended to perceive their legal system as an original production that displayed their particular genius. Cicero, for example, states that “if anyone looks to the origins and sources of the laws, the small manual of the Twelve Tables by itself surpasses the libraries of all the philosophers, in weight of authority and wealth of usefulness alike. […] You will win from legal studies this further joy and delight, that you will most readily understand how far our ancestors surpassed in practical wisdom the men of other nations, if you will compare our own laws with those of Lycurgus, Draco and Solon, among the foreigners. For it is incredible how disordered (inconditum), and wellnigh absurd (ridiculum), is all national law (ius civile) other than our own” (On the Making of an Orator I.44.195-197, trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham, LCL, p. 137). This text nicely illustrates Philo’s statement that people always consider the laws of other nations as inferior to their own. The issue, however, is that Rome’s legal order was widely praised among provincials, together with the pax Romana and the stability that ensued. Even though in the first century CE Rome did not try to impose its laws on the conquered peoples, I contend that this aspect of Roman rule and ideology came to represent a challenge for Jewish thinkers like Philo. Note that Cicero uses the same rhetoric of universality as Philo; moreover, he posits the Romans as neither Greeks nor barbarians, as Philo does for the Jews. In the end, Philo’s claim in On the Life of Moses may be read as reflecting a sense of rivalry and competition with Rome (for a more detailed treatment of this issue, see Berthelot, Jews and their Roman Rivals, forthcoming).
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