Would you rather be a man with a thousand talents or a man with a million shekels?
The tiny Roman coin we know as the widow's mite was worth one or two pennies, the price of a sacrificial dove for the Temple, but the Roman coin known as the talent was worth about U.S. $18,000. The names of the coins in the Bible are perplexing, but who among us would not enjoy reaching into a treasure chest to scoop out handfuls of clanging gold denarii and shining silver sesterces?
Far better yet would it be for us to obtain that which exceeds all gold and silver, and that is wisdom; and the crown of all wisdom was Philo Judaeus, a poor philosopher of first-century Alexandria. No city of the Roman empire equaled Alexandria in grandeur and beauty, with its splendid buildings which sparkled white in the light of the Mediterranean sun; but the accumulated wisdom of mankind which shone forth in that great city was incomparably brighter. It was a city which prized learning, as the magnificent Royal Library of Alexandria with its 400,000 scrolls showed; and it was in Alexandria that Western man first came to learn of the holy books of the Jews; and their chief expositor was Philo. But first we must know something of how this came to be.
The Hebrew Scriptures were known only to the Jews until the king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, arranged for their translation into Greek, the common language of Egypt, Syria, and Judea of that day. The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Philo, gives an account of how these books of the Old Testament came to be translated. King Ptolemy offered in exchange for their translation one hundred talents in gold, twenty flasks wrought of gold, thirty flasks of silver, five large basins of gold, and a table for the show-bread, which was made of solid gold, and which was three feet long, one and a half feet wide, and two feet high. This amounted to about U.S. $2 million, an offer that Eleazar, the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, graciously accepted.
Six learned men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel labored many months on the translation; and legend has it that when they had finished their work and had left their humble booths on the Island of Pharos, they were amazed to see that the translations they had penned were identical down to the word.
It was Philo who became the first and best expositor of the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Apostle Paul was jailed, and left hungry, cold, and in pain, he asked Timothy to bring him his warm cloak and his scrolls, but above all his parchments (2 Timothy 4:13); and one is tempted to wonder if Paul was asking for the writings of Philo, which are said to have greatly influenced his epistles. The reader of Philo turns a page and discovers new meaning in the account of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, the significance of the dove and the raven in the Flood, the wisdom behind the decisions of Moses and Abraham; and it is as if a bright light illumines each page.
The writings of Philo also help clarify contemporary moral and political questions. His commentaries on the laws of Moses explain the most basic legal concepts that underlie our system of jurisprudence. Especially helpful is his explanation of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, which Philo gives in his treatise On Abraham, an exposition on the subject which has never been excelled for clarity and profundity. I quote part of it here to show how Philo's writings can elucidate contemporary problems. Some in the homosexual rights movement mistakenly quote this same passage as being the first claim among Jewish thinkers that the sin of Sodom was primarily the sin of homosexuality.
"...but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature...and became like women in their persons, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them.
If the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the customs of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.
But God, having taken pity on mankind, increased, as far as possible, the natural desire of men and women, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful custom of the people of Sodom, he extinguished it...not by any ordinary chastisement, but he inflicted on them an astonishing novelty. For on a sudden, he commanded the sky to become overclouded and to pour forth a mighty shower, not of rain but of fire; and the flame poured down, with a resistless and unceasing violence."
And Philo must be regarded as one of the great moral teachers of mankind for his practical advice on the role of virtue and vice in forming the destiny of each individual. For that reason, the name "Philo" was once a very popular given name here in New England. But just as this name has now disappeared, so have the glories of our Puritan civilization, faith in the Bible, and the remembrance of the great Philo.