Philo: Classical Expounder of Law, Sabbaths

Two Great Laws of Love

Recently I was surprised to find someone else writing almost exactly like  our material on Biblical Law. This writer explained how all the laws and  statutes of the Almighty relate to one or more of the Ten Commandments. He said, "the Ten Covenants [Commandments] are summaries of the special laws which are recorded in the Sacred Books and run through the whole of the legislation." (Decalogue, 154). In other words, "The Ten Words, as they are called, [are] the main heads under which are summarized the Special Laws . . . ." (Special Laws, 1).

This is the main point of our book, Biblical Law, which expands Messiah’s statement in Matthew 22:36-40 that all the law and the prophets hang on the two great laws: Love the Almighty, and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. These two great Laws of Love are summaries of the Ten Commandments.

Philo, a "Modern" Ancient Supporter of God’s Laws

This writer who sounds like me is ancient Philo, who died about 1,950 years ago! We came to similar conclusions without any knowledge of one another.

Philo of Alexandria, often called Philo Judaeus (c. 30 B.C. to c.× A.D.× 40), was a famous classical Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, called "the first theologian." Philo was well versed in pagan Greek philosophy, including Plato. However, Philo wrote extensively to gain the acceptance, if not the conversion, of Greeks to Judaism. He recognized the Pentateuch as having divine authority and containing all truth. In the books of Moses, Philo found doctrines which paralleled some of the teachings of the Greeks, but were on a much higher level. Philo argued that much of Greek philosophy in large part came from Moses. In an age of liberal Hellenistic Judaism, Philo seems to stand as a bulwark in support of the keeping of the Almighty’s Law (Volumes VII and VIII of Philo’s works, containing The Decalogue, The Special Laws, On the Virtues, and On Rewards and Punishments, are available at any good public library or Christian bookstore).

Philo’s teachings seem strikingly modern. If I didn’t know any better, I might think he "lifted" his writings from Sabbath-keeping ministers of today.

Honor Your Parents: Pivotal Commandment

Actually, Philo may have expounded some points better than I did. He divides the Ten Commandments into two equal parts of five each, while I have divided them into four and six. The Eternal wrote the Commandments on two tables of stone. According to Philo, the Fifth Commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother," is the last of the commandments affecting our relationship with God, rather than the first of the commandments affecting our relationship with our neighbor. The first set of five "begins with God the Father and Maker of all, and ends with parents who copy" His nature by begetting particular persons. "The other set of five contains all the prohibitions namely adultery, murder, theft, false witness, covetousness or lust." (Decalogue, 51)

Philo’s reasoning is not just Greek Hellenistic philosophy, but it makes sound spiritual sense. " . . . parents by their nature stand on the border line between the mortal and the immortal side of existence, the mortal because of their kinship with men . . . through the perishableness of the body; the immortal because the act of generation assimilates them to God, the generator of the All." Some seekers after truth overemphasize the last set of the Commandments, being "lovers of men." Others assume that only the first set of Commandments are important, and are falsely pious. One cannot neglect any of the commandments. "Both come but halfway in virtue" says Philo, because the Ten Commandments are the summary of God’s way of life. Honoring one’s parents does indeed bridge the two sets of Commandments. (Decalogue, 106-110).

The Sabbath According to Philo

"The fourth commandment," Philo says, "deals with the sacred seventh day, that it should be observed in a reverent and religious manner . . . . [and men should] rest on the seventh and turn to the study of wisdom . . . " (Decalogue, 96-98).

Philo concludes: "Again, the experience of those who keep the seventh day is that both body and soul are benefitted in two most essential ways. The body is benefitted by the recurrence of respite from continuous and wearisome toil, the soul by the excellent conceptions which it receives of God as the world-maker and guardian of what He has begotten. For He brought all things to their completion on the seventh day. These things shew clearly that he who gives due value to the seventh day gains value for himself," (Special Laws, II, 260).

"On this day we are commanded to abstain from all work, not because the law inculcates slackness; on the contrary it always inures men to endure hardship and incites them to labour . . . . Its object is rather to give men relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions, to send them out renewed to their old activities . . . . Further, when He forbids bodily labour on the seventh day, He permits the exercise of the higher activities, namely, those employed in the study of the principles of virtue’s lore . . . knowledge and perfection of the mind." (Special Laws, II 60-64).

Festival Fellowship

Philo groups the feasts and holy days, as well as the land sabbath and jubilee year under the Fourth Commandment. He says that traveling to the Festivals is an important spiritual life exercise. Festival-goers leave behind them the cares of daily life, and "enjoy a brief breathing-space in scenes of general cheerfulness. Thus filled with comfortable hopes they devote the leisure, as is their bounden duty, to holiness and honouring of God. Friendships are formed between those who hitherto knew not each other . . . [and the mutual festivities] are the occasion of reciprocity of feeling and constitute the surest pledge that all are of one mind." (Special Laws, I, 69-70).

"Proselytes," or newly-joined members of the spiritual community, have equal rank with the long time native born members, who are to give them "special friendship" and "more than ordinary goodwill . . . . For the most effectual love-charm, the chain which binds indissolubly the goodwill which makes us one is to honour the one God," (Special Laws, I, 51-53).

Ten Important Feasts

Philo enumerates ten different feasts in the Law:

1. Feast of Every Day

2. Sabbath

3. New Moon

4. Pascha, "Crossing-feast" (Passover)

5. Feast of Unleavened Bread

6. Festival of the Sheaf

7. Feast of First-products (Weeks, Pentecost)

8. Trumpet Feast

9. the Fast (Day of Atonement)

10. Feast of Tabernacles

The first, which may come as a surprise to some, Philo calls "the feast of every day." Every day, according to Numbers 28:3-4, daily sacrifices were offered in the tabernacle and later the Temple. The entire life of the wise follower of the Almighty is "one continuous feast." The wicked cannot keep a Feast.

Like Josephus, Philo places the Wavesheaf Day on Nisan 16, whereas we feel the Scriptural evidence points to the Sunday following the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Philo draws a number of conclusions as to the spiritual meaning of the festivals, which you can discover for yourself when you read his excellent books. Obviously, the Sabbaths had great meaning to this Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt.

Adultery the Greatest Crime

Since he lists the sixth commandment as the first of the last five commandments, Philo concludes that adultery is the vilest of physical sins. (Decalogue 121). This is consistent with New Testament teaching. Notice that in Galatians 5:19-21, sexual sins are listed first among the "works of the flesh."

Philo correctly understands that the priests had to fulfil strict qualifications, among them being physical and spiritual perfection, marrying only a virgin, and never a divorced woman or widow. Echoing what Paul would write decades later, in I Timothy 3, Philo states, "For the rights and duties of the priesthood are of a special kind, and the office demands an even tenor of blamelessness from birth to death." (Special Laws, I, 103). Would to God that today Messianic believers would always follow the Bible qualifications for the ministry, and not allow men tainted with adultery to occupy the office of elder or minister. "For in the souls of the repentant there remain," Philo notes, "in spite of all, the scars and prints of their old misdeeds," (104).

In classical Greek and Roman times, sexual sins abounded. The Oedipus Complex (marrying one’s mother), pederasty (sodomy practiced by a man with a boy), and bestiality were common among Greeks. Philo unequivocally shows that the laws of God condemn such practices: "These persons are rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law . . . ," (III, 38). In an age where it was common to cast live, unwanted children in the wilderness to die from exposure, Philo showed how the principle of the Laws given through Moses "pronounced the sentence of death against those who cause the miscarriage [abortion] of mothers in cases where the foetus is fully formed," (III, 117).

Philo Condemns Unclean Foods

It may seem strange at first glance, but Philo places the laws of clean and unclean meats under the Tenth Commandment, which forbids coveting or lusting. He explains that the Eternal prohibits the eating of the unclean animals partly because they are the most appetizing and to abstain from them requires self-control. Eating such things leads to "gluttony, an evil very dangerous both to soul and body . . . . Now among the different kinds of land animals there is none whose flesh is so delicious as the pig’s, as all who eat it agree, and among the aquatic animals the same may be said of such species as are scaleless." How true! Mankind apart from God has a natural inclination to lust after what the Creator forbids.

Philo Supports Calculated Calendar Rules

Living in Alexandria, Egypt, Philo was too far from Jerusalem to receive notification of "official" new moon sightings from the Sanhedrin. Since he obviously believed in and observed the Holy Days, how did Philo know when the Eternal’s Feast Days occurred? By calculation! Philo says that the length from one New Moon to another, for the beginning of the lunar month, "has been accurately calculated in the astronomical schools," (Special Laws, II, 140).

Furthermore, Philo says that the Sabbath and the day preceding it (sixth day of the week) are both taken into account by the Almighty in reckoning feast times, including the crucial "holy-month day," or Day of Trumpets. (Decalogue, 159). Here in simple terms by a contemporary of the New Testament Church, is an exact description of the so-called "Jewish" calendar rules which some "observable calendar" proponents say were invented by Simon III, the Jewish Patriarch in the second century, A.D., or even by Hillel II in the fourth century, A.D.! It would be prudent for today’s calendar schismatics to listen to Philo.

The molad of Tishri resulting in the calculation of the proper Day of Trumpets is the key to determining the Holy Days. And the Day of Trumpets can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The key to this rule is that the Holy Days (with one scriptural exception explained in section 9 of Biblical Holy Days) require a day of preparation so as to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath. Wise Philo understood the basis for the calendar rules, while many today ignore these spiritual principles.


Philo of Alexandria was amazing. Instead of espousing liberal Hellenistic paganized ideas on the one hand, or narrow-minded Pharisaical concepts on the other hand, he obtains a reasonable balance. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. When Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt, Philo may have been already teaching in Alexandria. Some of Philo's writings about love and charity sound like the Beatitudes. Philo was certainly a man for all times. His principles sound strikingly modern.

Philo’s excellent exposition of the Law is very helpful today. Unfortunately, Philo believed in the immortality of the soul, that the soul was imprisoned in the body and released only at death. But nevertheless, ancient Philo’s expositions of God’s Law have great relevance for today’s lawbreaking society. The Creator’s laws are on a divine plane, and a proper understanding of their inter-relationship and importance is essential to the liberation and eventual elevation of the human mind. Philo put a magnifying glass on the divine law of God. The Messiah further magnified the Law and made it honorable. W


Note: This article was originally published as Bible Study No. 129.


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