Monday, April 1, 2013

Philo of Alexandria on Remembering Moses

I've recently been thinking a bit about memory theory as applied to historical Jesus studies while I happened to be reading Philo of Alexandria and I came across a passage that has some interesting cross-over. 

The passage caught my attention for two reasons. First, Philo is introducing his two-part work "On the Life of Moses," and is focused on telling the story of the "greatest and most perfect" man (Moses 1.1). Second, Philo believes that Moses has been overlooked by educated Greeks as "not worthy of memory" (Moses 1.2) so he aims to remedy the situation with his work. Philo's expressed goal is to bring attention to the overlooked wise man of wise men.

Here is his description of his sources:
"I tell the story of Moses as I learned it, both from the sacred books, wonderful monuments of his wisdom which he has left behind, and from some of the elders of the nation. For I always have woven together the things having been spoken with those being read and on account of this I consider the life story to be much more accurate than others." (Moses 1.4)
There a number of fascinating features to this short excerpt. First, Philo expresses his view of the scrolls as "sacred [ἱερῶν]," thus investing higher status to the Pentateuch. Second, the Pentateuch is described as, "wonderful monuments of wisdom." The word for "monument [μνημεῖα]" can be used for a "tomb" or a physical memorial (Lk 11:47), which raises interesting questions about how books functioned as physical memorials. Third, Philo considers himself to have a more accurate account by combining written sources with the oral testimony of elders.

Philo's introduction shows that ancient people valued oral sources for their "histories." Furthermore, it provides some fodder for discussion for how texts functioned alongside oral testimony to provide better stories.


Chris Keith said...

Tyler, thanks for pointing out these interseting quotes. H. Gregory Snyder has an interesting discussion of how Philo views himself as being "taught" by Abraham through texts (in his Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World).

The Good Tale said...

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Valeria said...

This is cool!