Philo On Phinehas And The Levites: Observing An Exegetical Connection -- By: David Lincicum

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 21:1 (NA 2011)
Article: Philo On Phinehas And The Levites: Observing An Exegetical Connection
Author: David Lincicum


Philo On Phinehas And The Levites: Observing An Exegetical Connection

David Lincicum

Mansfield College–University Of Oxford

Philo of Alexandria draws an exegetical connection between the episode of the golden calf (Exod 32) and Phinehas’s response to the apostasy in Moab (Num 25). This note sets out four strategic links Philo has forged between the two episodes. While this is ultimately equivocal evidence in assessing Philo’s stance toward sacred violence in his own day, a similar connection between the two episodes may also underlie Paul’s exegesis in 1 Cor 10:8.

Key Words: Philo of Alexandria, golden calf, Phinehas, sacred violence, 1 Cor 10:8

Author’s note: I am grateful to Professor Markus Bockmuehl for comments on an earlier draft of this note.

This short note sets forth evidence to demonstrate that Philo has forged an exegetical connection between two biblical episodes: the account of Levites’ response to the golden calf (Exod 32:25-29) and the story of Phinehas’s reaction to the apostasy in Moab (Num 25:1-15). The extent of this exegetical connection has been underestimated in competing accounts of Philo’s stance toward sacred violence, but ultimately this provides only equivocal evidence in that debate. Reassessing the extent of this connection may, however, lend some support to those who have recently suggested that a similar strategy of reading the two episodes in light of each other underlies Paul’s exegesis in 1 Cor 10:8.

Over the past century, Philo’s remarkable focus on acts of sacred vigilantism has raised more than a few scholarly eyebrows. Instances in which Philo portrays acts of spontaneous, vigilante justice against flagrant violators of Torah have drawn varying responses. In the early 20th century, Jean Juster suggested that Philo’s remarks should be taken as evidence of actual practice, a proposal that received considerable elaboration from the energetic and imaginative E. R. Goodenough.1 The latter pressed Philo’s treatises to serve as evidence of first-century A.D. Jewish jurisprudence in

Egypt, taking Philo’s discussions, especially in De Specialibus Legibus, as an indication that “lynching” was a standard Jewish punishment for certain crimes. Isaac Heinemann and Valentin Nikiprowetzky resisted this conclusion, seeing Philo’s presentations of these acts of violence as ess...

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