Facts on Philo | Letters | Chicago Reader

Facts on Philo 

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To the editors:

I enjoyed Mr. Rosenbaum's review of Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments (4/6/90). The film impressed me, too, with a religiosity I did not expect to find in it. As a long time enthusiast for Judeo-Hellenistic syntheses, great was my thrill to see the name of Philo boldly listed among the credits.

But De Mille was not quite right to cast that ancient Jewish writer as a historian. Philo of Alexandria was a Platonic philosopher. It was not additional historical facts that he brought to the Bible, as De Mille implied, but imaginative allegories that wed Judaism to Platonism. Yet I expect De Mille was right to credit Philo's thought with a role in the film. De Mille's Moses speaks several philosophically searching lines, universal in their import, that would never have occurred to the biblical Moses, but would certainly have warmed Philo's heart. An example: The film's Moses, fresh from his encounter with the burning bush, tells Joshua that he has just communicated with eternal Mind. Such a way of describing God was very alien to the biblical Moses, and indeed to all of the Pentateuch. But it was very close to Philo (interested readers should see Philo of Alexandria, tr and ed by David Winston, N.Y.: Paulist Pr, 1981, especially the index entries under Mind, Universal).

Though the Bible gives Joshua no role at the burning bush episode, De Mille seems to introduce him there to represent a more authentically biblical attitude. For Joshua's face registers only consternation at Moses' talk of eternal Mind; what lights his face with understanding and enthusiasm is Moses' report that God has commanded him to do something. Such a Jewish response! If references to eternal Mind rest comfortably with us, it is due in part to Platonic ideas that Philo helped introduce into the Judeo-Christian traditions. Three cheers to De Mille, for introducing Philo, in turn, to the annals of cinematographic history.

Ernest Rubinstein

N. Hampden Court

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