Philo, Clement, and Origen by Marco Rizzi

What do the philosopher-leader of an ancient Jewish community, an enigmatic Christian teacher, and a polymath priest have in common? Philo (20 BC-45 C.E.) spent his whole life in Alexandria, Clement (150-215 C.E.) arrived there in an unknown period, and Origen (185-254 C.E.)—though a native—was expelled from the city after a confrontation with the local bishop.

But in addition to residing in Alexandria, all three read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek version called the Septuagint, and they all interpreted it through a procedure called allegory. Philo, Clement, and Origen relied upon the extensive knowledge preserved in the Library of Alexandria to read the Bible allegorically, but while their methods were similar, their aims were different.

An allegorical reading is based on the distinction made by the Greek philosopher Plato (4th century B.C.E.) between the sensible world, which human beings perceive through their bodily senses, and the intelligible world, the more important realm of ideas, which they grasp intellectually. In allegorical reading, the sensory corresponds to the immediate, literal, or historical meaning of the text, and the intellectual to its deeper, symbolic, or spiritual contents.

Philo was a devout Jew who used allegorical readings to show his fellow citizens that the biblical commands had a second, immaterial layer of meaning: for instance, a Jew’s obedience to certain dietary restrictions, as expressed in Lev 11, pointed to his or her pure moral lifestyle (The Special Laws 4.101-102). Reading the Bible allegorically helped explain why Jews behaved differently—their Bible-based practices were a sign of God's rule over the sensible world as well as the intelligible one. In Philo's words, the literal meaning is the body of the Bible, but the allegorical one is its soul; both must be kept in due consideration (On the Migration of Abraham 16.92-3).

In Alexandria, the refined intellectual and teacher Clement met his master Pantaenus, who introduced him to Christianity as the highest form of philosophy. Clement had read widely in history, philosophy, and poetry, both pagan and Jewish. The allegorical reading of biblical texts helped him to connect all these forms of human wisdom to the divine wisdom. Clement saw the Bible as the roadmap for this connection, which the human teacher could discover under the guidance of the divine teacher, Christ. For instance, he interprets the inscription on the Asclepius's temple in Epidaurus in the light of Paul's First Epistle to 1Cor 13:13 (Stromateis

Origen was the greatest biblical scholar of ancient Christianity, known for his attention to the text of the Bible. Origen’s impressive edition of the Old Testament, the Hexapla (meaning “six columns”) contained the Hebrew text and five Greek translations, of which the Septuagint was paramount. Origen loved to explore all the possible meanings of each passage of the Scriptures, from the literal to the infinite variety of spiritual significances (covering such topics as morals, mysticism, angelology, and theology). In Origen's view, the Bible is another form of incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Divine Word: the literal meaning corresponds to his humanity, while the allegorical reading opens up the mysteries of his divinity to the faithful (First Principles 4.1.6).

Philo, Clement, and Origen did not gain long-lasting success in Alexandria. Origen was expelled by the bishop Demetrius, Clement fled during a wave of persecution, and Philo was rejected along with the Septuagint by later Judaism, since both seemed too ambiguously close to Christianity. However, their works survived in the great library assembled by Origen in Caesarea Maritima, not far from Jerusalem, still the core of Jewish and Christian history.

Marco Rizzi, "Philo, Clement, and Origen", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Marco Rizzi

Marco Rizzi
Professor, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Marco Rizzi is professor of early Christian literature at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Milan).  He has edited, translated, and commented on many texts from the Alexandrian Christian tradition and is editor of the fifth volume of the Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, Editions du Cerf, Paris, forthcoming.

an early Christian writer who lived in the second–third centuries CE

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.

Also known as the rules of kashrut (the system for keeping kosher), these are the biblical laws stating what it is permissible for Israelites to eat. The laws appear primarily in Lev 11 and Deut 14, though a few appear elsewhere.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Six different versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek in parallel in one book, first compiled by Origen in the hird century C.E.

the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Lev 11

Clean and Unclean Foods
1The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them:2Speak to the people of Israel, saying:
From among all the land animals, these are th ... View more

1Cor 13:13

13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

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