Philo’s Exegesis of the Biblical Festival Laws: Arithmology, Askesis, and Imitatio Dei

Festivals were commonly viewed in the ancient Mediterranean as an opportunity for humans to participate in the life of the gods, who are perpetually feasting. Thus Plato (Laws 653d) says that festivals are a gift from the gods, allowing humans “to be made whole again” by “participating in the festivals alongside the gods” (suneortazein en tais eortais meta theon). The concept of divine mimesis is used to explain the banqueting, liturgy, leisure, and reenactment of divine exploits that accompanied festivals in the Hellenistic world. In this paper, I examine Philo’s interpretation of the Jewish festival laws in light of this tradition. Special attention is paid to: a) the ways in which Philo’s exegesis of the festival laws attempts to distance Jewish feasting from Greek feasting by characterizing the former as askesis, b) Philo’s use of rewritten bible traditions in his exegesis of the festival laws, c) Philo’s numerological understanding of the festal calendar, especially in relation to other Hellenistic numerological thought, and d) the possible relationship between Philo and apocalyptic traditions (such as Jubilees) in which Israel’s festivals are depicted as having a heavenly pre-existence, so that Israel’s festival observance is understood as imitatio angelorum.