“Consecrating all the Excellences of Speech” (Mut. 220): Philo on the Right Use of Apocalyptic Tragedy and Gnomic Wisdom

This paper will explore Philo’s reception of contemporary currents in Jewish apocalypticism and wisdom literature by looking closely at two passages in his allegorical treatise, De mutatione nominum. In the first, Mut. 103–120, Philo engages in an extended allegorical interpretation of Exodus 2:15–22, the scene of Moses’ first meeting with Raguel and his seven daughters. According to Alexander Polyhistor, the same scene was dramatized sometime in the second century BCE by the Jewish Tragedian, Ezekiel, and a few fragments of this scene in the drama are extant. Raguel remains a major character in the tragedy, an idealized priest-king and exegete of Moses’ dream-vision in a manner reminiscent of an angelus interpres. Taking as a dual starting point that (1) Ezekiel’s Exagogue mediates or represents some form of apocalyptic Judaism to the Jewish community in Alexandria (VanderKam and Boesenberg [2014]; Orlov [2005]; Van der Horst [1984]; cf. Jacobson [1981]) and (2) that Philo himself had seen the play, appreciated it, and knew it well enough to engage it (Sterling [2014]; Jacobson [1983]), the first and major part of this paper will argue that Philo also undertakes to correct certain (real or potential) misappropriations of its apocalyptic elements. While previous scholarship has looked largely at the comparison of Moses in Ezekiel and Philo’s Vita Mosis (Sterling [2014]; Runia [1988]), this paper will focus in particular on Philo’s allegoresis of the figure of Jethro/Raguel in Mut. 103–120, in which the Alexandrian responds not only to the biblical text, but also to Ezekiel’s tragedy (see Mut. 114, 198; Jacobson [1983]). I will test the hypothesis that Philo wants to revise both the tragedy’s apocalyptic visionary mechanics as well as its potential misuse in Jewish political discourse. In a second passage, Mut. 197, Philo then goes on to offer a satirical portrait of gnomic wisdom of a sort similar to Pseudo-Phocylides. What unites these two criticisms in Philo? Both apocalyptic tragedy and gnomic wisdom have great rhetorical and psychagogic power, which render them either impotent or susceptible to sophistic misuse. While Philo would certainly not banish the poets from Alexandria, he does insist that one must “consecrate” (by way of allegory, dialectic, etc.) these various “excellences of speech” (Mut. 220) for the service of philosophy.