Biblical and Theological Studies Faculty Presentations


Philo’s Universalization of the Sinai Event in De Decalogo

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Event Date



Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting


San Francisco, CA


In De Decalogo, Philo of Alexandria explains the Exodus account of the giving of the law and the law itself. But in his description of the narrative events surrounding the laws, Philo shapes Sinai into a place of universal revelation. Philo writes in a cultural milieu that challenges the legitimacy of Jewish practice and the Jewish legal code. In De Decalogo, Philo employs arithmology, Middle-Platonic philosophy, and appeals to the natural world to show that the Jewish law is serviceable for the larger Greco-Roman world, but he still must explain the how the law’s location at Sinai to a particular people group can become the universal revelation to all humanity. In an effort to departicularize Sinai, Philo omits words from his description: covenant, patriarchs, and Sinai itself. He dramatizes the narrative by heightening the descriptions of the lightening, thunder, and unseen trumpet. Philo extensively treats the miraculous dictation of the law to show that the anomalous voice superseded physical capacities and spoke to the souls rather than the physical capacities of humans; thus, the giving of the law occurred at the level of the rational soul and was received by any soul receptive to reason. Moreover, Philo hints at the allegory of the soul when he compares the fire from which the voice comes to the reception of the laws in the souls of humans. The laws illuminate the soul of a rational human, so that their reception is dependent not on ethnic identity but on the fittingness of the human soul. In De Decalogo, Philo presents the law as proved true by nature and philosophy and shown to be unique by its divine and miraculous origins, but to universalize the law Philo must hurdle the particularizing aspects of the Sinai narrative and transform Sinai into a truly universalizing event.