Sunday, March 23, 2014

“The Passion of Eve and the Ecstasy of Hannah: Sense Perception, Passion, Mysticism, and Misogyny in Philo of Alexandria, De ebrietate 143–52,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133.1 (2014): 141–163

Link to pdf of the full article

Philo of Alexandria’s allegorical interpretation of the biblical account of Hannah’s prayer for a son, in Ebr. 143-152, is surely one of the most remarkable texts in his corpus. In this passage he draws upon a number of philosophical resources, including Platonic sense perception, Stoic and Platonic psychologies and theories of emotion, and the dualisms that are integral to these philosophic topics: sense perception and reason, the physical and noetic realms, mind and psyche, reason and non-rationality, and passion and apathetic virtue. Ebr. 143-152 also features three significant Greco-Roman mystical themes: Bacchic ecstasy, sober inebriation, and contemplative ascent. This essay focuses on the extraordinary manner in which Philo adapts and even subverts these philosophic and mystical themes, particularly the aforementioned dualisms, and the remarkable fact that this boundary breaking allegorical interpretation comes to focused expression in a woman. Philo has been accused of espousing a “virulent misogyny,” an accusation amply justified by his pervasive negative characterizations of sense perception and passion as essentially feminine in nature. However, in his portrayal of Hannah in Ebr. 143-152, we encounter the uncharacteristic approval and embrace of the sensuous and passionate mystical praxis of an adept female mystic. This exceptional text therefore affords us a rare opportunity to mitigate Philo’s misogyny, and along with it his largely negative attitude towards the senses, emotions, and embodied existence. 

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