[27] Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish New Moon in the First Century

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As a Jew living in Alexandria, Egypt in the early first century, Philo discusses the new moon from his Jewish perspective. On page 333 of Philo_7 (Special Laws 2:41) Philo wrote, “The third [feast recorded in the law] is the new moon which follows the conjunction of the moon with the sun.” Since this follows the conjunction, it must refer to the (visible) new crescent. On pages 391 and 393 of Philo_7 (Special Laws 2:141-142) Philo wrote, “Following the order stated above, we record the third type of feast which we proceed to explain. This is the New Moon, or the beginning of the lunar month, namely the period between one conjunction and the next, the length of which has been accurately calculated in the astronomical schools.

The new moon holds its place among the feasts for many reasons. First, because it is the beginning of the month, and the beginning, both in number and in time, deserves honour. Secondly, because when it [the new moon] arrives, nothing in heaven is left without light, for while at the conjunction, when the moon is lost to sight under the sun, the side which faces earth is darkened, when the new month begins it resumes its natural brightness. The third reason is, that the stronger or more powerful element [the sun] at that time [the new moon] supplies the help [light] which is needed to the smaller and weaker [the moon]. For it is just then [at the new moon] that the sun begins to illumine the moon with the light which we perceive and the moon reveals its own beauty to the eye.”

In Alexandria, the leading center of Greek mathematical astronomy at that time, the conjunction is a well known concept to Philo, and he mentions the conjunction as a contrasting time to the new moon. It is clear that to Philo the Jew in the early first century in Alexandria, the new moon is the new crescent, and this begins the first day of the Jewish month. Evidently the Greek geometrical abstract concept of the conjunction had filtered down to the educated non-astronomer, Philo. He used this concept in writing to his audience without defining it, so he understood that his audience would also understand this term.