Philosophical Bible

Philosophical Bible June 10, 2016

Why isn’t the Hebrew Bible taken seriously as a text of philosophy, ethics, or political thought? That it isn’t is obvious. As Yoram Hazony observes in his The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, his graduate training at Rutgers all but ignored the Bible: “political theory and the history of political ideas were presented as a tradition that began in pre-Socratic Greece, ad proceeded from there to Plato and Aristotle, to the Greek and Roman political schools, to the political thought of Christianity as found in the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers and especially Augustine.” From there to Thomas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, and so on. But “the contribution of the Hebrew Bible to the political ideas of the West is either passed over in silence, or else dismissed in a handful of (often quite offensive) sentences” (15-16). Hazony does a quick survey of some of the leading texts of political thought and philosophy to confirm that this oversight is pervasive.

Why? Hazony chalks it up to the reason v. revelation paradigm that arises in the earth church “as a way of sharpening the differences between the teachings of the New Testament and those of the various sects of philosophers” (1) and is employed in the Enlightenment to demote the Bible from its central place in Western thought. He cites Wilhelm von Humbodt’s Hellenophile plan for the reform of German universities. The goal was “to find one’s ideal only in the Greeks. To draw inspiration from the Greeks alone” (14). Greek thinkers were on the side of reason, and the Hebrew Scriptures (and religious texts in general) were dismissed as irrational superstition and myth. Even in biblical studies, little attention is paid to “the ideas the Hebrew Scriptures were written to advance” (18). Thus, “today the field of biblical studies produces a steady stream of works on the philology, compositional history, and literary character of the biblical texts. But the ideas that find expression in the Bible—the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy of biblical authors—have all too often eluded the interest of academic scholars of Bible.” Across the academic spectrum, then, “what was once an unashamedly anti-Semitic revisionism aimed at showing that the Greeks were ‘almost divine,’ and that the West—and Germany in particular—was descended from these demi-gods alone, has long since crystalized into an orthodoxy” (19).

To this, Hazony has two main lines of response. First, he shows that on any fair reading, the charges leveled against the Hebrew Bible apply also to ancient Greek texts that are taken seriously as philosophical sources. The fact that Moses records that “the Lord said” is enough to rule Moses out as a serious thinker; the reference to divine speech makes it easy to categorize the Pentateuch as revelation rather than as reason. Hazony quotes several passages from Parmenides in which the philosopher claims to receive messages from a goddess, whom he visits by riding a chariot into the sky accompanied by “daughters of the sun” (6-7). Socrates too claims to have a prophetic power and a divine voice within (8-9). Yet this doesn’t keep Bertrand Russell from devoting “a short chapter each on Parmenides, Empedocles, and Heraclitus without so much as mentioning the role of the gods in producing their philosophies. He does draw attention to the fact that Socrates believed he was guided by a divine voice, oracles, and dreams. But nothing is said to follow from this.” Like other modern philosophers, Russell takes “the fact that some philosophers present their works as divine revelation in stride, either ignoring it entirely or mentioning it in passing without drawing any weighty conclusions from it” (9-10). This is what philosophers are supposed to identify as special pleading.

Hazony’s other line of response is to point to the actual contents of the Hebrew Bible. On the reason v. revelation paradigm, one would expect it to be full of mythical creatures, journeys through the underworld, divine secrets disclosed to the elect. There are miracles and strange happenings in the Bible, but Hazony is right: A great deal of it covers “many of the same kings of things that are found in the works of reason: histories of ancient peoples and attempts to draw political lessons from them; explorations of how best to conduct the life of the nation and of the individual; the writings of individuals who struggled with personal persecution and failure and their speculations concerning human nature and the search for the true and the good; attempts to get beyond the sphere of the here and now and reach a more general understanding of the nature of reality, of man’s place in it, and of his relationship with that which is beyond his control.” God is a constant presence, but “the God of Israel and those who wrote about him seem to have been concerned to address subjects close to the heart of what later tradition calls works of reason” (2).

Hazony’s work is important for Christian thinkers, who have often spiritualized the outlook of the Hebrew Bible on the way to distorting the New Testament as well. The Old Testament is part of the Christian canon, and the New Testament presents itself as the fulfillment, not the cancellation, of the Old, and that means it brings to fuller expression the same political, philosophical, and ethical themes that the Old explores.

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