What is “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture?”

August 4th, 2017 by

The participants at the Herzl Institue’s Young Scholars Workshop spent an entire week discussing various topics in Yoram Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. However, at the end of the workshop there was still some confusion as to what exactly the “the philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture” is.

First of all, it does not help that the title of the book, and hence the subject, is ambiguous. Perhaps this was intentional. There are various ways that one might understand the phrase “philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.” It might mean, philosophy about Hebrew Scripture, philosophy that engages with Hebrew Scripture, philosophy that the Hebrew Scriptures espouse, philosophy from Hebrew Scripture, or any other number of options. Determining what Hazony means by “the philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” will in part determine whether Hazony’s project is successful . After reading the book and talking with him at the workshop, I have concluded that he is using “the philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” to mean the philosophy that the Hebrew Bible explicitly espouses, in distinction from other philosophical texts and systems. For example, texts that are contemporary with the Hebrew Bible attempt to answer the following philosophical questions:

What is the nature of things?

What is knowledge?

What makes something right or wrong?

What is justice?

What does a well-ordered society look like?

How does God relate to human beings?

The Hebrew Bible offers answers to these questions. But we might wonder: does the fact that Hebrew Bible offers answers to these philosophical questions give us grounds to call the Hebrew Bible a philosophical text? The answer to that question depends on what one thinks a philosophical text is. Is a philosophical text simply a text that offers answers to philosophical questions? If so, then The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a philosophical text, and so is The Lorax. If this is how one defines philosophical texts, then it seems as though most texts could be philosophical texts; but that just doesn’t seem right. It’s one thing to be able to extract philosophical answers to philosophical questions from a text. It’s another to say that a text is to be taken as a philosophical text. So what is a philosophical text? I’m not sure, but I know one when I see one… .

Jon Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, makes a similar point. In an essay titled “Is the Torah a Work of Philosophy” (Mosaic, 2017) he concludes that the Bible is not a work of philosophy. He says,

“[The Bible] mostly deals with… the relationship of the people of Israel (less commonly, humankind in general) to God over time – with a God who acts in history, doing far more than revealing perennial universal truths…the biblical focus, that is, lies in such matters as the reliability of God to fulfill His promises; on His responsiveness to cries of pain and to accusation of neglect in times of affliction; and on the people of Israel’s willingness to carry out His commands wholeheartedly….”

Thus Levenson seems to believe that the Bible does contain some universal truths, i.e. the subject matter of philosophy, but it is primarily a different sort of work.

Given what has been said above, I am left wondering: Does denying that the Hebrew Bible is a philosophical text diminish the importance of Hazony’s aim in doing philosophy from the Hebrew Bible? I don’t think it does, and here is why. Although the Hebrew Bible is not a philosophical text, it is a text worthy of philosophical reflection. Consider just one philosophical topic: divine action in the world. The Hebrew Bible makes certain claims about how God acts in the world. If one were interested in the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible project, one could enter current discussions about the philosophy of divine action and treat the Hebrew Bible as an important source for reflection upon the topic. Or, one could compare and contrast how divine action is talked about in the Hebrew Bible with other contemporary theories of divine action. Finally, one might attempt to formulate a theory of divine action solely from the Hebrew Bible and try to use this theory to solve contemporary puzzles concerning divine action. These are all ways of doing philosophy with the Hebrew Bible while denying the fact that the Hebrew Bible is a philosophical text.

In addition to reflecting upon divine action in light of the Hebrew Bible, another fruitful project would be to examine epistemology in light of the Hebrew Bible. This, in fact, is what William J. Abraham did in a paper given at the “Torah from Heaven” conference during the second week of the Herzl workshop. In the next blog we will take a look at his  paper.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.


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