Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Over the break, I got some distance into a recently published book by Yoram Hazony entitled The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge U., 2012). I won’t try to summarize the whole work here, but I will lay out two of its points that I have ruminated on most since reading: first, the dichotomy between reason and revelation in reading the Hebrew Bible that Hazony criticizes, and second, the major generic difference between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that he sees.

First, Hazony’s basic contention is that Christian readings of the Hebrew Bible have obscured and distorted its contents. How? In the Christian era, the biblical canon (including Old and New Testaments) was read as revelation to secure its supreme religious authority: that is, its proponents believed that it offered singular and otherwise unknowable religious knowledge...unlike the works of reason by pagan philosophers whose claims were, in principle, generally attainable and disputable. Later – and this seems of particular concern to Hazony – during the Enlightenment, public esteem shifted poles. What was verifiable by public reasons became du jour, and what was once the Bible’s dignifying claim (i.e., its revelatory status) became its great liability. This resulted in the Bible’s exclusion as a serious resource from the modern universities, whose guiding light must be reason and not sectarian religious beliefs. By contrast, the writings of ancient Greek philosophers can still be responsibly cited by contemporary intellectuals as resources for the common good because of their ostensibly public rationality.  

However, Hazony thinks that while the revelation category may fit the New Testament (more on that later), it very poorly accommodates the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible does not imagine itself as providing otherwise unavailable religious knowledge; it has little concept of salvation; and its ambit is this-worldly rather than eschatological. On the face of it, the Hebrew Bible’s frequent recourse to divine speaking and acting and the particularity of its ethnic concerns would seem to rule against its use as an intellectual source for modern public life. But Hazony offers a fascinating comparison of divine speech and action in the Hebrew Bible with divine speech and action in the ancient Greek philosophers – and finds that both (nearly contemporaneous) corpora frequently and similarly attribute words, opinions, and deeds to divine beings. This poses no obstacle to contemporary philosophers who draw on Greek writings, because they are able to look past or sympathetically interpret these phenomena. But Hazony thinks that the cause behind the neglect of the Hebrew Bible for analogous philosophical purposes is simply its sitting on the wrong (but arbitrary) side of the reason-revelation dichotomy.

The second idea I want to highlight from Hazony is closely related: Hazony believes that the genre of the New Testament has been read back by Christians, deleteriously, onto the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament makes no claims of a general, philosophical nature: instead, its basic metaphor is juridical, courtly, seeking to persuade. It is, most fundamentally, a witness, i.e., something whose truth-value depends on the very specific, historical events it attests. Without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is scarce vestigial meaning for the New Testament. Christians commonly suppose that the purpose of the Old Testament is also to testify to certain miraculous events. But this Hazony denies. Of course, the contents of the Hebrew Bible are all right there – Hazony acknowledges the miracles, but proposes that the truth-value of the Hebrew Bible’s teachings relate only incidentally to these stories. He compares them to the historical narratives in Plato’s writings – which may or may not be true, but for the most part merely illustrate arguments that rely on different footing. Like the Greek philosophers, Hazony sees the Hebrew Bible exploring the good human life, “the nature of the moral and political order” in a publically accessible (and debatable) way (59).  

In effect, over against Christian interpretation (especially of the recent, “missional” variety) that makes salvation-history definitive and struggles to integrate creation and wisdom materials, Hazony reverses the direction of absorption and construes the grand history from Genesis through Kings as, essentially, on par with the wisdom writings: a tradition of inquiry (he uses this language) about the nature of human flourishing. Much of his book is case studies – how the characters of Genesis, for example, can be read as a treatise on politics. Hazony deals with the ethnic particularity of the Hebrew Bible by saying that, by placing their own history within the larger history of the cosmos, the Jews made their own case of universal, paradigmatic significance

Again, no full evaluation here: but I think this is a pretty exciting book. Maybe it will be, in the final analysis, only another instance of a person remaking the Bible in their own image: the literary theorists find a trove of literary masterpieces, the theologians a stockpile of theological fodder, and the humanist Israeli a (Jewish) work of deep humanist interest. Hazony’s exegesis is an odd mix – drawing on Christian exegetes like von Rad or Childs, Martha Nussbaum, Sternberg, et al. and in the end, it is not so clear (to me) that the characters of Genesis (for example) are staging an argument about political goods; or that the entirety of the Hebrew Bible stands theologically independent of historical realia (is the exodus only illustrative?). But Hazony's interrogation of the reason-revelation dichotomy that relegates the Hebrew Bible to the margins of philosophical enquiry is fascinating – and probably overdue, given the atmosphere of thorough-going historicism in the West whereby no canon can offer such a defense for its limits. There also is no question that Hazony turns up data that remains marginal to Christian readings (such as, for example, the intelligibility and, indeed, praiseworthiness of the law to the nations). And he forces us to wrestle with a major issue, in the difference of aims between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: the one, very earthy (“carnal,” in Calvin’s diction), with no afterlife, and the other, apocalyptically fervid. I recommend the book highly.


  1. It sounds fascinating. I think his critique of truth-value is coming from the right place. Evangelicals, especially, have given too much weight to historicity (as if authenticity and authority were the same thing). Also, the trends of current apologetics—which make more and more scientific demands on the ancient texts—seem hinder the OT from being "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." That said, I think Hazony is right to see enormous problems in the popular hermeneutics surrounding the OT, but he might lose his way on a few points.

    Why does he treat the Old Testament texts en masse? The authorial purpose (and truth-value) of Genesis may be completely different from that of Ecclesiastes or 1 Samuel, so why does he try to turn everything into wisdom literature? It seems, in order to give the ancient Hebrew writing the same status as that of the ancient Greeks, he has taken a fundamentally philosophical (or fundamentally Greek) hermeneutic for both.

    Interestingly, Hamann, who inspired Kierkegaard, does the opposite. In Socratic Memorabilia he countered the hyper-rationalization of ethics by comparing Socrates to the OT prophets. He read the Platonic dialogues as apocalyptic, as propaedeutic to the eventual revelation of Christ in the Greek world. Socrates became a type of Christ on the order of Joseph or David or Elijah. (That's a good read, too. Short. Lots of references, though.)

    Thanks for the reading recommendation.

  2. I second the comment above--why treat the Hebrew Bible, or as it is arranged for us, the Old Testament, as if it has one driving source, whether revelation or reason? Proverbs is so drastically different from Isaiah that I would have to bend over backwards trying to put them into the same category, even though both are roughly poetical. The Pentateuch seems to offer law, narrative and genealogy for which little direct revelation would be necessary (though some is certainly present). However, if you take the prophetic books at face value as making predictions about future events, then it is hard to see how those books could have been written on the basis of reason. Daniel's dreams don't sound logical. On the other hand, most of the Psalms and (at least the majority of) Lamentations could be written without any direct revelation.

    All in all though, thanks for the recommendation. I've been exploring various hermeneutics and enjoy being introduced to new interpretive ideas.

  3. Dear phi and Johanna (the Johanna I know?), thanks for reading and for your comments. It should be noted that the comment in the above blog post that makes all the Hebrew Bible tantamount to the wisdom genre is my own explanatory gloss ("in effect") and not explicit in Hazony. Hazony respects the integrity of various individual biblical genres; maybe it would be more accurate to say that he interprets the whole corpus by the macro-genre of "work of reason" rather than "revelation." Phi is right on to say that Hazony reads it all with a fundamentally philosophical hermeneutic -- that is his point, and why I think the book makes for a salutary shake-up. Nonetheless, I do think that Hazony has to stretch to put some biblical materials under this overarching rubric (Johanna, you've highlighted some of them; though I take it you've seen at least how little in the Old Testament conforms, at least straightforwardly, to what we mean commonly by "revelation". You might also check out Jon Goldingay's book on models for Scripture). In the end a more serious issue (for me) is the marginalization of YHWH that Hazony has to effect in order to read the main subject of the whole Old Testament as "the good/moral/political life."

    After I wrote this I also saw that the (respected biblical scholar) Jon Levenson had written a (far less sanguine) review here, which develops some of your concerns, and adds a few more:

  4. ** or maybe I should say, "instrumentalization" of YHWH.

  5. Thanks for the clarifications. I figured I was looking at it too grossly.

    Re: the "marginalization" or "instrumentalization" of YHWH, Levenson's article makes an interesting point that I liked:

    "The focus of Hazony's History, and of most of the Hebrew Bible, is not on 'discover[ing] the true and the good in accordance with man's natural abilities,' as he thinks. The focus, rather, is (to invert and adapt Kass' words) on what happened, not on what always or naturally happens. It lies on the world-transforming acts of the unique and unparalleled God in covenant with the unique and unparalleled people he has formed for himself. And it is within that covenantal framework of love, service, and obedience that the laws propounded in the name of Moses find their rationale. They are not 'natural law, written down for the benefit of Israel and all mankind,' as Hazony puts it."

    But thanks to your post, I'm still interested to see what Hazony has to say, especially as a critique of the academy for having brushed aside the Hebrew Bible in recent centuries.


  6. Interesting read, thanks for the review! Do you also have any other suggestions for this "reason vs revelation" idea?