Jerusalem and Athens

By Leo Strauss
Monday, December 26, 2011

The holiday of Hanukkah is, in part, a celebration of the victory of traditionalist Jews over Jews bent on assimilation to Greek Seleucid culture.  As such, the second-century B.C.E. Maccabean revolt has resonated throughout the ages not only as a key historical contest, but as a wellspring for interpretations of the divergent moral and theological views of the Hebrews and the Greeks.

In 1967, the philosopher Leo Strauss formulated his interpretation of "Hebraism" and "Hellenism." Provocative yet equanimous, Strauss believed that both the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers had a divine mission—but the mission was not the same.  We re-publish his essay, "Jerusalem and Athens: Some Introductory Reflections" below, with the permission of Commentary, where it first appeared.  And, in the spirit of ideological contentiousness, we present the classical scholar Louis H. Feldman's 1994 reconsideration (inset), in which he argues that the sharp line drawn between the Hebraic and the Hellenic has sometimes prevented a more balanced understanding. —The Editors 


I. The Beginning of the Bible and Its Greek Counterparts

All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusion and dangers of the present are founded, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences, the broadest and deepest—so far as Western man is concerned—are indicated by the names of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens. It goes without saying that this is a task whose proper performance goes much beyond my power; but we cannot define our tasks by our powers, for our powers become known to us through the performance of our tasks, and it is better to fail nobly than to succeed basely.

The objects to which we refer when we speak of Jerusalem and Athens are understood today, by the science devoted to such objects, as cultures; "culture" is meant to be a scientific concept. According to this concept there is an indefinitely large number of cultures: n cultures. The scientist who studies them beholds them as objects; as scientist, he stands outside all of them; he has no preference for any of them; he is not only impartial but objective; he is anxious not to distort any of them; in speaking about them he avoids any "culture-bound" concepts—i.e., concepts bound to any particular culture or kind of culture. In many cases the objects studied by the scientist of culture do or did not know that they are or were cultures. This causes no difficulty for him: electrons also do not know that they are electrons; even dogs do not know that they are dogs. By the mere fact that he speaks of his objects as cultures, the scientific student takes it for granted that he understands the people whom he studies better than they understood or understand themselves.

This whole approach has been questioned for some time, but the questioning does not seem to have had any effect on the scientists. The man who started the questioning was Nietzsche. We have said that according to the prevailing view there were or are ncultures. Let us say there were or are 1,001 cultures, thus reminding ourselves of the 1,001 Arabian Nights; the account of the cultures, if it is well done, will be a series of exciting stories, perhaps of tragedies. Accordingly, Nietzsche speaks of our subject in a speech by his Zarathustra that is entitled "Of 1,000 Goals and One." The Hebrews and the Greeks appear in this speech as two among a number of nations, not superior to the two others that are mentioned or to the 996 that are not. The peculiarity of the Greeks, according to Nietzsche, is the full dedication of the individual to the contest for excellence, distinction, supremacy. The peculiarity of the Hebrews is the utmost honoring of father and mother. Nietzsche's reverence for the sacred tables of the Hebrews, as well as for those of the other nations in question, is deeper than that of any other beholder. Yet since he too is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what others command, he himself is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or "values," of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of culture is an outgrowth of 19th-century Western culture; its application to the "cultures" of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is, then, for Nietzsche, a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the subjectivity of that science. To state the case differently, one cannot behold—i.e., truly understand—any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one's own culture or unless one belongs, in one's capacity as a beholder, to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary. The single goal of mankind is conceived by him as in a sense super-human: he speaks of the super-man of the future. The super-man is meant to unite in himself, on the highest level, both Jerusalem and Athens.

However much the science of all cultures may protest its innocence of all preferences or evaluations, it fosters a specific moral posture. Since it requires openness to all cultures, it fosters universal tolerance and the exhilaration which derives from the beholding of diversity; it necessarily affects all cultures that it can still affect by contributing to their transformation in one and the same direction; it willy-nilly brings about a shift of emphasis from the particular to the universal. By asserting, if only implicitly, the Tightness of pluralism, it asserts that pluralism is the right way; it asserts the monism of universal tolerance and respect for diversity; for by virtue of being an "-ism," pluralism is a monism.

One remains somewhat closer to the science of culture as it is commonly practiced if one limits oneself to saying that every attempt to understand the phenomena in question remains dependent upon a conceptual framework that is alien to most of these phenomena and therefore necessarily distorts them. "Objectivity" can be expected only if one attempts to understand the various cultures or peoples exactly as they understand or understood themselves. Men of ages and climates other than our own did not understand themselves in terms of cultures because they were not concerned with culture in the present-day meaning of the term. What we now call culture is the accidental result of concerns that were not concerns with culture but with other things—above all with the Truth.


Yet our intention to speak of Jerusalem and Athens seems to compel us to go beyond the self-understanding of either. Or is there a notion, a word that points to the highest that both the Bible and the greatest works of the Greeks claim to convey? There is such a word: wisdom. Not only the Greek philosophers but the Greek poets as well were considered to be wise men, and the Torah is said, in the Torah, to be "your wisdom in the eyes of the nations." We, then, must try to understand the difference between biblical wisdom and Greek wisdom. We see at once that each of the two claims to be the true wisdom, thus denying to the other its claim to be wisdom in the strict and highest sense. According to the Bible, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning of wisdom is wonder. We are thus compelled from the very beginning to make a choice, to take a stand. Where then do we stand? Confronted by the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens, we are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise. We are seekers for wisdom, "philo-sophoi." Yet since we say that we wish to hear first and then to act or to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem.

This, indeed, seems to be the necessary position for all of us who cannot be Orthodox and therefore must accept the principle of the historical-critical study of the Bible. The Bible was traditionally understood to be the true and authentic account of the deeds of God and men from the beginning till the restoration after the Babylonian exile. The deeds of God include His legislation as well as His inspirations to the prophets, and the deeds of men include their praises of God and their prayers to Him as well as their God-inspired admonitions. Biblical criticism starts from the observation that the biblical account is in important respects not authentic but derivative or consists not of "histories" but of "memories of ancient histories," to borrow a Machiavellian expression. Biblical criticism reached its first climax in Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, which is frankly anti-theological; Spinoza read the Bible as he read the Talmud and the Koran. The result of his criticism can be summarized as follows: the Bible consists to a considerable extent of self-contradictory assertions, of remnants of ancient prejudices or superstitions, and of the outpourings of an uncontrolled imagination; in addition, it is poorly compiled and poorly preserved. He arrived at this conclusion by presupposing the impossibility of miracles. The considerable differences between 19th- and 20th-century biblical criticism and that of Spinoza can be traced to their difference in regard to the evaluation of imagination: whereas for Spinoza imagination is simply sub-rational, it was assigned a much higher rank in later times when it was understood as the vehicle of religious or spiritual experience, which necessarily expresses itself in symbols and the like. The historical-critical study of the Bible is the attempt to understand the various layers of the Bible as they were understood by their immediate addressees, i.e., the contemporaries of its authors. Of course, the Bible speaks of many things—for instance, the creation of the world—that for the biblical authors themselves belong to the remote past. But there is undoubtedly much history in the Bible—accounts of events written by contemporaries or near-contemporaries. One is thus led to say that the Bible contains both "myth" and "history." Yet this distinction is alien to the Bible; it is a special form of the Greek distinction between mythos and logos. From the point of view of the Bible, the "myths" are as true as the "histories": what Israel "in fact" did or suffered cannot be understood except in the light of the "facts" of Creation and Election. What is now called "historical" are those deeds and speeches that are equally accessible to the believer and to the unbeliever. But from the point of view of the Bible, the unbeliever is the fool who has said in his heart "there is no God"; the Bible narrates everything as it is credible to the wise in the biblical sense of wisdom. Let us never forget that there is no biblical word for doubt. The biblical signs and wonders convince men who have little faith or who believe in other gods; they are not addressed to "the fools who say in their hearts ‘there is no God.'"

It is true that we cannot ascribe to the Bible the theological concept of miracles, for that concept presupposes the concept of nature, and the concept of nature is foreign to the Bible. One is, however, tempted to ascribe to the Bible what one may call the poetic concept of miracles as illustrated by Psalm 114:

When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange tongue, Judah became his sanctuary and Israel his dominion. The sea saw and fled; the Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails thee, sea, that thou fleest, thou Jordan that thou turnst back? Ye mountains that ye skip like rams, ye hills like lambs? From the presence of the Lord tremble thou earth, from the presence of the God of Jacob who turns the rock into a pond of water, the flint into a fountain of waters.

The presence of God calls forth from His creatures a conduct that differs strikingly from their ordinary conduct: it enlivens the lifeless; it makes fluid the fixed. It is not easy to say whether the author of the psalm did not mean his utterance to be simply or literally true. It is easy to say that the concept of poetry—as distinguished from that of song—is foreign to the Bible. It is perhaps more simple to say that owing to the victory of science over natural theology the impossibility of miracles can no longer be said to be established but has degenerated to the status of an undemonstrable hypothesis. One may trace to the hypothetical character of this fundamental premise the hypothetical character of many, not to say all, results of biblical criticism. Certain it is that biblical criticism in all its forms makes use of terms having no biblical equivalents and is to this extent unhistorical.


How then must we proceed? We shall not take issue with the findings or even the premises of biblical criticism. Let us grant that the Bible and in particular the Torah consists to a considerable extent of "memories of ancient histories," even of memories of memories. But memories of memories are not necessarily distorted or pale reflections of the original; they may be recollections of recollections, deepenings through meditation of the primary experience. We shall therefore take the latest and uppermost layer as seriously as the earlier ones. We shall start from the uppermost layer—from what is first for us, even though it may not be simply the first. We shall start, that is, where both the traditional and the historical study of the Bible necessarily start. In thus proceeding we avoid the compulsion to make an advance decision in favor of Athens against Jerusalem. For the Bible does not require us to believe in the miraculous character of events that the Bible does not present as miraculous. God's speaking to men may be described as miraculous, but the Bible does not claim that the putting-together of those speeches was done miraculously. We begin at the beginning, at the beginning of the beginning. The beginning of the beginning happens to deal with the beginning: the creation of heaven and earth. The Bible begins reasonably.


"In the beginning God created heaven and earth." Who says this? We are not told; hence we do not know. We have no right to assume that God said it, for the Bible introduces God's sayings by expressions like "God said." We shall then assume that the words were spoken by a nameless man. Yet no man can have been an eyewitness of God's creating heaven and earth; the only eyewitness was God. Since "There did not arise in Israel a prophet like Moses whom the Lord saw face to face," it is understandable that tradition ascribed to Moses the sentence quoted and its whole sequel. But what is understandable or plausible is not as such certain. The narrator does not claim to have heard the account from God; perhaps he heard it from some man or men; perhaps he is retelling a tale. The Bible continues: "And the earth was unformed and void. . . ." It is not clear whether the earth thus described was created by God or antedated His creation. But it is quite clear that while speaking about how the earth looked at first, the Bible is silent about how heaven looked at first. The earth, i.e., that which is not heaven, seems to be more important than heaven. This impression is confirmed by the sequel.

God created everything in six days. On the first day He created light; on the second, heaven; on the third, the earth, the seas, and vegetation; on the fourth, the sun, the moon, and the stars; on the fifth, the water animals and the birds; and on the sixth, the land animals and man. The most striking difficulties are these: light and hence day (and nights) are presented as preceding the sun, and vegetation is presented as preceding the sun. The first difficulty is disposed of by the observation that creation-days are not sun-days. One must add at once, however, that there is a connection between the two kinds of days, for there is a connection, a correspondence between light and sun. The account of creation manifestly consists of two parts, the first part dealing with the first three creation-days and the second part dealing with the last three. The first part begins with the creation of light and the second with the creation of the heavenly light-givers. Correspondingly, the first part ends with the creation of vegetation and the second with the creation of man. All creatures dealt with in the first part lack local motion; all creatures dealt with in the second part possess local motion.  Vegetation precedes the sun because vegetation lacks local motion and the sun possesses it. Vegetation belongs to the earth; it is rooted in the earth; it is the fixed covering of the fixed earth.  Vegetation was brought forth by the earth at God's command; the Bible does not speak of God's "making" vegetation; but as regards the living beings in question, God commanded the earth to bring them forth and yet God "made" them. Vegetation was created at the end of the first half of the creation-days; at the end of the last half, the living beings that spend their whole lives on the firm earth were created. The living beings—beings that possess life in addition to local motion—were created on the fifth and sixth days, on the days following the day on which the heavenly light-givers were created. The Bible presents the creatures in an ascending order. Heaven is lower than earth. The heavenly light-givers lack life; they are lower than the lowliest living beast; they serve the living creatures, which are to be found only beneath heaven; they have been created in order to rule over day and night: they have not been made in order to rule over the earth, let alone over man.

The most striking characteristic of the biblical account of creation is its demoting or degrading of heaven and the heavenly lights. Sun, moon, and stars precede the living things because they are lifeless: they are not gods. What the heavenly lights lose, man gains; man is the peak of creation. The creatures of the first three days cannot change their places; the heavenly bodies change their places but not their courses; the living beings change their courses but not their "ways"; men alone can change their "ways." Man is the only being created in God's image. Only in the case of man's creation does the biblical account of creation repeatedly speak of God's "creating" him; in the case of the creation of heaven and the heavenly bodies, that account speaks of God's "making" them. Similarly, only in the case of man's creation does the Bible intimate that there is a multiplicity in God: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Bisexuality is not a preserve of man, but only man's bisexuality could give rise to the view that there are gods and goddesses: there is no biblical word for "goddess." Hence creation is not begetting. The biblical account of creation teaches silently what the Bible teaches elsewhere explicitly: there is only one God, the God whose name is written as the Tetragrammaton, the living God Who lives from ever to ever, Who alone has created heaven and earth and all their hosts; He has not created any gods and hence there are no gods besides Him. The many gods whom men worship are either nothings that owe such being as they possess to man's making them, or if they are something (like sun, moon, and stars), they surely are not gods.  All non-polemical references to "other gods" occurring in the Bible are fossils whose preservation indeed poses a question but only a rather unimportant one. Not only did the biblical God not create any gods; on the basis of the biblical account of creation, one could doubt whether He created any beings one would be compelled to call "mythical": heaven and earth and all their hosts are always accessible to man as man. One would have to start from this fact in order to understand why the Bible contains so many sections that, on the basis of the distinction between mythical (or legendary) and historical, would have to be described as historical.


According to the Bible, creation was completed by, and culminated in, the creation of man. Only after the creation of man did God "see all that He had made, and behold, it was very good." What then is the origin of the evil or the bad? The biblical answer seems to be that since everything of divine origin is good, evil is of human origin. Yet if God's creation as a whole is very good, it does not follow that all its parts are good or that creation as a whole contains no evil whatsoever: God did not find all parts of His creation to be good. Perhaps creation as a whole cannot be "very good" if it does not contain some evils. There cannot be light if there is not darkness, and the darkness is as much created as is the light: God creates evil as well as He makes peace (Isaiah 45:7). However this may be, the evils whose origin the Bible lays bare, after it has spoken of creation, are a particular kind of evils: the evils that beset man. Those evils are not due to creation or implicit in it, as the Bible shows by setting forth man's original condition. In order to set forth that condition, the Bible must retell man's creation by making man's creation as much as possible the sole theme. This second account answers the question, not of how heaven and earth and all their hosts have come into being but of how human life as we know it—beset with evils with which it was not beset originally —has come into being. This second account may only supplement the first account but it may also correct it and thus contradict it. After all, the Bible never teaches that one can speak about creation without contradicting oneself. In post-biblical parlance, the mysteries of the Torah (sithre torah) are the contradictions of the Torah; the mysteries of God are the contradictions regarding God.


The first account of creation ended with man; the second account begins with man. According to the first account, God created man and only man in His image; according to the second account, God formed man from the dust of the earth and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The second account makes clear that man consists of two profoundly different ingredients, a high one and a low one. According to the first account, it would seem that man and woman were created simultaneously; according to the second account, man was created first. The life of man as we know it, the life of most men, is that of tillers of the soil; their life is needy and harsh. If human life had been needy and harsh from the very beginning, man would have been compelled or at least almost irresistibly tempted to be harsh, uncharitable, unjust; he would not have been fully responsible for his lack of charity or justice. But man is to be fully responsible. Hence the harshness of human life must be due to man's fault. His original condition must have been one of ease: he was not in need of rain nor of hard work; he was put by God into a well-watered garden that was rich in trees that were good for food. Yet while man was created for a life of ease, he was not created for a life of luxury: there was no gold or precious stones in the garden of Eden. Man was created for a simple life. Accordingly, God permitted him to eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." Man was not denied knowledge; without knowledge he could not have known the tree of knowledge, nor the woman, nor the brutes; nor could he have understood the prohibition. Man was denied knowledge of good and evil, i.e., the knowledge sufficient for guiding himself, his life. Though not being a child, he was to live in childlike simplicity and obedience to God. We are free to surmise that there is a connection between the demotion of heaven in the first account and the prohibition against eating of the tree of knowledge in the second. While man was forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge, he was not forbidden to eat of the tree of life.

Man, lacking knowledge of good and evil, was content with his condition and in particular with his loneliness. But God, possessing knowledge of good and evil, found that "it is not good for man to be alone, so I will make him a helper as his counterpart." So God formed the brutes and brought them to man, but they proved not to be the desired helpers. Thereupon God formed the woman out of a rib of the man. The man welcomed her as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh but, lacking knowledge of good and evil, he did not call her good. The narrator adds that "therefore [namely because the woman is bone of man's bone and flesh of his flesh] a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." Both were naked but, lacking knowledge of good and evil, they were not ashamed.

Thus the stage was set for the fall of our first parents. The first move came from the serpent, the most cunning of all the beasts of the field; it seduced the woman into disobedience and then the woman seduced the man. The seduction moves from the lowest to the highest. The Bible does not tell what induced the serpent to seduce the woman into disobeying the divine prohibition. It is reasonable to assume that the serpent acted as it did because it was cunning, i.e., possessed a low kind of wisdom, a congenital malice; everything that God had created would not be very good if it did not include something congenitally bent on mischief. The serpent begins its seduction by suggesting that God might have forbidden man and woman to eat of any tree in the garden, i.e., that God's prohibition might be malicious or impossible to comply with. The woman corrects the serpent and in so doing makes the prohibition more stringent than it was: "We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden; it is only about the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: you shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die."

Now, God did not forbid the man to touch the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Besides, the woman does not explicitly speak of the tree of knowledge; she may have had in mind the tree of life. Moreover, God had issued the prohibition only to the man, whereas the woman claims that God had spoken to her as well; she surely knew the divine prohibition only through human tradition. The serpent assures her that they will not die, "for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The serpent tacitly questions God's veracity. At the same time it glosses over the fact that eating of the tree involves disobedience to God. In this it is followed by the woman. According to the serpent's assertion, knowledge of good and evil makes man immune to death (although we cannot know whether the serpent believes this). But the woman, having forgotten the divine prohibition, having therefore in a manner tasted of the tree of knowledge, is no longer wholly unaware of good and evil: she "saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise"; therefore she took of its fruit and ate. She thus made the fall of the man almost inevitable, for he was cleaving to her: she gave some of the fruit of the tree to the man, and he ate. The man drifts into disobedience by following the woman. After they had eaten of the tree, their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons: through the fall they became ashamed of their nakedness; eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil made them realize that nakedness is evil.


The Bible says nothing to the effect that our first parents fell because they were prompted by the desire to be like God; they did not rebel highhandedly against God; rather, they forgot to obey God; they drifted into disobedience. Nevertheless, God punished them severely. But the punishment did not do away with the fact that, as God Himself said, as a consequence of his disobedience "man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil." There was now the danger that man might eat of the tree of life and live forever. Therefore God expelled him from the garden and made it impossible for him to return to it. One may wonder why man, while he was still in the garden of Eden, had not eaten of the tree of life of which he had not been forbidden to eat. Perhaps he did not think of it because, lacking knowledge of good and evil, he did not fear to die and, besides, the divine prohibition drew his attention away from the tree of life to the tree of knowledge.

The Bible intends to teach that man was meant to live in simplicity, without knowledge of good and evil. But the narrator seems to be aware of the fact that a being which can be forbidden to strive for knowledge of good and evil, i.e., that can understand to some degree that knowledge of good and evil is evil for it, necessarily possesses such knowledge. Human suffering from evil presupposes human knowledge of good and evil and vice versa. Man wishes to live without evil. The Bible tells us that he was given the opportunity to live without evil and that he cannot blame God for the evils from which he suffers. By giving man that opportunity, God convinces him that his deepest wish cannot be fulfilled. The story of the fall is the first part of the story of God's education of man.

Man has to live with knowledge of good and evil and with the sufferings inflicted on him because of that knowledge or its acquisition. Human goodness or badness presupposes that knowledge and its concomitants. The Bible gives us the first inkling of human goodness and badness in the story of the first brothers. The older brother, Cain, was a tiller of the soil; the younger brother, Abel, a keeper of sheep. God preferred the offering of the keeper of sheep, who brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock, to that of the tiller of the soil. There were many reasons for this preference but one of them seems to be that the pastoral life is closer to original simplicity than the life of the tillers of the soil. Cain, however was vexed, and despite his having been warned by God against sinning in general, killed his brother. After a futile attempt to deny his guilt—an attempt that increased that guilt ("Am I my brother's keeper?")—he was cursed by God as the serpent and the soil had been after the Fall, in contradistinction to Adam and Eve who were not cursed. He was punished by God, but not with death: anyone slaying Cain would be punished much more severely than Cain himself. The relatively mild punishment of Cain cannot be explained by the fact that murder had not been expressly forbidden: Cain possessed some knowledge of good and evil, and he knew that Abel was his brother, even assuming that he did not know that man was created in the image of God. It is better to explain Cain's punishment by assuming that punishments were milder in the beginning than later on. Cain—like his fellow fratricide, Romulus—founded a city, and some of his descendants were the ancestors of men practicing various arts: the city and the arts, so alien to man's original simplicity, owe their origin to Cain and his race rather than to Seth, the substitute for Abel, and his race. It goes without saying that this is not the last word of the Bible on the city and the arts but it is its first word, just as the prohibition against eating of the tree of knowledge is, one may say, its first word simply, and the revelation of the Torah—i.e., the highest kind of knowledge of good and evil that is vouchsafed to men—is its last word. The account of the race of Cain culminates in the song of Lamech who boasted to his wives of his slaying of men, of his being superior to God as an avenger. The (antediluvian) race of Seth cannot boast of a single inventor; its only distinguished members were Enoch, who walked with God, and Noah, who was a righteous man and walked with God: civilization and piety are two very different things.

By the time of Noah the wickedness of man had become so great that God repented of His creation of man and all other earthly creatures, Noah alone excepted; so He brought on the flood. Generally speaking, prior to the flood, man's lifespan was much longer than after it. Man's antediluvian longevity was a relic of his original condition. Man originally lived in the garden of Eden where he could have eaten of the tree of life and thus become immortal. The longevity of antediluvian man reflects this lost chance. To this extent the transition from antediluvian to postdiluvian man is a decline. This impression is confirmed by the fact that before the flood rather than after it the sons of God consorted with the daughters of man and thus generated the mighty men of old, the men of renown. On the other hand, the fall of our first parents made possible or necessary in due time God's revelation of His Torah, and this was decisively prepared, as we shall see, by the flood. In this respect, the transition from antediluvian to postdiluvian mankind is a progress. The ambiguity regarding the Fall—the fact that it was a sin and hence avoidable and that it was at the same time inevitable—is reflected in the ambiguity regarding the status of antediluvian mankind.

The link between antediluvian mankind and the revelation of the Torah is supplied by the first covenant between God and men, the covenant following the flood. The flood was the proper punishment for the extreme and well-nigh universal wickedness of antediluvian men. Prior to the flood, mankind lived, so to speak, without restraint, without law. While our first parents were still in the garden of Eden, they were not forbidden anything except to eat of the tree of knowledge. The vegetarianism of antediluvian men was not due to an explicit prohibition (Gen. 1:29); rather, their abstention from meat belongs together with their abstention from wine (cf. 9:20); both were relics of man's original simplicity. After the expulsion from the garden of Eden, God did not punish men, apart from the relatively mild punishment which He inflicted on Cain. Nor did He establish human judges. God experimented, as it were, for the instruction of mankind, with the possibility of mankind's living free of the law. The experiment, just like the experiment of having men remain like innocent children, ended in failure. Fallen or awake man needs restraint, must live under law. But this law must not be simply imposed. It must form part of a covenant in which God and man are equally, though not equal, partners. Such a partnership was established only after the flood; it did not exist in antediluvian times either before or after the fall.


The inequality regarding the covenant is shown especially by the fact that when God undertook never again to destroy almost all life on earth as long as the earth lasts, He did not do so on the condition that all or almost all men obey the laws promulgated by God after the flood: God makes His promise despite, or because of, His knowing that the devisings of man's heart are evil from his youth. Noah is the ancestor of all later men just as Adam was; the purgation of the earth through the flood is to some extent a restoration of mankind to its original state; it is a kind of second creation. Within the limits indicated, the condition of postdiluvian men is superior to that of antediluvian men. One point requires special emphasis: in the legislation following the flood, murder is expressly forbidden and made punishable by death on the ground that man was created in the image of God (9:6). The first covenant brought an increase in hope and at the same time an increase in punishment. Not until after the flood was man's rule over the beasts, ordained or established from the beginning, to be accompanied by the beasts' fear and dread of man (cf. 9:2 with 1:26-30 and 2:15).

The covenant following the flood prepares the covenant with Abraham. The Bible singles out three events that took place between the covenant after the flood and God's calling of Abraham: Noah's curse of Canaan, a son of Ham; the achievement of excellence by Nimrod, a grandson of Ham; and men's attempt to prevent their dispersal over the earth by building a city which had a tower that reached to the heavens. Canaan, whose land came to be the promised land, was cursed because Ham saw the nakedness of his father, Noah—because Ham transgressed a most sacred, if unpromulgated, law; the curse of Canaan was accompanied by the blessing of Shem and Japheth who turned their eyes away from the nakedness of their father. Here we have the first and the most fundamental division of mankind, at any rate of postdiluvian mankind, the division into "cursed" and "blessed." Nimrod was the first to be a mighty man on earth—a mighty hunter before the Lord; his kingdom included Babel (big kingdoms are attempts to overcome by force the division of mankind, conquest and hunting being akin to each other). The city that men built in order to remain together and thus to make a name for themselves was Babel; God scattered them by confounding their speech, by bringing about the division of mankind into groups that could not understand one another: into nations, i.e., groups united not only by descent but also by language. The division of mankind into nations may be described as a milder alternative to the flood.

The three events that took place between God's covenant with mankind after the flood and His calling of Abraham point to God's way of dealing with men who know good and evil and devise evil from their youth. Well-nigh universal wickedness will no longer be punished with well-nigh universal destruction, but will be prevented through the division of mankind into nations. Mankind will be divided, not into the cursed and the blessed (the curses and blessings were Noah's, not God's), but into a chosen nation and into nations that are not chosen. The emergence of nations made it possible to replace Noah's Ark—which floated alone on the waters covering the entire earth—by a whole, numerous nation living in the midst of the nations covering the earth. The election of the holy nation begins with the election of Abraham. Noah was distinguished from his contemporaries by his righteousness; Abraham separates himself from his contemporaries and in particular from his country and kindred at God's command—a command accompanied by God's promise to make of him a great nation. The Bible does not say that this primary election of Abraham was preceded by the fact of Abraham's righteousness. However this may be, Abraham shows his righteousness by obeying God's command at once, by trusting in God's promise whose fulfillment he could not possibly live to see, given the short lifespan of postdiluvian man: only after Abraham's offspring would have become a great nation would the land of Canaan be given to them forever.

The fulfillment of the promise required that Abraham not remain childless, and he was already quite old. Accordingly, God promised him that he would have issue. It was Abraham's trust in God's promise that, above everything else, made him righteous in the eyes of the Lord. It was God's intention that His promise be fulfilled through the offspring of Abraham and his wife Sarah. But this promise seemed laughable to Abraham, to say nothing of Sarah: Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah, ninety. Yet nothing is too wondrous for the Lord. The laughable announcement became a joyous one. It was followed immediately by God's announcement to Abraham of His concern with the wickedness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. God did not yet know whether those people were as wicked as they were said to be. But they might be; they might deserve total destruction as much as did the generation of the flood. Noah had accepted the destruction of his generation without any questioning. Abraham, however, who had a deeper trust in God, in God's righteousness, and a deeper awareness of his being only dust and ashes, presumed in fear and trembling to appeal to God's righteousness lest He, the judge of the whole earth, destroy the righteous along with the wicked. In response to Abraham's insistent pleading, God as it were promised to Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if ten righteous men could be found in the city: He would save the city for the sake of the ten righteous men within it. Abraham acted as the mortal partner in God's righteousness; he acted as if he had some share in the responsibility for God's acting righteously. No wonder God's covenant with Abraham was incomparably more incisive than His covenant immemediately following the flood.


Abraham's trust in God thus appears to be the trust that God in His righteousness will not do anything incompatible with His righteousness and that while, or because, nothing is too wondrous for the Lord, there are firm boundaries set to Him by His own righteousness, by Himself. This awareness is deepened and therewith modified by the last and severest test of Abraham's trust: God's command to him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son by Sarah. Abraham's supreme test presupposes the wondrous character of Isaac's birth: the very son who was to be the sole link between Abraham and the chosen people and who was born against all reasonable expectations, was to be sacrificed by his father. This command contradicted not only the divine promise, but also the divine prohibition against the shedding of innocent blood. Yet Abraham did not argue with God as he had done in the case of Sodom's destruction. In the case of Sodom, Abraham was not confronted with a divine command to do a certain thing and more particularly he was not confronted with a command to surrender to God what was dearest to him: Abraham did not argue with God for the preservation of Isaac because he loved God—not himself or his most cherished hope—with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. The same concern with God's righteousness that had induced him to plead with God for the preservation of Sodom if ten just men could be found in that city, induced him not to plead for the preservation of Isaac, for God rightfully demands that He alone be loved unqualifiedly. The fact that the command to sacrifice Isaac contradicted the prohibition against the shedding of innocent blood must be understood in the light of the difference between human justice and divine justice: God alone is unqualifiedly, if un-fathomably, just. God promised Abraham that He would spare Sodom if ten righteous men could be found in it, and Abraham was satisfied with this promise; He did not promise that He would spare the city if nine righteous men were found in it; would those nine be destroyed together with the wicked? And even if all Sodomites were wicked and hence justly destroyed, did their infants who were destroyed with them deserve their destruction? The apparent contradiction between the command to sacrifice Isaac and the divine promise to the descendants of Isaac is disposed of by the consideration that nothing is too wondrous for the Lord. Abraham's supreme trust in God, his simple, singleminded, childlike faith was rewarded although, or because, it presupposed his entire unconcern with any reward, for Abraham was willing to forgo, to destroy, to kill the only reward with which he was concerned: God prevented the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham's intended action needed a reward although he was not concerned with a reward because his intended action cannot be said to have been intrinsically rewarding. The preservation of Isaac is as wondrous as his birth. These two wonders illustrate more clearly than anything else the origin of the holy nation.

The God Who created heaven and earth, Who is the only God, Whose only image is man, Who forbade man to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Who made a covenant with mankind after the flood and thereafter a convenant with Abraham which became His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—what kind of God is He? Or, to speak more reverently and more adequately, what is His name? This question was addressed to God Himself by Moses when he was sent by Him to the sons of Israel. God replied: "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh," which is most often translated: "I am That (Who) I am." I believe, however, that we ought to render this statement, "I shall be What I shall be," thus preserving the connection between God's name and the fact that He makes covenants with men, i.e., that He reveals Himself to men above all by His commandments and by His promises and His fulfillment of those promises. "I shall be What I shall be" is, as it were, explained in the verse (Ex. 33:19), "I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious and I shall show mercy to whom I shall show mercy." God's actions cannot be predicted, unless He Himself has predicted them, i.e., promised them. But as is shown precisely by the account of Abraham's binding of Isaac, the way in which He fulfills His promises cannot be known in advance. The biblical God is a mysterious God: He comes in a thick cloud (Ex. 19:4); He cannot be seen; His presence can be sensed but not always and everywhere; what is known of Him is only what He chose to communicate by His word through His chosen servants. The rest of the chosen people knows His word—apart from the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4:12 and 5:4-5)—only mediately and does not wish to know it immediately (Ex. 20:19, and 21, 24:1-2; Deut. 10:15-18; Amos 3:7). For almost all purposes the word of God as revealed to His prophets and especially to Moses became the source of knowledge of good and evil, the true tree of knowledge which is at the same time the tree of life.


Having said this much about the beginning of the Bible and what it entails, let us now cast a glance at some Greek counterparts to the beginning of the Bible—to begin with, at Hesiod's Theogony as well as the remains of Parmenides's and Empedocles's works. They are all the works of known authors. This does not mean that they are, or present themselves as being, merely human. Hesiod sings what the Muses, the daughters of Zeus who is the father of gods and men, taught him or commanded him to sing. One could say that the Muses vouch for the truth of Hesiod's song, were it not for the fact that they sometimes speak lies which resemble what is true. Parmenides transmits the teaching of a goddess, and so does Empedocles. Yet these men composed their books; their songs or speeches are books. The Bible, on the other hand, is not a book. The most one could say is that it is a collection of books. The author of a book, in the strict sense of the term, excludes everything that is not necessary, that does not fulfill a function necessary to the purpose his book is meant to fulfill. The compilers of the Bible as a whole and of the Torah in particular seem to have followed an entirely different rule. Confronted with a variety of preexisting holy speeches, which as such had to be treated with the utmost respect, they excluded only what could not by any stretch of the imagination be rendered compatible with the fundamental and authoritative teaching; their very piety, aroused and fostered by the pre-existing holy speeches, led them to make such changes in those holy speeches as they did make. Their work may then abound in contradictions and repetitions that no one ever intended as such, whereas in a book in the strict sense there is nothing that is not intended by the author.

Hesiod's Theogony sings of the generation or begetting of the gods; the gods were not "made" by anybody. Far from having been created by a god, earth and heaven are the ancestors of the immortal gods. More precisely, according to Hesiod everything that is has come to be. First there arose Chaos, Gaia (Earth), and Eros. Gaia gave birth first to Ouranos (Heaven) and then, mating with Ouranos, she brought forth Kronos and his brothers and sisters. Ouranos hated his children and did not wish them to come to life. At the wish and advice of Gaia, Kronos deprived his father of his generative power and thus unintentionally brought about the emergence of Aphrodite; Kronos became the king of the gods. Kronos's evil deed was avenged by his son Zeus whom he had generated by mating with Rheia and whom he had planned to destroy; Zeus dethroned his father and thus became the king of the gods, the father of gods and men, the mightiest of all gods. Given his ancestors it is not surprising that while he is the father of men and belongs to the gods who are the givers of good things, he is far from being kind to men. Mating with Mnemosyne, the daughter of Gaia and Ouranos, Zeus generated the nine Muses. The Muses give sweet and gentle eloquence and understanding to the kings whom they wish to honor. Through the Muses there are singers on earth, just as through Zeus there are kings. While kingship and song may go together, there is a profound difference between the two—a difference that, guided by Hesiod, one may compare to that between the hawk and the nightingale. Surely Metis (Wisdom), while being Zeus's first spouse and having become inseparable from him, is not identical with him; the relation of Zeus and Metis may remind one of the relation of God and wisdom in the Bible.

Hesiod speaks of the creation or making of men not in the Theogony but in his Works and Days, i.e., in the context of his speeches regarding how man should live, regarding man's right life, which includes the teaching regarding the right seasons (the "days"); the question of the right life does not arise regarding the gods. The right life for man is the just life, the life devoted to working, especially to tilling the soil. Work thus understood is a blessing ordained by Zeus who blesses the just and crushes the proud: often even a whole city is destroyed for the deeds of a single bad man. Yet Zeus takes cognizance of men's justice and injustice only if he so wills. Accordingly, work appears to be not a blessing but a curse: men must work because the gods keep hidden from them the means of life and they do this in order to punish them for Prometheus's theft of fire—a theft inspired by philanthropy. But was not Prometheus's action itself prompted by the fact that men were not properly provided for by the gods and in particular by Zeus? Be this as it may, Zeus did not deprive men of the fire that Prometheus had stolen for them; he punished them by sending them Pandora and her box, that was filled with countless evils like hard labor. The evils with which human life is beset cannot be traced to human sin. Hesiod conveys the same message by his story of the five races of men which came into being successively. The first of these, the golden race, was made by the gods while Kronos was still ruling in heaven. These men lived without toil or grief; they had all good things in abundance because the earth by itself gave them abundant fruit. Yet the men made by father Zeus lack this bliss. Hesiod does not make clear whether this is due to Zeus's ill-will or to his lack of power; he gives us no reason to think that it is due to man's sin. He creates the impression that human life becomes ever more miserable as one race of men succeeds another: there is no divine promise, supported by the fulfillment of earlier divine promises, that permits one to trust and to hope.

The most striking difference between the poet Hesiod and the philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles is that according to the philosophers, not everything has come into being: that which truly is, has not come into being and does not perish. This does not necessarily mean that what exists always is a god or gods. For if Empedocles calls one of the eternal four elements Zeus, this Zeus has hardly anything in common with what Hesiod, or the people generally, understood by Zeus. At any rate, according to both philosophers, the gods as ordinarily understood have come into being, just like heaven and earth, and will therefore perish again.

At the time when the opposition between Jerusalem and Athens reached the level of what one may call its classical struggle, in the 12th and 13th centuries, philosophy was represented by Aristotle. The Aristotelian god, like the biblical God, is a thinking being, but in opposition to the biblical God he is only a thinking being, pure thought: pure thought that thinks itself and only itself. Only by thinking himself and nothing but himself does he rule the world. He surely does not rule by giving orders and laws. Hence he is not a creator-god: the world is as eternal as god. Man is not his image: man is much lower in rank than other parts of the world. For Aristotle it is almost a blasphemy to ascribe justice to his god; he is above justice as well as injustice.


It has often been said that the philosopher who comes closest to the Bible is Plato. This was said not least during the classical struggle between Jerusalem and Athens in the Middle Ages. Both Platonic philosophy and biblical piety are animated by the concern with purity and purification: "pure reason" in Plato's sense is closer to the Bible than "pure reason" in Kant's sense or for that matter in Anaxagoras's and Aristotle's sense. Plato teaches, just as the Bible does, that heaven and earth were created or made by an invisible God whom he calls the Father, who is eternal, who is good, and hence whose creation is good. The coming-into-being and the preservation of the world that he has created depend on the will of its maker. What Plato himself calls theology consists of two teachings: (1) God is good and hence in no way the cause of evil; (2) God is simple and hence unchangeable. On the question of divine concern with men's justice and injustice, Platonic teaching is in fundamental agreement with biblical teaching; it even culminates in a statement that agrees almost literally with biblical statements. Yet the differences between the Platonic and biblical teachings are no less striking than the similarities. The Platonic teaching on creation does not claim to be more than a likely tale. The Platonic God is a creator also of gods, of visible living beings, i.e., of the stars; the created gods rather than the creator God create the mortal living beings and in particular man; heaven is a blessed god. The Platonic God does not create the world by his word; he creates it after having looked to the eternal ideas which therefore are higher than he. In accordance with this, Plato's explicit theology is presented within the context of the first discussion of education in the Republic, within the context of what one may call the discussion of elementary education; in the second and final discussion of education—the education of philosophers—theology is replaced by the doctrine of ideas. As for the thematic discussion of providence in the Laws, it may suffice here to say that it occurs within the context of the discussion of penal law.

In his likely tale of how God created the visible whole, Plato makes a distinction between two kinds of gods, the visible cosmic gods and the traditional gods—between the gods who revolve manifestly, i.e., who manifest themselves regularly, and the gods who manifest themselves so far as they will. The least one would have to say is that according to Plato the cosmic gods are of much higher rank than the traditional gods, the Greek gods. Inasmuch as the cosmic gods are accessible to man as man—to his observations and calculations—whereas the Greek gods are accessible only to the Greeks through Greek tradition, one may, in comic exaggeration, ascribe the worship of the cosmic gods to barbarians. This ascription is made in a manner and with an intention altogether non-comic in the Bible: Israel is forbidden to worship the sun and the moon and the stars which the Lord has allotted to the other peoples everywhere under heaven. This implies that the worship of the cosmic gods by other peoples, the barbarians, is not due to a natural or rational cause, to the fact that those gods are accessible to man as man, but to an act of God's will. It goes without saying that according to the Bible the God Who manifests Himself as far as He wills, Who is not universally worshipped as such, is the only true God. The Platonic statement taken in conjunction with the biblical statement brings out the fundamental opposition of Athens at its peak to Jerusalem: the opposition of the God or gods of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the opposition of reason and revelation.


II. On Socrates and the Prophets

Fifty years ago, in the middle of World War I, Hermann Cohen, the greatest representative of, and spokesman for, German Jewry, the most powerful figure among the German professors of philosophy of his time, stated his view on Jerusalem and Athens in a lecture entitled "The Social Ideal in Plato and the Prophets." He repeated that lecture shortly before his death, and we may regard it as stating his final view on Jerusalem and Athens and therewith on the truth. For, as Cohen says right at the beginning, "Plato and the prophets are the two most important sources of modern culture." Being concerned with "the social ideal," he does not say a single word about Christianity in the whole lecture.

Cohen's view may be restated as follows. The truth is the synthesis of the teachings of Plato and the prophets. What we owe to Plato is the insight that the truth is in the first place the truth of science but that science must be supplemented, overarched, by the idea of the good which to Cohen means, not God, but rational, scientific ethics. The ethical truth must not only be compatible with the scientific truth; the ethical truthneeds the scientific truth. The prophets are very much concerned with knowledge: with the knowledge of God. But this knowledge, as the prophets understood it, has no connection whatever with scientific knowledge; it is knowledge only in a metaphorical sense. It is perhaps with a view to this fact that Cohen speaks once of the divine Plato but never of the divine prophets. Why then can he not leave matters at Platonic philosophy? What is the fundamental defect of Platonic philosophy that is remedied by the prophets and only by the prophets? According to Plato, the cessation of evil requires the rule of the philosophers, of the men who possess the highest kind of human knowledge, i.e., of science in the broadest sense of the term. But this kind of knowledge like, to some extent, all scientific knowledge, is, according to Plato, the preserve of a small minority: of the men who possess a certain nature and certain gifts that most men lack. Plato presupposes that there is an unchangeable human nature and, as a consequence, a fundamental structure of the good human society which is unchangeable. This leads him to assert or to assume that there will be wars as long as there will be human beings, that there ought to be a class of warriors and that the class ought to be higher in rank and honor than the class of producers and exchangers. These defects in Plato's system are remedied by the prophets precisely because they lack the idea of science and hence the idea of nature, and therefore they can believe that men's conduct toward one another can undergo a change much more radical than any change ever dreamed of by Plato.

Cohen brought out very well the antagonism between Plato and the prophets. Nevertheless we cannot leave matters at his view of that antagonism. Cohen's thought belongs to the world preceding World War I, and accordingly reflects a greater faith in the power of modern Western culture to mold the fate of mankind than seems to be warranted now. The worst things experienced by Cohen were the Dreyfus scandal and the pogroms instigated by Tsarist Russia: he did not experience Communist Russia and Hitler Germany. More disillusioned than he regarding modern culture, we wonder whether the two separate ingredients of modern culture, of the modern synthesis, are not more solid than the synthesis itself. Catastrophes and horrors of a magnitude hitherto unknown, which we have seen and through which we have lived, were better provided for, or made intelligible, by both Plato and the prophets than by the modern belief in progress. Since we are less certain than Cohen was that the modern synthesis is superior to its pre-modern ingredients, and since the two ingredients are in fundamental opposition to each other, we are ultimately confronted by a problem rather than by a solution.

More particularly, Cohen understood Plato in the light of the opposition between Plato and Aristotle—an opposition that he understood in turn in the light of the opposition between Kant and Hegel. We, however, are more impressed than Cohen was by the kinship between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and the kinship between Kant and Hegel on the other. In other words, the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns seems to us to be more fundamental than either the quarrel between Plato and Aristotle or that between Kant and Hegel.

We, moreover, prefer to speak of Socrates and the prophets rather than of Plato and the prophets, and for the following reasons. We are no longer as sure as Cohen was that we can draw a clear line between Socrates and Plato. There is traditional support for drawing such a clear line, above all in Aristotle; but Aristotle's statements on this kind of subject no longer possess for us the authority that they formerly possessed, and this is due partly to Cohen himself. The clear distinction between Socrates and Plato is based not only on tradition, but on the results of modern historical criticism; yet these results are in the decisive respect hypothetical. The decisive fact for us is that Plato points, as it were, away from himself to Socrates. If we wish to understand Plato, we must take him seriously; we must take seriously in particular his deference to Socrates. Plato points not only to Socrates's speeches but to his whole life, and to his fate as well. Hence Plato's life and fate do not have the symbolic character of Socrates's life and fate. Socrates, as presented by Plato, had a mission; Plato did not claim to have a mission. It is in the first place this fact—the fact that Socrates had a mission—that induces us to consider, not Plato and the prophets, but Socrates and the prophets.

I cannot speak in my own words of the mission of the prophets. Let me, however, remind the reader of some prophetic utterances of singular force and grandeur. Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole world is full of his glory. . . . Then I said, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. . . . Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.


Isaiah, it seems, volunteered for his mission. Could he not have remained silent? Could he refuse to volunteer? When the word of the Lord came unto Jonah, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me," "Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord"; Jonah ran away from his mission; but God did not allow him to run away; He compelled him to fulfill it. Of this compulsion we hear in different ways from Amos and Jeremiah. Amos 3:7-8: "Surely the Lord God will do nothing but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken; who will not prophesy?" The prophets, overpowered by the majesty of the Lord, bring the message of His wrath and His mercy. Jeremiah 1:4-10.

Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee and before thou camest out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child; for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. . . . Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold I have put my words in thy mouth. See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.

To be sure, the claim to have been sent by God was raised also by men who were not truly prophets but prophets of falsehood, false prophets. Many or most hearers were therefore uncertain as to which kinds of claimants to prophecy were to be trusted or believed. According to the Bible, the false prophets simply lied in saying that they were sent by God. The false prophets tell the people what the people like to hear; hence they are much more popular than the true prophets. The false prophets are "prophets of the deceit of their own heart" (ibid. 26); they tell the people what they themselves imagined (consciously or unconsciously) because they wished it or their hearers wished it. But: "Is not my word like as a fire saith the Lord, and like a hammer that breaketh rock in pieces?" (ibid. 29). Or, as Jeremiah put it when opposing the false prophet, Hananiah: "The prophets that have been before me and before thee of old prophesied both against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence" (28:8). This does not mean that a prophet is true only if he is a prophet of doom; the true prophets are also prophets of ultimate salvation. We understand the difference between the true and the false prophets if we listen to and meditate on these words of Jeremiah: "Thus saith the Lord; Cursed is the man, that trusteth in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. . . . Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is." The false prophets trust in flesh, even if that flesh is the temple in Jerusalem, the promised land, the chosen people itself, or even God's promise to the chosen people (if that promise is taken to be an unconditional promise and not as a part of a covenant). The true prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable—what would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope. The true prophets speak and act by the spirit and in the spirit of Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh. For the false prophets, on the other hand, there cannot be the wholly unexpected, whether bad or good.

Of Socrates's mission we know only through Plato's Apology of Socrates, which presents itself as the speech delivered by Socrates when he defended himself against the charge that he did not believe in the existence of the gods worshipped by the city of Athens and that he corrupted the young. In that speech he denies possessing any more than human wisdom. This denial was understood by Judah Halevi among others as follows: "Socrates said to the people: ‘I do not deny your divine wisdom, but I say that I do not understand it; I am wise only in human wisdom.'" While this interpretation points in the right direction, it goes somewhat too far. Socrates, at least, immediately after having denied possessing anything more than human wisdom, refers to the speech that originated his mission, and of this speech he says that it is not his but he seems to ascribe to it divine origin. He does trace what he says to a speaker who is worthy of the Athenians' credence. But it is probable that he means by that speaker his companion, Chairephon, who is more worthy of credence than Socrates because he was attached to the democratic regime. This Chairephon, having once come to Delphi, asked Apollo's oracle whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The Pythia replied that no one was wiser. This reply originated Socrates's mission. We see at once that Socrates's mission originated in human initiative, in the initiative of one of Socrates's companions. Socrates, on the other hand, takes it for granted that the reply given by the Pythia was given by the god Apollo himself. Yet this does not induce him to take it for granted that the god's reply is true. He does take it for granted that it is not meet for the god to lie. Yet this does not make the god's reply convincing to him. In fact he tries to refute that reply by discovering men who are wiser than he. Engaging in this quest, he finds out that the god spoke the truth: Socrates is wiser than other men because he knows nothing, i.e., nothing about the most important things, whereas the others believe that they know the truth about the most important things. Thus his attempt to refute the oracle turns into a vindication of the oracle. Without intending it, he comes to the assistance of the god; he serves the god; he obeys the god's command. Although no god had ever spoken to him, he is satisfied that the god had commanded him to examine himself and the others, i.e., to philosophize, or to exhort everyone he meets to the practice of virtue: he has been given by the god to the city of Athens as a gadfly.

While Socrates does not claim to have heard the speech of a god, he claims that a voice—something divine and demonic—speaks to him from time to time, his daimonion. This daimonion, however, has no connection with Socrates's mission, for it never urges him forward but only keeps him back. While the Delphic oracle urged him forward toward philosophizing, toward examining his fellow men, and thus made him generally hated and thus brought him into mortal danger, his daimonion kept him back from political activity and thus saved him from mortal danger.


The fact that both Socrates and the prophets have a divine mission means, or at any rate implies, that both Socrates and the prophets are concerned with justice or righteousness, with the perfectly just society which, as such, would be free of all evils. To this extent Socrates's figuring out of the best social order and the prophets' vision of the messianic age are in agreement. Yet whereas the prophets predict the coming of the messianic age, Socrates merely holds that the perfect society is possible: whether it will ever be actual depends on an unlikely, although not impossible, coincidence, the coincidence of philosophy and political power. For, according to Socrates, the coming-into-being of the best political order is not due to divine intervention; human nature will remain as it always has been; the decisive difference between the best political order and all other societies is that in the former the philosophers will be kings or the natural potentiality of the philosophers will reach its utmost perfection. In the most perfect social order, as Socrates sees it, knowledge of the most important things will remain, as it always was, the preserve of the philosophers, i.e., of a very small part of the population. According to the prophets, however, in the messianic age "the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the earth" (Isaiah 11:9), and this will be brought about by God Himself. As a consequence, the messianic age will be the age of universal peace: all nations shall come to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:2-4). The best regime, however, as Socrates envisages it, will animate a single city which, as a matter of course, will become embroiled in wars with other cities. The cessation of evils that Socrates expects from the establishment of the best regime will not include the cessation of war.

Finally, the perfectly just man, the man who is as just as is humanly possible, is, according to Socrates, the philosopher; according to the prophets, he is the faithful servant of the Lord. The philosopher is the man who dedicates his life to the quest for knowledge of the good, of the idea of the good; what we would call moral virtue is only the condition or by-product of that quest. According to the prophets, however, there is no need for the quest for knowledge of the good: God "hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8).

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