The Hebrew Bible and the Human Mind

By Diana Muir Appelbaum
Monday, September 10, 2012

Yoram Hazony has a bone to pick with Tertullian, the second-century Christian theologian who asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

For Tertullian, the life of the mind was a choice between two paths.  A wise man took the path of Jerusalem—of faith.  Although there is a far distance between second-century Christianity and Mormonism, Tertullian’s position might be summed up in a lyric from The Book of Mormon, advertised as the “greatest Broadway musical of the 21st century”: “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.”

Tertullian wanted Christians to avoid the path of Athens, the path of intellectual inquiry.  For Tertullian, true answers to questions about the will of God could not be discovered by even the best efforts of the human mind; therefore, God sent Jesus to reveal these answers.  Tertullian advised the Christian to think just hard enough to accept the truth of scripture as taught by the church, then stop, “lest he should come to know what he ought not.”

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, is a refutation not only of Tertullian but of a Western intellectual tradition that errs by dividing the world into opposing categories: reason versus faith, philosophy versus revelation, Athens versus Jerusalem, Plato versus the Bible.  Hazony tells us that this dichotomy fundamentally misunderstands the Hebrew Bible and the human mind.

In the New Testament, Paul offers revealed wisdom, a divine gift of ideas that the human mind is incapable of working out for itself, a gift that wise men should  accept on faith and because a series of miracles, attested to by the Gospels, proves these divine mysteries true.  Paul and the Apostles announce the “good news” of this “hidden wisdom,” secrets that the “powers that rule the world have never known” but that that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”  

The Hebrew Bible, in Hazony’s view, offers nothing of the kind.  Far from revealing holy mysteries, the final editor of the Hebrew Bible wants to “persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made, and therefore from the natures of men and nations in this world.”  This Bible is not a series of mysteries requiring divine revelation, it is a Bible of ideas with which the human mind can reason.  This Bible comes to convince the exiles in Babylon, and us, that “the law of Moses was the very first systematic expression of this natural law, written down for the benefit of Israel and of all mankind.”

Far from a Tertullianesque claim that faith trumps reason, Hebrew scripture wants readers to reason with the complex ideas it presents.

Hazony’s book targets two audiences.  First, it asks intellectuals to free their minds from Tertullian’s dichotomy and take a clear-eyed look at a Hebrew Bible that they have failed to see until now because their avowedly secular minds have been so completely blinkered by Christian paradigms.

Hazony is one of a number of contemporary scholars who contend that philosophers and historians have ignored the impact of the Bible on the development of Western political thought.  Hazony’s contribution is his thesis that political theorists have failed to perceive the Bible as philosophy because its arguments are couched in the language of metaphor and narrative.

But Hazony’s primary audience is made up of the readers of Jewish Ideas Daily.  For Hazony, it is not enough that Israel provide a refuge for the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Egypt, Iraq, or Poland.  He wants to persuade Jews to build a state shaped by ideas found in the Hebrew Bible. 

Hazony understands the Bible as a variegated “compendium.”  Its teachings cannot be distilled into a single “brief and sharply delineated” statement like a Christian catechism.  Rather, the Hebrew Bible is “a school of viewpoints” containing the political, literary, philosophical, and historical traditions of ancient Israel. As Hazony summarizes them in an article in the October issue of First Things, these writings grapple with “questions that are usually considered to be central to political philosophy,” such as “the relationship of the individual to the state, the virtues and dangers of anarchy, the reasons for the establishment of government, the dangers of government, the best form of political order, the responsibilities of rulers, and the causes of the decline of the state.”  Scholarly misunderstanding of the Bible is partly the result of the fact that the text’s consideration of these questions is not written in the form of Socratic debate.  The Hebrew Bible takes philosophical stances but presents them as metaphor, depending on “narratives for its force and significance.”

Hazony does not write simply to persuade us to agree or disagree with his interpretation of any particular story.   Reviewers who think so do him an injustice.  Instead, Hazony wants to persuade us that to read the Bible is to engage in a necessary argument over how to build a good society.   

Hazony’s Bible does not deal with a God who advises us to suffer patiently until messiah comes.   It does not deal with Tertullian’s God, who saves by faith alone.  It does not deal in easy promises.  Instead, the biblical narrative presented by Hazony permits us to “position the law, and our observance of it, within a life lived according to reason.”  The stories, psalms, and prophetic books “explain the law and to qualify it so that we retain an understanding of why observance of this law is something that we should want—and that all men should want.”

Hazony’s Jerusalem is different from Athens, but not in the way that Tertullian suggests.  The Hebrew Bible is different because it calls on all human beings to wrestle with fundamental questions of good and evil.  Unlike Socrates or Tertullian, the Bible does not view the obligation and the right to contemplate demanding moral questions as the province of the elite alone.

But the characters and compositors of Hazony’s Bible also differ from those of Tertullian’s imagining in a particularly contemporary way.  They “struggle with the question of how one is to find that which will stand and that which can be relied upon to benefit mankind in the face of an epistemic jungle.”  They contend with a “confused and frightening reality in which such knowledge is chronically distant.  They believe that such wisdom can be found in the world, because they believe that God has spoken it.” 

To find “that which is true and just” is not, as Tertullian would have it, a simple matter of having faith.  It demands a “lifelong quest.”

Now go and study.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.


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