Illuminating Scripture

The philosophical basis to Hebrew scripture solves the false dichotomy of faith and reason, according to Yoram Hazony’s new book

Books Faith
Hebrew philosophy as history: "The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem" (1638-39) by Nicolas Poussin

Four centuries before the crucifixion of Jesus, the philosopher Socrates was also condemned to death (by an Athenian court), also for alleged impiety and his corrupting teachings. Socrates is widely heralded as the father of Western philosophy, that intellectual discipline which pursues wisdom by means of unaided reason.

Shortly after the death of Jesus, his followers were advised by the apostle Paul to turn their backs on philosophy. Since all truth that really mattered had been revealed by Christ, he argues in Corinthians I, to seek it by any means but faith in him was only liable to result in befuddlement and being led astray. Paul’s advice was to be repeated a couple of centuries later by the early Church Father Tertullian, in his famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The former of these two cities was repudiated and philosophy was neglected in early Christian Europe. 

A rapprochement between reason and religion was achieved during the Middle Ages, when philosophy became a handmaiden to theology. However, with the recovery of Greek learning at the Renaissance, and the ensuing scientific revolution and subsequent period of Enlightenment, the fissure between the two was reopened.  

As reason steadily gained ground through advancing science, the sea of faith correspondingly retreated. The result today is that, while Westerners know more about the world than at any time previously, many have seemingly lost any reliable moral compass or sense of how best to live or what life’s meaning and purpose might be. 

Religion has plenty to say on these matters. However, to accept its teachings seems to many to demand their suspension of disbelief on a scale so forbiddingly grandiose as to be too high a price for the consolations and guidance that it provides. As history’s first quite openly atheistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it: “One cannot serve two masters; and so it must be either reason or holy scripture.” 

According to Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, this way of viewing the relation between philosophy and religion rests on a false dichotomy that arises from erroneously supposing that Athens and Tertullian’s Christianised Jerusalem exhaust the ways philosophy and religion can square up. His bold, even audacious, thesis is that Hebrew scriptures were written to purvey a distinctive species of philosophy that is every bit as rigorous and rationally grounded as any produced in Athens, while also simultaneously underwriting a religion, Judaism, that is no less authentic and edifying than Christianity, and as potentially universal in appeal, despite not being proselytising.  

This is an immensely important thesis, not just for secular Jews who have abandoned the religion of their forefathers, but also for their gentile counterparts who also have become convinced that religions are all predicated on rationally unjustifiable dogmas. Hazony seeks to show that, rightly understood as its authors intended, not only does Hebrew scripture not conflict with reason, but emanates from it, by advancing a coherent and distinctive set of philosophical claims as to how humans should live to achieve wellbeing and fulfilment. 

Hazony lays bare the philosophical teaching that he claims Hebrew scripture contains through several detailed illustrative accounts of the literary devices and methods that it deploys to advance philosophical arguments and theses. In so doing, he also explains the most seminal of these. Moreover, and this is what makes his book unique and outstandingly brilliant, he does so in a pellucid prose that is entirely free of the technical jargon that renders so much contemporary academic philosophy inaccessible to all but professionals. 

According to Hazony, the central vehicle that Hebrew scripture uses to purvey its philosophy is what he calls its history of the Jewish people from the dawn of time to the destruction of the First Temple and their exile in Babylon. Composed to rally and inspire them not to abandon their distinctive identity by discarding the law of their forefathers, this history serves to establish, by reference to its chief episodes, that faith and trust in God, plus adherence to the Mosaic law, afford the best, indeed only real, prospects for human wellbeing, not only in the case of Jews but all humankind. That potentially universal teaching is also endorsed and elaborated in the prophetic orations, Psalms, Proverbs, and other constituent books of Hebrew scripture. 

It would, indeed, be hard to exaggerate the importance of Hazony’s splendid work. This bold attempt to distil the intellectual essence of biblical wisdom deserves the widest possible audience and the most careful attention, regardless of religious denomination or lack of it, from philosophers.