THE VIEW THAT ATHENS AND JERUSALEM represent two very different and antagonistic sources of Western civilization has long been a feature of the Western tradition. It dates back at least to Tertullian’s passionate second-century polemic against Greek philosophy. Those Enlightenment thinkers who preferred Greek reason to Hebrew revelation confirmed it resoundingly. And again just over a century ago, again from the side of Athens, the culture critic Matthew Arnold boiled down his civilization to two fundamental forces:
And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most signal and splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism, - between these two points of influence moves our world.
Today as well — arguably to the greatest extent since the Enlightenment — the camps of religion and culture view each other with a deepening mutual distrust.
It is no trivial matter then to deny the necessity of this antagonism, to claim that it is based on a tragic misunderstanding, and to suggest moreover that our culture’s health depends on overcoming it. An ambitious new work by the Biblical scholar and philosopher Dr. Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, makes this point audaciously, and would deserve consideration even if it achieved nothing more. In fact, perusing the footnotes, one discovers that almost every claim is precisely situated within the labyrinthine debates of contemporary scholarship. But it’s the invisibility of its erudition and the unabashed scope of its argument that gives the book its appeal.
Largely structured around the divisions of philosophy introduced by Aristotle, the work is an extensive, though unevenly convincing, introduction to the Bible read as reason. Its central thesis is that the Biblical authors, no less than Parmenides or Plato, pursued and cultivated a philosophical worldview embracing everything from metaphysics to politics. Hazony contends that the reason/revelation dichotomy — that is, the distinction between God-given truth and that truth which results from the independent labor of the mind — is irrevocably foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures. While explicitly opposing the Christian position, his reading is equally independent of the Jewish exegetical tradition. The Biblical text is approached as if for the first time, like some unfamiliar work of wisdom belonging to a previously unknown and exotic people.
After carrying out a minimalist reconstruction of the Biblical authors’ identities and intentions, what remains is just the text — a unified Hebrew Bible replete with inner-textual complexities and meanings. Hazony indentifies a number of prominent and recurrent literary devices whose descriptions he borrows from literary theory. Understanding the text’s deepest meanings is possible only by taking in the whole at once. “It is only later — sometimes much later,” he writes, “that the standpoint of the author about a given character or event comes to light.”
The story of Cain and Abel furnishes an important example with implications for Biblical ethics and politics. As here interpreted, the brothers represent the types of the farmer and the shepherd. Cain is usually remembered as the Bible’s first murderer and the founder of its first city. Nevertheless he began his days inn...read more