The universities are no “ivory tower.” They are more like radio towers, broadcasting certain ways of looking at the world into the society we live in. Of course, radio waves are difficult to detect. If you don’t know what to look for, you’ll think there’s nothing going on at all. And the same thing is true for the academic transmission of ideas, which takes place through the medium of our children. While at university, our children are immersed in a particular range of ideas, and it is ideas within this range that they usually end up seeing as normal and legitimate. Show me the ideas that are ascendant in the universities of America and Europe today, and I will show you the thoughts that will dominate public discourse throughout the Western world—including Israel, of course—a generation or two from now.
That’s why I like to keep track of trends in ideas at the universities, even in disciplines far removed from the things I am presently writing about myself. I like to know what is going to happen in the world. I like to know what everyone is going to be thinking a generation from now.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important intellectual trends taking place in the universities right now is a pronounced shift toward a greater openness to the Hebrew Bible (“Tanach”), belief in God, and religion generally. This is happening slowly, but the indicators are clear. In a previous letter, I wrote about the rise of Christian theology as a legitimate discipline in mainstream philosophy departments. In this letter, I want to touch on another significant indicator in the same direction.
As is well known, university treatments of the Bible have for generations focused on attempts at reconstructing the compositional histories of various biblical texts. The devotion of vast resources to this project over the last two hundred years has yielded little in the way of firm answers as to how the Bible was really composed. But what it has done is to divert attention from what I take to be the most interesting and important parts of Biblical Studies: Figuring out the ideas that the Hebrew Scriptures were meant to bring into the world, and working out their place in the intellectual history of mankind down to our own day.
In the last generation, however, there has been a growing interest in academic scholarship aimed at trying to understand the ideas of the Bible—the metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics, and political thought that are in fact characteristic of the biblical worldview. Among the most recent entries in this project are my own The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge 2012), which has just won the second place award for best book in Theology and Religion in 2012 given by the Association of American Publishers, academic division; Dru Johnson’s Biblical Knowing (Wipf and Stock, 2013); and Jaco Gericke’s The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion (Society of Biblical Literature, 2012). The interest in such books by leading academic presses, at academic conferences, in academic journals, and on prize committees is a clear indication that something new and potentially quite significant is taking place.
Below is a review of Gericke’s book that I wrote at the request of the German theological journal Theologische Literaturzeitung, and which appeared in print a few weeks ago. But before getting into my thoughts on the book itself, I’d like to say a few words about its author, Jaco Gericke. Jaco (pronounced “Yaku”) is a young Old Testament scholar at North-West University in South Africa. He entered a graduate program in theology in order to become a Christian minister, but academic Bible study ended up destroying his Christian faith rather than deepening it. When he finished his Ph.D. in 2003, Jaco added an appendix to his doctoral dissertation called “Autobiography of a Died-Again Christian,” in which he declared the end of his allegiance with Christianity.
It is fascinating and painful reading. But perhaps more fascinating is what happened afterward. Over the next decade, Jaco gradually constructed a new agenda for his intellectual life. Boldly declaring that university “biblical scholars have not made a beginning in coming to terms with the conceptual content” of the Hebrew Scriptures—an assessment that is surely right—Jaco remade himself into an intellectual historian of the ideas of the Bible. His aim now is to try to initiate a “new era” in academic research and instruction into the Hebrew Bible by seeking an objective clarification of the philosophy explicit and implicit in the biblical texts.
I very much admire this fellow, whom I met this summer for the first time at a Bible conference organized by my new institute, the Herzl Institute / Machon Herzl in Jerusalem. I admire the fact that, unlike others who have broken with Christianity, Jaco has rebuilt his life so as to try and contribute something truly positive to our understanding of the Bible. He is back in the game, lecturing with a winning gentleness that masks an extraordinary passion to understand what the Bible really was all about.
Moved by his life’s journey and his academic work, I invited Jaco over for Shabbat and had him tell his story to my children. Changing what the Western world thinks of the Bible is a prodigious undertaking. It means moving a mountain. Yet in face to face conversation, you get the feeling that despite the disappointments he has experienced, or perhaps because of them, Jaco Gericke is someone who may be able to pull this off.
So here is my review of Gericke’s book, The Hebrew Bible and the Philosophy of Religion. His next book is going to be about the biblical God.
In academia, philosophy and Bible studies tend to react to one another like oil and water. Each discipline possesses a finely tuned repertoire of arguments for why the other is not really relevant to its concerns. Some of these arguments go back centuries and speak to deeply held premises that guide scholars in each field. But Jacko Gericke wants to change all that, and his new book The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion presents a compelling case for why we would be better off if the wall separating the study of Hebrew Scripture from philosophical investigation were torn down.
Gericke’s book is in two parts: The first argues that philosophy (or more exactly, “philosophy of religion”) is crucial to the study of the Hebrew Bible. The second consists of case studies in the theology, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics of Hebrew Scripture, which seek to show that the theoretical discussion in the first half of the book is more than just talk. Both parts reflect a staggering quantity of reading in the relevant disciplines, and Gericke’s careful citations are going to be a crucial roadmap for anyone approaching the question of the relationship between Bible and philosophy from now on.
Are philosophical tools really crucial for the study of the Hebrew Bible? Gericke’s argument is refreshingly candid: The biblical texts, he says, are riddled with concepts and assumptions—“metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical assumptions about the nature of reality, existence, life, knowledge, truth, belief, good and evil, value, and so on”—that are different from our own. Without a conscious effort to reconstruct these concepts and assumptions, we cannot “prevent ourselves from reading our own anachronistic philosophical-theological assumptions into and onto the biblical discourse.” Tools for engaging in such philosophical reconstruction are familiar and are commonly employed by scholars who seek to describe the views of other ancient philosophies and religions, but “for a number of historical reasons, the study of ancient Israelite religion has been one of the few” such areas of study that have remained “utterly lacking in a philosophical approach.” Consequently, there exists a “yawning philosophical gap in research on the Hebrew Bible.”
Gericke believes that Old Testament scholars have frequently expended their energies on anachronistic readings that have forced the texts to express late theological conceptions that were entirely unknown to the biblical authors. His hope is that with the introduction of philosophical techniques for reconstructing the actual ideas found in the biblical texts, we can enter into a “new era” in the academic study of the Bible—“one in which both believer and skeptic can together read the ancient texts” from a “relatively neutral” perspective such as that which is normally accepted when approaching the study of Greek philosophy or any other ancient culture.
Gericke is at his best when he is cataloguing and demolishing various anachronisms that have been dragged into current readings of the Hebrew Bible from medieval or modern theology. Among these are “dualist metaphysical assumptions,” including the distinctions between supernatural and natural, transcendent and immanent, reality and appearance, religious and secular. The absence of such oppositions means, for example, that the Bible knows of no “other” world, and that gods, far from being “ineffable,” are for the biblical authors a “natural kind.” Similarly, Gericke turns time and again to debunking the claims of “perfect being” theology to be describing the God of Hebrew Scripture. He shows that medieval conceptions of God’s perfection are responsible for creating the so-called “problem of evil,” and that theodicy in the modern sense is unknown in the Hebrew Scriptures because the biblical God is not assumed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. Gericke also questions whether the biblical authors would have recognized a distinction between “revelation” and “nature,” and suggests that in biblical narrative, worldly events may have been accepted as evidence that God has “spoken.”
Gericke offers some powerful constructive arguments, especially in the area of ethics. He rejects the common belief that the biblical ethics is a form of “divine command theory” (i.e., that God’s will defines what is morally right), and shows convincingly that the Bible assumes a standard of right that is independent of God’s will. But he is not as confident in his claims about biblical metaphysics and epistemology. For instance, Gericke makes a great case for the need for a careful clarification of the biblical concept of a “god,” but the results of his study on the subject are inconclusive. His tentative suggestion that the authors of the biblical narratives may have known that what they were writing was fiction covers old ground, and I don’t think Gericke’s version of this proposal is any more persuasive than its predecessors. A more credible and interesting suggestion, also presented tentatively, is that the biblical texts tend to rely on an evidentialist theory of knowledge—that is, the view that one’s beliefs can only be justified by evidence.
Overall, Gericke’s case studies are more successful in clarifying what the Bible does not say than in reconstructing what it does. I don’t see this as an objection to the book. Gericke says his constructive proposals are preliminary. His principal aim is to propose a research agenda that will introduce profound changes in the way the Hebrew Bible is studied and taught in the university setting, and to describe methods by which this agenda can be pursued. And this he does in a manner that is compelling and much needed.
I do have some questions about the way Gericke frames his vision for a “new era” in Bible scholarship. In particular, I wonder at Gericke’s references to the “folk philosophical presuppositions” of the biblical texts, and to their “precritical” or “prephilosophical” character. Occasionally, he will also mention that the texts are “naïve” or “primitive” as well. All of this makes it sound as though the authors of the Bible were only capable of dim premonitions concerning the metaphysical or ethical issues that we later readers are fortunate enough to have firmly in our grasp.
But if Gericke is right that modern “biblical scholars have not made a beginning in coming to terms with the conceptual content” of the Hebrew Bible, then all these judgments about the supposedly naïve and uncritical nature of biblical thought may be premature. Perhaps an impartial philosophical elucidation of the Hebrew Bible such as Gericke proposes will lead to the conclusion that the prophets and scholars who assembled these texts were in fact quite conscious of the positions they were advancing in opposition to their surroundings and to one another? Perhaps what Gericke is calling the “philosophical assumptions” of the biblical texts, or at least some of them, are actually the intended philosophical teachings of these works? Indeed, the fact that such a possibility is so foreign to so many scholars may be a consequence of the very same prejudices that Gericke is at such pains to combat.
This is a wonderful book, brimming with intellectual energy. I cannot help marveling at the love of the Hebrew Bible that Gericke continues to exhibit, given the pain and disappointments in his personal spiritual life, which he is trusting enough to mention to his readers in passing. I have no doubt that there will be others who will be moved by the vision he articulates, and who will wish to take part in pursuing it.
|The second part of this letter is a version of an article that appeared in the September 2013 issue of the Theologische Literaturezeitung. You can read the original article here.
November Speaking Schedule
I will be speaking in the US in the coming weeks. If you have time, I hope you’ll come and take part:
1. Philadelphia, Thursday, November 14: Panel Discussion on The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Northeastern Political Science Association 2013 Conference. Sonesta Hotel, 1800 Market Street. 8:45-10:15 am. Panel participants: David Schaefer, Jeffrey Bernstein, Paul Seaton, J.G. Leicher, Yoram Hazony.
2. New York, Tuesday, November 19,: “Anti-Israelism and Anti-Judaism in a Time of Crisis: A Jewish-Christian Conversation” together with Dexter Van Zile. This is a dinner for Camera. The Kosciuszko Foundation, 15 East 65th Street. 7:00-9:30 pm. To register, contact email@example.com, 646 477 6158.
3. Baltimore: Thursday, November 21: Panel Discussion on The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. The Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting. Hilton Baltimore, 401 West Pratt Street, BCC Room 345. 1:00-4:10 pm. Panel participants: Jessica Wilson, C.L. Brinks, Randal Rauser, Yoram Hazony.
For more information about The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, August 28, 2012) go here.
To buy the book, click here.
To follow the debate about the book by email, click here.