Monday, 17 July 2017

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I've been thinking a lot about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (terms which are not quite identical, as the majority of Christians operate with an Old Testament that includes several books not found in the Hebrew Bible) lately. This is the result of two related realities. One, there has been considerably more concerted Lonerganian engagement with the New Testament than the HB/OT. Two, no NT scholar worth her or his salt can proceed in ignorance of the HB/OT. This has me wondering how a more thorough Lonerganian engagement with the HB/OT might look (clues in that direction come notably from the work of Sean McEvenue, although his more theoretical interests differ notably from my own), and also how my own Lonerganian engagements with the NT might suffer from the relative dearth of such engagement with the HB/OT.

It is with such two-fold wonder in mind that I have been working my way through Yoram Hazony's 2012 monograph, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I'm just about halfway through the book, but thought I'd share some initial thoughts here. Hazony wants to argue that the Hebrew scriptures contain an "abstract" (his word) philosophy on par with that of the great achievements of Greek philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. I am sympathetic to this project in principle, as I very much think that it is of significant value to understanding how the Hebrew scriptures (as well as the additional books of Jewish origin that are now found in the Christian Old Testament) fit into the long (and ongoing) development of human thought and consciousness. As a historian, I think this of great value in its own right, and as a historian who often engages with doctrinal and systematic theologians I recognize that this is an area of investigation wherein these disciplines can come into contact in a way that mutually enriches each another. As I ponder such matters, I find significant insights in Hazony's work. But I wonder if Hazony has fully wrestled with the reality and significance of form. He asks whether in Genesis through 2 Kings (which he treats as a single work called "The History of Israel"; we'll leave to one side the propriety of operating in this way, and rather follow his convention for heuristic purposes) there are "arguments of a general nature" (his term). He answers his own question in the affirmative, arguing that the use of doublets, triplets, etc., of similar narratives evinces a series of judgments around particular character types. Judah and Joseph, in his reading, become not simply figures within the narrative, but rather character types who relate to each other as do, for instance, Joshua and Caleb, or David and Solomon. Effectively, he argues, this makes "The History of Israel" a work of political theory. Yet, when I see the question "Does the Hebrew scriptures [with a focus upon "The History of Israel"] make arguments of a general nature?", a more basic question occurs to me: Does "The History of Israel" make arguments at all?

Hazony's particular readings of these figures and their significance might be quite on point. It might be exactly what the writers of the Hebrew scriptures intended to convey. The difficulty though is the amount of work that he has to undertake to get to these readings. By contrast, it doesn't take much to read Plato's Republic as a work of political theory. And I think that this difference is significant. It gets to what Lonergan calls the differentiation of consciousness, a process by which humanity learns to distinguish between commonsense, theory, interiority, and religiosity. In Plato, political theory seems to have clearly begun to develop a sort of autonomy apart from commonsense (defined as the things that a people take as given, without reflection). Precisely because "The History of Israel" is narrative, with little in the way of explicit theoretical reflection and argumentation, that autonomy is less evident in this work. In part, this likely to do with what Lonergan calls the level of the time. Although "The History of Israel" might have been finally brought together more or less as we recognize it around or slightly earlier than the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, much of the material therein likely goes back to the times of Homer and Hesiod. One should probably then not be surprised to find that it reflects a consciousness more at home at that earlier time than the later one. If we compared Plato and Aristotle to, say, Ecclesiastes, or to Sirach yet later, we might well find the gulf narrowed. And it is precisely this atemporal approach, that ignores the fact that literature of the 10th century B.C.E. perhaps reflects a very different world from literature of the 5th, that I find a bit off-putting in this work.

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