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Altes Testament


Gericke, Jaco


The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion.


Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature 2012. 512 S. = Resources for Biblical Study, 70. Kart. US$ 59,95. ISBN 978-1-58983-707-2.


Yoram Hazony

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 Jaco Gericke wants to change all that, and his new book 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.
G.’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 G.’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 theHebrew Bible? G.’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 philo­-sophical-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«.
G. 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.
G. 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 be­-tween 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, G. 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. G. 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«.
G. 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, G. 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 G.’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, G.’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. G. 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 G. frames his vision for a »new era« in Bible scholarship. In particular, I wonder at G.’s re­-fer­ences 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 G. 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 na­-ïve and uncritical nature of biblical thought may be premature. Per­haps an impartial philosophical elucidation of the Hebrew Bible such as G. proposes will lead to the conclusion that the prophets and scholars who assembled these texts were in fact quite con­-scious of the positions they were advancing in opposition to their surroundings and to one another? Perhaps what G. 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 G. 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 G. continues to exhibit, given the pain and disappointments in his per­-sonal 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.