THE PHILOSOPHY OF HEBREW SCRIPTURE
by Yoram Hazony
Cambridge University Press, 368 pp., $24.99
"The Hebrew Bible is the modern university's blind side," Yoram Hazony writes, and his new book represents a spirited and determined effort to show the modern academy just what a precious resource it is missing and just how impoverished its thinking is as a result.
Given the academy's investment in biblical studies—the largest professional association in the field, the Society of Biblical Literature, has more than 8,000 members—one might be inclined to question the diagnosis. But as Hazony sees it, the discipline of biblical studies has, in the main, not respected but trivialized the Hebrew Bible. He is especially critical of what he calls "the academic tradition of the German research university." It was this, he maintains, that encouraged "the development of the ‘source-critical' method for studying the Bible, which," as he puts it, "understood the biblical texts as ‘corrupt'—the result of centuries of tampering and abuse by anonymous scribes representing mutually hostile religious sects." The result of this baleful process—one spearheaded by anti-Semitic scholars—is that the biblical texts "are little better than patchworks of fragments that are at times less than a single verse in length." Although he later acknowledges that this image of the discipline is increasingly obsolete (it is also grossly unfair), he observes that even the newer scholarship fails to do justice to the Hebrew Bible as a source of ideas. And it is to the ideas in the Hebrew Bible, especially those of a supposedly philosophical character, that Hazony most wants to draw attention.
According to Hazony, another cause of the academic neglect of the Hebrew Bible, and especially of its value as a source of philosophy, is the philhellenism of Enlightenment thinkers. The 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, to cite but one example among many, went so far as to say that there have been only two epochs in the history of philosophy: "the Greek and the Teutonic." He identified Judaism with "self-conscious abjectness and depression" and wrote that the Jews themselves have always been characterized by "a feeling of nothingness . . . a sense of desolation, an abjectness where no reason was." For Hegel, Christianity represented a new creation in which something positive replaced that Jewish nothingness. The notion that the Hebrew Bible might represent a continuing and valuable alternative to Greek philosophy and to Christian theology is not one to which this sort of thinking is open. And the influence of this philhellenism and Christian supersessionism, Hazony points out, can easily be felt among cultural elites to this day, even among scholars who think of themselves as distant from the Greco-Roman heritage and Christianity alike.