The MOST Theological Collection: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy

"Chapter III: The Revealed Wisdom of the Hebrew Prophets"


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Was there philosophy among the Hebrews? If we define philosophy as the body of knowledge that seeks the answer to the most basic and large questions of life and existence, using human reason as the tool - then we would say there is no philosophy among the Hebrews, or in the New Testament either. But if we were to define philosophy as thinking within a religious faith, yes, there is a great philosophy, and one which reaches the true answers to the great questions, which so often the greatest philosophers had failed to reach.

The commanding figure among the early Hebrews is of course Moses. There is debate as to whether and to what extent he can be called the author of the Pentateuch. The tendency today is to deny that he is, even though the first edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (I. p. 5) had said: "Moses is at the heart of the Pentateuch, and can, in accord with the common acceptance of the ancient period, correctly be called its author." The Biblical Commission on June 27, 1906 had said the same. It admitted there can be modifications in the original work of Moses, that he used sources written or oral, that Moses may even have given his ideas to secretaries and let them do the actual work of composition. And of course in the ancient Near East author's rights did not amount to much: a later hand would feel free to change, to add, to subtract, and still leave it under the name of the original author.

To Moses God revealed His name, (Exodus 3.14): "I am He who IS". Later philosophers would call Him ipsum esse subsistens, with the same meaning.

There are three kinds of knowledge. We know about sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge; Plato and Aristotle have helped us on these points. But there is something higher, the light God gives to a prophet. There is even a higher kind of light which comes when a soul is given the direct vision of God, the beatific vision.

In the great covenant of Sinai God had promised (Exodus 19.5):"If you really hearken to my voice, and keep my covenant, you will be my special people." There was at least an implication that refusal to obey could lead to the opposite result. So Moses is reported as telling the people in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 that he was setting before them a blessing and a curse: a blessing, if they would obey, a curse if they disobeyed. This dichotomy would be dominant in the teaching of the early Church, and also in the teaching of the Church today.

Still further, there was a quality about the ancient Hebrew understanding of history that differed from so many others. Mircea Eliade, in The Myth of the Eternal Return (tr. W. R. Trask, Princeton, 1954, pp.104,143) said that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the manifestation of God, a concept taken over by Christianity. He said: "For Christianity, times is real because it has a meaning - the Redemption - which orients all of history". This is in contrast to the cyclic theory found in many other ancient thinkers: Anaximander taught an unending cycle of destructions and restorations of the world. Aristotle says Empedocles and Heraclitus held such a theory. (Cf. Aristotle, On the Heavens 1.10.279 B). The Stoics had similar views. Even an early Christian writer, Origen, seems to have held cyclic views (Cf. J. Quasten, Patrology (Newman, Westminster, 1953, II, pp. 87-92).

The Hermeneutical Function of Philosophy

Very early, this understanding that history was working towards a goal appears in the prophecies of the Messiah. Some have said we cannot get much from these without hindsight, i.e., by seeing them fulfilled in Christ. But that is an error, for we have Aramaic Targums, ancient Jewish versions - free, and with fill-ins - of the Old Testament, made by those who did not use hindsight, for they hated Jesus. Further Jacob Neusner of Brown University, perhaps the greatest Jewish scholar of today, in his book, Messiah in Context (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1984) made a great survey of all Jewish literature from after the fall of Jerusalem up to and including the Babylonian Talmud (500-600 A.D). He found no interest in the Messiah up to the Talmud. Then interest returns, but speaks only of the fact he should be of the line of David. In contrast, the Targums see numerous Messianic forecasts in the prophecies. These are the chief ones: Genesis 49.10; Isaiah 7.14 (the Targums as we have them today miss this, but since they say Isaiah 9.5-6 is Messianic, and since all admit the child is the same in both, indirectly they admit 7.14 is Messianic. Neusner reports, on p. 174 that Hillel, one of the two great teachers at the time of Christ, saw 7.14 as Messianic, naming Hezekiah as the Messiah. Later, Neusner reports, on p.190, when the Jews saw Christians using the text, they began to deny it was messianic); Isaiah 11.1-3 and 53; Micah 5.1.

The prophecy of the dying Jacob in Genesis 49.10 said that the scepter would not be taken from Judah until the time of the Messiah. This came true graphically, for the first time some sort of ruler (had they not been so unfaithful, the fulfillment would have been more glorious) from Judah was lacking, for then Rome imposed Herod on them in 41 BC as Tetrarch, in 37 as King. Herod was not from the tribe of Judah, though nominally a Jew by religion. By birth he was half Idumean, half Arab.

The Old Testament even spoke of all peoples coming to the knowledge of the true God. The Jews seem to have thought this meant all would join the Jewish religion. They did not see the more glorious fulfillment in Christ. But a Scriptural writer, being an instrument in the hands of Divine Providence, could write more than he might understand, for the chief Author, the Holy Spirit, could intend much more. In this way all nations would be blessed in Abraham (cf.Genesis 12.3). The Messiah would indeed be a light to illumine the nations, as Simeon would later foretell (Luke 2.32).