Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Hebrew thought"

[Readers new to this blog may have missed its earlier emphasis on the intertextual relations of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I am now seeking to integrate these separate contributions into a book. In the meantime, here is a new installment.]

The Hebrew bible is a disparate collection of documents. While scholars disagree about the dates to be assigned to the individual books and parts of books, it is clear that they must have originated over a period of several centuries, reflecting changing political and social circumstances. In addition, some texts bear the stamp of intensely local concerns, while others are meant to have a broader import.

Moreover, the ensemble known as the Hebrew bible shows a remarkable range of genres, including mythopeia, epic, legendary history, law codes, diatribes, and poetry (including erotic poetry). See Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, 1966) for an exhaustive account.

There are also many differences in theological perspective. One attempt to show this diveristy has been made recently by Jack Miles in his tour de force entitled God: A Biography (New York, 1996). This writer holds that the sequence of the books as found in the Hebrew canon or Tanakh was designed to show an evolution of the idea of the godhead. However this may be, his account is one useful way of looking at the complexity of the texts. The overall pattern, Miles believes, is one of a gradual waning of God's direct involvement in the world. Yet there is no waning at the outset, where the deity appears as brutal, direct, and inescapable--a hoodlum, in short. [Hoodlum? How else can one describe a capo who tried to kill his most faithful follower, Moses, as he slept (Exodus 4:24] After this phase, though, God gradually matures and “grows up,” but he also becomes more aloof.

Beginning with the early anthropomorphic accounts of God walking through the garden in the cool of the evening, we read many stories of God having intimate, personal dialogue with the major figures of Israelite history. Genesis portrays God in his most basic roles: Creator, Destroyer (via the Flood,) and "Friend of the Family" (the personal god of Abraham and his biological descendants).

Miles then expands on God's role as Liberator, Lawgiver, and Liege Lord as told in the remainder of the Pentateuch. Then with the story of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, one glimpses God's manifestations as Conqueror, Father (to David and his line) and Arbiter. The book of Isaiah presents two opposing faces of God: Executioner, and forgiving, restoring Holy One.

Miles regards Job as the climactic book of the Tanakh. After Job, God becomes less imposing and more ordinary, even to the point of seeming absent (the Deus Absconditus of later theology), as we see in the sequence of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and most strikingly, Esther, where the name of God never occurs. To be sure, the book of Daniel offers a final vision of a high, distant, and receding figure called the Ancient of Days

As I have suggested, this is only one reading of the complexity that resides in the Hebrew bible as we know it. On the one hand, Miles’ view is somewhat conventional, for the texts are interpreted as literature, so to speak, without delving overly much into the findings of the historical-critical school. On the other hand, it is almost a polytheistic reading, since the roles God assumes are so diverse. Although he insists, perhaps too much, on monotheism, Miles does allow for some lingering of the actual heritage of Canaanite polytheism in the world of ancient Israel. The persistence of this heritage would account for some of the major differences in God’s personae.

Miles’ bravura account ranks as a signal instance of a number of such readings. Other, more sober observers, have come to similar conclusions. For example, the American theologian Rolf P. Knierim stresses that the Hebrew bible contains not one but several different theologies (Knierim, The Task of Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995). Some of these theologies complement each other, but others are contradictory, even within the same book.

In short, the books of Hebrew bible show diversity in date and origin, in genre, and in theological emphasis. Nonetheless, some observers have claimed to detect a common ethos, a mind-set or mentality, that suffuses the whole. The concept is akin to the modern notion of national character as a defining element in major cultural achievements. Thus, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a book entitled The Englishness of English Art (London, 1951).

Is there then a Hebrewness in the Hebrew bible?

Some have maintained such a view. The years immediately following World War II saw the rise in theological circles of a current of discourse about “Hebrew thought.” The Scottish biblical scholar James Barr has ably summarized this notion, beginning with the standard comparison with Greek thought. “The Greek mind is abstract, contemplative, static or harmonic, impersonal; it is dominated by certain distinctions--matter and form, one and many, individual and collective, time and timelessnes, appearance and reality. The Hebrew mind is active, concrete, dynamic, intensely personal, formed upon wholeness and not upon distinctions. Thus it is able to rise above, or to escape, the great distinctions which lie across Greek thought. Greek thought is unhistorical, timeless,based on logic and system. Hebrew thought is historical, centred in time and movement, based in life.” (Barr, Old and New in Interpretation, London, 1966, p. 34).

This contrast was popular in Christian theological seminaries, where it was assumed that the positive features of “Hebrew thought,” thus conceived, found their natural continuation in Christianity. Yet as Barr (a critic of the view) tartly observes, “the function of the contrast has not been the description of the ancient world but an analysis of different elements within modern culture.”

The locus classicus of the notion is a book by a Norwegian theologian, Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (English trans., London, 1960). Boman advances arguments based on linguistic features of Hebrew, including verbs and the system of tenses. A strand in European thought that goes back at least as far as Friedrich Max Müller in the middle of the nineteenth century holds there is a petrified philosophy within language. The corollary of this view is that each people or nation has its own unique social psyche, and this will be reflected in the language they employ. This approach is sometimes termed linguistic idealism. For his part, Boman claims to deduce the social psyche from the linguistic evidence; yet it seems clear that he started with a set of generalizations, and then attempted to support them with linguistic evidence.

At all events, as Barr has shown in his critique, it is impossible to demonstrate a word view simply from lexical and grammatical features alone (Semantics of Biblical Language, London, 1961). For example, French and Hungarian have very different linguistic structures; however, both peoples share essentially the same world view, which is Western European.

By and large, approaches like Boman’s have found little favor in Jewish circles. Perhaps the reason is that adherence to Judaism is more a matter of orthopraxy than orthodoxy. That is to say, the central element lies in the realm of behavior, practice, and observance rather than in creed. For this reason Jews have integrated well into American society: they do not possess a distinctive “Hebrew world view” and so are free to subscribe to the American world view.

However, there are exceptions to this seeming indifference to the concept of Hebrew thought. Professor Menachem Alexenberg, who has served as a professor of art and education at several major universities, has indicated his adhesion to the idea. In earlier years, the Italian Jewish art historian Bruno Zevi has applied the concepts to modern architecture, seeing, somewhat curiously, Frank Lloyd Wright as an exemplar of the Hebrew mode. More recently, a talented amateur, Jeff A. Benner, who seems to be Jewish, has been conducting a charming and informative website under the auspices of his American Hebrew Research Center (www.ancient-hebrew.org). I have nothing but praise for Mr. Benner’s efforts to help readers learn Hebrew. However, I am not persuaded by his endorsement of Boman’s work.

Other attempts to establish a distinctive world view within the Hebrew bible have to do with the nature of time. As Augustine famously suggested, the subject of time is alluring, but maddeningly elusive. At all events, there is supposed to be a fundamental contrast between cyclical and linear time. Some learned writers, such as Oscar Cullmann and John Marsh, affirm that Greek thought is cyclical. In this view of time its course leads back around to the end, when the cycle starts all over again. The opposite of cyclical time is linear time. It would seem to follow that Hebrew thought is linear. However, more detailed studies have shown that much Greek thought is not cyclical and not all Hebrew thought is linear. The contrast, if it exists at all, is blurred.

That being said, I believe that Cullmann has made an important contribution to the Christian (not Jewish) concept of time by highlighting the achievement of Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Scythian monk who first established the conventional distinction between BC and AD. Chiristian thinking about time thus establishes an axial point with negative numbers used to calculate the BC years before the Incarnation. This seems to be the first calendrical system of this kind, and it is one that has enjoyed a phenomenal success throughout the world. In no way are its Christian origins effaced by the current fashion for writing BCE and CE.

I turn now to a very different theme. “Corporate personality” is a term employed in the English common law. It refers to the fact that a group or body can be regarded as legally as an individual, possessing the rights and duties of such status.

In 1911 the English theologian H. Wheeler Robinson introduced the term corporate personality into biblical interpretation. In the Hebrew bible the concept was applied to where the relationships between individuals and the groups that they were part of were treated. For example, in some interpretations of the text Achan's family was collectively punished for a sin that is viewed as primarily Achan's alone. The penalty of Ham’s sin with his father Noah was passed down to his descendants.

The notion of Old Testament corporate personality encompasses four features: 1) Identification. Individuals are never considered in isolation from the groups they belong to, and are commonly treated as representatives for, or even as wholly identified with, those groups; 2) Extension. The boundaries of the individual are extended to encompass other persons who belong to that individual. This extension can be both in space, as from a king to a kingdom, and in time, as from a parent to his descendants. Examples of extension include Achan (who has just been noted), Korah (Izhar's son), and David, where a leader is dealt with by punishing or rewarding those whom he leads. 3) Realism. The relationship between the group and the individual is a real one. 4) Oscillation. There exists an oscillation back and forth between the group and the individual.

Not surprisingly, in view of its Christian origins, the concept of corporate personality has been applied to the New Testament as well. However, in Pauline theology, the notion of corporate personality is largely restricted to its representational aspect. Paul's comparison between Jesus Christ and Adam is viewed, by those theologians that adhere to the concept, as an identification of Christ as the king and those people in the kingdom that he leads. Similarly, in his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks of Gentiles being blessed both "in" Abraham and also "with" him. In the latter case, though, there are some difficulties in rendering the Greek. In thee" is the is the King James translation of the Greek. More recent versions use the English translation "through you" for "ἐν σοι," on the basis that Paul is directly quoting the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, whose original Hebrew preposition "be" (which was translated to "ἐν" in the Septuagint) is more accurately rendered in the instrumental sense of "by means of." Hence "through" rather than "in.”

It may be questioned whether in its origins the idea of corporate personality is unique to the ancient Israelites, who presumably passed it on to their Christian successors. Many observers have concluded that in a number of East Asian societies the collective is more important than the individual. Certainly this idea was prominent in the former Soviet Union, whose leaders violently rejected the heritage of Judaism and Christianity. In fact the notion has since fallen out of favor with theologians.

In summary, it appears that attempts to detect a unitary world view in the Hebrew bible have failed. We are left with a sense of its irreducible pluralism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer John Henry Newman's "development" to the biological "evolution." But either way, the Hebrew scriptures did NOT develop into monotheism, as the wisdom literature known as "ecclesiastes" or "Quoheloth" is evidence of atheistic belief and "is a late form of Hebrew literature." Indeed, it is deemed postbiblical Mishnaic Hebrew, composed sometime in the 3rd C. B.C.E. A text that denies YHWH's existence and relevance THIS LATE, cannot be deemed a monotheistic "development."

An even more important facet is the Deuterocanonicals, originally rabbinical scripture, until it seemed to prophesy Yeshua. The four books of the Maccabees, deemed by Thomas L. Thompson as the ONLY licit historical data in the "Septuagint," was purged by the fourth century C.E., but clearly written around 200-100 B.C.E., in which the "re-dedication of the Temple" gets its colorful appellation for the non-Jewish feast of Chanukuh.

Of course, Handel make the story into a great oratorio, but the rabbis rescinded its "inspired" canonicity as Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom insisted otherwise. Thompson argues cogently and convincingly that the Deuterocanonicals ALONE are NOT fiction, nor plagiarized, but probably actual history. The rabbis did not want historicity, and so only Christians appreciate the early history of the Jews. Fiction is easier to sell than actual history.

Why? Because Jews would owe Alexander the Great fealty for defeating the Persian Empire and allowing the primitive nomads the opportunity to return to the mythical land of Israel. While I know of rabbis that claim Alexander was a JEW, most of us accept that he was a Macedonian, androphile, and student of Aristotle, and anything but "cut dick." But circumcision produces angry and irrational males, according to several studies, so it is in the rabbinical self-interest to mutilate male genitilia. So that Jews don't look "naked" without their butchered foreskin, they have ordered all males to share in the "cut cock" syndrome. Praise Elohim.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

N. B.

I note with curiosity your omission of the biblical pattern of "parallelism," which is distinctly Jewish in the telling. The same "parallelism" can be detected in the Christian Gospel, but not in Saint Paul's writings.

One cannot possibly encounter Hebrew Scripture without acceptance of its extensive parallelism, of which the Psalter and Wisdom literature is obviously exemplar, but so is the Deuteronomistic literature. The notion that "dual" stories can coexist under the same divine revelation is meant to suggest the reports were more human than divine, with more escape hatches for problematic texts. But no one would mistake the Hebrew fiction for the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, much less Tacitus and Livy. Archeology supports the latter; it even supports Homer; no archeology supports the myth of ancient Israelites, because they never existed.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

The book of Qohelet (note spelling) aka Ecclesiastes is not atheistic. The book uses the expression ha-Elohim, "The Godhead," 32 times. (Hebrew grammar permits plurals to be used to designate more general or abstract ideas.) To be sure, the conventional Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is not used, but this is only one of the Hebrew designations for the high god.

One cannot explain everything all at once, especially with such a composite amalgam as the documents known as the Hebrew bible. However, I have written a number of essays on these themes, and am currently gathering them into a book.

7:12 AM  
Blogger jpc said...


I would be interested if you would make a review of Jean Soler's book “La violence monothéiste” published by Editions de Fallois, Paris, in December 2008, which presents a very interesting comparison between hebrew and greek languages, focused on how these two cultures conceive opposites. Thanks

3:51 AM  
Blogger Eliyahu said...

The notion that is termed Hebrew thought today is often employed by teachers in an emergent group that refers to itself as Messianic Israel. This group is global, and largely comes from churches whom they feel have not told the entire truth of Scripture to their adherents. To that end, they learn some Hebrew, typically in limited extent, and attempt to regain lost understanding of years gone by inserting transliterated Hebrew words and terms into their ever-growing but limited understanding of what they think they know. To them, Hebrew thought means a regaining of the Oriental paradigm that had been missing in Biblical exegesis for nearly 2000 years. We can say this was due to the shading of an Occidental paradigm, which was developed and taught in institutions of higher learning, that colored the perception of those given to it. As institutions fail in the time of the changing of Ages, we find ourselves living at such a time, and the pull many feel to investigate the foundations of the Ages, leads them to find the cracks in what they had previously put their trust, whether religions, governments, nations, etc. Others are busying themselves with the replacing of failed institutions with new ones, ones of their own devisings, which they hope to endure for millennia. Hebrew thoughts is wholly expressed in Scripture, and has been known to transcend the transition of the Ages. Many believe it will again, despite the efforts of moral reprobates to eradicate and extirpate it altogether, out of the earth. Sh'ma Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad u'sh'mo echad. (3500 years and counting)

3:22 PM  

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