Fifteen Eighty Four

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The Biblical Authors Should Count as Philosophers

Dru Johnson

Why isn’t the biblical literature taught alongside other philosophies? By any objective criteria, it measures up to the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. In Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments, I contend that the biblical literature should be treated as a philosophical tradition, and I show how the New Testament authors employed it as such.

Scholars of Central and East Asian philosophy have recently argued for the need to diversify Anglo-American philosophy curricula beyond their Eurocentrism. Traditionally, the Greek title of the discipline—philosophia—also reflects the westerly direction of its curricula.

Not so fast, say some philosophers. Why not include Confucius, Lao Tzu, Siddhartha Gautama, and the Vedas from which Buddhism emerged? The egregious Eurocentrism of our philosophy hasn’t gone unnoticed by all philosophy departments. Some now offer courses on African, American, Austral-Asian, indigenous philosophies, and more. Good for them!

Yet even amongst these calls to diversify, they still neglect the vast literature of ancient southwest Asian philosophies. If taught at all, the intellectual worlds of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel are taught as religious texts by religion departments, and rarely placed side-by-side with the rigorous philosophies of the Greco-Roman traditions.

Why hasn’t the Bible been included in the mix? First, many would cite the well-rehearsed reason/revelation divide. The Bible reveals. Philosophy reasons. That’s it. The Jewish philosopher Yoram Hazony has argued that this divide doesn’t do justice to Greek philosophy, where Parmenides, Empedocles, Heraclitus, and even Socrates are guided by the gods in the development of their thinking. Reason met revelation in Greece too. The shrewd employment of logic throughout the Hebrew Bible funds much of its second-order reasoning, even if the Hebrews’ god involves himself in reasoning about justice, ethics, politics, or theories of knowledge. The involvement of gods in philosophizing hasn’t prevented us from taking the Greeks seriously, so why should it prevent us from taking Hebraic philosophy seriously?

Second, some might say that narrative, poetry, and law are not the genres of philosophical discourse. Since the Hebrew literary tradition consists almost entirely of these, it’s not philosophy. Yet, we find a robust and broadly inclusive list of literary forms taught as rigorous philosophy today: dialogues (Socrates), allegories (Frank Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know”), meditations (Descartes), journal entries (Marcus Aurelius), personal reflections (Camus), aphorisms (Cicero), and novellas (Nietzsche), to name but a few. This literary pluralism could hardly exclude narrative, poetry, or legal treatise.

Third, some will worry that it’s the religionists who want their Scriptures, which are presumed to be antithetical to reason, taught as philosophy. This objection has its eye on the back door, sure to keep religion from sneaking into the tent of philosophy. But it’s not just the current religionists who want to see the Hebrew Bible’s inclusion as philosophy. Atheist biblical scholars, such as Jaco Gericke, would argue for its inclusion just as the atheist Oxford historian, Tom Holland, had to revisit his own faulty assumptions about the influence of the biblical intellectual tradition on us today.

When humanities departments seek to be inclusive, an admirable goal, it appears obvious that they should include the philosophical tradition of the biblical literature and its peer traditions in the ancient Near East. Scholars have already made the case that the Hebrew Bible towers in its philosophical prowess over Egypt and Mesopotamia and rivals the Greco-Roman traditions. It’s time we gave it a place at our philosophical tables too.

Biblical Philosophy by Dru Johnson
Biblical Philosophy by Dru Johnson

About The Author

Dru Johnson

Dru Johnson directs the Center for Hebraic Thought and is an associate professor of biblical studies at The King's College. He has authored five books on the intellectual world of ...

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