By N.S. Palmer
Apart from goofy statements made by individual philosophers, philosophy has a pretty good reputation. It uses logic, cites evidence, and presents comprehensible arguments that you can accept or reject on their merits.
On the other hand, religious revelation has a pretty bad reputation. Most modern people think it’s just a lot of myths about supernatural beings, told by ancient savages who didn’t understand the world and were afraid of lightning. You either believe in the supernatural beings, or you don’t.
But that distinction is misleading. In his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony points out that works of philosophy often describe appearances by supernatural beings. He also shows that the Bible has philosophical content. He asks:
“Is it true that in confronting a text that depicts God as speaking and acting, we really have no choice but to classify it as revelation; and, consequently, to rule it out as a work of reason?”*
Hazony argues that we don’t.
Consider Parmenides, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who was one of the founders of Western philosophy. He referred to gods, but his writings are considered works of reason:
“The goddess received me kindly, and took my right hand with her hand, And uttered speech and thus addressed me: ‘Youth attended by immortal charioteers … you should learn all things, both the steadfast heart of persuasive truth, and the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.” **
Or consider The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the 6th-century philosopher Boethius while he was in prison awaiting execution. It describes his dialogue with the Goddess of Philosophy, who visits him in his prison cell:
“She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour … I saw that it was my nurse in whose house I had been cared for since my youth: Philosophy. I asked her why she had come down from the heights of heaven to my lonely place of banishment.
‘Why, my child,’ she replied, ‘should I desert you? This is hardly the first time wisdom has been threatened with danger by the forces of evil. In olden times, too, before the time of my servant Plato, I fought many a great battle against the reckless forces of folly. And then, in Plato’s own lifetime, his master Socrates was unjustly put to death — a victorious death, won with me at his side.'”***
Passages in the Bible, though stylistically less direct, are similar. Genesis 12:1-3, for example:
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.'”****
Hazony reads that passage as being partly historical explanation and partly moral instruction: “Be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
He doesn’t claim that all of the Biblical text is philosophical. However, he makes a solid case that if we interpret explicitly philosophical texts’ supernatural references as a stylistic device, we have no good reason to apply a different and harsher standard to the Bible.
“Reason or revelation” is a false dilemma. Clearly, the Bible is both.
* Hazony, Y. (2012), p. 6.
** Gallop, D. (1984), loc. 1191.
*** Watt, V. (1991), p. 11.
**** Brettler, M. (2014), loc. 1656.
Brettler, M. et al, editors (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, second edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Gallop, D., (1984), Parmenides of Elea. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.
Hazony, Y. (2012), The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Watts, V., translator (1991), The Consolation of Philosophy by Boetius. The Folio Society, London, UK.