The Jewish Roots of Modern Science


Must we choose between science and religious faith?

Many people think so.

On the scientific side, we find pop atheists such as Sam Harris, who believes that “religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.”1

On the religious side, we find Orthodox writers such as Rabbi Lazer Brody, who wrote that “If parents teach their children Darwin’s theory of evolution, then of course the children won’t respect them, for each generation brings them closer to the apes.”2

But the choice presents a false dilemma. It’s true that dogmatists of science and religion reject anything that seems to conflict with their view of the world. Both sides overlook two important facts: First, that science and religion serve different goals in human life:

“Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”3

Second, that science grew out Biblical religion in general and Judaism in particular.

What Science Needs

Science depends on a method and an assumption, both of which come from Judaism and ancient Greek philosophy:

  • The method: Observe and reason. We obtain knowledge by observing the world and making logical inferences about it. The scientific method is more than that, but that’s the basic idea.
  • The assumption: Physical laws are universal. The world and the things in it obey the same laws everywhere and at all times. We can understand the world because the world is rational: logic and mathematics give us reliable knowledge about it. Both Judaism and modern science allow a few exceptions to these rules, but they usually apply.4

Observe and Reason

The most obvious Jewish source of modern science is Medieval Jewish philosophy, as developed by Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE), Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), and other Jewish rationalists. Saadia, for example, says that:

“There exist three sources of knowledge: (1) the knowledge given by sense perception; (2) the knowledge given by reason; and (3) inferential knowledge.”5

When scientists make observations, they use source one; when they make logical connections, they use source two; and when they form hypotheses, they use source three.

To those, Saadia adds a fourth source, “reliable tradition,” which amounts to testimony from other people about what they have observed. Scientists also depend on this source. They cannot personally verify every fact they use, so they rely on the testimony of other scientists.6

Maimonides gives a similar list of knowledge sources. Of course, Saadia and Maimonides based a lot of their ideas on ancient Greek philosophy, on Aristotle in particular. Do any purely Jewish texts say similar things?

Yes. The Tanakh is replete with philosophical ideas, but they are usually implied rather than stated outright. The prophet Jeremiah, in particular, alludes to reliable sources of knowledge:

“5:1: Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, and see, if you can, and know, and search its broad places, look about and take note: If you can find a man, if there is one who does justice and seeks truth …”7

Philosopher Yoram Hazony explains the passage as:

“… arguing that each and every person is responsible for trying to establish the truth for themselves. This is not a matter of accepting what they hear from wise men, prophets, and priests, since these are only men … Rather, each individual must inquire and examine on their own.”8

Hazony’s interpretation makes Jeremiah even stricter than Saadia and Maimonides, since he seems to rule out relying on testimony to establish the truth.

Similarly, Jeremiah argues:

“6:16: So says the Lord: Stand on the roadways and see, and inquire of the paths of old which way is the good, and walk on it.”9

According to Hazony, Jeremiah prescribes an “essentially empirical quest for truth,” just as we would ideally find in scientific research.

Physical Laws Are Universal

In our own era, the idea of universal physical laws seems so obvious that we don’t realize how big an intellectual advance it was in ancient times. Two Jewish innovations made it possible: monotheism and Divine covenant.

To pagans, the ancient world seemed chaotic, with no unifying authority. There was a different god for almost everything; in Mesopotamia, there were 50 of them. The gods often disagreed and fought each other:

“Since no god really reigns supreme in the Mesopotamian pantheon, the promulgation of a consistent system of divine law and order is a virtual impossibility. In the Mesopotamian view, everything, with the exception of human law, is unstable.”10

In addition, the pagan gods had no obligations to humanity, nor did they behave in consistent ways. Even the Egyptian flirtation with monotheism had this problem. It solved the problem of multiple gods making inconsistent decrees, but its one god was still capricious and selfish.

Our ancestors’ insight into the moral nature of God made possible His covenant with us as described in Exodus 19. It imposes obligations both on the Israelites and on God Himself, who is bound by His own promise to act consistently and predictably according to the terms of the covenant. The covenant itself followed the form of treaties between the Hittite empire and its vassal states:

“To scholars, the whole atmosphere of an Ancient Near Eastern treaty was unmistakable … God Himself, it will be recalled, had said He was proposing a berit, a covenant or solemn agreement, between Himself and the people of Israel.”11

Pagan belief in many gods who acted capriciously made stable natural law implausible. But now, the one God had bound Himself to abide by the terms of His covenant with the Israelites, so stable natural law was suddenly a plausible idea. Assumption of stable natural law is a requirement for doing science.

Science and Religion Through History

The idea that science and religion are incompatible is fairly recent, dating from the 19th century. It would have shocked most great scientists throughout history. Copernicus, Galileo12, Newton, and many others were inspired by their faith to search for the secrets of the physical universe. It was the intellectual groundwork laid by Judaism that helped make modern science possible.

Works Cited

Hazony, Y. (2014), The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kugel, J. (2007), How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press.

Lewy, H. (2012), 3 Jewish Philosophers. London: Toby Press. Kindle edition.

Muffs, Y. (2005), The Personhood of God. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Sacks, J. (2011), The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. New York: Schocken Books.

Walton, J. (2006), Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.


  1. “The Problem with Atheism.” Harris is often mentioned with other pop atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who is a great biologist but a lightweight philosopher of religion, and the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who was a marvelous writer but seemed mainly interested in selling lots of books. 
  2. “Passover: Family, Tradition, and Freedom.” The quote is from one of Rabbi Brody’s Facebook posts, 26 April 2016. Rabbi Brody might find a kindred spirit in the English classical scholar Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). He was skeptical about evolution and debated biologist T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” After listening to Huxley declare that humans had evolved from apes, Arnold replied that perhaps we did have apes in our family tree, “but something must have inclined them to Greek.” 
  3. Sacks, J. (2011), p. 2. 
  4. It’s amazing how closely the world matches our most abstract reasoning. Eighteenth-century mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler and Carl Friedrich Gauss developed mathematical ideas that had no known application in their own era, but which in the 20th century were crucial for understanding quantum mechanics. In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner pondered the issue in a famous essay titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” 
  5. Lewy, H. (2012), loc. 3016. 
  6. See Palmer, N.S., “Scientific Certainty? Oops.” 
  7. Hazony, Y. (2012), p. 162. 
  8. Ibid, p. 163. 
  9. Ibid, p. 165. 
  10. Muffs, Y. (2005), p. 30. 
  11. Kugel, J. (2007), p. 246. 
  12. The common and mistaken belief is that Galileo was put on trial for saying the earth revolved around the sun. In fact, Pope Urban VIII was a friend and supporter of Galileo, but he took offense when Galileo’s book A Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems seemed to make fun of him. Their real dispute was personal, not astronomical. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to The Jewish Roots of Modern Science

  1. “Religion puts things together to see what they mean”. Does that mean that any attempt to put things together to see what they mean is religion?


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I wouldn’t go that far, but it can be. The quote is from Jonathan Sacks. It seems to me that the part about the purpose (how things work vs. what they mean) is more important than the part about the method (analysis vs. synthesis).

      For example, to understand learning, we must synthesize information from psychology, neuroanatomy, biochemistry, biophysics, and cell biology, but it’s not normally a religious exercise; to prescribe morals, religion must analyze human nature, but it’s not normally a scientific exercise. IMHO.


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