Reason and Revelation in Antiquity

This important book is a reflection on the radically different, but intersecting, visions of divine law that developed in the Ancient Near East in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and among the Greeks. Christine Hayes, the Robert F. and Patricia Weis Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica at Yale University, describes the clash, and its many reverberations down to the present, between the Biblical understanding of divine law reflecting the “will of a divine sovereign” in which the ideal human is the “obedient servant,” and the later ancient conception of divine law that emerged among the Greeks. The latter rejected the role of the gods in setting divine laws, and tied the divinity in law to “certain qualities inherent in it”—notably its rationality, its universality, and its “static unchanging character.”

It is Hayes’ thesis that these two discourses “collided head-on” following Alexander’s conquest of the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century BCE, a collision that created “a cognitive dissonance that the West has been grappling with ever since.”

The first chapter of What’s Divine about Divine Law?: Early Perspectives is devoted to “Biblical Discourses of Law.” Hayes observes at the outset that to consider the Biblical conception of divine law as grounded “solely in the will of a commanding sovereign” is to miss the complexity of the ways that Scripture shows will, reason, and history to be part of the texture of divine law. In this chapter she notes the particular ways Jahweh covenanted with his people, Israel, always in distinction from the universalism of the Greeks. Throughout the chapter she looks for elements in the narrative that could be read to point to concepts of law that are Greek-like—that is, universally valid and independent of God’s decrees.

One such example is her lengthy treatment of Abraham’s bargaining with Jahweh about his intention to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their rampant immorality. Abraham challenges God not to break what appears to be, according to Hayes, an as-yet-unwritten moral law that the innocent should not be punished with the guilty. Exclaimed Abraham to God: “‘Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Hayes observes that some scholars see here an example of a natural law principle in Scripture. She admits, though, that the story does not posit a universal standard of justice, independent of Jahweh’s law. Instead, God told Abraham that he has singled out Abraham to “instruct his children . . . to keep the way of Yahweh by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18.19, in 26). The author recognizes that this is not an example of an autonomous (Greek) law of nature. She quotes the theologian Markus Bockmuehl, who makes the important distinction that in the Old Testament there is “‘no ‘law of nature’ terminology as describing a reality distinct from the law of God, [but] the Hebrew world view does operate on the assumption that all creation expresses God’s law and moral purpose, and all of God’s law is law according to nature.”

The chapter devotes great attention to the “messianic future” of the giving of the law at Sinai, to the time, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, when all peoples will “go up to the Mount of Jahweh . . .  for instruction [Torah] shall come forth from Zion . . . (Isaiah 2.2-3, 46). This is the time when the divine law will be fully established on earth, not just among Jahweh’s chosen people. This is the Biblical theme in which God’s particular covenant promise to bless Abraham’s seed will be universalized (not referenced here by Hayes), when Jahweh promised “in thee [Abraham] shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12.3).

Hayes introduces another dimension of the messianic future in which the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel responded to the crisis of the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE by promising that Jahweh would make a new covenant with his people when he would “put [his] teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts”(Jeremiah 31.33, 47). She recognizes that “the predominant biblical narrative about divine law is a linear one,” in which the law given at Sinai achieves its “perfect fulfillment in a messianic era.”

Notably, the author proffers another narrative, a circular one rather than linear, which “imagines a law-free golden age in Eden . . . and an ultimate return to that law-free golden age in the messianic future.” She admits that this represents a “much less fully articulated narrative [which] can be constructed . . . from textual elements that push in a different direction, particularly when decontextualized.” This, however, seems a sleight of hand, not Hayes’s usual careful exegesis of the Biblical text, in which she imposes a (decontextualized) reading to evince a Greek claim to human autonomy that an ancient Hebrew would recognize as a human “invention,” not consonant with Jahweh’s laws.

The book’s central theme is the challenge posed by the Greco-Roman theories of natural law to the Hebrew understanding of law as the authoritative revelation of Jahweh. The core idea of natural law theory, presented most fully by the Stoics, “is that there exists in nature a standard of right and wrong” as “an independent standard against which conventional human laws can be measured.” (Emphasis in original.) Hayes argues that in the Hellenistic period, Jews “experienced a cognitive dissonance” from encountering a view of law so at odds with the Biblical one. She asserts that the attempt by adherents of Biblical tradition to make sense of Biblical divine law in light of classical Greek views “gave rise to processes of negotiating, accommodation, resistance, and revision that would forever change the way biblical cultures would read the biblical text.” The rest of the book illustrates these processes.

A number of Hellenistic Jews began to reinterpret the Scriptures in light of Greek thought.

Aristes, an Alexandrian Jew who lived in the 2nd century BCE, tried to demonstrate that Israel’s divine law had the same characteristics as the divine natural law of the Stoics. Philo (1st century CE), also from Alexandria, was most radical, fully identifying the Torah with Stoic natural law.

Hayes addresses some of the writings of Paul, saying that they, along with many other New Testament writings, sharply distinguish Biblical divine law from natural law. Paul saw the Mosaic law as a pedagogue guiding the Jews to right living as they awaited the full disclosure of God’s law, with the coming of Jesus Christ. Hayes’s depiction of Paul’s stance on the continuing value of God’s law for both Gentiles and Jews after Christ’s coming is as complex as his stance, which she finds ambivalent. She concludes with very strong words about the lasting effects of Paul’s rhetoric, charging that he employed a discourse in which the “Mosaic Law was antithetical to the new divine covenant written on the heart.”

She goes on to say: “With the Mosaic Law abrogated or superseded, Christianity would fully embrace natural law as the ontologically primary mode by which God communicates his will for universal humankind.”

Hayes is correct to charge that there have been considerable strains of supercessionism in the history of Christianity over against the claims of Judaism to an everlasting covenant with Jahweh. On the other hand, her claim needs to be tempered by the reality that Christian catechisms, both Catholic and Protestant, give great space to the continuing obligation to follow the Ten Commandments. In Puritan New England, for example, it was clear that the Mosaic law, in all but dietary matters, was integral to the Anglo-American common law. Another example would be that in today’s cultural disputes about gender, sexuality, and abortion, the Mosaic law is the foundation on which Catholics and Evangelicals dispute progressive agendas in modern American society.

In the latter half of the book, Hayes explores the rabbinic understanding of Biblical divine law (showing herself the master of a voluminous literature over half a millennium) in the attempt to gauge the extent to which it had been “informed by Greco-Roman discourses of natural law and positive law.” Her conclusion is that “there is a dominant tendency in rabbinic literature not to apply to Mosaic Law the themes and tropes of Greco-Roman natural law discourse.” (Emphasis in original.) The author concludes that “the overall trend of Talmudic literature is clear: the Torah is divine because it originates in the will of the god of Israel, and the attribution of divinity to the Torah does not confer upon it the qualities of universal rationality, truth, and stasis.”

Despite this, Hayes claims that her finding above does not mean that natural law discourse played no role in rabbinic thought. She explains that the rabbis did not work from “systematic philosophical commitments”; in this they resembled Roman jurists who had a “general if eclectic familiarity with theoretical accounts of the law but lack[ed] a serious engagement with these theories as they work[ed] at the jurist’s trade.”

But this raises a question about the central thesis of What’s Divine about Divine Law? Hayes began with the dramatic claim that the conceptions of divine law championed by the Biblical Hebrews and the natural law Greeks “collided head-on,” after which any group that accepted the God-given origins of the divine law was compelled fundamentally to rethink its understanding of the divinity of law. Does her diagnosis of the rather untroubled way that rabbinical literature dealt with Greek thought support this thesis?

As space is limited, let me raise one other illustration that seems to me an indication that Hayes at times exaggerates the influence of Greek natural law discourse in the Hellenistic period. She discusses at some length the answer of Jesus to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark on whether divorce is justified:

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10.2-9 NRSV)

Relying on a recent study of several rabbinic sources by Jenny Labendz (Socratic Torah, 2013), Hayes claims that Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about divorce “with an argument from nature as recorded in the creation account of Genesis.” (Emphasis in original.) The implication is that, according to Jesus, the Deuteronomic law permitting divorce is man-made law “that cannot uproot an eternal divine law grounded in human nature from the time of divine creation.”

What is at stake here, according to Labendz (and Hayes), is that Jesus mocks the Pharisees because of “the biblical and rabbinic presentation of divine law that deviate from Greco-Roman notions of natural law.” Hayes concludes that “These Markan dialogues [including ones on ritual purity] are critically important evidence that the dueling conception of divine law traced in this volume were present and sparking controversy in first-century CE Palestine no less than in first-century Alexandria.”

Did Jesus base his teaching on Greek natural law? We need to return to the text in Mark’s Gospel account (the same account, in nearly identical language, is given in the Gospel of Matthew, 19.3-8). Jesus did, indeed, assert that there was a more authoritative law about divorce than that written by Moses, “because of your hardness of heart.” But Jesus did not base his argument on the law of nature. Jesus grounded his argument squarely in Biblical divine law, reflecting “the will of [the] divine sovereign” who ordained marriage in the beginning, and declared it indissoluble by humans:

‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Jesus’ stance on divorce issued from the Hebrew Scriptures, not a Hellenized law of nature, independent of the laws of God.

We are indebted to Christine Hayes for a persuasive study that posits the powerful influence of Hellenistic natural law discourses for interpreting the Scriptures, and we can thank her by challenging her work where it seems overstated. Reining in her claims would make the book all the more persuasive.