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Tension between Philosophical Law and Hebrew Law

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Greek, Judaism by Alex L. on May 28, 2009

One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.

The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.

The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.

The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.

I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.

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