Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments

Not open for further replies.


Puritanboard Clerk
Johnson, Dru. Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

In the middle of the 20th century, James Barr utterly dismantled the claim that there was a particular Hebrew way of thinking opposed to a Greek way of thinking. Barr was correct. What is not always understood, often by either side, is that there are ways where the Greek outlook on life does differ with a biblical one.

We must be very clear that Dru Johnson, former professor of Hebrew at King’s College New York, is not reviving said dismantled thesis. Rather, he is exploring the way that the Hebrew authors approached “the deep questions,” and in doing so he makes one correct preconceptions about what constitutes “a Greek way of doing philosophy.”

Moreover, when Johnson contrasts Hebrew with Greek thought, he is not saying one is inherently rational and the other is revelational or mystical. Rather, both have their own take on reason. Even more alarming, the Greek view can often be as mystic (indeed, hysterical) as any revelational tradition.

Whither Greek Philosophy?

It is not that Greek philosophy is abstract while Hebraic is narratival. Rather, Greek philosophy also engages in narrative, drama, and poetry. This is a particular philosophical style, a style often found in the Hebrew bible. Moreover, Greek philosophy, like Hebrew philosophy, often relies on visions, dreams (e.g., Parmenides), and divine revelation (e.g., Plato’s Meno and Parmenides). One is no more “rational” in outlook than the other.

Methods and Data

The Bible has a discernible thread of “second-order” thinking, or “thinking about thinking” (Johnson 33). Where it appears that Hebrew philosophy is unlike other kinds, it is rather that Hebrew philosophy embeds second-order thinking within narratives and poetry (as Plato did in dialogues). In other words, the texture of Hebrew philosophy generates its own second-order thinking.

This means we should see “Instances of, rhetorical structure about [and] a logical structure within narratives” (39). These are “philosophical vectors that become coherent only upon integration into the whole.”

Philosophy Before the Greeks

Pre-Greek cultures employed, among other things, analogical reasoning, the attempt “to describe how we use concepts derived from embodied understanding or analogies to examine or rationalize an idea” (59). In Egypt, for example, as Eric Voegelin noted, an analogical method moves from species to individual to animal to king. Johnson explains: “If gods manifested themselves across species, then the community is greater than the individual” because the species outlasts the individual (63).

The Hebraic Philosophical Style

At the risk of oversimplifying, Johnson suggests that the Hebrews raised philosophical problems by contrasting them with the received wisdom of their neighbors (82). As the Hebrew reflects on these problems, he is confronted with his own doxastic commitments. Stated more formally, Johnson’s method of Hebrew philosophy is as follows:

  1. Exemplars are systematically arranged (pixelated)
  2. Intertextually developed from the Torah and prophets (networked)
  3. Regularly acknowledges the logical inability to exhaustively understand the nature of reality (83ff).
The Hebrew writers use a “pixelated approach by defining the contours of second order abstraction with pictures of and episodes about a concept” (84). If in Aristotle we see discursive reasoning, in the Hebrew writers we see “presentational reasoning,” which then becomes analogical reasoning.

Logic By Story

Humans are not purely rational syllogisms, and even those with a background in logic cannot always follow a basic modus ponens argument. They can follow a story, though, and the philosophical problems inherent in these stories are often anchored to a creationist worldview. Johnson explains the difference in the table below:

  1. Pixelated: the authors define a concept “with pictures of and episodes about” across “narrative, law, and poetry” (84).
  2. Networked: the Hebrew authors alert readers to themes and types from other passages (89).
  3. Mysterionist: human reason cannot exhaust the real (92).
  4. Creationist: there is “continuity with a particular cosmological and genealogical narrative” (94-95).
  5. Transdemographic: the entire social body is involved in the knowing process, as opposed to only an elite class (96).
  6. Ritualist: rituals enable to know-how (99).

The above schemata allows one to recognize “hits” in any piece of Hebrew literature. Discerning hits will be by “presence, persistence, and relevance” (120). Does a biblical author consistently pursue a theme that is relevant to the story? One common way to do this is by narrative. At this point a danger arises, as “narrative” is a misused buzzword in some philosophical circles. Narrative is to them what “covenant” is to Presbyterians: everything.

Johnson, to his credit, actually pursues how narrative functions as an argument. Like all manner of logical argumentation, a narrative (a good one, anyway) “heightens [a logical conflict] to a resolution that yields epistemic rest within us” (123). It has all the power of a syllogism but is within history.

(Johnson has a subsection on how narratives explain biblical case law. It is fascinating and deserves its own review, 132ff).


The Hebrews, understood in contrast with the Greeks, were not a-rational. Quite the opposite: their rationality anticipated many elements of modern, sometimes scientific epistemologies. Earlier authors like Thomas Torrance argued that the Hebrews prized the hearing over the seeing. That is partially true, but, as Johnson notes, “The Biblical authors construct an epistemological process framed around hearing and seeing” (229). The biblical authors, as far as I can tell, were never interested in rationality abstracted from concrete cases.

Johnson summarizes such an epistemology (235ff):

  • N1: The role of authoritative social structures in knowing. In other words, we live in community, hearing and discerning various authoritative voices.
  • N2: The role of embodied processes that disposes the subject to apprehend. This explains the Hebraic connection between ritual and knowledge, as in Lev. 23:42-43. This connects the knowledge with one’s body.
  • N3: The role of skill in knowing. Wisdom is skill in walking before God. It is not “mystical,” nor is it a term that one first presupposes before engaging in the abstract concept called “the knowing process.” It is akin, at least on the technical level, to Polanyi’s “subsidiary knowing.”

Truth is what you can rely on. It includes correspondence, but it is more than that. Something is true if it is reliable over time.

Actions: Anointing (Judge 9:15); Walking (1 Kgs 2:4)

Objects: Tents pegs (Isa. 22:23); Roads (24:48).

This is not entirely removed from our own usage of the word. If someone says, “My heart is true,” we know he is not intending it to be a strict correspondence with reality. That raises an uncomfortable problem, though: how will I know ahead of time if x is true? The truth (!) of the matter is I will not. It will often take a time of listening and discerning.


On the whole Johnson’s thesis is sound, though it does raise quite a few questions. Why, for example, must one use the schemata of pixelation, network, etc.? Does that not “cook the evidence” ahead of time? That is a real danger, but it is a danger that any approach to the Hebrew scriptures will face. On one hand, the schemata seems right, but if someone has a better approach, let him adopt it. As Polanyi and others have noted, the evidence will eventually cook the theory (to continue the metaphor). Polanyi concludes this chapter noting that “personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality” (Personal Knowledge, 64). This is what Thomas Torrance calls “kataphysic knowledge.” It is where we submit as knower to the object known, which then impresses itself into our mode of knowing.
This helps with the question of "Jerusalem vs Athens" that is usually over simplified one way or another. I doubt I'll ever read this but I am glad it is out there.
This helps with the question of "Jerusalem vs Athens" that is usually over simplified one way or another. I doubt I'll ever read this but I am glad it is out there.

The problem in the 20th century was that a number of post-liberal thinkers correctly intuited that the Bible's outlook was quite different from Greece's. They just routinely drew the wrong inferences. They made it sound like the Hebrews never used propositions and only experienced "event" and "act." In other words, they were Karl Barth.

Johnson shows that yes, the Hebrews were different, but they still employed propositions and second-order thinking. In any case, both Plato and Torah place laws and cosmology within stories.
Read Plato's Meno where at the end he punts on reason and says virtue can only be learned by a divine in-breaking. Of course, hee might be saying that because he realizes Meno isn't intellectually up to the challenge and needs an out for the conversation.
Not open for further replies.