Handmaid, Know-It-All, Temporary Law

1. Yehoshua Amir, “Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 439.

“…it is possible to read into Philo’s allegory the doctrine of philosophy as ‘handmaid of Scripture,’ in analogy to the famous formula of philosophy as ‘ancilla theologiae‘ which was later developed by Christian theologians.”

I don’t know what it means to say that philosophy is a handmaid of Scripture or theology. Does it mean that philosophy can help us understand what’s in the Bible, or that it confirms biblical teaching, or that the Bible coincides with it? Was it a way to assure people that the Bible was consistent with the best of Greek philosophy?

At Harvard, I attended a discussion group on the Bible and the historical-critical method. Some suggested that historical-criticism should be a handmaid for the church, meaning that the church should feel free to draw from its insights when they can assist it in its mission: to evangelize and promote righteous living among the flock. Others expressed concern about such a move, since they felt that it compromised the historical-critical method. For them, that approach allowed Christians to cherry-pick the parts of the method that helped their mission and coincided with their theology, while they could disregard the parts that they found more uncomfortable, e.g., challenges to biblical inerrancy and the notion that the entire Bible is an evangelical Christian tract.

I’m not sure what to say about this. Philo probably drew from Greek philosophy because he believed in it, but he didn’t take everything from it. For example, Aristotle thought the cosmos was eternal, whereas Philo (as a Jew) believed it had an origin. Was he untrue to Aristotle? I don’t know about him, but the medieval Jews who cherry-picked from Aristotle at least tried to show why they disagreed with him in certain areas. Saadiah Gaon, for instance, offered reasons that the universe had a beginning (e.g., you can’t go back forever and arrive at the present, if that makes any sense). Whether the church is able to explain why it accepts parts of historical-criticism while rejecting others, I don’t know. The important thing, I guess, is what Augustine said: an interpretation of Scripture is good if it encourages us to love God and neighbor.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 836-837.

Caecilius [in the third century C.E. dialogue, Octavius] speaks first (chs. 5-15), in defence of the heathen, and in opposition to the Christian religion…He charges the Christians with presumption for claiming a certain knowledge of the highest problems which lie beyond human ken…He concludes with the re-assertion of human ignorance of things which are above us, and an exhortation to leave those uncertain things alone…”

Christians often do claim to know the mysteries of the universe. My problem is that there are all of these questions out there, and Christians offer their answers, and I’m usually left scratching my head, thinking, “Is that all there is to it?” Is all of life encapsulated in the truths that God made us, we sinned, Christ redeemed us, we’re supposed to do good, and Christ will return? Is there nothing else to know?

There have been times when Christianity has appeared rather deep, however. When I was in a Bible study group at DePauw, we were studying I-II Peter, and we could practically derive a sermon out of each verse. It was so deep and multi-layered! The leader of the group said, “It’s like God said, ‘I’m going to put this in language that the people can understand,’ then he does so, and the product is still overwhelming and beyond us!”

At least the Christians tried to understand the deep things. Caecilius, however, did not. He wanted the pagans to offer their sacrifices and be good citizens. His perspective was roughly the same as what we see in Deuteronomy 29:29, only he was a pagan: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law” (NRSV). Perhaps Christians believed, however, that knowing certain mysteries could actually enable them to live good lives.

3. “The Law,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 155, 157-159.

“God says, ‘In this world, in the chapter of the red heifer, you are made clean and are purified by the mouth of the priest’ (Num. XIX, 7-9). But in the world to come it shall not be so. Then God himself will purify you from all your sins and impurities…(Ezek. XXXVI, 25). (Pes. R. 66a.)”

“It is written, ‘For this commandment is not in heaven’ (Deut. XXX, 11, 12). Moses said to the Israelites, ‘Lest you should say, Another Moses is to arise, and to bring us another Law from heaven, therefore I make it known to you now that it is not in heaven: nothing is left of it in heaven’…(Deut. R., Nizzabim, VIII, 6.)”

Many Christians believe that Jesus came with a new law, or he changed the old one. Consequently, we don’t have to do what the Israelites of the Old Testament did (e.g., Sabbath, sacrifices, avoid pork, etc.). Many Jews, however, have countered that the Torah is eternal and perpetual, meaning God intended for them always to do those rituals. But there is one Jewish view that things will be different in the World to Come, meaning that Israelites will not always obey every law of the Torah. Could such a belief form the backdrop to what we see in Hebrews? Hebrews asserts that Christians don’t need to offer animal sacrifices now that Christ had come, and, in some sense, its author holds that the world to come has broken into the world through Jesus (see Hebrews 6:5). Maybe that’s why he sees the Law as flexible.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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