Biblical Theology: Tracing Philosophy across Biblical Texts

This is an adapted version of "Biblical Theology and Philosophy" in
Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark's Gospel
(Routledge, 2018).

The idea that the biblical texts carry out an extended discourse about the nature of knowing often strikes both philosophers and biblical scholars as odd. Epistemology makes for a good example of Hebraic thought because epistemological discourses are essentially demonstrating “thinking about thinking” (as Michael Carasik once called it).

There are ways to know that are better than others, namely because they lead the knower to see more truly. To show this, I trace those ideas in literary order, from the origins stories of Genesis through the origins of Israel to the origins of the first-century messianic prophet from Nazareth. Throughout, a structure to knowing appears endemic to these texts. Generally, the term “epistemology” applies to descriptions about and analyses of structures of knowledge:

  • Who knows something?
  • Is that something true?
  • How does she justify such knowledge?

The analytic tradition of epistemology currently owns the market share of scholarly discussions on knowledge.1 For example, Richard Feldman begins his introduction to analytic epistemology by distinguishing the different types of knowledge and accounts for his exclusive focus on propositional epistemology: “The most reasonable conclusion seems to be that there are (at least) three basic kinds of knowledge: (1) propositional knowledge, (2) acquaintance knowledge or familiarity, and (3) ability knowledge (or procedural knowledge). … Furthermore, many of the most intriguing questions about knowledge turn out to be questions about propositional knowledge.” Richard Feldman, Epistemology, Foundations of Philosophy Series, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 12. Different versions of the Traditional Analysis of Knowledge (i.e., knowledge being a proposition that meets a definition of justified true belief) turn on their varying dependence of the principles of justification, theories of truth, and/or the grounds for believing a particular proposition. But they all take for granted the basic construct of knowledge as justified true belief. Reliabilism, coherentism, truth-tracking, modified foundationalism, and different flavors of each type will rise and fall upon justification for “S’s belief that P” where S is the believing subject and P is the corresponding proposition expressed by a sentence (e.g., “Paul knows that Georgia is both a state and a nation-state”). This epistemological framework has weathered severe critiques, but my only critique is to controvert the claim that a propositional view of epistemology is the only one in which, “the most intriguing questions about knowledge turn.” Some Jewish and Christian analytic philosophers are trying to bridge the gap between these different types of knowing. One such attempt is Eleonore Stump’s text Wandering in the Darkness. She develops the idea that there are two modes of epistemology, Franciscan and Dominican, which are narrative based and propositionally analytic respectively. Eleonore Stump, Wandering in the Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), especially chapters 3-4. Cf. Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Howard Wettstein, The Significance of Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). To some extent, Christians working in the virtue epistemology movement approach knowing through the role habituation i as primary for the task, largely from the Aristotelian tradition. Cf. Jonathan L. Kvanvig, The Intellectual Virtues and the Life of the Mind: On the Place of the Virtues in Epistemology (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992); Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Accordingly, those three questions about justified true beliefs stem from a particular view of anthropology, humanity, and knowledge—a view that some ancient Semites might not have shared, even up through the period of Hellenistic Judaism.

The epistemological matters implied or described in the Pentateuch and Gospels shift focus away from justifying discrete beliefs—captured by the three questions above—and toward embodying a process in order to know.

Who knows what and how? The answer to this more amenable question will require serious consideration of the authorized docents in Scripture. These authenticated guides lead their subjects to see that which they are showing to them, something present the whole time but unseen to the novice apart from developing the skill to see—like a medical student who finally recognizes a benign tumor through the repeated practices guided by radiology professors. The process of seeing under such guidance, also called “knowing” in these texts, requires full bodily participation in order to bridge the gap between knowing and not knowing.

I am using the term “knowing” rather than “knowledge” because the aim of the epistemology in these texts is not acquired knowledge. Rather, the goal homes in on creating a kind of person and people that have the skill to see what is being shown to them. Hence, the epistemology found across these texts betrays the Semitic view of skilled knowing rather than discrete logical justification of a belief that biblical authors then deign knowledge.

A handful of works on epistemology in Scripture have peppered the landscape of biblical scholarship2Yael Avrahami, The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible, The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 545 (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012); Shlomo Biderman, Scripture and Knowledge: An Essay on Religious Epistemology (Leiden: Brill, 1995); Meir Malul, Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2002); Michael Carasik, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel, Studies in Biblical Literature 85, ed. Hemchand Gossai (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005); Douglas Yoder, “Tanakh Epistemology: A Philosophical Reading of an Ancient Semitic Text” (PhD diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2007); Annette Schellenberg, Erkenntnis als Problem: Qohelet und die alttestamentliche Diskussion um das menschliche Erkennen, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 188 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Reprecht, 2002); Jaco Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, Society of Biblical Literature 70 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 371–404; Michael V. Fox, “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 4 (2007): 669–684; Ryan O’Dowd, The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom in Literature, Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments Band 225 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009); Rosalind Selby, The Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006); Mary Healy and Robin Parry, eds., The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007); William J. Abraham, “Faith, Assurance, and Conviction: An Epistemological Commentary on Hebrews 11:1,” Ex Auditu 19 (2003): 65-75; Jerome H. Neyrey, “John III—A Debate Over Johannine Epistemology and Christology,” Novum Testamentum XXIII, no. 2 (1981): 115-27. For a missiological epistemology: J. Andrew. Kirk, “The Confusion of Epistemology in the West and Christian Mission,” Tyndale Bulletin 55, no. 1 (2004): 131-156. and theology3Michael Horton, “Meeting a Stranger: A Covenantal Epistemology,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 337-55; Ronald J. Feenstra, “Natural Theology, Epistemic Parity, and Unbelief,” Modern Theology 5, no. 1 (1988): 1-12; Charles E. Winquist, “The Epistemology of Darkness: Preliminary Reflections,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49, no. 1 (1981): 23-34; John V. Dahms, “A Trinitarian Epistemology Defended: A Rejoinder to Norman Geisler,” Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society 22, no. 2 (1979): 133-48; Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006); Colin Gunton, “Knowledge and Culture: Towards an Epistemology of the Concrete,” in The Gospel and Contemporary Culture, ed. Hugh Montefiore (London: Mowbray, 1992). over the last few decades, each providing valuable insights into the role of knowledge in biblical literature. This volume differs most notably from those by working in the method of what Jaco Gericke has termed “philosophical criticism.” By this phrase, philosophical criticism, Gericke means to include philosophical analysis of biblical texts as one more type of critical inquiry that uses the text to understand how ancient Semites might have conceived of philosophical concepts.4Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 199–222. Even if biblical philosophy turns out to be “folk philosophy,” as Gericke claims, the authors still have some kind of philosophical notions about humanity and the cosmos and those notions are evinced in these texts.5Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 154–157. In short, philosophical criticism is a form of biblical criticism:

. . . as a descriptive type of philosophical analysis aimed at the clarification of meaning in the biblical texts . . . in discovering what, if anything, a given passage assumes or implies on these matters and in translating the findings of the analyses into philosophical terms.6What Gericke calls “decompositional analysis.” Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 201.

As a form of biblical criticism, an umbrella term with intentional largess, Gericke houses philosophical criticism mostly within the methodologies of literary and rhetorical criticism.

In addition, we shall be first and foremost concerned with the world in the text alone. The world behind it (historical background) and the world in front of it (our world and those of earlier reception history) are of relevance only to the extent that the meaning of folk philosophies in the text can be elucidated.7Italics original. Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 203–204.

I follow Gericke’s lead to a great degree, but focusing on narratives requires that I bring different tools and tacks to the task than he espouses.

What Gericke offers us in methodology carries self-imposed limits, but I push back on the idea that assumed or implied notions in the text only represent folk philosophy. By examining foundational narratives, something more than implications and assumptions are afoot in the world of the texts. Narratival conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions have a logical structure to them and that logic means that necessary conclusions may proceed from the logical nature of the story itself. Continuing actions can also offer interpretive clues as to the logic of a story that may have multiple conflict/resolution patterns within. All things being equal, narratives can do something more than imply.8For more on the role of logic in narrative and ritual, see Dru Johnson, Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplements 13 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016), 46–55. They might possibly argue too.

Biblical criticisms identify themselves by method and the layers investigated in the texts. Gericke primarily pursues Yahwist religion in the Hebrew Bible in order to demonstrate his method, with a specific interest to show a language-concept relation.9Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 288. Eleonore Stump also believes that analytic philosophy of religion should consider the biblical texts as a source of philosophical thought played out in the biblical narratives.10Eleonore Stump, Wandering in the Darkness. She has often returned to stories in the Bible that force reflection on a philosophical problem. For instance, Stump uses the Cain and Abel story of Genesis 4 to discuss theodicy in light of the fact that YHWH does nothing for Abel and yet intervenes and then shows mercy for murderous Cain.11Eleonore Stump, “The Problem of Evil,” in Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, eds. Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 227-240. For Stump, the story itself prompts philosophical questions to be answered.

I practice a philosophical criticism distinct from yet sympathetic to the kinds advocated by Jaco Gericke and Eleonore Stump. This philosophical criticism will attend to narratives first and seek to understand the paranesis of these texts in their literary context. To varying degrees, Eleonore Stump, Craig Bartholomew, and Yoram Hazony—among others—have constructively practiced this type of analysis.12Stump, Wandering in the Darkness; Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011); Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

How to Proceed?

At its core, my work intends to show that the Pentateuch and Mark’s gospel evince a consistent view of epistemology—who can know what and how. Beyond a consistent view, Genesis 2–3 broaches a seminal depiction of knowledge that develops into a prescriptive account in Exodus, reified in Deuteronomy, and ultimately employed in the rhetoric of the Markan Jesus.

In order to trace that line of epistemology, I employ two methods: discerning philosophical argument from within biblical texts and pursuing consonant epistemological constructions across texts. The former has been largely relegated to the usual subjects of investigation. Job and Qohelet are examined for their proto-existentialism.13E.g., Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999); Annette Schellenberg, Erkenntnis als Problem: Qohelet und die alttestamentliche Diskussion um das menschliche Erkennen. For a comprehensive summary of philosophical approaches to Qohelet, see J.W., Gericke, “A comprehensive typology of philosophical perspectives on Qohelet,” Verbum et Ecclesia 36, no. 1 (2015), 1358–65. Equally frequent, the epistemology of wisdom literature recurs with new insights or conversation partners.14E.g., Michael V. Fox, “Ideas of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 4 (1997): 620; “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 4 (2007): 669-684; Ryan O’Dowd, The Wisdom of Torah; Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1986).

The latter technique—pursuing notions across texts—is often called biblical theology and has seen its favor devolve in a guild that increasingly valued the explanatory power of variegated textual sources.15“Biblical theology” is a term that covers a fractious field of scholarship. Methodology and commitments to different views of history, canon, and textual criticism caused the term itself to lose any coherent center that holds the various methodologies and commitments together. The problematic assumptions of ventures in biblical theology receive no small amount of scrutiny when broached among many scholars today. Deep skepticism still pervades any attempt to look across texts—and often within texts—in order to demonstrate consonant thought between them. Below, I will describe why some form of biblical theology is best suited to do the descriptive work of philosophical criticism, especially when dealing with narrative.

Are ancient Semites philosophical?

Questions about the philosophical commitments of biblical authors beg many others. How one defines philosophy and conceives of its task determines in advance whether or not any ancient culture—apart from the Greeks—can be considered philosophical. Most basically, do ancient Israelites think about the nature of a topic as such? Do they think about thinking, knowing, relations, movement, accidental properties, time, logic, and more apart from individual instances in their daily lives?

Thorlief Boman and Johannes Pedersen famously argued that Hellenistic thought revolutionized abstraction in human reason. According to them, the Greeks were able to separate an object from the actions it performed (i.e., it’s accidental qualities) just as we do today. Greeks could think of a “ball qua ball” or “ball-ness” as distinct from “that red ball being thrown through the window over there.” Hebrews, so Boman claimed, could neither separate the ball-ness from the ball, nor the idea of movement from the historical reality of the ball being thrown. Object and actions were forever fused for the Semitic mind and therefore, abstraction cannot occur.

If ancient Hebrews cannot conceptualize by abstraction as we do today, how can they do philosophy, which requires such abstraction and conceptualization by the nature of the task? The proponents of the Hebrew-Greek minds dichotomy source their ideas from the Hebrew Bible itself, as does a significant portion of this present volume. Below, I will take a closer look at their suppositions and the later rejection of the Hebrew-Greek dichotomy in biblical scholarship. However, as James Barr pointed out, we do not have access to the minds of ancient Hebrews, only their texts. Hence, as much as is possible, my project discerns coherent patterns of epistemology in those texts without determining the mentality or ability to philosophize of the biblical authors in advance.

The Hebrew-Greek Minds Problem16This portion of the chapter has been adapted and revised from Dru Johnson, Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplements 13 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016), 96–99.

The scholarly division between action (the body) and abstract thinking (the mind) widened in the Hebrew-Greek mind debate of last century. Though that debate ended in academia with a fairly definitive loss for those who proffered the Hebrew-Greek dichotomy, it certainly engendered a legacy of thought patterns that extend into today.17The dichotomy is so resilient that even in the most current research exploring the body, mind, and senses in biblical epistemology, scholars still feel obligated to give a thorough refutation of the two-minds dichotomy. See Carasik, Theologies of the Mind, 1–11; Avrahami, The Senses of Scripture, 22–31.

The mid-twentieth century debate focused on this question: Did ancient Israelites think like we do today? Those who answered “no” on this question were verbose.18“The Israelite does not occupy himself with empty nor with sharply defined space images. His logic is not the logic of abstraction, but of immediate perception. It is characteristic that the problems treated in the Old Testament are problems pertaining, not to thought, but to life, and that what they seek are not logical results.” Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, vol. 1, Studies in the History of Judaism (Oxford: Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1959), 124. In a similar comparative study, Thorlief Boman develops the contrast between Israelite and Greek thinking using the dynamic/stative dichotomy.[18] His examination looks particularly at elements such as the verbs that describe inner mental states as movement (e.g., “rise”, “turn”, etc.). Boman argues that Hebrew thought was fundamentally psychological while Greek thought was logical. Logical, in this sense, consists of the ability to place “ourselves objectively and impersonally outside the matter and ask what is the strict truth about it …” Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, 1st Ed. (London: S. C. M. Press, 1960), 193. Though these theories of ancient Semitic mentality would whither under later critique,19James Barr’s unfavorable appraisal of these two-mind critiques was definitive. For Barr, these Hebrew-Greek dichotomy theories were predicated upon the nature of language—the philology of mind in the extant texts of the Hebrew Bible. Barr’s basic rejoinder aims at the faulty claim of two mentalities as expressed by the languages of the people represented. First, if Hebrew represents the “verb” mentality and Greek the “noun,” does that dichotomy reflect their mentality per se or the nature of the texts? Barr argues for the latter, pointing out the phenomenological aspect of the extant texts: “the typical vehicle of Hebrew thinking is the historical narrative or the future prediction, both forms of literature in which the verb is likely to be of great significance.” James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1961), 15. His second major critique points to the vague nature of the comparison itself. Boman et al., have constructed a theory of mentality that includes their own European mentality and Indo-European language group as the contrast to the Hebrew mentality and Semitic language group. This creates an ineffectual comparison to which Barr raises one penetrating implication. “[I]f the Greek language can be somehow correlated with certain abstract or static features of Greek thought, how is (say) the Albanian language, which is also Indo-European, related with these features?” Barr, Semantics, 18. they subtly persist in corners of contemporary scholarship today. In short, the Hebrew-Greek mind theory failed because the dichotomy was not self-reflected on the analysts themselves, and therefore, it is incomplete, and most likely a project of projection.

Nevertheless, the basic question needs to be considered: Did ancient Israelites, as described in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, think and therefore know like we do? Moreover, do we share any mentality with ancient peoples so that our constructs and language can map onto theirs in a productive way? Admittedly, we must share some basic mentality sine qua non in order to do any broad-ranging analysis of ancient texts. Along with the critiques of Barr and Carasik against the Hebrew-Greek mind dichotomy, I want to affirm that biblical language refers to the similar epistemological constructs we can recognize today mutatis mutandis. Though the biblical epistemology needs translation into current modes of discourse, we can understand it nonetheless.

If we share mentality that can be communicated by language, then how does one go about translating the language of these biblical texts into the common epistemological referents that we share today?20E.g., Carasik prescribes the study of lexical use within narratives in order to gain an understanding of overlapping language and constructs. For instance, when we say “He thought X,” we grasp that this would be stated differently by some biblical authors. Some would have understood the heart (לבב) to be the center of thoughts and intent. In looking at those narratives, we do not expect to see language about thinking, but rather the actions of one’s heart. Through building up matrices of the use of specific language with reference to what we call mentality (i.e., epistemology), we can then come to appreciate what writers intended to portray. Carasik is not suggesting that this would be a method for finding hidden beliefs about mentality, but that it becomes the framework to justify any conclusions we may draw from the texts. Carasik reveals that what he means by mentality is actually something like knowing, thinking, and remembering. Theologies of the Mind, 11. That is exactly what I hope to accomplish. In order to find any coherent view of knowledge in the biblical texts, I proceed with the following presumptions:

  1. I share at least some epistemological constructs with ancient Israelites.
  2. Those constructs can be accessed through disparate linguistic depiction.
  3. I can justify my findings by demonstrating the patterned use of this language that corresponds to the structure of narratives.

For this type of philosophical criticism to be viable, my lexical and conceptual analyses must make sense within their narratives; hence, classical words studies alone are insufficient to the task.21David A. Lambert has recently argued that James Barr’s critique of philology is still not taken seriously in a field that still allows later traditions to dictate the theological reading of a word. As an example, scholars still implicitly read penitence into the biblical sense of “repent” (שוב/στρεφω) where it does not appear to be natively present in the biblical use of “repent.” Lambert advocates for a “critical philology” that is willing to reassess the field in light of immediate literary and historical context in which such terms gained meaning. “Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words,” Biblical Interpretation 24 (2016): 332–56. See also: David A. Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Is there philosophy in these texts?

In his declaratory work—Philosophy Before the Greeks—Marc Van De Mieroop explains divergent roles of texts in the thought-world of the ancient Near East. Specifically for Van De Mieroop, the Babylonian esteem for textualizing knowledge appears at odds with Plato’s disdain for knowledge being turned into text. However, Van De Mieroop claims that difference does not equate to defect:

The fundamental difference between Greece and Babylon should not lead to the conclusion that the Babylonian approach was not philosophical or systematic. On the contrary, it was a rigorously disciplined, scientific search for truth.22Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 11–12.

Van De Mieroop goes on to show how the eruption of longer and longer word lists in Babylon cannot be neglected as mere lexica or writing exercises by scribes. Rather, they represent a certain style of philosophizing with which the Hellenistic tradition appears unfamiliar.

Epistemology as displayed in writings on language, the future, and law . . . do not state theories but develop examples on the basis of underlying principles. Their reasoning is pointillistic, cumulatively exploring issues cases by case. . . . They disclose what Babylonians thought about reality; they reveal a Babylonian epistemology.23Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks, 30.

Notice that Van De Mieroop draws a strikingly different conclusion from the textual observations of Thorleif Boman and Johannes Pedersen. The regulative use of concrete instances does not mean that abstraction is absent in their mentality, but rather, that scholars need to bring apt analytical tools to the texts in order to understand how those texts make abstract claims.

Of late, scholars have made a clearer case for how the biblical texts might also be making claims and arguments about the nature of reality or a way of justifying knowledge.24A systematic European analysis of the thought-world and philosophizing of Hebrews goes back at least as far as the 1946 book The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. This work surveys the Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Egyptian intellectual worlds through their respective texts. Henri Frankfort, et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946). Yoram Hazony’s 2012 work—The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture—makes a significant case for the thought-world of ancient Semites expressed in story and oracle.25Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Likewise, Jaco Gericke’s Society of Biblical Literature volume cited above shows how the various instances of a word can reveal concepts that must undergird the term, even if only by fuzzy logic.26Jaco Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion. John Barton notes that these two books—Hazony and Gericke—are part of a trend: “Scholars are beginning to ask more about the rationality of the Hebrew Bible than they once did.”27John Barton, Ethics in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 243. Barton himself also attests to seeing a quasi- or proto-philosophy in the Hebrew Bible:

Ancient Israelite culture had the beginnings—even if faltering at times—of a philosophical mentality, in which people asked what diverse phenomena, such as the many precepts of moral teaching, came down to in the end.28Barton, Ethics in Ancient Israel, 242.

Konrad Schmid prefers to speak of theology in the Hebrew Bible as rarely explicit yet pervasively implicit through the rational project of inner-biblical exegesis in the Bible.29Konrad Schmid, Is There Theology in the Hebrew Bible?, Critical Studies in the Hebrew Bible 4, trans. Peter Altmann (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 115–16. This present work takes Schmid’s—and others such as Fishbane and Hays30Michael A. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985). Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1989).—suggestion seriously. If there is theology (or philosophy) expressed in the biblical texts, a method sensitive to the author’s constructive use of prior texts (i.e., inner-biblical exegesis) must be paramount in discerning a coherent view of knowing as it develops in the Torah and Gospels.

It now seems that the marginalization of Semitic and Mesopotamian texts as un-philosophical is fading.31See, for example: Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” The Opinion Pages (The New York Times), May 11, 2016, This marginalization usually entails the uncritical assumption that the Greek form of philosophy is paradigmatic of the nature of the philosophical task. It’s not that Semites and Babylonians can’t be philosophical, it’s that they cannot be Greeks, a handicap that no longer ought to be considered apropos. Though East Asian philosophies (i.e., Indian and Chinese philosophy) have found their way into the curriculum of most philosophy departments in the West, Southwest Asian, North African and Mesopotamian texts are still relegated to products of divine revelation. Hence, African and Southwest Asian philosophies end up in religion departments and taught primarily as religions.

Is there epistemology in these texts?

As a prima facie answer to the question of knowledge in the biblical narratives, “who knows what and how” appears relevant at every stage of Israelite history. It first appears as the crux of the first story of humanity (Gen 2–3). Knowing YHWH and his relationship to Israel then becomes the conflict to be resolved in the Exodus story (Exod 1–14). The ritualed world created by YHWH often entails performing a rite explicitly in order to know (e.g., Gen 15:8–13; Exod 16:11–12; Lev 23:43; etc.).32I explore the deep connections between ritual and epistemology in Dru Johnson, Knowledge by Ritual. The wisdom literature develops a nuanced distinction between mere recognition and discernment. Jesus’ intense focus on his disciples skips past their moral behavior in order to hone, or more often attempt to hone, their understanding of the secret of the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11; 6:51; 8:17–21). Jeremiah even paints the last days—the eschaton—in the hues and strokes of epistemology, who knows what and how (Jer 31:33–34). It is difficult to escape the robust infusion of epistemically driven storylines and outcomes across the biblical literature.


The form of philosophical criticism I am developing here requires some kind of biblical theological impulse. By biblical theology, I am not referring to a particular movement, but a desire to trace an idea within a text and across texts. The methodology of this work intentionally restricts me to considering instances where knowing is present, persistent, and relevant to the text being analyzed.

First, the presence of a structure to knowing will be considered when it appears both lexically and conceptually. The mere presence of epistemological language (i.e., ידע or γινώσκω) within a pericope does not signify that a passage is concerned with epistemology. For example, Genesis 4 has three punctuated instances of ידע (Gen 4:1, 17, 25), yet all three describe procreative sex with a spouse. Although there is room for a logical connection between knowing and sexual intimacy, Genesis 4 does not explore that connection. I am only interested in texts where both lexical and conceptual epistemic discourse occurs. As it turns out, some of the most structured use of epistemological lexicography will not be ידע or γινώσκω, but שמע (listen), רעה (see), and their Greek equivalents.

Second, beyond presence of the terms and concepts, the biblical authors must persistently pursue the idea in their texts. By this, I mean that the texts evince the persistence of the author when an intentional development of the idea can be discerned. Epistemological concepts are not mere one-off sideshows, but are a matter of concern for the author’s rhetorical strategy.

Third, the epistemological content must have relevance to the central story being told or the instruction at hand. Merely seeing a character in the narrative figure something out as a positive move in the narrative’s rhetoric does not qualify it for investigation. However, when a portion of these texts can demonstrate the presence, persistence, and relevance to the larger story being told, then it crosses the threshold for further analysis to reveal a possible structure of knowing discernible in a text.33Despite the fact that I am not appropriating Fishbane’s work here, my criteria are roughly in the order of his analysis of aggadah and halakah. His three criteria for assessing the strength of inner-biblical exegesis are: 1) introduction by “technical formulae,” 2) comparing parallel texts, and 3) text-critical judgment regarding the re-employment, reorganization, and transposition of the parallel terms. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation, 291. This also bears resemblance to what Hollander is prescribing in his use of “metalepsis.” There is a depth to the interconnection that requires the reader to “transume” unstated material from one referent to the other. John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: University of California, 1981), 133-50.

Demonstrating Epistemology in the Biblical Texts

The specific goal is to demonstrate through philosophical criticism of the biblical literature that epistemology in these texts is concerned with the relationship between hearing (שמע/ἀκουω), seeing (ראה/βλεπω), and knowing (ידע/ἐπιστευω/συνιημι)—for instance.34This list of terms is not exhaustive, but is given here to show the general focus of the exegesis. I will examine the relationship between these terms more closely in the chapter on Mark’s Gospel. In my monograph Epistemology and Biblical Theology, I examine Genesis 2–3 to show that it chronicles an epistemological process. At the fore, I justify whether I am imposing epistemology or if knowledge is a concern present within Genesis 2–3. First, the emic lexical patterns and narratival tensions of the texts suggest an epistemological resolution. Second, asking etic philosophical questions of a text is not methodologically out of sorts with exegetical practice, but it does run the risk of asking the wrong questions of the text. For instance, it is difficult for the exegete to ask simple questions such as, “What is at stake in this story” and circumscribe the answers of that question—in advance—to a non-philosophical category. Merely asking what is at stake presupposes an ethical realm within which causal connectives of the narrative can reconcile and evince. So exegesis does not shy from asking philosophical questions, but is careful to ask philosophically relevant questions. So we proceed with an awareness of the types of questions appropriate to ask of the text and its ability to answer.35Some have even argued for the increase in philosophical questioning of texts in order to avoid the death of biblical theology itself. However, the concern for this present work is to avoid inappropriate questions of the texts, not necessarily to avoid the “death of biblical theology” itself. Christine Helmer, “Biblical Theology: Bridge over Many Waters,” Currents in Biblical Research 3, no. 2 (2005): 169.

I also employ a spate of twentieth-century philosophers to explain epistemological notions in the biblical texts—claiming all the while that these ideas are emic to the texts. I want to advise that I am inviting on a cluster of philosophers to participate in this exegesis (i.e., Marjorie Grene, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Taylor, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michael Polanyi, among others). Of these, I most readily employ Michael Polanyi’s epistemological categories for examining these texts and the reason for this is manifold. First, his epistemology is scientific and so it has a broader appeal than strictly analytic modes of epistemological analysis. Second, and as evidence of the first point, Polanyi accredits the body as central to the task of epistemology. This helps me to account for the many instances of knowing that go well beyond articulable propositions and through the body. Third, knowing does not appear to be constrained by discrete epistemic events, but a process through which one acquires the knack or skill of knowing. Within this epistemological process, discrete statements of knowledge can be formulated and confessed. Some like to call these statements “sentential propositions,” but I will avoid such a reduction of rich epistemic understanding to a singular primitive statement of propositional fact.

From that analysis of Genesis 2–3, it appears that the epistemological description from the Eden narrative36For an argument that Genesis 1–4 is the introduction to the theology of the OT, see: Brian Toews, “Genesis 1-4: The Genesis of Old Testament Instruction,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002),38-52; William Dumbrell, “Genesis 2:1-17: A Foreshadowing of the New Creation,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, 656–82. creates reverberations for the reader that continue into Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.37This bears some superficial similarity with aggadah in the sense that Fishbane defines it. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. I hope to demonstrate more specifically, both diachronically and synchronically,38Henning Graf Reventlow, “Basic Problems in Old Testament Theology,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11 (1979): 2-22, especially 14. that Brueggemann among others has perhaps overlooked some of these intertextual links when he maintains that Genesis 2­–3 is an “exceedingly marginal text” without “clear substantive references” in the remainder of the Hebrew Bible.39Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1982), 41. Genesis 2–3 will be shown to be a text that resonates powerfully in the Pentateuch, evinced by showing how other Pentateuchal texts share the themes and lexical connections with it. If Fishbane is correct in saying, “myth is kept alive by its uses and reuses, as it moves from context to context and serves different cultural or individual needs,” then the question becomes: Why and how is the story of Genesis 2–3 “kept alive” in the mind of those reading the Pentateuch?40Michael A. Fishbane, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.

Discerning resemblances between texts

Because studying Hebraic thought is focused on tracing a single construct through variegated texts, I must notice how later texts (in canonical order) employ or echo earlier texts. I will follow the Pentateuch and then Mark as a reader of the canon, observing how these stories unfold before the reader, and build up to the climax of interconnections in Deuteronomy. Then, I examine how Mark employs the Deuteronomic descriptions of epistemic errors, even preferring the Deuteronomic language of the Sinai narrative to the Exodus version in its allusions at the Transfiguration (Mark 9).

At times, similarity between texts is unmistakable (cf. Deut 29:3 [MT]; Isa 6:9-10). But most instances fall into the realm of echo-like intertextual links.41By intertextual, I do not intend to enter the formal world of literary intertextuality (e.g., Kristeva’s and Bahktin’s intertextuality). I only mean that there are conceptual and lexical links between these texts that indicate intentional authorial employment of one text in another. An example would help to demonstrate intertextual connections that may create theological questions. In chapter four, I will argue that Deuteronomy’s list of items forbidden to be made into idols goes beyond mere lexical correspondence (Deut 4:15-19). The list appears to reflect almost directly the things created in Genesis 1. Further, the lexical connections are unique between Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 4—male and female, winged birds, and creeping things only appear together in two places in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 4.42They are not identical. See Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “monotheism,” Forschungen Zum Alten Testament 2.Reihe (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 197. But it is the rhetorical role of their mention in Deuteronomy 4, without any direct mention of creation, that signals a possible rhetorical link to the creation account in Genesis.

The conspicuity of the created items of Genesis 1 found in Deuteronomy 4 leads some commentators to surmise that the creation event (Gen 1) is intended to be reflective of the rhetoric of forbidding idolatry (Deut 4). I might even argue that Deuteronomy 4 is a rhetorical allusion to Genesis’s creation á la intertextual play, meaning that the notion of worship to YHWH, an idea absent in Genesis 1, is transumed by the reader to YHWH’s role as Creator, an unstated notion in Deuteronomy 4. (In literary terms, this type of intertextual play is called metalepsis.43This transumption or conversion of the prior material in a literary device called “metalepsis” is what ultimately reveals the depth of the allusion amongst the new material. Hollander, The Figure of Echo, 115-6. Richard Hays defines “metalepsis”: “When a literary echo links the text in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed (transumed) points of resonance between the two texts.” Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 20.) This understanding, of course, presumes that those who read/heard Deuteronomy 4 had “ears to hear the echoes and construe their significance” from Genesis 1.44Hays, Echoes, 25.

Following the story

Employing the methodological pluralism described above, the motif of epistemological process emerges: What one can “see” and then “know/understand” is dependent on to whom one “listens.” The texts center their foci on ensuring that Israel is “listening to the voice of” the authentic authority in order to know correctly.

The reasons for limiting my study in Epistemology and Biblical Theology to the Pentateuch and Mark were two-fold. First is the issue of constraint. In the effort to maintain a coherent thesis that manages to do minimally faithful exegesis of the texts, primary texts must be given priority, especially if they might be the lens through which to view other texts in the Hebrew Bible and NT. Second, the Pentateuch and Gospel stories are central narratives of Israel’s canon and the NT church’s canon respectively. And while the narratives are not properly theology or epistemology, as Barr contends, they are the “raw material for theology.”45James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (London: S.C.M., 1999), 354.

Because my focus was upon the possibility of a consistent epistemological process from the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel, I read the Pentateuch in a way that is consistent with a Markan author and audience. In this sense, I assume some type of canonical reading, but for the purpose of seeing how Mark might be utilizing Pentateuchal language and themes. I, therefore, approach the text at the level of its literary form, noticing the canonical movement that sets these stories in a particular order. I will follow the narratival inertia as a literary reader of the Pentateuch and Mark.

Certainly this sounds like a biblical theology of sorts, and that it is. But I must clarify what I am and am not attempting. First, I am not endeavoring to see the epistemological process as necessarily bound to a single biblical theological approach: salvation-history,46E.g., Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 volumes, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965); Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996); George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959). promise-fulfillment,47E.g., Brevard Childs, “Prophecy and Fulfillment,” Interpretation 12 (1958): 257–71; Roland E. Murphy, “The Relationship Between the Testaments,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26, no. 3 (July 1964): 349-359; Claus Westermann, The Old Testament and Jesus Christ (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1970); Walther Zimmerli, “Promise and Fulfillment,” in Essays on Old Testament Interpretation, ed. Claus Westermann (London: S. C. M. Press, 1963). typology,48E.g., Walther Eichrodt, “Is Typological Exegesis an Appropriate Method?” in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann (London: S.C.M. Press, 1963); Leonhard Goppelt, Typos, the Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New, trans. Donald H. Madvig (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982). or covenant theology.49E.g., Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006); Cornelius Van Til, “Covenant Theology,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1955); Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006); O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987). This study evinces affinity with the covenantal approach to biblical theology inasmuch as the garden story is read as covenantal50See William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenantal Theology (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1984); “Genesis 2:1-17: A Foreshadowing of the New Creation” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 53–65. and at least one goal of covenant aims at knowing. But even then, I want to consider a mere continuity of rhetoric and narrative retelling, the story of knowing told in Genesis 2-3 is re-told to the reader over and again.51This approach is commensurate with Nicholas Perrin’s solution to the polarities of traditional biblical theologies and Bakhtin’s social matrix of language meaning at the nexus of external reality. If biblical unity can be resolved, then disparate texts can speak univocally, even if approximately, of similar constructs. “Dialogic Conceptions of Language and the Problem of Biblical Unity,” in The Practice and Promise of Biblical Theology, ed. John Reumann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), 252-4. This “dialogic nature of language” allows us to be co-readers of the biblical texts just as first-century Palestinian Jews saw themselves as co-readers of the Hebrew Bible. See also, Craig Bartholomew, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series 5, eds. Craig Bartholomew et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004). Methodologically, I recognize that “The possibility of biblical theology remains, even for its own practitioners, a very precarious thing …”52Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, 229. Hence, Watson’s call to lower the “lines of demarcation” between biblical studies and systematic theology53Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 1-29. See also Dorman’s critique of the Barthian aspects of Watson’s proposal that go unstated: Ted M. Dorman, “The Future of Biblical Theology,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). guides this study. Similarly, F. F. Bruce warns:

This is not to say that the tracing of patterns is illegitimate, but that it should not be pressed beyond the plain sense of the biblical narrative and language. It is better to think of recurring patterns of divine action and human response … all the more so because such recurring patterns were recognized by the biblical authors themselves, in both Testaments. 54Even so, F. F. Bruce spares the theme of “prophet” from his major themes continuous from the OT to the NT. This is That: The New Testament Development of Some Old Testament Themes (Exeter: Paternoster, 1968), 14.

In short, due to the resemblance of Genesis 2–3, both in the theology and narratives of Israel’s canon, I work from the beginning of the Pentateuch forward. But I am not bound to a particular school of biblical theology. In this manner, I follow this epistemological process through the narratives rather than make theological statements about individual passages.55As R.R. Reno warns: “Drawing theological conclusions is not the same as offering theological exegesis.” “Biblical Theology and Theological Exegesis” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, 393.

Subscribe now to receive periodic updates from the CHT.