Share

Aristotle and the Jews

The year is still 920 AD and we meet one of those responsible for the infiltration of the writings of Aristotle into medieval thought. His name is David al-Mokammez and he was part of a process that started in the 8th Century, instigated by the Moslem rulers, for multi-lingual Jews to rescue the writings of the Ancient Greeks by translating them from the "lost" Greek language into Arabic and eventually into Hebrew. Among this material was that of Aristotle, who al-Mokammez named "the philosopher", a sign of the esteem in which he held him.

As a result of all this, learned Jews were not just those who were great religious scholars of the Torah and the Talmud, but now started to excel in the more "Greek" pursuits of astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and science. They were no longer driven just by a "Hebraic" zeal for God and all His ways, but a very "Greek" thirst for understanding of the World around them and what makes it tick. The teachings of Aristotle had opened up this "Pandora's box", so to speak and it has remained open ever since.

Another living at that time was Saadia Ben Joseph, who was said to be the first Jew to seriously tackle the secular fields of science and philosophy, despite also writing many Bible commentaries, Hebrew dictionaries and Jewish liturgies. He could be said to be a bridge between the two worlds, in much the same way as Philo of Alexandria who, at the time of Christ, attempted to bridge the Greek and Hebrew mindsets in his commentaries on the Old Testament. Just as Philo was Plato's willing Jewish lapdog, Ben Joseph performed the same function for Aristotle, adopting the principle that Bible interpretation must not contradict human reason.

Enough already about Aristotle; so what exactly did he teach? Good question but not so easy to answer, as he taught so much. Plato's core teaching of dualism can be grasped quite easily in the formula: spirit = good, physical = bad. Not so Aristotle. There are no simple formulae, so it's best to rephrase the question. What was so attractive about Aristotle's teaching for the Jews living under Muslim rule in the 10th Century?

This is best answered by looking at the Jewish philosopher who became Aristotle's greatest champion. This was Abraham Ibn Daud, who lived in Toledo, Spain about a century after Saadia Ben Joseph. He was considered the first Jewish philosopher, rather than a philosopher who just happened to be Jewish. This is an important distinction. Let's say he was the first Jew with stated profession of "philosopher" on his passport.

Ibn Daud saw philosophy explaining certain matters that Scripture was silent about. He was bothered when Rabbis failed to agree about issues such as free will and just saw philosophy as a new tool in the armoury of interpretation, making use of human reason alongside divine revelation. In his book, The Exalted Faith, he first introduces Aristotle to his Jewish audience, covering natural science and the order of the universe, then seeks to interpret Judaism in the light of this new knowledge. So, using Aristotle to examine the basic principles of the nature of being (ontology), physics, theology and astronomy, he tackles five basic principles of Judaism, namely: the source of faith, the oneness of God, divine attributes, God's actions, and prophecy. After examining each with the tools of philosophy, Ibn Daud found Scriptures to back up his findings, in such a way as to affirm his use of Aristotle in Bible interpretation.

So Ibn Daud was using the philosophy of Aristotle to tear God apart and see what is inside. No longer was faith and trust sufficient for the restless mind, even God himself was not beyond the disciplines of logical scientific analysis. This view is a long way from the simple faith of their forefathers Abraham and Moses.

Steve Maltz
September 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth)

You may also like...

How do we read the Bible?  More

How balanced has the Church been?  More

How can the Church return to the original model?  More

How do we get the Church back to how it once was? More