"I AM"

Monotheism and the Philosophy of the Bible

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Mark Glouberman
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto
    , November
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781487503406.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mark Glouberman takes the reader of “I AM”: Monotheism and the Philosophy of the Bible on a whirlwind ride through a dissection of certain passages of the Hebrew Bible and viewpoints that the text can be compared to Greek philosophy. The similarity that Glouberman sees between the structure of traditional philosophy and the early biblical stories is the crux of “I AM.” While not completely unfounded, this emphasis may be frustrating for a biblical scholar, archaeologist, or historian, as other important aspects of biblical studies are either minimized or disregarded completely. One example can be found in the conclusion of the book, which states “[i]t does not surprise me that the first account of the creation [Genesis 1] has clear correlates in Greek cosmogony and in early Greek philosophy” (200). While one may say “fair enough” to this statement, Glouberman inexplicitly chose to ignore the massive amount of scholarship on the relationship between Genesis 1 and Mesopotamian myths. Similar oversights are repeated throughout the text.

A foundational principle of “I AM” revolves around the idea that in the Hebrew Bible men and women are particulars, which makes them wholly separate from all the rest of the species created—which are collections—mere parts of nature. For Glouberman, the driving force behind this separation lies in the differences between the two accounts of creation in Genesis chapter 1 and 2. Almost completely disregarding the generally accepted scholarship that there were, most likely, separate sources for these two chapters—and the cultural context behind either of them—Glouberman spends most of the book driving this point home. In Genesis 1, humankind, although dominant and in God’s likeness, is merely a species while in Genesis 2, God creates a particular man and a particular woman and breathes life—and individualism—into them. This particularity also applies to God as well. Creating a distinction between the non-personal, nature-based pagan deities and Himself, particular and non-natural, God emphatically states, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).

The book’s jacket cover asks the question, “[f]or whom was the Hebrew Bible written?” Experts do not know the range of literacy in ancient Israel, nor do they know the distribution of biblical texts; therefore, we cannot know the full extent of the intended audience. However, it is safe to say that, generally, the text was written for some portion of the ancient Israelite people, as the text was written almost entirely in Hebrew—a few passages are written in Aramaic—and contains histories and prophecies of the ancient Israelites, along with their religious ideals and rules. This would appear not to be the case, or at least not as important, in the eyes of Glouberman. Despite being the first line of the jacket cover, this question is only peripherally covered, and this treatise does not contain any discussion about the ancient Israelite culture, history, language, or cultural context within the ancient Near Eastern world.

The second question that the jacket asks is “[h]ow much truth does it contain?” For those wishing to delve into a serious inquiry of theology, comparative religions, the nature of truth, or most other academic, philosophical, or spiritual discourses which this question may coax forth, they may be disappointed with the sterile answer that Glouberman puts forth. In their view, the Bible is philosophical, and therefore, should not be dismissed, even if the religious aspects are (and should be, in their estimation) thrown out. Glouberman makes the claim that, “[t]he Bible is a philosophical work” (41). This is, indeed, a fair statement to make; however, the statement could be more accurately revised to “[t]he Bible is also a philosophical book.” The Bible is clearly mythology-by-definition, as well as a religious and cultural rulebook, and a history—whether accurate or not. For Glouberman, that a philosophy can be pulled out is enough to end this conversation about truth.

Other discussions in this book, while thought provoking, are viewed from a narrow perspective. One example would be Glouberman’s discussion of the Ten Commandments. These discussions assert that, although other pagan religions had rules similar to the Ten Commandments, they carried “the force of our rules of etiquette” (85). Such an opinion is based on the First Commandment, placing God before all other deities. Unfortunately, this is unsubstantiated, and not supported by any academic research on the efficacy or seriousness of other culture’s rules. Similar unsubstantiated, personal opinions—although perhaps philosophically interesting—are weaved throughout the book. For example, “[p]aganism is not theistic. Theism views deities as persons—as having our psychic make-up and personality structure” (88). The vast trove of mythological accounts from across the globe would seem to contradict this idea, as many gods and goddesses are individualistic and psychologically anthropomorphic.

To summarize, “I AM” is a book that may be of interest to certain philosophers, but not to scholars of religion or the ancient Hebrews. This book contains threads of Greek philosophy, the Holocaust, Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Peter Frederick Strawson, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and the like. However, readers will not find anything about ancient Near Eastern mythology, archaeology, biblical Hebrew, or cultural context. In his conclusion, Glouberman boldly claims that Western religion has radically misunderstood the Bible as a religious text. It takes the supposition of biblical philosophy—as understood through Western thinking—to the ultimate extent, and seems to argue for the removal of all other biblical facets, both religious and cultural.

 

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

April Lynn Downey is an independent researcher with a graduate degree in Ancient Biblical Civilizations.  She is also the author of the website Journal of Tales: www.aprildowney.blogspot.com.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Glouberman is Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Comments

Mark Glouberman, author, "I AM" Monotheism and the Philosophy of the Bible

A response to April Lynn Downey’s review of “I AM”: Monotheism and the Philosophy of the Bible

Thanks to April Lynn Downey for taking on the task of reviewing the book. I’m grateful to Kimberley Davis, Senior Editor of Reading Religion, for inviting response.

For starters, a distillation of the book’s argument:

The Bible (the reference is to the Hebrew Scriptures) is a work of philosophy. The philosophers of the Bible come forward to apprise the world of a category of being, the category of the particular, that had thitherto been missed, and that Greek-based philosophy continues to miss. The chapters and the verses identify the category and work out the implications for, especially, the self-understanding, and hence the lives, of men and women. Although the Bible certainly has many of the marks of a religious text, those whose intellectual efforts it records are not religiously motivated. The character called “God” is a device that they use to advance the category. “God differs from the other gods” means that the category is irreducible; “God is to be worshipped” means that the way things are can’t be articulated without it. “Why,” it will be asked, “do the thinkers behind the Bible speak of a principle of reality as if it were the principal reality?” In order to be heard, they formulate their position in the terms used by their opponents. “You need,” they’re saying to the members of their target audience, ‘to put God before Zeus (or Marduk or Amun-Ra).”

Exciting though this sounds, it’s unlikely that anyone introduced to the book through the review will take an independent look at it. Not only does Downey make “I AM” sound dreary, she also represents it, qua book on the Bible, as deficient in its scholarship. (See the review’s final paragraph. I don’t even rate the faint praise of “the book will/might be of interest to some.”) This is, as you’d expect the author to say, a pity. Not to be lumped with the criminals caught red-handed who, at trial, vociferously proclaim their innocence, I’ll offer a defense.

The reviewer is a Bible-scholar, not a philosopher. The book is however a piece of philosophy with an unusual subject, not an essay in Bible criticism. And, as I’ll now explain, Bible criticism needs to adjust itself to the book, not the other way around.

There is nothing per se wrong with the reviewer’s mentioning the documentary hypothesis (DH). I mention it myself. As a hypothesis about how the Bible was fashioned, I believe DH to be correct. Proponents of DH often hold, however, that because of the fact that the sources of the text are various, produced in the Israelite world at different times, by different hands, under different pressures, the product lacks a unitary meaning. That I reject. I supply a unified reading of the Bible’s major parts. How then does DH bear on the book’s thesis? It doesn’t.

Revealingly, Downey doesn’t even try to offer a substantive criticism of my readings based on the findings of source analysis. If the Bible has a unitary meaning, such criticism couldn’t be offered. If a quilt is put together with a specific idea in mind, it does not matter that a quilt is fashioned from pieces and patches taken from here and from there. The idea that guides the Bible’s quilters is the philosophical one adumbrated above. So “thinkers behind the Bible” is a proper phrase. (The plural is negotiable.) The reference is not to the authors of the source materials, but to those who fashioned the whole.

I’ll pose for the reviewer a question that DH-ers seem – astonishingly – never to ask. Is it reasonable to believe that whoever put the Bible together left material behind? If it is (and obviously it is), then it’s reasonable to assume that a principle of selection guides the process. My reading gives that principle. It’s the centrality of the category.

The reviewer quotes from the book’s blurb. “For whom was the Bible written?” She takes issue with my answer. Here, I admit my guilt. The formulation, which I wrote, misleads her. The question I’m asking is not “For whom was the Bible written?” It’s “For whom is the Bible written?” It could be that Euclid’s Elements was written for practical people: navigators, builders. But it is written to spell out the principles of geometry. The Bible was written, I believe, for the men and women of Judea at the time that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. It responds to a need that the de-creating Hurban created. Certainly, it shows clear marks of this in placing the story of the liberation from Egyptian bondage at the narrative center. The people exiled to Babylon badly needed uplift of this sort lest they make an even dozen of the ten lost tribes. “Doesn’t this mean, contrary to the book’s thesis, that the exodus has no philosophical meaning?” It doesn’t. As I explain, the story to convey the meaning was a story that had the capacity to assist the dispirited people. That, I would therefore infer, is why it was used. But it’s not why it is used. If it didn’t have the capacity (also) to advance the philosophical argument, it would have been left on the cutting room floor.

The Bible was written for those people. But it is written to codify the philosophical position that the people of the Bible discovered, that, given the events, might otherwise get lost if the way of life, which gave the truths practical expression (e.g. in sabbath observance) were lost. The discovery of God is, I repeat, the discovery of the new principle of particularity.

Suppose that the only (or main) reason the Bible was written was to buoy up the group, which (so far as the leaders knew then) would remain dispersed. Why not give up the enterprise? Not everything is worth preserving. The answer is that there was a truth that needed to be preserved; a truth about how things, in the largest sense of the world, hang together, in the largest sense of the word. It needed to be preserved whether or not the nation survived.

As to the philosophy: it is anti-pagan. Philosophy as handed down from Greece is (as I explain) influenced by its pagan origins. The Bible’s philosophy is therefore anti-Greek. Aristotle wrote The Categories. The Bible amounts to a critique of the Greek categorization. In theological vestments: the Greeks worshipped some other god. Better: Greek-style thinkers violate the commandment of commandments.

To understand the commandment of commandments – “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me” – you’ve got to stress the pronouns. The deity of the Bible is the god of you and of me and of him and of her. The biblical deity, that is to say, is not the god of extra-human things. The panel of Genesis that makes this plain is the second creation story, which has God breathing life into (what is then) the first man. This means that the category of the particular is actualized by individual men and individual women and by nothing else. So the commandment means: “God is the god of each of us; Zeus, say, is the god of other things.” Why God? Because you cannot get particularity out of generality.

Central to my reading is the contrast between the two creation stories. The first is a pagan story, and applies to the natural, realm. The second applies to men and women, who have of them, qua particulars, something that nature, which is a system, lacks. This integrated reading puts paid to the supposed anti-interpretive implications of DH, and is key to the Bible as a whole.

The reviewer complains here that the origin stories of the surrounding cultures have been studied, and that I scant the findings. But I argue that the thinkers behind the Bible incorporate the essentials of that story (which of course involves no deity like the biblical one), and de-mythologise and technologize it. God is said to create the natural world not because the thinkers believe that God did this. They do so because God presides over the Bible as a whole. ‘God created the natural world’ is like ‘Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armanda.’ (Maimonides advances the view that the real position of those behind the Bible is that the natural world is uncreated, and that ex nihilo is there for the masses. So they come forward masked. I agree that they hold the natural world’s eternity – Aristotle’s view – to be the most plausible way of looking at it. But for me there is nothing roundabout about their presentation. If the text is read carefully, the thinkers, as I show, can be seen to advance the eternity option pretty straightforwardly.)

The reviewer states that God, in my view, is a particular. That, without qualification, is sure to mislead. It’s like stating that Wittgenstein’s principle of family resemblance is a family resemblance. The Bible does not teach existential commitment to a deity named “God.” As I said, God in the narrative is a device.

The reviewer uses “whirlwind” to characterise the author’s presentation. She forgets, apparently, that God answered Job from out a whirlwind. Or perhaps she’s being sarcastic. Be the case as may be, I have two responses. One: the book is tightly structured. Like Euclid in his Elements. I first set out the basics; then I discuss the implications. What’s whirlwindy about this? Two: a chapter, which the reviewer seems not to have read, is devoted to God’s answer from out the whirlwind to Job. I reconstitute the answer in terms of the philosophy, thereby overcoming the sense that God is pulling rank. Once again, the thesis about the Bible’s character proves its worth.

I hope that these remarks lead readers to take a look at the book. If “I AM” is right, the implications are momentous. Western religion rests on a misunderstanding. Western philosophers need to learn some Hebrew.

Email: mark.glouberman@kpu.ca

April Lynn Downey

Thank you to Dr. Glouberman for providing a thoughtful response to my review. I feel as though their clarifications on some issues are helpful, in particular the distillation of the book given in italics at the beginning. That overview would make for a good book jacket.  

While Dr. Glouberman’s response does clarify his point of view in some areas – especially his remarks about the Documentary Hypothesis – I am still finding confusion in some of the arguments. For example, in the above comments they say, “The Bible’s philosophy is therefore anti-Greek. Aristotle wrote The Categories. The Bible amounts to a critique of the Greek categorization.” However, Aristotle wrote a long time after the Bible was written. The Bible could not have been the critique of a philosophy that had not yet been crafted and would not have been for another few hundred years.  Perhaps Aristotle was anti-Israelite and provided a critique of Near Eastern organization?  I feel this is the crux of the dissension between Dr. Glouberman and myself. The cultural context and the history of the Israelites in “I AM” is overlooked for the sake of comparing the Bible to Greek philosophy. I do agree with Glouberman’s assertion that the Bible does have a philosophy, but I cannot overlook the facts of chronology and the staggering importance of the culture in which it was written. The Bible contains the philosophy of an ancient Israelite religion and the philosophy of the redactor which produced the final edit. Some of this academic disagreement will not be resolved and we will have to respectfully agree to disagree, which is a beautiful thing in academia. There is always something to be learned in opposing point of views.

However, I would like to address the question about my use of the term “whirlwind”. This was not meant sarcastically or as a reference to the whirlwind in Job. I used this word to try to describe in a neutral way that widely differing topics and subjects were physically weaved very close together. There were numerous places throughout the whole book which contained several differing topics on one individual page; for me this felt crowded and a bit hard to focus on each topic. This may be an enjoyable whirlwind for some and for others not so much. It is up to the reader to decide if that is the style they would welcome.

I appreciate having the opportunity to read and review this book and I wish Dr. Glouberman all the best in his future endeavors.

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