What’s Divine about Divine Law? Ear­ly Perspectives

Chris­tine Hayes
  • From the Publisher
December 17, 2015

In the thou­sand years before the rise of Islam, two rad­i­cal­ly diverse con­cep­tions of what it means to say that a law is divine con­front­ed one anoth­er with a force that rever­ber­ates to the present. What’s Divine about Divine Law? untan­gles the clas­si­cal and bib­li­cal roots of the West­ern idea of divine law and shows how ear­ly adher­ents to bib­li­cal tra­di­tion – Hel­lenis­tic Jew­ish writ­ers such as Phi­lo, the com­mu­ni­ty at Qum­ran, Paul, and the tal­mu­dic rab­bis – strug­gled to make sense of this con­flict­ing legacy.

Chris­tine Hayes shows that for the ancient Greeks, divine law was divine by virtue of its inher­ent qual­i­ties of intrin­sic ratio­nal­i­ty, truth, uni­ver­sal­i­ty, and immutabil­i­ty, while for the bib­li­cal authors, divine law was divine because it was ground­ed in rev­e­la­tion with no pre­sump­tion of ratio­nal­i­ty, con­for­mi­ty to truth, uni­ver­sal­i­ty, or immutabil­i­ty. Hayes describes the col­li­sion of these oppos­ing con­cep­tions in the Hel­lenis­tic peri­od, and details com­pet­ing attempts to resolve the result­ing cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. She shows how Sec­ond Tem­ple and Hel­lenis­tic Jew­ish writ­ers, from the author of 1 Enoch to Phi­lo of Alexan­dria, were engaged in a com­mon project of bridg­ing the gulf between clas­si­cal and bib­li­cal notions of divine law, while Paul, in his let­ters to the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church, sought to widen it. Hayes then delves into the lit­er­a­ture of clas­si­cal rab­binic Judaism to reveal how the tal­mu­dic rab­bis took a third and scan­dalous path, insist­ing on a con­struc­tion of divine law inten­tion­al­ly at odds with the Gre­co-Roman and Pauline con­cep­tions that would come to dom­i­nate the Chris­tian­ized West.

A stun­ning achieve­ment in intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, What’s Divine about Divine Law? sheds crit­i­cal light on an ancient debate that would shape foun­da­tion­al West­ern thought, and that con­tin­ues to inform con­tem­po­rary views about the nature and pur­pose of law and the nature and author­i­ty of Scripture.

Discussion Questions