Tracing the Judaeo-Israelite Origins of Metaphysics
The impact of the ancient Near East (particularly Israel) upon our western civilization has been enormously underestimated, with practically all the glory – except in religion – going to the Greeks and the Romans.
It is typical for us to read in the context of our western upbringing and education, in favour of Greco-Roman philosophy , politics and literature, statements such as:
“Our European civilization rests upon two pillars: Judeo Christian revelation, its religious pillar, and Greco-Roman thought, its philosophical and political pillar” .
“The Iliad is the first and the greatest literary achievement of Greek civilization – an epic poem without rival in the literature of the world, and the cornerstone of Western culture“ .
“Virgil’s Aeneid, inspired by Homer and inspiration for Dante and Milton, is an immortal poem at the heart of Western life and culture” .
Nor do we, even as followers of Jesus, tend to experience any discomfort in the face of the above claims. After all, Jesus only said “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22); not philosophy, not literature, not politics.
But is not “salvation” also wholly civilizing?
Yes, it most certainly is. And it will be the purpose of this article to show that philosophy and other cultural benefits are also essentially from the Jews , and that the Greeks, Romans and others appropriated these Jewish-laid cornerstones of civilization, claiming them as their own, but generally corrupting them. Let us start with philosophy.
The typical textbook introductions to philosophy begin with an explanation of the meaning of the term, “philosophy”, and introduce us to the first philosopher. These are all purely Greek based. The word “philosophy” first used by Pythagoras, thought to be an Ionian Greek from Samos, is a Greek word meaning “love of wisdom”; with sophia “wisdom”, originally having a broad meaning and referring to the cultivation of learning in general.
And the first philosopher?
Well, he also is said to be Greek : “The first philosopher on record is a man called Thales. Thales lived at the beginning of the sixth century B.C., at Miletus, a Greek colony on the coast of Asia Minor”. Unfortunately there is a complete “absence of primary sources” for Thales who “left no written documents” . And this is where the problem lies. The real existence of Thales as an Ionian Greek of the C6th BC is wide open to doubt.
To Thales is attributed a prediction in astronomy that was quite impossible for an Ionian Greek – or anyone else – to have estimated so precisely in the C6th BC. He is said to have predicted a solar eclipse that occurred on 28 May 585 BC during a battle between Cyaxares the Mede and Alyattes of Lydia . This supposed incident has an especial appeal to the modern rationalist mind because it – thought to have been achieved by a Greek, and ‘marking the birthday of western science’ – was therefore a triumph of the rational over the religious. According to Glouberman, for instance, it was “… a Hellenic Götterdämerung, the demise of an earlier mode of thought” . Oh really? Well, it never actually happened. O. Neugebauer , astronomer and orientalist, has completely knocked on the head any idea that Thales could possibly have foretold such an eclipse.
Other, lesser known Greek thinkers, include: (1) Anaximander (ca. 611-547 BC) and apparently known only from the writings of Diodorus (late 1st cent. BC). Anax. is said to have held the view that man derived from aquatic, fish-like mermen,; (2) Empedocles (ca. 490-430) according to Aristotle’s writings (??), is said to have believed in the spontaneous generation of life, an idea also held by the Roman Lucretius (96?-55 BC). We see how far back such incredulous ideas reach. That is why the historian Herbert Butterfield said, that the science of the Middle Ages and Renaissance had as its basis the `knowledge’ and ideas of the ancient Greeks who were steeped in superstitions. That is also why we discover that, if the Greeks did not mention a particular subject or discuss a specific proble, the Renaissance as a rule did not think about it. Going back to Thales, we need to reconsider who this Thales really was, presuming that he ever existed at all.
Ironically, the clue to Thales’ identity lies in Glouberman’s own title “Jacob’s Ladder …”, and in his contrast of Thales’ scientific method with Joseph’s supposedly ‘magical’ one : “… Thales forecast the bumper crop by observing climatic regularities, not by interpreting dreams of lean kine and fat…”. Here we have Thales, not in Ionia, but in Egypt, doing, in Egypt, what Joseph is said to have done there, predicting the rise of the Nile – at least that is what would have been necessary in Egypt for the exceptionally good crop that Joseph had predicted (Genesis 41:29).
- Thales is simply a Greek retrospection back more than a millennium to the patriarch Joseph of Israel, not Ionia.
- The tiny little snippets of information that we have about Thales, vague Greek reminiscences of the biblical Joseph, can be matched with episodes in the life of Joseph.
- Apart from the incidents pertaining to Egypt (see also below), there is the classical episode of the young Thales, as the archetypal absent-minded professor, falling into a well whilst observing the stars.
- This is simply a corrupted account of the young Joseph whose brothers confined him in a well because of his annoying habit of dreaming, astronomically, to their humiliation – in this case dreaming that these brothers were “stars” bowing down in homage to him (Genesis 37:9,10).
- The biblical original probably became corrupted firstly by the local Canaanites – examples of this sort of corruption of the Bible are prolific at the site of Ugarit, for example, on the Levantine coast – and were later shipped to the Greeks by the Phoenicians (including sea-faring Israelites), or picked up by Aegean sailors.
One can see how the Greeks distorted Joseph in their character, Thales, though the original Genesis thread can still be picked up: thus,
– a young man – a dreamer – in a well – stars, and: forecasting in Egypt – the Nile – bumper crops.