In Christian circles, children learn from an early age the song, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Setting the issue of Jesus aside for the moment, it strikes me that early Jews and contemporary Christians have very different epistemologies. What do I mean? I don’t think that “for the Bible tells me so” was the kind of explanation that would have satisfied the curiosity of early Jewish children or adults.
If you have read my recent article in the The Journal of Theological Studies (see here), you will have noticed my interest in the rationales that are embedded in over half of the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible. However, I was not aware that this was a significant area of study for early post-biblical traditions. I am thankful to have discovered Lawrence Schiffman’s blog where he recently posted a series on the rationales for the commandments (ta`amei ha-mitzvot) in Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his conclusion to this series, Schiffman summarily observes that “seeking explanatory rationales for the commandments as a consistent approach and fostering the conception that such rationales can, in fact, be offered for almost all the commandments, is a product of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple period.” This coincides with my own conviction that a strict divine command theory is not the proper way to interpret the function of obedience to God in the Hebrew Bible. My argument is based on how the text of Scripture presents itself, but Shiffman’s discussion suggests that early Jewish audiences were similarly (and increasingly?) in tune with the Torah’s own rationalizing tendencies.