Tanakh Epistemology?

Differing assumptions about knowledge characterize different forms of thought: the modern West assumes that modern science produces culturally authoritative knowledge, whereas the ancient eastern Tanakh does not.

See Also: Tanakh Epistemology: Knowledge and Power, Religious and Secular (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Douglas Yoder
Los Angeles, CA
April 2020

First of all, why “Tanakh”? Why not “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible”? Tanakh is an acronym formed from the Hebrew terms for the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nabi’im), and the Writings (Ketubim). The word is often used in Judaism and suggests a Jewish reading of the text. But I’m not Jewish, so why call it the Tanakh? There’s a short answer to this question – it’s the most neutral, accurate, and concise way of referring to the Hebrew-Aramaic textual corpus in terms of the corpus – and a longer response relating to the study of its epistemology.

            But “epistemology,” words (Greek logoi) about knowledge (episteme), names a principle area of inquiry for philosophy ever since Plato, who knew nothing of the Tanakh. What does an ancient, mostly Hebrew text have to do with the Greek analysis of knowledge that informs modern critical thought? The Tanakh is read by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and secular critics with a view toward its interpretation, not epistemology. Why study epistemology in the Tanakh?

            For one thing, knowledge is a conceptual fundamental that shapes human views of the world. Every culture has a term for “know,” and wherever humans live, if they know nothing (where are food and water?), they will not live for long. Differing assumptions about knowledge characterize different forms of thought: the modern West assumes that modern science produces culturally authoritative knowledge, whereas the ancient eastern Tanakh does not. So what about knowledge does it assume? An answer to this question will give readers of the Tanakh powerful tools to understand what sets this literature conceptually apart from and relates it to modern and postmodern thought.

            Religious readers of the Tanakh who treat it as a source of belief will want to understand how this text views knowledge, which undergirds belief. Secular readers aware of the way the Old Testament was included in the premodern expression of religion against which secular theories of knowledge react will want to understand Tanakh epistemology, to better appreciate secular thought. Religious and secular readers of the Tanakh each have reasons to investigate its approach to knowledge.

            But how can tools of ancient Greeks and modern Europeans be used to study knowledge in an ancient eastern text without importing western bias? And which of the thousands of passages in the Tanakh should be chosen for a study of knowledge across the corpus in terms of the corpus? The Tanakh is far too large to examine all at once – an inquiry that sought to study epistemology in the literature by reading it through would not (if competent) emerge from the fifty chapters of Genesis. Which texts of the Tanakh should be studied to explore its corpus epistemology, and how should these texts be studied?

            Challenges of examining knowledge in the Tanakh can be overcome if the text is viewed not as religious literature but as a depository of forms of thought indigenous to ancient Semites. The Tanakh may be understood as the textual condensation of thought, belief, and expression considered worth preserving by the linguistic and cultural community that composed, collected, and preserved it. Modern tools can be used to analyze the approach to knowledge of (for example) the tribal Kazakh, and modern tools can be used to study epistemology in the ancient Tanakh.

            But if western assumptions about knowledge set the terms for a study of nonwestern knowledge, then those assumptions will over-determine the study’s outcomes. To ask if or when knowledge among the Kazakh or in the Tanakh is empirical is to ask the wrong sort of question, for it assumes that the philosophical analysis of knowledge applies without adaptation to nonphilosophical cultures.

            Philosophical epistemology assumes this to be so, but philosophy likes to test assumptions. The assumption that western theories of knowledge apply uniquely across cultures and the assumption that western forms of knowledge are always superior must be suspended in a rational analysis of nonwestern knowledge, for there is no rational reason to make these assumptions. Certainly, the tribal Kazakh and ancient Semites do not hold them, and anthropology and biblical studies ordinarily seek to avoid imposing western upon nonwestern modes of thought.

            But biblical criticism plays a role in the development of modern thought that complicates this picture in relation to the Tanakh and, especially, its epistemology. Interpretations of the Tanakh have, for centuries, been contested in western culture as interpretations of the Kazakh have not. Studies of the Kazakh are a small component of anthropology in the modern West, whereas without biblical criticism, the West would not be modern. Western thought has more invested in biblical criticism than scholarship alone: Baruch Spinoza’s critical analysis in early modernity of knowledge in the Old Testament liberates modern thought from premodern theology as it leads to modern views and separations of “religious” and “secular” that are with us still.

            Historians of thought have shown that Spinoza plays a central role in formulating the ideas that transform premodernity into modernity. More than any other thinker, Spinoza was the source and inspiration for the “systematic redefinition”[1] of key concepts that set modernity apart from its predecessor. So, given the role of the Christian Bible in premodern religion, Spinoza the first secular philosopher is, simultaneously and necessarily, Spinoza the modern biblical critic. Spinoza’s thought is the fulcrum around which pivot views of the world that favor the Christian Bible on the one hand and modern philosophy on the other, and Spinoza’s biblical criticism is the center-point of this pivot.

            Written in 1672, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is a “Theological-Political Treatise” that aims to create what Spinoza calls the “freedom to philosophize,” which Spinoza seeks to establish by implementing a new method of biblical interpretation in the Tractatus that he describes in its Chapter 7 – which is a foundational text for modern biblical criticism. Spinoza takes this approach because, in premodern Europe, biblical interpretations of the state gave church theologians the legal right to judge who interpreted the Christian Bible correctly – and those who did not could be put to death by the state. In a religious setting where biblical interpretations led to theologies that governed the politics of persecution, Spinoza seeks to establish a secular biblical interpretation that guarantees the freedom of secular thought. Spinoza aims to free philosophy from the constraints placed upon it by premodern biblical interpretation, and Spinoza uses philosophy itself (what else could he use?) to achieve this goal.

            Nobody in the West now thinks that people should be killed for allegedly misinterpreting the Christian Bible. For that, we can partly thank Spinoza – who uses modern philosophical epistemology in the opening chapters of the Tractatus to critique how, in Spinoza’s view, especially the Old Testament understands knowledge and the cultural authority that accrues to it. Spinoza’s philosophical critique of what he views as Old Testament epistemology (its prophetic, revelatory, and historical approaches to knowledge) lies at the intellectual heart of modern biblical criticism and, not coincidentally, early secular modernity. To liberate thought from ecclesial control, Spinoza’s Tractatus applies philosophical epistemology to Old Testament epistemology in a way that he says shows the former is superior to the latter, and in a manner that takes from premodern theology and gives to modern philosophy the right to govern the state. Spinoza’s modern biblical criticism liberates and elevates philosophy by using it to critique knowledge in the Old Testament.

            But Spinoza’s legacy is mixed because the account he assumes of Old Testament epistemology is not correct.[2] The Tractatus, therefore, creates space for freedom of thought in modernity at the cost of creating a distinction between “religious” (biblical interpretation and theology) and “secular” (modern philosophy) that is based on faulty data (an incorrect view of knowledge in the Old Testament). Moreover, Spinoza argues for the “freedom to philosophize” by applying a western form of thought (philosophical epistemology) to an originally nonwestern text (the Old Testament) in a manner that violates Spinoza’s own principles of biblical interpretation, which say that philosophy should not be used to interpret the Bible. Spinoza contradicts his own method as he engages in epistemic eisegesis – he imports into the biblical text an external view of knowledge that he then reads out of it – in a manner that contributes to contemporary misunderstandings of religious and secular.

            So, the long answer as to why refer to the “Tanakh” in relation to its epistemology is that this title lifts it off the broad battlefields of interpretation associated in western culture with the “Old Testament” of the premodern Christian Bible to give the literature a name that is more neutral and suggestive of its origins in the ancient Near East. Modern biblical criticism has not really studied the “Tanakh,” so it is a good title for the analysis of epistemology in a nonwestern textual corpus whose religious and secular interpretations fueled struggles of knowledge and power that shaped western modernity and continue in some quarters to this day.

            It is not very easy in these circumstances to use modern western tools to analyze knowledge in this ancient eastern text without importing western bias, but it is possible – and when biblical studies and philosophy are so used to explore epistemology in the Tanakh, the results can surprise.

            One way texts can be chosen to study knowledge in the Tanakh is to examine the few verses where “see,” “hear,” and “know” appear together, for seeing and hearing are as important for human knowledge everywhere as are human eyes and ears. But in only one verse is a human being said to see, hear, and know anything at all, and what this person sees, hears, and knows are matters divine – and in the most emphatic way. This person “sees the vision,” “hears the words,” and, remarkably, “knows knowledge” (yada da`at) of Tanakh divinity. Who is this, and what are the circumstances?

            This figure of unusual epistemic authority in the Tanakh is not Adam, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Job, or Qoheleth. The only person in the literature said to see, hear, and know, the individual who sees and hears and knows “knowledge of the Most High,” is, in Numbers 24:16, Balaam – the powerful seer hired by King Balak to curse Israel as it rests (unknowing) on the plains of Moab on its journey out of Egypt. Balaam sees, hears, and knows the knowledge of the Tanakh divinity in the Tanakh, and in a manner not attested of any prophet, priest, or king, or any Israelite or Judean.

            Balaam? This archetype of malice and malevolence? The pagan seer? A man who beats his faithful she-donkey as she saves his life? You must be kidding.

            That’s the least of what Plato and Hume would say if someone told them that one of their enemies had authoritative knowledge of matters significant to them that they did not. Plato critiques poets (who are seers in ancient Greece) on the grounds that these cultural opponents of philosophy do not possess knowledge superior to philosophers. Hume derides those who claim to know what modernity does not, and Balaam would be a case in point. What nonsense! This story about a talking donkey. Yet within this narrative, the Tanakh presents an approach to knowledge more generous and tolerant than Hume or Plato – or Torquemada or bin Laden.

            Balaam does not stand alone, for Tanakh epistemology contains many examples that confound or expand traditional religious and secular expectations of the literature, which critiques the misuse of power in many forms. The same Balaam who in one oracle knows so much returns from his trip of sorcery without a penny from the king who had retained him as a sorcerer, and Balaam on his way to Numbers 24:16 cannot even see what his donkey sees. What sort of theory of knowledge is this? One that, inter alia, critiques knowledge-driven forms of ideology first within Israel (which in a certain instance does not know the knowledge of its own divinity as well as a hostile pagan seer) and then outside it (from the donkey’s point of view Balaam doesn’t know very much), and then beyond an ancient Near East whose epistemology in the Tanakh makes Plato and Hume appear tight-fisted.

            Balaam’s knowledge in Numbers 24:16 raises challenging questions for religious and secular readers of the Tanakh. If a hostile seer willingly hired by a foreign king bent on cursing Israel is in one case described as having more knowledge of Tanakh divinity than anyone in Israel, then on these grounds, a modern secular thinker might in a given instance have more knowledge of Tanakh divinity than Abrahamic religious believers. Hume may be a religious skeptic, but he is no Balaam, and epistemology in the Tanakh does not in principle bar him from having knowledge of Tanakh divinity that devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not. But the Tanakh in Numbers 24:16 is far more tolerant than the secular Hume, who (like modernity) would not accept the notion that any nonwestern individual might know something worth knowing that Hume (or modernity) does not. Tanakh epistemology invites its religious and secular readers to look at each other and reconsider.

            Spinoza sheds light on the Tanakh as the Tanakh helps us better understand Spinoza, and that is true of other modern thinkers. Descartes the rationalist (whose thought is employed by Spinoza) makes an epistemic argument that is contradicted by an epistemic passage of the Tanakh. Hume the empiricist discusses miracles in a way that (like the modern view of theory) relies on early Greek assumptions about knowledge critiqued by Qoheleth. Kant the enlightener assumes the superiority of western civilization in a way the Tanakh does not approach its own. Yet these modern philosophers (who in other ways share epistemic ground with the Tanakh) help us understand epistemology in the ancient eastern Tanakh, as Tanakh epistemology sheds light on western modernity – which relies on Spinoza’s flawed Tractatus to construct its own identity.

            Postmodern thinkers often address the Tanakh directly (Barthes speaks of Jacob and Baudrillard of Qoheleth) in ways modernity does not, and postmodernism and the Tanakh explore many common themes. The nature of writing, the problem of interpretation, the qualities of an image, the function of madness, the characteristics of animals – all these appear in epistemic texts of the Tanakh, and in the thought of Derrida, Nietzsche, and Foucault. But the Tanakh’s approach to these matters is distinct. Foucault uses madness to unseat reason, while the madness of Nebuchadnezzar relates humans closely to animals. The power of the image attested by Nietzsche is recognized by the Tanakh just prior to an analysis of its capacity to oppress. On a wall in Babylon, writing appears that exceeds the deconstructive ambiguities of Derrida.

            Understanding Tanakh epistemology can lead to reappraisals of modernity and postmodernism and also of religious thought. The western term and concept “revelation” derives from an epistemic text of the Tanakh overlooked by religious interpreters, and in this passage, knowledge is revealed in a way that crosses languages and cultures. Tanakh revelation favors neither East nor West. The genre of apocalypse is formed in a chapter of the Tanakh devoted to solving a pressing problem of human knowledge, and the post-apocalyptic world of this text saves human lives. Tanakh epistemology disavows apocalyptic violence.

            In the end, a study in western culture of epistemology in the Tanakh allows Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular readers to better understand themselves, and each other, within a cultural history where epistemic misunderstanding has led too often to bodily harm. These and other matters are taken up in my Tanakh Epistemology: Knowledge and Power, Religious and Secular (Cambridge University Press 2020), which suggests that a western reading of the eastern text can lead to a view of a shared humanity whose hope and future is larger than the troubles that beset it.





Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Spinoza, Baruch. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.


[1] Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 159.

[2] This and each view of this essay follow from the book-length argument of my Tanakh Epistemology.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.