Monday, March 12, 2007

The Impossible Yoke: Part VI

This post continues my series dealing with Timo Laato's perception of Jewish anthropology around the NT period in Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach (1995).

Up to this point, Laato has dealt with some Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal texts which deal with human free will. Now he turns to the rabbinic material and he interacts mainly with Jacob Neusner here. Laato notes that Neusner believes that the Mishnah (the Oral Law which was codified around AD 200) "is based on free will" (Laato, 68-69).

Several proof-texts are laid out on pages 69-71:

Rabbi Aqiba says in Avot 3:15:

Everything is foreseen; and free choice is given. In goodness the world is judged. And all is in accord with the abundance of deed[s].

The Sifre on Deut 11:26 (par. 53) says:

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse [...] (Dt. 11:26-30): Why is this passage stated? The reason is that, since it is said, "Life and death I have placed before you, a blessing and a curse" (Dt. 30:19), perhaps the Israelites might say, "Since the Omnipresent has placed before us two ways, the way of life and the way of death, let us go in whichever way we choose." Accordingly, Scripture says, "Choose life." (Dt. 30:19)

The Mekhilta on Ex. 15:26 says:

"...saying, If you will diligently hearken": In this connection sages have said, "If one has obeyed one commandment, he is given the opportunity to obey many commandments, as it is said [...], 'If you begin to hearken you will continue to hearken.' If one has forgotten one religious duty, he is made to forget many religious duties, for it is said, 'And it shall be, if you begin to forget that you will continue to forget' (Dt. 8:19)."

In the Babylonian Talmud (Beahhot 33b) Rabbi Hanina (ca. AD 225) says:

Everything is in the hands of heaven except fear of heaven. For it is said, "And now, Israel, what does the Lord, your God, require of you but to fear" (Deut. 10:12) [cf. BT Megilla 25a and Niddah 16b]

These quotes and the analysis of Neusner lead Laato to say that "[a]ll told, free will is denied in no place in the rabbinic literature" (71).

A few things should be noted. 1) This material was generally codified during the late second century and beyond, though some remnants of earlier material may remain. This may explain the difference in outlook of the earlier Jewish writings that we have examined.

2) While these texts do seem to have a more positive outlook on the human ability to do what God demands, they still do not rule out the possibility of choosing the wrong way. In other words, a truly positive anthropology not only understands the human ability to choose but also the reasonable expectation that humans will be able to choose correctly. These texts simply do not not give that level of assurance.

Thus, up to this point it seems that Laato has made a good case that Judaism in the period around the NT held to free will. However, simply holding to free will does not make a positive anthropology.

Next (and last) Laato looks at the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus.

The Impossible Yoke: Part I
The Impossible Yoke: Part II
The Impossible Yoke: Part III
The Impossible Yoke: Part IV
The Impossible Yoke: Part V
The Impossible Yoke: Part VII
The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII

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