Saturday, July 07, 2007

Jewish Genius, the follow up   posted by Razib @ 7/07/2007 03:37:00 PM

As most of you know Commentary has a series of letters & a response from Charles Murray following up his article titled "Jewish Genius." Most of the letters aren't particularly intelligent or sincere. Their general form is to dispute the possibility of intergroup differences and throw out all sorts of red-herring objections or insinuations of bad faith or ignorance, or alternatively to simply not understand evolutionary biology with any degree of depth so as not to be manifestly moronic. God knows how idiotic most of the letters must have been if these are the "good" ones. Greg & Henry have a response up to Charles' original article, and predictably I tend to agree with the basic outline. But, I feel I have to reiterate a point I made earlier in response to the original piece. Charles states:
As for the New Testament, unless one wants to argue that Jesus was not the source of his own teachings, and that Paul did not really play the role in formulating Christian theology that he appears to play, I do not see how one avoids concluding that the foundation of the New Testament's spiritual and intellectual power is Jewish.

The spiritual power is irrelevant to me, am I willing to grant that if there is a distinction to be made between pagan and Hebraic religiosity than the Christian religion has at its core a particular Hebraic sensibility. But I want to focus on the intellectual power, since that is the point of Charles' original article: systematic theology grounded in Greek philosophical traditions and methods was a Hellenic enterprise, not a Hebrew one. I say Hellenic specifically because the early Church theologians were generally culturally part of the Greek speaking intelligensia of the Roman Empire, not the Latinate administrative and legal class, let alone the Jewish minority. I've read the New Testament and broadly speaking there are theological elements to it, and certainly those were often exposited by Jews (whether the theology is fundamentally pagan or Hebraic in origin is irrelevant to me since Charles' contention is that Jewish intellectual brilliance is reflected in early Christian theology). But the shining intellectuals of the early Church tended to gentiles. For example, the Doctors of the Church are an eminent list recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. While the Latin intellectuals, such as Augustine or Ambrose, were eclectic and concrete in their thinking and intents, the Greeks such as Gregory of Nazianzus were more abstract and focused on the science of theology.

Myself, I don't find theology particularly interesting or insightful, but, I can't deny that a lot of intellectual firepower went into it and absorbing theological treatises require a level of close reading and attention which one does not associate with perusals of the Letters of Paul. If Charles means by theology the ideas exposited in the New Testament itself, I can grant that it is a very Jewish body of work in authorship (though not overwhelming). But I can not agree that the New Testament's theology is of high intellectual caliber, rather, its basic ideas are relatively accessible to all believers and the language is geared toward the modal intelligence (even the rhetorically elevated Gospel of John is intelligible to people of normal intelligence). If by theology one means the body of work which drew from Greek philosophical traditions, then I can grant that there is some intellectual heft and luminosity on display, but I can not grant that the authors are Jewish because we know the life backgrounds of many of the brightest lights and they were from gentile backgrounds, with a fair number converts from paganism (e.g., Augustine). As one would expect a priori from the division of labor during the Roman Imperial period, among the Christians the Greeks tended to focus on the more abstruse philosophical domains while the Latins were more worldly. This is all established history, so I can not see the point of controversy. Of course Charles can allude to the fact that the foundation of the systematic theology elaborated by the gentile intellectuals was Jewish. So what? Algebra and "Arabic" numerals were introduced into Europe from the Islamic Middle East, but we wouldn't discount the achievements of Europeans in abstract mathematics because the foundation of their abstractions was exogenous.