The Harmony of Prophecy and Philosophy

The Harmony of Prophecy and Philosophy

The Unity of God is an ambiguous expression. It can indicate the uniqueness of God – that there is a single God and that there are no other gods. It can also however indicate the unity of God in himself – the unity of his essence, attributes and actions or the unity of divine persons in the Trinity.

The belief in the uniqueness of God is often called monotheism and it is classically seen as the bridge between biblical prophecy and Platonic philosophy. Just as the prophets taught that there was a single God, Platonists reasoned their way to the claim that there must be a single divine principle of reality, Goodness or Unity. This is a claim embodied in numerous Jewish, Christian and Islamic appropriations of Plato, which elaborated accounts of god’s existence and providence first put forth in the dialogues and by their commentators.

Such an account of the harmony of Plato and Moses is today difficult to maintain. There are criticisms from many sides, especially from an attention to the Greek philosophers themselves. Reading their texts, we learn that the multitude of their deities is not a mere ornament or flourish of their systems, but has a conceptual role to play in their arguments. Furthermore, the devotion to particular gods was existentially important for the philosophers, even qua philosophers, for some of them attributed to individual gods luminous events that set off their philosophy.

Must we therefore abandon any connection between biblical and platonic modes of thought? Far from it. First of all, we can observe that the revelation of the one God in the Hebrew Bible is just that – a revelation, mediated through prophets. It is not a result of reasoned inferences, even if later Abraham was credited of having already inferred the unity of God like a natural philosopher. Thus, in a certain sense it is natural that philosophers using reason and ignorant of Sinai would be polytheists. There is here “an agreement to disagree”: on the one hand faith and monotheism; on the other philosophers and polytheism.

But that is not all. For on each side, we find both divine unity and divine multiplicity. In the Bible it is clear that the Lord is One – but he has a multitude of names and theophanies and attributes and actions. This is especially emphasized in Kabbalah, where great emphasis is placed in distinguihsing between divine attributes and names and even at times in re-uniting divine attributes that have somehow been “severed” from each other – a teaching difficult to understand from a Platonic perspective. The philosophers certainly recognized the multitude of deities, but they also developed the strongest arguments for why the first principle had to be unique. Thus, in both Jewish and Platonic thought there is a shared task of uniting divine unity and divine multiplicity. The unity of God is known as a task – sometimes according to some Kabbalists a practical task of actually uniting God’s aspects – to recognize the unity of God or of the divine in all its manifestations.

Here we can perhaps refine the unity in discord that puts faith and monotheism on one side and polytheism and reason on the other. Perhaps the biblical faith in the uniqueness of God is precisely also the faith in his unity: that is, perhaps it is only through faith that all the different names and manifestations of God through prophecy can be recognized as belonging to the same reality. If that is the case, then a purely rational look at the scriptures would reveal a polytheistic worldview – which indeed is what happens when the scriptures are separated into differing documents and the distinct conceptions and names of God in each are understood separately.

It seems therefore that there are two possible harmonies between philosophy and scripture. One is a harmony of matching answers. This is the classic agreement between the single divine principle and the single monotheistic God. Such a harmony reigned for most of the history of philosophy since its first contact with prophecy, but is difficult to maintain nowadays. Another is the harmony of striving: both biblical faith and philosophy posit a divine unity that must then somehow be realized given divine multitude and abundance. Perhaps the polytheist philosopher will frame this as a search to understand the unity of the gods, whereas the biblical one will think of it as a question of understanding the unity of god’s names. This is an important difference, but it does not cover over the substantial agreement in the form of their tasks.

Header image credit: A miniature embedded into the body of the text depicting a giant leaf with three leaf-like yods (yod is a Hebrew letter) inside used as a contraction of the name of God. From the Haggadah for Passover (the 'Sister Haggadah').

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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