A Maimonidean Perspective on Biblical Criticism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gil Student

I. The Challenge of Biblical Criticism

Biblical Criticism has long posed a challenge to traditional Judaism, to some people insurmountable and to others less imposing. Reactions to Biblical Criticism have varied from wholesale acceptance to intentional ignorance. I believe the Rambam has something important to say on this subject. I hesitate to suggest what the Rambam would say if he were alive today, putting words into his mouth. However, I believe a nuanced response to Biblical Criticism can be derived from Rambam’s confrontation with the intellectual challenges of his time.

Biblical Criticism is not a single field. It is a cross-section of disciplines that interact with the Bible, including higher and lower textual criticism, linguistics, archeology, ancient history and related disciplines, each of which are also broad terms. In general, by Biblical Criticism I refer to the academic disciplines that, among other things, attempt to shed light on the origins of the biblical texts. While there are some outlying scholars, the general thrust of these fields as they currently stand is a very non-traditional conclusion–that the Bible consists of works of men that were highly edited, often contradictory, politically motivated, written centuries later than previously claimed and often factually and morally incorrect.

How should we–religious Jews–react to this current state of Biblical Criticism based on the Rambam’s teachings? Certainly, the Rambam’s eighth fundamental principle of Judaism compels us to reject Biblical Criticism. However, this quick answer misses much in the Rambam’s approach. I do not mean the Rambam’s methods of biblical interpretation, which R. Hayyim Angel discusses in his book, Through An Opaque Lens. [1]The article also appears in The Legacy of Maimonides: Religion, Reason and Community. I mean his response to theological challenges, his careful balance of reason and revelation.

II. Reason vs. Revelation

Later writers surprisingly reach opposite conclusions on the Rambam’s approach to dealing with conflicts between reason and revelation. Achad Ha-Am insists that Rambam values reason above all and follows it even when it contradicts revelation. Others go in the opposite direction, arguing that Rambam chooses revelation over reason. Prof. Marvin Fox (Interpreting Maimonides, ch. 2) quotes these two views and contends that they have it all wrong. The Rambam believes both reason and revelation are decisive, each in its own realm.

He writes (p. 35):

His is a rather delicately balanced stance which affirms the claims of both reason and revelation, each in its proper sphere. Reason is supreme within the limits in which it can work authoritatively. No claims of revelation, no body of dogmas, no set of ideas or practices, even when supported by deeply rooted conventions, can supplant or be allowed to take precedence over reason and the insights to which it leads us. We must be open to the results of reason, whatever they may be and wherever they may lead. There is, however, a limit on the capacity of human reason, and there are questions to which our reason, operating exclusively by its own powers, cannot give us answers. At this point, where rational inquiry and demonstration have been pushed to their outer limit, every person is forced to appeal to some other source of truth. Even the reason still continue to exercise an important degree of control, because neither religion nor any other source of truth is acceptable if it forces us to affirm doctrines directly contrary to reason.

To the Rambam, something that can be proven by reason is true and must be accepted. An example of this is divine corporeality, which the Rambam believes is disproven by reason. Therefore, he strenuously denounces the notion and interprets the Bible non-literally to avoid the problem.

II. When Reason Isn’t Enough

But reason has its limits and some of the issues Rambam investigates cannot be proven by reason. Primary among them is the creation or eternal existence of the world. The Rambam presents multiple views and ostensibly adopts the traditional Jewish view of Creation from nothing. Some believe that the Rambam rejects Aristotle’s view of an eternal universe because, as the Rambam states, it undermines religion. However, that is only the final step in the Rambam’s thought process. First the Rambam argued that Aristotle could not prove anything about what exists in the heavens (so to speak) or what existed prior to Creation. You can only extrapolate within the framework of this world, not beyond it.

Rambam writes (Moreh Nevukhim 2:17, Pines translation):

No inference can be drawn in any respect from the nature of a thing after it has been generated, has attained its final state, to the state of that things while it moved toward being generated.

The Rambam’s argument is much more elaborate but this is a summary of his conclusion that Aristotle failed to prove his point. Some contemporary opponents of evolution and an ancient universe utilize this passage to argue against extrapolation of nature’s laws to prehistory. However, they neglect that this rejection is not Rambam’s final word. It is only part of his thought process.

In a subsequent chapter, Rambam tells us how he evaluates an argument that cannot be conclusively proven or disproved (Moreh Nevukhim 2:22, end). First, you evaluate the arguments on each side to determine which is most plausible. Even an unprovable argument can still be substantiated by its explanatory power. While it still remains unproven, it can be supported by inference. Similarly, the implications of the theory of evolution and an ancient universe have been shown to have great explanatory power. Many of their predictions have been verified. But the evaluation of the arguments on each side is still not the end of the Rambam’s thought process.

III. Considering Revelation

The Rambam also evaluates an idea based on revelation. This can be divided into two different but related ideas. The first is more clear. As we said above, the Rambam believed that reason is always true, when proven. When unproven, we use other means to arrive at truth, including revelation.

Marvin Fox writes (ibid., p. 286):

When Maimonides invokes the testimony of prophecy, he is not engaging simply in an act of piety. In his view a true prophet has attained the highest moral and intellectual development… If we have the teachings of authentic prophecy available to us, we certainly must give them a decisive voice in our speculations.

Therefore, when considering the pros and cons of each side of a debate, the Rambam would also evaluate whether a proposition contradicts the revealed canon. If it does, then even its explanatory power is insufficient; the speculations and inferences must be disregarded.

The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:25) is ready to reinterpret the Bible based on a proven argument–pure reason. However, when it comes to a speculative and unproven argument, he is less eager. Note that he does not refuse entirely. Rather, he says that he will not reinterpret the Bible for an idea that can be disproved in many different ways. I believe this nuance has significance to the debate over evolution and an ancient universe.

The Rambam (ibid.) continues to his second evaluation based on revelation. I call it the standard of “subversion.” A direct contradiction to revelation, one that is impossible to avoid with reinterpretation, is difficult to attain. The Rambam does not reject Aristotle’s theory of an eternal universe because it contradicts the Bible. Rather, he does so because it undermines religion. Miracles are philosophically impossible in an eternal universe, thereby rendering religion impossible or absurd. This religious damage of the idea, its undermining revealed religion, trumps any evaluation of pros and cons, any evaluation of an argument’s explanatory power.

Note that I am not referring to a sociological danger, something which the Rambam also took into account by concealing some of his views. We are discussing here theological damage. If Aristotle’s theory of an eternal universe is true, religion is meaningless. This would be true even if every Jew in the world continued keeping kosher and observing Shabbos.

IV. Rejecting Biblical Criticism

Where does Biblical Criticism fit into all of this. As a “soft science,” none of Biblical Criticism is proven. It is a science of inference and speculation. The reader detects hints and patterns that imply information about authorship and age. Even the formidable genius applied to these efforts, the immense time, brainpower and rigor, cannot pass this fundamental methodological hurdle. Nor should the discipline be blamed for being something it cannot. However, the arts is generally not an area in which conclusive proofs can be offered.

Even archeology, which deals with tangible artifacts, is based on speculation. You have a few pieces of a tiny puzzle and try to extrapolate to the complete picture. The great discoveries of the past two centuries have yielded immense information. But the conclusions remain speculative, subject to scrutiny and overthrow, because in the end we are attempting to infer great theories from limited evidence. These fields are not subject to conclusive proofs.

However, this does not mean that we must reject Biblical Criticism out of hand. Based on the Rambam’s approach, we need to evaluate the arguments for and against Biblical Criticism. While different areas and arguments vary in speculative evidence, some are quite powerful. We cannot and should not skip this step.

Yet, in the end, we come to the final step of considering revelation. Not long after Prof. Marc Shapiro published his book on Rambam’s 13 Principles, I asked Dr. Haym Soloveitchik what he thought about the subject. After my relentless pestering, he finally said the following (in my own words, written ten years after the conversation): We do not know for certain why the Rambam chose those specific thirteen beliefs as fundamental principles, but some say that he chose based on his conviction that they were politically motivated, intended to maintain Judaism. Today, regardless of what some Rishonim may have said on specific issues, Biblical Criticism undermines Judaism and everyone should agree, even those who believe the thirteen principles were politically motivated, that the Rambam would have considered it heresy. (Again, these are my words.) I believe Dr. Soloveitchik spoke of a sociological danger to make the point that every Maimonides scholar should agree on this. But underlying his point is that the theological damage is also clear.

As Yoram Hazony recently pointed out here, there is currently no coherent theory of revelation that embraces Biblical Criticism and retains the authority of Jewish law. I don’t believe it is possible. Jewish law is based on the Written and Oral Law, much of the latter derived from the former assuming it is a whole, divine document. Without the Patriarchs, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, there is no divine command. Biblical Criticism, if accepted, undermines Judaism much more than Aristotle’s eternal universe, even if its proponents attend synagogue three times a day. Of course, that is not generally the case. Acceptance of Biblical Criticism generally includes or is soon followed by diminished observance of Judaism. But that isn’t the end of the discussion.

V. Embracing Biblical Criticism

Scholars continue to debate what the Rambam truly believed about Creation. Some suggest he secretly accepted Aristotle’s view, some Plato, others the traditional Jewish view and one scholar argues that the Rambam reached no conclusion. Prof. Marvin Fox suggests that the Rambam accepted all views, taking from them what he could. In the end, he affirmed the traditional Jewish view of Creation ex nihilo but along the way he found value in other points of view. Fox writes (ibid., p. 293):

My contention is that Maimonides did not simply choose one of these positions and reject the others absolutely. Instead he found a measure of merit in each of them that makes it worthy of playing a role in our understanding of the origin of the world…

Certain elements in his doctrine rest heavily on Aristotle… We need the clarity of the Aristotelian arguments in order to stand firm on the contrary principle that the world is an ordered and intelligible structure…

Maimonides sees a useful counterweight to the Aristotelian theory in the Kalam affirmation of creation out of nothing and the absolute power of the Creator-God…

Fox continues to explore the significance of the theories of Aristotle, Plato and the Kalam in the Rambam’s philosophy of Creation. In this brilliant insight, Fox explains why the Rambam spends so much time on these different philosophies. It was not just as a foil for his own approach but as stepping stones toward a mediating theory between all these alternatives.

For our purposes, we can learn that even rejected approaches have value within a Torah framework. The many brilliant academics working on Biblical Criticism have raised questions, devised approaches and offered textual explanations that are valuable for understanding even a divinely given text. Not every teaching of Biblical Criticism undermines Judaism. Some support it and others add depth and meaning.

Our Maimonidean task is to take the good and reject the bad from Biblical Criticism. This is no easy task. Indeed, some of the best and brightest scholars have attempted to do so and failed to proceed to the Rambam’s final step. But others have succeeded magnificently in following the Rambam’s teachings by learning from everyone and taking the good without the bad. (Every individual must consult his own advisors before delving into the theological minefield that is Biblical Criticism.)


About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. In addition to this area pointed out by Rabbi Student where Maimonides’ outlook can be used to give us a perspective on biblical criticism, there are other areas as well in Maimonides’ writing that also give us a similar perspective.

    For example, Maimonides’ ninth shoresh in his Sefer HaMitzvot is relevant to the claims of biblical criticism. While Maimonides is certainly not addressing biblical criticism in this shoresh, his view on how the mitzvot are to be counted can be expanded to address biblical criticism. In his ninth shoresh, Maimonides notes that some commandments are repeated numerous times in the Torah. Many times, commandments are repeated solely to give, what Maimonides calls, hizuk to the reader.

    וכשהגיעו אלו העניינים, הנה ראוי שיימנו העניינים המצווה בהם או המוזהר מהם, אם יהיו פעולה או דיבור או אמונה או מידה. ולא נביט לריבוי הציוויים שבאו בעניין ההוא, אם היה מדובר ב”עשה”, או לריבוי האזהרות שבאו ממנו אם היה “לא תעשה”, כי כולם הם לחיזוק בלבד. כי פעמים ישוב בעניין אחד בעצמו אזהרה אחר אזהרה לחיזוק. וכן יבוא צווי אחר צווי לחיזוק.

    We can expand the idea that repetition in the Torah’s legal passages is intended for hizuk to non-legal passages as well. One of the biblical criticism’s popular contentions is that verses that seem repetitive are, in fact, written by multiple authors. The idea that laws are repeated for hizuk can be expanded to the entire Torah and can provide an answer to why there is repetition in a text written by one author. If laws are repeated for hizuk, why can’t non-legal passages be repeated by God for hizuk as well?

  2. As Yoram Hazony recently pointed out here, there is currently no coherent theory of revelation that embraces Biblical Criticism and retains the authority of Jewish law. I don’t believe it is possible. Jewish law is based on the Written and Oral Law, much of the latter derived from the former assuming it is a whole, divine document. Without the Patriarchs, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, there is no divine command.

    Biblical criticism in of itself does not negate the Patriarchs, the Exodus and revelation. It depends on how you look at it. One can easily accept all those and simply agree that the final PHYSICAL written was finally edited later. Even Prof. Halivni accepts all that but believes it was finally edited later on based on an original core Torah.

    It really depends on how you interpret biblical criticism. Does one accept documentary hypothesis which says it’s about competing traditions and later integration of YHWH? or does one simply accept it was edited later based on a real core?

    Sure much of Jewish law may go out the window, but so what? One doesn’t have to be a professor to see Talmudic halacha was simply not practiced in Tanakh times. Did THEY abandon their patriarchs and the exodus? I don’t think so.

    • I’m not sure we are disagreeing. You are saying that a traditional Jewish approach cannot accept all of Biblical Criticism and must reject the bad and keep the good. The details on what is considered “good” and “bad” are beyond the scope of this essay.

  3. While I appreciate this essay, I find it odd that you did not refer to the players in contemporary debates and the contributions they have made. In particular, I’m wondering why you didn’t refer to the terrific series of essays that R. Joshua Berman wrote for torahmusings last year. If there is anyone who today who is showing us how modern bible scholarship is consistent with traditional scholarship, it is he. And there is nothing more disappointing about contemporary debates in the “orthodox” (broadly construed) blogosphere than the fact that although R. Berman’s essays were effectively a retort to R. Zev Farber’s essays on thetorah.com, they were met with silence. My own view is that while thetorah.com folks like to think that Orthodoxy is tottering because it cannot reconcile its hashkafa with the undeniable findings of the source critics, the source critics are themselves quite insecure because they know that their field is pseudo-science. (You say that the field should not “be blamed for being something it cannot”– i.e., a “hard” science. I think you are letting them off way too easy. The reason is that their findings are presented as scientific findings. Certainly this is how it is presented to the Jewish community by e.g., thetorah.com). As Ben Zion Katz puts it, it is “evolution without fossils.” The critics acknowledge this in in ternal discussions (See e.g., Ben Sommer’s recent article “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism” where he acknowledges that they have no idea how to date various texts. And see e.g., Seth Sanders’s forthcoming article “What if There Aren’t Any Empirical Models for Pentateuchal Criticism?,” where he basically acknowledges that there is no empirical basis for source criticism) but are loath to fully admit it publicly. I would encourage people to read primary work by source critics (such as I cited above) rather than how it is presented to the Jewish community– i.e., as settled science. And I would urge anyone who is interested in these issues to read Berman, Katz, as well as (from earlier generation of bible scholars) Cassuto, Hertz, Nahum Sarna, and Benno Jacob.

  4. Even though his concept is hard to fully reconcile with the current critical theories, Prof Mordechai Breuer does try to bridge the divide.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter