This is the sort of question that never occurs to me when I teach Plato and Aristotle back home (itself a rare event), but it’s the kind of question I’m sure to get asked while teaching them here in Palestine next week. And damned if I know the answer.
Were Plato and Aristotle acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism?
Put more concretely for purposes of historical inquiry:
Were Plato or Aristotle familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible?
I’ll bet that David Riesbeck has an answer, but I pose the question(s) above (as well as those below) for anyone with answers.
For reasons too complicated to explain at (great) length, traditional Muslims (i.e., most Palestinians) do not equate the first question with the second. On the traditional Islamic view, the people we refer to as “Jews” were not “Jews” at all, but proto-Muslims, and the text we refer to as “the Hebrew Bible” was not that at all, but a series of proto-Qur’anic texts. On this view, the proto-Muslims of Israel became “Jews” when they forswore God’s teaching in favor of a tribal allegiance to Judah/Israel, and their (various) proto-Qur’anic scriptures became “the Hebrew Bible” after they were edited to that end for essentially political reasons. (Not all Muslims believe this, but the view can be inferred from the Qur’an, and many do.) This traditional story doesn’t really affect the way I think about the issue, but given religious sensibilities here, it’ll doubtless affect the way I teach it: at a minimum, I’ll have to bear in mind that some of my students wholeheartedly believe it, whether I do or not.
Offhand, I’m tempted to say that neither Plato nor Aristotle were acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism, and that neither was familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible. I don’t recall a single reference to the Jews or the Hebrew Bible in any work of Plato or Aristotle that I’ve ever read. But that’s hardly a conclusive set of considerations. For one thing, I haven’t read all of Plato and Aristotle. For another, even if I’d read them all, I don’t typically read either Plato or Aristotle with this particular issue in mind, so I’d likely have missed or forgotten a passing remark. Finally, I’m not sure how sweeping a claim I’m entitled to make on the basis of non-existent textual evidence: supposing that neither Plato nor Aristotle ever makes reference to the Jews in any of their extant work, should we infer that they were utterly unacquainted with the Jews, or should we infer that they had some vague sense of their existence, but too vague a sense for mention in the text? I’m not sure. So my offhand judgment is somewhat tentative. Unfortunately, a quick online search only serves up a series of tendentious polemics on the issue; for obvious reasons, the only reliable information I saw discussed Plato and Aristotle’s influences on Jewish thought, not vice versa.
However plausible it is, I find my offhand judgment a little puzzling. In the Politics, Aristotle mentions Babylon, Carthage, the Celts, Crete, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Libya, the Persians/Medes, and Sicily. (I don’t have the Greek in front of me, so I don’t know whether he uses those very names, but my point is that he refers in some way to those people and places). The list implies that Aristotle had information on places much farther afield from Greece than ancient Israel, as well as places relatively close to ancient Israel. Why then the omission of the Jews? Was information about them simply lacking or inaccessible, or was the available information dismissed on grounds of its irrelevance to the project of the Politics? In short, how did he manage to miss the Jews?
It’s hard to believe that I’ve never thought about this before, but I haven’t. So I could use some help from someone who has.