The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy

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The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, by Robert Eisen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 324 pp. $60.00.

This is a good idea for a book, and it is well executed throughout. Eisen takes six thinkers, some very well known, others less so, and examines their views on the enigmatic Book of Job. The thinkers are Saadya Gaon, Maimonides (definitely the kingpin in terms of his influence on the whole exercise), Samuel ibn Tibbon, Zerahiah Hen, Gersonides, and Simon ben Zemah Duran. Readers will find things to disagree with on occasion in Eisen's analysis, but he is pretty close to these authors and has a shrewd grasp of where their main points are, and where their weaknesses are also. His main theme, and it is a valuable one, is that we should not strictly demarcate between philosophy and theology during this period. There has been a tendency to regard philosophers looking at a topic like suffering as though they were doing something entirely different from their theological peers, and yet they often have considerable light to throw on the Bible, despite (or perhaps due to) their philosophical approach. Eisen seeks to buttress this view with a brief examination of some modern thinkers on Job and how they relate to the medieval discussion. This chapter does not to my mind really come off; it is too short to establish its aim and does not have the space to convince the reader that the problematic today and in the past is the same.

Eisen asks an interesting question in this book, but it seems to me that he offers the wrong reason for the right answer. The question is whether in understanding medieval theological issues it is helpful to examine at least some of the philosophical texts. The answer is surely that these texts often are very revealing of aspects of the Bible, even if they do not use traditional theological techniques to establish their conclusions. Eisen's conclusion is that philosophy and theology are nor so different after all, and both contain insights when used to examine the Bible.

In the Middle Ages the idea that philosophy and theology are similar in approach would have been regarded with horror. Thinkers then spent a good deal of time sharply distinguishing between different forms of thought, and the boundaries between grammar, logic, philosophy, theology, law and so on were drawn so as to establish a wide chasm between all these different techniques. Indeed, it was taken to be the mark of an educated person to be able to distinguish between these different forms of thought. …