Where do our beliefs come from? Usually we are unaware of their origins. This is true when it comes to economics, politics, religion, or any other realm. In Sunday school many children learn the famous “watchmaker argument” for a Creator: that the existence of a watch necessarily implies the existence of a watchmaker. In William Paley’s 1802 explanation of the analogy, it would be “absurd” to think that the watch had always existed and never been designed.

Yet few children (or adults) learn that more than 500 years earlier a medieval midrash (metaphorical rabbinic commentary) made the same argument! “Just as a house attests to its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so too does the world attest to the Holy One who created it” (Midrash Temurah 5). Still fewer ever learn the history or roots of opinions and explanations that are not quite so famous. But many of these also arose in the Middle Ages and continue to influence our minds today.

The most influential medieval philosopher in the Jewish tradition was Maimonides (also known as Rambam) of the twelfth century; on the Christian side, it was Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century. Both these thinkers applied the rationalism of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (fourth century BCE/BC) in order to interpret the Bible. Recently, when I was teaching a survey of Jewish interpretation styles, a student asked me if Aquinas had been influenced by Maimonides.

Now, Maimonides wrote in Judeo-Arabic and in Hebrew for Jews, and Aquinas wrote in Latin for Christians. Nonetheless, the answer to this question is most certainly yes! And Maimonides, in his turn, was deeply influenced by Islamic philosophers, who had translated and interpreted ancient Greek classics. All this fits a pattern that turned out to be of great importance for Western civilization: Aristotelian philosophy, preserved and passed on by Muslim thinkers, then adopted and retranslated by Jews, entered into the Latin Christian tradition and eventually stimulated the Renaissance.

As Prof. Isaac Husik remarked, “Jew, Christian, and Mohammedan, all in concert, with Aristotle as their common guide, and their several sacred books as a check, with diligence and enthusiasm pursued the truths of the world, of man, and of God.” Maimonides, for example, depends heavily on Abū Naṣr al Fārābī (tenth century) and accepts his view that theology must be subordinate to reason and proof. Aquinas adopts many of Maimonides’ arguments about Creation and argues with him about the details of “negative theology,” or the question of whether and how it is possible to speak about God.

According to Prof. Warren Zev Harvey, “Rabbi Moses [Maimonides] was for Aquinas the Guide to harmonizing Scripture and Aristotle.” Or as Prof. Israel Abrahams wrote, “The whole theology of the Christian scholastic [Aquinas] was tinged and molded by that of his Jewish predecessor.” Nor was this the end of the story. Parts of Aquinas’ own writings were translated into Hebrew and strongly influenced later Jewish thinkers! Many of the ideas that emerged from this mix of Greek, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thought are still with us today, influencing religious arguments all the time, even if most of us don’t recognize their origins.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Your thoughts here are excellent to think on. I agree with you, most who believe, do not know the origins of, what we believe, which in turn leads us to, why we believe what we do believe. I believe, because of this, we are in an era of constructing our own origins due to this ignorance and for the sake of convenience, leading us to believe what we want rather than logical truth. Question, were the Greek, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinker’s writings on the logic of thinking or rather on the specifics of their respective beliefs?
    J.

    • Thank you, Jerry! Regarding your question: a great many of the thinkers (including Maimonides and Aquinas) addressed both these areas of reasoning. In that sense they were both “philosophers” and “theologians,” so to speak. The same could be said, for example, of Augustine (Numidian Christian, 4th-5th centuries) or Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, Persian Muslim, 10th-11th centuries).

  2. Isaiah, 700 BCE/BC, had earlier applied rationality to theology in chapter 41:20-23, as well as to inter-faith analysis!

  3. As I understand it the Greek Septuagint was commissioned by the library in Alexandria Egypt in an effort to obtain and collate all the written records in the world. They wanted copy of the Hebrew script and a translation in the common vernacular about 165 BC. Knowledge and understanding are gifts from YeHoVaH. Yeshua said “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.” The quest for truth is guided by the Spirit of truth that consummates in the person and work of Yeshua haMashiach. (he who was and is from the beginning) At least as Far back as I can reckon it

    • Thank you for commenting, Glenn! This is (close to) one version of the origin of the Septuagint that has been passed down. Note, however, that some parts of the translation are probably earlier than that (3rd century BCE).

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  4. I hope someone will answer me; I have asked this a lot of times. When God said, let there be light — which light?

    • Thank you for the comment, F.T. I think there are probably almost as many approaches to this question as there are readers! Some interpret this verse (utilizing modern scientific language) as referring to the creation of what physics calls “energy.”

  5. This is very puzzling, and made me ask ‘ if the truth you just mention could foster peace and fruitful dialogue among the three great Faiths’. I guess this can also help for more global peace and less conflicts.

  6. Oh that we/you thinkers could leave out the very Person of Jesus..Who..from the Beginning..Being the Word that left the Mouth of our Creative God.. Who Framed the World..(having been ‘Designed’ and Beautifully Balanced..) could even begin to make sense of Such Wonder..for it is Him..Christ Who Holds it All Together..

  7. SOLOMON gave us the NAME of God in 1Kings 10:13 and sura 27:30 hidden in the K.H.Y.A.S of s.19:1 in Muqatta at as AL MASCHIACH UL ILLAHIM. Jesus Christ is GOD. Also encoded as 19 over all in Muddaththir. This was 3000 yrs ago.

  8. I have a question (or 3). Does godly influence still make converts; w/out searching/reseaching our past theological predecessors for guidance. Second, if this is so- why put forth such efforts in choosing sides; if faith is our cornerstone? Thanks.

  9. My conclusion..universe and its constituents aren’t self assembled..there is a god with different versions..all of them require us to be good to ourselves as well to others ..and expect reward in eternity.if u question afterlife u will lose nothing yet your faith guided u for good deeds and righteousness..safeguarding civilized!

  10. Math too is a developing science. Was any body thinking before Aristotle. Being informed but not transformed by this world. Be being transformed by the renewal of your mind open to Who for a grand design. The Chinese heard a man centuries ago singing like words of bells sounding out freedom, justice deliverance,from a presence of one given to earth

  11. when Muslim is mentioned here, do we have the same belief? i know not that much about Muslim, as there is lots of different religions around the globe, so i am just curious, do muslims believe the same God that we believe
    thank you

    • Hi Maria, the three “Abrahamic” faiths certainly have both similarities and differences. And each one of them encompasses many variations / denominations / branches. It’s good to learn a bit about each.

    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.

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