The question of morality has been a crucial topic of numerous debates and discussions throughout time. Morality is the basis of how we should treat one another and a measure of what is right and wrong in society. Many have attempted to answer this question but none have been so profoundly influential in the modern world as the Greeks and Hebrews. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews had many different perspectives on the world and morality including personal happiness, the personality of God, and the continuation of debates about morality. I believe, however, that the Hebrews had a much better perspective on society and morality than the Greeks.
There is an important difference when talking about an individual’s personal happiness between the Greeks and Hebrews. The Greeks believed that individual happiness was what should determine ones view of morality and ethics. Even the great philosopher Plato believed this. “Plato takes the question about one’s own happiness to be the supremely important practical question, so that the reasonableness of different courses of action and of the cultivation of different traits of character is to be assessed by referenced by one’s own happiness, not by reference to some point of view external to the interests of the agent. Plato is therefore a eudemonist about ethics.” (Prudence and Morality in Greek Ethics 284-285) While the Greeks believed in a morality that best suited their interests the Hebrews had a much different perspective. The article Authority Principle in Biblical Morality by Eliezer Schweid speaks about how the Hebrews view themselves in relation to society. The abstract in Schweid’s article describes this when it says, “This article suggests a philosophical explication of the biblical demand that man should obey an outward authoritative moral commandment of God. As a starting point we claim that in Jewish traditional sources there is no “ethics” as a separate philosophical branch. The Hebrew term “mûsâf means authority in its action, or the act of authoritative deliverance of behavioral norms, and authority means in this context: a decided will directed so as to move the wills of others in its own direction. This means that a moral person according to the Bible is he who is ready to obey, as an inner disposition, or as a general attitude. Yet this readiness is not conceived as weakness or as yielding to an irresistible power. It is conceived as an active response, out of free choice.” (Schweid 180) I believe based upon this that the Hebrews have the correct understanding on morality because it helps explain that their morality is based upon the laws of Moses given by God instead of the abstract idea of morality based on happiness. The Hebrew’s get their morality directly from God and apply His standard of morality to their daily lives. His standard of morality is holiness and a high standard of morality and not relative morality based on happiness as the Greeks subscribe to.
The ancient Greeks and Hebrews also had a different perspective on the personality of God or the gods. When people read the ancient Greek narratives they get a better understanding of how the Greeks perceived the gods. This is seen in the great Epics of the Iliad and Odysseus. David H. Gill’s article Aspects of Religious Morality in Early Greek Epic writes that Homer and Hesiod’s ideas on morality line up with the philosopher Plato’s reasoning saying, “In Homer and Hesiod there are several areas of human behavior which fit Plato’s requirements, where both the rights and wrongs and certainty of a divine sanction for violations are simply taken for granted. As far back as we can trace, it was agreed that the gods demanded respectful treatment for themselves, for suppliants and guests, and for parents and other family members; and that they punished anyone who refused to comply. They also punished violations of oaths, and they were likely to be angry at anyone who refused proper burial to the dead. ” (Gill 376-377) The Hebrews view of God was different in that they allowed the Mosaic Law ,which was given to the prophet Moses by God, to inform their moral insight and the future laws that they created. Benjamin B. DeVan’s article Is God a Monster? Nuanced Divine and Human Morality in Hebrew Scriptures explains this when he talks about Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God and says, “Copan contends the Mosaic Law was a priceless but temporary measure (cf. Romans 7:12) exhibiting permanent moral insight and ideals to inform future laws and actions in fresh contexts. Furthermore, since “the Old Testament is full of [deeply flawed] characters…the way biblical characters happen to act isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behavior.”(DeVan 385) This shows that the Greek view of god is an emotional and impulsive deity but the Hebrews view of God is that He is above pettiness and impulse. The Hebrew God is holy and divine and sets the moral standard that benefits all.
The Greeks where many times throughout history involved in numerous debates and discussions about what morality and what aspects of that morality should be honored. This was discussed by T.H. Irwin’s article Happiness, Virtue, and Morality when he says, “By examining both Aristotle and the Hellenistic moralists, she allows the reader to see not only the elements of continuity in ethical discussion, but also the Hellenistic developments that give some support to Barbeyrac and Donagan.” (Irwin 155) They were always in debate about the role of morality but the Hebrews were not. They knew what was expected of them and the law that Moses had given them was set in stone but needed to be applied with deeper understanding of the bigger picture. There were many times in their history where they strayed from this law. This disobedience and rebellion against the law and God, however, was always met with expulsion from their homeland. They were taken captive and put in exile many times by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Each time they were exiled there were prophets who warned them before hand and when their punishment had ended they implored the people to return back to the laws that God had given them. They understood that God’s laws could not be debated or manipulated and that they were very clear in their mandate. For these reasons it seems that the Hebrews had a better sense of morality. The ancient Greeks sense of morality was relative. Their portrayal of morality was very fluid and flexible and this ultimately made for an immoral society governed by emotion and impulsive behavior. The Hebrews on the other hand had a much more solid foundation and it was and is unwavering. They prospered as a people for so long because they knew to obey God and the standard of morality that they had been given. They understood that any deviation from this law would end in tragedy for their people because they had seen it transpire before.
The ancient Greeks and Hebrews had many different perspectives on the world and morality including personal happiness, the personality of God, and the continuation of debates about morality. I believe, however, that the Hebrews had a much better perspective on society and morality than the Greeks. The Greeks perspective on morality was one of personal happiness and was always being debated. As a result the society was immoral because they were reliant upon personal satisfaction. Their portrayal of the gods was also problematic because even they were governed by human emotions. The Hebrews, however, understood that God was holy and was never overcome by human emotions. God’s law was unchanging and was based upon personal interest but by living by a set code that may have been uncomfortable but the Hebrews realized that these laws were beneficial to the endurance and prosperity of all people in the long run who were governed by it.
Works Cited
DeVan, Benjamin B. “Is God A Monster? Nuanced Divine And Human Morality In Hebrew Scriptures.” Journal For The Study Of Religions & Ideologies 10.30 (2011): 383-389. Humanities International Complete. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
Gill, David H. “Aspects of Religious Morality in Early Greek Epic.” Harvard Theological Review 73.3-4 (1980): 373-418. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Irwin, T.H. “Happiness, Virtue, and Morality.” Ethics 105.1 (1994): 153. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
Irwin, T. H. “Prudence and Morality in Greek Ethics.” Ethics 105.2 1995: 284. JSTOR Journals. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Schweid, Eliezer. “The Authority Principle in Biblical Morality.” Journal of Religious Ethics 8.2 (1980): 180-203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.