In the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem, Talmudic scholars haggle over various interpretations of Talmudic scholarship, 1957. Photo by Bert Glinn/Magnum


The Bible’s first critic

Centuries before Spinoza, there was Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, a Jewish freethinker for whom the Bible was too irrational for faith

by Pieter van der Horst + BIO

In the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem, Talmudic scholars haggle over various interpretations of Talmudic scholarship, 1957. Photo by Bert Glinn/Magnum

In the history of the Jewish people, there have always been freethinkers: Jews who refused to conform to the prevailing modes of thought and conduct in their communities. The names that cross one’s mind first and foremost are those of Baruch de Spinoza and his predecessor Uriel da Costa in the 17th century, both of them representatives of the so-called Radical Enlightenment. These scholars questioned the divine origin – and hence the authority – of the Hebrew Bible. Through their criticisms of the text, they became the true pioneers and predecessors of the liberal forms of Judaism that came to fruition in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Much less known today is the fact that they, too, had a forerunner, and a rather early one at that. He lived eight centuries before their time, hailing from medieval Afghanistan: Ḥiwi al-Balkhi (also spelled as Chiwi), a man whom Spinoza and da Costa never heard of. But what do we know about this very early Jewish freethinker?

Despite Ḥiwi al-Balkhi’s current obscurity, in his own day, the second half of the 9th century, he was a notorious Jewish iconoclast from Balkh, hence his name. Balkh still exists, but today it is a rather modest town built upon the ruins of former glory, in the northeastern part of Afghanistan, just south of the Uzbek border. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, Balkh was a major city (around 1300, the explorer Marco Polo still described it as ‘a noble city and great’, though he might have been referring to its past). It was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Bactria, a large and fertile area on both sides of the river Oxus (now called Amu Darya), that was a province, or satrapy, of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from the 6th to the 4th century BCE.

In the 320s BCE, the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and incorporated Bactria into his new empire, which stretched from Macedonia to India. As with all his conquests, Alexander’s aim was to introduce Greek culture to Bactria, especially its wealthiest city, Bactra (as Balkh was called by the Greeks), situated along the Silk Road; he even married a Bactrian princess named Roxana. The country went through a long and thorough process of Hellenisation, which manifested itself in every walk of life. In the first century after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Bactria was a province of the Seleucid Empire; thereafter it became an autonomous kingdom ruled by the Hellenistic dynasty of the Euthydemids. After the demise of this kingdom in the political turmoils of the 1st century BCE, Graeco-Bactrian culture did not disappear but remained influential, placed as it was at the crossroads of the world, until deep into the Middle Ages.

Over the centuries, Balkh’s population became increasingly heterogeneous. From its earliest years, Balkh has been a centre of Zoroastrianism. In fact, some thought that its founder, Zoroaster, was born and even died there, although the sources for his life are very contested, and Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian empire. Before the birth of the common era, Balkh was already home to a large number of Buddhists, especially adherents of Hinayana Buddhism. And because of Alexander the Great, there were many Greeks with their wide variety of religious and philosophical convictions (including, notably, skepticism). The available evidence suggests that Balkh also housed several dualistic (or gnostic) groups. In later times, Christians arrived in significant numbers and, after the Arab conquest of Persia in the mid-7th century, Muslims too settled in Balkh, in spite of the inhabitants’ fierce resistance against the violent Islamic hold over the city (there were several revolts against the Arabs’ control over Balkh).

According to medieval Muslim sources, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar settled Jewish exiles in Balkh after his destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE, but there remains scant evidence that this was the case. In fact, we do not know anything with certainty about the origins of the Jewish presence in Balkh. We do know, however, that already by the early Middle Ages Jews had settled in great numbers, riven by doctrinal divisions.

The larger branch of Jews followed in the footsteps of the rabbis, but there were also those who belonged to the fiercely anti-Rabbinic strand of Judaism known as Karaism. Karaites did believe in the divine origin of the Holy Scriptures, but they rejected any claim to authority by the rabbis and their interpretation of the Bible. Most Jews, regardless of their branch, lived in the city’s designated Jewish quarter (called al-Yahudiyya), which had its own entrance gate (called Bab al-Yahud, Gate of the Jews). Under Muslim rule, the Jews were subjected to special taxes and a whole range of humiliating restrictions. In the 11th century, they were even forced to physically maintain the personal garden of the Sultan Mahmud Ghazni, an ignominy. Despite all of this, the Jews of Balkh had their own schools and synagogues, of both Rabbinite and Karaite conviction. It was into this Jewish community within this dazzlingly diverse city that Ḥiwi developed his thought.

iwi was an amazingly radical freethinker. About his life we know next to nothing. And most unfortunately, his notorious work, often called the Book of Two Hundred Questions, has not been preserved because the leaders of both Jewish communities of his day had no interest at all in its survival. They did all they could to achieve its disappearance, and nearly succeeded.

That we still know a fair amount about Ḥiwi’s work is something we owe to it being so controversial that, for several decades after its appearance, Jewish authors (including even Karaites) tried to refute the ideas of this heretic. Of course, in order to refute him they had to quote him: hence our knowledge of his radicalism. One of these authors was no less a person than Saadia Gaon, a leading Jewish scholar and rabbi from the early 10th century. (Abraham ibn Ezra, a famed biblical commentator of the same era, was another critic.)

Saadia’s work was long lost as well, but in the late-19th century considerable portions were rediscovered among the hundreds of thousands of old Jewish documents found in the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Ḥiwi’s opponents could not but render his arguments if they wanted to combat them, which has enabled modern scholars to reconstruct almost a quarter of the 200 critical questions he raised. This suffices to give us a clear picture of the controversy. Ḥiwi belonged to neither the Rabbinic nor the anti-Rabbinic, or Karaite, branch of Judaism. In spite of their infighting, the two parties believed in the divine origin and absolute authoritativeness of the Bible. Though a Jew himself, Ḥiwi became convinced that the books of the Bible could not and should not claim divine authority because the biblical authors entertained conceptions of God and his commandments that were philosophically and historically untenable.

Ḥiwi argues that anyone who reads the Bible carefully will see that it often presents God as unjust and even ruthless (a question he asks is ‘Why did God inflict the Egyptian servitude upon the offspring of Abraham?’). Moreover, the Bible does not picture God as almighty and omniscient: in Genesis 3:9, God asks Adam ‘Where are you?’ In Genesis 4:9, God asks: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ God is pictured as capricious since he repeatedly changes his mind, as in Genesis 6:6: ‘The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.’ The fact that the biblical God wants to receive bloody sacrifices can hardly be interpreted as an indication of God’s lofty status, or as Ḥiwi puts it: ‘Is not God represented as eating and accepting bribes?’ And what sense does it make that, when God prods David to commit a grave sin, it is the people of Israel who are severely punished, as when God sends a brutal plague to claim 70,000 innocent lives (2 Samuel 24)? Why did 30,000 Israelites have to be killed by the Philistines because the sons of the priest Eli seriously misbehaved (1 Samuel 4:10)? The conclusion, for Ḥiwi, must be that the biblical concept of the divine is primitive and in fact unworthy of God Himself.

One can find many contradictions in the Bible, sometimes between passages in one and the same book

In addition to all this, the Bible repeatedly alludes to the existence of other gods. For instance, in Deuteronomy 32:8-10, it is said that God divided humankind into nations, his own share being the people of Israel. This clearly implies that each nation has its own deity. And the opening line of Psalm 82 states that ‘God presides in the divine assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”’, whereas elsewhere God proclaims himself to be the only one: ‘There is none beside me!’ In his book of questions, Ḥiwi collected many such biblical oddities.

The fact that the Bible often speaks about God in an anthropomorphic way (mention is made of God’s hands, feet, face, anger and so on) doesn’t inspire much confidence in the biblical authors either; they didn’t have a clear and rational notion of what a deity is, says Ḥiwi. Furthermore, one can find many contradictions in the Bible, sometimes between different books but at other times between passages in one and the same book. For instance, in Genesis 15:13, God says to Abraham that the Israelites will live as slaves and be oppressed in Egypt for 400 years, but in Exodus 12:40 it is stated that they had been living in Egypt for 430 years. And how is it possible that the list of forbidden sexual relations as we have it in Leviticus 20 differs from the list in Leviticus 18? Moreover, the book of Leviticus lists 12 forbidden degrees of kinship (that is, forbidden sexual relations within a family), whereas Deuteronomy 27 mentions only four.

Ḥiwi goes on to say that no sensible reason or justification is given or can be given for a significant number of the Torah’s commandments. As for the so-called miracles in the Bible, one can easily find a rational explanation. For instance, Ḥiwi argues that the manna from heaven that the Israelites found in the desert after the exodus from Egypt is a phenomenon that could still be observed in Afghanistan (Ḥiwi called it ‘Persian Tarjabin found in those parts of the world’). Even the splitting of the Red Sea was a perfectly natural occurrence: ‘Moses knew the ebb and flow of the sea and the Egyptians did not,’ Ḥiwi reasoned. Therefore, the Bible is a rather primitive book that does not deserve to be regarded as the basis of faith.

iwi’s own book was a bombshell. And that bombshell turned out to create serious discord within the Jewish community. The greater part was horrified by the book’s ideas, while another, smaller part reacted with a remarkable enthusiasm. Amazing though it might be, it even seems that at some Jewish schools Ḥiwi’s ideas were given a place in the educational curriculum. It seems that he might have edited the Bible of its outrageous and miraculous bits (à la Thomas Jefferson) and distributed copies as textbooks. But the rabbis reacted furiously, as did the anti-Rabbinic Karaites. Both parties did their utmost to control the damage that Ḥiwi’s views could create.

It is telling that Saadia’s elaborate refutation of Ḥiwi’s work was written some 60 years after the appearance of Two Hundred Questions. It indicates that, more than half a century after its publication, Ḥiwi’s book was still deemed so dangerous that a heavyweight such as Saadia felt the need to refute it again (he was particularly shocked by the influence of Ḥiwi’s ideas on some Jewish schools). But Saadyia’s refutations are not always impressive. His attack rarely rises above the level of mud-slinging and vituperation (Ḥiwi is an idiot, a dangerous lunatic, an enemy of faith; like others, Saadia often calls him al-Kalbi – ‘the dog-like’ – instead of al-Balkhi). Saadyia’s counterarguments are anything but convincing, at least to our modern mind.

Ḥiwi’s rationalistic critique of the Bible tried to salvage the Jewish faith and base it upon a more secure footing

In Ḥiwi’s world of ideas, elements from various schools of thought were woven together. Scholars have seen in it influences of dissident rabbis, of adherents of Zoroastrianism, of various gnostic groups, and of anti-monotheistic pagan philosophers who often attacked the Bible. In Balkh, as we have seen, all these and other groups were represented, so Ḥiwi could easily have exchanged thoughts with their adherents and been influenced by them. It is not easy to determine which influence, if any, was dominant. However, affinity with Graeco-Roman Bible critics from late antiquity is, I think, the most apparent.

The Platonic philosophers of the later Roman empire (2nd to 5th centuries) were often the most outspoken opponents of faith in the Jewish (and Christian) Bible. One can find many examples in the writings of philosophers such as Celsus (2nd century), Porphyry (3rd century) and indeed the Emperor Julian (4th century). Ḥiwi might have known works of these late-antique thinkers in Arabic translation; from the 8th century onwards, there had been a flurry of translation activity in the Muslim world. Writings by Greek scientists and philosophers were often translated into Arabic, which was Ḥiwi’s mother tongue. Interestingly, several important books by Ancient Greek philosophers, physicians, astronomers and other scholars have been preserved only in Arabic translation while the Greek original is lost.

Many of the antibiblical arguments of the Greek thinkers are echoed in the work of Ḥiwi, although unlike them he refrains from drawing anti-Jewish conclusions. It would seem then that, paradoxically, Ḥiwi tried to salvage the Jewish faith by adopting their rationalistic critique of the Bible and thus to base Jewish faith upon a more secure footing. Prolonged exposure to non-Jewish ideas and ideals might well have induced him to rethink the traditional Jewish belief system, a process in which he ended up in a position that was far too blasphemous in the eyes of most of his coreligionists.

It would not do justice to Ḥiwi if one were to depict him as a mere apostate or a man too readily influenced by various fads of his day. Some have even argued that he was not a Jew at all, but that is highly implausible because then it would be unimaginable that Ḥiwi’s work would be used in some Jewish schools. He surely was a Jew but also an independent rationalist thinker with a very critical mind, the very first in a long and celebrated line of Jewish freethinkers. It was not his aim to abolish religion, let alone Judaism. As a Spinoza before his time, Ḥiwi wanted to base the Jewish faith upon a purified, rational and well-considered concept of God. But this attempt at reform came far too early. The world wasn’t ready for Ḥiwi.