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September 19 , 2008

The Sacred History of Being


The argument that the discipline of philosophy was not invented by the Greeks, but was in existence elsewhere, and as far back as the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., has been gaining traction over recent years. It is now possible to trace the detail of its presence in the civilizations around the ancient Near East.

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'The Sacred History of Being' collects some of the key evidence together, and examines the idea of the divine as a philosophical concept in Greece, ancient Assyria, and in Israel.

The struggle for monotheism in Israel in the early to middle 1st Millennium B.C.E can be understood as a protracted argument concerning a philosophical understanding of the nature of the Divine, conducted during a bitterly fought political and hegemonic struggle for ascendancy. The Old Testament has examples where God declares his identity with Being itself (‘I am that I am’, better translated into English as ‘I am that which is,’ and ‘I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God', for example), but these statements have in the past not been regarded by scholars as evidence of a sophisticated discourse around the idea of Being. However the statement in the book of Malachi that Yahweh 'does not change' is an expressly philosophical description of the divine.

The book reveals that this philosophical conception of the divine underpins both religious cult practice, and ideas of the gods in each of the cultures discussed.

The Greeks themselves had several stories about the origins of philosophy, a discipline which essentially deals with abstractions, including that it originated elsewhere, but that is not the received narrative. The consequence of this, is that all historians of ideas, when constructing their accounts of the intellectual development of man before the arrival of Parmenides and Plato on the scene, have had to negotiate the apparently established fact that the Greeks invented philosophy, and the corollary, that articulate discussion of the abstract concept 'Being' didn’t happen before this.

'The Sacred History of Being' reframes our understandng of ancient ideas of the Divine, revealing these ideas to be deeply rooted in a widespread and very old philosophical discussion of Reality itself, and consequently has as as its revolutionary thesis that knowledge was at the heart of ancient concerns about the Divine, both in Greece and the ancient Near East. Evidence (from Babylonia) that the source of all knowledge was understood to be Being itself, is also discussed.

Thomas Yaeger unpicks this log-jam in the history of ideas, largely the legacy of classical scholarship from the late eighteenth century onward, so that it is possible for us to allow the texts which survive to mean what they mean.

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