Saturday, May 07, 2016

Review of Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law?

Christine Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 412. ISBN 9780691165196. $39.50.

Reviewed by Matthew V. Novenson, University of Edinburgh (


In this impressive book, Christine Hayes—highly regarded for her Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds (1997) and Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities (2002), among other studies—undertakes to explain why various ancient Jewish thinkers conceive of the law of God in just the ways they do. In contrast to her earlier studies, here Hayes focuses not on particular points of halakhah but on the more basic question how the ancients understood the divinity of divine law. For all the significant differences among, say, the Qumran sectarians, Philo of Alexandria, the apostle Paul, and the rabbis in Palestine and in Babylonia, on Hayes’s account they are all wrestling with the dissonance between two inherited conceptions of law: the biblical and the classical. She summarizes, “It is the claim of this book that this incongruity between the biblical and the Greco-Roman conception of divine law was obvious and troubling to ancient Jews to different degrees and prompted three general categories of response” (4). Some Jewish thinkers (e.g., Philo) try to bridge the gap between biblical and classical conceptions of law, others (e.g., Paul) endorse the classical criticism of biblical law, while still others (e.g., the rabbis) internalise and invert that criticism, valorising the putative deficiency of biblical law.