Thursday, January 24, 2008

Scare tactics

The New York Times is currently running stories about high levels of mercury found in sushi tuna served in NYC restaurants. Curiously, these tests were ordered by the Times itself. Shouldn't their ombudsperson look into this apparent conflict of interest?

As long as I can remember the media have run scare stories. These stories sell papers, and with the Internet threat bearing down on them, the legacy media need attention more than ever before.

Some years ago, during another mercury scare, scientists took out a fish perfectly preserved from 100 years ago. It too was found to have "unacceptable" levels of mercury.

I eat sushi about once a week. Sometimes I have tuna, sometimes not. The key to proper diet, I believe, is balance. I tend to avoid beef, for example, but once in a while I have some just for variety.

Today though there are millions of food nuts who eagerly scoop up (if you will excuse the expression) these scary reports. Another item to avoid--hooray!

What this set of taboos looks like to me is a version of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In one version of this condition, the sufferers ceasely compile lists of things that must be avoided at all costs. As a result their lives become a daunting labyrinth, with danger lurking around every corner. Sometimes I wonder how these foody OCD folks can survive at all.

Another current scare is the economy. It seems clear that we are in for a rough patch. But another 1929? I don't think so. What these analysts fail to acknowledge is the concept of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter identified as the very essence of capitalism. Some firms are rising, some are disappearing. Some nations are forging ahead, others are lagging behind.

Mayor Bloomberg made an incisive quip yesterday. He said that a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.

Since my retirement income is partly tied to the stock market, I am bracing myself for a few losses. Next year, if not before, there will probably be a correction. If the sky is going to fall, so be it. But this is not a serious concern. I have other, real problems to worry about--including my health and the state of my apartment. These things directly affect my well being. Moreover, I can do something about them.

Some things that we are supposed to get excited about, we can't do anything about. Does anyone doubt the following? Regardless of who is elected president this fall, we will have troops stationed more or less permananently in Iraq, "earmarks" will go on unchecked in Congress, and lobbyists will continue to write most of the legislation that gets passed.

Never, I think, has Candide's advice been more timely: it is time to cultivate our own garden.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Hebrew Bible, Jeffersonized

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” Thomas Jefferson on religious education.

In my religious pieces I am seeking to liberate--if this is possible--a residue of genuine wisdom from the enormous mass of dross that encumbers the foundational documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this effort I find particular inspiration in a similar endeavor of Thomas Jefferson with regard to the gospels of the New Testament.

As a young man, Jefferson had come to doubt many of the teachings of the Anglican church in which he was brought up, beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity. In his skepticism, of course, he participated in the general trend known as the Enlightenment. While he dismissed the idea of the divinity of Jesus, he continued to regard the Galilean as a great teacher, even though he was to some degree hobbled by the superstitious beliefs in which he had been brought up.

Jefferson held that the figure of this authentic Jesus could be retrieved d from the four gospels of the New Testament by bracketing and setting aside the considerable amount of dross encumbering those documents. Accordingly, in 1804 he drew up a list of passages that he considered worth preserving according to his criteria. In contrast to the more painful work of contemporary scholars, such as those of the Jesus Seminar, he saw no great difficulty in making the necessary distinctions. Isolating the genuine moral teachings of Jesus from the rest was as easy as gathering “diamonds from a dunghill.”

He then took two identical printed copies of the New Testament and went at them with scissors. As he cut out the excerpts, he pasted them in a register, the whole amounting to 46 pages.

Some years later he concluded that a scholarly version was needed. In 1819, towards the end of his life, Jefferson got together a more extensive collection of New Testaments. From these he produced a quadrilingual version, with columns in Greek, Latin, French, and English.

In 1983, as part of its “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series,” the Princeton University Press published a scholarly edition of these two texts. Perusing this book, I concluded that a similar effort might be attempted with the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

In this ambitious attempt at purgation I would exclude all passages that are marred by ethnocentrism, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and superstition. Obviously, this is a challenging project. For the present I offer only a tentative effort at slimming down the book of Genesis.

The two Creation stories (1-2:4) must be excluded, as neither is in accord with modern science.

The story of the temptation of Eve and its consequences (2:4-3) is misogynistic in its singling out of the woman, serving in this way as a prelude for the patriarchal subordination and degradation of women that mars so much of the Tanakh. The Lord goes walking in Eden to cool off in the evening breeze. Evidently the heavenly air-conditioning system was on the fritz.

The story of Cain and Abel, the first murder is scarcely edifying. As one commentator remarks, [t]he whole books of Genesis revolves around death, killing, and the threat of death. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, and from the pit the slaughtered Joseph’s coat ‘declares’ his guilt” (37:31-4). This is magical thinking: blood cannot “cry out.”

The Flood (6-9:17) was occasioned by sexual transgression, when the sons of the gods copulated with the daughters of men. Geology provides no record of such a universal inundation. And of course there would be no way for the vast array of animal species to fit within the limited space of the Ark as described, and indeed of any such Ark. The earth itself is the only adequate Ark.

The bizarre story of Ham’s uncovering his father’s nakedness and the consequences for his descendants (6:18 ff.) is racist and possibly homophobic.

The Tower of Babel account (11) is to say the least an improbable explanation of humanity’s many languages. In suggesting that Hebrew was humanity's first language it gave a highly misleading signal to the emerging science of linguistics.

The Abraham narrative (12ff.), intended to establish the primacy of the Israelites, is ethnocentric. Abraham himself is a man of cruelty and superstition. Abraham’s treatment of his women, Sarah and Hagar, is despicable.

The heavenly beings who visited Abraham at Mamre (18) are not credible.

The notorious Sodom story (19) is homophobic. Despite much searching, no archeological evidence has been found of the destruction of Sodom and the other four Cities of the Plain.

The command to sacrifice Isaac (22) is barbaric and disgusting, unworthy of any deity. Abraham’s willingness to carry the command out is equally despicable.

Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (27) is ethnocentric.

The rape of Dinah (34) is misogynistic, the reaction to it disproportionate.

Joseph’s getting guidance from dreams (37ff.) is superstitious. Don’t try this at home!

The custom of temple prostitution (38) is odious. Note that Jacob takes it as a matter of course that Tamar could be such a prostitute.

The behavior of Potiphar’s wife (39) is a stereotype of the lustful woman. More misogyny.

Jacob’s last words (49) are foundationally ethnocentric.

After this purgation, what is left is possibly acceptable, but not too edifying. The remaining material contains genealogical data, impossible to verify and sometimes asserting impossible claims of longevity. Some narratives, such as Cain’s murder of Abel and the story of Lamech, are perhaps plausible, but unpleasant.

"Faith-based" individuals, whether Christians or Jews, will sometimes concede the existence of some of the masses of noxious rubbish that lurk within their Scriptures. They assert, though, that there remains is an authentic core of wisdom that we must retain and indeed revere. Somehow, they feel that the “Bible as a whole” is something that we must revere. Such uncritical reverence is precisely what we must avoid, since so much of that whole is pure rubbish.

What is the authentic core that remains from this flensing of Genesis? Not very much, as far as I can see.

Perhaps one should start, as Jefferson did, at the other end--by compiling a list of passages in the Hebrew Bible that are in fact inspiring. These would include the Psalms (many of them at least), portions of the prophets, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as perhaps a few other passages. The result would be a small book, maybe even smaller than the New Testament, but perhaps worth having.

Over against this modest yield must be set the enormous harm--the suffering inflicted on hundreds of millions of human beings--by this entire set of “holy scriptures” cherished by the Abrahamic faiths. The Jewish contribution, as the first and longest compilation, deserves special attention and, where appropriate, obloquy. For that reason those who admire the whole of the Bible, without distinction. deserve especial scorn. Here I stand with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

In short, there are not many diamonds in this enormous dunghill.

PS. Steve Wells, maintainer of the site has actually performed the task of Jeffersonizing the entire bible. He provides detailed skewering of each book. Interestingly enough, he agrees with me that the book of Genesis has no "good stuff" at all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Designer Nation

These days we hear much about designer jeans, designer sunglasses, designer furniture, and so forth.

What we don’t hear about is a designer population in the US. Yet for quite a while now the concept has been part of the hidden structure of the debate over immigration. Let me explain.

For many years American immigration policy was intended specifically to exclude all Asians and peoples of color, restrict Southern and Eastern European immigration, and encourage the arrival of Western Europeans. The United States had been walled off to immigrants from Asia through a series of racial laws that included the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asia Barred Zone Act of 1917 (which denied entry to peoples from South and Southeast Asia and the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with the exception of the American possessions of the Philippines and Guam), the 1924 Immigration Act (which totally excluded the Japanese and other Asians from immigration and naturalization), and the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 (which reclassified all Filipinos as “aliens,” permitting only a 50-person annual quota).

Passed in 1952 under Cold War pressure, the McCarran-Walter Act represented a partial, somewhat grudging liberalization. Subsequent steps in immigration law made for further changes. Many hailed these as creating a level playing field. The upshot proved somewhat different.

During the 1960s and 70s some radicals decided that white people should have few if any children. Black people should continue their high birthrate until we reached parity: half black, half white. Naturally, some black nationalists applauded this idea, but so did some guilty whites (who may have practiced the precept “copulate, don’t populate” for a variety of reasons, though). The intended result was the Designer Nation, marque one.

Eventually the black birthrate leveled off, and political changes brought in more people from other parts the world, including lots of whites from Eastern Europe. Uh-oh. Fortunately this reinforcement of white demographic dominance was offset by a new cohort of immigrants from East Asia. Now we could add yellow as a significant aspect of our national polychromy.

The ultimate designer change, however, is coming in the form of unrestricted immigration from south of the border. This will produce a significant browning effect. Great! white, black, yellow, brown. Now all we have to do is adjust the proportions, and our Designer Nation will look like the world.

What is remarkable is that these changes are going on virtually underneath the radar. There has been no national debate about the Designer Nation goal: we are just supposed to accept that the vast changes in progress are for the best.

Implementation of the Designer Nation is clearly an elite affair--not democratic at all. Who is behind it, then? That is hard to say. Clinton, the “first black president,” seems to favor a general darkening of the national epidermis. Then there are senators Kennedy and McCain, sponsors of the failed immigration bill that would have legitimized the Latino/Hispanic influx--and influx that is going ahead all the same. And there is Karl Rove, who saw the Latino/Hispanic groups as socially conservative, and therefore ripe for Republican exploitation.

It seems that there are many cooks engaged in the production of this humongous ragout. Some chefs, like Rove, get discouraged, but others appear to take their place. The only constant is that a few elite figures are guiding the changes. The opinion of the American people doesn’t count. They aren’t being asked, deliberately so.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Sun People and Arielismo

A professor in the Black Studies department at New York’s City College, Leonard Jeffries achieved national prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s for his harshly negative views concerning Jews and white people in general.

He provoked particular controversy with his analysis of whites as "ice people" who are violent and cruel, while blacks are "sun people" who are compassionate and peaceful. He further claims that blacks are superior to whites because of their higher melanin levels. In an interview in Rutherford Magazine (May 1995) Jeffries expanded on his racial views: when asked what kind of world he world want to leave to his children, he answered: "A world in which there aren’t any white people.”

Such opinions would appear to be the exclusive property of some far-out black activists. Not so, however, for the contrast between Ice People and Sun People goes back to a 1978 book (The Iceman Inheritance) by a Canadian white author, Michael Bradley. Bradley proposed that the experiences of northern Europeans in the harsh conditions of the Ice Age had promoted traits of aggression and racism. These traits are less common in people with more malanin.

The migration of the ice-people idea is an interesting instance of the cross-over effect, an effect predicted by meme theory. Memes are ideas that have the power to spread like viruses, taking root among very different human hosts.

At all events, in the age of Barack Obama the Bradley theory as amended by Jeffries has lost much of its appeal. American society is less polarized than formerly so that the need to account for the phenomenon has faded. Moreover, African Americans are in many ways typical Americans employing our traditions and institutions to make their case. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s depended upon American traditions of fairness and equality, as enshrined in the key documents of the American republic. With all its flaws the system works.

To be sure, the Bradley-Jeffries theory taps into some common stereotypes, viz. that Caucasians are coldly rational, while people of color are endowed with a wonderful emotional expressivity--they have a natural sense of rhythm in short. They are more likely to operate in terms of cooperation instead of competition. It is the latter that leads, in the view of these theorists, to the evils of cut-throat capitalism.

And of course some guilt-ridden whites fell for the ploy, witness Susan Sontag who once opined that “White people are the cancer of the human race.” Later she retracted, but she had already exhibited the mindset.

For those less afflicted with racial guilt, the theory elicits some immediate difficulties. Most of us are not impressed by the warmth and emotional exuberance on display these days in the Congo (where four million people have died), Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Conversely, aggression does not seem very common among the Ice People of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, but it is rife in sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, the underlying tendency survives in that some intellectuals hold that the dominant position of northern European culture needs to be balanced by another population stream. This demographic infusion stems generically from the Third World, but most especially from Latin America. Those who adopt this view believe that the more immigration we have from this source, the better. It is needed to curb Anglo-Saxon individualism and overreliance on competition.

At all events, if one shares Jeffries’ view that we need more Sun People and fewer Ice People, one will welcome demographic changes that are taking place in the US. While the natural increase of African Americans is tapering off, we are seeing a huge influx in brown people from south of the border. These major demographic changes are due to the combined effect of a high birth rate and immigration, legal and illegal.

There is thus a Latino/Hispanic triumphalist argument, the cousin of the Bradley-Jeffries thesis. Ultimately, this theme stems from a book published a little over 100 years ago by José Enrique Rodó (1872-1917), a Uruguayan essayist and intellectual. He summoned the youth of Latin America to reject materialism, returning to Greco-Roman ideals.

Rodó is best known for his essay Ariel (1900). The eponymous figure is drawn from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Ariel represents Latin America, and Caliban represents North America. They debate the future course of history, in what Rodó intended to be a secular sermon to Latin American youth, championing the cause of the classical western tradition. Ariel is structurally based on binary opposition, in which the figures of Ariel and Caliban are diametrically opposed.

Rodó's Ariel appeared in a tense cultural and historical context. Throughout the preceding century, the Spanish empire had gradually lost its dominant status with the wars for independence across its colonies. Spain’s decline was compounded by its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which it lost Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. This war signaled the ascendance of the United States as a world power. It was in this changing global context that Rodó commended Latin America’s finding its own identity, instead of simply gravitating to the new overarching power in order to fill in the vacuum left by Spain’s departure.

The Uruguayan author warned against "nordomanía," excessive attachment to North America. His thought reflected on history, when US power was growing in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Latin America, where Rodó stressed the importance of regional identity and how it should be deeply rooted every country. However, to create and maintain regional identity proves difficult at times due to outside cultural and economic influence.

Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, Rodó’s ideas have appealed to Latino and Hispanic intellectuals in the United States. The culture of their countries of origin, instead of being inferior, is actually superior to that of Caliban-land. Needless to say, the Uruguayan author’s call for an elitist return to Greco-Roman civilization and for the cultivation of spiritual values gets downplayed in this context.

Be this as it may, there does not seem to be much evidence that Hispanic and Latino youth are rallying to the cause of Arielismo. Instead, they seem intrigued by American popular culture and a desire to prosper in their new country.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity of the two contrasts: Sun People vs. Ice People and Ariel vs. Caliban. Both assume that there is something undesirable that needs to be curbed in our Anglo-American culture. These theorists seem oblivious to the North American values of freedom of speech and due process, values that allow them to flourish as for the most part they would not in Africa and Latin America.

At all events it seems unlikely that the United States will soon be “solarized” or “Arielized.” Still, these trends are worrisome, as they enter as a subtext into our debates about immigration. There must be no automatic assumption that American culture needs mitigating--certainly not in the direction of the dubious ideals represented by Jeffries and Rodó.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stalinism in Manhattan

At a dinner party last night I ran into a specimen of a human category I had thought extinct: Homo Stalinoides. This rare type has internalized the whole propaganda line of the Soviet Union ca. 1950. Curiously enough, this Stalinoid was lodged in the body of a person I thought I knew fairly well.

Many might think that Homo Stalinoides is now extinct. In most places, yes. But lower Manhattan, where my friend resides, is a museum of all sorts of human oddities that have disappeared almost everywhere else.

What are the thought patterns of Homo Stalinoides? One of the most important memes is moral equivalence. It seems that all the horrors of Stalinism have counterparts, equally dire and deplorable, in the US. Thus my friend claimed that the Gulag was matched by the US Depression. It availed nought when I mentioned books that documented in detail the huge, avoidable death toll of the crimes of Stalin and his henchment. In his book The Great Terror Robert Conquest has provided the most detailed account of Soviet tyranny. The group of French scholars who authored the Black Book of Communism has calculated the death toll of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot at 70 million. Hitler did not begin to approach that figure. And, despite my friend‘s espousal of the sophistry of moral equivalence, there is no parallel at all in democratic countries.

The fallacy of moral equivalence was a ploy commonly adopted by defenders of Soviet policies during the Cold War. Such an approach is not without costs, for there is an explicit concession. The problem with the argument is that it concedes the evils of Soviet policies. They must be evil if they are matched by the policies of the US and its allies, which have always been, in this view, prima facie instances of evil The device has other avatars, even less savory. Positing a moral equivalence between a number of acts carried out by the Allies during World War II and the deeds of the Nazis, especially the Holocaust, is a common strategy employed by far-right apologists for the Nazis in Germany today. Analogous arguments occur in the works of authors not per se sympathetic to Nazism, such as F.J.P. Veale, Noam Chomsky, and Joseph Sobran. Commonly cited as examples are the Allies' aerial destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hamburg and Dresden; the systematic murder and rape of Germans in the East by the Red Army; and so forth.

Another ploy essayed by my friend reflects the old claim of Daniel Guerin and others that Hitler was a mere tool of German business, and therefore a projection of capitalism. This assertion has been addressed by the historian Henry Ashby Turner, who is best known for his 1985 book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. In it he rebutted the claim that it was German big business which primarily financed and otherwise promoted Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He argued that the extent of business support for Hitler and his Nazi Party had been much exaggerated. On the basis of careful examination of unpublished records of major German corporations and of Hitler's party, Turner concluded that the bulk of the Nazis' funds during their rise came from their party's members and other ordinary Germans and that the principal political recipients of big business funding were the traditional right-of-center parties, the German People’s Part and the German National People’s Party. The only election campaign in which big business contributed significant amounts of money to the Nazis was that of March 5, 1933, after they were already in power Hitler was using German business interests, not the other way around.
Also unmentioned by my friend is the inconvenient fact that Stalin was Hitler’s ally. The link was forged in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939. This unholy union allowed Hitler to invade Poland unimpeded. In fact the two dictators divided the country, with the Germans in the West and Soviets in the East. It was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that specified Soviet oil shipments that powered General Rommel’s tanks--all the way to the west coast of France.

My Stalinoid friend thoroughly approved of Stalin’s destruction of Christian art and architecture. symbols of superstition and feudal oppression. I refrained from pointing out that a similar benefit could be obtained by destroying the lugubrious colonial Mexican art that my friend (a fellow art historian) is studying.

Now in his sixties, my friend is a dinosaur. As his generation dies out, so too this quaint, not to say grotesque survival of Soviet apologetics will to all intents and purposes disappear. It is already much faded. If these views are doomed to extinction, why worry about them?

I worry because there is a larger issue, and that is the liberal conformism that prevails in Manhattan where I live. Almost without exception, Gothamites subscribe to a set of views whose validity is assumed to be axiomatic. Abortion and unlimited immigration are just fine, while the death penalty and “Islamophobia” are wrong. I might even agree with some of these views. After all, I live in Manhattan too. Yet that is not the issue.

There are several problems with the prevailing climate in my tight little isle. First, the views are imposed en bloc as a kind of catechism. One is not supposed to analyze the items separately, so that one demurs from approving of abortion, for example. It is all a seemless web. The second difficulty is the inability to understand the very different mindset that prevails west of the Hudson. In my traveling days, I took care to take at least one annual trip into the American heartland, so that I could access what was happening there. The lifestyle is very different, and so are the opinions. And there is no way that Manhattan or New York City can separate itself from the rest of the United States.

When Bush was reelected in 2004, the city was enveloped in an eery silence. How could such a thing possibly happen? While I too deplored the result, before the election I thought that it was likely that Bush would get back in. I had had lots of frustrating internet conversations with people in other parts of the country who held that “national security” trumped everything. They were going to vote for Bush, and they did.

Of course, in New York City it would have been unwise even to hint that George Bush might be reelected. That would be tantamount to wishing that such a calamity would occur.

New Yorkers are blithely unconcerned with bringing others around to their views. Why bother? They are just too dumb.

Occasionally, older liberals hark back to the conformity that enveloped the country during the McCarthy period. I remember that era, and it was indeed deplorable. However, liberal conformity is just as deadly. You can probably keep your job, but you won’t get many dinner invitations. Isolate the heretic! is the name of the game.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Judaism's Great Secret

[To pick up some of the points noted in my recent posting “A Look Ahead,” I am resuming my critical pieces on religion. The most recent of these, some months back, was my response to Christopher Hitchens' diatribe. As a rule, Hitchens and other latter-day atheists address only the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), as if that trio constitutes the sum total of humanity's encounter with religion.

Also bypassed is the urgent task of discovering the true history of the founding documents of these Abrahamic "peoples of the book." In many ways it is not a pretty story, but the task must be undertaken. For a hundred and fifty years, at least, the critical-historical method (sometimes termed the Higher Criticism) has, in effect, cut Christianity down to size. Now we are witnessing increasing and well deserved attention to the neglected "noncanonical" documents including the fifteen or so Gospel texts not included in most current editions of the New Testament. Many Christians, even learned ones, try to wriggle out of these challenges. They must not be let off so lightly.

The first definitive demonstration of the flensing efficacy of the historical-critical method was the detection of the four sources of the Pentateuch, with the accompanying disproof of its Mosaic origin. In this light, it is curious that modern Judaism with its reverence for Torah (in the strict sense, that same Pentateuch) has, by and large, shirked this task.

In the following piece I address some of the reasons for this avoidance.]

Nowadays few truly serious scholars, Christian and secular alike, would think of approaching the Bible without reference to the findings of the critical-historical endeavor, the product of generations of careful scholarship and insight. This approach is only now being extended to the Koran and the other foundational documents of Islam. The method has long been available to Jews--after all the first model of the approach was the four-stream analysis of the Pentateuch--yet modern Judaism has adopted an ingenious method of avoiding the challenge.

As Karl Popper emphasized, such immunization may give satisfaction to the immunizers. In the end, though, all cultural constructions must be formulated in such a way as to submit to the criterion of refutability. The Dual Torah doctrine, analyzed herein, serves to short-circuit this necessary procedure. Yet it provides only the appealing, but ultimately unavailing consolation of pseudo-protection. In consequence this resistance exposes modern Judaism, in all its varieties, to the charge of inauthenticity.

To understand the origins of the historical-critical method we must turn to the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. These thinkers held that the canonical texts of the Old and New Testaments, and only those texts, should determine what a Christian must believe. This restriction is sometimes known as the sola scriptura principle. It led, among other things, to the admonition that each Christian believer must read the Bible for him or herself, so that translations into the vernacular were required.

For our purposes, however, the most important consequence was the sweeping away of a mass of medieval accretions, enshrined in commentaries and the traditions maintained by the Roman Catholic church. In this way, the sola scriptura principle was able to function as a wonderful Occam’s razor, serving to excise Purgatory, papal supremacy, indulgences, magical powers of relics, clerical celibacy, and a mass of other parasitic intruders.

For the Reformers and the immediately succeeding generations in Protestant Europe, the canon of Scripture remained inviolate. The roster of books included was fixed and their text was assumed to have been conclusively established by the labors of Desiderius Erasmus and others.

In due course, however, the textual solvents devised by classical philologists began to impinge upon Bible interpretation. As a result of this work, rents in the fabric became apparent. A major first step was the discovery by the French scholar Jean Astruc that there were two distinct strands in the book of Genesis, marked by the preference for either Yahweh (as the name came later to be transcribed) or Elohim.

It was in nineteenth-century Germany, however, that the decisive steps were taken to the dismantling of what might be termed the myth of Biblical integrity. Building on the work of several predecessors, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) distinguished four distinct strands, conventionally known as J, E. D, and P in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch. This finding, and the underlying principle, came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis. Today the term hypothesis is in fact obsolete. Outside of the world of Judaism--and some Christian conservatives--most serious Bible scholars acknowledge that, as far as such matters can ever be conclusively demonstrated, this dissolution of the purported unity of the Pentateuch is a certainty. Jewish scholars and sages resisted. As S. Davis Sperling remarks, “[p]articularly odious to the faithful was the Documentary Hypothesis.” In the twentieth century, Biblical scholars such as Umberto Cassuto and Moses Segal rejected it completely. They have simply been in denial. A few, like the noted Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, made some concessions, but basically to permit them to continue the resistance.

Mainstream Protestant scholars have their own faults that derive from doctrinal allegiances, notably the falsehood that the Hebrew Bible exists to prepare the way for the New Testament. Still, these Christian interpreters will generally admit, however grudgingly, that the Documentary Hypothesis is correct. By contrast, very few Jewish scholars have embraced the finding. This obstinacy does not reflect favorably on their general reliability.

In fact, the method exemplified by the Documentary Hypothesis proved a fertile one. In the 1940s Martin Noth proposed that a follower of the creator of D, whom he termed the Deuteromistic Historian, had been responsible for the historical narrative that starts with Joshua and ends with the conclusion of the Second Book of Kings. Today this view is generally accepted.

A consensus now holds that the Book of Isaiah consists of three separate parts, melded together in a kind of shotgun wedding. The three distinct parts are chs. 1-35; chs. 36-39 (purloined from other parts of the Tanakh); and chs. 40-66 (“Trito-Isaiah). This triad is another product of the historical-critical approach.

These, and other discoveries, demonstrated that Scripture was not what it seemed. Traditional claims of authorship, such as the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, were false. Moreover, the presumed unity of the texts dissolved into distinct strata representing concerns active at the time of composition or editing. German scholars sought to clarify these contexts by determining the “Sitz im Leben,” the life situation that governed the creation of the different strands of Scripture.
Other solvents stemmed from the increasing amount of comparative material that was recovered from the Middle East, beginning with the major decipherments of the nineteench century. The motif of the Flood clearly migrated from Mesopotamia, where it is found much earlier. The Code of Hammurabi clearly influenced the legal sections of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Yet other texts seem to have Egyptian origins.

As might be expected, scholars in conservative Christian seminaries resist these conclusions. Clinging to their doctrine of inerrancy, evangelicals oppose source-analysis of Scripture. And even some mainstream Protestant exegetes (who generally have the best record in biting this particular bullet), still seek to backtrack by alleging some core unity of the Bible.

However, the resistance of modern Judaism has been much more principled and thoroughgoing; it is highly resistant to change. Modern Judaism has availed itself of a special resource in fighting the implications of the historical critical-method, as embodied in the Documentary Hypothesis and the discoveries of modern archaeology. This approach stems from the concept of the Oral Torah.

What is the Oral Torah? First, it is not simply a “synonym for the Mishnah and the Talmud” (as the glossary in the Jewish Study Bible suggests), though to be sure those texts are major vectors of it. Nor is it the “authoritative interpretation of [Written] Torah” (idem). This last is a concept derived from Christian hermeneutics.

Perhaps the best short definition derives from David Stern. “[T]he Rabbis believed that the Bible--or what they called the Written Torah--was only one of two revelations God had given to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Alongside the Written Torah, they believed, God had also revealed to the Israelites an Oral Torah, which as its name indicates, was delivered and transmitted orally. Precisely how to define the Oral Torah is one of the great debates among Jewish scholars. For our present purposes we may say that it comprises everything that the Rabbis believed was ‘Judaism’ that is not explicitly written in the Torah; admittedly, this is a vast and heterogeneous body of material that encompasses everything from the many laws not spelled out in the Bible to the Rabbis’ own beliefs and theology as well as all their folk wisdom and lore.” As the last point reveals, this is an ocean without bounds. Almost anything said by a rabbi, at any time or place, could be part of the Oral Torah.

Of course, some would take a more restrictive view, holding that the Oral Torah was essentially complete by ca. 600 CE, when the canon of the two Talmuds was closed. Yet no one is compelled to adopt this minimalist view. And it remains the case that, in the Jewish view, the Mishnah and the Talmuds, despite their lofty status as examples of wisdom and scholarship, are in the end merely vectors of the Oral Torah. They are, as it were, lodging places for a phenomenon of much greater extent. According to the traditional view, it starts with Moses, Indeed, as delivered to him, it was complete then. Yet full disclosure of its manifold contents may not have achieved even now. There is nothing to prevent an opinion expressed in 2008 by a rabbi in Grand Rapids or Toulouse, let us say, from ranking as an authentic manifestation of some component of the Oral Torah.

In principle, the Oral Torah and the Written Torah cannot be in conflict. What happens, though, if they appear to disagree with one another? Then supposedly the Written Torah would be supreme. This is the way things should be, but (as James L. Kugel concedes) in reality the Oral Torah usually wins out. Accordingly, the reverence accorded the Torah scrolls in Jewish worship is something of a scam. The Scriptures are constantly subject to discipline and correction (to put the matter plainly) through the agency of the unseen presence of the Oral Torah.

In his book How to Read the Bible (pp. 680-81), Kugel puts the matter this way. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook, and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling. Every sabbath the Torah is, quite literally, held up above the heads of the worshippers in synagogue, kissed and bowed to and touched in gestures of absolute submission. . . . Yet on inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of the words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definite and final interpretation.”

An egregious, foundational example is the notion that the Ten Commandments, as vouchsafed to Moses in tablet form, were a mere table of contents. Each one designates a kind of file cabinet. These ten big items accommodate the 613 mitzvot or obligations, grouped according to theme in relation to the appropriate Commandment. The 613 (or 611 according to some accounts), obviously compiled much later, were, according to this fable, delivered to Moses in toto during the Mt. Sinai experience. Thus a whole mass of diverse material, much of it of dubious relevance, was shoehorned into the earlier texts. In this fashion--and countless others could be cited--the Oral Torah has in effect seized the Written Torah in a parasitical, controlling invasion.

There are then two myths of the Oral Torah. The first, an obvious fabrication, is the idea that in its entirety it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The second myth is the idea that the Oral Torah--a potentially infinite body of opinion, legend, and interpretation--is coequal with the Written Torah. As we have noted, though, to all intents and purposes the Oral Torah supersedes its sibling.

As far as the written record shows, the elements of this second, or Oral Torah emerge only with the Mishnah, around 200 CE. To be sure, the Mishnah contains citations from rabbis who lived in earlier generations, some in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. But the principles of selection are those devised by the sages who compiled the Mishnah some eighteen hundred years ago. In turn, the Mishnah served as the basis for the elaborations of the two Talmuds. As this process shows, Judaism, as we now know it, is younger than Christianity.

One of the reasons for the elaboration of the Oral Torah is that it resolves “apparent” contradictions residing in the received text of the Tanakh. Moreover, the Oral Torah, despite its supposed Mosaic origin, was of great help in dealing with the disappearance of Temple-centered Judaism after 70 CE, and its replacement by a new set of interpretations intended to cope with the changed circumstances of living in exile, among peoples who were often hostile, or at best uncomprehending.

The way in which the Oral Torah works recalls the function of the Tradition cherished by the Roman Catholic church. There Scripture is supplemented and, to all intents and purposes, overridden when necessary, by this body of doctrine, whose stability is assured by the Roman pontiff, sometimes assisted by the Councils. Judaism, however, has not and never has had an equivalent of the pope. Today, to cite one example, Benedict XVI is considering discarding the doctrine of Limbo. Perhaps, with his approval or that of one of his successors, this excision will be performed. In Judaism, however, there is no controlling body to sift the criteria that would allow for such doctrinal purging. As a result there are no limits to the expansion of the Oral Torah, which grows vaster than empires. The whole body of opinions and commentaries stemming from rabbis of any period is susceptible to admission into the precincts of the Oral Torah.

There is another interesting similarity, and difference with Roman Catholicism. That Christian denomination religion boasts several large bodies of commentary. Perhaps the most important are the Patristic writers (including such figures as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Jerome) and the Scholastics (with Thomas Aquinas at their head). Superficially, these bodies of commentary are similar to the Oral Torah--but only superficially. In the end the writings of an Augustine and an Aquinas are ancillary. They do not pretend to have a hotline to what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai.

The distortions that were the inevitable result of the capture of the Written Torah by the Oral Torah extend to Hebrew philology. Few rabbis acknowledge the point that the Hebrew language, like all languages, evolved, with meanings changing according to circumstances. The rabbis also anachronistically project back later meanings of words onto earlier contexts where they are not appropriate--again in obedience to the controlling material in the Oral Torah. In fact most advances in the critical study of Hebrew philology have been made by German and English Protestants, who have produced authoritative versions of the texts. For all these reasons, the conventional wisdom that recommends “consulting a rabbi” for the understanding of Hebrew texts is unsound. Of course, the rabbis can read Hebrew, but in doing so they habitually incorporate anachronisms derived from later beliefs and practices. These anachronisms make them unreliable guides in the matter of philology.

We return now to the historical-critical method. Here the Oral Torah provides, or seems to provide, and impregnable bulwark. We can be assured, so the argument goes, that the solvents of the historical-critical method do not apply, because the Oral Torah, not within the purview of this method, overrides them.

As noted above, some Jewish scholars have indeed sought to grapple with the challenge provided by the historical-critical method. James L. Kugel, a lucid scholar who taught at Harvard University and who happens to be an orthodox Jew, does so--with disturbing results: “modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable.”

Kugel, though, turns out to be a mugwump. He seeks to negotiate the matter by a kind of “dual-magisterium” approach. There is one set of truths, those elicited by the application of the historical-critical method, and another produced by Jewish tradition, beginning (in his view) in the three centuries immediately preceding the beginning of the Christian era.

This schizophrenia also flourishes among conservative Christian scholars. Nonetheless, it simply will not do. In the end, knowledge must be unitary.

Notwithstanding the diversity of Judaism in many areas, the concept of the Dual Torah has never, it would seem, been explicitly renounced by any significant branch of modern Judaism. That is the “great secret” noted above. There are of course “ethical” variants that reduce the role of the supernatural and other things that are now difficult to accept. These too, however, depend on the body of commentary that constitutes the Oral Torah.

Rarely discussed outside of Jewish circles, the Oral Torah is truly an elephant in the room.

Today we hear much about how Islam needs a Reformation. That may be. Judaism also needs a Reformation in which the historic role of the Oral Torah would be placed under close scrutiny. Neither of these developments is likely to happen.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The agony of Morton Smith

Morton Smith ((1915-1991) was a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, where he specialized in Biblical scholarship. In all likelihood he was a closeted homosexual, a status that contributed to his (somewhat gingerly) preoccupation with the subject.

He is now best known for his discovery of a text in the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine, and his controversial interpretation of it. The manuscript in question was fairly small, consisting of three pages of Greek manuscript bound in as end-papers to another book, an edition of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Morton Smith photographed the three handwritten pages, returning the volume to its original place in the library. Subsequently, the pages in question have disappeared. Before this happened, they were photographed in color (with clear evidences of tears on one side of the pages).

What are the contents of those pages? Ostensibly, the document was a previously unknown letter written by the early church father Clement of Alexandria. Moreover, it was a secret letter to his disciple Theodore. The letter congratulates Theodore on trouncing the gnostic Carpocratians, who were citing a libertine version of the Gospel of Mark. The bulk of the letter is spent conceding that there is indeed a "secret Gospel of Mark," but Clement's version of Mark is not the text the Carpocratians favored. Most interestingly, the letter quotes "Secret Mark" to the effect that Jesus had a practice of initiating his male followers into the "mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven." Yet Clement insists that "Secret Mark" does not include the verbiage "naked male with naked male."

IOn 1973 Morton Smith published his findings in two different books. One was a rigorously constructed academic volume from Harvard University Press entitled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, while the second was a popular account entitled The Secret Gospel.

These two publications were a sensation in the scholarly world, though not always in the way Smith intended. While the attacks have recently been renewed, they are not new. In 1975 Quentin Quesnell published a lengthy article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, claiming that Smith had forged the document, and then photographed his alleged forgery. Smith issued a furious rebuttal, but the debate never progressed beyond these extremes. The unresolved questions lingered.

Morton Smith reported that he found the manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958, photographed it carefully, and then left the book where he found it. When asked where the original manuscript was, he replied, "On the third floor of the library, where I found it." Four scholars located the manuscript there and saw it.

Then the chief monk became involved, and transferred the book to the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem. Supposedly, this was part of a project to move all the Mar Saba books to safer keeping. At some point, the librarian at the Patriarchal Library removed the text pages from the end-papers of the book where Smith had found them, and had more photographs taken. Bizarrely, the current stance of the Greek Orthodox Church is that they “cannot find it."

As of early 2008 there are at least three books in print addressing the allegations of forgery: Scott G. Brown's Mark's Other Gospel, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005; Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, Baylor University Press, 2005; and Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Yale University Press, 2006.

Two preliminary points must be made. First, some resistance to Smith’s discovery and his interpretation of it stems from traditionalists who cannot accept the possibility of Jesus being a libertine. This consideration tells one more about the psychology of the writer than the facts--in so far as they are knowable. At the opposite extreme are those, gay and otherwise, who are seeking to find just this kind of “libertine” in the person of the founder of Christianity. Again, the arguments redound on the arguer.

There are, of course, more objective arguments. Only a few of these will be touched on here.
What are the contributions of the three current authors? First, the case for the defense has been presented by a Canadian scholar.

1) Scott G. Brown wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the “secret” Gospel of Mark (University of Toronto, 1999). He teaches courses on Christian origins in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.

In his book Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery, Brown concludes that forty-five years of investigation, much of it cursory, have yielded five mutually exclusive paradigms, abundant confusion, and rumors of forgery. Strangely, one of the few things upon which most investigators agree is that the letter's own explanation of the origin and purpose of this longer gospel need not be taken seriously.

For his own part, Brown seeks to demonstrate that the gospel excerpts not only sound like Mark, but also employ Mark's distinctive literary techniques, deepening this gospel’s theology and elucidating puzzling aspects of its narrative.

More specifically, Brown's holds that Secret Mark was part of a longer version of the gospel of Mark, written by the same author, but for advanced readers who might be seeking a gnostic understanding of the first version. Longer Mark elaborates themes of discipleship and Christology already in place, especially elements neglected in the shorter version--the one we know--such as the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11) and the appearance and flight of the young man in Gethsemane (14:51-52). Brown goes so far as to suggest that Secret Mark is an actual parable of the kingdom:

"As an enacted parable of the kingdom, the raising of the young man...illustrates the paradox that one must undergo death in order to defeat it. The private explanation of this parable [where the young man spends the night with Jesus] expounds this insight by using baptismal imagery of death and rebirth [naked under the linen]... Baptism imagery is used here to interpret the salvific dimension of the young man's rising according to the analogy of dying (drowning in water) and rising again, though the baptism by which the transformation is attained is not the rite itself, but a metaphorical immersion in literal suffering and death." (p 206)

Brown’s work is the product of a resourceful defender of his hero, and the book deserves to be read alongside Smith’s original. However, he seems blind to clues that might suggest forgery, including some alleged instances of humor on Smith’s part.

2) Stephen C. Carlson is an independent scholar who maintains several web sites, including one on the synoptic gospels. Carlson, who had read Brown’s book, takes issue with four or five sentences in Brown's book and dismisses the rest of it with a footnote.

Carlson detects tell-tale slips, or perhaps sly jokes, inserted by Smith to permit the truth to emerge, if only the reader is diligent enough. These have been summarized by one reviewer as follows

-- The author of Secret Mark seems to have read James Hunter's 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. We owe our knowledge of this connection to Philip Jenkins, who first made this connection in 2001. The novel concerns about a forgery at the Mar Saba library, exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter. Furthermore, as Carlson notes, both Secret Mark and the novel's fictional discovery reinterpret a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms.

-- The letter to Theodore sounds hyper-Clementine, as if someone went out of his way to mimic Clement. (This point was argued at length by Andrew Criddle in 1995).

-- The letter goes out of its way to authenticate Secret Mark, identifying the author Clement, who in turn vouches for Secret Mark's authenticity; and his full citation of Secret Mark is unnecessary and gratuitous for the concerns he is supposedly addressing. (These points were made by Robert Murgia in 1976).

-- Shortly before his discovery of Secret Mark, Smith published a paper in which he connected both Clement of Alexandria and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). Carlson seems to be the first to have observed this.

-- Smith planted three sly hints, revealing himself as the author of Clement's letter:

(1) M. Madiotes -- the "bald swindler".
(2) Morton Salt -- the company which invented the kind of salt presupposed in Clement's letter.
(3) Jesus' gay affair -- with the young man later seen in Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, thus evoking the cultural milieu of America in the 1950s, where police were cracking down on gay men meeting in public parks and gardens.

Identifying these last disclosures constitutes the bulk of this book. Taken in conjunction with the rest of the evidence, they do seem substantially to weaken Smith’s case.

Other points, such as handwriting analysis, would appear to be moot.

3) The third book is by Peter Jeffery, a musicologist who teaches at Princeton University. Like Carlson, Jeffery reaches conclusions damaging to Morton Smith.

Jeffery also detects slips, or deliberate insertions, that imply modern authorship. In his view the three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite--resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth--reflect the Anglican Paschal liturgy prior to the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s. Moreover, Clement and the Alexandrian church maintained a theology of baptism based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have Epiphany motifs (such as creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than Easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).

More generally, Jeffery holds that homoeroticism found in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. It seems anachronistic. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who did not fully understand how the roles played out.

Strikingly, Jeffery finds that Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's nineteenth-century play, Salome. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils," which is echoed by Smith's Clement, who evokes "the truth hidden by seven veils.”

Jeffery notes Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, citing his harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article, quite severe by Anglican standards at the time. It would seem that Smith was going through his own sexual crisis, a crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in the same 1949 article, Smith alluded to a nineteenth-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church.

As one reviewer noted, Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt. Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain," who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'F--- You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship.” Maybe so, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more as a playful experiment or an angry act of revenge remains unclear.

The score then is two against one, Carlson and Jeffery against Brown. However, such crude score keeping does not tell the whole story, for Brown’s defense is a meticulous one.

Recently, the philosopher Bernard McGinn has sought to create of School of Mysterians, those who acknowledge that some puzzles can never be solved. Ho hum, one might say, didn’t the ancient Skeptics hold that view? And, of course, Kurt Goedel’s incompleteness principle cut the ground out from under--in advance--any ambitions to create a Final Theory of the universe.

It has been thirty-four years since Morton Smith published his two books. Today, we seem no closer than every to knowing the truth about those fascinating pages. We may simply have to leave the matter at that.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Times change

The "long seventies," the period in US history that stretched from 1968 (the year of the French and Columbia University uprisings) and 1981 (when AIDS was first identified), was an exciting era--centainly the most exciting that I have experienced. Yet it is remarkable how that era has receded. In some ways, it is more remote from us than the Roman Republic before the Punic Wars.

The era saw a president (Richard Nixon) removed from office. For a time it appeared that the central authority itself was breaking down. The black, women's, Hispanic, and gay/lesbian movements were in full swing. It seemed that anything was possible, especially in the realms of sex and personal expression. Gay men were the "shock troops of the sexual revolution."

To be sure, a number of books have appeared to characterize the seventies. To me, though, it is all best encapsulated by an essay by Charley Shively called "C@cksucking as an Act of Revolution." In today's advanced industrial world, the idea of an act of revolution seems a quaint fantasy. But it is the conjunction that is so absurd and self-serving. The writer was a c@cksucker and would-be revolutionary. But what necessity links the two? I am reminded of a slogan affected by lesbians during the period: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

From what I can gather (my experience is not THAT extensive in this realm) fellatio is more commonly a capitalist act, since money often passes from one hand to another. As I say, though, times change.