Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jesus' twin

Recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of the so-called gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which some regard as a fifth such text, on a par with the canonical set of four.

The gospel is ascribed to the apostle Thomas, one of the twelve. What in fact do we know of this this Thomas? His full name was Didymus Judas Thomas. That is to say, Judas was his proper name, while the additions Didymus and Thomas (Te’omas) are descriptive adjuncts. Both mean “twin,” one in Greek and the other in Aramaic. This disciple then was a twin of someone. But of whom?

The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, apparently written in Syria in the third century, is the source of the legend that this disciple became a missionary in India. The text also asserts that Thomas was the brother of Jesus. Likwise, this claim appears in one of the gnostic Nag Hammadi documents.

For a long time, Catholics and others, eager to defend their notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, have claimed that Jesus’ brothers were not truly uterine siblings, born of the womb of Mary, but cousins perhaps, or children of Joseph by another mother.

The New Testament texts do not offer support for these speculations. Instead, they speak directly of Jesus’ having brothers (and sisters as well, though they are not named). The fullest list of brothers (not necessarily exhaustive) is given in Matthew 13:55, where four are mentioned: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. It is unlikely that the last is the disciple who betrayed Jesus, as he is never identified as Jesus’ brother. This person could be the Jude to whom an epistle is ascribed in the New Testament. Yet there is a real possibility that the last brother named in Matthew’s list is our Didymus Judas Thomas.

On this interpretation Jesus had a twin brother, also born of Mary. One child was divine, the other an ordinary human being. This seems bizarre, yet the situation is not without precedent--at least in classical mythology. One parallel concerns the supreme Greek hero Heracles (Hercules), who had a mortal twin named Iphicles. According to the story, Alcmene had conceived a child with her husband, Amphitryon. Then she attracted the amorous attentions of Zeus, who made love to her in human form--in the guise of her husband Amphitryon. As a result of these couplings two children grew in her womb, one the son of a mortal, the other the son of a god.

Let us review the facts as presented in the legend. First came the “normal” impregnation: male human to female human. Then there occurred the extraordinary fertilization of the woman with the sperm of a god. The result of the first act was the mortal Iphicles. Herakles, whose heroic stature approached but did not quite attain the status of a god, resulted from Alcmene’s second coupling.

In the case of Mary we would need to reverse the order. First she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, while still a virgin. Not long thereafter, Joseph (or some other man) impregnated her with the child who was to become Didymus Judas Thomas, Jesus’ twin brother. As the Trinity could not become a quaternity, Thomas was denied divine status.

Recent scholarship has explored many fascinating bypaths of Early Christianity. To the best of my knowledge, though, Bart Ehrman (in his book “Lost Christianities”) is the only one to have discussed frankly this extraordinary possibility--that Jesus had a twin brother. However, he does not explore the implications further.

Did Thomas acquire special knowledge of divine truths while still in the womb? Was it uncomfortable for him, having to share the cramped space with a divine being? Did Thomas received any of the gifts of the magi? What was his status in Joseph’s carpentry shop? And so forth.

These questions may seem facetious--and they probably are. But the theological implications of this twinship are enormous. They literally boggle the mind.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ambience is all

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live as an enlightened heterosexual in San Francisco. A decent “straight” person in that locale would support gay rights, and enjoy cabaret, theater, and films featuring camp and gay wit. But sometimes, though, the person might long for a moratorium on the perpetual festival of gaydom that seems to reign in the City by the Bay.

That is sometimes how I feel about living in New York City, the biggest Jewish city in the world. As an intellectual, naturally I feel indebted to such creative figures as Popper, Koestler, Panofsky, Einstein, Schoenberg and so many others. All the teachers who influenced me in grad school were Jewish. I used to think that if I could figure out their secret, I could really go places. Alas, the secret was not being Jewish but having the advantage of superb education in Weimar Germany, an option that ceased to be available after 1933.

On occasion in scanning an array of nonfiction books in which one volume on a particular subject is written by a Jew and the other by a gentile, I will almost automatically gravitate to the former. It is more likely to be thorough and incisive.

Virtually all the works that I admire are the products of secular Jews. They are not in any way the product of “Jewish science” and “Jewish music,” they are simply science and music at their best. In all honesty, though, I do not feel the same about the manifestations of observant Jewry. Jewish Orthodoxy, with its vast register of dos and don’ts, strikes me as something approaching a collective neurosis. Privately, I suspect, many secular Jews feel the same.

As long as my mental powers continue, I expect to keep learning, massively, from the works of secular Jews. It is a great boon to live in their midst. Still, there are times when, like the mythical heterosexual citizen of San Francisco, I long for some lowering of the volume.

Here in New York City we are bombarded with celebrations of Jewish films and books. Countless articles and book reviews appear in the New York Times and other quality media. It is all interesting--up to a point. But I simply cannot take any interest in the minutiae of life in the stetlach (little towns) of Eastern Europe. As with my ancestors in the Emerald Isle, life there was for the most part nasty, poor, brutish, and short. No wonder the immigrants breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived at Ellis Island. They knew that great challenges awaited them. But there would also be opportunity of a kind not available in the old country. Today, the new sentimentalization of ghetto life. Fiddler-in-the-Roofism, obscures these realities.

Jewish history offers much that is instructive, as the Dalai Lama, in the company of so many others, has acknowledged. During January our two PBS stations here in New York broadcast the six-hour documentary “The Jewish Americans.” Containing some unusual footage, this program was informative and well done. On March 18, the comedian Jackie Mason will begin ten weeks of NYC appearances as “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew.” This sounds like fun, and (usually a reluctant theater goer) I might even attend.

Today the fashion for identity politics has plunged us into a kind of salmagundii of ethnic exhibitionism, encompassing the variants of Afrocentric, Hispanic/Latino, Greek-American, Irish-American ethic chauvinism. And so on, seemingly ad infinitum. This is a kind of super-meme that keeps on reproducing. In this context it is not surprising that there should be such a thing as Jewish ethnic particularism.

Yet in key ways the collective narcissism of American Jews is unique among ethnic groups. Individually, Greek Americans may surpass them, as they are always talking about ancient Greek art, philosophy, and literature--even though these things have very little to do with modern Greece. Greek Americans, however, have little power to project their ethnocentric concerns among the broader public.

The Nazis notoriously intoned “the Jews are our misfortune.” The reality is just the opposite. The Jews are our good fortune. The more of them we have the better. Such is the value of their contribution. But sometimes I wish that they could spend a little less time congratulating themselves. It is not really necessary.

POSTSCRIPT. I am taking advantage (and I trust not abusing my privilege) as blogger to comment in advance (but really afterwards) on the incisive comment posted by Jack. This is the second truly thoughtful response I have had to my recent postings on religion. I confess that I am in some turmoil about these postings, because I had hoped to find more wheat than chaff--or at least a lot of wheat--in the Abrahamic heritage.

At all events, Jack makes an excellent point. There have been very determined, and truly vicious efforts, in recent times to obliterate both Jewish and gay culture. If one errs sometimes in the opposite direction (and this is not really an error, given the tremendous losses), the effects are understandable.

It is also unreasonable to expect that these efforts at recovery be limited to "high culture," that is that we celebrate Moses Mendelsohn and Gustav Mahler instead of Fiddler on the Roof, or Whitman and Stein instead of the latest comedian on the Logo channel. Cultural recovery means INTEGRAL CULTURAL recovery, and not just a few high culture items. To require concentration only on the latter is, in effect, to acquiesce in the restrictions of the anti-Semites and homophobes.

As a personal reminiscence, I well remember how, in the 1960s (long before the current vogue) I became acquainted with the Kabbala, thanks to the remarkable interpretations of Gershon Scholem. I would not have wanted the "volume to be lowered" then. Nor should I do so now. In my piece, though, I was seeking to articulate an element of uneasiness that even the most well-intended people sometimes feel. Probably we should not--but we do. As a gay person, I do tire occasionally of celebration of homosexual people and events. I remember some years ago, when I attended a showing of "Maurice" (a generally excellent film) I thought, oh no, not this stuff again! But showcasing is better than silencing.

In the meantime, enjoy Jack's instructive comment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Was Jesus silent on homosexuality?

Today we often hear that Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, never said a word about same-sex relations. Endlessly repeated, this view has become the conventional wisdom. Gay Christians incessantly regale us with this truism, sometimes implying that Jesus may even have approved of homosexuality.

There are several reasons for believing that the statement is misleading. First, those who make it assume that the four canonical Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are all that we have. In fact, scholars have unearthed the texts of some sixteen other Gospels. One of these, the Gospel of Judas, was published only last year. Others may be on the way. The Jesus Project, a very serious attempt to separate what is authentic and what is not from the ancient texts, has published an edition of Five Gospels (adding Thomas to the familiar quartet). Others scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrmann, argue that we can use these noncanonical Gospels to reconstruct different forms of Christianity, forms that, historically speaking, “did not make the cut,” but which may offer useful lessons for today.

At least two of these outlying Gospels contain material on same-sex relations. “Secret Mark” is a different version of the Gospel of Mark ostensibly discovered by Morton Smith. The jury is still out on the authenticity of this text (see my earlier blog piece). The fragmentary material describes Jesus taking a disciple up to an inner room for a private initiation. To be sure, the text is not explicit about what was done there, but many readers have detected a sexual element. As I noted though, this text must be set aside until a more certain determination can be made as to its authenticity.

The recently published Gospel of Judas purports to be the text of an apostle now reviled, but who claims to have been Jesus’ truest disciple. This text contains harsh homophobic slurs about the priests in the Temple. If Judas really was close to Jesus, he may be assumed to be reporting views of the Savior himself.

There is a larger question. As a rule, Christians have never assumed that the Gospels alone (however many are recognized) would suffice to establish Christianity. In fact several key Pauline documents, are earlier than the Gospels. (We must not be deceived by the order of their appearance in printed Bibles, where the Gospels precede the works ascribed to the Apostle Paul.)
Of the fourteen letters conventionally attributed to the apostle Paul, seven are generally accepted as “undisputed,” expressing contemporary scholarly near consensus that they are the work of Paul: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The earliest of these was First Thessalonians, written probably in 51, or possibly Galatians in 49 according to one of two theories of its writing. The other five followed shortly thereafter. This means that the core documents of the Pauline corpus are earlier than any of the four canonical Gospels. At the very earliest, one can place Mark, the ur-Gospel, about 65; in all likelihood it is at least a decade later. Matthew is dated (somewhat optimistically) between 70 and 85. Luke is commonly ascribed to the period 80 to 95. John is later still.

Two key antihomosexual passages occur in Romans (1:26-27) and I Corinthians (6:9-10). As we have seen, the writing of these texts preceded the composition of the earliest of the four Gospels. If these views contradicted those of Jesus, wouldn’t someone, in the New Testament or one of the associated documents, have sought to set the record straight? To be sure, this is an argument from silence--but so is the assertion that “Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.”

For the purposes of argument let us return to the original premise about the four Gospels and their seeming silence on the matter of same-sex relations. Is it really true that Jesus said not one word about homosexuality? There is reason to think that this common view is mistaken.
A quarter of a century ago I had the honor of publishing in The Cabirion, a quarterly I then edited, an article by my friend Warren Johansson. This article, which deals with the context of the word “racha” in Matthew 5:22, is now accessible at, and in a shortened version at the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (

Here is the textual source:

Matthew 5:21: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.

Matthew 5:22: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Translators and commentators have long been puzzled by the word "racha," which is left in the original in the King James version. Clearly racha was a term of disparagement, some sort of insult. In a general sense, one may conjecture that the word is related to a Hebrew term meaning "empty," "empty-headed," or "brainless." That would parallel the imprecation "Thou fool" in the last clause of Matthew 5:22.

In fact Johansson was reviving a 1922 proposal by the German philologist Friedrich Schulthess that "racha" should be equated with the Hebrew "rakh" meaning "soft" or "weak", a "weakling" or "effeminate person. That would make "racha" equivalent to the Greek adjective "malakos," serving to designate a receptive partner ("passive" or "effeminate," according to contemporary stereotypes) in homosexual behavior. The Greek term occurs in the epistles attributed to Paul.

If Johansson is right, as he seems to be, then the teaching ascribed to Jesus is that his followers should not insult men, impugning their masculinity by labeling them “softies,” that is, passives or effeminates, types of person generally disparaged at the time. "What the text in Matthew demonstrates," Johansson concludes, "is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teachings." Warren Johansson cautions that none of his analysis implies that Jesus accepted or approved of homosexual behavior. Condemnation of homophobic slurs does not necessarily entail approval of homosexual behavior, as some overenthusiastic gay-Christian admirers of Johannson’s piece have concluded.

What Johansson’s work does show is that in all likelihood Jesus did utter one word about same-sex relations--in fact a fair number of words if we place racha in its full context.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Churches 0, gays 1

Peter Gomes is a high-profile prelate at Harvard University. He is also openly gay. [In my original posting I had mistakenly identified Gomes as Anglican. As Gregory Nigosian points out, he is in fact Baptist.]

Regrettably, I find it difficult to take seriously Gomes' views on homosexuality and Christianity. Here is admirer Bill McKibben’s summary of the relevant chapter in Gomes’ new book “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?”

According to McKibben, in his new book Gomes “showed, with benefit of the latest Biblical scholarship, that the texts usually adduced to show that gay sex was sinful were in fact commentaries on sexual violence and prostitution, that they came against a backdrop of biblical prohibitions on everything from hair-cutting to shrimp-eating, and that in general they had nothing to do with what people of that era couldn’t easily have conceived of: committed, caring relationships between people of the same sex.”

Alas, Gomes showed no such thing. Since the days of Canon Bailey a half century ago gay and gay-friendly scholars have labored to erase the antihomosexual content of key cruces in the Bible. For the most part, Biblical scholars have not followed them in this. It is instructive to learn that laypeople, whether churchgoers or not, have come to similar conclusions. These conclusions, based as they are on personal experience, are wiser than those of gay-friendly exegetes.

This evidence emerges from a new book unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. This volume presents the results of surveys by the Barna Group, a kind of Gallup poll for evangelicals. Here we see a portrait of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 who have turned against a Christianity that they perceive as “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” “insensitive to others” and having a single-minded emphasis on conversion that’s irrelevant to their lives. “This is a brand of religion that, for all its market share, seems at the beginnings of a crisis.” Many of those who hold these views have attended churches for some months, and they have been turned off by what they found.

As Paul Varnell notes in a recent incisive column, Kinnaman and Lyons focus in their youthful cohort on those they call "outsiders"--atheists, agnostics, adherents of other religions and the "unchurched." Only a decade ago, the writers opine, Christianity had an overwhelmingly positive image among the young, including outsiders. That is no longer the case. "Our most recent data show that young outsiders have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith."

Homosexuality, it seems, is a kind of Archimedean point in this disaffection. As many as 91% of "outsiders" hold that the churches are antihomosexual, while 80% of church-goers do as well. "In our research, the perception that Christians are 'against' gays and lesbians--not only objecting to their lifestyle, but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them--has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the 'big one,' the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity's reputation." In short, "A new generation of adults ... now accepts homosexuality as a legitimate way of life."

There is bad news for two groups here. As evangelicals, Kinnaman and Lyons are not happy about the discontent with the churches and the grounds for it. But they are honest enough to state the facts.

There will be unhappiness also in a very different camp. After fifty years of exposure to gay-Christian apologetics, seeking to promote the idea that “true Christianity” is not opposed to gay love, most lay people are not buying the argument. The Gomes-style arguments that it is OK both to be gay and a Christian have little purchase.

The overall finding strikes me as a development of major significance. Some of the outsiders will use this perception as confirmation of their decision to remain unchurched. Some of the 80% in the currently-churched group may move away from their affiliation with particular denominations. Of course, they can be--and some probably are--in a position similar to Catholics who disregard the church's teachings on birth control and abortion, while remaining within the church. But others will stay away or leave.

Anyway, what is momentous is the possibility that some numbers of people, convinced that the churches are antihomosexual, will side with the gays and not the churches.

Americans, together with other English-speaking peoples, cherish a deep commitment to the principle of fair play. And here the perception is that the churches are not playing fair.

Friday, February 08, 2008

An archbishop errs

John F. Burns of the New York Times reports on a controversial speech delivered February 7 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans. In this address Williams called for "constructive accommodation" with Islamic law. He proposed that Shariah be recognized alongside Britain's legal system, at least for family law. Of course, the prelate is against "extreme punishments" and provisions allowing for the subjugation of women.

Who is to say what extreme punishments are? And some Muslim women claim that they like their second-class status, which clearly defines their place.

He remarks: "I don't think that we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstruously incompatible with human rights simply because it does not fit with how we understand it." This is a slippery slope argument. Today we may recognize Shariah for questions like inheritance and adoption. Where, though, is the acceptance to stop? Why not extend it, as some Islamists would favor, to cover honor killings and forced female genital mutilation?

The idea of equality before the law is the result of centuries of struggle in the English-speaking world. Now the archbishop want to throw out this achievement in the interests of multiculturist accommodation. That is pure faeces. It is time to recognize than in some significant areas of human affairs Western law is simply superior to that of other cultures. This is a truth that multiculturalists have a great deal of trouble acknowledging.

He further remarks that the introduction of Shariah law is "unavoidable." That would seem to be a slippery slope indeed.

A couple of years ago leading clergy of the three Abrahamic faiths--Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--joined together in violent denunciations of a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. "At last," a wag declared, "unity has been achieved among the three major religions."

Unfortunately, there are many instances of religious leaders coming together across lines of faith to work against the common good. Archbishop Rowan Williams' speech is one of those occasions.

Concluding note: Long ago, the Western world had an unhappy experience with legal pluralism. This occurred in France during the Merovingian era, some 1500 years ago. Merovingian law was not universal law equally applicable to all; it was applied to each man according to his ethnic origin. Ripuarian Franks were subject to their own Lex Ripuaria, codified at a late date, while the so-called Lex Salica (Salic Law) of the Salian clans, first tentatively codified in 511, was invoked under medieval exigencies as late as the Valois era. (Some may remember the tortured reasoning invoked by an earlier Archbishop of Canterbury in Shakeseare's" Henry V.")

In due course, France and the other countries of Europe saw the need for a universal code of law that would apply to all citizens equally. Evidently, the archbishop wants to set the clock back to the Dark Ages.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Religion and me

This blog has proven to be quite eclectic. Some would say that the diversity reflects my grasshopper tendency, repeatedly revealed as I move unexpectedly from topic to topic. Two or three years ago I drew up a list of my intellectual interests. There are over a hundred themes, ranging from ancient Egypt and Greek philosophy to Le Corbusier and Karl Popper. Not all of these have found a place in this blog--at least not yet.

The extreme variegation of my interests doubtless limits the readership of my blog. But then most blogs have a limited audience anyway. If my resolve holds out, I will try to collect some clusters of these pieces and present them systematically. I have already done this colligation with my work on the homosexual vocabulary, now fully ready and accessible at

One area that could benefit from this amalgamation is religion, specifically the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Objection has already been made that I am not an expert in this field. Well, I wasn’t, and am not, an expert, in linguistics, but I forged ahead on Homolexis--with significant results, I think.

Just as war is too important to be left to generals, so religion is too important to be left to theologians. The matter is timely. One sees this timeliness in three important ways these days: the resurgence of Islamism in many parts of the world; the persistence of evangelicalism and Creationism, especially in the US; and the countercurrent of the new atheists, represented by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, among others.

So religion--at least in the form of the three faiths mentioned--is topical. It is more than that, because the phenomenon can deeply affect our lives, whether we are believers or not. Sometimes this effect is socially progressive, as in the work of Martin Luther King, who derived great strength from the Bible in his challenging quest to secure basic civil rights for African-American--and indeed for all of us. More often, though, religion seems to lead to conflict and bitterness, witness the troubles in Northern Ireland and the tense relations between India and Pakistan. There is also the confrontation with modern science that believers, some of them at least, are unwisely courting with their adoption of Creationism.

My involvement with religion is indeed curious. No one would have predicted it from my early years. My parents were atheists, who also belonged to a far-left political sect. They took it for granted that “progressives” like themselves would have no use for religion, whether organized or not. The only time I was ever taken to church was for my grandmother’s funeral when I was six. Our home did not contain a Bible. In their view, religion was inevitably destined for the proverbial ash-heap of history.

I hasn’t turned out that way, at least not so far. The fifties were a time that saw a good deal of religion-brandishing. Some thought that in order to oppose Communism we would need an ideology of our own, and that this belief system must be religiously tinged. As I came to discard my parents’ far-left views, I was exposed to this trend. I was also influenced by conversations with friends who had religious attachments. I visited a few churches, and briefly contemplated become a Catholic. Nothing came of this flirtation, thank goodness.

In college I discovered the field of art history, being drawn to both modern and medieval art. I settled for the latter. This choice meant that I would of necessity be concerned with religion, if only at second hand. I never took a course in religion itself, nor did I read modern theology (which was then, I later learned, going through a particularly fertile period). Some of my friends recommended Søren Kierkegaard. Yet I was never able to get a purchase on the Danish thinker. This fizzle, so to speak, was, I now think, because my friends were reading Kierkegaard as a way of distancing themselves from the religious beliefs in which they had been brought up. I had no religious background to escape from. I was seeking to get closer--but not too close.

In grad school in the early sixties I chose an illuminated Romanesque bible as my Ph.D. thesis subject. The volume was in London, and I looked forward to moving there (as I indeed did for a while). I recognized that interpreting the miniatures (it was their quality as art that had first drawn me to the book) required some understanding of medieval theology and hermeneutics. As I settled into the work, I began to read widely in Biblical studies. For the first time, I encountered the critical-historical school (sometimes known colloquially as the Higher Criticism), and came to accept its reallocation of the Biblical texts. Still I set this knowledge aside, as my effort was to interpret works from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, whose creators had accepted the allegorical reading of the Bible.

I went on to a successful career teaching medieval art (as well as the art of several other periods). I would utilize my biblical studies selectively in these presentations. but was never accused of proselytizing.

During the many years I researched and taught medieval art, I felt that it was incumbent on me to look at the works through medieval eyes. This was so in order that I might beter understand them and present them to my students. This centering meant accepting, at least as a kind of “supreme fiction” the allegorical approach that had been dominant since Early Christian times. (It was only to be ousted with the triumph of the Higher Criticism a century and a half ago.) Another standard assumption was that the significance of the Hebrew Bible lay mainly in ranking as an enormous prologue to the Christian Scriptures. It was the Old Testament in short. Today, those who are savvy in these matters prefer to speak of the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. The new (and I think correct) approach holds that those documents, very heterogeneous as they are, must be studied in the light of assumptions internal to them, and not treated as anticipations of something quite different.

While I approve of this de-Christianizing of the Hebrew Bible, I find that some Jewish scholars today are having a field-day in beating a dead horse. What they fail to realize is that much valuable scholarship, including the foundational discovery of the Documentary Hypothesis, stems from scholars who accepted the idea of the Old Testament. As always, one must evaluate a theory by its intrinsic merits and not by its origin. When Jewish scholars say, as some do, that they will disregard the Dcoumentary Hypothesis because of its “Christian” origins, they are evading the issue. Is the Documentary Hypothesis now an established truth? I believe that it is.

In my art-history teaching the emphasis was different, for I sought to show the fertility of the Bible in Western art. After all, this inspiration dominated our art through the end of the eighteenth century. Understanding the iconography, the subject matter of most major painitngs and sculptures required analysis of texts. And those texts were commonly found in Scripture, as well as such offshoots as commentaries and the Lives of the Saints. There was a similar, though perhaps less strong imprint in the various modern literatures of Europe.

All this while, I was aware of the critique of the Bible as a product of a pre-modern mentality--of a world of superstition in short. I thought, though, that much art, whether ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Hindu, or tribal, is bound up with superstition. The old Enlightenment scorn for “priestcraft” and all its works amounted, as far as my task was concerned, as a kind of systematic vandalism.

During the seventies my interests began to shift from art history to gay studies. Applying this approach to the Bible, I concluded that there was simply no way of whitewashing the key antihomosexual passages. These were few, but had done tremendous damage. This venom was part of a huge pharmacy of poisons. I came to see that the Bible had damaged other groups as well--all those classified as heretics, or who somehow resisted the dogmas that prevailed in the part of the world where they happened to live.

Reluctantly, I have come a considerable distance in acknowledging that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens were right in emphasizing the destructive heritage of the three Abrahamic faiths, rooted as they are in their “holy” scriptures. Rescue archaeology, seeking to recover the wisdom therein embedded, came to seem more and more quixotic, given the enormous evil these documents and their “peoples of the book” have unleashed.

The relationship of the three Scriptures is complex. Yet one point must be emphasized here. There is tremendous arrogance in those who hold that the Bible is integrally inspired, the “word of God.” This comment applies not just to Evangelicals, but to many observant Jews. As the creators of the first and longest of the three Scriptures, shouldn’t Jews pause to reflect on the evil they have, directly and indirectly, inflicted on the world.? Some secular Jews do so. Yet a more pervasive expression of regret would be more appropriate.

In their uncritical Torah-worship observant Jews would seem to be part of the problem not part of the solution. Speaking of the Torah (the Written Torah, that is) it is odd that Judaism should hold the most primitive part of their Bible, that is the Pentateuch, in the highest regard. The god depicted there, Yahweh, is a malign and preposterous figure.

As an equal-opportunity offender, let me turn now to Islam, In my formative years I developed a certain affinity for Islamic culture. This was imprinted on my in the first instance by a vogue for “Arabian Nights” movies. I remember with particular vividness the Alexander Korda version of “The Thief of Bagdad.”

Later, when I could afford it, I traveled in Islamic countries, and developed some knowledge of Islamic art (though my knowledge of the Arabic language always remained on the tourist level).

This interest was both revitalized and devitalized by 9/11. I read the Koran for the first time--hard sledding, even though the book is relatively brief. I also became aware of body of revisionist scholarship on early Muslim history and the Koran. For the first time, these scholars applied the historical-critical method to the prime documents of Islam. Things were not as they seemed, at least to these scholars. Muhammad was a military leader in North Arabia, who may never have seen Mecca and Medina. The Koran was only compiled some 150 years after its reputed date of composition. And so forth. I reported some of these findings on my blog. The various books edited by Ibn Warraq are the best way to access this revisionist critique.

About the same time I read some major works of the Minimalist biblical scholars, who have questioned the credibility of the so-called historical books of the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that the Exodus and the kingdom of David and Solomon may never have existed.

All this began to congeal in a new fashion. I was no longer concerned with the textual details of the Scriptures. Moreover, since I had retired, I no longer had to expound, as sympathetically as possible, the influence of the Bible on works of art.

So I turned to an effort to draw up a balance sheet of all three “holy books”: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran. I began with the hope that I could separate out the wheat from the chaff, so as to isolate the authentic cores of wisdom and insight preserved in all three traditions. In this endeavor I would differ from the radical rejectionism of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the other New Atheists.

To change metaphors, it seemed to me that the New Atheists were seeking to throw out the baby with the bath. Advancing further in my intellectual journey, though, I have come to wonder whether there even is a baby. The foundational documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so pervaded by hatred, intolerance, and superstition, that the worthwhile material--much smaller in extent than I had expected--is effectively drowned out.

I am not sure, then, that it is worth applying the flensing techniques of the Jefferson approach to the Hebrew Bible and the Koran. Not much would be left.

And maybe, just maybe, my parents were right all the while.