Sunday, September 28, 2008

The bible blues

Author of three books, Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

His most recent volume, released in September 2005, is entitled "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously" (Cambridge University Press). This subject is the one that I had originally pondered in relation to atheists and other secularists, who argue for simply dismissing the Bible and other religious texts. On the surface, at least, I had come to the same conclusion as Berlinerblau: it is not possible to dismiss the bible. Its influence on Western civilization has been simply too great. And that influence--call it the Palin factor--continues even now. So I was curious to learn more about Berlinerblau’s position. I began with a favorable opinion of this scholar because of his judicious book on the Black Athena controversy.

I had good reason to be inquisitive about his new book. But it seems that I needn’t bother. Here is what one Amazon reviewer says:

“Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously? Because, Berlinerblau claims:

1) It is not clear who wrote the Bible;
2) It is not clear what the Bible means;
3) It is not clear whether the Bible is against Jewish intermarriage or not (in some parts it is clearly against it, but not in others);
4) It is not clear whether the Bible is against homosexuals (it only says they should die!).”

I disagree. After 150 years of the Higher Criticism it is pretty clear what most of the Bible means. A few passages are humane and even inspiring, but most of that enormous farrago is noxious junk. And it is certainly clear that the Bible--both parts--forbids sexual relations between males.

Surely the task could be done better. Nonetheless, anyone who undertakes it finds himself in a no-man’s land. The defenders of the established religions will rush in to defend their turf. For their part, secularists insist that the whole thing must be ditched, the sooner the better. This polarization leaves little room for those who would chart a middle course. It was, I suppose, ever thus.

At all events, another Berlinerblau book, “Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics,” appeared last December (Westminster John Knox). The author notes that American politicians on the left and right exploit Scripture in their speeches. All sorts of people draw on the bible to defend positions on the environment, stem-cell research, and foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Berlinerblau finds politicians' recourse to Scripture to be shallow—they offer poor and tendentious readings, failing to acknowledge the bible’s internal diversity and contradictions. Fair enough, but this argument has little weight with the bible thumpers, who find all the assurance they need in endless repetition of their mantras. Some of Berlinerblau's historical generalizations are debatable. For example, did the United States really undergo a thorough secularization in the first 75 years of the 20th century? A wealth of scholarship on the persistence of conservative religion and the extent to which religion shaped liberal agendas such as the civil rights movement and feminism would suggest otherwise. In short, this topic--of great current interest--could benefit from a deeper analysis.

Friday, September 26, 2008

PC taboos

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was a New York politician who became an influential bureaucrat in the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson. In that capacity he prepared a controversial study “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” also known as the “Moynihan Report” (1965). The report’s main thesis was that the ongoing erosion of the black nuclear-family structure stood in the way of further progress towards economic and political equality. The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a '”pathology ... capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,” and that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.'” In addition, the report argued that the matriarchal structure of black culture prevented black men from functioning as authority figures.

Although Moynihan contended that his intentions were honorable, the report unleashed a firestorm of criticism from African Americans. Eventually he recovered and became a respected senator from New York State. Noneless, the incident ushered in a long period in which white people were wary of saying anything unfavorable--even obvious truths--about black people. Instead, one had to wait for one of their own, such as the actor Bill Cosby, to state that black family members were failing in the task of encouraging their children to do well in school. Even so, some African American commentators, such as Shelby Steele, had to face derision as “Uncle Toms.”

Before long, the principle became firmly established: only members of minorities were allowed to utter any criticism of their group. Outsiders, no matter how well intended, were barred from doing so. When heterosexuals, even those who were careful not to seem homophobic, pointed out that gay men’s practice of frequent, anonymous, unprotected sex was spreading AIDS, they were slapped down. Fortunately, eloquent gay spokespeople like Larry Kramer began forcefully to address the issue.

Many Muslim authorities make plain their view that no criticism of Islam by non-Muslims may be allowed. This principle is taken as a matter of course in the Middle East, and (as the Danish cartoon episode showed) it is creeping into Western society as well. Even now, most accredited scholars of Islam in the West, even those who are not Muslim, cling to the official line about the origins of Muhammad and the Koran. Questions from specialist scholars, which have been quite searching, are cordoned off, so that the general public hears nothing of them.

From the beginning of its existence sixty years ago, the state of Israel has invoked the Holocaust as a heat shield to prevent any criticism of its harsh policies regarding the Palestinians. Fortunately, in the last few years scholars such as Walt, Mearsheimer, and Judt have begun to ask searching questions about the Israel Lobby, and the way it has, to all intents and purposes, hijacked American foreign policy. And yet we are told that there is no such thing as the Israel Lobby. Sure, sure--and Mario Cuomo was so right in saying that the Mafia doesn't exist.

Repeatedly, we hear that any criticism of Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism. This approach is short-sighted, because it is creating billions of “anti-Semites” throughout the world.

I myself have sought to break another taboo by questioning the claims of Normative Judaism--the innovative phenomenon introduced by the Mishnah and the two Talmuds--to be a faithful reflection of the religion recorded in the Hebrew Bible. No dialogue has ensued. I have been privately told that such investigations by a gentile are simply not allowed.

During the last sixty years, there have been thousands of studies examining anti-Semitism. Except for a few pathetic replications of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, these studies have uniformly excoriated any criticism of Judaism and Jews. As far as I know, there are no significant studies condemning anti-Christianity. Indeed, secularists, following well worn paths hewn by Voltaire, Diderot, Bertrand Russell and others, have engaged in a veritable orgy of mockery of Christianity and Christians. Some, it is true, seek to distinguish between “Christianist” extremism and authentic Christianity, but the distinction is often lost. And why could one not, in similar fashion, distinguish between “Judianists” and authentic Jews? Of course, no word like the one just placed in quotes exists.

Traditional Catholics are still trying to stifle any criticism of the Vatican and the Church hierarchy. A silver lining that is the offshoot of the clerical pedophile scandals has made that strategy largely unviable, except among some sectors of the faithful. And in fact serious historians have for a long time exposed the horrors of the Crusades, the Albigensian massacres, the Inquisition and the subjection of the Amerindians in the New World. That is as it should be. No group should have the right to censor legitimate criticism of its historical record.

There is much that is objectionable, appalling in fact, in the historical record of Christianity. Yet we rarely hear any analysis that documents the origin of most of this negativity. It is the Hebrew Bible that is the source of Christian intolerance and arrogance, the division of the world into "us" and "them," the misogyny and homophobia. Clearly a double standard prevails. Can the heat shield of the Holocaust extend so far? Apparently it does.

All that being said, there is a paradox. In some realms we see a situation that is the very opposite of the one outlined at the beginning of this essay. In this contrary situation, members of the group are FORBIDDEN from commenting on it. A good example is drug use. Once we listened attentively to Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, public figures who had used drugs and were qualified to comment on their experience. But now only DEA officials and other law-enforcement types, not to mention the moronic Joseph Califano, are permitted to do so.

Of course times change. When I was young only homophobic psychiatrists were permitted to comment on homosexuality. Without exception they pronounced that it was a "sickness"--one that they could cure for a substantial fee. By contrast, those who were the real experts, gay people like myself, were abnormal “injustice collectors” whose views had no objective validity.

I could go on and on. There are plenty of other examples of all kinds: of the groups that have managed to mao-mao their critics so that only group members can define their collectivity; of those who are, conversely, forbidden to define themselves; and of switches from one category to another. There is no need for further elaboration.

Resolved: every person in every group should have the right to criticize every group. Wait a minute! What planet am I living on? I spent forty years laboring in academia. Thank goodness I was confined to a marginal enclave in the art field, because if I had been in almost any other I would be called upon to censor myself. That is the way “freedom of inquiry and expression” works. So I learned, and so it is almost always today. Oh, yes, the guardians of the conventional wisdom can allow a few expressions of heresy to slip through now and then, providing that they are properly marginalized. That way the honchos give the appearance of fairness. I seem to recall that a while back a man named Marcuse spoke about “repressive tolerance.” Indeed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Religion "lite"

When I arrived in London in the mid-sixties as a grad student on a Fulbright Grant, I encountered another student who was pursuing art history, as I was. The charming and knowledgeable Eugene S., who had already been there for a year as a fellow Fulbrighter, generously took me under his wing. It was Eugene who encouraged me to attend the classes of Karl Popper who, through his books and the work of his disciples, became a lifetime guide--my favorite modern philosopher. To this day I seek--in vain, I fear--to come up to Popper’s standards.

Looking back, it was Eugene himself, my best friend and guru (a term we scarcely knew then), who had the deepest influence on me during those formative years. While in London, Eugene and his wife Barbara decided to have a baby. Without any complications, Joseph S. was safely delivered in a London hospital. Sometimes I baby-sat for the couple. As they were both Jewish, Eugene and Barbara decided to have the boy circumcised. At their invitation I attended the briss. The rabbi performing the operation was distinctly unhappy at the presence of a non-Jew, so I never attended another such occasion. In any event these amputations of helpless infants. who cannot give legal consent, are acts that I have come to deplore.

In addition, Eugene and Barbara decided to follow another Jewish custom. They invited a friend of ours, also a Jewish-American grad student in London, to visit their home for a little ceremony. The custom required them to buy back the baby Joseph from a Cohen. And so Eugene dropped a few shillings into the hands of the requisite Cohen. As I recall, this young man was a little embarrassed by the affair, inasmuch as he had been raised as a Christian in France. But he had a Jewish mother, so that was all that mattered.

I don’t remember Eugene and Barbara observing Hanukkah. Maybe that was not so common in those days, at least among the English. Nor did they attend synagogue, not even for High Holy days.

And yet, as Eugene explained to me, he was proud to be a cultural Jew. As far as I could determine, this amounted to a very few rituals, such as the circumcision of his son, and a lot of folklore, some of it supported by semi-Yiddish sayings. One item I remember is the following: “You can’t have a wedding without a Bissel.” In those days, a Bissel was a popular carpet sweeper, often given to the newly wedded as a housewarming gift. In Yiddish, however, a bissel is a “bundle,” that is, a baby, often conceived before wedlock. The religious content of such sayings is obviously nil.

Such was the Judaism of Eugene and Barbara, a wonderful couple. I do not begrudge it them; after all it was their choice. Yet this abbreviated roster of customs and observances can scarcely rank as an authentic and complete record of the complex, millennial tradition of Jewish writings, rituals, and belief. In all candor, theirs was a form of cafeteria Judaism, or perhaps one should say Heirloom Judaism, for certain pieces of folklore were preserved (as probably they should be), while the main core of the tradition was disregarded. Such a position finds some support in one strand of Reconstructionist Judaism, which rejects the binding character of Halakha, openly acknowledging that such injunctions are simply “folkways.”

Considering the sensitive nature of their subject matter, my recent pieces on Judaism--ancient, medieval, and modern--have passed virtually without comment. As with my similar strictures about Islam in the early stages of this blog, I have notably failed to camp up the proverbial storm.

Golly. This indifference is what bad boys like me really hate,

It is true, of course, that I can boast only a small core of regular readers. Thanks to the miracle of Google, though, quite a few people choose to read Dyneslines pieces on particular subjects. For a example, a few words I once wrote about Arnold Boecklin, the Swiss artist, have evoked a notable response. So I know that people out there are accessing my critical Abrahamic pieces, many of which (as it happens) deal with various historical stages of Judaism.

In the absence of much published response to my pieces I have resorted to asking what some hypothetical respondent might say. Among these imaginary respondents are Eugene and Barbara. Unfortunately, I lost touch with them years ago, so I must try to imagine what their views would be.

They would probably begin by noting that they had not made a formal study of the fundamentals of Judaism, however defined. Such knowledge is not genetically inherited. Nonetheless, they might have a gut feeling that I had not treated the faith properly. In particular, I had not adequately represented the cultural Judaism to which they subscribed.

As atheists or agnostics (I forget which) they would seem to be barred from wholeheartedly reciting the words that are universally recognized as the cornerstone of the Jewish faith: Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad: Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Still, they might think that such utterance in a group setting would simply signify their solidarity with the Jewish people.

An observant Jew might remark harshly that their Judaism was almost a Cheshire-cat phenomenon, a remnant from which all substance has vanished. All the same, there are many varieties in Judaism today, and theirs would certainly be one.

Shouldn’t someone who is interested in Judaism today turn first to a streamlined version, such as the one espoused by Eugene and Barbara? This approach would disclose many entertaining pieces of folklore, enlivened by colorful snippets of Yiddish and Hebrew, while discarding the supernatural element, which is difficult to subscribe to these days. I would respond, though, that I am not making a synchronic study of Judaism as it is practiced today. Instead, I am approaching the matter diachronically, seeking to discern the various stages of development as they unfolded over time. I need to do this if I am to distinguish the interrelationships that have characterized all three Abrahamic faiths. In this long-term historical perspective, cultural (or Humanistic) Judaism has not been prominent, at least not until recently.

Sometimes we are told that contemporary Judaism comes in many flavors--a veritable Baskin Robbins if you will. If so, why isn’t the flavor that I have opted for just as valid as any of the others? Actually, I am not seeking to choose among a gamut of flavors, but to reconstruct the most significant stages of the evolution of Judaism, with particular reference to its interaction (or not) with Christianity and Islam. In pursuing this inquiry it is inevitable that I will uncover themes that seem dated or even repugnant to Humanistic Jews. But they are part of the historical record. Or to put it differently, they are (some of them) components of the yeast bequeathed to Christianity and Islam. Humanistic Judaism cannot make that claim.

Gladly would I receive any reasonable criticism from a qualified scholar of Judaism. In keeping with Jewish tradition, there are many such persons. So far, though, none has responded to my blog with the chastisement that I may well deserve, perhaps richly so. In this I and my readers are the losers, for surely what I have written can bear improvement

Those who have opted for various “lite” versions of the major religions--including Unitarianism, some very liberal versions of Episcopalianism, and Humanistic Judaism--are not infrequently inclined to “talk up” their allegiance, surmising that a faith that has minimalist theology and imposes very few burdens on the communicant will have more appeal to the outsider than the stricter, more historically grounded antecedents of their beliefs. Actually, the opposite is more likely to be the case, as converts are typically drawn to the full-strength versions, rather than to something that seems to be watered down. (There do not seem to be any “lite” versions of Islam or Mormonism. I suppose that at one point Baha’i could pose as a “reformed” version of Islam. Muslims, however, decidedly do not think so.)

What many outsiders think, though, is that the lite faiths are just one step from unbelief. Why not take that final step and simply cease to trouble oneself with religion altogether? Unfortunately, we cannot quite do this because the evidence of religious revival is around us all the time. Every day now, as I walk around Manhattan, I see Muslims kneeling on a little prayer rugs at the specified times. Because this phenomenon is a reality, we need to understand these religions--in their full- strength versions. But that understanding does not require subscribing to belief and and adopting practice--even in the most minimal terms. Study is one thing, belief another.



Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Magic 613

The writer A. J. Jacobs has produced a whimsical book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” This volume has proved to be a very popular item, though possibly not in Orthodox Jewish circles, where it would seem redundant. Those folks believe that they are already living biblically, each single day.

To this end Orthodox Jews adhere to the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”), sometimes known as the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” These injunctions are part of the Torah, we are told. Where then are they enumerated there?

That turns out to be a serious problem. Some hold that they are all present in “hidden form” in the Ten Commandments. If so they seem well hidden. In fact, their basis must be sought for in various scattered places in Scripture.

It is something of a surprise to find that there is no universally recognized list of the Mitzvot. The earliest known version, a bare-bones listing, is ascribed to Saadia Gaon (ca. 882-942). Nowadays many follow a different list drawn up by Maimonides (1135-1204), but there are yet other compilations that differ in content. At all events, Saadia Gaon and Maimonides lived long after the closing of the canon of the Talmud. Why does the Talmud itself not offer a definitive enumeration of the 613? Could it be that the Talmudic sages knew the list, but neglected to write it down, as they took it for granted? Why then do subsequent lists differ in content? In all candor, these lists seem to be something of a Johnny-come-lately phenomenon. They are a product of medieval, and not of classical and post-classical Judaism.

Some commandments in Maimonides’ list now seem barbaric in their anachronism, for example, 513. The master must not sell his maidservant; and 514. Canaanite slaves must work forever unless injured in one of their limbs. Nos. 545-49 apply to capital cases, stipulating the the courts must carry out the penalties of stoning, burning, execution by the sword, strangulation, and hanging. Moreover (552), the court must not suffer a witch to live. Two items that nowadays are definitely honored more in the breach than the observance are 534. Not to lend with interest; and 535. Not to borrow with interest.

Here, in rough outline, is how these lists seem to have come into being. Imagine someone with a new notebook, numbering the lines of the blank sheets from one to 613. Then one would have to decide what to write on those lines. Why 613? Well, according to the deliverances of the numerological technique known as gematria, the Hebrew numerical value of the word "Torah" is 611. One then must combine the 611 commandments ascribed to Moses with the two received directly from God to reach the desired total of 613. The magic number was attained by a dubious kind of numerology--and not in a very convincing manner, since the first calculation was 611, two shy of the final total.

Nor does the numerological intervention stop there. Some authorities hold that there are 365 negative commandments, reflecting the number of days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the presumed number of bones and significant organs in the human body. Many of the mitzvot cannot be observed following the destruction of the Second 
Temple in CE 70. According to one reckoning, there are 77 negative and 194 positive commandments that can be observed today--a total that is far from the canonical 613. Moreover, there are 26 admonitions that apply only within the Land of Israel. There are some commandments from which women are exempt (examples include those pertaining to shofar, sukkah, lulav, tzitzit, and tefillim). Some depend on the particular status of a person in Judaism (such as being a Kohen), while others apply only to men and others only to women.

Rabbinic support for 613 has not gone without challenge. Moreover, even as the number gained acceptance, difficulties arose in fleshing out the list. Some rabbis held that this count was not an authentic tradition, or that it was not logically possible to come up with a systematic count. In fact, no early work of Jewish or Biblical commentary depended on the system of 613, and no early expositions of Jewish principles of faith made the acceptance of such a list binding. It is evident that the confidence shown by some that the whole sequence was conveyed to Moses at Mount Sinai requires a considerable suspension of disbelief.

When rabbis attempted to compile a definitive list of the 613 commandments, they encountered a number of problems. Which statements were to be counted as commandments? Does this mean every command by God to any individual? Or only commandments to the entire people of Israel? Moreover, would an order from God be counted as a commandment, for the purposes of such a list, if it could only be complied with in one place and time? Or, would such an order only count as a commandment if it could --at least in theory--be universal, to be followed at all times? Further, how does one count commandments in a single verse which offers multiple prohibitions? Should each prohibition rank as a single commandment, or does the entire set constitute one commandment?

Ultimately, though, the concept of 613 commandments became a kind of talisman in the Jewish community. Today, even among those who do not literally accept this count as accurate, it is still common practice to refer to the total system of commandments within the Torah as the "613 commandments.” It sounds so precise.

In reality the 613 commandments do not form an essential part of halakhic law. This is so despite the sobriquets noted at the top: the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” In the strict sense, observing them is elective. In other words, they are a resource for those who choose to structure their lives around an elaborate series of do’s and don’t’s. This impulse looks very much like a version of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), identified by psychiatrists. In fact, there seems to a heightened incidence of clinical OCD among the Orthodox. That is, having internalized the 613, some individuals go searching for yet other injunctions and taboos to observe.

As in previous essays in this series, these findings suggest that the views of Orthodox Jewry, and of much of modern Judaism in general, have only a tangential relationship to the faith found in the Hebrew Bible. In fact we are dealing with two religions--one relying upon the other, to be sure--but essentially two religions. For this reason, the assertions of modern Judaism faithfully to reflect the “faith of our fathers” must be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Why is it important to utter these strictures? Would it not be more tactful to abstain? I don’t think that one can do this, though. The reason is that the older faith--Judaism One, if you will--has, through its influence on the New Testament and the Koran, had a great deal of impact on later civilization. To understand our cultural history, it is essential to reconstruct the relationships prevailing among the original three document-complexes.

Such is not the case, however, with Judaism Two, which is essentially the creation of an enclave, a separatist culture. It came about as a creative effort to cope with two disasters that devastated the Jewish world--the destruction of the Second Temple and the triumph of Christianity. As such, its influence has been pretty much limited to its own adherents.

What beliefs and practices prevail within this enclave is a matter that by definition must be determined by the observant persons who find their place within it. It is not the business of any outsider to say what these beliefs and practices should be. That point should be axiomatic. All the same, some valid observations are in order, and I have sought to make them above. In this light, the effort to pass such modern instances off as “living biblically” or “in accord with Torah” must not go without challenge. To shirk this duty would be to burke the larger enterprise of interpreting the interaction of the three primary Abrahamic religions.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Satire and dismissive epithets

Billionaires for Bush is a political street-theater organization that satirically purports to support George W. Bush for activities perceived to benefit corporations and the super-wealthy.

The organization stems from a group founded by Andrew Boyd as "Billionaires for Forbes," but Steve Forbes left the 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination early due to a lack of adequate voter support. In 1999 the Billionaires were present as Forbes announced his candidacy for President, jeering him as he signed a flat-tax a pledge in New Hampshire. At the action the demonstrators unfurled a large banner which read: "Billionaires for Forbes: Because Inequality Isn’t Growing Fast Enough." The Billionaires started chanting "Let workers pay the tax so investors can relax!" and other slogans. Forbes and his handlers were discombobulated, a little tussle ensued, and the Billionaires were pushed off to the side away from the cameras. Not wanting to miss the action, half the TV crews left the Forbes speech to cover the Billionaires.

Then the Billionaires planned a "Million Billionaires March" to coincide with the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Other activities included a "Vigil for Corporate Welfare” and an auction of advertising rights for the Liberty Bell.

At a March 2004 fundraiser on Long Island attended by President George W. Bush, Billionaires for Bush came to show their "support," with men dressed in tuxedos with top hats and women in evening gowns and long gloves. The group’s laminated posters featured such slogans as "Leave No Billionaire Behind” and "Corporations Are People Too."

From time to time the group resurfaces, invoking their shtick to raise awareness about an array of economic issues including Social Security privatization, the Iraq War, the estate tax, and gentrification. As a rule members dress in stereotypically wealthy attire, donning tuxedos and top hats, or evening gowns and pearls. They affect names like "Mo Bludfer Oyle" (more blood for oil, a reference to the Iraq war) and "Phil T. Rich" (filthy rich).

I was reminded of this group when I read about another such effort that began in Kansas several years ago. Here are some words about the spoof group FLAT (Families for Learning Accurate Theories) by its founder Adrian Melott, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Kansas.

“In Kansas . . . we've had this struggle over creationism and the state science standards. We could see this coming like a freight train long before the publicity started. Two things happen in the spring of 1999 — one of them was that creationists began shadowing the hearings of the science committee of the state board, going around the state and objecting to their draft science standards. Simultaneously with this, in Lawrence, Kansas, a group called POSH [Parents for Objective Science and History] formed, lobbying our local school board in Lawrence for creationist changes. Some people got together and decided how to respond to this.

“We decided to do an experiment in not really taking them seriously as we struggled against them. We had a brainstorming session about how to do this and someone had the idea of organizing FLAT — Families for Learning Accurate Theories. . . .

“Two people, I and a religious studies professor named Paul Mirecki, who were judged to have nothing to lose, were the people who represented FLAT and its platform. we sent out press releases and read our statement. Here are some excerpts:

"’We wish to stress that we are a secular organization. We respect good science and good scholarship and have confidence that when properly done, the results will always agree with Bible. Thus, we are interested in promoting good standards.

"’The 'round-earth' theory is being taught in Lawrence, contrary to the Bible. Of course, having the four corners does not mean the earth is a square or rectangle. It could be a tetrahedron. Our group is divided on this matter. We agree that careful experimentation will determine the outcome. You might ask about the astronauts who have gone out into space and why they haven't reported about the true shape of the earth. Or how about those space satellites that go all around the earth. (Notice the use of the word 'round.' the subtle brainwashing.)’”

This is amusing, yet it is not at all clear that a Creationist and anti-Evolutionist worldview requires one to subscribe to flat-earthism.  In fact, this is a canard invented by skeptics (who are not above some myth-making of their own).  To be sure, the bible writers believed in geocentrism--the idea that the earth is stationary with the sun and the planets revolving around it--but so did most people before Copernicus.  Yet geocentrism is not the same as flat earth.

In this vein some skeptics claim that Revelation 7:1 assumes a flat earth since the verse refers to angels standing at the "four corners" of the earth. In all likelihood, the reference is to the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Similar terminology is often used today when we speak of the sun's rising and setting, even though we know that the earth, not the sun, is doing the moving. As one religionist points out “Bible writers used the ‘language of appearance,’ just as people always have. Without it, the intended message would be awkward at best and probably not understood clearly.”

In the Hebrew Bible, Job 26:7 explains that the earth is suspended in space, the obvious comparison being with the spherical sun and moon.

A literal translation of Job 26:10 is "He described a circle upon the face of the waters, until the day and night come to an end." A spherical earth may also be implied in Isaiah 40:21-22--"the circle of the earth." This point seems more ambiguous, as a circular earth could be a pancake.

However, Job 26:10 indicates that where light terminates, darkness begins. This suggests day and night on a spherical globe.

This brief review of some relevant biblical texts suggests that, at the very least, the matter is moot. I doubt if many Creationists feel the need to subscribe to the dogma of a flat earth. In ordinary discourse, the terms flat earth and flat-earther have come to be short hand for “obviously absurd.” No matter how remote the analogy, simply to invoke this language is to condemn any view deemed mistaken by the speaker.

I fear that this ploy reflects a certain PC/liberal smugness. In this parochial perspective the "progressive" doctrines embraced by the speaker are obviously true, while opposing views are simply too ridiculous to merit any rational discussion. Invoking the label “flat earth” does all the job that is needed.

Like all such labels, the application of this epithet serves to mask mental laziness. It is tacitly assumed that there is no need to confront the actual arguments of one’s opponents, because “everyone knows that they are wrong.” Unfortunately, not everyone knows that Creationism is wrong. One must show its errors in detail, not just hurl an epithet such as “flat earth.”

How did this seductive meme of ridicule come into common use? In fact the common misconception that before age of exploration people universally believed that Earth was flat entered the popular imagination after Washington Irving’s 1828 publication of "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus." This belief is even repeated in some widely read textbooks. Irving builds his story of the 1486 Salamanca meeting around the issue of the sphericity of the earth. He presents some of the arguments against the sphericity (based on the impossibility that there be unredeemed or unredeemable humans on the opposite side); however, he also admits that other learned scholars of the day accepted the sphericity of the earth.

In reality, however, the issue in the 1480s and 1490s was not the shape, but the size of the earth. It was not doubted that in principle going west would eventually lead to Japan and China; instead the issue was the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas.

During the nineteenth century, the popularity of Romantic conception of a European “Dark Age” allotted much more prominence to the flat-earth model than it ever possessed historically.
In his monograph "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians," Jeffrey Burton Russell (professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara) argues that the flat-earth theory is a fable used to impugn premodern civilization, especially that of the Middle Ages in Europe. Today many scholars agree with Russell that the "medieval flat earth" is a stereotype, which only attained popularity in the nineteenth-century. From this origin it developed into a generic term of abuse for any theory held to be transparently false.

Although a Flat Earth Society formerly existed, today the idea claims very few adherents. Yet the notion survives as a convenient epithet. For example, climate skeptics are often pilloried as flat-earthers. So too are those who cling to the idea that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Such concepts need to be addressed on their own terms, and not simply dismissed with a flourish of rhetoric. To those who are tempted to resort to the handy shorthand of the flat-earth analogy, I would ask: Is this really the best way of winning over one’s opponents? Clearly it is not, but in many “progressive” quarters the appeal of this labor-saving rhetorical device is perennial.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Greece, Egypt, and the Near East

Today a dwindling body of intellectuals stubbornly upholds the supremacy of ancient Greece as the unique progenitor and eternal paragon of Western Civilization. Indeed, for some of these latter-day Hellenophiles the term “Western Civilization” is redundant; for them, there are no other civilizations worthy of the name.

These partisans of the “Greek miracle” tend to pass over very quickly the more unsavory aspects of the Hellenic legacy. For example, slavery was universal in ancient Greece and misogyny was rampant.

Oh. but what about democracy? Indeed. Let us look at the matter without rose-colored glasses. Wherever it existed, ancient Greek democracy was much too elitist to meet modern standards. Participation was limited to free-born male citizens, excluding the majority of the population from having any say. Moreover, democracy, such as it was, flourished for relatively brief periods in but a few city states. The default settings for Greek city states were oligarchy and tyranny, two institutions that retain an unmistakably repellent aura.

Then there is the influence of Greek classical art at various periods of Western culture. Sometimes, as in the Renaissance, this archetype has been beneficial, but all too often recourse to formulaic Grecian classicism has yielded dreariness and deadness. A recent and lamentable example is the styrofoam backdrop the Democrats unwisely chose for their Denver Convention.

With regard to Greek art and its ostensibly perennial verity, here is what the noted art critic Robert Hughes wrote about a 1993 exhibition:

“It must be said, straight off, that The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, now at the National Gallery in Washington . . . is a very odd show. . . . Insofar as an exhibition can assemble great sculpture and have practically no scholarly value, this one does.
“The reason is that The Greek Miracle is an exercise in political propaganda, and has to embrace stereotypes that no classicist today would accept without deep reservations. First, the exhibit wants to indicate how Greek sculpture changed in the classical period, by showing its movement from the frontal, rigid forms of 6th century B.C. kouroi, whose ancestry lay in Egyptian cult figures, to the more naturalistic treatment of balance and bodily movement one sees in works such as The Kritios Boy (circa 480 B.C.), which was found on the Acropolis. And it demonstrates this in considerable detail, through marvelous examples of 5th-century sculpture . . .

“As an orientation course for those who don't know much about classical Greek sculpture . . . this show ought not to be missed. But neither should its second premise be taken seriously: the idea that there was some causal connection between the advent of the classical style in sculpture and that of democracy in Athenian politics. Both happened at roughly the same time: in the late 6th century an Athenian aristocrat, Kleisthenes, made an alliance with the people of Athens in order to defeat another noble, Isagoras, and pushed through a number of democratic reforms that were permanently enshrined in the Athenian constitution.

“These measures gave the vote and other rights to citizens who had not enjoyed them before, though not, of course, to slaves or women [or to the foreign-born--WRD]. But the idea that the beginnings of democracy in Athens changed the way that rituals, gods and heroes were represented is hokum: exactly the same changes of style occurred in cities, like Olympia, that were run by tyrants. The fact that modern Greeks apparently want to believe it--this being a time of superchauvinism in Greece, as in other Balkan countries--means nothing, except in the scheme of simplistic politico-cultural fantasy. You might as well claim that Abstract Expressionism was "caused" by the election of Harry Truman. Nevertheless, such is the show's political motive, and it seems a poor pretext for taking great art and jetting it to America like so many get-well cards, for the sake of political p.r.

“In its reflexive idealization, the show sets before us a notion of Greek antiquity that was conceived in the 18th century by the German archaeologist- connoisseur Johann Winckelmann and then elaborated into an all-pervading imagery through the 19th. Balance, harmony, transcendence, sublimation--all are characteristics of great classical art, but not the whole story, and not one that would have been wholly intelligible to the ancient Greeks. It is as though the organizers of this show still felt obliged to believe in the division of the world claimed by the original Athenians. Here is Hellas, populated by people. Outside, is the domain of hoi barbaroi, those who are not quite human: the superstitious Orientals, the treacherous mountain dwellers, the lesser breeds without the law. The Greeks, by contrast, stop just short of turning into marble statues of themselves--effigies of undying self- congratulation, picked up by later cultures to signify the reign of the past over the present.

“It is true that since the image of classical Greece began to lose the power it had accumulated up to the end of the 19th century, many writers have found this marmoreal stereotype insufficient. ‘How one can imagine oneself among them,’ mused the English poet Louis MacNeice, no mean classicist himself, in his 1938 poem, Autumn Journal, ‘I do not know.’ And was this antiquity a world of heroes or something more like modern Athens?

"When I should remember the paragons of Hellas I think instead of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, the careless athletes and the fancy boys, the hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled skeptics, and the Agora and the noise of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women
pouring libations over graves, and the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly I think of the slaves.

“No such doubts obtrude upon the archaic fantasy world set up by the writers in the catalog to this show. Slavery, as important an institution for Periclean Greece as for America's antebellum South, does not enter their vague lucubrations about the matched ‘miracles’ of Art and Democracy. For them, all is idealism, naturalism, the world of formal purity, grace and refinement. Whatever speaks of demonism, fear, magic and irrational superstition is simply swept under the carpet; and yet these were colossally important elements even in the "rational" Athens of the 5th century B.C., let alone in the rest of Greece. The naively optimistic idea expressed in Nicholas Gage's introduction, echoing a long succession of enlightened Hellenophiles from Winckelmann to Matthew Arnold, that ‘Mortal man became the standard by which things were judged and measured,’ simply does not fit the facts of classical culture. On the contrary: the Greeks of Pericles' time, like their ancestors and successors, were obsessed with the weakness of the dike that protected their social and mental constructions against uncontrollable forces. Their culture was webbed with placatory or ‘apotropaic,’ rituals, charms, and images meant to keep the demons at bay.

“This is why classical Greek sculpture, in its original form, was so very unlike the version made of it by Neoclassicists 2,000 years later, and recycled in this show. ‘No symbols or special trappings of divinity,’ writes Gage, ‘were required beyond the figure's physical harmony. The most perfect beauty, to the Greek of the 5th century, was the pure and unadorned.’ But classical Greek sculpture was neither pure nor unadorned; its decor has been lost or worn away. Were we to see it in its original state, we would find it shockingly ‘vulgar.’ All the great figures and sculpture were painted in violent reds, ochers and blues, like a seaside restaurant in Skopelos. The colossal figure of Athena inside the Parthenon was sheathed in ivory ‘skin.’ As for adornment, there were ‘real’ metal spears fixed in the hands of marble warriors, brightly simulated eyes with colored irises set in the now empty sockets of The Kritios Boy. And far from rising above anxiety, classical Greek art pullulated with horrors: snakes, monsters, decapitated Gorgons, all designed to ward off the terrors of the spirit world. One sometimes wonders if ancient Greece, more lurid than white, so obsessed with blood feud and inexpungible guilt, wasn't closer to modern Bosnia than to the bright world of Winckelmann. But you cannot put that kind of ‘classicism’ in a museum, or relate it to ‘democracy.’”

With his pungent analysis, Hughes makes a key point, one that is well known to social scientists: correlation is not causality. That is, the fact that democracy and classic art arose at the same time is no proof that there was any causal link between them.

Recently, in his book “Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization,” the neocon historian Bruce Thornton has attempted a rejoinder. In a nutshell, his strategy is briefly to acknowledge the shortcomings we have mentioned, and then return to extolling the good old religion. Uncontestably, he argues that some of the ideas that were necessary building blocks for the rise of Western civilization, such as that there should be a rational explanation for natural phenomena, originated with Greek thinkers. However, the discussion of slavery and misogyny shows much special pleading. Thornton also supports some outdated ideas about Greek attitudes to sexuality--ideas that have been exploded by such scholars as Sir Kenneth Dover and William A. Percy. All in all, it is too late in the day for the worshipful exclusivism of a Bruce Thornton to prevail.

To be sure, ancient Greek culture remains a considerable achievement. The poems of Homer and Hesiod, the plays of the Greek dramatists, and the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle will always be rewarding. In the originals and in translation, these works have a cherished place in my library, and I go back to them repeatedly. Greek art offers much delight and instruction. By the same token, though, there are many things of equal value that have been produced by other high cultures in the course of humanity’s striving. I see no reason to deprive myself of Confucius and Lao-tse, of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of the epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh, or of the Arthurian cycle in Old French--all things that have nothing to do with ancient Greece. The Greek element must now take its place as but one of many in the concert of cultures.

At all events, the first contention of the miraculists, that ancient Greece still provides an unrivaled paradigm for our own age, lies in tatters. What of their second assertion, namely that Greek culture is entirely autonomous and self-generating, with no dependence on the venerable societies of the ancient Near East?

At this point, we must acknowledge the entrance of Martin Bernal, a professor of government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell. The first volume of his magnum opus, entitled “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985),” appeared in 1989.

Because of the salience of this first Bernal volume (there are now three) in the ensuing debate, it is worthwhile examining its arguments in some detail. At the outset. one needs to dispose of two common misconceptions. Bernal’s book is not about whether the Ancient Egyptians were black. Nor does he claim that Greek civilization as it exists today and became known to the Romans was a wholesale copy of Egyptian civilization, as it obviously wasn't.

In considerable detail, this first volume spells out Martin Bernal's historiographic assumption, that is, that ancient history can be seen as having been molded into specific narratives, depending on the age when that narrative was created and found its resonance. In this regard, he defines three different models or narratives, namely the Ancient Model, the Aryan Model, and his own Revised Ancient Model. He includes some suggested timelines, but basically the Ancient Model of Greeks like Herodotus indicated that in 15th century BCE, Egyptians and Phoenicians had set up colonies in Greece and the Aegean, creating Greek civilization. By contrast, the Aryan Model stipulates that civilization started with the indigenous creation of a civilization in Greece, and that there were Nordic invasions of Indo-European speakers who mixed in with the non-Indo-European speaking indigenous population (the mysterious Pelagians). Bernal's Revised Ancient Model places the Egyptian and Phoenician invasions in the 21st-19th century, pushes back the introduction of the alphabet to the 17th century (from the 9th century), while acknowledging that indeed there were Nordic invasions.

All ten chapters in this book address distinct periods and the changing perspectives and the emphasis that is put on a particular origin of history or culture, from “The Ancient Model in Antiquity” (I), through this model's transmission during the dark ages and the renaissance (II), “The Triumph of Egypt in the 17th and 18th Centuries” (III), and the beginning of “Hostilities To Egypt in The 18th Century” (IV) (a development that in Bernal’s view long preceded J.-F. Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic in 1822). The anti-Egyptian chill evident among European elites was not unrelated to the existing race-based slavery, colonialism. and the challenges from within Europe to the transatlantic slave trade.

Chapters V through IX deal with other topics, beginning with the “Romantic Linguistics” (V), triggered by Sir William Jones’ epochal discovery that Sanskrit is an Indo-European language (1786), and the ensuing rise of the Indian-Aryan model. “Hellenomania. 1” (VI) addresses with the rise of Greece as a fount of European civilization and ideals, championed by the German school of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich August Wolf. “Hellenomania 2” (VII) traces the migration of this trend to England in the context of the growing preeminence of the Aryan Model in the middle of the 19th century. “The Rise and Fall of The Phoenicians” (VIII) deals with the recognition of the Phoenicians and the influence of anti-Semitism, as does chapter (IX).

The book concludes with “The Post-War Situation” (X), discussing the contributions of Cyrus Gordon and Michael C. Astour--two pioneers who have been unjustly marginalized--and their reclaiming of the legacy of the Phoenicians.

Bernal’s underlying premise is that much of the current body of Greek/Western Civilization historical literature reflects the prejudices of racists who have suppressed evidence of a non-Aryan component in the origin of the Greek civilization. I confess that the term racist makes me nervous, as that charge is all-too-frequently hurled nowadays, sometimes with little foundation. Still there is no doubt that much of the appeal of the Aryan Model lies in the idea that ancient Greece was exclusively the creation of white people coming down from the North, with little contribution from their venerable brown brothers to the East and South. As will be evident in what follows, this fable of parthenogenesis is simply unbelievable.

After the appearance of Bernal’s first volume, scholars began taking sides. Afrocentrists found support for their views therein, even though Bernal takes no position on the role of sub-Saharan Africa, their center of interest. With but few exceptions, the response from classicists was outrage and disbelief. Bernal, trained in sinology, was alleged to be a poacher who had no business challenging the sacred truths so long cherished by the Classical Guild. The hysterical tone of these miraculists, who seemed incapable of weighing the evidence impartially, served only to lend substance to Martin Bernal’s allegation of the irrationality implicit in the Aryan Model.

At all events, the classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz sought to demolish Bernal through the production of two volumes. one of which she wrote in its entirely, the other being an collection of essays by Bernal’s critics. The first book, “Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History” (1996), is basically a straw-man argument. Her main target is Afrocentrism, the doctrine that civilization stems mainly from sub-Saharan (“Black”) Africa. To be sure, excesses have been committed by overenthusiastic Afrocentrists. Yet Martin Bernal is not in fact an Afrocentrist, so that most of her attack on him fails on this ground. In fact, she missed many opportunities to address his shortcomings. Even though there are evident weak spots in Bernal's exposition (a defect that is perhaps understandable with such a broad perspective), Lefkowitz often insists on attacking arguments that Bernal never actually made. Ultimately, the flaw that vitiates Lefkowitz’s campaign against Bernal stems from a simple wish to defend her turf against an impudent outsider. In her eyes his greatest sin seems to be his lack of a degree in classical or ancient Mediterrainean studies. While the matter of credentials elicits real concern, an individual’s degree is not the sum of his knowledge. This is a subject on which I have some expertise, in as much as over the years I have shifted my main interest from art history (the field in which I received my graduate training) to gay studies. To this day, academia has offered very few opportunities to pursue advanced study in the history and culture of homosexuality. To insist that one can never move from another field to this one would prevent the discipline from ever arising, a manifest absurdity. Moreover, as one writer has pointed out, “her academic snobbery on this point seems a little misplaced for someone whose own specialty does not include Egyptology or Semitic Bronze Age cultures (or even Greek Bronze Age culture).”

Together with Guy MacLean Rogers, Mary Lefkowitz edited “Black Athena Revisited” (1996). This big book, containing twenty essays reflecting several disciplines, was designed to pulverize Martin Bernal’s magnum opus. At first, it appears to do so, but over the years a good many cracks have appeared in the machinery.

In reality "Black Athena Revisited" is a very mixed bag. Some contributions are convincing, pinpointing various weak or even absurd points in Bernal's works. But some of the other essays are surprisingly flimsy or overdogmatic. Truly to devastate Bernal a stronger case would have to have been marshaled.

First, let us note some of the strong points. Jay H. Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum sternly criticize Bernal's attempts to prove that the Greek language is heavily Egyptian. Over many generations professional linguistics have established strict criteria for the historical evolution of languages. Bernal’s amateurish excursions into this area do not meet these standards. The Egyptologist John Baines points out that Bernal's fascination with Greece is itself a social and ideological construct. Despite his strictures, Bernal tacitly accepts the "Eurocentrist" position that ancient Athens was the cradle of the West. He only wants to prove that, in turn, the cradle of Athens was northwest Africa. Robert Palter attacks the notion that Egyptian science was very sophisticated, claiming that Babylonian and Greek science was much better. It would seem that the jury is still out on this one, for it is difficult to believe that the Egyptians, who built the pyramids to very exacting standards, didn't have advanced mathematical and astronomical knowledge. In a rare departure from the uniform condemnation, Frank Yurco actually concedes some of Bernal's points. He points out that the East Mediterranean was a cosmopolitan place during the Bronze Age, with many crisscrossing cultural influences. (This point was made in considerable detail by W. Stevenson Smith as early as 1965.)

At all events, many readers (including, briefly, the present writer) were initially swept away by the double-barreled attack orchestrated by the formidable Mary Lefkowitz. In 1997 the Egyptologist John Ray pronounced that “Black Athena is dead.” Yet the ensuing decade has not borne out this dismissive judgment.

In a revealing and shocking instance of bad faith, Lefkowitz refused to allow Bernal to publish a rebuttal in “Black Athena Revisited,” her edited volume. Undeterred and unabashed, he has since rounded on his critics in a barrage of articles published in learned journals. These pieces are conveniently gathered in his book “Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics” (2001).

In this collection Bernal responds to the whirlwind of criticism surrounding his work, providing additional documentation for his thesis and exposing the sometimes petty conflicts among academics. Conceding some shortcomings in his original work, Bernal bolsters his thesis with new findings. In harsh terms Bernal lambastes the hypocrisy of academics, steeped in the "cult of Europe," who only recently and grudgingly credited Egypt's contributions to Western civilization.

Bernal offers point-by-point rebuttals of, for instance, Egyptologist David O'Connor, who argues that Bernal is far too trusting of ancient literary sources; of his arch-opponent Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist who finds very little of value in his work; and of Emily Vermeule, an Aegean Bronze Age specialist, who questions Bernal's archaeological methodology. In response to Vermeule's allegations of "exaggerated sensitivity" (Bernal's words), he returns to passages from studies that he quoted in “Black Athena” as examples of scholarly racism.

With grim determination, Lefkowitz and her allies had sought to demolish Martin Bernal. In the sequel it is evident that they have failed to do so.

In closing this section, I signal an effort to reach a balanced view by a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University, Jacques Berlinerblau: “Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibility of the Intellectuals” (1999). In this book the author provides a fair summary of the work of Martin Bernal (whom he apparently interviewed, permitting him to comment on various parts of the book). Berlinerblau concludes that Bernal proves that much of the body of antiquity studies produced by accredited scholars reveals serious biases. Truculently, and with not a little bad faith, Hellenophiles and their sympathizers have attempted a limited reassessment. By the same token, these scholars have shown that Bernal has made serious errors. Berlinerblau calls some of Bernal's critics to task for the vehemence of their attack on Bernal, pommeling him on facts while ignoring the larger larger points at issue. Berlinerblau praises Bernal for engaging the public in his work, maintaining that scholars should work more to became public intellectuals.

So much then for the main points of the intricate “Black Athena” controversy.

That is not the end of the matter. In the course of its development over the last nineteen years, the discussion has tended to elide two major themes: 1) what was the contribution of the visual arts (as distinct from the literary evidence that these writers habitually privilege)?; and 2) what was the role of the Semitic peoples residing in Western Asia, including the Akkadians, the Assyrians, and the Phoenicians?

As it happens, a little-known archaeological monograph addresses both of the these issues. The book is Janice L. Crowley, “The Aegean and the East: An Investigation into the Transference of Artistic Motifs Between the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East in the Bronze Age” (1989). Employing an artistic-iconographic approach, Crowley assembles a base of 544 items, which she has carefully catalogued. Her target area is Mycenean Greece, a cultural realm that is now generally acknowledged as Greek-speaking, and therefore constituting the foundations of Greece as we know it. Her impressive list of borrowings in the visual arts includes the following: heraldic poses; antithetical groupings of human or animal figures about a center piece; symmetrical composition about an invisible median line; a hero combatting a lion or a bull; the “master/mistress of animals” (hero, god, or goddess between two animals in antithetical groupings); the sphinx; the “sacred tree,” especially as the focus of an antithetical composition, or as the object of a watering ceremony; the palm tree and palmette pattern; the papyrus plant; the rosette; the overlapping scale pattern; the convention of representing human figures in profile or with the body twisted at the waist to face the front; differentiation of male and female figures by skin color (a standard convention in Egyptian art); siege scenes with a man falling from a city wall; and hunting scenes.

The Swiss Walter Burkert probably ranks as the leading scholar today in the field of Greek religion. His “The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age” (1998) makes a significant contribution to the debate. Chronologically, his focus is deliberately narrow, for the most part relying on evidence that has long been considered secure. With these premises, Burkert convincingly displays a number of points where the Greeks, in the early Archaic Age, borrowed from the cultures around them or at least shared common beliefs or practices.

Burkert’s volume comprises three chapters, each organized around a particular class of people through whom East-West contacts occurred: craftsmen; seers/healers (workers in the sacred); and poets/singers. In this way he combines the visual and literary evidence.

Himself a Hellenist, Burkert shows no inclination to knock the Greeks off their pedestal. Instead, he seeks to help us better understand the Greeks, by presenting some aspects of their culture in a broader light and by teaching us to apply insights from other lands and peoples. In this respect his work compares with those of the English scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and E. R. Dodds.

A massive contribution to the debate is M. L. West’s "The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth" (1997), a book of 662 pages. This book is too complex to summarize here. Suffice it to say that West focuses only on the civilizations of Western Asia (sometimes known as the Levant), factoring out Egypt altogether. His evidence, it seems to me, tips the balance in favor of the Near East proper. While the contribution of Egypt remains significant (as others, especially Martin Bernal, have shown), it is outshone by the mainly Semitic cultures of Western Asia.

At this point it is best to bring this perhaps overlong examination to a close. Without attempting further to sift the evidence, I would estimate the makeup of ancient Greek civilization to reflect the following proportions: Indo-European, 35%; Near Eastern, 35%; Egyptian, 30%.

If these estimates hold, it will be seen that Bernal was basically on the right track. However, his acknowledgment of the all-important Near Eastern (mainly Semitic) strands tends to be perfunctory, and lacking in key details. These strands were almost certainly more important than the Egyptian ones, though not perhaps by much.

What should be clear, though, is that some sixty-five percent of ancient Greek culture was borrowed. The “Greek miracle” (if we are to retain this hoary term) may have been made in Greece, but the ingredients were largely imported. So massive were these imports that it is fair to say that Greek civilization could not have come into being without them. Far from being a case of parthenogenesis--that is, unaided birth--ancient Greece came about through massive foreign insemination. It could not have been otherwise.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Love in the ancient Mediterranean

[This piece originally appeared in slightly different form in the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 36, No. 1 (1998), pp. 114-126.]

BERNADETTE J. BROOTEN is Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University. A key passage in Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1:18-32) has for a number of years served as a touchstone for her research. Yet the design of her book radiates far beyond the bounds of conventional scriptural exegesis. Her work throws light on the understanding of ancient lesbianism, the status of women in Roman times, and attitudes toward same-sex love in general.

In fact, "Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism" (University of Chicago Press, 1996. 412 pp.) ranks as one of the most important books ever to appear on ancient Mediterranean sexuality. Working with almost superhuman diligence, Professor Brooten has laid bare a surprising wealth of information on lesbian behavior in areas where evidence was previously thought to be scant. Her monograph has important implications for male homosexuality as well. Moreover, despite the subtitle, the very substantial first part of the book (pp. 29-189) deals with attitudes and practice in the Hellenistic and early Romans worlds.

Unlike some who would appear to be seeking to redress the misogyny of our culture by downplaying its instances, Brooten does not shrink from dealing with unpleasant matters. She records the disdain and condemnation of ancient writers, both pagan and Christian, for female-female relations. Fearlessly, she challenges earlier authorities, such as John Boswell and Michel Foucault, whose writings now pass in some quarters as virtually canonical.

Not only does Brooten command the modern scholarly literature, she is at home with original documents written in at least four of the older tongues: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic. While she scrupulously cites the latest secondary literature and the original sources, her erudition is carefully disciplined. The extensive reference notes appear at the bottom of the page where they belong, enabling scholars to check every significant point. Only in a few instances, dealing with controversies in the contemporary conceptualization of same-sex behavior, do the notes seem overlong.

Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times: In this realm there is no substitute for reading her book. The scope of the following remarks is more modest: the bearing of her findings for sexual orientation in general, including that of men.

After first reviewing the familiar texts from Greek and Latin elite authors, including Lucian, Plautus, Ovid, and Martial, Brooten turns to four categories of evidence that have been neglected. The harvest is surprising.

The first area of her original studies is magical spells from Egypt commissioned by the love-sick to elicit compliance from a desired partner. While these have been collected for almost a century from papyri, scholars have been slow to assess the significance of the nonheterosexual ones. Three have so far been published that seek to bind a woman sexually to another woman. The language of these spells is direct, sometimes even violent, affording us a glimpse of the feelings of ordinary people.

The second realm is the astrological literature. The ancients believed that the stars could determine many aspects of the personality, including sexual orientation. While the effects could be quite complex, they show that there could be lifelong sexual orientations, involving several types of male homosexual and lesbian attraction. In the view of these writers such inclinations were not mere preferences to be adopted or discarded at will, but they were even cosmically ordained. Such views posed a problem for some ancient writers who thought that such attractions were "against nature" (para physin). Here, Brooten's findings significantly contradict those of Foucault and his followers who believe that the concept of sexual orientation came into existence only in the nineteenth century.

The third category is the medical. Some handbooks in this field held that same sex behavior, especially that of the female, could be a disease. Again Foucault and his associates are mistaken in their claim that "medicalization" of same-sex behavior took place only in the nineteenth century.

Finally there is the sphere of dream interpretation, especially as seen in the treatise by Artemidorus. Although here the yield is sparser, Brooten makes interesting contrasts between the views of the ancients and modern dream interpretation belonging to the schools of Freud and Jung.

In agreement with most other scholars in the field of ancient Mediterranean sexuality, Brooten sees sexual relations as governed by normative asymmetry in which one partner (the "active" inserter) is superior, the other (the "passive" receptive) inferior. This principle combines with an androcentric one in which the male is superior to the female. In this view no stigma necessarily attaches to male homosexuality because the penetrator maintains the principle of superiority; moreover the male partners, as adolescents or slaves, may be fulfilling the appropriate role as inferior. In this light, however, female-female relations are always suspect, because in accordance with the asymmetry principle one partner should be inferior, the other superior. But women are never supposed to be superior.

This set of principles leads her to conclude that among pagans of the early Roman period, which are her focus in the first part of the book, lesbian relations were reproved. For this she finds considerable evidence. "Monstrous, lawless, licentious, unnatural, and shameful — with these terms male authors throughout the Roman Empire expressed their disgust for sexual love between women" (p. 29). If these principles prevailed during this period, however, they must have appeared earlier, in classical Greece, for example. Why did dislike of lesbian behavior apparently increase in the concluding centuries of the pre-Christian era?

"Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times. Our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret ... Romans 1:26-27. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition took an opposite approach."

We now turn to the passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which Brooten addresses only after her assemblage of the highly significant background materials reviewed above. The core of the Roman's passage is the following (1:26-27) in the rendering supplied by Brooten which, in my judgment, follows the Greek closely:

"[a] For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. [b] Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. [c] And in the same way [homoios] also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameful acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." [punctuation slightly altered]

It is clear that [a] represents the topical sentence. Instances illustrative of the general principle so stated, two of them, follow. As the second example [c] is more explicit than the first [b], and as modern interpreters are likely to perceive lesbian behavior as the almost inevitable counterpart of male homosexual behavior, it is difficult to resist the impulse to read the content of [c] back into [b] which is then interpreted as a condemnation of lesbianism. We tend to see lesbianism and male homosexuality as paired — as does Brooten in this instance. However, elsewhere she produces evidence that ancient writers were capable of pairing male homosexuality with female promiscuity, including prostitution.

Thus our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret the sequence of argument in Roman 1:26-27. For one thing, given the general androcentrism of the era, why would Paul mention women first? Possibly, there is another reason for the order, that this is a temporal sequence: First the women transgressed in some way, and then later the men.

More direct light is afforded on this passage in a short section of the Testament of Naphtali, belonging to a category of ancient writings that Brooten, exceptionally, did not exploit sufficiently. This text belongs to the so-called Intertestamental writings, a body of texts originating in Jewish circles during the period of the Second Temple (ca. 500 B.C.E to 70 C.E,). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were probably written in the period 150-100 B.C.E. and thus available to Paul. The writer is elaborating on a text in First Enoch, another Intertestamental writing, which has to do with the Watchers, the sons of God who mated with human women in the time before the flood. In Hellenistic Judaism they were increasingly identified with the fallen angels and their offspring with demons, the source of evil.

"Sun, moon, and stars do not alter their order. The gentiles, because they have wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order. ... But you, my children, shall not be like that. ... [D]o not become like Sodom which departed from the order of nature. Likewise the Watchers departed from nature's order" [Testament of Naphtali, 3; ed. J.H. Charlesworth, p. 812]

Several assertions anticipate the animadversions of the Romans passage. First is the central idea of the order of nature, against which we transgress at our peril. The notion of nature is wholly Greek and is foreign to the Old Testament. While the Greek word physis does occur in 3 and 4 Maccabees and in the Book of Wisdom, these text were originally written in Greek and are not currently accepted as part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, the idea of nature as a cosmic norm is part of the Greek heritage that insinuated itself into Jewish thought during the Hellenistic period. Violations of nature, of course, need not be sexual. However, in a late work, The Laws, the philosopher Plato specifically stigmatized both male and female homosexuality as "against nature" — para physin, the same expression used in Paul's text. In effect, works of Hellenistic Jewish provenance, such as the Testament of Naphtali, "predigested" the Greek material for the use of interpreters like Paul.

Elsewhere in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs we learn that women scheme treacherously to entice men. Because of this proclivity they seduced the Watchers (equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis 6), who were induced to mate with them before the Flood. Ever since the birth of the Giants from these unions, the earth has been visited by two types of spirits: the spirits of truth and the spirits of error. In this view, the tendency of women to seductiveness caused disaster at a particular point of human history; it continues to this day. Hence the need to call attention to the capacity of women for misdeeds.

Although both the Sodomites and the Watchers were guilty of various errors, the pairing of them in this passage reflects types of sexual activity which would violate the order of nature. The sodomites sought forcible homosexual relations with angels who were the guests of Lot, while the Watchers actually mated with the daughters of men, producing the Giants. Note that in this passage the express "likewise," homoios, links two different sexual transgressions, one (in our terms) homosexual, the other heterosexual. What they have in common is that they risk God's wrath.

In discussing the work of another scholar, James Miller, Brooten briefly mentions the role of the Watchers in the Testament of Naphtali. As she aptly remarks, "[i]ntercourse between the Watchers, who were sons of God, and human women transgressed the order of nature by crossing the boundary between the human and the divine" (note to p. 249). However, she does not seem to see how well this notion fits with Paul's condemnation in Romans 1:26. In fact if one adopts the Watcher interpretation, Paul's offers a spectrum of sexual misdeeds, from those with partners that are too different, extraterrestrial, to acts with partners that are not different enough, same-sex persons, Sexual orthodoxy requires that which is in between: male-female relations.

To return to the Romans passage, in the interpretation offered here, Paul refers first to the historical misdeeds of human women in offering themselves to the extraterrestrial beings. These acts would have been a kind of upwardly mobile counterpart of bestiality since they involve sexual behavior that crosses species lines. Then a modern instance of challenge to the natural order is offered, that of male homosexuality. Of course, it could be objected that this interpretation is only probably, but then the same is true of Brooten's. At the very least, one must conclude, despite Brooten's impressive gathering of materials, that Paul — as distinct from some later interpreters — did not certainly have lesbian activity in mind in Romans 1:26.

Even if Brooten's interpretation is accepted, this would remain, as she acknowledges, the only possible mention of lesbian sexuality in the entire body of scriptures. Mainstream biblical criticism generally agrees that male homosexuality is reproved in a number of passages (Gen. 19; Leviticus 18 and 20; Romans 1:27; and I Cor. 6:9 — to cite only the most salient ones). While it is true that some modern homosexuals and homosexual-friendly writers, including Canon Bailey and John Boswell, have sought to mitigate the force of a number of these passages, Brooten — in my view soundly — seems to accept them.

It is true that much of the later interpretation of the Romans passage is doubly homophobic. As Brooten correctly remarks, "whether or not Western people have ever heard of Paul's Letter to the Romans, it affects their lives" (p. 196). Thus, in the present writer's view, the Romans passage, though not originally lesbophobic, became so, because of the understandable tendency to take the particulars of verse 27 and apply them retrospectively to the preceding verse, which is less clear.

Unfortunately, this expansive interpretation was destined long to flourish; as such, it has been one of our afflictions. But if we look backward toward the complex of ideas that dominated the Hellenistic Judaism in which Paul was trained, we see something different. Man-crazy women, who are even willing to sleep with extraterrestrial beings, parallel man-crazy men, who wish to sleep with other members of their own sex.

Stated briefly, the picture that emerges is this. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition, certainly of the Old Testament and probably that of the New Testament as well, ignores lesbianism while severely castigating male homosexuality. In expanding its hegemony over a once-pagan Mediterranean environment, Early Christian and medieval tradition imposed a Jewish tradition of strongly disapproving of male homosexuals, while adopting, possibly from Roman sources, a less salient, but still significant disapproval of lesbian conduct.

Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have been advised to look at Scripture without regard to later commentaries and accretions. If my conclusions are correct regarding the exclusion of lesbian conduct from the sphere of condemnation, a striking asymmetry emerges. To take only the most salient passages (Lev. 18:22, and 20:13; Romans, 1:26-27; and I Cor. 6:9), the Bible condemns male same-sex behavior. Nowhere does it unequivocally forbid lesbian relations. Those who regard the Bible as a coherent guide to ethics and behavior (and not simply a disparate collection of remarkable ancient documents) must explain this inconsistency.