Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tbe not-so-queer problem of Q

The modern critical approach to the biblical texts began some 150 years ago in Germany. Sometimes termed the Higher Criticism, this approach stresses that things are not what they seem. The Pentateuch, for example, was not written by Moses or dictated to him by Yahweh. Moreover, according to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which further research has abundantly confirmed, that foundational text breaks down into four main streams, known by the initials J, E, D. and P. These do not correspond to the traditional ordering of the five books, but afford a glimpse into the stratigraphy, as it were, of the Pentateuch--the stages of its formation. Each stream is dominated by a particular theological concern.

Other scholars began to deploy a similar approach to the New Testament, especially the four canonical gospels. Since the publication of Johann Griesbach in 1776, it has come to be generally agreed that the Gospel of John stands apart. In fact, it has long been recognized that the the Gospel of John differs significantly from the other three canonical gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. Some 1800 years ago, Clement of Alexandria famously summarized the unique character of the the Gospel of John by stating "John last of all, conscious that the 'bodily' facts had been set forth in those [earlier] Gospels ... composed a 'spiritual' Gospel."

Our focus here lies elsewhere, with the other three, ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Known as the synoptic gospels, these form a set. The synoptic gospels feature an enormous amount of parallels between them. About 80% of the verses in Mark have parallels in both Matthew and Luke. Since this material in common to all three gospels, it is sometimes known as the Triple Tradition. The Triple Tradition is largely narrative but contains some sayings material.

Once their kinship is granted, what of the relations among the three synoptics? During the Middle Ages, the relatively short Gospel of Mark was thought to be a summary or epitome of the others. In 1838, however, Christian Wilke established the priority of the Mark, now accepted as the earliest of the four.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels, suggesting that the longer gospels took Mark as a source, adding additional material to it (as opposed to Mark taking longer gospels but deleting substantial chunks of material). Mark's diction and grammar is less sophisticated than that found in Matthew and Luke. It would appear that Matthew and Luke "cleaned up" Mark's wording (as opposed to Mark intentionally "dumbing down" more sophisticated languages). Mark regularly included fragments in Aramaic (translating them into Greek), whereas Matthew and Luke do not.

Another finding is extremely important. Matthew and Luke share a large amount of material that is not found in Mark. In fact, more than 200 verses in the two later Synoptics are common to both. Technical analysis suggests that neither copied the other, so that the material derived from yet another fund of technical material.

This recognition has led to what is termed the “two-source” theory for Matthew and Luke; they came about through merging the Markan component with the other body of material. Nowadays, this other body of material is commonly termed Q (Q standing for the German word Quelle, “source”). It has also been shown to underly about a third of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

It is possible to deduce that the Q document, in the form that Matthew and Luke had access to, was written in Greek. Were Matthew and Luke consulting a document that had been written in some other language (for example, Aramaic), it is unlikely that two independent renderings produced by Matthew and Luke would have the same wording.

Strictly speaking Q is not a gospel--that is, a narrative biography of Jesus--but a collection of sayings (or logia). Begining in the 1980s several scholars presented reconstructions of Q.

This burst of interest fostered increasingly more sophisticated literary and redactional reconstructions of Q, as seen the work of John S. Kloppenborg. Focussing on certain literary phenomena, Kloppenborg argued that Q was composed in three stages. The earliest stage featured a collection of wisdom sayings involving such issues as poverty and discipleship. This nucleus was expanded by including a layer of judgmental sayings directed against "this generation.” The final stage included the Temptation of Jesus.

Although Kloppenborg cautioned against assuming that the composition history of Q is the same as the history of the Jesus tradition (i.e. that the oldest layer of Q is necessarily the oldest and pure-layer Jesus tradition), some recent seekers of the Historical Jesus, including the members of the Jesus Seminar, have done just that. Basing their reconstructions primarily on the Gospel of Thomas and the oldest layer of Q, they propose that Jesus functioned as a wisdom sage, rather than a Jewish rabbi,
One commentator, Bruce Griffin has written thus of the Kloppenborg hypothesis:
“This division of Q has received extensive support from some scholars specializing in Q. But it has received serious criticism from others, and outside the circle of Q specialists it has frequently been seen as evidence that some Q specialists have lost touch with essential scholarly rigor. The idea that we can reconstruct the history of a text which does not exist, and that must itself be reconstructed from Matthew and Luke, comes across as something other than cautious scholarship. But the most serious objection to the proposed revisions of Q is that any attempt to trace the history of revisions of Q undermines the credibility of the whole Q hypothesis itself. For despite the fact that we can identify numerous sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common, we cannot prove that these sayings come from a single unified source; Q may be nothing but a convenient term for a variety of sources shared by Matthew and Luke. Therefore any evidence of revision of Q counts as evidence for disunity in Q, and hence for a variety of sources used by Matthew and Luke. Conversely, any evidence for unity in Q - which must be established in order to see Q as a single document - counts as evidence against the proposed revisions. In order to hold to a threefold revision of Q, one must pull off an intellectual tight-rope act: one must imagine both that there is enough unity to establish a single document and that there is enough disunity to establish revisions. In the absence of any independent attestation of Q, it is an illusion to believe that scholars can walk this tightrope without falling off.”

Setting aside this controversy over the purported layering to be found in Q, the roster of motifs thought to have originated therein is striking. These include:

* The Beatitudes
* Love your enemies
* The Golden Rule
* Judge not, lest ye be judged
* The Test of a Good Person
* The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders
* The Parable of the Lost Sheep
* The Parable of the Wedding Feast
* The Parable of the Talents
* The Parable of the Leaven
* The Parable of the blind leading the blind
* The Lord's Prayer
* Expounding of the Law
* The Birds of Heaven and The Lilies in the Field

As I write, a group of scholars is seeking to produce a definitive edition of Q under the auspices of the International Q Project and the Q project of the Society of Biblical Literature. These scholars are working under the direction of James Robinson at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont College in California. While awaiting their results, one may consult Burton L. Mack, “The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins” (1993) and Marcus J. Borg et al., eds. “The Lost Gospel of Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (1999).

Looking back over the history of research, it is evident that for a long time, the Q hypothesis was pursued simply as a solution to the synoptic problem; hence the major publications of Bultmann and Streeter (1921 and 1924 respectively).

The grounds for the recent interest in Q are quite different. Once the text is properly reconstructed, it will serve, it is held, to throw light on the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. For some time, now, the conventional wisdom has held that the apostle Paul altered and enlarged the message of the earliest followers of Jesus. Yet because some of the Pauline Epistles (at least four) are the earliest surviving documents we have, peering into the pre-Pauline stage has been hazardous and often subjective. If, however, we can rely on the Q to document this phase, the problem is solved--or at least very substantially addressed.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm it has been generating of late, some problems remain with the Q claim, the hypothesis of the recovery of a “lost gospel.” For example, we now have the texts--in their physical embodiment--of at least sixteen “noncanonical” gospels (that is, those in addition to the traditional four). As far as I know, no tangible physical evidence, not even a few slivers of papyrus, has come to light of Q. All we have is material in other documents that is assumed reliably to have derived from Q. Thus the situation is not unlike some planet that is not actually observed, but assumed to exist because of its effect on other celestial bodies.

One possible solution to the nontangibility issue is to hypothesize that the Q document was not written down as such, but circulated in oral form. Studies of various cultures have shown that such transmission can occur. However, because of the so-called “telephone effect” oral documents change with each retelling, no matter how careful the tellers are to preserve the wording. As found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, however, the texts are very stable, suggesting access to a written archetype.

A second problem concerns the completeness, or noncompleteness of the Q material, as it has been deduced from survivals in the gospels ascribed to Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. The idea that the 225 or so verses recovered in this material constitute an organic whole seems to be tacitly accepted without argument. In the light of this assumption it is assumed that the absence of certain motifs, many of the material, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so forth, is an indication that they were not held by the earliest followers of Jesus. Instead, they are mythical accretions, many stemming from the surrounding pagan world. But what if such motifs were found in other portions of Q, which have not happened to survive.

A further question touches on the order of the contents of Q. As noted above, there is no overarching narrative structure. Instead, we have a series of atomic fragments, sometimes loosely related, but in many instances simply following one on another. Contemporary scholars assume that the order preferred by the author of Luke is the original one. Yet how can one be sure?

Recent work has shown that the Q problem poses two distinct issues. The first concerns its deployment in support of the two-source assumption, that is, Matthew and Luke as two products of the conflation of Mark and Q. Is is still not possible, though, that the Q material was originally generated by the author of Luke (and not borrowed)? Once established, this Lukan material could migrate into Matthew and Thomas. Or the current could go in a reverse direction, following an old view found in St. Augustine that gives priority to Matthew. These intricate questions can be pursued in the specialist literature. When all is said and done, though, it seems that the two-source theory, confidently assumed by many New Testament scholars, is not quite nailed down. This is so, even after more than two-hundred years of carefully argued analysis.

That older problem subsists as the first of two current issues. A new issue is whether one can use Q, as currently reconstructed, as evidence for the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. That matter is still unfolding, and a better answer must await further analysis and research.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Law in the Hebrew Bible

We sometimes hear religious conservatives proclaiming that the “Ten Commandments are the basis of our law.” This assertion is factually incorrect. The basis for law in the United States is the English Common Law as modified by the Constitution and the legal enactments of our Congress. Many other countries observe Civil Law traditions, deriving ultimately from the Roman codification of law. Neither of these stems from the Ten Commandments (otherwise known as the Decalogue), or indeed from any of the collections of laws found in various books of the Hebrew Bible.

What is the nature of the laws that appear in that Bible? Before proceeding further, one must set aside the common extension of the term “law” to cover the entire Pentateuch, or Torah in the strict sense. This umbrella approach is frequent among Jewish scholars, who write grandly of the “Laws of Moses” (a person who almost certainly did not exist). To be sure, laws are prominent in the Pentateuch, but so is much other matter--including myth, legend, folk tales, poetry, and pseudo-science.

Many believers, Jewish and Christian alike, regard the law passages of the Hebrew Bible as sui generis. They are, after all, the word of God, are they not? If so, God was rather busy in this sphere in ancient times, for modern scholarship has shown that the Israelite laws are embedded in the vast cultural and legal landscape that characterizes the ancient Near East.

This broader contextual approach, which is essential, depends on the decipherment of the cuneiform script. Here the decisive step was taken by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer, who published his interpretation of the Behistun inscription in 1851. Not unlike the Rosetta Stone, this monument was trilingual: Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. Gradually, other languages, including Sumerian, Urartian, Hittite, and Ugaritic.

Sometimes the term Cuneiform Law is used to refer to any of the legal compilations (commonly, but inaccurately known as “codes”) written in cuneiform script,that were developed and used throughout the ancient Middle East among the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Hurrians, Kassites, and Hittites. Why are these documents not codes in the true sense of the word? The answer is that they lack the comprehensive scope and systematic arrangement that characterize such later achievements as the Justinian Code and the Napoleonic Code. Instead, these Near Eastern legal corpora are florilegia, that is, compilations that probably grew gradually by accretion, but never extended to embrace the full range of prevailing law, much of which remained oral. As such, this type of law was transitional between the law systems of tribal peoples, of necessity oral in character because of lack of literacy, and our own comprehensive systems of written law.

That being said, the so-called Code of Hammurabi is the best known of the cuneiform laws. Discovered in December 1901, it contains over 282 paragraphs of text, not including the prologue and epilogue. As with the Flood story, and other Near Eastern motifs, striking similarities were discerned with similar material embedded in the Pentateuch. However, these one-to-one similarities must not be exaggerated, for it is important to situate Israelite law (as we know it) in the broader context of Near Eastern law and jurisprudence.

In 1934 the German Old Testament scholar Albrecht Alt took a decisive step forward. In a paper published in that year he distinguished between two types of laws found in the Pentateuch. The first, or Casuistic type, is characterized by the formulas “If such, then ...”, “When such, then .. , or “Supposing, then. ...” These laws are of frequent occurrence in the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 - 23:33), situated immediately following one of the redactions of the Ten Commandments. Here are two examples pertaining to livestock. “If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide.” “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (Both NRSV).

Formulated in this way, such laws are well suited to the actual operations of a court, because the fulfillment of the opening condition triggers the application of the law. Absent the condition, there is no cause of action.

The second type of law, in Alt’s classification, consists of Apodictic laws. These dispense with the opening clause, flatly forbidding or commanding a certain sort of behavior. We are familiar with one category of these in utterances of the “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” type. An example, which has crept into the Book of Covenant noted above, is the notorious “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (KJV; Exodus 22:18).

Alt held that only the second type was distinctly Israelite, while the legal precepts of the first type were borrowed from the Semitic environment, specifically (he conjectured) from Canaanite law. Later scholars have offered some refinements, noting that the formal distinction of the two types is less clear cut than the German scholar had assumed.

There are also difficulties--and this is a key point--in localizing the sources of the two laws. Although major discoveries of Canaanite texts (the Ras Shamra finds) were being made at the very time that Alt was writing, no actual body of Canaanite law has been found. In all likelihood, the Casuistic laws were derived from several Near Eastern sources. (Albrecht Alt’s paper, “Die Ursprünge des israelitischen Rechts,” appears in English translation in his “Essays on Old Testament History and Religion,” New York: Doubleday, 1968, pp. 101-71.)

There remains the problem of the origin of the Apodictic laws. It is tempting to regard these as a distinctive hallmark of early Israelite culture, items that were hammered out in the harsh school of the desert. Yet since the whole exodus story is nowadays generally discounted, these laws were most likely created in the territory of ancient Israelite itself, as those who became Israelites gradually enucleated themselves from the Canaanite environment in which they had been originally embedded. It may be observed that one can easily obtain an Apodictic law by lopping off the opening conditional clause of a Casuistic law. Apodictic laws are then simply condensed, or (if you will) mutilated forms of Casuistic originals. I confess that I do not know how Biblical scholars would respond to this hypothesis.

At all events, a further question intrudes. Are the Apodictic pronouncements (including the Ten Commandments) actually laws? In fact they are better regarded as simply formulations of taboo, intended more for the observant than for the courts. As such, they are precursors of the vast compilation of 613 obligatory precepts developed by the rabbis. A harsh judgment would be that taken as a whole, such adjurations are a manifestation of a collective and transhistorical case of the Obsessive-Compulsive Syndrome.

At all events, the idea that is currently fashionable among Christian evangelicals and other conservatives--namely, that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our secular law--is untenable. It does not correspond to what we know of the history of the common law and statute law in this country. Moreover, the Ten Commandments could not be a source of law, because they are not laws at all, but a list of demands and prohibitions.

Postscript. Here are some examples of law collections from the ancient Near East:

* ca. 2350 BCE - Reforms of Urukagina of Lagash - not extant, but known through other sources
* ca. 2060 BCE - Code of Ur-Nammu (or Shulgi?) of Ur - Neo-Sumerian (Ur-III). Earliest legal florilegium of which fragments have been discovered
* ca. 1934-1924 BCE - Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin - With a typical epilogue and prologue, the law deals with penalties, the rights of man, right of kings, marriages, and more.
* ca. 1800 BCE - Laws of the city of Eshnunna (sometimes ascribed to king Bilalama)
* ca. 1758 BCE - Code of Hammurabi
* ca. 1500-1300 BCE - Assyrian law


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Robotic liberalism

The results will not be perfect, but I fervently hope that Barack Obama and the Democratic congressional candidates are successful in November. Of course, there will be monumental struggles with lobbyists and the bureaucracy.

Worse will be the problem of liberal complacency. To his credit, Obama has sought to confront some of this robotic thinking. Naturally, he gets no credit from the knee-jerks, who accuse him of abandoning his (scil. their) principles.

The liberal true believers still think that it is 1960. John Kennedy is in office (preparing to end the Vietnam War, NOT) and the world is their oyster.

With ostrich-like consistency these liberal types refuse to even glance at the mass of new thinking stemming from conservative and libertarian sources in the last half century. That is why their triumph in 2008, if it comes, will be short lived. Such an upshot is not what is to be wished, at least not necessarily, but that is what seems to be in the offing.

Let me give two examples of this robotic liberalism.

The other day, waiting in an interminable line for theater tickets in Central Park, I started talking to a charming woman about my age (73). She was articulate, intelligent and Jewish, and therefore very much at risk for colonization by the syndrome I am addressing here. We got on very well, as I am a retired college professor, and she assumed (not incorrectly) that my views were similar to hers.

Then she got on to a new book, fairly new at least, which relentlessly portrays George W. Bush and his family as utterly and irredeemably stupid. My mind flashed back to a short-live series that began on the Comedy Central channel (cable) shortly after GWB assumed the presidency. Entitled "That's My Bush," it presented an image of a loopy bungler, with a mental age of about 11, totally under the control of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Well now Rove is out and Cheney is in a witness-protection program. And guess what? George Bush is clearly calling the shots now. He is making every Democrat in Congress his bitch, and they are loving it. Stupid, alas, he is not.

This kind of Bush hatred is a perfect example of how liberals substitute stereotypes for independent thinking. They believe that if they just repeat their mantras often enough, and keep congratulating each other on their superior understanding that their views will become reality. It doesn't work that way.

Another example of sloppy liberal thinking comes from a letter in today's NY Times Book Review. Commenting on a new book on the history of the US conservative movement, the writer correctly points out that the movement had significant anti-Catholic, racist, and anti-Semitic roots. A few sentences later he cites an example: Father Charles Coughlin. Wasn't Coughlin, er, well, a Roman Catholic priest?

These people seem to believe that thinking and logic are luxuries they don't need. They simply know that they are right, and that's enough. Well, we shall soon see that it isn't.

As an afterthought, it has occurred to me that possibly the title "robotic liberalism" is redundant. Isn't it, pretty much, all robotic? The conventional term is "knee-jerk." For too long, incessant speaking in an echo chamber witg others with similar views has deadened the possibility of independent thought. Witness the rapturous reception accorded the meretricious and lying films of the egregious Michael Moore.

Some will say that I am falling for the demonization of liberalism offered up by the vociferous right. I don't think so. In fact, though, one needs to ask why this demonization is possible. The answer lies in the 180-degree turnabout of liberalism in the longer perspective of its history. In mid-19th century England liberalism meant in essence laissez-faire, getting government restrictions out of the way so that the energies of the people could be liberated. In the early 20th century Britain's Labour Party fell for certain vulgar Marxist ideas, and began to insist on increasing government intervention. Eventually, this new concept came to be enshrined in the US in the form of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

In consequence of this mutation, we now have two phenomena: Liberalism One and Liberalism Two. Those who advocate this political view (scil. these views) are typically unaware of when they shift from the one position to the other. For example, most who now term themselves liberals support free speech and careful adherence to the First Amendment of the US Constitution--Liberalism One. I applaud them in this. Yet by the same token they are, very often, in favor of speech codes, a direct contradiction of the previous view--Liberalism Two.

My friend at Gay Species,com still supports the liberal label. Rational people may differ, of course. Others, though, who recognize that the liberal brand is played out, style themselves Progressives. They are at least consistent (I think) in their advocacy of Liberalism Two--under its new name.

Happy Days may be here again in November. But deeper problems subsist.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Violence and monotheism

With increasing clarity scholars of history and religion are coming to perceive a disturbing trifecta--a nexus that links monotheism, intolerance, and violence. Today the jihadists are the most prominent exponents of this noxious triad. As will be seen below, however, the Hebrew Bible is the originating locus.

To be sure, violence is a human universal. To take an extreme example, consider the wars conducted by the Aztecs to procure victims for their rituals of human sacrifice. These conflicts were bloody, but they were not undertaken to maintain and extend an intolerant monotheistic faith. The Aztecs were quite content to leave the polytheistic beliefs of their own nation, and those of their neighbors, just as they were.

Matters were different among the ancient Israelites. As the Egyptologist Jan Assmann notes: “[t]he accounts of the Exodus from Egypt, violently forced upon Pharaoh by God-sent plagues--and even more so the conquest in Canaan--depict the birth of the Israelite nation and the rise of monotheism (these two being aspects of the same process) in terms of extreme violence.” The prominent place of these motifs in the historical memory of the people who created the Hebrew Bible makes them highly significant. In addition to the glorification of violence, these narrative reveal a demonization of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. And demonization is often a prelude to aggression.

Violence also figured as a technique for internal control, among the Israelite population itself. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, some 3000 individuals were slain (“each man kill his brother, and each man his fellow, and each man his kin”; Exodus 32:27-28). In another passage death is prescribed for those who might dare even to suggest a return to idolatry: “you shall strike him and he shall die, for he thought to thrust you away from the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy13:10).

Violence is also visited on those who would fraternize with neighboring people. For the crime of associating with Moabites and Midianites, 24,000 were slain. (Numbers 25 1-11).

Extreme violence marked the campaign against the cities of Canaan, where nothing was to be left alive. The ancient Israelites invented ethnic cleansing.

All in all, scholars have enumerated some 600 passages linking violence with the origin and propagation Israelite monotheism. To be sure, minimalists and others have questioned the historicity of of these accounts. To cite a recent essay by Niels Peter Lemche: “The exodus has a long time ago passed from history into fiction. It never happened. Neither did the conquest ever happen. Several biblical scholars including myself have made this clear. From an historical point of view, the Israelites could not have conquered Canaan by destroying Canaanite forces, for the simple reason that the Egyptians still ruled Canaan when Joshua is supposed to have arrived, i.e. shortly before 1200 BCE. Secondly, there is no trace of foreign immigration, and thirdly, even the biblical account about the conquest is contradictory (compare Joshua with Judges 1).”

Granting (as I think we must) these points, there remains this question: why would any people seek proudly to remember the atrocities I have just cited, parading them seriatim in their most sacred text, the Torah? And of course, some details of the accounts are likely to have been true. For the victims it looks very much as if the Torah scrolls were the scrolls of agony.

The conclusion is severe but inescapable. This nexus of violence, intolerance, and monotheism bears a clear stamp of origin: Made in Ancient Israel. Some seek to mitigate this harsh judgment by observing that after the rise of Christianity and Islam--the hyperpowers of monotheism as it unfolded in the course of history--Jews did not engage in these types of repression. Just so. But was it because they wouldn’t, or because they couldn’t?

Now Jews do have power in the state of Israel, and it is a very powerful state indeed. The Israeli government has been drawing on the ancient prototypes, by practicing violence and ethnic cleansing on the Palestinians. Ethnic cleansing? Well, what else can one call the massive land grab in the West Bank? To be fair, Israeli peace groups have been at the forefront of documenting and opposing this misbehavior. They represent the best aspects of the prophetic movement that has also radiated throughout the Abrahamic traditions. But the fons et origo of the trifecta is clear.

One must also acknowledge that today secular Jewish scholars are at the forefront in exploring and exposing the sorry record of monotheism in these realms. One is Professor Regina M. Schwartz, author of “The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism” (University of Chicago Press, 1997). This hard-hitting monograph stems from a question posed to Schwartz when she was teaching the Bible to undergraduates: "What about the Canaanites?" In her view, biblical narrative has been a singularly powerful form of social memory. Too much theological reflection, Schwartz believes seeks simply to close the “old monotheistic” book, and leave things as they are. After all, we are told, the Bible is the word of God. (What kind of god is of course a question too rarely asked.) In a positive message, Schwartz seeks to open the scriptures to the possibility of multiplicity so that, as she puts it, "new books may be fruitful and multiply." Hers is an invitation to an ethic of possibility, plenitude, and generosity, a welcome antidote to violence. In this way her study is as important for its insights into memory, identity, and place as for its criticism of monotheism's violent legacy.

Jonathan Kirsch, an attorney and book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has written “God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism” (Viking 2004). In this wide-ranging survey Kirsch points out, correctly, that the earliest impulses toward monotheism can be found in Egypt with pharaoh Akhenaten's forceful attempt to move the nation to the worship of one god, the Aten. Yet this reform lasted at most seventeen years, and efforts to connect it with Moses remain problematic. In fact, Akhenaten’s religion left no progeny; the Israelite project definitely did.

After reviewing the evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Kirsch demonstrates that monotheism gained momentum with the development of Christianity which became dominant in the Roman empire under the emperor Constantine. Interestingly, Kirsch shows that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Israelites, Jews, or Christians, despite many historians' claims to the contrary.

Conventionally and obsessively, monotheists decry polytheism (“paganism,” “heathendom”). One reason for such dismissals may be that in some ways polytheism is more reasonable, making it a dangerous rival. "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice," he asserts, the opposite of monotheism's dangerous "tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god." Kirsch’s comparison is perhaps overdrawn, but it is worth pondering.

While he does not claim originality, Kirsch clearly shows that monotheistic religions have too often used the worship of one god as a pretext to persecute those who do not share such beliefs. He demonstrates the ways in which this conflict gave rise to the tensions that exist even within monotheistic religions today.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Saying the opposite of what you mean

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers, an American resident in Berlin, writes the following about Obama's impending visit:

"Everyone just assumes that thousands will come out for such a speech. And they’d be right. Berliners has already hosted dozens of Obama events, dating back to February. The Democrats Abroad were almost co-opted by groups organizing here before the Dems as a party could coalesce around a candidate. On Monday night there is another one – held perhaps ironically at the bar and club "White Trash Fast Food“.

It’s worth noting – in all of the dispute – that Kennedy’s most famous Berlin speech – the "ich bin kein Berliner" speech – was not held in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or the Berlin Wall, but instead in a (today relatively inconspicuous) market square at the Schöneberg city hall. "

Kennedy did not say "kein Berliner," NOT a Berliner. It was "ein Berliner." As with many such slips, the emendation contains a truth: John Kennedy was not in fact a resident of Berlin. It has also been pointed out that the more usual construction of the original sentence is "I am a sugar donut." (It's the insertion of the article "ein" that causes this.) Of course, Kennedy was not a sugar donut--but why should one deny such a thing?

In his book on slips Freud mentions a number of telling examples. One is the utterance of the president of Vienna's parliament in the turbulent days before World War I. Anticipating a roudy clash of dissident points of view, the speaker began his remarks by saying: "I hearby declare this parliamentary session closed."

In his superb book critiquing Freud's views, Sebastiano Timpanaro has pointed out that such mistakes are common when one is thinking in binary terms. He gives the example of a Stalinist lackey in the 1930s who was giving a two-part speech, the first section a denunciation of Trotsky, the second an encomium of the Soviet leader. As he neared the end of the Trotsky part the flunky indignantly said: "And now we come to the most horrendous of Stalin's crimes." His mind had raced ahead to the second part, hence the fatal substitution.

Of course there is "Wayne speak," of which I have the honor to be the creator, NOT.

Btw, the previous posting was my 300th at this particular site. Given my diverse interests, I do not get many regular readers--but hey, you never know. It may not seem so when I am in one of my more polemical moods, but I writer for the pleasure of it.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Forgery and impostors

Currently the Prado is staging a big show of the works of Francisco Goya (shortly to close, alas). The authorities there have announced their conclusion that the “Colossus,” formerly regarded as an almost emblematic work, is actually not by Goya. Some years ago, the authenticity of the Black Paintings from the Casa del Sordo, also emblematic, was challenged. I believe that their status remains in limbo.

This problematic situation entails a curious paradox, in that the works sometimes thought to be most characteristic of an artist may not be by him or her. In the late 1930s a Dutch forger Han van Meegeren created a “Vermeer” (The Disciples at Emmaus) that immediately took its place as one of the master’s “finest works.” After WW II Van Meegeren was exposed for other reasons, and the painting vanished from the monographs.

The problem of forgery is usually framed in dollar terms--that is, the loss to the dealer or owner if the work is challenged. Yet it seems to me to pose deeper questions of identity. The unified concept of personality (which may be debatable) has as its corollary the idea that the products of that personality will be uniform. In the case of handwriting this is so--but it may not be true in other realms.

Forgery consists of passing off things as something they are not. There are also cases of human forgery, as it were: the impostor problem. A well-known example is the 16th-century case of the two Martin Guerres, as depicted in the 1982 film and the 1983 monograph by the Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis.

The original Martin Guere was born about 1524 in the Basque town of Hendaye. In 1527 his family moved to the Pyrenean village Artigat in southwestern France. When he was about fourteen years old, Martin married Bertrande de Rols, daughter of a prosperous family. The marriage was childless for eight years until a son was born. Accused of stealing grain from his father, Martin abruptly disappeared in 1548. French law, reflecting the Catholic doctrines of the time, barred his abandoned wife’s remarriage.

In the summer of 1556, a man appeared in Artigues, claiming to be Martin Guerre. Taking advantage of his similar looks and detailed knowledge of Martin Guerre's life, he convinced most of the villagers. The “new” Martin lived for three years with Bertrande and her son; they had two children together.

Eventually, a soldier passing through Artigat claimed that the new Martin Guerre was a fraud: the real one had lost a leg in the war. Inquiries ensued that seemed to disclose the true identity of the impostor: Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed "Pansette" (little belly), a man with a poor reputation from the nearby village Sajas.

In 1560 a law case was tried in Rieux. Bertrande testified that at first she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realized that he was a fraud. After hearing more than 150 witnesses, with many recognizing Martin Guerre (including his four sisters), many recognizing Arnaud du Tilh and others refusing to take sides, the accused impostor was sentenced to death.

He appealed to the high court in Toulouse. The new Martin eloquently argued his case, and the judges tended to believe his version of the story. But then dramatically the true Martin Guerre appeared during the very trial, with a wooden leg. Finally, Arnaud du Tilh confessed: he had learned about Guerre's life after two men confused him with Guerre, and he had then decided to take Guerre's place. He apologized to all, and was hanged in front of Martin Guerre's house in Artigat.

To this day historians dispute whether Bertrande was genuinely duped, or whether she simply went along with the imposture in order to have a husband.

The Martin Guerre imposture was done for private motives. There are also instances that reflect reasons of state and public policy, as with spies and infiltrators. The recent rescue of the high-value hostages in Colombia was effected in part by officers of the national army who had infiltrated the FARC. They were able to convince their host that they were gung-ho “revolutionaries,” possibly more gung-ho than most.