(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)
After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.
Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?
All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)
You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.
In a former life I was led to understand that when I was baptized God would give me the Holy Spirit, which was his power, and with that power I would be able to overcome my carnal nature and fulfil the law in its full spiritual intent. After my baptism I was often troubled by the fact that I felt no different from before — but don’t be misled by looking for “feelings”, they said — and I certainly did not recognize any extra power within my person to “overcome” my sinful nature. Years later I finally was able to admit I was lied to. But where did this idea of the Holy Spirit having such a central role in the lives of Christians come from?
Here is an interesting thought from Paul Tarazi in first volume of his introduction to the New Testament, Paul and Mark.
Paul concludes this section (i.e. 1 Thess. 4:1-12) dedicated to the relationship between the Thessalonians and God with a sudden reference to God as the grantor of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (v.8) The previous mention of the Holy Spirit occurs in 1:56:
For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Thessalonian Gentiles were chosen and became God’s people just as the “chosen” biblical Israel was, through the gospel that was both preached and accepted in the Holy Spirit. The next reference to the Spirit is found in 5:19-20 in conjunction with pro phrophecy: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying.” What can be made of all this?
My conviction is that Paul himself raised to prominence the biblical element “Holy Spirit” among his Gentile churches in order to minimize any chance that the Jerusalemite church would be able to gain and keep hegemony over them. He took the lead mainly from his predecessor Ezekiel, the Jerusalemite priest who made out of the Babylonian, and thus Gentile, locality Chebar not only a place where the God of Jerusalem could also speak, but actually the location from which he would authoritatively address Jerusalem itself. To do so, God and his prophet Ezekiel, or their spoken word, had to be eminently mobile and it was God’s spirit that supplied the agency for that mobility of the divine/prophetic word and allowed it to travel from the Gentile Babylonia to Jerusalem. Paul followed Ezekiel’s pattern and made it clear to his churches that they were, through the Pauline gospel, in direct contact with God’s word through his spirit, and not via Jerusalem and its leaders. Those Jerusalem leaders were actually bound by God’s word in the gospel, and not vice-versa. Thus, Paul was actually laying the foundation for his churches’ dependence on the gospel and, at the same time, their independence from Jerusalem.
(Tarazi, Paul Nadim. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 1, Paul and Mark. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. pp. 21f)
Not too long ago I posted my thoughts on the gospel narratives placing the public ministry and death of Jesus in a round 40 years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Maybe I was trying to convince myself because the thing that has bugged me is the absence of any early recognition of this setting.
Surely a catastrophe as momentous as the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE had to be linked in the minds of the authors of the first gospels with the crucifixion of Jesus. Is that not what the “Olivet Prophecy” of Jesus (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was all, or in large part, about?
I have further suspected that the destruction of the temple and the mass crucifixions of the same period so chaotically upended Jewish life and beliefs that a new Jewish narrative emerged to help make sense of those events and that that narrative is what we read in the gospels.
Of course, if such a “new Judaism” did emerge and eventually morphed into “Christianity”, the first question that naturally comes to mind is: What of the letters of Paul? Other questions that arise from passages in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius have been covered many times and the various arguments relating to them cover well-worn tracks. One common factor running through Paul’s writings and relevant passages in Josephus and Tacitus and that makes any assessment of their origins and functions problematic is that they appear to exist in isolated islands without any acknowledgement of their existence by outsiders until a good century or more after their presumed creation.
Some of the tell-tale signs that Justin was not using the gospels for his sources: he speaks of Jesus being born “near”, not in, Bethlehem; Jesus’ Davidic descent is through Mary; no genealogy of Jesus; Jesus “sweat blood” before, not after, asking to be released from the coming torment; John the Baptist was sitting by Jordan; the Jordan was engulfed in flame or fiery light when Jesus entered it; Justin has no awareness of a Judas or betrayal narrative; the point of the eucharist was to remember that Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus sends out the twelve from Jerusalem to preach to the world from the day of his resurrection…
But the same is true of the four canonical gospels. There is little hint that anyone knew about them at least until the time Justin Martyr was writing (140-160) and I personally think a reasonable case can be made that even Justin’s apparent references to gospel episodes were derived from a pre-gospel source (or more than one).
Problem: the further away from 70 CE we get before the gospels were written, the harder it is to think that the events of 70 CE were as critical as I have long supposed them to be.
An idiot, or one who treated his audience as idiots, once said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we can’t assume that the first gospel was not written soon after 70 CE, but that goes without saying: we cannot justifiably rely upon mere (unsupported) assumptions at any time. But if there is no evidence to be found in the places we would most expect to see evidence, then questions do need to be answered.
Whilst in my moment of doubt Satan (who else?) led me to read a chapter that seemed to reassure me that a very late date for the gospels was not a completely lonely position to maintain. In “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma” Étienne Nodet lists three indicators that suggest a date far removed from 70 CE but it is the third one that I will quote here. All bolding is my own:
Another feature of the Gospels has puzzled many commentators: the war of 70 is not a major issue. In this respect, the evolution of Josephus himself is interesting. His first work was The War of the Jews, the original title being probably The Capture of Jerusalem; he gloomily states that “God now dwells in Italy” (J.W. 5:367). But some twenty years later, he hardly speaks of the war in his major work, The Antiquities of the Jews. He briefly states in Life § 422, summing up the war, that Titus has resolved the disturbances in Judah. In Ag. Ap. 1:33–36 he casually indicates that the priestly archives have been restored in Jerusalem, so that the priests may be fit to take part in divine worship.
In the Gospels, Jesus announces a ruin. In Lk 21:20–22, he sees an oncoming war, with Jerusalem surrounded by armies, but he explains that “all that Scripture says must be fulfilled” by allusion to Jer 25:15, who speaks of the destruction of Judah and the enslavement of the people “according to everything that is written in this book.” This may refer to the war of 70, but the main point is Biblical typology. In Mt 24:15–16 and Mk 13:14 he says, “When you see the appalling abomination set up in the holy place, then those in Judea must escape to the mountains.” This refers to Daniel’s prophecy, and behind it to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, after which Mattathias and his sons “fled into the mountains” (1 Macc 2:28). Indeed, the expression “set up” suggests a cultic device. The event alluded to can be either Caligula’s tentative plan in 40 to set up his statue in the Temple, or Hadrian’s politics aiming to transform Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city with a forum and a capitol, in 132, which triggered the rebellion of Bar Kokhba. The second circumstance is by far the most fitting one.30 On the contrary, the war in 70 corresponds poorly, because even if the Romans actually worshipped their standards in the holy enclosure (J.W. 6:316), this was after the Temple burnt, but not to impose anything to the Jews. Titus’ triumph shows that the Romans wanted to bring the Jewish cult to Rome. The Sibylline Oracles present a better picture of this war in a prophetic style (4:125–127):
A Roman governor will come from Syria. He will burn down the temple of Jerusalem, and while doing so he will kill many people and destroy the great land of the Jews with its wide roads.
30As is shown by the detailed study in Hermann Detering, “The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mk 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kokhba,” JHC 7 (2000): 161–210. He notes that Mk seems to depend on Mt and not the reverse.
The entire article by Nodet is worth reading for its larger argument that the earliest theology about Jesus stressed his heavenly origin and spiritual nature and that the heavy focus on his humanity was a later development.
Australia and India were once connected via land, both part of Gondwanaland, a supercontinent that existed until about 180 million years ago. There is some evidence of ancient links between Australia and India – a 1999 study asserts a maternal genetic connection between the two countries, and a 2013 study of Indigenous Australian DNA suggests there might have been migration from India about 4000 years ago. Even disbelievers cannot fail to notice some pockets of similarity, such as the resemblance between India’s Gond art and Indigenous dot painting, or that dingoes look uncannily like Indian street dogs. — Aarti Betigeri
Jen Robinson, a barrister on Julian Assange’s legal team, explains it well. I have summed up her responses to the following questions but you can listen for yourself to the interview in the link below. There are more questions addressed in the program, such as why he did not divulge details of his partner and children earlier; his health and mental state; future prospects of the ongoing “punishment by process”.
Why did Julian Assange break his bail conditions and seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy? — Important to recall that JA was seeking to cooperate with Swedish authorities but with condition that he would not be extradited to the United States. The Australian government did not step in and ask for assurance from Sweden that he would not be extradited. It was this failure to be assured of his security that led him to seek, as is his right, refuge in another country’s embassy. Sweden has since dropped their charges against him.
Was the release of documents a reckless dump of data that endangered lives? No. Before releasing any data Assange and his team scoured through the material meticulously to remove any information that could endanger lives. In all court hearings the US has not cited one instance of anyone being killed as a result of the release of the material.
Did Julian Assange assist Bradley/Chelsea Manning to hack the data from U.S. files? No. Assange was entirely the recipient.
This is to say a very sad and shocked goodbye to Cathy Bow, a colleague I worked closely with a few years ago in creating a vital project for the preservation of aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory, Australia. In a former, distant, more enlightened age, the Australian government introduced bilingual education in remote aboriginal communities and as a result, for the first time in many cases, aboriginal languages were written down, in storybooks, for children to learn to read. These books were often the only written record of those languages in their full “as spoken” form. Then times changed and a new national government came along and decided that bilingual education was not acceptable and those books fell into disuse. Some were stacked away in cupboards to gather dust; some were even “stored” in refuse bins! Key persons in the Charles Darwin University in Darwin who noticed what a valuable resource was in decay and danger of being lost entirely and Cathy Bow was hired to go out into these communities to recover (in dialogue with the community elders) as many of the aboriginal languages books as possible.
As she brought them in to us, we set about digitizing them and working with a tech team to make them available publicly — for linguists internationally as a scholarly resource, but especially for the different aboriginal communities themselves. They would be able to interact with them online, adding their own responses to what they were now able to read. It was a vital project in helping preserve languages that were in danger of being lost.
Cathy and I worked together to manage ways to enter different languages into the archive as well as the best ways to safeguard the material in a digital format. In the process, Cathy taught me much about the aboriginal cultures and I have followed up that learning with wider reading about the aboriginal peoples in different areas where I have lived since.
I was stunned to hear of her unexpected death earlier today. I know many others who also worked closely with Cathy at the Charles Darwin University, in particular on the LAAL project, will feel the same way. As will, I have no doubt, many of the aboriginal communities she visited on a regular basis over the years.
You have heard of priests who are closet atheists. Have you ever wondered why they stay in the Church? What are they thinking? Here is an explanation from one Catholic priest who lost his faith. It’s from the autobiography of Joseph Turmel who was eventually excommunicated. I have copied the passage from the online edition at Scribd.
First, the life plan. What should I do? Could I remain in the Church? Ought I not to leave?
Had I posed the question to ecclesiastical authorities, their only response would have been to expel me and to make it impossible to continue a ministry that, from their perspective, could only be a horrible sacrilege. If I had let my parents and my mentor, M. Gendron, know of the state of my soul, they would have died of broken hearts. Thus I could not confide in anyone. Asking advice was not an option; and I was reduced to deciding alone the choice that would henceforth determine my life.
The decision did not require much thought; it was not long in coming.
Civil servants know that the smallest breach of duty, legal action aside, will result in an administrative suspension that will shatter their life and bring shame, sorrow or even ruin upon their family. And this formidable prospect ordinarily keeps those who would be tempted to shirk their duty faithful to it. Among the clergy the only real crime in existence is breaking the law of celibacy. When it is made public, it plunges the faithful into deep distress and astonishment. But only rarely does it come to light. Not that breaking the law is infrequent. It is just that such crimes occur in the dark. The faithful are content to shut their eyes and do not want to be made to open them; the authorities, too, do everything possible not to know and not to have to intervene. Liberties are taken with the law of celibacy; but the takers remain in the ranks of the clergy; scandal is avoided: everyone benefits.
All these thoughts went round in my mind; they haunted me, but they also imposed compelling conclusions. To lay aside the cassock that I had worn for ten years (I had entered seminary in 1876) to return to a civilian life that I had renounced by solemn oaths, would be to shatter my life, and wound my parents and my adoptive father; at the same time it would be denouncing myself publicly as guilty of a breach of duty, a crime.
What was my crime? Here the facts spoke with a bitter eloquence. I have said earlier (p. 24) how the Roman Church, through its aggressive legislation, through the tyrannical condemnations it directs against even the most modest bids for sincerity, keeps truth out of seminaries and crams aspirants to the priesthood full of falsehoods and fables. Its future ministers come to ordination with their minds filled with illusion. Then, taken up with ministry, having neither time nor taste for personal study, they generally tend to stick to the adulterated wares served up to them in seminary: they remain deceived. My crime, the result of intense labor, was to have seen through this deceit and to have refuted the lies which had ensnared me. An inexpiable crime in the view of the Roman Church, which, if she had been aware of it, would certainly have punished me. In laying aside the cassock, in leaving the clergy’s ranks, I should have let the Church win; I would have inflicted on myself the punishment that the Church, unaware of the state of my soul, could not.
In a burst of indignation I cried out: “Because I have discovered the trap in which the Church ensnares the faithful and particularly aspirants to the priesthood, I should be obliged to condemn myself and my family to dreadful sufferings? No, that will not be. Promises made at knifepoint grant no rights to the cutthroat who exacts them. They impose no obligation on the victim who signs them. They are null. The Church that systematically hid the truth from me, that fed me lies, acted like a relentless cutthroat toward her victim. Methods differ; the dishonesty is the same. The Church has no rights over me. I certainly do not have to accept the verdict it would pronounce if it knew my state because this verdict would be merely a shameful travesty of justice. I have the right to impose myself on the Church. I will impose myself, I will continue to celebrate the rites to which it has bound me. She can only blame herself for the misfortune that has befallen her in my person. Moreover, other misfortunes of the same kind will inevitably continue to occur, if she does not quickly renounce falsehood and impart honest teaching to her clergy. But she surely knows that her seminaries would empty immediately and that her aspirants to the priesthood would return to the world after a few weeks if the truth were allowed to reach them. With the current regime in seminaries, only priests who have the time and taste for study can enlighten themselves. What is this insignificant loss beside the void that would occur if the teaching given in seminary were based on respect for the truth? The Church derives too much profit from falsehood ever to deprive herself of its services.
Having decided to remain in the Church, I needed to make no change to my life. Nothing was altered, except that study henceforth benefited from the two hours previously taken up with exercises of piety.
From “Martyr to the Truth”: The Autobiography of Joseph Turmel
When a child and teenager I spent a good span of my time and pocket money painting with watercolours and sketching and collecting art books. So I was quite thrilled to be taken aback to see the originals of several artworks that many years ago I had lingered over and read about only in books so many times. Cezanne was a favourite and here in the Queensland Art Gallery, on loan from New York’s Met Gallery. This one of a few pieces of fruit must be one of the least interesting pieces to anyone not “into art” but I vividly recall studying and taking in both the innovative (at the time) techniques and effects from photos of this and similar works of his:
Everyone loves a Turner painting and this one of Venice actually gave me some belated encouragement. I learned that Turner had moved some of the buildings around to create a tighter effect to create this piece. So finally I could let go of my guilt over a charcoal sketch I had once done of our neighbourhood: I had always felt guilty slightly relocating some of the trees and houses to make my work more striking. Turner suddenly felt closer and my conscience felt lighter.
I don’t recall engaging with this Giovanni di Paolo from 1445. It is “Paradise”. How can a painting that old be still in such stunning condition! The vividness immediately drew me to it but then I did begin to feel perturbed. Everyone in Paradise appears to be from the very well-to-do classes and church orders. Maybe the lesson is that even peasants will dress and act like the rich and the reputable.
No, this post is not about the Testimonium Flavianum, that disputed passage about the “crucified-under-Pilate-Jesus”. It is about other figures in the works of Josephus that various authors have proposed are the original persons from whom the Christian myth was derived. Possibly the most well-known one that comes to mind is Jesus ben Ananias, the “mad man” who cried Cassandra warnings of doom on the city of Jerusalem before being hit with a stone catapulted by the Romans. Others have embraced the possibility that an earlier person, Jesus ben Saphat, was the “original Jesus”. His scene was in the Galilee area where he castigated wayward rivals by appealing to the Law of Moses and attracting “low-class” followers like “seamen” before making a fateful journey to Jerusalem. Another view sees Josephus’s account of “the Egyptian” as the true original. He gathered followers at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem before meeting his demise. Others have even argued for the Roman military commander, Titus, as the template for details in the gospel narratives. One such view interprets Jesus’ call to his disciples to “fish for men” as an ironic twist on the moment when Romans butchered rebels who had fled into the lake of Galilee.
I wonder if the ability to identify different persons acting out scenarios that remind us of this or that in the gospels is because the first evangelist, in seeking a way to frame the first story about a life of Jesus, drew inspiration from, among other sources, what he had read in works by Josephus.
Some readers will feel uncomfortable with such an idea because it would mean the first gospel was not composed until the last few years of the first century at the earliest. Might not the author have been drawing on his memory of persons and events quite independently of any reading of Josephus, and if so, have even written the gospel before Josephus wrote Antiquities? Different readers will come to different conclusions on the likelihood of that explanation.
Let’s have a closer look at some of these purported precursors of the gospel Jesus.
Jesus son of Ananias
The scholar and churchman Theodore Weeden is associated with many parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and the gospel Jesus. I have set out his 23 points of parallel items on a separate webpage: http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm This Jesus made a nuisance of himself by crying “Woe Woe to Jerusalem”, its people and its Temple but was dismissed as a harmless madman by a Roman authority before meeting his fate. You can read the other details set out in two columns on the linked page. Some of the more significant incidents in common include the presence of Jesus ben Ananias in the Temple prior to his death, his quotation of Jeremiah, his silence before his Roman interrogator, his subsequent flogging and loud cry at his death.
I find it hard to imagine this particular figure having any historical existence at all. He appears amidst a list of divinely sent signs that Josephus says were harbingers of the city’s destruction. He looks very much like a stock figure of doom, of a Cassandra figure whom people are ordained to ignore and mock but only to their own peril. Hence I have doubts about the view, that some have expressed, that the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Mark was drawing on memory of a real figure. If Josephus was the source of the figure then yes, the first gospel was indeed written later than commonly said.
The parallels are too many and specific to be discounted as coincidence. I can imagine our evangelist taking the model of ben Ananias — his assumed madness, his prophetic declaration of doom, his silence at his trial, his being flogged — and relating some of those sorts of details to what he was imagining about Jesus from the Scriptures: rejection by his own family, as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant being silent before his accusers, and so forth. The Jewish Scriptures presented him with a theme, a motif, but a relevant narrative application inspired by Josephus, modified for his new setting, of course, assisted with fleshing out a narrative context for those themes.
Jesus son of Saphat / Sapphias
Frans J. Vermeiren in A Chronological Revision of the Origins of Christianity argues that beneath the peaceful gospel Jesus lies a darker, more violent figure: think of his saying about “not coming to bring peace but a sword”, his assault on the temple, the fleeing herdsmen from the scene where Jesus confronted “Legion”, and so forth. From this perspective, Vermeiren sees the various references to the rebel military leader Jesus ben Saphat in Josephus’s writings as significant. This Jesus was active in Galilee. His followers were the lower class, including sailors.
Even though this Jesus was certainly a historical figure might we not imagine a similar influence as with Jesus ben Ananias at work on the creative mind of the gospel author? The idea of Galilee as a setting may have already been floated through a prophecy in Isaiah 9 (though it is not until Matthew that we find an explicit appeal to this passage as the source for the narrative setting); if so, then one can imagine his ears pricking up when he hears about another Jesus who gathered followers in Galilee. When he learned from Josephus that this same Jesus appealed to the Law of Moses when castigating his countrymen then surely he, the author, must have turned over such a figure and event in his mind. The gospel Jesus was to be the origin of the new “philosophy” or what became Christianity, so the idea of twelve disciples surely came to him from his reading of the twelve sons of Israel who became the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But did the idea of making the first of those disciples of the new Jesus’ “fishermen” derive from the Josephan rebel’s followers including many “sailors”? Is that why we have come to read of Jesus walking along the shore to find and call his first disciples?
There were numerous literary precursors for a travel narrative available to our author but one can imagine him reading of Jesus’s flight from Galilee, probably to Jerusalem, as having some creative influence as well.
We have discussed Lena Einhorn’s Shift in Time thesis in other posts. In one of those posts, we focused on Josephus’s account of a false prophet, known to be a magician, and an Egyptian, who called his followers to the Mount of Olives. From there, he promised them, they would see the walls of Jerusalem collapse as they had done for Joshua (=Jesus).
Now the evangelist had the model of the OT messianic figure, David, ascending the Mount of Olives in deep grief, fearing for his life, pursued by his enemies (2 Samuel 15). Yes, the biblical models for a suffering messiah were there, but how to fit these models into a new narrative for the one to become the “mother of all Messiahs”? I can imagine this author thinking about that more recent calamity befalling a prophet on the Mount of Olives. Yes, that would be an idea: let his Jesus who has travelled from Galilee pronounce destruction on the city of Jerusalem and on the eve of his fate he also, at that moment, walks up the Mount of Olives with his disciples.
Einhorn further explores the possible significance of Josephus describing a Theudas, active in the Jordan River region and who was beheaded, prior to the Egyptian episode. Again, it is not hard to imagine one looking for a new narrative to associate some of this detail with a sub-plot of the precursor of his new Jesus.
I have not covered in depth any of the cases that have been made for the Josephan figures pointing to “the real Jesus” behind the Jesus of the gospels. I confess I have found each of the above hypotheses that attempts to establish its respective figure as the original Jesus lacking when it comes to explaining how the details of the story changed into what we read in the gospels today. If, however, we begin with our first evangelist filled with biblical interpretations and motifs (silence before accusers, ascending the Mount of Olives, calling followers) is it not easier to conceptualize the relevance of the Josephan passages for helping him flesh out those isolated ideas into a coherent narrative?
In order to gain possible insights into the origins of persons and events in the gospels, we have, over the past year and more, been attempting to read the Scriptures with the same types of “midrashic” mindsets that ancient Jewish scribes exercised. What follows is from Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie by Sandrick Le Maguer. You may not be persuaded by all of what follows but I hope it will at least make us wonder about the possibilities.
In Part 1 we saw that Miriam was associated closely with the miracle rock or “well” that produced flowing water for Israel as they wandered in the wilderness — the rock accompanying them on their trek. (The inspiration for this association arose from Numbers 20:1-2 we read first that Miriam died and then, in the following sentence, there was no water for Israel. Rabbis put two and two together and decided Miriam’s death had to be the reason: Moses this second time had to turn on the tap by speaking to the rock but, as we know, he struck it twice with his rod instead.)
Wisdom = Miriam = Well = Torah
Now early Jewish exegetes compared a well of water to the Torah, the Law. In Rabba Genesis 1:4 we find, as well, an equation of Wisdom with Law.
R. Banayah said: The world and the fullness thereof were created only for the sake of the Torah: The Lord for the sake of wisdom [i.e. the Torah] founded the earth (Prov. iii, 19).
The Hebrew word for well is “beer” (we wish!), as in Beersheba, etc., the three root consonants being beth, aleph, and resh: באר
If you feel uncomfortable introducing such a late source as Rabba Genesis then you may prefer instead to savour the Damascus Document from among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 6:4 there we read the same interpretation, this time while discussing Numbers 21:18
The Well is the Law, and its “diggers” are the repentant of Israel who went out of the land of Judah and dwelt in the land of Damascus.
Now the same three root consonants (beth, aleph, and resh), in the same order, also mean to “make clear and plain”, as we read in Deuteronomy 27:8 in connection with how the Law was to be written:
And you shall write very plainly [באר] on the stones all the words of this law.
We can transcribe this as baar. The point is that, as Maguer would say, we here have an “over-determination” of the link between the Law and the well. What is written clearly, plainly, the root for the word “well”, is the Law.
So where does Miriam enter?
We recall from Part 1 that in Exodus 15:20 Miriam is called “the prophetess”: hanaviah [הנביאה] – ha=the, navi or nabi=prophet, ah=feminine ending.
We have also seen indications that the numerical values in some words, or gematria, were an important element in rabbinic interpretations and that it is not unreasonable to think that this method was known very early. (Numerical techniques in the Gospel of John alone have been the subject of a monograph.) Now there are two types of gematria: one, row gematria, assigns a number in sequence from 1 to 22 to each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; the other, classical gematria, does the same up to number 10 but then assigns multiples to the other numbers:
The row gematria value for “the prophetess” is 37; the classical gematria value is 73. A magical number, some might wonder.
Now the word for wisdom in Proverbs 7:4 is chokmah [חכמה]. I am not taking this passage at random. We will see that it has a most significant connection with Miriam in rabbinic interpretations.
Say to wisdom [chokmah /חכמה ], “You are my sister,” And call understanding your nearest kin
It turns out that, you guessed it, chokmah, het or chet-kaf-mem-he, also = 37 and 73.
Midrash Exodus is a late writing but we will see what thoughts it contains nonetheless and perhaps wonder about the provenance of such ideas. Midrash Exodus or Shemot Rabbah 1:22 associates each word or phrase with others in the Scriptures to find a message about the close watch God was maintaining over the fate of Moses. We see that Miriam is equated with the “Sister Wisdom” that we just read in Proverbs 7:4 — following the passage we addressed in our earlier post that makes us wonder if the evangelist describing the women “far off” from the cross expected readers to recall the image of Miriam:
And this is why the verse says “And his sister stood by from afar”, for she wanted to know what would be the results of her prophecy. And the Rabbis say the entire verse was said with the Divine Spirit. “And she stood” similar to (1 Samuel 3:10) “And G-D came and stood”. “His Sister” similar to (Proverbs 7:4) “Say to wisdom, she is your sister”. “From afar” similar to (Jeremiah 31:2) “From afar G-D is seen to me”. “To know what will happen to him” similar to (1 Samuel 2:3) “For G-D is all knowing”.
So we have Wisdom=Law=Well . . . the prophetess Miriam.
We have not exhausted the well, though. Wisdom is, according to the Scriptures, hidden. In Job 28:21 …
It is hidden [ne-alamah / נעלמה ] from the eyes of all living, And concealed from the birds of the air.
Miriam “hid” her family relationship to the infant from Pharaoh’s daughter — according to that late Exodus Midrash 1:25.
But that word for “hidden” contains the same consonant roots — fair game for the wordplay that is the meat of midrash — as another description of Miriam, and a word that has become famous as the source for the prophecy of the virgin Mary. That word is “almah”, young girl or woman. Continue reading “Mary, Mary, who are you? – part 2”
And his sister stood afar off [μακρόθεν in LXX], to know what would be done to him. — Exodus 2:4
1.22. And his sister stood afar off (ii, 4). Why did Miriam stand afar off? R. Amram in the name of Rab said: Because Miriam prophesied, ‘My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel’; and when the house was flooded with light at the birth of Moses, her father arose and kissed her head and said: ‘My daughter, thy prophecy has been fulfilled.’ This is the meaning of: And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (Ex. xv, 20);’ The sister of Aaron,’ but not of Motes?—[She is so called] because in fact she said this prophecy when she was yet only the sister of Aaron, Moses not having been born yet. Now that she was casting him into the river, her mother struck her on the head, saying : ‘ My daughter, what about thy prophecy ?’ This is why it says: And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be the outcome of her prophecy. — Exodus Rabbah
And there were also women looking on from afar off [μακρόθεν], among whom also were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the least and of Joseph, and Salome — Mark 15:40
This is not the second part to the previous post that I had planned but it is related.
While exploring what the rabbinic literature had to say about Miriam I was led to focus on the fact that Miriam “stood far off to watch” what would become of her baby brother in the basket floating down the Nile. My mind immediately left the rabbinic discussion (Miriam was wanting to see how her prophecy of the saviour of Israel would pan out now that he was abandoned) and focussed on the fact that that’s how the two Marys and Salome are introduced in the Gospel of Mark: they stand “watching from far off” the crucifixion of Jesus.
And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome
Was that little detail meant to be what some scholars call a “flag” to alert readers to the source of the gospel narrative?
Women are the stereotypical mourners in literature and customs of the time none of the women in the gospel of Mark are explicitly said to do any mourning. The Miriam association, however, does alert us to another role of women and that is the life-givers.
Recall the suggestion that Arimathea was derived from the expression for “After Death”. Joseph does the burying — or more correctly, he lays the body in the tomb — but the women are watching the dying and the burying, looking on, “from afar”, but they move in on the third day to witness the evidence of the resurrection.
If Miriam was watching from afar to see what would happen to the hope of Israel after he was “left to his fate” in the river, she was thereby ready to enter the narrative more actively when he was pulled out of the river by the Egyptians.
When Pharaoh’s daughter took the infant, we read a quite amazing scene: Miriam, who is evidently a young girl and of a slave race, confronts the princess with her request for the baby in order to find care for it.
Now that’s an act of boldness on Miriam’s part. When in the Gospel of Mark we read that Joseph of Arimathea “boldly” approached Pilate, we try to force our minds to imagine something more than otherwise appears in the narrative. Joseph is said to be of the ruling class and Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus in the first place, so one would think that it would not take much “boldness” on his part to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body. Was the author thinking here of Miriam’s bold approach and request of the Egyptian princess for the rescued infant?
I’m beginning to think that our evangelist was doing more with the women at the end of his gospel than merely toss in some extras as mourners. The women were there to represent the opposite of Joseph “After Death” who buried Jesus.
Like Miriam, it is not unlikely that they were watching the crucifixion “from afar” in order to see (“midrashically”) what would become of Jesus. They represent the life sustainers. One of the Marys is said at that moment to be a mother, and a mother of a Jacob and a Joseph. Not just any “Jacob”, but a “Jacob the Younger”. A new Jacob? A new Israel? Joseph’s rise “from death” we know about.
On another forum lately there has appeared the question of why there are so many Marys in the gospels and why Jesus’ mother is given that name. With the partial exception of Jesus’ mother, they have no significant plot function at all. They appear then disappear with no obvious narrative role. What’s going on? These questions have arisen coincidentally at a time when I have returned to exploring the gospels as midrash, that is, as writings similar to the Jewish technique of creating new stories by rearranging passages from here and there in their Scriptures. So with the above questions in mind — why is Jesus’ mother named Mary and why so many Marys in the gospels — consider some of the early Jewish beliefs about Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. The stories as we know them all post-date the gospels.
This post is part one.
Prophet and leader of Israel
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. – Exodus 15:20
Miriam and Aaron began to speak . . . “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” – Numbers 12:1-2
I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. – Micah 6:4
As a prophet, Miriam was said to have predicted that the saviour of the people of Israel would be born to Amram and Jochebed, her parents.
When Pharaoh issued his decree to slay all newborn male children of the Hebrews, Amram, said to be a leading figure among the Israelites, announced that it would be better to divorce his wife to ensure Pharaoh’s will could not be carried out. The rest of the Israelite men followed his example and divorced their wives. Miriam, his daughter, was outraged against her father and sharply chastised him for neglecting his higher duty to God and the future of Israel: a saviour to deliver them had yet to be born, after all. More specifically, Miriam prophesied that her mother would give birth to a saviour who would rescue them all from Egypt.
Amram was humbled and remarried his wife. Meanwhile, God had restored Jochebed to her youthful state so she was, in effect, a virgin when she remarried her husband.
And a man went from the house of Levi” (Exod. 2:1). Where did he go? Rabbi Yehudah son of Zevinah said: He followed the advice of his daughter. A tannaitic source states: Amram was the greatest man of his generation. When evil Pharaoh decreed: “Every son that is born shall be thrown into the river” (Exod. 1:22), he said: We are toiling in vain. He got up and divorced his wife. They all got up and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s, for Pharaoh decreed only concerning the males, and you have decreed concerning the males and the females; Pharaoh decreed only in this world, and you, in this world and for the world to come; evil Pharaoh—perhaps his decree shall be fulfilled, perhaps it shall not be fulfilled, but you are righteous—certainly your decree shall be fulfilled. . . . He got up and brought back his wife. They all got up and brought back their wives. . . . (Sotah 12b)
. . . . —is it possible that she [Jochebed] was a hundred thirty years old and it calls her a daughter [young girl]? . . . Rabbi Yehudah said: Because signs of youth were generated in her. (Sotah 12a)
Then when Moses was born, Amram kissed his daughter in gratitude that her prophecy had been fulfilled. But when Moses was placed in the river Amram lost heart and slapped her on the head for prophesying falsely.
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took.. . .” (Exod. 15:20). The sister of Aaron, and not the sister of Moses? . . . : This teaches us that she used to prophesy when she was the sister of Aaron and say: In the future my mother will give birth to a son who will redeem Israel. And when Moses was born the entire house was filled with light. Her father stood and kissed her on the head. He said: My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled. And when they threw him into the river, her father stood and slapped her on the head. He said to her: My daughter, where is your prophecy? And thus it is written: “And his sister stood from afar in order to know what would be done to him” (Exod. 2:4)—to know what would come of her prophecy. (Sotah 12b-13a)
Yet Miriam did not lose faith and “stood afar off” watching over Moses to ensure his safety. We know how it ended. Miriam managed to retrieve Moses from the Egyptian princess so that his own mother could nurse him.
Miriam is, therefore, the one who prophesied the birth of the saviour of Israel, the one who forbade her father to divorce his wife (or at least to remarry her), the one who protected Moses and ensured his entry into the world. (Similarities and overlaps with any other Christian narrative are surely entirely coincidental.)
God rewarded Miriam for her courage and faithfulness: she was to become the ancestress of the kingship of Israel.
Ancestor of David
The full midrashic explanation of how Miriam is hidden behind several names in 1 Chronicles is a doozy: Miriam was deserted by men but married “for the right reasons” by Caleb, and changed her appearance, etc. And Caleb the son of Hezron begot [through] the woman Azubah and [through] Jerioth, and these are her sons: Jesher and Shobab and Ardon” (1 Chron. 2:18). . . . Azubah is Miriam. And why was she called Azubah? Because everyone left her at the beginning. “Begot”—but he was married to her! Rabbi Yohanan said: Whoever marries a woman for a higher purpose, the text considers it as if he begot her. “Jerioth”—because her face resembled curtains. “And these are her sons”—do not read “her sons,” but “her builders.” .. . “And Ashhur the father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah” (2 Chron. 4:5). Ashhur is Caleb. And why was he called Ashhur? Because his face turned black from fasting. “The father of”— because he became like a father to her. “Tekoa”—because he dedicated his heart to his father in heaven. “Had two wives”—Miriam became like two women. “Helah and Naarah”—not Helah and Naarah, but in the beginning she was sickly, and afterward she was youthful. (Sotah 11b-12a)
In the Talmud (Sotah 11b) it is explained that the names used in I Chronicles (2:18) for Caleb’s wives Azubah and Ephrath are one or the other a pseudonym for Miriam. — Moshe Reiss, p. 190 n.13
Caleb son of Hezron had children by his wife Azubah (and by Jerioth). These were her sons: Jesher, Shobab and Ardon.When Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath, who bore him Hur. Hur was the father of Uri, and Uri the father of Bezalel. — 1 Chronicles 2:18-20
To return to that Sotah 11b passage cited by Moshe Reiss, here is the relevant section:
David, who also comes from Miriam, as it is written: “And Azubah,” the wife of Caleb, “died, and Caleb took to him Ephrath, who bore him Hur” (I Chronicles 2:19) and, as will be explained further, Ephrath is Miriam. And it is written: “David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah” (I Samuel 17:12). Therefore, he was a descendant of Miriam.
The midrashic explanation goes back to the opening chapters of Exodus and the story of the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies. Pharaoh, again we know the story, ordered the midwives to kill every newborn male but the midwives responded by pleading that the Israelite women were popping them out so fast that it was impossible to reach any of them in time to kill the infant. God was pleased so we read,
And it came to pass, since the midwives feared God, He made houses for them — Exod. 1:21
You don’t know what “made houses” means? Did God come down and make them each a bungalow? Rabbis debated the mystery line, too. One of those midwives, you guessed it, was Miriam albeit by another name. Miriam’s cipher was Puah (Exodus 1:15), the reasons offered being many: one, she cooed at the babies (pu pu…); another, that the word suggesting weeping and wailing over the threat to Moses’ life; yet another drawing upon an indication that the word meant defiant resistance, her attitude against Pharaoh. (By this time you will not be the least surprised to learn that the other midwife was Miriam’s mother, Jochebed, but we’ll leave that explanation aside for now.)
So back to the reward:
Rav and Shmuel disagree. One said: Priestly houses, and one said: Royal houses. According to him who said priestly houses, this refers to Aaron and Moses, and according to him who said royal houses, David also came from Miriam, as it is written: “And Azubah died, and Caleb took Ephrath, and she bore Hur to him” (1 Chron. 2:19). And it is written: “And David was the son of that Ephrathite . . .” (1 Sam. 17:12). — Sotah 11b
And so it was.
Mother of a martyr
Josephus writes that Hur, the one who, with Aaron, held up Moses’ hands to defeat the Amalekites (Exodus 17:10-13), was Miriam’s husband (Antiquities III, 2, 4) but another view appears in later rabbinic literature: Miriam was the mother of Hur. From this perspective, we re-read 1 Chronicles 2 (quoted above) and notice that Hur was said to be the son of Caleb and Ephrath, the alternative name for Miriam.
Hur was said to be murdered by the worshippers of the Golden Calf. Here is one of the rabbinical passages explaining what happened:
When Moses had gone up [Mount Sinai], he had agreed with Israel to come down at the end of forty days. When he delayed coming down, all Israel came together to the elders. . . . They said to them, Moses agreed with us that he would come down in forty days. Now here it is forty days and he has not come down. And in addition, six hours more [have passed] . . . yet we do not know what has happened to him. So (in the words of Exod. 32:1 cont.) ‘Arise and make a god for us.’” When [the elders] heard that, [the elders] said to them, “Why are you angering Him, you for whom He performed all the miracles and wonders?” [But] they did not heed them and killed them. Then because Hur had stood . . . up to them with harsh words, they . . . rose up against him and killed him [as well]. Then all of Israel gathered around Aaron . . . — Midrash Tanchuma 3
And so they threatened Aaron unless he made the golden calf.
Grandmother of craftsman of the Tabernacle
Following the genealogy of the tradition above, Bezalel, “filled with the spirit”, the skilled craftsman responsible for all the decoration and furnishings of the Tabernacle, was the grandson of Miriam.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. . . . — Exodus 31:1-5
We can’t prove a connection but it is interesting to wonder here about Jesus, son of Mary, a carpenter and builder of the church which in Christian literature was symbolized by the Tabernacle and Temple.
Again in Midrash Tanchuma Buber Bamidbar 2, we see that the rock that miraculously supplied water for Israel accompanied Israel in the wilderness because of Miriam. When Miriam died the same rock ceased to supply water. The original narrative may not have had any cause-effect relationship in mind but rabbis did see one. One of the functions of midrash was, after all, to create new narratives that tied adjacent episodes in the Bible. We are aware that biblical narratives tend to be collections of many smaller units strung together “like beads on a string” and so were the rabbis. Midrash was one imaginative way they had of making more coherent links between these beads but the links had to draw upon selected words or oddities in the texts to tie them together. Here is a midrashic explanation that tied the death of Miriam with the next episode that began with the Israelites complaining about lack of water:
. . . as stated (in Micah 6:4): AND I SENT MOSES, AARON, AND MIRIAM BEFORE YOU. Thus through their merit, Israel was sustained. The manna was through the merit of Moses. [You yourself know that it is so. When Moses passed away, what is written (in Josh. 5:12)? THE MANNA CEASED ON THE NEXT DAY (i.e., the day after Moses died).] The clouds of glory through the merit of Aaron. You yourself know that it is so. When Aaron passed away, what is written (in Numb. 21:4)? BUT THE TEMPER OF THE PEOPLE GREW SHORT ON THE WAY, because the sun was shining down upon them (without a cloud cover). And the well through the merit of Miriam, since it is stated (in Numb. 20:1-2): BUT MIRIAM DIED THERE. NOW THE CONGREGATION HAD NO WATER. And how was [the well] constructed? Like a kind of rock. It rolled along and came with them on the journeys. When the standards came to rest and the Tabernacle arose, the rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting. Then the princes would stand beside it and say (in the words of Numb. 21:17): RISE UP, O WELL; and the well would rise up.
First, immerse every person in their own cyber-world where their environment identifies their interests and biases.
Second, feed every person with the news and data that reinforces their biases. Masses and masses of data that serve that purpose. Too much data to critically analyse. So much data that swamps each person with confirmation of their belief systems about the world. Result? Too often, paralysis.
And much of the information disseminated nowadays — research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses — eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener. They drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment — “The Russians are terrific!” and to on.
A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them.
(Ellul, Propaganda, 87)
That was written in 1962!! How much frighteningly truer must it be today!
How to fight back in such a dystopian world?
If we believe that we keep ourselves well-informed enough to keep a level head, beware. There is a hidden trap.
To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the events he is earned along in the current . . . .
We are more liable to fall into the trap if we think we can recognize or with little effort sift the lies from the truth. This confidence leads to two attitudes:
The first is: “Of course we shall not be victims of propaganda because we are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood.” Anyone holding that conviction Is extremely susceptible to propaganda, because when propaganda does tell the “truth,” he is then convinced that it is no longer propaganda, moreover, his self-confidence makes him all the more vulnerable to attacks of which he is unaware.
The second attitude is: “We believe nothing that the enemy says because everything he says is necessarily untrue.” But if the enemy can demonstrate that he has told the truth, a sudden turn in his favor will result. . . .
(Ellul, 46, 52)
Remember Popper and what he had to say about the necessity to seek to falsify what we think to be true. Edward Snowden a few months ago made the same point:
Here’s a better way to think: in an . . . information-glutted world where you can basically find evidence for any theory you want, where people inhabit separate online realities, we should focus on falsifiability (which can be tested for) over supportability (which cannot).
Do we sense that events are out of control? That the government is an evil force and we are all helpless before it? That nuclear war with China is inevitable? That covid-19 is just the opening salvo of more serious epidemics? That the conditions that made human civilization possible are fast being ripped away from us through climate change? It’s easy to become overwhelmed into inaction.
That feeling is akin to believing in all-powerful hidden forces behind the institutions that shape our lives and there is nothing we can do to change them. Here is where conspiracy theories enter the picture:
This what what the Austrian Jewish sociologist Karl Popper, refugee of the Holocaust in New Zealand and later England, laid out in his theory of science. Popper believed conspiracy theories are exactly what feeds a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany, playing on and playing up the public’s paranoia of The Other. And authoritarians get away with it precisely because their pseudoscientific claims, masquerading as sound research, are designed to be difficult to prove “false” in the heat of the moment, when data sets — not to mention a sense of the historical consequences — are necessarily incomplete.
By Popper’s lights—and, I’d argue, by the intuition of basic human decency—we shouldn’t consider these provisional theories “science” at all.
(Snowden, Apophenia. This is the second time I’m drawing upon the same Edward Snowden article.)
Of course, when we take some time to delve into how these institutions actually work (and we have addressed the institution of the media a few times here) we find that people in them too often find themselves spreading consequences they personally would not like, or that they make themselves believe are not so malign after all:
Popper’s a favorite in conspiracy theory studies, but I want to bring in an adjacent idea of his that I think is underemphasized in this context, which is that most human actions have unintended consequences. Instant advertising was supposed to yield informed consumers; the National Security Agency was supposed to protect “us” by exploiting “them.” These plans went horribly wrong. But once you wake up to the idea that the world has been patterned, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways you don’t agree with, you can begin to change it.
Alone, we can do nothing significant, it is true. But we are social beings. Solitary confinement, as posted about recently, sends us insane.
It is in good faith that whistleblowers around the world bring these contradictions to public attention; they facilitate public epiphany, reminding us that we’re not quarantined in our private, paranoid “stages.” Thinking in public, together, allows us to stage a different performance entirely. We become more like Popper’s social theorists:
That’s it. Thinking in public. Being socially engaged. Understanding the world around us requires some effort to pull ourselves over to the bank to stop being carried along in the current that Ellul spoke of. Following is a passage from an essay by Popper.
It is the task of social theory to explain how the unintended consequences of our intentions and actions arise, and what kind of consequences arise if people do this that or the other in a certain social situation. And it is, especially, the task of the social sciences to analyse in this way the existence and the functioning of institutions (such as police forces or insurance companies or schools or governments) and of social collectives (such as states of nations or classes or other social groups). The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.
(Popper, “Conspiracy Theory of Society”, 15. Snowden cites the last part of this same paragraph in Apophenia)
Is this naive optimism?
Maybe I’m the deluded one for finding reason for optimism in this idea—and not only because it saves me from letting the former Nazi Conrad have the last word. Popper’s thinking offers an escape hatch from our private worlds and back into the public sphere. The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.
As Noam Chomsky has said, there is no alternative to optimism. Pessimism leads to disengagement and disengagement guarantees the worst outcome.
Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.
(Chomsky, On Choosing Optimism)
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Vintage, 1973. https://archive.org/details/propagandaformat0000ellu
Popper, Karl. “The Conspiracy Theory of Society.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 13–15. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2006.
Snowden, Edward. “Apophenia.” Substack newsletter. Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden (blog), August 6, 2021. https://edwardsnowden.substack.com/p/conspiracy-pt2.
Sustainably Motivated. “Noam Chomsky On Choosing Optimism,” March 12, 2017. https://sustainablymotivated.com/2017/03/12/noam-chomsky-choosing-optimism/.