Tag Archives: Bible

Once more on the Bible and “Illegal Immigrants”

Hector Avalos has updated his chapter “The Bible Is Not a Friend of Immigrants”  in The Bible in Political Debate: What Does It Really Say? and posted a link for its PDF version to be downloaded from The Bible and Interpretation.

Once more on Romans 13:1-7. Avalos’s chapter contains the following comment:

Romans 13:1-7 could be used by authoritarian regimes to justify their rule, and we might have to repudiate our Founding Fathers for their rebellion against Britain.

True. Yet was not the passage written to justify the authority of none other than imperial Rome, an authoritarian regime that treated rebels with the utmost cruelty.

Avalos concludes:

The Bible is too morally contradictory to be a friend to immigrants. For every immigrant-friendly prooftext, someone else can find one that says the  opposite. . . . .

It is very difficult for Christian biblical scholars to criticize what they worship. Christian biblical scholars are, in general, worshippers or admirers of Christ. Jesus is definitely one character who is “protected” from moral criticism, and one can see it today on immigration issues. He is portrayed as uniformly the friend of immigrants, when his portrayal in the Gospels is far more complicated and contradictory.

The result of these religionist approaches is the perpetuation of a textual imperialism that retains the authority of the Bible. More importantly, the denunciation of “bad” or “illegitimate” interpretations of the Bible, when based on theological rationales, continues an orthodox-heterodox model of biblical interpretation that has caused so much conflict and violence throughout Christian history.

Most biblical scholars I have seen comment on the current family separation crisis are more involved in a sectarian war about biblical interpretation than in a battle against using the Bible to debate immigration issues.

We certainly need biblical scholars who will publicly challenge bad interpretations of the Bible, whether they be from Jeff Sessions or Jesus. But we also need more biblical scholars who will help this world move beyond the very idea that the Bible should be a moral, social or political authority at all.

Oh my god! People still believe these ancient myths

By Michael F. Bird:

The World was Made For Us to Reign Over It

In terms of the biblical narrative, I think it helps if we remember that we are consistently given a picture of God’s intention to make humanity his vice-regents who will reign with him and for him over the world. This was the role of Adam in Eden, Israel in Canaan, and the church in Christ’s kingdom . . . .

What is no less interesting is how two very different texts, both post-70 AD, 4 Ezra and the Shepherd of Hermas, treat creation as made explicitly for them to rule over it.

. . . .
In which case, I think it safe to say, that “salvation,” in its eschatological coordinates, has to include the notion of creaturely participation in God’s rule over all things.
Can you imagine the ants, or any other sentient creature, saying that they have concluded that god gave them the responsibility to rule the world as his agents and then to act as if all else exists to be subordinated to them?
Dear Bible Believers, it is time to put away ancient mythology and to understand that we are part of a web of life on a fragile planet. Carrying on as god-ordained supremacists, as if our species is the ultimate “goal” of this universe, is creating the sixth great extinction right now and threatening the very survival of organized human life. Time to face the fact that grass has so far proved itself far more successful in evolutionary terms than intelligent life forms.

Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

An enjoyable, lighthearted article by Valarie Tarico — Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

Excerpt ….

A well-written book should be clear and concise, with all factual statements accurate and characters neither two-dimensional nor plagued with multiple personality disorder—unless they actually are. A book written by a god should be some of the best writing ever produced. It should beat Shakespeare on enduring relevance, Stephen Hawking on scientific accuracy, Pablo Neruda on poetry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on ethical coherence, and Maya Angelou on sheer lucid beauty—just to name a few.

Then this ….

But why is the Bible so badly written? Falling short of perfection is one thing, but the Bible has been the subject of literally thousands of follow-on books by people who were genuinely trying to figure out what it means. Despite best efforts, their conclusions don’t converge, which is one reason Christianity has fragmented into over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations.

And then this ….

Long lists of begats in the Gospels; greetings to this person and that in the Pauline epistles; instructions on how to sacrifice a dove in Leviticus or purify a virgin war captive in Numbers; ‘chosen people’ genealogies; prohibitions against eating creatures that don’t exist; pages of threats against enemies of Israel; coded rants against the Roman Empire. . .

As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled. Could none of this have been pared away? Couldn’t the writers have made room instead for a few short sentences that might have changed history Wash your hands after you poop.Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to.Witchcraft isn’t real. Slavery is forbidden. We are all God’s chosen people.

Have a read if you are in a mood for a lighthearted musing (with an underlying serious intent): Why is the Bible So Badly Written?

Translating the New Testament: N. T. Wright vs. David Bentley Hart

First, N. T. Wright reviewed David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. Then Hart responded. I haven’t enjoyed a near slap-fight between intellectuals this much since William F. Buckley offered to sock Gore Vidal “in the goddamned face.”

 

N.T. Wright: “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart: “A Reply to N. T. Wright

It’s worth reading both with care and thoughtful reflection. Here’s a taste from Hart (with my emphasis added): read more »

Theologians Myth-Busting the Jesus Story

A Jesuit priest has used the “infant Jesus went down to Egypt” myth to argue a moral criticism of a policy relating to immigrants or children of immigrants into the U.S.

Baby Jesus was a Dreamer in Egypt

I have no problem with that. That’s what myths are for and how they have always functioned in societies. In the late 60s when students were demonstrating over the Vietnam war a friend of mine was inspired by the myth of Jesus the pacifist and spoke proudly of his non-violent response to being roughly dragged off by police to a paddy wagon.

“Social memory” is the buzz word today and these examples are forms of our social or cultural “memories”. They are framed and deployed to meet current needs and values.

So yes, technically and academically Dr Jim West has the right to say that historically Jesus was never in Egypt. He’s applying sound historical (and myth-busting) method when he does so.

This Is Why Journalists Should Leave Biblical Interpretation Alone…

Yes, it is good sound method to first understand the nature of the source we are using. In this case, our theologian has understood that the story of Jesus being taken into Egypt was created to make use of a particular passage in Hosea. He does his position as a public intellectual no favours when he insults those he sees as less well informed outsiders. Nor does he impress with his own ability to do basic research when he faults the author of the article for writing as a “journalist” when in fact the author is a Jesuit priest with a Master of Divinity from a School of Theology. So one might expect that the author, Thomas Reese, is not so ignorant after all and knows exactly what he is doing in his use of the myth to make a political argument.

Or maybe he does believe Jesus was historically in Egypt. It really doesn’t matter. The question of historicity of events behind myths is quite irrelevant to the place and purpose of myths in society. Their “historicity” is only of interest to historians and anyone who is personally interested in historical research and myth-busting.

Or perhaps Dr West wants to undermine the myth because he disapproves of the moral argument it is being used to buttress.

So no doubt our academic critic will be consistent and cast all details in the epistles of Paul and the gospels that are constructed in order to make use of “Old Testament” passages and tropes to the outer darkness of ahistoricity, including ….. the John the Baptist Elijah / voice in the wilderness role, the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, the healings and other miracles of Jesus, the confrontations of Jesus with the authorities of his day, the Passion and resurrection of Jesus, early persecutions and the apostles going out from Judea to the world to preach …… 🙂

 

A Bedtime Bible Story

The following in Neil Carter’s post, I Drew the Line at Canaan, brought to my mind a very similar moment in my own life:

I remember one night at bedtime my kindergartner asked for a story from her Story Bible, so I opened it at the bookmark to find that the next story was the conquest of Canaan. This Bible tells its stories at an elementary level using cute cartoons, so I figured I could handle it alright.

With clenched teeth, I read her the story of the conquest of Canaan as her older sister listened in from her bed nearby. As the story concluded, my little girl asked why God was being so mean to those people. Her sharp little mind instantly knew this situation was all kinds of wrong.

I honestly didn’t know what to say. My mind flooded with things to say which would not have gone over well with the older daughter listening nearby . . . I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that at the time I think I dodged the question for fear of saying something which would upset a delicate balance that exists in my family life during those days (and frankly hasn’t yet gone away).

Those who have been in a situation similar to mine will understand how difficult it can be to know what to do when moments like these occur. I quickly changed the subject and finished putting the girls to bed because it was late and I didn’t think this was the best time to open up such a large can of worms.

H/T Ed Brayton, Neil Carter on the Old Testament Atrocities

It was some years ago now, but still raw in my memory. I had just tucked my youngest son, not long beyond being a mere toddler, into bed and sat down beside him to read him a story from his colourful children’s bible that I had bought him.

We had come to the story of Abraham, that historic pillar of faith and obedience. I had been through some traumatic personal circumstances up to that point and it was my mature adult focus on God and living the same faith as Abraham, being willing to sacrifice everything most dear to me for the sake of obedience to and trust in God, that somehow “brought me through” those fiery trials. The example of Abraham on Mount Moriah called to sacrifice his son Isaac was a more directly meaningful image for me in my particular situation than Jesus choosing to suffer and die. I could relate at that time to a story of being prepared to lose one’s children far more than personally suffering physical torment and death.

Now here I was, sitting beside my youngest son, about to read him the story of a willingness to sacrifice one’s son for God that had been my guiding beacon only months prior.

I started to read. I think I got no farther in than the opening words. I suddenly felt a sickening punch in my stomach. I paused. I did not know how to continue. I recall the silence eventually broken by my son asking in his sweet child voice for me to continue.

I couldn’t. I did not now how to utter a word in response. I can’t remember now. I may have told him some other story in my own words; I may have simply made my excuse and kissed him goodnight then turned out the light.

What the hell was I doing? Here I was teaching my son to glory in a tale of a man who was prepared to kill his own son for the sake of proving his own bloody righteousness to his f…ing god!

What sort of a god is that? It is an evil god — playing sick psychotic mind-games with his faithful servants. But what sort of a man is that? It is the sort of man who needs to be singled out and taken away from his family and society and given some serious professional help before he can do any further harm to innocents. Meanwhile he needs to be locked away for barbaric criminal intent pending the success of that treatment.

And this had been my faith-model for the past year and more!

I felt sick, ashamed, utterly disgusted with myself. And I never opened that story bible again. Good god, there was a world rich, happy, imaginative and positive literature for children all around me. Having once trained as a teacher-librarian I knew of hundreds of titles.

Now I look at the happy smiling faces in the pastel illustrations in that and similar children’s bibles and I am reminded of the crude art of totalitarian regimes depicting happy smiling workers, men and women, and happy smiling children in classrooms and on youth camps, all hiding the realities too painful to imagine.

 

 

How Bible Contradictions Began

Even ancient scribes had problems with some of the laws that were decreed from the mouth of the Almighty himself. Take the commandment against idolatry thundered from Mount Sinai:

You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; 
you are not to bow down to them,
you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation
of those that hate me….

(Exodus 20:4-5, Everett Fox trans)

Poor unlucky great-great-great grandchildren.

Fortunately for those innocents scribes or priests knew how to subvert God’s command.

But since they are playing with God’s own words they need to be clever enough to avoid detection.

The first rule they followed was to remain anonymous. Mustn’t make it easy for God to identify the culprit.

Just as there is not a single law in the Bible that Israelite authors do not attribute to God or his prophetic intermediary, Moses, so is the converse also true. In the entire Hebrew Bible, not a single text, legal or otherwise, is definitively attributed to the actual scribe responsible for its composition. Except for the prophets, biblical authors never speak explicitly in their own voice. Instead, they employ pseudonyms or write anonymously. Proverbs, for example, is attributed to Solomon by means of its editorial superscription (Prov. 1:1), while Ecclesiastes is similarly ascribed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh. 1:1). Neither of these attributions withstands critical examination.28 Such attributions seem rather to function to lend greater authority or prestige to a literary composition by associating it with a venerable figure from the past . . . (Levinson, Bernard M. (2003). “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel”, Numen, 50.1, p. 15)

It was a different matter if laws were merely “man-made”. What one mortal decreed another mortal could strike out and replace. So it was, for example, with ancient Hittite laws as we see from the following case:

If anyone blinds a free person or knocks his teeth out, formerly they would pay 40 sheqels of silver, but now one pays 20 sheqels of silver. . . (Hittite Laws #7, cited in Levinson, 2003)

Inflation or the greater need to allow for knocking out the eyes and teeth of undesirables required a change in the law and it was effected as simply as the above example shows.

But one can’t be so blunt if the laws have been divinely revealed from heaven.

Before showing how the literate class managed to nullify God’s eternal words let’s see where the idea of punishing future generations originated. It did not begin with God, but God picked it up from his reading of Near Eastern treaties. read more »

How Israel Uses (not “Misuses”) The Bible

Professor of Moral Theology, Daniel Maguire, published How Israel Misuses the Bible few days ago in Consortiumnews.com. I agree with the political point of the article but not the attempt to rescue the Bible as if it has a halo that must be guarded from any blemish. People use holy books to justify almost any agenda they want.

How Israel Misuses the Bible — Some excerpts

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, let the theological cat out of the bag.   When the Security Council rebuked Israel for their land thefts (euphemized as “settlements,”) Mr. Danon replied with pious indignation: “Would you ban the French from building in Paris?”

There, in all of it effrontery, is the imperial theology that birthed Zionism. David Ben Gurion said of Palestine “God promised it to us.” Yitzhak Baer wrote in 1947: “God gave to every nation its place, and to the Jews he gave Palestine.”

So in this hallucinatory theology, just as God gave Paris to France the Zionist deity gave Palestine to Jews including the right to build whatever they want wherever they want it. If the Zionist god posted a “Jews only” sign on Palestine, the presence of non-Jews is a sacrilege and their land claims are specious. If nothing is intelligible outside its history, as the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin put it, Ambassador Danon’s French allusion can only be understood against this theological backdrop.

. . . . .

Zionist ersatz theology imagines a capricious god who is into real estate distribution, a god who hands out eternal deeds to people of his choosing. It is the will of the Creator that all others be cleansed and their property rights be negated.

Misunderstanding the Bible

Zionist theology depends on a fallacious exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. The two key words for properly understanding the Bible are descriptive and prescriptive. Many of the texts of the Bible describe the horrors of a barbaric time. They are not normative or in any sense admirable. The Bible is revered for its prescriptive texts which imagined with classical excellence a whole new social order where “there shall be no poor among you,” (Deut 15::4) and where swords will gradually be melted down into plowshares as violent power is subdued. In the prescriptive texts we see the beauty of Judaism which Zionism violates.

The Zionists don’t know the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. They take ugly biblical descriptive texts and use them to make imperial policy. Texts such as this from Deuteronomy: “When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canannites, the Perizzites, the Hivites … and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you … you must utterly destroy them. … Show them no mercy.” (7:1-11, 91-5, 11:8-9)

Following the “logic” of such texts, the Palestinians are now the new Hittites, Girgashites and Canaanites to whom no mercy is to be shown or property rights to be honored. Zionist theology dishonors Judaism.

The worst of mad men, said the poet Alexander Pope, is a saint gone mad. Ironically Jews should know the horrors that religiously motivated people can wreak. Nothing so animates the will for good or for ill like the tincture of the sacred. Christian animus against Jews unleashed slaughters, pogroms, segregation and influenced the anti-Jewish venom that Nazism mechanized with genocidal force.

The survival of Israel living in accord with international law, alongside a Palestinian state, is the goal that has no need of obstructive faux theology. Mr. Netanyahu like the High Priest is rending his garments in outrage, threatening to smite all nations that would challenge Israel’s manifest destiny to build in Palestine like the French can build in Paris. A bit of curative theology is needed to correct this brutal and ignorant madness. The Security Council gave the cure a jump start.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]).He can be reached at daniel.maguire@marquette.edu  — Consortiumnews.com December 27, 2016

I have omitted some rather controversial historical details from the original article because I want the focus to be on the political and popular manipulations of sacred texts. I want to follow up with a very positive post about the future of Israel, and the last sentence quoted above is an excellent segue into that — notice the word “cure”!

 

 

 

 

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States

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The first Christians shared all things in common; the first people of God began as a nation of twelve tribes. Plato would have been impressed with both beginnings.

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Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)

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Book 5 of Plato’s Laws

Laws 739b-c Acts 2:42-47
The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that “Friends have all things in common.Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and of property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost-whether all this is possible or not, I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 
praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.

So began the Christian church, one body, having all things common, like-minded, expressing praise and feeling joy together daily.

If we wink at the fact that Luke probably didn’t mean to indicate that the women and children were included in the common property Plato would have said

no one will ever lay down another definition [of a State] that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. (739c Bury’s translation)

People in such an ideal state would inevitably be “happy”:

Whether such a state is governed by Gods or sons of Gods, one, or more than one, happy are the men who, living after this manner, dwell there. . . 

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Laws 745d Ezekiel 47:13, Numbers 1:44 & Matthew 19:28
And the legislator shall divide the citizens into twelve parts,

and arrange the rest of their property, as far as possible, so as to form twelve equal parts;

and there shall be a registration of all. 

Ye shall divide the land for inheritance according to the twelve tribes of Israel . . . .

These were the men registered by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel.

The Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Plato was imagining an ideal state. Having all things in common he considered to be too idealistic to be practical so he considered next-best options. Twelve tribes was the more realistic option, each tribe named after one of the twelve gods of Olympus. The land was to be divided “equally” but that meant larger allotments would be created to compensate for poorer quality soil in some areas. There was to be a methodical census of all citizens.

We know the story of the twelve tribes of Israel, both the original one from Genesis and the renewed one with the twelve apostles.

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Let’s backtrack and start at the beginning. Book 5 begins with the most important things, the gods, followed by those next in rank, the “demons”, then the human soul (our divine part), and finally the human body, and speaks of the respective honours each is owed.  read more »

Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)

Book 4 of Plato’s Laws

For Plato the ideal state must begin with the new citizens arriving to settle in a land that has long been uninhabited and that is well distant from potentially corrupting influences of any neighbouring state. They mustn’t have it too easy or materially abundant, though, or self-indulgence and the usual corruptions of wealth are sure to overtake them, so the land must be rugged enough to keep them working hard for their well-being.

israel-wildernessThe biblical authors likewise narrated a story of new laws being given to a people leaving one “home” and moving to settle in another but of course there was a significant difference.

They were placing an ideal set of laws upon a land that contained a mixed population and was surrounded by potentially corrupting kingdoms. The same author(s) knew well the problem, though, and stressed the absolute necessity to drive out all the inhabitants of the land (Deut 7) and avoid any marriages with their neighbours (Deut. 17:14-20) lest they be led astray from keeping their perfect laws. The whole meaning of “holiness” and being a “holy nation” is separation from others.

Ath. And is there any neighbouring State?

Cle. None whatever, and that is the reason for selecting the place; in days of old, there was a migration of the inhabitants, and the region has been deserted from time immemorial.

Ath. And has the place a fair proportion of hill, and plain, and wood?

Cle. Like the rest of Crete in that.

Ath. You mean to say that there is more rock than plain?

Cle. Exactly.

Ath. Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous . . . . There is a consolation, therefore. .  . owing to the ruggedness of the soil, not providing anything in great abundance. Had there been abundance, there might have been a great export trade, and a great return of gold and silver; which, as we may safely affirm, has the most fatal results on a State whose aim is the attainment of just and noble sentiments

In the story of Israel great wealth did flood the land in the time of Solomon so that “silver was as common as stones” (1 Kings 10:27) and that was the turning point in the kingdom’s history, as we know.

Purpose of the Laws

The ideal laws of both Plato and the Bible are said to be instituted to make people virtuous. They are not simply about maintenance of justice, keeping the peace and protecting sacred values but are intended to produce personal excellence of character or righteousness. This surely alerts us to a very strong probability that the Bible’s laws which had the same purpose were of philosophical/theological origin rather than being historically instituted as day-to-day law.

Ath. Remember, my good friend, what I said at first about the Cretan laws, that they look to one thing only, and this, as you both agreed, was war; and I replied that such laws, in so far as they tended to promote virtue, were good; but in that they regarded a part only, and not the whole of virtue, I disapproved of them. And now I hope that you in your turn will follow and watch me if I legislate with a view to anything but virtue, or with a view to a part of virtue only. For I consider that the true lawgiver, like an archer, aims only at that on which some eternal beauty is always attending, and dismisses everything else, whether wealth or any other benefit, when separated from virtue.

Compare Deuteronomy 6:25 and 4:6 read more »

Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization

[Updated UTC 7 am, 3rd Aug, with The post-deluge stories of the Greeks … . . .]

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)

Troy_Babel

I love the way Old Testament books come alive as part and parcel of a long forgotten ancient world when I read other ancient writings expressing the same ideas and stories most of us in the “Christian world” have only ever known from the Bible. Reading Plato’s Laws brings home just how pre-modern and irrelevant the Bible is for today’s world — apart from vestigial myths and sacred beliefs a few modern institutions seek to preserve for various reasons.

Take the quaint way Genesis identifies precisely who was responsible for the invention of each of the civilized arts and crafts:

Kayin . . . became the builder of a city . . . 

Ada bore Yaval,
he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

His brother’s name was Yuval,
he was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe.

And Tzilla bore as well — Tuval-Kayin,
burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron. (Genesis 4:17, 20-22, Everett Fox translation — primary intent of this translation is to capture the flavour of the Hebrew language. All Genesis quotations in this post are from this translation.)

Plato informs us (book 3 of Laws) that the ancient Greeks likewise had their eponymous inventors of the arts and crafts of civilization:

Cleinias For it is evident that the arts were unknown during ten thousand times ten thousand years. And no more than a thousand or two thousand years have elapsed since the discoveries of Daedalus, Orpheus and Palamedes – since Marsyas and Olympus invented music, and Amphion the lyre – not to speak of numberless other inventions which are but of yesterday. 

Athenian Have you forgotten, Cleinias, the name of a friend who is really of yesterday? 

Cleinias I suppose that you mean Epimenides

Compare the reminder left to us by Hyginus: read more »

Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws

This is the conclusion of the previous post.

Victory over enemies

In Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy God promises to give his people victory over their enemies in battle if they keep his laws.

Plato at first expresses doubts over the belief that a state will be victorious in battle because of its superior laws and customs…..

Megillus. O best of men, we [Spartans] have only to take arms into our hands, and we send all these nations flying before us. 

Athenian stranger. Nay, my good friend, do not say that; there have been, as there always will be, flights and pursuits of which no account can be given, and therefore we cannot say that victory or defeat in battle affords more than a doubtful proof of the goodness or badness of institutions.

What counts is the character of the people. How completely do they submit their character to laws designed to make them good?

[E]ducation makes good men, and that good men act nobly, and conquer their enemies in battle, because they are good

Do not forget

The Pentateuch warns against forgetting the reasons for one’s success and the accrual of blessings and becoming proud. Plato has the same warning: read more »

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637

Cover of "Laws: Plato (Great Books in Phi...
Cover of Laws: Plato (Great Books in Philosophy)

I had long and often read and heard that the values of the Greeks and Jews were an entire world apart. The Greeks embrace the austere and the ribald gods, nudity, homosexuality, worldly wisdom, the arts, beauty and pleasure; the Jews embrace a caring yet moral god, modesty, family values, divine wisdom, spiritual pursuits.

But read one of Plato’s last written works, Laws, and those contrasting images begin to blur into monochrome.

Plato’s Laws is an exploration of what the ideal laws for a new state would look like. Plato presents his ideas through a three-way discussion involving an Athenian stranger, a Spartan named Megillos and a Cretan, Clinias, as they are traveling to the sacred site of the cave of Zeus on the island of Crete.  Anyone familiar with the Old Testament cannot help but be struck by many points of contact.

I have been wanting to write this post (or series) for a few years now and each time have been put off by the amount of work that organizing the material would take. I have decided now to take the easy way out and simply dot point similarities as one reads through the Laws even though this will involve repetition and disjointedness of themes. Take these posts, then, as a draft document for a more coherent presentation. I will often refer to biblical passages generally without quoting them since most interested readers will know of them anyway and they are details I can fill in later.

There is no reason to think that Plato, writing in the early fourth century BCE, was influenced by the Jewish writings. (Later church fathers did attempt to argue that Plato had indeed been indebted to Moses.) A number of scholars in recent decades have argued that the Pentateuch originated much later than has traditionally been thought — some arguing that the Pentateuch may date as late as Hellenistic (from late fourth century) times. I do not discuss explanations of the similarities of thought here. It is enough at this stage to set out apparent evidence for commonality.

I further comment from time to time on points of contact between Laws and the biblical literature that do not relate to legal content. I am not arguing that Plato’s work itself was a direct influence (nor do I deny the possibility) but do want to highlight the literary tropes, the wider literary culture, in which the biblical writings were produced.

I once posted on Hock’s admonition that New Testament scholars should read ancient novels; they should also read ancient philosophical works and acknowledge more fully than many of them currently do the extent to which the Bible is a product of its wider contemporary literary and ethical cultures.

We start with Book 1.

Benjamin Jowett translation at Internet Classics Archive is in dark azure.

R. G. Bury translation at Perseus Digital Library is in indigo.

The Purpose of the Law

Deut 28, Exod 19, Lev 26, Psalm 1 . . . . the law bestows blessings, both spiritual and material. Among these are good health and physical strength; also great wealth. Godly wisdom is the chief blessing.

Deut 4:6-8 – Law brings reputation for being a wise and understanding people, a light to the world.

Plato, Laws 1.631b:  read more »

Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?

Bust of Herodotus. 2nd century AD. Roman copy ...
Herodotus.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?

A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)

Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival.  There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.

The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.

The First Greek Witnesses

Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule. read more »