Monday, August 25, 2014

The Gettysburg Hypothesis: What If Bible Critics had a Crack At the Text?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Even the most casual reader cannot help but be struck by the unorthodox numbering system that the writer employs here.  One suspects that it was an anachronistic flourish added at a significantly later period and meant to emotionally connect the listener to the well-known folk origins of the nation - to a time in which this "primitive" system of counting was widespread. 

Most scholars now agree that the notion that "all men are created equal" is a relatively recent innovation and shows signs of editing in our text.  There is a well-intended desire to want to push back notions of equality to earlier and earlier epochs in the nation's history to assuage feelings of guilt at the true, rather unequal nature of the nation's founding.  The people who are apocryphally supposed to have penned this idea could not possibly have held such views in their day and a cursory survey of all of the extant literature of the time shows no trace of such egalitarian sentiments.  Are we to suppose that they were developed in a vacuum?  History conclusively shows that such concepts can only be developed over long periods of time and that the development can be clearly traced.  We may never know the true "proposition" that the writer references but it is of little consequence as the redactor's heavy hand has sealed the sentiment for posterity.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

The author never actually experienced the war but only heard oral accounts of it of course.  This is clear as stylistically, the piece is cobbled together from earlier and later periods as mentioned above. Many cultures have nostalgically claimed minor skirmishes as "great" wars whereby the war legends of multiple generations are rolled onto the back of these relatively inconsequential conflicts and recounted generationally - mostly for their moral instruction and entertainment value.

The author is depicted as being literally on a battle-field fraught with existential danger (not ideal conditions for composition one would think).  Here the text surprisingly shifts and the battlefield becomes a martyrs memorial. This shows evidence of competing traditions - one written at the height of pitched battle and the other long after its denouement.  Wishing to preserve both of these traditions, the editor references them both here.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Here the phantasmagorical notions of the people comes into play with the revelation that the battles of the "great wars" were fought both by the living and the dead - ostensibly raised from the netherworld to fight alongside their brethren of flesh and bone.  Such notions were common currency in many theologically rooted cultures.

We conclude our analysis by noting a unique instance of prophetic flourish.  The author predicts that the world will not even bother to note the actions of the people on the battlefield nor even the content of the document that the redactor has dedicated himself to.  Clearly, the author was not too accomplished of a prophet as here we are, years hence, pouring over the enduring literary achievement of this remarkable group of people.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Torah: A Radical Equality Manifesto

According to Dr. Rabbi Joshua Berman one need look no further than the Five Books of Moses to see the origins of many of our modern notions of equality.  He describes these ideas, ones that are wholly unlike what existed in the ancient world, as revolutionary - and they are.

Here are several examples that you can read about at length in his book Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought:

Universal Private Ownership of Land

In ancient times land was held by the king or the priest.  The idea that an average citizen would also be a land owner would have struck most people as extremely odd.  As Rabbi Berman notes "land was owned by the king and by the temples, while the common folk worked as serfs or as slaves. But in the Torah, God – who officially owns the land – gives it over to the Israelites. Every common Israelite is a land owner (Leviticus 25), which means that every Israelite has a source of income – history's first example of universal private ownership of land by the citizens."

Debt Relief

The forgiving of debts in the ancient world was a political tool used by kings to triangulate against the rich - at once weakening them and increasing the king's popularity with the masses - which had the added benefit of keeping him safer.  Rabbi Berman notes that "debt cancellation of this sort is actually the original Greek meaning of our modern day English words amnesty and philanthropy. The Greek historian Plutarch writes that when the Spartan ruler Agis sought to impose debt relief, the measure was considered by his detractors as nothing more than a Robin-Hood scheme: "By offering to the poor the property of the rich, and by distribution of land and remission of debts, he [bought] a large bodyguard for himself, not many citizens for Sparta."  Contrasting that with the Torah's system he says "in the Torah, debt-cancellation is enacted automatically every seven years. No longer the political tool of a new monarch, debt relief in the Bible becomes the legislated right of the common citizen (Deuteronomy 15)."

History's First Redistributive Tax for a Social Purpose

In the ancient world taxes were levied for the purpose of supporting the political and priestly classes. The poor were, by and large, left to struggle on their own.  There was no concept of government assistance and certainly no attempt by the government to coerce the rich into supporting the poor.  In sharp contradistinction the Torah required an agricultural tithing system that mandated that successful farmers gift a portion of their crops to the needy (Deuteronomy 14).

Political Office

Rabbi Berman notes that "only with the American Founding Fathers do we eventually find a new notion of political office, in which a political office exists without reference to class, and which any citizen is eligible to hold."  Again, long ago, it was considered right and proper that the prosperous and "high born" were fit to rule.  The idea that a commoner could make decisions and rule over the wealthy would have been seen as an absurdity.  Nonetheless, "this revolutionary notion of political office has only one precursor: the Torah. Any citizen can be chosen to be a judge (Deuteronomy 16). In fact, the Torah doesn't speak about the process of choosing judges, other than that the people (the collective "you") must choose them from among themselves. That is even more significant when one considers that the monarch was beneath the law. The "elders" and "judges" we meet throughout the Bible—and later in the Mishnah—formed a veritable parliament for the people, of the people. In practice, many came from common homes and supported themselves with menial labor and crafts."

The Monarchy 

Amazingly, the Jewish people had no king or centralized government for longer than the United States has existed.  The Torah actually grants the authority to the people to decide if they want an king or not (and ends up criticizing them for choosing to have one).  Furthermore, the king need not be bred of noble stock and like David, can come from rather simple backgrounds.  Again, Rabbi Berman shows that "the Torah specifies that the people will have a king over them, only if they initiate the idea (Deuteronomy 17:14; cf. 1 Samuel 8). Until David was chosen as king, any citizen could have been chosen (Deuteronomy 17). Even afterwards, the hereditary rights were predicated upon the king finding favor in the eyes of God and the eyes of the people. This is the halachah (law) today as well: the future Davidic king will be deemed legitimate only if he is able to rally the people around him (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:4-5)."


There is debate as to exactly who first became literate in the ancient world...and when, but all agree it was in the vicinity of Israel/Canaan sometime around when we became a nation and began following the Torah.  Either way, the usage of an alphabet, as opposed to hieroglyphs or impressions on clay tablets, universalized writing and took it out of the hands of professional scribes.  Rabbi Berman writes that the Torah "is the first text in the ancient world to suggest that it be copied and disseminated to the masses (Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 31). The Torah was unafraid of the Israelites achieving literacy, because it sought to create an ennobled and empowered citizenry."

The Value of Women

Ancient literature takes a fairly negative and short-sighted view of women.  One well-known quote from the Greek poet Palladas suggests that "Marriage brings a man only two happy days. The day he takes his bride to bed and the day he lays her in her grave." (Morton M. Hunt, The Natural History of Love, Alfred Knopf, 1959).  Very much unlike this pervasive attitude the Torah clearly cares for and values women.  Rabbi Berman concludes that "perhaps nowhere did the Torah revolutionize the standing of the common person, as it did with regard to the standing of women. In the narrative literature of the ancient Near East, we find that women fill only two roles: they either satisfy mens' desires, or they tempt them. It is in the Torah that we first encounter women like Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam and Yocheved who are noted for their industriousness, insight, courage, and spiritual acuity. For the first time in the history of western literature women are people too."

The Torah is not just another ancient document.  In many ways it was a radical departure from all known social and political thought of its day.  Its effects continue to reverberate in our culture today and much of what we think of as right and good comes directly (or indirectly) from the revolutionary ideas that it introduced to the world.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Conservatives, Liberals and Religion on "The View"

There was an interesting exchange between conservative political commentator S.E. Cupp and Whoopi Goldberg a few days ago on The View.  They were arguing over whether or not it's appropriate to suggest to someone that they should "pray over their food" or maybe just even having to see someone praying in public (it wasn't totally clear from the exchange).

If the former, I would certainly agree with Whoopi that it's pretty rude to randomly critique someone for not "praying over their food" and might suggest that people who do that (does this really happen a lot?) should probably mind their own business.  It's not likely these people will win anyone over by getting in their faces about it.  If someone really wanted to convince another to "pray over their food" - something that Judaism values - it would be significantly more effective to lead such an exemplary life that people will be compelled to wonder "what makes that person so fantastic?" "How can I be more like her?"  They will notice, as they get to know the "food praying person" that he or she has a remarkable relationship to and appreciation for food.  They may become curious and inquire about the practice.

Or maybe not.  But either way, religious people don't do themselves any favors by attempting to guilt people into behaving in ways that they deem fitting and I can't in fact think of a better way to ensure that the person they're trying to "help" will not do what they suggest and will leave the conversation with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Btw -  S.E. Cupp is a model atheist - open minded, non-adversarial and extremely accepting of the religious practice of others.

You can see the view of the whole exchange here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Where's Waldo and the Teleological Argument

Dr. Ed Fesser has a fun analogy on his blog in the form of a "skeptic" and a "believer" arguing over the existence of the "Painter" of a Where's Waldo scene.  The skeptic says:

 “Painter?  Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter!  I’ve been studying this canvas for years.  I’ve gone over every square inch.  I’ve studied each figure in detail -- facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc.  I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things.  But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it.  No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him.  But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”

And the believer retorts:

“I think you’re overlooking crucial evidence, Skeptic,” Believer says.  “I agree that you’re not going to find evidence of the painter on any cursory examination, or in most of the painting.  But consider that in the upper left corner, among the other figures, there’s a policeman leaning at about a ninety degree angle, yet whose facial expression gives no indication that he feels like he’s going to fall over.  Now it’s possible that he’s leaning on something -- a mailbox perhaps -- but that seems very unlikely given that we see no mailbox, and a mailbox would be too big for part of it not to be visibly sticking out from behind one of the other figures standing around.  No, I think that the best explanation is that there is an invisible figure standing next to the policeman, or at least an invisible force of some kind, which is operating at that spot to hold him up.  And an invisible cause like that is part of what we think the painter is supposed to be, no?  Also, you’ve said that you’ve gone over this painting square inch by square inch.  But we’ve got techniques now to study the painting at the level of the square centimeter or even the square millimeter.  Who knows what we’ll find there?  In fact it seems there are some really complicated patterns at that level and it doesn’t seem remotely probable that any of the figures we do see in the painting could have produced them.  But an invisible painter could have done so.  In fact the patterns we find at that level show a pretty high level of cleverness and artistic skill.  So, when we weigh all the evidence, I think there’s just a really strong case for the existence of a painter of some sort, in fact of a really skillful sort!”

This dialogue is meant to capture the modern debate between atheists like Richard Dawkins and Intelligent Design advocates like Steven Meyer - who is a modern day proponent of a classical line of argumentation for God's existence known as the Teleological Argument.  In a nut shell this argument notes that the world appears to exhibit evidence of design - a heart seems to essentially be a pump, a bacterial flagellum looks very much like an outboard motor and a liver functions very much like a filter.  Scientists like Meyer observe the remarkable machine-like qualities of the various organelles of the cell such as Ribosomes, Golgi an Mitochondria and the DNA molecule and conclude that given the age of the universe, there could not possibly have been sufficient time for natural processes to produce the level of functional information to make these things work.  Truth be told, this argument strikes me as very strong and very intuitively obvious.

Professor Fesser thinks it's all besides the point.  He sees the skeptic and the believer as butting heads over a red herring and that the real discussion should revolve solely around the "Painter."  As he says:

Skeptic’s and Believer’s shared conception of how to determine whether the painter exists is like the dispute over whether William Paley or ID theory provide sufficient “scientific evidence” for a “designer”; whereas the correct conception of how the painting points to the painter is like the conception of God’s relation to the world one finds in the cosmological argument rightly understood -- understood, that is, the way Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, and Thomist and other Scholastics understand it.  It is not a question of natural science -- which, given the methods that define it in the modern period, can in principle only ever get you from one part of the world to another part of it, and never outside the world -- but rather a question for metaphysics, which is not limited by its methods to the this-worldly.  (See the posts collected here for what’s wrong with “design inferences” as usually understood.  See the posts collected here for what the cosmological argument, rightly understood, has to say.)

To change the analogy slightly, it’s as if the New Atheist on the one hand and his “theistic pesonalist” and “design inference” opponents on the other are playing a pseudo-theological variant of Where’s Waldo? (also known as Where’s Wally?)  The New Atheist thinks that the problem is that too many people refuse to admit that Waldo is nowhere to be found in the picture.  The theistic personalist and the ID theorist think the problem is that the New Atheists refuse to see how strong is the evidence that Waldo is at such-and-such a place in the picture (hiding behind a bacterial flagellum, perhaps).  The classical theist knows that the real problem is that these guys are all wasting enormous amounts of time and energy playing Where’s Waldo instead of talking about God.

We hear in these debates about “open theism,” “process theism,”  “onto-theology,” “neo-theism” and so on.  Perhaps we need a new label for the essentially creaturely or anthropomorphic conception of deity that gets endlessly hashed over in pop apologetics and pop atheism while the true God -- the God of Athanasius and Augustine, Maimonides and Avicenna, Anselm and Aquinas -- gets ignored.  Call it “Wally-theism” or “Waldo-theology.”

Food for thought.  Read the whole thing  here.