BRINGING SCRIPTURE DOWN TO EARTH**
1.1. Vanishing of the supernatural
Anyone who cares to look, can see that Christianity is in steep decline. This is especially the case in Europe, where church attendance levels in many countries have fallen below 10% or even below 5%. In most Christian countries (i.e. with the exception of some frontier areas of the missions), the trend is the same, even if less dramatic.
Even more ominous for the survival of Christianity is the decline in priestly vocations. Many parishes that used to have two or three parish priests now have none, so that the Sunday Service has to be conducted by a visiting priest, who has an ever fuller agenda as his colleagues keep on dying, retiring or abandoning priesthood without being replaced. The average age of Catholic priests in the world is now 55. In the Netherlands it is even 62, and increasing. This is only partly due to the strenuous obligation of celibacy, for in Protestant Churches, where priests do get married, and in those countries where Catholic priests ignore the celibacy rules, the decline in priestly vocations is also in evidence. The fact is that modern people just aren’t very interested anymore in practising Christianity.
Outside observers may join the Church leadership in asking why this decline is taking place. As a participant observer of the emptying of the churches in Europe, I will argue that certain circumstances and tactical mistakes may have accelerated the process, but that the fundamental reason for the decline is intrinsic to the nature of the Christian faith. Modem consumerism is one factor - but to an extent also a consequence - of the decline of the faith. The Aggiornamento (‘adaptation to the new times’) policy of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and similar developments in the mainstream Protestant Churches have been a clumsy and unconvincing way of proving that Christianity could keep pace with modem times. Any attempt to bridge the gap between modernity and the Christian faith has only underlined their incompatibility.
Nothing can be done about it, except transforming Christianity till it is no longer Christianity. The central, defining element in Christianity that cannot possibly be saved, is the composite doctrine of prophetic monotheism. The notion that there is a single God, Creator of the universe, who is interfering with His Creation by sending messages to privileged spokespersons called prophets, flies in the face of rationality. People will accept that reason isn’t everything, but not that your central belief system is so militantly opposed to reason. When they also look at the actual contents of the utterances of the Biblical prophets and of Jesus, they find much of it incomprehensible, or undesirable, or irrelevant to our times, or at best good but not requiring divine intervention.
The decline of Christianity started when Christian intellectuals committed to religion tried to conceive religion in a rational way. Some of the founders of modern science, including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Johann Kepler and Rene Descartes, explored nature in order to discover therein the greatness and glory of God. It is often said that science has destroyed religiosity and nurtured atheism, but fact is that the founders of science were passionately religious people. However, their conception of religiosity was radically different from the teachings of the Church.
These founding fathers of modern science did not immediately discard the Church teaching that God had revealed Himself through Scripture and through His Only-begotten Son, but they juxtaposed this traditional revelation with a second God-revealing ‘scripture’: nature. This was known as the Liber Mundi, the ‘Book of the World’, the laws of nature conceived as God’s own handwriting on the paper of matter. Galilei said that this Liber Mundi was more reliable than revealed Scripture: it could not be tampered with, and it was always available right here for everyone to investigate.
The Church could claim no God-invested monopoly over this universalist religiosity, which gained ground with the dawn of modem science. And since the Liber Mundi was there for everyone, the exclusivist claims on Salvation for the baptized Christians became repulsive to the new spirit. Knowledge instead of rituals and beliefs became the new key to salvation. New religious movements like the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, while still using some Biblical parlance, in fact undermined Christianity’s exclusive claims. For them, Christ became a symbol, an ontological concept of the divine presence in the world, rather than a historical character who saved humanity from eternal sin by his crucifixion. Religious philosophers like Spinoza developed a universalist and rational conception of the divine.1
Church teaching had overruled reason, and declared its own dogmas, inspired directly by the Holy Spirit, to be above anything the human mind could think up or envision. In the words of Tertullian, the third-century Church Father: Credo quia absurdum, ‘I believe because it is absurd’. The idea that humanity’s intrinsic imperfection or sinfulness had been remedied by Christ’s crucifixion, was so absurd, and so contrary to experience (the level of sinfulness, whatever that may be, has not changed much since before Christ), that it could only be upheld as Christianity’s basic dogma by declaring reason incompetent.
On the issue of the relation between reason and religion, a popular quote is Saint Thomas Aquinas’s dictum that ‘philosophia ancilla theologiae’, ‘rational inquiry is the handmaid of theology’ (the term philosophia used to mean both philosophy and science). From a certain viewpoint, that statement still makes perfect sense. That intellectual knowledge (philosophies) is subservient to ‘knowledge of God’ (theologia), is something which the founding-fathers of modern science would have readily accepted: their aim indeed was to grasp something of God’s fullness through physics and geometry, to use science as a stepping-stone to cosmic vision. It is an age-old and pre-Christian tradition: we all know the case of Pythagoras, who used mathematics as the basis of his mystical teachings, and we know that Pythagoras himself merely continued a tradition with roots in Egypt and Mesopotamia (perhaps also in India: the similarities between his school and Mahavira Jina’a are striking). So, if we understand theologia in the broader, literal sense of ‘God-knowledge’, keeping in mind that Thomas Aquinas himself was also a mystic, then there is nothing wrong with the dictum ‘philosophia ancilla theologiae’.
However, the Church has definitely used the term ‘theology’ in the ordinary sense of ‘knowledge of Church dogma’. In that case, Thomas’s aphorism does mean the subordination of intellectual insights to the non-rational ‘revealed truths’ of Church dogma.
The advent of Protestantism has not bettered Christianity’s intrinsic opposition to reason, on the contrary. Protestantism was a political movement against the Pope’s power, and that had some merit, but religiously it was a fundamentalist movement that reinforced the hold of the Bible over the minds of the faithful. The Catholic populace knew little of the Bible’s contents, only some selected stories which the priest would read out and authoritatively interpret in his weekly sermon. What they knew were Church-made teachings, starting with the Creed (the statement of Catholic Belief formulated at the Council of Nicea), and a lot of devotional practices to the Sacred Heart, the Saints and the Virgin Mary, which had little to do with specifically Christian teachings. In fact, the Protestants correctly saw them as heathen practices in disguise. Protestantism made much of Europe thoroughly read the Bible with all its contradictions and tales of cruelty, and accept it as God’s own word, extolled above human criticism. But it was this very Bible that would be the great casualty of the scientific revolution and the age of Enlightenment.
If one used reason, the same one with which to study the solar system’s mechanics, to critically investigate the contents of the Bible, its status as God’s own word could not hold out for long. But more fundamentally, if one accepted that reason was to guide man, then the Bible, even regardless of its actual contents, would have to be rejected in principle as the source containing the ultimate truth.
The eighteenth century saw the rise of a non-scriptural God-affirmation, called deism. Whereas theism postulates a personal god who can intervene in the world by His own free will, e.g. in response to someone’s prayer, deism postulates a divine creator who has set the world in motion, who has laid down his own laws for his creation, and now lets the machine roll on by itself. There is no question of God intervening in His own creation, by fulfilling someone’s prayer, by revealing Himself through a unique Scripture, or by sending and sacrificing His only begotten son. This conception of God is known as le Dieu horlogier (the clockworker-God), and Voltaire, sometimes wrongly thought to be an atheist, was its best-known exponent.
This kind of God, who takes leave after having set creation in motion, and who doesn’t give any sign of His existence except the world itself, could be thought of as non-active and non-verifiable, and so, for all practical purposes, non-existent. One could postulate that the laws of nature were God’s handwriting, or one could not: it didn’t make any difference for the laws of nature themselves. Therefore, dismissing what could be dismissed, materialism and atheism soon made their appearance. When Napoleon asked the physicist Laplace where God fitted into his model of the universe, the scientist’s answer was: ‘II ne me faut pas de cette hypothese-la‘ (I have no use for that hypothesis which you mention). Man can understand nature without postulating an extra-natural Being called God.
Recently, God has lost one of the last uses attributed to Him in explaining nature: creating life out of dead matter. So far, materialist science was unable to explain how nature could generate such complex structures. Now, the study of ‘systems far from equilibrium’ and of the spontaneous genesis of order from chaos, have brought the genesis of life within the reach of materialist science. We may confidently look forward to a satisfactory explanation of life’s genesis in the near future, one in which no supernatural intervention by any God is needed.2
God wasn’t needed for explaining nature, and He also wasn’t needed as a foundation for man’s ethics. The Church had tried to instill morality by threatening man with hellfire. But according to Enlightenment thinkers, reason and the study of man and society could form a sufficient basis for ethics. In this connection, Voltaire liked to point to the Chinese moralist Confucius, who strictly refrained from religious speculation but nonetheless taught a consistent and workable (in fact, highly successful) system of morality.
If God was still to make any sense, He had to be found somewhere else. He was not dictating Scriptures, He was not operating heaven and hell, but perhaps He is still there where man cannot see Him: inside man’s consciousness. The conception of religion as an exploration of the divine inside man’s consciousness had been there all along in a number of heathen religions, Now, European Christians began to rediscover it for themselves. In the late nineteenth century, the Dutch poet Willem Kloos wrote: ‘Ik ben een god in het diepst van mijn gedachten‘ (I am a god in the deepest of my thoughts). Both Protestants and Catholics expressed their indignation at this sacrilegious statement.
In the twentieth century, this approach to religion as an adventure of consciousness has become a mighty trend. It has been propelled by the discovery, on an ever larger scale, of the teachings of Eastern thinkers. Some Christian apologists contend, as a last line of defence, that Eastern spirituality may be valuable but is not fit for Western man. But more and more, they are forced to recognize that ‘Eastern paths’ are just universally human paths that merely happen to have been developed in the East. Worse, to some extent they once were just as much part of the European or Mediterranean heritage, but they were stamped out by Christianity’s concerted efforts.
So, in spite of the predictions of 19th century materialists, religion has survived the untenable prophetic belief systems. As Salman Rushdie has said, there is a ‘God-shaped hole’ in the world. In an article with the eloquent title: ‘Never mind God, let’s have religion’, the British-Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant observes: ‘About 30 years ago, a Church of England bishop hit the headlines because he didn’t believe in God: today it is little exaggeration to say that a Church of England bishop would hit the headlines if he did.’ A substantial number of people do not want to abandon the existing community structures shaped by the Churches, but they are transforming religion from within. Either way, religious-minded people have outgrown the stranglehold of dogma.
Religion is no longer conceived as the result of a bizarre intervention of a supernatural being in the natural world, either through miracles or through privileged spokesmen, let alone only-begotten sons. Even if people believe in the supernatural, that still doesn’t bring them back into the bosom of the Church. Those people make a distinction between ‘supernatural’ phenomena (clairvoyance, magnetic healing), and blind faith in Scriptural dogma. They assume that even in their experience of the supernatural, a certain rationality, a certain as yet unknown law of nature must be at work, rather than a divine intervention.
Consider the belief in miracles, for long the mainstay of popular religion. Both Protestants and Catholics believe in miracles, though with a different flavour. Protestants always talk about Jesus: Jesus gave me the strength to do this, everything changed when Jesus came into my life, etc. Many of them are very serious about faith healing, and some of them even reject modem medicine and vaccination on the ground that the Bible doesn’t allow it, or that only Jesus should heal them. The Catholic Church leaves the miraculous cures preferably to the saints, in their places of pilgrimage. It also recognizes a number of miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary, around which more places of pilgrimage have sprung up, where people go for miraculous cures.
Modem people don’t have patience with Christianity’s faith in these miracles. A critical scrutiny of the miracles shows that nothing genuinely miraculous is going on. In the case of miracle cures, it turns out that no actually supernatural things ever happen, such as an amputee getting back his lost limb. What routinely happens, is that psychosomatic diseases are cured, due to a psychological jump from despondency to faith. ‘Your faith has saved you’, is what the priest will say (quoting Jesus) on such occasions, and correctly so: but not the faith in Jesus, much less Jesus himself, but faith in the possibility of cure. Medicine has so far underestimated the psychic factor in health, and ‘miracle workers’ do address that inner strength by creating confidence with the aid of powerful mental images, one of which may be Jesus, or the Virgin Mary. Other gods, other prayers, other rituals could do the job just as well, provided they create a sufficiently strong impression on the patient’s mind.
While consciousness is dawning that the miracle cures effected in Lourdes and other places of pilgrimage, are merely applications of an as yet insufficiently explored healing power within ourselves, there has also been research into that other Christian miracle: the apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Some striking facts: over 90% of the apparitions concerns children between nine and fifteen; what they see, is the typical Virgin Mary of the statuettes in churches, dressed in blue and white; the geographical spread of the apparitions is such that the Virgin Mary hardly ever appears in Protestant countries, where she is not worshipped nor depicted; she only appears to people who are believers already.
So, the Virgin Mary appears only to people who already have emotionally charged images of her in their heads, and perfectly fits the image they have of her. That points to a purely psychological phenomenon. The recipients are children at an age when they are very susceptible to what the German psychologist Erich Rudolf Jansch (1883-1940) called ‘eidetic images’: mental images of emotionally charged objects, that seem very lively and real. The contents of what Mary has to say fits this age group. On the one hand, she offers a bit of simple platitudinous theology: calls to better their lives, to turn to her or to God, to pray and to spread the Gospel. She doesn’t come up with something that those youngsters couldn’t have thought up themselves. On the other hand, she often pays a lot of attention to the recipients’ personal problems, encourages them, gives them confidence: just what an understanding educator does towards kids in that self-searching stage of life.
In the cases where several children saw her at the same time, it turns out that the first time they see different images, but after they exchange information on what they have seen, the image seen by the ‘leader’ among them, is also seen by the others. In several cases, it was noticed they declared seeing the same image. For instance, in the apparition in Beauraing (Belgium, on November 29, 1932) one child declared it saw the Virgin Mary with a golden heart on her breast (just like in many statuettes). The next time, the two other children saw the same thing. Their descriptions were, however, not identical to the detail, and observers noticed they were focusing on a different spot. Essentially, the image was in their minds.3
So today, people see through these ‘miracles’, and they are convinced that what miraculous elements there were in Jesus’ life, must have been of a similar nature (if not fiction concocted by the Gospel-writers). The ‘second evangelization’ campaign that pope John Paul II has called for is not going to re-convince people of the divine hand working through such miracles.
At the same time, it should be mentioned that today, the popularity of places of pilgrimage is at an all-time high. Of course, this quantitative peak should be put into perspective: the population numbers are higher, especially old people (still the most religion-prone age group) are far more numerous than ever in history, and they can travel far more easily. Still, many people who don’t set foot in their parish church anymore, do go ‘on pilgrimage’ sometimes: they want to experience the powerful atmosphere that they expect to find at those places. Just like the heathens of old.
On the whole, modern rational education has not destroyed religiosity, but it has fatally cracked the age-old tendency to be over-awed by phenomena that are not readily understood, as well as the hope for such phenomena to solve our life’s problems. A skepsis has made religions based on irrational beliefs outdated forever. This skepsis extends beyond petty miracles to the basic miracle supposed to underlie the entire Abrahamic tradition: God’s verbal or actual intervention in human affairs.
At the centre of the Judaeo-Christian tradition stands an institution which we moderns tend to consider as irrational par excellence: the belief that the Creator of the Universe is a person, with personal traits and whims, who communicates messages to us through privileged channels called prophets. This irrational belief mixes up the eternal and the temporal, the metaphysical and the phenomenal. Moreover, it is the foundation of exclusivist claims on divine revelation: it divides mankind in those who are in touch with the privileged messengers and those who aren’t.
Biblical prophetism has evolved as one specific line of development from a world-wide culture of trying to understand the gods’ designs for the world. Prophetism in the broadest sense could mean any practice of revealing truths unknown to man, esp. knowledge of the future, or at least good advice tuned to the future course of events. The world over, people have devised techniques of obtaining such hidden knowledge.
The oracle bones of the Chinese Shang dynasty (mid-2nd millennium BC) reveal an oracular procedure that was highly systematized and formed part of a magical way of relating to the world. First, the will of the gods was sought to be revealed through an oracular technique, usually causing a crack (by inserting a hot needle) in a tortoise’s ‘shield’ or in cattle’s shoulder blades: the shape or direction of the crack gave the desired information. This information could be a simple yes/no reply to a question, e.g.: should the army attack or not? Otherwise, it concerned the specific sacrificial wishes of the gods: which sacrifice should be brought, human or animal, at what time, etc.? To us, this would seem doubly irrational: to believe that you can influence events by sacrificing specific items to the supposed gods, and moreover to determine the wishes of these gods by a procedure yielding nothing but the random cracks cause an innocent flame or hot metal in an innocent animal’s bone.
The Etruscans had perhaps the most elaborate divination system of antiquity, mentioned and partly borrowed by the Romans. While there was a wealth of techniques, the essence was that first a field was created in which the different parts gave the different possible outcomes: yes or no; attacking or retreating; allying oneself with candidate A, B or C; moving in direction east, west, north or south. These sectors were called the ‘temples’, whence our word contemplation, i.e. surveying the different factors of a situation (compare, in the slightly younger and more learned technique called astrology, the ‘houses’ of a horoscope, and the term consideration, i.e. surveying the configuration of the sidera, the stars). Subsequently, the diviner made, as it were, a god or a divine sign appear in one of these temples, i.e. he let coincidence make a choice between one of the sectors. This could be done by letting a bird fly up in a specific direction, or by checking which part of the liver of a ritually slaughtered goose showed any remarkable sign, or in many other ways. At any rate: the gods were supposed to speak through coincidence, through a provoked random ‘choice’ between a predetermined number of possibilities.
The location of the ‘gods’ in the sphere of coincidence has something rational to it: in the realm of coincidence, they can interfere without interfering either in the laws of nature or in man’s free choice. Compare with the notion of Sankhya philosophy that there are three types of karma (causal factors of destiny): ‘from oneself’ (adhyatmika), i.e. wrought by one’s own doings; ‘from the elements’ (adhibhautika), i.e. wrought by the intrinsic nature of beings and substances, or in modem terms, by the laws of nature; and thirdly ‘from the gods’ (adhidaivika), i.e. resulting from coincidence. If you happen to be in that one-in-a-million airplane which crashes, it is not your own doing, nor a necessary result of the laws of nature, but what we call ‘coincidence’ or ‘(bad) luck’, and what the ancients called ‘the will of the gods’. Coincidence is that malleable medium which the gods can knead according to their wishes, even while respecting the autonomy of both man and nature.
The point with divination is that we don’t wait till the gods visit upon us a piece of coincidence devastating to our lives and plans, but we catch them in a prearranged laboratory situation, where they can determine something inconsequential (though meaningful), such as the shape and direction of a heat-induced crack in a tortoise bone. Before ridiculing the ancients way of handling destiny, let us appreciate the primitive streak of rationality present in it.
Apart from different guilds of technical diviners, there were also spontaneous fortune-tellers, what we would now call clairvoyants and mediums. A clairvoyant, when focusing his mind on a given object or person, gets images relating to its or his past or future. No divine person is asked to intervene, but clairvoyants are usually religious persons who nevertheless do ascribe their powers to some divine power or person. A medium is someone who makes contact with spirits, either spirits of deceased human beings or spirits belonging to a different category of divine or demonic beings, who have access to knowledge kept hidden from ordinary mortals. A well-known variety of the medium category are the shamans, who allow a spirit to take control over their bodies to speak through them.
This type of direct communication with the realm of the divine was not necessarily confined to a class of specialists. In some cultures, all men were expected to undertake a ‘vision quest’ at least once in a lifetime, usually with the aid of psychedelic drugs. A typical characteristic of these purposely induced hallucinations, whether drug-aided or otherwise, was that they were allowed to happen within certain limits of place, time and circumstance, leaving secular space to the more sobre states of mind. This is the radical difference with pathological hallucinations, which are out of the affected person’s control and refuse to be confined to special occasions. On the other hand, the apparent similarity between the sacred visionary experience sought by normal men and the pathological hallucinations of mentally deranged people has often led to the recognition of the latter (at least the more interesting and articulate specimens) as divine persons. But to prevent misunderstandings, let us repeat that in principle, the visions which constituted a communication with the heavenly world were a controlled and purposive activity undertaken by sane people, occasionally or on a professional basis.
It is in the category of people who receive messages from a supposed superhuman source on a regular basis that the origins of Biblical prophethood can be found. In the oldest stage of the Israelite state, both systems existed: diviners and clairvoyants. The latter are attested since the beginning and remain protagonists until ca. 100 AD, the former are only present as an institution during the period of the Judges and early kings (12th-10th century BC).
Divination was practised by the high-priest, who used a system mentioned but not technically explained in the Bible. Attached to the Ephod, a strip of cloth forming part of the priestly robe, there was a square bag containing the oracular pieces, the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what exactly they were, though it is significant that the former name starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph), and the latter with the last letter (Thau). It is assumed that these were little pieces of wood or stone, which were handled like dice.4
A passage in the book 1 Samuel (14:41-42) reveals that they could be used for yes/no answers, and consulted by the method of successive elimination: ‘Therefore Saul said: ‘ If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, give Urim; but if this guilt is in thy people Israel, give Thummim.’ And Jonathan and Saul were taken [meaning the result was Urim], but the people escaped [it was not Thummim]. Then Saul said: ‘Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.’ And Jonathan was taken.’
After the reign of David, this priestly divination system is no longer attested. David himself consults three diviner-priests, but is also described as directly addressing Yahweh with yes/no questions, following the same procedure of successive elimination (1 Samuel 23:4, 2 Samuel 5:19); it is probable that he used a similar system, but that the material details have simply not been mentioned.
A century later, we find king Ahab exclusively consulting ‘prophets’, also called ‘men of God’, ‘seers’ and ‘sons of prophets’; he had 400 attached to his court. It was understood that a prophet (navi) had direct knowledge of God’s plans. There was an extatic element in their prophesying: prophets had to get into the right mood to receive inspiration. Thus, the prophet Elisha once asked for musicians to help him get the inspiration.
There were different types of prophet. The ‘sons of prophets’ (bene-neviim) were hereditary extatic prophets who lived as a community. They were the pre-Israelite religious class of Canaan, and they used music and ritual celebrations on hilltops to invoke the divine vision. When Elijah is facing the Baal prophets who are wildly dancing and cutting themselves with knives, it is said that this was their custom (1 Kings 18:28). King Saul himself joined in these prophets’ extatic dances (1 Samuel 19:20-24).
Prophets were usually dedicated to a particular god. The prophets of Yahweh were one class among others. On the one hand, they were part of a traditional institution of godmen, on the other, they were increasingly part of an anti-traditional ideological movement, described by Bible scholars as the ‘Yahweh Alone’ movement.5 This movement was obviously directed against polytheism and idol-worship, but its ideological thrust was slightly richer than mere iconoclasm. In the utterances of these Yahwist prophets, we find one recurring theme that makes them quite respectable for modem post-religious readers: the denunciation of sacrifice as the meeting-place of man and god, its replacement with a call to ethical living, and the concomitant attacks on organized priesthood. While the temple-cult, at least that in the temple of Jerusalem which contained the Ark of the Covenant (at least until the Exile 587-538), was a constituent part of the Israelite national identity, there is a general anti-temple and anti-priest tendency discernible among the major Yahwist prophets.
To be sure, the contrastive depiction of Yahwist and other early prophets in the Bible, regarding both ideology and personal behaviour, should be treated with extreme caution: the ultimate Bible editors were strongly biased in favour of the Yahwist prophets. Similarly, the depiction of ritual priesthood as a den of corruption is obviously not unmotivated, though sociologically it makes sense, esp. by comparison with similar aberrations in other cultures.
Apart from the ‘peripheral’ prophets, whose tirades against kings and priests have come to represent the core of the prophetic ideology, there were also ‘central’ prophets, associated with the court or the temple, such as Nahum and Habakkuk, who were linked with the cult in the Temple of Jerusalem. These were generally more in favour of the establishment and the status-quo, and prophesied doom against the Israelites’ enemies rather than against the Israelites themselves. The fact that the ‘peripheral’ prophets have taken the ideological centre-stage in the prophetic part of the Bible, can be understood from the post-exilic opposition between what we may call the Temple party (the Sadducees of Gospel fame) and the Scripture party (the Pharisees and Scribes).
The first two Yahweh prophets who formed the classical type of prophet, were Amos of the southern kingdom Judah and Hosea of Ephraim, heartland of the northern kingdom Israel, both working in ca. 750 BC. Amos was the first writer-prophet; that the Yahwist movement ultimately triumphed, is at least partly due to its literate accumulation of a corpus of doctrine. It is through Amos that Yahweh declares: ‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Eventhough you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them… Take away from me the noise of your songs, to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.’ (Amos 5:21-24)
Though many people will readily get carried away by the ethical stand of this utterance, it contains a fallacy: it falsely implies that a choice has to be made between ethical conduct on the one hand, and rituals and hymns on the other. In India today, missionaries still like to contrast the Hindu wealth of ritual celebrations and devotional music with the Christian call to charity and justice - as if the ritual-minded Hindu religion does not at the same time foster a developed culture of charity and righteousness (dharma). Amos could have attacked possible excesses of the priesthood without attacking the ritual aspect of religion itself. Further, Judeo-Christian apologists like to identify this call to righteousness and social justice with Yahweh’s intervention through the prophets; while in fact, other cultures and other ideological milieus have equally expressed the same ethical and social concerns (e.g. Chinese Taoists who had no notion of a personal god). This at once shows the fundamental flaw of the ideology identified as ‘prophetic’: it excludes things that are normal and deserve to be included.
When Amos attacks Amasiah, the priest of the temple of Bet-El, the latter scolds him and calls him a ‘seer’ (hozeh), one of those professional hereditary extatic prophets. But Amos replies that he is not one of those ‘sons of prophets’, that he was a simple cowherd until Yahweh spoke to him and entrusted him with a mission (Amos 7:12-15). Clearly there is a sociological dimension to the opposition between the traditional religious personnel and the new breed of Yahwist prophets, and Marxist-leaning Bible scholars have naturally tried to explain the rise of Yahwism in terms of an economical transformation of Israelite society.
What is of more concern to us here, is what Yahweh has to say in this confrontation with Amasiah, as on other occasions. For the flavour: ‘Your wife shall be a harlot in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land’ (7:17). And: ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day, the dead bodies shall be many ’ (8:2-3). And: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it ?’ (8:7-8). This sets the tone for the entire lineage of Yahweh prophets: through them, an angry and vengeful Yahweh scolds his Chosen People for being disobedient and unfaithful, and promises, terrible punishment through natural disasters and victorious enemies.
The prophet Hosea introduces the symbolism of the adulterous woman: the Israelite people that becomes unfaithful to its national god by worshipping other gods. The introductory chapter relates Hosea’s personal married life, and it is his own wife who is painted as adulterous and marked for punishment. Here already, we have a hint of how prophecies of national importance can be linked with the personal experiences of the prophet. From then onwards, as prophetism in the name of Yahweh takes on a classical form and repeats a classical message, the role of Yahweh’s prophet will increasingly attract a certain type of man, one whose inner life fosters the same grim and bitter outlook that becomes the hallmark of Yahweh’s prophetic communications.
Hosea is identified by many theologians as the one man who takes the jump from monolatry or henotheism, i.e. the worship of a single god disregarding all other gods, to full-blooded monotheism, the belief that this single god is the only god in existence. Until then, Yahweh may have been in the picture, may even have been a jealous god, but he was not yet conceived as the only possible divine person. The conflict between Yahweh and Baal in the 9th century (massacre of Baal priests by Elijah, removal of Baal idol from Samaria temple by king Joram, massacre of Baal priests and destruction of their temple by the usurper-king Jehu), though reinterpreted by the Bible editors as a struggle for monotheism, was in fact only a struggle for political supremacy between the national god Yahweh and the supra-national god Baal. Even the adultery image in Hosea is still indicative of henotheism, with Yahweh being jealous of other gods, rather than being confident of being the only god. Moreover, the metaphor of Yahweh (originally the warrior-god of the desert nomads) as husband is borrowed from the epithets of the fertility god Baal, whose cult was very popular.
But in Hosea 13:4, Yahweh declares: ‘I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no god but me, and beside me there is no saviour.’ Whether this is really such a big innovation in itself, is an interesting topic for debate; for many centuries after Hosea, mature monotheism will continue to worship a jealous god, who is not confident of being the only one but wages war against his supposedly non-existent rivals. At any rate, this is the first appearance of the ideology embodied in the doctrine surrounding Moses’ Decalogue, which, according to a consensus among Bible scholars, has only been given its distinctive monotheistic edge by the Deuteronomist Bible editors in the 7th-6th century BC.
The effect of monotheism on the status of prophecy was far-reaching. The belief in one God who is valid for every person in every time and circumstance gave a totally new universality to the utterances of His prophets. In the heathen context, an oracle was always meant for a specific occasion and a specific audience. In monotheism, the prophets’ utterances were worth preserving and repeating in places and on occasions unrelated to the original. This stimulated their preservation and the extraction of a somewhat systematic theology from them.
This claim to universal validity of Yahwist prophetism contained the germ of prophetism’s undoing as a living religious institution. Gradually, the reports of Yahweh’s revelations acquired Canonical status, which made it more difficult for new prophets to acquire prophetic legitimacy. When in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Scripture became the centre of religious life in Judaism, replacing the Temple, the gate of prophecy got closed. New claimants to prophetic status were regarded with suspicion, as Mohammed was to find out. This dying out of the prophetic institution in mature Judaism was a logical development: if the utterances of the earlier Yahwist prophets had validity beyond the confines of their own space and time, they remained valid and had little need for updating with new prophecies. While mysticism, conceived as a type of communication with God but without prophetic pretence, has never been without popular appeal, prophetism as such became a fringe phenomenon. Scripture had replaced prophetism as the communicator of God’s will to man.
It was not until after the return of the Israelite elite from exile in Babylon (538 BC) that prophetic revelations were forged into a substantial corpus of Scripture that could command theological authority. After that, prophetism becomes increasingly referential, i.e. explicitly indebted to earlier prophets as well as to other components of Scripture. With the reforms of Ezra (late 5th century), patronized by the Persian overlords, officially recognized prophecy was restricted to a class of Levites associated with the cult in the Second temple. It is in the two centuries before the return from exile that the great prophets could have their unfettered flights of prophetic space-travel. It is in this high tide of prophecy that the prophetic institution attracted some of its weirdest representatives, as we shall see in ch.2.5.
The institution of prophethood was already subject to criticism in Antiquity. Unlike the early court prophets and diviners, the great prophets met with hostility or with derision and rejection, a fact of which they and their ultimate editors have made much, as if it confirms the prophets’ genuineness. Jeremiah mentions a priestly letter in which he himself is denounced as insane (Jer. 29:26). Another well-known case is Mohammed, who had to defend himself time and again (the Quran lists a dozen instances) against the allegation that he was ghost-possessed. While the people could not yet put it in exact words, they felt that there was something wrong with these messengers of doom and abuse. If prophetism could already be rejected as a source of religious doctrine in those half-educated societies of yore, it can definitely not be accepted without due scrutiny in the modern age.
While some prophets have affected that the skepsis and rejection by profane critics they met was precisely a sign of genuine prophethood, we may say that those critics were generally right in their appreciation. What the prophets claimed to be God’s word, was very much their own word. In the best cases, it could be a pertinent social critique or the expression of a certain man-made theological conviction, but in other, important cases it was also an expression of the prophet’s own mental darkness.
1.3. The importance of prediction
Modem theologians find it a bit too simplistic for comfort, but it is an obvious fact that the prime role of the prophet was to predict the future. Only one corrective is needed to this simplistic formulation: predicting the future was only one aspect of the prophets’ real task, which was to discern the will of the gods, or in monotheistic parlance, the will of God. In the world at large, the actual outcome of events was by definition God’s will, because nothing can happen against God’s will. In the human world however, there was an extra factor: man had a choice to co-operate with God. In the human sphere, therefore, the prophet’s task was to discern what God wanted from man (cfr. the Shang oracles: which sacrifice did the gods want men to bring?). However, the insight into the wishes of the gods was in turn a part of the over-all pattern of God’s will: either you live up to God’s wish, and then the outcome will be X, or you don’t live up to it, and then the outcome will be Y. Even in a more sophisticated conception of the prophet’s role, predicting the future remains the overriding concern.
The Biblical prophets live up to that role. Their reports on God’s wishes and opinions is full of definite and verifiable predictions. Often they are in the conditional form: if the people is faithful, it will be victorious; if not, then not. In the complexities of history, the conditions and promised punishments and rewards are sometimes a bit more complex as well, but essentially this pattern is followed throughout. When doomsday prophets have given up all hope that man can sufficiently free himself from his faithlessness, they make their predictions unconditional: God has decided to wipe a people out, or to have His own people subdued by the Babylonians, or to make an idolatrous king lose the battle against the Assyrians.
The predictions made by prophets were as often as not untrue. It is only the later editors who have back-projected some far-sighted predictions into the mouth of their heroes; no doubt they have also censored out many embarrassingly failed predictions.
The predictions of Daniel, situated by his editors in the 6th century BC but in fact writing in about 165 BC, are simply fraudulent predictions after the fact. They are floated because they have to render credible the genuine predictions made in the same text: the way Daniel’s ‘predictions’ of the downfall of the Babylonian, Medic, Persian and Hellenistic empires have come true, so the prediction of the everlasting independence under the Maccabeic dynasty will also come true. This last prediction was genuine but failed to come true: the Romans gained influence and would formally occupy the country a century later.
Even the short-term predictions about polytheist kings meeting their doom and monotheist kings being rewarded, often did not come true. Elijah predicts Ahab’s downfall; but because Ahab goes in sackcloth for a while, Yahweh changes His mind and promises to bring the misfortune over Ahab’s (so far innocent) son instead (1 Kings 21). What had happened was clearly that Elijah’s prediction failed to come true, and that the later editor, who knew about Ahab’s son’s downfall, adapted the story to turn it into a second-best way of making Elijah’s prophecy a true one. Like our modern fortune-tellers, the prophets and their editors knew the tricks of wriggling out of such unambiguous tests falsifying their prophetic reliability, e.g. by stating that Yahweh was withholding the deserved punishment (predicted but failing to materialize) from a trespassing king but that He would visit it upon the king’s descendents. And of course, as every dynasty is bound to fall one day, such prediction cannot fail.
After valiantly keeping the formidable Assyrian threat at a distance and thus refuting Amos’ and Hosea’s prophecies, the northern capital Samaria did fall in 721 BC, three decades after the prophecies. During the exile, Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s later prophecies which uncharacteristically promised a hopeful outcome, were not fulfilled for decades, until finally, like most conquerors, the Babylonians were defeated in their turn by the Persians.
Moreover, where outside information is lacking, we have to depend on the biased version of history given by the Bible editors themselves, but from cases where we do have the control of outside information, we know that the Bible editors rewrote not only the predictions to make them suit history better, but also history itself.
The Bible itself says that a false prophet can be recognized by his predictions not coming true (Deut. 18:22). By that standard, most prophets were false, and we wonder why God would allow such misuse of His name, and even the sanctification of this false prophetism as Sacred Scripture.
The failed predictions are one reason for definitely rejecting the claim that an omniscient supernatural being, Yahweh, was speaking through the prophets. Like everyone, they were sometimes right on common-sense predictions about politics or about the logical consequences of people’s behaviour: e.g. Mohammed’s correct prediction of a Byzantine come-back in the war with the seemingly unstoppable Persian army. But there is not a single case in the whole Abrahamic prophetic tradition of a prophet making a genuine prediction (not one visibly back-projected by the later editors) about something normally unforeseeable, and getting it right. It is like the common astrologer who can, along with many non-astrologers, predict which of two candidates will win an election, but proves incapable of foreseeing the place and date of the next big earthquake.
It gets worse when we consider the eschatological predictions (referring to ultimate doom, the coming of the Messiah, and judgment Day), a matter that should be dose to God’s heart. So far, all such predictions have badly failed, from Jeremiah through Jesus, Saint Paul, the different Apocalypse books, Mohammed, the Medieval millenarists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nostradamus enthusiasts claim their hero has predicted the end for 1999; let us see. So far, the prophets did not demonstrably have any access to a higher source of knowledge.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are the select segment of humanity that will inherit the earth after the imminent catastrophe of which the scenario has been given in the Apocalypse. Jehovah Witnesses’ founder Charles Tase Russell said Jesus would return in 1874 and complete his work in 1914, when God’s Kingdom would start. His successor Franklin Rutherford predicted in 1920 that ‘millions living now will never die’, and had a royal mansion built for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, due to return in 1925. When the prediction failed to materialize, the Witnesses claimed that it had been made by ‘the old light’, and that ‘the new light’ would surely do better. Another leader, Nathan Homer Knorr, predicted the Armageddon catastrophe for 1975, to be followed by God’s empire. Then W.F. Franz predicted 1986, etc. So, if ever you are troubled by those obtrusive Jehovah preachers, simply say to them: ‘Deuteronomy 18:22.’ But remark how these failures are always rationalized by the believers: the fact that a prophet has a following and keeps it, does not prove that his prophecies come true.
Some believers may shrug off the cold test of prediction as a kill-joy, but it is considered pertinent by scientists: genuine knowledge is proven by accurate predictions. The source of the prophets’ statements was not any genuine knowledge, but uncertain opinions and beliefs, ranging from common sense opinions and theological doctrines to psychopathological delusions. Certainly it was not an omniscient God who communicated their failed predictions, unless He was also malicious.
1.4. Modern Interpretation of prophethood
Modern theologians who have problems with the exclusive claims of prophets, but who are still too attached to the image of prophets as upright and far-sighted men, might venture to interpret ‘prophethood’ in a more abstract sense: identification with God’s viewpoint on a certain given matter, with ‘God’ in turn being interpreted as ‘the Truth’ or ‘the Good’ or ‘the Whole’. Thus, when members of a group are quarrelling, and someone transcends his own private interest and identifies with the interest of the group as a whole, and guides the quarrelling parties out of their detrimental disunity by impressing upon them the dependence of their separate interests upon the well-being of the Whole, then one might call his stand prophetic. One who becomes the spokesman of the Whole, is a prophet. But there is nothing exclusive or Chosen or supernatural about it, in fact everyone can aspire towards this kind of ‘prophetic’ consciousness.
Modern Scripture interpreters have sometimes tried to attribute this kind of role to the historical prophets. Thus, when the prophets rebuke the kings and the rich for neglecting and oppressing the poor (or king David for coveting commander Uriah’s only wife Bathsebah while he has many wives himself), one might say that they are conscience-keepers who remind the selfish rulers of their duty towards the whole of society. However, a closer analysis of some prominent prophets’ personalities and careers shows that if they paid attention to social injustice, it was more because unhappy and querulous people just happen to be perceptive and tireless fault-finders, always seeking out the bad things in order to confront others (especially those of whom they are jealous) about them; or because they themselves were poor and deprived; or because they saw a strategic advantage in allying with the poor. Even those in whom no such impure motives or distorting conditions can be found, were just public-spirited men and good speakers, but that did not make them messengers of the Creator in any literal sense.
An example of the new and more rational meaning which modern theologians try to give to the term ‘prophet’, I saw in an article about divorce, in a Catholic paper. As divorce is a grave sin for Catholics, the title was rather shocking: ‘Divorce is often a prophetic event’. The essence of the article was that, while many people step into marriage mindlessly, nobody will divorce mindlessly. A marriage can be concluded in a self-deluded moment of infatuation, but divorce is the result of a painful and highly conscious process. It forces you to face questions about your own weaknesses, values, expectations from life. This hard, even forced awareness of life goals and of one’s own shortcomings is compared with the effect of the prophets’ warnings and tirades to their complacent contemporaries.
So, awareness and consciousness-raising are the new contents of the concept ‘prophetic’. Of course, we are all for awareness and consciousness-raising, in a rational sense; but it is unhistorical to identify these lofty undertakings with what the Biblical prophets saw as their ‘message’. One may agree with some of the things the prophets said, but their method of arriving at their ‘messages’ is simply unsustainable in an age that has chosen to cultivate the scientific temper. If a prophet spoke out against social injustice, fine. Let us do as he did, and as all those others did who spoke out against social injustice without claiming a divine source. If a prophet woke people up from their self-satisfied and mindless slumber, good. But if we follow his example, let us not pretend it is some supernatural being that is speaking through us.
Prophets are also praised as the ones who don’t accept reality as it is. To be prophetic means, for Liberation Theologians, to go against the way of the world. For instance, the recent upsurge of violent nationalism has made theologians say: against the common belief that people first belong to their nation and not so much to humanity as a whole, the Church has a prophetic mission to question this seemingly natural and instinctive nationalist loyalty.
When we look at the actual prophets, we see that they certainly do militate against the existing reality. But whether this is always so elevating, is a different matter. What we do find is frustrated people who stand up against the successful in life, who are unwilling to accept their own inferior position. With that, nothing pejorative has been said: a pupil who has enough of his mediocre school results and decides to fight back and to work hard and become top of the class, deserves praise; a member of an oppressed nation standing up against his country’s occupiers, is hailed as brave and freedom-loving (though not in all circumstances as wise). It is something else when people do not try to remedy their depressed position with a, real solution, but posit an imaginary superiority instead. That is what we see prophets of the Abrahamic lineage do, time and again.
When the Israelites are suffering under the yoke of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Romans, we see prophets announce that God will take these enemies away, that he will burn them down, that he will raise the fallen warriors of Israel to life so that they can drive out the enemy. In some cases, this is coupled with a practical programme of armed resistance (as with Bar Kochba, early 2nd century AD), but more often it is just an invocation of imaginary threats from heaven against very real worldly overlords.
Even without the humiliation of foreign occupation, the prophetic Israelite religion has features of a collective overcompensation of an inferiority complex. In the beginning, the Israelites were a cattle-rearing semi-nomadic tribe living at the mercy of the increasingly well-organized sedentary populations: the story of the farmer Cain and the shepherd Abel (Gen.4), where God accepts the latter’s but not the former’s sacrifice, and where the latter is the former’s innocent victim, testifies to this early experience of nomadic vulnerability. After establishing themselves as a kingdom, they were still a peripheral nation living in the shadow of the great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The status of ‘God’s Chosen People’, which need not be supported by actual cultural achievements or political grandeur, but can be claimed on the strength of an unverifiable exclusive ‘divine revelation’, comes in handy to overcome this gnawing sense of inferiority.
This self-elevation from a real-life insecure and peripheral tribe to a mythical Chosen; People that is the centre of God’s concern, is the unique contribution of the Old Testament. As a matter of collective psychology, it had fed on the insecurity of a wandering tribe. After a few centuries as a moderately powerful state, this need of imaginary self-aggrandizement was re-stimulated by the defeats against the Assyrians (722 BC) and the Babylonians (587 BC), and took the form of the vengefulness of a defeated nation. Their religion had given them an imaginary superiority. It should be noted that the Hebrew self-promotion from real-life smallness to the status of Chosen People, was in essential respects re-enacted by the founders of Christianity and Islam.
Sociologically, both Jesus and Mohammed were unimportant people, as were their first recruits. Educationally, it is even more striking that the founding groups of Christianity and Islam were all fairly backward people. In later apologetics, this is taken as a good point: what God hath not revealed to the wise and mighty, he hath revealed to these simple people. This is a revolutionary and irrational assumption, that uneducated people can just start a new religion, and know it all better than educated people. If education has the value which experienced people ascribe to it, if it is really that indispensable for a mature and fully developed faculty of judgment, we would expect people lacking in education to come up with a second-rate product. We would expect them to improvise a clumsy and inconsistent doctrine full of exaggerated claims and half-digested borrowed ideas, without proper method or sense of proportion. And indeed, these are typical traits of both Christianity and Islam.
Recent history provides a number of similar cases where prophets announce a God-ordained glorious future or superior status, as well as miraculous help, to communities in distress. The colonial period was especially rich in Christian-influenced instances of prophethood among natives of non-Christian cultures with some exposure to Christian beliefs. In India’s tribal communities, there has been a whole series of prophets, the most famous of whom was perhaps the Munda leader Birsa, who organized rebellions at the end of 19th century (a full survey of these Indian prophetic movements has been given by Stephen Fuchs in his book Godmen on the Warpath).6 In China, Hong Xiu-Chuan, a schoolteacher who had failed thrice in the imperial exams, and who had converted to Protestantism, answered God’s call to start a messianic movement for establishing the Tai-ping Tian-guo, the ‘heavenly country of supreme peace’. This Tai-ping rebellion (1851-64) would wreck public life in central China, and in the subsequent civil war millions were killed.
Among the Xhosa people of South Africa, the prophetess Nongqawuse stood up to announce that on a specified day (18 February 1857), the sun would rise and sink back into the East, and during the ensuing 48 hours of dark, the ancestors of the people would come back to life and the British colonizers would be driven into the sea. In order to show their confidence, the people had to kill their cattle and destroy their harvest, and prepare for the final battle. But the day came and went, and the people got hungry. After this catastrophe, they had no choice but to go to the Europeans begging for menial jobs. Like that, numerous prophets have brought disasters over their followers and other fellow-men.
These pitiable prophets of heavenly intervention give a much better idea of what Biblical prophethood was like, than the sophisticated notions (say, ‘prophetic non-conformism’) preached by modem theologians. It is alright to preach modem attitudes and discard antiquated ones, but the theologians will have to face the consequence, viz. that by discarding the primitive Biblical belief in an exclusive literal revelation announcing a drastic personal intervention of God Himself in worldly affairs, they are also discarding the basis of Christianity’s claims to exclusive truth. The vague interpretation of prophethood as ‘public-spiritedness’ or ‘non-conformism’ constitutes a climbdown from claims of exclusive God-given truth to the submergence of Christian identity in the multifarious religio-ethical efforts of humanity at large.
1.5. Borrowed themes in Scripture
The Biblical text as a whole, comprising both the actual revelations from God and the much lengthier narrative surrounding them, may or may not be conceived as God’s word. Nowadays, only some fundamentalist Churches maintain that every word in the Bible was literally intended by God Himself. Most Christians would rather accept that the experiences narrated contain a revelation of God’s plan for humanity, but that the actual wording has been man’s work, and that it is up to us to interpret the text and extract God’s intention from it.
Though directly it may make little difference to the question whether the messages uttered by the prophets were really God’s revelations, it is still interesting to see to what extent the surrounding Biblical narrative is unmistakably a human creation. Those who wrote and re-wrote the Bible, were human beings conditioned by cultural motifs and attitudes prevalent in their national and international environment. It follows that what they have transmitted to us as reports of prophetic utterances, may in fact have been composed or at least rewritten to suit certain ideological concerns, polemical exigencies or political compulsions.
The Bible editors had undoubtedly borrowed important cultural motifs from Egypt (where the Israelites lived during the first half of the second millennium BC) and Mesopotamia (where they ultimately came from, and where they lived in exile in the sixth century BC). Though we are told that the Chosen People’s ‘experience’ of monotheism and the Covenant is one of the biggest events in history, it can only be understood if we realize that this people was a satellite of now the Egyptian, then the Mesopotamian civilization. Both in contents and in literary techniques, the Bible has borrowed considerably from the neighbouring cultures.
The Creation story, for a start, is thousands of years older than the Bible. God making man out of clay is a classical motif in the myths of divergent cultures. The fact that Eve, whose Hebrew name means ‘life’, is taken from Adam’s rib, can be explained by a process of borrowing from a Sumerian creation account, because in Sumerian the words for ‘rib’ and ‘life’ are homophonous. in a story from the Talmud (the rabbinical guide to life and to Bible reading, a very human and sensitive text), the explanation is given that God took woman from man’s rib ‘so that she will always be close to his heart’: this shows man’s inventiveness in enlivening and humanizing an ancient story, but it cannot undo the borrowed and non-revealed nature of this Bible passage.
A tradition that is much closer to historical events, and which was also borrowed from the neighbouring cultures, is the story of the Flood. Of this story, several variations are known in West Asia, but the Bible is true to the common narrative skeleton: the whole earth is flooded, only a small group of people, who have taken precautions, survive in a ship (the ark of Noah), together with some specimens of other species. However, the Bible re-interprets this old story as God’s design to undo the evil that is part of His creation, and to help His handpicked favourites among the human beings to survive this mass destruction - a prefiguration of God’s later Covenant with His Chosen People.
More important borrowings are not so much the stories related in the Bible, the pieces of contents, but the symbolic patterns and formal characteristics of the Bible text. One borrowed element is the astrological symbolism of the Mesopotamians. Its two chief sets of symbols were the ‘seven planets’ (which include sun and moon) and the Zodiac.
Today, the Zodiac is known mostly as a tool in fortune-telling; for the Mesopotamians, it was much more than that. Astronomically, it was the year cycle, the successive stages through which the sun accomplished its yearly journey. Philosophically, it became the archetypal cycle, the cosmic pattern of every cyclical process in its completeness, the structure of every complete set, every universe.
The planets were the active agents of destiny. Long before the Zodiac came into use for fortune-telling, the planets were already used for that purpose. They were the incarnated gods, heaven-dwellers who, in contrast to the background of the ‘fixed stars’, were always in motion, just like the earthlings (though in a more perfect, regular way). The planets were not the immutable absolute level of divinity, but the creative, world-oriented, destiny-regulating department of the divine sphere.
In the Bible, God creates the world in six days and then has a day off. But the seven-day week was not invented by God, as medieval Christians used to believe, but by the ancient astronomers. They put the planets in order of apparent speed: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. They divided the day in twenty-four hours, and named these hours after the planets in descending order, starting with the sun for the first hour of the first day. The days were named after the same planet as their first hour, and the resulting arrangement is still in use today: Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday, Venusday, Saturnday.7 This arrangement had existed for centuries by the time the Hebrew creation story was written. Sunday had been given the honour of being the first day, so that Saturday was the last. This was symbolically right in the sense that Saturn is the slowest planet, representing therefore minimal activity and introspection. For the Hebrews, this Saturn’s day became the Sabbath, with its extreme ban on any kind of work, in imitation of God’s own rest on the seventh day.
As for the signs of the Zodiac: the twelve sons of Jacob (also called Israel) are clearly an embodiment of the sacred twelvefold of the Mesopotamians. For all we know, the Zodiac imagery as we know it today was developed in Mesopotamia in just the same period when the Hebrew people was living there in exile. In Genesis 49, some of Jacob’s sons are even described with characteristics typical of the twelve signs: Juda as a lion, who shall wield the sceptre (Leo), Joseph as a bull (Taurus), Dan as a snake (which, along with the eagle, is an old variation on Scorpio). In Deuteronomy 33, a complete correspondence between Zodiac symbols and the twelve sons/tribes is worked out. In Jesus’ time too, the Zodiac, or more abstractly the twelvefold, was an all-important motif. Later, the European painters would depict the twelve apostles as people with the characteristic physique which medieval astrology ascribed to the natives of the twelve signs.
The prophet Ezekiel uses the imagery of the four ‘fixed’ (mid-season) signs of the Zodiac: Bull (Taurus), Lion (Leo), Eagle (old image used for Scorpio), Man (Aquarius). These four were later coupled with the four evangelists. The writer of the Apocalypse describes a woman (ordinarily interpreted as the Virgin Mary) with the moon at her feet and twelve stars around her head. ‘The twelve stars’ is simply the Hebrew expression for ‘Zodiac’.8
But the Zodiac, or at least the twelvefold arrangement, is also present in a more complex and abstract way. The division of the circle into twelve is a very simple but very interesting geometrical operation. In fact, it is the most ‘natural’ division of the circle, i.e. it doesn’t require anything that is not already present in the construction of the circle, viz. the compasses with a given radius: by drawing six equal circles on the circumference of a given circle, the 12 intersection-points form a six-pointed star, and the straight lines connecting them with the central point yield a division in 12 times 30 degrees. This must have been a momentous and awe-inspiring property for the primitive geometers of those days. Just like the contemporary attempts to read mystical profundities into the latest findings of modem science (‘Tao of Physics’ c.s.), there was a tendency in ancient cultures to link the first attempts at science with religion and metaphysics. We all know about the Pythagoreans’ linkage of numerical properties with the mysteries of the cosmos, but Babylonians and Egyptians had similar lines of speculation, which no doubt influenced the Hebrew priests. They called the six-pointed star David’s Shield (Magen David), and nowadays it is present in the national flag of Israel.9
Another interesting thing about the construction is that it introduces the symbolism of the number thirteen. There are twelve intersection points on the outside (six on the circumference of the basic circle, each followed by one outside the circumference), and one in the centre. They are representative of the world with its twelve-stage cycles (like the year with its twelve moon-cycles) and of God, motionless in the centre. One might speculate that this is the origin of the taboo on the number thirteen: since the thirteenth point represented God, ‘thirteen’ was something like a God’s name, and many nations including the Hebrews entertained a taboo on pronouncing God’s name. This speculation is corroborated by the fact that to the Hebrews, the number thirteen was a sacred number: e.g., the Thora (the five books of Moses), the most sacred part of the Bible, is called ‘the thirteen-petalled rose’.10
Moreover, in this geometrical construction as well as in the Bible, the numbers twelve (the outside points marking the division of the circle) and thirteen (the total number of intersection points) always appear together. Take the sons of Jacob: there were twelve of them, but they had one sister, Dinah, so Jacob had thirteen children. Take the twelve tribes of Israel: each one of Jacob’s sons was the ancestor of one tribe, except Joseph whose two sons both headed one tribe. So the twelve tribes were really thirteen. But then the tribe of Levi had no territory of its own, so that the land of Israel’s thirteen tribes was divided into twelve. Even in the New Testament, we see the same pattern: there were twelve apostles around Jesus, making thirteen; and even among the apostles, after Judas’ suicide, a thirteenth member, Matthias, was accepted to replace Judas. And in the description of the days of Creation, the working days are listed as a day and a night, six plus six being twelve, but of the Sabbath, only the day is mentioned, making thirteen day-halves.
This list of Biblical motifs apparently borrowed from neighbouring cultures is by no means exhaustive. Without denying that the Bible editors have added some inventive imagery and symbolism of their own, we may safely conclude that the human source of this aspect of Bible composition can be traced to the Israelites’ cultural environment; and more generally to human reason and human imagination rather than to the all-knowing Creator.
1.6. Numerical perfection of Scripture
The Kabbalah tradition of Jewish Scripture interpretation has always held that there are elements of highly intricate structural and numerical perfection in the architecture of the Bible. These could reveal meanings unnoticed in a superficial reading.
Thus, a technique called Temurah (permutation) was considered to reveal hidden meanings by exchanging the letters within a word or sentence. So, the opening word of Genesis, BeREShTh (‘in the beginning’), was permuted to form the word-group BeRITh-ESh, ‘Covenant of Fire’, a dramatic image of the Covenant as well as an allusion to the column of fire which went before the Israelites on their exodus through the desert. It is also permuted to BarA-ShITh, ‘He created six’, referring to the six days of creation and to a supposed sixfold structure in creation (e.g. the six directions of space, represented by projection onto two-dimensional space as, once more, the six-pointed star). To be sure, this kind of game can be played in any alphabetic language, e.g. to say that GOD is merely DOG in reverse.
According to the Spanish kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla (13th century), ‘like through a garment, God’s name is woven through the Thora’. In the Renaissance, some Christian authors too sought to unveil secret structures containing coded messages, esp. secret annunciations of Jesus the Redeemer. In more recent times, many deplorable crank books have been written about hidden structures and messages in the Bible. The main part of these Kabbalistic readings (or manipulations) of the Bible text concerns numerical structures. Recently, scholars have set out to check the claim that the Bible is indeed such a numerically sophisticated construction, without any superstitious expectations nor skeptical prejudices.
The Austrian professor Claus Schedl has put forward the thesis that sacred texts, just like sacred buildings, were subject to architectonic rules.11Professor C.J. Labuschagne, Old Testament scholar of Groningen University, has discovered a series of clearly non-coincidental numerical patterns in the Hebrew text.12 One coded message of the Bible editor is that numerical data embody heavenly phenomena such as the planetary cycles.
For instance: one of the mysteries in the book of Genesis is the high age of some of the earlier human beings. In general, one may surmise that as memories became more distant, stories were exaggerated, and all kinds of facts were blown out of proportion, including the life-spa- of the ancestors. We see this exaggeration in history-based legends the world over. However, there is a strange exactness about the ages of these ancestors in Genesis: Lamech reached the age of 777, Henoch 365, Mahalalel 895, Yared 962. Of course, in Henoch’s age we recognize the number of days in the year. The other ages can be analyzed as the sum of one planet’s ‘synodic cycle’ (i.e. the number of days from one conjunction of the planet with the sun till the next conjunction) with another planet’s synodic cycle. Thus, 777 = 399 + 378 (Jupiter + Saturn), 962 = 584 + 378 (Venus + Saturn), 895 = 116 + 779 (Mercury + Mars).
Numbers are present in the Bible not only in their explicit form, such as the number of years in someone’s life, but also in a more intricate way. First of all, there is the number of letters in a sentence, the number of words in a chapter, etc. Psalm 119 has 22 stanzas, the same number as the letters in the alphabet, apparently symbolizing cosmic completeness. For the same reason, the New Testament book of the Apocalypse has 22 chapters, but the Psalm does even better: each of the letters of the alphabet is the first letter of one stanza (acrostic).
Secondly, before Indian numerals came into use, the letters of the West-Asian and Greek alphabets were used both as sound-representers and as number-representers. Thus, Aleph equaled one, Beth two, etc., Yod ten, Kaph twenty, etc., Qoph one hundred, Resh two hundred, etc. Therefore, any written word could be read as a combination of numerals (though usually not in the correct order of hundredfold-tenfold-unit). In Arabic script this can still be done, e.g. in the inscription on the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya it is said: ‘The date of its erection will become manifest by the words: it will remain an everlasting bounty’, because the latter expression is written in Persian with letters that add up to 935, being the year AH (equivalent to 1528-29 AD) when the building was claimed to have been constructed.13 Similarly, the number 786 is considered a lucky number by Muslims, because it is equal to the sum numerical value of the Kalima, the Islamic creed.
This practice is almost as old as alphabetic writing, and was fairly common in the cultural surroundings of the Bible editors. A well-known example: Sargon II of Assyria, in the 8th century BC, had a city wall constructed around Dur-Sharrukin, the length of which (16283 el) corresponded to the numerical value of his own name. The Gnostics discovered the basic oneness of their god-concept Abraxas and the then very popular Persian god Meithras (Mitra) in the fact that the names of both, written in Greek, had the same numerical value: 365. In medieval Judaism, this practice, called Gematria, became very prevalent, and all kinds of variations were invented, e.g. a ‘filled’ numerical value, being the sum of the numerical values of the fully spelt names of the letters that make up a word.
For example, the word Shaddai, one of God’s extra names, is ordinarily analyzed into Shin/300 + Dalet/4 + Yod/ 10 = 314. Its filled value is counted as the sum of the letters that make up a the letters: SH-I-N + D-L-T + Y-O-D = (300 + 10 + 50) + (4 +30 + 400) + (10 + 6 + 4) = 814. As an example of the use to which these calculations were put, the followers of the Jewish ‘messiah’ Shabbetai Tsevi (17th century AD) ‘proved’ his messianic pretence by showing that his name (Sh-B-T-I + Ts-B-I = 300 + 2 + 400 + 10 + 90 + 2 + 10) had the same numeral value, 814, as the ‘filled’ numerical value of Shaddai. However, their opponents pointed out that his name’s numerical value also equaled that of the expression Ruakh Sheqer, ‘false spirit’ (R-U-Kh + SH-Q-R = 200 + 6 + 8 + 300 + 100 + 200). Which did not so much prove they were right in rejecting this false messiah (who was pressured into converting to Islam), but rather that this number play should not be taken so seriously.14
In the Bible this play with numbers also occurs. Important numbers are chiefly 26 and 17. The godname YaHWeH15 numerically consists of Yod/10 + He/5 + Waw/6 + He/5 - 26. However, in the ‘reduced’ variety of gematria, all numerical values of the letters were reduced to unit level, dropping the zeros: that made the numerical value of the letter Yod 1 instead of 10, and the total value for YaHWeH 17 instead of 26. Both numbers appear in all kinds of ways. Some examples. The total number of words spoken by Yahweh in the Book Deuteronomy is 442, or 26 times 17. The ages of the patriarchs are the following: Abraham 175, or 7 times 5 times 5; Isaac 180, or 5 times 6 times 6; Jacob 147, or 3 times 7 times 7. Now if you replace multiplication by addition, then (7 + 5 +5) = (5 + 6 + 6) = (3 + 7 + 7) = 17. This is clearly no coincidence. Apparently, the hidden presence of 17 indicates the intimate company of Yahweh who was with the patriarchs all through their lives.
In the Hellenistic period, some Pythagorean lore was spread to many countries, including new forms of number symbolism that often came to reinforce older and simpler forms. The Gospel of John (21:11) mentions 153 as the number of fish caught by the apostles. Any Pythagorean can see that 153 is the ‘triangular number’ of 17, meaning the sum of all the integer numbers from 1 to 17. Moreover, 153 is also the only number that equals the sum of the cubes of its components: 1 + 125 + 27. If the Gospel writer takes the trouble of giving an exact count of the fish in Peter’s net, there must be a good reason for it. In this case, it may be a combination of Greek number symbolism and Hebrew gematria.
In the gematria system, the number 13 gains an extra significance: it is the numerical value of EHhaD, meaning ‘one’. That ‘God is one’ is the central affirmation in the Jewish religion.
The Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC seems to have steeped the Hebrew scripturalists in this symbolic-mathematical lore of the heathen Mesopotamians, and it is just after this exile, under Persian rule, that the Thora was codified for good. It seems now that the final editors of the Hebrew Bible took the stories handed down to them (the contents of the Bible), and shaped them according to these symbolic-mathematical designs, adding a word here, repeating one there, spelling some words in an unusual way, in order to create meaningful numerical properties in the text. Says prof. Labuschagne: ‘For me it is clear that the Bible text constitutes a premeditated unity. The invisible structure, insofar as it hadn’t been handed down to them, must have been put in by the final editors. This throws a new light on the seemingly superfluous repetitions: they were probably used in order to reach a predetermined number of words.’
This doesn’t invalidate the theories which see the contents of the Bible as the result of a slow growth process, with layers, additions, interpolations, internal reinterpretations etc. it simply means that in this process, especially in the final stages, the culture of mathematical sacred symbolism was an important formal element in the composition of the Bible.
It is now very clear that the Kabbalists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance who rediscovered these numerical properties while reading the Bible, were wrong in inferring that they proved a superhuman design in the Bible composition. On the contrary, these number games suggesting coded secret messages are a fairly typical cultural phenomenon of that period of human development in which the Bible was written. They were a human way of making Scripture more sacred.
The effort to give meaning to every possible structure in the Bible, even if obviously cranky, is only a logical consequence of the belief that the Bible is God’s revelation. Books in which one word means one thing, are ten a penny; but a book composed by God Himself should be truly perfect, and should be composed in such a way that it keeps on revealing new aspects of the infinite divine with every new way of reading it.
The striking and profound similarity between Spinoza’s philosophy and Eastern thought, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, has been described and analyzed exhaustively by Jon Wetlesen: The Sage and the Way, Spinoza’s Ethics of Freedom, Van Gorcum Publ., Assen (Netherlands) 1979. ↩
See the ground-breaking study by Ilya Prigogyne, the Russian-born Belgian Nobel Prize winner, and mrs. Isabelle Stengers, his colleague at Brussels Free University: La Nouvelle Alliance, 1979 (English translation: Order out of Chaos). ↩
Full discussion in the yearbook of De Ronde Tafel 1989-90 (Gent 1990), in the report on Mary’s Apparitions in Yugoslavia. ↩
The story of prophethood in Israel is told by Bernhard Lang: Wie wird man Prophet in Israel?, Patmos Verlag, Dusseldorf 1980; Jean-Marie Van Cangh: Le Prophetisme Biblique et Chretien, El-Kalima, Brussels ca. 1990; Mircea Eliade ed.: Encyclopedia of Religion, entry Prophecy. ↩
On the rise of monotheism in Israel, see Morton Smith: Palestinian Parties and Politics that shaped the Old Testament, Columbia press, New York 1971; and Johannes C. De Moor: The Rise of Yahwism: The Roots of Israelite Monotheism, Leuven University Press, Leuven 1990. ↩
S. Fuchs: Godmen on the Warpath. A Study of Messianic Movements in India, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi 1992. It also deals with Islamic quasi-prophetic movements whose origin cannot be attributed to Christian influence but to the Islamic tradition itself. ↩
In the Germanic languages, the names of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are coined after the corresponding Germanic gods Tiwas/ Mars, Wodan/Mercury, Thor/Jupiter and Freya/Venus. ↩
These twelve stars now figure in the flag of the European Community. It was the winning design in a public contest in the 1950s. The designer, a devotee of the Virgin Mary, said that this image from the Apocalypse was his inspiration (via the so-called Miraculous Medal, the design of which included this same twelve-star-circle, and which had been ‘revealed’ to the French nun Catherine Labourie in 1830). ↩
It must, however, be pointed out that the six-pointed star was then not used as a distinctive ‘flag’ of the Jewish People (just like the swastika is seen used as a religious symbol everywhere in India, as well as other countries, without being the private symbol of one religion). Only in the late 18th century AD, Jews adopted it as a symbol of their community, to match the Christians’ cross. See the appendix on Magen David in Gerschom Scholem: Kabbalah (Keter Publ., Jerusalem 1974; Meridian, New York 1978). ↩
For this reason, the famous Israeli Talmud scholar Adin Steinsalz’s book on the Jewish religion is titled: The Thirteen-Petalled Rose (Basic Books, New York 1980). ↩
Claus Schedi : Bauplane des Wortes (German : ‘Building plans of the Word’), 1974. ↩
Report in Elsevier, 4/8/90, P. 75 ff. ↩
Radhey Shyam: Babar (Janaki Prakashan, Patna 1978), app.6. ↩
For a fuller treatment of gematria, see Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah, ch. 2.10. ↩
YaHWeH was sometimes written with the vowel-marks of word ADoNaI, ‘my lord’, which was usually read instead of the unpronounceable god-name, resulting in the mistaken pronunciation YeHoWaH. ↩