I WATCHED A BBC/TimeLife series recently called Ancient Voices. The 11 episodes presented what was then (the series dates from 1995) up-to-date research which attempted to give new light on ancient societies. On the whole it succeeded admirably, although two episodes presented gross simplifications worthy of Indiana Jones. One episode in particular caught my imagination, and engendered quite a bit of thought, no doubt much of it commonplace, for I tend not to be an original thinker.
Belief and faith
The episode in question was on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because the subject I am going to discuss is also a matter of faith to many religious people I had better make it clear that I, like the series itself, am talking about ancient societies and their ideas, as far as we can know what those were. George Orwell, in his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, makes a useful distinction between belief and faith. The ability to believe is an inherent function of human beings, and those who abandon it on rational grounds do themselves harm. The subject of this belief is a matter of faith, and faith, though we don’t want to admit it, is variable. The ability to believe is a vital, enriching function of the imagination. The subject of belief, the faith, can be at times profound, as when St Francis of Assisi saw himself in relation to the whole created world and could speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, but at other times, such as the controversy that animated fourth century Christianity, the Filioque controversy, it can seem sterile.
That controversy was over the perhaps heretical addition of a phrase to the Nicene Creed which described how the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from both the Father and the Son within the Holy Trinity. Many felt the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ only from the Father, and battles were fought and people killed to determine which belief was correct. Never mind that nobody knew, or knows, what ‘proceeded’ meant in this context, let alone what the nature of the Holy Trinity was. What seems to have happened is a political matter of orthodoxy was here masquerading as a matter of faith. Similarly when people argue for admission of women to the priesthood or ministry they confuse politics and faith. In my opinion I think that if a faith causes you to speak or act in an inhumane way it had better be abandoned. If you believe otherwise I will of course support your right to do so.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls must have alarmed nearly all Christian believers when they saw the light of day again. They had been known about for centuries, a good fuel source that lit many Arab camp fires. But when the locals realised they were a commodity of value to Europeans they were hoarded and released in tiny sections at the best possible price. Confused accounts of the assembly and deciphering of these fragments caused a panic among the faithful. There were allegations of a cover up, that the Catholic Church was concealing fragments that ‘disproved’ their version of Christian history.
The Scrolls revealed something of the fervid nature of first century Judaism. Scholars realised there was quite a lot of fragmentation into different sects, and that the End of Days was the big news that animated almost all of them. There would be a great confrontation, and the Kingdom of David would come again. Leading the struggle would be the Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews, himself descended from the house of David.
The Jews throughout their history have been non-assimilators. When they trekked from Egypt to Canaan their charismatic leader Moses could only keep them together by making a covenant with God himself. It took a while for this idea to take root, but when it did the tribes went on a rampage throughout the land, exterminating nation after nation. It makes parts of the Old Testament sickening reading. If their success, at first under a series of ‘judges’ then under the military leader David and the politician Solomon meant they were the Chosen People, then their failure, crushed under the military might of first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, meant they had sinned, and must atone. At no time could they assimilate, negotiate. The ten tribes dispersed throughout Babylonia were lost to Judaism, but the remnant would concede nothing. When the kingdom was fragmented, the fanatically faithful reviled the Samaritans and pursued their isolationist course. When Rome became dominant in the area the Jews repudiated the Graeco-Roman way of life, the only ancient people known to have done so. They planned and executed a series of minor revolts against the Romans which had as much effect as a flea bite on an elephant, yet they would not desist. They were the children of God. This blind fanaticism also produced some of the most beautiful and profound poetry ever written, as it also did in the closely related religion of Islam. Under the desert sun, it would seem, God would speak.
Fanaticism simplifies things. There is no subtleties of human behaviour, no finely graded variation of moods, thoughts and emotions; no need for political negotiation or strategies; no need even for planning. There are just two things. Good and Evil, and Good will prevail. It’s a reversion to a childhood state. But not everyone was equally fanatical at that time. The Sadducees, the descendants of Aaron the brother of Moses, had a vested interest in the Temple and its rites, which involved a huge and continuous animal sacrifice to God which went on day and night and must have made part of the premises seem like an abattoirs. They wanted to conciliate the Romans, at least for a while, but were dragged into the eventual revolt, which destroyed both the Temple and their sect. The right wing of this sect, the militant Zealots, wanted to defend the Temple by throwing the Romans out. They practised guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and wanted a military confrontation, led of course by the Messiah. It is thought that some of the followers of Jesus, and perhaps Jesus himself at first, were Zealots. They had no idea of the resources of the Roman Army, the most efficient military machine ever invented, save the Mongol army.
The other sects were more concerned to preserve what was good of past traditions by study of the writings contained in the scriptures. Although the kingdom of God on earth was the ultimate aim of the Pharisees as it was of the Sadducees and the Zealots, they placed more emphasis on being ready for that time by studying the word of God. Among this group were those who withdrew from the political interpretation of the coming of the kingdom, and imagined a literal coming of the end of the world, when God would judge men, and men must be ready. Some of these groups were followers of the Baptist, who bathed converts in Jordan water, and dared to rebuke Herod. Jesus was probably one of his converts. Some of these groups went by the name of Essenes, and it is thought these groups produced what we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The canon of the books of the Old Testament has been set for so long it is easy to forget that in the first century it didn’t exist. That canon in fact was made necessary by the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world after 70 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls therefore contains some books of the Old Testament as we know them, but also some contemporary writings not in our canon. One of the things that dismayed the first decipherers was the sayings of someone called the Teacher of Righteousness. He seemed to be saying much the same things as the New Testament puts into the mouth of Jesus. Yet he lived, it is estimated, about 100 BC, one hundred years before the time of Christ. Was Jesus merely quoting another, earlier teacher, was he not original, not the founder of a great faith but the echo of an old one? The crisis was a real one and was dramatised by Philip K Dick in his last published novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Society and faith
When reading documents written in ancient times we cannot tell what really happened from what was believed to have happened. The same, after all, is true of much of the news we watch every day. Joshua (Aramaic Jeshua, Latin Jesus) the Jewish king (Messiah, annointed one, Christos) doesn’t sound like a religious founder. But neither does the Pharisee Jesus who so impressed his elders in the Temple through his knowledge of scripture and who speaks throughout the New Testament largely in quotation from that scripture. The Jesus of Saint Paul is different again, the dying God who saves his followers to eternal life. It is possible of course that Jesus was all these things, Zealot, Pharisee and apocalyptic preacher, at different times or even at the same time. But we also have to accept that a faith is not the same as a fact. Faith is the product of an environment, of a particular time and place, and sometimes of an inspired person’s vision. For a time there were as many Christianities as there were places where there were followers of Jesus. Orthodoxy is one of the last developments in a religion.
In actuality there were only two major types of society where Christianity flourished: Jewish and Graeco-Roman. In Jewish centres Jesus lived and died an orthodox Jew. He could do nothing else, a Jew never abhorred his faith. It was a world with an accepted vocabulary, where ‘son of God’ meant holy man, ‘son of man’ meant human being, ‘forty days and forty nights’ was a metaphorical way of describing a lengthy time, ‘my father’ was all men’s father or God; where Saint Matthew could find hundreds of parallels between the words of the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus and expect them to be understood; where Saint Peter could be scandalised at the teaching of Saint Paul that Jesus was the son of God who died for our sins: in the Jewish world there was a scapegoat, a ritual animal who took on the people’s sins but was a figure of contempt. Here Jesus was a charismatic Rabbi who taught the people, and was prepared to break rules of ritual purity to do so, who spoke in pithy and wise aphorisms as his contemporary Hillel did, and even quoted Hillel on occasion.
By contrast there was the Graeco-Roman world. Here there were many gods, many of whom seduced human women and produced divine sons. It was a world where heroes were known by miraculous birth signs, where wonder workers like the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus, raised the dead, cured the sick and ascended to heaven. The most prevalent religion was the Mystery religion of Eleusis and the otherworldly one of Orpheus where worshippers partook of the flesh and blood of the gods and were born to immortal life; where Oriental deities such as Isis and Osiris, Astarte and Atthis experienced death and were reborn. Everywhere the Roman army went they took the worship of Mithras, whose feast day was 25 December. Mithras was the god of the rising sun, and his followers were baptised into his cult and celebrated at a communal meal.
When Saint Paul took the gospel to the gentiles he entered this world, and his brand of Christianity was affected by its prevalent ideas. Saint Paul himself was torn between the two worlds. A Jew and a Pharisee of Tarsus, he was born and lived in the biggest city of Asia Minor where the Graeco-Roman culture was more prevalent than the Jewish one. He spoke Greek and Latin and was automatically a Roman citizen. The humiliation of Jesus’ death was very real to him, the degrading one of a traitor, and Christians were simply followers of a bad Jew to him until his awareness of Jesus was infused by his knowledge of Greek mystery cult. What had been a tragedy to the Jewish Christians, that a good and wise Rabbi had been mistaken by the Romans for a Zealot and crucified, assumed in Paul’s view of things a new, transcendent significance. It was not a popular view in Jerusalem, being in defiance of the first three commandments given to Moses. But in 70 AD the whole game changed. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, more than likely wiping out the Jewish Christians and the surviving disciples of Jesus. Paul’s Christianity was the surviving one, but it was not uniform. At each centre where he taught variations of his teaching flourished. Gospels were written at each centre, each with its own emphasis and character. It took Paul the rest of his life, and the Church till the fourth century before some kind of uniform faith had been worked out.
This brings me back to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here is a version of Isaiah 7:14 which is prior to the Septuagint and which reads in Hebrew : “Behold a young woman will conceive a child…”. As always, Matthew seeks to unify traditions by quoting from scripture. In Greek that became: “Behold a virgin will conceive a child…”. Here is a crucial difference in the two cultures in a nutshell. In the Jewish tradition the natural order is celebrated. The young girl is of course a virgin before marriage, she becomes nubile and marries, and in due course bears a son. The words for virgin and for young wife are related, they refer to the same person, and they are natural progressions in her life. Nothing could be more normal. In the Greek context all this is different, even though only one word is changed. The virgin birth is a sign, a prodigy, signifying the birth of a hero or a god. The Rabbi, in defiance of Jewish tradition, has become divine.
This is not the only occasion when a word acquires a whole new dimension when crossing the cultural divide. Another word so transformed is ‘prophet’. In Jewish culture the prophets recalled the people to their covenant with God. This covenant was the overriding event in Jewish history, and when things went wrong, as during the captivity in Babylon, it had to be explained in terms of the covenant. The prophets were not rabbis: some of them were ordinary Jews, with a trade and a family. They saw that something was wrong, and to them it was an overwhelming tragedy that inspired language the equal of Aeschylus’. They tried to express what was wrong, the loss of god, in language as inspiring, as stirring and as disturbing, as has ever been written.
In the Greek world, by contrast, there were prophets, augurs who foretold the future: Apollo’s oracle at Delphi was only the most prominent. And when inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world of the first century went looking for traces of Jesus Christ to supplement their faith, they found in the Old Testament ‘prophets’ whom they interpreted in the Greek sense, as sages who had foretold the future, and pointed to the coming of Jesus. This Greek interpretation of Jewish scripture led to much of what was believed of the life of Jesus, as metaphors used by the prophets were examined as factual statements of the events in the life of Jesus made by writers inspired by god to foretell the future.
Belief and heresy
This is a sign indeed, a sign of how cultures can cross-fertilise each other to create something new and wonderful. The battle for orthodoxy has entailed much bloodshed to ensue that all believers believed alike, that all tenets of belief were consistent and unified, in the belief that this unity itself testifies to the truth of what is believed in. But belief does not need testimony. If you need to prove something then you must have doubts. If the ability to believe is a vibrant part of human nature, then faith, what is believed, is a fruitful part of the society in which it is produced. The faithful are strong in their faith, the doubtful fear heresy.
All this seems quite different from the emphasis we place on the ‘book’. All religions revere a founder, and preserve some of his precepts and stories about him (and it’s usually a him). This is given even more emphasis in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where a book of holy writings preserves the words of God himself. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Books are written and passed on by people, and people are fallible, imperfect beings. There are editions of the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German and English (many other languages as well of course) which have been influential. But they differ from each other in subtle ways because they have been written for different audiences. Before Gutenberg every single copy of a book was transcribed from another, word by word, often by scribes who did not understand the language they were copying or who were illiterate. Often the original was defective or incomplete and some matter was invented to fill the gap. ‘Inspired’ people might insert matter in the text to justify a doctrinal stance. All ancient manuscripts are of unknown provenance, that is, we do not know the copier nor how competent they were, whether they were a forger, how reliable their source was. Although it is the word of God, people have choices and can choose between a virgin giving birth or a young wife, between a camel passing through the eye of a needle or a thread. And when some religious people prefer just one version, say the King James translation of the Bible into English, written in archaic language, based on deficient original text and outmoded scholarship, then they are limiting themselves unduly. It’s beautiful, but not the whole story.
The truth we are searching for is not as arid as accuracy but as nourishing as the joy and comfort it gives us. And because we have made it it is as messy and confused as we are, with its roots in many traditions. Try telling a believer that you can’t follow a moving star, that the Roman Emperor couldn’t have sent all his millions of subjects back to their home towns for a census because there wasn’t a transportation system to move a fraction of them, that the three wise men were originally magi, Persian followers of Zarathustra who saw in the star not only earthly knowledge but the presence of Zarathustra himself in a spiritual sense. It shouldn’t make any difference if their faith is a nourishing faith. A true believer can examine the facts of which his faith is made in a detached manner precisely because his faith sustains him. But beware of the bigot, who is not quite sure of his faith.
And so I meandered on after I watched the episode, until I had reached the ancient Egyptians and was in the bark of Osiris, trying to remember, not the Book of the Dead but Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. To put an end to my journey I thought of the healing power of belief, and that if what we believe is important, then how we believe is even more important. Above all, where we believe has an immense influence on the nature of those beliefs.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.