BRINGING SCRIPTURE DOWN TO EARTH
1.1. Vanishing of the
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.
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
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.
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.
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 René 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.
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
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 hypothése-la”
(I have no use for that hypothesis which you mention). Man can understand
nature without postulating an extra-natural Being called God.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
is identified by many theologians as the one man who takes the jump from
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
discussion in the yearbook of De Ronde Tafel 1989-90 (Gent 1990), in the
report on Mary’s Apparitions in Yugoslavia.
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 Chrétien, El-Kalima, Brussels
ca. 1990; Mircea Eliade ed.: Encyclopedia of Religion, entry Prophecy.
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.
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.
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.
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 Labourié in 1830).
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).
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).
Schedi : Baupläne des Wortes (German : “Building plans of the
in Elsevier, 4/8/90, P. 75 ff.
Shyam: Babar (Janaki Prakashan, Patna 1978), app.6.
a fuller treatment of gematria, see Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah,
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.
Back to Contents Page Back
to VOD Books Back to Home