Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Revealed : how a 2600 year old mistake caused problem of evil

Archbishop Rowan Williams
Just listened again to John Humphrys interviewing Rowan Williams on the BBC. The crux of the interview was the problem of evil. Rowan Williams had only the lamest of answers. It will all be healed by God in his good time, probably after death.

When Humphrys parodied this as “don’t worry, you’ll go to heaven”, Williams failed to convince. I’ve listened, and I’ve read the transcript, and all he has to offer is this:

“ My faith tells me, and it's very hard to believe in these circumstances, but it tells me and I trust this, that the world, yes, is such that suffering arises in these unspeakable ways. It also tells me that what God can do with those circumstances and those persons is not exhausted by the world, there's more.”

Yes that’s it. Really.

I trace his difficulty back to 600 BC. This is when the Jews invented their religion, and in doing so took a critical wrong turn. The elite were exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. Having sat down by the waters and wept as they remembered Zion, they assimilated a lot from Zoroastrianism. Already 400 years old at the time, this religion venerated a single, universal, merciful God. The exiled Jewish elite came to recognise this
concept as far superior to the failed tribal warlord they had followed hitherto.

They didn’t overthrow Jehovah, they reformed him. But in doing so they made a bad mistake, the consequences of which poor old Rowan Williams is struggling with to this day. And their mistake was to reject the key point about Zoroaster‘s god (Ahura Mazda).

All-powerful is good, but weak is better

That key point is that Ahura Mazda was not all-powerful, but weak, engaged in unequal strife with the forces of evil, unable to prevail on his own, and needing humankind to come to his assistance.

If they’d taken my recommendation they would have stuck with this formula. But no, they made Jehovah all-powerful. It seemed a good idea at the time, I suppose.

If only they had got it right all those years ago. Then, instead of having to say how hard the problem of evil is, Williams could now say: yes indeed there is evil, but God doesn’t will it, nor does he allow it, he is powerless to prevent it; and will remain so until you lot forsake your sinful ways and come to his aid to combat the malign forces that have brought this state of affairs about.

He could hold has head high defending that sort of religion. Instead he's now stuck with stammering and stuttering his way through the problem of evil.

The interview was one of a 4-part series called Humphrys in Search of God: 31 October 2006. I can't find it any more on the BBC website so maybe it’s been deleted. But John Humphrys has made the interviews the basis of a book, In God We Doubt: Confession of a Failed Atheist (2007). (Subsequently bought it second hand in Cork 19/5/2010.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Puzzled over English bible ban

To the Sacred exhibition at the British Library last month. A real wow. It's too late for me to recommend this exhibition, as it's now finished. My apologies for this.

Korans, Bibles and Torahs were laid side by side so you could see the artistic influences.  For example, the decoration on the Lindisfarne Gospel reminded me of a Koran. I want to say more about that, but first I'll need to look further into it, so for now I'll just have to let the images speak for themselves.  Here's the Lindisfarne Gospel. Has to be seen to be believed. The image is rather disappointing I'm afraid. Date: between 698 and 721.

Carpet page from Lindisfarne Gospel, England, between 698 and 721 (British Library)
Compare this to a Jewish illuminated manuscript from 1482
Carpet page from the Lisbon Bible, Portugal, 1482 (British Library)
The next thing that intrigued me was an English Bible of around 1020. Also Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian bibles of the same period. And a note beside the Lindisfarne Gospels contained a surprise too. Around 970 an Anglo-Saxon translation was added in red ink beneath the original Latin, and this is the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of English.
I was becoming puzzled. In 1523 John Tyndale wanted to translate the bible into English, he was refused permission, did it anyway, and got burnt at the stake for it.  So what I wanted to know was: exactly what happened between 1020 and 1523 to bring this state of affairs about? 

The awful irony is that Tyndale’s bible of 1534 (I have a copy of his New Testament) forms the basis of the King James Bible of 1611, justly regarded as one of the pinnacles of the English language.  I could digress on this theme at length, but back to the English and Armenian bibles on display. Now, I suppose you could say these vernacular bibles shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. After all, the very first bibles were in demotic Greek, which anyone could read, or have read to them.

The fly in the ointment seems to be the Latin Vulgate bible, dating from the 4th century. Here's a 13th century copy of a type of Vulgate bible which was mass produced and portable, even though before the age of print.

Latin Vulgate Bible, manuscript on parchment copied in France, c. 1250 (Newberry Library Chicago)
In Tyndale’s day the Vulgate was the only bible allowed, therefore none but priests and the educated elite could read it.  So the next question is: what, in the 4th century, was the Vulgate originally for?  Was it put into Latin with the express purpose of making it obscure?  No, it turns out.  Hannah Jenkins at the British Library tells me:

“St Jerome's Latin Vulgate (from the Latin vulgate, meaning 'common' or 'popular') was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382. Based on translations then in use, it employed the everyday written Latin style of the fourth century, in contrast to the more formal, elegant Latin of Cicero. Jerome's Vulgate became the standard version of the Bible in the West for over a thousand years.”

So here’s the picture that's emerging. In the 4th century, and for hundreds of years after that, the hierarchy wanted the whole populace to read (or hear) the bible: the Vulgate was made for those who spoke popular Latin; and Syriac, Armenian, English versions for the rest.  And this was so up till at least 1020, the date of this English bible:-

The first six books of the Old Testament in Old English, c. 1020. Adam naming the beasts.
But at some time during the next few centuries the hierarchy made an about face. When? Why? Instead of wishing the bible to be accessible, they now wished it inaccessible. The Vulgate, no longer understood even in Italy, France and other Romance language regions, came to be used not to impart biblical knowledge, but to deny biblical knowledge.  The populace came to rely on the priest telling them what was in the bible without being able to check for themselves, and the hierarchy liked it this way. How so?

The answer, again from the British Library’s Hannah Jenkins, is the “Constitutions of Oxford”.

Under the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford, it was strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into the native tongue. This ban on vernacular bibles was a reaction to the English religious reformer Wyclif. The Constitutions of Oxford remained in effect for nearly 130 years until King Henry VIII licensed the Matthews Bible to circulate in 1537. More information from Hannah Jenkins and some links in this pdf file.

Turning to the Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature I find that the tradition of Englishing the Bible was kept alive, and the issue wasn’t actually that it had to be in Latin; the issue was the suspect motives and theology of the translators. 

I still don't feel I've got to the bottom of this.  If the authorities didn't like the vernacular bibles issued by Wyclif and other dissidents, what prevented them issuing modern translations of their own?  Henry VIII after all was no protestant.  And when, exactly, did the church authorities become opposed to the populace being able to read the bible?  Suddenly in 1408?  Or had a prejudice against knowledge of the bible been brewing for a long time?  There's a whole lot more to be found out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Herodotus a true seeker after knowledge

The Greek historian Herodotus is someone I must find out more about.  He described how a Phoenician expedition circumnavigated Africa, or Libya as he called it, departing from the bottom of the Red Sea and returning through the Pillars of Hercules.  He met the crew it seems, and reported their story.  They told him amongst other things that when they were sailing west the sun rose and set in the wrong direction.  Herodotus reports this fact whilst commenting “I do not believe them”.
Herodotus died about 428 BCE.  What a wonderful man, a true seeker after knowledge. He didn’t believe them, but passed the account on anyway.  It is in fact precisely this detail which convinces that the story is true.  Sailing west – this is when they were rounding the Cape of Good Hope.    The sun rose and set in the wrong direction – this is exactly what happens when you are south of the equator, a  concept that was clearly foreign to Herodotus, hence his disbelief.
I picked this up browsing in a book ship in Kanturk, Co Cork.  There were many books there I should have liked to buy but I wouldn’t have had time to read them. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More honoured in the breach

"More honoured in the breach" is habitually mis-used. This offends me. In Hamlet, Horatio is shocked to hear drums, trumpets and canon sounding off whenever the king drains his cup of wine. Is that the custom here he asks?  Sadly yes, replies Hamlet; but to my mind, though I am native here and to the manner born, it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance.  Meaning : the custom is a disgrace, and it would be better for Denmark’s reputation not to do it, than to do it.

Instances of mis-alluding to this passage are numberless, but here’s an egregious one.  Jonathan Aitken on p 32 of The Guardian 3rd May 2007: 

“If ever there was a part of the law ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’ it is the statutes of perjury.”

We know what he intends – he intends to say that the statutes of perjury are rarely used and ought to be used more often. But by choosing to mis-allude to Hamlet, he actually says the opposite : he says the statutes of perjury are a disgrace, and it would be better if they were never to be used at all. 

Reference:  Hamlet, Act I, Sc 4, 12-16

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cordoba: to mass at the mosque

Roman aqueduct in Seville

Just back from Seville and Cordoba.
The Mezquita in Cordoba is something you have to see before you die.  It’s a mosque, mezquita being mosque in Spanish.  Except it’s not a mosque it’s a cathedral, because when Cordoba was conquered by the Christian king in 1236 (by which time the building was already 450 years old) he dedicated it as a church the following day, and Islam was banned.  So to this day the Cordobans say “I’m going to mass at the mosque”.  Eileen who is Catholic didn't like it, said it still felt like a mosque, ought to have been left as one, and she couldn’t bring herself to light a candle there.  
I'll go back there one day but not until the scaffolding for the renovation work is removed, which obstructed the views down the aisles of arches.
The conversion of the mosque to a Christian church contrasts with the way the Muslims behaved, when they conquered the city from the Visigoths in 711.  They purchased the cathedral from the Christians for a fair price and allowed them to build churches elsewhere.  This is not a biased view by the way as it comes out of the official guide book ! 
The Renaissance cathedral was plonked down in the middle of the mosque, a large portion of which was demolished to accommodate it.  An act of cultural vandalism on a grand scale, an assessment which the Emperor Charles V agreed with. The canons of the cathedral badgered him to be allowed do this, and at first he resisted but at length assented.  Possibly at that time he had never seen the Mezquita.  He did however visit when the work for the cathedral was well advanced and he said to the canons: “You could have built your cathedral anywhere, yet you have destroyed something that is unique in the world.“
Colonades in Mezquita. Better than when we were there! No scaffolding!
Aerial view showing the Renaissance cathedral set in the midst of the Mezquita (Wikipedia)
I've included the photo of the Seville aqueduct to draw attention to how the double arches in the Mezquita are suggestive of the design of the aqueduct.  I wonder if the aqueduct was still functioning when the Muslims arrived in 711?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery

To a postgraduate history seminar at UCC. Nini Rodgers (Queens University Belfast) on Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1865. She’s just had a book published.

From the 17th century, ports all along the Atlantic seaboard from Copenhagen to Cadiz participated in the slave trade. But not in Ireland.  Why not?  Britain didn't allow free trade for Ireland until 1780, following Irish free trade agitation in the 1770’s by Irish merchants.  This engraving from 1780 celebrates the campaign’s success. It depicts Hibernia waving a Free Trade banner and attended by her brave volunteers.

1780 : Hibernia attended by her brave volunteers
exhibiting her commercial freedom
The brave volunteers in question being an American Indian presenting an animal pelt, an indeterminate woman presenting a bolt of cloth, and most valuable by far, a black slave presenting a golden urn which we can presume contains sugar or the profits thereof. Sugar was the 18th century oil, taking over from spices and gold.

In the background standing watch over proceedings are two British soldiers, while a merchant vessel flies an ensign sporting a harp surmounted by a crown.

Because Ireland was prevented under British law from participating in the slave trade, Irish slavers traded from Bristol, Liverpool or Nantes. 

The domestic Irish merchant class never, in the event, succeeded in participating in the slave trade, which was abolished in the UK in 1807. Their attempt to enter the trade came too late. By 1780 Liverpool had the market sewn up.  They did try to set up slaver companies in Belfast and Limerick but they didn’t get off the ground.  By 1780 the slave trade was economically old fashioned.  Better things to invest in supplying industrialised Britain. Moreover, ideologically, the slave trade was becoming suspect at this time. 

Nini spent a few minutes on the Irish attitude to slavery. Anti-slavery not a popular movement in Ireland.  In the US, poor Irish immigrants were quite keen to join in a slave-owning society, liked having someone to look down on, were pro-slavery.  Thought it hypocritical that there should be all this hullabaloo about slavery whilst the Irish were left to starve in the Famine, and were treated worse than slaves in New York.  I must return to this sometime.

One postgrad complimented Nini on her book and commented that this is the way Irish history should go. We need to disentangle ourselves from victimology and recognise that we have a history like any other nation, with heroes and villains, exploiters as well as exploited, he said.

I have fuller notes, the above is just a taster.  I forget how I came to hear about this seminar, and it was far from clear that I was actually meant to be there, but the organiser made me most welcome.  1807 strikes me as being a very odd date to choose to abolish the slave trade. I really must look into this subject some more.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Caliph Omar, the poor woman and the sack of rice

Went to a Muslim meeting at UCC last week.  An imam in a Nehru jacket told us some nice stories about the early Caliphs.  I was on my way somewhere else so I just slipped in the back of the meeting for half an hour, a pity I couldn't stay longer. Here is one of the stories he told. 
Caliph Omar wondered about the conditions of the poor people of Damascus. His advisers assured him all was well but he wasn’t convinced.  In order to see for himself, he put aside his fine robes, and wandered incognito through the streets, mingling with the people.  One night in a poor district of the city, he heard children wailing.  Pushing aside the curtain of the of the house where the noise came from, he found a woman boiling stones in a pot. He asked, why are the children wailing and why are you boiling stones?  She said, the children are hungry. They think it’s food, and by the time they find out they will have cried themselves to sleep.  Caliph Omar was distressed to discover such poverty in his city.  He rushed to his palace, called for a sack of rice, threw it on his back, and weighed down with this heavy load, trudged through the streets towards the poor district.  He chanced to meet a Muslim man who recognising him, said : Caliph, let me carry your burden.  The Caliph replied : No, for who will carry the burden of my sins when I meet my Lord?