Love and genocide

Tiepolo, the capture of Carthage‘How could a “God of Love” order the genocide of the Canaanites?’ ask my atheist friends. The idea is completely silly. How could anyone believe that? To answer the question, one needs historical sensibility.

The bloodthirsty bible verses are easy to find, and a resource for atheists escaping fundamentalism. You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall annihilate them, in Deuteronomy, for example. Sometimes, out of mercy, people are captured for slaves. Atheists collect such verses as enthusiastically as fundamentalists seeking proof texts. Fundamentalists try to answer- here CARM argues that because those killed in the Flood were “wicked”,  God was right to destroy them. Noah preached righteousness for a hundred years, and the people could have repented. That is not obvious from the flood story: here is the Answers in Genesis calculation putting it at 75 years at the most. To me, the 120 years figure in 6:3 refers to the limit for death from old age, but neither of these sites could accept that, as Noah was said to live for centuries. They cannot see Genesis as a mosaic of contradictory sources.

Tiepolo, the Triumph of MariusMy first answer was that atheists do not believe the conquest of Canaan stories, as archaeology does not support them.  We know that a peaceful people, without walls to their towns, lived in the area around 1000BC, and that Israel is mentioned on the Mereneptah Stele, from the 13th century BCE, but Jericho was not inhabited at the alleged time of conquest. But, say the atheists, the Christians do.

That was the way of the peoples at the time. I find the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem one of the most dramatic bible stories: the Jews tell the Assyrian envoy,‘Please speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall. But he responds, Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine? The Assyrian records boast of their conquests, destroying their enemies. Perhaps the Assyrian retreat was caused by cholera, which people at the time would call an Act of God.

The Romans were the same way. Here the Baldwin Project romanticises, for children, Cato the Elder’s demand that Carthage must be destroyed, and here it describes its destruction.

What was necessary for survival as a free people, with their own culture? I believe in moral progress, that people learn a better way of being together. John Woolman, born in colonial New Jersey, was led from discomfort at slavery which George Fox had tolerated, through small actions against it, to dedicating his life to abolition. So the best of us learn moral truth, guided by God. The Bible shows a progression in understanding of God, and our understanding continues to improve. The alternative to moral progress is moral luxury: we behave well unless under threat.

King slave

William III by Sir Godfrey KnellerPeter Ackroyd explains that James II of England sought to appoint Roman Catholics to positions of power in the realm and to repeal penal laws against Catholics, without the consent of Parliament. The people responded by burning effigies of the Pope, and nobles including the Earl of Danby who had led Charles II’s government invited William of Orange to invade. William came with 40,000 men, and James, finding even his own army would not support him, fled.

The immediate causes of the crisis was the birth of James’ son, whom Danby affected to believe was an imposter, brought into the alleged place of child-birth in a warming-pan, and James’ attempt to pack Parliament with supporters to repeal the punitive acts against Catholics. He made a Declaration of Indulgence, that the penal laws for religious offences and the religious qualification for public office were suspended. This was not for him to grant. He required it to be read in 9000 parish churches, but was obeyed in only 200. Seven bishops petitioned him to withdraw it, and he imprisoned them in the Tower.

James was a fool, whose mistress did not know why he liked her: It cannot be my beauty, for he must see that I have none; and it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know that I have any. He was a slave, who knelt for a blessing to the papal nuncio, bringing forth the disgust of all as no English king had knelt to another man since King John. He continued to receive a subsidy from Louis XIV, and so work against the interests of his kingdom. George Jeffreys by William Wolfgang Claret

This simple tale, in which I still take some Protestant pleasure, fails to provide any motivation for James which I can understand. Separately, it makes him out as a fool, incapable of judging his own support. The foolishness may be made worse by arrogance, a belief that his Anglican supporters would maintain their support; even the army refused his orders. James wanted to free Catholics from legal persecution, but the cost was the increased hatred of their Protestant neighbours.

The rebels did not imagine not having a King. They thought William would force James to call a free Parliament, Ackroyd suggests. William wished to protect the Netherlands from the French. The result of his takeover was English and Scots participation in the Grand Alliance against Louis, possibly in British interests, but more clearly in those of the Dutch.

Charles II’s son outside marriage, the Duke of Monmouth, attempted a rebellion with only 150 men. He landed in Torbay, expecting people would join him, but few did. Judge Jeffreys condemned so many to death for treason that his executioners complained they could not kill them all. It is all a tale of arrogance, incompetence and blindness.

King fool, king traitor

Louis XIVI read Peter Ackroyd’s History of England for diversion not learning. Historians now talk of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms rather than the English Civil War, as one cannot understand the wars in England without considering engagements in Ireland and Scotland, and local interests; but Ackroyd’s book is called Civil War, with a picture of Oliver and Charles on the cover. A powerful bloc in Scotland were revolutionaries, seeking to wrest control from the king, yet wanting a king controlled rather than a republic, turning to fight for him when he might have been deposed- but there is no hint of that in this book. “Scots” do one thing or another. Colonists set sail for North America-“When they cross the Atlantic, they are lost from the purview of this history”, he says, airily. His interest is London, and its apprentice boys, bourgeois and gentry.

Ackroyd portrays the Stewart kings as fools, concerned for their own interests not their kingdoms’, but vacillating and silly, unable to see those interests. There is not enough in the book to judge whether the English interest would have been better served by supporting the Netherlands (including parts of modern Belgium) against France, but the king’s personal interest was in supporting Louis, because of the subsidy of £210,000 a year Louis promised him from 1670. There was no distinction between court and government, so money needed for the navy might be diverted from taxes to the costs of the court, or his own gambling debts.

Conde de GondomarCharles II made a treaty secretly with Louis XIV, that the king of England, being convinced of the truth of the Roman Catholic religion, is resolved to declare it, and to reconcile himself with the Church of Rome as soon as the state of his country’s affairs permit…But as there are always unquiet spirits who mask their designs under the guise of religion… (he) will avail himself of the assistance of the King of France, who, on his part, promises to pay to the King of England the sum of two million livres tournois… In addition, the King of France undertakes to provide, at his own expense, six thousand troops for the execution of the design.

In the Thirty Years’ War, James’ pursuit of the Infanta to marry his son prevented him from supporting his son in law Frederick as ruler of then-Protestant Bohemia. Ackroyd suggests that an English ultimatum might have prevented the Spanish attack in 1620. The Spanish Ambassador quickly sent a message to Philip III that he could invade Frederick’s territories without risk of a war with England. Thus began the Thirty Years’ War. Ackroyd’s direct quote of James’ words appears on Google only as a Google Books result for Ackroyd’s book.

Reading of these kings is enough to make me Republican. I want the historic link to these fools, traitors and murderers severed.

Revolting Jews

Arch of TitusIf the Jews obeyed the Torah completely even for one day, the Kingdom of Heaven would come. What would that mean? For me, it means everyone obeying the laws of God- love God, and love everyone else. Do to them as they would have done to them. For a strain of Christianity, it means Rapture, end of the laws of physics and resurrection of the dead. For the Jews of the first century CE, it meant all humanity would worship on the Holy Mountain, that is Jerusalem. Many of them thought this would be by conquest.

There are 235 uses of the phrase “Lord of Hosts” in the Old Testament, and only two in the New Testament, one of which is a quote. Malachi, prophesying during the reign of the Persians, complained that the worship in the Jerusalem temple was inadequate. He wrote And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. God would conquer the other nations, who would submit.

Then Alexander conquered the Persians, and his successors in Egypt then Syria took control of Judah and Galilee. Just as Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Revelation) of Syria decided finally to Hellenise the Jews, setting up his altar in the Temple and provoking the Maccabean revolt, Roman power was rising. Mattathias killed a Jew sacrificing on a pagan altar, and the Greek official enforcing it, and his sons led the revolt and became rulers and high priests in Jerusalem. Jews interpreted this as God acting to defend his people. Arch of TitusThey celebrated the festival of Hanukkah yearly to remember, and read of it in the books of the Maccabees.

The Israelite covenant with God had been that the people would obey the Torah, and God would look after them. In 63BCE, Rome conquered Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client state; and in 6CE Augustus placed it under direct Roman administration. God would set the Jews free if the Jews kept their part of the Covenant; but the Messiah, a military leader, had not come. So, the temple worship was untrue, the Essenes said. The Pharisees devoted themselves to keeping Torah. Jesus prophesied that the Jews would revolt, and the Romans crush them: his new concept of the Kingdom of Heaven was the law of Love and non-violence.

In 66-73 the Jews rose. They fought among themselves as much as against the Romans, because of differing interpretations of how Jewish behaviour would please God enough that he would rise up and defend them. In 70AD Titus destroyed the Jerusalem temple. In 132, Simon Bar Kochba led a second revolt, put down in 135 with the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. The Jews preserved their identity as a people through obedience to Torah, despite dispersal and persecution.

Religion may be abused, but at its best inculcates disciplines, practices and a sense of community which is good for humanity. Beware magical thinking, that God will look after me if I perform acts pleasing to God, unrelated to practically achieving my goals. The pictures are of the Arch of Titus, commemorating the removal of temple treasures to Rome.

Historical Jesus

Tom Wright, photo by Gareth SaundersN.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now at the University of St Andrews, says we may find a rounded portrait of Jesus, a full personality, from the historical documents. To Wright, Jesus considered himself Messiah in a new way, unlike that expected by the Jews at the time though a development from Old Testament thought; Messiah, rather than “second person of the Trinity”.

Between the Jewish concept of Messiah in 1AD, and the Christian concept in 100AD (he finds “CE” patronising) he finds Jesus, doubly similar and different to both. The Gospels seem a credible step between. In the Gospels, Jesus says cryptically what later Christians may say clearly. His clearing the Temple of the sellers is a claim to Messiah status, as are his conversations afterwards, if we may puzzle them out: when the Lord comes, says Zechariah (14:21) there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of Hosts on that day.

What is the purpose of the apocalyptic language? “You shall see the Son of Man descending on the Clouds”- is this a prophecy of the Second Coming, the Rapture of Christians into Heaven, or the end of the laws of physics? No, says Wright. Rather it is, among other things, an elaborate metaphor-system for investing historical events with theological significance. Jesus predicted war with the Romans, which happened in 66-70 with the destruction of the Temple, and 135 with the expulsion of the Jews from Judah. Daniel’s apocalyptic similarly referred to incidents in the Maccabean period.

What is the Messiah? The strongest current in Jewish thought at the time was that he would lead the Jews to military victory. All would worship on the Holy Mountain because the Jews told them to. This remains current- I read once that if the Messiah came he would be a fighter pilot. Other currents led towards Jesus’ intent, to lead the Jews into a Kingdom of Heaven by escaping the cycle of violence. “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. This confusion is found in Zechariah, where Wright claims Jesus found much about his role: The Lord of Armies will devour Tyre by fire (9:3-4); yet there are hints that Heaven does not come by military victory. In 13:8-9, two thirds of the people will die, yet the remainder will be the People of God. Here, Heaven comes through defeat. As in the Gospel of Thomas, the Kingdom of Heaven is here, now, as Jesus speaks. It is a new way for people to be, one with another. It remains our job to create it, here.

I thought the Bible shows the history of our learning about God, and Rowan Williams gives this example. In 2 Kings 9-10, the prophet Elisha anoints Jehu King over Israel, and Jehu murders the household of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen. This is seen as God’s Will. Yet in Hosea 1:4, the Lord condemns Jehu for that bloodshed. As people see more of God, Love and Mercy come into sharper focus.

Monotheism in Egypt


AkhenatenAkhenaten, the first monotheist, had a belief and ritual system very close to that of his predecessors. His rule began around 1352 BC, when Egypt enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity. It had hegemony as far north as Canaan and an alliance with Mitanni to the north. Rather than seeing foreigners as the enemy forces of chaos, a view of them as also God’s creation was developing.

Akhenaten was at first the fourth king of the name Amenhotep, which includes the God-name Amun. Originally a local god of Thebes, Amun had become identified with Ra the Sun-god, portrayed as a man with the head of a falcon and the sun-disc above it. Osiris, God of the Underworld, was an aspect of Ra, and increasingly Ra was seen as the creator-God, with other gods aspects of him, or his created beings. Akhenaten’s god Aten was the sun, with the official name The Living One, Ra-Horus of the horizon who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disc, commonly shortened to The Sun-disc, or Aten.

Amenhotep III was seen as the son of Amun-Ra, born of the Queen-mother in a sacred marriage ritually reenacted annually. Burger_AkhenatenHowever, Akhenaten built his own capital city, Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten” where the Aten manifests itself daily. Aten was depicted as a disc emitting rays ending in hands touching the king and queen, Aten’s children, and their family. All other gods, even seen as emanations of Aten, were banned.

Akhenaten was depicted with wide hips, feminine breasts and an elongated face. This style of depiction, as was usual, spread to depictions of his subjects. Portraits showed the royal family kissing and embracing, which was unprecedented. The informality and freedom of expression was a lasting influence for centuries. No statue of the God Aten was necessary: Aten was visible in the sky. The light of the Sun nourished all things continually.

Daily, the King rode by chariot along the 3.5km Royal Road from his riverside palace to the seat of government, symbolising the rising of the Sun. Akhenaten was “the creative manifestation of the Aten” through whom the God did his work. The king demanded total loyalty and worship. The dead existed in the roofless temple with Aten and the king.

After Akhenaten’s death, his cult was expunged. The boy-king Tutenkhaten’s name was adjusted to contain that of the old god, Tutenkhamun. The court moved back to Memphis and the religious centre to Thebes. Akhetaten and its temples were destroyed. The Hittites had defeated Egypt’s northern ally Mitanni, and Egyptian armies in the north failed- a sign that the Gods had deserted Egypt. It is likely that Akhenaten’s body was removed to a small undecorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Here is a translation of the Great Hymn to the Aten, our source for Akhenaten’s doctrines. As before, this post is taken from the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Mummy portraitThere are records of Egyptian civilisation going back three millennia before the Roman conquest in 33BC, with nothing to say of the Flood, or the Tower of Babel, or the Exodus; and I write as an excuse to exhibit this gorgeous mummy portrait, encaustic from the third century.

Onywye. Bishop Ussher, and Answers in Genesis, put the flood at 2450 BC or 2348 BC. Other literalists put it as early as 3835 BC. By Genesis 11:10-32 there were nine generations between Shem son of Noah and Abraham, or 292 years after the Flood. Sometime in this, the Tower of Babel story happened (Genesis 11:1-9) though Genesis 10:31 describes separate peoples with separate languages as the descendants of Joktan, five generations below Shem. It is hard not to see contradictions in all this. Ussher put the Tower of Babel at 2242 BC, and claimed God appeared to Moses in the burning bush in 1491 BC.

3835 BC is in the Naqada 1 period of Upper Egypt, before writing. Naqada is a cemetery of three thousand graves discovered in 1892. The Fayum-13burials are simple: the body lies in the foetal position wrapped in animal skin, with simple offerings of flint knives, ivory combs, and pottery. The graves were dated initially by the pottery, which Flinders Petrie hypothesised evolved gradually from globular vessels with functional handles to cylindrical forms with decorative handles.

2348 BC is the Fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, when Unas was king. (Pharaoh was a title from the New Kingdom.) Egyptian dates may be fifty years out at this period, and Unas was the last king of the fifth dynasty, succeeded by Teti. Dynastic numbering comes from Manetho, a historian from the 3rd century BC. However Teti’s chief wife was probably Unas’s daughter, and the change in numbering may come from moving the site of the royal palace, rather than a Flood.Mummy portrait

In 1491 BC the king was Thutmose II. At this time Egypt, united and prosperous, had conquered the Mediterranean coast as far north as Syria, where the trade routes from Mesopotamia to Africa circled the Arabian desert. Fleeing, Moses would have had to go a lot further than the Red Sea to evade the king (still not a Pharaoh). Egyptian records are not noted for candour: they boast of conquests, with pictures of a huge king bestriding tiny corpses of enemies, even where context indicates defeat; but there is no indication of ten plagues, or the deaths of the firstborn.

Ramesses II built the new capital of Piramesse in the 13th century BC, thought to be the city named in Exodus 1:11. At the end of that century, the Merenptah victory stele has the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records.

What have I achieved: not just mockery of literalist Biblical interpretation, but contrasting it with patient reasoning from archaeological evidence. This post is worth seeing for those pictures, made centuries after the real events described: especially the first, whose painter well those passions read, which yet survive. I have taken facts from The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, and worthless gibbering from Answers in Genesis.

“Ignorant Papists”

Pope_Leo_XII[Catherine the Great] decided to have herself and her family and her court inoculated. Inoculation was the great scientific advance…In France and other Catholic countries it was actually forbidden as being contrary to the Will of God. So says Professor Tony Lentin of the Open University at (15.00) here.

I find this quote attributed to Pope Leo XII: Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgement from God : thus vaccination is an affront to Heaven. Could not God smite some other way? Had strokes and heart attacks increased as vaccination spread, we could use this as evidence of God!

Seeking evidence, I went to Wikipedia. Vaccine Controversies does not finger the Pope, but ascribes similar sentiments to “some Christian opponents“. The article Vaccination and religion has the hallmarks of vituperative editing: Anti-vaccination proponents were most common in Protestant countries, someone has crowed. As I write, it says Quakers opposed vaccination: we were in Pope_Pius_VIIIour Evangelical phase, but I think that unlikely.

Quodlibeta‘s article gives a wealth of detail, and the peroration Leo XII’s alleged ban of vaccination is a whiggish myth which has been repeated and promulgated slavishly ever since…No doubt in cyberspace it will continue amongst those who will swallow any myth as long as it is anti-catholic or anti-religious.

That is the problem. The story has started as anti-Catholic, and is now anti-Christian, showing how we opposed science to the detriment of believers and their victims. The classic such story is geocentrism.

Still in Wikipedia, where the battle rages between those who would maximise or minimise the church’s foolish perfidy, I read that all books refuting geocentrism were banned by the Catholic church until 1757, and Galileo’s Dialogue was prohibited until 1835. Gregory_XVIPope John Paul II claimed not to contend with science: the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world, the understanding of which is the competence of human experience and reasoning. Theology is about the human relationship with God, though psychological research impinges on even that.

Seeking a happily partisan view, I went to RationalWiki. It gives little detail on the slow progress of the Roman church, but quotes four verses of the Bible apparently affirming geocentrism, and a link: “Looking for outright lies? CreationWiki has a page on Geocentrism”. Oh, OK. The Encyclopedia of Creation Science points out Einstein’s relativity theory asserts that the frame of reference for observing motion is arbitrary– so you can say the Earth stands still if you want- but Mainstream creationists agree that the the Earth is in motion around the Sun.

The message I wanted to leave you with is that when partisans debate such details, there is more heat than light, and what is needed is a patient examination of the history of ideas, and levels of belief. What I end with is both RationalWiki (Thank God it attacks Creationists, rather than all Christians!) and CreationWiki saying moderately sensible things on Geocentrism; and a University professor peddling an anti-Papist myth.

Also on Catholics in history: a Jewish academic works to rehabilitate the reputation of wartime bishop Aloysius Stepinac.


File:Hans Holbein d. J. 065.jpgYou can see it, now, the utter clarity of it. Then, it was more confused:

Against Henry’s kingdom I have all the kingdoms of Christendom. Against each one of your bishops, I have a hundred saints. Against your one parliament, I have all the general councils of the church, stretching back for a thousand years.

Here is The Trial of Thomas More, an account by Gerald Wegemer. It is partisan: the title of the book whence it comes is Portrait of Courage, rather than portrait of a politician.

Henry VIII’s desperation for an heir, as well as being selfish, came from the Wars of the Roses, ended within living memory. Uncertainty of succession could start a new civil war. It could weaken England before its enemies France and Spain. Spain could get what he wanted by kidnapping the Pope: the Pope was partisan, too weak to be above politics or do the work of God.

The phrase “the King in Parliament” as the source of legislation comes from that time. Henry, in doing something so unpopular as divorcing his wife to marry a harlot and breaking the Church had to bring the country with him, and the tool he chose was Parliament as the symbol of the agreement of the people. The King’s despotism reduced, slightly, and has reduced ever since. was Catholic, but wanted to be his own Pope. His son Edward was wildly Evangelical/ Reformed. Elizabeth united the Church of England, where both streams though in deep disagreement could worship together, leaving room for difference of conscience. Absolute agreement on doctrine is not necessary for salvation.

So, it is now clear. In escaping a foreign despotism we started towards escaping the English despotism. In permitting disagreement, we freed thought to enable progress. At the time, it was unclear, unpopular with the masses and opposed by great men.

This is another draft which has sat for eight months. I don’t know how to finish it or round it off.

Fragments of a story

File:Hierakonpolis khasekhemuy.jpg“The Two Lords are at peace in him.” How do we grope towards learning the meaning of that?

Most of the remains of the Early Dynastic period of Egypt are tombs. Has economics always been about waste? Now, Chinese make televisions which must be superseded and replaced every three years, and Britain spends on nuclear submarines, then craftsmen made beautiful things to bury in tombs, such as that of Khasekhemwy in the early dynastic period (before 2686BC) which had 58 rooms in a gallery 68m long and 39.4m wide at its widest point. The division between the Early Dynastic and the Old Kingdom is modern- the kings were related- but justified by King Djoser’s innovation in tomb architecture, his step pyramid, 109x125x63m and clad in polished white limestone.

Flinders Petrie in the 19th century proposed a way of arranging the chronology of the Naqada period, the fourth millennium BC, by the development of ceramics, and this has been supplemented but not superseded by dendrochronology, carbon dating and thermoluminescence. We can know so much: but writing begins to tell stories.

The earliest surviving writing includes the names of kings in the Serekh, as on the Narmer Palette. The serekh is at the top between the Goddess heads: the cone is the name, under a bird- we read back later symbols, and say this is the falcon Horus. The cricket-stumps to either side are colonnades, representing the palace. File:Edwin Longsden Long - Alethe Attendant of the Sacred Ibis in the Temple of Isis at.jpgWriting began in Naqada III, around 3200-3000 BC. Hieroglyphs survive on the seals of the king and his officers, their names and titles, and identifying goods and their places of origin. Texts ordered by grammar came later. From the middle of the first dynasty there are symbols for the year of the king’s reign.

Khasekhemwy’s predecessor, Peribsen, used a serekh surmounted by the hound or jackal symbolising Seth rather than the usual falcon of Horus. I thought Seth the Enemy, first from Doctor Who- The Pyramids of Mars– and then Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings. He sought to destroy his brother Osiris, but Isis collected Osiris’ body-parts and resurrected him as Horus. We know these stories from documents such as The Contendings of Horus and Seth, but that is 1600 years later.

An enemy God but a blood relation: in such stories Gods could symbolise tribes or individuals, as Robert Graves reports in The Greek Myths. In Khasekhemwy, the two lords- Horus and Seth?- are at peace. By reconciliation, or by conquest? By reconciliation, I say: it is my character to prefer reconciliation to conquest; but also in the Narmer Palette and elsewhere I see kings destroying their enemies, clubbing them, trampling their corpses, and there are those headless corpses carefully laid out for ritual- so, for conquest “The One Lord is Supreme” seems more likely to me.

“The Two Lords are at peace in him.” I know almost nothing of Khasekhemwy. I have taken much of this from The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, but my understanding, and my writing, is filtered through me.