The End of the Beginning

Crop Creation-of-Adam -Michelangelo -Sistine-Chape.-Public-Domain

The Creation of Adam: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (Public Domain)

The Hebrew Bible is a collection of books written by Israelites, for Israelites, about Israelites. The allegorical story of the pair of humans in Eden is intended to represent the unknown progenitors of Israelites and other Ancient Near Eastern peoples at a time before the call of Abraham, after which point the story narrows its focus to the descendants of Abraham and their interactions with non-Israelites. The accounts in Genesis are therefore geographically, linguistically, and culturally limited in scope.

The intent of this commentary is not to deal exhaustively with all the issues that could be raised about the early chapters of Genesis but rather to address just a few important points.

Creation ex-nihilo, a term which refers to God creating everything from nothing, is one of the foundational assumptions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology. It is based on the opening verses of the Bible which are usually translated into English as a sequence of independent statements:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

And the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

It is not generally recognised that this understanding of Genesis 1:1-3 has been challenged on a linguistic and exegetical basis since at least mediaeval times by Jewish scholars and sages such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and by later scholars who adopted their views. According to these critics, the three verses are not a sequence of independent statements but depend absolutely on the correct understanding of the very first Hebrew word (bereshith) which then governs the meaning of the verses that follow. 

The Mediaeval View

Because so much depends upon a correct understanding of this word, we will first focus on Rashi’s rendering of Genesis 1:1-3:

In the beginning ofbereshith) God’s creation (bara) of the heavens and the earth. 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.1

The Hebrew word bereshith ) בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית ( is formed from the root noun reshith meaning “beginning”. Prefixed to this root is an inseparable prepositional form indicating “in the”. The form of the noun reshith is in the “construct” state meaning that it is dependent on the word bara (בָּרָ֣א ) which follows it and indicates possession, hence “In the beginning of…”

Rashi also pointed out that there are five occurrences of the word bereshith in the Bible: one in Genesis and four in the Book of Jeremiah. In every case, except for perhaps the most important one in Genesis, the word has been rendered into English as “in the beginning of” e.g:

The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet against Elam in the beginning of (bereshith) the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, saying…(Jeremiah 49:34 KJV).

According to Rashi, Verse 1 is a temporal clause stating when the action takes place, Verse 2 is a circumstantial clause describing the conditions in which the action takes place, and Verse 3 is the main clause stating what the action is: “Let there be light…”  

The Modern View

There is a modern English version of the Hebrew Bible that reflects the general views of critics such as Rashi so let’s take a look at the primary translation of Genesis 1:1-3 according to this version: 

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 2

If both Mediaeval and Modern translations of Genesis 1:1-3 are correct, and one were to take a purely naturalistic approach to the story, then one could assume that the only difference between the Creation story and the view of modern science is one of agency. Modern science would claim that natural processes can explain the development of life on earth from primordial waters whereas the authors of Genesis would claim that the initiation of such development can only be explained by divine creative activity. 

However, such a naturalistic approach does little justice to an account which is multi-levelled and rich in meaning. 

As Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, observes:

Two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of  a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order. The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is intrinsically an act of creation.3

Within the account of God’s mastery over the forces of chaos and formless darkness is embedded a more meaningful story about the intention of God to bring “light”, to bring wisdom, understanding and order to the chaotic darkness of the human mind. 

According to this approach, Adam and Eve are the representative humans who portray their darkness of mind in an allegory using conflicting values: lies as opposed to truth; evil as opposed to good; guilt as opposed to innocence; curse as opposed to blessing; and death as opposed to life. They cannot master their darkness of mind and so fail to reach their imago dei potential. It is a message which is deep in consequence, a message quite lost on creationists and evolutionists alike.

Consider the ramifications if it were generally recognised that the authors of Genesis were not asserting Creation ex-nihilo of the material world but making theological statements about the human condition. The fundamentalist, literalist doctrine of Creation would be finally and fully discredited, the endless arguments about theology versus science would cease, and the weapon of ridicule used to promote wholesale rejection of the Bible would be disarmed.

Footnotes

1 The Complete Tanakh : The Jewish Bible with a Modern English Translation and Rashi's Commentary 

https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165/showrashi/true/jewish/Chapter-1.htm

2 Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1985

3 Levenson, Jon.D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1988, p. 12.

Without going into laborious detail, Hebrew words are formed from stem roots with the addition of prefixes and suffixes which determine particular meanings. A single word in Hebrew often represents several words in English.

 


The Perpetual Pandemic

Also posted on Medium Curated

An Infection of the Mind

Coronavirus(COVID-19). Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

I’ve decided to interrupt the series of articles about the un-biblical doctrines of mainstream Christianity to say a few words about the Coronavirus. As we watch our entire system struggle to cope with a new reality and grieve the many who have already fallen victim and the many who will undoubtedly do so in the near future, we should keep in mind that it is an infection of the body and, like all of its predecessors, it will either fade away naturally or the vaccines now being distributed will halt its progress. So, even though it is devastating on so many levels, this time will pass, eventually.

While we have more time to devote to reflection, we should perhaps think about a different but more deadly virus, an infection of the mind which has been spreading unchecked for nearly two thousand years. This virus is directly responsible for the extermination of countless millions since it first was released from its hellish laboratory.

In which laboratory was this virus cultured? Its origins can be traced to the speculative minds of the Hellenist-Latin Church fathers who appropriated certain texts and concepts from a Jewish book and then fabricated them into the teachings of mainstream Christianity, teachings which are no more than a reflection of their own philosophical and theological preferences and, it must be said, of their own exalted view of themselves. Although the conceptualisation of “cultural appropriation” is relatively modern, its most extreme example is millennia old.

How does this virus present itself?

There are two strains. One is called “Supersessionism” or “Replacement Theology”. Replacement theology, first developed by such men as Justin Martyr (circa 100 to 165 AD), Irenaeus of Lyon (circa 130 to 202 AD) and Origen of Alexandria (185–254), was to become the dominant interpretation of Christian history. It is a teaching which asserts that because the Jerusalem elites rejected as their Messiah a Jewish man known to his contemporaries as Yeshua HaNotzri, the God of Israel felt snubbed and played a type of tit-for-tat by rejecting the entire covenant people, destroying both nation and Temple in 70 AD, and entering into a new covenant with a new religion called Christianity whose adherents became the new “people of God”.

The other, arguably more deadly, strain is the teaching that this Jewish man is actually the God of Israel. This teaching, as reflected in various Christian doctrines, gave rise to the charge of “deicide” (killing God) levelled against the entire Jewish people.

Poison Pens
These twin strains fuelled the need to demonstrate Jewish unworthiness to remain the “people of God”. Their systematic vilification and demonisation began about a century after the death of Jesus with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr and only increased in fervour and ferocity when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD. This now state-sanctioned vitriol was to rain down relentlessly upon the heads of the Jews throughout these long centuries, all the while smoothing a path to the gas chambers. It is not possible in this article to devote sufficient space to catalogue all the accusations levelled against the Jewish people, nor to list all the sufferings inflicted upon them throughout these long centuries. This record is exceptionally well documented elsewhere so we will just provide a few outstanding examples of writings which contributed in large measure to the poisonous atmosphere of 20th Century Europe.

In After the evil: Christianity and Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust, Richard Harries, former Church of England Bishop of Oxford, provides a succinct overview of the main theological arguments of the early Church fathers, as well as the legislative structure of the Church’s anti-Judaism down the ages, from the second century through to the twentieth:

The Jews are Christ killers. “It is because you shed the precious blood that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore and no defence…through your madness against Christ you have committed ultimate transgression.” (St. John Chrysostom, The Sixth Oration Against the Jews)

Why was the temple made desolate?“It was because they killed the son of their benefactor, for he is coeternal with the Father.” (St. Hippolytus, Contra Judaas 1)

Israel has been replaced by Christianity. “On the rejection of Israel and the election of the gentiles, the Lord said to Moses, ‘Let me alone that I may destroy these people and make of you a great nation’…it thus follows clearly that everything concerning these people is an adumbration, image, prefiguration and symbol of that which had been written for usUpon whom the end of the ages have come.” (St, Jerome, On the Promised Land)

The wandering Jew. “You can hear the wailing and lamentations of each of the prophets…over the calamities which will overtake the Jewish people because of their impiety to him who had been foretold…how their kingdom would be utterly destroyed after their sin against Christ…and they would be dispersed among the gentiles throughout the whole world, with never a hope of any cessation of evil or breathing space from troubles.” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstrations of the Gospel 1.7)

The Jews are eternally reprobate. “Groaning and trembling shall you be upon the earth, here no one can fail to see that in every land where the Jews are scattered, they are in terrified subjection to the immensely superior number of Christians…to the end of the seven days of time the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death.” (St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichean)

The Jews are depraved. “The demons inhabit the very souls of the Jews as well as the places where they gather. If you call the synagogue a brothel, a den of vice, the devil’s refuge, Satan’s fortress, a place to deprave the soul, an abyss of every conceivable disaster, or whatever you will, you are still saying less than it deserves.” (St. John Chrysostom, The Sixth Oration Against the Jews)

This theological outlook was reflected in legislation. Although some church laws were occasionally enacted to protect Jews and allow them to practise their own religion, the majority were hostile; forbidding marriage or adultery with Jews, eating with them, using fields blessed by them, receiving gifts from them, entering synagogues or converting to Judaism, the penalty for which was death. Not surprisingly, all this hateful teaching and legislation resulted in very direct suffering for Jewish communities. There were massacres of Jews along the Rhine in 1096 by the Crusader army. There was a massacre of Jews at York in 1190. In 1290 all Jews were expelled from England and in the fifteenth century Jews were first massacred and then expelled from Spain. Along with the Reformation came Martin Luther’s extreme hostility to Jews followed up by centuries of pogroms and massacres taking place against a backdrop of Jewish depiction in art and literature as the personification of evil. Allegedly Jewish features were caricatured in order to depict the negation of everything that was Christian and good. Judas Iscariot became a symbol for Jews.¹

Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism
It is a tribute to the integrity of some Christian clergymen that they are prepared to acknowledge Christianity’s role in what is undoubtedly the greatest shadow and stain on the collective conscience of the human race. In his previously quoted work, After the evil: Christianity and Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust, Richard Harries first describes the difference between Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism and then goes on to say that it is important to distinguish between Anti-Judaism and what emerged under Hitler:

Anti-Semitism is primarily a hatred that is directed against the Jews as a race and its modern form arose is the nineteenth century as part of various racial theories. Anti-Judaism is hostility to a religion…And the question is how far the Church’s traditional anti-Judaism, its centuries-long teaching of contempt, prepared the ground and dulled people’s hearts and minds, so that antisemitism could take hold with so little resistance in the people as a whole.² 

Harries then goes on to quote extensively from Dr. James Parkes, an Anglican clergyman, whose importance as a contemporary witness to the rise of modern Anti-Semitism cannot be overestimated:

In 1928, James Parkes went to work with the International Students Service in Geneva, where he quickly became aware of the rising tide of antisemitism and began a serious study of this phenomenon. He was, he wrote later, ‘Completely unprepared for the discovery that it was the Christian church and the Christian church alone, which turned a normal xenophobia and a normal good and bad community relations between two human societies into the unique evil of antisemitism, the most evil, and as I gradually came to realise, the most crippling sin of historic Christianity.’ He published the results of his conclusions in his pioneering study The Conflict of Church and Synagogue in 1934. The major responsibility for antisemitism rested, in Parkes’s view ‘upon the theological picture created in Christian literature of the Jews perpetually betraying God and ultimately abandoned by him’. Parkes summarized his study in the words:

“The Christian public as a whole, the great and overwhelming majority of the hundreds of millions of nominal Christians in the world, still believe that ‘The Jews’ killed Jesus. That they are a people rejected by their God, that all the beauty of the bible belongs to the Christian church and not to those by whom it was written; and if on this ground, so carefully prepared, modern anti-Semites have reared a structure of racial and economic propaganda, the final responsibility still rests with those who prepared the soil, created the deformation of the people, and so made these ineptitudes credible.” ³ 

James Parkes also stated clearly in an article on Anti-Semitism, written for A Concise World History, that there was a direct line from the teachings of the Church to the death camps of Hitler:

That which changed the normal pattern of Jewish-Gentile relations was the action of the Christian Church. The statement is tragic, but the evidence is inescapable. What is still more tragic is that there is no break in the line which leads from the beginning of the denigration of Judaism in the formative period of Christian history, from the exclusion of Jews from civic equality in the period of the Church’s first triumph in the fourth century, through the horrors of the Middle Ages, to the death camps of Hitler in our own day.⁴

Post-Holocaust, many biblical scholars reassessed and reoriented their theologies. Learned tomes stressing the “Jewishness” of Jesus now proliferate on our bookshelves. Even though the majority of biblical scholars today strongly support the Jewish background to the life and teachings of Jesus, most are unwittingly adopting anti-Jewish positions which go largely unrecognised as such because they take subtle and indirect forms. For example, to continue to teach the doctrine of the Incarnation is to keep alive in the minds of Christians the original charge of “deicide” (killing God) levelled against the Jews.

So, even though they have cast off the philosophies of overt anti-Judaism/Semitism, they still remain hopelessly ensnared in the doctrines devised by the Church fathers.

The religious leaders in Jerusalem are rightly held accountable for the crucifixion of one Jew. The Christian teachings of Supersessionism and Incarnation must rightly be held accountable for the lives of many millions. Those who continue to teach and preach these doctrines unwittingly stand in the ashes of the dead.

At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the Jews were declared as perfidious Christ-killers, as people to be avoided, converted, or persecuted. They were only absolved of the “murder” of Jesus by Pope John XXIII in 1965, a mere one thousand, six hundred and forty years later.

Note
Although Richard Harries (quoted above) reflects the generally accepted view that historic Anti-Judaism was based on an opposition to the practices and practitioners of the Jewish religion, it is difficult to maintain that position when considering that so many attacks were based on an ideological perception of the Jewish character as being permanently and irredeemably degenerate, and as being satanic in nature. According to that ideology, the Jews, no matter how few or assimilated, are perpetually engaged in conspiracies that seek to dominate, exploit, and destroy society or the world. Such attacks are about the Jews as a people, as a race, therefore they are Anti-Semitic. The more correct position would be that a current of hatred towards the Jews as a people, exacerbated by a hatred of the Jewish religion, has always been present in the fulminations of the Christian churches and their acolytes but certainly found its ultimate expression in later race-based theories.

¹ Harries, Richard. After the evil: Christianity and Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust. Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 18–20.

² Ibid. 16

³ Ibid. 17

⁴ Parkes, James. A Concise World History: Anti-Semitism. Quadrangle Books, First American Edition, 1964.