Friday, November 26, 2010


The Pentateuch (also known to Jews as the Torah, or the Books of Moses, and to Christians as the Old Testament) consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Jewish tradition has it that the Torah was revealed to Moses on his expedition on Mount Sinai, which occurred in either 1312 or 1280 BCE. Modern scholarship has come to doubt this tradition. There is no claim within these five books that Moses is their author, and, following the impeccable logic of the philosopher Benedict Baruch Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), Moses could not have written them, given the indisputable fact that the book of Deuteronomy contains an account of his death.

No contemporary mention of the Pentateuch/Torah is complete without reference to the Wellhausen hypothesis. In 1883, the German Christian biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen published a tome entitled Prolegomena to the History of Israel, which theorized that the “five books of Moses” consisted of four original strands that had, over a period of half a millennium, been stitched together and interwoven by a succession of editors. These strands, JED and P (the Yahwist—or, in German, the Jahwist; the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly writer) not only had different authors, as shown by their literary styles; J and E had different names for the Holy One, (J[Y]ahweh and Elohim); there are two creation stories (P’s account of God’s six-day work week, J’s story of Adam and Eve); and there are often two versions of the same event, such as the Flood). Etcetera.

While this hypothesis held sway throughout much of the twentieth century, two alternatives have more recently been proposed. One is the supplementary theory, which says that there was an original book that was supplemented by later additions; another is the fragmentary theory, which suggests that there were simply many fragments, which were continuously edited.

There’s no need here to decide on the accuracy of these hypotheses. It is enough to say that the finished whole does show multiple authors and editors, and that the process took hundreds of years.

The Pentateuch consists of a medley of genres. There are laws: page upon page of commandments, dietary and other prescriptions covering every conceivable aspect of the life of the Israelites. There are stories of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is, in Exodus, the story of how those Israelites escaped their Egyptian captors, and of how Moses, their general, climbed a mountain (Sinai, sometimes called Horeb) to receive the laws from the Almighty. And there are those cosmogonic myths.

Comparing the Pentateuch to the Laws of Manu, we find that both contain legal codes that are intended to guide the lives of the respective communities. But in the case of the Hindu text, that is all--except for the creation myth that legitimizes the laws. The ancient Israelite text has much extra material, including the founder myth regarding Moses.

We might summarize this comparison in these formulas:

Content of The Laws of Manu:
Creation myth legitimizes laws

Content of Pentateuch
Creation myth legitimizes Sabbath observance; founder myth legitimizes laws

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


As I’ve already said, the gods of the religious devotees are mythological beings. But returning to the distinction between the God of revelation and the God of reason, recall that “not all the gods ‘reveal’ something to those who venerate them.” To put it differently, the God of revelation is the god who anchors a given religious tradition, in the sense that “he”—there is seldom if ever a “she”—sanctions the teachings and practices of that religion.

The God of revelation is, then, a mythological god. But before citing examples, let’s revert to another distinction, the one between creation myths and founder myths. Creation myths are stories of how a god, or gods, created the world. Founder myths are stories of how a founder either received a revelation from a god or discovered the truth about life.

Let’s begin with an example of a creation myths, from ancient India.

There were various law codes in archaic India, but none achieved the authority of the Law Code of Manu.

Manava Dharma Sastra is a long treatise consisting of both a creation myth and the religious laws on social demeanor.

The Creator, Brahma, is said to have composed the law code and recited it to his son—the first human, Manu—who then taught it to his students, including Bhrgu, who recites the entire treatise to an assembly of seers. Like his father, Manu is a mythical rather than a historical being—a kind of Indian Adam. The author of the treatise is anonymous, though the material of the treatise leads one to conclude that he is a Brahmin. In the hierarchical caste system, Brahmins (priests) are at the acme, followed by Ksatriyas (rulers), then Vaisyas (merchants), and finally, Sudras (workers).

The laws themselves are intricate and detailed, and cover almost every aspect of the lives of the population.

A sampling:

For Brahmins: “The knowledge of the Law is prescribed for people who are unattached to wealth or pleasures; and for people who seek to know the Law, scripture is the highest authority.”

For students: “Even out of sight, he must not refer to his teacher by just his name or mimic his walk, speech, or mannerisms.”

For males contemplating marriage: “He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb . . . He should marry a woman . . . who has a pleasant name; who walks like a goose or an elephant; and who has fine body and head hair, small teeth and delicate limbs.”

For a Brahmin: “Except during a time of adversity, a Brahmin ought to sustain himself by following a livelihood that causes little or no harm to creatures. He should gather wealth just sufficient for his subsistence through irreproachable activities that are specific to him, without fatiguing his body.”

For reading late obituaries: “When a man hears about the death of a paternal relative or the birth of a son after ten days, he becomes pure by immersing himself in water with his clothes on.”

Speaking of death, the authority of this Manu’s Code came under severe stress in the twentieth century, when the liberals took exception both to the caste system and to the secondary status of women that it legitimized.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Missing on Stephen Prothero’s list of writers who think that God is One is John Hick. In fact, nowhere in his book God Is Not One is there even a mention of Hick.

This is strange. For of all those who were, or could have been, on this list, it is Hick who has given the question the most and the closest attention. Hick it is who gives one of the strongest arguments for what he calls the “hypothesis” that “the response to a transcendent reality has taken the bewildering plurality of forms that history records.” Hick it is who, in 1986-87 gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures.

Regardless. Even when we compare Prothero’s miniature arguments with Hick’s hypothesis, it seems to me that the burden of proof remains with Hick. I’m more interested in what Hick would have to say about Prothero’s arguments than vice versa.

Let’s look once more at Prothero’s arguments. The first two, as I said in the last post, are based on analogies. Any such argument must give reasons for thinking that an analogy is spot on; Prothero doesn’t give these reasons.

The third argument, which pits the wisdom of the ordinary devotee against that of the mystic or the philosopher religion, is similar to what logicians call the fallacious argumentum ad populum, or “appeal to the people.” It needs to be expanded in order to be evaluated.

As for the fourth argument, which assumes that the God-is-One thesis embraces religious tolerance, is that there wouldn’t be a need to tolerate another religion if it were at base like our own. But, we wonder, what if this assumption isn’t made by many of those who urge mutual tolerance among the religions? Presumably, the argument doesn’t hold.

Prothero’s fifth argument is as obvious as it is strong. “The characters of these gods,” he says, “differs widely.”

And that, as I’ll show in the next few posts, is the decisive argument for the proposition that God is not one.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A nice foil to John Hick’s theory that “God has many names” is Stephen Prothero’s recent book, God Is Not One, which bears the provocative subtitle, The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

The entire title tells it all. We need only to cite the chapters on the eight religions, find why their differences matter, and uncover Prothero’s argument for his contention that God is not one.

As for the eight chapters, I'll simply enumerate them in the order of what Prothero judges to be their contemporary impact: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism.

Prothero begins to defend his thesis with a list of those who think God is one and the same in all religions. This includes the aforementioned William Blake, who in 1795 published the illustrated book All Religions Are One. Prothero then quotes Mohandas Gandhi’s statement that “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions” and the Dalai Lama’s affirmation that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” Huston Smith’s 1958 book, The World’s Religions is also mentioned. Along the way he cites the books of such fellow-travelers as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, and Dan Brown.

“The most popular metaphor for this view,” Prothero says, “portrays the great religions as different paths up the same mountain.” Half the introductory textbooks in this commodious genre, it seems, use this metaphor to lead students astray. “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side,” he quotes Huston Smith as saying, “but when the top is reached the trails converge.” The religions have distinct rituals, theologies, and organizational structures, “but beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”

There are at least two reasons for this disinformation campaign. One motivation, explains Prothero, is that those who hold this idea are rejecting the missionary view that only their path leads to the peak. The other reason for repeating the “all religions are one” mantra is the hope that it will somehow lead to world peace.

Prothero has no difficulty with the alternative to the many-paths doctrine, which is to embrace the eighteenth century ideal of religious tolerance. “But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink . . . has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

Hidden behind Prothero’s grand rhetoric, there are arguments. Two are based on analogy. (1) “No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same.” And (2) “What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is. And this requirement is only frustrated by the naïve hope that somehow you and your partner are magically the same.”

Besides these two arguments, there are three others.

First, the differences in the religions’ doctrines, rituals, mythologies, and laws “may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.” Just as do the religions’ gods.

Second, if we hold to the idea of religious tolerance, we are assuming essential differences among the religions, because there wouldn’t be a need to tolerate another religion if it were essentially like our own.

A third argument is that “the characters of these gods differ wildly.” One god (Yahweh, for example) may be personal while another (say, the Tao of Taoism) is impersonal. One may be male, another female. One might be a warrior, another mild-mannered.

And so on.