On an “Evangelical” Introduction to the New Testament

Thanks to Academia.edu, and and a standing search alert set for “New Testament Studies” on Google, I stumbled onto the following book review today:

Chris Stevens, Review of Hagner, Donald Alfred. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014) R19-R23. Article uploaded to Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/8490881/ Accessed 10/2/2014.

Reading over it, I found the review pretty bland and uninformative. The reviewer offers a number of observations about the form of the text, none of which sound particularly distinctive or interesting. What I did notice was that the reviewer praises the textbook as evangelical and conservative in orientation. Other than that, he basically says, “it’s an Introductory textbook to the New Testament.” That’s not actually a quote from the review. But you get the picture.

So, the review itself was a tosser. And furthermore, for me, the textbook under review was a non-starter. In my most recent trip through my introductory course (Spring 2014), I abandoned any use of any textbook, with mixed results. The reviewer and my readers will instantly recognize my own alignment within the field of Biblical studies when I say that formerly I used Bart Ehrman. I would use him again, too, if I ever returned to using an Introductory textbook. So you see, I’m not really shopping for a textbook, and in any case I would not normally consider this one.

Screenshot 2014-10-02 23.16.37

So, I should have just moved on, right? Yes.

Nevertheless the review got me asking a lot of questions, some of which are making me uncomfortable.

It starts with these ones: what elements exactly make a textbook offering an “Introduction to the New Testament” into an “evangelical” textbook? When a reviewer refers to the textbook as offering “conservative” positions on questions of New Testament scholarship, what positions exactly are entailed? What advantages or disadvantages of such an orientation and of such positions are assumed by the the reviewer?

What differential is being assumed within the review by using this category of classification of New Testament Introductions? How does the review itself construct alternatives? What does the reviewer assume about the elements and positions of a non-Evangelical textbook?

I do believe that a close reading of the review itself would let me answer a lot of these questions, or point out directions to take in answering them, but I can’t (or won’t) embark on such a critical reading of it at the moment, not only because I would first have to stop myself from listing the 100 other questions that keep running through my head, but because, as I write this, I start to wonder whether I should think more clearly about my own context, as the questioner of the reviewer.

I care about this review more than others might, probably, because I myself teach Introductory courses on Biblical literature to undergraduates. Also, I teach in an historically Baptist private liberal arts college, to students who are largely sociologically or self-described as “evangelical.” Like the textbook.

I think what troubles me about the review is that it speaks so plainly, without detail, and feels no need to justify or explain its own interest in an “evangelical” textbook, as opposed to some other unnamed kind. It troubles me as well that the reviewer doesn’t even take up the book’s own self-categorization, as “Historical and Theological,” or attempt to parse how that fits with his characterization of it as “evangelical.”

Moreover, the descriptor “evangelical” troubles me as a term applied to a textbook. The label “evangelical” is a limiter; it implies that certain questions about the subject have been already settled by a prior authority. An evangelical introduction is necessarily indoctrination. Imagine adding the term “evangelical” as a descriptor for any other introductory textbook used in other subjects at the college or university level: evangelical psychology, biology, chemistry, history, sociology, political science, English, business, etc. No self respecting parent would want to pay for a college education that promises to give their children an evangelical introduction to mathematics.

I should stop, but still, another more troubling question haunts me. Is this label “evangelical,” when applied to a typical Introduction to the New Testament, in fact superfluous? Is it possible that any course of study that focuses on introducing students to the ins and outs of the canonical writings of early Christians (“the New Testament”) ultimately represents what could fairly be called an “evangelical” position?

To wit: so many Introductory textbooks in New Testament study are mere surveys of the content of a canon. What purpose other than an “evangelical” one is there in introducing students to that particular body of literature?

In other words: is introduction to the New Testament an inherently theological topic, destined always for further refinement or limitation by descriptions of theological premises—as evangelical, catholic, orthodox, gnostic, heterodox, secular, atheist, etc.?

Can any “Introduction to the New Testament,” whether it is literary, historical, or theological, be justified on any other than some emic grounds? Are there etic grounds?

Can Introduction to the Early Christian Writings instead be done, for instance, as critical study of religion?

I’m not sure I can or I want to answer all these questions, and it disturbs me.

Vridar on the Ascension of Isaiah

This is just a quick note, mostly to myself, but also to you, dear readers, about my latest discovery. It turns out there exists a whole series of blog-posts relating to the Ascension of Isaiah at the blog Vridar, authored by Neil Godfrey, Roger Parvus, and perhaps a few others.

I haven’t read them as of yet, but I will soon.

While a number of different writers publish on the Vridar blog, the main “publisher” is apparently Neil Godfrey. According to the site’s “about” page, Godfrey is an Australian library scientist with a special interest in the study of Christian origins. His postings on that topic are mixed in among a variety of other randomly organized writings on a spectrum of interests.

The header of the blog "Vridar".

The header of the blog Vridar

A blogger after my own heart, to be sure!

Apparently Vridar gets associated—by its detractors? in spite of Godfrey’s protests to the contrary?—with the so-called “mythicist hypothesis” in Jesus-research, a school of thought called by some the Christ-myth-theory. This is the idea that “the Jesus of history” never existed. The view has a long pedigree, going back at least to Bruno Bauer in the mid-19th century.

I have no idea whether Vridar belongs to this scholarly camp or not, and no particular stake in the outcome of such disputes. I’m sure that Vridar has staked out some suitably nuanced position. A quick review of Godfrey’s bio and recent posts shows that he is a former Christian atheist who cares to examine and publicize so-called “secular” studies of Christian origins, and also that he is critical of theologians who do history. Naturally, this stance of his dooms his blog to being criticized by those who can’t get past the idea of secularists doing Biblical studies.

There is a relevant larger question about how we ought to theorize or describe the landscape of voices arguing over Christian Origins in the “blogosphere.” Insofar as it concerns the practices of “interpreters of the New Testament,” and “researchers on Christian origins,” such a question properly belongs to “religious studies.” If we ask what’s at stake among those squabbling about where Vridar should be positioned, relative to some “field,” we must begin a complex inquiry into the networks of actors and practitioners manufacturing their identities and affinities (as scholars, laypeople, experts, believers, non-believers, insiders, outsiders, members of schools and nations, etc.)—a tangled and diffuse web of contested discourses to be sure!

For the moment let’s not get caught up in all that. Right now I am just trying to get on with my (admittedly incohate) research on the Ascension of Isaiah. (“Full” disclosure: I not really ready to reveal, as of yet, why I care about this particular ancient book. But I will say something more on that soon.)

I will be interested to see what Godfrey and company make of the Ascension—by which I mean, to see what they do with it—and you can count on a follow-up here looking at their work.

VICE NEWS on the Islamic State

I urge friends and readers to spend 42 minutes watching the following video, published to YouTube by VICE NEWS about one month ago. A well done documentary focusing on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the video mainly depicts ISIL’s efforts to establish the city as the central capital of their new “Caliphate.”



Westerners and moderate, state-aligned Muslims decry ISIL as out of step with traditional Islam. Or even as “not Islamic.” (For more, see here.)

Certainly we should celebrate the ways that the majority of Muslims, worldwide, seem determined to fit into a world order rooted in a rule of international law and respect for human rights. We don’t desire to be pulled into the madness of a third world war between two artificially constructed facades. We must not permit our conflict with ISIL to become a war between an “Islamic East” and a “Secular (or Christian) West.”

But I still maintain that the United States’ current policy towards ISIL is based on a profound distortion of the facts. US officials are trying to win a rhetorical war in which “ISIL” is denigrated as a mere “terrorist organization.”

IS partisans are not just “terrorists.” This is painfully obvious to anyone with a modicum of sense, or with access to what VICE NEWS is doing in their reporting on ISIL.

As the above video clearly demonstrates, the term “terrorism” is completely inadequate as a descriptor of what ISIL is doing. “Terrorism” doesn’t explain a thing about their goals, tactics, or actions within and on the edges of their territory. Outwardly, they appear quite “serious” about imposing a totalitarian “Islamic” order within the areas they control.

The vision of ISIL is to create a thoroughly Islamic society, international in scope, spanning and eliminating current borders in the Levant and indeed around the world. They employ a wildly ambitious expansionist rhetoric, articulating desired fates for Turkey, Europe, Russia, and America.

Thanks to a video like this, a great number of better categories for thinking through what ISIL is doing suggest themselves. “Cult of personality.” “Sharia-based Totalitarianism.” “Anti-secular reactionism.” “Fundamentalist Islamic social organization.” “Ritualized identity formation practices.” “Potentially pre-genocidal social classification systems.” “Indoctrination of the youth.” “Military training.” “Reeducation camps.” Etc.

All of this calls for scholarship that is outside of my areas of competence. Who is up to it?

Right now we are saddled by a leadership, a cross-party political and military-industrial order, that is determined to drop billions of dollars worth of ordinance on the nascent “Islamic State,” while claiming falsely that we won’t invade and put boots on the ground. They justify our policy with oversimplified propaganda that magnifies fear while minimizing understanding.

For the moment it appears that we Americans will have no choices between different policies, in either the 2014 or 2016 elections. We will be at war for the next few years—at least into 2017. An invasion may follow. What could stop it?

In the meantime, let’s at least be clear about who we are bombing, and honest about what we think that will accomplish.

A boy waves the flag of IS in Raqqa, summer 2014 (VICE NEWS).

A boy waves the flag of IS in Raqqa, summer 2014 (VICE NEWS).

Armstrong on “The Myth of Religious Violence”


Karen Armstrong is famous for her popular writings on religion. However, in this week’s Guardian, her essay “The Myth of Religious Violence” makes a bloody mess of the subject.

In this political era where rhetoric about what is and is not properly called religious can determine where we will drop our bombs, it makes no sense to let this fail of the famous writer pass without comment.

Armstrong’s instincts seem laudable. Motivated by the nurturing impulses of the caretaker, peacemaker, and healer, she writes to defend religion in general, and Islam in particular, from charges that it is somehow “primitive” and “atavistic” (her words). Militant atheists point to religion as the root of all evil. They might argue that we can stop religiously inspired violence if we uphold western ideals of secularism, embracing political toleration of minorities along with the intellectual authority of science. In contrast, Armstrong wants to make a wider space in the intellectual landscape for those who embrace religion as a force for good in the world. She also wants to question the very existence of “religious violence,” as such, and to express serious doubts about the viability of “secularism” as a governing principle for human societies.

Her project thus belongs to a constructive and ecumenical liberal theology. Insofar as that is Armstrong’s goal, we can’t fault her for pursuing her aims as a caretaker of religion, and a critic of its secular enemies.

We can, however, criticize her for defending her thesis on the basis of muddy, incoherent concepts and bad history. We can fault her for deploying the language of historical and religious studies in a way that conveniently turns the notion of “the secular” on its head, while writing off reactionary violence that is usually interpreted as a manifestation of religion as somehow not really religious.

So let’s examine Armstrong’s argument. The following assumes you’ve read her piece (linked above).

The basic structure of the first movement of Armstrong’s appeal is this: you can’t separate religion from politics, so, in all the classic examples of religious violence (mainly the wars and crusades that have been fought over religion or in its name), it wasn’t really religion, but politics mixed with religion that is to blame. Therefore, “religious violence” is really a mythical beast.

Did you see what she did there? One hand deconstructs an allegedly false dichotomy, while the other reinstates it in order to exculpate its more important half.

In the second part of her argument, Armstrong contends that “secularism” (and the promotion of “secularization”) was never even possible to conceive before it was dreamt up by the (inherently flawed) political theorists of the (white, male, European) 18th century Enlightenment. By the end of the 18th century, she believes, at least in France, secularism itself had become “a religion;” its new gods were “liberty” and “nature”; the resulting “terror” of the French revolution is the poster child of Enlightenment secularism. Its apotheosis if you will. Ever since, Enlightenment secularism has been exported by these same western societies in their terrifying project of world-colonization, where it has everywhere been allied with intolerance, racism, and violence against those who resisted it. It has ignited and even cultivated a hostile counter-movement we call “fundamentalism.” The violence of fundamentalism is thus strictly a reaction against this European import, secularism. Of these two beasts, “fundamentalism” and “secularism,” fundamentalism is perhaps the less culpable. But they are at least equally problematic; there is moral equivalence between them in their violence. Secularism and Fundamentalism alike are, in some sense, both distinct from “religion,” or can both be described as false or anti-religions. And though secularism poses as liberal, like its flip side, fundamentalism, it lacks tolerance, is marred by a history of oppression, and is thus fundamentally illiberal.

On this account, because politics is the real cause of violence in “religious violence,” and because fundamentalist violence is not really religious, but is just an understandable reaction against the violence of secularism, there really no such thing as “religious violence.”

I leave it to those scholars who are involved in “secular studies” to sort out whether Armstrong is right to dismiss the idea of the secular as a modern invention (assuming such research survives what Jacques Berlinerblau has called “The Crisis in Secular Studies”). I will only pass along what Russell McCutcheon wrote this morning on Facebook, namely that Armstrong apparently assumes (along with many others) that “religion” is a part of the very nature and essence of human being, but “secularism” is a “recent invention foisted on the pious soul.” Instead, he suggests, perhaps religion and the secular arise through the “co-constitution of binary systems.”

Politics and Religion for Armstrong, Redux

I want to make one final point. In the first movement of her argument, as Armstrong is appealing to the notion that politics (a term which means for Armstrong both state power and worldly concerns) cannot be separated from religion (which appears to mean only abstract, spiritual practices or beliefs), she suggests the following:

Jesus’s famous maxim to ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to ‘give back’ to Caesar.

Can I be the only reader who finds this both puzzling and ironic? Of course she means for her example to undermine the ideal of modern secularism, by suggesting that it shows how inseparable politics and religion are, and that therefore secularism must be impossible or undesirable. (This is not a logical conclusion, but it is her point.) Yet consider the example: this point of evidence is an appeal to one of the most violent religiously inspired wars in the history of humanity.

When Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War (around AD 90), he did so ultimately in order to defend his own people, and their religion, from further Roman persecution, and from Roman charges that Judaism was a backwards, primitive, anti-social, potentially violent religion. Judaism, as Josephus portrays it, is instead a philosophical, respectable, and peaceable faith. The recent unpleasantness of the Jewish War with Rome could be blamed on fanatical zealots who actually rejected the reasonable religion of their heritage.

I guess the debate between the caretakers and the critics goes back millennia.

To side-step that debate, I would suggest that we stop essentializing concepts like “religion,” and “the secular,” and admit instead that religions and religious traditions (along with other ideological systems and political institutions) are streams of competing ideals that offer resources which can motivate and sustain human beings in all of the great varieties of their worldly strivings.

Unfortunately, that means, yes Virginia, there is such a thing as religious violence. But rest assured, there is also religious peacemaking.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The Tyranny of –isms

I dislike many things, among them, the tendency of some academics (particularly philosophers) to dismiss certain arguments or statements as examples of some “–ism” or other.

In this game, one “thinker” dismisses the statement of another with a phrase that includes an “–ism” word (or an “–ist” word), together with an explicit or implicit claim that this particular “-ism” (or “–ist” claim) has already been well described, and is today totally refuted. The critical refutation of said “–ism” is an already settled matter among those cool kids who are in the know. Don’t you know?

Not being in the know myself, and being the sort of person who in any case tends to see academic “knowledge of things” as a kind of rhetorically constructed set of power-relations among privileged disciplinarians, this kind of thing just really hacks me off.

In other words, people, when you quickly dismiss anyone’s arguments (but especially mine) because they depend on “naturalism,” “positivism,” “constructivism,” “reductionism,” “foundationalism,” “scientism,” “rationalism,” “materialism,” “psychologism,” “historicism,” “idealism,” “realism,” etc., then you get to go on my naughty list. Even if I like you well as a person. Even if I ultimately will agree with you.

I understand that what I am reacting against is a useful shorthand for philosophers. It must get so tiring to have to repeat the same old arguments against particular patterns of bad ideas, over and over again.

Too bad philosophers. You don’t get to mask or fold-away your arguments by special appeals to authority, tradition, and inside knowledge. Because the problem is, believe it or not, that “philosophy” has yet to unveil any system (or –ism) that can claim the status of “consensus view.”

Or is my claim there too rooted in positivist assumptions for you?

Religion, Public Policy, and War: The Case of ISIL

“To Degrade and Ultimately Destroy”

On September 10th, 2014, President of the United States Barack Obama announced to the nation and the world his intentions to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL. The group, also known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” (ISIS) prefers to call itself merely the “Islamic State.”

Obama’s remarks were designed to win support for this effort from both the American public and from Congress. In short, Obama is taking us to war. War, you may have noticed, is not very popular with the public. The public needs convincing. And so, early on in his statement, as a part of his rhetorical strategy Obama decided to assert that the so-called “Islamic State” was in fact, neither of those things. Instead, he wants us to understand, ISIL is a “terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

I have already posted this interesting quote in a prior blog entry. But it is worth reposting here in full, for the sake of analysis, and I will do so below.

First, however, let there be a few words about why examining Obama’s rhetoric more closely matters so much. Obviously, it matters how we think about, characterize, categorize, and understand the threats and problems that we face in this world. If you don’t know the difference between an electric fire and a grease fire, you won’t pick the right extinguisher; with potentially fatal consequences. If we don’t understand what ISIL really is (if we even can understand that), then we have little chance of responding to it in a productive fashion.

“No Religion Condones the Killing of Innocents”

Why don’t we take a closer look at the exact words of Obama’s statement? Here is what Obama said about ISIL on September 10th:

«ISIL … calls itself the “Islamic State.” Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.» — Barack Obama, 9/10/2014

If I may ask for the patience of my readers, I want to take up these words piece by piece and offer commentary.

ISIL is not “Islamic.”

A listener who is, like myself, professionally engaged in the study of religions, will probably find this statement problematic.  I think it should surprise every listener to hear our president utter this phrase. It immediately raises a number of questions.

Question #1: how can our president, an American Christian—pace all those who claim he is a crypto-Muslim—presume to identify who is or who is not “Islamic” in this world? What criteria is he using?

Answer: religious identity is a matter of self-affiliation and internal boundary setting within groups. Outsiders to a group do not get to say who or who does not “count” as a member.  Even if the president were a Muslim, he would not have the standing to pronounce so definitively on the question of what is or is not Islamic. But he is not.  He is a Christian leader of a state, speaking about a group that bills itself as “Islamic.”  It is a group whose adherents and participants are made up either entirely or nearly entirely of Muslims, people who grew up in this tradition and identity.

Presumably, Obama knows this, yet he still believes he can speak on behalf of some people—somewhere—who are themselves insiders to Islamic traditions, and who would yet deny the label “Islamic” to this group. (Tawfik Hamid and Qasim Rashid both come to mind.) Indeed, there are Muslims who would assert their right to make a normative statement about what is or is not properly Islamic. But the problem is, those of us who study religion know that the content and boundaries of all religious traditions are contested, socially constructed facts. Particular believers or organizations may claim to speak in totalitarian terms, and may appeal to the contents of their traditions and texts to support for their claims, and may even enjoy near universal support from other believers who accept their arguments. But that doesn’t make them “right” in some universal, God’s eye perspective. There will always be another perspective to argue with.  Sectarian Muslims may attempt to speak for all Islam.  Scholars at least should recognize the complexity of the socio-rhetorical situation.  But it becomes downright ridiculous when non-Muslim politicians enter into that space of contest over Islamic identity.  Obama’s words attempt to drag the mostly non-Muslim American electorate into the middle of an insider’s debate, concerning Muslims and Islamic scholars of various sectarian backgrounds who themselves face a complex and unresolved field of questions, claims and counter-claims.

Question #2: what is at stake in the identification of ISIL as Islamic or not? Why does it matter whether we name ISIL as an Islamic group?

Answer: political concerns—as opposed to historical, metaphysical or theological concerns—must have motivated Obama’s statement. Muslims make up an increasing, though small, percentage of American society and the American electorate. Also, Muslims of a wide variety of political viewpoints and allegiances make up a sizable percentage of the world’s population. When some Muslims abroad array themselves as enemies against the United States, then those Muslims who are here at home tend to face more discrimination, hate crimes and violence. Innocent, law abiding American citizens, loyal and patriotic, may be treated as internal enemies, much as Japanese (and German) Americans were treated during World War II. The current president, like president George Bush before him, is concerned about the potential backlash against American Muslims. Obama’s statement probably assumes that if ISIL is officially recognized as “Islamic,” then American Muslims may be in danger of being identified with the enemy. One must admit that such things happen, even if they shouldn’t.

Beyond the domestic sphere, Obama can also be worried about international relations and strategic problems. If ISIL is admitted to be an Islamic organization, then our potential allies in the fight against ISIL, many of whom are also “Islamic States,” may find their loyalties divided. That cannot be allowed to happen, and so Obama’s claim “makes sense.”  America must not be perceived as declaring war on “Islam.”

ISIL_and_the_KlanJust as it would be a mistake to claim that the Klan represents “no Christians,” since they represent themselves at least, and they consider themselves Christian, so it would be a mistake to claim that ISIL is “not Islamic.” Traditions are made by people in their lives, not defined by abstractions that appeal to their critics.

Maybe so.  But the result here is an absurd denial of the obvious and clear facts of history. This denial may be politically expedient, but it is based on a misrepresentation of ISIL and religion. And yet that hasn’t stopped other Americans of Christian heritage, people who should lack all standing in the debate, if such a debate is even possible, from agreeing with the president.

In order to secure political loyalties and the safety of citizens (both laudable goals in themselves), a rhetorical strategy has been chosen which tries to deny prima facie facts.  That strategy must ultimately fail. If we try to safeguard American Muslims and to keep the loyalty of Muslim allies by falsely claiming that there is one true way of being “Islamic,” then we are trying to play the same game that ISIL is playing (more on this, below). We are claiming that Islam is “one thing,” and that ISIL isn’t in the category. But Islam isn’t “one thing.” In fact, there are multiple (if not endless) ways to be Islamic (Shi’ite, Sunni, Sufi, Amadiyya, Yazidi, Alawite, liberal, moderate, conservative, etc.). And so, as long as we claim otherwise, we are setting up the very problem we are trying to fix. If we claim otherwise, if we say Islam is one thing, then all Muslims are the same, here and elsewhere.  We undermine our own argument, which depends on the diversity of Islamic viewpoints.  If Islam is one thing, then all American Muslims are that one thing. It’s manifestly untrue, and potentially dangerous to think this way.

The religious tradition of Islam is very complex. The real solution to our difficulties in the world lies in dealing with complexity. Deal with complexity! Don’t try to paper over it.

No religion condones the killing of innocents.

Obama’s next words, a blanket statement about “religions” in general, also raise questions. These are questions about definitions, history, and values. It also raises questions about our self-awareness and ability to think through the consequences of our foreign policies.

Question #1: What is a religion, anyway?

Answer: Obama’s phrase “no religion” implies the existence of more than one religion in the world. And because this world does contain and has contained more than one cultural institution that has been called “a religion,” this particular implication seems uncontroversial. There are religions. But what phenomena are to be included in the term? If you spend some time thinking about it, it is far from obvious what we mean by the term. Famously, in this era where “religious studies” (meaning “the study of religion”) is considered an academic discipline in its own right, scholars usually employ provisional or heuristic definitions of the term, suitable to the examination of whatever particular historical or social phenomena are being construed as religious. My own preference is, in most cases, to follow the definition proposed by M. E. Spiro, in his 1957 essay, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation” (see Yinger 1957): a religion is “an institution of culturally patterned interactions with culturally postulated super-human beings.” According to this definition, religion is a cultural phenomenon, focused on ritualized ways of behaving (“culturally patterned interactions”) towards “superhuman” entities, the existence of which is “postulated” by culture. A religion doesn’t have to be true or right, metaphysically speaking, to be real, historically speaking. It only has to be an institution with a grounding in culture, that follows certain patterns of “interaction” with (possibly imaginary) superior beings.

Question #2: What does it mean to claim that a “religion” may “condone” something?

Answer: not much. A “religion” is not a being that condones one thing or another. It is not an agent. It is an institution within culture, and as an institution it is made up of individuals, many of whom commend, condemn, condone or forbid a wide variety of actions. It has texts, traditions, etc., all of which are manifestations of individuals who have embraced the institutional identity offered by “membership,” that is, by belonging to the institution. Now, certain religions may have ethical codes and normative rules that are shared so broadly by adherents that we can speak, using a figure of speech known as metonymy, of “the religion” as promoting or condoning certain things. But strictly speaking, it’s not the religion that “does” anything, but the people who make up its ranks. They condone or forbid things, and by participating in the culturally patterned institution that they themselves create, they transmit or reproduce (forensically) the “code” of the religion to other adherents.

Question #3: is it really true that no religion condones the killing of innocents? At first blush, that sounds reasonable; but a moment’s reflection will reveal that this resembles a concrete claim about historical institutions, and it requires verification.

Answer: of course this statement is not true. There have been many religions that “condone the killing of innocents.” It’s all about context, definitions, and the purposes that are served by those “culturally patterned interactions” that all religious adherents employ. Arguably, the claim is falsified by the widespread existence of animal sacrifice, which was nearly universal among religions of the world until about 1500 years ago, and is still practiced in places today. But if you reject the notion that the sacrifice of innocent animals constitutes “the killing of innocents” condoned by adherents to a religion, there are nevertheless plenty of examples of religious killing of innocent human persons (virgins, children, etc.), both in ritual sacrifices and in war. In case you cannot simply accept my word for it—I would list as many as I could but the list would be too long—let it only be said that the prophets of ancient Israel repeatedly excoriated their fellow Israelites because they knew that some of them were sacrificing their own children to the Canaanite deity Molech (see Lev 18:21, and many other locations). Let it be added that the lawgivers of Israel passed along the commands of the Israelite God to kill all inhabitants of certain “banned” cities, including women and children—these were the rules holy war (see Deut 20:15-16; and compare Josh 8:24-29). In later centuries, after they experienced a humiliating defeat by the Babylonians, at least some Israelites of the exile intoned a solemn rebuke to their conquerors: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). In this instance, the religion isn’t so much condoning as celebrating; but of course, as I pointed out above, it’s not the religion that condones, but rather, the historical people who make up the religion. The bottom line is that yes, Virginia, some “religions” have condoned things that Obama himself would never condone. Right? There may be no doubt that ISIL has killed “innocents;” we have seen at least three videos of western journalists being beheaded, and heard of the killings of non-Muslim refugee populations, etc. But the fact that these things have been done does not mean that the people who have done them are not “Islamic” or “religious.”

Question #4: what does Obama really mean by this phrase? If the claim is so easily falsifiable, historically, then surely Obama must mean to be making something other than a historical claim here. What exactly is he saying?

Answer: Obama seems to be making a sort of philosophical, metaphysical or ethical claim about the nature of religion, or rather, the ideal of religion. There is a notion, going back several centuries in the west (at least to Schleiermacher’s On Religion in 1799), that the term “religion” should be used to refer not to cultural institutions, but to the interior, emotional, rational or spiritual, always ethical piety of idealized individuals. In that case, saying “no religion condones” killing innocent people is actually like saying, “no mature ethical philosophy acceptable to a contemporary sophisticated person would condone killing innocent people.” And surely, that is true.  Unless you think that drone strikes are usually acceptable within a contemporary and progressive ethical framework.

It is a slight of hand to use such an argument to imply that, because they have killed those we think are innocent, there’s nothing “religious” about ISIL. It’s far too limited of a definition of what counts as religious, or as Islamic.

And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.

Question #1: What difference does it make that ISIL’s victims have been Muslim?

Answer: none. While apparently true, this statement seems to be irrelevant. How can this be a decisive test, relevant to the question of whether some organization belongs to a particular religious tradition? This is a smokescreen. Besides, it overlooks the question of how ISIL would interpret its own actions. If experience is any guide, while we see that the members of some Islamic groups would teach that Muslim should not kill Muslim, we also see that for some Muslims, it is believed that those who admit or condone certain forbidden doctrines or practices are not really Muslim, and so can be killed. Besides, in the real world, where we can see and must admit a complexity to Islam, we see that Sunnis and Shi’ites have been fighting each other, killing other “Muslims” (even though neither side wants to dignify the other side completely by admitting that they are, in fact, “Muslims”) for centuries. We, coming from the outside, have absolutely no reason to call into question either group’s self-reported identity as “Islamic.” But our categories may not be their categories.  When we say that ISIL are “not Islamic,” we are just playing a different version of the same game as is played by the militants who justify killing their co-religionists, using othering discourse that is basically just the rhetorical application of the so-called “narcissism of small differences.”

Question #2: so what does Obama mean by this?

Answer: he means to appeal to potential allies who are Muslim, by appealing rhetorically to a well known ethic that is in fact espoused by many Muslims, because it is in fact rooted in some passages of the Qu’ran and Hadith, to the effect that that no “true” Muslim would kill another “true” Muslim. This statement is again Obama trying to speak to the Muslim world as an insider. Never mind that he has no business doing so, and holds no prayer of speaking with authority on this or any other point of Islamic doctrine. But he is trying. And failing. As I began to argue above, no “religion” has a stable central essence. No one, not a Muslim, not a non-Muslim, can just open the Qu’ran and make a pronouncement about what all Muslims do believe; they can make statements about what all Muslims ought to believe, but these statements are argumentative and enter into the contested space of Muslim identity.  Indeed, all beliefs are socially contested and constructed; they are arrived at in practice, through historical forces, through the “culturally patterned interaction” that is the constant give and take of argument rooted in interpretation of tradition. The Jewish and Christian bible includes a commandment, “do not kill;” this is usually interpreted in a limited fashion, as forbidding murder. Many believers do not think it applies to situations of warfare or self-defense. Do you? Did the Rabbis? Did Jesus? This is a matter of debate for Jews and Christians, not a question that can be settled by appealing to a “once and for all” essentialized notion of Judaism or Christianity.

The fact that ISIL has done what it has done, while calling itself “Islamic,” only shows that they feel justified, and I have no doubt that they would reject any arguments that they should not slay their opponents who happen to be, nominally, fellow Muslims.  Yes, this means that even atrocities can be justified within logic that is “religious.”

And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.

Because this post is primarily interested in the study-of-religion questions raised by Obama’s comments, I will pass swiftly over his argument that ISIL, besides being “not Islamic,” is also “not a state.” As a lawyer, as a scholar of constitutional law, and as the head of a government, I suppose, Obama actually is in a position to make a pronouncement about what “a state” is or is not. Never mind, though, that the name “ISIL” is clearly meant to signify the aspirations and vision of the group, rather than the actuality of it. “The Levant” is an area much larger than is currently controlled by ISIL. Their name signifies their intention and their goals, i.e. “(we want to establish an) Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” To legalistically claim that ISIL isn’t a state because other governments haven’t recognized them, or that, allegedly, those over whom they rule do not welcome them, is, at best, petty. Can heads of states that do not recognize the state of Israel claim that Israel is not a state? (They can.  But this just shows that the concept of “State” is just another locus of socially constructed and contested identity.)

Another viewpoint would argue that a state is a state by virtue of its exercise of power: political power and military power. By that measure, ISIL is a state, and will be one until they are degraded to the point of destruction.

So, Obama’s statement actually speaks to the question of whether ISIL can be called a legitimate state. But once again, this is a matter of perspective, and of pragmatic experience.  From our perspective, no, they are not. But such appeals to standards of legitimacy are bound to fail; the standards are, at best, conventions of a world order that, in any case, ISIL decisively rejects. So what difference does it make for Obama to assert this? Can he really think that Americans, or potential allies in the Arab and Islamic world, would refuse to do battle against ISIL if we happened to think that they were really “a state”? It seems unlikely.  But now that I think about it, perhaps that is so. Because, if it did turn out that, contrary to Obama’s contention, ISIL really was “a state,” then perhaps they would be deserving of that privilege which we usually tend to extend to states: security within their borders, respect for their sovereignty.  It seems to me that this is not really an issue when it comes to ISIL, since, if they can be called a state, they have shown themselves to be an aggressive and invasive sort of imperialistic state, and as such, it seems that we could easily come up with arguments for stopping their advance.

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

Question #1: is it really true that ISIL has “no vision other than… slaughter”?

Answer: clearly, this is hyperbole. It is simply not true, and is easily falsified. See below for details, but the bottom line is that even a modicum of investigation into the ideals and vision of the adherents and partisans fighting for ISIL can prove that they live for more than slaughter. In a word, the aspirations of ISIL are to reestablish an Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic State, governed by Islamic laws, for Islamic citizens. That is their vision. American, British, and European enemies of ISIL may reject this vision for “Iraq and the Levant,” may argue that such a Caliphate would disrupt the security of the world, or violate the rights of minorities within its borders, or oppress its citizens, or in other ways be VERY VERY BAD. But our argument against the idea of a new Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, even if we are right, doesn’t make it true that ISIL has no vision other than slaughter.

What is this, a comic book? Our nation is poised to put young people in harm’s way and the commander in chief is claiming that our enemy “has no vision other than… slaughter”? It is laughable.

Question #2: why did Obama call ISIL a “terrorist organization, pure and simple”?

Answer: because we have already embraced a “war on terror.” If ISIL can reliably be called “not Islamic,” then going to war against ISIL will, thank Allah, not be a war against Islamic people. Instead, if they are a “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” then we are already, in fact, at war with them, because we are in a “war on terror.” If we really are in a “war on terror,” then this statement about ISIL makes it clear that we are already, in fact, at war with ISIL, not because they are (allegedly) “Islamic,” but because they are “terrorists.” The addition of the phrase “pure and simple” makes it sound as though this “terrorist organization” may in fact be easy to eradicate. They are without ideology, possessing only a vision of slaughter. Since nothing sustains their hatred except hatred, the only action we need to take is to destroy the haters.  The claim is made not so much to convince us to go to war with ISIL—though it tries to do that—but to convince us that this is a war we can win. The phrase “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” implies that their appeal and membership is necessarily limited, and relatively “simple” to destory.  ISIL has no reason for existing other than to do their nasty terrorism, and so all we have to do is take out the terrorists who staff and organize the “terrorist organization,” and the threat will be gone, with no residue. Pure and simple.  Most people are religious.  But most people are not terrorists.  The phrase is meant to suggest that ISIL enjoys only the limited appeal of those groups who just would like to do some terrorism for its own sake.

This is, of course, a complete fabrication. This enemy is not pure and simple anything. If we examine any actual evidence for what actual adherents of ISIL or residents in their territory think ISIL is up to (evidence such as video footage, on which, see below), that evidence will expose as a fabrication this notion that ISIL is “pure and simple” anything.

If we must generalize, let us hypothesize that most of the membership of ISIL believe they are warriors engaged in Jihad on behalf of Islam; they recruit, train, and deploy troops who are not motivated by a vision of slaughter or the practice of terror, per se.  Those kinds of activities do have a certain appeal, to be sure, especially to certain people who harbor resentment or desire revenge on perceived enemies. But slaughter and terror are just tactics in service of a goal; it is the goal, the vision, the image of a final victory, that attracts adherents to the institution. The partisans of ISIL are motivated by a particular vision of how a state version of Islam could be instituted in the ancient homeland of Islamic culture.

“So that All Religion is For Allah, and that his Sharia is in his Land”

So, how can we investigate, for ourselves, what people associated with ISIL really think they are doing? To me it seems important to take their views into account, and not to listen only to their critics, whose first step is to deny that they are Islamic, and who go on to deny their significance or power, and who finally wish only to “degrade and ultimately destroy them” as enemies.

Let’s listen, however briefly, directly to someone who can plausibly represent at least some of the views of those people associated with ISIL.  That seems fair, does it not? It also seems an important step to take, if we are to understand what we are actually up against, and plan accordingly with suitable realism.

One way to do this is to try to find media reports in which the voices of “ISIL” come through. Considering how long this post has already grown, I will make no attempt to undertake such an investigation in depth.

Rather, in the remainder of this post I will rely only on a brief analysis of two short videos discovered through YouTube.

A word of caution is in order. It is impossible for me, working alone, to “verify” what is real, and what is fabrication, in these videos. And so, rather than claiming that these represent “the truth” about ISIL and its adherents, I would prefer to argue only that, when compared with Obama’s simplistic propaganda about America’s newest enemy, these videos provide some limited evidence that at least some of the people who are propping up ISIL (or attempting to construct an image for it) have deeply religious motives that go far beyond his claim that they know only a “vision of … slaughter.”

The two videos embedded below were both (apparently) posted to YouTube by a Syrian opposition figure who is aligned against both Assad and ISIL. Assuming this self-representation is accurate, then, obviously, it is a difficult time in the life of “Eretz Zen.” He (I assume it is a single man, and not actually a media group, or network, although I could be wrong) is far from a neutral observer. According to Eretz Zen, two of the videos he has posted feature a man whom he alleges to be a Saudi Arabian propagandist working for ISIL. Eretz Zen has posted many videos relating to the civil war and rise of ISIL in Syria.  Both of these videos feature interviews with people in places (one is allegedly in Aleppo) that were under ISIL control in late 2013.  These two videos were posted between 10 and 11 months ago as of this writing, well before the current crisis.

By embedding these videos and discussing them, I am not claiming that the voices that are represented in them stand for “all ISIL” (let alone “all of Islam”) but only that they are what they are. Are they propaganda? Of course. Can they be used to reflect on the possible motives of people involved in ISIL? I would argue, yes. But decide for yourself.

In the above video, listen to the words of the first man interviewed, who is represented as a Tunisian 47 year old who has come to the city of Aleppo, in late 2013, to add his support to the creation of ISIL. In response to a question about what brought him to “al Sham” (the Levant) Abdul Rahman says the following:

What brought me here is ‘there is no God but Allah’ … ‘Mohammad is the messenger of Allah’ {N.B. this is the standard Muslim “confession” of faith} so that all religion is for Allah and his Sharia {Islamic law} is in his land.

The man claims that his motives are entirely rooted in his religious devotion, his Islamic convictions and identity. He claims that his support for ISIL is based on his belief, we suppose, that they can and will impose Sharia law in “al Sham.”

In response to the question about his advice for the young men who have not joined in the fight for ISIL, he states:

they should come to the Levant because the master of creation has spoken of it, and that they should help their brethren who have already beaten them to jihad.

Clearly, this man’s words are saturated with religion, with culturally patterned interaction with a culturally postulated superhuman being. Not to mention with socially constructed roles and relations among people. If this old man can come do jihad, why not you, lazy young man back home? The aim of the “Saudi propagandist” seems to be to spread this message, this song of recruitment, in an effort to draw more fighters to ISIL. The recruitment pitch is 100% rooted in (a particular expression of) Islam.

In fact, the propagandist, leading the man on, urges him to go further in this social construction of roles within a culturally patterned system of interactions: he conjures up the figure of the “evil scholar” (very familiar to us in the west, as the “liberal professor”) and asks Abdul Rahman to to comment. He suggests they need to see for themselves what is happening in the Levant, and get out from under their air conditioners! In “al Sham” there are Muslims who need to be defended, he suggests. This is the appeal of the Jihad. His home country he says, responding to another question, “is a land of tyranny and infidelity, ruled by democracy and secularism.” The appeal of ISIL is that the “Islamic State” will be a true Muslim homeland. That is his vision. ISIL speaks to his aspirations to live in a land where Islam is the first and last principle.

A terrorist organization, pure and simple? I don’t think so. There is a deep, centuries old ideological fountain that feeds this stream.

In this next video, which is filled with material rich for this same line of reasoning, I will quote only the young man featured at the beginning of the video. Styled a “Syrian Wahhabist” by Eretz Zen, the man articulates a vision for ISIL in words that seem suffused with a passionate religious feeling:

May Allah bless the Muhjahideen who came from far away lands. We should not specify… from Islamic countries… Whether it’s Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Iraq… we are brothers in Allah! We all love each other in Allah. We will eliminate these borders. We will become one, with Allah’s permission.

Such rhetoric of unity, brotherhood, and love, “in Allah,” will be familiar to those of us who study Christian Evangelicals—who promote unity “in Christ”—though the words may be unexpected when coming from someone we think is a terrorist whose only supposed vision is one of slaughter.

The video goes on and on, of course. I leave aside detailed discussion of the rest of the views expressed, and leave aside further textual or contextual criticism of this “representative” evidence.  The very existence of these propagandistic utterances out there in “cyberspace” falsifies the simplistic rhetoric of Obama regarding ISIL.

“How to Win a Cosmic War”

Obama, who came to office opposed to the “Iraq War,” is now poised to involve the US military in a fresh wave of conflict in the region. Formerly eager to end our involvement there, he now proposes to “degrade and ultimately destroy” a “terrorist organization” by involving us in a fresh wave of warfare.  If ISIL really is just an “organization” of “terrorists,” then we can also keep our strategy “pure and simple”: take out the bad guys with evil motives, and the conflict will be over.  But it’s not that simple, and the enemies we make in this fight will not just go home, chastened and wiser, when we get to the end of our struggle.


We’ve been here before, and we’ve seen what happens when leaders underestimate the complexity of the theater of conflict (see meme at right, which I captured from Facebook last week).

It’s important to respond to challenges with our eyes wide open, using the best available models for understanding the human (and natural) world that we have at our disposal. What I have argued here is that, based on a close reading of his statements about who and what ISIL is, Obama is either leading us into war with his eyes closed, or is trying deliberately to misrepresent the facts so that we will not object that his proposed war is unwinnable.  Not believing Obama to be stupid, I suggest he is deliberately misleading, hoping to conceal the true difficulties that lie ahead.

We the public deserve better.  Whether we support his plans for war or not, we ought to think as clearly as we can about what we are doing, to whom, and why.

Reza Aslan has argued, in his book How to Win a Cosmic War, aka “Beyond Fundamentalism”, that we cannot win in a struggle with religious extremists if we engage them at the level of their cosmic religious rhetoric.  We must not enter this war in the hope that our struggle will help the “true Muslims” defeat the “false Muslims.”  That puts us into the midst of a sectarian struggle to which we are in fact outsiders.

If we fail to recognize the forces that are assembling our enemies, motivating them, and sustaining them in the fight, we cannot win.  We also cannot win if we duplicate their ideological mistakes, in our own idiom.  Let us not choose the wrong weapons, the wrong battlefields, and the wrong devices.

ISIL isn’t some hornet’s nest of pure and simple haters that can be fixed by finding it, pouring on gasoline, and lighting a match.  This is a complex social manifestation of a powerful ideology, a force of human culture, transmitted from mind to mind in forms and images and articulated among individuals in the language of hopes, dreams and aspirations.


The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on ISIL” (9/10/2014) http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation

Yinger, J. Milton, ed. Religion, Society, and the Individual: an Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. New York: MacMillan, 1957. Contains the famous essay by M. E. Spiro, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.”

Obama on ISIL: Not Islamic, Not Religious, Not a State

Who Put the IS in ISIL?

«ISIL … calls itself the “Islamic State.” Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.»

— Barack Obama, 9/10/2014

Obama’s words need to be taken apart and examined. I’ll do that later. For now, I post this quote for the simple purpose of highlighting the absurdity of this public statement. It’s a funny joke to say that the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither holy nor roman nor empire. But it’s neither as funny nor as accurate to debate the IS in ISIL.


The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on ISIL” (9/10/2014) http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation

The New York Times on YouTube, “Obama ISIS Speech [FULL] Today on 9/10/2014: ‘Ultimately Destroy’ Militants | The New York Times” (9/10/2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spIWGoNZnaU

UPDATE: 9/19/2014

I did write a more extended critical examination of the above quote, “Religion, Public Policy, and War: The Case of ISIL”.

When Encyclopedias Fail: “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in RPP

Critic of Wikipedia? Get over it. When Wikipedia is wrong, you can fix it. When a venerable print encyclopedia, such as Religion Past and Present (RPP), is wrong, it’s just a shame, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This short post can be classified as a critical notice, or a rant. Maybe both. Read on for details.

Today, while doing my DD (“due diligence”) in preparation for more advanced writing on the Ascension of Isaiah, I decided to look up the entry on the work in the well respected German encyclopedia Religion Past and Present (or RPP, in English translation; in German it is known as Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart or RGG).

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Here’s the bibliography for the entry I am dealing with here:

Irina Wandrey, “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in Religion Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2007) Vol. 1, page 428.

I regret to state that this is a singularly bad article. I might even have wanted to tear it out of the volume, it is that bad, but I’m using a library book. You have to take care of such things.

What is wrong with Wandrey’s piece? Let me list only four problems with this short article. That is enough.

1) Bibliography. The article lists only two sources. Now, both of them are monographs from the well respected series “Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit,” which one might think, ought to suffice. But are Hammershaimb’s 1973 short monograph, Das Martyrium Jesajas and Lehnardt’s 1999 general Bibliographie zu den jüdischen Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit adequate sources for grounding an encyclopedic introduction to the “Ascension of Isaiah”?

Comment: No, they are not adequate. The omissions from this bibliography are significant. Neither of the works cited represents a current approach to the text or context of the Ascension of Isaiah. Both of these sources—appropriately, given their publication context—focus on the Jewish elements in this text. However, it is well known that the Ascension as we have it has been thoroughly worked over by a Christian redactor; thus, in today’s scholarship, whether you cite the English, French, or Italian, you will find it increasingly common for scholars to treat the work as a Christian unity. Some scholarship reflecting that position should have been cited. At a minimum Norelli’s Commentarius (1995), which makes just this argument, should appear in the bibliography. (It is, however, quite unfortunately, in Italian.) The CCSA critical edition of the text, of which Norelli is one of the editors (1995), should also appear. Another important monograph that is more recent than Hammershaimb is by Ascerbi (1987; also Italian). A 1983 edited volume of papers on the Ascension (also, dagnabit, in Italian!) is another important source: Isaia, il diletto e la chiesa. Also published in the 1990’s are some foundational articles by Robert G. Hall (1990 and 1994, both in Journal of Biblical Literature) and by Darrell D. Hannah (1999, in Vigiliae Christianae). Finally, two English volumes by Jonathan Knight, published in 1995 and 1996 by Sheffield, ought to be considered as basic introductory works. The various approaches to the text articulated in this scholarship should have been sketched out.

2) Concerning the structure and origins of the work. Wandrey writes, uncontroversially, about the “two distinct parts” to the Ascension: chapters 1-5, called the “Martyrdom of Isaiah,” and long considered by many to be Jewish in origin—though of course it has “a Christian insertion” at 3:13–4:22—and chapters 6-11, called the Vision of Isaiah, considered by some to be later (but by Norelli to be earlier), and Christian in origin. However, Wandrey’s account of the origins of these documents has been skewed, apparently by Hammershaimb. Of the first part, chs. 1-5, she writes: “The Martyrdom of Isaiah was very likely written in Hebrew in Palestine,” adding that it is “a Jewish martyr legend dating back to the religious persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.”

Comment: although many people share the opinion that the Martyrdom of Isaiah is originally Jewish and the vision is originally Christian, not all scholars, and perhaps not even the majority of scholars share these views. At a minimum, the early history of debate on the composition of the text (from Lawrence, 1819, to Dillmann, 1877 to Charles, 1900) could have been flagged, and arguments relating to its probable dating could have been mentioned and evaluated. More troubling than this omission, however, is Wandrey’s overconfident assertion about the origins of the Martyrdom text. It is certainly not widely agreed that the Martyrdom, in any form remotely as we have it today, ever existed as a Hebrew text in Palestine in the second century BCE. That is pure wishful thinking. We have, rather, only second century CE evidence from Rabbinics and Patristics that both Jews and Christians knew of the bare minimum facts of the martyrdom of Isaiah. There are no testimonies to the text prior to the second century CE. Dillmann’s discussion (1877) of the external testimonies remains foundational. There is absolutely no textual evidence that would support the claim that the original language of our text was Hebrew, and it is a tendentious, wishful argument that sees a Seleucid context for its origin.

3) Concerning the language of transmission and extant versions. There is a serious error of fact in this encyclopedia article. It needs explanation, and the more I think about it, the more I think it may have been some kind of awful mistake that crept in during the translation of RPP from RGG. Wandrey writes: “A complete version of the Vision of Isaiah is only available in Egyptian translation… additionally, some Greek and Latin fragments exist, and the Vision also exists in another version (Latin and Old Slavonic).”

Comment: where to start with this? First, what does Wandrey mean by “Vision of Isaiah” here? Does she refer to 6-11 only, or to the whole? From the content of what follows, it looks as though she has, inconsistently, applied the term “Vision” to the whole work (quite in defiance of the article title). That’s a problem in itself. But however that question is answered, the truth of the matter is that the none of the so-called “Ascension of Isaiah” is preserved “in Egyptian translation.” Rather, the text as a whole (chapters 1-11) is preserved only in Ethiopic—and to be clear, this language is not in any sense “Egyptian” and should never be confused with Egyptian by anyone who has done even minimal philological research. Perhaps this is merely an error in translation; maybe Wandrey wrote, in German, “Äthiopisch” and the translator simply made an error. After all, German for Egyptian is “Ägyptish.” I guess they have the same first and same last three letters? I really don’t know how this basic error could have taken place. But in any case, between the ambiguous name that is used for the text here, and the erroneous statement about the transmitted language, and the confusing statement about the versions (“some Greek and Latin fragments” and “another version” in Old Slavonic), Wandrey has made a muddle of this portion of the article. It’s utterly useless for a novice student of the text. Wandrey may have spent little or no time examining the philology of the work (remember, she cites neither Charles nor the CCSA). Certainly she doesn’t treat the philology of the text as an important issue. So, we have here a fatal combination of ambiguity, error, and neglect of philology. Whether all this happened somehow inadvertently (through poor planning, editing, and translation) or because of ignorance, ultimately, the problem is inexcusable in a printed encyclopedia.

4) The summary and content of the text. There is nothing strongly to object to in Wandrey’s summaries of the text contents, except to state that summaries of content in Encyclopedia articles are tiresome, and that the generalities Wandrey highlights do not really serve the readers of this entry. Although Wandrey offers a few general statements—e.g. “interesting from a theological point of view are the demonology in the Martyrdom and, in the Vision of Isaiah, the probable influence of Gnosticism shown in the report of the heavenly journey (6:1–10:6)”—and presents a few cross references to early Christian parallels to significant themes in the text, she doesn’t have much to say about the scholarly inquiries that have examined these issues or what they have concluded.

Comments: About these phrases, “theological point of view” and “probable influence of Gnosticism”—what can we make of them? Flusser’s article on the Dead Sea Sect and the Ascension of Isaiah (1953), even if it was a demonstrable failure at establishing its main point, contains a rich discussion of the demonological terms used in the text; yet it is hardly a “theological” point of view explored by Flusser. I suppose it depends on what you mean by Theological. Hannah’s article, mentioned above (on the alleged docetism of the text) would be one place to look for discussion of “gnostic” influences, and Knight’s work (along with a number of other short treatises including some dissertation sections) have attended to the theology of the text. Basically most contemporary scholars would say that this text is more likely to reflect Hellenistic Jewish cosmological ideas than any form of developed “gnosticism.” If anything, the direction of influence probably runs the other way; certainly the early heresiologists reported the later use of the Ascension by gnostics.

All things considered, the good old Dictionary of Christian Biography article on the “Ascension of Isaiah,” contributed by G. T. Stokes way back in 1882, offers a much better introduction to the text and the problems of its interpretation: see for yourself!.

Can it really be true that in the 125 year span between Stokes (1882) and the English translation of Wandrey (2007), we have hardly “advanced” in our understanding of the Ascension of Isaiah, and have maybe even regressed in the sophistication of our approach to the text? Thankfully, it is not true. There has been a great deal of work done—though too much of it has been done by Italians, for my taste (relax, only kidding!)—unfortunately, you would never know that from reading this entry in the RPP.

Students and novices, try Wikipedia instead!

When an encyclopedia article goes bad, who is to blame? The author? The translator? The editors? Surely, since the finished, translated form of the article appears to get at least one very basic fact about the text completely wrong, it is the editors of RPP — with all due respect to these eminent scholars, some being mentors and teachers of mine as well — who deserve the lion’s share of the blame here.

Wish List: Ascensio Isaiae

Scholars such as myself, who operate in the bush leagues, in universities where library funds are spent on items students will actually use, are probably just SOL when it comes to certain prohibitively expensive books.

Take for example, volumes in the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum, which present contemporary, authoritative critical texts of the Christian apocrypha. If I want to study the Ascensio Isaiae and write about it with any authority, I require access to the two-volume CCSA edition of the text and commentary on it. But my library doesn’t have these books, and neither I nor anyone I know owns them.

So, what to do about it?

I might be able to acquire the volumes temporarily via ILL, but won’t have them for long enough to do all the work I might do.

Or I suppose I can visit a research library that holds them, and consult them there, but then the same problem obtains. Soon enough you have to make that four hour drive back home. These books are designed to be reference works used on an instance by instance basis.

(I shouldn’t even mention the complication that the scholarly contributions to this edition and commentary—excluding the Ethiopic, Coptic, Greek, Latin, and Slavonic texts—are in Italian.)

What I can’t do is justify spending my own money on such books; that might amount to choosing arcane research over feeding and clothing my family. I’m a scholar, but I’m not crazy.

On ABE Books, the two volumes cost about $370, before taxes, shipping, etc.!

Perhaps it makes things better (or worse, depending on your point of view) to observe that the apparent function of advanced critical editions (especially in the CCSA) is not so much to enable scholarship, but to complicate it, control it, and limit it. They didn’t make these books to make anyone’s job any easier. The best hope for any producer of a new critical text edition and commentary is that they have published something that becomes an “indispensible tool” for future research (here I borrow the words of A. Hilhorst, regarding this volume, from his review in Vigiliae Christianae 54:1 [2000] 111-114).

Being indispensible is good, if you can manage it. It guarantees that your labors will not be in vain, even if, as Hilhorst rightly complains, “the price of the volumes… will force the average scholar, like the merchant of pearls in the Gospel, to sell everything he owns in order to buy them” (Hilhorst, 2000: 114).

If you’re curious (or for some reason want to buy these books for me), check out the following:

Bettiolo, Kossova, Leonardi, Norelli, Peronne, eds., Ascensio Isaiae: Textus (Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum 7). Turnhout, 1995. 444 p. ABE Books price: $162.30 Ascensio Isaiae: Textus.

Enrico Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae. Commentarius (Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum 8). Turnhout, 1995. 722 p. ABE Price: $202.21
Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius.

Harvard Crimson Jumps the Shark

Socrates wept.

Harvard senior Sandra Y.L. Corn advocates, this week in the Harvard Crimson, that professors and students should stop “obsessing” about “academic freedom,” and instead adopt a standard of “academic justice,” in areas of controversy. “Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice,” the headline reads. Thus has Crimson editorial board jumped the shark.

Now, ostensibly, this editorial has to do with an important contemporary issue: the ASA boycott of Israeli academics, and Harvard University’s official rejection of it. But Corn quickly escalates her claims.

When examined closely, her argument appears ludicrous. I might even call it irresponsible. Starting with a long anecdote from Harvard in the 1970’s, it then turns briefly to the boycott—scolding the lack of activist furor in today’s Harvard, before lowering the boom on freedom. She first tells a story about a professor at Harvard who once wrongly believed that intelligence is linked to race. This malefactor was defended in the name of “academic freedom”—can you believe that? And now today, those right wing ideologues who oppose the boycott of Israeli academics also appeal to “academic freedom”—which situation cannot be right. Freedom is the problem. Freedom has to go. It all boils down to this: we should forever subordinate “freedom” to “justice,” because academics have sometimes supported injustice, and because everyone knows that justice is more important than freedom.

I believe that’s a relatively fair characterization of her piece, but, I suppose, you’d have to be free to inquire into it yourself to know for sure.

Yes, justice is a (or maybe the) most desirable of ultimate goals and values. But apart from a dialectical inquiry, how can there be any knowledge of it? Or of injustice for that matter. For this reason alone, no one else’s demand for justice should trump my demand for liberty in the pursuit of truth.

Yes, you truth-seekers sometimes get things—terribly—wrong. But no less certainly, you justice-promoters also get things—horribly—wrong. It is manifest that the best response to an idea that promotes injustice is to show why it is wrong. In the same way, one must be able to question the standards of justice that authorities (whether they be academic, editorial, economic, moral, religious or governmental) promote. To do that one must be free.

Never mind that this particular call for “justice” is actually just a rallying cry to support a mere pressure tactic, a strategy du jour in an ongoing search for justice and conflict resolution.

Should we even pursue this particular policy?

If we desire “justice”—and we do—then how can we decide what policy to pursue?

Should we ask whether the proposed policy or tactic is just in itself?

Should we ask, in addition, whether the proposed tactic is in fact the best tactic to use in pursuit of the particular end of justice that is sought?

This boycott of academics may well be unjust in itself, because it holds Israeli scholars responsible, it punishes them and American scholars who are working with them, for the actions of their government. It does so not for the purpose of changing the behavior of the academics who suffer the boycott, but only for the purpose of putting pressure on the government.

We don’t even know whether those academics who are affected most by the boycott might contribute to the very same search for justice we ourselves are on. Nor do we know whether the Israeli government will respond to this form of pressure.

Can Corn demonstrate that the boycott will, on balance, do more good than harm to the cause of the Palestinians?

Can Corn show that this tactic will be effective?

If Corn knows, she doesn’t say.

Just to name one argument against the boycott, it has been pointed out rightly that comparisons to the 80’s campaign for divestment of University endowments from South Africa is not so apt, because those actions produced real financial and economic pressure on South Africa. Boycotting academics is unlikely to hurt a government very badly. (You think Netanyahu is feeling the heat because the eggheads are not talking to one another?)

So, there are plenty of questions here, all far from settled.

You know what’s good? what you really need for settling questions? That’s right. Freedom of inquiry.

Now in my view, the ASA boycott is ridiculous. But that’s just me, and I accept that I could be wrong, and that others disagree. And I know well, as should you, that what safeguards the conditions for the debate that could change my mind is some notion of academic liberty. It’s not old fashioned and it’s not in the way of justice.

And so I also think that the boycott itself is not as ridiculous as the idea of throwing freedom under the bus in order to justify a short-term political strategy. The latter honor belongs to the editorial board of The Crimson.

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