by George Anastaplo
(a talk given on January 24, 2010 in the University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture Series.)
I have presumed to ask, “What do you want to know about the Bible?” That is, what should you want to know about It? What does It say—and how is what is said to be understood? These, and like, questions presuppose that some familiarity with the Bible can be expected among us.
The Bible is a book (or a collection of books). Indeed, it is said that it is from this very volume that we in the Western World get the term, Biblio, or Book. Can one—should one—read this Book as one reads other important books?
This is a question noticed by Leo Strauss, in a talk (coincidentally, another January talk) on the Bible, that he gave in this University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture Series a half-century ago. He discussed, on that occasion, the beginning of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). My point of departure, on this occasion will be the beginning of the Greek Bible (or New Testament). Mr. Strauss was aware of the problem of trying to read the Bible (in his case, the Hebrew Bible) the way one should read other serious books.
Critical to any such reading is an awareness of the principle of order that has guided the shaping of the text. Even the most trivial text—my favorite example is the ordinary grocery list—is likely to have a principle of order, something that can help the reader to understand what is intended.
So we can be moved to wonder, in an effort to begin to understand what has been said in any material we examine, How is this particular text organized? How is it put together? What is included—and, sometimes quite revealing, what is left out?
The text with which we can begin this inquiry into how to read a book is the writing long regarded as the first in the New Testament—that is, The Gospel of Matthew. This is generally (but not conclusively?) attributed to one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Matthew (also known as Levi, a tax collector for the occupying Roman government).
This Gospel opens with a parade of Israelites, beginning with Abraham and ending with Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” Some of these men—and particularly David—are quite prominent; but most are barely known today. Five women are also mentioned in this Catalogue, all of whom are of some prominence, if not even of some notoriety.
Matthew divides his Catalogue into three parts, the first part rising to David and the second part descending to the Babylonian captivity (with forty men altogether, a good Biblical number). It is obvious that the linkage to David is considered critical for the identification of Jesus, who can be referred to at the outset of this Gospel (and elsewhere) as “the son of David,” having come upon the scene as evidently the son of Joseph.
How is all this organized, and what can be made of that? Or, rather, what can be noticed in, not “made of,” this text? There is, on these matters, a vast commentary—so much, in fact, that it can be for the typical student as if there is almost nothing but the bare text to rely on.
It should be instructive, and otherwise encouraging, to notice how other texts of interest can be read. Let us, then, prepare to examine Matthew’s list by glancing at still another mundane list from the ancient world, the Catalogue of Ships in the second book of Homer’s Iliad.
It can be somewhat curious how neglectful Classical scholars have been of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships. It is often regarded as something Homer “had” to include, catering thereby to local pride here and there, having inherited such a list from predecessors who had also spoken about the celebrated Trojan expedition.
But there are intriguing, and hence challenging, features in this Catalogue of twenty-nine Achaean contingents at Troy. Notice how the places of origin are clumped together among the twenty-nice contingents. Contingents 1-6 are from what we know as Central Greece. Contingents 7-13 are from Southern Greece (where Menelaus and Agamemnon come from, the family on whose behalf Troy is supposedly besieged). Contingents 14-16 are from the Western Islands (where Odysseus is from). Contingents 17-20 are from the Southern and Eastern Islands. And Contingents 21-29 are from Northern Greece (where Achilles is from). (One can be reminded of the geographical ordering in the listing of States in the Constitution of the United States.)
That the ordering of the Catalogue is not as haphazard as scholars generally believe it to be should become evident when one examines the listing. I cannot pretend to be familiar with all, or even with much, of the libraries of commentary on Homer. But I myself have heard of only two students of this subject who have noticed, at least in print, a most remarkable feature of Homer’s list. (It seems, that is, that only Seth Benardete and I have noticed this feature, each on his own.)
It is a feature that is so obvious that it is remarkable that is has not been generally recognized: central to the 29 Achaean contingents is that of Odysseus; at equal distances from him are the contingents of Agamemnon and Achilles (the two leaders whose conflict, beginning in Book I of the Iliad, seems to have been immediately responsible for the dreadful calamities of the Iliad). Odysseus (to whom Homer’s Odyssey is later devoted) can be understood as the leader who (with the guidance of the goddess Athena?) keeps the Achaean enterprise from disintegrating. (I notice, in passing, that both Seth Benardete and I [along with others at the University of Chicago] learned from Leo Strauss the importance of the central features in texts.)
Other features of this listing can be noticed, if only in passing. There are in the Achilles half of the Catalogue some 400 ships; there are in the Agamemnon half some 700 ships (with Odysseus’ contingent being among the smallest). Ten or so Achaean leaders are reported, in the Iliad, to have been killed in battle: eight of these are in Agamemnon’s half of the list, only two are in Achilles’ half. (Both of these leaders do die not long the action narrated in the Iliad: Achilles, while still at Troy, Agamemnon upon returning home.)
Much more can be noticed in what Homer provides in his Catalogue. Thus, the clumpings of the places of origin can be seen as suggesting an enveloping maneuver which reflects a remarkably reliable sense of the geography of the Eastern Mediterranean. I trust enough has been said to suggest that much more, of interest, can be noticed about how this poet understood and used his geography—and also, thereafter, the catalogue of Trojan forces (to which one fourth of Homer’s lines are devoted in the inventory of their 16 contingents, led by 25 men). (I notice, in passing, that the gift of a poet can be heard in the line, two millennia later, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” It would hardly have “worked” for that poet [Christopher Marlowe] to have been more precise, asking instead, “Was this the face that launched eleven hundred and ninety-six ships?”)
All this is a reminder of how even the most prosaic-seeming material may reflect important relations and can suggest critical insights. (I have set aside, for this occasion, modest variations in the Homeric texts that scholars work with.) We are now ready, in any event, to return to The Gospel of Matthew.
The author of Matthew knows Greek. If he was reasonably well educated, he would have been at least aware of Homer. Did he sense that his catalogue of Jesus’ Israelite predecessors echoed the catalogue of the Achaean contingents of Troy?
The Israelite predecessors relevant for Matthew were patriarchs and rulers, all enumerated with a view to reinforcing the attribution to Jesus of the prestigious identification, “son of David.” (This is not an identification relied on in the catalogue of Jesus’ predecessors provided [perhaps a decade or so later] in The Gospel of Luke, about which more later.) Even so magnificent a figure as Moses does not qualify for either enumeration, indicating perhaps that the Law (so vital to the career of the Israelites) will no longer matter as it once did, having served its original purpose.
Thus, Jesus’ connection with the great tradition—or, depending on how his paternity is regarded, his seeming connection with that tradition—can be spelled out in order for him to be placed well above it. The high point in that tradition, theretofore, was David, with whom the first third of the enumeration ends and the second third begins. The low point is the Babylonian captivity, with which the second third of Matthew’s Catalogue ends and the third begins. Central to this array in Matthew can be said to be the twenty-first man, Uzziah (also known as Azariah). He had a remarkably successful reign (of about half a century), before he attempted, in his pride, to usurp priestly functions in the Temple—for which , it is said, he was stricken with leprosy. (This disabled him from further effective rule. One may wonder, in passing, whether Uzziah presumed to act as he did, in the Temple, because he recognized in himself the onset of leprosy. The twentieth man, Joram, anticipated Uzziah’s rise and fall.
Is it suggested by Matthew’s arrangement (for he does skip generations of rulers here and there)—is it suggested that the worldly Israelite regime is ultimately vulnerable, peaking in David and bottoming out in the Babylonian captivity? This suggestion may be dramatized by the erratic careers of Joram and Uzziah. The career of the Israelite regime itself can be seen to point to something beyond it, something other-worldly.
It is, of course, only the Israelite regime that can seem to provide the foundation for that transcendence of all earthly regimes represented by Jesus. Other prominent regimes, such as those of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome, can sometimes dominate the world—but they cannot serve the divine purpose worldwide for which the much-troubled Israelite regime is depicted as having prepared the way.
A remarkable feature of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is what is done with females. Five women are recognized as important, with four of them known to have been somewhat irregular in their relations with men. (Of course, we can find elements of such irregularities, among still other women, in the controversies recalled as well in Homer’s Iliad.)
Do recollections of these four women (which may include liberties evidently taken by Matthew with the dating of Rahab) somehow prepare the way for the miraculous impregnation of Jesus’ mother? That there is an obvious problem here is indicated by Matthew’s report, also in Chapter 1, about “the angel of the Lord” having to reassure Joseph in a dream.
It might be wondered, of course, whether Jesus was truly a biological descendant of David. Some have taken care of this problem by suggesting (as we shall see) that Mary, too, was a descendant of David. Others have suggested that Jesus’ status as the implicitly adopted son of Joseph qualifies him as such a descendant. And, of course, if Mary was indeed impregnated in the unique way reported by Matthew and others, it may not matter much, if at all, who his human father was or seemed to be. (Somehow related to all this, I sense, is Moses Maimonides’ startling suggestion, in his Guide for the Perplexed, that it was a matter of chance that Rebecca became the wife of Isaac. And yet, should she not be ranked very high among those who were responsible for the authoritative projection across centuries of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”?)
However all this may have been, Matthew, by his intermittent insistence on the significance of women in Jesus’ lineage, does anticipate the considerable role to be played by women in the Christian drama across millennia. Thus, my wife has recently noticed, in the Fra Angelico San Marco altarpiece (of about 1440), that not only are the Virgin and Child dramatized, but also that the anonymous women in the background are all at a higher level than the celebrated (and named) males in the foreground. Does the Italian artist, by depicting eight figures in each of these two sets, encourage the viewer to recognize the remarkable elevation of the female in the Christian ordering of things?
Matthew’s genealogical account seems to be addressed primarily to those with Jewish interests. Just as no one prior to Abraham matters, so no one after Jesus (by way of genealogy) has to be reckoned with. Indeed, the Old Law is to be superseded, having served the purpose of nurturing a series of developments that could provide salvation for all mankind.
Thus, all this can be understood as putting an end to meaningful history. And we have noticed the intrinsic vulnerability of even the more successful earthly rulers, as dramatized most of all perhaps by the career of Uzziah.
These points may be made in another way by The Gospel of Luke, which has (in its third chapter) its own genealogy of Jesus. This gospel can be thought of as addressed more, than was Matthew’s, to Gentiles. And so, Luke’s genealogy is taken all the way back to Adam. (Does Luke draw more on such material as may be found in I Chronicles, whereas Matthew draws more on such material as may be found in II Chronicles?) How the devout Christian can sum up this account in Luke may be seen in The New Scofield Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 1981), in its note for Luke 3: 23:
(3:23) The genealogies of our Lord recorded in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 have their similarities and their differences. Though the Lucan genealogy goes back to Adam and that of Matthew goes only to Abraham, they are both in absolute agreement in the generations between Abraham and David. It is with the Son of David that the great difference begins, for Luke traces our Lord’s ancestry from David through Nathan [another son of Bathsheba],whereas Matthew uses the royal line through Solomon. It is true that the names Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, and possibly Matthat (Matthan in Matthew) appear subsequently in both, but otherwise the lists are entirely different. Indeed in one, Jacob is spoken of as Joseph’s father, whereas in the other, Heli is presumably so presented.
Two views have been maintained by equally godly and learned scholars. Some believe both genealogies are of Joseph, but that the one in Matthew gives the legal descendants of David to establish our Lord’s claim to the Davidic throne, while Luke gives the particular line to which Joseph actually belonged. The second list, then, is spoken of as the collateral line and is eligible for royal duty when the legal line is incapacitated or becomes extinct.
A far simpler solution, and in all probability the true one, is that since every man has two genealogies—one through his father and another through his mother—so Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy (the Lord’s foster or legal father, not his actual father), whereas Luke presents Mary’s genealogy. This view is supported by linguistic and historical evidence and is held by many students of the Bible. In addition, appeal may be made to Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-12 to give Scriptural precedent for the substitution of Joseph’s name in Luke 3:23. At the same time it avoids the judgment spoken of in Jeremiah 22:28-30…
However important the Davidic genealogy may be in Luke as well, a critical difference may be seen in what is central to this list. At its core is Melea, the son of Menna. It seems that no more can now be said of him (just as no more can be said of either his father or his son) than that he was “an ancestor of Christ, who lived shortly after David (Luke 3:31).” See, e.g., Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia, 1944), pp. 159, 388-89.
It evidently served Matthew’s purpose that central to his genealogy should have been the extremes-laden careers of Joram and (even more) of Uzziah, suggesting thereby both the heights and the depths of the Israelite (if not of all human) experience. On the other hand, it seems to have served Luke’s purpose that central to his genealogy should have been the remarkably inconsequential career of Melea (or of his father or of his son). Thus, to repeat, nothing else seems to be known of Melea today but that which comes from his inclusion in Luke’s list. Is there not dramatized thereby how radically inconsequential even the most exalted earthly existence may be?
Of course, something could be turned up tomorrow (in archives or in excavations) which reveals how important Melea was once thought to be. I myself have been reminded, this past week, of how startling revelations about events and relations long past can turn up unexpectedly. I happened to learn during a casual conversation with a South Side acquaintance that he (an African American) had distant relatives by the name of, say, Cleaver, who had lived in a town near where I grew up in Southern Illinois. I was startled to hear him refer to them as “Ma and Pa Cleaver.” This brought to mind what I myself had last heard about Ma Cleaver, some seventy years ago—that she (Rahab-like?) ran “a house” said to have been patronized by some of the men from our town. Particularly instructive was how my informant, quite casually, described this dubious enterprise: “Ma Cleaver’s house [he said] was for white folk, Pa Cleaver’s house was for colored folk.” All I (as a teenager) had ever heard about, in the occasional references to this shady enterprise, was “Ma Cleaver’s.” Particularly instructive was this salty reminder of how racially segregated our daily lives had been in Southern Illinois seventy years ago, so much so that the men (in our completely-white town) might never have been told by Ma Cleaver about Pa Cleaver’s parallel enterprise. If they had known, what assurances would they have required (because of deeply-rooted racial prejudices) about the mobility of the women (who were probably all non-white) between these two color-distinguished establishments? We can be reminded by this episode of how fragile the historian’s catalogue of “facts” can be—and hence of how provisional any conjectures based on such “facts” should be. (This suggestion can be illustrated by the Twentieth Century discovery by archaeologists of the once-prominent Hittites who had long been unknown apart from the Bible [e.g., II Kings 7].)
We can now return, however briefly, to the Gospel of Matthew with its determinedly Jewish orientation. I have suggested that the history of the world is tailored in Matthew to an argument about the spiritual odyssey of the Israelites. They, it is argued, have prepared the way thereby for all humanity.
The high point of the Israelites here on earth may be seen, according to Matthew, in David. This is despite, if not even because of, Bathsheba. After all, Solomon results from that remarkable union. (Luke, we have noticed, relies instead on a genealogy which has Nathan, rather than Solomon, as the designated heir of David, with both being sons of Bethsheba. Thus, Luke’s approach may exhibit far less of what we would consider a “political,” and far more of an “anthropological,” orientation.)
David and Solomon did have dubious marital experiences—David with his clouded involvement with Bathsheba, and Solomon with his multitude of (indeed hundreds) of wives (including a daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, for whom he spent decades building a magnificent palace). But both of these men could also be said to have been responsible for writings that are regarded as sacred (such as Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs).
It should be noticed that a determinedly Jewish orientation (however it is used by Matthew) need not assume a monopoly of righteousness to have been claimed by the Jews. Thus, the compilers of the Hebrew Bible considered it possible for others to be regarded favorably by God, as is evident in the career of Job.
Does the Christianity testified to by Matthew and his colleagues change all this, in that everyone (without the Christian intervention) is now proclaimed to be forever “lost”? On the other hand, it can be argued that the concept of “the Fall” is not, strictly speaking, Jewish. Consider, for example, the implications of the Jewish understanding that there are always thirty-six (at least thirty-six?) righteous men who somehow keep the world going, even though their individual identities may not be generally known. This is quite different in spirit from the Christian insistence upon the perpetually miserable condition of all who have not been “saved.”
Christian sources do recognize, of course, the Jewish experience as necessary preparation for the longed-for emergence of the Savior of the World. Such recognition is implicit in accounts of Jesus’ Harrowing of Hell after his crucifixion, rescuing thereby the righteous Jews (and righteous Gentiles?) who had not had access to Christian salvation.
There is certainly something extraordinary about the Jews who have made Christianity possible. (Even their most vicious enemies, including those who may be determined to slaughter them, recognize their specialness.) The grounding of generations (even three millennia) of the Jews in a Book seems to have made them particularly open to serious education. Thus, the Jewish editor of a collection of Leo Strauss’s writings on Jewish things (including the 1957 Works of the Mind Lecture I have referred to) can quote a non-Jew as “apprecia[ting] what he regards as the twofold beneficial effect which Judaism exercised on [Mr.] Strauss, and through him on his students both Jewish and non-Jewish. First, it somehow helped make [Mr.] Strauss, as both a thinker and careful reader, receptive to the pre-modern idea of philosophy and resistant to certain modern ideas. Second, it overflowed through him as a Jewish thinker and scholar so as to leave a deep and vivifying impression on those who encountered him…” (Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997], p.176)
The importance of reading, and hence of disciplined thinking, nurtured by the Jewish respect for the Book may, in some circumstances, challenge conventional piety (as may be seen in the career of Benedict de Spinoza). But it can also promote competence in secular pursuits that even the conventionally pious can respect—as may be seen in the remarkable number of Jews who have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their pioneering work in Physics and in Medicine. (See, for example, David Brooks’s column of January 12, 2010 in The New York Times.)
We have examined, at least in a preliminary manner, two Greek texts (The Gospel of Matthew, The Gospel of Luke) which have contributed to the “internationalization,” so to speak, of Judaism in what we know as Christianity. How “Greekness” itself developed has been glanced at, also in a preliminary manner, in our examination of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships, an examination designed to further an inquiry into the reading of books.
Still another Ancient Greek listing may contribute to our inquiry. This emerged among the Pythagoreans long after Homer, perhaps even about the time of some of the texts in the Hebrew Bible. Our principal listing here comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics (986a22-27) where he recalls the Pythagorean “Column of the Goods.” There are ten such items, each of which is matched by what seems to be its opposite:
We can, on this occasion, do no more than glance at this list. Again we must wonder, What is, for the intelligent author (and, one can hope, for the intelligent reader as well) the principle of order here? For instance, it can be wondered why good is not either first or last. Not first, perhaps, because it must be built up to in order for it to be properly grasped, but not to exist? Then, why not last? Perhaps partly because the beginning and the end of the list recognize limits (of a mathematical character) as conditions for understanding, if not even for the very existence, of everything.
All this might even be more instructive if we knew how the Pythagoreans had themselves organized the list reported by Aristotle. And did it have for them only these items? The Pythagorean approach to things may indeed be evident in the reliance not only upon ten (or ten-ness) but also upon a geometrical figure for the form that the concluding limit of the list would take. But why a square and not, say, a circle? A circle may be harder to imagine as a foundation-piece. Besides, we recall the “mystical” tradition associated with the Pythagorean discovery of the irrational character of the square root of some squares. We can recall as well the challenge of the squaring of the circle.
Is the physicality of things essential for the very existence of things—and hence perhaps for inquiry, thinking, and philosophy? Is physicality (and especially light) essential also for the perception, if not for the very existence, of the good itself? The good that is late in the Aristotelian list may have to be secured before the list itself can be worked out, before philosophy can develop.
At the core of Aristotle’s list, around which everything turns, are the male/female and the resting/moving juxtapositions that may be essential for the perception (if not even for the existence) of everything else. Although we do not have the original Pythagorean list or lists upon which Aristotle might have drawn, we do have another such list from another Greek-writing author, half a millennium later.
Plutarch, in his Isis and Osiris (370), presents this list somewhat differently from the way Aristotle had done:
Thus, Plutarch in his essay places the good/bad juxtaposition at the beginning and apart from the subsequent nine terms, instead of in the next-to-last slot where Aristotle has it. And he drops the male/female juxtaposition altogether, preferring instead an equal/unequal juxtaposition (which distinction may have been implied in what Aristotle had done with the genders).
But we have with Plutarch here the problem we had with Aristotle: how, indeed, had the Pythagoreans themselves preferred to list these (ten?) juxtapositions? This makes it difficult to determine which of these two recollections of the Pythagorean is closer to the original. Even so, we can venture one guess here about why Plutarch dropped the male/female juxtaposition that he could have inherited from Aristotle, if not also from the Pythagoreans: Plutarch is aware of traditions which have Osiris dismembered and his fourteen parts scattered, requiring Isis (his sister/wife) to collect the pieces. Against such a background it might have been difficult (in an essay on Isis and Osiris) to insist on the superiority of the male over the female. (See, on the Pythagorean list, G. Anastaplo, The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle , pp. 314-16. The translations have been adjusted to facilitate preliminary comparisons between Aristole’s list and Plutarch’s list.)
I return, in preparing to close, to questions touched upon earlier in this talk. Could Christianity be what it has long been without the Greek additions to the Israelite approach to the things of this world? After all, the Logos, derived from Greek thought and made so much of in Christianity (as in the opening of The Gospel of John), is not the same as the Law, made so much of by the Israelites. It is hard to overestimate the influence of the Greek-speaking Apostle Paul in reshaping Judaism for the Gentile world. Perhaps no author somewhat available to us has addressed as seriously as has Maimonides the effort to reconcile traditional philosophy with Biblical piety. Such piety, we can notice, accepts the remarkable miracles associated with the career of Jesus (in the Greek Bible). It accepts as well the miracles associated with the careers of Elijah and Elisha (in the Hebrew Bible), miracles which can sometimes seem to be much more extensive and spectacular than those of Jesus and his associates (in the Greek Bible).
Particularly challenging here can be the status of nature, a notion not to be found in the Hebrew Bible or, indeed, in much of the Greek Bible. But it is there in various of the New Testament Epistles and even more, of course, in the learned tradition inherited by the early Christians with the Greek language upon which they so much depended. And nature, we should remember, recognizes principles of order and change that do not depend on a superintending Intelligence. (See, on nature, Anastaplo, The Thinker as Artist, p. 399.)
What, it must be wondered in closing for the moment this never-ending inquiry, may the exceptional books we are both equipped and obliged to read tell us about the idea of nature and its bearing on how the presuppositions, reasoning, evidence, aspirations, and influence of the Bible (whether Hebrew of Greek) should be understood, assessed, and used?
This talk was given on January 24, 2010 in the University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture Series. It was recalled, in the announcement for this talk, that a century and a half ago, the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, said to a meeting of his diocesan clergy, as he held up a copy of the Authorized (“King James”) Version, “Never forget that this is not the Bible. This, gentlemen is a translation of the Bible.”
George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University Chicago; Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. His publications include The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008); Reflections on Life, Death, and the Constitution (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010). See also, http://Anastaplo.wordpress.com