The West Conceptualized all Paradoxes

Defining Paradoxes

That Europeans conceptualized all the paradoxes in history, with a minimal contribution by the Chinese, testifies to a major contrast in the intellectual trajectories of civilizations. As R.M. Sainsbury writes, “paradoxes are fun,” but “unlike puzzles and teasers, which are also fun, paradoxes raise serious problems.” Sainsbury defines a paradox as “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises.” Patrick Hughes and George Brecht tell us that paradoxical propositions may be described as

  1. self-referential, in which the statement refers to itself;
  2. contradictory, in which the statement is false and true at the same time;
  3. and circular in which the statement is characterized by a vicious circle, or infinite regress.

Some believe that most paradoxes, whether they are semantic, set-theoretic, or epistemic, share the same underlying self-referential structure. Consider the famous Liar’s paradox: “This sentence is false.” Trying to determine whether this sentence is true or false leads to a contradiction. If we conclude that the sentence is true, then it cannot be true. If we agree that the sentence is false, then the sentence is true. Either answer leads to a contradiction, or a vicious circle. This paradox is self-referential in that the sentence is talking directly about itself.

What makes the Liar’s paradox more than a witty remark or a sophism is that both of the two contradictory conclusions were obtained by seemingly rigorous reasoning based on apparently sound premises. However, paradoxes come in different degrees of difficulty; some paradoxes, Sainsbury says, are “weak or shallow,” based on unfounded suppositions, faulty reasoning, or ostensibly vague wording. The famous Barber paradox, he thinks, is “not very deep.” This paradox asks who shaves the barber if the barber shaves all and only those villagers who do not shave themselves. This paradox makes the supposition that such a barber exists even though such a barber or such a village does not exist.

The Western mind came up with many paradoxes for which they attempted solutions—because this mind has a peculiar inclination to seek the truth according to its own self-legislated rational capacities, rather than in acquiescence to kinship norms or theocratic mandates. It is a most dynamic mind that came up with three fundamental laws of proper reasoning:

  1. the law of contradiction, which states that a proposition cannot be both true and false;
  2. the law of excluded middle, which states that for every proposition, either this proposition or its negation is true; and
  3. the law of identity, which states that each thing is identical with itself.

For the Western mind, if a claim is illogically inconsistent, in violation of these laws, then the claim or the reasoning behind it must be rejected.

Europeans took Zeno’s paradoxes seriously, for they seem to suggest that one could reach a logically unacceptable conclusion on the basis of sound reasoning from apparently sound premises. They wondered whether these paradoxes revealed deficiencies in the way we reason, calling for improvements in our reasoning powers, a better system of logic and a more precise usage of language. For example, Russell’s paradox (1901) of a set that includes all and only those sets that do not contain themselves as members, encouraged or was itself part of an investigation into the realm of the foundations of logic and the philosophy of mathematics, which revealed errors in classical logic that were instrumental in the development of modern logic and set theory. With this new logic, and the insights of physics and contemporary mathematics, many paradoxes have found a solution.

Reasoning Through the Contradictory Character of Reality

We would be mistaken, however, to assume that all European thinkers came to view paradoxes as mere expressions of faulty reasoning calling for a more logically perfect language, in which equivocation could not arise because all the ambiguity of everyday words was removed. Without denying the classic laws of logic, and agreeing that sentences cannot admit of self-nullifying contradictions, some Europeans came to the view that the nature of reality is contradictory, and that the human mind is limited in its capacity to offer rationally consistent answers about the ultimate questions of the universe and life. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that reality was inherently contradictory and thus paradoxical. Other European thinkers encountered complex riddles, conundrums, and puzzles for which they believed there were no rationally justified solutions. The ultimate questions of reality were inherently unanswerable or beyond rational solution or dogmatic certainty. Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD) believed that all belief systems were ultimately grounded in dogmatic premises or criteria for which any attempt at their justification inevitably led to an infinite regress. Roy Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (2003) is the best book in the English language about the many great European thinkers who have grappled for millennia with the most puzzling philosophical conundrums.

Immanuel Kant famously presented the four “antinomies of pure reason” as demonstrations of reason’s inability to reach completeness on the most fundamental questions of the universe. He believed one could give equally justified answers for

  1. the thesis that the universe has no beginning, and the antithesis that the universe has a beginning;
  2. the thesis that every composite substance in the world is made up of simples, and the antithesis that no composite substance in the world is made up of simples;
  3. the thesis that there is freedom in the world, and the antithesis that everything is ruled by necessity;
  4. the thesis that a necessary being is either part or cause of the world, and the antithesis that a necessary being is neither part nor cause of the world.

The rational inclination of the European mind should not be equated with arrogance. Kant believed that reason could come up with two impeccably solid arguments against the infinity of the past and against the idea that the past has a finite beginning, by rigorously showing how each of these positions leads to an equally absurd conclusion; and how each position is no less justified than the other. The thesis that there is no beginning, or an infinite past, leads to the absurd conclusion that we had to wait an infinite time to get to the present, and since we are living in the present, it follows that the past is finite with a beginning in time. But the antithesis that there is a beginning leads to the befuddling conclusion that there must have been a preceding time in which there was no world and no time, which leads to the conclusion that the past is infinite.

For Hegel, however, the very recognition by the mind that there are limits beyond which reason can’t provide answers is a demonstration that cognition understands its limits, and, in this respect, is capable of going beyond those limits, by realizing that the coexistence of opposites is inherent to the nature of reality: an antinomy is not, therefore, an imperfection or defect of the mind, but a demonstration that every determination in the actual concrete world is a unity of opposing contradictions. Hegel’s dialectical logic was an attempt to provide a new way of thinking through the contradictory nature of things. “Identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only insofar as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.”

While many contemporary logicians believe that Zeno’s paradoxes have been solved by transfinite arithmetic, originated by Georg Cantor in the late 1800s, and that there are logically consistent ways to “solve” all paradoxes, some have come to the neo-Hegelian view known as “dialetheism,” which proposes that some paradoxical inconsistencies or contradictions can be accepted without incoherence, in the sense that both “A” and “not-A” can both be true. Dialetheism is associated with the development of a paraconsistent logic to deal with sentences in which both its affirmation and its negation are true.

Lower Degree of Sophistication of Chinese Paradoxes

The only other civilization to have articulated and debated paradoxes is China. During the Warring States period (479-221 BC), a group of scholars identified with the “School of Names” (Míngjiā ) relished in the use of paradoxical and puzzling expressions, and in the discussion of the semantic relations between words and the world they pointed to. The intellectual culture of paradoxes in China, however, was fundamentally different from that of the West, in their degree of sophistication, the reaction of intellectuals to them, and the absence of philosophical reflections about the contradictory nature of the universe. The School of Names remained an isolated moment in China’s intellectual history. The Confucians in control of intellectual discussions dismissed the paradoxical expressions of the School of Names as “bizarre expressions” that discouraged young minds from the proper use of language and the obligation of educated gentlemen to promote “ritual propriety and righteousness.”

With the exception of brief texts attributed to Gōngsūn Lóng, very little first-hand knowledge of the figures associated with this School survived. What we know about Chinese paradoxes is mostly based on the Xunzi, which is an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical writings attributed to Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a 3rd-century BC philosopher associated with the Confucian tradition, who condemned paradoxical expressions as “frivolous.” While members of the Mohist School (479–221 BC) summarized many of the paradoxes of the School of Names, they did so only to offer counter-arguments against what they perceived to be sophistical ideas inconsistent with the commonsense use of language.

The current academic Chen Bo makes a strong effort to show that the School of Names reached the same level of logical sophistication and use of abstract universals as the ancient Greeks, or at least “comparable to Greek civilization to some extent.” But while Chen sometimes even tries to show that some Chinese paradoxes exhibited the abstract “concepts of class, kind, and membership” found in Russell’s paradox about classes discovered in 1901, in the end Chen barely shows that Chinese paradoxes reached the same degree of abstraction as Zeno’s famous paradoxes. He basically acknowledges this in his decision to define paradoxes in “quite a broad way, almost including all the fallacies, sophisms, puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes [which were] quite influential” in China. As Chris Fraser recognizes, there are expressions categorized as “paradoxes” that are best described as mere philosophical statements about the nature of reality, such as: “The ultimately great has no outside, call it the Great One. The ultimately small has no inside, call it the Small One.” Or, “Universally care for the myriad things. Heaven and earth are one body.”

Chen confounds his otherwise good analysis of Chinese paradoxes when he tries to argue that the mere utterance by Chinese philosophers of statements about whether “there is really an external world independently of us,” or “do we really know the states of external things,” or “do we really know other minds and their states”—actually constitute paradoxes, rather than basic epistemological and ontological questions. Chen is on stronger ground showing that the following Chinese paradoxes are “quite close to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and infinity”:

  1. “A Wheel does not touch the ground.”
  2. “The shadow of a flying bird has never moved.”
  3. “A one-foot stick has taken away half of its length every day, it will still not be exhausted after ten thousand generations.”

For example, number three resembles Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. This Chinese paradox says that a finite-long stick can be cut into infinitely many sections since half of the length of the stick will remain no matter how many times you cut it. Zeno’s dichotomy paradox states that you will never reach a finite destination no matter how fast and how long you run since any given distance that you try to cover will consist of infinitely divisible distances.

Chen admits, however, that from the Chinese version of this paradox we can only get the concept of infinite divisibility, not the concept that all motion is an illusion. Chris Fraser correctly points out that another Chinese paradox—”The barbed arrow at its swiftest, there is time when it neither moves nor stops”—which has been likened to Zeno’s paradox of the arrow, is actually different in that the Chinese arrow is neither in motion nor at rest, whereas Zeno’s arrow is at rest in every instant of time and does not move. Zeno invented his paradoxes in order to demonstrate through rigorous reasoning that any kind of change was impossible and that reality was indivisible, despite appearances to the contrary.

Fraser further notes that the “steps in the reasoning” behind the articulation of Chinese paradoxes are almost entirely based on second-hand accounts by critics of the Schools of Names, in which the reasoning about their meaning “remains confusing and the justification for them murky.” While we know Zeno’s paradoxes second-hand through Aristotle’s writings, we do so through the highly rigorous logical mind of Aristotle. Rather than dismissing them as sophistical, Aristotle tried to find a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes. Zeno’s paradoxes raised serious philosophical problems in the Western tradition because they were seen to be based on sound reasoning and thus to constitute a challenge to the claims of reason about its ability to understand the nature of things. The solutions offered in contemporary times have come from mathematics, modern logic, and physics.

Moreover, whereas Europeans would come up with numerous paradoxes, some of which came to be associated with crises in European thought and with revolutionary advances in logic, in China the tradition of the School of Names dissipated, never to be improved upon. Thus, the paradoxes remained rather simple; basically, their prevailing theme, as Fraser notes, was that the distinctions we observe in the world are “not inherently fixed but relative to a standpoint” or scale. For example, take the paradox “The sky is as low as earth, mountains are level with marches.” It simply says that by the scale of the Great One, the difference between the height of the sky and earth, mountains and marches, are insignificant. Another so-called paradox—”Eggs have feathers”—merely states that potential feathers are already possessed by the egg.

The most discussed Chinese paradox is one attributed to Gōngsūn Lóng that simply states: “The white horse is not [a] horse” (báimǎ fēi mǎ). An entire discourse developed around this paradox. The Mohist School in particular sought to counter it with the commonsense idea that words do represent or signify things and that language should be used to communicate by appealing to commonly shared use of language, for distinguishing similar and different kinds of things. Yet, interesting as this discourse was in generating sophisticated semantic discussions, this statement seems to lack a true paradoxical nature. It seems to be a semantic claim that insofar as the terms “white horses” and “horses” denote distinct features about horses, it follows that white horses and horses cannot be equated. Critics argue that it is simply a statement that refuses to distinguish the true claim that the term “white horse” is not identical with “horse” from the false claim that the less general term “white horse” is not part of the more general term “horse.”

Cheng Bo tries to argue that Chinese paradoxes use abstract universals, terms that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things, much like the ancient Greeks and Europeans in the modern era. The academic Fung Yu Lan claims that the Chinese terms “horse” and bái “white” are used to designate abstract concepts—”horseness” and “whiteness.” But Chad Hansen thinks that the grammatical structure of the ancient Chinese language was such that it lacked abstract entities, such as ideas and concepts. Chinese nouns are “mass nouns,” or nouns without a plural form, which do not inflect for abstraction and plurality. Thus, it seems that the best way to understand why the Chinese were unable to conceive paradoxes with a high degree of sophistication is that their mind barely reached what Jean Piaget identified as the “formal operational stage of cognition.” It remained stuck at the “concrete operational stage,” barely reaching the formal stage, until Westerners taught them how to think in deductive ways.

The Concrete-Operational Chinese Mind

Georg W. Oesterdiefkhoff, one of the foremost Piagetian theorists in the world, is convinced that many years of cross-cultural empirical research by Jean Piaget and his followers have demonstrated that the stages of mental development of children and adolescents (from sensorimotor, through preoperational and concrete operations, to formal operations) reflect the stages of cognitive evolution “humankind” has gone through from primitive, ancient and medieval, to modern societies. The cognitive processes of humanity have not always been the same, but have improved over time. Viewing Piaget’s theory as more than a theory about the cognitive development of children, Oesterdiefkhoff has elaborated it into a grand theory covering the cognitive experience of all peoples throughout history, from primitive peoples with a preoperational mind (characteristic of children ages 2–4), to agrarian peoples with a concrete operational mind (characteristic of children ages 6–12), to modern peoples with a formal operational mind (age 12 and up).

Oesterdiefkhoff observes that “thousands of empirical studies across all continents and social milieus, from the 1930s to the present” have been conducted demonstrating that, depending on the level of cultural scientific education, the nations of the world in the course of history can be identified as preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. The formal operational stage entails a capacity to think about abstract relationships and symbols in the absence of concrete examples, that is, a capacity to grasp syllogistic reasoning with hypothetical premises that may not refer to real objects, including a capacity to formulate explanatory hypotheses.

According to studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, even educated adults living in Papua New Guinea did not reach the formal stage. Australian Aborigines who were still living a traditional lifestyle barely developed beyond a preoperational stage in their adult years. As Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) had already observed in his Primitive Mentality (1923), dreams, divination, incantations, sacrifices, and omens, not inferential reasoning and objective causal relations, are the phantasmagorical doors through which primitives get access to the intentions and plans of the unseen spirits they believe control natural events. Adults in premodern civilizations, like ancient China, exhibit the concrete operational stage of thinking in the way they apprehend length, volume, time, space, weight, area, and geometric qualities. It is not that adults in primitive and premodern cultures are similar to children in modern cultures in their emotional development, experience, and ability to survive in a hostile environment. It is that the reasoning abilities of adults in pre-modern civilizations are restricted to what they apprehend at the perceptual level and are bound up with the sensory appearances of the world, barely transcending appearances and context-bound experiences through the development of hypothetical and abstract reasoning.

The abilities associated with the first two Piagetian stages (e.g., control over motor actions, walking, mental representation of external stimuli, verbal communication, ability to manipulate concepts involving concrete objects), have been acquired universally by humans since prehistoric times. In this sense, they can be called “biologically primary” qualities that children across cultures accomplish at the ages and in the sequence more or less elucidated by Piaget. They are universal abilities built into human nature, ready to unfold with little educational socialization. While the concrete-operational abilities of stage three (e.g., the “ability to conserve” quantities—e.g., to know that the same quantity of a liquid remains when the liquid is poured into a differently shaped container) are either lacking in primitive cultures or emerge at later ages in children than they do in modern cultures; these abilities may also be described as biologically primary insofar as they have emerged in all advanced agrarian civilizations.

It is also the case that in modern societies all individuals with a primary education acquire concrete operational abilities. The abilities required in the first three stages can thus be identified as “culturally universal.” Only formal operations cannot be said to be endogenously generated. The skills associated with this stage (inductive logic, hypothesis testing, reasoning about proportions, combinations, probabilities and correlations) are not cognitive skills bound to emerge in all literate civilizations. They are highly specific skills that a significant proportion of the population, even in modern Western cultures, fails to acquire. The abilities required in formal operational thinking are better described as biologically secondary abilities.

While the current Chinese population, after the arrival of Western modernization, has clearly reached the formal operational stage of reasoning, this was not the case in ancient China. In contrast, formal operational reasoning was clearly visible among the educated elite in ancient Greece. We learn in Reviel Netz’s, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History, that Greek mathematics produced knowledge of general validity; not only about the particular right triangle ABC of the diagram, for example, but about all right triangles. This formal operational trait—this ability to think about numbers and geometric relationships in a purely abstract way—is what makes Greek mathematics historically novel in comparison to all preceding concrete operational mathematics. This formal operational mind is amply visible in Aristotle’s magisterial works of logic, in the rise of theoretical geometry in ancient Greece, in the invention of trigonometry by Hipparchus, in Archimedes’ work on hydro-statics and the mechanics of pulleys and levers, in Eratosthenes and his calculations to determine the circumference of the earth. It is visible as well in the hypothetical-deductive form of Euclid’s Elements, in which circles, right angles, parallel lines are explicitly defined in terms of a few fundamental abstract entities, such as points, lines, and planes, on the basis of which many other propositions (theorems) are deduced. And in Ptolemy’s Almagest, which postulates epicycles, eccentric circles, and equant points, with the latter being imaginary points in space from which uniform circular motion is measured.

Joseph Needham, a great admirer of Chinese intellectual history, recognizes that “strong” as Chinese algebra was, it was “utilitarian” and “concrete,” “devoted to the [practical] problems ruling officials had to solve.” Unlike “the predilection of Greek science and mathematics for the abstract, the deductive and the pure over the concrete,” Chinese mathematics lacked “the idea of rigorous proof” but inhabited “a mental outlook which avoided the development of formal logic…and which allowed associative or organic thinking to dominate” (p. 62-3). So, in light of these intellectual realities, here’s a short list of the many paradoxes conceived by Europeans:

      Zeno’s Racetrack Paradox
      Paradox of the Heap
      Newcomb’s Trolley Paradox
      Prisoner’s Dilemma
      Paradox of the Ravens
      Russell’s Paradox
      Leonard Euler’s Paradox
      The Liar
      Achilles and the Tortoise
      The Arrow
      Sorites Paradox
      Forrester’s Paradox
      Class Paradoxes


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: “Day and night,” by Maurits Cornelis Escher, 1938.

Michel Henry: The Knowledge Of Life Against The Barbarism Of Galileo

In La barbarie (Barbarism), Michel Henry warns us against the pretensions of modern sciences: the objectivity they claim is nothing but an impoverishment of reality. According to him, the fundamental knowledge of man, the one which allows all the others, is not scientific knowledge but the knowledge of life.

One usually associates the development of scientific knowledge with that of civilization. A society that reaches a high level of technicality, a better geometric and mathematical knowledge of material nature is an exemplary society from a civilizational point of view. The advent of modernity, marked by the Galilean revolution, radically changed the conception of the world that we had in traditional societies. This rupture, this great upheaval is, in the eyes of Michel Henry, a terrible danger for the culture which he defines as “the self-transformation of life.”

In Barbarism, the Christian phenomenologist describes “a fight to death” between knowledge and culture and worries about a possible victory of the first over the second. For Henry, scientific knowledge is thus not a part of the culture, but rather its negation. For the Galilean revolution is, strictly speaking, a “reduction” insofar as it attempts to describe the objects of the world by voluntarily ignoring the sensible qualities that compose them.

The Galilean method is a pure objectification of the world and a disregard of subjectivity. Consequently, it denies the very condition of possibility of the perception of objects, i.e., the lived experience. “It is thus this life, such as it is felt in us, in its incontestable phenomenality, this life which makes us living, which is stripped of any true reality, reduced to an appearance. The kiss that lovers exchange is no more than a bombardment of microphysical particles.” writes Henry. There is culture only if there is life, because there cannot be experience without perception, of object without subject. The only reality to which we have access is that of perceived things. The real experience of the world is never a disembodied experience. When a subject looks at an object, he applies his sensitivity, his taste, his mood of the day, his physical state, his concentration of the moment.

Taking Life Out Of The Picture

Modern scientific knowledge has the particularity of presenting itself as rigorous and unquestionably true knowledge. The result is an arrogance: it refuses the appellation of “knowledge” to all the traditional sciences which are not based on the Galilean principle of objectification and are incapable of equivalent material results. “The illusion of Galileo and of all those who, in his wake, consider science as an absolute knowledge, was precisely to have taken the mathematical and geometrical world, destined to provide a univocal knowledge of the real world, for this real world itself, this world that we can only intuit and experience in the concrete modes of our subjective life,” summarizes Henry.

In his eyes, “any culture is a culture of life, in the double sense where life constitutes at the same time the subject of this culture and its object.” Culture, as Henry defines it, is nothing other than the perpetual movement of life working to its own development. It is a setting in motion of the totality of the subjective consciences towards the spontaneous accomplishment, or not, of high achievements. Art art, as for him, is par excellence part of culture since it is the discipline which takes most into account the activity of sensibility. Artistic production proceeds fundamentally from the interiority of human experience, an interiority which does not interest the scientist who claims to overlook the world. On the other hand, Galilean scientific knowledge is barbaric because by it, “it is the life itself which is affected, it is all its values which falter, not only the aesthetic but also the ethics, the sacred—and with them the possibility of living each day.”

In La phénoménologie de la vie (The Phenomenology of Life), Henry defines living as that which is capable of experiencing itself under the modality of “self-affection.” “Self-affection” is the primitive consciousness of man, a non-reflective consciousness which, rather than thinking that it thinks, feels that it thinks. It is, par excellence, the proof of the union of soul and body. Modern scientific knowledge is based on the attempt to deny this primordial subjectivity, which it refers to the particularism and relativism of individual experience. However, this “feeling of oneself,” this “experiencing oneself” refers to “the deep nature of experience and of the human condition.” For Henry, the fundamental knowledge, that is to say the knowledge which allows all the others, the knowledge which is also a power, is the knowledge of life.

In Barbarism, Henry takes the example of a biology student. When the latter studies a book in order to assimilate knowledge, he is, as a subject, faced with abstract scientific knowledge contained in the volume that he has before his eyes. Between the subject, the student, and the object, the biology book, remains an intentional gap that would be impossible to bridge without the knowledge of life unfolding in pure immanence, without ekstasis. Without knowing from life, the student would remain motionless, contemplating his book. Thanks to this knowing, the student can turn the pages of the book with his hands and read the lines by moving his eyes. “The capacity indeed to unite with the power of the hands and to identify oneself with it, to be what it is and to do what it does, only possesses a knowledge which merges with this power because that it is nothing other than his constant test of himself—his radical subjectivity,” Henry explains. In other words, the knowledge of life is man’s ability to make body movements and intentionality coincide in pure immanence. It is a practical knowledge which is the condition of possibility of all theoretical knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is a knowledge that represents the world in front of it in a purely abstract knowledge but never experiences it. And yet, the only reality is experienced reality. The world of Galilean science is a cold and objective world. Whereas the knowledge of life proceeds from the meeting of the subject and the object; scientific knowledge refuses to take into account the reality of subjectivity and presents us an object which is the product of no glance, which is not apprehended by any conscience. “Point of interior: nothing which is alive, which can speak in its own name, in the name of what it feels, in the name of what it is. Only of “things,” only of death”, stresses Henry.

Between Man And The World Stand The Robots

To the objectification of the things of the world by Galilean the response is the objectification of action through the ever-greater rise of technology. We have seen that the fundamental knowledge of life was defined as a know-how, as a praxis. However, with the industrial age, the living work of man was replaced by devices, by tools which reduce our relation to things to simplifying and disembodied mechanisms. Between man and the world, robots now stand in place of life. This leads to an “atrophy of the quasi-totality of the subjective potentialities of the living individual and thus [to] a malaise and a growing dissatisfaction.”

Henry opposes here the work of the craftsman who is a perpetual creation and a perpetual mobilization of the knowledge of life to that of the worker who is only the repetition of “stereotyped” and “monotonous” acts. The craftsman is in a carnal relationship with the world; his subjectivity is at work to deploy in immanence the knowledge of life. The cabinetmaker chooses the wood he will work on; evaluates its quality, its resistance, its grain and its veining. When he sands, polishes and then varnishes his wood, when he assembles the parts to make a piece of furniture, he performs unique work that involves his subjectivity and his life to the core. On the other hand, the worker who works on a production line is in a cold and mediatized relationship where the instrumental device comes to replace know-how. Pressing a button, operating a lever is a minimal task that can be performed by all in an identical way. For Henry, technology is nothing other than “nature without man;” that is to say “abstract nature, reduced to itself” and “returned to itself.” “It is barbarism, the new barbarism of our time, in place of culture. Insofar as it puts out of play life; its prescriptions and its regulations. It is not only barbarism, under its extreme and most inhuman form, that it was given to man to know, it is the madness,” emphasizes Henry.

The rise of technology at the expense of life leads to a radical change, to an ontological “revolution,” namely the appearance of a new reality—of an economic order. Henry aims here at “the inversion of the vital teleology that occurred at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century when the production of consumer goods that characterizes every society ceased to be directed… towards ‘use values;’ to aim henceforth at obtaining and increasing exchange value; that is to say, money.” This is what is, par excellence, barbaric for the philosopher: the emergence of a reality that is produced neither by nature nor by the body itself. The reign of money as an exchange value corresponds to the advent of a pure virtuality within Being itself. Money determines our existence today, even though it is not the product of any life and serves no purpose except its own. The barbarism described by Henry is thus, in the last instance, a usurpation—that which is dead—technology and money—comes to pass for Being.


Matthieu Giroux is a Dostoyevskian sovereignist and the editorial director of PHLITT. This article appears through the generous courtesy of PHLITT.


Featured image: Portrait of Galileo, by Justus Sustermans, painted in 1636.

The Jesus Dictionary: A Conversation With Father Renaud Silly, OP

It is a great honor to present this conversation with Brother Renaud Silly, OP, historian and theologian, who speaks about the Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem and Éditions Bouquins. This Dictionary which makes available the current state of knowledge about Jesus, drawing upon all necessary scientific, theological, and philosophical areas of expertise.

The Dictionary is an impressive work (comprising some 1300 pages), but one that is also highly accessible, for it does not neglect the needs of the lay reader who is well rewarded by the depth and erudition. Father Silly oversaw the work, as the director of the entire project, and he speaks with Christophe Geffroy, the publisher of La Nef magazine, through whose courtesy this article is here translated.


Christophe Geffroy (CG): How did the idea of the Jesus Dictionary come about? What was your goal, and what was your working methodology?

Father Renaud Silly (RS): The person who had the idea was the director of Bouquins, Mr. Jean-Luc Barré [the publisher]. We had previously published Bossuet in his collection, and this inspired him to call upon us to produce the Dictionary. He gave us carte blanche, without imposing any particular angle or contributors.

Brother Renaud Silly, OP.

As for the École Biblique, the immense wealth of its recent research was just waiting to be made accessible to the general educated public. In the middle of the last decade, the success of certain books, ill-informed we believe, made us feel the need for a work that spans the entire spectrum—those who have been given the capacity to work directly on the sources (the “scholars”) have a moral duty to guarantee the dissemination of their work to those who do not possess it. Otherwise, we fall into the opposite trap of popularization and autarkic specialization. You likely will recognize in this way of thinking about the relationship to knowledge an echo of the ancient Dominican motto “contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere” (“contemplate and teach others”).

CG: This Dictionary was conceived in “a scientific spirit,” we read on the back cover. What does this mean?

RS: “Scientific” means many things, from the experimental method of the hard sciences to the discussion of all contradictory propositions in the human sciences, already practiced by Saints Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. To be readable, the Dictionary could not afford either. On the other hand, it deserves the term in the sense that it is directly linked to a scientific project of the École Biblique de Jérusalem: La Bible en ses Traditions (The Bible in its Traditions), under the direction of Brother Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP.

Sacred Scripture exists in three dimensions: it has a past—the conditions of its composition, a present—the text with all its refinements, and a future—its impact on culture, morality, etc. To understand it, it is therefore necessary to combine knowledge of the environments that produced it, literary methods of analysis, and to be attentive to its reception, in particular that for which it is an authority. The Bible in its Traditions is a method of global understanding of Scripture, without exclusivity or reductionism. It is a way of letting revelation breathe in a space that is appropriate to it. Who can contest the scientific nature of such an approach?

CG: Is it compatible to be in this “scientific spirit” and therefore open to new discoveries and at the same time faithful to the faith and to the teaching of the Church whatever happens? How does the scientist who is also a man of faith react when a discovery seems to go against the teaching of the faith?

RS: In faith, certainty is God who is at once the source, the cause and the object of the knowledge that faith possesses of him. The uncertainty lies in the assent we give to him—in other words, in not wanting to believe in God, even though He is the end of our understanding (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ii-iiae q.2 a.1 resp.). If faith saves, it is because it is a voluntary act. The vices that can thwart the operation of the will are, however, manifold: laziness, negligence, superstition, pride, to name but a few.

In short, sympathy for science, hard work, the breadth of knowledge cannot substitute for the adhesion by which the soul submits to the truth of God who reveals himself freely to it. This is the formal reason for faith as a theological virtue. In short, the scholar, like all other Christians, has no other alternative for remaining on the right path than to cultivate virtue.

But we must hasten to add how liberating the supernatural act of faith is for the scholar, for it relieves him of the need to search by force for a proof of faith that the texts, even and especially the sacred ones, will never offer him. The Lutheran theory of sola scriptura obliges one to solicit the texts, to make them say what they do not say. Since fiction cannot hold for long, sola scriptura has caused dogma to fall one after the other. And in return, it is the Bible itself that has become a source of uncertainty and doubt. As Father Lagrange wrote, “It is from [the Reformation] that the study of the Bible dates, not the study of the Bible, but rather the doubt about the Bible.”

CG: You have not sought to take a new, but a renewed, look at Jesus. What do you mean by this?

RS: In 1980, a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem was interpreted as that of Jesus. In 2002, an ossuary was presented as that of James, the “brother of the Lord,” which would have confirmed the authenticity of the 1980 tomb. In 2006, a Gnostic gospel “of Judas” appeared, according to which Jesus himself asked the traitor to hand him over. In 2012, in the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, the master presents Mary Magdalene as his wife. All of these “discoveries” turned out to be forgeries or misinterpretations of authentic texts. The ephemeral excitement that surrounded these publications shows our imaginary and infantile relationship to reality, which makes us give in to the craving for novelty (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4).

But there is no scoop to be made about Jesus. In faith we know all we need to know about him. As far as authentic knowledge is concerned, made up of meditation, of going deeper, of the patient dwelling of the truth deposited in us—this on the other hand is always in need of renewal. The Word came to “dwell with his own” (Jn 1:5); He is therefore there, in the midst, but it is we who are absent: “you were within me, but I was outside myself, and it was in this outside that I sought you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, x, xxvii, 38).

There is always a need to renew one’s knowledge in order to free oneself from hasty patterns of thought, from the conviction—certainly false—that one has done all the work of the Gospel and has nothing to expect from it. This must be done in the school of the great texts, but also of the humble reality unearthed by archaeology and the related sciences.

A few years ago, stone jars were discovered at Cana (cf. Jn 2:6)! They are probably not those of the miracle, but it shows that this village was populated by very observant Jews, the very milieu of Jesus. Study is an asceticism, surely the greatest asceticism there is! Has the Latin Church nurtured greater ascetics than St. Jerome or St. Thomas, those hard workers? But for those who devote themselves to this effort, the Word is always new (cf. Rev 21:5).

CG: In making this Dictionary, which points were the most difficult to synthesize? And what are the most difficult topics to resolve from the point of view of faith?

RS: The Resurrection of Jesus, to which we wanted to give a place in proportion to its importance. The very fact of the Resurrection is not recounted anywhere [outside the Gospels]—because there were no outside witnesses; and the evangelists did not embroider wonderful stories when they did not know! So, we have to fall back on credible witnesses of the Risen One, since we did not see him rise. But this only shifts the problem: they are women, whose testimony has little legal value! One recalls the misogyny of a Renan who described the testimony of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning as follows: “Divine power of love! Sacred moments when the passion of a hallucinated woman offered the world a resurrected God!”

Let us add to this that the Resurrection is, by definition, impossible to describe since it tells of the passage (the “passover”) of Jesus to a new Creation which we cannot experience; that the mode of the Resurrection of Jesus does not correspond to that foreseen by the prophets of Israel—teaching rather a general and simultaneous resurrection. Yet the resurrection constitutes the intimate heart of the proclamation of Christian faith and hope (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). It is impossible to ignore it without betraying the Gospel.

We are left amazed by the simplicity of the means with which the sacred authors overcome this immense difficulty. The resurrection narratives are the least retouched of all the Gospels. They are delivered to us almost in their raw state. They ask us to let ourselves be measured by the event and the word that tells it. To accept it is to grow in faith, and thus to rise a little with Christ. The resurrection narratives form the synthesis and the summit of the Gospel’s power of conviction. They invite us to reread all the teachings of Jesus as seeds that make life sprout where there was nothing.

CG: It is common to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. What do you think of this approach? And is faith still credible in the light of current scientific knowledge?

RS: The expression you quote belongs to the genre of “thinking” (sorry to abuse this beautiful word) by slogan. It is based on the conviction that the “faith” accumulated representations of Jesus, which would have satisfied certain requirements of the religious spirit, as the Church grew outside its original environment.

The Jesus of faith therefore becomes the sum of the answers demanded by the new Christians according to their cultural situation. The divinity of Christ would be the most visible of these borrowed identities, developed in contact with Hellenistic populations familiar with divinized heroes. Hence the need to peel away, by means of criticism, the “Jesus of history” from the various accretions that mask him. Alain de Benoist’s book illustrates this method and shows its limit via the absurd. In tearing off the tunic of Nessus which would be the Jesus of faith, one realizes that the layers are so well integrated with the object studied that the object loses its skin, flesh and bones. In the end, there is nothing left. One wonders how this so-called “Jesus of history,” so insignificant, could have left such a trace.

But this distinction is wrong. The Jesus of faith is nothing other than the trace left by the Jesus of history, the sum of his impact, as it were. Jesus initiates recourse to the testimony of the prophets to speak of him (Mk 12:35-37); he sends out on mission (Mk 6:6-13); he takes care to establish an authentic transmission of his words and actions (Mk 8:18-21); he projects his disciples into a time when they will have to keep his memory in order to understand (Jn 13:7); he institutes the signs that will give body and shape to this memory, especially the Eucharist (cf. Lk 22:19). Between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, there is no unbridgeable gap.

CG: The Bible is undoubtedly the most examined work in the world, dissected from every possible angle, especially since the development of the historical-critical methods. Does the Bible emerge strengthened from these examinations and analyses; or, on the contrary, weakened in its credibility?

RS: Science can be a very violent thing. Laboratory experiments, which give rise to many ethical problems, bear witness to this. There is a certain science which, legislating on phenomena, imposes on them extrinsic grids of analysis which destroy them. One thinks of the Duke of Chevreuse inflicting a thousand tortures on dogs or cats to try to prove that their cries were caused by the shaking of small springs, in accordance with the Cartesian theory of animal-machines.

The undivided domination of the hard sciences in the Western noosphere has resulted in the increased use of intrusive criteria on the Bible. Christians who believe in supernatural revelation do not defend it by subjecting it to these same criteria. Biblical fundamentalism, so regularly condemned by the pontiffs, must appear to us for what it is: a complicity with the dissolution of the Bible by historical methods. Moreover, it is futile: by leaving the choice of weapons and terrain to the adversary, we expose ourselves to certain defeat. But to write an ancient history of Israel by following the biblical account is to provoke the derisio infidelium.

The Bible is strengthened if one analyzes it according to its own criteria, those of ancient literary genres; and if one makes the effort to understand its language, which is often disconcerting. It is thus a precious source for the historian. But the Bible is much more than that—a matrix of culture, religion, morality, philosophy and dogma. On this contemplative domain, that of the spirit, aggressive science has little hold.

CG: The literature on the Bible is so vast now that it is impossible for the educated man of today to know it all. How can you find your way around, and how can the researcher, such as you, take into account all that is published seriously on the Bible?

RS: Give preference to authors who do not simply compile the results of others’ research, but have direct access to the sources and are able to discuss them. The others do not know what they are talking about. Exclude anything that practices methodical deconstruction—its conclusions have no solidity; they fluctuate according to fashion.

CG: Many people think that the Bible is nothing but a series of myths far removed from real history and that it often relates stories that they consider far-fetched and impossible—the fall in the Garden of Eden, the flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, for example. How should the Bible be read? Are there several levels of reading? And how can one distinguish between what belongs to history, to theological teaching or indeed to myth?

RS: Neither the flood, nor the stories of the fall, or the tower of Babel can be proven “scientifically.” Those who claim otherwise are lying or mistaken. Their historicity has nothing to do with the historiographical models claimed by the evangelists, or the deuteronomistic historian (Deuteronomy), or the priestly models (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah). All of these follow very rigorous paradigms—though different from modern ones. Did the Bible in Gen 1-11 collect myths? If one understands this term as a divine revelation about the origin, inaccessible de jure to human observation, then why not. But this must be seriously corrected—because they are very different from the myths vilified by the philosophers.

CG: Our European countries of ancient Christianity, with rare exceptions, such as Poland, have evacuated the question of God, so that the number of truly convinced Christians has become a tiny minority—our contemporaries are much more ignorant of Jesus than hostile. How can we make them rediscover this Jesus who saved the world?

RS: Like Christ, I don’t believe in strategies, tactics or structures of Christianity. Nor do I believe in sociology to prophesy to us whether Christians will be many or few. All that is thinking according to the world.

But I believe that the power of conviction of the Gospel remains intact, if it is preached for what it is—the teaching of the Master who makes faith germinate in souls eager for truth, who tears his disciples away from a world for which he himself has not prayed (cf. Jn 17:9), to which no promise of eternity is attached (cf. Mk 13:31).

The disciple of Christ is the one who receives in his heart this prayer of Bossuet: “O Jesus, I come to you to make this Passover in your company. I want to pass with you from the world to your Father, whom you wanted to be mine. ‘The world is passing away’ (1 Jn 2:17) says your apostle. ‘The face of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31). But I do not want to pass with the world, I want to pass to your Father. This is the journey I have to make. I want to make it with you…. O my savior, receive your traveler. I am ready. I do not care about anything. I want to pass with you from this world to your Father” (Meditations on the Gospel, “The Last Supper”, Part I, Day 2).


Featured image: “Salvator Mundi,” by Leonardo da Vinci, painted ca. 1500.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

Western Civilization Must Be Affirmed

Gerson Moreno-Riaño recently stated, “American colleges and universities have always positioned themselves as the bastions of knowledge and truth for the moral formation of their students. Regardless of intellectual debates surrounding the meaning of such terms, universities in America have never rejected implicit commitment to moral formation.”

By simply using the word “moral,” President Moreno-Riaño is already sending a message that he stands against the trend in modern institutions of higher education. The word “moral” connotes right and wrong within a Judeo-Christian matrix of understanding. The Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself are increasingly portrayed by the apostles of heteronormative reality as covers for a hidden malignancy of exploitation and rejection that is unbecoming of civilized persons.

Instead, we are increasingly told by campus pundits and other self-proclaimed prophets of post-modernism that LGBT+Q (a couple of hundred varieties of sexuality come under the “Q”), feminism, anti-racism, and anti-white, male gender hegemony, are hallmarks of needed change in society.

To this crowd of miscreants – many of whom hold PhDs and teach at leading institutions of higher education – our entire society is living a lie. Our legal system is infected with racism from top to bottom which is why we see proportionally so many more African-Americans and Latinos in prisons than white people. The promotion of whiteness is the historical essence of American society, according to the proponents of the 1619 Project. These non-historians want to claim that the very founding of the USA was to glorify whiteness and to heap contempt on the non-white people of the Earth. We were not founded on true Christian or democratic principles like the furthering of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut that was the first constitution of Connecticut (1642) did not, according to those intent on demonizing whiteness, define the principles of government by which a people living in a state might enjoy self-government. Rather, that constitution like all the mores of colonial America, was a cover for a more sinister cover-up of an inherent, cancerous white supremacy. The underlying motive was not as might appear to be the case: “We deserve to rule ourselves because the principles of self-government are Biblical, and the affirmation of freedom is part of God’s plan for the universe;” but, according to the 1619 Project, that we are only claiming these goods because we are white and based on our racial superiority can and ought to claim them.

Everything we have been and are as a society is merely a rationalization to cover the sense of racial superiority and macho sexuality that underlies anything and everything we have done and achieved, anything and everything we take pride in having accomplished – politically, educationally, economically, medically, scientifically, socially, and legally. Straight male white society has built this monolith called the USA on the suffering of people of color, the oppression of women, the cruel suppression of non-heterosexual persons, and the rejection of Marxist ideology, even though, according to its proponents, that ideology would bring about the betterment of the greatest number of people in our society.

President Moreno-Riaño in the same article quoted above recommends, “the re-integration of the true, beautiful, and good within a context of pervasive and consistent open inquiry.” He also recommends the removal of funding from colleges that fail to do this. This writer found his shift to this position surprising since his article acknowledges that the teaching of Western Civ courses in colleges and universities has been decimated. Instead, this writer would cry out for a re-institution of those courses.

Western Civ encompasses the powerful traditions of Reason, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome; the power of Love via the great Christian commandments of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength; the love of Beauty and Truth in our great literature and art works (John Keats’ “Ode To A Grecian Urn” says it better than this writer); and the great trans-racial and supra-racial achievements of Science, such as humankind has enjoyed since the 16th century. Without acknowledging the highest ideals embodied in Western Civ as being valued above all other ideals, we are doomed to demoralization, disruption, and decay.


Jeffrey Ludwig is presently a lecturer in philosophy and has taught ethics, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of education. He also spent many years teaching history, economics, literature, and writing. For ten years he served as pastor of Bible Christian Church; and his theological focus is on the five solae. He has published three books, the most recent, The Liberty Manifesto, being a series of essays about the importance of reasserting liberty as a social, political, economic, and theological value. His other two books are The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study, and Memoir of a Jewish American Christian.


The featured image shows, “The Architect’s Dream,” by Thomas Cole; painted 1840.

Saint Augustine, First Archbishop Of Canterbury

Together with St. Gregory the Dialogist (Gregory the Great, according to the Western tradition), the Pope of Rome, St. Augustine (also Austin) is venerated as “the Apostle of the English”. He was most probably born in Sicily in the mid-sixth century and became a friend of the future Pope Gregory. In his youth St. Augustine led the monastic life at St. Andrew’s monastery in Rome, which had been founded by St. Gregory, and later became its prior (the abbot’s assistant; with St. Gregory as its abbot). St. Gregory praised Augustine for his brilliant knowledge of the Scriptures and excellent administrative abilities.

Around the year 596 St. Gregory sent Augustine at the head of the mission of forty Italian monks to England. The history of this crucial mission of English and even European history is well-documented and, specifically, described by Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People. The prehistory of this mission is also remarkable. Once St. Gregory happened to visit a slave market in Rome where he spotted three young male slaves with fair hair from northern England. He asked the slave trader who they were and where they came from. The latter answered that they were Angles and brought from Deira (then a kingdom in northern England). The future Pope with all his heart wished that these Angles would became like angels and come from the wrath of God (“de ira” in Latin) to eternal bliss.

So, when the time came, St. Gregory decided to fulfil his great ambition: to re-establish Orthodox Christianity in the now English land (we use here the word “re-establish” knowing that Christianity had existed in Britain during the Roman occupation perhaps from the first century till 410—when the Roman legions withdrew from Britain—but soon after almost completely and rapidly disappeared until the Augustinian mission; while in Wales, Dumnonia,1 Ireland, and Scotland, inhabited by Celtic peoples, a developed Church and monastic life was already flourishing by that time).

On their journey to Albion the missionaries stopped in Gaul, present-day France, where, it is said, St. Augustine performed his first miracle in Anjou: through his prayers a well with miraculous properties gushed forth there. The companions first stopped at the famous Lerins monastery in southern Gaul. Monks in Gaul told the missionaries about the life and customs of the Angles, especially that they were for the most part ferocious and cruel heathen. The fellow-missionaries of Augustine were scared and rather hesitant to go ahead, so it was decided to send St. Augustine back to Rome and ask the Pope Gregory what they should do further. The Pope encouraged Augustine, blessed him to go back, and commanded other brethren not to lose heart, but to go forward without any hesitation. He promised to pray hard for the success of their mission.

In spring 597 the Italian monks, accompanied by a number of Frankish priest-interpreters, arrived on the shores of Kent in the south-easternmost corner of England. According to tradition, they landed in or very near Ebbsfleet in Kent, on the Isle of Thanet which then was separated from the mainland England by a small river or channel, but now is part of the mainland (a memorial cross still stands on the site to commemorate the arrival of the missionaries). At that time Kent was the most influential of all the early English kingdoms and it had mostly been settled by the Germanic tribe of Jutes.

From the year 562 Kent had been ruled by the pagan Ethelbert (later to become St. Ethelbert). Fortunately, his spouse, Queen Bertha—a Frankish princess—was a Christian. Kent had permanent trade links with Gaul and communication with the continent and the Christian world, unlike other local kingdoms. Born in Gaul, Bertha had agreed to marry Ethelbert on condition that she was allowed to practice her Christian faith in England and to take her confessor, the priest Liudhard (+ c. 603) with her. Not only did Ethelbert consent to this condition, but even provided her with a small and ancient church of St. Martin of Tours in Canterbury (though it has since been rebuilt, this very ancient church, which is about 1700 years old, survives to this day).

King Ethelbert knew about the Christian faith and thus received St. Augustine very kindly, but at the same time with caution. He did not invite the saint to his palace, but preferred to talk with him “under an oak tree”, obviously hoping in this way to protect himself from “Christian magic”. The royal residence of the Kentish king was situated in Canterbury, which then was called Durovernum. Tradition tells that the first official meeting between the King and Augustine took place in Richborough near Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet. Augustine was accompanied by his monks: all of them sang beautiful Christian hymns, and welcomed the king with a large silver cross and a large icon of Christ the Savior.

Ethelbert was impressed by the look of the monks and by their speech. There St. Augustine preached his first sermon to Ethelbert through an interpreter, and a chapel was later built there to commemorate the event. St. Ethelbert was more interested in Christ, though confessed he was not yet prepared to embrace the new faith. However, he allowed Augustine and all his brethren to be accommodated in Canterbury (the capital of Kent), to preach Christianity among his subjects freely, and provided them with the church of St. Martin.

According to tradition, on Pentecost Sunday of the same year, 5972, King Ethelbert was baptized at St. Martin’s church, together with many representatives of his nobility. Soon afterwards some 10,000 people of Kent voluntarily resolved to follow their ruler and be illumined by holy baptism. The mass baptism took place in the small River Swale in Kent. It was the first mass conversion to Orthodoxy in the English part of post-Roman Britain. This remarkable event was accompanied by numerous healings and miracles. It is noteworthy that neither Augustine nor King Ethelbert forced any of them to accept baptism—it was the voluntary decision of the people. Among those baptized were Jutes, Angles and Saxons. The monks began to live in Canterbury near the present-day Staplegate, to fast, pray, keep vigil, imitate Christ in their life, to go out to the people and preach the Good News to them. Soon further miracles followed. It was evident that the abundant grace of God had descended on this corner of the future England.

Meanwhile, in the following year of 598, St. Augustine travelled to Gaul for a short time where he was consecrated archbishop. Thus, he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of the English Church. The city of Canterbury ever since has been considered to be the English ecclesiastical capital. On account of his success in his mission in Kent and partly in neighbouring parts of England, St Augustine has been regarded as the enlightener of the Angles, and he shares this title with St. Gregory.

Among the monks who came with Augustine to England there were several other saints: St. Laurence, the second Archbishop of Canterbury (+ 619); St. Honorius, the fifth Archbishop of Canterbury (+ 653); St. Peter, the first Abbot of Canterbury (+ 607); and, probably, St. James (d. late seventh century), an illustrious deacon in York. In the year 601 new missionaries were sent from Rome by St. Gregory, some of whom later became saints as well: the future St. Mellitus, third Archbishop of Canterbury (+ 624); St. Justus, the fourth Archbishop of Canterbury (+ 627); and St. Paulinus, the first Bishop of York (+644). They brought relics, liturgical books, church vessels and vestments from Rome.

St. Augustine founded his Cathedral in Canterbury and dedicated it to Christ the Savior. It was said that an earlier church had existed on the same site, perhaps from Roman times. The present Canterbury Cathedral, the main Cathedral of the Church of England, is the successor of the Cathedral founded by St. Augustine. It is known that the archbishop began building a monastery in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul near the walls of Canterbury, which was completed after his repose. That was the first monastery in England. In Canterbury St. Augustine also built a school where many Christians of that period came to study, and produced many future saints and Church figures. A generation after St. Augustine’s repose this school had already sent missionaries to help enlighten the Kingdom of the East Angles.

St. Peter, mentioned above, became the monastery’s first abbot; but he unfortunately drowned during his journey to Gaul in 607 near Ambleteuse, not far from Boulogne, where his relics are still venerated. Among old Christian churches restored by Augustine in Canterbury let us mention the church of St. Pancras (an early Orthodox boy-martyr in Rome, some of whose relics were later translated to England, where, for example, one of London’s railway stations is called St. Pancras in his honor to this day). Of this once splendid church only ruins survive today.

St. Augustine also founded the diocese of Rochester in the kingdom of Kent. The first bishop of Rochester was St. Justus, who was afterwards raised to the rank of Archbishop of Canterbury. The first Cathedral at Rochester was dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle. One of his subsequent bishops in the seventh century was St. Ithamar, the first English-born bishop, from whose relics miracles were reported. The present Norman Cathedral in the port town of Rochester on the River Medway’s estuary is dedicated to Christ and the Mother of God. It is possible that under St. Augustine a fine church dedicated to St. Sophia, the Wisdom of God, was established in Reculver in Kent. Ruins of this church can be seen to this day.

By the end of his life St. Augustine had founded another diocese—in London, in the Kingdom of the East Saxons, which was at that time also under the control of Kent as St. Ethelbert was recognized as the supreme ruler of all the English lands situated to the south of the river Humber. In all his labors to spread Christianity and establish the Church throughout Kent, St. Augustine was helped by king Ethelbert. The holy king along with his wife Bertha were highly praised by St. Gregory from Rome, who in one of his letters even compared them to Sts. Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

During his ministry in England St. Augustine corresponded regularly with Pope Gregory. Their correspondence, all of which is considered by the majority of researchers to be authentic, survives to this day. Both hierarchs discussed numerous liturgical, pastoral and ritual matters, and methods of missionary work. On the Pope’s advice it was decided to bring the English people to the true faith gradually and not to force anybody to embrace Orthodoxy. All the idols were removed from pagan temples, but the temples themselves were not demolished – they were converted into Christian churches. The missionaries acted little by little.

In order to make the English people give up their old pagan habits, new Christian festivals were established, and the days of their celebration often coincided with the former heathen ones. However, the local customs and traditions which had nothing to do with paganism were not abolished, but were instead preserved and transformed in the light of the Christian life, so that the English people might cultivate their own distinctive Christian culture. The English Church thus was developed after the model of the Roman Orthodox Church but with local customs in mind.

It was recorded that during one of his journeys across the country St. Augustine healed a dumb girl by prayer in Chilham in Kent, and through his prayers, in the settlement of Cerne Abbas in Dorset a stream gushed forth which had healing powers. St. Augustine tried to reconcile the native British people—Britons3 who had a relatively developed Church life—with Angles and Saxons who had come to England from the continent. But despite his efforts, the Britons still regarded Angles as their invaders and enemies—they did not wish to reconcile themselves with them or communicate with them, although the Angles began to come to Christ in numbers. They also refused to recognize St. Augustine as their bishop. It was only closer to the end of the seventh century that the great archpastor, the Greek Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, succeeded in reconciling and bringing together these two peoples—the British and the English.

Augustine’s mission played a huge role in the conversion of Angles and Saxons to Christianity, though the same can be said of that of St. Aidan, the Celtic monk from Ireland who organized a very successful mission from northeastern England some three decades after St. Augustine. The role of both these saints in introducing and spreading Orthodoxy in seventh-century England cannot be overestimated—they lived in somewhat different yet complementary traditions, in the same pure Orthodox spirit. The existence of these two different types of post-Roman Christianity in England enriched the Church and made it more diverse.

St. Augustine lived in England for only seven or eight years but by the end of his life could see the formation of the early English Church with his own eyes. Shortly before his repose, the Savior Himself appeared in a vision to St. Augustine. The holy archbishop passed away soon after his beloved teacher St. Gregory, either in 604 or 605, and was buried at the monastery he had built in Canterbury. It is known that he performed miracles in his lifetime. In the year 747 the official veneration of St. Augustine was confirmed by an English Church Synod in Clovesho.

Miracles continued especially in 1091 after his relics were translated to the new Norman church of the Canterbury monastery (it was at that time that the learned monk Goscelin wrote his famous Life of St. Augustine in two parts, and an account of the translation of his relics). There they were kept until the Reformation, when most of the relics were destroyed. However, small portions of them survived and later were translated to Chilham church in Kent where, unfortunately, they were destroyed as well. A tiny portion of St. Augustine’s relics is kept at the Orthodox Church of St. John of Shanghai in Colchester (Essex) and another small part of a bone was not ago acquired by St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Ramsgate (Kent) which also houses a relic of St. Laurence of Canterbury.

Many Catholic and Anglican parish churches are dedicated to St. Augustine of Canterbury in England, though more are dedicated to Blessed Augustine of Hippo. Only two of the eight ancient manuscripts brought to England by the Italian missionaries 1400 years ago still survive. One of them is a fragment of the Rule of St. Benedict from the early seventh century, which is kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Oxford also has a mid-seventh-century Gospel book associated with St. Augustine), and another is the illumined “St. Augustine’s Gospel” from the early seventh century, which well may have belonged to the saint himself (this is kept at the library of the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). This Gospel is used at the enthronements of the Archbishops of Canterbury to this day (and each time is taken to Canterbury on this occasion).

There are ancient depictions of St. Augustine on a fourteenth-century stained glass window at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, at Canterbury Cathedral (c. 1470), on the miniatures of “the Breviaries of the Duke of Bedford” (1424) as well as on fourteenth-century frescoes at St. Gregory’s Church in Rome. For their contribution to spreading Orthodoxy in England and great support of the Augustine’s mission both King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha were venerated as saints after their repose in 616 and c. 603 (or 612) respectively, though no information on the official feast day of St. Bertha survives. Although after St. Augustine’s death a number of pagan reactions occurred in various parts of southern England, his mission revitalized life in the country and began the long process of its re-Christianization. This mission brought spirituality, learning, art, literature, music, and medicine to the English people who had been in isolation and regress for around two centuries before Augustine.

Let us now talk about the holy sites in Canterbury associated with St. Augustine.

The little church of St. Martin of Tours is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world still in use. A part of it dates back to the late Roman period. Though most of it was rebuilt, part of its construction still includes Roman brickwork. A section of a wall on the south side of its sanctuary is purely Roman. The doorway dates to the Saxon era. The church was obviously enlarged with time (because the number of the faithful townsfolk increased) as the original church was tiny even in comparison with the present structure. It was used as St. Bertha’s private chapel—her confessor, St. Liudhard, served here; after the arrival of Augustine it was restored, and the hierarch himself worshipped here before his main cathedral was completed. Both Sts. Ethelbert (who was baptized here) and Bertha are commemorated in this church: St. Ethelbert is depicted in stained glass which shows his baptism, and St. Bertha in a statue on the Roman wall.

The church font’s upper part is mainly from the twelfth century, while its lower part is much older, and it is quite possible that it was used for the king’s baptism. A curious find was made in St. Martin’s churchyard in the 1840s. A Saxon gold coin, or medal, which was probably used as a medallion, was found here in a woman’s grave. The name of St. Liudhard was inscribed on one side of the coin and a patriarchal cross is depicted on the other side. Thus the existence of St. Liudhard was confirmed for those academics who by that time had begun to doubt it. Now the unique relic is housed at the World Museum in the city of Liverpool.

The ruins of Canterbury Abbey, founded by St. Augustine, is another precious gem. They are located not far from the Cathedral and are now attached to Canterbury’s Kings School. Some consider this school to be the heir of the great school opened by Augustine himself. That school grew into one of the most important in the whole country. It was developed especially under St. Theodore of Canterbury and the Holy Abbot Hadrian of Canterbury (he was a Berber from Africa who ruled the monastery for over forty years until his repose in c.710). For a long time this monastery was the burial site of the abbots and Archbishops of Canterbury and Kings of Kent. It had a huge library and a scriptorium for copying manuscripts. The monastery, originally dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul, was rededicated in the tenth century by St. Dunstan in honor of its founder, St. Augustine.

The medieval monastery was so large that it could be compared with the present huge Canterbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 and gradually ruined—after over 900 years of permanent monastic life, education and learning on this site. Now the ruins are cared for by English Heritage. Large-scale excavation work was carried out here recently and there is a museum/visitors’ center nearby that tells the story of this site—indeed one of the most significant sites in English history. Remains of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul and that of St. Pancras can be distinguished among the ruins. Big bronze statues of Sts. Ethelbert and Bertha stand by the ruins. This is a very holy place also because more early saints were buried here even than at the Cathedral. Lately English Heritage has put markers (some of them symbolic) on the supposed graves of the early saints on the territory of the abbey. (Who knows, maybe the relics of some still lie in the ground under them).

The names of the saints buried at the St. Augustine’s abbey are: St. Augustine (first Archbishop of Canterbury), St. Laurence (second Archbishop of Canterbury), St. Mellitus (third Archbishop of Canterbury), St. Justus (fourth Archbishop of Canterbury), St. Honorius (fifth Archbishop of Canterbury), St. Deusdedit (Frithona in baptism: the first English-born and sixth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 664), St. Theodore of Tarsus (eighth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 690), St. Berhtwald (ninth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 731), St. Tatwine (tenth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 734), St. Nothelm (eleventh Archbishop of Canterbury; + 739), St. Jambert (fourteenth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 792), St. Hadrian of Canterbury, St. Ethelbert of Kent, St. Bertha of Kent, St. Mildred of Minster on Thanet (d. early eighth century; some of her relics were translated here in the first half of the eleventh century to rescue them from the pagan Danes), St. Mildgyth (St. Mildred’s sister, late seventh century).

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Canterbury, the current edifice of which is mainly from the twelfth century and built of Caen stone, is one of the most visited buildings in England, and the historic heart of the English land. The first Cathedral was built by St. Augustine by the year 602. Not long ago part of the Saxon building was discovered under the nave of the present Cathedral. The earliest part of the Cathedral is the crypt—some of it is from the eleventh century. The Cathedral has very many memorials and artefacts, though most of its treasures were barbarously destroyed during the Reformation initiated by Henry VIII nearly 500 years ago. The Cathedral precincts are entered through the impressive Christ Church gates with the splendid figure of Christ above you. The west towers of the Cathedral along with the famous Bell Harry Tower are magnificent. The beautiful huge West Window of the Cathedral is reputedly the oldest surviving stained glass in England (dating to the 1170s).

The twelfth-century murals inside St. Gabriel’s Chapel depict scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The high altar at the end of the Cathedral choir is dedicated to St. Thomas Becket who was murdered in 1170 by knights of King Henry II (the latter then tried to atone for his sin, walking to the Cathedral as a simple pilgrim, praying for his forgiveness at Becket’s tomb and even allowing the Canterbury brethren to whip him). On both sides of the high altar are markers showing the sites of the former shrines of Sts. Dunstan and Alphege, great Orthodox Archbishops of Canterbury. Many sites within the Cathedral are still dedicated to the memory of Thomas Becket, who is venerated by the Catholic Church—his shrine at this Cathedral attracted millions of pilgrims in the Middle Ages, as he was the most venerated Catholic saint of England and one of the most venerated post-schism saints in the whole of Western Europe. Though his shrine and major relics were destroyed during the Reformation, a tiny portion of his relics still survives at the Catholic Church of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury to this day.

Among other treasures of the Cathedral are thirteenth-century stained glass windows with images of various saints (for example, a twelfth-century image of St. Paul the Apostle with a snake), depictions from the life of Christ and, notably, the thirteenth-century Purbeck “St. Augustine’s Chair” on which each Archbishop of Canterbury is officially enthroned. There is also a remarkable chapel dedicated to all the modern martyrs of major Christian denominations, called “the Corona Chapel”. Here is the list of the saints buried within Canterbury Cathedral (nobody knows whether the relics of any of them still rest concealed there or not, though the Lord may reveal it one day):

St. Cuthbert (twelfth Archbishop of Canterbury; +760), St. Bregwin (thirteenth Archbishop of Canterbury; +764), St. Ethelhard (fifteenth Archbishop of Canterbury; +805), St. Plegmund (twentieth Archbishop of Canterbury; + c.923), St. Athelm, or Athelhelm (twenty-first Archbishop of Canterbury; + c. 927), St. Odo, or Oda the Good, or Severe (twenty-third Archbishop of Canterbury; + c.958), St. Dunstan (twenty-sixth Archbishop of Canterbury; + 988), St. Aelfric (twenty-ninth Archbishop of Canterbury; not to be confused with the learned abbot, scholar and spiritual writer Aelfric of Eynsham; +1005), St. Alphege the Martyr (thirtieth Archbishop of Canterbury; +1012), St. Aethelnoth the Good (thirty-second Archbishop of Canterbury; +1038), St. Eadsige (thirty-third Archbishop of Canterbury; + c.1050), St. Swithin of Winchester (his head relic rested here; +862), St. Wulganus (an eighth century British missionary who enlightened the Atrebati in Gaul and lived as hermit in Arras; a portion of his relics rested here).

As we can see, twenty-two early (and Orthodox) Archbishops of Canterbury were canonized—and St. Augustine is at the head of them. During the Second World War Canterbury was heavily damaged by Luftwaffe bombs but the cathedral was rescued by the city residents and, of course, through intercession of St. Augustine. As we know, a similar miraculous event happened in Durham in 1943: St. Cuthbert whose relics rest there saved the city of Durham and its cathedral from Luftwaffe bombs by hiding them in thick fog!

The Way of St. Augustine” is a pilgrimage trail from Ramsgate to Canterbury embracing some 20 miles and covering places associated with St. Augustine. It begins from the Catholic church-shrine of St. Augustine in Ramsgate and passes, among other places, through the village of Cliffsend (according to one version, it was here that the saint first landed in England; the Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa also landed here in 449 A.D. to settle in England), St. Augustine’s cross, Minster-on-Thanet, and Fordwich near Canterbury (claiming to be the smallest English town; it has the old St. Mary’s church which houses a tomb believed to be the one that once contained St. Augustine’s relics).

Holy Hierarch Augustine, pray to God for us!


Dmitry Lapa writes about Orthodox history and faith. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.


The featured image shows, “St Augustine at Ebbsfleet,” by Frank Brangwyn, painted in 1920.

Something About Those Ancient Greeks

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country, ancient Greece. We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world).

Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks. And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago. There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect. And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom. This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to them so that they may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society. This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world. The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders. Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind. Thus, to study both these civilizations is to begin to fully understand our own.

Earliest History of Greece

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery helps us to demarcate the various phases of material culture. For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the various islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The Minoans

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C. It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.” But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was because of the labyrinthine nature of the palace’s layout that Evans called the civilization that he discovered, “Minoan,” after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal. It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for it.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B. The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 when Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language. When the rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group. Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos? This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The Mycenaean Age

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops. Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry. He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language. All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land they came to inhabit.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C. And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before. It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by the historians of this era.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

These clues points to one conclusion. The Mycenaeans came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns. And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is a member of the Indo-European group of languages – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece. In the latter years of the third millennium, there were Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead. From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their descendents) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendents, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek.

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since there is a pronounced similarity, for example, between the myths of the various Indo-European peoples. The branch of Indo-Europeans that veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece and set up suzerainty over them. The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued. By 1600 B.C. they had established a thriving culture, attested by the rich finds in the shaft-graves of Mycenae.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans struck southward and conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization. But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for it was soon after they had conquered Crete that the Mycenaeans adopted the art of writing invented by the Minoans, but they had adapt it to their own language, since the alphabet was not really useful for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear alphabet.

The Bronze Age Collapse

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” during which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground. The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword. The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization. Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared. The group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried. It is from the various dialects of these new invaders that the Greek language developed.

The Ancient Dark Age

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization. There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns. The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions. They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

The Archaic Period

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade. The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens. As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of a greater population, colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea. All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C. And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live. Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

C.B. Forde lives, thinks, dreams in a rural setting.


The featured image shows, “Dance in ancient Greece,” by Johan Raphael Smith ca. 19th century.

Birds in Palaeolithic Portable Art

Here is an excerpt from Richard Pope’s intriguing new book about man’s long fascination with birds and flight. It’s called, Flight from Grace, and the little sample that follows wonderfully demonstrates the genius of early man. The book takes wing immediately with little-known facts, supplemented by astonishing images of artifacts that stand testament to the human spirit.


Portable art, which includes carvings, figurines, and engravings on ivory, stone, bone, and antler, is found often, but not exclusively, in caves. Bird representations are not uncommon in this art, particularly in the Magdalenian period (15,000–10,000 BCE). In French Palaeolithic art alone, out of 121 possible bird representations, Dominique Buisson and Geneviève Pinçon accept 81 as certain. Of these 81 sure bird representations, 15 (19 per cent) are on cave walls and 67 (81 per cent) are portable. Birds are much more common in portable art everywhere during the Palaeolithic. It is also striking that of the 81 sure French birds, almost half of which are not identifiable to species (47.6 per cent), 37 per cent represent either web-footed birds like ducks, geese, and swans or crane-like waders, and 10 per cent are raptors. The popularity of these waterbirds and raptors is also attested throughout Palaeolithic bird art in general. R. Dale Guthrie is right to point out that not all of these representations are masterpieces. Often carved in difficult materials, they range from the relatively crude to the superb. The artistic quality of these birds would not, however, have affected their function as amulets, pendants, charms, and ex-votos.

Flying waterbird Hohle Fels Cave ca 28000 BC.

At the mention of mammoth-ivory sculpture of the Palaeolithic, one’s first thought is of the numerous figurines of plump females – the so-called Palaeolithic Venuses – found from Spain right across to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. What is interesting for us, however, is the common association of these Venuses with carvings of birds. Although these early Venuses are never bird-headed, as they often are in the Neolithic, these cult objects are often found in association with bird figurines and pendants. The Palaeolithic Venuses are thought by many to be figures with cult significance, and I believe that the bird figurines generally reflect the same cult status and represent various early forms of bird worship.

Perhaps our oldest known bird sculpture, dating from at least 28,000 BCE, is a mammoth-ivory carving found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany – a charming representation of a flying waterbird, thought by some (not birders, I suspect) to be a cormorant but almost certainly some kind of duck. You can even see the feathers carved on the bird’s side. The only representation of a bird that is older is the Chauvet engraved owl and perhaps a partridge/quail engraving on a flint flake, discussed below.

Before considering this bird’s significance, it is interesting to note what else was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the period dating from before or around 30,000 BCE. There is an ivory Löwenmensch similar to, although less exquisite and smaller than, the famous one found in the Stadel Cave, which is known to date from about 38,000 BCE. Significantly, these Löwenmensch figurines are not carvings of humans wearing lion masks but of human figures with lion heads. They are monstrous hybrids that could exist only in the human imagination but must have been part of the local belief structure, as we can deduce from the fact that we have two such figurines from two different caves in the Swabian Jura, where one of the earliest settlements of human beings in Europe took place. Our oldest Palaeolithic Venus, possibly a pendant, was unearthed here in 2008 and found to be at least 37,000 years old; fragments of a second one were discovered in 2015. Although it seems slightly younger, dating from about 26,000 BCE, we also have a carved stone phallus measuring nearly 8 inches (20 centimetres), almost certainly associated with some kind of ritual or ceremony concerning procreation and fertility, as are the Palaeolithic Venuses. A stunning find was a fivehole flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture dating from about 33,000 BCE – an object suggestive of the dance floor, which is so closely connected to the origins of the sacred. Lastly, dating from about 28,000 BCE, there is a carving of the head of a horse, notably not a major food item for these humans, that is reminiscent of the horses in cave wall art. Clearly, this cave was some kind of sanctuary where religious beliefs were manifested. So, although we can never know the meaning of any Palaeolithic work of art for certain, the fact that the bird carving was found in the same cave as carvings of naked women, a Löwenmensch, a phallus, a horse, and a flute suggests that something more than art classes was taking place in this early cave and that our bird very likely had some kind of cult importance in the belief structure of these early humans.

We also have a number of exquisite flying-bird pendants (and three that are not flying) from the incredible Mal’ta site in Siberia northwest of Lake Baikal, excavated by the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov. Most of them were found in connection with hearths, and cult status is nearly certain. Several of them were found in the famous grave of a four-year-old child, the same child who clinched the genetic link between the Mal’ta-Buret’ people and North American Indigenous peoples. These mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants were originally thought to date from 23,000–19,000 BCE, although more recent radiocarbon dating has suggested a somewhat later Magdalenian date around 15,000 BCE.

Mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants, Mal’ta, ca. 15,000 BC.

Most of the Mal’ta bird figurines represent flying waterfowl, probably swans judging by the long necks. Thirteen of them are very similar in shape and are both phallic and snakelike in form, suggesting connections between the bird deity and two other potent symbols of the sacred.

In western Europe, echoing Mal’ta, we again find representations of waterfowl: a carving of waterfowl with young at the Mas d’Azil Cave, a swan engraved on stone at the Gourdan Cave and one at the Teyjat Cave, a duck/goose engraved on horn at Gourdan and one at the Caves of Nerja, and a duck engraved on stone at the Cave of Espélugues in Lourdes. Michèle Crémades and colleagues illustrate several ducks from the Parapalló and Escabasses Caves and geese from the Labastide and Gourdan Caves.

Waterbirds, such as grebes, loons, ducks, geese, and swans, were sacred to subsistence-hunting peoples in the Palaeolithic and still revered in the Neolithic and historic periods. Diving birds, like the zhingibis (grebe and the maang (loon), still play an important role to this day in Ojibwe trickster stories and creation legends, as well as in the Ojibwe clan system, where we find Crane, Loon, Black Duck, and Goose among the totems. You might well ask, why diving birds? But think about it: grebes, loons, and diving ducks are perhaps the only creatures that are at home in the murky depths of lakes and rivers, nest on dry land, and are at home in the sky, being strong migratory fliers. The ability to survive in all three elements makes them obvious candidates for magical status.

Duck/goose engraved on horn found in the Gourdan Cave, 17,000–10,000 BC.

Equally important, ducks, geese, swans, and cranes are markers of the retreat and reappearance of winter; they are among the last to leave in autumn and the first to arrive in spring. Migration must have been very mysterious and seemed magical, like eclipses and solstices; birds, the sun, and the seasons disappear and then, hopefully, reappear – a source of major anxiety. Wherever did these mysterious beings go? What if they did not reappear? Hence the reverence for waterbirds, the sun, and the spring, along with the need to devise rituals in order to ensure their return. And last but not least, ducks, geese, and swans were a crucial food source for the people who hunted them, collected their eggs, and reaped them in great numbers during the flightless period of the moult. It is natural to revere fellow creatures that you rely on for food. These are birds you would not want to offend lest they abandon you. Perhaps indicative of their power is the touching, late-Neolithic burial at Vedbaek in Denmark of a tiny baby boy next to its young mother, the baby cradled in a whooper swan’s wing. The swan may have been meant to escort the child to the other world.

It is interesting to note that this waterfowl cult persisted in various societies throughout the Neolithic until modern times. In Russia and Siberia, Margarita Aleksandrovna Kiriyak tells us, “[b]irds are a widespread subject of rock drawings in the Neolithic art of north Eurasian tribes. Both waterfowl and birds of prey are encountered among the images.” There are also many carvings. She provides us with a photograph of a beautifully carved, upright goose made of smoky obsidian that is sitting with its neck stretched up, found at the Neolithic Tytyl’ IV site in western Chukhotka. Joseph Campbell points out that “early Russian missionaries and voyagers in Siberia … found among the tribes numerous images of geese with extended wings.” Steven Mithin reminds us that, “[a]mong the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and waterfowl were the messengers of the gods.” The Canadian High Arctic was peopled by immigrants from Siberia, so we are not surprised to find Palaeo-Eskimo carvings of birds, such as waterbirds, cranes, and falcons, like the carvings of the Dorset (Tuniit) culture (500 BCE–ca. 1200 CE), which long preceded the later Inuit culture. Coastal-dwelling peoples who made their living from the sea revered the seabirds, which were so crucial to their existence. Newfoundland’s Beothuks, for example, appear to have had such “birds at the centre of their belief system.” Beothuks were buried in seaside graves with the feet of actual birds – guillemots – attached to their leggings and with various carved and engraved ivory and bone pendants, of which over 400 have been found, all plausibly identified as representing seabirds’ feet, seabirds’ primary wing feathers, or the tails of Arctic terns in flight. Since one equips the dead with precisely those items needed for the journey to the afterlife, which in this case entailed flight over water to an island paradise, these birds were doubtless crucial helpers serving in their classic role as psychopomps.

In his Folklore of Birds (1958), Edward Armstrong devotes three whole chapters to the ubiquitous cult of waterfowl – geese, swans, and loons in particular – that survives in later, worldwide folklore. This was a tenacious tradition!

Among the long-legged waders, cranes are well attested in Palaeolithic art. Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Stéphane Madelaine, after careful study of a Magdalenian engraving on a perforated stick of reindeer antler from Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region, convincingly established that the engraved wader was a common crane by cleverly fitting two separate pieces back together. They say that there is a striking similarity between this bird and the two engraved on the piece of schist found in the Labastide Cave, which they take to be cranes as well. Crémades and colleagues illustrate a crane-like wader found in the Gargas Cave in the Pyrenees and add three recently discovered engraved cranes, one on a spear point, from Magdalenian sites in the Pyrenees. In the Belvis Cave, there is an engraving on bone of a very odd, horizontal wading bird – longnecked like a crane or heron. In the Morín Cave, there is an engraving on a rib fragment of what appear to be five overlapping bird heads; although Don Hitchcock thinks that they are ducks or swans, I think that they look more like large, long-billed waders – cranes or herons. In any case, this edible, upright, dancing bird, which marked off the seasons by its migration, was obviously very special for early modern humans. It is not surprising, then, that among the special dances performed in ancient Greek sanctuaries was the Crane Dance, performed “with tortuous, labyrinthian movements.”

After the owls in the Chauvet and Trois Fréres Caves, it will come as no surprise that owls figure in Palaeolithic portable art as well. We have at least four very old owl representations dating from about 25,000 BCE at the sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in Moravia in the Czech Republic. Two are owl pendants, which were probably worn either for clan reasons or as amulets offering protection by a deity, just as one might wear a Saint Christopher medal or a cross around one’s neck today or hang a Magnetic Mary in the car. The other two are baked-clay figurines of owls, neither of which are earless, making them perhaps Eurasian eagle-owls. There is also an Upper Palaeolithic owl carved from an animal tooth that was found in the Mas d’Azil Cave, which is quite similar to the Dolní Věstonice figurines. Lastly, we have a handle of some sort with a carved face of an owl found at the Russian site of Avdeevo dating from about 19,000–18,000 BCE.

Owl pendant found at Pavlov, ca. 25,000 BC.

Waterbirds and owls do not exhaust our list of birds in Palaeolithic portable art. In Mezin, a Magdalenian settlement near Kiev, six little mammoth-ivory figurines of birds were found dating from about 15,000– 13,000 BCE. They are beautifully and delicately carved with fat bodies and flat tails and incised with delicate patterns of lines presenting our earliest known example of the meander pattern. Some are flying birds and some are not, and none of them seem to be waterfowl. They appear to represent plump, edible birds, and judging by their fat bodies and longish, flat tails, my best guess is that they represent some kind of a grouse, partridge, or ptarmigan. They are linked to the goddess motif by the etched pubic triangles – vulva symbols – on their backs.

Ptarmigan will continue to be an important theme in art when we move into the Neolithic. In far northeastern Russia in Chukhotka, among the many small stone bird carvings, we find a number of ptarmigan.

Baked-clay figurine of an owl, Dolní Věstonice, ca. 25,000 BC.

It is noteworthy that grouse and ptarmigan were also revered in western Europe. There is a detailed carving of a grouse, with the head missing, on the end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, made of antler that was found in Mas d’Azil. The Gönnersdorf Cave, an Upper Palaeolithic site on the Middle Rhine with over 150 engravings of animals on slate, also has a few lifelike bird engravings from around 15,000 BCE, one of which is a ptarmigan. A bird that Armstrong, probably rightly, takes to be a ptarmigan engraved on a reindeer antler was found in the Isturitz Cave. There is an engraving on a limestone pebble from Laugerie-Basse that is either a corvid – scavenging bird – or a capercaillie.

There is a bird engraved using the sunken relief method on a flint flake found at the open-air site Cantalouette II in the Dordogne region. It is interesting because of the sunken relief technique and its Aurignacian origins (33,000–29,000 BCE). It is one of our oldest pieces of Palaeolithic bird art – along with the Hohle Fels waterbird and the Chauvet owl – and it may be a grey partridge or a common quail.

The grouse/ptarmigan can hardly have been a fortuitous choice for carvers; to assume that it is just a pretty design is an anachronistic assumption. Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists did not work that way; this crucial winter food source was probably chosen for clan and totem reasons or because the carvings were seen as fetishes and carried with one to please and appease the grouse spirit. These carvings were not baubles.

There seem to be few Palaeolithic representations of birds other than waterbirds, birds of prey, namely owls, and birds of the grouse type in our early portable art. There is a bird pendant carved from a cave bear’s canine tooth that was found in the Solutrean layer (20,000–15,000 BCE) of the Buxu Cave in Spain. It is thought to be some kind of crake or other member of the Rallidae family, although that is doubtful. There are a few bustards, like the two from the Gourdan Cave, one from Laugerie-Basse, and one from Abri de la Madeleine, although they can be hard to tell from geese. There is a bird, together with a bison, engraved on sandstone in the Cave of Puy-de-Lacan, and it is usually thought to be a long-legged duck or goose, although it is much more likely a bustard. Apart from these edible birds, there are hardly any others.

Mammoth-ivory bird effigy, Mezin, 15,000–13,000 BC.

The great tradition of Palaeolithic art came to an end around 9500 BCE after at least 25,000 years, “perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has ever known.” The uniformity of subjects and techniques over so long a period is astounding.

What we see in these bird drawings, figurines, pendants, and engravings is a 20,000-year continuum of representations of various birds that demonstrates the persistence of the bird as cult object and sacred amulet throughout the Palaeolithic. It is not accidental that birds, snakes, Venuses, and penises turn up so regularly in this animistic culture, where humans need all the help that they can get to survive. It will not be surprising if earlier finds from the Middle Palaeolithic (298,000–48,000 BCE) turn up, and if they do, we can bet that among them there will be birds.

As we prepare with regret to leave the Palaeolithic and enter the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (10,000–6500 BCE), what can we conclude about the role of birds in human eyes up to this time? Any thought that birds were just pretty or edible creatures that could serve as the subjects of objets d’art must be banished. As Armstrong puts it, “to man in the Old Stone Age [or Palaeolithic] birds were not merely acceptable as food but symbolized mysterious powers which pervaded the wilderness in which he hungered, hunted and wove strange dreams.” Birds, in various forms, from diving birds to owls and grouse, were sacred and thought to have spirits whose help was sought for coping with life and death. Birds were carved from mammoth ivory, bone, antler, and stone, depicted on atlatls, worn on the body as pendants, buried in the grave with children, carried as fetishes, or simply kept as cult representations deep in caves, where they were painted or etched on the walls of inner sanctum rooms in positions of honour that reflected the degree of sacredness imputed to these feathered deities. From our earliest Upper Palaeolithic finds at Hohle Fels and Chauvet to our youngest ones at Lascaux and Mas d’Azil, the importance of birds for humans remains paramount.


The featured image shows, “Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (the actress),” by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, painted ca. 1738.

The Sana’a Manuscripts: Early Koran?

The Sana’a manuscripts were discovered in the Grand Mosque of the city of Sana’s, Yemen, in 1972, by construction workers, who gathered up all the old, rotting pages, stuffed them into potato bags, and left them beneath some stairs. Nothing was done until 1981, when Professor Gerd R. Puin, the leading scholar of Arabic orthography and Koranic paleography, undertook a systematic study. In this interview, Professor Puin speaks of the discovery and his study.

He is interviewed here by Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr, the current head of Inarah, the foremost institute for the study of early Islam. Inarah publishes a yearly collection of work, of which the most recent edition is now available. Dr. Kerr’s work has appeared frequently in the pages of the Postil, including his recent article on the true meaning of “Mecca.”

This is a truly a fascinating interview…

Unfortunately for English readers, the majority of the important work being done on early Islam is in German and French. Perhaps, in the future, this will be rectified by way of good translations of this important work, which has entirely rewritten the history of the beginnings of Islam.

The featured image shows a leaf from the collection of fragments housed at Stanford University. This is “Sana’a1 Stanford ’07,” recto, which dates to before 671 AD.

The Original Islamic Hajj To Jerusalem

The Islamic claim to historicity is well known, but its true history is hidden in countless individual details, each of which requires individual investigation, as has been shown by Inârah’s researches. For Islam, the so-called “five pillars” (arkān al-Islām or arkān ad-dīn “the pillars of faith”) constitute the actual fundamental rituals of Islam, which are considered obligatory by the faithful and form the basis of Muslim life (cf. the so-called Gabriel Hadith). These are:

  1. The Shahāda, the creed of Islam (“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God”);
  2. Ṣalāt, daily ritual prayer towards Mecca (location of the Kaʿba), the qibla, which is to be performed at fixed times (awqāt) five times a day and which is also the supreme duty of all Muslims;
  3. The Zakāt, the obligatory giving of a certain portion of one’s possessions to the needy and other specified groups of people;
  4. The Ṣaum, the fast between dawn and sunset during the month of Ramaḍān;
  5. The Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of dhu l-ḥiǧǧah.

Something about the history of Islam’s development is made clear by the observation that none of these rites can basically be considered exclusively Islamic, which is confirmed by the fact that all these terms are borrowed from Aramaic (which in turn took the last four from Hebrew).

Thus, we have made a small step forward in deciphering the Islam’s path of development, namely the significant role of Aramaic (Syriac)-speaking Eastern Christianity, of which some groups, among other things, rejected the divinity of Christ, and which must be regarded as the actual substrate of Islam.

But here we are largely in the Late Antique Near East, east of the Euphrates, i.e., in Mesopotamia, far away from Mecca in the endless desert of the Ḥijāz, where according to later Islamic tradition the birthplace of a “Muḥammad,” and thus of Islam, is said to be located. After all, the second and fifth pillars of Islam listed above seemingly refer to this city. In the Qur’an itself, however, the word Mecca (Makka) is explicitly mentioned only once, in Sura 48:24: “And He it is Who hath withheld men’s hands from you, and hath withheld your hands from them, in the valley of Mecca, after He had made you victors over them. Allah is Seer of what ye do.”

It is often asserted, usually accompanied by claims to otherwise unknown phonetic changes, that the mention of Bakka in 3:96 also refers to this city: “Indeed, the first House (inna awwala baytin) established for mankind is surely the one at Bakka, blessed, and a guidance for (all creatures in).”

And according to most commentators, 14:37 is supposed to describe this location in more detail: “Our Lord! Lo! I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near unto Thy holy House (ʿinda baytika l-muḥarami), our Lord! that they may establish proper worship; so incline some hearts of men that they may yearn toward them, and provide Thou them with fruits in order that they may be thankful.”

The precise relationship of Mecca to Bakka remains unclear, and linking them together requires a leap of faith, especially since Mecca itself is only attested very late and then only in Islamic sources which are otherwise uncorrelated. The Qur’an only speaks of an unspecified valley.

Bakka, on the other hand, according to the Qur’an, is home to “the first house,” which in our opinion was not founded for the people, but by the people (lilnnāsi – li– then here as the so-called Lamed auctoris). If “the first house” means (the) temple, i.e., the supposed earthly dwelling place of God, which would then also be the “holy house,” it is conceivable that 14:37 actually refers to this, which could mean a valley known as Bakka.

Islamic orthopraxy, being itself relatively late, offers no support in this regard. Islamic tradition itself notes that the original direction of prayer was not towards Mecca, but northwards or towards Syria (aš-šam); Muhammad is said to have changed this only in Madīna, after the Jews there refused to convert. But in the Islamic sources, the creation of legends is widespread and, as usual, quite contradictory with many subsequent attempts at harmonisation.

Thus, Mecca as the (original) point of reference for Islamic prayer is clearly an invention of later tradition – it should be mentioned in passing here that qibla in the sense of “direction of prayer,” in the Qur’an only 2,142- 145, can probably be interpreted more meaningfully as Kabbalah in the older Jewish sense of this term, namely as “(previously) revealed scriptures” (esp. the Hebrew Bible, excluding the Torah).

As for the pilgrimage (to Mecca; cf. the Hebrew term ḥag, which is used in the biblical context for the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and from which Hajj ultimately derives), this is attested in the verse subsequent to the mention of Bakka, i.e. 3:97: “… And pilgrimage to the House (ḥiǧǧu l-bayti), is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither…”

The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca consists of various elements: on 8 Dhu l-Ḥiǧǧah in Mecca after entering the consecrated state of Ihram, the first Ṭawāf (the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaʿba) is performed; this is followed by the Sa’i, the run between the hills Safa and Marwa (aṣ-Ṣafā wal-Marwa); after this pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well, after which they go to the plains of Mount ʿArafāt to keep watch; then they spend a night on the plains of Muzdalifa, and a symbolic stoning of the devil is performed by lapidating three pillars. Afterwards, the pilgrims shave their heads, perform a sacrificial ritual and celebrate the three-day festival ʿīdu l- aḍḥā.

Julius Wellhausen postulated that the original Hajj was a ritual that only included the stations in the ʿArafāt plain, in Muzdalifa and in Mina, but had nothing to do with the Meccan sanctuary of the Kaʿba (Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin, 1897, 79-84). We will then leave the former out of consideration here; in the Qur’an, the Kaʿba (Arab. “Parthenon;” that is a shrine originally dedicated to the virgin mother of Dushara/Dionysus/ Bacchus) is mentioned only twice, 5:95 and 97 (“Allah has made the Kaʿba, the inviolable House, a place of prayer for mankind (l-kaʿbata l-bayta l-ḥarāma qiyāman lilnnāsi“), as well as the sacred month and the sacrificial animals and the animals with the neck ornaments.

This is so that you may know that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on earth, and that Allah knows all things”), whereby the reference to a specific place is not given. According to today’s understanding of the Meccan part of the rite, only Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa) can be located near Mecca, the course between these two hills being given by 2:158: “Lo! (the mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House (of Allah) or visiteth it, to go around them (as the pagan custom is). And he who doeth good of his own accord, (for him) lo! Allah is Responsive, Aware.” Again, there is no direct reference to Mecca here.

The conclusion so far, briefly summarised:

Mecca is mentioned once in the Qur’an (48:24), but not in relation to the Hajj. Another verse (3:96) mentions a “first house” located at Bakka, which is possibly also mentioned in 14:37 (does the one and only Allah inhabit more than one house?). A pilgrimage to the “house” is suggested in 3:97.

The run between Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa), which forms part of the Islamic Hajj, is conditionally prescribed in 2:158. From this patchwork of Qur’anic verses, the Islamic pilgrimage in and around Mecca emerged at some point, when cannot be ascertained hitherto. In the Semitic languages, the noun bayt “house” can also be used in the sense of a temple dedicated to a deity, often in a genitive compound (“in the house of the Lord,” bə-ḇêṯ-Yahweh, e.g. Psalm 134:1).

In biblical tradition, this term in the cultic sense actually always refers to the Jerusalem Temple; its use for an unknown, historically at best insignificant sanctuary far away in the Ḥijāz seems strange.

With regard to Jerusalem, however, in the Jewish Antiquities Flavius Josephus’ account of Alexander the Great at Jerusalem, where he is said to have sacrificed to Yahweh in the Temple according to the instructions of the High Priest (here, since our interest remains purely geographical, the historicity of the event is insignificant), we read XI.329 (ed. Whiston): “And when he understood that he was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations. It reached to a place called Sapha, which name, translated into Greek, signifies a ‘prospect’ (σκοπόν), for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and of the temple (τά τε γὰρ Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ τὸν ναὸν συνέβαινεν ἐκεῖθεν ἀφορᾶσθαι).”

This place is none other than Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (today the main site of the Hebrew University), one of the highest places in that city (cf. one of the Arabic names: ğabal al-mašārif). The Hebrew name har haṣ-ṣōfīm “Watchman’s Mountain” confirms Josephus’ indication. In postbiblical Hebrew, a ṣōf is a pilgrim who has seen Jerusalem, cf. another Arabic name ğabal almašhad “Witness Mountain” (cf. above on the ‘first pillar’). This mountain in Arabic rendering is then none other than aṣ-ṣafā.

In the biblical tradition (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1; the Targum to Song of Songs 4:6 etc.) the Temple Mount (har hab-báyiṯ is Mount Moriah (har ham-moriyyāh; where according to Genesis 22:2 the sacrifice of Isaac almost took place), i.e. in Arabic, Marwa. On the basis of these explanations, we have in Jerusalem the “house” (scil. of God – báy(i)t), undoubtedly in the monotheistic understanding “blessed and a guidance for the worlds” (Q3,96), on the Temple Mount, that is Moriah/Marwa as well as the second mountain Scopus/har haṣ-ṣōfīm/aṣṣafā. All that remains is Bakka (3:96) and a “barren valley” (or wadi 14:37) near to the “house of God” (bi-wādin ġayri ḏī zarʿin ʿinda baytika l-muḥarrami).

A valley named Bakka, however, is mentioned in the Bible, Psalm 84:7: “ 5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house (bêṯäḵā); in whose heart are the ways of them. 6 Who passing through the valley of Baca (bə-ʿämäq hab-bākkā – lit. “Valley of Weeping”) make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah. 9 Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”

To all appearances, in this conception rendered here by the Psalmist, the valley of ‘weeping’ or Bakka (from the root bkw, also the origin of Bacchus, see above) is not far from Jerusalem. In the Targum of this psalm verse, the valley of tears/ʿämäq hab-bākkā is rendered “valley of Gehenna”, also the Talmudic understanding, because those damned to hell are said to wail and shed copious tears due to their infernal fate (Eruvin 19a). The Gehenna Valley, where child burnt offerings were once made to Yahweh (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Jeremiah 19:2) was close to Jerusalem.

The historical site of the pre-exilic Moloch sacrifices (apparently the present-day wādī ar-rababi) was not, however, the same as that of Late Antique biblical exegesis, which called it the Kidron Valley (Hebrew naḥal qiḏron “the valley of darkness;” its upper course, significantly, in Arabic is wādī annār “the valley of fire”) or the Jehoshaphat Valley, according to Joel 3:1-3/4:1-3: “For behold, in those days and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people, and for mine heritage Israel: whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. And they have cast lots for my people, and have given the child for the harlot, and sold the girl for wine, that they might drink.”

This infernal valley is by definition barren and, moreover, adjacent to the Temple Mount (ʿinda baytika l- muḥarami), vividly illustrating the contrast between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘light’ and ‘bright’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘damned’. This Judeo-Christian exegetical tradition is carried on without exception by the Islamic tradition, the valley is here called wādī al-ğahannam “Hell Valley,” suspended over which at the end of times during the Last Judgement, will be aṣ-ṣirāṭ (“way, path, road,” here rather “bridge”) connecting the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, which in Islamic eschatology must be crossed by the deceased to reach Paradise.

This eschatological gangplank is said to be as thin as a hair, and underneath it is the abyss to hell: those who have no trust in God will falter and waver and thereupon fall thither, those however who trust God and are forgiven their transgressions shall cross unhindered. Wellhausen’s insightful suggestion to separate the Meccan parts of the Hajj rite from those taking place extra muros is thus seemingly accurate – the proto-Islamic pilgrimage clearly went to Jerusalem, which is actually hardly surprising. Here are located the “House (of God),” the barren valley of Bakka, as well as aṣ-ṣafā and al-marwa.

Not only is their geographical location in (post)biblical tradition assured, they also fulfil a significant function in sacramental economy that is entirely absent in Mecca. In later Islamic tradition, some Umayyad caliphs were accused of having diverted the Hajj from Mecca to Jerusalem – in the 7th century, however, one cannot yet speak of “Islam” in the proper sense – here we are probably dealing with a later memory of a past time in which pilgrimages were still made to Jerusalem, which was then considered heretical after the complete transfer of the sacred geography of the rite to Mecca.

What we have then is a memory of a time in which the Hajj was to Jerusalem, which naturally later was seen as heretical. Thus, it is clear that the roots and motifs that define the Hajj stem entirely from biblical tradition; only much later were they recast so as to fit in with emerging innovative Islamic orthopraxy.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The featured image shows, “Vallée de la bekaa, liban,” by Anne Baudequin.