My annoyance with Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape led me to revisit the rather better-received The End of Faith, which I’d disliked for a range of reasons when I’d first read it a few years ago.
It turns out that on close reading, the book's even worse than I remembered. The chapter entitled ‘In the Shadow of God’, for instance, is intended as a sweeping historical overview of Christian wickedness, but is riddled with clichés and errors that should cause any informed atheist to cast the book aside in embarrassment.
Among the chapter’s more egregious blunders…
- Harris seems oblivious to the fact that heresy and apostasy are very different things in the Christian mind, and thinks Christians regard Jews as heretics of a particularly offensive kind, despite St Thomas Aquinas, for instance, explicitly saying that the disbelief of heretics is more sinful than that of Jews.
- Harris says Christianity became Rome’s state religion under Constantine in 312 although this didn’t happen until 380 under Theodosius.
- Harris misses the import of a passage from Bertrand Russell he quotes in his endnotes and proclaims in his main text that the Inquisition began in 1184, rather than almost fifty years later.
- Harris declares that it was only after 1215 that the belief that the communion host was transformed into the body of Christ became a dogma and centrepiece of Christian faith, despite numerous clear attestations to that effect over the previous thousand years and more.
- Harris cites a sixteenth-century execution to support his claim that it was a capital offence in the Middle Ages to own a Bible in any of Europe’s vernacular languages, apparently ignorant of how the sixteen century certainly wasn’t in the Middle Ages, and how prior to the early Modern period vernacular Bibles were as a general rule both legal and as common as one might expect given that books were incredibly expensive and the few people who could afford them could generally read Latin.
- Harris confuses the historical critical method, described by Pope Benedict in his 2007 Jesus of Nazareth as an indispensable tool for the interpretation of Scripture, with the heresy of ‘Modernism’, and says it was condemned by Rome, despite it never having been condemned in its own right save when conducted in tandem with certain naturalistic presuppositions which led, inevitably, to naturalistic conclusions.
- And, of course, after falsely claiming that all critical studies of the Bible were placed on Rome’s Index of forbidden books, Harris states that Darwin’s Origin of Species was also on the Index when it – like the works of Marx and Freud – rather famously wasn’t.
These might seem mere slips, but there are so many that they must be recognised as sheer carelessness. What’s more, these blunders are hardly trivial; it’s one thing for Norman Davies, for instance, in a vast survey of European history, to get the Darwin fact wrong in a single table in a 140-page appendix, drawing his belief from a book based on a book subtitled ‘Informal Notes on Some Books Banned for Various Reasons at Various Times and in Various Places’, because the table was in no way central to his thesis, but it’s rather different for an author who’s setting out to attack Christianity and Christian institutions to wheel out such a claim without checking whether it was right.
By the same token, if Harris is to challenge the heresy-hunting aspects of Christianity’s past – and it’s worth doing – then he’s beholden to understand what exactly Christians mean and have meant when they speak of heresy, why Jews most certainly were not heretics, when Christians began to regard the Eucharist as the actual body of Christ, and the difference between the secular process of inquisition and the various ecclesiastical institutions that we colloquially and collectively tend to refer to as ‘the Inquisition’. For starters.
It simply won’t do to say that if people took the time checking this sort of stuff, books wouldn’t be written; the world is heaving with carefully researched books published by reputable academic publishers, they’re not all flawless, by any means, but the anonymous reader system and simple academic integrity ensure that few are so replete with errors and incomprehension as this; the world isn’t quite so desperately in need of Sam’s words of wisdom that it couldn’t have waited another year or two for him to check his facts or rethink his argument.
Part of the problem seems to be that Harris likes to refer to old and often highly anecdotal books; it’s hardly a surprise that his polemic is a litany of cliché given that he is, putting it bluntly, reading the wrong stuff. Charles MacKay’s 1841 crowd-pleaser Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, cited several times, is immensely entertaining, but few serious scholars would look to it nowadays except as a wonderful window into the Victorian mind, and while Bertrand Russell’s 1935 Religion and Science is great reading it has to be recognised that Russell was no more a historian than Harris is, and was grinding a similar axe.
A glance through the endnotes for the chapter reveals that Harris’s thesis rests in large part on books published in 1950, 1945, 1943, 1931, 1860, and 1764; this is somewhat baffling, as his citation of a 1996 book to the effect that popular conceptions of witch-burnings are out by a factor of up to 200 shows him to be not entirely unaware of how historical scholarship develops just as scientific research does. It seems odd, given this, that he more readily turns to antiquated polemics rather than the work of contemporary professional historians.
Despite the nod to statistical reality and modern research, the section on witch-persecution suffers especially from Harris’s approach and agenda. His thesis, in short, is that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people were murdered as ‘witches’ over three centuries, targeted by ‘the church’, which Harris seems to use as a catch-all term for the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches. Medieval Christians, Harris says, were convinced that certain people could get up to all manner of sinister supernatural shenanigans, and could harm people by occult means; ‘only the advent of science,’ he says, ‘could successfully undercut such an idea,’ and it was only after nearly four hundred years that ‘some ecclesiastics began to appreciate how insane this all was.’
Now, though you wouldn’t know it to read Harris, witches – or, rather, people believed to be witches – had been hated in Europe for centuries before witchhunting took off in the second half of the fifteenth century, common superstition having always aroused suspicion against people who claimed access to supernatural gifts, and the Church had long protected them: St Boniface had declared in the early eighth century that belief in witches was contrary to Christianity, Charlemagne around 800 had ruled that the burning of ‘witches’ was a savage pagan custom that should itself be punishable by death, and the early tenth-century canon Episcopi stated that those who believed in such pagan superstitions as witchcraft and magic were deluded.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last, and as the Middle Ages ended Europe entered a frenzy of witch-hunting. Witch-hunting was thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon, and one supported by such Enlightenment luminaries as Thomas Hobbes and the scientist Robert Boyle. Norman Davies, in Europe: A History – a book Harris passingly admits to drawing on despite his evident failure to digest it – remarks that one of the major problems faced by historians of this period is how to explain why the early Modern period ‘proved so much more vicious in this regard than the so-called Dark Ages, why superstition came to a head when humanism and the scientific revolution were supposedly working in the opposite direction.’
Diarmaid MacCulloch, in 2003’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, attributes this in large part from ‘a newly confrontational attitude to witchcraft on the part of the intellectual elite’, whether jealous of what might be deemed rivals in esoteric activities or determined to demonstrate religious purity, especially in the context of the Reformation. What was new, in effect, was that the intellectual elite at the dawn of modernity came to share the anxieties and enthusiasms of the populace at large, and that in Germany and the Alps – where witch-hunting was especially common – the leaders of small polities were especially prone to acting in tandem with the mob.
Perhaps the most famous manual of witch-hunting was the so called Hammer of Witches published in 1487 by the German Dominican friar Heinrich Krämer, but the significance of this is often overrated; just three years earlier Krämer’s witch-hunting had caused him to be thrown out of the Tyrol by the local bishop, the book was condemned shortly after its publication, and though it went through twenty editions in little more than thirty years, there were no fresh editions of it between 1520 and 1585.
Insofar as the Hammer and later manuals had an impact, it was largely in the secular courts of small states, especially those largely populated by Reformed Protestants; witch-hunting was far less common among the Holy Roman Empire’s Lutheran states than its Reformed or Catholic ones, was relatively rare in large polities like England with established legal systems, and was almost unheard of in Ireland and in Iberia, where MacCulloch – no friend of the Catholic Church – remarks that ‘the unlikely heroes of this self-denial were the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions’.
The crown and the secular courts had led the attack on witches in the Spanish Netherlands, where the Inquisition did not operate, and some of their colleagues in northern Spain’s secular administration enthusiastically followed their lead. In response to this, MacCulloch explains,
‘Inquisitors scrutinized various outbreaks of persecution that did occur in the peninsula, particularly on the fringes of Iberia in the Basque country. They decided that evidence required for a satisfactory verdict of guilty was extremely difficult to obtain, and that in fact there was very little evidence for the widespread existence of witches, let alone active pacts with the Devil. They regarded even most confessions of witchcraft as delusions, to be treated with pastoral discipline not death, and they generally disciplined colleagues who took extreme measures, much to the fury of various secular officials who wanted to forward persecution.’
The Inquisition in fact worked to prevent persecution of ‘witches’ whether conducted by secular authorities or angry mobs, these, rather than ‘the church’, being the typical perpetrators of witch-hunting during the eras we know as the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Harris may claim that only the advent of science could undercut belief in witchcraft, but it seems clear that a combination of common sense, theological training, and thorough and fair-minded investigation was quite capable of just this; his assertion that it was only around 1700 that ‘some ecclesiastics’ began to question the persecution of witches is, it’s clear, a patent falsehood.
It might seem strange to be upholding the Spanish Inquisition as champions of reason and fairness, but nonetheless the facts support this reading; research over recent decades, dependent on contemporary records rather than foreign polemics, seems to indicate that the popular image of the Inquisition is based far less on historical reality than on Protestant – and primarily British – prejudice and hostility towards Catholic Europe and especially Spain.
Before talking of the Inquisition, it’s important to grasp that the term can be applied in several ways, something to which Harris seems oblivious. Inquisition, to begin with, was a secular legal practice – still the model for continental trials to this day – which the Church adopted in the twelfth century. The process of ‘inquisition’ therefore, needs to be distinguished from the institutions called ‘Inquisitions’; modern historians will often use the Latin term inquisitio to denote the legal process.
The origins of the Inquisition lay with the thirteenth-century German emperor Frederick II's issuing of an edict for state officials to hunt out heresy; Gregory IX, the pope of the day, fearing Frederick’s ambitions, tried to take control of the situation by claiming this as a religious rather than a secular activity. The Office of the Inquisition, then, was established in 1231 or 1232, initially to deal with issues in Germany and Italy, and was enforced in France in 1233 and in Languedoc in 1234; this system of tribunals is usually called the ‘Papal’ or ‘Medieval’ Inquisition.
Cathars, Dominicans, and the Inquisition
It really does seem that Harris appears to have no understanding of what the Albigensian heresy actually involved. To be fair, there’s no consensus on this point, but real historians tend to be aware of this, and are suitably tentative on the issue. It’s by no means true that history is always written by the winners, but in the case of the Cathars, it’s more or less correct; we know very little about how the Cathars described themselves, and have to rely, in the main, on what Catholics chose to say about them, often with hindsight and in the context of a war, where demonization of one’s enemies is common.
Harris quotes Bernard of Clairvaux, talking about early Cathars in the first half of the twelfth century, to the effect that they – or some of them at any rate – were good people of unimpeachable morals and conversation, and says that ‘there seems, in fact, to have been nothing wrong with these people apart from their attachment to certain unorthodox beliefs about the creation of the world.’ These ‘unorthodox beliefs’ included, of course, the belief that all matter was evil, and that as such anything that was deemed to promote creation – reproduction, most obviously – was wicked, and indeed was the only real sin.
Were Harris to have looked to writers from the thirteenth century, however, from the era when the Albigensian heresy had grown in numbers, he might start to understand why the Cathars’ contemporaries had problems with them. Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, for instance, writing the best part of a century after Bernard, wrote that:
‘Those called “believers” were dedicated to usury, robbery, murder and illicit love… some of the heretics declared that no one could sin from the navel downwards; they characterised images in churches as idolatry; they maintained that church bells were the trumpets of devils; and they said it was no greater sin for a man to sleep with his mother or his sister than any other woman.’
How much of accounts like Peter’s we can believe is a question worth asking, of course – I’m highly sceptical of it – but it’s by no means implausible that such licence could well have arisen in a society where the whole physical world was deemed wicked anyway. In any case, what appears beyond dispute is that this is how Catholics of the time saw the Cathars: as threats to the social order at a time when such social order was in a state of flux and when many medievals feared it could disintegrate, them being all too aware of how Rome had fallen and Europe had been barbarised once already. Moore’s The War on Heresy is rather good on the general issue, and it’s worth reading him not least to help put to bed such crude interpretations of the Cathar as Harris’s facile observation that, ‘… heresy is heresy. Any person who believes that the Bible contains the infallible word of God will understand why these people had to be put to death.’
It’s also important to point out that just as Catholics regarded Cathars as heretics, so did Cathars regard Catholics. We should resist an temptation to think of them as fluffy new-age types; the Albigensian Crusade was launched after the murder of a papal legate, for instance, and the first Dominican convent was established as a place of refuge for Albigensian girls who had been driven by their families and neighbours out of their homes and villages into lives of destitution and prostitution because they had converted to Catholicism.
Harris’s piece on the Dominicans is problematic, to say the least, not least because he places it in the context of the Inquisition getting worse – ‘with the founding of Dominic’s holy order of mendicant friars,’ he says, ‘the Inquisition was ready to begin its work in earnest,’ despite the rudimentary fact that ‘the Inquisition’ was not established until more than a decade after the Dominicans.
He quotes a speech originally attributed to Dominic by one Stephen of Salagnac, a Dominican historian who wrote after 1278, more than half a century after Dominic’s death; the speech is unattested in any earlier writers, which invites the question of how Salagnac might have known about it, if indeed he did not simply make it up; he was not the most reliable of historians, wrongly believing that at the time of the speech Simon de Montfort was then dead and that Louis de France was a crusader. Certainly, the speech, as reported, makes no sense in the context in which Salagnac places it, dating it to 15 August 1217: Salagnac has Dominic saying that as peaceful preaching had failed, the Catholics would now be forced to turn to violence, and would make war on the Cathars in an attempt to convert them by force; that Dominic would have promised in 1217 that the Catholics would have resort to the sword is, of course, incomprehensible, given that the Albigensian Crusade had been launched eight years earlier.
Pierre des Vaux de Cernei, who knew Dominic, reports a very similar speech having reportedly been given at the more chronologically plausible 1206 or 1207 by Pierre’s uncle Berengar of Carcassone; it looks as though Salagnac or a lost source has merged Berengar’s speech with a Castilian proverb and attributed it to Dominic. Later historians of the Dominicans were keen to boost Dominic’s reputation in the eyes of those who supported the Inquisition by making Dominic seem a kind of proto-inquisitor – indeed, Bernardo Gui identified him as the ‘First Inquisitor’, despite the Inquisition not having been established until a decade after his death – but there is no contemporary evidence that suggests anything of the sort.
That said, I think Harris can to some degree be forgiven his deployment of this passage. This is obviously something about which there can be historical debate, such that unlike his other blunders I’m unwilling to dismiss this as a monumental slander, though his reliance on a strange work of 1980s pop history for this detail is a marker of just how far he’s out of his depth on this stuff.
The passage about Raymond de Fauga is depressing, to say the least, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with for some time, having read it in full and in context in Wakefield’s Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France 1100-1250. Although there were almost a hundred Dominican communities across Europe by this point, with the radically decentralised nature of the Order – and the obvious limitations that marked long-distance communications until little more than a hundred years ago – being such that these Dominicans in Toulouse would have been, in effect free agents, the fact remains that these were early Dominicans, with the bishop having been one of Dominic’s first twenty or so friars; granted, the Apostles included Judas in their ranks, but I don’t think that makes this kind of stuff any easier to deal with.
Anyway, I think it all too plausible, at least in its broad thrust, not least because Guilhem Pelhisson, who described in the late 1260s what had gone on in Toulouse in the late 1230s, had been present at the time of the horrendous episode, and was as such in a position to describe things accurately. Pelhisson's boastful tone suggests that he’s coloured it somewhat and the pace of events as he relates them looks implausible – Wakefield calls the narrative ‘lively, if sometimes carelessly written’ – but I don’t see these as reason to contest the basic structure facts of his story. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t assume that Raymond’s actions met with general approval. It may not be insignificant that Jordan of Saxony, second Master of the Order, had been so uneasy with Raymond becoming Bishop of Toulouse in 1232 that he barred other Dominicans from becoming bishops without permission from the Pope and the Master, and not long after the described event the Pope suspended the Dominicans in Toulouse from inquisitorial proceedings.
Not, it’s worth adding, that this was an inquisitorial action in any case, something which seems to have passed Harris’s notice; this was, rather, a personal investigation by the local bishop. The bishop was doubtless cheered on by the friars, but it was nonetheless certainly not something that should be understood as relevant to ‘the Inquisition’, whether ‘Papal’, ‘Spanish’, or ‘Roman’.
Harris opens his chapter with lurid descriptions of torture, especially as conducted by the Spanish Inquisition, and later comments that the Inquisition was duly infamous for torture, which it was first officially authorised to use in 1215 – almost twenty years before the Inquisition was established, of course. The Spanish Inquisition’s record on torture is something that’s been coming under the historical microscope in recent years, such that the popular picture is starting to look a tad hyperbolic – from the examination of official records, Thomas Madden, for instance, estimates that Spanish Inquisitors used torture in about 2 pc of the cases they handled, but without getting bogged down in the extensive modern historiography of said Inquisition, which Harris wholly disregards, it’s worth quoting what Harris says on the Middle Ages:
‘As practiced by medieval Christians, judicial torture was merely a final, mad inflection of their faith. That anyone imagined that facts were being elicited by such a lunatic procedure seems a miracle in itself.’
The simple fact is that torture was a commonplace of secular legal systems well before the Church permitted it to be used in a less brutal fashion in ecclesiastical courts; obviously, I don’t believe the Church should ever have done this, but at the same time I think it ludicrous to argue that torture arose because of Christianity. If the Church allowed torture, it did so because the civic authorities already did so, said authorities justifying such degrading practice largely on the basis of Roman precedent; what’s more, many people believed that torture worked, though one wonders what those who became familiar with Aristotle’s writings later in the thirteenth century thought of his insistence that it didn’t. In any case, even aside from the evidence, I think it extraordinarily naïve of Harris to claim that faith was the driving force behind torture in the medieval world. Orwell was far closer to the truth when he had 1984’s O’Brien say that, ‘The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.’ People, in short, will torture. Because they can.
One of the stranger parts of the chapter is when Harris, casting around for supposed Biblical justifications for torture and persecution, cites John 15:6 as an instance of Jesus suggesting that heretics and unbelievers should be killed, whereas a plain common-sense reading of this would entail taking it as Jesus describing the ultimate and eternal fate of those who reject him; Jesus’ use of indicative rather than imperative forms is a clue in that direction for those of us who have mastered basic reading skills. Harris bizarrely goes on to say on this that ‘whether we want to interpret Jesus metaphorically is, of course, our business,’ as though – oblivious to simple grammar grammar and traditional Christian readings of the passage – he thinks his bizarre understanding of the passage is the obvious one, and then says that ‘the problem with scripture’ is that it can be interpreted in ways that can be used to justify atrocities.
It seems a bit odd that he’s accusing the churches of failing to tell people exactly what to think, but anyway, he’s certainly on to something here, in that people who want to commit atrocities can read whatever they want into Scripture, which is why the Catholic Church has always said Scripture needs to be read within the Church, and opposed the ripping of passages out of context, as Harris does here. Besides, as Philip Jenkins observes in the admirably frank Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses:
‘To say that terrorists or extremists can find religious texts to justify their acts does not mean that their violence actually grows from those scriptural roots. Indeed, such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture – or, conversely, that the mere existence of a scriptural text means that its doctrines must shape later history.’
Correlation isn’t causation, after all, and it makes precious little sense to say that the problem with Scripture is that it can be abused, except in the utterly banal sense that it shares this with nuclear physics, the writings of Karl Marx, microbiology, the Iliad, historical facts, and kitchen knives.
Having mentioned the Bible, it’s worth turning to one of Harris’s lazier canards. To quote the man,
‘The writers of Luke and Matthew, for instance, in seeking to make the life of Jesus conform to Old Testament prophecy, insist that Mary conceived as a virgin (Greek parthenos), harking to the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14. Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. It seems all but certain that the Christian dogma of the virgin birth, and much of the church’s resulting anxiety about sex, was the result of a mistranslation from the Hebrew.’
Now, I think it’s best to leave aside the stuff about the Church’s supposed anxiety about sex in order to focus on the salient point here, which Harris backs up by observing that such other biblical authors as Mark, John, and Paul all seem unaware of this tradition. It’d be easy to dismiss this whole passage as a bit of hackery, cheerfully lifted from another atheist polemic, but Harris does at least cite a credible authority for this, being Metzger and Coogan’s The Oxford Companion to the Bible, which just so happens to be sitting on the shelf above my head.
(He also cites A.N. Wilson’s Jesus, which I also have, albeit in an inaccessible English attic; Wilson’s book, written shortly after his becoming an atheist – he has since returned to Christianity – isn’t a bad one, if I recall rightly, but Wilson’s certainly no Scripture scholar, so of the two books Harris admits to drawing on at this point, it’s the Oxford Companion that should, at first sight, be more dependable, and indeed more neutral.)
What does the Oxford Companion say on this subject? Daniel Showalter, author of the relevant entry, says that belief in Jesus’ virgin birth is based on the stories of Jesus’ birth found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; he does not, significantly, say it was based on those gospels, however, as Biblical scholars tend to realise that the Gospels arose within Christian communities and reflected the stories they told – it takes especially inept ones to claim that traditions began with the Gospel accounts, not least as that presupposes that the early Christian communities would have been happy to see their stories dramatically modified.
Showalter starts with Luke’s account of things, relating how Luke’s principal aim was to hammer home the reality of the virgin birth and says that the nature of the dialogue between Mary and Gabriel ‘suggests that the author of Luke was responding to specific questions about the virgin birth of Christ’. If Showalter is right in this, this implies, as one would expect, that the virgin birth was an existing part of the Christian tradition at the time that Luke wrote.
Showalter then turns to Matthew, which seems fitting as the Oxford Companion on balance favours the theory that Luke predated Matthew by a few years, saying that Matthew ‘takes the tradition about Jesus’ miraculous conception and develops it in a slightly different way’. The key thing to take from this is that Showalter believes that the tradition of the virgin birth predated Matthew as he evidently believes it also did Luke, with both authors merely giving us their own take on things. This is entirely in keeping with ancient historical writing when dealing with events primarily harboured in popular memory and oral traditions: the ‘structure facts’ remain solid, because they’re the sort of things everyone would insist on as unchangeable, but narrative embroidery and interpretation of detail will vary. Matthew and Luke in fact provide us with a good instance of a case where two distinct and clearly independent traditions have retained the same structure facts, notably being Mary, Joseph, angelic message, virgin birth, and Bethlehem.
What then of the Isaiah reference? Well, despite Harris citing him as a source for this stuff, Showalter says nothing at all about Matthew and Luke seeking to make Jesus’s birth narrative conform to Jewish prophecy, which is just as well, given that the arguably earlier Luke never mentions Jesus birth as having been prophesied at all. Matthew, which Luke shows no sign of having read, does link Jesus’ birth with the prophecy, but it’s clear from Showalter’s account that this was an instance of someone following the approach of Acts 17:10-11, where the Beroeans reportedly ‘searched the Scriptures daily’ to see if the things Paul had told them were true.
Showalter shows Isaiah 7:14 to be a passage which was already perfectly well understood as relating to the salvation that was promised to Ahaz, king of Judah, when threatened more than seven centuries earlier; in other words, it was not something on which first-century Jews were inclined to reflect, and it certainly was not seen as a prophesy of a messiah who was yet to come. It would have been very peculiar for Matthew – or any early Christian – to have invented a major detail of Christ’s life story in order to make it conform to a prophesy that had no tradition of being interpreted in a messianic light.
A rather simpler solution is to hypothesise that early Christians knew the various traditions of Jesus’ life, and scrutinised their Bibles – in whatever language – in search of passages that might seem to point to him. The Bible is full of Old Testament passages which early Christians later interpreted as having pointed to Jesus; it’s remarkable how few of them had been seen, before Jesus’ day, as predictions about the Messiah.
It’s worth adding that while Showalter does acknowledge that there’s a problem in how almah was translated parthenos in the Septuagint, he certainly doesn’t regard this as ‘an erroneous translation’, despite Harris’ belief that it was such. On the contrary, he says,
‘The Hebrew word used, ʿalmâ, means simply “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. The Greek work parthenos used to translate ʿalmâ can mean either a young woman or a virgin. Matthew used a Greek Bible, so he naturally interpreted Isaiah 7:14 as a prophesy referring to the virgin birth of Jesus. For the evangelist, Isaiah’s original meaning was superseded by the identification of Jesus as Immanuel.’
There was no error in translation; parthenos can mean ‘a young woman’ just as easily as it can ‘virgin’, such that the Septuagint translators had merely translated a Hebrew word meaning ‘young woman’ by using a Greek word encompassing that same meaning. While the aforementioned Hebrew word certainly contained in itself no intrinsic implication of virginity, it should also be recognised that at the time it was natural to assume that an unmarried young woman was indeed a virgin.
None of this is to say that the virgin birth of Christ really happened, of course, that being an entirely separate discussion; all I’m saying here is that Harris’ objection is historically unfounded and scripturally clueless tosh.
Even Harris’s attempts to touch on other parts of the New Testament are iffy here; does Paul’s comment that Jesus was ‘born of the seed of David according to the flesh’ mean that he was the son of Joseph? Well, arguably so, but it’s worth noting that that reference in Romans 1:3 is paired with a comment on Jesus’ identity ‘according to the spirit’, such that what’s clearly going on here is a contrast between Jesus’s human and divine natures, the term ‘flesh’ often appearing in the New Testament as a straightforward codeword for all that is natural, earthly, and human.
In this light, it’s worth pointing out that both evangelists who relate traditions of Jesus’ virgin birth nonetheless reel off a list of Jesus’ ancestors – or supposed ancestors – in such a way as to show a descent from David via Joseph, despite both men believing that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ natural father. For the Jews of the first century, legal descent was as good as natural descent, and for the early Christians, both the law of man and the seed of man were both expressions of the natural human world, that ‘flesh’ so often contrasted with ‘spirit’ or with God himself.
Talking of Jews, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address properly Harris’s comments on Christianity and Judaism in this chapter. There are lots of other things that could be picked up on, of course, but this is rather too important to pass over here.
Harris states without a shade of nuance that ‘From the perspective of Christian teaching, Jews are even worse than run-of-the-mill heretics; they are heretics who explicitly repudiate the divinity of Jesus Christ,’ later adding that, ‘For centuries, religious Germans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics’.
This, of course, could hardly be more wrong, not least because mainstream Christian teaching has never regarded Jews are heretics, and indeed could not regard Jews as such. That Harris doesn’t grasp this shows just how wrongheaded his approach to this field is; I cannot figure out, however, whether he doesn’t grasp this because he’s stupid, lazy, or dishonest, or some combination of these attributes; certainly it says something about the man that he tries so hard to persuade others of his views when he has so negligible an understanding of that which he would attack.
Absent from Harris’s bibliography, for instance, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes heresy, apostasy, and schism as ‘ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body’, thus identifying heretics, apostates, and schismatics as varieties of Christians or former Christians. Heresy is later specifically defined as ‘the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same’. This isn’t just a Catholic definition, either; it’s a standard Christian understanding of the term, with, say, the 1850 Lutheran Book of Concord explaining that heresies entail distortions of the Gospel and arise from schisms and enmities in the Church. In short, from a Christian viewpoint one cannot be a heretic unless one has first been baptised.
In his Summa Theologiae, the basic theology textbook he wrote over seven hundred years ago, Aquinas specifically distinguished between Jews who ‘by being unwilling to assent to Christ, get the goal wrong’ and heretics who ‘intend to assent to Christ but make a wrong choice of what to assent to’, noting that ‘disbelief of heretics, who resist and distort a gospel they once professed, is a worse sin than the disbelief of Jews who never accepted it.’
Harris goes on to say that anti-Semitism is ‘as integral to church doctrine as the flying buttress is to a Gothic cathedral’, which is about as impressive a slander as there can be. ‘Integral’ simply means ‘necessary’ or ‘indispensable’, so what he’s saying is that without anti-Semitism there can be no Christian teaching. That’s quite the claim, and one easily refuted – again – by referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the basic handbook of Catholic doctrine, and something conspicuously absent from Harris’s bibliography.
(Again, the bibliography thing really matters here. There’s a basic thing you learn when marking students’ work which is to check what they’ve read, or at least what they say they’ve read. It gives a sense of how up-to-date they are with scholarship, whether they’ve taken on board differing views in their strongest possible forms, and how comprehensive their understanding of a subject is. As you should have realised by now, Harris’s bibliography is embarrassingly poor, which is, of course, reflected in his analysis, such as it is. The same problem, you’ll recall, marks his more recent The Moral Landscape.)
Section 839 of the Catechism quotes from Paul’s letter to the Romans to say that to the Jews ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,’ adding the later point in Romans that ‘the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.’ The Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate, dealing with relations between the Church and non-Christian religions, makes clear that all peoples comprise a single community, sharing a common world and a common goal in God himself, and specifically acknowledges the greatness of the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews, recognising that of all peoples the Jews are most dear to God.
While this attitude is obviously in large part something that arose after witnessing the horror of the Holocaust and reflecting on the extent to which traditional Christian anti-Semitism had indeed played a huge role in preparing the ground for the Nazis’ crimes, it’s instructive to see that older texts like the Maynooth Catechism clearly don’t feature anti-Semitism as an ‘integral’ feature of Christian teaching. Of 433 questions in that catechism, only one mentions Jews, this being question ‘96: Who condemned Christ to death?’, the answer to which being ‘Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, condemned Christ to death at the desire of the Jews.’
While this kind of statement is far from unproblematic, it needs to be seen in light of, say, question 205, the answer to which lists ‘hatred of neighbour’ as being among the principle sins against charity. The Pre-Vatican II Church would have regarded the Jews as being just as much our neighbours as anyone else, so it needs to be recognised that hatred of them, along with incitement of hatred against them, was regarded as grievously sinful. That's not to say that people didn't sin, and didn't sin horribly, but that doesn't mean they did what they did because of Catholic teaching. Even the notion that ‘the Jews’ conspired to organise Christ’s death needs to be considered in light of the deeper Catholic teaching that we all contribute to his death, as commemorated in the Good Friday service when it is the congregation who are called upon to shout ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’
One of the oddest parts of Harris’s diatribe on Christians and Jews is when he says that to some degree the Jews ‘brought their troubles upon themselves’. He notes that in the ancient world – certainly in pagan Rome – Jews tended to be objects of suspicion and occasional persecution because of their refusal to assimilate, with their belief that they were a ‘chosen people proving offensive in the lands where they settled. He clearly thinks that contemporary Judaism is similarly offensive, but it’s very hard to establish where he stands on Judaism between, say, 300 and 1950, other than to see this as a period where ‘their explicit demonization as a people required the mad work of the Christian church,’ whatever he means by ‘the Christian church’. Michael Burleigh comments in Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror that Freud’s 1939 Moses and Monotheism made a similar claim to Harris, arguing that ‘the Jewish claim to chosenness and moral superiority’ had made its way into ‘the unconscious of the peoples’, engendering resentment and hatred.
It’s difficult to tell what Harris means when, of Jesus himself, he says, ‘There is no evidence whatsoever, apart from the tendentious writings of the later church, that Jesus ever conceived of himself as anything other than a Jew among Jews, seeking the fulfilment of Judaism – and likely, the return of Jewish sovereignty in a Roman world.’
Barring passing references by Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, is there any evidence for who Jesus was at all other than those early Church writings we know as the New Testament? What does Harris mean when he says ‘the later church’? Does he mean the Church in which the Pauline letters were written, two and three decades after the Crucifixion? Does he mean the Church in which the rest of the New Testament was written, three, four, maybe five or at most six decades after the Crucifixion? Is there any evidence at all to support the notion that Jesus sought ‘the return of Jewish sovereignty in a Roman world’?
It seems to me that all Harris is really just saying here is that ‘There is no evidence whatsoever, other than the evidence we’ve got – all of which I intend to disregard – starting with letters written to already established and believing Christian communities within twenty years of the Crucifixion, that Jesus conceived of himself other than as I think of him.’
Almost as perplexing is the line, following his wrongheaded rant about the virgin birth, where Harris says ‘Even today, the apparent confirmation of prophecy detailed in the New Testament is offered as the chief reason to accept Jesus as the messiah.’ If I were marking this as an essay, I’d have taken my red pen to that comment. ‘Is offered? By whom? Is this really the chief reason offered? What other reasons are offered, and how have you quantified this?’ Just looking through my shelves, I don’t see the confirmation of prophecies having a high priority in the writings of C.S. Lewis, Ronald Knox, Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Francis Spufford, Joseph Ratzinger, Tom Wright, or Nicky Gumble. I'm not saying that some apologists don't mention such things, but as a general rule, far from this being ‘the chief reason’ to accept Jesus, it looks to me to be something of a side issue.
Harris states that ‘the explicit demonization of the Jews appears in the Gospel of John’, quoting an oddly old-fashioned translation of John 8:41-45, seemingly oblivious to the nature of rabbinical hyperbole and to the fact that this passage is addressed to a particular group of Jesus’ fellow Jews, as part of a discussion that continued back and forth, with these Jews only turning to violence after Jesus claimed to be God himself.
I’m not sure where Harris gets the idea from that Christians at the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD thought that they were witnessing God’s punishment of Christ’s betrayers. There are no clear references to the destruction of the Temple in any first-century Christian writings, after all, which is one reason why J.A.T. Robinson argued in Redating the New Testament that it seems likely that every New Testament text was written before the Temple fell; the destruction of the Temple was an event of such enormity that it’s hard to discern why Christian texts written after the destruction would have refrained from mentioning it directly.
Harris moves on from this to the issue of medieval blood libels; sadly, much of what he says on this is true, at least in its broad thrust; it is about as serious a stain on the history of Christianity and Christian culture as there is, though even then I’d be inclined to doubt seriously the credibility of his comment that ‘Historical accounts suggest that as many as three thousand Jews were murdered in response to a single allegation of [host desecration]’. I don’t doubt this merely because the nearest we get to a source for this claim was a book written a full seven decades ago, during World War Two, at a time when vastly less was known about medieval history than is known now; no, rather my main concern is that anybody who knows anything about medieval history knows that numbers in medieval chronicles simply aren’t to be trusted. Sometimes we can reduce them by a factor of ten or more, and sometimes we can ignore them altogether. As Barbara Tuchman put it when introducing A Distant Mirror, her popular study of fourteenth-century Europe:
‘It should be assumed that medieval figures for battle forces, battle casualties, plague deaths, revolutionary hordes, processions, or any groups en masse are generally enlarged by several hundred percent. This is because the chroniclers did not use numbers as data but as a device of literary art to amaze or appal the reader.’
The Holocaust and the Catholic Church
Moving on to the Holocaust, Harris repeats his slanderous canard about Christians regarding Jews as arch-heretics, and then claims that ‘while the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, it was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity’. So, as he sees it, while the Nazis’ crimes were secular crimes in a superficial sense, they were really religious crimes deep down. And specifically Catholic crimes at that, given Harris’s apparently almost total silence about the Reformation and Luther’s fervent anti-Semitism, not to mention his failure to even nod towards those atheist or Protestant members of Germany’s Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment intelligentsia who had long nurtured German anti-Semitism. Having glossed over four centuries of Germany's history, Harris proceeds to cherry-pick a few handy passages and episodes that really do reflect very shamefully on the Catholic Church, but in doing so disregards the fact that two-thirds of Germany’s population during the Nazi period were Protestant with individual Protestants proving more likely than individual Catholics to support the Nazis, and heedless of the extent to which opposition to the Nazis within Germany and without was often Catholic in nature.
This may run contrary to the popular myth of course, but it's well worth reading, say, Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes on this; even if somewhat uneven overall, Burleigh, author some years ago of the critically acclaimed The Third Reich: A New History, knows his stuff on Nazi Germany and so goes a long way towards correcting Harris’s nonsense. It’s well worth looking, too, at David Dalin’s flawed but useful The Myth of Hitler’s Pope and Gordon Thomas’s The Pope’s Jews, as both are straightforward modern studies of Pius XII’s actions to save many thousands of Jewish lives. Dalin reckons, if I remember rightly, that Pius XII should be credited with having worked to save the lives of 700,000 Jews, and I recall reading a couple of years back how it had been argued that just three weeks after Kristallnacht, Cardinal Pacelli, as Pius XII then was, had taken action to arrange for 200,000 Jews to flee from Germany. Even if these numbers are inflated, as I suspect they are to quite a degree, Harris looks at best churlish when he says:
‘… one is often reminded that others in the Vatican helped Jews escape as well. This is true. It is also true, however, that Vatican aid was often contingent upon whether or not the Jews in question had been previously baptised.’
Predictably, Harris doesn’t say how often this was the case, and his source for this turns out to be not a survey of the issues rooted in modern historical scholarship and research, but a celebrated 1970s book-length interview with a concentration camp commandant. Is it really likely that that presents credible big-picture evidence for this claim? Does Harris think that it does? Does he really think that unsubstantiated anecdotes are substitutes for statistical data?
Onwards Harris rolls: misrepresenting excommunication in Catholic discipline – imposed excommunications are essentially medicinal acts not punitive ones and latae sententiae excommunications merely recognise objective realities; missing the point that in terms of how seriously the Church takes things, excommunication means that one is no longer in communion with the Church whereas being in mortal sin is an even more serious matter as it means one has cut oneself off from God; defaming Pius XII; misunderstanding what ‘modernism’ was in a Catholic context and conflating ‘modernism’ with ‘higher criticism’; falsely claiming that Darwin was on the Index of Proscribed Books (and making this mistake when, it seems to me, plagiarising Norman Davies’ Europe: A History); and talking of how few generations had passed since the Church ceased ‘torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars’, something which as far as I can tell never happened. No, not even with Galileo.
All of which leaves me thinking how ironic it is that Harris goes on to accuse John Paul II – or indeed, anyone, of ‘sophistry’, that he scorns the ‘poor scholarship’ of the Evangelists, and that he says ‘it is no accident that religious doctrine and honest inquiry are so rarely juxtaposed in our world.’
The phrase, I think, involves pots, kettles, and the quality of blackness.
-- From the files, January 2014.
 Harris doesn’t provide a citation for his Darwin claim, but it seems likely that he drew this factoid from Davies, who he cites later on in his book, albeit only once; Harris fails to cite any book as having been on the Index other than ones included in Davies’ short selection of banned books, he lists his books in the same order as Davies, and like Davies he cites the writings of Swedenborg, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau by their original titles, but cites Kant’s work in English and cites Descartes with the catchall term ‘selected works’. If this happened in an essay I were marking, I’d have serious words with my student as it’s often a reliable indicator of that form of academic dishonesty known as plagiarism.
I had a similar thought when struck by how Harris’s dismissal of Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God in The Moral Landscape seemed to echo Richard Dawkins’ dismissal of said book in The God Delusion; it turned out, however that Dawkins follows Harris, rather than the other way around, in saying that Miller is a Christian and that his book is a very effective argument against intelligent design. Unfortunately neither man gives any sign of being aware of Miller’s denomination much less of having engaged with his arguments or understood his book, so my main reservations on this point still stand.