• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

The Gods of Israel: Does the Bible Promote Polytheism?

gods

“What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”  This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy was recently proclaimed in the Catholic Church’s Lenten liturgy, and it touched right at the heart of something I have been pondering for some time: evidence of polytheism in the Bible and the relationship between ancient Israelite and Canaanite religious traditions.

Popular critics of the Judeo-Christian God frequently focus on the apparent incompatibility of the biblical portrait of God with what we insist must be essential moral attributes of the divine nature should it even exist.  Both critics and believers, however, are often unaware of another crucial problem that would seem to contradict traditional Christian doctrine concerning the nature of God.  In a nutshell, the tension lies not only in the relation of the biblical God to violence and evil, but also on the arguably more fundamental level of whether the Bible reflects belief in only one divine being in the first place.

I have devoted a chapter to this very theme in my book Dark Passages of the Bible, and even there I barely scratch the surface of this issue.  Nevertheless, I have continued to ponder this issue over the past couple years and believe something meaningful can be said within the constraints of a blog post.

Biblical Henotheism and Canaanite Religion

 
First we have to acquaint ourselves with a sampling of concrete biblical texts which illustrate the particular problem.   Here I will focus on just a few examples from the Book of Psalms:
 

"God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment." (Ps 82:1)
 
 
"For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,
a God feared in the council of the holy ones,
great and terrible above all that are round about him?
O LORD God of hosts,
who is mighty as thou art, O LORD,
with thy faithfulness round about thee?" (Ps 89:6-8)
 
 
"For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods." (Ps 95:3).

 
Christians typically do not read the above texts with the assumption that multiple divine beings exist.  We know that there is only one God—so the argument goes—therefore the “gods” of which the Psalmist speaks clearly must not refer to other divinities.  This view runs throughout the Church Fathers and is illustrated in St. Augustine’s exegesis of Ps 82:1 cited above: “[The psalm] begins,” he says, “God stood in the synagogue of gods.  Far be it from us, however, to understand by these gods the gods of the Gentiles, or idols, or any creature in heaven or earth except men.”  In line with a venerable Jewish tradition (one invoked by Jesus on a similar text and an issue I simply cannot take up within the constraints of this post), here “the gods” or “holy ones” refer to the saints, that is to say the human faithful who have been made like God through entry into covenant with him.

For thoughtful believers and unbelievers alike, however, the question remains: Does the above explanation truly do justice to what the human author(s) of the Book of Psalms intended to say? In other words, did these authors really have humans in mind when speaking of “heavenly beings” who dwell “in the skies”?  Philosophically speaking, it is impossible to prove that the psalmist couldn’t have meant humans here.  But the question is whether this is the most reasonable and likely reading of his words.  When one achieves an acquaintance with the whole array of biblical evidence to the contrary—evidence, again, of which even my book only touches the surface—it becomes increasingly difficult to side with Augustine on this particular point without a further word of explanation.  Now a staunch Christian might disagree, insisting he can offer a satisfactory explanation to individual problematic texts on a case by case basis.  However, after a certain amount of study and by what Newman calls a “cumulation of probabilities,” the evidence amasses and the scale tips. Conventional pre-critical explanations alone no longer suffice to account for the data.  As a colleague of mine once said, “You may be able to dodge snowflakes, but you can’t dodge a snowstorm that has come right upon you.”

So what is really going on in texts like the psalms sampled above?  A Catholic ecclesiastic and biblical scholar of no less stature than Pope Benedict XVI himself recognized that we are witnessing here traces of polytheism, or, more precisely, henotheism in the Bible.  Even the official religion of Israel, Benedict tells us, did not at first deny the existence of other gods than Yahweh.  Henotheism, also sometimes called monolatry, refers to religious worldviews in which the existence of more than one divinity is taken for granted, while worship is rendered only to the being considered highest among them.

If it is not apparent to the reader simply from a survey of the Scriptures themselves, I find the case for henotheism in certain parts of the Old Testament to be undeniable when reading it against its broader Ancient Near Eastern background.  A number of erudite studies explore the evidence for this claim, for example John Day’s Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, William Dever’s Did God Have a Wife?, and Mark Smith’s works The Origins of Biblical Monotheism and The Early History of God.  Beginning with Frank Cross’s 1973 work Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic and continuing in more contemporary works such as those mentioned above, scholars have argued that the earliest literary strata of the Israelite tradition from the 1st millennium B.C. reflect a dependence upon much older Canaanite religious traditions.  Remember, Canaan is the Promised Land conquered by the Israelites, and this land had its own robust culture which naturally exerted significant influence upon the people of Israel.

The religion of Canaan during the 2nd millennium B.C. is well depicted in the hundreds of cuneiform tablets excavated at the ancient sea port of Ugarit (located in modern Syria) during the last century.  Thanks to these archaeological discoveries, we are now aware of some 150 Canaanite deities, including many who make an appearance in the Old Testament: El, Baal, Yam, Mot, and Asherah, to name a few.  It is noteworthy that Yahweh does not appear in the genealogies at Ugarit.  It seems that Yahweh came into Canaan from the outside.  Where precisely scholars do not agree upon, but the narrative of Moses at the burning bush offers us the Israelite view: Only with the revelation to Moses is the God of Israel revealed as Yahweh.  As God tells Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3).

The high god of the ancient Canaanite pantheon was named El.  Fascinatingly, El also appears as one of the principal designations for God throughout the entire Old Testament.  The form can occur in the singular (El), in the plural (Elohim), or in what is known as construct form.  For instance, El-Bethel identifies him with a physical place, while the personal name “Elijah” means “My God (literally, my El) is Yahweh.”  Depending on the translation one is using, typically El is translated generically as “god,” a move that makes sense seeing as the Hebrew tradition eventually lost consciousness of El as a divine being distinct from Yahweh.  Elohim (literally, “the gods”) thus can be used to characterize a group of false gods, but it is also used for Israel’s one God despite the thought-provoking fact that the word is grammatically plural. Often one finds Elohim alongside Yahweh (itself often rendered “LORD”).  Thus in translating Yahweh Elohim in Psalm 89:8, the RSV gives us “LORD God.”  In the Psalmist’s view, these two words clearly refer to the same divine being.  An abundance of evidence, however, suggests that an earlier stage within the Israelite tradition saw the two as distinct gods.

Of all the biblical texts that could be cited to this effect, perhaps the most poignant is Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which casts Yahweh as one of the “sons of El”:
 

"When the Most High [Elyon] gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD's [Yahweh’s] portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage."

 
For me it is always illuminating to read various Bible translations against the ancient manuscript traditions they are trying to render in our modern languages.  In the case of Deuteronomy 32:8 above, the RSV does not reproduce the Hebrew Elyon (which, likely referring to a particular manifestation of El, has no equivalent in English).  Rather, it follows the Greek Septuagint’s hypsistos in giving us “the Most High.” According to its standard practice, the RSV likewise follows the Greek kyrios giving us “LORD” rather than reproducing the Hebrew Yahweh.  But for me the most interesting choice concerns the expression “of the sons of God.”  Here the standard Hebrew Masoretic Text reads bene Israel (the sons of Israel).  The Septuagint reads angelon tou theou (the angels of God), reflecting a later understanding that beings once identified as gods would better be characterized as angels.

Why, then, does the RSV say “sons of God”?  In reading the footnotes to the critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, one discovers that this is the suggested emendation which is “probably right” based on comparisons with other extant manuscript evidence (Qumran, Symmachus, Old Latin, etc.).  Essentially, the editors of the Bible are arguing that either bene el (“sons of God”) or bene elim (“sons of the gods”) represents the most ancient tradition of the text from Deuteronomy even though this is not the expression found in the manuscripts upon which we typically base our translations.

The reason why the editors consider this to be the original text lies precisely in the awareness of the Hebrew Bible’s dependence upon earlier Canaanite traditions.  A key concept in the Canaanite religion was that of the “divine council,” a royal court of divinities collectively known as “the sons of El.”  As we know from the archaeological evidence, El was the high god of this heavenly court, while the other gods ministered to him.  In its own turn, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 appears to reflect the Canaanite belief that El had assigned each nation its own guardian god.  Thus Deuteronomy may well be offering us a privileged glimpse of a stage in the Israelite tradition wherein El and Yahweh were still considered distinct deities.

If the above supposition is true, then one may ask why the Septuagint and Masoretic Text changed the original text to “angels of God” and “sons of Israel,” respectively.  As Benedict XVI always taught us in his biblical exegesis, one ought not to exaggerate claims to certainty on such questions, yet, in light of the preponderance of evidence, scholars can still offer the following reasonable explanation: The Bible is best thought of not as a monolithic monotheistic tome but a rich and complex body of “monotheizing” literature.  Later strata of the Israelite tradition built upon what came earlier, in the process developing this thought while at the same time polishing it.  In contrast with the more ancient version of the text which still harbored traces of Canaanite lore, later biblical versions were produced with an emphasis on showing that the “the sons of the gods” did not actually exist.  Eliminating any polytheistic or henotheistic overtones in the earlier tradition, these later editions intended to proclaim that there exists only one El, and his name is Yahweh.

Christians and Atheists: Looking at the Same Evidence, Drawing Different Conclusions

 
At least for some believers and non-believers, what I have said above may represent common ground in terms of evidence we can agree upon.  My summary might even square perfectly with other observations the non-believer has previously made concerning the Bible, seeing in it a frail work made by human hands and subject to countless alterations over the centuries.  Again, all of this might simply confirm the skeptic’s conviction that the Bible is nothing more than a human work replete with discrepancies, errors, and cover-ups.  What I wish to say in this post—and what I want you believers out there to take home—is that the Christian can look boldly and critically at the same evidence the atheist perceives to be deeply problematic, and in doing so actually grow deeper in your faith.

As Joseph Ratzinger famously taught in his 1988 Erasmus Lecture in New York, the real debate in exegesis is at bottom a philosophical one.  Every one of us begins our reading of the Bible already with a particular interpretative lens, with a conscious or unconscious set of presuppositions which in turn color the conclusions we draw from an examination of the biblical data.  In our case as Christians, we admittedly read the Bible with the eyes of faith.  As I hope you can tell from reading this post, this need not and should not mean that we neglect modern scholarship, but it does mean that we operate with the conviction that the Bible’s idiosyncrasies are reflective of a greater plan God has for mankind.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the Catholic Church looks at the developments we find in the Old Testament as expressions of the divine pedagogy, the teaching method by which God gradually revealed himself to his people over the centuries. As part of this process, he accommodated himself to our human weaknesses, working from within the context of the Ancient Near East and purifying its religion from within.  Naturally, the Old Testament faithful were not going to arrive at Trinitarian monotheism overnight.  Like any good teacher, God in his divine pedagogy had to work the Israelite and Canaanite pupils he had, not the 4.0-GPA honors students he wished he had.  As Ratzinger put it in a homily on Genesis’ creation narrative:
 

"The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time…The whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God.  Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step…For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear."

 
The traces of polytheism and henotheism we see in the Old Testament are therefore not a scar of which Christians should be ashamed, but rather evidence of the plan by which God patiently worked with a human people to lead them—in a gradual way befitting human nature—along a path which would eventually enable them to welcome the coming of Christ.

So, at the end of the day, can the believer admit that El and Yahweh were originally viewed as distinct deities in Israel?  If a person looks at the Bible as a catalog of divine propositions dropped down from Heaven, then probably no.  But for the Catholic who sees the Bible as God’s word in truly human words, then it only redounds to the beauty of God’s plan to glimpse in the above texts evidence of his ancient dealings with the people of Israel, our ancestors in faith.  Confronting the presence of multiple deities in the Bible only makes me more appreciative of just how far we have come thanks to God’s gracious plan for our salvation.  It makes me profoundly thankful to know that divine providence has led us from worshiping a pantheon of warring deities to worshiping the one true God who became incarnate for our salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now I don’t expect the atheist to agree with anything I have said in these final few paragraphs, but I do hope it conveys in a charitable manner how thoughtful Christians might approach the problem of polytheistic overtones in the Bible.  And for you believers out there, I pray that your engagement with these difficulties will give you both a sense that the Bible’s difficulties really can be faced with confidence, as well as a sense of wonder at how much we Christians still stand to learn about our Israelite family history.
 
 
(Image credit: Conservapedia)

Dr. Matthew Ramage

Written by

Dr. Matthew Ramage is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. Before coming to Benedictine, he studied at the Pontifical Lateran University, worked in campus ministry, and taught Religious Studies at the University of Illinois. He is a language buff and has competence in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Follow his writings at TruthInCharity.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Can't say I disagree much with this piece, or that, in the odd occasion when this comes up in atheist discussion that the existence of henotheism in the OT is used as a "gotcha". Tracie Harris explored this in an episode of the Atheist Experience and reading this, I think she got some things wrong. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kmPo-M-afRM

    I think yes, in the centuries before Judaism arose as a distinct monotheist religion, the people in this part of the world were Henotheistic. They did not disbelieve in the existence of other gods and their writing reflects this. Eventually they did go monotheist, and the writing changes.

    I find the archeology and history interesting, but of course I don't believe any of these entities existed any more than the Greek or Norse pantheon.

    I respect Dr Ramage for his intellectual integrity in not trying to interpret henotheism out of the OT. And I don't think there is a contradiction in acknowledging this and interpreting it as he does.

    • Ben Posin

      This is a fascinating area to me, and your take on it seems reasonable. Anyone here know of a good resource discussing this period of transition, or collecting examples of other gods or magic in the old testament? Other than the video you link, of course, which I will take a look at. I think there may be more interesting examples out there than those referenced in the article.

  • David Nickol

    There is a lot that is attractive about this theory, but it seems to me one aspect that is problematic is that it is inconsistent with the current "official" theory of the divine inspiration of scripture:

    Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred
    writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the
    books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and
    without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the
    sake of salvation. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use
    for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and
    discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient
    and equipped for good work of every kind" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

    If the Bible is seen as the history of man being led gradually to an understanding of the truth about God and about what is truly moral, that is one thing. But if scripture is seen as an instrument by which God led, and everything asserted in scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit, that is quite another thing.

    If scripture is the history of man slowly finding his way toward God, then hints of polytheism in scripture are quite understandable, since it obviously took some time for the Israelites to understand that Yahweh was not merely the most powerful of all gods, but the only God. But if scripture is taken to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, we should not find the Holy Spirit expressing anything other than the fact that Yahweh is the only God.

    Catholics are fond of saying that the Bible must be read as a whole, and that things written later (generally in the New Testament) reveal or clarify the meaning of things written earlier (generally in the Old Testament). But it seems to me that implies older scripture couldn't be validly understood by those who wrote it or those for whom it was written.

    In my experience (and of course this could simply be because of my choice of authors), exegetes steer clear of expressing opinions about theories of inspiration, and rarely if ever mention divine inspiration in the course of analyzing a text. To the extent that the historical-criticial method is a science, this is one of those cases where religion (in the form of theories of divine inspiration) and science are in conflict.

    • David Nickol

      Exodus 22:17 You shall not let a woman who practices sorcery live.

      To take a fairly straightforward example, if "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit," then the Holy Spirit commanded the Israelites to execute witches. However, if Exodus is a history of the religious and moral development of the Israelites, we can interpret Ex 22:17 as the current (and still developing) understanding of the sacred writer.

    • Matthew Ramage

      You make a good point, David. Given the constraints of the current Catholic formulation of inspiration we see in Dei Verbum which you cited, to me it seems that the Catholic exegete has to say that when the OT speaks of Yahweh being highest among the gods, the assertion or primary point being made here concerns the absolute priority of Yahweh rather than the existence of the other gods. At least this is path pursued by Ratzinger. He always says that one has to distinguish "form" from "content," the "contingent vehicle" vs. "the essential point," etc. This is his way of attempting to reconcile DV with the presence of many materially problematic things in Scripture. I can see how this may not be convincing to the non-Catholic, but it's the best explanation I've been able to come up with. As I allude to in my book, there is a danger of looking at individual sentences and saying that everything stated in them must also be asserted. Ratzinger and many others including me don't think this is the case, but I think alot of work needs to be done in order to flesh this out.

      • Loreen Lee

        Quote: As I allude to in my book, there is a danger of looking at individual
        sentences and saying that everything stated in them must also be
        asserted.

        I don't understand the distinction you are making here. Could you please explain?

        • Matthew Ramage

          Hi Loreen, thanks for the question. The drafters of Vatican II's Dei Verbum were aware that not everything stated in the biblical text is being formally asserted or taught for its own sake. For example, the author of Genesis certainly held and stated ideas about the nature of the universe which are incorrect in light of our knowledge of modern science, but the Church has always recognized that, while Genesis states this, it is not its point to teach it. Rather, to use Pope Benedict's terminology, the cultural worldview of the time served as the vehicle through which God was able to communicate his truth to man. In the case of Genesis, it was through an antiquated cosmology that he was able to reveal monotheism, the creation of the world by one God only in contrast with prior myths in the Ancient Near East.

          • Michael Murray

            Rather, to use Pope Benedict's terminology, the cultural worldview of the time served as the vehicle through which God was able to communicate his truth to man.

            So when the Bible seems to speak about women not being in a leadership role in the Church and homosexual acts being sins why is that not disregarded as the "cultural worldview at the time" ?

          • Matthew Ramage

            That's a great question. Indeed, certain parts of Paul's teaching on women (e.g. the need to wear a veil) we would acknowledge as malleable and culturally dependent. As for women speaking in church, clearly they are now allowed to as lectors, etc. However, the inadmissibility of women to the priesthood has always been understood differently by the Church as belonging to the essence of Jesus' teaching. To change that teaching would be to change the very nature of the priesthood as is explained in the document Inter Insigniores, for instance. Regarding homosexuality, the cultural worldview part that has changed is that we now recognize--thank God--that we shouldn't execute homosexuals as in the Old Testament period. However, the disorder of same-sex sexual acts is not contingent but rather held by the Church on the basis of not only revelation but on reason and natural law as well.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            But how we distinguish one case from another? Clearly the church's understanding of natural law and reason have changed over time - I seem to remember enjoin sets for slaves to be "happy in their work." If we accept your thesis of the bible as a work subject to revision, then the same logic applies to tradition (and reason AND natural law).

          • Ben Posin

            You've put your finger on it. I have to wonder what would happen if we asked such questions to good Catholics at various times in the Church's history. I imagine many might answer in much the same way, only they at that time might include those changes later accepted by the church as being part of the "essence of Jesus' teaching."

          • Matthew Ramage

            Indeed, it requires great precision to clarify which parts of the tradition constitute the unchanging deposit of faith and which do not (i.e. which constitute "traditions" versus "Tradition," if you will). Surely the Church's understanding of natural law and reason has developed over time as well, but there remains a very substantial core unchanged over the centuries. Your good observation points precisely to the reason why the Catholic Church has always insisted on the need for an authority to elucidate these matters. This is what lies behind so many conversion stories such as the famous case of John Henry Newman. If there exists no authority instituted by Christ to adjudicate in matters of faith and morals, then there really is not definitive way to tell whether a particular matter is subject to change or not, But, as it stands, when you study the history of Catholic dogma, the Church is generally very clear on what is unchangeable and what is not

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            In other words Neumann accepted that we had to have an authority because otherwise there would be no authority? Interesting. A little too close to, "this is the right explanation because church days it's the right explanation - and we know the church alone is right because the church tells us she's right" for my taste, but then, I'm not catholic.

            But to further complicate the issue, the other implication of your thesis is that there's really no way to tell when everything is "finished". Just as the church no longer suggests stoning is acceptable for adultery, or slavery is kosher, the church may someday teach that same-sex marriage is delightful. There is simply no way to be sure.

          • Matthew Ramage

            Newman is not saying this. He indicates that there would be no certainty of a divine revelation if Christ had not instituted a living and infallible authority as its guarantor. This applies to the very Bible itself as regards to how one is to know what books constitute the Bible in the first place. Additionally, it is incorrect to say that the Church can go back some day and say that same-sex marriage is licit. There exist many doctrines related to her faith and morals which the Church has always considered irreformable, i.e. unchangeable as they constitute part of the deposit of revealed faith. So it is a caricature to say that everything is simply open to revision. The Church has always professed that revelation "finished" at the death of the last Apostle; thus everything thereafter is a development elucidating that same revelation. I recommend a careful read of Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.to help sort this out.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I have read it. But now you seem to be claiming that there are certain teachings that were clear from the beginning and cannot be revised. How are we to know which?

          • Matthew Ramage

            Newman's "notes" in the Essay are helpful here. For a couple more significant illustrations of the Church's principles of discernment, see Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, 24 on papal infallibility: "His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking." For a broader treatment of different levels of authority, see the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith's Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei. It also gives concrete examples: https://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFADTU.HTM

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            In other words, interpretation. Why wasn't something as heinous as slavery (surely a more prevalent and loathsome crime than a few lesbian smooches) denounced and eliminated from the Catholic canon early?

          • Matthew Ramage

            The Church is comprised of sinners--all of us. Just because the Church has never wavered from Christ's revelation doesn't mean we have been quick to fully appropriate it in our lives and societies. The Church never erred in teaching that you should have slaves; the issue as you point out is that she was slow to abolish it. In fact, the New Testament itself never denounces slavery as such, but rather within the constrains of its time revealed the dignity of all persons, slaves or free (see for example Paul's letter to Philemon). This is by no means to justify slavery but rather to show what the New Testament's core teaching on the matter was and how the Church gradually (probably too slowly, as you say) applied that so as to see that such an institution should not exist period. Thanks for the discussion.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            It took the church four hundred years to settle on whether christ was all-god, all-man, or some combination. And quite frankly, the bible mentions slavery as a good, not an evil. And when did the church ever teach that you shouldn't have slaves? 1900 years is an acceptable timeframe for even denouncing a major evil in the world?

            Don't you see? By opening up the concept that the church's understanding of revelation - and the fact that the nature of the revelation kept changing for both the jews and their christian successors opens up the strong problem that there is not longer any objective way to determine when "understanding" is complete and final - nor whether that understanding is not then subject to change, since understanding is based on a given societal matrix and those matrices change over time as well.

            I'm sorry - but the only folks who are genuinely and intellectually consistent on this point are the biblical literalists. And we know they're wrong.

          • Matthew Ramage

            There are a number of issues with what as said here, not the least of which is I think you are equivocating on slavery in nations such as the USA vs. how it was practiced throughout the history of the world. But the greater problem I think has to do with your epistemology. I think in our postmodern era we've learned that the sort of pure objectivity I think you're looking for doesn't exist in the way early modern thinkers, and many people still today, thought. This has been a nice discussion which I'm not going to dedicate any more time to, but on this last point I recommend Alasdair MacIntyre's corpus and in particular his After Virtue for a helpful Catholic epistemology. Thanks.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            While I'm sorry we weren't able to resolve any of my questions, but I appreciate your time - that's a rarity here.

          • Loreen Lee

            My questions remain 'unresolved' also. But before I drop out of this debate, search for information, whatever, may I make the following summary of my understanding to date.
            Fornication is defined as sexuality outside of 'marriage. Therefore prostitution and homosexuality are not acceptable to Catholic morality. But marriage is defined within the context, not only of and woman, but within a context for taking place for a higher purpose, that is it is directed towards God.
            The Buddhists also have a conception of tantric sex, a very different interpretation of that same idea. However, as marriage between homosexuals is rejected on the basis that it does not fulfill the required of being between one man and one woman, the idea marriage between homosexuals is prohibited even on the basis of definition alone. I have found no condemnation directly of any specific acts of kinds of sexuality, but perhaps this empirical analysis is not deemed necessary because of the overriding general prohibition. I feel there is a paradox here, as it is accepted that adults who cannot 'naturally' produce children, can adopt children and raise them within the construct of being contained within a relationship that is directed towards God. Indeed this would recognize, even though natural process is not possible, the priority of procreation within such relationships. Under these existing conditions and definitions, I shall feel justified that a) I am not outside the mandate of the Magisterium on such issues when I support homosexual relationships, b) that the concept and development of self-determination can be understood as not being against the Will of God, but could indeed reflect a growing understanding of 'His Word'. Whether or not these on-going conclusions of mine (in response to seeming contradictions, are considered unworthy, or subject me to being excluded from The Church), I shall accept the fact that my inclusion in this arguments acknowledges the 'sinful' nature of 'all' mankind, and that I like most Catholics today, did not receive Baptism at an age when it was a choice made on the basis of my own 'self-determination'. I am however, only so grateful for the insights that are given me in the Sunday sermon, and on many New Advent blogs. I 'rest' my 'case'.

          • Loreen Lee

            Just remembered: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Bela, so I did a 'Google Search'. Much controversy in interpretation and indeed historical evidence. Homosexuality, although a primary example of the 'sin', is extended by other descriptions of acts that, in my understanding, are not congruent with a 'search for God', and indeed characterize the depravity possible within mankind generally. .Thus, after reading quotes from the old and new testament, I can only conclude that the necessity to examine one's conscience is 'universal'.

          • Loreen Lee

            Could you please distinguish between 'public' revelation and natural law. I understand that the dictates on homosexuality for instance are on the authority of the law based on 'Natural Law', but I cannot understand under what jurisdiction they would be considered part of revelation, public or private. Also per another comment, I believe that the need for obedience can be related to both law (the teachings of Jesus. the Word of God as I would understand it) and the Will of the Father, which I understand Jesus always pointed to as the higher authority. Even Jesus, on the Cross said 'They Will be Done' a phrase, (like so many others, I am beginning to find in my readings in which I have adopted the principle that the New Testament is a 'fulfillment' of the Old) that I found in the Old Testament, although I can't give you chapter and verse. Hopefully, however, I am 'learning the vocabulary'., Thank you.. Thus, would not obedience to the Will of the Father, i.e. in terms of truth, beauty, and goodness, Goodness, or morality, or in Kant's Context, Practical Reason, as distinguished perhaps from Law, understood as Logos, or even The Word, alone. Please understand, that I say this within the context that the Trinity is 'unitary', and thus that there is significance that Jesus referred to Himself, not only as Truth, but within the context of that Unity. Thank you.

          • Matthew Ramage

            Hi Loreen, one brief note in response to the first part of your question/comment: you're right to distinguish public revelation and natural law. According to the Catholic Church, a truth of natural law is on principle knowable by anybody whereas something revealed (e.g. the Trinity) is not knowable except through God's explicit gift, In the case of many moral issues, the Church's teaching is based on natural law and then confirmed by revelation and/or developments of doctrine based on it. For example, not murdering is something we have as a command through natural law, yet it is also revealed in the 10 Commandments. Same for homosexual actions. For something like abortion on the other hand, what we have is natural law confirmed by the Church's authority. This brief document I mentioned to someone else the other day you may find interesting. Thanks. https://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFADTU.HTM

          • Susan

            Well, at least they eventually got the slavery part right.

            But, I'm not convinced they did that on their own.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            They didn't. Certainly the Catholic Church didn't.

          • Ben Posin

            In what sense has the church's understanding of "reason" and "natural law" improved over time? It's easy to see how plumbers' knowledge of plumbing has improved over the centuries, how doctors' understanding of the human body has improved, and so forth. But I can't say I've got the sense that the Church has been toiling successfully over the generations at developing reason. Natural law strikes me as similarly undeveloped, and I've seen on this very website that people can make natural law sounding arguments to support most anything--and for that matter, I'm not convinced "natural law" is a coherent concept anyway.

            I get the sense that the advances in the "reason" of the church work something like this cartoon, only applied to more than just science: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2005#comic

            Who knows, maybe one day the Church will come to grips with the fact that the actual reasonable position is to support gay marriage, and that no "natural law" demands otherwise. It might take a long time, but I note with mild optimism that a majority of Catholics in the U.S. right now support gay marriage. But I imagine such a change will depend less on some reasoned discovery by theologists, and more on the rest of the world changing to the point where it becomes a real P.R. problem for the church.

          • Loreen Lee

            OK. Is there not the possibility of 'accepting' anomalies within 'natural law'.

          • Loreen Lee

            I shall attempt to understand this in the sense that scripture generally requires on-going re-interpretation, one of the purposes within such symbolic exegesis, being the opportunity to provide the means to attain a clearer 'vision?' of an ultimate 'rationality'. That would make scripture a means to an end or purpose, then would it not.
            Please note that I also have difficulty with the assumption of this purpose being expressed within the context of 'God wants such and such from us'. For instance, Berttrand Russell was critical of the scholastic presentation of rational thought by St. Thomas and objected to an argument that proceeded from (may I say) abstract conceptions of divinity to an empirical ordering of 'nature'. I guess I'm just used to the modern approach, since Descartes of 'putting mankind/humanism' first, and arguing from this perspective/ I find difficulty with earlier thought, as it almost goes against my nature to profess any 'knowledge' of the 'divine'. However, argument even within modern philosophy is governed I believe by principles, or assumptions, of this nature as well. But it is also difficult for me to accept scripture within the context of empirical evidence, particularly in certain cases such as miracles. I do understand, I believe the distinction between public revelation and miracles, but I have 'much to learn.. I do intend however, to continue with my 'study'. of Catholicism.
            As I found it difficult to read St. Thomas, please bear with my limitations in my ongoing attempts to understand 'orthodoxy'. Please know, however, that I AM attempting to 'understand' this method of thought, although with my background and limited intellectual ability, I am aware that I may not even have the ability to 'comprehend'.the methodology. (Dei Verbum means word of God, - yes?)

          • Matthew Ramage

            Yep, Dei Verbum = Word of God. It's the convention for Catholics to refer to Vatican documents in this way. I guess this along with your comments is a good illustration of the importance of this site as we attempt to "translate," if you will, from our various backgrounds and frameworks in the search for a common dialogue.

          • "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
            -- Caesar Baronius A.D. 1588–1607

          • Susan

            "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
            -- Caesar Baronius A.D. 1588–1607

            Ring the bells that still can ring
            Forget your perfect offering
            There is a crack, a crack in everything
            That's how the light gets in

            -Leonard Cohen 1934 C.E.-

            I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

            -Tom Waits 1949 C.E-

            We could do this all day.

  • Danny Getchell

    I'm trying to fit these passages into my Catholic Bible color-coding model.

    Black - This Really Happened Just Like It Says (the resurrection of Christ)
    Blue - This Actually Happened But Maybe In A Non-Literal Way (Adam and Eve)
    Green - This Could Well Be An Allegory And Our Faith Would Not Be Shaken If It Was (Jonah, the Tower of Babel)
    Red - Ummm, No Way. God Didn't Really Do This (the slaughter of the Amalekites)

    Green sorta fits, but not quite. Another color needed???

    • Kevin Aldrich

      My question is "Why do you think you need this?"

      • David Nickol

        My question is "Why do you think you need this?"

        One possible answer is that the Bible, according to Catholicism, is in certain ways, one of the least comprehensible documents one can imagine without the Church saying what it "really" means. For one thing, it must be read as a coherent whole, and after reading a thousand pages or more of the Old Testament, one allegedly finds in the New Testament that all kinds of rules and regulations from the first thousand pages no longer apply. Danny Getchell's suggestion is not so unusual, since the Church claims it is the ultimate authority on what the Bible means. If this is indeed so, perhaps the Bible really ought to have been kept of the hands of the hoi polloi. Certainly one of the reasons for the existence of 38,000 Christian denominations is that different people interpret the Bible differently.

        Even Brandon has warned people against using the New American Bible (the notes, if I understand him correctly, not necessarily the translation itself) because even though published under the auspices of the USCCB, the notes are suspect and sometimes even allegedly "heretical." Apparently even the Bishops of the United States can't even protect the people from heretical biblical interpretation, which suggests to me that an official guide to what the Bible really says and really means is not at all a bad idea.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Maybe I'm weird, but not once in my life did I ever think while reading the Bible that God thought it would be cool for me under any circumstance to bash in the brains of a baby or to stone a disobedient child or that God changed his mind or
          that when Jesus said, "This is my body," to doubt that he meant it literally.

          A Catholic does not need color-coded Bible verses.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            That probably because you were raised in a tradition that already discounted these practises. I've no idea how biblical literalists square their consciences with disobeying yahweh's orders.

          • David Nickol

            Haven't you said you were an atheist during a certain period of your life? I am not sure you could have believed meant "this is my body" literally when you were an atheist.

            I think one of the fascinating things about reading the Bible is how thoroughly "pre-interpreted" it is for you. When you read the New Testament, you say to yourself, "Of course there are three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one God. It's right there in the Bible! Of course Jesus instituted the sacrament of confession! Of course Jesus named Peter the first pope! Of course the Old Testament is filled with prophecies that someone like Jesus will be the Messiah!"

            What did you think when you read the following:

            When the LORD saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. So the LORD said: I will wipe out from the earth the human beings I have created, and not only the human beings, but also the animals and the crawling things and the birds of the air, for I regret that I made them."

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Even when I was an atheist I had no problem believing Christ meant "This is my body" literally. I just didn't believe it was true.

            I have no idea how to interpret the story of the Flood apart from it being a type of Baptism. Maybe @matthewramage:disqus can weigh in.

          • David Nickol

            Even when I was an atheist I had no problem believing Christ meant "This
            is my body" literally. I just didn't believe it was true.

            I have a strong feeling you years as an atheist came after a good bit of Catholic education. I don't mean to doubt your word, but I am not sure exactly how to interpret it when someone says he or she was a Catholic, became an "atheist," and then became a Catholic again.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            My Catholic education only went through third grade: after that is was only what I got in CCD, which was worthless.

            If you have the concept of transubstantiation in mind (any child can understand it regardless of the term), then it is not hard to understand that Christ was speaking literally.

            So, as a Catholic, I believed (and believe now) that at the Consecration of the Mass the bread and wine do not change appearance but do change their substance. When I was an atheist, I believed that the bread and wine did not change its appearance or substance.

          • Michael Murray

            So in both cases you thought there really was a difference between appearance and substance ? That there is something in things beyond what we can measure and observer ?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't mean in the sense of metaphysical substance and accidents but in the ordinary sense that if Christ is God he can do what the Church says he does in the Eucharist.

          • [---
            So in both cases you thought there really was a difference between appearance and substance ?
            ---]
            When Jesus offered His Body and Blood, many Jews left Him because it was a hard teaching. They understood perfectly.

            "Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? .... After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him."

            If you have identical baby twins Bob and Bill, they have the same accidents, but underneath the accidents, the substance is different. One is Bob, the other is Bill.

          • Susan

            If you have identical baby twins Bob and Bill, they have the same accidents, but underneath the accidents, the substance is different. One is Bob, the other is Bill.

            Neither one of them is made of wafers. And no. They don't have the same accidents.
            Before someone explains to me that this is an analogy, I understand that this is an analogy as most people do when presented with an analogy.
            But how is it analogous to anything connected to reality in a way that makes any sense?

          • Michael Murray

            If you have identical baby twins Bob and Bill, they have the same accidents, but underneath the accidents, the substance is different. One is Bob, the other is Bill.

            Identical twins have different experiences from the moment of conception. They are not going to be identical physically even though sharing identical DNA.

          • Loreen Lee

            Leibniz: Law of Indiscernibles.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            But how do you know they actually change? Can you pick out consecrated from unconsecrated hosts by some empirical test?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The doctrine of Transubstantiation rules out any possibility of an empirical test.

            Thomas Aquinas summed up this matter in his hymn Adore te, devote:

            Sight, touch, taste are all deceived
            In their judgment of you,
            But hearing suffices firmly to believe:
            I believe all that the Son of God has spoken.

          • Loreen Lee

            What happened to the sense of 'smell'. I am almost tempted to make a 'rude comment', like the famous 'I smell a rat'. Oh! Sorry I didn't mean to say that. And only in the understanding of what the Son of God has spoken, in any case.

          • I don't think he could fit 'smell' and still make the verse as beautiful in its harmony.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQVFDFbVeBQ

          • Loreen Lee

            I was most pleased when after about five minutes they gave the Latin. I could understand some of the words, but it's been almost sixty years since I studied same in high school. There are 'good' and 'bad' in 'everything'. Without smell we would never know that full beauty of the rose, for instance. And animals, like dogs, rely on smell far more than we merely humans. If you think that he did not include this sense because of an artistic difficulty in creating a unity however, this may not be a complete explanation. We talk of seeing God. We talk of hearing God. We talk of the 'touch' of God. Taste is an idea associated with appreciating beauty. Do we 'taste' the Eucharist? You have merely suggested to me that it might be difficult to find an application of the sense of smell within this context. Is smell the most 'sensual' (primitive, worldly ) as contrasted with more 'intellectual' senses? Perhaps we associate smell, primarily with a sense of danger, etc. I hope I am in error. thinking this but it may be true..

          • One of the many things I love about the gregorian/tridentine mass, is how it touches all the senses. The use of incense hearkens to the passages from Revelation where the prayers of the faithful are offered up as incense to God. The scent is unique, comforting, and beautiful to me.

          • Loreen Lee

            I thought about my comment after posting: when people speak of having a sense of God's presence, are they referring to all the senses, feeling, or what? Was a little confused about the Corinthian quote. I understood that Christ is the good odour, but it implied to me that as it was with both those saved and those perished that the Greek Orthodox conception of who shall be saved in the last judgment should not be ignored. I interpret for instance the last judgment as a final 'ordering', the achievement of a 'perfection rather than the interpretation of the word 'judgment' as merely condemnation.. But I suspect Catholicism is probably 'right', about the division it speaks of. . I sang Latin in the choir as a child. I remember the incense.

          • Perhaps you are right and smell was omitted from the hymn for different reason. Throughout the bible, whenever it refers to a pleasing fragrance, smell, or odor in conversations with God, it is usually a sacrifice or gift to God (Gn 8:21, Ez 20:41; Num 29:36, etc). It's a thing of beauty given or done for God (Jn 12:3). Or prayers as incense offered up to God as I mentioned earlier. It isn't spoken of as a property of God which is discerned by us. But from what I understand, a beautiful smell(as you mentioned) is not really a property of a rose either. Beauty depends on the person experiencing it. It says something about us. You mention that a person would never know the full beauty of a rose without a sense of smell, but how do we objectively know that is even the fullness of what a rose has to offer. Perhaps we all lack this "fullness" of experience. If we take your rose example, I don't think one persons sense of beauty is less "full" than another's who cannot smell. The way I see it, it is like having two different sized cups "filled" to the brim. To the same point, if we talk about the 'touch' of God, or the 'taste' of the Eucharist, or 'seeing' God, etc, i don't see the lack of smell as problematic.

          • Loreen Lee

            Re my last comment: Christ has redeemed all. We need to work out our salvation: right!!!! Also Jesus refers to himself both as the Son of God, and the Son of man. In the latter 'sense', is he speaking of himself as a 'new humanity' perhaps. (A little like Nietzsche's ubermensch, perhaps. I find myself defending Nietzsche's thought, often. I do not believe he has to be interpreted as per his sister and the Nazi's. I find a lot of his thought is hypothetical, and refers to what 'is' (that is the errors of human thought) rather than what could or ought to be. But as I said many posts ago, he may have been a prophet, but not a priest.)

          • [---
            Re my last comment: Christ has redeemed all. We need to work out our salvation: right!!!!
            ---]
            No, I was just saying I don't associate smell primarily with a sense of danger.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I would say, rather, that the church does the color coding for you.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I agree. The Church has the right to "color code" because the Church put the Bible together.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Well...almost.

          • [---
            I would say, rather, that the church does the color coding for you.
            ---]
            It would be rather unfair to people who could not understand the bible, if they didn't. The Church has transmitted a Holy Way, by which everyone can attain salvation, it does not depend on your intellectual prowess in scriptural interpretation, it only depends on your ability to live by the Church's teaching which is expressed according to the context in which we live.

          • Susan

            It would be rather unfair to people who could not understand the bible, if they didn't. The Church has transmitted a Holy Way, by which everyone can attain salvation, it does not depend on your intellectual prowess in scriptural interpretation, it only depends on your ability to live by the Church's teaching

            I've never been given a good reason to believe that there is any such thing as "a Holy Way" or that there's any such thing as "salvation" as taught by your church.

            Also, I see no evidence that the behavior of catholics or of their church stands out in any way that would make me accept that they have something especially useful or reliable to tell us about the universe we live in, the planet we live on, our place there, or the moral questions involved.

            So, we're at a bit of an impasse there.

          • Michael Murray

            It would be rather unfair to people who could not understand the bible, if they didn't.

            Why would that be a problem ? The world created by God is full of unfairness that cannot be explained but is apparently a mystery or character building or due to The Fall, or something like that.

          • [---
            Why would that be a problem ? The world created by God is full of unfairness that cannot be explained but is apparently a mystery or character building or due to The Fall, or something like that.
            ---]
            Yes, you are correct, it would not be a problem for those looking forward with joyful hope to a Justice that settles all accounts.... but that is not my audience. So I didn't appeal to it, but rather "fairness".

          • Michael Murray

            It's an amazingly audacious move for a worshipper of a God that created a universe riddled with suffering to make an appeal on the basis of your religion's fairness. I think you've just redefined chutzpah.

          • Susan

            Nicely put, Michael.

          • [---
            It's an amazingly audacious move for a worshipper of a God that created a universe riddled with suffering
            ---]
            Is there really that much evil in the whole universe? Or is it in one galaxy, on one planet, on the tiny portion of the surface that is inhabited by people. The universe looks pretty good to me.

          • Michael Murray

            I didn't say anything about evil. But you are correct. In those parts of the universe where God decided not to put life there is no suffering. We can look at the barren wastes of the lunar landscape and know that the peace of God reigns. But where there is life there is almost certainly natural selection which appears to be God's favourite tool for developing life. If there is natural selection there is suffering. At least for any organism with a nervous system. It's just endemic to the way natural selection works and it's definitely not just limited to people.

          • [---
            If there is natural selection there is suffering.
            ---]
            So is suffering evil, good, neutral, or unrelated?

          • Ben Posin

            I'm glad to hear that you don't think it's good to stone disobedient children. But how many people were killed in Europe over the centuries for being witches? I'm going out on a limb and assuming that you don't think that witches are actually a real thing...though, in the theme of the actual topic of this article, if we are to trust our bible, magic was a real thing out there in the world, and miracles were not always done in God's favor (the Egyptian magicians couldn't stand up to God working through Moses, for example, but they could do magic). But anyway, wouldn't it have been a good thing in a historical and moral sense if the bible had had some sort of footnote saying something to the effect of "just kidding, witches aren't actually real, and you shouldn't go around killing people that you think might be witches, or for that matter people you don't like on the pretext that they are witches"???

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Why don't you tell us how many witches were put to death by Catholic authorities if you think it is such a large number?

            I do think that witchcraft is real. If it *works* it is not because of magic but demonic power.

          • Ben Posin

            Kevin,

            Different sources provide different estimates, and I don't claim to know. It sounds like we're talking about at least in the tens of thousands. But wouldn't one be too many, if it's now agreed that witches aren't real, and that God doesn't want us to kill people for being them?

            But that argument won't work with you, obviously, as you DO think witchcraft is real, powered by demons. I'm not quite sure to go with that one. In a way, I almost think you should get kudos, as maybe there is something a bit inconsistent or hypocritical in believing there is a God, but that demons and magic are silly superstition.

            Anyone want to chime in and tell me what the Church's official position on witches is these days, and whether we should be looking for them to kill them? I guess there ARE exorcists still around, which may tell us something....

          • Michael Murray

            Well there is Hermione Grainger and Granny Weatherwax. Oops! Sorry they are just figments of our imaginations.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You could read points 2116-2117 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

          • Ben Posin

            And now I have, thanks. They are quite poetic, and artfully written. But they are so artfully written that I find myself unsure as to whether they affirm the existence of actual demons and magic, or instead warn against trying or wishing for such things. I have to wonder if this is intentional, in the manner that I suspect the church is being deliberately unclear about the "fires of hell."

      • Danny Getchell

        If I were a sola scriptura, inerrant-Bible Protestant, I would not.

        But since we have seen here on SN that different parts of the Bible are to be interpreted by Catholics in different senses, according to the Church's doctrine, it would be a handy reference tool.

        • Michael Murray

          It must be possible to do this electronically!

  • Steven Dillon

    Monolatry persisted in Second Temple Judaism all the way up to Christianity, when the Two Powers in Heaven developed. Much of the research mentioned in this post is what led me to argue that Polytheism is compatible with Christianity in The Case for Polytheism.

    • Loreen Lee

      What!!!!!?????

    • Loreen Lee

      Steven: Please explain by giving a reference of where you found 'Two Powers in Heaven' and what it means. When it comes to Polytheism do you mean many gods, or many personal interpretations of one God, for instance.

      • Steven Dillon

        'Two Powers in Heaven' refers to a (now widely accepted) theory proposed by rabinnical scholar Alan Segal. It states that Jews recognized the existence of 'two powers in heaven', both variously described as YHWH. This position wasn't deemed heretical until late into the 2nd Century C.E. Early Christians identified the second power as Jesus of Nazareth. By Polytheism, I simply mean the position that more than one god exists.

        Early Christianity is an absolute *mess* with respect to who thought what about Jesus' divinity lol. But, one interesting position that got proposed along the vein of 'Two Powers in Heaven' was that Jesus was an angel.

        "This designation of Christ as an "angel" frequently appeared in a liturgical context. It seems to have been especially prominent in the Shepherd of Hermas--seems, we have to say, not only because precise interpretation of the Shepherd is difficult, but also because this same book has been regarded as the chief extant expression of adoptionism and has also been taken as a primary source for those who posit the existence of binitarianism alongside trinitarianism. Not only did several of the references to angels in the Shpeherd evidently mean the preexistence Christ, but Christ was also identified with the archangel Michael, "who has the power over this people and is their captain. For this is he that puts the law into the hearts of believers." - Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971. p. 183

        Interestingly, the Shepherd of Hermas was very popular in the early second century Rome as there are more surviving early copies of it than many of the canonical writings. And the Muratorian Canon (the oldest list of NT books in early Christianity) says it was written by the brother of Pius, bishop of Rome.

        • Loreen Lee

          Thank you Dillon. I was actually surprised at myself regarding the ability to understand what you said. That early Christianity 'was a mess' was obvious to me, if only on the basis of what I know about St. Augustine. It also explains why the Church holds the central authority of the Magisterium to be vital even today.

          Although they speak on this post of the necessity to understand the bible 'as a whole', I mentioned in another comment that this 'seems to me' to be almost an impossible task. I compared my own lack of ability in this regard to my alternative belief that I can know more than I am able, comparing the latter to an intellectual pride associated even with Satan.

          Yet are there not two difficulties involved in developing understanding, knowledge, the gifts of the Holy Ghost (which concepts I believe were developed from the writings, at least in part, of Plato) and that is its application to the general law, or paradigm, including perhaps the metaphysical on the one hand, and its relevance within specific contexts. To this extent, I believe I can understand the context of what individuals on this blog are saying, as I learn more about them as individuals. Within that context, I believe their comments will 'make more "sense" to me. As with this explanation.
          Thank you Dillon. I believe your work has been most fruitful.

  • Loreen Lee

    I read the bible through in the 60's when I was in my twenties. During the forties, as I have mentioned before I was not offered bible study within my Catholic education. I did have the catechism, however, and I remember phrases by St. Thomas such as: Why am I here? To know love and serve God. Indeed, if there is anything about St. Thomas that I believe is 'needed; within the modern world, it is the philosophy of 'Personalism', with which I am acquainted only through commentary. However, since I lived within an artsy crowd my biblical studies were done within the context of reading 'The Golden Bough' by Ian Fraser. An anthropological study of early mythologies, etc. Although I read scripture daily, the posts so far have given me the feeling that it is going to be more difficult than I thought to obtain an 'orthodox' perspective. I have so much to learn, such as at least basic principles regarding how divinity/theology is to be interpreted.. Quite frankly, I am beginning to think that I have taken on an impossible quest. Pride? Hopefully, with the help of this blog and posts on New Advent maybe it will be good for me to set my goals within a more 'reasonable' context.

    Firstly, I guess the church does not recognize as 'natural' divergence within
    any particular case that does not meet the standards recognized as natural law. I have been thinking this over however, and conclude that this perspective is based on an assumed rationality that can refrain, as a matter of choice, from any thought, word, or deed that does not meet the moral standards of church doctrine. Again it is the priority of reason over nature. Interesting, but perhaps beyond the possibility of the many who would be considered 'sinful' for their actions, - even for those who are not aware or capable of 'understanding' or accepting such distinctions? Obedience - to law. May I conclude that Catholicism is indeed, a most 'demanding' religion when it comes to recognizing the priority of rationality.... It will take more thought to attempt to understand why/how this is so. .

  • Quite coincidentally, I happened to read the following in "Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" 1922, by Bjorn Drachman:

    "The original Jewish view, according to which the heathen gods are real beings just as much as the God of the Jews themselves—only Jews must not worship them—is in the later portions of the Old Testament superseded by the view that the gods are only images made of wood, stone or metal, and incapable of doing either good or evil."

  • David Nickol

    "The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also
    the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time…The whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God."

    The problem with this idea, it seems to me, is that if God is God, he shouldn't have to struggle. It would be a plausible theory that the Old Testament was a record of man's progress in understanding God. What I find troubling is the idea that God couldn't effectively reveal himself through divinely inspired authors without those authors presenting ideas coming directly from the mouth of God that later have to be rejected. For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-2:

    When the LORD, your God, brings you into the land which you are about to enter to possess, and removes many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites,b seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—and when the LORD, your God, gives them over to you and you defeat them, you shall put them under the ban. Make no covenant with them and do not be gracious to them.

    In a note in the NAB to Deuteronomy 2:34 we have the following:

    Under the ban: in Hebrew, herem, which means to devote to the Lord (cf. 7:1–5; 20:10–18). The biblical text often presents herem as the total extermination of a population as a manifestation of the will of the Lord. It is historically doubtful that Israel ever literally carried out this theological program.

    It may be historically doubtful whether Israel ever exterminated a people, but nevertheless we do have in scripture, allegedly written by a divinely inspired author, commands from God to, in effect, commit genocide.

    The question in my mind is how one constructs a theory of divine inspiration. Dei Verbum says that "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit." I can only imagine that a theory of inspiration that maintains that as one of its principles must somehow also maintain that even something spoken directly by God in the Old Testament is somehow not "asserted by the sacred authors."

    And of course we have commands such as the following (Deuteronomy 22:5):

    A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.

    If that was asserted by the Holy Spirit, what was the point, and why does it not hold true today?

    The traces of polytheism and henotheism we see in the Old Testament are therefore not a scar of which Christians should be ashamed, but rather evidence of the plan by which God patiently worked with a human people
    to lead them—in a gradual way befitting human nature—along a path which would eventually enable them to welcome the coming of Christ.

    Wouldn't one be forced to say that if the whole thrust of the Old Testament was to enable the Jews to "welcome the coming of Christ," it was a terrible failure? Jews did not see, and still do not see, the Old Testament as a preparation for the coming of Jesus and a replacement of Judaism by another religion. Arguably, Jesus himself did not see a new religion arising. His mission was to the "lost sheep of Israel." It is only because his mission was a failure that Christianity became a replacement for Judaism. The early followers of Jesus followed Jewish law.

    Naturally, the Old Testament faithful were not going to arrive at Trinitarian monotheism overnight. Like any good teacher, God in his divine pedagogy had to work the Israelite and Canaanite pupils he had, not the 4.0-GPA honors students he wished he had.

    An omnipotent, omniscient God could, it seems to me, reveal himself as the sole God and as a triune God overnight. There should be no limitation to what God can do. But (although I am sure many will disagree with me), God does not reveal himself a Trinitarian even in the New Testament. It took hundreds of years to arrive at a formula by which Jesus and the "Holy Spirit" could be incorporated into a Trinitarian God. A tremendous amount of what is presented as "revelation" seems to me be questionable conclusions of how things "must be" or "must have been," based on scripture and Tradition (for example, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception).

    As I said, the theory of the Bible as a record of a people progressing in their idea of what is right and wrong, and what God is like, seems to me a perfectly plausible theory. But having the Holy Spirit be the "author" of such a document seems to make the Holy Spirit complicit in relaying the crude understanding of the Israelites from ancient times appear to have the stamp of approval of the Holy Spirit. By the way, there are still plenty of Christians (including Catholics) who are quite willing to argue that God did indeed have the authority to command the Israelites to commit genocide. It was not just Israelites from Old Testament times who understood "the ban" to be the will of God. I have participated in online discussions in which Christians ague that God has the power of life and death over everyone, and if he wants a certain people wiped out, he has the authority to "delegate" the killing.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      That's exceptionally clear. It also helps point out one of the peculiar aspects of theists explanations of various inconsistencies in their sacred texts and the fact that the state of the world seems incommensurate with a divine power: arbitrary and explanatory limits are put on god. The phrase "God can't do x because" is a complete non-starter when you're dealing with an omnipotent being.

  • Tom Rafferty

    "It makes me profoundly thankful to know that divine providence has led
    us from worshiping a pantheon of warring deities to worshiping the one
    true God who became incarnate for our salvation in the person of Jesus
    Christ."

    Just how do you know that divine providence is involved in this evolution of thought?

  • Loreen Lee

    This post, I confess has been a rather 'personal venture' for me. Possibly because it required 'thinking' through the bible, and resulting difficulties with the concept of self-determination.
    Please know, that I have follow both Buddhist meditation practice, and its adoption by Guy Finley to Christian teachings, stressing the importance of listening in silence, and observing one's thought. Please understand that I can indeed relate this to the message of Jesus Christ, and hearing in that silence, His Word. (Not words, as the priest emphasized last week).

  • Howard

    "For thoughtful believers and unbelievers alike,..." like Matthew Ramage, but not like St. Augustine? You just lost any chance of selling me your book, Matt.

  • Roman

    It makes me profoundly thankful to know that divine providence has led us from worshiping a pantheon of warring deities to worshiping the one true God who became incarnate for our salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.

    Well said Matt.

  • Bryan Richards

    Considering the schizophrenia of the god between the two testaments it wouldn't surprise me if the bible was about two different deities.

  • Terry Lynn Madeleine Dillon

    MORMONS would be very excited to read that there are "other gods" and their interpretation would be that only THEY can answer this question properly. They would say they have the answer to the tension between atheists and monotheists. God bless you. I love this line, "Like any good teacher, God in his divine pedagogy had to work the Israelite and Canaanite pupils he had, not the 4.0-GPA honors students he wished he had."

  • Harry

    WRONG GOD & WRONG BABY IN THE MANGER

    "Therefore the Lord Himself giveth to you a sign, Lo, the Virgin is conceiving, And is bringing forth a son, And hath called his name Immanuel." – Isaiah 7.14. (Young's Literal Translation)

    ARE YAHWEH & EL THE SAME GOD OR DIFFERENT GODS?

    (GENESIS 14:22, 17:1, 21:33; EXODUS 6:2-3; PSALM 82:1 vs DEUTERONOMY 32:8-9; PSALM 29:1, 89:6-8)

    Recent archaeological, biblical, and extra-biblical research has led scholars working in the area of the origins of Israelite religion to assert rather boldly and
    confidently that the original god of Israel was in fact the Canaanite deity El.1
    Just exactly how has this come about you ask?

    First, the name Israel is not a Yahwistic name. El is the name of the deity invoked in the name Israel, which translates:

    “May El persevere.”2

    This suggests that El was seen as the chief god in the formative years of Israel’s
    religious practices. In fact, the etiological story explaining the origin of
    the name Israel occurs in Genesis 35:9-15, where Jacob obtains this name through the blessing of El Shaddai, that is “El of the Mountain.”

    Second, there exist numerous parallels and similarities between descriptions and cultic terminology used for El in the Canaanite texts and those used for Yahweh
    in the biblical sources (see below). At some point, it is ascertained, the cultic worship of Yahweh must have absorbed that of El, through which means Yahweh assimilated both the imagery and epithets once used of El.

    Finally, there is strong confirmation of this assimilation in the biblical record
    itself. In the oldest literary traditions of the Pentateuch, it is El who regularly appears and not Yahweh, or Yahweh as El! The patriarchal narratives identify El as the deity to whom many of the early patriarchal shrines and altars were built. For example, we are informed in Genesis 33:20 that Jacob builds an altar in the old cultic center of the north, Shechem, and dedicates it to “El, god of Israel” (’el ’elohe yišra’el ). There is no ambiguity in the Hebrew here: ’el must be translated as a proper name, El.3

    Who was El? And why is he even mentioned in the Bible in the first place, let alone as the god of Israel in the older literary traditions of Genesis?

    Our knowledge of El predominantly comes from an invaluable corpus of tablets
    discovered in 1929 in the ancient city of Ugarit, a major city-state of the second millennium BC located on the northern coast of Syria, modern day Ras Shamra.4
    The Ugaritic tablets are the best available witness to Canaanite religion and
    religious practices, and thus also “to the background from which the religion
    of Israel emerged, and to the Canaanite beliefs that it shared, adopted, compromised with, and sometimes rejected.”5
    The Ugaritic literature depicts El as the sovereign deity of the Canaanite pantheon. He is frequently referred to as “Father of the gods,” “the eternal
    King,” and “Creator of all living beings.” El’s other epithets include: “El the Kind, the Compassionate,” “the Bull,” “the Ageless One,” and “the Father of Years.” He is depicted as bearded, and residing in a tent or a tabernacle, whose throne rests on Cherubim. He is the god of blessings and of covenants.

    Many of these epithets and images later become assimilated to Yahweh. For example, Yahweh is often depicted as bearded, as King of the gods, as Compassionate, and as residing in a tent, whose throne, like that of El, rests on Cherubim. There are, in addition to this, numerous El epithets in various strains of biblical tradition—epithets that through a process of assimilation and adoption later become associated with Yahweh. We have already encountered El Shaddai, “El of the Mountain.” Like Yahweh who is associated with the mountain of Sinai and later in eschatological traditions with Zion, so too El resides on a mountain. Other patriarchal narratives attest the use of El Olam, “El the Eternal” to whom Abraham plants and worships a tree at Beersheba, El Elyon, “El the Most High,” the god of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-24), and El Roi, “El who sees” (Gen 16:13).

    These various El epithets are associated with different shrines: El Shaddai with Bethel, El the Most High, the creator of the heavens and the earth, with Jerusalem, El the Eternal with Beersheba, El who sees with Beerlahai-roi, and El the god
    of Israel with Shechem.6
    Many of these shrines and altars to El were established by the patriarchs
    themselves (e.g., Gen 21:33, 28:18, 33:20, 35:14). It has also been suggested
    that the name Yahweh might have originally been a cultic epithet of El! The
    etymology of Yahweh, yhwh, is still unclear, but one proposal is to see it as the causitive imperfect of the Canaanite-Proto-Hebrew verb hwy, “to be.”5

    It is propable therefore, as many commentators have contended, that the early
    Israelites actually worshiped El through his epithet ‘Yahweh.’ This process of
    assimilation is usually presented the other way around in the biblical literature: Yahweh is worshiped through the epithets of El: Shaddai, Olam, and Elyon.

    Contrary to these biblical traditions that suggest assimilation between Yahweh and El, there are other passages that seem to indicate that Yahweh was a separate and independent deity within El’s council. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is one of those rare
    biblical passages that seemingly preserves a vestige of an earlier period in
    proto-Israelite religion where El and Yahweh were still depicted as separate deities: Yahweh was merely one of the gods of El’s council! This tradition undeniably comes from older Canaanite lore.

    When the Most High (’elyôn) gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the
    number of divine beings. For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted
    heritage.

    There are two points to take away from this passage. First, the passage presents an apparently older mythic theme that describes when the divine beings, that is
    each deity in the divine counsel, were assigned and allotted their own nation. Israel was the nation that Yahweh received.

    Second, Yahweh received his divine portion, Israel, through an action initiated
    by the god El, here identifiable through his epithet “the Most High.” In other words, the passage depicts two gods: one, the Most High (El), is seen as assigning nations to the divine beings or gods (the Hebrew word is elohim, plural “gods”) in his council; the other, Yahweh, is depicted as receiving from the first god, the Most High, his particular allotment, namely the people of Israel. Similarly, in another older tradition now preserved in Numbers 21:29, the god Chemosh is assigned to the people of Moab.

    Other biblical passages reaffirm this archaic view of Yahweh as a god in El’s
    council. Psalm 82:1 speaks of the “assembly of El,” Psalm 29:1 enjoins “the
    sons of El” to worship Yahweh, and Psalm 89:6-7 lists Yahweh among El’s divine
    council.

    Thus there seems to be ample evidence in the biblical record to support the claim that as Yahweh became the supreme national deity of the Israelites, he began to usurp the imagery, epithets, and old cultic centers of the god El. This process of
    assimilation even morphed the linguistic meaning of the name El, which later
    came to mean simply “god,” so that Yahweh was then directly identified as ’el—thus Joshua 22:22: “the god of gods is Yahweh” (’el ’elohim yhwh).

    Noteworthy also is the fact that unlike the god Baal, there is no polemic in the Bible
    against El, and all the old cultic centers of El, those in Jerusalem,
    Shechem, and Beersheba, were later accredited to Yahweh. Since the large majority of patriarchal narratives that speak of shrines and altars to El are found in the northern kingdom, such as Bethel and Shechem, and, on the other hand, many biblical texts seem to accredit Yahweh’s origin to the southern Negeb, the current scholarly hypothesis is that the worship of El in the north and of Yahweh in
    the south eventually merged. This thesis finds further support in the incident
    of Jeroboam, who may have acted to reestablish the cult of Yahweh-El at Dan and
    Bethel via his “golden bulls” (#155). In sum, the biblical literature, spanning
    as it does hundreds of centuries of cultural and cultic traditions, preserves
    divergent views, portraits, theologies, and origins of its god Yahweh. We will
    come across others.

    Footnotes

    For a comprehensive treatment of the subject see: F. M. Cross, Canaanite
    Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard
    University Press 1973); M. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and
    the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 1990); and W. Dever,
    Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel
    (Eerdmans 2008).↵

    Other names formed with “el” include: Ishmael, Bethel, Penuel. As a further note, no name in Genesis contains the form of Yahweh, which later became the
    dominant pattern in Israel in the 1st millennium bc. The first and earliest appearance of the name “Israel” comes from the Merneptah stela—an Egyptian victory stela commemorating the Syro-Palestinain conquest of pharaoh Merneptah in 1208 BCE. In the stela Israel is listed among the peoples of the land of Canaan.↵

    The Hebrew ’el is often translated as “God.” Although like the Hebrew ’elohim, ’el can be translated as “god,” Hebraic philologists contend that a generic understanding of ’el as “god” is a rather late development in biblical Hebrew. More accurately, ’el without a definite article is to be rendered simply as “El,” the name of a pan-Canaanite (by this term I mean to include a proto-Israelite culture)
    deity—a remnant of an older Israelite/Canaanite tradition to which a few biblical passages still attest. Mention of El is also found in Genesis 17:1, 28:3, 35:10, 48:3, 49:25. In later literary sources, and after Yahweh had adsorbed El’s attributes, ’el came to be understood simply as “god.”↵

    Translations of the Ugaritic texts can be found in: C. Gordon, Ugaritic Literature: A Comprehensive Translation of the Poetic and Prose Texts (Pontifical Biblical Institute 1949); M. Coogan, ed., and tr., Stories from Ancient Canaan (Westminster
    1978).↵

    Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 65.↵

    Taken and edited from an article by:

    Dr. Steven DiMattei

  • Muhammad Mansoor

    The creator is not in need of our progress, achievements or even good or bad deeds. He has informed that life is a trial to see which of us come to recognize our Creator. -the situations that life throws at us are to even out the field. If anyone is interested to be doomed in Hell then Polytheism is the best way. https://solution-for-peace.com/2016/08/11/8-insights-of-the-unforgivable-sin/
    I am human so my opinion can be ignored. But See above to know the opinion of the real God in this matter.

  • Muhammad Mansoor

    Do not fall into the trap of polytheism. It will not take you anywhere but the last place you want to be.
    https://solution-for-peace.com/2016/08/11/8-insights-of-the-unforgivable-sin/

  • mandy jones

    Sorry,but Palmist was talking about other divine beings because it said that you should die like men instead that you should die like other men. The pre-exile hebrews were henotheist. http://www.evolutionofgod.net/excerpts_chapter6