Friday, March 10, 2017

John Adams: "Why has the original Hebrew been annihilated?" With His Answer

In my last post, I noted John Adams repeatedly asks a question on why the original Hebrew of biblical texts had been destroyed. The context was discussing the (supposed) original Hebrew of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In his letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated November 14, 1813, Adams discusses the destruction of Hebrew texts in other larger contexts and answers his "Why" question. First, let's look at Adams' answer to his question:
Why have those Verses been annihilated? I Suspect platonick Christianity, pharisaical Judaism, or machiavilian Politicks, in this case; as in all other cases of the destruction of records and litterary monuments. The Auri Sacra fames, et dominandi Sæva cupido.
Auri sacra fames, et dominandi sæva cupido is translated as “accursed hunger for gold, and cruel lust for power.”

Here is the passage that immediately preceded the quotation:
Blacklocks translation of Horace’s “Justum” is admirable; Superiour to Addisons. Could David be translated as well; his Superiority would be universally acknowledged. We cannot compare the Sybbiline Poetry. By Virgils Pollio we may conjecture, there was Prophecy as well as Sublimity. Why have those Verses been annihilated? 
I previously wrote about this quotation from Adams' letter to Jefferson when I observed it demonstrates Adams' openness to the notion that Virgil wrote special revelation and that if recognized as such, belongs in the biblical canon. I stand by that assertion. Indeed, Adams' son John Quincy, whom the elder Adams mentored on theological issues, and at a time in his life when he was more orthodox (Trinitarian) than his father, likewise seemed open to the proposition when he wrote:
But whether Homer and Virgil were not favoured with the same sort of Inspiration I cannot pronounce—John Milton, undoubtedly believed himself to be inspired—He too often recurs to his Heavenly Muse, his Urania; to her who “dictated to him slumbering”—who “nightly brought his verses to his ear”—and he expressly invokes her as the same


I am not one who will deny the claim of John Milton, or that of Homer and Virgil to Inspiration. But if their claims are good, those of the Apocalypse and of Solomon’s Song, are unquestionable[.]
In my previous post, I noted I thought Adams' question "[w]hy have those [v]erses been annihilated?" related to Virgil. And it's certainly possible it did: 1. The question immediately follows the clause where Adams speaks on Virgil; and 2. Adams apparently thought this conspiracy to destroy and suppress was vast. That is, all sorts of texts could have been subject to it.

But I now add that Adams' question also relates to the Psalms of David.  Adams notes he is dissatisfied with every single translation of them he has seen. He said he'd rather see them translated in "our prose translation." Whatever that means, Adams believes they haven't been.

In fact, all current translations of the Psalms of David were not as well done as "Blacklocks translation of Horace’s 'Justum'."  But the problem is the originals were destroyed by means of conspiracy.

In this letter Adams then goes on to promote the thesis of a book that doubts we have the right version of the Ten Commandments. That's when he gives the quotation that I have often repeated:
When and where originated our Ten commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during or after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or amendment might come in there.
Of course Adams would be sympathetic to the book's thesis and desire to read it; given his position on how in their lust for gold and power, the churchy cabal tampered with the originals.

(Now, in other places Adams intimates he believed in the Decalogue. But that's because his method wasn't to simply look something up in the Bible and believe it as true special revelation. But rather, he believed he held a book that contained special revelation but had been corrupted by authorities. And it's by using his reason and conscience, he could do his best to figure out what that special revelation was.

With this we could understand why Adams could at once doubt we had the right version of the the Ten Commandments because of the presence of errors in general contained in the Bible's text. But then later or in other places affirm the Decalogue as right because he decided it agrees with his own philosophy and reason.)

Then in the letter, Adams told Jefferson he supported his "Jefferson Bible" project and if he were up to it (which he was not) he'd do the same:
I admire your Employment, in Selecting the Philosophy and Divinity of Jesus and Seperating it from all intermixtures. If I had Eyes and Nerves, I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.
Previously, I've noted the above numerous times. But what I never noted is what follows, which sheds more light on Adams' conspiracy theory. Many conspiracy theories have a kernel of truth (it's what goes beyond that kernel that gets problematic).

In this case, Pope Gregory really did have Hebrew books ordered burnt. This is more or less accurate history:
In 1238 a French Jew, made a discovery to the Pope (Gregory 9th) of the heresies of the Talmud. The Pope Sent 35 Articles of Error, to the Archbishops of France, requiring them to Seize the books of the Jews, and burn all that contained any Errors. He wrote in the same terms to the Kings of France, England Arragon, Castile Leon, Navarre and Portugal. In consequence of this Order 20 Cartloads of Hebrew Books were burnt in France: and how many times 20 cartloads were destroyed in the other Kingdoms? The Talmud of Babylon and that of Jerusalem were composed from 120 to 500 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.
In researching this further, I learned that what was objectionable to Pope Gregory were things written in the Talmud that Christians would find blasphemous. Not just Catholics, but some of the claims Protestants, even unitarian Protestants, would strongly object to.

The Talmud, as far as I understand, is not the Hebrew Old Testament. But Adams apparently believed that in this conspiracy to destroy -- which by the way, probably includes more than this one systematic act by Pope Gregory -- originals from the Hebrew Old Testament (and perhaps some of the New that were originally written in Hebrew) were included.

Adams goes on:
If Lightfoot derived Light from what escaped from Gregorys fury3 in explaining many passages in the New Testament, by comparing the Expressions of the Mishna, with those of the Apostles and Evangelists, how many proofs of the Corruptions of Christianity might We find in the Passages burnt?
John Lightfoot was a Hebraist, a biblical scholar whose work, according to Adams, shed a limited amount of light because Gregory's actions couldn't suppress everything. But, as Adams reasons, if we had the Hebrew that was destroyed by way of Athanasian conspiracy we would have more proof of Christianity's corruptions, the chief of which were orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

In other writings Adams makes clear that the notion of the Incarnation is not just the chief corruption of Christianity but is responsible for all of Christianity's other corruptions. He also seems to intimate that orthodox Trinitarians, whatever good they can do in their understanding of the faith, will never be able to understand the faith without errors until they stop believing in the Trinity and Incarnation. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

And from what I gather, the Talmud was burned in France and nowhere else and survived just fine; the incident is a footnote to history. Appears to be another example of Adams building his conspiratorial case on stray factoids that fed his agenda of anti-clericalism and of course anti-Catholicism.

The Jewish authorities did indeed keep their own set of books throughout the ages, and Martin Luther himself used their "Masoretic Texts"

to devise his own version of the Bible in the 1500s, abjuring the "Catholic" Septuagint written in Greek.

The irony of course is that the Catholics, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, maintain the it was the Jewish authorities who monkeyed with the source texts after the fact to write prophesies of Jesus as the Messiah/Christ out of them. Further, Jesus and the apostles seem to have quoted from the Septuagint, so the "Hebrew originals" are by no means the first and last word!

As we see, Adams's conspiracy theories can easily swing the other way as well, but his agenda did not permit evenhanded scholarly consideration. The more I read of his musings, the less I think of his intellectual honesty and rigor.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Here's my full analysis of Adams' view of the Ten Commandments: The conclusion given in the final three paragraphs is:

From Levinson’s summary and translation, it is evident that Adams’ entire statement on the Ten Commandments was a recounting of Goethe’s Ritual Decalogue theory. The alternate list of ten commandments was from Goethe. The idea that the tables were written to remind the Jews of their history is from Goethe. The idea that authentic copies were rare and that the Jews were incapable of preserving the memory of them is from Goethe. And the idea that the “error” in identifying the Ten Commandments occurred during the Babylonian captivity is also from Goethe. Everything that Adams said about the Ten Commandments in this letter can be found in Goethe’s book. It is highly likely, therefore, that Adams was merely informing Jefferson of Goethe’s arguments rather than voicing his own opinion.

Frazer would have us to believe that the same John Adams who held the Ten Commandments in higher esteem than all human philosophy and theology also thought that the Ten Commandments were fraudulent substitutes for the real Decalogue. As much as Frazer despises rationalism, surely he cannot expect us to be so irrational as to accept his claim unless Adams’ actual view of the Ten Commandments is safely hidden from our consideration. But let’s give Frazer the greatest benefit of the doubt and assume that Adams did go through a brief period of time in which he doubted the validity of the Ten Commandments. If such a period actually occurred, it would have to have been sometime between 1810 and 1816. If we take this view, then we would have to assume that, for a period of six years, Adams investigated the validity of the Ten Commandments and concluded that they were so demonstrably valid that they should be the standard by which all human reasoning was measured.

This is the most that can be reasonably drawn from Adams’ 1813 letter, but what of it? Are we to conclude as Frazer does that no man can be a Christian if he uses logic and reasoning to test the claims of the Bible? Of course not! Such a conclusion would itself be a violation of Scripture. The Bible tells us to test all things (I Thess 5:21). God praises those who are skeptical both of true as well as of false prophets (Acts 17:11, Rev 2:2). And He commands us to put even supernatural revelation to the test (I John 4:1). If Frazer is correct in his view of Adams’ 1813 letter, then Adams’ subsequent letters of 1816 prove that Adams followed the proper biblical method in order to obtain a firm conviction that the Ten Commandments were direct revelation from God.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"You and I have as much Authority to Settle these Disputes as Swift Priestley or Dupuis, or The Pope.

"And if you will agree with me, We will issue our Bull,6 and enjoin upon all these Gentlemen to be Silent, till they can tell Us, What Matter is and What Spirit is! And in the mean time to observe the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount."

So Adams is telling Jefferson, knowing what he stood for, that they together would rewrite the Christian religion and issue unitarian bulls and this is somehow that is something defensible and consistent with your understanding of the Christian faith?

Tom Van Dyke said...

So Adams is telling Jefferson, knowing what he stood for, that they together would rewrite the Christian religion and issue unitarian bulls and this is somehow that is something defensible and consistent with your understanding of the Christian faith?

Why not? It's what Luther did, including rewriting the Bible itself. Jefferson and Adams sound just like him. The more accurate take is not whether America was a "Christian" nation, but that it was certainly a Protestant one!

But I will return to the subject at hand. If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: "Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing." Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands his Aristotle. If any one of them can correctly understand one preface or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat! No, I am not overdoing it, for I have been schooled in and have practiced their science from my youth. I recognize how deep and broad it is. They, too, are well aware that I can do everything they can do. Yet they treat me as a stranger in their discipline, these incurable fellows, as if I had just arrived this morning and had never seen or heard what they teach and know. How they do brilliantly parade around with their science, teaching me what I outgrew twenty years ago!

Bill Fortenberry said...

Actually, the dispute that Adams was referring to was the debate between materialists and dualists (or spiritualists as Adams called them). Here's the sentence just before your quotation:

The Controversy between Spiritualism and Materialism between Spiritualists and Materialists, will not be Settled by Scurrilous Epigrams of Swift, nor by dogmatical Censures of Priestly.

Adams was a dualist, by the way, which was one of his many disagreements with Priestley who was a staunch proponent of materialism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually he says "these Disputes" which is plural. Meaning these doctrinal issues in general.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Of course "disputes" is in the plural. Do you think that the aged Mr. Swift sat down with a preteen Priestley while bouncing an infant Dupuis upon his knees in order to engage in a singular dispute?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Such does not invalidate my point.

Jonathan Rowe said...

BTW: I was just rereading Frazer's chapter on John Adams. I don't your post here constitutes an apt criticism. On page 118 he admits by way of reproducing the quotation of John Adams endorsing the Ten Commandments and sermon on the mount as part of his religion.

He then later properly recounts Adams letter to Jefferson enthusiastically welcoming the thesis that we have the wrong version of the Ten Commandments.

The contradiction gets resolved by what I wrote above in parenthesis. But I think your posts welcomes that Adams could have so behaved. He believes in special revelation, that the biblical canon contains such. But he doesn't trust the translations of the texts we currently have because of suspicions of what the churchy cabal may have done with them. He then does his own investigation and trusts what his reason and conscience instructs of him.