History of Christian Bible Publications with References to Media Codes and Conventions

Media codes and conversations refers to written and symbolic tools used to construct or suggest meaning in media forms and products. Media codes include typography, visual composition, and contextual symbolism. Understanding conventions used by producer needs to be grounded in analysing texts within their cultural and historical contexts. Applying considerations raised by media studies to the Christian Bible is a prudent activity if one wants to understand how the scriptures came to be presented in their current formate. The Bible has passed through numerous eras of media codes and conventions, what follows is a brief overview of highlights and associations issues.

The Christian Bible begins with the Hebrew Bible, which began as an oral tradition in the second millennium before the common era.

The earliest written versions of the Hebrew Bible were created on papyrus or parchment, or even leather scrolls that are dated to be from c.900-c600BCE. Old Hebrew was written right to left in a continuous script that had no vowels, capital letters, or chapter numbers. A complete set of writings consisted of 12-20 scrolls.

The Torah, the Jewish Holy Book. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the third century BCE, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The work was conducted by scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. The name given to the translation was the Septuagint and it is reported as being the work of seventy-two scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Hebrew, the Greek conventions of writing was a continuous script that did not have any punctuation, this writing was called Kione.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was a significant development that enabled people of other faiths and Jews who no longer knew the Hebrew language to become familiar with the stories. Some reports praise the translation while others are critical of details being changed such as variations in timeframes and ages of characters. Additionally, there are instances of names of birds being altered. For example, in Leviticus 11:18 the Hebrew Bible says a type of bird but Septuagint specifies a pelican; other Christianised versions say owl, swan, vulture, or other type of bird. (See Bible Hub for variations.)

In the first few decades of the common era, Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – c.50 CE) rewrote the chapters of Genesis and Exodus with an emphasis on allegories and harmonising Jewish and Greek thought. He wrote in the scholarly language of his era, Greek Koine. Philo’s versions of Jewish stories were favoured by Early Christians, many of whom could not speak or read Hebrew. Alternatively, if they did not have access to Philo’s writings, they used the Septuagint. Having said all that, it also needs to be remembered that most Early Christians could not read or write at all, stories were mostly told and retold through word of mouth.

Early Christians referred to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament, that described stories about Jesus. Thus, the Christian Bible is an extension of the Hebrew Bible.

The first Christian writings were letters between Christian leaders and their followers. Most of these are attributed to the apostle Paul, however, whether or not he is the genuine author or a pseudonym is unclear. Once again, Greek Koine was the language used.

Timeline of New Testament events and writings. Created by Renee from various references.

The Christian Gospels differ to other writings in the New Testament because they are not a direct form of communication between people, rather, they are a narrative of the saviour, Jesus Christ.

In Ancient Greek He was known as Iēsūs Christós [Ἰησοῦς Χριστός]. Iēsūs means Son of God and Christós means the Anointed One. There was confusion amongst Romans when they first heard of Iēsūs Christós because they thought Christós was a name, however, in Ancient Greek it was a title that inferred a person was a high priest or initiate. Through the linguistic representation of Christós being applied to all followers in “Christians” it may be inferred that the cult of Christianity did not initially have any formal hierarchical structure; rather, all followers were deemed to be “anointed ones”, a community bound by the premise that they were all “Sons” of God, like Jesus. (The hierarchical structure of Christianity emerged after Constantine Romanised the religion. See Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity.)

The first Christian Gospel, Saint Mark’s, was written in the first century, in Greek Koine script. Some scholars believe Mark’s Gospel was written by his disciples in Rome, however, it is more probable that it was written in Alexandria, Egypt. Legend has it that Mark travelled to Alexandria where he set up a Church and the Gospel that bears his name was written by his followers several years after his death.

Matthew’s Gospel is credited as being the second narrative about Jesus. Like Mark’s, it was not written by its namesake or by any first hand witnesses. It is generally understood that Matthew’s Gospel was written by a male Jewish scholar, hence, it is in Hebrew. Matthew’s Gospel contains many details about Jesus’ life that are not presented in Marks, for instance, the Star of Bethlehem and wise men who brought gifts to the infant saviour. Such details have strong links to Old Testament symbology.

In Hebrew, the name Jesus Christ is Yeshua Hamashiach. Yeshua means deliverer or saviour and Hamashiach means Anointed One.

The final two Christian Gospels, Luke and John, were written in Greek Koine.

Scholars generally agree that when alive, Jesus spoke Aramaic, the common language of Judea at the time. However, given the descriptions of Jesus’ knowledge Jewish scriptures, it can be presumed he also knew Hebrew. Likewise, stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles (anyone who is not Jewish) suggest he was familiar with the Greek language.

During the first few centuries of Christianity, writings were copied and collections were gathered at a several locations, most significantly, Alexandria, Egypt.

The convention of writing Christian documents in the codex, parchment that was bound like modern books, began in the second century and completely replaced scrolls in the fourth century.

Left image = Hebrew Bible in codex form, source: Wikipedia Commons; Right image = Greek bible in codex form, source: Bible MMS

In recent history, a person hand wrote the bible using a felt-tipped marker and it took them four years, sometimes writing fourteen hours a day to complete. Hence, given the effort involved in producing a bible, it is understandable how precious and special the manuscripts were considered to be. 

St Jerome (c.347 – 419/20), a Christian priest, theologian, and historian translated the Bible into Latin, which became known as the Vulgate. Jerome added six additional chapters to the bible which included prayers and stories. The convention of writing in Latin was similar to Old Hebrew and Old Greek, however, some indications of punctuation like spaces between sentences were beginning to be introduced. (For background information about other founders see Who Were the Early Church Fathers?.)

8th-century Vulgate, source: Wikipedia Commons

The accuracy in which the Bible was copied and translated is a contentious issue. For instance, did the evolution of grammar impact meaning and symbolism? (See Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, or bow? for an example.) Did Jerome accurately translate the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into Latin? Or were there anomalies like what occurred with the name of birds when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek? For instance, Early Christian art suggests the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was a fig, however, following the Romanisation of Christianity, the apple began being presented as an apple. An explanation for this change is that the Latin word for evil, malum, is similar to their word for apple, malus. Then there is my personal favourite, Moses being depicted with horns (see Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists).

Between c.600-995 the Vulgate, was the only version that Christians were allowed to use.

In the thirteenth century, Stephen Langton (c.1150 – 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, England, divided the Vulgate into chapters, numbered them, rearranged the order in accordance with Jerome’s recommendations several centuries earlier. This development represents a significant shift in technical codes of written language. Spaces between words, capital letters, and the presentation of information in columns were the new norm. 

Benedictine monks and nuns were significant producers of hand written copies of the bible and other ancient texts. Elaborate pictures and decorations graced the pages giving rise to the tradition of Illuminated manuscripts (see below).

11th century – Gospel Book with Commentaries, Byzantium, Constantinople. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Book of Hours, Bourges, c.1480. Source: State Library NSW


When Johannes Gutenberg (c1400-1468), a German blacksmith, invented the printing press in the 1440s, the bible was the first book that he published. It was written in Latin, in 42-line columns; it had no title page or page numbers, thus resembling Gothic-style hand written copies.


Gutenberg Bible. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In 1491 the first pocket-sized bible was produced, which was dubbed the poor man’s bible. It was printed in small font, had a subject index, a summary of the books and their contents, and it was illustrated with woodcuts inspired by Durer’s work. (Durer is the first artist who ever had to contend with copyright issues in printed media.)

“Poor Man’s Bible”, 1491. Source: Southern Methodist University


In the early 1500s, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) played a significant role in instigating the beginning of the Reformation – a movement of reform arising from accusations that the Roman Church was corrupt. Part of this process was Luther’s translation of the bible into German in 1522. This era also saw a flooding of new iconography that was produced by artists and dispersed via the printing press (for more details see here and here.)


Title woodcut for the 1541 of Martin Luther’s German Bible. Source: Wikipedia Commons

A few years later, an English version of the bible was mass-produced. The main translator was William Tyndale (c.1494–1536) who used Hebrew and Greek references. Tyndale’s translation did not meet a warm reception in England where they were banned and burned. He was accused of deliberately mistranslating scripture and supporting heretical views. For example, he changed the word “priest” to “senior”, “do penance” to “repent”, and “charity” to “love”. Potentially, the most controversial of his word changing was “church” to “congregation”. The Catholic Church had maintained for centuries that there was only one true church, themselves. Therefore, to imply that the church was an invisible structure of people was considered unacceptable. Tyndale was charged with heresy and sentenced to death, he was strangled and burned on a stake – this was often a common fate of anyone who challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Empire.

Despite the initial rejection of Tyndale’s translation, a few decades later, it was referenced, along with Hebrew and Greek, to create the Great Bible that was printed in 1539. Under King Henry VIII, England had split off from Popal rule and was establishing the Church of England. The Great Bible is considered to mark the beginning of Early modern English. Codes and conventions of printed material that we know today are evident in the page layout, numbering of verses, headings, and chapter titles.

The evolution of codes and conventions in the technical production of printing very much coincides with language development and issues of symbolic expression. A Bible printed in 1609 expresses the concerns of people with its title page (which by this stage had become a feature of printed material) that reads:

“THE HOLIE BIBLE / FAITHFVLLY TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH OVT OF THE AVTHENTICAL LATIN / Diligently conferred with the Hebrew, Greece, and other Editions in diuers (different) languages. / With ARGVMENTS of the Bookes, and Chapters / ANNOTATIONS: TABLES: and other helpes, for better underſtanding of text: for diſcouerie (discovery) of CORRVPTIONS in ſome late transſlations: and for clearing CONTROVERIES in Religion”.

Source: Theological Commons

Note: During the 1300s to the 1600s “u” was only used in the middle of words, e.g. save was saue; “v” was used for “u” sound, e.g, upon was vpon; and “w” was two “v” joined together so “w” makes a long “u” sound, e.g. new. Printing eventually standardised all of these issues. English is a challenging language to learn because it was developed as a conglomerate of influences from many languages and therefore has a lot of variation in rules which means a lot has to be learned by rote and remembered.

In 1611, the bible was once again produced with an impetus on authenticity by King James who commissioned its production. Its production involved the removal of the chapters which Jerome added in 384 that were considered to be heretical and became known as the Apocrypha (meaning not genuine).  

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The King James Version of the Bible has become the standard of all modern bibles. While there have been many translations since then, the issues of codes and conventions in its presentation as a media product have become second to the relevance of symbolic codes used in the language.

Alongside changes in presentation formats, the use of figurative speech has also changed dramatically. The retranslation of terms such as “house” into “home” or “household” can have significance repercussions on interpretations. For example, King James Version of Proverbs 14:1 reads:

Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands.

The Brenton Septuagint Translation written English in 1844 reads:

Wise women build houses: but a foolish one digs hers down with her hands.

The New Living Translation written 1989 – 1996, reads:

A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.

The International Standard Version written in 2011 reads:

Every wise woman builds up her household, but the foolish one tears it down with her own hands

In traditional Jewish figurative speech the phrase “house” often inferred the “House of God”. The structure of this metaphorical house included a father, wife/mother, daughter, and son. Hierarchically, the “Father” represents God, the “Wife/Mother” represents the Church, the “Daughter/s” (also referred to as Virgin/s; see Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother) represent congregations or groups of people, and “Son/s” represents individuals.

By examining different versions of the Bible (like on Bible Hub) it can be noted that the King James Version and Brenton Septuagint Translation both contain impressions of the tradition figurative speech as it would have been told 2000 odd years ago. On the other hand, versions like the New Living Translation and International Standard Version have been altered in such a way that it appears verses (like above) have been interpreted literally, that is the “wife” or “woman” is not representative of a theological construct, rather, as a real biological female. (Biblical figurative speech is discussed in more detail here and here.)

Given that the Jewish framework of God’s House places “daughters” above “sons” it is not strictly a patriarchal model. Thus, it can be argued that some contemporary interpretations of the Christian Bible are more misogynistic than Early Christianity intended.

Issues could also be raised in the how a “woman” (or “women”) metaphorically pull down their house/home/household via the differing adjectives of plucketh, digs, or tears.

Are contemporary Christian Bibles an accurate replication of the original? Personally, I am amazed at how much has been preserved, nonetheless, it is vital to recognise the impact that the evolution of language, customs, and media production processes have had on the Christian’s Holy Scriptures. The application of media codes and conventions sits somewhere between wanting to maintain a sense of stability so as audiences can connect with what is familiar, and gradual change in accordance with sociocultural values, interests, and technology.

In summary, over the past two thousand years, the Bible has evolved from a document handwritten on papyrus scrolls to a mass-produced book that is organised with features that include, a cover, title page, index, chapters, verse numbers, page numbers, and columed writing. The first editions were created in a combination of Hebrew and Greek Koine script, which were succeeded by Latin. Every translation into another language, including latter versions in German, English, and so forth, have presented many challenges and raise questions about the original authors’ intentions. Contemporary Bibles are now easily accessible in digital forms, which is a far cry from its humble beginnings.

As I’ve said before, the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, but the interpretation of its symbolism is a very human activity, moreover, Bible interpretation is nuanced by cultural and historical contexts of its production.

Left image source: Magellan TV; Right image source: Pix4Free

Further Reading

Dr Roy Murphy provides an insightful discussion about additional Christian writings and Gospels that did not make the final cut of the Holy Roman version of the Bible that can be found here: The Lost Gospels.

References

An Investigation: Materials Used to Write the Bible, https://www.josh.org/materials-scribes-used-bible/ (2017, accessed 30 November 2020).

Associates for Biblical Research. (n.d.). A Brief History of the Septuagint. Biblearchaeology.org. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/4022-a-brief-history-of-the-septuagint

Bruinius H. Copying the Bible like a medieval monk. The Christian Science Monitor, 6 May 1999, https://www.csmonitor.com/1999/0506/p19s1.html (6 May 1999, accessed 30 November 2020).

Dines J. The Septuagint. Bloomsbury Publishing, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=_Gc8CwAAQBAJ (2004)

“Esther, Additions to the Book of .” Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved November 24, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/esther-additions-book

Gutenberg Bible. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gutenberg-Bible (accessed 30 November 2020)

History World. (n.d.). HISTORY OF THE BIBLE – NEW TESTAMENT. Historyworld.net. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from http://historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistoriesResponsive.asp?historyid=aa11

Science X staff. Digitally unwrapped scroll reveals earliest Old Testament scripture (Update). Phys.org, https://phys.org/news/2016-09-digitally-unwrapped-scroll-reveals-earliest.html (2016, accessed 30 November 2020).

Smith, H. (2018). The Case for the Septuagint’s Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11. Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism, 8. https://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=icc_proceedings

The Orthodox Faith. (n.d.). The Bible of the Early Church. Theorthodoxfaith.com. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from http://theorthodoxfaith.com/article/the-bible-of-the-early-church/

The ‘Poor Man’s Bible’ – SMU, https://www.smu.edu/Bridwell/SpecialCollectionsandArchives/Exhibitions/ProthroBibles/MedievalandRenaissance/PoorMans (accessed 30 November 2020).

University of Helsinki. (2019). The Origins of the New Testament. Helsinki.fi. http://www.helsinki.fi/teol/pro/_merenlah/oppimateriaalit/text/english/newtest.htm

When Did The Letter U Enter The Alphabet?, https://www.dictionary.com/e/theletteru/ (2012, accessed 30 November 2020).

What most Christians don’t know: Christian Faith is Based on Jewish Blood Magic (Extended version)

Christianity is the most popular religion around the world. It is practiced by approximately 30% of the population yet, surprisingly, many of its devotees are not aware of some of its most basic premises. Lack of knowledge about one’s religion means blind faith, which can lead one down the proverbial garden path. Potential problems include spiritually bypassing issues and being susceptible to manipulation from people who pervert Christianity to suit their own agendas. Knowledge of the historicity of Christianity can overcome naivety and ignorance, and help prevent adverse situations from developing. 

In this discussion I am exploring the Christian faith from the perspective of it being a religion based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic. Future topics will include how Jesus replaced Adam as God’s first born; biblical references to daughters, whores, and women rarely (if ever) represent real females; when Moses once had horns; Jesus created in the image of Apollo and Zeus; and the Romanisation of Christianity.

Before digging into details, we need to go over a few basics about Christianity.

The Basics of Christianity

Christianity is a religion that began approximately 2000 years ago based on the teachings of a character known as Jesus Christ, as described in a document called the New Testament. There are (and always have been) many variations on how to interpret Jesus’ teachings, although a generalisation can be made that all Christians are united in the belief that their saviour, Jesus Christ, came to earth (literally, spiritually, or symbolically) to forgive sins so as it was possible for people to enter heaven.

The New Testament consists of several chapters that give accounts of Jesus’ life and that of his early followers. It contains a lot of supernatural themes such as miracles being performed and visions of the future. The New Testament also contains a continuation of themes presented in the Hebrew Bible. The Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament and these text consist of stories that date back to the first or second millennium; Jews refer to these stories as the Torah. Both Jews and Christians alike believe in the one God who is all powerful, incorporeal, and eternal (this is the same God that Muslims believe in too, but that’s another story). Christian’s believe Jesus was the Son of this God, Jews do not. (Muslim’s believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God, again, that’s another story).

From a young age, Jesus was reported to have a comprehensive understanding of God; on one occasion he became separated from his family and was subsequently found explaining Hebrew scriptures to Jewish elders in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:41-52). The above painting depicts the moment twelve-year-old Jesus was found by his anxious parents, Mary and Joseph. Painting by William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1860. Source: Wikipedia Commons

While Christianity has strong links to Judaism, it also has significant influence from Greek culture because a lot of the places where it originally developed were Hellenised areas of the Mediterranean, for example Alexandria, modern day Turkey, and cities such as Athens, Corinth, and Thessalonica. The English title of “Jesus Christ” comes from the Greek Iesous Christós, which is more common than the Hebrew, Yeshua The Messiah. In both cases the names mean the Son of God (Jesus/Iesous/Yeshua) the Anointed One (Christ/Christós/Messiah) but the fact that Christians call themselves Christians, not Messiahians, reflects a veneer of Greekness that dominates the religion. This presentation can sometimes disguise the underlying Jewish theology. Identifying that which has been hidden is vital to understanding aspects of the religion, such as the role that Jewish blood magic has on defining Christian faith …

Christian faith is based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic 

Magic is the power to influence events through the use of mysterious forces. To achieve magical outcomes, physical substances or actions are often carried out in a ritualistic manner that symbolically or supernaturally indicate magic is being performed. The use of blood to carry out magical spells is evident in many Jewish traditions, in fact, Judaism was established in reference to blood magic in the form of human sacrifice. 

The First Blood Magic Ritual of Judaism 

Abraham, the first Jewish prophet, had clairvoyant communication from a supreme God who told him to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham was loyal to this invisible God and prepared to carry out the act but at the last minute a new instruction came into his mind saying the sacrifice is not necessary. Abraham and Isaac, joyous that their obedience and loyalty was rewarded, killed a ram and gave thanks to God. Ergo, Judaism may be perceived as having began with the killing of a sheep. 

History channel, A scene from “The Bible”, 2012: Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice. Source: Read the Spirit

The notion of killing a child to get on the good side of the spiritually divine is the antithesis of Judaism; however, it is known to have been a common practice in some ancient and not so ancient cultures. For example, in recent years, a ten-year-old girl in India was allegedly sacrificed to heal a paralysed man, and in the Greek epic, The Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the Goddesses Artemis and, in turn, achieve victory in the battle of Troy. Other examples of human sacrifice can be found in Inca, Aztec, Ancient China, Nordic countries, and more. Likewise, child sacrifice was a cultural norm within Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia, where some (but not all) groups of the Phoenicians (also known as Caananities) routinely offered their children’s souls up to the Gods.

From Abraham onwards, Judaism rejected human sacrifices and denounced them as a practice that was necessary to achieve the favour of deities. Having said that, blood sacrifices were still believed to be important and Jews developed ritualistic animal killings to appease God and influence events.

The significance of blood as a magical substance is, presumably, connected to our ancestors’ understanding that blood carries life, as explained in the Old Testament:

… the life of every creature is its blood

Leviathans 17:14, New International Version

In regards to the specific significance of sheep’s blood, the symbolism is nuanced. One interpretation is that the ram symbolises the zodiac sign of Aries, therefore, they are an indicator of astrological significance. Another interpretation is that the birth of lambs each spring represent new life and hopes for prosperity after long winters. On a pragmatic level, Abraham was a shepherd, hence, a ram was easily accessible from his flock.

The Passover

Sheep sacrifices emerged as a prominent theme in the Old Testament story of Exodus. Jews, at this point in time, were reported to be living in Egypt and were under the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. God communicated with a prophet called Moses and gave him instructions for a blood magic ritual. (Backstory to Moses is that he was born a Jew and was saved from infanticide by being placed in a basket that floated on the Nile till he was found and subsequently raised by the Pharaoh’s family. These circumstances were different to Isaac’s but may be seen as a continuation of the idea that when God saves a Jewish first born male from death it means they have an important life mission … in Christianity, God also saves Jesus from infantile death.)

Getting back to the sheep’s blood, Moses received a clairvoyant instruction that all Jewish households were to ceremonially slaughter a lamb and paint its blood on their doorposts and lintels. The lamb’s blood becomes a physical indication that a magical force field is protecting their families from an Angel of Death. Like in the story of Abraham, the sheep’s blood represents a life saving substance; all first born sons in houses with lamb’s blood painted above their door had their life spared while those without were killed. In recognition of this historical event that led to Jews being freed from Egyptian masters, an annual festival involving the sacrificing of a lamb was established; this festival became known as the Passover.

Unknown, The destroying angel passes through, 1880. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Coincidentally, it was at the time of year when Jews celebrate Passover, that Jesus was crucified and died. Thus, a correlation of sheep’s blood and a first born son being killed in a manner that was coordinated by God has an archetypal significance that flowed through to Christianity. Note, the archetype in this instance is not a Jungian archetype that suggests symbols are universal across time and cultures; rather, the archetypal connection between sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace, is an archetype in the Ancient Greek sense that the original form is a prototype that evolved over time. Hence, the Christian significance of sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace is different to the initial presentation in the story of Abraham in much the same way that an archetype (prototype) of a car has evolved from being a chariot driven by horses into a mechanical motor that is described in terms and in horsepower. 

The New Testament account of the Passover is described as Jesus’ Last Supper. This differs from traditional Jewish celebrations of Passover on account of the emphasis being on Jesus blessing bread and wine:

… [Jesus] took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” .

Luke 22:20, New International Version

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Christian reasoning behind the foregoing of a Passover lamb is based on the belief that Jesus was the final sacrificial Passover lamb; a human sacrifice that ended the need for all future animal sacrifices. Dr Richard Carrier, renowned expert on the historicity of Jesus, explains that ancient logic perceived blood, with its life carrying properties, to be the most powerful substance available for magic purposes. Animal blood was good, but not strong enough to make spells last forever, so they need to be repeated, often yearly. Human blood was understood to have stronger magical properties, and Jesus was not just any human sacrifice, He was the son of God! Therefore, Jesus’ blood was the most almighty substance of them all! 

Thus we have the transforming of a Jewish tradition into a Christian one. The writings of second century christian, Justin Martyr, further explains that when the Jews anointed their houses with lamb’s blood they were giving an external display of their faith, whereas when Christians anointed themselves with the wine (symbolic blood) of their sacrificial lamb (Jesus) they were displaying their faith internally. By recognising the transformation of physical acts from a real lamb with real blood, through to the symbolic lamb and symbolic blood, it can be understood that Gospel accounts of Jesus saying that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:51-58) were spiritual concepts. Arguably, anyone of Jesus era who understood Jewish theology would have also understood the Christian adaptation, however, concerns from outsiders that christians were practicing cannibalism were not completely unfounded given some religions literally practiced human sacrifices.

Whether one believes that Jesus was a real human who walked upon the earth or a spiritual character within a mythological tale, the simple fact remains that Jesus’ death is a continuation of faith in Jewish blood magic principles. Christian texts refer to Jesus as being the Lamb of God (John 1:29/36). And the disciple Paul says:

“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”

Corinthians 5:7, English Standard Version

Jesus being God’s Son, moreover, his first and only son, made Jesus’ blood very powerful. How powerful? Powerful enough to take away the sins of the world for an eternity.

The Yom Kippur 

Christians claim Jesus’ death represents a magical event that facilitated the forgiveness of sins that could allow faithful followers access to the eternal bliss of heaven when they die. This idea can seem confusing to outsiders. Actually, it can be confusing to insiders too. As a child raised in Catholicism it never made sense to me that someone’s death meant anything I did wrong, from lying to my parents about not eating the chocolate in the cardboard through to maliciously harming another person, could be forgiven if I simply had faith in Jesus. Nor did it make sense that if Jesus didn’t die then I would be spending my afterlife burning in the depths of hell because of my sins, and being born was a sin, so there was no escape. I was told these sorts of things so many times that I accepted that I was supposed to be grateful for Jesus dying for my sins as a truism irrespective of comprehending why. My father once made the flippant remark that Christianity was based on Jewish blood magic, but it was not until relatively recently when I learned of the Yom Kippur that everything really made sense.

The Yom Kippur, is the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar; it translates into English as being “Day of Atonement”. The focus of this festival is to cleanse oneself and one’s community of sins and transgressions. Traditionally, two goats were used to perform the ritual. One goat would be ceremonially prepared to represent the sins of all the community before being set free and driven out of the village (often by being pushed off a cliff). This goat, (the scapegoat) represents the relinquishing of sin and transgressions. Conversely, the second goat would be ceremonially slaughtered and the sprinkling of its blood signified the magical act of God forgiveness; this goat was referred to as the Holy of Holies or the Goat of God.

Illustration of the Holy of Holies from the 1890 Holman Bible. Source: Learn Religions

By referring to New Testament accounts, Jesus’ death can be seen as an enactment of the Yom Kippur in many ways. For instance, Jesus did not try to escape his fate of being turned over to Rabbis and Roman soldiers who charged him with crimes he had not committed. Once in custody, Jesus Christ was trialled in contrast to a person called Jesus Barabbas, a criminal (not all Bible’s state this other man’s name as being another Jesus, but older versions do and it’s an important detail). Jesus Barabbas is set free, thus symbolically representing the scapegoat, while Jesus Christ is condemned to death, thus symbolically representing the Holy of Holies; an innocent man dying to redeem the sins of the world. 

As previously mentioned, human blood was more powerful than animal’s, and the blood of God’s Son was the mightiest of them all, therefore, Jesus’ death, as a blood sacrifice, was powerful enough to cleanse the entire world of sin for an eternity … And as an added bonus, it was even powerful enough to retrospectively save all humans who died before Christ’s era (1 Peter 4:6).

Given that Judaism condemned ritualised human sacrifice, it is not that surprising to note that the New Testament deflects the blame of Jesus’ death by placing most of the accountability onto a group of people that most Jews despised the most, the Romans. Further, the Rabbis who were affiliated with the story of Jesus’ death are depicted as being corrupt. These details allowed early Christians to not completely ostracise themselves from Judaism, conversely, the storyline has all the hallmarks and appeal of a classic Greek tragedy.

How could Jesus be a Passover lamb and Holy of Holies goat?

According to Christian theology, the Passover and Yom Kippur are sacraments that Jesus brought to fulfilment. Having said that, Jesus being symbolised as a lamb is more prominent than Jesus being symbolised as a goat. Patricia Kasten suggests a reason for this could be that goats had a tarnished reputation due to their affiliation with pagan deities from rival religions, like the Greek Dionysus and the Egyptian Khum. Kasten adds that while goats and lambs shared equal respect among Jews of antiquity, lambs had more of a broader positive appeal that may have been advantageous to converting Gentiles. Goats could also be seen in more of negative light due to the role of the scapegoat being more prominent within the community context of Yom Kippur celebrations; it was community members who chased the scapegoat to its death, whereas the ritual slaughtering, burning, and splattering of blood from the Goat of God was done in the privacy of the temple by the high priest.

The synthesis of the Passover lamb and the Yom Kippur goats being blood rituals associated with Jesus’ was explained by Justin Martyr as follows:

“The mystery, then, of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the passover, was a type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him, they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe on Him. For that the creation which God created—to wit, Adam—was a house for the spirit which proceeded from God, you all can understand. And that this injunction was temporary, I prove thus. God does not permit the lamb of the passover to be sacrificed in any other place than where His name was named; knowing that the days will come, after the suffering of Christ, when even the place in Jerusalem shall be given over to your enemies, and all the offerings, in short, shall cease; and that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb,(1) which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb. And the two goats which were ordered to be offered during the fast, of which one was sent away as the scape [goat], and the other sacrificed, were similarly declarative of the two appearances of Christ: the first, in which the elders of your people, and the priests, having laid hands on Him and put Him to death, sent Him away as the scope [goat]; and His second appearance, because in the same place in Jerusalem you shall recognise Him whom you have dishonoured, and who was an offering for all sinners willing to repent, and keeping the fast which Isaiah speaks of, loosening the terms(2) of the violent contracts, and keeping the other precepts, likewise enumerated by him, and which I have quoted,(3) which those believing in Jesus do. And further, you are aware that the offering of the two goats, which were enjoined to be sacrificed at the fast, was not permitted to take place similarly anywhere else, but only in Jerusalem.

~ Dialogue with Typhon, Justin Martyr, c.150CE, pg. 34

(Side note, the above passage brings to light several additional points not specifically covered in this article, such as a lamb being “type” of “Christ” and that “Adam” was “a house for the spirit”; these themes shall be picked up in a subsequent articles.)

In our modern era of technology, mass production of goods, fast food outlets, etc., it is easy to be removed from the significance of symbolic gestures that our ancestors more readily interpreted. For instance, Justin’s depiction of a lamb being roasted and roasted, on a skewer that goes through its body from head to toe and across its limbs, as being like Jesus’ body nailed to a cross, does not necessary come to a contemporary person’s mind like it might if a person who was living 2000 odd years ago.

The Significance of Human Sacrifices in Depth

To the modern mind, human sacrifices are an unethical, criminal act; moreover, it is unfathomable that parents would contemplate sacrificing their newborn, only child, first son, or any offspring at all, for the betterment of others (for example, in a magic spell designed to ensure next year’s crops grow well, or to cure a paralysed man, or to facilitate victory in an upcoming battle with a rival village). Nonetheless, to fully appreciate the Christian faith in relation to Jesus Christ being a human sacrifice, one needs to examine how our ancestors’ thought differently.

Nowadays we use scientific methods to explain phenomena, like tracking weather patterns and analysing war strategies with sophisticated technologies, however, up until relatively recently, it was usual for people to believe in the supernatural. To our ancestors, especially those who lived a few thousand years ago, every event was attributed to magical forces and/or spiritual deities, therefore, if one believed they could affect outcomes by manipulating unseen forces, then they may do so. In some cases, sacrificing one’s life to alter these unseen forces was deemed necessary.

Researchers of human sacrifices suggest that because bygone eras had a high child mortality rate, parents may have had reduced emotional attachment that allowed them to give up their children. While complacency towards death may have played a role, personally, I’m not convinced of this theory. If children were perceived as a commodity in which reaching adulthood was a prize, surely parents would have had some hesitancy? Besides, there are reports of Phoenician parents screaming in objection to their children being sacrificed against their will. I wonder if, in at least some cases, mentally ill individuals with no empathy (like psychopaths and narcissists) rose to the rank of religious guru within ancient tribes. Then, once in a leadership position, these cruel-hearted people dictated the murder of children and humans to satisfy their perverted desires? Then in doing so, murder and abuse were made culturally acceptable.

In the beginnings of Judaism, which inadvertently is also the beginning of Christianity (and Islam), Abraham does not call out the atrocity of killing children directly (like later generations of Jews did). Nonetheless, his promotion of animal sacrifice instead of humans may be viewed as an important component towards developing a human consciousness in which socially permitted murders were forbidden. (All of this is assuming the story of Abraham is true, if not then Jewish elders who created the narrative can be credited with successfully promoting the end of child sacrifices.)

Generally speaking, human sacrifices, of adults or children, were not culturally supported in Roman provinces during the era that Christianity was established in (one of the reasons the Romans are reported to have attacked the Phoenicians in Carthage was because they detested their practice of child sacrifices; and, generally, Romans did not view deaths in gladiator sports to be sacrifices to the Gods). Sacrificing animals was another matter. Like in Judaism, it was very culturally acceptable to sacrifice animals to spiritual deities. Other religious groups that are renowned for their ritualised killings are the Dionysus cult (Greek), Mithras cult (Roman), Zoroastrianism (Persian), and numerous others. In the Christian story of Jesus we have a synthesis of these two considerations; Jesus’ death was tragic, therefore, was not a deliberate human sacrifice, nonetheless, it’s effect was consistent with beliefs surrounding sacrificial deaths of animals, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur.

Another aspect of in the history of human sacrifices that is worthwhile to consider is the notion of a soul living after death. In the past, less so than now, many cultures perceived the incorporeal world to be as real as the corporeal world. Physical death was part of life and honouring the soul as a separate entity that could live on in an afterlife was a common. Further, like on earth, it was believed possible for souls to have spiritual missions after death, or they could reincarnate, or something else; for example, in Ancient Egypt servants may have been killed so they could continue working for their Pharaoh in the realm of the dead. In Christianity, Jesus had the spiritual mission of defeating Satan and opening the doors of Heaven to all believers; these were act not deemed possible to achieve while living on earth in a physical body.

Regardless of ethical backgrounds, our shared human ancestry contains many examples of violent acts in which people and animals were ritualistically killed to fulfil spiritual rites and beliefs. Christianity is not the only religion to forgo ongoing flesh and blood offerings, however, the dominance of the religion has contributed to the abolishing of animal sacrifices in many circumstances. The transformation of magical processes that were initially conducted with real flesh and blood, through to magical processes being conducted through the symbolic bread and wine, could be likened to horsepower being used to describe the power of a car even though there are no horses literally pulling the vehicle like in previous models.

Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifixion, c. 1511/1520. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Summing Things Up

The reasoning behind Jesus’ sacrificial death (as opposed to, say, dying of old age) being a symbol of forgiveness and life-saving act for the faithful only makes sense if viewed through the understanding of Jewish traditions, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur. Christian believers typically add to these theologies that in dying, Jesus was able to spiritually descend to lower parts of the world (Hell) and capture an oppressor (Satan) before ascending up to heaven. (These concepts can be viewed as having an alignment with Ancient Greek mystery school doctrines, i.e., Hell was originally called Hades by Hellenistic Christians, but that’s a story for another time.)

Jesus’ death would have been morally condoned by his contemporaries if it occurred as an outright human sacrifice, however, because the circumstances had tragic elements, it was perceived as being a fateful series of events that were ordained by God. Christianity’s approach to Jesus’ death transformed the significance of flesh and blood sacrifices, hence, many Christian denominations symbolically represent Jesus’ through bread and red wine (referred to as the Holy Communion or Eucharist). Instead of animal sacrifices conducted to maintain God’s favour, reverence continues less violently thanks to the power of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and magical life sustaining blood.

Essentially, in early Christianity we see the theology of Judaism synthesised through the magical acts of Jesus in such a way that difficult rituals that involve real flesh and blood were transformed into symbolic references; supernatural acts became spiritualised: 

They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 

1 Corinthians 10:3-4, New International Version

In turn, this spiritualisation of Jewish theology provided a basis for an intellectualisation of God. Connecting to deities through the mind has strong links to Greek values, for instance, according to philosophers like Plato, the intellect, nous, or universal mind, is the highest of all spiritual components. (Again, the finer details of this connection are best left for another time.)

The relevance of Jesus Christ being a sacrificial lamb that fulfils of Jewish in blood magic purposes is a matter for each individual to decide. For some, the significance adds to their pious faith that Jesus is the true global redeemer of sins whose gift of self sacrifice is wanton of praise and gratitude. For others, understanding the continuum of Judaism to Christianity can insight cynicism that both religions are bogus, built upon fraudulent accounts of clairvoyance. Either way, to believe or disbelieve, full knowledge of the theology that supports faith enables one to live with truth and integrity.

To summarise, Christianity is a religion based upon the premise that a 2000 year old Jewish ritual, that involved a human sacrifice, was effective. Christians today still believe that the blood magic performed by someone called Yeshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, and Jesus in modern English, will ensure they have an afterlife of bliss, and those who don’t will burn in hell until Yeshua/Iesous/Jesus reincarnates. This event is called the second coming … which is a little confusing because modern Christians generally don’t believe in reincarnation … and yet if Jesus is God’s only son and Christians (in particular fundamentalists) also believe that the Jewish creation myth is true, then Adam is also God’s first son … how can God have a first son called Adam and an only son called Jesus? This conundrum brings us to the second topic of discussion: Jesus as Adam, which shall be discussed in my next article.

Reference list

Agatan Foundation 2018, The Crazy Facts You Didn’t Know About The History of Christianity by Richard Carrier, YouTube.

Evans, L 2021, An Expert Explains Mythicism with Dr Richard Carrier, http://www.youtube.com.

Holloway, S 2019, The origins of the ‘scapegoat’ | Jewish History & Culture, Sydney Jewish Museum, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au/jewish-culture/the-origins-of-the-scapegoat/&gt;.

Jarus, O 2017, 25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice, livescience.com, Live Science.

Kasten, P 2017, The final judgment gets the goats, The Compass, viewed 23 September 2021, <https://www.thecompassnews.org/2017/11/final-judgment-gets-goats/&gt;.

Kohler, K & Jacobs, J n.d., BARABBAS – JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2477-barabbas&gt;.

Martyr, J 150AD, Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. Public domain. Formatting by http://www.basilica.org. Copyright free.

Parsons, J n.d., Behold the Goat of God!, http://www.hebrew4christians.com, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Fall_Holidays/Yom_Kippur/Goat_of_God/goat_of_god.html&gt;.

University of Oxford 2014, Ancient Carthaginians really did sacrifice their children | University of Oxford, http://www.ox.ac.uk.

Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub

Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy

Looking at the title of this blog some people may wonder what an Ancient Greek philosopher has to do with mental health? As it turns out, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) has a lot to do with how westernised cultures have developed psychological theories, especially in relation to spiritually and gender. Long story short, in arguably Aristotle’s most contentious writing, Politics, he describes men’s souls as being more developed than that of women’s. He claims a man’s soul is closer to being god-like, therefore they are the more rational gender, whereas a woman’s soul is less evolved, more like the soul of an animal, therefore they are irrational beings. Hence, men dominating women has justification because this is supposedly the “natural” order of the universe. In Aristotles’ own words: 

‘Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind’

(Politics, Book 1, Part 5)

This above opinion of genders aptly sums up patriarchy. The belief of male supremacy is by no means universal across time and cultures, but it did have a stronghold in Classical Greece so it is fair to say a lot of men in antiquity assumed men were by nature superior. Conversely, many have used Aristotle’s sentiments as proof of man’s “rightful” status above women.

The name “Aristotle” has long provoked the notion that whatever was said by him is worthy of credence, especially in academic traditions. This has continued to be the case in spite of the fact it is now known Aristotle was wrong at least as often as he was right. Additionally, his obvious sexist biases, like claiming that females have less teeth than men, raise the question as to whether he has been chronically overrated? And if so, why? Cynically, I wonder if, historically, patriarchal systems have overrated Aristotle simply because doing so serves their cause?

I’m going to skim over the finer details of systemic sexism and how it impacts the mental health of millions of people, every day. Suffice to say, Aristotle’s philosophies have been used to justify slavery and the oppression of women for a disgustingly long time. In order for the trauma culture to end, I believe the roots of societal conditioning need to be exposed.

The Ancient Philosopher

Aristotle’s influence can not be overstated. He is praised for being an all round genius who wrote treatises on numerous subjects that cover areas of biology, physics, natural history, drama, poetry, ethics, rhetorics, politics, and metaphysics. Aristotle was one of the first “psychologists” to put his theories down in concise written format, as opposed to more traditional forms like poetry. That is if “psychology” is understood in its literal and traditional meaning of being the “study of the soul”, i.e. in Greek “psyche” is “soul” and “ology” means “study of”. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the definition of “psychology” evolved into a “study of the mind” that inferred thinking, feeling, and behaviour.

Aristotle’s psychological ideas are scattered throughout his writings, but most notably in topics dedicated to the soul, memories, the senses, and dreams (Freud was intimately familiar with Aristotle’s work, henceforth it’s no coincidence that parallels can be drawn between Freudian psychology and Aristotle, but that’s a topic best left for another time). In regards to explaining the differences between genders, Aristotle did not use empirical arguments like we know them today. In Ancient Greece, reference to soul qualities to explain phenomena was not only accepted, it was expected.

From Christian theologians through to Renaissance scholars and beyond, Aristotle’s writings have been a source of inspiration for many. In order to appreciate why this influence may be overrated it is useful to know how Aristotle’s work has been handed down through the ages. 

Background to the handing down of Aristotle’s work over the ages

Aristotle never intended for anyone to read his philosophies in the form of the manuscripts we currently have. In his lifetime, he wrote dialogues in a similar fashion to that of his teacher, Plato. There are records of these dialogues being in circulation up until the first few centuries, however, none of these have survived. 

Aristotle spent about twenty years studying under Plato at the Academy (which is credited as being the first university; that is a school which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taught “mathematics, dialectics, natural science, and preparation for statesmanship”). Upon Plato’s death, Aristotle left the Academy and went on to be the private tutor to Prince Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great), and from there he moved on to found his own school in Athens that was called the Lyceum. It is at the Lyceum that Aristotle left behind the copious amounts of writings that are credited to his name. These writings are presumed to be lecture notes and/or teaching resources.

Schools back in Aristotle’s day weren’t like that of today. For instance, there were no classrooms and Aristotle is known to have tirelessly walked around the outdoor campus while lecturing. There are reports of his students dutifully following his every step as well as his words of wisdom. Therefore, exactly how Aristotle used his lecture notes is not clear. 

In many respects, Aristotle’s work follows on from Plato’s and other Ancient Greek philosophers, however, the legacy of Alexander the Great is also very much intertwined with Aristotle. It is often portrayed that Alexander spread Greek thought throughout the ancient worlds, and seeing as Aristotle was his primary tutor, it’s reasonable to assume that it was Aristotle’s version of Greek thought that was circulated. However, it was not a one-way streak. Alexander also absorbed influence from the lands he conquered (Egypt through to India). In fact, Alexander’s best friend criticised him for being influenced too much by the Persians, as was notable by him wearing Persian attire instead of Greek clothing. (Alexander’s response to this offence was to kill him, which apparently he had more remorse about than killing his own father, but anyway that’s not the focus of this blog.) The influence of other lands flowed through to Aristotle too, who, in particular, had access to biology specimens of plants and animals that other lovers of wisdom in Greece did not. In light of these circumstances, I can see why Aristotle was considered highly knowledgable.

To add a layer of complexity, technically, neither Aristotle or Alexander were Greeks, they were Macedonians. Calling Macedonian’s Greek is a bit like calling Austrian’s German; in both instances there is a shared language but each have different dialects, customs, politics, culture, and so forth. Referring to Aristotle or Alexander as Greek is a bit like calling Hitler German when, as any German will tell you, Hitler was Austrian.

Basically, the way history panned out, despite the Macedonian monarchy being the ones to take control over Greece, Macedonia inevitably became part of Greece, not vice versa. 

Macedonian’s takeover of Greece during Aristotle’s lifetime was a period of great tension. Ill feelings towards Macedonians resulted in Aristotle being exiled from Athens a few years prior to his death. Aristotle’s colleague, Theophrastus, succeeded him as headmaster of the Lyceum. Theophrastus kept Aristotle’s writings as part of his personal library and is credited for extending Aristotelian logic into an even more refined systematic order. Upon Theophrastus’ death Aristotle’s manuscripts were passed onto another philosopher, and so on. Aristotle’s works were preserved – sometimes in dingy, damp locations where they were exposed to moisture and mould – by a small group of philosophers for a few hundred years. During those years, Plato’s writings had a lot more public attention. By the way, Plato appears to have supported the opinion that all genders had equal soul qualities (albeit, Plato also suggested that “male” soul qualities are superior to “female” soul qualities).

In about 30 BCE, a Greek philosopher by the name of Andronicus of Rhodes published an edited version of Aristotle’s manuscripts that are the basis of what we have today. Sections that were too weather damaged were guessed to ensure no gaps in the pose. Thus, the story of Aristotle’s writings from being lecture notes through to editions that were made available to an audience beyond his school, illustrates that Aristotle never intended anyone who was not a student at Lyceum to read his work. There is not even any evidence to conclude that Aristotle intended for his students or colleagues to see his writings; it may simply have been lack of foresight that he left them behind when he fled Athens.

Over the next few hundred years, versions of Aristotle’s work began being circulated in Latin and Arabic, however, Aristotle’s rise to fame was not instant. In the fourth century, Emperor Julian wrote a Hymn to the Mother of the Gods in which he records an interesting comment by the philosopher Xenarchus who said that Aristotle was absurd when he spoke about metaphysical principles, in particular, the nature of the human soul. Emperor Julian’s personal critique of Aristotle was not as harsh. He believed that if Aristotle’s work was brought into alignment with Plato’s then it had value. It is unclear from this brief reference whether Emperor Julian was referring to Aristotle’s dialogues that may have still been available or if he is referring to the published lecture notes.

Moving on into the next few hundred centuries, while most of Europe was plunged into an era commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages” and/or the Medieval period, Aristotle’s writings were mostly preserved by Islamic (and some Jewish) scholars. Early Christian scholars typically had more exposure to Plato, although individuals such as Saint Augustine (354 – 430), are noted for having Aristotelian influence. Augustine spent time in Persia and he studied Neoplatonism before converting to Christianity so to note Aristotle’s influence in this instance is not surprising.

Exactly how and when more Aristotelian ideas were incorporated into Christianity is a bit fuzzy, suffice to say, that as the Medieval period evolved, Aristotle’s influence on the Church was crystallised through the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Aquinas was originally from Italy, studied in France, and was ordained in Germany. He wrote a summary of Christian theology (if you can call a 4000+ page document – modern typeface, PDF format – a summary!) Aquinas’ Summa Theologica quotes Aristotle directly around 400 times. In comparison, Plato only gets mentioned about 150.

Aquinas’ life marks a point in time when education was becoming more formalised through the establishment of universities like those that we know of today, for example the University of Paris that Aquinas attended was established 1160-1250. More crucially, another point to note is that Aquinas and the emerging universities began to have access to Aristotle’s work that had been passed down through Greco-Roman lines and works that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. Thus, rather than a broad range of subjects being covered by numerous philosophers, Aristotelian texts offered the bulk of what was considered a complete education, especially in regards to the liberal arts.

In a nutshell, education of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods was a Latinised version of Aristotelian theories treated as gospel. From Aquinas’ integrating of Aristotle’s metaphysics into Christian doctrine through to biological treaties on plants, animals, and humans, Aristotle was considered to be a genius of all time. Moreover, Aristotle’s focus on logical, rational thinking, and empirical observations were the rhetorics of justifying why his views should be accepted. From the royal palace in Spain to the clergy in Rome, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, Aristotle’s works were a stable curriculum. Having said that, only about 5% of the European population were educated (the statistics are slightly higher in Italian regions where closer to 10% of the population were educated; these places maintained more of the Roman education system than elsewhere. It was also more likely for Italian women to receive a formal education in Italy than elsewhere around Europe, that is until the witch hunts began). 

The educated were predominantly men of privilege. They were priests and anyone of noble birth who were in an elitist position. There are a few references to nuns and women in royal households studying Aristotle but they are few and far between.

As previously mentioned, in Politics Aristotle claims that men are naturally superior to women, and men who can engage with philosophical topics are naturally superior to men who have labouring occupations. Therefore, given that these concepts were standard teachings given to educated men, the system itself was maintained by insisting that women of all classes and men who worked in labouring jobs (i.e., farming, blacksmithing, and other crafts) were unsuited to education. Aristotle taught these discriminating theories based on “empirical” observations. He observed that slaves had more muscle mass than philosophers, who supposedly had more intelligence, therefore he concluded it was only natural that the former should work on tools while the latter tell them how to do the work.

The level of influence Aristotle had on European culture was quaintly captured by writer and poet, Dante, who echoed the sentiment that practical skills were inferior to thinking, moreover, men who used their intellect were considered to be closer to God (God = the Primal Goodness who brought mankind into existence):

‘I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity of which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”‘

(Monarchy, Book 1, part 3)

It may be deduced that, for multiple centuries, the average person had no idea who Aristotle was but nonetheless they lived within religious, political, and cultural environments that were formed around his ideas. In other words, Aristotle’s philosophies set the tone for social values, laws, and other areas of life. One can only wonder how different things may have been if another philosopher or a broader range of theories were circulated. I’ve said it once, but its worth saying again, Aristotle’s influence cannot be understated and Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things. His cosmology and physics were not only accepted without question, in some cases, disagreeing with Aristotelian thought could result in retributions from the Church (e.g., Galileo and Copernicus).

In some circumstances, it must have taken a lot of effort to believe Aristotle’s “wisdom” when there was concrete evidence available to easily be demonstrated as false, like both men and women have the same cranial sutures, was as easy as examining the a few skulls. However, there was also a period in time when the Church forbid autopsies, hence, reliance upon Aristotle’s descriptions of anatomy was all people (in particular, physicians) had to go on.

With cultish belief in Aristotle being the norm, it’s not that surprising even more outlandish claims were also believed. My personal favourite in the category Aristotle’s outlandish claims is the one about how menstruating woman could tarnish a mirror by looking simply looking at it. When I mention this one to people in conversation they usually burst out laughing. However, this was no laughing matter to devout scholars like Aquinas. Not only did he believe Aristotle was completely correct about the menstruating women and mirror theory, he followed it up by saying it proved that old ladies could damage the souls of young children simply by looking at them. Hmm, kind of reminds me of the concept of the evil eye that fuelled witch hunts … I’d like to say more about this but it’s better left for a blog of its own (see here).

Interestingly, it was not until Aristotle’s theories were rejected that significant developments took place in science, religion, and, in turn, culture. Some people believe Aristotle held up scientific development for 2000 years, and while this may be an exaggeration, there may also be some truth in it. 

A major game changer was Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) who, in 1517 pinned his thesis to the door of a small church in Germany, thus sparking the reformation. Luther’s criticism of the Church were inevitably rejections of Aristotle’s philosophies pertaining to the nature of a human soul. Further, Luther was deeply concerned about Aristotle being taught at universities. Specifically, as reported by Robert Stan in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Luther spoke against the decision made by the faculty of liberal arts at the University of Paris, to include all of Aristotle’s known writings in their curriculum. Whilst the Catholic Church appalled Aquinas for Christianising Aristotle, the Islamic world praised Averroes for Islamicising Aristotle. To Luther, Aristotle was, quite simply, a pagan. Luther fell short of calling out Aristotle’s sexist attitudes, but nonetheless he was a key player in getting the ball rolling.

Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) is one of the first recorded academics to directly oppose Aristotle’s gender assumptions, which he eloquently did in a book titled Defence of Good Women. 

Rene Decartes (1596 – 1650) is another important character who successfully questioned Aristotle’s authority. Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern science. An examination of his work quickly reveals why. He successfully defined the difference between philosophy and science, and in doing so turned cultural acceptance of Aristotle’s works on its head. From Descartes’ foundational work many other scholars followed, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and François Poulain (1648–1723). 

However, despite the work of many dedicated scholars in search of truth, in the nineteen century, Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861) was still questioning why Aristotle’s biology lessons were still being taught even though it was well and truly known he was often wrong. Likewise, from a psychology and mental health perspective I wonder why Aristotle’s philosophies about the human mind, sensations, and emotions are still given credence? 

In many instances it is not a case of Aristotle’s psychology theories being taught “we believe human beings behave/think/feel in such-a-such manner because Aristotle said so” (although I have come across one university lecturer who presented a lesson in that way). Rather, once one is aware of Aristotle’s work it is clear to see the chain of influence. For instance, Freud’s psychology lecturer at the University of Vienna was a Catholic Priest called Franz Brentano; Brentano was a devout fan of Aristotle and introduced Freud to his philosophies. Is it just a coincidence that Freud divided the human mind up into two categories (the id and superego) and Aristotle also referred to the soul as being divided up into two categories (the passionate soul and the rational soul)? Likewise, is it just a coincidence that Freud claimed men had more “superego” compared to women and Aristotle claimed men had more “rational soul” compared to women? I think not. And so the Aristotelian influence on psychological sciences continues in subtle ways through the credence given to individuals like Freud who come from an Aristotelian background. (I’ve written a peer-reviewed paper that can be found here that goes into more detail about negative consequences of following flawed interpretations of Ancient Greek philosophy.)

It is my humble view that the situation is nuanced by Aristotelian influence being so deeply embedded into cultures (namely those with Christian, Islamic, and Jewish heritages) that it is not recognised where certain attitudes and assumptions first came from. In order to rectify the situation, critically revisiting Aristotle’s theories and comparing them to contemporary research is a prudent step to take. Aristotle’s philosophies are a belief system and the fundamental ideology that underpins his writing needs to be recognised in order to see its potential value and harm. 

Big Picture Questions

To conclude, I firmly believe Aristotle was a great man and I find much of his work is utterly fascinating. His works provide a precious insight into a particular type of thinking that existed over 2000 years ago, however, there were many other philosophies from antiquity that are also worthy of admiration and attention. For starters, the Pythagoraean and Epicurean philosophers had some great things to say about mathematics, ethics, and equality of the genders … hmm, I wonder why the 5% of the educated people in the Medieval period neglected their ideas when formalising religious doctrines and education curriculums?

I can’t help but wonder if there is a link between systemic sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice embedded in contemporary culture that can be traced back to historical support for Aristotle’s psychology? There is probably no simple answer to such a question, but I believe there is sufficient historic evidence to support the need to consider the possibility that Aristotle has been overrated.

Closing Thoughts

While it is tempting to shame Aristotle and berate him for being an arrogant, sexist man who who used illogical premises to justify misogyny and racial discrimination, I don’t believe it is fair to do so. Ultimately, Aristotle never intended his work to be published and we have no copy of the works that he did intentionally publish. As a teacher, I feel a certain sympathy for this man who is a founders of my craft. I shudder at the thought that my teaching notes may be published after I’m dead and that I will be judged according to what is written on them. Never in my life have I written down word for word everything I intend to say in a class. There are always additional points, information I know so well I don’t need to make notes about in my lesson plans, and above all, I always intend to have discussions with my students to flesh out the topics further. I suspect Aristotle may have been similar, moreover, it is my understanding that he, and many other ancient philosophers, were also members of mysteria, that is mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian Mystery School). Membership into such groups was dependent upon keeping secrets and to reveal knowledge that was considered sacred was punishable under Ancient Greek laws. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to speculate that Aristotle held beliefs that were not recorded in his lecture notes, or if they were then they were, they were written in code. Hence, if Aristotle’s works are lecture notes, they do not give us a full picture about Aristotelian thought. In turn, subsequent ideologies and curriculums based on Aristotle’s works can be considered as products of biased interpretations, as opposed to proof that Aristotle was a genius who deserves to be given a higher rating than other ancient philosophers.

Is Aristotle’s work overrated? I’d say a firm, yes! Ancient Greek philosophy was about debating ideas, not placing one man’s (misogynistic) opinions above all others.

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