Friday, April 06, 2007

The Gospel According To Judas?

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Last Easter, the newspapers got very excited about the publication of a book called The Lost Gospel of Judas. And if you know the difference between a Valentianist and Sethian, then a new Coptic codex from the third century is indeed a very exciting discovery. If, like me, you couldn't define 'Coptic' or 'Codex' with any confidence, then it isn't. Perhaps the most interesting question arising from the book was 'How did National Geographic manage to convince the press that it could possibly be the kind of thing that their readers would be interested in?'
The manuscript that caused all the fuss is neither lost, nor a gospel, nor by Judas. The publishers managed to give non-specialist readers the impression they had discovered some important new information about The Historical Jesus. A writer in Edge -- of all places – remarked that someone had recently published "Jesus' life, as portrayed by the man who grassed him up.". The book isn't written by Judas, and it certainly doesn't tell the story of Jesus' life. The Guardian, reporting the Pope's Easter sermon, mentioned that:
The National Geographic Society unveiled a leather-bound papyrus written in around AD300 that gives Judas's side of the story behind the most notorious deception in religious history.'
It doesn't.
It went on:
The 26-page manuscript says Judas was singled out by Christ from the other apostles and entrusted with revealing his whereabouts to the Romans.
It doesn't say that, either.
Of course it would be exciting to discover an account of the Crucifixion which was independent of the four Biblical Gospels. But the National Geographic's manuscript is no such thing. It's simply another work of fourth century religious fiction, in which a minor character from the New Testament is the imagined recipient of 'new' and 'esoteric' teachings by Jesus. Philip, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, Matthew, Pilate -- if we were to believe the 'apocryphal' literature, Jesus gave secret teachings to the lot of them, all more or less at the level of:
The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each of them five firmaments, for a total of three hundred and sixty firmaments. They were given authority and a great host of angels for glory and adoration, and after that also virgin spirits, for glory and adoration, of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments. The multitude of those immortals is called the cosmos -- that is perdition -- by the Father and the seventy two luminaries who are with the self-generated and his seventy two aeons....
So now you know.
A document in which the living Jesus appears and disappears at will, manifests in the form of a child, and claims to come from the 'immortal realm of Barbelo' is rather an odd one to be reading if you want to know out what 'really happened' in Jerusalem circa 33 CE. In fact, only two lines in the text seem to point, even obliquely, to Judas' rehabilitation. In one 'Jesus' says of 'Judas':
You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them.
This doesn't really tell us anything more than that the author of the manuscript thought that Judas was eventually going to be regarded as Top Apostle: we're not told why. The gnostics did a lot of reversals of this kind. In some of their cosmologies God is the baddie, and Satan is the goodie.
In another passage 'Jesus' says:
You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.
Weird as the gnostics undoubtedly were, they didn't think that Judas was going to execute Jesus' tailor. We are dealing with a form of Christianity in which 'Jesus' and 'Christ' are two separate beings: the divine 'Christ' hitched a ride in the body of the mortal 'Jesus'. The gnostic 'Judas' is going to arrange for 'Jesus' to be killed, but this won't effect the divine 'Christ'. 'Judas' won't kill 'Jesus' but only the body which Jesus is temporarily inhabiting. The manuscript doesn't give any further information about how this sacrificed will be achieved. There is no account of the Last Supper, no description of Jesus' arrest, and no hint of what became of Judas in the end. It does describe how Judas went and agreed to help the Priests arrest Jesus in return for money, but the account is not that different from the standard version in the New Testament.
Their high priests murmured because he had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet. They approached Judas and said to him "What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple." Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.
And, unless you are fascinated by the various iterations of gnostic cosmology, that is pretty much all there is to say about the 'Lost' 'Gospel' of 'Judas': as a contribution to gnostic studies, doubtless very important; but as a contribution to our understanding of the character of Judas Iscariot, not very interesting at all.

While the newspapers were full of this, and while the Pope and the Archbishop were preaching sermons upholding the 'orthodox' account, I decided I had better check my Bible and see what the canonical Gospels actually say about Judas Iscariot. I thought I knew the story. Judas saw things only in terms of worldly power; he was greedy and sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver; he led the priests to the garden of Gethsemane and identified Jesus to them by kissing him; he was filled with remorse, threw the silver back in the priests' faces, and hanged himself.
To my surprise, I found that I was wandering into a textual minefield. It seems to me that there is a case for saying that at least one of the canonical Gospels does indeed set out to exonerate the most notorious traitor in history.

What follows is very long and boring. I strongly advise you not to read it.
Incidentally, a happy Easter to all of you at home.
1: Betrayal
2: The Woman With the Jar
3: Why do the Priests need a betrayer?
4: 'One of you will betray me'
5: How many thrones?
6: What does Judas do?
7: Thirty pieces of silver
8: Where have we got to so far?
9: The feast of unleavened bread
10: The fourth Gospel
11: The Elephant in the Upper Room

1: Betrayal
Jesus was betrayed. Paul's description of the Last Supper begins:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you: That the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it...
This is almost the only bit of narrative about Jesus that Paul reports. Paul doesn't say who betrayed Jesus, or why, or how -- but he takes it for granted that someone betrayed him, and that this betrayal was in some way connected with the Last Supper.
Jesus expected to be betrayed. On several occasions he predicted that he would die in Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark and Luke report his words with minor variations. In Matthew, he says that he will be 'betrayed unto the chief priests' and later that he will be 'betrayed to be crucified'; Luke has 'delivered unto the gentiles'; and Mark has both: 'delivered unto the chief priests...and they shall deliver him to the gentiles.'
The words 'betrayed' and 'delivered' are used interchangeably. When Paul says that he delivered to the Corinthians the story about what had happened on the night Jesus was betrayed he uses the same Greek word paradidomi in both cases. This word doesn't necessarily imply duplicity: elsewhere Paul can say that God 'did not spare his own son, but delivered him over for us all'.
Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. The four canonical Gospels all agree on this point. We know practically nothing else about Judas. When Matthew and Mark list the names of the twelve disciples, Judas is introduced as 'Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him'. Again, the word is paradidomi: 'Judas Iscariot who handed Jesus over'; 'Judas Iscariot who delivered Jesus up.' Luke says something slightly different. 'Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.' The word here is prodotes, which seems to be much stronger, and to imply breaking faith or being untrue (e.g. 'traitors and murderers' in Acts 7). It almost looks as if Luke has deliberately strengthened Mark's description of Judas? i.
"But Luke says something slightly different." This will become something of a refrain in this discussion.

2: The Woman With the Jar
At some point during his ministry, Jesus is a guest in someone's house. After the meal, a woman comes in with a very expensive jar of perfume. She pours the contents of the jar over Jesus. One of those present objects: but Jesus praises the woman and says that she has done the right thing.
This is one of the relatively few stories which occurs in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark the story is sandwiched between the priests' decision to have Jesus killed and Judas' decision to help them. It is therefore hard to avoid thinking that the woman's actions had something to do with Judas' betrayal. If so, it is the only hint we have about his motivation.
This is how Mark tells the story:
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take (Jesus) by craft, and put him to death. But they said, 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people'.
And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, 'Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.' And they murmured against her.
And Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.'
And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
Matthew tells the story in almost exactly the same words. He says that the ointment could have been sold 'for much' rather than for three hundred pence; and that it was 'the disciples', rather than people in general, who objected to the waste.
The connection between this story and Judas betrayal is not accidental juxtapositioning. John tells a slightly different version of the story. In his gospel, the person who anoints Jesus is not 'a woman' but Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (Who is NOT (necessarily) the same person as Mary Magdalene.) The location of the event is still Bethany, but since John says that 'Martha served' I think he implies that the meal takes place at the house of Martha and Mary rather than that of the mysterious Simon the Leper. And the person who objects to the waste is not 'some of those present' or 'the disciples' – but Judas Iscariot himself. In other respects, John agrees with Matthew and Mark: the ointment is worth 300 silver pieces, Judas wants it sold for the poor, and Jesus says: 'Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you: but me ye have not always.' John does not specifically say that Judas went to the priests as the result of this event: indeed, he doesn't report any meeting between Judas and the priests prior to the Last Supper. But he seems to agree with Matthew and Mark that there is some connection between the anointing of Jesus and Judas' betrayal.
What's the link? I can think of the following possible explanations:
a: Judas the Communist
Judas is genuinely shocked at the waste of 300 silver pieces. (An astronomical sum: one silver piece is a fair wage for a whole day's grape-picking; 200 silver pieces will pay for a light fish supper for five thousand.) Judas must have been under the impression that the Kingdom or God meant helping the poor, the disabled and the excluded. It is now plain to him that what he thought was a revolutionary message is simply a personality cult. Many people still think that 'the poor are with you always' is a shocking message: perhaps Judas was even in the right?
b: Judas the Shylock
John pours cold water over the Socialist Judas idea. Judas was a hypocrite: 'This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.' All he cared about was getting his hands on Mary's cash. John doesn't make any explicit connection between the anointing, Judas greed, and the betrayal: indeed, John doesn't even say that Judas was paid by the Priests. But many people have conflated Matthew (who says that Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver) and John (who says that Judas was a thief) and concluded that he was taking a 'tithe' of the disciples' money and keeping it for himself. He sold his Lord simply to make up the 30 s.p he had personally lost through not auctioning the 300 s.p ointment. Business is business.
c: Judas the Logician.
Judas had thought of Jesus as a great spiritual leader. But when he says 'Right now, I am more important than the poor', Judas correctly infers that Jesus is making a direct claim to godhood. And Judas has read Josh McDowell: if a man claims to be God, then he has either mad, bad or a poached egg. And the right thing to do with a raving madman is to hand him over to the authorities.
d: There is no causal link
The woman's actions didn't cause Judas to betray Jesus. Matthew and Mark put the stories side by side (and John incorporates Judas into his story of Mary) in order to make a thematic point: 'Contrast' they are saying 'Mary's fantastically generous act with Judas' absurdly mean one.'
Whatever interpretation we put on the story, it is the only hint that the New Testament gives us about Judas' motivation in betraying Jesus. And Luke omits it altogether.
In his account, Jesus is indeed anointed, but the details of his story are entirely different. He puts the story at the beginning of his Gospel, out of the context of the betrayal and the Passion. It doesn't happen in Bethany. The host is a Pharisee named Simon, but we are not told if he is a leper. The gatecrasher is said to be a 'sinful woman'. (Not a prostitute, incidentally: C.S Lewis remarks that for all we know her sins could have been shop-lifting or tax-evasion or cruelty to children.) This woman does not anoint Jesus' head; rather, she pours the oil on his feet 'and wiped them with the hairs of her head'. No-one objects to the waste of ointment: but Simon the Pharisee think that Jesus ought not to have allowed himself to be touched by a sinner. Jesus replies with a parable about two debtors, one of whom had a small debt cancelled, and the other a big one. He concludes
Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
Where the message that Matthew, Mark and John seem to draw from the story is that true worship is even more important than practical good works; Luke's version is a re-iteration of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee: sinners will find it easier to enter the Kingdom than 'good' people because the former know that they are totally reliant on God's grace where the latter may think that they are not. As a storyteller, Luke wins hands down, since he adds the telling detail that the woman 'wiped Jesus feet with her hair' (a detail which appears to have been taken up and used by John.) ii
Matthew and Mark place the story of the anointing in between the Priest's decision to kill Jesus and Judas' offer to deliver him to them. What does Luke put in its place?
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people.
Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.
And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.
So: not only does Luke make Judas a traitor, rather than merely a deliverer-upper; he also excises the story which may possibly hint at an explanation for what Judas did, and replaces it unequivocally with the statement that he was a vessel for Satan himself.

3: Why do the priests require a betrayer?
Here, the three synoptics are in agreement. Matthew and Mark say that the priests -
Consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill him. But they said 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.'
Luke simply says that they 'sought how they might kill him, for they feared the people' but adds later that Judas was to 'find opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.' This is pretty clear: Jesus is a popular figure and the Priests think that if they arrest him while Jerusalem is full of pilgrims they will provoke a riot. The problem isn't that they can't kill Jesus, but that they can't kill him yet. If they had a stooge who could lead them to a place where they could arrest him with minimal fuss, it would be a different matter.

4: 'One of you will betray me'
All four writers agree that during the Last Supper, Jesus indicated that one of the twelve would betray him. The synoptics very strongly imply, and John says explicitly, that Judas left during supper to fetch the priests and thus facilitate Jesus' arrest.
Mark describes it as follows:
And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, 'Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.'
And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, 'Is it I?' and another said, 'Is it I?'
And he answered and said unto them, 'It is one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in the dish. The Son of Man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born.'
Matthew repeats Mark's version verbatim, but he adds one further point:
Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, 'Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.'
And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, 'Lord, is it I?'
And he answered and said, 'He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.'
Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, 'Master, is it I?' He said unto him, 'Thou hast said.'
Matthew and Mark are very clear about what happened: the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus 'Is it I?' Mark seems to go out of his way to underline this point: he says that they asked the question 'one by one' and that 'another' said it. We have to imagine the same fatal question being asked twelve times in succession. Matthew seems to say that Judas takes his turn last, and that when he asks Jesus 'Is it I?' Jesus replies, in affect 'Yes, it is.' ('Thou hast said' seems to be a simple affirmative, more like 'You said it!' than 'So you say...' When Caiaphas asks Jesus directly if he is the Son of God, he takes 'Thou hast said' to be an admission of guilt, not an evasion of the question.)
As long as we believe in the version which 'everybody knows' – Judas is a selfish sinner who betrayed Jesus for cash – this makes no sense. Why should the disciples take turns to ask 'Is it I?' Thomas may over-inclined to doubt things; Peter may find it hard to open his mouth without putting his foot in it; James and John may be too enthusiastic about incinerating villages. But they know that they are not traitors: so what are they asking?
I cannot get out of my head the idea that Matthew's version of makes more sense if we suppose that Jesus is not making a prophecy but asking for a volunteer. When Judas says 'Master, is it I?' and Jesus replies 'You said it!' Jesus is selecting Judas to perform the terrible, but necessary, task.
Luke's version is slightly different:
But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table. And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!'
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
He gives no impression that the disciples ritualistically ask Jesus 'Is it I?'; and certainly no sense that Jesus singles out Judas. They don't ask Jesus who is going to do it: they 'enquire among themselves'. It feels to me as if Luke is describing an agitated discussion: we can easily imagine the disciples saying 'What does he mean? Who can it be?' Luke's version is the one we naturally think of when imagining the story, perhaps because the implications of Matthew's account are too disturbing.

5: How many thrones?
All three synoptics tell a story in which Jesus advises a rich man to donate everything he owns to charity; drawing the famous conclusion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark continues the story like this:
Then Peter began to say unto him, 'Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.'
And Jesus answered and said, 'Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.'
Matthew quotes Mark exactly, but he adds an additional saying:
Then answered Peter and said unto him, 'Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?'
And Jesus said unto them, 'Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.'
This is a hugely embarrassing passage. Is Peter is going to sit in twelve thrones simultaneously? Perhaps eleven disciples are going to share twelve thrones between them? Or maybe the many millions of Jesus disciples that there are going to be over the centuries will each get a turn in sitting in one of the twelve thrones? Unless you work very hard indeed, the plain meaning seems to be that Matthew thought that Jesus thought that Judas would share with the other disciples the task of ruling the new Israel -- or else that Matthew thinks that at this point in the story, Jesus had no foreknowledge that Judas would turn traitor.
Luke seems to have spotted the problem. He sticks with Mark's version of Jesus' conversation with Peter, that is, with no reference to the disciples sitting in thrones. He does quote this prophecy in his gospel, but he places it in a completely different context. Luke has Jesus saying the words during the Last Supper itself – after he has announced Judas betrayal. And there is one other striking difference:
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so [...]Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.'
Although the synoptics do not say so, it is logical to assume that Judas left the Supper at some point and went to fetch the priests. This has to have happened after he said to Jesus 'Is it I?' (John makes this very explicit: Judas left after supper, and isn't present for Jesus long and intimate discourse which the above passage from Luke somewhat resembles.) If this is correct, then Judas must leave somewhere between verses 23 and 24 of Luke 22: that is, he is can't be present when Jesus talks about giving the disciples a kingdom.
Presumably, the 'twelve thrones' prophecy was part of the hypothetical 'Q' document, and Matthew and Luke independently looked for places where they could logically fit it into their narratives. The fact that Luke puts this passage in the context of announcement of Judas' betrayal; and the fact that he has 'thrones' where Matthew has 'twelve thrones' is too striking to be a co-incidence. Luke must have been aware that the prophecy presents a huge problem, and has recast it in a setting where it can't do any harm. Matthew either fails to see its significance; or understands its significance and doesn't have a problem with it. This makes Luke seem slightly more hostile to Judas than Matthew is: Luke goes out of his way to exclude Judas from a leadership position in the New Israel, Matthew seems to leave this open as a possibility.

6: What does Judas do?
'Everyone knows' that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Here is Mark:
'....It is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.'
And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. And he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, 'Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely'. And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him, and saith, 'Master, master'; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him.
Jesus says 'The Son of Man is betrayed': not, for example 'The Son of Man has been betrayed'. The act of delivering Jesus up is what is happening now, in the Garden, not what happened yesterday afternoon when Judas went and made a pact with his enemies.
Matthew follows Mark exactly, with one addition:
And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, 'Hail, master'; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, 'Friend, wherefore art thou come?' Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him.
Mark says that Judas greeted Jesus as 'master'; Matthew adds that Jesus replied by calling Judas 'friend'. (The Greek seems to be ambiguous. The New International Version translates it as 'Friend, do what you came for', but quotes 'Why have you come?' as an alternative in a footnote. The New English Bible quotes 'Do what you are here to do,' but footnotes 'What are you here for?' The Good News Bible –as ever, paraphrasing rather than translating - offers 'Be quick about it, friend' and footnotes 'Why are you here, friend?')
Luke is slightly different. Judas and Jesus do not greet each other: there is no 'friend' or 'master'. He doesn't mention that the kiss was a pre-arranged symbol from Judas to the Priests. And he adds a superb dramatic detail:
And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?'
So far as I can see, this means that Luke thinks that Judas tried to kiss Jesus: but Jesus wouldn't let him. Presumably, he turns away. And the words 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?' are far more memorable than 'Friend, do what you came to do?', which is presumably why Luke has, again, become the received version.
But I am tempted to ask... How did Mark know that Judas had told the Priests to arrest the man he kissed? Traditionally Mark is recording Peter's recollections -- but how did Peter know? Judas was busy committing suicide and/or getting into real estate; certainly not on speaking terms with the Eleven. Caiphas would hardly have told them. And in any case, why did the authorities need Jesus pointed out, when they already knew who he was and only required Judas to lead them to a quiet place where they could arrest him without a riot?
Remove Mark's comment, and Judas actions might have a quite different meaning. He still regards Jesus as Master; Jesus still regards him as Friend; they exchange a kiss of friendship to show that there is no ill-will between them. Perhaps the disciples saw Judas kiss Jesus, and Peter, when he told the story, or Mark, when he wrote it down, drew the inference that it must have been some kind of signal -- because the more obvious explanation was simply too shocking.

7: Thirty pieces of silver?
"Everybody knows" that Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. However, this detail only occurs in Matthew's gospel. In Mark and Luke, Judas goes to the priests and offers to deliver Jesus up to them; and the Priests respond by promising to give him 'money'. In Matthew, it is Judas who asks for money, and the priests come up with the figure of thirty silver pieces.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests and said unto them, 'What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?' And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.
Matthew is particularly interested in drawing connections between Jesus life and events in the Old Testament. He might have noted that, in the book of Exodus, it is laid down that if your bull accidentally kills someone else's slave you have to pay 30 silver pieces in compensation. (You also have to stone the bull.) Or he might have pointed out that in Genesis, someone called 'Judah', also one of a group of twelve, has the idea of selling his brother Joseph into slavery. He gets a more generous 300 silver pieces for the transaction. But instead Matthew refers us to a minor prophet, Zechariah. Once, after a preaching engagement, Zechariah suggested that his congregation take up a collection to cover his expenses. Thirty silver pieces was the sum they came up with. God says, in effect: 'Well, if that is all they think I am worth, then throw the money back in their faces.'
And I said unto them, 'If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear.' So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said unto me, 'Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them.' And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD.
Matthew quotes the passage slightly differently, presumably because he's working from the Greek translation:
And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.
But his point is still clear: the people in Zechariah's time thought that God was only worth thirty silver pieces (the price of a slave?) and now, here they are literally buying and selling Jesus for the same sum.
To add to the general sense of confusion, Matthew attributes the quote to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah. The New International Version, rather desperately, cites some verses in Jeremiah which refer to fields, potters, and money that Matthew might have had in mind -- which seems a lot of trouble to go to to explain away a very obvious slip of the pen.
Matthew goes on to say that Judas 'repented himself'; returned the money to the priests, and committed suicide. Luke says something different: Judas used the 'reward of his iniquity' to buy land; and at some subsequent time 'he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.' About the only thing that Matthew and Luke are agreed on is that there was a field involved. Matthew has the priests using the 'blood money' to buy a graveyard for strangers called the 'potters field'; Luke has the land that he bought being called the 'field of blood'. The 'Potters Field' is Matthew's attempt to link the story with the Zechariah prophecy. Luke points us to Psalm 69 'Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein' and tells us that the disciples appointed a new disciple, Matthias, to make the number up to twelve

8: Where we have got to so far
Matthew consistently presents Judas in a better light than Luke.
  • Matthew uses the neutral word 'deliver up' to describe Judas action; Luke says unambiguously 'traitor'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus and Judas called each other 'friend' and 'master'; Luke omits this.
  • Matthew says that Jesus let Judas kiss him; Luke says that he didn't.
  • Matthew says that Judas got no benefit from his fee, was filled with remorse, and killed himself; Luke says that he kept the money, invested it in real estate, and then exploded.
  • Luke describes what Judas did as 'his iniquity'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus said that all twelve disciples would sit on twelve thrones; Luke omits the word 'twelve'.
  • Matthew's account of the Last Supper depicts a strange ritual in which each of the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus if they are the betrayer, and Jesus selects Judas. Luke merely says that the disciples talked among themselves, before having one of their perennial squabbles about who was the greatest.
  • Matthew implies that Judas is provoked into his actions because of something which happened when the woman anointed Jesus; Luke omits this story, and instead tells us that he was prompted by Satan.
  • There is only one point at which Matthew seems to present Judas in a worse light than Luke: Matthew says that Judas asked the priests for money; Luke says that they volunteered it. But Matthew is presumably making a theological point 'The Priest's regarded Jesus as not having much value – he was only worth the price of slave, just as God was only worth the price of a slave at the time of Zechariah' rather than recording a piece of historical data.

9: The Feast of Unleavened Bread
Matthew, Mark and Luke have all shown Jesus in conflict with the priesthood: only recently he has used violence to drive the money lenders out of the temple. But why have the priests suddenly decided that killing Jesus is a matter of urgency? Matthew, Mark and Luke show us the reason very clearly, but I think that we are inclined to miss it, because we are reading the Gospels in the wrong way.
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, "Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified". Then assembled together the chief priests.... (Matthew)
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. (Mark)
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. (Luke)
This seems to be a non-sequential jump: it's two days before the passover, so the Priests decide to kill Jesus. What is the significance of the date? Mark and Luke make the point for us:
And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, "Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?" (Mark)
Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat." (Luke)
'When they killed the passover'; 'When the passover must be killed'. The synoptic writers are not, at this point, interested in the human motivations of the Priesthood. Jesus identifies himself with the passover lamb; therefore, the passover is the day when Jesus must be killed. The Priests have decided to kill Jesus, because killing Jesus is their role in the drama. (Priests kill sacrificial lambs; that is what 'Priest' means.) We make a mistake if we try to uncover the content of a political or psychological intrigue from what is at this point a mythological, even a magical story.
But the Priests can't kill Jesus during the passover, because they fear 'an uproar' of the people. Does this mean that they are afraid of provoking a revolution? Or does it mean that arresting Jesus is simply impossible – he is now so popular that they can't get near him? Either way we have a impasse, a deadlock between the mythological imperative to kill the Passover lamb at Passover itself; and the practical reality which makes this impossible.
Jesus has to be killed by the Priests at passover, but passover is the one time when the Priests can't kill Jesus. So why doesn't he turn himself in? T.S Eliot famously expounded the paradox that although martyrdom is the highest calling a Christian can have, if you choose it, or even desire it, then you aren't a martyr. When Christians were a persecuted sect, they recognized this problem: to be thrown to the lions for being a Christian was a Good Thing; but if you walked into the market square and shouted 'Look at me, I'm a Christian!' you weren't martyr but a suicide. The problem has acquired a horrible modern relevance: can someone who commits suicide in order to kill his enemies be regarded as a martyr? So perhaps, in order to be the Passover lamb, Jesus has to be handed over or delivered up -- not hand himself over or deliver himself up. His sacrifice has to be something which is done to him. So he needs a deliverer-upper.
And this, I think, is the significance of the woman who anointed Jesus. What provokes Judas into action is not the waste of money, but Jesus' words:
"She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying." (Mt)
"For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial." (Mk)
"Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this." (J)
Jesus is not merely expecting to die; he regards himself as already dead, and thanks Mary for embalming him. If we want to look at this psychologically, we could say that Jesus is giving the disciples a signal. 'It's time. Arrange for me to be delivered up.' But it is mistake to look at these stories in terms of cause and effect. At the end of Jesus ministry a woman anointed his body for the burial; once he had been prepared for burial someone went to arrange for his arrest; the arrest of Jesus happened because it was the right time for it to happen; the fact that he had been embalmed showed that it was the right time.
And of course, the next day, Jesus continued to talk in the same way. Having met with his disciples to eat the Passover, Jesus gives them all a pieces of bread and said 'This is my body.' He is not saying that he expects to die: he is saying that (mythologically and magically) he is a dead man. By telling them to eat his body on Passover night, he is is saying that he regards himself as the Passover lamb. In the magical paradigm, the natural order of events has been reversed. Having eaten the Passover Lamb, all that remains is to slaughter him.

10: The Fourth Gospel
John's version of events contains a number of differences from the synoptics.
1: Jesus has always known that Judas is going to betray him.
After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus gives out some particularly obscure teachings. Jesus comments: 'There are some of you that believe not', and John adds:
'For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.'
A little later, as a result of the same sermon, some of his followers desert him. Jesus asks if any of the Twelve are also planning to defect.
Then Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.'
Jesus answered them, 'Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?' He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.
John says that this miracle happened around the time of Passover. And Jesus follows it up with a strange message in which he identifies himself with the manna that the Jews ate during the exodus.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him."
Understandably, some of those present say 'This is an hard saying' -- that's why some of them decide to leave. John clearly wants us to make a connection between the feeding of the five thousand and the Last Supper: it is therefore very interesting that this is the context in which he first mentions Judas forthcoming betrayal.
2: John gives a slightly more naturalistic account of the circumstances of Jesus arrest
As we have seen the synoptics don't give any literal reason why the Priests decided to kill Jesus as a matter of urgency. John offers a very specific explanation. Jesus has become very popular following the resurrection of Lazarus. The Priests see that if this provokes the occupying forces to have a crackdown, they aren't likely to distinguish between this charismatic preacher and the official priesthood -- so it is vitally important that they do something to emphatically distance themselves from the Jesus movement.
John also gives us a more rational explanation as to why the Priests need Judas' help. Jesus knows that the Priests are plotting to kill him:
Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness.
This strongly implies that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests actually need a mole who will direct them to his hide-out. This is slightly different from the synoptics who say that he's still a public figure, and the priests are just looking for somewhere quiet to take him into custody.
3: John does not say that Judas went to the Priests in advance, or that they gave him money.
4: John's version of the Last Supper story is unique
John describes the Last Supper as follows:
When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me'. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus answered, 'He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.' And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.
Then said Jesus unto him, 'That thou doest, do quickly' Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, 'Buy those things that we have need of against the feast'; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.
As in the other three versions, Jesus says that he is going to be betrayed – indeed. John cites exactly the same words that Matthew does. As we have seen, in Matthew and Mark all the disciples ask Jesus to identify the betrayer; in Luke, they talk among themselves. In John, they merely look at each other. However, Peter asks John to ask Jesus to point out who the betrayer will be.
Jesus singles out Judas by giving him a small piece of bread. Although some details are different, this feels very similar to Matthew's account: in both versions, it appears that Jesus is selecting Judas, rather than merely identifying him. 'And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.' Although Jesus says during the 'bread from heaven' discourse that Judas 'is' a devil; and John says at the beginning of the Last Supper 'the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him....' this appears to be the point at which Judas makes his decision irrevocably.
So the overall structure is essentially the same as the synoptics: Judas goes to the Upper Room having taken the first steps to becoming a betrayer (Satan as put it into his mind; he has discussed it with the Priests) but now, Jesus singles him out (gives him the sop, uses the words 'Thou hast said') and he makes the decision irrevocably.
The 'sop of bread' is rather interesting. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus say that the betrayer will be 'one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in this dish' ('he that dippeth his hand with me in the dish'); but neither of them seem to know that story about Jesus giving Judas a sop. There doesn't seem to be any Old Testament prophecy which they are both drawing on: John quotes Psalm 41 'Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me' – but this doesn't mention dishes, and is in any case covered by the presence of Judas at the Last Supper itself. Is it possible that a traditional account, known to all four evangelists, implied that dishes were in some way important, but that only John, the eye-witness, could explain what their significance was? Luke seems to go out of his way to avoid sops: 'he that dippeth his hand with me in this dish' has become : 'the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table'. Is it possible that he knows that the 'sop' is associated with the idea that Jesus selected and endorsed Judas and therefore stays away from it?
The idea that Jesus has selected Judas may also be implied by the words 'That thou doest, do quickly.' John is specific that Judas leaves the last supper at this point, and adds the dramatic detail 'And it was night.'
5: Judas does not identify Jesus to the priests; he does not kiss him or try to kiss him; and no words pass between them in the garden.
For Matthew and Mark, the act of 'betraying Jesus' is the act of 'pointing him out to the troops.' In John, it seems to mean 'bringing the troops to the place where Jesus is'. The key point is that Judas knows the location of the garden where Jesus can be found.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples. And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, 'Whom seek ye?' They answered him, 'Jesus of Nazareth'. Jesus saith unto them, 'I am he'. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.
If we read John in isolation from the synoptics, I think that we would conclude that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests need an informer to lead them to his hide-out. When they come to the garden; Judas work is done. (According to Luke (in Acts) this is how Peter understood Judas role. 'This scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the holy ghost by the mouth of David spoke concerning Judas which was guide to those that took Jesus.' Luke, as we've seen, doesn't say that the kiss was an agreed sign between Judas and the troops.)
6: Jesus thinks that Judas' actions were predestined
Just before his arrest, when Jesus is praying, he seems to say that it was inevitable that Judas – or at any rate, that someone – would betray him:
"Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."
'Son of perdition' seems to mean something like 'son of lostness': the New English Bible suggests 'Not one of them is lost except the man who must be lost, for scripture has to be fulfilled'; the GNB has '...except the man who was bound to be lost – so that the scripture might come true.' This could be taken in two ways. It could be a straightforward statement of pre-destination: there was a prophecy that one of Jesus followers would betray him; and Judas couldn't buck the prophecy. But 'the scripture' which had to be fulfilled could just as well be the scripture which said that Jesus would take on himself the role of the Pascal Lamb. One of the disciples had to volunteer to be lost in order to facilitate the fulfilment of that prophecy; and Judas was chosen for that role.

11: The Elephant in the Upper Room
People got excited about the phony Judas gospel because they had been misleadingly told that it contained new information about the trial of Jesus. They thought that, put alongside the Christian gospels, it might enable us to work out what really happened.
Something certainly happened. The four Gospels -- all five, if you count Paul – are agreed on the basic events. Jesus was in the garden...someone led the Priests to him. There was a kiss...there was a sop or a dish....there was a field...a potter was involved somehow. Money changed hands...Jesus knew it was coming....the disciples asked who was going to do it...Jesus told was Judas fault. Either these are different accounts of the same set of events, or they are different takes on a story which they'd all heard.
But in telling their different versions of the story, they seem to be very uninterested in the naturalistic, political, psychological detail: they are rehearsing a story which "everybody knows", but they are also conducting a theological debate. Why did these things happen? Who was to blame? How did it come about that the YHWH's Messiah died on a cross? Why did Jesus choose a traitor to be in his group in the first place?
For Matthew the answer seems to be: "Jesus knew that he was the paschal lamb, and that he had to die at Passover. He selected Judas to hand the Lamb over the Priests, because it was time for the Priests to sacrifice the Lamb." Luke's answer is more like "When it was time for Jesus to be handed over to Satan, Satan took possession of one of his followers; who was a pretty bad sort to begin with." John says something more complicated: "From one point of view, Jesus was in hiding and the Jews needed an infiltrator to lead them to a secret garden. But from another point of view, what was really happening was that God was giving himself over to the power of Satan: Judas was the vessel for Satan and Jesus was the vessel for God."
Jesus was sentenced to death by a Roman and executed by Roman soldiers. But the Gospels are adamant that it was not the Romans' fault. In John's Gospel, the Priests say to Pilate "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee."; Pilate says to Jesus "Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me" and Jesus says to Pilate "He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin". Responsibility for Jesus death rests with the person or people who did the "delivering up": the Jewish priests; the Jews in general; Judas.
The name "Judas" is the same as "Judah" -- the brother of Joseph who was the ancestor of King David, who gave his name to the country (the land of Judah) and its religion (Judasim). It was also the name of the hero whose liberation of the temple is celebrated at Hanukkah. Hyam Maccabee asks us to imagine that there was a single English name that was the equivalent to 'England', 'The Church of England', 'Queen Elizabeth I' and 'Nelson' – and that some writer then gave that name to the worst traitor in history!
When we say "Judas/Judah caused the death of Jesus," are we in fact repeating the old libel that "The Jews are Christ killers"?
Well, yes, obviously we are. And surely this is why Matthew and Luke's versions of the story are so different. Luke is a gentile convert; a friend of St. Paul. He doesn't see question of Jewish guilt as a particular problem. "Judah" delivered-up Jesus: well then, "Judah" was a vessel of Satan, a traitor, or a son of iniquity. He didn't repent, or commit suicide, or try to repent his sin. He tried to profit from it, but God struck him down. The temple has been destroyed, and the church is in its place; Judah was struck down by God and replaced by Matthias. His part in the story is over, and now we have no particular interest in him.
But Matthew is writing for Jewish Christians: he regards the fact that "Judah" delivered-up Jesus to be a stumbling block. So he makes it very clear that while "Judah" did indeed hand Jesus over, he didn't do so out of malice, but because Jesus selected him for the role. He didn't gain anything from the transaction, and was indeed filled with remorse when he saw its consequences. Far from blaming him, Jesus called him "friend" and they exchanged a kiss of friendship at the very last. And Jesus acknowledged that "Judah" would participate in the Messiah's reign at the end of time.


i Matthew and Luke are generally thought to be independent of each other, but to have both used Mark as a source. They are also thought to have had access to a separate collection of Jesus' sayings ('Q') which was unknown to Mark. John is thought to be independent of all three, although I find it hard to believe that he wasn't at least familiar with the synoptic accounts of the Passion. I don't think that my argument crucially depends on this standard model, but it is easier to type 'Luke added to Mark' than 'Luke added to Mark, or Mark deleted from Luke, or both of them independently changed a third lost document'. Similarly, 'Mark' has fewer keystrokes than 'the author or redactor of what has come to be known as Mark's Gospel.' Matthew, Mark and Luke are the 'synoptic' gospels, but you knew that already.
ii Luke also tells a story about Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary. In this story, Martha is 'cumbered with much serving' while Mary sits at Jesus feet and 'hears his words'; Martha reprimands Mary, but Jesus says that she is doing the right thing. The message of this story is roughly the same as that of Matthew's: spiritual acts (listening to Jesus words, anointing him) are more important than practical ones (feeding the poor, preparing the meal). John's version of the anointing seems to be conflation of the two stories: note that he points out that while Mary is pouring ointment over Jesus 'Martha served'. But while Matthew and Mark say that Jesus head was anointed; John seems to have taken from Luke's story of the sinful woman the vivid detail that the woman poured oil on Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair. Alternative theories, such as 'Mary, having heard about a sinner wiping Jesus feet with her hair, wanted to show that she, a friend, was prepared to be just as generous' have the whiff of after the fact rationalizations, not to say fan-fiction.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

More seasonal highjinks from the the worlds greatest newspaper

In 2008, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox will fall on March 13th. This is quite early. It has been suggested that it might be convenient for school kids to have a long weekend over Good Friday / Easter Monday and then a fortnight's holiday for the first two weeks of April, as usual. Breaking the school up ain mid-March because of the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar would put the whole academic year out of sync.

Did the Pope give even a moment's thought to this kind of thing when he suppressed the quartodecimanists, that's what I often wonder.

In the nightmare future envisaged by the fascist Daily Express "Some kids may go back to school on the Tuesday after Easter Monday and get another holiday two weeks later" equates to NOW THEY WANT TO BAN EASTER. YES, IT'S A NEW ATTACK BY THE P.C BRIGADE.

Mind you, there is some disagreement about who is to blame. One contributor to the funky revamped forum on the fascist Express's website is chillingly specific about the culprits.

"Those that feel most hatred toward religion are the 'gay' lobby, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the latest assault on our religious festivals was led by those of them with the ear of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair."

Well, queers, Scotsman and the P.C Brigade: all the same thing, innit. The point is that Our Way of Life is Under Attack.

"The move to change the Easter break follows recent claims that Christmas is being downgraded in importance. Birmingham City Council caused controversy by naming its seasonal celebrations Winterval. "

Did they really? Good heavens. I'm surprised no-one has ever mentioned that before.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Daily Express celebrates Easter one week early


New research shows everyday pill really can work miracles

A small daily dose of aspirin can reduce a woman's risk of dying by 25 per cent, research has revealed."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Best. Question Time. Ever.

But wasn't it depressing that when the man asked "Has the War made the world a safer place?" all the panellists somehow heard it as "Do you think Saddam Hussien was a nice man?"

None of them did, surprisingly.

Worth the price of admission for the American Moustache simply refusing to talk to Comrade Benn, though. A former world leader on the panel and two ambassadors in the audience. This is what we pay the licence fee for.

Well, this and "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", obviously.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

'The Collected Letters of C.S Lewis Volume 3 (1950 – 1963)'

A few brief comments

So. The final volume of C.S Lewis's unpublished writings. 2,000 pages; an awful lot of letters. And that's only the tip of the iceberg: Lewis is always apologising for being so brief, explaining that this is the eighth or tenth letter he has had to answer this morning.

'Had to answer.' Lewis hates Christmas because he 'has to' reply to the hundreds of letters he gets during the season. He 'has to' send detailed hand-written thank-you letters to all the Americans who send him parcels during the post-war shortages (even when they send him things that no civilised man could want, like headed note-paper.) Some people might think that the only duty a writer has to his readers is to write; that what the people who sent him fan letters and even the ones who send generous gifts really deserve in return is a new novel; a new radio-broadcast, a new volume of pithy religious essays. Instead yet he spends his time trying to act as an agony aunt to the Mary van Deusen's and Vera Gebbert's of this world. It isn't always clear exactly what personal problems they are actually experiencing; but clearly, Lewis is the only person on earth who can help with them. Lewis seems to find it a chore to write these pastoral letters, and he isn't always very good at it; so he assumes that it must be his duty.

This is a sad book. Sad, because it is the last time we will be able to read a 'new' book by C.S Lewis. Sad, because the first time he mentions that he's met up with a nice American poet called Joy Gresham, we know how the story is going to end. Sad, because, by the age of 60 Lewis already regards his life work as finished and is quite looking forward to dying. (If he had lived to be 80, then he might have told us what he thought of the hippy movement, Mrs. Thatcher, Star Wars; there might be TV footage of him speaking; he might have appeared on 'Question Time.') The world weariness of these letters seems almost paranoid. It was a good joke to say that he was a caveman or a dinosaur; maybe there really was some kind of historical continuity with classical world that was only broken by the Great War; maybe he really did feel like a man out of his time. But it isn't funny to hear him telling Tolkien that a recommendation by C.S Lewis will damage his new book; or telling Dorothy Sayers that he doesn't know enough about Dante to write a preface to her translation, and anyway, such a preface would make her look ridiculous; turning down a CBE because it would give ammunition to people who think he is turning out Tory propaganda; and over and over again, warning people that he has so many enemies that his name on a book will probably only harm it. Tolkien accepted his MBE, and was very moved by his meeting with the Queen. Lewis would have been too, but he somehow preferred the persona of the fossilised dinosaur churning out homely wisdom from a badly heated cottage.

And sad because of a sense of, well, waste. Oscar Wilde put his genius into his life, and his talent into his books. Lewis's life's work was to mark essays by bored public school boys; his spare time he devoted to answering letters from total strangers. He slogged away for 20 years at 'The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama': has anyone read it? Is it even in print? Did he successfully prove that the renaissance never happened in England (or if it did, it had no importance?) The 'excluding drama' part is particularly pathetic. The one really interesting thing about sixteenth century literature is the drama; but someone other than Lewis was commissioned to do the Shakespeare volume.

And yet. Lewis's blurb for 'Till We Have Faces' says that he first thought of a novel based on Cupid and Psyche while he was an undergraduate, so he had in a way been working on it for his whole life. That's probably true of most of his work: he dashed off the 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' in a few weeks, but only because he had been thinking about fairy tales and medieval allegory for decades. (He first read 'The Fairy Queen' as a schoolboy. He is probably unique in the whole history of literary criticism in that he wished that it had been twice as long.) So perhaps the fact that he spent every morning reading and answering letters from ordinary, and sometimes rather silly, members of the public was what enabled him to write so cleverly, and often cruelly, about ordinary human stupidities in 'The Four Loves' and 'The Great Divorce'.

Several times in the 50s, Lewis says that he wants to write a book about praying; but each time he gives up: he knows what he wants to say, but he can't find a form in which to say it. Right at the end of his life, he works out how to overcome the problem. He composes a series of letters to an imaginary correspondent.

In Letters Vol 3, Lewis mentions or alludes to a number of interesting subjects, including:

A correspondent asks Lewis if social planning by governments (rationing in time of war, free health care, and so on) is a bad idea because it 'removes the natural consequences of sin'. Lewis says that removing the natural consequences of sin is a perfectly Christian thing to do, provided 'the means by which you remove them are not in themselves another sin'.

'It is merciful and Christian to remove the natural consequences of fornication by giving the girl a bed in a maternity ward and providing for the child's upkeep and education, but wrong to remove them by abortion and infanticide.'

Since Lewis was certainly a Christian and arguably a conservative, it is curious that this is the only reference to abortion in his letters. One might almost think that he didn't regard it as the single most important issue facing Christians today.

Fifty pages of Lewis's side of a debate with Owen Barfield about 'anthroposophy' were omitted from volume 1 but are added as an appendix to volume 3. I couldn't make head nor tale of them.

In volume 1 and 2 Lewis went to see 'Snow White' (liked the animals, hated the dwarves) and 'King Kong' (liked the island, hated New York). According to Douglas Gresham, he also saw 'Fantasia' (hated the cherubs.)

In this volume, he goes to see 'Forbidden Planet' but is unimpressed:

'A post-civilisation version of 'The Tempest' with a Robot for Caliban, a bitch for Miranda, all sympathy for Alonso against Prospero. The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most. But the modern 'serious fiction' -- E Waugh and all that – seems to me equally deplorable.'

I think that would look pretty good on the cover of any DVD version of the movie: 'As deplorable as Evelyn Waugh' – C.S Lewis

Incidentally, the introduction to the current Penguin edition of the 'The Tempest' mentions that Hollywood produced a science fiction version of the play called 'The Silent Planet.' Lewis might have been amused.

In 1956 'The Last Battle' won an award for children's book of the year. Illustrator Pauline Baynes wrote to congratulate Lewis on his medal.

Lewis replied:

'Is it not rather 'our' medal? I'm sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.'

However, when Lewis's publisher asked him how he would feel about an omnibus edition of Narnia without any pictures at all, Lewis replied:

'I am not greatly enamoured of the illustrations. (Faith, 'twould be easier to be enamoured of her that made them.)'

He tells George Sayer that Baynes is 'completely ignorant of animal anatomy' and tells his publisher 'I wish you would take an afternoon off and conduct Miss Baynes around the zoo.' But he is extremely tactful to Baynes herself about her shortcomings. He says things like 'You do each book a little better than the last' and 'If only you could take six months off and devote them to anatomy, there's no limit to your possibilities' and 'I say, you have learned something about animals in the last few months, where did you do it?'

The reason Lewis can't bring himself to criticise Baynes is that she is a 'timid, shrinking young woman' – only 27 when he first meets her.

'When criticised (she) looks as if you'd pulled (her) hair and given (her) a black eye. My resolution was exhausted by the time I'd convinced her that rowers face aft and not, as she thinks, forward.'

'Criticism could only be hinted at, and approval had, on a second shot, to be feigned. At any real reprimand she'd have thrown up the job: not in a huff but in sheer, downright, un-resenting, pusillanimous dejection.'

And anyway, he has heard that she badly needed the job because she had an ageing mother to support.

Lewis is similarly tactful to a girl named Jane Gaskell whose fantasy novel ('Strange Evil') was published when she was only fourteen years old. Lewis says that the book is 'a quite amazing achievement'; but adds 'On the other hand there is no reason why your next book should not be at least twice as good,' before gently tearing it to shreds.


A regular correspondent is sad over the death of her cat. Lewis says it's okay to love an animal.

'No person, animal, flower or even pebble has ever been loved too much – i.e more than every one of God's works deserves.'

And she shouldn't feel guilty about having had the cat put to sleep:

'Rather rejoice that God's law allows you to extend to Fanda that last mercy which (no doubt quite rightly) we are forbidden to extend to suffering humans.'

Which is an interesting take: euthanasia may be a good thing in itself, which God for some reason prohibits. In July 1963, Lewis nearly died, and said several times over the next few months that he regretted having been brought back from the point of death since he would presumably have to go through it again before too long.

If you can both kill a beloved pet and regret your own survival, would Lewis have been open to persuasion on the subject of, say, assisted suicide for the desperately ill? (Lewis is capable of surprising us on these kinds of issues: he once wrote an essay in which he argued that vivisection was only probably wrong.)


In 1948, G.E.M Anscombe and C.S Lewis had a public debate about Lewis's book 'Miracles' at the Oxford Socratic Club. Anscombe, who herself believed in God, famously tore Lewis's arguments to pieces.

A.N Wilson thinks that this encounter caused Lewis to abandon the whole idea of a rational defence of Christianity. Certainly his post-1948 religious essays are much more inclined to be devotional and even mystical than his pre-1948 writings. In this volume, he is always being asked to give religious talks, and always replies that 'the well is dry'. He does have rather an odd idea that you can't speak twice on the same subject: he even declines to re-record the 'Mere Christianity' broadcasts – which were transmitted live and never committed to vinyl -- because it would be too obvious that he was repeating himself. But even taking this into account, it is clear that he thinks that Lewis-the-apologist represented a brief period in his life, which is now over.

He is modest about his evangelistic powers. You or I might think that someone who quotes so much Aquinas and Augustine is something of an expert, but Lewis saw himself as very much an amateur: in his 40s he said that it was 'too late' to become an expert in Biblical studies. (This, from a man whose approach to writing a book on 16th century English Literature was to set down and read 16th century English literature. All of it.) Being relatively ignorant, a perfectly ordinary Anglican helping other perfectly ordinary Anglicans is the role he prefers to play. He thinks that, because he is a teacher, he has the knack of explaining things; and he thinks that there is a need to translate religious ideas into the language of ordinary people.

In 1950 writes to the secretary of the Socratic Club with a list of possible speakers for the next terms meetings. He suggests asking Miss Anscombe to give a paper on 'Why I believe in God'.

'The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?'

It is very easy to mock editor Walter Hooper for his obsession with adding footnotes to Lewis's letters. If a schoolgirl writes to Lewis to tell him how much she liked the Narnia stories, Hooper considers it vital for us to know which school she went to, what university she subsequently attended, who she married, where she is living now, and her address at the time of the letter. If Lewis alludes to the Bible or Shakespeare, Hooper is on hand to tell us that the phrase 'one flesh' comes from Genesis 2.24; that 'Miranda is a character in 'The Tempest'.

I am glad to say that he has now learned the difference between the ontological argument and the cogito.

I sometimes wonder if Hooper thinks that we will be reading the Letters of Saint Jack long after we stop reading Shakespeare and Milton. Or does he think that, with the demise of Great Western Man, Shakespeare has already been forgotten?

However, Hooper's pedantry sometimes pays off. In a letter to the Church Times, Lewis draws a donnish distinction between 'invocation' and 'devotion'. Just because the Church of England permits the 'invocation' of saints, it doesn't follow that it permits 'devotion' to them. If it did then it would also follow that you should 'approve devotions to stars, frosts and whales.'

I have always thought that Lewis simply meant that if you can pray to one of God's creations (exceptionally good humans) then what logical objection is there to praying to any other of God's creations: a fish or a snowstorm, for the sake of argument. But Hooper points out that he is in fact making a clever reference to the Book of Common Prayer, which quotes a passage from the Apocrypha: 'Oh ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Whales and all that move in the water, bless ye the Lord...'


A correspondent wants to know how we should think about God. Lewis says that the Bible depicts a God who can be compassionate and furious, who can change his mind, and who feels things in his gut. This is clearly a mythological, imaginative picture which cannot literally be true. But the more philosophical version of God, -- absolute being, first cause, that which sustains all things in being by his love -- is an abstract concept, and that can't literally be true either. We can't imagine what God is really like; but we can't conceptualise it either.

Lewis adds, devastatingly, that if we decide that the abstract symbol for God is superior to the mythological symbol then we 'think that the symbol we have made is better than the symbol he has made.' This is a brilliantly Lewisian manoeuvre: to first accept that the Bible-God is 'only' a symbol, and then to assert the primacy of that symbol. It's what makes Lewis worth reading; it sends us back to the Bible with a slightly changed perspective.

Lewis wrote this letter only 10 days after his wife had died. It is worth pondering that in 'Grief Observed' he rejects the idea of God as a sadist because it is 'too anthropomorphic.'

One day, someone will write a short play about William Gresham, the first husband of C.S Lewis's wife. They could call it 'Penumbra' or 'Eclipse' or some other word that doesn't quite mean the same as 'shadow.' He's the almost invisible presence in the story of Lewis's last years, and it is uncomfortable to think of him too much.

William Gresham seems to have wanted his divorce from Joy to be amicable. He suggests that he and Joy should live close together so that both parents could maintain contact with their sons. But Joy takes David and Douglas to a foreign country, while she is still legally his wife, at least partly with a view to meeting a famous author to whom she has been sending fan-mail. Bill can't have been indifferent when he hears that she has cancer; and it isn't completely unreasonable for him to think he might get custody of his sons should she die. The two letters which Lewis writes border on emotional bullying:

'Your letter reached Joy after a day of agony. The effect was devastating. She felt that the only earthly hope she now has had been taken away. You have tortured one who is already on the wrack, heaped extra weights on one who is being pressed to death.'

Bill gives in. He doesn't try to get custody of his children. He hears of his ex-wife's death in a two line letter from Lewis. When he visits his sons in England they are (according to Douglas Gresham) strangers to him. He returns to America. He finds out that he too has cancer. He takes his own life.

By all accounts, he behaved very badly: he openly cheated on his wife while they were married, and was violent towards his sons. But he paid a very heavy price. And when all is said and done, he did introduce the word 'geek' into the English language.

It's very painful to watch Lewis's relationship with Joy as it emerges here in 'real time'. 'Shadowlands' has made the story uplifting: Lewis knows that he will only have a limited time with his wife but accepts that 'the pain then is part of the happiness now.' After a short grey afternoon of the soul, he gets over it, to the extent that he can teach Doug to dive, or revisit heavenly places he visited with Joy, depending on whether you run with Joss Ackland or Anthony Hopkins.

But in these letters, it seems that Lewis believed, or persuaded himself to believe, that the laying-on-of-hands by Rev. Peter Bide had facilitated a genuine miracle; that Joy, although lame, was cured; and that God had given him in later middle-age a kind of happiness that he had missed out on when he'd been younger. When he realises that, despite a three year remission, Joy still has cancer, it doesn't feel at all like Job's Sufferings. It's more like watching a small child having its only toy taken away. Letters to strangers, which always finished 'I will of course have you daily in my prayers,' start to say 'Please pray for Joy'. But we know, and Lewis must have known, that this time it isn't going to make any difference.

Lewis writes to his regular correspondents about his bereavement; and naturally, some of what he says anticipates insights from 'A Grief Observed': grief is a process, not a state; it feels like being afraid; he remembers Joy best when he misses her least. But nowhere in these letters is there any hint of the 'crisis of faith' which the book describes. He doesn't remotely suggest that he is being tempted to think that God is evil. If this was a real crisis, and not just a thought experiment, then it must have been very brief indeed.

Several years before, Lewis had tried to help Sheldon Vanauken after the death of his wife. He suggested that he re-read Dante's 'Paradiso', and directs him to the passage where 'Beatrice turns her eyes away from Dante 'to the eternal Fountain' and Dante is quite content.' This is, of course, the passage Lewis quotes at the end of 'Grief Observed': Poi si torno all eterna fontana.

The editor and provider of footnotes knew Lewis for three months and thirteen days, during most of which time, Lewis was seriously ill.

They first meet on June 7th 1963. On July 12th Lewis was taken to hospital, and on July 16th he was thought to be dying. On July 26th, Hooper moved into a spare room at Lewis's home. There was also a full time nurse in residence, but Lewis's brother Warren was being treated for alcoholism in Ireland. (At no time was there a Walter/Jack/Warnie household: so far as I can tell, Hooper didn't meet Warren until Lewis was dead.)

On July 18th, Lewis told his ex-pupil George Sayer that he had 'engaged Hooper as his secretary'. This may have meant no more than 'he is helping me out with my correspondence'. During his illness, Hooper certainly wrote several letters on Lewis's behalf, which would have been Warren's job had he been present and sober. Hooper left the Kilns at some point before September 20th.

Lewis is always very kind to his friends, but he does seem to write an unusually affectionate letter to Hooper. 'Don't ever doubt that the day of your return, whenever and on whatever condition, will be one of rejoicing to me. Your absence makes a cavity like a drawn tooth.' After an exchange of letters, it was agreed that Hooper would come back to England in the new year (1964), work full time as Lewis's secretary and receive a modest salary.

In the event, less than two months after Hooper left the Kilns, C.S Lewis was dead.

My favourite letter in the canon remains the one to the mum who's little boy is worried that he loves Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis reassures them that 'God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won't be angry with us as long as we are trying' and that in any case, since Aslan and Jesus are, in a sense, the same, it doesn't make much sense to worry about loving one more than the other.

He concludes:

'If I were Laurence I'd just say in my prayers something like this: 'Dear God, if the things I've been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don't like and aren't good for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imagination, by doing what you want and growing more like you.' That is the sort of thing that I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added 'And if Mr Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.'....He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I dare say the saints mothers have, in some ways, a rough time.'

Never fails to bring a tear to my eye.


C.S Lewis enjoys 'Winy ille Pu'.

'Could anyone but an Englishman have conceived a Latin version of a children's book in such extremely advanced Latin that only an adult could possibly read it? I like that absurdity.'

And he corresponds with an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria, in Latin, even managing a pun:

'Vestri sinistrales (ut ita dicam) athiesmum suum confitentur, immo jacant, lupi sunt et lupi esse videntur.':

('Your leftists/Sinisters (to put it like that) declare their atheism. Even boast of it. Wolves they are an wolves they are seen to be.')

'We got the letter from Las Vegas all right, and thought that between gambling (the most uninteresting of all vices: wine, women and murder I can understand, but roulette – the vapidity of it!) and the glaring hideousness of the decorations and surrounding desert and its neighbouring explosions, L.V was about the nearest thing to a nightmare we'd ever heard of. Did you like it'?

Several letters to Lindskoog, (nee Stilwell) are reproduced in this volume.

Walter Hooper is not completely infallible as an editor and annotator. In the biographical appendix Hooper mentions that Lindskoog wrote two books about Lewis: 'The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land' and 'C.S Lewis: Mere Christian' as well as 'Creative Writing: For People Who Can't Not Write', and 'A Parent's Guide to Books For Kids.' But for some mysterious reason, he omits 'The C.S Lewis Hoax', 'Light in the Shadowlands', and 'Sleuthing C.S Lewis' from the list.

These books allege that Lewis's biography was falsified, and some of his posthumous papers forged, by, er, Walter Hooper.

In 1956 an American suggested to him that 'masturbation being a very pressing concern for very many young people (if no others) should be dealt with more frankly.' (According to a footnote, the same writer thinks that it has now been dealt with a good deal too frankly.)

Lewis takes the line that what he primly calls 'the act' is not a sin, and certainly not injurious to health, but that sexual fantasies are a bad idea. This isn't simply a case of committing adultery in the heart. The point of sex is that it encourages you to get out and interact with people of the opposite gender – and, in the natural course of events, positively forces you to interact with children and grandchildren! Masturbation, on the other hand, provides 'a harem of imaginary brides' which 'works against (you) ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.' Worse, if you misuse the imagination in this way, you will be encouraged to misuse it in other ways: for example, you'll also end up daydreaming about what you would do if you were rich 'instead of earning and saving.'

This is very good sense on the assumption that masturbation is, (like watching 'Doctor Who') an esoteric hobby practised only by a few pathetic recluses. If, on the other hand, nearly everybody does it, then it can't really cut everybody off from human society. Did Lewis think that he was unusual because he had masturbated as a teenager? Was this what he had in mind when he told Barfield that his boyhood had been unusually depraved?

Lewis is writing in 1956, when he has a close friendship with Ruth Pitter and when his relationship with Joy Gresham is about to turn into a full-blown romance. He's got much more freedom to interact with women, and indeed people, since the death of Mrs. Moore. Is he looking back regretfully on 20 years of life as Mrs. Moore's surrogate son; realising that during this time he turned in on himself sexually and imaginatively, and wishing that he had got a life much earlier?

'After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we were born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be which retard this process. The danger is of coming to love the prison.'

Can anyone read this and not think of the poem, addressed simultaneously to God and Joy Gresham?

' I cannot crawl one inch out of my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholars parrot may talk Greek –
But self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.'

Lewis's adopted mother: her son, Paddy, was a friend of Lewis who died in World War I.

In the early days, they may have been lovers, but by the time of this volume, Mrs. Moore is old and sick. In 1950 she goes into a nursing home suffering from Alzheimers. Lewis visits her every day, turning down speaking engagements so as not to disappoint her. But in 1951 he reports frankly:

'There has been a great change in my life owing to the death of the old lady I called my mother. She died, without apparent pain after many months of semi-conscious existence, and it would be hypocritical to pretend that it was a grief to us.'

A poet. Lewis once said that she was the kind of woman that he could have imagined marrying, an oddly Gilbertian way of putting it.

Lewis tells Pitter frankly that he didn't get on with a poem of hers in which an earwig conceives a sort of courtly love for a fine lady. He says this is prejudice on his part:

'a: My imagination goes easily to humanised mammals but stops dead at humanised insects. b: I can't bare the least suggestion (however sportive) of love affairs between different species or even between children. It is one of the many things which for me sinks 'Tom Sawyer' so far beneath the divine 'Huckleberry'. But as I can't give you any reason for the second – I think I could for the first -- this doesn't help you very much.'

His reason for not liking anthropomorphic insects is, presumably, the one he gives in 'Surprised by Joy': he has a phobia because as a toddler he was terrified by a picture of a giant spider in a children's book. But what could possibly be the reason for his dislike of stories of child-love; and for him thinking them as unnatural as stories about inter-species romance? Obviously, it couldn't be related to his memories of the combination of paedophilia and bullying at his boarding schools, because that had no long term effect on him whatsoever...

There's an article called 'Delinquents in the Snow' in which Lewis regrets the fact that he isn't allowed to thrash the boys who vandalized his shed, in the course of which rant he remarks that, of course, he has less to complain about than Mr. Pilgrim. In 'Reflections on the Psalms', he tries to mitigate the terrible cursing passages by asking us to imagine what had been done to the Psalmists by their oppressors.

'Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr. Pilgrim; they may live and hate.'

I think I had assumed that 'Mr. Pilgrim' was a character in Bunyan. In fact, in one of his really quite helpful footnotes, Hooper explains that Lewis is talking about one Edward Pilgrim. In 1954 Romford Council slapped a compulsory purchase order on this Mr. Pilgrim's garden, basing the price on its value to a farmer (nil) rather than to a property developer (lots and lots). Mr. Pilgrim didn't know about the plans until the deadline for lodging an appeal against them had already passed. He was so miffed that he hanged himself, and was turned into a symbol of resistance to socialist tyranny by, er, the 'Daily Express'.

When Lewis's publisher said that the reference in 'Psalms' might be a bit obscure, Lewis replied: 'If my book dies soon the memory of Pilgrim will outlive it and no note will be needed: if, on t'other hand, it prove aere perennius , school editions will explain him and we shall have done our bit towards eternising the infamy of his persecutors.'

Today, this text is fulfilled in your hearing.

Lewis was a professional pedant about language, so it is surprising to find him opposing spelling reform, not because it is newfangled, but because there is no particular reason why we should all spell words the same way.

'Who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existence, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated....This would save children and teachers thousand of hours' work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words 'can't even spell.'

Lewis calls it scientifiction, which was already very anachronistic by the 50s.

He doesn't like science fiction stories which turn out to simply be spy stories or gangster stories set in space. He is very much a purist on this point. He objects to story by one Kris Neville set in a brothel on Mars because:

'In a work of art all the material must be used; if you write a historical novel, the period must be essential to the effect; what's the excuse for locating one's story on Mars unless Martianity is through and through used?'

He goes so far as to say that 'human interest' is only permissible if it arises from the emotional reaction of the characters to their strange situation: he tells Arthur C Clarke off for introducing a sub-plot about a hoax and a theft into a story about an alien marooned on earth. I guess he has a point: lots of 50s sci-fi was basically just cowboy stories with ray guns instead of six shooters. But Lewis he is surely wrong to say:

'Bigness itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a 'galactic' empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.'

E.E Smith is probably not such a good writer as Homer. But don't the Lensmen stories depend on their scale for their dramatic effect? Kim Kinnison's adventures would feel quite different if he chased enemies across America instead of across The Universe.

Still, Lewis is pretty good at spotting a winner. In one of the few extant letters to his wife, he raves about Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End'.

'It is quite out of the range of the common space-and-time writers, away up near Lindsay's 'Voyage to Arcturus' and Wells 'First Men in the Moon'. It is better than any of Stapleton's... It is rather like the effect of the 'Ring' – a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity...'

Which some people might think was overdoing it a bit.

He also likes 'The Silver Locusts', although there is a sense of damning with faint praise:

'Most of the genre is abysmally bad...But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose.'

Lewis declines an invitation from Clarke to speak at the Interplanetary Society.

'Probably the whole thing is only a plan for kidnapping me and marooning me on an asteroid. I know the sort of thing.'

C.S Lewis published the diary he wrote in the weeks after the death of his wife as 'A Grief Observed'. He submitted it to Faber (not his usual publishers) under the pseudonym 'Dimidius'. Anyone at all familiar with Lewis's writing could have spotted the style at 20 paces, and Faber director T.S Eliot deserves some kind of award for his letter to Lewis's agent:

'We are of the opinion that we have guessed the name of the author. If, as you intimate, and as I should expect from the man I think it is, he does sincerely want anonymity, we agree that a plausible English name would hold off enquirers better than Dimidius. The latter is sure to arouse curiosity and there must be plenty of people amongst those who know him, and perhaps even among the readers of his work who do not know him, who may be able to penetrate the disguise once they set their minds working.'

The book was eventually published under the name N.W Clerk (N.W = Nat whilk, 'I know not whom.') Lewis didn't try very hard to keep his identity a secret: when his publishers forward a letter addressed to Mr. Clerk, Lewis signed his reply C.S Clerk before crossing out the C.S and changing it to N.W.

Since I started this last April Fools, I should probably note that Lewis complains that an elvish flying contraption in Jane Gaskell's fantasy book feels too modern because it contains, among other things 'restaurants' and 'lavatories'. Since what Gaskell wrote was 'a sort of stall where food could be purchased' and 'bath-houses' I think this confirms that Lewis used 'lavatory' in a non-euphemistic sense – a place for washing, not a latrine.

In recalling a walking holiday with Barfield, Lewis refers to having used a 'quirinal'; and when Joy is bedridden, they refer to her 'invalid female urinal' and her bedpan as 'Ariel' and 'Caliban' respectively (which is actually quite funny).

It has sometimes been said that Lewis was not interested in politics. ('Jack was about as apolitical as it is possible to be...his politics were Christianity' – Douglas Gresham, on the Lewis usenet group.) In these letters, Lewis takes a consistently party-political stance about the post-war Attlee government and the welfare state. He is inclined to think that the Labour Party kept food rationing going after the war, not because of any actual shortages but because they wanted to control what people ate 'for their own good'. Although he is bored by the '51 election campaign ('everything possible seems to have been said by every possible candidate, and the reiteration becomes wearisome') he takes an unashamedly pro-Tory line:

'There seem to be good prospects of putting Labour out, in spite of the fact that they are promising the earth, whereas Churchill, with his usual good sense, is promising nothing but hard times.'

That Christmas, he thanks an American friend for a food parcel, which is particularly welcome:

'coming as it does at a moment when the new government – very properly, by the way – has refused to woo the electorate by playing Father Christmas with a food bonus.'

When another American tells him that she may come and live in the UK, he warns her that she won't like the weather, and adds:

'And we live under the constant threat of a socialist government, which would finish us off completely.'

However, in 1959 – when both he and his wife have been seriously ill – he comments to an American who has been struggling with medical bills:

'What you have gone through begins to reconcile me to our Welfare State of which I have said so many hard things. 'National Health Service' with free treatment for all has its drawbacks ...but it is better than leaving people to sink or swim on their own resources.'

This is a curious turn-around. Lewis has never disputed that the Welfare State genuinely alleviated poverty. But he thought that the a fear of poverty, and a state solution, had made people too willing to hand over their liberties to the government: if everyone's educated by the state and nearly everyone works for the state, who will dare to criticise the state? And in any case isn't power of that kind always abused? It isn't obvious why these arguments are trumped by the realisation that health care free at the point of need is a really, really good idea.

If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Cap died the day Jack stopped drawing him. I give it two months at maximum.

Oh, for crying out loud....

...either show us Harry Potter's prick or don't show us Harry Potter's prick, but for goodness sake stop this infantile media streaptease. Even bloody "Newsnight" is at it ("showing off his dramatic range on the westend stage, fnar fnar.)


"It is unfair that foriegners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits."

Where did this quote come from?

a: A leading article in the Daily Express

b: A campaign leaflet by the British National Party

c: A campaign leaflet by the English Nazi Party

d: A leading article in the Daily Mail

e: My paranoid imagination

f: A speech made by the Labour home secretary and deputy prime ministerial hopeful, John Reid.


Jack Straw: "One of the things we should be looking at is the subject of Asian women speaking English and whether we need to engage them and require them to speak English before they are given a settlement visa.”

Daily Express; "Muslims Must Learn English"

"I'm thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It's cold and it's mean spirited and I don't like it here anymore." Alan Moore

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Completely Unfunny Posting

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

Phil Masters writes: Andrew recognises that the question of "Who is going to decide what's a reasonable compromise?" is difficult, but (being British) gets around this by making jokes about it.

So, three clergymen of different faiths are discussing the problem of evangelism. They agree that converting human beings to their respective credo is far too easy, and, by way of a challenge, they are going to preach to the animals, after the fashion of St Francis of Assisi. First, the Catholic goes out into the forest. He comes back terrible claw-marks on his face. "Sure, and that was a mighty difficult thing," he says."The first animal I met was a wild bear, to be sure, to be sure, and when I started to talk to it about the true faith, it jumped on me and started to maul me, so he did, to be sure." Did I mention that he was an Italian? "So I prayed to the blessed Virgin and all the saints not excluding Saint Theresa, and sure, the bear came and laid his head in my lap. We had a little talk, and he made an oral confession of his sin, and he has asked for instruction in the catholic faith." Next, it is the turn of the Baptist. He too goes into the forest, and he comes back with claw marks on his face, blood on his shirt, and tooth marks on his right arm. "Hallelujah!" he explains "Praise the Lord! He led me also unto a wild bear, and when I started to explain the doctrine of total depravity and the need for repentance unto the Lord, it leapt on me and started to maul me. But I laid my hands on its head, and ordered the spirit of disobedience to leave it. And the bear was convicted of sin there and then, and when it had finished speaking in tongues, we had an all night prayer meeting, and it is going to be baptised at the gospel meeting next Sunday." So finally the Rabbi goes out into the forest, only he doesn't come back at all. The other two wait and wait, and eventually they get a call from the hospital. They rush right over, and find the Rabbi with his leg in a cast, claw marks all over his face, plugged into a drip and a heart monitor. When he sees the Pastor and the Priest he opens one eye and murmurs "Have you ever tried circumcising one of those beasties?"

Which is as much as to say, being interpreted, sorry for attempting to inject levity into the subject of multi-cultural education in a post nine one one world. Because obviously, the readers of this website, all seventeen of them (well, eighteen if you count Eric; but I always feel he looketh and looketh and undestandeth not) come here primarily because of the value of my gnomic wisdom and not at all because they find it amusing. God knows, there are few enough places to read about religion and politics on the web.

Is gnomic wisdom the sort of wisdom that spends all day in the garden with a fishing rod in its hand, do you think? Or is it just very small wisdom? I may be straying from the point. The Archdruid thinks that there should be more laughter during Lent, apparently.

At any rate, I shall try to be as unfunny as possible.

"Andrew also slips into the complacent assumption that children have religions and beliefs of their own. I'm not sure that this is true, for practical purposes; at the risk of sounding D*wk*ns**n, parents have religions and beliefs, which they tend to want schools to inculcate. And there has to come a point where schools, being run primarily for the good of the children and partly for the good of society, may have to say "No, we won't help you brainwash your offspring, and we won't help you shield your offspring from contrary opinions to yours".

I am seriously – and not at all jokingly or complacently – considering announcing that if anyone uses the D-word, I shall consider all threads in this forum to have been Godwinned. Unless and until I get around to actually writing a review of his ruddy book, but I guess in fairness I'd have to read it first. (It's on my Amazon wish-list if anyone thinks this would add to measurably to the sum of human merriment.)

I also wonder, in an unfunny and not at all complacent way, whether the otherwise inexplicable lack of outrage that the fascist Daily Express engenders is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Have I got that right? "My father's son" is me, so if "That man's father" is "my father's son" then that man's father is me so that man is my son. But it doesn't work if the barber is a woman. I'm wandering again.) So, for example, members of the Blairite junta may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are stirring up hatred towards and fear of Muslims, and the more people hate and fear Muslims, the easier it will be for us to bring in identity cards, increase surveillance, go to war with Iran, abolish Magna Carta, etc." And equally, members of the Dawkinsite cabal may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are slagging off god botherers."

If I've understood this properly, then I have a large number of tiny little midichlorians in my head; and when I think I'm expressing an opinion or a point of view, what is actually happening is the little midichlorians are telling me what to think. (Or maybe there is no actual "me" at all; just a sort of sock puppet that the midichlorians live in. I seem to think that Descartes addressed this kind of problem as well, but presumably, what I mistook for the cogito is actually the midichlorians whispering sweet nothings to me.) I realise it's nothing personal: everyone is controlled by their midichlorians. Except Richard Dawkins, oddly.

I wasn't going to mention this -- the suspicion that some people may tolerate anti-Muslim writing because Islam is a religion and they don't like religions -- but I felt that Phil's use of the term "brainwashing" implies that we aren't using the Queensbury rules any more. "You gave yourself away very carelessly just then," as Frodo said to Gollum. Come to think of it, the "Noldor" were originally called "Gnomes", so perhaps it means "Elvish wisdom"?

Some people – the Archbishop of York, for example – have suspected for a while that people who are reluctant to accommodate Muslims in state schools have a hidden agenda: they would really like to use the state education system to further their agenda of suppressing the open expression of religion of any kind, which is presumably the first part of pincer movement with a view to suppressing religion altogether. I don't say that Phil has gone this far. I merely point out that there is an interesting slippage from "I would like my child to be excused from cross-country runs, because cross-country runs are taboo in my religion" to "Parents want schools to inculcate their beliefs" and from "We will not necessarily accommodate your religious prohibitions under all circumstances: it depends on on how important the "no cross-country" taboo is to members of the First Church of Christ, Smoker, and how essential cross-country runs are to our educational objectives" to "Schools are run for the good of society and won't help parents brainwash their children."

Oh, and the buried assumption that "run for the benefit of the child" and "inculcating their parents religious beliefs" are necessarily in conflict.

We could, at this point, discuss whether "sport" is in fact an essential part of "education"; and even if it is, whether "sport" necessarily involves taking group showers; and even if it does, whether gym teachers have to be recruited only from among the paedophile community. But we aren't going to.

Dawkins major fallacy – one of Dawkins major fallacies – one of Dawkins many major fallacies – is his belief that "religion" is primarily an opinion; indeed, that it is primarily an opinion about the process by which different species arose on earth. If this were correct, then it would follow that no-one under the age of, say, nine and three-quarters could have an informed and valid opinion, and therefore that it is meaningless to talk about a "Christian Child", a "Darwinist Child" or a "Jewish Child." A child isn't quite a person in the required sense, but more a sort of squidgy pool of potential personhood: an hommlette as Lacan so memorably put it. (That's a French joke, and not funny, so it doesn't count.) The specifics I am unclear about: do we give children no information about life on earth, or indeed Life on Earth before their tenth birthdays, and then give them unbiased accounts of Darwinism and Young Earth Creationism, let them make up their own minds, and then ship them off to the Granny Goodness Home For Philosopher Kings? Or is the idea that if you meticulously shield them from the midichlorians they will spontaneously become Darwinists without anyone needing to teach them? (Come to think of it Pascal worked out Euclid from first principles in his bedroom, having been been banned from studying geometry by his father for presumably good reasons, but then Pascal was infested with the mind virus and doesn't count.) I mean, I'm taking it as red that teaching young children about Darwinism --or indeed anything else-- would be a form of child abuse? I think I've wandered off the point again.

Five minutes of actual thought would demonstrate that we use terms like "Christian", and "Jewish" in a variety of different ways. "Jewish cooking" doesn't mean cooking which is descended from Abraham down the maternal line. "A Christian action" isn't necessarily one in accordance with the idea that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Christian art isn't necessarily art which has a tendency to facilitate the feeding of the sick, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of those in prison and which ever one I've forgotten. If I say "I think you should arrange your time table so that Muslim children can pray at Muslim prayer times", and "I think you should arrange your canteen so that there is something that Jewish children are allowed to eat"; then "Jewish child" is a shorter way of spelling "child who is being raised in accordance with Jewish traditions."

We could ask interesting philosophical questions about what it means for a small child to have "beliefs" of any kind. A child might say that she believed in Santa, and be very, very sad if she were not allowed to hang her stocking up (to the extent that taking the stocking away would constitute mental cruelty); but if you pressed her, she would probably not think that Santa has the same ontological qualities that Mummy and Daddy do. She might also have a belief that there is such a place as New York, even though her reasons for believing it may be philosophically weak. Road to Larissa and all that.

Even in an adult "being Jewish" or "being C of E" may be very important, but not actually imply the existence of a philosophical or theological opinion. One quite often meets people who say "No, I don't really believe that there is such a person as YHWH; but that doesn't mean that I'm going to allow any son of mine to have a foreskin." The archbishop of Canterbury appears to be in this category. (About God, I mean, not foreskins.)

We could have an interesting discussion about whether doctors ought to perform irreversible cosmetic surgery on young children even if their parents think it is very important. But we aren't going to.

In practical terms, we don't need to bring Nobdaddy or Galactus into the equation at all. I am, by conviction, a vegetarian. My five year old, by hypothesis, has no convictions one way or the other, although he has habits and expectations, and might be very, very sad if he though he was eating baa-lambs and moo-cows. I hand my child over to The State for part of each day: is it reasonable of me to say "I require that my son be given no meat, because that is my conviction and it will make him very very sad." I used to naively think that everyone thought the answer was "Yes, provided it isn't actually harming the kid or making it impossible for us to educate him." It appears that a reasonable body of opinion now thinks: "If you are going to live in England, you must live exclusively according to a English customs, which have always included the consumption of large ammounts of roast beef." (Well, they have.) And just possibly a less reasonable body which says "Provided you dislike meat in a secular way, then we are prepared to give your baby lentil stew; but if you think that a Supreme Being agrees with your opinions, then we are giving the brat turkey twizzlers."

Granted, some people think that any kind of religious belief whatsoever is "harming" children; and any kind of religious belief whatsoever makes education impossible. I don't propose to have the argument all over again. I merely point out that actively using schools as tool to suppress religious belief is just as much an ideological decision as using them to promote a particular religion and, in my view, wrong for the same reasons. Perhaps ideologically neutral schools are, in fact, impossible and "state education" necessarily implies "the abolition of the church." But I haven't heard anyone making this case.

(NOTE: To say that "suppressing religious" and "promoting religious" are both ideological positions is not the same as saying "atheism is a faith position". The latter is a rhetorical device sometimes used by Christians; very entertaining if you like watching secularists foam at the mouth with rage, but not actually true.)

Actually, the difficult question isn't "What if the children don't have opinions and beliefs?" but "What if they do?" What if the parent wants the child to be given veggie food, but the kid wants beefburgers? What if the parents have a philosophical objection to corporal punishment but the kid would just as soon be slapped and get it over with? How does a child with a relatively limited vocabularly put his ideological opinion across to adults in authority? Would we pay any attention to him if he did? Should we?

"There's also the problem that accommodating one group's rules and beliefs could be offensive or harmful to another, in a very practical way. For example, we're lucky in Britain in that - I think - most people recognise that creationism is a bit silly, and would say that Young Earth creationism is goofy to the point of justifying vulgar abuse. However, there are places in the rest of the world where people take these things seriously, and not only claim the right to withdraw their sprogs from lessons in which Darwin is mentioned (which is close enough to abuse in my book), but want creationism taught in schools. Whereas, if I had children, I'd regard any school which so much as mentioned the bloody idea in science classes as flatly unacceptable for them. That makes it impossible for any school to act in a way that's acceptable to both sets of people; one lot regards science lessons without creationism as immoral, and one lot has the exact opposite position. And merely permitting parents to withdraw their offspring from specific science lessons isn't going to work, because (a) it generates problems about the nature of truth, and more importantly (b) it generates problems when exams come around with questions about what was taught during the previous term."

I don't see what you've done here except demonstrate that as well as hard cases, there are very easy ones. "On non-essential matters, parents have a right to have their religious beliefs respected. It is impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. Therefore, the teaching of evolution is not a non-essential matter. Therefore, the religious opinions of parents are in this case irrelevant."

To summarize.

I have a position which involves the belief in non-subjective morality, a personal God, and the mythology of the Incarnation. I wish to encourage people to believe in that position, because I happen to think – oh dear I am beginning to sound like Tony – because I happen to think that it is true. But I have -- what many people seem to lack and some even find hard to conceive of -- a meta-position. My meta-position says says "Not everyone agrees with me; and I would sooner find ways of accommodating the people who don't agree with me than go for some kind of Hegelian absolutism where the person with the biggest stick decides what is true that week."

I also note that a lot of what we are talking about are not so much ideologies or beliefs but taboos, cultural practices, customs; traditions. I know that it can be very painful when someone makes me break one of my taboos. So I think we should be very, very careful about forcing other people to break theirs.

And the most important point is this. If we excuse religious kids from P.E lessons and let them keep their knickers on in the shower, it will really piss off all the P.E teachers. Which is surely the most important test for any educational policy?

But, of course, I'm infected with midichlorians so there is no reason to listen to anything I say.

You've been a wonderful audience. Thank you and good night.