Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 2 (1000 BC - 734 BC)

Before the Monarchy

As already described in my last post, the land which comprises the southern half of modern Israel was, before 1000 BC, likely a largely undeveloped and sparsely populated region, crippled by fractious political claims. Local chiefs ("judges" in the Bible) competed for the limited resources available and - for a long time - none emerged with any strong claim to authority over the region. The Bible tells us that the land then was divided amongst "the Twelve Tribes" (that is, descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob), but this is an explanation derived more from theology than remembered history. The names of these tribes are given 25 times in the Old Testament, but the lists are largely contradictory and are not of much value in determining what kind of divisions may have existed among these proto-Israelites. In any case, it bears repeating that there is little to suggest that these factions differed in any culturally significant way: all were seemingly inheritors of the Canaanite tradition and represent a clear continuity with what preceded them. Whatever may have divided these earliest groups, it certainly cannot be attributed to any major ethnic, cultural or religious differences.

In any case, by around 1000 BC we can begin to discern the emergence of political stability and urban development in the northern part of the region, a period of time close to that which the Bible asserts for the beginning of the Davidic monarchy. The status of King David in the Bible and (therefore) in early Hebrew theology cannot be overstated. His emergence as king represented for the later Biblical authors a clear demonstration of the power of YHWH, a validation for his monolatrous worship and a continuing justification for the existence of the united kingdom of Israel. We shall see a particularly pronounced expression of Davidic mythology when we address the reign of King Josiah in part 4. Quite how this Biblical picture squares with history, however, is a topic of ongoing and rather acrimonious debate among scholars. On one side there are many who are still prepared to assert the full historicity of the Biblical account, suggesting that the available archaeological evidence squares with the Bible's account of the emergence of a strong and dominant political leader in the region in around 1000 BC. On the other side, there are those who would go so far as to say that King David never existed. Here, I'll be treading a rather more equivocal path: asserting the historicity of King David while also recognising the Biblical account has been shaped more by later political and theological concerns than by genuinely remembered history.

 David and the Establishment of Judean Monarchy

In 1000 BC, the land of Judah (in the southern region of modern Israel) was small and insignificant even by the modest standards of the surrounding region. Its major city, Jerusalem, had been a seat of power for one "Abdi-Heba" in the 14th century BC, but its small size up to the turn of the millennium indicates that it was not a city from which any greater power ever emanated. The majority of Judah's inhabitants (who may have numbered as little as 5000 at this time) were pastoralists and likely lived without much interference from whatever authority resided there. It was in this small and largely uninteresting region that a man named "David" came to claim kingship over.

Quite how or why David emerged as king of Judah remains an unsolved mystery. The Bible tells us that the prophet Samuel found the young David tending sheep, and invited him to the court of Saul, a self-proclaimed "king" in the northern part of modern Israel (henceforth simply "Israel"). After various intrigues and an attempted assassination, David and Saul found themselves leading armies against each other and the former prevailed. David found himself anointed as king over both Judah and Israel, uniting these regions for the first time in their history and - with his son Solomon - overseeing a period of unmatched wealth and prosperity. A famous and stirring account, no doubt, but how reliable is it?

The historicity of the Davidic saga, it has become increasingly clear, is rather dubious overall, but there may still be kernels of historical truth there. In the first place, we might note that there appear to be at least two different sources for this tale - one complimentary and one rather uncomplimentary. The possibility has been raised by some scholars that the complimentary account was penned by a sympathetic Judean scribe, who saw David as the rightful leader of the united kingdom, and the other penned by a rather more antagonistic northern scribe who felt that David had duplicitously murdered the rightful king of Israel in a naked power-grab. Such an account, if true, could therefore be said to be attested by two independent sources in two different regions, which would lend greater credence to its historicity. There are, however, compelling reasons to cast doubt on the literal Biblical account.

Firstly, given the low population and technological backwardness of the region, it is unlikely that anyone whose power was based in Judah at the turn of the first millennium BC could have raised an army of particularly formidable strength, which renders the likelihood of David mounting a successful campaign to depose a competing monarch rather small. This is heightened by archaeological evidence which suggests that the northern region of Israel at this time was far more densely settled than the south, and may have been home to a population of around 40,000 (that is, eight times bigger than David's Judah). In fairness, the Bible does suggest that David enlisted the help of the Philistines in this campaign, but there is no external evidence that the Philistines would have been any better placed to wage such a campaign so far from their coastal home.

Besides, even if we do accept the Biblical account it's difficult to explain why Israel remained a regional power that continued to dwarf that of the southern kingdom. Even if we can accept the Biblical claim that David was once the sole ruler of a united kingdom from the southern city of Jerusalem, it is clear that he could not have exercised any great control over the northern territories, rendering his claim to such territories tenuous at best. That is to say, whatever the historical realities of the Davidic monarchy, the Biblical claim that the territories of Israel and Judah were ever united in any meaningful way by a powerful king named David are mostly the mythical products of later monarchical claims. If there was a historical King David (as most scholars accept) his power was far more limited in scope.

In actuality, it seems far more plausible that David's most major success was the rather more modest (though still significant) pacification and unification of the "tribes" of Judah. In the power vacuum of competing strong-men, it seems likely that David was simply the most successful among them and the first to emerge in the region with legitimate and widespread authority. He centralised power in Jerusalem and successfully oversaw a period of relatively benign growth and development in the region (as evidenced in the archaeological record by the growth in city size in the region during the 10th century BC). His establishment of a centralised, increasingly urban Judean state under the auspices of kingship came to solidify forever the foundation of the culture that gave rise to Judaism and Christianity. His legacy will be explored further in subsequent posts, but for now it is time to turn to developments in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Israel Ascendant

As mentioned earlier, the stature of southern kingdom of Judah was comprehensively dwarfed for the entire time period covered by this post by the stature of its northern neighbour, Israel. Israel was bigger, more densely populated, more heavily involved in international trade and - most certainly - more influential in the region. Judah and Israel shared a common cultural background (both clearly emerged from the wider culture of Canaan) though there were differences (particularly concerning religion and myth) which I shall explore more fully in my next post. For now, though, it's only important to note that for all they shared in common, Israel and Judah were separate nations (even according to the Biblical account) from very early on.

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of David and Saul, it is clear that in the 10th century BC Israel was a comparatively strong and advanced nation by regional standards. It had achieved such influence in the region that by 926 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh was incited to move against it as a legitimate competitor for power and influence in the region. Despite the fairly comprehensive nature of the Pharaoh's victory (archaeological evidence suggests a fairly steep decline in the size of urban settlements in this period) Israel soon re-emerged as a relatively powerful state.

The process by which it achieved such ascendency is difficult to uncover, because the only comprehensive records we have for the region at the time were penned by unsympathetic Judean writers hundreds of years later in the Biblical Book of Kings. These describe a decadent and unfaithful culture, beholden to foreign gods (which may simply be a reflection of Israel's international standing) and ruled by capricious, murderous claimants to an ephemeral throne that was shared among several competing "houses". Whether there is any historical truth to this portrait is difficult to say, but we do know that the state of Israel was ultimately consolidated - and subsequently underwent a great period of growth in power and influence - when King Omri took the throne in around 885 BC. He undertook massive building projects that were originally attributed to the King Solomon by the Judean authors of the Bible - but which most archaeologists now believe are better dated to the time of Omri - and he established the capital city at Samaria. He also undertook the first of a wave of conquests that eventually led to Israel claiming territory in Syria and other nearby regions. The Assyrians - whose influence in the region will be explored more fully in the next post - continued to refer to Israel as "the House of Omri" for well over 100 years after his death. He is the first Biblical character for whom we have unequivocal archaeological evidence and it would be no exaggeration to call Omri the first major king of Biblical history.

The rapid growth of Israel during this period presented also marked a period of increasing marginalisation for Judah, which seems to have been little more than a vassal state in the 9th century. The Judean king Jehoshaphat (who reigned from 870-846 BC) was apparently forced into providing men and horses for the wars of conquest being waged by Israel, and later his daughter was married off to an Israelite king. This marriage provided the grounds for a united kingdom of sorts, though it must be noted that the power balance here was incredibly asymmetric. This was unequivocally an Omridic Kingdom rather than a Davidic one.

The ascendency of the Kingdom of Israel would only grow with time, arguably reaching its apex under the leadership of Jeroboam II. Eventually, though, it would be brought to heel by the simply irresistible might of the Assyrian empire in 722 BC. Yet even before then there were critics of the policy of Israel who suggested - rather presciently - that its pursuit of power and its (perceived) promiscuity concerning foreign gods would eventually lead to its downfall. It is to these critics that we turn to next.

The Rise of Prophecy and Religious Orthodoxy

Prophecy was a common feature of most ancient near-Eastern religious traditions. Contrary to popular understanding, the main function of prophets was not to divine the future so much as to offer a religious critique of state policy. The future-looking aspects of prophecy were usually conditional: if you continue to pursue this policy, then God will do this. They were, in a very real sense, the world's first political commentators.

One important fact is that by the 9th century both Israel and Judah were worshipping YHWH as their primary God. While I've been focussing on the differences of the two states up until now, I should properly emphasise the overwhelming cultural similarities that permitted many prophets to have successful careers (if that is the right word) in both kingdoms. Early prophets such as Hosea, Amos and Isaiah preached on both sides of the border and their proclamations were directed against both kingdoms. It's difficult to tell exactly what differences existed in the religious outlook of the two kingdoms, but it is apparent that the commonalities ran deep enough for "southern" prophets to have received a wide audience for their particular brand of doom-saying amongst the people of the north. And it is indeed true that the majority of their anger was directed against the northern elite and their perceived sinfulness.

Common to each of these prophets was the belief that Israel (or - more specifically - its ruling class) had shunned YHWH by erecting shrines to foreign gods, by abandoning the plight of the poor, by forming alliances with foreign powers and generally disregarding their religious and political responsibilities. This seems as much a reaction to the growing cosmopolitanism of Israel as anything else. The stature of these early prophets cannot be reliably ascertained, but tradition generally paints them as rural folk called by God (reluctantly at times) to bring the powers-that-be into line. They, in a sense, represent the growing divide separating the rural, perhaps more traditional parts of the land with their urban rulers, a theme that has recurred throughout history and that I will explore more fully in my next post. For now, though, it need only be noted that the early prophets do genuinely seem to have been reactionary forces against the creeping decadence and internationalism of the ruling elite. The punishment for such intransigence would - the prophets assure us - be swift and brutal, a judgement borne out by subsequent history.

At this time (8th century BC) we can probably safely assume that little of the Bible as we know it had been written down. Evidence for widespread literacy is extremely sparse for the region at the time, and even the books of these early prophets suggest a reliance on oral - not written - transmission. The prophets are generally commanded to speak the words of God rather than write them down, and there is evidence from within the books themselves that they were not to be collated textually (by the "disciples" of the prophets) until a later date (e.g. Isaiah 8:16. Isaiah 1:1 indicates the book was not written by Isaiah himself). The kind of social forces that both centralised and sacralised the status of the written text in ancient Israel (and which began to produce the texts of the Bible as we know it) wouldn't arrive until the 7th century BC. This, however, begs the question of what the Judean prophets were basing their substance of proclamations on, given the lack of some definitive text from which to derive a fixed theology.

In truth, the idea that there was some pristine state of religious orthodoxy from which the northern kings had fallen (and that the early prophets were looking to reinstate) is plainly anachronistic and plainly more representative of the ideology of later Biblical authors than of lived history. We know from certain archaeological finds (for example, the graffiti at Khirbet el-Qom) that the religious orthodoxy of later periods had yet to emerge by the 8th century BC. We can probably still assume widespread henotheistic practices at this time, so the early prophets - to the extent that the words attributed to them in the Bible were actually theirs and not the product of later redaction - might well have been in a minority position in their insistence on the monolatrous worship of YHWH. Whatever the case, the cosmopolitan nature of Israel - including the syncretisistic worship of foreign gods - may not have been a matter of widespread controversy among the populace at the time, and it's unfair to uncritically accept the judgements levelled by the prophets that the kings who oversaw such prosperity in the region at the time were in any way degenerate for drawing on foreign sources for religious inspiration. It would be similarly remiss to assume that the eventual fall of Israel can be traced to its faithlessness or - in the words of Hosea - its "whoredom" to foreign powers.

It is to the fall of Israel - and its influence on the formation of the Bible - that we will look at in the next post.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 1 (Pre-1000 BC)

A New People:

Although the origins of ancient Israel remain obscure and have yet to be definitively settled by the science of archaeology, my own account of its history begins with a cataclysmic wave of migrations that changed forever the face of the Mediterranean. This event, known as the Bronze Age collapse, saw cities and civilizations topple like dominoes under the massive influx of people displaced displaced by earlier, unknown events to the north and west of modern day Israel. Little is known about who these people were, where they came from or what caused them to move (though any number of environmental and political causes have been invoked), but what we do know is that they left in their wake a wave of destruction and political upheaval that forever changed the course of near-Eastern history.

The relevance to the history of Israel begins in around 1250 BC, when some of these refugees landed on the Gaza coast and began a slow - but thorough - military campaign of destruction. Virtually all major archaeological sites from this region at this time exhibit scars of violence, and many cities were subsequently left abandoned for centuries. Again, little is known about the origin of the people responsible, but lexicographical and archaeological evidence seems to suggest a Greek, Minoan or perhaps even Balkan origin. Whatever the case, the people who descended from these invaders and settled in the region came to be known to the Biblical authors as "Philistines", the origin of our modern name for the region, "Palestine". There were two major consequences so far as the history of Israel is concerned.

The first is that the tenuous Egyptian grip on the region was severely weakened by the incursions of these "Sea People" (as they were known to the Egyptians). The loose confederacy of city states (known as Canaan and overseen by the Egyptian state) was fractured and smaller states emerged in their wake. Among them was a people known as "Israel", which - according to the Merneptah Steele - was subsequently attacked and defeated by the Egyptian Pharaoh, along with the other rebelling states who had briefly formed an opportunistic coalition against him. This can be dated to around 1205 BC and is the first archaeological evidence we have for the existence of Israel as an independent people (and the grammar of the inscription makes it clear that we are talking about a people rather than a particular geographical region). The Egyptian influence in the region was never subsequently restored to its earlier zenith.

The second major consequence concerns how the people of Israel came to inhabit the specific region that they did. With the arrival of the Philistines on the Gaza coast, the previous inhabitants (known to historians as "Canaanites", though whether they would have self-identified as such is unclear) were displaced and made refugees themselves. They were forced east from the relatively fertile lands of the Gaza strip into the rather more desolate and sparsely inhabited highlands of modern-day Israel. Such people likely came from different (though highly-related) cultures and the pressing question of how they might peacefully co-inhabit these new lands must have raised itself with great urgency very early on. Monotheism has been posited as a potential explanation for the political unification of this loosely affiliated population, but - as we shall see in future posts - there is scant evidence for widespread monotheism in Israel until around the 6th century BC, so we must look elsewhere for a solution. It is to this question - of how these displaced refugees might have come to form a new, cohesive culture in the highlands of Israel - that I turn to next.

A New Community:

The most important thing to note about the Israelite community from the time of its emergence in the 12th Century BC is not simply that it was derived from Canaanite culture, but that it was Canaanite culture. The archaeological sites from Israel at this time are almost completely indistinguishable from those of the wider cultural sphere. The pottery is the same, the dwellings are the same, the religious artifacts are the same... from the beginning, then, we must note that the earliest Israelites were distinguished from other nearby peoples in name only. What changed, then? How did the earliest Israelites come to differentiate themselves from the surrounding peoples? How did they come to be the Hebrews of the Old Testament?

This raises the wider question of what we might mean by "culture", and how it is that a new one comes into being. An important aspect of the emergence of any culture is the ability to distinguish it from others. To associate oneself with a certain culture is often, just as importantly, to distance oneself from a competing culture, and - as religious sectarianism has shown us - it is frequently those people with whom we share the most in common that we argue with most virulently. The tribalism of pre-monarchic Israel (see next post) gives fairly clear evidence of a struggle for self-definition in a region that was otherwise culturally homogeneous. To quote from this book:

Boundaries are marked because communities interact in some way or other with entities from which they are, or wish to be, distinguished (see Barth, 1969). The manner in which they are marked depends entirely upon the specific community in question. Some, like national or administrative boundaries, may be statutory and enshrined in law. Some may be physical, expressed, perhaps, by a mountain range or a sea. Some may be racial or linguistic or religious. But not all boundaries, and not all the components of any boundary, are so objectively apparent. They may be thought of, rather, as existing in the minds of their beholders.

In contrast to many other religions of the ancient Near-East, the religion of the Israelites eventually became "exclusionary" - that is, one which asserted vehemently (as a central tenet of its practice, in fact) its independence from other religions, and which steadfastly refused to adopt the gods and customs of other peoples. This is in contrast to the religions of the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians etc., which were syncretistic and adopted foreign gods and customs with relative ease. At these very earliest stages of Israel, however, such exclusionary monotheism had yet to evolve, and archaeological evidence suggests a much more pluralistic form of religious practice existed for much of its early history (see next section).

One advantage that the early Israelites had in terms of the potential for cultural differentiation relates to the physical geography of their land. Its southern regions especially were comparatively isolated, inaccessible and infertile, which seemed to spare them from the need to directly resist - or assimilate - the neighbouring cultures that may have otherwise swamped them. That is, because the land of Israel was a comparatively unattractive prospect for migratory settlement, it was possible for there to exist the kind of uninterrupted social development necessary for the eventual emergence of a distinct culture. Once this distinct culture emerged, it was buttressed enough from the wider world for long enough for it to become ingrained. Beyond this point, the culture of the ancient Israelites was able to be preserved even after the land itself was lost.

On the other hand, the land of Israel also existed at the nexus of several important trade routes, where roads to and from Europe, Africa and the Middle East have long existed. For this reason, it was seen for most of its history as a strategically important expanse of land for the world's largest empires, who passed it between themselves as they rose and fall. From Egypt, to Assyria, to Babylon, to Macedonia to Rome: Israel was occupied by them all. In many respects, the progress of ancient Israelite history can be viewed as a series of reactions to imperial conquest, much of which remains ossified in our Bibles. It's simply impossible to understand Biblical theology - both in the Old and the New Testaments - without due appreciation for the way conquered populations react to their occupation. The question of collective identity - and how it might be sheltered and expressed in the face of such massive powers - recurs time and time again in our Biblical texts, and will be a central theme in these posts.

It's this quirk of geography - inaccessible enough to preserve indigenous culture, central enough to attract the interest of much larger states - that defines ancient Israel. In an otherwise tiny and vulnerable part of the world, periodically beset by the imperial designs of the states around them, a culture was able to emerge and preserve itself for 3,000 years and counting. This stands as a remarkable feat. Yet quite how or why it was that the early Israelites came to develop such a distinct culture - centred around the increasingly parochial worship of a local God - remains something of a mystery and one deserving of some consideration. Although it is now impossible to identify precisely what happened in the region that may have led to the formation of a distinct culture in ancient Israel, some educated guesses can be offered.

For example, the uncertain and fractious political state of the region spurred the necessity of political centralisation - in the form of states - that hadn't really existed prior to the scaling back of Egyptian influence. The Bible, in the book of Judges, depicts this time as one of widespread lawlessness and petty warfare, overseen by men who might most adequately be described as tribal chieftains. While historical-critical scholarship has not been kind in its judgment of the historical accuracy of this book, what we can infer from the evidence of this period seems to paint a congruous picture of social and political fractiousness. Whatever states that existed in the region at the time were loose confederations centred around independent cities, and none has left us any signs of being particularly dominant in the region. In such an uncertain environment, one can assume that there came to be a growing necessity for the people of the land of Israel (as in other nearby regions) to coalesce around some central authority (priests, king etc.) so as to ensure social stability and protection from the chaos around them. With the centralisation of authority comes the establishment of prescribed sets of behaviours and conditions that the polity must follow. These, in turn, become reified as laws and rituals, which - in the process of differentiation from neighbouring cultures - begin to take on a unique and distinctive form.

The development of Biblical Law was a long process, however, and there is little evidence to suggest the existence of such a centralised legal system in the region prior to 1000 BC (the gradual emergence of Biblical Law will be explored in future posts). The creation and enforcement of law requires a strong, legitimised system of government, usually under the auspices of a king, and it seems unlikely that any of the pre-Israelite tribes possessed the sophistication of social organisation necessary to enforce anything but the most limited tribal laws. On there other hand, while there is an undeniable degree of continuity between the (much later) Biblical laws and other ancient near-Eastern legal systems, there was apparently the foreshadowing of some important boundaries between the Israelite population and the surrounding populations even at this early stage.

The complete absence of pig bones in early Israelite sites, for example, seems to indicate the presence of a universal cultural taboo that might be adequately described (presuming it was centrally enforced) as a "law". Such a taboo may have emerged as a mere accident of history (did the conditions of the new land make it prohibitively difficult to raise pigs, for example?) but, over time, such relatively minor and arbitrary differences become sacralised as a culture seeks to define itself in opposition to others. There needn't have been any rational reason for the emergence of the prohibition on eating pork meat, but it did come - in time - to serve as an important "boundary" separating the Israelites from their neighbours. The subsequent addition of other stringent laws - and related religious observances - would also serve as important identity markers, denoting ever more clearly the boundaries between the Israelites and their neighbouring cultures.

These Israelites were still ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from the Canaanites, though, and neither the Hebrew language nor its people ever radically diverged from those of other Semitic populations. Given these similarities - and the absence of well-defined boundaries, such kings, laws or customs at this early stage -  in what ways (beyond the taboo on consuming pig flesh) could the Israelites be said to represent an identifiably separate population in the region? One potentially unique aspect of early Israelite culture may be that of their religion. That is the topic of our next section.

A New Religion:

Like all other Near-Eastern cultures, it seems that the early Israelites were (to a surprisingly recent date) polytheistic. While the exact form of this polytheism - and the kind of practices it might have entailed - are widely disputed, we know that even well into the mid-first millennium BC the Israelites retained a belief in the existence of the pantheon of gods.

In Canaanite theology, the god "El" was the head of all the gods. He had 70 children, each of which was allotted his own land, and each of which represented the gods of different people. The earliest Israelites retained this mythology, and so the first patron god of Israel was El (as evidenced by their patronymic title Israel). It seems evident that El's wife, Asherah, was also widely worshiped in Israel at this time, though the evidence in somewhat disputed (see here for a thorough discussion). The existence of early Israelite names derived from the Babylonian God "Baal", and the Bible's persistent denunciations of his shrines, would seem to indicate that the worship of this God was also common, though perhaps not at such an early date. Similarly, we know from the Book of Kings (2 Kings 23) that a plethora of other gods - such as Molech, Astarte, Chemosh and Milcom - were being worshipped in and around Judah during the 7th century, and it would be unreasonable to assume that none of these practices originated in a much earlier period. In any case, the fact that the earliest Israelites worshiped a multitude of gods is not seriously in dispute.

Out of such plurality, however, the worship of one god over all others began to emerge. It seems that Yahweh, one of El's 70 children, came to be adopted as the patron god of certain of these pre-monarchic tribes at a relatively early date, even if this remains a far cry from the more recognisable religious system of later centuries. Yahweh's origins as a "second-tier" god - one among a much wider pantheon - are still in evidence in the Bible, for example Ps 82:1 and especially Deut 32:8-9. The earliest Yahweh worshipers would probably best be described as "henotheistic" (believing in a pantheon of gods but with the preferential worship of just one), with the practice of monolatry (much less monotheism) almost certainly not coming into effect until much later. Over time, with the decline of the Northern Kingdom and the continuing assertion of Israelite independence from the wider religious culture of the region, Yahweh would come to absorb the qualities of other Gods (for instance, Baal's role as a storm God and slayer of sea monsters), until the ultimate conflation of El and Yahweh sometime in the early first millenium BC. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Not much more can be said about the earliest strains of the Israelite religion, but we will fill in the pieces as we progress forward in time. Nonetheless, we have here already the foundations of the religious beliefs that would - over the next millenia - give rise to Judaism, Jesus and the Bible: we have a relatively isolated culture, closely related to those around it, that slowly came to realise itself as a new and distinct people, overseen by an ever more narrowly defined coterie of gods. It is to the emergence of the Israelite monarchy, the split kingdoms and the mythologies they produced that I will turn to in my next post.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Constitutionalism and Eisegesis

With the news that the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the "Individual Mandate" centrepiece of Obama's Healthcare bill, political commentators on both sides of the aisle have suddenly found themselves transformed into expert constitutional scholars. Even Mitt Romney feels comfortable asserting the mandate "was unconstitutional", despite - and in contrast with the president - having never formally studied law. What is going on? What makes so many people assume that they are qualified to make pronouncements on what is or is not constitutional?

In part I think it can be traced back to the revered status that the US constitution and its authors hold in US public life. As I mentioned in a previous post, religious traditions that produce a central canon of texts (and I'm thinking here especially of the Abrahamic traditions) come to treat this canon as an object of worship and reverence in and of itself, forming "a largely insuperable doctrine that all subsequent developments in the tradition must not find themselves to be in conflict with". Given the progressive mythologisation of the Founding Fathers and the events that led to the penning of the constitution in American political discourse, a similar process of sacralisation seems to be at work here. The US constitution is not merely seen as a foundational legal text, but rather an inviolable prescription forged and passed down by demi-gods, whose scope of wisdom and moral perspicacity remains completely beyond the possibility of reproach. None of this has anything to do with the mundane process of interpreting law (constitutionalism proper), but rather the incessant American drive to idealise and sacralise every aspect of American history that led them (in a distinctly teleological sense) to become "the greatest nation in the world".

In practice, this makes the constitution the putative foundation and inescapable focus of every political ideology that exists in the US today. As the political ideologue imagines his beliefs to be unequivocally "good" and also imagines the life and works of the Founding Fathers to be unequivocally "good", then it stands to reason that his beliefs must be in perfect agreement with the text of the US constitution. Given this, those who adhere to a different ideology (let us say, the president) must hold beliefs that are inherently at odds with the text of the constitution, and therefore any legislation passed to further this ideology (let us say, healthcare reform) is viewed as an act deliberately conceived to assault the sanctity of the constitution. As such, the political ideologue feels a keen sense of offense at this act of blasphemy and feels justified in accusing his opponents of deliberately violating and undermining the central document of his Republic. Hence the current state of political rhetoric in the US, where every act of governance from Obama can be denounced as "unconstitutional" with a straight face.

Is unclear whether the political ideologue actually believes in the truth of such denouncements or whether it is mere political rhetoric, but it's clear in either case that he has not derived his outrage from a clear and objective reading of the US constitution. Such a reading would require a process of honest constitutional exegesis, and the real problem is that truly impartial exegesis - of any text - is almost completely impossible, and can lead one to many different (but equally valid) conclusions depending on one's starting conditions. When we read the Bible, for instance, and want to know the "meaning" of a passage, there are many different approaches we can take and different exegetical approaches have led to a myriad of different interpretations of the text. With "profane" texts (that is, texts not considered to be inviolably sacred) the ambiguities of language and the attendant exegetical issues are not serious: small differences in meaning don't lead to radically different understandings of the texts. When one is dealing with a text that is highly esteemed and fetishised within a given community, however, the overwhelming desire of the members of this community to find their own beliefs articulated within this foundational text precludes any possibility of an objective, disinterested exegesis of the text. Rather, the beliefs of these members are read into (rather than derived from) the foundational text, and it becomes more proper to call this process one of textual eisegesis instead.

In this way, it is firmly my belief that the progression and content of Christian theology, for example, is for the most part not shaped by the Biblical text. The sheer size of the combined texts and the irreducible plurality of views contained within (different authors from different places writing at different times...) makes any attempt to create a coherent theology that is not in conflict with any aspect of the text completely impossible. This is especially true where theology attempts to engage with more modern ethical concerns that the Biblical authors simply could not have foreseen. The conservative Christian may claim that his opposition to abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage are based on Biblical injunctions, but it's plain for all to see that the Bible is completely silent on all these issues. The Christian here has plainly arrived at his conclusions for his own reasons (or lack thereof) and has then - ex post facto - gone in search of Biblical passages that might validate them. As an example, Jeremiah 1:4-5 is often cited as a Biblical injunction against abortion, though it is plain that the most natural reading of this passage bears no relation to abortion, as evidenced by the fact that it has never been interpreted in such a manner until recent times (i.e. when abortion became such a central political issue for American evangelicals). 

As it is true for the Bible, so it is also true for the constitution. As great as the authors of this text may have been, they were clearly not omniscient and plainly could not have foreseen every issue that the Supreme Court has been asked to rule on since the time they wrote it. There are different ways that the Supreme Court judges may interpret the constitution when forming their rulings, none of which are perfect or inherently superior to the alternatives. Some, for example, may claim to be strict constructionists or textualists, believing that they are taking into consideration nothing but the original wording of the text, though it's apparent that such a ideal is - in practice - completely unrealisable. The constitution only extremely rarely directly mentions any of the issues that are presented before the court, so when deciding on (for example) the constitutionality of Obamacare, in lieu of finding any direct injunctions for or against the provision of healthcare in the text of the constitution, at least some creativity or imagination will be required in its interpretation in order to provide a verdict. Abortion, yet again, serves as a clear example. The constitution has nothing to say about the issue of abortion, so Roe v. Wade was decided under the privacy clause of the 14th amendment, despite the fact that the right to privacy is plainly not the central moral or legal issue in question where abortion is concerned.  

Still others may claim that the constitution is a "living tree", that should be interpreted liberally in light of the development of public opinion, though such flexibility undermines the need for such a central, inviolable legal document in the first place. In practice, the brevity of the constitution vis-a-vis the complexity of the issues brought before the Supreme Court means that the judges will - consciously or otherwise - be forced to read their own prejudices and expectations into the text in order to arrive at a conclusion.

However, even when allowing for the inherent and inescapable need for such judicial eisegesis, we must note that the political leanings of the Supreme Court justices directly influence the decisions they make to an unjustifiably high degree. In one study, simply noting the affiliations of the judges allowed the researchers to correctly predict the rulings of the court in 83% of cases, far higher "than forecasts made by legal experts as well as those made by algorithms that take into consideration the content of the cases". When the affiliations of the judges are so strong as to render the "content of the cases" purely incidental, it's clear that we have a problem and cannot claim that the text of the constitution is decisive or unambiguous. In reality, the very fact that Supreme Court judges - who are appointed by congress - can be designated as either "liberal" or "conservative" makes a mockery of the concept of the separation of powers, and is a sad indictment on the American political system.

So far from representing some clear, understandable foundation for all of American law, the American constitution has been reduced - by everyone from politicians to Supreme Court justices - into a mere blank-page, carrying neither authority nor meaning, onto which all of one's hopes, fears and prejudices may be penned without hindrance. Such is the danger - and the inevitable outcome - of sacralising a text borne of fallible human beings.