Rivers of Something

David Noel Freedman et al ed. The Rivers of Paradise. Eerdmans 2001

Rivers of Paradise

First, let's get our bearings. Eerdmans is not a scholarly publisher, but a Biblical publisher. The preface to the present volume is by a noted Christian theologian, Hans Küng. Against that background, we are going to hear about "Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad as Religious Founders." Is everybody all set?

The anomaly of Confucius in this list is finessed by Küng, who in his Preface refers to "the prophetic Semitic religions" (including three of those in this book), "the mystical Indian religions" (including Freedman's Buddhism but also Hinduism, which might be difficult to place in the Freedman paradigm), and "the Chinese wisdom religions, Confucianism and Daoism." So before the book even begins, we encounter the problem of Confucianism: is it a body of terrestrial wisdom, as Küng gently implies, or a doctrine of supernatural aspiration, as Freedman and company are presently going to argue? And what is the relation of the historical Confucius to that tradition?

As if these questions were not enough trouble, we also have the Max Weber paradigm. It is the backbone of the book's thinking. But Weber was talking about religious leaders, whereas the figures in Freedman's book are put forward as religious founders. Surely there may be a difference. The contributors, in their effort to pull the hypothesis together, get tangled up in just that difference. I will here evaluate the five Freedman figures as what they are said to be in his book: religious founders. The evaluations are not entirely reassuring.

Five Supposed Religious Founders

Moses. The only religion with which Moses can be said to be involved is Judaism. The question then becomes: Was Moses the founder of Judaism? The Scriptures of Judaism do not take that view. They take, in fact, several views of Moses: (1) the infant hero of an "abandoned baby" legend, (2) a prominent figure in the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt, (3) the transmitter of God's laws to the Jews, and (4) a violator of God's rules, who is accordingly excluded from the land to which he has led the rest of the Jews. Perhaps the most promising of these for "religious founder" paradigm purposes is #3, Moses the Lawgiver. But as recent research has shown, the earliest lawcode which the Jewish Scriptures attest is derived from that of Hammurabi, so the Lawgiver part part is going to have to be interpreted as a legend also. That leaves Moses as a leader of the Jews, and perhaps as a crystallizer of their legal tradition, but not as a founder of their beliefs. Says the author of this section, in the book's Final Thoughts chapter, "Hence, I have attempted to present Moses as a conglomeration of different images, reflecting the ideology, theology, and needs of an evolving faith community." With such a conglomeration, it is not surprising if the requirements of any paradigm, even the most confused, can at some point be met. But meeting such a paradigm, in such a way, tells us nothing.

Shakyamuni. The chapter subtitle is "Buddhism's Founder in Ten Acts." The chapter itself begins with the introduction of Buddhism into China, and follows with its (earlier) patronage by Asoka, all of which are phenomena of interest for their respective periods, but none of which is within a hundred years of anything that might refer to the historical Buddha. No more is the third "act," which is an action of the Dalai Lama at Madison Wisconsin in July 1985. Moving on, we are told that Shakyamuni is a nebulous historical figure, but that "another way of saying that Shakyamuni is Buddhism's founder is to say that every Buddhist culture, tradition, school, and society delights in his sacred biography." But delight is not evidence. That Shakyamuni lies at the source of something in which later ages take sacred delight may be conceded for purposes of argument, but it does not prove the case. The cargo cultists of Melanesia may take sacred delight in their replica of a C-47, but that does not make the C-47 itself an originally sacred object, let alone a presently functional one.

The key document here is likely to be the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a long narrative of the Buddha's last days. It is mentioned only once in this 112-page essay, and then only to say of it, "This rule is given in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the story of the Buddha's last days. But immediately after Shakyamuni proclaims the abiding importance of the rules of conduct, he then issues an order permitting monks to suspend petty rules and minor precepts as they see fit. Talk about ambivalence!" Indeed. Scholars of Pali literature have long pointed out that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is a stratified text, and have called for its analysis, but with few takers so far. (Present company apart, G D Pande seems to be the only one). Analysis would show that these and other seeming contradictions within the text are artifacts of text growth, one layer being introduced precisely to meet a need not envisioned in the core text, or to correct a solution to that need which was offered in an earlier layer. At present, the various rules and doctrines (such as the Eightfold versus the Fourfold Noble Path) lie stacked on top of one another in the text, like the Seven Cities of Troy. Only a reading of the text which is sensitive to the process of its formation is likely to show what this text thinks really happened in the last days of Buddha and the years not long after his death. Going instead to the pious Jataka tales of later centuries, as the author does, is really no substitute. Au contraire.

Confucius. Few less tractable subjects for the "religious founder" paradigm can be imagined than poor old Confucius, who in the Analects turns aside disciple questions about the supernatural, and focuses the disciples instead on the here and now of personal and dynastic politics. For some reason, however, presumably one involving departmental turf wars, departments of religion keep making the attempt to annex Confucius as someone they are allowed to talk about. That attempt in this book takes 76 pages, and covers familiar ground in a familiarly contorted way. Confucius, for example, is said to be "an expert in ritual." Now, if we seek to ascertain the content of "ritual" in Chinese context, we will sooner or later go to the Chinese ritual texts, either the early short one that makes up Analects 10, or the vast later ones: the Yi Li, the Li Ji, and the Jou Li. Leaving aside the mere protocol rules (how many X a person of rank Y is entitled to display), these texts have a lot to say about conducting funerals, but nothing to say about the afterlife of the deceased. They have a lot to say about how to behave at a state banquet, but nothing to say that suggests a sacramental meaning in that banquet. Like the Analects, these texts respect others' beliefs, from the ancestral sacrifices and state ceremonials of the ruler to individuals in mourning whom the Confucian gentleman may encounter on the street, but they do not propagate beliefs of their own. As for ritual in any sense whatever, the earliest strata of the Analects show Confucius as concerned with civil service protocol, and with the code of the traditional gentleman, but there is scarcely a word about ritual, even in the behavioral sense of "ritual." The nearer to Confucius we get, the thinner grows the evidence for Confucius as concerned with ritual, let alone with any supernatural referent of ritual.

Whatever may have been the case with Confucius himself, there can be little question that he founded a movement, or at least, that a movement grew up around his name soon after his death. Can that movement serve as evidence for the present question? It is at least a relevant matter. Now, the next great names in that movement after Confucius himself are known. Dzvngdz (middle 05th century) was an early leader of the Analects school; he is known to later ages as a paragon of filial piety, not an example of piety toward any divine beings: Mencius (end of 04th century) is shown in the transcripts of his interviews with rulers to have recommended a plan for the state to grow strong by expressing concern for its people. Sywndz (middle 03rd century) left a large body of his own writings. These, or the genuine ones among them, expound his views directly, and repeatedly attack other points of view. Here, then, is a question that can be answered by reference to extant and primary material. We might ask it this way: Here is Sywndz, coming after Confucius, and identifying himself as a Confucian, indeed, the most authentic Confucian there ever was. Is he a religious leader, in the unambiguous sense that Paul (coming after Jesus, and also leaving behind original writings) was a religious leader?

The Confucius essay ignores Dzvngdz. Strike One. It cites the Mencius only once, for its description of the offices that Confucius held in his life, without ever getting the high office that would let him put his Way into effect. It follows that the Way is one that would have benefited the states in question. That is, the Way was a political program and not a path of personal salvation. Strike Two. As for Sywndz, he is unmentioned in the Confucius essay, and little wonder. For his views on higher sanctions for human behavior, we turn to his long and eloquent essay on Heaven (SZ 17), and there we read that the doings of Heaven, while impressive in their way, have nothing to do with Man. Strike Three. Moving on a few centuries to the Confucianism of the Han Dynasty, what about its massively documented opponents? Do they accuse the Confucians of heresy, or for that matter, of superstition? Neither. They condemn them as offering advice irrelevant to the needs of the state, and harmful to the interests of the state. Strike Four. Even with permissive rules, even with an allowance of extra centuries to come up with evidence, the argument for Confucius as a religious founder seems to be in bad shape. The more evidence we consider, the less evidence we have for Confucius as a religious man, or for his movement as a religious movement, either on its own account, or in the writings of its successors, or in the eyes of its enemies. If Confucianism was a religion, it was surely the most surreptitious, the best camouflaged, of all religions.

Jesus. Here at last, it may be thought, we are on solid religious ground. The book contributes an essay of 167 pages, virtually a book in itself, on this seemingly solid subject. But the subject does not become the more solid for all that. What was the religion of Jesus? Undoubtedly it was some sort of Judaism. What exactly was the position of Jesus within Judaism? To begin to answer that, we have to go to the earliest evidence, just as we need the earliest layers of the most relevant documents to say where Shakyamuni fits into his time. The author of this essay reviews previous scholarship on Jesus, and says, "the Jesus of history seems more accessible than ever." Maybe. But improved access to that factual Jesus will not be gained by giving equal evidential weight, as the author does, to what are widely recognized to be the late Gospels (Matthew and Luke), and putting aside the widely recognized earliest Gospel, that of Mark. If there were to be a grownup attempt to recover Jesus, the Sunday-School instinct to privilege the Sermon on the Mount as the authentic Jesus needs to be put on hold, and the best evidence needs to be given its chance. That best evidence, the earliest texts and the earliest layers of those texts, tell a different story. What that story is, this paragraph is too short to contain. But this much may be said: it has fewer cute sheep, and fewer adorable children, than your Sunday School teacher might have wished.

Muhammad I am going to pass by. In the present assassination context, only a fool would venture to separate the Mecca and Medina chapters of the Qur'an, and it is hardly fair to fault some mild-mannered scholar for declining to be that particular kind of fool.


At the end, one is reminded of Holmes' dictum, "Hard cases make bad law." The verdict on this book must be, Dubious examples make bad theory. Could the effort have been better directed?

Assuredly. For one thing, it is evident that at least four of the five Freedman figures were national leaders. Moses may well have led his people out of Egypt and up to Canaan. Confucius, by majority evidence, sought to put in practice a formula, a Way, leading to political supremacy among the states. Jesus was crucified by the Roman occupation authorities as a would-be King of the Jews. Muhammad, well, one knows about Muhammad and Arab nationalism. We may then go back to Hans Küng's essay, so much wiser in its few pages than the huge book that follows, and his remark, "To be sure, we live in a time in which peace is threatened in many countries by every possible kind of religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu." We note the absence of Confucianism from this list: what would "Confucian fundamentalism" be like? And the presence of Hinduism, not encompassed in the book but amply justified by yesterday's newspaper. Notice here the transition from religion as such, to idea systems that link up with nations. If Küng had gone on to add "Aryan fundamentalism" and "Serb fundamentalism" and "Sudanese fundamentalism," he would have had a still stronger case. Religions are only dangerous when they can harness nations to their purpose, and nations are dangerous even if their agendas are not motivated by any specifically religious perception. Here, and not where Küng says it is, is the real problem of world peace.

Assuming that problem to be solved on its own terms (and what else can one do with it?), there remains a merely intellectual question: What are religious leaders, and are there any typological continuities to be observed in comparing them? We will not know that until we try, and the most severe criticism to be made of the Freedman book is that it does not try. Where, for instance, are the figures for whom no argument about their status as religious founders needs to be made, the clear cases? Where is Hammurabi, whose stele shows him receiving his pre-Mosaic laws by divine visitation? Where are the Roman Emperors who demanded to be worshiped as gods, all over the empire including Pontus (where Pliny the Younger presided over executions of Christians who refused that civic duty). Where is Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), or Joseph Smith (Mormonism), or Kino (Kono Tabi), or Jim Jones? Where are the divine kings of ancient Asia: Cyrus, or Chandragupta, or the First Emperor of China? Where, for that matter, are the Mician opponents of Confucianism, who openly demanded respect for the ghosts and spirits, and reviled the all too secular Confucians for refusing to believe in them?

Just sitting there, I suppose; victims of the appeal of a wacko paradigm to the otherwise educated minds of our time. Waiting their turn.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project