Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Does the Bible justify the burning of witches?

This entry continues a critique of Christian Morality written by Dean Dowling. You can read previous parts by clicking on the links below: Part 1: Introduction/General Comments Part 2: Does the Bible provide justification for the persecution of the Jews? Part 3: Does the Bible condone slavery?
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According to Dowling, the Bible justifies the burning of witches and offers Exodus 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:10; and Galatians 5:19 as evidence. He also refers to the witch hunts of 1234-1836 and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 which he alleges was a handbook used by the Inquisitors to identify and deal with witches. Exodus 22:18 reads, ‘You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.’ (NRSV) This law is part of the Old Covenant legislation designed to mark Israel off from its pagan neighbours. The Jerome Bible Commentary (Brown, Fitzmyer & Murphy 1996) makes this comment:
Common in antiquity was the effort to control superhuman powers by magic, and thus penetrate the secrets of the future, work havoc on enemies, and bring benediction on friends… Nonreligious sorcery was also proscribed in the Code of Hammurabi and by Assyrian law, both of which considered it harmful to one’s fellow man.
Read within the historical context of the Old Testament, this prohibition is quite consistent with cultures other than Israel’s. Despite the presence of this law, it is interesting to note that ‘The Bible does not record any executions of sorcerers or sorceresses’. (Radmacher, Allen & House 1997) The next verse offered by Dowling is Deuteronomy 18:10:
No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer…’ (NRSV)
The preceding verse gives the reason for this command to Israel:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. (18:9, NRSV)
Although Dowling is incorrect in claiming the Bible justifies the burning (it doesn’t say how they are to be put to death) of witches (more correctly translated sorceresses), he is correct in that they were not to be tolerated in Israel. In the culture of the day, this was not unusual as we can see from other legal codes of the time. The attitude against sorcery extends into the New Testament as evidenced by Paul’s inclusion of it in a list of the ‘works of the flesh’:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, NRSV, emphasis supplied)
It is important to note, however, that Paul does not advise the putting to death of sorceresses. Instead, it says they will not inherit the kingdom of God. The New Testament teaches that it is not the place of Christians to judge others. Dowling refers to the publication and use of the Malleus Maleficarum. Dowling (1996b) writes that
The infamous 1487 Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer for Witches) was the Inquisitor's handbook of questions and torture to be used by the best legal minds of the time. It had 30 reprints by 1669.
The Malleus Maleficarum is, indeed, infamous. However, it was condemned by the Inquisition four years after it was published, was a minority view, was not used by the ‘best legal minds of the time’, was supported by forged declarations, and did not represent the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Jenny Gibbons (Gibbons) has constructed this paragraph which is the popular view of the Malleus Maleficarum:
The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) is a detailed and accurate guide to how the Inquisition ran a Witch trial. Written by two respected inquisitors and enthusiastically endorsed by the Pope, the Malleus lay on the bench of every Witch hunter in Europe. Its detailed descriptions of sabbats and covens spread the fear of Witches throughout Europe, dramatically increasing the number of Witch trials.
Gibbons goes on to point out that every one of the sentences in this paragraph is incorrect and concludes by stating
… that the Malleus does not give an accurate picture of what Witch hunting was like. It's an extreme, radical text, and gives a very distorted view of life in the Burning Times.
Once again, Dowling has an extremely simplistic view of the Bible’s relationship to witch hunting (never mentioned in the Bible) and witch burning (never mentioned in the Bible). Nor does he do justice to the complex phenomenon of witch hunting that took place over 600 hundred years (according to Dowling). It has to be acknowledged that the witch trials were a great evil resulting in the death of many innocent women. But to suggest that the Bible is the cause of this travesty is to, once again, blur the distinction between the Bible and the way it has been misused. The Inquisition was a much more complex historical phenomenon than that and most certainly doesn’t supply an adequate basis for Dowling to conclude that the Bible is the necessary condition for all these evils. References Brown, R, Fitzmyer, J & Murphy, R 1996, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, electronic edn, Logos Research Systems. Dowling, DR 1996a, 'Christian Morality', S.A. Humanist Post, pp. 8-9. ---- 1996b, Christian Morality, Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, viewed 9 December 2006, http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/chrimorality.htm. Gibbons, J The Malleus Maleficarum (review), viewed 16 January 2007, http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/_remembrance/malleus_maleficarum.htm. Radmacher, E, Allen, R & House, H 1997, The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version, T. Nelson, Nashville.

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