Tag Archives: Christianity

Human Rights. The question of origins

According to Samuel Moyn, literature on the history of human rights has proliferated in the last three decades; a subject which hitherto had drawn very little attention.[1] My own book, Three Conceptions of Human Rights is one of these histories, which was later supplemented by two articles in the Journal of Constitutionalism and Human Rights.[2] The most recent of these articles is, among other, critical of Moyn’s own attempt of such a history in his book The Last Utopia. This article gives an outline of ‘my’ history of human rights and my critique of Moyn.[3]

Studying the origin of documents such as the French declaration of 1789 and UN declaration of 1948 is no simple matter. The provisions of these documents are elaborated collectively in complex ways and shaped by multiple influences, which can be difficult to disentangle. The provision concerning habeus corpus surely originates in the English Middle Ages and so forth. We have not tried to disentangle all these influences, but instead focused on the conception of rights discernable in these declarations. The conception of rights implicit in these declarations tells us something about the philosophical attitude guiding these texts independently of how they were produced. What we have then endeavoured to do is to trace the origin of these conceptions of rights in order to insert them into their philosophical and societal context.

This analysis allows us to conclude that human rights in the sense used in the 1789 declaration could not originate in the Greek and Roman antiquity. Such a conception of human rights is guided by the desire to give the individual a wider liberty implemented through individual permissions called rights and protected by the duties of others to respect these. Even though concerns for liberty was not absent from ancient Greece, such a concern was not articulated philosophically, and there is no reason to believe it sparked later concerns for liberty. We argue that such a concern was revived and articulated philosophically due to the encounter between Christianity and Greek-Roman philosophy in the first centuries of our era. The fixed rules of the Decalogue served as background obligations for the definition of permissions, which the canon lawyers of the 12th century renamed as rights. Human rights in the sense of the 1948 declaration would originate in a different tradition. While this tradition relies indirectly on Greek-Roman philosophy and in particular Aristotle, the actual elaboration of such a human rights theory is a recent phenomenon, even though antecedents can be found in Edmund Burke. Here rights are conceived as instruments for the good life and human perfection. In the 1948 declaration this idea is expressed as the development of human personality. We have rights in this sense because otherwise we cannot perfect ourselves, which is our duty. Rights and duties are thus two sides of the same coin. Since rights serve perfection, we call this a perfectionist conception of rights.

The main thrust of the above-mentioned book has in this way traced two traditions of philosophical thought proposing each their understanding of human rights. The significance of these two traditions goes beyond the question of rights and touches on the role of morality in human life. Do humans have limited social obligations towards each other in order to ensure peaceful co-existence, while it is left to their own judgement how they should live their lives, or is moral perfection an essential aim of social life thus enabling man to realize its humanity? In the first case, rights protect the desire of individuals to live their own life, and in the second case, rights protect peoples endeavour to live a moral life. We call this last kind of theories moralizing, while the first ones are permissive. In our book we have recounted how rights came to serve these very different functions, and we will here shortly summarize our findings.

Short Outline

Moral philosophy in Greek and Roman antiquity is with few exceptions perfectionist. Most theories profess a species of eudaimonism. The key question was happiness, but they generally assumed that individual happiness was inextricably related to man’s moral perfection. Being moral and acting morally was also the objective interest of every man.[4] The general assumption was that moral action had to be determined in the particular circumstances, hence the name circumstantialism for these kinds of theories, though it was possible to devise rules of thumb which should be embodied in man as virtues giving him the right disposition towards action. Different from these are theories issuing in universal and inflexible act prescriptions. All ethical theories have some aim or guiding concern, but these aims or concerns can issue in particular prescriptions for acting (act prescriptions) depending on the circumstances as the antique theories generally did or ask people to follow inflexible rules (universal act prescriptions), which was unknown in Greek and Roman moral philosophy.

Plato diverges somewhat from the general scheme common to Antiquity, making reason the key notion. He is still rather sceptical about universal and simple rules.[5] How happiness was related to virtue and reason could then be explained in different ways and from there stems the various philosophical schools which thrived at different times in the Greek and Roman world. The antique world-view assumed that the world was reasonable and intelligible for man. This view was seriously challenged after the emergence of Christianity and this brought about an important rupture which changed the basis for philosophical reflection radically.[6]

The Judeo-Christian God was a commanding god demanding obedience from the believers. The idea that certain universal act-prescriptions had to be followed was foreign to Greek-Roman philosophy, which was thoroughly circumstantialist. Still, Christian apologists had to defend their religion within the terminology of Greek-Roman philosophy. For this purpose Platonism was a particularly convenient intellectual structure. Identifying God with the One allowed Christianity entry into the Greek-Roman culture, but the commands of God could not be ignored. The distinction between law and counsel made it possible to combine both considerations. In this way we got a distinction between two different kinds of obligation. Different authors could emphasize this or that obligation, but any Christian author somehow had to find a place for the law. The authority of Scripture had to be accommodated to Greek-Roman philosophical reasoning, since Scripture itself was presented as supported by reason.

Different solutions could make the synthesis between Greek-Roman philosophy and the Judeo-Christian religion work. For Western Christendom Augustine is the central figure. Inspired by his reading of Paul, Augustine developed a notion of permission, which could highlight the notion of Christian liberty. He wrote against those who make out of anything disadvantageous a sin. We can do many things without sin, which are not necessarily the best thing to do. Here we can glimpse our cluster of concepts: a law forbidding and commanding certain things leaving other things to everyone’s own judgement. These things are permitted even though certain things are necessary to achieve perfection, but everyone is not strictly obliged to seek perfection.[7] When Augustine wrote this during 419–420 the Roman Empire had only recently become officially Christian. Many other communities still co-existed with the Christian communities. The context is, therefore, one of intra-communitarian dispute about doctrine, since Augustine is here responding to a certain Pollentius having trouble with Augustine’s limitation of divorce to the sole case of adultery.

When the canon lawyers of the 12th century made Augustine’s permission into an ius the context was, of course, very different. The Christian Church was now an independent government institution with its own laws and courts and judges to maintain it. Ius was a much-used term in Roman law, but rarely used in a subjective sense as belonging to an individual (one example is D. 35.2.1. pr.). Exactly how canon lawyers came to equate ius with permission, we do not know, but this use is well established.[8] That Augustine influenced them is well attested, since many of them refer explicitly to Paul and Augustine.[9] These lawyers equated the moral prescriptions of the Bible with natural law. Natural law was conceived as a collection of more or less general prescriptions. They add the idea of permissive natural law conceived as consisting of everything you can equitably do. There is some discussion about whether this is natural right proper, but the idea of a space of liberty, where the agent is not subjected to compelling prescriptions is well and truly there. Later authors will deduce from this that property and government belong to the permitted area, since the prescriptions of natural law say nothing about them, and the idea that they need the consent of everybody lies at hand. We do not know exactly when this deduction was made for the first time, but it is clearly present in the works of William of Ockham.

In between, however, we have seen a surge in Aristotelian thought on moral philosophy due to new translations. The influence of Aristotle is pervasive, but his ideas on moral and political philosophy is not followed by John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (among others) opting instead for a position closer to that of Augustine. This is not the case with Thomas Aquinas who becomes the principal champion of Aristotelian moral and political philosophy. The challenge he faces is then to reconcile the general rules of the Decalogue with Aristotelian circumstantialism. Thomas’s solution is quite ingenious, but we argue that in the end he cannot give to the Decalogue its full significance. Thomas maintains certain inflexible act-prescriptions as a limit on the pursuit of the common good. His theory retains, however, the basic tenets of Aristotelian circumstantialism. Since agreement with some inflexible act-prescription is not a sufficient criterion for the goodness of the action, which has to be made for a good purpose as well,[10] the pursuit of the common good will therefore dominate. The distinction between strict and loose duties becomes senseless in Thomas’s theory. When all actions should further the common good, and for this reason there can be no genuine indifferent acts (an act which are neither morally commanded nor forbidden), this again implies that there can be no domain sheltered absolutely from public intervention, and this fits well with a conception of rights, which vary with the interest of the common good.

This Christianized Aristotelianism was to have an immense influence, but other more orthodox Augustinians like Ockham were worried about this influence. They felt that divine omnipotence was imperilled by this Aristotelian influence. If it was not possible to discard Aristotle completely, Ockham, taking the lead from Duns Scotus, gave Aristotelianism a stronger Augustinian imprint by emphasizing the divine will and the contingency of the created world. Although Ockham radicalized Scotus in many respects, he remained, on the whole, within the same overall perspective. Ockham probably developed his ideas on rights, property and government from canon law sources. In short, the distinction between strict and loose duty makes it possible to envisage individual liberty in terms of permissions within a eudaimonistic structure with beatitude as the highest end. Permissions are then conceived as rights within the limits of the act-prescriptions of natural and divine law. Other matters are left to the individuals’ own decisions, which include property and government. However, government when once settled cannot be revoked except in extreme cases.[11] The point of this theory was not to empower individual members of the society politically, but rather to bolster the claims of the temporal power against the papal claims of omnipotence. This theory gave the temporal power an independent source of legitimacy, and this was again part of Ockham’s own quarrel with the pope about evangelical poverty. Ockham’s position and arguments were taken up again by the Conciliarists, but to a different purpose. Their target was not so much the pope as the papacy. They challenged papal primacy within church government and claimed that final decisions belonged to a general council. The focus had changed, but the basic theoretical construct remained the same.

At the Reformation the cluster of concepts, consisting of individual rights as permissions, the supererogatory, property and government based on consensus and the common good as common interest, goes through a major change due to the redefinition of the term ‘sin’.[12] Since the task of government was generally seen as peaceful coexistence and repression of mortal sin, and sin became a much more comprehensive term, the task of government was accordingly greatly enhanced. There was now much larger room for state intervention, and Reformation governments could decide about morality and manners. In this way, what would count as the task of government has also changed. After having initially endorsed this view, John Locke eventually went back on this move making matters outside natural law to no business of government,[13] but now the context had changed, since different (if not all) religious communities were now living together. The duties of religion were now considered a private matter. Morality and manners, which were supervised by the Catholic Church before the Reformation, were now left to religious communities, between which people could choose. The area outside government action thus acquires a different content by this difference of context, since people now have greater liberty to choose their religious affiliation.

We argue that this Lockean view greatly influenced the drafters of the 18th century declarations of rights. In the American context Locke was important, but it is disputed how important he was. Recent scholarship tends, however, to reinstate the importance of Locke.[14] What makes Locke so important for us is the way he distanced himself from earlier Protestant political philosophy. Outside the concentric rings of natural and divine law, the Protestant prince could legislate according to his best judgement. Locke, on the contrary, limited the role of the prince to particular functions, and thus re-created a space of liberty for the individual. This solution was implemented in the American declarations (Virginia declaration and the Declaration of Independence) with Locke as the most probable inspiration. Even if this thesis is disputable, it is quite clear that these declarations are focused on freedom deploying a permissive conception of rights, and this is the most important point for our thesis. We can draw the same conclusion regarding the French declaration of the rights of man and the citizen, and as such link the 18th century declaration to the Augustinian-Ockhamistic tradition. However, while the rights language of permission and the consent theory of government formerly served to bolster the secular power against the spiritual power, the same language now serve to bolster the individual against the secular power. While the Americans used it against their colonial master, the French used it against their sovereign master, the King. Again, we have argued that Locke was particularly influential in implementing this solution.

This solution was not met with universal approbation. Both during the drafting process and after the adoption, the French declaration was severely criticized. Most of the critique is derived from a moralizing theory proposing an end, which makes inflexible act-prescriptions impossible or unfeasible. On this kind of theory it is not possible to have a fixed and stable space of liberty. Their critique concerns partly the impossibility of conferring eternal and indefeasible rights on individuals, partly the undesirability of abandoning people to their own egoism. The best-known critics are Edmund Burke,[15] Jeremy Bentham[16] and Karl Marx.[17] The theories of Burke and Marx have been described as perfectionists, since they harbour a positive ideal about human perfection, while this is not true about Bentham’s utilitarianism. Bentham and Marx reject the rights of man altogether, while Burke is not unwilling to use this term, though in a perfectionist sense.

Strong forces were working against human rights as they were understood in the 18th century. The Catholic Church remains critical, and the Church will eventually adopt their own concept of human rights inspired by Thomism and corresponding to the special sense Burke gave to human rights. Different forms of Marxism and Socialism remained hostile to human rights, considered as a species of bourgeois ideology. Some trends within socialism, for example Jean Jaures in France, adapted the human rights discourse to Socialist goals. However, human rights in the 18th century sense is still important in non-utilitarian liberal thought. Different forms of utilitarianism or more broadly non-perfectionist circumstantialism reject human rights or give them some subordinated role in their system as rules of thumb or guidelines. More historically minded or social science inspired approaches would also be sceptical about human rights. The ‘rebirth’ of human rights in the 20th century was not a ‘rebirth’ of human rights in the 18th century sense, but more like the culmination of the perfectionist version of human rights whether it was of Thomistic or Socialist inspiration. These two versions seemed to converge towards one another, and after the Second World War a short-lived perfectionist consensus produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the moral foundation for the contemporary international human rights regime. We argue that some of the rights in the UDHR, i.e. the economic, social and cultural (ESC-) rights, make no sense if they are understood as permissive rights, but these rights can very well be understood as perfectionist rights. Since a perfectionist end implies a perfectionist conception of rights and such an end is present in the declaration, we conclude that these rights should be understood as perfectionist rights. Other rights in the UDHR could, however, be understood as permissive rights. Since all the rights in the declaration are not permissive rights, it is difficult to understand the end of the UDHR as the delimitation of a space of liberty, but a perfectionist end would not be incompatible with a mixture of permissive and perfectionist rights, since some kinds of liberty could seem necessary to fulfil the end. In that case the perfectionist end of the UDHR would command all the rights, and the permissive rights should be used responsibly to attain this aim.

The examination of the drafters’ views as expressed in the summery records consolidates this interpretation of the text, even though it has to be explained as an overlapping consensus between two types of perfectionism. Full blown perfectionism would consist in a very dense conception of perfection, that is, a conception which gives very detailed and comprehensive prescriptions about how to live one’s life. This kind of perfectionism would have a strong moral dimension implying that social virtues are an integrated part of perfection. Social liberal perfectionism would focus on real freedom dissatisfied as they are with the formal freedom of the liberalists. Man should be made capable of effective use of his freedom, and this implies that he should possess certain qualities such as education, free time, means, health, etc. This kind of perfectionism would tend to be less dense, and do not suppose any moral dimension. The attachment of the individual to society would be due to some kind of social contract. The first conception was attributable to the Chinese representative, P. C. Chang, and some Latin American representatives, while the other conception was attributable to representatives from North America and Europe. It was, however, not possible to situate all the drafters precisely in relation to these conceptions, but there were good reasons to think that the large majority of representatives were somewhere between the two positions.

The UDHR was soon to be criticized from a liberal point of view. The economic, social and cultural rights had no place in liberal theory. These rights were not considered as real human rights. Only civil and political rights could claim to be real human rights. In order to avoid controversy and rally as large a following around human rights as possible, the human rights militancy of the 70s focused on subjects as torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests on which there was wide agreement.[18] We argue against Samuel Moyn that this movement did not deploy a whole new conception of human rights. The difference between UDHR and the 18th-century declarations of rights does not lie in the existence of a special tie to the state, as Moyn claims, but in their basic philosophical assumptions.[19] We argue that the UDHR has a much larger potential for internationalization than older declarations focused on freedom. This means that this potential was present in 1948, but it leaves the question open why it did not unfold until the 70s. Our explanation goes in two steps; firstly, as Moyn also notes, the major reason for this delay was the Cold War.[20] Internationalism seemed less realistic faced with a seemingly insurmountable ideological gap. We argue that other philosophical assumptions more akin to those of the 18th century in the guise of Reinhold Neibuhr and the Realist School in international relations came into the forefront forcing internationalism into the defensive. Institutionalism within international relations theory should be taken as an expression of a new effort to open the way to internationalism on the eve of the Cold War period. Secondly, human rights activism was minimalist and focused on a few fundamental and widely consensual rights, and it did not embrace the full program of the UDHR. Moyn explains this situation and its success by the failure of alternative utopias, and there is much to say for this explanation,[21] but why the human rights ONG’s eventually adopted the whole perfectionist program of the UDHR is not principally due to a pressure for giving answers to all questions necessary for a new ‘utopia’.[22] We suggest that working within the UN framework, intellectual coherence would anyway oblige them to do so.[23]

Our two traditions are thus still at work towards the end of the 20th century. Niebuhr and the Realists assume a conception of morality very much akin to that behind the 18th century declarations, even though they have a more ambiguous relation to the declarations themselves. For them, the determination of the actual rights is not so evident, and especially Niebuhr considers this determination as a matter of dispute, where morality and self-interest are difficult to disentangle.[24] The other strand has triumphed through the perfectionism of the UDHR, whether it is of Thomistic, Socialist, Confucian or other inspiration, and the momentum seems presently to be in its favour. The West has traditionally been very much focused on fixed rules when promoting human rights internationally, which seems wholly incongruous with the UDHR, while the so-called Global South has insisted on the indivisibility and interrelation of human rights, assuming that some kind of practical reason has to decide how they support or depend on each other or how supposed conflicts between them should be solved. This was rammed home at the Vienna conference in 1993, and this battle has largely been lost by those in the West who still cherishes the idea of fixed rules. Though fixed rules leave little flexibility for maximization or optimization of an accumulative end, and continuous adaptation to changing circumstances would be more efficient in this case, the social distribution of capabilities can, however, induce some people to adapt more than others, and rigid rules can protect persons by fixing lines of protection that cannot be overruled. This idea has often been criticized as a particular Western idea stemming from an individualist society and sometimes imputed to Christianity. It would seem that this study support this idea.

The Question of Origins

The permissive conception of rights has been traced back to developments in early Christianity. The Decalogue of the Mosaic religion as they were assimilated by Christianity made it possible to establish the conceptual apparatus consisting in interdictions, commands, permissions and counsel. One could then say that Christianity played a crucial role for the development of human rights. But the Qur’an allows of the same kind of interpretation.[25] Just like Augustine speaks about prescription, interdiction, permission and advice, Muslim scholars speak about the obligatory act (wajib, fard), the prohibited act (haram, mahdhur), the permitted act (mubah, halal, ja’iz) and the recommended act (mustahab, mandub, sunnah).[26] Islamic law also embraces the principle of legality, such that actions which are not prohibited are permitted.[27] Other observers even emphasize the existence of a notion of right in early Islamic jurisprudence.[28] So why did human rights not develop in the Muslim world? If human rights are associated, as they are here, with the particular move that bolsters the individual against the state, and not with the move bolstering secular powers against the spiritual power, then we will have to note that these rights did not develop in the Christian world for 1700 years. It is thus not probable that they were indissolubly linked to Christianity, if nobody actually thought about this for 1700 years. What actually made Locke reinvent the space of liberty and Enlightenment thinkers turn this liberty against the reigning power as a special prerogative of the individual, has probably something to do with developments in contemporary society.

Our cluster of concepts is not essentially Christian, but developed in Christianity because of contingent factors such as the combination of Roman law and church government; the dispute between secular and spiritual powers and individualistic conceptions of man. Nor do they seem to be related to any metaphysical or epistemological principle. Ockham subscribed to voluntarism while Locke adhered to intellectualism. They adopted a species of nominalism, but Duns Scotus preferred realism. A Platonic view of epistemology against an Aristotelian conception makes no difference. A teleological or mechanical conception of nature is all the same, when it comes to our cluster of concepts. What then allowed this cluster to persist in spite of changing philosophical inclinations? Important spiritual or material interests must have brought this about. With respect to the Middle Ages we will point to a strong religious interest in maintaining Christian liberty which relieves men from ceremonial prescriptions and leaves them to strive after perfection of their own free will. There was an important material interest in keeping the social order clear from church and religion. These interests in freedom and the independence of secular society were an important background for the development of human rights, but they were essentially related to neither Christian theology nor philosophy. They were related to the existence of fixed rules and the dispute between secular and spiritual power. The first you could find in Islam and other religions, while the second seems more particular to Western Europe.

The Long Perspective

We have travelled a lump of human history stretching from Plato to the aftermath of the Second World War. Our account of this period must inevitably be a very concentrated one. Why work on such a long stretch of time? The concepts and terms we are using to speak about ethical and political questions often have a long history. We do not assume this history to be a smooth and simple one. Terms get new meanings or maybe plural meanings. Concepts are carried by new terms or become part of them, or they enter into new associations with other concepts, which change their significance or functions. We do not assume that terms and concepts have followed each other from the ‘beginning’ to the ‘end’. This is a complicated story, which is wholly contingent and riddled with ruptures and displacements. We do not assume that certain concepts and terms had to appear or develop in a particular way. We only endeavour to map their presence at specific moments. We establish the framework, which will allow us to study the use of terms and concepts more specifically in their concrete environment. We consider it important to have the big picture, for example when we have to compare thinkers from different periods. It is important to know that the term ‘sin’ has changed its meaning with Luther and the consequences this has for the proper functions of the state, when we compare Luther with the Conciliarists. This gives a particular edge to subsequent Protestant political philosophy, which otherwise might have gone unnoticed, since they use the same conceptual apparatus as the Conciliarists. These kinds of ‘movements’ are easier to see in the big picture. The big picture also makes it easier to see whether terms and concepts forged in one period are still pertinent in a later period. We are sometimes so used to a particular conceptual scheme that we are not aware that changes in some other context leave them without a raison d’être. This has to some extent happened with the rule-based moral theory, which persisted without its foundation in divine command, and the raison d’être somehow had to be reinvented. These kinds of disruptions are easier to spot in the big picture.

What we do is to map their presence in texts. What meets us in the first place is the terms (words and phrases) and we will have to determine their precise meaning in these texts and the concepts they might carry with them. Since we are mainly dealing with abstract and technical terms in mainly scholarly texts, we have to determine their meaning in their theoretical context. The term ‘common good’ would, for example, mean something different in the Augustinian-Ockhamistic tradition than in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. In the first tradition the common good is the haphazard common interest of contingent societies, while the second tradition conceives the common good of a particular society as an integral part of the common good of an objective and universal society. Establishing the big picture will not exempt us from a contextual determination of the meaning of the particular term. However, in order to extract the abstract sense of the terms, we neither have to establish their perlocutionary nor their illocutionary sense, and neither their ideological role nor their social function or justification. Nonetheless, this extraction of meaning from the theoretical context does involve an elaborate reconstruction of the theory in question as far as this is possible.


 So far we have only considered two of the three conceptions. The first two conceptions studied are what John Rawls would call comprehensive conceptions.[29] The force of the third conception should then consist in being a non-comprehensive conception: i.e. a minimal standard of decency accepted by different comprehensive conceptions. This conception is defined by the fact that it allows more than one coercive normative order, and for this reason we call this conception pluralist in regard to politics. This means that human rights are not thought to exhaust the possibility for coercive measures in the state. Other normative claims can legitimately be enforced beside those of human rights. This has some implications for how we consider the function of government and consequently for democracy as a form of government. From the point of view of perfectionism it is the object of government to deploy the practical reason which will determine the decisions or enact the rules necessary for making people more perfect. From the point of view of classical liberalism it is the object of government to enact the rules necessary to protect freedom. In both cases positive rights coincide with human rights. In the third conception this is not necessarily the case. Government should, of course, enforce human rights, but these are not exhaustive, so it is somehow left to the government to fill out the rest. In some sense we are back to Protestant political philosophy here, where the prince could fill the space left over by divine and natural law. Apparently, it seems less controversial to revive this theory today, when the prince has been replaced with democracy.

What would then be the function of human rights today according to this theory? The third conception is an umbrella conception, so it can be fleshed out in various ways according to how human rights are justified, which functions are assigned to them and how the individual rights are defined. We would suggest that their function is to establish the conditions for the exercise of autonomy and individual protection against the vagaries of collective decisions. Conceived in this way, human rights allow democratic institutions a vast field within which they act freely. They are not just left with some details to settle concerning the implementation of a political project set out in advance. It is for democracy to make a choice between different political projects, and in this way human rights stand above ordinary political divides. This also means that human rights become an external standard with respect to the constitution and ordinary legislation. Human rights become the standard according to which these should be judged.

If human rights should express an actual universality, we must bring them down to a value that is likely to rally a broad consensus. We proposed autonomy, since it relates to the formation of opinion. It ensures that everyone can make up their own opinion and decide knowingly without pressures or restrictions in terms of information. This value is essentially that of the Enlightenment. This does not mean we did not know before. Socrates is a shining example to the contrary and Dumont believes that he finds it in the ancient Indian religion of the Vedas,[30] however, the philosophers of the Enlightenment strongly advocate this idea from the 17th century onwards.

If this value seems likely to rally around it a broad consensus, it is because it is a prerequisite for any discussion, and discussion is a prerequisite for any thoughtful consensus. So to all those who agree to submit to the vagaries of discussion and participate in the game of persuasion, autonomy should be an acceptable basis. This is fortunately a very large portion of the overall world population, and those are the members of the world public opinion that we must persuade. These people consider themselves as independent and for that reason they gather information and consider the arguments for and against. They constitute the future of human rights. What really matters is that people consider themselves as independent and that they see human rights as their guarantee for being able to continue to be so. The effort to promote human rights must therefore concentrate on public opinion; protect, expand and enlighten it.

Such a conception could serve as a base for the re-interpretation of the existing UN regime. The existing regime suffers from incoherence due to the fact that the covenants were supposed to implement the UDHR, which we have argued is perfectionist, but they are doing this with a traditional legal vocabulary which is dependent on a permissive conception of rights. This has created many troubles with how to cope with ESC-rights within such a conception. These rights simply do not work as permissive rights and they cannot therefore be considered as non-derogable or non-justiciable. In a perfectionist perspective all rights are derogable according to what would fit the common good and all rights are justiciable as long as this would promote the common good. In this perspective there are no fixed rules and every virtue is enforceable if this proves expedient. In order to conserve fixed rules and thus give personal autonomy a convenient protection one should take the existing civil and political rights (ICCPR) and combine them with the core ESC-rights as outlined by the UN,[31] which seems susceptible of immediate enforcement. These rights could be conceived as human rights according to the third conception.


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Thomas Aquinas (1882). Corpus Thomisticum, Textum Leoninum Romae 1882 editum ac automato translatum a Roberto Busa SJ in taenias magneticas denuo recognovit Enrique Alarcón atque instruxit. URL : http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/

Thomas Aquinas (1947). The Summa Theologica. London & New York: Benziger Bros. URL.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/index.html

Weigand, Rudolf (1967). Die Naturrechtslehre der Legisten und Dekretisten von Irnerius bis Accursius und von Gratian bis Johannes Teutonicus, München: Max Hueber Verlag.

William of Ockham (1992). A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckert, Michael P. (1994). Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[1] Moyn, 2011: 58.

[2] Jacobsen, 2011, 2014, 2016.

[3] Part of the text is taken – but somewhat modified – from a second edition of my book, Three Conceptions of Human Rights, which is in course of publication. For precise and extensive references, please refer to Jacobsen, 2011, 2014, 2016.

[4] Brunschwig, 1996: 1858, 1861.

[5] Plato, 1982: 425 c-e, p. 363.

[6] Dihle, 1982: 1.

[7] Augustine, 1982: PL 40, 459–462, I.14-17.15-19.

[8] Weigand, 1967: passim.

[9] DG II C. XXVIII, c. 8.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, ST. Ia IIae 18 a. 4 co.

[11] William of Ockham, 1992.

[12] Luther, 1889: 580–581.

[13] Locke, 2008.

[14] Huyler, 1995: 1–28; Zuckert, 1994: 18–25, 150–166, 305–319.

[15] Burke, 1968.

[16] Bentham, 2002.

[17] Marx and Engels, 1976.

[18] Moyn, 2010 : 130 ff.

[19] Moyn 2010: 12.

[20] Moyn, 2010: 131.

[21] Moyn, 2010: 8.

[22] Moyn, 2010 : 218 ff.

[23] Cf. http://humanrightshistory.umich.edu/files/2012/08/Petrasek.pdf (consulted 15-04-2015).

[24] Niebuhr, 1948: 264–265.

[25] Munir, 2006: 4.

[26] Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, 2006: 249–254.

[27] Baderin, 2003: 14–15.

[28] Moosa, 2004: 5 ff. In fact Moosa argues that the concept of right elaborated in the first period of Islam makes certain inherited notions of ethics incompatible with modern notions of human rights. Those who consider the Islamic understanding of rights compatible with modern notions have difficulties in explaining how they abandon the presumptions of traditional Islamic jurisprudence. He believes there is no way out, so that one has to accept a quantum shift.

[29] Rawls, 1996: 140, 154–155, 175.

[30] Dumont, 1985: 37–38.

[31] Cf. Core Human Rights in the Two Covenants: http://nhri.ohchr.org/EN/IHRS/TreatyBodies/Page%20Documents/Core%20Human%20Rights.pdf

Tom Houston, My Story with Governance. What I Have Learned from Running Christian Organizations (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014)

— Hold fast (only) what is good. Discuss it among yourselves. Search the Scriptures (48)

I have been teaching and researching issues concerning “good governance” (1) for a number of years in connection with the Master’s programme in Polar Law of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. Moreover, since my youth, I have been involved with a Christian charity operating in Genoa, Italy. It is the first time that I come across a book that tries to combine together an articulate Scripture-based, faith-imbued understanding of good governance aimed at persons working within organisations of all stripes (esp. parts 3 and 4 of 4: 43-101), and a deeply personal Christian meditation (esp. parts 1 and 2 of 4: 1-40).

Continue reading Tom Houston, My Story with Governance. What I Have Learned from Running Christian Organizations (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014)

David Emmanuel Singh (ed.), Jesus and the Resurrection: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts (Oxford: Regnum Studies in Global Christianity, 2014)



The idea behind the book is to look for some common ground between Christianity and Islam to start to build a dialogue. The contributors identify both Jesus and the resurrection as possible bridges between Christians and Muslims. The idea of focusing on Jesus and the resurrection is that both religions see both Jesus and the resurrection as part of their doctrine. Jesus is a key figure for both Christians and Muslims. And some form of resurrection of all linked with the Final Judgment is also present in both religions.


The challenge is, though, that the meaning of both Jesus and of the resurrection is different for Christians and Muslims. Christians believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Muslims do not. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, a special prophet if you wish, but not the Son of God who died and was raised from the dead. It is not conceivable that God would have a son and that Allah would allow a prophet to be shamed and killed. So God ascended Jesus to heaven alive. He saved him from the death on the cross, by switching Jesus with someone else to die in his place a shameful death by the hands of the Jews.


I am not sure the volume achieves what it hopes for. With the exception of Haroon Laldin’s essay about the Church in Pakistan, all the essays leave this reader with some doubts regarding the possibility of a dialogue, or at least they are not clear about what the authors mean by dialogue. Most of the essays present Muslim beliefs as ‘stories’ and ‘legends’, while describing Christians beliefs more like facts. The Muslim interpretations of Jesus’s second coming to rectify Christians’ ‘errors’ is presented with ‘errors’ in quotation marks (e.g. but not only, p. 55) as to indicate that the error is not in the Christians, but in the Muslims who see Christians in ‘error’. In addition, it may be the case that Islam uses legends and stories, but it would have been clearer what such ‘stories’ and ‘legend’ mean, if the authors who use these words offered some explanation of the difference between a legend and a sacred text, between a story and something believed as a truth. Only Katherine Ann Kraft, in her essay “Why do I have to explain the doctrine of the resurrection to my friends?” makes an effort to see stories both in Islam and in Christianity. She describes the content of a parable as a story. But is the gospel, which narrates Jesus telling the parable, also a story? The same kind of story as the parable itself?


The categorical and irreconcilable differences are emphasized much more than the potential similarities. So every time Jesus is mentioned the emphasis is on the fact that there would be no Christianity if Jesus did not die on the cross and did not resurrect three days after it, which is what is intensely denied by Muslims (in particular, but not only, in Brent Neely and Peer Riddell’s “Familiar Signs, Altered Concepts”). What kind of dialogue may one have if one of the “bridges”, Jesus, is so that “the Jesus of Christianity is in many way unrecognizable in Islam” (p. 64)? David Grafton”s “He Ascended into Heaven: Samuel Zwemer’S Critique of Ascension and Return of Jesus on the Day of Judgment in Islam” reports Zwemer’s words as: “It is the rock of Chirst’s Sonship which is the stone of stumbling and the rock of offence to the Moslem mind … in fact may we not expect that if there is a nation or race on earth more inaccessible than another, more averse to the gospel, more hardened against its teaching” (p. 97). Given these “barbaric” beliefs, is there anything more than “we share a God that has positive intentions for Humanity” (p. 98-99) as a point of commonality and a spring for dialogue? What kind of dialogue can emerge if one describes the other party in this way?


And what is the difference between a dialogue and an attempt to convert? Both Christians and Muslims believe in a form of Hell. But the Muslim hell is described in this book as much worse than the Christian hell. So Christians can (should?) use this point in common to bring Muslims over to Christianity, since Christian Hell is less frightening (Theodore Gabriel’s “Resurrection in Islam”).


The volume can be seen as a possibly clumsy attempt by some Christians to initiate a dialogue with Islam on the similarities and the differences in their doctrines. But it feels more like a book written by Christians for Christians on the differences and the similarities of their dogmas. I am not sure the approach is the most effective to establish a genuine dialogue.  Probably because when I think of attempts at dialogues between different religions, I think more of the Dalai Lama’s approach of minimizing the discourse about theological positions in favor of concentrating on the meanings of the messages that the different religions offer to someone’s life.

Kathryn Kraft, Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2012)

The research question at the heart of this book is: can Muslims in the Arab world leave Islam? And if they can, is leaving the Arab world the only viable way of leaving Islam? The answer provided is, yes, it is possible for Muslims to leave Islam and stay in the Arab world, but it is extremely difficult.

The major difficulty, even if not presented explicitly as such, seems to be that, with the exception of Lebanon, apostasy is illegal in the Arab world. So one cannot legally abandon Islam to convert to another religion. A formal conversion may mean a death sentence. Yet a few do convert. They convert because they reject Islam and because of an intellectual and emotional pull to Christianity.

The question I was left with after reading the book, though, is: is it worth it? The troubles converts go through seem so large that that “pull” becomes unclear; at least it was so in my mind. The problems converts encounter seem to be both internal and external.

Kraft explains that “Islam is a religion defined by unity. Unity in the oneness, or tawhid, of God” (p. 36). It is this tawhid that generates a strong sense of Muslim identity, which many are unwilling or unable to shed when they adopt a different faith. The oneness of God is demonstrated by rituals associated with everyday life activities, such as, say, housecleaning or bathing. “Even Muslims who are largely secular in their beliefs and lifestyle may have a relatively high level of participation in Muslim rituals, both because of the strongly ingrained nature of Muslim values in their upbringing (e.g. not eating pork), and for the sake of family cohesiveness and communal continuity (e.g. fasting during Ramadan as a family event)” (p. 40). The ritualization of daily activities is what converts seem to miss the most and seem unable to give up. They look to their new religion for the same level of rituals present in Islam, and cannot find it. They are therefore at a loss and disoriented. In addition, daily activities are so strongly characterized by their previous identity that it makes it hard for them to separate the activities from their previous faith.

So, we are told, people adopt a different faith, without abandoning their Muslim identity. Somehow, one can convert without actually converting. Legally adopting a different religion is not the same as abandoning Islam and adopting a Christian faith, or better, believing in Christ. So rather than converts, the converts prefer being called Muslim-background believers, or followers of Christ, or something similar (while Kraft has no problem in referring to them as converts). Officially they are not converts, but in practice they feel they are. Kraft argues that for some, Muslimism, just like Christianity, in the Arab world, becomes an ethnicity separable from a religion: “among Arabs of a Muslim background who choose to follow a Christian faith, I argue that Islam becomes their ethnicity, while Christianity becomes their religion” (p.101).

Some converts continue with their Muslim lifestyle, in part also to maintain peace at home and the respect of their umma, their community.  Umma, Kraft tells us, requires that the community takes priority over the individual, which is to say that one individual should sacrifice his/her individuality to the wellbeing and preservation of the community.  Social cohesion is essential and unity is preserved by setting limits on individual expression. Apostasy can be interpreted in this context of umma to promote unity and to suppress dissent, even with death. Kraft draws parallels with the “do not ask, do not tell” attitude. If the conversion is not out in the open, it is as if it was not there. Shame is avoided and honor preserved. Avoiding explicit mention of conversion, it is claimed, is a demonstration of love toward the deviant member of the family and of the deviant member of the family toward his/her family. 

After converting, having not found tawhid, Muslims are looking for umma in their new community, but find mistrust instead. The mutual suspicion between believers of Muslim background and born Christians extends into the Arab churches: “Arab Christians suspect people of a Muslim background of having political or material motivations for converting, or worse, of infiltrating their churches as spies.” (p. 57).

Christian missionaries tend to be funded by Western money.  So there is a strong association between Christianity, the West, and wealth. Kraft claims that the West, its freedom and its wealth, are not among the motivations for conversion, but often form part of the outcome and are often expected. Furthermore, religious deviants, we are told, must be careful about whom they associate with because they can cause serious problems for themselves and others. In addition, Christians are associated with Westerners and with the brutal violence of the Crusades and of the last two centuries of European colonialism. “The emotional distance that Christian born church members maintain from the Muslim-born co-religionists may never be completely surpassed, even by those converts who continue to actively interact with Christians.” (p. 84).

Loneliness becomes a major problem. They are alienated by their Muslim family (or prefer to be such); it is dangerous to associate with foreigners, and Arab Christians are reciprocally suspicious. “They have lost the sense of moral integration which Islam and tawhaid had provided them, and by which they had lived, or been expected to live, before converting. They also lost the structure and routine that members in the umma provided. They have a sense of being stuck between two worlds, wanting the best of both but finding themselves with best of neither” (P. 76). So the solution to the very high level of stress generated by these tensions may become two: returning to Islam or migrating to the West. This is  especially the case when accompanied by the inner torture on how to raise their children.

The account that Kraft offers us opens the door to several questions that I hope will be answered in future research. All the interviews in the book, and therefore the story she tells, come from converts and their perspective. Would the narrative have been different if the interviews included friends and family members, who saw their loved ones abandon what they think is the true religion and live a life they think is a sin? How unique are these stories? How do they differ, if at all, from attempts to convert out of Orthodox Judaism?  Or out of some very conservative Christian communities? How do Muslim converts in the non-Arab world compare to the ones in the Arab world? And how do they compare to converts into Islam both in the Arab world and in the non-Arab world?

A book that raises more questions than the ones it set out to answer is, in my opinion, a good book and is worth reading. This book may not be the best introduction to Islam in the Arab world, or to the tensions present in it, as it takes that context for granted. Yet the experiences that it describes raise interesting questions about religion and society in the Arab world and beyond.

Tormod Engelsviken, Ernst Harbakk, Rolv Olsen & Thor Strandenæs (eds.), Mission to the World; Communicating the Gospel in the 21st Century. Essays in Honour of Knud Jørgensen (Oxford: Regnum Books & Egede International, 2008)

We wish to give the benefit of the doubt to the subject, but ultimately the assumptions are not empirically accessible. The author can make brilliant logical arguments, based on a subjective line from the sacred texts. As such, theology (to the outsider) is a give and take between the rational (-logy) and the ultimately unknowable (theo-).

Christianity is suffused with these paradoxes:

  • Is the church an entity of the community or of the leadership? Catholics and Lutherans for instance will answer this question in differing degrees on this scale, but this tension exists in both churches.
  • In spreading the gospel, how do we meld the gospel with indigenous beliefs to honor our targets without compromising the religion itself? This tension goes on today in Indigenous American communities, and Jorgensen dealt with it in Ethiopian and Chinese communities.
  • In our personal faith, when we accept our vocation and participate in mission, how do we know we are serving God and not our own sense of self-importance?

Knud Jørgensen has dealt with these tensions or paradoxes throughout his life’s work. He was born in Denmark in 1942 and followed a career of study and missionary work that included education, radio, Africa, Asia, and greater Europe. In honor of his 65th birthday, and to reflect on his life’s work, Regnum commissioned a “festschrift:” Mission to the World: Communicating the Gospel in the 21st Century  (2007).

An exploration of the tension inherent in these three paradoxes forms the basis of this festschrift. The section on mission explores several aspects of this. Aano discusses the emergence of the global South as the new direction for the church – but not one that necessarily will yield to European dominance in leadership (92-102). Ho-Fai (85-91) discusses the challenges of cultural work to meet the people of China in evangelism. Lutheran scholars try to use Chinese history to be relevant to potential Chinese Christians in Hong Kong. At the same time, Buddhists are using traditional evangelical tools to reach modern Chinese. The tension here is a postmodern one where the interplay between history and modernity is complex enough that the best strategy for growth is not clear.

Kraft addresses the tension between multiple religions as a collection of forms expressed within a given culture and faith. Kraft defines faith as a “commitment to someone or something, supported by a set of deep worldview-level assumptions.” (182) The tension discussed by Kraft is one between social structure (religion) and personal devotion. The first can be a vehicle for the second, but can just as easily obfuscate or become its own goal. Holter (205-214) looks at the Bible’s adoption and use in Africa, wondering rhetorically who actually ‘owns’ the book. He notes that the first extreme was Europeans’ use of the book as justification for the colonisation and exploitation of Africa. The other extreme is represented by the translation of the bible into three hundred languages, including which vernacular polytheistic gods should represent Yahweh, and adopted by people for whom the events in the stories happened literally in their back yard.

Eskilt’s (382-390) research investigated the concept of “calling” to their mission among boomer and Xer Norwegians. She found that indeed the different generations did understand their calling somewhat differently. The older respondents saw their calling in much more clearly delineated and objective terms than the younger respondents, who were more likely to use subjective and blurry language. The boomer generation had a much stronger institutional connection than the X generation.  Mortensen (405-418) closes the book by reflecting upon the tension of teaching missiology academically within a non-religious university. In the contemporary secular university world this necessarily marginalizes missiology. She recognizes the contemporary conflict between university neutrality and religious-based studies, or even a postmodern recognition that objectivity might not even be possible. She concludes that this sometimes awkward context for missiology in the university allows for an understanding of the cultural discourse that missionary work itself must address. After all, missionary work necessarily entails addressing non-Lutheran cultural and religious contexts.

This festschrift is a complicated work, with perhaps many applications. It is very large, with around thirty contributors and stretching over four hundred pages. At the same time, most of the essays are short and very digestible, so its breadth means that there will be works that appeal to many readers. While the theological topics are certainly (and appropriately!) Lutheran, this Catholic reader found them relatable, as many similar issues are happening with the Roman church as well.


N.B. Special thanks to Joe Domko of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Boulder, Colorado for his theological assistance.

William C. Prevette, Child, Church and Compassion: Towards Child Theology in Romania (Oxford: Regnum, 2012)

Faced with a deteriorating economic situation during communist rule, Romanian couples increasingly decided against having children to avoid the financial burden. Ceaucescu attempted to reverse the ensuing population decline by banning abortion and imposing heavy taxes on the childless. A pattern emerged. Couples would have as many kids as possible to avoid the tax. But with inadequate means for their support, tens of thousands of children per annum (p. 68) were abandoned, left to rot in a clandestine system of medical facilities or to a brutal life on the streets. The growing crisis was kept under wraps until Ceau?escu’s execution in 1989; when its scope became general knowledge, Western humanitarian aid agencies, with little understanding of the cultural, political, and ethnic sensitivities in Romania, rushed to provide help. A subset of these agencies, evangelical Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs after NGOs), saw a further, spiritual need in the fall of communism. They entered Romania both to respond to children in crisis and to spread the Gospel.


While the bulk of Child, Church and Compassion analyzes the relationships between FBOs and local Romanian evangelical churches in cooperative efforts to respond to the Romanian child crisis, neither FBO/church relations nor children is what the book is about. (So, if you’re after an account of the Romanian child crisis, keep looking.) It is, rather, a work of child theology and what I’ll call—to distinguish it from other forms of holism—“missiological holism” that uses the Romanian child crisis as a backdrop.


Child theology takes the child to be an indicator or pointer to the Kingdom of God. By placing the child “in the midst” (from Matthew 18, it’s a slogan for the movement) of theological consideration, practitioners gain a perspective from which to do theology. Note well, however, that while child theology gives the child a central place, its goal is an understanding of the Kingdom. It is not primarily directed to the child; it is directed at the Kingdom through the child.


Missiological holism is intended to counteract dualism. Mission can fail in one of two directions: it can be “vertically” (p. 263) oriented towards eternal salvation, an approach that tends to ignore material, psychological, and social needs, resulting in instances of “transactionalism” (p. 222), the economic exchange of conversion for aid; or, it can be “horizontally” (p. 264) focused on material, psychological and social needs, while neglecting the religious dimension of mission, sometimes resulting in “managerial missiology” (p. 39), no different from atheist interventions. The claim of missiological holism is that the proper disposition is one that attends to both the vertical and horizontal dimensions in unison.


Evangelical churches, isolated from larger Romanian society and the global Christian community during the communist era, tended to be insular and “vertical.” Pastors were perplexed about why at-risk children should be their concern, were resistant to sharing scarce resources with those outside of the community of believers, and were distrustful of other organizations. FBOs, on the other hand, tended to be “horizontal.” They incorporated the methods of the social sciences, operated in the same way as secular humanitarian aid agencies (NGOs), and focussed on providing interventions directly to individual at-risk children. Because of their opposing prejudices, the initial meeting of FBOs and churches was typified by misunderstanding, mistrust, and misallocation of resources. Only those FBOs and churches that embraced the tensions at play had a measure of success in overcoming them.  


From the analysis of FBO/church relations, two conclusions are given. The first is that mission should not aim at the unilateral transformation of those in need, but at the dialectical transforming of all involved. A holistic approach does indeed attend to the child’s spiritual and bodily needs, but it also involves the metamorphosis of the family, the local church, the broader community, the intervener, and the aid agency. The second is that sin and failure are permanent features of work with children in crisis, and should be expected mission outcomes. What this indicates is that the Kingdom of God likewise includes sin and failure—it encompasses a fallen world.


Theological matters aside, Bill Prevette, the book’s author, is a missionary and child advocate, who has spent the last thirty years helping children in crisis in North America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. He is on faculty at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and is a board member of several international Faith-Based Organizations. Child, Church and Compassion is his Ph.D. dissertation. It is the result of a field-research project carried out from 2002-2008, while Dr. Prevette was working directly with FBOs, local churches and at-risk children in Romania. The book is an excellent account of complex frontline missionary work that only someone with years of practicing in situ, and with the particular connections its author has, could give. Although it is set in an idiosyncratic time and place, the book’s key insights are generalizable. It contains a myriad of useful bits of practical wisdom that would be of benefit to novice missionaries and humanitarian aid workers.


As mentioned, the book was written as a dissertation. The problem is that it reads like one. Chapter 4, for instance, discusses research methods in great detail, which may be an important thing to do in a dissertation, but seems out of place in this book. Moreover, a few grammar and syntax errors are to be expected in a work of this length. But there are numerous and persistent mistakes throughout, many of which are egregious (see the title of Chapter 6 for an example). Editorial scrutiny should have remade the dissertation into something more of a book and eliminated most of the simple mistakes prior to publication.


George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (eds.), Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009)

The account of the city’s founding continues in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (3.I.5-2.2),[2] where Alexander, who travelled to Kanobos and sailed around Lake Mareotis to select an appropriate site, decided to locate his city. Once he had planned out the city, determining the location of the Agora and establishing the sanctuaries and temples for the various deities ? both “Greek gods and Egyptian Isis” ? Alexander sacrificed to the gods and when he received favorable signs, he laid out the city walls; however, since he had nothing with which to mark out the parameter of the city, he used meal that his soldiers carried with them. While there is disagreement about the precise date of the founding of Alexandria, some have suggested that this event may have occurred in 332 or 331 BCE. Shortly after founding the city, Alexander left the actual building and administration of the city to others and, moving his campaign further east, was never to return to his city. Certainly, current scholarship is critical of the foundation stories surrounding the origins of Alexandria; many of the authors in this collection of essays, Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, emphasize persistent difficulties with sources and the tendency for various ancient authors to mythologize the founding of the city. According to Krasilnikoff, however, “the first citizens of Alexandria were also soldiers in Alexander’s and Ptolemy’s armies” (“Alexandria as Place,” 21). Hence, it is not surprising that Greek and Egyptian cultural forms and content should be intertwined in Alexandria. Citing Heracleides, Plutarch notes that Homer, who “was no idle or useless companion” accompanied Alexander on his campaign (“Alexandria as Place,” 21).

Indeed, the ancient city was a center of scholarship and intellectual activity with the Alexandrian Library and the Museum, and much of the early Homeric scholarship was done in Alexandria; even the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have received these works each having twenty-four books was first codified by scholars working in these institutions. To be sure, other groups also helped write the history of the city. Jews were apparently among the earliest inhabitants of the city. Philo the Jewish thinker, known for his skeptical epistemology, worked there. As Per Bilde argues in his paper, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” while he has not been recognized as such, Philo was also a polemist and a political apologist for the significant Jewish population of the city, and, according to Josephus, led the delegation to Gaius to plead for the Jews. Moreover, Alexandria belonged to the Roman Empire and under the influence of Clement and Origen it was a significant center, along with Antioch and Rome, in the development of early Christianity.

Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is the ninth volume in the Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity (ASMA) series published approximately once a year by The Centre for the Study of Antiquity, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Edited by George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff, the eight papers in this volume were selected from among those presented by a number of scholars from different countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, at the May 2004 seminar on Alexandria hosted by the Centre; other papers were also included later. The eight papers in this volume are divided into two sections, entitled: “Part I. Alexandria from Greece and Egypt” and “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity.” Each paper in this text is well-researched and is followed by a rich bibliography. While the authors are critical of the mythological accounts of the founding of Alexandria, the ancient sources are not simply rejected out of hand; rather, despite the problematic character of ancient sources, these sources along with their scholarly interpretations are examined carefully and critically with an eye to understanding the city the cultural and religious diversity of its people. The authors represented in Alexandria are also aware of and discuss the tendency of some sources to distort their facts in their enthusiasm for a particular historical point of view or outcome. While one must use the available sources, we must keep in mind that religious conflicts, for example, between Pagans and Christians tend to be written by the victors. One advantage that the scholars writing for this publication have had, however, is the enormous growth in the scholarship of Egypt and north Africa during the last thirty years and the increase in the availability of the number of papyri manuscripts and other relevant evidence from these regions. Another theme common to the papers in this collection is the view that cultures are extremely complex, living organisms and not ‘static things’. Thus, in his essay, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen, citing Martjin van Beck, objects to “a static model” of culture – one that

… gives a distorted picture of the cultural and social reality of human beings, past and present. Culture – and religion as well as part of the cultural construction – should rather be seen as ways of interpreting the world. Culture represents what one does and not what one is. Martjin van Beck has poignantly emphasized this point. He underlines to what a great extent the talk about cultures is itself part of the cultural construction: “The point is not to deny that common features exist in particular fields but to document that the extrapolation from specific similarities and differences to homoginised, cultural and even civilizing units is a creative process and not just a mapping of already existing facts” (Petersen, 123).[3]

Indeed, reminding us of Alfred Korzybski’s observation “that the map is not the territory,” Peterson writes, “Cultures are by their very nature ‘messy’ or hybrid affairs” (124 and 125).[4]

The four papers of the first part take up in various ways “the relationship between Ptolemaic Alexandria and its Greek past” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10). Jens A. Krasilnikoff launches the volume with his paper, “Alexandria as Place: Tempo-Spatial Traits of Royal Ideology in Early Ptolemaic Egypt.” Specifically, Krasilnikoff is interested in the way that Egypt as space is transformed into Alexandria as place. Borrowing from the work of humanistic geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, Peter J. Taylor, and Jonathan M. Hall, he examines this problem by considering the concepts of “space,” “place,” and “identity.” Citing Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Krasilnikoff observes that the concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are “interdependent” (Krasilnikoff, 23).

… the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value … The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place (23).[5]

Interdependence of space and place and the relationship between these two concepts “determine the formation of different kinds of identity”; hence, we can distinguish “identity of place” which “includes the identity markers that constitute a particular place,” and “place identity” which “involves those qualities of a place that helps generate identities of individuals or groups.” Krasilnikoff, uses these concepts to explore the meaning of “place within the Egyptian context of the Ptolemaic period”; indeed, he wants to understand how “the Greek concept of the ‘city-state culture’ and society developed in this distinct framework” that is Alexandria (38). For Kasilnikoff, then, Alexandria is to be understood in the Greek polis tradition because of its founding and the heroic character of its founder; this view was reinforced by the Ptolemaic rulers who claimed to be direct descendents of Alexander and by ancient authors who apparently borrowed their conceptions of the founding from other founding myths. At the same time, examining the earliest history of the city leads Krasilnikoff to conclude that Alexandria “differed fundamentally from the majority of classical and Hellenistic cities” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10).

In her paper, “Theatrical Fiction and Visual Bilingualism in the Monumental tombs of Ptolemaic Alexandria,” Marjorie Susan Venit notices that in the very beginning of Alexandria the inhabitants created “monumental tombs as communal spaces for both burial and veneration of the dead” in the limestone on which the city stands (Venit, 42). These tombs, Venit observes, are “unique” to the city, “and, until their dissemination across the north coast of Egypt and to the eastern Mediterranean, they stand unparalleled as monuments to a complex vision of the afterlife.” Illustrating her paper with five diagrams and eight pictures of the tombs, she notes that elements of two “disparate” traditions are brought together in the construction of the tombs. First, “Egyptian elements” are incorporated “into the fabric of an initially and fundamentally Hellenically-inspired monument.” The second element that interests Venit is that the tombs include theater. Hence, the tombs and monuments combine two “culturally distinct architectural traditions and … two ethnically discrete visual systems as well.” The tombs, according to Venit served as “a purposefully designed space within which, and against which, the human drama of the funerary ritual” was performed. While the dead were entombed in these monuments, the buildings also served a symbolic function making an “external reference” that allowed an extremely diverse population to identify themselves as Alexandrians. It is precisely this that makes the Alexandrian tombs unique. “Both visions,” Venit writes:

… bilingualism and theatricality – incorporate into their fabric the fiction that is the underlying basis of Ptolemaic period Alexandrian tombs, and both fictive situations apart and in concert, establish the mortuary buildings of Ptolemaic Alexandria as bi-cultural monuments that can only have had their genesis in the peculiar construct that was ancient Alexandria. It is this bi-ocular modality that separates characteristics to express the singular eschatological vision that marks the monumental tomb of ancient Alexandria (64).

George Hinge takes up the ever-controversial subject of race in his essay, “Language and Race: Theocritus and the Koine Identity of Ptolemaic Egypt. ” Hinge cites Herodotus’Histories to show that “Greek ethnicity” is determined by “four components: origin, language, cult, and culture” (Hinge, 67). In this passage, Hinge refers to words spoken by the Athenians to a Laconian delegation, arguing for a coalition to fight against the Persians.

There are many reasons why we should not do this, even if we wanted to: First and foremost, they have burnt and destroyed the statues and temples of our gods, and we are obliged to revenge them as far as possible rather than conclude a treaty with the offenders. Furthermore, there is the Hellenicity, consisting in the same blood and the same language, the common shrines of gods and cult and the same way of life, which the Athenians should not betray (Herodotus, Histories, 8.144.3; Hinge’s underling).

Thus, Hinge argues, “language is quintessential to Herodotus’ concept of ethnicity” (68). In this Hinge is arguing against Jonathan Hall, who in his Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity holds the view “that language played only a minor role in the formation of ethnic groups” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 11).[6] Hinge argues that while it may have mattered “what sort of Greek you are” ? whether one was a Spartan, an Argive, or an Athenian ? in the Greek homeland, once the colonization of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE got underway, “a Greek identity” began to emerge “in opposition to the non-Greek natives in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, Italy or Scythia. The otherness of those ‘Barbarians’ and the complete unintelligibility of their languages, which were frequently compared to the chirping of birds, made the existence of a specific Hellenic identity obvious” (Hinge, 69). This identity, as Hinge emphasizes, “is not natural per se, but a cultural construction” that has its origins in the Mycenaean Age and that leads to “the creation of a Koine.” That Koine displaced local dialects, Hinge argues, was not just a way to bridge various local languages and dialects, “but the symptom of a new identity, and not only a symptom, but also a most powerful contribution to that identity” (77).  

In her “Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria,” Minna Skaffie Jensen describes the Alexandrian Museum and the research conducted by the scholars working there especially the work done on Homer. According to Jensen, Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian scholar and one of Aristotle’s students was responsible for organizing the Alexandrian Library; not surprisingly, it was modeled on Aristotle’s library in the Lyceum. While he was active in politics and even ruled Athens for the Macedonians (317-7 BCE); he also continued to work with the Library and is credited with having had Aesop’s fables written down. Jensen engages a number of scholars’ interpretations of the origins of the Homeric texts, including, Martin West, Antonio Rengakos, Gregory Nagy, Stephanie West, and others. She concludes her brief history of the Library and Museum and of the Homeric scholarship that took place there lamenting that, despite the problems, the view “we get in the sources does not confirm the picture of the Library as an important participant in the great interaction of cultures and religions. On the contrary, the philologists of the Library appear to have been concerned with Greek literature and nothing else” (Jensen, 89). Apparently Egyptian texts were left to the priests. While the subtitle of this collection of essays is, “A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot,” and while there is evidence in other fields for a melting pot, with regard to the Library perhaps it was not quite so. “The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt,” Jensen writes,

… achieved nothing more important than the superb intellectual milieu established at the Museum. Whatever their intentions, the results of their generous support of learning are remarkable. To them we owe infinite gratitude for the fact that ancient Greek texts have reached us in such quantity and quality Scientific and scholarly method was developed to a previously unknown level. Poetry flourished. And just as Alexandrian poets become the stimulating ideal for Roman poets from Ennius onwards; the Ptolemies offered themselves as worthy models for the patronage of the artists practiced in Augustan Rome (91-92).

The first two of the four essays constituting “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity,” are devoted to Judaism. In the first piece, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” Per Bilde considers two texts by Philo, an extremely influential Jew from one of the most important and prosperous Alexandrian families to show that although Philo is usually known for his work in theology, epistemology, and metaphysics, he also played an significant role as a politician, a polemist, and a political apologist, especially between 38 and 41 CE – “a period of great importance in the history of the Jewish people in the ancient world” (Hinge and Krasinikoff, “Introduction, 13). In his essay, Bilde reconstructs the historical and political events in the year 38 CE, the year of what has become known as “the first pogrom” against the Jewish people. Then, he analyzes Philo’s two historical treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. Finally, Bilde examines “the literary genre and the aim, dating and intended readers” of these two works and considers whether Philo’s writings “could be perceived as a threat to Rome” (Bilde, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist,” 98).

As Bilde explains, Judaism had flourished in Alexandria for many years and “continued to thrive well over the first year of Caligula’s rule (37-38 CE)” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 13). Aulus Avilius Flaccus was a Roman prefect in Alexandria and Egypt (32-38 CE). While “the living conditions for the Jewish people,” according to Bilde, were generally not bad “in the Roman empire from Caesar (died 44 BCE) and Augustus (31BCE-14 CE) until the summer of 38,” for reasons that are not evident, Flaccus “seems to have cancelled the Jewish population’s established right to live in Alexandria according to the customs of their fathers and under some kind of internal self-government …” (Bilde, 99). When King Agrippa I, also known as Herod Agrippa, (37/41-44) who had recently been crowned King of Palestine stopped in Alexandria en route from Rome to his homeland, his visit set off riots against the Jewish people. Non-Jewish residents of the city also tried to set up statues of the emperor in synagogues. Instead of trying to stop the riots, Flaccus, and here Bilde follows Philo’s account, sided with the “‘Greeks’ and issued a decree … denouncing the Jews as ‘foreigners and newcomers’ … in Alexandria” (100). Subsequently, Jews were driven out of four of the five parts of the city and ghettoized into the remaining fifth part. Jews were the subject of violent attacks, some were flogged publically, some were killed, and some were forced to violate religiously sanctioned dietary prohibitions by eating pork. Although Bilde cautions: “when reconstructing historical circumstances in Antiquity, from using terms related to the European persecutions of Jews in the Middle Ages and in recent times” (101), he also claims that “this violent persecution of Jews seems to be something new in Antiquity” (100). Eventually, Flaccus was arrested by the Emperor, returned to Rome, where after his property was confiscated, he was sent into exile and eventually put to death by the emperor. According to Bilde, then, Philo’s Against Flaccus is begins with a glowing report of Flaccus’ first six years in office only to explain Flaccus’ fall from office; indeed, it is a cautionary tale that proclaims the power of the god of the Jews and explains that those who violate the Jewish people will face a fate similar to Flaccus’. On the one hand, Bilde interprets the texts as being written for the Jewish people in a “traditional and effective Jewish literary form or genere, religious apologetics,” which was later adopted by Christians; Philo’s apologetic texts were meant “to comfort and edify Jewish readers” and should be compared to the Book of Esther of the books of the Macabees (109). On the other hand, however, Bilde suggests, is that Philo wrote in “this form or genere “for Roman readers, primarily the new Roman emperor, Claudius, the new imperial prefect in Egypt, Pollio, and other leading Roman circles …” as if to warn them against actions that might harm the Jewish people and blaspheme their god.

In his paper, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen takes a quite different approach from Bilde’s, for he is not interested in well-known writers like Philo nor is he interested in “the empirical subject matter of Alexandrian Jewry” (Petersen, 116); rather, Petersen’s paper is much more ambitious and is focused on the theoretical problem of how to reconstruct past cultures. Petersen begins by briefly sketching out the history of Jewish people in Alexandria. Then, he examines “Alexandrian Judaism with close attention to a number of theoretical problems that are infrequently mentioned in the predominant strands of scholarship.” Finally, Petersen concludes by offering “a theoretically viable way of reconstructing ancient cultures in a manner that is simultaneously theoretically adequate to the acknowledgement of the confined nature of the sources, and to current insights within the fields of cultural anthropology and sociology of how to speak and to conceive of culture.” Petersen is critical of approaches to culture that assume one individual, such as Philo, Aristeas, or Artapanus, can speak for or represent a particular culture or subculture. While contemporary scholarship seems to understand this, Petersen maintains that even though many contemporary scholars acknowledge this problem, they proceed to deal with their sources without considering the consequences of taking “one trajectory of thought” as the embodiment of an entire cultural entity. Indeed, “the banalities of culture and the platitudes of human beings,” Petersen writes, “are seldom handed down” (118). On the other hand, he does not argue that scholars should ignore available sources; rather, the solution is to keep “the constrained nature of the majority of the extant sources” and to reflect on the “wide strands of scholarship, current as well as classical, on Alexandrian Judaism” (119). Petersen is also critical of those who understand Philo in terms of a preconceived dualism of Hellenism and Judaism. This dualistic view, Petersen argues is “theoretically flawed” for several reasons (124).

First, even the most vehement Jewish antagonist of Greek thinking is culturally as well as socially inevitably enmeshed in what he opposes …. Secondly, the use of a notion like “Hellenism” is always contextually bound. It relates to particular traits only within the other culture. It is never a comprehensive term that refers to the entire plethora of phenomena of the “other culture. “Jerusalem” and “Athens” are unfailingly entities that are rhetorically used in particular contexts to refer to specific phenomena. Thirdly, the abstract taxonomic play with terms like Judaism and Hellenism in modern scholarly discourse is very far from their use in antiquity. That … does not invalidate contemporary use, but it certainly should put some restraints on the manner in which they are used (125).

One must remember that a thinker like Philo is a Jew, but also an Alexandrian; even Philo himself is not a simple unity; “Philo’s writings should be interpreted as the creations of a composite being who under particular circumstances and with particular aims and situations in mind attempts to conquer the cultural battlefield of his time” (139). Still, this does not mean that we should speak of “Alexandrian Judaisms or Jewries” instead of “Alexandrian Jewry / Judaism” (Petersen, 128). While this may have “heuristic value,” it is “misleading” because it indicates the inability “to distinguish a concept and a phenomenon.” Alexandrian Judaism may only be a construct of contemporary scholarship. On the other hand, Petersen suggests, following Benedict Anderson, that although “Alexandrian Judaism was hardly a community characterized by ‘the primordial village of face-to-face contact,’” it could still be understood as “‘imagined community’” because “its members constituted a conscious community” that “shared the common frame of reference of being Jews of Alexandria.” In end, Petersen concludes, “however perplexed we may be as a result of engagement with cultural ‘messiness,’ the great intellectual challenge for future studies not only on past Alexandrian Jewry, but on ancient cultural entities in general, will be to take the ‘messiness’ of human cultural and social affairs profoundly seriously” (140).

In “From School to Patriarchate: Aspects on the Christianisation of Alexandria,” Samuel Rubenson is not concerned with religion or theology; rather, he focuses on “the transformation of the classical heritage into an early medieval Christian culture” and the important role that Alexandria played in that transformation (144). Indeed, Rubenson argues that this transformation must be understood “from a social point of view” (145). The importance of Alexandria to the development of Christianity with development of Christian theology and the revision of classical philosophy is unequaled until “the emperor and the bishops of Rome and Constantinople … ended the ecclesiastical power by means of the council of Chalcedon in 451.” Origen of Alexandria was important for his work in “Christian hermeneutics and Bible interpretation”; indeed, according to Rubenson, he was the most important Christian teacher of this period. Athanasius of Alexandria is acknowledged for his interpretation of the divine as trinity and his efforts to define church dogma. Cyril of Alexandria addressed himself to the problem of how Jesus as Christ could be both man and god. The work of later Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus are certainly based on Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. Rubenson concludes that our understanding of early Christianity in Alexandria, then, is based on the work of Christian teachers and philosophers, who instituted a tradition of Christian schools during the second century, and who were recognized for their work both in Alexandria and in the larger emerging Christian community. Schisms and a break between the church and the school were caused by “the severe and prolonged persecutions of the Christian leadership of Alexandria in 303-11” (156). Emperor Constantine’s recognition of the bishop of Alexandria elevated the importance of the bishops and gave them increased responsibilities. The bishops, who attempted to unify the church and unite the Christian community in the face of the pagan traditions that were embraced by parts of the Alexandrian elites, were resisted by intellectuals living independently on the edge of the desert south of the city. Uniting with local authorities, the bishops received the support of the emperor to unite Christians against their Christian opponents and critics and the remaining pagans.

In “Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE,” Troels Myrup Kristensen begins where Rubenson ends with the conflict between the Christian bishops and the continued pagan tradition of parts of the Alexandrian elite. Noting the complicated religious, social, and political tensions that were part of the Mediterranean world of the fourth and fifth centuries, Kristensen contextualizes his discussion of the conflict between Christians and pagans by tracing Christian opposition to pagan statuary to “the Judaic tradition and the Mosaic prohibition against idolatry” (160). While wooden statues were burned, stone statues were either defaced or “reinterpreted” by adding crosses or other Christian symbols to the statues by Christians (161). At the same time, Kristensen emphasizes that these views were not held by all Christians and that some pagan statues survived in Christian households. Illustrating his paper with three photographs, one diagram, and one map, Kristensen discusses the destruction of the Serapeum and its statuary in 392 CE which along with “the murder of the philosopher Hypatia” are “among the best known cases of religious violence in Late Antiquity” (162). Christian destruction of pagan statuary is one of the reasons that pagan statuary was cached and pagan practices were driven underground. Kristensen concludes by noting that the violence brought on by the religious and social transformation in Alexandria in Late Antiquity was rampant; indeed, it can be understood “as the result of the ‘brutalisation of local politics’ or ‘progressive Christianisation’” (172). While there is much literary evidence for the Christian destruction of statuary, actual evidence is much more difficult to obtain. One of the problems is that most of the surviving accounts of this period of Alexandrian history are from Christian sources. “The bias of the Christian literature concerning the ‘end’ of pagan cult at Alexandria makes it difficult to accept them at face value.” Archaeological evidence is also problematic because interpretation and documentation are difficult. Still, Kristensen argues, we can rough out Christian reactions to paganism and pagan statuary.

Hinge and Krasilnikoff are to be commended for bringing together the papers in this volume; indeed, Alexandria A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is an interdisciplinary text that may be recommended to both the scholar and the general reader interested in culture, religion, and ancient communities. Although Alexandria will certainly interest classicists, cultural anthropologists, and classical archeologists, scholars working in other disciplines such as art history, philosophy, and cultural studies will also find this text exciting for its fresh look at the ancient city of Alexandria that exemplifies the social, economic, and political complexities of a diverse population living in the same community. The various reflections on culture and religion are obvious strengths of this text. However, the discussions of the problems involved in the study of ancient cultures, and their reflections on how scholars might approach ancient cultures are important n/pot only for those studying ancient cultures, but also raise questions that should be considered by anyone thinking and writing about culture.

[1] Krasilnikoff cites Pseud-Callesthene I:30, trans. E. H. Haight (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1955).

[2] Krasilnikoff cites M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), no. 7.

[3] Petersen translates and cites M. van Beck, “Identiteternes møde, civilisationernes sammenstød,” Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 40, 1-11.

[4] Petersen refers to Alfred Korzybski’s “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” presented before the American Mathematical Society at the December 28, 1931meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

[5] Krasinikoff quotes Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

[6] See Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland

I begin by stating what may seem a truism but is part of my first impressions. Iceland is not a place hanging somewhere between the main known continents, some remote place  near the North Pole, somehow  (to mention a place by name) like the island of Svalbard. It belongs to Europe and is an important part of the European continent historically and culturally and for long a period of its existence, also politically. Which means that when one goes to Iceland one does not leave Europe, but simply discovers a part of it, very peculiar indeed and certainly graced with its own individuality but in the last instance quite European. And as European most of us are in some sense, one does feel necessarily at home in Iceland. On the other hand one does not feel completely at home, however “globalized” this world may be for better or worse, in Kazakhstan or in Mongolia.

Having said this one should immediately register the peculiarities of this Island in the North Atlantic.  Some are in a true sense exclusive: which country has in a relatively limited space volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, “fumarole” with wells of boiling water at your feet, gigantic waterfalls, huge mountains with eternal snow, lakes with floating icebergs which you can touch, while  at same time, extensive farms with domestic animals and products of the earth? Hot and cold, fire and ice in extreme vicinity. And of course beautiful modern cities, well and orderly built, with gardens full of flowers private and public. (It was summer when I travelled there and one would wish summers everywhere were like this). Cities by the way, of which the largest are still within a livable human measure: Reykyavik and Akureyri and some other one perhaps. The rest are but villages. One does not certainly miss our Babels everywhere. You breathe more freely. The Island has 130.000 square kilometres and is inhabited by less than 300.500 people. A blessing in itself. But happens to have, so I was told, the highest birth rate in Western Europe. It is then Europe but lacks many of the negative notes of the European continent. May I add that every village and even many places outside human settlements have a church very visible and well kept. Lutheran of course and, from what I read, scarcely visited by worshippers. But, according to my own observation, for what it is worth, presiding over a churchyard with crosses and other signs of Christian burial. Seemingly, at least, people wish to be buried with some kind of service and in some kind of special place. In some of these churches I found with some surprise visible rests of the old Catholic faith, images for instance, a Saint Peter, a Saint Jerome and even a Blessed Virgin. Apparently Puritanism and Calvinism with its destruction and despoiling of everything with a Catholic flavour did not find a place in the religious history of Iceland. I will perhaps return to such religious history later on.

In the meantime, the visitor is duly impressed by what he is shown of the past of Iceland. Even this past is peculiar and different from what one sees and is expected to see in other places. No great monuments or works of art at every turn of a corner. But instead the quite unique rests well kept and ready for the tourist visit, of the ancient living quarters of the Islanders, built with turf on foundations and a solid basis of stone in the midst of a field of lava, cosy enough, the domestic beasts being lodged in the same way and in the same building. Churches were also built this way and one or two are kept and still used. Therefore we have, glaciers, the deposit of ancient and recent volcanic explosions  (some must have been terrible) and the intense green of fields and trees. Unfortunately most of then recently planted. One is told that the land in former times was covered with trees, birches among others, but the needs of  heat, construction and farming space was the end of many of them, if not the great majority. Now wood, corrugated iron and normal building material have taken the place of turf.

The visitor (more or less ignorant as the present writer) should learn very much from the present Iceland about the Viking past, present sill in a certain way. One recalls the pirating and desolation brought by these sailing people along the coasts of continental Europe not the mention the islands to the West. And not only the coasts: Tours in France (then Neustria) and its monastery created by Alcuin of York for Charles the Great was raided (so it is said) by the Vikings. And the same fate fell on the monasteries with their riches cultural and otherwise in North Eastern England. One of the famous Bibles copied and illustrated there ended up in what is now Sweden in Stockholm. If not the text, the magnificent cover attracted the greed of the invaders from the North. The list could be continued without end.

But one tends to ignore the qualities and virtues of this people. Iceland helps you have a very different picture. Vikings not only destroyed: they also built and even created. It is said that the first parliamentary assembly in Europe (Iceland, I insist is part of Europe) is said to have taken place in a place called Thingvellir in southern Iceland (the Althingi so called). And this still in the first millennium: 930 is the date usually given. It is of course not for me to say anything decisive about their discovery of what is now Northern America (Canada and the United States), but there seems to be even some archaeological testimony of their presence in what is now Canada (the excavations at the Anse of Meadows). However difficult and ambiguous the interpretation of such remains may be. Anyway, it was they who apparently put their foot in what is now Greenland. For whatever reason much less developed presently than Iceland is. And nobody can but admire their courage and audacity in defying the seas with ships and sails and oars which we would normally use today only for adventures. Like the raft used by Thor Heyerdahl for crossing the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean. By the way, he was a delightful gentleman whom I met and whose presence and conversation I enjoyed when he was living in the Canarias at the end of his days: he paid me more than a visit when I was in charge of the Library and Archives of the Roman Church in the Vatican. It was like meeting a living Viking.  He was keenly interested in the Catholic presence in the extreme Northern countries including Greenland  and in what our documents could tell him about the firsts Bishops there  and about King Olaf the Great, now venerated as a Saint (feast day in our official Calendar the 29th. July). I have now run again on St. Olaf a propos the Christianisation of Iceland.

Let me say a word also about this subject which may seem a bit like “talking shop” as the American saying goes. On the other hand under some other aspect it belongs to the cultural history of Iceland.

The Vikings found a home in what is now the great island in the Northern Atlantic and thanks to what can be called their “parliamentary” tradition, they one day voted, after careful reflexion and personal consideration of their speaker (it is said he spent a night “under a hide” in his tent thinking on the subject) the introduction of Christianity in Iceland. So the story goes. It was the Catholic tradition of Christianity.

However, well before the Viking , the Irish monks from the islands east of Scotland (the St. Columbanus community) and from the Faroe, part of whose vocation was to leave for remote places, unassisted and almost barehanded  to preach the Christ. To travel anyway was an end in itself: to leave behind even the security and partial comfort of the monastery to go anywhere. Thus St. Bonifatius (formerly Winfridus an English monk)  went to central Europe which he evangelized and when  he had enough disciples founded the monastery at Fulda hence a centre for culture. Some of these monks certainly went North and their means of transport, rafts or canoes or whatever were much less secure and prepared for the ocean than the Viking ships. There is no rest or trace (at least to my knowledge) of their presence in Iceland but what I believe is a firm tradition of their presence there and of their efforts for evangelization. But when other missionaries came after (British or Norwegian or whatever) and the formal common decision to become Christian and Catholic was taken,  there was, I am sure, something to build upon and not just a religious void or mere paganism whatever its values and culture.

It is very impressive and I made the experience myself for many hours, going through and admiring the testimonies of Medieval Catholicism at the National Museum, carefully chosen and remarkably well shown. An example in itself of how objects should be kept, illustrated and helped to be understood in any Museum anywhere. Unfortunately, without a catalogue. But pictures can be obtained and I got for myself some very helpful to get an idea of how deeply Catholicism had been lived and translated (if a may use this word) into the local culture. This can  be seen for instance in the beautiful liturgical vestments, some perfectly conserved, really works of art of the Icelandic way of using whatever  instruments they had  for exquisite needlework. A medieval wood Crucifix from the early Middle Ages should not pass unobserved as well as the model reconstruction of a rather large church perhaps a cathedral. There were in fact two Catholic dioceses in Iceland: one in the North in Holar, the other one in the South in Skalholt and a lot of monasteries for monks and nuns. One can still see the excavated foundations of what is held to be an Augustinian monastery in some place in Eastern Iceland.  The Catholic Church was under the supervision, at least after some time, of the Archbishop in Nidaros (today Trondhjem in Norway) with what is left of its monumental Gothic cathedral and afterwards of the Archbishop in Lund (Sweden).

As I said since the beginning, Iceland is Europe and followed in this particular field the fate of the Catholic Church in Europe: some form of corruption and infidelity to its true vocation and then the imposition (not certainly the choice) according to the axiom “cuius regio eius religio” (meaning religion follows the place where you live) of Northern Lutheranism. The true sense of such an axiom was really then: the political head of the country decides which religion (in this case which form of Christianity) you are allowed to profess. Iceland after the middle of the fourteenth century became part of Denmark. The King of Denmark Christian III was a stout Lutheran after the Reformation and all his countries had to follow suit. There was some resistance and even some fighting but not even remotely what happened in continental Europe with the wars of religion. The last Catholic Bishop Jon Aranson (not a model of Bishops: he had a mistress and four children but he believed in his Church), fought, was caught, considered a traitor, then had his head cut off without trial. It must be admitted it was one of the first Lutheran Bishops (the hierarchy was kept there at least for some time) who translated the Bible into Icelandic and had it printed. I am told the first book ever printed in that language was the Icelandic translation of the New Testament by a Lutheran of the first time by the name of Oddur Gottskalksson in 1540. Printed of course in Denmark to avoid Catholic negative reaction. For what regards the complete Bible, the publication with designs done by the Bishop himself, is a splendid volume a facsimile of which I happened to see and admire. I could not help noting that what are now called the Apocrypha (the Catholic Deuterocanonical, never published since in Protestant Bibles) were all there in their proper place. The Bishop name, which ought to be retained, was Gudbrandon Thorlakson and his Bible bears the date 1584. It bore, as it should, the approval of the King of Denmark both in Icelandic and indeed in Latin. The irony of the fact is that the printing press then used had been brought to Iceland and installed by the last Catholic Bishop just mentioned in his Episcopal city Holar. The Catholic hierarchy was reinstalled in 1929 and the Catholic Church is active and present. And apparently in good relation with our Lutheran brethren. In fact the present Lutheran Bishop of Holar had the ashes of his beheaded Catholic predecessor somehow found in the churchyard nearby and buried again in the Cathedral in front of the main altar.

Literacy seems to have been fairly common and early in Iceland. I was privileged to visit in a so called House of Culture, which indeed does earn its name, in Reykjavik an outstanding exhibition of Icelandic manuscripts, more than one, as it often happens, coming from libraries abroad. Two things are to be mentioned. First, the writing (and indeed apparently from the beginning) used  an adapted  Latin alphabet  in some form of what paleographers call the Carolingian minuscule, while at least there were (at least exhibited) no manuscripts in that language, which must have existed sometime, liturgical or otherwise. And secondly many of those manuscripts were illustrated. My attention was caught by a remarkable representation of what looked very exactly like a ceremony of adult Baptism, with the neophytes stark naked standing on a kind of tub before  the Bishop who with his mitre on and his crosier in his left hand, administers them the sacramental unction which is part of the Baptism of adults still today. And I could see other notable miniatures. There was also in the same exhibition the reconstruction remarkably true to fact of the whole process of the creation of medieval manuscripts since the very beginning with the preparation of the parchment, through the writing and illumination with the colours used right up to the ways of binding the finished book.  Most of the texts exhibited, I could read in the catalogue (there was a complete catalogue there signed by two editors: Gisli Sigurdsson – Vesteinn Olasson, Reykjavik 2004) came from the early periods, carefully transmitted first by word of mouth and then in writing: the “sagas” so called. Later on collected and saved from destruction by a scholar in the seventeenth century by the name of Arni Magnusson. An Institute in the same city bears his name. Those texts, I daresay, are less known and appreciated in our world than they should be. I can only think of the Ossian poems written (really rather created) in the eighteenth century in England by James McPherson and put into pictures by William Blake. And for what regards the version of the ancient German mythology inspiring Richard Wagner in his Tetralogy, one may wonder how far such texts and those at their origin really reflect the authentic  figures and  vicissitudes of the ancient “sagas”

Be that as it may, my conclusion is that there is much to be learned in a place like Iceland present and past. And I should add here a toponomastic note or note regarding the name of the place.  The name used for that country does not at all reflect its reality and I am afraid it does not help to attract visitors: it is certainly not a place of “ice” or where ice is predominant. But neither has Greenland anything “green” about it. It is in fact much more of an “iceland” than the beautiful island in the North Atlantic I was happy to visit where indeed there is much more to be seen, learned and admired that those notes written “currenti calamo” (“with a running pen” or I should now say “with a running PC”) may even suggest. It manages to give I hope at least some pale idea.