Tag Archives: history

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

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Book Review: The Early History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy

Since finishing The Nicomachean Ethics, this has been my ‘long, slow book‘ that I have read just a few pages at a time. Having last year read The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction I wanted to read more of the primary material that underlay that greatly enjoyable start to the subject. It also felt like something of a resumption of ancient history after having, in the last couple of years, read both Herodotus and Thucydides.

If you know anything about the foundation of Rome, then you will have heard of Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by wolves. This is pretty much at the start of Livy’s work, though one should note the introduction by R. M. Ogilvie. I probably ought to add, since there are multiple versions, that this was the Penguin Classics edition translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It’s rare for me to comment on the faithfulness of a translation, though here I couldn’t help but notice the appearance of some seemingly anachronistic idioms cropping up in the text. Seeming quite out of place and out of tone with the rest of the work, I do query whether this was the most faithful rendering of Livy’s work.

The opening of the book reads rather more like a work of mythology rather than history. The story of Romulus and Remus is fleshed out in a little detail, yet they were all too fleeting in their appearance, particularly Remus who was murdered by his brother. From here we read a little about an early period where Rome was ruled by kings, many of whom were corrupt or incompetent, so we see the seeds of a resentment of monarchy. A running theme throughout the foundation of the republic is the desire to have competent government and resisting the temptation to return to monarchy nomatter how bad things got.

Much of the book is very reminiscent of the History of the Peloponnesian War as we just get battle, death, rebuttal and a little political insight into how the early Romans organised themselves. With tribunes, consuls, military tribunes and the dastardly group known as the Decemvirs there is a fair array of models of governance on display, though without a detailed political theory, there is some ambiguity over the precise constitution. The other feature is that as seemed to happen all too frequently, in times of crisis, they would dissolve the republican model of government and appoint a dictator whose decisions could not be challenged. The idea seems to be that a single person’s choices are more readily made than a consensus. If one is familiar with later Roman history, you will be aware that the last person to hold this position was one Gaius Julius, or as he is more often referred to, Julius Caesar – the first emperor; a dictator who never gave up his position.

The most interesting parts are certainly towards the front of the book, with various episodes recounted which have seeped into later collective consciousness and re-imagined by later writers. I think in particular of the rape of Lucretia and the account of Coriolanus, the latter being adapted into a play by William Shakespeare.

That said, the end of the book (that is, book 5 of Livy’s work, the end of this volume) sets up nicely the next part of Livy’s work, in that we get an introduction to the Gauls, who are described as being quite unlike any other enemy Rome has faced and where the entire existence of the city is not only under threat, but seemingly doomed.

It’s a shame really, because while it does hint at a certain level of interest in reading on, I must confess that I think I have just about reached the end of my tether when it comes to reading the source material of ancient history. I still have a copy of Tacitus’ Histories on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, as well as a later summary: Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think I take as much from reading the early works as others with a keener interest in history. So while I pondered Plutarch, I think that will have to wait for some considerable time.

To conclude then, this is not a book for the casual reader (a category in which I place myself). It’s more for those who have an abnormal desire to dig into the origins of Roman history, but who probably already have a good understanding of the overall period, gleaned from later historians and summarisers. If that sounds like you, then absolutely do read it. You can even have my (by now, slightly dog-eared) copy.

Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.

Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

I’m rather fond of Bart Ehrman. I have often found him to be a great communicator, hugely knowledgeable and yet wields his learning with gentleness so as to not alienate people needlessly. I first heard of this book when he took part in a debate (no doubt as part of a promotion) on Unbelievable, the Saturday afternoon apologetics programme on Premier Radio. His foil in that argument was Simon Gathercole who was one of several writers who had contributed to a riposte to Ehrman’s latest work (and which I shall be reading and reviewing in a month or two’s time).

As the title implies, this is a look at Jesus and how he came to be regarded as God. While Ehrman is no longer a christian, he retains his key interest in the origins of christianity. His opening thesis is that that while theologians tend to focus on questions of incarnation (i.e. how God became human) it is less frequently asked how Jesus came to be regarded as God. The obvious answer (that he was seen as God because he was God) is discounted as too simplistic and reliant on an uncritical reading of the gospels. His overall thesis is that Jesus wasn’t thought of as God in his lifetime and that a high christology only developed later on. Incorporating Jesus as the 2nd member of the Trinity was a much later development still. First, though, he lays out his approach for tackling the problem at hand.

He begins with a nicely deceptive piece of writing where he describes a charismatic figure from the backwaters of the Middle East, who had a group of followers who came to think of him as a god.

What he does, and this is what makes him such a brilliant writer, is that he makes some general points that makes the reader think. As I read from a christian perspective it is inevitable that some of his points are dissonant with my current understanding. Many of these objections are then addressed in a very short space of time.

Much of the argument over what is early and what is late in terms of theological development hinges on an assumption of a late authorship of the gospels. Unsurprisingly, John is portrayed as the last of the gospels to be written, though Ehrman puts the date of all four as after 70 CE. He references one of his earlier works in support of this claim, but no further backup is given. It’s an assumption that stands in stark contrast to, say, F.F. Bruce who advocated an earlier date of composition.

Clearly, the earlier the date, the less room there is for an elongated period of oral history. The shorter that period, the less time there is for corruption and therefore the more likely it is that the gospels are a faithful record of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to oral history, though, Ehrman seems unreasonably dismissive. In what is a clear sideswipe at Kenneth Bailey, he states, “Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however.” It seems to be a pretty obvious reference to Bailey’s Informal Controlled Oral History and the Synoptic Tradition, yet Ehrman isn’t even willing to grant Bailey a namecheck, let alone any engagement with the subject.

One of the most irritating features of the book, though, is Ehrman’s frequent use of the “many scholars” fallacy“. Throughout the book, he cites “scholars” who either support his view or whose work support a particular aspect of the argument he’s making. Frequently, though, they are not named or sufficiently well referenced, so it is impossible to follow up to make further enquiry. As a result, even the reader who comes to this work in anticipation of Ehrman’s critical analysis will be left frustrated there is insufficient support at crucial stages of the argument and therefore the force of the point being made is not as well backed up as Ehrman would like his readers to think.

As one would expect of a good scholar, he traces his steps carefully. He begins the study by looking at beliefs in gods who became human and humans descended from gods. The examples cited all came from the Roman and Greek worlds. He also postulates different levels of divinity, whereby a human exalted to the form a deity was only of a low form of a deity, not necessarily to the same level as, say Apollo.

Following the outline of the book, he then draws parallels with the above to the Jewish world (making much hay from the Nephilim) to try to say that a human being elevated to the status of God was not at all against the grain of mainstream monotheism. Crucial to Ehrman’s view is an idiosyncratic usage of the word ‘divine’. While in christianity and Judaism, this is an adjective to mean ‘of God’, Ehrman takes it to mean ‘heavenly’. The distinction soon becomes apparent when, having noted the various different expressions of divinity in the Greek and Roman worlds, he tries to construe Judaism as a polytheistic religion. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, most notably from Francesca Stavrakapoulo, but which seems to be reliant on a particular eisegetical way of reading a few cherry-picked passages and ignoring the whole sweep of monotheistic Judaism. In short, it is a category mistake.

From here, he moves onto a couple of chapters on the resurrection. Those who know me know that this is an area of particular interest as it’s the criteria upon which I believe christianity rests. Ehrman’s approach is somewhat novel. First of all, one has to note that Ehrman stops short of denying the resurrection. That’s not his aim. Rather, his idea is that there is insufficient evidence to be confident in its historicity. But he does think that the disciples and early church genuinely thought that Jesus was raised from the dead. So he doesn’t endorse the ‘stolen body’ hypothesis. In an interesting turn, he notes that many attempts to debunk the historicity of the resurrection have failed so he takes a different approach. Going back to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (interpreted as a creedal formulation), he takes his critique not to the idea that Jesus died, nor that he was raised, but to the idea that he was buried. He cites, without endorsing, the view of John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Instead, he puts forward several ideas, without being too firm on any of them. Just to cite one, he says it’s possible that Jesus’ body was thrown into a communal grave with a lot of other criminals.

The rest of the book is then spent charting how views of Jesus emerged over the life of the early church. He does come to express that there was an early high christology, as expressed in the writings of Paul. But he stops short of saying that was an expression of something that had already been understood. In other words, any evidence from the early church, whether that be in Paul’s writings or in the gospels, which indicate that Jesus was God are thought to be later interpretations. Yet Ehrman seems unaware that his approach is wholly dependent on confirmation bias. If one assumes that Jesus was not thought of as God in his lifetime, then any expression must have been invented. He discounts the other two possibilities: 1) it was a later realisation (epistemological) of an extant fact (ontological) or 2) that Jesus was actually thought of as being God, and understood himself to be such, during his lifetime.

The reason I’ve spent some time on the critiques is not to be mean to Ehrman. No, this is one of the instances where I have attempted to review in the same style that the book is written in. So it is something of an homage. So while I think there are gaps in argument, it is right to point them out just as Ehrman sees fit to point out holes in the arguments of christian orthodoxy. It is a well-researched, and brilliantly written book. Yes, there are flaws in the methodology, but it is my view that christianity needs voices like Ehrman who take a close look at the subject matter, ask probing questions and can communicate to a wide audience.

I intend to follow up with the response book, How God Became Jesus, so it will be interesting to see what aspects of my critique may be picked up (and probably articulated much more clearly) and what aspects I may have overlooked. For now, though, I do heartily recommend you read some of Ehrman’s work if you’ve not already done so.

Book Review: Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim Al-Khalili

It’s taken me a fair old while to get round to reading this. If you check back on this blog, you’ll see that I mentioned it back at the start of last year as one of the books I planned to read in 2014. However, my science reading has been fairly varied and this just got pushed back a bit.

Having now read it, I do rather regret the delay. The title should give you an impression of the era and geographical area which is the focus of Al-Khalili’s study. It is a time and place about which I must confess my ignorance. And not without good reason, the author supposes that such ignorance is not uncommon. His task here, then, is to give us a glimpse into a world that has largely been forgotten by the West, but where a debt of gratitude is owed.

Our story really begins with The House of Wisdom, a kind of institute or academy that was established by the Caliph al-Ma’Mun in the 8th century where the great minds of the day were gathered to study the world, which Al-Khalili notes comes not from a general curiosity, but as a command from Muhammad. As such, we also get a bit of background on the rise of Islam which serves as a useful background.

While I admit that I didn’t know much about the period and that many of the people we come across were previously unknown to me, one that was familiar was Al-Kwarizmi. Part of his story was told in Joseph Mazur’s Enlightening Symbols, but here we get a bit more flesh to the man, as well as understanding why he was so important in mathematics. For the latter, Al-Khalili relies on one of this age’s great mathematical communicators, Ian Stewart. To summarise here, what Al-Kwarizmi built upon Diophantus’ shoulders was a general way of solving problems. To Diophantus and to many who came after him, the methodology used to solve problems were specific to the problem in hand. Al-Kwarizmi’s contribution was to find a solution to sets of problems that could be widely applicable, not having to go through afresh each time. This is why his important work can rightly be seen as the origins of what we would understand to be algebra. He didn’t use symbolic means, as modern students may be familiar with, nor did he construct problems with the originality of Diophantus, but his work is the key bridge between the two.

There are plenty more besides A-Kwarizmi who are featured (and Al-Khalili does include a helpful little summary of each at the end of the book), so I will leave you to discover them for yourself. I only focus on Al-Kwarizmi because of my mathematical bent. Those of a more astronomical of chemical persuasion may find themselves drawn to other characters in the book.

Without recounting the entirety of the book, I wanted to look at one more aspect in particular, which caught my eye. It concerns the question of the decline of the golden age. What caused it? While there are myriad factors that interact in complicated ways, one that Al-Khalili highlights is the rise of the printing press. Arabic science was largely dependent on written copying and this form of communication was not readily abandoned. So it was not so much that the science in the Near and Middle East declined, but rather just got overtaken in terms of the speed of the dissemination of ideas. As a bibliophile, I will often hail the printing press as one of the greatest inventions of all time, but this puts a different, and welcome, slant on the matter. What has proved good for many may have had a detrimental effect on others.

In reviewing books of various kinds, one must always try to find some good in the worst of books and one must try to find fault in the best. Here, I find myself in the latter of the two scenarios, so this review cannot be complete without noting that Al-Khalili is very unspecific and often uncritical of his sources. Over and over again, I found myself thinking “[that’s really interesting. Where does that information come from?]” only when one searches in the text and the endnotes, there is no clear answer. Instead, the reader is invited to take Al-Khalili’s word for it, to be uncritical.

To give a specific example, there is a short discussion on the destruction of the library at Alexander. Al-Khalili cites a few hypotheses (a fire in 48 BCE, a war between the Romans and the Syrians in the late 3rd century, sacked by the Arabs in 641) but dismisses these, instead favouring the idea that it was destroyed by christians in the late 4th century. At no point, though does he say where these hypotheses came from, he doesn’t critically evaluate them and he doesn’t give his reasoning for why he thinks one is more likely than the others.

This is just one example. There are others, but I include it here to illustrate that the scepticism Al-Khalili exercises professionally as a scientist does not seem to have been well transferred as here dabbles in history. Perhaps this work is an example of why scientists aren’t always the best at writing histories of science, a point I know is echoed by Rebekah Higgitt.

As a point of curiosity, while I disagreed with one of his interpretations on this history of chemistry, I was going to cite Lawrence Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, though Al-Khalili cites a different work from the same author in support of his view. Overall, Al-Khalili comes across as quite critical of western science in the middle ages, buying in as he does to the metanarrative whereby christianity is the suppressor of science. For an alternative to this view, I would recommend James Hannam’s work, God’s Philosophers.

One of the added dimensions that marks this out from books on the history of science, is that Al-Khalili interweaves the story he tells with his own personal history. Having grown up in Iraq, he tells us of his connection to the places, showing us a “then and now” narrative that has a tinge of sadness to it, not least due to the history of the country in the last 40 years.

He also manages to hint at what the future of Arabic science might look like. In this respect, though the book is only 5 years old, seems sadly out of date. Only recently, the news broke that the Islamic State had burned a library to the ground.

From the pages of this work, we get a glimpse into a golden age, but it seems that another such age may be a longer way off than Al-Khalili hoped for.

Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

One might well work out that, being a christian, I am somewhat interested in the figure of Jesus. My aim really is to come to as true and fair an understanding of this figure as possible. One might question why I chose to read the VSI of Jesus – surely I know it all already? Well, while I might try my best to be a faithful disciple, Jesus is a figure one can never see him from enough angles. Over the next year, I aim to look at a number of viewpoints, some of which are referred to in this short book.

The opening gambit is the question of “how can we know about Jesus?” In and of itself, this would entail a whole other VSI in and of itself. So we skip over the details of textual and form criticism and jump to the working hypothesis that the gospels are, by and large, the most reliable works through which we can know who Jesus was. Other reviewers of this book object to this, as it does leave some key questions and objections unanswered. Though Bauckham does refer the reader to his earlier work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which makes a more compelling case than that presented here.

Rather than dive into the texts, Bauckham takes his time to let the reader get a look at the time, place and culture in which we may find Jesus. 1st century Israel/Palestine was a fascinating arena, though we focus mainly on the strands of Judaic thought that Jesus would have encountered. From here he looks at the one topic that Jesus spoke about more than any other: the kingdom of God. This is done in two ways, by looking at what Jesus did and also what Jesus said. It is in reading these chapters that one sees the need to have started with an assumption in the historicity of the gospels. In doing so, we can see what one of the major obstacles is in modern evangelism, where a healthy sceptical questioning of the biblical sources tips over and becomes an irrational denialism (think of a parallel between climate change deniers or young earth creationists, both of whom would try to claim the ground of reasonable scepticism but who in truth are impervious to evidence).

The kind of view that Bauckham puts forward is of Jesus being very Jewish, understanding the history of Israel and enacting renewal. Yet Jesus did this by reinterpreting the Torah and having a revolutionary way of looking at and speaking of God. The question that would probably be at the forefront of many people’s minds is “who is Jesus?” Yet Bauckham builds up to this, only asking the question once the background has been fully sketched (I say ‘sketched’ because in a VSI there is insufficient room to fill in many of the details). The answer is, as ever, many sided. We look briefly at Jesus’ identity as Messiah and as Son of God. Though necessary to include these, I felt there could have been a lot more said that would clarify the matter for readers who may have chosen to pick up this book having relatively little understanding of Jesus or what churches over the centuries have taught about him.

Naturally enough, as study of Jesus should, Bauckham eventually comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bauckham remains resolutely orthodox in his stance here, affirming the historicity of the Easter weekend and again drawing on the eyewitness testimony, especially via the “embarrassment criteria” of having women recorded as the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. If anything, this chapter is a bit of a paraphrase of the Easter narratives, mainly as a combination of Mark and John’s gospels as well as 1 Corinthians 15.

The book concludes with how Jesus has been understood by the Church. The focus here is on the early church rather than views from the 2nd century onwards. He resists the idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, noting that that idea only emerged around the 19th century.

I would hope that most find this a helpful book. Bauckham is very orthodox in his view and doesn’t make space here for a wide variety of more heterodox views. So if you are looking for an overview of different beliefs, then this is probably not the best book for you. It is a view of Jesus that I largely agree with, even if some elements are glossed over and questions of high or low christology only appear towards the end and are dealt with in a very cursory manner. But if you have heard of the idea of a difference between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history” then this is a good place to start to help see why such a distinction is false. And if you think you know who Jesus is, it’s never a bad idea to take a fresh look.

Book Review: Capital (Das Kapital) by Karl Marx

Having read some of the great communist works early last year (The Communist Manifesto, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) here I finally come to the daddy of them all. Or did I?

First up, though, a confession. The version I read, in the Oxford World Classics range, is an abridgement. Marx originally intended for his magnum opus to be 5 volumes, but he only finished volume 1. Volumes 2 and 3 were substantially complete at the time of his death, finished off and published by Friedrich Engels. The volume being reviewed contains most of volume 1, a tiny bit of volume 2 and some slightly longer extracts from volume 3. I don’t normally read abridged versions, but it was not my intention to become a disciple of Marx, but rather to understand his thoughts so that I could have a more informed view of what Marx thought. After all, was he not rumoured to have said, upon hearing a particular view described as Marxist, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist”?

Marx begins with a detailed look at the nature of commodities. What are they are how they are valued. He distinguishes between different kinds of values. It’s important to keep these in mind throughout, as use-value is a different beast to exchange-value, yet we all too easily think of “value” as though it were one thing represented on a price tag. The example Marx starts with is that of a coat and of linen. A coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen. Yet the use-value of a coat is not the same as the use-value of 20 yards of linen, for they are intrinsically different and serve different purposes. So use-values cannot be used for comparison. Instead, we need to then consider exchange-values. So a coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen or for a quantity of coal or for any other commodity. But then all we have are a set of relative exchange-values expressed, essentially, in terms of barter. One may choose any one commodity to be the standard by which all others are measured. In the economics of the time Marx lived and wrote, this was gold. And we still refer to the gold standard today. Yet it might be interesting to consider what Marx may have made of something like Bitcoin.

And so we get to the concept of money. We see that money is an intangible thing but which is commonly represented by gold, and which is the means of exchange. There is a slight flaw in Marx’s analysis here as he makes a statement that the value of money does not change with time. Yet as almost anyone trained in economics or accounting will be able to tell you, a sum of money does diminish in value over time. Unless you have perfectly steady state economics (see here for more detail) then the time value of money has to be taken into account.

From here we get to the notion of capital. It is something that is tricky to summarise, as it is best dealt with by example. The kind that Marx uses is by contrasting two different types of transactions. One of these is what he sees as a precapitalist kind of transaction whereby an artisan has a commodity, sells it for money and then uses that money to buy other commodities. In contrast, the capitalist transaction process begins with money which is used to buy a commodity (C) and then gets sold on for a higher value of money (M). In chain form, the contrast is between C-M-C’ and M-C-M’. Where C’ is a different commodity from C and M’ is a different sum of money from M. Yet M and M’ are both capital. M is the initial capital and M’ is the final capital. Only then, in Marx’s analysis M’ then becomes the start of the next chain of transactions.

As an aside, it was interesting to think through more recent economic practices, particularly that of short selling, which gained notoriety during and in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crash. That is very similar to C-M-C’ only in this case C=C’ and the commodity is sold before it is purchased.

For those of you who have some basic accountancy training, the concept is readily identifiable as the process of what happens when you roll forward the accounts of a sole trader where their initial sum is generally referred to as capital anyway. So even though Marx is rightly considered the father of communism, this is not an inherently communistic work. The fact that modern capitalists still use his methodology is indicative that in this respect, at least, his analysis was spot on.

One of the odd features of the book is that at various junctures, Marx tries to posit that there are fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system. But I had to ask myself “what contradictions?” Perhaps it is a consequence of my more modern point of view, but it seemed that the contradictions were only apparent when phrased in the particular way that Marx puts them. In other words, it was flawed questioning and the assumptions that went into those questions that skewed Marx’s thinking and creating the illusion of a contradiction when in fact there was none. One could think of Zeno’s paradoxes as a comparison.

One of the key notions that Marx introduces is that of “surplus value”. He derives this by looking at the value that a worker imparts to his work. As soon as the value imparted is equal to the value required for the worker to live off, then anything in addition is considered surplus. In other words, if (to use today’s prices by way of illustration) a worker is paid £75 per day, then Marx argues that (s)he need only work for as long as it takes him/her to produce £75 worth of goods. If, though he makes this up in 6 hours and the working day is 12 hours, then the employer, the capitalist, gets £150 of value out of the worker, but only spends £75. It is the difference between these two that Marx defines as surplus value.

You may wonder, as I did, whether this was not simply profit. It seems a slightly roundabout way of looking at it. Indeed, it is not until much later on that the admission is finally made that surplus value is the same as profit. Though the example I used above was done so deliberately, as Marx always assumes that rate of surplus of surplus profit is 100%. This assumption is never justified, though his analysis would seem to still work if a different rate were used. It is just unfortunate that his choice of 100% means that some of his numbers are easily confused.

This leads Marx to look at the exploitation of the labourer. His chapter on working conditions makes for sobering reading, as he looks at the extent to which the capitalist system sought to extract out of the worker every last ounce of work in order to generate more and more surplus value (profit). There is even an argument made that work diminishes the lifespan of the worker. Marx is not at this point talking about unhealthy working conditions, but that the mere act of work reduces one’s life expectancy. It’s an argument I found unconvincing as there are so many other factors to take in to account that a controlled experiment or study to determine shortened life seems unfeasible. So at best it is supposition.

Having looked at how capital gives rise to more capital, the question Marx then asks is “[where did it start from?]” In answering this Marx reverts back to his historical paradigm as espoused in the introduction to The Communist Manifesto. He argues that capital only arose through violence and theft. While I subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as a neutral view of history, Marx is clearly far from it here. He seems to cherry pick his evidence and ignores a wide variety of other factors. It’s not a wholly false view, but it does come across as over-polarised and quite susceptible to critical enquiry.

The rest of the book looks in some detail at various aspects of 19th century industry through the perspective of the above analysis. The focus is inherently industrial which was certainly right for the time that Marx was writing in, though as we are now in a post-industrial age it seems that much of what he observed has now been rendered redundant. Capitalism has moved on and changed in many aspects.

It is for this reason that I would consider much of Das Kapital to be out of date. It served its purpose in a different age, but one has to pick through it to find elements that are applicable to today’s world. I would certainly not advocate throwing the whole lot out of the window, as some might be tempted to do, particularly if they continue under the impression that Das Kapital is a programme for a communist economy. Because one of the failings (possibly Marx may have intended this for later volumes) is that while the book is full of critique, he proposes very little positive change. He says “[this is wrong]” but doesn’t put forward an alternative. Also the very high focus on the industrial age of manufacture has little bearing on a predominantly service-based economy. He does attempt to address services, but is all too brief and dismissive.

So where do we go from here? First of all, at the start of the volume Marx states that he is building upon the work of G.W.F. Hegel and his development of dialectic materialism. I confess that I have neither read any Hegel nor read much about him. So perhaps it would be wise to learn a bit more in that regard before reassessing Marx. Also, it seems that the modern world is need of a critique every bit as sharp as Marx’s, but which takes into account the changes that have occurred in the last century and a half or so. For that, I think our best bet is Thomas Picketty. So it is my intention to review his Capital in the Twenty First Century at some point. Before that, though, it is only fair to hear a view from the other end of politico-economic spectrum.