Long before God became a Trinity by vote of bishops in the fourth century, the number three had a magical history. Philosophers before Aristotle divided events into beginning, middle and end, the way Aristotle divides a play; early Neo-Platonists saw the world as a combination of harmony, necessity and order; they talked about bodies consisting of length, breadth, and thickness; intelligence as consisting of memory, mind, and will.
To read some of the early writers, you begin to get the sense that everything comes in packs of three—that three is a natural cipher, so that by the time we get to Plato, even the soul is divided up this way—into a vegetative, an animal and intellectual part. Three fortunes amongst the planets. In the underworld, three judges, three furies, the three-headed dog Cerberus–a thrice-double Hecate. Three months of the Virgin Diana. Three eons–of nature, law, and grace. Three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity. Jonah was three days in the whale’s belly; Jesus three days in the tomb.
And not to be stingy, three branches of government in Locke’s philosophy—a sovereign power whose sovereignty is checked by a legislative and judicial arm.
If you take yourself back to that class in Greek mythology you may have slept through, as I did (until later I learned you could crack myths like walnuts), you’ll remember that there really wasn’t a supreme god in Greek mythology. There were three feuding brothers, each with his own territory. Zeus had the best seat in the cosmos perched atop Olympus with the world and all those virgins and new brides at his feet, but there was also Poseidon, who plays a major role in the Iliad, you’ll remember, and there was Hades, the black sheep of the family who spent most of his day figuring out how to lure people to his subterranean apartment for the weekend. A dysfunctional family of three gods.
Now in the good old days, the real old time religion, the way to get new gods was to kill off the old ones. The three male Olympians are the sons of the Titan, Cronos, who killed his father Uranus, just as Cronos would be overthrown by his sons. The battles of the gods were a simple reflection of real dynastic feuds being fought throughout the Peloponnese in the 8th century BCE when some of this was written down. It was all about power, authority, and gaining ground, winning and losing. It was also embarrassing to the Athenian philosophers like Socrates who tried to tame the myths (he wasn’t the first of course—the philosopher Xenophanes said that if horses could make gods, gods would look like horses) and with the help of Plato, maybe with a lot of help from Plato, turned the feckless threesome into a trio of eternal ideas—Goodness, Truth and Beauty. (You know them when you know them not when you see them). Victorian translators used to call these the eternal ideas or the verities—but in fact Plato saw them in a weird kind of way as one big thing—Good or Goodness and two things that were really emanations or aspects of the Big thing: that’s why when you went on to study Keats in college you remember reading that beauty is truth and truth beauty and it’s all really, really Good. Unfortunately, Plato’s demythologized trinity didn’t last because even his pupil Aristotle scoffed at it; the gods survived the philosophers for a long time after the school of Athens had been reduced to a colonial backwater.
When Christianity came along at the start of the 2nd century it found itself in a theological mess. The Greek gods—their Roman counterparts—weren’t dead but they were aging badly. The Christians were stuck in a world where to get rid of an inconvenient god by assassination, assimilation or conquest was the best way – the usual way to do things. But it didn’t make much sense to set the Hebrew father figure against Jupiter. For one thing, Old Warriors though they both were, the Hebrew god would lose to Jupiter because the Jews always lost to the Romans.
So, the Christians decided instead to create their own God. The problem they immediately confronted is that the God of the Jews was older than the Hellenistic gods and was aging even worse; by the time the Romans took over Palestine from the Syrians in 63 BCE, he hadn’t had a winning season in 500 years. A bit like the Chicago Cubs. Presumably, that was one reason most Christians were committed to the divinity—the Godiness—of Jesus Christ, and were happy to send the father into semiretirement in their Old Testament with honorary mention in the Creed. If they had been 8th century Greeks, they could have staged a battle where Jesus simply unseats the old man and occupies the throne for himself; but because they were third century gentiles with honorary Jewish passports, they decided to go with the number three. Jesus does not fight a war against his father, he simply ascends to his right hand as a “never to be king in his own right” but one who isn’t exactly a prince either.
To keep the power in check, or arbitrated at least, they are joined by an emanation called the holy spirit, which one of my teachers—a theologian nonetheless, called a gratuitous rounding off to an odd number in the spirit of Greek philosophy. So lacking a role was this holy spirit in earlier Christian thought that the first version of the Nicene Creed in 325 barely alludes to him and gives him no job description at all. His importance comes later, as a mechanism for inspiring popes and Pentecostals.
What does this theological muddle about threes have to do with the Middle East? Well consider the following:
- Three prophets, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad
- Three sacred books, the Old Testament the New Testament, the Quran
- Three claimants to holy ground, the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims
- And let’s not forget the world—a beginning, a middle and a very loud end, after which
- Judgment, heaven, and hell
The interfaith movement, of which I used to be a strong supporter, used to talk about the book religions, the big three—three religions worshipping the same God. Three paths to the same truth. In fact, we have heard a great deal recently about the ahl al -kitab or book religions—an Arabic phrase which actually also includes the Zoroastrians and in some areas the Druze.
In the most recent period of Islamic extremism, the fact that these brother religions would resort to bloodshed to settle their disputes has seemed incomprehensible to commentators, especially interfaith commentators. Religion (they say) is all about peace, not war; especially Islam. (Or, especially Judaism, or especially Christianity). The media bought into it; faith communities bought into it; liberal Muslims embraced it as a political stance. The orthodox interfaith version was that the people of the book all worship the same god, tell virtually the same story, have the same theological doctrines, and the same sense of world history, progress and the future.
The sanitized version of the ahl al-kitab fallacy, if you’ll forgive my calling it that, is that religion behaves like the contestants in the Miss America pageant each falling all over itself to promote world peace and brotherhood. And in times of crisis, the talking religious heads appear in “dialogue” to promote just that view: Judaism was the first religion to teach peace, every man under his own fig tree or in his vineyard happily wined and dined where the lion lay down with the lamb. Christians saying that Jesus is the prince of peace and Christianity the religion of good will and forgiveness; Muslims saying that Muhammad is the prophet of peace and that Islam itself derives from the Arabic root for peace.
And this is when the number three becomes dangerous. It becomes dangerous when we believe that a lack of historical knowledge is as good as the truth just because history can’t be tested in the same way we test truck tires. Or it becomes dangerous when what we would like to believe about our faith replaces the historical record. Just to take from the three examples above: Judaism cannot have been the first religion to teach peace because religions weren’t in the peace-teaching business. In fact, you need to get rather deeply into the late modern period before religions take up the banner of social justice. Are there elements of an evolving human “conscience” and sense of justice in the Bible? Sure there are, but the dominant theme has to be the supremacy of the one God and how that supremacy has to be defended against his enemies. Or take the second, that Jesus is the prince of peace, a title lifted from chapter 9 of the Book of Isaiah. When Christians proclaimed this about Jesus they were actually doing something quite mischievous; they were challenging Augustus’ famous title as the emperor who brought peace to Rome and tranquility to the provinces; that famous song the angels sing above Bethlehem, peace on earth to men of goodwill, is actually lifted from an ode written to celebrate the birth of Augustus. Or take the term ahl al kitab: it doesn’t denote the Muslim view that Christians and Jews are as “good” as Muslims, or all equally right in what they believe or how they behave; it means that because they were tolerated during the prophet’s lifetime they should not be slaughtered gratuitously, only when they resist or try to convert Muslims to their own faith. Indeed, it isn’t exactly true that the word Allah is the ordinary word for god that Christians and Jews also use. It is, true enough, the generic word for any god, but one who is given a distinct personality in the Quran, very different from the God of the Jews, who properly speaking has a different name, or the Christian God who doesn’t exist as a single face but as a god with three personalities, only one of which takes us back to the God of the Jews. It’s an act of theological imagination not a fact of history that the three religions talk about one God rather than three gods. It is difficult to know when a matter of theological difference begins to make a political difference; but it is not difficult to know when a theological neo-doctrine becomes absurd, as the idea would be that a God of peace who fostered three clans who worshiped him in different ways, with different books, styles, laws, and different prophets really all believed the same things. Historically speaking, it seems undeniable that Jews and Christians and Muslims do not get along very well because while using suspiciously similar stories, their interpretations of those stories differ dramatically.
The second way in which the number three becomes dangerous is in terms of a doctrine all three share. This is the doctrine of chosen-peopledom. The idea of an “elect” is actually older than the Hebrews; it’s intrinsic to the beginnings of civilization—that means city culture. It probably has a lot to do with the survival of city culture, and tribes before that. Every ancient god is the protector of a city. To think that the neighboring god is stronger or wiser or a better fighter is simply a recipe for defeat. Every ancient city from Babylon to Rome is a chosen people that worships what it thinks is the right god in the right place in the right way. There’s no multiculturalism in the ancient Near East. There’s swapping and mixing and conquest and rape and intermarriage—and gods do change through the normal historical mechanisms those events entail. But the God of the Hebrew tribes who becomes the god of the Jews over a period of about a thousand years virtually shouts his exclusivism. “You shall have no other gods ahead of me” because I am a jealous God who vents his wrath down the generations. He’s a trickster God who likes to test people’s devotion by working against their own interests—like offering them deliverance from Pharaoh and then hardening pharaoh’s heart to keep them slaves. I’m not sure what equivalences we can see between that kind of behavior and the conduct of a sadistic parent, but it’s hard not to notice the cruelty of the image.
The Christian God was a problem from the get-go. Just as the Christians couldn’t invent a myth of Jesus at war with Jupiter for control of heaven, so too they couldn’t accept, without substantial revision, a Jewish God who had been the commander of armies against the Romans–especially when the Jewish people were almost unrepresented in the new gentile faith. The uneasy solution is that the Christians, through the hook and crook of St. Paul’s theology become honorary Jews, able to live without Jewish law as the adopted sons and daughters of Abraham. Why? How? Because God (saith Paul) intends to provoke his original chosen people to jealousy, so that by seeing other people saved first, they’ll want to be next in line. What could be more natural if we think in terms of family dynamics—Show favor to the younger child and your no-good, defiant 18 year-old will finally come around and love you back. But how offensive to decency. An interesting theological strategy, but not the kind designed to promote good feeling between the new chosen race and the race God had rejected because of their hardness of heart and dogged sinfulness.
And so to the third. In the 7th century Muhammad offered a new option. The option is really much simpler than most textbooks make it. The non-Arab religions had falsified the revelation of God, each making itself the centerpiece of God’s care and concern. The true chosen were the people God had chosen through the true prophet to receive the uniquely true word of God—the Muslim faithful. To read the “operant” portions of the Koran is to read a book obsessed with its own primacy, petulant and carping in its view of the other religions as fakes. The basic tension in the book religions is that each has a messianic case to argue, and each case nullifies or tries to nullify the preceding one. If this were only a theological issue, if this were only a problem in metaphysics with no human casualties, this little discussion would be unnecessary. But the idea of chosenness, the idea of the salvation of a few and the rejection of the many is more complicated.
And it’s more complicated because there’s a third problem with the number three. Three land claims.
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time there was a father who had three sons. The father vowed to give all he had to the son who could prove he loved him the most. The reward was a beautiful ring that symbolized the father’s whole estate, the palace, the land, the animals, and the wealth—all of it. The sons began to quarrel over the ring; instead of showing their love they were only able to show their hatred for each other, their greed. What is the father to do? What happens to the inheritance?
The original story is used by the poet-philosopher Lessing in his drama, Nathan the Wise. In that version the ring is an heirloom that has the power to make its owner beloved by God and has been passed from father to the son he loves the most. When it came to a father of three sons whom he loved equally, he promises it (in “pious weakness”) to each of them. Looking for a way to keep his promise, he makes two replicas, indistinguishable from the original, and on his deathbed gives a ring to each of them. The brothers quarrel over who owned the real ring. A wise judge admonished them that it was up to them to live such that their ring’s powers proved true.
Now transparently this is a story about the book religions, and more particularly about the relationship between the religious claimants to the holy land. But it is a very irritating story. It is annoying because it ignores more than it reveals. It assumes that the father is loving, that the sons are hateful, and that all the three have to do is learn simple division to work out their differences—that all the father wants is for each son to have a piece of the estate (or a share in God’s love) but that they have to figure this out for themselves, and in figuring it out they will show the father the love he wants. It is a Mr. Rogers episode on sharing applied to the Realpolitik of a fused dynamite keg. At least that’s how I read the parable. It is odious moreover in its theology, making God a power-broker and his simple subjects pawns on his board. Chess was, by the way, Lessing’s and Moses Mendelssohn’s favourite parlor game.
But those of us who are impatient with the sort of trickster god who would make an Adam and Eve, give them Paradise, and then concoct a test he knew they were going to fail in order to punish them and their descendants for all time—those of us who know stories like that are on to this god’s tricks. So here, instead of my solution to the ring-story, is a better story:
Once upon a time there was a man who had three sons and an unpromising piece of ground that he tried to make fertile and productive. Like all sons, they had their virtues and their shortcomings. The eldest son was small of stature; he spent so much time trying to acquire better land that his crops failed repeatedly. And so his father gave his property to the strong middle son. But the middle son showed no interest in staying put; he married a girl from another city, moved away and left the old man wondering what to do with the land. When the youngest son had come of age, the father said “Your brothers have disappointed me: your oldest brother is too weak and undependable, your older bother is too ambitious to be a farmer, so I am counting on you.” The youngest son took the farm and made it prosper. But when the old man died, the oldest son said—‘It’s mine by birthright. I was here first.’ The middle son, hearing of the dispute, and not much liking the youngest brother anyway, came to the oldest brother’s defense, raised an army, and drove the youngest into exile for a while, and killed many of his followers.
But only for a while. The younger brother raised a bigger army and drove the others out and killed many of the older brother’s followers. And so it has been from that day to this.The land became a bloodsoaked sponge while the descendants of the brothers searched high and low for the old man’s last will and testament.
The secret of whose land it really was died on the smiling lips of the old man.