The academic world has been abuzz in the last while over the alleged thefts and sales of priceless papyri by a former Classics Don at Oxford, Dirk Obbink, to an evangelical Christian project called the Green Scholars Initiative (funded by the owners of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, so it could be dubbed a ‘robby lobby’ too). Among the scholars who have been digging up evidence of these wrongdoings is the EMSP’s very first graduate and University of Manitoba Classics professor and papyrologist, Mike Sampson–who is featured in this Guardian account of the scandal. The most recent story on these crimes and misdemeanours is a piece in the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic, which opens with the deployment of supposed first-century fragments of the Gospel of Mark at a 2012 debate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Against arguments positing the inconsistent and fragmentary nature of Christian scripture, a conservative scholar announced the discovery of Gospel of Mark verses: their close resemblance to more modern versions of the Gospel were adduced, as the article puts it, as ‘evidence of the New Testament’s reliability and a rebuke to liberal scholars who saw the good book not as God-given but as the messy work of generations of human hands, prone to invention and revision, mischief and mistake.’ Supporters of this position would give high Marks to such a position, while critics of the use of purloined papyri might well denounce the ‘evidence’ as a Dirk-y trick.
For Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the sceptical historian and philosopher whose Dictionnaire historique et critique (first published in 1697) and other works have been characterised by Voltaire as the ‘arsenal of the Enlightenment’, even the supposed discovery of such fragments would not settle the debate. Even if one were to suppose biblical scriptures to be relatively unchanged from their original form, could they be plausibly regarded as the Word of God? Based on his Dictionnaire article ‘David’ (translated in this edition), the answer must be no. In his interpretation of scriptural accounts of King David, Bayle judges that David may have been ‘one of the greatest men ever known’, but ‘one should not consider him as a royal prophet who was after God’s own heart’. King David’s deeds were, for Bayle, non-prophet ventures.
Bayle recounts the struggles and triumphs of David. He cured King Saul’s ailments with music, defeated the Philistine Goliath, became Saul’s son-in-law, and continued to fight the Philistines. The king, however, was jealous of David–the latter, he thought, rubbed Saul in his wounds. King Saul thus plotted David’s demise. David fled, then later returned to Judea after Saul’s death and was proclaimed king. He reigned seven and a half years over Judea, and 33 years over all of Israel, with a long and successful reign full of conquest. For his subjects and later admirers, David ‘Is-really’ a great king.
But he was not such a good man, nor did he display moral leadership. His piety may have been ‘radiant’, as expressed in his psalms, but he was an unscrupulous ruler. Certain faults have been traditionally acknowledged: his adultery with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband Uriah, and ‘the counting of the populace’ which angered God (evidently a censorious deity). Bayle, however, points out many other vices contained in the scriptural accounts. He sarcastically remarks that ‘the history of king David may be reassuring to many crowned heads’, given the holiness (and eventual salvation?) of this king despite his immorality. For example, before he became king, David and his 600 warriors sought a dwelling place, and were advised to settle in the town of Siceleg. He ordered his troops to slaughter all the men and women without quarter: he didn’t want any prisoners to reveal this abominable act to his patron. Bayle asks, what we would say about a ruler nowadays committing such deeds? If we reply that the different times excused his actions, then we can be accused of sanctioning bloody deeds merely because they were performed by someone we venerate. Such justification makes out David to be vener-able to do as he pleases.
Bayle continues that David had wretched family relationships: his eldest son ravished his own sister, and was killed by his brother, who in turn slept with David’s concubines. And yet, David was loved and esteemed by his people. Bayle points out that the people were easily swayed to favour David’s son Absalom, based on a few popularity-seeking deeds. He concludes that a people can easily be tricked into thinking a king is deserving of rebellion and death, or is worthy of their support. Implicitly, the scriptures reveal the gullibility of the people, which in turn casts doubt on the greatness of David and the judgement of the Bible itself. Indeed, if David were known to wear a royal cloth around his neck at meals, Bayle might say that his subjects and undiscriminating readers of scripture are bib-lickers as well as boot-lickers.
The Dictionnaire article enumerates David’s other sins: polygamy, warmongering, intrigues, deceptions, unchaste behaviour, injustices, illegitimate conquests, and further mass murders. If true religion consists in the laws of morality, then David must be condemned. Not to recognise these huge ethical gaps is to render the Bible a ‘holey’ scripture.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern David-19 Studies Program