Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Questions from NT Survey: 9.28.15

How do we harmonize John 5:31 with John 8:14?

Here are the two verses side-by-side:
“If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” (John 5:31)
“Jesus answered, ‘Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.’” (John 8:14)
These statements initially seem to contradict each other, but in context, I don’t think they do. In 5:31, Jesus is alluding to the standard of the Old Testament law, which requires at least two witnesses for an accusation to be deemed trustworthy (Deut. 17:6). In 8:14, Jesus is specifically responding to an accusation thrown his way by the Jews, who had claimed that Jesus was in fact bearing witness about himself, and therefore his word has no authority. But in both verses, the point that Jesus is driving at is that he doesn’t need to rely on his own testimony about himself, because there’s another witness that testifies about him also.

In John 5:31, the additional witness is John the Baptist, as Jesus goes on to say: “There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved” (John 5:32–34). In other words, Jesus points to John the Baptist as a second witness, not because he actually needs to do so, but so that the Old Testament standard will be upheld for the sake of the Jews.

In John 8:14, the additional witness is none other than God the Father, as Jesus goes on to say: “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (John 8:15–16). So in effect, the Jews were saying to Jesus, “See, look! You’re bearing witness about yourself right now, and that means your word isn’t true” (John 8:13). To which Jesus responds with words to this effect: “Even if I am bearing witness about myself, my testimony is still true. Why? Again, because there’s another who bears witness about me, namely my Father in heaven.”

Notice that in 8:14, Jesus does not say “Even if I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is true.” That would make 8:14 contradict 5:31. But that’s just the point: Jesus is not alone. He is so united with his Father that there are always at least two bearing witness. And in truth, we know that there are actually three who bear witness.

Why did Jesus occasionally instruct his disciples and others not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matt. 16:20), or not to tell anyone about the miracles he did (Matt 8:4)?

Some point out that the title “Christ” would have carried political connotations, such that to announce Jesus as the Christ would give everyone the impression that Jesus would be the earthly king they were expecting. That could be the case, but I’m content with a more general answer: It just wasn’t time to tell everyone yet.

To draw an analogy, an author who’s writing a novel doesn’t want a half-finished manuscript to get leaked to the public. He wants the work to be completed first. Jesus’s hour had not yet come (John 2:4). His work wasn’t yet completed. He didn’t want word to get out until his redemptive work could be seen and understood in its fullness. Of course, this “messianic secret,” as it’s often called, was only a temporary policy. After Jesus was resurrected, his instructions became very different: Go tell everybody (Matt. 28:19).

School Paper: “Symbols in Dante’s Inferno” (Fall 2010)

The general fieriness of this short essay suits its subject matter, Dante’s Inferno. It’s the first time I really opened up and spoke frankly about what I felt were some annoying tendencies of literary scholarship. C. S. Lewis once said, “Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I had thought of them myself.” Reading scholarly interpretations of the Inferno frequently made me wonder if Dante would have said the same thing.

I’m not sure how much my criticisms here are actually worth, but this was a fun paper to write nonetheless. The professor’s grader told me that it was excellent, but apparently the professor didn’t agree. It came back with a C.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Symbols in Dante’s Inferno:
Examining Common Allegorical Interpretations
History of Ideas 3
November 2, 2010

Dante Alighieri applied to the text of Psalm 114 a fourfold manner of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.1 From this, George Santayana concludes that one can expect to find in the Commedia similarly layered stages of meaning.2 This conclusion is likely an attempt to justify heavily speculative and complicated allegorical interpretations of Dante’s principal work. While it cannot be denied that the Commedia has its share of unambiguously symbolic and allegorical features, the tendency of many scholars seems to be speculative excess rather than objective moderation.

John Ciardi, in his synopsis of the Inferno‘s eighteenth Canto, attempts to explain how the punishment of those residing in the Malebolge’s first bolgia (the panderers and seducers) is reflective of the lives they lived. He states that “in life these sinners goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes; so in Hell are they driven in their turn.”3 Ciardi also maintains that the oppressive demons of this bolgia represent the sinners’ own wicked natures and even suggests that the horns of the demons may symbolize cuckoldry and adultery.4

One will be hard pressed, however, to find any grounds within the Canto itself on which to base such conjecture. Let it be said that some sinners described in subsequent Cantos do suffer penalties that unequivocally correspond to the sins of which they are guilty, such as the fortune-tellers who have their heads reversed so that that they cannot view what is in front of them. In this particular case, Virgil himself identifies the imagery explicitly within the narrative.5 In such cases, emblematic postulations are not at all inappropriate or unfounded. When the symbolism is less clear, however, as in the earlier case of the panderers and seducers, there is no obligation on the reader’s part to strain parallelisms from the text.

Ciardi makes similar assertions in regard to the sinners who suffer in the fifth bolgia, namely, the grafters. He maintains that the boiling pitch which engulfs the grafters represents the “sticky fingers” with which they acquired illicit lucre in life.6 The pitch also hides the grafters from sight, which according to Ciardi, corresponds to their clandestine antemortem deeds.7

Though Ciardi seems well confident that his symbolic interpretation is accurate, it is by no means the consensus view. Vincent Hopper suggests that the boiling pitch of the fifth bolgia is symbolic of the Blacks of Florence8, a political faction to which Dante was opposed.9 Frederick Farrar, while in agreement with Ciardi’s “sticky fingers” symbolism, further adds that the boiling of the pitch corresponds to the bubbling sensation of gain and loss that the avaricious soul experiences in life.10 Indeed, one wonders if there are any limits at all to the possible symbolic construals offered by many scholars. Surely some discrimination is necessary. In all reality, none of the aforementioned interpretations are better than the others, as all of them are offered without any defense from the text itself. This lack of consensus exemplifies the subjective and conjectural nature of what commonly passes for scholarship.

One final and classic example of the notoriously far-reaching allegorical interpretations of many Dantean scholars is typically found in commentaries on the Commedia‘s first Canto wherein Dante encounters three vicious beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Commentators are all over the map as to the allegorical significance of these creatures, but one common interpretation is political. Santayana claims that the lion in particular represents the King of France.11 Edmund Gardner, however, argues that this “comparatively modern interpretation which would see in the beasts the three great Guelf powers [the lion being the royal house of France] . . . is now generally discarded.”12 This further illustrates the teeming deluge of symbolism in which scholars frequently drown when allegorical speculation is indulged in ways that the original author likely never intended.

Allan Gilbert keenly notes this overly allegorical tendency in his introduction to the Inferno where he describes what he calls “scholars’ allegory.”13 According to Gilbert, scholars have always found themselves in a predicament when it comes to writing about poetry. There is not very much to say about the literal sense of a poem such as the Commedia, and it thus becomes necessary to consult the limitless provision of allegory. Gilbert writes, “The manufacture of allegory offers to the ingenious but prosaic mind an opportunity to speak at length with the appearance of wisdom . . .”14

Gardner sympathizes with Gilbert as is clear from his own admission that allegorical interpretations of the Commedia have frequently been carried to excess.15 Gardner also warns, however, of the opposite extreme, namely, divorcing all allegorical material from Dante in order to focus on the beauty of his poetry alone. As mentioned above, it simply cannot be denied that there is legitimate room for allegorical analysis in a discussion of Dante’s Commedia. However, the question of the proper balance between the beauty of poetry and its underlying allegory is not an easy one to answer.

Perhaps the one most qualified to answer the question of the relationship between allegorical meaning and poetic beauty, particularly in the Commedia, would be the Florentine poet himself. In his Convivio, Dante makes it clear16 that very few will understand the hidden meaning of his principal work. However, he earnestly motivates his readers by encouraging them to appreciate the beauty of the work rather than its goodness (i.e. its meaning). Dante confidently maintains that his poem is beautiful in its composition, order, and rhythm, which concerns grammarians, rhetoricians, and musicians respectively. In other words, all allegorical considerations aside, the beauty of the poem itself is enough to garner the appreciation of academicians in a number of fields. The true and total meaning of the Commedia may never be known, but as Dante rightly states, the poem’s beauty of composition “can be perceived . . . by anyone who looks closely.”17


1. From Dante’s epistle to Lord Can Grande della Scala, (accessed October 23, 2010).

2. George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1910), 98.

3. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XVIII in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 141.

4. Ibid.

5. Dante, Inferno, XX.38-9.

6. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XXI in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 165.

7. Ibid.

8. Vincent F. Hopper, A Simplified Approach To Dante: Detailed Analyses and Summaries (Great Neck: Barron’s Educational Series, 1964), 38.

9. Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, “Guelphs and Ghibellines – Who were they?”, (accessed October 23, 2010).

10. Frederick W. Farrar, Great Books (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, 1898), 160.

11. Santayana, 98.

12. Edmund G. Gardner, Dante (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1923), 115.

13. Allan Gilbert, introduction to Dante, Inferno, trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke University Press, 1969), xl.

14. Ibid.

15. Gardner, 108.

16. Dante, Convivio, II.11.

17. Ibid.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Boys and Girls

Whenever I substitute-teach at the local middle school, I have to make a note of which students are absent and then send their names to the front office. Usually I get a student to make the delivery for me, and today I was struck by the fact that I almost always choose a girl for this job.

Why do I do that? Well, I think it’s because girls tend to be more trustworthy when it comes to those sorts of things. You’re less likely to find them taking it as an opportunity to wander the halls or goof off. I send girls because they tend to be better for the job.

Now, is there anything sexist about that? No, I’m just paying attention to the way things are. Boys and girls are different. Boys are best suited for some tasks, and girls are best suited for others.

But let’s say my claim was that boys were more trustworthy than girls. I imagine that would be perceived as sexist. You can say that girls are better at certain things than boys, and nobody feels the need to get offended. But if you dare to say that boys are better at certain things than girls, then the egalitarian outrage ensues. But that’s sham egalitarianism. A real egalitarian would be just as offended regardless of which gender I claimed is more trustworthy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Leithart on the Gospels

Peter Leithart’s discussion of the so-called “synoptic problem” and the dating of the gospels is extremely refreshing. Here are some quotes from chapter 3 of his book The Four: A Survey of the Gospels.
“If the view of the church fathers explains the gospels, and does so fairly simply, why do scholars have to invent a complicated ‘synoptic problem’ and resolve it with a mythical document called ‘Q’? There are many answers to that question, but at base the answer is that much of modern New Testament scholarship is a Satanic attack on the truth and reliability of the gospel of Jesus. . . . This is not to say that New Testament scholars themselves are demonic. They aren’t. But New Testament scholarship is an arena of spiritual battle, where we fight not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rulers of wickedness.” 
“Moreover, since the fall of Jerusalem proves that Jesus is a prophet, we would expect the writers of the New Testament to mention that event to defend themselves and their Master. The church fathers often mention the fall of Jerusalem in their arguments with Jews. But the apostles never do. Why not? The most likely reason is that Jerusalem was still standing. Wenham argues that the entire New Testament is finished before the fall of the temple. I agree.”

School Paper: “Denominational Identity Essay” (Fall 2010)

This was a paper in which we were required to defend our personal denominational tradition, whatever that may have been. I’m probably less passionate about “non-denominationalism” now than I was then, though I think some of the passion exhibited here had a lot to do with just giving the professor what I figured he was looking for.

In the early days of Bible college, I was obsessed with learning, and using, new vocabulary words, a number of which make an appearance here. Appellation. Delineate. Preclude. Predicate. Ostensible. Remonstrative. Also, the things I say here about the mode of baptism are pretty funny considering what I’ve written on that topic since then.

Denominational Identity Essay
Baptist History
November 6, 2010


I grew up in a non-denominational church atmosphere. As the name would imply, non-denominational simply means “unaffiliated with a denomination.” Contrary to common assumptions, the appellation is in no way intended to connote hostility or resentment toward denominational Christians, though many in the non-denominational camp have sadly made this a justifiable misconception. The general attitude of the people in my home church, however, has never been one of haughty superiority and I am thankful. Outside of our home congregation, my family regularly visited denominational churches of every kind. While we remained persuaded in our conviction that Christ did not want his Church to be divided, this never kept us from enjoying regular fellowship with our brothers and sisters affiliated with official denominations.


It seems appropriate to begin with a defense of what is clearly the most distinguishing mark of my ecclesiastical tradition, namely, our lack of denominational affiliation. I define the word denomination as a group of individual, like-minded congregations who join together under an official organizational structure for purposes such as financial support and the synergetic effect afforded by cooperation. While the motives of these denominational bodies are undoubtedly laudable, I argue that the formulation of such organizational entities is unbiblical and conducive to the disunity of Christ’s church.

Denominations are non-biblical in the sense that no scriptural evidence can be presented for the legitimacy of Christ’s people dividing themselves into organizations to the exclusion of other brothers and sisters in Christ. Non-denominational Christians maintain a strong conviction “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Denominations are also unbiblical in the sense that they actively work against the ideal prescribed for the Church in Scripture. Paul urged the Corinthian church to “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). He reprimands anyone who would seek to partition the body of Christ with an incisive rhetorical question: “Is Christ divided?” (1:13) Paul later contends that division betrays fleshly tendencies rather than spiritual maturity (3:1-5). The conviction of my church to be unaffiliated with an established denomination reflects our desire to promote the kind of unity for which Christ prayed on the night of his death: “I do not ask for these [twelve disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:20-21). The unity of those who follow Christ should portray the unity of the very triune Godhead; a portrayal that is difficult to achieve with a denominationally divided Church.

General Doctrine

Non-denominational churches have a poor reputation for doctrinal apathy. This, however, has thankfully not been my own experience as my home church has always stressed the importance of sound doctrine. A general and representative sampling of our theological convictions can be delineated in our doctrines of God, justification, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper.


My church has always firmly upheld an orthodox view on the triune nature of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that God is one and exists in three co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible, the idea signified by the word is found pervasively throughout Scripture.

The fundamental premise of the doctrine of the Trinity is Scripture’s clear revelation that God is one. In the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses announces to the people of Israel the statutes by which they are to live and begins with the proclamation that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). James identified the oneness of God as a fundamental axiom that even demons do not deny (Jas 2:19; cf. 1 Tim 2:5, Rom. 3:30). Arguably no other truth is more basic to the Christian faith than the truth that there is only one God.

In addition to this unambiguous teaching that God is one, the Bible also speaks of plurality in the Godhead. This is a truth that is revealed most clearly in the New Testament, but evidence for a plurality of divine persons can also be seen in the Old Testament. One example is found in the creation account of Genesis wherein God states, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26; cf. 3:22, 11:7). The use of the plural pronoun rather than the singular indicates a plurality of persons in God. This plurality at which the Old Testament merely hints is fully revealed in the New Testament as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Each of these distinct persons is equally God. The Father is God (1 Cor. 8:6), the Son is God (John 1:1, Col. 2:8-9), and the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, John 3:5-6 with 1 John 4:7).

Justification By Faith

Justification is an act of God in which he declares as righteous those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that the sinner becomes intrinsically righteous or meritorious, but that the perfect merits of Christ are imputed to the one who trusts in Christ’s finished work. Paul spoke of this alien righteousness in his letter to the Philippian church: “that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9). This doctrine is diametrically opposed to the idea of earning justification through works of the law. Paul clearly taught that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Justification is received through faith alone apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28).

At this point, the familiar reader of Scripture may stumble over the contention of James that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). James is here using the word justify in a different sense. As evidenced by the context (condemnation of faith that doesn’t evidence itself by works), James is using the term justify to mean something similar to the word verify. In other words, his argument is that the legitimacy of one’s faith is verified by works and not by a mere faith without works, which is dead (v. 17). We are declared righteous in the sight of God by faith alone, but we are seen to be righteous in the sight of men by the works which accompany true saving faith. James, rather than contradicting Paul, profoundly complements the teaching that we are justified by faith.


Baptism is the ordinance in which a new believer is immersed into water for the purpose of publicly identifying themselves with the body of Christ. The proper mode of baptism is not explicitly stated in Scripture, but immersion appears to best fit the biblical accounts of baptism. Mark’s gospel records that John the Baptist baptized “in the Jordan river” (Mark 1:5), which appears to preclude the notion of mere sprinkling as practiced in some Protestant traditions. In John’s gospel, we’re told that the reason John the Baptist baptized in a certain area was “because water was plentiful there.” Since neither sprinkling nor pouring requires much water, this lends support to the view that the proper mode of baptism is immersion.

Christians have also historically disagreed over the question of who should be baptized. The testimony of Scripture seems clear that only those who have exercised a conscious faith in Christ should be baptized. Luke records that “those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Later, in light of a surge of new believers, Peter asks the question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) These passages seem to indicate that baptism is predicated upon believing the gospel.

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is the second ordinance of Christianity which, unlike baptism, is observed many times throughout the life of the believer. This ordinance corresponds to Christ’s ostensibly bizarre teaching in the sixth chapter of John: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recorded in all of the synoptic gospels (Matt. 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:18-20).

The principal purpose of observing the Lord’s Supper is to remember the death of Christ. Jesus explained that the broken bread represented his body and the wine his blood (Matt. 26:26-28). When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are remembering Christ’s broken body and the blood he shed for our sins. Paul wrote that as we continually observe the Lord’s Supper, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). As believers, we take great joy in having the privilege to participate in this memorial supper as we wait for the return of our Savior.

Concluding Remarks

While maintaining a respect for my brothers and sisters in other denominations, I do not anticipate becoming part of another ecclesiastical tradition; at least not in the foreseeable future. I have always been suspicious of what I believe is an unhealthy emphasis of Pentecostal churches on miraculous gifts such as tongues and healing. Methodist denominations are pervasively Arminian, which is troublesome at best for a Calvinist such as me. While I deeply admire the Reformed traditions of Presbyterianism, I cannot in good conscience concede the legitimacy of infant baptism. I do, however, maintain much doctrinal agreement with Baptist denominations, and while I remain non-denominational at heart, I am currently active in a local Baptist congregation where I enjoy valuable fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

This class has been extremely helpful in forcing me to think critically about my ecclesiastical traditions and to understand them in light of the historic, organizational methods of the Baptist denomination. After the first class lecture, I had a fresh understanding of what it meant to be a Baptist and I realized that “baptistic” was a legitimately helpful way to describe my own non-denominational tradition. I am more thankful now for the work that God has done through Baptists over the past four centuries, and I have a deeper appreciation for those remonstrative Christians on whose shoulders I stand today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

School Paper: “Rulers and Justice” (Summer 2010)

I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the major papers that I wrote in college and seminary, and publish them here. Many of them are complete hunks of junk, but some of them aren’t so bad. This one is actually the first research paper that I wrote in college. It explores the theme of justice in ancient Greek literature. I did not choose the topic; it was assigned. And I was profoundly uninterested in it, which typically makes for a lame paper.

Rulers and Justice
History of Ideas 2
July 26, 2010


The Latin phrase Rex Lex (king is law) has been used to designate the form of government in which the king essentially is the law making him unaccountable to the law. This governmental structure is described sympathetically by Aegidius Romanus when he writes, “The law is a kind of inanimate prince; the prince, however, a kind of animate law. And in so far as the animate exceeds the inanimate the king or prince must exceed the law.”1 In other words, if ever the will of the king is in disharmony with the written law, the will of the king holds higher authority.

The opposite of Rex Lex is, of course, Lex Rex (law is king). Samuel Rutherford argued for the superiority of this governmental structure over against the pernicious and unbiblical despotism of a Rex Lex structure. He maintained that the king’s power in a Rex Lex government “is a supreme and highest power . . . to do above, without, or contrary to a law or reason, which is unreasonable . . . When God’s word speaketh of the power of kings and judges . . . there is not any footstep or any ground for such a power.”2

Charles M. Bakewell states that in Plato’s Republic the just state is one in which “each citizen [performs] the task for which he is best fitted, with an eye to the welfare of the whole.”3 It is imperative that this principle apply not only to the citizens of a given society but to the leadership of that society as well. Rulers cannot be free to define justice in whatever way they deem fit. Rather, justice must restrain the authority of the ruler. If a ruler has an absolute power which allows him to legislate whatever suits him at a given time, it will lead to an unhealthy society (or as we will see in Plato’s case, an unhealthy soul).

Numerous examples of the difficulties engendered by a Rex Lex governmental structure can be seen in the poets, playwrights, and philosophers of the ancient world. A clear pattern is conspicuous and consistent, beginning with a ruler who exercises absolute power and resulting in an amalgam of undesirable ramifications. Three examples in particular are the oppressive reign of Gilgamesh in the city of Uruk, Homer’s depiction of the egocentric demands of Agamemnon at the siege of Troy, and the discussion of the development of a tyrannical man in Plato’s Republic. In each of these three instances any objective concept of justice is sacrificed or ignored for the sake of fulfilling the subjective will of the man in power.


Discussions of the problems created by a form of government in which the king is above the law date back earlier than the twentieth century B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the ancient king Gilgamesh who ruled the city of Uruk. The opening lines of the epic contain much acclaim and praise for this king. He is called “superior to other kings, a warrior lord of great stature, a hero born of Uruk, . . . a strong net, the protection of his men, . . . perfect in strength.”4 He is even purported, also, to be two-thirds divine.

These words of commendation, however, last only temporarily. The anonymous author soon “rewinds” the narrative back to a time when the people of Uruk did not think so highly of their king. In transitioning to this prior historical context, the author makes mention of a sexually immoral practice that Gilgamesh, as king, engages in. The reader is informed that “Gilgamesh will not leave young girls alone, the daughters of warriors, the brides of young men.”5 These words seem to indicate that Gilgamesh enforced a kind of jus primae noctus, a Latin phrase which means “right of the first night” (also referred to as droit de seigneur, the French equivalent). This gave the king a right to sleep with newly-wed brides on their wedding night.

Jeffrey H. Tigay discusses this feature of the Gilgamesh epic and maintains that while we can’t be certain whether jus primae noctis was the exact nature of Gilgamesh’s oppression of Uruk, “it is hard to believe that jus primae noctis was not at least part of what is suggested.”6 If Tigay is right then it’s no wonder that we soon witness the misery of the people of Uruk as they begin pleading to the goddess Aruru, beseeching her to create a rival to match Gilgamesh: “Now create someone for [Gilgamesh], to match the ardour of his energies! Let them be regular rivals, and let Uruk be allowed peace!” While it’s uncertain whether the events of Gilgamesh are entirely historical, this scenario nevertheless provides a clear example of the problems which ensue when an objective concept of justice is abandoned in favor of preserving the absolute power of the king. A king who rules in such a way that does not acknowledge the welfare or common good of the whole will inevitably see the loyalty of his people dwindle.


Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem that recounts the events which took place in the final year of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy. At the beginning of the story Chryses, a priest of Apollo, asks Agamemon, king of Argos and leader of the Greek army, to return his daughter Chryseis whom Agamemnon had captured as a war-prize. When Agamemnon refuses the priest’s request, the Greeks begin to be afflicted by a plague. When the prophet Calchas informs Agamemnon that the plague will lift when he returns the daughter of Chryses, Agamenon becomes furious and the reader begins to observe how his Rex Lex mentality drives the decisions that follow.

Agamemnon initially seems to act justly when he agrees to send Chryseis back to her father: “I’ll give her back, if that’s what’s best. I don’t want to see the army destroyed like this.”7 This acquiescence would mean the lifting of the plague thus making it the best course of action for everyone. However, he expresses his ultimate dissatisfaction when he immediately follows up with orders: “But I want another prize ready for me right way. I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize, it wouldn’t be right.”8 Francis M. Cornford writes that the “The Greek word for just has as many senses as the English right9 and so we might just as easily understand Agamemnon as saying that his own lack of a prize wouldn’t be just.

Justice, however, is the last of Agamemnon’s concerns as he later takes for himself Briseis, the war-prize of Achilles, the mightiest warrior of the Greek army. This proves to be an unwise decision as it incites the Myrmidons, Achilles’ battalion, to temporarily back out of the war. In the absence of the Myrmidon ranks the Greeks take unanticipated casualties. Agamemnon initially seemed to be acting for the common good of his soldiers when he returned Chryseis thereby lifting the plague, but when he decides to steal Achilles’ war-prize as compensation it leads to a prolonged military struggle which results in countless unnecessary deaths. Inconsistent justice is essentially injustice and yields the same detrimental consequences. The historicity of Iliad, like Gilgamesh, is debatable and the justice of owning a female slave as a war-prize is itself questionable to say the least, but this particular scene in Iliad provides a good example of the problems caused by a governmental structure in which the king defines what is just.

Plato’s Tyrannical Man

The aim of Plato’s Republic, while largely a discussion about the characteristics of a utopia or ideal state, is to arrive at a comprehensive definition of the virtue of justice. After a few unsatisfactory attempts at defining the elusive essence of said virtue, the three interlocutors, lead by Socrates (who presumably represents the view of Plato), decide that understanding justice on a broad societal level is the best way to understand justice on an individual level.10 As Socrates famously states, the city is the soul writ large. Cornford writes that “little as Plato valued what he has described as democratic liberty, no democrat could surpass him in detestation of the despotism (tyranny) which is the triumph of injustice and the very negation of the liberty he did believe in.”11 Socrates describes tyranny as the most unjust of all governmental structures and therefore the tyrannical soul is the most unjust of all souls.

Book nine contains a lengthy and psychologically insightful analysis of the man with a tyrannical soul. If a tyrannical state is one governed, not by justice, but by its desires, then a tyrannical man is one who is likewise driven by his fleshly desires. Socrates explains that “a man becomes tyrannical in the precise sense of the term when either his nature or his way of life or both of them together make him drunk, filled with erotic desire, and mad.”12 When all of this man’s money is gone, the “crowd of desires that [have] nested within him inevitably shout in protest”13, paralleling the crowd of unhappy citizens who live within a tyrannically governed state. The tyrannical man will stop at nothing to insure that these desires within him are satisfied, even if this means stealing from his parents or looting temples. His desires “live like a tyrant within him, in complete anarchy and lawlessness as his sole ruler, and drives him, as if he were a city, to dare anything that will provide sustenance for itself.”14 His own reason functioning as the ruler of his soul, this tyrannical man mirrors, on a personal level, the flaws seen previously in the despotic reigns of Gilgamesh and Agamemnon.


Juan de Mariana pithily states that “nothing is better than to have the Prince restrained by the laws, nothing a heavier curse than that he be free from them.”15 Plato was convinced that “the having and doing of one’s own”16 was an essential component of justice. From the works of ancient writers three illustrations have been seen of the consequences that follow a neglect of this crucial component. Gilgamesh encroached on that which was not his own when he violated newly-wed brides as an exercise of his absolute power. The result was an oppressed and desperate people. Agamemnon, by way of his Rex Lex authority, took that which was not his own when he stole the war-prize of Achilles. The result was a prolonged military struggle which cost many lives. Plato’s tyrannical man is willing to take what doesn’t belong to him in order to satisfy the desires which drive him. The result is an unhealthy soul. These examples serve to illustrate what was argued in the introduction, namely that if a man is free to define justice in whatever way he deems appropriate, it will inevitably lead to despondency and distress in a society or soul.

1. Aegidius Romanus, quoted in Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 134.
2. Samuel Rutherfod, Lex Rex; or, The Law and the Prince [book on-line] (Oxford University, 1843, accessed 22 July 2010), 106; available from; Internet.
3. Charles M. Bakewell, introduction to Plato, Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), xxxviii.
4. “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in Myths from Mesopotamia, rev. ed., trans. Stephanie Dalley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 51.
5. Ibid., 52.
6. Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1982), 184.
7. Homer, Iliad, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 4.
8. Ibid., 4-5.
9. Francis M. Cornford, introduction to “Book I” in The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 1.
10. Plato Republic 368c-369a.
11. Francis M. Cornford, introduction to “Chapter XXXII” in The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 287 (emphasis mine).
12. Plato Republic 573c.
13. Ibid. 573e.
14. Ibid. 574e.
15. Juan de Mariana, The King and the Education of the King, trans. George A. Moore (Washington D.C.: The Country Dollar Press, 1948), 119.
16. Plato Republic 434a.