HELPING GOD ALONG
SPEECH SUPPRESSION IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
he Babylonian Talmud describes the final moments in the life of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, sentenced by Rome to burn to death in public for teaching Jewish law despite a strict ban. The Romans meant to make an example of him, so they placed wet wool on his body to prolong the pain of the fire, then wrapped him in a Torah scroll. As the flames grew, his students asked him what he saw. He replied: “The parchments are being burned, but the letters are flying away.” This would not have been surprising to the students, who believed fervently in the Torah’s divinity, but for the Roman executioner it was transformational. He offered to remove the wool to reduce the rabbi’s suffering, if he would take him along to heaven. The rabbi agreed, and the executioner leaped onto the flames. A Heavenly voice then boomed down, announcing that the two men were indeed on their way to the World to Come.1
Rabbi ben Tradion and his executioner took their flight in the second century CE
, but the key element of this account—the ascent of the Torah’s words—is rooted in the origins of language. From the beginning, words have been understood as more than mere sounds or dabs of pigment denoting something else. Rather, they were products of the Divine, wrapped in awe and laden with taboos. Words were endowed with mystical powers, “a sort of primary force in which all being and doing originate,” in the words of the philosopher Ernst
Cassirer. In all mythical cosmogonies, “as far back as they can be traced, this supreme position of the Word is found.”2
Cassirer explains that, in the creation accounts of many religions, the word
—language itself—is allied with the spiritual forces of Creation, either as a device used by the Creator(s) to forge the cosmos or, more fundamentally, as the source from which all existence is derived. The holy texts of the Uitoto people of Peru and Colombia tell us: “In the beginning, the word gave origin to the Father.”3
The Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Hebrew scripture, God creates the world with words. Later, those who denied that the Torah was God’s handiwork forfeited their place in the World to Come. The poet John Milton may not have had all this in mind when he wrote, in his Areopagitica
(1644), that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them,” but the message was there: words carry their own power.
The gods of the ancient world were nothing if not terrifying and, given the divinity of words, it followed that they could also carry a dreadful force. The names of deities often packed the mightiest charge, which is why even knowledge of them was frequently concealed. When, for example, the Egyptian goddess Isis compelled the sun god Ra to disclose his secret name to her, she gained power over him and all the other gods.4
And a century before Rabbi ben Tradion and his Torah left this Earth, it was a great offense for anyone but the High Priest to pronounce the Hebrew god’s true name, and then only in restricted circumstances.
More broadly, words or word combinations were believed to contain magical and often demonic properties, whether spells, incantations for health or success in hunting or battle, or curses against enemies. Such words needed to be controlled, as their unauthorized or improper application posed serious risks—not only to the individuals who misused them, but to all of society.
Ancient civilizations also saw the supernatural in images. The
archaeologist V. Gordon Childe points to Neolithic carvings of animal images or symbols on precious stones, which were then imprinted onto clay that was used to seal containers of high-value items. The process involved multiple layers of magic, or mana
: the stones themselves possessed “magic virtue,” which was then enhanced by the power that came with the images—say, of bulls or swastikas. When transmuted onto the clay, the seals carried the same magical quality, and brought curses on those who broke into the containers.5
As civilizations developed, taboos attached as much to images as to words. They were considered volatile, and their use was often restricted, if not suppressed entirely.
At its core, censorship is rooted in the fear of words and pictures; restrictions on them were imposed to avoid the calamities they might trigger. The ancients believed that some word combinations or images were so venomous that their very existence
could contaminate society. This dread was no less during the early Christian era, when pagan astrological texts were condemned as “poison that creeps inside … [society’s] silent marrow.”6
Nor had such trepidation abated by the mid-nineteenth century, when England’s Lord Chief Justice characterized sexually arousing materials as “prussic acid” for the body politic.7
And when the contemporary feminist scholar and anti-pornography advocate Catharine MacKinnon argues that pornography is
violent sex, “no less an act than the rape and torture it represents,”8
she means exactly what she says. Words and images can wield destructive potential; to suppress them is to prevent harm.
Faced with stakes that high, the elimination of offending materials in the ancient world—particularly through fire—was necessary to appease the Divine and cleanse the collective soul of pollution. Just as the smoke from animal sacrifices linked worshippers to their gods, so did the fumes of smoldering forbidden books propitiate them. And just as the immolation of texts destroyed the wickedness they embodied, so did the destruction represent the deaths of the writers who produced them. An author’s books were living extensions of
their person; burning them was akin to killing the author in effigy. There was no choice in the matter, as the consequences of allowing errant speech were fearsome.
Banned in the Bible: Words and Pictures among the Hebrews
For the Hebrews, compliance with God’s precepts on what to say or not say was not optional. “[I]f you are not obedient,” warns Deuteronomy
30: 17–18, “… you will certainly be destroyed.” Jewish law is rife with rules and warnings about deviant speech, some dictated by God Himself—starting with the commandment against taking His name in vain. The punishment was stoning to death by the entire tribe, a sacrifice of the sinner to avert Divine punishment against the collective.9
The examples in scripture of this form of blasphemy expand on the point. On the direct instruction of Heaven, Moses orders the execution of a foreigner who “blasphemed the Name [i.e., God] with a curse.”10
In the Book of Isaiah
, when Assyrian invaders besiege Jerusalem, their general mocks God’s capacity to protect the city and its Jewish inhabitants from destruction, and further denigrates God by comparing Him to the deities of other peoples the Assyrians had steamrolled. For that, God sends an angel (that is, a plague, according to tradition that places the event in 701 BCE
)—thus ending the lives of 185,000 Assyrian soldiers overnight and causing the decimated army to retreat.11
Quite a penalty; and the general, for all his bravado, hadn’t even technically damned God or taken His name in vain, but merely expressed skepticism (albeit in insulting terms) about His power. From roughly this point forward, the concept of blasphemy would expand to include words and practices that were merely disrespectful of the deity.
No less forbidden under Jewish law are figurative images, which include depictions of God, idols, and pictures “of any shape, whether
formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on Earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground, or any fish in the waters.”12
The reasons for this broad form of censorship are subject to scholarly dispute, but it likely rested first on the conviction that God was both unknowable and reflected in everything on Earth, and thus could not be represented without sinful distortion. More prosaically, banning images allowed the Jews to distinguish themselves from the surrounding cultures, whose religions were profoundly visual. Restricting images showed “that they were different, that their God was not a part of the dominant culture,” explains the scholar Philip Alexander.13
While the ban is set in uncompromising terms, it has been followed inconsistently, as the basic human need to create and interact with images was no less compelling for Jews than for others. Throughout antiquity and into modern times, Jewish attitudes toward images have oscillated between strict and liberal. King Solomon himself erected altars to pagan gods for some of his many wives, and God was worshipped in various visual forms well after the Hebrews left Mount Sinai. Jewish law also bent the rules by making fine distinctions between images for purposes of worship and for decoration; three-dimensional figures versus flat pictures; and exact versus inexact images. In the first century CE
, there was almost no figurative imagery in Jewish life. Matters loosened a couple of centuries later to the point where the walls of at least one synagogue, at Dura-Europos in present-day Syria, were coated with paintings. Decorative images were also used in synagogues during the Middle Ages,14
as well as in books – most notably a thirteenth-century German Passover book [haggadah
] known as the “Bird’s Head Haggadah
.” It contains illustrations of Jews with the heads of birds; evidently, because bird-people did not exist, the rule against representations of nature were not violated.
Pagan idols in all their forms were to be avoided whenever possible and sometimes attacked—in no small part because, like
visual representations of God himself, they were understood to be infused with unholy spirits. Jewish law set precise and often bizarre instructions for neutralizing and interacting with them, however they manifested themselves. To desecrate trees venerated by pagans, for example, Jews were told to remove the leaves but not the branches; to defuse the spirits lurking “behind” a stone idol, one was to remove the tip of its ear, nose, or fingers, or simply hack at it with a tool. Spitting or urinating on it, or dragging it in the dirt, was not considered effective, however tempting it might have been to do so.15
When not desecrating idols, Jews were to interact with them using extreme caution. If some debris fell from an idol’s shrine onto a Jew’s property, they were commanded to discard it with the contempt they would show to a “menstruous cloth.” Should the Jew’s house happen to collapse, the structure was not to be rebuilt unless it could be erected at least four cubits away from the shrine. The shade of pagan a holy tree was to be avoided unless the tree hung over a road, in which case no defilement would occur by merely passing under it. Vegetables could be grown under such trees, but only if they were planted during the rainy season. Lettuce, however, could be planted under such trees during any season.16
And so on.
Unsurprisingly, the ancient Jews were also not keen on theatre. The sages sharply disapproved of the plays, circuses, and similar entertainments of the Hellenistic-Roman world, and theatres in Palestine were targeted for destruction during the revolt of the Jewish Maccabees against the Hellenic Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE
. The hostility was warranted: pagan sacrifices were offered in theatres, and the public mistreatment of Jews was often considered entertainment. Several centuries later, in Roman Syria, Jewish women were forced to eat pork onstage,17
and the emperor Vespasian, on one occasion, slaughtered 1,200 Jews in the stadium in Tiberias.18
It was not until the early Renaissance that some forms of Jewish drama began to emerge, and the Purim play (depicting the story of Esther) gradually became a counterpart to the Christian carnival.
Early Jewish restrictions on speech and idol worship produced an inward-looking culture that was uneasy with the vibrant intellectual, literary, and religious ferment that surrounded it. There was simply too much risk of running afoul of one or another blasphemy restriction, and the price of missteps was too high. In the first century CE
, the sage Rabbi Akiva warned that the reading of any
writings outside the Jewish canon was forbidden, on pain of being barred from the World to Come19
—a drastic form of censorship still observed by ultra-Orthodox sects today. While such insularity arguably contributed to the longevity of the Jewish religion, it placed Jews in a world apart. The eventual influence of the Old Testament on censorship was enormous, but would wait until the spread of Christianity carried many of its precepts forward. Until that took place, another set of traditions took hold in the Mediterranean, going on to shape attitudes toward speech suppression no less profoundly.
Insults, Impiety, and the Bad Examples of Gods in Ancient Athens
Ancient Athenian attitudes toward censorship fall roughly into three contexts: daily life on the streets and in the city’s assemblies; times of war and stress, when there was powerful unease toward anything that might offend the gods; and the constellation of restrictions Plato imposed on the hapless inhabitants of his imagined Republic, which have hung like a stench over discussions about censorship for two millennia. The considerations were different in each situation, as were the law’s targets.
“It’s a slave’s lot not to say what one thinks,” bemoaned Jocasta in Euripides’s The Phoenician Women
. While the doomed queen laments her own circumstances, she also highlights a key characteristic of everyday Athenian life: liberty of expression was the privilege of the elite. Slaves, women, foreigners—about two-thirds of the population—did not have the rights accorded to the poorest male
citizens. But even with that important limitation, the Athenian citizenry had more latitude than other Greeks enjoyed, not just to participate and speak freely in civic discussions, but also to ridicule leaders and even shout down the most respectable citizens at public assemblies.
In the agora, where people congregated to debate and make decisions for the polis, any citizen was free to speak their mind. It was sometimes (reluctantly) acknowledged that even the least prominent citizens might have better id...