Crossley: Jesus and the Dictatorship of God

I enjoyed reading James Crossley’s recent book. It explores the possibility that chaotic social forces impact religious history more than charismatic leaders do, and also how Jesus’ apocalyptic protest movement laid the foundations for its own brand of imperial rule. The second thread I was drawn to, and is addressed head on in the chapter called “The Dictatorship of God?”. I’ll focus on that chapter in this post.

We know the cliche that Constantine was a betrayal of Jesus’ teaching, but Crossley says that’s not the full story (p 64). On the one hand, the message of the early Christians was one of peace, provision, and well-being for all, in view of the new age. Since there would soon be no more war, followers of Jesus should refrain from violence. There would soon be no more oppression, and so people were to treat everyone decently now — especially the socially marginalized, outcasts, slaves, the destitute, women, and children. There would be no more demonic powers, and those capable should exorcise now, in preparation. Etc.

Side by side this “good news”, however, were promises of more power and dominance in the kingdom of God. Not least, says Crossley, in texts like these:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, and you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Mt 19:28; cf. Lk 22:29-30)

Although Crossley refrains from trying to “prove” that any particular saying does or doesn’t go back to Jesus, he says (rightly, I think) that a good case can be made for the general reliability of texts like this one (p 73). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Jesus had promised his disciples power, authority, and dominion as portrayed in Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30. Yet I would emphasize this wasn’t a power to be exercised in the earthly realm before the end times. Crossley acknowledges this too, but his stress is on the limits of Jesus’ imagined alternative: “Far from advocating a world that removes imperial power, the descriptions of the kingdom of God champion little more than a changing of the guard.” (pp 74-75)

It’s a fair point. Those who protest injustices often have their own power agendas (violent rebels who have high ideals often become oppressive dictators once they supplant the old regime), and we shouldn’t be surprised that when Jesus and the early Christians thought about the end times, they couldn’t escape thinking in terms of domination and subjugation. As Crossley says, it was the only way they could “realistically” — even in the context of apocalyptic fantasies — conceive an alternative to the present powers. As Paul put it, “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord” (Philip 2:10-11). (p 76) The Christian message was liberating, but it still needed the framework that defined the world.

And once Christianity became the religion of the state, that framework could become problematic. Crossley notes, for example, the case of the Maori tribe of New Zealand (pp 88-89), who identified themselves with “the Jews” of Jn 5, in rejecting Christian colonial domination in the 1870s. In the gospel of John, the Son’s authority is grounded in the context of a Christian minority’s split from synagogue authority, but in the hands of a politically dominant Christianity, the Son’s authority can suddenly be seen as oppressive. This example of the Maori tribe doesn’t seem typical, however.

Crossley is careful to point out that he’s not making sweeping claims about Christianity, only that Christian ideas could be compatible with imperialistic thinking and have been so (pp 89, 91). I agree with that, but I also get a sense that he thinks this menacing potential is roughly the same in any religion (whether Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, see p 89). In light of his passing remarks in chapter 1 against the “new atheist” crowd in assessing problems with Islam (see p 12), it’s worth looking at this more closely.

For example, I find it curious that even at the most authoritarian stages of its history, Christianity’s more enlightened or subversive elements could resist the imperialist trajectory. Not always, of course, and in varying degrees of success. Let’s briefly consider slavery and holy war:

  • Slavery. From its imperial start, Christianity worked to alleviate the conditions of slaves and eventually condemned the institution. Constantine didn’t attempt the impossible — a sudden wholesale emancipation — but he did introduce measures that were unique in the statute book of Rome. His prohibition against cruelty to slaves was based on texts like Mk 25:31-46, where the king (God) says, “to the extent that you did it to these, even the least of them, you did it to me”, when crossed with Paul’s formula of Gal 3:28 (“in Christ there is neither slave nor free”). The lives of slaves improved somewhat, particularly those of women and young men, and subsequent emperors abolished different aspects of slavery (like gladitorial contests), until finally Justinian (in the sixth century) condemned the entire institution. The end result of all this was that Christian kings and bishops repeatedly denounced slavery so that by the eleventh century, the practice had effectively ended in most parts of Europe. This trajectory is opposite that of Islam, which consistently relied on slavery. Muhammad took concubines and slaves in warfare, and the Qur’an sanctions slavery (as in Sura 23:5-6). Slaves were procured by banditry and piracy, and between the 7th century and the 20th, over ten million people were enslaved by the Arab world. On the flip side, American Christians were able to justify slavery on theological grounds when abolitionists condemned it; the early Christians may have gone to bat for slaves, but they still took its institutional premise as a given (so Philemon).
  • Holy War. For centuries imperial Christianity opposed the idea of holy war, even though it could have benefited immensely from it. Sacred violence was unthinkable, because it opposed Christian thought at a basic level. What happened was that a more “muscular” Christianity evolved after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and with the rise of Germanic martial culture the problem of Christian knights, who were told by monks that their warrior profession made them sinful and destined for torments in the afterlife. The church tried its best to curb knightly violence, with the Peace of God (980s) and Truce of God (1020s). (The Peace required knights to protect the weak and poor, and the Truce prohibited them from any fighting at all on certain days of the week.) These were commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The point is that the church, even at imperial heights, resisted violence in view of its savior’s pacifism. When it finally adopted holy warfare as a solution to the knightly dilemma, it was instituted as a voluntary measure, and in defense against Islamic aggression. Opposite Jesus, Muhammad was the jihad exemplar, and holy warfare has always been mandatory in Islam, regardless of its political state of affairs. The crusades eventually faded, as the idea of crusading seemed increasingly antique to secularists, and anti-Christian to Christians. The church always knew that holy wars ran counter to its core beliefs.

My point here — and it’s a point often emphasized by the “new atheist”crowd, with whom Crossley takes issue — is that beliefs have power as beliefs. We know that scriptures are a matter of interpretation, of what people make of them, or bring to them, but the reverse can be just as true: scriptures and traditions have a strong lead in shaping people. They can inspire and produce behavior, sometimes irrespective of social and political factors, and if a preponderance of those beliefs run contrary to the leanings of imperialism, domination and subjugation, then enlightenment at least has a better chance of prevailing in the long run. A religion, on the other hand, whose core beliefs align with imperialism, domination and subjugation (as in Islam) has a much bigger problem, and it’s a problem too often obscured by focusing on aggravating factors like politics and poverty (as listed by Crossley on p 12).

Crossley’s overall point is an important one. Christianity does have the duality he outlines, grounded in its genesis. There’s no reason to believe Jesus was a Great-Enough-Man to be exempt from the duality. I suggest, however, that there is a preponderance of the more enlightened (“subversive”, “peaceful”, “liberating”) elements in Christianity that offer a realistic hope of keeping the “Dictatorship of God” in check.

A Marginal Jew, Volume 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables

marginalBy now it’s clear that John Meier is the George Martin of biblical studies. His Marginal Jew project practically sings the Song of Ice and Fire. Both series began in the ’90s, fueled by modest ambitions. Three volumes at most, said their authors. Each is now up to five in a plan of seven, the end still far away. Readers wait impatiently (or not) during the 5+year intervals in-between. Each series has produced a quasi-lemon (Companions and Competitors was Meier’s Feast for Crows), but the other volumes have been worth the wait, and Meier’s fifth book, released this month, is a sort of functional equivalent of A Dance with Dragons. It tries to tame the untamable — the parables resist discipline as much as Jon’s soldiers and Daenerys’s citizens — and ends where you might not have hoped, certainly not expected. Of more than 30 parables, Meier judges only four of them — yes, four — to go back to Jesus. If A Marginal Jew began with the promise of knocking down minimalist claims of the Jesus Seminar, it has also proven capable of its own massive skepticism.

I used to accept the dominant wisdom: “Virtually everyone grants that the parables are the surest bedrock we have of Jesus’ teaching. The early church hardly ever told parables.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p 31). And even this: “Though the burden of proof usually falls on the one who would claim the authenticity of a Jesus saying, the case with the parables is otherwise. Here the burden of proof should fall on the one who would claim that the originating structure of a parable is not from Jesus.” (Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p 63). It strikes me that the parables are a lot like the phantom Q gospel, appealing to both evangelicals (like Snodgrass) and liberal revisionists (like Scott), and on the strength of that wide appeal don’t suffer the hard scrutiny they deserve. In this sense, Meier’s book is the new Case Against Q, shooting hole after hole in the common wisdom. He meets Scott’s burden of proof with relative ease, and throws back the burden on the optimists. However we sift his individual judgments, I believe he’s right that the parables, on whole, cannot be taken as a guaranteed “voice” of the historical Jesus. Circular reasoning alone justifies that position.

Admittedly, there is one traditional argument that has some force — that the early church never used parables, and so unlikely invented them on the lips of their savior. But Meier points out the fallacy (see volume 5, pp 53-54): While the argument works when comparing Jesus to Paul and to other non-synoptic NT writers (who obviously didn’t use parables), it says nothing about the creativity of the anonymous “key players” in handing on the synoptic traditions in the early decades. Did they never learn from what inspired them, and develop parables themselves? Those who preserved and passed on the parable traditions could have obviously, and would have likely, imitated that tradition.

Before addressing the parables, however, let’s backpedal and review some of Meier’s findings from the previous volumes.

The Miracles: 15 out of 31. Volume 2 of the Marginal Jew project pronounced half the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:

  • Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
  • Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
  • Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
  • Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.

Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. The subject of volume 4 was “law and love”, and Meier found most of the relevant gospel disputes to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus, according to the Marginal Jew project, was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.) For full details of the following points, see my review of volume 4.

  • Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered by an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
  • Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
  • Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
  • Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity. Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce, for which he can cite Jesus.
  • Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
  • The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.

The Parables: 4 out of 32. This brings us to the current volume 5. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus… The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.

  • The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
  • The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
  • The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
  • The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.

What justifies claiming historical privilege for these four? Meier’s cautious use of the classic criteria, and some curious features. For example, in the case of the Wicked Tenants, the nimsal (commentary or application of a parable’s message) in Mk 12:9-11 sticks out like a sore thumb. In all other parables, when there is an application or nimsal present — whether to provide allegory (as in the Fish Net), a brief general truth (the Laborers in the Vineyard), an assurance of God’s answer to prayer (the Unjust Judge), or to issue a specific challenge (like the Good Samaritan) — it is appended only after the parable’s story is finished. Nimsals don’t complete stories that are otherwise left hanging; they don’t advance the plot within the story. The sole exception is the Wicked Tenants, which sticks out. The original story had a nihilistic Miami Vice-like ending, which was soon “corrected” in the post-Easter days to provide closure and consolation.

And so forth. All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged non-liquet. If Meier is right, then the parable corpus turns out to be a lot like the wondrous mirage we call “Q”. They aren’t a gateway to an earlier period of subversive wisdom or surprising revelations.

It’s a bit deflating to accept this; I didn’t like giving up Q either. But the more I look, the more I appreciate the limits of historical inquiry. The recent decade has seen an increased humbling of the historical-Jesus enterprise, with scholars like Dale Allison and Mark Goodacre urging that the criteria of authenticity are overrated if not useless, and Richard Carrier making a plausible (if problematic) case that Jesus never even existed. The Marginal Jew project relies on a fading methodology critiqued by these skeptics, and yet, ironically, reinforces strong measures of skepticism on its own terms.

The irony owes, I believe, to the fact that Meier uses the classic criteria as objectively as humanly possible. He has consistently surprised me by what he feels constrained to “let go” from the lips and actions of Jesus. In volume 2 he judged texts like Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27 to be unhistorical — texts which would only have helped his thesis for an eschatological prophet. In this volume he banishes classics like the Good Samaritan, stories so deeply embedded in our consciousness. I believe he’s right: it has been on the strength of that influence and our cultural heritage more than objective reasoning that scholar after scholar so readily accepts the authenticity of these stories. Meier’s extended analysis of the Good Samaritan is wonderful (see pp 200-209), and his conclusion hard to dispute. Our hearts may be warmed by that famous Samaritan… but it is Luke and not Jesus who is the “space heater set next to our souls”.

Volume 2 remains the masterpiece of the Marginal Jew project, but Volume 5 is the tome of painful truths. I consider it a landmark in parable studies, and it’s already forcing me to reassess my own approach to the stories (like The Talents), which has been too confident.

Guest Blogger: Bob Kruger on the Essentials of D&D

[Editor: The Busybody welcomes Bob Kruger, President of, who like myself grew up in D&D’s golden age, when rules were simple and adventure-modules inspired. Bob offers a sketch of what he considers to be the essential game elements.]

The Essentials of Dungeons & Dragons
by Bob Kruger

Every edition of D&D, including the new 5th edition, strikes me as poorly organized, with the essential game elements scattered throughout the lengthy rules rather than concentrated for easy reference. I think that’s a shame, because the activity would be a lot more popular if people could see through the nonessentials to what it’s really about: a group of people creatively improvising a story together. The Dungeon Master, or “DM” for short, with the complicity of the players, uses the game’s trappings like a magician uses stage props, to divert the analytical mind and draw out everyone’s latent capacity for stage drama.

After due consideration, I’ve decided that the newest edition of D&D does a good job of consolidating lessons learned by the community over four decades. Superficially, it looks like a big departure from the original game and even the 3rd edition major overhaul. But really, the essentials have been burnished to a high luster, and the dross has been minimized. If you read all the rules without guidance, you’ll probably come away with a better sense of how to conduct the game than you would by reading any other edition.

It is still poorly organized.

My friend Ken McGlothlen, a founder of Wizards of the Coast, likes to quote a statement by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” The rules in D&D are not like the rules in other games where players compete against each other to reach a winning objective; they are rather tools to achieve an effect, like a vocabulary or a musical scale. You can do a lot with little, and if you try to employ them all before you understand what you’re trying to do, you’ll make incoherent noise.

Organizing the rules so that you need to read them all to get a functional overview is a terrible disservice to the game. Instead, the rules should outline the essentials, and then progress toward what is optional, with perhaps reference tables at the end. There have been several attempts at a Basic Edition of D&D over the years, but I’m not talking about leading with the basics. The essentials are not basic at all. They are more like the core, challenging tenets.

The word “level” has an honored history in the game. I’m tempted to organize this discussion by levels, with the higher levels being more arbitrary and dispensable, but to avoid confusion, I’ll call them “tiers.”

Tier 0: Emperor’s New Clothes

Before I get to the essential first tier of D&D, I’ll give a nod to the idea that D&D is really no more than group makebelieve of the kind that young kids spontaneously engage in, boys playing at being soldiers or superheroes and girls playing “house,” or vice versa. Maybe D&D is really no more than a group improv storytelling activity that involves medievalish heroes, monsters, and magic. If you’re intimidated by weighty rule tomes, grid paper, miniatures, and polyhedral dice, then console yourself with the idea that all that might be optional.

If you are the Dungeon Master, you want to fool your players into thinking you’re playing the game at the highest levels – employing all the rules in the weighty D&D tomes — while actually striving for tier 0, where you dispense with them all. But don’t underestimate the challenge. If your players think you’re just making stuff up, which they will if you don’t maintain the disciplined pretense of using the rules, your players will lose faith in the exercise and feel manipulated. The rules give players confidence that they are operating in an objective world – rather than being railroaded — and that the decisions they make have a real impact on events, which they should.

In short, D&D is an act of self-deception — even for the Dungeon Master – that paradoxically results in a true experience. If that perspective is too abstruse for you, look at it this way: it’s practically impossible to play by the rules without boring the ass off everyone involved. Those players who really try aren’t master players, they’re duped beginners. The game’s not ultimately about following rules anyway; it’s about evoking a living story. “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

It’s hard to overstate this. The only winning in D&D is sharing excitement. Players are excited if they feel they’ve exercised their minds to help bring out satisfying developments in a story. The Dungeon Master is excited if his players seem engrossed by his performance. Everyone feels a little ridiculous, which is why you roll dice to shake up the experience and make it seem like everyone is at the judgement of fate, but the best DMs understand the dice rolling and all the rules to be merely showman’s props. The possible developments should be necessarily limited and all should be interesting.

Once again, at its most essential, D&D is simply a magic trick conducted for a group by a DM, who uses dice rolls and rules as indirection to obscure his art, to create an emotional effect while the audience’s attention and thought are distracted.

Tier 1

To play D&D at tier 1, you need:

1. The referee storyteller, called a Dungeon Master, or DM for short, who describes the setting and assumes all the roles in the game except those of the player characters.
2. Players who assume the role of medievalish characters whose descriptions are set down on paper for reference, generally one character per player.
3. Dice that impartially represent the role of fate in determining the success or failure of an action like attempting to hit a target, scale a wall, or bluff a guard.

D&D has a few essential conventions and game mechanics. You assume the role of a character in a world with medieval-level technology where magic works and monsters roam. Your goal is to solve mysteries and defeat opponents to advance in experience level. As you advance in level, you increase the magnitude and scope of your abilities, which in turn allows you to take on more — and often more complex — challenges.

Why Medieval?

In a word, archetypes. Fighting, thievery, gods, and magic are concepts accessible to just about everyone. In all cultures, most kids get some instruction in these concepts through fairy tales, in addition to the idea of monarchy and to a lesser extent feudalism. We evolved to fight and steal and to attribute supernatural agency to things we can’t explain. If you stay close to these imperatives, you’ll be able to engage new people in a game of D&D very quickly.

Adults have a lot of unfinished business with fairy tales. Case in point: Star Wars. The basic concerns of fairy tales are lifelong concerns. In a modern culture that’s abstracted the fundamentals of life beyond recognition for many of us, D&D promises to set you back on a long-abandoned clear path toward making sense of the world.

The Setting

You solve mysteries, fight monsters, and gain treasure. Specifically, you explore underground catacombs, labyrinths, or cave networks, referred to as “dungeons” even if they don’t have anything to do with housing prisoners. You may also explore wilderness or town settings. What’s important in the adventuring setting is constraint. For some reason, this has never been acknowledged in any of the rules. A poor dungeon master has a poor concept of how the geography or architecture of his setting constrains and focuses story action. A good adventure setting offers the players a limited but rich set of options for exploration and plot progression.

The stonework “dungeon” is essential to Dungeons & Dragons for several reasons. It makes it easy to limit the set of possible actions that characters can take and to standardize rules for them; therefore, opening doors, checking for secret doors, fighting monsters, illuminating a space with lanterns or torches – all have become standard activities. What’s more, the dungeon-and-cavern setting has inspired monsters that have become icons of the game, like the gelatinous cube, a mindless, transparent monster that neatly fills dungeon halls and cleans them of debris; the mimic, which can look like a spot of floor or a treasure chest; the lurker above, whose underside looks like a dungeon ceiling; and the piercer and roper, which look like stalactites and stalagmites, respectively. Finally, the dungeon is often a multi-leveled construction, with the lower levels inhabited by the most dangerous monsters, the greatest treasures, and the most powerful ancient magic, which symbolizes the psyche and its layers. The deeper you go into your own head, the greater the hazards and the greater potential rewards of insight and power.

Wilderness and town adventures can be viewed as basically dungeon adventures with streets, paths, rivers, houses, meadows, and valleys standing in for dungeon halls and rooms.

Alignment and Cosmology

Related to setting is cosmology, and D&D outlines a multiverse of moral and elemental forces. Characters and monsters and even different regions of the multiverse have moral alignments, from Good to Evil variously mixed with lawful order and chaos.

The moral universe is laid out on two perpendicular axes: the Law to Chaos axis that intersects the Good to Evil axis, with Neutrality where the lines cross at the center: so you have the zones Neutral, Neutral Good, and Neutral Evil; Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral; Lawful Evil and Lawful Good; and Chaotic Evil and Chaotic Good. There are home dimensions, or “planes,” for each of these alignments. There are also planes dedicated to material elements, like Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. The characters’ homeworld is like a stew composed of forces from the various planes.

The morally aligned planes shape the expression of the physical worlds. Therefore, evil places on Earth (or Middle-earth or whatever you call your adventuring homeworld) that allow passage to the Chaotic Evil planes may be desolate and repellant, inhabited by diseased, asymmetrical plants and animals that reflect the even worse corruption to be found on the Evil planes themselves.

If you’ve read Leviticus (hint: in the Bible), you probably noticed that spiritual and physical corruption or perfection go hand in hand. This is an evolved bias. Our reflexive disgust at rotten or otherwise harmful things and our reverence of clean and pure things helped our ancestors survive, and insofar as we are naïve, we order our moral positions by that same physical disgust or reverence. So it is in D&D. Evil and Good infest the physical world itself. What’s more, they are not merely positions in the figurative sense; they’re also places you can visit.

D&D can get very complicated with its metaphysical maps. For tier 1 D&D, it’s enough to acknowledge the nine different alignments and the existence of moral and elemental planes you can travel to.

The Characters

  • Classes

Only four character classes comprise essential, tier-1 D&D: thief, fighter, magic-user, and cleric. In recent editions of D&D, the thief is called a “rogue” and magic-users come, at a minimum, in wizard and sorcerer varieties. These specialist classes complement each other, which encourages players to adopt different classes from each other and easily slip into different roles that are highly valued by the other players.

Whatever. The main archetypes represent: 1) loners who live by dexterity and wit, 2) fighting men and women, 3) magicians, and 4) holy men and women. You’ll find many more classes in the official rulebooks and supplements, but you’ve got a good handle on the game if you view them as variations on, and admixtures of, these four roles.

  • Races

Although the first popularizer and main author of D&D, Gary Gygax, tried to play down the influence of Tolkien on his work, it’s clear from early editions of the game that Tolkien influenced the game more than the Weird Tales swords-and-sorcery writers like Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft and their direct literary descendants like Fritz Leiber. The iconic (tier 1) races in the game are humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. The earliest editions of D&D back in the seventies conceived of the races as their own character classes, but by the eighties, a race implied a separate set of special skills and adjustments to basic attributes. The only race that’s really essential to the game is human, but the races have been a respected part of the game flavor, so you’re kind of working against the D&D grain if you don’t include them.

  • The Dice

The Ancient Greeks recognized that there are five congruent polyhedrons where the same number of faces meet at every vertex. A simpler way of saying this is that they realized there are five different shapes that work great as dice: four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, twelve-sided, and twenty-sided. The Platonic solids have captured the imagination of mathematicians and natural philosophers for thousands of years. They give you a nice toolkit of probabilities to play with. Maybe there’s even real magic in them to represent the workings of fate in a living world. Who knows? In any case, they’re essential D&D equipment.

  • The Attributes

Characters have six basic attributes, namely strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, and charisma, each of which has a score from 3 to 18 and is determined by rolling three six-sided dice and adding the results together. Early editions of the game prescribed these attributes for characters only. Monsters weren’t really on this scale, even the humanoid monsters. But for several editions now, all creatures are measured by this scale, with weak ones being off it in the direction of 0, and extremely powerful ones above it, up to a score of 25 or, very rarely, more. The 3-to-18 scale works very well, and I’d say it’s a tier 1 element of D&D.

Because three rolls of a six-sided die are added together for each attribute, you get a bell-curve distribution that favors a score toward the middle of the scale. There are many more three-dice combinations that add up to 9 than to 3 or 18. Your chance of getting a 9 score is relatively high. Think about it. To get a 3, you need to roll a one three times in a row; to get an 18, a 6 three times in a row; but a nine could be three 3s, or it could be a 1, a 6, and a 2; two 2s and a five; and so on. The scale could have been narrower, say with three four-sided dice, or broader with three ten-sided dice, but 3-to-18 is a very nice range. It’s big enough to differentiate a weakling from a bodybuilder or an idiot from a genius without getting too nitpicky about scoring fine shades of ability, and it’s close to the range of 1 to 20 that is so important to skill checks.

The six attributes were variously important to the different classes, of thief, fighter, cleric, and magic-user (and their permutations like rangers, assassins, monks, and so on) all the way back in the early editions of the game. Fighters needed strength to wear heavy armor and wield weapons; thieves needed dexterity to open locks, climb walls, and pick pockets; clerics needed wisdom for their spells, and magic-users, intelligence; but that hardly justified the existence of attributes for the classes that didn’t use them. Intelligence and wisdom hardly applied to fighters at all, for instance. That has changed with the belated system of skill checks, which really should have been there all along.

  • Skill Checks

With 3rd edition and the D20 system developed by Jonathan Tweet, et al, the attributes translate to standard modifiers for skill and luck checks, like say a -4 added to a combat die roll for a strength of 3, up to a +4 for a strength of 18. Chief among these die checks is the “saving throw,” which determines whether your character avoids some baleful circumstance, like being charmed by a demon, poisoned by a giant spider, or affected by a magical spell. In early editions of the game, you’d roll a die and compare the result against a lengthy reference table for a particular activity, but this was silly and encouraged a proliferation of arbitrary tables. Also, saving throws were not cleanly tied to relevant ability scores, like Dexterity for dodging an arrow trap, or Wisdom to avoid a vampire’s gaze, which made all ability scores less meaningful than they could be.

The best approach is the current one, where a hypothetical average person succeeds at an average task by rolling a 10 or higher on a 20-sided die. The DM adjusts this 10 difficulty upward for harder actions or downward for easier ones. A DM needs to have a sense of drama and proportion and only employ skill checks to help focus the players’ attention, or to regain it if that attention is wandering. Therefore, you don’t employ a skill check for simply walking across a room unless there’s some special difficulty or consequence involved.

To make a skill check, a player adds any modifiers to the roll like, for instance, their character’s Dexterity bonus to dodge a trapdoor along with a bonus based on the character’s experience level, and if the outcome equals or exceeds the difficulty, the action succeeds. For some reason it took several editions of the game to hit on this superior approach. The term “saving throw” has a long tradition, but it’s not really an essential concept. It’s just a skill check.

  • Combat

Combat is much like skill checking, with some special added rules. Each combatant has an Armor Class, which represents the difficulty rating for an opponent to score a hit. So if you are an average person fighting a monster with a 13 armor class, you must roll a 13 to hit. If you are a hero with a magic sword that gets, say, +5 bonuses to hit, you’d only need to roll an 8, because you add your bonuses to the roll to try to get 13.

Different weapons do different amounts of damage and have various rules apply to them. The weapon rules can get very complicated. You can really dispense with the complications and just keep some rules of thumb in mind. A big sword or a spear will do about one eight-sided die of damage; a dagger or dart will do about a four-sided die in damage. Weapons that do more than a twelve-sided die, before any penalties or bonuses, will be very big and very slow to wield; ones that do less than a four-sided die will be very small.

Combat is conducted in rounds, which is an exchange of blows but implies a bunch of feints and dodges abstracted away for practicality’s sake. With a small weapon, you might get two attacks per round. With a big weapon, you might get as little as one attack every other round. You can look up exact rules if you want, but this is really up to the DM and most players do not keep close track.

  • Magic Spells

Borrowing a magic system devised by writer Jack Vance, D&D dictates that a magic-user undergoes a long apprenticeship and starts his adventuring life with a few basic spells in his spellbook. He studies a spell to commit it to memory, and when he casts the spell, the magical energy released scrubs his memory of the spell, so he’ll need to re-memorize it. The number of spells and the kinds of spells that a magic-user can hold in memory are dictated by his Intelligence attribute score and experience level. To get new spells, the magic-user will need to study under a more experienced magician or else find magic scrolls in the course of adventures that he can copy into his spellbook.

A cleric prays to her god and performs a ritual, which invokes a favor, in the form of a spell, from her god. To regain a spell, the cleric will need to dedicate time to uninterrupted prayer. The number and kinds of spells that a cleric can invoke are dictated by the cleric’s experience level and Wisdom attribute score.

So there is pseudo-scientific magic, gained through study, that follows predictable rules; and there is divine magic that is bestowed by a god or other powerful being. Players assume their characters are acquainted with the particulars of the magic they use. Players themselves don’t have to memorize any magical procedures themselves, just what a spell does. They simply declare their intent to use a spell, and depending on the rules for a particular spell, their character may have to employ special physical ingredients and/or words or hand gestures. If the character isn’t free to speak or move, or if they hadn’t secured the right ingredients ahead of time, they can’t cast the spell. These rules serve to limit the power of magic-users in the game.

The essential use of magic is pretty much the same across the board. A magic-using character has spell slots and chooses which spells to put in them before the adventure, and during the adventure when a spell is cast, a spell vacates the slot, and a character needs about a day of downtime to recover spells. Spells are divided up into levels, which are not the same as character levels. A fifth-level spell is a powerful spell, for instance, and a character needs to have much more than five character levels to use it.

(This is tier-1 spellcasting. Recent editions of the game have introduced “sorcerer,” or “artsy,” magic that derives from innate talent. A sorcerer doesn’t need to find new spells and enter them in a spell book. More about this later.)

  • Experience Points and Level Progression

Gaining levels is an essential D&D element. You do this by defeating monsters. To keep the challenge of level progression uniformly difficult, you need to defeat more or more powerful monsters to gain each successive level. So, for example, you might need a thousand experience points to go up to level 2 and then another 2000 to go up to level 3. The way experience has been awarded has changed over the years. While the concept of leveling is an essential concept, there’s no essential implementation. Basically, a DM wants to moderate the challenges so that a group will make regular progress in going up levels without having it be too easy, say one level per every ten hours or so of playing – less if the group meets seldom and more if they play a lot. It’s probably worse to make leveling too easy than too hard, however. Attaining a new level gives a character more hit points, and every few levels a character gets a bonus on various skill checks, or at least a to-hit bonus. Spellcasters can hold more spells in memory each level and qualify to cast more powerful spells every few levels.

Magic Items

Magic items are all arbitrary, but I’d say that magic swords and other weapons that give a bonus up to +3 on a to-hit roll, magic arrows that slay a certain type of creature if the creature fails a saving throw, rings and cloaks of invisibility, and magic potions that bestow various powers – basically any magic that can improve a character’s stats temporarily or permanently – are tier-1 elements.


Monsters represent the key antagonism in the game. They can be very arbitrary, but a few do seem to be essential. Humanoid monsters play on our xenophobia and help us to articulate ideas about evil. Monsters may have more or less power from culture to culture, but so far it seems that the following are durable monster archetypes that should show up at some point:

— Humanoid: goblins, orcs, ogres, and giants. There are various giants, but hill giants, frost giants, and fire giants seem most important.

— Undead: vampires, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and wraiths/shadows/ghosts (permutations of the same incorporeal undead). Undead complement clerics, because clerics have special powers to address them. If you get rid of one, you need to get rid of the other, and I think undead address universal anxiety about corpses, death, and the extinction of the self. Some undead can only be affected by magic weapons and holy water. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get holy water, which is magical where undead are concerned. Thus, the mere threat of undead helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world by forcing them to think about holy water. (In response to Christian churches that will not condone gay clergy, I joke that as long as gay priests can make holy water that will burn vampires, they should be allowed to keep their perquisites.) Sacred rites run deep in our psychology, and undead support this idea nicely.

— Lycanthropes: werewolves, werebears, and wererats. Maybe werewolves are the only essential lycanthropes. After all, “lycanthropy” derives from the Greek lukos, meaning wolf, but werebears appear in Tolkien’s work, and wererats touch our anxiety about a creature that has parasitized human civilization since the beginning. The idea of sewer-dwelling riffraff that can turn into rats seems essential to me. In any case, lycanthropes reflect our ambivalence with our animal natures. Because lycanthropes can be hit only by magic or silver weapons, players need to think about having extra equipment to address them. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get silver weapons, which are magical where lycanthropes are concerned. Thus, as with holy water, the idea of needing silver weapons helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world.

— Demons and Devils: demons and devils are essential to the game. They are like undead, but they come from realms of perfected evil, whereas undead merely channel the energy of those realms. Heroic fantasy deals with abstractions like good and evil as absolutes. Demonic forces reflect the higher order of the cosmos.

— Dragons: dragons have a long fantasy tradition. Whole scholarly books have been written (in the real world) on how they embody a mixture of traits common to the ancient predators of humanity: serpents, raptors, and hunting cats. The idea of them is readily at hand. We may have dedicated brain circuits to processing the idea of clawed, flying, scaly things with fear and awe.

— Giant Animals and Plants: gigantism in many forms evokes a number of important feelings, from otherness to awe to revulsion. A very small creature like an amoeba, cricket, or spider becomes a positive horror when made gigantic; same with carnivorous plants.

— Greek Myth: Just about any creature from Greek Myth should be considered a part of the tier-1 D&D canon.

— Weird: D&D needs a few weird monsters to evoke anxiety about Otherness and shake up the Manichean expectations set up by demons and devils. Maybe even demons and devils are ultimately too cozy and human-centric. Maybe at its deepest levels, the universe is a scary, unknowable place where all we cling to as order is arbitrary and vain. The Weird would include monsters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or their close cousins like mind flayers, but the particular weirdness isn’t important, just that there is some.


Essential D&D recognizes the gold piece as the primary unit of currency. Gold does not tarnish. It has a long tradition in alchemy, and is a great metaphor for purity. Copper, silver, and platinum coins are also essential D&D, but they all have value in reference to gold. Gems are also essential, as are various magic items, but the particular ones aren’t so important.

Traps and Puzzles

Pit traps, arrow traps, riddling sphinxes – traps and riddles are essential dungeon furnishing and can provide interesting roleplaying opportunities. They involve skill checks and so remind players of the various capabilities of their characters and help them maintain sight of the roles they’re playing.


Swords, spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, and maces. Thieves generally do not use heavy weapons. Some clerics may not be able to use blood-letting weapons. These restrictions help enforce class specialization and limit their powers.


Shields, leather, chain, scale, and plate, or admixtures, are essential. Armor is used to balance out the powers of the various classes. Thieves and magic-users generally cannot use metal armor. The in-game reasoning for this is that metal armor interferes with their movement, but the restriction also balances their powers with those of the other classes, of course.

Tier 2

Beyond tier 1, you really can consider yourself on your own and still solidly within the realm of D&D. I’ll just share what I think are a few elements of the game with a solid tradition that arguably lie closest to essential D&D without being archetypal; an example is monsters that were created specifically for the game.

D&D-specific monsters

In D&D trolls are a special type of green-skinned, dim-witted, regenerating monstrosity, very tough for low-level characters to kill, but generally solitary so they’re a common monster encounter. They’re nothing like the Nordic troll, which really can be replaced by ogres and hill giants anyway. Since trolls in the game are a D&D innovation, I wouldn’t call them essential, but most D&D games use them. The same could be said of other creatures like the gelatinous cube and the piercer, or the mind flayer, which is like a race of wingless, human-sized Cthulhu monsters. The mind flayer is a great D&D innovation. It has a hideous parasitic life cycle and has captured a lot of people’s imaginations.

Other Monsters

Lesser-known monsters from world mythology, like weretigers, rakshasa, and so on, are tier 2. Is this a Western bias? Of course it is, because D&D is a game that started in the West and was primarily inspired by Western Classical culture. If you don’t live in the West, though, feel free to consider your local beasties tier 1.

Extra Classes

Tier-2 character classes include paladin holy warriors, rangers in the idiom of Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings, monks like the kung fu warriors from chopsocky movies, and what D&D calls “sorcerers,” which are artsy-fartsy magicians whose spells come from an innate magical gift rather than disciplined study. Sorcerer-type magicians as defined by later editions of D&D have a solid tradition in genre fantasy literature. I don’t think they’re archetypes like wizards and priests, so they’re not essential, but they’re close.

Extra Races

Gnomes, deep gnomes, drow — drow are dark elves. Elves in Tolkien were arguably like humans before the Fall, so Dark Elves are like, I don’t know, elves who made a pact with demons to act wicked and still keep their immortality? Anyway, the idea of debased subterranean elves, suave but impossibly evil, worshippers of a hideous spider goddess who demands blood sacrifice and favors women so as to set up a dark matriarchy – it’s provocative stuff. The idea of drow is only a few decades old, though, not quite tier-1 stuff. Maybe I’m too conservative.

Recent editions of D&D have promoted dragonmen to first-class race status. In terms of importance to the game, I’d call them tier 3, at best.


All spells are tier 2 or lower. Some of them have a respected tradition in the game and in mythology generally, and should probably be considered canon, insofar as any spells are. That would include Web, Magic Missile, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Polymorph, Cure Disease, Cure Wounds, Shield, Light, Strength, Bless, and arguably a few others.

Outer_Planes-2013_(1980-12)_TSR_AD&D_1ed-Deities_&_Demigods-1Specific Moral and Physical Planes

Every edition of D&D since the first “Advanced” D&D books published in 1978 has outlined a cosmology where each moral alignment has its home universes – or “Outer Planes of Alignment” [click on image below] — that bleed through a layer of elemental, or “Inner” — planes to intersect our own. [Click on image to the right.]

outer planesNow, whether the elemental planes in your D&D game follow the classical model, with realms of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water (and Ether, or “Quintessence”) and whether you recognize the existence of the Nine Hells and the 666 layers of the Abyss, divide the planes up into Inner and Outer Planes, mix in Light and Dark as elements, stick in an Astral Plane for good measure, and talk about “Demi-Planes” – whether you accept these specifics is really a tier 2 and lower consideration.

Some may argue that the nine alignments and a cosmology of moral Outer Planes and physical Inner Planes are not really essential, but I disagree; they unify discussion of monsters and magic and have such a deep tradition in D&D that without them, you’re really playing a different game.

Specific Rules

Most of the specific rules of D&D are tier 2 or lower. The six basic attributes and the concepts of skill checks are essential, as I explained, but what about the exact numbers you need to apply to a 20-sided die and the names you give the various skills? Tier 2, or lower. I won’t go into which have the more solid tradition. Specific rules, as opposed to the general concepts, are really up to your taste. You’ll want them, but remember that ultimately you don’t need them.

Tier 3, and Beyond

Tier 2 represents the time-honored, if arbitrary, core traditions of D&D. Other traditions and have come and gone in the past forty years. In tier 3, I’d place the Energy and Transitive planes of the cosmology; monsters other than demons and devils that inhabit the Outer Planes, like devas, angels, and so on; specific gods like Lolth; combat rules involving weapon speed factors; advantage dice, critical hits, and skill and feat trees. If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. It is not “advanced” stuff; it’s just more stuff, some good, some not so good. All of it dispensable.


D&D involves several players and a storyteller referee that mediates the storytelling. Essential D&D resonates with our evolved cognitive biases, and explores archetypal symbols. It takes practice to do it well, but doing it well is less a function of adhering to the rules than mastering the art of appearing to faithfully apply them. You actually use the rules only to help the players suspend their disbelief and to suggest new, better dramatic possibilities for your story.

Coming Soon: D&D Setup and Procedure

(Dungeons and Dragons and D&D are registered trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, a division of Hasbro, Inc.)

Holy War in Christianity: The Birth and Death of a Paradox

crus[Note: This is the third part in a “holy-war trilogy”. Previous posts on Islam and Judaism are here and here, respectively.]

Reuven Firestone hasn’t written a book on the crusades, but I will try to address the theme of Christian holy war as he did for Islam and Judaism. We saw that jihad is essential to Islam, while holy war holds much less importance in Judaism. In Christianity it has no basis, which is why the crusades are so fascinating.

When Christianity became the religion of the state, it did not co-opt the idea of holy war, even though it would have benefited immensely from doing so. The idea of sacred violence would remain unthinkable for centuries, because in Christian thought, holy war was exactly that: unthinkable. From the fourth century to the eleventh, the church taught that violence was intrinsically evil, even when justified, particularly under the influence of Augustine.

The Problem of Christian Knights

What did happen was that a more “muscular” Christianity evolved after the collapse of the Roman Empire (476 AD), in the centuries of warfare against barbarians to the north and east. The Germanic peoples in the fifth and sixth centuries were thoroughly steeped in a warrior culture. Plunder, tribute, and warbands provided a new basis for economic and social cohesion. The church had no option but to recognize these values, even as it sought to diffuse them as much as possible. Essentially, Germanic values became modified by the Christian ethos. The knight represented a Christianized version of the Frankish warrior hero, taught that their profession was a necessary evil but inherently sinful. As a result, they felt spiritually trapped. Their violent obligations made sin inevitable; monks told them that their transgressions would trigger gruesome torments in the afterlife.

The church tried its damnedest to curb knightly violence. It proclaimed the Peace of God in the late 980s, and then reinforced it with the Truce of God in the 1020s. The Peace required knights to protect the weak and the poor and the defenseless, while the Truce prohibited them from any fighting period on Thursdays and Fridays, and special feasts and holy seasons. Violations of either the Peace or Truce carried the threat of excommunication. These were commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The Peace and Truce movements saw revivals throughout the eleventh century, especially in the 1080s, always to failure though not for lack of trying. The point is that the church fought violence tooth and nail, in view of its savior’s pacifism.

The crusades were practically a last-ditch effort to embrace the evil on more enlightened terms. “If you can’t beat it, join it”. Or better yet, copy it; counter the enemy’s tactics (the jihad) with your own version. Christian holy war was a proactive measure which functioned defensively.

1. The crusades were (proactively) the product of frustrated reformist agendas. Urban II’s call for holy war came as a godsend to Christian knights. It accomplished what the Peace and Truce movements tried in vain. It was the antidote to Augustine’s theory of just war which only exacerbated knightly guilt. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred under the right conditions — knights could freely be themselves. As warriors they could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory. “If you must have blood,” said Urban, “bathe in the blood of the infidels. You who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the Muslims.” Urban exported knightly violence abroad, in a defensive service, and in the words of a medieval preacher, “By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.”

2. The crusades were (defensively) a delayed response to Islamic jihad. It was actually Gregory VII in the 1070s, not Urban II in 1090s, who first attempted to launch a crusade. He had introduced the concept of penitential warfare as distinguished from secular warfare, and he tried putting such warfare into practice after the Seljuk victory over the Greeks at Manzikert (1071). In 1074 he announced his intention to lead, in person, a holy army to help the eastern Christians against Islamic invaders. The jihad inspired the crusades, though Christianity “copied” the Islamic idea only so far. Jihad was mandatory and essential to Islamic faith; the crusades were voluntary, hard to justify theologically, and often came under criticism. Gregory’s effort failed in any case. Urban succeeded years later when the Greeks again called for help, due to his ambitions. He preached the crusade in a massive tour of France (1095), and used his skills as a rhetorician to ignite warrior passions, painting lurid accounts of Muslim atrocities.

The crusades, then, derived in part from papal reformist theology as a reply to Germanic martial culture, and in part from the Islamic jihad whose premise of sacred violence it mirrored. The First Crusade was an amazing success, while the efforts that followed in Palestine ranged from the moderately successful to the disastrous. The Muslims of Egypt and Mesopotamia never accepted the existence of Christian kingdoms in Palestine and Syria — anymore than they accepted Christian European nations — and attacked them repeatedly.

Imagining the Crusade

With the crushing Muslim victory in 1291, the crusades ended in Palestine, and with this a change in the idea of holy war. Crusading evolved into a “way of being” more than waging war per se. Military campaigns against the Muslim world certainly continued into the 16th century — primarily in Spain, Italy, and against the Ottoman Turks — as well as in other theaters, like the Baltic region (Finland, Estonia, and Prussia). But the idea of Christian holy-war was kept alive primarily as a state of mind. Christopher Tyerman calls this “imagining the crusade”. The holy-war movement was increasingly spiritualized, and kept alive primarily through festivals, confraternities, guilds, charities, taxes, public processions, and a cult of relics. Crusading became “something to be believed in more than something to do” (God’s War, pp 825-827).

The spiritualization process is similar to the way post-70 rabbis imagined repossessing the land of Israel: through settlement instead of military conquest, and preaching Noahide religion to its Gentile inhabitants instead of subjugating them. They also imagined becoming “new priests” in the wake of the temple’s destruction: through study of the Torah, as table-purity at home reinvented sacrifice on the altar. For the rabbis as much the later crusaders, the material loss of Jerusalem and its environs necessitated the imagining of tradition to keep it alive. The idea of holy war remained important even as its application became problematic.

The 16th Century to the Present

The difference is that in Judaism, holy war was bound to return in its literal manifestation once Jews were again in political control. The crusades, on the other hand, were foreordained to pass from Christian nations, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians. The Islamic world, on the other hand, never evolved in the direction of Christian Europe. This is not only because of its political canvass, but because of beliefs endemic to Islam. Muhammad is the warlord exemplar. Jesus would have excoriated the crusaders with every fiber of his pacifist being.

Wrap-Up: Holy War in “the Faiths of Abraham”

There’s no question that history imposed a certain trajectory on the three faiths. Judaism and Christianity began on the losing side, while Islam was triumphantly ascendant. But historical accidents only explain so much. Islam happened to be victorious conquering the world, but its success persisted on the strength of mandatory militant religiosity. Judaism’s loss of political ground made it impossible to repossess the promised land, but the idea remained important (though not essential) in Jewish thought, grounded in scripture and tradition. Christianity’s sudden favor with Constantine didn’t see the result we might expect, based on the political examples of Judaism and Islam. The idea of holy war was consistently rejected for centuries, and then finally accepted in defense against Islam to solve the dilemma of a knight’s salvation. The eventual spiritualization, and then rejection, of the crusades didn’t require a loss of political control, only a simple recognition that holy wars were as much anathema to Christianity as they were to secular polities.

David Bowie: In Commemoration

This isn’t meant to be a top-10 list in a strict sense, which I would have great difficulty coming with for someone like Bowie. They are personal favorites, but ones that span his career. Contrary to certain wisdom, Bowie didn’t lose his talent after the ’70s.

1. Heroes (1977). No justification needed for this at the top. It will always be my favorite Bowie song, and I’m amazed at how futuristic it still sounds in the 21st century.

2. Space Oddity (1969). There are three particular songs whose stories vastly increase their power: Rush’s 2112, Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh (though the entire album of The Wall applies)… and of course Bowie’s Space Oddity.

3. Strangers When We Meet (1995). As I said, I have no use for those who say Bowie lost his talent after the ’70s, and this song is exhibit-A. It’s about old friends and fading memories, and probably the most moving piece of his career.

4. Life on Mars (1971) and Starman (1972). These space epics are about as good, and certainly as majestic, so they tie. Life on Mars is the most iconic Bowie song, and Starman the most operatic.

5. Modern Love (1983). From Bowie’s most commercial album (Let’s Dance), which I remember hating when it was released. Ironically, it’s the most mainstream sounding track which holds up so well. Modern Love is a lot like Peter Gabriel’s Secret World, the rare piece that everyone loves for good reason.

6. God Bless the Girl (2013). Bowie actually cut this from the album, including it as a bonus for the Japanese release. It seems to be an ode to a social worker, or a nun, or perhaps someone let down by the divide between the promise of heaven and the reality of hell on earth. But it’s a great song in any case, and massively underrated.

7. Suffragette City (1972). If Space Oddity was Bowie’s homage to Space Odyssey, this one is loaded with Clockwork Orange references, and the tempo alone shouts the sex boasts. From the Ziggy Stardust album, about the alien rock star exploring politics and drug use and bisexuality.

8. Under Pressure (1981). His collaboration with Queen needs no comment beyond the high replay value. Most people consider it more a Queen song than Bowie, but not me, no doubt because I was never a Queen fan.

9. Hallo Spaceboy (1995). Like #3, this is from the massively underrated Outside album, and has homages to #2 as it resurrects Ground Control and Major Tom. It has a great Nine Inch Nails vibe too.

10. Blackstar (2016). The new album has yet to settle, but I will say the title track is grand. And portentous in the extreme, being a rumination about death. It’s also the second longest track of his career (after Station to Station), and inspired by Gregorian chant. RIP.

Here’s a playlist I made, with most of the above songs plus China Girl.

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea

[Note: This is the second part in a “holy-war trilogy”. The previous post on Islam is here.]

The first thing to observe is that this book is quite different from the author’s study of Islam. It’s almost twice as long (365 pages instead of 190), which owes to its comprehensive scope. “It begins in the dark corridors of antiquity,” says Firestone, “and ends with the blinding explosion of the Jewish Underground in the mid-1980s” (p 7). The whole of Judaism’s history is under the microscope — from biblical times to the rabbinic period to the modern. Jihad was focused on the more narrow question of historical origins; once established, holy war has always been an essential part of Islam, and consistently interpreted as such. Judaism is another matter, and thus the subtitle, “The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea”.

What emerges is that holy war, while not essential to Judaism, is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. The rabbis didn’t totally spiritualize the concept. They made it strenuously difficult to apply, pursuant to their powerless position, but the idea of taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if they could have, they would have”. This is rather opposite the phenomenon of the Christian crusades, which depended on the intersection of many improbable factors and had no basis in Christian thought at all.

While Zionists in today’s world are the Jewish minority, they aren’t so in Israel, and even the religious Zionists are not so few in number. Many Israelis don’t align with secular Zionism or orthodoxy, and they are galvanized by the passion of religious activists, confident in the divine imperative of holy war to conquer the promised land. Holy war has been part of the Jewish discourse for decades now, not in the Islamic sense of world dominion, slaughter and subjugation of unbelievers, granted, but certainly in the sense of engaging in whatever military means necessary to take back the biblical patrimony. Let’s start where it all began.

The Biblical and Second-Temple Periods

Firestone outlines the Deuteronomic view of holy war, which is the most systematic and comprehensive in the Hebrew Bible. The irony, he notes, is that the conquest of Palestine may not have been historically fought based on this formulation, since the ideas evolved long after the consolidation of Israel as a nation (culminating late in the seventh century BC). We simply can’t know whether the wars against the Canaanites, Philistines, Assyrians, or even the Babylonians were considered holy at the time they were fought. But the vision as preserved is clear. The Jewish descendants believed their Israelite ancestors had been fighting holy wars to keep the land of Israel pure and their religion alive.

The classic holy war texts of Deuteronomy have two major aims, the first being possession of the land (1:6-8, 2:25-37, 3:1-22, 6:10-12, 7:1, 9:1-3, 11:23-25, 20:1-18, 29:6-8, 31:3-6), the second to keep the land free of idolatry and also of those who practice it (7:1-5, 7:16-26, 12:1-3, 12:29-13:1, 13:2-19, 16:21-22, 17:2-7, 18:9-14). Of critical note — this being a huge difference between Judaism and Islam — is that destruction of idolatrous peoples is to be carried out only within the promised land itself. Never does God command holy war to be waged beyond the land’s borders, or to subjugate unbelievers elsewhere (p 23). From the Israelite/Jewish perspective, the purpose of holy war never included bringing “right religion” to other nations, or to “propagate the faith” (p 24). It was not outward looking, and did not seek converts. It was meant to isolate Israel, to unify and strengthen a minority people through a defensive strategy.

When Israel lost its monarchy and political independence (the Second Temple period), holy war became the war of rebellion. The celebratory case is the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids (167-160 BC), the basis for Hanukkah. The heroes of I Maccabees are the military commanders who enforce Jewish religion by force of arms, and remind in some ways of the modern Taliban — at least in their willingness to kill anyone, even their own people, for budging an inch from what the Torah required (I Macc 2:19-28, for example). The heroes of II Maccabees, on the other hand, are the faithful martyrs willing to die for the purity of their faith, preferably without resorting to arms, though the latter may be a necessary evil. II Maccabees shines the approving spotlight on martyrs more than militants, subordinating militarism to a selfless sacrifice that doesn’t necessarily aim to kill opponents at the same time.

While the Maccabean victory against the Seleucids highlight the glory of holy war (given its success), all extant accounts of the later revolts against Rome — the Great Revolt of 67 AD and the Bar Kockhba Revolt of 135 AD — emphasize that holy war is futile and that Judaism’s survival depends on a loss of political independence. Life, even under oppression and humiliation and exile, was now preferable to rebellion and martyrdom. Pious sages supplanted holy warriors, and any Jewish activists engaged in holy war or guerrilla activities were now considered criminals rather than freedom fighters (pp 62-63). The rabbis taught that Israel would be protected from its enemies not by warfare, but by prayer and righteousness behavior… with a big “but”.

The Rabbinical Period

The rabbis were creative in dealing with holy war. First, they defined it in a way that it made it virtually impossible to apply (pp 73-74). Holy war was limited to the wars of conquest by Joshua in ages past. A new conquest of the promised land was never again to be initiated by the Jews, but by God who alone would determine when the time was right.

Second, they established the Three Vows (pp 74-75) to reinforce the idea that any human attempts to usher in the messianic age is to “force God’s hand”, which will bring God’s wrath and destruction on the Jewish people. They derived the Three Vows from the Song of Songs:

“I make you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, do not wake or rouse love until it is wished “(Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, 8:4).

The “daughters of Jerusalem” are understood as a metaphor for Israel, and “making and rousing love” as an attempt to bring about the messiah. Orthodox Jews would later oppose Zionism primarily on the basis of these Three Vows.

But even if practically impossible, holy war was still theoretically possible and discussed in theory by rabbis down the centuries. The two most influential were Maimonides (1138-1204) and Nahmanides (1194-1270).

Maimonides’s views were influenced by Islamic supremacism, much as the Christian crusades were at the same time a response to Islamic jihad. He fled Spain after the Almohads took over in 1148, went to Morocco, but had to flee Islamic oppression again, and then again after settling in Acre. He believed, for example, that Moses was commanded to compel human beings to accept the Noahide laws — not the Mosaic laws, and so not as extreme as an Islam-equivalent (Islam required idolaters to fully convert to Islam), but a remarkable development nonetheless in Jewish theology. In Maimonides’ view of holy war, God commanded only the destruction of the seven Canaanite nations and the tribe of Amalek, but this command is eternal, in the sense that Canaan and Amalek symbolize idolatry. Even the idolatrous Canaanites and Amalekites were offered terms of peace by Joshua (according to Maimonides), but they refused, thus justifying the holy wars that destroyed them. Maimonides thus portrays holy war more as a reflection of God’s will to bring the right beliefs to idolaters, instead of taking possession of the land.

Nahmanides also ended up in Acre, staying there until his death. He followed many of Maimonides’ theories, but had a serious disagreement which would become a classic Torah debate. He denied that God’s command to destroy Canaan and Amalek was a mere declaration against idolatry. It was indeed a specific directive to take possession of the land of Israel, and from any idolater, whether Canaanite or otherwise. The eternal command is to take possession of the land (though Nahmanides does accept that idolaters in the land need not be destroyed if they surrender and accept minimal conditions), which of course the Jewish people were in no position to do. Nahmanides fudged by offering an alternative to military conquest, that of settlement. “Settling in the land of Israel,” he says, “is equal to all the commandments of the Torah.”

For all their spiritualizing efforts and goalpost shifting, Maimonides and Nahmanides were also concerned with providing a legal foundation for a (theoretical) military conquest of the land of Israel. Maimonides obsessed the proper definition of “national conquest” (p 119), and the views of Nahmanides especially would be chewed over and fine-tuned by later Zionists. This is the “but” that is often glided over in discussing the otherwise peaceful and spiritual approaches of the rabbis.


The seeds of Zionism go back to the 1860s, as secular Jews looked for ways to assimilate on their own terms. The Jewish state finally emerged in 1948 in terms of secular nationalism, then with increased religious fervor alongside secular voices. By the mid-’80s the belief in holy conquest had taken on the ancient tone of divinely ordained (and virtually unlimited) military possession of the promised land.

For about twenty years after the state of Israel was formed, Zionism remained a largely social-utopian vision. It wasn’t firmly anchored in religiosity or scriptural affirmation at this time. Whenever Zionists cited scripture and invoked traditional symbols to support their vision, it was part of an effort “to Judaize culturally, through symbols and language, what was at core a modern European-style nationalist movement” (p 251). It was the Six-Day war of 1967 which sparked a revival of religious fervor that gave Zionism a cutting, bellicose religiosity. The context, as Firestone explains, was that of a perceived miracle: In the weeks leading up to the outbreak on June 5, Israel found itself surrounded by millions of Muslims who were being told to destroy the Jewish nation. Egypt had received a Soviet military armament during the previous decade, and the Egyptian president had concentrated troops in the Sinai peninsula, closed the straits of Tiran to Israelit shipping, and persuaded Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia (in varying degrees) to reinforce efforts against Israel. The Israelis saw the UN and European powers as indifferent to all of this, and feared that another Holocaust was in the making.

In this context, says Firestone, the quick overnight victory signaled not only a miracle, but to many Jews a sign that redemption was finally at hand. Even secular Jews turned to their religious roots, and joined hands with Israelis who acknowledged the messianic nature of Zionism. A dam had burst and huge numbers in the Zionist camp were calling for redemption. The idea of conquest was now about more than just agriculture, settlement, and activism to restore the land. It was about keeping the land religiously pure, and preparing for a new age.

The debates were furious. Since the creation of the Jewish state, questions remained unresolved: Did the Gentile persecution of Jews and the threat of Islam throughout the 19th and 20th centuries justify a breaking of the Three Vows, so as to engage actively in bringing out the messianic redemption? Or were these persecutions and threats stern warnings from God, in which case Zionism could only be another misguided attempt to force God’s hand? The victory of 1967, as Firestone tells it, seemed to resolve all doubt about the matter. It was a clear sign that God intended Israel to conquer and settle all the biblical land of Israel. It would be a failure of the Jewish people if they were to defy the command carried in this miracle of victory.

There is an important point here, though Firestone does not explicitly make it. The rise of holy war in Zionist thought involved more than socio-political realities. Beliefs matter, and by that I mean all the strongly attested beliefs of one’s tradition. The biblical view of holy war was important to religious Zionists — but so were the Three Vows, which had formed the basis for centuries of apolitical Judaism, and couldn’t be spuriously dismissed or superseded. Even the most zealous Zionists took care in disarming those vows. Their reasoning was elaborate and considered, for example, that according to a 17th century Jewish thinker, the vows were only in force for 1000 years, and after that time period, when Jewish people are under attack or serious threat, able-bodied Jewish men are required to fight per the stipulations of holy war (p 260). Orthodox and anti-Zionist Jews, meanwhile, uphold the Three Vows to this day.

The Zionist envelope was pushed hard by the 1980s, the period which Firestone marks as the final stage of development of Jewish holy war ideology (p 311). Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook veered close to the view of Islamic jihad, when he called for God to kill Arabs to avenge the victims of Muslim gunmen (p 289). He reserved wrath and vengeance for God, but his rhetoric was inflammatory enough that it could be misconstrued. More generally, he extended the views of Nahmanides in such a way that cancelled any limitations on holy war imposed by the Talmud. Other rabbis (like Yitzhak Kaufman in the ’90s) would follow suit. Then there were rogue Zionists, who engaged in acts of terrorism against the Palestinians, and tried to destroy the Dome of the Rock. They were fringe, of course, and publicly condemned by all respected rabbis. Certainly the standard halakhic journals provided no articles to justify terror. But there were rogue rabbis who privately backed these acts of terror, lending Jewish terrorists a fringe legitimacy (see p 309).


That’s where the road ends. “By the mid-1980s,” says Firestone, “the revival of holy war in modern Judaism had been complete, and therefore also is this study.” His book is the best conceptual journey of its kind, and filled with exegetical details. While a comparative strategy does not seem intended on his part, the book goes well with his study on Islam. Jewish holy war is not as pernicious as Islam’s. It certainly doesn’t constitute a global threat against human rights and civilized values. Nor does it enjoy the weighted attestation and consistently applied theory of the jihad. It is nonetheless a troubling Jewish ingredient that won’t go away, and we can understand why, thanks to Firestone’s study.

Stay tuned for the third post, Holy War in Christianity: The Birth and Death of a Paradox.

Holy War in Islam: Historical Origins

The overwhelming evidence is that pre-Islamic Arabia knew of no notion of ideological war of any kind, let alone religiously sanctioned war. Yet it appears very early in Islam as a highly developed and applied concept. Reuven Firestone’s Jihad: The Origins of Holy War in Islam (1999) attempts to answer why and how the radical development took place. It was published before 9/11, so that political specter is refreshingly absent throughout the study. I suspect that if Firestone had written this book more recently, he might have pushed his thesis harder so as to paint early Islam as diversified as possible. As the book stands, it’s a helpful study on whole, but doesn’t demonstrate a variance of beliefs that can carry the impact Firestone wants.

The Emergence of Holy War in Arabia

Firestone starts with an overview of pre-Islamic Arabia, noting that several trajectories of belief were pulling the culture in different directions. With the advent of Islam came major changes in those beliefs: that life was governed by God rather than fate and time; that people depended on God instead of enjoying simple material well-being; that behavior was governed by moral commandments and the promise of reward and punishment (in this world and the next) rather than by tribal traditions; and that warfare was sacred and morally imperative.

Prior to Islam, war served as it did in most societies (see p 23) — to keep the population at a survivable level and allow the fittest to excel. It was the culturally acceptable means for distributing and redistributing wealth (herds and flocks), access to pasturage, and most importantly tribal honor and prestige. Warfare was non-ideological. Martrydom had no meaning in such a system. Neither religion nor what we would call “moral duty” had any impact on waging war. Despite votive offerings dedicated to tribal deities in thanks for battle victories, these had nothing to do with holy war. They were wars of plunder and military glory, with a focus on control of trade routes. There was little to no interest in expansion and possession.

When Islam emerged, motives for warfare moved from the economic incentive and kinship commitment (material gain and tribal honor) to the ideological responsibility of religious commitment — expansion, the promulgation of Allah’s will, and the subjugation of unbelievers under Islamic law. Religious affiliation replaced kinship affiliation as the religious community replaced the tribe (p 91). This transition occurred within an astonishingly short period, the watershed being the few years following the emigration from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra, in 622 AD). But why?

According to Firestone, Muhammad and his followers had the problem of sustenance in their new home. Medina was an oasis community based on date agriculture with every scrap of land already claimed and cultivated. So they fell back on the custom of tribal raiding, and the natural prey were their own Meccan tribe of Quraysh, despite the fierce taboo against raiding one’s own kin. The Meccans had treated Muhammad and his followers so abusively for their new religion, and they were the ones who regularly sent out lucrative transport caravans. Firestone suggests that “holy war” emerged as a concept in order to justify the unthinkable — raiding one’s own kin (pp 130-131). Divine authority legitimated the outrageous act.

This is a plausible reconstruction, I suppose, but it’s a mark of negligence that Firestone does not explore the possible influence of Judaism. He notes in passing that some forms of holy war may have been engaged by unorthodox Jewish and/or Jewish Christian tribes of southern Arabia, as the Jews and Christians in this region warred on each other during the first half of the sixth century (pp 37-39), but he does not speculate on the degree to which this may have served as a catalyst for Islam, which borrowed heavily from the two religions in any case. This, to me, is the book’s greatest shortfall: failing to explore the nature of the proto-Islamic group as either a sect of Judaism, a Jewish sect of Christianity, or some kind of umbrella monotheistic group which saw itself as encompassing “true” forms of the two monotheistic movements.

Holy War in the Texts

Holy war remains mandatory in Islam to this day. “Jihad” literally means struggling, or exerting one’s utmost power, in contending with something of disapprobation. But as Firestone correctly notes, unless it is specifically qualified with phrases like “jihad of the heart”, or “jihad of the tongue”, it is universally understood as physical war on behalf of Allah (the equivalent of “jihad of the sword”). Muslim theologians distinguish a “greater jihad” (spiritual struggle against the self) from a “lesser jihad” (holy war), but one has always depended on the other (p 17).

The Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith all put this beyond doubt, though the Qur’an preserves some ambiguities which Firestone exploits to suggest that early Muslims were about equally divided in approaches of peace and war. He is not convincing about this, but let’s start with the easy parts and then work backwards to the Qur’an.

The Hadith are straightforward. They are the expansive accounts of Muhammad collected by the ninth century, and are universal in the belief that war must be waged to spread Allah’s name and subjugate unbelievers under Islamic law. They do provide for deferments during war, such for men who have physical handicaps, or newlywed men who want to return home. They also censure the pre-Islamic reasons for warfare (material gain and personal self-aggrandizement, see p 103), but never is there a hint of any resistance to the policy of military expansionism and mandatory warfare against unbelievers.

The same is true with the Sira, which is the hadith-like biography of Muhammad compiled throughout the eighth-ninth centuries. Firestone does flesh out informative details. For example, Muhammad is portrayed as refusing to respond to insults or heated arguments with violence. But this doesn’t undermine the mandatory requirements for waging jihad, slaying idolaters, subjugating Jews and Christians, etc. It simply shows Muhammad as honorable enough not to be baited into violence by the provocation of insult.

The Qur’an is the sticking point. It’s massively weighed in favor of warfare, but there is a counter-tradition which seemingly opposes it. I say “seemingly”, because the Qur’an actually resolves the tension. When Firestone asks, “Does Islamic scripture prescribe avoidance of violence in propagating and defending the faith (16:125), defensive wars only (22:39-40), or unrestricted warfare (9:5)?” (p 49), the Qur’an itself answers that question.

That answer has been the standard line for centuries. In cases of contradiction, earlier revelations — that is, the peaceful texts of Mecca — were given to assist with the contingency of the moment. Later revelations — the violent ones of Medina — are normative and eternal. The Qur’an provides the basis for this doctrine of abrogation in 2:106 and 16:101. Muslims cannot pick and choose the commandments they like or prefer; they must go with history and follow the latest injunction. This isn’t to say that the few peaceful revelations have no enduring value, but they apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (the situation of Muhammad in his early days, when he was slowly building a movement; or, say, of modern Muslims living in secularized nations). “The logic is superb,” as Firestone admits, “for it demonstrates that divine authority for total war was withheld from Muslims only until they were ready and well organized; God was in effect preparing and guiding his community for the role of world conquerors and propagators of Islam.” (p 50)

Scholars are obviously aware that the jihad traditions may not have evolved so straightforwardly. There could have been some variance within each period. Though it’s doubtful any of the violent passages come from early Meccan traditions (when Muslims didn’t have the numbers to wage war, nor perhaps the balls to define their tribal kin in close quarters as the enemy), it could be the case — and Firestone does indeed argue — that at least some of the peaceful texts come from the later Medinan period. These would reflect the views of rival factions within the Muslim community who opposed war-mongering in favor of more peaceful strategies.

That’s a fair enough suggestion, though speculative. As Firestone admits, the context of the Qur’an sayings have been lost, and it’s virtually impossible to reconstruct those original contexts (see pp 47-48). But it’s not just that. The idea of rival factions, if true, isn’t especially novel. In considering the eight verses which express peaceful means of propagating or defending the Islamic faith, Firestone argues that four fit the Meccan context (6:106, 15:94, 16:125, 50:39) as usually assumed, but the other four are Medinan (2:109, 5:13, 29:46, 42:15). But Suras 2 and 5 have always been recognized as Medinan anyway (see here for a list that orders all the suras according to the classical theory). There has always been an implied variance recognized on the classical model, and which indeed only makes sense. Evolution seldom breaks entirely with the past, even when superseding it. That doesn’t nullify the model, though Firestone’s points are helpful reminders of the complexities involved in any ideological system.

I believe the classical theory has stood the test of time for good reason. It derives from historical reality. It fits the sitz im leben of the Muhammad movement. Scriptures, as a rule, justify what happens. While Firestone is correct to say that we cannot exegetically prove an evolution of non-aggression to holy war, we can certainly make a strong case for it. He makes too much of the possibility of co-existing factions. If I were a Muslim reformer, I wouldn’t argue against the necessity of jihad on a flimsy basis like this. I would accept the historical legitimacy of the classic model — for all the difficulties it poses — and call for the abolition of jihad on other grounds, for example by using the scriptural process of ijtihad. Reinterpreting scripture is preferable to either revising history or making mountains out of its molehills.


Firestone’s book is a helpful look at the origins of jihad in Islam’s earliest period, during and immediately after the mission of Muhammad. It suggests that different groups may have taken opposing stands on the question of holy war, for a variety of reasons. However true that is, those voices never carried the day. Jihad did, and still does.

In thenext post, we will look at Firestone’s sequel book, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea.