January 23, 1915 – Birth of Potter Stewart, 94th Supreme Court Justice

Potter Stewart was born into a powerful Ohio Republican family on this day in history. He attended Yale for both undergraduate studies and law school, made law review, and graduated cum laude in 1941. He took a job at a law firm, but enlisted in the Navy when WWII began, acting as defense counsel in court-martial proceedings.

After the war, Stewart joined a prominent law firm in Cincinnati, and in 1954, President Eisenhower appointed Stewart to a seat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1958, President Eisenhower named Stewart to a recess appointment to replace retiring Justice Harold H. Burton on the Supreme Court. This was Eisenhower’s third recess appointment, and despite criticism of the practice, Justice Stewart was confirmed by the Senate in a 70-17 vote on May 5, 1959.

US Supreme Court official portrait of Potter Stewart, 1976

Oyez reports that Justice Stewart believed in judicial restraint, seeing the proper function of a judge as interpreting the law as it applied to a particular case, rather than attempting to assert judicial influence over matters he saw best left to the legislature. This put Stewart in the ideological center of the Court, and he became an influential swing vote on many cases.

One of his more well-known opinions was in the obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184, 1964). Justice Stewart famously said that while he could not readily define the term “hard-core” pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

Justice Stewart stepped down from the Court in July of 1981 at age 66. He said that his decision was influenced by his desire to spend more time with his grandchildren while he was still in good health. In 1985, he died from a stroke and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Upon his death, journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Justice Stewart was the primary source for The Brethren, the seminal book on the inner workings of the Supreme Court.

Rowena Scott Comegys, in her article, “Potter Stewart: An Analysis of His Views on the Press as Fourth Estate,” 59 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 157 (1982), online here, contends that Justice Stewart’s support for freedom of the press stood out as part of his legacy, writing:

Stewart indicated in judicial opinions and extrajudicial commentary that he believed that the press deserves a special place among American institutions. [He believed] the Freedom of Press Clause was a structural provision of the first amendment, which the framers thought necessary in order to assure “openness and honesty in government. . . an adequate flow of information between the people and their representatives . . . [and] a sufficient check on autocracy and despotism. ‘ ‘ As he said in his speech at Yale in 1974, “If the Free Press guarantee meant no more than freedom of expression, it would be a constitutional redundancy.”

Review of “The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History” by James J. O’Donnell

We all know that the Roman Empire “fell” some time around 476 A.D., the date of the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, traditionally seen as the “last” Roman emperor. But maybe not, at least according to James J. O’Donnell, a distinguished classicist and provost of Georgetown University. In O’Donnell’s view, set forth in The Ruin of the Roman Empire (2008), the “fall” or end of the Roman Empire is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint. One reason is that the Empire persisted in the east (headquartered in Constantinople) until at least 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman turks. [That’s when Edward Gibbon identified the “fall” in his magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.] And even then, the Ottomans continued to refer to their empire as “Rum” [Rome] until it was formally disbanded in 1924 with the establishment of the modern Turkish state.

O’Donnell’s book focuses on the part of the empire governed from the city of Rome, particularly in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. And even there, the “fall” was not at all obvious. The Empire in the third century was especially chaotic, with emperors typically lasting only a year or two before being assassinated and replaced by some ambitious general or warlord. The chaos ended in the late 3d century with the ascendency of Diocletian, who moved his base of operations eastward to what is now the Croatian city of Split. His successor, Constantine, moved the capital even farther east to Byzantium, which he modestly renamed Constantinople.

As the capital migrated eastward, the empire’s control over the western provinces (Gaul, Spain, and Italy) lessened, but that did not mean they became more barbaric. O’Donnell argues that the western provinces interacted a great deal with their “barbarian” neighbors to the north and east. Indeed, most of the consuls of Rome during the 4th through 6th centuries were born outside the titular boundaries of the “Empire.”

The Rhine and Danube rivers marked the official boundaries of the empire. But O’Donnell points out that rivers make very ineffective boundaries between civilizations (mountains and deserts are much more effective) because they attract people. Hence, citizens of the empire and their ostensibly barbaric neighbors had plenty of intercourse (double entendre intended) across those waterways. Tribes close to the empire adopted many of the customs, dress, institutions, and habits of the people within the empire.

O’Donnell portrays the movement of people and tribes around and across the empire’s boundaries as a bit chaotic, but more peaceful than generally described in most western literature. He appraises Attila the Hun as the most overrated villain in western history. In his view, the Huns were not so much repelled in battle as simply assimilated by a mutually recognized superior culture.

Rome may have been sacked by the Vandals in 455, but it quickly reorganized. Odoacer, son of Edoco (a Hun) became leader of the western empire and assumed the title of “king” rather than emperor, but provided wise leadership and stability from 476 to 493. His successor, Theoderic (sometime called “the Great”), ruled from 493 to 526 upheld a Roman legal administration and scholarly culture and promoted a major building program across Italy. In 505 he expanded into the Balkans, and by 511 he had brought the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain under his direct control and established hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms.

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theodoric the Great). Roman Vassal and King of the Ostrogoths. It is only known a single piece of this coin, from the collection of Italian numismatic Francesco Gnecchi, now in Palazzo Massimo, Rome, via Wikipedia

Thus in O’Donnell’s view, Rome had not fallen in the mid 5th century, but was well governed until at least 526, admittedly by Visigoths and descendants of Huns. The bete noire in his telling is Justinian, who ruled in Constantinople from 527 to 565. The split of the empire into two halves, the Latin speaking west and the Greek speaking east, was not something he could abide. He was driven to unite the entire empire by a need to unify Christian beliefs. The western rulers tended to be tolerant of various forms of Christianity, whereas he was a devoted follower and believer in the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

O’Donnell does a nice job of explaining the various forms of early Christianity. As he says:

Jesus and his first followers…offered a variety of assertions about Jesus’s relationship with the supreme divine being….There is simply too much scripture for it all to make sense.”

Arian theology, a belief held by the majority of the people in the West, but not by the bishops of Rome, insisted on distinguishing Jesus from God. The Nicenes, on the other hand, said that Jesus and God were of “identical substance,” homo-ousios in Greek. The Council of Chalcedon attempted to solve the issue with a doctrine O’Donnell characterizes as “both-and,” asserting both the godhead and manhood of Jesus at the same time. O’Donnell opines:

“…the Chalcedonians put forth a logical construct, yet still quite difficult to grasp and comprehend, and they made this incomprehensibility into a virtue, at least far as they could. If scriptures were contradictory and confusing, they represented not conflict, but rather a lofty, divine logic that mortals could not grasp, and became evidence of the truth of a logically paradoxical doctrine.”

So Justinian set out to unify the empire, both politically and religiously. His armies set out from Constantinople to conquer Italy, north Africa, and Spain. They also picked fights with the Persian Empire to their east. Although they were often successful in battle, they pretty much ruined the economies of the western provinces. Moreover, not only were they ultimately unsuccessful in subduing the western provinces, they may have weakened their own empire as a whole as well as the Persian Empire so much that neither they nor the Persians were able to withstand the onslaught of Islam, wich began shortly thereafter.

O’Donnell’s book provides a welcome insight into an historical period not well known or understood today.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

January 17, 1819 – Thomas Jefferson to Joel Yancey on the Value of the Slave “Crop”

Joel Yancey lived on the plantation next to that of Thomas Jefferson, from whom he bought the land, and they became friends. On this day in history, Jefferson wrote to Yancey about “the mortality among our negroes.” Jefferson said to Yancey that he feared overseers were too hard on the women, not permitting them to devote enough time to caring for their children. Lest anyone get teary-eyed over Jefferson’s paternal-sounding concerns, his reasoning was strictly economic:

I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our interests & our duties coincide perfectly.”

You can read the whole letter here.

Thomas Jefferson

January 15, 1915 – Birth of Mimi Reinhard, the Jewish Secretary Who Typed Schindler’s List

Mimi Reinard, an Austrian Jew (born as Carmen Koppel) on this day in history knew shorthand and spoke flawless German. Thus, when Oskar Schindler, the Nazi intelligence officer famous for saving Jews, met her in a Nazi labor camp near Krakow, Poland, he enlisted her to work as his secretary. Among her duties was typing up a list of Jews he wanted to spare from the death camps to work in his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia.

Mrs. Reinhard in 2007, via NY Times

Schindler had acquired the factory in 1939. At the time of peak production in 1944, he employed some 1,100 Jews there. His connections with the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany, which he had joined in 1936, as well as copious bribes, helped protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps.

(Ironically, after Schindler went bankrupt in 1958, he relied on financial support from Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews”) — the people whose lives he had saved during the war.)

The workers in Czechoslovakia apparently produced very little of value, but Schindler submitted falsified reports that claimed otherwise. They were liberated in May 1945.

After the war, Mrs. Reinhard reunited with her son and in 1957 moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she stayed for 50 years. Her second husband, Albert Reinhard, died in 2002 and their daughter, Lucienne Reinhard, died in 2000. Mrs. Reinhard decided to move to Israel in 2007 to be near her surviving family. She died at age 107, on April 8, 2022.

As the New York Times reported in her obituary:

Mrs. Reinhard was never secretive about her role, but it did not come to light publicly until 2007, when she was 92 and moving to Israel from New York, where she had settled after the war. She told of her Schindler connection to the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit Israeli group that was helping her resettle. When she landed in Israel, she was mobbed by the news media and became an instant celebrity.”

Of Schindler, she said in 2007:

‘He was no angel. We knew that he was an SS man; he was a member of the highest ranks. They went out drinking together at night, but apparently he could not stand to see what they were doing to us.’ ‘And,’ she added, ‘I saw a man who was risking his life all the time for what he was doing.’”

Oskar Schindler in the 1950s, via NY Times

Review of “The Irish Question: Two Centuries of Conflict” by Lawrence J. McCaffrey

Although the subtitle of Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s The Irish Question is Two Centuries [i.e., the last two] of Conflict, he argues that to understand modern Irish history, you have to begin with the reign of Queen Elizabeth – the first to be called such in 1603, not the current queen. Under Elizabeth I, Ireland was a part of what became the British Empire. At that time, Protestants were battling, and winning, the religious war for supremacy in England. Elizabeth’s land grants in Ireland to her Protestant supporters gave them substantial political power, far in excess of what their numbers (about a fifth of the population) would seem to have merited.

Ireland became a part of England (it was not yet the United Kingdom) pursuant to the 1800 Act of Union, pushed through the Irish Parliament by Protestants controlling the assembly. The Crown and the Tory Party endorsed a series of enactments that became know as Protestant Ascendency, a form of apartheid that relegated Catholics to second class citizenship. For example, Catholics could not attend public (read, “Protestant”) universities.

But the divisions that caused so much civil strife in the 19th and 20th centuries were not solely religious. They were also geographic. Ulster (Northern Ireland) had a Protestant majority (about 2/3) and was staunchly pro British. The rest of Ireland, about 4/5 of the country, was predominantly (about 90%) Catholic, and had little sympathy for the “mother country.” But many, perhaps a majority, of both Catholics and Protestants wanted Ireland to remain a united country. Protestants wanted all of Ireland to be closely connected to Britain; Catholics preferred to separate from Britain.

The internal divisions led many to desire a partition of Ireland into two countries, a Protestant north and a Catholic south. This led to cross-religious disputes between Unionists and Separatists.

Lawrence McCaffrey’s excellent retelling of 200 years of Irish history takes us through the potato famine of the mid 19th century, the heated “home rule” controversies lasting almost an entire century, the politics of the English Liberal Party, the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland’s decision to remain neutral in World War II, the ultimate decision to divide the country, the rise of the IRA, and many other complex issues that helped shape the modern Ireland of the 21st century. The book was published before “Brexit,” and so it doesn’t take us to the present, but it provides a carefully researched account of how Ireland became the relatively peaceful, if divided, two countries you can visit today.

The structure of the book follows an adage I once heard for legal memoranda: (1) tell ‘em what you’re goin’ to tell ‘em; (2) tell ‘em; and (3) tell ‘em what you told ‘em. The first and final chapters are succinct yet comprehensive summaries of the middle 7 chapters. The book as a whole is well written and organized. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by University of Kentucky Press, 2000

January 6, 1777 – George Washington Orders All Forces Coming Through Philadelphia to Be Inoculated Against Smallpox

Disease, especially highly contagious smallpox, was as much of an enemy of the American Patriots as were the British. General George Washington had been exposed to the disease in 1751, when traveling with his older brother to Barbados. He contracted smallpox but survived, albeit with the telltale facial pockmarks. Thus he was immune but when the disease swept through the American colonies, he knew many would succumb to it.

As National Geographic Magazine reports, inoculation against smallpox dated back to ancient China, but it was considered a controversial procedure in colonial America. In Washington’s home state of Virginia, it was even illegal.

Benjamin Franklin, a devotee of science, was among colonists championing smallpox inoculation

At first he tried insisting on isolating those who caught the virus, but that aspiration did not play out in practice.

When American troops who marched on Quebec, their commanding officer, Major General John Thomas, failed to follow Washington’s strict protocols, and he and one-third to half of his 10,000 soldiers died from smallpox. The force was soundly defeated. On June 26, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail:

Our Misfortunes in Canada, are enough to melt an Heart of Stone. The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together. This was the Cause of our precipitate Retreat from Quebec, this the Cause of our Disgraces at the Cedars. — I dont mean that this was all. There has been Want, approaching to Famine, as well as Pestilence. And these Discouragements seem to have so disheartened our Officers, that none of them seem to Act with Prudence and Firmness.”

Washington decided stronger action was necessary. On this day in history, General Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr. that he had “determined that the troops shall be inoculated.” He noted that while there may be some inconveniences and some disadvantages to the vaccine, “yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”

He added:

You will spare no pains to carry them through the disorder with the utmost expedition, and to have them cleansed from the infection when recovered, that they may proceed to Camp with as little injury as possible to the Country through which they pass.”

You can access the text of the letter here.

General George Washington

By the end of 1777, some 40,000 soldiers had been vaccinated.

As the Library of Congress observes,

American independence must be partially attributed to a strategy for which history has given the infamous general little credit: his controversial medical actions. Traditionally, the Battle of Saratoga is credited with tipping the revolutionary scales. Yet the health of the Continental regulars involved in battle was a product of the ambitious initiative Washington began earlier that year at Morristown, close on the heels of the victorious Battle of Princeton. Among the Continental regulars in the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola the small pox virus was the most vicious of them all.”

Vaccination is indeed an American tradition, or was….

December 26, 1780 – Birth of Mary Somerville – Scottish Scientist and Polymath

Mary Fairfax Somerville, born on this day in history in Scotland, educated herself from the time she was a child. When her aunt came to live with the family she reportedly complained to her sister, “I wonder you let Mary waste her time in reading, she never shews more than if she were a man.”

In 1804 she met her first husband, but he did not think much of women’s capacity to pursue academic interests. When he died in 1807, she resumed her studies in math, her inheritance from him having given her the freedom to pursue intellectual interests.

She studied mathematics, publishing books on differential calculus.

She started to solve mathematical problems posed in the mathematical journal of the Military College at Marlow and she eventually made a name for herself when solving a diophantine problem for which she was awarded a silver medal in 1811.

Mary Fairfax Somerville via Wikipedia

Somerville extended her studies into astronomy, chemistry, geography, microscopy, electricity and magnetism. At the age of 33 she bought herself a library of scientific books.

In 1812 she married Dr William Somerville (1771–1860), inspector of the Army Medical Board, who encouraged and greatly aided her in the study of the physical sciences. Her husband was elected to the Royal Society and together they moved in the leading social circles of the day. In her second marriage Somerville had four children.

In 1819 her husband was appointed physician to Chelsea Hospital and the family moved to Hanover Square into a government house in Chelsea. Somerville was a friend of Anne Isabella Milbanke, Baroness Wentworth, and was mathematics tutor to her daughter, Ada Lovelace. (Lovelace is often regarded as the first computer programmer.) Somerville and Lovelace maintained a close friendship throughout life and when Lovelace encountered difficulties with a mathematical calculation she would walk to Somerville’s house and discuss the matter over a cup of tea.

In the summer of 1825, Somerville carried out experiments on magnetism, and the next year was able to present her paper entitled “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” to the Royal Society. Aside from the astronomical observations of Caroline Herschel, it was the first paper by a woman to be read to the Royal Society and was published in its Philosophical Transactions.

Somerville was requested to translate the Mécanique Céleste of Pierre-Simon Laplace for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Laplace had, in five exhaustive volumes, summed up the current state of gravitational mathematics and Mécanique Céleste was acclaimed as the greatest intellectual achievement since Newton’s Principia. Somerville produced not just a translation, but an expanded version of the first two volumes. She wrote a standalone exposition of the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, of which she said “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language”. It was published in 1831, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens. It made her at once famous. Mechanism was set as a textbook for undergraduates at University of Cambridge until the 1880s.

Page 44 from Mechanism of the Heavens, via Wikipedia

Somerville was elected honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, of the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève in 1834. The British Crown granted her a civil pension of £200 a year in recognition of her eminence in science and literature.

Her second book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, was an account of physical phenomena and the connections among the physical sciences. She and Caroline Herschel were both elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, the first women to receive such an honor.

In 1848, at the age of sixty eight, Mary published yet another book. Physical Geography proved to be her most successful work yet and was widely used in schools and universities for the next fifty years.

Her last scientific book, Molecular and Microscopic Science was published in 1869 when Mary was eighty-nine.

She died at age 91.

Library at Somerville College, named after Mary, in Oxford, England

December 22, 1777 – Letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens, Begging for Better Support from Congress or “This Army Must Dissolve.”

Henry Laurens served as President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778. (His oldest son, John Laurens, was an aide-de-camp to George Washington and a colonel in the Continental Army.)

*Inscription (upper left corner): Hon: Henry Laurens, / Pres: of the American Congress. / (Painted 1781. while in the Tower.) via Wikipedia

Washington corresponded regularly with Congress both to convey progress made by the Army and to make requests for items upon which the Army’s success depended; namely, food, clothes, equipment, and wages for the soldiers.

In this letter, Washington bemoaned the lack of food provisions, writing:

I do not know from what cause this alarming deficiency, or rather total failure of Supplies arises: But unless more vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line and immediately, This Army must dissolve.”

He pointed out that an Army without food cannot march or fight, averring “had a body of the Enemy crossed Schuylkill this morning, as I had reason to expect from the intelligence I received at Four oClock last night, the Divisions which I ordered to be in readiness to march & meet them could not have moved.”

He added: “It would give me infinite pleasure to afford protection to every Individual and to every Spot of Ground in the whole of the United States. Nothing is more my wish—But this is not possible with our present force.”

As usual, he added that if the Army were not adequately supplied, he could not be responsible for the [deleterious] consequences.

You can read the text of the entire letter here.

General George Washington

The next day, he sent an addendum to strengthen his case:

Full as I was in my representation of matters in the Commissary’s department yesterday, fresh and more powerful reasons oblige me to add, that I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can. rest assured, Sir, this is not an exaggerated picture, and that I have abundant reason to support what I say.”

This letter is accessible here.

Review of “A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book” by John Barton

Author John Barton, a priest in the Anglican Church and Oxford professor, reflects the influence of both institutions in this long and detailed history of the Bible and how it developed.

He calls the Bible a “melee of materials”: a collection of folk memories, myths, and aphorisms subject to vagaries of translation over the years.  He avers that “the history of the Bible is the story of the interplay between the religion and the book—neither mapping exactly onto the other.”  

For example, there are absolutely central doctrines in Christianity, such as that of the Trinity; the “real presence” (in Catholicism); or the organization of the Church itself, that are almost entirely absent from the New Testament. Barton states, “One of my purposes in this book is to demonstrate that there really are irreconcilables: that the faiths that appeal to the Bible are not totally congruent with it, though they are clearly closely related.”

He points out that all printed versions of the New Testament (and he analyses all the major ones) are based on the comparison of various different ancient manuscripts.  Therefore an appeal to the exact wording of the New Testament is fraught with difficulty because of the lack of an agreed text.  As Barton says:

To attribute religious authority to such a document stretches the word ‘authority’ to its limits, and can only be sustained by devising special ways of interpreting this book that differ from those in which others are interpreted.”

This does not, however, stop religious adherents from claiming doctrines are irrefutable because “the Bible says….”

In addition, Jews and Christians both read their version of the Bible as if it were a single book with a consistent theme, but their respective themes are quite different.  The Old Testament is one characterized by the themes of violence and revenge; the New Testament is all about redemption.  Christians emphasize the story of “The Fall” in Eden as an event from which mankind must be “redeemed,” and see the suffering and death of Jesus as the mechanism by which the redemption is effected.  Moreover they employ some very strained interpretations of Delphic prophesies in the Old Testament as applying to or “prefiguring” events in the life of Jesus.  Jews, on the other hand, ascribe little importance to the story of Adam and Eve, and view the Hebrew Bible as a narration of God’s continuing interaction with his chosen people.

Then there is the problem that many passages of the Bible are absurd on their face or at least highly incredible to a modern scientifically educated reader. That is not a new problem for believers. As early as the second century, Christian apologists struggled with some Old Testament passages. Origen was the Christian scholar who came up with the ultimate technique of interpretation that protected the Bible from criticism for its absurdities and inconsistencies.  He said that it should always be interpreted allegorically—to him, the literal meaning of the text was relatively unimportant (and thus, it could be outright false) because the real meaning was hidden or stated indirectly.

Indeed, the need for translation and interpretation represents one of the most enduring problems of the Bible.  Translators often could not come up with literal meanings to correspond to those in the documents they worked with, and thus individual beliefs, pedagogical orientations, and cultural agendas colored their work.

Translators and interpreters had more barriers than just lacking a Rosetta Stone for their work.  For example, scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. This situation led to a large body of work in Judaism (specifically, the Talmud and the Midrash) to interpret the sacred texts.  Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive:  one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement.  Christian scholars were more oriented towards finding the “essential truth” revealed by the Bible, and thus a great deal of violence has been exercised over the years in the attempt to establish a “definitive” version of religious “truth.” 

Another interesting issue in translating the Bible is that the original versions of the various books, having been written by different people, manifest substantially different levels of sophistication and eloquence. For example, the original Greek of Mark is rather rough, whereas Luke and Matthew show a higher level of education. Moreover, Revelation (or the “Apocalypse”) is often ungrammatical. And yet, every English, German, and French translation has chosen to translate every book in a single “voice,” as if it were written by the same person. In fact, the King James Version of the English Bible is often pointed to as a paradigm of excellence in English composition. Barton thinks much could be gained by preserving the variation in diction in the original to the extent practicable.

Bible Translation Spectrum from Logos Bible Software Wiki – see larger here: https://wiki.logos.com/Bible_Translation_Spectrum

It should be noted, however, that freedom to interpret religious texts can go only so far in the real world; the great Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza, now recognized as one of the founders of biblical criticism, was excommunicated for calling into question a literal interpretation of the Bible, rejecting the idea that the Bible consisted of “inspired truths.”  His distinction between knowledge and logic on the one hand, and obedience to faith on the other, did not endear him to religious authorities; in 1656 he was cast out of the Jewish community. He believed the Bible should be read and interpreted just like any other book. He rejected the possibility of miracles and doubted the accepted authorship of some of the Old Testament books, proving for example that Moses could not have written all the books of the Pentateuch. One of his most innovative concepts was that people in biblical times thought differently from modern people, an idea that had not been clearly articulated before.


Spinoza might have been pleased by Barton’s use of  comprehensive scholarship in an attempt to right the misconception that the Bible has one definitive meaning.  He shows the stories in the Bible are diverse in style and content, contradictory, and reflect different historical needs.  He contends that the assertion of a perfect fit between scripture and the faiths of either Judaism or Christianity is totally without justification, given the history that he so ably elucidates.

Evaluation:  This book is an excellent and consistently interesting must-read for students of religion.  As for Fundamentalists, they wouldn’t like it….

Rating: 5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019

December 16, 1950 – President Truman Declares National State of Emergency Over Communist Threat

On this day in history, President Harry Truman declared a national emergency over the perceived threat of communism he felt had just increased exponentially by the massive Chinese intervention in the Korean War.

The United Steel Workers of America threatened a strike at that very time, which would have imperiled steel production at a time when nearly all military weapons required steel.

Thus Truman also issued Executive Order 10340, which followed the national emergency declaration, so Truman could order the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate plants and facilities of steel companies to ensure the manufacture of “the weapons and other materials needed by our armed forces and by those joined with us in the defense of the free world.”

President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiated U.S. involvement in the Korean War

Proclaiming that “Communist imperialism” threatened the world’s people, Truman called upon the American people to help construct an “arsenal of freedom.”

Despite Truman’s argument that his position as commander-in-chief afforded him the power to make all military decisions, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled 6-3 in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (343 US 579, 1952), that Truman lacked the constitutional authority to nationalize the steel industry. As summarized by Oyez:

The Court found that there was no congressional statute that authorized the President to take possession of private property. The Court also held that the President’s military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces did not extend to labor disputes. The Court argued that ‘the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.’”