Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter IV

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Later on I thought, saying to myself: “Is everything is written in the Holy Scriptures true?” Although I thought much [about these things] I understood nothing, so I said to myself: “I shall go and consult scholars and thinkers; they will tell me the truth.”

But afterwards I thought, saying to myself: “What will men tell me other than what is in their heart?” Indeed each one says: “My faith is right, and those who believe in another faith believe in falsehood, and are the enemies of God.” These days the Frang tell us: “Our faith is right, yours is false.” We on the other hand tell them: “It is not so; your faith is wrong, ours right.” “If we also ask the Mohammedans and the Jews, they will claim the same thing, and who would be the judge for such a kind of argument? “No single human being [can judge:] for all men are plaintiffs and defendants between themselves. Once I asked a Frang scholar many things concerning our faith; he interpreted them all according to his own faith. Afterwards I asked a well-known Ethiopian scholar and he also interpreted all things according to his own faith. If I had asked the Mohammedans and the Jews, they also would have interpreted according to their own faith; then, where could I obtain a judge that tells the truth? As my own faith appears true to me, so does another one find his own faith true; but truth is one. While thinking over this matter, I said: “O my creator, wise among the wise and just among the just, who created me with an intelligence, help me to understand, for men lack wisdom and truthfulness; as David said, no man can be relied upon.”

I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth. “As David said: “Their hearts are curdled like milk.” Their heart is curdled because they assume what they have heard from their predecessors and they do not inquire whether it is true or false. But I said: “O Lord! who strike me down with such torment, it is fitting that I know your judgement. You chastise me with truth and admonish me with mercy. But never let my head be anointed with the oil of sinners and of masters in lying: make me understand, for you created me with intelligence.” I asked myself: “If I am intelligent, what is it I understand?” And I said: “I understand there is a creator, greater than all creatures; since from his overabundant greatness, he created things that are so great. He is intelligent who understands all, for he created us as intelligent from the abundance of his intelligence; and we ought to worship him, for he is the master of all things. If we pray to him, he will listen to us; for he is almighty.” I went on saying in my thought: “God did not create me intelligent without a purpose, that is to look for him and to grasp him and his wisdom in the path he has opened for me and to worship him as long as l live.” And still thinking on the same subject, I said to myself: “Why is it that all men do not adhere to truth, instead of [believing] falsehood?” [The cause] seemed to be the nature of man which is weak and sluggish. Man aspires to know truth and the hidden things of nature, but this endeavour is difficult and can only be attained with great labour and patience, as Solomon said: “With the help of wisdom I have been at pains to study all that is done under heaven; oh, what a weary task God has given mankind to labour at!” Hence people hastily accept what they have heard from their fathers and shy from any [critical] examination. But God created man to be the master of his own actions, so that he will be what he wills to be, good or bad. If a man chooses to be wicked he can continue in this way until he receives the punishment he deserves for his wickedness. But being carnal, man likes what is of the flesh; whether they are good or bad, he finds ways and means through which he can satisfy his carnal desire. God did not create man to be evil, but to choose what he would like to be, so that he may receive his reward if he is good or his condemnation if he is bad. If a liar, who desires to achieve wealth or honours among men, needs to use foul means to obtain them, he will say he is convinced this falsehood was for him a just thing. To those people who do not want to search, this action seems to be true, and they believe in the liar’s strong faith. I ask [you,] how many falsehoods do our people believe in? They believe wholeheartedly in astrology and other calculations, in the mumbling of secret words, in omens, in the conjuration of devils, and in all kinds of magical art and in the utterances of soothsayers. They believe in all these because they did not investigate the truth but listened to their predecessors. Why did these predecessors lie unless it was for obtaining wealth and honours? Similarly those who wanted to rule the people said: “We were sent by God to proclaim the truth to you;” and the people believed them. Those who came after them accepted their fathers’ faith without question; rather, as a proof of their faith, they added to it by including stories of signs and omens. Indeed they said: “God did those things;” and so they made God a witness of falsehood and a party to liars.


Having satisfied himself in chapter III that God does indeed exist, Zera Yacob now wonders about the reliability of scripture. He begins by arguing that it’s no use to inquire of so-called experts, because they all disagree, interpreting things merely insight of their own traditions. What are sometimes called “arguments from disagreement,” whereby it is argued that the existence of disagreement (or perhaps “interminable disagreement”) means that there is no fact of the matter or that we ought not to listen to anybody, may or may not be any good. That fact that people disagree doesn’t mean much in itself. Sometimes one party is right and has a good case and the other party is wrong and has a bad case. But Zera Yacob strengthens his case here by arguing that the reason for disagreement in this case is that people are lazy and credulous: they don’t really want to investigate things carefully, so they accept the testimony of charlatans. There is no doubt some truth to this: most people are not thinkers or critics.

On the other hand, philosophically minded people—and Zera Yacob is no exception—tend to be overly sceptical of tradition, and, indeed, of history in general. They’re good at thinking things through, and, as a result, they come to think that it should be possible to figure everything out a priori. But  there are lots of things—including surprising and unintuitive things—that we know only because they gave been reported to us. Moreover, it’s often possible to tell truth from fiction, even without resorting to archaeology. Compare the Gospel of Luke to the Gospel of Thomas, for example. The Gospel of Luke may or may not be entirely accurate, but it’s a serious work. The Gospel of Thomas, by contrast, is obvious nonsense, and it’s no surprise that it was not incorporated into the Biblical cannon.

Zera Yacob also makes some remarks of relevance to the problem of evil: he says that God didn’t make man to be evil, but that man is free to do evil if he so chooses (and consequently will be punished for it). More generally, people could think for themselves and correct their behaviour, but they refuse to. This is a pretty standard response, but doesn’t go very deep. Zera Yacob will have a bit more to say about the problem of evil in chapter VIII, and Walda Heywat will have even more to say.

Back to chapter III; proceed to chapter V.

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