Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter VI

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

There is a further great inquiry, [namely:] all men are equal in the presence of God; and all are intelligent, since they are his creatures; he did not assign one people for life, another for death, one for mercy, another for judgement. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist in the sight of God, who is perfect in all his works. But Moses was sent to teach only the Jews, and David himself said: “He never does this for other nations, he never reveals his rulings to them.” Why did God reveal his law to one nation, withhold it from another? At this very time Christians say: “God’s doctrine is only found with us;” similarly with the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Indians and the others. Moreover the Christians do not agree among themselves: the Frangtell us: “God’s doctrine is not with you, but with us;” we hold the same thing, and if we would listen to men, God’s doctrine has reached only a very few people. We cannot even ascertain to which of these few it goes. Is it not possible for God to entrust his word to men whenever it pleases him? God in his wisdom has not allowed them to agree on what is false, lest it appears to them as the truth. When all people agree on one thing, that thing appears to be true; but it is not possible that all men agree on falsehood, just as by no means do they agree on their faith. I pray [you,] let us think why all men agree that there is a God, creator of all things? Because reason in all men knows that all we see was created, that no creature can be found without a creator and that the existence of a creator is the pure truth. Hence all men agree on this. When we examine the beliefs taught by men, we do not agree with them, because we find in them falsehood mixed with truth. Men quarrel among themselves; one says: “This is the truth;” another says: “No, that is false.” All of them lie when they claim to attribute to the Word of God the word of men. I kept on reflecting and said to myself: “Even if the faith of men does not come from God, it is however necessary for them and produces good effects, since it deters the wicked from doing evil and comforts the good in their patience.” To me such a faith is like a wife who gives birth to an illegitimate child, without the knowledge of the husband; the husband rejoices taking the child for his son, and loves the mother; were he to discover that she bore him an illegitimate child, he would be sad and would send her out with her child. Likewise, when I found out that my faith was adulterous or false, I became sad on account of it and of the children that were born from this adultery, namely: hatred, persecution, torture, bondage, death, seeing that these had forced me to take refuge in this cave.

However, to say the truth, the Christian faith as it was founded in the days of the Gospel was not evil, since it invites all men to love one another and to practice mercy towards all. But today my countrymen have set aside the love recommended by the Gospel and turned away towards hatred, violence, the poison of snakes; they have pulled their faith to pieces down to its very foundation; they teach things that are vain; they do things that are evil, so that they are falsely called Christians.


Zera Yacob claims that “it is not possible that all men agree on falsehood, just as by no means do they agree on their faith.” But this is not right. Sometimes everyone (or nearly everyone) does agree on something that is false. For example, everyone used to think that the earth was flat. Whether people all believe about something also changes over time. Thus at one point everyone thought the earth was flat, and slowly more and more people came to believe that it was round. So it is quite possible for everyone to agree on a falsehood, and also for there to be a lot of disagreement about both truths and falsehoods. Zera Yacob thinks that everyone believes in “a God, creator of all things”, and says we all agree about this because it is revealed by reason. As will be obvious to modern readers, not everyone does (nor did all people ever) believe this. Does this mean that it isn’t clear to reason after all? Well, that depends. To decide that, we would have to talk about Zera Yacob’s specific argument more (I discussed it very  briefly in my comments on chapter III). But it is in fact quite possible for people to disagree even about truths of pure reason. This is because the arguments are often hard to follow (think of mathematics and logic, for example)), and anyways we aren’t very disinterested inquirers, especially when we’re arguing about matters of morality and religion. So even if Zera Yacob is wrong when he says that everyone agrees that there is a God who created all things, he could be right in his argument that there is such a God.

Why would God reveal himself to some people and hide himself from others? This is an old and a hard question for believers. There are also different (not necessarily incompatible) ways one might try to answer it. And the answers will depend in part on the religion in question. For example, the Christian might point to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20):
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore andmake disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Or, with Paul, we could say that God is God, and he can do what he wants (Romans 9:20–26):

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lumpone vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
There are other things one might say as well. A good exercise to leave the reader with!

Finally, notice that although Zera Yacob had criticized Christian moral teachings in the previous chapter, here he’s quite complimentary about Christianity in its original form. This is not too surprising, since his criticism of Christianity had mostly focussed on fasting and monasticism, which are fairly peripheral features of Christianity, and arguably are largely cultural accretions rather than reflections of basic tenets.

Back to chapter V; proceed to chapter VII.

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