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A Brilliant Masterpiece
To be or not to be brilliant? Miriam Abbott on the ontological argument for God’s existence.
More than most people, academic types are mindful of an unfortunate truth: There is nothing new under the sun. A few moments of deliberation can turn a seemingly revolutionary idea into Descartes redux, and when that happens, it’s personally humbling and disheartening. Which is why it is perversely cheering to learn that one of the most famous philosophical arguments is actually a rerun too.
Labeled as the first ontological proof of God’s existence, St Anselm’s argument is a classic. It’s well-known (if not well-loved) to every scholar of theology, philosophy and world civilization. With two premises and some sneaky equivocation, the saint proves that God exists by the nature of God’s being.
Anselm lived in the eleventh century (1033-1109). His proof first appeared in his Proslogion. Over the years, the argument has been restructured and presented in numerous palatable forms. At base, the philosopher-saint starts with the claim that a hypothetical God would be perfect by definition. Failing to exist would be a flaw [it is more perfect for a perfect being to exist than to not exist], and since a perfect being is without flaws, the hypothetical God must exist.
Whether this proof succeeds is not my concern. It is taught as the first ontological proof – the first proof which claims that existence is part of God’s being. But in fact Anselm’s is not the first ontological proof: it is not the first to claim that existence is part of God’s being. Prior to Anselm, God proved it first, faster and more brazenly. Or rather, an ancient author credited the deity with the first ontological proof long before Anselm was born.
Start with King James
The relatively modern King James Bible was first published in 1611. Although it doesn’t predate Anselm, it does suggest a proof of God’s existence offered long before Anselm’s Proslogion.
The book of Exodus records a conversation between Moses and God prior to the Hebrew flight from Egypt. Archeologists place this sometime before 1300 BCE. After God asks Moses to deliver a message, the prophet asks for a few references from the deity. God’s response comes in Exodus 3:14:
“And God said unto Moses ‘I AM THAT I AM’: and He said, ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you’.”
This single verse contains two ontological proofs. In the weaker version of it God says, “I AM THAT I AM”. In other words, God exists because the deity’s definition is existence.
The stronger ontological proof comes in the last clause of Exodus 3:14. Here God claims to be named ‘I AM’; so God exists by virtue of nomenclature.
If the necessary existence entailed by this ‘I AM’ is unclear, consider an analogy. I can name this paper “A BRILLIANT MASTERPIECE”. Then no matter what the critics say, the paper can still always be truthfully called “A BRILLIANT MASTERPIECE”.
The Name Game
Of course, mere mortals use the phrase “I am” all the time without any particular ontological significance:
Are you hungry? I am. Or,
Who’s ready for the holidays? I am.
The difference in Exodus comes from the context of the deity’s utterance. There are several particular aspects of the Scripture that give credence to the claim that an ontological argument is brewing.
When asked for its name, the deity says, “I am that I am.” It is not “I am who I am” or “I am what I am”. The latter two are conventional statements of self-identity. The term that has a very different meaning. Consider these statements with similar structures:
I study that I may learn.
I suffer that others might live.
I give that others might benefit.
In these cases, that works to express a conditional relationship: studying, suffering and giving, allow for learning, living and benefiting respectively. Analogously, “I AM THAT I AM” issues the requested name, I AM, followed by (ie related to) the consequence of having that name: I AM.
Furthering our case is the fact that a few verses later, in Exodus 3:15, the deity claims that “this is my name for ever”. While it’s possible to argue that deities enjoy issuing meaningless utterances, it’s far more interesting to view the claim in light of an ontological argument. After all, only a perpetually existing immortal creature can be I AM forever; My name is I AM, hence I will be am-ing (ie existing) whenever my name is said – forever. Whatever is correctly called ‘Being’ will exist whenever the name ‘Being’ is used.
This same reasoning motivates naming this article “A Brilliant Masterpiece”. Its name is “Brilliant” hence it will forever be “Brilliant”, even if it is misguided.
More support for this ontological theory comes when we look at the antagonistic nature of the discussion between I AM and Moses. But let’s postpone that for a few moments to discuss the history of the document itself.
Dead End at the Dead Sea Scrolls
It would be convenient to assume that all material in the King James Bible predates Anselm. It would be convenient to assume that the book of Exodus went unchanged over hundreds of years and transcriptions. Convenience, however, won’t earn a prior claim to the ontological argument. To establish this argument as a pre-curser to Anselm, we need a document that existed prior to the tenth century.
The Dead Sea Scrolls seem like an obvious place to find the required ancient evidence. Embraced by multiple faiths, the documents are also respected by the scientific community. Some sections have been carbon dated as far back as the second century BCE; but it’s safer to say that the works as a whole date before the first century CE.
A translation of the scrolls was recently completed by the team of Michael Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook. Their observations are vexing. The sections that correspond to Exodus 3:1-12 exist in fragmented form. The statement made in Exodus 3:14 has not survived in any legitimately translatable form. (See The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook, HarperCollins 2005.) That leaves us two verses short of proper documentation.
Septuagint to the Rescue
The Septuagint is less well known than the scrolls. It’s a Greek document produced some time before the first century BCE. The work is named for its mythical origin. The original Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew scripture, completed by seventy-two scholars in seventy-two days, all having a word-for-word agreement, apparently without conferring.
There are two pieces of good news with regard to the Septuagint. First, manuscripts of this work have existed continuously since the fourth century. Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest manuscripts, and it presently resides in the Vatican. This fourth century document clearly pre-dates Anselm.
The second piece of good news is this: The Septuagint was written in Koine Greek. Koine is very similar to Modern Greek and has been described as particularly clear, with a very simple sentence structure. Hence translation is a relatively straightforward task.
A text derived from Codex Vaticanus was published by Sir Lancelot Brenton in 1851 (Breton’s original text, in Greek and English, is available online at ccel.org/b/brenton/lxx). The key phrase from Exodus again appears: “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘I am THE BEING’; and he said, ‘Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING has sent me to you.’”
Although the Septuagint is worded differently from the King James translation, there is still a clear claim of necessary existence. Modern readers might misunderstand “THE BEING” as “the creature”, but that’s not the implication of the ancient Greek: “BEING” should be literally understood as “existing”.
So the argument is intact in the Septuagint, and the Codex Vaticanus beats Anselm by about six hundred years.
Perhaps this “I AM” conversation doesn’t seem like a proper argument. Perhaps “I AM” is just an interesting name.
Consider the context in which “I AM” is introduced. Moses has been called as a prophet, and he is remarkably reluctant to comply with any of the deity’s requests: When the creator makes a request, total cooperation is expected.
When the reluctant Moses asks God for references, it makes sense that the prophet is given a very abbreviated argument for complete compliance. The “I AM” statement reminds Moses that he is frustrating an existing, ultimately powerful God.
Further, Moses is instructed to refer to God as “I AM” when conveying the message to the Hebrews. This adds an extra meaning to the argument for God’s existence; references to I AM establish that the prophet is in contact with a real God – as opposed to the false (ie non-existent) gods of neighbors.
Anselm may have crafted the first “perfect” argument of God’s existence, but it is not the first ontological argument. There is nothing new under the sun. The BEING’s been there, done that.
© Miriam Abbott 2006
Miriam Abbott is an Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy at Columbus State Community College. She is also a writer for The Other Paper (readership 285,900 in Columbus, Ohio).