Yosef ben-Jocanon: A Critique

Yosef ben-Jochanan (hereafter YBJ) is a conspiracy theorist. He is in this specific coterie of writers who insist that true history has been altered by a racist establishment that is hiding such facts as:

We will have little to say about these sorts of claims here, other than that classical scholars and historians, and other professionals in the relevant realms of the sciences and anthropology, regard such claims as outlandish, and recognize that they are made by unqualified persons. YBJ himself often claims that he is a trained "Egyptologist" although his critics note that he has no working knowledge of the Egyptian language.

YBJ is written of here not because of these things, but because of a specific book of his I was asked to look into, entitled African Origins of the Major "Western Religions" (Alkebu-Lan Books, 1970). If you find this book, do not expect technical brilliance in its composition. It is badly typeset, and filled with spelling, grammatical and typographical errors. Words are capitalized completely for emphasis. There is also, at least once every page, a reminder that we would realize that all of what YBJ was saying was the golden truth were it not for those racist conspirators.

Finally, the source work is naturally dismal; among the works consulted are an extraordinary number from the 19th century, like Gerald Massey and Godfrey Higgins, all of them long superseded by 21st century scholarship) and Homer Smith, the kidney specialist who wrote Man and His Gods.

The premise of this book is that the three major "Western" religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have origins not in the West, but in Africa (and, YBJ admits grudgingly, Asia).

Well, of course they do. No one denies any of these things; nor does anyone teach (as YBJ seems to think, but he never quotes anyone) that Europeans invented the Ten Commandments. The precepts contained in this code, YBJ tells us, were "used in Egypt and Ethiopia thousands of years" before Moses; and yet, we "are still taught as if the first time they ever came to the knowledge of mankind" was Mt. Sinai and Moses.

Who teaches this, I can't say. The 10 Commandments are recognized by scholars of the ANE as an examplar of a typical moral code for the period, and indeed universally; which is not to say that there is any indication of dependence. No one needed to plagiarize the commands not to kill or steal, as though Moses and the Hebrews or anyone else had no such command before in their society and went about indiscriminately killing people and stealing their chariots until one day they found the Code of Hammurabi in one of the libraries they were looting and decided it contained some good ideas.

Much of what YBJ argues involves this kind of accusation of "borrowing" or "stealing" some universal concept, as though the Egyptians came up with the idea alone and everyone else was unab;e to think of it likewise. He quotes the Egyptian Book of the Dead as saying that the sun god Ra is a "...jealous God..." and as commanding "...no other gods before me..."

What's the issue? Is there any deity, true or false, who would say, "I don't mind if you abandon me and turn to other gods"? Maybe Moses borrowed the terminology; maybe it was a universal and correct conception of what a deity was supposed to be/is like; what difference does it make? None at all; all that matters is whether the deity in question is a true one.

We are told that ancient African voodoo ceremonies are "very similar in purpose" to ceremonies held at "the so-called 'storefront churches' in Harlem." (xvii)

Proving....what? Similar...in what way, exactly? It's not clear, although it is interesting that we are not given precise descriptions of the Harlem "ceremonies," much less given any insight into their anthropological genesis; we are also told little of the voodoo ceremony supposedly at issue, other than, for example, that they were to deities like Legla, the lord of roads and streets.

Where YBJ offers arguments like these, he always leaves out specific descriptions of one side's practices (and sometimes both sides'), and argues as through minor correspondences prove dependency without providing any evidence of a direct line of origin or discussing the differences in practice that make all the difference. It's the same with all of his comparisons: Ancient voodoo practices of cannibalism are no different than taking communion; ancient tribal beliefs in a spirit world are the same as a modern belief in Heaven and Hell; offerings of wine in whatever religion are "in every sense the same" as voodoo rites using wine.

The reason it seems YBJ feels free to do this is not because he has made critical comparisons or done serious source investigation, but is summarized in this statement at the very end of his book: "ANY RELIGION IS AS GOOD AS THE OTHER." (304) In YBJ's book, the premise that any religious belief is good, bad, true or false, is "the cardinal problem" (46) which causes bigotry and intolerance. I wonder whether it would also be a problem when considering Aztec sacrifices, or the religious aspects of groups like the Aryan nation.

I am not exaggerating about admonitions regarding racism being found on every page. Allusions to "racist colonial slavemasters" and so on appear on page after page. Scholars of this field are to be ignored, for they "teach beyond and above the understanding of their parishioners mainly to show their academic skills rather than deal with their followers' earthly needs." (13) Conspiracy is even found in even the slightest efforts: Of a book titled God, Allah and Ju Ju, it is complained that "Since Africa is the main theme or subject of the entire book, why not JU JU, GOD AND ALLAH?" Is such a pedantic objection really a worthy one?

On Christianity and Judaism

Concerning the often used Christian claim that Christ was the one to whom God was speaking when He said "let us make man in our image," YBJ says, "It could not have been Jesus Christ...he was not born." Clearly YBJ is unaware of some of Christianity's most fundamental tenets, here for example, the equation of Christ with God's eternal Word.

His only real attempt to give Christianity an "African" origin is to make much of the influence of St. Augustine on modern Christian thought. Why? Because Augustine was an "indigenous African."

True, but mere geography has little to do with one's mind. Augustine was indeed born in the area roughly equivalent to today's Tunisia or Algeria, so it's not that the claim itself is untrue; it simply doesn't mean a thing. When you get down to it, Augustine was actually a mixed breed: his mother was also an indigenous African (a Numidian), but his pagan dad was a Roman official. You won't hear YBJ mention this, though: he only tells us that his father was "a minor state official"...not a word about his origins.

What about that Augustine got his training in Italy from a scholar named Ambrose? We are told that this makes no difference, since there were Christians in Africa already and Augustine's mother was one. In other words, Augustine learned all he needed to know in Africa and his time in Milan and Rome was spent listening to Ambrose to no purpose?

YBJ also mentions that there were "ancient versions" of the gospels that were different, "not as it has been corrupted today," (94) but offers no actual or textual evidence for these assertions. We are told that the African "origin" of Augustine "has been carefully camouflaged, suppressed or otherwise made to appear that he was only born in North Africa, but, that he was a 'Caucasian.'" Well, every source I check is quite clear on Augustine's mixed ancestry, and they don't say anything about him being Caucasian or Eurasian or any other type of -asian.

YBJ also brings Moses into the "indigenous African" fold, and his main proof of Moses' African heritage is Exodus 2:9, where the daughters of Jethro tell their father, referring to Moses, "An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock."

Again, the native Egyptians, like the Judeaens, are swarthy of skin, and Moses had just spent a lot of time in the desert at any rate; the girls' identification was more likely based on some other contingency---Moses' dress (of course, he would have done all his shopping in Egypt up until now), some insignia, his language. This verse is hardly evidence that Moses was "not a Jew" as YBJ alleges. (Or, as he would say, that Moses was one of "the small group of half-starving Asian Jews" who plundered the advanced Egyptians for their ideas and technology. One wonders why that statement is not regarded as racist.)

We are told, though, that the Jews were the perpetrators of a "colonial invasion and confiscation" of the lands of others. Judgment of sin, of course, would mean we are not respecting that one religion, like the brutal, child-sacrificing and orgiastic Canaanite religion, is as good as another.

There's also a standard argument about parts of Proverbs being borrowed from the Egyptian Wisdom of Amenemope and accusing Solomon of "plagiarism," but the ancients didn't think this was a crime, and the borrowing may as well have been the other way -- or from a common source. Kings were more interested in building temples than copyright offices, and such copying was looked upon as a positive thing.

Finally, YBJ makes much of a quote from Tacitus' Histories 5.2 where it is speculated that the Jews originated from Ethiopia. YBJ does not note, though, that Tacitus also reports speculation that the Jews were from Crete, Egypt, or Assyria. Clearly the identification of the Jews' point of origin was not based upon anything that YBJ would be able to make any point from.

In conclusion: Yosef ben-Jochanon has little useful to say and certainly nothing that adds to, or controverts, the mountain range of Christian scholarship..