The highly readable chapters of this book delve into the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with persona reminiscences and humour.
14. VOLUME OF THE SACRED LAW
Very nice, say some believers. The Bible is on display in Masonic meeting places! Bible readings are part of Masonic ritual! Bible characters and events punctuate Masonic terminology!
Not so nice at all, say the critics of the craft. These Masons are undermining the official religions! They are setting up in opposition to the churches and confusing people! They even call their meeting places temples because they think they are on a par with the churches and synagogues!
The critics have it all wrong. Freemasonry is religious without being a religion. Can’t the United States print “In God We Trust” on their currency notes without being accused of hijacking or kidnapping religion? Aren’t legislatures allowed to open with a prayer without being enemies of the faith?
Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry puts it clearly: “Freemasons do not believe that religion ever is or can be a monopoly owned by any church. Religion belongs to man as man. If a man desires to worship he is free to do so where he stands. If workmen wish to pray and worship there is nobody to forbid them; they have as much right to turn the Lodge into an altar as they have to sit or stand or speak” (1946 ed., vol. 3, page 1212).
Any problems we have in relation to the Bible are quite different. Problem: what do non-Judeo-Christians do as Masons? Answer: they can take their obligations on their own Scriptures. Other Scriptures apart from the Bible are honoured in a Lodge room; at my Lodge in Jerusalem there are three holy books on the pedestal, the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic. The Christians don’t seem to have an issue with Old Testament material in the ritual, nor do the Muslims, who accept that Masonic culture is built upon Biblical events that do not figure – at least in the same way – in their own tradition.
Problem: how much do we have to believe of the Masonic version of Biblical texts? Some interpretations are influenced by the Jewish Midrash, though even in Judaism such material lacks compulsory status. Other interpretations are pure legend, sometimes probably deliberately constructed in the 17th or 18th century by the founding fathers of the Speculative craft. Masons find it all very interesting but are not compelled to believe it.
Actually something paradoxical has happened here. From the 9th century, Jewish exegesis underwent a radical change. Islam accused Jews of distorting their own Bible, and within Judaism the Karaites alleged that the rabbis had moved away from the Biblical text, so the Massoretes (“keepers of tradition”) established a standard Hebrew version, and the classical commentators explained the Scriptures according to plain sense and reason. Some introduced linguistic analogies – e.g. to medieval French - whilst others analysed the Christian interpretations and brought them into their literary polemics.
The authority of Midrashic exposition was downgraded by some commentators, though others found it useful as an aid to devotion and even uncovered layers of mystical underpinning of the text. On the whole, however, this age of interpretation was a rational intellectual era with little time for myths and legends.
Modern Freemasonry came in at the cusp of the medieval and modern periods – and chose to give credence to myths and legends. Nonetheless, the men who established Speculative Masonry were rationalists, scientists and intellectuals. How and why they seized upon or invented myths and legends we cannot be certain. De Saguliers and James Anderson aren’t here to ask.