Features Law & Politics Social Sciences

Should legal disputes be decided by artificial, rather than human means?

Winner of the Trinity College Robert Walker Essay Prize, written by sixth-former George Hargreaves.

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to resolve some legal disputes more accurately, and with greater consistency, than humans are able to. Practical advantages, such as speed and cost of resolution, have already led to its limited adoption in some countries. This is likely to increase as AI continues to evolve rapidly, both through development of the algorithms with which it is programmed and through machine learning. But it is unlikely at any point that AI will be able to update fast enough to reflect ever-changing and infinitely complex real world circumstances, or to master the (also ever-changing) linguistic subtlety upon which much legal argument is based. Many disputes involve unique circumstances which cannot be fully encapsulated by pre-set algorithms: human oversight will be necessary. Furthermore, AI’s inherent lack of transparency means that it will fail to meet the principle of open justice, except in limited circumstances: both users and subjects of AI may not understand the decisions it makes. This would risk society losing confidence in its legal system. While some disputes should be determined by AI, even these must be subject to human checks. In many cases, however, AI’s best use will be as an expert advisor (or “co-bot”, perhaps) for human arbitrators. Society is likely to consider it morally unacceptable for life-changing decisions (where the death penalty could be imposed, for example) to be made by a “robot judge”. Ultimately, law evolves to reflect changes in society and life itself; an inanimate entity such as AI will be incapable of comprehending the infinite complexity of life in the conceivable future. It would thus be mistaken to devolve all power to AI for deciding legal disputes.

Practicing lawyers have made increasing use of AI over the last decade. A survey of the websites of the UK’s 12 largest solicitors[1] indicates that this will continue, albeit with AI typically being used for back office functions and organising and categorising “Big Data” sources. It is often used for the retrieval of precedents for use in upcoming cases, for example, or for reviewing contracts. AI can perform many such tasks far more quickly, accurately and comprehensively than human solicitors would find possible. While programming and other costs are not insignificant, these solicitors all note that AI is allowing them to deploy more staff in areas where greater specialist skills are required, while automating more routine tasks. While AI has been contributing to dispute resolution for some years, it is now starting to come into use in the decision making process itself, having performed well in a series of robot v human contests. In 2018, for example, a LawGeex AI system achieving 94% accuracy in reviewing a set of non-disclosure agreements, compared with 85% by a group of legal experts in that field. Even more strikingly, AI took 26 seconds to review each agreement, while the humans required 51 minutes on average[2]. Cambridge-based Case Cruncher Alpha also had notable success in such competitions. In China, there are now over 100 robots in use in courts[3] while they have also been introduced in countries as diverse as Colombia[4] and Estonia[5]. However, their use remains limited to that of an advisor in high-volume, low-value cases, with a human judge in attendance making any final decision. Nevertheless, AI’s use here has clear practical benefits and may help improve the consistency of penalties or sentences being given. The UK too has recognised these advantages, with the Civil Justice Council recommending as long ago as 2015 the introduction of Her Majesty’s Online Court to resolve some disputes where the value is under £25,000[6]. However, the implementation of this has been delayed until at least 2023[7], partly due to the technology available remaining inadequate. This highlights the difficulties that the sheer complexity and holistic nature of many legal disputes poses AI.

The current usage of AI is limited to relatively simple and clearly defined situations, where organising known facts, which may not in themselves be disputed (in some divorces, for example) is what is required. There are many examples of “bots” being used outside the court system too – the site being one of the most well-known. Originally designed to help the public to obtain refunds for parking tickets wrongfully issued, has now extended its scope to help receive compensation where it is due from airlines, or to force companies to cancel subscription services when they seem reluctant to do so.

AI has some clear practical benefits which are leading to its increased adoption. While its capabilities are insufficient to deal with most decision-making tasks at present, the pace of technological change (estimated in Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s “Moore’s Law” as a doubling of processing power every 2 years) should not be underestimated. It is clear that these capabilities will advance to a position where it could be used far more widely in future – at least theoretically.

However, there are overwhelming arguments against allowing AI alone to decide many legal disputes. These arguments may be classified broadly as practical, legal and moral.

Practically, an important difficulty is that the world is constantly evolving in unexpected ways and AI will itself need time to absorb and process new laws which may themselves be passed rapidly. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, a new UK Coronavirus Act was swiftly drawn up in early March and given royal assent on 25th March 2020. This will potentially lead to many legal disputes for which there are no precedents, and to as yet unforeseen consequences. Both programmers updating AI logarithms and machine learning will struggle to incorporate this new information in the short term. Similarly, programmers will more generally find it difficult to ensure that changes made to an AI system are not having unintended consequences on the algorithms which are already in place – particularly as the majority of programmers will not be lawyers. Neither will they be perfect individuals, so there is significant potential for their conscious or unconscious biases to be incorporated in an AI system (just as there are in any human system). Large and complex AI systems could also well be open to cyberattacks which have already led to major financial losses for many organisations; any such malicious attack on the legal infrastructure (possibly not identified for many years afterwards) could have extremely damaging consequences on the legal system.

The philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument[8] drew a distinction between the syntax and the semantics of language and argued that AI could never fully replicate human understanding. While AI may recognise words in themselves, it will always struggle to understand, or even recognise, the multiple linguistic subtleties upon which many legal disputes turn. In essence, many disputes are too complex to be simplified in digital format. If AI cannot understand arguments in their human form (instead merely simulating this), it is unlikely to be able to administer justice fairly to the satisfaction of the humans who need it. An analogy with the recent introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football is interesting as, even when rules were relatively simple and well understood, the attempt to implement them, using artificial means, has been widely deemed unsatisfactory and inconsistent by players and fans alike. VAR, applied strictly, lacks any capacity for discretion.

This complexity, and AI’s inherent lack of transparency, are at the heart of major counterarguments to its use in the legal system. Centrally, the principle of open justice – whereby the law should be clearly comprehensible to all, with decisions clearly communicated – is unlikely to be satisfied by AI, except in limited circumstances. Re and Solow-Niederman have identified “a range of concerns relating to [AI’s] tendency to make the legal system more incomprehensible, data-based, alienating, and disillusioning”[9]. Were this to be the case, using AI alone would in many cases very likely lead to society losing confidence in legal systems which it has used for centuries to provide an agreed framework for it to operate within. Another academic, Sourdin[10], notes “questions such as who makes the decision, and who possesses the legal authority to make such a decision. Is it the computer programmer, the policymaker, the human decision-maker or the computer or automated system itself” – these cannot easily be answered and raise further crucial problems, such as how and to whom appeals might be made.

Re and Solow-Niederman ask “can a prearranged decision procedure really incorporate an idea like mercy or develop fact-sensitive balancing of mitigation factors in a criminal case?” The principle of equitable justice might mean a recently unemployed husband stealing medicine for his sick wife could be treated more leniently than a drug dealer stealing drugs to sell on the street, when it came to a human judge passing sentence. Whereas AI, certainly for the foreseeable future, would not be capable of taking every extenuating circumstance into account. Particularly as every case will have unique surrounding circumstances; and the more complex the case the more complex those circumstances are likely to be.

But, even if developments in AI made it possible in the distant future to overcome all of the practical and legal issues outlined, there are critical moral problems which will remain impossible to solve.

The UK’s legal system (and that of most other countries’) has had human interaction woven into it ever since it was created, or naturally evolved from primitive, informal justice methods. This not only enables a judge to exercise discretion, or mercy, but it is also considered to be a fundamental right for litigants to be able to make their case personally – and to fell that they are being heard and understood. Similarly, a jury decision making process places much emphasis on human interaction and argument. If AI displaced all such human interaction, litigants would be likely over time to become disaffected, eventually losing faith in the system of justice itself.

Where very serious cases were involved, with very serious potential consequences (in some countries, the death penalty for example) it will be considered morally unacceptable for life-changing decisions to be made by a “robot judge”. It is inconceivable that the degree of technological development that would be necessary to overcome these reservations is within human reach.

Finally, privacy issues, both for individuals and for countries when national security matters might be involved, further complicate the landscape for AI. The extent to which these are concerning depends partly on political ideology: in China today, for example, all citizens are subject to “social scoring” based on their internet presence – with low scores affecting individuals’ rights to have a passport or to get a loan. This would be considered too intrusive in many other countries. In any event, AI may find itself denied information which it had in previous instances needed to make a fair decision. The withholding of information for reasons of privacy will continue to be seen as a necessary human “judgement call” – albeit clearly capable itself of abuse. This is an area where politics and law meet. The extent to which AI will improve in the future should not be underestimated. This will increase its use, which is currently limited to relatively routine, standardised tasks. Its ability to assimilate and organise data is already vastly superior to any human’s. However, it will always struggle to understand the linguistic complexity which is central to much legal argument, or the complexity of life itself, which is also often central to such argument. Without humans being part of legal dispute resolution, it is fundamentally impossible for the principles of open justice or of discretion to be met. Lower cost and greater speed will tempt rule makers, but AI’s most appropriate use is as an expert advisor to human judges.








[8] In “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (1980)

[9] “Developing Artificially Intelligent Justice”, Stanford Technology Law Review 242 (2019)

[10] “Judge v Robot?” AI and Judicial Decision-Making”, UNSW Law Journal vol 41

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

The Historicity of the Resurrection

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Alexander Norris.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

As we celebrate Easter, some may, in the abundance of tacky eggs and bunnies, forget the Christian roots of this festival – either by accident or design! This widely celebrated feast is in fact based on a very controversial question: the issue of the Resurrection.

The reason this is such a controversy is because of its practical implications, both for the 2.2 billion adherents of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, and for those who reject the message of the Gospel. This has been admitted from very early on, with St Paul writing to the Corinthians in the first century AD that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and… we [Christians] are of all men most to be pitied.’

This demonstrates the crucial importance of the Resurrection as the touchstone of the Christian faith, since the choice is a clearly binary one – if it happened, Christians are right; if it didn’t, they’re wrong. In other words, the claimed Resurrection was either the greatest miracle the world has ever seen, or the greatest hoax in the history of mankind. There is no middle way.

Indeed, what makes this an even more contentious matter is the fact that it is theoretically possible, using historical research, either to prove it beyond reasonable doubt or to utterly debunk it, hence the paramount importance of such an investigation.

The Facts

Completely apart from the Gospels sympathetic to Christ and his followers, we have a large number of Jewish and Roman sources who mention this man’s claims from a sceptical point of view, giving their testimony particular value for historians. There are Roman sources (such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, Celsus, Thallus, and Phlegon) and Jewish sources too, which include Josephus, Toledot Yeshu, the Talmud, and Mara Bar-Serapion. The number of sources makes it impractical to fully analyse them in a brief essay such as this, but what we can ascertain from their agreement are the following historical facts:

  • Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah foretold by the Jewish scriptures
  • He was arrested by the Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans to be tried
  • He was tried by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and crucified as a political criminal
  • Three days after his death, several women disciples of his alleged that his body had disappeared from the tomb
  • His disciples claimed that God had raised him from the dead, and that he appeared several times to them before ascending into heaven

Security Precautions

We know more than this, though, from the context of his death, especially given the fact that he had apparently predicted his death and Resurrection beforehand – in any case, the Jewish authorities were taking no chances of making him a martyr.

According to the Gospels, he underwent six trials to ensure his condemnation: one before Annas (the previous High Priest), one before Caiaphas (the present one), and one before the Sanhedrin of Jewish elders, before being handed over to the Romans, who tried him before Pilate (who could not find any grounds for condemning him) then passed to the nominal authority of King Herod Antipas, before finally being sentenced by Pilate again under pressure from the Jews. The final sentence was as follows: he was found guilty of claiming the title of ‘King of the Jews’ and so setting himself up in political opposition to the authority of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time – this was the crime of treason, and as such merited death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion itself was so gruesome and degrading a torture that Roman citizens could not legally be crucified, hence why most crucifixions were reserved for slaves in uprisings. Here is a brief description of the typical process:

  • Before crucifixion the victim would be whipped with a flagella – a whip with multiple ends, into which were sewn pieces of rock, bone and metal – which would uncover the muscles and some bones of his back. The flagellation usually ceased when the victim was deemed to be near to death.[15]
  • After this, the victim would have had to carry a crossbar of c.50 kg to the place of his execution (which in this case was just under a kilometre away) – this crossbar was so heavy and he was so weak that he had to be helped by a passer-by, as the Romans did not want him to die before they could torture him. He would then be stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross.
  • Even then, death would only come after a lengthy period of torture: the prisoner would suffer incredibly painful cramps, which would make him unable to push himself up with his legs, his muscles would become paralysed, so that he could inhale but not exhale air, carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs and the body would make spasmodic movements up, so he could exhale; this process was repeated for many hours, sometimes taking days.
  • Death would be from suffocation; and the legs were usually broken to terminate torture when the guards had had enough.

The Gospel accounts are in this respect completely accurate as to the process of crucifixion, and even included the detail that Christ’s legs were not broken because he was already dead. They also mention that blood and water flowed from his heart when the centurion pierced it – not only would this spear thrust have killed him had he not already have been dead, but in deaths by torture, clear pericardial fluid (what would have looked like water) builds up around the heart only after death. Furthermore, the Roman governor could only hand over the body to be buried once death had been certified by four professional executioners. This all serves to demonstrate the certainty of his death.

Christ would then have been taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb, whose entrance  would be c.4-5 feet high; this again is verified by the Bible which says that St John had to stoop to enter. He was buried with 100 lb of spices in myrrh (not an unusual quantity for the time) smeared under the burial cloths as a kind of glue so that they could not be taken off very easily. Moreover, investigations of the weight of the stone shows it would have weighed between 1½ and 2 tons – it would have been rolled in place by gravity on a slope, and thus could not be removed without intense physical exertion.

As it happens, the Jews requested a Roman guard for the tomb to stop the body being stolen – this would typically have consisted of sixteen men, four on each side, which theoretically could hold 36 square feet against an entire battalion by utilising the space to their advantage. When they slept in turns, they slept in such positions so that nobody could get past without stepping on them and waking them up. Desertion and falling asleep on duty both required the death penalty by Roman law, so the possibility of this is minimal. Finally, the tomb would also have been sealed with the Roman governor’s seal, which represented the authority of Rome, and thus breaking it would be considered treasonous too.

What Happened?

Therefore, there are certain things that must have happened for the Resurrection even to be a possibility:

  • Someone/something broke the governor’s seal, invoking the penalty of death if they were caught (to avoid this punishment all Jesus’ disciples had fled, and even their chief, St Peter, had denied any association with him three times).
  • Someone/something rolled away the stone (requiring a great deal of manpower).
  • Someone/something removed the body (if they hadn’t, then the Jewish authorities could have produced it as evidence of the disciples’ mendacity, especially given the fact that they began to preach in Jerusalem itself where the grave was).
  • Someone/something caused the Roman guard to flee (desertion was punishable by death, hence they must have had a pretty good motive for doing so!)
  • Someone/something left the graveclothes neatly folded (an unusual twist).
  • Someone/something convinced a huge number of people that they had seen the risen Christ (this included Mary Magdalen, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles in the locked room, and even 500 people at once, all of which were recorded by St Paul 30 years later who added that they were still alive – in effect, saying ‘Ask them yourselves if you don’t believe me!’) with a large variety of backgrounds (mourning, scepticism, open hostility) and various emotional responses (passion, fright, incredulity).
  • Women claimed to have seen him first (also seemingly unreliable since they were unable to testify in a court of law, which is why the other disciples refused to believed them at first).

Theories about the Resurrection

There are many theories about what happened, so here I’ll outline them as succinctly as possible, and show why so many of them contain major inconsistencies:

  • Nobody knew where Jesus was buried – although crucified men were usually buried in a common grave, there is archaeological evidence that this did not always happen, especially when the man had a large group of family and friends; in this case Jesus was laid in the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, which was clearly well known to both his disciples (who had laid him there) and the Romans (who stationed a guard there).
  • The women went to the wrong tomb – similarly, although most tombs would be fairly indistinguishable, this was a private burial ground; indeed, this relies on everyone (including St Peter, St John, the Roman guard and the Jewish authorities) all independently going to the wrong tomb. Also, if his body was present anywhere the whole story could have been nipped in the bud immediately by showing it.
  • The resurrection was a legend invented long after Jesus’ death – this is untenable given the accounts we have from the mid-first century AD by which point the story had already become well-established, especially St Paul’s mention in 56 of over 500 witnesses still alive who could verify it.
  • Jesus’ disciples hallucinated – firstly, hallucinations tend to occur to either paranoids or schizophrenics, and the disciples were neither of these (they had a wide range of personalities and came from a large variety of backgrounds); secondly, hallucinations are very private and not only did Christ appear to a large number of people, but ate with them, and invited them to examine his wounds; thirdly, most of the appearances were in broad daylight (there were fifteen of these, at one point to over 500 people); fourthly, hallucinations require an anticipating spirit which was not present, since the disciples thought that Christ was permanently dead and at first refused to believe that it was he (St Mary Magdalen went to anoint his dead body); fifthly, not only did the hallucinations happen irregularly and ceased at a fixed point (Christ’s Ascension), they also do not square with the reaction of the Roman Guard and chief priests, or with the empty tomb and broken seal.
  • The disciples stole the body – this was the most common accusation at the time, despite the issues already described which stopped them getting to the tomb in the first place (especially the Roman guard, every trained soldier of which could have easily finished off the whole band of simple fishermen); also, it fails to explain why ten of the original twelve apostles died horrible deaths as martyrs, without there being records of a single one of them admitting that it was all a lie.
  • The Roman or Jewish authorities stole the body – they could have done this to stop it being used as a relic, but given the damage it did them they could easily have presented the body at any point together with witnesses to its removal to disprove the disciples’ story; there is no evidence that anything of the sort was ever even suggested.
  • Jesus fainted on the cross and recovered in the tomb – this theory assumes that: (1) Jesus managed to survive the immense torture of scourging, lifting his cross-bar (which he could not even do on his own), nailing to the cross, and crucifixion; (2) when a spear was thrust into his side on the cross, eyewitnesses were wrong that blood and water came out, a sign of death; (3) his death was confirmed by four experienced Roman executioners, who must all have been mistaken; (4) over 100 lb of spices and linen encased his body, he must have breathed through it all; (5) in this state he managed to burst out of his garments, (6) roll the stone away from the inside (impossible for a strong man to do on his own, let alone one so weak) and (7) fight off the guards, then (8) appear in this almost-dead state to his disciples and convince them that he was the triumphant Lord of Life. This would in fact be more miraculous than a resurrection, and requires more faith to believe, especially since such an appearance of Jesus as a man badly in need of food, water and medical aid would hardly have cheered them up, and certainly would not have filled them with enthusiasm to dedicate their lives to preaching about his Resurrection.

As has been shown, all of these theories contain major problems, to the extent that to believe them requires a greater leap of faith than has often been ascribed to Christians.


So what was it that transformed the lives of the disciples, turned them from despair to hope, from fear to courage, and gave them the ability to die fearlessly for their beliefs when beforehand they had been cowering behind locked doors, afraid of their lives?

What was it that changed this small group of penniless fishermen, tax collectors and peasants into the oldest institution in human history, and the one with the most numerous followers?

What changed the most ardent persecutor of this tiny sect into the greatest missionary of the global Universal Church of Christ?

In the words of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. Only one adequate theory therefore remains: that as the Gospels narrate, Christ rose from the dead.

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

A New Translation of John 1

This long-read article was written by Sixth Former Sam Cherry. It provides a new translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It concludes with a translator’s commentary.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 1:

1 In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. 2The same was with God in the beginning. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing which has been made was made. 4In Him was a way of life, and that way of life was the light of humankind. 5And the light shines in the darkness, though the darkness did not understand it.

6There came a man sent from God, named John. 7This man went as a witness in order to testify about the light, such that all might believe through him. 8He was not that light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9There was a true light, who illuminates all people coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, though the world knew Him not. 11He came into His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12But as many as did receive Him, He gave to those who believe in His name the power to be made children of God; 13they were not born from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us, and we admired His glory: His glory as the only child begotten from the Father, filled with grace and truth. 15John testifies about Him, and cried out, saying: ‘He was the same one of whom I spoke; the one who is coming after me came before me in precedence, because He was before me’. 16And from His fullness we all received that grace in place of grace; 17because the Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but the only-begotten son, being in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known.

19And this is the testimony of John: when the Jewish Temple authorities sent priests and Levites in order to ask him ‘who are you?’ 20he confessed and agreed that ‘I myself am not the Christ,’ and did not deny it. 21So they asked him: ‘who are you then? Are you Elijah?’. And he says: ‘I am not’. ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered: ‘no’. 22They therefore said to him: ‘who are you? In order to give an answer to those who sent us, what do you say about yourself?’. 23He said: ‘I am a voice in desolation, crying out: make straight the way of the Lord, just as the prophet Elijah said’. 24But the men who had been sent were from the Pharisees, 25and they asked him and said to him: ‘if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah nor a prophet, why then do you baptise?’. 26John responded, saying: ‘I baptise in water, but in your midst stood one whom you did not know. 27He is the one who is coming after me, who came before me in precedence; I myself am not worthy to loose the strap of His sandal’.28These things came to pass in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him and He says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. 30This is the same Man of whom I said: “before me is coming a Man who came before me in precedence, because He was before me”. 31And I myself did not know Him, but, in order that He might be revealed to Israel, for this reason I went into the water baptising’. 32And John testified saying that: ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a Dove from heaven above, and it remained upon Him. 33And I did not see Him, but, having sent me to baptise in water, He told me that: “whomever you might see the Spirit descending and remaining upon is the same person who is baptising in the Holy Spirit”. 34And I recognised and testified that He is the Son of God’.

35The next day again, John was standing with two of his disciples, 36and, having seen Jesus walking, says: ‘behold the Lamb of God’. 37The two disciples heard him speaking and followed Jesus. 38But Jesus, having turned around and seeing them following Him, says to them: 49‘what do you seek?’. And they said to Him: ‘Rabbi,’ (which is to say, being translated, ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’. 40He says to them: ‘come, and you will see’. Thus they came and saw where He stays, and stayed with Him that evening; it was about the tenth hour. 41Andrew, one of the two men having heard from John, and having followed him, was the brother of Simon Peter. 42That same man finds his brother and says to him: ‘we have seen the Messiah,’ (which is to be translated ‘the Christ’). 43And he led him to Jesus. Jesus, standing, said to him: ‘you are Simon, the son of Jonah. You will be called Kephas,’ (which is to be translated ‘Peter’).

44The next day Jesus wanted to go out into Galilee. And He found Philip and says to him: ‘follow Me’. 45And Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 46Philip found Nathanael and says to him: ‘we have found Him, whom Moses and the Prophets wrote about in the law – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph’. 47And Nathanael said to him: ‘what from Nazareth can be good?’. Philip says to him: ‘come and you will see’. 48Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards Him and says about him: ‘behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit’. 49Nathanael says to Him: ‘whence do you know me?’. Jesus answered and said to him: ‘before Philip had called you, I saw you under a fig tree’. 50Nathanael responded and says to Him: ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel’. 51Jesus replied and says to him: ‘do you have faith because I said to you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. 52And He says to him: ‘truly, truly I say to you, henceforth you will see heaven above opening, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of humankind’.

Translator’s Commentary:

My source was the Koine New Testament as published in 1904 and 1942 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with later corrections by the Church of Greece. It departs ever so slightly from other versions by dividing the text into 52 verses instead of 51; what is v.48 in other editions is split into v.48 and v.49 in this text. For reference I used Strong’s Greek Concordance and Liddell & Scott’s English-Greek lexicon, both accessed online.

I have taken a largely literalist approach to the translation. This includes the preservation of the historic present, and the keeping of participles as participles, even when in English it might be more natural to use normal verbs, insofar as was possible. In order to preserve clarity, I have omitted or introduced conjunctives or pronouns in some places into the translation (e.g. v.45 & 46)[1]. All speech punctuation is editorial, as it does not exist in the original.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in my translation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, versus most other versions, lies in the very first sentence, in my decision to leave Logos (Λογος) untranslated [v.1]. What inspired me in the first place to undertake translating this passage was my dissatisfaction with the popular rendering of Λογος as ‘Word’. The Greek term has a multitude of meanings: reason, story, purpose, decree, maxim, doctrine, account etc. – the list goes on and on. Picking any single word then as a direct translation, I think, necessarily removes the nuance that comes from the multiplicity of meanings captured in ‘Λογος’. Whether that was St. John’s original intent or not, I think this obscurity, these possibilities, should be reflected in the translation as they exist in the original. The only way to do that, then, is to leave the term as it is, untranslated.

I found it difficult to find a suitable way of capturing the word ‘ζωη’ in English [v.4]. While most translators render in literally as ‘life’ (take for example the NIV, KJV or ESV) I think this translation is an oversimplification. ‘ζωη’ means more than ‘life’ in the simple biological sense (the corresponding Greek for that would be ‘βιος’), but rather the totality of the spiritual, physical and active aspects which constitute human life. My best attempt therefore was ‘a way of life’, though this still feels insufficient in my opinion.

Also in v.4, I have decided to interpret ‘των ἀνθρωπων’ in a gender-neutral sense. No doubt the word itself is masculine, and is thus often rendered as ‘mankind’ or ‘man’, but as ‘ἀνθροπος’ in is understood to refer to all humans and not just males I think ‘humankind’ is a more fitting translation. Later, in v.52 I have opted to translate ‘του ἀνθρωπου’ as ‘of humankind’ again given the context, even though it is in this case singular, as ‘the Son of human’ sounds very unnatural in English.

The word translated as ‘flesh’ (‘ἡ σαρξ’) [v.13 & 14], often has associations with human nature, and especially the human inclination to sin, alongside the terms more biological meaning. The nuance of St. John’s use of this term then in v.13 (‘the will of the flesh’) is more or less obvious, but less so in v.14. Strong suggests that ‘ὁ Λογος σαρξ ἐγενετο’ (‘the Word became flesh’) refers not only to Christ taking human form in the incarnation, but also to indicate that Christ took on human nature, with its moral weakness. While the term ‘flesh’ in English does, to an extent, have an association with carnality, I cannot find a way of communicating in English a suggestion of both physicality and weak human nature, so ‘flesh’ remains the best translation of ‘σάρξ’, if an imperfect one.

I think my choice to translate ‘ἐσκηνωσεν’ [v.14], usually translated as ‘dwelled’, instead as ‘tabernacled’ reflects the meaning of the word more accurately. Though it literally means to pitch a tent, Greek Jews reading this passage at the time would have noticed the nuance in this particular verb, as ‘σκηνη’ (meaning dwelling, tent or hut) was the term used to translate the Hebrew word for the Tabernacle (‘מִּשְׁכָּן’, ‘mishkan’) in the Septuagint. I wanted the English to reflect this, as otherwise the theological significance which resides in this unusual word (it occurs only once in the Gospels) would be lost.

St. John linguistically distinguishes between the Jewish people who supported Jesus, and those who opposed Him. Typically, he refers to those who opposed Jesus as ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ [v.19], though elsewhere in his Gospel this term is used more neutrally, including when Jesus is described as ‘βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων’ (‘King of the Jews’). Elsewhere, he uses ‘οἱ Ἰσραηλίται’ to describe Jews who are favourable to Jesus (e.g. in v.43). While it may seem obvious to translate ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘the Jews’ this is not by far an adequate translation, as it would suggest that the persecution was propagated by all Jews, as opposed to a select number of the Temple authorities. Moreover, elsewhere in the Gospel St. John uses the term interchangeably with the Pharisees or chief priests, showing the St. John was accustomed to using the term for subgroups of the Jewish people, and did not intend it to mean all Jews. In the context of the passage, with this in mind, I have thus translated ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘Jewish Temple authorities’ and not as ‘the Jews’.

I decided to translate ‘ἐν ἐρημῳ’ [v.23] as ‘in desolation’. Most literally, as a noun, it refers to a place of sparse vegetation, but adjectivally is used to describe an empty place of solace, so I think ‘desolation’ is the most accurate reflection of the meaning in context.

The word rendered as ‘heaven above’ (‘οὐρανος’) [v.32 & 52] is used to refer both to heaven in the spiritual sense, and to the sky or atmosphere. While the word ‘heaven’ in English also has this duality, it is more associated, especially in a theological context, with the spiritual meaning, and thus to translate ‘οὐρανος’ simply as ‘heaven’ neglects the nuance of the Greek. To capture both the spiritual and physical meanings, I think ‘heaven above’ is the best translation, as ‘heaven’ capture the spiritual side, but ‘above’ tempers this with a spatial and hence physical aspect.

Also in v.32 ‘upon Him’ may instead be translated as ‘in His presence’. Similarly, in v.33 ‘remaining upon’ could as be translated as ‘remaining in their presence’. This is due to the ambiguity in the precise meaning of the preposition ‘ἐπι’ in the context of the phrase ‘ἐπ’αὐτον’.

In v.43, Jesus names St. Peter, who is originally called Simon, ‘Kephas’, a transliterated Aramaic term (‘כֵּיפָא’, ‘kepha’); the corresponding Greek word is ‘Petros’ (Πετρος). Though normatively translated as ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, there is some dispute as to whether the Aramaic, and correspondingly the Greek term, should be thought to mean jewel instead. This possible translation could suggest that Peter was special or valuable, conferring a different meaning than if it were translated as ‘rock’, which is usually understood to refer to St. Peter’s reliable and strong character, and his position as the foundation of the Church (c.f. Matthew 16:18).

[1] Additionally, in v.49 the participle ‘ὀντα’ (being) was omitted for clarity.

Features STEM

Mathematics is a Useless Degree

This tongue-in-cheek piece was written by OG Michael Kielstra, a current Mathematics student at Harvard University.

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

Every so often, some wag will restart the debate over what is and what isn’t a “useful” degree. This might be someone on the internet, or it might be your father asking why he’s paying all this money for you to do East Asian Studies or Theater and Dance or Classics while your older brother studied Computer Science and now he’s pulling down £80 000 per year with benefits. Academics often weigh in to defend their own fields, often using phrases such as “[The thing I study] has never been more relevant than today”. The main divide seems to be between, on the one hand, the group that views education as job training and a college degree as an investment to be netted out against future earnings, and, on the other, the group that views education as teaching knowledge and good citizenship for their own sakes. I call these groups the plutophiles and sophophiles respectively. The sophophiles view the plutophiles as short-sighted money-grubbers with no sense of beauty, while the plutophiles view the sophophiles as pie-in-the-sky idealists with no sense of pragmatism.

The divide between these two groups is very easy to see on a college campus. Arts and humanities majors tend to be sophophiles, resigned to the fact that they will never earn as much as the people in the science building and making highfalutin arguments about how that doesn’t matter. Science and engineering majors, on the other hand, are more often plutophiles, angling for high-paying jobs in the financial or technological sectors. As we will see, there is more nuance to it than that, but this, I would say, matches up fairly well with most peoples’ first impressions.

At this point I should introduce myself. My name is Michael Kielstra and I am a math student at Harvard. This should immediately put me on the list of plutophiles, or at least on the list of people with degrees that their grandfather isn’t ostentatiously ashamed to talk about. Ever since theology was dethroned, mathematics has been the queen of the sciences, and, knowing the job opportunities for engineers, we can only imagine those open to mathematicians.

However, a math degree, from a plutophilic standpoint, doesn’t actually make very much sense. As anyone who has heard mathematicians talk will know, mathematics very quickly becomes abstract and abstruse. Only this year, I have done problem sets involving hierarchies of infinite numbers, derivatives in curved high-dimensional space, and symmetries of arbitrarily complex shapes. More importantly, the engineers don’t need much of this. I am currently enrolled in a class on high-performance computing, and my fellow-students are struggling with algebra which, to me, is almost trivial. I’m not trying to brag here: it is in fact I who am the stupid one, plutophilically, spending all this time practicing algebra that our brightest high-performance computing experts can mostly get by without. Engineers and computer scientists know a lot of mathematics, certainly, but much less than mathematicians do. They fill up that space in their heads, instead, with practical knowledge that equips them to make money in the real world. The plutophile laughs at mathematicians.

This would explain why so many mathematics professors are sophophiles, regularly publishing tracts eulogizing the beauty of their “independent world/created out of pure intelligence.” (Even Keats got in on this.) That doesn’t make much sense either. I can, and often do, rhapsodize with the best of them about the wonder of high-level mathematics, but it is a wonder denied pretty much entirely to people who aren’t willing to spend hours and hours and hours working on problems that seem hopelessly

convoluted and nigh-on incomprehensible even to professionals. Mathematics has a very high person-hours-to-beauty ratio. On top of that, once the modern professional mathematician does create something beautiful, there are possibly ten thousand people in the world who can immediately appreciate it, and possibly one hundred who can appreciate it fully in context.

And mathematics provides next to no training in citizenship, leadership, or any of the ineffable qualities that sophophiles so regularly argue can be taught at university. Mathematicians are famously absent-minded and socially unaware. Imperial College, in the second year of their mathematics degree, brings in a drama coach – not an executive coach or an education expert, a drama coach – to teach the students how to give engaging presentations. The culture of pure mathematics, although in many ways wonderful, has a tendency towards detachment, arrogance, and the worst kind of agnosticism. The existence or non-existence of God does not follow from the Morse-Kelley axioms of set theory, so why should we care? Why should we care about people who care?

So if mathematics makes no sense to a sophophile, and it makes no sense to a plutophile, we may draw one of two conclusions from the fact that I’m still doing it. The first is that I am thick. I am going to ignore that possibility. The alternative is that the distinction between plutophiles and sophophiles is incomplete at best. This is strange: express any even mildly controversial opinion about higher education, and you will very easily find someone ready to call you a dirty sophophile or a filthy plutophile. However, I believe that grouping our opponents, and thereby ourselves, into these categories is a major mistake. After all, neither category can explain a degree as popular as mathematics. The sophophiles and plutophiles, locked in combat over the purpose of higher education, have so limited their viewpoint that they cannot understand that there might be subjects and courses without a fixed purpose at all.

This is the fundamental error: viewing education as a means to an end, whether that end is to produce billionaires or to produce, to borrow a phrase I loathe from the official mission of Harvard College, citizens and citizen-leaders. Talking about whether something is a “useless” degree presupposes that “use” is an adjective that should always apply to degrees in the first place. The mathematics degree is best explained not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. I love to do mathematics, I love to learn mathematics, and, yes, deep down, I even love the feeling of working on a really nasty problem set. I love the subject, I personally find it beautiful even if I know that beauty is very esoteric, and I would find a life full of it to be fulfilling. That is all the defense I can give for my life choices, and I believe it makes me an incurable Romantic that I believe it is all the defense I need.

A college degree, in any subject, with any sort of usefulness, is just another option that may not be right for everyone. If you want to create beauty, be an artist. If you want to be a citizen-leader, volunteer. If you want to do what you love, and the thing you love happens to be something for which a college offers a degree, go to college. I want to do math, and I am privileged enough to be able to afford to use a facility designed to help me to do math, so I make use of that facility.

If you want to make money, honestly, I’d recommend plumbing.

Arts & Humanities Classics Features

Greece vs. Rome: A Civilisation Debate

This long-read article was written by OG Matthew Sargent, as a response to a debate between Mary Beard and Boris Johnson.

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité had nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece … Liberty, for the Romans, was not just some simple Periclean slogan … the real point for me is that the Romans were the first people systematically to debate the limits of political liberty. They faced head on the unanswerable questions that matter now to us most: how far should the rights and the freedom of the individual citizen be suspended in the interests of homeland security … Classical Athens was a very small place; there were perhaps 40,000 people, not all citizens, living in the city itself … the city of Rome itself was home to a million people. It was the biggest city in the west until nineteenth century London. The Romans were committed to making urban living, modern style, work … Rome devoted itself to organising big city life … Top of the Roman agenda were the practical issues of living together and how to make a human community work … Finally, Roman society incorporated those who were mostly excluded in the ancient world, most obviously women … What does survive from Rome are all kinds of attempts, admittedly by men, to construct a variety of female voices in Greek and Latin – not just suffering heroines, ridiculous parodies, or lovelorn females … that is Roman culture all over. It’s fun, it’s warm, and it’s raising more important points than you might think, without all the fuss and pretension … Ultimately it was not the incorporation of women into the state, into a role in the state, but it was the incorporation of new citizens into the state. Rome had a mechanism for becoming Roman. Classical Athens had such an exclusive, a narrowly ethnic – you might even call it racist – policy on who could become a citizen … at he same time, slaves in their millions were freed at Rome, and in the process – completely unlike in the Greek world – they became full Roman citizens … Rome’s real, it’s rough, it’s in-your-face, it’s open, it’s welcoming, and it’s us.”

– Mary Beard

This piece was conceived as a response to a debate held in November 2015 between Professor Mary Beard and then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on which was better ‘Greece or Rome?’ Since it aired, I’ve often returned to the arguments brought up by both sides, but this piece aims at re-evaluating some of Mary’s claims as to why Rome was the better civilization. Despite identifying as a Hellenist myself, and admittedly having a pro-Greek bias (which cannot be avoided, rather acknowledged and factored into one’s reasoning), neither will counter-examples be suppressed, nor has Mary’s speech been trimmed in such a way as to lead to confusion and misrepresentation. 

Essentially, her argument rested on three pillars, namely the relevance of the Roman notion of libertas to modern parliamentary democracy, Rome’s commitment to city planning, looking after its citizens (importantly through the corn dole), and addressing the exigencies imposed by living in a city of more than a million inhabitants, and thirdly their openness to migrants, inclusiveness of women, incorporation of slaves and ethnic non-Romans into the citizen base, and their down-to-earth and unpretentious and realistic approach to everyday problems and societal concerns.

Before laying out my criticisms of her line of argument, it’s worth registering how – with the exception of the Emperor Caracalla’s citizenship grant in 212 AD – Mary nowhere noted in her talk how life in the Republic changed under the emperors. Suetonius may be right in claiming that Augustus found Rome as a city of bricks but left it a city of marble, but with the appearance of principial rule came a diminution in the de facto power of the senate (the one emperor who tried to hand over the reins of government entirely to the senate, Tiberius, saw his plans scuppered by senatorial apathy, and his reign ended in a decade long ‘Personal Rule’), a suspension of voting rights for ordinary citizens, and – depending on the emperor – the exercise of invariably unmitigated violence against the urban plebs or the aristocracy or both. Boris may have omitted to mention Sparta in his answer at all, but Mary’s guilty of passing over mention of the Principate.

First question: did the Greeks debate these questions of political liberty and tackle moot points such as the extent to which the rights of the individual should be sacrificed in the interests of the state? Beard references the Catilinarian Conspiracy as one such instance where the tension between state and individual surfaced. Did Classical Athens hold equivalent debates? We should note that Athens, which was never a Republic, and for most of its history was either governed by kings, tyrants, or democrats, was likely to discuss similar, but not the same questions; the form of government does not just determine how the political agenda gets implemented, but to an extent governs the agenda. Athens may not have had a Catilinarian Conspiracy, but they did have the trial of the Athenian generals after the naval disaster at Arginusae, as a result of which the six generals on trial were convicted by an impassioned mob and executed; Plato would cite this as but one case-study of the disordered crowd getting carried away by emotion. When in 404 the Thirty, a pro-Spartan oligarchic regime, commenced their Reign of Terror, they targeted in particular metics and wealthy Athenian families, confiscating property and murdering the well-off. In the years after their fall, they were systematically eliminated, either in private prosecutions or assassinated by the regime’s victims. So, Athens did have to navigate issues such as the rights of the individual in relation to the state, the accountability of the state for its perceived wrongdoings, and political theorists like Plato were constantly interrogating the merits of different forms of government, not least radical democracy.

And before we start making highfalutin claims about Roman openness, let’s remember that all ancient power was ferociously jingoistic and nationalistic, even borderline racist. Just as Athenian citizenship laws excluded aliens from participating in the city’s political business, so Rome would go to war with her allies over the matter of enfranchisement – the so-called ‘Social War’ – and she held debates in the senate over the admission of Gallic nobles into Rome’s governing bodies (preserved on the Lyon Tablet, from Claudius’ reign). Roman woman, like at Athens, technically had no political rights, even though they were likely freer and subject to less strict social expectations, but let’s remember the Roman empire was powered by an enormous slave economy, which was cruelly run (albeit, this finds a strong parallel in the treatment of Messenian helots at Sparta), whereas the Athenians were notoriously relaxed in terms of the control they exerted over their slaves – read a chapter from the Old Oligarch to see how unfussed they were, indeed he even claims that, at Athens, citizens and slaves were indistinguishable from one another in the streets!

So, this notion of Rome as an open, inclusive, cosmopolitan society has to be qualified. Mary arraigned against the pretension of Boris’ praise of Periclean politics and the institution of democracy, but if we’re looking for pretension how much further need we look than the Roman triumph, or the Res Gestae inscription put up by Augustus to commemorate his deeds, or the hypocrisy of the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, who defamed the dead emperor Claudius by writing a play called ‘Pumpkinification’, tried and failed to advise the emperor Nero, and despite (in typical Stoic manner) recommending sufferance and endurance of ills, was one of the wealthiest men at Rome and one of the largest private slave-owners from antiquity. Fifth-century Athenian democracy may only have lasted some hundred and ten years, in its pristine form, roughly, but during that period Athenian citizens were freer and enjoyed more rights than at any time in Rome, Athens became the ‘school’ of the ancient world with schools for Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean thought in a way never achieved by Rome (and, indeed, by no other ancient city with the exception of Alexandria), its artistic and literary output was prodigious in a way never rivalled even under Augustan Rome, and while libertas may have been Republican Rome’s main political legacy to us, from Athens we inherited concepts of isonomia (equality of rights), isegoria (equality of speech), parrhesia (freedom of expression), and most importantly eleutheria (freedom); these canonized human rights occupied a place in the Greek consciousness in a way never seen at Rome.

Cicero said of Socrates that he had brought philosophy down from the heavens and set it among mortal men, so even by the standards of Rome’s most euphuistic forensic orator Greek philosophical study was hardly pretentious. And besides questions of individual rights and the accountability of magistrates and tyrants, we should also appreciate the vast repository of other questions and important debates first aired by the Greeks, questions such as do we have free will or are we just subject to a predetermined fate; how do we, and how does the world, exist; what are the benefits of different forms of government; what makes us civilized in relation to barbarians; how does race impact citizen identity; what does living a good life mean; how do we attain happiness; do laws matter; what makes a democratic assembly truly sovereign; how does freedom differ from slavery; how should we lead our lives; and the question that underpinned all ancient expansion and was especially crucial to the Roman moralists, can empire ever be a good thing? Greek thought provides us with a conceptual framework for our modern debates, be it about philosophy or politics or identity or interaction of the sexes or civilization versus barbarism. Greece has bequeathed unto us more than some Periclean slogans about the greatness of democracy. Rather, they were the first to systematically interrogate the fundamental questions which still occupy us today, about the human condition, about how we define us and situate ourselves in the world, about how we are to live life.