Friday, August 29, 2008

Ancient Gold Wreath in Copper Vase

A new find of an ancient gold wreath, relatively common among burial sites of ancient Macedonian nobility, was found in an ancient copper vase, a situation that is rather unique.

See the AP Press article as follows:

Ancient gold treasure puzzles Greek archaeologists

By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press WriterFri Aug 29, 11:10 AM ET

A priceless gold wreath has been unearthed in an ancient city in northern Greece, buried with human bones in a large copper vase that workers initially took for a land mine.

The University of Thessaloniki said in a statement Friday that the "astonishing" discovery was made during its excavations this week in the ruins of ancient Aigai. The city was the first capital of ancient Macedonia, where King Philip II — father of Alexander the Great — was assassinated.

Gold wreaths are rare and were buried with ancient nobles or royalty. But the find is also highly unusual as the artifacts appear to have been removed from a grave during ancient times and, for reasons that are unclear, reburied in the city's marketplace near the theater where Philip was stabbed to death.

"This happened quite soon after the original burial; it's not that a grave robber took it centuries later and hid it with the intention of coming back," excavator Chryssoula Saatsoglou-Paliadeli told The Associated Press. "It probably belonged to a high-ranking person."

The "impressively large" copper vessel contained a cylindrical golden jar with a lid, with the gold wreath of oak leaves and the bones inside.

"The young workman who saw it was astounded and shouted 'land mine!'" the university statement said.

Saatsoglou-Paliadeli, a professor of archaeology at the university, said the find probably dates to the 4th century B.C., during which Philip and Alexander reigned.

"Archaeologists must explain why such a group ... was found outside the extensive royal cemetery," the university statement said. "(They must also) work out why the bones of the unknown — but by no means insignificant — person were hidden in the city's most public and sacred area."

During the 4th century B.C., burials outside organized cemeteries were very uncommon.

In a royal cemetery at Vergina, just west of Aigai, Greek archaeologists discovered a wealth of gold and silver treasure in 1977. One of the opulent graves, which contained a large gold wreath of oak leaves, is generally accepted to have belonged to Philip II. The location of Alexander's tomb is one of the great mysteries of archaeology.

The sprawling remains of a large building with banquet halls and ornate mosaics at Aigai — some 520 kilometers (320 miles) north of Athens — has been identified as Philip's palace.

Aigai flourished in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., attracting leading Greek artists such as the poet Euripides, who wrote his last tragedies there. The Macedonian capital was moved to Pella in the 4th century B.C., and Aigai was destroyed by the Romans in 168 B.C.

I saw many of these gold wreaths, which are amazingly detailed and quite beautiful, when I was in northern Greece two years ago. At the time the archaeological museum in Thessaloniki had a large exhibit on ancient Macedonian gold. At the top are some of what I saw then.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

I just saw on Paleojudaica a link to a NYTimes article that tells of plans to display the Dead Sea Scrolls on the internet. The project appears to be born out of preservative necessity. While some research will still necessarily demand physical access to the scrolls, this will be a wonderful tool for free access from anywhere in the world without worrying about that access in any way damaging the scrolls themselves.

Here's the article:

JERUSALEM — In a crowded laboratory painted in gray and cooled like a cave, half a dozen specialists embarked this week on a historic undertaking: digitally photographing every one of the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the aim of making the entire file — among the most sought-after and examined documents on earth — available to all on the Internet.

Equipped with high-powered cameras with resolution and clarity many times greater than those of conventional models, and with lights that emit neither heat nor ultraviolet rays, the scientists and technicians are uncovering previously illegible sections and letters of the scrolls, discoveries that could have significant scholarly impact.

The 2,000-year-old scrolls, found in the late 1940s in caves near the Dead Sea east of Jerusalem, contain the earliest known copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible (missing only the Book of Esther), as well as apocryphal texts and descriptions of rituals of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus. The texts, most of them on parchment but some on papyrus, date from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.

Only a handful of the scrolls exist in large pieces, with several on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum here in its dimly lighted Shrine of the Book. Most of what was found is separated into 15,000 fragments that make up about 900 documents, fueling a longstanding debate on how to order the fragments as well as the origin and meaning of what is written on them.

The scrolls’ contemporary history has been something of a tortured one because they are among the most important sources of information on Jewish and early Christian life. After their initial discovery they were tightly held by a small circle of scholars. In the last 20 years access has improved significantly, and in 2001 they were published in their entirety. But debate over them seems only to grow.

Scholars continually ask the Israel Antiquities Authority, the custodian of the scrolls, for access to them, and museums around the world seek to display them. Next month, the Jewish Museum of New York will begin an exhibition of six of the scrolls.

The keepers of the scrolls, people like Pnina Shor, head of the conservation department of the antiquities authority, are delighted by the intense interest but say that each time a scroll is exposed to light, humidity and heat, it deteriorates. She says even without such exposure there is deterioration because of the ink used on some of the scrolls as well as the residue from the Scotch tape used by the 1950s scholars in piecing together fragments.

The entire collection was photographed only once before — in the 1950s using infrared — and those photographs are stored in a climate-controlled room because they show things already lost from some of the scrolls. The old infrared pictures will also be scanned in the new digital effort.

“The project began as a conservation necessity,” Ms. Shor explained. “We wanted to monitor the deterioration of the scrolls and realized we needed to take precise photographs to watch the process. That’s when we decided to do a comprehensive set of photos, both in color and infrared, to monitor selectively what is happening. We realized then that we could make the entire set of pictures available online to everyone, meaning that anyone will be able to see the scrolls in the kind of detail that no one has until now.”

The process will probably take one to two years — more before it is available online — and is being led by Greg Bearman, who retired from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Data collection is directed by Simon Tanner of Kings College London.

Jonathan Ben-Dov, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Haifa, is taking part in the digitalization project. Watching the technicians gingerly move a fragment into place for a photograph, he said that it had long been very difficult for senior scholars to get access.

Once this project is completed, he said with wonder, “every undergraduate will be able to have a detailed look at them from numerous angles.”

Now we just need the photographs of the Nag Hammadi Codices online--would Brill or Claremont wish to release them (who have the photographs), or, better yet, would the Egyptian Antiquities Authorities wish to release them with new photographs digitized for the internet?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is a Godly Voter?

From the associated press:

Southern Baptists lead get-out-the-vote prayer

By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer 50 minutes ago

Southern Baptists are organizing a nationwide prayer campaign to accompany their values-voter registration drive, seeking spiritual renewal for families and churches, and God's favor for public officials who are guided by the Bible.

The 40/40 Prayer Vigil for Spiritual Revival and National Renewal will run from Sept. 24 through Nov. 2, two days before the general election.

The daily prayers include requests for God's guidance in voting, for the election of more "godly Christians," for God to "help churches find ways to help Christians get to the polls" and for public officials to be protected "from the attacks of Satan."

The effort is a companion program to the iVoteValues registration campaign, which began in 2004 and is jointly led this year by Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant group in the country, and the Family Research Council, a conservative Washington-based advocacy group.

Surveys have found that the majority of white evangelicals support the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, but with less enthusiasm than they had for previous GOP candidates for the White House. Sen. Barack Obama, who will accept the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday in Denver, has been aggressively reaching out to religious voters.

The Rev. Richard Land, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, said Tuesday that more than 1,300 churches have signed up for the prayer campaign so far.

The drive is being promoted by the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board, through and conference calls with pastors. Land hopes that an upcoming promotional DVD can be shown at state Baptist meetings across the country this fall.

"Our vision statement is an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority," Land said. "America will be better off if people who are voting are seeking God's guidance."

On the one hand, democracy works best with cacophony--with as many voices in disagreement participating as possible. Thus, I would applaud any attempt to mobilize voters...ALL VOTERS. Nonetheless, a good politician may or may not be a "godly Christian." In fact, religious allegiances should not matter when speaking of a good legislator. Perhaps we should be praying for protection against ourselves more than attacks from Satan. Against bad policies, exclusionary legislative maneuvers that may create "tyranny by the majority." The last paragraph is quite startling. What exactly are "Judeo-Christian values." Are they all actually rooted in "biblical authority" or in a rather recent interpretation? Are they values that all Christians and all Jews would agree on? Good luck on that one! Indeed, what is "Judeo-Christian"? According to Terry Todd, historian of American religious history, it is a 20th century invention that arose around WWII. Is biblical authority (something from thousands of years ago) really a good measure for the effective running of a modern society? What would be a governance rooted in biblical authority look like? Surely not anything resembling a democracy or any government system in which regular people have any voice. More like a monarchy or, worse, a theocracy, which would destroy one of our country's truly most cherished values among the religious and non-religious--freedom of religion, which is preserved by that separation of church and state.

Unless, of course, it is a religious / political example of Jesus, who rose up in opposition to the ruling power of the day, tried to interrupt the religio-political status quo, demonstrating against the collusion of religious, political, and economic forces that were having a severely deleterious effect among the poor, the impoverished. The one who tried to include the outcasts of society--the poor, those with less-than-admirable professions, prostitutes, etc. He hung out with drunkards (and was accused of being one himself). To me, this revolutionary and inclusive attitude more closely approximates the platform of the Democratic party than the exclusionary policies of the Republican party. Is this what "Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority" means? Ultimately, in my opinion, it does not matter. If trying to answer What would Jesus do this November, I am not sure that either party would pass muster. He would probably demonstrate against the corruption of the entire political machinery that systemically creates conditions in which poverty arises. In the end, inclusion of as many points of view is best in democracy--not just that of the "Judeo-Christian values."

Monday, August 25, 2008

What You've Been Reading Lately

I am fascinated by what brings people to this website. Most people visit antiquitopia from google searches of particular issues, although I am very happy to see regulars visit and comment on particular posts.

The most popular posts are quite diverse, and perhaps reflect the breadth of my own interests--although all relate in some way (sometimes tangential) to religion, antiquity, or the state of the university.

Topping the list at the moment is the posting on the US News & World Report college rankings. For those attracted to this post, I highly recommend reading my book note on Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors.

Secondly, the most consistently read page is the series of quotations regarding religion and liminality in Chuck Palahniuk's Rant. Lots of Palahniuk fans out there, I can see.

Thirdly, people have been interested in the Revelation of Gabriel. I would recommend following the links on this subject posted by April Deconick at Forbidden Gospels and Jim Davila at Paleojudaica (their bloglinks are listed on the side). In fact, lately, Israel Knohl, the scholar who offered the controversial translation, has responded to DeConick's questions on her site here.

Finally, people continue to check out my quotations of the Epic of Gilgamesh here. If you are interested in ancient near eastern issues, you might be interested in my postings on ancient Ugarit.

So, the state of the university, a mind-twisting novel, a disputed text, and ancient near eastern epic interest you all. I just hope I can continue to attract your roaming eyes.

A Beauty Pageant for Nuns?

Evidently an Italian priest, Antonio Rungi, wants to break general negative stereotypes of nuns (as elderly, stiff, ruler-holding women) by holding a beauty pageant only open to nuns. It seems he wants to promote a Sofia Loren vision of nuns. It is an online competition, but he hopes that in the future it will be run like other beauty competitions, in person.

According to the Times (that's the one in London),
The contestants must be aged between 18 and 40, and can be either full members of an order or novices. Father Rungi said that he expected many who applied to be young, attractive — and non-Italian. He said: “Do you really think nuns are all wizened, funereal old ladies? Today it’s not like that any more, thanks to an injection of youth and vitality brought to our country by foreign girls.” He said there were nuns from Africa and Latin America who were “really very, very pretty. The Brazilian girls above all.”
See the full article here.

Is this attempt to balance inner, spiritual beauty with outward, physical beauty more helpful or harmful? And for whom? For the Catholic Church as a whole? For the individual nuns? Is it an appreciation for the full person, or is it just recreating a sexualized gaze?

Evolutionary Breakthroughs

The NYTimes has an extensive article today concerning teaching evolution. It covers much of the struggle that has been occurring, particularly in areas of strong evangelical camps who take Genesis 1:1-2:3 very literally. In this evolutionary struggle to survive, when confronted with students who have been taught their whole lives that creation occurred exactly, and in every detail, as Genesis has depicted it, a bit of gentle persuasion becomes the necessary means of instruction. Evolution is not at all a controversial issue among scientists--it is one of the most established aspects of "life science" and, in fact, is often considered the cornerstone of scientific thought.

Moreover, there are other ways to interpret Genesis. It is a text that has been revisited for centuries (millenia actually), sometimes read literally, sometimes allegorically, sometimes more impressionistically (getting a general impression of the meaning rather than taking every single word literally), sometimes atomistically. Genesis 1, itself, in fact should be seen less as contradictory to science and more as a poetic reflection of God's creation. It is a tightly woven poem that appreciates cosmic wonder and order. The same wonder, perhaps, that has led many physicists and biologists to their respective fields. Ironically, both scientists and anti-evolution Christians, read this poem the exact same way, robbing it of its poetic, evocative power. Indeed, for many Christians (and Jews), there is no contradiction between their faith and scientific inquiry. For many, they are rather complementary, science enriching their view of creation and the unity of all living things. Setting science and religion in opposition, however, seems to be damaging to both. It depletes the richness, depth, beauty, and, I might say, poetry of the cosmos. It makes both sides look intractable and dogmatic.

Friday, August 22, 2008

US News & World Report College Rankings

US News & World Report has done it again--the new college rankings are out. It always begs the question: can someone really quantify quality? No, not really. But the magazine tries to every year. Frank Donoghue, in his book, The Last Professors, has criticized the process (and even idea) of the whole ranking process. See my post on this book here. For full article (or at least links) for rankings, go here or, better yet, here. Nonetheless, I'll give some highlights:

Harvard ranks number 1 by itself for the first time since 1996. It usually shares this distinction with Princeton. My own Columbia ranks 8, tied with Duke and U Chicago. So, here's the top ten (and some other schools for comparison):

1. Harvard
2. Princeton
3. Yale
4. MIT
5. Stanford
6. California Institute of Technology / U Penn
8. Columbia / Duke / University of Chicago

Some interesting comparisons of note: Wash U in St. Louis (my old stomping grounds) comes in 12, being tied with Northwestern. April DeConick's Rice comes in 17. For you fighting Irish out there, Notre Dame comes in 18, tied with Vanderbilt. University of Michigan caught my eye at 26. NYU, down the street from me, is 33. University of Illinois, the flagship of my home state is 40. Penn State University at University Park is 47. Fordham, also down the street, is 61--tied with Clemson and University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Baylor, which has had some press lately since they fired their president, who was trying to increase their rankings, comes in at 76, followed by my friend Andrei Orlov's Marquette at 77--tied with SUNY, Binghamton, and University of Colorado, Boulder. St. Louis University, same town as Wash U, is 80.

Liberal Arts colleges receive a separate ranking. You can see that here. Their top ten are:

1. Amherst
2. Williams
3. Swarthmore
4. Wellesley
5. Middlebury
6. Bowdoin / Pomona
8. Carleton
9. Davidson
10. Haverford

Some others that caught my eye. I had a friend who went to Macalaster, which is 25. Barnard is 27 and is tied with Mount Holyoke, where another friend attended. Bard College, the institution of the well-known Jewish studies scholar, Jacob Neusner, is 37. And my alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University, came in at 60.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death Sentences: Some Thoughts on the Iliad

Although the wrath of Achilles propels the plot of the Iliad, the Iliad is a poem of death. Because so many people die in the Iliad, I think it would be a rewarding exercise to go through and see how death is described. Outside of A killed B or A slayed B or rather straightforward terminology, death is emerges, floats about, darts here and there throughout the poem. Death often appears personified with a capital D. Death appears as an ever-present force lurking throughout the pages. It is the most powerful force for the mortal heroes, but it is also the most elusive. It is ever-present, but, as we shall see, it is a mist. It cannot be fully grasped even as it is ubiquitous.

Once again, death, as a necessary prominent theme in a poem of war, appears right at the beginning. It is the result and necessary corollary to Achilles' wrath:
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus
(trans. Lattimore, with some emendations)
Here the death that is the result of Achilles' wrath is the hurling of strong souls to the house of Hades. One can almost imagine them, once run through with a sword, arrow, or spear, being thrown down to visit the god of the underworld in his palace from which no soul returns. Indeed, one of the most common ways to depict death (outside of "kill" and "slay") in the Iliad is the descent (or "hurling") of the soul (or "life breath from his limbs") to the "underworld," the "house of Hades," or the "house of Death" (e.g., VI.19, 284-5, 487-9; VII.129-31).

Meanwhile, their bodies become food for dogs and birds. How similar in imagery to that other great poet, Shakespeare, who speaks so freely of death in winged words. In Hamlet, for instance, in the "to be or not to be" speech or when Hamlet refers to Polonius' dead body as wormfood or in the scene with the gravediggers. Indeed, this play is also a long meditation on death with some of the most beautiful "death sentences" in the English language.

At this point in the Illiad death has made its introduction, but has yet to attain its own agency. Take the following "death sentence":
He dropped, screaming, to his knees, and death was a mist about him. (V.69)
Who "he" is almost does not matter. He is one of the many faces Homer brings up with momentary clarity only to fall back into a rather undifferentiated background, whether of the legions of the Achaians, the Trojans, or the dead. "He" happens to be Phereklos, who built the Trojan ships used by Paris / Alexander when he visited Sparta and first saw Helen. Phereklos, in that sense, built the very ship that would deliver him his doom. The sentence itself, as it is rendered wonderfully by Lattimore, slows down the action. Chopping up the sentence into four basic elements (the "cola") brings the scene into slow motion culminating in the ubiquitous death that no one can ensnare, but, instead, it envelops all: he his knees...and death was a mist about him. One is slowed down in order to sense this all-encompassing onset of death. The quiet "mist" of death eerily offsets the screaming. It is the impregnable "dark death" (VII.254).

It is fated death. Death and fate are inextricably intertwined in the Iliad. Death comes to all, and it comes to all at the time Fate has declared. No one can speed up or slow down cold Fate's death sentence. As Hektor tells his wife, Andromache:
No man is going to hurl me to Hades, unless it is fated,
but as for fate, I think that no man yet has escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward. (VI.487-9)
Death and Fate, like time (Kronos), consume all. None escapes them, or has yet to escape fate and death. There is no such thing as "untimely death" in the Iliad, for all death, whether in war or old age, is by Fate's decree. All must go down to the House of Death. All must visit that "undiscover'd country" from which none return. All, even Achilles the greatest hero of them all, must be hurled into the Death's house, enveloped by the unknown darkness of Death's ever-present, un-graspable mist.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Anti-Catholic T-Shirts? The Newest Production of Sound-Byte Polemics

I was just at the grocery store, getting some supplies for this evening's supper, and I saw a man wearing a particularly distasteful t-shirt. On the front it read:
Roman Catholicism: It'll Send You to Hell
Then on the back, it read:
Christianity: Christ-Centered
Roman Catholicism: Man-Centered
I added the punctuation. So now religious intolerance or prejudice can be found on t-shirts! That's right. Now we no longer have to guess whether someone dislikes a particular religious group. Now they have a big sign on them that says: I hate you. Or if not hate, strongly dislike. Or they may say that they do not hate you as a person, but just everything that you believe in, things that you hold dear, things that give meaning to this life. (So, I don't hate "you" but just everything about you.)

The back of this particular t-shirt makes a typical Protestant Christian move, usually associated with Protestants of a more conservative stripe, that distinguishes not just between different types of Christianity, but excludes a very huge part of the Christian population from "Christianity" altogether. This is not the stuff of reasoned judgment or sustained reflection on the respective varying social and theological merits and problems of Catholics and whatever group this guy belonged to, but polemics, plain and simple. For most of us, I would think, it will have the reverse effect that he hoped for: I mean, if Christ is anything like this guy, who would be attracted to "Christ-Centered" "Christianity"?

This is a particular type of polemics that seems to be a product of recent provenance--the sound byte. There are predecessors, such as campaign slogans and political cartoons that reduced highly complex issues to a few words--and every political campaign has them and has had them for most of the U.S.'s history. But now there is a proliferation of these things: reduced sound bytes played over and over by the media, bumper stickers, and, I guess, t-shirts.

Growing up I had been aware of what was often called "witness wear." These were t-shirts and other regalia such as hats, etc., that people wore that expressed (in highly reduced form) their religious allegiances or points of view. Most of the time, these things would mimic something highly popular marketed by corporations and slightly alter it to somehow refer to Jesus. I usually found this rather dull, unimaginative, yet relatively harmless nonetheless. Upon later reflection, I have found it theologically detrimental to reduce in seductively simple sloganeering highly textured and deep religious traditions, marketing them, and selling them as if they were just any other product on the market. This corporatization of faith seems, therefore, demeaning to the faith.

The danger, now, is much clearer seeing today's shirt. What was a medium for self-identification (saying that I belong to this group) has not become a very dangerous polemical medium for religious prejudice and hate. Now instead of reducing one's own tradition to a bumper-sticker mentality, this person reduced and slandered (well, I guess it was libel since it was written) another person's tradition. Such an attitude is not open to hear another point of view, any sort of reasonable discussion or dialogue. If you cannot listen to others, how can you grow as a person, whether intellectually, emotionally, or, in this case, spiritually / religiously?

This is the stuff that makes me frustrated and sad. Yet it is the stuff that reminds me that I have a place as a (future) professor of religion to open up space for the religious dialogue that this person is trying to close down.

UPDATE: I just noticed that there is now a link to this post by someone with a very different point of view expressed in the allegory of a mine and miners trying to escape alive...that there was only "one way" out of the mine (follow the links to this post below). It is an interesting allegory, and I am happy to discover someone who disagrees with me is reading my blog and has used one of my postings as inspiration for this allegorical story, even though they interpret it differently than I do. Nonetheless, anyone can come up with a proliferation of allegories that support many different opposing points of view. They are ultimately only illustrative and not determinative; they provide very nice images or stories, but do not constitute an argument. The point of the illustration is that the person (the one who knows the one, right way, I guess related to the person wearing the t-shirt) pointed out that way through concern and love. I think that many proselytizing Christians do have good intentions and try to convert out of concern, whether I agree with them or not. But sound-byte polemics is a medium that does not express love and concern, but is highly polemical, dangerous and hateful. There are ways to discuss ultimate issues with others, but flat out telling someone they are going to hell is not helpful and, in fact, is harmful to all parties. It flattens, perhaps cheapens, one's faith. It is isolating rather than engaging. It does not enter debate, dialogue, or discussion, nor is it reflective, but only makes ungrounded assertions.

Paintings: Leaf Explosion

So, in my free time I paint. I had taken a few pictures of two of my more recent paintings, and I thought I would just share them with everyone. These two are very similar in subject--they are both leaves that form patterns based upon the direction they are pointed, but only differ in their patterns. The first is a "burst" pattern, after which the leaves start to spiral outward. In the second, the leaves move inward. The first has a bit more of a structured color pattern that becomes more and more random as one moves outward. The second's color pattern maintains a certain randomness throughout. Although the deep purples and the oranges tend toward the center in second as they are clearly so in the first. And, lastly, the first was painted for my sister and brother-in-law, while the second was painted for my girlfriend.

Anachronistic Monotheism

For a while, I have been reconsidering ancient Jewish and, therefore, early Christian conceptions of God. Our conceptions of "monotheism" just does not always (and in fact rarely) seems to fit the bill. Ken Schenck from Indiana Wesleyan University and I have been posting here and there on this issue. I have tried to shift the question away from "were ancient Jews monotheistic?" to "how monotheistic were ancient Jews?" The rephrasing suggests a spectrum of positions, and, in fact, we find that ancient Jews had a variety of viewpoints of other gods' existence and who those other gods were and where they fit in the continuum of divine life. Today, Ken has posted what I would consider a more nuanced handling of much of the evidence that shifts us away from modern (and therefore anachronistic) conceptions of "monotheism" altogether. The question is not "whether" or "how." Instead, our terminology of, conceptions of, or definitions of "monotheism" is wrong. Perhaps we out to drop the terminology altogether (as Paula Fredriksen has advocated), since it obscures the dynamics of ancient Jewish and Christian conceptions of the divine, and especially divine "power."

See his post on "Defining First Century Monotheism" here. See my extensive past discussion of "How Monotheistic Were Ancient Jews?" here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

International Association for Coptic Studies

Next month, the International Association for Coptic Studies will be having its ninth international congress.

For a listing of topics that will be discussed, you can see April DeConick's posting from a year ago here.

The meeting will be held in the Sonesta Hotel in Cairo from Sept. 14 until Sept. 20. I wish I could go! If any of my readers are going, I would love to hear a report (the highlights anyway).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Obama, McCain, and Rick Warren

Today, Aug. 16, 2008, will be the first meeting of McCain and Obama on the same stage at Rick Warren's megachurch, Saddleback. They have not been on the same stage together since before the primary season began.

Last I knew, the issues slated to be discussed were Rick Warren's pet issues of poverty, AIDS, and the environment. That the first major political discussion is being held at a church rather than in the (secular) public arena is a concern for many, who see the "wall of separation" between church and state beginning to crumble (if it ever really held very firm to begin with). Both candidates are clearly seeking the much coveted evangelical vote.

See background from NYT here. And I posted on this a while back here.

UPDATE: See some early results of the event here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Wrath of Achilles

Wrath—one of the most famous first words in all of world literature. The word sets the pace, the tone, the content of the Iliad, shaping the plot of all there is to come.

Wrath—Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and the birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
(Iliad, 1.1-8; trans. Robert Fagles with some changes)

The first word is menis. It is not just “anger” as the magisterial translation of Richmond Lattimore has rendered it. It is sustained anger, almost godlike in its intensity and singularity. Thus, Robert Fagles’ “rage” more clearly fits the bill. Yet I prefer the terminology of “wrath.” It reminds me of the wrath of God, which it approximates, that it is headed toward, and almost achieves, but never fully so, since Achilles is still only human. Yet it is a rage that in its legendary greatness cannot be replicated by any other human—it is the most godlike rage a human can achieve. Thus, I prefer wrath.

The wrath of Achilles defines him, and the entire plot of the Iliad unwinds from its vicissitudes. Achilles’ wrath is singular, flattening him as a character, making him nearly unidimensional (Achilles does have his other moments in which we see another side barely break through), but its focus and unidimensionality make him an unbeatable warrior. His monolithic quality makes him wrath’s embodiment; or, put another way, literally transfigures him into wrath. He becomes, as it were, a mortal god, defined by a singular characteristic, much like Ares is the personification of war, or Athena, wisdom or cunning. Unbeatable in combat, yet ultimately mortal. It is his greatest trait, and his ultimate doom, bringing down everyone with him into Hades.

This wrath motivates the story. The plot unfolds based upon the direction that Achilles points his wrath. As the introductory stanza indicates, he points it first to his own side, Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. He is the king of Mycenae (Mykenai), and the king of kings, the leader of all the Achaeans in this war. When he took the captive Briseis from Achilles, Achilles turned his wrath toward Agamemnon, refusing to fight. And, without this force of nature, wrath incarnate, fighting, the Trojans, led by their Tamer of Forces, Hector, began to push the Achaeans back to their ships. Hector, like all of the Trojans, is really the "Breaker of Horses" but I like to consider this in the aspect of taming wild forces, bringing them into civilized society, which Troy itself represents, in contrast to the wild force and fury of unattached Achilles.

Hector is a much more interesting character in my opinion than Achilles. Hector clearly is the second greatest warrior in the Iliad, but unlike Achilles who is unidimensionally wrathful, Hector is multidimensional. He is Hector, the prince of Troy, the beloved son of old King Priam, devoted husband to Andromache, a father with a young child, and responsible for the safety of the entire city of Troy. They all depend upon his strength, his courage, and his leadership. He is universally beloved, and considered universally kind. Fighting for a cause that he does not believe in—the folly of judgment of Paris, his younger brother—he is now forced to defend all those he loves, and fights to the death to do it.

If there is any other shaper of events in the Iliad, it is the judgment of Paris. Well known from the overall story of the Trojan War, it only plays a small part in the Iliad itself, which focuses on a small segment of the larger story. Only partially alluded to in the Iliad, three very powerful goddesses—Hera, the queen of the gods, Athena, and Aphrodite—asked Paris, the most beautiful of men, to judge the fairest. He chose Aphrodite. In the story of the involvement of the gods in the Iliad, Aphrodite always sides with the Trojans—as does, most notably, Apollo. Hera and Athena consistently support the Achaeans. The judgment of Paris explains this—Paris chose beauty and lust before wisdom or cunning, unlike cunning Odysseus who is favored by Athena. He chose this instead of respecting family responsibilities. In short, the most beautiful man chose the most beautiful woman (Helen, queen of Sparta, wife of Menelaos), who in turn may have chose him as well. Both are favored by Aphrodite, in fact. Both ignore family responsibilities respected in that society. Both ultimately like the wrath of Achilles, bring down so many souls to the house of death on both the Achaean and Trojan sides, giving the wrath of Achilles a place to roam, leading to the destruction of Troy.

Yet Paris lacks the courage to take responsibility for his actions. He cannot beat Menelaos in one-on-one combat, as happens in the Iliad. He cannot save Troy from his own actions. Only Hector can, but Hector cannot escape Achilles’ wrath should it ever turn directly with intense focus towards him. Once Hector, the Tamer of Forces, is gone, Troy will be doomed. In fact, it is in his attractively textured multidimensionality as a character that one finds his own undoing. With all the web of responsibilities to his family and to his city resting on his shoulders, he cannot possibly maintain the singular, almost adolescent and yet divine wrathful focus of the unattached Achilles.

Indeed, once Achilles equivocates, allowing his beloved Patroclus into battle, wearing Achilles’ own armor, Patroclus dies by the hand of Hector. It is this act that finally turns Achilles’ wrath from Agamemnon, the Lord of Men, to Hector, the Tamer of Forces. It is this act that transfigures Achilles’ adolescent wrath against Agamemnon to godlike wrath, complete with a fiery nimbus and a divine roar (with the aid of Athena), against Hector. This might explain why this takes place in the tenth year. Achilles nearly divine wrath had not been fully awakened by his enemy. Now no force can stop him, not even the Tamer of Forces.

Hector, realizing he had mistaken Patroclus for Achilles, knows what is coming, is driven back, waits for Achilles, and, in the end, loses his nerve. Eventually forced to take a stand, he fights Achilles. But he is no match for godlike wrath, so intense that almost nothing can abate it. Achilles, as wrath personified, kills Hector, presaging the destruction of Troy itself, dragging his body and leaving it unburied, an insult unbearable to Hector’s family, the Trojans, and even the gods. The gods, recognizing the heroic greatness of Hector, keep his body undefiled. Indeed, Achilles wrath is not abated until King Priam, in the most touching scene in the Iliad (and much of all ancient literature), sneaks into the Achaean camp, into Achilles’ tent, and the great king begs for his son’s body from the man who killed him. Now ends the wrath of Achilles, now ends the Iliad.

Although this is not my usual fare in posting, I am teaching Literature of the Humanities this year, and so expect such notes and meditations on classic literature to begin to emerge in my postings.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Amazon Wishlist Widget

How often have you said to yourself, "Gee, I wish I could just buy Jared, that poor bibliophiliac graduate student, a book, but I just don't know what he would like or if he has it already!" Well...this post is for you. I have just added a widget to my site that shows my most recently added items to my Amazon wishlist. I noticed I had about 150 books saved for later in my cart. And was beginning to think this was ludicrous, so I am slowly transferring these books that I cannot possibly buy myself to my wishlist just in case someone out there looks, and thinks, "He hasn't read that! By God, we must get that guy up to date!" Although, I know that most people who read this are themselves poor graduate students or poor professors...but it is still worth a shot! :)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Professor Poaching at Public Universities

Professor poaching is something that is quite widespread throughout academe. I see it all the time at Columbia (usually from the perspective of the poacher).

From the side of the poached, however, large public universities are being forced to create special funds in order to keep highly productive, high profile professors who are getting outside offers, and this in a down economy. And they seem to be doing a good job. According to an article in the Chronicle, many of the major public universities are retaining about 75% of the faculty whom they give a counteroffer. They don't give counteroffers to everyone (sometimes the offer from the other institution is just too good to match or beat, and they don't bother with institutions they perceive as less prestigious). But money is only part of the strategy. They are matching some of the poachers' benefits--things like reduction of course load, increased graduate students, increased teaching or research assistance, and simply making sure they receive higher merit pay increases (evidently, one problem in this economic downturn is that recently tenured, high profile associate professors are often making salaries close to recently hired faculty, making them want to look elsewhere). If that doesn't get you, then perhaps a coveted parking spot would!

See the full article here.

Financial Problems Unique to Catholic Universities

In the Chronicle, there was an article detailing some of the financial difficulties that many Catholic Universities are currently facing across the US.

Most of the colleges and universities were founded by orders like the Jesuits or the Sisters of Notre Dame, etc. They relied upon these orders or the church for funding and oftentimes for the physical land and buildings as well! The faculty have traditionally been filled by priests, nuns, and monks who taught for free! Boards also drew upon such pools rather than people skilled in raising money (as at other institutions).

But such unpaid faculty members are in shrinking supply. In fact, there have been increasingly fewer Catholics going into these religious orders since the 60s (correlating with Vatican II). Faculty positions, therefore, are being filled by lay people, who require payment and benefits comparable to their counterparts in other universities. And the boards are not very adept at raising money, meaning that their endowments are small compared to schools of the same size or quality.

The exception to much of this is the University of Notre Dame with an endowment of $5.9 Billion (which is the 14th largest of any college in the country and the largest for any Catholic institution of higher learning).

Most Catholic colleges emphasize affordability (in line with the larger mission of the church to the poor), and so cost less than comparable private universities, but, ironically, due to their smaller endowments, depend upon tuition far more! Hurting the most are the all women's colleges (or traditionally all women's colleges), which, on the whole, receive far less alumni donations than traditionally all men's colleges, and, being founded later than most men's colleges, also have had less time for their endowment to grow.

Nonetheless, many of these institutions are learning the fund-raising game, and are turning things around, at least, according to the article.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Note: The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue

I just finished reading The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities by Frank Donoghue, who is an Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University. I read this because the chair of my department has asked the entire department to read it, but I would recommend it to all humanities professors or professors to be. And while it focuses on the humanities, many of the observations affect the future of the university world as a whole.

Unlike similar books, Donoghue takes a long perspective. Most books speak of a crisis in higher education beginning in the 80s, perhaps the 70s in the clash between corporate business values and the values of the university. He claims, instead, that this tension has been around for over a century, at least since the rise of monopolistic capitalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But this is not just a book about corporate values of competition and the bottom line versus the last bastion of progressive thought and social formation of universities, but how universities increasingly appear like businesses, social institutions that were to form a well-rounded character and responsible citizens turning exclusively into job-training centers (which previously was considered one, and perhaps not even the most important, aspect of college education), turning professors into service employees.

One can see this in the life of a scholar from graduate student to receiving tenure has been increasingly set up on a capitalistic competition model. Increasingly, graduate students are being forced to publish early and often, with quantity often being favored over quality as signs of "productivity" (another market, rather than traditional university, value), having a well-established research-portfolio even before they finish their dissertations. Once they get a job, the competition only intensifies until they receive tenure. Increasingly, evaluations for jobs and tenure has turned to quantifiable metrics (of, what seems to me to be ultimately unquantifiable qualities). But there is a huge problem with this, since the typical publication of monographs has been university presses, which, themselves, are being forced into the productivity model (and, in fact, scholarly monographs were never really supposed to make money). The problem is that many libraries through the US have experienced cutbacks, and they cannot buy the books they used to, and libraries were and are the primary buyer of monographs. With such a state of affairs, university publishing houses only recoup about half the cost of publication of a monograph when the monograph is successful! With presses now being forced into looking at the bottom line rather than seeing if a monograph makes a significant contribution to knowledge, the cult of the monograph is in trouble. Indeed, since the monograph has become in the humanities the primary hoop to gain tenure, the tenure-decision process is being effectively outsourced to the struggling university presses, who, in fact, are not necessarily only taking the quality of a work into consideration, but also its marketability.

Both corporate and university representatives seem fixated on the idea of tenure. Business-minded people see it as a relic of an antiquated system, whereas university-minded people tend to see it as a guarantor of freedom of thought (if one can be easily fired, then how can one effectively express challenging thoughts and critical reflection--what university professors pride themselves on). Donoghue basically argues that both sides use faulty logic, but whatever the logic, the erosion of tenure is a fact. Indeed, more and more universities have found that adjunct and non-tenure eligible professors are far cheaper than their tenured counterparts. They are cheaper because they are usually on one-year contracts, they are paid by the class, and receive absolutely no benefits. Moreover, they are not given any leaves or sabbaticals to pursue research. This cheap teaching force is worn to the bone with no rights or privileges in the policies (such as hiring and tenure) that would affect them most. How big is this labor-force? Tenured and tenure-track professors constitute only 35% of college teachers throughout the nation (and this is not including TAs who are classified not as teachers but as students). This 65% of non-tenure eligible teachers is only likely to rise, reflecting the mindset of maintaining the bottom-line, in which university administration appears more like a managerial culture and the professoriate becomes cheap labor without little recourse to influence policy (as they traditionally have had).

Much of these trends can be seen in the rising number of for-profit universities (the most famous and the largest being the University of Phoenix). These universities run completely on a corporate model and, in fact, they are corporations or sub-components of larger corporate entities. In fact, many of these universities are publicly traded on the NYSE. Their goals also appear to be quantitatively rather than qualitatively oriented. They hire and fire their employees (professors) based upon non-reflective statistics--basically, student evaluations, without taking into account the various factors that go into a numerical rating of a course. These corporate universities do not grant tenure, make general policies about teaching and content control that professors, who have become depersonalized cogs in the machine, just have to take (or get fired). The long-cherished professorial value of autonomy (whether ever fully a reality) has completely disappeared. For-profit universities are attractive to students over 25 who want on-demand training--this, by the way, is the largest growing student population in the US. These universities have seen market forces and responded. They offer a stream-lined curriculum for "practical" job training, basically cutting out humanities or highly devaluing them even as they have them (for accrediting purposes).

On the other end of the spectrum stand the "prestige" institutions--this is Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. These institutions have a large enough endowment that they do not particularly have to pay attention to the vicissitudes of market forces and can maintain their humanities driven curriculum...but this means that the humanities will (or will again) become the privilege of the already privileged--they will be the only ones who can afford to send their children to these institutions, although they too increasingly have succumbed to corporate models of organization, but they have been resistant to them the most. Indeed, prestige in the US has become a commodity, quantified yearly in US News & World Report. Their method behind the rankings often goes unquestioned and most people just look at the rankings themselves--a remarkable lack of critical thought, the very thing that the universities ranked are supposed to cultivate. The magazine will rate several factors, somewhat arbitrarily privileging some of others (such as university presidents' peer reviews of fellow institutions, which is 25% of the rating--most university presidents cannot speak adequately of all aspects of all their peer institutions, but their reviews receive the most weight nonetheless). Since the general public looks at the ratings, however, universities now focus on those specific areas that the rankings measure, allowing market forces to determine what is important in university education rather than educators in order to receive a more prestigious rating.

The most effected institutions are, however, everything between the top prestigious institutions and the for-profit, stream-lined universities--primarily state schools. These schools are pulled in each direction, trying to attain prestige on one end, but focusing on stream-lined job training that responds to ever-changing market forces on the other end. They cannot compete with the prestige, on the one hand, because one of the ways that prestige is ranked is through exclusivity. While some of the brightest minds go to state schools (because of location issues, and money--state schools are much cheaper), they, by definition, cannot be exclusive. They attempt prestige through other means, such as attracting professors or pushing for higher output among their professors (again, privileging quantity over quality), but research grants move more and more to "practical" fields (Business) rather than critical-thinking fields (everything from English to Math). Being pressured from both ends, these institutions are most likely to shift to corporate models of productivity and the bottom-line, worried about making money rather than expanding knowledge, in the assembly-line of the factory production of the workforce.

In the end, in order to be prepared to respond to changing circumstances and resist these changes or redirect them into new models, professors and professors to be must situate themselves, becoming aware of institutional forces that, trying to maintain an idea of autonomy and individualism, professors have ignored. I tried to do this with religion in my conference at Columbia University this past spring, "Instituting Religion," in which speakers tried to expose some institutional forces that shape the places where we work and our very conceptualizations of our subject, such as funding, marketability, etc. (see Instituting Religion tags). The future of the university and the university professor appears to be a scary prospect, but it will be worse if we are not cognizant of it in order to rearticulate our position in the university and the role of the professor and the university as a whole in society.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Dalai Lama Deal

In today's NYTimes, there is an op-ed article on the Dalai Lama's willingness to make a deal with the current Chinese government, conceding the Chinese communist-run government in Tibet and that he would stay out of politics. In short, Tibet would be politically Chinese and communist, but religiously and culturally Tibetan and Buddhist.

The Dalai Lama is aging, and time for negotiations are running out. Younger Tibetans think the Dalai Lama is too conciliatory to the Chinese government, while many fear that, once the Dalai Lama dies, there will be no uniting force for Tibetans and the younger generation will turn to violence (i.e., terrorism).

Read the full article here.

Ancient Thracian Chariot Found in Bulgaria

According to an AP article, a complete ancient Thracian chariot was found in an old burial mound in modern-day Bulgaria. Parts of chariots have been found through scattered parts of the region, but this is the first time a complete, intact chariot has been discovered here:

Bulgarian archaeologists discover ancient chariot

By VESELIN TOSHKOV, Associated Press WriterThu Aug 7, 8:24 AM ET

Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,900-year-old well-preserved chariot at an ancient Thracian tomb in southeastern Bulgaria, the head of the excavation said Thursday.

Daniela Agre said her team found the four-wheel chariot during excavations near the village of Borisovo, around 180 miles east of the capital, Sofia.

"This is the first time that we have found a completely preserved chariot in Bulgaria," said Agre, a senior archaeologist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

She said previous excavations had only unearthed single parts of chariots — often because ancients sites had been looted.

At the funerary mound, the team also discovered table pottery, glass vessels and other gifts for the funeral of a wealthy Thracian aristocrat.

In a separate pit, they unearthed skeletons of two riding horses apparently sacrificed during the funeral of the nobleman, along with well preserved bronze and leather objects, some believed to horse harnesses.

The Culture Ministry confirmed the find and announced $3,900 in financial assistance for Agre's excavation.

Agre said an additional amount of $7,800 will be allocated by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for an initial restoration and conservation of the chariot and the other Thracian finds.

The Thracians were an ancient people that inhabited the lands of present day Bulgaria and parts of modern Greece, Turkey, Macedonia and Romania between 4,000 B.C. and the 6th century, when they were assimilated by the invading Slavs.

Some 10,000 Thracian mounds — some of them covering monumental stone tombs — are scattered across Bulgaria.

See a slideshow of archaeologists uncovering the chariot here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What WOULD Jesus Do?

Ok...I saw this link on Jim Davila's blog, Paleojudaica, and when I clicked it, I was rolling on the floor laughing!! Well...almost....that would have hurt. But the best answer to the question, "What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?" has to be this. While the question is meant to inspire imitation, the answer frustrates any facile application of ancient perspectives to modern behavior. It nicely illustrates the differences between Jesus and ourselves, between his world and ours. A shocking reminder perhaps, but definitely a hilarious one.

Quote of the Day: The Wildean Paradox

I was just reading an essay by Umberto Eco entitled, "Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism," and I stumbled across one of my favorite bons mots by Oscar Wilde:
"When people agree with me I always feel that I must be in the wrong."
Here are some others for fun:
"Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography."

"I can resist everything but temptation."

"Falsehoods [are] the truth of other people."

"The only duty we owe to History is to rewrite it."

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it."
These are also amusing because they reverse common sense:
"Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about."

"Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."

"Anyone can make history. Only a great man can write it."

"The English have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
Being a historian, the second to last saying here particularly speaks to me!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How Monotheistic were Ancient Jews?

מי־כמוכה באלים יהוה

(Exodus 15:11)

The question comes from an issue raised regarding whether the enthronement of Enoch in the Similitudes of Enoch and Moses in Ezekiel's "Exagoge" actually "threaten" monotheism. I have been discussing it with Ken Schenck, professor of religion and philosophy at Indiana Wesleyan University and the blogger of Quadrilateral Thoughts. They have been side comments on a broader discussion, and so I thought I would make them the forefront of the discussion here. He also has a nice discussion of the spectrum of scholarly I would recommend reading that for helpful background. But, now, I would like everyone else to weigh in.

Traditionally, scholars and people in general have assumed that ancient Judaism was monotheistic. Second Isaiah clearly thinks so--so we have one ancient Jew (or Judahite) who was monotheistic (with perhaps a school). And in a particular interpretation of the Sh'ma, one seems to be saying there is one god. Many scholars recently have been challenging this belief. It is not just that there were many "Judaisms" in antiquity--there were, in fact, a bewildering variety of positions on many subjects, and these disagreements focused on three core elements: the temple, the Torah, and God, emphasizing these elements' importance by disagreeing about them. But it is a matter of translation and interpretation of specific texts as well. Now, many scholars are challenging the idea that ancient Judaism was monotheistic (or always so). One can see this, for example, in Paula Frederiksen's essay, "Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins whose time has come to go" (Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuse 35/2 (2006): 231-46). In response, Richard Bauckam and Larry Hurtado have defended ancient Jewish monotheism. So, there is a good debate being waged by very good scholars on all sides (and some more extreme positions on both sides).

I tend to think things are very messy, indeed, and one cannot really make blanket statements of what all Jews believed or did in antiquity. There was a time when I used to think that post-exile all Jews were monotheistic, but the more I read the primary texts, the less I have come to believe the secondary ones.

Firstly, "belief" is too tricky. There is no way to know whether the majority of Jews believed in only one God or even worshiped only one God, because religion in antiquity was a public thing. As long as one publicly only worshiped YHWH, that was all that really mattered (for the most part).

Nonetheless, some Jews have left records. As noted above, some Jews were clearly purely monotheistic (as in 2nd Isaiah and possibly the Sh'ma), but the evidence is rarely so clear as in these cases and surprisingly slim. Most Second Temple documents appear to land somewhere between monotheism and polytheism, saying there was one powerful God on top (their God) and lots of lesser gods (which, today, we call angels, but were often called "gods" (elim) in antiquity). Everyone recognizes this middle space, and the arguments depend upon how one interprets this middle space. In that sense, the difference between someone like Bauckham and Frederiksen, say, is often just a matter of emphasis (which shows I think the difference between monotheism and polytheism is not a very bit step), but sometimes a matter of translation.

For example, I often work with an ancient Jewish text found at Qumran named, "the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice." They consist of thirteen songs sung on successive Sabbaths that exhort the beings of the heavenly realm to praise the "God of gods" while evoking the imagery of the heavenly realm at the same time.

These Songs, interestingly enough, appear to assume a plurality of divine beings in heaven, using the generic word “god/s” for not only the high god, but all other subordinate divine beings. In fact, the word for “angel” (מלאך) is so rare in comparison to the other words for god (אלוהים, אל), gods (אלים), and even divinity or “godhood” (אלוהות), that I am reluctant to refer to these as the angelic liturgies or to discussion the angelic priesthood (for angel, see 4Q405 17:4, 5). There are many orders of divine beings with special names in the Songs. The text often speaks of “spirits” (רוחים or רוחות) and, especially, “spirits of fire” (רוחי אש֝). One also finds “princes” (נשיאים) and even “secondary princes” (4Q400 3ii:2). In addition, they are called "holy ones" and "glorified ones" (4Q400 3ii:9). In the end, the text just does not speak of “God,” but, emphasizing the exaltation of the high God, the text often speaks of “the God of Gods.” Given the language of the text, the emphasis on “angel” actually obscures the fluidity of the concept of divine beings in the text; thus, I think a more accurate terminology refers to the “divine priesthood.” Therefore, when the word מלאך does appear, one should translate according to function as “messenger” rather than “angel,” since, given the plethora of divine beings, these appear to be "messenger gods" or "divine messengers" rather than a general term that encompasses the orders of divine beings under the God of Gods in this text.

The discussion of the hierarchy of divine beings, in fact, is not far off in language or structure from other ancient conceptions of the divine world that we label “polytheist” even while we label this “monotheist.” Clearly there was greater fluidity at this time and the modern conception of monotheism just does not mesh with these particular ancient Jewish texts. This pluralistic conception of god/s in ancient Hebrew and Jewish texts, though, originates in some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch. For example, in the Song of the Sea in Exod. 15:11, an extremely early piece of Hebrew poetry, the question is asked, “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD?” (מי־כמוכה באלים יהוה). These texts do not deny the existence of other beings, called gods, whether belonging to other cultures or among Yahweh’s entourage. At the same time, as in Exodus, there is no doubt which god is in charge in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: the god whom all the other gods must exalt and praise at each step of the divine liturgies and who sits on the chariot-throne in Song 12. I would argue, therefore, that using the terminology of a plurality of gods actually heightens or more highly exalts the highest God in the text--the God of Gods is not merely more exalted than "angels," but even more exalted than all other "gods," who, in turn, must pay obeisance to him.

In fact, Song 7 primarily consists of the call to worship of divine beings. Or, more precisely, the Song is a list of the human priesthood exhorting various classes of divine beings to praise the ultimate divine being, here called various “the God of exaltations,: “the King of glory,” “the God of effulgent praises,” “God of gods to all the chiefs of exaltations and King of kings to all eternal councils,” and so forth. Moreover, beginning in Song 9 and culminating in the vision of the throne-chariot in Song 12, not only does the text exhort various classes of divine beings, called “gods,” to praise God, but also aspects of the celestial architecture, particularly the furnishings of the inner chamber of the heavenly sanctuary. In fact, the difference between divine beings and the heavenly sanctuary’s architecture begins to blur as the architectural elements come alive to praise God on his throne. And so, the next section turns to some of the language surrounding the heavenly sanctuary, its architecture, and its “structure.”

So, is this really monotheism? Not in any modern sense of the term, at the very least. But, on the other hand, Larry Hurtado seems to be right on target--only one being is offered worship (and it is quite an innovation when it is offered to Jesus). And there is clear resistance of this system to mesh with other theological conceptions in antiquity--other groups easily correlated figures of their pantheon with other culture's pantheons--equating Greek, Roman, Egyptian (which was actually quite difficult), Canaanite, Babylonian. The Jewish system excluded this possibility--so it does not seem to be really polytheistic either.

So perhaps this is sort of an exclusivist polytheistic monolatry? Exclusivist because they don't meld with other systems, or think other people's gods are demons or perhaps some of these lesser divine beings that serve the high god (divine courtiers, in a way). Polytheistic because all these beings are clearly called gods in some way (the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice is a perfect example of this, but many of the Qumran finds fit into this). We often translate the word "god" as "angel," but this seems to me to be an anachronistic, more modern, predilection. If the ancient Jews were comfortable calling these beings "gods," then I think we should as well in our historical discussions of at least the texts that do. Monolatry because only one of them, the highest one, is worshiped, and even worshiped by the "gods." In a sense, being the "God of gods." So, Hurtado's basic thesis on worship stands, but things are a bit messier--the evidence for monotheism is not nearly as widespread or as clear as figures like Bauckham make it (I know Bauckham places a lot of weight on things being "creatures" but this seems to read the texts through the Arian crisis). Really, outside of one passage in Isaiah and a particular interpretation of the Sh'ma, there isn't much.

Most texts, however, do not provide such extended reflection on these issues as Isaiah (on one end) and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (on the other end). So, for example, famously in the Life of Adam and Eve, Michael commands all the hosts of heaven to bow down to Adam in front of God. Is this divinization of Adam? Is this a threat to monotheism? Is this a threat to monolatry? Adam's divinization would depend upon the interpretation of Gen. 1, in which God made the human in his own image--thus he would be worshiped by the angels since he is the very image of God. The story is highly ironic, in my opinion, because in it Satan is the most stringent monotheist, the only one avoiding worship of an "idol" or image--nothing should be worshiped but God alone. Michael clearly commands Satan, "Worship the image of God" (14:2). It is almost as if monotheism and idolatry-avoidance is on the fallen side. I sometimes wonder if this text was almost meant to be comedic, at the very least it would be parody or even polemics--perhaps against the Priestly legislators who forbade images in worship? Against figures like Isaiah? Perhaps, in that sense, it does not threaten monotheism, but threatens the ordinances against idolatry (in the sense of using images in order to worship the one God).

Ezekiel's Exagoge is play that has a dream sequence in which Moses is enthroned and highly exalted on Mt. Sinai (much like the vision of God in Exod. 24). This text is tricky because it is a dream sequence, and any interpretation must take that into account. But, if this was actually staged, it would be quite an image to see Moses portrayed with divine (or at least divine-like) attributes on stage--it would be quite a statement. But one wonders if it is a theological statement, a political statement, or a cultural statement--sort of the whole culture wars going on in Alexandria about who originated high culture (with Jews saying they began civilization with Moses as superior to Egyptian claims, and against Greeks by saying Moses taught Orpheus, etc.)--or if it is all three in some way.

Overall, ancient Jewish texts appear to leave a lot more room for interpretation of the divine world than we used to think. Perhaps monotheism would have been an imposed norm, but there are always blurry points, fuzzy edges, and so on--and these texts may represent them.

Again, much of this seems to me to be merely a matter of emphasis, but translating elim as "angels" seems to be an act of subterfuge to me. When looking at texts like the Songs, there are clearly three classes of beings, with humans and the high God being two of them. The question is the lesser divine beings. Ancient texts call them gods, so I think we should honor that, even if that is not OUR theology today. That only one God was worshiped (the high one) is still extraordinarily important, however. But that is not evidence for monotheism. That is evidence for monolatry. Clear evidence for monotheism is there, but it is rarer than is commonly assumed.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

New Template

I have been using the same template for my blog for over a year now. I liked my old template, but I thought it would be nice to have a bit of a change. So, I am going to try this format out for a while.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

What You've Been Reading

I am continually amazed by the location of my readers. In addition to the U.S. (from all over the place, from all sectors of the U.S. including Alaska and Hawaii), readers regularly visit from the U.K. (mostly England, but some Scotland), New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. Occasionally, you have come from places like Russia, Israel, Egypt, Monaco, Greece, Mexico, Italy, and Panama.

I also thought I would bring together the postings that you have been reading most often. So, what have you been reading?

1) Topping the list, most of you have been reading about the Antikythera Mechanism here. It may be because this is a recent post, but, then again, my other recent posts have not received nearly this much attention. Here's to science and technology of the ancients!

2) Coming in a close second, many of you have also been searching for an old version of Trivial Pursuit here. It is confirming to find out that so many of you have had the same difficulties. You have confirmed for me that Trivial Pursuit, for whatever reason, is nearly impossible to find in Manhattan. But you all should see my follow-up posting here, discussing how I eventually found a copy (I recommend EBay or thrift stores--anywhere you can find something used).

3) Thirdly, many of you keep checking out my series of Chuck Palahniuk quotes from his novel, Rant, particularly the religion quotes--I hope you all like discussions of liminality. Check that out here. But once you get a taste from the quotes, I recommend reading the whole book, and just enjoy the wild ride Palahniuk takes you on.

4) Finally, several people appear to be interested in the Evil Eye. Most of you have looked at the general posting of the "Ever Evil Eye" here, which also contained some bibliography, but you might also want to read the earlier post of the Evil Eye in ancient Ugarit here. If and when I ever have some free time, I am tempted to glance at the books listed in the "Ever Evil Eye" posting.

These postings display a wide range of interests among my readers, and I only hope that you find any of my discussions or at the very least the included links helpful in your search of these topics, from wherever you sit throughout the world.

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco on Dante's "Paradiso"

So, I have been continuing to read Umberto Eco's On Literature, and he has a nice, very short, essay on Dante Alighieri's Paradiso, called "A Reading of the Paridiso." He argues that it has been misread and underestimated, in fact devalued, in the nineteenth century and this devaluation continued throughout the twentieth, with the Inferno and, to some extent, the Purgatorio gaining the most attention. In contrast, Eco argues that the Paradiso is the finest of all three canticas. He primarily sets it in the context of the medieval preference for bold, bright color to express themselves in daily life, refined by Dante in the Paradiso. But, what caught my attention is the Paradiso as amazingly modern, and, in fact, futuristic:
"Dante's Paradiso is the apotheosis of the virtual world, of nonmaterial things, of pure software, without the weight of earthly or infernal hardware, whose traces remain in the Purgatorio. The Paradiso is more than modern; it can become, for the reader who has forgotten history, a tremendously real element of the future. It represents the triumph of pure energy, which the labyrinth of the Web promises but will never be able to give us; it is an exaltation of floods and bodies without organs, an epic made of novas and white dwarf stars, an endless big bang, a story whose plot covers the distance of light years, and, if you really want familiar examples, a triumphant space odyssey, with a very happy ending. You can read the Paradiso in this way too; it can never do you any harm, and it will be better than a disco with strobe lights or ecstasy. After all, with regard to ecstasy, Dante's third cantica keeps its promises and actually delivers it."
This reminds me of one of my favorite literary critics of Dante, Erich Auerbach. Most of us know Auerbach from his magnum opus, Mimesis. But he was primarily a Dante specialist, and wrote a superb little book in which he argued that Dante, when he depicted hell, purgatory, and heaven, ironically became the first modern poet of secularity. See this fantastic book, Dante: Poet of the Secular World.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco

I started reading Umberto Eco's On Literature today, and found some interesting snippets in his opening essay entitled, "On Some Functions of Literature." He discusses many issues, such as the formative influence of literature on language (like Dante's on Italian, Luther's on German, Homer's on Greek, etc.). The combination of different literatures and languages, in turn, shapes individual and communal identities. He discusses freedom and fidelity of interpretation. He has this to say about the relationship between the text and interpreter:
"The world of literature is a universe in which it is possible to establish whether a reader has a sense of reality or is the victim of his own hallucinations."
He also discusses how certain things are established in literature and cannot be changed because they have entered collective knowledge or can be directly looked up (like the identity of Superman as Clark Kent--Eco loves this example, interestingly enough), and finally how certain characters migrate from place to place, from literary text to literary text, from text to oral tradition and back again, and so on--like Little Red Riding Hood or Odysseus/Ulysses. On this latter matter, he writes:
"Where exactly are these fluctuating individuals? That depends on the format of our ontology, whether it also has room for square roots, the Etruscan language, and two different ideas on the Most Holy Trinity--the Roman one, which holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son ("ex Patre Filioque procedit"), and the Byzantine one, which has it that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father. But this region has a very imprecise status and contains entities of varying substance, for even the Patriarch of Constantinople (who is ready to fight the Pope over the "Filioque" question) would agree with the Pope (at least I hope he would) in saying that it is true that Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street, and that Clark Kent is the same person as Superman"
Another aspect of these characters is that the provide models for our behavior and to make sense of others' behavior, imposing literary characteristics in our conception of everyday life. In this way, literature also can shape our desires:
"We will have to find a space in the universe where these characters live and shape our behavior to such an extent that we choose them as role models for our life, and for the life of others, so that we are clear about what we mean when we say that someone has an Oedipus complex or a Gargantuan appetite, that someone behaves quixotically, is as jealous as Othello, doubts like Hamlet, is an incurable Don Juan, or is a Scrooge. And in literature this happens not only with characters but also with situations and objects. Why do the women who come and go, talking of Michaelangelo, Montale's sharp shards of bottles stuck in the wall in the dazzling sun, Gozzano's good things of bad taste, Eliot's fear that is shown us in a handful of dust, Leopardi's hedge, Petrarch's clear cool waters, Dante's bestial meal, become obsessive metaphors, ready to tell us over and over again who we are, what we want, where we are going, or what we are not and what we don't want?"
And, finally, literature teaches us that we are not always in control of our own destiny, and, in its fixity, that some things cannot be changed in the manner of Wikipedia:
"This is what all the great narratives tell us, even if they replace God with notions of fate or the inexorable laws of life. The function of 'unchangeable' stories is precisely this: against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them. We need their severe, 'repressive' lesson. Hypertextual narrative has much to teach us about freedom and creativity. That is all well and good, but it is not everything. Stories that are 'already made' also teach us how to die.'"
Literature, therefore, ultimately shapes our language, identity, behavior, desires, and, in its final less, our death.

Total Solar Eclipse

While yesterday I posted on the Antikythera Mechanism, which of many things calculated solar eclipses, today there actually was a solar eclipse! It began in northern Canada, made its way through Russia and Mongolia, and arrives in China just in time for the Olympics! One can see a stunning slideshow of images from various countries where the eclipse was visible collected by AP and Reuters here. Remember! Don't star directly into it without special lenses!

Here is a taste below with a special interest in religious sites. The first image is at a church in Minsk, Belarus (partial). The third image is taken at the Faisel Mosque in Pakistan. As you can see from the map of the total eclipse, Pakistan is not along the way, receiving a partial eclipse. And the stunning second and fourth images come from China (the second is at the Great Wall).