Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ancient Babylonian Math

The NYTimes reports that there is an exhibit of ancient Babylonian Mathematics at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

Most of the ancient tablets appear to be classroom exercises, yet they may show a very high degree of sophistication, predating many of the Greek insights--such as the Pythagorean theorem--by millennia (or approximately 1500 years). The newspaper article indicates that Greek thought has shaped our own mathematical thought, but that we can see that we owe a great deal more to the Babylonians than previously thought. I should also note that much of our mathematics derives from medieval arabic mathematicians as well.

The tablets from Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University will be on exhibit until December 17. Unfortunately, I heard about this too late to take advantage of the exhibit and will not return to NY until after the exhibit closes. But I would love to hear or read people's responses below.

Sistine Chapel 360

I just saw this site that shows the inside of the Sistine Chapel in 360. You can use your mouse to look at different parts and to zoom in and out. All without having to be guided in like cattle with all the other tourists.

It's pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


One of the more interesting things I have begun to notice in biblical literature in my past year of reading or so is something of "uncreation." This is not necessarily the cataclysm of the end of time, although it can be that. It is not quite that final. It is more of a working backward from order to chaos in order to reintroduce an element of chaos in the world, showing that God is the God of chaos and not just order. I find traces of this in Isaiah, but it is all over the poetry in Job, including Job's own personal "uncreation" in Job 3 (an observation I owe to one of my students) to God's cosmic "uncreation" in Job 38 onward (an observation I owe to Carol Newsom's book on Job). With this interest in mind, I read the following from Rumi's poems that is almost an uncreation at points:

I am sprung from you and likewise you have devoured me,
I melt in you since through you I froze.

Now you press me in your hand, now under your foot with grief;
for the grape does not become wine until it is pressed.

Like the light of the sun, you have cast us on the earth,
then little by little carried us back in that direction.

We return from the body's window like light into the orb of a sun,
pure of sin and blemish.

Whoever sees that orb says, "He has become alive,"
and whoever comes to the window says, "So-and-so is dead."

He has veiled our origin in that cup of pain and joy;
in the core of origin we are pure, all the rest left behind like dregs

(Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi, trans., A.J. Arberry, pp. 302-3)

This is definitely not the same as the chaos/cosmos theme in Job or elsewhere in ancient Jewish writings. It is almost like reading Hosea (the latter chapters), Job, and the end of 1 Corinthians together. In Hosea 10 and 11, there is much talk about devouring. Job seeks "uncreation" and self-annihilation by negating his own birth. But take this language and put it into a more positive spin of returning to one's source.

The antitheses are what caught my attention: the one who created will devour (like God in Hosea? like Kronos/Saturn?); the one who froze us will melt us. In language elsewhere in Rumi and other Sufis, I take the freezing as the placement of our true essence into form; the removal of the form "melts" us, but releases our unformed/pre-formed/un-created self. That is the first part. The second part is a purification: the breaking of grapes to create wine. But the pressing of wine has the same function: the removal and destruction (death) of the solid form for the liquid essence to flow and mature. Our bodies, though, are "dregs" while our true self is the soul that is purified wine.

These two first parts, then, focus on our form and formlessness, the next part shows why we need to pass beyond our form: to return. As the diffusion of the light of the sun we were cast upon the earth. Here Rumi sounds almost Sethian as souls are presented as rays of light cast upon the earth that will return to their source--the original orb--all without a demiurgical element, though. I am struck by the fact that the light's return to its source is gradual. It is not all at once. This indicates that Rumi is not seeing the, well, annihilation of the egoistic self as it is reabsorbed into its source in terms of death (or not solely), but as a self-annihilation that occurs in life. The deathlike scene of return comes next, when one returns through the body's window (the eye) to return to the sun. Light came into the body through the window and it will escape in the same way. Whoever looks at the source will think of the soul as finally truly alive (unfrozen); those who look at the form--the grape--will see death. In another poem, Rumi says concerning the only one who truly is: "Inwardly you are the soul of the soul of the soul, outwardly you are the sun of the sun." To return, in fact, one must go into one's most inward self to find the highest element of the universe.

Death, though, includes perhaps more than just death, but as Montaigne would say how death insinuates itself into our lives through pain and as well as joy. Such distractions, for Rumi, I think would be more like death--that is to be unconnected or less aware of one's origin--whereas through self-annihilation before and absorption into the one who truly is one truly exists and lives. The death of the egoistic, solid self is the birth of the diffusive liquid self that, as such, easily blends back into its sunny source.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Blogging the SBL on Blogging

One of the most enjoyable and best -attended sections I went to at the SBL this year was the panel on Biblioblogging. While as the speakers noted that blogging has been greatly expanding the past five years in the field of biblical studies (broadly conceived), it is measured not only by the number of bloggers but the number of unofficial and now official gatherings of the bloggers (many of whom know each other by their blog names rather than their real names--even when their real names are not secrets). As has been the case the past few years, there was a dinner (which I was unable to attend), a lunch organized by John Hobbins. This year, the bloggers have an official group that meets to discuss issues of blogging, online publication, and burgeoning online technologies in research and instruction.

The meeting I attended had a nice panel from a well-established scholar to a more recent dissertation defender and all in between; it included scholars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament, and Targumim who came together to discuss their perspectives on this new technology. I am speaking more precisely of Jim Davila of Paleojudaica, whose paper is available on his site, Christian Brady or Targuman, also with his paper posted online, Michael Barber of the Sacred Page, James McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix, and Robert Cargill of XKV8R, the last three who have not (yet?) posted their papers online.

[Update: Robert Cargill has posted his discussion here, Michael Barber here, and James McGrath has promised to do so.]

[Update: Finally, James McGrath has posted his talk here]

It was an atmosphere of geekdom filled with a great deal of humor, prophetic prediction (both fulfilled and to come), and free exchange (open access?) of ideas.

There were many issues raised that new online technologies raise about our discipline in terms of how blogs are viewed (that is, should and could they be used for tenure and promotion committees, and if so, how could they be evaluated?), for pedagogical purposes (using blog platforms, pod- and vod-casts for dissemination of information, using possibilities for mixed medias that blogs are flexible enough platforms to hold to change the way we conceive of course construction--as well as research outlets), and the place of conferences--if panels are often already disseminating papers ahead of time (and Jim Davila always posts his papers ahead of the conference) would it not be better to have asynchronicity in participation by having a virtual conference, which would also be cheaper for those who cannot afford the traditional conference? Or a hybrid form of videoconferencing that allows people to come to panels physically (as usual) and for monitors to be set up so that others can participate virtually?

We do need to rethink the academic conference, I think. A couple years ago, I had written here (but I am currently too lazy to look for it, but I bet you can find it under the "academic conferences" tag) that conferences are a thing of the past and that virtual conferences in which people meet at a particular platform to exchange papers on topics and then write comments at the time or even later would be the way to go. At that time, however, I considered the traditional conference's continuing validity for two primary reasons: professional networking and for job interviews.

I am rethinking some of this. I have met a lot of scholars through my blogging activities (as well as publishers and book review distributors, etc.). Moreover, due to the economic difficulties of sending job search committees to conferences, so many places are using the phone interview or videophone interview as a replacement for the initial interview stage (before the traditional on-campus interview).

So where does that leave conferences? It retains the human face. As I have noted, as bloggers have increased, so have blogger-related activities at the SBL, both official and unofficial activities. They are face-time. While many bloggers do not come to these events (since there are hundreds of bloggers and only a couple to a few dozen come to the blogger events), most bloggers are not just sitting up curled with their computer on their bed all day. They are physically networking with people they have already networked with virtually. It is a solidification of a bond. Interestingly, I have two tendencies that I think I share with others: I am more likely seek out bloggers at the SBL to get a face and a voice and a physical presence to the person, and at the same time, I am more likely to read a blog of someone I have already met in person. It is a cycle that constantly feeds back into itself.

Perhaps soon we'll transition into a hybrid conference that is both physical and virtual--those who can physically and economically come will, but those who cannot will not be excluded and have a virtual presence.

As was noted in my first SBL session I attended that reviewed Guy Williams's new book on the Spirit World in the Pauline Epistles, we may have a new inflection of being somewhere in spirit.

This is just one of the many fruitful issues that came out of that single session--a rarity in the current climate of the proliferation of sections. I am sure that many other bloggers will blog about what they saw and heard and may want digital copies of the pictures that James McGrath showed.

If anything, the blogging section at the SBL inspired me to post again, which I have been doing so little lately.