Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jesus in Novels: Your Thoughts

I am thinking of revamping some aspects of my Jesus and the Gospels course.  And I was considering ending the semester (next time I teach it) with a representation of Jesus found in a modern novel.  What novels do you think would be particularly good for this?  Either because it is a good piece of writing, or because it would stimulate conversation, or because it is a fun read, etc.?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Experimental Marriage? From Oneida to Marriage Equality

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky attempts a comparison between modern discussions of gay marriage and the 19th Century marriage experiments, mentioning Mormons and Shakers but focusing on John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida Community (which, the article omits, is the origin of Oneida silverware, though originally the company made animal traps).

As Jillian Keenan reiterated last week at Slate, gay marriage opponents often assert that allowing same-sex marriages will lead us to polygamy and other perversions. It's an odd rhetorical move, inasmuch as, in terms of chronology, the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy appears to run in the wrong direction. The major American experiment with multiple wives in one marriage, occurred, after all, in the 19th century with the early Mormon Church. To talk about polygamy, then, doesn't raise the specter of a dystopic future. It points instead to the past. And it also underlines the extent to which marriage experimentation in the U.S. goes back a long, long way. 
As far as the history of that experimentation goes, the Mormons were not even the most radical. That distinction goes to the Oneida community, several hundred strong, founded in upstate New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was a graduate of Yale Theological Seminary and a preacher—though his license had been revoked after he began to develop his own shocking social and theological doctrines.

Their sexual practices included "complex marriage" (in which everyone in the community was married to everyone else, and, therefore, could have sex with everyone else--though I do believe they kept to opposite sex pairings) based upon the passage in Luke that in the age of the resurrection "they are neither married nor given in marriage."  Noyes believed the age of the resurrection was now (or then), and the reason why people are not given in marriage is that we are already married to everyone else.  Another practice is "male continence" in which men learn how to control their orgasm in sex so that they do not accidentally impregnate a woman.  As typical of the age, all of this was "scientific."

I recall writing a paper on the Oneida community as an undergraduate, likely for my "Religions in the United States" class with Paul Bushnell (who is retiring this year after 47 years of teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University).  So, much in this article was familiar to me, though I begin to wonder whether the analogy between the (religiously motivated) great marriage experiments of the 19th century and marriage equality movements is apt.  Indeed, it seems the article raises the specter of Noyes only to show how different it is from gay marriage and, in fact, how gay marriage is by far less radical:

Gay marriage, then, is both less and more radical than the Oneida experiment. On the one hand, the gay marriage movement does not challenge basic cultural ideas about romantic love and individuality. It doesn't create a new model of society, nor make sex a semi-public, communally regulated act. Noyes, as Vickers told me, "openly defined his endeavors in opposition to the mainstream social order of his times." Gay marriage doesn't do that. 
What gay marriage does do, though, and what Noyes did not, is to try to speak to, and change, society as a whole, rather than just a small subsection of it. The transformation that's required for gay marriage—including a greater number of people in a traditional institution—isn't as radical as it was for complex marriage. But, precisely because it seeks to expand rather than to reinvent, it's likely to be more lasting. Oneida is a measure of both how limited and how sweeping gay marriage is—as well as a reminder that "traditional marriage," and the tradition of marriage encompass a good bit more variation than its proponents like to remember.

It seems, therefore, that marriage equality is hardly "experimental" in the same way that the Oneida community was:  it is still marriage between no-more-than two consenting adults (though that has not always been a requirement for heterosexual marriage throughout history, which often has included non-consenting partners, especially with the female partner) that generally involves the same social structures as heterosexual marriage.  Another major difference is that interest in, support for, and perhaps even (or therefore?) opposition to marriage equality is far more widespread:  gay and lesbian couples throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe are seeking recognition for their commitments, instead of being just one small community in upstate New York.  It makes marriage equality a rather conservative gain.

Samaritan Passover

Samaritans made their annual Passover sacrifice yesterday on Mt. Gerizim:
The Samaritan community conducted its annual Passover sacrifice Tuesday evening under the leadership of a new high priest, as 50 sheep were slaughtered on Mount Gerizim in an ancient ceremony that attracted more than 1,000 spectators from around the world.
High Priest Aabed-El Ben Asher was elevated to his position, which is reserved for the eldest member of the priestly family, following the death last week of High Priest Aaron Ben Ab-Hisda at age 84. Ben Asher, 78, is the 133rd high priest in a line that the Samaritans claim stretches back to Aaron, brother of Moses.
There are fewer than 800 Samaritans.  See more here.  One thing I learned from the article is that Samaritans are known for their tahini.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"He Intended to Pass Them By": A Meditation on Mark

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.  When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea.  He intended to pass them by.  But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified.  But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.  And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:47-52)

The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the weirder the Gospel seems.  It is not necessarily weird in and of itself, but the relationship between my expectation of what the Gospel says and what it actually says is often discordant.  I am perhaps too influenced by Matthew’s and Luke’s glosses, emendations, and so forth.  So that whenever I return to Mark, I find some passages to be quite startling.  And this is one of them.  And it is what the other Gospels drop from this passage that stopped me in my tracks while reading it.

On the surface, it is a rather familiar passage:  Jesus walking on water.  But most likely, whenever most people think of Jesus walking on water they think of the version in Matthew and think of Mark more often when Jesus calms the sea (Mark 4:35-41).  Matthew’s version is much longer, and alters the text quite a bit.  After a rewriting of the introduction, a shift occurs:

And early In the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!”  And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.”  So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:25-33)

As Matthew does elsewhere (such as in Peter’s confession), he promotes Peter as the preeminent disciple, though a brash one, and uses this episode to illustrate this evolving view of Peter’s significance that is not found so much in Mark. 

In appending the story, Matthew has completely changed the point of the story as it is found in Mark.  In Matthew, it promotes Peter’s faith as great, but ultimately insufficient.  It is a story of faith and doubt—something that seems fitting for the Gospel of John (and, n.b., this is one of those few synoptic episodes that has a counterpart in John—see John 6:15-21).  And it is a further illustration of Jesus’ identity as “the Son of God.”  For Mark, on the other hand, there is little discussion here of faith and doubt.  It is rather yet another illustration of the disciples’ lack of understanding—something that is highlighted in Mark, but consistently muted in Matthew and Luke (see their discussions of the “Mystery of the Kingdom”).  Luke, interestingly, drops this entire episode.

John also drops quite a bit without making Matthew’s additions—in fact, John’s version is the shortest of all of them:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.  It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Firstly, in each case, the episode is attached to Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes.  But for Matthew, this seems to be a weak attachment; it is one of narrative sequencing.  Whereas for Mark there is a more inherent connection.  In John, too, Jesus walking on water is not only set up by the multiplication of loaves, but subsequently sets up the whole “I am the bread from heaven” speech, and is able to integrate the episode more fully. 

But both Matthew and John do not have a few interesting phrases.  Both have dropped quite a bit.  Other than John dropping the whole “ghost” thing, both Matthew and John drop the following parts:

            He intended to pass them by. 

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Why would these phrases be dropped?  Or why would Mark have them at all?  The first is rather ambiguous.  For Matthew, the entire episode is a set-up, a lesson on faith and doubt and to demonstrate Jesus’ greatness as “the son of God.”  This is not present in Mark’s text.  In fact, Jesus simply “intended to pass them by.”  Perhaps Jesus is hoping not to be seen, and if that is his intention, from Jesus’ perspective it is not setting up a scene of faith and doubt—the scene, or the revelation of the scene, is completely accidental (though, of course, not from the narrative perspective).  Is this part of the whole “messianic secret trope”?  If so, it seems a slight inversion of it.  That is, elsewhere the disciples are supposed to be witnesses of things as the receiver of secrets and mysteries that are concealed to the public, while here it was supposed to be concealed from them.

Perhaps it makes the reader suspect that there may have been many times Jesus has just passed by and the miraculous has gone completely unnoticed.  Or is it that Jesus knew they wouldn’t comprehend, and therefore did not intend for them to see.  It also has the (perhaps unintended) connotation that things do not always go as Jesus planned.  One can see why John would have dropped this phrase, since there Jesus is always in control of his actions and knows what will happen—what others responses will be.  Here, Jesus intended one thing, but his will and his actions do not fully coincide. 

The second is quite startling.  It firstly directly relates the disciples’ astonishment with their failure to understand the loaves.  Why?   One should recall that there are two loaves and fishes episodes in Mark (6:30-44; 8:1-9).  It is one of the many doublets that characterize the document.  Other than the numbers being different between the two episodes is a strange similarity:  the disciples’ response is equally incredulous.  There is no development between the two.  It is a tribute to their denseness.  And this denseness is now expressed in their astonishment on the sea.

Next, it says, “their hearts were hardened.”  Not only are the disciples’ hard-headed, but hard-hearted.  This language has a clear echo throughout the Bible.  One immediately thinks of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened.  It is something that typically occurs with God’s enemies (Exod. 7:3, 14).  No wonder this was dropped in the other gospels.  But, nonetheless, why does Mark portray the disciples similarly to God’s enemies, like Pharaoh, in the Bible?

Joss Whedon and Religion

I have several friends who will be interested in the following book:
Joss Whedon and ReligionEssays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred 
Edited by Anthony R. Mills, John W. Morehead and J. Ryan Parker Foreword by K. Dale Koontz 
This is a collection of new essays on the religious themes in, and the implications of, the works of Joss Whedon, creator of such shows asBuffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, and more recently writer and director of the box-office hit Marvel’s The Avengers. The book addresses such topics as ethics, racism, feminism, politics, spiritual transformation, witchcraft, identity, community, heroism, apocalypse, and other religiously and theologically significant themes of Whedon’s creative enterprises. The disciplinary approaches vary as well; history, theology, philosophy of religion, phenomenology, cultural studies, and religious studies are all employed in different ways. The existential faith commitments of the various essay authors are also different. Some are clearly believers in God, some are clearly not, and others leave that matter aside altogether in their analyses.

I remember the very first semester of graduate school (Fall 2003), I took a class that was the history of interpretation of Genesis 22 or Abraham's binding of Isaac, called the Akedah.  Jodi Eichler-Levine was also in that course, and wrote her paper on the Akedah, Buffy, and Angel.  If anyone does watch Joss Whedon shows with any regularity (my partner and I re-watch a lot of Buffy and Angel, with a pinch of Firefly), it is really difficult to miss all of the religious imagery.  There is, however, both obvious and less-than-obvious religious themes throughout Whedon's work; he draws upon and creatively recombines several mythemes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Mysteries of the Kingdom

I had a student who raised a question when studying the Gospel of Judas—whether or not Judas had any relation to Secret Mark.  The reason is that they both turn a distinctive phrase:  “mystery/mysteries of the kingdom.” 

I appreciated the thought, and I had no answer at the moment, except that most scholars shy away from using Secret Mark in their reconstructions these days, given all of the speculation about it possibly being a modern forgery perpetrated by its discoverer, Morton Smith. 

I, nonetheless, had an itch in the back of my head to look back into the synoptic Gospels—if for no other reason than Secret Mark’s vocabulary and phrasing is rarely, if ever, distinctive (indeed, one of the arguments for it being forged is that it overuses typical vocabulary of Mark). 

So, I turned to the synoptics, and, interestingly, they rarely use the phrase.  “Mystery” and “Mysteries” may show up, and “kingdom” is all over the place, but the entire phrase “mysteries of the kingdom” is rarer; nonetheless, it appears in a conspicuous place:  the meditation on the nature of parables after the parable of the sower.

Mark 4:11:  “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret/mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.’” (4:10-11)

Matt 13:11:  “Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’  He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets/mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (13:10-11)

Luke 8:10:  “Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets/mysteries of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables.”

Secret Mark:  “And when it was evening the young man came to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body.  He stayed with him that night, for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” (Secret Mark; Trans. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 88)

Judas:  Jesus says to Judas:  “Separate from them.  I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom.” (35.24-25; Trans. April DeConick) 

If I am missing other places, please forward them to me.  I have not double-checked, for example, the Gospel of Thomas, etc., for this phrasing. 

A couple things of note:  Mark and Secret Mark prefer the singular “mystery” (also translated as “secret”).  Matthew, Luke, and Judas all prefer the plural.  Matthew has the characteristic shift to “kingdom of heaven.”

The phrasing and framing of the rest of the passage has been most significantly reworked in Matthew, while Luke stays relatively close to mark. 

In all of the texts, it seems, this rare, conspicuous phrase works to define insiders from outsiders, who understands the mysteries and who doesn’t.  I don’t think this is a revelation to anyone, but it might be instructional to trace this delineation throughout different works to see what it means, or how this line may shift or even get lost.

The irony of Mark’s version is that just as Jesus defines the difference between insider and outsider—insiders are given the mystery/mysteries of the kingdom; outsiders get parables—is that immediately the difference is effaced.  With the key of understanding the mystery, they still do not understand the parable of the sower and Jesus has to explain it to them:

“And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable?  Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)

The point is that they don’t understand all the parables, prompting Jesus’ explanation to them.  They are no better than the outsiders, until, for whatever reasons, the line that Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples” (4:34), finally alleviates some of this effacement of the division of insider and outsider caused by the disciples’ failure of comprehension.

This is immediately alleviated in Matthew, however.  In the parallel to Mark 4:13, Matthew makes quite a shift:

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Matt. 13:16-17)

Gone is the whiff of the disciples’ lack of understanding; Matthew turns it into its complete opposite:  they actually DO get it.  He then explains the parable not because of their lack of understanding, but their greater ability to apprehend.

Luke, also perhaps uncomfortable with Mark, drops the verse altogether instead of turning it into a positive affirmation as in Matthew, moving directly into the explanation of the parable. 

If in the synoptics, the “mystery/mysteries of the kingdom” delineates insiders from outsiders in understanding, Secret Mark is not far off from this meaning (whether you think it is an ancient texts—or how ancient—or a modern forgery).  There it still delineates insiders from outsiders in what appears to be an initiation, a very private audience with Jesus.  Is it an explanation of parables?  Perhaps it is impossible to tell.  Is it related to the fact that the figure has been resurrected, encoding, foreshadowing Jesus’ own resurrection (much like Lazarus does in John)?  Is it sexual?  We may not know the nature of the mystery, but its function is quite clear.

Finally, in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus relates this phrase just after Judas himself demonstrates his greater perspicacity than the other disciples through a confessional scene.

Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and from what place you have come.  You came from the immortal Aeon of Barbelo, and the one who sent you is he whose name I am not worthy to speak.” (35.14-20; Deconick Translation)           

This, I think, is a brilliant repurposing of two traditions:  the mysteries of the kingdom tradition and the confession of Jesus’ identity tradition.  Firstly, how does the scene of revelation of mysteries work here?  I think it has a similar function as in the Gospels, but the line has moved.  Firstly, it separates Judas from the other disciples:  he gets it and they don’t.  On the one hand, the line still separates those who understand from those who don’t, but one the other hand instead of separating the inner core of disciples from everyone else, it is only one disciple who gets it and the most infamous one. 

Secondly, this is a scene clearly reminiscent of Peter’s confession in the synoptics and Thomas’s in the Gospel of Thomas.  In the synoptics, while others speculation who Jesus may be, Peter is the only one who grasps that Jesus is the “Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30; Matt 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-20).  In both Mark and Luke, this is passed over without comment; in Matthew, Peter is greatly praised, is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” and we learn that Peter did not learn this from humans, but from the Father—it is a revelation.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas confesses that “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like” (13; Marvin, Nag Hammadi Scriptures: International Edition).  Jesus responds, “I am not your teacher.”  The point is likely that Jesus is divine, either because he is ineffable, or more likely that it would be blasphemy to say who Jesus is as the rest of the passage indicates.  Moreover, the point that “I am not your teacher,” again illustrates the Thomas received his knowledge and understanding from a higher source, like Peter in Matthew.

Likewise, in Judas, Judas shows greater understanding than the other disciples before Jesus reveals anything to him.  He receives it from a different source.  But, likely, it is his “star.”  The lines have shifted in potentially two ways:  firstly, the “mysteries of the kingdom” tradition that used to separate the disciples from everyone else now keeps the disciples themselves as outsiders, and Judas does this through the “super-perceptive disciple’s confessional” tradition.  Secondly, if one follows April DeConick’s interpretation (The Thirteenth Apostle), perception, understanding for Judas is not salvation.  His fate is tragic, full of pathos as who fully comprehends his own terrible fate, dictated by his star.  Here the line of knowing and ignorance does not indicate fully insider and outsider, since, if one follows the DeConick interpretation, Judas is a knowing outsider.  Mark may have jump-roped the boundary of insider and outsider, Matthew and Luke solidified it more clearly, but Judas resituates it to the point that there is no surrogate for the reader in the text itself; everyone is outside.

Quote of the Day: Peter Brown

I haven't done a quote of the day in a while--so perhaps quote of the year?  Anyway, here it is from the always-quotable Peter Brown:

"The miracles of Gregory of Tours are poetry in action."

(Peter Brown, "Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours," in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, 226)

This is a sentence delivered mid-paragraph--so easy to overlook buried as it is.  But it stopped me in my tracks.  It struck me as somehow significant, disclosing something important not necessarily about Gregory of Tours but how miracles may have been understood in late-antique Gaul.  Or, better yet, how WE can try to understand the significance of miracles in late-antique Gaul.  But what this significance is is not quite clear.  Or maybe that's the point:  poetry is pregnant with multiple possible meanings, though often employing a particular "theme."  It is not practicing poetry or the practice of poetry, but the poetry of practice.

Is it that poetry condenses so much meaning in so few words as the miracle aligns the quotidian and the extraordinary, condensing social codes and alliances alongside supernatural ones?  Is it that poetry leans against the boundaries of language to speak the unspeakable, while miracles lean against the boundaries of actions to do the undoable?  Or is it in the choreography of these elements?  Or is it the usurpation of the old connection between poet and prophet, the prophet as poet (Isaiah) and the poet as prophet (Ovid)?  I wonder.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Was Jesus Breast-Fed?

Anthony LeDonne seeks out the answer to this question that other scholars of the historical Jesus have seemingly shied away from (I wonder what Freud would think of this telling omission).

As Anthony notes, the breast-feeding image of Madonna and Child becomes quite popular in medieval Europe.  What is even more interesting are the depictions of Christ offering his own breast milk among the writings of mystics, usually among women mystics but not exclusively so.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Assman's Mnemohistory Anti-Semitic?

A recent article in the Chronicle (via Anthony LeDonne) has raised this question and answered very strongly in the affirmative.  It is one thing to say a method or approach is ineffective or not useful, and quite another to say that it is actually dangerous.

I remember hearing Jan Assman speak at Union Theological Seminary when I was a graduate student at Columbia.  I honestly don't remember a word he said, but just remember him speaking in stereotypical professorial tweed.

The article is quite long, but the beginning does point out some of the important breakthroughs of Mnemohistory developed by Aleida and Jan Assman in the past few decades.  Such as...

In his recent volume, Cultural Memory and Early CivilizationWriting, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Assmann recapitulates a number of his most important findings. Building on the work of previous theorists of cultural memory as an approach to historical understanding (such as the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs), Assmann's notion of mnemohistory suggests that, from a cultural point of view, the way history is remembered is more important than—to quote the German historian Leopold von Ranke—"the way it really was."
This insight is particularly valid in the case of ancient history. Here, whereas reliable archaeological or textual evidence is often sketchy, imaginative commentaries abound, in many cases composed several centuries after the fact. It is generally accepted that, after a period of 40 years, generational memory begins to fade. At this point, "collective memory" cedes to "cultural memory" as a type of imaginative reinvention of tradition.
As Assmann explains his methodology in Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: "Even if sometimes the debate over history, memory, and mnemotechnics may appear abstract and academic, it seems to me to nevertheless lie at the very heart of current discourse. Everything points to the fact that the concept of memory constitutes the basis for a new paradigm of cultural studies that will shed light on all the interconnected fields of art and literature, politics and sociology, religion and law."
The point is that ancient peoples (and even modern peoples) don't remember things as they happened.  Therefore, things-as-remembered can be a real social force in people's motivations and actions and how they make meaning in the world even more so than things-as-they-were.  This is an important insight and definitely will continue paving the way for future studies in ancient cultures.

When turning to the Hebrew Bible, Assman argues that there was a development of monotheism from Egypt (following Freud here) that ironically turned Egypt into the enemy and this monotheism led to not only religious but politico-religious "exclusivity."  That exclusivity of monotheism, in turn, not only led to intolerance of other religious orientations but also to outright violence.  This "Mosaic Distinction" persists, by the way, in Christianity (so this is not just anti-Jewish, but anti-Christian insofar as Christians pick up on exclusivity and intolerance).  And, therefore, the remedy--the way into proper tolerance in modern society--is to throw off the Mosaic Distinction.  Of course, he has been stringently critiqued.

Assmann has ... been accused of providing an overly sanguine and harmonious portrait of interstate relations among the proponents of ancient polytheism—Babylon, Assyria, and so forth. However, in the ancient world, the Israelites were not the only group who, in times of warfare, invoked the dreaded herem, or ban on conquered peoples. Since the discovery almost 150 years ago of the Moabite stone, dating from the eighth century BC, we know that other nations in the ancient Middle East engaged in similar practices—as the Moabites apparently did against Israel. Another discomfiting aspect of Assmann's veneration of ancient paganism is that, since the 1980s, a similar orientation has predominated among the advocates of the European New Right, whose hate-filled texts have often provided the script for and fed the intolerance of the Europe's far-right political parties. (For a good example, see Alain de Benoist's On Being a Pagan.)
A major failing of Assmann's approach is that it systematically neglects ancient Judaism's robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and neighborly love. Numerous prescriptions in the Old Testament, known as the Noachide Laws, stress the importance of providing hospitality and succor to strangers. As we read in Leviticus (19:33-34): "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as your self, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Thus, contra Assmann, lurid tales of plunder, bloodlust, and divine retribution fail to tell the whole story.
That is, other ancient societies were no better, no less violent--and they were polytheistic!  In its violence, the ancient Israelites were not distinctive in the ancient Near East, and there were positive aspects in the Bible as well.  I don't think it was such as a huge "evolutionary breakthrough" in ethics as the article suggests--that monotheism and, with it, "transcendence" ushers into being a universal brotherhood.  Many of the nicer statements of ethics in the Bible also have ancient Near Eastern and eastern Mediterranean parallels in polytheistic societies:  think, for example, of "Zeus, Friend of Strangers."

I might argue that the major problem with Assman's "Mosaic Distinction" is that so much of Biblical scholarship has discovered in the past hundred years or so that the ancient Israelites were in fact not so distinctive.  Their stories, legends, laws, and ethics fit in their ancient Near Eastern context:  it is not the elements themselves that are distinctive (since each one can be found in other societies), therefore, but the particular combination of elements that made the ancient Israelites (or any other ancient society) distinctive.  But, we must remember that it is not what happened that matters so much as how people remember what happened.  And the ancient Israelites "remembered" being specially chosen, to be distinctive.  But then again, so did the Romans.

I should note, that exclusive monotheism does not necessarily lead to intolerance.  See, for example, the more philosophically-oriented, and more nuanced, discussion by my colleague Robert Erlewine in his book, Monotheism and Tolerance.

Larry Hurtado, Revelatory Experiences, and Religious Innovation

Larry Hurtado is discussing the role of revelatory experiences (and "charismatic exegesis") for the religious innovation of including Jesus as a figure of worship in emergent Christianity.  The information can be found scattered throughout his books (starting with One God, One Lord), but is the basis of some recent lectures he gave in the Houston area.  Give it a look--this aspect of his thesis has always most fascinated me throughout his various writings.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Learning Latin to Do Spells

Just saw this today (via Invocatio):  it is a Latin composition class that is quite creative.  Instead of composing boring prose, students learn how to compose magical spells.  Moreover, the entire class is based upon role-playing games; so, everyone takes on the identity of an ancient person and works on their Latin through the different developments in the game each week.  And when one reaches a new "level" in the game and score points, it affects one's grade.

Perhaps something fun and educational to think about for any language teacher out there; might be interesting to apply to other types of classes, too.  Maybe in a Gospels class, everyone takes on a character in Gospel literature, see how that character develops each week in new readings?  If someone is, for example, Matthew/Levi, they would, furthermore, learn more in-depthly about ancient tax systems, tax farming, etc.?  Just thinking out loud.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time Stands Still

Today in my Gospels class we were reading the Proto-Gospel of James, which has a very fascinating depiction of time:
But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking.  I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed.  I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest.  I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat.  Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths.  Everyone was looking up.  And I saw a clock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still.  And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air.  I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.  Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (pericope 18; translation Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, p. 69)
This is the moment of Jesus' birth.  When Jesus comes into the world, the world stands still.  But at least one person, Joseph, had the consciousness to realize that time had frozen, even for just a moment.  It is, in my opinion, a beautiful passage; the imagery of things happening and not happening at the same time expresses the extraordinariness of the moment.  Jesus' birth affects time.  But whence and why this imagery?

Firstly, I am unaware of other places where Jesus (or someone else) causes time to stop like this.  In Joshua the sun stands still, but just the sun and not the entire temporal stream.  If someone else knows any traditions--Jewish, emergent Christian, Greco-Roman, etc.--I would love to hear about it.

Secondly, why this imagery?  I posed this question to my class.  It was not a rhetorical question, not a question for which I was seeking to elucidate a particular answer or set of several answers that I or other scholars had already thought of, but a question of me genuinely trying to figure this out.  They had some good ideas (and I will release their names if they would like me to do so; otherwise, I will protect their anonymity in the public forum).  But, please note, these ideas came from my brilliant students--not me.  One student suggested that the fact it happens to Joseph--that Joseph is the one cognizant of these events--is significant.  Indeed, the first-person singular of these events is quite striking (how often do we see from Joseph's point of view in the Gospels?).  So why is this significanct?  Because Mary already has reassurance that this child is of God since it is all happening to her; Joseph's experience is more indirect, and, therefore, needs more assurances.  The second idea is thinking more cosmically.  What happens when something beyond nature, beyond the quotidian world, breaks into this world?  What happens when a being who stands outside of time, steps into time?  Perhaps time would stand still because, with Jesus' birth, a residue of that other timeless world that comes into this world.  Or, perhaps, we could say that the otherworldly being coming into this world, creates a tear in the fabric of this reality, expressed here as a temporal disturbance in the flow of time.  What other ideas can we brainstorm for the stopping of the temporal flow when Jesus is born?

Blogs in Peer-Reviewed Sources

Mark Goodacre has, as per usual, some very interesting thoughts about the phenomenon of blogging, this time regarding the rare case of a peer-reviewed article offering a full critique of a blog post.

I think Goodacre's comparison with a conference paper is nearly apt.  I tend to think of a conference papers and blog posts as "thinking out loud," as a works in progress, as ways to informally experiment with new ideas that is often difficult to do in more formal contexts.  A conference paper is, however, more formal and goes through a peer-review process of acceptance and rejection (even if not as rigorous as a journal or a book) and, at least for me, longer than a blog post (I know some of you like really long blog posts--I simply don't).  And, indeed, some of these things do develop into more formal contexts.  Goodacre mentioned this; my series of blog posts on "God and the Senses," which were a series of posts of me thinking out loud, will be making their way into a more systematic presentation at the SBL next fall.  I have had ideas on my blogs that have made their way into my syllabi as well.  Not yet into a formal publication, but I am sure one day that will come.  While thinking out loud, if something I say on a blog post helps someone else out with their more formal writing, I would expect a footnote.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Ink of Judas

The Gospel of Judas is back in the news with reports of how comparative ink analyses between Judas and more quotidian late-antique Egyptian documents (contracts, etc.) were used to help authenticate and date the Gospel.  By authenticate, I mean that it is an ancient document rather than a modern forgery, and, therefore, tells us important new information about ancient Christianity.  Looks like the ink comes from the third century CE.

Huge Structure Found in Sea of Galilee

Archaeologists have been investigating a huge conical structure of unhewn basalt stones about 70 meters in diameter, 10 meters tall, and estimated to be about 60,000 tons in weight, found underwater in the Sea of Galilee.  They tentatively date it to about the third millennium BCE when other megalithic structures have been found.  See a brief news report here.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ebla: War and Archaeology

The NYTimes has a piece on how the Syrian Civil War--through vandalism, grave robbing, posting garrisons in ancient sites, and actual fighting--is destroying ancient archaeological sites, discussing Ebla as the primary example.
Across much of Syria, the country’s archaeological heritage is imperiled by war, facing threats ranging from outright destruction by bombs and bullets to opportunistic digging by treasure hunters who take advantage of the power vacuum to prowl the country with spades and shovels. Fighting has raged around the Roman ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city in central Syria, once known as the Bride of the Desert. And the Syrian Army has established active garrisons at some of the country’s most treasured and antiquated citadels, including castles at Aleppo, Hama and Homs.


Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again.
The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.
 Find the entire article here.  For a more cautious evaluation of what is occurring in Syria, especially what information journalists can actually know, see Dorothy King's comments.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Modern Obsession with Demon Possession

In my occasional review of the articles in Arts & Letters Daily I ran across a rather interesting review article about demon possession and modernity.  The article, by Josephine Livingstone about a book by Brian Levack (The Devil Within).  The book, to be released on April 8, has the following description:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation, thousands of Europeans were thought to be possessed by demons. In response to their horrifying symptoms—violent convulsions, displays of preternatural strength, vomiting of foreign objects, displaying contempt for sacred objects, and others—exorcists were summoned to expel the evil spirits from victims’ bodies. This compelling book focuses on possession and exorcism in the Reformation period, but also reaches back to the fifteenth century and forward to our own times.

Entire convents of nuns in French, Italian, and Spanish towns, 30 boys in an Amsterdam orphanage, a small group of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts—these are among the instances of demon possession in the United States and throughout Europe that Brian Levack closely examines, taking into account the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians. Challenging the commonly held belief that possession signals physical or mental illness, the author argues that demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.
Moreover, as so many people have repeatedly noted, there is a highly gendered element to possession in the modern period. As Elizabeth Reis's Damned Women notes, even in early modern traditions that claim that men and women were equal before God, they were NOT equal before the devil, who seems to have a much easier time penetrating and possessing women than men (and, yes, sexual penetration is often used as a metaphor--or sometimes meant literally--on how women become possessed by the devil and his minions).

The review article, however, raises several additional striking issues that presumably the book also raises.  Firstly, there is a point that cases of demon possession or interest in demon possession has steadily increased in the modern period as compared to a fairly minor interest in medieval period.  This is quite interesting, in that we prefer to associate the modern period with renaissance (rebirth, reawakening), enlightenment, and the rise of scientific inquiry that would banish such thoughts as demon possession.  Yet, evidently, the inverse was true.  Indeed, just think of our popular fascination with demons, vampires, witches, and supernatural forces in film and television, in novels and comics, etc.  

Why?  The article also mentions that our increased modern fascination with possession, especially possession of children (think of most psychologically troubling horror films of the past forty years), taps into the basic question (and deep-rooted anxiety) that has been around for millennia but seems to strike us with increasing urgency and worry in the modern period:  what does it mean to be human?  Werewolves and vampires are about the loss of one's humanity (and, indeed, what is frightening about them is that they are us or were us).  Possession is more psychologically fraught since it is not a physical transformation into beastliness but an internal transformation, the loss of one's soul, or, at the very least, the loss of one's control over oneself.  It is a rootlessness, a feeling of complete lack of control over one's destiny that in a world in which we value freedom of choice and self determination that we fear most.  Perhaps it represents the gap between ideal of complete freedom and the reality of its lack, the frustration that one does not really have as much control over one's destiny as one would like.  Indeed, signs of possession are often those who are most oppressed by society--e.g., women--acting outside of their social norms, seeking some sort of freedom of action and speech.  Possession reflects, in that case, both the social constraints one feels, a lack of control, and a justifiable means of pushing back against them.  Perhaps it is the ebb and flow of multiplex interrelationships constraint, loss of control, and freedom that possession can represent that fascinates and repels us.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Archaeological Journeys from Hell to Ur

It has been a big couple weeks with archaeological announcements.

First, as everyone likely knows by now, the "Gates of Hell/Pluto" or "the Plutonion" was supposedly discovered by archaeologists in Turkey.

And now there have been reports of a major excavation occurring in southern Iraq near the ancient city of Ur, famous for being Abraham's purported birthplace.  The dig site was originally identified by satellite, and they appear to have found a huge administrative complex about the size of a football field.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

God and the Senses in Near Death Experiences

The Huffington Post reports a story of a woman who had a near death experience (NDE) and instead of just a tunnel with a light, she reports that she saw, heard....and smelled...and touched...and tasted God.  She says she experienced God as “an immense brightness –- a brightness I could feel, taste, touch, hear, smell –- that infused me. Not like I had five senses, but maybe like I had 500 senses.”

So the trope of smelling, touching, and tasting God (not just seeing and hearing God) persists in NDE's.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Zombie Jesus Day or Easter?

There is a piece in the Religion Bulletin on "Zombie Jesus Day" by Philip Tite, who plays with the importance of labels, shifting perceptions, and multiple "ownership" of holidays.  Quite appropriate for my recent discussion of the tombs opening in the Gospel of Matthew a few days ago, which has further links between the Gospel narratives and Zombies.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole on Thomas

In case you missed it, there was an online discussion of the Gospel of Thomas between Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre on the Gospel of Thomas and its relationship to the synoptics.  It streamed live at The Marginal Review of Books at 9 eastern / 8 central this morning.  It is about a half hour long.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rock the Torah

I was watching a recent episode of Raising Hope, called "Burt Mitzvah the Musical."  It is a musical episode including a lot of funny songs.  Here is "Rock the Torah":