Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

The Desert

Now, I’m fairly certain Athanasius of Alexandria didn’t have access to CreateSpace, or even an Amazon Prime account.  He did write the classic Life of Antony (or Anthony), which I took the opportunity to read recently.  I’m not going to go into this life with great detail—Athanasius does that, in as far as he can—but the reading of this book raised the perils not only of demons but of easy self-publication.  As usual, there’s a story behind it.  Antony was famous for being an early monk who fought demons so effectively that they feared him.  His story wasn’t written in English, seeing that the language had not yet evolved.  When I tried to find an affordable copy that I could access quickly, I found the edition pictured here.  It was fairly obviously a conversion, likely from a PDF (based on my own so doing, in the line of duty).  A minimal cover was applied and it was offered cheaply on said Amazon (with free shipping).

Those who work in publishing know how to spot a print-on-demand title.  That means the book is printed when it’s ordered, or, printed a few copies at a time so that the overhead of offset printing (how books were traditionally made) can be avoided.  Self-publishers can name themselves a press—this one Beloved Publishing—and anything in the public domain can be reproduced and sold to rubes like me.  When a scholar, erstwhile or while, approaches a book s/he wants to know certain facts about it.  Who was the translator?  What was the original language?  When was it written?  Who was (in this case) Athanasius?  Some of this I knew simply by dint of studying ancient texts for most of my adult life and having attended and taught in seminaries.  Still, an introduction of some sort would have been appreciated.

This edition appealed to me because the Life on Antony is a short book.  Most mainstream publishers bulk books like these up with hefty introductions and notes and charge four times as much for it.  They usually put in other works too, since this one weighs in at less than a hundred pages, even with loose typesetting.  Sometimes you just want the contents, with minimal introduction.  So let it be with Antony.  Or so I thought.  This edition, which has a few quirks, contained Athanasius in English, which is what I needed.  The translator remains unknown.  It is print-on-demand.  It is also affordable.  In case any readers of this blog wonder why I sometimes tend not to engage with the contents of the books I review, I would point out that this is what my own books are for.   A guy has to try to make a buck somehow, now and again.  (Antony forgive me!) 

Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all. 

Great Communicators

Perhaps you’ve encountered it too. You’re in a major city. You’re in a hurry. The person in front of you is plodding along, staring at the device in his or her hand and you can’t get around him or her. You’re being held up by technology. I just want to get to the Port Authority before my bus leaves. The late Jonathan Z. Smith called cell phones “an absolute abomination.” I wouldn’t go quite that far—my bus pass, after all, is on my phone, and I’ve been saved from embarrassing conversations on the desk phone in my cubicle by being able to walk away and find a quiet corner in a corridor where I can talk freely—but I do see his point. While technology has had many benefits, in real life it can slow you down.

A news source I recently read said that heavy smart phone users are more prone to psychological problems than, say, those people who live raw in the bush of southern Africa. Phones isolate as well as connect. Instead of asking somebody for directions, you can turn to your monotoned electronic friend and find out. What you lose is the nuance of human communication. On my first interview in New York City—I was still living in Wisconsin at the time—I was disoriented. Which way was Fifth Avenue? I asked a stranger on the street and learned something in the process. New Yorkers weren’t the rude people I’d been told to expect. In fact, I quite frequently see strangers asking others for directions. I’ve never seen someone refuse to help in those circumstances. Although I’m in a hurry if someone asks me “which direction is Penn Station?” I’ll stop and try to help. It’s a people thing.

One of the distorting lenses of a large city is the acceleration of time. Many of us depend on public transit in its many forms, and none of it is terribly reliable. Being late through no fault of your own is part of the territory in a city like New York. It’s become harder to stay on time because of smartphones, however. A few years back I saw it with the Pokémon Go release. Groups of phoners wandering around, slowing the flow of foot traffic on sidewalks that are somehow never wide enough. If only I could communicate with people! How does one do that when they’re riveted to the device in their hand? I wouldn’t say they’re an absolute abomination, but I agree with the dear departed Smith that there are hidden costs to being so connected that we can’t talk to one another. I would say more, but I think my phone’s ringing.

Even Thoth can’t help walking and texting.

Kings and Fiends

Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.

I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.

The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.