Bats and Bloodsuckers

In what looks (somewhat cynically) like at attempt to add newness to frightfully old news, the World Health Organization has renamed COVID-19 to the much scarier SARS-CoV-2.  The basics remain the same: the virus is transmitted the same way.  If it lands on a non-organic surface it soon dies without a host, rather like the elected officials of an old party once grand.  Like any parasite, it requires the life of another to prosper.  And so we find Mitch McConnell telling states to declare bankruptcy in a move taken from the Bible’s own playbook.  You see, during a famine in Egypt Pharaoh bailed out the food banks, and by buying all the land made peasants in essence slaves of the state.  The Good Book has all the answers.  A few generations later, however, and Pharaoh had to learn how to swim in the desert.  The divine economy is not without humor.

The WHO report also states that the vector has been traced to bats.  Bats make me think of vampires—I can’t help it, I’m a late monster boomer.  While WHO doesn’t make any connections with vampire bats, I researched them when I was younger.  Unlike elected members of the gOP, vampire bats aren’t selfish.  Nor are they greedy.  Finding a victim, the make a small incision with their sharp little teeth and lap up enough blood to survive.  If another bat goes a night or two without success, vampire bats will share their success, realizing in a way that politicians don’t, that helping one another is an assured way of establishing communal strength.  Or you could just be capitalist about it, let the unsuccessful starve, and go seeking another victim of your own.  Bloated bats don’t fly well.

If the Old Party learns from nature we’ll all benefit.  Greed is hardly the basis for sound government.  Nature would suggest that ingesting disinfectant isn’t the best advice to dole out to a nation about which you truly care.  The Old Party refuses to do anything, of course.  Having proven themselves unable to govern, they’re busy pulling together campaigns for November’s election.  With a leader who’s already said on national television that Republicans can’t win without gaming the election process itself, they don’t even blush.  I’m no expert, but it may be because they don’t have enough blood to rise to their cheeks.  If they’re short on blood it might be worth their while to learn a thing or two from vampire bats.

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.

Apocalyptic Dreams

Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”

The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.

Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.

Comet Tales

Göbekli Tepe, apart from being impossible to pronounce correctly, is a site of embarrassment to historians. First of all, this archaeological site in Turkey is too old. Abandoned around 9000 BCE—some 5000 years before the Sumerians show up with their writing—Göbekli Tepe had already gone through several phases of elaborate building and willful destruction. A large “temple” has been unearthed there with elaborately carved plinths that suggest a mythology at which we can only guess. Conventional wisdom states that the state came first, then organized religion. Göbekli Tepe suggest that it was the other way around—religion came first. We have no writing to go by here, however, just towering monoliths that make us scratch our heads in wonder. We are the apes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

A friend pointed me to an article in New Scientist that suggests one of the Göbekli Tepe “carvings show comet hit Earth and triggered mini ice age.” That’s a lot of ice. And eisegesis. Part of the problem here is that old scientists tend to sweep anomalous evidence off the table. It’s an admitted part of the empirical method. If a single anomaly stands against a host of conventionally expected results, the anomaly goes into the bin as an outlier. Göbekli Tepe, as real as it is, is an anomaly. Reputable books on it written in English by archaeologists and historians do not exist. Embarrassed turning away and staring at shoes ensues. The site is just too old, too sophisticated, and too far outside convention to be dealt with rationally. You can read a lot into an isolated carving, especially when accurate information is lacking.

To give you some perspective: the great pyramids of Egypt date from the Old Kingdom of Egypt, after 3000 BCE (remember, we’re counting backwards here). Stonehenge’s main phase (the famous blue stones) was a couple of centuries later than the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Göbekli Tepe had closed up shop some 6000 years prior. By comparison, more time had passed between Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid than between the Great Pyramid and us. We, with the internet in our pockets and humans walking on the moon, preparing to go to Mars, are only less than 5000 years from jolly old Khufu. Göbekli Tepe, with its inscrutable carvings, shouldn’t be there. And yet it is. Standard procedure suggests it be ignored. So far, conventional historians have done just that. And in my opinion that’s worse than an ice age brought on by comets written on a stone that nobody can read.

:-D

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Technology runs amok. I confess to being born before earthlings landed on the moon. I remember a world where Purelle boogers simply did not exist. A time when to read the Bible meant opening that black leather with gilt edges that suggested some unknown bovine had paid the ultimate price to wrap those red-lettered words. Then came the LOL Cats Bible. The Lego Bible. Now the Emoji Bible. Emojis are made possible by the demand of cell phone users to express that which otherwise requires considerable wordsmithing. They’re popular. So much so that Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is the unpronounceable 😂. I’m not even sure if you’ll see it on your screen. If not, imagine a yellow circle laughing until it cries. Or crying until it laughs. There’s some ambiguity there. In any case, bibleemoji.com offers to translate your favorite Bible verses into emojis.

A naughty little boy, I suspects, lurks inside many of us of my particular gender. So I opened a new tab and went to biblegateway.com. There I looked up Ezekiel 23.20, in the King James, of course, and copied and pasted it. The results were somewhat 😒. “4 she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, & whose issue is like the issue of 🐴s.” I don’t know about you, but I see several missed opportunities there. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand 📚. Is there an emoji for “words”? Can there be? I’m trying hard to keep within my word quota here, so please bear with me.

I’m hoping against hope that unicode has kept up with my puerile fascination with rebus writing. It seems likely that all writing began that way. Draw a picture of what you mean and, with a little luck, others will understand. The capital A, for example, represents the head of an ox. It’s easier to see if you flip it upside-down. Better yet, just write it this way: 🐮. The ancient Egyptians, one gets the impression, would’ve been proud. After all, we call their labor-intensive communication system hieroglyphics, or “sacred writing.” It was inevitable that what some consider holy writ would eventually come down to the lowest common denominator. Still, I’m somewhat disappointed. When I dragged my mind to more lofty verses all I found were simple textual changes to my requests. Perhaps it’s for the best. When I tried “Jesus wept” I got “jesus wept” rather than the expected 😭. 😦

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

Camera Obscura

There’s a certain etiquette to being on the bus. There has to be, when you pack fifty strangers together for an hour and shake gently. The seats on New Jersey Transit are somewhat intimate and it’s rare to make it through the journey without somehow touching the person next to you—elbows, knees, hips, or general body mass—worlds collide. I’ve mentioned before that not many people read old-fashioned books on the bus, but one of those unspoken rules of etiquette is that you don’t look at a stranger’s book. I’ve benefitted from that any number of times myself. People think odd things about you when you’re reading a book about religion in a public space. Not odd enough thoughts to earn you a seat alone, but still.

I was reading a book about an ancient Near Eastern religion the other day. For me it’s an occupational hazard. Those of us who have studied this stuff for a living keep on cranking out the books and somebody has to read them. Amid all the blue light from all the devices I often feel like I should be in a museum myself. It was with great surprise then, that my eye wandered onto the book next to me that day. I really couldn’t help it, you see. The woman who sat next to me and was using her cell phone to shed light on her book (the overhead lights don’t always work). She went to make a phone call but forgot to turn off the light so that it hit me right in the eye. Realizing her faux pas, she quickly turned it off, but my attention had been caught. In the book in front of her was a picture of the Narmer Palette. Narmer was the king who united ancient Egypt, according to the lore, and this stone ornament was the commemoration of his achievement. Anyone who’s studied ancient Near Eastern history would instantly recognize it. What were the chances? Two people sitting on a bus, reading actual books, both about the ancient Near East?

800px-Narmer_Palette

Bus etiquette, as I understand it, doesn’t allow me to ask a stranger, “What’re you reading?” It’s kind of a personal question, really. I’ve been doing this commute for going on five years now. The number of books next to me has been negligible. But one related to the very topic I was reading about? Was this one of those “if you see something, say something” things? Instead I practiced custody of the eyes and went back to my own book. Then the other unthinkable: she talked to me. “Do you know where,” she began—“ancient Egypt!” I thought. But then she asked where a certain restaurant was. I apologized. I never pay attention to the businesses along the highway. I’ve always got a book to read. I thought about asking her about the book. She had, after all, breeched the dam of silence. Instead I turned back to my own book and didn’t notice when the bus reached a restaurant whose name I didn’t even know. That’s what etiquette demands.

When Gospels Mattered

SoskiceOnce I met with a group of writers and intellectuals in the Pacific northwest to discuss ancient—indeed, dead—languages and their cultures. I’d never before been accorded “rock star” status for what, for me, seemed a natural progression. I had spent my youth learning archaic languages and reading documents that few people had heard about and even fewer cared about. It was a delight, therefore, to read Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. I have to admit having never knowingly heard of Agnes and Margaret Smith, also known as Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson, nineteenth-century Scottish twins who chose to use their inheritance in finding, reading, and preserving ancient documents. To appreciate the importance of this avocation, as Soskice points out, in 1881 when a new translation of the Gospels went on sale based on recent manuscript finds, Oxford University Press sold a million copies on the first day of sale and carts carrying the Bibles caused traffic jams in London. Today a doctorate in those ancient languages and five bucks might get you a cup of coffee.

What makes this story so intriguing, admittedly, is that here were two women in a men’s world, accomplishing great scholarship when the University of Cambridge refused to grant women degrees. (The twin sisters lived in Cambridge.) It is with some sense of familiarity that I read how, after discovering and photographing the Syriac palimpsest which turned out to be perhaps the earliest complete copy of the Gospels known at the time, the sisters could not even get Cambridge professors to look at their photographs. Professors, as we all know, are too busy to bother with amateurs like the rest of us. As soon as one of the more promising Cambridge scholars almost accidentally viewed one of the pictures, the men stepped in eagerly claiming the discovery for themselves. The manuscript was in Saint Catherine’s Convent in the Sinai peninsula, a journey not easy to make, even today. Agnes had discovered the palimpsest there on a journey to discover ancient manuscripts. But she was a woman in a man’s Cambridge.

We can congratulate ourselves on many things in academia today. In many fields a woman stands a better chance than a man in landing a teaching job. But we still have far to go. Salaries for women continue to lag behind those of men for doing the same work in general. Healthcare issues that effect primarily women are decided on by legislatures that consist mostly of men. In many parts of the world, women are, by default, treated as the property of men. Two Scottish sisters managed to help upset the world, in their quiet way, at the turn of the twentieth century. They did it by acts of scholarship. Genteel, proper, and very Presbyterian. If only we could say that in the century since then we had reached equality, we might have done something of which we could truly be proud.

Burden of Democracy

Speaking of revisionist history, I see that I’m negligent on updating my Egyptology. In a year when you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sheer number of GOP presidential wannabes, I had to ask my wife who Ben Carson was. She sent me a story explaining how the league of presidential dreamers believes that the pyramids were ancient Egyptian grain silos. His reason for believing this has nothing to do with archaeology or with history and everything to do with the Bible. Now, other presidents of too recent memory have had strange biblical beliefs as well. And that raises the intractable question of how you run a democracy with religious freedom. Some people like to claim religious belief is a matter of choice, but that is rarely true. At a young age we are programmed to accept what our parents or guardians tell us is true. Studies of the brain suggest that once wired for concepts of how God works, the circuitry is difficult to displace. In a country where most people can’t tell a Seventh-Day Adventist from an eight-hour clock, they may be surprised that a brain scientist might believe the pyramids were built to biblical specifications.

From WikiCommons

From WikiCommons

The Adventists are a literalist sect. And they are not the only ones who believe the pyramids have something to do with Joseph and the biblical famine that set the stage for the exodus. It is an idea I encountered as a child, and I didn’t even have a denomination to call my own. Religious belief can be, and often is, completely separate from rationality. Some very intelligent people are biblical literalists. The real problem is that the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids at all, but then most Americans know as much about the Bible as they know about Seventh-Day Adventists. If people actually knew how much incentive George W. Bush had to start Armageddon, the turn of the millennium would have been far more tense than it was. And that’s saying something.

In our democracy, we want freedom of religion, but we don’t want to be bothered with the details of what a religion teaches. Like many, I was shocked by the headlines of a potential president grossly misunderstanding history, but as soon as I learned Carson is an Adventist everything clicked into place. I would suggest that it is a moral responsibility in a democracy to learn something about religion. We like to think we can fudge on that part of the homework. If we want the freedom of having anyone capable of becoming president, we need to learn something about a human being’s deepest motivations. No matter how much reporters and skeptics want to laugh and scorn, religion makes many decisions for by far the largest majority of people on the planet. The thought that a democracy can thrive without learning what truly motivates its leaders, I would suggest, is the most naive position of all.