Ancient West Asia

You know what they say about old habits.  While various people are protesting things like critical race theory, there are still some scholarly holdouts for colonial terminology.  I know the area of “Ancient Near Eastern” studies fairly well.  The problem is that “Near East” is a comparative term.  Near whom?  Europe, of course.  Long ago scholars stopped using “oriental” to describe East Asia.  “Oriental” means eastern.  East to whom?  Europe.  You see the problem?  These terms assume European centrality, and the entire world can be divided up according to a colonialist perspective, rather like those novelty maps of the United States from a New Yorker’s point of view.  East Asia and South Asia are now in common use, but it’s still “Near East” and even “Middle East.”

What are the alternatives, did I hear you ask?  For decades now there has been a move to use “Ancient West Asia” instead.  It’s descriptive rather than imperial.  There have been objections, mostly from older white men.  It’s disruptive to change names, and besides, “West Asia” isn’t technically correct.  The area under study includes Egypt, and that’s Africa!  As Egyptology has grown, however, Sudan has increasingly entered the picture.  In other words, our picture of the ancient world is changing.  West Asia may not be precise, but it conveys the idea.  Cultures don’t always neatly follow borders, ancient or modern.  The people of ancient Israel borrowed from both Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Is it so wrong to try to use a non-Eurocentric title?

 Also, consider East Asia—it’s a fuzzy descriptor.  As is South Asia.  Although China and India are the largest respective states, these are modern political borders.  Yes, ancient people had borders too, but generally only emperors (men) went to great lengths to take someone else’s land on a large scale.  Terms like “Ancient Near East” perpetuate, often under the radar, this Euro-normativism.  Too much change too fast, I know, creates many problems.  A large part of the Trumpian reactionary mindset is based on fear of too much change.  Still, who pays attention to “Ancient Near Eastern” studies anyway?  It certainly isn’t a growing field.  The area under study is wide and sprawling.  It includes Turkey and stretches down to Yeman.  It can reach over to Iran and Afghanistan—to the very borders of India.  If we were to agree in principle that a Eurocentric term should be avoided, we might consider using Ancient West Asia.  Or we might, like the emperors of old, keep on doing things our own way.  It’s a habit, after all.


Monasticism

The other day I was reading about monasticism (as one does), and something curious occurred.  The article, which was describing a famous monastery, mentioned that monks lived in the convent.  Now, lest you think anything about religion is simple, I must clarify that in English it is common usage to refer to “monasteries”as places where monks (male) live.  Again, in English usage “convents”are for nuns (female).  The words, however, have a more interesting history than that.  Not exactly interchangeable (can you imagine the confusion?), they do originally refer to different kinds of institution.  

Often monasticism is traced back to Anthony of Egypt.  Anthony famously kept himself away from other people to devote his life to God.  This, of course, led other people to seek him out, wanting what he’d found.  Eventually, the narrative goes, the idea occurred that lots of guys could live together in common, but shut away from the rest of the world.  Thus monasteries were born.  The story’s actually more complicated and I can’t give you the full picture here.  We do know that even in Judaism, before Christianity came along, there were separatist sects.  One of them, known for convenience as “the Essenes,” set up a commune not far from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  They lived lives of purity and prayer and women were strictly forbidden.  They seem even to have had a monastic rule.  They lived on the edge of the desert and perhaps were responsible for the famous scrolls.  Monasticism thus had early roots.

The European Middle Ages were the high-water mark for monasticism.  Like our own day, people were dealing with plagues and strong-arm kings and lack of adequate infrastructure.  Many powerful monasteries had been founded, and they could be for monks or nuns, generally not in mixed company.  There were also solitary monks (it was more difficult for women to wander about alone), called mendicants.  Such people needed places to stay now and again, and that was what was called a convent.  A monastery could be for either sex, and the word “nunnery”eventually helped to make this clear.  The English use of the words, while convenient, can lead to confusion because established monasteries could have convents as part of their design.  I suppose not many people are really interested in monasticism these days.  Looking at what’s happening in the world, however, I wonder if we might not be on the cusp of a modern replacement for them.  It would be something curious indeed.


Post-Literate?

Who would’ve thought that publishing could be a scary industry in which to work?  Apart from the constant changes, that is.  Or maybe the changes are the reason it’s scary.  Our society has never been through a revolution quite like the tech revolution.  Yes, writing was pretty radical when it was invented, but it took millennia before literacy got to the point where it created widespread change.  Tech changes everything, and it does so very quickly.  Writing changes everything, but does so over the longue durée.  It began in a pretty humble way.  Crude drawings, called pictographs, came to represent things that mattered to pre-capitalists.  Take an ox head, for example.  It could represent the entire animal.  While some pictographs can be discerned in cuneiform (just as they can in some Chinese characters), the best example is perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Photo credit:: Jon Bodsworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether wedge-headed oxen or beautifully stylized hieroglyphs, both writing styles came to be representative for phonemes.  Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing tended to be syllabic rather than strictly alphabetic, and indeed, the invention of the alphabet made learning to write simpler.  Even after this innovation, however, it still took over a millennium before its practice became widespread.  Writing meant that ideas could be preserved beyond a lifetime.  Instructions and history could be recorded.  When a mistake was known and noted, remaking that error could be avoided.  (This seems to be a feature that has been lost to history, judging by recent fascist political parties.)  One of the great advantages to writing is the precision with which ideas could be expressed and preserved.

So how does this make publishing scary?  Some analysts are now claiming we are in a “post-literary” society.  Reading is no longer necessary.  We download visual content to gain the information we need.  When ideas need to be expressed in writing, we have emojis.  What happens, however, to synonyms when emojis take over?  Our humble ox head that eventually morphed into the capital A may now be represented by a stylized cow.  Or is it a bovine?  What does that cow image convey?  Books—novelties at the moment—are being written with emojis.  Learning to read is difficult.  It takes years and changes our brains.  Technology is encouraging us to become post-literate.  Even blogs are now becoming outdated.  Yet, looking at those emojis we see the history of writing moving in reverse.  From the precision of clear and accurate description to vague notions that look cool but leave us guessing otherwise.  Perhaps those ancient scribes scratching sketches into clay had it right to begin with.


Mummy’s Daddy

Now that I’ve broached the subject of the Agade listserv, I’m bound to find some interesting stories therein.  The title of this blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World” is an artifact that demonstrates eleven years ago I was still keeping up with Ancient Near Eastern studies.  I was calling it “Ancient West Asian studies” then, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that shifts in terminology are frowned upon by those in an industry that moves at a glacial pace.  (Just remember that the tortoise wins in the end.)  In any case, one of the recent articles on Agade had to do with the “curse” of Tutankhamen’s tomb.  This is an idea that goes back to the 1920s and was in some respects expressed in the Universal monster film The Mummy.  In pop culture the idea lives on.

Photo credit: The New York Times (public domain)

It seems that some, but not all, of those involved in opening Tut’s tomb died in unusual ways shortly thereafter.  The deaths were not concentrated within a day, let alone a week or a month, and some of them were natural but premature.  The ideas of curses, however, fit the spiritual economy of the human psyche so well that they suggest themselves in such circumstances.  A run of bad luck may last for years, causing the sufferer to think they might be living under a curse.  It is, in many ways, the pinnacle of magical thinking.  No matter how scientific we become the idea never goes completely away.  Just when Mr. Spock seems in control of the Enterprise Harry Potter beams aboard.  Our minds are funny that way.

The particular article I saw was one that had clearly followed on an earlier piece that I had missed.  It mentions “the documentary” but doesn’t say which one.  I suppose there are many such filmed attempts to make sense of memes such as the Pharaoh’s curse.  From my teaching days I have documentaries about a number of weird things that the History or Discovery channel, and maybe A&E, spun out back in the Dark Ages.  I’m not convinced that scientific thinking is really under any threat from such journeys down the paths of speculation.  I’m also not sure that there really is any connection to the various deaths surrounding the Carter expedition in 1922.  In just two years’ time we’ll be at the centenary of the discovery of the tomb and I’m sure there will be plenty of information on offer then.  As long as the curse doesn’t get us all first.


Like an Egyptian

“And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  The words are from the Good Book.  Specifically Exodus 10.7.  They’ve been on my mind as the coronavirus is beginning to yield in all developed nations but our own.  Let me set the scene: the Israelites have become slaves in Egypt.  Moses was sent to set them free, but a Trumpian Pharaoh stood in the way.  Plague after plague was sent, but the president, er, I mean Pharaoh, refused to acknowledge what the evidence indicated.  Moses would appear before the senate and declare the coming disaster.  In the mythical world of the Bible, though, the senate actually saw reason.

“Knows thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  Instead of addressing the Covid-19 crisis the White House has decided to turn a blind eye.  Nearly one-fourth of the worldwide cases of the disease are recorded in the United States.  In the past week several record-setting days of new case numbers were set even as the administration was insisting that schools be opened without any plans, or even ideas about how to help.  “Have them make bricks without straw,” you could almost hear echoing around the Oval Office.  Ah, indeed, this is the most biblical of administrations.  Our economy has been tanked for years to come.  The environment has been degraded to the point of disaster.  And yet Moses is ignored.  The real plague was the Pharaoh.

“This is the finger of science!”

Exodus is a story of liberation.  What’s more, according to the Good Book, God himself wanted Israel to be set free.  The Pharaoh, it seems, was not personally afflicted with the plagues until the darkness fell.  Prior to that, if it didn’t affect him personally he simply didn’t care.  Too many self-aggrandizing monuments to be built to his own name.  Ancient Egypt was like that.  Meanwhile plagues brought the mightiest nation of the time to its knees.  Beyond that.  It brought them prone.  Most of us, I expect, are ready to get on with life.  We’ve been self-isolating for over three months and yet the number of cases continues to increase.  We could use a word or two of guidance from a sympathetic leader.  Instead we’re entering hurricane season.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve got my Bible all ready.  And right now it’s open to Exodus.  


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.