Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days. The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind. Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book. When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up. Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis. Had we left out some sacred books? That would seem to be a grave mistake. As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.
The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.” Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out. My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?” That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth. If something really happened it was, by definition, true. The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later. Scripture is more subtle than that. So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon. Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.
The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together. Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible. The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge. Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible. Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away. Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing. And, ironically, some even left out his book. Such matter remain hidden indeed.
One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them. The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows. Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all. In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith. The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days. In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.
The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers. Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done. More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest. Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then. (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.) Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books. Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.
The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book. We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus. We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ. Bible is a matter of interpretation. As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts. True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses. It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words. When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered. And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.
Posted in Bible, Books, Genesis, Higher Education, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Books of Moses, Genesis, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Gospels before the Book, historical criticism, Matthew Larsen
Composting is a very biblical activity. Adam, according to the second creation account in Genesis, was formed from the divinely created dirt. Some scholars try to capture the word-play in that story by suggesting “human” was made from “humus,” but since that sounds like chickpea dip it may not help so much after all. Besides, we now know that soil has a complex and fascinating history. Erosion grinds up rocks. Organic matter dies and decays, forming the loosely packed substrate in which plants can survive, slowly breaking up the more dense pieces through the transformative power of water. It is, imprecisely speaking, a miracle. When Adam drops dead, he becomes once more part of the soil from which he was formed. It’s poetic. Elegant. Economical.
Now that we have a house we’ve decided to try our hand at composting. We’d considered it many times over the years since, what with recycling and hoarding, we’d managed to get our weekly garbage down to one fairly small bag. Besides, since our government won’t be nice to the planet, somebody has to. Institutional people that we are, my wife and I had to read up on composting before giving this very natural decomposition a try. Things have to be just so for the process to work perfectly. It was in the process of this reading that the biblical aspect became clear to me.
The trick is to make sure the neighbors don’t complain about the smell. That, in part, determines what can or can’t go into the compost bin. Meat and dairy can’t go into the mix. Since I’m primarily vegan such things aren’t generally here to be disposed of in any case. Even the drier lint can go there, for the clothes that we wear become part of who we are, right Henry David? And here’s where there’s a danger of TMI, although it’s good theology—cast-offs from our selves can also be composted. Hair, for example. The composting literature we have seems to take Adam himself out of the equation by specifying pet hair, but hey, mammals are mammals. The longer I thought about this, the more obvious it was that burial, ideally, is a form of composting. Giving back to the earth from which we’ve sprung. That simple wire bin out by the garage is in the process of making the substrate for new life. We may not be farmers, or gardeners like Adam, but composting feels like giving back somehow. It’s an act of creation.
Posted in Bible, Environment, Genesis, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Adam, composting, creation, geology, organic, soil
In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common. That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit. We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics. This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine. In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope. Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?
Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal. If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious. I sometimes buy things online with PayPal. It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it. So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account. What am I to do with it? Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms). One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?” Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.
Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so. This is nothing new. But the question of ethics now looms extra large. For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal? My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone. What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting? Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do? That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical. What would Moses say? Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time. A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Robotics
Tagged biblical ethics, biblical sexuality, Genesis, Judah and Tamar, morality, PayPal
It was a guilty pleasure read. We’d just moved and I needed a new novel for bed-time reading. Most of our undamaged books were still boxed up and, well, enough excuses: I like Dark Shadows novels. Hardly well written, these pulp potboilers are like extended, Gothic Scooby-Doo episodes. I first started finding them used at Goodwill when I was a kid and I’ve re-collected a number of them as an adult. Although they feature a vampire, and sometimes a werewolf and witch, the crisis of the story generally devolves to a hoax at Collinwood. So it was with Barnabas, Quentin and the Avenging Ghost. I hadn’t thought to write a blog post about it until I came across a passage mentioning Rocain. In context, one of the characters explains how Rocain, the son of Seth, shows that sorcery goes all the way back to Genesis.
Genesis was one of my lines of research during my academic career, although I never published anything I was working on. I didn’t, however, recall having read about Rocain. The internet quickly pointed me to Legends of Old Testament Characters by Sabine Baring-Gould, chapter 8. Clearly this was where Marilyn Ross, or his source, got his information. Baring-Gould sits on my shelf as the author of The Book of Were-Wolves. He also wrote the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” There was an era, overlapping with Baring-Gould’s lifetime, when a minister could be an independent scholar of repute. Although much that’s found in his many publications is now disputed, his was a lively and lifelong curiosity that led to several books.
Upon reflection, Sabine Baring-Gould, who was a priest fascinated by occult topics, would have fit quite well into the Dark Shadows diegesis. Although set in the late 1960s into the mod ‘70s when the television show aired, these were Victorian vignettes of a conflicted vampire and his strange, wealthy, and somewhat clueless family. All kinds of guests, some of them quite Lovecraftian, drop into the Maine mansion and its grounds. The writing of the novels is tepid at best, but the series was surprisingly literate. Dark Shadows is nevertheless undergoing a kind of revival these days, and friends sometimes tell me they’ve just discovered this oddly compelling world. I invite them in. I’ve unpacked a few more boxes since selecting this pulp novel, and one of them, I note, holds books by Sabine Baring-Gould. The guilty pleasure read?
Posted in Bible, Books, Genesis, Just for Fun, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Barnabas, Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows, Legends of Old Testament Characters, Marilyn Ross, Quentin and the Avenging Ghost, Rocain, Sabine Baring-Gould, The Book of Were-Wolves