Look Out Below

Demons are seldom what you think they are.  Bernard J. Bamberger’s Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm isn’t so much about demons as it is about, well, fallen angels.  A classic in the field, it was published in 1952 and has been periodically reissued when interest revives.  There are many aspects of this book that deserve development in a place like this blog, but I need to suffice with a few.  I won’t take much of your time, I promise.

First and foremost, Bamberger, who was a prominent rabbi, presents the seldom heard Jewish perspective on the topic.  The Devil really had more explanatory value for Christians than for Jews, and it is no surprise that he appears rather abruptly in the New Testament.  There are, of course, plenty of antecedents for him both in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, but the idea, and character, grabbed his main hoof-hold in Christianity.  This dualism has periodically been a source of embarrassment, but in general it has served the Christian narrative well.  We seldom see the Jewish outlook on it.

A second noteworthy feature of this book is its wide survey of these ideas in both what is now termed Second Temple Judaism and that of Late Antiquity.  The fallen angels seem to be there in the Good Book, but close reading of the texts suggests other meanings.  Judaism has never felt the compulsion that many Christians feel toward having the one, correct outlook.  Spend a little time with the Talmud and see how dialogical the search for the truth can be.  With no Pope or supreme human authority to declare the rightness of one outlook, the search must remain a process of discussion rather than an ex cathedra pronouncement.

A third, and for now final, observation is the sheer number of characters that pick up the baton of evil in both early Judaism and Christianity.  Even Islam.  A bewildering number of names for lead fallen angels and other demonically sourced characters populate these pages.  Since Judaism tended not to buy the fallen angel narrative, other sources for demons were considered.  Few doubted that they existed in the early days, but whence exactly they came was an open question.  Bamberger explores the options here and, beyond his book many others also exist.  That evil exists in the world seems patently obvious.  Religions of all stripes ask what’s to be done about it.  Some delve into its origin myths.  In the end, however, it is how we choose to respond that matters most. 

Looking Back

Image credit: David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many I’m shocked and saddened by the fire at Notre Dame cathedral.  At the same time a recurring theme of this blog has been that modern people are disinclined to pay for the past, and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone.

Even in this secular age the great cathedrals of Europe are on the agenda of many a traveller.  My own recollections of Notre Dame have grown hazy with the years—I do recall the stolid towers and flying buttresses.  Even the doubtless inauthentic but still ancient crown of thorns.  The famously secular French stood in the streets and sang hymns as the fire raged. 

My single trip to Paris was followed by a stop in Germany where we saw towers of cathedrals left standing even when the remainders of the buildings were gone—bombed out during World War Two.  Asking a friend about it we learned that the Germans felt these skeletal churches were appropriate reminders of the horrors of war.  No masses could be said in them ever again, but they stood, in their ruined majesty, as their own kind of monument to human folly.

We live in a post-cathedral world.  Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.  Citizens of London, it is reported, shoved bombs off St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz.  Religion today has been turned into a means of dividing and conquering people.  It builds border walls rather than cathedrals where those of any faith might be allowed in and invited to wonder.  Images of that famous spire helplessly falling amid the flames suggest the shock of the twin towers collapsing.  Although the structure survives, much has been lost forever.  And if people react like they are wont to do, there will be outpouring of resources to rebuild and restore, but only for a while.  We tend to think that looking at the past is frivolous.  Yet, my photos of Notre Dame remind me that a life spent looking back may well be the only kind worth living.

Which Shaman?

It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently.  Even if they understand those ideas in a different way.  I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact.  Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie.  Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion.  I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.

Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie.  It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics.  It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer.  We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans.  Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily.  And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago.  It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.

Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon.  Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew.  Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them.  Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart.  Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker.  They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different.  The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community.  Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions.  And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.

Eastern Canon

It’s complicated.  The Bible, that is.  Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon.  If we should.  My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.  The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it.  Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  That makes these two books by definition “biblical.”  You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

This privileging of the western canon has implications.  How do we know what really belongs in the Bible?  Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized.  Early Christian writers had different Bibles.  It took almost four centuries for them to agree  generally on what should be included.  In Europe, that is.  Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome.  Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made.  For some.  Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain.  Or the desert.  Whichever.

The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that.  The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?”  These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees.  The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name.  This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon.  What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries.  Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians.  It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version.  Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.

Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)

Spoken Against

“Antilegomena” is a word that appears more often in New Testament studies than it does in those of the Hebrew Bible.  Still, it’s an important part of the discussion of “the Bible,” especially since Heaven stands at the end.  Antilegomena is the Greek word for “disputed texts.”  You see, when the Bible was being compiled, there were many books from which to choose.  The twenty-seven books generally recognized as the New Testament included several that were disputed.  The Antilegomena included these books: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, all fine and good.  But the list continues: James, Jude, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.  This final half-dozen made the cut, although Revelation is still disputed in some quarters.  All of these books were, however, in some early Christians’ Bibles.  The exact date that the New Testament canon was fixed isn’t certain, but it wasn’t widely recognized until the fourth century C.E., that is, over 300 years after Jesus.

The first time I learned about canonization in college I was shocked.  Like most people raised on the Bible, I believed that it had come, fully written, from the hand of God.  Maybe there was even an autographed copy somewhere.  Grove City College, at the time, disputed the Documentary Hypothesis of J, E, D, and P, but to the credit of the religion department they did tell us about it.  Moses, of course, we were taught, did the actual writing.  But then there was the problem of the New Testament.  There were other gospels, some as old as those that made it into the Bible.  The realization dawned that “the Bible” was much more complicated than I had been led to believe.  And what was up with the Apocrypha?

One of my professors said that the problem with inerrancy is that it proposed a Bible more perfect than God.  I’m not sure that I follow the logic there, but I take his point (they were all “he”s, whoever he was).  The Bible may not be a perfect book  There are parts missing and repeated bits.  It is nevertheless one of many sacred books from around the world, and it is the holy book of much of Christianity.  From the very beginning some of the contents were disputed.  Even as an undergraduate I had some inklings that a journey that involved taking the Bible seriously was going to lead to some strange places.  That single book that had always been presented to me with a definite article—“the” Bible—was actually a book that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t know.  And they seem to have got along fine, as far as getting to Heaven goes.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

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.