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.

Ghost Publishers

Ancient Near Eastern studies, where my academic work has the widest recognition, is still an area of fascination.  I have to hold myself back when I see a new book published in the area.  You see, I learned when I researched in this field that there is little academic opportunity in it.  As per usual, the public seems quite interested so academia is not.  A few practitioners, however, have been able to break through.  One of them is Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.  He’s been writing popular books about ancient ideas and getting respectable press for doing so.  His most recent book (The First Ghosts), as described in an article in the Smithsonian, deals with the earliest depiction of a ghost.

Perhaps because of copyright complications, his book on the subject doesn’t seem to be widely available in the United States, despite having been published by a trade house.  It could be that the publishers don’t think anyone will be interested.  Hello?  Ghosts and Mesopotamia?  Haven’t you been paying attention?  This is part and parcel of the academic publishing world.  The editorial board has to decide which books see the light of day and which won’t.  And how to price them.  Is this primarily a library book or can it somehow claw over into the crossover market?  Academic publishers will casually add five or ten dollars to the price, assuming it won’t hurt sales.  Guess what?  It does.  As much as I’d like to read Finkel’s book, my interest doesn’t hover around the 60 dollar range.

When I first studied Hebrew I wanted to buy a textbook my professor mentioned, but it cost nearly $100 in the US.  This was back in the 1980s, so that really was steep.  When we moved to Scotland I discovered the same book was available there is paperback for a reasonable price, so I bought it.  That’s when I began to realize copyright laws direct the shape of scholarship.  Publishers decide what makes it into reputable book form and who will be able to afford it.  That’s power.  You see, people have believed in ghosts from as long as we could convey the idea.  The dead never really leave us.  Finkel’s book examines a clay tablet used to exorcise ghosts and may contain a line drawing of a spirit.  Who wouldn’t want to read such a book?  It’s getting press coverage but those who make such decisions have decided, apparently, there’s no market for it.  When that happens a book hasn’t a ghost of a chance.

Postscript: Checking Amazon one last time before clicking “publish,” I see the book has now come down to the $30 range. I can’t take credit for that, but my point still stands.

Ancient Near Ideas

Looking backwards has its issues.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  My reputation on is based entirely on it.  (From the user stats, nobody’s really interested in my horror writing there.)  Let’s face the facts, though.  If you an expert in a field (mine is Ugaritic mythology, a form of history of religions), you can’t just write things off the cuff for publication.  I need to be very precise and accurate.  I like to think that’s why my articles on Academia get attention.  To do that kind of writing you need time—when I was a professor most of my “free time” was spent reading in that field—and either research funding or an incredible library.  Professional researchers (i.e., professors) get paid to do that kind of thing.  I don’t do it anymore but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it.

The other day I saw an article about Mehrdad Sadigh.  Although this antiquities dealer operated mere blocks away from where I worked when I commuted to Manhattan, I’d never heard of him.  It turns out that he had (has) a full-scale forging operation right in the city that never sleeps.  He has made a living, allegedly, for years by selling fake antiquities as genuine.  The story is tragic, but it underscores the point with which I began—people are interested in antiquity.  We want to be in touch with the past.  I can attest that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of being the person who unearths something on an archaeological dig.  Touching an artifact than no human hand has touched for two or three thousand years.  Looking back.

Looking back makes it easy to get distracted.  As much as I enjoy and appreciate my friends who still get to do Ancient Near Eastern studies for a living, I sometimes think how it’s good to move on.  Who knows, maybe I have another Ph.D. left in me yet.  Moving on increases the breadth of your knowledge.  Since university jobs are as mythical as the texts I used to study, doing a doctorate for a job is a fool’s errand.  Doing it to learn, however, is something I still heartily recommend.  There’s nothing like immersing yourself into a single topic for three-to-five years so that you come out with more knowledge than is practical about it.  I still think about the Ancient Near East.  I’m still tempted to buy new books that come out on the topic.  Instead, I watch horror and think it might be fun to earn a doctorate in monsters.

Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


I’m trying to organize a home office.  Gone are the days that this meant a stapler and mug full of pencils.  The office is essentially a laptop since work is essentially virtual.  Oh, there are days when I have to haul myself into New York City, but even making traditional print books is an exercise done largely online.  The office is a place conducive to work.  In the case of an editor, a room of books that can be used for reference.  In our apartment we had bookshelves (mostly homemade) around the inside perimeter, covering all wall space that wasn’t claimed by more necessary furniture.  We realized, as we were packing, that no free wall space reached to the floor.  We didn’t plan it that way, but a reading life can be a complicated one.  To write books you need to read books.

Our house has some built-in bookshelves.  Not enough to hold our surviving books, but it’s a start.  My office, however, is a spartan room.  Over the weekend I unpacked my “work books.”  That meant, for the most part, books about the Bible.  I filled three large bookshelves then ran out of room.  Not only was there that embarrassment, but there was the fact that a large number of “religion” books remained unshelved.  You see, I was a religion editor for a few years before being more narrowly slotted into the Good Book.  Some might say I should jettison these books since my career has moved on.  Those who suggest such heresy don’t understand the career of a displaced professor at all.  These books are still work books.  Job descriptions aren’t as stable as they used to be.

The complaint is an old one, at least to my wife’s ears.  In my mind I’m still a professor.  I still write—strictly on my own time—and I still research.  I do so without access to a university library so I have, over the past several years, made my own library.  This office, now out of bookshelves, is that amateur academic library.  My research has shifted from ancient Near Eastern studies (and that’s another whole discipline’s worth of books, some unfortunately washed away in the flood) to religion more broadly.  Not only is that reflected on this blog, but also in my publications.  The office isn’t done yet.  There’s a desk and a chair.  More importantly, there’s internet access.  There are some shelves, but in coming days there will need to be more.  Libraries are like minds; if they shrink they become less functional.  All books, no matter how dry, began in someone’s imagination.  That’s virtual reality.


“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.


Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

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?


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.

Book Ideas

Call it sour grapes. When I was a young scholar, I used to wonder how to develop book ideas. You see, at a young age—twenties or thirties—even a doctorate means your understanding of the world is limited. I’d written a substantial dissertation on Asherah, and I was faced with developing several new courses from scratch at Nashotah House. My mind was focused on the immediate concerns. I did continue my research, however, into ancient Near Eastern deities, with an eye toward writing an account of celestial gods and goddesses. A substantial piece on Shapshu ended up being snatched up by a Festschrift, and colleagues began to tell me that to get hired away from Nashotah I had to write something biblical. Thus Weathering the Psalms was born. The research and writing took a few years because I never had a sabbatical, or reduced teaching load. In fact, administrative duties as registrar and academic dean were added to my remit. Still I scribbled away in the early hours and finished a draft. Then I was cast into the outer darkness.

Publishing was never my first choice of career. I’m more a writer than an editor. In publishing, however, you are not encouraged to write your own content. I can’t help myself. As I rounded the corner from my forties, I had finally read enough material—both relevant and extraneous—to have book ideas. In fact, too many. Held back by the lack of publication, I didn’t know how to channel this energy. One of the benefits of working for publishers is you learn how to come up with a viable book idea. I’ve got a backlog now. I’m currently working on a few books, but one is in the forefront of my mind and eclipses all other projects at the moment. Having watched what sells, I think this one has a real chance. Time to write, alas, barely exists. The writer, you must understand, has to build a platform. Get a fan base. Welcome to my platform.

Daily I receive the first books of young scholars. In this publish or perish—strike that—publish and perish atmosphere, even the mediocre is encouraged by dissertation advisors. Young scholars, maybe thirty, think they have something profound to say. Call it sour grapes, but I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have an institution to support me while I write what should be written. The face looking back at me in the morning has more gray hairs than I remember growing, and has wrinkles that my mind doesn’t recognize. It’s too full of books to write to pause long. The bus is coming soon and I have younger scholars’ careers to build with premiere branding. My own ideas ferment unseen in the basement. What some call sour grapes others call fine wine.

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Nazis with Bibles

Some years back, when the Internet was young, I had just learned about email. Even today it seems incredible that only twenty years ago we still sent physical letters to communicate, and that we used paper maps and telephone books to get information. The main problem with email then was that not everyone was on it. I signed up for an Ancient Near East/Biblical studies discussion group. My barren inbox (being a scholar at a non-prestige school) was suddenly full every day. New discoveries, research ideas, online debates. It was all very exciting. Then someone voiced the fraught question: should we ignore the research of scholars who were later revealed to have been Nazis? The rancor raised forced the moderator of the discussion group eventually to make this a forbidden topic. Because I could not keep up with the inundation of emails and because of the vitriol (do people use the world vitriol anymore?) on the Internet universe, I eventually unsubscribed. Nothing raises hackles like Nazis. Especially in the field of biblical studies, which, naturally enough, revolves around issues of Jewish interest. I saw a blog post recently which brought this whole episode back to mind.

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The issue of political conviction and professional neutrality is a vexed one. Critical study of the Bible began, to a large extent, in German universities. Biblical studies in higher education was mainly a Christian enterprise, and many of the questions were, well, only academic. If someone was a Nazi, did he (and they were pretty much all he’s) have a hidden agenda? Today the question of agenda is often raised with conservative biblical scholars. Can someone who believes in the Virgin Birth and in Moses parting the Red Sea really interact critically with the biblical text? Just throw that question out there and watch the fun. (It helps if it is tossed out on a blog that actually has readers, rather than my insignificant efforts here.) Who can make the claims for true objectivity? Can a Nazi correctly parse that verb? Do one’s political views gainsay one’s credibility?

We are all children of our environment. Even the most empirical of scientists will admit that true objectivity is not what it seems. We are not, after all, gods. And even the gods seem to have distinct tastes. Evil done in the name of politics seems slightly less heinous than evil done in the name of religion, but people are people and we have convictions sprouting out all over the place. Nobody intentionally believes falsehoods. Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle. Can’t we all be professional about this? Emotions, however, do play favorites. If there’s any doubt, consider the question of using a person as an experimental subject with no regard for what they feel. We know it’s wrong. We won’t allow it. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Right now there are more pressing matters at hand, such as how to hire more adjuncts without destroying our credibility. It’s not a matter of wanting to hurt others, it’s just good business. Everything else is merely academic.

Name Recognition

Some two and a half years ago when my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson suggested I start a blog (primarily for the podcasts to which I intend to return), he asked me what I would call such a site. “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World,” was my attempt at a witty, non-committal riposte. Since I was unemployed at the time and still hoping some deus ex machina might put me back into a full-time university post, complete with an Ancient Near Eastern religions component, the title seemed apt. I determined that I would not exploit my relationship to a best-seller author since I wanted to earn my own readership. Sects sells, does they not? Since then I’ve had a number of curious readers wonder why I tend to address modern religious issues, unlike my title suggests. The reason goes back to what I want to be when I grow up.

How many eighteen-year olds really know what their lives will hold in store? Our society asks them to select majors and pick a career path far too young. I had visions of clergyhood in my head so I majored in religion. Like many children of alcoholics, I tend to be addictive in my devotion, so after completing a Master’s in religion, I had to have just one more degree—then I’ll stop—and a doctorate in religion finished ossifying my career track. Having been weaned on the Bible, I’d stuck with it for three degrees and found that during that time the job market had evaporated around me. As I watched society from the sidelines, I saw so many people at the place I had started out, staring wistfully at the Bible, looking for answers. Uncritically, magically expecting a miracle. Just like Oral Roberts said. Once my teaching career had been derailed by misguided Fundamentalists, I realized my interests were much more in the effect religion has on people. It was too late, however, to go back to school.

My way of dealing with any dilemma is to parse its history. That’s why I studied pre-biblical religions along the way to my doctorate in Bible. A couple of things had become clear along the way: religions are very fragile and easily splinter into sects. And most of the large-scale violence in the history of the world has a religious basis. (Probably much of the small-scale violence does as well.) Its origins are literally more ancient than history. What is religion in today’s world if not the direct descendent of sects and violence in the ancient world? And since my idiosyncratic musings have passed the 200K hit mark, it seemed all right to acknowledge the role my brother-in-law has played in all this. So, in good academic fashion, I’d like to acknowledge the suggestions and support of Neal Stephenson in starting this blog, but any errors are, of course, my own.

Iraq’s Bell

Gertrude Bell requires no introduction for students of the ancient Near East. A strong-willed, self-determining woman, her influence was arguably as great as that of her friend T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but being a woman in a man’s world, movies were not framed around her life and she was not mythologized into a larger-than-life character. I have just finished Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, the life story of Gertrude Bell. Although tending towards the overly romantic in parts, this biography does a fine job highlighting the influence Gertrude Bell had on the newly formed country of Iraq at the close of the First World War.

Although Gertrude early lost her mother she was a child of a well-to-do English family. She was considered an anomaly at a still patriarchal Oxford in her day, but soon discovered the draw of the Arabian and Syrian deserts. Traveling seemed to be an antidote for being a capable woman in a man’s England. In the desert the sheiks and tribal heads came to treat her as an equal, like a man. (T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, was famed for occasionally pretending to be a woman.) Assigned a government post in post-war Iraq, she helped draw up the borders of the present nation of Iraq and achieved a status with the desert tribes to which few of her male colleagues even aspired. Failing in health and fortunes, lonely in the desert she loved, Gertrude Bell committed suicide in Baghdad and was buried in the land she loved.

The story of Gertrude Bell is inspiring despite its sad ending. Here was a woman who refused to accept the model society cut out for her gender. Part of her loneliness resulted from her staunch unwillingness to be like other passive, subservient women of her time. After the reigns of political power slipped from her hands, Gertrude Bell founded the Baghdad Museum, collecting the initial artifacts herself and donating a substantial portion of her remaining funds to the museum in her will. Until the “Second Gulf War” it was the finest collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in Iraq, where culture itself began. Gertrude Bell’s books are still read, but she is still known primarily as the associate of Sir Leonard Woolley and Lawrence of Arabia, although she was a woman on her own terms. She remains a symbol of what might be accomplished even when the standards of society declare a person unfit to lead based on gender or any other physical attribute.

Dispelling Myths

According to the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Danish scientists have debunked the folk-wisdom that a person can become drunk by soaking his or her feet in alcohol. In the spirit of science, three scientists submerged their feet for three hours in a washtub of vodka (I am very curious what the university requisition form must have looked like). At the end of three hours, the stone-cold sober scientists with pickled feet had dispelled “the myth.” Myth remains one of those loosely defined concepts that can be good and evil, in turns. If a falsehood is being disproved, the myth is misguided and wrong. If a deity is being described and worshiped, the myth is the ultimate truth. Perhaps we need a larger vocabulary.

A semester chock-full of mythology is drawing to an end for me. I taught on ancient Near Eastern myths, classical Greek myths, and biblical myths. Placing these religious stories side-by-side brings things into a sharp focus. No matter how funny or strange their results may seem to us, mythographers were people attempting to make sense of their world. Seldom do they get the scientific facts right, but that is not what they seek. In modern minds where the fine-tuning between truth and factual statements has been effaced, a conflict is inevitable. Especially since some fields of inquiry make lots of money (so much that professors can have happy feet) while others scrape by with the dregs of university funding. Aren’t we all climbing the same mountain?

One of the more disturbing aspects of teaching mythology is seeing undergraduates continually confusing mythology and history. This is not fine-tuning, the dial has broken off completely. I am astonished to learn that Heracles and Theseus really rescued (and sometimes violated) damsels in distress. Yet, on the first day of class, before the roster has been read aloud I could smell the alcohol in the air. A semester of dispelling myths lay ahead. “Kristensen [the Danish scientist] said it was important that the myth undergo scientific scrutiny to prevent students wasting their time experimenting with this activity,” according to Thomas Maugh. I wonder if it might not be best to keep the “mythology” alive – undergrads might well benefit from pouring the alcohol into their shoes rather than into their mouths.

A book undergrads might actually read

Birth of Religion

Since “religion” is a relatively modern concept, I always begin my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class with an exploration of what “religion” is. We all have a concept of “religion” (I’ve reached my quotation quota, so I’ll assume it is safe to write “religion” without them from now on). The idea, however, is an offshoot of the development of monotheism. Prior to the recognition of a single deity, in a world where no laws of physics existed, just about everything was the result of the conflicting interests of the gods. Why call it anything special beyond the facts of daily life? Keep the gods happy, live long and prosper.

With monotheism arrives the component of belief. If there are hundreds or thousands of gods, belief in the right one simply doesn’t enter the equation. Ancient gods aren’t overly concerned with humans. People were created to serve them, but salvation, fulfillment, apotheosis, and belief weren’t part of the picture. Look at the world around you: this is proof of the gods and their power. Religion in such a world is more a matter of what you do – placating the gods – than it is a matter of what you believe. It is difficult for modern people to project their minds back to a world without the explanatory value of science, a world where all could be explained by the gods. Such was the world of antiquity.

Once monotheism emerges with its views of belief in the correct god, and the corollary of that god’s personal concern for you, religion experiences a sea change. Yes, that god still may require placation, and yes, that god may still intervene regularly in the world, but this is the only god now. One of the surest ways to anger him (for he is male, like human rulers) is to disbelieve. A jealous deity, he detests belief in other gods, although they do not exist. At this juncture, we have found religion. When the world itself operates at the behest on one god, keeping that one god satisfied becomes a specialized part of life and religion is born. The world will never be the same again.

The usual suspects

Wasting our Breath

The internet is alive with the sounds of musings about the appropriateness of various types of scholars doing biblical research. The discussion revolves around a recent article by Ronald Hendel in Biblical Archaeological Review, a useful, if sometimes overeager, magazine. In it Hendel laments the policy of the Society of Biblical Literature, a professional group to which I have belonged for nearly two decades, of accepting overtures from evangelical groups in return for money they are able to bring in. The Society’s web page has a rebuttal and has invited discussion. I prefer to give my views on my blog – a place that I consider neutral territory.

I am not privy to the inner workings of the SBL. I have served as a chair of one of the program units in the annual meeting for several years, but I do not pretend to know the politics behind the scenes. I joined the society, like most young scholars, to find a job. Since that has never happened I have not become more deeply involved since I have no institutional base. It is clear, however, that over the past years conservatively motivated groups have felt an assonance with the Society, given that it is the gateway to academic respectability. The problem is that conservative/evangelical groups approach the Bible with doctrinal shackles firmly locked in place. Fearful of angering their image of God, there are questions they simply can’t ask. Secular or unaffiliated scholars are free to go wherever they believe the evidence leads. In the job market, the evangelicals are better placed to find work. In the wider academic world, however, their work is suspect.

Little did I realize as I laboriously worked away on my dissertation that many evangelical scholars flock to the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, providing, as it does, a way to avoid critical interaction with the Bible. They may thus become “Bible scholars” while leaving the confessional virgin Holy Writ intact. I entered ancient Near Eastern studies to get to the bottom of it all – to explore the origins of the Bible itself. All of us end up interviewing for the same jobs.

At the end of the day what it comes down to is an issue I’ve addressed before: who has the right to interpret the Bible? The answer often distresses scholars. It does not require a Ph.D. to read and interpret the Bible. Most times an advanced degree is a decided liability. A friend has recently pointed out that scholars write for scholars, intent on demonstrating their erudition while losing all public credibility. I’m not sure where the debate will end, but when it’s over not a ripple will be felt among the general public. The Bible will continue its reign in American society unchallenged.

Trojan Gods

Every great once in a while Hollywood produces a major motion picture that demands the attention of scholars. Well, at least those of us who like to stay current about the way our subject is being displayed to the wider public. When Troy was released in 2004, I was still firmly engaged in teaching biblical studies and the Trojan War, although located somewhere at the fringes of the Ancient Near East, was not a particular concern. Now that I’m also teaching a mythology course that covers the Iliad, I figured I’d better watch the movie. For research purposes only, of course. Although I hadn’t seen the film before, I knew of the critics’ complaints that the gods, conspicuous in Homer, had been left out. I was expecting to be disappointed, but I found the movie to be more intelligent and subtle than I supposed it might be. The absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.

The question of where the gods might be in all the slaughter and destruction of war reminded me of a book that had profound influence on me several years ago. Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown, 1995) traces the gradual withdrawal of God from the scene in the course of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

Portrayed as defying the power of the gods in the film, Achilles desecrates the temple of Apollo and seals his fate. Nevertheless, although he is shot by an archer, the death of the hero seems more like an arbitrary act than the design of divine majesty. The Greeks, after all, did win the war. Atheism, however, did not exist in any real terms in the twelfth century before the Common Era. Then again, Achilles probably did not exist in any real terms either. Although Troy will never be among my list of most profound films, its commentary on the quiet skies of ancient Ilium serves as a useful metaphor, even for today.