Lingua Franca

The history of Israel and its neighbors has been appropriated deeply in the mindset of western cultures.  Both the British and Americans, for example, have thought themselves the “new Israel,” for once a people is chosen so all people wish to be.  I’ve been thinking about this in linguistic terms of late.  To get to the main point, we need to read a little history—it’ll be painless, I assure you.  Israel was a nation frequently conquered.  The imperial powers to the east, beginning with Assyria and continuing through Babylonia and Persia, overran the land.  This hostile takeover involved not only Israel, but its neighboring nations as well.  These early, violent attempts at globalization worked themselves out linguistically, in part, by the necessity to communicate in a common language.

In the broad sweep of world history, the conquering nation tends to impose its language on the conquered.  Think of Alexander of Macedon and the adoption of Greek as the “lingua franca”—the official language of empire.  Ironically—and this is what captures my attention—when Assyria overran Israel, it also conquered “Aram.”  (Aram was the area north of Israel, roughly what we think of as Syria today.  Their language was Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew.)  Instead of the Assyrian language being imposed on the defeated peoples, the invaders adopted Aramaic as the official imperial language.  Some of this may have to do with the fact that Aramaic, being alphabetic, was much easier to learn to write than syllabic Assyrian (known generically as Akkadian, along with Babylonian and its dialects).  It may have been the last time a conquering nation admitted at least some of the culture of the defeated was superior.  (Ironically, the Romans felt that way about the Greeks.  Those who have ears…)

Aramaic continued in favor even as the conquered adopted Alexander’s Indo-European Greek centuries later.  Lingering into Roman times many of the people of what was left of Israel were bilingual, knowing Greek and Aramaic.  The latter was the language of Jesus.  Aramaic later survived in the form of Syriac, but the area was overrun by Arab invaders and Arabic became the lingua franca.  Still, nestled in the middle of this linguistic history is that episode of the ascension of Aramaic to imperial levels.  That’s the thing about globalization—it’s an exercise in compromise.  Many distrust and hate it, and even today some sub-cultures fear they’re being wiped out by granting too much to those who “don’t belong.”  In some ways it’s an understandable fear.  Learning new languages is hard, especially for adults.  There is perhaps a lesson in the survival of Aramaic, though, that might still come in handy when cultures collide.


In a recent post on BBC Health, James Gallagher discusses ancient Assyria. What can ancient Assyria have to say about modern health, beyond the occasional liver model used in haruspicy? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course. As Gallagher notes in his article, PTSD was diagnosed after the Vietnam War. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t in existence long before then. In fact, it stands to reason that if people experience it now, they likely experienced it during traumatic events then. War is among the most horrific and tragic activities in which humanity engages. Men, in the days of Assyria, sent to kill other men in the hundreds, and thousands, could not have walked away from the battlefield unchanged. There are those who seem not to suffer, but the majority of us know that, no matter how just the cause, it is simply wrong to kill others. On a massive scale it can only be worse.



Multiple stresses, I would contend, go undiagnosed. I have known those who’ve experienced significant loss—a job, for example, in an economy that makes future prospects dim—who begin showing the same kinds of symptoms. They are, of course, not diagnosed with PTSD, but are simply told to either buck up or go see a shrink. “Pull up your socks,” as they say in the UK. I wonder, though, if it is that simple. People throughout history have been capable of inflicting great stress on one another. Sometimes it becomes so normal that we don’t even recognize it. The forcing of loss and resultant terror of future deprivation is a daily affair. The civilization we’ve been is so complex almost to demand this kind of horror. We may not be sent to the battlefield to kill others, but we are daily faced with situations that cause us great pain, often for prolonged periods. And we wonder why people aren’t satisfied.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the level of stress faced by those who survive war is severe. I don’t make light of it. Being a pacifist, I do believe there is a solution to war that involves education instead of fighting, but I don’t in any way suggest that those who suffer aren’t suffering in reality. They are. Sometimes they can no longer function in society. We institutionalize, cut funds, then send them out on the streets. This is nothing new. As Gallagher points out, soldiers in antiquity weren’t professionals. All healthy men, apart from the one-percenters of the day, served in armies on a rotating basis. One thing, however, has not changed over the millennia. War today remains as unnecessary as it was then. If we could turn our attention to improving the lot of the 99 lost sheep, the one already found might, to its surprise, be much better off if all were accorded ample care.

Sign of Jonas

A century ago today, the world erupted in war. Those who engaged in World War One are pretty much all gone now, but the war to end all wars has left its scars across the globe. We showed ourselves we could do it. We could drag, through our accumulated frustrations, just about every nation into open conflict. The costs were astronomical, but we didn’t learn a thing. Just a couple decades later we were back at it. Nations taking provocative stabs at other people. Keep on poking and people, being what they are, will eventually hit back. So on this anniversary of the start of the First World War (awaiting a sequel, perhaps from the start), I’m reading about the extremists in Iraq destroying Jonah’s tomb. Poke. Poke. Well, it is more a loss to fellow Muslims than it is to those who take the Bible seriously. Jonah is a nice story of a prophet (rather blithely retold in the Washington Post) who probably never existed. If there was a Jonah he wasn’t fish food, that we know for sure. The tomb of Jonah is like that of an unknown prophet. The symbol’s the thing.

In the story in the Washington Post, Justin Moyer laments that “anything in the Bible” might be destroyed in these circumstances. I wonder how you can destroy something that never happened. Doing so, in any case, is liable to start a war. It really doesn’t take that much. The last century has taught us little. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not in favor of destroying ancient landmarks or parts of a region’s history. But if we misattribute its importance to something sacred, or biblical, it will be far too simple to start a row. You see, Jonah converted Nineveh, according to the Bible. The Assyrians became good Yahwists, despite the historical record. Those who destroyed his tomb likely had conversion on their minds as well.

As these thoughts were taking form in my head, I happened upon the page of GETS Theological Seminary, which, as far as I can tell, is in China. On the banner across its homepage was a picture of its mission field. Is that the United States? Of course, if you read the description you’ll see that the world, in toto, is the mission field they intend. Still, it is a little bit of a shock to see yourself counted among the heathen. I’m sure, had Jonah really existed, that the Assyrians would have been just as shocked. They were as moral as any other militaristic society. And today my thoughts are on militaristic societies. The First World War definitively changed everything from that fatal moment it began, a century ago today. It was the first, but not the last, loss of humanity’s innocence. We would invent newer and crueler ways to kill each other in greater numbers. Blood would become the true currency of the last hundred years. Maybe we should keep a weather-eye out for a fish-swallowed prophet after all. The world could perhaps stand a bit of conversion.


Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.