Tag Archives: Bible

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

An Apple a Day

Have you ever bitten into a piece of rotten fruit? I suspect most of us have had the unpleasant experience. From the outside the apple looks fine but that first bite sinks into a brown and corrupt interior that turns your stomach. There’s no rehabilitating it—once fruit’s gone bad it’s bad. Jesus is once said to have said “by their fruits you will know them,” them being the righteous. Over the last several days we’ve watched, not exactly surprised, as the news revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath—what used to be a very serious crime—about consorting with the Russians. The difference between that and the apple I described is that this one didn’t look so good from the outside either. Eve, I think, would’ve chosen a different piece.

The strange thing about this is that evangelical Christians of the sort that voted for Trump should know about the fruits passage. Not the Eve one, the other one. Growing up in a Fundamentalist context I frequently heard about knowing others by their fruits. People are capable of deception, even under oath. That’s why we have a name for it. Thing is, we expect better from those who hold the highest offices in the land. And we’d expect honesty on the part of the evangelical crowd. Once you’ve bitten into that apple there’s no turning back. Ideology trumps theology, it seems. Even the Bible. That’s one of the great mysteries of our time—those who loudly proclaim they live their lives by the Bible count on others not having read it. Kind of embarrassing to be caught with your bias showing. Those whose sins you’re willing to overlook in the name of principle.

As the rogue’s gallery that we now recognize as the presidential cabinet was being nominated, many in this nation suffered shock wave after shock wave of incredulity. Steve Bannon later admitted that their role was to dismantle the agencies they’d inherited—so much for the meek inheriting the earth bit—while power-blinded Republican leaders followed like, well, sheep. The evangelical crowd, ignoring that troublesome leather-bound book they love, refuse to criticize. Who hasn’t forgotten meeting with the Russian Ambassador from time to time? I’m old fashioned enough to believe there’s a difference between biting into an apple that to all appearances is fine and one that’s obviously rotten from the start. In one case you end up disappointed. In the other you get what you deserve.

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Beating around the Bush

You know things are bad when another president who couldn’t win the popular vote criticizes you. Don’t get me wrong—criticism is good. In my academic existence (on life-support for over a decade now) I’ve received plenty. The point is you can’t improve if you’re not willing to take a few blows. Defensive academics don’t survive long. The problem seems to be, if I may speculate from my knowledge of biblical studies, the word “criticism.” Growing up, one of the last things I wanted to have was criticism. Already overly self-conscious of my sins, criticism only felt like making an already bad situation even worse. Then I was introduced to biblical criticism.

Biblical criticism sounds like the worst kind, but in reality it’s absolutely necessary. The idea is to study the Good Book rationally. I knew, and still know, many people who believe biblical criticism to be evil. If you trust any history—either secular or divine doesn’t matter—you quickly learn that nothing is simply one-sided. The Bible itself offers examples of this: did God or the Devil tempt David to take a census? Just how many angels were in that tomb on Easter morning and who arrived there first? Only one answer can be right. Criticism is, typical of academics too long out of the sun, a poor word choice. Nobody’s picking on the Bible. All the biblical critic is trying to do is to find out what it really says by asking questions of the text.

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That’s the heart of the matter. Autocrats don’t like questions. The assumption that the inherent authority of a position should be unquestioned undermines any attempt at democracy. As I was often told in church—Christianity isn’t a democracy. Our political system, we’re told, is. That why checks and balances were built into it. Either extreme and the applecart is upset. No matter what believers believe the same applies to biblical studies. Some rampant Harvard toadyism remains, but for the most part we recognize that a scholar with—shall we call them “critical skills”? may emerge from even a school shorn of ivy. We understand that’s how learning works. No one’s above criticism. Only those with something to hide can’t take their lumps like the populace that allow them to claim the name populist. Nobody likes it, but we all have to take criticism from time to time. Even the Good Book.

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

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The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.

Bible Riots

One of the more embarrassing questions I get asked is “What do you do?” This has been true throughout my career (if what I do can be called that). I should clarify—I don’t mind saying “I’m a professor,” or “I’m an editor”—it’s the follow-up question that’s difficult. “What do you teach/edit?” Mentioning the Bible is a conversation-stopper. In the silence that inevitably follows you can almost hear the electronic buzzing in the interlocutor’s brain as s/he tries to come up with something nice to say while backing away. In actual fact my degrees have been more in the history of religions rather than Bible per se, but those who’ve done the hiring haven’t tended to see it that way. This is not a nostalgic post, asking to go back to yesteryear (that’s happening politically without my help), but it is a reflection of what James Wallace Harris says on BookRiot—the Bible is a good book to read.

It’s easy to get swept away in the criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity. Those who profess it, historically, have a lot to answer for. What we’ve allowed religion to do to others is inexcusable. What we sometimes miss is that the motivation is one in which all people participate—learning the truth. This is more difficult than it might seem. If someone had discovered “the truth” we’d all know by now. The fact is we’re deeply divided about what that truth is and that alone proves no one has found it. We’ll recognize it when we see it. We just haven’t seen it yet. What sometimes gets forgotten along the way is that the Bible was, and is, a great milestone of humanity’s search. As I keep having to remind myself, there’s some really good stuff in there.

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Harris isn’t alone in suggesting that atheists should study the Bible. Some very prominent non-believers have declared the same thing from time to time. The Good Book is densely interwoven with western culture—even secular western culture. I’m currently at work on a book that explores one thread of that complex fabric, and it’s amazing to me how much we miss when we ignore holy writ. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. That’s not biblical, but it does hint at the truth, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I want to be able to answer that most basic of questions without having to make excuses for what otherwise looks like a series of poor life choices.