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.

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Ellis Island

A few years back we made a trip to Ellis Island. This is a common field trip here in New Jersey, although none of my immediate family passed through this portal. The most recent immigrants in my own heritage seem to have arrived by the early 1800s. In any case, Ellis Island is an impressive location. Now a museum, you can wander through the rooms and get an idea of what newcomers faced after a long and trying ocean voyage. What struck me the most was that large numbers of people were turned away for mental problems. I suspect mental illness of one sort or another is unnervingly common among human beings, and our current frenetic pace of life probably only exacerbates the situation. Still, I wonder if we really have a clear grasp on what is “normal.”

As humans become more adept at understanding their own brains, a need for more precise definitions asserts itself. A friend recently sent me an article suggesting “Neurologists Have Identified Brain Lesions That Could Be Linked to Religious Fundamentalism” on Science Alert. The article my Mike McRae ultimately doesn’t suggest that brain damage is the answer to Fundamentalism, but the story reminded me of an unscientific observation by one of my seminary professors decades ago. Harrell Beck once said something along the lines of Fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem. Indeed, those who fall into the literalist camp have a preternatural urge to see things in black and white. Rules that can’t be violated, even if it means your deity’s an angry old God. With literally Hell to pay if you’re wrong, the right course of action is strikingly clear. Only life’s seldom so simple.

We study our brains but we don’t have a baseline for normal. I can’t believe that waking before dawn to catch a bus to work a job that pays less than a successful high school degree in other states is a good bet by anybody’s standard measure of normalcy. Those who read probing biographies find that even our brightest and best have quirks they didn’t wear in public. Surely the physicians on Ellis Island had some guidelines in mind when they were turning away those who didn’t measure up to the standard of what an ideal American mentality should be. Although Ellis Island shut its doors over half a century ago, it’s clear that even if we kept some unstable candidates out, we’ve done a stellar job of growing our own. And that can be taken as truth by faith alone.

Saving Face

Although it has been commented upon in Rate My Professor, my beard is not intended to be impressive. In fact, it’s not really. Since I was quite young I dreamed of being a bearded man. I don’t know why. My father and my step-father were clean-shaven. The pictures of Jesus with which I grew up, however, seemed to suggest that a kindly man must be a bearded one. Nature deemed, however, that my facial hair would be less impressive than that of many boys I knew in high school who were already contending with five o’clock shadow. I never liked shaving. To me, nature dictated that men should be bearded, and who was I to combat nature? Except for a brief stint when I had to make a living in retail, I’ve worn a beard since I’ve been able to do so. I don’t fuss with it, trying to make it something it’s not. It is simply who I am.

339px-Epicteti_Enchiridion_Latinis_versibus_adumbratum_(Oxford_1715)_frontispiece

So when my wife sent me an infographic from the Washington Post about religious beards, my curiosity was piqued. It actually makes me a little self-conscious, I have to admit. I vehemently dislike anyone commenting on my appearance. There’s also something vaguely sexual about facial hair, coming as it does with the onset of puberty (a few years later in my case). Looking at the ways various religious groups condone facial sculpting, I couldn’t help but think that traditionally religions have said, to borrow a phrase from Frozen, “let it go.” Or let it grow. God and nature are one here. Genetics may determine what kind of beard may grow, but it takes religions to say it is God’s plan. For me, standing before a mirror before dawn, scraping my face with a very sharp piece of metal while I’m still yawning hardly seems civilized. Wash and go seems much more natural to me.

In the biblical world, the beard was a symbol of experience. Lifespans in those days were precarious. Guys surviving to my level of whiteness were revered. Today we are considered scruffy and lazy and unwilling to play by the rules society has set. I suppose it’s no accident that I was always a fan of John the Baptist with his unkempt appearance. Like Elijah before him he was a man of the wilderness. As nature made him. I last shaved in 1988. Were I to do so again, I fear what I might find underneath. Harrell Beck, before he died, once said to me, “you’ll never shave it off.” Although once I did, he has proved himself among the prophets. Just don’t say anything about it to me since, like religion, to me it is a very private thing.

Into the Great Beyond

It is a sobering moment when one of your advisors shuffles off the mortal coil. Just a year after my master’s degree, Harrell Beck, my program advisor passed away amid a flurry of unusual happenings. Just a few years back, Simon Parker, his colleague and an Ugaritologist who befriended me, also slipped into the netherworld. I just received the obituary of John C. L. Gibson, my doctoral advisor from Edinburgh, reminding me that my obvious concerns with death and religion in this blog have a very practical application. We all have to face it sometime, and hopefully our legacy will be a good one.

Professor Gibson was best known for his revision of outdated but valuable reference materials. His work as a Semitic linguist was highly regarded, but he didn’t wander too far from convention. As a clergyman in the Scottish Kirk, he had natural constraints. He also had a clever way of turning a phrase. Late in my time at Edinburgh University, I started to keep a list of his aphorisms. If I’d started earlier I might have some more nuggets to lay out here, but I thought it a fitting tribute to a fine gentleman scholar who always took a dram with his breakfast to pass along a few of his choice quotes in this post. You’ll have to do your best to imagine the Scottish burr —

“Don’t lead with your chin” (this was in the context of taking on academic debate).

“Skullduggery is just around the corner in archaeology.”

“Archaeologists and epigraphers shoot each other on sight” (this was in reference to Ebla).

“In Job the daring word is often the right one.”

“If you want to stand against him, do so. But get your armor on first!” (This remark came after I challenged a time-honored thesis by the late James Barr, while he was still early.)

“Every word in Arabic refers to a part of a camel as well as something else.”

“Inscriptions like Ajrud, they’re a nuisance; they shouldn’t be there.” (Kuntillet Ajrud is the site of one of the famous “Yahweh and his Asherah” inscriptions.)

“Who is Asherah and what is she doing here with Yahweh?” (In the same conversation as the previous comment.)

“Turning pages is a major activity of scholarship.”

There were, of course, many more. Professor Gibson will always remain a large part of my Edinburgh experience. Sitting in his pipe-smoke during one of my sessions, I noticed he had no computer. “Ach, aye, they offered me one, but I wouldna used it,” he explained. He didn’t even own a typewriter. In my mind, his passing is like the passing of old school scholarship itself.

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt