Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Soggy Symbols

House-buying is perhaps best left for the young.  Flexibility is, unfortunately, something that effaces with age, and house-buying is a rough transition at best.  For anyone following this blog over the past month, the theme of moving is familiar.  How we hired a moving company that didn’t get us in our new place until after 2:30 in the morning.  How torrential rains came later and flooded our worldly goods temporarily stored in the garage.  How mowing the lawn caused me to question my faith—wait—I haven’t told that one yet!  Well, you get the picture.  Suffice it to say that although I didn’t think moving would be easy, it’s been a lot more difficult than I could’ve possibly imagined.  In the midst of it came a dove.

At times, I must confess, I’m tempted toward superstition.  A strange significance between events that are, in actual fact, random.  We’ve all read of people who buy a house and discover some secret treasure left stashed away in the attic.  The former owners of our house only left undisclosed defects that become clear in periods of prolonged rain.  Even so, as I was feeling as miserable as one of Ray Bradbury’s astronauts on Venus—yes, the precipitation does begin to drive you insane after a while!—I decided to try an impose some order on the chaos that is our garage (we haven’t had a dry weekend since moving in to transfer the soggy stuff to our house) I looked down.  There, amid the screws and other little detritus left behind in the way of treasure, I found a dove charm.  A dove sent after a flood.

The symbolism of the dove with hope is ancient indeed.  It predates the Bible when it comes to a symbol that the flood is nearly over.  The Mesopotamians also had a dove sent out from the ark, and I’m given to believe this is something ancient mariners, whether they rhymed or not, regularly did to assess if land was near.  Unlike our heavy, wingless species, birds can soar over chaos.  At least for a while.  They are a symbol of hope.  Was that dove sent to me on purpose at a time when I needed it, or was it just a random find, one of those too much stuff in a small world moments?  There’s no way to assess that, I suppose.  For me, on yet another rainy day, it’s a symbol of hope.  The only other choice, it seems, would be to build an ark.

Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Rorrim

It was an object of wonder. Handed to me as a child, the Bible inspired a kind of awe reserved for the big events of a young life. Here were the very words of God, in King James English, for me to read, mark, and inwardly digest. Well, at least read. And read I did, as only the fear of Hell is able to motivate an impressionable psyche. When a parish minister saw the trajectory of my life, he suggested exploring the ministry. More Bible reading ensued. With only Halley’s Bible Handbook as a guide, interpretation was largely a matter of what the minister said, and the kind of primitive reason that resides in a teenager’s head. I made it through college as a religion major without ever hearing about Mesopotamia’s influence on the Bible. Once I did hear, in seminary, it was clear to me that to get to the truth, you had to go back beyond the first page. Mesopotamia was only part of the story. The Bible was a book compiled in a region where other religions shared concepts, deities, and stories with the Israelites. While unique in some respects, it turns out the Bible wasn’t as unique as I’d been led to believe.

Mesopotamia, vying with Egypt, was the true cradle of the civilization that gave rise to who we are in the western world. Perhaps in the eastern hemisphere as well. The great cities of Sumer, and later Babylonia and Assyria, yielded cuneiform tablets and other artifacts that insisted we widen our view of antiquity. The heirs of this tradition developed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three monotheistic religions have bred sects that despise this ancient past with its uncomfortable truths, and thus we hear of IS destroying the evidence with abandon. The years of my life spent studying these cultures disappears so quickly under the bulldozer’s blade. For all this, it is IS that is the passing fancy. You can’t destroy the truth. You can damage it, however, to the detriment of everyone.

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Political regimes, and not just in the Middle East, operate with an unbecoming arrogance when they believe in their own self-righteousness. Were it not for those who wondered what these wedges on clay meant, we might still have to reckon (more seriously than we already have to do) with those who insist that it’s the Bible way or the highway. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters such as this wanton destruction of the past to wake the media from its lethargy concerning the cultures that gave our religions birth. There’s so much more to distract. The world can’t make up its mind about the color of a dress, and meanwhile those backed with a justification of true belief destroy that which can never be replaced. Given the rhetoric of political leaders even here, I suspect that our past is no longer safe, no matter where we house the artifacts bearing witness to the truth.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.

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Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

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The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Floaters and Swimmers

Noah seems to have found a renewed audience these days. Nothing like a major motion picture to make even one of the most famous biblical characters even more notable. And the spin-off stories are now considered news as well. One of the many impossible stories of the Bible, the ark, as scholars have long known, would not have been a physical possibility. Quite apart from the building in days before metal smelting was invented, there was the problem of volume. Since evolution is ruled out de rigueur, each separate species had to have been represented, since no changes are allowed from that time to this. The sheer number of them, especially since new ones are being discovered even now, was deemed impossible to fit on an ark of even biblical dimensions. Add in the food necessary for 150 days, especially considering the carnivores, and the human-power required to care for all those beasts (only eight are permitted by Genesis, and Noah was 600 years old at the time) and you get the picture. Then Mesopotamian flood stories even older were discovered. It was quickly recognized that this was a myth with a larger message to tell.

Now, according to geobeats, and to the relief, I’m sure, of Russell Crowe, physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that the ark could have floated. The story, in a one-minute sound bite, is a little shy on details. The students used the biblical cubit, and figured there were 35,000 distinct species at the time. I’m not sure where that number originates, but it doesn’t take into account how Noah got the koala’s to swim from Australia. According to present evidence, the earth is home to about eight-million-seven-hundred-thousand different species. And since they can’t evolve, that’s an awful lot of swimmers.

According to the university website, this was not intended as an exercise in biblical literalism. “The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing. The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” according to Dr. Mervyn Roy, the instructor. The students, working the math angle, didn’t expect the results to work. That they did surprised everyone. Except Noah, one presumes. The story makes clear that the number of animals was used to calculate mass, not dimensions, so squeezing all the beasts in might have been quite another chore altogether. Miraculous, one might say. As for me, I am waiting to see that pair of koalas swim from Darwin to the Persian Gulf, and then back again once the waters finally recede.

Don't forget to see the movie!

Don’t forget to see the movie!

Backyard Archaeology

Among safe topics for discussion among strangers and casual acquaintances, the weather tops the list. It affects each and every one of us continually, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The ideal neutral subject. In fact, however, the weather is highly freighted with religious thinking, deeply sublimated. If you listen closely, you will hear it. Well, this year, at least in the northeast of the United States, winter has been the topic. We still have snow on the ground in New Jersey, and it has been here continually since January. The thaw has begun, however, and when I went to fetch the paper I noticed a newly melted item on the lawn—an archaic newspaper. Obviously the paper-deliverer missed the front steps that day, and by the time I stepped outside it had already been buried. Curious, I brought it inside to get a first-hand look at the past. It was the Monday, February 3 paper. The day after the Super Bowl. Apparently nothing much else was happening in the world a month ago. I don’t even know who played in the game.

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Religion and sports have a long pedigree. One of the first books I signed up at Routledge was on religion and sports in American culture. Routledge decided to sack me before the book was published, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the meaning once provided by the strong arm of the Lord is now covered by the stronger arm of the athlete. I’ve watched in fascination as reporters question the players after the game, panning for bits of wisdom as if they might actually get us up off the couch and lead us to a few minutes of physical glory. Instead cliches trickle out: “we saw what needed to be done and did it.” “I took it to the next level.” “First of all, I want to thank Jesus.” Each one like a nugget of pure gold. I still don’t even know who was playing.

On my kitchen table, however, sits a soggy newspaper with the answers to that. The news is old news. And damp. We’ve had an entire Olympics since then, and war seems to be breaking out in the Crimea. Wait a minute, what century is this again? It seems that no matter how old the news is, it still isn’t old enough. One of the oldest news flashes received by humankind, if the Mesopotamians are to be believed, is that there is a huge flood coming. I turn on my browser and lo, a flood indeed! Noah will be released later this month. Posters began to appear in Manhattan as soon as the Super Bowl cleared out. Move on to the next big thing. And, unbeknownst to me, a newspaper laid buried beneath the snow, containing all the information I needed to know. I’m still wondering how that flood turned out.

Sail Away With Me

Fascination with Noah’s ark is never-ending. It represents the salvation of life in the face of deadly catastrophe, the concern of the divine for humanity, and cuddly animals we put in our children’s cribs. I suppose, however, I properly shouldn’t call it “Noah’s” ark, because the story predates Noah by some time. The Mesopotamian cultures seem to have been the original flood mythographers; more specifically, the Sumerians first gave shape to the tale. Perhaps in anticipation of his new book, Irving L. Finkel, curator of Mesopotamian artifacts at the British Museum, is quoted as saying the ark was disk-shaped. In a story that is sure to catch the attention of Ufologists, the argument is made that a newly translated text reveals the ark to have been a floating saucer. Why does Styx come to mind?

This past weekend I discovered Ancient Origins, a website purporting to give information about the ancient world. The story of the round ark appeared there recently. The author of the piece, April Holloway, suggests something that has been on some people’s minds all along—maybe the ark was real after all, but we’ve been looking for the wrong thing. Holloway doesn’t outright say that, but the article hints that this may be more than a myth. Usually the dividing line between myth and history is drawn at the biblical borders. According to those bound with faith commitments, pagan myths continue right up until Moses. Once they enter the covers of the Holy Bible they become history. We have known for decades now that the story of the ark was borrowed from other ancient cultures. We also know that the world, physically, in any case, could never be entirely flooded and come out of it looking like our world. Ours is a somewhat drier history, watered by wonderful myths.

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Some Christian groups use the flood story as a paradigm for the rapture—the belief that Christians will be rescued, animal-like, before the worst unnatural disaster ever hits the planet. (Although “planet” may be a misnomer—no biblical writer knew that we orbited the sun on a roughly spherical rock with a molten center.) Earlier Christians saw the ark story as a metaphor for the more spiritual salvation of the faithful in a godless world. There is a strange kind of security in this story, like knowing that you don’t have to go to work for an entire week. And so we can’t let it go, even when we know it’s a myth. “I thought that they were angels, but to my surprise, we climbed aboard their starship, we headed for the skies.” We’ve done a good job polluting our planet and we want to be pulled out of this mess, like the world Wall-e’s people know, to a realm of comfort in the skies. But it is a myth after all, even if I do find myself squeezing my teddy bear and hoping against hope for a happy ending.

Paradise Re-Lost

It is through the astute eye of my colleague Deane Galbraith that I came to know of my most recent reading project, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford. BWL (since the author’s name is a mouthful and since it took me four hours to get home tonight (at a distance of less than 30 miles) I’ll abbreviate her title. Being a fellow New Jerseyan, I’m sure BWL will understand) surveys various attempts that have been made over the past century-and-change to try to locate the Garden of Eden. Spurred on by the discovery that her own educated, rational great-uncle had also wondered about the mythical location of our mythical ancestors, she sketches various attempts to find Eden. Tracing a course that often crosses paths with my own academic background, BWL notes the pervasive—one might say undying—belief that once upon a time in a land far away there was a garden paradise.

Quite apart from the obviously folkloristic, and Mesopotamian, origin of the creation story, BWL demonstrates that the unifying factor behind the search for Eden is the four rivers mentioned in Genesis. The Tigris and Euphrates should be no-brainers, and no-brainer is a word that frequently comes to mind when otherwise intelligent people sincerely suggest Eden lies beneath the North Pole, or in Ohio, or Florida. Clearly this story left only psychological traces on the impressionable. Far more mysterious are the Pishon and the Gihon. The fact that these rivers have never been found (never existed) has fueled the economy of adventurers and bibliophiles for well over a century. The fact that people buy BWL’s book underscores the point. The end result is that any confluence of four rivers could potentially be Eden. What is lost is the biblical worldview.

The four rivers of Genesis 2 flow to the four points of the compass to water the entire earth since all ancient people seemed to have believed they lived in the middle of everything. The Genesis writer takes for granted that we’ve heard of them, and who, among the sophisticated, wants to admit otherwise? Since the story never happened, no physical evidence should be expected. And that’s what all of BWL’s explorers find. Nothing. Of course, if you want to run for President you’d better claim to believe in Eden, for plenty of Americans, despite our educational system, do. Many an ape is wiser. So if you want to find Eden, locate the center of the world. Given the traffic tonight, it surely must be New York City. If you’re going to look for it, you’ll want to take a book to read while the rivers of cars stop flowing. I’d suggest Brook Wilensky-Lanford’s Paradise Lust.

Tepe Temple

When a colleague sent me an NPR story on Göbekli Tepe, I was thrown back into the conundrum far older than archaeology itself—how can a site be identified as religious? Most of us hardly realize that when we enter a church or cathedral that the overall plan is based on that of the earliest temples we know. Conventional wisdom associates temples first with the Sumerians, the harbingers of civilization itself. The basic premise was that a niche existed for a cult image (statue of a deity, generally) with an altar before it. Although the concept was widely disseminated, many reformed and rereformed Christian groups tried to distance themselves from it, calling altars “tables” and making them mobile. Probably the most successful are the Pentecostals; last time I attended a service the “sanctuary” felt like a warehouse. Actually, it was a warehouse. In general, however, there has been little need to reinvent the religious wheel, so the standard plan still often applies. Enter Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is located in southeast Turkey, near what was actually Mesopotamia in ancient times. The hill-top site is a Neolithic structure, and that means it was built before agriculture became widespread, during our hunter-gatherer stage. It is the earliest known human religious structure. The article on NPR questions precisely this: is it religious? How do we identify structures in pre-writing cultures as religious? Some archaeologists are guilty of labeling any structure or artifact with no practical function as “religious,” but this is a little cynical. Part of the problem is that religion itself remains ill-defined, being a post-Christian category to describe behavior singled out for God’s benefit. As a child I wondered, if God exists how could anyone not devote all their time to God?—the very speculation that led to my profession. Ancient people, like all animals, felt the urge to eat, rest, seek shelter, reproduce—animal things. It was a full-time job. When agriculture simplified things a bit by giving some measure of control over food supply, other professions began to emerge. Priesthood, as a means of ensuring continuity among the entire system, was one of the coveted jobs. Göbekli Tepe predates the Sumerians by thousands of years. The large structure with reliefs carved into the rock seems temple-like to some, less so to others.

The NPR article points out, correctly, that the distinction between sacred and profane may be premature as applied to Göbekli Tepe. We can test the cases even today: certain human functions are considered profane, chief among them sexual acts. It is clear from the sexuality of ancient religious artifacts that the profanity of sex is not an ancient idea. Ritualized eating is very common and still takes place in highly stylized form among many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups. Work itself was considered to be a divine assignment in ancient times. Our ultimate bosses were the gods. Little room remained for “secular” pursuits. By compartmentalizing life into “religious” and “not religious” we have found a way to pursue our own selfish ends and still wind up in the pews on the weekend, congratulating ourselves for obeying the dictates of divine law. Where is true religion to be found here? Is it not more likely to reside among ancient people, like those of Göbekli Tepe who lived their entire lives in the service of the gods?

Demonic Beginnings

A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.

The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.

Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.

Triskaidekaphobia

Friday the thirteenth. The very concept awakens images of horror movies and inauspicious happenings. An interview with a Psychology professor at Rutgers recently discussed this unusual phobia. Mike Petronko of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology had this to say: “Exactly how this got started is difficult to say, but the belief appears to date back to ancient times. Often, superstitions are rooted in religion. Some folklorists believe the fear may stem from the Last Supper, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus and his 12 disciples gathered for the final meal, which set the stage for his crucifixion, on Good Friday.” There is no doubt that the origin of the superstition is religious and that Fridays earned their notorious reputation because of Good Friday. Even today, as any Roman Catholic can tell you, Friday dietary requirements differ from those of other days.

But wasn't this a Thursday?

Thirteen is a little harder to pin down. It is a prime number after ten, but then, so are eleven and seventeen. It may have its unlucky associations back in the old Mesopotamian base-six numerical system. Once you reach past the first doubling of six you meet thirteen. Even today hotels are designed with no thirteenth floor, although pasting a fourteen over the actual thirteen is merely for psychological relief. Mathematics insists thirteen follows twelve. As Petronko notes, the fear is real. Airliners do not have row 13 and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are lost because so many people refuse to engage in regular practices (such as flying) on Friday the thirteenth.

Religion and fear are not strange bedfellows. In fact, religion, in its earliest origins, seems to have been a coping mechanism for fear. People are afraid of many things – that is the curse of consciousness. We can anticipate eventualities that will never materialize. We imagine them happening to us. Religion seeks to placate those forces that are beyond our control. We may lay claim to a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated society, but millions of people are anxiously awaiting the end of this day. Rutgers, like most universities, hardly sees the need to fund the study of religions. Nevertheless, our very culture belies that indifference. Many people are afraid today and we still don’t even know why.

Jehovah’s Eden

As a religious studies specialist, I inhabit a world where definitive answers are comparatively rare. It is clear that my assigned Jehovah’s Witnesses case-workers are not similarly constrained. While I was out earlier this week, they left a copy of the newest edition of the Watchtower for my edification. The cover shows an Edenic garden and bears the legend, “The Garden of Eden: Myth or Fact?” Now, I thought I knew the answer to that one. So I started to read. I learned that it was because of philosophers and their nonsense that people ceased to believe in Eden. Most people in world believe there was a paradisiacal garden, way back when, so it must be fact. I also learned that the reason we can’t find Eden today is that the Flood wiped it away. Seems a shame; with proper drainage it could be as dry as Aden and as rich as Dilmun.

The story in the magazine is set up as a series of objections raised as to why the Garden of Eden is rejected by skeptics. Literalist biblical answers to the objections are then offered. Ironically, one of the most obviously missing objections is that of geology. The article states that, prior to being destroyed by the flood, Eden would likely have suffered from the devastation of earthquakes. The area, it seems, is in the earthquake belt. Still, the garden was created “some 6,000 years ago,” despite what all those earthquake-toting geologists tell us. Somebody has forgotten to set their calendar back by a few billion years.

A more serious objection missing from the critique is that of mythology itself. Those who’ve studied the background to the story of Eden realize that most of the elements in the story are recycled myths known among the Mesopotamians. Special trees, crafty snakes, people being created from clay – all these are standard elements in Mesopotamian mythology that predates the Genesis creation accounts. If modern people understood that the point of mythology is to convey truths that are beyond the factual, perhaps we wouldn’t have such insistence that Eden is fact, despite the facts of science. The Garden of Eden: Myth or Fact? Clearly myth. And that rescues the story from the burden of bearing facts it was never intended to convey.