Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

The Ezra Puzzle

America loves the Bible. Thing is, most Americans have no idea how complex the Bible actually is. Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Christian Orthodox Bibles all have different contents. I was reminded of this the other day while trying to look up 4 Esdras. If you’re scratching your head saying, “4 Esdras? Is that even in the Bible?” it only makes my point. The books we call “the Apocrypha” are also known as “the Deuterocanon” by Catholics. The reasons are complicated, but the Apocrypha consists of books that were never in the Jewish Bible. Jerome, the 4th-5th-century biblical scholar translated the Bible into Latin (it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, mostly). When he came to the Apocrypha, he translated those books too, but with a special heading saying they weren’t in the Jewish Bible. During the Middle Ages the headings were often left out and the Apocrypha was included with the “Old Testament.” During the Reformation, Protestants rejected all kinds of excess, including excess scripture. The Apocrypha was out. The Counter-Reformation, living up to the title, led to the definitive inclusion of the Apocrypha in Catholic Bibles. Meanwhile, different Orthodox groups kept some, rejected others, and added still others. When Americans say “the Bible,” they generally mean the Protestant Bible.

There are some implications to be thought through here, given that we’re talking about holy writ. Not all Christians agree on the same Bible. What’s more, the disagreements about what to include started pretty early. Does it count if you swear on an incomplete Bible? Would a New Testament do in a pinch? What if you’re Jewish? Having a national holy book is somewhat problematic when we can’t all agree on the contents. Many people would have some trouble opening right to some of the less popular books, say Ezra. Unless you’ve got a New Testament only, you’ll have Ezra. Go ahead, take a look. (It’s somewhere in the middle.)

Everybody’s complete Bible has the book of Ezra. So far, so good. 1 Esdras (“Esdras” is Latinized “Ezra”) is not in the Deutorcanon of the Catholic Church. It is, however, included in an appendix. It is part of the Orthodox canon, and it also goes by the names of 2 Esdras and 3 Esdras. Just to make it interesting, the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible associated with Jerome, calls Ezra and Nehemiah 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras. Need a score card yet? It gets more confusing later! So 1 Esdras is either Ezra, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, or 1 Esdras, depending on whose Bible you’re borrowing. But where’s 4 Esdras? Well, there is a 2 Esdras (not the same as 1 Esdras or Nehemiah) in Slavonic, but not Greek, Orthodox Bibles. 2 Esdras is known as 3 Esdras and 4 Esdras, the latter when it is in the Vulgate appendix. The fun’s not over yet! 2 Esdras is broken into 3 parts and they are called 5 Ezra, 4 Ezra, and 6 Ezra. There is, however, no 1, 2, or 3 Ezra (unless the Latin name is Anglicized). If you’ve got a headache, take two Esdras and call me in the morning.

ABCD

Among the sensitive crowd known as biblical scholars, the chronological designations Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) have long been in use. Perhaps it is because, at some point in the recent past, Christian scholars realized that the Hebrew Bible, until then called the Old Testament, was also the Bible of Judaism. All of history, in the European version, is divided by the figure of Jesus, or more properly, Christ. BC stood for Before Christ, after all, and AD not for After Death (which would leave an embarrassing gap of about three decades), but Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord.” The conventions of BC/AD had become so entrenched that few bothered to linger over the implications, but implications there are. A case might be made, purely on historical grounds, for maintaining BC. There was a time before Jesus—even the Bible agrees on that point. And, again, from an historical view, the worldview of Christianity forever changed the direction of events for at least two millennia thereafter. It still does, if we pay any attention to the posturing of the Religious Right. We have to start counting somewhere, don’t we, to know where we are in time?

Anno Domini is a tad more colonializing. Short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, “in the year of our lord Jesus Christ,” those two letters make an assumption that the shared lord of the readers is indeed Jesus. For centuries in Europe and the New World, apart from those Muslims that from time-to-time made their presence felt, and the Jews who were conveniently suppressed, this worked for just about everybody. If you disagreed, after all, you were welcome to return to your backwater homeland and count your time by burning hour candles between your toes, if you wished. For the forward march of history, it was onward, Christian soldiers. AD held a proselytizing imperative. But then Christians began to notice two more ancient religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, both with pedigrees that predate AD. Not that this was a problem from a missiological point of view—we can just convert them, after all—but scholars began to consider the implications.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Time is inexorable. At least in our experience of it. No one stopped to begin counting when Adam and Eve were wandering about Eden, and the simple reference to the lifetime of a monarch seemed sufficient for most pre-capitalist business. What fueled the change to attempt an absolute time was the conviction that it was all about to end soon. Jesus seems to have predicted an imminent apocalypse; “some who are standing here will not taste death,” Luke tells us Jesus said. If that is the case, AD is the final countdown. With a delayed onset. Instead of Anno Domini, it might stand for Announcing Doomsday. And since that clock is still ticking, it might be time to acknowledge that we do indeed live in a Common Era.