paleo Ideofact

Saturday, December 07, 2002
Zack Ajmal of Procrastination has requested some suggestions on early histories of the Abrahamic faiths:
I am interested in finding out more about the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not from the point of view of their followers, but from good scholarly sources which discuss independent sources for the history of the early periods of these religions as well as the history of the Bible and the Quran (based on analysis of their text as well as the history og their compilation etc.) I would like to know what events in the Bible we can confirm independently, for example. I understand that we cannot independently say anything one way or the other about quite a few of the events in the Bible as well as early Muslim history.
I'm responding publicly because he also wrote, "If anyone (Bill Allison, are you reading?) has any reading recommendations, please let me know."

My first reaction is "Yikes!" I'm certainly not any kind of religious specialist, and what little I know I've picked up on my own. The discipline I chose as an undergraduate -- archaeology -- generally regarded religion as an epiphenomenal feature of culture; that is, you didn't have to bother yourself with it, because there's some lovely filth over here with a few potsherds and some broken bones.

I'm being flip -- the real reason archaeology steered clear of religion was out of necessity; if you're dealing with the Bell Beaker people for example, who left behind no written language, not even a name by which to call them, it's a little difficult to include religious belief in any description of their culture. Although I do recall a book, Religion and Empire: The dyanamics of Aztec and Inca expansionism by Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest, that was something of the rage when I took my last seminar in archaeology (a graduate level class, if memory serves). Conrad and Demarest consciously broke with standard archaelogical practice by arguing that the religious ideologies of the Aztecs and Incas were not epiphenomenal, but rather the prime movers of the rise and fall of both empires. I wrote a paper which criticized the book, largely because most of what we know of their religions comes from Conquistadores and Catholic missionaries -- not exactly the most careful observers or accurate students of culture. Although I've noticed that discussions of ideology have crept into even the driest of academic texts, even in the context of people whose ideas left no trace (those selfsame Bell Beakers).

Even when I studied the archaeology of Medieval Europe, when texts certainly were available, we limited ourselves to material culture. I'm having flashbacks of one of those Friday nine a.m. to noon classes, devoted entirely to looking at aerial shots of the outlines of medieval fields, viewed while nursing a hangover and struggling to keep my eyes open. But I digress...

I've read a few books dealing the early history of the Christian religion, but I think the real problem is that of bias. For example, I am a great fan of George Bernard Shaw's plays. (And much else about Shaw. One of my favorite Shaw lines are these damning words of praise he once offered about Wagner: "His music isn't as bad as it sounds.") Shaw wrote a wonderful essay as the introduction to his short play (shorter than the essay) Androcles and the Lion. In it, he incorporates much of the textual criticism of the New Testament that was current around circa 1910. He dates the various Gospels, he considers the relation of the Pauline epistles to the Gospels, he compares and critiques. But his main thrust is to argue, more or less, that Christ supports many of his own views: on the moral superiority of socialism, on marriage and the family, on much else. The bias is in many ways inseparable from the analysis. And I think this is fairly frequently the case.

Consider, for example, the various reader reviews of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, which published the results of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who sat down with the Four Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas, one of the works excluded from the Canon that survived only as part of the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of Gnostic works. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar strove to find the authentic sayings of Jesus; the most extreme critics argued that they excluded sayings based solely on their own theological preferences. That's a little simplistic, but not too far off the mark. Here are a few of the readers comments: is here that they reveal their working assumptions, and I cannot overstate how misconceived these assumptions are. It is not that they are entirely unfounded, but rather they are half-truths turned into hard-and-fast rules which when applied can only mislead. For example, members of the Seminar observe that Jesus' sayings often cut across the religious and political grain. Therefore, one of the rules becomes (unjustifiably): Jesus only ever said things that cut across the religious and social grain. The result: Jesus is gagged. He is simply not allowed to say anything in agreement with the religion or politics of his day. Therefore, he never quoted Scripture. If it isn't radical, new or totally out-of-step with the culture, Jesus didn't say it.


If you enter the reading in a searching mode, ready and open to all ideas on who Jesus was and what he really did say, you will find this book very engaging. I was not at all threatened by the content, but a Catholic Fundamentalist friend was outraged by it.


I wouldn't waste my time reading the book by Funk. However, if anyone is interested in what Jesus really said, then I would highly recommend reading "What did Jesus Really Say?" by Misha'al ibn Abdullah.


The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is a non-Jewish Jesus. To put it metaphorically, the Seminar has performed a forcible epispasm on the historical Jesus, a surgical procedure removing the marks of his circumcision. In robbing Jesus of his Jewishness, the Jesus Seminar has finally robbed him of his religion.
Some of the critics reveal as much of their own biases as they do of the Jesus Seminar's; I haven't read the book (I have it somewhere), but if I ever get around to it and have something interesting to say on it I'll write something here, or on the Amazon page (although I don't think I bought it from Amazon, so perhaps I should refrain).

Somewhat surprisingly to me, I have become something of a collector of translations of the Bible and, to a lesser extent, of the Qur'an as well. Among my favorite editions of the Bible is the one Thomas Jefferson edited, known as the Jefferson Bible. I'm not entirely sure that I'm accurate in saying this is how he worked, but I seem to recall that he went at his Bible with a pair of scissors, and removed all the passages from the New Testament that offended his reason. What remained, he believed, was the moral philosophy of the Christian religion. Among the books in the Library of Congress (which was created when Jefferson willed his books to the United States government) is an English translation of the Qur'an. Jefferson left copious notes, in his own hand, in the margins of the volume. I'm very curious about what he wrote.

In any case, I've rambled on too long here. I'll continue with more thoughts tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Heresy 4
In my spare moments (which have been few and far between of late -- sorry for the lack of posts the last few days), I've been rereading some works by Gershom Scholem, the student, researcher and theorist par excellence of Jewish mysticism. One of the paradoxes about mysticism (which, for the limited purposes of this post, can be defined as a believer having a direct experience of God, as opposed to the formal religious observances -- i.e., going to church on Sundays) that Scholem identifies is the conservative nature of mysticism: while it would seem that mystical experience would bypass religious authorities, mystics attempt to express their experiences within the language and orthodoxies of their own religious tradition. Scholem notes, for example, that Christian mystics never experience, say, the presence of one of the Hindu divinities, nor do Muslims enjoy the presence of the living Christ. More to the point, mystics generally try to reinvigorate the orthodoxies with the benefit of their experiences; Scholem argues that it is only when the religious community rejects the believer, or when the believer has such a poor grasp of his religion through poor education that his attempts to express himself in an orthodox manner lead to the uttering of heresies, does the mystic enter into a competition with established religious authority.

But all that prologue really has little to do with what comes next (hey, I've hardly had much time to do much of anything lately, let alone compose something coherent here). In Scholem's work On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, in an essay called "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism," he quotes a passage from the second century by Rabbi Meir, who says
...when I went to Rabbi Ishmael, he asked me: My son, what is your occupation? I answered: I am a scribe [of the Torah]. And he said to me: My son, be careful in your work, for it is the work of God; if you omit a single letter, or write a letter too many, you will destroy the whole world...
Scholem goes on to note:
From here it was only a short step to the still more radical view that the Torah is not only made up of the names of God but is as a whole the one great Name of God.
That the Torah is something other than the Law, that the entire text is the name of God, is a rather striking idea. I think Islam has a similar concept regarding that Qur'an -- that it did not come into existence when Gabriel recited its verses to Muhammad, but rather, that it existed before language, that it is one of the attributes of God, like His mercy or His justice.

I thought about a very different reading of the Torah -- the translation of the fall of man from Genesis in William Tyndale's Old Testament (or parts thereof, actually), as described by David Daniell in his biography of Tyndale:
Tyndale, exactly like the Hebrew original, is raw, comic and tragic all at once. There is a dreadful human inevitability about all this. Two characters, 'serpent' and 'woman,' are present, lightly sketched, but fearfully familiar, and not at all safely hidden behind the screen of a slightly remote language special to 'sacred scripture.' What happens next marks Tyndale's specialness. The Authorized Version, as is well known, has 'And the serpent said unto the woman, Through death ye shall not die,' and in Wyclif B, 'Forsooth the serpent said to the woman, Ye shall not die by death.' Tyndale's 'Then said the serpent unto the woman: tush ye shall not die,' catches the immediate and sophisticated dismissiveness. This serpent waves away the consequences with a flick of the hand (and the best gloves and an elegant cane, no doubt).

Tyndale's translation then continues to transmit the rawness of the original Hebrew...
Oddly enough, Tyndale's earthy translation and the Kabbalists' notion of the Torah as Name of God don't seem mutually exclusive to me -- the idea that His name would be raw, tragic and comic all at once.