Saturday, October 28, 2006

God's War: A New History of the Crusades

At long last: a new comprehensive treatment to replace dated views of the crusades. Don't miss God's War, by Christopher Tyerman, if you have an interest in the subject. From Harvard University Press:
"A stunning reinterpretation of the Crusades, revealed as both bloody political acts and a manifestation of a growing Christian communal identity. Tyerman uncovers a system of belief bound by aggression, paranoia, and wishful thinking, and a culture founded on war as an expression of worship, social discipline, and Christian charity... Drawing on all of the most recent scholarship, and told with great verve and authority, God's War is the definitive account of a fascinating and horrifying story that continues to haunt our contemporary world."
And from Publisher's Weekly (via amazon):
"Tyerman demolishes our simplistic misconceptions... Abjuring sentimentality and avoiding clichés about a rapacious West and an innocent East, Tyerman focuses on the crusades' very human paradoxes: 'the inspirational idealism; utopianism armed with myopia; the elaborate, sincere intolerance; the diversity and complexity of motive and performance'... God's War is that very rare thing: a readable and vivid history written with the support of a formidable scholarly background, and it deserves to reach a wide audience."
See previous posts on the crusades in context here and here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Gnosticism Revisited

Yesterday I called attention to Bruce Chilton's remarks about gnosticism, particularly the way neo-gnostics cherry-pick ancient sources, with which I am largely in agreement. A gnostic pastor named Father Jordan feels very differently. Meanwhile, Jim Davila writes as follows:
"Many, perhaps most, religions can be accused of misconstruing and selectively reading their own scriptures to suit later agendas. Some go as far as falsifying history (for example, Christian fundamentalist creationists and Muslims who deny that a Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). If people today want to be Gnostics (and it's not for me to tell them whether they should be or shouldn't), I would rather they be Gnostics who support women's rights and the prudent use of the earth's resources and who aren't anti-Semitic. If any of that is untrue to ancient Gnostic scriptures or doctrines, so be it. (But if they want to claim that these are the actual values of ancient Gnostics, I will, as usual, call them on any historical inaccuracies.)"
I agree with what Jim says here, but I do think neo-gnostics tend to cherry-pick with more abandon than most, without realizing they're doing so. This is how I responded to Father Jordan in comments on his blog:
Father Jordan
Contemporary Christianity too must cherry-pick in order to be a coherent functioning religion... Are not "neo-Christians" unlike their ancient counterparts? Doesn't ancient Christianity have a history of anti-Semitism, misogyny, elitism, and dualism?

Yes, but this isn't exactly news. Neo-gnosticism often comes as an antidote to a traditional Christianity weighed down precisely by the above baggage. It's a mystery to many that the sources of that antidote have just as much (if not more) baggage. There's more ignorance and misperceptions about gnosticism than about traditional Christianity, and reports like this don't exactly reinforce one's faith in any discerning ability of the laity.

Father Jordan
What really bothers Chilton (a scholar for whom I have a great deal of respect) is that "Neo-Gnostics" (us, presumably) accept The Secret Mark as a genuine text. The thrust of his article here isn't really about how dishonest "Neo-Gnostics" are, but how Secret Mark is an obvious forgery. So we're really guilty by association.

I hate to break the nightly news, but scholars who like the gnostic gospels tend to be the same ones who defend the authenticity of Secret Mark.

Father Jordan
Here's the thing: I don't know of a single Gnostic who identifies with Secret Mark, or considers it to be a legitimate or authentic Gnostic text. Not one. At best it's a peripheral curiosity. Gnostics are not standing up in churches or the PTG saying "this proves Jesus was gay!". Gnosticdom (!) as a general rule is just not interested in Secret Mark, and every Gnostic I know familiar with the text rejects it as a total forgery.

Neo-gnostics I know either (a) prefer to give Secret Mark the benefit of the doubt without knowing quite what to make of it, (b) accept and identify with it as gnostic, or (c) have never heard of it before. I haven't run into a single neo-gnostic who rejects it as a forgery/hoax. We mix with different breeds, obviously.

Father Jordan
What scholars like Chilton so often fail to grasp is that the role of history is simply not as important to us as it is to Christians... Most Christians keep trying to wring "what really happened" out of their Gospels, whereas we've never been about that. We're more interested in what is happening, our own alchemical reaction to these catalytic texts.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with that, so long as one is upfront about it. But as I'm sure you know, many people who read (say) Elaine Pagels walk away convinced that gnosticism is really what Jesus was about, and claim accordingly.
As a secular-minded Unitarian, I have nothing against gnosticism per se. People should believe as they want, though with Jim Davila, I prefer that those beliefs not conflict with basic human decency (i.e. respect for Jews, women, gays, the earth and its natural resources, etc.). But history matters too -- especially to those of us who love it -- and it irks when adherents like the neo-gnostics believe their sources to be purer than those against which they are often reacting.

Two Hobbit Films Planned

It looks like there are two Hobbit films planned. Frankly I think it could be done in one, but I’m not complaining. Go Peter Jackson.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chilton on Neo-Gnosticism

Bruce Chilton reviews Gospel Hoax in The New York Sun. It's a decent review, though readers will know that I think Carlson's case is more conclusive than Chilton allows yet seems to want to say.

I like Chilton's sidebar about the modern love-affair with gnosticism:
"Gnostic sources have been routinely confused with history, and some documents that are obviously from the second and third centuries ('The Gospel of Thomas,' 'The Gospel of Philip,' 'The Gospel of Mary,' and most recently 'The Gospel of Judas,' for example) have been touted as reporting the truth of the story that the New Testament supposedly distorts. 'Secret Mark' fed this naïve enthusiasm, and profited from it.

"Publicity and naïveté have encouraged the rise of a form of neo-Gnosticism, a fashion greatly encouraged by recent discoveries and alleged discoveries. In embracing these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, not subjugate it; they don't wish to be elitist. Above all, they want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. You need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources, and ignore a great deal of what they say, to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library. Neo-Gnostics do just that, and falsify history. Many ancient Gnostics were openly anti-Semitic, taught that the physical world was the hopelessly corrupt product of a false god, and insisted that only the predestined elect could know the divine truth. These are persistent tendencies, rather than a set of precise ideas that all Gnostics repeated, but they are facts that can't be denied."
A lot of Unitarians (my group) are neo-gnostics, and they cherry-pick religious documents better than most. The laity needs some serious education about gnostic documents, and, needless to say, The Da Vinci Code is the last place to get it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Great Irony: Paul and the Pillars' About-Face

In "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2" (JTS 42 (1991): 532-64), Paula Fredriksen distinguishes between inclusion and conversion of Gentiles. The early inclusion of Gentiles cohered with apocalyptic belief; the later controversy over their conversion owed to the delayed apocalypse. Fredriksen writes:
"From its inception, the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without demanding that they be circumised and observe the Law...until 49 CE, evidently... What had changed between c. 30 and c. 49 CE, and why? Posing the question puts the answer...The kingdom did not come. Time drags when you expect it to end. Put differently, millenarian movements tend, of necessity, to have a short half-life. As the endtime recedes, reinterpretations and adjustments must reshape the original belief, else it be relinquished to unintelligibility or irrelevance." (pp 558-559)
We thus have an irony. In the earliest days of apocalyptic fervor, Gentiles were (naturally) admitted into the Christian movement as Gentiles, without needing to become proselyetes. This is probably what Paul refers to in Gal 5:11: the period before his conversion when he zealously urged circumcision on these pagans who were sharing indiscriminate eucharist fellowship with Jews. After his conversion he not only accepted Gentiles as the other apostles did, but he saw them as his prime mission, and began evangelizing abroad.

But twenty years is a long delay for the kingdom -- and a long time to be fending off persecutions from wider Judaism. The success of Paul's large-scale mission would have made the issue more poignant: Can Gentiles really go on being included as implied equals without converting? The apostles had increased misgivings and knew they had to evolve accordingly. Paul, on the other hand, wasn't about to relinquish this aspect of the millenial dream: the Gentiles were his babies.

Paul began as a foe of Christianity, and of Gentiles in particular. The other apostles began as apocalyptic enthusiasts, welcoming Gentiles as they were. Yet Paul ended up championing the pagans uncompromisingly, while the pillars ended up imposing conversion requirements -- and circumcision, no less -- in act of treachery and revenge.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Top 10 Passages of the Bible

Via Eucatastrophe, here's a rather mundane list of Top 10 Passages in the Bible:
Genesis 1: The Creation Story.
Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments.
Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd.
Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant passage.
John 1: In the beginning was the Word.
Matthew 5: The Sermon on the Mount.
Luke 23: The Passion Narrative.
Romans 8: Those Led by the Spirit.
I Corinthians 13: The Greatest of These is Love
Revelation 21: A New Heaven and a New Earth
My list looks a bit different:

(1) Ecclesiastes 1:14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a. Suggests little meaningful difference between good and evil: "I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind... I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun... The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone."

(2) Romans. The entire letter, which deals with ethnic conflict and serious theological dilemmas, more positively than on a previous occasion (Galatians). The most carefully structured and considered of all the NT epistles.

(3) Mark 11-13. Jesus in Jerusalem: hailed a messianic liberator, curses a fig tree for no fault of its own, threatens the temple, arrogantly refuses to explain by what authority he does the things he does, obliquely opposes Caesar's taxes, and caps it all off with the great apocalypse, "The Abomination of Desolation".

(4) Job 38-41. God railroads Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its size? Who shut in the sea when it burst from the womb? Have you commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning? Can you hunt prey for the lion? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Is the wild ox willing to serve you, and will it spend the night at your crib? Will you dare put me in the wrong?"

(5) I Samuel 8-12. Israel's demand for a king, Samuel's warning of the evils inherent in kingship, the election of Saul by lottery, and finally, Samuel's ominous farewell-address to the people of Israel.

(6) Lamentations. Take something away, and you show people what they had: "How lonely sits the city that was once full of people. Like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations, a princess among provinces. Weeping bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. The roads to Zion mourn; Jerusalem remembers..."

(7) Luke 15:11-16:8a, 16:19-31. The three best parables in the gospels lined up back-to-back: "The Prodigal Son", "The Shrewd Manager", and "The Rich Man and Lazarus". A father contends with two equally lousy sons, attempting reconciliation. A landowner’s hands are tied by the shrewd survival tactics of his own manager. And a rich man burns in Hades, for no other reason than because he is rich.

(8) James 3:6-8. On gossip and slander: "The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed on our members as a world of iniquity. It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, and full of deadly poison."

(9) I Corinthians 15. Paul's murky view of the resurrection: "But someone may ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?' How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body... Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable... The perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality."

(10) Micah 2:1-2; 6:10-12; 4:1-4. Diatribes followed by a vision of something better: "In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house will be established as the highest of the mountains. People will stream to it, and everyone shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and sit under their own vines and fig trees."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Why Christianity Happened

James Crossley is telling us why Christianity happened from a secular perspective, and in a "socio-historical context as part of an explanation for the emergence of Christianity from John the Baptist and Jesus to the Jerusalem conference (c. 26-50 CE)". I had the privilege of looking over parts of this book before it went to the press. James is now providing overviews of the book's chapters; I'll update this post as they appear.

Chapter One: Social History and Secular Approaches
Chapter Two: The Origin of Jesus' View of the Law
Chapter Three: Sinners
Chapter Four: From Jewish to Gentile Sinners
Chapter Five: Networks, Recruitment, and Conversion

Friday, October 20, 2006

Some Social Dimensions of Life After Death

I'd like to begin my contribution by raising a series of questions about resurrection and life after death, which summarize some of my chapters in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. This seems to be a perennial question. But I am also fascinated by the fact that the same symbols that governed life after death in New Testament times are still very understandable today and still operate in similar ways. For example, I found that resurrection was born in apocalyptic sects (like that which produced the book of Daniel about 165 BCE). This therefore is the biblical doctrine, though it arises fairly late in OT history and but a blink before the rise of Christianity. It promises bodily resurrection to those who have been martyrs, which helps explain the expectations surrounding Jesus’ death. And it promises that martyrs, who have sacrificed their bodies for the faith, will get them back when God brings about the coming kingdom. It is not only a solace to martyrs but also to freedom fighters. And this doctrine later becomes the expectation of all. But it is not the only doctrine available in NT times.

On the other side of the social spectrum, there is the doctrine of immortality of the soul. It is characteristic of the upper classes, but only those who interact significantly with the Greco-Roman aristocracy. This is because the doctrine’s origin is to be found in Platonic thought, though Jewish intellectuals like Philo show us that it could be tailored to fit Jewish sensibilities—especially Jewish notions of God’s ethical behavior. This doctrine essentially says that we will discorporate on death and that our souls, which contain our thinking and memory, will survive us. I said that this is characteristic of a class of people that valorizes the life of the mind. It says our thoughts and experience survives us. The body, in contradistinction to resurrection, is unimportant and carries no personal identity.

We have to realize, as well, that many Jews, especially in the aristocracy of Judea—those called Sadducees—did not believe in any form of afterlife at all. That means that a belief in the afterlife is not automatically important in Judaism. Furthermore, that means that the Sadducees must have interpreted their Bible tradition as having no evidence of an afterlife. For sure, this means that their “Bible” would have contained no book of Daniel. It also means that they interpreted every other book in the Bible to say that there was no afterlife. That means they took a naturalistic interpretation of Ezekiel 37 and Isaiah 24-27. It is inconceivable, however, that their Bible didn’t have these important books in it.

The problem is the Pharisees, as I have said before. The Pharisees believed in tehiat hametim, a term taken from Isaiah 26:19. But they are not apocalyptic sectarians. However, I point out that they thrive some century and a half after the sectarians who produce Daniel. They “borrow” the notion, as it were, from an earlier sect. Nevertheless, they are in the power game politically in first century Judea. To resolve the issue, I have partly to rely on Paul, who talks about the transformation from body to body, a very ambiguous and incompletely understood doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15. Also, I try to point out that the term tehiat hametim” does not actually mean resurrection in the sense of the re-animation of the corpse. If the Pharisees had wanted that term, they would have developed it from the parallel verse in Isaiah 26:19 where the technical term hakamat haneveilot is available. That term explicitly means that the corpses will get up. By using the less explicit term, I contend, the Pharisees and later the rabbis were fudging the afterlife. They did not want to be more explicit.

This makes our job in understanding Paul more difficult, rather than less difficult. The canonical Gospels all explicitly or implicitly accept a literal resurrection of the corpse. The story of the empty tomb makes this explicit. It tells us what the canonical position is on Jesus, even though, as is clear, it cannot any longer be thought to be the exact story of the believer. But that is the point. The Gospels are written after it is clear that the end of the world is not coming immediately after the resurrection of Jesus. One or two generations had passed and their corpses had all deteriorated to bones or even to dust.

Paul, who wrote before the Gospels, never mentions the empty tomb, though he certainly goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was buried. I suspect that he saw this as a victory over the Roman oppressors because they rarely granted permission for crucified criminals to be buried with honors. It is also clear that the resurrection body is a spiritual body. But it is nowhere clear that it is the physical body of the Gospels. It may be the same body transformed but that is far from clear in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 essay on the subject. It seems out of the question that it is merely the flesh revivified as he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50). But what it is positively is ambiguous. The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. Other parts of the passage suggest a single body transformed. What is clear to me is that it does not automatically cohere with the Gospel story. And why should it? He did not know the finished Gospel tradition. The real question is: “Why do the Gospels ignore Paul?”

To return to the contemporary world for a moment: Fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (I’m restricting myself to those who have a developed biblical notion of resurrection) are knowledgeable about their scriptural tradition and affirm resurrection. They also know that martyrdom is a cost which may be asked of them personally. The majority of Americans however are the equivalent of mainline and normative. Whether Jew Christian Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or nothing at all, most Americans affirm a form of immortality of the soul, though some call that immortality of the soul resurrection because they know that is the core of Christianity. In fact, more Americans believe in an afterlife than actually believe in God. And when they do believe, they believe in a form of immortality that is consonant with immortality of the soul. So the same social and ideological connection that was established in the Hellenistic world is influencing our religious lives today, though there is no theoretical reason why we could not have changed metaphors completely. The differences between immortality of the soul and resurrection are still informing our religious life today.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why Paul Took Up the Collection (Rom 15:25-32)

Mark Goodacre is putting together pieces of the Galatian puzzle: from dating the letter after I Corinthians (I, II, III), to Paul's uncharacteristic lack of travel plans, to recognizing that Gal 2:1-10 refers to the event reported in Acts 15:1-29 rather than Acts 11:27-20 (I, II). When the pieces come together, it really does look like Paul's missionary work in Galatia was unsuccessful (I, II), confirming what I've thought since reading Philip Esler's work. One of Esler's key points is that Paul learned from his failure in Galatia, hitting on a more successful way of resolving ethnic conflict in Rome. But Esler assumes the Galatian failure more than argues it. Mark is now providing the argument.

I want to address something which came out in one of Mark's posts, where Michael Pahl objects to using Paul's lack of travel plans as an indicator of failure in Galatia. Because Michael thinks Paul was on his way to the Jerusalem council as he wrote the letter, uncertain of his future, he would have had no travel plans at this point:
"Paul is uncertain how the council will go, uncertain how the 'pillars' will respond given Peter's and James' apparent reneging on their prior affirmation of Paul's gospel. He is uncertain how the Galatians will respond, uncertain about this whole region he has just recently poured his life and energies into. Paul is certain about his call and his gospel revelation, but he's uncertain about almost everything else related to his personal 'mission.'"
Of course, this scenario depends on an early dating of Galatians, even though a time after I Corinthians seems more likely. But for the sake of argument, Mark countered:
"I find this suggested scenario implausible given the direct analogy that Romans provides. In that epistle, Paul is about to set off for Jerusalem (15.25-26), and he is anxious about how he will be received (15.30-2), and he has plenty of time to make advanced travel plans. On balance, an alleged Pauline journey to Jerusalem to take place just after the writing of Galatians is not fully persuasive as an explanation for the lack of travel plans in the epistle."
To which Michael made a rejoinder in comments:
"I'm not sure that Romans provides a good analogy... In Romans, Paul is 'on top of the world' -- he has evangelized the entire northeast quadrant of the Roman Empire, he's a well-established apostle in that region with his own solid base of churches, and he's quite confident in his gospel and its application among the Gentiles. That's very different than the scenario suggested by Galatians, certainly if it is written before the Jerusalem council. In Romans, Paul is in a position to hope and plan whatever he wants for his ministry; in Galatians he's not."
I then suggested, again in comments, that Paul was anything but "on top of the world" by the time of writing Romans, and I would like to spell this out a bit more now.

Not only had Paul acquired a nasty reputation by the time of writing Romans (on which see especially Thomas Tobin's Paul's Rhetoric in Its Contexts), his remarks in Rom 15:25-32 speak volumes when we read between the lines to all the bitterness and anxiety. As I argued in "Treachery at Antioch", the pillars had back-stabbed Paul by breaking the Jerusalem agreement (Gal 2:1-14). Yet Paul continued taking up the collection despite this. He was not doing this so much to fulfill his end of the bargain, because that bargain was null and void. He was taking up the collection as an aggressive ploy.

Understanding the hostile nature of gift-giving in honor-shame cultures becomes crucial here:
"The delivery of a gift represented a challenge to the recipient requiring an appropriate response if shame was to be avoided and honor maintained. To make a gift was not an innocuous and friendly social gesture (as in most Northern European and North Atlantic cultures today), but the opening gambit in an exchange that could soon take a nasty turn... For every coin that dropped into Paul's collection bags was a physical reminder that the Jerusalem leaders had breached the Jerusalem agreement. Paul's delivery of the money had the deliberate intention, or the anticipated effect, of pushing them back toward honoring that agreement." (Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 130)
The collection, in fact, was a slap in the face to the pillars, perhaps even a way of putting into practice Paul's dictum in Rom 12:20: "If your enemy is hungry feed him, because in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head" (Esler, ibid). And when we further realize that the collection was never exactly for the poor anyway -- more a "franchise fee" for the apostles themselves, as Donald Akenson anachronistically puts it -- that really puts the pillars on the spot: Paul is now giving them "their" money out of spite, and as a way of turning the tables in his favor.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Guest Blogger: Alan Segal

I am pleased to announce that Dr. Alan Segal has accepted an invitation to be a guest blogger on The Busybody. Most readers will recognize the name, but for those who don't a bio is provided below. Alan will be blogging about a few things over the next couple of weeks or so: Paul's view of the resurrection, afterlife views in general, and the way the media battle between The DaVinci Code and The Passion of the Christ relates to internal Christian disputes. Please give Alan a warm welcome.

Alan F. Segal is professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University in Manhattan. When appointed he was the youngest full professor in the humanities in the university. He was chair of the Department between 1981-1984 and occasionally thereafter.

He was born in Worcester Massachusetts, educated at Worcester Academy, Amherst College (B.A. 1967), Brandeis University (M. A. 1969), Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion (B. H. L. 1971) and Yale University (M. A. 1971, M. Phil. 1973, Ph. D. 1975). His studies included English Literature, Psychology, Anthropology, Comparative Religion, Judaica, Christian Origins, and Rabbinics.

Before moving to Barnard College at Columbia University, Professor Segal was appointed to Princeton University for two three-year terms starting in 1974 and to the University of Toronto with tenure. He received tenure at the University of Toronto in 1977, less than three years after beginning his teaching career.

He was also invited to the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Aspen Colorado and to leadership training at Aspen's Wye Plantation in Maryland. While living in Israel in 1977-1978 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lectured at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and Bar Ilan University. He has served as guide on trips to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel and traveled extensively in Europe. He has held fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Annenberg Institute, the Mellon Foundation, and the J. S. Guggenheim Foundation.

In the summer of 1988 at the Jubilee celebration in Cambridge England, he became the first Jewish member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas to address the society. He was elected into membership of the American Society for the Study of Religion and the American Theological Association. He was also the first American not living in Canada to be elected president of the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies.

Professor Segal's publications include Jews and Arabs: A Teaching Guide (UAHC Press), Two Powers in Heaven (Brill), Deus Ex Machina: Computers in the Humanities (Penn University Bulletin Board), Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Harvard University Press), The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity (Scholars Press). Paul the Convert: The Apostasy and Apostolate of Saul of Tarsus was published by Yale University Press in Spring 1990 and was the Editor's Choice, the main selection of the History Book Club's summer list. It was also a selection of The Book of the Month Club.

Professor Segal’s latest book is entitled Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (Doubleday, 2004). It is the Editor’s Choice, the featured Summer Selection of the History Book Club, as well as an alternate selection of the Book of the Month Club and the Behavioral Science Book Club. It was voted one of the four best books in religion in 2004 by the AP. He has also written many scholarly articles for journals in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Happy Birthday, Hypotyposeis

Today is Hypotyposeis' third birthday. Stephen Carlson lists his 10 most popular posts, most of which, curiously, involve the Gospel of Judas in some way. Congratulations, Stephen. You've accomplished a lot in three years.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The "Seed of Abraham" and Christian Zionism

In Galatians Paul says that God's promises were made to Abraham and his singular offspring (Christ), rather than to many offspring (the Jews):

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," as of many. But it says, "And to your offspring," that is, to one person, who is Christ. (Gal 3:16)

On top of that, Paul implies that Gentiles (more than Jews) are Abraham's true descendants, the rightful heirs of salvation (Gal 3:6-9). But most importantly, God's promises were made to a singular offspring: Christ. Bruce Malina and John Pilch comment:
"One might note here that Christian Zionists who support the Israeli state because they consider it the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham and his seed publicly and officiously deny what Paul says here. One wonders how they understand the basis for their Christian allegiances." (Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 206)
Romans presents a less radical argument, but certainly not enough to help the Zionist cause:

The promise [is] guaranteed to all Abraham’s descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham. (Rom 4:16)

Now God's promises are made not to a singular offspring (Christ), but to Jews and Gentiles equally. In Galatians Christ is the seed, and Gentiles favored. In Romans Jews and Gentiles are the seed, equally favored. (See my Romans commentary for an account of differences between the two letters.) In either case, one must wonder, along with Malina and Pilch, what bible Christian Zionists have been reading.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Pharisees and the Resurrection

"It is the Pharisees who present us with a paradox. The Sadducees needed no notion of the afterlife. The millenialists needed a strong notion of resurrection, which gives justice to those who suffer and heavenly transformation to some of those who fall as martyrs. The Pharisees had religious beliefs which are harder to understand if set parallel to their social position." (Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, p 379)
In a previous post we saw that Sadducees had paradise on earth, millenials just the opposite, while intellectual elites just wanted their ideas to live forever. These beliefs arose naturally out of a respective social class. But the Pharisees, at first glance, are a puzzle. Why did legal experts who sometimes shared the reins of government believe in something that was characteristic of revolutionary sectarians? Segal's answer is that they actually didn't, or at least not to the extent we've been led to believe:
"The Pharisees do not tie themselves down to the specificity of the millenarian position. They pick a term [resurrection] and a pastoral vision of the end [kingdom of God] that is deliberately ambiguous. Like Paul, resurrection of the body might not mean the fleshy body, at least in its corpselike form, but the metamorphosis of the corporeal body into a heavenly and spiritual body -- like the angels, a sexually resolved and completed body." (p 608)
As an ex-Pharisee Paul is one of our best sources on this point, and in Segal's view he bridged Jewish apocalypticism with pagan spirituality -- unlike the gospel writers who were apocalyptic to the core (p 439). This is what Segal says about I Cor 15:44, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body":
"The physical body is the ordinary body (flesh and soul); the spiritual body -- soma pneumatikon -- is the ordinary body subsumed and transformed by the spirit... Instead of leaving the body entirely behind as in the case of the Greek soul, the body of glory or pneumatic body is the natural body augmented. It becomes properly androgynous, an added spiritual nature, as it was when God created it in Genesis. It regains its divine likeness, its angelic completeness, the primal combination of maleness and femaleness that is lost at the beginning." (pp 430-431)
Segal wisely eschews the two-body hypothesis advocated by Richard Carrier, as if the resurrected body is to be completely distinguished from the old, as if the biological body and the spiritual body are wholly antithetical. That's just wrong, as I explained in my review of Robert Price’s The Empty Tomb. Paul's metaphor of a seed sprouting (I Cor 15:38ff) obviously supports the idea of an old body transforming into a new one. And if Paul said that "flesh and blood" cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor 15:50), he also went on to say that the very same flesh and blood must "put on imperishability" (I Cor 15:53) so that it finally can.

But Segal also insists that for Paul the old body is so transformed that there's not much physical and fleshy about it anymore:
"The [gospel] notion of resurrection is deeply affected by contrasts with Paul. Even the plain description of the events in Jesus' life came out altered from Paul's description. What Paul described in visionary terms, the evangelists describe literally. It is as if Paul represents the mystical dimension of Christian experience while the gospels represent the apocalyptic dimension. In flat contradiction to Paul, the gospels (when they discuss the process of resurrection at all) strongly assert a physical, fleshy notion of Jesus' bodily resurrection." (p 442)
Segal overplays this contrast a bit (Paul, after all, was apocalyptic as much as he was mystical), but I think his essential point is valid. The apostle is uncomfortable with fleshy aspects of the resurrection, even while insisting on continuity between the old body and the new. He minimizes the role of flesh and blood in the new body, underscoring the heavenly transformation it has undergone.

It turns out that the rabbis -- our post-70 Pharisees -- take the same view as Paul. The rabbinic view of the resurrection is based on Isaiah: "Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise" (Isa 26:19). Segal notes the favoring of the first half over the second:
"The rabbis ignore the term 'corpses' and instead use the first clause, which contains much less definite terms. They are not actually interested in defining the afterlife with the notion of the resurrection of the fleshy body. They would rather describe something a bit more ambiguously, not specifying exactly how God plans to bring the final consummation.

"This observation helps resolve the paradox... If the Pharisees are best able to govern the remaining state of Judah after the war and share power before the war, then why should they believe in resurrection of the flesh, which is characteristic of the sectarian life of Judea? The answer to that vexing question is that they do not necessarily believe in resurrection of the dead corpses, and certainly do not believe in anything like the gospels' view of the matter. On the other hand, they cannot risk overtly contradicting Isaiah either, instead exegeting Isaiah in such a way that Isaiah seems to say what they have in mind. They build a paradise based on the land of Israel, which the living and dead share. They are content with the ambiguity whose resolution dominates Christian thinking." (p 607)
This ambiguity, of course, is exactly what characterizes Paul's view in I Cor 15, and perhaps accounts for why orthodox critics like Wright and infidels like Carrier continue talking past each other. The Pharisees and Paul were deliberately ambiguous. They believed in the resurrection of the old body but weren't wild about "clinging to the flesh". They grounded the resurrection in terms of Jewish apocalyptic, but not to the extent that angry millenarians did. They didn't seem to care how much role the flesh would play in the new body, no doubt because they already had a happier fleshy existence than revolutionaries and martyrs.

So the answer to our original question is clear:
"The Pharisees' belief in life after death was entirely congruent with their Roman client status. The rabbis, the Pharisees' intellectual descendants, believed in an afterlife that could be figured flexibly in either Greek or more native apocalyptic terms, or even other terms, depending on the circumstances. This hypothesis preserves the symmetry between the Pharisees’ middle social position and their afterlife beliefs." (pp 381-382)
That makes sense to me, and it makes complete sense of the Pauline and rabbinic texts. I used to think that Paul just expressed himself badly in I Cor 15:50 -- saying that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" -- but Segal has persuaded me that he was speaking like any Pharisee, registering discomfort with hard-core millenarian ideas that would associate him with sedition.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Afterlife (or Lack Thereof) in Ancient Judaism

Alan Segal, in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Tradition, sees strong correlations between social class and ancient Jewish views of the afterlife. First considering the Sadducees, he claims they were the ones most true to biblical tradition in denying an afterlife:
"Although the Sadducees were Hellenists, they knew and understood what the biblical tradition is and they honored it in their own priestly way. The Pharisees characterized the Sadducees as heretics but they were not... The Sadducees knew that when the bible is interpreted literally there is scant evidence for any afterlife worth having." (p 377)
Jon Levenson evidently disagrees, but regardless of how faithful they were to the Hebrew Scriptures, the reason the Sadducees had no use for an afterlife is because they already had paradise on earth. Segal points out that the wealthy called their pleasure gardens -- with ordered bowers, pools and walks -- paradises (paradeisoi):
"Access to a paradise was strictly confined to the wealthy and their guests. This lends an important social connotation to the use of the term 'paradise' to designate an afterlife... The Sadducees needed no paradise after death because they found paradise in their backyards." (p 378)
At the bottom of the social heap were the revolutionary groups led by apocalyptic prophets and royal pretenders, who looked for a future paradise because life on earth was anything but:
"The lower classes envisioned their lives after death in the form that the wealthiest enjoyed in this life and, to complete God's justice, usually denied the aristocrats access to it... Resurrection of the body gave transcendent worth to the death of the martyrs by stating that God would make good on his covenantal promises to reward the righteous and punish the iniquitous. It also shows us what the young martyrs wanted and needed most: They deserved to get their bodies back and to live again on earth. And they deserved to become God's avenging army of angels who would scourge the earth of oppressors and evildoers." (pp 378, 394)
Resurrection was a millenial belief, pointing to an afterlife for the dispossessed.

But resurrection wasn't the only afterlife idea in ancient Judaism, even if it was the most common. Some of the Jewish elite (aside from the Sadducees) favored the doctrine of immortality of the soul, borrowed from Greek Platonism, particularly intellectual thinkers like Philo. The reason isn't hard to see:
"Scholars and intellectuals do not need or even want their old bodies back. What they want is a continuation of their well-schooled and well-studied consciousness... It was an 'intellectual's immortality', one in which the result of continuous study would never be lost. Immortality of the soul appealed to the intellectual elite because it valorized their intellectual pursuits... [It] was the ideology of the rich." (pp 395, 367)
But what about the Pharisees, those who shared power with the Sadducees but ranked below them in a "middle" social position? They believed in the resurrection of the dead -- but were hardly revolutionary; they were neither oppressed nor "peasant" in outlook. We'll look at Segal's ideas about this in a future post, but in the meantime, any takers? What made Pharisees (like Paul) tick and why?

As a relatively well-to-do intellectual, I suppose I like certain aspects of immortality of the soul, though on most days I tend to be rather Sadducean in my outlook -- though for more skeptical reasons than because of that [cough] paradise right in my backyard. Hell, I don't even have a backyard.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Blog Value

Back in October '05 my blog was worthless. By May '06 it had shot up to $27,097.92. And now...

My blog is worth $40,646.88.
How much is your blog worth?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

What Jesus Wasn’t, What Jesus Was

One of my favorite conclusions to a book about the historical Jesus:
"Jesus was not a capitalist intoning the values of individualism and free enterprise, nor was he a socialist calling for a bureaucratic state. He was not a militarist who believed the sword can make the world safe for his values, nor was he a pacifist who thought conflict must be avoided at all costs. He was not a champion of women's rights, nor did he promote male power and prerogative as the bastion of civilized values. He was not a racist, hating Gentiles as foreigners, nor was he a world citizen who knew all people to be the same underneath a veneer of cultural difference. He was not a secularist who tried to establish separation of religion and politics, nor was he a fundamentalist who wished to impose a narrow, doctrinaire tradition upon all members of society. He did not intend to be the savior of the world; he intended to be a good Jew, faithfully following the path of conscience inspired by tradition and by the fresh presence of God. Above all else, he was a prophet, in word and deed. Like true prophets of the past, he fearlessly proclaimed God's will as he saw it, letting offense or approval be the result of his message." (R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth, p 211)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Jewishness of Resurrection

Jim Davila mentions the New York Times article reviewing Jon Levenson's new book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, a "frontal challenge" to the idea that resurrection was not only a late innovation in Judaism, but a movement away from a religion which had always accepted mortality matter-of-factly.
"Professor Levenson does not deny that an unambiguous belief in resurrection of the dead makes a late appearance in Judaism, or that some groups, like the Sadducees, mentioned in the Gospels and by the historian Josephus, never accepted it.

"He argues, however, that this late appearance was 'both an innovation and a restatement of a tension that had pervaded the religion of Israel from the beginning.' The full-fledged doctrine of resurrection was not primarily a response to the needs of the moment or the challenge of martyrdom. It flowed from ‘deeper and long-established currents in the religion of Israel'...

"He analyzes biblical accounts of God's power to reverse life-threatening adversity — enslavement, infertility, loss of children, famine — or in exceptional cases, death itself. Many of his instances are the same ones that rabbis have cited over the centuries to support the doctrine of resurrection: from the opening of Sarah's infertile womb and the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac to the sufferings of Job, the miracles of the prophet Elisha and Ezekiel's vision of a new people arisen in the valley of the dry bones...

"Many Christians have misunderstood Judaism because of their assumption that belief in resurrection is exclusively associated with Jesus. 'The stereotypes on both sides are destructive,' he said, 'and destroy an important bond between Judaism and Christianity.' For all the differences between the two faiths — and Professor Levenson is not known for minimizing them — 'early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism had no division on belief in eschatological resurrection.'"
Levenson's book may be aimed at building bridges between Judaism and Christianity, but I would also prescribe it to the many Unitarians who are shocked to learn that resurrection was a Judaic belief. It's going to be a good book in any case, not least because Levenson wrote it.

Archaic Mark

Stephen Carlson's SBL article is now available online. See how Stephen discovered Archaic Mark's exemplar -- Philipp Buttmann's 1860 edition of the New Testament. But to learn how the forger had access to an edition that Colwell didn't, you'll have to see Stephen during his Tuesday morning SBL session (S21-18).

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Little Children

This is one of those "what I'm reading" posts. Every once in a while I find myself curiously engaged by a chick novel (or flick), and Tom Perrotta's Little Children is one of them. As both a satire on suburban American life and an ambiguous morality tale, it caught my interest, and the reviews make it sound like it will appeal to my cynical view of life in general, and of the upper middle class in particular. Take these, for instance:
"Perrotta's characters aren't exactly likeable or sympathetic, but his language is so note-perfect that readers are dropped in to their lives, like them or not. He has a lot to say about a lot of things, and he does so with the same economy and transparency with which he creates the characters... Readers go with his flow because he's never stacking the deck. He's like the most accomplished of magicians, who do not even appear to be performing until the performance is complete and the end is utterly, terrifyingly apparent." (Rick Kleffel)

"What marks Little Children as the work of a satirist is the way Perrotta lures us into taking morally certain positions on some of these characters (a right-wing housewife, the flasher whose life is being made hell by the upright citizens around him) only to pull the rug out from under us, upsetting any potential smugness. What marks him as a compassionate writer is that even at his most pitiless he shows a bone-deep understanding of his characters and a refusal to judge them." (Salon)
The book has been made into a film -- to be released this Friday, though I believe only in NY and LA. That would figure. Most decent films these days are limited release. See the trailer. Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, and Patrick Wilson take the lead roles.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Why Religion? (II)

In the last post we saw why common explanations for religion as biological adaptations are found wanting. Pinker suggests that religion is more an accidental byproduct of adaptations, such as food taboos, sacrifice, and the reverence for one's ancestors. The question then becomes why these adaptations are so inevitably beneficial.

Pinker distinguishes between the benefits to the producers of religion (shamans, priests, etc) and the consumers of religion (the laity). He gives five examples which benefit producers. The list, needless to say, is hardly exhaustive.
1. Ancestor worship. "If you plausibly convince other people that you'll continue to oversee their affairs even when you're dead and gone, that will give them incentive to treat you nicely up to the last day." (pp 13-14)

2. Food taboos. "If you withhold a food, especially a food of animal origin, from children during a critical period, they'll grow up grossed out at the thought of eating that food." (p 14) This controls people by keeping them inside a coalition, and reduces the risk of defections to neighboring coalitions.

3. Rites of passage. "There's nothing magical about the age of thirteen or the age of eighteen or any other age. It's simply more convenient to anoint a person as an adult a particular, arbitrarily chosen day than to haggle over how mature every individual is every time he or she wants a beer." (p 14) Or wants to have sex with adults, for that matter. Rites thus regulate maturity.

4. Sacrifice. "A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from hangers-on and parasites and free-riders. One way to test who's genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice." (p 14) Of course, if the sacrifice gets too costly this can backfire. Look at the classical prophets and Jesus.

5. Expertise. "If you're the one who knows mysterious but important arcane knowledge, then other people will defer to you." (p 14)
Religion is a byproduct of these adaptations, in the same way that the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. Religion was never selected per se, anymore than the color of our blood was; religion isn't innately or inevitably advantageous to the human species. But the adaptations which collectively yield religion are.

As far as consumers of religion (most people) are concerned, there seem to be two main benefits as I understand Pinker's explanation.
1. Deference. We want to defer to experts; "that's in the very nature of expertise" (p 14). Priests and shamans are like doctors and lawyers. Faith, then, can be seen as an adaptive trait. We need faith to go under the surgical scalpel as much as we do to have mysteries explained to us. So this plays right into (5) above.

2. Technique for success. We communicate with a higher power to get things which may not be provided otherwise -- recovery from serious illness, success in enterprise, victory on the battlefield, etc. "This is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they've exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success." (p 15) This sounds similar to the "gives comfort" idea we saw in the last post, but is more specific and explains why religion can be so comforting: it promises successful results.
Again, religion becomes the byproduct of these adaptations. I would add a third, namely the desire for immortality. Organisms, as a rule, don't want to die, and one might say (along with 2 above) that just as people engage in acts of prayer to get things they want, they also look to an afterlife, or next life, which will keep their existence going in some way. Those satsifed with their lot in life may rise above this (like the ancient Saduccess), but they are exceptional.

It's perhaps expecting too much of evolutionary psychology to provide all the answers to "why religion?", but I think it's a good start. Religion should be seen as more an accidental byproduct of other adaptations than an inevitable adaptation itself. But even with his correctives in place, it's evident that humanity still "needs" religion more than Pinker seems to give credit for.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival X

The tenth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Phil Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

Robert Harris has a sobering article in yesterday's New York Times. "Pirates of the Mediterranean" draws comparisons between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and those on Rome's port at Ostia in 68 BCE, and even more ominously, between American and Roman responses to the attacks:
"Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth... Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack...

"What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual...But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights... Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone... Powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned...

"Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of 'serious' physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

"An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same."
Thanks to Matt Bertrand for the link.