Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Seriously, Bible Secrets Revealed? You're going to let this Kathleen McGowan person (who claims to be a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene!) talk about Enoch and not any actual Enoch scholars? Some of us are very telegenic, and even seem to use the same brand of hair color as McGowan!

I can forgive your conflating the Watchers with the Nephilim, as that confusion is historically well-attested, and Bob and Dale got the basics right (and Reza Aslan didn't say anything too absurd). But I can't McGowan's supposition that 1 Enoch was left out of the canon because it portrayed God as too merciful stand.

First of all, if you read all five books of 1 Enoch, the punishment of the wicked is a pretty thoroughgoing theme. Sure, there is absolutely a strong strand of divine mercy in all apocalyptic literature; the whole idea is that the wickedness of this world is the result of a disruption of the divine order that will be restored in the eschatological future. Apocalypticism is a message of hope. Which is exactly why the notion that Enoch was omitted from the canon for being too hopeful is garbage.

Scholars have suggested a number of factors that led to Enoch's rejection from most Christian biblical canons:¹

  1. The most important factor was perhaps a recognition that Enoch was rejected by the emerging Jewish canon, as part of a more general trend of marginalizing apocalyptic and mystical speculation by the nascent Rabbinic tradition.
  2. Its authenticity was doubted. Some Christians questioned whether the book was really written by Enoch, or how a book written before the flood could have survived at all.
  3. While 1 Enoch was accepted as an authoritative source of historical and cosmological information by many early Christian fathers, there isn't much indication that it played an important role in the liturgy (except perhaps in Egypt and Ethiopia). Books that weren't read in churches were less likely to be canonized.
  4. After the third century, proto-orthodox Christianity was less and less comfortable with apocalyptic speculations. Expectations of an imminent end of the world were fading, and eschatologically-oriented works (like the Book of Revelation) were either marginalized or allegorized by the proto-orthodoxy.
  5. At the same time, Enochic traditions were being embraced by groups outside the proto-orthodoxy, like the Manichaeans, the Montanists, and various "gnostic" groups. This made them more suspect to those in the emerging "mainstream."
  6. The story of the fallen Watchers bringing evil to earth was not compatible with the increasingly dominant idea of human sin coming from Adam's disobedience in Eden. It was easier to reinterpret the "sons of God" in Genesis 6 as the offspring of Seth corrupted by the daughters of Cain than it was to incorporate the Watchers story into the what became the doctrine of Original Sin.
This is not an exhaustive list, nor can we be sure how these various factors contributed to Enoch's rejection. But of these, only #5 evinces "political" rather than "theological" motivations, and even there, it is theological politics. It wasn't part of a power-grab meant to keep the masses in line, as McGowan suggests.

For my money, it is far more important to realize that Enoch was considered authoritative, even inspired, by many early Christians, because it demonstrates that the books that eventually formed the canon were only a fraction of the sources that were important to the early church. While the bombastic narrator of Bible Secrets Revealed seems intent on painting the formation of the canon as the suppression of "secret" or "forbidden" ideas, it was a far more complex and interesting process than that.

¹ This list draws heavily on the discussion in G.W.E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1-36; 81-108 (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 101-102.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

SBL/AAR Wrapup

One of the takeaways from this year's Biblioblogging panel at SBL is that I tend to over-think my blog posts, so I'm going to jump right in.

Overall, the weekend was a success. I had a promising interview for a job that really suits my skill-set and interdisciplinary tendencies (not to mention geographical preferences). My presentation, "Academic Busking: A New Paradigm for Distance Learning and Online Content Creation," was well received, and meshed much better than I expected it to into the lively discussion of academic blogs, self-branding, and content creation that ensued in the Blogging and Online Publications session.

I attended a number of interesting panels, especially in the Esotericism and Mysticism, Wisdom and Apocalyptic, and Pseudepigrapha groups, including a review session for Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1, edited by Jim Davila, Richard Bauckham, and Alexander Panayotov. (This marked the first time that I've been in the same room with the real John J. Collins, but no tears in the space-time continuum have been reported...) The question of the appropriateness of perpetuating the term "Old Testament pseudepigrapha" for a rather heterogenous, polyphyletic body of works came under discussion. The only real defense anybody had was "what else are we supposed to call them?" I can say that from the perspective of the job market, it would be nice to have a catch-all term for what I do that doesn't require scare quotes, so if anybody comes up with an answer, let me know.

The most important part of the conference was getting to meet people, some new, some I'd only known electronically. I am not at my best in crowds full of unfamiliar faces, but hopefully I've now established enough of a foundation that I can overcome the Yoghurt Paradox in the future.¹ I appreciate everyone being so welcoming when I suspect I spent much of the weekend looking like a frightened mammal.

¹ "The Yoghurt Paradox" is my term for the difficulty of meeting new people if you don't already know people, much as you must already have a yoghurt starter to make yoghurt, or, according to m. Avot 5:6, you need tongs in order to forge tongs.²

² And yes, another thing that came up in the Blogging panel is that footnotes aren't really appropriate to blogging as a genre, but some things I can't give up!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


I have arrived, somewhat later than I intended, at the SBL/AAR meeting in Baltimore. If you see a guy wearing a black frock coat with unnaturally red hair, that's probably me. Feel free to say hi, but don't be offended if I stare at your badge for a minute before responding. My brain can only hold so many faces at a time, so I may be a little overwhelmed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Position Statement: I Quite Like the Songs

It looks like this year's War of Christmas is already in full swing. (Remember the good old days, when the War on Christmas didn't start until after the War on Thanksgiving? Now they've got the War on Christmas stuff up before the War on Halloween...) So, I would like to clarify, on behalf of the International Godless Atheist Conspiracy, exactly what our position on Christmas is.

So here you go:

Cut for lyrics:

Bible Secrets Revealed revealed

I watched History Channel’s new Bible Secrets Revealed, otherwise known as “My Facebook Feed: the TV Series.” For fear of damning with faint praise, it certainly was more scholarly than you would expect from the network that brought you Ancient Aliens and Cajun Pawn Stars. It features a number of top-notch scholars (and Reza Aslan), and despite the baritone narrator’s attempt to make it sensational (“Could the Bible hide secrets of blah blah blah…?”), the experts kept things quite sensible.

But despite being basically factually, the show was all over the place. It goes from David and Goliath to the Gospels and then makes a wild, inexplicable turn to the Reformation, Thomas Jefferson, and the Book of Mormon. It seemed like something a really bright freshman might have turned in, citing lots of good sources, but without a clear thesis or structure. B-

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Religion and Doctor Who Conference Wrap-Up

I’m sorry it took so long to pull this together, but here is my rundown of the Religion and Doctor Who conference in Manchester on 11/2. It was a really good experience all around, with some excellent papers and engaging conversation. The cross-section of people was fascinating, and not just presenters but also the audience-members, some of whom had come a good distance, and really contributed to the discussion. I ended up sufficiently engrossed that I didn’t have time to do much blogging.

For the first session, Ann Matsuuchi presented a paper she wrote with Alexander Lozupone called “Birth, Rebirth and Buddhism in Classic Doctor Who,” which was a critical look at how the original program used and appropriated Buddhist themes, especially in the development of Pertwee’s Doctor. It questioned the common perception of the program during that era as anti-religious by broadening “religion” beyond Western, Judeo-Christian presuppositions, and demonstrated a broad influence of Buddhist ideas over the years.

Next up was my paper, “A Whovian Demonology: Daemons, Beasts and Destroyers,” which looked at the various approached Doctor Who has taken to the demonic, from the highly rationalistic “ancient astronauts” explanation seen in  “The Daemons” and “Pyramids of Mars” to the more supernatural and esoteric “Curse of Fenric,” to the Doctor’s post-modern agnostic reaction in “The Satan Pit.” I argued that “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” were intended to engage in direct dialogue with the earlier encounters with the demonic, and reflected a conscious effort to embrace the different epistemic frameworks evident in the different Doctors’ reactions to the supernatural.

The next paper, from Michael Spence, was entitled “Reading ‘The Daemons’,” and turned out to be a wonderful complement to mine, because he provided two alternate readings of “The Daemons,” one similar to mine, emphasizing the Doctor’s positivist, materialist denial of the supernatural  as a part of a larger anti-religion theme; and another reading that showed how the episode subverted its own rationalism, for instance, by making Jo’s irrational selflessness the key to defeating the Daemon Azal.

The questions phase turned into a lively dialogue between Michael, me, and a few audience members, about post-modernism and the differences between Moffatt and Davies, and more generally on the show’s ability to play with thematic tensions and provide multi-layered social critiques.

After a break, there was a session about using Doctor who in religious education. The first paper, by Owen Edwards, was entitled “As We See, So We Learn: Doctor Who as Religious Education Broadcasting.” It provided some interesting context about the historical perception of Doctor Who, and its rocky relationship with its status as an “educational” program, and the rather sophisticated approach the show took towards questions of cultural relativism even in early serials like “The Aztecs.” A solid argument, even if it was far enough outside my own interests not to really grab me.

Next up was yet another paper dealing with “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit.” Holly Jordan’s “The Impossible Pit: Satan, Hell and Teaching Doctor Who” specifically dealt with using those episodes to spark dialogue about Abrahamic conceptions of evil and Hell in introductory religion courses. It included some fascinating excerpts from students own response papers, and demonstrated a lot of valuable pedagogical insights that I may have to adapt.

The last paper of this session was from Matt Rawle, a Methodist minister from Louisiana, who has used Doctor Who screenings as a way of providing his congregation with a new vocabulary for approaching theological questions. But I’ve got enough of a blind spot for liturgical and pastoral matters that a lot of this one went right past me, I’m afraid. Matt was a heck of a nice guy, though.

The first paper of the third session, “The Doctor and his Iconographic Search for an Ecstatic Human Experience,” by Stacey Embert, was read in absentia, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have engaged the topic more directly. It was a meditation on the Doctor’s fascination with human fragility, and his alienation from the experience of real death, both through his regeneration process and his tendency to abandon his companions before they fall victim to age. There were some fascinating implications for Clara’s role, as the always-dying companion, in the Doctor’s self-renewal.

Jasper Peters’s presentation was something of a homily, using the experience of being the Doctor’s companion as an allegory for Christian discipleship. This is where I ended up speculating about Donna Noble and theosis, since she didn’t just follow the Doctor, she became the Doctor. I also compared her brain burning out if she were to remember the Doctor to the Talmudic warnings against being consumed by fire as a result of contemplating the mysteries of the heavenly chariot.

The third paper of the session, from the winsome Leena Vuolteenaho, was a précis of her wider research into Buddhist and Christian readings of immortality in Doctor Who. She dealt in particular with the problem of eternal life, and the show’s recurring presentation of physical immortality as more of a curse than a blessing. This was a productive foil to Embert’s paper, especially with respect to “Enlightenment,” in which the immortal Eternals have no regard for the lives of “ephemerals,” since their death is inevitable anyway.

The keynote address was, well, a little churchy for me. Caroline Symcox is an Anglican rector and former writer of Doctor Who audio dramas. I was hoping for a little more discussion of the creative and production process, but she was more interested in making some kind of point about “natural theology,” and criticizing the atheistic stance of the current show-runners. She seemed to want to argue that the current producers end up accidentally making pro-religious statements in spite of themselves, which I found a little insulting, sounding a lot like the common Christian cliché that assumes all atheists secretly long for God. (She even used the phrase “honest seeker.” Ugh.) It also seems to assume that atheists aren’t capable of consciously negotiating the positive elements of religion while still denying its factuality. I encouraged her to see “The Book of Mormon.”

Another blogger echoed an attendee’s tweet observing that “the day became more devout as it went on,” although he seems to have found that a more positive development than I did. I would have hoped for a little more straight-up critical scholarship and a little less theology, and there were definitely moments when I felt I was the sole secular voice in the room (not an unfamiliar sensation). Still, shared geekdom can be a powerful force uniting people from different backgrounds, and I had a really wonderful time talking with the other presenters at the pub and dinner afterwards. It was particularly interesting to observe the difference between the British (and Irish) presenters (for whom Doctor Who is deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon from their childhood) and the Americans (for whom it is more of a fringe/cult interest, and in some cases, only known from the revived series). I don’t know what to make of the fact that the one of us with the most encyclopedic knowledge of the original series was Finnish…

I would like to thank Andy Crome for his work arranging the conference, and for giving me the chance to speak. (You should all go buy his and James McGrath’s new book, Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith.) I only wish I had more time to spend in Manchester (which reminds me—not unfavorably—of Baltimore). Certainly the friendliest bunch of guys with shaved heads and neck-tattoos I’ve met in some time, even if I couldn’t understand a word they said.

(I will post a copy of my presentation on my page once I have a chance to clean it up a little, which may not be until after SBL/AAR.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A fuller account of the Religion and Doctor Who conference is forthcoming, once I shake off the jet lag enough to write smart words good.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


I just used Donna Noble as an example of the dangers of theosis. So that makes my week.

Still live blogging

Well, my talk has now spoiled two other people's by saying what they were going to say. But seriously, there has been some wonderful dialog about "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit." My talk was very well received, and there are some really interesting folks.

DW Liveblog 3

My panel went swimmingly (but for a crying baby) with some wonderful contrasts to my own topic.

Live blog 2

Having arrived at the (amazing!) library, I have been ushered into a room with one of the other speakers. We discovered several others had been taken to an adjacent room, on the other side of a locked door, visible only through a small window.

I have decided it leads to another dimension.

Live Blogging Religion and Doctor Who conference

I arrived safely in soggy (but lovely) Manchester yesterday, and I'm about to head out to the Religion and Doctor Who Day Conference at the John Rylands Library. More updates during the day.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jubilees and Ancient Inscriptions

Jim Davila over on PaleoJudaica has linked to a (paywalled) article by Jonathan Ben-Dov in Haaretz, which speculates that undecipherable (to Aramaic-speakers) Cuneiform tablets may have contributed to the tradition in Jubilees that forbidden antediluvian knowledge was preserved on stone tablets.

While this is an intriguing proposition, and I look forward to reading the article in more detail, the tablets discovered by Kainan in Jubilees stand in a long line of traditions--from Jewish, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean sources--involving the preservation of primordial knowledge inscribed on tablets, plates, or stellae (usually in pairs). As I discuss in my dissertation, this appears to have been a pervasive motif that wasn't necessarily linked to any specific narrative.

Ben-Dov's also speculates that the Enochic tradition of angelic instruction in astral lore might have been influenced by an imaginative interpretation of carvings of Babylonian kings surrounded by astrological symbols. While Ben-Dov acknowledges antecedents in the culture-hero myths of the Babylonians, he fails to take into account the entire context of interconnected traditions linking giants, the primordial past, supernatural instruction, and astrology. All of the ingredients for the Enochic myth were already present in the cultural koine of the ancient Mediterranean/Near Eastern complex, and, indeed, appear to have been combined in differing configurations independently of one another (paralleling my own research, John C. Reeves has charted at least three possible threads of fallen-angel traditions influencing ancient sources).

This doesn't discount the possibility that awareness of cuneiform tablets may have affected the directions taken by those interpreting the extant motifs, but hardly in the primary sense Ben-Dov implies.

ETA: It looks like Dr. Ben-Dov is giving a talk at Penn next month which promises a more nuanced version of this argument, and may well address my above reservations. I guess I'll have to hop a train up and catch it. Because I don't already have enough to do in November.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

If you can't beat 'em...

Well, it looks like Jesus mythicism just won't go away. The trick that they mythicists like to play is to pick and choose a few pieces of evidence, with no discernible critical method (in Atwill's case, he takes Josephus at face value, but assumes the gospels are complete fabrications), and then to build a narrative that can explain those pieces of evidence, while ignoring any evidence that don't fit this narrative. Especially if that evidence comes from the New Testament.

The key is that your narrative doesn't have to explain all the evidence, or explain the evidence better than than the prevailing consensus. It just has make a good story. So I figured if that's all it takes, maybe somebody should take a crack at it who has a little better command of the primary sources and historical context than most of the mythicists.

So here, spun off my successful Quest for the Historical James, is my entirely made up, not-at-all serious Jesus myth. Failure to take with sufficient salt may lead to lightheadedness. If you experience a conspiracy theory lasting more than four hours, seek immediate medical attention.

Sometime around the first decades of the Common Era, there was a young Galilean by the name of Yaaqov bar Yosef, but we'll just call him Jimmy. Jimmy's father, Joe, was a craftsman of some sort from a small town called Nazareth. Jimmy had several brothers, including Sy, Joey, Jude, and the twins, Tommy and Josh. Josh (his full name was Yeshua bar Yosef) was a bit of a schmuck, especially for somebody pushing 30. One Passover, Josh was on Spring Break in Jerusalem, got a little too drunk at the seder, and wound up beating the spit out of some money-changers in the Temple. When the Roman guards came to break it up, Josh made an obscene joke about Caesar rendering something unto himself, called himself "the Lizard King," and got himself crucified.

Now Jimmy had been sent to Jerusalem to keep his elder brother out of trouble, and now he had to go back to Nazareth and explain to his family that Josh had died a humiliating and accursed death. He knew it would break his poor mother's heart.

So he started making things up.

Josh hadn't been home in quite some time, so Jimmy, who was a pretty good Torah student, made up the story (based in part on prophetic traditions) that Josh had been an itinerant teacher and healer this whole time, instead of wandering around crashing wedding parties and hanging out with tax collectors. Jimmy wove his own apocalyptic beliefs into the stories, spreading the idea of a coming Kingdom of God where the poor and powerless would be exalted over the rich and powerful. He got Josh's old pal Rocky in on it, and even claimed Josh was baptized by the notorious Johnny Dunker. As these rumors started to spread, some of the stories got conflated with the deeds of other miracle-workers and messianic claimants who were running around at the time, and the fame of this Josh who was crucified for claiming to be king only grew.

Jimmy wasn't exactly comfortable with some of what was going on. A few of Josh's old crew had been so drunk when Josh's twin Tommy showd up at the wake, they said they'd seen Josh after he died. Some people were claiming Josh was the Messiah, or some kind of Greek demigod! But Jimmy saw it as a chance to engage in social and religious reform, so he played along. Even when that thug Solly "Tiny" Tarsus switched teams and started recruiting gentiles to the movement, Jimmy put up with it, so long as Solly kept it out of Jerusalem. But Solly's followers quickly started to outnumber Jimmy's, and the Jewish authorities started getting nervous. They asked Jimmy to put the kibosh on the whole business, but he was int too deep to turn back, so the temple authorities took advantage of a gap in the Roman administration to form a lynch mob and stone poor Jimmy to death.

There you go! I'd go so far as to say this version does a better job of explaining the evidence than most mythicist theories, since it accounts for Paul's references to James as Jesus' brother, as well as James' prominence over Jesus in Josephus. It doesn't mythologize Jesus, per se, but will satisfy those who want the Gospel accounts to be entirely fictional, without having to irrationally suppose that Jews would have made up the crucifixion of a supposed messiah.

The only problem is, it's complete bullshit. Because it introduces far too much unnecessary complexity, and assumes far too much not in evidence. Most of all, it rests on the assumption that some of our sources were complete liars. Not just biased. Not just embellishing received tradition along doctrinal lines. But complete and total liars. And once you start assuming that, it gets hard to do history, at least from literary and documentary sources.

Don't get me wrong, ancient sources lie. Or make things up, at least. The whole concept of objective history is a very modern one, and we know full well, for instance, that Josephus fudged a lot of the facts to suit his agenda, just as Thucydides made up elaborate speeches to fit his philosophical understanding of history, and Suetonius would report any rumor with an orgy or a poisoning in it. And we know the Gospel sources made up plenty of stuff, like the nativity narratives (they can't both be true), and they massaged the sayings they had received to convey specific messages. But we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, we have to learn to read critically, and sift out the baby-shaped bits.

It's possible that the entire ministry of Jesus was a big con-job, whether you think it was made up by Paul, the Romans, or James. But it isn't likely, when compared to the much simpler, entirely plausible idea that there was a Galilean apocalyptic teacher who preached about a coming Kingdom of God, who was credited with healings and miracles (by a populace who believed such things were possible), who developed a bit of a following, who ran afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem and was crucified, and whose followers later came to believe he had risen from the dead in demonstration of his divine power.

There is a difference between skepticism and bad faith. We should be critical of our sources, but if we assume everything is a fiction until proven otherwise, we won't get very far.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Quest for the Historical...James?

So, I know the quest for the "historical Jesus" is the sexier topic (if one can call a horse that has been beaten to death, resurrected, beaten to death again, turned into a zombie, beheaded, and then brought back as a cyborg, sexy...), but whatever position you take, somebody is always going to accuse you of having an agenda. (People in atheist circles have accused ME of being a fundamentalist for affirming the historicity of Jesus!)

So let's start with somebody in whom not nearly so many people have an investment in: James, the brother of Jesus.

Our earliest references to James come from the same source as our earliest references to Jesus: the letters of Paul. Except Paul claims to have met James, and not in a struck-blind-by-a-vision way.

Now, it's possible that Paul made up James, except for one thing:

He says James disagreed with him.

Or at least the followers of James did. In Galatians 2:1-2, Paul reports that Peter ate with gentiles (a violation of Jewish dietary practices) when James's followers were around, implying that James, or his faction, believed observance of Jewish laws was still mandatory, at least for Jews like Paul and Peter. Paul (in his version of the story) sets Peter straight, arguing that faith, not observance of law, is the source of salvation, even for Jews.

Now, it's likely that Paul is putting his own spin on the incident for rhetorical purposes (the author of Acts has a somewhat different take), and we can tackle the quest for the historical Peter some other time, but if Paul invented the whole episode, why would he make the leader of the group opposing him the brother of Jesus? It would be a bizarre rhetorical move.

James shows up elsewhere in the NT, briefly in the gospels and prominently in Acts. He is considered by some traditions to be the author of the Epistle of James, but there is no real evidence to support this. But he is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (20.9.1), written around 93 CE, and unlike the other reference to Jesus in Josephus, this one is generally accepted as authentically the words of Josephus.

So how do you think the evidence stacks up? For me, the slam-dunk is Paul's own report of James disagreeing with him. It seems far more likely that Paul was reporting a real disagreement (even if inaccurately) with a real person than concocting a disagreement with a fictional one. If Paul didn't believe James was real, his audience certainly did, or Paul's references to him would have been meaningless.

Now, a historical James does not necessarily imply an historical Jesus. I suppose James could have been the one who made Jesus up, or started claiming to be the brother of a fictional Jesus who had been concocted by someone else. But that kind or thinking leads down a mighty deep rabbit-hole. We should be critical of our sources, and look for signs of bias, ideology, and other agendas that would influence their accounts, but if we go al Dr. House and assume everybody is lying, we don't have much history left.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Making Things Up Again (Arnold)

My apologies for the long silence. I have been neck-deep in the job search and preparing for conferences, but that’s no excuse. This particular piece has been rattling around in my head since July, and I somehow never got around to finishing it. Bad blogger!

This summer, I finally got a chance to see The Book of Mormon musical live, after listening to the soundtrack since the day it came out. It did not disappoint, and while it is filthy—just filthy—it also includes several of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on stage. Possibly in any medium.

But more than that, the play has a lot of really relevant (and teachable) things to say about religion. Their vulgarity notwithstanding, Parker and Stone have a remarkably deft and subtle hand when it comes to people’s beliefs, evinced by the fact that the CJCLDS (bless their really polite hearts), rather than condemning the lampoon, bought up ads in the Playbill (“The book is always better!”). The overall theme of the show is remarkably pro-religion (albeit anti-orthodoxy and anti-dogmatism), with a deep respect for the power of belief to improve lives.

Which brings me to my main point. The rest of this entry contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the show, so if you haven’t seen it or heard the soundtrack, I advise you to do so before going any further. I’m giving away the ending, and it’s better if you don’t see it coming.

(Cut for spoilers, naughty words, and deep theological insight)

I hear they have the Ark of the Covenant too

Over 100 long-lost Doctor Who episodes found by dedicated fans - in Ethiopia

Those of us in the Enochic field have long known that Ethiopia is a treasure-trove of important works long considered lost....

Monday, September 16, 2013

Can I read "Jonah"?

James Tabor has asked "Can You Read Jonah in Hebrew?" on the "nose" of the "fish" in one of the ossuaries he claims belonged to Jesus' family in a tomb near the one he claims belonged to Jesus' family.


Well, the big problem there is the yod, vav, and nun, when roughly inscribed, all pretty much look like squiggly lines. And vice versa. But what he reads an a yod could just as easily be a zayin, which would give us zonah, meaning "prostitute"!  And since "everybody knows" that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute (in the same way "everybody knows" she was married to Jesus), this is proof positive that this really is the Jesus family tomb!!!

There. Mystery solved. Do I get a TV show now?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Run silent, run deep...

No, Microsoft Word, I mean pericope, not periscope, and I would appreciate it if you didn't auto-correct that for me.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I'll be in my bunk. Academically speaking.

I was very excited to hear about Logos Bible Softwares Noet product, their expansion into classical, philosophical, and literary e-books. I was particularly excited to see that their Classical Greek and Latin bundles included content from the Perseus Digital Library, one of the most valuable information sources in the history of ever, if you are a classics geek. I also noticed that Logos is busy digitizing my other favorite thing in the world, the Loeb Classical Library.

And then, on a whim, I searched to see if the Perseus material was going to be available as a stand-alone product.

And it is. Already. FOR FREE.

I dont have the full version of Logos on my work computer, so I cant delve too deeply, but its a tremendous number of Greek and Latin texts and translations. It doesnt look like they are morphologically tagged, so it isnt a complete replacement for the (clunky) Perseus web interface. But Logos says they are looking into morph tagging, and there is already a right-click option to send a selection to Perseus parsing tool.  I stand corrected! They aren’t fully morph-tagged like the Bibles, but they have the same morph data that you’d get from the Perseus parser (e.g., it will tell you that form could be nominative, vocative, or accusative, but not which one it is.) At least that’s the case with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Joy!

This wont keep me from buying the various other Noet and Loeb offerings, of course. Because you cant have too many books, especially when they don’t weigh anything. But oh man, does this make it a lot easier to, say, pull up the original Greek of the Phaedrus on my phone at a cocktail party. And we all know how often that comes up.

*jumping up and down with geeky joy*

(They also have other material from the Perseus database, including Beowulf and the Duke Documentary Papyri, if that’s how you roll.)

ADDENDUM: It turns out the Perseus material has been (incrementally) available on Logos for almost two years now. Still pretty cool, though.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Oh, Dick!

Dick Dawkins is living up to his name again:

Richard Dawkins criticised for Twitter comment about Muslims

The thing is, I really think he doesn't understand why this is racist, because he is unable to understand the social context in which he speaks, one in which most Muslims are members of marginalized racial groups. (What, a Cambridge professor speaking from a perspective of White, western privilege?! Never!) Something doesn't have to racist in intent to be racist in consequence. When he marginalizes Muslims in the UK, he is marginalizing predominantly people with dark skin, whether he meant to or not.

And even if it isn't racist, it's still bigoted. My fellow atheists really need to learn the difference between disagreeing with a belief system and attacking its believers. There is a difference between Islam and Muslims, Judaism and Jews, Christianity and Christians, etc. Bigotry against people because of their religion is wrong, even if you think the religion is a bunch of balderdash.

Part of Dawkins's problem, I think, is that he is a scientist, and he doesn't work well with subtle, often emotionally-turbulent world of human interactions. It's one of my problems with his whole meme theory: he tries to reduce the immense complexities of cultural transmission to the simple algebra of genetics. (Hell, even genetics isn't that black-and-white anymore.) He could benefit from a deeper exposure to the humanities, especially some instruction on the history and varieties of world religions. Unfortunately, that might require Dawkins to check his privilege.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

“Because it’s my job as an academic.”

The Reza Aslan/Fox “News” kefluffle has raised a number of interesting issues that I will address in due course. (Unsurprisingly, I have some strong opinions on the whole “Why would you, a Muggle, want to study wizards?” business.) I do applaud Dr. Aslan for not bursting out laughing or using foul language; I don’t know if I could have shown such restraint:

But what’s interesting to me about this clip is what it reveals about the underlying assumptions of Fox “News” (and, I suspect, much of its audience). Ms. Green’s questions betray a suspicion of academia that goes beyond simple anti-intellectualism. She seems to assume that academics must have an agenda (be it political, religious, or whatever) beyond the simple desire to understand more about our world. Now, of course, many do, and even wear those agendas on their sleeve, but I hope that most of us at least strive for objectivity.

The academic study of religion is a potentially sticky example, because there are indeed many academics in the field who also advance certain confessional claims. (This is an old issue and I shan’t rehash it just now.) But I think the Foxnewsian view extends this to many other fields of inquiry as well. For instance, they can’t understand—or don’t believe—that climate scientists are simply interested in describing the natural world and drawing conclusions from the data. There must be, they assume, some sinister political agenda behind the (nearly uniequivocal) findings about climate change. (Nobody has ever been able to explain to me exactly what that agenda is, but hey…) They can’t conceive of ideologically-neutral facts (much less the obsessive drive scholars have to find them). Indeed, Lauren Green has written extensively on Islam, but generally in the context of anti-Islam polemic, so she may be assuming Aslan is just as incapable of being “fair and balanced” about Christianity as she is towards Islam.

(None of this should be taken as an endorsement of Aslan’s book, which I have only skimmed, but which does not appear to be very good, at least as a piece of New Testament scholarship.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

How I Wrote My Dissertation in a Single Year (At the Cost of My Friends, My Health, and Possibly My Career Prospects)

The more scholars I get to know, the more I realize how atypical my grad school experience was. A lot of things contributed to this. I didn’t initially plan on going into academia when I was done, so I didn’t put much effort into publishing or conferences. I’m naturally rather introverted, and I was separated enough from most of my cohort both in age and background that I didn’t end up making many friends or professional contact. And I am bull-headedly self-reliant to the point that I will reinvent a hundred wheels rather than ask for help from somebody who has been making wheels for decades.

But perhaps the most unusual part of the experience was that I finished my PhD in five years, starting with just a BA in Liberal Arts, and completed my dissertation in just one.

I have to admit, I didn’t know that writing a dissertation in one year was an extraordinary feat until I had already written most of it. When I started my program, I was given five years of funding, so I assumed completing the entire process was supposed to take five years, and nobody ever bothered to say otherwise. It wasn’t until March or so, when I emerged from the dissertation-mines for a colloquium, that someone said “Wait, you’re going to defend in MAY?!” Indeed, the reason my diploma says “August 2011” rather than “May” is that nobody thought to have me fill out the paperwork back in February for May graduation.

So, for the struggling grad students and long-suffering advisors out there, here are a few of my secrets to finishing your dissertation in a single year:

1. Just pick something and go with it
               This advice applies as much to the proposal stage as it does to the writing. Do not overthink your dissertation topic. Find something you are pretty sure can fill 250–300 pages that can also hold your interest for a year. It doesn’t need to be your central scholarly interest. Heck, you’ll be so sick of the topic by the time you’re through, it may be better to pick something you aren’t too attached to. (Think of it as a starter marriage…)
               Once you are writing, if you run into problems (too little or too much secondary scholarship/somebody stole your thesis in 1953/you disprove your own thesis), shift the focus of the paper to accommodate. Do not scrap the whole thing and start over, because you are going to run into the same problems in your new topic anyway.

2.      Make it your job
               I know this isn’t viable for some, but if possible, do not teach or have a job while you are dissertating. Most of the people I know whose dissertation have stretched out over years are the ones who are also teaching full time. Find some funding, marry rich, take out an extra loan, whatever. It will probably pay for itself in the long run, since it will radically shorten the time before you can get a “real job.” 

3. Stop talking to people 
               This is harder for most people than it was for me—and impossible for those with families, I assume—but the principle is sound. The dissertation isn’t just your job. It is now your spouse, your best friend, your baby, and your therapist. It’s not worth the time or effort to try to maintain healthy social interactions. It throws off your rhythm (see #7), and you won’t have anything to talk about to normal, sane people anyway. While you’re at it, give up any hobbies or activities (like, say, sleep) that aren’t furthering your goals. Come to think of it, just treat yourself like you’re being brainwashed by a dangerous cult.

4.      Write a page a day (even if it kills you)
               This may seem basic, but it’s harder than you think. And we’re talking averages here, because you may spend a week on one page of data and bang out ten pages of conclusions in one sitting. I kept an Excel spreadsheet with a chart showing my 10-day running average, and then eliminated extraneous things from my life until it stabilized at 1ppd. Like the proverbial sculptor, just chip away anything that isn’t a dissertation.

5.      Be cocky
               There are three skills I have of which I am utterly confident. One of them is writing. When I put something on the page, even if it isn’t great, it is certainly sufficient. Cultivate this kind of arrogance, even if it doesn’t come naturally, because if you’ve gotten this far, you probably know what you are doing. Trust your training. Do not become obsessed with constant rewrites. Make your point, edit out errors, and walk away. Like remembering a locker combination, the more you think about writing, the harder it gets.
               While we’re on the subject: you may feel like you don’t actually know what you’re doing yet, like you’re faking it and in over your head. Guess what? Everybody feels that way. All the time. I’m sure you’ve read a journal articles at some point in which respected scholars make blindingly obvious errors. That’s because they are human, too. They too have those moments when they are too tired to track down a reference, or assume something not in evidence, or just screw up. They have just been faking it longer.

6.      Use technological resources
               In terms of actual time-saving, this may be the most practical piece of advice. There are some really wonderful reference-management software packages out there that can optimize some of the most tedious parts of scholarly writing. Programs like Zotero and Mendelay (I use the former, but their capabilities are similar) not only simplify creating bibliographies and footnotes, they can also be used to store, organize, and search notes and PDFs of journal articles. In the time since I was dissertating, interfaces for Zotero and Mendelay have been developed for the iPad and (to a lesser extent) Android, allowing you to access and annotate your PDFs on the go.
               Speaking of PDFs, scanning entire books from the library might be legally sketchy, but scanning your own books for personal use is worth the effort, especially if you use a good OCR program like Abbyy FineReader Pro. With the right equipment you can scan an entire book in less than an hour, and you will have a fully searchable electronic copy that you can mark up to your heart’s content. There are scanners designed specifically for books (like the Plustek OpticBook 3600), or you can find plans online for DIY book scanners made from cheap digital cameras. And digitizing your library makes you 80% less likely to die under an avalanche of books.

7.      Find your rhythm
               We each have our own rhythms and work habits. Identify yours and work with it, not against it. Don’t force yourself to get up early or work right before bed if that isn’t how you are most productive. I discovered early on that it takes me a while to overcome inertia, so it takes me a while to start, and once I’m going, I keep going. I accepted that there were going to be about eight hours of goofing off each day before I got to work, so I scheduled those eight hours. I knew if I didn’t, they would just end up coming out of my productive time.
               Eliminating all outside obligations also allows you to adjust to your natural circadian rhythms, rather than submitting to the oppressive, patriarchal 24-hour day! After some experimenting, I found that my home planet has 36-hour days, and I ended up on a cycle of 24-hours awake and 12-hours asleep (occasionally 30/15). That gave me 16 increasingly-productive (if increasingly-delirious) hours per “day.”
               Now, I’m not that kind of doctor, so I don’t advocate anyone else take such radical steps with their sleep patterns; sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences. I probably couldn’t have maintained such a schedule for more than a year, but the point is that I didn’t have to.

8.      Stick to your deadlines
               If your committee is anything like mine, they probably aren’t actually reading your chapters very carefully anyway, so don’t depend on them to enforce any timetable. Set realistic goals for the completion of each chapter and stick to them. If a chapter isn’t polished at the end of the appointed time, move on. You will have time to clean it up later. Make careful notes on what needs revision, then WALK AWAY. Don’t be like James A.H. Murray, who spent the first 5 years of compiling the OED without going past “ant."

9.      Choose a good committee, then ignore them
               I had almost no contact with my committee while I was writing. I sent them completed chapters, but never asked for feedback. I had picked professors I had worked with extensively during my coursework, who liked me, and were confident enough in my ability (and inured enough to my misanthropy) to let me find my own way. My few meetings with my advisor generally lasted long enough for him to say, “You know how this works. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
               Again, I know it's not always possible (or even advisable) to only choose professors who are on your side. If the leading authority on your topic is in your department, it would be foolish to exclude them for being a dick or a control-freak. But it is your dissertation, so don’t be bullied. Make your own mistakes; you learn more from them.

10. Drink

11. Beware the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog
               Focus on your argument. You will encounter numerous fascinating tangents and excursuses during your research. Don't follow them down the rabbit hole. You have the rest of your scholarly career to walk the garden paths of mixed metaphors. When you come across something you think is really cool, ask yourself if it furthers your argument. If the answer is “no," make a note of it (because you will forget), then move on.
               (Also, make the note something that will be intelligible to you in 3 years. I recently found “WINGS!!!" scribbled in the margins of a book, and I know it was something important, because it was underlined in red with three exclamation marks, but I’ll be damned if I know why...)

12.   Just write the damn thing already!
               You know what you’re doing right now? You’re not writing your dissertation. Stop making excuses. Stop thinking about what might go wrong. Stop questioning your thesis. Just write. Let it be awful (for now). Leave gaping holes (for now). Let references go uncited (FOR NOW!). And don’t try to make it perfect. Because it won’t be. Not even if you take ten years. But you know what it will be? Good enough. Unless you have assembled a committee of avowed sadists, it’s unlikely that your best effort is going to be wholly insufficient. You’ve probably spent most of your life excelling at everything academic, but you are in the big leagues now. An adequate PhD is still excellent.

Caveats: This approach left me woefully unprepared for the job market. Indeed, one of the arguments for extending the PhD process for a few extra years is that it gives students a chance to attend conferences, publish, and build relationships with other scholars. I was so focused on finishing that I lost sight of the purpose of the degree, and I am paying for that now. It is much harder to build a network of contacts when one isn’t engaged in academia full-time. (Bizarrely, I met most of my scholarly contacts on OKCupid…) And I did such a good job convincing my professors that I am totally self-sufficient that they didn’t offer much guidance in my job search until I asked.

If I had it all to do over again (and I am sorely tempted sometimes to go back for a second doctorate in philosophy or classics…), there are a lot of things I would do differently. I would make much more of an effort to connect with people. I would try to publish sooner. I would find more opportunities to teach (rather than assist) during my coursework. But as far as the dissertation goes, this process worked for me, and now that I’ve mastered it, I suspect I could knock out another one in 9 months this time…

Monday, July 1, 2013

REVIEW: The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel by Brian R. Doak

I will admit that I cursed under my breath a little when I saw the blurb for Brian R. Doak’s The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel. I had been planning a comprehensive gigantology as an upcoming project, and I feared I might have been beaten to the punch.¹ Doak’s book, however, is much more narrow in its focus, concentrating on the portrayals of giants within the Hebrew Bible, their context within ancient Mediterranean and Near Easter society, and the function of these giants (especially in the conquest and monarchic narratives) in Israelite self-definition. Doak frames the biblical giants against the background of a wider Mediterranean koine, and through the use of comparisons to sources from the Illiad to Ugaritic funerary inscriptions, he argues that the biblical giants represent a uniquely Israelite manifestation of a cross-cultural trope in which the struggle between heroes and monsters symbolizes the ordering of the universe, and in which the shades of fallen heroes occupy an ambiguous but powerful position in the afterlife.
Doak’s method is unabashedly (but not unapologetically) comparative. Indeed, his first chapter includes a cogent-yet-cautious defense of the value of comparative methodology that also recognizes the limitations (and past excesses) of the approach. Doak joins scholars like Nagy and Niddich (not to mention myself) in stressing the degree of continuity and cultural flow between included Greek, Roman, Anatolian, Egyptian, Levantine, Mesopotamian, and Persian peoples throughout antiquity. This makes it possible to recognize the influence of common tropes, themes, and motifs within their diverse cultural contexts without necessitating evidence of direct lines of influence.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of the book is its comprehensive review of the biblical references to the various groups (Nephilim, Gibborim, Rephaim, Anaqim, etc.) that are either explicitly described as giants, or at some point equated with one of these groups. He makes admirable work of this muddy subject, taking into account the tendency to conflate these various groups as a reflection of the giants’ function as “other.” He pays particular attention to the geographies associated with these groups (leaving me wishing for a map), as a feature of his broader emphasis on the giants, not as primordial monsters, but as the enemies of the Israelite conquest and especially the monarchy. Like Bartelmus and Hendel before him, Doak argues that the giants exist to be destroyed, and that the peoples of the land and the enemies of David were linked to the antediluvian Nephilim and Gibborim in a rhetorical move aimed at emphasizing the inevitability of their defeat.

Doak further draws upon (but adds little to) existing scholarship on the Ugaritic Rapi’uma in order to clarify the dichotomy between the giants as always-already defeated enemies of the past, and their portrayal as the living, flesh-and-blood foes of the Israelites. After Gese and Hendel, he finds hints in biblical texts (especially Ezek. 32 and Is. 26) that the terms Rephaim (like its Ugaritic cognate) and Nephalim may have once been understood to refer to fallen heroes honored after death, much like the Greek cults of heroes. Their use by the prophets, however, appears to be ironic, in that it mocks them as powerless shades, rather than mighty warriors or healing spirits. Through this parallel, Doak is able to negotiate the liminal state of the giants as living figures of the epic past, but long-conquered denizens of the underworld in the present of the authors.

While the nature of his project makes Doak’s emphasis on canonical biblical texts understandable, I found it curious that, given the breadth of comparative material he explored, Doak makes only cursory use of other Jewish texts relating to the giants, particularly 1 Enoch and Jubilees, but also the Sibylline Oracles. What use he does make of Enochic material feels uncritical. He twice (pp. 56 & 216) botches accounts of the descent of the giants from the Watchers in 1 Enoch by relying on details only attested in Syncellus’ version of the Greek, not in the Akhmim Greek or Ethiopic, and he conflates this with the parallel account in Jubilees. He only devotes part of a paragraph to the post-mortem persistence of the giants’ spirits as evil influences in 1 En. 15 and Jub. 10, despite the fact that such a parallel would only bolster his argument, placing the giants in exactly the position Doak wants them: dark reflections of epic heroes. Even a short treatment of these materials would have benefitted the book far more than his clumsy attempt, in the fifth chapter, to shoehorn his thesis into a model of Heroic and Axial ages.

Nevertheless, Doak’s work is a valuable and welcome addition to the study of giants in biblical tradition. While none of his theses is revolutionary, he assembles them in a cogent and illuminating manner, especially with respect to ethnographic and geographic details of the various groups tied to the giants. His emphasis on the latter-day giants (which do, after all, constitute to majority of the biblical references to giants) serves as a useful counterbalance to scholarship (like my own) that is more concerned with traditions related to the primeval history. Most of all, it participates in an ongoing, interdisciplinary dialogue that seeks to synthesize our understanding of the ancient world into a coherent whole, instead of reinforcing artificial divisions between disciplines and methodologies.

¹ I may yet lose in the next round, however, as Matthew Goff is on his way to Germany to work on his own gigantology, due in 2015. I’d better get to work.

CORRECTION: In a classic scribal error, the original version of this review transposed the k at the end of Dr. Doak’s name into the position of his middle initial, which has been corrected to read R.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Confessions of a (slightly below) average writer

I re-took the GREs last winter (my third time), partially for a lark, and partially in preparation for a harebrained scheme to get a second doctorate if I can't find a faculty post.

Anyway, despite the fact that the format has been completely revised since I last took it, and the scoring totally different, I got exactly the same results, percentile-wise, on the Verbal and Quantitative sections that I did before. But, of course, I had to wait several weeks before I got the score from the Analytical Writing test. I didn't worry about it, though, because my writing is one of my strongest skills.

And then I got the score.

4.0 out of 6.

49th percentile.

Bear in mind the last time I took the test, before my written rhetoric had been honed by five years of grad school, I scored a 5.5. My prose has never been described as anything but excellent, clear, and entertaining. As an undergraduate, I seriously considered a career writing fiction. And, not to brag, but I got a perfect score on the Verbal section the last two times I took it. So it came a something of a shock to discover that, according to ETS, my writing is (slightly below) average.

I have long known that the writing assessments of standardized tests are flawed. I had students who had tested out of their freshman comp requirement because of their writing SAT scores, but who couldn't construct an argument if they bought it from Ikea. And based on the ETS website, the written sections are only scored by a single human reader and a computer, unless the computer's score differs from the human's. Forgive me, but I am a little skeptical that language processing algorithms have reached the point that they can evaluate the quality of an argument.

My point here is not to gripe. It's to illustrate how problematic it is for us to rely on standardized tests to predict how students will perform in graduate programs. If a published scholar holding an advanced degree in the humanities only scores a 4 out of 6, the metric is useless. I assume (or at least hope) that this score is irrelevant for applicants with strong essays and writing samples, but considering the cost of the test (not to mention test prep classes), the test's failure to accurately predict one's ability to produce graduate-level writing is troubling.

For what it's worth, I shelled out another $60, in order to have my essays regraded by hand. And I got the same score. I intend to re-re-re-take them again in the fall, after I've had time to study their mechanical grading rubric, so the next time the essay asks me analyze the statement, "One should always consider the consequences before taking risks," instead of providing a well-crafted argument about the pitfalls of teleological ethics, I'll just say risk is bad because it's risky...

Saturday, June 8, 2013


I am experimentally activating ads on this blog, not out of avarice (I'm only getting a couple hundred hits per month), but in the interest of exploring alternate means of funding scholarship in pursuit of my Academic Busking project. I know some other biblioblogs are on ad-supported platforms, although I don't know if the bloggers receive to proceeds, and Bart Ehrman, of course, turns the tables by keeping his full content behind a charity-wall, making his blog into something of a scholarly benefit concert.

Advertising certainly raises ethical questions, not so much in terms of affecting my content (especially for a few pennies), but whether the ads might conflict with the message I'm trying to communicate. If Amazon's suggestions are any indication, the targeting algorithms have a hard time distinguishing between scholarly discourse about religion and popular (often conservative) religious expression. I would not want my page sullied with links to sloppy apologetics, hot Christian singles,¹ conservative politics, or even worse, Dan Brown books! We shall see once Google approves my application.

¹ I once got a targeted ad while Googling "soteriology" that read "Meet hot soteriology singles!" I also get occasional ads on Facebook saying "Do you like Plotinus? Consider a career in Homeland Security."

The allure of books

In spite of my previous complaints about the proposal and membership requirements of the Association for Jewish Studies, I am grateful to them for continuing to provide paper copies of their journals to members without additional cost. Sure, other organizations provide online access to their journals, but there is something much more compelling about getting a physical object in the mail. On my own, I'm unlikely to have randomly opened a PDF of Adam Sacks's fascinating article, "Hannah Arendt's Eichmann Controversy as Destabilizing Transatlantic Text," or a review of a book on Liberal and Evangelical Christian approaches to Zionism, and I would have been the worse for the lack. But having the AJS Review sitting on my coffee table begging to be leafed through makes me much more likely to encounter ideas I would never have thought to look for.

Don't get me wrong: I love electronic publications, especially for research purposes. I love being able to do full-text searches. I love being able to have thousands of resources as close as my smartphone. I love being able to pump e-books through a sexy Scottish text-to-speech synthesizer so I can pretend Shirley Manson is reading me An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (OK, maybe that's just me...) But I am also a librarian's son, and I can't imagine giving up the tactile sensation of books, even when I have to schlep nearly 1000 pounds of them (including comics) every time I move. Likewise, no e-book software can hope to match the beauty and readability of a skilled typesetter, or the feel of a good binding. (Pick up a volume from the Loeb Classical Library or one of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions if you doubt me.)

I suppose my ideal solution would be what the evil lawyers used on the TV show Angel: a shelf of beautifully-bound blank books that magically call forth any text in history to fill the pages. I don't doubt the technology will be feasible within a decade or two; I just hope people haven't forgotten about books qua books before then.

(This could also precipitate a scholarly excusus on the effects of the use of codices rather than scrolls on the spread of early Christianity and its interpretive approaches to scripture, but I have developed tennis elbow despite my lifelong aversion to the game, and typing is becoming painful.)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Biblical Poop 2: Electric Burgle-Loo

[Again, I apologize for being irregular. I hope it wasn’t a strain to hold it so long.]

When we left our left-handed hero, Ehud, he had just revealed a pointy secret to King Eggroll, um, I mean Eglon, driving his sword so deeply into the king’s belly that the blade gets stuck in all the fat. And then…

Vayyetseʾ ha-parshedonah! (וַיֵּצֵא הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה)

Translators have never known exactly what to make of this. The whole phrase would mean “And then [something] came out,” or “And then he/it went out [something],” but we don’t know what that “something” is, because the word parshedonah (פַּרְשְׁדֹנָה) doesn’t appear anywhere else in Biblical Hebrew. (Scholars call that a hapax logomenon, because scholars like to call stuff things.) But it might be related to the Hebrew peresh (פֶּרֶשׁ), which means “feces.”¹ This reading is backed up by the Latin translation, but the Greek skips the line entirely, jumping straight to the next. And that next line, in Hebrew, sounds awfully familiar:

Vayyetseʾ ʾEhud ha-misderonah… (וַיֵּצֵא אֵהוּד הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה)

“And Ehud went out [something]…” Another hapax. And if you read the lines together (as I did for a memorization exercise as a grad student), they make this lovely sort of doublet, like a Kink’s song.² Misderonah is as obscure as parshedonah. The -ah­ ending on misderon probably implies direction, so it seems to be some sort of location or architectural feature; the traditional KJV translation is “porch,” while the NRSV classes it up with “vestibule,” both following the general meaning of the Greek προστάς. But the context supplies some additional clues toward the real meaning of the word.

Perhaps the funniest scene of the whole episode comes when Eglon’s servants (because the only thing more universally funny than poop is clueless servants) come to check on him, and finding the door locked, decide not to bother Eglon, concluding that mesik hu et-raglav (מֵסִיךְ הוּא אֶת־רַגְלָיו), literally, “he is covering his feet.” Now, in Hebrew, “feet” is kind of a catch-all euphemism for any of the southerly body parts, especially the genitals (Ex. 4:25, Is. 6:2, Ruth 3:4).³ Specifically, the phrase “to cover (one’s) feet” appears elsewhere (1 Sam. 24:2, with a different verb), meaning “to defecate.”

So the subtext here is that the servants (possibly smelling the parshedonah spilled by the stabbing), conclude that his corpulent majesty is “reading the paper,” as my dad used to put it. They then stand around awkwardly the way you do when someone is in the can, until they finally hit the “better see if he’s OK” threshold, and take a look inside.

Now, having established that Eglon’s chamber had some sort of en suite facilities, and with the scatological mood of the story well established, we can start to piece together what is going out where. The likely root of misderon is s-d-r (סדר), meaning “order” or “arrangement.” Given the frequency of euphemisms like “commode” (= “suitable”), “facilities,” and even “convenience,” it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to suppose that the “arrangement” involved in the misderonah was feature of the toilet. And it was something Ehud could go through to escape, perhaps a drain or ventilation shaft of some kind.

Based on this, I suggest the following emendation to the NRSV translation of Judges 3:22–23, to reflect the tone, repetition, and sibilance of the original Hebrew (my changes in red):

…the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; then the poop shot out, and Ehud went down the poop chute, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.4

It’s not a perfect solution (he seems to lock himself in after his escape, but that problem exists in the NRSV), but I think it does more justice to the bawdy nature of the tale. It also functions to throw the reader off balance, confronting them with the alien nature of a text they might otherwise take for granted.

Also, y’know, poop is funny.

¹ One classmate of mine, confused by the British spelling in the standard Hebrew lexicon, tried to translate this word as “faces” rather than “faeces.”
² This is the point where I typically assure my students something would be hilarious if they were 20 years older.

³ I made the mistake of telling my Intro to Hebrew Bible students this, which led them to read every reference to “feet” in the dirtiest possible manner. Sometimes a foot is just a foot.

An alternate reading could render parshedonah as parshedon with a “locative heh” suffix (like on misderon-ah), meaning that rather than being what comes out, parshedon would be what it came out of. If that’s the case, “poop chute” could be used in both verses.