Monthly Archives: October 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different


Hobbins on the Qeiyafa Inscription

With his customarily critical eye, John Hobbins reproduces the text of the Qeiyafa inscription with a vocalized version and an English translation based on a synthesis of the scholarship and his own work. It’s the best I’ve seen so far. Thanks John for taking the time to put this together.

Quotable: Peter Hayman

I’m reading Peter Hayman’s “Monotheism—A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” from JJS 42, and I came across a quote that makes me feel much better about my multifarious research interests:

There are rich, as yet unexplored, pickings in rabbinic midrash for scholars interested in the Canaanite background to Israelite religion. This is one area where our specialization into Ugaritic scholars, Old Testament scholars, and Judaists, really lets us down. To appreciate the continuity one needs to be all three.

Every day I’m more and more happy to be working heavily with all three of those areas (and a few others).

Quotable: Thomas Thompson

I’m reading through a Tom Thompson paper and thought the following was just ridiculous:

Our tradition, as a tradition identified with the remnant of Israel, does not and could not have its historical context or referent in the Assyrian period. There was never in that period, and there could not have been, any unifying structure: intellectual, political, social or economical, that could be identified with ‘biblical Israel’, a concept that did not exist in Palestine before the mid-fifth century at the earliest. That it existed already then is yet another question. The earliest possible date is not necessarily the most likely one—even for a tradition’s beginnings.

While “Biblical Israel” is primarily a fragmentarily represented memory viewed through a Second Temple Period Jewish lens, the evidence is overwhelming that representative aspects of Israelite culture and government (from David on) existed, in large part, as presented by the narratives. What’s this guy’s angle?

Gnuse on Monotheism

I’ve decided on a topic for my masters thesis and am beginning to collect literature related to it. In short, I am going to investigate the relationship of the Hebrew Bible’s appeal to divine council imagery with the development of monotheism within Judaism. I will argue that changes to divine council ideology and a critical reading of the associated texts point to the Hellenistic era as the date for the development of strict monotheism. Right now I’m reading a Religion article from 1999 by Robert Gnuse entitled “The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: A Survey of Recent Scholarship.” I’d like to briefly respond to one particular point Gnuse makes on page 314:

Most critical scholars agree that the leap from practical to pure monotheism requires some social and religious crisis to encourage the complete surrender of all gods save one.

I understand this is a pretty common theory, and I addressed it very briefly in a previous post, but I’d like to dig a little deeper into an alternative theory of what catalyzed monotheism. I don’t believe a crisis is required, as Gnuse states. If the process is slow and the shifts are subtle, any number of impetuses could be responsible for the change.

Gnuse’s article goes on to distinguish between practical monotheism and pure monotheism. Practical monotheism is not denying the existence of other gods, but just ignoring them. For all intents and purposes, YHWH is the only real deity, even if the other nations worship legitimate deities. As I argued in the above-cited post, this is the source of Deutero-Isaiah and Deuteronomy’s rhetoric. Pure monotheism would be a theology that explicitly rejects the existence of any grade of deity (technically, no Judeo-Christian theology is purely monotheistic, but there’s the other category of “inclusive monotheism,” which will be discussed in my thesis). I have argued and will argue that this wasn’t accomplished, for the most part, until the several deities of pre-Exilic and Exilic Israel were consolidated into the angelic realms.

I see the impetus for pure monotheism as multifaceted, but based on the influence of Greek philosophical views of deity, the universalization and transcendence of YHWH, and the need for heavenly intermediation. A transcendent deity is entirely separated from humanity. With no way to condescend, there is no real relationship. An angelic retinue provides suitable intermediation, and the literary convention of a divine council is easily appropriated for that purpose. The explosion of literature at this time period provides fertile ground for the exploration of these and other theological innovations (including the demotion of Satan to the same angelic realms), and monotheism is popularized.

An Atheist Rift?

Jim West points to an NPR article discussing an inside critique of the New Atheist movement. The article mostly features an interview with Stuart Jordan, a volunteer advisor with the Center for Inquiry. Their mission is “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Jordan is speaking out about what he sees as a misguided facet of the New Atheism, catalyzed by an atheist art exhibit he feels is unnecessarily belittling towards religion. The accompanying photo shows one of the pieces. Jordan says, “I wouldn’t want this on my wall” (as an artist I’m offended by how much the painting just plain old sucks).

The article goes on to discuss this New Atheist movement, and what the journalist sees as some of the challenges that may be facing it, including a potential schism, represented by Mr. Jordan. According to the head of the Center, which ran the exhibit, “What we wanted were thoughtful, incisive and concise critiques of religion. We were not trying to insult believers.” Jordan sees it differently. The painting on the left is only one of the three things the Center’s head mentioned, and that’s concise. Beyond that it’s just taking something people find spiritually important and mocking it. If the head of the Center had anything to do with which art was accepted to this exhibit, he failed in his expressed goals.

The article then discusses prominent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book God Is Not Great, told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.” His words were greeted with hoots of approval.

Religion is “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous,” Hitchens tells NPR.

Hitchens doesn’t appear to know much about war, geopolitics, or history. His opinion is a rather naive and reductive one that is common among college freshmen and those who fail to transcend that mentality. The maintenance of power and the ideologies that prop that power up are responsible for the danger so often attributed to religion. Blaming “religion” in and of itself is simply juvenile.

The founder of the Center for Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, agrees with Jordan. He was evidently ousted last year from his position, and the article has this to say:

[Kurtz] worries the new atheists will set the movement back.

“I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

He hopes this new approach will fizzle.

“Merely to critically attack religious beliefs is not sufficient. It leaves a vacuum. What are you for? We know what you’re against, but what do you want to defend?”

The new head of the Center, Ronald Lindsay (quoted above) also had the following to say about being belittling:

“We take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.”

Perhaps he was not being totally sincere in the other quote. Either way, it’s an interesting dynamic, and what I find interesting is that the New Atheists who are trying to shock and awe more than connect on a respectful level certainly are reaching more people, but are polarizing people more than they’re changing minds. I have to side with Jordan and Kurtz that this New Atheism is going to do more damage than good to their long term goals. I’m als oglad to see someone else using a term I adopted a long time ago (atheist fundamentalists).

What are your thoughts?

Online Critical Pseudepigrapha

I was directed this morning to an online version of the Greek text of Aristeas. The version is found on the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha, a fascinating website of which I can’t believe I’ve been ignorant for so long. It has online versions of the texts in several different languages (including a new Syriac 2 Baruch), and includes commentary. Here are the texts available:

Texts with Critical Apparatus

2 (Syriac Apocalypse of) Baruch (NEW edition)
The Testament of Job
1 Enoch (In progress)
Testament of Adam (In progress)

Texts without Critical Apparatus

Testament of Abraham
The Life of Adam and Eve
Visions of Amram (NEW)
The Letter of Aristeas
Aristeas the Exegete
3 (Greek Apocalypse of) Baruch
4 Baruch (Paraleipomena Ieremiou)
Cleodemus Malchus
Eldad and Modad
The Apocryphon of Ezekiel
Ezekiel the Tragedian
Vision of Ezra (NEW)
The History of the Rechabites (NEW edition)
The Lives of the Prophets
Assumption of Moses (Testament of Moses) (NEW)
3 Maccabees
4 Maccabees
Philo the Epic Poet
Testament of Solomon

You should check it out.

Quotable: Michael Heiser

I found this quote from Michael Heiser particularly interesting:

Readers familiar with my own research know that I’m someone who believes that terms like “Israelite religion” and “Old Testament theology” ought to be interchangeable in our thinking. They know that I’ve complained for years about the lip service evangelicals pay to “contextualizing” the Bible, when what they really do is cherry-pick ancient Near Eastern literature and material culture for comfortable parallels that protect us from seeing the Old Testament through the eyes of an ancient Semite instead of those of a 20th (or 17th) century Westerner. If we’re really serious about interpreting the Bible in its own cultural and religious context, we need to remove the modern theological filters we use to read it.

I think this is a widespread problem in a number of religious traditions, but I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional. Most Bible readers these days are searching for applicability in their own livs, and so read the Bible through that particular filter: how does this apply to me. Since most people are also naturally religio- and ethnocentric  to  one degree or another, this becomes a comfortable default lens that is difficult to remove when it comes to historicocritical considerations.

I think many want to believe the Bible is accessible to them on every level, as well, and so think they can flesh out the context on their own, without knowing much more than what the Bible itself tells them about the world of the ancient Near East. What information they do find that provides contextualization most likely comes down to devotional readers of the Bible through devotional channels, and so is probably that cherry-picked (not by them) literature and material culture. I think this is where Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of seminary graduates not using the sources and critical thinking skills they should have developed in seminary are particularly important.

Thanks for the quote, Michael. Does anyone have any thoughts?

Jewish Art and Dialoguing with Christians

I recently returned from attending tonight’s David Patterson Seminar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The presenter was Aaron Rosen, a colorful Oxford fellow with a DPhil from Cambridge who lectures here on modern Jewish art. He has joined our small group of masters students at the local pubs a few times and and recently published a book entitled Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj. Tonight’s lecture focused on the use of Christian symbols in the art of Chagall, Rothko, and Kitaj.

Particularly interesting to me was the work of Chagall, who, according to this presentation, seems to have appropriated the crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, with the resurrection a sign of hope for a rebirth of Jewish self-identity. He also used it as an “indicment against Christianity,” according to Rosen. The painting below, White Crucifixion, is intended to criticize the Christian use of the crucifixion as a source of anti-Semitism. Aaron tells us the man in the lower left with the white plaque on his chest originally had “Ich bin Juden” written on it, but it was removed in an effort to make the painting accessible to a wider audience, and perhaps even specifically to Christians. I found the talk captivating and was totally unaware of this dynamic of Jewish art in the last century. If you enjoy art and have never been exposed to Jewish art before, I recommend checking out his book.

New Oklahoma Abortion Law

Joel has an interesting blurb up about a new law going into effect soon in Oklahoma that requires abortion patients to answer a list of questions, ranging from the county where the abortion is to be performed to the patient’s income level and reason for getting an abortion. The answers will then be posted on a public website (names will not be posted).

The law, which will take effect on Nov. 1, compels the Oklahoma Department of Health to publish data online on all abortion patients — including the woman’s race, marital status, financial circumstances, years of education, number of previous pregnancies, and her reason for seeking the abortion. Doctors who fail to provide such information will be criminally penalized and stripped of their medical licenses.

Now, I am one who believes abortion has its place in a limited number of circumstances. I also feel a fetus is a human life, and being irresponsible or not thinking ahead isn’t a good enough reason to end it. However, a law that explicitly and with extreme prejudice violates patient confidentiality like this is an abominable affront to human decency. It’s institutionalized terrorism, quite frankly, and I am appalled that a state legislature would allow it to pass.


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