Sunday, August 9, 2020

On "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels *****

 

This is an extremely lucid account of Christian gnosticism that also happens to make some rather bold claims about why gnostics lost out in their bid to control the Christian agenda during the early history of the church. I can easily see how this book won the National Book Award way back in 1980 and why it has been a constant on the bookshelves in the religious section of booksellers ever since. In my younger years, however, I had no interest in tackling this short volume, and I don't know that I would have appreciated it than as I do now. 

Pagels begins by discussing the Nag Hammadi library and her work with the manuscripts. This is the least intriguing portion of the book, and I could see simply skipping it to get to chapter 1, page 1. Here is where the meat of her arguments begin and where the book really picks up speed.

Pagels essentially argues that Christian orthodoxy had various reasons to sideline gnostic teachings, all of them having to do with the answer to the question of who was to be in charge. Gnosticism, in Pagels view, was much more prone to rejecting Christian authority as it had come down through the apostles. We can see this in several different ways.

The first centers on who walked with and saw Jesus while he was present on earth. Gnostics claimed to have visionary-type knowledge of Jesus, such that they could claim authority equal to or greater than those who had been witness to Jesus's physical ministry. By contrast, the Orthodox claimed that only those who had actually walked with Jesus and those in turn approved by that original fold held such authority over teaching and the church.

Another had to do with the authority within church groups themselves. Many gnostics held that all people were equal in terms of their ability to conduct church services and to teach at them. They were more inclined to be "moved by the spirit," in modern parlence, in deciding how to conduct a meeting. The Orthodox church became increasingly hierarchical, separating out the lay people from the ministry. Pagels ties this in even to their views of God, with the Orthodox claiming God as the one creator God and the gnostics claiming a pleroma of deities and the creator often being a lesser god.

Another difference is that some gnostic groups were more inclined to view women as equal to men in terms of the spiritual insight and authority; the Orthodox church, by contrast, did not ordain women into roles as elders and bishops. Gnostic groups often included a female deity among their pleroma or saw the Holy Spirit as the female part of God.

Another general difference was the willingness to die for the cause. Among the Orthodox, martyrdom became an honor. Gnostic groups, by contrast, often saw no need to give up one's life for one's beliefs. In part, this was a reflection of their differing views with regard to Jesus's death. The Orthodox claimed the Jesus, God's son, really did die; the gnostics often claimed that only the physical part of Jesus died but that in fact the spirit part lived on and that the physical part wasn't even real.

Finally, the two groups differed with regard to how they defined the church. The Orthodox saw the church more as a physical entity that held loyalty to the power structure set up within the church. Gnostics, by contrast, often saw the church as being those who had become spiritually enlightened. A bishop might, in fact, be less enlightened than a gnostic member. In other words, one's personal spirituality played a larger role among the gnostics, because for them often God was inside you and getting in touch with God meant becoming in touch with one's inner core. For Orthodoxy, by contrast, God was something outside one's self that one reached toward.

Pagels does a lot of simplifying and generalizing to make her points clearer, but that's part of what is so charming about the book and what makes it so compelling to read and easy to understand. She also presents Orthodoxy and Gnosticism as two warring sets of believers, with the former winning out. Only brief mention is made of how the latter actually ended up influencing, indeed transforming, the former, which is another story but an important one that is mostly lost here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

On "White Fragility" by Robin Diangelo ****

I read this best-selling book as part of a book club assignment. As books and conversations about race and racism are finding a large audience at this time, I hope that such things are able to effect real change. I suspect, however, that racism, and our attitudes about it, will continue to evolve into yet other different forms rather than disappear. The current manner in which racism continues to manifest itself in a systemic way is difficult to assess critically. Color blindness is on some level an ideal (often touted by conservatives) and on another a way to continue the exploitation of people of color (as often claimed by liberals). (As Diangelo and others would say of color blindness: coded "nonracial" language often suits a racially charged purpose; and when someone starts off with advantages, such "blindness" actually perpetuates the current system rather than interrogating it.) On the other side, appreciation of differences between cultures and ethnicities is an ideal (assuming such differences exist), until such "appreciation" becomes a means to set certain peoples aside as something "other" for supremacist purposes. I'm reminded of something a friend once said to me when I was a young man that has stuck with me forever after, namely, that we humans always find people to discriminate against for our own ends. If a society consisted only of white males, that society would find a way to distinguish among them so as to more greatly advantage some over others (height, weight, hair or eye color, etc.), merit aside (though what consistutes merit can also be loaded for particular ends); as such, racism, like all forms of discrimination or manifestations of inequality, is not easily resolved.

Diangelo's book looks at the ways that racism persists in society today, at how it advantages white people, and at how white people try to avoid discussing it. Diangelo's book has a very specific definition of racism that doesn't necessarily fit with the ways in which other people might use the term. Prejudice is a bias against others; discrimination applies that bias against others. Anyone can be prejudiced or discriminatory. Racism, by contrast, has to do, in Diangelo's usage, with systemic discrimination; as such, only those who are privileged are able to demonstrate and live in racist ways--namely, whites.

The system into which humans are born places whites at an advantage in the manner in which whites are treated by others (and by the system itself) and in the assumptions that are made about people. Certainly, class and other different social strata have their effects, but when we talk purely about the color of skin, whites have advantages. Furthermore, whites often refuse to talk about those advantages or to acknowledge them. Coded language is one way whites avoid such conversations. Another way is that whites claim that they are being attacked if someone shows them that they have said something that is discriminatory. These self-defense mechanisms keep racist tropes and practices--and by extension the racist system--in place. Learning to listen to others is a key to overcoming such ingrained behaviors, as is humility and constant self-examination.

Diangelo's book didn't really bring anything to my attention I wasn't already aware of, but it did do a great job of making me as white person feel uncomfortable, which in a way is a good thing, since that's kind of the point--to make whites think about everyday things in ways whites perhaps don't like to acknowledge.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

On "Beyond Acts" by Paul R. Finch ****


I thought that this would be a book about the history of Christianity in the late first century and early second century, and that it is, to an extent, but really, it's a book about the canonization of the New Testament. In that regard, Finch takes a rather traditional stand, though it's a bold one for today's modern biblical scholars, who have largely all come to believe that most New Testament books were written in the last first century and early second century and that many of the works are pseudonymous. Finch takes a stand in line with the writings of Ernest L. Martin, John Robinson, and Michael Kruger insofar as he believes that the works were largely written by their respective namesakes and largely before 70 CE. Like Martin, he believes that the canonization was well underway by that time as well, with Peter, Paul, and John all having a significant hand.

The main reasoning is fairly simple. If Peter, Paul, and John all wrote about how false teachers were increasingly influential in the church, why would they NOT set about creating a set of canonical writings for the church to be used after their deaths? The usual argument these days is that the canonization took place over centuries. Finch makes a valid point. However, for much of his book, the point seems ill supported. The body of the work is well written and easy to follow, but Finch seems to offer one point, with less-than-satisfactory support, then builds on it to point two, and so on. Because of the weakness of where he starts, I ended up wondering throughout most of the work the degree to which he could really back up his assertions.

The book takes a big turn after the main portion is over, however, as most of that further information--the primary source citations--I was craving is provided in the appendixes, ten of them. Here, he covers in depth such subjects as the date for the writing of Revelation (referenced obliquely in the text) and the writing of 2 Peter.

Finch begins his book with a discussion of witnesses to Jesus's life in Britain, including the apostles Peter and Paul. Most of this is based on legend, which is always dubious, since many legends have been written about the apostles largely for a given church or region to be able to claim a connection to the original twelve. Later, however, Finch does provide further source material and argument to testify as to why he believes Peter and Paul may have gone to Britain. In the former's case, the "other place" referenced in Acts would have been an oblique reference because Rome was at war with Britain, so such a visit would have been tantamount to treason. In the latter's case, Paul would have met royal British prisoners of war when he was a prisoner in Rome himself. Both prove to be interesting arguments insofar as they work off the timeline that Finch provides readers.

Finch also provides readers with a reasoned account of why Rome rejected John's authority (he believes that 1 Clement was actually written only shortly after Peter's and Paul's deaths; Clement, however, ignores John when responding to the Corinthians' questions). The reasons are multifold including John's continuing connection to Jewish traditions, his temperament, his "failed" prophecy (Finch believes half of Revelation to have been written well before the temple's destruction), and his connection to several gnostic teachers who later proved to be doctrinally unsound. I'd heard some of these theories before but never so well explained or argued.

Another interesting point comes in his discussion of how the New Testament was disseminated. He refers to Irenaeus's account of the "archives" and to the many second-century writers who seem to be referring to New Testament scriptures without much discussion regarding what belongs or doesn't. (There's even a quote from Augustine referencing the origin of the New Testament canon that I hadn't seen before.) He believes the apostles, knowing their deaths were near and finally coming to an understanding that Jesus was not returning in their lifetimes, saw the need to put together materials for posterity and then deposited these items in the major libraries in Caesarea and later Alexandria. The fact that the early manuscripts so closely resemble each would bear this out, since there would be much more variety if the scriptures had been gathered over time from various churches. Rather, there was, he says, a set of agreed-upon source texts. Again, for me, these were some intriguing ideas.

Alas, if there is one weakness to the volume, beyond the fact that so much of the basis of the argument is confined to the appendixes, it is that Finch takes a lot of time pontificating on how the experts are wrongheaded. Laying out what others think and what facts he has and how those facts feed into his own views rather than theirs should be enough; the snarky tone that he sometimes descends to does his own work a disservice.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On "From the Maccabees to the Mishna" by Shaye J. D. Cohen *****

This introduction to the transition that occurred in the Jewish faith during the early centuries of the Christian era does a good job of keeping things simple for those not intimately acquainted with the Jewish talmudic writings. The book wasn't quite what I was expecting, given that the title leads one to believe the account will be a narrative one, marching from a few centuries from Jesus to the rabbinic era that would follow a few centuries after. Cohen, however, opts to organize the book around themes more than chronology. While the lack of chronology was a bit disappointing to me, the themes prove to be an effective means to explore the transition nonetheless.

Cohen does, of course, provide some chronology, especially toward the beginning and end of his book, but that is mostly to give readers a bit of a skeleton onto which to hang the subjects that he addresses.

Among those subjects are the hellenization of the Jewish faith and the manner in which the Jewis faith existed in these early centuries. Cohen posits that religion was more of a practice, a way of life, than a philosophy for most Jewish people--and indeed for most religions until the tenets of Greek philosophy began to play a greater role in the thinking of peoples. As that took hold, some Jewish diasporic writers also tried to do more "thinking" on various theological subjects and even to pose Judaism as a philosophical religion that predated much of the philosophy that was emerging.

Cohen also explores the various sects that existed within the Jewish faith and how sectarianism in large part ceased as rabbinic structures took hold. The reason for this was in part because many sects were forged around criticism of temple authorities; once the temple no longer existed, the reason for the existence of many such sects also ceased to exist.

One chapter explores the canonization of the Jewish scriptures and the formation of the Mishnah, a subject dealt with by another book (Early Biblical Interpretation) in this series (The Library of Early Christianity) but that is summed up quite effectively in one chapter.

The final chapter focuses on the emergence of the rabbinic system.

As with all the books in this series, the fact that these books are in many ways summaries of prevailing research in the field makes them difficult to summarize themselves. But among the books in the series, this is one of the better ones.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On "The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering" by Valeriy A. Alikin ****

Valeriy Alikin's basic thesis in this work seems to be that the Christian gathering and its attendant customs largely developed out of Greco-Roman associations and, as such, worship of pagan deities. Judaism, as such, played only a secondary role in the worship patterns of early Christians.

There are some difficulties--namely that the scriptures themselves testify to frequent meetings and evangelism of the Christians in the Jewish synagogue--in trying to prove such a thesis, but Alikin dodges those by claiming that even Jewish synagogue services were, in part, akin to the meetings of Roman associations in service to other deities. On this, Alikin may have some grounds to stand on, since the Jewish people would have been subject to similar laws with regard to meeting that others in the empire would have been, thus requiring official association approval. Further, that both Jews and non-Jews shared in some customs with regard to worship should be hardly surprising--prayer, singing, socials, communal eating, speeches--many of these are shared by virtually all religions when it comes to meeting together. And this in turns goes to Alikin's basic point: that Christian gathering developed out of a single tradition shared by Jews and non-Jews rather than disparate ones.

Alikin takes the fairly stand Protestant stand that the transition to a separate meeting for Christians versus Jews occurred very early. Using various scriptures in which the first day of the week appears (Paul's instructing the Corinthians to gather charity goods on the first day of the week; the meeting in which Paul is about to leave the city and heals a man who falls from the second floor), Alikin claims that the first day of the week very early replaced the Sabbath as a day of meeting. He furthers this view by claiming that the Eucharist meal, which he seems many similarities to in association banquets, was held on Sunday nights because Saturday nights were given to Jewish family gatherings. Sunday night, thus, became the earliest convenient time for Christians to meet as a body separately.


The Eucharist meal itself seems to be mixed with agape feasts. Wine and bread became the center of the meal, but early meals also included olives, meat, and other items--just as in association banquets (though the weekly nature of them was borrowe from Judaism). Over time, the meal became associated with the Passover (Alikin takes the stand that the Gospels were written later rather than earlier and that part of their agenda was to tie the Eucharist meal to the Passover).

Borrowing the practice from other religious groups, Christians began to meet also on Sunday mornings at dawn. Eventually, these meetings spread throughout the week. A simplified Eucharist was served, and the Sunday night gathering increasingly became a meal only for supplying the needy of the curch.

Similarly, the practice of reading and expounding on scripture, accordingly to Alikin, comes from similarly practices at the Greco-Roman banquets, more so than from synagogue practices. He reasons that because synagogue reading of scripture did not take place in the context of a meal, Christians likely did not gather the tradition of reading and expounding on scripture from the Jews but rather from other associations. Such claims seem incredibly specious, given scriptures like Acts 15, where the assembly specifically designates some decisions regarding the church because the Gentiles heard the reading of the scriptures in the synagogue each Sabbath, drawing into question both the idea that Christians met separately early on and that scripture reading was drawn from a different tradition.

One thing that particularly interested me with regard to this book was the fact that it was to explore the origin of the weekly (or daily) Eucharist meal. By drawing parallels to the practice in non-Jewish meetings, Alikin has certainly shown where the practice may have originated, but by downplaying the Jewish influence throughout, the assumptions from which Alikin bases the rest of his argument call into question the accuracy of his observations.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

On "The Legend" by Edith Wharton (10,468 words) ****

So some author writes some cool stuff, but no one notices or cares. That's probably the tale of most writers, though most probably aren't that good, which helps explain why no one care, but sometimes there are good authors who aren't good at catching the market. This happens. This happens to Pellerin. So he leaves, drops out of society, disappears. Meanwhile, in his absence, his books catch on. Folks forge reading groups around him. Scholars write about his work. A whole philosophy of life gets based around what he has to say. And then one day, he returns, not as Pellerin but as someone else. He's heard rumors, wants to know what people think of his work. He goes to the reading groups, meets with his fans and scholars, none of whom know who he is. He even writes another book. What do you think happens? Read the story here.

On "The People That History Forgot" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Martin writes about religious history as if he were writing a mystery novel. This book is about a set of people, he claims, who have been forgotten. Who are these people? They are people who many have thought were Jews. Archaeologists have found synagogues scattered throughout Europe and the Near East that include not just Jewish symbology but pagan. Such symbology is merely ornamental, not stuff the Jews worshipped, most scholars say. Martin says it is unlikely Jews would have added pagan symbols to their synagogues--these were the synagogues of another people: the Samaritans.

His points are interesting insofar as what I've read about the Samaritans from scholars who actually study the faith is that most of the ideas about them, picked up from the Bible and Jewish and Christian writings, are wrong. The very few that exist tend to be very faithful to their religion, which is in most ways much like Judaism. But Martin says otherwise. Those few Samaritans we know today are simply a remnant that remained faithful to their one-time beliefs. Most were quite as the Jewish records recount: namely, they were like Jewish people when it was convenient and like others when it was more convenient to be something else (not unlike many other Gentiles in the early centuries). As such, they mixed other religions with the Jewish faith. These are the synagogues with a mix of symbols.

But Martin doesn't stop there. He also shows how the people of the Near East, from around the area of Babylon, in fact migrated and spread around the areas near Israel in a sort of diaspora not unlike the Jews. These were the people who largely made up the Samaritans--and in turn, those Samaritans, numbering in the millions, spread across the Roman Empire. Most interestingly, Martin even claims that their numbers were so great, and their use as slaves so widespread, that they eventually came to outnumber the Romans in Italy such that the empire really became a Babylonian one.

Martin quotes from a number of primary documents, examines quite a bit of archaelogical evidence, and spends time with some secondary sources (most notably when it comes to the spread of people from the Near East throughout Rome) such that his argument seems fairly convincing, even if it hasn't gotten wide play, but I do wish the book had notes so that the argument could be even more fully traced.

The book is available online here both in audio format and to read (I mostly listened to this book, and the audio was good enough to keep me riveted), in addition to being available for purchase.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On "The Lady's Maid Bell" by Edith Wharton (8729 words) ****

So much for going to the country for rest. A woman recovering from typhoid goes to work as a maid at a quiet estate, but one of the people she meets her first day is not alive. Why doesn't the staff use the bell system that has been integrated throughout the house? We soon find out. The ghost leads us down many paths, though I'm not sure that the story provides many answers by its end, but I think that's what makes this story so mystifying. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Kingdom through Covenant" by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum ****

I picked this book up on something of a whim, it being part of a set of free samples. Because I've been reading a lot of early Christian history lately, I thought it might be interesting to step back and read about something a bit broader in scope--namely, something about the covenants in the Bible stretching back into the Old Testament. As seven-hundred-plus pages, I figured this book would be very thorough in discussing the various covenants, and it was. In fact, while I was expecting the book to be informative, I don't think I was expecting to learn quite as much as I did.

The authors seem very much conservative Christians (Presbyterians) in terms of how they interpret scripture and in terms of their belief in it. In a way, that was refreshing, seeing as much of the scholarly writing on early Christianity seems to be by people who are agnostic or atheist, even though they study the scriptures. Thus, the authors of this book take views about that canonization of scripture (during the time of Ezra and during the early second century) that I've read only in books by writers with generally less scholarly bonafides. Gentry and Wellum, thus, helped me to glean sources of others of their ilk who serve in religious studies departments but whose views are more conservative than what seem the vast majority of scholars who argue that canonization happened much later for both the Old and New Testament (namely, during the late second through fourth centuries A.D.). That said, the authors' Calvinist thinking certainly shows through, especially as they draw their conclusions at the book's end.

The book opens with a couple of chapters that set the terminalogical base and that help to spell out the controversy that exists regarding the covenants and how the authors' own theory aims to bring two divergent views into line with one another. First, the authors discuss biblical versus systematic theology. The former, in the authors' view, has to do with the interpretation of scripture, and the latter with how one applies it to one's life. They spend some time discussing how the former has become something quite different over the course of the last two hundred years--namely, that more recent nonevangelical scholars tend to look at the scriptures and discrete pieces rather than as a whole, robbing the Bible of much of its uniform message in favor of something that is more rooted in the historical meaning as per the creators of the books within their particular time and place.

The next chapter focuses on two theories, or way of looking at, biblical covenants: covenant theology versus dispensational theology. As the authors describe these two ideas, I could see aspects in which my own views fit into both, but by the book's end, it was clear that I probably fall more in line with dispensationalists than covenant theologians. It was interesting to examine my own beliefs in light of terminology used by a wider swath of theologians. Covenant theology essentially sees the Christian Church as an extension (or really, replacement) of the nation of physical Israel. Dispensational theology tends to look at the promises to physical Israel as being binding to the physical nation rather than to its spiritual replacement and as such as yet to be fulfilled. The Church, as such, is distinctive in some ways from Israel, which serves more as a metaphor for than as a literal extension of the Church.

The two differing views affect such things as the doctrine of infant baptism. If one holds to the covenant theological line, then all the church is like Israel, which means that as in Israel, there was a mix of believers and unbelievers, to be sorted out at the end. Baptism is like circumcision; as such, if babies could be circumcised on the eighth day, before any real awareness of their national identity, so it goes that babies can be baptized without real awareness of their religious/spiritual identity. A dispensationalist, by contrast, is largely going to argue that a person has to decide to become part of spiritual Israel; thus, baptism, as that sign, requires a conscious decision. The church, for those of this mindset, is made up solely of believers. (This is where some of the Calvinistic line of thinking comes in, however, as these authors seem to suggest that one cannot fall away--that is, if one falls away, one was never actually a believer. Your fate is sealed from before time.)

The authors then trace the various covenants through the Bible, discussing idea of covenant in its historical context (how a covenant, for example, differs from a contract: the latter has to do with material things, the former with a relationship between people). They trace how each covenant foreshadows the ultimate New Covenant through Jesus and how this was God's plan all along, starting from creation, through Noah, Abraham, his sons, the nation of Israel, and King David. In a sense, God forged a covenant at/with creation itself, intending man to serve him in the garden as his steward and as part of his family (in this sense, the authors' ideas seem quite close to the ways I read much of the Old Testament). Adam's failure necessitated a replacement. And each case down the line shows a replacement and its failure. Thus, Noah is a kind of second Adam and a kind of Christ, as are Abraham and his sons. Israel, too, serves a similar role. All failed by sinning. King David serves as a prefigure of the kingly Christ--but again fails to be the perfect king. It is only the Christ who can actually play the Adamic role perfectly and thus reconcile man and God and fulfill the covenant role required to make possible our relationship with God. This all seems fairly basic, but the real joy in the book is seeing the authors discuss the specifics. I hadn't ever thought of many of the parallels between Noah and Adam/Christ. And I hadn't thought much of the meaning of the sacrifice in Genesis 15.

At the end of the book the authors offer their assessment of how their ideas reconcile the covenant and dispensationalist view of the covenants. Like the dispensationalists, they see physical Israel as being something distinctive from the Church; the latter included believers and unbelievers, the latter only believers. Like the covenant theologists, however, they see the promises of the New Covenant as fulfilling those of the old and as being much greater than the old, thus replacing them. Thus, the promises of specific land to Abraham, and thus to Israel, are fulfilled in the New Covenant through the church's inheritance of the world. While I would agree with this assessment, I tend to think that the promises to Israel are much too specific in places to allegorize them all away (Manasseh to become a strong nation, Ephraim a company of nations; the return of Israel from the islands and the lands of the north, etc.); certainly, the greater promise to Abraham is that all are blessed through his name, and all who become spiritual Israelites inherit the earth--that is the overall message of the Bible--but why these other specific promises if in the end they are all somehow just metaphors?

Still, the specific readings of the covenants are very informative and thought provoking, and I will return to parts of this book again as needed as I reread certain passage of scripture.

Monday, May 25, 2020

On "Dinner with Craig" by Kate Folk (1090 words) ****

Here, a snake consumes a young woman's world, quite literally. One of the cool things about Folk's stories is the way that the metaphorical language we use in our lives is transformed into the literal, thus commenting both on our use of language and of our perception of the world. I mean, after all, what do we really mean when we say that we are being consumed by something? "Dinner with Craig" shows us. Read the story here at the Adroit Journal.


On "Jewish Believers in Jesus" edited by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik ****

This exhaustively long volume aims to provide a history of "Jewish believers in Jesus" through the first six centuries or so of the Christian church. Unfortunately for me and my interests, but for good reason--though the reasoning was not entirely clear to me until the final chapter--the editors focus on the ethnic term "Jewish" rather than on beliefs that are "Jewish." That is, when defining "Jewish believers," they are interested primarily on people who are Jewish who became Christians, rather than on Christians who may have continued various Jewish traditions, be they Jewish or not. But Skarsaune's reasoning is sound, one realizes, by the end of the book. The first Christians after all, like the Jewish people at the time, weren't really using these terms in the same way--the borders between the two faiths were still being drawn. Thus, it would be unfair to these Christians followed Jewish practices, or these Jews followed Christian practices, when what constituted the unique practices of each hadn't been fully defined. What we can trace, however, to some extent, are ethnic Jews who professed a belief in Jesus, whether that belief entailed continuing adherence to many of the practices of what would later become rabbinical Judaism, adherence to a more circumspect set of practices derived from the religion of Israel, near complete abandonment of Israelite practices in preference for ones later defined as Christian for non-Jewish believers, or acceptance of Jesus as a human prophet without divine origins. As Skarsaune makes plain at the end, we can think of early Jewish Christianity as essentially like the reformed Judaism of its day.

Discrete essays cover various subjects as available in the primary sources--James and the Jerusalem church, Paul as Jewish in Acts and in his own writings, Jewish influences in the Roman church, Jewish influences in Asia Minor, various apocraphyl works (such as Jewish versions of the Gospels), the writings of the church fathers (such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Polycrates, Irenaeus, Hegissips, Origen, and Jerome) on Jewish believers, various Jewish Christian sects (such as Ebionites and Nazarenes), gnostic Jewish Christian sects, Syrian Jewish Christian sects, early church orders, early rabbical writings, and archaelogy.

One reason it is so difficult to trace such believers, it becomes clear, is that most of what we know about them are written by later writers who had a particular agenda--to proclaim the superiority of either Judaism or Christianity. Both had an interest in emphasizing differences, and neither had an interest in discussing a version of the faith that mixed ideas from both. Thus, we're left with Christians attacking Jewish Christians for maintaining solidarity with Jewish practices or believers; likewise, we're left with Jewish writers attacking Christians for pagan practices. But more often, especially among the Jewish writers, such believers are simply ignored. Our knowledge of them comes in the few veiled attacks that exist, showing us that such believers existed, even if after the New Testament writings, we have very little written from among them.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

On "Expiation" by Edith Wharton (8246 words) ***

This story is somewhat predictable, but the question at its heart is one worth pondering. The focus is on writers and on how they can get their writing to be more popularly successful. The way? Make it controversial. If you can get someone to ban it, you're sure of success. When a writer's attempt to write something in that vein, however, it is given a good review and noted as being quite pleasant, much to the author's chagrin. The story revolves around her attempt to "fix" the book's reception. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Against Heresies" by Irenaeus ***

I listened to this over the course of a few months on various commutes. Actually, I would have finished listening to this weeks ago had it not been that Covid 19 disrupted my usual daily commute. Thus, listening was reduced to the rare circumstances when I was out and about running errands.

As a listening experience, this book stands on a par with most other Librivox recordings--namely, it was at times really dull, such that my mind often wandered. The readers themselves differed from chapter to chapter, with some reading better than others, though there were rarely readers whose accents left me struggling to understand. Still, because chunks of the book were on topics I was interested in, I was at times drawn in, despite the quality of the recordings--or the writing.

The translators include a long introduction in which they write about the challenges of translating--indeed, of even reading--Irenaeus. The man was not a talented writer and, in fact, perhaps did not have a full grasp on the language he was using. This makes for much much difficulty of understanding, even before you get to the process of translating the material.

Of the five books that make up Against Heresies, I was most interested in the first two. Here, Irenaeus lays out the various heresies, most especially gnostic ideas, for readers. It was nice to hear that much of what I'd read third-hand in various modern discussions of Valentinians, Balsides, and so on has been accurately portrayed based on Irenaeus's writings. That is, when people have summed up what these folks believed, using Irenaeus as their source, they've largely remained true to what Irenaeus wrote, rather than presenting some skewed picture that is not in the primary text.

What becomes evident is how reliant most thinkers Irenaeus discusses were on polytheistic ideas and religions, positing not the one God, creator of all, and his son, but rather a pleroma, or family of gods--or emanations from the supreme God--from which Yahweh and Jesus eventually derive. There's a certain degree of similarity among most of the heresies that Irenaeus writes about, though he does cover a few more Jewish-centric ones.

The later books prove less interesting, because Irenaeus sets out not just to describe the heresies but to do, as his title suggests: to write "against heresies." Thus, he spends most of the later portions of this book arguing that the ideas of such thinkers make no sense either logically nor biblically. The arguments here are usually fairly obvious, and given Irenaeus's penchant for lousy prose are not very engaging. The rare times my attention popped up in the later sections were when he wrote of various doctrinal ideas, such as the resurrection, has they provide a window into the standard thinking of many Christians in the late second century, before some later ideas, like going to heaven after death, took as firm a hold. On Irenaeus's views of the afterlife, I need to do a second closer reading, as they seem in places contradictory.

The Librivox audio version can be found here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

On "Dating a Somnambulist" by Kate Folk (849 words) ***

In Kate Folk's world, weird stuff happens. That weird stuff is metaphorical for the angst we feel in regular life over the mundane. This mundane finds its way into lists here of what her sleep-walking boyfriend picks up a night. And yet, despite the trouble, Folk's narrator lives on--there could be worse things in other worlds. Read the story here at Hobart.

On "The Samaritans" by James Alan Montgomery ***


Another book on Samaritan history, theology, and literature, this one was written in the early twentieth century, unlike The Keepers, which was written closer to its end and which I read some months ago. It covers a lot of similar ground, though it is a bit more esoteric and, for me, proved a bit less interesting.

Montgomery spends the first half of the book discussing their history, which is one of near constant persecution.

The places where Montgomery goes into further detail than the previous book I read (at least as I remember it) are with regard to religion. He devotes a lot of space to discussing what the Samaritans believe(d) and how that compares to Jewish thinkers, including in various Jewish works. Of interest are their unique translation of the scriptures. Unlike the Jewish scriptures, they go to great lengths to avoid anthropomorphizing God in anyway. In this way, there is no possible ability to interpret there as being a "second god"--in the form of a coming Jesus. For them, the Messiah, if there is one at all, is simply the return of a Mosaic figure--or it was Moses himself, who is their real hero, more than even Abraham. In fact, in some accounts, Moses is said to have a preexistence.

Samaritan views in many ways apparently line up with Sadducean ideas. And although they rejected many Pharisaical ideas, they were in many ways very strict with the law--to a greater degree than some Jewish people. The angelic realm is largely dismissed. Resurrection is not something they didn't believe in, and then at other times did. Montgomery makes clear that views change over time. 

As for the Samaritan tie to gnosticism and Simon Magus, Montgomery largely dismisses the ideas as being motivated by anti-Samaritan polemic. Assuming Simon was a Samaritan, he did not, in Montgomery's view, represent the views of most other Samaritans.

It is the exhaustiveness of Montgomery's book and its more dated language that makes it less approachable than the previous volume I read, but it still provides some useful information.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

On "The Descent of Man" by Edith Wharton (7317 words) ****

What if you wrote something you knew was atrocious but that you also knew most people would take seriously (and love)? Would you sell it? Such is the quandary in this tale about a scientist that publishes something that goes against most of his values--its meant as a satire but is not taken as such. That's fine, he thinks, because those who would understand the satire would still understand it. But he finds the attention to his work not easily voided. Read the story here.

On "On Immunity" by Eula Bliss *****

This work received rave reviews, so when I had the opportunity to pick up a copy for free in December, I did. Still, it wasn't one of those books that I was particularly anxious to read, and during an extended break from work, when normally I would have had time for more leisure reading, it still didn't make the cut. And so it has sat here on my shelf for nearly three months, until the spread of covid-19 placed me into social distance. Suddenly, the topic seemed more pertinent to my life, and I finally opted to read the book each night before bed.

Bliss is a poet. The book itself is broken into short essay-like chapters on topics related to vaccination. As such, it doesn't lend itself well to being summarized in a review like this. But each short section is fascinating. One learns not just about Bliss's own fears with regard to mothering and whether or not she should immunize her son but also about the reasons for those fears and the responsibility that motherhood brings with it. One also learns, of course, a bit about the history and science of vaccination.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that Bliss notes is that it's safer to be a unvaccinated person among a largely vaccinated population than it is to be a vaccinated person in a largely unvaccinated population. In this sense, the vaccination of others ennables the lack of vaccination among the few who claim it to be dangerous or bad in some way. In other words, community matters. And that seems all the more poignant at this time when so many are being asked to stay home to help prevent the spread of a virus for which there is no vaccine. The more who remain home, the more we enable others to beat the virus.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

On "The Rembrandt" by Edith Wharton (5986 words) ****

What makes for great art? That is the question in yet another Wharton story on the same theme. Here, a woman claims to own a Rembrandt that is unsigned. As such, no museum will buy it, though she needs the money. Is it the signature alone that makes us declare a work great? Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity" by Stanley K. Stowers ***

The fifth book in the Library of Early Christianity series, this one discusses standard letters during the first centuries of the Common Era, given that most of the New Testament is made up of letters, and even those books that aren't letters often include letters within them. Most of Stowers's book consists of a discussion of various "genres" of letters and examples of them. In this sense, the textis not unlike the third book in the series, which provides examples of philosophical discussions of morality during the same time period. But where there the focus was on similarities of content, this book seems more interested in similarities of form (though that necessarily ends up including similar content). As such, this book was not nearly as interesting.

What worked best in this book was the first third of the work, where the author discusses letter writing at the time, rather than focusing on generic examples. Here, we see that Christian letters in fact adopted many of the same techniques as those written by non-Christians. Most interesting in these early discussions was Stowers's exploration of who wrote what type of letters--namely, how class and education affected the kind of letters one wrote. Lower classes, if they learned to write at all, learned very basic things about letter writing, while upper classes studied rhetoric and classic/proper letter form. Those who could not write hired professionals to write for them--and to read letters too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

On "The Recovery" by Edith Wharton (6978 words) ****

What makes for great art? That is the question that Wharton asks in this piece in which a painter benefits from a visit to a museum, where he realizes that his own work can be much improved--and where he also realizes that what he has been producing is not art in the form that is worthy, even if others like it. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.