Saturday, January 2, 2021

On "Resurrection" by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson ****

In this very readable summary of the history of the concept of resurrection in Jewish history--and eventually in that very early Christian history--Madigan and Levenson do much to defend the Jewish roots of the idea. Ehrman's Heaven and Hell makes much use of the idea that early Jewish faith that early Jewish thinkers thought of resurrection mostly on a national restoration level rather than on that of a personal level. That idea is present in this book as well, but Madigan and Levenson do much to show how this concept was still tied in to later more personal ideas and how the rabbis were able to easily interpret passages from the Torah in such a way.

The gist of the argument is that eternal life--like one's identity--in the ancient Jewish belief system was tied to one's genetic descendents, one's family. One lived on through them--and through one's name (through one's descendents). Eventually, once there was a nation of Israel, this was extended to that nation--and the idea of national restoration. This is the emphasis of resurrection passages in scriptures like those of Ezekiel 37.

That said, even with emphasizing nation and family, there's something of a hint of what would later be made explicit in Daniel and in various works written during the second temple era. The promises of an enduring name offered to families are offered also to people like eunuchs, who obviously have no hope that their name won't be expunged. Likewise, ideas of God being a giver of life began to be extended to a giver of eternal life--if he could create life, why could he not restore it? Tales of restoration of physical life became types for restoration of human life in general.

This Jewish belief was passed along to Christians, who took it up in their cause with regard to Jesus and eventually all Christians. What changed, however, in the years following was Judaism's interaction with Greek philosophy (and though not covered in the book, Christianity's as well). Eternal life was not a given in ideas about resurrection; the Greeks, however, believed in an immortal soul apart from the body. Eventually, this belief, in a soul apart from the body rather than with the body, would work its way into Judaism, and then the idea that that soul was eternal. As such, old ideas about resurrection would begin to fall by the wayside in medieval times, and current systems of belief among Jewish religious authorities often leave the belief regarding the ultimate reward of believers to believers themselves.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

On "The Analects of Confucius" ***

I chose to read the James Legge translation available at Project Gutenberg. This is not the best version of The Analects, as became readily apparent in my reading. Other versions, some available online, offer substantial commentary, which is almost essential if one wants to grasp all that is being said. There are heavy references to various ancient Chinese figures and historical incidents, such that without the commentary, one often doesn't really understand what is being said.

For an overall "feel" of what The Analects are like, however, Legge's work will suffice. The work isn't so much first person as it is a series of short chapters in which various Chinese figures come to the Master (or sometimes others) for advice about a given situation. The Master then dispenses his wisdom. It is the dispensation of wisdom that, in many cases, resembles a collection of aphorisms: "A wise man is . . . ; a fool is . . ." and so on. The early books focus most especially on filial duty, while the later ones focus more and more on government. These two ideas, however, are related. Much emphasis is given to being a person of high moral values.

One particular little anecdote/piece of advice really struck me in the book. Confucius notes, at one point, that if one knows that a particular action/life course will lead to great wealth, one should pursue it with one's all, but since one is never assured that wealth is at the end of a course of action, one should instead pursue what brings joy. It's another way of saying, do what you love, and the money will follow, I suppose, but I hadn't ever quite seen it put this way. We don't control the future, so we should think of the present when setting goals. There is no point to pursuing riches that may or may not come if we don't enjoy what we do in the here and now, as the latter is all we can really be assured of.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

On "Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 200 BCE-CE 200" by C. D. Elledge ***

This book traces the history of theories regarding resurrection within Judaism shortly before and after Jesus's time. As Elledge notes in his introduction, resurrection was an idea largely unique to the Jewish people. However, his main point seems to be that resurrection was neither fully embraced nor fully defined by the Jewish people during this period, during which such thinking largely took hold.

With regard to the definition of resurrection, there are numerous ways to think about what it entails. Here are some possibilities: (1) It is a resurrection to a physical body from a state of "soul sleep." (2) It is a resurrection to a transformed (spiritual) body from a state of unconsciousness. (3) It is a resurrection to spirit, sans body. (4) It is a resurrection from a middle state of semiconciousness to full consciousness again. (5) It is a reuniting of the physical body with the eternal soul. (6) It is only for a few of the very righteous. (7) It is only for the righteous, with those who are evil remaining dead or in a semiconscious state. (8) It is for everyone, for judgment, with those who are evil being sent to further punishment. Elledge passes through various early Jewish writings to show how all of these are possibilities depending on which work you focus on. In other words, he shows that there was not full unity with regard to what resurrection meant or entailed. He also shows how some accepted mere death as the end all and be all for all and others accepted the idea of an immortal soul.

Elledge also delves into various theories regarding the origins of the belief, including that it came from Persian Zoroastrainsim, that it came from Babylonian and Assyrian mythologies, and that it developed natively within the Jewish community. (Early Jewish teaching emphasizes "immortality" through one's descendants.) He discusses why the theory likely found acceptance--that it tied into concepts regarding creation and regarding the need for justice. Next, he focuses on resurrection in specific works, before closing out with a discussion of where Josephus got his ideas with regard to the differing sects' beliefs on resurrection and how the varying beliefs came to affect Jewish rabbinical views and Christians toward the end of the period discussed. With regard to Josephus, Elledge notes that he was likely simplifying and "translating" said belief for others, putting it into terminology that Greeks and Romans would understand, which while presenting a truth necessarily loses some degree of precision in said translation.

Although a fine overview, the work is definitely a scholarly one--detailed and difficult in places.

Friday, November 27, 2020

On "China" by Harold M. Tanner ****

This basic history of China lays out the political and cultural history of this huge nation that I know little about. It's strange in a way, how much more I've read about Japan and how much more I feel I know its culture (even before I did a Japanese reading list, I had read many works by Japanese writers, whereas I've read virtually no Chinese literature). That isn't to say that I know Japan well. As with China's history, the history of Japan is one I've read on multiple occassions and have quickly forgotten outside of the twentieth century. I don't know why that is exactly, but I suspect that there are various reasons: (1) Western history is drummed into us in school growing up, while the history of the East is only touched on; and (2) the history that most touches on us and our world directly is the one that we remember best--hence, why I can remember twentieth-century history in addition to that of the West but not so much the East.

One thing Tanner does a good job of in terms of setting up his account is denoting how multicultural China really is. We tend to think of the nation as a single people, but in fact, while the Han dominate the country, there are many other ethnic groups who have been integrated into the nation--and that over centuries: Monguls, Manchus, Tibetans, Urghars, Turks, and so on. Tanner does a good job of showing how many of these ethnic groups have dominated the nation at one time or another--and how they are different from one another.

In a sense, Chinese history until the twentieth century is fairly repetitive. It is a tale of the rise and fall of various monarchies, usually with periods of destablization and disunity between said monarchies. An epigraph about one-third of the way into the book sums up the first third of the work (and arguably sets up the pattern for the next third of the work):

"They say the momentum of history was ever thus: The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus the House of Zhou reached its end and the empire as partitioned into save warring kingdoms. Thus these seven were absorbed into the House of Qui. Then Han and Cho destroyed Qin and waged war on each other until the empire was reunited under the House of Han, reinvigorated by Guangwudi and passed down the generations to Xiandi, the last of the Han, after whose generation the land was partitioned into three kingdoms."

After these would come the Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, with a similar pattern as noted. The Mongols would rule China under the Yuan dynasty, the Mings under the Ming dynasty, the Manchus under the Qing. Each conquering peoples would, in fact, often take on various Chinese customs in order to better fit in with the peoples and the former noble classes, including most especially Confucianism and to a lesser extent Taoism. The Mongols included a number of Nestorian Christians. Indeed, while religion was very much a background item in this book, I would be curious to know more about some of the religions that less associated with China in the present day, like Eastern Christianity and Islam, because they clearly had their adherents at one time in the land.

Things change quite a bit in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The weakness of the later Qing dynasty meant that the country was in large part ruled over by local warlords whose in-fighting left the door open for manipulation by colonial Western powers, who established areas of control over commerce and the subjugation, in many ways, of the Chinese nation. China moved during this stage toward the establishment of a republic, but the inability of political leaders to bring the nation into true unity and to throw off Western powers left open the door for a growing Communist movement (which itself had been part of the movement toward the Republic). Consigned to the rural areas, Mao Zedong and others built a loyal following that eventually established political dominance and the eventual of exile of the republic to the island of Taiwan. Most of the political moves during this time were to a large extent motivated by a desire to reestablish Chinese hegemony over its own territory, and the Communist movement essentially succeeded.

After pushing landlords out of much of their property, the Communists forged various programs to encourage economic growth of the country. Communal farms were given quotas of various sorts and people rewarded for them. Excess production was allowed to be sold on the market by individuals, which led to further growth. But there were also various problems that centralization created. Rosy but inaccurate reports from locals regarding production eventually led famine.

The Communist Party largely dissuaded people from dissenting with the powers that be, except again for brief periods when moderate criticism and openness was encouraged. Those who participated in such, however, usually rued the day for expressing such opinions, for when the dissent grew too intense, the Communist Party would change tactics, closing off free expression and cracking down on those who had previously expressed dissatisfaction (even though they were doing so with government approval and support, as a means to improve the system). A particular intense period of such crackdown was the Cultural Revolution, wherein various young peoples forged the Red Guard who in turn accused many of turning on the State. Like our own "Red Scare" of the 1960s, but with consequences that were even more deadly, the crackdown got out of hand, as people began to turn one another in so as to avoid being turned in themselves even as no one had in fact engaged in nefarious activity or thought.

Economic liberalization, which had kept moderately under wraps under Mao Zedong, took on a fiercer pace after his passing. China encouraged foreign investment and reaped the rewards with larger, more modern cities (Shanghai went from having one building over twenty stories tall to having over one hundred in a span of something like twenty years)--but also with growing economic disparity.

I read this book in part as a precursor to a Chinese reading list I am finally starting on. The sections on culture, in that sense, will be very useful. Writers and works I will want to consider for the list (if I can find them) are as follows:

I Ching [already read]
Dao De Jing
Sun Tzu, Art of War [already read]
Confucious, Analects
Daniel K. Gardner, The Four Books (Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, and Great Learning)
Wu-chi Liu and Iring Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry
Victor H. Mair, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature
Mengzi (Menchius), Mengzi
John Minford and Joseph D. S. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature
Wai-lim Yip, Chinese Poetry
Book of Songs/Classics of Poetry
Li Bo (poet)
Tu Fu (poet)
Shi Nalan, Water Margin
Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West
Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber
Xiaoxiao Sheng, Jin Ping Mei
Bai Hua, Bitter Love
Wang Shuo (contemporary novelist)

On Chinese literary history, I might try Herbert Giles's 1901 History of Chinese Literature.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

On "Truth Triumphant" by Benjamin George Wilkinson ****

One might call this an alternative history of Christianity. Wilkinson was, so far as I am aware, a Seventh Day Adventist. Thus, he routes the history of Christianity through Sabbath-keeping groups across time, arguing essentially that Protestantism has its foundation not so much in the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church as in those surviving sects from the early church that continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, most particularly the Church of the East. Inspired by such sects and making their move based on the teachings from such sects, Luther and others brought schism to Rome.

Wilkinson grounds his argument in Biblical prophecy, seeing the "1260 days" of Daniel and Revelation as being symbolic of 1260 years in which the church would be in the wilderness, which he dates from around 538, when Justinian unified church and state, to the Reformation and, more precisely, Napoleon's eventual takeover of the Italian peninsula and the religious freedom that that brought to the peoples of Europe in 1798. The prophetic elements make up the first and last chapters of the twenty-four chapters in the book, which means that they don't take up that much space, which is good, since one could likely argue quite a few things with regard to what the 1260 days of the Bible refer to. My interest was more in the history.

What I really enjoyed about the book is that Wilkinson pulls in a lot of sources with which I was not otherwise terribly familiar. Most studies I've read about church history focus on the West, and generally they follow a pretty straight line through Rome, ignoring many of the "heretical" sects that continued to exist long after Christianity was institutionalized within the realm of the Papacy. Beyond that is the Church of the East, which had a much different history, much of which has either not been studied as extensively (since the languages of such people are non-Western) or has been expunged in the course of time with the spread of Papal teachings further to the East.

But there disadvantages to Wilkinson's study as well. Much of his case with regard to the history of the Church of the East is based on the idea that the Christians in the East, though not necessarily Nestorians (a particular heretical sect), were generally called such, no matter their actual beliefs. While this is probably the case, given that often our understandings of the doctrines of particular peoples are not terribly complete and given that doctrines change over time such that a certain type of Christian in once century is not nearly the same type centuries later, even though they might share a secterian name. But there is also a level on which one has to be careful in making such claims, and often, it seemed to me that Wilkinson made claims that were a bit more than what other scholarship and what the primary sources actually attest to. Lucian of Antioch, for example, plays a large role in Wilkinson's work, and of course, Lucian was important. His own Bible translation was based on a different kind of translation theory and was into a language other than Greek, and it would form the foundation for much of the work of the Church of the East. But what Lucian actually believed is, so far as what I have read elsewhere, largely conjecture. He didn't leave other writings behind. In Wilkinson's work, Lucian becomes a non-allegorist, as opposed to the kind of scriptural readings occurring in Alexandria and Rome. That is one interpretation offered by scholars; here, that is the only one offered, which means one gets a sort of twisted picture of Lucian and whoever Wilkinson connects to him, which in turn draws into question the accuracy of his others observations (many of which, in the footnotes, are backed up merely by cross-references to chapters within his own book rather than outside sources).

But that qualm I have is balanced against the many sources that Wilkinson has drawn on and his focus on areas less written about. It's a fantastic foundation for further study. The work can be found online here.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

On "Heaven and Hell" by Bart D. Ehrman ****

The latest from Ehrman explores ancient concepts of the afterlife, ultimately showing how our contemporary mainstream Christian concepts of heaven and hell were not shared by Christians of Jesus's generation. Ehrman does most of this work by summarizing ancient texts and then trying to draw conclusions from there; as he notes, this is a somewhat problematic system but is what we are essentially limited to. The common men didn't leave behind written records other than gravesites, and telling what a person believed regarding the afterlife is very difficult from the pithy statements left behind as epitaphs.

Ehrman spends most of his time among the Greeks and the Jews, with a bit thrown in from the Babylonians--but little time with the Egyptians, which is something of a shame, since their own views had such an impact on later Greek ideas. As Ehrman notes, among the early Greeks, concepts of the afterlife were hazy and generally unappealing. Unless you were some sort of hero who went on to reign in the world of the dead, you were likely to become a mere shadow, a sort-of half-conscious/half-existent being, which left questions as to what exactly the heroes among the dead ruled over. The philosophers had their own views, including that of Socrates, who thought that there either was no afterlife or that if there was one, it was most excellent. Either way, death was not to be feared, for we had no pain or sorrow before life and thus will feel none after either way. As time went on, Plato, via various Eastern cultures, adopted views that included an immortal soul and various rewards and punishments that went with a good life or a bad one. All came from the One, in Plato's view, and all were headed back there--as one moved closer in viewpoint to that First Cause through proper living and thought.

Among the Jews, in Ehrman's interpretation, there was concern only with national restoration, which resulted in the concept of a resurrection. But the scriptures focus on that resurrection as a way of restoring God's nation, more than on individuals. In time, however, the concerns with national restoration and the nation's resurrection became individualized such that there came to be a view that there was a resurrection and a judgment for individuals. (I am not completely swayed by Ehrman's view that resurrection was solely a national prospect in the early-going, but certainly I'd agree that the emphasis was on the nation rather than the individual.) PUnishment was generally simply not being resurrected or being destroyed for all time--burned up.

By Jesus's day, the individualized view of the resurrection and judgment was a common Jewish viewpoint, though there were others--no afterlife (common among the Sadducees) or immortal soul (common among the Essenes).

Early Christians emphasized a resurrection to life on Earth (sometimes in the flesh, sometimes as something bodily but somehow more than flesh), according to Ehrman, as part of the idea that Jesus would be returning soon and establishing his Kingdom. As this did not happen on the quick time scale people expected, other theories began to predominate, including an idea that the soul would be taken to heaven to await unifying with the body at the last judgment and Jesus's return or the idea that the body would be done away with completely. Punishment for an evil life moved from being eternal death to being eternal punishment. Likewise, in time, some Christians began to believe that there was likely some kind of intermediate state, or even a set of Platonic reincarnations, to purify those who had not been that evil (or even though who had been evil) so that all would have a chance at eternal bliss.

It is this last section of Ehrman's book that I found somewhat disappointing. After setting up his discussion so well with regard to what ancients believed regarding the afterlife and what people of Jesus's day believed, he pretty much wraps up the book, paying scant attention to how we get to the views so many Christians have today. To be sure, such views vary widely, as Ehrman notes--not everyone believes in Purgatory, for example. But in leaving out the chronological development of thought after the first century, we don't get a very clear sense of just how and when certain views came to predominate. As a history of the afterlife, the book could have easily continued into the Middle Ages to give a clearer sense of how we end up with the views that are so common today.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

On "The Road to Los Angeles" by John Fante ****

I last read this book in my early twenties, during a Fante fix, when I first discovered him. Alas, outside of Ask the Dust and one of the novellas in West of Rome, his work proved disappointing to me, but three very good works is not a bad record really, in the scheme of of things.

Not much matches Ask the Dust for quality. This work, though, keeps much of what maked that book intriguing. It is another book in the Arturo Bandini saga, but unlike the two of the four, it keeps the narrative voice of Ask the Dust pretty firmly in place (if perhaps with less balance than that one). None of the Bandini novels are particularly consistent among each other with regard to the facts of Bandini's life. In Ask the Dust, Bandini's mom and dad are in Colorado, and he's alone and twenty in Los Angeles. In this book, his father is dead, and his mom and sister live near the beach on the California coast. But as with Ask the Dust, the narrator here is exceptionally bombastic. Everything is superb or awful to the utmost extreme. There is little middle ground with Bandini. And as in Ask the Dust, the narrator is a misogynist and a racist--here, even more disturbingly. He kills animals in cruel and purposeless ways for fun. One can kind of like the characters in Ask the Dust; it's much more difficult to like them in this book--but most especially Bandini.

The main character is a high-school dropout who on some level supports the family. One could feel for such a person whose life has been placed into one of sacrifice for future chances because of his father's death. He works dead-end jobs (cannery work is the central job in this book and is well described). There's a certain intelligence that seems to be going to waste.

And yet, Bandini is also a scoundrel. He steals from his family. He is a slacker at any job he takes and usually quickly loses. He claims to be a writer, but it's clear that he has little talent. He is disrespectful to all and deliberately hurtful. He gloms on to philosophy without really understanding it, the same way that he uses big words for the sake of using big words (sometimes not completely accurately). We see within him a certain maniacal will to power and faith in himself (countered with occasional self-hatred). He is not someone you would want to be friends with.

The empty bravado reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield. What we really see is a boy who is forced too early to be a man--but who is ultimately still a boy. As his writing is immature, so is he. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

On "Ask the Dust" by John Fante *****

I read this book multiple times in my early twenties, but it has been probably more than a decade since the last time that I read it. I remember loving the book, though on the last read, being disappointed by its second half. This time around, I didn't find the second half as disappointing, though clearly the best portions of the book are in its early-going.

What makes this book so utterly enchanting is Fante's use of language. Although he writes simply, he does so in a way that is poetic, even without being luscious in his description. The simple turns of phrase and occasional perfectly placed metaphors do the trick. And he knows it, as evidenced in a passage early on. The book centers around a writer named Arturo Bandini and his love of Camilla Lopez/Lombard. In one passage shortly after he first sees Camilla, Arturo begins an excited oratory to her: Oh, Camilla, you . . . but he abruptly quits with these simple words: "but not here." It's inappropriate, Bandini/Fante seems to be saying to begin with such praise. We don't even know the gal--and what's more, to do so would actually break down how much we understand Bandini's connection to her.

Another thing that makes the book so engaging is Bandini's sense of confidence in his own skill as writer. He is hubristic to the extreme--so cocky that it's funny, so cocky it's hard to believe he's serious. In addition, that cockiness spills over to equal moments of despair. Bandini is a man of extreme emotions.

Finally, there is the dialogue, which consists of constant punches between the performers, most especially Camilla and Arturo. There is not a lot of lover speak here; instead, each line spoken is a surprise, insult after insult, and yet, somehow, beneath it, longing.

Of course, that longing is more on Arturo's end than Camilla's. Camilla is in love with another man--Sammy--a man who unlike Arturo plainly cannot write, even though he wants to.

On this read, one thing that stood out very much to me was Fante's interest in what constitutes an American. Both Arturo and Camilla talk of being American but also denigrate each other as not so, most especially because they are not Anglo. Both want desperately to fit into that narrow definition of American but push each other (and others) down in that effort. Were I writing a paper, I'd likely look at the theme more closely and draw some conclusions, but that is not my place here.

Near the end, Arturo and Camilla reach a sort of understanding that softens their relationship, as Camilla becomes addicted to marijuana and goes crazy (the extremity of this addiction and insanity seems a bit unrealistic given what is known of the drug now), and that certainly makes the writing less compelling (now come those Oh, Camilla! lines that were put off earlier), but that section of the book is relatively short and fits well the work's overall arch.

Monday, September 14, 2020

On "The Death of WCW" by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez ****

I didn't care for professional "wrestling" when I was a teen or young adult, when it was on television from time to time, preempting programming I actually did want to watch. I didn't like the violence, the production values, the stupidity. And I don't think I'd care for it now. But I read a book about it.

One thing changed between then and now. Back about fifteen years ago, I went to see a wrestling event in a tiny town, a small event, with maybe one hundred in the audience. It was a hoot. But I also came to respect what the men who work as wrestlers do. Yes, of course, it's fake (only youngsters would think it might not be), but there is a great amount of athleticism involved for most of the wrestlers. These guys are gymnasts, acrobatics, and stuntmen. They learn how to properly fall, how to fake being hit and fake hit, and more than that, they learn how to flip and jump and perform a number of other tasks that high school gym taught me just how difficult such things were to do. And if you don't take things to seriously, a lot of sketches can be pretty funny. That doesn't mean I'd want to watch it on TV--or become a regular at the arena, but in a small venue where many of the guys are just learning, yeah, it's worth the price of admission.

This book is about the big boys, the ones on television, mostly specifically in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in an era when WCW (World Championship Wrestling) was in high competition with the WFF (the World Wrestling Federation--now World Wrestling Entertainment). The latter had some big stars, but WCW, purchased by Ted Turner, as it was a mainstay of his TV empire, threw cash at some big players and brought them over to itself.

But WCW didn't just have the new guys wrestle. It created a storyline in which a new set of wrestlers--the New World Order--was coming to set the WCW right, whipping up on all the WCW stars. This put the wCW in control of the ratings game, as WFF and WCW competed against each other on Monday nights. So successful was the WCW that it expanded its show an hour and also had shows on Saturday and Thursday nights in addition to its regular Monday night slot.

But the success was not to last. Wrestlers get old. And as many of the stars had creative control written into their contracts, they didn't want to lose. That meant there was no room to craft new stars among young guys coming up, which meant that like a really successful pro-sports team that doesn't have young guys waiting in the wings to take over when one generation passes, the WCW's ratings began to fade. And that's when desperation set in in terms of storylines that were nonsensical, such that audiences began to fade, and the WWF retook its dominant role.

In the meantime, Turner sold to Warner Brothers, which in turn merged with AOL, which meant that money guys came to make the decisions, money guys who didn't appreciate how wrestling had helped build Turner's TV stations and how wrestling's audiences waxed and waned. Beyond that, wrestling wasn't good on advertising dollars, even when successful in the ratings, as sponsors tended to take the view that only poor folk watched such stuff. And so it was the WCW, with its TV contract cancelled and running at massive debts, found itself without much of an audience.

In the end, it was sold to the WWF, which, as the authors bring out, squandered its chance for a ratings coup, given how many viewers had wanted to see various WCW stars fight WWF stars. Instead, the WWF essentially reaped vengeance on the WCW wrestlers who came over, writing total domination into the shows and taking on mostly second-tier stars rather than the more expensive ones.

The book, in essence then, is about how to create and squander a TV audience. In between, the authors spend a lot more time talking about the details of this or that episode and its ratings, which, while written with a good deal of jokes and winks, at times becomes cumbersome to a nonfan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

On "Once upon a Time I Lived on Mars" by Kate Greene ****

By chance, the day after I finished this book, I happened to watch an episode of The Simpsons in which the Simpsons compete to be chosen to be among the first settlers of Mars, and one of the activities they participate is something like what Kate Greene explores in this book. For about four months, she and five other participants lived in a dome near a Hawaiian volcano in a manner that was meant to imitate what life would be like if one lived on Mars. They could not leave the dome, except after putting on bulky astronaut suits. Food was largely of the variety shipped along with astronauts--powders and sundries that last long and weigh less--except for whatever food they were able to grow in the dome. Communication with the outside world was put on a twenty-minute lag, like the one that would exist between Earth and Mars. One of the main points of the study was to test out what being able to grow fresh food would mean for the astronaut, as food "fatigue" is one of the main issues in long-term space travel. That is, many astronauts lose weight over the course of a mission just because they grown tired of the powders and such available to them. But the mission also became, as Greene shows, an opportunity to explore a number of other themes and ideas having to do with being human, as if, by living far away from all of humanity (even if just an experiment), one could learn a few things about what being human means (similar ideas could probably also be explored by someone held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time--a work that would likely be both excruciating to read and probably enlightening).

Among the themes Greene settles on are boredom, solitude, and communication. These, for me, were the most interesting of the broader themes she discussed. Boredom, for example, can be the impetus for incredible creativity--something I would agree with. The correspondence chapter is particularly fascinating, since it revolves around the way in which communication happens when there is a twenty-minute lag between you and all others. We have gotten used to telephone calls--and not just calls but cell phone calls, where people are always available. Even the written word, in the form of text messages and sometimes e-mail, is often immediate. Add a twenty-minute lag, and all communication is broken up, more similar to the way that our ancestors communicated (when not thousands of miles away). You write letters. Information is not immediately available. This is something that seems strange to me now, but what seems even odder is the way in which we have come to depend on such communications. Granted, I never lived in a prephone world, but I did grow up at a time that was sans Internet and sans cell phone. Even phone long-distance phone calls were rare, given the expense. We wrote letters. That that sort of world seems odd now, so odd now, is crazy to me. In a way, I could almost envy the bubble Greene lived in for that. Although it's unnerving when communication devices go down, if they do so for a few days, one gets used to it again, to the new, slower pace of life, and one begins to appreciate the life that we lost.

More arresting than the themes Greene explores, however, is the actual "science" writing that she does--the tales of astronauts and of scientific experiments that have been foisted onto unsuspecting people. The latter, the reason laws now require people's informed consent before such experiments can take place, was a particularly harrowing and sad story, one that involved several black men and a fake cure for a disease that went on for decades, long after, it seems, the experiment had run its course. Rather than treating the disease (as promised), the scientists simply watched what the disease did to the men. Such barbarity rivals much of what the Nazis did to their victims. On astronauts, we learn that women actually likely make better ones, because they eat less and weigh less, but our societal tendency to favor men's daring-do and strength has put many more men in space than women.

Perhaps the most intriguing anecdote of the book comes right at its start, the tale of an astronaut on a spacewalk, one of the very first. Alas, the astronaut's space suit was too stiff to do much and there wasn't anyone to pull him back in. The astronaut's own sweat steamed up the facemask so that he couldn't see--he solved this problem by painstakingly rubbing his nose against the glass to clear a line of sight. Two hours later, he stumbled back inside; if he hadn't been able to get back, he'd have had to have been left. The story seems horrifying. But such are the experiments that astronauts participate in out in space, where sometimes engineers haven't thought everything through. In those early years of space travel, this was especially true, because, hey, no one had ever been in space and, thus, we often didn't know that X would work better than Y. I imagine that a trip to Mars, as much as we think about it, also would eventually involve a number of issues we haven't anticipated.

Centuries ago, explorers spanned the world. People settled in lands they didn't understand or thoroughly know. Many died. People still went. I suppose Mars isn't unlike that, but the idea of journeying (and settling) there seems so daunting to me that I wonder why anyone would ever agree to such a thing. Greene posits something of an answer--as unique likely as anyone else's.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

On "Restoring the Original Bible" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Although frequently repetitive, this work is an excellent resource for those who wish to know, from an ultraconservative perspective, how the Bible was canonized. Most scholars take the position that the canonization of the scriptures happened sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE, with the final writings of the Old Testament taking place as late as the second century BCE and of the New Testament in the second century (or late first century) CE. Martin takes the position that was the norm before biblical criticism of the nineteenth century called this into question and became the standard view among academics. (Having previously read Paul R. Finch's Beyond Acts, I see now where Finch drew most of his claims, adding to them the legends regarding the spread of Christianity in the Britain in the first century.)

Martin's real point is to encourage Bible translators to "restore the original Bible"--that is, to put the Bible in its original order, as it exists in various older versions of the manuscripts. Here, Martin does an excellent job of showing how and why the Jews placed the Old Testament in the order that they originally did, with the Torah (our traditional first five books) coming first, then the Prophets (which include also Joshua, Judges, and Kings), and then the Writings (which include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Chronicles). Some of the latter seem oddly positioned in this "original" version, when we think of Daniel, for example, being a prophet or the Chronicles being largely history, but Martin shows how and why the canonizers settled on this order using various methods, some having to do with how each section of the Old Testament reflects temple worship and priestly responsibilities, some having to do with numerology (in the original Jewish canon, several works are combined, making for just twenty-two books, which combined with the New Testament makes forty-nine books, or seven times seven). The versions coming down to us today largely use the Septuagint, whose order was different. Although Martin's comments with regard to the priestly tie-ins, the five books written specifically for women, the books written for kings, and so on are really interesting, one can certainly see some reasons for the Septuagint order as well.

The New Testament order is also altered from the original manuscripts, according to Martin. This happened through the work of Jerome, insofar as he reordered the New Testament when he created his Latin Vulgate. Indeed, the original order actually makes a good deal more sense other than that Jerome's version does put several works that seem quite last toward the back, giving the New Testament more of a chronological feel in some ways, though those were not the likely reasons for Jerome's reordering. The original order places the seven general epistles directly after Acts. The reason for this is that they are generally more basic in instruction, and importantly, they are written by and to Jews. Throughout canonization, as Martin brings out, one's connection to the Jewish priestly line was often the reason items were placed in the order that they were; also, this would put the New Testament in the order that the Gospel was preached--to the Jew first, that is. Then come Paul's epistles. Here, too, Jerome made a change, placing Hebrews at the very end, rather than just before the pastoral epistles. In each case, Jerome was likely pushing an agenda of Roman authority, ensuring that it came directly after Acts rather than works that were written to a Jewish church.

What's very interesting in a lot of this discussion, however, is the degree to which some things that we think we don't know were actually fairly uncontroversial at earlier dates. We don't know, for example, who wrote Hebrews, and yet Martin shows how Paul was known as the author to most writers for several centuries after Paul's death. The quotes Martin offers for this and other points with regard to the Bible's canonization and order seem like extremely convincing testimonials (Augustine, for example, telling us that it was the apostles themselves that set out the canon of the New Testament).

In other words, I wasn't as moved by Martin's discussions about the order of the books as I was by his discussions of how the books operate in that order and by how those books came to be canonized, if we take a conservative view. As Finch goes into a lot of the same story with the New Testament, I won't revisit that here; however, one detail that has always mystified me that Martin has a good hypothesis on has to do with how Easter came to be chosen as a day to worship on rather than Passover. Certainly, there are reasons related to wanting to avoid Jewish associations at a time when the Jews had revolted against Rome and were thus looked down upon and persecuted in response, and to the fact that Easter had certain connections to pagan traditions, but those points haven't seemed quite enough for me in terms of how some would celebrate a Eucharist on Easter versus Passover. Martin (in chapter 26) takes the position that after Hadrian's banning of the Jews from Judea but before Jewish authorities convened a council about seven years later, the Jewish calendar was in disarray, owing to the fact that there was no temple authority to dilineate when the year was to start, or if there would be a leap month (as happens on the Jewish calendar seven out of every nineteen years). As such the Jewish holy days began slip from their normal seasons (such that Passover even fell in January), and in the absense of an agreed-on calendar (for Christians and Jews), believers were left to fend for themselves in terms of figuring out whether to let further slipping occur and whether the sacred year's start should be adjusted. It was at this juncture, Martin claims, that some Christians took on the Easter practice, given that there was no agreed-on calendar to follow. Roman Christians stuck with the Easter tradition, even after the Jewish calendar dilemma was resolved (with a calculated calendar that now allowed Passover to occasionally precede the vernal equinox, whereas Easter always follows it--this was the occassion, a year in which this happened, for Polycarp's visit to Anicetus in Rome to try to resolve this differing views).

Saturday, August 15, 2020

On "After the Apostles" by Walter H. Wagner ****

This history of the second-century Christian church seems more like a set of introductory highlights than a straightforward account of what happened. In one sense, that is all such a history can be, as our knowledge of the second century is rather haphazard--a few sources here and there and a lot that doesn't seem all that clear. Wagner does a good job of pulling together some disparate themes and making the whole seem somewhat cohesive. Though the book claims to be written for the general reader, parts of it seemed a bit on the technical side to me, with the author still have a penchant for using Anglosized Greek words rather than just synonyms (though I realize that such usage was an attempt to show how no English word quite fits the meaning of the Greek, such usage is still offputting and makes the book seem more technical than what it purports to be).

The book is split into three major sections. The first part attempts to give historical background, showing how second-century Christianity was in part a response to the disappointments of the first, as Jesus's return proved not to come as early as many had expected, how Jews interacted with Christians, and what philosophical ideas were up for debate within the larger society. The clearest and most useful chapter in this section, for me, was Wagner's rendering of Roman history during the century, which proved to be not only a good summary but also compelling.

The second major section of the book looks at five themes that Christians debated during the course of the century: creation and creator (who was the creator? what was the nature of the creation?--notable here would be various gnostic sects that argued that the creator of earth was not the the primary god and was in fact a fallen deity); the destiny of human beings; who Jeus was (man who became God? a created being? God who became man? God who posed as a man?); the church's government structure; and the role Christians were to play in society.

The third section then takes these themes and looks specifically at how five particular Christian thinkers answered questions related to those themes--namely Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Of note here to me were the presentations of Clement and Tertullian. The latter came across as a firm and dictatorial-seeming thinking, very keen on all Christians falling in line with church authority (namely, the leadership in Rome); the irony, of course, is that Tertullian, later in life, fell out of sorts with Rome and himself became one of those who criticized those who were in charge of the church and refused to follow the authorities. Clement was notable for his seeming simultaneous condemnation of philosophy and his use of it--namely because in his view philosophy was really derived from the Jews and so, in fact, actually led, in a roundabout way, right back to scripture and the God of the Bible; thus, he could find in Plato or other Greek philosophers biblical principles. My hopes for this third section--a summary and comparison of the thinking of these five early writers--were, in fact, the main reason I was finally persuaded to read the book, and I was not disappointed.

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.