Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On "Tiger Bites" by Lucia Berlin (6512 words) ****

I found the narrator of this story--in fact, the whole family--to be irritating. She's a young woman, married too young, whose husband has run off, and she's hanging out with another family member who's done the same, in preparation for a family reunion. But in the midst of this, Berlin manages to take us to a Mexican abortion ward, a portion of the tale that is so well told and described, it makes the story well worth the effort to read. Read the story here at Literary Hub.

On "Nazarene Jewish Christianity" by Ray A. Pritz ***

This short but very much scholarly study traces the existence of the Nazarenes, a group of Jewish Christians mostly in Jerusalem who have a few mentions in various early historical works before disappearing. Often, they are mixed up with the Ebionites, but Pritz makes the case for them being a separate group--to wit, the Ebionites did not accept the divinity of Jesus, while the Nazarenes did. Making matters even more confusing is the fact that there are more than one set of Ebionites referenced in literature, some seeming to be Nazarenes.

Pritz studies out the early Christian sources and also the source of the name (Jesus was born in Nazareth; the name is used a couple times in scripture [once in Matthew and once in Acts]; the name appears to have been applied by outsiders rather than by the peoples themselves; it is possibly the fulfillment of prophecy but the fulfillment is obscure--possibly to a scripture in Isaiah, as the root of Nazarene and Nazarite, according to Pritz, appear different).

The study becomes most interesting in the chapters on Epiphanius and Jerome. The former wrote a long description of the Nazarenes in his work Panarian, not to be confused with a non-Christian Jewish sect of similar name about whom he also writes. Jerome claims to have come across Nazarenes in his journeys in Palestine, though it is uncertain whether he is referring to personal acquaintance or just coming across their works. He translated parts of the Gospel to the Hebrews, which he says they used, into Latin. Though they kept Jewish traditions, they were apparently not rejecters of Paul's writings and had much negative to say about the rabbinic Judaism.

After this, Pritz turns to later Christian writers, finding evidence that the Nazarenes likely existed into the third and maybe the fourth and fifth centuries. Most writers earlier accepted them as Christians, and thus that is one reason they are so little mentioned, but later writers considered them heretical, which is how they begin to show up in history.

Appendixes cover the supposed location of the Nazarenes and the question of whether the Pella tradition has any basis in reality. It was questioned by S. G. F. Brandon, who claimed that the Jerusalem Christians could not have escaped to Pella because Romans or Zealots would have killed them on the way, and once they got there, the inhabitants, who had been raided by Jews four years earlier, would have attacked them. Pritz notes that no one questioned the tradition before Brandon, that Josephus actually accounts for others escaping and may have had reasons to claim few did (to show up evil of zealots, power of Rome, etc.), and that no all places that were raided by the Jews reacted negatively to those Jews who lived there, who in some cases defended against the raids. Furthermore, Pella may have had Christian residents already who would have been more than willing to take in refugees.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On "Even Crazy Old Barmaids Need Love" by Peter Meinke (3465 words) ***

This tale from Meinke's The Piano Tuner collection recounts the lives of several patrons at a bar--and most specifically, an unlikely pair, an old barmaid and an accidental mid-aged actor. What I found most interesting about this story, however, is the account of how the bar changes under new ownership and how the owner makes that happen; it seemed the account of someone who had reconfigured a bar himself. Read the story here at the Orlando Sentinel.

On "Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem" by Elizabeth McNamer and Bargil Pixner ***

Written at a very basic and simplistic level, this book is both wonderful and dangerous. It is wonderful because it provides such a simple synopsis. It is dangerous, however, because the authors are believers in a controversial theory that is not so basic or widely accepted as the simple text would make a person believe.

That idea espoused is that the first-century Christians were, in fact, derived from Essenes--in fact, in many ways were Essenes, the isolationist ascetics behind the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The basis for this idea comes from several parallels in belief as well as the proximity of several archeological locations in Jerusalem. The arguments are in some ways persuasive, but part of that persuasion is in the way the information is provided, almost as if the ideas are foregone conclusions that most scholars take for granted.

These ideas cause the authors to propose that Jesus's trial was on a Wednesday, with the Passover meal on a Tuesday night, and his death on a Friday, with a resurrection on Sunday morning. The reason for this is that Essenes always apparently kept Passover on a Wednesday, following a 364-day solar calendar that apparently predated the lunar calendar that the authors says was put into Judaism during the Babylonian captivity. Since the trial could not take place at night (because of Jewish law), it is obvious that it must have taken place on Thursday. My understanding is that that the trial was not exactly by strict Jewish rules, however, which thus would not have precluded a night meeting. And the idea that the calendar was solar before Judah went to Babylon seems specious, since much is made in the Old Testament of the new moon as the means by which to calculate the various Jewish holy days, even in the historical books.

According to the authors, because Acts 6:7 says that priests joined the Christian sect and because the Sadducees were adamantly opposed to Christianity, and Pharisees weren't priest, the priests had to be Essenes. The argument here relies on various assumptions--that no Sadducee could or would accept Jesus, that no Pharisee was a priest, and Essene priests were welcome and served at the actual temple (when what I know of them suggests that they conducted their own religious rites separate from what they considered the polluted temple). But it is these kinds of ideas that are presented as nearly foregone conclusions, while similarities, such as both groups using lots to make a decision, are also pointed to as clear proofs of their being the same, rather than just being similarities among two Jewish groups (after all, lots were a customary way to make certain decisions in the Old Testament).

Another assumption the writers make is that the believers met every Sabbath in a synagogue for worship services of a sort, and then again on Sunday for Eucharist. I don't know the basis on which they make such claims, and without citation notes, it's impossible to find out (from another source, I'm guessing their source in Eusebius 3.27.3-6).

One thing I liked about the simple presentation, however, was the way in which in a matter of a mere one hundred or so pages, the authors were able to weave together so much Roman and Jewish history with the history of the Jerusalem church itself, giving readers a good feel for the events that affected the local congregation.

One interesting idea that authors have is that the Ebionites were the first schism from the Jerusalem Christians. I would figure the group would have been forged after the destruction of the temple and the disappointment over Jesus's failure to return at that time; this would have caused them to see Jesus as a mere prophet rather than as divine and to keep on with their Jewish traditions. But the authors see the Ebionite as forming before the temple's destruction. Rather, they claim, that a certain man name Thabuti (mentioned in Josephus and Hegesippus), who was apparently James the brother of Jesus's assistant (and of course, in these authors' reckoning, an Essene priest), expected to become head of the church after James's death; when Simon, Jesus's brother or cousin, was chosen instead, Thabuti left the group, taking followers with him, and these would become the Ebionites. I will need to read more on this subject.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

On "Stars and Saints" by Lucia Berlin (3188 words) ****

A girl from a Protestant family goes to a Catholic school, because her parents want to keep her away from the "not-so-nice" immigrant kids at the neighborhood school. But the consequences for the girl are loneliness, since she doesn't fit in with the other girls at the school. As such, she begins to find herself interested more and more in the nuns themselves and dreams of becoming one of them. Read the story here.

On "Jerusalem" by Karen Armstrong ***

This basic history of the city runs from its known existence before becoming capital of ancient Israel to its current existence as capital of modern Israel. I picked it up chiefly for chapters 5-8, which cover the period from Jerusalem's resettlement by the Jewish people in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to its destruction and re-creation as the city of Aelia Capitolina. These latter of these few chapters were excellent in giving a summary of the events; the former got caught up a bit too much, in my view, with concepts of the temple as exists in Ezekiel and other locations.

Having read the sections I had the most interest in, I backed up to the start of the book, wherein Jerusalem was conquered by David. The city was, before then, a Jebusite town. And in fact, after David's conquering, it continued to be a Jebusite city, for he did not kill off its inhabitants. Armstrong sees many Jebusite ideas and beliefs as seeping into the Jewish faith at this time. In fact, Armstrong tends to view all faiths as sort of blending into one another, as I would expect, since she is a historian essentially of comparative religion--or at least this is how I've long viewed her work.

As such, it was interesting to read biblical events as explained by a largely secular historian, who sees the role of God as one largely of cultural interpretation. The deliverance of Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah, thus, is not a miracle but a case of luck: that the plague just happens to catch up with the Assyrian forces when they are on the verge of total victory.

Similarly, the Jewish and Israeli people are not really one from well before the time they split up after Solomon's reign. Armstrong brings out how David moved the capital to Jerusalem, probably, because it was more centrally located and "new," thus not giving the feel of Judah having "taken over" Israel. Solomon's excessive taxes of Israel both in money and labor are what drive Israel away, and Rehoboam's intention to maintain said system are what seals the deal. Israel is the stronger nation, and of course, it creates its own holy place to avoid being linked to Judah.

From there, Armstrong covers the familiar material I was looking for a nice summary of, until, of course, Rome obliterates Jerusalem and outlaws Jews from entering it. This policy weakens and strengthens over time, but eventually the Jewish people are prevented from entering Jerusalem due to Christian animosity to them.

Ironically, given today's situation, it is the Muslims who essentially open Jerusalem to the Jewish people again, though the Muslims do end up building a mosque on the Temple Mount that will prevent any rebuilding of a temple in the same location again. The Crusades once again close the city off to those of other faiths, and when the Muslims retake it, rather than seeking revenge, as they desire to do, they give in to pleads for mercy and let the Christians walk. (The Christians, who earlier had eschewed the idea of holy places then started to reverse that trend, which seems so with each group that takes the city.)

During all these times, various sites are newly associated with old events--this is where Abraham did this, where David lived or was buried, where Christ did this, where Mary did that, and so on. Some of these places well might be legitimate, passed on via generations by people who knew, but most appear to have been invented for various idealistic reasons. It makes one question history within the city.

Eventually, the Muslims are overtaken by Byzantium and the Turks (themselves Muslim), who are overtaken by the British, who finally concede the land to the Zionist movement. The latter is helped to fruition by Hitler, as Jews escape Europe to the Holy Land. Even then, the intention was not necessarily to take Jerusalem but to share it, but war with Jordan and Egypt essentially put Israel in charge of the city, and interest holders who earlier saw no reason for a retaking of the city, who had learned to practice Judaism in diaspora and accept it as such, now viewed it as God-given and essential to the faith. Tensions have remained ever since, even within Israel--with some seeing no reason to share the city with those of other faiths and some quite the opposite.

This is where, in essence, Armstrong lays down her thesis, her final points: That the city is most at peace when communities are tolerant of other faiths, as in the time of David or some periods of Muslim rule.