Thursday, April 19, 2018

On "Sugar" by Nelly Reifler (2220 words) ***

"Sugar" is the name of a girl's pet that she keeps locked inside a box, a box that her parents want her to get rid of. The trick here is that we never really learn what is in the box. Read the story here at Post Road.

On "Simon Magus: The First Gnostic?" by Stephen Haar ***

This book attempts to answer the question, Was Simon Magus really the first gnostic? To answer the question, Haar looks at different accounts of Magus, the different meanings of the words associated with him, and the critical views with regard to the various accounts about him. As for his own opinion on the subject--it stays nicely hidden until the last few pages. As such, one doesn't get much of a feeling of Magus himself; rather, one gets a nice summary of the related literature. I'd thought this typical of such studies in the first chapter, but it more or less continues throughout the book. As such, this is a great book for getting a full range of views on Magus, but such summary also makes for rather dull, if precise, reading.

As Haar notes, major problems with defining who Magus was include the fact that all of the writing about him is from his detractors and the fact that there is a large gap between the early accounts. First mentioned in Luke, he doesn't show up again for decades until he is called the father of all heresies by Justin Martyr. From there, his reputation spirals further down, until he is blamed for all kinds of odd practices.

Simon is called "Magus"--magi--a sorcerer. Haar explores what this might mean--or rather what it would have meant at the time. We tend to think of such people as magicians and soothsayers, but Haar shows how the magi were in a sense thinkers from Persia, priests of sorts. He also shows how "magic"--telling the future and such--was not always seen in a negative light.

Finally, he explores gnosticism itself and what it is. He shows how the meaning is hard to pin down. Eventually, he evaluates Simon as a gnostic in three different manners: (1) by the Messina convention, which created a formal definition for gnosticism, problematic as it is; (2) by the early Christian writers who defined who Simon was; and (3) by how Simon may have seen himself as far as Haar can tell/imagine based on the writings about him.

Monday, April 9, 2018

On "It Can't Be This Way Everywhere" by Carla Panciera (4991 words) ****

"It Can't Be This Way Everywhere" is about a woman who is tending to a prematurely aging husband, one who has Alzheimer's, even as she tends to small children and her own work. The discovery of feral cats in their garage lends her the opportunity to teach the children about responsibility and for her to see both the ways that her husband is still strong and the ways that he no longer is. Read the story here at Huffington Post.

On "The Keepers" by Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles ***

This short introduction to Samaritan history and culture takes its reason for being from a collection of materials available at Michigan State University. The authors spend a couple of chapters on this collection, which is likely of interest to a few very devoted to these studies but which was not the heart of why I turned to this work. The reason I turned to this work was that I wanted a relatively short synopsis of Samaritan history, religion, and culture--and that, in its middle chapters, was exactly what this book supplied.

The Samaritans we know in scripture are a people despised by the Jewish people. Josephus and Kings essentially tell us that they consist of people injected into the land of Israel, the northern kingdom, after the Assyrians deported the northern ten tribes. Those people took on Jewish customs, after begging for a priest from the land, and merged them with their own. That's the story from the Jewish perspective.

The story from the Samaritan perspective is quite different. In their view, they stem from a conflict over the high priesthood that occurred shortly after Phinehas's demise. Eli, the son of Yafni tried to usurp the sons of Phinehas (Ozzi being high priest at the time). Eli's group moved to Shiloh and then eventually Jerusalem. Ozzi's group stayed at Shechem and Mount Gerizim, the original holy place.

Historical records of the sect begin to show up around the time that the Jewish people return from captivity in Babylon. Ezra, in shaping the Jewish scriptures, allowed in books beyond the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and he condemned marriages between Jews and Samaritans, considering the latter essentially akin to Gentiles (though this tradition is largely an interpretation of Josephus--the biblical record does not explicitly mention the Samaritans in this context). Another thing Ezra did was promote Jerusalem as the center of worship.

It is when the Greeks take over the Promised Land that Samaritan consciousness really takes hold, and the sect enters history in its own light. Their separation from Judaism also becomes plain, as for example, the Maccabees rebel but the Samaritans do not, the latter not being considered of the same religion as the Maccabees. John Hyrcanus's attack on the group cemented their separation.

While the Jews and Samaritans did not get along during much of the early Roman period, the condition of the sect appears to have been one of general persecution throughout history, no matter which set of people were in charge. In the Christian era (after Constantine made Christianity the favored religion), Samaritans briefly had a respite in how they were treated because of Christian ideas about the "good Samaritan," but eventually they were blamed for gnosticism and persecuted by the Byzantines. When the Muslims took over, once again, there was a brief respite, until the Muslims decided that Samaritans did not qualify as "people of the book," unlike Jews and Christians, at which time they were taxed extra.

Today, Samaritans are often considered a sect of Judaism. Like followers of Judaism, they believe in circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath, the biblical holy days, and the first five books of the Bible. However, they see Gerizim as the center of God's holy realm rather than Jerusalem and attach various biblical events to it just as Jews attach various biblical events to Jerusalem. They do not accept the rest of the Old Testament as scripture, and they have commentaries and other books (not considered part of their scriptures) that continue their story into Joshua's time. Their Pentateuch, while similar to the Jewish one, makes certain substitutions with regard to Gerizim as a place; it also is apparently closer to the Septuagint than to the Masoretic text. They believe in a Messiah to come, though he is seen primarily as a physical leader. They also, to this day, offer sacrifices. And the biblical holy days, finally, are on their own calendar separate from the Jewish calendar, the calculation of which only the priests know; thus Passover and the like may be celebrated at a slightly different time than it is in mainstream Judaism. They do not keep other Jewish days, such a Hanukkah or Purim.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

On "Carpe Diem" by Lucia Berlin (1268 words) ****

"Carpe Diem" makes much of a little. A woman goes to wash her clothes at the Laundromat but sticks her quarters in someone else's machines by mistake. Now she's out the money she need to dry her clothes, and the man whose laundry is now being washed twice it out an hour of his time, which leads to consternation and anger all around. Read the story here at Flavorwire.

On "The Wars of the Jews" by Josephus ***

The ancient history book still reads relatively well, though in sections I had trouble focusing on what was going on. This is in part because several parts include people with similar names, making it difficult to remember which person is which; because Josephus has a preachy agenda in places that gets away from the facts of the story; and because Josephus uses generous quotes from speeches as a rhetorical device.

The latter has its good and bad points. First among the bad, of course, is the fact that the speeches are simply a rhetorical device--not probably real. Second is that those speeches take away from the action or repeat points already made. However, one good thing about the speeches is that they provide a kind of window (even if fictionalized via Josephus himself) into the point of view of the particular historical actor. This is important when otherwise the point of view is largely Josephus's own, which can be rather skewed and biased for or against certain parties.

The story itself largely involves that of the recent war between the Romans and Jews in which Jerusalem and its temple are destroyed. For this tale, Josephus returns us back to Maccabees and the eventual rise of Herod the Great. But as the narrative continues, more and more focus is placed on the so-called "robbers"--a group of miscreants, in Josephus's view, who foment rebellion against the Romans.

What's perhaps most interesting about the history is how much of it focuses on Josephus himself and how self-serving the history appears to be. I've read around Josephus quite a bit, but actually reading his work through, I was surprised how central he becomes to the action in the second half of the book.

At first, he himself is one of these rebels, though I don't think he ever calls himself a robber. He seems somewhat central to the movement, and people in one particular town really look to him for leadership in the war against the Romans. In order not to trouble the town (as the Romans are largely after him), Josephus volunteers to leave, but the people won't have it. They want to stick by him.

But then one day, he says that he had a dream from God. In it, God tells him that he put the Romans in charge and that the Jews should surrender. The people won't hear of it. They opt to kill themselves so as not to fall under the cruelties of the Roman guard (which Josephus denotes are not cruel--that they will have mercy). The people draw lots to see who will do the killing of the community--Josephus ends up being one of them.

In the end, the community is killed, and rather than killing himself, Josephus surrenders. He is treated well by the Romans. And then he becomes their voice to try to get the rebellious Jews to see reason and to surrender. Throughout, then, Josephus talks of how terrible these various rebels are, how destructive, how they pollute the temple, how they kill their own people. He promotes the Romans as merciful, and yet he also describes crucifixions and the taking of prisoners and the use of them as gladiators and feed for wild beasts in the arena. I didn't come away feeling the Romans were all that nice. What I did feel was sorrow for those caught in the middle of all of this--likely to be killed by other Jews if not supportive enough or by Romans if caught.

The text can be read here at Project Gutenberg.