Monday, May 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2020

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

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

On "Against Heresies" by Irenaeus ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Librivox audio version can be found here.