Sunday, August 14, 2022

On “The Formation of Christianity in Antioch” by Magnus Zetterholm ****

A really good intellectual work will often pull one toward a new way of thinking, slowly and then all of a sudden, providing an epiphany similar to what a character might receive at the end of a work of fiction. Zetterholm's book is such a work. Perhaps not quite as much of a history of Christian church in  Antioch as I would have liked, it managed to make me rethink a bit what's going on in Ignatius's letters and why the Gentile church would have an interest in a gospel mostly aimed at Jewish concerns.

Zetterholm's basic thesis is that the parting of the ways of Christians from Jews was not so much that as it was a separating of Jesus-believing Jews from Jesus-believing Gentiles. This may seem obvious, but Zetterholm focuses on what the implications for such a statement really mean.

The book begins by looking at the role of the Jewish community in Antioch. As Zetterholm makes plain, that community was not a unified front. As with any immigrant community, Jewish peoples in Antioch fell into various factions. Here, Zetterholm uses social theory to make his point. (The long summaries of such theory are perhaps what makes the work very much one of scholarly tone and less interesting than it would otherwise be.) That theory essentially posits that such immigrant communities have varying sets of people: some aim to fit in more with the community to which they've moved, some become more inclined to focus even more on preserving the culture from which they have come. And then, there are folks of various stripes in between, who merge some aspects of the old home with that of the new. So some Jewish people gave up practicing “Judaism,” while others became much more devout, and still others continued some practices while abandoning and adopting others. Judaism, at this time, Zetterholm claims, although not the definitive religion we now know it to be still had unique characteristics that all the various sects would have agreed on, even if they didn't agree on all the particulars or the meaning of those characteristics.

Gentiles in Antioch would have been attracted to Jewish synagogues because of the community that such gatherings offered. Antioch as a city would have been a dangerous and lonely place full of crime and disease. The Jewish synagogue would have offered a reprieve from such a world in ways few others legal gatherings could have. The Jesus movement's impact within those synagogues would mean that some of the synagogues more open to Gentiles would have been affiliated with the faith being forged at that time.

Much ink is spilled at this point on the Acts 15 conference and Paul's letter to the Galatians, as it is in any work about Antioch. Zetterholm, like many, if not most, Christian writers posits a split between followers of James and Paul that would be relatively permanent, with Paul demandings Gentiles remain Gentiles and James demanding Gentiles become Jewish. (The disputes in the New Testament, I would counter, don't really show this.) Nevertheless, the implications of the differing factions do play out in an intriguing way as Zetterholm sees it.

The reason is that after the destruction of the temple and the imposition of the tax on all Jewish people, Gentile believers would have been placed in an awkward position. All Jews, whether practicing or not, were subject to the tax. Gentiles, by contrast, would have only been subject to the tax if they became Jews. As such, they'd have had strong reasons not to become Jewish. Within the synagogue, however, in some communities, they could not take part unless they became “Jewish” by taking on Jewish customs. If the opted not to become Jewish, as Paul had told them they should not be, then the couldn't be full-fledged members of the synagogue and, as such, couldn't be part of a legally recognized colegium. So either they had to become fully Jews (and pay the tax) or they couldn't meet with the synagogue and thus were subject to punishment for illegal gatherings—a penalty either way. Efforts to justify Christianity to Roman authorities (as per the second-century apologists), in his reading, thus become efforts to become legally recognized gatherings separate from Jewish gatherings. As such, criticism of the Jewish faith within such writings are part of an effort to help those Roman authorities distinguish the two from one another, but with the Gentiles now claiming to better represent the ancient faith written out in the Jewish scriptures. Thus, they are still a synagogue group of sorts, in the ancientness of their beliefs, but not of the Jewish stamp, in the rebelliousness of their subjects. When Roman authorities finally do recognize the different several centuries later, anti-semitism has become part of parcel of early Christian teaching.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

On “The Day the Sun Died” by Yan Lianke ****

This is the last book on my Chinese literature reading list, a work by a contemporary author that plays mostly as dark fantasy.The work is one that would have likely fascinated me at a slightly younger age, as it heavily involves sleep walking and that line between sleeping and waking.

The text centers around a young man, a child maybe, a simpleton, who grows up the son of people who run a funeral accessories store. At one time, his father worked with his brother-in-law in the crematorium business. His job was to inform on people who bury their dead relatives, as the law no longer allows that due to a shortage of land. There was much money in it, but eventually, the father felt too much shame in informing on his neighbors, so he gave it up. His brother-in-law, by contrast, makes good money, burning up bodies. What's left, often, is a bit of oil, much like grease is left when one cooks ground beef. (I'd never thought of that aspect of crematory work.) This oil, he sells for a nice sum. The father decides to buy that oil at an inflated price, as long as the price always remains the same, in part to make up for his once having been an informer. He does nothing with the oil—simply stores it. You know that oil is going to play a role somewhere later in the story, and it certainly does.

The story itself focuses on one long night, when various atmospheric forces block out the sun and result in people falling very easily to sleep. Pandemonium ensues, as people live out their dreams—often killing themselves or others. Others stay awake and take advantage of the situation. This part makes little sense to me, since we don't all start committing crimes because folks are sleepwalking or asleep. Otherwise, every night would be scary indeed. Nevertheless, looting and riots follow.

With no sign of the night ending and fights become more intense, the boy's family tries to come up with a plan to bring back the sun and wake people up.

Perhaps the strangest element of the plot is the author's own namesake taking part in the novel. The boy is a big fan of the author's novels, and were I more of a reader of Yan Lianke, I would know whether the plots, quotes, and titles cited are real or just made up. Nevertheless, the author is there in the town, sleepwalking among the inhabitants—and eventually gathering notes for the novel.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

On "Playing for Thrills" by Wang Shuo ***

This book starts off with a very interesting premise, arguably even a good one. It's a mystery. A guy finds out he's the major suspect in a murder case, the death of a friend of his ten years ago. He's got to clear his name, find an alibi. The week of the supposed murder, however, he doesn't remember. Where was he? What was he doing? Could he have been the one who murdered his friend?

Imagine The Hangover as a murder mystery, and you've got kind of the gist of this work. The protagonist doesn't have a great memory. Of course, I probably wouldn't know my whereabouts from a given week ten years ago either, except that I live a very humdrum life and so could probably point to being at work, but after work? I would have no idea and little way to track that down if I hadn't taken notes in some way. Or maybe the main character was on a bender. The novel then tracks his attempts to find out what he was doing that week, as he interviews friends he knew and places that he frequented at the time.

The protagonist is something of a ne'er-do-well, a guy who spends most of his time gambling and playing around with friends, and when he can still manage, chasing tail. So are most of the characters in the novel. This makes for some degree of difficulty telling the characters apart. There's a man in a striped shirt whom nobody knows who was at the last dinner at which they saw the murdered man. But later in the book, other friends wear such a shirt, the murdered man does in a dream/memory, and even the protagonist. The characters are in a way interchangeable, which makes them a bit less interesting.

And when one doesn't have characters to root for, it all becomes about the plot. This plot is loose and goofy but substantive enough to sustain two-thirds of the book. But at that point, the novel takes an odd turn, one that plays well with the kind of players all these people are but that blows all the suspense in the book and makes it, well, not terribly interesting anymore. One gets the sense that even the author isn't all that interested anymore, from the way the last few pages of the book go.

There's probably a lot here that is missing in translation. Footnotes explain some of the cultural context, some of which I knew but most of which I didn't. There are jokes that flew right by me, not being Chinese, references to classic works and authors. Such makes me appreciate all the more works that manage to speak to a person in translation, because they speak not just to the culture in which they arose but to the human experience. This book didn't really do that, even though it made a stab at trying to say something about identity and jokes and other human things; there wasn't, in the end, enough heart.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

On "Christianity in the Second Century" by Emily J. Hunt. ****

The subtitle of this book is "The Case of Tatian," which is what this book is really about. I'd have flipped the two titles were it me, since the main title is deceptive and too broad for what the author does here. Certainly, some of what she writes about Tatian establishes ideas about broader trends in second-century Christianity, but the book does not really lay claim to that focus. If I'd wanted a general book about second-century Christianity, I'd have turned elsewhere. Lucky for me, I came to this work because I was looking for a work about Tatian, and it was a ready read.

Tatian was a second-century Christian who grew up a pagan in Assyria. At some point, he went west, became a student of Justin's and then, after Justin's death, apostasized, becoming a gnostic, moving back toward Assyria, and disappearing from history. Or so that is what most histories will tell you, based on the writings of various early church historians. Hunt calls this apostasization into question. The second century was rife with different points of view, and while Tatian's may not have been mainstream, they were hardly gnostic. It seems that the label was assigned him possibly for political reasons by these later church historians.

The two works Tatian is most known for are his Oration to the Greeks, which still survives, and the Diatesseron, one of the first harmonies of the Gospels--and the only version of the Gospels available in much of the church of the East for the first few centuries. Hunt looks closely at the first work to ferret out Tatian's points of view and his likely influences. She comes to believe that Tatian was heavily influenced by his teacher Justin and possibly eastern Christian view but not as much by the Gnostic Valentinus or Greco-Roman philosophy (except insofar as the ideas of philosophy permeated early Christianity generally). There are, of course, some problems with depending so much on the Oration, the main one being that we're not sure when it was written and and therefore what stage of Tatian's point of view it represents. If written early, he could well have changed much of his perspective later on (Hunt doubts not so much the early writing but the idea that he would have actually changed his point of view so greatly as to accept Gnostic ideas, something I find a bit dubious, knowing how some people really do flip in terms of belief systems over the course of their lives); if written later, of course, we're on pretty firm ground to use it to argue that the various early historians had Tatian wrong in many respects.

As per the Oration and what little we have of the Diatesseron, it is evident that Tatian did have ascetic sympathies, much like most other Eastern Christians. It's also clear, however, that he did not believe in more than one God, an evil and a good god, a pleroma of aeons, or the immortality of the soul, as most Gnostics would have. Rather, like Justin, he embraced the resurrection. He thought there to be just one God (curiously, he rarely mentions Jesus in the Oration). He believed demons to be fallen angels. Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of his thought, insofar as what Hunt describes, was his belief that people had been created with the spirit of God but that that spirit was removed when Adam sinned; the Christian process thus is one of having that spirit restored.

As with so much of early Christian history, however, much of Tatian's life and thought is hidden in shadows. We have only the one work and a few early comments about him, each with their own agenda. Hunt's work adds now, many centuries later, to that set of comments; there have been and will be others to do so.

Monday, June 6, 2022

On "Marcion" by Adolf von Harnack ***

This introduction to Marcion is one of the few book-length critical studies on the gnostic teacher of the second century--Marcion, the creator of a New Testament consisting only of seven of Paul's letters and an edited version of the Gospel Luke. That seems to be his main claim to fame, when one reads about him in other works. He posited that the god of the New Testament was a different one than the Old Testament and that all the rest of the Bible was twisted by Jewish thinkers and believers, who had fallen for the doctrines of the old fake god.

As one commentator said Harnack's work, Harnack makes Marcion almost into a Protestant hero. Here is a man who understands the difference between the god of the Old and New Testament, who had the guts to know that grace is by faith alone. Indeed, parts of Harnack's work definitely come across that way, especially in the introduction and conclusion. But Harnack does draw a line at claiming there were actually two gods; he sees that as Marcion's bridge to far for Christians.

In between, however, Harnack does a good job of showing some of the subtle aspects of Marcion's thought. One would get the sense that Marcion was an antinomialist, and yet in reality, he was an ascetic. If the Old Testament is the work of a evil creator god, then one must do what one can to prevent the continuation of the creation. That means no sex, no joy in physical things. They're all fake and keep people bound to that fake god, just as much as the law, so one is to avoid them. Interestingly, while Marcion saw much of the New Testament as corrupted (thus his throwing away of much of it), he saw the Old Testament as an unadulterated complete work. And it is in fact the means by which one comes to know the difference between the good god and the bad one, so even though he dismisses it as scripture, it has a purpose. As Harnack implies, Marcion wouldn't have even had a problem with much of the content of the law (no murder, adultery, etc.); rather, his problem was with the motivation for keeping that law. The good god is all love; he will not judge. Rather, one falls out of contact with that god and thus loses out on the goodness. The evil god, by contrast, punishes for not keeping his law. But the evil god and his law will one day pass away with all that is physical.

Of particular interest to those technically inclined is Harnack's inventory of items that Marcion deleted from or changed in Luke's Gospel and even from Paul's letters (I hadn't realized he'd made changes to Paul's letters before; makes one wonder what exactly Marcion thought he was looking at that he felt like he knew better than the texts handed to him; I mean, if these works are full of errors, why bother trying to rescue them?).

Marcion, according to Harnack (and many who have written about Marcion since), was also the impetus between the canonization of the New Testament and the organization of the larger Christian church. In this view, his New Testament predated that of the orthodox church; it was to refute him that the church came up with its own list of acceptable books. Likewise, his church was earlier organized, in this view, with a hierarchy of structure and government.

Monday, May 30, 2022

On “The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature,” edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt ****

This is the second volume of Chinese literature put out by Columbia University Press that I've read. The first was classic lit; this volume deals chiefly with the literature of the twentieth century. The shame in that is that when the two volumes are put together, the one to two hundred years in between get short shift. Like the previous volume, I was not a fan of the manner in which this volume was put together. As someone who knows little about Chinese literature and who is trying to learn more about it, I would have relished a bit more attention to context. Why these selections? And what do these selections say about the state of Chinese literature at the time? This volume, rather, is set up like a literary anthology in which the editors' voices are relatively muted; the “literature” you're reading is the important stuff, even if you know little about it. There are no headnotes. Instead, there is a set of short biographies placed at the start of the entire book, forcing a reader to go back and forth between the selections and the bios for info. The bios give good life info and sometimes a little info about the selection itself, but it's hard to glean, from the bios and the overall setup, why the editors chose some works or how relatively important the writer or the piece is to the overall body of modern Chinese literature. I found myself no longer checking the bios by about halfway through the volume, as they began to run together.

Intriguingly, the editors chose to provide the volume in three sections, with three subsections each. First, the anthology is split up by genre: Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction. Then, it is split up by period: pre-Mao (from 1918), Mao, and post-Mao. Personally, I would have preferred the genres not be split out, so that the work would have been wholly chronological, but I can see the value in the generic splits. The fiction section is the longest, taking up 5/7 of the overall text, with the poetry and nonfiction each taking up about a seventh. Initially, I would have thought the fiction—short stories, not chapters from longer novels—too long, but the editors choice here seems to be wise. It is the stories that are the strongest section of the book. The poetry, I found, though often full of profoundly beautiful imagery did not seem on par, as a whole, to the classic Chinese poetry of years before, the images often not evoking a parallel track of thought about life. The nonfiction was also not so inspiring or interesting to me. As such, the stories proved to be the section that most seemed to reflect the concerns of daily life for modern Chinese.

What is evident in the pre-Mao section stories is the poverty that must have dominated China before the coming of communism. Such helps explain why the revolution came about. One gets the sense in some tales, which present a more communistic view, of the hope some held out for revolutionaries. But mostly, one gets the feeling for the overall povery of the population. The Mao section of stories present only a few of idealism. That's because so much of the literature that the editors have chosen comes out of Taiwan. But there's probably good reason—idealistic stories of Maoist society do not generally make for interesting reading, except maybe the first one or two times. The Post-Mao world is surprisingly open about the failures and horrors of the Cultural Revolution—neighbors turning in/on neighbors to keep from being turned in themselves, no one truly guilty of anything outside a willingness to sell others out for alleged lack of loyalty to save one's own skin; old revolutionaries who have come to see the folly of their hopes; local party leaders who use their authority to perform heinous acts.

My two favorite pieces in the book stemmed from this post-Mao period. The first, “The Tunnel” by Chen Ruoxi, concerns a lonely older man whose adult children are devoted to the party and who are making their way up various government positions. This older man cannot be and is not allowed to have a love interest, since that would interfere with inheritance and potentially with the children's party status. During the course of the story and his service on one of the party committees helping to aid the community, he finds himself falling for a widow, whose husband had been accused of being against the party and had been taken away. The father finds various amusing ways to have small trysts with this woman, sneaking out, for example, to see movies with her. But the family will NOT allow him to remarry—it is simply shameful for an older man and would hurt his children's own economic needs. One day, the couple opts to skip the movie and go for a hike in some lesser known part of the city. They find a tunnel and some alone time. The ending here is heartbreaking, just as the man's experience of being denied love would have been.

The other story, and a very short one at that, that stood out to me was Liu Yichang's “Wrong Number,” not so much for its emotional connection as for its technical trickery. The tale is one told twice, once without the “wrong number” phone call and once with it, showing how a few minutes—a dead butfferfly, if you will, to use the old sci-fi trope—can change the course of one's life.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

On “The Common People of Ancient Rome” by Frank Frost Abbott ***

This work had moments of lucid prose focused on the “common” people, but the majority of the early portions of the work focused on language and literature. In a sense, I understand why. We have mostly just what is written to gather information about such people. But in that sense, the work becomes one of linguistics and reflections on literary statements about the lives of such folks, itself not the most pedestrian discussion. I was fairly bored before Abbott got to stuff I was actually interested in—economics. Life, as Abbott notes, was quite hard for most common folks and luxuries few. Indeed, things we would consider staples, such as a well-balanced diet were not to be had. Bread and water might be your livelihood. Much of this I'd read elsewhere by now, for example, regarding housing and trade guilds. Still, it was interesting. Abbott closes with a couple portraits of Romans about whom we know a little from writings that survive. These were not “common” people, however, in my estimation, being friends to Caesar and various political entities. As Abbot''s work makes clear in its selection of things to discuss, finding info on common folk two thousand years ago is no easy task. Histories are written about the “important” people in our world.


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

On "Parthia" by George Rawlinson ****

Of the three books I've read on the Parthian Empire, this is the best. One focused on the political history of the empire and was difficult to parse without more understanding about the general history surrounding the events. One was really interesting and well written but had an agenda that made much of the information in it suspect. Rawlinson's text seems to strike a good balance, providing useful background info for the eventual political history that follows. But it doesn't just focus on events; it also gives information about the geography and culture, which gives one more of a feel for what those events meant to the folks living at the time.

As a work of history written before the 1950s, it does, alas, participate in some of the dated wording and colonialist perspectives that such older histories often do. Rawlinson, in other words, is too often willing to take on the views of Parthia's detractors, calling it a region of barbarians and critiquing its culture as less refined than those of the West. 

The book starts with a discussion of the geography of the area. Following that comes the bulk of the book: a recounting of the various kings and the wars in which they participated. Because so little information was recorded by the Parthians themselves, most of our history about the region comes from outsiders, most especially the Romans. Thus, the history to a large degree is a recounting of Rome's various wars with the empire--and usually over the kingdom of Armenia. My particular focus of interest was the warfare within Mesopotamia, so it was interesting to read about Cassius's disastrous invasion of Parthia--and then the later less disastrous invasions by Titus and another emperor (Severus, if I remember right). Rome never seemed to hold the land for long. Strangely, Parthia would often send royal family to be educated in Rome, which would give Rome the aura of holding "captive" Parthian royals and let it feel superior, even as Parthia often put the actual Roman army to flight.

Parthia was a rather loose empire, with many vassal states within it. The Parthian king was a "king of kings" insofar as many of the vassal states had their own rulers. One gets the feel that it had a more easygoing government than Rome did and that the people had more freedom (though, really, it wasn't likely the "people" who had the freedom but the vassal governments within the Parthia empire that had the freedom to rule over the people as they willed). That leant the kingdom both its strength and its weakness, insofar as the kingdoms ruled over were more often willing to fight for themselves but also, with less cohesion among the subject peoples, less unity between the various factions.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

On “Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory” by Markus Bockmuehl ****

The most intriguing idea contained in this book is that, as Bockmuehl argues, we may not be able to know exactly who Peter was or what he actually did, but we can note his importance and the degree of influence that he held over the early church by the shadow that he casts, the the ripples that he left in his wake. Bockmuehl the examines what those ripples would be, even as he admits that some of the literature about him may not be wholly accurate. It's a good point. Why, after all, would so many early writers fuss over Peter or try to tie their own claims to Peter were it not that Peter had some kind of heavy early influence. He must have been an important apostle.

Bockmuehl does this by examining first writings left behind in the Eastern church and then in the Western. As he notes, few in the Eastern church lay claim to him as one of their own, that is, as one who traveled extensively in the area. Rather, Peter is more often associated with the West, even in the East. And his martydom in Rome is acknowledged by quite a few early writers—hinted at if not outright stated. Bockmuehl also provides a useful website where he summarizes, or gives quotes from, the various early writings about Peter, which should be very useful to anyone else who might want to examine the evidence.

He closes his book by looking at Peter in two particular situations. First, he looks at Peter's conversion—or rather the narrative of it. Much attention is given to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, but we have no similar single moment provided for for Peter. Yet in Luke, Jesus tells Peter that he will be handed off to Satan for a while, and when he returns, he should take care to care for others. We never really see that moment. When did it happen? It seems to have occurred between the end of Luke and the start of Acts, wherein Peter is already strong in the faith. Bockmuehl guesses that the turn to Satan happened at Peter's denying of Jesus, which would make sense. The turn back would happen at Jesus's resurrection, when Peter saw Jesus, which would also make sense. John's recounting of Jesus telling Peter to “feed my sheep” three times works off this theme of conversion—insofar as it's the opposite of Peter's three-time denial.

Second, Bockmuehl looks at Peter's upbringing in Bethsaida, which is only mentioned once in Scripture. This was perhaps the most interesting reading Bockmuehl did in the work. We associate Peter with Capernaum, where he lived as an adult. Bethsaida was a far different area—mostly, from what we can tell, Gentile. As such, Peter would have been quite familiar with non-Jewish culture and likely would have spoken Greek (contrary to what many try to argue—namely that he didn't know the language), even though he likely grew up in a devout Jewish household. Such a background, of course, would have made Peter a very useful apostle indeed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

On "The Dream of the Red Chamber" by Cao Xaoqin ***

Credit working a second job and general length of the book for making me take so long to get through this one. Or perhaps credit the fact that this book, although a classic of Chinese literature, goes nowhere. It reminded me of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, insofar as it is largely about court intrigues and relationships among a well-to-do family. Single chapters are great. Indeed, I read an excerpt from this book in an anthology, which made me look forward to reading this text. But the episodic nature of the book and the fact that the writer often introduces plot points that go nowhere ultimately make this something of a frustrating read.

The early chapters of the book recount the disappearance of a young woman and the family's reaction to it. It's a great set-up (where'd she go? what happened? don't know), but eventually, we end up spending time mostly with the family of one Pao-yu Secundus, a fifteen-year-old with many female cousins and servants who sloughs off at his schooling and displeases his father. As a portrait of this portion of China at this time, it's intriguing. Pao-yu forges a close friendship with one other male at one point, who then traipses off to other places. He forges close relationships with his various maids and cousins. They get together to write poetry and start a poetry club. Families of the maids visit. One lower-class mother of one of the maids visits, gets drunk, and makes a full of herself.  One maid is given the opportunity to be the second wife to a rich older man, which she rejects, much to the shock of others. Pao-yu travels far off to a temple, unbeknownst to his family, indeed, hiding the very fact. Each of these things is told in discrete chapters, which alone are interesting enough. Together, not so much. Court life is tedious.

The book ends--or at least the version of the book I read--ends with Pao-yu meeting a doppelganger, another boy named Pao-yu, this one twelve years old, but otherwise similar in personality and looks and even class situation. He is even, at one point, somewhat mistaken for the other boy. Intriguing. But alas, it was just a dream. Not so intriguing. "And if you'd like to know what happens next, reader, you'll need to turn to the next chapter." That is, the book ends with the same ending that all other chapters carry, as if the author were writing a serial that was cancelled in its midst, with discrete chapters that feature the same characters but not always plot points that go from start to finish.

Monday, March 21, 2022

On "The Shepherd of Hermas" **

I wasn't expecting much from this work, and it delivered just about what I expected. I find it interesting so many early Christian writers thought this almost on the level of scripture. My interest in that stems largely from the fact that were this work actually in the cannon, what sense would I make of it--and why would one think it at such a level that it should be.

The work starts off with a set of visions or tales in which Hermas meets up with various angels--mostly women. He finds himself drawn to them; they give him instructions. He's warned about having lusting thoughts. At one point, he's even told that Christians have the opportunity to repent only once of a sin after baptism; after that, there's no more hope. That seems a strange comment and one that later portions of the work don't seem to confirm.

Although the visions were not particularly interesting to me, the next two sections had a bit more going for them. The second section consists of mandates, twelve of them. Think of them like commandments for New Testament believers. I couple of them seemed so close in meaning that I had a hard time distinguishing between them. Most were a bit long-winded, and so not as easy to ferret out or summarize as the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, I'll try here:

  1. Believe God is one.
  2. Be guileless.
  3. Love truth.
  4. Remain pure.
  5. Have patience.
  6. Trust righteousness.
  7. Fear the right things.
  8. Remain temperate in right things.
  9. Avoid doubt.
  10. Put away sorrow.
  11. Trust the Spirit.
  12. Remove evil desire.

The last section consists of a set of parables, comparing the church and believers to this and that--trees, plants, cities, towers. These, on the whole, seemed much more approachable than the visions at the book's start.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

On "Tomorrow . . . What It Will Be Like" by Herbert W. Armstrong ***

I first read this book as a young teen, feeling somewhat obligated to do so and to "like" it, because it is a religious book. Coming to it again as an adult, I find it still difficult to assess critically, since Armstrong forged such an influence on my family's life when I was a kid. What would I think of it if I hadn't grown up around such influence? It's hard to say. Why reread it now? Because after this year's Feast of Tabernacles, I had a desire to study up on what the Bible says about urban planning in the millennium. I was hoping this book might have some ideas. In the end, there wasn't much on the subject, maybe a couple of paragraphs that remotely relate.

What I did find was a book that in some ways is very much of its time (1970s) and in others is rather timeless. That was the way that Armstrong often wrote. I found a lot of his standard catch phrases, the same quotes he liked to trot out constantly. He writes often in generalities that would be true of any time and place (there's lots of pollution in the world, etc.). But it's also interesting to think of this as a work of the 1970s, when concerns about overpopulation were rife, and when books like Futureshock were the rage. (It strikes me that such concerns still make up much of the publishing market, but somehow they don't seem quite as at the forefront as they did to me as a kid. Now, such ideas would be subsumed under works about global warming and climate change.) This book works off a lot of those 1970s fixations. Armstrong opens with two chapters about futurism: pessimistic views of the human future versus optimistic ones. Which will it be? And then, he lowers the scriptural appeal: Neither, because Christ will return (essentially saving humans from the reality of the more pessimistic assessment).

Much of the rest of the book looks at scriptures revolving around what this future world will look like. I found myself wondering, in some cases, what some not familiar with his other teachings would think or understand, because in some cases, the work seems to take that knowledge for granted. In some cases, I found myself thinking that the author goes on far too much about his views on top-down government and, most especially, who will do what in the millennium. One can certainly hypothesize about the role of specific resurrected patriarchs, but outside of David and the apostles, the scriptures don't actually say. Why spend so much time on the subject? There was also one passage espousing segregationist views that were very off-putting.

The book probably hits its stride most as it draws closer to its conclusion, in Armstrong's chapters on education and more especially language. The more scriptures take the central role the more grounded the work seems. But then, why not just read those?

A couple other surprising things about the book? First, its length. At barely over one-hundred large-sized-print pages, the work comes in at just a bit longer than the various pamphlets the church published. When I was young, one hundred pages seemed substantial; now, not so much. Second, its reading level. The work consists of short sentences and is very easy to read. It is set up to appeal to a wide audience, and in that sense, I rather appreciate Armstrong's writing skills and background in marketing. Maybe the writing seems a bit glib, but it certainly better conveys its points than the long-winded, highly qualified assertions I'm prone to.

Monday, October 4, 2021

On "The Sibylline Oracles" translated by Milton S. Terry ***

This ancient work consisting of fourteen books poses itself as a set of prophecies about world history and the fate of mankind. Parts were very interesting to me; others not so much, especially as the work gets to be rather repetitive and at times obscure. Not all the books survive and not all that do survive do so in complete form. The books, most scholars believe, were written over centuries by different writers with different agendas. Thus, some sections seem to be Christian in orientation, some pagan, and some Jewish--many merge aspects and views from these various traditions. It's interesting to read the differing views on the end of time as they develop within the books, though the varying writers makes for many inconsistencies in such views; because we don't know for certain who wrote what and when, unfortunately, tracing the development of thought within the collection is to some extent necessarily and unfortunately speculative. The translation itself that I read, available online here, was well done--with useful notes and the materials placed into polished blank verse.


Sunday, October 3, 2021

On "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" by Robert L. Wilken *****

This book came up on a list of best Christian history books, and having found a good copy at a cheap price, I decided to try my hand at reading it. I was glad that I did. It is one of the most interesting takes on early Christianity I have read, one that seems like a very obvious study to undertake but that Wilken actually did.

Wilken focuses on the work of five individual Roman writers over the course of the first four centuries of Christianity--Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. In the course of doing so, he shows how the reaction of Christianity changed especially as it increased in popularity.

One issue with early writing about Christianity from those outside of the communion of believers is that so little of it survives. Pliny and Galen both mention it only briefly, as during their lifetimes, the religion was hardly widespread. Pliny's letter to Titus regarding what to do about Christians was well familiar to me. In it, he calls Christianity a superstition, which was one of two main ways that it could be perceived by those outside its associates. Galen, by contrast, in his brief offhand mentions of the faith seems to equate it with philosophy.

Celsus and Porphyry both take the religion much more seriously as a threat to social order. Alas, neither of their writings survive in whole. However, we are lucky to have large chunks of their works preserved in the writings of others who wrote responses to their work. Although both writers see issues with the faith mostly in relation to societal order, the latter is more familiar with Christian teachings. Such would be even more the case with Julian, who was raised Christian. As such, each writer posed a greater challenge to Christian orthodoxy, even as Christian orthodoxy took on a stronger and stronger role within the empire. This intermix of arguments for and against Christianity, Wilkin argues, in the end, opened up new avenues in intellectual thinking throughout the Western world, avenues that continue to reverberate today.


Saturday, October 2, 2021

On "Worship in the Early Church" by Ralph P. Martin ***

Based on a single quote in another work, I had at one time had high hopes for this work, but after reviewing its table of contents, my expectations waned. Still, when opportunity to purchase the book at a discount price (it was not available at my local library), I took advantage. Having now read it, my lower expectations were indeed correct. The work is a good summary of various views regarding worship practices in the early church as expressed by various scholars up through the early 1970s, but as with so much of our understanding of the practices, much is conjecture and much of the rest is implied by Scripture such that any devout reader of the latter is likely not to pick up much new here.

Martin largely notes just that--that we don't know for sure a lot about these practices. He summarizes views of others. I was, in part, particularly interested in his take on service organization and on the introduction of the eucharist into that service. He does see some connection between the eucharist and the Passover, but interestingly he claims that diaspora Passovers consisted only of bread and wine. Thus, there was no lamb at the Gospel Passover (to his point, the Scriptures don't reference the lamb, though, as with so much from this period, the historical evidence elsewhere may not be so conclusive as to say that lamb wasn't served as opposed to simply wasn't mentioned). The other major point one gathers from Martin's reading of worship practices is that they became more settled as Christians settled into their second century of being.

One nice thing is that Martin's survey did provide me with other areas that deserve more study on my part, such as focusing on the nature of Jesus's prayers outside of his model prayer.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

On “New Testament History” by F. F. Bruce *****

Imagine a Bible commentary presented in chronological format, and you'll have something of what this book by F. F. Bruce is like. Bruce lays out the context in which the early Christian church came into being, first by discussing the Roman and Jewish social and cultural world of the time, then by telling how John and Jesus did their work, and then by following the early apostles in their work. Going into this book, I thought I'd be underwhelmed. After all, much of this information is in the scriptures themselves—or so I thought. But Bruce doesn't just follow the biblical line, giving information that readers could easily glean from their own Bibles. Rather, the contextual discourse set up in the first third of the book continues through the whole thing, such that one gleans a fuller understanding of each of the events presented in any scripture that Bruce touches on. Although much of this information was familiar to me, some of it was not, and I feel I could return to particular biblical passages with a greater understanding. That said, this isn't a book with a particularly strong thesis, so any arguments one might have for or against the work are likely to be with sections than with the work as a whole, which is instead rather encyclopedic.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

On “Three Kingdoms” by Lo Kuan-chung, translated and abridged by Moss Roberts ****

This abridgment of the full text amounts about one-quarter of the original's size and about three-quarters of the original story. Roberts presents key scenes and summarizes large portions for the reader. In all, one gets a full sense of the essential plot, which seems an amazing feat really, when one thinks about how complex this novel is.

The story recounted here essentially involves the three kingdoms period in China, just as the Han dynasty was ending and three kings fought for control of the land, leading eventually to the short-lived Sung dynasty and the domination of China by the Mongols.

In the book, the Hans are beset by a disloyal general in the north lands Tsao-Tsao. Although he proclaims his loyalty to the emperor, he is most certainly looking to gather power to himself. Poised against him is a southern kingdom that has broken away and Liu Pei, the book's hero. Liu Pei aims to restore the Han dynasty.

The book, however, starts on a more personal note. Liu Pei becomes friends with two men with whom he forges a pact—namely, that they will always look out for each other. These two men thus forge Pei's main helpers during the course of his attempt to restore the empire. However, the pact proves also to be Pei's downfall, as the killing of one of the men means that he has to take revenge for his death by attacking a potential ally, even though his real enemy is Tsao-Tsao. Indeed, it is Tsao-Tsao who got the potential ally to kill the friend, knowing it would distract Pei.

Roberts discusses the various themes in the book and the way in which Pei represents both ultimate duty and honor but also how that intransigence to such order can lead to one's downfall. The other characters have similar links to larger ideas that are played out in the plot of the book.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

On "The Travels of Marco Polo" by Marco Polo **

Polo traveled from Italy across Asia and back during the years that the Mongol Empire reigned over most of the territory. The version I read was the Yule edition, which coming from the nineteenth century was likely a bit too old to keep the reading interesting.

The Yule edition was heavily annotated, such that the notes were often two or three times the length of Polo's original text. Polo's text itself might have been fairly interesting, although it would have been extremely repetitive. Many a chapter recounts how a given region was infidels, etc. Polo uses nearly the exact same wording each time. Of course, the annotations are necessary because many of Polo's place names are now out of date, such that it's hard to know what location he is writing about. However, the nineteenth-century place names are also many times out of date, such that the annotations weren't much help. And this truly seemed a scholarly edition insofar as the notes recounted numerous opinions with regard to what Polo actually meant every location that he wrote about.

A case in point would be Madagascar. Polo talks of giraffes and other creatures that are not at all on the island. Most scholars l think he has the wrong place and meant another location. After all, the big southern island would have been off his route anyway. Of course, Polo wasn't averse to writing about nearby places that he'd heard about. This really is a kind of geography book in many ways and was likely fascinating to readers of the time.

This isn't to say that there aren't parts that are fascinating even now. His account of Japan, I found a bit interesting, even if most scholars dispute his historical accounts of the battles that he describes. Another particularly intriguing account was of a nation that consisted of two islands. On one island only women lived, and on the other only men lived. The men would visit the women's island for three months of the year. Children lived with the women until the age of fourteen, at which time the boys moved to the men's island. Not many people, even in Yule's time, though the account accurate or true. Finally, there is the religious variety that he encountered, something we often don't think of now when we think of Asia. That is, in Polo's time, while there were plenty of Buddhists and others of so-called Eastern religious affiliations, in his time, there were also a fair number of Muslims and Nestorian Christians scattered across the continent all the way across China.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

On "Hidden Gospels" by Philip Jenkins ****

Jenkins's book is a corrective to and a rebuke of such cutting-edge scholars as the Jesus Seminar, who claim usually that the various Gnostic gospel discoveries shed more light on the historical Jesus than we had previous known and than that is available in the canonized New Testament writings. Jenkins is skeptical of such claims and more or less defends conservative religious views on the subject of how we should know who Jesus is and which books we should accept as "historical." While he makes a number of excellent points, he largely defends academic positions that place the writings of the Gospels fairly late (post-Temple destruction), which in my view compromises the authority the canonized Gospels have. After all, if it took fifty years to get around to actually writing about Jesus, then by then it seems like a good deal of mythologizing would have taken place. Thus, why could not these other gospels, not accepted, have been just as legitimate points of view that were mostly banished by the growing power brokers within the early church? Furthermore, he largely sees current doctrine as an accurate reflection of real church teachings of the first century, only faintly acknowledging the influence of Gnostic teachings on it.

Jenkins shows quite convincingly why such scholarship has proliferated and received so much attention. On the former score, the increase in academic programs in religion in recent years has meant that more graduate students have had to find fodder for original research. Gnostic gospels, Qumran scrolls, and other newly discovered documents are prime candidates for such study, since there has been less written about them. Add to that the agenda that many scholars have--for example, writing from a feminist perspective (or a Marxist one or a deconstructionist one, etc., depending of the critical school one wants to apply)--and there is ample desire then to enlarge the canon to include works that support one's point or to interpret them in such a way that they do. Finally, media, looking for good stories on religion, as it does, gravitates toward the controversial. Hence, even though 90 percent of the scholars might have conservative views on Christian faith, it's the 10 percent claiming that Jesus wasn't believed to be divine among the first two generations of followers or Jesus was a Cynic philosopher or Jesus was never crucified and in fact had a regular family, and so on, who get the attention.

Jenkins points out that many of the claims being made today by such scholars are actually quite old--that is, they have been made since the 1800s and in some cases even made only generations after the foundation of the Christian movement. Many of the newly discovered documents are merely new manuscripts of works of which we already have preserved copies. There is not much "new" to much such "new scholarship." In many cases, the agenda that such scholars have is actually subverted by the works they point to with such aplomb. Gnostic views, as Jenkins points out, were not generally so feminist, so egalitarian, so antiauthoritarian, as such scholars portray. Many were more misogynistic than anything seen in the accepted Bible. And they were very much focused around establishing some as better than the vast majority of people. Indeed, the simplicity with which Gnostic views are presented was usually anything but, with levels of gods (aeons) separating us from the divine, such that there was a great deal of knowledge to be gleaned before one could even claim to be truly informed.


Sunday, July 11, 2021

On "The Roots of Anti-Semitism" by Ernest L. Abel ****

This book explores where anti-Jewish racism first appeared and why. Abel shows how certain such feelings arose with Egypt during the Ptolemaic kingdom, as Jews attempted to differentiate themselves from Egyptians and often took on unsavory leadership roles such as tax collecting. This did not endear them to the Egyptians.

The attitude among the Greeks and Romans, however, was more complex. Jews were sometimes respected for their "philosophical" religion, which presented a moral world unlike that in the Greco-Roman culture. At the same time, the Jewish refusal to honor the gods, outside of their own, set them apart and disgusted their neighbors insofar as such views made the Jews seem to be self-righteous. Despite various uprisings that occurred throughout the history of the Roman Empire, the Jews were largely allowed to maintain their religion and were not looked down upon, though other peoples sometimes were annoyed by the exceptions made for the Jews, a view that was extended by the special tax eventually levied on the Jews after one of their revolts. This tax was not heavy, but it further set the Jews apart. That said, the luxuries extended to the Jews were not extended so much to converts to Judaism, a practice Rome did its best to quell, given the way that Jews didn't take full part in Roman society.

The real start of anti-Judaism feeling began with Christianity, which attempted to set itself apart from Judaism, both to avoid religious persecution from the Jews and social persecution by the Romans. When Christianity took the helm as the favored religion of Rome, its anti-Jewishness spread throughout society in a way that continues to reverberate even today.