Tuesday, February 27, 2024

On “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” by C. Vann Woodward *****

I'd long imagined this book as much longer than it is. It is referenced a lot in literature about the civil rights movement, and it turns out it was originally based off a series of lectures. That means not only short but also accessible, with minimal presentation of references. In this case, it works very well.

What one gets is a very brief account, toward the last third of the book, of the civil rights movement up through the early 1960s. All the major events are there, placed in context, which is wonderful.

But the real joy of this book, for me, was the way that Woodward blows up many of the assumptions that it's easy to have about the way that race relations came to be in the early twentieth century. He notes that actually, during antebellum years, Blacks and Whites in the South were actually quite mixed socially, especially in the city. This was different from how things were in the North, where the races were much more inclined to be socially segregated, even if not by law. This mixing actually amazed Northern visitors.

After the Civil War, this mixing didn't go away. Blacks and Whites were on intimate terms in the South, not in the North. This isn't to say, of course, that there was any sense of equality, just that there was no real impetus to force the different races into different spheres. Reconstruction didn't change this. In fact, in some ways, Reconstruction was almost a success, insofar as Black people were now able to take on political power as well.

So what changed? After the federal interest in forcing the South to treat Black folks as people, the South slowly began to impose laws that reinforced the inferior status of Black people. These laws were those that led to segregation: the Jim Crow laws. They started, in just a few states, with the forced separation of Blacks and Whites on railroad cars. But within a decade, the practice had spread almost entirely across the South, along with other rules in virtually every sphere, such that eventually there were separate places for virtually everything—food, school, water fountains, and so on. Jim Crow segregation, in other words, really didn't come to be “normal” until around 1900. By 1950, when the Supreme Court started ruling against such laws, many folks just felt like Jim Crow was the way things had always been down South.

Monday, February 19, 2024

On “The Last Thing I Heard” by Theron Hopkins (1343 words) *****

Here's a hard-luck story that manages to feel somehow genuine and authentic, the great strength of this piece. It's about a son, and about a dad who takes one too many financial hits. What happens to such a relationship in the years that follow? Read the story here at The Sun.

On “Reading John in Ephesus” by Sjef Van Tilborg***

The concept of this book is an intriguing one. Given that most scholars tend to believe that John's Gospel and letters were written in the city of Ephesus, Van Tilborg sets out to explore what readers in Ephesus would have thought of the works. In that effort, he looks at concepts like kings, gods, temple, and teachers and students, comparing the Christian and Jewish concepts with those that would have been common among residents in Ephesus. To make such comparison, Van Tilborg examines more than anything else the epigraphs that reside among the city's surviving architecture.

The results, however, I found somewhat underwhelming. One thing is that Van Tilborg writes very much for the scholarly audience. Many quotes from epigraphy are left in Greek, leaving one without a strong understanding of Greek with a lot to wonder what's being said. The cases where parallels are drawn prove generally not to be as paradigm shifting as one might wish. Ephesians respected the gods; Christians respected Jesus. Emperors were thought of like gods; Jesus was thought of like a god. And so on.

Of course, as with most books, there were occasional gems of interest, like the large number of epigraphs with John's name featured versus the much smaller number with Paul's name, suggesting that indeed John had a larger role in the city. It's these sort of things that made the book worth the effort.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

From "From Slavery to Freedom" by John Hope Franklin ****

This basic history of the African American from pre-enslavement to the late 1960s is a classic on par with Lerone Bennett's. That one is arguably slightly easier reading, but this one at times has a certain poetry to it and also covers even more history. I chose to read the 1967 version (the third edition) rather than one of the many later editions that continue to come out every few years because the 1967 version would have been one the Black Panthers would have actually assigned in their later years.

Items that stood about regarding this book, as opposed to Bennett's: Franklin puts the Black United States in the context of Black America in general, so there are chapters on the Caribbean and Brazil. This gives one a better sense of the slave trade overall. Of note is the fact that in many of these other areas, the same sort of racism that became paramount to the continuation of slavery in the United States wasn't always present in some of these other colonies/nations. It's like we had to run a certain class of people down in order to continue to justify the manner in which we treated them--not so much in some other locales. A freedperson was just as much a citizen no matter the color of skin. That said, evidence doesn't always match up with such a claim. Some freedpeople joined with slaves in indepedence causes; some joined with the colonizers. It just depended. And likewise, darker skin, unfortunately, sometimes leads to racist impulses even elsewhere. In that sense, I think of the C. L. R. James book I read and how he puts African-descended people everywhere into a similar struggle.

As with Bennett's book, I also particularly enjoyed the portion of the work about Reconstruction. Bennett made clear many of the gains that were made during that period after the Civil War. Franklin doesn't seem as keen on those temporal improvements, focusing more on how short of ideal that were. What's more, he also writes a bit of the initial couple of years after the Civil War, which really in a way precede Reconstruction. It's like the South went right back to doing what it had been doing before, though with enslavement having a different name (many Confederates returned to government). The abuse heaped on former slaves is part of the reason the federal government ended up taking a firmer stand and even banning former Confederate officeholders for a time. But I hadn't ever really thought of that short gap between the war and Reconstruction; it really isn't talked about much.

The sections on the civil rights movement were interesting insofar as Franklin puts so much of that history together. I have read a lot about this period, but I realized I've rarely read about the various parts of the movement in the larger context--how sit-ins fit alongside marches alongside Freedom Bus Rides and so on. One thing I found interesting was the way that the state government tried to stop the Montgomery Bus Boycott by claiming the people were illegally interfering with business (seems utterly ridiculous: you MUST shop at/eat at/use this business--what kind of law is that?).

Friday, December 29, 2023

On “The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse and Roman Culture” by Roland H. Worth Jr. ****

 

This slim volume wasn't quite what I was expecting, and that has its good and bad points. There is a second volume, apparently, with “Greek Culture” in a title that does more of what I would have expected: namely, broken down the local culture of each of the seven cities. This volume is more of an overview of the culture of first-century western Asia Minor in general.

The work begins with a discussion of Roman culture in the area that was, in most ways, familiar to me, since in many regards the region was little different than others in the Roman sphere, particularly in the east, where Greek culture continued to hold such sway. As such, the information on governmental systems, festivals, slavery, sporting events, and so on was concise and would be useful to someone who has not read other works on the subject.

Where the work really shined for me was in its second chapter, half of which is given over to the Jewish community in the region, which forged as much as 20 percent of the population. Worth discusses how the population got there and how it interacted with the locals. On the whole, one gets the feeling that the relationship to between the different ethnic groups was largely cordial, with Jewish people even taking a role in government in some cases. 

Worth's discussion of the geography of Patmos and the two legal forms of exile was also of value. He explores whether the author of Revelation was actually exiled and, if so, what form that would have taken. Unlike so many contemporary authors, Worth tends to view the author as the apostle John (as opposed to another John), though he notes that the other theories don't necessarily impact how one reads Revelation. For him, the differences in form and language can be easily explained because the work is a different genre than the other works attributed to John.

A lot of time is spent exploring why John chose seven cities and why just these seven cities to aim the Revelation at. Worth doesn't reach a dogmatic conclusion, though he certainly shows the weaknesses of various arguments: that they were the most (economically) important, that they had the most believers, that they were where early bishoprics formed, that they were centers of the Imperial cult, that they were on the same mail route or road, and so on. In each case, at least one city is an exception, and often other cities that would qualify under those same conditions. Worth also discusses the importance of the number seven biblically—meaning completeness. It seemed to me, by the end of the discussion, that the use of (these) seven cities was deliberate primarily for rhetorical purposes. As such, the letters were aimed at the church as a whole, not at specific congregations: the congregations here had largely symbolic purposes.

Worth also uses a chapter to discuss the Imperial cult, which again was largely familiar territory for me. The reason he focuses on the cult, of course, is because many read much of Revelation as being about the literaral Roman empire of the time and its emperors and faith. Worth shows how one can read various metaphors in the work as related to such ideas. I rarely find such readings of much value. The book draws so heavily on Old Testament tropes that it often seems to me more in line with Jewish prophetic works than with the contemporary scene, but certainly readers at the time may well have seen the Roman parallels, just as people even today read events now as being explored in the work.

As for whether I'll read Worth's second volume, I'm on the fence. Many of the things he alludes to about his closer readings of the seven cities seem either like things I'd already know from commentaries or like dubious assertions. But in a way, that's what I was expecting of this volume, so in that sense, the fact that this volume ended up not being that was appreciated.


Saturday, December 23, 2023

On "A History of Pan-African Revolt" by C. L. R. James ****

Having just read Apetheker's account of slave revolts, I was a bit concerned that this much-shorter book would be redundant. I need not be. James concerns himself not just with revolts in the United States but with revolts throughout the world--and not just with revolts that involve the literally enslaved either. For James, a Marxist, African uprisings are tied in with class uprisings and with efforts to bring about a more equitable world. Reading such events in light of Marxist philosophy was interesting, even if in my opinion, it blinds James to certain other problems.

James starts his work with the slave uprising in San Domingo, the only one to result in the forging of an independent nation, in which the former enslaved people become the managers of the new regime. This was enabled, as James brings out, by a number of fortuitous historical forces, including the number of enslaved people versus the number of others on the island, and the ambivalent responses of the French colonizers, who were themselves at the time facing a movement of the masses toward "liberty" and the throwing off of an old monarchal regime.

Uprisings among the enslaved in the United States never benefitted from such advantages, which meant they were bound to fail. The numbers were never on the side of those who rebelled, even in pockets where the enslaved outnumbered others--those were simply pockets, with an outside world ready to reimpose the status quo. It is in James's analysis of pre-Civil War uprisings that he makes some claims about lower-class whites taking the side of the enslaved; other reading I've done suggests that was almost never the case. Rather, based on racial prejudice and a desire of lower-class whites to align themselves with higher-class whites, the lower classes almost always took to the cause of the higher classes against the enslaved, even to their own detriment. (A book by Glenn Feldman called The Disfranchisement Myth shows how lower-class whites in Alabama even voted in state constitutional changes that would prevent themselves from voting just to keep black people from voting, essentially disenfranchising themselves.)

Similar cynacism can be attached to the Civil War, which in this case C. L. R. James certainly does. Here, playing off economic and pragmatic concerns rather than idealistic ones, James claims, the North would eventually find that divorcing a chunk of the South's population from the conflict by offering freedom was the only way that it would be able to win. This in turn would set up the United States for much of what would follow the war, where a decade later, the gains black Americans made would be gradually pulled away, the need for their aid no longer of the highest value.

James next turns to uprisings in Africa and to the history of African colonization. He brings out, interestingly, how the slave trade had, at least, largely kept ancient African civilizations intact. As that drew to a close (mostly, he claims, for economic reasons rather than by the efforts of abolitionists), Europeans took to actually taking over the land on the continent and essentially "enslaving" the population through colonization. Chattel slavery was gone, but a new kind of economic slavery took its place that has resulted in the problems that the world has had ever since.

Another chapter focuses on Marcus Garvey, whose back to Africa movement, James is no fan of. However, he does credit Garvey with bringing to the fore the idea of that the effort among African-descended peoples to remove the injustices perpetrated on them must be a united, global one. James's discussion of the West Indies focuses on the way those nations have taken up Western ideals even after the end of colonization.

The edition I read included an epilogue with material on events that had happened since the book's original publication, some three extra decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s. James found hope in the throwing-off of colonizers among various African nations, though he noted that in many cases such revolutions really only perpetuated problems, insofar as dictators of a different ethnicity, with a dependence on the same economic structure wherein raw materials are provided to more developed economies, are no better than colonizers. Where the masses could find voice, however, there was hope. Tanzania was James's dreamland, a place where the leader was trying to establish true communism (not Soviet communism), wherein all Africans in the nation would contribute to the greater cause. He makes the happenings sound like the start of a utopia, one that alas history beyond the scope of the book has shown has been difficult to attain

Sunday, December 17, 2023

On “Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus,” by Rick Strelan ***

Strelan sets out in this work mostly to question the degree of effectiveness that Paul's ministry had in the city. Acts 19 gives us the impression that the city was very heavily converted over to Christian ideals, but Strelan raises many objections not so much to the event itself but to scholarly (and indeed, mainstream) interpretation of it. His basic points are that Paul's mission was not very effective and that what little effect it did have was mostly among Jewish people.

One reason we know Paul's ministry was not terribly effective, Strelan proposes, is because Artemis worship continued to the the city's focus for a couple of centuries more. Further, that ministry mostly involved Jewish people because his communication seems to be almost entirely with people with Jewish names, because he does his primary work in synagogues, and because Jewish practices among Christians continue. (Indeed, Strelan would seem to believe that what Gentiles did come to be Christians in the region were those who were already predisposed to certain Jewish practices. References to Gentiles in such works as the letter to the Ephesians may actually, in Strelan's view, be to various strands of Jewish belief: Jerusalem centered versus Diaspora centered; those Jews who have kept up stricter Jewish practice versus those who have not.)

How then does one have a near riot in town due to such messaging? Strelan provides a summary of just how important Artemis worship was to the city, as well as a summary of what we know of such worship. One interesting detail that many have gotten wrong: Artemis was not a fertility goddess—quite the opposite. She was one who helped people through transitional times of their lives; she was, in fact, very staid and virginal. Ascetic practices would have fit right along with worship of her.

The threat that Paul posed to the city, with his preaching against the gods, his noting that they weren't real, was actual. However, Strelan reads the riot within a Jewish context rather than a Christian one. It was Jews, who argued for belief in the one god, who posed the real threat, of which Christianity was a mere sect. It was against them that the riot took place. It took place, Strelan claims, at the time that it did because the city was going through a period of financial toil; such riots against Jewish people who did not support the main benefactor/goddess of the city were not uncommon when times grew tough, as they were taken as being a major contributor to the troubles.

Strelan's ideas are provocative. He spends much time referencing other scholars, such that one knows that he's mostly contributing to a conversation among them rather than presenting something for the general public interested in the subject. Even if there are things to doubt about Strelan's thesis, what becomes clear is that many assumptions have been made about Paul and about Ephesus that have colored our reading of what the primary texts actually state and record.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

On “American Negro Slave Revolts” by Herbert Aptheker ***

Consisting essentially of two undenoted parts, this book first provides an overall theory of revolt, showing how revolt was feared, how enslavers attempted to prevent it, and why it happened. The second half then goes into a summary of the various revolts that happened from colonial times through the Civil War. The first part is a very interesting discussion that elicits at times a good degree of pathos; the second part, alas, feels mostly like an impersonal listing of events with often little analysis.

Aptheker notes that he took up the work because little attention had been paid in the historical literature to such revolts, outside of Nat Turner’s, which was taken as an outlier. This lack of attention led, in turn, to a mistaken notion that people enslaved in North America had largely been docile; indeed, one might say it even contributed to such Lost Cause tropes mythologized in works like Gone with the Wind and Song of the South of the happy slave. Aptheker shows that enslaved people were by and large anything but happy.

One thing that contributed to the fear of revolt was the sheer number of enslaved people; indeed, in parts of the South, enslaved Black people outnumbered white people. This was one reason, beyond desire to maintain a healthy number of representatives in Congress, that southern states so sought to extend slavery into new territories. By spreading out the population, it was hoped, the ability of enslaved people to gather and thus bring about a change to their status would be diluted. Laws passed in some states limited the ability of African Americans to assemble in any manner, except by the authority of an enslaver. So, essentially, if you were a Black person, unless you were working, you weren’t allowed to hang out with other folk. Sometimes, such laws included free Black people in addition to those who were enslaved. It boggles my mind how any social life would be possible--and thus how one’s sanity could be maintained. But of course, such laws were to prevent even the ability to plan a revolt. Other laws aimed at keeping certain Black people away from those who were enslaved. Obviously free Black people were seen as a not good influence on those enslaved and were by law prevented from migrating to some states; similarly, those from areas in the Caribbean that had won independence from their enslavers were also bad influences and often were banned from entering a state (or even from being enslaved, since theirs would be a pernicious influence on enslaved Americans.)

A particular contributor to slave revolt was economic tough times. One can easily imagine how when financial times got difficult, those who were enslaved were the last in line to receive basic necessities such as food. The degree to which enslaved people hated their lot is made plain in various tales of men and women who deliberately mutilated themselves to avoid service; one particularly affecting tale involved a pregnant woman who killed herself rather than bringing forth children who would themselves be slaves. Stories such as these, in addition to reports about rebellions, were often suppressed in the media, lest it encourage others to rebel.

From there, Aptheker turns to the individual accounts of revolts. These read, mostly, like those of another book I once browsed that attempted to tell the tale of southern hurricanes. Alas, rather than providing much in the way of a plot, it simply noted, and then this hurricane happened. Two years later, this hurricane, with this much damage, and so on. The revolts, outside of Nat Turner’s, which receives its own well-conceived chapter, come in for a similarly unstructured account here, which makes for tedious reading. I understand the reason Aptheker needed to document each case, but the real heart of the book comes in the analytical first half.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

On "Before the Mayflower" by Lerone Bennett Jr. ****

This history of Black America traces the lives of African Americans from before colonization all the way to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I found much to learn and a few surprises along the way.

The opening chapter focuses on the contributions of Africa and Africans to world culture. I was familiar with much of this, and to be sure, one could argue sometimes about which culture truly was responsible for what particular technological and cultural advances. The point, Bennett seems to be making, is that up until the time of colonization, Africa and Africans were seen as, indeed were, every bit the equal (if not the superior) of other cultures, most especially European. This has a dramatic function insofar as when the later racist arguments arise, they can clearly be seen as attempts to impose power.

One surprising detail in Bennett's account was that of the first enslaved Black people to arrive in the American colonies. Such people were treated like any other indentured servant at the time--that is, after a period of service to pay for passage, the person was released. In essence, then, it seems that early Africans in the Americas were, after a period, free people. I should have known this, but I guess what was surprising was to see how early this happened and how such servants were considered pretty much like any other person. This changed relatively quickly, however. Without European governments to defend them, as poor whites had, and without a knowledge of the surrounding countryside or peoples, imported Africans had many advantages for exploitation by others once imported to the new lands. Laws in the 1660s soon changed such indentured servants imported from Africa into servants for life--chattel slavery came to the fore.

Bennett then traces the culture across familiar American historical events. Some enslaved people thought that the American Revolution should and would apply to them, and they fought alongside the other Patriots. Indeed, the British offer to free such peoples who joined their cause made American commanders relent in their ban against such men serving in the American forces. Unfortunately, southern plantation owners ruled the day when it came time to set up American law, and chattel slavery continued as the new nation took shape, encouraged eventually by new technologies that advantaged even more use of enslaved labor. 

I found the chapters on the Reconstruction period, after the Civil War and emancipation, particularly interesting, especially when it came to discussing the imposition of Jim Crow laws. I knew, of course, about the end of Reconstruction and the way that to maintain presidential power Republicans gave in to southern demands for the end of federal oversight. What I didn't know was that there were nearly two decades between that event and the imposition of Jim Crow. To be sure, Black people began losing rights as soon as federal oversight ended, but the imposition of segregation was kind of a gradual process that really only came to the fore around 1900. Of course, once one southern state passed such laws, the others quickly (within a few years) followed. Bennett then turns to Booker T. Washington and then to the civil rights movement, with which I'm more familiar. I look forward most to reading more about the Reconstruction period and early Jim Crow and pre-chattel colonization. The latter moments in history seem to get less coverage, and I'm glad that this Black Panther Reading List includes at least a couple of works on such subjects.

A word about Bennett's writing in and of itself: I like how the author mixes moments of lyrical flourish with his recounting of historical events. This could be easily taken to extremes, but he doesn't overdue it, and it's not something one sees often in historical writing.

Friday, October 20, 2023

On "The Souls of Black Folk" by W. E. B. Du Bois ***

This is the first of about ten books I've pulled from the Black Panther Reading List (https://library.pugetsound.edu/c.php?g=782488&p=5607493), which is not a list of books by or about the Black Panthers but rather a list of books, as I understand it, that the Black Panthers assigned to their members at the height of the movement. The idea of reading such a list came to me while listening to the Mother Country Radicals podcast. On that podcast, a story is recounted wherein a young recruit attending a meeting learns about becoming armed. He tells the person running the meeting he wants to be so armed; the next day, expecting some sort of weaponry, he's instead handed a stack of books: "These are your arms." So I thought it would be intriguing to read what such members were being armed with--a sort of different way to approach reading about the Panthers: read what they read.

Du Bois's book is the oldest on the list. I'm glad finally to get around to reading it and to reading his work. He's been referenced so often in other reading, it seems a shame it took me so long to get around to him.

This classic book is at its best when Du Bois gives us his historical take on the Reconstruction period. I had never read about the Freedmen's Bureau, for instance, at such length; another chapter focuses on the work of Booker T. Washington, who has long come in for a great deal of criticism for his accomodationism, and there is no exception here. There is also chapter on African American religion that I found intriguing. Du Bois spends much of his work focusing on how to improve circumstances for freedmen--via education, via political means. These discussions, alongside the history, are the most interesting.

When Du Bois veers into more personal territory, recounting visiting a poor family or having a child, I found my mind more often wandering. As with many authors of the time, he waxes poetic, with flowery language, in these situations, and I found myself more interested in the larger issues of the other essays.

That's not to say that these personal flairs don't connect to the larger themes. The penultimate chapter reads more like story than an essay. It's about a man who went north for education; his return to the South does not go well. He is seen by whites in the area as "uppity" simply for acting like a human being, often, it seems, even without intending to make some sort of political or activist stance. He's suspect to whites, because of his education, and perhaps has also become a bit "out of practice" kowtowing to southern ways. His next to final sin is daring the kids in a class he teaches to learn something of their own culture (I hear echoes or the current ban on certain "race conscious" readings in Florida--I can't believe we're still dealing with such bans one-hundred-plus years later). In the end, he finds that he can't stay, which means that the hometown locals don't receive the aid that that education he has received should have enabled for their community. It's the story of one man--one likely similar to Du Bois himself in some ways--but it makes the larger points about the difficulties presented in improving the lot of a large segment of the people of the nation. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

On “Cities of God” by Rodney Stark *****

This book is in a sense more of a critique of the manner in which historians write history than it is strictly a work of religious history. Stark, a sociologist, sets out to show how useful numbers and statistical analysis can be to historians, and the case study he uses to set out his theory is that of the growth of Christianity in thirty-one cities in the Roman Empire in the first two centuries of the Christian era.

The thirty-one cities that he chooses are those that had populations of more than thirty thousand. He uses various means to count to how popular Judaism was in each city and how popular the goddesses Isis and Cybelle were in each city. Using these numbers and the fact that some cities were ports and others inland to reach certain conclusions regarding how Christianity spread and what types of Christianity spread. He shows, for example, that it spread more quickly to places near Jerusalem and to ports. But he also shows that gnostic versions of the faith were more often tied to those cities where Isis and Cybelle were worshipped, which, he notes, suggests that gnosticism did not derive so much from within Jewish settings but from those more influenced by paganism.

Using such ideas, he proposes various reasons that Christianity caught on in popularity, including how cities are troubled places with itinerant populations, such that the Jewish faith (and by extension the Christian) offered a kind of community less often offered from the proliferating pagan faiths. He also shows how paganism hung on much longer than many historians give it credit, long after Constantine.

The study is enlightening and the text very readable, even for folks less familiar with the scholarship he seems to be critiquing.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

On “The Jewish Gospels” by Daniel Boyarin *****

Boyarin sets out to show how Jewish and Christian were actually fluid terms until the fourth century—that what we think of as necessarily Jewish was sometimes Christian, and what we think of as Christian was sometimes Jewish. The idea in itself isn't terribly surprising to me, as it is one I largely share, though Boyarin's split may be a bit late, depending one the region he's talking about.

I gleaned much from the specifics in this book, however. A major portion of the work is given over to the study of the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man” which ironically places as meaning essentially just the opposite of what we would think them to mean. “Son of God,” he shows, demonstrates Jesus's link to humanity and, specifically, to nobility, like David, or even the first man Adam. “Son of Man,” by contrast, is really about demonstrating the manner in which God has manifested himself among men; its great meaning, thus, is really about how God has come to dwell with us.

Another, later chapter focuses on Jesus's views about food. Boyarin discusses the, for me, familiar discussion regarding Jesus's usage of the term “clean” when he says that all things have been registered as such. There are two different words, both rendered “clean” in most English translations, but one has to do with purification and the other with dietary restrictions. Thus, when one reads the New Testament closely, Jesus is really talking about Pharisaical rituals, not about Biblical food laws.

Finally, Boyarin questions the popular theory among many contemporary scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, that the suffering Jesus linked to Isaiah was really understood as a passage about the nation of Israel as a whole. No, Boyarin says, some Jews, even before Jesus's time, understood that passage as being about a Messianic figure, a single person.

It's a short book, but Boyarin brings out a lot of great points on specific issues that have taken up discussions in recent scholarly works.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

On “First-Century Judaism in Crisis” by Jacob Neusner ***

This work is essentially a biography of Yohannan ben Zakkai, at least with regard to what we know about him. Who was Zakkai? He was apparently one of the foremost Pharisaical rabbis after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem who helped fashion what became rabbinical Judaism.

This isn't to say that he was, early on, much of a success. He departed Jerusalem for Galilee before returning to Jerusalem shortly before its temple's destruction. He looked more to the law than to the temple in terms of importance. Hence, like many Pharisees, he was well set to take up a leadership role after the temple's fall. He managed to escape Jerusalem in the siege and to find a home in Yavneh, where he helped set up the council that would hold sway over the post-Temple faith. Neusner waxes poetic throughout most of the biography, making up with flowery language and expansive quotes from rabbinical writing for the lack of extensive, solid information about the subject. On the whole, however, he manages indeed to portray what life was like for the Jewish people in the wake of this major event.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

On "Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church" by Richard Bauckham *****

Another very interesting work by Richard Bauckham--this one focuses on the other brothers and relatives of Jesus outside of the heavily written about James. The second half of the book is mostly a close reading of the book of Jude, which while providing some interesting insights, is not so engaging as the first half, but that first half was very much illuminating in ways I never expected.

I first came across mention of this book in another work in that author's discussion of the family of Jesus in Ctesiphon in the second century. I had been aware of this claim in primary works, but I hadn't given it much thought until mentioned there. I was, like, I've got to check out what Bauckham had to say about that, and I'm glad that I did. The reason: Bauckham, in his focus on Jesus's family, sees possible ties to Jewish Christian settlements in the East (not heavily covered here, but not really covered anywhere) but also in Galilee, which until now, based on other reading, I'd largely figured was mostly devoid of Christians after the first century. By tracing where such people as Symeon (James's successor in Jerusalem) actually came from, he's able to show the likely continuing influence of Jesus's family in the region of Galilee.

The section on the book of Jude goes heavily into the way it interacts with the book of Enoch and the Testament of Moses and traces its views of Christ as God, which is a high Christology. Alas, I kind of figured Bauckham would tie the two things--the relatives and the book together--at the end, but it didn't really come together as I hoped or thought it would. He tries to do it via a discussion of the genealogy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew and most especially Luke, and while he certainly shows that the genealogies had rhetorical purposes (ties to specific individuals, to David but not through the kingly line, numbers of generations, etc.), the discussion didn't for me really tie things together as much as I'd have liked. Still, much of this book blew my mind in terms of the observations I hadn't yet considered.

Monday, September 4, 2023

On "Christianizing Asia Minor" by Paul McKechnie ***

At the start of this work, McKechnie raises an important point--namely that the assumption that early Christianity was largely an urban movement cannot be wholly true. If 10 percent of the Roman Empire was urban and also 10 percent was Christian, that would mean that the cities would have been virtually all Christian. Clearly, much of the Christian world was not in the major cities but in the small towns and in the country. Less attention has been played to these locations, so that's what McKechnie sets out to do in the book, specifically with regard to Asia Minor, and most especially with the region of Phrygia, whose cities were much smaller than those of the western coast (those of Revelation) we are more familiar with. It's a worthy subject. Alas, the work beyond that, I found, difficult to follow.

He pulls from some familiar sources--Pauline letters, some Eusebian comments, Ignatius--and some wonderful secondary sources that I'm glad now to know about. However, much of the discussion stems from examination of gravestones, which lends to the more difficult reading and the greater difficulty in forging conclusions. Some authors are able to look at such things, gather statistics, and forge a cogent argument. That's not the goal here, however. McKechnie is interested in the stories left behind, but it's difficult to gather stories from a few lines across multiple stones. As such, the work seemed quite diffuse and less interesting that I had hoped.


Sunday, September 3, 2023

On "Montanism" by Christine Trevett ***

This was not exactly an introduction to the subject of the heretical Christian group that emerged in the last second century. What I mean is that the work is definitely aimed at scholars who have a pretty good degree of familiarity with the subject. It's full of arguments with other scholars about the sect and specialized language. As such, it wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

Trevett's views on the subject are in some way difficult to parse, insofar as she spends much time presenting the views of others and then discounting those. If I read her correctly, she believes the Montanists got a bad wrap and that they were not nearly so heretical as they are said to have been.

Montanism originated with a set of prophecies made by one Montanus and a couple of women in the late second century and spread rapidly from its central Asia Minor origin to Rome and Africa and elsewhere, converting along the way the famous Christian writer Tertullian. They were known for being against marriage, for various prophecies (the New Prophecy), for their ecstatic state when making such prophecies, and for their claim to be actually the embodiment of God and the Holy Spirit when prophesying.

All this may be twaddle Trevett seems to say. The ascetic views were not terribly out of keeping with many other Christians of the era. The world certainly did seem to be falling apart for those alive at the time (war, pestilence that may have killed as much as 25 percent of the Roman Empire's population). Our knowledge of the sect comes mostly from those who stood up against it, save for Tertullian, but the degree to which his African variety actually spoke for the earlier origin, we can't know.

As such, the Montanists may root back to a tradition of prophecy in the area established by John, the other of Revelation, and by Philip's three prophesying daughters. The prophecies that we know of don't seem all that out of step with common prophecies denoted in the Old and New Testament, regarding the end of the world. The idea that these prophets thought themselves the embodiment of God may just be the (possibly intentional) misreadings of their statements (or readings of later prophets rather than the early ones). What's really going on, Trevett seems to be claiming, is a conflict between hierarchical authority being established in Rome and a more organic concept of God speaking directly to his believers through the spirit. (This would have found a central point of contention in the Montanists view that "Jerusalem" had been relocated to the local settlement of Pepuza, to which Jesus would return.) It's an interesting theory, though I can't say that I am convinced that the views of the Montanists were otherwise quite orthodox insofar as following earlier beliefs, if we are to take Tertullian's writings as indicative of them, since he clearly taught some things not part of the first-century church's views (trinity, heaven and hell). However, the New Prophecy certainly does seem to be in line with many an apocalyptic group that let its enthusiasm carry them away into specific application of biblical prophecy that turned out to have no bearing in reality.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

On "Still Missing" by Beth Gutcheon ***

Here's an account that is in one sense all action. It starts with the disappearance of a child and barrels toward its conclusion. In between, however, is largely an exploration of the manner in which the child's disappearance affects a detective, a father, friends, coworkers, and most especially a mother. Gutcheon's focus on the emotional toll is something less often seen in the hard-boiled crime fiction I tend to read, so it's hard to pull off. In a way, I'd expect such reactions to be more muted, simply because of that. Gutcheon goes right on in.

With such a focus on the emotions, the work present characters in a way that is surprisingly passive. Sure, detectives span out across the city; the mother and friends place posters; the mother goes on television to plea for her child. But on the whole, there isn't a lot of buildup. The child is gone, and no one has a clue what's happened. There's no slow-whodunnit accumulation of facts that eventually lead to the child and the truth. Essentially, we're praying the whole way for a miracle.

Toward the end, after the police close in on a suspect, one is left with many questions. All facts seem to point to that suspect, but the suspect likewise has good explanations. The mother's own desires mean that she can't accept anything but a living son. Is she crazy? Or is everyone else just tired? If the story had ended there, with all these questions, it would have seemed quite true to the ambiguities of life and motivation. Alas, the work closes everything off with a nice denoument, one

Saturday, August 5, 2023

On "All about the Bible" by Sidney Collett ***

This is an older introduction to the Bible written around the 1905. As such, of course, it's a bit dated. The author is clearly very religious, often making points about scripture that seem quite literal, to a point that at times even I thought he was potentially going too far (he claims, for example, that Moses's death, as described at the end of Dueteronomy, was obviously prophecy since Moses HAD to have written the Torah, as per tradition--I suppose such is possible, but the point seemed rather dogmatically stated and seems less likely than other possible explanations to me, even accepting the tradition). In addition, he was often too prone to drop names of "experts" to back up his points: This really famous/important man thinks such and such, so that must really say something about what I think about the Bible!

Still, the work had much of value, little pieces of information that are jewels to have on hand. He discusses, for example, in a rudimentary way how we got the Bible, what some translations are, the history of those translations, and a few "difficult" scriptures. Some of his archeological insights are really good in terms of explaining how some scriptures have actually ended up having truth that scholars at one time rejected, as based on what we have learned more recently (granted, one hundred years ago) from other historical records. The most interesting section is probably his very long chapter on the Bible and science, and while this is no doubt dated, he still does manage to provide some good explanations for some things that likely aren't as dated as one might expect. After all, the earth still goes around the sun, so some facts haven't changed. How the Bible fits with them is interesting--or how the Bible can be made to fit with them, one might say. Collett's not going to convince anyone who isn't a believer, but his observations can at times be intriguing to those who think in some ways like him.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

On “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry ***

The last book on my selected westerns list, this for many is the quintessential western, the all-time classic. Surprisingly, it obtained the status though it was written just in 1986 or so. Perhaps, the miniseries had much to do with its overarching popularity within the genre, though I can see why folks would place it as the all-time best. It is a doorstop of a book and traffics in a huge collection of tropes from the genre: heroes, gamblers, gunfights, Indians (as faceless bad guys), cavalry, cowhands, horse thieves, bandits, rangers, sheriffs—it's got nearly everything you'd find in the genre. Beyond that, it's a kind of swan song to the period. It's set at the tail end of frontier days, when most but not all of the free-range buffalo are gone, when the Native Americans themselves are virtually all defeated, when there is little land left to settle. That's essentially the story: men from Texas making a cattle drive to Montana, where few have yet settled and good grazing land is apparently plentiful.

But it takes more than eight hundred pages to get there. One reason is that McMurtry follows a great number of characters. Ostensibly, the central character is Augustus (Gus), a talkative former Texas Ranger who is quick with a gun and mostly lazy when it comes to all else. But the plot veers away from him at various points for chapters at a time, following among them: a prostitute who seems to have all the men in love with her; an old love interest of Gus's who now lives with an invalid husband in Nebraska; Gus's business partner and another former Ranger named Call; another old friend/Ranger who is a terrific lothario named Jake; a youngster named Newt who is of doubtful parentage; various cowhands—Dish, Pea Eye, Po Campo; a young sheriff and his deputy who are after Jake or perhaps after the sheriff's runaway wife; an excellent African American horseman named Deets; a bandit named Blue Duck; and on and on. In other words, it's more of an ensemble novel. And beyond that any one of these characters might die at any time, making the plot somewhat unpredictable. Sometimes a good guy dies, sometimes a bad one. Sometimes that death is “offscreen” (some other minor character we come upon mentions it) and other times, we get the actual scene. Individual episodes—robberies, run-ins, fights, bad weather—can make for exciting adventure fiction.

This is all to say that I understand the appeal. But I haven't fallen big for McMurtry. I enjoyed this work more than his Last Picture Show, which for me dragged and focused way too much of sexual exploits. In this work, too much is too much. It takes nearly a quarter of the book before the cowboys finally, definitively decide to start the cattle drive to Montana, a drive I knew was coming from page 1. Get on with, I felt throughout. Characters come and go. Since there are so many, I never felt that connected to them or emotionally invested, even when certain main characters died, ones I didn't expect. And while men are the center of the book and I would not expect otherwise, the women characters generally seem to be there largely for sex appeal. Indeed, the end of the novel itself seemed a bit strange insofar as its focus turned to a very minor event regarding a character who by that time has been out of the plot for awhile. It left me feeling as if, well, okay, the point? (I'm sure I'm missing something, the way I was underwhelmed by the end of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying's, though of course it somehow is supposed to suggest new life and vibrancy.)

Friday, July 21, 2023

On "You'll Never Capture It All" by AVD 3 ****

Apparently I'd already read this book when it was a set of blog entries. I discovered this in three ways. One, when the writer told me about the book, he noted that I'd already read it. Two, even though I didn't remember most of it, I came across a reference to my reading it (as a blog) about halfway through the book. And three, I remembered the description of the traffic at the very end of the book.

Now all that said, I enjoyed the book immensely. It's a description of one year at the Burning Man festival that occurs every year out on the high desert out West, a festival I've never attended and likely never will. I can't say that much of what is described appeals to me--most importantly, the dust, but also the inability to wash for a week or to essentially have the things that make life easy for a week. This isn't camping; it's worse, since it's out on the desert among tens of thousands of people. That said, the art work, the music, the faux town that pops up for a short while--those things would appeal to me, but probably not the weeklong, all-night party
. I'd be a day tripper, likely, if I went--preferably not on the day the man burns, at the very end of the festival, when the most people are there. No interest in that.

Nevertheless, reading about the experience and why some folks get so high from it is definitely the way to go for someone curious about the event but not curious (or brave) enough to go.

Interestingly, the book documents a year in which Burning Man made the national news--namely, the year the man--a giant wood sculpture that is burned on the last night--was burned by some chaos maker only a couple of days into the festival. In that way, one gets the scoop on how some folks felt about that event as it happened.