Friday, February 27, 2009

In which I get a mention on PIneapple Party Time

In case you don't know, my flatmate is Mark Bahnisch, of Larvatus Prodeo fame. Mark is one of the three people behind Pineapple Party Time, the blog on the Queensland state election. The other two are Possum of Possum's Pollytics and William Bowe of the Poll Bludger. Anyway, over at Pineapple Party Time, Possum has put up an open thread today in which he gave deatils of the recent Galaxy polling. I was reading the piece when Mark got home and commented on the interesting results in the last two questions asked by Galaxy on whether people thought Labor and the L National Party desrved to win. I commented to Mark that there were more LNP supporters believing that the LNP did NOT DESERVE to win than Labor supporters who thought that Labor likewise did NOT DESERVE to win. Mark hadn't noticed that. Apparently no one had picked on these results. So Mark put up a post about it and acknowledged that I was the one who spotted it. You can read it here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Life, Death, Loss, Love and Homosexuality

It's been an interesting afternoon today. Jeff and I finally got together to talk about Colin and much more. It's been several years since I saw Jeff, let alone get a chance to really talk. He, Colin and I were all part of ACT UP back in the early '90s in Brisbane. Jeff and I were also part of GLoC - Gays and Lesbians on Campus - back when I started at the University of Qld in 1992. Back then Jeff and Colin were sharing a place in West End (Brisbane). I would move to West End to Steven's place and Colin moved there in 1996. Jeff and I spoke a lot today about Colin, about those days, about death. It seems to have been the peculiar fortune of Western gay men of our generations to experience the impact of death in a way that the rest of our societies had not known for very many decades. I found out from Jeff that someone else from those days, Thomas, a delightful and energetic HIV+ young man, died back in November 2007. He'd left Brisbane several years ago to head west and then returned to his home town Adelaide when his health began to deteriorate. Who in Brisbane knows that Thomas is dead? How many are left from those days who remember Thomas? As Jeff asked, who is there left to remember and how does this memory get handed on? Is it just ego to want it to be handed on?

The one feature of same sex relationships is that ours are not reproductive. As Pansy Division sing, 'nothing out of our loins, sweetie, will ever see the light of day'. Indeed that non-reproductive nature of the homo-erotic is one impulse behind homophobia. Reproduction, children are one form of guarantee against the 'dying of the light'. Immortality is invested in reproduction. The fact that same sex relationships cannot reproduce (well not without significant outside intervention) reminds the broader society of the fact of our mortality. And ours is especially a death denying society. Heaps of fundamentalist Christians hope that they are going to cheat death and much more by being lifted off the planet by Jesus in the Rapture, a particularly spurious 19th century doctrine that animates the Left Behind cultural phenomenon in the United States. One of its attractions, at least evidenced by discussion on the many sites where people engage in rapture watching, is that the Rapture is a way to avoid death, a get outof gaol free card that gets you into heaven without any pain (and in some versions even taking your pets with you). I think the succcess of Rapture beliefs lies in the death denial so much a feature of US and other western societies generally. In a capitalist fantasy of untramelled consumption death is the unwelcome spectre at the feast. So being carried off in the Rapture or in its new age variant, in a UFO, expresses the hope of eternal consumption without the pain of death and separation to intervene and destroy. For the Left Behinders there is additional schadenfreude of knowing the unbelieving masses will suffer extraordinary horrors in the Tribulation before mostly being consigend to eternal damnation.

Memory is both collective/cultural and individual. Hence memory is political. There was a slogan often graffitied around West End here in Brisbane that went something like 'the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting'. The societies in which we live make determine what memories shall be preserved as part of the cultural whole and what will be lost. Many memories survive through the fact of reproduction, people pass on alternative memories to their children; religious, ethnic, and political minorities attest to this fact. But for us who love without thought or expectation of progeny, what do we do to pass on our memories to those who will, like us and after us, love without thought of progeny? I love the young fags and dykes today. They have so much, so much, so many opportunities that I could not even imagine at their age. They are so beautiful. I'm not saying their world is perfect. Homophobia has not gone away, there is still much to be done. But so much has been lost already, so many dead. The movement that has given them the possibilities that so many in the past could not even imagine is itself a fragile flower of fairly short duration and our memoirs are not the memories the mainstream and ruling culture is interested in retaining.

Jeff has spent a lot of time in South East Asia, Thailand especially and he spoke about how pervasive Buddhism and the sangha, the order of monks and nuns. Even Angkor Wat, which was a Hindu temple complex in which Siva is the dominant deity, is now also a Buddhist site with shrines and monks and nuns all about it. Monastic orders, religious orders are interesting models of same sex societies of people who live without expectation of progeny. Indeed the spectre of monastic sodomy was one image wielded by the Reformers in their struggle against Rome and in building a new society in which marriage would be compulsory for all (something not fully realised until the 20th century).

That's why I'm not comfortable with the promotion of same sex marriage. I'm all for recognition of our relationships but I don't think marriage is the best model for the dynamics of the same/homo. And even though I am a homosexual that doesn't mean I want the homogenous sameness of marriage for all. Marriage itself must change dramatically so I don't see why we shoudl be dragooned in to its very flawed and patriarchal dynamics.

I know in my case that I not only love the young fags and dykes but I am also attracted to younger guys (maybe one of the pleasures of getting older is that the world becomes more and more full of younger men). It is pretty much a trope of male male love (but not the only one), the mentoring relationship, the daddy/son, the big and little brother and the avuncular, uncle/nephew. This is also not an exclusively male phenomenon. The poet Michael Field was in actual fact a female couple who were themselves aunt and niece.

But the one thing that strikes me about such relationships is their potential for openness. In many respects mentoring is very much a part of academic dynamics. A teacher/mentor usually does not have only one student and while the pedagogical bonds might last a lifetime those student go on to form mentoring relationships of their own. It strikes me too that, as someone who aspires to be in a relationship with a younger man, one of the basic facts of such a relationship is that he will in all likelihood outlive me. It would be a cruelty on my part to expect him to be in a monogamous relationship. I would encourage him to open out the relationship, so that at the very least, he would not be on his own when I die. Such relationships, like father-son, fraternal, avuncular and mentor/'mentee', are in actual fact communal by nature. Mentoring teacher/disciple lineages are a fact of monastic societies Buddhist, Christian and other. The shamanic role too was often associated with a non-biological, often erotic, same sex lineage.

Is this the way too that a lineage of memory, erotically based, but not reproductive can be established? To cite a utopian term from the early days of Gay Liberation, to build a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of sex. How to achieve that is the question? It certainly can't be achieved if we are all dragooned into the marriage model. And in the interim for Jeff and I and other who are the survivors of generations struck down it can only be the fragile shoeboxes of friendships that remain.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Election time in Queensland

Yesterday, State Labor Premier, Anna Bligh, called a snap election for 21 March. Labor's contender is the National Party, which calls itself the Liberal National Party, after destroying the Qld division of the Liberal party and merging with its right wing rump clustered around Santo Santoro. The Nationals need to win 21 seats to get gov't. They are led by two time election loser, Lawrence Springborg, who decided the best way to win is to hide the fact they are Nationals. So he engineered the so-called merger and just to make sure began a cult of personality around himself, terming himself rather oddly, the Borg. Clearly the Borg has not seen any Star Trek, or if he has he sees himself as the Great Absorber. Well, I guess that's what he did to the Libs so maybe he wants to celebrate his new-found powers.

But despite putting Liberal in front of their name there's nothing very liberal about this mob, a number of whom date from the days of National supremacy in Qld that ended December 1989. In the '80s the Nationals used homophobia as an HIV/AIDS strategy thinking that poofterbashing would be great scapegoating mechanism to to avoid facing up to the issues of the pandemic and keeping themselves in power. They failed but a lot of people were infected and a lot of people died. In the meantime, all the National party health ministers, bar one, during this period ended up in gaol following the change of gov't. So I hold the National Party responsible for every HIV infection in Qld during that time and the resulting deaths.

So that's one reason why I won't be voting for the Borg's mob. Plus I never want to live under a National Party gov't ever again. I endured too many years the last tie and I don't want to ever go back. I also have little confidence in the Qld Greens. Their local candidate was always bashing unions at the last election so I'm not voting for her this time. So I'll be voting Labor.

In the meantime, my flatmate, Mark, has with several others set up a new blog for the election, Pineapple Party Time: the Queensland Election Blog. I've added it to my blog list down the side and I recommend checking it out regularly. Pineapple Party, is the term Mark used to refer to the newly revamped (Liberal) National Party after it had gorged itself on the Libs.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sodomy, Sodomites and Same Sex Marriage

I rather like this as a title, for its alliteration and its sibilance. I'm hoping I can get to the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar this year in July. It's being held just "down the road" from Brisbane at Newcastle. There's been something drawing me to Newcastle for a while. Over the last few years, of course, Colin was living there and when I knew the seminar was going to be in Newcastle, I thought I might use it as an opportunity for a longer visit so as to catch up with him. Now that he's dead, those plans are gone but still it'd be good to get to the seminar if I can. Of course, I'm unemployed and on limited finances and hoping I can get some sort of work in the next few months. So all of that might put paid to any visit to Newcastle at all.

Still, if I can get there, I want to present a paper (it's half the fun). I was torn between two possibilities. One was to do a queer reading of the Ugaritic Epic of Baal. It would be a continuation of sorts with the paper I gave last year in Auckland and is being published in the Bible and Critical Theory e-Journal soon. But at the seminar, time is a factor. We'll propbably be only allotted 30 minute slots which effectively means that you have about 15-20 minutes to speak. The Baal epic is quite long so I probabaly couldn't do any justice in that time span.

So the thought occurred, why not revisit Sodom and Gomorrah. It fits with another project I'm working on, overlaps, in fact. I have the material here that can be turned into a conference paper, all I need is a way into it. And then the title popped into my head. It's sibilance has very campy qualities and if I must revisit old Sodom and Gomorrah it might as well be enjoyable (I can assure you that there's been not much joy associated with those cities over the millennia and reading all the texts extrapolating their punishment doomsday fantasies was not all that fun either).

The whole debate around same sex marriage has shown up marriage as a site for heteronormativity. On the face of it, a male or female couple getting married should not be a cause for panic, least of all invested with dire apocalyptic meaning as one finds on so many US Christian fundamentalist sites. Indeed, one of the arguments used in favour of same sex marriage is that it provides stability in sexual relationships. And traditionally marriage is one of the chief ways of regulating sexual activity, albeit primarily women's sexual activity. Surely people who rail against gay "promiscuity" should be in favour of anything that would regulate and "stabilise" homosexual sexuality. However what if marriage is itself understood as a sign of heteronormativity, even a guarantee of heterosexuality itself? Same sex marriage then undermines this heterosexual, heteronormative guarantee. The underpinnings of this equation can be found in Reformation discourse on marriage, continence and sodomy. The Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, in his Decades expounds a vision of a "continent" society, in which marriage is the lynchpin and set up against the apocalyptic evil of sodomy. The same themes recur in a 17th century execution sermon, The Cry of Sodom, from American New England by the Puritan minister and preacher, Samuel Danforth. Both Bullinger and Danforth anticipate many of the themes in contemporary fundamentalist Christian discourse against same sex marriage.

Goodness, it looks like I've written my abstract. Danforth's sermon is quite a hair raiser. I will say some more about it and the hapless victim of the process, Benjamin Goad, who I gather was only about 17 or 18 when hanged for having sex with a mare. Quite horrible and very sad! As for me I have my own views on same sex marriage which I will expound on at a later date. I am also planning to write something about the dramas going on over at St Mary's in South Brisbane in the near future too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pet peeves of a fellow blogger

I've got quite a few blogs listed in my blog list. A great number of them are biblioblogs. There's also a range of blogs on political and socio-spiritual issues. And a handful of oddities, blogs that I wouldn't see eye to eye with but maybe worth checking out from time to time.

Slacktivist is definitely a blog I feel an accord with and it's definitely worth checking out regularly. I first came across the site in 2005 at which stage the author was 2 years into his practice of Left Behind Fridays. For the previous two years, he had been reading and writing about undoubtedly one of the worst novels ever written, the La Haye/Jenkins Left Behind He would continue for another two to three years before finishing the novel, now the first in a series of what has become the worst novels ever written. Since finishing Left Behind the book he has been watching and writing about the film version which he only finished about the beginning of the year. He has now started on the second novel of the series, Tribulation Force. I can only say thank you to Slacktivist for saving us all the trouble of reading these execrable books and, sadly, books which have so corrupted US-style Christianity and its affiliates and offshoots around the world.

You see Slacktivist is not anti-Christian, far from it he is a 'progressive' evangelical Christian who regards Left Behind theology and the allied fundamentalism (recognising that fundamentalism does not have to be LeftBehindist) as a serious blight on, if not corruption of the evangelical tradition. Slacktivist is determined to expose not only the incoherency and inconsistency of LeftBehindism but also its inhumanity and complete contradiction to what Christianity is all about. I plan to pick up some of the threads of his devastating (and very amusing) critiques in later posts but for now I'm going to respond to a cope of his posts on fundamentalism and creationism.

Slacktivist's pet peeve is young earth creationism i.e. the 6 day account of creation in Genesis 1 is a literal factual account of the way the Earth and the universe came to be. As he says young earth creationism is demonstrably false. It is also a lynchpin for the fundamentalist house of cards, a 'particularly brittle and fragile belief system that insists, emphatically, that all of it must be true or else none of it is true'. The fundamentalist position is 'salvation by neither grace nor works, but rather by the knowledge of and mental assent to a very long list of arcane biblical interpretations'. Consequently if one part isn't literally true then none of it is true. Consequently ex-fundamentalist Christians can make some great militant atheists.

But just as often, the whole edifice collapses. Hard. They wind up rejecting everything they ever believed. Everything, that is, except for that pernicious notion that "all of it must be true or none of it is." These kids shoot way past what their parents feared would happen to the rest of us at Wheaton or wherever (with our dangerous book learnin' and dancing and movie-going and such) and they become the mirror-opposite of their old fundamentalist selves. They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.
This scenario is not hypothetical and it is not rare. And it's not something I forgive easily. The proponents of young-earth creationism are responsible for this very scene playing out a thousand times over. Jesus spoke to exactly such people. Something about how it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their necks and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Jesus was fond of hyperbole, but I'm not sure he's using it there.)

In a subsequent post, Slacktivist picks up on one of the comments made by one of his readers that

Fundamentalism is a reaction to "modern" criticisms of the Bible and Christianity. It started out defending what have traditionally been regarded as the core beliefs of Christianity (e.g. that Jesus was the divine Son of God, that he was really raised from the dead, etc.), but in the process of making that defense they came up with (seemingly without quite realizing it) a new approach to reading the Bible, arguing that every word of it was "inerrant" (whatever that means). This tossed out the window a couple thousand years of traditional, orthodox approaches to reading and interpreting the Bible in favor of this new standard which was initially defined in reaction to the German Higher biblical criticism, but which has morphed in various weird ways since as subsequent people have all had different ideas about what exactly it means for a book to be "inerrant."

Slacktivist develops this point to say

Precisely. It's a bit odd, perhaps, to say that "morphed in various weird ways" is a precise statement, but it's about as accurate as one can be in trying to describe the strange new mischief that has been introduced by this imprecise notion of "inerrancy." That weird morphing also explains why the claim that beliefs like young-earth creationism or PMD rapture mania are "conservative" is false, but not disingenuous. These are new and radically innovative ideas introduced or adopted by people who had set out, initially, to uphold "the authority of the scriptures" (to use one of their favorite phrases). That this effort to defend the Bible's "traditional" meaning has resulted in their introducing replacement meanings that override and disregard its traditional meaning is bitterly ironic, but this irony is lost on them.

And he cites this comment from another reader "If you tried to explain it (young earth creationism) to a person who lived 150 years ago, they would think you were on crack, if they knew what crack was."

And this point was brought home to me when I followed a biblical link sent to me a couple of days ago. It's at the dispensationalist Blue Letter Bible site. Amongst its study aids is the text of a book by Clarence Larkin a pre-millennial dispensationalist. This book, Dispensational Truth, was published in 1918. Now Larkin beleives that the events in Genesis 1 did take place 7000 years ago. However he does not believe the Earth is 7000 years old. He accepts what the science of his day tells him abiout the age of the earth and the solar system. He cites the nebular theory of the formation of the solar system. He then says

But the "Word of God" and the "Works of God" must harmonize. There can be no conflict between the Bible and Science. Science demands thousands of years for the formation of the earth and all the time it demands is given to it in the sublime words of Gen. 1:1, "In the BEGINNING God created the heaven and the earth." This verse then covers the whole period of the formation of the earth and its preparation for the habitation of man.

Larkin believes in a pre-Adamite world that was destroyed by water before the unfolding events of Genesis 1. What the rest of Genesis 1 recounts is not the creation of the earth but the restoration of the earth. Larkin also engages in some specualtion about the pre-Adamite world and its inhabitants. In some respects his work echoes Blavatsky's vision of lost pasts and lost continents, e.g. Lemuria and Atlantis, destroyed in ancient cataclyms. I haven't yet had a chance to read how Larkin reconciles Genesis 1 with Genesis 2-3. But I find his biblical literalist reconciliation with scientific understandings of his day quite fascinating. And maybe he is not so much of a literalist if he insists that Word of God must harmonise with the Works of God.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gaoling kids for cash

I came across a rather appalling story today at the Information Clearing House site. It appears two judges in Pennsylvania have been caught receiving kickbacks from private prison companies, a grand total of US$2.6 million. And what did they have to do to get this money? Generate business for the companies is what. What's worse is that these judges seem to have been in juvenile justice. Consequently 2000 young people in Pennsylvania were sent to prison. Another 3000 were convicted but not gaoled. All goes to show capitalism is really bad for kids.

I subscribe to the old song which proclaimed 'we're gonna raze the prisons to the ground' but over the last 2 decades we've seen a beating of law and order drums and the requirement for 'toughness' on the part of governments. The National Party in Qld, when all else fails policy-wise (and lets face it they are petty much a policy free zone at best) has not been able to resist beating the laura norder drum. So,as in the US there's been an expansion of prisons and also the introduction of private prisons. About twenty years ago, Queensland embarked on a major program of prison reform which put the emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution. Sadly over the last few years that program has halted and seems to be going in reverse. I have to say I have no time for the current Police and Prisons minister, Judy Spence. There's a whole lot of Qld state Labor MPs putting up their hands to retire at the next election. I only hope Spence does too. Mind you I think Qld Labor has long ago given up any pretensions as the party of reform so even if we were to see the end of the appalling Spence I remain pessimistic of any turn around in prison policy oin this state.

You can find links to the two Incorrections reports put out by the Uniting Care Centre for Social Justice here

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teaching Bible in English Lit

The last couple of weeks I've been caught up with stuff that has kept me away form here. Last week I was without broadband access as I was catsitting at a place with rather clunky dial-up. This week I've been meaning to put up something but things have been getting in the way, not least reading a fascinating new book belonging to my flatmate by Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history and mythology (I think everyone should be actually).

But then today I was sent a story from the BBC by my friend Linda from the Crux (LGBT etc Christian) email list that I've been on for so many years now almost since it started back in the mid/late 90s.

Students 'do not know the Bible'

The Poet Laureate says it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach English Literature because students do not know the Bible or classical mythology.

Andrew Motion told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the lack of knowledge made it "difficult to even get beyond go" when teaching some of his recent students.

John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said it was up to academics to solve the problem.

Mullan goes on to say:

"I've always been concerned about the levels of not-knowing since I started teaching, but quite recently I had a very bad experience of trying to teach some of my, in other respects, extremely good students about Paradise Lost.

"They knew so little about the context in which the poem was written and about the references that the poem itself makes that it was very difficult even to get beyond go in talking about it."

What's been done at Mullan's university is the introduction of a module in the English Literature course through which students are brought up to speed with the classical texts. I think that's a great idea although I'd like to see something like that in schools too, get kids reading the biblical stories together with classical Greek and Roman mythology. I have a friend teaching sessionally at Bond Uni a course on bible and literature. I'd love to see courses on Bible and Film, Bible and Art, Bible and Sci Fi the possibilities are many. But I also rather like the idea of teaching Bible together with classical mythology, maybe at university level, expand out into Egyptian, Levantine, Mesopotamian and Persian mythology to boot.

Biblical studies should be liberated from the confines of Religious and Theological Studies (although I think there is defintely a place for both disciplines in modern universities, and maybe even moreso in postmodern universities. But the impact of the biblical literature goes much further than a theological dimension, it's social, cultural, artistic even linguistic. I also like the idea of reading biblical litgerature beside the mythology of its matrix in the ancient Mediterranean world. Of course understanding anything of Engish or other European culture without knowing something of classical mythology does as the Poet Laureate says make it "difficult to even get beyond go". I have a great love of Russian poetry and many of the great poets such as Osip Mandelstam pepper their work with references to Homer and Greek mythology, as well as the biblical literature. As the Poet Laureate says: "these stories achieve archetypal status because they tell us recurring truths about human nature that is a pleasure and an important thing in and of itself."

So lets have Bible taught in English Lit, in European Lit, in philosophy, in Gender Studies, in Peace and Conflict Studies, in History, in Queer Studies, in Cultural Studies, throughout the Humanities and beyond.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Orality and Textuality

Over at LP today, Mercurius has an interesting article on Prequels. In the article, Mercurius makes this observation re biblical literature:

I suggest that the Bible, especially the five books of Moses, fulfills many of the functional attributes of a prequel, at least in an ancient-world context. Certainly it was committed to paper (ok, papyrus) centuries after the events it purports to describe, and seeks to exposit the origins of those stories. It was in all probability written by multiple authors, attempting to weave their voices together with post-explanations of an epic story arc.

This first Prequel provided a group of semi-nomadic herders with a context for their lives and the situations in which they found themselves. It offered a narrative analysis of the fault-lines of the societies in which they lived. In Genesis and Exodus, a people told themselves stories of how they came to be

To which I replied

I love the idea of the Torah as a prequel and certainly for Christian bibles the Old Testament is meant as a sort of prequel to the JC stuff. The only quibble I have is the notion of the ’semi-nomadic’ herders. None of the biblical texts were written by or for semi-nomadic herders. They were writen by scribes, most likely in temples, for the agrarian and small urban populations of Persian and Hellenistic Palestine.

Mercurius then responded:

Quite so of the texts themselves, Michael. But those texts, we have good reason to believe, were written versions of oral tales that the Hebrews had already been telling themselves for centuries, and during their semi-nomadic phase as well. I guess that’s what I was getting at by the “ancient world context” of a prequel…

I then replied pointing out that while Genesis etc present this idyllic nomadic vision of the past it's not based on any historical reality. Hebrews were Canaanites and never were a separate nomadic people.

However Mercurius' article is a good example of what I referred to as the power of biblical narratives. Let's face it the stories are quite gripping - ripping yarns even - and they are thoroughly embedded in our culture and have remained so through the various paradigm shifts in our culture over the centuries.

This notion of ancient tales handed down orally from generation to generation is a striking example of how the power of these biblical narratives is sustained through the paradigm shifts behind modernity. Clearly non-literate societies have very powerful oral cultures but that the biblical narratives, especially those of the Torah and Joshua were handed down orally over generations is a product of 19th century Romanticism. It's part and parcel of 19th century European nationalism with its fascination for folk cultures as representatives of some sort of ethno-national spirit. No doubt, too, aspects of Enlightenment ideas of the Noble Savage are part and parcel of the package. Orality and notions of oral traditions represented a sort of purity of ethno-national spirit not yet contaminated by urbanity with its literacy, hierarchies and cosmopolitanism. Historically based biblical studies began in the 19th century under the influence of such romantic historiography. And so developed notions not only of oral traditions of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, handed down through the generations but also of oral traditions associated with prophecy and prophets that were likewise handed down orally through generations of prophetic disciples before being written down. Such ideas also flowed into New Testament studies with notions of simple communities of Jesus followers who hand down oral traditions over several generations before they are written down. This process of writing down was also understood more as a process of corruption of the pure spirit of the origins. 'Mythology', hierarchy, sacerdotalism were seen as signs of this corruption and part and parcel of the historical critical biblical studies project was to get behind these corrupting accretions to reach the pure origins that had become submerged.

One of the problems with this whole approach was the naive acceptance of the overall historicity of the narratives in the Old Testament. That was okay in the 19th century when there had been little or no archeology done but nowadays archeology has undermined the facticity of the Old Testament historical narrative and as I've said before the archeological evidence shows that the Hebrews were not a nomadic people who invaded the Palestine and conquered/displaced the native inhabitants of the land. Hebrews/Israelites were Canaanites and the transformation of Palestine was not one of outsiders removing insiders but a transformation of insiders themselves, a transformation that took place in the Persian/Hellenistic period and not in the Bronze or Iron Ages.

This perspective puts at question any possiblity of longstanding oral traditions of an Abraham, let alone a Moses or Joshua. The notion of the oral stories depends on the notion of Hebrews as a semi-nomadic people as per Mercurius own observations. But if that is a fiction not based on history so too is the notion of the oral traditions handed down over generations.

The stories of the Patriarchs etc are not oral folk narratives but narratives composed by scribes, probably temple based scribes. These are not simple tales either but sophisticated theological and philosophical works using narrative. They retell and rework ancient stories but these storeis are more likely to be 'official' stories such as the Baal narrative and other sacred stories that were part and parcel of temple religions. I have an essay coming out in the Bible and Critical Theoey e-journal looking at how the story of Absalom's revolt against David is a story shaped by ritual forms, in this instance, the rituals around the Day of Atonement. These rituals have shaped or underpin a range of other Old Testament narratives such as Cain and Abel, the Binding of Isaac, the story of Jacob, and of Joseph, even the story of David, Jonathan and Saul itself.

If there are oral traditions behind the biblical narratives, the traditions are those of temple and ritual, not those of nomadic pastoralists. But the ubiquity of the notion of the biblical stories oral tales handed down by a simple nomadic people shows the success of the historical -critical biblical scholars in embedding the 'Bible' in 19th century European Romantic ethnicism and nationalism.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

International Septuagint Day

I've just found out from Tyler Williams' Codex blog that today is International Septuagint Day. As he says:

“The Sept-tu-a-what?” is what I hear from many of my students when I first mention the Septuagint in my introductory lecture on the text and transmission of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. By mid-term, however (or should I say by the midterm, i.e., the midterm exam), virtually all of my students are able to tell me that the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible begun around the third century BCE for the Pentateuch and completed sometime in the second or first century BCE for the rest of the books. Keen students should be able to further tell me that the title “Septuagint” comes from the Latin Septuaginta, which means “70” (thus the abbreviation LXX), and relates to the legendary origins of the translation by 70 Jewish elders from Israel (my “A” students may even relate how some versions of the legend report 72 elders were involved in the translation).

Strictly speaking Septuagint refers to the Old Greek translations of the Torah but nowadays is generally used to refer to not only the Old Greek translations of other Old Testament texts but also those texts written in Greek and other later Greek translations as well. The Greek Bible is itself a remarkably pluralist collection of texts. The Septuagint also represents the oldest large scale translation project extant, not only from one language to another but from one language family, Semitic, to another, Indo-European.

In terms of biblical studies, we know from Qumran that the Septuagint versions often represent different and older versions of the biblical texts than those now included in the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the early Church and is by far the more frequently cited and preferred version by the New Testament authors. The Septuagint is still the Old Testament of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is the basis of the Old Testaments of most of the Oriental Orthodox churches too. The Septuagint is the basis of the Old Latin bible and also shaped Jerome's later Latin translation known as the Vulgate even though he preferred to translate from Hebrew texts wherever he could and believed in the superiority of the Hebrew canon. The names of many of the Old Testament books, e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deueteronomy, Psalms are derived from the Greek names for the books not the Hebrew names.

In the West and in Western biblical studies the Septuagint has for too long been ignored, in part becasue of both Jerome's and, subsequently, the Reformation's option in making the Hebrew Bible the basis of the Old Testament (on the assumption that original language must represent original text). For once I agree with Augustine who argued against Jerome that if the Hebrew Bible must form the Old Testament and can only do so with the Greek Bible alongside (I would add the Samaritan Torah/Joshua and some of the Qumran variants such as the Great Psalms scroll and the Great Isaiah scroll)

Notes on the Septuagint is a very good resource on the Septuagint in the New Testament, early church and eastern Christianity and Septuagint alignments with Hebrew versions of Old Testament texts found at Qumran, and much more.


In Hebrew these hymns are known as Tehilim or ‘praises’. Psalm is from the Greek, meaning songs accompanied by a harp. In both western Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, the Psalter consists of 150 Psalms. The Latin Vulgate Bible follows the Greek numbering. In the Greek bible Psalm 9 consists of both Hebrew psalms 9 & 10. Greek psalm 113 combines Hebrew 114 & 115 while Hebrew 116 is divided in the Greek to become 114 & 115. Hebrew psalm 147 becomes psalms 146 & 147 in the Greek.The Greek Bible also includes an additional psalm, known as 151 but generally unnumbered in the Greek (although codex Sinaiticus declares its Psalter the 151 psalms of David). It is a psalm attributed to David and is part of the Psalter of all the eastern churches. In the Latin Vulgate it is included in the Appendix and is found in the Apocrypha of the King James bible. Some Syriac Psalters have an additional 4 psalms two of which are attributed to David and the one to Hezekiah.

The Hebrew Psalter of 150 psalms is divided into five books: 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150. Of the 150 psalms 73 are attributed to David and when psalms 151-155 are counted, 76 psalms overall attributed to David.

A number of psalm scrolls were found at Qumran. None of them contained psalms 32, 70, 80 or 90. Psalm 32 may not have been known at all at Qumran. There is evidence that psalm 1 was known at Qumran but no copies of it have survived either. Furthermore none of the Qumran psalm scrolls follow the order of the 150/1, Greek or Hebrew. The Great Psalm Scroll has a very different arrangement of psalms 91 onwards. It also includes a number of unknown psalms, some attributed to David, plus Hebrew versions of psalms 151, 154 & 155. Greek psalm 151 had actually joined together two separate psalms, the Hebrew forms of which were found at Qumran. The two psalms have more material than is found in the Greek 151. The Great Psalms Scroll also contained two other Davidic psalms, a hymn to the Creator, an Apostrophe to Zion, a Plea for Deliverance and Sirach 51. It also added a short postscript to psalm 145 and a large Catena or addition to psalm 136. Other Psalm scrolls included three exorcism psalms associated with psalm 91 and from other scrolls an Eschatological Hymn and an Apostrophe to Judah. It’s interesting that Sirach 51 is included here. The NRSV bible labels this final chapter of Wisdom of ben Sirach as ‘Prayer of Jesus Son of Sirach’ while my Orthodox Study Bible explicitly terms it a ‘Psalm of Thanks’. So this is likely a psalm that has been taken up by both texts (the Hebrew version of Sirach has further psalmic material after chapter 51).

Many of these scrolls date from the 1st century and were contemporaneous with Jesus. A number of scholars have argued that these should be regarded as hymn books for worship and not Psalters per se while others, such as James Sanders, argue that Qumran evidence shows that the Psalter was much more fluid 2000 years ago and only stabilised in the canonical processes of the next two to three centuries in both Christian and Jewish communities. Tyler Williams argues instead that the Great Psalms Scroll ‘was an alternative Psalter that reflected the sectarian outlook of the Qumran community... if David actually composed over 4000 psalms by the spirit of prophecy, what right does anyone have to limit it to 150 psalms?’ Certainly the Qumran evidence generally shows an acceptance of diversity in versions of the scriptures. These are oldest texts of the Old Testament. The great codices of the Greek bible come several centuries later while those of the Hebrew bible of Rabbinic Judaism are a thousand years later. I’m inclined to think that the Psalter 2000 years ago was more fluid in that there were Hebrew and Greek Psalters of 150 – 151 psalms, possibly even one of 155 psalms plus others such as the Great Psalms scroll with very different orderings and including a wider range of psalms, perhaps even open-ended to allow for the composition of new material. Perhaps the composition of psalms was considered a prophetic activity. Following the destruction of the Temple and catastrophes of the Jewish Wars against Rome the canon of psalms was definitively closed leaving us with several final forms, the Hebrew 150, the Greek 150 + 1 or 151 and a Syriac 155. One further thought – in the Gospels when Jesus refers to the Psalms or to David can we be sure that he is referring to any canonical psalter or simply the broad body of work known as psalms.

I'd like to see Psalms 151-155 become a part of Christian bibles and a part of Christian worship. Maybe one day bibles will have three Psalters, one ordered according to the Hebrew reckoning, the other according to the Greek with Psalms 151-155 appended plus the Great Psalms Scroll itself with both its own ordering and the previously unknown psalms it contained plus the other unknown psalms found at Qumran. That way the Psalms can attest to the rich plurality and diversity of the biblical world.

You can read Psalm 151 here. I hope at a later stage to write another post on Psalm 151 and its Qumranic variants.

Because Psalms 152-155 are generally unknown I’ve decided to put them below. I’m using a 19th century English translation from of a manuscript in which these four psalms appear to be listed in a different order again following on from Psalm 151.

II. The Prayer of Hezekiah when enemies surrounded him - 154.

(1) With a loud voice glorify ye God; in the assembly of many proclaim ye His glory. (2) Amid the multitude of the upright glorify His praise; and speak of His glory with the righteous. (3) Join yourselves (literally, your soul) to the good and to the perfect, to glorify the Most High. (4) Gather yourselves together to make known His strength; and be not slow in showing forth His deliverance [and His strength] and His glory to all babes. (5) That the honour of the Lord may be known, wisdom hath been given; and to tell of His works it hath been made known to men: (6) to make known unto babes His strength, and to make them that lack understanding (literally, heart) to comprehend His glory; (7) who are far from His entrances and distant from His gates: (8) because the Lord of Jacob is exalted, and His glory is upon all His works. (9) And a man who glorifies the Most High, in him will He take pleasure; as in one who offers fine meal, and as in one who offers he-goats and calves; (10) and as in one who makes fat the altar with a multitude of burnt offerings; and as the smell of incense from the hands of the just. (11) From thy upright gates shall be heard His voice, and from the voice of the upright admonition. (12) And in their eating shall be satisfying in truth, and in their drinking, when they share together. (13) Their dwelling is in the law of the Most High, and their speech is to make known His strength. (14) How far from the wicked is speech of Him, and from all transgressors to know Him! (15) Lo, the eye of the Lord taketh pity on the good, and unto them that glorify Him will He multiply mercy, and from the time of evil will He deliver their soul. (16) Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered the wretched from the hand of the wicked; who raiseth up a horn out of Jacob and a judge of the nations out of Israel; (17) that He may prolong His dwelling in Zion, and may adorn our age in Jerusalem.

III. When the People obtained permission from Cyrus to return home - 155

(1) O Lord, I have cried unto Thee; hearken Thou unto me. (2) I have lifted up my hands to Thy holy dwelling-place; incline Thine ear unto me. (3) And grant me my request; my prayer withhold not from me. (4) Build up my soul, and destroy it not; and lay it not bare before the wicked. (5) Them that recompense evil things turn Thou away from me, O judge of truth. (6) O Lord, judge me not according to my sins, because no flesh is innocent before Thee. (7) Make plain to me, O Lord, Thy law, and teach me Thy judgments; (8) and many shall hear of Thy works, and the nations shall praise Thine honour. (9) Remember me and forget me not; and lead me not into things that be too hard for me. (10) The sins of my youth make Thou to pass from me, and my chastisement let them not remember against me. (11) Cleanse me, O Lord, from the evil leprosy, and let it no more come unto me. (12) Dry up its roots in (literally, from) me, and let not its leaves sprout within me. (13) Great art Thou, O Lord; therefore my request shall be fulfilled from before Thee. (14) To whom shall I complain that he may give unto me? and what can the strength of men add [unto me]? (15) From before Thee, O Lord, is my confidence; I cried unto the Lord and He heard me, and healed the breaking of my heart. (16) I slumbered and slept; I dreamed and was helped, and the Lord sustained me. (17) They sorely pained my heart; I will return thanks because the Lord delivered me. (18) Now will I rejoice in their shame; I have hoped in Thee, and I shall not be ashamed. (19) Give Thou honour for ever, even for ever and ever. (20) Deliver Israel Thine elect, and them of the house of Jacob Thy proved one.

IV. Spoken by David when he was contending with the lion and the wolf which took a sheep from his flock - 152

(1) O God, O God, come to my aid; help Thou me and save me; deliver Thou my soul from the slayer. (2) Shall I go down to Sheol by the mouth of the lion? or shall the wolf confound me? (3) Was it not enough for them that they lay in wait for my father's flock, and rent in pieces a sheep of my father's drove, but they were wishing also to destroy my soul? (4) Have pity, O Lord, and save Thy holy one from destruction; that he may rehearse Thy glories in all his times, and may praise Thy great name: (5) when Thou hast delivered him from the hands of the destroying lion and of the ravening wolf, and when Thou hast rescued my captivity from the hands of the wild beasts. (6) Quickly, O my Lord (Adonai), send from before Thee a deliverer, and draw me out of the gaping pit, which imprisons me in its depths.

V. Spoken by David when returning thanks to God, who had delivered him from the lion and the wolf and he had slain both of them -153

(1) Praise the Lord, all ye nations; glorify Him, and bless His name: (2) Who rescued the soul of His elect from the hands of death, and delivered His holy one from destruction: (3) and saved me from the nets of Sheol, and my soul from the pit that cannot be fathomed. (4) Because, ere my deliverance could go forth from before Him, I was well nigh rent in two pieces by two wild beasts. (5) But He sent His angel, and shut up from me the gaping mouths, and rescued my life from destruction. (6) My soul shall glorify Him and exalt Him, because of all His kindnesses which He hath done and will do unto me.

Of the previously unknown psalms found at Qumran, I’ve really only been able to find this one in English translation online over at The Qumran Library.

I hope to make other Qumran psalms available here when I can.

Plea for Deliverance (A Noncanonical Psalm)

(1) Surely a maggot cannot praise thee nor a grave worm recount thy loving-kindness. (2) But the living can praise thee, even those who stumble can laud thee. In revealing
(3) thy kindness to them and by thy righteousness thou dost enlighten them. For in thy hand is the soul of every
(4) living thing; the breath of all flesh hast thou given. Deal with us, O LORD,
(5) according to thy goodness, according to thy great mercy, and according to thy many righteous deeds. The LORD
(6) has heeded the voice of those who love his name and has not deprived them of his loving-kindness.
(7) Blessed be the LORD, who executes righteous deeds, crowning his saints
(8) with loving-kindness and mercy. My soul cries out to praise thy name, to sing high praises
(9 ) for thy loving deeds, to proclaim thy faithfulness--of praise of thee there is no end. Near death
(10) was I for my sins, and my iniquities have sold me to the grave; but thou didst save me,
(11) O LORD, according to thy great mercy, and according to thy many righteous deeds. Indeed have I
(12) loved thy name, and in thy protection have I found refuge. When I remember thy might my heart
(13) is brave, and upon thy mercies do I lean. Forgive my sin, O LORD,
(14) and purify me from my iniquity. Vouchsafe me a spirit of faith and knowledge, and let me not be dishonored
(15) in ruin. Let not Satan rule over me, nor an unclean spirit; neither let pain nor the evil
(16) inclination take possession of my bones. For thou, O LORD, art my praise, and in thee do I hope
(17) all the day. Let my brothers rejoice with me and the house of my father, who are astonished by the graciousness...
(18) [ ] For e[ver] I will rejoice in thee.

Transcription and translation by J. A. Sanders

And talking about little known psalms there's also the 18 Psalms of Solomon found in one of the ancient codices of the Greek Bible but more on that another day.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bible and History 1

I want to resume my discussion of bible and history as it pertains to the texts of the Old Testaments, ‘ancient Israel’ and biblical religion. To start off, I have to state that, with a handful of exceptions, we have no idea of when, where, or by whom any of the Old Testament texts were written. Only one text, the Wisdom of ben Sirach tells us who its author was, and that only because his grandson who translated it into Greek tells us in a prologue to the Greek version. From that prologue we know ben Sirach wrote early in the 2nd century BCE while his grandson translated the text some fifty years later. The author of 2 Maccabees tells that the text is a précis of a (now lost) 5 volume work by a Jason of Cyrene. But the author remains anonymous although it appears they wrote in the late 2nd century BCE. The Greek version of Esther also seems to indicate that it was translated in late 2nd century BCE. Daniel and 1 Maccabees likewise can be dated to the 2nd century BCE. Daniel is about the crisis caused by Antiochus Epiphanes’ suppression of traditional religious practices in Judah and ‘paganisation’ of the Jerusalem Temple. 1 Maccabees recounts the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes that gave birth to the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom in Palestine. However in the case of Daniel, Greek Daniel has got more stories about the prophet than Hebrew Daniel and at Qumran we have remnants of other Daniel stories that were never included in either books of Daniel.

In contrast to these few texts, all the rest of the Old Testamental literature is anonymous. Authorship has been attributed to various biblical figures, most famously Moses traditionally understood as the author of the Pentateuch (with the exception of the account of his death at the end of Deuteronomy, attributed to Joshua). Samuel was often understood to have written Judges and part of Samuel while Psalms are attributed to David (for the most part) and other wisdom texts to Solomon but the texts themselves remain anonymous. It’s anyone’s guess who wrote Job or Song of Songs. As for the Prophets, Baruch is traditionally believed to have compiled Jeremiah, but the book itself never says so. Jubilees never names its author and as for the Enoch literature, there are great quantities both canonical (1 Enoch in the Ethiopian bible) and non-canonical (as well as texts of 1 Enoch there was a lot of other Enoch associated material at Qumran and there is the 2 Enoch Slavonic corpus and a much later Rabbinic 3 Enoch). Who wrote any of this we don’t know. Interestingly 4 Ezra/2 Esdras reckons that Ezra and five other men wrote most of the Old testament literature following the return from Babylonian captivity. The Babylonians had destroyed all the old sacred texts so under divine inspiration Ezra and his companions rewrote it all ... ‘ninety four books were written ... the Most High spoke...saying “Make public the twenty four books you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them... but keep the seventy ... (and) give them to the wise among your people”’ (14:44-46). In Jewish tradition it was Ezra who at least gave the final form to the Law following the return from Babylon.

What is most fascinating about these Ezra stories is that they recognise one definite fact about the bulk of the Old Testament literature. All of these texts know in some way of the destruction of the ‘Israelite’ states in Palestine by the Assyrians and Babylonians in 723 BCE and 600-586BCE respectively. In my previous post on this topic I linked to an article on Israeli archeologist, Israel Finkelstein. In that article, Finkelstien was presented as a radical for arguing that the stories of David and Solomon were fictions written in the reign of Josiah to justify a Jerusalemite claim to suzerainty over central or northern Palestine following the eclipse of Assyrian power. The only problem for Finkelstien’s theory is that the story of Solomon is part of the scroll of Kings (3 & 4 Reigns in the Greek bible) which goes on to recount the story of Josiah’s reign and the destruction of the Jerusalem kingdom itself by Babylon. In other words, Kings dates itself as a text to a post-monarchical present. It was also common to place the writing of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah because of the account in 2 Kings/4 Reigns 22 about the finding of a scroll of the law in the Temple and Josiah’s move to reform Judahite religion. The only problem is that we know little or nothing about the reign of Josiah apart from what’s in Kings and Chronicles. Furthermore the book of Deuteronomy itself knows that that the Israelite ‘experiment’ will end in tears. Indeed, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings can be read as a saga in which the Israelites are set up to fail over and over again culminating in the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the end, once and for all, of the old monarchies in Palestine and the deportation of their priestly and aristocratic elites. The same can be said for the prophetic texts. Isaiah looks back to an Assyrian past from a Persian present, likewise the book of the 12 Minor Prophets. And while I can imagine an aristocrat from Jerusalem lugging a scroll of Psalms or a royal chronicle into exile, I can’t imagine that same aristocrat carting off a miscellany of rabble rousing texts from a ragtag of prophets. Jeremiah and Ezekiel recount the fall of Jerusalem and beyond while 1 Enoch has a panoramic vision stretching from the pre-diluvian world right through the Babylonian crisis to the (eagerly anticipated) fall of the second Temple.

I hold the view that the Old testament scriptures were composed and collated in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and are a product of the Imperial age in the eastern Mediterranean. This period was marked by the rise and fall of empires and the resulting intermingling of cultures and religions. The Persian Empire was the first to bring together under one rule the eastern Mediterranean world. Established under Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, at its peak the empire would stretch from Egypt and the Balkans in the west to Afghanistan and Central Asia in the east. Before Cyrus, the Fertile Crescent had been subject to the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires through most of the first half of the first millennium. Canaan and the broader Levant had been caught up in these imperial progressions from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE onwards. I would argue that the Hebrew scriptures and the associated Greek and Samaritan scriptures, Pseudepigrapha and Qumran literature then are better understood as representing a religious project(s) of engaging with and transforming that older Canaanite-Levantine religio-cultural matrix. This project was part of major religious movements then occurring in the ancient eastern Mediterranean world in the first millennium BCE in response to the upheavals and transformations brought about by the imperial progressions. In this biblical project elements of older mythology, imagery, ritual, history were taken up and deployed to experiment with, explore and debate questions of universalism and diversity, the One and the Many, together with the allied questions of justice, good and evil, suffering and death. Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian and Greek religious ideas are also deployed as befitted the multi-cultural imperial background. This project was open-ended, pluralistic. There was no single monotheistic vision but several and I would argue the project continued even after the construction of biblical canons and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (For a very good analysis and overview of questions of Bible and history see Thomas Thompson The Bible In History: How Writers Create A Past, 2000).

Rene Girard argues that the biblical literature displays a deliberate anti-sacrificial movement, one that stands for the victim against the oppressor and scapegoater. He would argue that it is intentional on the part of the biblical authors. I think he is partially correct here. This literature is rewriting a religious world, a religious legacy. One can even say it is demythologizing the old religious order, but only because, in part, it is remythologizing a new religious order. But the demythologizing and mythic experimentation gives these texts an unanticipatad power. Furthermore the biblical project is not a coordinated process. There are a variety of projects unfolding here and a number of utopian visions. And beleive me these texts, including (especially?) such legal texts as Leviticus are utopian texts. but they all have one thing in common, the Temple. Old Palestine was a land of small monarchies and royal cults. But following the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and the rise of the Persian rule over all of the Middle East,what happens to the Temples and their royal cults when here are no longer local kings?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New Resource Pages at Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Project

I see over at Antiquitopia there's a notice from the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Project about two new resource pages. Not many people know about the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha, a collection of para-biblical (pseudepigraphal) texts that only exist in Slavonic. The 2 resource pages are for 2 Enoch also known as the Secrets of Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. 2 Enoch is a fascinating text or collection of texts. It exists in a variety of versions or recensions. The oldest manuscripts in which it is found are from the 14th century. Nevertheless, it most likely dates from the 1st century as it does not know of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. The Apocalypse of Abraham does know of the Temple's destruction and most likely comes from the 2nd century CE as we have references to it in early Christian literature. These texts seem to have been tramslated from Greek into Slavonic although it appears that there was a Semitic Vorlage, either Hebrew or Aramaic, behind the Greek.

I came across 2 Enoch doing my PhD as in one of its versions it contains a brief reference to Sodom in a homophobic context. I would also discover that 2 Enoch contains an account of the miraculous/asexual/'virgin' conception of Melchizedek. I've written an essay on that for an anthology on biblical mothers which I hope is forthcoming this year. This time last year the editor assured me that it should be coming out last year but I've heard nothing so far. Anyway, I've yet to read the Apocalypse of Abraham in full but it does have some intersting material, including a strange angel called Yahoel, who seems to be an echo of a time when YHWH was known as the Great Angel, chief of the Divine Council.

The resource page for 2 Enoch is here and that for Apocalypse of Abraham is here. An online translation of 2 Enoch without the Melchizedek story can be found here. An online translation of Apocalypse of Abraham can be found here.

The Continuing Power of Biblical Narratives

In the last couple of weeks I've had a number of opportunities to talk Bible with people in social situations. Every occasion I've come away with a renewed appreciation of just how influential the various biblical narratives are in the collective memory and also frustrated that people are not equipped to engage with this biblical power but have learnt to accept the narratives as real history.

So I'm regularly pointing out to people that there is no evidence that there ever was a David or Solomon, not to mention a Moses or an exodus. I even once had to tackle a religious affairs journalist on the ABC who described ancient Judaism as a tribalistic religion in contrast to the sophisticated Hellenistic culture around it. And people still carry the idea that ancient Jews were something like Bedouins, tribes that rode into Palestine and settled down there and that all the stange food laws and so forth come from their supposedly primitive tribal background.

Well, of course, none of that is true or, at least, verified by archeology. Indeed, the results of many years of Israeli archeology have shown that the 'history' recorded in Old Testament narratives is really creative fiction or maybe a form of historical midrash given that some apsects of the later 'history' can be verified by other means. And I have to be careful about using the word 'verified'. Such verification is simply that we have records that certain monarchs in the books of Kings and Chronicles did exist but we don't know much about them and we can't say that the biblical accounts of them give details of actual events (and the accounts in Chronicles and Kings are often in conflict, the wicked king, Manasseh, is a very good example). We also have no evidence for the existence for any of the biblical prophets. Certainly the biblical Jeremiah and Ezekiel are colourful characters. Isaiah is less so but subsequent texts about him, e.g. the Ascension of Isaiah, flesh him out more as a character. But what about Obadiah or Joel or Malachi? Indeed, we have much more information about the figure of (the prophet) Enoch than any of the Twelve Minor Prophets.

In part the power of the text is exercised through the sheer mass of cultural after effects in art, film, literature and music. Leonard Cohen is in town and his song Hallelujah riffs off the stories of David and Saul and Bathsheba in Samuel. It's a superb song and has been covered by a number of artists including the late Jeff Buckley, not to mention John Cale, k.d.laing, Rufus Wainwright and many others. I also remember an epsiode of the kids cartoon series, Rugrats, which gave a Rugrats version of the Exodus story, obviously as a seasonal contribution for Passover. These are just two examples from popular culture. Furthermore most histories of the ancient Middle East simply give a paraphrase of the Old Testament narratives when dealing with ancient Palestine. When I was tutoring for the Introduction to World Religions course at University of Qld many years ago, I'd always have to tell the class every year to ignore the accounts in the text book of ancient Israelite/Jewish religion. All that stufff about David Solomon, kings, prophets, wandering tribes, the Yahwist, 1st & 2nd Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah was all so much fiction or biblical paraphrase.

Ironically, I think the Book of Joshua, the one that no one likes, with its images of invasion, genocide and holy war, is the text that more than any other exposes the constructed nature of this history and in fact says that there really wasn't an invasion, that Israelites were really all the time Canaanites.

So in subsequent posts I'll have more to say about the history of Israel and the origins of biblical religion and its texts. I'll also post more on Joshua and the strange deconstructions encountered there.

Australia's Greatest Treasurer?

Peter Costello has a piece in today's Age on the Rudd Gov't's stimulus package. The gist of it is Rudd's a Whitlamite. According to Mark over at LP, Costello gave 'a risible performance' on last night's Lateline trying to criticise the package.

All I can say is I'm glad Costello is on the backbench and his mob are out of office. I'd hate to think how they'd respond to the current financial crisis. If they were honest they would have to acknowledge they'd do much the same, as I suspect Treasury boffins are behind the greater part of the package. No doubt it's been tailored to fit some of Labor's own agenda in which case then the Libs would no doubt have produced a more brutopian response. Because if the Howard gov't had survived the last election then I'm sure Costello and Turnbull and co would now be talking about the deficit we had to have.

Also in today's Age, Ross Gittins has a different take on the stimulus package and deficits that doesn't descend into the 'Whitlamites/Russians/Commies/insert favorite outsider Other here are coming' trope.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is not that well known to most Western Christians. It is found in an appendix to the (post-Tridentine) Latin Vulgate Bible (together with 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and the Epistle to the Laodiceans). It as put in the appendix l'est it be lost'. However, vernacular Roman Catholic bibles do not include the appendix and its texts in gthier translations. The King James bible included the Prayer in the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments. However, for the last two centuries the Apocrypha have been omitted from most English language Bibles and from non-English bibles produced by Anglophone churches and the Bible Societies. Luther also included the Prayer in the Apocrypha in his German Bible, which is also the basis of Swedish, Danish and other northern European bibles. These northern European churches, I believe, still retain the Apocrypha in their bibles so Lutherans in northern Europe are likely to be most familiar with the Prayer.

In the Eastern churches, it's different. The Prayer is found at the end of 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles in the Slavonic, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac bibles. That's where it's found in my English language Orthodox Study Bible. (The prayer was also found there in pre-Tridentine manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate bible.) I understand the Ethiopian bible incorporates it within the body of 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles as part of the story of Manasseh in chapter 33. The oldest most complete codex of the Greek Bible, the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus, includes the Prayer in the Book of Odes a collection of biblical liturgical canticles, such as Song of Moses, Song of Hannah, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, appended to the Psalter. Likewise the Prayer appears in the Book of Odes in the Codex Turicensis of the Psalms. The oldest form of the prayer however was found in the ancient Christian text, the 3rd century Didascalia, which was later incorporated into the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions. (You can read the Didascalia here). In both these texts, the story of the sinful king Manasseh, as found in both 2 Kings and 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles, is recounted including his captivity in Babylon and repentance and subsequent restoration as king in Judah. It is here that the Prayer is found and these are the oldest versions of the Prayer. The Prayer has only been found in Greek and translations from the Greek but it is not certain whether it was composed in Greek or Hebrew. It's also not certain whether it is a Jewish or Christian composition. Certainly the Prayer has only been found in Christian texts. No form of the Prayer has been preserved in Rabbinic Judaism.

However, in cave 4 at Qumran a scroll of unknown non-canonical psalms was found. The Psalms are attributed to David and other kings including a different and shorter version of Manasseh's Prayer. So we have here a pre-Christian and Hebrew Prayer of Manasseh.

Qumran Prayer of Manasseh (4Q381)

The prayer of Manasseh, king of Judah, when the king of Assyria imprisoned him
.... my God .... is near,
My deliverance is before your eyes ....
For the deliverance your presence brings I wait, and I shrink before you
Because of [my sins,] for You have been very [merciful]
while I have increased my guilt, and so .... from enduring joy,
but my spirit will not experience goodness for ....
You lift me up, high over the Gentile ....
though I did not remember You ....
.... I am in awe of You, and I have been cleansed of the abominations I destroyed.
I made my soul to submit to You ... they increased its sin,
and plot against me to lock me up; but I have trusted in You ....
do not give me over to be tried, with You, O my God ....
they are conspiring against me, they tell lies .... to me deeds of ....

[from The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr & Edward Cook]

Greek Prayer of Manasseh

1 O Lord Almighty,
God of our ancestors,
of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and of their righteous offspring;
2 you who made heaven and earth
with all their order;
3 who shackled the sea by your word of command,
who confined the deep
and sealed it with your terrible and glorious name;
4 at whom all things shudder,
and tremble before your power,
5 for your glorious splendour cannot be borne,
and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable;
6 yet immeasurable and unsearchable
is your promised mercy,
7 for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering.
O Lord, according to your great goodness
you have promised repentance and forgiveness
to those who have sinned against you,
and in the multitude of your mercies
you have appointed repentance for sinners,
so that they may be saved.
8 Therefore you, O Lord, God of the righteous,
have not appointed repentance for the righteous,
for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you,
but you have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner.

9 For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven
because of the multitude of my iniquities.
10 I am weighted down with many an iron fetter,
so that I am rejected because of my sins,
and I have no relief;
for I have provoked your wrath
and have done what is evil in your sight,
setting up abominations and multiplying offences.

11 And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
12 I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
13 I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me for ever or store up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent,
14 and in me you will manifest your goodness;
for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy,
15and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.
For all the host of heaven sings your praise,
and yours is the glory for ever. Amen.

[From New Revised Standard Version]

I'm struck by the way the principle of biblical diversity works even for such a minor text as the Prayer. Of course the Prayer is not such a minor text. It clearly had great liturgical significance in the early church and it is still recited both in the Byzantine rite of Great Compline and is also used a canticle in the daily office of the 1979 US Book of Common Prayer. Presumably the non-canonical psalms from Qumran were also used in liturgical settings.

Indeed the Prayer illustrates one way (at least) that the canonical process may work. The story of Manasseh tells of a prayer he recited. Individuals at different times/places are inspired by this account to compose a prayer, perhaps to add to the already existing account or maybe to the public performance/recitation of the account. The prayer is a hit and is added to a repertoire of prayers for public liturgical performance. Liturgical performance ensures preservation of the prayer, indeed it comes to be associated with the canonical versions of the story. Thus the prayer becomes canonical both scripturally and liturgically. It would appear that the Prayer was not deployed liturgically in the Roman rite and so did not make it into the Tridentine canon.

I would further argue that the Prayer of Manasseh should be restored as a normal part of Catholic (and all Christian) bibles either in 2 Chronicles 33 or as an appendix to Chronicles and perhaps also as part of a restored Book of Odes (I hope to write a post on the Book of Odes soon). Furthermore, I would think it most appropriate that both Greek and Qumran forms of the Prayer should sit side by side as a mark of the truly ancient diversity and plurality of the biblical texts.

For more information on and translations of the Prayer of Manasseh see the page at Early Jewish Writings

There was also a post on the Prayer at Biblicalia last year


I saw Gus van Sant's Milk last night. This is one excellent film. I've read Randy Shilts' account of Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, several times over the years (my copy is currently packed away in a box). I've also seen the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, several times as well. So, as far as story goes I pretty much knew what to expect.

What I didn't expect was the excellence of this film. Van Sant has done a superb job. The film unfolds through use of flashbacks, occasionally flashbacks within flashbacks. It artfully intertwines news and other film footage from the time within the movie giving an amazing sense of presence, of conveying what is was like in San Francisco back in the '70s. Van Sant is also supported by a magnificent cast. Sean Penn lives Harvey Milk, he is Milk onscreen. But the rest of the cast are excellent, too. Some have an uncanny resemblance to the characters they play, a fact brought home at the film's conclusion which relates what became of each of the film's main characters after Milk's assassination. Photos of the film person morph into the photos of the real person. Josh Brolin almost channels Dan White. Emil Hirsch as Cleve Jones and James Franco as Scott Smith do likewise with their characters. Hirsch is just brilliant portraying the young queen, Jones, who gets politicised and becimes himself a movement leader. Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg was similarly convincing. And finally Diego Luna as Jack Lira turns in a devastating performance.

The film also brings to life the solidarity of the SF queer communities of those days. There are many scenes of marches and rallies often intercut with footage of the actual events (but sadly not of the White Night riots, following the lenient sentencing of Dan White on the basis of the notorious Twinkie defence). It shows how mobilised queer folks became . As Harvey Milk himself says, "I am not a candidate, I am part of a movement. The movement is the candidate." The strength and solidarity of that movement then are really brought to life in this film. Indeed it highlights both how important it was for us to mobilise and build a movement in the struggle against homophobia and also how crucial it was to build alliances. Milk helped organise a boycott of Coors beer in the gay bars to support the local Teamsters union during their industrial dispute with that company. The Teamsters eventually won and went on to support industrial rights of LGBT people in San Francisco.

All LGBT folk should see this film because it really is the first major Hollywood film treatment of our histories and our lives and it reminds us of the struggles of the past and how they were won. But in its portrayal of the struggles of the SF queer communities 30 years ago, the film deserves to be seen by straight as well as queer folks. It's a reminder to everyone of how important solidarity, organising, mobilisation are in struggling to achieving social change, in shiftiing, even a little bit, the axis of power towards a more just dynamic. It does this, refreshingly, without romanticising its characters or lapsing into the dread American habit of indulging in schmaltz. I knew the story and how it would turn out and so brought along the tissues just in case. But I didn't need them at all. For me that underscores the real power of this film.

So do yourselves a favour, as Molly Meldrum used to say, and get along to Milk. You won't be sorry.