Thursday, January 28, 2010

My God vs Your God Part 2 - Thoughts on Ancient Jewish and Ancient Persian Religions

I usually put links to my postings here up on my Facebook page. Oftentimes a discussion thread unfolds on Facebook but not here. My previous post, My God vs Your God Pt 1, resulted in just such a Facebook thread. The topic was monotheism vs polytheism. The point was made that maybe Christians should recognise that Muslims and Jews and other religions worship different gods to the Christian god and that Christians just get over it and accept it. The discussion continued about pagan backgrounds to Christianity and I wondered what a Zoroastrian Christianity might have looked like. For those who don't know, Zoroastrianism is the old pre-Islamic religion of Iran/Persia. It's named for the Persian prophet Zoroaster/Zarathustra. Modern Parsis in India and elsewhere are Zoroastrians. Freddie Mercury of Queen was a Parsi/Zoroastrian. Anyway, in answer to my question the Manichees were suggested as an example.

I thought I'd do a bit of reading about the Manichees, a religion that once rivaled Christianity and, like Christianity, in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries could be found from Western Europe to China. Founded by the prophet Mani in 242 CE was a dualistic religion which continued in China and Central Asia long after it had disappeared from Europe and the Middle East. St Augustine was a Manichee before he converted to Christianity and maybe brought with him a bit of Manichee baggage re the body and sex in his novel doctrines on Original Sin, which have become very much part of Western Christianity.

Mani the prophet came from the Persian Empire, then in the early days of the Sassanid dynasty. I had always thought Mani was a Zoroastrian but it seems there's a likelihood he wasn't. He was from what is now Iraq, then part of the Sassanian Empire. He is variously described as Mandaean or belonging to an obscure and now extinct Christian sect, the Elchasaites. Mani at first found favour with the Sassanian rulers but incurred the enmity of the Zoroastrian establishment and was forced into temporary exile in Central Asia and, after returning from exile, finally either died in prison or was executed. In the centuries that followed both Manichees and Christians were periodically persecuted by the Persian state and both Manichees and Christians engaged in polemic against Zoroastrianism (as well as against each other).

But in my reading I got somewhat distracted by material on Zoroastrianism itself, and in particular the form of the religion known as Zurvanism. Zurvan means time. In contemporary Zoroastrianism and in the hymns of the prophet the model of the deity is a sort of dualist one. God is known as Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, whom Zoroaster addresses as the Lifegiver. Ahura Mazda is all-good, the Creator of the universe and lover of humanity. In opposition to Ahura Mazda is Angra Mainyu (in Middle Persian, Ahriman), the destructive spirit, who works to corrupt creation and destroy humanity. Ahura Mazda is greater than Angra Mainyu and will eventually triumph in a final culmination and judgment which will involve the fulfilment of creation, something like the Christian Kingdom of God. In fact, Christianity, Islam and Judaism derive a number of their core beliefs, including resurrection, from the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster even taught of the coming of a messiah figure, the Saoshyant a descendant of the prophet, who would herald the last days. The scholarly consensus is that Zoroaster lived some 3500 years ago.

From the biblical literature it's clear that Persian religion had a big influence on the texts included in the Old Testament. There are parallels between Zoroastrian religious laws and the laws of Moses (including the Leviticus bans on anal sex between men). Fire is important in Persian religion and bibical theophanies are often associated with fire, most famously the Burning Bush. Cyrus the Great, who founded the first (Achamaenian) Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE, conquering Babylon approximately 540BCE. In the biblical texts, it's Cyrus who authorises the return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and the book of Isaiah hails Cyrus as anointed by God, messiah. The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem is portrayed as a Persian supported initiative in Ezra-Nehemiah. Some scholars have argued that the rebuilt Temple was designed to serve Persian and that the cult practiced there was a Zoroastrian shaped implantation designed to support the Persian state in the territory of Judah/Yehud. I don't have too much of a problem with that although I would argue for a more complex approach recognising multiple agency rather than a simple top down initiative. I would base that on firstly the widespread nature of Judaism in the ancient world and the fact that, whatever it's Zoroastrian (and Mesopotamian) influences, the Jewish religious world clearly comes from older Canaanite/Levantine roots. It is a remaking of the old religious world under the impression of the new dominant one. Analogous processes can be seen in modern colonial experiences. I think the origins of Judaism lie in the crises of Empire (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) in the ancient Middle East and the need to remake what had once been local royal cults when local kings are no more.

But back to Zoroaster and Zurvanism. As I said Zurvan means time. Zurvanism postulated that before/above Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu was Zurvan, the primal and distant god. Zurvan conceived Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu together; they are twins of equal status. Here is Robert Zaehner's account of the Zurvanite myth:

When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means 'fate' or 'fortune'. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: 'What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?' And no sooner had this thought occured to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived -Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: 'Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.' Ohrmazd was apprised of his father's thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: 'Who art thou?' And he replied: 'I am thy son, Ohrmazd.' And Zurvan said: 'My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.' And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: 'Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.' But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him :'Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?' And Zurvan said to him: 'O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.' And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautifull and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.

Zurvanism is described as a Zoroastrian heresy. All the details of it come from non-Zoroastrian sources. Zurvanism became prominent in Persia in the Sassanian period during the 1st Christian millennium but it seems to have first appeared in the later Achamaenian period before Alexander the Great. There is no record of an old Persian deity named Zurvan and Zoroastrianism absorbed all the old Persian deities giving them the status of Yazatas, worshipful ones, somewhat analogous to angels in Christianity. There is a similar primal Greek deity named Chronos (not to be confused with the father of Zeus) and some have argued a Greek provenance for Zurvan. Others have argued for an Indian provenance and there doesn't seem to be any sort of consensus.

But reading the account, I had little alarm bells ringing in the back of my mind saying that I recognised a pattern here. I had to think for a while and then it occurred to me, the pattern had to do with the Day of Atonement rituals in Leviticus 16. Now this will probably strike many as quite outrageous and out there but I'm going to indulge myself and play with it anyway. The Zurvanite pattern of one plus two is the pattern of key animals employed in the DoA ritual i.e. two goats and a bull. Summarising, two goats are brought to the High Priest in the Temple and lots are cast over them, in the standard translations to determine which is for Yahweh and which for Azazel (also rendered scapegoat but I'll stick with the name here). The one for Yahweh is then slaughtered and the blood collected. The High Priest then takes the blood of the goat and the blood of a bull, slaughtered before the selection of the goats, into the Holy of Holies. The blood of both bull and goat are sprinkled there and then the High Priest comes out and smears the combined blood of bull and goat on the altar. The High Priest then confesses the sins of the people over the goat for Azazel which is then sent out into the wilderness.

Now Margaret Barker has argued that instead of translating to read 'for Yahweh/Azazel' the text can also be translated to 'as Yahweh/Azazel'. In other words the two goats represent Yahweh and Azazel. Azazel in this reading means Fierce God or the Ferocity of El. The blood of the Yahweh goat represents Yahweh's divine life force which is used to atone or heal the universe, represented by the Temple, of all the ills and corruption that had accrued over the previous year. Those ills are placed on the Azazel goat which is cast out into the wilderness. I have argued that in this reading the bull represents the Semitic high god, old Father El (one of whose titles was the Great Bull El), and recalls a time, before Yahweh worship began, when El alone healed the universe with his divine life force. Like all the old deities of the Heavenly Host, Yahweh and Azazel are sons of El, making them brothers. That the two goats representing them are only distinguished by the casting of lots implies a particularly close affinity between the two, one that could also be represented by twinship.

I was struck by the parallel between El, Yahweh and Azazel on the one hand and Zurvan, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu on the other. There is in fact a strong resemblance between Azazel and Angra Mainyu, Yahweh and Ahura Mazda. Apart from Greek and Indian provenances for Zurvan, I also noted that some had suggested a Chaldean/Mesopotamian/Semitic provenance. From Nebuchadnezzar to the 1950s Mesopotamia/Iraq has been an important Jewish centre; for many centuries in Roman/Byzantine/Islamic periods it was the key cultural and religious centre for Judaism. So here is my outrageous suggestion. What if the Zurvanite heresy derived from early ancient Judaism itself, a Judaism which, ironically, had already been strongly influenced, if not partly shaped and even fostered, by the 'orthodox' Zoroastrian religious state itself?

It's only a hypothetical but one that appeals to me. I like it for the interconnections as much as for the irony and the apparent wildness. The irony is further heightened in that Zurvanism apparently became the orthodox form of Zoroastrianism in Persia for many centuries. So maybe it's time that Christians, and Jews and Muslims too, recognise that they are as much children of Zoroaster as they are children of Abraham. I am an advocate for an expanded and ecumenical Bible. Perhaps it's time, also, that Bibles include, maybe as a preface, at least the hymns of Zoroaster, in recognition of that lineage.

If you want to read them there are some in fairly accessible translation here. And if you want to explore the rich religious history of Persia/Iran there is a wealth of material here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jottings turns 1

Today is the first anniversary of this blog. A year ago today I put up my first post here. January 26 in this land downunder is observed as Australia Day which is an unfortunate juxtaposition but an unintended one. January last year I was wanting a date with good astrological aspects under which to launch this blog and it just so happened that the New Moon on 26 Jan '09 was the most apropos. New Moons represent beginnings and this one was in my 9th house, the house of religion and publishing amongst other things, opposite my natal Mercury in my 3rd house, the house of communication. And so it was that on 26 January 2009 Jottings was launched out into the world.

Since then I written some 152 posts of varying quality. Some I like, indeed have surprised me as to how good they are. Some are probably rubbish or at least are pretty inconsequential. And then there's the rest. Hopefully you who read this will think my posts fit across all three categories although I don't expect anyone's choices of good bad or in between to align with mine. If you appreciate some of what I've written then that's good and I'm glad that's been the case.

The whole year has been an interesting one. It started with loss and mourning and has ended with me recovering from a different sort of loss or sorrow from late last year but one which was all my own doing. However this blog is not a personal diary but rather a place where I write or research my thoughts. At times such research can be imbued with more personal elements, other times not. So I can't say if I will write about that sorrow here or not.

Looking back over what I have written I realise there is much that I wanted to write about that still remains unwritten. And so this year I hope to explore some of that terrain. I may also revisit some of the topics I explored last year. In fact I know I have more to say about St Mary's at South Brisbane and I want to write some more on Alan Bray's The Friend, which I recently re-read.

But for now we're having a bit of a heatwave here in Brisbane town. It's summer after all and the worst is there's no real respite at night so it's not the best time for writing a lot at all. In fact it's too darn hot

(Erasure performing Cole Porter's Too Darn Hot, from Red Hot + Blue)

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Musical Interlude: Bjork, Brodsky Quartet, Tenebrae and John Tavener

I really love the music of John Tavener and I've been listening to a couple of pieces off the John Tavener: A Portrait album lately. Playing them a lot actually. I'm not gifted musically but I can have music playing the whole time quite happily. And sadly for others I can often like what could be considered quite eccentric. From the moment I first heard her back in my teens I was a fan of Yoko Ono (and still am). When I first the sitar and the oud I fell in love with them. And when I first heard the sacred music of the Eastern Orthodox churches I was transported.

Tavener draws on those Eastern Orthodox musical traditions and so it was only natural I should get right into him. But for some reason lately I just want to keep listening to these two pieces over and over (fortunately for my flatmate I'm using headphones, which means I'm also playing them loud). But they are quite extraordinarily beautiful and transportive and so I thought I'd share them here.

The first is called Prayer of the Heart, which Bjork performs with the Brodsky Quartet. It's a setting of the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy. If you don't know anything about the Jesus Prayer I strongly recommend you check out this excellent Wikipedia article, which describes the prayer as "one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice." The article continues "Its practice is an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm hesychazo, "to keep stillness")" The Jesus prayer probably was developed in the early monastic communities of 4th and 5th century Egypt and it is practiced in both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy as well as in the Eastern churches in communion with Rome. It is recited as a sort of mantra with the goal of being prayed by the prayer; praying without ceasing, the prayer becomes centred in the heart. The aim of the prayer is "not to be dissolved or absorbed into nothingness or into God, or reach another state of mind, but to (re)unite with God (which by itself is a process) while remaining a distinct person." Or as Michael Plekon says "Our prayer is to become eventually so much a part of us that our very breathing, our very living becomes prayer." Plekon's article is also very much worth reading not least because he cites various people including two of my favorite Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov and the 20th century Maria Skobtsova.

The most common form of the prayer (and the form used by Tavener) is as follows

Kyrie, Iesou Christe, uie tou theou, eleison me
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me

But it can be said in any language.

Tavener's setting uses both Greek and English together with Coptic. Bjork starts with the Greek then moves into the Coptic and then the English to close with a final rendition in Greek. The piece is long, nearly 15 minutes, but it is truly spectacular. I recommend putting on the headphones and lying back eyes closed.


The second piece is called Mother and Child, performed by Tenebrae, and below is a clip from You Tube. It's the final section. The text is a poem by Brian Keble. I'll provide the whole poem italicising what's not included in this sample. The part in brackets is a refrain added to the poem.

Enamoured of its gaze
the mother’s gaze in turn
contrives a single beam of light
along which love may move.
Through seeing, through touch,
through hearing the new-born heart
conduits of being join.
So is the image of that heaven within started into life.
As in the first was adoration
another consciousness has come to praise
the single theophanic light
that threads all entrants here:
(Hail Maria, Hail Sophia, Hail Maria)
this paradise where all is formed of love
as flame to flame is lit.

The clip is a marvellous montage of Marian and Christ images which capture well Tavener's celebration of the theophanous maternal. Put the headphones on for this too and turn it up loud but be warned it starts off quietly and builds up to a dramatic conclusion with organ and choir.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My God vs Your God Part 1 - Saying Allah in Malaysia

Over the last few weeks there have been a couple of stories in the media highlighting the problems of inclusion and exclusion in religion and the age old problem that arises when different people worship different deities or belong to different religions. How these problems are played out will differ according to whether the people involved believe in many deities or only one. For people who accept the existence of many deities, the encounter with those who worship a different pantheon, can be worked out in several ways. One easy response is to welcome the broadening of the horizon of the divine. Here are a whole lot of new deities as well as my own. If there are several hundred million deities in Hinduism, such recognition and acknowledgement, has played a part. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people were also likely to adopt such an approach. Alexander the Great seems to have spent much of his campaigning paying homage to the any different deities of the lands he conquered. Ancient Jewish sources unproblematically report him offering sacrifice to the Jewish god in the temple at Jerusalem. Another response is to identify the different deities with each other. The Greeks identified many of the Olympians with the ancient Egyptian deities, even creating new deities such as Serapis out of a fusion of the old. At times such cross-identification takes on a universalist tone merging a suite of deities into one as is evidenced in the Vision of Isis to Lucius (Apuleius). Both Lucius in his prayer and Isis in her response identify Isis with a suite of female deities Greek and non-Greek however

both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.

But once you start cross identifying a number of deities with each other you are likely to end up with only one, albeit known by many names. I think just such a process lies behind the monotheism of the biblical texts making up the Hebrew and Greek Bibles which comprise the various Christian Old Testaments. I also think that the biblical monotheist trajectory was just one of several unfolding in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern religious worlds and that these trajectories cross-fertilised each other, as well.

Biblical or Abrahamic monotheism works with both a universalist and a supersessionist dynamic. It operates throughout the Hebrew/Greek Old Testament texts. They both other and denounce as Canaanite the old Hebrew religious (polytheist) world at the same time as they appropriate and reconstruct it together with a good dose of Mesopotamian and maybe Greek polytheism, as well as many elements of the Persian monotheist trajectory. The old deities are denounced and at the same time absorbed into YHWH or transformed into angelic hosts. Even YHWH cannot completely absorb the old Father El, the high god of the old Semitic pantheon, who remains as El Elyon to become the Christain God the Father or splits YHWH into a greater and a lesser YHWH, a divine transcendent YHWH and an lesser angelic YHWH. Biblical monotheism never resolved these quandaries which continue to work themselves out in the various Abrahamic religions to this day.

The Abrahamic religions continue the dynamic of supersessionism and universalism. Each claims to be based on a revelation of the divine which at the same time completes and replaces what went before. Islam is most obvious in its universalism and and supersessionism. It claims to complete both the Israelite religious trajectory that starts with Isaac and ends with Jesus and a Gentile trajectory that starts with Ishmael and ends with Muhammad and incorporates a variety of other monotheistic groups such as the Hanifs of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sabians, who some identify with ancient pagan 'god-fearers' associated with ancient synagogues and a separate 'pagan' worship of the Most High God. These are all Peoples of the Book, who, together with the Magians of Persia, the Qur'an declares must be treated with respect and not prevented from following their ancestral faiths (in a qualified way at least for the Magians). At the same time, Islam represents the ultimate truth and fulfilment of all these other religions.

So I was bemused to see reports of a number of Malaysian churches (and a Sikh temple) vandalised and/or set on fire in response to a High Court ruling that Christians could use the word Allah to refer to God in Malay, striking down a decision by the federal UMNO government restricting the use of the word to Muslims only. According to Anil Netto,

the goverment and some conservative Muslim groups argue that only Muslims should be allowed to use the word Allah. These groups say Christians could use alternative terms such as "tuhan", a more general term.

The church, however, pointed out that the term Allah had been widely used by Malay-speaking Christians in the region for hundreds of years. These include Christian indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak, many of whom speak Malay or local languages.

Furthermore Christians and Jews in other Muslim countries especially the Middle East have likewise used Allah for generations since the rise of Islam and the spread of Arabic. And Islam itself declares that Christians and Jews are Peoples of the Book and hence worshippers of the One True God/Allah.

Interstingly, too,

Current Muslim opposition political leaders, including Anwar Ibrahim of the People's Justice Party (PKR) and Hadi Awang, president of the Islamic Pas party, say that Christians should be allowed to use the term Allah. Both leaders deflated plans for a larger protest last Friday against the High Court ruling when they discouraged their party supporters from joining in... only 300 or so protested at the national mosque in front of a crowd of onlookers, while over at Kampung Baru, a one-time hot spot for restive ethnic Malays, there were only about 20. The small numbers were arguably a reflection of new political realignments in which PKR and Pas have succeeded in winning over a significant portion of the Malay Muslim base.
A veteran UMNO politician, Razaleigh Hamzah... cited UMNO's position in the Allah controversy as a case in point. "In a milestone moment, Pas, the Islamic party, is holding on to the more plural and moderate position, while UMNO is digging itself into an intolerant hardline position that has no parallel that I know of in the Muslim world."

Ruling the word Allah off-limits to Christians could even be argued to be a breach of the basics of the religion that would undermine its claim to be the restoration of the older revelation given through Jesus himself as well as the prophets before him. An classic example of politically inspired exclusivist fundamentalism going against the fundamentals of the faith itself.

Further analysis by Fabio Scarpello can be found here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

For Epiphany - some thoughts on the star of Bethlehem

Today is Epiphany Day. Originally January 6 was the date of Christmas in the Eastern Churches. The Emperor Constantine adopted December 25 in line with Western Church practice and gradually through the 4th century, it became the standard date for Christmas. The only exception was the Armenian Church. Armenia was an independent kingdom and had adopted Christianity a few years before Constantine made Christianity a licit religion in the Roman Empire. The Armenians kept to the older date and thus observe Christmas today.

But with the change of date something had to be done for today and so the feast of the Epiphany was invented to mark the end of the Christmas season. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, the start of Jesus' public life. The Western Church applied the story of the wise men, only found in Matthew's gospel (Matt 2:1-12), to this date. The coming of the wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Christ-child is celebrated as the first revealing of the divine Jesus to the world, as represented by these foreign, Gentile figures. In much of Europe, they are celebrated as three kings named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (the Syrian and Ethiopian churches have different names for the three). The notion that they were kings is quite late and a rather romantic fancy not based on the Matthean account.

Here is Matthew's story from the NIV:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied, for this is what the prophet has written: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Not kings, then, but Magi, and an unspecified number of them but bearing three gifts. The story then continues with Herod, realising the Magi are not going to return to him, ordering the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2. Joseph is forewarned by an angel in a dream and together he and Mary escape with the infant Jesus to Egypt where they remain until Herod eventually dies.

It's quite a story and it's fair to say that it this tale of the Magi and the star and the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem that is the main popular image of Matthew's infancy narrative. This is the dominant spectacle in contrast to Luke's motifs of miraculous conception and birth framed dramatically by the Temple. In Mathew, Mary is silent all the way through and miraculous conception and birth happen pretty much offstage. Instead the Magi take centre stage accompanied by a strange star or some sort of heavenly spectacle, together with a ruthless and bloodthirsty king (and no Temple to be seen anywhere either).

So who are these Magi (or magoi as Matthew's text says using the Greek plural form)? The answer is simple, the Magi are the priestly caste of Persian Zoroastrianism. The word magi or magus (singular) is behind our word magic and the magi were renowned throughout the ancient world for their knowledge and wisdom including the secrets of the stars or what we might term astrology, which was the astronomy of the ancient world. Certainly the early church knew this, to the great embarrassment of some, and for many centuries the Magi were usually depicted in Persian dress, including the old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which reputedly saved the church from destruction when the Persians conquered Byzantine Palestine at the end of the 6th century CE).

It is the star however that has really gripped popular imagination. It is generally understood as a star that moves through the sky above guiding the Magi to Bethlehem. That popular image has prompted some to speculate that the star was some sort of comet (as in Giotto's painting of the Nativity). The only problem with the comet hypothesis is that they have traditionally been taken as portents of ill not good, so it's unlikely that a comet would be read as a sign of the good news of a royal birth. Others have suggested that the star was a supernova of which there is evidence from the time. But a supernova has to read as part of a detailed sky narrative to be applied in so specific a way that the narrative says the Magi did. On its own a supernova is a wonder in the sky but no more. Of course most scholars regard the whole story as a pious fiction and compare the story to similar portents said to accompany the births of Alexander or Augustus for example. Nevertheless , even if fictional it's important to remember that the art (or science) of augury was highly developed in the Greco-Roman world. In other words there were established conventions by which to read and interpret such. Even fictional portents would have to conform to established conventions.

So even if Matthew's account is a pious fiction written to enhance Jesus' Messianic status, like all fictions it must conform to a set of conventions to be able to work. It's pretty clear what sort of conventions might be applied to this story. It is a portent in the heavens that only the Magi can see and read (Herod does not seem to be able to see it). The Magi were renowned for their astrological abilities so consequently, it's argued, what we must look for is an astrological event. There have been a whole suite of astrological events suggested, often involving the planet Jupiter, the royal planet. Most recently, Michael Molnar has argued that the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in 6 BCE (in Aries) is the astrological basis for the Star of Bethlehem. But, as my friend Rollan McCleary has said, any astrological event must conform to the conventions of astrology, especially ancient astrology. According to Rollan, Molnar's event definitely doesn't and nor do most of the other suggested candidates for the astrological 'star'.

Rollan is himself an astrologer of many years practice and knows something of ancient astrological conventions. Rollan lays claim to have discovered the actual birth chart for Jesus (long a holy grail for astrology). I'm not going to go into that in this post; if you want to know more you can read what Rollan has to say here and follow the other links. Rollan bases his case on the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in the year 7 BCE. Now Rollan didn't make this up out of his own head. He's following the argument of British astronomer, David Hughes, who himself got the idea from Continental astronomer, Konradin D'Occhieppo. But he didn't come up with it first either. The idea has popped up from time to time over the last few centuries. In fact the first person to argue the significance of the 7BCE conjunction was the great astronomer, Johannes Kepler, back in 1603. But it turns out that even he didn't come to this idea off his own bat. Instead he found it in a Jewish text by Abravanel (1437 - 1508), a Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator of the Renaissance period. Abravanel cites a Jewish astrological tradition that the Messiah would be born when Saturn and Jupiter are conjunct in Pisces.

Not many people know but there's a rich tradition of Jewish astrology and that many of the great rabbinic sages of the past were astrologers. So I'm not surprised to find an astrological reference in a rabbinic text. In fact the biblical texts themselves are rich with astrological symbolism and allusions. But what could be the basis for this understanding of the Jupiter Saturn conjunction? I have to admit I got intrigued and cruised around the web to see what I could find.

First off, the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is quite important astrologically, even more so in ancient astrology. I'll quote here from astrologer Richard Nolle (annoyingly, Nolle's site is best read in Internet Explorer so if you're using a different browser it might not open properly):

Jupiter's alignment with Saturn occurs at intervals of just under 20 years. The aspect is occasionally repeated due to a retrograde of one or both planets. Each successive conjunction (not counting retrograde repeats) occurs at a mean advance of approximately 243 degrees relative to its predecessor; although from one alignment to the next this arc can vary considerably. Every third conjunction - once every 60 years - brings the alignment back to its starting place, plus around 9 degrees: this 60 year cycle is termed the first order recurrence of the conjunction. Every 40th conjunction - roughly once every 800 years - brings the alignment back to within about 1 degree of its starting place: this approximate 800 year cycle is termed the second order recurrence, astrologically known as the Great Mutation cycle.

Jupiter and Saturn were the outermost known planets in ancient times, and were called the "Great Chronocrators" by astrologers of old. For millennia, the alignment of these two planets has been regarded as a significator of great social, economic and political watersheds - historic turning points, if you will.

Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions occur in signs of the same element for a mean period of a bit less than 200 years at a stretch, typically with some overlap at the beginning and end of the cycle. For example, the current cycle of conjunctions in the earth signs (Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn) was initiated on January 26, 1842 and concludes on May 28, 2000. This cycle was interrupted by the December 31, 1980 - July 24, 1981 triple conjunction in Libra. The previous Great Chronocrator cycle in the fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius) began with the 1663 alignment and ended with the one in 1821; having been interrupted by the 1802 conjunction in Virgo...

The next cycle of Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will be in signs of the air element (Gemini, Libra and Aquarius). It begins with the December 21, 2020 alignment and concludes with the 2199 conjunction; broken up by the 2159 conjunction in Scorpio. Following that comes the series in water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), from 2219 to 2378 (interrupted by the 2338 alignment in the fire sign Sagittarius).

Jupiter is, of course, the royal planet named for the Roman king of the gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus. Saturn is the old god Chronos and as the outermost planet for the ancients is the planet of boundaries. Saturn was also associated with the Jewish YHWH and regarded as ruler of the Sabbath; Shabbat is Saturday, Saturn's day. As Nolle says, the Saturn Jupiter conjunctions run in cycles by the four elements the 12 signs are grouped into. The 7BCE conjunction was the last in a roughly 200 hundred year cycle in water signs (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces) which began around 225BCE. The first Pisces conjunction of the cycle occurred in 126 BCE.

That year is around the time the Hasmonean ruler of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, is born. The Hasmoneans had been ruling since the successful Maccabee led revolt (165BCE) against the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175-164BCE), who was responsible for the abomination of desolation in the Temple (i.e. dedicating it to Olympian Zeus) referred to in Daniel (9:27, 11:31, 12:11). The Hasmoneans ruled as High Priests in Jerusalem as a kind of ethnarchy over Judea. Under John Hyrcanus (ruled 134-104BCE), in the late 2nd century BCE, Hasmonean rule was extended to much of Palestine. Alexander Jannaeus was the second son of John Hyrcanus and became High Priest in 103BCE, following the death of his brother Aristobulus who ruled for only one year. Alexander ruled until his death in 76BCE. Like his father before him, Alexander campaigned to extend Hasmonean rule, conquering the Golan Heights in the north and areas of the coast including Gaza, as well as parts of Transjordan and south into the Negev.

Alexander Jannaeus is also the first Hasmonean ruler to proclaim himself king. Additionally he issued a coinage, that has become known as the Widow's Mites, that, as well carrying his royal title, also used the image of the 8 point star. It's the first known use of the star in such Jewish coinage. Some have suggested that the star is a reference to the Balaam 'prophecy' in Numbers (24:17-19). This verse was read as a messianic prophecy at the turn of the era and was an inspiration in the second Jewish War against Rome in 130s CE. The leader, Simon bar Kochba, was proclaimed Messiah and used the title Son of the Star, issuing coins carrying the image of a star. Many New Testament scholars argue that Matthew's account of the Star is a fiction that also refers to or even draws on Balaam motifs of the star.

By all accounts, Alexander was pretty nasty as rulers go, in many ways almost as nasty as Herod the Great several decades later. Most of his reign was spent in warfare, including civil war, including war with the declining Seleucid Empire to the north. He also appears to have had friendly relations with the rising Parthian kingdom in Persia. As Persia used to be part of the Seleucid Empire, no doubt Parthia and Alexander Jannaeus had mutual interests against an old enemy. So I can't help but wonder if this Jewish astrological tradition might even derive from the time of Alexander Jannaeus. I gather there are references to his reign in early rabbinic texts with even suggestions that Persian sages visited his court. Could the Balaam prophecy together with the Saturn Jupiter conjunction have been part of Alexander's propaganda push to support his royal claims?

If so, then 7BCE could well represent one of those ironic moments in history (and astrology). I'll quote again from Nolle:

The change of element in a Great Chronocrator series is known as the Trigonalis, from ancient times considered as the hallmark of epochal social and political change. (On average, this occurs only once every couple hundred years or so.) From this perspective, it would seem that we are now living in the twilight of an historical epoch stretching from the 1840s to 2020.

The conjunction on 7BCE was just such a Trigonalis. The next conjunction in 14CE is in Sagittarius beginning a fire sign series of conjunctions over the next two centuries. But there is yet more pertaining to the 7BCE Pisces conjunction. The Pisces conjunction around when Alexander Jannaeus was born only occurred once in April of that year. In contrast, the 7BCE conjunction occurred 3 times, in May, October and December of that year. Here's what Nolle has to say about the triple conjunction:

Triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn are rare enough to be regarded as indicators of major cultural change, much like the Trigonalis. It was just such a triple conjunction in Pisces – anciently regarded as the sign of the Jews - that led the Magi to search for "The King of the Jews" in 7 BCE. (Magi translates as 'astrologers'.) There have been only two triple conjunctions in the current earth sign series, that being the 1940-41 and 1980-81 trios – the latter being the 'interruptor' alignment in Libra that broke the all-earth sign series begun in 1842. There won't be another triple conjunction until the 2238-39 series in Cancer.

Nolle obviously accepts the Hughes-D'Occhieppo hypothesis and uses it here as the most recognisable indicator of the sort of epochal event associated with the triple conjunction. And, of course it doesn't matter whether the story of the Magi's journey is fact or fiction. What counts is the importance of the astrology.

But there is yet more not even touched upon by Nolle that makes the 7BCE conjunction important. I refer to the concept of the Great Year based on the precession of the equinoxes. the movement of the northern vernal (spring) equinox position of the sun 'backwards' (precession) through the signs of the zodiac. It's a process that takes some 25 to 26 thousand years to complete. It's where we get the notion of the Age of Aquarius. The Age of Aquarius is that 'month' of the Great Year in which the vernal equinox occurs in the sign of Aquarius. How one determines the boundaries of the zodiac signs determines when an Age/'month' begins and ends. So Aquarius is variously estimated to start from last century to the middle of this millennium. If we aren't yet in Aquarius we are, then, in the Age of Pisces which began roughly 2000 years ago. Before then was the Age of Aries which was drawing to its end when Alexander Jannaeus was alive.

Now the Great Year was known to the ancients. Indeed, the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, is credited with the discovering the precession of the equinoxes and the Great Year back in the mid 2nd century BCE. Now like the Age of Aquarius we don't quite know when the Age of Pisces really began but the important thing about the Age of Pisces is that it marks the beginning of a new Great Year - a whole new era, not just an age. Some sense of that epochal turnaround is conveyed in this passage from Virgil's 4th Eclogue

Now comes the last age of the Cumaean song;

the great order of the ages arises anew.

Now the Virgin returns, and Saturn's reign returns;

now a new generation is sent down from high heaven.

Only, chaste Lucina, favour the child at his birth,

by whom, first of all, the iron age will end

and a golden race arise in all the world;

now your Apollo reigns.

Virgil wrote this poem around 41BCE and it seems to be celebrating a (short lived) period of peace in Rome through the marriage of Antony to Octavian's sister, Octavia. This new Pax Romana heralds the new age, the golden age returned and under Roman rule (many centuries later Christians read this poem as a pagan prophecy of Jesus and the new Christian age). And I wonder just how much the impending new Great Year might have played a part in the later Imperial propaganda of the Pax Romana under Augustus/Octavian. Over in the east, at the same time, in Palestine and beyond, there seems to be some sort of mood of expectation which in Palestine, especially, gives rise to all sorts of rebellions and religious movements that culminate in three Jewish wars against Rome in the first and second centuries in both Palestine and Egypt.

So the 7BCE conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces is not just a triple conjunction and a Trigonalis but it can also be seen as the era conjunction heralding the coming end of the Age of Aries and the start of the Age of Pisces and the new Great Year, a whole new epoch. If there's any sort of heavenly event that would make astrologers sit up and take notice this is surely it. This is also the sort of event that can be used to fuel expectations and awaken hopes especially if a similar event over a century prior had been used to likewise build up expectations around a dynasty. And whatever was happening 126BCE was nothing astrologically compared to 7BCE. In fact 7BCE was the last time a triple conjunction occurred in Pisces and from what I can make out there isn't going to be one in this new millennium either.

As I said earlier, it doesn't really matter if the story of the Magi is based on a real event or is a fiction but it's clear that Matthew's account is using a heavenly portent as a sign of Jesus' Messiahship, of his overall cosmic significance. Now, of course, it could be anything except for the presence of the Magi. The Magi attest to an astrological event, a significant astrological event, the sort of astrological event that could be seen as fulfilling the Balaam prophecy. As far as I can see, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces is the only event that fits, and one possibly used previously in Jewish history as a signifier of a similar Messianic event, the birth of the first priest-king, Alexander Jannaeus. Was Jesus born in 7BCE? We don't know and can never know unless something concrete comes out of the earth in Palestine. My friend Rollan lays claim to having the horoscope of Jesus birth based on this triple conjunction but historians will not consider such material as valid historical data. Astrologers do and so Rollan's work should receive a lot more attention from the astrological guild.

Returning to Matthew and reading the story with the 7BCE triple conjunction in mind then it becomes not just a quaint and pious story of moving stars, wise men from the east and a tyrant king. Instead Matthew is claiming that Jesus' birth is the sign of the beginning of a whole new epoch when "the great order of the ages arises anew" to quote Virgil. And as witnesses to testify to this he calls the Magi from the east, the Magi renowned for their wisdom and knowledge and esoteric skill.

But there is a further implication arising from Matthew's summoning of the Magi to pay homage to the Christ child. As well as astrologers and sages, the Magi were also priests, pagan priests. But in Matthew's story they travel to Palestine, they met with Jewish sages, they bow before the infant Jesus, they converse with angels and then they return to their homeland, presumably to resume their religious duties. There's no trace of anxiety about pagan priests attending the birth of the Messiah, the child "from the Holy Spirit", Emmanuel 'God is with Us'. I said before that early Christians read Virgil's 4th Eclogue as a pagan prophecy of Christ. It seems that some early Christians accepted that there had been some sort of 'preparation for the Gospel' not only in Judaism but also in the pagan religious world as well. In other words, that as with Judaism, some sort of divine activity had been at work in the pagan religious worlds to make them ready for the Christ event too.

Is this why in time the Magi were turned into kings? There's a satisfaction in having kings come to bow down before the King of Kings whereas pagan priests are too troubling, particularly when Christianity is in a triumphalist mode vis a vis the old pagan order. But perhaps it's time, in these days of religious exclusivism and fundamentalism, to put the Magi, the pagan astrologer priests, back in the Nativity scenes in place of the kings of pious romance. And perhaps Virgil's 4th Eclogue should likewise be read at Christmas and Epiphany, together with the Christian Sybillines to recall the preparation for the gospel in the pagan world and to celebrate that Christianity draws on pagan as well as Jewish roots. It might also be time to again honour the astrology associated with the Nativity and restore images of fish and Pisces, even of the constellation Pisces, to our churches, as the early Christians did.

UPDATE There's a very interesting piece on the reception history of the Magi story over at the Biblical Archeology Review. It's by Robin Jensen, Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature. It's a very good and fascinating article. It would appear that from very early on, Christian writers had problems with the fact that the Magi were astrologer priests and so speculated that on seeing the Christ-child, they converted to Christianity and gave up their pagan ways. At least so Justin Martyr, Origen and others argued. It seems that they were first identified as kings (of Persia, India, and Arabia) in an Armenian infancy gospel c. 500 CE. I'm not certain about this but I think pre-Christian Armenia followed a form of Magian religion, thus possibly giving an added impetus to cloaking the true identity of the Wise Men.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Vale Mary Daly 1928 - 2010

The news has come that Mary Daly died on the 3rd. Love or hate her, Mary Daly would have to be one of the great feminist and lesbian thinkers, philosophers, theologians of the 20th century. She was radically essentialist and separatist which sadly gave rise to a very nasty transphobia. Consequently I've not read a lot of her work. Her Beyond God the Father, which I have read, is one the key and pioneering texts of feminist theology. If you haven't read it you should - you'll be richly rewarded by doing so.

There's a lot of stuff about her death on on the internet and the blogosphere. Here's a couple from The Adventures of a Notorious Ph. D. Girl Scholar and A Very Public Sociologist.

Vale Mary Daly. Recquiescat in Pacem. Eternal life be unto you and perpetual light shine upon you. May you always shine in the light of the Divine. May your name always be a blessing.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eusebius and the New Testament Canon

I'm always interested in matters canonical. I'm a bit of an advocate for a much expanded "ecumenical" Old Testament canon for Christian bibles that recognises the diversity and plurality of Christian Old Testaments past and present. I'm also interested in New Testament canonical diversity as well. Over at Biblicalia, Kevin Edgecombe has an interesting post relating to New Testament texts and ancient (and modern) debates re the canon as we know it today. Eusebius of Caesarea, the bishop, theologian, church historian and contemporary of Constantine (amongst Eusebius' works is a Life of Constantine) is a key figure for contemporary discussions. To quote Kevin:

Most readers of Eusebius’ History of the Church are familiar with his interesting chapter (Book III, Chapter 25) devoted to discussing the canonical status of the books of the New Testament. After a recent re-reading of Eusebius, I thought it would be good to share some interesting things that have come up in light of this reading, informed as I am now by a wealth of further reading on the subject of the Biblical canon since I last read Eusebius. In such a case of re-reading, formerly innocuous words and phrases often take on new meaning. This is precisely the case here in regards to Eusebius’ interesting discussion of the books of the New Testament.

First, it is necessary to emphasize that the word “canon” (κανὼν, κανόνος) and its derivative forms are not used by Eusebius to refer to the books of the Bible, but primarily to the Rule of Faith of the Church.

Kevin then gives a detailed list of the 16 occasions when Eusebius uses the word canon(os), all of which as he says relate to the Rule of Faith of the Church. He then continues:

Reflecting upon this usage, we must notice that elsewhere Eusebius interestingly chooses to refer to what we would call the canonical books of the New Testament by terminology which ultimately describes these books in terms of their Apostolic origins. His discussion of the various books of the New Testament (III 25) is particularly interesting, and has garnered much commentary. His description involves a threefold categorization in which a book is described as ὁμολογουμένος, ἀντιλεγομένος, or νόθος, that is, agreed-upon, disputed, and spurious. This terminology does not refer to agreement or disagreement in terms of belonging to the Bible, but rather in terms of agreement or disagreement of Apostolic origins for the book. The distinction is a crucial one. There is no hypothesis here of a “Bible” to which a book is going to be either included or excluded. Rather, there are various books, and those which the churches agree in recognizing as of Apostolic origin belong to the “agreed-upon” category, those in which books are recognized by some as authentically Apostolic yet not recognized as so by others belong to the “disputed” category. To the “spurious” category belong those books which are generally recognized as not originating with the Apostles. So we see the criterion of organization here is not based upon an idea of what we now think of a Biblical canon, but was rather motivated by concerns for authenticity and authority. The Apostles are the foundation of the Church, and their writings are therefore considerered the protocanon of all ecclesiastical writings. The concern for ascertaining the proper list of those authentic works in order to safeguard against heresy and other failure is one that is shown throughout Eusebius’ work.

Kevin's reading fits with the plurality of New Testament collections in early Christianity and indeed today especially with the Ethiopian Bible which seems to have an inner and outer canon for both its testaments. In other words, the New Testament collections were not based on the criteria of apostolic authorship. However a text of agreed apostolic authorship was guaranteed a place in any such collection and there was also a place for non-apostolic texts as well.

Nevertheless, Eusebius' testimony as to what was accepted, disputed or spurious should not be taken at face value. In a subsequent post, Kevin explores the contradictory position Eusebius takes on the Book of Revelation. It's worth checking out.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on Miraculous Motherhood and Christianity

In my previous post I quoted a couple of little known Christian texts relating to the conception/birth of Jesus. One, the Proto-Evangelion of James, should be better known and read, not least because it is the source of much of the back story that now frames the canonical accounts in Luke and Matthew. The other, Ode 19 from the Odes of Solomon, is from an ancient Christian hymn collection of extraordinary beauty and strangeness that should not only be better known but should, in my opinion, be incorporated into the liturgy, if not even the New Testament itself. The Proto-Evangelion is a harmony of the Matthean and Lucan accounts and incorporates other elements (the midwife) either derived from or shared with Ode 19. Matthew and Luke however are separate and independent accounts which don't appear to have influenced each other.

I overlooked another ancient account which, while it shares some elements with Matthew and Proto-Evangelion, is also quite odd. I refer to the Ascension of Isaiah, a Christian modified Jewish text, the Jewish parts of which could date to the 1st/2nd century BCE while the Christian parts of which could date to late 1st or 2nd century CE. The second and Christian part, also known as the Vision of Isaiah includes a birth narrative for Jesus recounted as part of Isaiah's vision. There is also a quite strange conception in chapter 10 account detailing the descent of Jesus' spirit through all the heavens to earth. The overall account can be read here but below is the birth narrative from chapter 11:

11. And after this I looked, and the angel who spoke to me and led me said to me, "Understand, Isaiah son of Amoz, because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord." 2And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. 3And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. 4But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. 5And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. 6And he did not live with her for two months. 7And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, 8it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. 9And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived. 10And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, "What has made you astounded?" his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot. 11And a voice came to them, "Do not tell this vision to anyone." 12But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem. 13Some said, "The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months." 14But many said, "She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain." And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was. 15And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee. 16And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and say to the other prophets also who are standing by, that it was hidden from all the heavens and all the princes and every god of this world. 17And I saw (that) in Nazareth he sucked the breast like an infant, as was customary, that he might not be recognized.

The Vision of Isaiah, with its ascents and descents through the various heavens, shows strong affinities with the Enochic literature, in which Enoch is taken on tours of the heavens, also multi-tiered. In this birth narrative, Jesus miraculously appears outisde his mother's body sparing her any travails of childbirth. Thus the birth narrative echoes a miraculous birth narrative found in one of these Enochic texts, the birth of Melchizedek in 2 (Slavonic) Enoch to which I will return.

Now it's often been argued that the miraculous/virgin conception of Jesus as recounted in both Matthew and Luke is a later Gentile intrusion on the original Jewish Christianity deriving from "pagan" misunderstandings of the term Son of God in the gospels and influenced by accounts in the Gentile world of kings (e.g. Alexander) and other figures reputed to be of divine human ancestry. Thus Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was visited by Zeus in the form of a serpent who had sex with her and begot the world conqueror. The idea of miraculous conceptions at the behest of a divine figure was alien to Judaism as it was a strictly monotheist religion.

However my readings of ancient and even rabbinic Jewish texts made me come to question such thinking. Firstly miraculous motherhood as such is not an unknown in biblical texts. The matriarchs of Genesis, as well as Samson's mother in Judges and Hannah in in 1 Samuel are mothers who conceive by divine intervention and often with annunciation scenes.

Nevertheless the implication in these accounts is that divine intervention enables conception during sexual intercourse with their husbands but with one exception, Sarah. I was struck by a range of inferences in a number of Jewish texts such as the ancient Jubilees and the medieval Zohar, that Sarah's conception of Isaac might have been a non-sexual or 'virgin' one. Some of thses ideas were also found in some ancient Christian texts in which Sarah is understood as a forerunner of Mary and which recount a variety of miraculous elements found in rabbinic texts. In many of these rabbinic texts the miraculous prodigies that accompany Isaac's birth are signs as a guarantee of Abraham's paternity; in other words these texts display an anxiety that Abraham is not the real birth father, begetter of Isaac.

So what was going on here? It was then that a friend of mine told me about the birth of Melchizedek in 2 Enoch. Concerning 2 Enoch, it is a text that has only been preserved by Christians. All the extant manuscripts are in Slavonic and hale from late medieval Russia, 14th 15th centuries (fragments of a Coptic version have been found in Upper Egypt dating from 9th/10th centuries). There is no complete text of 2 Enoch either. It exists in multiple recensions and that relate only parts of the whole. The other thing about 2 Enoch is that not only are these Slavonic versions translated from older Greek forms but it is also clearly not a Christian text. The text narrates an antidiluvian world as we find in Genesis and recounts the experiences of Enoch in the heavenly realm and looks fwd to the destruction of the world in the Flood. Because these narratives are quite critical of the Temple establishment many argue that they originate from the days when the Temple was still operating i.e. pre 70 CE.

Temple themes are prominent in the account of Melchizedek's conception birth. Melchizedek's parents are part of an ancient Temple establishment prior to the Flood. Mechizedek's. mother , Sopanim, is wife to Nir, brother of Noah and priest in this temple. Melchizedek himself is a heavenly being, the heavenly high priest in fact. Here is the account of his conception ( from 2 Enoch 71, short version):

Behold, the wife of Nir, whose name was Sopanim, being sterile and never having at any time given birth to a child by Nir -

Sopanim was in the time of her old age and in the day of her death. She conceived in her womb, but Nir the priest had not slept with her. From the day that that The Lord had appointed him to conduct the liturgy in front of the face of the people.

When Sopanim saw her pregnancy, she was ashamed and embarrassed, and she hid herself during all the days until she gave birth. Not one of the people knew about it.

Sopanim gets no annunciation. Her consent is not canvassed in contrast to Mary and there is no indication that she even desires a child, unlike Sarah. She is nothing but a vessel and she is forced to hide herself from her husband. But pregnancy is not something that can be hidden easily over time, even with a husband like Nir

When 282 days had been completed, and the day of birth had begun to approach, Nir remembered his wife, he called her to himself in his house, so that he might converse with her.

Sopanim came to Nir, her husband; and, behold, she was pregnant, and the day appointed for giving birth was drawing near. Nir saw her and became very ashamed. He said to her, "What is this that you have done, O wife? Why have you disgraced me in front of the face of these people? Now, depart from me and go where you began the disgrace of your womb, so that I might not defile my hand on account of you, and sin in front of The Face of The Lord."

Sopanim spoke to her husband, Nir, saying, "O my lord! Behold, it is the time of my old age, the day of my death has arrived. I do not understand how my menopause and the barrenness of my womb have been reversed." . Nir did not believe his wife, and for the second time he said to her, "Depart from me, or else I might assault you, and commit a sin in front of the face of The Lord."

And it came to pass, when Nir had spoken to his wife, Sopanim, that Sopanim fell down at Nir's feet and died. Nir was extremely distressed and said in his heart, "Could this have happened because of my word? And now, merciful is The Eternal Lord, because my hand was not upon her."

It is only now that there is an angelic annunciation

The archangel Gabriel appeared to Nir, and said to him, "Do not think that your wife Sopanim has died because of your error, but this child, which is to be born of her is a righteous fruit, and one whom I shall receive into paradise, so that you will not be the father of a gift of God."

Nir however takes himself to his brother Noah for help because his main concern is scandal

Noah said to Nir, "Don't let yourself be sorrowful, Nir, my brother! For The Lord today has covered up our scandal, in that nobody from the people knows this. Now let us go quickly and bury her, and The Lord will cover up the scandal of our shame." They placed Sopanim on the bed, wrapped her around with black garments, and shut the door. They dug a grave in secret.

However while they are doing that:

... a child came out from the dead Sopanim and sat on the bed at her side. Noah and Nir came in to bury Sopanim and they saw the child sitting beside the dead Sopanim, wiping his clothing. Noah and Nir were very terrified with a great fear, because the child was fully developed physically, he spoke with his lips and blessed The Lord.

Noah and Nir looked at him closely, saying, "This is from The Lord, my brother." And behold the badge of priesthood was on his chest, and it was glorious in appearance. Noah said to Nir, "Behold, God is renewing the priesthood from blood related to us, just as He pleases.."

Noah and Nir hurried and washed the child, they dressed him in the garments of the priesthood, and they gave him bread to eat and he ate it. And they called him Melchizedek .

Noah and Nir lifted up the body of Sopanim, divested her of the black garments, and washed her. They clothed her in exceptionally bright garments and built a grave for her. Noah, Nir, and Melchizedek came and they buried her publicly. Noah said to his brother Nir, "Look after this child in secret until the time, because people will become treacherous in all the earth, they will begin to turn away from God, and having become totally ignorant, and in some way when they see him, they will put him to death."

Then Noah went away to his own place, and behold, great lawlessness began to become abundant over all the earth in the days of Nir. And Nir began to worry excessively about the child saying, "What will I do with him?" And stretching out his hands toward heaven, Nir called out to The Lord, saying, "How miserable it is for me, Eternal Lord, that all lawlessness has begun to become abundant over all the earth in my days! And I realize how much nearer our end is, on account of the lawlessness of the people. And now, Lord, what is the vision about this child, and what is his destiny, or what will I do for him, so that he too will not be joined with us in this destruction?"

The Lord heeded Nir and appeared to him in a night vision. And He said to him, "Behold already, Nir, the great lawlessness which has come about on the earth, which I shall not tolerate anymore. Behold, I plan not to send down a great destruction onto the earth. But, concerning the child, do not worry, Nir; because I, in a short while, will send My archangel Gabriel. And he will take the child and put him in the paradise of Edem.

He will not perish along with those who must perish. As I have revealed it, Melchizedek will be My priest to all holy priests, I will sanctify him and I will establish him so that he will be the head of the priests of the future."

Nir arose from his sleep and blessed The Lord, Who had appeared to him saying:

Blessed be The Lord, The God of my fathers,
Who has not condemned my priesthood
and the priesthood of my fathers,
because by His Word, He has created a great priest
in the womb of Sopanim, my wife.
For I have no descendants.
So let this child take the place of my descendants and become as my
own son, and You will count him in the number of your servants."

"Therefore honor him together with your servants and great priests and me your servant, Nir. And behold, Melchizedek will be the head of priests in another generation. I know that great confusion has come and in confusion this generation will come to an end, and everyone will perish, except that Noah, my brother, will be preserved for procreation. From his tribe, there will arise numerous people, and Melchizedek will become the head of priests reigning over a royal people who serve You, O Lord."

This is a pretty strange and disturbing story. The Melchizedek child is really quite monstrous and inhuman, as probably befits a heavenly (derived) being. Nir is a vainglorious klutz and Noah is not much better. The only person I can feel any connection with is the hapless Sopanim who is someone monstered in/by the narrative. The longer version which is not available online adds greater dialogue which only enhances the tragedy and horror of Sopanim's situation as well as the utter self centredness and crassness of Nir. Melchizedek in the longer version is no different - he makes no connection with any of the human protagonists. The story continues with Melchizedek being taken up into the heavens to be placed in Edem/Eden until a time after the Flood and concludes with Noah being instructed by the Lord to build the ark.

I wont go into the gender and sexuality issues of this story (I have written an Irigarayan analysis of these dynamics which is on its long journey to publication). Well I will but only in so far as they relate to the Temple themes that predominate throughout. And it's the Temple that's front and centre here. Indeed in some ways the story seems to echo Matthew's birth narrative but in very bizarre and monstrous ways while at the same time providing the Temple context that Matthew's narrative lacks (Luke's narrative focuses primarily on Mary and other women and at the same time puts the Temple in the foreground throughout).

It's important to remember that the ancient Temple/s represented the Garden of Eden. Indeed Eden was the mystico-mythical dimension of the Temple. Temple represents the cosmos and Eden is the cosmos the way it was meant to be, the idealised cosmos, the cosmos in which 'God is with us', Immanuel. The architecture of the Temple represents the 6 days of creation in Genesis 1 (and Genesis 1 is a poetic configuration of the cosmos as Temple). Eden/Genesis 2 represents the space/time complex before death came into life, which is also the sacred space within the Temple, the space where heaven and earth meet and where on the Day of Atonement, the Lord is physically present in the person of the High Priest who comes out of the Holy of Holies to heal the cosmos from sin with the divine life force (as represented by the blood of a sacrificed goat - blood is life). In that the Lord takes physical form in the Holy of Holies, the Holy of Holies is actually a kind of womb space. And indeed in Chronicles, especially, the Temple is configured in its dimensions as a kind of androgenously phallic womb.

As Eden, the Temple is regarded as standing on the site where the first human, the Adam or Earthling was shaped from the ground. A curious feature of this second creation story is that before YHWH Elohim forms the earth creature out of the earth the text says in Genesis 2:6 that "a mist (in some translations a spring or stream) came up from the earth and watered the face of the ground" - this was before the time YHWH Elohim caused rains to fall upon the earth. Rain falls from the sky which is the heavenly realm and the heavens in both ancient pagan and Jewish cosmologies are the masculine realms of the divine, the immortal. The earth on the other hand was the feminine realm of the human and mortal. But what we have here in Gen 2:6 is the earth fecundating itself so that the ground becomes alive in readiness for YHWH Elohim's shaping of the Earthling, the first human, and then all other living things. In other words, it's possible to read the creation of the Adam as a type of Virgin Birth from the potently alive earth.

The motif of Virgin Birth (or more properly conception) appears again in the Adam and Eve narrative this time relating to the birth of Cain, Eve's first born. The name, Cain, is a pun on the words Eve speaks in Genesis 4:1 when she gives birth to him "I have acquired (produced, created) a man from the Lord" Cain is a pun on the Hebrew for 'I have acquired'. Now the interesting thing about this verse, is that even though the earlier text says that Adam had sex with Eve, Eve's words deny any role to Adam at all. This phrase generated two readings in rabbinic texts. The most common one was that Adam was not the father of Cain. Instead the serpent had lain with Eve and begotten her first-born son. Another far more subversive and minority reading was that Cain was miraculously conceived by YHWH in Eve's womb. (Another even more dangerous reading in some Jewish esoteric circles is that Cain was YHWH incarnate through Eve).

So the Eden narrative contains within it two instances of miraculous conceptions, one definite and the other implied. Both instances are connected with new beginnings. In the first the earth can be seen as readying itself to collaborate with the Lord in the process of creating living creatures, human and other. The second involves the first-born human (neither Adam or Eve could be said to be born in any literal sense). The Eden that is the Temple is likewise associated with a miraculous Incarnation of the Lord in the person of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the wombspace of the Holy of Holies. The Day of Atonement is part of the larger New Year (Rosh Hashanah) high holy days. As part of the annual new beginning the Lord incarnates in the Temple to atone or heal/repair the cosmos of all the ill that had accrued in the previous year.

So, with this Edenic/Temple, perspective in mind lets return to the three miraculous mothers, Sopanim, Sarah and Mary. Starting with Sopanim, hers is clearly a miraculous conception of a heavenly being, Melchizedek who will be the progenitor of a new priestly lineage in the new world that will emerge after the Flood. Sopanim is wife to a priest, Nir, the last priest of the primordial Temple and so through her is guaranteed a continuity between the old Temple and the new. Even though Nir is not the biological father of Melchizedek, he is, as husband in the patriarchal order, the owner of Nir's womb and the products thereof. He may well have been cuckolded by Heaven but as priest, he stands as guardian of the sacred anyway and Melchizedek's occupation of Sopanim's womb can be interpreted as a claim on Nir's lineage as owner of that womb. The story is itself tragi-comic depending on which perspective you adopt, Sopanim or Nir. And it must not be forgotten that this is an end of the world story. The world is careering down to destruction in the Flood. This unravelling can be seen as affecting even the heavenly realm. And in the Enochic literature the final act in this apocalyptic drama is ushered in when the Sons of God, the Watchers, decide to come to earth and mate with human women, giving rise to the Giants who proceed to oppress and destroy the earth. Sopanim's fate, her death at the hands of a heavenly intervention, her lack of choice in everything that happens can be read as anticipating what will befall the earth itself. The earth is oppressed, suffering the monstrous chaos unleashed by the Sons of God and through which all life is corrupted. In the end the bounds of the earth are dissolved to wipe away the corruption and chaos in the Flood. Sopanim's story is both beginning and ending.

Turning to Sarah, what we have here is a new beginning analogous to the new beginning of Genesis 2. Sarah is the mother of Isaac her only son. Abraham is the father of many sons and thus, mythologically, the father of many nations. Sarah, however, has only one son, Isaac, and thus through him, mythologically, she is the foremother of two nations, Israel and Edom. The Israelites might call themselves children of Abraham but they are more truly and intimately the children of Sarah. Isaac, through Sarah, represents a new beginning. Unlike Sopanim, Isaac is a child long desired by Sarah and, unlike Sopanim, Sarah experiences an Annunciation of her forthcoming pregnancy (in Genesis 18). In this Annunciation she and the Lord speak directly to each other dissolving any patriarchal bounds from her marriage to Abraham. Furthermore, the Temple and more particularly the Day of Atonement come into view through the Binding of Isaac when Abraham takes Isaac to Mt Moriah to offer him in sacrifice to the Lord. Subsequent Jewish tradition associates Mt Moriah with the Temple Mount and furthermore the sacrifice of Isaac as also associated with the day of Atonement, anticipating the annual Atonement rituals in the Temple and thus Isaac is a type of both the High Priest and the Lord who annually make atonement through the metaphorical and symbolic giving of their life (blood). (And thus the Binding of Isaac mythically acknowledges the origins of Atonement rituals - Jewish and pagan both - in the scapegoating rites of human sacrifice). I should also add that Melchizedek's first appearance in the biblical texts is in the Genesis narrative of Sarah and Abraham as king (-priest?) in (Jeru-?)Salem.

Finally Mary. In Christian perspective, Mary marks the ultimate new beginning. Her son, like Isaac, is a child of promise, and, like Melchizedek, is a heavenly being, Son of the Most High. And indeed Psalm 110 with its Melchizedek oracle - The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (110:4) - is a key text deployed in the New Testament to understand Jesus. Jesus is also the new Adam (and Mary becomes the new Eve) thus evoking and confirming Edenic associations with Jesus. Unlike Sopanim but like Sarah Mary receives an Annunciation (Luke 1: 26 - 38). Unlike Sopanim too, Mary's consent is crucial. Her 'fiat' 'let it be done' has long been celebrated in Catholic traditions east and west as an act of free choice on Mary's part, a choice by Mary alone on which hinged the divine program for salvation. Mary's freely chosen collaboration echoes the earth in Genesis 2:6 which fecundates itself so as to collaborate freely with YHWH Elohim's great project of creating living creatures starting with the Adam. (Protestant traditions played down Mary's autonomy and free choice; in the case of Calvin, as Mary Daly would say, making Mary the ultimate rape victim). According to Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). Is this dynamic analogous to what was understood to occur in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement? Certainly the Lucan Infancy story puts the Temple front and centre which the Proto-Evangelion of James repeats and further develops making Mary herself a child of the Temple, a promised child too (with the inference, too, that hers is also a miraculous non-sexual conception). The later cult of Mary applies a myriad of titles to her evoking all manner of aspects of the old Temple. (And just as the Israelites are truly children of Sarah so Mary is celebrated as the mother of the Church, the mother of all Christians). The Christian proclamation too is that Jesus' death and resurrection constitute the final great act of Atonement, linking Jesus to Isaac who represents the originary primordial rite of Atonement. Early Christians saw the Binding of Isaac as foreshadowing the Crucifixion and understood both Isaac and Sarah as protoytypes of Jesus and Mary. Jesus, Isaac and Melchiszedek stand in an Edenic Temple gestalt, as do their mothers Mary, Sarah, and Sopanim together with Eve and the primordial earth itself.

And so I would say that miraculous/virginal conception/motherhood as applied to Mary and Jesus is not a pagan import into early Christianity based on a misunderstanding of the term of Son of God, but instead comes out of the heart of ancient Temple Judaism. It affirms a new beginning - I would suggest, drawing on the Day of Atonement liturgy, it affirms the restoration of Eden, a central theme of the new movement of Christians back in the first centuries. Eden is a time before patriarchy and I think virginal motherhood is based upon, recognises, perhaps even celebrates, the primal maternal power that patriarchy has sought to harness, contain and restrain. This maternal power is equated with the power of the earth itself.