Saturday, September 18, 2010

The "Lost" Christianity of Asia

It's been a bit of a busy time for me lately so I've not had a lot of opportunity to write here. I've also been taking whatever time I get to catch up on some reading. One book I found really fascinating was Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East and Africa - and How It Died. Despite its title, the book focuses mainly on Middle Eastern Syriac Christianity and its spread through Asia into China, Mongolia, India and even Tibet. A thousand years ago, Christianity was a thoroughly 'global' religion stretching across three continents from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with Christian states flourishing up the Nile valley in the heart of modern Sudan and also up into Ethiopia. A thousand years ago Russia and much of northern Europe were only just embracing Christianity and yet Silk Road cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Kashgar, even Herat in Afghanistan had centuries old flourishing Christian communities, complete with monasteries, schools and colleges, where theology, philosophy and also biblical studies had been taught for generations. As Jenkins points out, nowadays Christianity is regarded as a European religion, but that Euro-centrism is a fairly recent development, only being achieved by the eve of the Renaissance. Even 800 years ago the notion that Europe, let alone Western Europe, was a key centre of Christianity would have been risible to Christians in the East and the South. Most Asian and African Christians regarded European Christianity in both its Latin and Byzantine forms as thoroughly heretical, and the Latins of the West as barely above barbarism.

Sadly, most of this history is unknown. For those with an interest in (Christian) history, like myself, there would be occasional glimpses of this past but trying to get more details was often frustrating. And so I'll provide a quick summary before giving further reflections. The old Asian Christianity was derived from Syriac Christianity of the Middle East. Syriac is a form of Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Middle East until the coming of Islam and Arabic in the 7th century CE (the Arabic alphabet is derived from Syriac script). The Syriac heartland embraced Iraq, south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine/Jordan. In the first centuries it was divided between the two great empires of Rome and Persia (Parthian and then Sassanian). The border between these two empires regularly shifted backwards and forwards across what's now western Syria and northern Iraq but the Syriac culture flourished on both sides. Christianity spread from its Middle Eastern heartland into both the Roman and Persian empires and then beyond. While in Rome, Christianity became Greek, Egyptian and Latin as well as Syriac, in Persia it remained largely Syriac, retaining Syriac as its liturgical language and using the Peshitta Syriac translations of scripture as their Bible.

As it was persecuted and an illicit religion in the Roman state, Christianity was initially well received in Persia, perhaps on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But at the same time Persia itself was a religiously plural society. There were many old established Jewish communities, especially in what's now Iraq, together with Mandaeans and Gnostic sects. Buddhism was still an important presence, especially in the east in Afghanistan. The Persian religion, Zoroastrianism would itself be shaped into a state church by the Sassanian state but it also had its dissident sects such as the Mazdakites. And from the 3rd century Manicheism also joined the religious mix and was a serious rival to Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries. Indeed one could say that the Persian state was much more pluralist religiously than Rome whose paganisms functioned mostly as local cults with only the Imperial cult of Rome and Emperor providing any broadly based religious superstructure. Following Constantine, and the growing Christianisation of the Roman state through the 4th century, Persian attitudes to Christianity changed and so while persecution ended in the Roman state (and most of those persecutions took place in the East in the Syriac and Greek and Egyptian territories forcing many Christians to flee east into Persia) the Persian state regarded Christianity with suspicion and hostility and carried out waves of severe persecutions of Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries.

In the 5th century, Christianity in the Roman East was torn apart by a series of Christological controversies about how the divinity and the humanity of Christ functioned together in the person of Jesus. The first such controversy centred around the person of Nestorius, a Christian theologian from Syria who became Archbishop of Constantinople in 428 CE. He tried to resolve a Christological dispute in Constantinople but only succeeded in alienating both against him. Worse he incurred the enmity of the Egyptian Church leadership and at the Council of Ephesus in 431 his views were condemned as heretical and Nestorius, deposed, retired to a monastery. Many of his supporters in Syria and elsewhere, however, moved east into Persia, including the scholars of the Christian university at Edessa (modern Urfa, in Turkey) which was closed by the Roman state because of its associations with heresy. This influx of 'Nestorians' and the associated disputations spurred Christians in Persia to declare their Church separate from the Church in the Roman Empire (thus making themselves less suspect in the eyes of the Persian state too). Thus was born the Church of the East.

The Church of the East initially comprised the Church of the Persian state, which ruled Afghanistan and southern Central Asia as well as modern Iraq, along with Christian communities in Arabia, in Bahrain, Oman and Yemen, and across into India where Christianity had been established, largely in the south, since the first century. A Catholicos or universal Patriarch was established in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital, and would remain there until the Islamic period when it relocated to Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate. By 800, the Catholicos of the Church of the East presided over 19 metropolitanates/archdioceses and 85 bishops from Persia into India, Central Asia, Tibet, Xinjiang and China. These metropolitanates included Beijing and Xian in China, Patna in India, Tangut in Tibet, Khotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv in Central Asia and Herat in (modern) Afghanistan. As Jenkins observes, medieval England in later centuries only had two metropolitanates, Canterbury and York. Samarkand and Bukhara and Kashgar were thriving centres of Christianity before there was even a church establishment at Canterbury.

Meanwhile back in Rome, the deposition of Nestorius did not mark the end of Christological disputes. These continued in even greater ferocity culminating in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which condemned Monophysite Christology. Ironically it was the Egyptian Church that now fell foul and along with it the Armenian and Ethiopian and Nubian churches too. By this time Monophysite theology had taken root in Syria as well generating a further schism by which the Syrian Orthodox or Jacobite Church (not to be confused with the Byzantine rite, and Chalcedonian, Antiochian Orthodox Church also based in Syria) joined with its Oriental Orthodox sister churches in Egypt, Armenia etc as separate from the Roman-Byzantine Great Church of the rest of the Roman Empire and the West. For the next two centuries the Eastern Roman Empire was torn apart by the Monophysite controversy such that when the Arab armies of Islam came riding into Syria and Egypt they were welcomed by the local Christians as liberators from Byzantine oppression.

Byzantine persecution meant that many Monophysite Syrian Orthodox would also flee east into Persia and settle in what is now Iraq. Consequently, there were now two Syriac churches in Persia, the greater and long established Church of the East and the lesser Syrian Orthodox Church. I say greater and lesser because the Church of the East spread throughout Persia and Asia whereas the Syrian Orthodox Church remained mostly in the Middle East and only many centuries later would develop a connection with Indian Christians in the 17th/18th centuries.

It's instructive to reflect in these days of "clash of civilisation" rhetoric that, while the Arab/Muslim invasions were a calamity for Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and an utter disaster for the Persian Empire, the local Christians (and Jews and Samaritans) of Egypt and Syria for the most part welcomed Muslim rule as the lifting of an oppressive and heretical yoke. The Church of the East, never having been an official state sponsored religion, were none too concerned by the new Islamic rule, either. In many respects it meant an improvement in conditions because Muslims and Christians had much more in common than Christians and Zoroastrians. As I said earlier the Persian state was much more of a religiously plural society than the old Roman state had been and Islam initially was yet another addition to the religious mix. There were no forced conversions of Christians and for many centuries Christianity continued to flourish in Syria and Egypt while the Church of the East continued its missionary work in central Asia and China and India.

What was also key for those early Christian Muslim relations too was Christian scholarship and education. I've already mentioned the Christian university at Edessa. When it was closed by the Roman state it relocated itself to Nisibis in Persia (now Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey). As well as teaching theology and philosophy it also taught medicine, and I was surprised to discover from Jenkins that Christians were prized in both the Persian and later Islamic Empires for their medical skills. It's become a truism that it was the Arab/Islamic state that preserved much of the knowledge of the classical world and transmitted it to the medieval West. What I hadn't known was that it was Syriac Christians who translated the Greek texts into Arabic (and Syriac too) - even the Iliad was translated into Arabic by a Syriac Christian, Thawafil Ibn Tuma. Indeed the period up until the 12th centuries saw a flowering of Christian scholarship not only in the Islamic world but in the other Christian states of the region, Armenia, Georgia, Nubia and Ethiopia as well as in the Christian centres along the Silk Road. One of these, Merv (Mary in modern Turkmenistan), was for a period in the 12th century the largest city in the world. The Church of the East had been established here for many centuries in a multi-faith community of Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and at different times, Buddhists and Manichees. It was one of the great centres of Christianity in the world. From 500 CE, the Christian school at Merv had been translating Greek and Syriac texts into a variety of central and eastern Asian languages (Sogdian, Bactrian, Turkic, Uighur etc). During my PhD, I met one of the scions of that school, Isho'dad of Merv who lived in the 9th century and became bishop of Haditha in Iraq in 850 CE. Isho'dad was a scripture scholar and wrote commentaries on both the Old and New Testaments. I worked with his Old Testament commentary, which was the only Syriac commentary on Judges I could find. I should point out that I had resolved to include as many Syriac authors I could find and not restrict myself to the Greek and Latin Fathers only. There wasn't that much available. I worked with Ephrem Syrus, the great 4th century Syriac theologian, mystic, monk and poet who is counted as a Father of the Church by all the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox plus Roman Catholic and other Western Catholic and Protestant churches. As well as Ephrem, I drew on texts by Isho bar Nun, Aphrahat and some commentary compendiums of Syriac sources, mostly on Genesis. Isho'dad was crucial for my thesis but the version I had was a Syriac text with a French parallel translation. I don't think any of his work is available in English. I can't read Syriac (although I'd like to) but I could work with the French translation and we had a Syriac specialist in the department so if I wanted to doublecheck what was the Syriac that the French was translating (to verify the validity of the translation) I could consult with him. What particularly fascinated me about the Syriac texts was their familiarity with Jewish traditions and readings of the biblical stories. And it, must not be forgotten that the ancient Iraq that was the centre of the Syriac Christianity was also at the same time the world centre for Judaism, with thriving centres of rabbinic learning and, of course the place where the Babylonian Talmud was redacted at roughly the same time the Church of the East had become established as an independent entity. The evidence of the Syriac texts showed that Christians and Jews engaged with each other and that Christians were not averse to adopting Jewish readings of their shared scriptures (I would later find that some Muslim Qur'anic scholars likewise were familiar with both Jewish and Christian exegesis and would draw on it when commenting on the Qur'an). And of course the Silk Road cities like Merv, Samarkand and Bukhara were home to thriving Jewish communities too. Isho'dad would have been familiar with Jews long before he moved to Mesopotamia. If you want to find out more about Syriac scholarship there's an overview of Christian Syriac literature and scholarship here.

What was equally fascinating about Jenkins' book was his account of ancient Chinese Christianity. We don't know when Christianity made it to China (or Judaism either which like Christianity, Buddhism, Manicheeism and Islam came along the Silk Road). What I didn't know was that it was Christian monks who smuggled silkworms out of China in 550 CE, bringing them to Constantinople (which presumably indicates they were Orthodox monks not monks of the Church of the East). But the real flourishing of Chinese Christianity in the first millennium came during the Tang dynasty. According to Jenkins a formal mission was established in the Chinese capital in 635 CE. They were welcomed by the Emperor who was very open to new faiths. He also allowed the entry of Buddhism into China. Christianity was known as Jiangjiao, the luminous teaching, and it spread establishing monasteries throughout China. At the end of the 8th century the Church was led by a Bishop Adam and Jenkins tells an amazing story of interfaith co-operation by this bishop. A Buddhist missionary, Prajna, arrived in China with a collection of Sanskrit texts but he was unable to translate them into Chinese. Adam and his monks had already translated some of the East Syriac Bible into Chinese and so Adam and his monks assisted these Buddhist monks to translate these sutras into Chinese. Interestingly these texts were taken to Japan and became the founding texts of two major Buddhist schools, Shingon and Tendai, from which derived all the great Japanese Buddhist movements including Zen and Pure Land. Also interesting is that the Church of the East in parts of China and India used as its symbol the cross joined with the lotus.

Christianity, along with Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, was expelled from China in the mid-9th century. The monasteries were closed and monks either sent out out of the country or forced back to lay life. The Church of the East came back to China in the Mongol period two centuries later and flourished for another 3 centuries. In 1275, two Christian monks from China set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They went along the Silk Road and stayed at Christian monasteries along the way, when they arrived in Mesopotamia they decided to travel around what for them was the "heart of the Christian world". So they visited churches in Baghdad before travelling on to Mosul and Arbela and Nisibis and Mardin (in modern Turkey). All the way they visited shrines and monasteries and religious houses, meeting with monks and priests and bishops. The Patriarch-Catholicos died and one of the two monks, Markos (who was probably a Uighur), was elected to the office and took the name Yaballaha (III) (1281-1317). The Church then comprised 30 provinces and 250 bishoprics across Asia. The other monk, Bar Sauma, who was probably an Onngud Turk from near Beijing, was sent to Europe on a diplomatic mission by the Mongol IlKhan. Now a bishop, Bar Sauma travelled to Rome and western Europe, causing quite a sensation. Nevertheless he was well received and even gave communion to the king of England. He also received communion from Pope Nicholas IV on Palm Sunday 1288 and was able to celebrate the Eucharist with Syriac rites in Rome too. You can read an account of his travels translated from Syriac here.

As Jenkins observes, however, Bar Sauma's journey took place on the eve of the collapse of the Church of the East. I think one of the strengths of the Church of the East (and the Coptic Church in Egypt plus the Syrian Orthodox in Syro-Mesopotamia) was that they had never been official state religions. The Coptic and Syrian Churches had in fact suffered regular bouts of persecution from the Roman-Byzantine state, such that in Egypt especially Christianity had become the life and soul of the people. The Church of the East had had its own share of persecution but more importantly had always functioned in a religiously plural world. However reading between the lines, it's clear that a key conversion strategy for any religion worth its salt was to secure the allegiance of a royal court. Jews did it with the Khazars, Manichees did it with the Uighurs, Christians did it, most famously with Rome, but also with Armenia, Nubia, Georgia, Ethiopia and much earlier, with Osrohene in Mesopotamia, Buddhists did in India and Afghanistan and Central Asia, and Muslims, too, did it Central Asia and amongst the Turkish and Mongol invaders of the Middle East. The Church of the East tried too, especially with the Mongols both in Central Asia and China but without success. Not long after Bar Sauma's journey to Europe, however, the Central Asian Mongol IlKhans embraced Islam and the Church of the East not only fell out of favor but had to face a new hostility that it had not experienced for a very long time.

As I said earlier, the Arab invasions of the Middle East and Persia, were not seen by most Christians or Jews there as a calamity but a welcome event. The Zoroastrian 'Church' in Persia being a state institution, understandably did not share those sentiments but even so the Arab Muslims did not initially force mass conversions but accorded Zoroastrianism the status of peoples of the book, dhimmis, along with Christians and Jews and others. Indeed many Arabs, didn't want to convert the subject populations at all because they wanted to retain a privileged status that might be imperiled if Islam became something for everybody. So, ironically, for Syriac and Egyptian Christianity (and even the Byzantine Orthodoxy of Palestine) the first centuries of Arab Muslim rule saw a flourishing of the local Christian cultures.

Nevertheless, it didn't take long for Islam to embrace a universalist role to be a religion for all rather than an exclusively Arab faith. And obviously many people converted; many out of genuine conviction, others because it represented a career move or lift in status, or at least, the obverse, to be free of the various legal and financial restrictions that went with having dhimmi status. Periodically too zealous Muslim rulers tried to forcibly convert the dhimmi populations. Furthermore the Islamic Empire had a number of Christian states as neighbours, in particular the Roman-Byzantine Empire whose heartland was still modern day Turkey and its capital, Constantinople. So international politics could also impact on religious matters. Still the Egyptian and Syriac Christians regarded the Byzantine Church as heretical and the Roman state as a former persecutor and so didn't look to Constantinople as an ally at all.

In fact it was the decline of both the Arab and Roman states that set the framework for the eclipse of Asian and African Christianity. In both cases the centre lost the ability to enforce more than a nominal authority across the realm. The struggle to retain central authority was exacerbated by the intervention of outside forces i.e. invasion. Probably the most famous of these are the Crusades but the most serious were those from Central Asia, the Turks and then the Mongols and finally Timur or Tamerlane who in the 14th century combined anti-Christian jihad with an overarching policy of brutal conquest and slaughter of Muslims and dhimmis alike.

The first Crusade was supposed to have provided assistance to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople in resisting the Muslim Seljuq Turks who were invading the Anatolian heartland of the Empire. Instead, and unfortunately, they went on to conquer the Levantine coast and finally Jerusalem. Even though the Latin Christians were regarded as heretical barbarians by Middle Eastern Christians, the fact of not one but three invasions or Crusades by Christians from the West, made Christianity a thoroughly suspect religion in the Islamic world (analogously, think of German or Italian or Japanese communities in Australia or the US during WW2 or communists and other leftists during the Cold War in the same countries). The Crusaders finally attacked and sacked Constantinople itself in 1204 and attempted to establish a Latin Empire for themselves. So far from assisting the Roman state to retake its territories in Anatolia, the Crusades helped to further undermine Constantinople and enable the consolidation of Turkish rule in Anatolia, which was accompanied by massacres and Islamisation. The Byzantine Christian city of Ephesus, at which was held the Council back in 431 that condemned Nestorius impelling the independence of the Church of the East, was "obliterated" (Jenkins) by the Turks in 1304, bringing to an end over a thousand years of Christianity there and possibly 2000 years of Greek culture.

Even worse though were the Mongol invasions of the Middle East in the 13th century. Baghdad itself was destroyed by the Mongols under Hulagu. The Mongol state was a pagan and multi-faith entity, including Christians and Muslims. Ironically some Mongol generals were Christians belonging to the Church of the East. So at first Mongol suzerainty worked out well for the Church of the East as evidenced by Bar Sauma's diplomatic mission to the West. However in 1290 the Mongol Khans converted to Islam, which resulted in attacks on Christians in Mesopotamia and elsewhere. Christians were a safe target for Muslims seeking vengeance for the sufferings they had endured under the Mongols. Patriarch Yaballaha III died at the hands of a mob.

The death blow came at the hands of Timur or Tamerlane in the 14th century. His conquests throughout Central Asia, Persia, Mesopotamia and Anatolia targeted Christians (in part to make up for his massacres of Muslim populations that resisted him too). Under the Timur, the Silk Road finally was closed and the long-flourishing centres of Christianity perished. Of the rich multi-faith world that was Central Asia only the Jews would remain as a non-Muslim minority. At the same time the Mongol dynasty in China came to an end, replaced by the Ming dynasty. Christianity went into eclipse and with the loss of contact with the Middle Eastern centre eventually disappeared. So, too, did the Manichees who appear to have morphed into a variety of Buddhist sects. As in Central Asia, only the Jews survived, the last functioning community in Kaifeng continuing into the 19th century. Tamerlane's armies rode through modern day Iraq and Jenkins gives harrowing details of how Christians were hunted down and massacred. At the same time in Egypt the local Muslim authorities unleashed a persecution of Christians reducing them to the minority (roughly 10%) that they remain today. Jenkins notes a class dynamic too, it was richer and urban Christians in Egypt who tended to convert while the poor and those in rural communities clung to their faith. Egypt also attacked and conquered the Christian Nubian kingdoms to the south and imposed a process of forced Islamisation there too. Even so a Christian statelet hung on until the late 15th century, indigenous Sudanese Christianity finally dying out by the time the Jews were expelled from Spain.

Jenkins points out that the attack on minorities as not simply a Middle Eastern phenomenon. In Europe the 13th and 14th centuries saw attacks on Jews with Jews being expelled from England and France and pogroms and massacres in the Rhineland. And in the early 13th century there was the Albigensian Crusade that wiped out the Cathars of Provence. He also highlights environmental factors; the world had entered a phase of global cooling which resulted in increased desertification, failing harvests, famine and disease. The 14th century was also the time of the Black Death which struck in the Middle East and Asia as well as in Europe.

Nevertheless, while Christianity disappeared from much of Asia and the Sudan, it hung on in the Middle East (the Church of the East also survived unscathed in India but would suffer its own agonies with the coming of the Europeans in the 16th century). A century ago, approximately 11% of the Middle East was Christian, now it is approximately 3% (although in Egypt, Christians are still approximately 10% of the population). In Palestine, Christians were once 15% of the Arab population now they are only 1%. In Iraq, the Christian population has shrunk from 6% to 1%. The 20th century has been another time of crisis for Middle Eastern Christianity in which there have been three catastrophes.

The first was the great genocide during the First World War. Everyone knows of it as the Armenian genocide in which at least a million Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman state from 1915. Less well known is the Assyrian genocide of Syriac Christians conducted at the same time by the Ottoman state. The uplands of Mesopotamia and northern Syria in modern day Turkey and Kurdistan were where the Syriac/Assyrian/Suroye Christians had settled following the depredations of the 14th century. These uplands overlapped with and adjoined the Armenian territories of the Ottoman Empire. So all were targeted for elimination, and just about all were (small pockets of the Syrian Orthodox Church survive in the regions of Turkey north of Syria but the Assyrian and Armenian populations of the lands further east in Turkey no longer exist). Following WW1 there were further pogroms against the Assyrians in Iraq and in the 1930s the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church (the old Catholicos of the Church of the East) fled to the US and to this day the Assyrian Patriarchate is based in Chicago (however a schism in the Church in Iraq led to the formation of the Ancient Church of the East with a Patriarch resident in Iraq).

In the 20th century, Middle Eastern Christians were in the forefront of secular Arab nationalism, and pan-Arabism and socialism. Christians helped found the Ba'ath party in Syria (ba'ath means resurrrection or renaissance in Arabic). In Palestine, Christians were in the forefront of the Palestinian resistance to Zionism. Indeed, one could say that Zionism and the establishment of the Zionist state in Israel was a second catastrophe for Middle Eastern Christians, especially Palestinian Christians but also Lebanese too. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Palestinian struggle shifted from a secular struggle to a religiously polarised one between Islam and Judaism/the West. Local Christians were caught in the middle and their situation wasn't helped by the Christian Zionism of many Evangelicals and Pentecostals in the US (somewhat reminiscent of the plight of Middle Eastern Christians following the Crusades). These US forms of Christianity are real Johnny come latelies compared to the Palestinian Christians who can trace their history back to the first century CE. And like the Crusaders, before them these US Christians, are not only bizarre but heretical to boot, in the eyes of the Palestinian Church(es). So the Israel-Palestinian conflict has resulted in an ongoing and accelerated Christian Palestinian emigration.

The last catastrophe was the US invasion of Iraq. Saddam might have been a dictator but his was a secular regime in which religious minorities (with the exception of the Jews) could live relatively safely and prosper. (Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, used to be an important centre for the Syrian Orthodox Church many centuries ago). The US invasion put an end to that and once more like the Crusades of old associated Christianity with the oppressive outsider. The Christian and Mandaean populations of Iraq have been caught in the crossfire and associated with the infidel invaders generating a large scale emigration. Ancient communities that had survived all manner of catastrophes, even genocide, are disappearing rapidly. Many have fled to neighbouring Syria and Syria remains a richly multi-faith society. It has many varieties of Islam and Christianity, as well as other minority faiths, including a very small Jewish community.

I have long been fascinated by and drawn to the Christianity of the East. Jenkins' book gives an excellent overview of a history that is largely hidden and unknown. While I, like many, can find the glories of Christian Constantinople (and Christian Alexandria too for that matter) quite intoxicating, I think I would love to tread that old Silk Road and visit that rich multi-faith world in which Christianity was a key component but not a controlling one. To visit the Christian academies of Nisibis and Baghdad and Samarkand and Merv and Tabriz and Herat and Kashgar and talk scripture with the scholars there. To walk in a world where Christian and Buddhist and Manichee monasteries often sat side by side, where Christian monks helped Buddhist monks translate their scriptures. Imagine if that world had survived and continued to flourish!

I think that world provides a model for ours.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jonah and the Anguish of History

Here in Australia, the dramas of government and the election seem to have reached a resolution in a Labor minority government with the support of the Greens and several Independents. We're entering a new phase of federal politics about which I'm cautiously optimistic. It's certainly the best result given what was on offer at the election last month. And we have been spared the ordeal of an Abbott Coalition government which would represent a return to Howardism at its worst. And I actually think the current arrangement will result in fairly progressive government with some quite worthwhile policy. I'm not planning another election post but rather to indicate that much of my thinking of late has been dominated by the election and its aftermath. That combined with the fact that I've been busy with a range of other things has meant I've been quiet here for a while.

One of the things I've been doing is copyediting contributions for a volume due out next year. I'm one of its three editors. This week we received one more of the contributions (only two more left to come), an essay on Jonah from the perspective of First Peoples and minority biblical criticism. I won't say any more about the essay itself - you'll have to wait until the volume is published next year.

But the essay provided an opportunity to reflect some more on Jonah and and some quite disturbing aspects of this story. For those who might not be familiar with it, Jonah is the prophet sent by YHWH to preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. He refuses and flees to escape his prophetic commission, boarding a ship going to Tarshish i.e. roughly the opposite direction to Niniveh. He doesn't get far because YHWH calls up a fierce storm. The sailors try their best to outlast the storm but eventually cast Jonah overboard to appease the deity. Jonah is then promptly swallowed by a big fish. He is trapped inside the fish three days and three nights before being disgorged on land. He then goes to Nineveh and preaches to them warning that they will be destroyed unless they repent. Jonah's preaching is astonishingly successful. All the Ninevites repent and Jonah's mission is a success. Jonah however is angry and despondent about his success and wishes for death. He complains to YHWH saying that this is the reason he fled and tried to refuse his commission. The book ends with a sulky and bitter Jonah wanting to die and being rebuked by YHWH for his bitterness.

Jonah is a most reluctant prophet and his reluctance and his subsequent bitterness at the success of his preaching has generated considerable puzzlement for many generations of biblical readers and interpreters. Why does he go such extraordinary lengths to avoid his divine commission and why is he so bitter at his success? A range of answers have been given which I will examine but first I'll give Jonah some context.

According to 2 Kings 14.25, Jonah son of Amittai came from the the village of Gath-Hepher in the north of Israel (not far from Nazareth). He correctly prophecies that the king of Israel, Jeroboam II (c. 786-746 BCE), will recover some territories lost to foreign invaders. Of course, Jonah is also the main character in the book that bears his name and which recounts his hapless sea flight and adventure with the fish and successful preaching in Nineveh. The book of Jonah is one of what's known as the 12 Minor Prophets, the 12 short books from Hosea to Malachi. While Christians have regarded them as 12 separate books, in Judaism they comprise one scroll known as The Twelve. For Jews the book of Jonah, is a sub-section of the larger book of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Jonah is the fifth of the Twelve in the Hebrew version following Hosea, Joel, Amos and Obadiah and immediately preceding Micah which is then followed by Nahum and the rest (in the Greek Septuagint Jonah is the 6th of the 12 and follows Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel and Obadiah to immediately precede Nahum).

The Hebrew ordering will be significant when it comes to one explanation of Jonah's behaviour but first I want to look at a couple of others. Jonah's time in the belly of the fish, has from the gospels onwards been seen as prefiguring of Jesus' time in the tomb and so Jonah has long served as a type of Christ and even, by his mission to Gentile Nineveh, a foreshadowing of the Christian mission to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. There is a nastier Christian variant to this pattern, pioneered by Augustine but only picked up by Luther and then developed into a full anti-Jewish reading in the Enlightenment. Augustine's move, and Luther's following him, was to contrast the book with the prophet. Thus the book represents a universalist tendency in ancient Judaism that will be fulfilled in Christianity. Jonah the prophet however stands for insular, parochial and exclusivist Judaism and his bizarrre behaviour is the book's way of attacking and even mocking such Jewish exclusivism. Nineveh's repentance signifies the deity's shifting favor to the Gentiles and away from hidebound and insular Judaism.

In Islam, Jonah's repentance and not Nineveh's is understood is central to the story. Jonah is known as Yunus and Sura 10 of the Qur'an is named for him. Human repentance and the corresponding divine grace and mercy are the key messages for Islamic understanding.

Jewish readings have tended to highlight the problem of the successful prophet. According to Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Jonah had already been sent to preach doom to Jerusalem. The people heard his message and heeded, repenting and averting disaster. Paradoxically Jonah's success counts against him; he becomes the lying prophet. Preaching doom to Jerusalem generates Jerusalem's repentance meaning no doom. Jonah knows the same will happen in Nineveh so once again he will preach a doom that doesn't happen thus reinforcing his reputation as a failed prophet. By other accounts, it's not so much concern for his own reputation that so upsets Jonah but YHWH's reputation. Jonah delivers YHWH's message of doom, a doom that doesn't fall due to the people's repentance.

But there is yet another and even more disturbing possibility that derives from Jonah's placement in the Hebrew ordering of the Twelve (and his chronological location in 2 Kings). Jonah is a prophet and he knows that Nineveh/Assyria will ultimately destroy Israel, the kingdom and people to which Jonah belongs. In the biblical account not only is Israel destroyed by the Assyrians but its inhabitants are deported en masse never to return. The book of Micah which follows Jonah in the Hebrew ordering represents that catastrophe. It's from that image was derived the notion of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. From an historical point of view, while the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel, only about a third of the population were probably deported - there are no lost tribes, their descendants live on in the Samaritans and Palestinians. But Israel, the northern kingdom, would never more be seen again. The southern kingdom, Judah, was ravaged by and barely survived the Assyrians. It would eventually be destroyed by Babylon. At the time Jonah was likely written both Judah and Israel were provinces of the Persian empire (or perhaps even provinces of the post-Alexandrian empires). Unbeknown to the book's author, Judah would again become an independent kingdom under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE and be a client Roman kingdom under Herod before finally being destroyed in the wars with Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. But not so the north; while its people were never lost, there would never again be an independent state located in the old Israelite heartland of Samaria.

Seen in that light Jonah's behaviour makes tragic sense. He is a prophet and he knows what Nineveh means for his people. If he preaches doom to Nineveh they will heed his message and be spared and thus enabled to go on and destroy Jonah's land and people. No wonder Jonah tries to run away, to even seek death in the depths of the ocean. There is an even more disturbing prospect to the story too. When Jonah preaches doom to Nineveh, all the Ninevites, from the highest to the lowest respond and repent most extravagantly. It could be argued that by their repentance they make themselves worthy to be YHWH's agents of destruction against Israel. By repenting they are now consecrated to YHWH's service for vengeance and punishment.

No wonder when last we see him, Jonah is bitter and wishing for death. He has aided and abetted the destruction of his own people.