Monday, February 28, 2005

A World Without Cheese

Sorry, folks, I'm just snowed under with work today. Nothing blogworthy has possessed my brain cells.

Except cheese, of course. I've given up cheese for Lent.

It sounded quite doable when I started; something I like well enough to feel edifyingly deprived of, yet not so central that it would possess my mind to the exclusion of holy thoughts.

Well, guess what. Apparently I eat more cheese than I thought, because I least once a day I feel like there's nothing I wouldn't do for some cheese, in any form whatsoever. The fit passes after a while, and this is good to know for the future, in case I'm ever stranded in a cheese-free town.

It's still doable. However, I can tell you, that when Lent is over, I intend to breakfast on pizza and then for lunch eat a burrito the size of a bed pillow.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Third Sunday in Lent

As the world must be redeemed in a few men to begin with, so the soul is redeemed in a few of its thoughts, and works, and ways to begin with: it takes a long time to finish the new creation of this redemption.
George MacDonald

No silly notion of playing the hero — what have creatures like us to do with heroism who are not yet barely honest?
George MacDonald

The Brilliant Schoolboy

In this post, Jim Davila expresses surprise at our local schoolboys' knowledge of Gnosticism. But, Jim, you should know that the "schoolboy" is one of the most brilliant beings in the world. Here are some proofs:

As every schoolboy knows, the standard deviation of a log-normal distribution is directly proportional to its mean. (link)

As every schoolboy knows, Gerry was a statesman of the revolutionary era. (link)

From what little is known of it, they spoke a language unlike any other, unless it be Basque which, as every schoolboy knows, has nothing whatever to do with any other language spoken under the sun. (link)

As every schoolboy knows, Europe's Catholic Right has consisted of reactionaries who began in the service of residual feudal landowners and ended in support of big capital's exploitation and oppression of the masses. (link)

As every schoolboy knows, all Subarus have had all-wheel drive since 1998, so that's a useful part of the package for the Northeast. (link)

As every schoolboy knows, the Langue d'Oeil became the accepted form of French, so the North Men became the Normands. (link)

I believe it was Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) who discovered the Brilliant Schoolboy, as this quotation shows: "Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa" (from his 1840 essay "Lord Clive").

UPDATE: Mark Liberman at Language Log pushes back the use of the "brilliant schoolboy" to 1783, and has even found examples of "every schoolgirl knows." Read the whole post. Mark Goodacre posts about the opposite phenomenon of the Ignorant Schoolboy. Indeed, if you google on the phrase "schoolboy error" or "schoolboy mistake" (as one of Mark's commenters noted) you will get a lot of hits. (Most of them British; draw your own conclusions.) In fact, there is actually a punk band called Schoolboy Error.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Weekend Reading

I've gathered from the latest History Carnival (thanks to Siris for the link) a few posts that might be of interest to bibliobloggers.

The question of forgery brings up for many the case of the Vinland Map, a forged document purporting to illustrate Viking settlements in North America. Read about it here.

This post purports to prove (tongue-in-cheekily) that Harry Truman was a Vulcan. On the serious side, it is a salutary caution not to read too much into merely verbal parallels, a tendency that biblical scholars are sometimes guilty of indulging.

Paul Musgrave argues against the view that language death should be encouraged, not deplored. For those of us who work with minority languages, and find joy in the diversity, his post is welcome. It concludes with some interesting observations about Irish language and identity. (And it's long. I'm not complaining, I'm just jealous. Don't you people have jobs?)

Brandon@Siris, spurred by the appearance of the TNIV, discusses the argument of Paul in Ephesians 5: a good example of the fruitful results to be gained when philosophers read the Bible (sounds like a Fox special, "When Philosophers..."). I noticed at a conference on Biblical scholarship and Philosophy a few years ago that, in general, the philosophers, who were supposed to be humbly learning from the best in biblical scholarship, were asking hard questions about evidence, argument, confirmation, and unexamined background beliefs that the biblical scholars couldn't deal with. And I'm not talking about liberal philosophers undermining conservative scholars, but the other way around: Christian philosophers were dismantling the underlying assumptions of liberal NT scholarship, and raising quite a few hackles in the process. It was fun, like watching the Christians eat the lions for once. (Proceedings of the conference available in Stump, Eleonore, and Thomas Flint, eds. Hermes and Athena: Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1993.)

ADDENDUM (2/26): Readers who enjoyed "Readings" by Czeslaw Milosz (a post that got a surprising amount of e-mail) might enjoy this article about Milosz in The New Pantagruel.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Narnia and Disney: Aslan the Pooh?

The movie of C. S. Lewis's Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is in the hands of Disney. Disney is wondering how to treat this explosive material. From the New York Times:
But this time, the pros at Disney are wrestling with a special challenge: how to sell a screen hero who was conceived as a forthright symbol of Jesus Christ, a redeemer who is tortured and killed in place of a young human sinner and who returns in a glorious resurrection that transforms the snowy landscape of Narnia into a verdant paradise.

That spirituality sets Aslan apart from most of the Disney pantheon and presents the company with a significant dilemma: whether to acknowledge the Christian symbolism and risk alienating a large part of the potential audience, or to play it down and possibly offend the many Christians who count among the books' fan base.

The story goes on to say that they have decided to just present the story as it is found in the book and let it speak for itself. That seems to me like a wise decision. The book has been enjoyed for decades by those within and those without the Church, and the movie should attempt to duplicate this without playing up its implicit Christianity or playing it down.

However, they are certainly avoiding the topic of religion. Check out what this official movie web-site says about Lewis. One would never guess that his fame and popularity had anything to do with his Christian beliefs. There is not the ghost of a whisper of a hint about religion in the entire web-site, although it does provide a link to Harper's site, where Lewis's faith is acknowledged.

What really worries me are two things: (1) Disney's ham-handed, treacly approach to visual renderings; and (2) the merchandising.

As for (1), the Disney artists, despite their occasional genius, have usually treated pre-existing visual art with about the sensitivity of the Vandals looking on the monuments of ancient Rome. A good example is the vulgarization of Winnie-the-Pooh. Compare the E. H. Shepherd "Classic Pooh" renderings of Pooh with "Disney Pooh." What on earth will they do with Pauline Baynes's Aslan? However, the conceptual art available at the website mentioned above looks good so far.

(2) The merchandising. I suppose I could live in a world filled with plush Aslans and Mr. Tumnuses; but does Disney now own the rights to these characters? Are we going to see the Mole family on lunchboxes, Narnia playgrounds at Disneyworld, and Aslan doing commercials for ABC-TV programming? Or (even worse) can Disney now produce their own hideously bad new Narnia stories and cartoons, in the way they have debased and degraded the Milne canon? Horrible thought: will we eventually wind up with both "Classic Narnia" and "Disney Narnia"?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Ralph's Rockin' Five

A panel for the Louisville Courier-Journal has chosen the Top Five Greatest Rock Songs Ever. Here they are:

1. "Satisfaction," the Rolling Stones
2. "Born to Run," Bruce Springsteen
3. "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry
4. "Respect," Aretha Franklin
5. "Walk This Way," Aerosmith

What do they know?

It's a good discussion starter, but everyone will come up with their own list. First, define your terms. What is rock? What makes it great? Why five?

Here's my list, and it's very idiosyncratic. They aren't the greatest, the best played, the best written, the most influential, or the ones with the profoundest lyrics. I only had one criterion. These are the songs that, with the inevitability of a chemical reaction, get me up in 5 seconds (or less) and cause me to jump up and down, wherever I am, and play air guitar while singing the words.

You won't know some of them.

1. "Gimme Shelter," the Rolling Stones
2. "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" REM
3. "Obviously 5 Believers," Bob Dylan
4. "Don't Do It," the Band
5. "Mississippi Queen," Mountain

Honorable mention (takes 6 seconds): "Paper Thin," John Hiatt; "Black Math," the White Stripes; "Crossroads," Cream; "Killing Floor," Electric Flag; "Two Fat Feet," the Fiery Furnaces; "Won't Get Fooled Again," the Who.

I know: slanted towards classic rock. Sorry, them's my roots. What are your favorites?

Updates on BAS Website

The Biblical Archaeology Society website has two new interesting updates. PDFs are available for download of (1) an English translation of the forgery indictments and (2) 10 pages of coverage of the forgery scandal taken from the March-April BAR (check this page). I hope to make some comments on this material as I find time to go through it, but regrettably my time for blogging is short as important deadlines loom at the end of March.

Tel Dan and Garbini (iii)

This is the third in a series of posts on Giovanni Garbini's essay on the Tel Dan inscription. Garbini writes:
Another oddity that marks our text relates to the conceptual and ideological sphere. In line 5 one finds b'rq 'by "in the territory of my father" and in line 10 ' "their land". The author of the inscription appears to be a ruler who has succeeded his dead father, but had to act as a king of an inferior level (if not of a pretender), given line 6 which mentions a mlky, "my king".
That which rings even stranger is the expression "land" ('rq) belonging to the king, his father. Ownership of land, when obviously not dealing with small portions of land as object of private transactions, comes into a generally rather more complex concept. When a king talks of his own land, ie his own possession, one doesn't use 'rq "land", but rather gbl "territory" (cf. the Zakur inscription B 8-9). That which is the land (in its totality) belongs not to him but to god.
A true king would never have said "my land".
(The omitted material in the quotation consists of supporting examples from Moabite and from Phoenician.)

If I properly understand Garbini, he is setting up a contrast in Old Aramaic between ארק "land (which belongs to a god)" and גבל "territory (which belongs to a human king)." The Tel Dan stele, by using ארק of the land possessed by human kings, is misusing the language. This solecism suggests that the author of the Tel Dan stele is a forger.

Unfortunately for Garbini's proposal, the putative restriction on the use of ארק does not exist. Several counter examples can be found in the Sefire inscription. In Sef. iii 6, the suzerain who speaks in the first person in the treaty stipulates that the vassal must return to the suzerain any fugitives who seek asylum. He says "they must not remain in your land (ארקך)." According to Garbini, he ought to have said "your territory (גבלך)." In Sef. i B 27, the suzerain stipulates that the son of the vassal must not attempt to take "any of my land" (מן ארקי)." Finally, in Sef. ii A 8, although the context is damaged, the suzerain, to judge by the context, refers to "his land (ארקה)," that of the vassal.

In support of his suggestion about ארק, Garbini actually cites uses of גבל and ארץ (the cognate of ארק) from Phoenician and Moabite, which are of questionable relevance. He does not illustrate the opposition between גבל and ארק from Old Aramaic, because there is none.

The actual distinction between גבל and ארק seems to be between a political entity (ארק) and a geographical designation (גבל). Thus we have in Samalian-Yaudic (which Garbini counts as Old Aramaic) ארק יאדי, "the land of Yaudi" (Panamuwa 5, 7), over which reigns the king of Yaudi (Yaudi is not the name of a god). We also read there that Tiglath-pileser added to "his territory" (גבלה) "the cities of the territory of Gurgum" (גבל גרגם)." Similarly, in Sefire iii 8 the suzerain states that a region called Talayim, according to the treaty being drawn up, now belongs to him: "its villages and its citizens and its territory (גבלה)." In no case is a king referred to as the ruler of a "territory" (גבל), as Garbini would have it.

In fact, the use of ארק in the Tel Dan inscription is congruent with its use elsewhere in Old Aramaic. There is no solecism here.

(Even in Phoenician, which Garbini allows himself to mine for comparisons despite its not being Aramaic, the two words seem to be synonyms. In the Karatepe inscription (KAI 26), the expression ארץ עמק אדן, "land of the Adana valley" (I 4) is found alongside the synonymous גבל עמק אדן, "territory of the Adana valley" (II 2). There is no suggestion of a difference.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Paul's Tomb: Old News?

From the Christianity Today weblog comes this interesting tidbit:
Paul's monument was on the Ostian Way (Via Ostiensis), about two miles from the center or Rome. St. Paul's Outside the Walls was built on the spot Gaius mentions. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports, "Under Gregory XVI [1765-1846], the sarcophagus of St. Paul was discovered, but not opened. Its fourth-century inscription bears the words PAULO APOST MART (Paul, Apostle and Martyr)."

So, uh, is this news after all? Or is it kind of like saying "Grant said buried in Grant's tomb"?

So, if this site was already well-known, why was there a big media splash? Did they re-discover it? Or was it just a slow news day?

Maybe it's like the case of the ossuary (actually two ossuaries) with the inscription "Jesus son of Joseph," which gets re-discovered about every five years. Or the village of Malula in Syria that gets discovered by the media every Christmas because they still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ!

Monday, February 21, 2005

Eric Meyers on Unprovenanced Artifacts

Eric Meyers is calling for scholars to cease publishing and authenticating unprovenanced artifacts:
Today we know for certain that in addition to promoting illicit trade in antiquities the publishing of unauthenticated and unprovenanced material also has promoted an entire industry, namely the forgery business. This has become evident in the past year when the IAA has accused various individuals of creating a vast underground of mafia proportions of individuals who specialize in producing high-ticket items such as the James ossuary, the Jehoash inscription, and inscribed bullae with biblical names, just to mention a few items whose authenticity has been questioned. Regardless of where one stands on the authenticity of these items by publishing them and promoting them in the popular media, their commercial value has soared while their provenance still remains unknown and uncertain.
Meyers's essay on the The Bible and Interpretation website is a paper he gave at the SBL meeting in San Antonio in 2004. Read it all.

In the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks cites this presentation and sneers at Meyers, saying that thus far, no other scholars have expressed support for Meyers.

Well, I would like to express my support here and now for Meyers. Is there any way to make this official? Start a petition or something? An open letter? I'm a terrible organizer, but I'd like to see some kind of forum in which scholars could register their agreement with what Meyers is saying, so that Shanks can read it. (He is apparently quite unaware of the blogosphere.) Any ideas out there?

The Archon Wore Prada

This is from this Sunday's New York Times Magazine:
Last week, the four-and-a-half minute "Thunder Perfect Mind" made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival. Directed by Ridley Scott, "Thunder Perfect Mind" is part of a burgeoning genre of cinema — the superlong commercial as short film, in this case created for the introduction of the new Prada fragrance.
There is no dialogue, just a poem read in a voice-over and set to a smooth, jazzy soundtrack. "The poem was too perfect," says Jordan [Scott, co-director], who happened upon it nearly a decade ago and was saving it for the right project. A Gnostic text probably written around the first century, it prescribes a wisdom that cuts eerily to the quick on more than one level: I am shame and boldness ... I am the substance and the one who has no substance.
As every schoolboy knows, "Thunder, Perfect Mind" (and, yes, that is a really cool title) is one of the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. (Read it here.) The Dead Sea Scrolls are probably more famous, but I'm pretty sure none of them are going to be used to sell Prada. (Although .... 4Q184, "The Wiles of the Wicked Woman" ... quick, call Ridley Scott!)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Second Sunday in Lent

There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.

Grace is indeed needed to turn a man into a saint; and he who doubts it does not know what a saint or a man is.

—Pascal, Pensées

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Wonderful Copenhagen

Let us clink and drink one down
To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

Salty old queen of the sea

Once I sailed away

But I'm home today

Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful

Copenhagen for me.

I have been contacted privately by some scholars of the "Copenhagen school" who have taken me to task for over-generalization in the matter of the Tel Dan stele. They wish me to know that not everyone who might be identified as a member of the "Copenhagen school" necessarily believes that the Tel Dan stele is a forgery or that, if authentic, the inscription on the stele is inconsistent with an interpretation that might be characterized as "minimalist" (a word I have not used in discussing the stele). Conversely, not everyone who believes that Tel Dan is a forgery is a member of the Copenhagen school.

These protests have been made with the utmost courtesy. In view of them, I am now happy to grant that the Copenhagen school is not of one mind on the question of Tel Dan; at least one of them (Keith Whitelam) believes it is authentic, and another (Greg Doudna) is preserving an open mind on the subject. The only scholar I have criticized by name, Giovanni Garbini, is not of the Copenhagen school.

Of course, I will continue my posts on Garbini's arguments against Tel Dan's authenticity; his arguments are weak, in my view, and do not sustain the weight that is often placed on them. I also do not apologize for the use of the phrase "Tel Dan conspiracy theorists." It seems to me to be an accurate characterization, but my readers should not infer that the conspiracy theorists and the Copenhagen school are synonyms.

(As long as I'm mentioning the Copenhagen school, let me take this opportunity to say how very good Greg Doudna's commentary on 4Q Pesher Nahum is. It is a real advance in our understanding of the scroll, both exegetically and methodologically.)

(I could have sworn that song was called "Beautiful Copenhagen," but a quick look at the Danny Kaye songbook reveals that it is "Wonderful Copenhagen." Obviously this is a day for revision of the Copenhagen file in my brain cells.)

Friday, February 18, 2005

Poem 53

When he'd lived a year of years,
Enoch was no more;
he passed then through a door
and found everything was clear.

Here, now, below, we tire
and study to obey,
and we wait for our day
of translation, and of fire.


The Britney Inscription

Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti points me towards another mysterious Hebrew inscription, this time on Britney Spears's neck.

Britney, in her enthusiasm for the neo-Kabbalah of her friend Madonna, got a tattoo of several Hebrew letters on the nape of her neck. There is some question as to its exact meaning. It looks to me like it reads מהשׁ, which means nothing in Hebrew, either backwards or forwards. But it could be a garbled form of השׁם, ha-shem, "the Name," a Jewish euphemism for the name of God. If anyone out there has some inside knowledge, let me know.

The photo at Jewschool here is a joke; someone using Photoshop put the Yiddish form of "Jewschool" on Britney's neck.

UPDATE: Paul Nikkel writes that he has previously blogged on Britney's tattoo back in July; his sources indicate that there is a kabbalistic meaning to these letters. Unanswered question: do the letters stand for something, or are they rearrangements of השׁם?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Tel Dan and Garbini (ii)

The second in a series of posts arguing against Giovanni Garbini's article on the Tel Dan inscription.

(iii) Garbini says:
Another fact worthy of note is the use of the verb qtl "to kill", found twice in the Tel Dan fragment. Such a root is normal in Aramaic, while hrg (non-existent in Syriac) is less frequent. It should be remembered that hrg is the verb used in ancient Aramaic when talking of battles, as in our case, or in conspiracies (cf. the Sefire inscription I A,24 and the Yaudic inscriptions), while qtl carries a more generalised significance of "to kill" (Sefire III,11; Nerab I,11; the Yaudic inscription of Panamuwa, 8).
Garbini says that the root hrg is "used in ancient Aramaic when talking of battles." Significantly, he gives no reference, because there is no attested use of Aramaic hrg in the context of battles. In the Samalian or "Yaudic" inscriptions (KAI 214, 215) the root is used several times of personal murder, one man slaying another (Panamuwa 3, 5, 7, Hadad 26, 33, 34). In the Sefire inscription (I A 24), the entire sentence reads "let his seven daughters go in search of food but let them slay nothing (אל יהרגן)." Sound like battle or conspiracy to you? Me neither.

It is debatable whether the "Yaudic" material should even be cited, since some question whether it is Aramaic at all. The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon project, for instance, does not include it in its corpus of Old Aramaic. That leaves Sefire I A 24 as the sole example of this word in Old Aramaic. Not much to build a case on.

Garbini is trying to spin straw into gold, not only in this instance, but throughout his article. If the Tel Dan conspiracy theorists have nothing better than Garbini to rely on, their case is weak indeed.

My Week in a Stolen Moment

Since Monday, Valentine's Day, is not a good date day, Amy and I had our Val-Day date on Saturday. First we went to the Cincinnati Library, and, while I took notes on El Amarna from a reference book, Amy read a book on "the white image in the black mind" in the early 20th century. Afterwards we walked around downtown and got Indian take-out for dinner (me: chicken vindaloo, she: vegetable jalfrezi). If you are inclined to think this is a dull V-Day outing, then you are young, foolish, and altogether unmindful of how difficult it is for two married scholars to get some time together.

Tuesday the temperature got up into the sixties, and I took a walk in a short-sleeved shirt (!). I was surprised at the ecstasy I felt; you don't realize how bullied you are by the winter and the permacloud until both show signs of leaving.

Yesterday was New Comics Day. I never cease to be amazed at the quality of the writing, especially the dialogue, in some of the comics today. The Runaways, based on the one issue I've read, is a good example. Fables is also a terrifically good concept. After getting the new comics, The Lad and I played some hoops; at this point my height, cunning, and shamelessly fouling defense are a match for his youth, vigor, and superior skillz. But "he must increase, and I must decrease."

I also picked up a record yesterday. (Do people still say "record"? My kids laugh at me for calling a CD a record; but I figure if something is recorded, it's a record.) It's by The Last Town Chorus, and I highly recommend it. Two instruments, lapsteel and acoustic guitar, with the female voice, produce some tracks of otherworldly beauty. Their website is here, with a generous number of free mp3's. Check it out.

I promise I will get back to cudgeling Garbini before the week is out; stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Tel Dan and Garbini (i)

As a follow-up to my previous post, I want to begin discussing some of the linguistic data cited by Giovanni Garbini as anomalies in the Tel Dan inscription. I'm not convinced by what he says, and I hope to show why in this and a few future posts. I'm not going to do this in any systematic way or according to a timetable, but just as I have the time and inclination.

(i) The first point is Garbini's discussion of the preposition qdm. The Inscription contains the short sentence wyhk hdd qdmy, "and Hadad went before me." Garbini does not believe that qdm can be used in this way:
On a semantic level qdm, as with the corresponding Phoenico-Hebrew expression lpny, specifically means "in the presence of" (exactly as [J.] Naveh translates it). Imagine two beings one in front of the other. All the Aramaic literature of the first millenium so far existent, as far as I know, confirms such a meaning of qdm, but the idea of "in front of" for two beings not facing each other but one behind the other (as with two men walking in the same direction) did not appear until mediaeval Jewish Aramaic.
Well, where else in Old Aramaic do we have a description of two beings proceeding one behind the other? I haven't been able to find any. If we don't have any other examples, then how, we might ask Garbini, might such a scene be described in Aramaic? What words would he expect to see there in place of qdm? The fact is, that once you grant that someone might want to say "Hadad went before (in front of) me," then qdm is the only preposition that could properly be used. The best gloss for qdm is "before"; only the words used with it determine whether it is best translated "in the presence of" somebody, or "preceding" somebody. In this case the context is clear enough.

And it is not quite true that "mediaeval Jewish Aramaic" is the first attested use of qdm used in this way. There are lots of examples in the targumim, e.g. Ex. 32:1 "make us false gods to go before us," dyhkn qdmn' (Targum Onkelos). In other dialects of Aramaic, there is (e.g.) npq krwz' qwdmwy "the herald went forth before him" (Leviticus Rabbah) and kwkb' 'zl hw' qdmyhwn "the star was going before them" (Matt. 2:9, Old Syriac Gospels). These examples are not by any stretch "mediaeval." With verbs of going, leaving, walking, qdm is used of spatial orientation of two beings, and it's hard to think of a lexeme that might do instead.

(ii) Garbini says
The Tel Dan fragment lacks two of the most typical morphological elements found in Aramaic, the emphatic state and the relative zy. Since these occur, systematically and not merely casually, in the Deir Alla inscription (in which, as in Tel Dan text, the use of the waw consecutive is normal), it doesn't seem strange to suspect that the secondary purpose of the Tel Dan piece is to aid the process in progress of fitting the language (Aramaic or Aramaicizing) of Deir Alla into the ambit of "Israelite" dialects.
I just don't know what Garbini is getting at here, since the Deir Alla inscription does not contain the relative zy or any examples of the emphatic state. (I don't have the Italian at hand to see if there might be an error in translating Garbini.) That whole sentence is a non sequitur, since Garbini's point is lost unless Tel Dan and Deir Alla are alike at this point. And further: Does Garbini really feel that someone forged the Tel Dan inscription in order to make a point about the dialectal affinity of the Deir Alla inscription? As "Yu-Gi-Oh" said in response to my earlier post, there are lots of reasons to forge things; but that one seems really extraordinary to me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Tel Dan Inscription

I've stayed out of the discussion about the Tel Dan inscription, but since Stephen Carlson is showing signs of hospitality to the idea that it is a forgery, I'll put in my two cents.

I think it is most unlikely that the Tel Dan inscription is a forgery. Speaking as an Aramaist, I would say there is nothing in this inscription that disqualifies it linguistically, in contrast, say, to the Jehoash tablet, which has several irregularities that connect it to Modern Hebrew.

The inscription was discovered in situ by reputable archaeologists. All the efforts to dodge or finesse this fact seem like special pleading to me and, and in my opinion, should not be given the slightest bit of credence. Outside the adherents of the Copenhagen school, no one doubts the authenticity of this epigraph.

What would be the point of such a forgery? Forgeries are created to make money and typically appear on the antiquities market. Did someone want to "prove" the existence of David? Someone who wished to do that would forge an inscription mentioning David himself, not a stele from centuries later that uses his name in a geographical reference.

That Andre Lemaire has written on the Tel Dan inscription is nothing to the point. Despite his lapses in the matter of the James ossuary and the ivory pomegranate, Lemaire is a master of North-west Semitic epigraphy; I still hold him in very high regard professionally, and so does everyone else in the field. He is not the one who discovered or authenticated the stele, in any case.

I don't think the Tel Dan stele would ever have been doubted if it had not proven difficult for the Copenhagen school to fit into their theories. Personally, I would not have any hesitation about using it historically or linguistically.

More on Evangelicals, Again

I've been surprised that my original posts on "What is an Evangelical?" (here and here) still continue to draw comments well after the time of their appearance, the only one of my threads to do so.

Evan@Weekender Blog (in a comment on the original post) proposes his own criteria:
1. Inerrancy of Scripture, and the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and practice.
2. Pro-life/anti-abortion political beliefs, which in the present day generally make them Republicans.
3. Belief in the necessity and urgency of missions, evangelism, and individual conversion.
4. Reformation theology.
I don't necessary disagree here, but I'm not sure these criteria are that different from my own. "Inerrancy" is a more, not less, stringent category than my first proposed criterion (literalist exegesis) or the one I replaced it with (biblicism), and I'm still not sure that it is criterial for US evangelicals. "Pro-life" limits the rightist tendency to one issue, but I still think the political conservatism on the contemporary evangelical scene is more far-reaching. I do agree, however, that Roe v. Wade politicized conservative Christians in the '70s and beyond in the same way that the draft politicized college students in the '60's. This issue is a definite catalyst.

Evan's third category captures some of what I meant by the word "conversionist," but I wanted to use the word to describe an approach to social ethics and cultural critique beyond the simple impulse to evangelize. His fourth category unduly limits what I described as "traditional" theology — my guess would be that most evangelicals in the pew don't really know or care that much about the Reformation as such.

I do appreciate Evan's thoughtful response, however, as I do Michael Turton's different take. If I understand Michael, he is proposing a kind of right-wing Christian conspiracy behind much of evangelicalism, and that the right is being taken over by conservative Christians, not vice-versa. I just don't see this, and I feel that Michael might be a trifle paranoid or extreme with his comparison to the situation in Germany in the '30's.

I've learned that among many people the hallmarks proposed by David Bebbington are accepted as criterial:
... David Bebbington, who says evangelicalism has four hallmarks, namely beliefs that: lives need to be changed, the gospel needs to be actively spread, and the Bible should be held in unique regard, as well as an emphasis on the sacrifice Jesus Christ made, dying on the cross to atone for the sins of humankind.
I haven't read Bebbington, but based on this report, I'd say that these criteria are far too general. It seems to me that, say, the Episcopal Church in the USA, at least in its official expressions, could agree with all of these tenets, as would most Christians of any stripe. Maybe Bebbington is referring to the international or British scene, but I think his definition is too broad for the US.

I've learned a lot from my respondents, but not enough to move me away from my basic criteria. I still think they work, grosso modo.

The one area that I still remain unsure about is the distinction between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Although I did not use the term "fundamentalist," several of my respondents felt I was confusing the two groups. Those who did so usually defined evangelicals with some form of Bebbington's hallmarks. I'm still uncomfortable with the "F"-word, but enough people use it, both within and without evangelicalism, that it seems that further discussion is needed.

Alister McGrath distinguishes fundamentalism from evangelicalism as follows: (1) Fundamentalism rejects biblical criticism "in any form," evangelicalism accepts it; (2) fundamentalism is narrowly committed to a set of doctrines, some of them peripheral (such as those linked to dispensationalism), evangelicalism is not; and (3) fundamentalism is reactionary and "blue collar" while evangelicalism is more open-minded and "white collar."

If McGrath is right, then fundamentalism as he defines it is a stream within evangelicalism, not a different movement altogether. Both poles of the contrasts that he draws can be found in evangelicalism today. Note that George Marsden has referred to fundamentalism as a strain inside evangelicalism, not something separate. Marsden uses the term "anti-modernist"; that word, as well as McGrath's observations, focuses on the relationship to the surrounding culture, not to a set of doctrinal or behavioral differentia.

The analysis that rings most true to me, however, is that of Joel Carpenter (as explained by Richard Mouw). According to Carpenter (according to Mouw), fundamentalists underwent a marginalizing cultural transition in the early twentieth century that left them feeling like outsiders — in fact, like immigrants, only that the "new land" was the new secularizing culture, and the "old country" was the 19th century dominance of Protestantism. These "cognitive immigrants" were the fundamentalists. But now, with the increasing social acceptance of evangelical Christianity, the "second generation" mentality has set in — assimilation, cultural influence, and political power are all within reach — and the old "outsider" feeling has been left behind. This is evangelicalism today.

And maybe that's part of why I feel alienated from evangelicalism. I'm conscious of a (partly neurotic) desire to always be an outsider, and unfortunately I've succeeded all too well in this. Since evangelicals seem to be trying to regain cultural hegemony, I find myself jumping off the bandwagon.

So, what do you all think? Is an evangelical just a fundamentalist in a cubicle with a fat 401k? Or is there more to it?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Richard Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from their Fundamentalist Heritage (2000); Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (1994).

Monday, February 14, 2005

More on the SBL Resolution on Biblical Values

The SBL Forum has a report by Matthew Collins on the Survey that I discussed last month.

Collins notes that the response rate was unusually high:
Of the 5,585 members receiving the survey, 1,954 members (35%) responded. Online survey experts consider a response rate of greater than 3% to be excellent. A response at the level achieved in the resolution survey is phenomenal.
If he knows that a glitch in the survey software allowed people to vote multiple times, or that non-members were able to access the survey, he does not mention it. This surely confounds the results, which were as follows:

56% Agree
44% Disagree

If the results are filtered to show only those entering "anonymous":
26% Agree
74% Disagree

Collins notes that the responses fell into four main groups:

  • "Thank you for doing this — I wish it had been done sooner."
  • "How dare you do this — I hold completely opposite views."
  • "I partially agree and partially disagree and I'd vote differently if the wording were different."
  • "The SBL shouldn't play politics or pass such resolutions and should stick to biblical studies."
As noted, the views of "Ralph" fall into the last category.

Collins says that "Council will have a discussion about the results and continue the conversation at the 2005 Annual Meeting." Does that mean they will have a discussion among themselves or that the conversation will be open to the membership? I hope it is the latter. I continue to be concerned and depressed at the prospect of the politicization of the SBL. This will add to, not reduce, politico-religious polarization in the US and likely fracture the Society itself.

Potpourri: Kinkade, Sword, McLaren, Cthulhu

Gleanings from the web:

Joe Carter analyzes just what is so bad about Thomas Kinkade's paintings. His critique gains force by comparing Kinkade's earlier good work to his later kitschy renderings.

I was going to recommend to bibliobloggers Michael Turton's new blog, The Sword, but Stephen Carlson beat me to it. Michael has a ton of interesting reviews of books on biblical subjects that are well worth perusing. Also, he thinks "Ralph" is "wonderful," so he is clearly a man of taste and discernment.

From locustyears comes this link to Brian McLaren's recommendation of the film Hotel Rwanda, which I haven't yet seen. The more I read McLaren, or about him, the more I like him.

Finally, if you are a fan of H.P. Lovecraft (I'm not that crazy about his fervid prose myself) you should know that you can buy a plush Chthulhu.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

First Sunday in Lent

The seven works of bodily mercy be these: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and needy, harbour the houseless, comfort the sick, visit prisoners, bury the dead. The seven works of spiritual mercy be these: teach men the truth, counsel men to hold with Christ's law, chastise sinners by moderate reproving in charity, comfort sorrowful men by Christ's passion, forgive wrongs, suffer meekly reproofs for the right of God's law, pray heartily for friend and foe.

—Middle English Sermons, quoted in Charles Williams, ed., The New Christian Year, 1941

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Midrash and Serendipity

The 5th-century CE midrash collection Lamentations Rabbah contains this interesting story:
An Athenian came to Jerusalem to learn wisdom. He spent three years there and left, having learned nothing. As he was about to leave, he bought himself a slave, blind in one eye. The one who sold it to him said, "I promise you that he is very wise and far-seeing!"

As they were going out the gate, the slave said, "Hurry, so we can catch up with the caravan in front of us." The Athenian said, "What caravan in front of us?"

The slave said, "There is a she-camel blind in one eye, pregnant with twins, and bearing two skins, a skin of wine on one side, and a skin of ointment on the other, and the camel-driver is a Gentile. They are four miles distant."

The Athenian said, "How do you know that the she-camel is blind in one eye?" He replied, "Because she grazed on one side only."

"And how do you know she is pregnant with twins?" "Because here she laid herself down and I see the marks of twins."

"And how do you know she is bearing two skins, a skin of wine on one side and a skin of ointment on the other?" He said, "From the drops of wine that soak in [on this side] and the ointment that bubbles up [on that side]."

"And how do you know that the camel-driver is a Gentile?" He said, "Because he urinated on the road, and no Jew urinates on the road."

He said, "How do you know that they are four miles distant?" He replied, "From the hooves, for the tracks are recognizable for four miles, but further than that they are not recognizable."

The pleasure of this anecdote lies in the Sherlock-Holmesian deductions of the slave; but its purpose is to show that even a half-blind Jewish slave is smarter (and more refined) than an Athenian Gentile.

Interestingly enough, a short Google search turned up no less than three further versions of the story: one from the Talmud, one from Islam, and one from Ceylon.

The Talmudic story (from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b) is in most respects the same as the tale told in the midrash. The slave has become two Jews captured in battle, and the Athenian has become their Gentile captor, and the five details about the camel in front have become three; but the ultimate point is the same, that "wherever [Jews] go they become princes to their masters."

An Islamic version (originally from Persia?) is found here (scroll down about halfway), in which the four sons of Nizar meet a camel-driver looking for his lost camel, which they are able to describe to him, giving four details, one provided by each brother. The only point of the story is to demonstrate the cleverness of the brothers, who go on to have other adventures. In this version, the only detail about the camel shared with the Jewish story is the half-blindness of the camel.

The last example comes from a tale published in 1557 called "The Three Princes of Serendip." In this tale the three princes have many of the same adventures as the four sons of Nizar, including the discovery of the lost camel. This version combines the four details of the Islamic version with others reminiscent of the Jewish version: the camel was carrying butter and honey (instead of wine and ointment) and the passenger was a pregnant woman, who, they surmised, had urinated in the road.

When I started reading the midrashic story, I had no idea that I would wind up following parallels to Serendip, which is apparently an old name for Ceylon. It's a perfect example, in fact, of serendipity. This is no idle pun, for it was the reading of "The Three Princes of Serendip" which led Horace Walpole in 1754 to coin the word serendipity, inspired by the three princes' "accidental sagacity." Walpole of course had no idea that the tale had a history connecting it to Jewish literature. The author of the essay in the link given above says:
The book ["Three Princes of Serendip"] contains fables from the Indian Panchatantra, but some of them are known in other lands. The tale with the widest currency is that of the one-eyed camel. The same tale is found in the Jewish Talmud and in the folklore of Korea, Ukraine, Serbia, and Croatia.
As far as I can tell, the version of the camel story contained in Lamentations Rabbah is the oldest written version. That does not necessarily imply that it is closer to the original tale — the later versions could preserve earlier traits — but it does seem to have been less studied by those investigating the origin of the more famous "serendipitous" version.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The excerpt from Lamentations Rabbah that I translated above is from Gustav Dalman, Aramäische Dialektproben (1927), pp. 18-19.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Forgery Scandals in "The Jerusalem Report"

The magazine Jerusalem Report has come out with an article entitled "Making History," by David Green, about the forgery scandal in Israel. Since online access is available only to subscribers, I'll give a few quotes here.

There is not much news in the article that has not seen the light of day before. But here are a few tidbits:

Golan's Next Project:
[Golan] says that some statuettes he shows me originally stood on either side of the entrance to the sanctuaries, which he bought "for thousands" several weeks ago from a Jordanian dealer. Golan theorizes that they symbolize Boaz and Yakhin, the names given to the two giant bronze pillars that flanked the entrance to Solomon's Temple.
This falls into line with the evidence-for-the-temple meme that characterizes several of the artifacts that Golan is associated with.

In the case of the Joash Tablet, ... Golan says he was hoping to make a profit, and continues with the line he has taken almost since the beginning of the affair, that the stone is the property of a (now-deceased) antiquities dealer named Abu-Yasser Awada, who asked for Golan's help in selling it. According to Golan, the sandstone tablet came into Awada's possession after it turned up during the 1999 excavations on the Temple Mount's south-east corner, when the Waqf was building a monumental new entrance to the underground Al-Marwani mosque. Awada thought that being publicly associated with an item that had the potential to strengthen the Jews' historic claim to the mount might be fatal for him in Palestinian circles, and also feared that as a West Bank resident, he was likely to have the treasure confiscated by authorities when he attempted to sell it.

"He gave it to me on consignment," says Golan. "We made an agreement. Up to a certain amount, he would have received 100 percent of whatever was paid. After that amount, I would actually get more than him." Golan doesn't mention any numbers, but does deny a report that he offered the tablet to the Israel Museum for $4.5 million.
According the indictment, the asking price was in the neighborhood of $1 million.

[Robert] Deutsch ... finds it insulting that [Amir] Ganor's department relates to all members of his profession as potential criminals.... "It's a disgrace. They think I'm another Arab from Balata [refugee camp] in Shkhem. They've murdered my good name, which I've built up over 25 years. They questioned me, and told me that I would be an expert witness, and then suddenly they hit me with a hammer in the head: I'm the forger! I asked Amir Ganor: After one and a half years you concluded that I'm the forger? He said that he didn't write the indictment, and that he has no control over it."
The indictment never states that Deutsch himself was the actual forger, but that he was the middleman in the sale of forged artifacts.

Lenny Wolfe, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer whose expertise is in seals and bullae, their impressions — and who has no doubt that the bullae connected with Golan are forgeries — suggests that the appearance of great fakes "always coincides with a period of atmosphere of highly charged emotion..."

"After 1967 ... there was a renewal of messianic-nationalistic fervor in Israel, one justification for which was artifacts. There was a ready market [for pieces with a connection to the Biblical era]: the collector Reuben Hecht, who bought 25 or 50 or so fake seals, and later, Shlomo Moussaieff, for whom an entire industry was set up to satisfy his fantasies."

It is true that at times the indictment suggests, without stating, that the forgeries were overall an elaborate scheme to cheat Shlomo Moussaieff.

The final paragraph is just journalistic crapola:
The unexpected and mysterious are part of the natural allure of archaeology and, without a doubt, of the antiquities trade. One can hardly fault the professionals who are confident that their tests and their black-and-white language are sufficient to debunk the most spectacular of finds. But at least in the case of the bone box and the tablet, the uncertainty still lingers, and mystery dies hard.
Now what, exactly, does that mean? That the narrow-minded archaeologists are out to spoil our fun? That there are no standards or protocols sufficient to test the authenticity of ancient finds? That some will never be convinced by any kind of scientific proof? Personally, I think Green was looking for some snappy way to wind up his article without drawing any actual conclusions, and took refuge in "mystery."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Green, "Making History," The Jerusalem Report, Feb. 21, 2005, pp. 34-38.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

No Comment Necessary

From an article in the Guardian on what contemporary Britons think about the Seven Deadly Sins:
Nine percent of respondents said they had never committed any of the seven deadly sins.

More on Modern Greek

A couple of days ago, I asked, "Should Biblical scholars learn Modern Greek?" Stephen Carlson rightly breaks down the question into two: Should the pronunciation of Modern Greek be used in Biblical reading? and Should Modern Greek be learned for its own sake? He answers a qualified "no" to both: the "Erasmian" pronunciation is, and will remain, standard within the academy, and there is not enough Biblical scholarship in Modern Greek to make learning the language worthwhile (a point also raised by Chris Brady in his comment on the original post). (Read the whole post.)

I agree; nevertheless, I have found that an active rather than a passive control of a language is a tremendous help in reading. Of necessity, we teach only passive knowledge of dead languages; but as long as there is some significant overlap between a living language and a dead language, I think it pays great dividends to actively know the living one. I have found this to be true with Modern Hebrew. I know that Randy Buth is experimenting in Israel with teaching Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek as spoken languages (Stephen provides a link to one of Randy's essays). If it works, that's the ideal solution. More power to him.

All this is a counsel of perfection. Time is limited. Lingua longa, vita brevis. For myself, I am coming late to an interest in Modern Greek. An awareness of the phonology helps me understand Palestinian Aramaic loanwords like אביינוס "nobleman," derived from Greek εὐγενής, but with the Byzantine-Modern pronunciation [evyenis]. But I wish I'd learned more earlier, when I had more brain cells.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Imposition of Ashes

SELF: I'll go to the Ash Wednesday service, but I don't want the ashes put on my head.
WIFE: Why not?
SELF (hesitantly): It's .... papistical.
WIFE (laughing): Then why go?

Why indeed? As a former Baptist, former Pentecostal, and former Presbyterian, I'm not yet comfortable with all the rituals of Episcopalianism. For instance, I've just started feeling OK with crossing myself, but I still have a problem with genuflecting towards the altar (sorry, seems like idolatry). The imposition of ashes was yet another hurdle.

But I went, knelt, prayed, and received the imposition of ashes. Nine days before my 53rd birthday, I was instructed to remember that I was dust and would someday return to dust. After the service, I walked out with a crude cross of ash smeared on my forehead, feeling incredibly blessed. Go figure.

Jesus Sightings, the Gospel of Thomas, and Homer Simpson

The recent rash of "Jesus sightings," well summarized here by Mark Goodacre, gives new meaning to this apocryphal saying of Jesus, found in the Gospel of Thomas (logion 77), and elsewhere: "Raise the stone and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I."

And of course that episode of the Simpsons, "Homer the Heretic," in which God, after appearing to Homer, says, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to appear on a tortilla in Mexico."

Who says Lent can't be fun?

Ash Wednesday

In our repenting commonly we make such haste as we take away before the fruits come. But if there happen to come any, is not this even our case? Our tears, if any, dry straight; our prayers, if any, quickly tedious; our alms indeed pitiful; our fasts, fast or loose upon any the least occasion; and so our repentance, if any, poenitentia poenitenda, "a repentance needing another, a new, a second repentance to repent us of it." To repent us of our repentance, no less than of our sin itself.

—Lancelot Andrewes, Sermon on Ash-Wednesday, 1624

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Should Biblical Scholars Learn Modern Greek?

Bob Dylan's Chronicles has been translated into Modern Greek. As with all translations of this fascinating work, I wonder how they translated his description of a friend's wife as "cool as pie, a solid viper." Some excerpts are located here. The cover, it should be noted, is much better than the one on the US publication.

Occasionally I like to look at Modern Greek and see how well my knowledge of Koine Greek helps me figure it out. Usually the answer is "not much." I can tell you however that Sherlock, the do-everything utility that comes with Mac OS X, handles Modern Greek pretty well. Here's a sentence from the above-noted article on Dylan:

Ο Dylan έφτασε στη Νέα Υόρκη τον Ιανουάριο του 1961, κάνοντας αμέσως αισθητή την παρουσία του στη folk κοινότητα του Γκρίνουιτς Βίλατζ.
And here's the translation, unrevised, from Sherlock:
The Dylan reached in the New York in January 1961, making immediately perceptible his presence in the folk community of Gkrj'noyjts Vj'latz.

Good enough. And for you Koine fans out there, you can see the faces of some old friends: παρουσία (presence) and κοινότητα (community). έφτασε gave me some trouble, but it must be derived from φθάνω (arrive, reach); the Koine form would be ἔφθασεν (cf. Matthew 12:28). And the orthography of Γκρίνουιτς Βίλατζ (Greenwich Village) is itself a short course in Modern Greek phonology.

All of that leads me to yet another question: Should Biblical scholars know Modern Greek? My friend Fr. Bill Gartig believes that scholars should use the Modern Greek pronunciation in their study, on the grounds that the living tradition of a language is always preferable to an artificial reconstruction. And in fact it is now normal for scholars of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to use the Israeli Hebrew pronunciation when vocalizing the text; anyone who uses the vocalization found in older, Christian textbooks will be derided for using "seminary Hebrew."

I've differed with Bill about this on the grounds that the Masoretic Text is uniquely the sacred text of Judaism, while the Greek Bible (LXX and New Testament) is not in the same sense the special property of Greek-speaking Christianity. We should pay attention to how today's Jews vocalize the text, because that text and its vocalization has been the special gift of that faith community. But does that analogy hold true between, say, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Bible?

Nevertheless, I have to admit that most of the reasons I would give a bible scholar for learning Modern Hebrew and its pronunciation could also be used to support learning Modern Greek. Does anyone in Biblioblogdom have any light to shed on this?

UPDATE (2/10): More here.

UPDATE: "Expecting Rain" readers: More here.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Here Comes Carrot-Head

This story about the Assyrians in Iraq and in the United States reminded me of a very dear friend from my college days. I won't embarrass him by giving his name, but he was a Presbyterian pastor who also happened to be Assyrian. It was his own enthusiasm for his mother tongue (Urmi, a dialect of Neo-Aramaic) that first got me interested in Aramaic.

This is the first Aramaic sentence I learned: I had noticed that whenever a certain annoying person approached to join our conversation, the pastor would mutter, "Tileh, tileh jizareh..." Finally, I asked him privately what tileh jizareh meant. He laughed and said, "It means, Here comes carrot-head."

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Flailing the Banjo? Or Frailing?

"She plays ... banjo in the old flailing style Uncle Dave Macon used."

So the sentence appears in Johnny Cash's "Cash: the Autobiography." This puzzled me because I always thought the term used for a style of banjo playing was "frailing," not "flailing."

A few minutes spent with Google brought only a small amount of light. The term indeed is normally "frailing" (see here and here). And yet there are other examples like the one in Cash's book of the term "flailing" being used:

Here: "He's one of the best flailing banjo players I've ever heard."

Here: "Blair accompanies in a pre-bluegrass picking and flailing banjo style."

But judging by the number of hits, "frailing" is the standard term. Hence, the question arises: Whence "flailing"? Is it an eggcorn (nascent folk etymology)? Since "to frail" is not used outside the world of banjo-playing, it might attract a folk etymology, especially since "to flail" meaning "to beat" well describes the action: someone who is frailing the banjo appears from the audience to be just beating or striking the resonator.

And yet apparently there is also some evidence that "frail" is just a dialectal form for "flail." In which case "flailing" is not a folk hyper-correction, but just an adjustment of the lexeme towards the standard dialect. But I can't answer the question definitively: Is the current use of "flailing" an eggcorn which in fact inadvertently restores the original etymon? Or is it a survival that has always been used alongside the dialectal "frailing"? — in which case it is not an eggcorn at all. I don't have the time or resources to solve this question, but maybe a reader has some specialized knowledge?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Johnny Cash, Cash, the Autobiography, with Patrick Carr (Harper Collins, 1997), p. 133. For previous mention of "eggcorns," see here and follow the links to the discussions at Language Log.

Friday, February 04, 2005

More on Evangelicals

I've gotten some good responses to my post yesterday on evangelicals. Here are some further thoughts on the topic.

First of all, thanks to Michael Pahl for his thoughtful reaction on his blog. He provides some excellent links that provide a deeper background, so those interested in the topic should definitely follow those links.

Second, let me stress a few things that I didn't make clear.

1. My rough definition of "evangelical" was intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I have no qualifications (or interest) in deciding what an evangelical should be. If anyone claims the label, I'm not about to deny it to them.

2. My definition, as I noted, was not intended to be applicable either historically or globally. Based on the article in Time, I think the word meant something different 30-40 years ago than it does now, as I indicated. I think the addition of the political component is probably at least partly due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and possibly Carl Henry, who very much wanted to see a full-fledged culture conflict in the US, with evangelical Christianity driving back the forces of secular humanism, both politically and religiously.

My impression is that overall evangelicalism identifies with this ideal, but that Schaeffer's program has been co-opted by power brokers in the Republican party. Check out that list of figures in Time and count how many of the influential evangelicals are political figures or culture warriors (a lot) and how many are theologians (maybe Packer), men of letters (none), or biblical exegetes (none).

3. Ken in his comment below brings up the question of confusing Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Personally, I do not think the term "fundamentalist" is a very useful one; as Chris Brady points out in his comment, few or none admit to the label. In 2005, I think the word "fundamentalist" is used primarily by the Left to refer to (1) evangelicals, (2) Christians in general, and (3) anyone who disagrees with them. Its actual referring power is very low.

4. I think I was wrong in the using the term "literalist exegesis." I think there is such a thing, and by "literalist" I refer to the tendency to narrow down the possible genres in Scripture; to see, for instance, all narrative as history, and all assertions as containing a proposition. But this is probably too broad a generalization to apply overall to evangelicalism, and I'll now acknowledge that the term "biblicism" chosen by several commenters and correspondents was better.

By implicitly criticizing "literalist exegesis," I don't mean to imply that, say, a skeptical or an allegorical exegesis is preferable. I only mean that the force of the words used — the job the text does — has to be interpreted in light of its context and its genre. For instance, in my opinion, the genre of Genesis 1-11 is not historical in the same way that the Gospel of Mark is. Obviously there is a huge amount of text where the proper understanding of context and genre has to be struggled with; that's what keeps scholarship in business.

5. In using the word "rightist," I also don't mean to imply that I am a "leftist"! My political opinions, such as they are, are all over the map. But I'm not going to go into them on this blog.

Thanks again to all of you for your comments and e-mails!

UPDATE: Other reactions continue to trickle in; no doubt I've missed some! Justin contributes some thoughtful comments on the question of Scripture, as does Eric@The Coding Humanist. Their posts are well worth reading, and I look forward to hearing more from them about this topic. Joe Carter@The Evangelical Outpost thinks I might be a "Canadian Evangelical" — figuratively speaking, of course!

AJMac@DoJustly also comments at some length. He suggests that one reason that Time's list of 25 influential evangelicals was heavy on the politicians and culture warriors is because Time was defining "influence" in terms of cultural influence. These faces are the faces of those looking outward to the world, not inward to the church. This is an interesting suggestion and worth pondering; in the end, however, it just won't do. I don't think J.I. Packer, for instance, has any influence on the surrounding culture comparable to his stature within evangelicalism. The same probably goes for Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and Bill Hybels. Many of the others face both "inwards" and "outwards" — Mark Noll, Billy Graham, Charles Colson, Richard Neuhaus. Nope, I don't buy it.

I also want to say a few words about the term "conversionist." Here, too, I was trying to be descriptive and not emotive. "Conversionist" as I use the term contrasts with other religious approaches to culture: the separatist (separate from the culture and let it go to hell), the accommodationist (let the culture call the shots ethically and politically), the Lutheran idea of the peaceful co-existence of Two Kingdoms, the revolutionary (kill 'em all). In the last 30-40 years it seems to me that evangelicalism has changed from a predominantly separatist social ethic to a conversionist one: work to change the surrounding culture into one more closely resembling the Kingdom of God. This is a big switch, because a conversionist social ethic was previously the province of the liberal "social gospel" and suggests the possibility of an earthly Utopia. Of course, the traditional Christian "works of mercy" are compatible with all these positions and in fact are obligatory on all who call themselves followers of Christ.

I'll stop rattling on, I promise. I will note however that AJ also called me a "Godblogger." I am not a Godblogger, whatever that is. I am a biblioblogger, and proud of it. :)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

What is an Evangelical?

I've gone through the list of Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential Evangelicals. For me, they fall naturally into four groups:

Never heard of 'em: Rick Warren, Howard and Robert Ahmanson, Diane Knippers, Michael Gerson, Joyce Meyer, Luis Cortes, Douglas Coe, David Barton, Richard Land, Stephen Strang, Ted Haggard, Stuart Epperson, Jay Sekulow.

Sounds vaguely familiar: Brian McLaren, Bill Hybels, Ralph Winter, Rick Santorum, T.D. Jakes.

I know definitely who they are: James Dobson, Billy and Franklin Graham, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Charles Colson, J. I Packer, Mark Noll.

I have met: Richard John Neuhaus.

I think what this means is that I am no longer in touch with the evangelical mainstream, if this list is accurate. I'm not really bothered by that, because, by today's standards, I don't think I am an evangelical. I believe the following four standards are criterial for evangelicals in today's culture in the US:

1. literalist exegesis of the Bible;
2. Republican/rightist political philosophy;
3. militantly conversionist approach to the culture at large, religiously and politically; and
4. traditionalist or orthodox in theology.

The only one of these criteria that I meet is No. 4.

One could argue with these criteria. Most Mormon leaders would probably meet criteria 1, 2, and 3. Are they evangelicals? I'm not sure. Most African-American church leaders match up well in 1, 3, and 4. Someone like Neuhaus would be characterized by 2, 3, and 4, and this would apply to conservative Catholics generally. Are they evangelicals? Well, Time thinks Neuhaus is, but I would place him in the camp of "fellow travelers." What about someone like Jim Wallis, who is trotted out whenever the media need a "liberal evangelical"? I'll give him 3 and 4, at best. I'm not sure how Mark Noll meets these criteria, either, but anyone who teaches at Wheaton can't be just a fellow traveler.

So there are borderline cases. Nevertheless, I think these criteria work in a rough-and-ready fashion. Like I say, I don't feel like I'm a part of this anymore. Nevertheless, I think critics on the left often tend to collapse all these factors. They often assume, for instance, that anyone who holds to traditional theology must also be rightist and literalist, and attack orthodoxy on those grounds (e.g, if you believe in the bodily Resurrection, you must be a fundamentalist Bush supporter). Therefore, I sometimes feel like a target, even though I'm not an evangelical as defined above. To be fair, evangelicals also blur these necessary distinctions.

I don't think this definition works historically; 30 years ago the definition of evangelical was up for grabs mainly on the basis of No. 1 and No. 4, and the engagement with the larger culture was more hesitant. But politics has co-opted a lot of the discussion since that time, and I deplore this.

Obviously there is more to say about it all, and I plan to add to these thoughts. But that's enough for now.

(By the way, when I met Richard John Neuhaus in the '70's, he had hair and was a Lutheran. Now he's a balding Catholic. But I was impressed with him then and I still am.)

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Counting Crows

This kind of conversation takes place a lot in my house:

WIFE: Are you OK?
SELF: Why do you ask?
WIFE: You seem preoccupied.
SELF: Well, I have had something on my mind a lot today.
WIFE (concerned): Oh, tell me what's troubling you.
SELF: It's the etymology of "crows."

We men are not as deep as women think we are.

But I have been wondering, and it goes back to yesterday's post. First of all, the Hebrew word for "raven," as I noted, is עורב, pronounced back then something like [ghoreb]. And this particular word has a cognate in all the other Semitic languages. It may go back to a proto-form *ghaarib (as Akkadian aribu would suggest) or possibly (as I noted yesterday) *ghuraib.

That's not so important. What bothers me is a certain double-mindedness in the research tools. The article in IDB and the entry in HALOT both state that the word for "raven" is onomatopoeic; that is, that the form ghoreb (or *ghaarib or *ghuraib) is meant as an imitation of the sound the raven makes. Now, I don't know what sounds ravens make in the Middle East, and maybe it does sound something like "ghoreb." Plus, lots of birds are named after their sounds — the whippoorwill, for instance, or the bobwhite — and this is probably true cross-linguistically.

But then, the same tools tell us that there is a verb in Arabic, ghariba, that means "to be black." So it seems just as natural to take Heb. ghoreb, Arab. ghuraab,etc. as meaning "black bird," especially when HALOT tells us that the word in question stands for "all types of crow." Do all types of crow make the same sound? I really don't know. But if the etymology is sufficiently explained by the root, then why did they also tell us it was onomatopoeic? Or is it known, somewhere, that the root in Arabic is actually secondary to the noun, and that it originally meant, say, "to be raven-colored" (which would make it one of our famous denominal verbs)?

Apparently, the Indo-European words for "raven, crow" all come from a putative root *grag-, which is also thought to be onomatopoeic in origin (cf. English crow, Latin corvus, Greek korax). Grag! Now that sounds like a crow!

Incidentally, "grackle" comes ultimately from the same Indo-European root, via Latin graculus, which means "jackdaw." However, if I properly understand the taxonomy, a grackle is not one of the raven/crow family (the Corvidae) but belongs to another group (the Isteridae). But don't quote me on that. Any birders out there who can comment?

One final kvetch. If you look in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, you won't find an article on "raven." You have to look in "Zoology" and then you'll find a very few words on the raven (they disagree with the onomatopoeic idea). The ABD is a great tool, but it most definitely has not made the IDB superfluous for Bible study.

ABBREVIATIONS: IDB: Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible; HALOT: Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Place Abundant in Small Crows

"Abu Ghraib" has become a name of ill-omen in the West, because of the abuses committed at the Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. troops. But there seems to be a difference of opinion about the actual meaning in Arabic of the word transliterated "Ghraib."

The majority opinion so far seems to be that "ghraib" or "ghurayb" means "crow" or "raven" (as this site translates it). But there also seems to be a minority option that it actually means either "strange" or "west" (the same word is used for both). See this NPR audio feature for that option. "Abu" means "father of" — so we just need to know father of what?

As I've indicated before on this blog, I'm no Arabist, but I am curious about anything Semitic. My initial digging turned up that, in the dictionary, the word for "raven" is /gh-r-'-b/ [ghuraab], while the word for "strange, west" is /gh-r-y-b/ [ghariyb]. That didn't really settle anything; [ghuraib] wasn't in the dictionary.

But then I run across this site, which tells me something I already suspected, and that is that the name of the prison is actually a diminutive form. The pattern /qutayl/ in Semitic is a common diminutive pattern. Therefore "ghurayb" could simply be read as a diminutive of the word for "raven." This is confirmed by an Arabic speaker posting on this site:
[ghurayb] may be a diminutive of [ghura:b] "crow". 'abu: literally means "father of" ("father" in the construct state), here in the meaning of "place abundant in". So it probably indicates "a place abundant in small crows."
Whew! Here's a question: is part of the problem the lack of vowels? Iraqis obviously know what the word means, but when non-Iraqi Arabs see the consonantal /gh-r-y-b/, do they mistakenly vocalize [ghariyb], leading to the confusion documented here? (Or is it the other way around?) In other words, are we dealing here with an Arabic eggcorn?

And all of that just reminds me of the Hebrew word for "raven" which is the cognate עורב, oreb. And in fact oreb in its phonetic structure looks a lot closer to [ghuraib] than it does to [ghuraab]. Is oreb, etymologically, a diminutive? Too many questions piling up.

The ghain sound (something like a cross between a growl and a gulp) was still pronounced in ancient Hebrew, by the way. It was signified by the letter ayin, most of the time; but in at least one case by the letter het. In Zephaniah 2:14, the prophet foretells that Nineveh will be deserted, and he prophesies of חרב בסף, which looks like it should be "desolation in the threshold." But the reading of the Septuagint suggests that the true reading was "raven on the threshold," and many modern translations render it that way. Maybe the ancients had as much trouble with [ghoreb] or [ghuraib] as we do.

UPDATE: I replaced the Arabic Unicode with transliterations, because my browser was having trouble dealing with it. If it caused the same problems for you — sorry about that! Experiment that didn't work. Too bad, because it looked really cool.