Thursday, December 28, 2006

Department of Redundancy Department

From a story on Ben Roethlisberger's bad year as Pittsburgh quarterback:
''It was tough, frustrating,'' Roethlisberger said. ''At least you know it will be awfully hard for next year to be any worse next year.''

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Third Annual Ralphies (3): Books

BEST NON-FICTION BOOK (Scholarly): Again, I didn't read anything published this year. The closest I came was in reading Joe Fitzmyer's 3rd edition of his commentary on the Genesis Apocryphon (2004; good) and Klaus Beyer's revised volume 2 of Die Aramäische Texte vom Toten Meer (2004; ditto). But the Ralphie goes to Alan Millard's Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (2000), an excellent survey, and subtly subversive of a number of scholarly shibboleths.

BEST FICTION: I read and enjoyed King Dork (2006) by Frank Portman, but the best novel I read all year was one I read the same week in May: The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. Very moving.

BEST GRAPHIC FICTION: So many to choose from. Marvel's Civil War series is great, if published at a glacial pace; also great is the current story arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four written by Mark Carey. I also have to mention the must-read Hatter M; my nephew Greg Cook works on that book as "Cartographic Chronicler and Historian." The Ralphie, however, goes to Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. No, it's not a male fantasy; it's an exciting quest tale that illuminates, and deconstructs, a number of assumptions (both male and female) about what the world would look like if all the men died (except one). Vaughan has recently been hired as a writer for ABC's drama Lost.

That's it for this year, folks!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy Birthday, O pale Galilean

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath
—A. C. Swinburne, Hymn to Proserpine

The skeptical Swinburne, under the guise of a pagan critique of Christianity, really was writing against, I suppose, the dull pieties of Victorian Anglicanism, but his attitude crops up quite a bit still. The grey world? yet as I look out my window, the neighborhood is a blaze of brightly colored lights, glistening decorations, and crazy plastic figurines. These things are only the echoes or the outskirts of genuine religion; but could a life-denying faith really engender such a merry display?

The other day in the New York Times, an unrepentantly Jewish writer talked about how she and her husband celebrated Christmas for the first time:
I love that as soon as I told a Catholic friend what I was up to, she invited me to a gingerbread-house decorating party. How fun is that? And why wasn’t I invited before? What does a gingerbread house have to do with Jesus?
Some nights, I put on our Starbucks Christmas CD, light a fire, turn on the tree and play with the different settings, put liquid smoke in the train’s smokestack and turn on the choo-choo sound effects and then I sit back and enjoy my first Christmas, in all its kitschy splendor. I feel a little guilty when I look at our lone menorah on the mantel (the only evidence of my faith other than my guilt), but I ask you: how can this much pleasure be wrong?
It reminded me for some reason of a passage from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, when one of her students told of the religious instruction in the university after the Islamic Revolution:
On one side [the teacher] had written, in large white letters, MUSLIM GIRL, and drawn a vertical line in the middle of the board. On the other side, in large pink letters, he wrote CHRISTIAN GIRL. He had then asked the class if they knew the differences between the two. One was a virgin, he said at last, after an uncomfortable silence, white and pure, keeping herself for her husband and her husband only. Her power came from her modesty. The other, well, there was not much one could say about her except that she was not a virgin. To Yassi's surprise, the two girls behind her, both active members of the Muslim Students' Association, had started to giggle, whispering, No wonder more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity.
I know that neither woman's experience is religious, or has anything to do with "authentic" Christianity; but it has everything to do with the world that Christianity made. After 2000 years, there are still plenty of people out there, on the outside looking in, who have the impression that such a world, with its colored lights and gingerbread, has something to do with pleasure and liberation. The pale Galilean, who was criticized for enjoying food and drink too much (Luke 7:34), might, after all, have had something to do with that.

Happy birthday, Lord. And many more.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Third Annual Ralphies (2): Film

BEST MOVIE: Boy, what a lousy year for movies, just as we knew it would be. I enjoyed Nacho Libre and Pirates of the Caribbean 2, but they're not really Film of the Year material. The one movie I was anxious to see, For Your Consideration, turned out to be a disappointment. So, I hate to get all haughty and everything, but I just can't award a Ralphie this year for Best Movie. However, I can start a new category:

WORST MOVIE: Lots of competition here. But I'd have to give it to Strangers with Candy, which is not only the worst movie I've seen this year, but possibly the worst movie I've ever seen. Like, in my life. I started checking my watch to see how much torture I had to endure after five minutes. It's even worse than the second worst movie ever, which I also happened to watch this year on DVD: Broken Flowers.

BEST TV SHOW: I've built my schedule around two shows this year, Lost (still great) and Heroes (also terrific). But the Ralphie goes to The Office. It's the only show I watch with Amy, whose taste otherwise runs towards earnest PBS documentaries. So, huge kudos to Carell & Co. just for luring my wife to network television.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Atheists vs. Liberals

Heave an egg outside a Pullman window anywhere in the United States today, and you will probably hit an atheist. In fact, I hope you do. There is a new prominence of what I term, drawing on my theological training, Mean Atheism. I refer to such writers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who are taking the old Village Atheist tradition to the ... well, to the global village. Yeah, that's it: the Global Village Atheists.

For orthodox Christians, it's all rather tiring. Didn't we just get done arguing down The DaVinci Code and guaranteeing that the movie would be the lamest and least successful Tom Hanks vehicle since Bonfire of the Vanities? We buried that sucka! Yeah! But now *sigh* there's a new shipment of nitwits that are just begging for the old double-barrel rational refutation treatment. It's exhausting. Can't we get a break?

You know what I say? I say, Let the liberals handle it this time. We orthodox folks are going to take some time off, and we'd really like some of the usual left-wing religious suspects to take this on for us. How about Katherine Jefferts-Schori, new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church? How about it, Kathy, you up for a fight? Why don't you take on Sam Harris? How about you, John Shelby Spong? Marcus Borg? Elaine Pagels? Dom Crossan, why don't you get in the ring with Richard Dawkins? Or John Hick: yes, you. Right now, start refuting. You do think there's something to all this existence of God business, don't you? Well, do us all a favor and crush some of these guys, or at least soften 'em up until the rest of us get back from Christmas vacation? Huh? Whaddya say?

No response? I thought so. Wimps.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Third Annual Ralphies (1): Music

I've decided to do the Ralphies in a series this year, in order to prolong the agony (yours, not mine). Today's Ralphies are for music.

SONG OF THE YEAR: A lot of good songs this year. Who doesn't love "Crazy"? And even if you hated it, you couldn't escape it. Also "Teach Me Sweetheart" by the Fiery Furnaces was probably one of the best this wonderful group has ever done. But the award goes to .... "Code Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton. Irresistible.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Bitter Tea by the Fiery Furnaces. So good my mind is still boggled by it.

BEST BOB DYLAN ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Snake Farm, by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Honorable mention: Modern TImes, by Bob Dylan (OK to listen to, but the lyrics and music are pretty lazy and derivative).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ralph Turns Two

"Ralph" is 2 years old today. It's been a quiet year, but 2006 did see the single biggest day in RTSR history, in terms of hits, links, and chat-room chatter, caused by this post. It also saw Bloglines subscriptions reach an all-time high of 66 (and then begin falling; current number is 61).

Beginning tomorrow: Year 3 A. R.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I've been busy.

Sorry for the non-blogging. Since I've had a full-time non-academic job this year, most of the available writing time that I've had (not much) has been devoted to other compositions:
  • a Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic; so far the draft reaches from aleph to het;
  • a review of Ursula Schattner-Rieser's L'araméen des manuscrits de la mer Morte for Journal for the Study of Judaism, now published;
  • an article for Aramaic Studies, "The 'Kaufman Effect' in the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum," now in page proofs, to be published in volume 4/2;
  • a 2000-word entry for the Dictionary of Early Judaism on "Aramaic, Jewish use of in the Second Temple Period"; I spent Thanksgiving vacation finishing that one.
So ... see? I've been writing, not blogging. It's amazing how much you can get done when you don't blog. I do miss it, though, and hopefully the coming year I can blog a bit more.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Armistice Day

From Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975):

There is one unforgettable vignette which if true is fine, and which if apocryphal is even better. It is Herbert Essame's memory of the German machine-gunner signaling the closing of a long run on November 11, 1918: "On the Fourth Army front, at two minutes to eleven, a machine gun, about 200 yards from the leading British troops, fired off a complete belt without a pause. A single machine-gunner was then seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and turning about walk slowly to the rear."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bright Fountain

Today is the feast day in the Anglican Communion of Richard Hooker, priest, author of On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker's remarkable book is still influential in the Communion among both liberals and conservatives, and his extraordinary prose style — the finest, in my opinion, of the Elizabethan period — reminds us that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. There were giants in the earth in those days.

Here is an excerpt, in which Hooker argues (against the Puritans) for the value of secular learning:

There is in the world no kind of knowledge whereby any part of truth is seen, but we justly account it precious, yea, that principal truth, in comparison whereof all other knowledge is vile, may receive from it some kind of light. Whether it be that Egyptian and Chaldean wisdom mathematical, wherewith Moses and Daniel were furnished; or that natural, moral, and civil wisdom, wherewith Solomon excelled all men, or that rational and oratorial wisdom of the Grecians, which the Apostle St. Paul brought from Tarsus, or that Judaical, which he learned at Jerusalem sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, to detract from the dignity thereof were to injury even God himself, who, being that light which none can approach unto, hath sent out these lights whereof we are capable, even as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they rise.

"To injury," by the way, is not a misprint; just a sign of how the language has changed since 1589.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Some Hebrew Phrases in the Qumran Texts

I've just recently run across an article by Phillip Davies, "Death, Resurrection and Life after Death in the Qumran Scrolls" (in Judaism in Late Antiquity, Vol. IV, Leiden, 2000). Davies is always worth reading, even when one disagrees with him.

However, this notice is just to gratefully acknowledge that, on. p. 197, Davies refers to my translation of raz nihyeh in the Dead Sea Scrolls, i.e., "The Secret of the Way Things Are," as "perhaps the most felicitous" of modern attempts to render the phrase in English. While we were revising our various sections for the second edition, I gave serious thought to doing away with "the secret of the way things are," but in the end I decided not to change it (although I did revise the work given that title, and divided it up differently).

Not everyone has been positive about our original renderings. Other phrases that I gave another long, hard look at are "Leader of the Nation" for nesi ha-edah (conventionally translated "Prince of the Congregation") and "Flattery-Seekers" for dorshe halaqot (usually "seekers after smooth things"). Both of these came from a dissatisfaction with the conventional renderings, and in the end, they were retained in the revised edition.

Nesi ha-edah, a messianic designation, is based on a biblical phrase (in Num. 31:13, Josh. 9:15, etc.) that older translators rendered as "princes of the congregation," but which more modern ones give as "leaders of the community/assembly." "Prince" is not a happy equivalent for nasi, and, at Qumran at least, edah in general designates the whole of Israel (and not just the sectarians). Therefore > "Leader of the Nation."

My problem with "seekers after smooth things" is that in modern English the phrase conveys no clear meaning. However, Hebrew halaqot is often used in the bible to denote "flatteries" or perhaps "pleasant untruths" (a key background text for this is Isa. 30:10); hence, "flattery seekers," a derogatory reference to an opposing sect, probably the Pharisees. It might be that halaqot was chosen as a dig at the opponent's love of halakhot (legal rulings), but this is not proven, since the latter word is not attested in the Hebrew of this period.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

James Barr

James Barr died on October 14, according to a report on the Agade list. Barr was the author of many important works in biblical studies, most notably The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968), Fundamentalism (1978), History and Ideology in the Old Testament (2000), and others too numerous to mention. All of them are marked by keen intelligence, vigor of thought, and a clear prose style.

I had lunch with Barr once, years ago, at the UCLA faculty club, with Stanislav Segert and Vinton Dearing. I don't remember what was talked of, though I am sure that, callow grad student that I was, my own tongue remained tied throughout the course of the meal. I do remember that Dearing asked me some question about translation technique, which I dodged by passing the buck to Barr. Of the four of us who ate together that day, I am the only one still living.

After lunch Barr spoke to Segert's graduate seminar on Genesis 2-3. His thoughts on this subject were later to be published as The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (1993). His own immortality in the field of biblical studies is guaranteed, and it is to be hoped that the new generation of students will not neglect his writings either as a source or as a model.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More Dylan Thefts

Henry Timrod made some news a couple of weeks ago by getting some of his lines quoted, or re-used, by Bob Dylan in his new album Modern Times. Timrod was a Confederate poet whose works are now in the public domain. Apparently Bob consciously or unconsciously snipped a few florid Victorian phrases and dropped them into some of the old-timey songs on his record. I don't think there's anything really wrong with that; it's not like he took whole passages and used them wholesale.

And yet Dylan, in his memoir Chronicles, comes pretty close to doing exactly that with other authors. Look carefully at this short passage:

Walking back to the main house, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of the pines. I wasn't near it, but could feel the power beneath its colors. (Chronicles, p. 162)

Compare that to this longer passage from Marcel Proust's Within a Budding Grove, especially the passages in italics:

But when, Mme. de Ville-parisis’s carriage having reached high ground, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of trees, then no doubt at such a distance those temporal details which had set the sea, as it were, apart from nature and history disappeared ... But on the other hand I was no longer near enough to the sea which seemed to me not a living thing now, but fixed; I no longer felt any power beneath its colours, spread like those of a picture among the leaves, through which it appeared as inconsistent as the sky and only of an intenser blue.

I don't think there can be any doubt that Bob had to have consciously taken these sentences and, with some revision, passed them off as his own.

Another example is from a book that I imagine Dylan knows well, Huckleberry Finn:
Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see. ... There warn't a sound there; everybody was asleep.
And now look at Chronicles, p. 165:
One night when everyone was asleep and I was sitting at the kitchen table, nothing on the hillside but a shiny bed of lights ...
My last exhibit (a less exact quote) comes from a book called Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, in which a hipster introduces "his chick" to Mezzrow:
Baby this that powerful man with that good grass that'll make you tip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she's a solid viper.
And now, part of Dylan's description of his friend Ray's girl, Chloe Kiel:
She was cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper — always hit the nail on the head. I don't know how much weed she smoked, but a lot. (Chronicles, p. 102)
And later in Really the Blues, a black man was "sitting there actually talking to a white woman cool as pie."

Now what are we to think of these "borrowings"? I know that borrowing and revising tunes and song lyrics is standard practice in folk and blues music, and Dylan has done plenty of that, quite openly, as have others. That doesn't bother me. But in a sustained piece of prose that is not meant to be sung or played, but taken as the author's own composition, it is not standard practice. In the instances given above, I think Bob comes pretty close to real plagiarism, and for all I know there are more instances in Chronicles yet to be identified. Frankly, as a Dylan fan from way back, I'm a little disappointed. Say it ain't so, Bob.

UPDATE: A couple more.

Jack London, Children of the Frost:
"Rum meeting place, though," he added, casting an embracing glance over the primordial landscape ...
Chronicles, p. 167: I cast an embracing glance over the primordial landscape ...

Jack London, Tales of the Klondyke:
Another tremendous section of the glacier rumbled earthward. The wind whipped in at the open doorway ...
Chronicles, p. 217: Wind whipped in the open doorway and another kicking storm was rumbling earthward.

UPDATE II: Yet more:

Sax Rohmer, Dope (1919), A tiny spaniel lay beside the fire, his beady black eyes following the nervous movements of the master of the house.

Chronicles, p. 167: A tiny spaniel lay at the guy's feet, the dog's beady black eyes following the nervous movements of his master.

London, Children of the Frost: And then they are amazingly simple. No complexity about them, no thousand and one subtle ramifications to every single emotion they experience. They love, fear, hate, are angered, or made happy, in common, ordinary, and unmistakable terms.

Chronicles, p. 169: Yet to me, it's amazingly simple, no complications, everything pans out. As long as the things you see don't go by in a blur of light and shade, you're okay. Love, fear, hate, happiness all in unmistakable terms, a thousand and one subtle ramifications.

UPDATE III (Oct. 2): Jack London, Tales of the Klondyke: Through this the afternoon sun broke feebly, throwing a vague radiance to earth, and unreal shadows.

Chronicles, p. 112: The afternoon sun was breaking, throwing a vague radiance to the earth.

Jack London, White Fang: He carried himself with pride, as though, forsooth, he had achieved a deed praiseworthy and meritorious.

Chronicles, p. 63: He didn't need to say much—you knew he had been through a lot, achieved some great deed, praiseworthy and meritorious, yet unspoken about it.

R. L. Stevenson, Providence and the Guitar: As Leon looked at her, in her low-bodied maroon dress, with her arms bare to the shoulder, and a red flower set provocatively in her corset, he repeated to himself for the many hundredth time that she was one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.

Chronicles, p. 127: I bought a red flower for my wife, one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Nine Eleven

And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
-Mark 13:2

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is.

—Bob Dylan, "Blind Willie McTell"

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

—W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Dylan & Dan Tucker

Not all the words and music here are Dylan's. . . . But Dylan surrounds these borrowings with his own brilliant and uncanny poetry: "I'm walking with a toothache in my heel" ...
This reviewer of Dylan's Modern Times obviously never learned "Old Dan Tucker" in elementary school.

Now old Dan Tucker's fine old man
Washed his face in a fryin' pan
Combed his head with a wagon wheel
And died with a toothache in his heel

What are they teaching kids these days?

Monday, August 28, 2006

At the Reception

After the wedding, the reception. It features an Irish band, all friends of the couple, including some groomsmen. Irish bouzouki, uileann pipes, fiddle, tin whistle, guitar. They set up in a little courtyard outside the reception room. I listen for a while, then wander back inside. My radiant daughter and her husband (her husband!) are greeting the guests at each table.

The reception is at a posh banquet center north of Cincinnati. There are maybe half a dozen other wedding receptions going on at the same time in other rooms. The walls are thick and each area is far enough from the others to keep the sound from leaking through.

But you have to walk past the others to reach the restrooms. As I walk down the hallway, I have glimpses of other receptions, other lives: a darkened room with people dancing to "Rock Me like a Hurricane"; another with some kind of activity that looks like the Chicken Dance; another with some kind of ethnic music (Hispanic?) ...

After I visit the facilities, I step outside. The rain has held off all day and now it doesn't look like it will arrive before the weekend is over. Good. I take a breath of fresh air and think about the ceremony. It went off without a hitch, and I smile as I think about the two of them looking each other right in the eye and making promises as big as mountains.

I step back inside the banquet center. From now on, everything will be different. There is a tray of pink carnations in the hall, waiting for yet another reception. I steal one to give to my wife, and walk back past the other lives to the Irish music.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Wedding Toast

A recent conversation with my daughter:

ELIZABETH: Dad, you know you're offering a toast at the wedding reception. Have you thought about what you will say?

SELF: Indeed I have, Elizabeth. First I'll start with a joke, both witty and urbane, to put the audience at ease, and then I'll give a quotation — either from the classics or Scripture, I haven't decided. From there I'll go on to my experiences as a parent, its joys and trials, with some reflections on the contemporary assault on family values and the threats to marriage as an institution in America today. Then I'll talk about you, your growth as a person, placed in the context of the post-war emancipation of American womanhood. Then I'll segue to the emergence of your love from Brian, and his for you, with reference to Bergson's concept of emergent evolution. I intend to finish with a vivid evocation of the bright vision of God as portrayed in the last book of the Paradiso, and how all things, including marital bliss, find their true meaning in the context of that "eternal fountain," the "love that moves the sun and the other stars."

ELIZABETH: You've only got two minutes.

SELF: I'll cut it down a bit.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

One Book Meme

I see that Chris Brady has tagged me, and I owe him a follow-up. So here goes:

1. One book that changed your life:
Tough choice. I'll say Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. Helped me out as a teenager when I really needed a rational approach to Christianity.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
Heaps and heaps of them. Do I have to pick just one? I'll pick the most recent: Boswell's Life of Johnson.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:
Let's see, something really long and involving, escapist, heavy ... War and Peace? I've started it more than once and never could finish it. The whole desert island experience would give the opportunity to make it all the way through.

4. One book that made you laugh:
David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing that I'll Never Do Again.

5. One book that made you cry:
Books don't make me cry; movies sometimes do.

6. One book that you wish had been written:
Secrets of a Long Successful Life, by Edward Cook

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
Pet Sematary, by Stephen King. Still gives me nightmares 20 years later.

8. One book you’re currently reading:
I always have a lot going at once. I'll just mention Parliament of Souls, by Stephen R. L. Clark, one of my favorite philosophers.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
See #3.

10. Now tag five people:
Oh, geez. I don't even know five people. But I'll tag these and see what happens: PastorJeff. Locustyears, Brandon.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The End of the World

A recent conversation in our house:

WIFE: Ha ha, some people are looking at the Mideast troubles and predicting the end of the world.

SELF: I wish.

WIFE: What?! You wish it were the end of the world?!

SELF: Do I wish for the consummation of human history, a new heavens and a new earth, the return of Our Lord? You bet I do.

WIFE: But I'm working on my doctorate.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Seated Teacher

While reading Peter Brown's biography Augustine of Hippo, I was struck by this passage describing Augustine the preacher:
Augustine would not even have been physically isolated from his audience, as a modern preacher would be, who stands in a pulpit above a seated congregation. The congregation of Hippo stood throughout the sermon, while Augustine usually sat back in his cathedra. The first row, therefore, would have met their bishop roughly at eye level, at only some 5 yards' distance.
This reminded me that the lecturer, preacher, or teacher of ancient times often sat while his audience stood, which sheds light on the passage in Luke 4:20, which describes Jesus sitting down after reading the scripture: "Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him." He was sitting down in the teacher's seat, which would have been elevated (like the bishop's cathedra of Augustine's time, centuries later), while his auditors stood.

I surmise that the same practice lies behind Matthew's description in the Sermon on the Mount: "Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him" (Matt. 5:1). We are to imagine Christ sitting on the mount, teaching, while his disciples stand and listen, at a slightly lower elevation.

The practice was ancient. Compare these pictures: the first from the Hammurapi stele of the 2nd millennium BCE (which portrays the seated god Shamash instructing a standing Hammurapi in the ways of justice) and a Greek vase, more than 1500 years later (which portrays a student standing before his teacher, who is consulting a laptop folding tablet).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Vermes on the Qumran Concordance

There is not really much drama in the editing of a concordance, but Geza Vermes puts his finger on an important aspect of the recently published Dead Sea Scrolls Concordance. In the course of reviewing said volume, he rehearses the history of Scroll concordances, and mentions the important card-index concordance put forth by John Strugnell in 1988. This privately photocopied book was not meant to be used outside the circle of original Scroll editors and their students. However:

Not only did "illegal" copies circulate among scholars (I received one myself), but as those familiar with the history of Qumran studies well know, an "official" copy of the Concordance, deposited in the library of Hebrew Union College Cincinnati by Strugnell, instead of being kept under lock and key, accidentally found its way to the open shelves and was noticed there by the renowned Talmudist Ben Zion Wacholder. He and a computer-savvy graduate student of his realised that from the concordance it was possible to reconstruct the underlying texts. Their work published in September 1991 ... was the first major breach on the embargo rule imposed on the unpublished manuscripts by the original chief editor Roland de Vaux, and maintained by his successors. The Cincinnati coup was a major contributory factor in the so-called "liberation" of the Qumran scrolls in October 1991. And the name of the graduate student, without whose computer expertise the venture would not have succeeded and who at one stage was threatened with legal proceedings, is none other than Martin G. Abegg, the editor of the present work under review. No revenge could have been sweeter.

I don't know if Marty Abegg has any sense of sweet revenge, but I'm glad to see Vermes reminding people of how much Marty and his trusty computer have meant to the history of Qumran studies.

Vermes's verdict on the Concordance: "an outstanding achievement ... truly indispensable." It's always nice to hear such kind words about a project in which one has participated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Vermes's review appears in Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (Spring 2006), 177-179.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Brooke on Book by Cook (et al.)

G. J. Brooke reviews The Dead Sea Scrolls Concordance, Vol. I, on which I was a collaborator, in the Society for Old Testament Study Book List 2004: "a magnificent achievement." Thank you, George! He also says, "I have not yet found any errors." Well, keep looking, you will. Not many, I hope.

We are currently working on Vol. 2, a concordance of the biblical texts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Martin Abegg with James Bowley and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls Concordance. I. The Non-Biblical Texts from Qumran. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bibliographical Note

For what it's worth, the newest issue of Near Eastern Archaeology has published my "Forgery Indictments and BAR: Learning from Hindsight," as well as other contributions to the SBL Forum that originally appeared on-line in March 2005. You can read it for free by finding the proper link on the right-hand side of this blog.

Fans of "Ralph" will recall that the article had its origin in a series of posts here in 2004-2005.

I'm a little ambivalent about the long Nachleben of this piece. It is not my career ambition to become known principally as an antagonist of Hershel Shanks, a man I like personally and respect professionally. Nevertheless, I think the points I made were important and I stand by them.

By the way, the magazine identifies me as "Research Consultant, West Semitic Research Project," which was true in March 2005, but now is not. (The grant under which I was working for WSRP has expired.) I should stress that the viewpoint of my article is not necessarily that of the WSRP.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Edward M. Cook, "The Forgery Indictments and BAR: Learning from Hindsight," Near Eastern Archaeology 68/1-2 March-June 2005 [appeared 2006], pp. 73-75.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Here and There on a Monday

Father's Day: This weekend my lovely children took me to see Nacho Libre, which we all enjoyed hugely, unlike most critics. Since my daughter is getting married in August (to an excellent young man) and moving to California (where she will begin doctoral studies at Stanford), this may be the last Father's Day for a while for us all to be together. *sniff*

ECUSA: Looks like dark days in the ECUSA for orthodoxy. The Episcopalian Church is well on its way to becoming Unitarianism, With Mass. Am I concerned about Katherine, our new presiding bishop? Yes. Not because she's a woman — that's no big deal — but because her respect for Scripture and tradition seems to be weak, as far as I can tell. The leftists in the denomination, as this example shows, are not even bothering to pretend to be nice anymore.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Facing the Caboose: Time-Orientation in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Aymara

An interesting story in Language Log about the Aymara language, which is reported to have a "reverse concept" of time, i.e. the past is considered "in front," while the future is considered "behind." Apparently other Asian and Pacific languages have the same feature.

It should be noted that Hebrew and Aramaic also have this perspective, to some extent. Observe, for instance, Biblical Hebrew yemei qedem, days of old/of long past; the word qedem incorporates the root q-d-m, meaning basically "to be in front of." And every beginning Hebrew student will know of the prepositions אחר and אחרי, which have a spatial meaning, "behind," and a temporal meaning, "after, afterwards, in the future."

In Aramaic, the situation is similar. Something that happened "previously" or "a long time ago" is said to have occurred (min) le-qadmin, using the cognate root q-d-m mentioned above; the preposition qodam "before, in front of" is well-known. In early Aramaic, the root אחר is also used to denote both "behind" and "futurity," but its use fades in later dialects in favor of the neologism bathar "after" (from b + athar, "in place of").

This is not a complete survey of all the time-related words and expressions in Aramaic and Hebrew, but it's enough to show that, cross-linguistically, Aymara is not alone. There is a certain psychological aptness to this system, in that what is in front of one can be seen, while that which is behind cannot be seen. In this respect, the past, which is known and visible, is like the front view, while the future — unseen and unknown — is like the unseen vista behind one's back. It's like sitting on a train facing the caboose.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

ECUSA fiddles while Bible burns

At the Episcopal Convention in Columbus, they've already had a U2-charist, a communion service featuring the music of (although not the actual voices of) U2. Apparently it triggered

a joyous celebration in response to the Episcopal Church embracing the goals set forth by the United Nations: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, ensure environmental sustainability and create a global partnership for development.

Well, whoop-de-do. Yep, those are all good things, I guess. But pardon me for questioning whether the Episcopalians (of which I am one, at least for now) ought to be joyously rubber-stamping vague UN "goals." Did Christ say, "Go ye into all the world and achieve universal primary education"? For all I know, some of the bishops may think exactly that. You never can tell with Episcopalian bishops.

Dear God, how the ECUSA could use a good swift kick in the pants right about now. I doubt whether anyone will give it to them.

Monday, June 05, 2006

June 6: A beastly day?

Lots of mindless tittle-tattle on the Internet concerning the date tomorrow — 6/6/06. Ooooh! Isn't that the Number of the Beast, according to Revelation 13:18? What if something happens?

Fear not. The number of the beast is not 666 ("six six six"), it's six hundred and sixty-six. There's nothing ominous about the number 6 three times in a row; that's just the way we write that particular number in Western arithmetic. Is there anything scary about DCLXVI (= six hundred sixty-six in Roman numerals)?

Plus, it's not completely clear that 666 is the original number of the beast (see here), although it probably is.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Memorial Day in the US is for the remembrance of those who died fighting for their country. I don't know of anyone related to me who has died in battle, but there've been a few who did serve in the military and saw combat.

My great-great-great-uncle Andrew Kincannon (d. 1829), fought in the battle of King's Mountain (1780) against American Tories and the British.

My great-grandfather Joseph Pope Morgan ("Granpappy", d. 1933) served in the Confederate Army (3rd Mississippi) and was wounded in the battle of Chickamauga.

My step-grandfather Bill Erkelens (d. 1965), flew in bomber biplanes in World War I as the gunner. "How many German planes did you shoot down?" I asked him once, when I was a kid. He said, "Just one," and looked away. Not a good memory.

My uncle Joe Morgan (d. 1966), served in the Pacific Theater in World War II, most notably on the island of Peleliu.

My father, Charles G. Cook (d. 1985), was a bomber pilot (B-17's) during World War II. In 1948, he flew C-47's in the Berlin Airlift. Later, in the early '50's, he was stationed on Guam and was a "typhoon spotter," flying 27 missions into the center of typhoons to gather meteorological data.

My brother, Chuck Cook, was in Vietnam (I think actually Cambodia) as a radio communications specialist.

I'll also mention my wife Amy's illustrious ancestor, Nathaniel Chapman, who was one of the original Minutemen and fought at Bunker Hill. One of his children, John Chapman, became better known as Johnny Appleseed. (JA's half-brother, also named Nathaniel, is Amy's great-great-great-grandfather.)

Me? I gave up my student deferment in 1971; that year my lottery number was 189, and they didn't draft me. According to the rules in place then, if you weren't drafted the first year you were 1-A, you couldn't be drafted later. Although I had grave misgivings about Vietnam (who didn't?), I had no plans to dodge the draft or to declare myself a conscientious objector. If I had, my father might have done me serious harm, and I was more afraid of him than of the Viet Cong. But by the luck of the draw, I was passed by. Nothing to be proud of, but at least no one had to go in my place.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Goodbye, Shelby

Yesterday our long-time family dog, Shelby, was put to sleep at the age of 15. We acquired him in the fall of 1990 as a puppy, when the kids were 7 and 3. Now they are 22 and 18, all grown up, and, as if his work was done, Shelby's body started to give out. He had a good long run as our friend, playmate, and little brother.

He was a mixed-breed dog of medium size, with a beagle-type head and ears, but with a hunter's deep chest and slender hips. It's a pity that none of us have ever been hunters, because he would have excelled at that; he knew how to point, and when he barked (not very often, for he was rather quiet), it was with the hound dog's arooo! and not the yike-yike-yike of the lapdog. Occasionally he would slip through the security system for independent forays, returning hours later with some strange dog's supper dish. And who will ever forget the time when he snuck into the kitchen and ate an entire plate of brownies, with no ill effects? He was the children's special friend, sleeping on their beds until his hips and legs became too fragile to manage even that small hop.

With most species, we share the planet as passengers share the same train (although no doubt the animal creation finds us an unusually loud, smelly, violent, and unruly group to travel with), and God's purpose and plan for them is a complete mystery; neither Scripture, tradition, nor reason give us any clue about the post-mortem fate of creatures, if any. But the species Canis domesticus seems to have evolved alongside Homo sapiens, and their fate — biologically, at least — seems intertwined with ours, their behaviors shaped by human habits.

Even the few hints about our own human destiny do not encourage the view that the Resurrection life is just this world all over again; and yet there must be some kind of continuity at some level. Otherwise talk about "the new creation" would be devoid of content, denoting only "unimaginable beings in some unimaginable mode of existence." Since there must be some continuity, perhaps it is not going too far to hope that these creatures, at least, may find a place in the new heaven and new earth; and that when we awake in newness of life, out of all the other wonders in store for us, one of them might be the sight of our glorified dogs jumping up to lick our faces.

In closing, I append a poem by Robinson Jeffers, called "The House Dog's Grave." Many thanks to Michael Gilleland, who recently included it in his blog.

I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the nights through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read - and I fear often grieving for me -
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided...
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Au lieu de moi

Sorry I've been non-blogging lately, a trend that shows no signs of letting up. (Or is that "every sign of not letting up"? Oh well.)

In place of my own ideas, here's a couple of links from Slate. First, a review of the movie of The DaVinci Code. A quotation:
To my mind, the most ineffable gnostic secret of all is how such hooey has managed to capture the imagination of tens of millions of people all around the world.
Also, please note that Slate now has its own biblioblogger, sort of.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lost Again

Forget the Gospel of Judas, the DaVinci Code, the Dead Sea Scrolls — the most pored-over, closely read mystery text in the U.S. today is undoubtedly the Blast Door Map from Lost.

We learned one interesting thing last night; the "?" site is the Pearl station. That puts Locke and Eko at least one step ahead of the unknown map-maker, who labeled the site "Purpose unknown." Locke's fear that what they found at the station invalidates his button-pushing mission may (or may not) be addressed by the Latin tag attached to this station on the Map: Nil actum reputa si quid superest agendum, "Nothing is considered done if anything remains to be done."

One reading on the Map should be corrected; although everyone reads Credo nos in fluctu eodem esse (at about 2 o'clock on the map), the word eodem is not there. "I believe we are in a/the wave."

Speculation: I think the Others must live underground and travel by tunnel. I guess we're about to find out.

By the way, if you're not getting enough egghead in your Lost diet, you should know that there is an online Journal of "Lost" Studies.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Books 'n' Records

Just a few notes on what's on the bookshelf/CD player:

Last week I read The Power and the Glory, this week I'm reading The End of the Affair, both for the first time. Where have you been all my life, Graham Greene? ... Over the weekend I read King Dork, by Frank Portman, which was good, although my expectations were slightly higher than the book turned out to be. The kids in this young-adult novel, by the way, don't listen to CDs (it's vinyl instead), nor do they have cell phones, cars, iPods, or any of the other iconic impedimenta of today's youth. And yet it's supposed to take place in the present day? Try around 1985 instead ... The Fiery Furnaces have just come out with Bitter Tea, and I can't recommend it too highly. Just as plot is the backbone of fiction, and draughtsmanship of art, melody is the backbone of music — and no-one these days writes better melodies than FF's Matt Friedberger. The fact that he festoons them with all kinds of collaged sound effects, synth blats and beeps, backwards tapes, and cartoonish keyboard doodles matters not a whit (in fact, I like it): the tunes themselves adhere to the synapses with the delirious speed of ad jingles. But what ad jingle ever had lyrics like

The isolated lady,
an isolated older lady:
a dignified dame who keeps her own counsel,
in love with the out-of-the-way,
identifying with the unfamiliar,
contemptuously turns her back on the wicked world
with its vulgar delusions and correspondingly
scorns its regard.
("Whistle Rhapsody")

Very cool.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Please, No More Movies

OK, is this thing on? Hello? OK. Yes. I'd like to read a press release from the Association of Hollywood Moguls.

Hello, American people! We know you're out there, because, dang it, somebody keeps buying movie tickets. But actually, lately, that number's going down. And frankly, folks, that brings us to our main topic of this press release, the decline in ticket sales. We've actually come to a realization: most of the movies we make just suck. When we checked the summer schedule of movies coming out — frankly, even we got a little nauseous. We've got sequels to comic-book movies coming out, like Superman; we've got remakes and more remakes (yes, the rumors are true, we remade "The Poseidon Adventure"); we've got lame teen comedies full of fart jokes, and, um, even more sequels. Oh, and horror movies that are remakes of Japanese originals. For us, a high concept movie is "Snakes on a Plane."

The fact is, folks, we're just plain out of ideas for good movies. And we think you deserve better. So we've decided that until we've gathered enough ideas for a whole season's worth of good cinema, we're just not going to make any more movies.

I know what you're thinking, especially if you're a theater owner. But don't worry: we're going to re-release a lot classic movies, without remaking them, so that there will be plenty of films at your local cineplex. We just think that you haven't lived until you've seen "Casablanca" or "The Seven Samurai" on the big screen. Enjoy!

"What about us?" the actors have been saying. Don't worry, you crazy kids! We've lined up plenty of work for you. Most of you will be recording a ton of audiobooks, just to keep your voices in shape; the rest will be honing their actorly skills in "little theater" productions all over the country. We can't wait to see it! And, speaking of actorly skills, we also want to be the first to announce that several stars will be going back to Remedial Acting School! Yes! The first two scholarship recipients? Keanu Reeves and Ben Affleck.

How long will it take? We're not sure, but we think after about 5 years we may be able to start making a few interesting, intelligent, and exciting movies. We appreciate your patience until then, and we look forward to seeing you at next week's world premiere of "Citizen Kane." Thanks!

If only.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Was the Gospel of Mark Written?

Since today is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, I hearby announce, in his honor, that almost every scholarly discussion of the date of Mark's Gospel is wrong. I would like to state — with only a soupçon of exaggeration — that Mark was written within one year after the resurrection.

This statement cannot be proved wrong without assuming (a) that the Gospel makes widespread use of vaticinium ex eventu, that is, history disguised as prophecy; and (b) that the evangelist relied on a chain of oral tradition, whose crystallization requires "a long time". I submit that both of these assumptions are arbitrary. Assumption (a) imports a philosophical premise (prophecy cannot happen) into a literary argument; and assumption (b) assumes, usually without argument, that Christian tradition was immediately oral and only secondarily written (instead of, as is more probable, a mixture of both).

Obviously I am taking an extreme position to make a point. But can anyone point to indications within the Gospel that point to a date ca. 65 CE or later (the usual date given) without relying on the above assumptions?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The End of Biblioblogdom?

I note that Jim West has announced the "dis-integration" of the biblioblogging community. He may well be correct, or not; I don't know. I do want to put in my two cents about my own decreased activity in the blogosphere, which Jim cites in two places, including the remark that I (among others) have been "strangely silent."

As I noted a while back,* I started a new, non-academic, job in November that keeps me busy 40 hours a week. When I'm not "at" work, I continue to do other work at home, fulfilling commitments to Oaktree Software and others, and trying to honor various writing contracts. I also have family and church activities that I would not like to neglect. There's just not much time for writing blog posts or even reading them.

If, as Jim asserts, the other "classic" bibliobloggers are blogging and communicating less, this may be a function of the expansion of Biblioblogdom. When I started blogging in November 2004, there were approximately 4.5 million blogs (according to Technorati); now there are 35.8 million. This exponential growth has been felt among biblioblogs as well. The community that started out small has grown too large to keep up with even in a passive read-only way, to say nothing of engaging in daily back-and-forth debates.

So ... life happens. It's okay. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

* I said in November 2005: "This meeting [SBL] caught me in the middle of a career reinvention, as I begin to renounce the threefold academic vow (poverty, bibliography, and jargon) and transition from full-time independent scholar to full-time cubicle dweller with philology as a hobby. This will also affect "Ralph"; as the demands on my time increase, blogging will become harder to fit in. But I won't quit. Watch this space."

Monday, April 17, 2006

Gnosticism and the Jews

Misunderstandings and misapprehensions about the Gospel of Judas continue to flow. Secularist commentator Christopher Hitchens, who is apparently completely devoid of elementary knowledge of church history, remarks that acceptance of the Gospel of Judas would help to combat Christian anti-Semitism:

The Judas gospel would make one huge difference if it was accepted. It would dispel the centuries of anti-Semitic paranoia that were among the chief accompaniments of the Easter celebration until approximately 30 years after 1945, when the Vatican finally acquitted the Jews of the charge of Christ-killing.

Christianity, of course, has much to repent of in its treatment of the Jews over the centuries. Nevertheless, when the Church rejected Gnosticism, it was taking a step away from anti-Semitism, not towards it, because the Gnostics despised the Jews, the Jewish God, and Jewish Scripture. As Hyam Maccoby writes,
While anti-Semitism (in the sense of intense dislike of Jews) was not uncommon in the ancient world, it was probably among the Gnostic sects that the most radical form of anti-Semitism originated — the view that the Jews are the representatives of cosmic evil, the people of the Devil. (The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, p. 186)
Maccoby continues by portraying St. Paul — most unreasonably, in my opinion — as himself an early Gnostic. However, Maccoby's principal thesis is correct.

Gnosticism's intense rejection of Judaism seems to have been overlooked in the modern revisionist rush to anoint the Gnostics as a "healthy corrective" to orthodox Christianity. If the Gnostic version of Christianity had prevailed, Judaism might not have survived.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on the Gospel of Judas

The ole Internet is just a-simmerin' these days with more Gospel of Judas stuff. Several blogs are rounding up links for one-stop-shopping for GJ news; I think I'll just mention Doc Cathey's post, and you can go from there.

One essay you should not miss is Adam Gopnik's contribution to the New Yorker, an excellent piece from a secular perspective. The New Yorker — darn their blue-state hides! — still has the best writing around, and Gopnik is always worth a read. His conclusion:
Whether one agrees with Jefferson that this man [Jesus] lived, taught, and died, or with St. Paul that he lived and died and was born again, it is hard not to prefer him to the Jesus of the new Gospel, with his stage laughter and significant winks and coded messages. Making Judas more human makes Jesus oddly less so, less a man with a divine and horrible burden than one more know-it-all with a nimbus. As metaphor or truth, we’re sticking with the old story. Give us that old-time religion—but, to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine, maybe not quite yet.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is the Gospel of Judas "Troubling"?

All right. Here we go *sigh* with another Gnostic Gospel alert. Now the publication today of the Gospel of Judas is providing tons of grist for the junk-scholarship mill. Here's what the NYT has to say about this and other Gnostic Gospels:

As the findings [of Gnostic gospels] have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his most favored disciple and willing collaborator.

The utter inability of the NYT to understand the import of this discovery is just amazing. Although elsewhere in the article, the authors seem to grasp that this "gospel" is a product of the second or third century AD/CE, they push the idea that somehow it provides information about the first century AD/CE and the historical Jesus.

And then the idea that some gospels were "edited out" of the canon — ! I run into this idea all the time among the uneducated, but to find the American newspaper of record buying into it is just annoying. Do they get all their information from Dan Brown?

I suppose it bears repeating: (1) none of the Gnostic gospels, which date from at least a century after the time of Christ, have any credible claim to provide evidence about the historical Jesus; (2) none of the early New Testament canons ever included any gnostic Gospels, therefore those Gospels could not have been "edited out"; (2) any theological perspective held by grown-ups on the formation of the canon should be able to accommodate both the governing hand of God and the presence of "historical and political forces."


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Tyler's April Seal

Ha! Tyler Williams has a great April Fool's joke here. Good one!

Unfortunately, this post will probably linger on in cyberspace as a real discovery and eventually make its way into a Wikipedia article. Caveat lector.

Friday, March 31, 2006

A Token of Donne

Today is the feast day in the Anglican Communion of John Donne, priest, who, besides his accomplishments in divinity, was (on his good days) a poet the equal of Shakespeare. Celebrate his day by reading "The Token."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Pot in the Bible?

In answer to a question from Michael Gilleland:

1. There is no credible evidence that the etymology of cannabis (Latin "hemp") is connected to Hebrew קנה בשם qeneh bosem (Exodus 30:23), literally "reed of sweet spice."

2. The best guess as to the identity of qeneh bosem, an ingredient in the incense used in the tabernacle, is that it was lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus). (See the entry in Immanuel Löw's Flora der Juden, 1924-34.) Nobody knows for sure.

3. There is no evidence that Jesus used cannabis, marijuana, hemp, lemon grass, qeneh bosem, kalamos euodes (the Greek translation of qeneh bosem), or any compound of spices or incense in the process of healing, contrary to recent sensationalistic claims.

4. The only mentions of kalamos in the New Testament (Matt 11:7; 12:20; 27:29-30, 48; Mark 15:19, 36; Luke 7:24; 3 John 1:13; Rev 11:1; 21:15-16) are in the meaning "reed" or "pen." Kannabis is not mentioned in the NT.

5. The only unmistakable reference to Cannabis sativa that I can find in Hebrew or Aramaic are some obscure vocabulary items in Syriac: qanpa (obviously a loan from kannabis) and tanuma. (Courtesy of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon.) These words are not used in the Peshitta (Syriac Bible). Qanpa is used in the late Syriac Ahiqar texts to refer to "ropes of hemp" (tunbei de-qanpa). They were weaving it, not smoking it. (Later: Sorry, I overlooked the Hebrew word qanbes — again a clear loan from kannabis and not the other way around — found in the Mishnah to mean "hemp." Again in the contexts in which it appears [Kilaim 2:5; 5:8; 9:1,7; Negaim 11:2], it refers to a material for making clothing or other household objects, not an ingredient of incense or healing.]

6. QED: Neither British tabloids nor Wikipedia are reliable sources of information.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

If you don't like the weather ...

Yesterday we had a big snowstorm, today it is bright and cloudless. It's time to bring out the old cliché, "If you don't like the weather in Cincinnati, just wait a few minutes." This particular meme, so beloved around here as a "local saying," I have heard in all of the many places I have lived. A quick Google search reveals the following exact quotes for this "local saying":

If you don't like the weather in Texas... Just blink!

If You Don't Like The Weather in Chicago. wait a minute.

If you don't like the weather in Michigan, wait five minutes.

Mark Twain wrote, "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes."

And remember, if you don't like the weather in St. Louis, just wait ten minutes.

Yup, if you don't like the weather in Texas, wait five minutes -- it'll change!

If you don't like the weather in Melbourne, just wait five minutes.

If you don't like the weather in Washington, well, just wait a minute.

If you don't like the weather in Boston, just wait a minute.

Will Rogers once quipped, "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it'll change."

If you don't like the weather in Missouri just wait 5 minutes.

"If you don't like the weather in Buffalo, wait five minutes." Famous quote from past resident Mark Twain.

If you don't like the weather in the Sierra…wait a minute"

Everybody knows that if you don't like the weather in British Columbia, all you have to do is to wait five minutes.

If you don't like the weather in Florida, stick around for a few minutes, it'll change.

I guess it's true what they say here "if you don't like the weather in Utah, wait 20 minutes".

If you don't like the weather in North Carolina, wait a day.

We also say, 'If you don't like the weather in Scotland, then hang around for twenty minutes'.

I wonder ... do they haul out this "local saying" in Europe as well? Are there French or German equivalents? And what did Mark Twain really say?

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Champion Once Again

I was fortunate enough to be selected a member of the Spelling Bee team at the company I work for, and yesterday we won the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati's 16th Annual Scripps Spelling Bee for Literacy. The full story is here. Yeah, baby! No, the LPK team did not wear costumes.

The last time I did anything like this was in 1967, when I won the Austin (Tx.) Junior High School spelling championship. Nice to know that I still got the mojo. And big-time props to my teammates, Bev and Al.

Below is a picture of me giving the black-power salute (after spelling alepidote), while Al Hidalgo looks on wonderingly.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Skinny-Dipping and the Fate of Nations

The death of John Profumo — a figure likely forgotten by many today — is big with biblical echoes. Profumo was a Conservative cabinet member in the British government in 1963, and was brought down by a sex scandal involving call-girl Christine Keeler. The NYT reports:
She [Keeler] was 19. He was 48. As the story went, he first caught sight of her climbing naked out of a swimming pool.
For those, like myself, who view the world as a vast biblical commentary, the story of Profumo is a gloss upon the sin of David and Bathsheba. 2 Sam. 11:2-4:
Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king's house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, "Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her.
All of which is an illustration of the observation, first enunciated in ancient wisdom literature, which may be paraphrased as follows:

The whiskey glass
and the female ass
have brought many men
to a sorry pass.

It is also a biblical principle, however, that that is not necessarily the end of the story. I will assume that the later story of David is well-known to most of my readers. The later story of Profumo, on the other hand, was news to me. The NYT story notes that "after his fall ... he turned to charitable work among the poor in the hardscrabble East End of London":
But there was another side of the story: redemption. By working in the East End, washing dishes, tending alcoholics, Mr Profumo's friends said, he paid his dues. Lord Deedes, a friend, told the BBC today: "He atoned for his mistakes and I think will, on death, receive his reward for that."

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A New Book on the Gospels by Garry Wills

Fr. Edward T. Oakes has a review here of a new book by Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant, which sounds interesting. I refer to Wills's book, not the sour review, which uses "crypto-Anglican" as a swear-word. Sounds like a compliment to me!

I've always liked Wills, and I particularly commend his Under God: Religion and American Politics. It sounds to me like Fr. Oakes finds Wills's Christianity a little too "mere" and not Catholic (i.e., not papist) enough. But I'm glad to see that GW's theology has not moved leftwards at the same rate as his politics. If he (GW) wants to move over to Episcopalianism, we could use his help.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Girlish Confusion

Thanks to Targuman for this notice about Israel Drazin's version of Targum Onkelos. I have to mention that this paragraph mystifies me:

As Rabbi Drazin explained, Onkelos casts a light on the proper translation of texts elsewhere in the Bible. Thus in rendering Exodus 2:8, the ancient translator refers to Moses' sister Miriam as an almah, which Onkelos translates as "girl." The word is significant to Christians because Isaiah 7:14 speaks of an almah who "will become pregnant and bear a son"—a verse that Christians, rendering almah as "virgin," understand as referring to the Virgin Birth.
Wha'? Onkelos is written in Aramaic, the Hebrew Bible is written in, well, Hebrew. The word that Onkelos uses in Exodus 2:8 is uleymta, meaning "girl" in Aramaic, while the Hebrew text has almah. The word uleymta is the common word for "girl" in the dialect of Onkelos (it also commonly translates na'arah "girl, lass"), while almah is rather rare in Hebrew. and its exact nuance is disputed. Although the two words are cognates, this has no bearing on the meaning of any text in which almah appears, except as confirming that Onkelos (and Jonathan in Tg. Isa. 7:14) thought that almah meant "girl" in those texts. For what it is worth, Onkelos translates Hebrew betula, "virgin," by uleymta in Deut. 32:25. Nothing very conclusive comes out of all this.

If Rabbi Drazin expects people to pay attention to his book because of this kind of tittle-tattle, I imagine he is in for a disappointment.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Here and There

—There has appeared an interesting list of "100 best first lines from novels" here, and, in response, a list of "best last lines." I'll give it some thought, but I'm not sure I could better the first list (the second is still growing). I think I might add the opening sentence of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers." And I would certainly add, from Tom Sawyer:
No answer.


No answer.
It's not a novel, but "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" from Caesar's Gallic War is a pretty famous opening.

—I finished my review of Ursula Schattner Rieser's L'araméen des manuscrits de la mer Morte. I am told that it will appear in the August 2006 issue of Journal for the Study of Judaism.

—I wanted to give a shout-out to Danny Zacharias for producing a nifty Unicode keyboard for Hebrew transliteration, available here. I used it in producing the review mentioned above; worked like a charm. Thanks, Danny.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Comic Books (ii): Marked

A while back I wrote about C. S. Lewis's expressed desire to write something about the Gospel story that avoided its "stained glass associations," in order to hear it fresh again. Most people would think, I imagine, that he succeeded in the Narnian Chronicles, at least partly by creating an entirely new world in which to place the story.

But what if you wanted to make the actual Gospel narratives live again? is there any way of avoiding 2000 years of "churchy" connotations while re-telling the gospel itself? Many have tried, few have succeeded. One of the best attempts in the 20th century was Dorothy Sayers's Man Born to be King, a series of radio plays broadcast in Britain during World War II and, in my opinion, one of the most moving of all modern re-tellings of the story of Christ. One reason that MBTBK succeeded where most (e.g.) Jesus movies fail is that it was written for a medium (the spoken voice) that avoids many of the pitfalls of over-familiar religious iconography. Even so, there was a lot of controversy at the time over Sayers's "irreverent" portrayal of Christ.

To my mind, Steve Ross's graphic novel Marked, a retelling of the Gospel of Mark, is another worthy attempt. Ross faced the same problem as Lewis and Sayers, with the additional burden of using a medium (line art) that could not avoid decisions about how or whether to re-use any of the conventions of Christian visual art. He dealt with this problem by putting the narrative in a modern-day setting that is yet not simply a portrayal of our world — the government is a quasi-fascistic Big-Brother entity, technology is everywhere, yet demon possession is common, and an exploitative religion works hand-in-glove with the authorities. Hence Ross dispenses with the need to be "historically accurate," while retaining certain features of the Gospel that are narratively important. He also is able to do something you can only do in comics, namely dispense almost totally with rendering background or scenery, foregrounding the action for narrative vitality, the characters moving and speaking most frequently against a white field or with only vaguely sketched buildings or landscape. This enables the story to seem timeless, yet to retain some minimum sense of place. This in itself is not unlike the biblical narrative, in which most action is foregrounded in similar fashion.

The plot is a combination of faithfulness to the overall shape of Mark's gospel combined with considerable freedom in details. As in the gospel, there is no nativity story, and the book ends as abruptly as Mark does (without the interpolated longer ending), with a resurrection but no resurrection appearances. His choice of "look" for Jesus is interesting. The traditional appearance is gone, replaced by a bald, vaguely Asian-looking guy. I like it. This panel is in the aftermath of the cleansing of the temple:

Actually, the Jesus-classic look does make an appearance later on, but as the aspect of Barabbas. I'm not sure what this is meant to convey; perhaps nothing more than Ross's desire to stand things on their heads. He plays around with traditional iconography without actually using it, or using it in different ways. At the Last Supper we are shown the interior of Jesus' cup, and it looks like the Host floating in a cup of wine. But the next panel shows us that it's the moon's reflection:

In the panels that follow, the cup falls and breaks while Jesus is arrested and beaten, while the moon continues to shine. There is nothing else besides this symbolism to correspond to the Words of Institution.

Ross also uses other icons that have some resonance, non-religious ones employed in religious ways. For instance, here is a scene from the Transfiguration, Jesus with Moses and Elijah.

And I don't think I'm too far off in seeing this trio not simply as Christ, Moses, and Elijah, but also Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Less effective is his employment of a clown — kind of a creepy one — as the angel at the tomb.

There is an interesting review and interview with Ross here at the SBL Forum. It reveals that Ross is an Episcopalian of the modernist variety, one among (regrettably) many in our denomination who seem to believe that the most valuable part of the catechism is the questions. This may account for the fact that his overall portrait of Jesus is lacking something commanding, authoritative, and royal — the Messiah of Marked doesn't quite understand what's happening to him. Not the impression one gets from the actual Gospel. But in general I really like what he's done, and the achievement, taken as a whole, is fresh and appealing. It has the potential to sneak past a lot of prejudice against the gospel narrative and set it before modern eyes as a story of Something new breaking into a world sadly in need of redemption.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Brokeback: a Chick Flick?

Brokeback Mountain is being touted as an issues film of the kind that divides red-staters from blue-staters, and is considered likely to raise the temperature on debates about gay marriage and other related issues.

I haven't seen it nor do I intend to. Not because of its theme, or because of its political subtext. No, I'm avoiding Brokeback because it sounds like a chick movie. Consider: a movie about "relationships," with passions running high, emotions oozing all over the place, and at the center of it two hunky guys displaying all the "googly feelings" (my wife's phrase) that women wish their husbands and boyfriends would emit on a more regular basis. You think that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are going to show up on testosterone-fueled venues like SportsCenter or The Man Show? Unlikely; but they've already been on Oprah, the primary cultural authority on all things womanly in our land. And who wrote the original story? Yep, a woman. This is not a movie about gay men as much as it is a wish-fulfillment movie about men for women.

As for me, when I go to a cowboy movie, there better be lots of shooting (with guns), and hopefully the bad guy will wind up getting killed (guess I better not say "blown away"). Throw in some Indians, too, and if the love that dare not speak its name wants to be there, it can buy a ticket like the rest of us.

So, you ladies enjoy yourselves. Hey, what time's the Super Bowl?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Comic Books (i): Comics as Narrative

I'm a big fan of comic books, and I've bored many people by trying to convince them that comic books/sequential art/graphic novels are, or can be, high art in the same realm of creativity as books, drama, or films.

As narrative, books have one drawback, in that so much has to be described — the appearance of characters, the landscape, the setting. The writer has a lot of leeway in how much to describe; he can be impressionistic or very detailed, and a good writer can make these passages part of the whole experience. But some immediacy is necessarily lost, and the narrative flow is always in danger when description has to happen.

Films have the opposite drawback; although they are the most intense art form in terms of immediacy, they are unable to portray easily anything "below the surface" — characters' thoughts, back stories, necessary background info. They don't have to describe characters: there they are. But what are they thinking? That's one reason, I think, why "great books," which depend so much on the depth of information provided, often make poor movies. Only the principal actual events can be transferred to film (and this is my big beef with the Lord of the Rings movies — marvelous spectacle, but so much of the feeling of the "dark backward and abysm of time" and the historical texture of Middle-Earth was lost).

Graphic storytelling can evade both of these problems. The comics have always been closely linked to film in the way "shots" are set up, angles and perspectives shifted and varied, and color variations used as signifiers. But they're also linked to literature by the employment of the written word, which gives them a possible depth unmatched by film. We can tell what people are thinking, and this is a good thing to know for lots of stories; but we don't have to stop for 5 paragraphs for a description of the protagonist's clothes, or how the clouds looked that day.

Plus, to a degree unmatched either in literature or film, the reader can control the pace of the story. With a movie, you are in the director's hands, and you will see the story unfold at his rate, not yours. With a book, you can stop or slow down, or go back to repeat a scene, but there are no visual landmarks (e.g., "where was that conversation that, it now seems clear, provided crucial information for the scene now unfolding? Chapter 10 or Chapter 12?" or "wait, I thought John was the father, not the brother ... where's the place he was talking about the family?"). With comics, you can slide up and down the temporal scale with greater ease just by flipping back. (Of course, with DVDs, the experience of movie-watching is changing.)

Comics also have the advantage over movies of being able to engage in first-person narration. Movies do attempt this occasionally, as in High Fidelity with John Cusack (a pretty faithful version of Nick Hornby's book); but of necessity, the action has to stop while the actor actually addresses the camera (as Cusack did) or relies on voice-overs. But in comics, the first-person "voice" comes through the written word; when combined with the visuals, it works pretty well, as in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. (The movie, however, perforce had to become a movie about Pekar instead of a narration by Pekar. It worked as a movie, but was semiotically different than the comic book original.)

Of course, comics themselves have drawbacks. They have to be physically bigger than pure literature, so that the illustrations can have a proper impact; for practical reasons this tends to limit their size and length. (Jeff Smith's wonderful Bone, which I recommend to all lovers of fantasy, is the size of a telephone book.) Also, purely by the accidents of history, they have been associated with juvenile literature — superheroes, etc. Personally, I still enjoy the pure super hero comic (especially Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spiderman); but there are abundant signs that the genre is beginning to transcend its origins, even when it doesn't necessarily break away from them. (Alan Moore's Watchmen is a prime example.)

All of this is by way of introduction to a discussion of Steve Ross's graphic novel version of the Gospel of Mark, Marked, which I hope to talk about in my next post.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Past Watchful Dragons

I see from a recent catalog that there are several new books about the Chronicles of Narnia coming out. Well, let a thousand flowers bloom, as Mao once said; but I've always been a little amused by the number of books that are published "explaining" C.S. Lewis, that clearest of writers. Those who want to understand CSL are better off reading him than any of his commentators, however worthy.

I'll make two exceptions to that generalization, at least as far as Narnia books are concerned. One is Paul Ford's Companion to Narnia, which is very informative and a fun read in itself (the author was a classmate of mine at Fuller in the 'seventies); and the other is Walter Hooper's Past Watchful Dragons (1979), now apparently out of print (and drawing outrageously high prices on the used-book sites). Hooper's book should have been read by the media types who talked loosely (and complainingly) about the "Christian allegory" in the Narnia movie. He quotes Lewis deftly on the subjects of allegory and symbolism, explaining the differences, and adds some value for Lewis-readers by incorporating some of Lewis's unpublished material (including a longish draft of what was to become The Magician's Nephew).

Hooper's title comes from something Lewis wrote about his purposes in writing the Chronicles.

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?

I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices, almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Unfortunately, for Christians and non-Christians both, Narnia is itself rapidly acquiring its own "Sunday school associations" (something that Hooper saw might happen and warned against) and the media dragons were out in full force, determining that no "religious Right" propaganda should pass unscathed. Hopefully there are more Christian artists out there who can make new stories that are dragon-resistant.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Women and Blogging Redux

Stephen Carlson calls attention here to the question of women and blogging in the legal profession. Ann Althouse also has a post on the same topic and prompted by the same article. Those who have followed the discussion about women and biblioblogging will note the similarities in the issues raised and the lack of clarity about what to "do" about the problem.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Long ago, in a far-away country, there lived a very old man named Abraham. He was so old that he was bent over with age and shuffled when he walked; and his long white beard nearly touched the ground.

This Abraham was known far and wide for his faith in God. He had never disobeyed the divine voice, even when it told him to do things contrary to all reason. Because of this Abraham was a special favorite of God.

Another remarkable thing about Abraham was that, old as he was, he had a little son. Isaac, as he was called, was his father's pride and joy. Whenever Abraham saw Isaac playing, his old legs wanted to caper with him and his wrinkled old face creased even more with laughter.

One night, after everyone had gone to bed, Abraham heard the Divine Voice again....

The next morning Abraham looked even older and his beard whiter than ever. He called his son Isaac and said to him, "We must make a journey to the mountain of God. And there we must make a sacrifice."

Isaac's eyes shone with pleasure. "And am I to go too, father?"

"Yes," said Abraham, "you must come with me."

Isaac ran, beaming, to tell the servants to make ready for a journey. And Abraham's legs this time did not ache to run with him.

The mountain of God was not far from their home, but Abraham's shuffling gait made the journey last several days. But at last, no matter how slowly the old man walked, they saw the mountain of God before them.

"Stay here," Abraham told the servants, "and we will come back by and by."

Isaac's heart was bursting with excitement and with love for his old father. But oh, how slowly the old man went up the mountain!

"Father," said Isaac, "where is the lamb for the sacrifice?"

"It is waiting for us on top of the mountain." And the two of them walked on together.

Finally, they reached the flat summit of the mountain of God, where the altar was. There Abraham made ready the wood, unsheathed the knife, and set a burning branch near him to light the sacrifice.

Then he turned to his son, fingering the knife with his gnarled fingers. And Isaac looked into Abraham's eyes; and despite his love, he was afraid.

But, with a sigh, Abraham lowered the knife. "No," he said, "this cannot be done. Without you, I cannot live."

Then he raised his eyes to heaven. "And without You, I cannot live."

He sighed again. "Therefore, O Lord, I beseech thee — let old Abraham die in Isaac's place. Do You need a sacrifice? Take me instead.

"But know this, oh my Heavenly Father — I cannot and will not harm the boy."

Isaac stared, astonished, as his old father began to try to climb up on the altar, and then he rushed forward to try to pull him down and off the stones. They struggled together weakly, the old man and the little boy, both of them weeping. Suddenly the Divine Voice filled the air around them, and they became still.

"Abraham," it said. "You have passed the test."

Then a great light shone around them, dazzling their eyes; and so great was the weight of that light that they were unable to stand and fell on their knees; but their hearts were filled with joy.

When the echoes of the Voice died away and their eyes had regained their sight and their legs had regained their strength, the father and the son rose and saw before them a slaughtered lamb burning on the altar. The two of them held hands and watched it for a little while, listening to the pop of the burning branches and the hiss of burning flesh. Then, turning around, they made their way down the mountain in peace.

UPDATE (1/9): I wrote this piece years ago and I don't remember the thought process that led up to it or any other concomitant circumstances. Therefore in a sense I read it as a stranger. But I am sure that I had no desire to set up my story as replacing the biblical one or as a negative comment on it. Rather I see it as a midrash, written by a man who loves his children dearly and whose faith is minuscule compared to Abraham's. What would happen to such a man who was tested as Abraham was? The answer — so I feign — is that God might still accept such a man, even in his failure, by receiving what he is able to give (love for his offspring and the desire, if not the ability, to obey God) and by supplying the sacrifice that the "unfaithful believer" (or the "disobedient servant") is not able to give.

I appreciate the comments, both complimentary and critical. Certainly I intended no irreverence. Looking back on the story, my main criticism is that it is too sentimental, a fault that the biblical writer avoided while remaining sensitive to the human emotions of his protagonists. Now there was a writer!