Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fifth Annual Ralphies

Oh yeah, the Ralphies. Even more than last year, I have been out of touch with popular culture. In fact, since around August, when we moved to the DC area, I've been busy in the academic life and haven't bought a CD, gone to a movie, or read a ... no, actually, I've read plenty of books, so never mind that. I've also watched some TV. But generally I feel like I've been away.

And I haven't been blogging that much, either, and I've paid the price for that, in that very few people stop by here anymore. Such is life. But despite it all, I shall award Ralphies, as I do every year, for my own sake, if not for yours.

BEST MOVIE: As I say, I haven't seen a movie since the summer. I never got to see The Dark Knight (unlike every other living human) or Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, which I really wanted to see. In fact, all I remember going to see was WALL*E and Hellboy II, both of them excellent. Since WALL*E is the politically correct choice in this politically correct year, I shall award the Ralphie to ... Hellboy II.

BEST RECORD: Uhhh .... I really haven't been listening to much music lately. Did I even buy a CD this year? If I did, I can't remember what it was. But I hereby choose to define "record" quite loosely, so I award the Ralphie to a melancholy song I downloaded that went to the top of my iTunes playlist: Pull of the Pint, by Bill Coleman.

BEST BOOK (FICTION): I had a couple of good reads this year. During the whole move (which was not a moving experience, if you get me), I beguiled the time by reading Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence, which I would recommend only if you are a big King fan already. Otherwise, skip it. I also enjoyed The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke. But I give the Ralphie to a book that I actually read last December too late for the 4th Ralphies: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Highly recommended.

BEST BOOK (NONFICTION): I've read a ton of non-fiction lately, but mainly in connection with my work, and none of those books are of recent vintage. I will award the Ralphie to a non-academic work, though, that gave me much to think about: James Martin's My Life with the Saints.

BEST TV SHOW: Lost is, and will continue to be, the TV show for me, and the 4th season was as great as ever. But it was cut short by the writers' strike and somehow it feels like the Ralphie should go to something that is around more. The Office is just not worth watching anymore, and The Simpsons is far gone from its glory days. I award the Ralphie this year to House, which is compulsively watchable, fun, thought-provoking, and on practically 5 nights a week in syndication. Can't beat that.

That's all, folks! Have a fantabulous Christmas and an ecstatic New Year! See you next year!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Post SBL 2008

I haven't had time till just now to comment on the SBL 2008 in Boston; nor have I much to say this time around. I greatly enjoyed the various meals and meetings I had with friends and students, both planned and unplanned (especially the McGreevy's pub hilarity), but overall I'd have to say this meeting lacked some luster. Maybe it was the absence of the AAR, which made everything seem smaller, especially the book exhibits; maybe it was the unseasonably cold weather; maybe it was the chastened mood of an academy feeling the economic pinch; maybe it was just me. But Boston 2008 didn't knock my socks off.

I greatly enjoyed several papers, especially those of David Everson, Edward Goldman, Joe Zias, and my colleague Andrew Gross. My own paper, after being finished months ago, felt stale and unpolished to me, and I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of composition and execution. Hopefully it came off better to others than it seemed to me.

The nicest moment for me came when Sam Greengus told me at the Hebrew Union College luncheon, "We will always consider you a ben bayit." Thank you, and a blessing on HUC and its outstanding graduate studies program.

As for the new Zinjirli inscription, I may add a few updates to the post dealing with it; but in general I thought Prof. Pardee did an excellent job and he is to be thanked for putting this interesting inscription in front of the scholarly world so rapidly. The full philological treatment of the inscription will be published in BASOR within a year's time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The New Zinjirli Inscription

The new Zinjirli inscription is featured in a New York Times article, along with a good (but not quite clear enough) picture. I can make out a few phrases, but the resolution is not great enough for my eyes to transliterate the whole thing.

The picture features a man, probably Kittamuwa, the sponsor of the stele, sitting with a TV remote in one hand and a turkey drumstick in the other. Just kidding! I surmise that he is actually holding a pomegranate and some other foodstuff.

A partial translation from Dennis Pardee, with whatever bits of Samalian I can glean:

I Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa (אנכ כתמו עבד פנמו), am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it (ושמת ותה) in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast (חגג) at this chamber (יד זנ): a bull for [the god] Hadad (שור להדד), a ram for [the god] Shamash (יבל לשמש) and a ram for my soul that is in this stele (ויבל לנבשי זי
בנצב זנ).

Interesting to note is another occurrence of the definite object marker wt. The inscription may also throw light on the occurrence of ybl in the notoriously obscure line 21 in the Panamuwa inscription, which now seems to require interpretation as referring to sacrifice.

A few other phrases are readable; but why not wait for Pardee's definite treatment this weekend? I'm looking forward to it.

UPDATE (11/30/08): Pardee's presentation in Boston was a thorough and competent survey of the inscription. The word for "chamber" is syr or syd, not yd. I will deal with other aspects of the inscription at another time. I will further note that the text will no doubt inaugurate a discussion concerning aspects of the West Semitic cult of the dead due to the expression "my soul that is in this stele." As one scholar noted in Boston, this has to be connected to the use of the term nephesh for tombs at a much later time. It is also possible that the Kuttamuwa stele may have some relation to the so-called baityloi, also known from a later period, which were considered to house spirits or other numina; Philo of Byblos called them lithoi empsychoi, "stones with souls." Let the games begin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Note on Sirach 42:18b

(Tristan, this post is for you.)

The Hebrew text of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus ) 42:18b, from the Masada manuscript, says of God ‏יׄביט אתיות עולם, "he sees from of old the things that are to come" (NRSV). The word אתיות is everywhere taken to be the feminine plural participle of the verb ‏אתי, "to come." This is a reasonable supposition since that form does occur in the Hebrew Bible, in Is 41:23; 44:7; 45:11. On the other hand, in the next verse a different word, ‏נהיות, is used for future events.

Nevertheless it occurred to me while reading the text with a seminar class today that an alternative understanding of the word might be "letters," understood as "elements." In post-Biblical Hebrew the word ‏אות "sign, letter" has two plural forms: ‏אותות when the meaning is "signs, miracles" and אתיות when the meaning is "letters."

If God is said to "see the letters of the world," what could that possibly mean? It might mean the same as the expression τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, "the elements of the world" used in Paul's letters; στοιχεῖα means not only "elements," but also "letters." It is possible that Hebrew "letters" could also mean "elements," and that Ben Sira's expression refers to the four elements, the building blocks of creation.

But also possible — if this reading is accepted — is the idea that the 'otiyyot `olam are the "eternal letters," the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet through which, according to later tradition, the world was created. This idea plays a role in the later Sepher Yezirah and in the thought of Kabbalah. I doubt that Ben Sira had a fully developed Kabbalistic concept in mind, but the intersection in meaning of Greek stoicheion and Hebrew 'ot may have worked on his strongly Torah-centric theology to influence his expression in this one verse, which in turn influenced or foreshadowed later developments.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Orthography of the High Priest Sarcophagus

Jim Davila has directed us to the discovery of an inscription on a sarcophagus dating from the Second Temple period, which reads ‏בן הכהן הגדול, "son of the High Priest."

I will leave the historical analysis to others who are better qualified. What interests me are the orthographical minutiae. The main two words, kohen and gadol, both give the opportunity for the use of matres lectionis (consonants used as vowel letters). However, only one word has a mater, ‏גדול. This is consistent with the vast majority of its occurrences in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible.

The spelling of the other word, ‏כהן, without a mater, is also consistent with its spelling in the Masoretic Text, where it never appears with a mater. Not very interesting, I know. However, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the largest collection of Second Temple Hebrew texts that we have, the word appears with a mater in the majority of cases (‏כוהן), as does ‏גדול. This is true for both words even of the biblical texts.

The Mishnah has the same orthography as the Masoretic text, but for the expression "High Priest," it uses the phrase without the definite article: ‏כהן גדול. The same is true of the Hasmonean coins, but this may be for reasons of space.

So of the three ancient forms of this title (Masoretic tradition, Qumran, Mishnaic/numismatic), the sarcophagus is aligned with the Masoretic tradition. As far as I know, this has no historical implications. I just think it's interesting.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Jesus Bowl: Another Crock

Well, this is all over the place. Once again, it does not seem to be as big a deal as everyone is saying.

(1) The bowl pretty clearly reads δια χρηστοu, "through Chrestos," not "Christ." Chrestos is a personal name, as well as an adjective meaning "decent" or "useful."

(2) If the bowl is dated from the 2nd century BCE to the early 1st century CE, it cannot in any case refer to Jesus Christ. The epithet Christ was not added to the name of Jesus of Nazareth until after the crucifixion, in the 30's of the first century. And Jesus of Nazareth did not exist in the 2nd or 1st century BCE (unless he was an infant in the closing years of the 1st century BCE, as seems probable).

Not visible in the photo are the words supposed to be "the magician": O GOISTAIS. I don't recognize this form; I know the word γοητής or γόης which can mean magician. I have no idea what GOISTAIS is supposed to be.

In short, this big story is something of a muddle. Perhaps some experts on Greek paleography and lexicography could weigh in. In the meantime, don't get too excited.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, by Matthew Dickie (Routledge, 2003).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jailer, Gaoler ... Goaler?

I was playing a little hooky yesterday from class preparation and reading a bit of Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. I came across the phrase "king, judge, or goaler." ("The temporal king, judge, or goaler, can work but on the body.") My first thought was that "goaler" was a typo for "gaoler," the British equivalent of "jailer," and I so emended the text in my mind.

My second thought was that maybe the reference was to some other function, and that perhaps I had been too hasty. So I looked in the online OED. Lo and behold, the spelling "goaler" was listed as one of the spelling variants of JAILOR, JAILER, GAOLER. A little more research via Google Print turned up a great many occurrences of the spelling GOALER with the meaning, and presumably the pronunciation of, "jailer." It goes back at least as far as variant readings in Shakespeare's Folios and seems to expire sometime in the late 19th century; Trollope was using a spelling that was on the way out.

Granted then the venerable pedigree of the spelling "goaler," does that make it any less of an error? Judging from the etymology of the word, the combination OA cannot be anything but a confused orthography for the more correct AO — and yet it was surprisingly popular and widespread.

From this I draw this lesson for textual studies, that it is necessary to distinguish between the proper ("correct") reading and the "correct" etymology. GOALER is the correct reading in Trollope, although the orthography is a poor representation (therefore "incorrect") of the pronunciation and the etymology of the word in general (which is why, no doubt, such a spelling gradually vanished in the presence of competing spellings).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Qal or Niph'al?

In response to a student's question, I was led to look up the parsing of the form ‏יֵחַת in HALOT — the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, now the standard lexicon for Biblical Hebrew (a revision of the older Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon). I was surprised to see that all of the forms of that type (the imperfect of the root ‏חתת) were taken to be from the Niph'al stem.

If you look at the same forms in BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs), they are parsed, correctly in my opinion, as from the Qal stem. Now purely from the standpoint of morphology, either parsing is possible. Due to the accidents of accidence (so to speak) the same vocalization would be used in either case.

Nevertheless, if HALOT is correct, we would have the strange arrangement whereby the perfects of the root are in the Qal and the imperfects are in Niph'al (there are a few in Piel and Hiphil but they don't concern us). It is more sensible (and more economical) to assume that both perfect and imperfect forms are parsed as the Qal.

This assumption is strengthened when one notes that חתת is a stative verb, not an active verb (look at Jer. 50:2, for example), and the underlying Qal vocalization *
yiqtal is standard for stative verbs. With geminate verbs, the vocalization יֵחַת is exactly what would be predicted. I have no idea why HALOT opted for the Niph'al in this case.

I don't suppose that anyone really thinks that HALOT is infallible, do they? If you do, then stop.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Among many grammatical treatments, see Waltke & O'Connor,
An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §22.3j (p. 369).

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Writer David Foster Wallace is dead. I will miss him.

All the newspapers are calling him "postmodern," which is true in kind of a chronological way, but he really didn't fit that whole ironic life-is-just-a-game-without-rules mold of the postmodern. More than any other modern writer (not that I know that much about modern writing), he tried to meld a contemporary sensibility with a commitment to values, or at least value-seeking, that is universal.

This old interview at Salon, after Infinite Jest came out, has a lot of insights. Some excerpts:

There's something particularly sad about [living in America today], something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know.

... I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.

... The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting [as not lying] -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.

There are certain contemporary writers or artists that one feels like are companions for the journey, and this is different than liking the old writers who are great and nourishing but dead long ago. They (the companions) make one feel not alone. And now DFW has gone, and we're a bit more alone than we were.

One last thing: his essays in books like Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, are just incredibly funny. His description of the McCain 2000 campaign in Lobster (as well as his evisceration of John Updike in the same) just have to be read. Honor a great writer and go read 'em.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Noise of Solemn Assemblies

Today the inaugural Mass marking the beginning of the academic year at Catholic U. took place, the first event in which I marched in procession as a faculty member. I very much enjoy the pageantry of this sort of thing, to say nothing of the doxological aspect. I have a liking for the heraldry of the event, with all the faculty in doctoral robes from a hundred different universities, the procession of a hundred concelebrating priests, the monks and nuns, austere but distinctive in the habits of their several orders. It's like a meeting of the Justice League of America, combined with the Avengers, but holier.

Unfortunately my own finery was completely borrowed, since I do not own the UCLA regalia. The Office of the Provost made some spare robes available, and mine was a plain black thing, although with the requisite three stripes and front panels of the Philosophiae Doctor. However, I regret to say that my borrowed hood proclaimed me only a Master. I am determined by the next convocation to acquire (somehow) the attractive plumage of the over-educated Bruin. But dang: it's expensive.

Tell me, readers who are faculty — do you have your own regalia? How in the world did you afford it? And what is your favorite academic costume? Or: Who has the worst?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Catching Up

Sorry I've been gone so long (sounds like a Dylan song). I've been moving across 3 states and doing all the things that that entails, as well as organizing some classes for the fall. I hope to check in a little bit more often into the blogosphere.

There have been a lot of interesting things going on out there. Some of the most interesting are these:

A new Zincirli inscription. Of all the recent discoveries, this one looks like the most interesting. I look forward to Pardee's presentation in Boston. Save me a seat.

A new seal.

More discussion on the Vision of Gabriel — more than I have time to summarize. However, I gather that the crux of Israel Knohl's philological argument is reading a certain word in line 80 as ‏חאיה, and understanding it as the Qal imperative of the root ‏חיי, translated "live!" But we would not normally expect aleph to serve as a mater lectionis for a reduced or zero vowel, which is what we would expect in the first syllable. It seems pretty far-fetched to me. You have one scholar arguing on the basis of a disputed reading for a philologically unlikely verb found in an inscription of questionable provenance. I think Christianity is safe.

On the non-philological front, Adam Gopnik has written a very good article on G. K. Chesterton in The New Yorker. Unfortunately only the abstract is available on-line. There are any number of things I might take issue with Gopnik here, but in one case I think he is (regrettably) dead right, and that is the issue of Chesterton's anti-Semitism. I don't think any objective reader, even one who loves GKC (as I do), could deny that he was anti-Semitic. This doesn't mar every one of his books (here I disagree with Gopnik), and the great ones, like Orthodoxy, are free of it. But no one can read, say, The New Jerusalem, without being saddened by the vile things he occasionally uttered. For this reason, a defense such as this one at Ignatius Press Insight, is misconceived.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Vision of Gabriel

The so-called "Vision of Gabriel" (background from Paleojudaica here) has begun to attract the attention of the mainstream press. Instead of repeating the usual complaints about how the mainstream press doesn't do their homework and tends to exaggerate or misconstrue the true significance of an ancient text, let us take them as read and move on.

The excitement of the press apparently has to do with the supposed relevance of the text as background to early Christian doctrine about the death of Christ and his resurrection on the third day. This is from the wire service story:

Israel Knohl, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says one line of the text tells the 'prince of princes' slain by the evil government, 'in three days you shall live'.

He suggests the story refers to the death of a Jewish prince called Simon who led a revolt against King Herod.

Daniel Boyarin, of the University of California at Berkeley, said that there was growing evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

'Some Christians will find it shocking - a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology, while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,' he said.

Now I haven't read anything scholars have written about this text other than the article in Cathedra by Yardeni & Elitzur, which also contains a photo and a transcription. However, just based on reading the transcription of the text itself, I confess I can't see much of anything that might give rise to the remarks quoted in the press.

The text is very lacunose and very obscure, and there are only a few groups of lines together that allow a connected translation. Although the phrase "after three days" occurs more than once, only one of them occurs in a chunk of connected text (lines 15-26; the x's represent illegible text):

... one, two, three, forty prophets and sages and pious men. My servant David sought from Ephraim [xx] The sign I am seeking from you. For YHWH Sabaoth, God of Israel [xxx xxx] holiness for Israel. After three days you shall know that YHWH God Sabaoth, God of Israel has said it. Evil is broken from before righteousness. Ask me and I will tell you what this evil(?) Branch [unclear] you are standing. The angel is as your support for Torah. Blessed be the glory of YHWH God from his dwelling place. It is yet only a very little while and I shall shake the heavens and the earth. Behold, the glory of YHWH God Sabaoth, God of Israel — these are the seven chariots by the gate of Jerusalem and the gates of Judah ...

(The expression "three days" also occurs in line 54 and line 80 in fragmentary contexts.) Clearly the text will require a good bit more of collaborative analysis before its purpose and nature are clarified. But in this chunk at least, nothing is stated about resurrection or the Messiah. The mention of "the Branch" (tzemach, lines 21-22) could easily have a messianic connotation, but the fact that it is evil (if the reading is correct) argues that "this evil plant" is a more apt translation.

The lines that Israel Knohl refers to are apparently lines 80-81, which I would translate as follows:

... within three days [...] I am Gabriel [...] prince of princes [...] windows(?) of enemies [...]

The "prince of princes," if not Gabriel himself, may be a reference to the archangel Michael or to God, as in Dan 8:25. Obviously Knohl's reading or restoration of the text is extremely hypothetical.

There are throughout the text some clear references to post-exilic prophetic literature, such as the allusion to Haggai 2:6 in the paragraph quoted above. In line 75, there is a mention of "three shepherds [who] went forth for Israel," probably an allusion to Zechariah 11:8. My guess is that the text has something to do with an interpretation or re-contextualization of these prophetic scriptures. I certainly do not see anything directly relevant to early Christian beliefs about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I breathe again.

Just a note to let my readers know that next month I'll be moving to DC to take up a post at the Catholic University of America, Department of Semitics, as Associate Professor. I'm looking forward to it.

Goodbye, cubicle, hello, office. Some words from Wordsworth seem apposite:

I breathe again!
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me: it is shaken off,
That burthen of my own unnatural self,
The heavy weight of many a weary day
Not mine, and such as were not made for me.

UPDATE: Many, many thanks to those of you who have left comments and sent emails of congratulation. I'm overwhelmed and humbled. See you all in Boston this November!

CB: Drop in for a cuppa anytime. Mike H.: Email me and let me know what you're up to.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Lost Finale: Welcome Home

One more little thing I noticed, that gives added credence to the idea that the Lost writers really are planning ahead (I think): It was actually a pretty moving scene in the finale when Richard Alpert greets John Locke, the new leader of the Others, with "Welcome home," which links up to the title of the finale: There's No Place Like Home.

But it also links up with one of Locke's previous jobs, as owner of the Welcome Home Professional Home Inspections Company. That was established back in the Season 2 episode "Lockdown." Coincidence? Ha!

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Lost Finale: We Got Wormhole

Among the many factors that made the season finale of Lost so fascinating was the mention on the Orchid orientation video of "a pocket of negatively charged exotic matter." As every schoolboy knows, NCEM is the crucial ingredient needed to stabilize a wormhole and make it traversable. And traversing a wormhole can enable time travel as well as space travel.

So that's one mystery solved; the Island uses wormhole technology for its jaunts around the space-time continuum. Although I'm really hoping that Ben's stunt with the donkey wheel didn't put the whole Island in the desert (or on another planet).

Friday, May 23, 2008

More Terrific Scholarship From Me

I see (HT: that an article of mine from a while back, "4Q246," is available in several formats from the Institute for Biblical Research website. If you're really interested, you can also read John Collins' article attacking my conclusions. Both were originally published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research.

4Q246 is the fragment that mentions the "son of God." One of these days I plan to rebut JC's refutation (or refute his rebuttal). I'll post the information here when I do.

Friday, May 09, 2008

My New Book

I'm pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of A Glossary of Targum Onkelos. Enjoy. It's amazing what you can get done if you don't blog.

Makes a great Mother's Day gift!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Book Reports

Thanks to readers' suggestions, I have a book list for the next several months. I just finished reading Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, and it's a good one. The plot basically is "Aliens land in 14th century Germany," although that doesn't begin to convey the depth of the book. I don't know anything about the author, but he appears to be well-informed about both contemporary physics and medieval philosophy and theology. I imagine this is a rare combination. Depth of religious feeling is unusual in sci-fi and Eifelheim compares well in this respect with the gold standard of Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz.

I'm not sure what's next on the list; depends on when I can get to the library next. In the meantime, I'm reading whatever I can find in the house. I re-read Alan Garner's Elidor, which was fine, but too short. Right now I'm in the middle of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto. Most of what I know about HW is based on Macaulay, who basically considered Walpole a boob. The Castle, unfortunately, will not change that opinion. Stylistically and narratively, it is a mess, and finds readers today only by virtue of being the first gothic novel.

It's interesting that "taproot texts" like this are often so unreadable to moderns. I also find Mary Shelley's Frankenstein pretty lame, and only of historical interest. On the other hand, Bram Stoker's Dracula is still a good read today and fully the equal (or superior) of Stephen King and his ilk.

Friday, April 18, 2008


The news around here is the earthquake. It wasn't a jolt, not particularly scary, but I definitely felt it, as I lay in bed this morning. "That's an earthquake. Huh."

I lived in southern California for 13 years, and have been through smaller quakes and bigger ones, including the Whittier Quake of 1987. But around here, where earthquakes are rare, it's really big news. The local morning TV shows are all geeked up with you-are-there camera coverage. There's not much to cover. No damage in this area as far as I can tell. Didn't even alarm the dogs. But I hope the New Madrid fault is not feeling restless; buildings in the Midwest are not built with earthquakes in mind.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Recommend a Fantasy Book

To relax, I like to read genre fiction, especially mysteries and sci-fi/fantasy. It's been almost all mysteries and crime fiction the last few months, and I'm getting tired of that genre. It's time for some fantasy.

However, I don't know exactly what to read next. So I would like to ask my handful of faithful readers for some recommendations on some good fantasy I should read. I've read all the obvious ones, all the big names. What little-known masterpiece would you guys recommend?

UPDATE (4/18): Many thanks to you all for the suggestions. I've started reading Eifelheim, and I hope to get to the rest of the list in due course.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Note on Psalm 139:18b

I very much enjoyed the Easter message of Pope Benedict. I like this pope, and I like his gentle insistence on the link between faith and reason as the way forward, not only for Christianity, but for the world.

I was intrigued by his use of Psalm 139:18b (Ps. 138 in the LXX/Vulgate tradition) as a point of departure:

Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum – I have risen, I am still with you, for ever. These words, taken from an ancient version of Psalm 138 (v. 18b), were sung at the beginning of today’s Mass. In them, at the rising of the Easter sun, the Church recognizes the voice of Jesus himself who, on rising from death, turns to the Father filled with gladness and love, and exclaims: My Father, here I am! I have risen, I am still with you, and so I shall be for ever; your Spirit never abandoned me. In this way we can also come to a new understanding of other passages from the psalm: “If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I descend into the underworld, you are there … Even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as clear as day; for you, darkness is like light” (Ps 138:8,12).

This is as sensitive a modern exposition of the Christological sensus plenior as you could ask for; and I am increasingly convinced that this kind of exegesis is (and should) be making a comeback within the church.

But, being who I am, I am most interested in the textual question. The sentence resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum corresponds to ‏הקיצתי ועודי עמך in the Masoretic text, "I awoke and still I am with you." Resurrexi, "I rose again" is an interesting interpretation of the Hebrew "I awoke." In this case it is probably mediated via the Septuagint translation ἐξηγέρθην, which could be taken either as "I woke up" or "I rose up." In fact, even the Hebrew word (derived from the root ‏קיץ) could plausibly be connected with awaking from the sleep of death, as in Isa. 26:19, Jer. 51:39, Job 14:12, and Dan. 12:2. So resurrexi is not necessarily a far-fetched translation.

But whose translation is it? The text of the Easter Introit in the Mass at St. Peter's is derived from one of the oldest of the Latin translations of the Psalter, the Psalterium Romanum, which is St. Jerome's first revision of the Old Latin translation. In this case, resurrexi is probably left over from the Old Latin, and not from Jerome's revision. A later revision of Jerome's, the Psalterium Gallicanum, reads exsurrexi, which is more unambiguously "I rose/stood up" without the overtones of resurrection. His last version of the Psalter, rendered directly from the Hebrew (iuxta Hebraeos), reads evigilavi, "I woke up."

But many of today's translations read completely differently. For instance, the JPS translates, "I end — but am still with You." The NRSV has "I come to the end—I am still with you." In fact, the "Neo-Vulgate," sanctioned by the Vatican reads si ad finem pervenerim, adhuc sum tecum. This stems from a hypothesis that הקיצתי should be derived from a root ‏קצץ, "to come to an end" (see BHS and HALOT).

I must admit I don't agree with or even understand this hypothesis. For one thing, the proposed root is otherwise unattested in verbal form. Plus, none of the ancient versions understand the verb in this way. The whole context is as follows (from the NRSV):

I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

"Them" refers to "God's thoughts," which v. 18a says are "more than the sand," i.e. literally innumerable. The modern emendation actually suggests that the psalmist can number God's thoughts, and come to the end of them. But surely this is against the whole tenor of the passage (and the psalm as a whole)?

The psalm as a whole is based on the idea of God's limitlessness. He is everywhere, and his thoughts exceed human comprehension. This couplet in that context has to mean this: (a) God's thoughts surpass human limitations; they cannot be counted; (b) God's presence is not conditioned by human weakness; the psalmist sleeps and then awakes, but God's presence does not waver and wane in the same way. "When I wake up, I am still with thee." Thus even the literal sense is not altogether foreign from Benedict's homiletical interpretation.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Varia

-- I was sorry to see that Paul Scofield died the other day. He portrayed, unforgettably, St. Thomas More in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, one of my favorite movies. More's indomitability in the face of persecution is still inspiring. One of the last of his public remarks didn't make it into the movie, and it shows the Christian temper of the man even at the last extremity. Just after he was condemned to death, he said to his judges:

"More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation."

-- Another of my favorite writers, as readers of the blog know, was C. S. Lewis. I'm always on the lookout for interesting books about Lewis, and Alan Jacobs's biography The Narnian (2005) caught my eye a few days ago. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it. There are no new facts or insights in the book, and in truth Jacobs does not seem to have any great appreciation for Lewis. I was a little taken aback when Jacobs referred to Lewis's friend Charles Williams (another favorite of mine) as "creepy," and I decided to stop reading altogether when Jacobs called Perelandra "unreadable." Don't waste your time on this book.

-- I have many reasons this Easter season to be thankful (some of which I will post in due course). I wish for all my readers the manifold blessings of the season. Happy Easter!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Lost Again

So. Lost is still awesome, although Doc Jensen thinks last night's episode was "subpar." I disagree, for a number of reasons.

The Opening. This completely subverts our expectations for an opening. So far this season, we've had only flashforwards (not counting Desmond's Dr. Demento time travel experience). So when Juliet walks in, talks about feeling like a "celebrity" to her "therapist," I'm thinking, "So Juliet is one of the Oceanic 6, wow." But then, Mr. Friendly pops his head in. "So Mr. Friendly is not dead? What th--? No, it's a flashback! You magnificent bastards!"

Michael Emerson. Although this episode seemed to be all about Juliet, it's really all about Ben. How did he get word to Harper Stanhope? (Speaking of whom — is she alive or dead? She vanished awfully quickly after Jack showed up.) Just what exactly are Ben's powers? Plus, I loved Emerson's range in this. He played his "date" with Juliet (We're havin' ham!) so perfectly, as the smitten, geeked-up nervous nerd he essentially is. And then reverted to the bug-eyed control freak.

VALIS. As it happens, I just finished reading Phillip Dick's VALIS last week, and I was delighted to see a close-up of Ben re-reading it. The show is saying, "Here's a hint, folks." There are two aspects to VALIS that might be germane to Lost (spoiler alert). One is that the main character, Horselover Fat, seems to be separate from the narrator (Phillip Dick), but the big reveal is that they are one and the same. The other aspect is that Fat occasionally shares consciousness with (or merges selves with) someone from the past, a 1st century Gnostic named Thomas. I think the latter is the most relevant, given the temporal consciousness-switching we saw in the previous episode. Or, just the acronym VALIS might be important: Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which is the book's name for God. (BTW, I don't really recommend VALIS; as a story, it is kind of inert, and religio-philosophically, it's just incoherent.)

The Whispers. They're back, and I'm glad. How long will it be before some geek decodes them, plays them backwards, and figures something out?

And, OK, still: Who is Ben's man on the boat? I've already hypothesized it is Sayid. Would that cause Ben to tell Locke, "You'd better sit down"? It might. Most people are guessing it's Michael. Would that be equally as shocking?

On the other hand, I share Doc Jensen's feelings about the episode-ending kiss. This couple, Jack and Juliet, has absolutely zero chemistry. None. I don't know if that's a function of the actors, Matthew Fox and Elizabeth Mitchell, having no chemistry (possible) or if somehow Juliet is messing with Jack's mind, Ben-fashion (also possible). But I just don't believe this couple.

UPDATE (3/13): Aaaaaand ... it's Michael. So much for the insights of my unconscious.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Ohio Democratic Primary: The Candidates

Tomorrow there will be a primary election in Ohio. You might have heard something about it.

Since I never overtly discuss politics on this blog, I am going to use code names, or allegorical images, for the candidates. There are two main candidates on the Democratic side.


The other candidate is Krusty:

For the first time in history, Amy and I are voting for the same person. We are both voting for Krusty. We feel that Gabbo does not have enough experience.

See you in the voting booth, kids!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lost Dreams

OK, as of last night, Lost, which is always interesting, is getting really interesting. I won't bother non-afficionados with a recap, but if you've been watching it, you know what I mean.

As it happens, I went to bed last night soon after watching 2 hours of Lost (last week's re-run and this week's new episode) and I had what seemed like a night-long continuation in my dreams. Among the events I dreamed (for real, honest):

I was in some kind of secret FBI installation, and they had there some kind of machine that emitted puffs of black smoke — yes, that smoke — that congealed into little electronic butterflies. In the dream I'm thinking, "The FBI is involved in this?"

I was walking with Sawyer out of Ben's house, and I clapped him on the back and said, "So you and Kate are getting married, huh?" To which he replied, "Uh-huh."

Towards daybreak, I was incarcerated in some room, possibly in Ben's house, and they put Weird Al Yankovic in with me. He was sporting an Afro, and I said, "I thought your hair was long these days." He said, "You mean like this?" and removed his Afro wig.

And then I woke up, with a realization. For some reason, all this dreaming had given me a perfect insight into the actual episode. Wait for it .... Ben's man on the freighter is — Sayid! No, really. We all know that time is increasingly fluid in this show, and that at the end of the episode Ben had talked Sayid into doing some kind of spying on the freighter. But since Ben had already received the information before he sent Sayid, this must mean that Ben has knowledge of the future. Probably, like Desmond, he is a time traveler: he has lived through more than one cycle of these events, but, unlike Desmond, he has perfect recall of each iteration.

If you're not a fan of the show, this will sound like gobbledygook, I know. I promise the next time I dream-blog I'll come up with something of more general interest. (Or, you could start watching the show.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Objective Values

The last few months, during travels to San Diego and Washington, DC, I've had occasion to spend some time with friends I haven't seen in a long time, in some cases for a decade or more. And I was a little worried as I went into these encounters that time might have eroded these friendships, or irrevocably changed one or both of us, or in some way covered or altered or made permanently inaccessible whatever was real and unique and good about these relationships. Because (let's face it) that does happen.

In every case I was happy to find that nothing essential had changed, and that it felt like days or weeks since I had last seen each one of the people I'm talking about, instead of years or decades, and in no way was I forced to change my opinion of them (or myself) or my memories. It's a tremendous experience, and gives a feeling of stability and reality to one's own biography.

All of this is just by way of prelude to presenting this link to a video lecture by Robert Kane of the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Kane's course in "Problems of Knowledge and Value" was a key experience for me when I was a young Plan II nerdling at UT, and helped me (as it did many others) make some cautious first steps into becoming a rational, critical thinker. When I came across the video, I was happy, once again, to see that although Dr. Kane is grayer (aren't we all?), he's still thinking about the same issues that came up in class back in 1970, and still lecturing with the same blend of humor and clarity. Some things, thankfully, never change.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Odd Translations of Garry Wills in "The Rosary"

I've been reading The Rosary, by Garry Wills, which is not a bad book, as far as the history and practice of the rosary are concerned. Nevertheless, the book is a little spoilt for me by the idiosyncratic nature of his New Testament translations.

Wills is a former Classics prof, and I don't doubt his control of the languages. Nevertheless, the phrase "lost in translation" might have been created for his versions. I'll just give a couple of examples, both from the Magnificat (Luke 1:48-55).

First, a word of explanation. Each saying of the Rosary is accompanied by meditation on a Mystery from the life of Christ, whether Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, or Glorious. The Visitation of Elizabeth by the Virgin Mary, which includes the prayer by Mary called the Magnificat, is one of the Joyful Mysteries, and so, as he does with each of the Mysteries, Wills provides an original translation of the relevant Scripture passage and a brief reflection.

In the King James Version, the first line of the Magnificat is "My soul doth magnify the Lord," which renders Gk. megalunei he psuche mou ton kurion. Even the most modern version does little to change this, with the NRSV rendering "My soul magnifies the Lord" and the NIV "My soul glorifies the Lord." The background is Hebraic; a similar phrase from Ps. 34:4 "O magnify the Lord with me" (Heb. gaddelu l-YHWH itti) is rendered by the Septuagint megalunate ton kurion sun emoi. A good Hebrew back-translation for Mary's utterance would begin tegaddel naphshi l-YHWH.

But this makes Wills uncomfortable; he quotes St. Augustine to the effect that "we cannot make [God] any greater than he is." And so he translates: "My soul expands toward the Lord." Now this isn't just fine as a paraphrase, it's inaccurate. The verb megalunein is not intransitive; and the Virgin isn't making a statement about her religious experience, she is praising the Lord. Stripped down to its denotative core, her statement means "I am praising the Lord," and the rest of the canticle follows in that intention.

Wills, having chosen the theme of "expansion," inserts it again in his translation of Luke 1:49a, which I always memorized as "he that is mighty has done great things for me" (Gk. epoiesen moi megala ho dunatos). But Wills renders this as "Power itself has expanded me." Again, this is not quite correct. The phrase "to do great things" is also Hebraic, reflecting Heb. 'asah gedolot (e.g., Psa 71:19; 106:21; Job 5:9; 9:10; 37:5). The reference is to miraculous, amazing works, whereas it is not clear at all to me what "Power itself has expanded me" means. Plus, "Power" is not an apt rendition of ho dunatos, which means "the mighty one, the powerful one," not an impersonal "Power" (for which he dunamis would be a better original). The original Hebrew might have been ki 'asah li gedolot ha-gibbor.

To be fair, not all of Wills's translations are this inept; but regrettably the clunkers are too many for comfort (although I do like the color reproductions of the paintings of Tintoretto). Those who are looking for a good book on the Rosary can probably do better.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Garry Wills, The Rosary (Penguin, 2005); Randall Buth's seminal article, "Hebrew Poetic Tenses and the Magnificat," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21 (1984) 67-83, should be read by all NT scholars. He includes a complete back-translation.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Little GKC

It's a pity that G. K. Chesterton lived, by and large, before the electronic media became widespread. As the video (mainly audio) shows, he was a natural speaker and comedian. (HT: Insight Scoop).