Sailing to Byzantium


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium,


O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

William Butler Yeats – 1927

Out of the mouths of Victorian gentlemen…

This evening, an email from soemone looking for help in tracking down a quotation led me to browsing through that remarkable Victorian work which I’ve mentioned before, The Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion, by Rev. Alexander Keith. I ran across an interesting quotation, suggesting that minimalism is nothing new:

Of the antiquity of the scriptures there is amplest proof. The books of the Old Testament were not, like other writings, detached and unconnected efforts of genius and research, or mere subjects of amusement or instruction. They were essential to the constitution of the Jewish state; the possession of them was a great cause of the peculiarities of that people; and they contain their moral and their civil law, and their history, as well as the prophecies, of which they were the records and the guardians. They were received by the Jews as of divine authority; and as such they were published and preserved. They were proved to be ancient eighteen hundred years ago. And in express reference to the prophecies concerning the Messiah, contained in them, they were denominated by Tacitus, the ancient writings of the priests. Instead of being secluded from observation, they were translated into Greek above two hundred and fifty years before the Christian era; and they were read in the synagogues every Sabbath-day. The most ancient part of them was received, as divinely inspired, and was preserved in their own language, by the Samaritans, who were at enmity with the Jews. They have ever been sacredly kept unaltered, in a more remarkable degree, and with more scrupulous care, than any other compositions whatever. And the antiquity and authenticity of them rest so little on Christian testimony alone, that it is from the records of our enemies that they are confirmed, and from which is derived the evidence of our faith. Even the very language in which the Old Testament scriptures were originally written, had ceased to be spoken before the coming of Christ. No stronger evidence of their antiquity could be alleged, than what is indisputably true; and if it were to be questioned, every other truth of ancient history must first be set aside. (pp. 9-10, Evidence…, 35th edition. Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co., 1854.)

It’s that, “and if it were to be questioned, every other truth of ancient history must first be set aside” that is so striking, and so wise. And we can see this kind of creeping skepticism working throughout the history of biblical studies, from even before the times of Rev. Keith, as he mentions at various points in his interesting book. It was a different world then, in which bald-faced assertion was still somewhat acceptable, and didn’t have to be couched in bibliographies and bedecked with footnotes. These days, the same message of historical doubt is still being called “modern” for whatever reason, though it’s an attitude nearly as ancient as the writings themselves. Interesting stuff!


You might have noticed a slight change to the appearance of this blog, or will have found out through the rude mechanism of the xml feed disappearing on you (pardon me while I snicker!). There are links to RSS2 feeds for the Posts and Comments in the sidebar.

Anyhow, like Tyler at Codex, I’ve changed the blog from running on Blogger to WordPress. This will entail some more tweaking to get things entirely as I like them, but it’s already clear that this is a much better blogging engine than Blogger, even if it’s not quite as easy to use. Overall, though, I’m quite happy with the results!

So, if anyone runs across some part of the blog that’s not working correctly, please let me know. I’ll (try to) fix it.

UPDATE 26 Feb 4:00 PM:
The multiply talented and ever-helpful Tyler sent me the incantation bowl spell that will forward the folks using my old feed to the new one. Nifty! So, I hope you can all see this, or I’ll have to break another bowl….

On the Love of God

For humans, love is an emotion. But for God, love is an integral part of Him: “God is love” (1Jn 4.8,16). We tend to confuse what is our emotional love with Divine Love. To be emotionally close, soft, gentle, kind, and nurturing, all these things modernly emphasized by a kind of “spirituality” today, and emphasized in so many churches and religious writings, are aspects of a merely human love. Divine Love, as part of God Himself, is not such a thing based on comfort, but on perfection: “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48). The emotions are things that can too easily lead us astray from perfection.

“Mastering the passions” is part of the ideal of the desert fathers and mothers — bringing the emotions into submission to the ongoing transformation of the Christian life, being transformed by theosis into something purer, more selfless. We cannot allow ourselves to be led into a path where appeasing our emotions is more important than living a life of transformation — the truly Christian life where we are transformed not separate from the world, but transformed with the world. We are the agents of that transformation, akin to the sculptor with his chisel. The sculptor hugging the rock is not working as he should — he must strike, releasing the image within, transforming a mere rock into something new and more valuable.

I rather see the Divine Love as something sharp, pure, as sharp-slicing as a razor, but as infinite as the universe: as clear and striking as a cold, moonless and cloudless winter’s night full of stars. It’s not focused on a warm bed and a nice shawl, or on “me” (as a congerie of personality traits, quirks, and preferences that “I” would want respected, validated, and loved), but on the incredibly vast change in mind and spirit that would make us all Sons of God through adoption and transformation within the Body of Christ, focused on what we could be. It’s a frightening kind of love, this Divine Love, this love that dismisses what we are for what we could be, and that therefore relates to us on that basis. Such optimism! Such a love! It’s a Personal Love that even so dismisses what we think of as personality these days: preferred clothing, hairstyles, choice of reading/listening material, educational level, etc, all these material aspects of “me-ness” (who are we these days once these are stripped away? would even our families know us?).

That Love seen in the chill winter’s midnight of glinting distant star-lights, in that cold yet burning gaze of Holiness and Eternal Intent, is a Love that we’d do better to remember more often.


Sometimes the world seems simultaneously “too much” and “not enough.” You know what I mean?

It would take a different perspective to be able to both recognize and appreciate that, and not just to feel put upon.

Perhaps this approaching Lenten season will be an aid in reforming my perspective. That is, perhaps I’ll allow myself to actually experience that change.

With that in mind here’s a special Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria:
   O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not.
   But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant.
   Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Illumination and peace!

The Face of the Deep (1.1-2)

As foretold in days of yore, here is the beginning of a lengthy serialized presentation of Christina Georgina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse. The reader is guaranteed to gain from this:
a.) excellent poetry;
b.) the devotional commentary of a woman who, in the words of her brother,

clung to and loved the Christian creed because she loved Jesus Christ. “Christ is God” was her one dominant idea. Faith with her was faith pure and absolute: an entire acceptance of a thing revealed—not a quest for any confirmation or demonstrative proof (p. liv, The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, ed. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd, 1914);

c.) the first verse-by-verse commentary on the Apocalypse written by a woman, which makes it of historical import for various fields;
and d.) a work written by a highly literate, perceptive, and expressive person whose knowledge of the Bible was truly minute and ready (idem, lxix), whose other theological reading apparently consisted of only the Confessions of Augustine, The Imitation of Christ of Thomas à Kempis, and The Pilgrim’s Progress of John Bunyan (idem, lxix). And yet I think all will agree that this limitation in the author’s reading has not in any way damaged the power of her commentary, for it is a “devotional commentary” after all, which is a genre having its own gemstones strewn on however different a beach than some of my readers may tend to walk.

I intend to keep matters of orthography, formatting, and emphasis as close as possible to the printed text. Due to the length of the pericopes, I think I’ll only post this first fully as a blog entry, an apéritif, with the rest to be posted on a web page. So! Here we go!


1. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John:
2. Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.

“Things which must shortly come to pass.”—At the end of 1800 years we are still repeating this “shortly,” because it is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ: thus starting in the fellowship of patience with that blessed John who owns all Christians as his brethren (see ver. 9).

Continue reading “The Face of the Deep (1.1-2)”

The Testimonium Flavianum

Chris over at Thoughts on Antiquity brings up some questions concerning the Testimonium Flavianum in his The Quest for the Historical Jesus, pt. 3. Especially helpful for background on this sticky wicket is the link to Peter Kirby’s page on the Testimonium.

I come down on the side of those who would declare it partly original to Josephus, but reworked by a somewhat inept, if pious, Christian hand. My reasons are these.

The passage has certainly been doctored, but originally a very negative evaluation of Jesus was included in the place of the Testimonium. This is indicated by the following tales of religious impostors (Decius Mundus in 18.3.4[65-80]; the Jewish defrauder of Fulvia in 18.3.5[81-84]; the Samaritan of 18.4.1[85-87]). Rather than looking at these as general “tumults” (Mason as quoted on Kirby’s page), I think it’s much more likely that we’ve got a series of specifically religious impostors described here, and that this is the unifying theme of this particular digression (notice the text goes from Jesus in the early thirties through the Samaritan incident in 36, which led to Pilate’s recall, then through Vitellius’s governing of Syria and the death of Tiberius in 37 A.D., only to revert to 34 A.D. after the digression is over in 18.4.6[106] with the death of Philip.). This digression is more easily connected by the theme of religious impostors than by the theme of Pilate or Tiberius.

The 10th century Arabic version of the Testimonium, preserved in the Book of the Title of Agapius of Hierapolis/Mabbug, is clearly more along the line of a paraphrase than a translation of Josephus on the part of Agapius. The order of elements is altered, and some of these are part of the “Christian additions” that others posit, making this a clearly more complicated case. Meier notes this in Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp 78-79, n. 37. Like Kirby, I find the Agapian addition “Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die” to be polemically directed against the Mohammedan [I prefer that term] assertion that Jesus was not crucified, nor did he die, as supported by the Kuran: “And their saying, ‘We did kill the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah;’ whereas they slew him not, nor crucified him, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified; and those who differ therein are certainly in a state of doubt about it; they have no definite knowledge thereof, but only follow a conjecture; and they did not convert this conjecture into a certainty. On the contrary, Allah exalted him to Himself” (al-Nisā 4:158-9). It would certainly be appropriate for Agapius to be involved in such polemics with the spread of Mohammedanism [another preferred term], as it was just then making its permanent inroads into Asia Minor at the expense of Eastern Christian communities there (see Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, or Bat Ye’or, Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam). Overall, the changes in order, and thereby emphasis, of the elements of the Testimonium as found in Agapius in comparison to the typical text clearly indicates some textual reworking going on in his use of the text. It’s certainly not a neutral text preserving the original of Josephus.

Contra Meier, and most others it would seem, I would suggest that the original is almost wholly lost, and the Testimonium as it stands is in a highly altered form from the original, with positive terms replacing negative, but also likely shortened. This elimination of some phrases would explain some of the peculiarites of language in the passage as noted by Mason: these are reworked fragments of the original sentences, not very artfully used. As it almost certainly was wholly offensive to early Christians, the original was altered sometime in the second or third century, before it came to Eusebius in the form we also now have it in our copies of Josephus.

On the other reference, I see absolutely no reason to doubt the “James, brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” of 20.9.1[200] to be authentic. It’s completely neutral, but also relies upon the presence of some prior introduction of “Jesus” in association with the term “Christ.” So, of course, if someone rejects the Testimonium altogether, they must reject this reference as well, but it’s not necessary from the context. Relatedly, the context doesn’t hold what some of those who reject this reference have claimed. The objection in 20.9.1[201] is raised not that innocent men have been executed, but that the law was subverted by the high priest ordering the execution of the “lawbreakers” James and company, taking advantage of the absence of the Roman authority. The misreading is easily done, however, taking into account an unconscious harmonization of the book of Acts’ picture of James and the account of his death as related by Hegesippus via Eusebius.

Na’aman Third Volume

The third volume of Eisenbraun’s Colllected Essays of Nadav Na’aman is now available: Ancient Israel’s History and Historiography – The First Temple Period. Cool-o-rama!

Professor Na’aman, for those who may not know, comes at biblical studies from the direction of Assyriology, like Tadmor, Malamat, Hallo, and a number of others. Their work in biblical studies, like their Assyriological work, is meticulous, detailed, and full of important comparative studies which are far more illustrative of what we should and should not expect of ancient writing than are those studies based solely upon biblical literature and theorizing therefrom. Hallo, indeed, is a major proponent of what has been alternately called the Contextual or Comparative Method or Approach, in which both similarities and dissimilarities are noted as important. See his detailed definition and explanation of this method, either in his essay included in Scripture in Context III (Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), or his slightly reworked version of this article as a chapter in his slim volume Book of the People (Scholars Press, 1991); the introduction to Context of Scripture I: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World (Brill, 1997) also includes a short description of the method, but mentions the Scripture in Context III article as the definitive statement. I personally find the work of Assyriologists, specifically the aforementioned, in biblical studies to be consistently of the highest caliber methodologically. Their comparative work with the biblical and the cuneiform materials, the largest body of surviving ancient written material, is extremely important for biblical studies in showing us what was possible, what was likely, and what was done, and also what was not done, what was unlikely, and perhaps even some of what was impossible, in ancient writings. The importance, similarly, of the bibical materials for an understanding of the cuneiform materials is also coming to be better recognized, perhaps finally laying to rest the estimable Benno Landsberger’s misbegotten, if well-intentioned Eigenbegrifflichkeit (Islamica 2 [1926]: 355-72; trans. “The Conceptual Autonomy of the Babylonian World.” Undena, 1976), yet still avoiding the excesses of the old parallelomania, so delightfully monickered and pinned to the mat by Samuel Sandmel (JBL 81 [1962]: 1-13). And with a collection of Na’aman’s articles specifically relating to Israelite history and historiography in the First Temple, pre-exilic period, I’m sure we’ll find some really great stuff in the midst of the collection. I’m certain I’ll find it as hard to put down as the first two volumes, and will undoubtedly learn much from it. In this case, I think the whole-hearted recommendation of a book I haven’t even read yet isn’t even remotely preposterous.