A great blessing

Tonight, we were greatly blessed to have had a visit to our parish by Reader Nektarios from Hawaii, bearing the Myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos, described here. Not only were we able to have a Paraklisis (Small Supplication to the Virgin, a service in which we ask the Theotokos to pray for all those whom we name, a list that we add to every week) and venerate this beautiful icon, but we were even anointed with the myrrh with which this icon is flowing, and to keep a bit of cotton soaked in the myrrh.

The scent of the myrrh is quite distinctive. I’d say the scent of a rose is the closest, but there is something more to it than that. In consistency, it’s a very fine oil, very light, working its way into the skin immediately. It’s beautiful!

Although this myrrh-streaming is a miracle, completely without rational explanation (I saw the icon removed completely from its case, and can say without a doubt that there is no trick involved), there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary at all. It seemed as natural as the sunrise each day that an icon should be streaming myrrh, and that the faithful would benefit by it. I thank God that I had and have no doubts about its authentic nature. I hope that many others will be able to benefit from such a great blessing as this.

Let’s all pray for God’s mercy in that regard.

The Prophet

Athirst in soul for truth and grace
In desert gloom I walked alone,
And there a six-winged seraph shone
Upon the night before my face.
He touched my eyes with fingers light
And soft as sleep at eventide;
My eyes became with vision wide,
Alarmed as eagles in the night.
He touched my ears, I heard around
Me far and wide a tide of sound:
I heard a tremlbling fill the sky,
I heard the angel wings on high,
I heard the sap in grass and trees,
And reptiles moving ‘neath the seas.
He leaned above my mouth awhile,
And tore from me my tongue of guile,
And took from me my pride and lust,
And with his bloody hand he thrust
Between my dead lips withering
The serpent’s sharp and su’btle sting.
And with his sword he clove my breast,
And plucked the heart that trembled there,
And in my bosom rived and bare
A coal of living fire he pressed.
I fell upon the waste as dead.
And God spake unto me and said:
“Arise, O prophet! Hear and see!
Fulfill my will! Go forth again,
And, wayfaring, on land, on sea,
Burn with my words the hearts of men!”

Alexander Pushkin, 1826. Translated by Eugene Mark Kayden.

Wisdom from the East

A man who sits in stillness and who receives experience of God’s kindness has little need of persuasive argument, and his soul is not sick with the disease of unbelief, like those who are doubtful of the truth. For the testimony of his own understanding is sufficient to persuade him above endless words having no experience behind them.

To our God be glory and majesty unto the ages. Amen.

St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 68, end.


This section on ‘Life and the Law’, itself a reformulation of Schürer’s own title, Das Leben under [sic] dem Gesetz, presents the reviser with a new kind of problem. He is faced here not so much with an antiquated account or a faulty historical reconstruction, as with questionable value judgements. It has been decided therefore not to reproduce § 28 unchanged, as a period piece: readers concerned with a late nineteenth century ideology can read the German original or the previous English translation. On the other hand, since to delete the chapter completely would be to deprive the revised volume of a great deal of interesting information, the subject has been treated in this new version from a historical rather than a theological vantage point. Moreover, the purpose of the Pharisees and their rabbinic heirs is obviously no longer represented as a trivialization of religion, but identified as an attempt to elevate everyday Jewish life as a whole, and in its minute details, to the sphere of cultic worship. It should also be noted that although in the historical survey that follows, Jewish observances and customs are referred to in the past tense, the laws on which they are based are still valid and practised by traditional Judaism.

The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Revised English Edition, eds. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black (T & T Clark, 1979), volume 2, page 464, footnote 1.

Abraham Malamat z”l

Professor Abraham Malamat passed away today in Jerusalem at the age of 87.

May his memory be for a blessing.

May the Lord have mercy on all those who come before Him.

Book Notes

I’ve been very busy, but even so, I apologize for not keeping up with posting here. Blogs have their (hopefully temporary) lulls from time to time.

My break was, however, remarkably productive. I have left a mere 143 pages of checking and indexing OTP citations. Woo. Hoo.

Yet I have been onlinely slack! Not only have I been a good boy in curtailing online excursions other than those required for citation-checking (Google Books and Archive.org have been remarkably helpful in this, as have, of course, the University of California at Berkeley’s Library and Interlibrary Loan Department), but I have been, most exotically, reading off-line, and unfortunately neglecting the keeping up of the annotation of books I’ve been going through in my “Currently Reading” spot chez biblicalia. So, this is a catching up post.

In roughly chronological order, I have read or am reading the following (readers may recall some of these titles from my List of Shame!:

Peter Der Manuelian, Studies in the Reign of Amenophis II. Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge 26 (Gerstenbeg Verlag, 1987). Although I am happy to be corrected, I believe this is the only monography dedicated to Amenhotep II, son of Thutmose III the Great. Good luck finding a copy. I would recommend that one be both persistent and patient in looking. Probably half the book was taken up with issues of chronology, on some points of which I was left wondering how well the author’s positions have held up in the more than twenty years since publication. I was hoping for much more coverage of the Canaanite campaigns, but was disappointed. Overall, I gained the impression that this volume is rather dated. The anticipation was better than the reading, in the end. I’ll revisit it after re-reading some books on chronology, particularly the Paul Aström edited High, Middle, or Low? volumes, especially Kenneth Kitchen’s contribution on Egyptian chronology therein. I’m sure that Donald Reford’s beautifully produced volume The Wars in Syria and Palestine of Thutmose III (Brill, 2003), will clear up many questions, too.

Herb Basser’s The Mind behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Mathew 1 – 14 (Academic Studies Press [scroll down for the book listing], 2009). This is an extraordinary book, but one that is hard to categorize (which is not necessarily a bad thing). I do know that I’d like to see and read more books like this one. As the title states, it is a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 1-14. For commentary on the remaining chapters of Matthew, Basser refers the reader to others of his publications, namely some articles and his very interesting looking Studies in Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E. (Brill, 2000; available in paperback). Basser reads the Gospel as one who is giving free reign to calling up associations and resonances throughout Jewish literature, neither restricting himself by genre nor period. The results are striking, refreshing, and welcome. Eschewing the nitpicky issues of language and such that have been done to death over the last hundred years (what new is really being said with most commentaries?), Basser brings us back to reading Matthew as Jewish literature: as it was written, so should we read it. I look forward to reading this one again. I’m very happy that Herb Basser wrote to me and recommended it. I enjoyed it very much, and will certainly enjoy it further in the future.

Mafred Bietak, Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos: Recent Excavations at Tell el-Dabʿa (The British Museum, 1995). I have a thing for Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty, one might have already figured out. This was the most fantastically accomplished, wealthiest, and most intriguing period of Egyptian history. Ramesses II wished he was a Thutmose III! Anyhow, immediately before the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt was divided. The Delta was ruled from Memphis and Avaris by a class of Canaanite/Syrian overlords, commonly referred to as “the Hyksos” kings, which comprised several of the dynasties of the Second Intermediate Period. Middle Egypt and the Thebaid was ruled from Thebes by the Seventeenth Dynasty, a native Egyptian dynasty. The south was under the control or at least strong influence of Kush. The founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ahmose, managed to expel the Hyksos ruling class, and thus retook and reunited Upper and Lower Egypt under one native Pharaoh. The ruins of Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos and likewise the site of a major palace and fortress in the early to mid Eighteenth Dynasty (in the Nineteenth Period to experience another, final revival as Pi-Ramesses), have been under excavation by Manfred Bietak since the late 1970s (as memory serves). Much of the area is now devoted to agriculture, and some is built over, so the areas available for excavation may not be ideal, but much has been found. Minoan plaster decoration appears in fragmentary condition in the Eighteenth Dynasty palace at Avaris, and numerous other surprising goodies, showing far-flung trading connections that continued from the Hyksos period into the Eighteenth Dynasty. Very interesting.

Grant Frame’s Babylonia 689-627 B.C.: A Political History (Netherlands Institute for the Near East, 2007). Assyrian and Babylonian history intersect in this period as in no other. The book covers the period from the utter destruction of Babylon by the Assyrians to the collapse of the Assyrian Empire strongly due to their overextension in Babylonian wars. One thing that was surprising, even shocking, is how very little information there is on this period. Frame presents it all, if only in summary. But the charts counting numbers of tablets dated to various years and reigns are telling: this was a period of general uncertainty, and not a little fear on the part of both Babylonians and Assyrians both.

Bernard Levinson’s Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2008). This is a very short book (and far too expensive at list price, which is dismaying to Levinson), but it packs a wallop. Bernard Levinson wrote to me and recommended it during the period I was reading and writing on Anders Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2009), particularly to recommend his extensively annotated bibliography in chapter six, I think the number was. I have a number of questions and comments that I need to send to him before I post too much on this book, but a quick synopsis is in order. Essentially, he traces diachronically the adaptation or amelioration of various Biblical laws or themes, in one case, the procedure of effecting a levirate marriage, in the other, the theme of transgenerational punishment. This process of adaptation or amelioration he has coined inner-biblical exegesis. As with Herb Basser’s book above, it is refreshing to see a new viewpoint, a perspective taken which is innovative yet not wacky, and one which immediately yields as many interesting answers as it does provoke thoughtful questions. The focus of much of Hebrew Bible studies on source criticism has impoverished the field, plainly. Such perspectives as Levinson’s, which deal with the canonical form of the text and then wrestle with why the text says what it says as it is are more to be expected in the future, as the past focus on atomization of the text seems to have run its course, and no longer generates much interest (nor is the strong philological training necessary to properly accomplish such things apparently available anymore).

Mordechai Cogan and Dan’el Kahn, eds., Treasures on Camel Humps: Historical and Literary Studies from the Ancient Near East Presented to Israel Eph‘al (Magnes Press, 2008). As usual with these kinds of things, and without pointing any fingers, this volume was a mixed bag. It’s obvious that (like my own!) Eph`al’s interests were all over the place, and so various friends and students contributed article-chapters touching on various of those subjects, but the quality was a bit uneven. I was expecting the majority of articles to be on the subject of ancient warfare, really, and so was disappointed by the variety. But the mix of articles is a good one. As a not entirely unrelated aside, while reading this, I found myself to have become irritated with the way that it seems no one is writing monographs anymore, but rather it seems everything is collections of articles. I’m really tired of it. I’m going to move away from devoting resources and taking up shelf space with volumes that are less than 25% of interest to me!

Robert Daly, ed. Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Baker, 2009). (I posted a list of the contributors and their articles here.) Now, although this is also a collection of articles, the papers of a symposium, actually, I found it to be an extremely tight collection, more focused and more even in quality than the previous title. My favorite of these articles is that by Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin, who displays erudition, wit, and joy througout the course of the article. I kid you not. And there was the absolutely fascinating article by Nancy Patterson Ševčenko on the iconography of the Second Coming and Last Judgment, which I had always tried to figure out, but which she makes quick sense of. I would have liked the illustrations in her chapter especially to have been larger, and a few pages in color would really have been nice, but that’s just quibbling. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the subject. Really, I’m sure it’s going to be considered a necessary one, as necessary as Brian Daley’s The Hope of the Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Hendrickson, 2003) [sadly OP: publication details are available at Amazon] and Charles Hill’s Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2001), both of which are quoted often in the pages of this volume.

Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, volume 1: The Parthian Period (Brill, 1965). This is only the first of five volumes of Neusner’s A History of the Jews in Babylonia, covering the scanty evidence of the Parthian Period. Do you know that if it weren’t for Greek and Roman records and the Rabbinic writings, we would have “next to nothing” instead of “very, very little” data on the Parthians? The other volumes will have more information, but this period is one in which there is little certain information to be obtained from the Rabbinic writings, and very little from anywhere else on Parthia, so there is not much to be said. Still, Neusner is, as always, erudite and diligent in presenting and commenting on what remains to us. This five volume series has not been replaced by a similar treatment by anyone else. A companion volume, Aphrahat and Judaism, provides translations and commentary on those of Aphrahat’s Demonstrations that deal with Judaism, giving evidence of fourth century Persian Christian trends in at least literary expression of the relationship between Jews and Christians in the Sassanid Empire.

Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (volumes 1,2, and 3.1 [OP] and 3.2) (2nd ed., Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black, eds. T & T Clark, 1973). Neusner recommended this to me when I’d asked him for a recommendation of precisely such a detailed history, and then I bought it, though I’d known of it for ages. I’m right in the middle of volume two now. The first volume was especially fascinating, as it dealt, in extraordinary (if sometimes excruciating) detail with the history proper of the period from about 200 BC to 150 AD, including discussion of sources, extensive quotations in Greek and Latin, and a wealth of reference to publications of primary material (some of which is now dated; for instance, Menahem Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism was not yet published, though it was mentioned as in preparation; also, numerous excavations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and especial Israel have brought to light helpful data). The second volume discusses the social setting, the priesthood in Jerusalem, its organization, etc, so far as I’ve seen. I had to go to bed just as I reached the chapter on Gentile participation in the cult at Jerusalem. I know (from tantalizing references!) that there will be a discussion of literature in part one of the third volume. Part two, volume three, a separate book, is mostly the indexes. I’m very impressed by the depth of coverage and the judicious investigation of sources. The organization of the work preserves Schürer’s original organization, though much of the text has of course not only been translated but edited, whether adapted or replaced. There is a truly nineteenth century comprehensiveness about this book that makes me appreciate why it is still recommended. It is, despite being thirty years old in this edition, still very useful, particularly in the exhaustive treatment of primary sources, chief of which is, not surprisingly, Josephus. Back when I was looking for a set of these, I asked Continuum/T & T Clark about the availability of the volumes, and they told me they were moving this title to print-on-demand. The set I ended up getting was used, a copy inscribed by editor Fergus Millar for a well-known Classicist (whose name escapes me, Steven something), which is pretty neat.

Tim Vivian and Augustine Cassaday, Mark the Monk: Counsels on the Spiritual Life (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). I’ve just started this one, and am only in the introduction. This is two volumes in one physical book, containing a translation of all the works attributed to St Mark the Ascetic (as I’ve usually seen him named), who has maintained a consistent popularity amongst ascetics throughout Eastern Christian history since his day. “Sell all and buy Mark” is an old monastic saw, but one that should not be ignored. Yet you won’t have to sell all to afford this volume. If the writings of St Mark the Ascetic were good enough to receive the approbation of St Isaac the Syrian and St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, then they’re good enough for you.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Near to the Fire

For behold, my cause is in Your hands
and my recourse is to You.
I know my sin, so cleanse me, O Lord,
that I may enter into Your presence
with self-respect.
Now my offenses are weighty;
I have drawn near to the fire which burns.
Your mercy is upon all things,
so that You can take away
all my transgressions.
Pardon me, even me, the sinner.
And pardon all Your creatures
whom You have fashioned,
but who have not heard and learned of You.

Testament of Isaac 4.27-31

2010 Bible Reading Plans

Several readers have written to me requesting new files for the Bible Reading Plans that I posted for last year. Much of the work in those is from the tireless hands of my beloved Orthodox brother Esteban Vázquez, as described here, here, here, and here.

Well, due to time constraints (and the necessity of clarifying some of the finer points of the kathismata reading plan), this year’s files lack the schedule for the reading of the Psalms according to the traditional Orthodox Christian monastic schedule. But these two reading plans I’ve put together will actually work permanently, for every year, since the day/date-dependent Psalms readings are not included in the files. So that cloud has a silver lining. (I will likely produce a plan including the Psalms readings, just not right now.) [See the UPDATE below.]

One file presents the Old Testament readings based upon the titles and versification used in the New Revised Standard Version. The New Testament readings are arranged, as they were last year, according to the Russian Orthodox Optina kellia rules. Following this system of readings, you’ll read through the entire Greek Orthodox Old Testament canon (as close as one can get to it in the NRSV, anyway) once in the year, and through the entire New Testament four times.

Another file presents the Old Testament reading based upon the titles and versification used in the New English Translation to the Septuagint. The NT part of this plan is also using the Optina kellia rules. This plan affords the closest possible reading in English to the Greek Orthodox Old Testament, the NETS, following the reading of the canonical books (and thus excluding Psalms of Solomon from the reading, though they are included in the NETS). Again, the entire Old Testament is read through the course of the year, and the entire New Testaement is read through four times.

The plans are in Adobe pdf format, which allows for the nicest-looking printing. Each plan comes to seven pages, so will fit on four pages if you print double-sided.

Happy reading!

Owing to an excellent suggestion by Esteban in his post titled “On Reading the Scriptures, Part I“, I have updated the two above-mentioned files, and have included a plan for reading one stasis of the Psalms each day. Over the course of the year, the person following that plan will by the end of the year have read through the entire Psalter six times. While the standard reading of one or more kathisma each day is the liturgical usage in Eastern Orthodoxy, these reading plans are by no means intended to replace or mimic liturgical usage. They are rather designed for the purpose of the reader familiarizing himself or herself with Holy Scriptures.

Using the plans linked to above, the reader will over the course of the year (in reading five or six chapters a day) read through the entire Greek Orthodox Old Testament (the Hebrew/Protestant canon, plus the entire set of “apocrypha” also included in Greek Orthodox Bibles) fully once , excluding the Psalter which will be read through six times, and the entire New Testament will be read in its entirety four times.

Sounds like a plan!