Category Archives: Review

I heard, O King . . .

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.

Husain Haddawy has accomplished a deed which, “if it could be engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, would be a lesson to those who would consider.” His two volumes The Arabian Nights and The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Stories comprise translations of the core and several of the more well-known tales from the rest found in The Thousand and One Nights, perhaps most familiar in the complete English translation done by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous Victorian explorer, along with his occasionally peculiar ethnographic notes. Haddawy’s translations are a pleasure to read, much more so than Burton’s cramped pseudo-archaism and hyperventilating pseudo-Oriental style. They are crisp, clear, contemporary prose, yet with that slightly archaic bent that is appropriate for such tales of a long-gone world of caliphs, slave-girls, and eunuchs. The verse is not as successful, but then it’s difficult to tell to what degree this is to be blamed on Haddawy’s translation, as he does state in the informative introduction that the verse itself varies distinctly in quality.

These two volumes are included in the Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, and in the hardcover editions are of the standard high quality for this collection. These are quite nice thin-boarded hardcovers (which I for some reason think of as “French” in style), with sewn bindings and registers (ribbons), and quite thin but opaque paper, with probably a 9 or 9.5 point text, which is not too small for comfortable reading. The first volume includes the core of the collection, based on the critical edition of a fourteenth century Syrian manuscript established by the recently reposed Muhsin Mahdi, Alf Layla wa Layla (vols 1-2: Text and Commentary; vol 3: Introduction and Indexes; Brill, 1-2: 1984, 3: 1994). This volume includes “King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier’s Daughter,” “The Merchant and the Demon,” “The Fisherman and the Demon,” “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” “The Three Apples,” “The Two Viziers, Nur al-Din ‘Ali al-Misri and Badr al-Din Hasan al-Basri,” “The Hunchback,” “Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Bakkar and the Slave-girl Shams al-Nahar,” “The Slave-Girl Aniz al-Jalis and Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Khaqan,” and “Jullanar of the Sea.” The second volume includes “The Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” “The Story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Story of ‘Ala al-Din (Aladdin) and the Magic Lamp,” and “The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and His Two Sons.” The textual origins of the works included in the second volume are more complex. The Sindbad stories are taken from the Bulaq edition of 1835, based on a late, conflate Egyptian manuscript. The Qamar story is found in the Mahdi edition, the first pages of which are found in the fourteenth century Syrian manuscript, but the rest of which is culled from later manuscripts. The stories of ‘Ali Baba and ‘Ala al-Din are not found in any authentic Arabic source. These stories were told to Antoine Galland by Hanna Diab, a Maronite Christian from Aleppo, and were included in Galland’s French edition, Mille et Une Nuits (1704-1717). Later Arabic texts of these tales were shown to be based on Galland’s versions. Haddawy thus translated these two tales from Galland’s French.

One thing to be aware of is that these volumes will not make for good bedside reading for children, as some abridged versions of The Arabian Nights may do. The casual brutality and the lasciviousness, the racism and the slavery in the tales are all translated without euphemism, presenting us with an accurate picture of an entertainment from the Muslim world in the age of the Mamluks, a particularly brutal time. As nightmare fodder for young ones, they would excel.

There is a striking sensuous luxuriousness in the descriptions of foods, scents, clothing, architecture, gardens, and scenery, one which is difficult to exaggerate, and one which is, in a way, seductive; but in their very excess, they reveal themselves as the imaginary hyperbole of tale-telling. Though striking, I don’t think they’re particularly good for one, to focus on the pleasing of the senses. Which world does one live for, after all? And this point is sometimes (though not often enough, with more emphasis on worldly success and riches) made in the tales themselves. On that note, I have a weakness for jasmine, I must confess; having a fragrant sprig in a vase nearby while reading these tales is appropriate.

Yet another striking thing about the tales is the presence of the supernatural throughout. God is still striking down proud cities (turning the inhabitants to stone!), sorceresses enchant entire landscapes, demons are everywhere, and angels strike them down. The protagonists are generally pious, with the striking (and no doubt traditional) phrase “There is no power and no strength save in God, the Almighty, the Magnificent” often on their lips when distraught. This is a world in which there is no natural and supernatural, but all in one: those lines had not yet been drawn. Then, as now, spiritual darkness was recognized as ever-present and ready to attack the unwary.

For those seeking a diversion from the humdrummism of the ordinary days of cleaning, or committees, or paper-grading, or too much non-fiction reading, I recommend these two volumes of Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights. They are transporting.

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Davila’s Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha

James R. Davila (Professor and Dean of the Divinity School at University of St Andrews in Scotland, and host of the PaleoJudaica blog) published his The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? back in 2005 through Brill. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet appeared in a more affordable paperback edition. The hardcover edition is your standard beautifully made Brill product. One slight peculiarity is the initially off-putting page layout wherein footnotes are gathered at the bottom of the left facing page and sometimes spilling onto the right, rather than having the notes on the page, left or right, on which the noted text occurs. Also, the indented quotation blocks are strangely set off from the margin with < or > brackets, which keeps the quotation block from appearing to be indented at all, really, making it a bit of work to tell just where the quotation leaves off. Altogether, this is not the most successful, although it is certainly innovative, formatting in this book design. Appearance is one thing; substance, however, is another.

It has long been a commonplace in studies of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha to posit one work or another as “Jewish with Christian interpolations,” with the implication being that one need merely remove these interpolations to be presented with the original Jewish work. Davila turns this notion rightly on its head, providing us with something of a handbook describing a new methodology for working on provenance in this field. His recommendations should be implemented by all. They are well-considered, rooted in the reality of the literature as we have it, drawing on deep familiarity with other literature of the rabbinic and patristic heritage, and eminently logical in their presentation.

Following the usual front matter, an Introduction lays out the purpose of the book, describing its genesis in reflection on the work of Robert Kraft, among others. Davila describes the book thus:

Chapter One reviews the question of the relationship between Judaism and gentile society and religion, Christian or otherwise. It formulates a methodology and criteria (‘signature features’) for distinguishing Jewish literary works, especially pseudepigrapha, from works by others such as gentile Christians, other gentiles (e.g., polytheists, and ‘God-fearers’), Jewish-Christians, Samaritans, etc., in cases where this is possible.

Chapter Two applies an ’empirical models’ approach to the question of whether Christians wrote Old Testament pseudepigrapha whose Chrisitian origin is undetectable; that is, either works in which such undeniably Christian features in them are so few and peripheral as to tempt modern scholars to excise them as secondary redactions, or works that contain no explicitly Christian features at all. The chapter draws on ancient Christian sermons, scriptural commentaries, and poetic epics to ascertain how Christians actually handled such matters in their writings.

Chapter Three applies the methodological advances fromt he first two chapters to isolate a corpus of Old Testament pseudepigrapha that are of Jewish origin beyond reasonable doubt. Chapter Four looks at six pseudepigrapha that are widely accepted to be Jewish compositions but for which, to a greater or lesser degree, the case for Jewish origins falls short of being convincing. The works of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus as well as the Old Testament Apocrypha are also considered briefly in Excurses to Chapters Three and Four. Chapter Five summarizes the book’s conclusions. (pp 8-9)

There follows a List of Works Cited, arranged by subject, Indexes of Modern Authors, of Foreign Words and Phrases, and of Primary Texts. Lastly there is a Contents: Detailed Table. Unfortunately, there is no subject index, the lack of which is becoming distressingly common in scholarly books these days.

In the first eight sections of Chapter One, dealing with the wide variety of possible authorial communities, Davila ably explodes the myth of a mere duality of options, Jewish or Christian. There were several kinds of Jews, several kinds of Christians, and several kinds of other groups sympathetic to either or both, much as there are today, any of which might have possessed people of sufficient education to have taken it in hand to produce a pseudepigraphon. In section nine of Chapter One, pages 64 to 71, Davila lists the signature features of boundary-maintaining Jewish groups (I wasn’t able, due to the lack of a subject index, to locate the corresponding list of signature features of boundary-maintaining Christian groups; suffice it to say it is not in this chapter), and proceeds to describe how the groups and these criteria might then combine to present us with different possibilities for authorship, undoubtedly several of which describe the origins of the pseudepigrapha we have. Chapter Two then presents some Christian works which show that Christians authors could and indeed did write on occasion extended pieces which contain no Christian signature features. Chapters One and Two are the meat of the book, where Davila elaborates his theory very convincingly. The following chapters, as described above, proceed to apply his developed methodology to various works, with the determination of some as Jewish Pseudepigrapha in CHapter Three (Aristeas to Philocrates, Second Baruch, The Similitudes of Enoch, Fourth Ezra, and others. Chapter Four presents “Some Pseudepigrapha of Debatable Origin”, which are Sibylline Oracles Books 3 and 5, Joseph and Aseneth, The Testament of Job, and several others.

This is a very helpful and important book that deserves wider readership. One can only hope that a more affordable paperback edition will soon appear so that Davila’s methodology will become more widespread. His development of each of the components of the methodology is entirely thorough and convincing, so that in coming to its application in regards to specific works, it feels almost like a letdown, it’s so simple. This is the sign of a truly well-developed theorem: a highly developed theoretical foundation is masked by an elegant method easily applied. Many thanks to Professor Davila!

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Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on St Symeon the New Theologian

I recently finished reading Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2000; 2005 reprint), one of the more recent volumes in the Oxford Early Christian Studies series edited by Gillian Clark and Fr Andrew Louth.

Let me first say that, magnificent as the content this book is (and it is, on which see below), as is the case in the other several volumes in the Oxford Early Christian Studies series that I have, all the volumes in the series are too expensive, whether paperback or hardback. The Alfeyev St Symeon volume is hardcover and $218.00 list price. The cover is hard, but the binding is cut and glued, not sewn signatures, which I always, not unreasonably, expect in a “hardcover.” Likewise, it’s a laser-printed copy. This is evident in the sheen of the letters on the page. Had I any doubts about that, this statement on the copyright page would have allayed them: “This book has been printed digitally and produced in a standard specification in order to ensure its continuing availability.” Right. Someone thinks that a $218 laser-printed, cheaply bound hardcover is going to “ensure…continuing availability” in some realistic market. [As an aside, having formerly worked with archival documents, I do not hold out hopes for the print in this volume to remain on the page for much more than about ten years. Usually around that time, laser-printed ink begins to flake off the page. So, I have that to look forward to down the line: a book in disappearing ink!] So, I would suggest waiting for a paperback reprint of this book to appear (which will run around $75, if it’s like other titles in this series), or perhaps one might even buy the Kindle edition (for $135), which is available through Amazon, if one has a Kindle thing (yet, who knows how long that format will remain viable?). This is all so very regrettable and quite distressing, because this book (Iike all the others I’ve read in the series) deserves a wide audience that it simply will never find in these formats at these prices.

St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition is the doctoral dissertation of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, supervised by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at Oxford. That combination alone should raise eyebrows, as will the following familiar names who contributed to Bishop Hilarion’s study: Sebastian Brock, Robert Taft, Ephrem Lash, and Andrew Louth. As a dissertation, it is more than one would expect it to be, displaying not just familiarity, but a real mastery of both primary and secondary material. In addition, there is an added degree of attention and care, as Bishop Hilarion is also an Orthodox believer, and St Symeon the New Theologian is a treasured saint.

For those who are not familar with St Symeon the New Theologian, a short history here is in order. There were several various crossroads in Orthodox Chrisitan history, which were theological controversies. Usually at these crossroads in the Orthodox Church, there would be a determination of one side of the controversy as orthodoxy, with the opposing side designated heresy. St Symeon the New Theologian was at the center of such a controversy in his time, and suffered exile and censure for it, to the point of even being considered a heretic by some ecclesiastical authorities in his day (he lived roughly 975-1025), though he was later vindicated. His appellation “the New Theologian” is, as Bishop Hilarion shows, very likely based in his affinity with the Church Father he most often quotes, St Gregory Nazianzen, who is also known as St Gregory the Theologian, and often even as simply The Theologian, just as St Paul the Apostle is often referred to as The Apostle. St Symeon the New Theologian fought against what we can now see in hindsight was a very dangerous opinion, that the age of holiness had past, and there would be no more great saints, no more miracles, no more visions. This archivization of the Faith is still something that must be fought, for there are those who would turn Orthodoxy into a museum of ancient practices devoid of any relation to modern life and modern lives, and deny the possibility of sanctity among the living (which denial sounds like heresy to me!). St Symeon the New Theologian, following in the footsteps of his spiritual father St Symeon the Studite, instead joyously announced that visions of the uncreated light of God were available not just to ancient saints, who surely saw it, but also to modern people who lived proper Orthodox lives, particularly in following a monastic, ascetic way of life in humility and obedience. As proof, St Symeon the New Theologian mentions his own experiences of the Divine light, which he was blessed to experience often. His writings were also drawn upon and key in establishing the direction taken at the next Orthodox crossroads, during the Hesychastic controversy about three hundred years later. Bishop Hilarion shows how St Symeon the New Theologian, far from being the innovator he was accused of being by some, was solidly rooted in Orthodox Tradition, basing his position in the writings of the great Church Fathers through the ages right up until his own day. In the end, what I myself take away from St Symeon the New Theologian is that particular hopefulness for sainthood that a sometimes put-upon Christian needs the reassurance of. No, I don’t expect to be another St Gregory the Theologian or even St Symeon the New Theologian, but I feel a need to aim for it. To have that hope as a possibility, however much I may fail in its attainment, is a great help. Thank you, St Symeon, and the God of our grace, for that hope!

Anyhow, back to the review. The pages are xiv + 338. Aside from the oddity of the laser-printing of the text, the font is nice and the paper is good, matte, not glossy (there is no mention as to its being acid-free, so it’s probably not). The book is roughly 5.75 x 8.75 x 1″ (14.5 x 22.5 x 2.5 cm), so it’s a comfortable enough one-hand book, though the glued binding is a bit tight for that to be truly comfortable. Following the usual front matter and Introduction, the book is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Historical, Monastic, Scriptural, and Liturgical Background of St. Symeon the New Theologian,” is composed of the chapters “Symeon the New Theologian in the Context of the Studite Monastic Tradition,” “Symeon and Holy Scripture,” “Symeon and Divine Worship,” and “The Influence of Symeon the Studite on Symeon the New Theologian.” Part 2, “St. Symeon the New Theologian and the Patristic Tradition of the Orthodox Church” is composed of the chapters “Symeon and the Cycle of His Daily Reading,” “Triadological Polemic in Symeon’s Writings,” “Symeon’s Theology as Based on That of the Church Fathers,” “The Patristic Basis of Symeon’s Anthropology,” “The Patristic Background of Symeon’s Eccleisiology,” and “Some Aspects of Symeon’s Asceticism and Mysticism with Patristic Parallels.” This is followed by a General Conclusion in two parts, “Mysticism and Tradition: Symeon and His Place in the Orthodox Church,” and “Symeon’s Afterlife in Orthodox Tradition.” There then follow a very helpful Bibliography arranged by subject (The Writings of St Symeon the New Theologian; The Writings of St Symeon the Studite; The Life of St Symeon the New Theologian; Patristic Writings; English Translations of Patristic Writings Used in the Present Study; Hagiographical, Historical, and Canonical Sources; Liturgical Texts; Other Primary Sources; Secondary Literature), an Index of Greek Words, and a General Index. As one can see, the subject of St Symeon and Orthodox Tradition is, even in the outline of the contents, thoroughly covered. Numerous quotations of St Symeon’s writings and other Patristic writings appear in English throughout the text, most in Bishop Hilarion’s own renderings, it seems. Most of St Symeon’s writings have not appeared in English, though the majority are in French (with a facing critical text, in the excellent Sources Chrétiennes series), yet some of the writings excerpted in translation by Bishop Hilarion are unpublished, having been compiled from manuscripts. So, we have perhaps the best representation of St Symeon’s work available to us in English here in Bishop Hilarion’s work, an introduction to St Symeon’s life and spiritual instruction, for that is surely what his writings are. In fact, I think this book makes a fine general introduction to the subject of Orthodox “mysticism”, so-called, which is really simply Orthodox prayer, properly done with a foundation in Tradition, in an ascetical lifestyle, and with a humble heart.

To gain the full benefits of the discussion in this book, I think the reader should already be familiar at the very least with the vocabulary of theology, prayer, and ascesis in the Eastern Church. While many of the technical terms (theoria, ekstasis, etc) are glossed, most are not described in the kind of detail that would be very helpful for the beginner, which we shouldn’t have expected in a dissertation in any case. But this would not be too much of a problem with a little introduction. (Detailed and easily read book-length introductions on this subject are available in the classic by Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, and in Fr Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition [make certain to get the revised edition, 2007, for the important new Afterword from Fr Louth].) On the other hand, the English translation of quotations is helpful for bringing the material to a wider audience, and most of the original Greek texts are available readily enough in the Sources Chrétiennes volumes, so the text is available, though not immediately so on the page. The discussion seldom revolves around philological or textual issues that would require the original, though certain important or interesting phrases are included in the numerous footnotes when appropriate.

In the end, I think this book would be a great introduction to Eastern Orthodox Tradition, St Symeon the New Theologian, and Eastern Orthodox mysticism, all in one. The three are intertwined throughout. Having the focus on a concrete individual, St Symeon, with such a wealth of his relevant writing presented, brings the often abstruse and somewhat technical discussions of Eastern Orthodox Tradition and mysticism back down to earth, showing how these things are actually lived, and in an exemplary way in this particular life of St Symeon. Barring the price, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. As it is, it is far too expensive, and I feel a certain amount of guilt in describing such a great book here in review when it is, I presume, out of the budgetary reach of most of the readers who’d be interested in it. Perhaps the pricing will change in the future to something more affordable, and this book will gain a wider readership. One can hope so, and that it will happen soon, for there are a number of titles in that Oxford series which look more interesting than their price tags look acceptable!

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Signs and Mysteries

Magna enim in eis signa et mysteria continentur.

Remigius of Auxerre, Ennarationes in Psalmos (PL 131.259D)

A Catholic friend, author and blogger Mike Aquilina, has a new book out, illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. OSV has been very kind to send a review copy. I trust the kindness is repaid here.

First off, this is a beautifully printed little book. I wouldn’t so overly simplify as to say that I always judge a book by its cover, but I do think a good book should be complemented by a good book design and production. This little volume passes with flying colors. Externally, it’s a small hardback (8.75 x 5.5 x .75 inches [21 x 14 x 1.75 cm]), with a smooth dark nut-brown cover with gilt lettering on the spine. The dustjacket is nice, thick, glossy paper (you may see the front of it at the link above), and includes a nice picture of a smiling Mr Aquilina on the rear flap. The binding of the 188 numbered pages is glued, not sewn; of course, this is sufficiently sturdy for this small book, and it is very nicely done.

Upon opening the book, however, one is truly treated to an example of very fine book design. The font is delicate (so may not make ideal unaided reading for those readers with vision problems) and all the text and illustrations are in a brown ink, rather than black, on a creamy matte paper. The font is really very nice, indeed. The choice of the brown ink is espcially striking for its effect in the illustrations. And these illustrations are absolutely beautifully done. There is a kind of classic delicacy in the treatment, which is difficult to elaborate, but which harks back to earlier traditions of monochrome illustration. There is a very nearly photographic realism to some of the illustrations (I think here of the Galilean cross on page 151), while others are more impressionistic (like the watercolor depiction of the “cross” on the wall at Herculaneum, page 150), and all represent the ancient art accurately, with a minimum of fussiness (no bothersome dotted lines of reconstructions, etc.), making the images much more accessible. Though some were certainly determined by their being mentioned in the text, others which are not mentioned are also included, rounding out the portrayals of these ancient visual depictions, and assisting in giving at least some taste of the style of depiction used in the ancient churches. The selected illustrations are excellent accompaniment to the text, and another pleasure is that there are so many of them, on average more than one every other page.

The text itself is a delight. Mike has managed to write a short beginner’s introduction to the visual imagery of the first four centuries of the Church. The twenty-six chapters following the Introduction cover (at varying length) such topics as “The Fish,” “The Peacock,” “The Lamb,” “The Anchor” and “Alpha and Omega.” (A bibliography of Works Consulted concludes the volume.) I am already thinking of several people of several ages for whom this book will be a fine introduction to the symbols used in the art of the Early Church. Mike explains clearly and simply the symbology (that is, the system of visual typology) used by the ancient artists which is so very similar to the textual typology employed in Patristic commentary of Scripture. The book is, in fact, peppered with Patristic citations, cementing the two. The book is not directed at an academic audience. As Mike says, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion—an act of piety toward our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived” (p. 9). But I would take issue with the statement that this book “is not a work of scholarship.” It most certainly is. I’ve seen no errors in any of the references to subject matter that I’m at all familiar with. There is a sufficient presence of “perhaps” and “maybe” in the book so as to keep things realistically grounded in what we do know and can know, rather than the contrary commonplace of assertions presented as fact. That is certainly good scholarship, deftly wielded with a light touch. It is not intimidating scholarship, not overpowering and jargon-laden, and is thus perfect for those who know nothing about the subject of early Christian art and the symbols employed therein. Those who will appreciate learning what their ancestors in the Faith were up to with all these anchors, ankhs, and alphas will be well repaid for their time spent within the pages of this truly lovely little book. For great are the signs and mysteries contained in them.

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Cohen, Maccabees to Mishnah

Several months ago, a friend at church asked me for a good book about the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He’s a numismatist and familiar with Greek and Roman history, but not so much on the Jewish history of the so-called Intertestamental Period. “How do we get from there to here?” I recall him asking. I hadn’t a recommendation for him at the time. After asking around, I picked up a few different books to read through, intending to hand over to him whichever I might find to be the best of the bunch. So, consider that the context of this short review.

I’ve just finished reading Shaye J. D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). The first edition was volume seven of the Library of Early Christianity series edited by Wayne Meeks; apparently this second edition is not to be considered part of that series, oddly enough. The cover is unlike the standardized cover of the series, as one may see here. At xiv + 250, it is neither too short nor particularly detailed, and footnotes are kept to a minimum, and extremely economical even at that. There is a glossary and general index, and the whole is certainly geared to “students and other nonspecialists” as Cohen notes in the Preface to the First Edition (p. xi).

The book is an introduction to Jewish history between roughly 200 BCE and 200 CE, thus the “Maccabees to the Mishnah” of the title. Note my careful choice of phrasing: it is an introduction to Jewish history of that period, and not a history of the period in itself. This I find to be the case in that the chapters are thematically rather than chronologically arranged. After the Foreword to the First Edition by Wayne Meeks, and the Prefaces to the First and Second Edition of this book by Cohen, chapter one, “Ancient Judaism: Chronology and Definitions” (which is really the Introduction to the work, discussing concerns of phraseology for the period and other issues) is followed by a Timeline. One might at this point, particularly in light of the title, expect the work to be arranged chronologically, but this is not the case. As I mentioned, the book is arranged thematically, in the following chapters:
2. Jews and Gentiles
3. The Jewish “Religion”: Practices and Beliefs
4. The Community and Its Institutions
5. Sectarian and Normative
6. Canonization and Its Implications
7. The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
There then follows a helpful thirteen pages of annotated “Suggestions for Further Reading,” arranged by chapter, and then the glossary and general index.

The thematic arrangement I found to be a distraction, in all honesty. The book is well-written and clearly up-to-date, being an especially clear presentation for those who might be new to the subject. Cohen shows himself an adept at summarizing without oversimplifying. But I found myself often relying on my own fund of knowledge in order to fill in the gaps, as I ran into explanations that were at times too drastically curtailed, no doubt due to limited space. Yet I especially thought that more of a chronological arrangement would have made the book that much more valuable and useful. As it is, I would need to recommend this book in conjunction with another, something like Julius Scott’s Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1995) or Anthony Tomasino’s Judaism before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World (Intervarsity Press, 2003). [As an aside, how many books on this period are going to be titled alliteratively? “From the Greeks to the Godfearers” “Persians to Pharisees” “Apocalyptic and Afikomen”] Scott’s book is particularly successful at combining chronological and thematic chapters, and that, I think, would be much more useful to the kind of audience that Cohen’s book is aimed at: the “students and other nonspecialists.” One might hope for a vastly reworked third edition in not so limited a format (223 pages of text really is too short; Scott is just over 350 pages of text, and Tomasino just over 300) in which Cohen could “go to town” on the subject, rather than being so limited and therefore occasionally too terse.

We might not expect a third edition to come from the same publisher, however. As Cohen notes in an addition to his preface for this addition, dated December 2005:

The first edition of this book was published by Westminster Press in 1987 in the Library of Early Christianity series edited by Wayne Meeks. I was delighted then to be associated with a Presbyterian publishing house. It is one of the blessings of America that a Presbyterian publisher would commission a Jew to write a book on early Judaism for a series oriented to students of the New Testament. This never happened in the old country. Eighteen years later I am grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for publishing this second edition and remain grateful to the press for its courtesies to me over the years. I am no longer happy, however, to be associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the parent body of WJK, because I am deeply pained by the recent anti-Israel turn in its policies. The fact that WJK is editorially and fiscally independent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affords small consolation; by publishing this book with WJK I am associating myself perforce with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an organization whose anti-Israel policies I condemn and distrust.

Bravo, Professor Cohen.

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Vermes on Ratzinger

Geza Vermes has written a short review article on Joseph Ratzinger’s (alias Pope Benedict XVI) recently released book Jesus of Nazareth. I have always found great value in the writings of Vermes, but I find this short review to be hasty and entirely too superficial for this important work. I expected better, but instead found a review that reads like a caricature of pontificating professorship in high dudgeon. In fact, this rather snide, tossed-off little review has quite changed my opinion of him.

It appears that Vermes has skipped over entirely Ratzinger’s critique of the historical-critical method found in the foreword to the book, a critique that quite obviously, if implicitly, includes the historical Jesus research of Vermes. Considering that fully three-quarters of the article presents Vermes’ review of Jesus scholarship, marking rather arbitrarily the “quests” (“fads” would be a better word, if biblical studies weren’t such a boys’ club that always requires cool-to-boys terminology) for the historical Jesus, the time Vermes spends “reviewing” Ratzinger’s book itself is negligible. Indeed, I see no evidence of an actual reading of the book itself in the form of extensive interaction with Ratzinger’s stated goals in the foreword. He doesn’t even mention that it’s only the first volume of a two-volume work, or give much more detail than a peek at the table of contents would reveal. Vermes certainly doesn’t address Ratzinger’s critiques of the historical-critical method’s epistemological failings, but rather implies that Ratzinger simplistically brushed them aside, which is decidedly not the case. Did he even read the book?

I just love this from Vermes:

As a final comment, may I, after a lifetime of study of Judaism and early Christianity and in the light of hundreds of letters inspired by my books, voice the conviction that the powerful, inspirational and, above all, real figure of the historical Jesus is able to exercise a profound influence on our age, especially on people who are no longer impressed by traditional Christianity.

Pope Vermes of the Church of the Disaffected Hundreds? Over a billion and a half people are still impressed by “traditional Christianity” and find value in Pope Benedict’s approach, one billion of them finding value in him as a teacher in a way that Vermes has never experienced and will never experience. And those people actually find more value in the living Christ of the Gospels than in the often ridiculous entities proposed by modern “questers.” Not a single one of those inventions draws the interest that the Jesus of “blind faith in the literal truth of the Gospels” draws, nor will ever, including Vermes’ rather boring version, who is little different from Honi the Circle-Drawer, who of course must have a couple billion followers today, too, right, because he was so extraordinary? Oh wait…. Tiresome anti-Christian bigotry and an inept review: what a cocktail.

One thing I think is clear. This book Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) will come to be recognized as a watershed in a way that none of the other Jesus books ever has been or ever could be, a flaming sword between the Paradise of a faithful reading and application of all the Biblical texts fully informed by Patristic writings and Church Tradition yielding an image of the Living Jesus Christ, and the desert of academic historical-critical and other fads seeking a new and different contemporary Jesus to pad curricula vitae.

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Behr, The Mystery of Christ

Fr John Behr is the incoming dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, an Eastern Orthodox seminary in Crestwood, New York. In The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), Fr Behr brings to the fore the importance of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as the central interpretive/exegetical axis for the apostolic and patristic Church. It’s a short book, 181 pages, with four pages of an index, and several color plates, surprisingly. After a preface, the five chapters are Through the Cross, Search the Scriptures, For This We Were Created, The Virgin Mother, Glorify God in Your Body. These are followed by Postscript: A Premodern Faith for a Postmodern Era.

Fr Behr’s main theme is that it is the recognition of Christ as God in the Passion and Resurrection which led the apostles to find more about Christ in the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. It’s this exegetical perspective that underlies, that is the foundation for, the New Testament writings, and is the standard method in the sub-apostolic and patristic period, as well. Fr Behr focuses on the importance of this interpretative aspect of the reaction to the Passion and Resurrection with an explicit rejection of placing the focus on the “historical” events per se, as these were not recognized as important, but only after the fact.

While I find the call for a return to the apostolic and patristic method of Scriptural interpretation, particularly of the Old Testament, important and necessary, particularly in the face of any number of academic approaches to the Scriptures that have not produced anything even remotely as interesting as the New Testament is, I think this book could have been better done. There are a number of regrettable typographic errors, and Fr Behr could have used an editor to help eliminate some of the more discursive tendencies of his writing style, which reads much like informal speech, but which makes for not very communicative reading. A pet peeve: there is “postmodern” literary interpretation, but there is no “postmodern era.” Likewise, his preference to focus on the interpretive aspect of response to the Passion and Resurrection in opposition to the “historical” is very “postmodern,” but ultimately unconvincing. As it is historical occurrences in historical (i.e., not mythic or legendary) time that have prompted the responses in combing the Scriptures, initiated by the resurrected Lord Himself with His disciples on the road to Emmaus, and these events in historical time are enshrined even in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (“…under Pontius Pilate…”), it appears that the attachment to the historical, to the perceived reality the apostles experienced and their believed reality of the past as depicted in the Scriptures was more important than simply an exegetical tactic. Perhaps I read too much into Fr Behr’s very contemporary postmodernism, and his rejection of the historical is only an unfortunate mistaken emphasis. But there are other questions that can be posed: Why did the apostles turn to the Old Testament to find in the ancient prophecies and other writings sayings about Christ? Was it not that these writings were considered the authoritative record of the past, particularly of God’s past dealings with Israel? Is it not to be expected that those familiar with this archive would examine it more closely in order to find the present depicted therein in the past as the coming future, ordained by God?

I find the call for a return to apostolic/patristic exegesis more clearly presented in Fr Georges Florovsky Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Fr John Chryssavgis The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind, and Fr John Breck Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, and a series of various articles touching on various aspects of Orthodox/Patristic hermeutics and exegesis: Georges Barrois, “Critical exegesis and traditional hermeneutics: a methodological inquiry on the basis of the book of Isaiah” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 16/3 [1972], 107-127), John Breck, “Exegesis and interpretation: Orthodox reflections on the ‘hermeneutic problem'” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 27/2 [1983], 75-92), Veselin Kesich “The Orthodox Church and Biblical Interpretation” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 37/4 [1993], 343-351), among many others, Orthodox and not. Crystallizing even a description of patristic methods of interpretation, much less examples of them, is something that is still in process, and is fortunately becoming more and more popular. These higher level works are few and far between. Fr Behr’s work in this regard in The Mystery of Christ should not be missed. For all my quibbling above, I have still gained from this book, and appreciate its input. I would recommend it to those who are already very familiar with patristics, but not as an introductory text, to be sure. The discursive nature of Fr Behr’s style could be unintentionally misleading to novices, something particularly dangerous in such a tricky subject, and the postmodernism so lightly brandished can be, or rather will be, off-putting to the more traditional-minded, which is the vast majority of his audience among the Orthodox. Nonetheless, it’s a fine book. If anything, it’s the first attempt I’ve seen at laying out in detail a proposition on the development of apostolic exegesis prior to the production of the New Testament documents. That I’m not entirely supportive of Fr Behr’s particular approach doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s on the right track, but rather only slightly off. And it’s a particularly timely read with this book’s focus on the Passion and Resurrecton, our having just experienced Pascha.

Anyhow, it’s time to pick out my next reading material.

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