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 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.


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