Further autumnal abundance of reviewlets

Moving on now to a more vague category, pre/early Christian Jewish-related stuff.

Richard Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Baker, 2007). This is a weird book, which is not to say that it isn’t good, but it’s certainly odd. I’d say that if the subtitle were switched around to “A Biblical and Archaeological Survey” it would be better descriptive. Hess spends too much time in this book doing footwork supportive of historical reliability for Hebrew Bible narrative. It’s very interesting, and convincing in the manner that it’s laid out, but it seems misplaced in a book on Israelite Religions. What I expected more of, and which I found to be lacking, was an exhaustive and detailed reading of all Biblical data related to religious practices among Israelites as described in the Bible, and in this sense, I would rather have set aside the normative/Prophetic religion (we know, or think we know, enough about that) and priveleged the non-normative religious practices that seem to be decried on every other page of the Prophets. There’s a wealth of material there. But in Hess, individual instances are not dealt with in any satisfying detail, probably so much of the book has been devoted to ephemera, though very interesting ephemera: the aforementioned pro-historical OT chapter, a survey of study of Israelite religion, two chapters on the religions of nearby nations, and then two chapters on early normative Israelite religion. Two thirds of the book is thus taken up with stuff that is basically already known and covered in better detail elsewhere. But the title of the book, Israelite Religions, with its provocative plural intimates that we are to expect some substantial coverage of a variety of religious practices in relatively distinct and coherent systems in existence in the United Monarchy and Two Kingdoms period of Israelite history. But the coverage of nearly all of that is scattered lines in one chapter, insufficient detail to make the presentation interesting, let alone informational. The presentation of the archaeological material here is cursory. The reader is better referred to Ziony Zevit’s The Religions of Ancient Israel (Continuum, 2001), not least for the better discussion and coverage of archaeological material, but for the better contextualization of that material in the Biblical text, which is both broader and deeper than is found in Hess. I see this Hess book as something of an introductory survey book, for which it would serve admirably, despite its distracted focus. Zevit would then be for the more advanced student or the one interested in detail.

Editors Huub van de Sandt and Jürgen K. Zangenberg, Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Settings (SBL, 2008). The proceedings of a previous 2003 symposium, limited to discussion of the Gospel of Matthew and the Didache, was edited by van de Sandt in 2005 as Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu? (Royal Van Gorcum/Fortress, 2005). The 2007 symposium added the Letter of James to the discussions. The results are a series of very interesting, highly exploratory papers, as is only befitting the beginning stages of such a field of investigation. As many have noticed before, there are distinct resemblances, or reminiscences, or allusions, in and amongst all three of these works, and they’re suggestive of a particular form of early Christianity (namely, perhaps the earliest) which was still more Jewish than not. How precisely to describe those clearly perceived but elusively described connections is what this group is working on. So, while this series of papers may not be conclusive, they are at any rate very interesting for the manner in which we may eavesdrop on the founding of a particular direction of investigation, and watch its methodology unfold. I would also recommend the van de Sandt and David Flusser volume, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity (Royal Van Gorcum/Fortress, 2002).

Anthony J. Tomasino, Judaism Before Jesus: The Events and Ideas that Shaped the New Testament World (InterVarsity Press, 2003). A couple of years ago a friend of mine at church asked me for a good introduction to the “intertestamental period.” So I bought myself a little stack of such books, and go through one now and again. (Two of that stack that I’ve discussed before are Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, and the Vermes, et al., reworking of Schürer’s The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [scroll down to the next-to-last paragraph on that page]). I have yet to find one that I would recommend wholeheartedly, but this book by Tomasino comes close. He manages to squeeze in several hundred years of history, much of which is deliciously tempting to follow into other areas of research of course, a temptation which rightly and admirably avoids in this introductory level book. There are a few of those (to me, annoying) text boxes where various subjects are dealt a cursory swipe in coverage, and a few graphics, but the book is pretty solidly text-filled. It’s a straightforward account, avoiding controversy, again, perfectly introductory. I would quibble with the “Ideas” in the subtitle. Most of the book is dealing merely with events, and any in-depth coverage of “ideas” is lacking. Events can shape things pretty well on their own, even without the anachronistic imposition of ideology behind their inspiration.

George Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah (Fortress, second ed.: 2005). The book includes a CD with a complete Logos version of the book, including a number of old photos of various sites taken decades ago by Nickelsburg. These kinds of survey books are generally better as reference than as reading material. That being said, Nickelsburg has made his survey readable by not going overboard on nitpicky details, and by keeping a lively and well-informed active voice. It helps that this is the most recent of these survey works for this body of work, and so incorporates the findings of the last several decades, various aspects of which Nickelsburg has had a personal hand in. The book on my shelf that this most effectively updates as a compendium of descriptions of works of the period is ed. Michael Stone, Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus (Van Gorcum/Fortress, 1984). Even the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Yale, 1992) is getting a bit long in the tooth, as good as it is. But it’s nice to have everything in one volume, and very nice to have it in an electronic version included gratis with the book. Every book should have such, whether Logos or simply epub format (which I prefer) or something else. One could be at, say, a bar, and simply have to know the current discussion of the date and provenance of the Parables of Enoch (I’ve had stranger conversations at my local watering hole). It’s a nice thing to be able to pull up Nickelsburg on the iPhone and find whatever. Or to just blow some battery juice reading Nickelsburg under a tree on a nice day. Let that be the start of a trend.

Now for the two books I’m in the midst of reading right now, for which I’ll give simply short, preliminary impressions.

Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). In the comments to the first post of these autumnal reviewlets, Doug noted that he found Campbell “brilliant and fresh.” I entirely agree. I would also add, conscientious, concerned, thoughtful, intelligent, skilled, and comprehensive. It’s truly an astonishing amount of work that Campbell put into this book. It is well worth it. I’m about one third of the way through it, and have benefited greatly from his overviews of Justification theory (something that as a Catholic and Orthodox Christian, I’d never encountered). I tend to shy away from reading books like this, primarily because it seems books on Paul’s theology and work in particular seem to be less detached than those on the Gospels or other NT writings. Much scholarship on Paul therefore tends to hew more closely to one or another party line (=denominational theology) than is interesting or comfortable for me to explore. But one of the great examples of someone who managed to thrill me in not doing so was J. Louis Martyn in his Anchor Bible volume on Galatians, which was (pardon the pun) revelatory. And of course, Campbell rates Martyn well in this book, which is not surprising, as the focus on the apocalyptic Christ in the life of the believer is shared between the two. Already I sense that Campbell is going in a direction which will fit well not only with Martyn, but with Orthodox views on theosis, as well. So, we shall see. In any case, this is a very interesting and well-written book, one that I hope becomes influential in a degree relative to its heft.

Last but not least is Fr Nikolaos Loudovikos, Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity (Holy Cross, 2010). Fr Loudovikos, a student of Metr John Zizioulas, presents corrections to the theological writing of the latter (particularly as exemplified in Being as Communion) via the theology of St Maximus the Confessor, one of the most brilliant and therefore difficult and therefore avoided of the Church Fathers. There is system to St Maximus, and Fr Nikolaos draws it forth. I’m only about halfway through this one, and he has yet to substantially interact with Zizioulas outside of the notes yet, but already it’s been a fascinating ride through the writings of St Maximus. Very interesting! At times it’s a bit demanding, as Fr Loudovikos is no slouch (as I am) in terms of modern NW European philosophy, some familiarity with such will be helpful (at least I have that!). His interaction with such is concise, however, so it requires close, careful reading. It will be the more rewarding for that.

Catching up: autumnal reviewlets

Well, I’ve been remiss in posting anything about the very interesting things I’ve been (re)reading over the last few months. I suppose one gets into that kind of rut a bit too easily, thinking, “I’d rather read than write about my reading, and who cares what I think, anyway!” But there is at least some slight sense of responsibility, to warn (or lure) readers away from some book or another, above all saving them time–time that might be wasted–or pointing them toward a more than worthwhile investment of time in the reading of some other book. That is, after all, the understood goal in writing a book review, right?

I tend to read in themes. That is, despite the impression given by my single indicated “Now Reading” indicator in the right column of this page, I tend to be switching between several books, following different thematically consistent directions in reading. Over the last few months, my interest has run into Messianism, Hermeneusis, and what might be called “Pre-Christian Judaism” in addition to a few outliers which I’ve been picking at rather distractedly for a while.

In the category of Messianism:

Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, foreword by John J. Collins (Eerdmans, 2005)
This is one of the classics in messianism these days, but I think more in the manner of “influential in its day and a precursor to much better stuff that came along later, so you have to read it simply because it’s part of the history of scholarship, tedious though it be” rather than in the sense of “a work of truly timeless value, full of permanently valid insights.” I found this book characterized entirely by the time and place in which it was written: 1940s Scandinavia. Mowinckel straddles a strange fence betwen the History of Religions School, the Myth and Religions School, and the orthodoxy of his day (whether religious or scholarly). So much of what appears in these pages is dated, with so much better work having been accomplished over the last two decades alone, that I found this book in places unreadable, primitive, and entirely outmoded. As I noted above, it still possesses some value in a “history of scholarship” sense, but as a source of current and well-reasoned scholarship, it is essentially worthless. Mowinckel works with such a primitive conception of “Messiah”–one that admittedly was common to his age–that it’s no wonder this work has not aged well, and that so many of his positions and conclusions are invalid in light of later studies. I disagree strongly with Collins’ evaluation at the end of the foreword: “He That Cometh remains, however, the best comprehensive treatment available in English of the roots of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East” (p. xxviii). On the contrary, I found Mowinckel’s treatment of both to be alternately tendentious and superficial. I would say that Collins’ own The Scepter and the Star (second edition: Eerdmans, 2010) would be a much better choice, though Collins perhaps was modestly avoiding autokeraphonia by avoiding mention of the first edition (though he cites it in the foreword several times. In a footnote to that very sentence, Collins writes “Note, however, the excellent collection of essays edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); and [John] Day, King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East [Sheffield, 1998].” (p. xxviii n. 48). I would instead recommend a volume by Collins & Collins described below. One further note I would like to add concerns the subtitle of Mowinckel’s volume, a translation from the original Norwegian: “The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism.” Is this “Later Judaism” to be taken as simply “later Judaism” or “Late(r) Judaism”? It is almost certainly the latter, a description that rankles, yet indicates the approach to the Rabbinic material that is taken by Mowinckel and others of his age: that this was a decadent literature, a product not of a thriving culture but of one feasting on the remains of a more glorious past. This is a perceptible undercurrent in the book, which only adds to its datedness, and does not inspire confidence in the judgment shown otherwise on the part of the author.

Kenneth Pomykala, The Davidic Dynasty Tradition in Early Judaism: Its History and Significance for Messianism (Scholars Press, 1995). This book is a “moderately revised” version of Pomykala’s doctoral dissertation (Claremont Graduate School, 1992). I expected better, actually, of a dissertation, particularly of one from Claremont. One issue of the study of the development of Israelite Messianism that cannot be ignored is the Septuagint. Admittedly, the evidence is complex, and difficult to control, but it is essential to an understanding of the development of the concept from the mid-third century BC and for the next three centuries, as it became the de facto public edition of the Old Testament for Jews throughout the Mediterranean. The various translators show varying degrees of concern for messianism, but overall, there is at the very least evidence of a going concern. What does Pomykala say on the subject of the Septuagint and messianism?

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek began as early as the third century BCE with the Torah, and before the first century BCE Greek translations of all books were probably completed. Moreover, at times LXX translations are characterized by “midrashic” alterations or expansions and, consequently, indicate how the translator and his community interpreted certain biblical texts. In theory, then, the LXX translation of texts related to the davidic [sic, passim] dynasty could illuminate how some Jews in the Second Temple period construed those passages.

In practice, however, this is not a very fruitful mode of inquiry. On the one hand, a survey of key texts related to the davidic dynasty tradition shows very little in the way of interpretive activity. [!!!] On the other, formidable obstacles confront the analysis of any such interpretive translations. For one, even to speak of “the Septuagint” suggests a misleading notion about the unity of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, since, as Kraft notes, “there is no homogeneity among the various translation units of the collection.” Accordingly, each book or section of a book must be evaluated separately. Next, recovering the Old Greek or one of the early recensions from the Second Temple Period–such as the καιγε or proto-Lucian recension–for a passage is often difficult; indeed scholars are divided about the existence and status of some of these layers. Even when the text of the Old Greek or one of the early recensions can be identified, it is difficult to know the date and provenance of the interpretation implied in the translation. Although the Greek translation of the Torah probably stems from Alexandria in the third century BCE, this same context cannot be assumed for other books. Moreover, to clarify the import of an individual variant, it would have to be set within the overal interpretive tendenz of a book or section, a subject about which little is often known. Finally, differences between the Old Greek and the Hebrew of the MT that are perceived as interpretive moves on the part of the translators could at times be the result of the translator using a Vorlage different from the MT. In sum, there are adequate reasons for pessimism about using the LXX for tracking the davidic dynasty tradition in early Judaism. (pp 128-129)

He then goes on to touch, out of all the LXX, solely on 2 Sam 7.11b, Jer 33.14-26, Ezek 34.23-24, and the rendering of צמח by ἀνατέλλω and related words. Thus his complete treatment of the Septuagint evidence appears on three and one-half pages in his book. Now, I simply cannot believe that. Three and a half pages! He gives Sirach about twenty-one and a half pages (which is a sop of sorts as Sirach is actually considered part of the Septuagint, of course). What I see above in the excerpt is someone who was very well aware of some work to be done (note that he seems to have had at least some grasp of the necessary direction of investigation) and yet simply didn’t do it. Now, I doubt that in this day and age, not yet even twenty years after this dissertation was written, Pomykala would say the same thing, nor would he be able to, fortunately, as Septuagint studies have proceeded apace in that time. And I would like to think that no committee today would let such an important source on messianism as the Septuagint slip through the grasp of their chilly spectacles. And there is much there there, as Horbury, inter alia, makes clear, as will be described below.

Is it Pomykala’s galling dismissiveness of the Septuagint that makes me similarly dismissive of his book? Partly, yes. But it is more the fact that this is a book which is itself easily dismissed. What I took away from this reading was a general unconcern with doing too much in-depth work with the sources, but with describing what work was done with quite a lot of verbiage. His conclusion is that Davidic messianism was not found in the literature between the Hebrew Bible and the mid-first century BCE Psalms of Solomon. Of course, one finds what one looks for, as the restrictions placed by Pomykala on what he might consider evidence of Davidic Messianism therefore leads him to find little evidence. While on the one hand limiting himself to explicit mention of the Davidic connection with the messiah, and on the other hand ignoring inconvenient sources (the richness of the Septuagint being the chief of these), Pomykala was certain to come to some very particular conclusions on the matter, but these are irrelevant. I can no more trust them to be properly representative of the literature (whether read or unread) than the wrinkles in my palm, which by some contrivance I might designate them representative of the literature. So contrived and restricted a study is worthless. That may be harsh, but we will see some other more comprehensive treatments given below which not only come to conclusions diametrically opposed to Pomykala, but that cover a wealth of literature more than what he covered. I think here especially of Horbury but also of Collins & Collins. So, this Pomykala volume is another curiosity of the history of scholarship, but by no means compelling, and certainly not probative. Someone seeking a comprehensive treatment of the subject of the Davidic Messiah in early Judaism will need to look elsewhere (and there are some hearty recommendations below!).

William Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM Press Ltd, 1998). This book is well-known. It stirred up something of a hornets’ nest at its release by re-opening (through machine-gunning evidence into the picture) the question of the consistent presence of Messianism in (for lack of a better term) the intertestamental period. Horbury (and others) were right, however: there is evidence for such a presence, however attentuated and however equivocal, thoughout. They were also right to decry a too-restrictive scholarly definition of messiah (à la Mowinckel) which was restricting the understanding of texts. In the intertestamental period it is much easier to explain the presence of messianism (changing though it may be) than its absence, in fact, looking through the various usages and interpretations of Scripture throughout these times, and inducing the motivations behind that usage. There was a consistent (though not universal) interest throughout on the Davidic Messiah. Horbury is a past master of the evidence. It’s really quite astonishing the variety of sources he’s addressed and the competence he displays in systematizing the results. It’s shocking, really. It’s a book that rewards study, but from which one is given an exhaustive picture of Jewish Messianism leading up to the early Christian period. This book, in combination with Collins & Collins below, takes top prize, for clarity of expression, quality of scholarship, and for fascinating subject matter. The more expansive nature of this volume by Horbury edges it slightly ahead of the more restricted treatment of Collins & Collins (on which, see below) though, in my estimation.

Another one by William Horbury, Messianism among Jews and Christians: Twelve Biblical and Historical Studies (T & T Clark, 2003), is a collection of reworked articles arranged into three categories. In “The Second Temple Period” we find “Messianism in the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha”, “The Gifts of God in Ezekiel the Tragedian”, and “Herod’s Temple and ‘Herod’s Day'”. In the section “The New Testament” we have “The Messianic Associations of ‘the Son of Man'”, “The Twelve and the Phylarchs”, “Jerusalem in Pre-Pauline and Pauline Hope”, “The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews”, and “Septuagintal and New Testament Conceptions of the Church”. In the final section, “Synagogue and Church in the Roman Empire”, are the chapters “Messianism among Jews and Christians in the Second Century”, “Suffering and Messianism in Yose ben Yose”, “Antichrist among Jews and Gentiles”, and “The Cult of Christ and the Cult of the Saints”. As I recall, the articles touching on messianism included herein don’t differ substantially from Horbury’s treatment in the 1998 monograph. This is, however, a very interesting excursus into a scholar’s subjects of interest, and an opportunity to enjoy his scholarship a bit more. In a relationship to the earlier monograph, I’d say this book sits in an ancillary position, not quite as an appendix, but as further background.

Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008). The title fairly well says it all. The Davidic King was considered the Son of God and thus somehow divine, though we have no evidence of a cult of the king. His expected scion, the Messiah, is likewise the Son of God, and likewise considered somehow divine. There are, however, numerous interesting complications! This book was good fun. It’s split between the two authors equitably, with the first four chapters (“The King as Son of God”, “The Kingship in Deuteronomistic and Prophetic Literature”, “Messiah and Son of God in the Hellenistic Period”, “Messiah and Son of Man”) by Mr Collins, and the last four chapters (“Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Letters of Paul”, “Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Synoptic Gospels”, “Jesus as Son of Man”, “Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man in the Gospel and Revelation of John”) by Mrs Collins. This is a fine overview of the subject matter, and laid out in a clear and concise fashion by Collins & Collins. In conjunction with Horbury’s monograph, with this book one would have a relatively complete and thoroughly updated treatment on the Davidic Messiah. And while I’m sure there are those who would disagree with one or another Collins (I had some minor, forgettable, quibbles in reading), or Horbury (as some have, including Mr Collins), the overlap in their conclusions is striking, and provides a new direction in understanding how this man Jesus was considered the Son of God in several different ways, stressing the Davidic Messianic aspect, which is often laid to the side in NT and early Christian studies. Hopefully these works will help bring that back to the center.

Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1998). I picked this up and finished it in two sittings just to refresh myself with it. I remember the ruckus this kicked up when it was released, mostly good. But I wanted to see where this fit in with my reading on Messianism and with the idea of the Davidic Messiah’s divine Sonship being key to the understanding of Jesus as Christ. Bauckham doesn’t really touch on the Davidic Messianic aspect, but his little book (which is still thoroughly enjoyable) is not worth less for that. This will make more sense if you, O reader, had just read all the above immediately before reading this little tome by Bauckham, but here goes. Bauckham treats essentially the same issue as that of Horbury and Collins & Collins, even though he lacks the Messiah as Son of God aspect to his argument. That is, the description of application of divinity, whether directly divine or angelically so or some other consideration (as Bauckham’s “identity” is), is an issue no matter the subject’s ultimate derivation. In fact much of the argumentation is familiar from the discussion in those other authors’ works on just this subject. However, the key to pulling all of this together is clearly the Davidic Messiah as Son of God, and this key is something that Bauckham lacks. With that addition, this brilliant little book could be stellar.

In the category of Hermeneusis

Jon Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). I read this on the heels of Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford, 2010), my copy of which is now making the rounds of Bay Area Orthodox Christian clergy. I had earlier picked this book up on the recommendation of Levenson himself, when I wrote with some bibliographic questions while reading Anders Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2009). Levenson draws important attention to a fact that’s often overlooked: Biblical Studies was a field invented by Protestants, for Protestants, and is thus thoroughly Protestant in its nature. He brings refreshing insight (I wish he’d write more on the subject) in addressing the issue as an observant Jew. There are not just “religious” differences involved here. The problem lies deeper than such a superficial label, and most seem prepared only to ignore it (and those who mention it) rather than address it. The book is comprised of six articles, all of which originated as lectures: “The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism”, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology”, “The Eighth Principle of Judaism and the Literary Simultaneity of Scripture”, “Theological Consensus of Historicist Evasion? Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies”, “Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project”, “Exodus and Liberation.” These are fascinating reading, all of a piece, addressing a sharp critique to blindered devotees of a particular brand of scholarship.

Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009). I re-read this in preparation for tackling Douglas Campbell The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). Why precisely did I think that would be useful? Primarily because both writers take issue with “Justification” as understood in a rather stereotypical form, one which Campbell demolishes, methodically, over the course of his book. Gorman presents a reading of Paul that is much more familiar to an Orthodox Christian reader, not least because of his explicit reference to Orthodox theological terminology (note the “kenosis” and “theosis” in the subtitle). But there is also something about this book that, for all its familiarity, is somewhat foreign. I thought a rather apt simile to be the reading of a biography of a beloved aunt written by a complete stranger who knew neither the aunt nor the family. Perhaps that’s too far. Still, it must be remembered that a few terms does not an Orthodox theology make. It could actually be considered a kind of compliment the kind of unease that this little book generated in me at times, because so often it seemed that I in fact was reading an Orthodox theology (which is a good thing), and then was rudely reminded by some odd phrase or jarringly un-Orthodox concept (I shan’t elaborate) that I should be paying more attention. So, good on Gorman, for slipping through my defenses that way! Anything that gets people to be more familiar with the theology of Orthodoxy is welcome, as long as they do take the effort to explore the Orthodox sources. Relying on secondary or tertiary distillations may be what some people are more comfortable with, but anyone who is supposedly devoted to an ad fontes approach to theology needs to make the effort to delve into the riches of Orthodox theology.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 3rd ed: 2003). I don’t tend to read these kinds of books very often, these little handbooks on “how to read the Bible.” There are too many presuppositions involved in their writing that are not presuppositions that fit my nature and that of my Communion. In this case, I read the book twice. Once was a general reading in which I simply appreciated the book’s structure and easy, friendly tone, and noted that it is in fact a fairly helpful book in explaining to the typical Anglophonic Christian how to go about reading the Bible in a way that is fruitful. Then I read it a second time, in which I evaluated it for its use for an Orthodox Christian as a guide toward a fruitful reading of the Bible. My objections were so many, and so fundamental, that I had to cease taking such notes lest I write fully another book in objections alone! The largest objection was to the insistence that an individual reader (reading in translation!) is actually more or less qualified to pronounce upon the authentic meaning and value of Scripture alone. When it comes to something like bicycle assembly instructions, I would be willing to agree that individuals are relatively competent in a reading of such instructions without reference to any other authority. However, when it comes to Scripture, authored by God the Holy Spirit through the Prophets and Apostles, who were given an authority to do so by God, then we come to a different paradigm. Not every Christian is a Prophet or Apostle, though some would wrongly say they are. There are systems of authority and responsibility shown in both Old and New Testaments, and they maintain order. And it is the responsibility in particular of the bishops (“overseers”) to maintain a strict oversight of the faith in regards to supposition and interpretation, to prevent heresy from taking root and schism occurring, taking souls out of the bosom of Christ and into the clutches of heresy. Protestants deny this picture of authority as benevolent order, thus they have thousands upon thousands of sects, somehow reconciling that chaos with the unity of Christ (don’t ask me how). Anyhow, the lack of reference to the Church Fathers in Orthodox Biblical interpretation would be completely unthinkable, and as at some point or other, this little book advocates for precisely that lack of dogmatic oversight, it won’t work for Orthodox Christians.

Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective. Volume One: Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics (Holy Cross, 1997). I re-read this to “cleanse the palate” after the How to… book. I would still like to see volume two appear. This book is a very interesting introduction to Orthodox reading of Scripture in a modern context, interacting with a number of perspectives respectfully. Fr Stylianopoulos was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing this particular Orthodox hermeneutic (exegesis > interpretation > transformation) to the attention of scholarship at large through his own publications and lectures. This book functions as a good introduction to reading the Scriptures for an Orthodox Christian. I’d like to see more on the Old Testament, though. That’s been a kind of blind spot through most translation and other projects lately, where emphasis is placed on resources related to the New Testament writings. There is a wealth of Orthodox writing on the Old Testament, however, and it needs to be brought together for the benefit of readers, Orthodox or not, of the Old Testament. Hopefully whoever takes up such a task will write with the wisdom and gentle authority of Fr Stylianopoulos!

Peter Leithhart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor, 2009). This one was recommended to me from several different directions. Such a concatenation of recommendations is striking, so I took note and ordered the thing. I was quite happy to have done so! For one thing, this book on reading is extraordinarily well-written, which is a rare thing. It was a real pleasure to read. And, whereas the little How to… book bore somewhat of an antagonistic stance toward the Apostolic and Patristic readings of Scripture, this book embraces both, particularly the former, tracing how the Apostles as thinkers and authors wrote with a Scriptural mind, and how the Fathers used the same principles in their interpretations, so that there is a more organic continuation between the two than some might think. This continuity is available to readers still, too.

I think I’ll finish this up tomorrow. There are six more books to cover.

More summer reading reviewlets

Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Mark Mazower (Knopf, 2004). Aaron Taylor, who lived for a time in Thessaloniki, recommended this book to me. As the title implies, it’s a history of the city from 1430 until approximately 1950. What we have here is not just the tale of some kind of Oriental Everytown, though some aspects of this apply, but the tale of a city of remarkable communities of people who managed to coexist and thrive until outsiders in the twentieth century ruined everything. The Germans, as usual, had a hand in this, not least of which was their nearly complete extermination of the entire Jewish population, a Jewish population that had been the pride of the city and of the entire Jewish world. Likewise, in the name of “progress”, the striking old city of so many minarets and courtyarded, tiled houses, has given way to a city that is a gigantic grid of ugly apartment blocks. How all this comes to be is related in sufficient detail by Mazower. And while he shows perhaps a bit too much sympathy for the Turkish Muslim perspective, this doesn’t affect the historical account. It’s a very good read, very relaxing.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak (Harvard University Press, 2009). Luttwak is the author of the magisterial The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Johns Hopkins, 1979). This volume might even be seen as more of a second volume to that than a separate work, as it immediately follows upon the heels of the last, and picks up the history of strategy in the fourth century, going until the end of the Empire in the fifteenth. Luttwak is a brilliant and engaging writer. I’ve never read such a thoughtful and stimulating book on military history and strategy before. Luttwak clearly admires the “grand strategy” of the Byzantine Empire (which he rightly recognizes as the Roman Empire, continuing after the loss of the West to the various barbarians), and suggests that we might find their strategy useful even today. Considering its remarkable success, I would agree. One wonders: was the vivid Orthodoxy of the Byzantines part of the explanation for their so very different strategy? At least in part it must be. Their adaptability and intelligence were legendary, contrary to the slanders of powdered, atavistic barbarians like Gibbon. This book merits rereading soon, I think.

Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, Paula Fredriksen (Doubleday, 2008). This is a remarkable book, one which has given me a new sympathy for St Augustine. Fredriksen provides a remarkable summary account of the evolution of Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman society as a setting for her detailed discussion on Augustine’s writings. She goes directly to the heart of the matter: the educational system of rhetoric, classical paidea, is crucial to an understanding of not just Augustine’s, but all writing of the time. Most people miss this, almost always pulling quotes out and presenting them as something or other that the author “believed” or “felt.” Baloney. Rhetoric was about winning. And if winning your audience over meant some over-the-top insults toward absent friends or foes, then so be it. Rhetoric was always a tool to a higher purpose, and Augustine clearly had higher purposes in mind than scoring cheap shots at his fellow citizens. As with other Church Fathers, his most vividly awful rhetoric regarding Jews is found in those orations which are attacking heretics, where these “Jews” are a standard trope standing in as an image of the heretics themselves (to quite drastically simplify!). In Augustine’s remarkable work Against Faustus, however, he develops a theology of the Jews that is actually quite positive: they exist as a separate entity from Christians because God wills it so, and those who would attempt for forcibly convert them work against the will of God. The Jews likewise are a help to Christians for their holy books, which are (essentially) those of the Christians also, and which therefore serve as a witness to pagans of the antiquity of the message. I really sped through this book, it was so enjoyable. Fredriksen put many years of work into this book, which shows in its smoothly flowing argumentation, and especially in the extraordinary presentation of helpful background material for those unfamiliar with the period. In future, I am going to recommend this book to those who need an introduction to the rhetoric of the Patristic period. It is excellent!

Thus endeth the lesson on the lessons of ye summer.

Reviews of this summer’s reading

Well, summer is slipping away with barely a peep on things that matter from this source. I apologize to you, my longsuffering readers. It’s certainly the case that once one breaks the habit of daily writing that it is difficult to get back to it. Nonetheless, I have many things to write on.

This post will thus attempt to make up for lost time in presenting short reviews of some of the offline reading that I’ve been doing over the last couple of months. Let us dispense with the chit-chat and get down to the brass tacks! I present these roughly in the order I read them.

The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. Douglas Burton-Christie. (Oxford University Press, 1993)
I’ve mentioned this book in two previous posts (here and here) to which I refer the reader. The gist of my impression: This is a good book to have as an introduction to reading the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, if one is curious about the level to which Scripture plays a part in the lives and sayings of these early desert monastic Saints. Some, of course (illiterate though such an idea is) find their ways “unbiblical.” Through the course of the book Burton-Christie demonstrates the complete internalization of the Scriptures by the monks, not just through memorization of entire swaths of Scripture, but through true internalization: the process of intellectual and Spiritual digestion, with such food building up the New Man. This book, in conjunction with Derwas Chitty’s classic The Desert a City (now published in paperback by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) would be indispensible for those needing a quick introduction to the ethos and history of desert monasticism.

Biblical Interpretation in the Russian Orthodox Church: A Historical and Hermeneutical Perspective (Mohr Siebeck, 2008). I’ve also mentioned this book briefly before, here. This is a fascinating book. A peculiarity of Russian scholarship (not to mention historical events) has rendered an account of the development of post-Enlightenment Russian Orthodox Biblical Interpretation impossible to write for those outside of Russia. This difficulty lies in the fact that the vast majority of Russian theological (as well as other) scholarship was conducted in journals, copies of which simply do not exist outside of Russia. This has led to any number of half-baked and even wildly incorrect perspectives (which shall remain unnamed) on the subject when based solely on monographic data. Negrov (a former Orthodox Christian, now the headmaster of a Russian Evangelical school, The St Petersburg Christian University) did the work, and did it well. This is essentially a history of Biblical interpretation in Russian Orthodoxy from the Kievan period to the early Bolshevik period, with some incidental mention of later developments. There is a long excursus (chapter 5, of about 120 pages), presenting as a representative example of the height of development one of the more well-respected of Biblical interpreters in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia: Bishop Vasilii Bogdashevskii.

The Old Testament in Byzantium. Editors Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010). In conjunction with the well-known exhibit in the Freer Gallery of Art, “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000” (October 2006 to January 2007), the symposium “The Old Testament in Byzantium” was held in early December 2006 in the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery. Edited versions of the papers presented, with a substantial introduction by the editors, are included herein: Introduction by Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson; Nicholas de Lange, “The Greek Bible Translations of the Byzantine Jews”; James Miller, “The Prophetologion: The Old Testament of Byzantine Christianity”; Georgi Parpulov, “Psalters and Personal Piety in Byzantium”; John Lowden, “Illustrated Octateuch Manuscripts: A Byzantine Phenomenon”; Elizabeth Jeffreys, “Old Testament ‘History’ and the Byzantine Chronicle”; Claudia Rapp, “Old Testament Models for Emperors in Early Byzantium”; Derek Krueger, “The Old Testament and Monasticism”; Robert Ousterhout, “New Temples and New Solomons: The Rhetoric of Byzantine Architecture”; Ivan Biliarsky, “Old Testament Models and the State in Early Medieval Bulgaria”; Jane Dammen McAuliffe, “Connecting Moses and Muhammad.” Obviously this is a very interesting lineup, and I enjoyed the various papers immensely. Still, I want someone (please God, don’t make it have to be me!) to write a full monograph on the subject of “The Old Testament in Byzantium”, focusing particularly on synchronic and diachronic accounts of hermeneutical trends and tropes through the ages of the Roman Empire and beyond, into contemporary Orthodoxy neo-Patristic interpretation. All of the data exist in the vast wealth of (largely untranslated!) Patristic writing and related theological, historical, and legal documentation. The papers in this volume point the way. I just hope that there’s some intrepid and qualified explorer who will take up the challenge. Let it be soon!

From Ikaria to the Stars: Classical Mythification, Ancient and Modern, Peter Green (University of Texas Press, 2004). I don’t think there’s any Classicist who is more of a delight to read than Peter Green. Urbane, witty, and both broadly and deeply intimate with the literature, primary and secondary, and yet maintaining a pragmatic approach to the sources that eschews egregiously de mode methods, Green is always an educational read. That is to say, one will always benefit from rereading Green, as well. This book presents a collection of his articles ranging over the last thirty years, with some of them substantially reworked so that they are essentially new publications: “‘These Fragments Have I Shored against My Ruins”: Apollonius Rhodius and the Social Revalidation of Myth for a New Age”; “The Flight Plan of Daedalus”; “Works and Days 1-285: Hesiod’s Invisible Audience”; “Athenian History and Historians in the Fifth Century B.C.”; “The Metamorphosis of the Barbarian: Athenian Panhellenism in a Changing World”; “Text and Context in the Matter of Xenophon’s Exile”; “Rebooking the Flute-Girls: A Fresh Look at the Chronological Evidence for the Fall of Athens and the Eight-Month Rule of the Thirty”; “A Variety of Greek Appetites”; “Alexander’s Alexandria”; “The Muses’ Birdcage, Then and Now”; “How Political Was the Stoa?”; “Ancient Ethics, Modern Therapy”; “Getting to Be a Star: The Politics of Catasterism”; “The Innocence of Procris: Ovid AA 3.687-746″; “Magic and the Principle of Apparent Causality in Pliny’s Natural History“; Appendix A: “Tanglewood Tales for the Yuppies”; Appendix B: “Homer for the Kiddies.” Various of these articles in their course become review articles of one book or another the point of which Green is systematically and convincingly demolishing, to one degree or another. In all of them, possibly why the adjective “urbane” comes to mind first as a description of the author, Green maintains a deeply cultured voice, one that is as familiar with the modern world as one could be, and who is as familiar with the ancient world as it is possible to be from this distance. Though I’ve heard from other classicists that Green is considered something of a maverick, I don’t see that the reputation is quite warranted. What he is is a classical classicist: that is, a classicist who is representative of old ways of doing the Classics, when the classicist actually needed to, you know, learn the languages and know the history beyond just well enough to fool the plebes. Green is also able to argue a point with a commonsensical pragmatism that is so foreign to much modern scholarship, besotted with its isms as the latter is. In that sense, I suppose he is a kind of maverick, a sort of rebel in not embracing the latest trends, just because one must embrace them to be considered “contemporary” or “modern”. This has always struck me as ridiculous in anyone doing studies of languages and texts from the ancient world, and it does the same in Green. So that’s surely another reason that I enjoy his writing so: it’s subversive. Tee hee.

Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, Peter Green (University of California Press, 1990). Yes, it’s that Peter Green. This is his magisterial history of the Hellenistic Age. You simply must read it if you’re at all interested in understanding that period of time. One note: this is a huge volume, so I would recommend the hardcover edition. I can’t imagine how one would read the paperback anywhere except on a table, as it would flop all over the place.

I will continue with some further reviewlets tomorrow!

Short ‘n’ sweet

Here’re some quick little book reviewlets of some things at hand.

Father Elijah: An Apocalypse by Michael D. O’Brien (Ignatius Press, 1996)
This was a real page-turner. This is the tale of a Carmelite monk, a convert from Judaism, who is called to confront the Antichrist. Cameo appearances by Pope John Paul II, (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and the Archangels Raphael and Michael. It had me completely involved until the last two chapters, which are, admittedly, something of a denouement. Overall, though, it’s a great read. Kind of like a religious spy story. Great fun for a cold winter! Or an age of incipient darkness! Appearances can be deceiving, especially to those who’ve willingly abandoned their spiritual foundation and sense and who avidly pursue the destruction of everyone else’s. What is especially chilling was that much of what is described in its pages is here with us now. Little imagination was necessary to visualize the society described in it’s pages, because It’s setting could be today. That could not have been said when it was written. Closer and closer…. (Let the reader understand.)

Piranesi: The Etchings by Luigi Ficacci (Taschen, 2006)
This is one of Taschen’s 25th anniversary special editions. If you don’t know Taschen books, you’re missing out. They use beautiful thick quality paper, fully illustrated, and mysteriously but thankfully inexpensive. This book, including images of all the known works of Piranesi cost around $10. It is admittedly a small format, roughly (9×7 in, 23×18 cm) but if you’re that into seeing detail, just scan the pictures; they’re so well photographed that the detail in a scan of the images in the book is amazing. It’s Piranesi!

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 2008)
I positively despised this book. It’s as dated as his other books. He raids religion, specifically monasticism, for the entire framework of his imaginary world, yet roundly bashes religion throughout. Further, pretending to a deep philosophy (which is tedious in direct proportion to its pretention), it is instead laughably philosophically jejune. The story was simply stupid. Reading this was a waste of time. That it made first place in the New York Times bestseller list only means too many people read crap.

Paul: His Story by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (Oxford, 2004)
Page 2: “Paul was a Galilean by birth.” The supporting note: “Jerome is the only author to assert Paul’s Galilean origins (Commentaria in Epistolam ad Philemon, on vv. 23-4 and De viris illustribus 5). He derived it from a source whose credibility is strengthened by the fact that its creation profited no one.” Uh huh. I put the book aside at that point. Why? Jerome’s commentary on Philemon describes that the parents of Paul and the entire region of Gischala in Judea was destroyed by the Romans, the people were dispersed (though not enslaved) and the family ended up in Tarsus, whence they later sent Paul back to Judea. The whole thing seems solely to have been a concoction to explain why, as Jerome goes at length to desribe, Paul describes himself as a Benjaminite and Israelite, because even in Jerome’s mind, these labels were tied to birth in the places so named. So, Paul, according to this reckoning, must have been born in Israel in Benjamin. The problems with this are several: 1.) As the modern Jerome notes, Gischala is in Galilee, not in Judea, not in Benjamin; had Jerome known that, he would certainly not have valued this fabulam as he calls it, and would not have mentioned it; 2.) There is no record in Josephus, as surely there would be had it happened, of a massive Roman devastation of Galilee in the first decade or so of the common era; 3.) If the Romans had attacked and had taken the people, they would’ve enslaved them as they did to numerous other conquered Jews before and after, which would clash with the account of Paul’s actually having been born a Roman citizen (Acts 22.28), for born citizenship would’ve required at the very least his father to have been a Roman citizen, and certainly not a slave. This failure in reasoning on the very second page of the book elicited no warm and fuzzies for this reader. I’m not about to waste my time on a so-called history that’s essentially a house of cards built on toothpick stilts. I don’t appreciate such flippancy and incaution in such a serious endeavour.

Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, editors M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe (Abingdon, 1995)
I’m very disappointed with this volume. Aside from the unusual expansion of “Hellenistic” to cover things even written in Hebrew in the 8th century AD (cough–false advertising–cough), the truly fascinating and applicable actually really truly Hellenistic literature has been largely ignored. I suspect that this is likely because much Hellenistic literature proper is not already available in English translation, which seems to have been one of the guiding lights of this project. That’s truly unfortunate. I got much more really intriguing Hellenistic input out of the excerpts and discussions in Robert Grant’s Gods and the One God and Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium than from this work, unfortunately. A compilation of real Hellenistic texts that relate to various subjects in the New Testament would be fascinating, and even enjoyable. Forcing the collected material into arrangement by book and chapter and verse of the New Testament writings is also too much. It appears to be out of print. Not such a loss….

Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon (University of California Press, 2008)
This volume is especially beautiful in contrast to the one just covered. It is ideal as a collection of literature in translation. Leave the works with short, not too wordy introductions, give them good, readable, contemporary translations, bind it in an inexpensive but well-made volume, and let the reader do the rest of the work. This is perfect. Though these “novels” themselves are rather formulaic, they’re not without a certain winsome charm. Some, however, are quite shockingly alien, reminding us that though these works are entirely the product of human minds and hands, the cultures, worldviews, and even thought processes of the ancient world from which they come are not to be easily equated with anything familiar to us in today’s world.

Hermetica by Brian Copenhaver (Cambridge, 1992)
Speaking of alien human worlds! These translations are clear and contemporary, but the meaning is almost completely opaque in some passages. Copenhaver’s book is thus appropriately 49 pages of introduction, 92 pages of translation, and 168 pages of notes. This is the seventeen chapters of the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Asclepius. The notes are a labour of love, it seems. Copenhaver in them seems to be one of those Victorian gentlemen who knows absolutely everything (and them some) about everything (and everything else) and shares it in the most avuncular tone. I love that.

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Second Edition edited by Hans Dieter Betz (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Another peek into alien human worlds. This one is beautifully done. The translations include all the bizarre magical language, indications of language, very helpful annotation via footnotes, and also include line drawings of any illustrations from the papyri covered here. Again, this is just how I like it: get out of the way and let the texts speak for themselves. The annotations are not too many, and are short and sweet, mostly dealing with issues of language and pointing to parallels amongst the various papyri. This one is “Volume One: Texts.” It isn’t specified in the Preface what will comprise volume two, but four other works in preparation at the time of its writing are mentioned: 1.) an index of Greek words; 2.) a subject index based on the English translation; 3.) a collection of parallels between the papyri and early Christian literature (this sounds very useful and interesting, and, in fact, fun!); 4.) a comprehensive bibliography. Perhaps 1, 2, and 4 will make up volume two? All four? Perhaps there won’t be a volume two now? One wonders, as it’s been sixteen years already.

Grain of Wheat

Mike Aquilina recently mentioned this new piece of historical fiction written by Michael E. Giesler, Grain of Wheat (Scepter Publishers, 2008).

The book is the third in a trilogy following the lives of several Christians in the mid to late second century city of Rome, from the end of Hadrian’s reign into that of Antoninus Pius. I will avoid any spoilers in this short review. This volume is set entirely in Antoninus Pius’ reign and relates especially the story of Marcus Metellus Cimber, son of a senator, and the results of his conversion on his family. There are several ancillary stories describing, I presume, the further adventures of some of the characters from the first two books in the series, which I haven’t read. Among these are Numer, a black Egyptian Christian who is a close friend of Marcus, and Dedicus, a Christian from Samaria,friend of both Marcus and his hometown friend Justin (not yet, of course, known as St Justin Martyr in the book), a teacher and writer who has just moved to Rome. There are Christian fish merchants, freed slaves, and Christian-sympathetic people of the senatorial class, including even the head of the Praetorian Guard.

The story itself is gripping. There is the accurate depiction of a palpable anxiety among the Christians, whose religion was illegal, and who were required to meet in private homes, which could potentially result in exposure by a jealous friend, or embittered slave or family member. Christians could be and were often accused in the courts; when offered to recant their religion and apostasize, they often chose martydom instead. These were facts of life through the first three centuries of Christian existence, particularly in centers of secular power, but especially in Rome. Yet, it is also not always the case that people known to be Christian were not simply rounded up and all done away with immediately, and the book shows this aspect accurately, too. Those Christians of greater wealth or ability, and particularly the clergy, were most in danger of being denounced by friends and even family. It was a cruel time. Yet one could live one’s life as a Christian without it ending in execution, which is often forgotten. The book also accurately depicts the fervent and very personal faith that we find record of in the catacombs, as well. People are praying to Christ constantly, even experiencing the charism of glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”). They refer every worry and care about friends and family to prayer, and are shown experiencing the joy of the Eucharist. The incidental details in the book show the author is very familiar with the period, and has done his research well. The setting is sufficiently authentic and yet without annoying extraneous detail that the picture given of Rome is lively and believable. This is a very enjoyable book. I hope the series will continue.

I think perhaps one of the best things I can say about this book is that I couldn’t put it down. It was a pleasant and a quick read (one late night). I would estimate its reading level to be young adult, so it should be fitting for any teenaged reader and upward. As Mike Aquilina mentions, two of his teenaged daughters loved it and have passed that love on to others. The contagious love of a book can spread like wildfire. This book is worthy of it.

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.

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!

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!

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.