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.


  1. Re: the “Hellenistic Commentary on the New Testament,” I quite agree. I keep it on my shelf, but I have found I have very little use for it: for one thing, the “snippet” format has never quite agreed with me. Much better (and actually useful) would be an anthology of more complete (and better selected) texts, even if they were to come in more than one volume.

    Re: the Collected Ancient Greek Novels, I NEED THIS BOOK. There exist, of course, several excellent translations of Hellenistic novels into Spanish, all of them published in the glorious Biblioteca Clásica Gredos (which collection, according to Jean-Pierre Vernant, contains the best translations of Classical literature to any modern language); however, I have never seen a book like this. I slaved away for nearly three years reading Hellenistic novels in Greek; it is right and fitting, then, that I should obtain this masterful English edition!

  2. What kind of Frenchman would tell you that a Spanish translation is best?!! The world is gone mad…. The book is “all that,” though. Technically, of course, we can’t call them Hellenistic novels (particularly not since I just complained about the proper use of Hellenistic mere minutes and mere inches from these words). They date to the Roman period, though they are happily, if weirdly at times, Greek.

    Flipping through the Hellenistic Commentary… my reaction was first, “Did I order the wrong book?” I was expecting something much more substantial, more like you describe: an anthology with some indicative contextual intros, but not too much, all geared toward NT themes. A “Hellenistic” commentary should be providing the cultural background from documents of the Hellenistic world, not quotations from the Midrashim and Church Fathers!

  3. Thanks for the book reviews, and keep them coming please! I’m a big fan of learning which books are worth reading and which are not from people who have the right attitude and know what they are talking about. You are one of these people…thanks be to God.

    1. Thanks very much Jason. I have been and am blessed in my associations and education to interact with some really well-grounded people. They deserve credit, too. Above all, just as you said, the thanks goes to God.

  4. I loved ‘Father Elijah’! I’m really glad to know more Orthodox are discovering these books. I just recently finished ‘The Plague Journal’ and began ‘Strangers and Sojourners’. Don’t show Esteban the author’s recent comments on our President-Elect, however! [O’Brien’s comments — added by Kevin.]

    I too am quite fascinated by the Hermetica (Copenhaver’s volume feels satisfyingly weighty, doesn’t it?). Have you read Dame Frances Yates’s ‘Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition’, talking about the role of the Hermetica in Renaissance philosophy? The chapter on St Dionysios the Areopagite follows the typical Western reading of that Father, but the book is still a highly enjoyable one!

    1. I’m probably going to read the rest of those O’Brien books, too. I’ve got so much catching up to do right now, that’s the only fiction I’ve allowed myself lately. But I’m going down to a local bookstore tomorrow to pick up a copy of Iain M. Banks’ Matter. I ordered it in June…. I’d’ve gotten it sooner, but I’ve sworn myself to support this little bookstore by buying all my science fiction there. They’ve got a good mystery collection too, which I enjoy some of, and lots of fantasy, which I don’t enjoy at all. It’s called The Other Change of Hobbit.

      Yes, I too enjoy the Wholly Happy Heft of the Hermetica in Hardcover (a lucky find!). Dame Frances has some pretty cool stuff under her name! I’ve heard good things of the Giordano Bruno one, but haven’t read it, yet. I suppose it’d be more striking if I hadn’t already grown up in a world that was affected by her work. I’ll have to work that in, too! A good addition to your collection would be the Taschen book Alchemy and Mysticism. It’s full of period illustrations, most of them in full color. It’s, as they say, endlessly diverting. It just sucked me in for about ten minutes!

      As a related musical treat for you, something I mentioned here: The Hilliard Ensemble recording of Orlando de Lassus’ Prophetiae Sibyllarum: the Latin text of these prophecies appeared only in 1481, and they’re apparently unrelated to the large body of Greek works collected under the title The Sibylline Oracles. The setting was composed while Orlando was young, as a gift to his patron, but they weren’t published until after his death in 1594.

  5. Ooooh! Lassus is one of my favourite choral composers. I’ll have to check that out. So are these ‘Prophetiae Sibyllarum’ just a Renaissance forgery or what?

    We’ve got a recording of a Sibylline text (I’m fairly certain it’s Latin) on a Christmas cd by the Boston Camerata. I’m not sure what the text is off the top of my head.

    The ‘Alchemy & Mysticism’ book looks really neat!

    1. Yes, these Sibyllines seem to be a by-product of renewed classical interest. “Renewed” because, of course, the west had lost all knowledge of its own traditions. But they are entirely in the form of the Sibylline Oracles in Greek, as well, which are (technically) also forgeries. They are clearly predicated upon the same driving conceit as the Greek pseudepigraphon: the ancient Sibyls prophesied Christ and the Christian beliefs and history. These in the de Lassus settings are Latin, of course, but in classical meter, and completely Christian, though couched in classical referents. The de Lassus version is his experiment with chromatic scales, which are not so foreign to those of us (ahem) familiar with Eastern music, but which was apparently jarring enough to listeners to be his only experiment with them, unfortunately. I find them quite striking and even moving, but then I’m not an ignorant barbarian prince….

      I would bet dollars to daisies that the Boston Camerata one you have is also de Lassus’ setting, the texts of which are perfectly appropriate for Christmas. I haven’t heard of any other settings for these texts. If it is someone else, please do let me know. I get a real kick out of musical pseudepigrapha, especially when done by a real master!

  6. Okay, I did a little research on my Boston Camerata recording. The liner notes don’t say much about the historical source of the music (except for the claim that it’s 10th-c.), but apparently there are some mediaeval settings of some or all of the Latin translation of ll. 217-250 or so of Bk 8 of the Sibylline Oracles (pp. 423-4 in Vol. I of Charlesworth) that is found in Bk 18, ch. 23 of St Augustine’s ‘City of God’. It is a part of this Latin text, reproduced in the pseudo-Augustinian sermon ‘Contra Judaeos, Paganos, et Arianos’ that formed the basis for the later mediaeval ‘Processio Prophetarum’ drama, that is chanted on my recording.

  7. It’s called ‘A Medieval Christmas’, and it’s part of a 3-disc set of Christmas music.

    By the way, I’ve just posted an enormous account of yesterday’s research on this matter on my blog! Let me know what you think, and maybe you can help answer some of my unanswered questions . . .

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