Category Archives: Biblical Studies Reading Challenge

When I began my graduate studies in the Bible, I prepared for myself a reading list to better familiarize myself with the context and literature of both Hebrew Bible and New Testament. So I prepared a summer reading list of primary sources in the Bible, Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity.  The list draws from graduate reading lists and other bloggers’ advice, especially Ben Blackwell and Michael Bird.   As I read each book, I’ll post some bullet points on it here.

Reading Challenge #14: The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems

Although I live about two blocks from the largest museum of Egyptian antiquities on the West Coast, I know little to nothing about ancient Egypt. I picked up this anthology of Middle Kingdom literature to remedy that defect. Parkinson, a scholar in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, translates and provides commentary on these 13 short works of literature, with genres ranging from moral tales, dialogues exploring various moral and spiritual crises, and teachings of wisdom that remind me of biblical proverbs. Unlike many edited anthologies, his commentary was just as vivid and interesting as the texts themselves.

sinuheParkinson explains that the literature in this book comes from a time of cultural unease:

The Middle Kingdom was preceded by a period of less centralized power, when the country was divided, and its literature remained very aware of the dangers of civil unrest and the chaos of the interregnum. (5)

That being true, the literature in this book also attempts to uphold the cultural beliefs and structures of an early Egypt, such as the divinity of the king and the moral order of the cosmos.

Its literature is, in modern terms … didactic. The poems are generally unromantic in all senses of the word, but they are not impersonal or abstract; they have an intimate mode of address and deal with personal themes, being concerned with the human heart. Man’s ethical life is their central concern, and not the cultivation of subjectivity, or personal emotions such as romantic life. (9)

But there is always an edge. For example, “The Teaching of King Amenemhat” is a Hamlet-like text, in which an assassinated king visits his son in a vision and advises him not to trust his advisors as he did. While this text firmly holds to the divinity of the Egyptian king, it also alludes to the anomie of regicide. Another text, “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” is narrated by a peasant who was robbed and left destitute by an official until the king himself rights the situation. Yes, justice is served in the end; but in the meantime, life is unfair, and the powerful abuse their privileges. These texts are emblematic of many others in this anthology that walk a fine line between skepticism and chaos on the one hand, and upholding the divinely sanctioned social order on the other.

I would recommend this anthology to someone unexposed to Egyptian literature. Parkinson includes a chronology and detailed bibliography for anyone wishing to go further. (Too bad most of the works in the bibliography are in German and French!) For me the fun was in seeing parallels with biblical literature, even particular idioms that sound familiar from the Hebrew Bible. Parkinson continually laments that we know so little about each text and so many of them are only partially extant, but the fact we have anything this old at all amazes me.

Tomorrow I have my first class of graduate school: day one of “Dead Sea Scrolls and Scriptures.”  So I will set aside this reading challenge for the time being.  For everyone else beginning school, let us pray for wisdom and discernment to not only acquire knowledge but know how to use it.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #13: 1-3 John.

1-3 johnOne of my initial summer goals was to read the entire New Testament in Greek using Dan Wallace’s suggested reading chart.  Once summer started, reality got in the way!  So this might be a side project for the next few years.  Oops.

Still, what better place to start than with some of the shortest, linguistically simplest texts in the New Testament: the Johannine letters?

J. Klay Harrison and Chad M. Foster’s reader, 1-3 John: A General Reader, makes it easier to do that.  They include the text of 1-3 John with running vocabulary and grammatical helps.  They also include appendices on text-criticism of 1-3 John, vocabulary 50 or more times sorted by frequency and alphabetically, and paradigm charts.  This reader is part of a series of books in Koine Greek education, AGROS, which aim to teach conversational Koine as well as textual and exegetical Koine.  The series is a work in progress, and this was my first encounter with it.

If this book is any indication, AGROS is going to produce some useful texts.  I really enjoyed using it!  First, its choice of texts is good for a beginner.  1-3 John covers some heady theological content, yet its vocabulary is very small and its sentences very simple.  Plus, the letters are short.  So an intermediate reader of Greek can easily read them and feel the satisfaction of finishing three books of the New Testament.  Harrison and Foster have done a superb job of parsing each verb and giving definitions of new words.  Before each chapter, they place a list of new vocabulary, so if the reader wants to make flash cards they can.

brownHowever, there are a few ways this book could be better.  First, I wish there was more exegetical help to make sense of what the Greek means.  This book only helps with the linguistic aspect of the text.  I used Raymond Brown’s The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary as a companion volume for the exegetical help and historical/literary background.  Second, I didn’t care too much for the text-critical helps in this reader.  As far as I know, most intermediate Greek classes don’t spend time on textual criticism, so why did Harrison and Foster put so much of that in?  Still, they put the text-critical notes in an appendix at the end, so if you don’t want to use it, it’s easy to ignore.  Third, there are some places that it would have been nice to have help with idioms.  In 3 John 5, for example, the Greek text reads:

Ἀγαπητέ, πιστὸν ποιεῖς

The NAB in Brown’s commentary renders this “Beloved, you are faithful,” and the NRSV, “Beloved, you do faithfully.”  So there’s an idiom here with ποιεῖς I was not familiar with.  Oversights like this are uncommon and easy to correct.

What about the letters themselves?  After all, this reading challenge is focused on Scripture itself, not just reviewing teaching aids.

  1. Raymond Brown argues that these letters were written by the Johannine school, perhaps by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John.  He puts their composition between 90-100 CE, so toward the later end of New Testament texts.  We see the same strong moral/spiritual dualism in these letters that we see in John, e.g. in 1 John 3:8-9.
  2. The main purpose of the letters seems to be addressing a schismatic group within the Johannine community, warning the community not to follow those teachers.  Brown comments that perhaps this is an early form of the docetic or gnostic teaching, both ways of denying Christ’s humanity, a denial not too implausible if one reads John’s Gospel very selectively.  For example, the author emphasizes the importance of observing one’s behavior to see if they are living a godly life (1 John 2:3-6) and discerning where the Spirit is at work (1 John 4:1).  He seems to imply that these false teachers neither live according to the commandments nor have the Spirit at work among them.

For me, these weren’t the most interesting books of Scripture.  And it is painfully obvious by now that I’m not going to finish my summer reading challenge, I am definitely keeping it on tap for next summer.  One way or another, I will read these books.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #12: Gospel of Luke.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. This is part of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary, published by the Liturgical Press out of Saint John’s (Benedictine) Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  Patella is a Benedictine monk and New Testament professor at Saint John’s University.  This series provides very brief commentary on the English text, useful for parish study groups or general readers looking for basic exegesis. Here I have a few thoughts on Luke and a few thoughts on the commentary.

518PDEsGUNL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_One of the difficulties of studying the Bible is that everything looks so familiar. It’s hard to step back and really read the text, really notice something new, because we think we know it so well already. This is especially an issue with the gospels. I’ve read Luke a few times now, and my New Testament Greek class last spring spent the entire quarter reading it in Greek. Still, a few things surprised me.

  1. The stereotype of Luke is that he is the likeable gospel, the one that is most open to women and Gentiles, most interested in the poor. Supposedly, he is more readable than Mark, less eschatological than Matthew, and less cosmic than John. So one thing that really surprised me and sunk in for me this time reading Luke was just how often Jesus encounters demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself, from the temptation in the desert (4:1-13) to various cures of people infested with demons (4:31-37, 8:26-39, 9:35-50), to Satan himself pushing Judas to betray Jesus (22:1-6). Jesus is so good at dealing with demons that at one point, people accuse him of being one (11:14-23). Whether or not one believes that demons and evil spirits exist outside our imaginations, it is a commonly accepted fact that in the ancient world people ascribed many things to supernatural forces which we would give medical diagnoses to today. These many mentions of demons remind me that this is indeed a first-century text, not written with modern ideas of mental illness in mind.
  2. In his introduction, Patella lists reversal as a main theme of Luke’s gospel. Luke often shows reversals of power or privilege taking place in Jesus’ ministry, or has Jesus speaking about future reversals. For example, the centurion comes to Jesus to have his daughter healed, upsetting the colonizing relationship this man has over Judean peasants (7:1-10). Jesus gives his famous “suffer unto me the children” line, reversing his disciples’ devaluation of the child. And many of his teachings describe reversals, whether in the sermon on the mount (6:20-49), the “first shall be last” speech (13:22-30), or him telling his disciples that the first among them is servant of all (22:24-30). To me, these reversals are all part of the kingdom ethics, meant to be lived out in the here and now. This time around reading Luke, I saw this theme more than in the past.

I liked Patella’s commentary. At 158 pages, he gives neither too little nor too much. Most of it is exegetical, but he also gives cultural background in Greek and Palestinian daily life and customs, nuances of the Greek, and comparisons to the other synoptics. At the end of the book he includes questions for reflection appropriate to a bible study. For someone wanting to read Luke with some basic commentary, from a Roman Catholic but mainly from a historical-critical-literary perspective, this is a useful book in a useful series.

Also, an added bonus: the cover (seen above) features the “Parables Anthology” from the Gospel of Luke in the Saint John’s Bible.  Starting from the upper left and moving to the lower right, this illumination depicts the parables of the lost coin (15:8-10), the lost sheep (15:4-7), the good Samaritan (10:29-37), the prodigal son (15:11-32), Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31), and Mary and Martha (10:38-42).   This illumination is a powerful meditation on forgiveness — below is a (not very good, sorry) image of it.luke

Reading Challenge #11: Song of Songs: A New Translation.

Part of my summer reading challenge is to read as much of the Bible in English as I can.  I’m trying to diversify my intake by reading different translations and different commentaries.  So recently I read Ariel and Chana Blach’s translation of Song of Songs.  I really enjoyed it.

blochThis edition has a lot to offer: a 42-page introduction that illuminated the text, an afterword by Robert Alter, an 88-page commentary, and a translation with the Hebrew text on the facing page.  I didn’t check the Hebrew that much — Song of Songs is known for its difficult language — but the English flowed really well.

The Song of Songs itself is an erotic love poem, an obvious anomaly in the Hebrew Bible.  Both Christian and Jewish interpreters (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, Rabbi Akiba) have allegorized it as a spiritual poem about God and Israel/Church/humanity.  Its literary format is that of a dialogue between two young lovers and a few other figures, called in this translation the “brothers” and the “daughters of Jerusalem.”  According to the Blochs, it was most likely written during the Hellenistic era:

It is clear that much of the Song is anomalous in the biblical context, and calls for explanation: the concern with the private life as opposed to the public and communal, the frank interest in sexual experience, the idealization of pastoral innocence, the aesthetic appreciation of the human body.  All of this would suggest that the Song was composed in a Hellenized atmosphere. (27)


Apart from the specifics of the Blochs’ translation, what did I get out of this text?

  1. The Blochs claim that the Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible which celebrates eros for its own sake.  Other books describe the importance of a strong marriage (Proverbs), or the trouble that lust gets people into (Jacob), or even the joys of marriage (Ecclesiastes).  But I don’t see any hint that the protagonists of Song of Songs are even married at all.  The fact that she orders him to leave before dawn (e.g. 2:17) points to the possibility that their love is illicit.  Yet in this forbidden fruit the protagonists find a kind of divine intimacy.  As the Blochs write:

    The Eden story preserves a memory of wholeness and abundance from the beginning of time; the prophets look forward to a peaceable kingdom at the End of Days.  The Song of Songs locates that kingdom in human love, in the habitable present, and for the space of our attention, allows us to enter it. (35)

  2. Although it’s pretty obvious this poem is about sex, the Biblical Hebrew always uses euphemisms for sex itself, such as using “feet” to refer to a penis.  Here the pleasures of the flesh are symbolized by the fertile garden imagery throughout the poem.  As an example of these fruitful metaphors:

    Your branches are an orchard
    of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit,
    flowering henna and spikenard,
    spikenard and saffron, cane and cinnamon,
    with every tree of frankincense,
    myrrh and aloe,
    all the rare spices. (4:13-14)

    These metaphors pile up on one another until both the man’s and the woman’s body contain all the pleasing sights and smells of every plant in the garden.  In the afterward, Robert Alter writes:

    In more explicit erotic literature, the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world.  In the Song, by contrast, the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body.  The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of good afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed. (130)

    Personally, I don’t have much interest in the allegories that make this poem a spiritual allegory, because then we miss all these wonderful affirmations of the world.  But all of these metaphors and symbols used in the poem lead to the third point….

  3. The Song of Songs is a perfect example of how difficult it is to read ancient literature, because so many of its metaphors are lost on a contemporary audience.  Take 1:13-14:

    All night between my breasts
    my love is a cluster of myrrh,
    a sheaf of henna blossoms
    in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.

    I don’t know about you, but I have never seen myrrh or the vineyards of Ein Gedi.  The only henna I have seen are tattoos, not blossoms.  But even if I had seen these plants, would I really understand their metaphorical qualities invoked here?  Not really.  For much of the Song of Songs then, I appreciated the beauty of the language, and the broad fertility implications of the floral imagery, but I am just not able to grasp all of the metaphors.

I really enjoyed this translation.  Right now I’m working through Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke.  Onward and upward!


Reading Challenge #10: Homer’s Odyssey.

After reading Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, I am finally rounding out my reading of Archaic Greek poetry.  And just in time: wedding planning is rapidly taking over my summer!  This was my third reading of Homer’s Odyssey, and my first with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  I like his balance between Lattimore’s highly structured language and Fagles’ looser, more dynamic rendering.

odyssey coverThe Odyssey provides the counterpoint to the Iliad: after the Trojan War is over, Odysseus, one of the Achaean generals, spends ten years trying to return home.  He gets lost in various detours with non- and semi-human creatures: witches, nymphs, goddesses, cannibals, a cyclops, and more!  When he comes home, all of his men are dead, and he must slaughter all of the suitors vying for his wife before he can reclaim his home and reign once more as ruler of Ithaka.

I had always thought of the two epics as opposites: an epic of war versus an epic of peace, an epic of pessimistic fatalism versus an epic of returning home to bliss, an epic of armies versus an epic of one man.  But in many ways, the Iliad and the Odyssey are parallel to one another.

  1. One major theme of the Iliad is what happens when civilization breaks down in the frenzies of war.  The Odyssey reflects this too, as Odysseus encounters uncivilized, barbarian men in strange lands.  Odysseus has to use both his brawns and his wits (as well as Athena’s help) to get out of the messy situations he is in, situations in which his adversaries do not respect the laws of civilized humans.  For example, he and his men are too weak to defeat Polyphemus and escape his cave, but Odysseus uses his wits to find a way out.  This is in contrast to the Trojan War, where brawns are more important than brains.  Humans may prevail against one another in strength, but not against giant one-eyed monsters.  For that they need wits.
  2. One of the themes of the Iliad was honor: who has it?  who has the most?  We saw Achilles sitting at the beach, not fighting because he felt his honor had been insulted by Agamemnon.  Was Achilles so honorable that nobody should insult him (that’s what he thought) or was he dishonorable because he was not fighting (what Agamemnon thought)?  Homer seems to be pointing to the fact that honor is just a social construction that people can disagree on.  The same happens in the Odyssey, in which the multitude of suitors think of themselves as the greatest men in Ithaka.  Obviously Odysseus thinks otherwise.  To him, even the lowly swineherd Eumaios has more honor than the suitors.
  3. In both epics, Homer offers a bleak vision of the afterlife.  In book 11, Homer visits the underworld to speak to the prophet Teiresias.  There he also speaks to his mom, Achilles, and Agamemnon, among others.  This seems to validate Achilles’ point in the Iliad: everyone dies, and great heroes get no better afterlife than wimpy cowards.  Greek religion varied in its views on the afterlife, and Homer’s gloomy vision of post-death existence contrasts sharply with the glorious afterlife promised in Orphism and some other devotional cults.

I know many classicists argue that the Iliad is a better work of art, but I personally like the Odyssey a lot more.  After reading it for the third time I can say it merits a fourth.

One last thing — this oral performance by Richard Dyer-Bennett helps me linger on the words of the epic as I should.  It’s amazing.  If only he recorded the whole thing.

Reading Challenge #9: Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished (most of) Molly Whittaker’s sourcebook, Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.  This anthology, part of the 1980s Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World: 200 BC to AD 200, is designed to give readers a foundation in Greco-Roman religious culture and Greco-Roman views of Jews and Christians.  Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts: “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “The Pagan Background.”  Whittaker excerpts many different authors and provides running commentary, so this book can be read as more of a continuous narrative than just a collection of unrelated fragments.

whittakerSince I’ve already gotten enough of the “pagan background” sources from The Ancient Mysteries and Arcana MundiI skipped that section and only read the sections on Judaism and Christianity.  There was a lot of interesting stuff!  Whittaker mines Roman poets, satirists, and historians, as well as Jewish apologists responding to anti-Jewish sentiment, to unveil what the pagan Romans thought of the Jews.  Some particularly strange, insulting, and/or just plain ignorant views:

  1. Jews don’t eat pigs because they consider them sacred. (Petronius’ Satyricon)
  2. The Jews were expelled from Egypt because of their impurity.
  3. Moses was an Egyptian priest and magician. (Strabo, Apuleius, Juvenal)
  4. The “holy of holies” in the most sacred part of the Jewish temple was actually an ass’ head. (Apion, whose writings are only known via Josephus’ treatise against him)
  5. Jews practice human sacrifice and cannibalism.  (This one sadly persisted in Christianity; we see it in Chaucer.) (Apion again!)
  6. Jews were actually a Dionysiac cult. (Plutarch)
  7. The Sabbath was just an excuse for idle laziness.

In some of these we see some inkling of truth: yes, Moses was a religious figure, and yes, the Jews do trace their origins to Egypt.  Jews do refrain from eating pigs, though not because they worship them.  They do keep a Sabbath.  But these truths are filtered through a strong filter of prejudice, ignorance, and xenophobia.  Jews in Roman times did have special license to practice their religion and not worship the emperor, but at times this privilege was taken away at the whim of an emperor or a governor.  Many Romans classified Judaism as “superstition” rather than true religion.

At the same time, some pagans of a more philosophical bent admired the Jews’ iconoclasm.  Whittaker includes several excerpts describing the Jewish practice of proselytization.  Pagans did convert to Judaism, or at least adopt its tenets without undergoing circumcision.  (Understandable!)  As with colonizers today, the Romans did not uniformly hate the Jews and their religion, but neither did they admire them.  But even their admirers, I suspect, always saw them as a foreign and somewhat suspect, just like many of the other “Oriental” or “Eastern” religions adopted by Greeks and Romans such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Osiris.

In the section on Christians, Whittaker provides examples of many similarly strange views about Christians.  She includes excerpts from the New Testament, pagan writings, and non-biblical early Christian literature to demonstrate the range of pagan attitudes towards Christians.  We see the same Roman suspicion of any group that fails to conform, and their belief in the danger of any group that does not worship the emperor as divine.  

Yet persecution of Christians was not systematic, but occasional, as we see in Pliny’s letters to Trajan toward the end of the first century AD.  Pliny, a regional governor in Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on what to do with Christians.  He had so little idea of the content of the religion that he had to torture some Christians to find out their beliefs.  Not until later centuries do we see an intentional, systematic effort to wipe out Christians.

The most interesting texts to me in this section were the martyr acts which purported to provide transcriptions of interrogations of Christians by Roman officials, such as the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Acts of Justin and The Companions.  We see officials seeming to be merciful, giving Christians the opportunity to recant their alleged impiety, or asking them to return in a week to give them time to change their minds.  Whittaker believes that these are accurate depictions of interrogations (178).  I’m less sure, but if they are even close, that is really cool.

I’m so-so on the book itself.  On the plus side, Whittaker has collected a lot of different sources, and I learned a lot even from tiny little fragments of many different thinkers.  This book makes a good complement to Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.   She also has some nice maps and a chronology of writers in the back.  She introduces each author, so one does not need to know much about classical literature to use this volume.

However, her organization was confusing.  The Christianity section was organized by the type of source and by author.  That made sense.  But she organized the Jewish section thematically: Sabbath, Moses, Food Laws, Circumcision, etc.  The writings themselves were not so easily organized.  She often had to repeat the same excerpt in multiple sections, which got confusing.  It would have made more sense to organize the excerpts by author.

Also, the third section just seemed superfluous.  There are many other books that introduce Greco-Roman religions and provide source texts on them.  A brief glance at this section looked promising though.  I just would have preferred she stick to the first two sections — that is the title of the book, after all.

Still, this anthology is useful for its conciseness and commentary.  Biblioblogger Michael F. Bird mentions pagan attitudes towards Jews as one of the essential areas a New Testament graduate student should read up on.  Unlike Menaham Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Whittaker’s anthology is not three volumes, but only about 200 pages on the Jewish and Christian material.  I would recommend this book to students of the New Testament.

Later this week I hope to finish Homer’s Odyssey and begin Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #8: Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds

When I first started this collection of ancient sources on various occult and supernatural practices in Greco-Roman antiquity, I had high hopes.  After a classics education focusing more on literary-mythological texts than lived religious experience, I was hoping to get a taste of how ordinary people practiced Greco-Roman polytheism.  Luck’s book collects various literary sources describing religious practices, classifying them by chapters on magic, miracles, daemonology, divination, astrology, and alchemy.  Chronologically, he has everything from Hesiod to early Christian authors.  In terms of genre, he has epic, tragedy, satire, epistles, and philosophers.

779822What did I get out of this collection?

  1. Religion and science were not really separate institutions in antiquity.  It’s not hard to see why: in part they come from the same root, a desire to understand and control the workings of the universe.  Even today, astrology is a complex body of knowledge, with many rules governing how to formulate and interpret readings.  The best example of this in Luck’s collection are the various readings on Apollonius of Tyana, a first-century philosopher and miracle worker who was accused of dangerous practices.  In his defense speech, Apollonius claims that he is merely the practitioner of a more complex and subtle science than his accusers can understand.  This encapsulates how intertwined magic and science were among the Greeks and Romans (and, I would argue, in our culture too).  And given the Stoic and Neo-Platonic interest in astrology, philosophy too was intertwined with magic and religion!
  2. Genre is key in interpreting texts on religion.  Each source has a bias that leaves certain data out.  When Homer describes a religious practice, there is a certain wide-eyed acceptance of it.  Lucian describing the same practice is just blatantly making fun of it.  One philosopher might be arguing for the truthfulness of divination (e.g. Iamblichus) while another might be critiquing it (e.g. Cicero).  Most Greeks were somewhere in between; like us, they were skeptics, and did not trust every rumored divination or supposed miracle.  Just as there is no “correct” or “best” source on Greco-Roman mythology, there is no “correct” or “best” source on ancient religious practices.
  3. Early Christians had many similar varieties of religious experience.  When discussing divination, Luck includes 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, in which Paul discusses speaking in tongues.  Luck comments:

    The Jews had inherited the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke in a highly poetic but quite understandable idiom.  The Greeks were accustomed to highly ecstatic outpourings that had to be translated into intelligible Greek by trained interpreters.  Paul seems to try to reconcile both traditions. (284)

    I don’t know enough about this section of Paul or about glossolalia in the early church to comment on Luck’s argument.  But it is damned thought-provoking.  Luck helps the reader see that the religious experiences reported in early Christianity sometimes had Greco-Roman precedents.

Overall, however, this book has one major flaw.  I was hoping to find some of the more lived, everyday practice of Greco-Roman religion: curse tablets, magical papyri, amulets, etc.  Luck barely includes any of these sources; one review points out that he only includes 23 nonliterary sources in his 122 anthologized writings.

In sum, I wouldn’t say that Luck’s book is bad.  For what it is, it is very good.  But it should be supplemented by something like The Greek Magical Papyri as well, which is recommended by Michael F. Bird in his list of sources New Testament graduate students should master.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #7: The Ancient Mysteries, ed. Marvin Meyer

Now that finals are over and I’ve graduated with my BA (yay!), I’ve been reading two sourcebooks on lived religion in the Greco-Roman world: Marvin Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, and George Luck’s Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds.  I’ve just finished Meyer’s collection and it is great.  He has assembled 39 texts, ranging in time from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Clement of Alexandria.  He organizes the sources into chapters by cult.  Obviously, he includes sources on major mystery cults such as Demeter at Eleusis, the cult of Dionysus, the Anatolian Cybele, the Persian-turned-Roman Mithras, and the Greek-Egyptian syncretism of Isis and Osiris.  But he also includes chapters on the Andanian mysteries of Messenia and the mysteries within Judaism and Christianity.

meyerMeyer defines a mystery religion as

a secret religious group composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. (4)

Studying mystery religions is a useful window into peoples’ religious needs in the Greco-Roman world, the world from which Christianity emerged.  What did I learn about that world from this book?

  1. People joined new religious movements for a variety of reasons.  Too often we assume people were seized with deep spiritual longings, because this is often how we conceptualize religious conversion.  But Meyer makes it clear that people have many human reasons as well.  Mystery religions offered a close-knit community for people who wanted social bonds.  For socially marginalized people — foreigners, slaves, women — the mysteries were sometimes an egalitarian space, as Livy says about women in the Bacchic cults.  For some, their elaborate rituals may have aesthetically pleasing, even theatrical.
  2. The rise of mystery cults did not mean that traditional polytheism had failed.  Mystery religions were not replacements for the traditional civic cults of Greece and Rome.  They supplemented those cults, likely because they satisfied human needs that the traditional cults did not.  For example, many of them focused strongly on a good afterlife, which was not as much of a major focus in traditional Greek religion.  But because of their secretive and voluntary nature, these cults could not unify a city or an empire.  So the civic cults and the mystery cults worked in tandem.  This is important to remember for scholars of early Christianity.  It is too easy to assume that Christianity’s success was due to polytheism’s failure to satisfy peoples’ needs and questions.  But this is simply not the case.
  3. Mystery cults borrowed from many other religions.  The readings in Meyer’s book show Isis conflated with Demeter and Osiris with Dionysus; an ancient Mithraic liturgy in which participants chant the name YHWH; and Orphic Dionysiac hymns drawing on gods from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.  Many ancient religions were syncretistic.  After all, if one god is good, why not get multiple gods to help you?  Mystery cults focused on one god (or sometimes, a pair of gods), but their devotees did not ignore the other gods.  That’s just dangerous.  Monotheism is dangerous.
  4. Mystery cults were at times persecuted and viewed with suspicion.  Meyer includes here writings critical of the mysteries, such as Livy’s report of the Roman suppression of Bacchic worship and Josephus’ report of Tiberius’ persecution of the Isis-Osiris cult.  Any group that was secretive could be seen as disrupting public order.  It isn’t hard to imagine vicious rumors beginning about such cults.  It isn’t hard to imagine early Christians getting the same suspicion.
  5. Mystery cults were very diverse!  In the mysteries we see worship of feminine images of the divine (Demeter, Isis, Cybele) alongside the hyper-masculine cults of Mithras, which women were not allowed into.  We see gods whose presence in Greece dates back to the archaic age (Demeter) alongside gods who are freshly imported from the east (Mithras, Isis, Cybele).  We see cults focused in one particular place (Demeter at Eleusis) and cults that spread all over the Mediterranean (Dionysus, Mithras, Cybele).  So most importantly, when we speak of mystery religions, we cannot generalize too much.  It’s a construct that we scholars make, and as such it is limited.

I would highly recommend Meyer’s book.  I like that he has a balance of different types of sources: magical spells and liturgies, historians, philosophers, fiction, satire, and of course, early Christian polemics against the mysteries.  My next source, George’s Luck’s Arcana Mundi, is not as balanced in this regard as Meyer is.  Anyway, my review of Luck is coming soon!

Reading Challenge #6: Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

You might call Suetonius the Perez Hilton of ancient Rome.  His Twelve Caesars has dirt on every Caesar from Julius Caesar to Domitian: Tiberius’ pedophilia, Nero’s sexual perversion, Caligula’s incest … the list goes on!

This makes Suetonius really fun to read, which probably explains why we read so much of it in my Roman Empire class.  I decided to read the rest of it to get an insider’s elite view of the politics of Rome.

29022We know little about Suetonius himself.  He was born in 70 CE, and Pliny the Younger served as his patron.  He wrote many works of historical and literary scholarship, but The Twelve Caesars is his only complete extant work.

What did I get out of Suetonius?

  1. The Twelve Caesars is not a work of history the way we think of it.  In his introduction to this edition, J. B. Rives writes:

    If The Twelve Caesars is biography, then, it is biography of a very distinctive sort.  Whereas Plutarch came close to writing history, Suetonius … was aiming at providing something very different: a sort of balance sheet, an analytical framework that would allow for a clear assessment of each emperor’s relative success or failure. (xxxi)

    Each chapter centers on one caesar, and each chapter is itself organized thematically rather than chronologically.  Suetonius follows a pattern: description of the family of the caesar, his birth and childhood, his accession to the throne, how he dealt with the military, the Senate, and the people, various omens leading up to his death, and then his actual death.  Suetonius spends more time on some emperors than others: Augustus and Tiberius merit long chapters, but Otho and Vitellius do not.  He does not pretend to objectivity, but has some nuance: while he portrays Augustus as uniformly good and Nero as 300% bad, emperors like Tiberius seem to fall into more of a gray area.  Overall, it seems he wanted to understand the genius of each emperor through analyzing their life and character closely.

  2. Suetonius lets us see just how much stock Roman emperors put into divination, magic, oracles, and omens.  Frequently he mentions emperors changing their minds because of an omen, or ignoring the omen and falling into trouble.  It’s easy for us moderns to see these methods of discerning the gods’ will cynically.  We forget that the Romans did take them seriously, even if they had some discernment in which oracles and divinations were accurate predictions and which weren’t.  Suetonius criticizes Nero for not doing so.
  3. Suetonius has some useful references on Jews and Christians in Rome.  He mentions, for example, that Augustus scorned the Jewish religion (2.93), and that Tiberius banned the Jews from Rome along with other foreign cults (3.36).  From Suetonius we also hear of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, “a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition” (6.16).  And of course, Suetonius tells us of Vespasian and Titus’ roles in the Jewish Revolt (10.4-5, 10.8, 11.4-5).  Vespasian’s military leadership in crushing the revolt was part of his claim to legitimation of his throne, since he did not come from a ruling dynasty.  We hear about Josephus (10.8).  And he mentions Domitian’s cruelty and diligence in collecting the temple tax imposed on the Jews, which post-temple went to the Roman state instead (12.12).

Suetonius was a fun read, and a welcome procrastination from finals.  Next up I will be finishing Arcana Mundi!

Reading Challenge #5: Homer’s Iliad.

As I explained in my last post, Homer, the misnamed Homeric hymns, and Hesiod are the oldest major works of Greek literature we have.  Homer’s Iliad, a poem of war and warriors, was most likely codified by 750 BCE.  The epic tells the story of the Trojan War, which happened in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE; so if the Iliad is based on any real facts about the war, it comes from a long oral tradition.

How was Homer composed?  Scholars spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century arguing over whether Homeric epics are unitary compositions or cobbled-together collections of folk tales.  Essentially, does the Iliad fit together well, or are there the kind of contradictions, clumsy transitions, and awkwardness characteristic of an edited-together collection?  Scholars mostly follow the “Lord Parry” synthesis in which Homer is neither a unitarily composed work nor a mere collection of folktales.  Millman Perry and Albert Lord argued that Homer composed the work as a unity, but drew from oral traditions of stock scenes, lines, and epithets as he composed on the fly. So when the Iliad was an oral tradition, each telling could be different.  Only in written form is it trapped in the same form.  We see this in the written version, in which some books are superfluous and could be taken out without disrupting the main story.

iliad-faglesAnd of course, the term “Homer” here is just a shorthand.  We don’t know if there was one man who composed the Iliad and/or the Odyssey.  It could have been a school of poetic composition.  One fringe theory claims that Homer was a woman.  There’s no evidence for it, but we can’t disprove it either, only note its improbability.

I read the Iliad in Fagles’ translation, which is very readable though often inaccurate.  There’s no way to sum up this amazing epic in one blog post, but a few themes stand out:

  1. Before I read the Iliad, I thought it uniformly celebrated the glories of war.  I was wrong.  While the Iliad does relish in descriptions of the heroism and might of heroes such as Diomedes, Achilles, and Hector, it also frequently depicts warfare as a pointless game for status and the spoils of war.  My grandpa lived from 1913 to 2012, and after living through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Iraq-Afghanistan War, he told me that “nobody really wins a war.”  Homer injects some of that mentality into the Iliad.  Achilles fights to win timē (honor, status) and kleos (fame), but you can’t bring any of this into the afterlife, and even the victors in war return home having lost great men.  The Iliad depicts both the glorious and the tragic, chaotic, unfair aspects of war, which is part of what makes it great literature!
  2. The Iliad underscores just how different humans and gods are.  But this is not because the gods are more noble or moral, only more powerful.  Fagles writes that

    To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. (45)

    In other words, honeybadger don’t give a f***, but honeybadger is Zeus.  While humans in the Iliad think they can influence the gods by sacrifices and prayers, Homer’s omniscient narration of both humans and gods reveals that the gods typically do things for their own reasons entirely.  For example, the Achaeans think that Zeus is making the Trojans win because he wants them to win.  But in fact, Zeus is making the Trojans win so the Achaeans will honor Achilles and bring him back into war.  Like humans, the gods are petty and fight with one another for stupid reasons; but the gods are immortal, so the results of their petty conflicts are never as drastic as they are for humans.

  3. The Iliad presents many of the conflicts of running an army that ancient Greeks must have faced.  One major question: who do we value more?  The greatest warrior (Achilles) or the one who controls the largest faction of the army (Agamemnon)?  The Iliad presents many conflicts within armies that illustrate the difficulty of running an army.  Frequently in the epic we see warriors looking out for their own geras (spoils of war) more than the war itself.  So they stay back on the battlefield collecting armor off dead enemies rather than fighting at the frontlines.  Sometimes a warrior’s drive for personal gain (status and spoils) conflicts with the good of their army.

I’m really, really glad I got the chance to study the Iliad in Greek this quarter.  Once summer starts and I have some leisure I’ll get to the Odyssey as well, personally my favorite of the two.

Onward and upward!