Tag Archives: Biblical Studies Reading Challenge

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 #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 #3: Hesiod’s Works and Days.

My summer reading list to prepare for the biblical studies M.A. spans everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Qur’an.  To make some order out of the madness, I’m moving from one culture to the next.  Somewhat arbitrarily I’ve started with the Greeks.  Side benefit: this is also a great way to fill in the gaps in my classics reading; after all, I’m just about to graduate with a classics degree, so I should have read my Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid!

41XitGpe1aL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve already written about Hesiod’s Theogony.  As I mentioned, Hesiod wrote during the Archaic age of Greek history, around 700 B.C.E.  While the Theogony focuses on the gods and their interactions, the Works and Days takes its cue from the world of humans. The poem is addressed to Hesiod’s brother, Perses, who seems to have committed some kind of injustice against Hesiod.  From this prosaic beginning, Hesiod moves into grand mythological speculation on the nature of humanity and justice, narrating the myths of Pandora and the four ages of mankind.  He also includes many lines of proverbs praising justice and giving advice for tending a household.  The poem ends with a farmer’s almanac of advice on planting crops and setting sail, what days of the month are best for various actions, etc.

As regards these days, fortunate and prosperous is he who knows all these things and does his work guiltless before the deathless ones, sorting out the birds and avoiding excesses. (135)

What did I get out of this book?

  1. Hesiod’s ages of man myth charts the move from gold to silver to bronze to heroic demigods to iron men, each one successively inferior to the one before it.  Each race of men is a bit further from being gods.  Two interesting things here: first, the parallels to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:32-34; each dream narrates stages of human decline.  Second, many allusions in Homer suggest that Achilles and Hector are living in the age of heroic demigods.  Even Homer’s humanity is superior to ours!  I find it interesting how many cultures have these myths of a primordial fall.  Perhaps it functions as a theodicy to explain the gap between the noble characters of myth and the messy world the myth’s audience lives in.
  2. In lines 11-26, Hesiod details the two kinds of strife (eris): the good one that motivates men to war, and the bad one that motivates men to perform better to outdo their neighbor.  Ancient Greek culture is known for being competitive.  Even literature (epic and drama) was competitive, and the honors of victory were always limited to the best (aristoi).  But here Hesiod seems to be aware that competition can only take place in a context of broader collaboration, i.e. civilization.  Complete competition leads to warfare, which destroys society and makes men worse.  We see this in our own lives, in everything from baseball to Dungeons and Dragons (yes, I have played!): competition only makes us better if we play by the rules.
  3. This edition of the Works and Days includes a commentary by David W. Tandy and Walter C. Neale, respectively a classical philologist and an economic historian.  They read the Works and Days as “a response to the arrival of a new political and economic structure in the early archaic period (750-480 BCE)” (xiii).  Far from Homer’s world of nobility, the narrator of Works and Days adopts the persona of a poor peasant.  He frequently mentions the fact that kings (basilees) simply don’t care about their subjects, and bitterly complains about the debt that poor farmers and peasants like him are trapped into by their lack of economic security.  In Tandy and Neale’s reading, Hesiod’s response to the new world of trade and prosperity in the archaic age is frustration that the peripheral peasants are not gaining any of this wealth.  Just the opposite: as traditional economic patterns break down with the expansion of trade, peasants lose, as surplus crops go outside the community rather than back to the community (37).

I really like this edition of Hesiod.  These two scholars really brought their areas of expertise together into an interesting interdisciplinary exploration.  My only complaint with this edition is the translation.  Tandy and Neale render Hesiod into prose.  Hesiod, like Homer, is in dactylic hexameter, but that is totally lost here.  I’m not a fan of prose translations of verse.  Of course verse can never be adequately rendered, but prose translations just admit defeat at the start rather than trying.  So I would use this edition for its valuable historic and economic information, but not for its translation.

Next up: the Homeric hymns!

Reading Challenge #2: Hesiod’s Theogony.

Although I have done some study of Greek mythology in my Classics major, I don’t think I have ever read Hesiod for fun on my own.  Hesiod seemed like a good place to start on Greek sources for my summer reading project.  After two quarters of Homer, I’m pretty familiar with Odysseus and Achilles, but a little less so with Kronos and Rhea!

azure_436798d597a09aa55ce959e2ebe92f46Hesiod wrote during the 8th century BCE, in the Archaic period of Greek history.  His is the time of Homer, before the Classical Age of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.  We know nothing solid about him, though his own poetry claims that he was a shepherd who received verses from the Muses.  We have two works left from him: the Theogony, which provides a creation myth and family tree of the Greek gods, and the Works and Days, an agricultural almanac and advice collection.

The Theogony opens with a paean to the Muses, Hesiod’s inspirations, then moves quickly into the story of creation from Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros; the succession of divine kingship from Okeanos to Kronos to Zeus; the battle of the Titans; Zeus’ children with his three wives; and various other stories of gods and goddesses.

What did I get out of the Theogony?

  1. Hesiod’s work has several Near Eastern parallels.  I have already mentioned connections with Canaanite myths of divine kingship and its usurpation.  In his introduction, Caldwell relates this aspect of Hesiod to the Babylonian Enuma Elish (also on my summer reading list!).  Caldwell suspects that the Greek theogonic tradition, based in turn on an Indo-European tradition, received infuence from Near Eastern peoples during the Bronze Age, Dark Age, and Archaic Age (21).  So there is more connection between Greece and its neighbors than a simple reading of Hesiod alone would suggest.
  2. Anxiety about kingship and succession in Greece — in order for one god to have power, another must be put down.  Zeus must defeat his father, Kronos, to become king of the gods.  Unlike modern America where we think (as good capitalists) that wealth can be generated to make everyone wealthy, ancient Greeks tended to see wealth, honor, and other goods as limited, so that one man’s success is intimately tied with another’s loss.  We see this in the Iliad, where mighty warriors on the same army battle one another for the spoils of war.
  3. The role of eros or love — Hesiod places Eros at the beginning of creation as one of the fundamental generative forces of the cosmos.  Fittingly so, given that Eros in humans leads to babies.  But he also places Love with Deceit, and includes the myth of Pandora, who unleashes great evils into the world.  The Greeks did not have a romantic or idealized view of love, but a fatalistic one, seeing Eros as a destructive force as well as a powerful generative force.  I wonder how much Paul’s suspicion of marriage in 1 Corinthians, for example, echoes this kind of suspicion of Eros in general.

Caldwell’s commentary is very useful, though I didn’t read his idiosyncratic psychoanalytic essay on the Greek gods.  I’m still working through some Egyptian literature, and hope to tackle Works and Days after this.


Reading Challenge #1: Stories from Ancient Canaan.

In three weeks I graduate with my BA in Classics and Religious Studies.  This fall I hope to begin an MA in Biblical Languages, in preparation for an eventual PhD.  The plan is to start part-time this fall then transition into full-time next spring.

I’m very excited.

For many years I have known I wanted to be a scholar.  When I realized I was called to biblical studies, it was like a sudden click.  I had been preparing for this for years without even realizing it.  (You’d think a couple years of Greek and Hebrew would have tipped me off…)  Mostly I am interested in looking at the Bible through the lens of intercultural and interreligious exchange and dialogue.  A weird part of me is considering focusing on intertextuality between the Bible and the Qur’an.

Anyway, as preparation, I’ve prepared a summer reading list of primary sources in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity.  Of course I plan to read the whole Bible. The list draws from graduate reading lists and other bloggers’ advice, especially Ben Blackwell and Michael Bird.  I’m using BookHabit and the Bible Companion App on my phone to track my reading.  As I read each book, I’ll post some thoughts on it here.

Book Review #1: Stories From Ancient Canaan, ed. Michael Coogan

51loCb-rcVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Coogan gathers here several stories discovered on 14th-century BCE clay tablets in cuneiform from Ugarit.  These stories tell us about the slaughter of Aqhat, King Danel’s son, at the hands of Anat, the goddess of love and war; King Kirta’s need to sire a son and the challenge his son later offers to his kingship; and the infamous Baal’s quest to become king of the gods over El.  Coogan translated these stories as a teaching text, so his introductions to each story really helped me understand the opaque cultural references and fill in some of the gaps of missing text from lost portions of each story.  Coogan is himself a biblical scholar, and his notes constantly make reference to biblical parallels.

A few things I got out of these stories:

  1. There are many literary techniques in common between ancient Israelite and ancient Canaanite writings.  Most important is parallelism, in which “a single idea is expressed in units of two or three lines … by repetition, synonyms, or antonyms” (15).  Some of the symbolic numbers in these stories, such as seven as a unit of time, also appear in biblical literature.
  2. Reading Canaanite literature helps us better understand some of the references to God in the Hebrew Bible.  Many of the titles for God in Israel were borrowed from Canaan.  For example, the title “El Shaddai,” which Coogan takes to mean “God of the mountain,” makes sense because the Canaanite El lived on a mountain.
  3. There are a lot of interesting thematic parallels regarding kingship between Israelite, Canaanite, and Greco-Roman literature.  For example, the storm-god Baal conquering the sky-god El and taking his primary position in the pantheon is similar to Zeus’ takeover of his father Kronos’ position as head god.  On the human level, King Kirta’s son Yassib challenged his father’s right to rule, claiming that he was incompetent and should step down.  This is similar to David’s sons Absalom and Adonijah trying to take over their father’s reign before his death.  This does not necessarily indicate direct literary borrowing, but points to common problems in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean in monarchy and succession.  Different cultures struggling with similar problems of power might come up with similar literary themes.

Reading this Canaanite literature gives us a glimpse of Baal, El, and Asherah, so maligned in the Bible, on their own terms.  Plus the stories are just really cool.

Next up: Hesiod’s Theogony!