Tag Archives: book review

Review: Qur’ans: Books of Divine Encounter, Keith Small.

After being away from here for a few months, I took a look at this blog and realized it didn’t fit with what I’m doing now. I originally started this blog as a place to talk about ancient languages—still one of my interests—but other things started creeping in too. I reorganized the blog to reflect that, and to make it look more professional in general. Enjoy.

The banner above is from Word Made Flesh, the frontispiece to John in The Saint John’s Bible.

I don’t have time to write any blog posts until August because of a book deadline I’m trying to meet, but it doesn’t take much time to repost some of the things I’ve been writing for other venues. Below is a book note I wrote for Theological Studies, out in the June issue.


Qur’āns: Books of Divine Encounter. By Keith E. Small. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015. Pp. 170. $25.

quransSmall, a Manuscript Consultant to the Bodleian Library, Associate Research Fellow at the London School of Theology, and author of Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts (2011), has produced a visually pleasing compendium of 53 Qur’ān manuscripts, most of them from the Bodleian Library. Each manuscript is shown in one photo and accompanied by a short description. In the first three chapters, S. explores the history of Qur’an manuscripts, and in the process delivers a gentle, non-technical introduction to issues in studying Qur’ān manuscripts, such as dating, orthography, script, colophons, palimpsests, materials.  He also introduces decorative elements, including carpet pages and gold leaf, and aspects of the manuscripts related to liturgy and recitation.

The second half of the book is organized thematically, and showcases European Renaissance encounters with the Qur’ān, global dissemination of the Qur’ān, and personal copies of the Qur’an. S. showcases Qur’ān manuscripts owned or produced by European scholars, including Robert of Ketton’s 12th-century Latin translation and Renaissance critical editions noting textual variants. His misleading overemphasis on the sympathy with which many of these scholars approached the Qur’ān creates a contrast with the next section. There, he provides the fascinating backstory to how some of the Bodleian’s Qur’ān manuscripts came to Oxford: “plunder in piracy and war” (89), or through former officers in British colonies (e.g., 126-127). This section’s vignettes provide a fascinating window into the past few centuries of Islamic history. The final section, on believers’ personal copies of the Qur’ān, includes talismans and even an undershirt with the Qur’ān written on it to ward off harm in battle.

S. excellently analyzes how details of decoration and calligraphy relate to Islamic theology and the believer’s personal encounter with revelation. I would have liked to see more examples of contemporary Qur’āns. While S. includes an appendix of recommended reading, it would be more useful for scholars if it had a bibliography for each manuscript. This book is aimed at the general reader, but is also of interest to scholars, and would also be a useful supplementary text for courses in art history, book history, or Islamic studies.

Book Review: Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This 39-page guide to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls could not have been written by a more qualified guide.  Not only is Yardeni a scholar of ancient Semitic philology and paleography, but she has a degree in graphic arts and calligraphy, so she brings an artist’s eye to her work that most scholars of ancient texts don’t have such formal training in.

yardeniIn this lavishly illustrated book, Yardeni divides Hebrew paleography during the Second Temple period into four categories:

  1. Pre-Jewish (late 3rd century – 167 BCE)
  2. Hasmonean (167-37 BCE)
  3. Herodian (37 BCE – 70 CE)
  4. Post-Herodian (70 CE – 135 CE)

She provides detailed examples of each period, although the last period is, she admits, not well-attested.  At the end of the book she provides a “cheat sheet” of the specific writing styles of each period.  However, through these four period she sees three major developments:

  1. Development of medial/final forms familiar today (e.g. of mem, nun, and tsadi)
  2. Leveling of letter height, more even lines
  3. Development of serifs/flourishes in gimel, zayin, tet, nun, ayin, tasdi, and shin/sin

Overall I really enjoyed the pictures in this book, which made it clear how the script changed over time.  I do think she could have made the book longer and described certain things more.  For example, she could have devoted specific chapters to each of the four time periods, rather than breezed through each one in a few paragraphs.  Often I felt the ratio of illustration to text was off, so that images of manuscripts were not explained adequately.

Still, this is a fun little volume, and I would recommend it for a good 45 minutes of reading and future reference.

Book Review: two books on Orphic texts.

In Greek myth, Orpheus is most well-known for his failed quest to retrieve his lover Eurydike from Hades.  But there was also a cult focused around him in antiquity, a sect of the Bacchic cults which focused especially on ritual purity and the afterlife.  Orphism dates back to the 6th century BCE, though most of our evidence for it comes from the Common Era.  Hence, like many aspects of the ancient world, our knowledge of Orphism is rather sketchy!

Orphism had a unique cosmology in which Dionysus was king of the gods (not Zeus!) and the world was born from an egg. We know very little about Orphism, and some argue that it was not really a cult but only a literary tradition. What we do know is scattered in classical authors (especially Plato), Neoplatonists from the 3rd century onwards, and three collections of texts found from antiquity: a collection of 3rd-century CE hymns from Pergamum, a collection of golden funerary tablets from the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, and a fragmentary papyrus containing an allegorical-cosmological commentary on an Orphic poem (now lost) from 330 BCE. So we really don’t have much.

Scholars and religious apologists (both pro- and anti-religion alike) frequently debate the similarity of Orphic and Bacchic cult to early Christianity.  I won’t try to oversimplify that debate here, though IMHO both sides make good points.  But Orphism is important for the study of early Christianity because it had a relatively elevated view of hieroi logoi, or “sacred words.”  Orphism claimed that its texts were sacred, and invested in them a certain amount of authority because they came from the mouth and lyre of Orpheus himself.  This does not mean Orphism was a textualized religion like the Abrahamic faiths.  I have seen no indication of a closed canon of Orphic texts.  But in investing their texts with more authority, by deeming them sacred and referring to them to justify their beliefs and practices, Orphism provided a pagan precedent for early Christianity’s introduction of the concept of sacred canon to the Greco-Roman world.

Here I review two key works on ancient Orphism.  These were really useful, but also really interesting in and of themselves.  I’d recommend them for New Testament students.

I.  The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction, and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis

Orphic hymnsThis book is a collection of Orphic hymns to various Olympian gods, personified natural forces, and of course Dionysus himself. The hymns date to the 2nd-3rd century CE, though their oral tradition may extend much farther back, perhaps even to the 6th century BCE when Orphism first emerged.

This book is hard to review because it really is the best of its kind. Athanassakis is a well-known translator of Greek literature (he rendered the Homeric Hymns as well), and this is a revision of a work he first published in 1977. The hymns take up only 66 pages, but the notes take up 152. The notes are helpful, because they explain various references in the hymns, particularly to Orphic myth and cosmology. However, the notes do not give any philological guidance, so the student of Greek might want to look elsewhere. The translation is superb, and Athanassakis’ introduction had some really interesting points about religious epithets and the religious experience of chanting various epithets and names of God.

My only complaint about this book is the brevity of its overview of the hymns themselves. I wish Athanassakis had spent more time introducing them as a whole and discussing various aspects of them. It would be far too tedious to read the notes on every hymns.  I was hoping for something like what Graf and Johnston do in the book below, with chapters devoted to different theories about the text itself.

II.  Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets by Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston

GrafAs I mentioned above, one of our major sources of evidence for ancient Orphism is a series of tablets found in tombs in Greece and Italy.  These tablets are made of gold, and their writings are divided into two types.  Some tablets have just the names of the initiates on them, while others have instructions for what to do in Hades to have a good rebirth.  (Orphism held to the tenet of reincarnation.)  In this way, these tablets are like a very, very short version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also written for disciples to attain a good rebirth.

Here Graf and Johnston provide a critical edition of the tablets, with both the Greek texts and the English translation; they have a map of where each one was found; they include six chapters of research on various aspects of the tablets; and they have four appendices on other funerary tablet finds and Bacchic texts.  So this is a really, really useful text, one I am going to hold on to.

A chapter by chapter summary:

  1. Chapter one contains the Greek and English of all 38 tablets. 
  2. Chapter two gives a brief history of scholarship, including the debate between “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches to how much we can know about Orphism.  An interesting point here is how much scholarship on Orphism was influenced by contemporary culture wars over just how much early Christianity borrowed from paganism.
  3. Chapter three, “The Myth of Dionysus,” was for me the most interesting in the whole book.  Here Johnston posits that Orphic myth was an intentionally created system.  From here she explores how Orphic myth made itself distinctive enough to be the basis of a new cult, yet also plausible enough in the general framework of Greek myth to attract converts, while still retaining a connection between Orphic myth and Orphic ritual.   For example, Orphics believes that Dionysus was the lead god in Greek myth.  This was plausible to an average Greek: just as Zeus took Kronos’ position as king of the gods, so Zeus’ position could be given to another.  But the belief in Dionysus’ supremacy was obviously distinctive, and clearly was the basis of Orphic focus on worship of Dionysus.  (That said, the Orphic hymns demonstrate that Orphic followers worshipped all the gods, just that Dionysus had a special place in worship.)
  4. Chapter four, “The Eschatology Behind the Tablets,” explored the postmortem geography of the underworld.  The tablets indicate that the initiate will enter Hades thirsty, but must bypass the first river, speak to the guards of Hades, and drink from the river of memory.  This will allow a good rebirth in which the initiate will remember some of their knowledge from the previous life.  There seem to be three options for the newly dead: for the wicked, punishment followed by a bad rebirth; for the good, a good rebirth with all knowledge forgotten; for the good who has been initiated in the Orphic cult, a good rebirth or joining the gods and heroes in the afterlife.  Wow.
  5. Chapter five, “Dionysiac Mystery Cults,” tries to place the tablets in the context of our scant knowledge of Dionysiac cult practice.  Essentially, what were these tablets for?  We don’t really know.  Graf argues that the tablets were a part of the initiation rites into Orphism, and were later placed in the graves of initiates after they died.  However we have no record of rituals in which these tablets were created, let alone explanations of why and when they were.
  6. Chapter six, “Orpheus, His Poetry, and Sacred Texts,” explores the identity of Orpheus and the nature of the hieroi logoi of Orphic religion.  Graf and Johnston look at different ancient sources on Orpheus as Argonaut, foreigner, singer, magician, initiator, and lover of Eurydike.  They then look at the debate over how textualized Orphic religion was.  They argue that when Orphic texts are referred to as heiroi logoi, this does not mark them as “scripture” the way we use the word.  Instead, these were myths and explanations of rituals, and were divided into two categories of public texts and private, insider texts.  In other words, the “sacred words” of Orphism referred more to Orphism’s specific texts, but that didn’t mean there was a closed canon or a theology of revelation attached to those texts.

I didn’t read any of the appendices, but even without those this was a really interesting book!  While Guthrie’s book mainly tried to establish the facts of Orphism, Graf and Johnston ask more speculative and interesting questions and give insightful answers.  I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek religion, especially in mystery cults or practices surrounding the afterlife.

Onward and upward!

Book Review: The New Perspective on Paul, Kent Yinger.

I read Yinger’s 103-page book on the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) in 2 hours.  It was worth my time.  In this book, Yinger details both the main arguments and the history of the NPP, and directs his readers to further reading should they wish to study the issue themselves.  He is himself pro-NPP, but tries to give an impartial survey of the debate for laypeople and pastors.  But this book was helpful for this graduate student too!

YingerAfter introducing the topic and approach of the book, Yinger examines the 1977 publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which laid the groundwork for the NPP.  Sanders was dissatisfied with stereotypical views of first-century Judaism commonly held in the scholarly community: that Jews believed practice of the law and good works could lead to salvation, that this law was a heavy burden which nobody could uphold.  Sanders instead set forth his view of “covenantal nomism,” a common system of practice and theology in first-century Judaism.  Covenantal nomism holds that God and humans are in a covenantal relationship, a relationship in which humans are obligated to God but God also leaves room for God’s grace anbd forgiveness.  Sanders cited texts from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls showing the individual Jews’ relationship with God as dependent, vulnerable, and loving, rather than merely fearful of a wrathful and unforgiving God.  Sanders laid the foundation for biblical scholars to question the traditional Reformation reading of Paul as an author speaking of salvation through grace apart from works.  He questioned the reading of Judaism as a religion of oppressive legalism.

Chapter three describes James D. G. Dunn’s work in building on Sanders to truly initiate the NPP.  Dunn sought to read Paul in continuity with first-century Judaism and covenantal nomism, rather than opposed to it.  Dunn read Paul’s writings about “works of the law” as not referring to doing good deeds (“works righteousness”) but as referring to specific practices expressing Jewish identity, such as circumcision and keeping kosher.  Hence, Paul was not saying one didn’t have to do good works to be saved, only that specific Jewish cultic practices were not necessary.  The question becomes not “How may I be saved?” but “Who belongs to the company of the righteous?”

Chapter four details other NPP advocates who set forth their own perspectives.  N.T. Wright asks what the problem was that Paul saw Jesus as saving Jews from.  (You know those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer”?  Well, Wright is asking: “What is the question?”)  For Wright, this problem was Jews’ disinheritance of the land, their exile and colonization under the Romans.  Jesus as Messiah reconciled God to Israel for Israel’s sins leading to their political plight.  Other NPP advocates, such as Francis Watson, argue that Paul was more interested in theological legitimation for his Christ-following communities than in working out a systematic soteriology.  Heikki Raisanen argues that we should not try to impose theological coherence on Paul’s occasional letters in the first place.  Paul was interested more in social location and identity than coherent theology.  Other scholars argue that in Paul’s view, the new Christian mode of relating to God did not rule out the Jews’ special place in their covenant, but opened a different covenant to the Gentiles.  Yinger stresses in this chapter that NPP advocates differ greatly amongst themselves.

Chapters five, six, and seven detail the historical, exegetical, and theological-ministerial critiques of NPP.  Historians and biblical scholars take issue with covenantal nomism, saying we should not rule out the possibility that some Jewish groups had fallen into crass legalism.  Exegetes point to passages in Paul that seem to refute the NPP, such as his insistence that he had been a sinner burdened under the law (1 Tim 1:15, Romans 7:15, 18-19).  NPP readings of these texts can seem to flaunt common sense, but at the same time, Paul’s writing can be so rhetorical and opaque that it’s hard to figure out what he is doing.  The chapter on theology and ministry was the most tedious for me.  Yinger details Reformed thinkers who eschew the NPP because it runs counter to Luther’s reading of Paul.  However, most NPP scholars are not concerned with contemporary sectual debates, but with Paul’s thought.  As Yinger says, “trying to get Paul to answer a question he wasn’t asking always produces discomfort for biblical scholars, and usually unsatisfying results for theologians” (86).

Chapter eight, “Let’s Hear it for the NPP,” details several positive effects this new scholarship has led to: a better grasp on Paul’s letters, avoiding modern Western individualist readings of Paul, moving away from stereotyped and insulting depictions of Judaism, drawing more continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, bringing Paul and Jesus together, and bringing Protestants and Catholics together.  Even the critics of NPP scholarship can reap some of these benefits!

Yinger’s book ends with two afterwards, by Donald A. Hagner and Don Garlington.  Hagner critiques the NPP for passing over the uniqueness of early Christianity.  Garlington suggests three areas of future research on the NPP.  Yinger ends with an annotated bibliography of pro- and anti-NPP works for the reader to evaluate the debate for themselves.

Of all the areas of the Bible, I’ve probably had the least exposure to Paul, so this book was very helpful for me to get a handle on some of the current debates.  I’ll most likely be taking a class on Pauline literature this fall, so it’s good to have a head start!  I especially appreciated how charitably Yinger summarized the perspectives of the scholars he disagreed with.  Apparently I’m not the only one who likes it: blogger Chris McElmurray writes, “this slim volume is now THE entry point into the discussion and is one-stop shopping for those who want to apprise themselves of the pro and the con in a quick read.”

Onward and upward!

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!

Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

HeraclitusA few months ago I found a translation of Heraclitus’ fragments from Penguin Classics.  This would not have excited me so much had this translation not included the Greek.  A chance to read Heraclitus’ famous aphorisms in Greek!

However, my alarm bells started ringing when I found this translation was done by Brooks Haxton, a contemporary poet.  For reasons I’ll explain better below, I am very leery of “poetic renderings” of classical texts by modern  wordsmiths who may or may not have any clue about the ancient language they translate from.  (Haxton may have formal training in classical Greek, but I could find no evidence of it.)  This is as much a problem for Sufi poets as it is for Greek and Latin.  Sadly, in trying to convey the spirit of Heraclitus, Haxton often remakes Heraclitus into his own image: a contemporary free verse poet.

Awful Translations

Here I’ll look at two of Haxton’s strangest translations — and the much better Greek originals.  First we start with Heraclitus’ most famous fragment:

Ποταμοῖσι δἰς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἄν ἐμβαἰης· ἕτερα γαρ <καἰ ἕτερα> ἐπιρρεῖ ὕδατα. (fragment 41)

Haxton translates this as

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone —
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

First of all, where does Haxton get this incessant line breaking?  This is not in the aphoristic Greek text.  He is making some poetry, and his own style of poetry no less, when that is simply not in the original.

What’s more, this translation is not even accurate.  It should be rendered something like

You cannot step into the same rivers twice; for different (and different) waters flow.

Haxton is not even close.  Of course all translation involves interpretation, but Haxton isn’t even translating.

Another aphorism runs thus:

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεί. (fragment 10)

This aphorism is harder to puzzle out.  It literally translates to something like:

Nature likes to hide itself.

Indeed, this is how scholar of Greek philosophy Jonathan Barnes translates it in his Early Greek Philosophy, also in Penguin Classics (page 112).  But Haxton renders it:

Things keep their secrets.

This sounds deep and profound, if obscure and enigmatic.  But it is not Heraclitus.  Φύσις, or “nature,” (cognate with “physics”) is not the same as “things.”

Haxton should know better.  He is a poet, so he should know that precision in language is important, and that one should remain humble before other authors rather than taking such creative license with their work.  Instead, Haxton defends his idiosyncratic method:

My translation uses free verse to suggest the poetic ring of the original prose, which deserves to be called poetry as much as the metrical writings of thinkers like Empedocles and Parmenides. (xxviii)

This just doesn’t cut it for me.  I’m keeping this edition, but only because it has the Greek on one side of the page, not because of Haxton’s creative paraphrases.  Many reviewers on Amazon agree.

Haxton is not a lone phenomenon.  There are many modern translations of ancient literature purporting to be “more poetic” than more “academic” translations.  Aiming to replace the standard Lattimore/Green translations of the 1940s and ’50s, Oxford University Press debuted their Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, which aims to “go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.”  The translations are not bad, but nor are they particularly accurate, turning the metric verse of classical tragedy into free verse.  While this series pairs a classicist with a poet, others eschew the classicist altogether, relying on a contemporary poet to translate a two-millennia old text from a different culture, in an archaic language, and which references the long-forgotten present of the text’s author.

But as I argued when I analyzed several contemporary translations of Euripides’ Medea, much of this is more publishing hype than a real advance in the art of translation.  Many of the great translators of Greek literature of the last century were also poets themselves!  Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad and Odyssey were the accepted standard before Robert Fagles’ translations (and are still more accurate), published poetry for decades.  Fagles too was a poet. So is Barry Powell, a recent major translator of Homer.  Clearly it is not impossible to find scholars who also make good translators.

So Haxton represents what is, to me, an example of a lamentable trend in translation.  The intention is good: make ancient texts more relevant and interesting so the average person will read them.  But if one has to do seriously distort the text to do so, that is going too far.  And the best way to ensure that a translation is accurate is by hiring a scholar to do the translation rather than a contemporary poet. Not that scholars always do everything correctly.  And of course, no translation can get everything right.  But I err on the side of the historian and the philologist, not the poet.

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!

Review: Iliad, Book I, by P. A. Draper.

Yesterday I went to my Greek professor’s office, frustrated at how slow and tedious translation homework can be.  (I admit, senioritis might play a role in my lack of motivation!)  He told me that doing Greek and Latin translation is like going to the gym.  Yes, it is tedious to look up every unfamiliar word and parse verbs and nouns.  But the more we do it, the better we get, even if the results are slow.  I left feeling reassured, ready to tackle more Greek.

51KHKSIg9UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But sometimes we do not feeling like going to the gym.  Sometimes we need to build up to a full workout.  Sometimes it’s okay to use readers with running glossaries. I’ve been practicing my Greek the past two summers using Nimis and Hayes’ Lucian’s The Ass: An Intermediate Greek Reader and Steadman’s Odyssey editions.  These readers go beyond most student commentaries’ grammar helps and give line-by-line vocabulary at the bottom of each page.  While they don’t facilitate much understanding of the nuances of each word, they do enable the reader to read fast and fluidly.

Earlier this quarter, I used Draper’s text to read parts of Book I of the Iliad.  Her book begins with an introduction on the current state of Homeric scholarship: who was Homer?  Was there a Homer?  When did he live?  How historically accurate is the Iliad?  She also spells out the intricacies of Homeric meter.  She has a huge bibliography of books on the Iliad, the Trojan War, and even modern fiction set in Troy.  And she has a lot of commentary.  A lot.  An example:

CCI02062015The art is a nice touch.

Although these glossed readers get a bad rap from Greek purists, I enjoy using them to read fluidly.  When I was straight out of first-year Greek, it gave me great confidence to be able to actually read something.  I would recommend Draper’s commentary on Homer to the student who wants to build that confidence.

 

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.