Sunday, March 30, 2008

MUTT Chapter 3--Chewy things; I lose it

I left the hotel and went to find something to drink. And here I should tell you a bit about my character, something that needs to be explained before I go any further. It's only when you know something about me that you'll understand how I got into the scrape I got into, and why I got into it so quickly.

I'm easygoing by nature. As I'd traveled more than most people in my thirty years of life, I was even feeling somewhat cavalier about being lost in a big Asian city. I knew that statistically speaking Taipei was a much safer place than New York or Chicago, so I wasn't really in a rush to find out where I was. Anyway I had no reason to report to work that morning, and thought I might as well revel a bit in the fact of being lost. I took pleasure in the fact that I could be both at ease and completely lost in a foreign capital. Although tired out on that first day--the flight from New York was nearly twenty hours--the fact is that I was in a good mood.

Forty minutes later I was sitting in a little street-side café drinking an odd sort of sweet milk tea. I'd picked the cafe randomly, walked in, and sat down. When the waitress came up, I ordered by pointing at the drink sitting in front of another customer and gesturing to indicate that I wanted one too. But what had I ordered? I had no idea. At the bottom of the drink were little round chewy things that reminded me of something I'd eaten long ago. But I couldn't remember what it was, or where I'd eaten it. There was something strange about those chewy things, something about the memory they were prodding to the foreground of my mind. What was it? Taking another one into my mouth, I pressed it between my tongue and lower lip, trying to remember. Then, in the dim light of the cafe, it all came back to me. Combray...

I was at a birthday party in a large hall. There was a fat man in the corner playing an organ. A clown was going from table to table doing tricks. I didn't like the clown. Everyone wanted to avoid the clown because if he came to your table you might have to sing. There were many birthday parties happening at once in the large hall. It was a special restaurant for birthday parties, a kind of birthday parlor. The round chewy things were at the bottom of a bowl in front of me; they were floating in a kind of watery syrup which had been poured around a scoop of violet ice cream. They were mixed in with the ice cream and syrup.

That was it. I remembered.

But was that my birthday there with that nasty clown, or was it someone else's? I thought it wasn't mine. No, I knew it couldn't be my birthday party. But whose was it? I remembered I didn't like the person, whoever he was. No, I never liked that Birthday Boy.

Or was it my birthday after all? It's possible I was just afraid of the clown, and this accounted for the negative feeling of the memory. I couldn't be sure.

Here, in short, is the sort of thick nonsense that was going through my head that day because of the strange chewy things at the bottom of my tea drink, and probably also because of the long flight I'd just completed. My brain had started to swim, as brains will often do after a transoceanic flight.

I remember then using my spoon to fish two more of the chewy things out of my drink. They were round, partially translucent. They looked like frog eggs. I started to imagine a customer complaining because the frog eggs in his drink had started to hatch. Then another customer: her eggs were hatching too. Here and there round the cafe the uproar commenced, one customer at a time, people holding glasses up to the light, watching the tails of tadpoles begin to twitch. I imagined a man slamming his fist down on the bar: "Your product is not fresh here, Monsieur! From now on we will go elsewhere for our frog tea!"

I was tired, mouthing the words to myself: We will go elsewhere for our frog tea! We will go elsewhere...

It was just then I noticed a small Chinese boy watching me nervously. He was maybe three years old, with his mother at a table nearby, the mother talking animatedly with another woman. The boy seemed to be afraid of me, but couldn't stop looking: his curiosity was too much for him. I remember thinking that probably he’d never seen a foreign man up close. In any case he had four of his fingers stuck in his mouth for security, and his brow was knit in confusion and fear. It was an expression defined by tension: rapt curiosity struggling against an obvious desire to flee the strange monster before him. His other hand meanwhile, the one not stuck in his mouth, had reached up behind him and wound itself in his mother's skirt. Apparently he'd keep staring at the strange animal as long as his hand could assure him, by clinging to the skirt, that his mother was still there.

I smiled at the boy and began to lean slowly forward, reaching out with the spoon to offer him the two frog eggs. Instantly, with a loud whimper of terror, he leapt round to the other side of his mother and began wailing raucously, grabbing the attention of the few other people in the cafe. The mother turned and looked questioningly at me as I sat there holding out the spoon. The other woman also turned and looked at me with a mild frown. But the man behind the counter, the man mixing the frog eggs with the cold, creamy liquid, at least he began to laugh aloud.

I got up from my seat and went to the man behind the counter. I handed him one of the big blue bills with Chiang Kai-Shek's smiling face on it. I got my change, a lot of smaller red bills, and left the cafe.

On to Chapter 4

MUTT Chapter 2--The problem with Chinese phone books

I remember my first day in Taiwan perfectly because in a certain sense it was my last day. I was on the north side of Taipei, while the night school that had hired me to teach English was in the downtown. I was supposed to be at the school announcing my arrival, but since I didn't know Taipei at all, and since my Chinese was minimal, I was already completely lost.

Yes, I'd been hired to teach English. Many young Americans first arrive in Taipei this way. In the folder at the airport was the number and address of the institute that hired me. Stupidly, that was the only place I had it written it down. I decided to come to Taipei almost on the spur of the moment and didn't prepare my arrival well. In the cab from the airport, I realized I didn't have the folder, but didn't ask the cabby to turn back, because I thought I could easily find the school through the phonebook once I got into the city. Of course I learned in the city that I couldn't find the school in the phonebook because the phonebook was all in Chinese. That I knew a little spoken Chinese didn't mean I could use something as complicated as a Chinese phonebook. A Chinese phonebook isn't even in alphabetical order for chrissakes. The Chinese don’t even have an alphabet to speak of. This is a problem I hadn't thought of in the cab. How do these people organize their phonebooks? It's a mystery to anyone who isn't already fluent in the language, and I was nowhere near fluent. Though I knew the English name of the school, I had no way of finding the Chinese name. I was hoping to run into someone who could help me. It was around noon I think.

Near where the cab dropped me off was a cheap hotel. The desk person had no English phonebook, neither could she quite figure out what I wanted. I decided to check in if only to park my bags somewhere while I tried to get oriented. It was obvious the one thing I could do was walk around until I found a foreigner who looked like they knew the place or a local whose English was good enough to help me.

On to Chapter 3

Thursday, March 20, 2008

MUTT Chapter 1--Loused up.

I'm ashamed at how badly I've loused things up. I should have done better than this. I'm in Taipei after all, one of Asia's little El Doradoes.

But things here aren't quite what they used to be. Just look what's happened. Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo--they've all fallen to their knees, faces everywhere with the stunned look of someone who's been slapped \by a hand out of nowhere. Given all that's gone down, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. Maybe I should give myself a break.

Still, global economic factors don't matter much in my case. If Taipei isn't the gold mine it used to be, so what? That has little to do with my own doggy fate. My failure, I'm saying, should be chalked up to my account.

It all goes back to my leaving a red paper folder on a chair at the airport. I'm talking about the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport just outside Taipei. I left a red paper folder there. A pretty simple mistake really. Any of you may have done it, and you've probably made even worse mistakes in your lives. I'm willing to bet you've made worse mistakes than any of mine, if you want the truth.

There I go again--can't ever keep a lid on it. Here I'm just admitting my own guilt and I have to drag you into it too. I need to learn to clip the rant in the bud.

There's something I don't understand though. Even with all the irresponsible, crackpot things you've done, even with all that, you always manage to get by without much trouble. You manage to slip through unscathed. I don't understand it--how you do it I mean. But that's how it is with readers--you're a lucky bunch. And you know very well, you've known it all along, that we writers, writers like me I mean, we're never as lucky as you. You take that for granted.

"It's the way the world is. Anyone who spends so much time scribbling in notebooks deserves what they get." That's how you see it, right?

With an attitude like that it's no wonder you're so ready to get your kicks at our expense. You watch us stumble, and you laugh. That's how it works, am I wrong? You laugh at me or at anyone else foolish enough to work so many months at something and make not a dime off it in the end. You take us writers for idiots or obsessives. Your every remark proves it too. I can see straight through your "interest in contemporary literature." You're interested in literature the same way people in the 19th century were interested in freakshows. You think I don't know what you're after? I do.

Still I'll give you no freakshows here, only the truth. So be prepared not to get what you want. And it you don't like it, too bad. You can fuck off already for all I care.

My mistake, I was saying, was initially pretty innocent. If I hadn't left that red folder behind at the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport, everything could have been different. I wouldn't now be telling you such a wayward and depressing story for one thing. And the story I'm telling here--actually it's the most wayward and depressing story I've ever heard. I’d never believe it myself if I hadn’t been stuck in the middle of it.

On to Chapter 2

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Harold Bloom on Jesus and Yahweh

I cannot recall that the Hebrew Bible ever explicitly states that the Jewish people can render themselves holy through study, yet I am one of many thousands who were brougth up to believe in such incessant reading and meditation. --Jesus and Yahweh, p. 195

Take up any of Harold Bloom's books on our Western religious traditions and you will find, nearly every third page, sentences that seem overstated, even unhinged. To read Bloom is often a hair-raising experience: the critic, one frequently tells oneself, is ranting. But on second consideration--when one rethinks Bloom's assertions in the wider context of the centuries-long unfolding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with all their twists and heresies and inhumanity--he usually seems vindicated. Considered over the centuries, our collective religious experience really is as extreme and uncanny as he suggests. Looking at Western religion in the first decade of this new century, it would be hard to argue that believers are becoming more moderate.

Though even Bloom's wilder formulations are often well-founded, it's not always so, and there's definitely something of the crank to him, a crankishness that comes through not so much in his ideas as in his delight in hearing himself repeat these ideas. Bloom's writing is superb, magisterial; he employs terms with the keenest subtlety (a precision often misunderstood by those who would dismiss him, as when Bible scholars scoffed at his discussion of irony in the J writer: see The Book of J). Bloom's flaw, however, is a kind of thumping redundancy. The great critic's assertions, often in the superlative, return again and again, needlessly so. Fortunately, his books are otherwise such a pleasure to read, his own personality so learned and charismatic, that one will overlook this tic of repetition.

Bloom is in his usual fine fettle in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. Like his previously published works The Book of J, The American Religion, and Omens of Millennium, this new title seeks to contribute to what Bloom calls "religious criticism." His training and stature as a literary critic, not to mention his personal religious obsessions, make him particularly adept at formulating the major questions. The new work, definitely one of major questions, is divided into two sections, one for each of the "names divine" Jesus and Yahweh. The book does not make for two separate essays however; throughout the many chapters the critic illuminates his understanding of the one name by contrast with the other, his section on Jesus dealing also with Yahweh, and vice versa. Such mingling is inevitable, since Bloom's real subject here is the question of whether or not Jesus Christ, as understood by Christian tradition, is compatible with the uncanny God Yahweh as represented in the Hebrew Bible. Bloom concludes that they are not compatible, then deepens his discussion by (more or less) multiplying the number of names divine he would consider. Jesus and Yahweh? But which Jesus? For Bloom there is Jesus Christ on the one hand, a "theological god" developed by the theologians of the first centuries, and Yeshua of Nazareth on the other, a charismatic Jewish teacher about whom we can know precious little:
Doubtless the real Jesus existed, but he never will be found, nor need he be. [This book] intends no quest. My sole purpose is to suggest that Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages, and to explain just how and why this is so. (8)
Regardless of Bloom's skepticism as to the possibility of knowing the historical Jesus, he gives us, somewhat contradictorily, his own assessment of Jesus in the third chapter. For a writer mostly bitterly critical of the Christian tradition and its anti-Semitic distortions and crimes, this is quite high praise:
Father John P. Meier, the author of three magisterial volumes under the somewhat misleading title A Marginal Jew (with a much-needed fourth volume to come), accurately terms Jesus "a Jewish genius." One can go further: Jesus was the greatest of Jewish geniuses. It is as though the Yahwist or J Writer somehow was fused with King David, with the Prophets from Amos through Malachi, with the Wisdom authors of Job and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), with the sages from Hillel through Akiba, and with the long sequence that goes from Maimonides through Spinoza on to Freud and Kafka. Jesus is the Jewish Socrates, and surpasses Plato's mentor as the supreme master of dark wisdom. (26-7)
One wants to know: if the historical Jesus, as Bloom insists, is lost to the sands of time, how can he also be "the greatest of Jewish geniuses"? Or rather: how could we know this? On the basis of what sources could we know it if not the gospels Bloom elsewhere characterizes as unreliable?

Presumably Bloom, like many educated Christians, suspects that in the gospels (in Mark, Matthew and Luke, though perhaps not at all in John) there is a basic collection of teachings and acts that really is authentic to Yeshua himself: i.e., that although we will never be sure exactly which words in the gospels are his, we can nonetheless get a somewhat reliable portrait of his teachings from these texts. Bloom insists that his preferred gospels are Mark and Thomas; he says that as a Jew he is hated by the writer of John and that he "returns the favor"; he claims that the Epistle of James, written perhaps by one of the followers of Jesus' brother James the Just, offers us the most trustworthy echo we will ever get of Yeshua's authentic voice. I agree with him to a degree in his preferences: certainly I'm convinced Matthew and Mark are the most reliable of the gospels; the Gospel of Thomas too may contain authentic sayings, and thus cannot be ignored; and certainly I find the Epistle of James a more likely historical echo of Jesus than the letters of Paul (which, however, I've recently been led to reassess thanks to the scholarly movement known as "the new perspective on Paul": Garry Wills gives a striking presentation).

Bloom's praise for Mark is grounded in the gospel writer's extraordinary narrative strengths and in the fact that Mark gives us a Jesus similar in many ways to Yahweh. Somewhat oddly, Bloom hints that at least Mark's Jesus actually could be the (literary?) "son of God":
But why did Jesus frequently speak in riddles? His parables follow and perfect Hebrew tradition; Yahweh himself, throughout the J Writer's text, delights in riddling puns, unanswerably rhetorical questions, and fiercely playful outbursts that edge upon a frightening fury. "Like father, like son," a believer aptly could reply. Whoever wrote Mark, the first Gospel to be composed, was such a believer, and went back to Yahweh at the God's uncanniest in order to suggest something of the secret of Jesus. (31)
Bloom's preference for Thomas, not explained in this work, is no doubt partly based on that newly discovered gospel's focus on Jesus' life and sayings rather than on the crucifixion. Such a focus, in any case, suggests that whoever compiled the sayings in Thomas had little use for the doctrine of atonement, a teaching Bloom also doubtless would rank among the creedal misrepresentations of Jesus' life. The critic also has frequently called himself a Gnostic, and, although the jury is still out as to the degree Thomas should be linked to Gnosticism, there are certainly sayings in Thomas that fit well with Gnostic teaching.

On Jesus and the Epistle of James, we read:
. . . Jesus outdoes the Pharisees (his closest rivals) in honoring the Law. His genius fused love for his father, Yahweh as abba [Aramaic: father], with love for the Law, oral and written, and love for his people. He remains the Jew-of-Jews, the Jew proper, triumphant over victimage while longing for the Father, and for the Kingdom where love and righteousness will be harmonized. Paul turned to the Gentiles. Jesus, as even the Synoptic Gospels make clear, certainly did not. James the Just, brother of Jesus, was his authentic disciple. Scholars oddly do not see that the spirit of Jesus stands forth most clearly in the Epistle of James, composed by one of the Ebionites, or Jewish Christians, who survived the judicial murder of James and the subsequent sack of Jerusalem. . . . [In the Epistle of James] we hear the voice of the Prophets in the wilderness, of Elijah and John the Baptist, and the voice of Jesus himself, for once abandoning his formidable irony. (13-4)
. . . [The] stance and aura of Jewish Christianity has never been better exemplified than in this eloquent sermon. . . . Since there is an overt polemic against Paul, I am not impressed when scholars argue that James and Paul subtly can be reconciled. Martin Luther's anti-Semitic diatribe against James counts far more: he reacted with fury to the Epistle's "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24), a manifest repudiation of Paul's "a man is justified by faith and not by works" (Romans 3:28) (38)
In general Bloom is not impressed by scholars who try subtly to reconcile. One of the critic's major gripes in Jesus and Yahweh is the extent to which Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was "strongly misread" by the writers of what became the New Testament. In his long career as literary-religious critic, he has never tired of reminding readers that the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different books: both organized differently and read with radically different presuppositions. Bloom, theoretician of "the anxiety of influence," considers the New Testament to be in large measure driven by its writers' desire to bend the meaning of Jewish tradition to their own Hellenizing ends. The Christian Bible is, Bloom says, the most successful example of misreading in history. In a strong metaphor of his own, one evoking the Arch of Titus in Rome, he writes of the Hebrew Bible being taken captive by the New Testament:
If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery. (50-1)
Bloom takes up the New Testament's struggle with Tanakh mainly in his consideration of the rhetorical strategies of the Gospel of John. The fourth gospel, as most readers have noticed, goes further in the direction of anti-Semitism than the previously written synoptic gospels, and contains some of the Bible's most unfortunate formulations:
A Jewish reader with even the slightest sense of Jewish history feels threatened when reading John 18:28-19:16. . . . There is a peculiar wrongness about John's Jesus saying, "If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews" (18:36); it implies that Jesus is no longer a Jew, but something else.
Bloom attributes John's anti-Jewishness to the time and place of its writing; those behind its composition were undergoing "an anxiety of frustrated expectations, perhaps even of recent expulsion from the Jewish world." (78-9) It is this crisis of faith or identity that drove the gospel's nastiness toward the Pharisees (many scholars now believe it very unlikely Jesus' relations with the Pharisees were as bitter as the gospels make them out to be) as well as its struggle toward Moses. Bloom analyzes the passage containing John 8:58--Jesus' statement that "Before Abraham was, I am"--to bring out the subtlety and power of the writer's rhetoric, what the critic calls his "revisionary warfare." Impressed by John's subtlety, Bloom cannot finally bring himself to praise it:
I don't see how any authentic literary critic could judge John as anything better than a very flawed revisionist of the Yahwist. . . . In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest, and if you think otherwise, then bless you. (86)
Ultimately, as Bloom himself implies, one's assessment of John will depend on whether or not one believes Jesus to be the Messiah and whether or not one accepts orthodox Christian ideas as to what the Messiah is. For myself, I see John 8:58--"Before Abraham was, I am"--quite differently than Bloom. If the words are merely Johannine, they give us a rhetorically brilliant meditation on how the Messiah relates to the Patriarchs and Prophets: i.e., the Messiah is of greater stature than Abraham or Moses. If the words are authentically from Jesus, however, they offer an instance of Jesus' voice speaking directly from the ground of the Logos itself: Jesus affirming what he knows about himself against those who would accuse him of raving or blaspheming. A Christian reader like myself may well be put off by the anti-Semitic gestures in John, but can still brush them aside as aberrant, focusing instead on the more substantive theological aspects of the text. Regarding the passages where Jesus and the apostles are represented as a group somehow distinct from "the Jews," I agree with Bloom entirely: they are a product of anxiety and identity crisis; they offer a misrepresentation, a perverse example of anti-Semitism in a text that should, on the contrary, have found its root in Jewish tradition. As for John's christology, however, that is a different matter.

Bloom will doubtless say that one cannot have one's cake and eat it too, that the logocentrism of the Gospel of John is Hellenic and not Jewish, and that the true Messiah could not have spoken in this way. But how can Bloom or anyone know how the true Messiah would speak? Is Yahweh to be limited by our expectations of him? Could not his development, to follow Bloom's own biographical approach to Yahweh, follow unpredictable paths? The critic would have to agree that it is so.

Bloom's approach to Yahweh in this new work is somewhat different from that in the earlier Book of J. If in that work Bloom analyzed Yahweh's uncanny presence in the J writer's work, this meditation seems more concerned with Yahweh's career before and after the events narrated in the Bible. Where was Yahweh before creation, and what was his motive for creation? How explain his slow transcendence or distancing from men as narrated over the course of the Hebrew Bible, and how explain, further, his apparent self-exile from much of Jewish history since?

In Jesus and Yahweh Bloom keeps up a dialogue of sorts with Jack Miles, whose works God: A Biography and Christ he evidently, with some reservations, admires. Like Miles, and somewhat like the Kabbalists, Bloom has chosen to treat of Yahweh biographically. This choice is a conceit of course, one that makes it easier for the critic to make certain kinds of points. One of Bloom's major points is the disconcerting humanity of Yahweh: an irascibility and physical presence that make him hard to identify with the more transcendent Christian concept of God the Father.

Early on in the Yahweh chapters, Bloom makes a characteristic observation regarding the relationship between Yahweh as represented in the J writer's work and all that succeeds him--i.e., all subsequent Western religious thought: "Yahweh's Shakespeare, the J Writer, manifested an irreverence [toward Yahweh] that sparked the defensive rise of theology, which is always an effort to explain away the human aspects of God (or of Jesus)." (137-8) For Bloom the literary critic, Yahweh represents an intellectual challenge akin to that posed by Shakespeare's strongest characters, Hamlet and King Lear. The God Yahweh, Bloom insists, "is a man," and yet he is somehow an infinite man with a mind "intricately labyrinthine." This assertion that God is a man is of course something of the reverse of the Christian assertion that Jesus the man is also God. In terms of his own tradition, Bloom makes his assertion on good authority: in Kabbalah, in the Rabbi Akiba and in Scripture itself similar assertions can be found. Bloom writes:
Despite Philo of Alexandria, prince of Jewish Platonic allegorists, a true name for God, in the tradition of Rabbi Akiba, is Ish (man). Exodus 15:3 magnificently intones, 'Yahweh is a Man of War, the Lord is his name.'. . . The great Akiba, who truly founded the Judaism we still recognize . . . held strong to the literalism of Yahweh as Ish, God as Man, despite Rabbi Ishmael and his school. Yahweh walks about in Exodus 13:21, however unhappy sucah perambulation was to make the Prophets. I find a crazy comedy in the early exegetes who follow a strolling Yahweh around, while chirping, "He's not walking!" After all, the hardworking and energetic Yahweh really rests on the seventh day . . . . A swordsman, Yahweh needs downtime, like all men of war. And Yahweh is joyous, or angry, and frequently hungry. Akiba sensibly found all this quite acceptable, but it roused his friend and opponent Ishmael to indignant denials. . . . (196)
Why this God so engaged in the life of his Chosen People should slowly drift into transcendence after the Book of Job is a question Bloom sets himself in this work. Yahweh's apparent abandonment of his Covenant has long been a major problem for Judaism; the horrors of the twentieth century have pushed the issue to a limit point. Bloom points out that the Jews are to have trust in the Covenant, but understandably wonders how this can be possible anymore. He contrasts the types of spiritual comportment stressed by the three Western faiths: "Judaism emphasizes trust in the Covenant, Christianity professes faith that Jesus himself was the New Covenant, Islam is submission to the will of Allah." (143) Trust, faith and submission are the three distinct grounds of our three Western monotheisms. I believe Bloom would acknowledge that trust, as a spiritual mode, has vulnerabilities that faith or submission do not. Or at least that the horrors of Jewish history have been such as to undermine precisely that virtue: trust. Yahweh promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, and yet, as Bloom points out, Christians and Muslims now outnumber Jews more than a thousand to one. The Roman massacres of Jews and destruction of the Temple themselves dealt massive blows to Jewish trust. The Holocaust of the last century, Bloom insists, should be evidence enough: Yahweh has defaulted on his Covenant. But even the history contained in the Hebrew Bible, when Yahweh was presumably at his most engaged, does not offer a very encouraging picture. "We can be maddened by Yahweh's bewildering turns at revealing and concealing himself . . . his furies can seem so sudden and capricious. Yahweh commands a recalcitrant Moses to descend into Egypt, and then attempts to murder his prophet at a night encampment in the Negev, on the way down." (132; see Exodus 5:24ff) As with Moses himself, so with the whole people. Even in the Tanakh, the blessings offered prove few and far between.

Since his Book of J Bloom has stressed Yahweh's impishness and unpredictability. But how account for it? In Jesus and Yahweh the critic turns to the speculations of Kabbalah in order to explain what seems to be the wayward and pained psychology of the Jewish God. There is a sketchy summary of the thought of Isaac Luria, seen partially through the lens of Gershom Scholem and Freud, and, interestingly, several reverent pages on Nahman of Bratslav. To simplify matters greatly, the Kabbalah on which Bloom focuses was an attempt to think the negative side of creation via the question of how the creation was possible and what its results were. In order to create the universe, it is claimed, Yahweh had to withdraw himself from part of himself, if only in order to make a void in which this universe could be. This withdrawing from self or division in self is already a beginning of crisis. Along with the concentration implied in creation, there was also, Bloom says, a necessary contraction, for without it "there could be no reality except God's, and no evil either." "There has to be an abyss in the will of Yahweh, since without a negative moment in the act of creation, God and the cosmos would fuse as one." (211-2) This abyss or self-exile in the creator (the term in Kabbalah is zimzum) is followed by a disaster in the created world. Isaac Luria conceived the fable of the Breaking of the Vessels to explain the imperfections of the world we know. In the creation Yahweh formed vessels to receive the outpouring of his power, but this power proved too much for the vessels to contain; they broke. Yahweh's irascibility as evident in the tradition, the suffering of the Chosen People in this imperfect world--both are a result of the cosmic disaster that was creation. The universe is a self-injured God presiding over a broken creation.

One may speculate that Yahweh's initial self-exile in zimzum was followed by a movement of withdrawal from the creation itself. This is the understanding Bloom portrays in the great 18th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. In fact this withdrawal is not simply a matter of going elsewhere, a retreat, but is a dwindling in being or power.
God [for Nahman] is not merely an absence dwindled down from a presence. After one zimzum too many, Yahweh shrunk into Elohim cannot be distinguished from the cosmic void he wanders. . . . [Yahweh, who was once] Being itself, has vaporized into the void of Jewish dispersion and suffering. (224)
A self-divided Yahweh who rages over a broken creation, eventually to dwindle down into a slight presence, incapable of upholding the Covenant he once made with his people. This, according to Bloom, is the vision of the idiosyncratic Hasidic master Nahman; it is one Bloom seems to share, for frequently in Jesus and Yahweh the critic insists that Shakespeare's King Lear is an apt portrayal of the Hebrew God.

Throughout Bloom's meditations one frequently encounters expressions of the critic's bitterness, both a cosmic or existential bitterness and a historical grudge based on the unjust suffering of his people: suffering at the hands first of pagans, then of Christians, who are, Bloom suggests, really polytheistic pagans in disguise. Though the religious critical arguments are certainly substantial, one senses that Bloom's assertion of Jesus and Yahweh's incompatibility is grounded ultimately as much in bitterness as it is in learned argument. If Yahweh can shrink into something like the background noise of the universe--as represented in Rabbi Nahman, whom Bloom considers a literary genius--then Yahweh can also feasibly become the Father to whom Jesus refers. The reduced vigor, the ineffectuality and transcendence of which Bloom accuses the First Person of the Christian Trinity is not, after all, on a par with the weakness and ineffectuality of God in Nahman's bleak conception. And Jesus, partially obscured beneath centuries of philosophical speculation (i.e., theology), can still be heard in the gospels as the greatest master of dark wisdom: the wisdom of a kingdom whose laws represent an attempt to bridge the incommensurable: the divine and the human.

In the middle of his new book Bloom makes a comment about the Christian theologian Hans Frei: "The late Hans Frei used to puzzle me by his gentle prophecy that the spiritual future of Christianity had to involve a return to its Judaic origins." (146) I myself am not an orthodox Christian, I am a seeker rather, and as such I may be more willing than most to think through the meaning or possibility of such a return. In fact I've long felt the need for such a recognition on the part of Christianity: a recognition that the Messiah is the Jewish Messiah first, and the world's Messiah second. But what did Bloom finally make of Frei's prophecy? In Bloom's thought, what would a modern Jewish Christianity entail? Would it necessarily be an attempt to bring back the Ebionite faith? How would such a faith relate to the Covenant? Could Bloom imagine such a religion--i.e., the religion that Hans Frei was imagining? These are just a few of the questions one might pose to the great critic.

Check Jesus and Yahweh at

Saturday, March 15, 2008

William Blake's Heretical Forebears

Book reviewed: Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law by E.P. Thompson, Cambridge UP

British historian E.P. Thompson is best known for his 1963 masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, a groundbreaking study of English artistans during the industrial revolution and the most significant early work of what would come to be known as "history from the bottom up." In that work Thompson focuses on the losers of the industrial revolution and depends more on documentary evidence than on the statistical methodology employed by other historians. The new approach allowed him to bring to life generations previously silenced by the very hopelessness of their resistance to the New World Order taking shape in spite of them.

Thompson always stressed the value of literary works as a source for historians, as also, naturally for a Marxist, he insisted on the importance of history in the study of literature. His book on William Blake is a gem in this tradition of historical criticism. Thompson's documentary approach sheds a multifaceted light on this poet so resistant to interpretation.

Witness Against the Beast, the product of decades of grappling with the origins of the poet's thought, was published posthumously (Thompson died in 1993). In it the historian mainly seeks to unearth Blake's "tradition": to address the question of where Blake's complex, often arcane symbolic system could have found its genesis. Many traditions had been proposed over the years, including neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, and Behmenism, but none had really accounted for Blake's difference. How explain the persistence across Blake's career of concerns and themes that were lacking in the supposed sources? For one, could a neo-Platonist have scoffed at Greek rationalism as Blake did, in lines such as:
The Gods of Greece & Egypt were Mathematical Diagrams--See Plato's Works.
Rather than approach the poet in an academic way, by trying to fit him into one of the major intellectual traditions, Thompson chose to narrow his sights somewhat by researching Blake's milieu: by looking into the intellectual and religious culture of the self-educated London artisan. In this way, Thompson was able to identify many of Blake's characteristic symbols as part of a common currency of underground English theological discourse. The methodological point was clear: Why search parallels in late antique philosophy when much of Blake's language echoed that of fellow Londoners?

Thompson places Blake in the line of religious dissent that exploded during the English Civil War of the previous century. His arguments for the identification are compelling. Blake's work, according to Thompson, is in the tradition of Christian antinomianism, an antinomian in its Greek etymology being literally one who stands "against the law." Among the dissenting sects that rose at the time of the Civil War, many reinterpreted and extended the belief that Christ's coming and sacrifice had annulled Mosaic Law. Those who had been saved by Christ's blood, it was insisted, could no longer be called to account by any moral or religious law; in fact any who stress law in religion are not true Christians but enemies of Christ. Considered heretical in its extreme forms, such antinomianism is of course grounded in no less than St. Paul himself:
The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:24-5)
In the generations before Blake, the English antinomian sects pushed this Pauline idea to a degree the religious authorities could not tolerate. Thompson convincingly argues that Blake was of their ranks:
What must . . . be insisted upon is the ubiquity and centrality of antinomian tenets to Blake's thinking, to his writing and to his painting. Throughout his work there will be found this radical disassociation and opposition between the Moral Law and that gospel of Christ which is known--as often in the antinomian tradition--as "the Everlasting Gospel." . . . The signatures of this antinomian sensibility will be found, not at two or three points only in Blake's work, but along the whole length of his work, at least from 1790 until his death. (18-9)
Thompson shows in detail how Blake adopted language and images from the antinomian tradition, while not however strictly following any sect's teachings. Rather the poet reinterpreted fellow radicals' ideas to his own brilliant ends, putting a Blakean twist on their theology and ending with a body of work and doctrine that arguably made him "the greatest of the antinomians." Thompson writes:
[I do not] suppose that very much has been settled if we hang up his work on a hook marked "antinomian" and think that then we have put it in place. Antinomianism, indeed, is not a place at all, but a way of breaking out from received wisdom and moralism, and entering upon new possibilities. The particular attack of Blake's through and feeling is unique . . . . Even so, I am not saying nothing [by placing Blake in the antinomian tradition]. I am arguing that these ideas are intrinsic and central to the structure of Blake's thought, and that they remain so. . . And I am arguing also that even those critics who have noted the antinomian influence have rarely noted its structural centrality; and that, in general, extensive critical attention has been paid to quite secondary, or even trivial, influences upon Blake, while this major and continuing influence has remained little examined. (19-20)
Of the different sects Thompson considers likely to have influenced Blake, he settles on the Muggletonians as the most important. The sect got its start from chapter 11 of Revelations, where an angel tells St. John:
I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
In 1652 a London tailor named John Reeve experienced visions and received "a commission from God" to be "His appointed Prophet." The sect takes its name from Reeve's cousin, Ludowick Muggleton, who had similar visions. Members believed Reeve and Muggleton were the "two witnesses" mentioned in Revelations.

Unlike the Quakers and other contemporary sects, Muggletonians did not evangelize, so the number of believers always remained small. Their typical religious service took the form of a meeting in a pub, where beer would be shared and the sect's songs would be sung. Much stress was put on the composing, recording and singing of songs, and over the decades members would be called upon to subscribe to the printing of new editions of the song book.

Muggletonian doctrine is fascinating and, to a great degree, internally coherent. In some respects their teachings remind one of the Gnostics; in others they couldn't be further from Gnostic thought.

According to the Muggletonian doctrine of the Two Seeds, the mixture of good and evil in humanity is to be ascribed to humanity's twin paternity. Abel and Seth were true children of Adam and Eve; Cain, however, was sired on Eve by the Serpent. Thompson quotes a Muggletonian text and explains:
The Tree of which Eve eat, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was her being overcome by the glorious Appearance of the Devil made in the form of an Angel of Light.
This Devil (or Angel of Light) appeared in the form of a glorious Serpent, who copulated with Eve. Entering within Eve's womb the Serpent transmuted himself "into Flesh, Blood and Bone" and the offspring of the intercourse was Cain, whereas Abel and his young brother Seth (in whose generation the Devil had no part) were the offspring of the divine principle in which God had created Adam. But from the moment of the Fall, Satan disappears from the rest of the cosmos, having dissolved himself in Eve's womb and perpetuated himself in Cain and Cain's seed and only there. (73)
As was also taught by certain of the Gnostic sects, the Muggletonians insisted there were two seeds in humanity: a good and an evil. Also like the Gnostics, the evil in humanity was not the result simply of man's temptation and disobedience, but of the evil principle actually tampering with (in this case impregnating) the first human generation.

The sect's doctrine of Christ is of the greatest interest and is parallel to their doctrine of the Fall. The Muggletonians rejected the Trinity, insisting instead, in a quite striking departure, that when God was incarnated as Jesus Christ he was no longer present in Heaven but only in Jesus. Entering Mary's womb, God dissolved there so as to be born in the human form of Jesus. Thus not only was Jesus wholly God, as other Christians insisted, but when he walked the earth God was present nowhere else in the universe. This teaching implied a further striking idea: that God died entirely on the cross, that God himself was dead for a time, coming back to life on the third day. As a Muggletonian text put it:
When Christ died the whole Godhead was absolutely Void of all Life heat or Motion. Father son & Holy Ghost became Extinct in Death. The whole Life of the Infinet power was Dead.
Thompson comments:
This accentuated the dramatic sacrificial symbolism of the Cross: God literally took on mortality and paid its penalty in order to redeem the faithful. How he got out of this situation at the Resurrection was a fruitful source of dispute and dissention among subsequent believers. (78)
From a Jewish or Muslim perspective, the Christian doctrine that Jesus was both God and man is already quite radical. The One God, it is asserted, would not lower Himself to become human. But the Muggletonians, rejecting the Trinity as these other Western monotheists do, push the humanism in Christianity even further: not only was Christ God incarnate, he was all of God.

One quickly notices an interesting parallel structure in Muggletonian thought. Just as the Fall was effected when the Serpent entered Eve's womb and transmuted himself into Cain, so redemption is effected when God enters Mary's womb and transmutes himself into Jesus. And just as it is asserted that God was entirely present in Jesus and present nowhere else in the universe while Jesus walked the earth, so it is said that Satan disappeared from the rest of the cosmos after dissolving himself in Eve's womb: Satan, thenceforth, was present only in fallen man. The extremism of such views, taken literally, is hard to credit; yet there is a remarkable humanism of a kind, as well as a strong narrative logic. Thompson's own assessment of the Muggletonian faith is sympathetic:
From a certain rational standpoint--the single vision of literalism--all religious symbolism may appear as absurd. The rational mind can do little more than stand outside it and comment on its consistency or inconsistency. From this standpoint I can see nothing more absurd in Muggletonian doctrine than in great and supposedly intellectually reputable faiths. . . . The Muggletonian doctrines of the Fall, the Two Seeds and the conception of Christ, combine literalism with a robust symbolic power. The dual impregnations of Eve and Mary give to the doctrine a certain symmetry, like a figure-of-eight, as well as intellectual consistency. . . . I will suggest that--a few peripheral doctrines apart--Muggletonian beliefs were logical, powerful in their symbolic operation and have only been held to be "ridiculous" because the Muggletonians were losers and because their faith was professed by "poor enthusiasts" and not by scholars, bishops or successful evangelists. (78-9)
This is well put and in large measure correct. Yet one would be curious to see how the sectarians defended some of their doctrines--for example their notion of Jesus being an incarnation of all of the Godhead--in relation to the text of the Gospels. The Gospels frequently quote Jesus referring to his "Father in Heaven" or to "our Father," and there is no implication in the texts that this father is somehow temporarily not there.

Although Blake was not a member of the sect--the poet, as Thompson says, "does not follow doctrine but turns it to his own account"--parallels between Muggletonian teachings and Blake's thought are clear. Across his long poetic and polemic career, Blake stressed many of the same themes the sectarians did. There is enough overlap in these themes to make Thompson's argument compelling.

The historian identifies four major thematic parallels between Blake and the sect, as follows: the repudiation of the Moral Law; the theme of Reason; the symbolism of the Fall; the prominent role given the Serpent. According to Thompson, it is the cumulative weight of the four that suggests not just a general Dissenting influence, but a specifically Muggletonian one.

Discussing the Moral Law and Reason, Thompson quotes the sectarian leaders at length, then shows passages where Blake is working with the same terms in much the same register. Thus Muggleton:
The law is not written in the seed of faith's nature at all, but in the seed of reason's nature only. Therefore the seed of faith is not under the law, but is above the law.
The law is imagined as a "flaming sword," and Muggleton writes in reference to the Fall: "Those cherubims which had the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the Tree of Life . . . had the same law of reason written in their seed." And: "[This] flaming sword . . . was that very law of reason which . . . is called the moral law, or the law of Moses."

There are passages in Blake that seem rooted in the same theology:
When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent
He forgd the Law into a Sword
And spilld the blood of mercys Lord. (93)
The Muggletonian condemnation of reason is very similar to that found in Blake. The rejection of temporal human reason as being "unclean" and "corrupted" goes all the way back to the founders of the sect, but, according to Thompson, becomes even stronger in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the sect felt its doctrines more threatened by Enlightenment thought. Thompson quotes a passage from Muggleton in which the founder identifies the corrupted force of human reason with Pilate: "his reason . . . delivered up the Just One to be crucified by reasonable Men." Thompson points to various parallel passages in Blake: "Christ & his Apostles were Illiterate Men. Caiaphas Pilate & Herod were Learned." "Rational Truth is not the Truth of Christ, but of Pilate. It is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil."

According to Thompson, Muggletonian discourse repeatedly returns to the theme of reason as Satanic principle, as a product of the Fall. And likewise:
Few themes recur with more consistency in the whole trajectory of Blake's work than Reason (often in association with the moral law) binding, constraining or corrupting life. (95)
The historian similarly treats the serpent symbolism in the Muggletonians and Blake, noting a striking echo in Blake's Book of Urizen. The sectarians had insisted on Eve literally being impregnated by Satan, the Serpent, who entered her womb and dissolved there, engendering Cain. In the Book of Urizen Blake writes of Enitharmon conceiving Orc:
When Enitharmon, sick, Felt a Worm within her womb
All day the worm lay on her bosom
All night within her womb
The worm lay till it grew to a serpent
With dolorous hissings & poisons
Round Enitharmon's loins folding. . .
Thompson writes:
[The serpent symbolism] continues in the convoluted couplings of serpents and females in the prophetic books; and it takes a new and powerful form (both visually and in verse) in the image of the 'mortal coil'--a literal serpent coil--which Christ sheds on the cross, shedding thus one of his two natures. (97)
Once again, with the serpent symbolism in the Muggletonians and Blake, one may be reminded of the ancient Gnostics. Here, however, the image of Christ shedding or defeating a serpent coil on the cross suggests a meaning directly contrary to that given the serpent in Gnostic thought. For the ancient Gnostics, the serpent in the Garden came to liberate man from an evil Demiurge. The knowledge given man by the Gnostic serpent is liberating; therefore thus knowledge may be associated with Jesus. It is quite the opposite for Blake and the Muggletonians.

Thompson's book ends with perceptive readings of three major poems: "The Divine Image," "London," and "The Human Abstract." Particularly in the case of "London," Thompson demonstrates the importance of historical understanding to the appreciation of Blake's poetry. His careful attention to the poem's movement and to the particular charge of Blake's choice of terms brings new clarity to the poem.

By a noteworthy historical coincidence, Thompson was working on his thesis of a Muggletonian influence on Blake during the same decades that saw the sect's last surviving member pass away. Thompson was trying to track down the Muggletonian archive, which he knew had been held in the church's reading room as recently as the early part of the century. As of 1939, however, there was no longer a church reading room and no way of knowing what had happened to the church itself or the archive. Making inquiries through the Times Literary Supplement, Thompson was eventually led to a Mr. Philip Noakes, who, it turned out, was most likely the church's last living member. In his home Noakes held an important part of the archive, including papers and correspondence going back to the 17th century.
It was a strange situation. Mr Noakes himself was the last repository of a 300-year-old tradition. He conversed with me freely about Muggletonian practices and doctrine, which had been carried down to him with a clarity (and, indeed, coherence) which reproduced their seventeenth-century origin. Mr Noakes frequently said: "We believe"--and yet one could not point to another believer. There was absolutely nothing of the fanatic or crank in his manner. He was always quiet and concise in his explanations, and I quickly formed a respect for him. (116)
It was through Mr. Noakes that the main body of the archive had been saved after the London building in which it was kept was firebombed during the war. A fruit farmer, Noakes packed the archive into eighty-some apple crates and stored it in a furniture depository, where Thompson and Noakes went together to collect it. The archive is now in the British Library, thanks to Thompson's scholarly persistence and Philip Noakes' faith. The last Muggletonian passed away in 1979.

One wonders, reading this brilliant and wide-ranging study, what the Muggletonian faithful would have made of Blake. Doubtless they'd have appreciated many of his poems, as they'd have found others opaque or aberrant. In any case, there seems to be no evidence of a Muggletonian response to Blake, even if, as Thompson would have it, Blake is in some measure a brilliant and eccentric response to them. To what degree Thompson's thesis is correct is hard to say; that it hits the mark in some fundamental way, however, seems obvious. Blake and the sectarians thought in much the same theological idiom.

Check E.P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast at

Monday, March 10, 2008

Garry Wills: What Paul Meant

[A more updated version of this article is at the site where it was originally posted: Garry Wills on Paul.]

There is no more Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman, but you are all one in Christ Jesus. Merely by belonging to Christ, you are Abraham's seed, the heirs he was promised. --Paul, Galatians 3:38-9

A number of years ago I undertook a project to compile a composite Gospel, a text or anthology of texts that would present in as few pages as possible the bare essentials of the Bible as I understood it (see The Durationist Gospel). Amazingly to many readers, I included nothing of Paul. After putting my anthology online, my In-box was hit with a handful of incomprehending letters: How could I not have included at least a few key Pauline passages?

Leaving out Paul entirely was rather outrageous, granted. But the Apostle to the Gentiles was important mainly to the historic movement of the faith, I argued; my efforts were to present the life and teachings of Jesus to non-Christian readers, not the life and teachings of Paul. This was a bit disingenuous. In fact I had other reasons for neglecting Paul, which I explained in a letter to one correspondent. I'll quote most of it here:

Though I take the authentic letters of Paul as authoritative, I don't believe they should be accorded the importance given the Gospels. Paul may have been the earliest writer of the New Testament, but the Gospels offer our most complete picture of Jesus the Christ.

Of course Paul's story and his role are crucial in the history of the revelation. It is Paul who taught us that we too, we Gentiles, are invited through Christ to become sons and daughters of Abraham. Nonetheless, Paul's giant role in the history of revelation should not make us forget one thing: Paul is small next to the Christ.

The nature of Paul's writing--his concern to address the problems of the churches, his exposition of theology--has had an unfortunate effect. It has somehow made Paul more quotable, more the model of Christian discourse and action, than Jesus himself. This pre-eminent importance given Paul's particular stresses, this constant quoting of Pauline formulas in instances when one should be thinking of Jesus, is a great error.
My problem with Paul was a matter of Pauline rhetoric and gesture more than anything. It was a matter of the central position these had come to occupy in Christian discourse, particularly in Protestantism. To be brief: I didn't appreciate the extent to which the spirit of Paul lorded it over a Church in which he was neither Spirit nor Lord.

The question remains, however: Can one tell the story of Jesus as Messiah without also telling the story of Paul? Probably one cannot. Those with a grudge against Paul--and there are many--once they begin to explain Jesus' importance, will most likely find themselves repeating one aspect or other of Paul's theology. Perhaps only Gnostic Christians could offer a doctrine of Christ that in large measure ignored the writer of Romans. And this may be one of the reasons many modern Christians find Gnosticism so compelling: it allows them, finally, to jettison Paul.

But would it really be Paul they are jettisoning? Might it not be the case that the Paul they want to separate from Jesus is not the real Paul?

Garry Wills' little book What Paul Meant offers a brilliant defense of the widely maligned apostle, arguing that our understanding of Paul is skewed by historical and doctrinal accretions. Wills addresses many of the common accusations against Paul--that he was sexist, that he was anti-Semitic--and convincingly makes the case that they are grounded either a) on texts not actually written by Paul, or b) on misinterpretations of what Paul was getting at. Wills doesn't need to resort to special pleading or rhetorical sleights either: one has the sense in this book of an eminently reasonable mind, and a very gifted writer, who has long struggled with Paul's meaning and is now, as concisely as possible, presenting his conclusions. Depending on the best current scholarship, Wills directs his readers through a more nuanced consideration of the communities Paul lived with and wrote to; it is on this basis that he brings Paul's thought to light.

Wills begins by recounting the reasons one may suppose Paul not to be a reliable source as regards Jesus' teachings. Truth to tell, these reasons are pretty formidable. Not only did Paul never meet Jesus during his lifetime, he never, in his formative period, spent much time in Judaea:
[D]uring the earthly career of Jesus, Paul was never in the same country with him. Jesus came from Judaea and never moved outside it. Paul came from Cilicia . . . and became a follower of Jesus in Syria . . . . Paul did not even go to Judaea for three years after he professed allegiance to Jesus, and he remained there for only two weeks. After this first visit, he stayed away for another fourteen years (Gal 2:1).
Aside from not spending time in the places where Jesus lived and where, presumably, Jesus' closest acquaintances and followers could be found, Paul even dared criticize those who had known Jesus: "Paul dared to disagree with and criticize the original Twelve; and Peter, their leader; and James the brother of the Lord, who presided over the gathering in Jerusalem." (2-4) It is hard to credit Paul here. Against the firsthand knowledge of Jesus' original Judaean followers, Paul's familiarity with Jesus and his teachings would seem suspect. How could he be expected to know what Jesus really taught? Who was he to take such a prominent role in spreading Jesus' message? And further: Who was he to interpret that message in ways that irked Peter and James? There are three reasons Wills can argue for Paul's reliability, two of them valid on historical grounds, one acceptable only on the grounds of faith.

Anyone who has done even a modicum of historical study of the New Testament knows that Paul's letters were written before the Gospels. This fact has led some, Wills among them, to argue that we find the most reliable portrait of the early Jesus movement in Paul. Wills is quite persuasive here, pointing out that the common idea of Paul as a new convert going forth alone to spread the good news to places that had never heard of Jesus is false. In fact, as his letters show, Paul typically worked and traveled in teams with other believers and, what's more, was usually visiting places that already had gatherings of believers before he got there. Wills draws out the implications of this: Paul's ideas of Jesus' teaching could not have come entirely from himself; he was not a lone instigator of faith, but part of a community of faith that was there before him. The various city gatherings that made up that wider community, because they accepted Paul, must have agreed with him on essentials. In fact, having spent so much time among them, he'd probably gotten many of his ideas from them. Paul is thus our earliest witness not simply to his own understanding of Jesus, but to the emergent Jesus movement as such. His letters to the gatherings are the only texts to survive the first decades of Christianity.

Aside from these two grounds for accepting Paul--on the one hand, his chronological priority; on the other, the fact of his being part of an already vibrant Christian movement--Wills, a Catholic, presents a third, one that will only be credited by the faithful: Paul was given his message directly by the risen Jesus himself. We have two sources in the New Testament that tell us of Paul's experience of the risen Jesus, the first being his own letters, the second being Luke's accounts of Paul's life in Acts. Wills argues that in cases of conflict between what is narrated in Acts and what Paul himself writes in his letters, we should normally accept Paul's own testimony first. That seems reasonable enough. In fact attentive readers will find hardly a single point on which there is not conflict.

Regarding Paul's experience of the risen Christ, Luke narrates the story three times in the course of Acts. The three versions do not agree among themselves, and none agrees with what we find in Paul. Specifically, as regards Luke's famous first account, in which Paul, on the road to Damascus, is struck blind by a bright light and hears the voice of the Lord--in fact if we read Paul's letters we note there is nothing in them to confirm any part of this story. To go from Paul's own version, there is no bright light, no blindness, and it wasn't a matter simply of hearing a voice: no, Paul writes of seeing the risen Lord and speaking with him. What's more, going from Paul's accounts, we may assume that he didn't only see the risen Jesus once, but many times.

Throughout Wills book and in much current scholarship, Luke is shown to be almost uniformly unreliable as a historical source. Scrutinize them from any of a number of angles, and his accounts fall apart. Luke, it is clear, was more concerned with the ideological effects of his writing than with any question of historical accuracy. Placed just before Paul's letters in the New Testament, Luke's Acts casts a heavy shadow over how most readers understand Paul, one from which Wills and the scholars he relies on have tried to extricate him.

Luke's presentation bears some of the responsibility for the fact that Paul has been considered anti-Jewish. Paul, as Wills explains, did not consider himself part of a new religion separate from Judaism; rather his faith in Jesus as Messiah was inseparable from his Jewish identity:
Paul never thinks of himself as a convert to some new religion. He preaches the Jewish God, Yahweh, and the Jewish Messiah. He preaches in synagogues. When he brings others to believe in Jesus, he teaches them only from the Jewish holy writings, which were the only 'Bible' of the day--his letters would not be joined together with later documents to create a separate 'New Testament' till long after his death. Though relations between Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not were becoming strained and combative in Paul's time, he says there can be no permanent break. History is moving fast toward its conclusion, and the only conclusion he recognizes is the one God has arranged for his covenanted people. 'Has God rejected his own people? Far from it' (Rom 11:1).

. . .

Other peoples are to be included in God's final plan, but the original people cannot be excluded. How this was to happen was mysterious, but Paul and his fellow believers in the Diaspora were hurriedly trying to work the matter out. (12-3)
And later:
For Paul there was no such thing as 'the Old Testament.' If he had known that his writings would be incorporated into something called the New Testament, he would have repudiated that if it was meant in any way to repudiate, or subordinate, the only scripture he knew, the only word of God he recognized, his Bible. (127-8)

Paul held that God had opened the blessing to the Gentiles in order to shame his chosen people, the Jews. "He is using the Gentiles, as he used Pharoah, to correct the Jews. For they will be corrected. Their defection is only temporary." (133) Wills quotes the Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl on this aspect of Paul's thought: "The Jews have been put 'on hold,' to bring the Gentiles up to speed." As Stendahl has it: "The Jews in God's plan had to step aside for a little while so that the Gentiles had time to come in." Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
All Israel will be rescued, as scripture says: 'Out of Zion comes the Rescuer, to rip away iniquities from Jacob, so my covenant abides with them, to remedy their sinfulness.' (11.26-27)
Paul speaks of the Brothers [i.e., believing Gentiles] as joined to the Jewish promise, history, and fate, not vice versa. As Krister Stendahl says, Paul always thought of Gentiles as 'honorary Jews.' (137)
Given the sustained effort we see in Paul to bring Gentile Brothers into the covenant while maintaining proper respect for his own people (those with whom God initially made the covenant), how did it come about that, first, relations between Jewish and Christian communities became so bitter, and, second, Paul himself was accused of being anti-Jewish? Historians of the period have recently come to a better understanding of this world-historical falling out. The main cause is to be found in the way the emergent Jesus movement destabilized relations between Diaspora Jewish communities and pagan Rome. Under constant threat of sanction by their Roman rulers, Jewish communities felt threatened by this charismatic new movement. But why?

One needs to understand how the Jews outside Israel managed to get along under Roman rule. There were Jewish communities in many cities across the empire and a large community in the capital itself. Unwilling to take part in pagan festivals and refusing as well to engage in worship of the emperor, the Jews were always potential targets for reprisal. Their strict food laws exacerbated things by placing yet another barrier between them and their pagan neighbors. Still, there was an important minority of pagans who admired Jewish belief and even attended synagogue and became supporters of the Jews. The number of these pagan enthusiasts, called God Fearers, or Theosebeis, has recently been found to be larger than previously believed. They formed an important bridge of goodwill between the Jews and the wider pagan culture that surrounded them. Not Jews themselves, they necessarily took part in Jewish belief as outsiders. Wills describes the situation of the God Fearers as follows:
[They were] inquiring and sympathetic non-Jews welcomed in synagogues, where they could study, pray, and contribute money or advice, without being (yet) circumcised. They might go on to full membership in the faith, or they might just help create goodwill for the Jews in their dealings with the 'pagan' world. The Romans of the first century were out on quest for spiritual knowledge, and they welcomed many Eastern sects or cults--principally that of Mithras. But among the exotic beliefs being entertained, the Jews had, for some, a special appeal, based on their monotheism (in a polytheistic world), their purity of life, and their ancient learning. (64-5)
Some scholars now believe that the ire that sprang up between Jewish communities and Christians was due in large part to the fact that many of the God Fearers were joining the Jesus movement. Once "in Messiah," as Paul put it, these previous pagan admirers from the outside of Judaism could consider themselves finally part of the Jewish religion without having to undergo circumcision or accept other ritual demands. What's more, they might even begin to criticize Jews who didn't accept Jesus, as such might, in their eyes, be considered out of step with the fulfillment of their own covenant. Given the always precarious position of Jewish communities under Roman power, the falling away of the God Fearers must have been felt as boding nothing good. Conflicts between Jewish believers in Jesus and non-believing Jews would likely become bitter; the same might happen between pagan believers in Jesus and non-believing Jews. Disputes would lead to small scale conflicts, which might attract the attention of the Roman authorities, which could only make matters worse. The Roman historian Suetonius records that the emperor Claudius "expelled from Rome the Jews because of continual disturbances provoked by Chrestus." It is now assumed that this name "Chrestus" is a misunderstanding on the part of the historian, and that the name in question was actually Christus. Probably, then, it was disputes over the Jesus movement that led to trouble in Rome's Jewish community, which, in turn, led the emperor to expel the whole lot from the city. The Jews were eventually allowed back in after Claudius' death, but the situation of Christians vis a vis the Imperium only became worse. The reign of the succeeding emperor, Nero, would see the persecutions in which, it is believed, both Paul and Peter died.

While Paul's work spreading the good news was successful, then, his effort to maintain harmony between God's chosen people, the Jews, and God's newly welcomed people, the Gentiles, failed dismally. This failure is echoed in many passages in the New Testament, where the bitter conflict between traditional Jews and those who believe in Jesus is projected back onto the story of Jesus' life, as we find it in the Gospels. To take but one of the most famous examples, we might recall the dialogue between Pilate and the crowd over the question of Jesus' execution:
They all said, 'Let him be crucified!' 'Why?' [Pilate] asked. 'What harm has he done?' But they shouted all the louder, 'Let him be crucified!' Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent. So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said, 'I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern.' And the people, to a man, shouted back, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' (Matthew 27:22-5)
Did this exchange ever occur? Only Biblical literalists believe it likely.

As argued above in relation to Luke, the polemical concerns of later New Testament writers cast a shadow over Paul that obscures our vision. But this is not the only shadow. Working in line with the scholarly movement known as the "new perspective on Paul," Wills sketches out how our understanding of Paul's theology was distorted yet again in the Reformation. Once more the insight of Krister Stendahl is crucial, as it was Stendahl, the Lutheran scholar, who put into question the stark Lutheran stress on "faith versus works." In a famous 1961 talk entitled "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," Stendahl suggested that Luther had misinterpreted what was at issue in Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul was not, as Luther interpreted it, insisting on our utter helplessness given the fact of sin, but only making the point that neither pagans nor Jews could avoid sin: neither side could accuse the other of being depraved.

Luther's misinterpretation of Paul came about through the fact that the German reformer did not appreciate the degree to which Paul's writing was taken up with the problem of relations between Gentiles and the Jewish Law. Without rejecting Mosaic Law as entirely as many Christians believed he did, Paul asserted that the Law was not binding on Gentile believers, and that in any case, as Wills puts it, "the claims of the prophets had to be fulfilled, making a religion of the heart replace that of external observances." Paul and Jesus agreed on the essential core of the Law. As Paul wrote, echoing Jesus: "The entire Law is fulfilled in this one saying, Love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal 5.14) Luther took the Pauline struggle with the problem of how Gentile believers related to Jewish Law and reinterpreted it as a contrast, in the life of every Christian, between "faith and works." Wills:
Luther was thinking in terms of the internal struggle of the individual sinner, not of the rescue of whole peoples, as Paul did . . . . Paul saw God's plan as dealing 'wholesale,' not retail. He was in a race with history, on his way to Spain, recruiting Romans in his effort to cover the whole Gentile world while he went back to bring the Jewish Brothers 'on board' this mission. He was counting on the Jewish Brothers to bring their countrymen to a realization that Jesus is the one they had been promised and were still hoping for. His message was always of and for his--and Jesus'--blood kin. (139)
Paul's message was metaphysically less radical than the Protestant interpretation of that message. For Paul, sin was not the utterly annihilating force it was in the mind of the late medieval monk Luther. The doctrine of original sin, we must remember, would not be formulated until the fourth century. Rather than focus on the individual soul--the soul so corrupted by the curse of Adam that no works could gain it any credit with a wrathful God--Paul addressed peoples who had strayed from the law: the Jews who had not kept Mosaic Law, and the Gentiles who had not kept the natural law God inscribed in their hearts. Straying humanity, according to Paul, is reunited with God on the bridge of the Messiah: the Jewish covenant is fulfilled through Christ, and the pagans are, through Christ, welcome to become God's children alongside the chosen people. According to Wills and other scholars of the "new perspective" movement, Paul's theology had a fullness and optimism one wouldn't expect looking back at it through the dark glass of intervening centuries: that first century when relations between Christians and Jews would sour; the fourth century when Augustine would write of original sin; and finally the fifteenth century when Luther would recast Paul's thinking on the Law as treating of the value of good works as such.

Wills has a lengthy central chapter on "Paul and Women," in which he discusses Junia, Prisca, Phoebe and other important women in Paul's circle. To go from the authentic letters, Paul obviously had great respect for these and other women in the movement, whom he calls "fellow workers in Messiah." One of them, Junia, Paul even refers to as a fellow "apostle," a fact which confused the medieval Church, which added an "s" to her name to make it masculine. Wills: "Only the most Soviet-style rewriting of history could declare Junia a nonperson" by dubbing her "Junias." "Paul believed in women's basic equality with men. . . . There is no more 'man and woman' as originally divided, since they are now united in Messiah--a concept Paul would expound when he said that the reborn Brother and Sister are 'a new order of being' (ktisis, 2 Cor 5.17)." (92; 89-90)

When quoting Paul, Wills uses his own translations, and they are some of the most finely balanced translations of New Testament passages I know of. An appendix gives his principles on this, telling us that "modern translations, even those that seem most 'objective,' distort what Paul was saying":
It is hard to avoid anachronism when we try to reenter Paul's world--to avoid terms that did not exist for Paul, terms like Christian, church, priests, sacraments, conversion. All such terms subtly, or not so subtly, pervert what was being said in its original situation.
Wills insists that we must "scrub away linguistic accretions on Paul's text" in order to "travel back into the Spirit-haunted, God-driven world of Paul in the heady first charismatic days of Jesus' revelation." (177) I couldn't agree more; anyone who reads Wills' translations along with his exposition will see firsthand the importance of this work of linguistic scrubbing. There have been other attempts to do with New Testament texts what Wills does here (Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia had similar goals in their version of Jesus' sayings; Reynolds Price's Three Gospels is also worth consulting), but none seems to me as successful as Wills. There is a hewing to the primal sense of the ancient text, combined with a respect for English, that one rarely finds. Robert Alter does this with the Pentateuch, but I know of nobody who has done it successfully with the New Testament. I can only hope Wills will come out with a complete edition of the Pauline letters, perhaps reprinting What Paul Meant as a lengthy introduction. Could one hope to see this brilliant translator take up one of the Gospels? For this reader, still, the Gospels are where the most pressing voice is to be found.

Though the issue will probably never be decided and though there remain strong arguments to the contrary, Wills has argued persuasively for the closeness of Paul to Jesus, whether that closeness be grounded in Paul's experience of the risen Christ or Paul's place in an authentic, and very early, Christian movement. How did the movement Paul was part of relate to the Jerusalem gathering headed by James? It is, as Wills points out, encouraging that Paul and Peter, regardless of early conflicts, ended as fellow workers in Rome.

Is it perhaps true that Jesus, as the Gospels tell us, went to Jerusalem intending to be crucified, that he conceived of his body as the new Temple, and that he, as Paul insists, knew himself to be a new bridge between God and men--first the Jews, as children of the promise, and second the Gentiles, as newly chosen?

Check What Paul Meant at

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Jewish Christianity Reconsidered

Ebionites and Nazarenes

Scholars believe the early Jewish Christian group known as the Ebionites took their name from the Hebrew word for "poor," the name thus meaning "the poor ones." There is evidence they themselves claimed the name derived from the fact of their having given all their possessions to the apostles. According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites rejected the virgin birth, believed that the Christ entered Jesus at his baptism, used Matthew's gospel only (or a version thereof), opposed Paul, followed Jewish law, had a great reverence for Jerusalem, and celebrated the Eucharist with water rather than wine. Of course, given that the Ebionites may represent one of the earliest Christian movements, rooted in the Jerusalem church, it is possible their beliefs are more authentically Christian (by which I mean: going back to Jesus himself) than the orthodoxy that soon began developing around the Mediterranean.

The later heresiologist Epiphanius (4th century) presents a slightly different and markedly less congenial picture of the Ebionites. But evidence suggests that this group, encountered by Epiphanius on Cyprus, might be an offshoot of Samaritan converts to Christianity. In any case, they are vegetarians, reject the prophets, and have adopted the apocalyptic Book of Elchasai.

The issue of vegetarianism in early Christianity is an interesting one, linked by Epiphanius to temple sacrifice, which the group he describes considered a perversion of God's true law. Writing in the early 4th century, Eusebius, often called the father of Church history, stated that both the apostles and James the Just were vegetarians. But the New Testament texts themselves don't anywhere imply vegetarianism, which to me seems to trump Eusebius' statements.

(NB: As for the other group often mentioned in conjunction with the Ebionites, namely the Nazarenes or Nazoreans, I am convinced by Petri Luomanen's recent arguments that no such group existed as an independent sect. The term Nazarene was, quite simply, the common term for Christian in the Semitic languages, thus early Catholic Christians would also have been called "Nazarenes." Luomanen's careful discussion, in any case, should show us how little we can know about either Ebionites or Nazarenes. See his article "Ebionites and Nazarenes" in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered.)

* * *

Jewish Christianity, Christian Judaism,
or neither of the above?

Review of: Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts. Ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe, Fortress Press, 389 pp.

In addition to Petri Luomanen's article on the Ebionites and Nazarenes, the volume Jewish Christianity Reconsidered contains a number of excellent scholarly contributions to the question: How Jewish was early Christianity? Not surprisingly, one of the points made by most of the scholars is that this question itself, formulated in this way, is anachronistic and misleading. "Judaism" in the first century was not what it became later and, certainly, "Christianity" wasn't either. But what was Judaism, and, more importantly for this volume, what was first-century Christianity as found in these Jewish communities?

The range of topics of the articles is well-suited to wrestling with this question. There is an article on the Jerusalem Church, one on Paul and his opponents, one (mentioned above) on the Ebionites; there are articles on many of the relevant New Testament books (Matthew, John, the Epistle of James, Revelation) and some of the apocrypha (the Didache, the Pseudo-Clementines). The volume gathers papers by contributors both secular and religious, and there are a variety of methodological approaches represented. Some of the stronger articles make judicious use of the recent work of anthropologists and social scientists, particularly as regards religious identities and how borders between sects are established and defined. In the following I'll present several of the articles.

First, however, it may be useful to clarify a bit what the roughest distinction might be between "Jewish Christianity" and "Christian Judaism." The issue, put in simplest terms, is one of where the stress is. A "Jewish Christian" would be an ethnically Jewish person who followed Jesus as Lord and who believed that Jesus' coming as Messiah inaugurated a new covenant: henceforth Torah could be set aside as the "old covenant." Paul was of course the major figure behind such an understanding, and this is the common understanding of most Christian churches. A "Christian Jew," on the other hand, would accept Jesus as Messiah but would not accept that this meant the obsolescence of Torah. Rather, according to this understanding, Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel's history as Messiah and the fulfillment of Torah as its greatest interpreter: that he was Torah's greatest interprete didn't at all imply that he came to replace Torah with a "new religion."

In his article on the Didache, Jonathan A. Draper, after explaining why the terms "Jew" and "Christian" are misleading, nonetheless admits that it is hard to avoid using them and goes on to characterize the Didache as an example of "Christian Judaism." His remarks make clear what this would mean in terms of the community at issue:
I would describe the Didache as "Christian Judaism." "Judaism" because its community considered itself a faithful group within "all Israel" and indeed stood in a tradition of Torah interpretation close to the Pharisaic-rabbinic party. . . . "Christian" because its community believed that Jesus was the Davidic messiah inaugurating the coming of God's eschatological kingdom, which could be "made known" to Gentiles as well as to Israelites, and which defined itself with regard to Jesus as "Christian" (12:4). "Jewish Christian" [on the other hand,] implies that there is an entity called "Christianity" in existence, separate from Israel, that provides the primary reference point of identity, and that ethnic Jews might belong to it like other ethnic groups . . . . The reality in the Didache community is the reverse: its primary reference point is Israel and the Torah, as these are affirmed and fulfilled in Jesus, and Gentiles may belong to this community only if they are prepared to respect the cultural world of Israel. (258-9)
These are the kinds of differences that inform many of the articles in the volume. I will present a few of them.

Warren Carter writes on the Gospel of Matthew and the question of whether it should be classified as a work of "Christian Judaism" or "Jewish Christianity." Like Draper, Carter finds such constructs inadequate. He presents the issues by comparing the views of A.J. Saldarini (who argues that Matthew should not be seen as representative of a new religion) and D.A. Hagner (who insists on just such newness). He assesses the strengths and weaknesses of both positions in relation to sociological theories of religious identity, questions of Matthew's christology, and the role of Torah in the text. Though finding problems in both positions, Carter concludes that Saldarini's understanding of Matthew is more persuasive than Hagner's: Matthew's Jesus doesn't annul either Torah or the pre-eminent place of Israel as God's chosen people; rather he is understood as "the definitive interpreter of the Law and Prophets." (178)

Raimo Hakola writes on the Gospel of John and how it may or may not be considered a Jewish Christian work. The article is of particular interest in that it shows the serious flaws in a position taken by much recent scholarship: namely that John reflects a Jewish Christian community reacting to persecution at the hands of an authoritative Judaism. Hakola argues that neither element in this current model of the origins of the fourth gospel holds up under scrutiny. I agree with him, and still suspect that John is most likely the product of a largely Gentile community--one however containing prominent Jewish members--seeking to establish its ground on the borders between Torah-observant Judaism and the wider Gentile world.

Patrick Hartin's excellent article on the Epistle of James is in large measure persuasive in its argument that the epistle represents a community that both considers itself fully Jewish and fully Christian. Hartin argues, however, against using these terms "Jewish" and "Christian" to characterize the community, as, once again, they are somewhat anachronistic. In Hartin's terminology, the writer of James is both a member of "the house of Israel" and a "devoted follower of Jesus." James refers to Jesus as Lord--a term previously used for God alone--but is more interested in Jesus' message than his person. Hartin convincingly shows that "the law" referred to throughout the text is to be understood quite simply as Torah, while Jesus is to be understood as Torah's most authoritative interpreter. He is also convinced that Jesus' mission as portrayed in Matthew is the same one we see in James; in both texts, we are dealing with the same understanding of Jesus: he has come to correct, instruct and perfect the house of Israel. If Hartin is right, such corroborative testimony to a single vision, coming from one of earliest gospels and the epistle associated with James and the Jerusalem Church, offers perhaps our strongest portrait of the historical Jesus.

These are a few articles in Matt Jackson-McCabe's well-conceived new book. With contributions from a dozen scholars, Jewish Christianity Reconsidered offers a multi-faceted introduction to recent debates on the beliefs of some of Jesus' first followers.

Check Jewish Christianity Reconsidered at

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Walking blues

Five-thousand years of civilization and these people still can't keep to the right of the sidewalk.

Monday, March 3, 2008

John the Baptist: Troublesome Translations

He said to the people who were coming to be plunged, "You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming fury? Change your ways if you have changed your minds." --Burton Mack's translation of Luke 3:7-8

Enough already with this John the Baptizer or John the Dipper or John the Plunger or John the Dishwasher. Let the man remain John the Baptist.

I agree that defamiliarizing biblical terms may be useful in some cases. Yes, it is instructive to point out that the New Testament Greek word we normally translate "church" actually meant, more simply, "gathering." Likewise that the Greek apostolos did not quite refer to what is invoked when we speak of "the Twelve Apostles": the Greek term meant simply emissary, and so Jesus sent out his "emissaries." That the tradition misconstrued apostolos as an office of sorts, a title applicable only to "the Twelve," has led to much confusion. Paul, after all, uses the term to refer to others besides the twelve, and used it to refer to the woman Junia, which fact was not well received in the medieval Church.

Another example can be taken from my epigraph above. I do dislike the use of plunge for baptize, but notice the last sentence: "Change your ways if you have changed your minds." In the NIV, this verse is rendered: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." It is the term repent or repentance that concerns me. Mack has done well to defamiliarize the concept because the English word repent carries a heavy baggage that may not really be there in the Greek, which meant something closer to change your mind or even, simply, turn, as Reynolds Price often renders it in his brilliant, stripped down translation of the Gospel of Mark:
After John was handed over Jesus came into Galilee declaring God's good news and saying "The time has ripened and the reign of God has approached. Turn and trust the good news."
This is Price's version of Mark 1:14-15. The NIV has it like this:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As one can see by comparing the passages, Price's goal is to reproduce the starkness of the original Greek. Such efforts may bring us closer to what the Gospels are telling us.

Yes, it is indeed useful to point out what Greek terms really meant in the Greek of the time. It helps us recognize how our own reading of Christian roots may be skewed by centuries of doctrinal accretion. But an integrity should be recognized in the English names of biblical figures, and Jesus become Yeshua does nothing, in my mind, to help us rethink Jesus' meaning. Even worse, John the Baptist become Yohannan the Plunger risks pushing the biblical text to impertinence. Baptism needn't be so defamiliarized, and a plunger, for me at least, is something to unstop a clogged toilet, not the man who was for a time Jesus' mentor.

As for a dipper, another term that has been used for John, I'm not sure if that's a constellation or a rich retiree wading into his lukewarm pool, or if it's maybe somehow meant to echo the adjective dippy, as in: "I think crystal healing is pretty dippy."

And what's the sense of a scholar like Marcus Borg renaming John the Baptist as John the Baptizer? Really what's the sense? Baptizer simply means baptist--using the word gains nothing in terms of striking readers with a more primal sense of John's practice. It's merely a cumbersome novelty.

We've learned much from recent scholarly translations of the Bible. But translators must always balance the need to bring out the strangeness of the ancient text against the need for a readable text in English. John the Jordanian Splasher? John the Remedial Swim Coach? Let the man remain John the Baptist.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Davenport and Urrutia: The Sayings of Jesus

Following are some paragraphs about Jesus from Guy Davenport's introduction to The Logia of Yeshua, a collection of Jesus' sayings edited and translated by Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia. Davenport's introductory portrait of the figure of Jesus is particularly poignant:
We do not yet know if Jesus spoke koine (common-market Greek) or Aramaic. The writers of the gospels thought that their best hope for disseminating the Good News was to write in Greek, so a Greek-speaking Jesus is what the world got.

There is a papyrus fragment of a lost gospel on which only a few sentences are legible. It was written in the first century and is therefore as close to Jesus' time as the canonical gospels. Jesus is on the banks of the Jordan, speaking to a crowd. Because of the tatters in the papyrus, the effect of trying to read it is like being present but being too far back to hear well. This must have happened often enough. "Blessed are the who? Did he say the swineherd was welcomed home?" Jesus says something about a dark and secret place, and about weighing things that are weightless. That sounds like him. But then we are told that he threw a handful of seeds into the Jordan and that they became trees bearing fruit in the twinkling of an eye, and floated away down the river.

This, too, is familiar in its unfamiliarity. If he could wither a tree, he could create one. If he could walk on water, he could make an orchard stand on it. If this gospel had been known before 1935, what wonderful paintings the Renaissance would have made of it--a Botticelli is easy to imagine. We also recognize the mythic accretion that had begun before the gospels were written. Jesus probably built a metaphor around the mystery of germination. In the retelling, and retelling, the metaphor turned into a magician's illusion.

His hearers understood hyperbole and parables as if by second nature. Faith should be so strong that it can move a mountain. Only a child would take that literally, and he kept asking us to become the kind of child who could believe it. He was remembered with this same kind of hyperbole that was native to the Hebraic imagination: They said he could magically multiply fish and bread (to praise his generosity), that he could walk on water, make the blind see and the dead come alive.

He wrote nothing. It is as if Heraclitus had not written a book but told his philosophy to grocers, fish-sellers, and housewives. True, like Socrates, who wrote nothing either, he was surrounded by disciples who understood that they were to carry on.

What they, or somebody, remembered were his sayings. When the gospels were written and by whom we do not know. "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John" are probably fictitious names. Jesus' life was already a myth (which can coincide with truth and be a more vivid and symmetrical presentation of truth). History, in a coup de theatre worthy of Beckett, swept away practically all traces of the historical Jesus. Our certainties are three: He joined as a man in his thirties a reform movement led by one John, called "the Dipper" as he had revived an ancient ritual of symbolically washing away sin by immersion in running water. He had a coherent and charismatic ethic that he preached along roads and in the open country for three years. He fell into the hands of the Roman colonial authorities, who reluctantly respected the charge against him that he was a revolutionary and disruptive presence. He was cruelly executed by being nailed alive to an upright stake with a crosspiece for the hands. Such a mode of execution is torture, not dispatch.

In the logia, we see only the eloquent, wry, amused, and angry Jesus; or, rather, we hear him. The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman's hair, neat beard, and flowing robes. History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard. A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler's hat, a caftan, or coat. His sandals are mentioned by John [the Baptist]. We can guess a witty smile ("Behold an Hebrew in whom is no guile!") and eyes capable of extreme sternness and kindness. That he could hold an audience entranced goes without saying.

Jesus was the real ironist Kierkegaard conceals behind the face of Socrates in his doctoral thesis. Irony was his constant mode; it awakens the reflective faculties. A father loves his wayward better than his obedient son. Finding lost things pleases us more than knowing where they are. Adhering strictly to the law is strangely to disobey it. Riches are worth nothing. Heaven is not up but inside. His ironic paradoxes and his often mystifying parables replicate the strategies of Diogenes centuries before.

His paradox that stung worst was that religion anaesthetizes religion. Any two people, loving and agreeing with each other, was church enough, as it had been for Amos seven hundred years earlier. Identities aroused Swiftian satire in him, for "the kingdom of heaven" recognizes no identity but human. . . .

In the logia we can scarcely discern the metaphysics and eschatology that the church, beginning with Paul, built around the vision Jesus had of a redeemed humanity. . . .
These lines are some of the most evocative I know on Jesus the man. Though there are things here I don't agree with, the presentation of Jesus as teacher and ironist is convincing. Davenport stresses an aspect of Jesus that the churches have far too much ignored in their epoch-making debates over the metaphysics of redemption and the theology of grace. Too often the leaders of Christendom have ignored Jesus' own words, the subversive and liberating potential in those words. Davenport speaks directly to this tendency to obscure Jesus under layers of metaphysics and church politics.

In The Logia of Yeshua Davenport and Urrutia hope to prod readers toward a new evaluation of Jesus' words. The Jesus that concerns them is not the Christ of later Christian theology, that ultimate Sacrifice we read of in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but rather Jesus the wandering teacher, Jesus the weaver of existential riddles and paradoxes. The logia in the book's title means "sayings," and in their translations Davenport and Urrutia approach Jesus' sayings the way a trained classicist would approach the fragments that remain of the Greek pre-Socratics. The main concern in both cases is the quest for clarity. The guiding questions are: What do the Greek words of the original really mean? What did they mean in their historical context? How shall we render these words in our modern English without imposing our own concepts on them (concepts that only matured much later)?

In his introduction Davenport reminds us that the earliest writings about Jesus were most likely collections of his sayings. Such collections were later used by the gospel writers when they came to write their stories of Jesus' life. It is because of this priority of sayings collections that scholars have long considered certain core sayings to be the most reliable parts of the gospels. Jesus' own words as recorded in the gospels have more chance of being accurate than any other words about him in those books: about what he did or where he went, for instance; about what others said of him. This relative reliability is a good thing for Christians: it means that when we read Jesus' sayings there is at least some likelihood we are reading his authentic words rather than words invented by oral tradition or the gospel writers themselves.

Anyone with a copy of The Logia of Yeshua will see that I've modified Davenport's above-quoted lines a bit. Everywhere in Davenport's book Jesus is referred to as Yeshua, the Semitic version of his name. It is the same in the introductory paragraphs I've quoted above. In reproducing these paragraphs here, however, I decided to replace Davenport's "Yeshua" with "Jesus," just as I've replaced his "Yohannan" with "John."

The reason Davenport and Urrutia chose to use the more correct Semitic versions of names in their book is not only that of scholarly accuracy. It's clear that one of the goals of their translations is to force the reader to appreciate the sayings of Jesus as if reading them for the first time. For in reading them as something new, it is thought, readers will find in Jesus' words things they hadn't noticed before. Davenport and Urrutia thus strive to defamiliarize Jesus' sayings: to make them new.

The Semitic rendering of proper names is just one strategy in this project of defamiliarization. Jesus is not to be the familiar figure we take for granted but rather "Yeshua," a man we perhaps don't really know. John the Baptist is in fact "Yohannan the Dipper," Jerusalem is "Yerushalayim." The mild shock of these more foreign versions of the names is intended to put an extra step between the reader and that all-too-easy familiarity with things known since Sunday school that Davenport and Urrutia see as the enemy of a more just appreciation of Jesus and his teachings.

I think much in Davenport and Urrutia's project is effective. In particular the notes show care in the work of isolating and reconstructing the sayings. Also they seek to translate Jesus' words in a clear and direct manner according to what the Greek actually says rather than according to later theological interpretations of what it should mean. The Semitic versions of names, however--their Yeshua and Yirmiahu and Yerushalayim--this I feel is unfortunate. It draws too much attention to itself and is no help whatever in interpreting the logia. Take the following logion for example, number 95 in their collection:
[Entering the temple, ordering the merchants to leave, folding up the tables of the money-lenders, driving out the sellers of doves, sheep, and oxen] Take all these things away! It is written in the book of the prophet Yeshayahu, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. And it was prophesied through Yirmiahu, Has this house, which is called by my name, become a cave for robbers? And the father has spoken through Zechariah: There shall be no more merchants in the house of the Lord of Hosts in that day.
I suspect that many readers will be too busy grappling with the novel versions of the names Isaiah and Jeremiah to dwell much on other aspects of the translators' rendering of this logion. The translation presents an unnecessary encumbrance. Notice too how the narrative framework of the gospels is creeping in: Davenport and Urrutia provide the context between brackets. One cannot blame them for doing so in this case, but one wonders then to what extent others of the logia might not be separable from their context in narrative.

Regarding the question of proper names, Davenport and Urrutia are certainly part of a trend among contemporary literary translators. But I am against this movement toward faithful transcription of names. In reading the Iliad I don't care to learn of the sulking of Akhilleus or the exploits of Aias. The heroes that I know are Achilles and Ajax. It's unfortunate that our best translator of Homer, Robert Fitzgerald, saw fit to ignore the tradition we have in English for the names of Homer's characters. And here before me on my desk I've a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii. The writer that the editor of this volume has in mind is known in my language as Dostoyevsky, or, at the very least, Dostoevsky. If one really wants to write of Aias or Dostoevskii or Kayin brother of Hevel and first fratricide, then one ought to do it in the languages in which these names were forged: Greek, Russian and Hebrew respectively. When translating into English one should show respect for traditional usage.

The semitically correct names in The Logia of Yeshua are not as much of a drawback as one might think given my carping. Thankfully the majority of the logia have no proper names mentioned. And the book is good too in its use of extra-biblical sources such as The Gospel of Thomas. The editors have shown a balanced approach to the question of what Jesus may actually have said. We are not given a discernibly gnostic Jesus, nor on the other hand an overly canonical Jesus. In their notes Davenport and Urrutia justify their decisions with a scholarly moderation. All except for note 98 that is.

In writing these lines I'm reminded of driving through the farmland of Wisconsin where I grew up. Every handful of miles one would come across a big red barn on the side of which would be painted in huge white capitals "JESUS SAVES." I'm wondering if Guy Davenport's barn down in his neck of the woods in Tennessee might not have huge white letters on the side reading "YESHUA IRONIZES." And I'm wondering too just what this slogan might mean, and if it can offer the world a notion of Jesus anywhere near as appropriate to him as that on our Wisconsin barns.