Thursday, July 30, 2009

Clay: Appendix 6: Cosmo di Madison: Unpublished Texts


(The following are notes based on a conversation with Cosmo di Madison. The conversation concerned the peninsula that juts out into Lake Mendota and that has been rather dully named Picnic Point by the revisionist authorities. At the time I wrote these notes, I put them in a folder with other things, neglecting to write them up into final form. The earlier Madison edition of Gospels from the Last Man was at the printers, and as I then considered it the definitive edition, the true history of Picnic Point has remained only partially revealed. I offer these notes now in an attempt to complete Cosmo di Madison's exposition of the meaning of the peninsula. The notes are mainly in the form of running quotes.)

"The peninsula is the last remains of a Stairway to Heaven built by the Phonecians, who were the Indians. It was built long before the English, Germans and French came to Wisconsin.

"When the stairway was finished, only the very pure would try to climb it. But if they made it to the top, they would realize they were not in the Heaven they thought they would find, but in the real Heaven, the Catholic Heaven.

"Many of them didn't know things rightly, but because of their just ways Jesus had pity on them and would let them come up. If their lives were accepted, they could be let in, after their souls were converted and properly purified.

"The ones who couldn't be accepted were thrown down the sides of the stairs. So the sides of the stairs became a fucking mess, and the Indians got the idea from all the blood and fucking carnage on the sides that the climb up the stairs was a challenge.

"But the ones that were thrown over just didn't lead acceptable lives. Or they stopped on the way up, which was fucking stupid, because if you were going to climb the Stairway you couldn't stop along the way. That was one of the rules. The ones who led proper lives could figure out the rules, but the ones who led evil lives had a different attitude about things.

"So it was a challenge. You had to be able to keep climbing, and it was a long climb.

"The Indians were in great shape, honey. It wasn't so hard for them to climb it. If they stopped along the way it was just because they wanted to waste time, or fuck around. But that was a mistake. Because they'd be sittin' there enjoying the view, scratching their balls, and all of a sudden an arm would come flying down from Heaven and whip them over the side. Shooo!" Cosmo di Madison mimics the arm whipping them over the side.

"It is hard for me to comprehend the Stairway," I say. "Why did they actually build it? It sounds to me like the Tower of Babel."

"God destroyed the Babel project because the people who built it were impure and had no chance of salvation. They even had the project of walking into Heaven with their weapons, which is stupid. I mean, how fucking stupid can you get? Can you picture those fucking idiots coming into Heaven with swords and spears? I mean: Duhhhhhh! Get some fucking brains, ya hear me? So the Tower of Babel was a fucking stupid project by a bunch of evil fucking idiots. The stairway in Madison was nothing like that. It began as a regular Phonecian building project. They didn't even want to reach Heaven at first, but just build a magnificent monument for the people. But God saw that the Indians had a chance for purity, that they led just lives, so one night He completed the stairway Himself. When they woke up, they could see the Stairway was different from when they left it."

"They could probably see it was much taller," I pointed out.

"The stairway became a Divine Work. It was a beautiful work in stone, it was a very solid structure. But you couldn't see that it reached all the way to Heaven. That was impossible to see just by looking at it. That's impossible. The upper parts were purely abstract."

"So the top of the stairway was abstract? In what way?"

"The top of the stairway was not a part of this material realm."


The Japanese singer Shuko Yanagisawa has much to relate concerning the gallantry of Cosmo di Madison. Apparently our man is not in the least put off by her stunning beauty and fame, and knows just the words and tone likely to win her over.

One night Shuko was talking with her friend Kyoko at Amy's. Cosmo di Madison slid into an empty chair at their table and began discussing this and that: the day's political events, his backbreaking police work, the reasons for the abnormal weather. From these less pressing topics, he deftly steered the conversation around to the following suggestion:

"Why don't you ladies just c'mon and join me up in my apartment? First you can heat me up some warm milk in the kitchen, and then you can both be my blanket. C'mon. What d'ya say?"

(Because of the modesty of Japanese women, I never expect to find out whether this line worked or not.)

On another occasion, Cosmo di Madison was talking with Shuko in the cafe when he suggested the two of them go outside together for a smoke.

"C'mon, Honey, let's go do some smoky-smoky," is how he put it.

It was outside, out of the earshot of the cafe crowd, that Cosmo di Madison expounded to Shuko the reasons for his attentions to her.

"Do you know why I like you, honey?" he asked.

"Why?" wondered Shuko Yanagisawa.

"I like you because you smell like Mama," said Cosmo di Madison, taking the last drag from his cigarette and flicking the butt in the gutter. "C'mon, let's go back in. It's fucking cold out here."

A few days after this declaration, Cosmo confided in me his love for Shuko. We were sitting together in his apartment.

"She's so sweet," he said. "I love her so much, Eric. She's such a honey. Ya hear me?"

"I hear ya, Doll."

"What am I gonna do when she goes back to Japan?" he wondered. "I don't know," I said. "Probably you'll have to stop off there when you're on one of your Asia missions."

"Hmmm," agreed Cosmo di Madison, thinking already about how often he may be able to manage it.

"I know what I'm gonna do!" he decided suddenly, standing up from his chair and beginning to pace about the room. "I'm gonna give her one of my diamond mines in Indonesia. She'll like that, won't she?"

"I hear Indonesia's very beautiful," I said.

"She'll love it! We'll give her the diamond mine, and then I'll make her my wife."

"Your eighteenth?" I asked.

"I'll treat her like a queen," he assured me, gesturing at some of the art treasures here and there about the room. "She'll be my queen, ya hear me?"

"She'll be very happy," I agreed.

Cosmo di Madison sat back down again, and his brows knit heavily, as if he had suddenly discovered some hitch in the plan. I waited to hear what it was.

"She's so sweet, Eric," he said. "Ya hear me? I love her so much." And so the conversation continued.


Cosmo di Madison usually gets on well with the Greeks and Moroccans who frequent Amy's Cafe. This should be no surprise, as many of them work undercover for him. But recently things don't seem to be going so well.

"I'm sick of these fucking Greeks and all these fucking Arabs around here fucking things up," he complains in obvious exasperation. "They should just go back to their desert and get off of my fucking oasis. Ya hear me? Get the fuck out of Cosmo's Central Wisconsin Oasis! I've had it with these people."

I ask Cosmo what went wrong.

"Basically they're not doing anything for me," he complains. "All they're good at is stealing my money, and I'm getting fucking tired of it. They're all crazy too, ya hear me? Bunch of fucking kooks."

"What are you going to do about it?" I wonder.

"What I'm gonna do is I'm gonna start the Freddy Kruger business again," he says decisively, referring apparently to the bogeyman from the horror movie Nightmare on Elm Street. (Though I've never seen this film, I remember the poster. It featured a leering, horrible old man with a scarred and greenish face and sharpened, seven-inch fingernails.)

I ask him just what it would mean to "start the Freddy Kruger business again." What, exactly, would Cosmo do?

"I am Freddy Kruger," Cosmo tells me. "I faked my death, and now I'm back. It's time for Freddy Kruger. Freddy Kruger all over again, ya hear me?"

The thought of it is truly scary. I am glad I am not one of Cosmo di Madison's enemies, as I would not like to see him in my own nightmares, which are bad enough as it is, what with sharks and spies and twisted, eroticized incarnations of certain of my elementary school teachers. The Freddy Kruger business. Would this then be Nightmare on Elm Street II? But now that I think of it, I seem to remember that there already was a Nightmare on Elm Street II. And a III as well. Hmm. So what Nightmare on Elm Street are we up to by now? How many more are we going to have to sit through? I don't know. But as I watch Cosmo snarling and practicing his Freddy Kruger, there at the chair across from me, I think just how lucky I am that I've never stolen a penny from this man, and I wonder if I should indeed warn Faisal, Antony and Mustaphah that it is time to pack their things and skip town.


(This and the following texts were written after my move to Taipei in late 1996.)

August, 1997. I hadn't seen Cosmo di Madison for nearly a year, and had only spoken with him a few times by phone during my absence. He proved maddeningly difficult to reach by phone from Taipei, and besides he was nearly always unwilling to speak frankly about things over the line. Upon my arrival in Madison, I rang him up.

"Hello, Cosmo, how have you been?"

"Is that you, Eric?"

"Yes, it's me, doll. I'm in town."

"Where are you?"

"I'm staying at a friend's place on the east side. I want to see you."

"Come downtown today," he said. "I'll be at Steep 'n Brew."

"I'll come down."

"Will you be there in about an hour?"

"An hour is fine. I'll be there."

"I love you, Eric."

An hour later I was sitting in the window of Steep 'n Brew drinking one of their iced coffees--still the world's best. Then I saw him stride up the sidewalk and enter the shop. Wearing longer hair now, an unzipped black leather vest with nothing under it, and skin-tight leopard-spotted lyotards, he was still the man I remembered him to be. We hugged warmly as the new staff looked on from behind the counter. Cosmo di Madison got an icy and sat down.

"How is it over there in China?" he asked me right off.

"It's fine," I said. "What has been happening here?"

"It's getting better there," he said. "It's because of me. You know it, don't you? The Chinese are starting to respect their ancient wisdom again. It's been hard, but they're learning. A lot of them forgot."

"Cosmo," I said, reaching over to touch the top of his head, "Cosmo, you're balding."

"What do you mean?"

"Look," I said, pointing to the bald spot. "Right there. You're starting to lose your hair."

"I'm not balding," he said with a smirk.

"What do you mean? Look!"

"It's not the same thing," he said, with a wave of his hand.

"What do you mean?" I continued--for he was grinning dismissively, not actually offended by my insistence--"How can it not be the same thing? You're starting to lose your hair."

"No, that's not it," he replied. "It's not the same thing."

"How is it not the same thing?"

"My wives always like to rub the top of my head," he said. "They like to rub my head every night. It causes my hair to fall out."

"Is this true?"

"You bet it is, doll. Of course it is. If you had women rubbing your head all the time like me, your hair would fall out too. Sometimes they even want to suck my head. I'm lucky I have any hair left. Ya hear me?"

The staff was standing there laughing at our discussion. They certainly didn't even know I was the Man's scribe: so much have I done for Madison, and I'm not even recognized there--there in the heart of town.

"It's good to see you, Cosmo."

"I miss you, Eric," he said. "But let's get some more icies." And then, turning to the two new staff members slacking next to the espresso machine: "Hey, what are you pumpkins doing standing there when my friend needs an icy! C'mon, hop to it! Two icies on the double!"


I was standing before the cafe counter with Cosmo di Madison. I took a crisp $1,000 Taiwan bill out of my wallet and showed him the smiling man on the back.

"Do you know who this is, doll?" I asked him.

"Of course I know who it is," he replied. "Grandpa was a great man."

He grabbed the bill out of my hand and showed it to the geeky staff person behind the register.

"Doesn't he look like me, Luke? Doesn't he look like me? I miss grandpa," said Cosmo di Madison sadly, turning back to me. "I think about him every day."

"I didn't know Chiang Kai-Shek was your grandpa, Cosmo," said Luke, surprising me with his historical wisdom.

"You knew he was. I told you so. You just forgot."

And then, turning to me: "These people don't listen like you did, Eric. It's not the same as when you were here. Ya hear me?"

And Luke, much to my chagrin, even tried to charge him for his iced coffee. Things were not the same indeed.


September, 2002. Phone discussion with Cosmo di Madison. Everything is pretty much as usual. He tells me he's having trouble getting money because his accounts are being siphoned off by his corrupt relatives and the woman impersonating his mother. He's also having trouble with the young George Bush.

"We give him the speech to memorize, and when he goes out and gives the speech he changes everything and fucks it all up."

I was happy to learn he was back in the cafe and that the staff treats him well. There were a few years when they made themselves part of the conspiracy against him.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Clay: Appendix 7

[. . .] I remember I had provoked the "Nietzschaen" Thom Smit into studying the Pentateuch by showing him a page from Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, a page on which Blanchot considers Nietzsche's reading of the Bible:

Nietzsche: "In the Jewish 'Old Testament,' that book of God's justice, we encounter men, events and utterances of such great vitality that neither Greek nor Hindu literature offers anything comparable. One is seized with fear and respect before these prodigious vestiges of what man once was, and one entertains sad reflections about ancient Asia and her advanced peninsula, Europe, which claims to incarnate vis-a-vis Asia 'the progress of man.'..." --"To have stuck onto the Old, this New Testament--this monument in every respect to a rococo taste--in order to join the two in a single book, the Bible, the Book par excellence: this is perhaps the greatest imprudence, the greatest 'sin against the spirit' that modern literature has on its conscience." What does Nietzsche mean here? He is speaking of style and taste, of literature, but his use of these words elevates what they convey. And I take not of this: he mocks Greek civilization no less than Christian. Elsewhere, Christianity is praised for having been able to maintain respect for the Bible, even if it did so by forbidding that the Bible be read: "The way in which respect for the Bible has been maintained on the whole up until our own time constitutes perhaps the best example of the discipline and cultural refinement that Europe owes to Christianity: books of this profundity--receptacles of an ultimate significance [my emphasis]--need to be protected by a tyrannical exterior authority in order to be sure of that duration of several thousands of years which is necessary for exhausting their meaning and comprehending it fully."... Likewise, in another book, but in practically the same terms: "The Old Testament is really something! Hats off to the Old Testament! Here I find great men, a heroic landscape and one of the rarest things in the world, the incomparable naivete of the robust heart; and furthermore, I find a people."
There are many things in these passages I hold dear. One of them is the definition of Europe as an advanced peninsula of ancient Asia. That suggests a notion of Europe that I have long held to. Another is the valuation of Jewish literature over that of the Greeks. A third is Nietzsche's recognition of the importance of the Church's authoritarian role in maintaining a respect for the Bible, even, as Blanchot paraphrases, if that meant forbidding that the Bible be read.

Nietzsche's taste in letters has always been oddly in harmony with my own. Some of the texts that sent the German philosopher into transports of admiration: Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the Old Testament. Here are the texts that have most sent me into transports.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Clay: Appendix 8: The Sacramentality of Writing

God formed man of the clay of the ground and then breathed into him the breath of life. The clay of the ground as material and the breathing in of the breath of life: these have been the focus of most concern in our literature and speculation. And the question of what the breath of life may be has been recurrent. But the question of the forming, the verb forming, hasn't raised our attention in the right way. And yet everyone knows--the Sumerians and Babylonians knew--that the pressing of marks into the clay was the crucial part of this forming. It was the pressing of marks, the right marks, that gave the clay the dignity needed for its reception of the breath of life.

The clay as result of this writing is clay that may receive the breath of life if only this breath be given it.

It is in this sense originally that writing is a sacrament.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Clay: Appendix 9: Inédit

Adam was a short beast, with a thin line of hair down his back, like a mane. Eve had a thin line of hair down her back; it was like a mane.

In those days, when you came into town, a stranger, you could always recognize Adam and Eve, because they were the only ones without navels.

The first writing was by Cain, who started by drawing pictures on his parents' bellies. Their bellies were smooth, and had no navels. Cain would ask them to lie back by the fire, and close their eyes, and he would draw. When he was done, they would open their eyes and look at what he had drawn.

Once Cain drew an unheard of thing. It was such a thing, that when God saw it, he let it stay on Eve's belly as punishment. God punished Eve for the evil sport she had fallen into. It could not be washed away, but stayed on Eve's belly. For they had fallen into an evil sport.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jesus and the Ebionites: Animal Rights in the Early Church

Keith Akers: The Lost Religion of Jesus, Lantern Books, 256 pp.

In each of the four Gospels we read of Jesus entering the Temple and overturning the tables of the money changers. In John's account, it is added that he drove out the sheep and cattle. Mark and Matthew say he overturned the benches of those selling doves. Christian tradition suggests Jesus was reacting to the fact of the money changers and others having made a business of the Temple, that the spirit of prayer and worship had taken second place to a desire for profit. But is it possible Jesus' action was an attack on sacrifice as such? That the problem was not the profit being gained from selling sacrificial animals, but the whole machinery of sacrifice per se? Is it possible Jesus taught, as the Ebionites later did, that animal sacrifice was a corruption of Mosaic law and therefore must be ended?

In The Lost Religion of Jesus, Keith Akers seeks to demonstrate that ancient Jewish Christians such as the Ebionites were closer in doctrine to Jesus than the largely gentile Christianity that developed under the influence of Paul. Akers musters a barrage of hard-hitting arguments to this end. If he's right, Jesus considered himself a prophet whose calling it was to bring Israel back to God's true law, a law still present in the scriptures but burdened down and obscured by false additions made over the centuries by scribes. In this version of Christianity, Jesus and his followers would have stressed not only voluntary poverty and pacifism, both of which we find in the New Testament accounts, but also opposition to the Temple elite and the practice of animal sacrifice. Attendant on this opposition to sacrifice, Jesus and the apostles would also have been vegetarian.

To most modern Christians the argument that Jesus and the apostles were strict vegetarians sounds somewhat tendentious or even silly. But in fact it is not. Some of the earliest writings refer to central Christian figures as vegetarians, not least of which James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. As Akers writes:

[A] list of those described as vegetarians reads very much like a Who's Who in the early church: Peter (Recognitions 7.6, Homilies 12.6), James (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23), Matthew (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 2.1), and all the apostles (Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 3.5). (132)
Akers adds to this an impressive list of church fathers who also practiced vegetarianism, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Naziance, John Chrysostom, Jerome and Tertullian. There seems little doubt that many in the early church believed a holy life meant abstention from meat. But why? And why didn't later Christianity maintain even a trace of this early practice?

Paul famously argued that no food is unclean of itself. Akers interestingly points out that the apostle was not only arguing against believers who insisted on a kosher diet. Rather, it seems, he was also arguing against a sizable contingent of Christian vegetarians. Paul writes: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables." (Rom. 14:1-2) Obviously the "weak men" referred to here are not simply following a kosher diet, they are vegetarians. Given that that the Epistle to the Romans was most likely written in the 50s of the first century, this line proves the existence of vegetarians among the very earliest Christians. If Akers is right, it is just this contingent that most closely followed the teachings of Jesus.

Akers insists that ancient Jewish Christianity is most characteristically represented by the sect that called itself the "Ebionites" (Hebrew "the poor ones") and argues that this sect, based on what we can learn of them from remaining sources, was strictly vegetarian.

Akers' starting position, namely that we are likely to find a more accurate picture of Jesus in the teachings of the Jerusalem church and the Ebionites than in Paul, is eminently reasonable on the surface. Jesus, after all, was a Jew among Jews, and Peter and James knew him during his lifetime, whereas Paul did not. What's more, the churches founded by Paul consisted largely of gentile believers, while the Jewish churches, represented by the Ebionites, would have had a direct cultural and religious link back to the original apostles and Jesus. Akers develops his argument on a number of fronts: he surveys the often critical portrayal of animal sacrifice in the prophets, considers likely differences between Jerusalem and Galilee as regards ritual observance, and offers close readings of New Testament texts. He even, in a later chapter, discusses the portrayal of Jesus in Muslim sources, and speculates, not unreasonably, on what may be Ebionite echoes in Islam. On the whole he shows an impressive ability as historical sleuth, particularly apt at noting connections between hints in the New Testament and what can be gleaned from heresiologists like Epiphanius. But there are problems.

Akers' first problem concerns how much we can know about the Jerusalem church or the Ebionites. Though several verses in the New Testament might be construed as arguments for the existence of vegetarianism, among them Paul's line quoted above, there's certainly no smoking gun as regards Jesus' own dietary practice. The Gospels, after all, show him eating fish and taking part in the Passover meal, while different parables refer unproblematically to eating meat or fishing. Somewhat conveniently, Akers neglects the fact that Peter and others of the first apostles were fishermen, from families of fishermen. Though he offers arguments that put the Gospel references to meat eating in question, and his arguments are not bad, still the weight of references to meat eating mean the case cannot finally be substantiated. Akers' strongest suit is in his general assertion that history is written by the winners and that, obviously, the Pauline camp won.

What can we know of the Ebionites? The most complete portrait we have comes from the 4th century work of the heresiologist Epiphanius. As usual with the heresiologists, there are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of what he tells us, or, in this case, the authenticity of the "Ebionites" Epiphanius got his information from (cf. the article by P. Luomanen, "Ebionites and Nazarenes," in Matt Jackson-McCabe ed. Jewish Christianity Reconsidered).

Nonetheless, if we accept Akers' general portrait of the Ebionites, and if the group, as he suggests, represented the purest doctrinal and practical continuation of Jesus' work, this would mean that:
1) Jesus was in favor of adherence to Mosaic law, but believed that much in the written law, being the work of mere scribes, was invalid;
2) Jesus preached voluntary poverty;
3) Jesus was a strict pacifist; followers were not to take part in military action of any kind;
4) Jesus was critical of the Temple and vehemently against animal sacrifice;
5) Jesus was a vegetarian.
According to Akers, the crucial sticking point, the element that meant the two paths, Ebionite and orthodox, could not converge, was the last one: the insistence on vegetarianism. Jewish and Gentile Christians may have been able to overcome their different assessments of the validity of the law, but the Jewish Christians' insistence on refraining from "blood" of any kind--i.e., in Akers' understanding, the killing or consuming of any creature--meant the two groups could not finally tolerate each other. It seems to me that a strict adherence to Mosaic law would have been a more serious sticking point vis-a-vis Pauline Christianity than vegetarianism.

Did Ebionite teachings really go back to Jesus and the apostles? Further, were the "Ebionites" as we see them in the heresiological record really representative of Jewish Christianity? It's hard to be certain. The earliest mention of the Ebionites comes from the second century (Irenaeus) and the most complete descriptio of them comes from the fourth (Epiphanius). Neither of these is a Jewish source. What's more, against these second and fourth-century texts, the letters of Paul and the Gospels were all written in the first century. Had Jewish Christianity really been as Akers describes it, one suspects it would have left a more distinct mark on the New Testament, regardless of gentile redactions. Though Akers makes much of the above-quoted verse from Paul and James' decision at the Jerusalem Council, do these really support his thesis of an unbroken tradition of vegetarianism going back to Jesus?

In fact there are places where Akers' book is hampered by heavy-handedness, where an obvious tendentiousness undermines the good work he does elsewhere. This almost always occurs in regards to the major axe he grinds--namely the vegetarian argument. The clearest instance of such heavy-handedness is in Akers' attempts to explain James' verdict at the Council of Jerusalem.

The story of the Council is related in Acts, how Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss the problem of circumcision with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. At issue was the question of whether or not pagan Christians needed to be circumcised and, by implication, to what degree they needed to follow Mosaic law. After some discussion James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, gave his verdict: pagan converts need not be circumcised, but must follow the law on at least four points. They must
. . . abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:20)
According to Akers, this verse is somewhat mysterious. Unchastity is clear enough, he says, as is "pollutions of idols"--the latter obviously being a prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols. But the reference to "blood" Akers finds less than clear. In his understanding, it is most likely a prohibition against killing either animals or humans: a prohibition against bloodshed, and, implicitly, in terms of diet, against eating meat. But what of "strangled"? Here Akers is quite ingenious. Since, as he claims, animals weren't strangled in the ancient world, it might very well be a prohibition against eating fish, as fish normally died by "strangulation"--i.e., once out of the water they are unable to breathe! This, I believe, is too ingenious by half. When one looks at the final results of Akers' reading, he has managed to make three of James' four injunctions into arguments for vegetarianism, almost as if James were saying that pagan converts needed to abstain from:
1) unchastity,
2) meat sacrificed to idols,
3) the meat of fish, and
4) meat
It's hard to believe the leader of the Jerusalem church would find it useful to be so redundant.

James' verdict is not nearly as mysterious as Akers implies. The prohibition against "blood" is clear in the context of Judaism. Weneed only turn to various passages in Leviticus, or to the following in Deuteronomy:
When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, "I would like some meat," then you may eat as much of it as you want. If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want. Eat them as you would gazelle or deer. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat. But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right in the eyes of the LORD.(12:20-25)
Blood was considered the life principle of the animal, and as such belonged to God. It was not on any account to be eaten. This did not, however, mean animals could not be slaughtered for their meat. James' prohibition against eating things "strangled" also relates directly to the need to avoid consuming blood: if an animal is strangled the blood remains in the flesh. James' prohibitions are not, then, arguments for vegetarianism or animal rights.

Akers does have some interesting things to say on the prophets' frequent condemnation of animal sacrifice, and indeed one can find texts critical of the practice in Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea. This suggests a longstanding debate between the priesthood, which naturally stressed the importance of its centralized cult, and the prophets, who cried out for the good works of justice and mercy and railed against the high living of the elites (priesthood and aristocracy) centered around the Temple. But Akers' suggestion that these prophetic denunciations stem from of a sense of animal rights is harder to substantiate. Were the prophets advocating strict vegetarianism? It doesn't seem likely.

The second bit of tendentiousness in Akers' book comes in the writer's depiction of Paul. For instance in chapter 10 we read:
Paul makes a number of disturbing statements often quoted to justify the repression of women and slaves that contrast with the social egalitarianism evident in the words ascribed to and behavior of Jesus. Women should keep silent in church, should keep their heads covered, and obey their husbands: "wives, be subject to your husbands," says Paul, and follows this up with "slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters". . . . (141)
Akers knows very well that most such statements (as is the case with the two direct quotes here) come from letters that are contested, which is to say that many scholars believe the words in question don't come from Paul at all. It is mere mudslinging to use things written in Paul's name to make the apostle look bad. Pseudo-Paul is not Paul: the apostle's authentic letters show an extraordinary respect for women, as Jesus also did, if the Gospel accounts are to be believed.

Akers' thesis has two parts: that Jewish Christianity was the true bearer of Jesus' teachings and that Jewish Christianity was uniformly vegetarian. To support the latter assertion he depends mainly on texts from the heresiologists, supplemented by (not always convincing) readings of biblical texts and by passages in the Clementine writings (the Homilies and Recognitions). His argument also gets substantial help from the fact that many of the early church leaders were depicted by ancient writers as vegetarians. If one sets aside the New Testament then--Akers only finds a single verse in Paul to prove vegetarianism existed in apostolic times--the portrait one gets is of an impressive amount of evidence for the importance of vegetarianism in the early church, especially in Jewish Christianity. But there are omissions in Akers' pool of evidence, omissions that don't make sense if he's really trying to piece together a profile of Jewish Christianity. What of the Epistle of James? What of the Didache?

Though probably not written by James himself, many scholars believe the Epistle of James is a product of the community of James and as such consider it an important witness to Jewish Christianity in the New Testament. Why doesn't Akers even mention the book? Is is perhaps because there is nothing it in related to Akers' dietary concerns?

As for the Didache, it is the only surviving complete work of Jewish Christianity outside the New Testament. It is dated quite early, around the end of the first century, and some scholars believe it was composed in the same community that composed Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels. For Akers, the Didache should be essential evidence. Why doesn't it get so much as a footnote in his book? Again, one suspects it might be because the text doesn't offer ammunition for Akers' vegetarian argument. In the Didache's sixth chapter one finds the following:
See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.
As this passage may very well refer to vegetarianism, one might expect Akers to mention it somewhere in his book. But note: the passage also seems to be exhorting the believer to "do as well as you can" with dietary holiness--i.e., try to abstain from such and such food, but if you cannot, so be it. Is such flexibility regarding diet anathema to Akers, who has staked his case on the Jewish Christian movement's strict vegetarianism? Why is the Didache left out of Akers' consideration of the Jewish Christian record?

These are some of the problems I find in Akers' arguments. But I don't want to give the impression his book is not worth reading. Though flawed, The Lost Religion of Jesus is an accessible and wide-ranging treatment of the issues, biblical and otherwise, that surround the question of Ebionite Christianity and the role vegetarianism may have had in the early church. Akers is an able historical sleuth; though not a professional scholar, he's probably made some original contributions to the ongoing debates about Jewish Christianity. His arguments in the last chapter for vegetarianism are, in my view, on a solid ethical footing. That Jesus and the first apostles were strict vegetarians--of this I'm not persuaded, though I suppose it is at least a possibility. In any case, one could certainly be a Christian and believe the things Akers stresses as central. There are Christians who reject the the doctrine of the Trinity and others who reject Paul's theology. As I've written elsewhere, I believe the minimum credo defining whether one is a Christian should be something like: "Jesus is God's Messiah." In the present case, it would be possible to reverence Jesus and the Gospel depictions of him while believing, like Akers, that the Gospels as we know them have had a major theme edited out: Jesus' vegetarianism and opposition to animal sacrifice. I myself, however, remain unconvinced.

The letters of Paul and the Gospels are imperfect documents, but I believe they were composed in large measure under the real influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul had visions of and discourse with the risen Christ, and Paul's theology, though again imperfect, is based on the impact of his experiences. For me the New Testament is not, then, the attempt of charlatans to steal Christianity from the Jews, but instead the written record of a real outpouring of the Spirit, an outpouring meant to bring the Good News of the Messiah to the world. This is not a repudiation of Judaism, but a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham: that all nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed, i.e., through the Jews (cf. Genesis 12 and 22). The degree to which Paul thought in Jewish terms has been documented in recent decades by scholars in the New Perspective on Paul movement. Akers could strengthen his appreciation for the depth (and the deep Jewishness) of Paul's thought by considering some of this work.

Check The Lost Religion of Jesus at

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Added August 7, 2009: Keith Akers offers a detailed online response to some my comments under the title "The Gorilla in Early Christianity." I agree with him that all of us, when approaching ancient texts, are gorilla-blind on a number of levels, meaning that we always underestimate the challenge of interpretation. In his post he expands on the arguments in his book. I definitely think his case is more strongly made. Am I convinced? I would say there's much that's persuasive, but that, again, there is a specificity and tradition related to the prohibition against "blood" that makes it hard to agree that Akers' interpretation is right. There is also the fact that this prohibition against blood is recorded in the Talmud as part of the Noahide laws, i.e., those laws Jews traditionally said Gentiles must follow in order to be considered righteous (at least as far as any Gentile could be considered such). Arguing for Akers' interpretation however are Jesu,s' statements in Matthew that his followers must exceed the righteousness of the tradition: "You have heard that it was said . . ., but I tell you . . . ."

Many thanks to Keith for his comments.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Lion from Piraeus

Visiting Venice recently I found time to take a morning walk to the gates of the Arsenal. I wanted to see the stone lion with the Scandinavian runes carved into its shoulders, the Greek sculpture known as the Piraeus lion. Though I'd long wanted to see inside the Arsenal also--the medieval mother of all shipyards--I knew it had become off limits. I set out to see the lion.

Sculpted of white marble, the Piraeus lion is one of two placed on either side of the Arsenal's entry. Around nine feet tall, the lion is a striking example of the vagaries of history.

The Piraeus Lion.
Originally stationed at the Piraeus harbor near Athens, the two lions were transported to Venice in 1687 by Francesco Morosini after a successful campaign against the Turks. From the beginning it was noticed that one of them had strange markings carved into its shoulders, apparently some kind of writing. Nobody knew the meaning of the writing, however, or even what language it was. Only much later did scholars recognize the markings as runes. It was a puzzling discovery. What were Scandinavian runes doing on a marble lion taken from a Greek port? The inscribed words themselves would answer the question. A guidebook gives one translation of the inscription on the lion's left shoulder:
Hakon, combined with Ulf, with Asmund, and with Orn, conquered this port. These men and Harold the Tall imposed large fines, on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk has been detained in distant lands. Egil was waging war, together with Ragnar, in Romania and Armenia.
According to the runes on the lion's other shoulder, it was Harold the Tall who ordered the inscription, against the wishes of the defeated Greeks. At the time he and his cohorts were working as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor.

Proof once more of what my grandmother used to say: Those Vikings didn't dress very well, but they sure got around. In an essay about the Scandinavians and their ambiguous conquests, Borges makes a similar point, underlining their odd individualism, how they covered vast territories and raised settlements, only to, culturally speaking, disappear:
Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro conquered lands for their kings: the Vikings' prolonged expeditions were individual. . . . After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language and were speaking French. . . .
Runic graffiti can still be seen on the marble balustrades of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, carved ten centuries ago by Vikings who made up part of the Byzantine emperor's imperial guard. One imagines the Northern warriors standing through the Byzantine liturgy, understanding none of it. Restless and bored, one of them begins to scratch in the marble with a knife or the edge of a buckle: Halvdan was here. That, at least, is what the longest bit of graffiti says.

Borges writes of runic inscriptions "scattered across the face of the earth," of Leif Eriksson's expedition to North America and the failed Viking settlement, of the Vikings' books--particularly the Icelanders' great literary tradition of the sagas, how in the twelfth century they developed an advanced art of narrative fiction, a hardboiled realist form whose like wouldn't be seen again in the West until the 19th century. This literature remained a phenomenon entirely of Iceland, utterly without influence on the other people's of Europe:
These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel--the art of Flaubert, the Norman--and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.
But think of the poor lion. Sculpted to guard a Greek port, it ends up getting inscribed upon by northern henchmen: crooked barbaric characters are chiseled into its once proud shoulders. Later it's dragged to Venice by yet another conqueror, this one Italian. Finally the lion has to suffer being photographed in the morning light by another barbarian of sorts, this one an American in sandals wielding a digital camera made in Japan. The greatest indignity yet?

The Greeks who carved the lion might be glad to know that my camera later malfunctioned and the photos of its shoulders, as well as all my other photos of Venice, were erased. One-hundred-fifty carefully shot images gone in an instant. It's called technological progress.

Inscription on the lion's right shoulder.
Though the runes on the lion's shoulders are much weathered, they are still recognizable, after all these centuries, as runes. The memory chip in my camera however is empty, utterly void and empty. And as for this page you're reading--if you don't print it out it and store it safely, if you don't scratch it into copper or carve it into stone, it will likewise disappear as soon as the Internet crashes along with our own overproud civilization. It's called technological progress.

Eric Mader,
September, 2003

[Photos from various Internet sites; Borges' essay, "The Scandinavian Destiny," is in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger.]