Ancient History: The Undead Edition

Halloween is my favorite time of year for various reasons: Scary movies, costume parties, overloading on tons of sugary goodness.  But I am also reminded about the fact that many of our spooky superstitions–vampires, ghosts, and werewolves–have come to us from thousands of years ago.  That, in and of itself, is a little freakishly cool, don’t you think?  That people, thousands of years ago, living in Athens or Rome or Alexandria, had the same basic fearful ghouls that we shiver over today.  Compiled here in this post are a few examples from Classical, Jewish, and Christian sources that involve tales of the haunted, the horror-ible (See what i did there?  Horror+horrible! I’m so clever), the frighteningly cool.  Enjoy… if you DARE!  Muahahahaha!

The Walking Dead

“If thou dost not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will smash the doors of the Nether World, I will place those above below, I will raise up the dead eating and alive, so that the dead shall outnumber the living! (Ishtar to Anu, Epic of Gilgamesh, VI.94-100)

And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth. (Zechariah 14.12)

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.52-3)

Ghosts and Specters

 Disembodied now, I hover as a wraith over my mother’s head, riding for three long days upon the air, three hopeless days of suffering and fear since she left Troy and came to Chersonese. Here on the shore of Thrace, in sullen idleness beside its ships, the whole Achaean army waits and cannot sail. For Achilles’ ghost appeared, stalking on his tomb, wailing, and stopped the ships as they stood out for sea on the journey home. He demanded my sister Polyxena as a prize, the blood of the living to sweeten a dead man’s grave….On this day destiny shall take my sister down to death. Ah you, poor mother, you must see your two last children dead this day, my sister slaughtered and my unburied body washed up on shore at the feet of a slave. These were the favors I asked of the gods below—to find my mother and be buried by her hands—and they have granted my request. Now I go, for there below I see my mother coming, stumbling from Agamemnon’s tent, still shaken by that dream in which she saw my ghost. (Euripides, Hecuba 30-54)

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.”And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day.Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. (1 Samuel 28.11-19)

 Prophets and Curses

 Germanicus’s conviction that he had been put under a spell by Piso aggravated the disease. They dug up the floor and the walls and found remains of human bodies in them, spells and binding curses, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on lead tablets, ashes half-burned and smeared with gore and the other evil devices by which it is believed that souls are devoted to the infernal powers. (Tacitus, Annals 2.69)

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (1 Kings 2.23-5)

 The Mummies Return

The old [Egyptian] woman, believing that she was now free of hindrance and was not being watched, first dug a pit and then kindled a fire on one side of it. She laid out the body of her son between the two and took a ceramic bowl from an adjacent tripod…. She cut her arm open, wiped up some of the blood with a laurel branch, and threw it into the fire. She did some other strange things in addition to these and then bent over the corpse of her son and sang some incantation into his ear. She roused him and compelled him to stand upright by her [witch]craft…. She was inquiring whether her remaining son, the brother of the dead man, would return home safe and sound.

The corpse made no reply, but just nodded, allowing its mother the insecure hope that the response was favorable. But then all at once he fell headlong onto his face. The woman rolled the corpse onto its back again and would not finish with the interrogation….

While the old woman was doing this Chariclea [the Greek ingenue] earnestly begged Calasiris [the Egyptian priest] that they should approach the scene of action and make an inquiry of their own…. He [Calasiris] declined; it was not holy, he said, even to watch the rite, but he suffered it under the constraint of circumstance. It did not befit a prophet either to attempt or to attend such rites. Prophets derived their divination from lawful sacrifices and pure prayers, but the impure and earthly actually derived their divination from circling around corpses, just as, by accident, they were now seeing the Egyptian woman do.

Calasiris was still speaking when the corpse muttered in a deep, ugly voice as if from a crypt or a craggy cavern. “At first I spared you, mother,” it said, “and I put up with you as you broke the laws of humanity, violated the decrees of the gods, and unfixed with your sorceries what was fixed. For, so far as possible, respect for parents is preserved even among the dead. But you abolish this of your own accord. No longer are you merely dabbling in lawlessness, as at first; now you push it beyond limit…. Hear now these prophecies which I have long been forbearing to reveal to you. Neither will your son return safely to you nor will you yourself escape death from the sword….” (Heliodorus, Aethiopica 6.12-15)

And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13.21)

Demons and Underworldlings

When a plague fell upon the Ephesians, and no defense against it could be found, they sent to Apollonius, and made him their doctor for the disease…. Apollonius assembled the Ephesians and said, “Do not worry, for I will put an end to the disease this day.” Saying this, he led all the people into the theatre, where the statue of the Averter is now sited. there he found what appeared to be an old beggar contriving to squint…. He was dressed in rags and had a squalid face. Apollonius grouped the Ephesians around the beggar and said, “Collect as many stones as you can and throw them at this enemy of the gods.” The Ephesians were taken aback by this instruction, and thought it terrible to kill a stranger in such an unfortunate condition. The beggar himself was beseeching Apollonius and begging for pity, but Apollonius was insistent and urged the Ephesians to get on with the job and not let the man go. When some of the people began to pelt him with stones, the man who had been pretending to be squinting suddenly looked up at them and showed that his eyes were full of fire. The Ephesians then recognized that he was a demon and so they stoned him to death so thoroughly that they built up a heap of stones over him. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.10)

That same day, in the city of Ecbatana in Media, a woman named Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was being insulted by one of her father’s servant women. Sarah had gone through seven wedding ceremonies with seven different husbands, but each time, before she and her new husband had gone to bed on their wedding night, he was killed by the demon Asmodeus. That’s why the servant had told her, “You’ve already been married seven times, and each of those times you have killed your husband before he could give you a son. So why do you strike at us because your husbands have died? Just go where they are! We hope you never have any children!” (Tobit 3.7-9)

 Large Beasts and Monsters

The moon was shining like the midday sun. We arrived among the tombs. My man went [to relieve himself - ed.] against a gravestone. I held back, singing and counting the stones. Then, when I looked back at my companion, he had taken all his clothes off and laid them beside the road. I almost died of fright, and I stood there like a dead man. He urinated a circle around his clothes and suddenly became a wolf. Don’t think I’m joking. No one’s inheritance is so valuable as to make me lie. But, as I’d begin to say, after he had become a wolf, he began to howl and ran into the woods…. But I drew my sword and hacked at shades, until I arrived at my girlfriend’s house. I was like a ghost when I got in, and almost bubbling out my final breath. Melissa expressed amazement that I’d walked there so late and said, “If you’d come earlier, at least you could have helped us. For a wolf got into the estate and among the flocks. He was draining the blood out of them like a butcher. But even if he got away, the last laugh was ours, for our slave managed to get a spear through his neck.” When I heard this, I could not even think of sleep, but when it was fully light I ran off home like the robbed innkeeper. But when I arrived home, my soldier was lying on his bed like an ox, and a doctor was attending to his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I could not thereafter bring myself to break bread with him, not even if you had forced me on pain of death, Others can make up their own mind about this. But if I’m lying, may your guardian spirits exercise their wrath upon me. (Petronius, Satyricon 61-2)

Witches and Their Spell Books

Two friends from Arcadia who were taking a journey together came to Megara, and one traveller put up at an inn and the second went to the home of a friend. After they had eaten supper and retired, the second traveller, in the dead of the night, dreamed that his companion was imploring him to come to his aid, as the innkeeper was planning to kill him. Greatly frightened at first by the dream he arose, and later, regaining his composure, decided that there was nothing to worry about and went back to bed. When he had gone to sleep the same person appeared to him and said: ‘Since you would not help me when I was alive, I beg that you will not allow my dead body to remain unburied. I have been killed by the innkeeper, who has thrown my body into a cart and covered it with dung. I pray you to be at the city gate in the morning before the cart leaves the town,’ Thoroughly convinced by the second dream he met the cart-driver at the gate in the morning, and, when he asked what he had in the cart, the driver fled in terror. The Arcadian then removed his friend’s dead body from the cart, made complaint of the crime to the authorities, and the innkeeper was punished. (Cicero, Div. 1.57)

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah.And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.”And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. And the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever.And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.” (2 Kings 21.1-8)


 “As such,” replied Apollonius, “you must regard this adornment, for it is not reality but the semblance of reality. And that you may realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the vampires, that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins. These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially to the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feasts.”

And the lady said: “Cease your ill-omened talk and begone”; and she pretended to be disgusted at what she heard, and in fact she was inclined to rail at philosophers and say that they always talked nonsense. When, however, the goblets of gold and the show of silver were proved as light as air and all fluttered away out of their sight, while the wine-bearers and the cooks and all the retinue of servants vanished before the rebukes of Apollonius, the phantom pretended to weep, and prayed him not to torture her nor to compel her to confess what she really was.

But Apollonius insisted and would not let her off, and then she admitted that she was a vampire, and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.25)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6.53-7; I couldn’t help but to include this!)

Did the Ancient Jews Practice Crucifixion?

Last night during one of our class discussions on the historical Jesus, the question came up over crucifixion; someone had made the claim that only the Romans had practiced it.  But is that really the case?  Were the Romans really the only people in antiquity to use crucifixion as a form of punishment?  Well, actually, no.

First, crucifixion was not necessarily standardized.  The Greek word used in the New Testament, for example, to explain Jesus’ death is σταυρός (and cognates, e.g., Mark 16.6; ἐσταυρωμένον) which literally meant a ‘stake’, with which to impale someone.  This process could be done in a variety of ways and according to written tradition, some Roman rulers did experiment with all sorts of manners of crucifying their enemies.  It is important though that the two basic elements generally remain the same: the plank(s) or beam(s) of wood and something with which to impale the flesh (nails, hooks, etc…).  It was certainly a gruesome event.

Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative attitude that the Jewish people had towards crucifixion, it seems to have been something that was practiced by Jews at various times in the history of Judea.  Most notably were the crucifixions under the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, in the1st Century BCE.  Following his victories against opponents (specifically Demetrius) to his rule, he crucified 800 of his enemies.  This practice is memorialized in Josephus and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (it has also been argued that the crucifixion under Jannaeus of his enemies was looked at favorably by those who wrote the Pesher Nahum–Specifically Y. Yadin, ‘Pesher Nahum (4Q pNahum) Reconsidered’, Israel Exploration Journal , Vol. 21, No. 1 [1971], pp. 1-12).

There was also a Rabbinic punishment of crucifying bodies of those stoned to death for committing blasphemy (i.e., Sanhedrin 6.4n-q); the law specifies that planks of wood be used to hang up the bodies, apparently like slabs of meat–so presumably the body would be impaled to the plank.

Of course, hanging for punishment was not new.  In the Hebrew Bible, those guilty of a crime could be hung from a ‘tree’ (In the LXX, ‘tree’ is from ξύλον; specifically, ‘plank/beam of wood’–also found in Acts 5.30) and was considered acceptable to god, so long as the body was taken down that same day (this is the basis of the law found in the Talmud).  Normally, though, the process would not involve a living person (until Alexander Jannaeus), but in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Sam 18), Absalom is found hanging by a tree alive, and is then pierced to death by three spears through the heart (which would quite literally be considered a crucifixion–fastened to a tree by his hair and he was impaled by spears) before he is beset upon by soldiers who further inflict more damage.

So it seems clear to me that the Jews of the period were not only familiar with the process of crucifixion before the Romans (the Persians also practiced crucifixion long before the Romans), but even practiced it as a form of punishment from time to time.  See further D.J Halperin, ‘Crucifixion, the Nahum Pesher and the Rabbinic Penalty of Crucifixion,’ The Journal of Jewish Studies 32 (1981), 32-46, esp. 44; and J.A. Fitzmyer, ‘Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament’, Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978), 493-513

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.


“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?


See this (Joel Watts).

Using the Bible to Support ‘Pro-Life’ Arguments

Bob Cargill shared an interesting verse this morning from Genesis 6, which portrays a frustrated god that so regretted his creation (man) that he sent a flood across the world that swallowed all life–all life, except a remnant that could fit on a relatively small ship comparatively (based on the measurements in Genesis, it would translate to roughly 500 feet long; smaller than the Titanic).  But I think that Bob’s apt point is that if God is ‘pro-life’ then why would he wipe it clean?  It is important to recognize that  those who take the genesis account seriously, those who take the biblical narratives literally, must believe that we’re not just talking about grown men and women with exceptional cognitive abilities to choose right from wrong, we’re talking about infants and disabled individuals who can not always make decisions on their own due to their limitations (you know, since babies really can’t decide where they are born or who their parents are, let alone make any sort of vital cognitive decision beyond whether or not to poop themselves).  Not to mention the perhaps thousands of women who might have been pregnant at that exact moment god decided to wash away the sins of the world (by quite literally washing away everything that had the potential to sin).

“Seriously, you’re all going to die.”

I know some may seek to justify this by making the argument that Jesus’ death had changed everything.  His coming signified the change in god’s personality, or so goes the argument.  God no longer orders the taking of women and children as war plunder, the dashing of children on rocks, or giant she-bears to go terrorizing and mauling mischievous children who don’t believe in resurrections.  It’s like god spent a few months at rehab and emerged a changed deity; he’s a gentler, kinder god on a 12-step plan to happiness.  While this is pleasant enough for me (I’m grateful we’re not still stoning people for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, don’t get me wrong), the idea that ‘all life is sacred’ is not really a big part of the biblical narrative.  How can it be?

Bob says it best:

People of faith must put their faith – and the claims made about their faith – in a real, modern context. Rather than rushing to regurgitate some worn out apologetic claiming, “God cannot tolerate evil,” or “It’s not genocide if God does it,” people of faith must consider that the one they consider to be the “objective moral foundation” for all things ethical at one point in history killed everyone on earth because he regretted creating them! Imagine this same death sentence on the world’s population today. It is nothing less than genocide.

Dude has ninja angels.

Taken in broader sweeps, the Hebrew Bible is far from being ‘pro-life'; indeed it is quite the opposite, portraying god as a sort of vengeful, wrathful warlord who demands the ultimate tribulation while single-handedly destroying his enemies.  At some points he even permits (and actually participates in) the massacre of a whole family of his loyalist servant (Job), and while he may have given Job back twice what he had, he still killed dozens of people who did not deserve to die (that little fact often gets glossed over in Sunday School).  Imagine your wife and children slain before you; don’t worry, you’ll get a whole new wife and more children.  Does that make it better?  Does that justify it?  No sane human being could find any justification in such atrocious (and needless) acts of violence.   And I would seek to remind everyone that Matthew is pretty clear that Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10.24)–nor did he come to abolish the law (Matt 5.17; that is, the Torah, and not one iota is to be removed).  The argument commonly made that none of that matters because he fulfilled the law is a non sequitur; he is specifically portrayed to say he did not come to abolish it, and clearly Matthew believed this was true, as he does all he can to situate Jesus as a priestly Moses figure who makes this very claim!

The fact remains, at the end of the day, that using the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament to justify pro-life positions are doomed to fail.  After the bible portrays god as ordering the slaughtering of the first born children of Egypt, any attempt to portray him as someone who cares a great deal about human suffering and human life falls flat on its face.   I’m sorry, but there is no ‘human value’ that god holds dear–only subservience matters to him.  Those who believe are saved (most of the time) and those who do not god deigns them to misery and destruction and torture and death: whether man, woman, child, or those unborn.  It is horrid and obscene.

Anyone who attempts to use the bible to validate their pro-life position is wrong.  Simply put, they need to find a different argument.  I’m not saying I am all for abortion; I’m pro-choice, but I don’t think abortion would be a decision I would support.  But I’m not everyone and I’m not in everyone’s shoes; I’m only in my own.  Objectively, pro-life is unjustified for that very reason, at least that is my opinion.

Hector Avalos: ‘The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship’

How did I miss this?  Hector Avalos’ recent publication over at Bible and Interpretation:

There is a new movement of holocaust denialists, and the prime architects of this movement are biblical scholars. I am speaking not of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi regime, but of the Canaanite holocaust reported in biblical texts.

These Canaanite holocaust denialists argue that the Canaanite holocaust did not really happen. And if it did happen, then it was justified and not analogous to the Nazi holocaust.

via The Bible and Interpretation – The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship.

Go give it a read and check the comments (particularly Thomas L. Thompson’s comment).

Review of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the Discovery Center

 Where: Discovery Center – New York

 When: January 8, 2012

 Overall Impression of the Exhibit:

Brief Introduction to the Exhibit:

Today I traveled to New York to see the much-acclaimed Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Discovery Center (just off Times Square).  This is one of those exhibits I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I first found out about it when I went to the Discovery Center months ago to see the Pompeii exhibit.  Since they do not allow pictures to be taken of the exhibit, I brought along my Moleskine notepad and jotted down interesting or curious thoughts as I went along.

I arrived in NYC around 10:30 AM and had some time to kill, so I spent a good portion of it just walking around Times Square and taking in the city.  I was pleased to see that the exhibit was well-advertised; one would be blind or oblivious to walk around the area and not see signs for it.  Also, if you get to NYC often (or even if you go once in a while) be sure to stop in and eat at Carmines.  Superb food and service all around.

Banner leading into the exhibit.

Anyway, at around 12:50 PM I made my way to 44th St. and with some luck I managed to get into the exhibit without any problems, which was nice.  Earlier reviewers have complained about the long lines to get into the exhibit, the wait times between showings, and the speed at which one is rushed through the exhibit.  My experience, however, was anything but this; I was able to enter the exhibit quickly and with a small group and, while they did push us through the beginning of the exhibit so the group behind us could have room, I never felt as though I was being shoved along quickly.  In fact I went at my own pace.  One might chalk this up to the day and time I was there; most of the negative reviews seem to be around the holiday season when Times Square is no-doubt packed.

The group of us were corralled into a spacious room with huge projector screens.  The opening of the exhibit is a short burst of fun that plays with your senses.  You’re bombarded (in a good way) by both visual and audio experiences which filled me with excitement.  But even as I was anticipating an excellent exhibit, the hostess who spoke through this opening introduction made some curious, if not questionable, statements about the ancient past.

The First Part of the Exhibit and the Claims of a ‘Biblical Israel':

When it comes to ancient history, ‘fact’ is a term used fast and loose.  Scholars tend to be very cautious when making claims or asserting anything.  There are reasons for this.  Ever make an absolute claim to someone (e.g., ‘The world is only 6,000 years old!’) only to find out later you were wrong?   Well in order to avoid icky embarrassment (among other more important reasons, like remaining open to the possibility of being wrong when all the facts aren’t in yet), scholars will try to avoid making absolute claims about things, whether it be about the interpretation of a particular passage or verse or a translation, etc….  Thus if the scholar is shown to be wrong (usually through the process of peer review or through further research), the scholar maintains credibility and their hypotheses can be easily changed or adjusted to fit the new data (‘beliefs’ are much harder to change; despite all the evidence people still believe the world is 6,000 years old).

First part of the exhibit. Photo from:

Unfortunately, this exhibit does not do a very good job at playing the ‘cautious’ game.  Right away the hostess made the claim that the Bible was written 3,000 years ago (c. 1000 BCE).  But while some scholars do in fact believe this to be the case, the question of when certain texts of the Hebrew Bible were written is still hotly debated.  Those who often argue for a 1000 BCE composition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), for example, are often arguing from a very conservative (if not politically- and/or a religiously-charged) position.  This isn’t always the case, but often it is.  The issues are not as black and white as ‘the Hebrew Bible was composed around 1000 BCE'; there are matters of nuance that cannot simply be pushed aside to favor a conservative dating.

Initially I just assumed that the hostess was generalizing for the lay audience (and it was likely she was a layperson herself) and I wasn’t about to stand up and challenge her (I’m trying to enjoy the exhibit like everyone else).  When she completed her introduction and the fancy projections were through, the group of us were sent through the doors into the first part of the exhibit.  As I walked along and read the notes next to the artifacts, I couldn’t help but feel a little discouraged.

Once more the wool was draped over the eyes of the layperson when direct claims were made about certain stelae–like the Tel Dan and Merneptah stelae–which favored not only an early conservative dating of the Hebrew Bible but also a united monarchy under David and Solomon.  One plaque read of the Merneptah Stele:

[The Merneptah Stele] refers to “Israel” at this time as a people living somewhere in Canaan. 

This is quite the claim.  While yes, there are scholars out there who might argue the stele talks about a ‘people’, others are not so sure and, once more, this issue is contended.   And then there is the matter of what the stele says about Israel; it doesn’t mention anywhere that they were living in Canaan but that they were desolated there (‘their seed is laid waste’).  And even that translation (and its meaning) is contested.

Then there was the sign that that read ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its contents were mainly about another hotly debated subject: the united monarchy.  I’m not making any specific claims about the stele here or about the existence of a ‘Biblical Israel’, but then again neither should the exhibit.  One has to wonder why a whole section of the exhibit which is dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls spends so much time on what many of my colleagues would call ‘Biblical History’ or ‘Biblical Archaeology’.  If anything, ‘nation’ should be the last word used to describe any ancient socio-cultural entity since ‘nation’ is a modern designation for a specific type of state and using it on the ancient ‘Israelites’ is nothing but an anachronistic political move rather than anything proper for an exhibit about the past.

But this part of the exhibit did have some redeeming features.  For one thing they discuss idols and household figurines showing the more diverse cultural dynamic of the Hill Country of Palestine early on in its history.  I am familiar with these votive statues, known as ‘Asherah trees/poles’, and the henotheistic/polytheistic beliefs of the region early on in its history.  But the voice-actor who explained the Asherah votives refrained from calling them what they were, instead refering to them as if they were simple luck charms rather than the cultic objects of worship that they probably were.  That they were there on display at all was good to see.

Actually, despite all the politically-motivated rhetoric, all the pieces on display were fantastic and it is clear they were well taken care of by the IAA.  I have to say that while some perhaps more religious laypeople might enjoy this part of the exhibit, those more critical of the Biblical narratives will find it mind-numbingly annoying.  I was mortified by the rhetoric, but I still enjoyed having a close look at objects I’ve wanted to see in person for some time.

The Main Event: The Dead Sea Scrolls…

Down the stairs from the first half of the exhibit was the main display, the second half I had been waiting for: the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I was looking forward to seeing not just the scrolls (because manuscripts are something I’d like to work with someday as a professional) but loads (oodles and oodles, I believe, is the technical phrasing) of artifacts from the digs at Qumran and surrounding areas.

Down the stairs I went and in the center of the room was a circular display table with the scrolls illuminated around it.  All in all there were ten scrolls on display featuring:

  1. Paleo-Leviticus
  2. Aramaic Levi
  3. Isaiah Commentary
  4. Book of War
  5. Minor Prophets (in Greek)
  6. Apocryphal Lamentations
  7. Psalms
  8. Community Rule
  9. Deuteronomy ‘Song of Moses’
  10. Pseudo-Ezekial

I have to say I found it fascinating.  Being up close to a scroll like that which is also extremely old is really an awesome experience.  I wasn’t just looking at it on a page of a book but I was actively able to review it, see the old etched lines the scribes used to maintain straight writing across the scroll (they ‘hang’ from the lines), follow along with the Greek first hand.  One particular item I found worthy of note is that on the scroll written in Greek (Minor Prophets) every once in a while you come across the paleo-Hebrew word ‘god’.  This suggests, at least to me, that the scribes were likely multilingual.  But while I really enjoyed the scrolls, there were some other issues I found (or thought were missing completely) throughout the second half of the exhibit that I think should be raised.

The round display area featuring the scrolls. Photo:

First, I was disappointed in the limited amount of artifacts featured from Qumran.  Aside from a few jars (and obviously the scrolls) nothing of any significance that I can remember was on hand for the exhibit.  And I really spent some time looking.  Instead, pieces from Jerusalem, Masada, and other digs were prominent surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls which was upsetting.  I thought I had bought tickets to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and to find out more about the Qumran area. Instead I felt I had been swindled into paying for and listening to a lecture about ‘ancient Israel’ given by William Dever.   It isn’t even that I wouldn’t want to listen to Dever speak (I would, if only because I’ve read him and hear so much about him from colleagues), but at least tell me that beforehand so I know for what I’m paying.

Frankly I wasn’t there to look at Byzantine crosses and menorahs (though I did find them all very interesting regardless) and I certainly didn’t care for the random section of stone from the Western Wall (its a fun tradition, but how does it even begin to fit in with the theme of the Dead Sea?).  I don’t care if the event was sponsored by Hershel Shanks (I don’t think it was, though some of his books were featured at the gift shop)–and believe me when I say some of it felt as though I had walked into a copy of BAR–I wanted to see what I came there to see.  In the end I saw pieces I could just as easily see at UPenn (and for a whole hellova lot less than I paid for my ticket at the Discovery Center).

I was also dismayed to find that they consider the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a part of a sectarian effort (that is to say, that the scrolls were penned by a single sect).  While they never straight out claimed the Essenes wrote the scrolls (as Geza Vermes does, and while he is estimable and learned I respectfully disagree with this conclusion),  the constant reference to a ‘sectarian group’ was, I felt, misleading.  There are too many troubling issues to contend with when one claims all the scrolls came from a singular source.  We can’t know that.  Many scholars feel this is the likely case (I don’t), but I don’t know of many who are so quick to claim with any certainty that it is a fact.  Yet, once again, this exhibit does portray this hypothesis as a fact.  It is an unfortunate and uncritical problem repeated throughout the exhibit.

A Final Subject of Note: Talpiot Ossuaries at the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit?

Talpiot Ossuaries. Yep, these guys. They were there.

Hell yes they were there.  And why?  What reason could they possibly have been there?  I can’t say.  What I can say is I was in shock when I saw them.  I probably grumbled a few select words that were not very professional.  But needless to say the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, including the ‘James ossuary’ currently on trial with a possible (probable) forged inscription, were there.

The inscription issue is a tedious subject to get into on a review post of an exhibit, so I won’t.  But others have written on it and I can at least direct the reader to them:

Mark Goodacre (Duke University) has a great series of posts on this:

Joe Zias (Formerly of the IAA; currently of the Science and Archaeology Group at the Hebrew University):

On the Mariamne inscription:

Thankfully, the exhibit doesn’t claim anything as extravagant or as specious as Simcha Jacobovici.  From the notes next to the ossuaries in the handout:

These six ossuaries, found in a tomb in Jerusalem, have inscriptions
that included the names “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph.” While it might be
tempting to claim this tomb belonged to Jesus and his family, these
names are in fact extremely common in the Second temple period.
The New Testament reports that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb
of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since the early
fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at
the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s old City.

But even this may be more misleading than it needs to; of course this is the Discovery Center and Discovery did produce, with James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici’s docudrama ‘The Jesus Family Tomb’ from years ago, and to which this ‘discovery’ (i.e. the ossuaries)  is attached.

Conclusions and Rating

I’ve been very critical of this exhibit, but don’t take my criticisms for displeasure on my part.  I had a great time.  It was a fun experience and I’d recommend it to anyone, so long as they take my criticisms to heart (in the sense that they remain skeptical of the assertions made by the exhibit and also fact-check everything they read, including this blog!).  There is nothing quite like exploring the ancient world through archaeology and, aside from going out on a dig yourself, going to these sorts of exhibits make for a fun outing.

Because I enjoyed the people and the pieces, I rated it favorably.  I suspect that others may rate it differently depending on the direction their ideologies sway, but overall I tend to think my review has been more positive (if not more critical) than most.  Some things I found discouraging which is why I took away from points.  Still, if you get the chance, go check out the exhibit and, if you think I’ve erred somewhere or if you think I’m being unfair, I’d love to hear from you.

Edit: Jim West provided this video of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman on the exhibit:

The Transfiguration and the Inclusion of Moses

Ascension was nothing new in antiquity.  Richard Carrier jokingly noted that had there been television in antiquity, stories about people who ascend to heaven (or some variant of this) would have been more popular than crime dramas are today.  And, ironically, the New Testament doesn’t deny this.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Matthew 17.1-8, posted above, is interesting for several reasons.  Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will take note that Elijah had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind previously in 2 Kings 2.  But many probably don’t know about the tradition of the ascension of Moses.  This is probably due to the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, Moses does not ascend, but goes off to die alone (yet somehow there are those who believe he wrote the Torah–including the part about his death).  But there had been a tradition among some Jewish circles in antiquity, including those in the first century, who believed that Moses had ascended to heaven on a cloud.  Josephus recounts this tradition:

Now as soon as they came to the mountain called Abarim, he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him suddenly, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he diedwhich was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God (Josephus, Antiquities 4.325-26).

And this is also recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 4a) and also in midrashic literature (Pesikta Rabbati 20:4).  And the apocryphal book–of which is given a terminus a quo of the first century CE–‘The Testament of Moses’ might have also contained an ascension narrative which is now lost from the sixth century Latin narrative.  So it is especially interesting that both Elijah (ascended to heaven) and Moses (ascended to heaven) appear in front of Jesus in the Gospel narratives, seemingly from heaven.  And then just as easily as they appear, they also vanish (presumably they ascended again, a foreshadowing event for what is to come at the end of the book): ‘When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’.

The author of Luke certainly knew of the narrative and even seems to have interpreted this in the same way, as he has a cloud come down and envelope Elijah and Moses and then take them away (or, rather, they vanish; Lk 9.34).  The cloud is indicative of the legend of the ascension of Moses (and also of Enoch, as in 1 Enoch 39.3 when he is taken up on a cloud into the heaven; cf. Rev. 11.12) and also is for Jesus in Acts 1.9, when he ascends to heaven on a cloud, indicating that Luke might have used the ascension narrative of Moses (most likely taken from Josephus, since it appears likely that the author of Luke had copies of Josephus’ works) as a basis for his ascension narrative of Jesus.  But this is not the last we see of Moses and Elijah in Luke.  One has to wonder if Moses and Elijah are the two men in dazzling apparel who meet the women at the tomb in Lk 24.4.  It would make sense; after all, they were ascended at Jesus’ transfiguration as a foreshadowing and then return again to show that Jesus has done what they have done.

What makes this all so fascinating to me is that the ascension of Moses is not canonical, that is to say, it is not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  This ascension narrative is completely apocryphal according to modern religious doctrine.  But this just goes to show that the sectarianism in antiquity had no such doctrine of canonization.  Their understanding of scripture appears to be different than that of ours today and that inspiration is not defined by an ecumenical council but through the theological message of the text.  That this sort of noncanonical tradition can be found in the Gospels is intriguing.  One has to wonder what the implications for this are for the rest of the canon and what that might mean for inerrantists.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 771 other followers

%d bloggers like this: