Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here:  https://www.amazon.com/author/drmacdonald for epub and other formats: https://payhip.com/b/Jea4.

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

Wash your hairy feet! OR Sometimes a foot is just a foot

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[Back when I was new to Facebook, I did not know how to bring blog posts into this (then) new (to me) medium. So I began posting some posts on Facebook. This was the very first, and I still rather like it :) ]
Sean the Baptist has a post ‘And with two they covered their feet’ in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that “feet” is (sometimes) a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible. Basically the idea is: 

That is that the word for feet רַגְלָיו sometimes refers to what we might politely call ‘other parts of the (male) anatomy’. 

I have never really been convinced by the claim. Sean cites the following passages as the best evidence for this supposed usage (the order is mine, as are the comments in straight type):

Exodus 4.25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
Now why on earth would one suppose that “feet” here is a euphemism – after all no euphemism was used for “foreskin” עָרְלַת seems explicit enough.

Deuteronomy 11.10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
In Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing? No wonder they brewed so much beer! Or maybe the small earth dams on irrigation ditches are quite easily broken by foot?

Ruth 3.7: When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
If this one is a euphemism, does it not remove all the tension from the chapter where the most significant “gap” the hearer must fill is: “Did they or didn’t they?” there is plenty of other innuendo in the chapter to build up the tension, without this (possible, maybe) one.
Isaiah 6.2: Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Really? Now why should face and feet not simply mean face and feet? Please explain!

Isaiah 7.20: On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Hairy feet or hairy [euphemism]? Which is more plausible? Though I suppose if the euphemism is for the whole genital area, this one might make sense.

Judges 3.24: After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself (literally ‘covering his feet’) in the cool chamber.” cf. 1 Sam. 24.3
At first sight, this one is good! In this sample I am almost convinced, there is a good case to answer, though why “covering his feet” should be a euphemism for peeing, and not merely another example of the rather gross schoolboy humour of the passage I am unclear.

2 Samuel 11.8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.
Could be a euphemism, but then it could be that the sentence is euphemistic even if the “feet” are literal. “Wash your feet” = “make yourself at home”…

So, in the end, what evidence is there for this conventionally supposed common euphemism? Two cases where you might argue with some strength that reading euphemistically is the “best” reading, a couple more where it might just be possible but overall I’d say: No case to answer. In the Bible feet are just that. And Eglon as well as excessively fat, and greedy, also was known to his servants as having a poor aim. As the sign in our downstairs loo read for a while (we had teenage boys in the house) “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

[Back in those heady days bloggers used to respond to one another, instead of, as we do today, merely writing to ourselves – which is perhaps the second sign of madness.]

Following my post Wash your hairy feet! Sean-the-Baptist updated his post ‘And with two they covered their feet‘ to respond (briefly within the limits of time available) to my critique of the commonplace notion that “feet” in the Hebrew Bible can often serve as a euphemism for “male organ”.

On Deut. 11.10: the point is exactly that the Promised Land will be naturally fertile and thus will not require irrigation by other means (of course the language is symbolic, irrigation is as necessary there as in Egypt in reality). Tim asks ‘in Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing?’ – well no, but neither is there literal milk and honey flowing in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps good deal more irrigation took place by this means than by carrying water on your foot (images of hopping with a bucket attached anyone?)

But why interpret the language as “symbolic” whatever that means here, I had assumed that even read as a euphemism the use was intended literally.

Irrigating with the feet would then refer to the habit of opening and closing irrigation ditches using the feet. While I cannot really see how the euphemistic reading works, in the promised land water falls from the sky, while in Egypt humans had to pee to water the ground – presumably entailing frequent trips to the irrigation ditch to drink…

On Ruth we basically agree – except whether Boaz’ “feet” are literal or euphemistic (I still wonder at the plural euphemism here?).

On Is 6:2 Sean brings up the topic of ANE iconography, as Jim Getz said in a comment on a post: Another “Feet” Euphemism in the Hebrew Bible? on this topic on Shibboleth I think I was convinced by Keel’s identification of the Seraphim here with Egyptian uraus snakes, my copy of Keel is at college, so i can’t check, but I do not remember these snakes as having prominent phalluses which might need covering to preserve Hebrew modesty! On Is 7:20 I am quite willing to agree thsat ritual humiliation is in view, and that a euphemistic reading is possible. But when the “head to foot” shaving seems to cover that pretty comprehensively I do not see the need to invent a new “euphemistic” reading. (And that is really my point, I believe that those who repeat conventional wisdom and claim a common euphemism in Biblical Hebrew “feet” = “phallus” need to provide some evidence to support this view. And where simply reading “feet” as “those two things we walk on that stop our legs fraying at the ends” works fine then they have NOT provided such evidence EVEN IF “phallus” works just as well.

Uraeus. Col. Tutkhamón from http://www.uned.es 

On 2 Sam 11:8, again we agree in our interpretation of the passage, and IF the feet-euphemism were already (on the basis of evidence) established it would make a good reading here. However, it is not it is merely “traditional” in biblical scholarship. AND reading feet literally works fine.

Result, I am still unconvinced that this particular item of “popular wisdom” has a leg to stand upon! Sometimes in the Bible, when you read “feet” they do simply mean “feet”, now on the basis of Ugaritic evidence one might I think (someone could ask Duane about the abnormally interesting uses of “finger” in those texts, and perhaps also look at Hebrew Bible texts like 1 Kings 12:10).

Performers and audiences

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I am convinced that alongside (but poorly if at all correlated with) the personality dimension Introversion-Extroversion is another I think of as “Performer”. I am highly introverted, but love standing talking to an audience. By contrast I know several strong extroverts who really do not enjoy that sort of attention, but if thrown into a den of lions room full of people would be happily chatting to new acquaintances within minutes (I’d still be hiding in the furthest darkest corner, trying mentally to project an invisibility screen).

So, I prepare the 5 minute Bible podcasts and read the stories because I hope for an audience. The bigger, the better!

This morning I was depressed looking at the stats and realising just how few people actually listen to a full episode. (Facebook has begun to show how long people listen for, and most switch off in the first moments and few are left by 30 seconds into the piece.)

Then I got a treat, an email from Librivox from the “thank a reader” section containing this encouragement:

He reads the book like an actor acts in a movie. He acts out every character that he reads. He puts so much passion and life into his reading and he is so expressive. He keeps the listener so engaged and his pronunciation is excellent. He is by far one of the best readers I have ever listened to.

That is just what I was trying to do when reading my part in Woman in White! Then to complete the chasing away of the blues, searching for a post I had made in one of the forums I came across this reference to my voice:

his voice is: soft, tender and warm. When I listen to his voice, I have a feeling that I have just been given a freshly baked, warm and soft doughnut.

This introverted performer is delighted. Until the next time I look at the stats and see how few people do actually listen till the end.

BTW it is my birthday tomorrow (15th May) so if you want to “make my day” just invite some friends to listen to a story or a Bible podcast and drive those terrible stats up ;) I might even do an encore!

Do fiction publishers have a death wish? or Frustrated by the fetishists)

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Almost all the fiction I read is now e-books, both purchased and from the lending library. They are in epub format. Neither the format nor the hardware are brilliant, but they do allow hypertext features and even web searches at a speed that is just on the happy side of totally frustrating.

Even with these technical limitations I love the ebook reader. It is light. I can vary the size of the print for lower light conditions (or where the designer has chosen – from my perspective – badly). I can carry as many spare books as I like with no extra space or weight. I can borrow a new book anytime from anywhere. However, the main reason I prefer the ebook is that marvelous ability to search for definitions (in the built-in dictionaries, a dozen or so in various languages as well as both American and English) or the web to check ideas and information of provide context. Reading fiction becomes like reading the dictionary or an encyclopedia was to my childish self.

Yet I am so often frustrated in my reading. Not by the technology (this is no “twitchy little screen” like the ones Annie Proulx feared in her famous and fatuous quote) but by the publishers. They sell me (and others, or the library) these “e-books”. They sell them often after the paper edition has already run its dash and is on the verge of being remaindered at cents to the dollar. They sell them at what looks to be a decent price (any thing over 1/3 of the paperback price seems to me reasonable in view of the savings in material production, stock storage and shipping etc.). Yet their conversion from paper codex to e-book never adds functionality. Why shouldn’t the publisher  spend a little building in links to the glossary, which historical novels often have, or other internal material that would enrich the reader’s experience?

Not only do they staunchly resist the danger of making the e-book better than its paper counterpart, but they refuse to even make them as good. Diagrams and maps are scanned at resolutions that ensure that given a normal page display will not fit neatly nor zoom easily. In this way publishers, I can only conclude, hope to persuade as many people as possible to prefer paper books for as long as possible.

Given the attitudes of the two most avid readers in the next generation of our family, both of whom love their e-readers, and given the flow of the tide of media consumption towards video and away from print, I can only assume the publishers are owned by the Hollywood studios and are set on ending their industry as early as possible!

The next best thing

The Bible Wasn't Written to YouRecently I pointed to the very best book offer ever, the Logos edition of Childs’ masterly Isaiah with all the added features of the e-edition quite free.

Today an offer that the next best thing, David Kerr is creative and provocative, but he’s not a scholar like Childs, his The Bible Wasn’t Written to You is a slim tome, Childs’ is massive. But the price is the same $0! And David’s little book is a good read and thought provoking.

Just use the code: YA52D

Incidentally David’s book came out of blog posts, and he was a cracking blogger. I do hope he does start again. If he does subscribe and comment!

The injustice of traditional higher education and online classes

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Blog posts get less editing and polishing than other forms of writing, I think I may have failed to make my point clearly in the preceding post. So I will make it concisely here, see the other post for background and explanations.

Many people do not suit traditional classroom based higher education. There are logistical barriers (geography, time, family) these are weighted more against women than men.

There are also personality barriers. Some learning styles are well suited to classroom learning. For aural learners (and perhaps oral ones) it is ideal. For visual learners it is less good. For kinaesthetic learners a classroom is usually a disaster. Add difficulties like ADHD into the mix and classrooms provide significant barriers for some (selected?) students. Introverts are also discriminated against in classrooms that require “participation”.

These inequalities are unjust. These inequalities are avoidable. Online education if organised well provides a more equal educational opportunity than classrooms did.

The end of Higher Education

From Shopware.de

Christopher B. Hays commented on Facebook on a post “The End of College? Not So Fast” by Donald E. Heller. These posts and the comments prompted this reflection on my own experience. The Chronicle of Higher Education post also suggested my title, which deliberately mimics, but perhaps by removing the question mark subverts theirs.

Indeed almost all of my learning through two undergraduate degrees was obtained outside the classrooms. Though admittedly some came with the help of friends who were capable of taking notes, much much more came from voracious reading and frequent arguments on buses and over coffee or beer. Please do not underestimate my comparatives here, I will rephrase it to make the point. Almost all my undergraduate learning came from materials and experiences outside the class room. Almost NONE came from classroom learning.

  1. Indeed ADHD seems to have a strong inherited component. []

Numbers 20: a reading and some critical readers needed

CaptureThe venerable (I think it is the longest-running religious periodical in NZ) Baptist has had a makeover for 2015.No longer newsprint, and with a web edition that looks pretty good.

The trouble is most of the writers are (to put it politely) experienced, and most of the readers inherited from the old format newsprint are (frankly) old folk.

It needs new writers I’d love to see Carey graduates from 5, 10, 15 years ago take up the keyboard. If any of you read this how about either offering yourselves an occasional piece, or bullying your colleagues into writing?

It also needs new readers, online readers, who will argue back, question or add new ideas… all or any of you who read this might be such…
What Kiwis think about sin could be a place to start… (and let’s hope Dale Campbell becomes a more frequent contributor along with others like Mike Crudge, Thalia Rowden, Nigel Irwin, Johnathan Robinson and many many more… mention those I have forgotten or not thought of in the comments here or an email and I’ll add them…)

Review of the Logos edition of Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (Lexham Bible Guide, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

LogosWarning

LexhamCoverThe series of which this “volume” is a part has an ambitious but mixed goal:

The series is designed to be a research tool. Each guide presents a wide range of interpretive issues raised by Bible scholars. These resources meet the needs of those studying the Bible in academic settings, but the broad scope of coverage also makes them useful for preaching preparation. 1

In fact, limitations of referencing (almost?) only works available in the Logos system limits it’s usefulness for scholarship, and so the work is in some ways better suited to the practical needs of a pastor or other seriously minded Bible reader.

Integration of the text with the Logos library system is of course a great strength of such this type of electronic publication, but there are times when the implementation of this integration serves Logos’ commercial ends better than it serves the user. For example when I read: “Mathews uses the analogy of a stained glass window to describe the literary complexity of Gen 1–11…” The name “Matthews” is, as one would expect in an electronic text, a hyperlink. If the user already owns the cited work by Mathews in Logos format, then I assume2 they are taken to the reference. If one does not own the work in Logos format one is offered the chance to buy it. However, if one does not already own the Logos edition, the link to the Logos sales site does inform the user what work is being referred to, enabling a search on a local library catalogue, Worldcat or Google Books.

There is however a welcome but odd inconsistency, when the references are to further reading suggestions offered as bullet points rather than inline citations, they do give at least the title of the work, without need to access the Logos.com website.3

Hypertext links also provide convenient popup explanations of technical terms, enhancing further the educative possibilities of the text, and making it accessible to a wider range of “lay” readers. They also enable jump navigation within the text, and this is enhanced by a preview popup showing the beginning of the text of the section to which the link leads.

The work offers a neat clear and concise overview of (almost always, but not exclusively, Evangelical) scholarship on the issues and passages treated. This is a superb resource to begin studying a passage or topic, Mangum et al. Offer clear concise summaries of important issues that will be really useful to any pastor or amateur biblical scholar. They are also potentially really useful to students and their teachers, though this usefulness would be enhanced by referencing that included some mention of work not published in Logos format..

Within the limits of works published in Logos format (I have yet to find any reference to other work) these summaries and the suggested readings are very useful. The restriction of the references to the Logosworld generates the restriction noted above to predominantly only Evangelical scholarship, and very predominantly American scholars4 This parochialism is sad!

A byproduct of this limitation is scholarship that is also very predominantly male and white. Since women and non-Caucasian scholars are more likely to have significant work in journals and less likely to have breached the portals of book length works with publishers who make their list available in Logos format.

On the other hand, the fact that such a useful compendium can be offered despite this restriction of horizon to Logosworld is a tribute to the extent (if not always variety) of that world today. Logos is not yet a universal biblical studies library, but it is far closer than one might have expected only a few years ago.

A student today will need to seriously consider whether to accept the limitations of horizon imposed by the choice of Logos as their exclusive supplier, wholeheartedly making Logos their library system, or on the other hand if financial constraints or a desire to be open to a wider world of scholarship will severely limit the usefulness of a work such as this. I wonder how long it is before Logos offers a subscription service modeled on Amazon’s “Prime”?5

Without such a service, or without the financial resources to pay to own an extensive private Logos library, users are given a glimpse of the world of American Evangelical scholarship, but taking a closer look is made difficult by the exclusively in house referencing.

In short this work highlights the huge usefulness and potential of the Logos system (for those rich enough, and selfish enough, to be willing to spend enough on a library devoted to their private use). It also highlights the exclusive nature of this system by making the use of external resources (in an institutional or public library, or on Google books, for example) more difficult even than it would be in an obsolescent print codex.

  1. Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (, Lexham Bible GuideBellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). []
  2. I have yet to find a reference to a work that I spotted as being included in my Gold collection, or among the other works and texts I have bought. So I could not check this assumption. []
  3. A one step rather than a two step process. []
  4. The JPS series, and the out of copyright ICC commentaries, along with some classic works like Gunkel and Westermann provide welcome exceptions. []
  5. If such a service were cheap enough it could provide mean someone could use the Lexham guide to the full without being restricted to only purchasing biblical studies works in Logos format. []

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel

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For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.