Saul or Paul?

From Cory Schantz, an interesting article on The Gospel Coalition, emphasizing that Saul did not “change his name” to Paul upon becoming a Christian, but was always known by both names – “Saul” being the Hebrew form of it, and “Paul” the Greek.

When Saul/Paul launches his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily Greek-speakers (beginning with Acts 13:9), it’s natural for Luke, the author of Acts, to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. Nor is it surprising that he’s later referred to as “Paul” in Jerusalem, since there were Greek speakers there too. Indeed, Luke could be making a thematic point by shifting from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8). After all, the church’s nucleus is shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered “ends of the earth,” such as Rome.

I suppose that Jesus’ renaming “Simon” as “Peter” may have prompted a similar notion with Saul/Paul. Even the initial letters are the same! And we can make a similar pun as the one seen in Matthew 16:18, at least in Latin:

Tu es Paulus et super hoc paulum adificabit ecclesiam meam.

That is, “you are Paul, and on this little bit I will build my church” – something like the mustard seed in Matthew 13.


The usual case study to illustrate the Scientific Revolution is the triumph of heliocentrism. As you are no doubt aware, at one point learned opinion held that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe, with the Moon, the Sun, all the planets, and all the stars moving around it. This was a view endorsed by Aristotle, and by Ptolemy (AD 100-170), and it fit well with medieval theology: it’s not that we placed ourselves self-importantly at the center of all creation, but that we are sitting at the bottom of a sewer. We’re still one level up from Hell, but on Earth, the place where the four elements interact, things change and decay. One level up from the earth, the Lunar Sphere, is where things are perfect, formed as they are from the fifth element, quintessence. Keep on ascending and eventually you get to the realm of the angels and God himself. And anyway, the Earth appears immobile. There’s no great rushing wind, and no observable parallax either – if we were moving around the Sun, the stars would be moving in relation to each other (that they are so far away that there could be no observable parallax did not occur to anyone).

The trouble is that Ptolemy’s model didn’t quite work. The planets were never exactly where they should have been. Astronomers assumed that it was a result of faulty manuscript transmission but with the Renaissance and its mania for uncovering original texts, people discovered that Ptolemy was the originator of the bad data. (Another thing that they discovered is that not everyone was a geocentrist – the ancient Greek philosopher Aristarchus had proposed a heliocentric universe in the third century BC.) Finally, the discovery of the New World threw Ptolemy’s model even further into question. Ptolemy had proposed that the earthly realm consisted of four concentric spheres of earth, water, air, and fire. The first two weren’t quite aligned, however: the Earth should be completely covered by water, but part of it poked out above the water. This was the land – or rather, the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which themselves were in balance with each other. The discovery of the Americas illustrated that this theory was completely wrong. And if Ptolemy was wrong about that, what else was he wrong about?

Thus did the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus publish De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, proposing an immobile sun at the center of the universe, with the apparent daily rotation of the stars the product of the Earth’s own axial rotation. All the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun, with the Moon revolving around the Earth. De revolutionibus featured a preface claiming that it was “only a model,” but we now think that Copernicus himself was a genuine heliocentrist. This model didn’t quite work either, but it was simpler in many ways.

Heliocentrism thus became the scientific Big Idea of the sixteenth century, shared among certain scholars and derided as crazy by others – not only Catholics, but also Protestants like Luther and Calvin. After all, did Joshua not command the sun to stand still, and it stood still? Does not Chronicles state that “the world stands firm, never to be moved”? You can’t treat scripture as the foundation of your faith and not heed verses like these.

Galileo (1564-1642) wasn’t buying it. He was a heliocentrist anyway, and his use of the telescope to gaze at the heavens provided further evidence for a Sun-centered universe. Most famously, he discovered the four largest “Galilean” moons of Jupiter, proving that one could have “nested” revolutions (that the Moon went around the Earth, while the Earth itself went around the Sun, was a stumbling block to some people). He also observed sunspots on the Sun and craters on the Moon – in other words, “out there” was not perfect, but apparently made of the same stuff found “down here.” Galileo famously got into hot water with the Inquisition – no, he was not persecuted primarily for his belief in heliocentrism, but for his intemperate attacks on the Pope and the Church (which was rather touchy anyway on account of all the Protestants running around). But Galileo was forced to publicly recant his heliocentrism and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

This was not enough to discourage further investigation. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman who took detailed and accurate observations of the heavens over a twenty-year period, and his German student Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) used the data to formulate the laws of planetary motion. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits are elliptical (with the sun at one of the “foci”) and that planets vary in speed as they travel. Again, this violates the principle of the “perfect” heavens: orbits are supposed to be perfectly circular, and speeds uniform. Once Kepler accurately described planetary orbits, astronomers could get rid of the epicycle – an orbit within an orbit invented to describe the apparent backward motion of some planets at times. Now, they realized, it was merely a function of variable speeds as the Earth “overtook” some other planet.

The capstone of this narrative is Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who provided mathematical proof that gravity, the same force drawing things towards the Earth, is the exact same force keeping the planets going around the Sun. In one fell swoop, Newton explained all the motion in the universe, and got God out of it at the same time. Not that Newton was an atheist – he believed that only a divine mind could come up with something so elegant. But the planets no longer needed angels to make them move. Newton’s work was so culturally significant that it launched the Enlightenment – people believed that, using their reason, they could find other immutable laws that underlay other phenomena.

This, in a nutshell, is my lecture on the Scientific Revolution. Of course, I try to emphasize that it’s not a continuous narrative of Progress, that the whole thing was never foreordained, that there were all sorts of blind alleys to explore, that these scientists were human and prone to error and pettiness, etc. Furthermore, the heliocentric revolution did not even involve experimentation, an essential component of the scientific method, although it did involve accurate data collection and testable hypotheses. But one idea really did lead to another, and now we have a pretty accurate picture of the solar system (we can no longer claim that it is the entire universe). We can send spacecraft to explore these celestial bodies, and they seem to arrive and send useful data back to us.

I feel compelled to write this post today because this issue is still with us. We all hail Galileo as a martyr for the truth, and the whole episode remains deeply embarrassing for the RC Church. But the conflict between scripture and science remains when it comes to explaining the origins of life. The theory of evolution through natural selection, first formulated by Charles Darwin and refined ever since, is one of the great ideas that shaped the modern world – and unlike, say, Marxism and Freudianism, it retains its utility. It is, indeed, the foundation of the modern discipline of biology. Unfortunately, this theory’s explanation for the diversity of life on Earth contradicts the accounts given in Genesis 1 and 2, the opening chapters of the Jewish Torah, which Christians retain as part of their scriptures. Many Christians, especially around these parts, insist on the literal truth of scripture – certainly of the opening chapters, which explain the origin of everything, spelled out in a certain amount of detail. Thus has a certain type of Christian invested a great deal of mental energy in saving the appearances, of shoehorning all physical evidence into an explanatory theory that is in accord with the book of Genesis (including not only Creation, but also the idea that “in those days there were giants” and of the Flood – did you know that the Grand Canyon came about as a result of this?). The most recent example, and one that was breathlessly recommended to me by several people, is the movie Is Genesis History? which was shown last week in select cinemas. It was so successful that two more dates have been announced. Act now!

Part of me respects how Christians (and/or conservatives) have created this parallel media universe to get around the liberal possession of the commanding heights of culture. But I really wish they’d focus on stuff that’s true – or at least useful. Needless to say, this deliberate obtuseness is one of the worst advertisements for Christianity right now. One might understand evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion as matters of opinion – but to a falsifiable scientific theory, in accord with 150 years of data, in favor of some iron-age mythology? Is it any wonder that coastal Americans look down on the denizens of flyover country?

All I can say is that I’m really glad that the Bible does not overtly contradict other modern scientific discoveries, like the circulation of blood, the existence of microbes, Boyle’s Law, or the periodic table.

Different Sources

One of the maddening things about the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that it is not corroborated by many other primary sources. There is no Egyptian evidence, for instance, that the Hebrews were ever enslaved in Egypt – and no archaeological evidence that 100,000 of them were wandering around the Sinai Desert for forty years. Some scholars even dispute the existence of King David. But as we move forward in time some events are attested in other sources. Two of my favorites are below – and they provide very interesting examples of differing perspectives on the same event. The first takes place in 701 BC, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the kingdom of Judah and besieged Jerusalem (his predecessor Shalmaneser had already defeated and deported the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC).

2 Kings 19: King Sennacherib sent messengers to Hezekiah with this word: “Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’ Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them?… Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God… That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.

“185,000 men” is  probably an exaggeration, but we can be pretty certain that this actually occurred, for one of the documents dug up at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the nineteenth century was Sennacherib’s Annals, recorded in Akkadian cuneiform on three hexagonal clay prisms. The relevant bits:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were at his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually.

“Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, [and] surrounded him with earthwork.” And…? The reader is expecting a third clause, something about taking Jerusalem, putting the inhabitants to the sword, and razing the Temple. But no such thing is mentioned! Cleary he didn’t manage to take Jerusalem for some reason – and a plague breaking out among his men is as likely a reason as any. (I doubt that it had much of a long-term effect on his state, though, and as he brags he did quite a bit of damage to Judah otherwise.)

It was the Babylonians, of course, who succeeded where the Assyrians failed, who took Jerusalem in 587 and then deported its inhabitants to Babylon as slaves. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539, he famously allowed the Jews to return home. Here is what the book of Ezra has to say about it, the first of our second pair of documents:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

If you think that it’s odd that Cyrus should be so inspired by Yahweh, the God of the Jews… you’re probably right. From the Kurash Prism, a more direct source for the king’s motivations:

I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth… whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.

No mention of the Jews or their God at all! Instead, Cyrus is working to please Marduk, the god of the Babylon he has just conquered – and he ordered everyone to return to their former habitations, not just Jews.

Methinks that the author of Ezra has succumbed to the very human desire to believe that It’s All About Me.

(Both of these pairs [1, 2] may be found in the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.)

Battle of the Translations

This week students in History 111 read a number of Biblical passages to illustrate ancient Hebrew history. Of course, if we were all proper scholars, we would be reading them in the original Hebrew, but no one (including me) would be able to handle that, so we are reduced to using a translation into a “language understood by the people,” as Protestant Reformers recommended.

But what translation? You can translate texts in more than one way, of course, and with something as important as the Bible, translation becomes a serious issue. Martin Luther himself, I understand, translated the Bible in certain ways in order to justify his own theology – and one of the reasons why he dropped several books of the Old Testament, bringing the Bible into conformity with Jewish usage, is because such books as Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and Esdras did not support his interpretation of Christianity (thus their current designation as “apocryphal”).

The translation that I have used in my classes is the New International Version, simply on account of its readability. Of course, a lot of people don’t think the Bible should be “readable” – or rather, they think the prose should be elevated, like the Authorized Version sponsored by King James (r. 1603-1625). According to Adam Nicolson in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), even in the early seventeenth century the dialect of this bible was artificial – self-consciously created in order to bestow majesty on its subject and its sponsor, and hopefully to bind the Church of England together, divided as it was between Puritans and High Church Anglicans. Here is the KJV’s famous rendering of 1 Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

And if prose like this sounded grand back in the seventeenth century, how much more grand does it sound now! This is what people love about it – so much so that there exists a King James Only movement, whose adherents hold that the Authorized Version is the ne plus ultra of English translations – that it is even divinely inspired. Somehow it exists above and beyond the politics of the Church of England in 1611.

Now, I have no problem with people who prefer a majestic bible! And given the influence of the KJB on the history of the English language, everyone should read it anyway for the sake of cultural literacy. But given that in HIS 111 we’re reading the bible, not for spiritual edification, nor as a primary source for the seventeenth century, but to discover something about the ancient Hebrews, we should probably try to avoid elevated prose, in favor of current American Standard English, to help us understand the meaning of the original text as much as possible.

As far as I can ascertain the translators of the New International Version did not have a particular agenda beyond clarity. They do seem to have been from evangelical Protestant backgrounds but it does not seem to me that they skewed their translation accordingly (they certainly resisted inserting marginal explanatory notes, as did the Puritans who composed the sixteenth-century Geneva Bible). All this is prefatory to a forum post by a student, who doesn’t much care for the NIV:

I see on the back the NIV was used for these translations. The NIV has removed 40 verses and over 64,000 words. Verses such as Matthew 18:11 – “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Mark 11:26 – “But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.” So the question is, why was this version decided upon when so much was taken out?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” -2 Timothy 3:16 KJV

I confess that I was unaware of this issue, and I assure my readers that censorship was not my intention! However, I cannot imagine the translators of the NIV acting as a sort of sinister cabal, removing verses at will in order to further a certain agenda. Instead, they were simply using the best original manuscripts they could come up with. Unfortunately, the Bible, in its early days, was rather like a Wikipedia article, which people felt free to edit according to their taste. (Forget tendentious translation, this is monkeying with the text itself! Nowadays there are taboos against this sort of thing.) This then raises the question, what did the original text look like? How shall we go about establishing it? In the sixteenth century, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus set himself the task of publishing a Greek New Testament, to which end he collected as many manuscripts of it as he could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of these manuscripts agreed with each other, leaving Erasmus to make a few judgment calls. This effort has been ongoing since his time – and as more and more biblical manuscripts are uncovered, and our linguistic knowledge has grown more sophisticated, our sense of the original Greek text has sharpened – which means, unfortunately, that what we now realize are later textual additions must be excised, no matter how edifying we might find their sentiments. The Hebrew Masoretic Text (“𝕸”) and the Nestle-Aland Koine Greek New Testament, used by the translators of the NIV, are simply more accurate than the Hebrew and Greek sources that were available to the translators of the KJB (who themselves were constantly comparing their efforts to the Bishops’ Bible of 1602, i.e. the KJB isn’t entirely a fresh translation).

As for the NIV’s lack of Matthew 18:11: Bible Gateway says, in a footnote, “Some manuscripts include here the words of Luke 19:10.” For Mark 11:26, it says “Some manuscripts include here words similar to Matt. 6:15.” So it seems that the compilers are willing to acknowledge the editorial decisions they’ve made – and these particular verses appear elsewhere in the bible anyway.

Psalm 137

A useful primary source to illustrate the Babylonian Captivity, the sixty-year period in the sixth century BC when large numbers of Jews were enslaved in Babylon, is Psalm 137, one that I always use for HIS 111. This is the translation that appears in the New International Version:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,  happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

The last two verses are always jarring – rather like the third stanza of “In Flanders Fields” – but otherwise this Psalm succinctly and beautifully expresses Jewish sadness over their enslavement and exile (although I’m sure that to scholars of the period, who are better versed in theories of exactly who composed it and when, the story is more complicated).

Although I insist that primary sources come from a particular time and place, I can’t resist noting that some historical episodes become tropes, through which subsequent generations interpret their own experience. (The inspiration that Moses had for African-American slaves is a prime example.) The Babylonian Captivity comprehends the themes of both slavery and exile, thus did people in the fourteenth century speak of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” when it was located at Avignon between 1309 and 1377, or did Martin Luther compose his tract On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), asserting that the Papacy itself held the true church in captivity. Closer to home, the trope of the Babylonian Captivity has resonance with Afro-Caribbeans for obvious reasons, hence the Melodians’ rendition of Psalm 137, later done by Boney M. And, of course, “Babylon” retained its relevance for the Jews themselves, following the diaspora, as a symbol of exile from their homeland.

(This is to say nothing about other Babylonian tropes, like the Tower of Babel from Genesis, or the Whore of Babylon from Revelation.)

UPDATE: Something amusing from a friend’s Facebook feed:


Naming Names

In God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), author Adam Nicholson commented on the several principles that the translators adopted to guide their work. One that I always found amusing was that:

The names of the Profyts and the holie Wryters, with the other Names in the text to be retayned, as near as may be, according as they are vulgarly used.

Some Puritans maintained that the names of the great figures in the scriptures, all of which signify something – Adam meant ‘Red Earth’, Timothy ‘Fear-God’ – should be translated. The Geneva Bible, which was an encyclopedia of Calvinist thought… had a list of those meanings at the back and, in imitation of those signifying names, Puritans, particularly in their heartlands of Northamptonshire and the Sussex Weald, had taken to naming their children after moral qualities…. Puritan children at Warbleton in Sussex, the heartland of the practice, laboured under the names of Eschew-evil, Lament, No-merit, Sorry-for-sin, Learn-wisdom, Faint-not, Give-thanks and, the most popular, Sin-deny, which was landed on ten children baptised in the parish between 1586 and 1596. One family, the children of the curate Thomas Hely, would have been introduced by their proud father as Much-mercy Hely, Increased Hely, Sin-deny Hely, Fear-not Hely and sweet little Constance Hely.

Naming people with compressed sentences was more than a Hebrew custom: it was widely practiced throughout the ancient Near East, especially in the form of “theophoric” names; that is, names that invoked the protection of some deity. Thus, around the Fertile Crescent, we find:

Sennacherib (“Sin has replaced the brothers”) of Assyria
Ashurbanipal (“Ashur created an heir”) of Assyria
Nebuchadnezzar (“Nabu save my firstborn”) of Babylon
Nabonidus (“Nabu is praised”) of Babylon
Amenhotep (“Amen is pleased”) of Egypt
Ramesses (“Ra gave him birth”) of Egypt
Balthazar (“Baal protects the king”) of Phoenicia

Any Hebrew name ending in -el is theophoric (El being “God”), thus:

Michael, Who is like God?
Daniel, God is my judge
Nathaniel, Gift of God
Raphael, God heal
Gabriel, God is my strength
Emmanuel, God is with us

And any name that begins with Jo- (like Jonathan or Joshua), or ends with -yahu (like Netanyahu) is a reference to Yahweh, the personal name of God (but changed slightly, so that we don’t actually say it).

Speaking of which, this name, given as יהוה and usually transliterated YHVH, is usually rendered as “the LORD” in most translations of the Old Testament, out of respect to the Jewish tradition of not vocalizing it. Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not follow this custom: they think it’s no matter at all to use God’s personal name, and will render יהוה (the so-called “tetragrammaton”) as “Jehovah.” Unfortunately, this is not how most scholars would pronounce it today: if it must be vocalized, it’s “Yahweh” (Hebrew, like most Semitic alphabets, does not have vowels, and if no one ever said God’s name aloud, people forgot how exactly to pronounce it.) So the Jehovah’s Witnesses are stuck with an obsolete pronunciation of God’s name.

I guess this is one argument against saying it.

I suppose the most familiar example of compressed-sentence names (with or without a theophoric element) are those of certain Native Americans, like John Running Deer or Dances-with-Wolves. I do not think that the Puritan custom of giving children such names as The-Lord-Is-My-Shepherd or Sin-No-More is due for a revival any time soon.

Glastonbury Abbey

Archaeology magazine’s Jason Urbanus reports on new findings from University of Reading archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist, who heads up the Glastonbury Archaeological Archive Project, an intensive reexamination of 75 years’ worth of excavations and discoveries from Glastonbury Abbey, many of which have been stored for decades without any scientific analysis. Gilchrist and her colleagues have found evidence that occupation of the Glastonbury site may indeed date back to the purported year of Arthur’s reign in the fifth century, but not due to any mystical connection with the king.

We know for certain that Glastonbury was a thriving community in the seventh century, where Saxon villagers created large furnaces to melt down and recycle Roman glass. Gilchrist’s project has confirmed that the glassworks predated the abbey, possibly by centuries, and was one of the largest glass production facilities in England at the time.

In the early eighth century, King Ine of Wessex offered an endowment to a burgeoning abbey on the site. Thus began the rise of what ultimately became the wealthiest monastery in England. Towering atop a picturesque hill, the abbey grew famous for its beauty and its lucrative glassworks, drawing pilgrims and visitors from all over England and beyond.

Indeed, the abbey was already famous abroad when the Norman Conquest brought England under French control in 1066. The Norman invaders happily claimed the abbey as their own, adding sumptuous new buildings and enriching it further. The monastery continued to grow and thrive for over a century when tragedy struck. A massive fire in 1184 destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed, converting a famous attraction into a smoking ruin overnight.

As they struggled to get funds to rebuild, the monks needed something to make the abbey seem significant again. It was now competing with Westminster Abbey, which had been established in 1065 and whose soaring architecture was already a marvel. But there was one thing Glastonbury could have that Westminster didn’t. In the 1190s, Glastonbury monks let it be known that they had discovered the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk, buried deep underground; they relocated the grave onto the grounds of the Abbey’s new church.

With the help of archaeologists like Gilchrist, however, we are coming to understand that Glastonbury’s significance is far more complicated than we ever imagined. It was a community that thrived on its craft production of glass and then later on its reinvention as part of the Arthurian legend. You might say that Glastonbury’s twelfth-century monks were very modern indeed. They cashed in on the abbey’s long history, using it to turn myth into money.

King Edward I (1277-1307) presided over a translation of these relics, probably as a way of publicizing the idea that Arthur was well and truly dead, and was not hanging out on the island of Avalon, ready to return to aid the British (i.e. Welsh) against the invading Anglo-Saxons (i.e. Plantagenets). But I think the best myth of Glastonbury is that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in the Chalice Wall at Glastonbury.

Confederate Monuments

While in Richmond we got a chance to see the Museum of the Confederacy. It is completely surrounded (and dwarfed) by the Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital and parking ramp, somewhat surprisingly – you’d think that they would have restricted development around such hallowed ground. But I suspect that time has passed it by. The original museum was housed in the White House of the Confederacy; in 1976 it was moved to a purpose-built building next door, while the house was restored to how it might have looked when Jeff Davis lived there. It’s clear that they have tried to make it more of a museum and less of a shrine, but the main exhibit can’t seem to get beyond its roots: you go through a chronological timeline of battles and other events, but all that’s on display are things like Lee’s overcoat or Longstreet’s sword or Johnston’s overcoat or Stuart’s overcoat. I did like the second floor, which was devoted to the various Confederate flags and clearly the work of John Coski, whose book on the subject I quite admire. (I was unaware of the existence of RuPaul as “Miss Rachel Tensions” in the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.) The basement had some interesting social-history what-nots, like a keepsake made of human hair or a hat made of corn husks, although not all of this was Confederate as such.

Lately, this Museum of the Confederacy has merged with two other museums: one at Appomattox Court House, the site of Lee’s surrender in April of 1865, and one at Historic Tredegar, which is located on Richmond’s waterfront and was once the site of a gun foundry. We did not have time to go to Tredegar, but it apparently deals with the war from the Union, Confederate and slave perspectives. This new three-site institution is known as the American Civil War Museum and its motto is “Confederacy, Union, Freedom” – reflecting the mandate of the Tredegar site more than that of the Museum of the Confederacy site. So I suspect that if you are in Richmond, and you only have time to see one, you should probably go to Tredegar.

We did cruise up and down Monument Avenue, and marveled at the outsized monuments to Stuart, Lee, Jackson and Davis (there were also monuments to oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury and African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe; I think they need more such non-Confederate statues).

On the grounds of the State Capitol is an equestrian statue of Washington and six other famous Virginians. This was unveiled in the 1850s. The image of Washington on his horse was reproduced on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

Via Wikipedia. The date, 22 February 1862, is when the CSA’s constitution went into effect and Jeff Davis was officially inaugurated to his six year term as president. The Confederates admired Washington as someone who had led a successful armed rebellion against a stronger foe.

Not far from the State Capitol is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, another site with Confederate associations (both Lee’s and Davis’s pews are marked). I confess that I was taken aback by this stained glass window:

I like the Egyptian details. The white writing reads: “By faith Moses refused to be called the Son of Pharaoh’s daughter choosing rather to suffer affliction with the children of God for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” and below that, across the bottom “In Grateful Memory of Robert Edward Lee, Born January 19, 1807.” This is a rather interesting way of viewing Lee’s resignation of his federal commission in order to lead the Army of Northern Virginia. Sorry, I think that African-American slaves have a much better claim to the notion that they were akin to the Hebrews in Egypt.

But speaking of things Egyptian, we enjoyed seeing this building:

via Wikipedia.

It dates from 1845 and is now part of VCU – and has even made it onto the VCU seal.

Via Wikipedia. MCV = Medical College of Virginia; RPI = Richmond Professional Institute. These were merged in 1968 to form VCU.

Darius the Mede

From Dan Audia, notice of an interesting thesis from Dallas Theological Seminary about the possible identity of Darius the Mede, who has an appearance in the Book of Daniel as the conqueror of Babylon in the mid sixth-century BC. The standard line on this character is expressed in a footnote to Daniel 5:31 in the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, at

Nothing is known in history of this person. The Persians, moreover, had already conquered the Medes before taking Babylon.

The non-existence of Darius the Mede serves as evidence that Daniel was not actually written in Babylon, as the book claims for itself, but around the time of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s – that is, the author was fuzzy on details about what to him were events that occurred almost four hundred years in the past.

Steven Anderson, however, claims that:

Cyrus shared power with a Median king until about two years after the fall of Babylon. This king is called Cyaxares (II) by the Greek historian Xenophon, but is known by his throne name Darius in the book of Daniel.

Cyrus did not make a hostile conquest of Media, did not dethrone the last Median king, and did not become the highest regent in the Medo-Persian Empire until after the fall of Babylon. Xenophon’s detailed account agrees remarkably well with the book of Daniel, and can claim surprising support from a number of other ancient sources. The account of the accession of Cyrus given by the Greek historian Herodotus, which forms the basis of the modern historical reconstruction of events, is a legendary recasting of a propagandistic myth promoted by Cyrus as a means of legitimating his conquest in the minds of an unfavorable Babylonian populace. Cuneiform references to Cyrus as “king” soon after the fall of Babylon are easily explained through a coregency which lasted until the death of Darius the Mede/Cyaxares II. There is surprisingly solid biblical and extrabiblical support for Xenophon’s claim that Cyrus began his career as the commanding general of the Medo-Persian army and crown prince of Persia, and that he was not made king of both Media and Persia until after the fall of Babylon.

Interesting stuff. I am keen to read it to see how well his thesis is argued (i.e. does the author simply assert that Darius is Cyaxares, because the Bible Must Be True?) I would say that even if the identification of these two figures is sustained, it does not necessitate the re-dating of Daniel to the Babylonian period. The simplest explanation for Daniel’s remarkably accurate predictions of subsequent Hellenistic history is that it was composed with the benefit of hindsight! (Cf. Aeneas’s visit to the underworld and his vision of the glorious future of Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid, or Macbeth’s vision of future Scottish rulers, some who “twin orbs and double scepters” carry, in the eponymous Shakespearean play.)


Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was all the rage some years ago, and I see that he’s still going strong. The novel wasn’t particularly well written, but what captured people’s imaginations was the Rosicrucian pseudo-history that formed the basis of the plot, and that was most recently represented by Michael Biagent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982). The idea is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired children, and this bloodline of Christ represents the true leadership of the Christian church. The Papacy is a con job, which is why it is keen to stamp out any evidence of this true church. Thus its support of the Carolingians when they overthrew the Merovingians (because Jesus’s descendants had married into the Merovingians) or its outlawing of the Templars (because they had discovered evidence of the secret in their excavations of the Temple in Jerusalem). Dan Brown paid homage to HBHG in The Da Vinci Code by naming one of the characters Sir Leigh Teabing, an anagram of Biagent.

Needless to say there’s not all that much genuine primary source evidence for this theory, and I say so when I lecture on the Merovingians, and the Templars. But The Da Vinci Code isn’t as popular as it once was, and I wonder if I’m not wasting my time (I stopped debunking matriarchal prehistory and the-Greeks-stole-everything-from-the-Egyptians years ago). Still, every now and then the notion that Mary Magdalene was really Jesus’s wife reappears:

Just this week another Jesus hoax has appeared in the media. Media producer Simcha Jacobovici has collaborated with a professor named Barrie Wilson on a book called, “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.” I don’t wish to be rude, and I will freely admit I haven’t read the book yet, but the entire premise is utter hogwash. Jesus probably didn’t marry. Even if he did, we have literally no way to know it. We’re basically looking at a sensationalist money-making scheme here, and there’s nothing else to say about it.

One might ask why I’m taking such a firm view. Scholars are usually far more careful in rendering judgments like this. Several items give away the problem.

We might begin with the book’s title. “The Lost Gospel” suggests the discovery of a new literary source, one that is either recently discovered or has been largely neglected. Instead, the “lost gospel” is actually an ancient Jewish (perhaps Christian) novel we call “Joseph and Aseneth.” It’s well known, and it’s received quite a bit of scholarly attention. Joseph and Aseneth is included in the standard collections of ancient Jewish literature that all biblical scholars consult. This month’s Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, the most significant gathering of biblical scholars in the world, will include two papers devoted to the story. Just type “Aseneth” into your Amazon search window, and you’ll find quite a few books devoted to the story, including monographs by leading scholars.

Unfortunately, Jacobovici and Wilson describe the text as “Gathering dust in the British Library” and suggest they have “uncovered” it. Unfortunately, the media has bought into that narrative. A Washington Post story claims that scholars previously reviewed the document and considered it insignificant. Hardly. Online databases reveal over three hundred scholarly books and articles devoted to this text, not counting book reviews. Over twenty manuscripts of Joseph and Aseneth have survived. If you’re curious, you can consult a modern translation online. In fact, Duke University professor Mark Goodacre created his Joseph and Aseneth home page in 1999 — quite a bit before its recent “uncovering.”

The new book’s subtitle reveals a second problem: “decoding.” The authors claim this ancient novel carries a secret meaning. Joseph and Aseneth makes perfect sense without decoding. It’s the story of how Joseph meets his wife Aseneth, who is Egyptian and a pagan. (Aseneth plays a minor role in the book of Genesis: Pharaoh gives her to be Joseph’s wife, and she becomes the mother of Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim.) The novel describes Aseneth as resembling Hebrew women more than Egyptian women: tall like Sarah and lovely like Rebecca and Rachel. She’s also “hard to get.” But Joseph follows up a fabulous first impression by demonstrating his virtue and piety. Aseneth falls in love, becomes a convert, and marries Joseph.

For decades scholars have understood the novel as providing an inspirational example for Jews living in pagan societies. We know several ancient Jewish fictions that address what it means to live faithfully in hostile contexts. If the story is Christian, or if it includes Christian insertions, it’s one of several conversion stories that we encounter outside the Bible.

Yet Jacobovici and Wilson claim to “decode” this fairly straightforward text. We can “decode” texts to mean anything. For example, the current TV series “Sleepy Hollow” plays all kinds of games in decoding the book of Revelation. We all recognize the show as entertainment. More seriously, the Bible prophecy people transform the book of Revelation into a set of political predictions for the twenty-first century. Through the centuries other Christians also decoded Revelation to “predict” their own circumstances. They were wrong, and so are today’s “prophecy teachers.” The Joseph and Aseneth story needs no decoding.

Wild historical speculations often resist refutation. It’s simply difficult to prove that something did not occur. We could disprove the suggestion that Napoleon visited Disneyland because Disneyland did not exist during the emperor’s lifetime. But we cannot disprove the notion that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire slayer. The idea is preposterous, but we have no evidence either way.