Symbols of Medicine

A peeve of mine, which I record for posterity:

The proper symbol of medicine is called a Rod of Asclepius, and consists of a single snake wrapped around a central pole. It is not to be confused with the Caduceus, which consists of two snakes wrapped around a winged pole, and is associated with the god Hermes.

Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus. Pinterest.

The hero Askepios was the son of the god Apollo and either Coronis or Arsinoe, both mortals. Asklepios’s attributes are a snake and a staff, combined into a single symbol. The staff seems to have been simply the sign of an itinerant physician, while the snake can be seen in many ways:

sometimes the shedding of skin and renewal is emphasized as symbolizing rejuvenation, while other assessments center on the serpent as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the physician, who deals with life and death, sickness and health. The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol, and the contradictions it is thought to represent, reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs, which can help or harm, as reflected in the meaning of the term pharmakon, which meant “drug”, “medicine”, and “poison” in ancient Greek. Products deriving from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, at least some were aware that snake venom that might be fatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be imbibed. Snake venom appears to have been ‘prescribed’ in some cases as a form of therapy.

By an interesting coincidence a healing snake-and-pole device also appears in Numbers 21:

[The Israelites] traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

It’s interesting how snakes are generally symbols of evil in the Christian tradition, but ambiguous in Greek paganism. Here, however, is a Biblical example of a snake that does some good. (And I believe this passage has been used by Christians to justify their use of apotropaic images, in apparent violation of the second commandment.)


Medical bodies that are on the ball will identify themselves with a Rod of Asclepius. Left to right: the Emergency Services’ Star of Life, the coat of arms of Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, and the logo of the American Medical Association, all from Wikipedia.

The Caduceus, by contrast, comes from the Greek kērukeion, and simply means herald’s staff. Since Hermes was the herald of the gods, he is often depicted with a staff of some sort, usually with something wound around it; this has been formalized as two snakes, and the wings match the wings on Hermes’s helmet and shoes. The Caduceus, therefore, represents items in Hermes’s wheelhouse, chiefly commerce.


Coat of arms of Jyväskylä, Finland and of Metropolitan Toronto (1954-98) featuring Caduceuses. From Wikipedia and the Online Register of Arms, Flags, and Badges of Canada.

Or rather, the Caduceus ought to represent commerce. By the same process that saw methodology replace method, or discipline replace field, a device with two snakes (and two wings!) was seen as somehow grander than a device with one. See the Wikipedia entry on the Caduceus as a symbol of medicine.


Apparently the US Army was the chief culprit here. Daniel P. Sulmasy said that “It is hard to trust a profession that cannot even get its symbols straight,” but others have noted the ironic appropriateness of the American medical profession representing itself with a symbol of commerce.

Hebrews and Egyptians

Four statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. Wikipedia.

The traditional date of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is 1250 BC,* which would place it during the reign of Ramesses II, the greatest pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt. Ramesses II is famous for his lengthy reign of sixty-six years, and for siring nearly a hundred children (between 48 and 50 sons, and 40 to 53 daughters).** He is also remembered for his numerous military campaigns both against the Nubians in the south, and the Hittites to the north – and for being a signatory to the world’s first peace treaty.

In another attempt at linking up Biblical with Egyptian history, people have also claimed that the Hebrews settled in the Nile Delta during the second intermediate period under the Hyksos, but then “there arose a new pharaoh who knew not Jacob” – perhaps this was Ahmose of Thebes, who reconquered the Delta around 1550 BC, reunifying Egypt, founding the New Kingdom – and enslaving the Hebrews, who remained in this condition until Moses led them out of Egypt some three hundred years later.

(Then there is Sigmund Freud’s theory that Moses himself was a priest of Atenism, Akhenaten’s failed attempt at introducing a monotheistic religion in the 1340s and -30s. The Hebrews got their idea of one God from the Egyptians!)

Of course, this all doesn’t quite work. New Kingdom Egypt controlled Palestine – the border with the Hittite Empire was established at Kadesh, in what is now northern Lebanon. In fact, Ramesses II himself was still on the throne, if the Hebrews left Egypt around 1250, and spent forty years in the Sinai desert, before beginning their conquest of Canaan under Joshua in 1210. The Bible records no fighting against any Egyptians during this time, however; certainly not against Ramesses II. The Wikipedia article on The Exodus says that Biblical details:

point to a 1st millennium BCE date for the composition of the narrative: Ezion-Geber (one of the Stations of the Exodus), for example, dates to a period between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE with possible further occupation into the 4th century BCE, and those place-names on the Exodus route which have been identified: Goshen, Pithom, Succoth, Ramesses and Kadesh Barnea – point to the geography of the 1st millennium BCE rather than the 2nd.

It is possible that a group of people that later merged into the Hebrew nation had Egyptian origins in the late Bronze Age, and whose story was elaborated and then incorporated into the overall narrative. But apart from some ambiguous references to the Habiru, no non-Biblical evidence has yet come to light about such a group.

* Coincidentally also traditional date of the Fall of Troy.

** That a brand of condom was named “Ramses” seems hugely ironic.

In a Stable, ‘Tis a Fable

From Psephizo (hat tip: Cory Schantz):


Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable

December 3, 2018 by Ian Paul

I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up—though perhaps it is better to do this now than the week before Christmas, when everything has been carefully prepared. But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.

So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture.

The elaboration has come about from reading the story through a ‘messianic’ understanding of Is 1.3:

The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)

The second issue, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the meaning of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2.7. Older versions translate this as ‘inn’:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (AV).

There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home. And when Luke does mention an ‘inn’, in the parable of the man who fell among thieves (Luke 10.34), he uses the more general term pandocheion, meaning a place in which all (travellers) are received, a caravanserai.

The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:

Kataluma (Gr.) – “the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected” (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.

Pandocheionpandokeionpandokian (Gr.) – (i) In 5th C. BC Greece an inn used for the shelter of strangers (pandokian=’all receiving’). The pandokeion had a common refectory and dormitory, with no separate rooms allotted to individual travelers (Firebaugh 1928).

The third issue relates to our understanding of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives. Kenneth Bailey, who is renowned for his studies of first-century Palestinian culture, comments:

Even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.

Moreover, the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. As Bailey explores in his Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, in the living area, where the animals would feed.

This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matt 5.15, Jesus comments:

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

This makes no sense unless everyone lives in the one room! And in Luke’s account of Jesus healing a woman on the sabbath (Luke 13.10–17), Jesus comments:

Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger [same word as Luke 2.7] and lead it out to give it water?

Interestingly, none of Jesus’ critics respond, ‘No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath’ because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house. In fact, one late manuscript variant reads ‘lead it out from the house and give it water.’


More at the link.

Pauline Roots of the West

From Think Theology, courtesy Tim Furnish, an interesting blog post and accompanying video:

I don’t know how Justin Brierley does it, but he gets the most fantastic guests on his show Unbelievable. In this clip from a forthcoming episode, Tom Holland explains to Tom Wright why he changed his mind about Christianity: specifically, how he came to realise that his assumptions about liberty, equality, human rights, international law and the like do not trace their roots to Greek or Roman concepts, as he had previously thought, but rather to the influence of Christian thinking, and that of Paul in particular. It’s a wonderfully concise and eloquent explanation, both in what Holland says about the Greco-Roman world and in what he says about Paul, and you can watch it all in four minutes.

Do so!

My only wish is that St. Paul could have written better….

Catholics and Evangelicals

My friend Andrew Reeves makes his popular-press debut:

In 1960, Billy Graham visited Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and rose again. As far back as the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians had held that a hill where the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from 117–138) had constructed a temple to Venus was the site of Christ’s crucifixion and death, and a nearby tomb, the site of his burial and resurrection. Shortly after Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected on that site. Although this church would endure several periods of damage and reconstruction, for the entirety of its history Christians throughout the world have regarded it as the site of Christ’s tomb.

Billy Graham did not visit the Holy Sepulcher. In the 19th century, the celebrated British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon carried out his own investigation of the areas in the environs of Jerusalem, believing that the Holy Sepulcher’s claim to be the site of the Easter event was incorrect. Through his investigation, he found what he believed was a hill that seemed closer to the New Testament’s description of Calvary and an adjacent tomb. This hill and tomb, generally known as Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, have served as a site of pilgrimage for evangelicals who wish to avoid the Holy Sepulcher’s associations with Catholic Christianity. When the Reverend Billy Graham, the most prominent Baptist in recent history — and indeed the face of American evangelical Christianity through the 20th century — made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he went not to the Holy Sepulcher, but to Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

Read the whole thing (at Arc).

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? Can we even speak of such a thing – and if so, 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: