- P52, the John Rylands fragment,
I’m sorry for my absence from this blog! There’s just been too much to do so far this month/year: work, school, all my other writing, life in general …
Enough excuses. I want to write a series of posts this year on the Jewish side of the Bible, those books we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh … they’ve got lots of titles. I’d also like to conclude the series I started last year, on the roots of Christian anti-Judaism and what we can know about the trial and death of Jesus.
But as usual, I’m distracted. It turns out that archaeologists may have discovered the earliest known Gospel fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. We don’t know much about this find … not yet. But from the little information we have so far, it appears that the fragment has been dated to the 80s CE, which would make the fragment 40 to 50 years older than the previously accepted oldest Gospel fragment (the P52 fragment of the Gospel of John, commonly dated to around 130 CE–this is the fragment pictured above).
Now that we’re past New Year’s, it’s high time I finished up my series on Christmas and Hanukkah!
Last time, I left you with a question. I pointed out that as best as we can tell, the original celebration of Hanukkah was a Temple festival celebration: more specifically, it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple altar in Jerusalem, after the Temple had been defiled by pagan practices during the reign of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV.
What was this first celebration like? Well, we might look to the book of First Maccabees to find out. This books was written by one or more Jewish authors after the successful revolt against Antiochus IV, probably in Hebrew, and it covers the period from the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great through the first 30 years following the revolt. This book is not part of the Hebrew Bible (it is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles, but not in the Protestant Bible), but it is nevertheless a book that most Jews today consider to be historically trustworthy. And as I described in the last post, the book describes the first Hanukkah as an eight-day celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple:
Today is Winter Solstice day, the shortest day of the year if you live in the northern hemisphere, and the longest day if you live south of the equator. From here on in, those of us in the north will enjoy slightly longer days and slightly shorter nights for the next six months. (If if you’re looking forward to earlier sunrises, you need to wait a bit longer: strangely enough, the latest sunrise of the year is not for another couple of weeks.)
Today is also the fifth day of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah [now the sixth day; I didn’t finish this post until after sunset]. I assume most of my readers are familiar with Hanukkah! But if not, let me reference for you an ancient description of Hanukkah. What’s Hanukkah? It’s the day we Jews go to our houses of worship and decorate them with golden crowns and small shields. We sing songs while we play harps, lutes and cymbals.
No, no. That’s not the right description. Let’s start again, this time looking at a different ancient description. What’s Hanukkah? It is a festival of light, where we light candles, one additional candle for each day of the festival. We also give gifts, play gambling games for gold coins (in our day, made of chocolate) and generally celebrate in our homes.
In my last post, I responded to Anthony Le Donne’s piece on the so-called “War on Christmas.” I wrote that from my Jewish perspective, there is no war. There is a holiday called “Christmas” that is enthusiastically celebrated by just about everyone in North America and the U.K., which not coincidentally are the only places I know where this “War” is discussed. The so-called “War” is nothing more than a discussion on how we’d each like to be greeted in December (“Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?” Something else? No greeting?), and what kinds of holiday displays may or may not be too religious to be displayed on government property.
But maybe I’m missing something important here. Anthony posted a comment on my blog where he noted how young non-Christians perceive Christianity as anti-homosexual, judgmental and hypocritical. Anthony opined that “some of these impressions are warranted,” and pointed out that Christians have not faced anything like the kind of hatred experienced by American Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then … he dropped this little bomb on us:
As a parent, I have another view on this. Do I want my children’s classmates, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. to stereotype my kids as “antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others”? Do I want my children to develop this negative self image of themselves? Of course I don’t. Christians are wrong to feel persecuted or think that there is a war being waged… but I understand why my fellow Christians think that people hate them.
Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has written an impassioned piece about the so-called War on Christmas. This “war” is a term some pundits use to describe an array of slights against Christians and the Christmas season, from controversies over nativity scenes in public places, to the simple greeting “Happy Holidays” delivered by staff at the Walmart.
You could write a book about it. In fact, Fox News’ John Gibson has written a book about it. It’s available in hardcover at amazon.com for $0.01 (not much of a profit margin, but maybe they make it up in volume). Here’s a blurb from the book’s page on Amazon:
In the United States of America, a nation overwhelmingly Christian, literally any sign of Christmas in public can now lead to complaints, litigation, angry protests, threats, and bruised feelings. Every year the limitations get tighter and tighter and spread to more and more communities, far from the big liberal cities. And as Fox News Channel’s John Gibson reveals in this shocking exposé, it’s not happening by accident.
Secular liberals say they’re just protecting the constitutional rights of non-Christians who don’t want to see or hear about Christmas. But what about the constitutional rights of millions of Americans who simply want to celebrate their traditional holiday—without insulting anyone else but also without having to hide behind closed doors?
Hiding behind closed doors? Really? When every mall and town square is decorated for Christmas for a solid month? When the media is saturated with Christmas advertising, Christmas-themed programming, and worst of all (shudder!), Christmas music? (Much of this music was written by Jews, for whatever that’s worth.) What holiday is celebrated in the West with more enthusiasm, with more stamina and more publicly than Christmas?
I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred commons.
In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”
The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.
In my last post, I returned to one of my favorite recent topics: violence in the Bible. My focus there was on the Hebrew Bible books of Joshua and Judges. I concluded that post with the question: how do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, and who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, in many cases demanding the total destruction of the enemy?
Here’s a particularly chilling illustration of what I mean, taken from the book of 1 Samuel. G-d orders Saul, the newly appointed first King of the Israelites, to attack the Amalekites:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
In case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.
With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.
In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.
An essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology … Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing – again – continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided … This sort of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 12