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Palmyra, Valerian, Shapur, Mani–the Crisis, Part 3

October 1, 2013 1 comment

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Ah, Palmyra! Fabled city in the desert, hub of a vast commercial empire, home to some of the most stunning classical architecture to survive.

This is what we know: the city’s site was first occupied in the 2nd millennium B.C. and gained its independence from Seleucid Syria about 320 B.C. It flourished as a caravan hub for centuries, but its residents apparently engaged in no monumental building. The city came under Roman control in 50 B.C., and the building boom began. The city’s importance grew as a part of the last leg of the Silk Road, and Palmyra managed to maintain its cultural independence while taking on a veneer of Roman culture.

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The city worshiped a triad of gods: 1) Baalshamin, Lord of the Skies; 2) Aglibol the Moon God; and 3) Malakbel (or Yarhibol) the Sun-God. Palmyra’s pantheon also included the standard Mesopotamian gods, including Marduk and Hadad, and Allat, an Arabian female deity. Not surprisingly, we are looking at a syncretic (i.e., one that combines elements from other belief systems) religion.

The building program that started in the last century B.C. included: 1) a massive temple of Baal; 2) the Great Colonnade, which included a triumphal arch; 3) the Baths of Diocletian; 4) a Roman theater, and 5) a large agora (marketplace).

Things started falling apart in 260: the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured, along with his entire army, after the Roman defeat at the Battle of Edessa; Valerian, the only Roman Emperor ever to be captured in battle, died in captivity, perhaps having been humiliated by Shapur I, –the second emperor of the Sassanian Empire (established, AD 224)–beforehand.

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A more blatant sign of Roman weakness is hard to imagine, and the Palmyreans (under Zenobia) and the Gallic empire (under Postumus) seceded during the reign of Valerian’s son, Gallienus.

And now things get really interesting, with religious considerations coming into play. Shapur I gave protection and support to the prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism. Shapur, leader of a new empire, was evidently an innovator. The empire he ruled had been Zoroastrian for centuries, but Shapur may well have been struggling with the power of the Zoroastrian priesthood and seen Mani as a counterbalance to the threat to his throne the priesthood presented.

Who was Mani (216-274), and what was the new religion he founded? Mani was born near Ctesiphon, capital of the Sassanian Empire, in 216. Mani’s father belonged to a Christian-Jewish sect; at 12 and again at 24, Mani had visions of a cosmic twin telling him to leave the sect of his father and preach the true message of Christ. Mani traveled to Afghanistan to study Hinduism in 240 (and possibly Buddhism as well), and by 242 had joined Shapur I’s court. He fell from favor during the reign of Bahram 1, who imprisoned him. Mani died in prison.

Mani taught a dualistic theology featuring three creations and containing elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Mani viewed himself as the successor of Zoroaster, Jesus, and Buddha and wrote several scriptural books, most of which have been lost. It is known that Mani also created artworks to accompany his teachings, and some of the surviving Manichean psalms are quite beautiful.

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At its height, Manichaeism had spread from its Persian origin to include adherents (among them, St. Augustine before his conversion to Christianity) from western Europe to China.

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That’s it for Part 3, folks. Still to come: Part 4: Aurelian and Zenobia and Part 5: The Effects of the Crisis.    RT

RT’s Related Posts: 1) Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome; 2) Crisis of Third Century, Part 2: The Gallic Empire

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Photo, Top: The Palmyrean Triad; Author: Emmanuel PIERRE. CC 1.0 Generic. Middle Photo: Palmyran Closeup; author: Zaledia. CC 3.0 Unported. Middle Drawing: The Humiliation of Valerian; Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1521). Public Domain. Bottom: Manichean Priests (8th-9th cent.). Public Domain. All Illustrations: WikiCmns.

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Andrew and the First Seven Disciples

September 21, 2013 2 comments

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RT has been puzzled by questions surrounding the lists of disciples (or apostles) contained in the Gospels.

And there are many questions regarding the precise roster of the twelve men chosen as Jesus’s inner circle. The synoptic gospels each offers a list of the disciples, but none of these three lists agrees with each other. So RT thinks it advisable to concentrate on the first seven disciples listed, about which there seems to be broad agreement.

1) To begin with, all of the synoptic gospels list the following names: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Bartholomew. Matthew is listed as the seventh in Mark and Matthew, while Thomas is given in that place in Luke.

2) Of these seven, five have extant gospels written under their names: Peter, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Matthew. From RT’s perspective, these disciples are well documented (especially Peter and John) and are likely to have been among Jesus’s first followers.

3) The two who don’t have gospels attributed to them–Andrew and James–are a bit more mysterious. RT will limit himself to discussing Andrew.

4) Andrew presents several difficulties: a) unlike the other three men called by Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Andrew has no nick-name; b) no surviving gospel is attributed to him; c) In Mark, Andrew is not listed immediately after Peter, but after James and John; d) the Gospel of Mark makes virtually no reference to him; and e) in particular, Andrew is missing from the list of disciples who accompanied Jesus to his curing of the daughter of the synagogue official in Mark 5 (Peter, James, and John, but no Andrew). 

5) The mystery deepens when we discover that a Gospel of Andrew is listed as a rejected book in the Decretum Galasianum (mid-4th cent). Surviving in fragmentary form is the Acts of Andrew, which dates to the mid-second century and apparently espouses “a distinctive” Christology.

These considerations suggest to RT that there was an early, quite sharp, break between the brothers Peter and Andrew. One can imagine that in addition to the normal sibling rivalry between the two, they were also vying for the status of being Jesus’s favored disciple. Whether the break was permanent is unclear, but it may be that the two ended up embracing quite different understandings of Jesus’s mission.

And at the back of his mind, RT is wondering if James, son of Zebedee composed a gospel of his own…  RT

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RT’s Related Posts: 1) Bartholomew: “Minor” Apostles and Women

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ImageSt. Andrew: 5th century fresco, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Another Scribble–John 21:11 & the Second Catch of Fish

September 4, 2013 2 comments

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RT has been busy with this and that the last week or so, but, predictably, has been waylaid by the chance at a translation. He offers the following without comment (as his time at the computer lab is running out), but tomorrow will add commentary on the passage.

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Morning came. Jesus stood on the margin, but the disciples did not recognize the man as Jesus.

**And he spoke to them: “Pupils: have you found any fish?” They replied, “No.”

**And he said: “Try your net to the right, and see what you find.” So they cast their net over the right side of the boat, and could not haul in, so many were the fish they caught.

**And the one whom Jesus loved said, “It is the Lord!” But when Simon the Rock heard, he put on his fisher’s garment  (he had taken his clothes off to work) and plunged into the sea…”

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As RT has pointed out before, the atmosphere in which Jesus’s appearances took place after his death was one of intense grief. His disciples had given up everything to enter the Kingdom of God, and now Jesus was gone. This episode works on many levels: it reminds the reader of the first miraculous catch of fish (reported in Luke 5:1-15) and so underlines the importance of seeking (or seeing) and finding–the first steps in the process of Jesus’ religious training. But more fundamentally, it underscores the depth of Peter’s affection for Jesus even as it takes the reader back to the beginning of Jesus’s mission, when he first called Peter and Andrew to follow him. The intensity of Peter’s joy, which leads him to fling himself boulder-like from the boat, is both funny and deeply poignant. The companionship of teacher and student is renewed, if only briefly. Peter has indeed given up everything–and been rewarded.

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Painting: Miraculous Catch of Fish (1444); Konrad Witz, tempera on wood). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

A User’s Guide to Bible Translations–A Book Review

August 25, 2013 1 comment

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The Bible is one of the hardest books in the world to translate. In addition to all the usual considerations–accuracy, English style, the need for a new translation of the material–the translator must make decisions that have theological implications. And the text of the King James Version (1611) is so deeply fixed in the public mind that deviation from its wording is bound to raise eyebrows, even if only unconsciously. Finally, there is the Bible’s length, a consideration that would make even the most determined individual think twice before attempting a version.

That being as it is, the number of high-quality Bible translations available in English is remarkable. A sampling of the acronyms that greet the reader from bookstore shelves follows: the RV (Revised Version, 1885); ASV (American Standard Version, 1901); JBP (J.B. Phillips, 1958); JB (Jerusalem Bible, 1966); NIV (New International Version, 1978); NLT (New Living Translation, 1996; rev, 2004), and The Message (1993-2002).

Which version to choose? Readers seeking help with this question could do much worse than consult A User’s Guide to Bible Translations, by David Dewey.

Dewey is a Baptist minister in England and makes clear at the start that his book will be of most help to Christians who believe that the Bible is the living word of God. In A User’s Guide he gives a balanced overview of the issues involved in Biblical translation: 1) translation theory in general; 2) style; 3) gender inclusivity; and 4) form versus meaning driven translation. In the book’s second half, he offers an overview of the history of Bible translation into English that includes brief reviews of 31 (by RT’s count) different translations made since 1885. Clearly, AUG is a substantial resource for picking a version that will suit the needs of just about anyone buying a Bible, be that person just beginning to read the Bible or someone quite familiar with the text.

Dewey’s recommendation: buy more than one bible, a meaning-driven translation and a form-driven translation, and compare them to get a good idea of a passage’s meaning and beauty. RT couldn’t agree more.

In the book’s conclusion, Dewey offers two criticisms of the ongoing trends in Biblical translation: 1) the sheer number of high-quality versions tends to dilute the Bible’s authority and 2) the copyrighted status of bibles introduces elements of financial interest into the process.  To this, RT will add a further observation: that the explosion in the number of source manuscripts (thousands exist) and the discovery of non-canonical biblical texts (e.g., the Gospel of Peter) may end up requiring that canonical Bibles make some account of the alternatives. This might be the only way to finally arrive at a revised version of the KJV that truly lives up to the stature of the earliest translations and their authors.   RT

(and by the by, RT will be keeping his eye peeled for a copy of the New English Bible during his bookstore sojourns…it just sounds interesting…)

Photo: Text of Luke 11:2, Codex Sinaiticus; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Translation, the English Bible, and William Tyndale

July 14, 2013 2 comments

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Translation is a collaborative enterprise. As much as each translator brings to the work–poetic sensibility, grammatical aptitude, knowledge of the original work and the era that produced it–he or she still relies on the work of others. Previous translations, dictionaries, thesauruses, and histories all help the translator enter into the spirit of the original document(s).

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But, as always, there are exceptions. And the one that RT is thinking of is William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. Far from being derivative, this translation, more than any other work except the quartos of Shakespeare, helped shape the sound and structure of Modern English. And, as with Shakespeare, Tyndale’s Bible is the achievement of a single mind.

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English was in flux during Tyndale’s lifetime (c. 1494-1536). Middle English was dying out, replaced by Chancery Standard, which was being disseminated via the new printing presses. The politics of the time were also unstable: the War of Roses had ended in 1485 with the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty; Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in 1517 and published his translation of the Bible into German vernacular in 1522; and Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534. Medieval Europe was disintegrating, and one sign of this was the appearance of translations of the Bible into vernacular languages.

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Neutrality in such circumstances was difficult to achieve. Tyndale was born into a family with aristocratic connections and soon proved to be linguistically gifted (over the course of his life, he learned French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish). He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford in 1512 and was made Master of Arts in 1515. He began to study theology but was appalled by Oxford’s approach to scriptural study, claiming that it led students away from the Bible’s spirit. He asked for help in translating the bible, applying to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, but was politely turned down. In 1524, Tyndale traveled to Europe and began to translate the New Testament into English. His translation was published in 1526, and copies began to circulate in England, where they were banned and burnt. In January 1529, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic.

The following year, Tyndale’s English translation of the Pentateuch was published. Also in 1530, Tyndale published an argument condemning Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, concluding that it violated the Scripture.

In 1539, Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities and a year later convicted of heresy; tied to a stake, he was strangled and his body burnt, though it seems he survived the strangulation and was conscious during the burning, which he endured stoically.

Within four years of Tyndale’s execution, Henry VIII had authorized and published four translations of the Bible into English. All were based on Tyndale’s version.

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Though Tyndale was not the first to translate the Bible into English (John Wycliffe had translated it into Middle English in the mid-1300’s), Tyndale’s version was the first to work directly from the original languages (as opposed to the Latin Vulgate) and the first to be principally the work of a single man (scholars now recognize that Wycliffe’s Bible is the work of several translators).

But what is really important with Tyndale is the quality of the text. Here is his version of the opening of Genesis:

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In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and

emptie/ ãd darcknesse was vpon the depe/ and the spirite of god moved

vpon the water.

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It’s easy to dismiss this as proto-KJV, in need of the tweaking that that honorable and gifted body of translators gave it. So let’s take a look at the passage’s strengths:

1) The opening of Genesis is famously difficult to translate. For starters, it contains the single original instance of a term in classical Hebrew: tohu-bohu, which in KJV is translated “void and without form.” What characterizes Tyndale’s version is its simplicity and its emphasis on God’s power–he created the world out of nothing.

2) More than that though, Tyndale emphasizes the mystery of the process–the spirit of God “moved upon” the waters–already God is transforming the abyss, before he has created a single thing.

3) Tyndale was the first to use the word create in this passage. Create offers a wide spectrum of connotations, from founding an institution to laying a foundation to finding something, expanding significantly on made, Wycliffe’s word choice in the passage.

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RT will close by noting the enormous influence of Tyndale’s Bible on the King James Version; vernacular English and the advent of the printing press, which made TB the first bible to be broadly distributed, guaranteed a large audience and very likely made the KJV committee’s reliance on it inevitable. Ninety percent of the KJV’s words come from Tyndale (though it should also be noted that poetic effect, tone, and overall meaning do not necessarily depend on word choice). More than any other man except Shakespeare, Tyndale has influenced the language we use. Here are some examples: twinkling of an eye (this apparently from Luther’s translation); the powers that be; eat, drink, and be merry; and fight the good fight. What a legacy!   RT

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Photo: King James Bible, Title Page (1772); WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Revelation of the Magi–A Rediscovered Gospel

June 25, 2013 2 comments

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Small libraries can contain important books; RT has found this to be the case on more than one occasion, and several times with the library he currently frequents, the Berkeley County Public Library. RT is pretty sure that he will continue to post on this remarkable public resource, but in the meanwhile he is focusing on yet another worthwhile book he has stumbled across in the stacks: The Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau.

Reasons why this particular volume is important:

1) It contains the first English translation of a single surviving manuscript that claims to report the entire story of the Magi–going as far back as the Garden of Eden.

2) The story contained in TRM varies significantly from the accounts in the Gospels; for instance, it claims that the Magi came from the extreme east of the world (China?)

3) The story does parallel accounts in obscure apocrypha (e.g., the Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum).

4) The story dates to late in the second or early in the third century and is written in Syriac.

5) The manuscript is virtually intact, having been preserved in the Vatican Library.

RT has suspected for some time that the Nativity story has a long and complex tradition, both oral and written. The Revelation confirms the existence of such a tradition, its diversity, and its importance to understanding the life of Jesus. The fact that in TRM the Magi travel the entire length of the Silk Road suggests the extent of the early Christian presence in Asia. The story, at least to RT’s eye, also reflects early Gnostic influences, yet at the same time accepts the Creator God as glorious; in fact, the story offers a remarkably broad and inclusive vision of the role of Jesus in the history of the world. Above all, the Revelation forces readers to face a very difficult question: what was the origin of the Magi and their pilgrimage? What was the response in Persia and cultures farther east to the struggle between Judaism and Rome–and to the appearance of Jesus and his followers? The answers to these questions may well lead to a more balanced understanding of the emergence of the Gospels and Jesus’ life.    RT

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PaintingPolyptych with scenes of the life of Mary (ca. 1490-1499); oil on panel. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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This is how he did it…

June 7, 2013 2 comments

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…the Redactor, I mean. This is how he braided his source materials together to form the Five Books of Moses as we have them. It is a revealing chart, especially if we remove Leviticus and its Priestly material. We begin to get a better sense of what was important in the storytelling.

Let’s list the actual documents that the Redactor used: 1) the JE Bible, 2) the P Bible, and the 3) Deuteronomistic History.

Now things get complicated: we have to remember that these materials were thoroughly edited not once but twice: by RJE, who combined in the J and E Sources, and by the Redactor, who combined the  JE Bible with the other two sources. Thus, the relationship between J and E in the chart was determined by RJE, while the relationship between JE and P was determined by the Redactor.

What can we say about these relationships? In the first place, the older materials (E, J, and P) are mainly extant in just three of the five Mosaic books: Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. If we look at Genesis, J predominates: the E source doesn’t even appear until chapter 20! But, notably, the Redactor chose to start Genesis with P’s grand creation hymn.

In Exodus, on the other hand, E predominates (or at least until chapter 35, when P takes over).

And in Numbers, we see that E and R (the Redactor’s own work) predominate (once again, not taking into account the preponderance of P).

What does this tell us about the two editors who shaped the Five Books?

1) The first editor, RJE, favored J in the first third of the story, E in the second third, and apparently E in the final third (if the remnants of the JE Bible in Numbers are representative). That means that the Abraham and Jacob cycles are based on J’s point of view, but that the Joseph cycle, the Exodus, and the wandering in the wilderness are based on E’s perspective.

2) The second editor, R, left the JE Bible relatively intact until the arrival at Mt. Sinai, then used the P Bible and his own work to shape the wandering (and let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which is entirely D’s material).

Stay tuned, folks; there is more to come on this subject…    RT

ChartThe distribution of the sources of the first four books of the bible, according to the documentary hypothesis. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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