Archive for the ‘E. Religion: palimpsest & reconstruction’ Category

Jonah: The Elohist Strikes Again!

File:Sistine jonah.jpg

RT is continually amazed by the richness of Biblical stories; reading one is often like sifting through an archaeological dig, going down through layers and layers of writing, spotting priceless and beautiful artifacts along the way.

But when RT began re-reading The Book of Jonah, he wasn’t expecting to run across signs of the Elohist! The evidence?

1) Jonah is almost pure narrative, the only example of nearly unbroken storytelling in the minor prophets. But storytelling is a hallmark of the Elohist.

2) Jonah’s story has been heavily edited, and in fact consists of two original, much older, stories: a) the escape to Tarshish and 2) the prophesy against, and God’s forgiveness of, Nineveh. The two stories reached their combined final form in the book about 500-400 BCE.

3) The appearance of elements suggestive (at least to RT’s eyes) of the Elohist Psalter (roughly, psalms 42-83); sorry, at the moment, without further study, RT can only call this a hunch.

4) The fact that God does not destroy Nineveh. The second half of Jonah must predate the destruction of the northern kingdom, and probably dates from the era when Israel was a client state of the Assyrians. 

The first half of Jonah is even older than the Elohist, RT senses, its roots stretching back into the lost world of the Samarian prophets. How this story relates to the rest of the E author’s work is a question that might be worth pursuing.


ImageThe Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (1471 – 1484). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


cMatthew & eMatthew: A Mystery and a Reconstruction

October 6, 2013 Leave a comment

File:The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel.jpg

Of all the reports of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Matthew may end up being the most mysterious. By church tradition, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, and from early on, the most popular of the four gospels (to judge by the number of surviving manuscripts), Matthew has over the last two centuries been dethroned from its place of eminence. Scholarship has established that in fact the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four to be written, and that Matthew appears to be, in the main, a compilation of Mark and the (reconstructed) Gospel of Q.

Still, one is struck by the many assertions from early church fathers that a gospel by Matthew “in Hebrew letters” was the first to be written. Could such a gospel have existed? Here are RT’s thoughts on the possibility of an earlier version of Matthew than the one incorporated into the New Testament:

1) The Gospel of Mary. This gospel, the extant fragments of which focus on a debate over Mary of Magdala‘s fitness to receive inspired visions from the risen Jesus, ends (in the Greek fragment) in a most peculiar way: with Matthew the disciple going out alone to preach the good news. Now, only about half of GMry is extant, and, in particular, the first six pages of the surviving manuscript are missing. It seems to RT that GMry might have started with a question or statement from Matthew. So, given the fact that the middle of the gospel is apparently devoted to a revelation from Jesus, could Matthew have been on a par with Mary, or even the leader of the disciples in their response to Jesus?

2) Other Gnostic Gospels. Matthew, along with several other of the disciples, questions Jesus in various of the recently recovered Gnostic or discourse gospels. Could assembling the materials related to Matthew’s questions in these gospels give us a glimpse of his earlier gospel? RT has been collecting some of these materials and offers a reconstructed fragment below.

3) The Gospel of the Hebrews. The fairly large number of quotations by church fathers of the Hebrew Gospel (and other quotations from it in GMatt manuscript margins) have been carefully examined, and it seems that not one, but three of these gospels existed: a) The Gospel of the Hebrews; b) The Gospel of the Ebionites; and c) The Gospel of the Nazarenes. Of these three, Ebionites appears to be closest in content to canonical Matthew (though espousing vegetarianism and lacking the Nativity), Nazarenes preserves some powerful alternatives to scenes in cMatthew, and Hebrews is based on a (to RT’s eye) radically different christology than cMatt (or at least, as reported by Cyril of Jerusalem).

4) Hebrew Matthew. Starting in the 7th century and continuing through the Middle Ages, quotations and translations of cMatt appeared in Hebrew. None of the materials seem to be ancient, but some of the readings offered are distinctive.


Of all these materials, RT would vote for The Gospel of the Hebrews as the likeliest candidate for an early Gospel of Matthew. Its fundamentally Jewish worldview (from RT’s perspective) accords with the Jewish emphasis of cMatt. But other of the listed materials give additional ideas of what an early Matthew (eMatt) might have contained. And please note: of all the listed materials, RT has found arguments for original composition in Aramaic only for GNaz.


Here is RT’s reconstructed fragment (based on materials in the Gospel of Mary and the Dialogue of the Savior):

Jesus said:

“You will have no vision of Eternal Life or Radiant Light, where no evil exists, until you put off your clothing of flesh. Therefore, array yourself in a true humanity and do only what you are told. Do not invent any rules or laws.”



RT’s Related Posts: 1) A User’s Guide to Bible Translations; 2) The Unannounced Guest


Painting: The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel. Rembrandt. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Gospel of the Egyptians–Reconstruction of a Fragment

August 27, 2013 1 comment


Salome is one of the New Testament’s more enigmatic figures. Rarely mentioned, she nonetheless is recorded in the Gospel of Mark as one of the women who witnessed the Crucifixion and is numbered among the women who went to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. Some traditions make her the mother of the sons of Zebedee. An important figure, certainly, but perhaps not part of Jesus’s inner group of followers.

Things are more perplexing when we consider the records that survive of her outside the canon. She turns up in documents as disparate as the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Pistis Sophia. A logion in the Gospel of Thomas is devoted to an exchange between Salome and Jesus, and perhaps records their first meeting.

But the reference that had drawn RT’s interest are the mentions of Salome in the Gospel of the Egyptians, a gospel known only through the fragments preserved in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. These are typically given as individual quotes from the writings of Clement, but RT could not help but note that all of these quotes mention Salome, and that they all seem to refer to a single exchange between Jesus and Salome. Well, this was a situation that RT thought could be helped by assembling the pieces of this dialog into a coherent whole. What follows below is RT’s reconstruction:

Fragment from the Gospel of the Egyptians (as quoted by Clement of Alexandria in his writings)


After Jesus finished discoursing on the end of the world, Salome asked him: “How much longer will people keep dying?”

“As long as women give birth,” Jesus replied.

“And so I’ve done right to not give birth?”

Jesus said, “You may eat any plant except the one that tastes bad.”

Then Salome asked the Word when these things would become generally known. Jesus answered:

“When you trample on the garment of shame, and when the two become one. And when the man together with the woman are not man or woman.”


RT will close by noting that the fragment sounds strange, unlike what readers know of Jesus through the Four Gospels, but the themes touched on in this fragment are attested in other non-canonical material: the trampling of shameful garments, the notion that Jesus has come to “destroy the works of the female.” and male and female becoming the same. In the Gospel of Thomas, Peter says that “women are not worthy of life.” To which Jesus replies that he will help make women become like men. And yet this must be set against moments like the “Parable of the Leaven,” a teaching that turns women’s work (and implicitly, pregnancy) into a symbol of the Kingdom of God. I think this is one of Jesus’s more difficult teachings; his understanding of women evolved considerably during his ministry.   RT


Russian Icon: Wives at the Grave (18th century); anonymous. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Perplexities of the Day: The Unannounced Guest (or the Parable of the Faithful Servant)

May 26, 2013 1 comment


Some days are easier than others for RT to visualize; today has been on the less-easy side of the spectrum. This morning centered on revising Gilgamesh tablet 5, this afternoon, on cleaning up the apartment, this evening on completing state 3 of RT’s Map of the Cherson (except that this conflicted heavily with cooking dinner and talking to Mom). And running through all of this was another thread, a reflection on Jesus’s program that greeted RT when he woke up this morning. Which reflection was fine, except that RT had already started a post on the organization of the Hebrew Bible.

More than once in his life, RT has felt like a juggler. But the good news is: Mom is listening to A Prairie Home Companion on her radio, and now RT has time to resolve his quandary and decide what he’s going to post on.

The winner? None of these topics, but one of RT’s reconstructions, something that was occasioned by a stickie that RT ran across back in 2010, he thinks, a stickie that lay on top of the pile of paper on his desk and read, “The Kingdom of God comes like a thief in the night.”

Said quote is actually not a quote, but RT’s response to reading 1 Thessalonians 5:2: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” (KJV). This reading inspired a search that led RT through Matthew, Luke, Thomas, and the Didache, with an emphasis on the Parable of the Faithful Servant and the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

And if this convoluted path weren’t enough, RT would like to point out that he thinks this parable or thread of thought originates with John the Baptist; its apocalyptic tone shares much with John’s preaching, at least from RT’s perspective. In any case, here is RT’s reconstruction.


The Unannounced Guest

John the Baptist said: “Therefore, do not put out your lamps or unfasten your robes—do not let them find you drunk or asleep. This I say to the world—be vigilant! For if the owner knew when the thief will come, the thief would never be able to break in and take the owner’s belongings.”

[based on the Parable of the Faithful Servant, Mk 12:34-37 (not in SV); Matt 24:42–51; Luke 12:35–48; CoptGThom 21b & 103; Didache 16:1a & the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Matt 24:32-36]


RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Syro-Phoenician Woman; 2) Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel.


DrawingThe better part of valour. Sir Frederick Smith. “What’s the good of struggling?” (Punch, 1917). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures

May 18, 2013 2 comments

File:Oxyrhynchos map.gifTo begin with, Oxyrhynchus was a garbage dump in Ptolemaic Egypt. Nothing fancy here:  old tax-assessments, petitions, leases, bills, and horoscopes. Notice however, that all of these are written recordsunder the Ptolemies, Oxyrhynchus was the capital of the 19th nome of Egypt, and, as such, produced masses of administrative documents. The city reached its zenith under the Ptolemies and during early Christian times, experienced a gradual decline under the Romans and Byzantines, and was abandoned after the Arab conquest. During the town’s long life, an immense number of papyrus documents–including literature and religious texts–were thrown away at the dump.

So matters remained for a thousand years, while the extremely dry climate of the area preserved the vast horde of writing. Finally, in 1892, two young British archaeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, discovered the dump and the excavations began.

And what a treasure trove they discovered! Many thousands of manuscripts have been recovered (at the end of their first excavation season alone, Grenfell and Hunt sent 280 boxes of manuscripts to Oxford), and though literary and religious works comprise only 10% of the finds so far, these works have significantly broadened our knowledge of Biblical and extra-canonical writings. These manuscripts include: 1. (from the Septuagint), fragments from Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and Job; 2. (from the New Testament), fragments from four manuscripts of Matthew, fragments from the other three gospels and the Pauline letters, and pieces of the NT apocrypha. Other items discovered include the first known fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, a piece from the Gospel of Mary, possibly, fragments from the Gospel of Peter, and a fragment from the Gospel to the Hebrews (P 655).

And then there is the Greek literature and mathematics, which include: 1) plays of Menander, 2) diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, 3) a large piece from Sophocles’ Ichneutae, 4) an epitome of 7 of the 107 lost books of Livy (in Latin), and 5) a large fragment of a poem by Sappho. These finds have been so impressive, that, in fact, the archaeological site has been more-or-less continuously excavated since its discovery.


Wow! But the best news is: the excavations continue–who knows what may turn up?



Related RT Posts: 1) The Great Library of Alexandria; 2) The Novgorod Codex.


Map: Egypt, showing the location of Oxyrhynchus; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Cherry Tree Carol

May 14, 2013 4 comments


RT never knows when the reconstruction bug will bite, as it did last night while he was (perhaps not so innocently) browsing one of his poetry anthologies. He ran across “The Cherry Tree Carol,” a piece that he had never read before, and knowing how old ballads can have strong roots in mythology and religion, made his way through the beautiful poem.

Well, all kinds of flags started popping up about the poem’s origins, which RT will share after presenting the poem, making this an exercise in interpretation, not reconstruction…but in any event, here is the carol:





The Cherry Tree Carol


54A.1  JOSEPH was an old man,

and an old man was he,

When he wedded Mary,

in the land of Galilee.


54A.2  Joseph and Mary walked

through an orchard good,

Where was cherries and berries,

so red as any blood.


54A.3  Joseph and Mary walked

through an orchard green,

Where was berries and cherries,

as thick as might be seen.


54A.4  O then bespoke Mary,

so meek and so mild:

‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,

for I am with child.’


54A.5  O then bespoke Joseph,

with words most unkind:

‘Let him pluck thee a cherry

that brought thee with child.’


54A.6  O then bespoke the babe,

within his mother’s womb:

‘Bow down then the tallest tree,

for my mother to have some.’


54A.7  Then bowed down the highest tree

unto his mother’s hand;

Then she cried, See, Joseph,

I have cherries at command.


54A.8  O then bespake Joseph:

‘I have done Mary wrong;

But cheer up, my dearest,

and be not cast down.’


54A.9  Then Mary plucked a cherry,

as red as the blood,

Then Mary went home

with her heavy load.


54A.10   Then Mary took her babe,

and sat him on her knee,

Saying, My dear son, tell me

what this world will be.


54A.11  ‘O I shall be as dead, mother,

as the stones in the wall;

O the stones in the streets, mother,

shall mourn for me all.


54A.12   ‘Upon Easter-day, mother,

my uprising shall be;

O the sun and the moon, mother,

shall both rise with me.’

–British Ballad, Anonymous, 15th century or earlier

Things to note about the poem:

1) The story’s source is ultimately the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an infancy gospel that dates to the 7th century (though details have been modified to fit medieval England).

2) There is a major break in style and theme after stanza 9; up until this point, the poem focuses relentlessly on the cherry tree and the characters of Joseph and Mary. After this point, Jesus has been born and tells Mary about his future.  The imagery in this second half of the poem focuses on stones. Perhaps most telling of all, the relentless rhyming around the word “cherry”  in the third line of each stanza disappears. We appear to have a second, and probably later, source for the poem’s last three stanzas.

3) How did the first part of the poem end? RT suspects that in the oldest version of this story, Mary was impregnated when she ate the cherry pro-offered by the tree, making the tree Joseph’s direct rival; his palpable anger would have been unleashed against the father of the child, perhaps by cutting down the tree. Certainly the cherry’s blood-red clot of color is suggestive of pregnancy and the incident brings to mind the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden.

4) Jesus’s speech from the womb in Stanza 6, reminiscent of Deirdre’s birth story, is probably a later addition, from the same source as the poem’s end; the stanza’s third line lacks a rhyme with cherry (or offers the weak “tree”–why doesn’t the poet use “cherry”?)

5) Could one of the story’s oldest roots have reported the origin of cherries as being blood shed by the tree when it was cut down?

6) The second, later source’s reference to stones is inspired; they suggest the cherry stone while adding a powerful contrast to the orchard. The final image of Jesus rising with the sun and moon is also powerful. This editor was a gifted poet in his (or her) own right.


Related RT Posts: 1) The Nativity; 2) The Magi.

Drawing: Cherries (variety Lambert), 1894; National Agricultural Library (part of USDA). User, Jo Jan. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Bartholomew: “Minor” Apostles and Women

April 16, 2013 1 comment


None of the apostles can have been ordinary people; Jesus doubtless was very careful in his selection of his inner circle of followers. It seems to RT, however, that some of the apostles were more dynamic than others, serving as centers of activity and interpretation after Jesus’s death. Others among the twelve were drawn to their intensity and leadership. Peter and James, Jesus’s brother (though not an apostle), for instance, appear to have been focal points of the movement. RT has a hunch that Mary Magdalene should also be included in this list of leaders.

On the other hand, one person that RT is fairly certain was not a leader was Bartholomew. That is not to say that Bartholomew was unimportant; rather he may have worked as a consensus-builder in the difficult first years after Jesus’s departure.

Based on his reading of a work variously called the Gospel of Bartholomew or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, RT thinks that Bartholomew belongs in the Peter-James the Brother camp; that is to say, he was what today would be called a Jewish-Christian, Law-compliant, a follower of a Christology significantly different from the Christian view.

These are deep waters, made deeper by the existence of materials other than the Acts of the Apostles to read and consider. RT will confine himself to remarking on a single point about Bartholomew and his gospel. In GBarth, there is a scene where Peter and Mary the Mother debate who is worthiest to approach Jesus; Peter refers to Mary as the Tabernacle; Mary calls Peter the Rock of the Church. Very high compliments, to be sure, until one considers a similar passage in the Gospel of Mary, in which Peter denounces Mary Magdalene as unfit to have visions from Jesus (and thus to be a leader) because she is a woman.

It seems from these two passages that Peter and Mary Magdalene were competitors for the leadership of the movement, a conflict that apparently was resolved by praising women as mothers and above all the mother of Jesus, while ejecting Mary Magdalene from her leadership position. RT is also curious to find out what may have happened to Salome and other women who evidently were close to Jesus during his life. The Gospel to the Egyptians, preserved mostly in quotations from Clement of Alexandria, consists exclusively of a dialog between Jesus and Salome. RT can’t help but think of this text as The Gospel of Salome.


Already the “minor” apostle Bartholomew, rarely mentioned in the canonical Gospels, has taken us deep into the world of Jesus and the disciples, a world where a wide-ranging debate took place over Jesus and his mission. RT thinks it appropriate to end by pointing out that Jesus founded not one, but two, major religions, Christianity and Gnosticism. Many of the women in the Magdalene’s camp might have been attracted to the latter movement, which embraced, at least to some extent, the notion of equality for women.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Gospel of the Egyptians–Reconstruction of a Fragment


PaintingSt John and St Bartholomew; Giovanni di Niccolo Luteri (1527); WikiCmns; Public Domain.