Posts Tagged ‘D. Religion: Received and Interpreted’

Synopsis of Gilgamesh

July 13, 2011 8 comments

As I continue to post selections from my version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, readers probably are growing more curious about the story in its entirety. So I’m following a friend’s suggestion and posting my synopsis of the epic; hope this gives a good idea of the plot!



Tablet I: Prologue. Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, only one-third human. He built the walls around Uruk, the city he rules, and restored the proper worship of the gods. He is divinely powerful and handsome, and endured great suffering to bring humanity forgotten wisdom: the story of the Flood.

Story starts. Gilgamesh’s sexual energy oppresses his subjects, the people of Uruk. They complain to Anu, Father Sky, and ask him for help. To absorb his divine energy, Anu decrees a companion for Gilgamesh—Enkidu.  Aruru, Mother Earth, fashions Enkidu and places him in the wilderness. Enkidu grows up among wild animals, and protects them by ripping up the nets that trappers lay for the herds. One of these trappers complains to Gilgamesh, who sends a gorgeous woman, Shamhat, to seduce Enkidu and bring him into Uruk. Shamhat accompanies the trapper and seduces Enkidu.


Tablet II: Shamhat takes Enkidu into a shepherd’s camp to learn the settled way of life. While at the camp, Enkidu is outraged when he learns of Gilgamesh’s duty to sleep with brides on their wedding night. He vows to go to Uruk and stop this practice; when he arrives at the city, he wrestles with Gilgamesh, who barely wins the match against the newcomer. Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s authority and the two take vows as partners.

Gilgamesh takes Enkidu to meet his mother, the Goddess Ninsun. Ninsun denounces Enkidu, saying that he has treated Shamhat with disrespect and intends to introduce changes in marriage that will harm Uruk. She ends by saying that unless Enkidu changes his views on marriage and women, he must leave the city.

The next day Gilgamesh and Enkidu discuss ways to circumvent Ninsun and remain together. Gilgamesh hits on the idea of undertaking an expedition to the Cedar Forest to cut down the precious trees. To do this they must kill Huwawa, the ferocious monster who guards the forest. Gilgamesh persuades both Enkidu and Uruk’s Assembly of Men that this expedition will bring great wealth into the city and increase the prestige of men, who are still largely subservient to women and the Goddess Inanna. Gilgamesh believes that once the expedition has succeeded, Ninsun will be forced to bless his love for Enkidu.


Tablet III: Utu, the Sun God and Gilgamesh’s divine father, tells Gilgamesh that he has blessed the Forest Expedition. The Assembly of Men considers this sufficient protection for the adventure, and consents to Gilgamesh’s plan. But Ninsun is distraught; she understands that the expedition will rouse the anger of the Goddess Inanna, with unknown consequences for her son and Uruk. She prays to Utu the Sun to withdraw his blessing and protect their child; but Utu tells her that the expedition is part of Gilgamesh’s fate and can’t be prevented. He ends by saying that Inanna’s authority in Uruk will not be compromised.

Ninsun reluctantly consents to the adventure, and accepting fate, adopts Enkidu as her son, thereby blessing his union with Gilgamesh. She undertakes rituals to ensure Inanna’s support for the adventure. Gilgamesh instructs the Assembly in how to rule in his absence. He and Enkidu leave Uruk.


Tablet IV: Gilgamesh and Enkidu cross six mountains on their way to the Cedar Forest. At each mountain Gilgamesh has a dream; initially, the dreams warn of disaster, but Enkidu interprets each positively. Gilgamesh is nonetheless on the edge of turning back when the dreams become more favorable. On the seventh day, they reach the Cedar Mountain.


Tablet V: The heroes climb the Cedar Mountain and marvel at the forest.

Utu breaks their reverie, telling them that they must attack Huwawa immediately; he is not wearing his full complement of radiant armor and is vulnerable. But Huwawa has heard them enter his territory and attacks them, even though he isn’t fully prepared. The monster’s radiant presence temporarily paralyzes and hinders the heroes, but they struggle free and injure him. Huwawa runs deep into the forest.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu follow, and when they find Huwawa, the monster is wearing all of his deadly haloes. This time his magic paralyzes them completely, and he closes in to kill them. Gilgamesh prays to Utu for deliverance, and the Sun God overcomes Huwawa, binding him in an unbreakable net. Huwawa is now at the heroes’ mercy.

Huwawa pleads for his life, acknowledging Gilgamesh and Utu as his masters and pledging to deliver whatever timber that Gilgamesh wants.

Gilgamesh is moved by the monster’s plea, but Enkidu urges the king to kill him, arguing that if they let Huwawa live, he will turn against them and report their successful incursion to Enlil, the patron of the forest and the most powerful of the gods. Enlil will kill them in revenge; he is stronger than Utu. Gilgamesh can’t find a way around this reasoning, and so he kills Huwawa. The heroes cut down many trees, including the Tree of Heaven, and return with their booty to Uruk.


Tablet VI: The Goddess Inanna comes naked to Gilgamesh, offers to sleep with him, and tells him that she wants him for her husband, which would make him an immortal god. Gilgamesh replies with contempt, refusing her offer and cataloguing the terrible fates of other lovers she has taken.

Inanna replies, telling him that he is scorning his duty as king and thereby jeopardizing the safety of his people. She explains why each of the lovers he catalogued had failed her, and reminds him that men remain indebted to women because they need the civilizing influence that women provide. Gilgamesh rejects her argument, and the offer of immortality, saying that to do so would compromise the prestige of men.

Inanna goes up to heaven and reports Gilgamesh’s behavior to her father, Anu, Father Sky. He sides with Gilgamesh, and tells her that she should accept the king’s decision. Furious, Inanna threatens to let the dead up from the underworld to eat the living unless she can punish Gilgamesh—she asks for the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to be let loose against Uruk. Terrified, Anu consents, and Inanna takes the Bull down to Uruk.

The Bull attacks Uruk, devastating the outlying fields and houses. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack the Bull, find its weak spot, and slaughter it. They are received in Uruk as heroes and the city feasts Gilgamesh that night, as Inanna and her votaries mourn over the haunch of the slain bull.


Tablet VII: The night of the feast, Enkidu dreams that the gods have condemned him to death. He tells Gilgamesh that Enlil has condemned him because they killed Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. Utu defends Enkidu, but loses the argument when Enlil reminds him that they killed Huwawa in spite of his plea for mercy—Utu is the god of justice and mercy and therefore the heroes broke the code of their champion when they refused the monster’s plea. Enkidu’s dream breaks off at this point, but it seems clear that Utu was forced to consent to his death.

Gilgamesh tries to hold out hope that the gods can be persuaded to change their minds, but Enkidu is certain that his death is near. He curses the Cedar Door, Shamhat, and the trapper, the agents he believes responsible for his death, but Utu reminds him that these people helped him. Enkidu then blesses both of them.

The next night Enkidu dreams that the Angel of Death takes him to the Underworld, and there the Queen of the Dead reads out the Writ of Execution, but says that because Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s beloved, he will enjoy a better condition in the underworld than most mortals. Enkidu reports his dream to Gilgamesh in the morning, and that day falls ill. He lingers for several days, but dies horribly. Gilgamesh begins to mourn.


Tablet VIII:  Gilgamesh makes a powerful lament for Enkidu. He orders a memorial statue of Enkidu to be crafted and begins preparations for the burial: he selects elaborate and expensive funeral gifts for the gods from the city’s treasury and dedicates each of these to its proper deity in the underworld. Gilgamesh orders the construction of a burglar-proof tomb in the bed of the Euphrates River. When the tomb has been built, he places Enkidu in his sarcophagus and lets the river back into its bed.

That night, still devastated by grief and the fear of death, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to search for Utnapishtim, the only man to win eternal life. He hopes to learn the secret of immortality from him.


Tablet IX:  Gilgamesh travels to the edge of the world and finds a pass over the Dividing Mountains into the deathless lands. But while crossing the pass he sees a pair of lions playing in moonlight, and in a fit of ravenous hunger, kills and eats them. The Moon God tells him that in punishment, he must travel the difficult path over the mountains, which lies far to the east.

Gilgamesh travels east and meets the scorpion-guardians, gods who watch over the Path of the Sun through the mountains. Seeing his mortal blood, they initially forbid him passage, but he convinces them that he is more god than man, and so they let him pass.

Racing through the passage, he reaches a garden of jeweled fruit at the entrance to the Immortal Lands. Ravenous once more, he eats fruit from the garden, which restores his strength and vigor. On the far side of the garden lies the shore of the Sea of Death; on the shore Gilgamesh discovers a tavern.


Tablet X:  Gilgamesh reaches the tavern and its keeper, Siduri, the Goddess of the Temple-as-Tavern. Siduri begs Gilgamesh to become her husband, which would confer eternal life and ease. He refuses; he wishes immortality in the mortal lands, so he can rule and protect his city forever (thus rivaling the power of his mother, Queen Ninsun). Siduri is crushed and at first refuses to speak any more with him, but Gilgamesh persuades her to tell him how to cross the Sea of Death: he must win passage on the boat captained by Urshanabi the Ferryman.

Gilgamesh finds the ferry boat with its crew, but Urshanabi is absent, cutting wood for repairs. The crew disgusts him: they are grotesque monsters, men made of jewels and stones in the same way that the trees of the jeweled garden are, but horrible to look on. Gilgamesh kills them just as Urshanabi returns from his errand. The ferryman is furious, and refuses passage over the waters. Gilgamesh threatens to kill him, and Urshanabi says that he will guide him across, but Gilgamesh must do the work that the crew would have done, a terrible labor. They sail across the Sea and reach Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh pleads with Utnapishtim for eternal life. Utnapishtim says that the gift is not his to give: only the Assembly of Gods can confer immortality. He advises Gilgamesh to return to Uruk, where his skills and experience are needed to restore the city’s proper worship. Utnapishtim then says that he will tell Gilgamesh a secret that explains the wisdom and necessity of death: the Story of the Flood.


Tablet XI: Part 1, the Flood.  Utnapishtim says that in ancient times the gods decided to destroy mankind because men had become too powerful. The gods were unable to resist the beauty of mortal women, and so fathered many half-gods on them, people who were almost divine and demanded to be admitted into heaven. The gods were afraid that these mortals would supplant them. Lead by the Goddess Inanna, who was jealous of the beauty of mortal women, they decreed the Flood. Only Enki, the God of Wisdom, and Utu, the God of Justice, dissented. Enki decided to defy the Assembly and save his own son, Utnapishtim.

Enki told Utnapishtim about the imminent catastrophe and instructed him in how to build a ship to save himself, his family, and all land animals. Utnapishtim built the ark and the Flood came, wiping out all life. But the Gods lost control of the Waters: they were powerful enough to start the catastrophe, but not powerful enough to stop it. Specifically, they called to their aid the demons of the underworld, gods who were banished beneath the earth because they refused to obey the Assembly. In revenge, these demons urged the Waters higher, destroying the courts of heaven and forcing the gods to flee to the farthest walls of the world, where they cowered like dogs.

Only Inanna, in her capacity as Goddess of Battle, had the courage to fight these demons. She fought Ushamgallana, the Nine-Headed Worm, and cut off two of his heads. She shrieked out her Battle Cry, which paralyzed the Worm. She moved in for the kill, but Enlil, the God of Storms, attacked her: he did not want to lose his overlordship of the gods to a woman. Enlil held Inanna down until Ushamgallana recovered and raped the Goddess.

The Gods were then helpless, utterly defeated. They would have been killed, if they had not been immortal. The Demons, knowing that they could inflict no further destruction, moved back to the Underworld, taking the Waters with them.

The retreating waters revealed the peaks of seven mountains; the ark landed on one of them, and Utnapishtim released a series of birds, hoping that they will find land; the third bird, a raven, found land, and Utnapishtim burned incense in thanks to the gods. He opened the ark and releases its inmates.

The gods smelled the incense and came down to feed on the offerings. Enlil, however, was outraged: no man was meant to survive the Flood. Enki explained that he has outwitted him and saved mortal life. Enki then cursed Enlil for allowing the Flood, stripping him of overlordship of the gods, which he took for himself. The God of Wisdom then condemned Inanna, saying that in punishment for her role, the children she will bear as a result of her rape will be doomed to live in the Underworld after death. The new mortals, moreover, will not worship the Goddess as they had before. But Enki also commended her courage in fighting against the Worm and said that in reward eventually her prestige will be restored and mortals will gain wisdom and prolong their lives. Finally, Enki took Utnapishtim and his family to live at the Source of Rivers for eternity.


Tablet XI: Part 2, Envoi.  After hearing the story, Gilgamesh still wants eternal life, so Utnapishtim challenges him to defeat death by staying awake for seven days. Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, and Utnapishtim devises a way of proving that he has indeed been asleep. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is forced to accept the evidence that he is unworthy of eternal life. But as consolation Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find an underwater plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh starts his journey home, guided by Urshanabi, and retrieves the Plant of Youth Renewed.

Gilgamesh decides not to eat the plant immediately, however; he wants to test it on someone else before eating it. The next day a snake enters their boat and eats the plant, shedding its skin as a result. Gilgamesh breaks down, sobbing out his sense of total defeat. But Urshanabi consoles him, reminding him of his achievements and that he had brought back the story of the Flood.

The pair reach Uruk and the sight of his city restores Gilgamesh’s spirits. He praises Uruk and its place in the world.

© 2011, Eric Quinn

Images: At top: Gilgamesh Holding a Lion; WikiCmns; Public Domain. Earrings: Parthian earrings found at Nineveh; Nickmard Khoey; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic. Map: Sumer During the Uruk Period; John Croft; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Painting: The Great Flood; Michaelango, Sistine Chapel; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Audience Gifts from Tablet VIII

July 10, 2011 3 comments

As the completion of Tablet VIII looms ever closer, it’s time for me to keep my promise and post an excerpt from the material. I’ve chosen the list of audience gifts (that is, burial goods) included in Enkidu’s tomb.

The list, which has been only partially reconstructed, is important not only for the individual items it lists, but also for the light it sheds on ancient attitudes towards death. In ancient Sumer,  one’s position in the afterlife very much depended on the tribute one received from the living; Hell, as Heaven, was a reflection of our earthly existence, and Gilgamesh’s concern with eternal fame was for him necessary if he was to continue receiving the sacrifices of material goods that ensured his well-being in the House of Dust. Then, as  now, our conduct in life was largely responsible for our fate in death.

And here it is, sections iv and v from Tablet VIII, the audience-gifts:


iv. Possessions of the Dead


When two weeks had passed since Enkidu’s death,

a worm dropped out of the rotting cadaver’s nose.

Sickened, the king resolved to master his dread,

entomb the body swiftly and with singular respect.

He must prepare Enkidu, convey him with rich gifts.

Gilgamesh could no longer delay his friend’s funeral.


Gilgamesh opened, ransacked his cavernous treasury;

he broke the seal and entered the enormous vault.

There were stored the booty of his many campaigns

and tribute from peoples far-distant and wealthy.

He selected the rarest luxuries for the departed,

items to win him honor and advantage in the shadows:


Gems unmatched, the most precious he provided—

carnelian, turquoise, agate, ruby, lapis lazuli,

pearls, quartz—all these he gave to his friend.

Neither did he keep back the most valuable gold,

reject objects useful for comfort and idleness,

begrudge objects needful for status and esteem:


   Ten rings of gold he gave his companion,

   a mask of the departed’s face in red gold,

   A belt of silver superbly worked and fitted,

   ten cups of glass rimmed with mountain rubies,

   a couch of oak, its cushions of fine wool:

   All these he gave with thanks to Enkidu.


   A dagger of obsidian, its shaft of bone;

   An axe of bronze, its handle ebony;

   A bow of polished ash, its grip of rope;

   A quiver of ostrich hide holding fifty arrows;

   A shield of five skins, studded with bronze:

   All these and more he gave with gratitude.


   An ostrich egg in gold; a lyre of wood and bone;

   A bull and a ram carved in oak and cedar,

     each with eyes of shell and lazurite, golden horns;

   Two snakes of wisdom, their teeth of crystal;

   A bear in filigree, its eyes of topaz:

   All these he dedicated with heartfelt tears.


v. Offerings for the Great


For the Morningstar:

For the radiant Queen Inanna:

   A javelin of boxwood, sleek and polished,

   pointed with bronze, gold, and copper.

The javelin he presented to the Sun, saying,

“May the Queen of Stars accept this javelin,

cherish and guide my friend.”


For the Queen of Dusk:

For Ereshkigal, Ruler of the Dead:

   A flask of lapis lazuli,

   patterned with gold, stopped with glass.

The flask he presented to his Champion, saying,

“May the blessed Ereshkigal accept this flask,

instruct and guard my friend.”


For the Shepherd:

For gentle Dumuzi, beloved of the Night:

   A slender flute of carnelian,

   its music sweet and wistful—

Presented to Utu the Hero:

“May Dumuzi accept this flute,

serenade and refresh my friend.”


For the Great Steward:

For wise Namtar, Steward of the Dead,

   A headman’s chair in silver;

   A staff of polished olivewood—

Presented to Utu the Just:

“May Namtar accept the chair and staff,

guide and guard my friend.”


For the Lady of Winnows:

For Qassu-Tabat, who holds the Flail of Death,

   A golden necklace, its clasp of silver,

   A silver bracelet with bangles also—

and to Utu the Great Friend:

“May Qassu-Tabat, the exalted, accept these gifts,

receive and esteem my friend.”


For the Lady of Rakes:

For Ninshuluhha, who cleans the House of Death,

   A chest of alabaster, inlaid with serpentine,

   its top patterned with sodalite and coral.

and to Utu the Far-Seeing:

“May Ninshuluhha the humble accept this chest,

acknowledge and honor my friend.”


For the Attendants and Guardians:

To many others in the House of Death

Gilgamesh offered gifts:

   Hushbisha the Stewardess, Bibbu the Butcher,

   Urmahlullu, the lion-centaur, Neti, the gate-keeper:

each received a proper present, an offering

to earn Enkidu good-will.


For the Gods Gilgamesh prepared the richest meat;

he slaughtered the fattest ox, the tender lamb;

he piled up the sizzling cuts for their feasting.

The Sun inspected, sampled the food, blessed it.

The priests of his several temples came at dusk,

carried the offering to the rulers of the Dead.


© 2011, Eric Quinn


Photo: Golden Funeral Mask from the Svetitsata  Tumulus (King Teres); National Archaeological Museum, Sofia; WikiCmns; CC 2; Author: Ann Wuyts.

Gilgamesh, Tablet VII–The Cedar Door

July 6, 2011 1 comment

Tablet VII of Gilgamesh, which deals with the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s companion, is difficult for modern readers to appreciate. The tablet contains the (mostly intact) account of Enkidu’s vision of the Underworld–the first account of Hell (though a Hell quite different from the one most of us are familiar with). But even stranger are Enkidu’s curses of those people  he feels are responsible for his death. Among the targets of his rage are the door that he carved from the cedar wood taken during the Forest Expedition in Tablet IV. It might seem strange that Enkidu blames an inanimate door for his troubles, but in ancient Mesopotamia, such objects, whether conscious or not, acted as powerful intermediaries with the gods–a belief that eventually resulted in the biblical ban on idolotry.

Here then, without further ado, is Enkidu’s curse (and his prayer to the sun) from section ii of Tablet VII:

ii. Cedar Door

In the desolate hours before the Sun returns,

Gilgamesh searched Uruk for his companion,

scoured the broad streets and shuttered alleys.

He found him, waiting eager, at the Sun’s shrine.

They embraced, and Enkidu said: “The day is here—

your Father will bless us as he climbs the sky.”

Utu rose resplendent, and Enkidu beseeched him:

“Merciful god, whose Eye has seen the world,

whose Face is never turned away from our need,

why must I die? Did not Father Sky create me?

Have I not brought peace to Gilgamesh the King,

joy and ease to Uruk, throne of god and goddess?


“I acknowledge my offenses in the Cedar Forest,

admit my scorn for the Lady and the Great Bull.

But the damage I have inflicted can be made good:

we will restore the Goddess to her privileges,

protect the Great Forest, revere the Divine Bull.

Summon the Council—appeal to their true nature!”


The Sun, burning in the sky, returned no answer.

Enkidu scowled, terrified at the god’s rebuke.

Certain that Anu had dismissed Utu’s defense,

he thought of the Cedar Door dedicated to Enlil,

the door whose timid plea the gods had rejected.

Outraged at their sudden disregard, Enkidu spoke:


”Door of death: you have renounced me,

abandoned your father to heaven’s malice.

Skulking door: some say you do not think,

yet you outwitted us with your promise,

lured us into the monster’s precinct.

Desiring your grace, we angered the gods.


“I cut you from the Tree of Heaven,

smoothed and polished your mute stuff,

conjured your voice, opened your mouth.

You are thick as my fist, twice my height,

moving at a nudge. Nippur worships you;

its people exalt you, ask your auspice.


“And faithless you pay me back with death!

You fear the lightning, Enlil’s white fire,

equivocate, acknowledge that I am guilty.

If I had known your duplicitous heart,

you would stand in Utu’s Shining House,

burn between the sun’s fire-winged Bulls.


“But I who made you can obliterate you.

I can strike back, expose your treachery,

scrape off my prayer, disown your words.

People will cry out against your fine face;

the king of future days will rip you down,

hang your wood for an archers’ mark!”


© 2011, Eric Quinn


Note: in the next-to-last stanza, “Utu’s Shining House” is E-babbara, the Sun-God’s temple in the ancient city of Sippar. “The sun’s fire-winged Bulls” refers to statues set at the entrance of E-Babbara to guard it.


Photo: Cedar of Lebanon Door; author: Roger Griffith; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Tax to Caesar

April 20, 2011 5 comments

Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ

“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” — Mark 12

More than any other episode in the Gospels, this response to a trick question about imperial taxes convinced me that there is something extraordinary about Jesus.

1) The first thing to know about this episode is that it is widely attested: it is included in all of the synoptic gospels (SynG), the gospel of Thomas (GTh), and the Egerton fragments (EgrF), with a loose parallel in John 3 (GJn).

2) Using this information about witnesses, let’s look at the episode section by section:

a) And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.
And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? (Mk 12:13, 14 & 15a, KJV)

This is the most widely attested section; only GTh (which has “They said to him”) does not contain it. There can be no doubt that Jesus is in trouble: he is the victim of an intellectual ambush. A group of collaborators with the established authorities accosts him in the temple precincts and springs a trap on him: should we pay our taxes? If Jesus answers “Yes,” then he will be seen as a collaborator himself; if he answers “No,” he will be seen as a rebel against the Romans and Herodians and arrested.

The tax in question was a capitation or head tax, that is, a tax on each individual. This tax was collected by contractors whose only obligation was to extract the tax from the people and send it to the local authorities, who in turn paid it to the imperial treasury. The tax was levied regardless of the ability to pay, and the methods used to force the community to pay could be brutal. People in Judea had rioted over the tax, and the inception of the Zealot movement has been dated to its imposition.

b) But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. (Mk 12:15&16)

This section is attested in four of the witnesses: the SynG and GTh. The most important point to hold onto here is that the collaborators, by questioning Jesus about a subject he had given a great deal of thought to, had their own trap turned against them. Jesus was well aware of the anger that imperial taxes roused–and of their injustice. Money in general was one of his chief themes; Jesus saw it as an attempt to escape from God’s Rule by putting trust in men and their devices for protecting themselves: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” So it is plausible that Jesus showed no alarm at the question and asked for a coin. Here he is at his most brilliant, improvising in the middle of a deadly debate.

They produced the coin, and Jesus set up his own trap, asking whose image is on the coin. By calling attention to the image on the coin, Jesus reminded his questioners that they were breaking the Second Commandment by even possessing the coin. In a single stroke he destroyed their credibility: how could they be masters of the Law when they were guilty of such an elementary oversight?

c) And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mk 12:17)

This is the least well attested section; the response in this form is recorded in the SynG only; GTh has “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s, and to me the things that are mine.” GJn and the EgerF, moreover, record lengthy responses to the questioners, signaling the possibility of a different tradition regarding the end of the story. A plausible guess, since even in the synoptics Jesus makes a brief remark before delivering his punchline, is that he did in fact take a few seconds to gather himself, probably by referencing scripture, before delivering the coup-de-grace. (And the EgerF break off before the ending; perhaps they contained some form of the teaching.)

Much has been made of Jesus’s teaching, one of the most memorable in the Gospels. Should we pay our taxes, as our due to the realities of the world, or withhold them in protest against the corruptions of government? Jesus would have counseled neither course: to enter the Kingdom of God, we must give all our money to the poor and follow Jesus. As the story of the second rich man in the gospel of the Nazarenes makes clear, this is never an easy choice (especially for the rich), but it is the act that defines adherence to Jesus’s teachings–and so Jesus had little patience with those who could not find the courage to become poor themselves. If you have the money to pay your taxes, you are shirking your duty to God.

d) And they marvelled at him. (Mk 12:17)

Attested in the synoptics. I certainly did.

3) We really can’t expect a profound, well-thought answer in a situation as tense as the Tax to Caesar; what is amazing, however, is how much Jesus conveys in his brief answer, even as he extricates himself from a situation that could well have cost him his life. The rich are with us always: we can’t get rid of money, and as long as we use it, there will be people who have lots of it. What we can do is handle money (and the success and power that can come with it) gingerly, expect the rich to support the poor, elderly, crippled, mentally incompetant, and sick; and admire those people who are capable of living a good life with little or no money. Taxes themselves are not evil if they serve a good end, and they can be essential to maintaining a community’s health and cohesion. What we have a right to demand is fair, compassionate, and frugal government. But as Jesus would point out, such a Rule begins in our own hearts.   RT


Photo: Silver denarius w/ Tiberius’ portrait; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Cassini Says: Wish You Were Here!

April 8, 2011 2 comments

10-KM High Mountain


Check out this photo of Saturn’s moon Iapetus taken by the Cassini space probe. That’s right the mountain is 10 kilometers high–and look at the detail. Just another moon-mad moment from the Rag Tree, folks… (and BTW, I’ve upgraded to Windows 7, and see no reasons for complaint)…

Did Jacob Climb His Ladder?

March 26, 2011 6 comments


Jacob dreamed: he saw a ladder, anchored in the earth and reaching up until it disappeared into the sky. Angels were climbing up and down on it. …” (Gen. 28:11-13)


Here we have an appearance by the enigmatic Elohist, also known as the author of the “E” text of the Old Testament. Even in these two sentences, we sense a great writer at work, someone capable of taking folktale and transforming it into sublime art. And certainly the image of Jacob’s Ladder has become one of the iconic moments in the Bible and Western culture, referenced again and again in writing, song, architecture, and visual art.

Unfortunately, what we have in this episode is a fragment. The Elohist, who, I suspect, was the first of the Bible’s authors, has suffered from centuries of editing and rewriting, rearranging, and “cleaning up.” The Documentary Hypothesis (formulated in 1883 by Julius Wellhausen) argues that there are five principle authors of the Bible: “J” (for the Jahwist); “E” (for the Elohist); “D” (for the Deuteronomist); “P” (for the Priestly author); and “R” (for the Redactor, who combined JEDP into the text we have today). The sources are given here in the chronological order assigned to them by the DH; “J” is understood to have been written first of all the biblical materials, with the Elohist either editing the “J” material or composing an original work on his own.

But it seems to me that at least the material that the Elohist worked with is older than the material in the J text (which is far more complete than E, though much edited itself): the author’s milieu and references take us back to the time of the Judges, if not earlier—when stone circles and pillars were as common in the Middle East as they are today in celtic countries. And Beth-el, where Jacob dreamed of the ladder, might have been such a stone circle—or so the use of a stone for a pillow (and its subsequent transformation into a pillar) suggests.

Did Jacob climb his ladder in E’s version of events? It seems strange to me that, in contrast to the many people who have wanted to climb the ladder, Jacob would have stayed safe on earth; he would have taken his chances, this master thief. What did he see when he climbed the ladder? That’s much harder to guess; though a meeting with El (as “E” refers to God in the first half of his materials) seems plausible.

The Elohist was a poet, and his writings provide a dreamlike (and at moments terrifying) foundation for Western religious sensibility. Readers who take the time to sort through the Bible’s chapters to discover his contribution will find themselves well rewarded.


Image: The Morgan Bible, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

Sor Juana

March 14, 2011 4 comments

Juana at the Viceregal Court (1666)


My father was a foreign service officer, and one of my most vivid memories from childhood comes from the period we were stationed in San Jose, Costa Rica. We were driving through the Central Valley and entered a small town that looked like something out of a fairytale. The middle of the town was occupied by an enormous Baroque church, around which the town crowded like a fringe. Of course, we had to see the church–and standing on its marble parquet floor in the dimness, looking up at the glass windows, I experienced a moment of awe. I had glimpsed something fundamental about Central America–its rich beauty and intense spiritual life.

So, sadly, it was not until recently that I learned of Sor (Sister) Juana de la Cruz–though she lived during the 17th Century, Octavio Paz has called her Mexico’s greatest poet. I hope that by writing about her, I can do something, in a small way, to mend the generally difficult relations between the United States and its Latin American neighbors.


Spoiled men—how smooth

your insinuations, the bait

of our desire… Sor Juana (from “Spoiled Men”)


I don’t think I’m far off when I say that current U.S. perceptions of Latin America are strongly influenced by memories of the Mexican Revolution–images of a desert land and a rough, struggling culture. But during the 17th Century, Mexico was home to a high civilization, an amalgam of Colonial Spanish rectitude and the underlying genius of its native peoples.

Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell to the Spanish in August 1521, and by the mid-1600s, the Spanish had secured their conquest of Mesoamerica. But winning the peace was another matter: it could be argued that the Aztecs are the most alien civilization that Europeans have ever encountered. Blood worship and cannabalism were essential parts of Mesoamerican culture, and, the most ardent efforts of the Spanish notwithstanding, it was sometime towards the end of the 17th century before these practices were finally eliminated. Despite their abhorrence of native religion, the Spanish instituted a special court to which Indians could bring legal complaints, and the Indians quickly learned how to avail themselves of this legal recourse. In Puebla, the Spanish established Talavera-majolica pottery workshops very early in their rule, and these workshops were soon employing Indians. Finally, Indian gods and rituals were absorbed into New Spain’s Catholic practice, and a core population of the Indian peoples survived the Colonial period, bequeathing to modern-day Mexico the largest number of native language speakers in the hemisphere.

As if all this were not enough, a building boom swept New Spain soon after its founding, as new towns, churches, and public conveniences were constructed–all financed by the discovery of gold and silver (Mexico is still the second largest producer of silver in the world).

Readers should bear in mind that these achievements were accompanied by widespread exploitation of Indians, especially as the Spanish Empire declined in the 1640s and later. But the degree to which the Spanish accomplished the seemingly impossible fusion of their culture and Mesoamerican society is testament to the resources and sincerity they brought to the task.


Red in the flesh; you stare.

A loud technique and studied,

you argue your colors so well

that flesh forgets its coldness…

Sor Juana (from “To Her Portrait”)


It was into this world that Juana Ines de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana was born in 1648. To begin with, Juana was illegitimate: her father was a Spanish captain; her mother, a criollo (a full-blooded Spanish woman born in Mexico). When she was small, she lived on her maternal grandfather’s hacienda.

From her earliest years, Juana was deeply religious. By age 3, she had taught herself to read; by age 8, she had composed a poem on the Eucharist. She taught herself both Latin and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. At 16, Juana was sent to the viceregal court in Mexico City, where her request to study at the University disguised as a boy was refused. The wife of the Vice Regent, Leonor Carreta, sensed Juana’s gifts and took her under her wing. The young woman continued her studies in private.

The Vice Regent himself (Antonio Sebastian de Toledo) soon arranged a difficult test of Juana’s genius: a panel of jurists, philosophers, and poets examined her knowledge, asking demanding questions that she answered unprepared. Her responses were so impressive that the examination helped establish her reputation thoughout the colony, which was further extended by the publication of her poems.

In such circumstances, many men proposed to her, but she decided against marriage and entered a Carmelite convent, and then the Convent of St. Jerome, where she remained for the rest of her life, becoming known as Sor Juana de la Cruz. Though it seems she endured a period of penance in the years just before her death, in the main she was supported in her studies and writings by the Viceregal Court and the Jesuits. She had a significant audience in Spain and became known as the first great poet of the colonies.


Which offense is worse—

to have sex for money or

to pay for it?

Sor Juana


All of this would have been remarkable if Sor Juana had merely been a brilliant poet and advocate of the church and status quo. But while she remained deeply committed to her faith, Sor Juana wrote verses that challenged social realities–and in particular the inferior status of women. That she also continued her studies in science many people found deeply disturbing. And yet she perservered, outwitting the Counter-Reformation and dying of a fever in 1695.

Not many of Sor Juana’s writings have survived, and we are indebted to the Viceregent’s wife for saving what we have. Fortunately, good translations of her work are beginning to appear in English. This thinker and poet early in the history of post-conquest Mexico is worth reading both for her beautiful poetry and for her courage in defying stereotypes and expectations.


Image. Author: J. Sanchez; Source: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain

Poetry. Translations copyright, The Rag Tree, 2011.

Spirit & Demon: Sourcing Mark’s Gospel

February 25, 2011 1 comment


Every reconstruction matters. No matter what kind of material we are working with–mythology, history, religious text, or contemporary news report–all the facts cannot be determined. Something of the event remains lost, something hidden. Our imaginations, working with things that are familiar, try to envision something that may be profoundly unfamiliar, unprecedented, even unique. Research, discussions with those who are deeply versed in a subject, letting the matter sit for a while, all can help. But what is motivating us to tell a story is an inner excitement, some memory of the story’s fire. That is what we need to share–the spark and warmth. We draw people into the circle of the story with what we can understand of the truth.

When I have told people about my interest in the Gospels and the voices that lie at their foundations, the most common response is: Why? Gilgamesh, Chinese poetry are one thing, but in the West, the four accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, and resurrection form the root of the culture’s consciousness. What could possibly be gained by tinkering with them?

My best answer is those voices–and the one, most compelling voice that still makes itself heard, often in unexpected places, in the story. Jesus was a poet, and I think that other poets can add to our understanding of his teachings and life. I am surely not the first person to say this. We can ignore the Gospels, tell ourselves that they are someone else’s business, but if we really believe in beauty and the struggle to understand what has happened in the world, then we must, at some level, make an account of them.


As I explained in my recent post on the origins of Mark’s gospel, I don’t think that the traditional account of the  gospel’s origin–Mark, who was Peter’s disciple, recorded Peter’s recollection of events–is very satisfactory. Too many questions remain unanswered. But if Peter wasn’t Mark’s source for his gospel, who was?

My answer at the moment is that Mark used the Spirit and Demon sources as his foundation, braiding material from each source together to create his text. The principle distinction between the sources is that one uses the term “demon” and the other “unclean spirit.” As far as I can tell, each has a distinct voice and attitude towards Jesus and what he did. My interpretation relies on my reading of The Complete Gospels: The Scholar’s Version (Polebridge Press).


A. The Demon Source (SDem).  Here are the characteristics of SDem: a) a tendency to report disputations; b) an interest in the disciples; and c) the secretiveness or hidden nature and message of Jesus. SDem seems to be the older of the two sources.

Here is a reconstructed passage from the SDem materials:

Four people appeared, carrying a paralytic on a mat. And [when they saw that the door was bolted,] they took the roof off and let down the man on the mat. Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins have been pardoned.” [And the man stood up, completely healed.]

But some of the scholars sitting there asked themselves, “How can he say that? He’s insulting the Most High! Only God can pardon offenses against himself!”

Then Jesus said to them, “Why do you occupy yourselves with such questions? [No healing offends God.]” [Mk 2:3-7&8b]

B. The Spirit Source (SSpir)

Here are the characteristics of the Spirit Source: 1) the public nature of Jesus’ ministry; 2) an emphasis on trust; and 3) the use of the term “right away.”

 And now, the SSpir materials from the passage analyzed above:

Word spread that Jesus was at Simon’s, and so many people gathered at Simon’s door that no one was able to enter. [text out] And Jesus began to speak to them. [text out] And just then four people arrived; they were carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. And when they saw that the crowd had blocked the door, they dug a hole in the roof above Jesus and so were able to lower the man down. Impressed by their trust, Jesus addressed the cripple, “On your feet, take your mat, and leave.”

Without hesitating, and in front of everyone, the man got to his feet, took his mat, and left. The onlookers were overjoyed and celebrated God, shouting out, “Who has ever seen something like that!”

[But after this, Jesus and his disciples had to withdraw,] and they began to travel through Galilee. [Mk 2:2a & 3, 4b, 5a, 10b, 11–13, 1:39a]

C. A Single Gospel?

Mark’s gospel contains several other episodes that can be divided in two, and the text outs in the passage I have analyzed are hardly unique–in many places material (sermons, mostly) seem to have been removed. But what is most compelling about this understanding of Mark’s sources is the implication that SDem and SSpir are closely related, sharing many of the same episodes. Could it be that they evolved from a single, original account?     –RT


copyright, 2011, The Rag Tree


Image: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ; WikiCmns; Public Domain

Other Strangers

February 21, 2011 2 comments



This post, I hope, will be the first installment in an occasional series of poems by poets I know. West Virginia has attracted some very fine writers and artists over the years; their work deserves to be shared and acknowledged.


Janet Harrison is a remarkable person and an even more remarkable poet; but then, it usually works that way. In addition to be being a fine poet, she makes jewelry and finds time to minister in various ways to family and friends. Right now, she is working to complete a book of her angel poems, Angels and Other Strangers, and is looking for a publisher. Know anyone who might be interested in helping her share her amazing poems? Leave a note in the comment section or send it via e-mail, and I will forward the information to Janet. Now, here is a poem from her draft. Enjoy!

Encumbrances of Angels

With all eternity to ponder

the nature and cost of freedom,

even an angel might prefer

the rasp of sand between the toes

to the ethereal tug of cosmic tides,

choose the angularity of starfish

over the symmetry of stars,

desire—whatever the penalty—

the lash of wind-driven rain

on a back unburdened of wings.

Janet Harrison, © 2011, all rights reserved. Reproduced with the author’s permission.

Image: The Scheme of Things, 1475; WikiCmns; Public Domain

Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel

February 19, 2011 9 comments

page from the Gospel of Peter


In a field as fractious as the history of the Gospels, it is always noteworthy when scholars reach consensus on a question. Such a consensus has emerged concerning the priority of the gospel of Mark: just about everyone agrees that it was the first of the New Testament gospels to be written. This consensus rests mainly on the fact that the gospels of Matthew and Luke each contains almost all of Mark, strongly suggesting that the authors of these gospels used Mark as a source for their texts.

There is also broad agreement about the date that Mark was written: around the year 70 A.D., when the Romans took Jerusalem at the end of the first Roman-Jewish War and destroyed Herod’s Temple. This date is based on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13 and the gospel’s sense of impending persecution, which might refer to Nero’s persecution of Christians.

Finally, there is agreement, though not as widespread, that the account handed down by the church fathers concerning the origins of Mark is essentially true: Mark was a disciple of Peter’s in Rome, and he based his gospel on the recollections and teachings of Peter.


But some scholars disagree. They place the author of Mark in Syria in about 70 A.D.; they see Palestinian as well as Roman influences in the gospel. And there are other, more perplexing reasons to question this gospel’s origins:

1) The author of Mark may have been more familiar with the geography of Palestine than is usually supposed. Two often cited geographical errors in Mark’s gospel (and there are others) apparently indicate that the author was unfamiliar with Palestine. One occurs after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman–Jesus is supposed to have returned from Tyre via Sidon to Galilee. But Sidon lay to the north of Tyre, in the wrong direction. By way of explanation, one can say that Jesus may have had work to do in Sidon before returning to Galilee, and the story of his time in Sidon has been edited out. More mysterious is Mark’s claim that Jesus, on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, passed through first Bethphage and then Bethany–when he would actually have passed through Bethany and then Bethphage. If Matthew was able to spot the error and correct it in his gospel, why weren’t people other than Mark (and above all, Peter) able to correct the error at the time of the gospel’s composition? Could it be that Mark used sources other than Peter for his gospel?

2) A gospel that claims to be Peter’s own report has been discovered. In the late 19th century, a copy of the lost Gospel of Peter was found in a monk’s grave in Egypt. Though the first half of the gospel is missing, the second half is intact (the ending is also missing) and gives an account of Jesus’ death quite different in certain respects from the one contained in Mark’s gospel. (GPtr is told in the first person, from Peter’s point of view.) Which version of the Passion might have originated with Peter in Rome? Did either?

3) The early church did not accept Mark’s gospel. The clearest indication of this is the incorporation of almost all of Mark in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The intent here seems to have been to remove Mark’s gospel from circulation and replace it with the true version.

Another indication is the fact that the end of the gospel of Mark is missing. Two endings, one long, one short, were subsequently crafted to provide a powerful close, but the original text seems to be lost. Why would the early church reject Peter’s account of the gospel, even to the point of removing the story’s dramatic conclusion?

4) Recently, a letter by the church father Clement, which claims to record “secret” passages from the Gospel of Mark that were removed from the gospel’s “public” version, has been discovered. In 1958, a handwritten copy of this letter was discovered by Morton Smith on the end papers of a 17th century book while Smith was doing research at the Monastery of Mar Saba. The book has not been available for examination for many years and may be lost, raising the possibility of a hoax. But many scholars, basing their opinion on photographs of the letter and handwriting analysis, believe the copy of the letter in the endpapers to be genuine. As if this were not enough, Clement’s letter claims that there was a third version of Mark’s gospel in circulation. Which of these versions originated with Mark? Were there yet other emended copies?


It might look like these questions will never be answered. But the slow, patient, and sometimes courageous work of scholars over decades and even centuries is helping us answer them.


Related RT Posts: 1) Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures.


Photographer: H.B. Swete, 1893. WikiCmns; Public Domain.