Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Gilgamesh is Done

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment

RT thought he might never get to this moment, but at last he can say: Gilgamesh is done. All the 11 tablets and the envoi—all 3,900 lines—are complete, though some polishing remains. RT has begun assembling a master electronic file.

It is an amazing moment. When he wrote out the first stanza in October 2000, that’s right, more than 17 years ago, our author had no idea what he was getting into, or how much of himself he would invest in the enterprise. But then, Gilgamesh is one of the great portraits of the human condition—of our struggle, in the midst of a vast and inscrutable universe, for beauty and meaning. As the Ferryman tells Gilgamesh near the end of the epic:

Urshanabi addressed the king’s bitter remorse:

“Do not despair! For wisdom, the lion’s roar,

your heart’s divided genius, you have toiled.

The mouth of death is shut; it speaks no stay,

but out of the Deep Waters you bring your name,

a sign and wonder to all flesh bound by time.”


Much remains to be done, of course: start looking for the book on Lulu and Amazon in the summer, and RT is planning a 100-copy private printing, when he finds the money.

In the meantime, RT’s life has grown yet more complicated, but more of that in the next post. And if the author has one regret, it is that his mother is not here to share in the achievement with him. But then, there must be a reason…and certainly this is the happiest news for RT at year’s end.

Happy New Year!


Photo: Stela of UrNammu. WikiCmns, Public Domain. 


Kingfishers and Dragonflies–Hopkins and the Grail


RT offers here a powerful and enigmatic poem by the great Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. By way of unraveling these tightly bound lines, RT notes that kingfishers suggest the Fisher King, that emasculated keeper of the Grail. This is a physical poem, one that embraces the beauty and sheer substance of the world, and the acts of men, that handsome, tremendous spectacle.


AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme


AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:                       5

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.


Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;                          10

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.



PaintingHopkins, painted 24 July 1866; unknown. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Karnak, Thebes, and the Hedjet


As May draws to a close, RT offers this photograph of a magnificent frieze at Karnak, the temple district of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world, and RT is beginning to suspect that Thebes played a primary role in the evolution of ancient Mediterranean religion.

In part, RT’s interest in Thebes is based on its frequent appearance in Greek myth, in part on the fact that the ancient crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, looks remarkably like the crown worn by Baal, the chief god of ancient Phoenicia. Though Thebes was not the capital of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, it was the administrative center of Upper Egypt under the Pharaohs (and is located not far from Nekhen, which was the capital of p-d Upper Egypt.) How did the epochal unification of Egypt (c. 3000 BC) under Narmer (or Menes), king of UE, affect developing religious beliefs?

Unfortunately, RT can say little at the moment about the significance of the scene recorded in the frieze, other than that it is located in the precinct of Amun-Re. A date and translation of the inscription would help greatly; there’s more research ahead for RT.

Photograph: Panorama of a frieze at Karnak. Author/Source: Bialonde. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


A Blizzard of Bugs, The Great Transformation & Various Works in Progress: RT’s Latest Update

March 27, 2014 2 comments


File:Nube de langostas en el Sáhara Occidental (1944).jpg

Of late, and perhaps out of sheer frustration, RT has been speculating that Martinsburg, WV, might be a world navel. How this might be true has offered our mind-boggled writer a means of escaping certain unenviable realities of the moment.

To wit: RT and his mom are facing an infestation of insects–not the biblical locust, but the altogether more quotidian and infuriating bed-bug. M’burg has apparently already endured one wave of these creepy crawlies, and now they are paying RT’s life a visit.

Give credit where credit is due: bed-bugs are tough, and the duplex is now undergoing the first of several treatments to get rid of the pest. Everything is a mess in the apartment, and the BBs have given both RT and his mom a case of the screaming meemees. But this too shall pass…

In the meantime, and by way of further escape, RT has been assiduously reading Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. TGT follows the spiritual development of four major cultures–Greece, Israel, India, and China from early times through the development of an Axial Age culture, Axial here meaning societies that encourage moral behavior in their members. RT singles out the book’s clear language and logical organization as it reports and reflects on the historical and moral development of the greater part of the ancient world. He also notes the sidelining of Assyria and Mesopotamia as, he assumes, a dead culture that serves to establish the baseline for Axial development. Bye bye, Gilgamesh!

Which is not to say that KA has a tin ear for mythological development–her reporting of certain Ancient Greek festivals has RT convinced that some parts of the Exodus story have links to Greek myth. Which brings to mind the ever elusive Elohist, one of the several projects awaiting further development in RT’s distracted mind. On the other hand, mom’s memoir continues apace.

In the meanwhile, there’s always the Martinsburg library to escape to when the bugs get too biblical. Which returns us to RT’s initial speculation about world navels… (happy spring equinox!)   RT

PhotoA locust cloud over Juncus maritimus at Imililik, Western Sahara (April, 1944). Author: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Source: Eugenio Morales Agacino’s Photographic Archive. Via Eugenio Morales Agacino’s Virtual Exhibition. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Attribution/Share Alike Spain.




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.


U.S. Politics in 2014: Poverty, Pills, and Marriage

January 5, 2014 2 comments


File:U.S. Distribution of Wealth, 2007.jpg


RT has long been of the opinion that the best way to address political issues is to determine what the worst problem a country faces is and then fix it.

Having just perused the above pie chart, he humbly submits that poverty is the worst problem in the United States.

Now, he is also of the opinion that things have been getting somewhat better on the financial equality front in America, primarily because of the administration of Barak Obama and, in particular, the Affordable Care Act, which came into full force at the beginning of 2014. The ACA should inject a considerable sum of money (and healthcare) in just the place it’s needed: the bottom 40%.

He’s eagerly awaiting the chance to test the ACA’s prescription provisions; he’ll have the chance in the next couple of days and will report back.


In other news, RT is plain boggled by the rapid advance of the liberal agenda in certain areas. In particular, he notes the Federal ruling in Utah striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Until this ruling, RT thought that same-sex marriage would be legalized in mostly in the northern and western states that have already extended some form of recognition and protection to same-sex couples. But now we have a judge legalizing gay marriage in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country. This is just as bold and radical as it gets: despite the historic and necessary role of federalism in the United States, despite a 2004 Utah referendum that amended Utah’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage, despite the doctrine of the Mormon Church, the founding institution of Utah, the law must go: it violates the right of gay couples to due process and equal protection under the law.

RT was moved by the photos of gay couples waiting at county courthouses to get married. They have waited long enough. This is one of the moments when RT is proud to be American. This is what makes America a leader of the free world, not its vaunted military strength. We have a right to call ourselves a leader because we have the courage to strike down laws that persecute and discriminate against minorities, be they cultural, religious, racial, or economic.

And then, as if all this isn’t enough, another Utah judge strikes down Utah’s ban on cohabitation of consenting couples. This doesn’t legalize polygamy, but it comes close by permitting multiple individuals (as long as they have only one marriage license) to live on the same premises. RT will freely admit that, while he knows several gay couples, he knows no polygamous family. As a single man, never married, he has no idea of what taking care of many children might be like. But as long as the union is consensual and no other laws are being broken, he is willing to give the institution a chance. Fair is fair.


And by the way, just what more should we be doing to help the bottom 40 percent get a bigger slice of the pie? RT senses another post in the offing…


Pie Chart: U.S. Distribution of Wealth,2007; Source: Edward N. Wolff, Working Paper No. 589: “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007”, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, pp. 44, March 2010. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

Realizing Human Potential: Crisis, Part 5

October 15, 2013 1 comment

File:Actor slave Massimo.jpgDid Rome ever recover from the Crisis of the Third Century? The short answer is: not really.

The longer answer begins with: and maybe it shouldn’t have. Slavery was entrenched in the old system, which made no accommodation for the possibility of human spiritual equality. If you were down at the bottom of society, that was the place that the gods had assigned you. If you were a woman, well, you only nurtured the husband’s growing seed during gestation; you didn’t contribute anything to a child’s essential humanity. Your place was to serve your husband. And if you were a child, you had no rights until your father accepted you into the human community.

The choices facing the Roman world during the third century were greater than is often realized. The Empire had at least three main options: 1) the status quo; 2) Christianity; and 3) Manichaeism (offered via Persia and Palmyra).

1) The status quo was simply not sustainable. In the Roman Empire, thousands and thousands of people lived in slavery or dire poverty. The peace established by Augustus had soured. The cruelty and injustices of the system had to go.

2) Manichaeism offered escape from an evil existence to its adherents. The religion that Mani founded under Shapur I was undoubtedly a principal motivator behind Palmyra’s rebellion. Here was a religion that addressed many of the problems that ordinary people were struggling with. The death of Shapur in 270 (from illness) and subsequently of Mani (in 274), however, robbed the new movement of its leadership at a critical juncture. One has to wonder how things might have turned out if king and prophet had lived.

File:Raphael-Constantine at Milvian Bridge.jpg

3) Christianity carried the day. Aurelian founded no new Roman dynasty; his contribution to saving the empire was mainly military. Diocletian (r. 284-305), the emperor whose reign saw the official end of the Crisis and a full-scale persecution of Christians, was the last pagan emperor–save Julian the Philosopher–of note. But Diocletian was an autocrat–the Dominate was established during his rule–and while his reign saw notable improvements in government, it brought little help to the downtrodden. Constantine I, who converted to Christianity in 315, finally recognized the fundamental place in Roman society that Christianity had assumed. One of the reasons for Christianity’s eventual adoption as the state religion must have been its broad appeal–it spoke to the sufferings of ordinary people and the need for a single philosophical system among intellectuals. Eventually, under Justinian I (A.D. 537), slavery was replaced by serfdom, a system of modified slavery that offered certain rights and protections to serfs. It should be noted, however, that serfdom was a permanent condition that did not allow for the possibility of emancipation, as did the ancient Romans.


Slavery was hardly the only factor at play in the collapse of Roman society. The Empire had overseen a period of intense urbanization, when the city was both a symbol and the actual improvement offered by the Romans. With the withering of the Empire came a withering of the city; Rome’s population at its height was in excess of a million; in A.D. 400 it stood somewhere between 500 and 750 thousand; by the year 600 it had fallen to 250,000. Western Europe was moving towards a rural, more sustainable society. As RT has argued elsewhere, we might be at the beginning of a similar process.


RT’s final note on the great crisis: the map below prefigures a later religious and cultural conflict: the rise of Islam. While Christianity took deep root in Western Europe, the southeastern stretches of the Mediterranean remained disaffected. These tensions would be resolved only by the advent of a new world religion. And the Gallic Empire in the West hints at the entry of Germany and Eastern Europe into the civilized world. The importance of local, cultural realities should not be ignored in the quest for universal answers.    RT

File:Map of Ancient Rome 271 AD.svg


Photo: Actor slave massimo. Bronze statuette; early 3rd century AD. Source/ Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006).

WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Painting: Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge; Raphael. Vatican Rooms. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Map: The Mediterranean Seaboard, 271, A.D. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

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.

The Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome

September 26, 2013 4 comments

File:Map of Ancient Rome 271 AD.svg


For a few years in the middle of the third century A.D., this is what the Mediterranean seaboard looked like. By 271 A.D., the Roman Empire had broken apart, but within a few years, it reconquered the two renegade empires. How could this have happened? What does the Crisis of the Third Century  (AD 235-284) mean?


RT has not gone exploring in so bold a fashion for some time; above all, the Crisis marks the end of the classical world that Alexander the Great (365-323 BC) had established with his conquests and the earliest beginnings of the Medieval Era. Though the Roman Empire eventually reconquered the break-away kingdoms, it never fully recovered its former strength and unity, Readers will encounter a good deal of old-fashioned history, with dates and whatnot, Team Leader RT (and he hasn’t worn this hat in a long time) will do his best to guide folks through the maze of information. The prize we’re seeking? Cultural transformation, one of the purest forms of magic.


The first question is perhaps easier to answer. The Principate, the form of government that Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, had established, reached its apogee under the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, which produced the Five Good Emperors and a period of peace and prosperity that lasted a century (AD 96-192). The emphasis of the dynasty was good government and adherence to Roman tradition, and each new emperor was chosen by his predecessor and adopted as heir to the Empire. The Roman Senate was respected and shared power with the emperor.

1) Slavery. The problem with this system was not the quality of the government, but the deterioration of the society that the government supported. Slavery was common, and though Roman law did not deny the basic humanity of a slave (a slave could buy his or her freedom and after manumission become a citizen with voting rights), the lower class of slaves performing hard manual labor on farms, in mines, and at mills, were treated brutally and often died at an early age. At the other end of the spectrum, some educated slaves rose to high positions of responsibility in society and government. And slave could be freed by his or her master.

But the law made clear that a slave was a person without rights, who could be treated as the owner wished, including the inflicting of sexual abuse and summary execution. Large slave rebellions occurred during both the Republic and the Empire. The Roman economy was heavily dependent on slave labor.

2) Roman Civilization. The ancient quest of Rome to impose its civilization on foreign countries failed in many places with cultures that were more ancient than Rome’s. The quest had made sense during the Punic Wars, when Romans could argue that they were stamping out the child sacrifice practiced by Carthage. But later, under the Empire, there was nothing inherently superior about Roman pagan society, which often resembled the cultures that it conquered. The existence of a large slave class at one end of the social spectrum and a small political and financial elite at the other created tensions that left large segments of the population disaffected with the Empire.

File:Ostia Antica Mithraeum.jpg

3) The Appearance of Alternative Religions. New alternative religions appeared and spread rapidly throughout the Empire: a) Christianity; b) Gnosticism (and in particular, Manicheism); and c) Mithraism, all claimed large numbers of adherents. These religions were not variations on old themes; each represented a distinct break with the culture that produced it. Notably, these religions shared some elements, most importantly, the exaltation and transformation of the worshiper. The notion of a transcendent God or Cosmos was also critical: these religions aimed to replace the old cosmological understanding with a more comprehensive and accurate view of the world. The old Roman religious reliance on nature and community were hard to defend against a rising sense of egalitarianism and the transitory human condition.


The result, in hindsight, seems inevitable: With the assassination of Commodus (AD 192), the last Nervan emperor, the Empire plunged into an extended period of instability under the Severan Dynasty (AD 192-235) , Only two Severan Emperor, the first and last of the dynasty, ruled longer than ten years. With the assassination of Alexander Severus, the great crisis at last broke out.

It should be pointed out that by any standard, Alexander Severus was a just and capable ruler, murdered by his own troops when he agreed to paid tribute to Germanic tribes to gain time in dealing with the Parthians. What ailed the Romans was not their government so much as the transformation of their culture.

It’s time for a breather. RT will be back soon with Part 2...   RT


Map: The Roman Empire, 271 A.D. WikiCmns; Public Domain. PhotoMithraeum of the Baths of Mithras; Author: Michelle Touton (Ailurophyle). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Andrew and the First Seven Disciples

September 21, 2013 2 comments



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


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


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