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Tag Archives | Christianity

Noah (2014)

In 2010, a group of Turkish and Chinese evangelicals found Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The liberal NPR once aired a program titled Walking the Bible based on Bruce Feiler’s book. In the program Feiler climbs the same Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark since Bible literalists believe that an actual Ark came to rest on top of this mountain. What these literalists fail to acknowledge is that the Ark story is basically an adaptation of an earlier tradition present in the region. The Hebrew Bible did not exist in a vacuum; it was influenced by the culture and traditions of the Ancient Near East. The flood story of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 6-9 is simply an Israelite version of the Mesopotamian Epic of Atrahasis and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh

However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000 — third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah. In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoiter the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god — the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views.[Lecture 1 – The Parts of the Whole]

Thus even though the stories look similar, the rationale for the flood in the Hebrew Bible was written to spread a different theology. In the new movie, Noah gets dreams of the flood and after consuming some hallucinogens at his grandfather Methuselah’s place, finds the answer: build an ark. He builds the ark and along with his family — wife  Naameh, sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, Shem’s wife  Ila — and his nemesis Tubal-cain, take off as the floods hit the earth. Oh, before that there are some scenes involving rocks which also shape shift like Optimus Prime who protect Noah and help him escape.

While the animals lie sedated, there is lot of drama on board the ark. There is Tubal-cain tempting Ham to murder his father because Noah did not get a woman for Ham. Then there is Ila, who springs a surprise on Noah, when he thought that she was barren. Finally there is the psychopathic Noah, who eagerly waits the birth of his grandchildren so that he can murder them. Finally, all ends well. Tubal-cain is murdered by Ham. Ila delivers twin girls and as Noah goes to murder them, he has a change of heart and unlike Abraham who was willing to kill his son, he spares his grandchildren. The flood stops as well and the human race is saved.

While the director claims that he has stayed true to the Bible, the Christian conservatives have found numerous issues with the film based on the Hebrew Bible. According to a creationist, “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” One of the issues is that Noah has a problem with carnivores. It is Tubal-cain, who argues to the contrary that God had given dominion over the entire planet to humans.  The suggestion that the movie is pro-environment, pro-vegetarian had many in knots. But then in Genesis 1, God had commanded humans to eat plants and it was only after the flood that they were permitted to eat meat. As Prof. James Tabor suggests, if only people read the Bible.

For example, the film never mentions God and referrers to him as the Creator.

I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.[Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles]

What is not depicted in the film is that some of the animals who hitched a ride on the ark did not have a good life. After he got on land, “then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.”

For the Turkish, Chinese and American evangelists, this movie may have been offensive, but for people interested in the history of how the Hebrew Bible was written, this is good time to watch or read the transcript of this lecture which talks about the contradictions within the Bible as well as within the flood story. Did the Creator ask Noah to bring two pairs of each living being or seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds? In some  places the flood was for 40 days and few lines later, it was for 150 days. All of this, for a historian, leads to the documentary hypothesis, with multiple authors and revisions.

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Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)

(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.

If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.

The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”

Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

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From a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

In 1621, an Angolan named Antonio was captured by an enemy tribe and sold to an Arab merchant who eventually sold  him to the Virginia Company. The company was chartered in 1606 by King James to grab land in Virginia and propagate Christianity and it was the Virginia Company that established the Jamestown colony. It was during the initial settlement of Jamestown that the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas was created. After the initial hiccups, where they had to resort to cannibalism, the colony had survived.

Anthony Johnson

Anthony Johnson

In Virginia, Antonio worked as an indentured laborer and after a period of time — after he had paid off his dues — he was freed. His wife, Mary, too was freed and as was normal for free indentured people, granted land.  Thus, 20 years after he arrived in Virginia, he took the name Anthony Johnson and became the owner of a 250 acre farm with his own servants. Thus an African man becoming a landlord himself may look unusual, it was not odd because slavery was not codified during this period. Though African slaves were present in Jamestown few years at least a decade after its founding, people like Anthony Johnson could buy their freedom and become property owners.

During this period, there was not much of a difference between the White indentured servants and Africans; the difference between slavery and indentured servitude was fuzzy. The slaves and servants would revolt and run away together. Initially the colonies had more indentured servants consisting of poor English folks who were willing to risk everything for a prosperous life. Though the Africans formed less than 5% of the population in Virginia, they were more balanced in gender and age while the indentured Whites were mostly male. The Africans had families and since there was no ban on interracial marriage, free blacks even married Englishwomen. They were also able to court to settle disputes. In this early phase, Virginia was a society built by slaves and servants, but it was not a slave society.

 Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa

Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa

By the 1660s, there was a demographic shift. There was a decline in servant population.  The mortality rate began to drop and the White population started increasing and more African slaves were required. According to the Slave Trade voyages database, while Virginia imported a hundred slaves from Africa in the period 1628 – 1650, that number increased to 4754 in the fifty year period after that. To concentrate the powers among the landowners, only the landed were allowed to vote. In one instance, one governor even banned general elections for 15 years.

There were two events that happened which caused a dramatic shift in how the slaves and servants were viewed. The first was passing of the Enactment of Hereditary Slavery Law Virginia in  1662 and the second, the Bacon rebellion of 1676.

Under English law, a child received his or her status from the father. The new  colonial law of 1662 made the child of an enslaved mother also a slave for life. Thus this race making piece of legislation ensured that reproductive capacity of the African women was used to feed into the slave system. Slavery was thus codified on the woman’s body. This also made sure that even if the father was one of the English slave owners, their child would still be a slave.

The rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon started when he wanted a commission to fight the native Americans to kill them and drive them off the land. The governor declared him a rebel, but Bacon was resourceful. He built an army with slaves and servants and plundered the region. They took control over Jamestown and burned it to the ground. The rebellion had a surprise ending when Bacon died of dysentery and the armed vessels returned regaining control. This incident showed Virginia’s elite that the slaves were a politically unstable and a dangerous force.

Soon the slave code was enforced by singling out people of African descent from the Christian white servants.  Free blacks were stripped off their rights  and the rights to marriage. A master had the right to “correct” a slave, and if the slave died during the “correction” process, he would be acquitted. A similar experiment was carried in the English colony of Barbados earlier and the concept of Whiteness and Blackness had been introduced. Due to similar changes, the slave category was codified into law and by the first quarter of the 18th century, Virginia had become a society of slaves.

(Based on the lectures of Prof Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

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In the Reading List: Pope And Mussolini

So far it was believed that the Catholic Church was against fascism during the 20s and 30s, when Mussolini came to power in Italy.  Newly revealed documents state otherwise. NPR had an interview with David Kertzer, the author of the new book  The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europeand here are some interesting points from the transcript.

On the pope’s interest in allying with Mussolini

The popes had seen the Italian government as enemies, basically. They had rejected the notion of the separation of church and state, they had lost their privileged position in society, and they had always called that system illegitimate. Pius XI at least began to see the possibility that Mussolini might be the person sent by God — the man of providence — as he would later refer to him … who would reverse all of that, who would end the separation of church and state, restore many of the prerogatives of the church and at the same time, as the Pope was very worried about the rising socialist movement … saw Mussolini as the man who was the best bet, perhaps, to prevent a socialist takeover of Italy.

On what the church got out of this alliance

The church got financial benefits, considerable payments by the state to the Catholic clergy. … They got, for example, as the fascists were forming fascist youth groups, which millions of youth in Italy were a part of in those years, the church was given chaplains to all the local chapters of the fascist youth groups so that they were able to influence the youth, which was very important to them. They also got as part of the Concordat, the fascist imposition of teaching religion in elementary schools, which was one of the first things Mussolini did to ingratiate himself when he came to power — to extend that to secondary schools as well so that all the school children in Italy were taught Catholic religion in their school.

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Why Christianity spread through Europe

Since it is Christmas time, the celebration of two important pagan festivals appropriated by Christianity, it is interesting to read Bernard Cornwells’s article at Omnivoracious on how Christianity spread through Europe.

One answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’ The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.[Bernard Cornwell, Author of “The Pagan Lord,” Muses on the Path to Christianity]

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