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Harold Bloom, Jesus and Tanakh
December 4, 2005 11:05 AM   Subscribe

"It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition".
I had been born in the United States but didn't know any English because none was spoken at home or in the streets. We were a solid enclave of some 600,000 Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But I still remember one day that a missionary came to the door with what I still have my copy of: a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere existence of it.
Harold Bloom on religion in America, God smoking a cigar, and who really is the King of the Jews.
posted by matteo (72 comments total)

 
But he is also working out some of his own puzzles, toward the conclusion that “The human being Jesus and the all-too-human God Yahweh are more compatible (to me) than either is with Jesus the Christ and God the Father.” He has composed, he says, an “elegy for Yahweh.”
I wake up these days, sometime between midnight and two a.m., because of nightmares in which Yahweh sardonically appears as various beings, ranging from a Havana-smoking, Edwardian-attired Dr. Sigmund Freud to the Book of Daniel’s silently reproachful Ancient of Days. I trudge downstairs glooomily and silently, lest I wake my wife, and breakfast on tea and dark bread while rereading yet once more in the Tanakh, wide swatches of Mishnah and Talmud, and those disquieting texts the New Testament and Augustine’s City of God. At times, in writing this book, I defend myself only by murmuring Oscar Wilde’s apothegm that life is too important to be taken seriously.
posted by matteo at 11:07 AM on December 4, 2005


from the main link:
(...) Or what I would call "the American Religion" is clearly a Gnosticism: The belief that the best and oldest part of you, the most inmost part, is no part of the created world at all, that it is part of the original Godhead; the belief that except for that spark or breath hidden deep within the lock of the self and very hard to get at, that otherwise all divinity consists of is a good God who has either been exiled to or has exiled himself to the outer spaces, out beyond our cosmos, and he cannot get in touch with us, and we cannot get in touch with him or it or her or whatever you want to call him.

Look at the epigraph of my book. There is a hidden purpose in that. It's from William Blake's "To the Accuser Who Is a God of This World." I quote the second stanza:
Tho’ thou art Worship’d by the Names Divine
Of Jesus and Jehovah, thou are still
The Son of Morn in weary Night’s decline,
The lost Traveller’s Dream under the Hill.
posted by matteo at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2005


oh, great stuff. he delivers responses as if the whole world depends on his reply, on the rise or fall of his inflection.
posted by ori at 11:37 AM on December 4, 2005


Why is it 'grim' that there is a Yiddish translation of the new testament? Christians like converting people, is he upset that his particular sub-group wasn't given a special privilege?
posted by delmoi at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2005


Wow, great stuff.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:50 AM on December 4, 2005


His "sub-group" is the foundation of Christian belief. I don't think he's personally offended as much as he's bemused by the proselytizing--Jesus was Jewish, so to tell Jews they need a new undertsanding of their own sacred texts is a bit, well, presumptuous to say the least.

Bloom is mellowing in his later years, and I'm glad he's found a subject of real worth beyond bashing New Historicists and Feminists, etc. I liked The American Religion, but he seems to have a very broad conception of Gnosticism--one that obfuscates a lot of his central arguments. It's an important angle, but he seems to overuse the term as a catchall for any non-traditional, personalized conception of deity. Gnosticism is cloudy in a lot of ways, but also quite specific on some issues that he seems to ignore.
posted by bardic at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2005


, is he upset that his particular sub-group wasn't given a special privilege?

yeah, special privileges indeed
posted by matteo at 12:10 PM on December 4, 2005


His "sub-group" is the foundation of Christian belief. I don't think he's personally offended as much as he's bemused by the proselytizing--Jesus was Jewish, so to tell Jews they need a new undertsanding of their own sacred texts is a bit, well, presumptuous to say the least.

Well, the new testament is not part of the Jewish sacred texts, so I still don't see what's odd about this.
posted by delmoi at 12:10 PM on December 4, 2005


and, as bardic said, calling the Jews a "sub-group" when Christianity is mentioned is quite bizarre.
posted by matteo at 12:11 PM on December 4, 2005


delmoi: Why is it 'grim' that there is a Yiddish translation of the new testament? Christians like converting people, is he upset that his particular sub-group wasn't given a special privilege?

delmoi, it's a grim joke -- it's a bit unfair to extract the word 'grim' out of its context. And it is a grim joke. There are too many ironies--some rather macabre--for me to untangle. bardic has mentioned a central one, but i'll mention another: it's a joke because Yiddish is the most obstinate of all languages, a cipher for the almost foolish resilience of Judaism in the diaspora in face of tremendous persecution and socio-economic motives to assimilate.

As for the interviews, one complaint: I wish he'd stuck to the Blakean epigraph to explain gnosticism, rather than say "God is lost wandering the outer spaces somewhere", which is hokey, infinitely less elegant and carries undertones of bad sci-fi.

matteo: "breakfast on tea and dark bread"--well, that whole fragment, really--intimates what Bloom the novelist could have been.
posted by ori at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2005


Well, the new testament is not part of the Jewish sacred texts, so I still don't see what's odd about this.

As delmoi said, the new testament is not considered a Jewish sacred text. On the flip side, many Jewish texts were written by Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages, and were not a foundation for Christianity. Given that, and that Jesus's teachings are the main foundation of Christianity, it's stretching things a bit to say that Christians are just copying Jewish tradition.
posted by unreason at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2005


Why is it 'grim' that there is a Yiddish translation of the new testament? Christians like converting people, is he upset that his particular sub-group wasn't given a special privilege?

Delmoi, consider reading the links instead of just crapping all over the thread. Had you taken the time to read, oh, three paragraphs, you would have discovered that Bloom explains what makes Christian missionaries presenting a Yiddish translation of the NT to a Jewish community a grim joke:
There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere existence of it. It shows the hopelessness of the Christian quest to convert the Jews. Indeed, it reminds me of Andrew Marvel's "Splendid Seduction" poem to his coy mistress, "You should refuse, should you choose, until the conversion of the Jews." But which implies the lady will eventually yield.
posted by jbrjake at 12:22 PM on December 4, 2005


It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition

It is absurd. More properly, we should refer to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. From an outside perspective these sects all appear similar and distinctly familial. And by virtue of their competition and interaction, they have all acted as conduits and focii for the transmission of a distinct, syncretic European and Middle Eastern culture in a largely continuous (if sometimes convoluted) manner since the time of, at least, Akhenaten.

An Islamic History of Europe is an especially relaxing way to watch some of the most recent medieval threads linked together. I hope they make a similar "Jewish History of Europe" soon.
posted by meehawl at 12:31 PM on December 4, 2005


I'm not saying Christian theology "copies" Judaism, as much as any new religious understanding tends to build upon previous ones. However, take away Christian theology and Judaism remains intact. Take away Hebraic tradition and Christianity is meaningless. (There's a reason why "Christos" is a translation of "Messiah").

There was cetainly a lot of back-and-forth influence between these two traditions, as Bloom touches on, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. However, it's ridiculous to disassociate Jesus' historical position from much of what's in the Hebrew Testament--to use just one example, his parable of new wine into old wineskins is implicitly a critique of older, legalistic interpretations of Judaism, and he seems to want a more personalized, less ritualized understanding. Bloom calls this gnosticism, and I think that's highly problematic, but interesting.

I don't think Bloom has a problem with Jesus as much as he does with contemporary Christians who lack a basic historical knowledge of the (quite frankly) political situation in this part of the world as the Roman empire crumbled. The history of early Christianity is incredibly fascinating, especially once you get beyond the "official" story of Saul--Paul going door-to-door. (The Mithrites and the Aryans--that's not your grandpappy's Christianity to say the least). But what began as a cult (in the truest, least perjorative sense of the term) emerges, over about 500 years, into an "official" tradition. Christianity is hardly the only faith to go through this sort of transition (taking to heart Bloom's points regarding how an "official" Judaism arose over time that left out many people who already called themselves Jewish).
posted by bardic at 12:33 PM on December 4, 2005


Take away Hebraic tradition and Christianity is meaningless.

to be even more precise, a "Greek translation of Hebraic tradition": the Septuagint and the New Testament


posted by matteo at 1:04 PM on December 4, 2005


Who is the biggest Jew of all time? Was Goliath a Jew?
posted by ab'd al'Hazred at 1:07 PM on December 4, 2005


Oh, wait, he was the biggest Philistine ever. Never mind.
posted by ab'd al'Hazred at 1:11 PM on December 4, 2005


There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere existence of it. It shows the hopelessness of the Christian quest to convert the Jews.

This is all a little strange. Hopeless because there are people who still speak Yiddish? Or hopeless because even though Jews are outnumbered by both Christians and Moslems by 1000 to 1 (his numbers) there are still non-zero Jews? Mr Bloom seems like something of an absolutist. The idea that zero Jews must exist for something to be true is frightening enough just on it's own but specificaly he will only consider the 'Christian quest' valid when there are no more Jews at all? Up till then it's not valid? Odd sentiment in any case. Besides what about these guys. Do they prove or disprove the existence of a Judeo-Christian tradition?

Take away Hebraic tradition and Christianity is meaningless.


I guess I need to get a coffee, I don't follow how this assertion would support the theme of a non-existent continuous 'tradition'.


posted by scheptech at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2005


Thanks matteo. When I first read it, The Anxiety of Influence hit me with the force of revelation. I've loved Bloom ever since. I guess I know what I'll be reading next week!

Also, if I recall correctly, Sarna makes the point that "Judeo-Christian" was originally a designation promulgated by Jews in the U.S. It was thought that, by emphasizing the commonalities in the heritages of the two peoples, Jews would have an easier time of it in the New World.
posted by felix betachat at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2005


Failed Bible class.
posted by Krrrlson at 1:15 PM on December 4, 2005


contemporary Christians who lack a basic historical knowledge of the (quite frankly) political situation in this part of the world as the Roman empire crumbled

Well, the Romans held on to Palaestina until the Battle of Yarmuk, in 636, and in fact the Romans won the rematch in 677 at Syllaeum. The perspective of a Roman "decline" in the region owes much to a peculiarly politicised Frankish, northern European reading of Mediterranean history. The Romans/Byzantians remained a superpower until the 10th or 11th centuries. It wasn't so much the Arab invasions that dinged them fatally but rather losing much of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, and then being hammered by repeated, renewed invasions by the Franks, now renamed the "Holy Roman Empire" and rallying under the banner of the "Crusades". The Franks wanted to convert and bring under their control *all* the pagans and heretics in the "eastern" provinces: Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, Monothelites, Maronites, Coptics, Nestorians, etc. In many ways, this crusade has continued, in fits and starts, into the present day.

In terms of theology I think it's notable that the early and middle Medieval periods saw the growth of a unitarian Monophysitist Christianity throughout the southern provinces, as compared to the dualistic notions popular in the West and the North. Concurrant with Judaism, and concommitant with the Islam, it seems that southern Mediterranean cultures had a tendency to develop distinctly less polytheistic theology than the Western or Northern regions. During the expansion of the Caliphate, these and related unitarian Christian cultures were absorbed by Islam and their theological development either subsumed within Islam itself or cut off from "mainstream" Christianity.

The development of Judaism, as represented by a strict adherence by diaspora refugees and refusniks versus accomodation and conversion by those who now found themselves living within an Islamic culture is very interesting.
posted by meehawl at 1:21 PM on December 4, 2005


Nicely put meehawl. Any book recommendations re:critiques of conventional wisdom about the Roman/Byzantine split?
posted by bardic at 1:27 PM on December 4, 2005


Religion has an unfortunate problem with taking a simple concept and extrapolating volumes of hideously unrelated cultural norms as the dictates of heaven.

One of the most fundamental aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is contract law. That is, G-d, using the ancient, five paragraph format for contracts, made several contracts with mankind as a whole, and subset groups of men.

The contracts were made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed. The contracts with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Mohammed are supposed to apply to everyone. The contract with Moses only applies to the Jews. Jesus was interpreted as wanting to throw out much of Hebraic law that was not directly part of the covenants, for a much-simplified version.

But even though the contracts were originally simple, so much cultural crap was added later that it overwhelmed, rather than augumented, the basic contract.

So this leaves Jews with the idea that all non-Jews are under the law of Noah. They ignore Mohammed.

That is, if you are a Christian, the Ten Commandments of Moses do not apply to you. You are under the seven Noa(c)hide laws:

1. Idolatry is forbidden.
2. Incestuous and adulterous relations are forbidden.
3. Murder is forbidden.
4. Cursing the name of G-d is forbidden.
5. Theft is forbidden.
6. Eating the flesh of a living animal is forbidden.
7. Mankind is commanded to establish courts of justice and a just social order to enforce the first six laws and enact any other useful laws or customs.

Interestingly enough, if you obey these laws, you are in good with G-d, but if you violate them, they are inherently punitive. G-d doesn't need to punish you, any more than if one of the laws was "don't stick your hand in the fire".

As far as Jesus goes, from the Jewish perspective, he was a failure, as were the other Jewish messiah wannabees, such as Shabbetai ben Zevi. The purpose of messiah is to create a state of Jewish hegemony in the world, though whether this would be military or otherwise is indeterminate. None of this afterlife hoo-hah. It has to be here and now. Or really, it had to have been 2000 years ago, or it doesn't apply.

So the bottom line is that one could take a simplified view of the contracts, and just follow those that apply verbatim, ignoring the vast amount of rather bizarre extrapolations found in the Talmud or their Christian or Islamic equivalents.

An excellent simplification was made by the brilliant Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, in his book "I and Thou", which used pronouns to describe how properly minimalist G-d is. G-d really only says one thing, "I am", but by doing so, creates a vast philosophy of His relationship with mankind in the universe.

It is a thin volume, each sentence as carefully crafted as a Buddhist koan, a thought problem. So though it is an easy read, it is staggeringly complex in what is said within. Initially hailed as a work of genius, many enjoyed its simplicity without the slightest grasp of its complexity, and learned little from it.
posted by kablam at 2:56 PM on December 4, 2005


kablam wrote: The contracts were made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed. The contracts with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Mohammed are supposed to apply to everyone. The contract with Moses only applies to the Jews.

This is a peculiar understanding of covenant theology. Abraham, of course, but the others? Mohammed, absolutely not. Islamic tradition is based around the concept of submission, which is certainly analogous to some extent, but it's dangerous to mix and/or water down fundamental terms like this. Jesus doesn't have a problem with the spirit of Abraham's covenant, but with the application--I guess I'm in agreement with you here.

Post-Abrahamic prophets don't establish a new covenant, they maintain the original one, and/or re-affirm its importance in a time of crisis (Moses) hence the importance in Judsiam placed upon the "children of Abraham."

I see what you're onto with Buber, but this strikes me as a pretty serious misreading as well (to use one of Bloom's favorite words).
posted by bardic at 3:13 PM on December 4, 2005


(Maybe this would be best posted on AskMe, but while we're all here...) can anyone point me towards good "literal" translations of the Old and New Testaments? I put "literal" in quotes, because I know that's a can of worms, but I would like to read the Bible in some form at least moderately approaching what I could read if I knew Aramaic and Greek.

I would also love it if the text was well-written (i.e. not ugly, academic language). I realize that the more "poetic" one gets, the bigger one risks straying from the source (though some would argue the opposite). I guess I'm looking for a good balance of accuracy and readability.
posted by grumblebee at 3:15 PM on December 4, 2005


Yahweh certainly doesn't come across as a sympathetic character...
You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news.

Love this! and the stuff about how Allah is closer to our God than Jesus or their versions of God...excellent! thanks, matteo.
posted by amberglow at 3:23 PM on December 4, 2005


grumble, you might be better off comparing and contrasting bet diff new testament versions, like they do here. For old, you can go with the NIV hebrew-english one, i'd say
posted by amberglow at 3:30 PM on December 4, 2005


Gnosticism is cloudy in a lot of ways, but also quite specific on some issues that he seems to ignore.

Can you elaborate on that point? I was under the belief that Gnosticism was, in fact, too wide of a term to mean much at all.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:32 PM on December 4, 2005


Robert Alter's new translation of the 5 books of Moses is apparently good.
posted by Mocata at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2005


I meant that something like the Nag Hammadi library is full of ambiguities and gaps, but that doesn't give Bloom license to use the term gnosticism every time he sees a gap or historical paradox in Judaism or Christianity. He seems to imply that these gaps occur due to conspiracies of silence, when in fact they are features of any study of ancient history.

grumblebee: I've read and taught from the New Oxford 3rd ed., which has the Apocrypha and lots of good, even-handed commentary. It also has beautiful maps from multiple time periods which is essential to understand any of these traditions, IMHO.
posted by bardic at 3:49 PM on December 4, 2005


grumblebee: can anyone point me towards good "literal" translations of the Old and New Testaments? ...I would like to read the Bible in some form at least moderately approaching what I could read if I knew Aramaic and Greek.

Keep in mind that the Hebrew Testament is written largely in Hebrew, not Aramaic.
posted by ori at 3:56 PM on December 4, 2005


I think it's "grim" because of a combination of the futility of attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, and the unspeakable attrocities committed against Jews for so long by the non-Jews (usually Christian communities) around them.
posted by ParisParamus at 4:13 PM on December 4, 2005


what ParisParamus said.
posted by matteo at 4:14 PM on December 4, 2005


grumble, you might be better off comparing and contrasting bet diff new testament versions

Agree, check here. There's a lot of evangelical stuff around it but there's a database of many of the translations, you can quickly switch among them, the original languages along with word definitions are there, as well as some of the more important commentaries and study guides.

On the word 'grim'. The author uses it in more than one place referring to different things. Perhaps its use may be something of a personal linguistic idiosyncrasy and so may not have quite the intent it seems to?
posted by scheptech at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2005


bardic: Could you be more specific? The Noahide and Mosaic covenants are especially and uniquely separate from the Abrahamic. I threw in Mohammed because his writings are both so radically different, yet both claim descent from and reference the Abrahamic covenant that they have the same credibility (a lot or none, depending on your point of view.)

"Covenant theology", as it is popularly used, is really a Christian tradition, going back to St Augustine, and follow Christian prerogatives; but the Jews recognize many of the same principals. To justify following the Mosaic covenant, the Christians have to essentially say that they, not the Jews, are the descendants of the Hebrews, and thus inherit the Mosaic covenant. Otherwise, it wouldn't apply to them, as the Jews believe. The Ten Commandments would be right out for non-Jews.

As far as the biblical "laws, statutes and judgements", excepting the laws that are also part of the covenant, the rest are extrapolations, as I call them. That is why volumes such as the Talmud, while interesting as precedent, should not be used as an authority to dictate subsequent behavior. It should be much like our secular criminal or civil law. As written in the 19th Century. Anachronistic, if interesting, but long since superceded by newer precedent.

Laws change with the times, as do statutes and judgements. For a religion to embrace what amounts to legal decisions made in the middle ages is nonsensical. While it may contain some wisdom, its application in the modern world is often laughable. The covenants themselves are the only unchanging part.

Moslem women wear the hijab, which somebody thought was a good idea long after the fact, but the Koran just says they "should dress modestly". Modesty today would most likely mean not dressing up like a street prostitute.

Entire committees of rabbis exist to make judgement calls about the most ridiculous debates imaginable, about laws that were hopelessly misinterpreted in the first place.

A recent example is the Amish. Their uniformity in their manner of behavior and dress was supposed to make them blend into society, to look and act like everybody else, back when everybody else looked like that. Now it makes them oddities. They missed the point.

The Catholic church has its sacrament of confession. Which was based on a translation error. They discovered the error, but decided to keep it, because everybody liked it. Now that was reasonable, and yet they continue to pretend that it is based on something that it's not.

Each of these three religions could profit immensely if they discarded all of the extrapolation and went back to the basic covenants for a reevaluation of their principals. It wouldn't keep its simplicity for long, but it would create an enormous amount of respectable introspection, that, from a theological point of view, wouldn't be such a bad idea.
posted by kablam at 4:50 PM on December 4, 2005


"Each of these three religions could profit immensely if they discarded all of the extrapolation and went back to the basic covenants for a reevaluation of their principals.:

kablam, I think that's called Reconstructionism in Judiaism, no? It's happening, but don't tell the Orthodox. Except, perhaps, Modern Orthodox women.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:05 PM on December 4, 2005


Judeo-Xtian tradition is absurd when filtered through the, oh, spanish inquisition or the holocaust...how about a palestinian version of the new testament/torah/old testament/quran?

we secular humanists are not really interested in whatever your version of the magic man in the sky is...and would you stop fucking with us?

2,000 years of your goddam glory is quite enough, thank you.
posted by aiq at 5:43 PM on December 4, 2005


ParisParamus: The Jews are having a real hard time of it, for the sole reason of having such an amazing volume of material they have to sort through. One project, among many, is to linguistically reconstruct the Pentateuch in its original form. After many years of hard work under the world's premier Hebrew language scholar, they have re-translated chapter 1 of Genesis. Surprisingly, it is a lyrical poem.

But it is extremely slow work.

A real problem derives from the writings of a respected rabbi about which little else is known, which is much of the Torah. The arguments before him have lost all context, and his decision is likewise enigmatic. This means it almost has to be reverse engineered, theologically speaking.

Clearly alien traditions, such as those of the Zevitic cult, still exist and need to be purged. But doing so, attempting to eliminate anachronistic cultural traditions from religious directives, must be a pain in the butt.
posted by kablam at 5:48 PM on December 4, 2005


> "breakfast on tea and dark bread"--well, that whole fragment, really--
> intimates what Bloom the novelist could have been.

Um. Flight to Lucifer was pretty, uh, grim. I did manage to get all the way through it, using the same kind of reader-supplied energy I would use to read the phone book, were that required for some reason.

At least, a lot of Jews (whether believers or not) still manage to take religion seriously. More evidence that they tend to be smarter than most of the rest.
posted by jfuller at 5:49 PM on December 4, 2005


Kablam, I don't really think that retranslating the Five Books should, or does play a major role in reconstructing Judaism. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but doesn't the whole premise behind reconstructionism, as I understand it, involve moving away from a literal reading/interpretation of the Torah? (not that the Torah was ever meant to be read literally, as Maimonides' writings demonstrate) Or is the point to juxoppose the traditional and rewritten texts, take an accounting of what isn't lost, and derive meaning from it? Just curious...
posted by ParisParamus at 6:09 PM on December 4, 2005


'You have the aura of election upon you,' he breathed.

/no reason
posted by papakwanz at 6:28 PM on December 4, 2005


More properly, we should refer to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

I generally use the term "semitic", though I'm sure it vexes some muslims and jews and confuses christians. (The latter, in my experience, being generally a good thing.) Sometimes "semitic-christian", since early christianity incorporated so many aspects of mediterranean mystery religions.
posted by lodurr at 7:24 PM on December 4, 2005


kablam, I don't think I'm understanding you. Are you claiming that the Torah was written primarily by one person? That's not accurate at all. Even to say it was "written" down all at once is confusing, if not downright problematic.
posted by bardic at 7:34 PM on December 4, 2005


(Just as confusing and problematic as to say the Christian Testament or the Koran were "written" down all at once by a single person, but I might be totally misunderstanding you.)
posted by bardic at 7:35 PM on December 4, 2005


"what ParisParamus said.
posted by matteo at 4:14 PM PST on December 4 [!]"
-
Have I stumbled upon a discontinuity in space/time which I can expect to disappear momentarily ?

________


As far as this thread goes...... it's fascinating reading. But I'm less concerned with original meanings, accurate or not - even though those might be painstakingly and accurately worked out, or with historical exegesis ( and, you might even call these Metafilter discussions "priestly" ) - than with popular meanings insofar as those might convey a shared, popular sense of divine election for the project of going down into Canaan to there kill every man, woman, and child.

I trust I've made myself quite opaque.
posted by troutfishing at 7:36 PM on December 4, 2005


Or not.
posted by troutfishing at 7:49 PM on December 4, 2005


can anyone point me towards good "literal" translations of the Old and New Testaments?

Traduttore, traditore. The history of post-Biblical culture is a history of mistranslation and misinterpretation. The Hebrew adjective almah in Isaiah 7 becomes the Greek parthenos and midwifes the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. The Essenes misinterpret le-havdil ben ha-or uven ha-hoshekh ("to separate between the light and the darkness") in Genesis 1.18 as "to separate the son of light and the son of darkness" and find a central scriptural support for their monumental cosmic dualism.

There is no "literal" translation of sacred text. Reformers from Luther to the Jewish Enlightenment have made appeals to original scripture in the face of canonical interpretation. Such gestures serve to displace entrenched orthodoxy, however, not to recapture some original meaning. The closest one comes is critical scholarship, and such interpretations are always provisional.

The best you can do (short of learning the relevant languages) is find a good, unfamiliar translation with a decent critical apparatus or commentary. If you're coming from a Christian background, I recommend the recently published Jewish Study Bible. The translation is the NJPS, a Jewish translation which bases its interpretive choices on the medieval Jewish commentators. If you're a Jew, try the New Oxford Annotated Bible, which uses a scholarly/Christian translation, the NRSV. Both have excellent notes and will point out ambiguities and make some mention of the history of interpretation.
posted by felix betachat at 7:58 PM on December 4, 2005


um...almah and parthenos are both nouns. not adjectives. ugh.
posted by felix betachat at 8:36 PM on December 4, 2005


Bloom's statement that it is "absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition" shows that the theological differences are so important to him that he fails to place these religions in larger context. One who does not adhere to this type of religion may well lump them together as "patriarchal monotheism in Western culture" or some such category (to distinguish them from Asian religions, and from rationality and secularism, for example). On this level they are similar enough to be referred to as one.
posted by jam_pony at 11:17 PM on December 4, 2005


Kablam:

As far as Jesus goes, from the Jewish perspective, he was a failure, as were the other Jewish messiah wannabees, such as Shabbetai ben Zevi. The purpose of messiah is to create a state of Jewish hegemony in the world, though whether this would be military or otherwise is indeterminate. None of this afterlife hoo-hah. It has to be here and now. Or really, it had to have been 2000 years ago, or it doesn't apply.

This issue is raised in a very interesting book I'm reading at the moment, Christ: A Crisis In the Life of God. Jack Miles is looking at the New Testament as a literary work, and analyzing the character of Jesus/God in this light (his previous book was God: A Biography).

Miles points out that the historical promise of God to defend the nation of Israel against worldly enemies had been tested by the Babylonian invasion, but that event was interpreted as God himself using outsiders to punish his disobedient people.

But by the 1st century A.D., the Roman occupation of Israel was terribly oppressive and seemed to have no end in sight. Where was God and/or his messiah to liberate the Jews in literal, political terms?

Jesus changed the script by saying, "I (God) am not in that business now. I'm offering a different kind of liberation -- from the human curse of mortality and sin." (Miles notes the irony that God himself is responsible for this curse.)

Jesus also preached a universal message of love. This had the effect of destroying the distinction (in Christian eyes, at least) between Israel and the rest of the world. And this meant that God no longer had to protect/defend Israel specifically. His identity had been revised to move beyond that concept.

Miles notes that the Gospels weren't written down until after the Jewish uprising of 60-70 AD, during which the Temple was destroyed. This catastrophe (he uses the word shoah to emphasize its seriousness in Jewish history) would have left many Jews wondering "Where's God?" The teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels present an answer to this problem -- God is no longer in the "saving Israel from its temporal enemies" business, but he's got a new gig.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:11 AM on December 5, 2005


At least, a lot of Jews (whether believers or not) still manage to take religion seriously. More evidence that they tend to be smarter than most of the rest.

Racist.
posted by cytherea at 12:33 AM on December 5, 2005


Thanks for this. It has unfolded one of the most informed and fascinating threads that I have read here in a long time, There is hope for mefi yet.
posted by donfactor at 3:21 AM on December 5, 2005



Traduttore, traditore. The history of post-Biblical culture is a history of mistranslation and misinterpretation.


yeah, the bumpy road from עלמה to παρθενος is indeed perplexing -- mostly for Catholics, though. non-Catholic Christians often seem to be blissfully undisturbed by that not-so-tiny problem.

check out the Septuagint's Greek in Isaiah 7:14 being inserted into Matthew 1:22-23: young girl, virgin, whatever.

anyway, if I may riff on felix's comment that for a while:


Scribal Errors and Alterations of the Hand-Written Text
(scroll down)

and, reading carefully the Gospels, Jesus quotes (or alludes) to scripture in a way that is not consistent: sometime agreeing with the Septuagint, sometimes with the proto-Masoretic Hebrew. To make things more confusing, there are key agreements with Aramaic tradition, too.
Of course, we just don't know if Jesus -- a poor, disenfranchised Palestinian laborer, very possibly a tekton* -- could actually read and write -- in the Gospels, we never see him read or write: we only see him once (in John 8:6) doodle in the dirt.


* Crossan [boc349] points out that Matthew 13:55 shifts Mark's 6:3 'tekton' onto Joseph, which might indicate embarrassment (ie authenticity). The Greek word could also refer to building with stone (wood was scarce in the region). [lex]
It's been suggested he built or repaired boats by the Sea of Galilee, or plows and yokes for farmers.
Nazareth was probably too small to support any sort of fulltime tekton, so Jesus and/or Joseph may have travelled to Sepphoris to find work or sell their crafts.
Antipas financed a major construction project at Tiberias around 15-19 AD, which could have provided work for most of the tektons in Galilee, including Jesus. He would have been paid very little-- at most 2 sesterces per day. [boc179] (The equivalent purchasing power today might be around $1.75 per day.)
There was some controversy because of an ancient burial ground on the site. [jrw103] When the city was completed, the local job-opportunities for tektons would have plummeted-- Jesus and his co-workers would have been thrown upon their own limited resources.

posted by matteo at 4:31 AM on December 5, 2005


It's somewhat strange to me that so many secular Jews are so offended by Christianity. I guess I understand-- they like to percieve Christians as the heirs of the people who were killing Jews for so long. But it's very odd, as their comments (and Bloom here is no exception) generally read like, "religion is so messed up; however, I stand by the jewish faith, and believe that it's better than christianity; however, well, it's religion, so it's messed up." The two sort of end up on the same level, if you think religion is wrong, don't they?

Also, prosyletizing is perfectly rational. Put simply: if you believe that you have the truth, and that it will save people from death or suffering, it is not only understandable that you'd try to tell others about it; it's morally imperative. While many Rabbis are apprehensive about converts because they don't want to encourage people to be dishonest, prosyletization is certainly not unknown to Judaism. To be offended at religious people seeking converts is either not to understand or not to care about their perspective, a perspective in which what they do is motivated by their care for others. While one can disagree with them, it's petty simply to angrily take offense at them.
posted by koeselitz at 4:42 AM on December 5, 2005


To be offended at religious people seeking converts is either not to understand or not to care about their perspective, a perspective in which what they do is motivated by their care for others. While one can disagree with them, it's petty simply to angrily take offense at them.
Their "care" is sorta equivalent to "reparative" therapy or shock treatment applied to us gays. It has the effect of both denigrating our religion and of telling those to be converted that there's something wrong with them, and that they're condemned because of it---petty? not really.

Having a culturally (as opposed to observantly) Jewish outlook does not mean that we believe that it's "messed up" simply because it's linked to a religion, or part of a religious heritage. Being Jewish (for many of us) is not dependent on observance of rituals mentioned in a book, nor going to Heaven or Hell--it's about how you live this life (some of that is an outgrowth/evolution of things mentioned in the bible, and some isn't). A conversion message aimed at getting us to accept Jesus so we won't go to Hell or be damned after this life is not going to work, and negates what many of us see as the entire key value of religion in itself. "Care" means something entirely different, and involves a certain amount of respect and never forcing others to live by your religion--i think it's a natural outlook when you're always in the minority.
posted by amberglow at 6:06 AM on December 5, 2005


spectacular post. Thanks, matteo. Thanks also to all for the great discussion and links.

Artifice_Eternity, I too am reading Jack Miles' Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God right now, an engaging look at the intersection between Jewish and Christian beliefs.

As you point out, Miles notes that the Gospels were written down after/during the unsuccessful, catastrophic Jewish revolt against the Romans. It brings up 3 big questions for me-- why didn't the message of a God with a new mission resonate with Jews, given that God appeared to be out of the warrior trade? How did Jews manage to persist as a group with a separate identity after they were expelled-- has any other group in all of history done that? And, how did the New Testament come to appear as it does? I'm new to all this, obviously, so I'm still trying to figure out how, say, Revelation fits in with the stuff in the gospels.

Here's an audio interview about early forms of Christianity and the writing of the New Testament.
posted by ibmcginty at 6:44 AM on December 5, 2005


I'm surprised no one else has mentioned the relationship between Yiddish and the Jewish faith. If not for that religion, it's doubtful there would be nearly this many Yiddish speakers today. It's a language that is intimately related to a religion, in that there are very few non-Jews who can speak it. There isn't really a clear comparison available that I can think of because of this situation; it'd be somewhat similar to translating the Koran into Latin in order to convert Catholics. Bad analogy, but the closest I can get.
posted by mikeh at 6:52 AM on December 5, 2005


it's intimately related to a religion, but not for religious reasons, mikeh--it's because of cultural and historical reasons. Hebrew's always been the official religious language, i think.

ibm, google up "diaspora Judaism" for that whole How did Jews manage to persist as a group with a separate identity after they were expelled thing. : >
posted by amberglow at 8:21 AM on December 5, 2005


Interesting, because Bloom's protege Camille Paglia has always maintained that American culture is a struggle/stasis between the Judeo/Christian & the pagan traditions (the latter going back to Greece & Rome)
posted by beautifulatrocities at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2005


critiques of conventional wisdom about the Roman/Byzantine split

I'm not aware of any books per se.
A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium is a good primer for many of these topics.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia has en especially in-depth coverage of this topic. After Charlemagne, relations between east and west europe broke down into both sides saying "*We* are the Romans, you not".

Names used for the Greek People
Romaions (Ρωμιοί) - Romans is the political name by which the Greeks were known during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The name originally signified the inhabitants of the city of Rome in Italy, but with the elevation of the Greeks in the Roman Empire, it soon lost its connection with the Latins. Emperor Caracella granted all free people in the Roman Empire citizenship, but the Greeks transmogrified the term Roman into the term Romaion. The term was created in order to establish a dualistic connotation that represented the Greeks' Roman citizenship and their Hellenic ancestry.

Romans
In 800 Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor by the Pope himself, officially rejecting Byzantines as true Romans. According to the Frankish interpretation of events, the papacy appropriately "transferred Roman imperial authority from the Greeks to the Germans, in the name of His Greatness, Charles". From then on, a war of names revolved around Roman imperial rights. Unable to deny that an emperor did exist in Constantinople, they sufficed in renouncing him as an successor of Roman heritage on the grounds that Greeks have nothing to do with the Roman legacy. Pope Nicholas I wrote to Emperor Michael III, "You ceased to be called 'Emperor of the Romans', since the Romans whom you claim to be Emperor of, are in fact according to you barbarians."
posted by meehawl at 10:59 AM on December 5, 2005


It's somewhat strange to me that so many secular Jews are so offended by Christianity. I guess I understand-- they like to percieve Christians as the heirs of the people who were killing Jews for so long.

I don't know if they 'like' to so much as that's simply their inherited view. I had the good fortune this summer to meet a man and wife from Haifa, who I guess would be categorized as secular Jews, and chat with them about Christianity among other things. They're well-travelled, well-educated people with a great interest in other cultures, the wider world. I, my family, and friends felt an immediate sense of connection with them as people we'd like to bring into our circle and know more about, in other words make close friends with. It's funny how that happens so easily and naturally sometimes.

They attended a protestant Christian church for the first time while visiting us. The sermon included references to Ecclesiastes and it was most interesting getting their reaction to the experience. The man related the effort it took to keep up, thinking back to his secular training in school and translating between the material he remembered in hebrew and the english sermon.

He told us he was taught in school that 'Christians hate Jews', straight up. I'll just say it was a significant learning experience all round. For them, I believe, to meet some folks who had the exact opposite feeling for them, and for us to better understand and feel so personally the pain and cost of such hatred whether real or imagined.
posted by scheptech at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2005


I agree with Amberglow, supra. I think what gauls Jews about Christians actively seeking converts is that it's just an insulting proposition. It's one thing to make information about an alternative faith available; it's another to suppose that coming to your door, or exalting Jesus in the street or subway is an appropriate means by which to communicate a faith's virtue. Like, us Jews don't know that Christianity is out there? Like, someone coming up to our door is going to make us more likely to accept Christ?

And by the way, the Lubavitch Chassidim, in effect, proselytize within Judaism, and I find this embarrassing.

(and as an aside, from a Jewish perspective, the most ridiculous aspect of Christianity is that however good and decent a person one might be, you're off to Hell is you don't accept Jesus--talk about contracts of adhesion! From a Jewish perspective, Christianity sounds like religion for children, IMHO)


PS: THe Mefi spell check proposes "unfaith" for Lubavitch--what's that about?!
posted by ParisParamus at 11:24 AM on December 5, 2005


Great post; great thread. Thanks matteo!
posted by ParisParamus at 11:26 AM on December 5, 2005


it's cuz they're a cult, pretty much, PP.

shep, that's too weird--they were really taught that Christians hate Jews? How old are they? Is it the "killing Christ" thing? Is it a common Israeli thing? ???
posted by amberglow at 11:31 AM on December 5, 2005


American culture is a struggle/stasis between the Judeo/Christian & the pagan traditions (the latter going back to Greece & Rome)

The history of the interaction between Judaism and Romanism is a case study of hybridization and opportunities taken and not taken.

I've written before on MeFi about Philo, an Alexandrian Jew of the 1st century. His writings represented a syncretic Judaism common at that time among certain classes. So close were many of his Gnostic-like writings to early mystery religion Hellenised Pauline Christianity that many Chriatian writers in earlier times seem to have simply classed him as one of the proto Church Fathers, similar to, say, Origen (another Alexandrian). I think personally that one of the reasons Alexandria was a hotbed then for these kinds of theories was a result of its long history as a site of a Buddhist mission and monastery. Buddhism was a reasonably hot topic within the Eastern Roman Empire around that time, and the eremetic Buddhist monks dotted around Egypt seem to have inspired Christians to follow in their footsteps, and there seems to have been a lot of borrowing of Buddhist tropes to beef up the Christ story

Philo wrote about the Therapeutae, a sect of probably-Buddhist proto-monks in and around Egypt since ~200BCE, that seem to have at least influenced the development of the Essenes and Nazorites. Or at least, they were all sharing the same ideas. It seems to me to be no coincidence that the Stoics really kicked off soon after the first Buddhist missionaries from Akosha arrived in the eastern Med and began preaching and demonstrating great feats of endurance and mortification. The Stoicism of the eastern Roman territories led directly to Gnosticism, Hellenism, and Pauline Christianity.

Philo seems to have had little if no knowledge of Hebrew, but a great knowledge of the Halakha and an earnest desire to square Judaism with Platonism. The later Christian development of the idea of God as Logos seem to riff off Philo's ideas of YHWH as Logos, attempting to complexify the monolithic idea of a single deity.

Anyway, Philo's main claim to fame was taking part in a diplomatic mission to Caligular around 40AD to ask that regulations enforcing Romanisation of the Jews be relaxed. Obviously, he did not succeed, paving the way for the rebellion a generation later. If he had, if the Roman hierarchy had been more interested in accommodation, it's interesting to speculate on what would be the character of Christianity and Judaism today, or indeed if there would be any real distinction, and whether Islam would have managed to make it out of the desert wastes of Arabia.
posted by meehawl at 11:33 AM on December 5, 2005


from the Znet link (i meant to mention it earlier) --I`m a very frightened man. At 75, I find increasingly that I am living in a theocracy. (there's a lot of this going around)
posted by amberglow at 11:44 AM on December 5, 2005


were really taught that Christians hate Jews?

Yes, Christians hate Jews.

How old are they?

About 50.

Is it the "killing Christ" thing?

Yes.

Is it a common Israeli thing? ???

No idea how widespread. Obviously the real world is more complicated and nuanced than that but these folks have been to more countries than probably I ever will. They appeared genuinely surprised to find a distinct lack of hatred going on in the context I described.
posted by scheptech at 11:55 AM on December 5, 2005


whether Islam would have managed to make it out of the desert wastes of Arabia.

Well, wait a minute, didn't they manage to get into France, and, from the other end, lay siege to Vienna? (And isn't Indonesia the world's largest Muslim nation?) The early, rapid success of Islamic empire-building is under-appreciated here at the Western world; I learned about it first in Dave Barry's condensed history of the world, which is about a paragraph long, and includes the clause, "then the Arabs got way the hell up into Spain."

That success came to mind reading this thread, where many Christians pointed to the zeal of first-century Christians as part of their reason for believing. If those are your criteria, the Muslims have everyone beat.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:03 PM on December 5, 2005


[this is good]

It's worth noting that the earliest Jewish settlers in the American colonies were Sephardim, who fled the Inquisition. If there's a 'Judeo-Christian heritage' that's distinctively American, then it's bound up with the desire for toleration in response to different forms of national persecution, and celebrated at places like the Gomez House.
posted by holgate at 12:17 PM on December 5, 2005


The early, rapid success of Islamic empire-building is under-appreciated here at the Western world

The Arabs got lucky. Right place, right time. Emperor Heraclius Augustus thought he was doing well, winning a massive, protracted compaign against the Sassanid Persians that would enable the Empire to eliminate Zoroastrianism once and for all in the region and establish orthodoxy as the major religion. Heraclius led the victorious Roman armies on a major rampage through Persia in 629 that effectively eliminated Persia as a coherent political and social force (a process already set in motion by the Zoroastrian heretic, Mazdak). Heraclius was so taken with his success that he marched into Jerusalem in 630 to demonstrate its status as an unquestioned possession of the Roman Empire. He was right that Zoroastrianism was finished as a major power, however.

Little did he know that as a result of its defeat, Persia would fragment into a multi-decade funk of civil war and social chaos at exactly the same time that the Arab tribes were unifying under a common, expansive ideology. Persia had always been able to smack down any overly powerful Arab kingdoms that had emerged over the past few centuries and I think the Romans never really understood how finally eliminating their age-old Persian rival would change the balance of power in the region.

Somewhat before this time Yemen, a traditional southern counterweight to the central Arab tribes had been in turmoil. Its ruler had converted to Judaism at the turn of the 6th century and began slaughtering Christians. This just pissed off the Romans and some Christian neighbouring countries immensely and African Christian country, Axum, invaded Yemen and weakened it, enabling the Persians to seize control. And of course, when the Romans eliminated Persia then Yemen was up for grabs and went Muslim.

During the first major clash between Rome and Islam, at Yarmuk in 636, several factors contributed to a surprise Roman loss. A major portion of the Roman foederati army, the Ghassanids, switched sides. They were Christian Arabs of the monophysite tendency, and they seem to have believed they would suffer less persecution under the Caliphate than under the Orthodoxy. And as I mentioned earlier, monophysitism seems to me to have been more compatible with Islam and Judaism in their stricter monotheism than other, more northern and western Christian sects with more polytheistic influences.

The Romans also faced the Arab armies with no cavalry, as Heraclius had rather unwisely sent all the cavalry off with his brother Theodore, who managed to get beaten separately and completely. Finally, as a result of the Persian conquest, the Roman kitty was drained and they had ceased paying tribute and in fact increased tax levies throughout Syria, Lebanon, and Paleastina. Heraclius was also aware that if he again raised a huge army to go on an all-out war of conquest agaiknst the Arabs then the Empire would be weakened in the north and the Franks/Lombards/assorted barbarians would take the opportunity to seize more of the territories in Italy, Spain, Africa, and the Balkans.

Finally, working against continued Roman occupation were the shifting loyalties of the local tribes, already ethnically closer to the invading Arabs, figured they would get a better deal from the newcomers rather than paying for the defence of Rome.
posted by meehawl at 3:07 PM on December 5, 2005


they were really taught that Christians hate Jews?

In my experience, I've consistently found that many (if not most) non-Jews either know so little about Jews and Judaism that their lack of knowledge leads them to do offensive things, that they've inherited (without realizing it) a fear or wariness as the result of their lacking knowledge, or they're consciously hateful.
For instance, just the other day a friend of mine used the phrase "Jew them down" in total seriousness. I was waiting for her to laugh, indicating an ironic usage of the terminology. I gave her a puzzled look and she realized her misstep. apparently, she had heard that phrase so often growing up that she didn't even really associate it with stereotypes of Jews. In her mind, it was "Joo them down." A dialect peculiarity like, "Red up the house."

The list goes on: Even more recently, I didn't have any money to give to a panhandler. "Don't lie, you fucking Jew," he said.

And on: During the planning of my inter-faith wedding, my goyim inlaws often worried about how much Jewish tradition was being included in the ceremony. They gave us the impression that we were including those traditions in excess.

And on: Most of the Polish-Catholics (generally senior citizens) who lived on my block when I was growing up often dropped negative remarks into conversations.

And on again: When my parents got married, my mother's grandmother checked my father's skull for horns.

And on holidays, the City parks cop cars in front of my synagogue to make sure that it (and we) are not attacked.

Can one Jew here honestly tell me that they've never experienced anti-semetism in America?

/tangent

posted by Jon-o at 7:40 PM on December 5, 2005


we have, jon-o, but growing up here makes it a different thing--i was never taught anywhere that Christians hate us--not in public school nor in hebrew school, nor from my family. I guess it fits with Israel's siege mentality or something?
posted by amberglow at 8:07 PM on December 5, 2005


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