Archive for the 'From my diary' Category

A list of translations of the Orations of Libanius, at Antiochepedia

Libanius lived in 4th century Antioch, and he knew everyone who was anyone.  His very voluminous works have not received much attention from translators.  This is probably because his works are rather dull.  Nevertheless they contain valuable data on late antique culture.  But even finding what translations exist can be a challenge.

A useful item, this, at the Antiochepedia website:

Listing of sources for translations of Libanius’ Orations

A very thorough summary of the translations of the Orations by Libanius has been prepared by Christine Lund Koch Greenlee, a graduate student at St Andrews University.

The pdf is available here.

Grab it while it’s hot!

UPDATE: The link seems a bit unreliable: here’s a mirror:

From my diary

Work is continuing on Methodius of Olympus.  There has been no progress for just over a week, thanks to a contaminated sandwich purchased at a garage, and then some other trivial but time-consuming difficulties.  It would be nice, sometimes, to be a man of independent means!

However a translation of Methodius “On the Leech” has arrived, and will appear as soon as I can edit it.

The translation of De Lepra was done a little while ago, but we have been waiting for a translation of the Greek fragments of this work.  This has arrived, but I have not been able to look at it yet.

I’m hoping that I shall be able to deal with both soon.

Before I fell ill, I had located a possible source for a grant to translate the two major works of Methodius extant in Old Slavonic.  These are sufficiently lengthy that the price is a little beyond my own purse, but it looks highly likely that a grant may be possible.

The last gladiatorial show

In 325 AD Constantine passed an edict against gladiators (Codex Theodosianus book 15, title 12, leg. 1).  The version in Cod. Just. XI. 44 runs[1]:

Bloody spectacles in a time of civil peace and domestic quiet do not meet with our favor, wherefore we absolutely prohibit the existence of gladiators.

But clearly nothing happened.

In 403, Prudentius in Contra Symmachum book 2[2] appealed to the emperor Honorius to abolish the gladiatorial games:

Then on to the gathering in the amphitheatre passes [the vestal virgin] this figure of life-giving  purity and bloodless piety, to see bloody battles and deaths of human beings and look on with holy eyes at wounds men suffer for the price of their keep. There she sits conspicuous with the awe-inspiring trappings of her head-bands and enjoys what the trainers have produced.

What a soft, gentle heart! She rises at the blows, and every time a victor stabs his victim’s throat she calls him her pet; the modest virgin with a turn of her thumbbids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe so that no remnant of life shall stay lurking deep in his vitals while under a deeper thrust of the sword the fighter lies in the agony of death.

Does their great service lie in this, that they are said to keep constant watch on behalf of the greatness of Latium’s Palatine city, that they undertake to preserve the life of her people and the wellbeing of her nobles, let their locks spread nicely over their necks or nicely wreathe their brows with dainty ribbons and lay strings on their hair, and below the ground in presence of ghosts cut the throats of cattle over the flames in propitiatory sacrifice, and mutter indistinct prayers?

Or is it that they sit in the better seats on the balcony and watch how often the shaft batters the bronze-helmed face with blows of its three-pronged head, from what gaping gashes the wounded gladiator bespatters his side of the arena when he flees, and with how much blood he marks his traces?

That golden Rome may no more know this kind of sin is my prayer to you, most august Head of the Ausonian realm, and that you would command this grim rite to be abolished like the rest. See, has not your father’s merit left this space unoccupied, and God and your sire’s kindly affection kept it for you to fill up? So that he should not take for himself alone the rewards of his great goodness, he has said “I keep back a portion for you, my son,” and left the honour for you undiminished and unimpaired.

Grasp the glory that has been reserved for your times, our leader, and as your father’s successor possess the credit he has left over. He forbade that the city should be wetted with the blood of bulls; do you command that the dead bodies of wretched men be not offered in sacrifice. Let no man fall at Rome that his suffering may give pleasure, nor Virgins delight their eyes with slaughter upon slaughter. Let the ill-famed arena be content now with wild beasts only, and no more make a sport of murder with bloodstained weapons. Let Rome dedicate herself to God; let her be worthy of her great emperor, being both mighty in valour and innocent of sin; let her follow in goodness the leader she follows in war.

Then the following incident, described in Theodoret, Church History, book 5, chapter 26, took place:

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance.

A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.

When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.

This seems to have taken place in 404 AD, although I don’t know on what that date is based.[3]

The ban of Honorius, naturally, only applied in his presence.  I don’t know if we have evidence for later gladiatorial combats.  But Salvian tells us in De gubernatione Dei, book 6, that men were still being eaten by beasts in the arena in his day.

  1. [1] Via here.
  2. [2] vol. 2 of the Loeb Prudentius,  after line 1095, p.92.
  3. [3] I owe the reference to Gibbon.

From my diary: Gentlemen say “Old Slavonic”, Yankee; the latest on Methodius; plus the Oxford Patristics Conference 2015. All in your soaraway blog!

Sometimes, it’s just a very good idea to go offline! —

I’m back after a very pleasant week of holiday, and I’m starting to pick up the threads once more.  I’m still feeling somewhat frivolous.

While I was away, Ralph Cleminson sent over a fresh version of Methodius’ De Lepra (a text which gives an allegorical interpretation of Leviticus 13) in which we discussed various issues.  Part of the problem is that it opens in what is clearly the middle of a passage, and the two lines in question are inscrutable.  It is also in the form of a dialogue, but then one of the “speakers” starts quoting two other people.  So it is nearly impossible to label the speakers, as one might otherwise do.  I’ve had a go at producing a semi-final version, and we’ll see how it looks.

In addition, Andrew Eastbourne has accepted a commission to translate the fragments of the Greek version of De Lepra, preserved in a medieval florilegium, and printed in the GCS 27 edition.  These are fairly extensive, but Dr Cleminson has already indicated that they differ quite considerably from the Old Slavonic text.  We’ll include both.  Not sure how to format that – I do hate the idea of parallel columns.

In the meantime I have commissioned Dr C. to translate the next work by Methodius, “On the Leech”, which I imagine is another piece of biblical interpretation.  Thankfully there is no Greek in this.

Meanwhile I have made an important discovery or two.

The first discovery is what is the difference between “Old Slavonic” and “Old Slavic”.  Around the web, the latter is very common; but the former is the one that I know from literature.  It turns out that they mean the same thing – the very early literature of the Slavs in Bulgaria just after the creation of their alphabet – but that Old Slavonic is the form used in Britain, while “Old Slavic” is the form used in the USA.

At least I now know, when I refer to Old Slavonic, what I am talking about.  Sort of.

Well, I do have a French volume, produced by the Cerf, which has an introduction to that literature.  But somehow I forgot to look for it last week.  I’d read it this week, except that it is at home, and I am back in the hotel.  One day I will remember to read it.

My second discovery is that the English word for slave is indeed connected to “Slav”, via Greek.   I read it on a web page, so it must be true.  But it sounded plausible over lunch.

What they said is that the Greek word for slave was doulos.  But the medieval Greeks captured so many Slavs during the wars against the Bulgarians, that they based a Greek word specially on that.  This of course became known in Sicily, then under Byzantine rule; and, after its conquest by the Normans, around the same time as the Normans conquered England, the term became part of old English.

It sounds plausible.  I haven’t checked.  Believe at your own risk!

Meanwhile this week, the Oxford Patristics Conference 2015 has started – started on Monday, actually.  I’m not attending.  This is because it looked dashed expensive when I looked at it, last November or whenever.  I have to pay for it myself, after all – no grants for me.  I also lose the money I’d earn by working. Also I’m a bit bored with conferences, in truth.  I’m probably just a bit jaded.  And I am not a patristics professional, so I don’t need to be there for career reasons.

Anyway, I hope they all have a super time.  There are some interesting events, notably the launch of the new edition of Cyril of Alexandria against Julian the Apostate.  And of course there are lots of interesting people there.

A visit to a church building in the weekday

We all need holidays.  I’ve been on holiday for a week, and I’ve largely stayed away from the computer, and instead I have just enjoyed the weather, neither too hot nor too cold.

On Friday I decided to do a trip out, and I went up to the Peak District.  This is quite a run, a round-trip of some 400 miles; but in fact I never saw what I went to see, which was the Peaks.  Instead I saw something much more important.

I was nearly there when, while driving along a dual-carriageway, I saw a sign that indicated that I was very near to the location of a church that I follow on Facebook, but had never seen.  This, I thought, it might be nice to look at.

Not quite sure where I was going, I indicated and came off the dual carriageway, and sought out the area where it meets.  I thought perhaps that there might be a church office open, and maybe some literature about the history of the church.  I was in for a surprise.

I’d never attended the church.  It’s far too far from home, and in addition is attended by a family of good people whom, for personal reasons, it would be embarassing for me to meet.  In fact I’d never even been to that town before.

But I knew that the church must have been very alive when it was founded.  Someone from my younger days, a very enthusiastic Christian, had attended it, almost from its foundation in the early 80s right through to recent times, so it could hardly be a dead loss.  It came out of the restoration/charismatic movement of that period.  After I became aware of it,  I made it one of the churches that I follow on Facebook, for encouragment and a source of topics for prayer.  But it is very hard to get any impression of what God is doing from internet pages.  And I thought that it might be interesting to see the location itself with my own eyes.

A few wrong turns later, I found myself there, in an industrial unit, wondering where on earth the church was.  I got out of my car, and was accosted by a man who asked if I was looking for the building.  It was, in fact, right in front of me, but unsigned because of renovation work in progress.  The building is a small converted warehouse.

The man who spoke to me was working there.  During the week the building (and an adjoining one, also owned by the church) hosts conferences and meetings, so apparently there are always staff there during the week.  Unfortunately the church office was closed.

But this worker belonged to the church, and told me about it, showed me the auditorium, and indeed prayed with me.  In short he did a fine job of welcoming a casual visitor, and had I not been a believer, I am quite sure that he would have shared the gospel with me too, in a wholly unembarassed fashion.  In short I felt that I came into contact, not just with the building, nor even with church officials; but with the church itself, and God within it.[1]

I drove away, rather impressed, and profoundly encouraged.  Clearly the church is busy, and doing what God wants it to do.  Hundreds of people belong to it, and it is, as the name implies, a thriving community of people dedicated to God and his work.

Very little of this could be known to anybody who didn’t go there.  I didn’t know it, despite taking an interest in the church for the last three years.  You could only learn any of this by meeting those involved.

In fact it became clear from what I learned that the work of God is very much alive and making progress in these northern towns, in a way that does not seem to be the case in my own town.  Praise God for this!

God is at work among us now.  We won’t hear this unless we are actually in touch with it.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.  God is not interested in making a media splash, but in converting ordinary people like ourselves from our pointless lives, and leading us to accept Jesus as Lord.

This is important for believers to remember.  Many of us on the web live rather isolated lives.  That means that, in truth, we don’t really know what is going on.  Never rely on what the media or the web say.  God’s work has always taken place, sub rosa, away from the publicity.  It is still the case now.

So if you were in the middle of God’s work when you were younger, when everything seemed to be happening; and then found yourself in a desert, do not be discouraged.  Jesus also went into the desert.  It is a normal thing, in a Christian’s life.  Just remember that the absence of life in the desert does not mean that there is no life anywhere.  The silence and absence forces you to work out what you really rely on.  We have all known people, apparently believers, who turned out only to be going along with the crowd.  God takes us into the desert, I believe, that we may grow reliant on Him directly.  Some of us will live our lives in the desert.  But we must never forget that He is alive!

In countless lives, in ordinary people, in ordinary places, the kingdom of God is at hand, and people work out their salvation, trusting in God and blessing as many as come within the circle of their lives.  It was rather humbling to see this.

Praise God for that church.  I pray for its leaders and its people, that they may be blessed, and bless others; and that many may come to know Christ through its ministries.  Amen.

UPDATED: I’ve removed details of which church this was: it’s not important to the article.

  1. [1] Mind you, he also managed to introduce me, before I could prevent him, to precisely one of the people that I was eager to avoid!  Ouch.  Luckily I was able to keep a straight face and escape without being detected.  I’d expected to be safe during the week!  Oh well.

The man who wrote the creed of Nicaea

I always learn something from T. D. Barnes’ books.  While looking for something online, I happened across these remarks:[1]

Much will always be obscure about the Council of Nicaea. No stenographic record of the proceedings was taken and no minutes were produced by anyone.

It is true that we have reports of different parts of the debates from four men who attended the council – Constantine himself, Eustathius the bishop of Antioch (frag. 32 Spanneut = Theodoretus, HE 1.8.1-5, cf. Barnes 1978a: 57-59), Eusebius of Caesarea (VC 3.6-22) and Athanasius, who attended as the deacon and assistant of Alexander of Alexandria and composed a very selective account of the council nearly thirty years later in a long letter which he probably addressed to Liberius, who became bishop of Rome on 17 May 352 (De decretis Nicaeni synodi [CPG 2120], cf. Barnes 1993a: 110-112, 198-200).

And later writers who were not at the council provide isolated snippets of information about it. such as that the creed was actually written by the Cappadocian priest Hermogenes (Basil of Caesarea, Epp. 81, 244.9, 263.3). But neither singly nor collectively do any of these provide more than discontinuous glimpses of the course of the debates.

Hang on … the creed was actually written by a Cappadocian priest named Hermogenes?  Of course I had to look this up!

The reference is to letter 81 of the letters of Basil of Caesarea.  This is online in several translations.  It is, in fact, a letter of recommendation for a job, for the son of this Hermogenes.  Here’s the NPNF version:

Not then to be at issue with you, but rather to have you on my side in my defence which I make in the presence of Christ I have, after looking round in the assembly of the presbyters of the city, chosen the very honourable vessel, the offspring of the blessed Hermogenes, who wrote the great and invincible creed in the great Synod. He is a presbyter of the Church, of many years standing, of steadfast character, skilled in canons, accurate in the faith, who has lived up to this time in continence and asceticdiscipline, although the severity of his austere life has now subdued the flesh; a man of poverty, with no resources in this world, so that he is not even provided with bare bread, but by the labour of his hands gets a living with the brethren who dwell with him. It is my intention to send him.

Here’s the version from the Loeb edition:[2]

In order, therefore, that I may not come into litigation with you, but rather may find in you an associate in my defence before Christ, having looked about in the assembly of the presbyters belonging to this city, I have chosen that most worthy vessel, the offspring of the blessed Hermogenes — who, in the great Synod, wrote the great and invincible creed.

DeFerrari, the translator, adds the notes:

* He was the spiritual offspring of Hermogenes, having been ordained by him. Hermogenes was bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia and predecessor of Dianius. Cf. Letters CCXLIV, CCLXIII.

* I.e., at Nicaea. Basil seems to forget that it was Leontius who was present at Nicaea as bishop of Caesarea, although Hermogenes may have been present in lower orders, and may have written the creed.

Neither note seems necessary, tho.

But what does the phrase “wrote the creed” (πίστιν γράψαντος) signify?  It can’t mean “composed”, but rather “write down”, “note down”, i.e. from the discussion.

All the same, it is interesting to learn of this little piece of information!

If we followed the letter of Eusebius, preserved by Athanasius in De synodis Nicenis, we would suppose that the creed was the same as that which Eusebius offered to the council as his own confession, with only the addition of the word “homoousios” proposed by Constantine himself.  But this never sounded very likely.  I suspect that the text of Eusebius’ letter has suffered in transmission – probably some paragraphs have been omitted – and consequently misleads us.

  1. [1] Timothy Barnes, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Wiley, 2013.  Sadly page numbers are not displayed.
  2. [2] Basil, Letters vol. 2, pp.92-93.  Loeb vol. 215.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 15 (start)

Let’s do a little more of the Annals of Eutychius.  The author returns to his now-lost Sassanid chronicle, which clearly contained fanciful material as well as much history.  Here is the first two chapters.

    *    *    *    *

1. Let us return now to our purpose and to the place in history where we were.  As for Yazdagard, son of Bahram, called “the Sinner”, king of the Persians, he was a brutal man, rough and of perverse conduct. [The Persians] regretted making him their king, but nevertheless they were unhappy at the idea of killing him, because they did not want to accept that their kingship could degenerate so in their king.  It was therefore said that they saw a horse go forward and stop at the door [of the palace] of the king.  The people came around, admiring the beauty of its figure and the perfection of its features, and they informed the king. He came out, admired it and felt great joy.  He ordered them to saddle it, because he wanted to ride it, then he approached it, stroked its head and took it by the forelock and mane.  Then he tried to stroke its back, but when he was behind [the horse], it kicked him, striking him in the liver and killed him.  Then the horse, as if satisfied with what it had done, began to run and no one could catch it.  Then the people exclaimed: “God did this for us, moved with compassion toward us.”

2. The reign of Yazdagard “the Sinner” lasted twenty years, five months and eighteen days. When Yazdagard died, the leaders of Persia came together and said: “We do not intend to elect as our king any of his family that would treat us the same way.”  Yazdagard had a son named Bahram, whom they did not permit to attend at any of their actions.  He then said to some of them: “Do not elect anyone as your king unless he has these seven qualities: that he is better than all of you for: [his] skill in governing, in considering things, for the truth of what he says, for [his] strong courage, for [his] eloquence, for [his] clemency in ‘administration and for [his] knowledge of the treachery that an enemy may attempt”.  They answered: “And where would we ever find such a man?” He said to them: “Promise me, on your honour, that if I show you, you will make him your king.”  They promised him, and having full security in their sincerity he told them:  ”I am the man.” And so it was that they elected him their king.  Bahram, son of Yazdağard, called Bahram Gur (1), reigned over the Persians for eighteen years and eleven months (2).  This was in the twelfth year of the reign of Theodosius the Lesser, king of the Rum.

He reigned over the Persians, treating them well, and they loved him.  Later, however, he preferred to abandon himself with young and entertaining company, to the point that the people began to disapprove, and neighboring kings thought they might take possession of his territory.  In fact, he was attacked by Khagan the Great (3), king of the Turks, at the head of twenty-five myriads of soldiers.  Each king of the Turks was called Khagan.  He marched until he was encamped at as-Sa`id.  Then Bahram was told: “O king, we must tell you to put aside your pleasures.  Come, take care of yourself and the people, look after business, defend and throw off fear”.  Heedless of their words, Bahram left the country and went to the regions of Adharbayğān and Armenia, to live life as a hermit at the local fire temple.  But the people had no doubt that he had behaved in this way just to escape.  Then they met in council and said: “We can not do anything against Khagan.  Let us pay a personal tax as a ransom for our people and our land.”  But Marsi (4), brother of Bahram, and the judge Azadnār (5) said: “We are not willing to participate in this matter.”  At the news of the submission of the population of Persis, Khagan abandoned his military preparations and put down his arms.  Then there went to Bahram a man who told him the news, how the Khagan believed everything peaceful and that he was safe from any surprise.  Bahram then marched against him and surprised him in the night, killed Khagan with his own hands and then exterminated the men who had fled.  Bahram then returned safe and sound, and he took the family of Khagan, his soldiers and their wives, who had been taken prisoner, and put them at the disposal of the population.  When the news spread in the territory of the Turks of what had happened to Khagan, they fled to their more remote lands.  Bahram I commended the governor of Khurasan and his brother Marsi (6) and retired to Adharbaygān.  He stopped nowhere, nor did he enter into any dwelling except as a hermit and offered sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.  When he came to the fire temple of Adharbayğān, he dismounted and walked on foot, until he entered, thus showing the deep respect he had for that place and to thank God.  He then gave orders to hang on the door of the temple the pearls, rubies and precious stones from the sword of Khaqan, a set of pearls.  He then went into Iraq, where he remained for a few days.  Then he marched towards [the country] of Rum with the intention to invade.

When Theodosius, king of Rum, heard the news, he sent a man named Istrātiyūs to see in what state was the kingdom of Bahram.  He returned to the king, and he told him that it was poorly defended.  King Theodosius then thought to raise his hands against Bahram, and he made the necessary preparations and went out against him at the head of his soldiers.  The battle between the two was hard-fought, and many fell on both sides, and both fled.  King Theodosius returned to Constantinople, while Bahram, in disguise, walked and entered the territory of India.

He stayed there for some time without anyone knowing who he was, and they respected him for his strength, for his courage, for his skill in killing wild animals and for his boldness in dealing with them.  One day he learned that there was an elephant in their land that had attacked and killed many people.  He asked them to lead him to it, but they said to him; “You are a foreigner and it is not right to expose you to danger.”  Learning this from the king [of the Indians], he took with him a man to lead him to the neighborhood where was the elephant.  As soon as he saw it, Bahram threw a spear that lodged between the eyes of the elephant, then hit it with a dart and then another, until he killed it.  He cut off its head and brought it to the king.  The king felt great admiration and asked him who he was.  “I”, replied Bahram, “am a Persian nobleman.  But I fell from grace in the eyes of my king, and I have fled away from him, coming here to you, attracted by the fame of your power and your mercy.”  The king had an enemy who had previously spared his life  Then he threatened him and sent to him to demand tribute.  The king was deeply distressed.  But Bahram encouraged him and said: “Do not worry any more, because I will prevent him from hurting you.”  Bahram rode with the king and his army to fight against the enemy.  Then Bahram said to the generals of India: “Look at their backs, and do what I do.”  Bahram then attacked them, dispersed their troops, began to strike men from the shoulder to the back, splitting them in two with a single blow; cutting off the elephant’s trunk with one blow and bringing it down, he unseated the rider, knocking him to the ground and killing him, he took two men by the head, gripping one with his right hand and the other with the left and striking them against each other he bashed out their brains.  Bahram’s men gave themselves to attacking and killing and they carried off great booty.  Then the king and Bahram returned.  The king gave to Bahram his daughter and gave him a gift of Danil (7), Makran (8) and the surrounding areas of Sind.  Bahram asked him to put it in writing and seal it as a guarantee. The king did so.  Bahram then returned to his own kingdom and imposed tribute on those territories that had been given to him, causing their riches to flow into Persia.  Some Persian [authors] have passed down that Bahram Gur was under the tutelage of an-Nu’man b. al-Mundhir the Lakhmid (9), king of the Arabs of the desert, and when Bahram had news of the death of his father Yazdagard, he marched with the Arabs who had followed him up to camp in as-Sawad (10), where he remained to dispute the realm with the noble Persians until they recognized his right and elected him king.

Just because you are an Old Testament scholar, that does not make you Moses!

Academia is a cruel trade.  It means a life of loneliness in libraries, mostly reading rubbish articles purely to make sure that you need not pay any attention to them.  Every career ends in oblivion, however many professorships you obtain, however lauded you may be.  A day after you die, some whipper-snapper will publish an article which renders your life’s work obsolete; and you will not be there to reply.

In return many academics develop an arrogance, arising from their alternative role as teachers.  Being surrounded by those who are your intellectual inferiors, if only by virtue of lack of training, cannot be good for a man tempted to believe himself really rather clever.

Sometimes this produces pride, and then hubris, and then, sometimes, hilarious misjudgements.

The classic example is one I witnessed myself.  In the early 1980’s, a group of the most eminent economists of the times, mostly socialists, were foolish enough to write a solemn letter to the Times predicting economic disaster in the name of the “science” of economics.  Unfortunately the 80’s economic boom was less than a year away.  They were never forgiven.

The humanities are far from exempt from similar examples, and I came across one at the weekend.   I was curious to know whether the New English Bible translation was now dead and buried – it is – and in the process came across a paper online, which amused me somewhat, not for its interesting statements about the NEB, but for a couple of predictions about the future of bible translation.[1]  The article was by a certain James Barr, an Old Testament scholar of whom few outside that discipline will now have heard, but whose name was familiar to me from my Oxford days.

The essay was originally delivered as an address in 1987.  In it, he informed his audience:

…there is really no hope, now, that we will have a Standard and agreed- upon English Bible text within the next century, or indeed ever.

Some of the audience must have looked at each other and shaken their heads.  For, at the time that he spoke these words, the NIV was conquering all other versions.  Indeed he knew this, for he felt the need to use some pages of the article attacking it.

Nor was this all.  He felt – rightly – that a standard version was needed.  So how might this best be done?

The only way would be if we worked towards an ecumenical Bible with strong scholarship behind it, and it turned out to be so very good that everyone, just everyone, liked it. But so far we haven’t discovered that vein of gold; it’s behind us, in the King James, but we don’t seem able to find it again.

Again his audience, if they had any sense, must have winced.  We all know what an “ecumenical bible” would be: a bible produced by a committee of people who don’t read or believe in the bible: a chimeraea if ever there was one.  Indeed the article goes on to say that the best translations were always the work of one man.

But he explains:

You will notice that I have at no time tried to tell you what is the best English Bible version;and that is deliberate, partly because I don’t know. I don’t read the English Bible much. I almost always work from the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and I’m not in a position to tell you that this one or that one is the best.

Sadly it is altogether too easy to believe that the author never did read the English bible that much.  Indeed it is rather easy to believe that liberal bible scholars don’t read the bible much.  Why should they?  It can’t be comfortable reading, if you actually read it, rather than dissect it.  It is much easier to ignore the sense of a work, if we make sure that we don’t read it in the language in which we think and live.

It is terribly easy for any of us to disappear up our own backsides, and to lose contact with reality.  In the sciences, the need for reproducability tends to prevent this.  But in the humanities there is nothing to stop a man following a will-o-the-wisp all his life, and it has often happened.  It is not enough to be a scholar of some small part of antiquity; you must connect with reality.  It is not enough to be an Old Testament scholar, fluent in Hebrew and whatever else; it does not make you Moses, and your  religious and political opinions remain those of a man with no better opportunity to test your theories than anybody else.  The false claim to authority will always look foolish as time passes.

In this light, we may pity the author of our article.  Had he read the bible more, and written about it less, he might have avoided the damnation which seems likely to be his.  For the bible is not merely a matter of scholarship, and eternal issues are involved in our study of it.

We are told in the New Testament that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unforgiveable sin.  And it means, plainly enough, seeing God at work in this world, and calling it evil.  This Barr did, on an industrial scale during the 70’s and 80’s, as I well remember.  He lived at Oxford, where Christians were very numerous, very educated, often scientists, making converts and building the future.  The work of God there was palpable.  The churches were filling.  Men and women, however politely, were spending time in prayer and evangelism.  Nobody, however stupid, can fail to recognise that this is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work.

But to him all this was poison.  His hate for the Christians around him was so intense that in 1977 he issued a book attacking us under the curious title of Fundamentalism.  But there are no fundamentalists at Oxford, and never were.  I myself arrived in Oxford in that period.  He meant me, and those like me, who believe in the bible in the same way that every Christian has ever done.  And he hated us precisely because we were very educated and unimpressed by his liberal opinions and contempt for Christian teaching.

His book was effectively rebutted by J. I. Packer in ‘Fundamentalism’ and the word of God, after which his comments didn’t matter.  But he kept up the invective, although nobody was listening after that.  Indeed the article we were looking at, for all its talk about “ecumenism”, contains a vicious attack on the NIV and its editors, and upon Christians in general.

You can’t do that kind of thing, and avoid consequences.  Our Lord makes that plain enough; and Christians, in consequence, are fearful of committing that sin.

Poor soul.  I remember seeing his face, apparently raddled with drink – let us hope that it was just bad makeup – on a TV programme once.  He was there to abuse believers, of course.  It is telling that the obituary in the Independent plays down this aspect of his life as discreditable to his reputation, and so it was.

What can we say of him? He did, I believe, some useful work on the theory of translation; he enjoyed a great range of the most lucrative and most prestigious posts that his career had to offer; he was flattered by his peers, and by the state; he was a heretic and an enemy of the church; and then he died and was forgotten save by specialists.

It’s not much of a life, is it?

We must all make sure that under no circumstances do we blind ourselves to facts out of dogma – especially if we flatter ourselves on our open-mindedness – and never, ever, to set our faces against what God is doing, merely because we think it might be mistaken in some way.  Never play with hate.

Let me end with a quotation from C.S.Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, where the fate of the anti-Christian academic Dr Frost is described:

Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul–nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him.

He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed.

He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was hardly fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him.

“He half saw: he wholly hated..”.  Isn’t that what we see in the essay? Let us hope that Barr managed to escape the same as Frost.   And … let us beware lest we somehow share it.  Hubris can affect others than liberal clergymen.

  1. [1] James Barr, “Modern English Bible Versions as a Problem for the Church”, In: Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, vol. 3, Oxford, 2014, 253-268. Online here.

From my diary

I’m now on holiday for a week.  I’m going to ignore nearly all correspondence, all comments on the blog, and generally go and do other things.  I have received an awful lot of correspondence lately, and I need a holiday from it.

I may write the odd blog post, but I still won’t be taking calls.  The summer is here, and I want a holiday from all the stuff that I do all the time.

How do we define “anti-semitism” so that we can use it for testing Matthew 27:25?

I’ve written now a series of posts on the use of Matthew 27:25 – “His blood be upon us and upon our children” – in Christian writers up to the 6th century.  This was provoked by the question of whether this verse was the cause of, or contributory to, anti-semitism.

In order to examine that question at all, it is  fairly obvious that you have to have some working definition of “anti-semitism” to use.  The term is very vaguely used in our day.  I am having genuine difficulty in separating something measurable from the noise of our unhappy time.  So I have been thinking about this, and trying to come up with something useful.  I don’t feel that I have succeeded, but I offer my thoughts for what they are worth.  If anyone can come up with something better, then I am all ears.

My first thought was to google for a definition.  I found nothing useful, because the definitions used were so extreme.  Indeed I found evidence that Jewish groups are lobbying in the US and EU to create formal, legally binding definitions, which define as “antisemitism” any criticism or opposition to the policies of the state of Israel.

It’s hard not to laugh at such arrogance. Just imagine if we had a crime of “antiamericanism” in England, punishable in the same manner, or a crime of “antienglishism” in the US, where the expression of any opposition to the policies of David Cameron risked fines and expulsion from your job?  One can only shake one’s head at the folly of those responsible.

Here’s another deeply daft example of over-extension of the term which I came across on Twitter today:

That is, a  bunch of pro-Israeli Americans expressing a hope for the conversion of the Jews is “anti-semitism” to this fool.   But to use the word in this manner renders it empty of meaning.

I quickly found, therefore, that definitions on Google were worthless.  We need merely change them to refer to Americans, or Britons, to see how extreme they are.

Meaningless usage need not be so crude.  Let me give a passage from Sax Rohmer, The Devil Doctor.  This Fu Manchu novel was published before the first world war, and has great charm in its way, and would appeal most likely to anyone who enjoys the gaslight era stories of Sherlock Holmes.  Here is how Rohmer begins chapter 11, “The White Peacock”:

Nayland Smith wasted no time in pursuing the plan of campaign which he had mentioned to Inspector Weymouth. Less than forty-eight hours after quitting the house of the murdered Slattin I found myself bound along Whitechapel Road upon strange enough business.

A very fine rain was falling, which rendered it difficult to see clearly from the windows; but the weather apparently had little effect upon the commercial activities of the district. The cab was threading a hazardous way through the cosmopolitan throng crowding the Street. On either side of me extended a row of stalls, seemingly established in opposition to the more legitimate shops upon the inner side of the pavement.

Jewish hawkers, many of them in their shirt-sleeves, acclaimed the rarity of the bargains which they had to offer; and, allowing for the difference of costume, these tireless Israelites, heedless of climatic conditions, sweating at their mongery, might well have stood, not in a squalid London thoroughfare, but in an equally squalid market-street of the Orient.

They offered linen and fine raiment; from foot-gear to hair-oil their wares ranged. They enlivened their auctioneering with conjuring tricks and witty stories, selling watches by the aid of legerdemain, and fancy vests by grace of a seasonable anecdote.

Poles, Russians, Serbs, Roumanians, Jews of Hungary, and Italians of Whitechapel mingled in the throng. Near East and Far East rubbed shoulders. Pidgin English contested with Yiddish for the ownership of some tawdry article offered by an auctioneer whose nationality defied conjecture, save that always some branch of his ancestry had drawn nourishment from the soil of Eternal Judaea.

Some wearing men’s caps, some with shawls thrown over their oily locks, and some, more true to primitive instincts, defying, bare-headed, the unkindly elements, bedraggled women – more often than not burdened with muffled infants – crowded the pavements and the roadway, thronged about the stalls like white ants about some choicer carrion.

Vivid stuff indeed.  This depicts a bunch of Jewish street traders in the East End of London, and a grubby and mercenary bunch they are (and probably are still, for the breed is not extinct).

Is this passage “anti-semitic”?  In the wild, woolly, political usage of today, it is undoubtedly anti-semitic.  It depicts Jews in a negative light, and that is more than enough for today’s thought police.  Favoured groups may not be depicted in any way that they dislike, and few Jews would probably care to be identified in this way, whether fairly or not.  Indeed few people of any group would like to be; but some groups have the power to enforce their will.

If we changed a few words, to describe Moslem traders, it would instantly become “islamophobic”.   Another change of scene, making the traders Negros, and it is unlikely that we would be allowed to retain our jobs, or to feed our families.

But change it again, to refer to English people in an American novel, or Americans in a British novel, and all would be well.  You may sneer at “rednecks” as you choose.  Make the mistake of then making them into Red Indians, and all hell would break loose.

These remarks are not intended to make a political statement, but to clarify what a useful definition will not be.  The examples above show that these definitions have no meaning other than to tell us which identity groups are currently in favour with those who control the media agenda in our day.  They are equivalent to “shut up, peasant”.

We may, I think, safely disregard any definition that fits into a scenario of this kind.  There is, after all, no rational or moral reason why one particular ethnico-religious group should enjoy the privilege of being above negative comment.

There is another reason to disregard this kind of definition. Is there any point whatsoever in reading through the fathers to determine whether they conform to Political Correctness as it is in 2015?  The Fathers cannot be politically correct, for they lived before it was invented.  Nor can anybody else in that period, other than accidentally.  In fact, the standard of these modern definitions keeps shifting.  There can be few more politically correct than US President Obama.  In 2008 he dismissed “gay marriage”.  The words he used in 2008, expressed in 2015 by others are now grounds for dismissal from office.  To conduct a test based on definitions derived from such shifting sources is to waste our time; and in any event every writer of antiquity – or of a period before 2010 – would fail the test.  It’s not worth doing.

Perhaps the answer is to go back 50 years.  In those happier days we did not ruin a man, or sentence his family to beggary, merely for expressing an opinion, unless that opinion was provably untrue and defamatory.  It is characteristic of modern politics that words are proof of guilt, and that the truth of those words is not a defense.  This again provides a fingerprint for what we want to avoid.

Faced with this endless nonsense, I started looking in older sources for definitions.  My search led me to a really interesting statement in Bernard Lazare, Antisemitism: Its history and causes.  The book is pre-WW2 in origin.  From p.157-8:

… the antisemitism of the Christian conservatives, says: “If modem society is so different from the old regime; if religious faith has diminished; if the political system has been entirely changed; if stock-gambling, if speculation, if capital in its industrial and financial forms, knowing no spirit of nationality dominates now and is to dominate in the future, the fault rests with the Jew.”

Let us clearly examine this point. The Jew has been living for centuries in the midst of those nations which, so it is said, are now perishing on account of his presence. Why, it may be asked, has the poison taken such a long time to work?

The usual answer is, because formerly the Jew was outside of society; because he was carefully kept apart. Now that the Jew has entered into society, he has become a source of disorder, and, like the mole, he is busily engaged in undermining the ancient foundations upon which rests the Christian state. And this accounts for the decline of nations, and their intellectual and moral decadence: they are like a human body which suffers from the intrusion of some foreign element which it cannot assimilate and the presence of which brings on convulsions and lasting disease. By his very presence the Jew acts as a solvent; he produces disorders, he destroys, he brings on the most fearful catastrophcs. The admission of the Jew into the body of the nations has proved fatal to them; they are doomed for having received him. Such is the very simple explanation which the antisemites advance to account for the changes which society is undergoing.

The accusation has not been limited to this alonc. The Jew, it is said, is not only a destroyer, but also an up-builder; arrogant, ambitious and domineering, he seeks to subject everything to himself. He is not content merely to destroy Christianity, but he preaches the gospel of Judaism; he not only assails the Catholic or the Protestant faith, but he incites to unbelief, and then imposes on those whose faith he has undermined his own conception of the world, of morality and of life.

Now this has the right sound about it.  Classically anti-semitism wasn’t about negative depictions in novels, but about plots, conspiracies, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Enemy Within, the Merchants of Death, and so on.  It was about the perception of a conspiracy by Jews to do down everyone else, in their own selfish interest.  Nor is it a perception without elements of truth, which had led to its rise in the first place.

Violence against Jews, as Jews, was also comprehended in the definition.  Pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia were certainly an example of anti-semitism, and seen as such.

But not all violence counted.  A boy who thumped another boy “because the latter was a Jew” was not anti-semitic, but a quarrelsome boy; a gang of men who preyed on Jews undoubtedly was.

How then do we distill this, far more genuine sentiment, into something that can be used for our examination of the Fathers?

What we may do, I think, is to ask this: does what the Fathers write intentionally tend to encourage the reader to consider Jews as a group apart, in a way that no other group is; to consider them as a sinister group, most likely plotting against the rest of us; to think of them as somehow less human, less like “real people”?  Does it tend to demonise, to marginalise?

That, it seems to me, is a testable definition of whether a given writer is, or is not, anti-semitic.

One problem with this is that we must normalise for the climate of the times.  Some of the trends in antiquity themselves may have had this effect.  Does a writer reflect his times, or shape them?