Nahum The Carpenter: A Tale Of The First Century

Nahum is my name, my two older sisters are are Zilpah and Ilana, my younger brother is Amos. I am living in Jericho with my wife Ruth and two sons, Ezra and Ezekiel.

I am writing this on a Saturday and it is taking me a long time, you see I had to work in my father’s leather shop when I was thirteen and I have not had much schooling!   I am scribing this on a thin piece of leather and will seal it in a clay jar, I hope someone will find it someday and ask for forgiveness for me for my weakness and my betrayal.

You see, yesterday, Friday,   they crucified Jesus and I was part of the crowd yelling NAIL HIM, NAIL HIM!!!

After he was crucified the curtain in the synagogue was torn down the centre, and then the earth went dark! When that darkness came over Jerusalem I too was hit by a cloud of darkness and I was actually struck dumb and unable to speak or even move for over an hour. It was a feeling of total regret and utter humiliation and I believe it was a message from God.

Let me give you some background. I am a shoemaker, I make and repair all types of leather and twine items, but I really like to make sandals. I once gave a pair to Jesus when he came near my little shop!

My father was also a shoemaker; and he went to the synagogue every Sabbath and took his two boys when we were old enough.  When he died, I was 18, I must admit I have not attended synagogue on a regular basis, I am now 38.

About once a month the Rabbis and treasurers call on me, urging me to attend and to bring my sons. When I give them a few shekels they leave me alone.

One day I was working outside my shop, under a sycamore tree when in the distance I noticed some dust rising as a group was walking in my direction.

I had heard from customers that a man by the name of Jesus was marching around preaching and performing miracles, I was very curious so I dropped my awls and needles and went to see what was happening.

The procession had stopped and Jesus was off to the side talking to somebody. I very quietly ran behind some trees where I could see better, and not be seen,  and was surprised to see my poor and blind cousin Bartimaeus  and his buddy calling Jesus’  name. I thought about going over to him and tell him to stop, and don’t embarrass our family, Jesus does not want to see you, looking so poor and dirty, but something stopped me.
Later I was sure glad it did, because Jesus went over to him and his buddy and in no time they both had gained their sight!!! This man Jesus performed a miracle on my cousin and his friend right in front of me.

I listened to some of his sermons and saw some more miracles. After, when I returned to making sandals, I began to think about this man and his teachings. They made me feel different, I had a warm feeling inside of me, and his sermons were meaning more to me than the teachings of the Rabbis at Bet Midrash or Halachot. I really liked what he was saying!!!

I went about my work for the next few weeks, but whenever I could I would talk to someone who had also come to like this man Jesus. I got to hear lots of stories about his miracles and his teachings to love one another. My dad had always taught us to be kind to others, but this man was actually telling us to love them. We really didn’t understand at first.

Then it all changed for me one day when two older men who had known my father and were big supporters of our synagogue came by and said they heard that I gave this man Jesus a pair of sandals and that people have heard that I have been saying nice things about Jesus.

I told them they were correct and I liked his teachings. They asked me to sit down and then they started to say negative things about Jesus, how he was attempting to make changes to our customs that were hundreds of years old and some said that he had been sent from God as his son.

They made fun of him and encouraged me to forget about Jesus and concentrate on the teachings that have been passed down from generation to generation. They really did not threaten me, but they did say that my business would be more successful if I would forget about this man Jesus.

I was very confused, and undecided as to what to do!!! Do I believe what my father taught me, do I forget about Jesus, do I follow the advice of the men who visited me??? What to do???

One day after I finished some baskets I was working on I decided to walk to a bar not far away. It was crowded and much of the talk was about this stranger in our town who is supposed to be performing miracles and preaching about love.

Many of my friends there had consumed a few too many cups of wine and were getting louder and louder! They started to make fun of Jesus and suggested we do something to get rid of him. I did not really participate, but after all many of these guys were my friends and some were my customers.

When they started asking who wanted to get rid of Jesus, the majority signed up! When they asked me I reluctantly said sure me too.

So, you can see now why so many people shouted NAIL HIM, NAIL HIM!!! Me too!

I know it is only Saturday and I do not know what will happen to this man Jesus, will he have a regular burial? Will there be a big funeral, I wonder what will happen???

What I do know is that I regret my decision to reject him, and now I want to find some way to be forgiven.

 

When not whittling another miniature animal, John Percival can be found listening to bird song most evenings.
The photo shows, “Christ in the House of His Parents,” by John Everett Millais, painted in 1849-1850.

The Logos: A Brief History

There has been a surge in the use of the word, Logos, in recent years as enlightened circles of Western scholars are rediscovering their roots. Thankfully, thinkers like Jordan B. Peterson are popularizing the term once more.

Now more than ever, scholars must understand the meaning of this earth shattering word. Analyzing its history is the key to unlocking the indispensable philosophical tradition that accompanies it.

The Christian conception of the Logos is the climax resulting from the synthesis of Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaic belief. Hence, we must understand both to comprehend the Logos’ two-fold history.

The Greco-Roman Logos

To understand The Logos (logic, account, or language) of the Greek tradition we must start at the beginning with magic.

The ancient Greeks believed in magic. Among them, the Goēs (γόης) was a magician that would wander from town to town interpreting dreams, telling fortunes, practicing necromancy, pyromancy, hydromancy, and other acts of divination.  The suffix “-mancy” means “divination by specified means.”

To continue on this etymological dig, divination means, “the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.” While magic was ultimately the practice of gathering information, not raising armies of the dead, summoning the titans, or any other Hollywood nonsense.

One of these practices of divination by the Goēs was speaking in tongues, that is, glossolalia. In this ritual, the Goēs would babble a series of syllables that poured out of the mouth as pure gibberish.

So, what? Why are we concerned about some ancient man babbling gibberish? Well, because the ritual reveals three revolutionary ancient concepts.

  1. The spirit world had a language, logic, or structure behind it as opposed to being pure chaos.
  2. Human beings have the ability to communicate and engage with the spirit world through language.
  3. Communicating with the world of the divine can be used to reveal truth.

To the ancient Greek Goēs, the world of the divine was not just shear chaos. The forces of the universe had a logic behind them that gave them shape. Their form could be accessed and interacted with using a special language. Hence, the reason for glossolalia.

Language needs a structure in order to exist. If the spirit-world had a language, it meant that it had a structure. The idea that the world of the divine had an order behind it was a revolutionary paradigm.

So, to understand and practice the magic of life, one had to speak the language of life, i.e. biology. The ancient Greeks did not know biology, rather they knew the language of life. This is what biology means: bios (Greek for “life”), and logos (-logy) , which is language or logic. To know biology was, and is, to know the words that relate to life and what those words mean, so that one can “converse” with life.

It’s like “talking car” with auto-mechanics today. When we say someone knows how to “talk car,” we don’t mean that they spend hours physically talking to their car about how the day went. What we mean is that they understand the words and concepts that facilitates their interactions with automobiles.

Every word in a language represents a concept or piece of knowledge. Thus, a science, as a “systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject,” is logos, is language.

Therefore, when the Goēs ascribes language to the spirit world, he starts to engage in building the science of the divine. The more magic words he creates, the more concepts he use to describe the divine.

Divination by the Goēs would start the association with language, with the divine, and with knowledge. These associations would eventually evolve into the Logos.

In addition, the Goēs would profess truths about the cosmos by speaking in tongues. This act assumes that one could draw useful knowledge from the unknowability of the divine.

Iambilichus (245 AD – 325 AD), a Neoplatonist philosopher, connected speaking in tongues with the act of prophecy. He believed that prophecy was the possession of a divine spirit which “emits words which are not understood by those that utter them; for they pronounce them, as it is said, with an insane mouth (mainomenό stomati) and are wholly subservient, and entirely yield themselves to the energy of the predominating God.”

But weren’t the Greeks a bunch of rationalists? Didn’t they move away from that mystical mumbo-jumbo? For a time, the pendulum of philosophy swung from the mystical Goēs to the rationalist Pre-Socratics.

Certainly, the Pre-Socratics (Sophists) were less concerned with the immaterial and more concerned with the material world around them. In their camp are the “physikoi,” a word that can be translated as the naturalists or physicists. To the Sophists, man was the measure of all things and that justice, truth, and love were simply meaningless social constructs. (This is why the postmodernists are simply “Neo-Pre-Socratics”).

But who was talking about the Logos? Heraclitus. Later known as, “the weeping philosopher,” he believed that the world was in a constant state of flux and that nothing truly lasted. In other words, everything was just dust in the wind. But he also believed that different forms of change had their own logos (logic, word, cause, or account) behind them.

It wasn’t long till the pendulum of philosophy swung away from the rationalists to a war veteran named, Socrates. He argued that the Greeks had to go back to looking within themselves for truth, not artificially constructing it.

He pointed to the inscription at the oracle of Delphi that read “Know thyself.” Socrates instructs his followers to see the world with their mind’s eye. A world perceived with the senses was a world of distorted and fickle shadows. This is the meaning of the allegory of the cave.

In the internal world of the forms was truth itself. In this way, we can understand the Socratics as going back to the ways of the Goēs.

Justice, virtue, and truth were immaterial forms existing in a separate reality from our perceptions. Humanity could access this realm using the mind’s eye and engaging in philosophic discourse. Divination from the inner realm of the incorporeal hearkens back to the magic of the Goēs.

Another key idea Socratic idea was that that there a was a form of forms called “The Good” which was the ultimate culmination of virtue. In texts like the Euthyphro he places “The Good” above kings and the gods themselves. He argues that Man worshipped the gods because they were Good, as opposed to worshiping Goodness because it came from the gods. To Socrates the Good transcended Zeus.

But what connects Athens to Jerusalem? In a word, Rome.

The Stoics took on the mantle of Greek thought and particularly Platonist ideas. The Stoics would also grapple with the Logos, sometimes translated as. “the Master-Reason.” They believed that the universe was ordered by this Master-Reason, so that human beings, as rational animals, had a mental connection to the Logos.

The Stoic praise of rationality and logic caused them to argue for the control of one’s emotions, employing reason over passion. With this self discipline, one could live in harmony with the Logos.

It is critical to note that they did not believe that the Logos was God! For example, Cicero claims that Chrysippus thought “the world itself” was “a god, and also the all-pervading world-soul.

This is closer to a rationalist pantheism than the mystic all-loving God of Christendom.

It is not until the synthesis of Judaic thought with Greco-Roman rationality that we arrive at the Western idea of a Christian God.

The God of Abraham and Moses

The God of the Jewish tradition, and the believers of that God, create the culture which allows for the emergence of Christian thought. Their scriptural stories would provide rich ideas that would be mobilized into the philosophy behind the Christ, the Logos made flesh.

The first idea that is central to understanding Judaism and Christianity is the association between language and structure.

In Genesis, the lord of all creation creates in a very specific way. He does not mold matter with his hands, rather he speaks. God said, “Let there be light” and then there was light (Genesis 1:3). From God’s spoken words, all creation comes about.

The connection between language and structure is reaffirmed in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

As many may know, humanity attempts to build a great structure, a tower that will rival even God. After disapproving the pointless venture, God halts mankind’s best-laid plans in very strange way. He does not crush the strcuture, or toss a lightning bolt at it to blow it to smithereens.

Rather, he causes all the people constructing it to speak a different language. In their scattered frustrations, they abandon the project in confusion.

The message is clear. With language comes structure. The two are cosmically connected. From God’s words comes forth creation. Interestingly, this connection between language and structure parallels the knowledge of the Goēs.

The most revolutionary idea contributed by the Jews is that of monotheism. Monotheism is more than the belief that there is one God (Exodus 20), for it caries with it the implications of that belief.

The polytheist sees a world of separate and chaotic forces. Each of these forces is represented by a god or goddess. For example, wisdom is manifest by Athena, and erotic love is represented by Aphrodite. These goddesses don’t always get along and their rivalry can lead to chaos. In fact, it is the quarrel between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite that leads to the Trojan War.

But to the Monotheist, there is only one cosmic force or God that reigns supreme above all things. All other forces are idols, false gods, that are ultimately powerless and yielding to the supreme authority of the one true God (Exodus 32).

In this way, all forces are really one thing. Any true dichotomy would destroy the monist nature of the one true God.

For example, one might believe that the world was divided into the combating spirits of pure good and pure evil. If so, one would believe in the duality of two ultimately irreconcilable “logics” behind the universe. This would prevent one from concluding that there is a single logic behind the universe, or Logos.

This monotheistic God is so ultimate that he transcends even the kings of the nations that believe in him. When King Obadiah calls the Prophet Elijah an enemy of Israel for critiquing the corruption of the nation, Elijah retorts that he serves a power that is higher than mortal kings (I Kings 18).

The transcendence of the Hebrew God bears a resemblance with The Good, for the authority of both go beyond the power of kings and other gods. Thus both God and the Good are the highest of all things – and therefore God is good (Psalm 100:5).

Another critical aspect here is the dialogue between God and his people. God is an active force who can converse with his people, such as, Abraham who is specifically called by God (Genesis 12). And God also sends messages though his angels (Genesis 18, and Daniel 9:21).

This dialogue between God and mankind reveals three things:

  1. People derive moral truths and righteous action by God alone.
  2. God and humanity are locked in an covenant, a sort of cosmic contract.
  3. If the contract is not followed, humanity risks downfall and possible annihilation.

God and his messengers reveal to his people the righteous course of action (Exodus 14), and moral truth (Exodus 21:12-14).

This process of divination once again parallels the Goēs who can communicate with the divine and reveal truths.

God becomes the logic behind the universe from which humanity can derive its morality. For example, Moses receives God’s Commandments from God himself. Only then does he share these laws to the people (Exodus 20).

What this shows is that God, the ultimate force behind the universe, demands something from us. If humans comply to the will of God, they will fulfil his covenant.

If humanity breaks his covenant, they risk annihilation, so that ). God reigns down fire and brimstone on the cites of the faithless (Genesis 19). Therefore, those who are in accordance with the logic of the universe shall continue their lineage or existence, while those who are not face death and destruction (Genesis 15).

Christ: The Incarnation of the Logos

Israel is where the hammer meets the anvil. The Christian idea of Logos is forged by the synthesis of Greco-Roman and Judaic thought.

The ancient thinkers like Philo had already started to merge these two great traditions. To Philo, the thoughts of the Creator were equated with Plato’s forms. The culmination of these two were the Logos in Philo’s philosophy.

Before jumping to conclusions, one must realize that this does not mean that Christ studied under Philo or anything like that. But, it does show that ideas from both traditions were circulating among Jewish scholars. More importantly, it shows that there were efforts to link these traditions.

The ultimate synthesis would come with Jesus who is the messiah, the Christ, and the logos (sometimes translated as the Word) incarnate (John 1:14).

Christ and his followers equated the Logos with love (I John 4:8). It is the claim that Love is the ultimate truth behind existence.

To the Christian, the chaos of this world is an illusion. Chaos is just undeciphered order. Because beyond the incalculable madness is the one singular force, ultimately one logic which is God (John 1).

The logos is the ultimate account behind a world of Heraclitan change. It is the single force, logic, explanation, cause, and goal behind veil of our perception. It is God

Nothing is exempt from the Logos, thus it knows all things. Nothing stands apart from the logic of the universe. It is the Master-Reason. Nothing is free from cause, from account, from being. On the contrary, all things are connected, trapped in a single dialectic, one cosmic dialogue (Ephesians 4:6).

The Logos is the ultimate language of languages, the structure of structures. Love is the harmony of being, the universal tongue from which all systems flow as mere dialects of it.

When we stray from love, we are mistranslated (I Corinthians 13). Though never cut off completely (Romans 14:7), we suffer from our inability to be understood. We are thwarted in our frustration from reaching our potential. Thus, we abandon the Tower of Babel.

The Logos is the logic behind Creation. That is to say Love is the Logic behind Creation: “In the beginning God Created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In parallel, the apostle John begins his gospel with “In the beginning there was the Logos” (John 1).

Thus, the Logos is the force and logic of creation and of being. The apostle Paul writes “If I speak in the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13).

Thus, language and being are tied together. What is new is the addition of love in this formula of existence.

From this passage we once again see how language and being are tied together. What is new is the addition of Love in this formula of existence.

The Logos is characterized by the attributes that Socrates gave to Truth (AKA the Good). The logos is eternal, it is constant, everlasting, all-powerful, and knows all things. It is Truth.

This is mirrored by Paul when he states that “Love is patient, Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hope, always preserves” (I Corinthians 13).

Paul’s description of love mirrors Socrates understanding of The Good. Early Christians were very aware of this affinity. Thus, St. Justin Martyr calls the ancient Greek philosopher, “Saint Socrates.” and he also considered both him and Heraclitus as Christians!

Yet the Logos is much more active than The Good. Like the Master-Reason of the Stoics it possesses a demanding quality which engages the rational minds it reveals itself to.

To the Stoics, there wasn’t just a Master-Reason that minded its own business and could more or less go unaccounted for. Rather, the logic behind the universe seemed to demand something from the mankind. Through rationality, mankind could come to know its will.

The Hebrew God mirrors this. God demands something from his people. He is an active force in their lives. The Lord tests them, bears witness, and reveals himself through their history.

But what does the Mater-Reason and the Hebrew-Christian God want from us!? The same thing as the Logos – virtue, the highest of which is love (Colossians 3:14).

To believe in the Logos is to believe in love, to believe in truth, that the light conquers the darkness. Love is a power that transcends kings, nations and even other gods.

The Logos is not some bearded fellow throwing lighting bolts or physically reaching out for David. It is warmth of our hearts, the faith held in our fellow human beings, and the light of the mind. Though it is always testing us, we are ever vigilant. That is what it is to believe in God, the Logos.

 

The photo shows, “The Sermon on the Mount,” by Carl Bloch, painted in 1877.

The First Poem About Babiy Yar By Olga Anstei

[Editor’s Note: We are publishing this poem by Olga Anstei, which appears here for the first time in English translation, along with the original Russian. Dr. Maria Bloshteyn is translating Anstei’s work and has very generously agreed to let us share with our readers this moving record of a great evil].

 

Kirillovsky Yar

 

Translated by Maria Bloshteyn

 

I.

Raindrops fell on that windless day.
Thorny sloes prickled with acerbic youth.
A limping tree stump in the twilight,
knocked-over tombstones, chapels…
A slip of a girl, a dusky Dryad—
down the damp path into the nocturnal ravine!
There, in the wild garden’s balmy thicket,
unloved but faithful, he’ll fall at my feet!..
Into the depths, down the slopes—until stars come out!
The most carefree of all carefree places!

 

II.

Closer to noon.  It was sunny and bright.
Youthful acerbity flows out gently,
growing more mellow, growing more joyful.
On the hot chalky bluffs the swift
turns his clever head.
Wormwood wilts, held between palms.
Thyme trembles on an angled ledge.
The bumblebee is a beloved tiny brother!
Blue warmth flows down into the Yar…
Handful by handful from all around
into the most fragrant of all fragrant places.

 

III.

Onward.  Obedient to some obscure call,
I go to the crossroad between older graves,
out of a hushed beloved house,
where Azrael stands at the threshold.
I carry a cross that still wants tears,
that raises three mortal candles
that is covered with wax drips
that saw a shroud and head-wreath in the night…
It will be dug into place there, a loathed gift,
at the head of a nameless grave…
The most frightening of all frightening places!
A frightening brown contorted cross!

 

IV

The last cup of all.  The same place where
nature once drowsily luxuriated,
became Golgotha, the base of the cross
to a strange and fateful people.
Listen!  They were lined up,
their belongings piled on the gravestones…
Half-smothered, half-killed,
then half-covered with soil…
Do you see those old women in kerchiefs,
elders, dignified like Biblical Abraham,
and curly-headed babes, like those in Bethlehem,
in their mothers’ arms?
I can’t find words for this.
Look:  here on the road lie dishes,
a torn tallit, scraps of Talmud,
shreds of passports washed out by rain!
A black—murderous—blood-encrusted cross!
The most horrific of all horrific places.

(December 1941)

 

Кирилловские яры

 

I

Были дождинки в безветренный день.
Юностью терпкой колол терновник.
Сумерки и ковыляющий пень,
Сбитые памятники, часовни…
Влажной тропинкой — в вечерний лог!
Тоненькой девочкой, смуглой дриадой —
В тёплые заросли дикого сада,
Где нелюбимый и верный — у ног!..
В глушь, по откосам — до первых звёзд!
В привольное — из привольных мест!

 

II

Ближе к полудню. Он ясен был.
Юная терпкость в мерном разливе
Стала плавнее, стала счастливей.
Умной головкою стриж водил
На меловом горячем обрыве.
Вянула между ладоней полынь.
Чебрик дрожал на уступе горбатом.
Шмель был желанным крохотным братом!
Синяя в яр наплывала теплынь…
Пригоршнями стекала окрест
В душистое из душистых мест.

 

III

Дальше. Покорствуя зову глухому,
На перекрёсток меж давних могил
Прочь из притихшего милого дома,
Где у порога стоит Азраил —
Крест уношу, — слезами не сытый,
Смертные три возносивший свечи,
Заупокойным воском облитый,
Саван и венчик видавший в ночи…
Будет он врыт, подарок постылый,
Там, в головах безымянной могилы…
Страшное место из страшных мест!
Страшный коричневый скорченный крест!

 

IV

Чаша последняя. Те же места,
Где ликовала дремотно природа —
Странному и роковому народу
Стали Голгофой, подножьем креста.
Слушайте! Их поставили в строй,
В кучках пожитки сложили на плитах,
Полузадохшихся, полудобитых
Полузаваливали землёй…
Видите этих старух в платках,
Старцев, как Авраам, величавых,
И вифлеемских младенцев курчавых
У матерей на руках?
Я не найду для этого слов:
Видите — вот на дороге посуда,
Продранный талес, обрывки Талмуда,
Клочья размытых дождём паспортов!
Чёрный — лобный — запёкшийся крест!
Страшное место из страшных мест!

 

(декабрь 1941)

 

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted in 1952, which depicts the murder of Jews, by the Nazis, at Babi Yar, on September 29-30, 1941. Some 80,000 people were killed at this place, including 33,771 Jewish men, women and children.

Olga Anstei: A Life In Brief

Babiy Yar (“The Old Woman’s Ravine”) is a large and beautiful ravine in Kiev (Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine, that will be forever associated with the mass murder of Jews by Nazi troops in War World II.

This isolated and deep ravine, historically a site of a military camp, a church, and two cemeteries (an Orthodox Christian one and a Jewish one), provided the perfect place for killing large numbers of people, a fact noted by the Nazi military governor of Kiev, the SS and Police Commander, and the Commander of SS death squads when they were planning the extermination of the Jews of Kiev.

There were other nationalities and groups killed at Babiy Yar, including Roma, Ukrainian Nationalists, the mentally ill, Soviet prisoners of war, Communists, and dissenters of all kinds.

The largest single massacre occurred on September 29-30, 1941, when more than 33,771 Kievan Jews were brought to the site and executed (the largest single massacre of Jews by the Nazis up to that point).

According to witnesses and the few survivors, Jewish men, women, and children were brought to this place of execution under pretense of relocation. Then, they were stripped of belongings and clothing, made to lie down naked on the bodies of Jews already killed in the ravine, and then shot.

This horror has been commemorated in poetry, music, and art, most famously by Evgeny Yevtushenko.  His long poem “Babiy Yar” (1961), written after he visited the site and discovered it had been turned into a garbage dump, is specifically about the massacre of the Jews and the unwillingness of the authorities to acknowledge this crime.

The poem exploded Soviet silence about the Jewish victims buried of Babiy Yar. In fact, Soviet authorities had long refused to acknowledge the numbers of Jews killed at the site.

Yebtushekno’s poem was translated into seventy-two languages, and inspired Dmitry Shostakovich’s  Thirteenth Symphony.

Yevtushenko, himself, however, had always pointed out that his was not the first poem about Babiy Yar.

There were, indeed, other poets who had already memorialized the Jewish massacre at this site, such as, Ilya Ehrenburg in his Babiy Yar” (1944), and Lev Ozerov in “Babiy Yar” (1944-1945).

However, the very first poet to write about this slaughter was a remarkable woman who lived in occupied Kiev in 1941 and who witnessed firsthand—if not the executions at Babiy Yar—then certainly the tragedy of Kievan Jews.

Olga Anstei (the nom de plume of Olga Shteinberg, 1912-1985) was born in Kiev. Her family combined Russian, Cossack, Ukrainian, and – apparently – Jewish backgrounds.

She was a beloved only child, well-educated as only a girl raised by Russian-Ukrainian intelligentsia could be, with a special love for poetry and literature.

It is not surprising then that she started writing poetry while very young. She wrote mostly in Russian, but also in Ukrainian, and French. In fact, she was a polyglot, for she spoke Russian, Ukrainian, German, French, and English (something that would help her in all sorts of ways later in life), and she also translated from these languages.

After graduating from the Institute of Foreign Languages, she married the poet and translator Ivan Elagin (nom de plume of Ivan Matveev), who, like Anstei, became one of the most prominent poets of the so-called second wave of Russian immigration.

They were married in a church, in 1938, in great secrecy – at 2 in the morning – since such religious sacraments were decried in the Soviet Russia of that time.

When the war came, the Anstei-Elagins found themselves in Nazi-occupied Kiev. In a daring gamble, Olga managed to convince the occupiers that she and her husband (who was half-Jewish) were actually Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans).

Accordingly, they were given privileged treatment, and Elagin even managed to enrol in a school for medics, instituted by the Nazi regime.

When the Nazi troops retreated before the advancing Soviet forces, Olga Anstei, her mother, and Ivan Elagin decided to leave with them, partly to get away from the Soviet regime, which already had Elagin’s father executed as the enemy of the people in 1937, but also because they surely realized that they would have been considered collaborators and shot by the Soviets.

After many misadventures and tragedies (their first child, born in Germany, had died in infancy), Olga, Ivan, and their second child, a daughter who would grow up to become a Russian-American poet Elena Matveeva, and Olga’s mother ended up in a displaced person camp, where the latter died of a heart attack.

The couple now emigrated to America, where Olga and Ivan divorced, though they retained a cordial relationship, as well as a deep admiration for each other’s work.

Elagin went on to become a professor of Russian in Pittsburg University, while Olga eventually became a translator at the UN.

She regularly published poems, stories, and essays of literary criticism in émigré journals, all of which were well-received and widely praised by major critics.

Her work is permeated by a deep spirituality (she had a life-long connection with the Russian Orthodox Church), and a lyricism that makes her keenly aware of the beauty of life around her.

She possesses a deep clarity of vision that allows her to look at life unflinchingly and to write with precision.

This gives her work a sense of connectedness with the larger body of Russian poetry, which allows her to conduct a poetic dialogue with her predecessors and contemporaries.

One critic wrote that it is not possible to talk about the influence of a particular poet on Anstei; rather, she absorbed the experience of an entire generation of Russian poets.

She wrote her poem, “Kirillovsky Yar” (a name for the larger area of gullies and ravines in Kiev that includes Babiy Yar) in December of 1941. It was first published in Munich in 1948.

Ironically, Anstei, who translated so many poems so well, has not been translated very much herself, even though her poems reach out across the years and impress and delight the reader in equal measure.

Here, I offer the first English translation of “Kirillovy Yar,” which is the very first poetic response to the Babiy Yar massacre, and one of the first poetic reactions to the horror of mass extermination.

Perhaps better than anything it shows that whatever evil and insanity that may come, it is still only temporary.

But what remains—as close to eternity as is humanly possible—is the triumph of the human voice lifted in lament, the triumph of beauty over ugliness, the triumph of the human spirit.

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted ca. 1944-1952.

Are Religions All The Same?

Are all religions the same? Are all religions good? These are important and fundamental questions that have been variously asked, but poorly answered.

Given the great variety of religions on this planet, it’s important to gain a clear understanding of what exactly we’re dealing with.

Firstly, religion is a way of providing moral structure to human existence (what is good, what is bad; what is right, what is wrong). Only secondly does religion seek to speculate as to what comes after death.

All-too-often, people who criticize religion as being incompatible with modern life, focus on the secondary aspect of religion, because it’s easier to criticize something that has been labeled a “fairy-tale” or “a myth,” or utter nonsense.

As a result, religious discourse today falls into two categories: a thing to scoff at, or a thing to venerate and respect.

But never do we really see any criticism of the primary aspect of religion – that which provides a moral structure to life in this world.

Indeed, the very essence of each religion is found in this moral structure, which should be critically examined. Is the moral structure that one religion provides good for life in the here and now?

So, which religion provides the best moral structure for life? This is a question that no one asks.

But first, a summary of the kinds of religions that exist.

There are shamanistic religions, which function on the notion that spirit-forces greater than the individual must be continually appeased. Here, the moral content is very limited, since shamanistic religions focus solely on negotiating a safe place for human beings within the realm of spirits, who are always more powerful, forever whimsical, and thus harmful to humans.

Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism) seek to understand the role of the self within the universe. Thus, the moral content they provide is entirely self-centered and therefore self-absorbed. The focus is on finding a personal way to get out of the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth (here the material world is thoroughly evil).

Thus, you have to become your own savior. All the religions “created” in India deal with this fundamental issue, and all of them present their “take” on how to save yourself, or how to get out of this cycle of birth and rebirth.

Buddhism provides the most extreme answer, because it works from the premise that there is no God – only natural/universal law – and so the way to save yourself is to find a way to withdraw from the functions of this law and simply stop existing (nirvana means, “not being”). In brief, morality is the removal of the self from the material world which is irredeemable because it is fully evil.

The religions of China (Confucianism and Doaism) certainly grapple with the issue of moral content, but they often get “side-tracked” by politics. Thus, human existence is all about duty and social obligation, which are seen as the glue of society. This makes morality into expedience in order to manage the world properly.

The native religion of Japan (Shinto) is a form of ancestor worship and is an elaboration of Shamanism. There is no greater moral code in Shintosim than doing one’s duty, and entirely effacing oneself. Such is the content of Shinto morality.

Now, which of these four religious systems provide the best moral structure for living in this world?

This brief analysis of the diversity of religions leads us to the three remaining ones, namely, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Islam is theocratic in nature, as it maintains the idea that Allah is high and mighty who deigns to let humanity exist only by way of very rigid rules that he has established as proper conduct, that is, the Shariah.

Morality, in Islam, is the enforcement of Allah’s might by legal means (the Shariah). Humanity is secondary; which means that Allah does not need people – rather, people need him. He is remote and inaccessible and known only by way of the Shariah.

The good Muslim is one who strictly follows Allah’s Shariah no matter what. The prize of such compliance is a materialistic paradise, which is awarded by way of a point-system – the more strict the adherence, the greater the paradisiacal reward. Sin is neglecting Shariah.

There is also a secondary reason for following the Shariah – Allah can get angry if his law is ignored or not properly followed. Thus, strict adherence to Islamic law has a worldly benefit as well – it keeps Allah’s anger and the subsequent punishment at bay.

The moral structure of Islam is based upon three principles:

  • appeasement of Allah by following the Shariah
  • abasement to Allah by following the Shariah
  • obedience of Allah by following the Shariah

Given the Shariah, the “logic” of Islam is intimately tied up with the reward system.

Allah keeps a great ledger, in which the names of all human beings are recorded. Daily he records the good deeds (Shariah-compliance) and the bad deeds (Shariah-noncompliance) of each man (largely men – Islam is rather vague about what happens to women after death).

And on the Day of Judgment, Allah will tally up the score and hand out the reward (paradise) or the punishment (Hell). When it comes to mankind, Allah is only and purely a judge. Nothing more.

Therefore, morality in Islam is always personal. It does not concern anyone other than the individual. There is no Golden Rule. There is only the drive to rack up points in this life, through appeasement, abasement, and obedience, in order to win paradise.

So, does Islam provide the best moral structure for life in this world?

Let us move on to Judaism, which is a very dignified religion, because it understands God by way of justice. This justice is described in the Laws, that is, concepts of moral behavior in the world, which are both personal exhortations and social obligations (to love your neighbor as yourself).

The Judaic God is not a tyrant, but is a reasonable being who understands that in order to have perfect justice, there must be perfect understanding or perfect wisdom – one must know the “ways” of God – and these ways are found in the Laws.

Unlike the Shariah, the Law in Judaism is not about compliance but about building moral character (righteousness), because the notion of paradise is either absent or it’s very vague. So, in Judaism, it’s all about living a righteous right now, in this world.

The God of the Jews is not a tyrant. He does not force himself upon anyone. He understands that in order to have justice there must be free will. People must choose to be good. If they cannot choose, they cannot truly be good. It is a very important difference from Islam (which has no free will).

More importantly, the Jewish God has not tied up His laws to a system of rewards (we only have to look at the story of Job). A good human can and does suffer. Rewards are not part of God’s systems. People must be good without an appeal to their baser emotions and desires (which is what Islam overtly offers).

Thus, Judaism has a very high moral content. However, it is a religion that is lacking something essential – something that Christianity provides. Thus, Christianity “completes” Judaism.

In Christianity, everything is about morality. Christianity breaks away from a God hedged by rules and laws, and presents one entirely defined by love. “God is love.” No other religion says that.

But how do we know that God is love? Does God simply say that he is love? No, first he says he is love – and then he demonstrates this love – by becoming a human being, through Jesus, who suffers horribly and dies miserably like some many human beings undergo.

The Christian God is neither a tyrant nor a judge in this life; rather he is like us, because he is one of us. The Christian God knows what it is to be human. He knows what it is to fear, to love, to suffer, and to die.

The Christian God does not set rules that He Himself does not follow. Rather, He becomes a human being in order to show a way of life that is entirely built upon morality – a morality based on selfless love.

Thus, the good works that people may engage in, in this world, are not done to garner points that can be cashed in for a heavenly reward. Rather, the good deeds are done because once love fills the individual so completely (and constructs a moral character which is entirely governed by love), then that love cannot help but flow out to better others. Thus bettering the lives of others is the visible demonstration of this love.

And how does God demonstrate love?

He frees human beings from trying to save themselves. Salvation is simply a divine free gift to all mankind. Anyone can have an afterlife by simply believing in the message of Jesus (the God incarnate). Strict rules are needless and useless. Human beings no longer have to “compete” for heaven.

And why does God do this? Because his real law is love.

As for other religions, using the observation, “you shall know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16), we can now ask: What kind of societies have Shamanism, Confucianism, Doaism, Shintoism, the religions of India, and Islam created?What kind of society has Christianity created?

The answers to these questions will lead us to the truth – and it is truth which always sets us free (John 8:32).

 

The photo shows, “Hope in a Prison of Despair,” by Evelyn De Morgan, painted in 1887.

Review: Zealot. The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth

[Editor’s Note: This review was written when Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus pf Nazareth, first came out in 2013. Given the book’s curious popularity, we thought it best to republish this review, in order to highlight Aslan’s “scholarship”].

 

 

Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus is an anachronistic book – it is more about our own era, and the author’s journey within, than it is about the time and place in which Jesus lived. As such, it is a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities, backed up by lapses in logic and utter fallacy.

On the scholarly level, the entire book is a mishmash of hoary theories, long disproven and rightly forsaken.

Aslan’s supposed explosive and startling revelations are absurdities, like someone passionately trying to prove that the earth is flat. Consequently, he has nothing to offer that might change or advance our knowledge of Jesus in history. But that has never stopped anyone from hoodwinking the naive.

Aslan wants to give us Jesus the man, without any reference to Jesus the Christ. This approach is nothing new – Euhemerus and Leon of Pella, in the fourth century BC, established the fundamental parameters of such analysis: scratch a god and you find a man.

But is Aslan a worthy scratcher? Apparently not, since his book is filled with substantial errors and contradictions, held up by vapid assertions and simplistic assumptions.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with.

Terms such as, “Judaism,” “Christianity,” “paganism,” “empire,” “zealots,” “oppression,” “revolution” keep popping up, without any clear understanding of what these terms actually mean in the Roman world of the first century AD.

Antiquity was as knotty and intricate as our own world. Aslan’s book shows no awareness of this whatsoever. He seems to be intent on writing a script for a B-grade movie.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with. Aslan ignores the true, historical Roman world and fashions his own imagined one, which is fatuous and (most surprisingly!) conforms perfectly to the points he wants to make about his “Jesus.”

The errors begin rather immediately with the very sub-title of the book, “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

 

ERROR: JESUS OF NAZARETH

Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation, which leads him to state falsely that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem, and that is why he was known as “the Nazarean…” “throughout his life.” (Correction: he was known as the Galilean).

Aslan bases his assertion on the Gospel (John 19:19-20), where we read that at the top of Jesus’ cross, the Romans placed a wooden sign (the titulus), which displayed a message written in the three languages common in first century Palestine, namely, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

The Gospel (originally written in Greek) provides the text of the titulus as well. It begins with the phrase, Iesous ho Nazoraios.

As someone who supposedly knows Greek, Aslan should not be making any mistakes with a rather easy phrase, which he says means, “Jesus of Nazareth.” This is grammatically impossible.

The correct translation is, “Jesus, the Nazarene.”

In order to get “Jesus of Nazareth,” the original Greek has to be Iesous ho apo Nazoret. But that is not what John 18:18-20 says.

In a strategy that will be used throughout the book, Aslan then proceeds to fashion “proof” for his mistranslation.

What does “Nazarene” really mean? It is a reference to the famous passage in Isaiah 11:1 (“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”).

Where is that Occam’s razor?

As Robert M. Kerr very lucidly demonstrated, the term for “branch” in Hebrew is ne ṣer. The term “Nazarene” comes from this Hebrew word.

Thus, the phrase on the titulus literally meant, “Jesus of the branch.” Indeed, “branch” had a deep messianic meaning for first century Jews.

The readers of the original knew what they were reading – Jesus, the branch of Jesse, i.e., the Messiah – this man Jesus, is Jesus the Christ.

Also, the epitaph of the book is taken from Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Doubtless, Aslan wants to suggest that this verse summarizes his Jesus, the illiterate, peasant revolutionary.

Of course, this sword-saying is indicating a truth far more profound – that the teaching of Jesus will cut-off people from the world, even from families.

So, indeed, it is a revolution – but of the spirit, not of the world – Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36).

 

CONTRADICTION: RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

At the very start of his book, Aslan declares the Gospels to be historically useless: “Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man” (xxvi). Fair enough. This is nothing new, and dates all the way back to Bruno Bauer, the professor of Karl Marx.

But why then is Aslan’s narrative of Jesus’ life drawn entirely from the Gospels? Why does he look for “proof” for each one of his claims in the Gospels?

Either the Gospels are historically useful sources for the life of Jesus the man, or they are not. They cannot be both useful and useless/

Of course, the Gospels are only useful to Aslan when they back up his claims. Other than that, they are useless to him.

Logic, evidently, is not a strong point/

 

ERROR: BANDITS AND ZEALOTS

Aslan tries to prove that Jesus was a zealot (a very old claim, in fact, first raised two-hundred years ago by Hermann S. Reimarus in his essay, “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples”).

How does Aslan substantiate this contention? He turns to the Gospels (again).

Jesus was crucified between two robbers. The Greek word used for “robbers” is lestai (singular, lestes). Aslan “translates” lestai as, “revolutionary,” and argues that because Jesus is between two lestai, he must be a lestes also. The ultimate guilt by association! But is Aslan correct?

The word occurs frequently in ancient Greek literature, from Thucydides (Book I.5) down to the New Testament (where it occurs some fifteen times). It stems from the noun, leia, which means “plunder.” Thus, from the fifth century BC to the first century AD, lestes has always meant, “robber,” “bandit,” “plunderer,” “brigand,” “pirate.”

Where is Aslan getting “revolutionary?”

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare.

The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 AD), first calls lestai two specific violent Jewish groups – the zealots and the sicarii, who were assassins (The Jewish Wars 2.254).

Josephus does not say that lestes means “revolutionary,” or even “zealot.” He is merely saying that these people are “bandits,” or criminals.

But for Aslan this is serious evidence, and he concludes that lestai must mean “revolutionary” because the two groups Josephus mentions did not agree with Roman rule.

Aslan seems not to know that lestes translates also the Latin term latro (“robber,” “brigand,”“bandit”). In most parts of the eastern Roman world, Greek was the common language (a legacy of Hellenism).

Thus lestes was chosen as the Greek equivalent of latro because it was deemed accurate by the people who needed to use these terms.

Both Greek and Latin have perfectly good words for “a revolutionary” (seditiosus in Latin whence comes the English, “sedition;” and stasiastes in Greek).

Why would Josephus and the Gospel-writers not use either of these two words if their intent were to speak about “revolutionaries?” Why say “robber” and really mean “revolutionary?” Again, logic intrudes.

Actually, Aslan is getting all this from S.G.F. Brandon’s two books, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1951), and Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Primitive Factor in Primitive Christianity (1967).

Back in 1984, E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule destroyed this Jesus-as-a-zealot argument, once and for all. It seems Aslan has yet to hear about it.

anyone can be an expert in the age of Google

Simply put, “zealot” in the first century did not mean a revolutionary, or a resistance fighter against the Romans (this is Aslan’s fantasy).

Why? Because during the time of Jesus, there were no “zealots” in Palestine fighting the Romans – all that came many decades after Jesus! Perhaps math is not a strong point with Aslan, either.

Further, “zealot” derives from the Greek zilotes which means an “emulator” (as in Isocrates and Aeschines), or an “ardent admirer”, and therefore a “follower.”

The first one to say that “zealots” were political in any way is Josephus, and we have to be careful with him as a historical source for Jesus, because he is not a contemporary (he was born at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and he died in 100 AD).

Other historical sources do not link “zealots” with politics at all, let alone struggles against Rome – but Aslan knows nothing about this.

During the time of Jesus, “zealot” meant a Canaanite (“Simon the Canaanite” in Luke 6:15 becomes “Simon the zealot” in Acts 1:13). In fact, “zealot” also meant a Canaanite convert to Judaism (such conversions were frequent).

Thus, when Aslan calls Jesus a “zealot” – does he really know what he is doing with this convoluted Greek term? It is obvious that he does not.

Simply put, by asserting that Jesus was a zealot, Aslan is stating that Jesus was a Canaanite convert to Judaism!

Thus, Aslan’s entire thesis is simply an utter absurdity, built entirely on his own ignorance.

 

ERROR: THE FOURTH PHILOSOPHY

Aslan gets further confused when he maintains that brigands, zealots and the sicarii were all followers of the Fourth Philosophy, and he represents them as one unified group whose aim was the ousting of the Romans from Judea.

The sicarii (“dagger-men”) were terrorists who randomly stabbed people they deemed to be the enemy. As to who “the enemy” was for these terrorists? Anyone they labeled as such.

There may be a very tenuous link between the sicarii and the Fourth Philosophy – but there is no discernible connection with zealots.

Josephus is the first to coin the phrase “the Fourth Philosophy” by which he mean a form of Judaism that was different from the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

Again, Josephus is not a contemporary of Jesus, and he is writing about political situations that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day.

Of course, Aslan is blissfully unaware of any of this. For him, “Judaism” is some over-arching “religion” that he has constructed to suit his agenda.

In fact, there were many Judaisms – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians, Boethusians, Levites, Scribes, Elders, Disciples of John, Samaritans, and (if Josephus is right), the Fourth Philosophy.

Each of these Judaisms was distinct from the other, so we do not really know which type of Judaism Jesus himself followed.

There is no evidence in the book that might suggest Aslan really knows anything about Judaism, and what he does say about it is thoroughly misinformed, misconstrued, distorted, and ridiculous (for example, he actually believes that the Jews carried out crucifixions).

Thus, the Fourth Philosophy just was not around when Jesus lived and preached in Palestine. Aslan is taking a political situation long after the time of Jesus, retro-projecting it back to Jesus’ day – and then concluding that Jesus himself was part of this future political situation – therefore he was a revolutionary.

This is not history – it is mere overzealous fantasy.

 

CONTRADICTION: THE OPPRESSION OF ROME

Another anachronism that Aslan constructs is “the Roman Empire,” which he describes as an organized system of oppression of vast proportions.

This is not surprising given the broad influence of post-colonial discourse in present-day academia (thanks to the silliness engendered by Edward Said).

destroys his own arguments

But does such an analysis have any merit when dealing with antiquity? No, it does not, because the Roman world was far different than that imagined by Aslan.

Needless to say, ancient Rome is another subject that Aslan knows nothing about – but anyone can be an expert in the age of Google.

In complete contradiction to what Aslan declares, the historical record itself cannot sustain Rome as thoroughly oppressive – and this record unravels whatever Aslan has to say about Rome and its supposed “oppression.”

For example, he calls Palestine “occupied territory” (10), under “the boot of imperial” Rome (16).

Then he is forced to admit that Rome was very tolerant: “As generally tolerant as the Romans may have been when it came to foreign cults, they were even more lenient toward the Jews…”(14).

So, was Rome oppressive or tolerant? It cannot be both. Logic once more raises its head.

Aslan likely knows that evidence is stacked against him if he says that Rome was utterly despotic and unjust (although that is how he describes it in his book).

The reality of the Roman world dismantles his reasoning.

If what he says is true, how can he explain the fetiales, the guild of priests who oversaw treaties and foreign relations, and who were often critical of what Rome might want to do, and the caduceatores, the peacemakers, who actively worked to avoid war?

And how can he explain the fact that Roman law forbade the state to wage war (only the collegium fetiales could undertake that duty, after the Roman Senate made a case for a war)?

Further, how can he explain the Pax Romana, when peace endured throughout the Roman Empire for over two-hundred years (an event unprecedented in human history)? Jesus’ entire life was spent in this Pax Romana.

a tedious mishmash of hoary theories, long forsaken

The fact is most nations fought Rome because they wanted to get into the empire – because they wanted to be Romans.

Why would other nations fight to be Roman, if the Romans were brutal and oppressive? Aslan, as usual, has no clue about any of this.

If the Roman Empire were oppressive, would it have lasted until 1452 (when Byzantium fell to the Turks) – that is more than over two thousand years? No empire has endured so long.

Then, the subsequent Ottoman Empire saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, for the Turks came to possess the idea of Rome, that is, Romanitas, or Romanity, Roman-ness – and they called their realm “Rûm,” or Rome. Again, why, if Rome was so horrible and so hated?

Some philosophers, like Rémi Brague, convincingly argue that the Roman Empire still exists and we are very much part of it. The essential character of our civilization is ultimately an extension of the Roman world.

In fact, where would the United States be without a blueprint of the Roman Republic?

All this would be impossible if Rome were inherently oppressive and everyone wanted to be rid it.

Suffice to say that Aslan’s understanding of Romanity is nonexistent, which is curious since the man Jesus, whose life story he wants to tell, was very much a product of Romanitas.

Rome was in Palestine because of treaty obligations that stemmed back to 161 BC. Aslan distorts this when he delves into the paradigm of conquest and hegemony, which serves no purpose other than to highlight his romantic construct of revolutionaries fighting for freedom. (He likely has present-day Palestine in mind).

The fact is the majority of Jews preferred the peace and stability guaranteed by Roman rule over their own indigenous priestly theocracy. Most Jews greatly benefited from being Roman citizens and never supported any sort of insurrection.

Further, the ideals of pacifism were the majority view among the Jews living in the Roman world.

The violent factions came much later, after the time of Jesus, like the sicarii. These factions were in the minority.

However, their selfish actions brought the most harm to the entire Jewish nation. That is why Josephus hated them, because this violent minority destroyed the peace and stability enjoyed by the vast majority.

Aslan knows nothing about the reality of the Roman world in the East. He has created a cartoon version that might serve as entertainment, but which has nothing to do with historical truth.

 

ERROR: THE TRIBUTE EPISODE

Much is made of the famous episode of the tribute owed to Caesar and to God (Matthew 22:15-22: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”).

Aslan declares this to be a summary of the zealot’s creed (78). This idea comes from S. G.F. Brandon once again.

To back up this absurd claim, Aslan tries to do some fancy footwork with Greek. He states that “render” is a mistranslation of the original Greek term, apodidomi. (We are already familiar with his “knowledge” of Greek, but he needs to demonstrate it once again).

All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

He argues, very confusingly, that the real meaning can only be accessed if this term is broken down into its two component parts.

Then, the two parts have to be translated separately.

Next, the two separate translations should be smashed together to yield the most accurate meaning for apodidomi. Right…

Thus, for him, apodidomi actually means, “to give back again” (77). Where is that Occam’s razor?

Aslan has no idea that there is an actual difference between morphophonemics and semantics.

So, by his logic, in order to understand what the word “obvious” really means, we have to split it up into its two parts, which ultimately come from Latin.

First, there is ob, which in Latin can mean “on,” or “against;” and then we have viam, which, again in Latin means, “the way,” “the road.”

Having done such needless gymnastics, we can now declare that the word, “obvious” really means, “to be on your way,” or “to go against the road, or against traffic.” Of course!

In brief, apididomi means exactly how it has been translated by real scholars of Greek, “to render,” or “to pay back an obligation, or a debt.”

Thus, Jesus is teaching about fulfilling one’s obligations – both mundane and spiritual. There is nothing here about fighting Romans, as Aslan wants to argue.

 

CONTRADICTION: ILLITERACY OF JESUS

Aslan claims that 97 percent of the Jewish peasantry was illiterate (34). He does not divulge the actual Roman records that provided him this figure, since Roman statistics on literacy in their empire have yet to be unearthed by archaeologists.

Nor do we know if they even did such surveys. Why would they? But that cannot stop Aslan’s “scholarly” insights.

He gets this figure from the convoluted reasoning offered by Catherine Hezser, although Aslan does not mention her in his Bibliography (as with so many of his mentors).

Aslan needs this fake illiteracy rate to further his contention that since Jesus was a peasant, he was therefore illiterate. He just assumes that Jesus did not belong to the educated 3 percent. Again, logic is an issue.

a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities

Whatever the literacy levels were of the Jewish peasantry, the fact remains that there is enough evidence to indicate the importance of writing in ancient Judea, as epigraphic finds (papyrus hoards and the library at Qumran) clearly demonstrate.

All this material suggests widespread literacy in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. If literacy were so low, why did Paul write letters, and why were the Gospels even written, if 97 percent of the population would never be able to read them?

Three of the gospels (excluding Luke) were written for Jewish readers.

And, there are over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, some 10,000 in Latin, and thousands in other languages that were part of the Roman world (like, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic).

In fact, manuscripts of the New Testament are the most numerous for any text from the ancient world.

Who were all these manuscripts for, if almost everyone was illiterate?

Literary culture in the first century was rich and diverse (there were even Jewish novels in this era) – and it is a culture that is entirely unknown to Aslan.

Interestingly, just a few pages later, Aslan contradicts his own thesis. He states: “By connecting his miracles with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is stating…”(111).

Is not this process of “connecting” a literary text with one’s own ideas known as “literary allusion?”

How could an illiterate peasant be involved in genuine literary activity without having read the book of Isaiah?

Complicating matters is the fact that the Scriptures referred to in the New Testament are the Septuagint (LXX) which is in Greek and not in Hebrew. Thus, Jesus would also have to understand Greek, along with Hebrew.

Of course, Jesus could have memorized these passages. But that would suggest intensive schooling, since someone would have had to read Isaiah aloud and enough times for pupils to memorize verses deemed important.

However, Aslan has already told us that his Jesus was unschooled (35).

But now suddenly we have an educated Jesus, intellectually challenging his compatriots, and using bookish arguments. An uneducated, illiterate Jesus makes no sense, even in the make-belief world of Aslan.

As an aside, if Jesus were illiterate, how does he know about the intricacies of Hebrew writing (Matthew 5:18) – the yod w’kotz shel yod (the jots and tittles)?

Which is it, then? Was Jesus literate, or not? He cannot be both. Aslan actually says he’s illiterate but has him behave like a highly educated man. The evidence once again runs counter to the thesis.

 

ERROR: HEBREW OR ARAMAIC

Aslan makes the sweeping claim that Aramaic was “the primary language of the Jewish peasantry: the language of Jesus” (35).

It is not clear if Aslan actually knows any Hebrew or Aramaic, or any other Semitic languages (we have already learned that his Greek is non-existent). Nevertheless, his assertion is completely false.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories

Linguistic reality in first century Palestine was complex, where the majority of people spoke three or four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin).

Each language had a function which was intimately connected to particular social and economic strata. It all depended on who one was speaking with, since different aspects of daily life required one or more of these four languages.

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare, even non-existent, because people needed more than one language to function in the Greco-Roman world.

This is a concept unilingual North Americans have great difficulty understanding.

In Galilee, the true homeland of Jesus, Hebrew was the spoken language, and it remained so well into the fourth century AD. Thus, Jesus grew up speaking Hebrew – not Aramaic, as Aslan wrongly contends.

Epitaphs, mosaics, and synagogue inscriptions firmly point to trilingualism, with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek thoroughly intertwined.

For the Jews, Hebrew was, and is, the lashon-haq-kadosh, the sacred language used by God.

Aramaic, also a Semitic tongue, is closely related to Hebrew. It exists in two dialects – western ones used in Palestine, and eastern ones used in Syria, i.e., Syriac, or Talmudic Aramaic.

Many Jews (certainly not all) preferred to use Aramaic in daily life because they deemed Hebrew too holy for mundane purposes. This explains why the Targumim are in Aramaic.

Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation

Jesus’ use of the three languages current in first century Palestine is clearly evident in the Gospels. Sometimes, he speaks Hebrew and Aramaic (Matthew 27:46); sometimes he speaks only Aramaic (Mark 5:41); and sometime he uses pure Greek (Matthew 16:18).

This complex multilingual reality is also reflected much later in the various documents of Simeon bar Kochba.

And this is why the titulus above Jesus’ head on the cross is in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

(By the way, why bother with such a placard, if 97 percent of the population is illiterate?).

Aslan’s declaration that Hebrew was “barely” understood by Jews (34) is therefore meaningless. This view was current until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, which thereafter firmly established Palestine as a multilingual place.

It is strange indeed that Aslan is using a pre-1948 explanation, which has been long demolished. No doubt, Aslan prefers ignorance over fact.

 

FREUDIAN-SLIP

There are quite a few Freudian-slips throughout the book. One example may suffice.

Aslan states: “By the time Jesus set up his ministry…”(95).

Why is a revolutionary setting up a ministry? One would think that he would be busy putting together a deadly arsenal (with the requisite ballistae, a scorpio or two, and various small arms), getting recruits (certainly way more than just twelve), and that he would be hunting around for an out-of-the-way field to establish his boot camp (as Simeon bar Kochba indeed did do some six decades after Jesus).

It would be tedious to go through all such Freudian-slips. They are Freudian because despite Aslan’s best efforts, the truth does manage to slip out – in his own arguments.

 

FURTHER ERRORS

Mary (page 37): In Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “son of Mary.” Aslan sees this as a record of Jesus’ illegitimacy. This reference, of course, is not about legitimacy – it is about an emergent veneration of Mary (Mariology), which had already begun in the first century.

Despite not knowing any Semitic languages, Aslan proceeds to “translate” the reference to Jesus in Mark 6:3 into Aramaic as, “Jesus bar Mary!” (If he wants the Aramaic version, the proper translation is, “Yehoshua or Yehsua bar Miriam”). Aslan is likely using C. P. Thiede here, though Thiede is not mentioned in the Bibliography.

Crucifixion (page 155): Aslan says that crucifixion was reserved “for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry.”

Aslan knows nothing about Judaism

Once again, the unsubstantiated sweeping statement. Aslan needs to closely read the lex Puteoli. Crucifixion was simply a method of execution for crimes that required capital punishment.

It had nothing to do with politics, as Aslan imagines. There are very many instances of non-political criminals being crucified (Roman or not). For example, Verres crucified Roman citizens without any qualms (famously, Gavius); and Galba crucified a murderer who had poisoned his ward.

As well, if Romans citizens wanted to punish, or get rid of, slaves, they could have them crucified (it was cheap). Women also were crucified. Tiberius had the priests of Isis crucified. Cicero frequently mentions crucifixion of Roman citizens. Of course, Aslan is simply ill informed about the Roman world.

Paul (page 183-196): No, Paul did not invent Jesus the Christ. Jesus himself proclaimed his divinity by elaborating the Jewish idea of agency, in that God acts through one person (angel, patriarch, prophet, finally the Messiah). Aslan again displays his ignorance.

Paul was not ostracized and despised by the Jerusalem Christians. Aslan is simply repeating F.C. Bauer’s very old thesis, long discredited. Paul became part of Christianity – he did not create it – and Paul saw Christianity as Judaism fulfilled, and he understood the church as the New Israel.

Throughout the book, there are many, many other such errors, sweeping-statements, contradictions, and outright falsehoods. Detailing these any further would be pointless.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories (which seem always to sell well).

Lastly, a word on Aslan’s style, since he teaches creative writing. Throughout the book there is a tension between two stylistic registers – fiction and nonfiction. It seems Aslan really wants to write a novel.

The book begins with an appeal to immediacy, with a sudden and jarring use of the second-person personal pronoun (“you”).

We are then offered some contrived “sights and smells of ancient Jerusalem,” and we even get to witness an assassination.

Such techniques may work in a cheesy novel, but they have no place in a book claiming to be factual history.

There is also a tendency to over-write, and thereby throw up the fog of purple prose.

Logic…is not a strong point with Aslan.

For example: “Zeal, the spirit that had fueled the revolutionary fervor of the bandits, prophets, and messiahs, was now coursing through the population like a virus working its way through the body”(53).

And, “…the Roman swarm swept through the upper and lower city, littering the ground with corpses, sloshing through streams of blood…”(67).

Then, there are the frequent and needless clichés: the “boot of an imperial power”(16); “large swaths of the countryside”(17); “handful of sects”(37); “rampaged through the countryside, burning with zeal”(44); “Jesus’s neighbors were a different story”(94). And so on.

Lastly, the pluperfect tense is much too liberally used throughout the book.

Hardly a page can be turned without encountering, “would have,” “might have,” “could have.”

No doubt this is a nervous tick that points to Aslan’s tenuous knowledge. All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

It is customary to look for some merit in a book, and it is this: it is work of psychotherapy.

In the Author’s Note, Aslan describes his encounter with Jesus the Christ, and then his loss of faith (because he could not overcome doubt). Such struggles happen to many, and such people move on.

But Aslan needs to hang on to Jesus in some way. Thus, he creates a Jesus of his own making; a Jesus that he can be happy with.

One can only hope that having worked it all out in the pages of his book, Aslan now feels much better.

As for Jesus, he belongs to history and to faith, and Aslan knows nothing about him.

 

[The photo shows, “The Mocking of Christ” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1880]