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Use A.D. and B.C.! (Out with C.E. and B.C.E.!!)

Posted by NT Wrong on January 4, 2009

multifaith_calendar_2009The abbreviations C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before Common Era) are commonly used in modern biblical scholarship to refer to the eras which were formerly known as A.D. (Anno Domini – The Year of The Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ). The usual rationale for the change is sensitivity to other religious and non-religious users of the Gregorian calendar. That is, given the number of worldwide users of the Gregorian calendar who don’t believe Jesus of Galilee is ‘The Lord’, a more neutral term is thought to be provided by ‘Common Era’.

However, what is ‘common’ about the Gregorian calendar? To the contrary, however the dating system is named, it refers to a specific tradition of the Christian West. The calendar has a very specific origin in the Christian tradition, and is calculated with respect to the estimated year of birth of the person central to the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ. (In actual fact, Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated the year of Jesus’ birth when he developed the calendar’s antecedent in AD 525, but that’s another story…)

By using ‘C.E.’ and B.C.E.’, we universalize a peculiar tradition. We make it out to be ‘common’ or ‘natural’, not requiring any special marking or qualification. As a consequence of the fact of Western power, the Gregorian calendar has been adopted as the most-used calendar in the world, and so does have some degree of ‘commonality’ in day-to-day use. But the change from A.D. to C.E. (and from B.C. to B.C.E.) obscures the particular Christian basis of this ‘common’ calendar, misrepresenting it as ‘normal’ – as somehow transcending historical particularities. By contrast, the other calendars are made out to be the only ‘localized’ and ‘particular’ calendars. While the Christian calendar is ‘naturalized’ by its designation as ‘common’, other calendars (Jewish, Persian, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Ethiopian, Thai, etc) are ‘artificial’ and ‘contingent’.

Stop this neo-colonialism! Use A.D. and B.C. again!! The specific marking of these older terms, which refers to the Christian concept of ‘Christ’, may well be offensive to some people. But this offence is substantial and systemic, not removeable by changing the name of the year which is dated from the birth of Christ. The hegemony of the Western calendar is a fact, and just one of the many effects of Western power in the world today — a minor but not insignificant fact, given the universal importance of local calendars in shaping culture. To obscure the Western calendar’s particularity by making it into a false universal is a double injustice — both the initial violence of changing local calendars, and then its covering up with the misleading term “common”. This is ideology at work.

Scholarship should be on the side of pointing out where injustices arise, not in covering them up.

Posted in Colonialism, Judeo-Christian Practices, Justice | 33 Comments »

Breaking Wind from Your Ass – Biblical Scholar Slips a Fart Joke into the Bible

Posted by NT Wrong on December 12, 2008

A Biblical Scholar's Fart Joke?

The (alleged) fart of Achsah: A Biblical Scholar

There’s a story in Joshua 15.15-19 (repeated almost verbatim in Judges 1.11-15), in which Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to any warrior who can defeat the city of Debir. The warrior Othniel accepts Caleb’s challenge and successfully conquers Debir. As Debir lies to the south of Hebron, towards the Negev, it’s a dry and dusty place. On arrival in Debir, the new bride Achsah is understandably pissed off at her father for offering her as a prize, particularly because she has ended up in some desert hellhole. So Achsah requests her new husband to ask Caleb to give her a pair of wells as well. And Caleb agrees, giving her the region’s famous ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ wells.

When the bride comes to Caleb (Josh 15.18 // Judg 1.14) she does something which is described using a verb which only appears in this story and in Judg 4.21:

וַתִּצְנַ֖ח מֵעַ֣ל הַחֲמֹ֑ור

After she does this thing, Caleb asks (apparently in response), “What can I do for you?” (מַה־לָּֽךְ). The interpretive crux is: what has provoked Caleb’s response? There isn’t any obvious cognate for the verb root ṣ-n-ḥ, and as a result there have been a variety of (educated) guesses. The traditional English interpretation has been “alighted” or “dismounted” (from her donkey), although the LXX translates “shouted” (adding that Achsah also “murmered”, in Judges).

However, G. R. Driver translated it as follows:

“She broke wind … from her ass.”

As far as I can tell, Driver first suggested this translation in an article in a book published in 1955 (Mélanges Bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de André Robert). However, he never tired of his farting translation, and the same explanation gets a second (and third) wind in articles from 1964 (ALUOS 4: 6-25) and 1967 (JQR 57: 49-165).

Before you exclaim, “WTF?”, you should also know that this farting translation was then adopted by a major Bible translation: the New English Bible (NEB) (1970). As it so happened, the Convener of the Old Testament Committee which translated the NEB was one… Sir G. R. Driver. Arthur Gibson, in Biblical Semantic Logic, confirms that Driver admitted to him that the translation was made “at his own insistence” (30). Although Driver’s farting translation made it into print, it was widely ridiculed. And the translation “she broke wind” was eventually changed to “she dismounted” when the NEB was revised [in 1972, and was not included in the NEB’s successor,] the Revised English Bible (1989).

Driver considered that his farting translaton was “sufficiently proved” from the Akk. cognate ṣanāḥu and the LXX. Although in fact, the LXX of Joshua and Judges has Achsah “shouting” in both accounts. Driver interpreted this ‘shouting’ as an anal noise, without any examples of such an anal usage for what is everywhere an oral noise, and even citing a completely different word for “fart” in Aristophanes. Arthur Gibson (following a proposal by G.E.M Anscombe) dubbed Driver’s interpretation an example of “the anal/oral fallacy” (Biblical Semantic Logic, 31). So the argument from the LXX seems to be quite creative. Furthermore, the Akkadian term ṣanāḥu is a specialist medical term for anal bleeding, and is not used in Akkadian to mean “break wind”. There is in fact another standard Akkadian term for farting; it is ṣarātu (Biblical Semantic Logic, 32).

Yet Driver also offered one further reason for good measure — Achsah probably farted “as a sign of her disgust” at the dry waterless desert her father had given her husband. Why would Achsah have chosen such a foul sign of her discontent, rather than choosing some more civil means of attracting her new husband’s attention? This is where Driver seals the argument. She was Middle Eastern. Arabs are, not least in the imagination of Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver, a farting and belching lot. That’s how they communicate, don’t you know, what?

“Such customs persist amongst the Arabs of Transjordan to the present day, as shown by the anonymous traveller’s account [The Times, 6 May 1957, p. 12] of belching as a means of signifying approval of an entertainment. As he was leaving the country, he went to a certain village to say farewell to the head man (muḫtâr) and was not surprised to find that a special banquet had been prepared in his honour; then ‘as, according to custom, I belched my satisfaction after the meal and complimented him in particular on the delicious cooking of the fish, he removed a fish-bone from between his teeth and his eyes twinkled. “Such a pity it tasted a little like donkey,” he said.’ The unchanging East is rapidly changing, but many old customs and habits linger on and can still be cited to illustrate many in the Old Testament, which are now quite unintelligible to Western readers.”
– Sir G. R. Driver, explaining his farting translation

So, what makes it really more likely that Achsah farted than, alternatively, emitted a loud oral complaint or perhaps clapped her hands together to attract her husband’s attention? What clinches Driver’s translation is the belching and farting Arabs of the Transjordan, as recorded in The Times newspaper by an anonymous belching English traveller of the exotic Orient. Now, I don’t deny that belching is a compliment to the chef in many parts of the world. But isn’t it interesting how this serves as an explanation of Achsah’s gesture from the top of her ass. Driver notes that the customs of the East are “rapidly changing” — but apparently not enough to make it inappropriate to make this most extraordinary generalisation… and not enough to stop referring to the East as “the unchanging East”!

You know what I suspect? G. R. Driver was playing a joke. (There’s nothing quite as funny as a fart joke, after all.) This was all a deliberate and elaborate ploy to get the phrase “she broke wind… from her ass” into the Bible. It was something like a public school dare. But G. R. Driver’s joke has now been exposed.

Fortunately, Sir Godfrey died in 1975, comfortable in the knowledge that he had slipped a fart joke into the Bible.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Colonialism, Historical Books | 9 Comments »

Israel: ‘Profundity’ of Ideas as Justification for Colonialism; Bodily Desire as Justification for Dispossession

Posted by NT Wrong on November 24, 2008

“For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… the four great powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism… is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import tha[n] the desires and prejudices of 700 000 Arabs who now inhabit the land.”
– Arthur James Balfour, memorandum sent to Lord Curzon in 1919

Posted in Colonialism, Modern Israel, Racism, Violence | 2 Comments »

Asad: Thinking About Religion, Secularism, and Politics

Posted by NT Wrong on November 11, 2008

In October 2008, Harry Kreisler interviewed Talal Asad, “focusing on religion, modernity, and the complex relationships between Islam and the West” (57:02).

Posted in Colonialism, Inter-religious activities, Islam, Video | 3 Comments »

Yigael Yadin, the Bible, Archaeology, and Orientalism – When Captions Precede their Photos

Posted by NT Wrong on November 10, 2008


This picture is from Yigael Yadin’s Hazor (1975: 34), a populist book describing the archaeological finds at Hazor in Galilee. I hope somebody finds it as amusing as I did. The caption reads:

“A girl from North Africa felt ‘at home’ operating the two grinding stones, which are over 3,000 years old.”

What’s the scene here? Can you picture it? As soon as the 3,000-year-old relics are dug up, there’s a sudden rush, and a ‘North African’ woman (‘girl’) leaps up towards them, and starts to use them as though she were in her kitchen at home — because nothing in her world has changed in 3,000 years, and she couldn’t really tell the difference between archaeological ruins and her contemporary ‘North African’ (which bit exactly?) world.

What is encoded here is a commonplace of archaeology, in particular ‘biblical archaeology’. The Arab world is unchanging, permanent, in contrast to Western progress and change. So your average Arab can properly serve as a proxy for ‘the primitive ancient’ of 3000 years ago. But what is absent in this photo, although necessarily present? Look carefully. What’s not there? … the fact that the photo is being taken by a Western photographer who has asked the North African woman to pose in exactly this manner. The photo stages an idea in the Western photographer’s head. The caption wasn’t added to this photo — it preceded it.

“Orientalism is staked upon the permanence of the whole Orient, for without ‘the Orient’ there can be no consistent, intelligible, and articulated knowledge called ‘Orientalism’… the Orient is synonymous with stability and unchanging eternality… ‘the Orient’ as an unconditional ontological category does an injustice to the potential of reality for change.”
– Edward Said, Orientalism, 1979: 239-240

Posted in Colonialism, Racism | 23 Comments »

Christopher Columbus’ First Report on Native Americans

Posted by NT Wrong on November 10, 2008


“The people are loving and gentle and fit to be Christians. They are docile and will make good slaves.”
– Christopher Columbus, April 1493, in Foss, Undreamed Shores 1974: 18.

“500 years ago one man claimed
To have discovered a new world
Five centuries later we the people
Are forced to celebrate a black holocaust
How can you call a takeover
A discovery…
It’s as crazy as Hitler day
-Public Enemy, ‘Hitler Day’

Posted in Colonialism, Racism | 1 Comment »