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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 »

Similitudes – Their Binitarian Nature – Visions and Cultural Context – Steven Richard Scott

Posted by NT Wrong on October 9, 2008

The Book of Similitudes, now found in 1 Enoch 37-71, was written in ca. 20 B.C. Various contributors to Boccaccini’s Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man (2007) provide about half a dozen reasons for this dating. This makes the work a very important one for understanding the influences on the early Jesus Movement, including Jesus’ self-understanding, and his followers’ understandings of Jesus.

Steven Richard Scott has written a good article entitled ‘The Binitarian Nature of the Book of Similitudes’ in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (18: 55-78). He looks at the distinction made between the Lord of Spirits and the Name of the Lord of Spirits, and concludes that the Similitudes evidence binitarian — not monotheistic — worship of God. God is worshipped in two different persons, in Judaism, before Christianity. Moreover, the ‘other power in Heaven’ is to be identified with the Son of Man or Chosen One — the very figure that Jesus self-identifies with in the canonical Gospels.

The article is well worth reading. But I just want to draw attention to one comment he makes which, I think, is quite correct. In discussing the prominent role of visionary experiences of the heavenly exalted Jesus for his worship alongside the Most High God, Scott notes that it is not enough for there to be visions of Jesus alone. Visions don’t come out of nowhere. Visions come from people’s heads. And in order for the information to be in those heads, they must have already been a part of the person’s cultural beliefs. What is needed in order to make the argument of the origin of Jesus’ worship as God as derived from visions is both (1) proof of the belief in a second power in heaven, and (2) proof of visions. And in fact, there is significant proof for both.

“Hurtado is correct in pointing to the extensive literature on mystics and how their visions and experience lead to changes within religions, and the formation of new religions… However, the change is too great to be accounted for primarily by mystical experience, because of [the] inherently contextual nature of mystical experiences. The study of mystical experiences shows that almost all the content of mystical experience can be explained by the religious tradition that the mystic belongs to: by and large, the mystic experiences what his tradition says she or he should experience.”
– Steven Richard Scott, ‘The Binitarian Nature of the Book of Similitudes’ Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 18 (2008): 55-78, 58.

And did I note his firm disagreement with Crossley (2005)?

Posted in Apocalyptic, Divine Intermediaries, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Jesus & Christ, Judeo-Christian Practices | 1 Comment »

Dreams of Ascent and Resurrection: New Book from Frances Flannery et al

Posted by NT Wrong on October 3, 2008

The SBL October 2008 Newsletter announces the publication of Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity, edited by Frances Flannery, Colleen Shantz, Rodney A. Werline. Frances Flannery (aka Flannery-Dailey) is author of the masterful guide to ancient Jewish vision reports, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (2004) and founding editor of GOLEM: Journal of Religion and Monsters. The new book looks a useful resource, especially in light of recent discussions on this blog of visionary experiences of Jesus’ resurrection.

Publisher’s blurb:

This collection investigates the phenomenon of religious experience in early Judaism and early Christianity. The essays consider such diverse phenomena as scribal inspiration, possession, illness, ascent, theurgy, and spiritual transformation wrought by reading, and recognize that the texts are reflective of the lived experiences of ancient religious peoples, which they understood to be encounters with the divine. Contributors use a variety of methodologies, including medical anthropology, neurobiology, and ritual and performance studies, to move the investigation beyond traditional historical and literary methodologies and conclusions to illuminate the importance of experience in constructions of ancient religion.

Posted in Apocalyptic, Books, Early Christian literature, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Jesus & Christ, Judeo-Christian Practices | Comments Off on Dreams of Ascent and Resurrection: New Book from Frances Flannery et al

Judaism as Fissiparous Heteropraxis in the First Century BC

Posted by NT Wrong on September 23, 2008

‘Fissiparous Heteropraxis’ is Matthew Black’s mellifluous description of the ‘sectarian’ nature of Judaism in the first century BC. Nice phrase. I like it (although, less so, his judgment of it as ‘dangerous’).

Here’s the sentence in which it appears:

“The actual situation in Judaism in the first century B.C. appears, in fact, to have been one of a widespread and dangerously proliferating and fissiparous heteropraxis, a kind of baptizing nonconformity, with many splinter groups, extending from Judea to Samaria and beyond into the Diaspara itself.”
– Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament. 1961: 8.

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Synaesthesia: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Mystical Sensory Experience

Posted by NT Wrong on May 27, 2008

A panel discussion was held on “Sensory Experiences in Mystical Traditions” at UC Santa Barbara, on 3 May 2007. The panel stars Bernhard McGinn, James Winston Morris, Elliot R. Wolfson, experts respectively on Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mystical traditions. The focus is on synaesthesia, the description of one of the five sensory experiences in the terminology of one of the other sensory expenses. The video has now been made available by UCTV (86:01).

As an example of synaesthesia, the followers of Pachomius are described as seeing “a great flash of light in his words. All the brethren were like men drunk on wine and saw the words coming forth from hi mouth like birds of silver, gold and precious stones, which flew over the brethren and went into the ears of those who listened well.” (Bernhard McGinn)

“Experiences in which the senses are intermingled in usual ways are a common motif in the descriptions that mystics provide of their unordinary sensory experiences. The panelists will discuss the role that such experiences have played in the thought and practice of selected figures in the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mystical traditions.”

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The Ascent of Jesus & Visionary Ascents – One and the same?

Posted by NT Wrong on April 26, 2008

In many early Christian texts, there is a curiously close connection between the account of Christ’s crucifixion, death, ascent, and heavenly exaltation and the visionary ascension experiences of the authors who describe it. Are we dealing with one and the same phenomenon? Is the account of Jesus’ ascent to heaven derived from visionary ascents experienced by followers of the Jesus Movement?

For example, in Ascension of Isaiah 6, Isaiah induces a trance that results in the separation of his visionary soul from his stationary body. Richard Bauckham dates the Ascension of Isaiah as early as AD 70, and other interpreters date it to the late first or early second century. David Halperin describes the trance scene in Ascension of Isaiah 6 as a “vivid and realistic-sounding account of a shamanistic trance”, which most probably reflects the author’s actual visionary experience(s) (Faces of the Chariot 1988:66). In addition, there are a number of other indicators of early Jewish (and Christian) mysticism: requirement for passwords during descent, physical transformation of the visionary into an angelic form, and angelic opposition to human ascent. All of these factors reflect elements in early Jewish visionary experience.

What is more, the very form of the Ascension of Isaiah, which alternates the ascensions and transformations of the visionary ‘Isaiah’ with those of Christ betrays the influence of the visionary ascent experiences. Isaiah has a visionary ascent to heaven, in which he sees Jesus descend to earth and then ascend to heaven, after which Isaiah descends to earth again. The Ascension of Isaiah intimately connects visionary experiences of Christians with the ascent of Jesus.

A wide range of visionary ascent motifs is again present in the Odes of Solomon, where Christ’s descent to Hades and ascent to heaven is celebrated in hymns or odes. The Odes of Solomon is a Syrian collection which dates to this same late first or early second century priod. Again, there are a number of indicators of visionary experience. The visionary-odist experiences transformation into a heavenly figure, mystical union, ascension in a merkavah, avoidance of evils and dangers in ascent, and an angelus interpres figure. All of this strongly suggests that the description of Christ’s battle against evil powers and subsequent ascent to heaven were created from visionary experiences which themselves involved Christians attempting to overcome evil in an ascent to heaven.

Another book from this period is the Book of Revelation, which provides yet another mixture of visionary heavenly ascent with an account of Christ’s own ascent. In Revelation 4.1, John sees a “door opened in heaven”, and for the remainder of the book is “in the spirit”, experiencing a series of visions. John’s vision of his ascent to heaven involves a vision of Christ’s descent, defeat of Satan and ascent into heaven and exaltation (Rev 12.1-9). In Rev 1.13-18, John’s initial vision of the One like the Son of Man makes reference to his death providing freedom from Death and Hades and depicting him as being exalted in heaven.

Visionary experiences like those reported in the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, and the Revelation of John arguably formed the basis of the resurrection accounts. They may even have occurred immediately following Jesus’ death when the period of trauma and grief was most intense. They may have been experienced by figures such as Peter or Mary Magdalene–both described in early Christianity as having visions. The vision reports they told would have provided the earliest accounts of Jesus’ ascent (to heaven). Thanks to the survival of works such as the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, and the Revelation of John, we also have a good idea what those earliest vision reports of Jesus’ ascension might have looked like.


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Dreams are Real … for the Biblical Writers

Posted by NT Wrong on April 22, 2008

According to most non-modernist cultures, dreams and visions are real. They’re as real as putting on your shoes, reading the newspaper, or drinking a cup of coffee. That’s not to say that these cultures couldn’t differentiate the ‘reality’ of dreams from the ‘reality’ of waking life. But they do so by saying that dreams conveyed an even deeper reality than waking life, an avenue of direct communication to the divine. That is, for most non-modernists, dreams are more real than everyday life. According to anthropologist Jeannette Marie Mageo, most non-modernists: 

“see dreams as an alternative social word, as much outside the person as a convivial party, even if what goes on there is often far from convivial. For them, dreams are the gate to a sphere inhabited, like our own, by powers and people with which and with whom they live and cope…”

– “Theorizing Dreaming and the Self,” Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion, ed. Jeannette Marie Mageo, 3-22 (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003), 8.

According to anthropologist Barbara Tedlock:

“in many non-Western societies dreaming and waking reality are not fully segmented or compartmentalized worlds but are rather overlapping experiences”

– “Dreaming and Dream Research,” in Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, ed. Barbara Tedlock, 1-30 (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1992), 5.

The Rarámuri of Mexico reported incredible personal experiences to various anthropologists, including flying and remarkable transformations, not bothering to explain beforehand, and not until they were directly asked, that the experience was had during dreams. Yet on the other hand, they would not punish a wife for being unfaithful in a dream, as she was distinguished as the “soul-wife”. The Rarámuri described both dreaming and waking experiences as reality, yet also distinguished between them, the two realities co-existing and interacting “within the same pluralistic universe rather than being segmented into parallel realities” (Tedlock, 8).

Although he summarises his conclusions by utilising the now discredited social-evolutionary assumptions of his day, E. R. Dodds concludes that the ‘stage’ of attributing reality to one world and pure illusion to the other:

“was reached in antiquity only by a small number of intellectuals; and there are still to-day many primitive peoples who attribute to certain types of dream experience a validity equal to that of waking life, though different in kind”

The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures, 25; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951), 102.

Robert Gnuse summarises ancient beliefs on dreaming, for the purpose of his study on Josephus:

In the ancient world dreams were no less real for many people than the impressions received during the waking hours. Dreams were viewed not as psychological experiences of the mind but as phenomena with a special reality of their own.”

Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus: A Traditio-Historical Analysis (Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Unrchristentums, 36; Leiden, New York, Köln: Brill, 1996), 34.

Interestingly, Gnuse’s subject, Josephus, writes as a first-century historian, according to the standards of his day. Yet, he is willing to accept that dreams and their contents are a part of reality. This major difference between the ‘historiography’ done by ancients and modern historiography should be a warning to any who would make a too simplistic inference from the ancient genre of history to its factuality. When the ancients came to speak about the most significant aspects of reality, they had recourse to dreams, because dreams were considered to get one in touch with that deeper reality.

So, when ancient ‘historians’ wrote about subjects with deep importance, such as a nation’s divine history (e.g. Genesis-Kings) or about the coming and resurrection of the Son of Man (the Synoptic Gospels), dreams and visions were given a privileged position in their ‘history-writing’.


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