A Pure Virgin or a Repentant Whore: Which Saint Do You Prefer?

About five years ago, I wrote a chapter for a large study on the reception history of Mary Magdalene, one that begins with the Bible and moves all the way up through the present da Vinci Code ideas of who the Magdalene was. I contributed a chapter on the Three Magdalenes Debate among the humanists and early Reformers in the 16th century. A shortened version of the Magdalene study was just published in Italian, Una sposa per Gesù: Maria Maddalena tra antichità e postmoderno (2017), without my chapter. However, the originally planned, full volume is apparently moving forward, and I was just sent my draft to look over before final review. So I suddenly have to read very closely a study I haven’t looked at in half a decade. I began to remember why the project was so interesting to me back then.

Here’s the issue I deal with: the Roman Catholic Church had come to conflate three women – Mary Magdalene (possessed by seven demons, and present at the crucifixion and resurrection), Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the sinner who anoints Jesus in Luke 7. The Marys can be conflated because of their similar names. The sinner can be conflated with Mary of Bethany because John explicitly has Mary anoint Jesus (Mark’s and Matthew’s woman is anonymous). While the scenario in Luke 7 is very different in chronology, geography, plot, characterization, and meaning, it is nevertheless an anointing. So with some creative rereading, instead of three women mentioned tantalizingly in important episodes but never mentioned again, we have one woman with a developed story arc: A sinner (probably a prostitute) possessed by seven demons due to her sinfulness, who is exorcised by Jesus and forgiven by him, then travels around with him, following Jesus all the way to the cross and becoming the first to see him when he is resurrected, even becoming the Apostle to the Apostles!

It was the latter saint that became venerated in France in the Middle Ages, with a shrine holding “her” skull in southern France. The story was expanded too: the penitent Magdalene lived the rest of her life as a naked ascetic in the cave where her skull is now held (this storyline is ~borrowed~ from another saint, Mary of Egypt). The controversy I explore in my chapter occurred when humanists began studying the Greek manuscripts of the Bible, and found that there was little to support this intricate biography in the Gospels. They began to question whether the three women should be confused with one another, advocating for three separate women. Down the line, the Catholic Church maintained the identification, to the point that a Catholic friend who named her daughter Madeleine joked about the possible consequences of naming her after a whore. Meanwhile, Protestant exegesis tends to recognize three separate women, with footnotes in modern editions of Luther’s works where he identifies the three explaining that this was a way that people interpreted the Bible “back then.”

What is notable about the debate is that, despite all the exegeting and rhetoricizing, the initial debaters fell into one of the two camps out of a single concern: was it better to have a saint who was a sinner but who repented to glory and honor? Or, was it better to have a virginal saint ~worthy~ of veneration?

The humanists who began to divide the Magdalene did so because they were embarrassed to venerate a former whore, a woman who spent the end of her life naked and alone. They were celibate men with little to no pastoral experience. They blushed at the stories preachers would tell about Mary Magdalene before she was saved by Christ. By separating the three women, they could portray Mary Magdalene as merely a possessed woman thankful for her exorcism; and more importantly, they could portray Mary of Bethany as a virgin, absolutely pure in her faith, the model of a Godly woman.

Meanwhile, the other humanists, including John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, as well as the early Reformers (Luther, Chemnitz, and Zwingli among them) had much more pastoral experience. They knew that the penitent Magdalene was a powerful symbol to bring people back to the Church after they had sinned. No matter how bad you acted, think of Mary Magdalene! She was such a sinner that seven demons possessed her, yet Christ welcomed her into his fold when she repented! They were not embarrassed by her sinfulness any more than Peter’s or Paul’s – they made it central to a story of redemption. Fisher agreed with Luther on this (despite portraying him as a horrible heretic), and Luther even named his third child Magdalena while rejecting the more celibate reading.

Both versions of the saint are problematic. In one, a woman is chosen to anoint Jesus before he dies only because she is virginal and wealthy, she attends to Christ, and she gives everything she has to Christ (≈ the Church), while Martha, whose virginity is not as strongly maintained and who has shit to do, is belittled. In the other, Mary Magdalene must repent alone in a cave in a foreign land her whole life despite being forgiven by Jesus, directly and unequivocally, only because she performed sexual sins, while Paul can murder early Christians (according to this thinking) and go on to be the Apostle (big A), with no hint that Paul must preach the Word and eventually die as a martyr because he sinned, but rather to glorify the Lord.

Nevertheless, the choice of which saint to venerate, whose story to tell, fueled the debate to a much greater degree than has been previously recognized. I’ll be happy to sit down with the volume once it appears in English.


A small detail from Constantine (2005)


I was just getting together screenshots for a chapter on the use of pseudo-biblical texts in horror movies (“Apocryphal Horror: Understanding Evil through Lost Books of the Bible”) which will appear soon in Horror by the Book: Monstrous Manuscripts, Sacred Scrolls, and Illuminated Evil on Screen (McFarland), edited by Cynthia Miller and Bow van Riper.

The above screenshot comes from an extended version of 1 Corinthians, with an extra chapter 17 (although the Latin text of chapter 16 does not match our 1 Cor 16). If I end up including the shot, it will be paired with the following to illustrate how precise and trustworthy these Bibles are in their predictions:

Constantine 2

The exact same scene plays out, down the street from where John Constantine lives. The point is that the Bible in these movies is always highly relevant, readable, and right. The woodcarving is functionally accurate hundreds of years in advance, only because the illustrator read the text.

But there was an extra detail I hadn’t originally considered (spoilers?). In the background of the woodcarving, there are two crucifixions. These echo the two crosses flanking Christ in the Passion, but they would be irrelevant in the eschatological — future — scene depicted. But they are not haphazard. In order to stop the Apocalypse, both Constantine and his assistant, Chas, have to die. Chas is quickly offed to establish the threat of the demon, and Constantine kills himself to draw the Devil to earth. It’s only by a miraculous healing from Lucifer that he continues to live. The illustrator of this old (but not ancient — it’s printed, after all) Bible could even discern that two men would die, martyred in this conflict. It adds to the logic of these movies that people just need to read their (augmented, very much more specific) Bibles to thwart evil.

At the annual meeting of AAR/SBL (part 2)

So my final foray at the annual meeting of the SBL is over and I’m back home. I walked my wife into work, took the dog for a walk, and graded some papers — all things I would have preferred to do this past weekend.
I did go to Nathan Johnson’s talk, btw, which responsibly explored his thesis that there was a gematrial connection between Jesus’s invocation of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and the number 18, but ultimately rejected it. I’m perfectly fine with such negative results – they keep others from going blindly down the same alley. Also, he began and ended his talk with a pun. Since the only other person I know from Princeton also puns often, I have to think it’s on the curriculum there. How’s Jef Tripp, Director of Punning and Wordplay sound?
Other highlights:

  • The teaching sessions were the best, from teaching Hebrew using chess and text-criticism using the evolution of music lyrics, to using Jesus memes to teach critical literacy of Jesus tradition, I enjoyed these by far the most.
  • I accidentally turned the lights off on George Parsenios during the Johannine Literature section. I didn’t do it on purpose — the room was packed and I was standing against a wall. When I noticed I was leaning on an electronic console, I moved and rubbed the button for the lights. That’s my story at least. He handled it well, though.
  • Got to have dinner with future superstar Nelida Naveros Cordova, Dieter Roth, and Ruben Zimmermann. We discussed Q, John, and how great post-docs in Germany are. Seriously, if you’re finishing up a doctorate and you can leave the country, jump on that train!
  • In fact, this post could just be about nice meals and drinks I shared with people I like, who include UGA people (great to see Wayne Coppins), Loyola people (nice to have a drink with Edmondo Lupieri, and to spend time with Cambry Pardee), and new people like Jason Staples (NC State) and the Philo group (Tessa Rajak, Reading was an absolute pleasure) .

Finally, the Sisters of Divine Providence in Kingston were fantastic – so hospitable and kind, I really enjoyed my time at their convent.

But what about the presentations?!?

Eh. I enjoyed some, some made good points, and I didn’t enjoy others. None really changed my life. I think that if you can’t really follow up with people on the topic, and if the topic doesn’t directly connect with your research, it’s a rare thing to be knocked out by one. The Q panel was quite good, and I agreed with Dieter Roth that there are severe difficulties with trying to recreate the precise wording and syntax of Q. His idea of looking to other more complex fields such as images, ideologies, and discourse to evaluate intertextuality is very helpful. Sarah Rollens also made some good points about the lack of Q scholars in North America by addressing how male the field is here, effectively excluding women (outside of herself, of course), a significant chunk of potential researchers. Paul Foster, meanwhile, gave an entertaining evaluation of the state of Q studies in Britain that pointed to a similar decline under the influence of Mark Goodacre. That afternoon, the professor from whom I learned about Q commented that he is now 60% in favor of Luke’s direct use of Matthew — in part through close study of the “minor agreements.” I would comment that Q researchers have generally been too eager to argue about Q rather than for it, and although these arguments have been refined over time, they are still somewhat weak in places. On the other hand, Luke’s use of Matthew (or vice versa) is also conjectural, and there is nothing wrong with exploring questions through multiple lenses in order to see where the arguments lead. Might get some interesting comparative results.

At the annual meeting of AAR/SBL (part 1)

So I’ve come to the annual national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston. I’ve never been to Boston, so hopefully I’ll get to see some of the town. Like 10,000 people come to this thing [citaion needed], so it’ll be 4 days of my favorite thing: sitting awkwardly next to strangers not knowing what to say. Yay?
I’ll probably update once sessions start because typing is an introvert’s greatest weapon against having everyone know you would rather be watching this whole thing on a live stream from your living room. Yeah, you’re right, I’m supposed to network. But you’re comments were neither invited nor appreciated. Right now it’s just that I got here waaaaay too early because I went for a cheaper 6 am flight – adjuncts don’t get to fly in at reasonable hours just because it “makes sense.” Life choices… So I’m grading, working on a review of William Loader’s Jesus in John’s Gospel (which will be very positive), and sending long-overdue responses to emails. Like. A. Responsible. Professional.
In an effort to make this somewhat relevant, here’s a talk I’m looking forward to: Nathan Johnson’s “Jesus and the Rabbinic Middot: Gematria and the God of the Living.” Evidently there’s some play on the Gematria of “life” in Aramaic (= 18) and with associations of 18 with the phrase, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Larry Hurtado noted life’s connection with 18 and the gematria of a nomen sacrum for Jesus, IH, which will also play a role. It’ll be a good way to start the day tomorrow.

John’s 153 fish (John 21:11), or: That’s neat, but irrelevant.

I’ve been working on a review and critique of scholarly ideas about the 153 fish in John 21:11 for a while. To recap, after receiving the Spirit and two resurrection appearances, seven of the disciples seem to get bored while hanging out in Galilee – like you do. They go fishing but don’t catch anything all night. Then Jesus shows up, tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, and they catch a butt-load of fish. Or as John chooses to put it, “one hundred fifty three large fish.” The specificity of the number intrigues people, and I’ve been looking at the methods people use to decipher whether it has any deeper meaning.

One problem I have is the use of modern digital arithmetic on a text from the first century, and that is definitely an issue in James Harrison’s The Pattern & the Prophecy: God’s Great Code (1996). Harrison is a “biblical scholar” in the line of Hal Lindsey, but he makes a neat observation using digital arithmetic: if you take any natural multiple of three, cube the digits, and add them, iteratively the sums will tend to 153.

Other people have observed that 153 = 13 + 53 + 33, so once it hits 153 it’s stuck. Harrison simply observes that this works and makes the claim without a proof, so first I wanted to provide a proof to see that it will in fact always work. We can do this by a simple proof by induction.

1) Take 3, the first multiple of 3, whose only digit is 3.

33 = 27 → 23 + 73 = 8 + 343 = 351 → 33 + 53 + 13 = 153

It may take more iterations, but we can observe this pattern over and over.

Lemma: If a number has n digits, then the sum of the cubes of its digits is at most 729n.

Since the biggest multiple of 3 with n digits is 999…999, then the cube of all digits would be 729, adding to 729n.

2) Suppose the pattern holds for all numbers up to m, such that 3m > 2,916.

Show: The pattern holds for m + 1.

3(m+1) > 2,916 = 729(4)

Since the maximum sum of cubes for any four-digit number will be 2,916, the sum of the cubes will be a multiple of three less than or equal to 3m, for which the pattern holds by assumption. If we escalate to a five-digit number, the maximum sum of cubes is 3,645 = 729(5), which is necessarily less than the five-digit number we began with.

Therefore Harrison is right: all multiples of three iteratively tend to 153 when you cube their digits.

Now we should ask a pertinent question: who cares? There are three reasons that this neat observation is not remotely relevant to a discussion of John’s 153 fish.

1) There is no evidence anyone knew this in the first century. They may have known that 13 + 33 + 53 = 153, i.e. that 153 is the sum of the cubes of the first three odd numbers. It is observed, for example, that 13 + 23 + 33 = 36, but not until the 4th century, and we have no evidence for 153 at all. We’d have to suppose that John was some sort of cutting edge mathematician centuries ahead of his time. This seems unlikely.

2) The larger pattern was not knowable in the first century because they did not have digits. In most manuscripts, (a) hundred – fifty – three is precisely that, spelled out in the text. In others, it is ρνγ, where ρ = 100, ν = 50, and γ = 3. There is never an association with 1 or with 5 because digits were not yet invented. The position of the letter (since they had no separate symbols for numbers) had nothing to do with its value. John would not only have to be horribly advanced in arithmetic, he would have had to anticipate the entire system of digital arithmetic.

3) The pattern is not even unique! All numbers of the form 3n – 1 iteratively tend to 371:

23 = 8 → 83 = 512 → 53 + 13 + 23 = 134 → 13 + 33 + 43 = 92 → 93 + 23 = 737 → 73 + 33 + 73 = 713 → 73 + 13 + 33 = 371

In other words, the tendency to 153 is one of many neat things when you begin playing around with digits and arithmetic.

So there is no evidence that John was aware of this pattern, it doesn’t actually work in his mathematics, and it’s not a wholly special quality to have. It’s neat, but it’s irrelevant.

Old Book, New Jef: A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

Image result for wilson, paul: the mind of the apostle

So a while back, I was looking through my bookshelves and noticed a book on Paul by A.N. Wilson. It occurred to me that I had no idea who A.N. Wilson was, nor what his hypothesis about Paul was. Yet, as it turns out, I had read this book about 14 years ago, well before I had studied Paul or early Christianity extensively. I even underlined throughout, so I must have found it quite interesting back then.

When I skimmed through it, there was so much that made me cringe. Obviously the text hadn’t changed, but I changed as the reader. I not only know much more about the first century, but I also read differently, ask different questions. Re-reading the book was a window into a 14-year out of date version of me and what I thought was important back then. Here I just want to explore how I would read this book differently now than I did in my 20s.

The Author: A.N. Wilson is not a biblical scholar, but a biographer. He had written books on Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, and, evidently, Jesus before writing the book on Paul.

The Book: Paul has blurbs from Booklist, the Chicago Tribune, and Karen Armstrong, another popular writer focusing on religious history. Wilson is hailed as scholarly, witty, fascinating, provocative, and intelligent, and apparently he “does a tremendous job here of… examining all that is known about Paul’s life.” So I wasn’t crazy picking it up from a Barnes & Noble.

One can see why Armstrong would be on board with statements like, “The anathematising of religious opponents, the punishments, for religious heresy, of exile, imprisonment, torture and death were unknown to the polytheistic mindset of the ‘pagans'” (p. 9; compare Armstrong’s Holy War). I don’t know if I would go that far. Wilson traces the violent attitude he sees as typical of Christianity to apocalyptic thinkers like John of Patmos already in the 50s (p. 12):

Tacitus tells us that the Christians arrested in Rome after the fire were condemned, not so much for incendiarism as for their obvious hatred of the human race. John the Seer — whoever he was — exudes a powerful hatred of the human race and an exultation of hope that the greater number of human beings will imminently perish in a lake of fire.

Wilson is also generally negative about Christianity as a thing. Paul’s Christianity, as Wilson characterizes it, is for “human beings who were too tired or too drunk or too weak or too stupid to be able to rise to the concept of virtue and good behaviour practised by Pharisees and Stoics” (p. 123). Indeed, commenting on Paul’s worldview, he says (p. 155):

Moving from Chapter One of The Republic to Paul’s letter to the Romans is like moving from a civilised atrium where the only noise is that of human voices raised in passionate debate, but debate punctuated by laughter, to a crazed scene painted by Hieronymus Bosch in which the human race, give over to every kind of vice and immorality, is pitchforked by demons and by the Almighty himself into a predestined perdition and where righteousness rains down only in sacrificial blood.

Jeez, dude, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.

Wilson is generally positive about Greco-Roman civilization, as well as the Pharisees. Jesus is more or less a Pharisee misunderstood by Paul, who mythologizes Jesus by mixing in elements of mystery cults and Heracles worship. The “Christianity was founded by Paul” train of thought is nothing new, of course, although I apparently was quite taken with the idea back then – underlines and stars in the margin, even!

There are unsurprisingly methodological issues that I spotted skimming through Paul. Wilson takes, for example, a detail from Acts of Paul as unadulterated history (p. 76) while dismissing most of the gospels and Acts as mythologizing based on Jewish Scripture and Greek myths (e.g. p. 55).

But mainly my problem with Paul is not with Wilson as it is a matter of genre: as a popular biography, there is no room for nuance or balanced discussion. Wilson simply presents a hypothesis as fact and runs with it — as he should in this type of book. For me, someone trained to present data and alternative interpretations, Paul raised too many questions — does he not know that there’s a different way to understand this information, or does he not care? 14 years ago, I was not practiced in asking those questions. I often didn’t know there were such questions to ask. Wilson states things very confidently; who am I to question this dude? He published a book! If anything, it’s a reminder that part of our basic education needs to be devoted to understanding genre, to how different types of books present an argument.

I would not recommend Wilson’s Paul as anything informative, but if you already think Christianity is a colossal mistake, then you’ll probably really like it!


Biblical studies in Chicago is really male, really white

As I’ve pointed out before, there are not a lot of women in biblical studies. Or at least that’s my impression. Then again, I might have a weird sample – maybe only Loyola is boy crazy. Or maybe Catholic universities are. So I looked at the Bible faculty at 15 Chicago area schools. As always, a more formal study is warranted: I picked these 15 more or less because I could list them off the top of my head, but they constitute a big slice of Chicago biblical studies faculty.

Altogether there were 65 tenure-track professors (no visiting professors, instructors, or lecturers were included) specializing in biblical studies (which I gathered from their publishing history). I discerned whether they were male or not, and also white or not. There is always room for error here – a survey in which they could self-identify would be preferable. However, given these caveats, I just wanted to do a spot-check of what proportion of Bible scholars was white, and what proportion was male.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) male: 74%

Percent of population who are male: 48%

Oddly, although this is grossly tilted toward men, it isn’t as bad as I thought. Granted, I work in an all-male-TT department. The year I entered doctoral studies at LUC (2011) was the last time a woman was admitted into New Testament program, the very brilliant Nelida Naveros-Cordova, now at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh. Since then, total sausage fest. Still, 74% men is heavily skewed.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) white: 86%

Percent of population who are white: 64%

Again, I work in an all-white-TT department so this isn’t terribly surprising. But there is an obvious skew toward one demographic.

Over 60% are both, i.e. white men (rough population ratio, 31%).

Only three Chicago biblical scholars were neither white, nor men: Stephanie Bukhanon Crowder and Seung Ai Yang at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Elizabeth Sung at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

There are some factors that contribute to this skew:

More conservative churches, and the colleges they run, are unlikely to encourage women to go into biblical studies – women shouldn’t have authority over men and all that. Since colleges connected to these churches are likely to hire from within their own tradition, they are also more likely to hire men. But what about more progressive departments, which are still heavily skewed male? And why so white?

This may have to do with privilege. It takes roughly 11 or 12 years to work through a PhD in biblical studies, often longer. During that time, working full time is rough if not impossible, and one may accrue quite a bit of student debt through undergraduate and master’s degrees that may be unfunded. Someone needs to have the ingrained confidence that he or she will be all right financially, that the system will eventually work for them, even with a twelve year break from building wealth. This may be a feeling that white men are more likely to have than others, given the (longstanding) distribution of wealth in America. I know, for example, my wife’s family, who are first generation immigrants, views me as a bit silly and irresponsible for pursuing work in this field without the promise of significant financial gain at the end of my studies. If the economy or the political situation ever hits the fan, she will have accrued wealth and valuable skills as a medical doctor. I will be able to read several dead languages and to voice strong opinions on teaching strategies. In other words, my wife will be welcomed by societies that need her skillset, and I will be digging ditches. As a privileged person, there is simply no tangible reality to this threat, whereas for someone who knows, or whose family knows, that economies can fail, or can fail to work for us, the threat is much more real. The uncertainty and financially unrewarding nature of academics may be more likely a deal-breaker. This may be (maybe) why the doctoral applicant pool to LUC got a lot whiter and a lot dudier when the recession hit.

I’m not arguing against white guys in biblical studies. I am one, and I’m the bee’s knees (or so I tell myself). But non-white and/or non-cisgendered-male people bring important new perspectives to the field, and their inclusion combats the cultural isolation that biblical studies imposes on itself. The field is significantly skewed, and many would think it is as it should be. For those who don’t, however, it is worth taking the time to spot-check what the actual numbers are from time to time.


In which I Arbitrarily Blame René Girard for All the Mimetic Desire in Movies: Thoughts on Mimesis, Movies, and Media: Violence, Desire, and the Sacred, Volume 3


So I just completed a draft of a review of Mimesis, Movies, and Media for Reviews in Religion and Theology. The book is a collection of essays applying René Girard’s philosophy of mimetic desire to popular media (mostly movies and TV shows). Briefly put, Girard focuses on mimetic desire – we want what others want, which leads to rivalry (when we both can’t have it), which leads to violence. I teach my religious studies students about Girard’s model of scapegoating rituals, which ties into mimetic violence when it spirals out of control. At a certain crisis point, an arbitrary victim is chosen who is loaded with all of the evils thought to be causing the crisis, and violence is direct at him/her as a unifying (we all hate that MF) and stabilizing act (our violence is directed at the victim, not at each other). Mimesis, Movies, and Media serves as an introduction to Girard’s ideas of mimetic desire, and might serve as a good text for an undergraduate course integrating philosophy and media studies.

The essays are generally good, but there are a few that stand out:

Paul Dumouchel looks at the Kubrick and Spielberg film A.I., asking how the film communicates to the audience that the robot boy, David, loves his “mother,” and has already become human. It is not by exhibiting emotion, which many of the other robots also do. Unsurprisingly it is through mimetic desire, whether he is imitating a model of love programmed into him, or directly imitating his mother’s biological son when he returns home. This imitation leads to rivalry, which quickly escalates to violence. David is just too similar – aesthetically (he is not a toy like Teddy, or plastic looking like Gigolo Joe) and emotionally – forcing a choice between two sons for the family.

Although I’ve enjoyed Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Carly Osborn will have me watching it in a very different light. She traces the downplaying of mimetic desire in Lee’s adaptation from book to film, in order to lower conflict and make the characters more attractive to the audience. Essentially, while Rick Moody’s book builds to a crisis in an ugly, almost diseased world, Lee creates a nostalgic, romanticized coming of age story. The woman I used to watch The Ice Storm with grew up in the 70s, and reading Osborn’s essay, a flood of memories came back of her experiencing that nostalgia as we watched. I wonder how much of my own enjoyment of the movie mimetically fed off of hers.

And Peter Y. Paik examines The Cabin in the Woods, specifically (spoilers) why the two intended sacrifices refuse to kill each other to save the world at the end. To remind you, Cabin features five college students who think they are in the middle of a horror movie situation as a family of zombies picks them off, one by one, only to find out that the whole scenario has been crafted by a high-tech agency as a spectacle for ancient gods living under the earth. If the sacrifices do not happen as scripted, the gods wake up and the world ends. Paik argues that when the youngsters are faced with the violence that maintains the stability of their world, they fall into a state of “impotent self-hatred” and give up too easily. He likens this to similar realizations about capitalism, and it is easy to generate parallels: the disillusionment that came to many young people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline when they were met with violence from corporate and government interests working together, or the scapegoating of poor people, black people, Latino people for the failures of capitalism to create a just society, and the (often homicidal) violence done to them in response.

I do have some minor criticisms, not of particular essays but of tendencies appearing throughout the volume.

One weakness is consistent throughout: the mimetic assimilation of “philosopher voice.” At the outset, the editors present the contributors as “priests and postmodernists, couch potatoes, theorists and humorists, of different ages, institutional affiliations, and disciplinary orientations” (p. 3). They go on: “There is also perhaps an Australian flavor to be discerned in this collection, as it approaches topics of high importance with a light touch.” Unfortunately, I did not hear such diversity in the voices of the authors. They all more or less sound like philosophical essays. This means using adjectives like “problematic” as nouns, turning nouns into verbs, and adjectivizing (see, I can do it too) names, like Girardian or, in an analysis of the show Dexter, Dexterian.

This homogenous voice may be a defense against the embarrassment some of these authors show at applying philosophy to such low art as popular media. It begins with the “Introduction,” which takes the time to defend the volume’s examination of films and TV: “we can allow – or hope – that our interpretive lenses are able to incorporate more than words on a page, allowing us to countenance the idea that high ideas may come in putatively low forms” (p. 2). Dumouchel seems to credit any insights to the more philosophically reputable Stanley Kubrick rather than the populist Steven Spielberg, including the ending, which was already in the treatment left by Kubrick and which has its defenders. Joel Hodge limits his examination of superhero films mainly to the Nolan Batman series, with a few nods to Superman and Spider-Man. This leaves him forcing examples out of Batman that don’t really fit his thesis, while ignoring or unaware of much more apt examples from other superhero movies. Paolo Diego Bubbio begins with a half-page defense of his choice to contribute his essay that includes this characterization of (one imagines) his supposed critics: “when philosophy and intellectual analysis [as opposed to dumbass analysis?] come to focus on popular culture phenomena, such as comics, movies, and TV programs, they are regarded as trivializing ideas and as committing themselves to marginal and eventually unimportant work” (p. 171; emphasis added). Bubbio rightly disagrees, even getting a small snap in at these imagined critics with a well-placed parenthesis: “In a Mad Men scene that (no irreverence intended) has an almost Dostoyevskian flavor…” (p. 181; adjectivizing!). The self-marginalization of theologians and philosophers, the two biggest contributing fields to this volume, is bad enough already. You don’t need to apologize for applying your skills to works that normal humans actually care about. In fact, next time you should include video games, which are a fantastic source for the analysis of mimetic desire and rivalry leading to violence, especially online games. It’ll make your colleagues’ heads explode!

A More Fluid Tool for Textual Criticism? A Really Sloppy Test Case with John 1:34

So I’m debating whether to develop a project down the line dealing with text criticism (external evidence at least), and I want to put this idea out there and see if anyone thinks it might be fruitful.

Basically the problem has to do with the dating of manuscripts. First, dates inherently include margins of error, whether from carbon-dating, paleography, or other variables. These may be wide, hidden in that “circa.” Second, not all scholars working directly on dating the manuscripts agree with each other on how to narrow things down. One thinks the handwriting looks second century, another fourth. The use of the nomina sacra points one way, the binding on the papyrus another. It seems like the general solution is to pick the most convincing from among arguments which, without the manuscripts in hand (and the proper training), it may be difficult to judge. If we are qualified, it may be the case that the handwriting leans one way and the binding another — we should not dismiss the variance suggested by the data we have.

Granted, if the datings range from 150 to 400, some scholars may be bound to be right, and others wrong. But there is no way of deciding that without more data. It becomes an arbitrary choice between Type I and Type II errors.

And when we pick the dating we prefer, we tend to artificially narrow it down. A dating of 175-225 in the original study becomes ca. 200, which then becomes rigid as it is cited and cited again.

But think about two manuscripts with datings of 175-225, but with different readings. You might find scholars who say, “Both readings are equally as old.” But by the estimates, there could be 50 years or more separating the two. And think about the Church Fathers writing in those years: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian… These were theologically and scripturally active decades where fights were being fought over the authority of Scripture on a number of important points. The critical change could easily have happened within that 50-year span.

Is there not a more comprehensive, nuanced way to look at the transmission of readings in the various manuscripts that testify to them?

What I’m thinking of working on is a way to aggregate the various studies done on manuscripts to get a more fluid idea about how prevalent a reading was at a given time. Here is one really, really sloppily done example.

John 1:34 gives three different readings, in which John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is:

  • God’s Son (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • God’s Chosen One (ὁ ἐκλεκτὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • Chosen Son (electus filius)

Each reading has its defenders, and no particular internal argument has won the day. Even English versions give different readings: CEV, KJV, NASB, and NRSV give “Son of God,” while NIV and NLT have “God’s Chosen One.” One appears in p66, the other (apparently) in p75, both of them early.

I took 17 early manuscripts (dated no later than the 7th century), and (again very sloppily) aggregated the various datings for each manuscript. The more diverse conclusions, or the fewer studies, the wider the margins of error. The result I got was this:

John 1 34

Does this make sense to people?

I should highlight that these levels of prevalence have margins of error that are wider the earlier on we look, so this would have to be refined to show that. But despite the similar dating of the earliest manuscripts for “Son” and “Chosen,” “Son” aggregates higher early on. One thing I found interesting is that “Chosen” seems to increase until it is almost 45% of the evidence around 270, when “Son” gets as low as 53%. It’s at this point, when the two readings are close to 50/50, that the conflation, “Chosen Son,” begins to rise. This would seem to suggest that Chosen Son is indeed a conflation and not the original reading, created (or gaining popularity) in response to the likelihood of seeing manuscripts of both types.

Does that sound like a fruitful way to look at this?

Other things to look at potentially:

  • Refining this data, drawing in later manuscripts as well and addressing margins of error in these estimates.
  • Comparing, for example, the Western text to the population or to another group of texts.
  • Using this to test readings against turning point dates (i.e. manuscripts we are, say, 90% sure are prior to 270 or 350 with mss we are 90% sure are later — is there a significant difference in their reading of John 1:34? And what does this tell us?).

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts!

Gendering Pre-Creation: Mixter Tehom and Supernatural

As it will from time to time, an interesting coincidence has just popped up between my scholarly hobbies and my “I seriously can’t think anymore, I just want to watch TV” ones. The coincidence has to do with the cultural concept of gender, and how we read that into the Genesis account, and how popular literature reflects cultural constructs.

Recently I’ve been working on a review of Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest’s Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Hornsby and Guest present a “trans hermeneutic,” by which they pay attention to transgender issues and, more broadly, how gender is constructed in the Bible. The book is quite good — I would have even appreciated a longer volume that gave them more time to flesh out some of their ideas.

Guest contributes an essay on Genesis, “Troubling the Waters: תְּהוֹם, Transgender, and Reading Genesis Backward.” Here she lingers in the opening verses of Gen 1:1-2 to explore the potential theophany in the abyss, in the darkness. She argues that tehom, the abyss, has signs that it could be taken as a proper, personal noun: it lacks an article (it is not “the abyss,” but rather “darkness was on the face of tehom“), tehom is given anthropomorphic verbs (it crouches [Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13] and speaks [Hab 3:10]), and it takes on a role in the Genesis myth that is elsewhere played by a personification of chaos conquered by the creator god(s).

If we want to view tehom as personal, there are difficulties with assigning gender: “But תְּהוֹם is a queer noun: masculine in form, yet usually appearing as a female noun, but occasionally given a masculine suffix (e.g., “his voice” in Hab 3:10). It is, intriguingly, a gender-shifting word” (p. 25). For this reason, Guest labels the personified abyss “Mixter Tehom,” a title taken from trans communities (in place of Mr., Ms., etc.) to highlight its gender fluidity. Such fluidity is appropriate to the abyss, and to the time in which Mx. Tehom exists, prior to the gender boundaries erected later in the story. Guest’s essay then concentrates on how we can understand a God who chose to exist in communion with Mx. Tehom prior to creation — and it is really worth a read.

Other terms contribute to the fluidity and lack of precise orientation in the opening verses of Genesis. This space was “formless and void” (i.e. it required transition, transformation in order to achieve its present self), and again, “darkness” was on Mx. Tehom’s face.

This brings me to Supernatural, a goofy show about two brothers who hunt monsters, but which takes much of its mythos from the Bible. The show will feature heavily in a chapter I am writing about the use of fake biblical texts in horror, which will appear in the book, Monstrous Manuscripts. In a later season (like 37? 38? There are so many seasons of this show…), the main antagonist is the Darkness, which is released when the mark of Cain is removed from one of the brothers, who only had it so he could wield the first blade to kill Abaddon… it’s a whole thing.

The Darkness, or Amara, is God’s sister whom he (definitely male) had to sacrifice by locking her up in order to create the universe. In other words, Supernatural embraces the chaos myth while recasting it as a family drama (and introducing a dualistic, gnostic theology). The use of sibling rivalry is not surprising. In earlier seasons, Lucifer’s rebellion was written as a squabble between he and his brothers (the other archangels), brought on because God is more or less a deadbeat dad on Supernatural, and again, this whole mess began because one of the brothers had the mark of Cain (given to Cain by Lucifer, who received it from Amara… and we’re back).

What was notable to me was the genderification of the Light and the Darkness. Although God has (surreptitiously) appeared in the form of a man already, and he is referred to as Father by the angels, there is no reason to pin him down to a specific gender. Once he reduced to male (much of theology, including Psalm 22, be damned), with regard to the Darkness, the Hebrew word, חֹ֫שֶׁך, is also masculine, and one would expect a show so obsessed with brotherly conflict to embrace the possibility of writing it into the fabric of their universe. Maybe they just wanted something different. Instead the siblings, for the first time in like 83 seasons, are brother and sister.

I imagine this has something to do with presenting God (or “Chuck” – spoilers!) and Amara as opposites:

  • God is the Light, Amara is the Darkness.
  • God embraces freedom and distance, Amara wants subjugation and union.
  • God is absent and unfindable, Amara is present and easily approachable.
  • God is male, Amara is female.

There are of course differences that the writers do not impose on them. Both are straight (one downside of ret-conning Chuck as God is that God has now had sex with and then been dumped by other characters on the show), both are American, white, good-looking, able-bodied, of average height, both have typical emotionality, and both spend an inordinate amount of time in places like Nebraska. In other words, both are normal as the writers see it, so their opposition has to happen within that normality. Men and women are, to them, opposites situated within normality. So one is a man, the other a woman.

One reading of Gen 1:1-2 is considered and thought out, and the other mines the verses for another monster for its brothers to fight. I doubt Supernatural is consciously making a philosophical statement. But within this absence of thought, the show helps to reinforce not only a binary gender dynamic, but specifically binary gender opposition. Many more people will watch Supernatural season 113 on Netflix than Guest’s essay, and for them one more block will be added to an ideological wall between male and female.