Robert Knapp . . . shows convincingly that the better we understand the thought-worlds of ordinary ancient people, whether Jews, Christians, or pagans/polytheists, the less distinctive do the various categories become. Whatever the labels used to identify them, polytheists, Jews, and Christians inhabited very similar worlds of “gods and miracles,” and any credible account of subsequent religious developments has to be grounded in that fact.
Religion & Theology
Getting people to commit themselves and their resources to tackling pressing social problems can be a very good thing, but when it turns out that “tackling” never quite amounts to “solving,” we can be left with such bitterness, frustration, and anger that we might wonder if the original project is even worthwhile. I think what Niebuhr’s body of work suggests, and this might be his greatest gift to us, is that it is often indeed worth it, since to ignore those pressing problems amounts to violating Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors, but that it will just as often disappoint us, sometimes deeply.
Even when set aside the other border states, Palmyra’s history is distinctive, not least because of its extraordinary economic basis. That power proved both a blessing and a curse. In the 3rd century AD, the city stood at a crest of a wave, leaving it superbly placed to benefit from the near collapse of the Roman Empire between about 240 and 270. Just how appallingly bad those years were is difficult to exaggerate. Upstart emperors came and went with depressing rapidity; at least fourteen reigned between 235 and 270, all of whom died violently, except for two fortunate souls who succumbed to plague. The currency collapsed. In 251, the Emperor Decius died fighting Scythians and Goths, and in 260, his successor Valerian was defeated and captured (at Edessa) by the Persian king, who exhibited his Roman counterpart as a trophy and plaything.
Illuminating Women, with its surprising take on tired medieval stereotypes, might . . . be called a curatorial equivalent to Gal Gadot’s fresh and successful 2017 performance as Diana, Queen of the Amazons, this same summer. But the analogies stop there. For whereas in Wonder Woman, Hippolyta had to beg the male Zeus to grant her the right for her daughter Diana to be born, medieval women . . . knew the reverse to be true: God had asked Mary for the right to be born of her. Indeed, unlike a film about an imagined single goddess, the women who commissioned and sometimes created these manuscripts were real, and there were lots of them.
Empson’s academic career in England was over, at least for the time being, and the best job he could find . . . was a teaching position in the booming city of Tokyo. And it was while teaching there, in 1932, that he visited the old city of Nara, where, as Rupert Arrowsmith says in his introduction to The Face of the Buddha, “the beauty of a particular set of Buddhist sculptures struck Empson with a revelatory force.” And thus began a curious detour in his career, a project that occupied him off and on for more than a decade before it eventuated in a book whose manuscript was promptly lost, by a drunkenly careless friend, and only recovered twenty years after Empson’s death.
Like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin thought that the Bible contained good moral advice even as he rejected the traditional Protestant doctrine that it is the “only rule for faith and practice.” Nevertheless, he knew it “backward and forward,” and was able to use it to great effect in his polemical writings. When he launched a campaign to encourage Pennsylvania’s government to fund a militia in 1747, he reminded his readers that God provided us with the Bible “for our reproof, instruction and warning” and that his Word clearly requires rulers to defend their subjects—by military force if necessary.
Ruden’s explanation of Hebrew poetry will enlighten nonscholars. She correctly observes that in the KJV of Psalm 23, “maketh me to lie down” sounds wrongly compulsive nowadays. But her interpretation of oil-anointing as designed for cleanliness raises questions: Why only the head? Why not the much dirtier feet? Why not oiling the head to make it shine joyously? And to me, “deepened ‘wagon tracks’” for “paths [of righteousness]” sounds too specific. Yet Ruden brilliantly builds up to Ecclesiastes with a discussion of Hesiod versus Juvenal, though I wonder whether in Ecclesiasticus, Jesus the son of Sirach might give Juvenal a run for his money in respect to misogyny, for which she awards the palm to Juvenal.
Like so many academics, Benedict is an introvert. This meant that he had to re-train the Vatican staff to undo the patterns set by his exuberant predecessor: “I am not capable of plunging into meetings right at the beginning of the day. I simply need that quiet.” As much as he admired his former boss (whose canonization process he would begin), Benedict knew that John Paul II’s papacy was not a transferable example for him. He quips: “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma.” Or, in a more sober, reflective assessment: “although being a professor is certainly not an ideal occupation for the episcopal or papal chair, it is not an impossibility either.”