I heartily recommend this book to any individual with even a passing interest in contemporary British politics. It makes me reconsider everything. Everything.
– Margaret Thatcher
Rev. Dr. James E. Harding (Dunedin School) has recently published a book which redefines the question of the relationship status – homosexual or otherwise – between David and Jonathan.
The book is The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception (Sheffield: Equinox, Dec 2012). And it usually looks like this:
So it came as something of a surprise, when Google Books listed The Love of David and Jonathan with this cover:
Let’s take a closer look at that book cover:
Looks like a bit of a balls-up!
Keith Whitelam’s 1996 work The Invention of Ancient Israel represented a groundbreaking criticism of the double erasure of ancient Palestinian history. Whitelam’s devastating ideological critique demonstrated how, first, biblical studies had reified the Bible’s construct(s) of Israel as the imaginary object of its own historical investigations and, second, how Western nationalism had superimposed its own interests onto this “Israel” – at the expense of any history of the actually existing inhabitants of ancient Palestine.
In what reads as an extended essay, Whitelam’s most recent book, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past (BenBlackBooks, 2013), offers just such a history of Palestine. In the absence of significant written sources from the Bronze and Iron Ages, some have denied that the composition of a history of ancient Palestine is possible. Despite this inherent difficulty, Whitelam succeeds in providing a vision of Palestinian history which offers a real alternative to the twin tyrannies of biblical and modern Western-nationalist ideologies. And this is no mean feat. Whitelam manages to do so by utilising the approach advocated by Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school: Rhythms of Time describes ancient Palestinian history according to the longue durée, avoiding explanations that have recourse to “great” individuals or specific events for descriptions of the gradually perceptible changes wrought by the changing natural and economic rhythms of the region. If this approach is something of a necessity, given the dearth of primary sources, the approach is also the author’s preference – a way to sidestep the biblical and Western biases which have silenced Palestinian history; a strategy to provide modern inhabitants of the region with an equally valid claim to the past.
Rhythms of Time should be viewed above all, therefore, as a form of maximalist history-writing – as the recovery of those voices which have been suppressed or lost as a result of earlier purported histories of the region.
Foremost among Whitelam’s concerns for attempting such a history is the effect of history-writing on non-Israeli inhabitants of modern Palestine. That is, he wishes to redress the frequently made but highly spurious claim that Palestinians are not a people, a claim which forms the basis for denying their right to a nation state in Palestine-Israel.
What underlies such a claim, writes Whitelam, “is a very important principle: the idea that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms. If the Palestinians do not possess a past, they cannot possess a national consciousness or be a people. Therefore, they have no right to a land or a state” (Kindle 69-71). The problem is exacerbated by the persistent claim, within the Christian culture in the West and within the Zionist culture in Israel, that the modern state of Israel is somehow guaranteed by what was written in the Bible, that a state created in 1948 has 3000-year-old roots:
- For Bush, as for many American politicians like Gingrich, the modern state has a past and that past is described in the Bible. For them, this is the return to a god-given land. The Bible becomes the title deed in the contemporary struggle for the land. Palestinians, by contrast, cannot claim this past since it is seen to be Israel’s past as described in the Bible. Israel has a past and so it has a present as a modern state. Palestine has no past and so no present. (78-80, 90-91)
Since the nineteenth century and during early colonialism, the “Holy Land” has been viewed through this biblical lens, to the detriment of its actual inhabitants. For Western tourists, “the contemporary inhabitants were extras on the stage on which the biblical events had been acted out.” The region was viewed through a biblical lens which glorified the imaginary past described in the Bible while treating the actual inhabitants as undeserving of the land, as having no comparable claim on the land. This is taken to absurd lengths in theme-parks in the United States such as The Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, Florida, which nonetheless serve as an illustration of the power of religious-nationalistic images of the past:
Again it [The Holy Land Experience] is a fantasy land, an imagined place that is presented as though it is real; but a place where the lived realities of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are erased. It is a construction of the Orient as fantasy; a world sanitized of real inhabitants and their indigenous culture. If you are feeling thirsty and hungry on your trip, then you can drop into the Oasis Palms Café and enjoy a ‘Thirsty Camel Cooler’ or a ‘Goliath Burger’. (131-134)
Whitelam sees the continuity of Palestine from ancient times to the present subsisting not in modern conceptions of the nation state or even in political empires which have regularly ruled the region, but in a shared mode of life which unites the various peoples in the region who are otherwise divided by various ethnic labels.
Palestinians and Palestine have a past that needs to be written from the ancient past to the present and put together as a coherent story; not one that only starts in the nineteenth century or during the period of the British Mandate but one that goes back millennia to the Bronze Age and stretches through to the present. Palestine in the Iron Age forms part of a rich and intricate historical tapestry whose threads, set deep in the past, continue into the present. (345-348)
Whitelam’s history thus avoids ethnic and political distinctions for a focus on economic and geographic descriptions of Palestine over the longue durée. His analysis finds a region which is subject to periodic reorderings, economic shifts and geographic shifts. Most importantly, he sees the Iron Age not as the period in which a unique nation or ethnic group called “Israel” emerged, but as a period which bears a resemblance to changes which occurred in the Early Bronze Age and which will repeat in the future. He finds in Palestine “a region that is difficult to subdue and control … ever resistant to state or imperial control, finding ways—some times through direct conflict but more often than not by subtle ways of non-participation—to maintain its local identities and autonomy” (1811-1813). And this conclusion serves as a warning to those who would cling to a more narrow religio-national view of the region.
Rhythms of Time is a visionary essay, seeking to forge an entirely new path in Palestinian history-writing. There has been a growing recognition in recent decades that any purported history which paraphrases the Bible’s narrative – of conquest, United Davidic Kingdom, divided Kingdoms, exile, and return – is no history at all. What is required is a casting off of the twin tyrannies of biblical narrative and Western nationalist consciousness, and Whitelam offers one approach which does just that. It is an approach that no doubt needs to be “filled out” and developed in subsequent treatments, and not everyone will agree with the Annales school approach which it follows. But it is a fresh account, it is a realistic account, and it is a necessary account.
If you have a passion to reach the unsaved with the gospel, you are going to confront Goliath. This is the giant the Bible calls “the spirit of fear” that will come against you and taunt you the moment you decide to reach out to the lost…. The only way to overcome it is to do what David did. He slung Goliath a straight-forward mind-impressing message that he wasn’t going to be deterred, and then he cut of his head. That silenced his big and loud mouth.
– Ray Comfort, “Dealing With Goliath”, Words of Comfort, 1 February 2012
Ray Comfort, pop-apologist, banana scientist, and former resident of Christchurch, New Zealand, might be onto something here.
To represent the invisible (the anguish of death as well as the jouissance of thought’s triumph over it), wasn’t it necessary to begin by representing the loss of the visible (the loss of the bodily frame, the vigilant head, the ensconced genitals)? If the vision of our intimate thought really is the capital vision that humanity has produced of itself, doesn’t it have to be constructed precisely by passing through an obsession with the head as symbol of the thinking living being? Through a cult of the dead head, fixing the terror of sex and the beyond? Through a ritual of the skull, of beheading, of decapitation, which might be the preliminary condition for the representation of what allows us to stand up to the void that is none other than the ability to represent the life of the mind, psychological experience as the capacity for multiple representations?
– Julia Kristeva, The Severed Head: Capital Visions, Columbia UP, December 2011
New Atheist Christopher Hitchens declares his heartfelt love for the King James Version – in this its 400th anniversary year – in a new article in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair.
Following a long line of critics from Herder to Leavis to Frye and Bloom who transform the earlier affirmation of the divine inspiration of the Bible into the championing of its poetic genius, Hitchens extols the heights of humanistic achievement which is represented by the 1611 translation of the Christian Bible into English. Hitchens offers an overview of the historical process that led to the publication of the King James Version, and waxes eloquent about the influence of its vocabulary and distinctive phrases on the English language. He also makes interesting comments on some of the political and religious motivations for certain translations (as an example of the latter, the use of “virgin” to translate ‘almah in Isaiah 7.14, so as to agree with New Testament prophecy in Luke, and despite the Hebrew term not specifically denoting a virgin). Hitchens contrasts the one, Authorised Version with the marketplace of “niche Bibles” available today, including “the ‘Couples Bible,’ ‘One Year New Testament for Busy Moms,’ ‘Extreme Teen Study Bible,’ ‘Policeman’s Bible,’ and…the ‘Celebrate Recovery Bible.'” He also makes a comment on the trend towards gender-neutral translations, including this sage comment:
to suggest that Saint Paul, of all people, was gender-neutral is to re-write the history…
Judging The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible by its cover, this volume looks very fine indeed (cover photograph by Sam Fentress).
The book’s blurb contains a very good description of reception history, which is worth a read. It’s developed more in what also looks to be an excellent introduction by Jonathan Roberts – although I’m still waiting on my copy to arrive, so I’ve only been able to see what is available on Google books. But the blurb succinctly summarizes three pitfalls of reception history, which I would also warn against: first, viewing RH as a handmaid to ‘the historical meaning of the text’, when the relationship may also be viewed as the reverse; second, viewing RH as an indiscriminate cataloguing of influences, rather than a method of criticism done with certain goals in mind or within distinct parameters; and third, limiting the field of RH to the beliefs of certain, usually dominant, religious groups:
Rather than attempting to recover the original meaning of biblical texts, reception history focuses on exploring the history of interpretation. In doing so it locates the dominant historical-critical scholarly paradigm within the history of interpretation, rather than over and above it. At the same time, the breadth of material and hermeneutical issues that reception history engages with questions any narrow understanding of the history of the Bible and its effects on faith communities.
The challenge that reception history faces is to explore tradition without either reducing its meaning to what faith communities think is important, or merely offering anthologies of interesting historical interpretations.
The Handbook provides a fascinating selection of biblical reception history, both from the perspective of (in Part I) some highly influential biblical texts, and (in Part II) various aspects of historical and contemporary culture. As such, there are chapters on Genesis, Job, Ezekiel, Revelation, the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism, Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, Bob Dylan, the Nation of Islam, Kierkegaard, Rushkin, and Barth, among the 44 total chapters. It looks a fantastic selection of how reception history may be done. And from Paul Joyce’s chapter on Ezekiel, there are even some Giants:
Perhaps one of the most bizarre legacies of Ezekiel is found in the legend of the last of the British giants, Gog and Magog, whose statues stand in London’s Guildhall; these figures appear to derive their names, by an obscure route, from the Gog of Magog who makes war on the people of Israel in chapters 38-9.
– Paul. M Joyce, ‘Ezekiel’. Pages 64-76 in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, Christopher Rowland, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (OUP, 2010), p. 72.
Bruce Louden asks a good question (and gives one very good answer to it) in the ‘Introduction’ to his recent book, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 5:
Why do commentators usually omit consideration of the substantial parallels between Homeric and OT myth? Modern audiences may, even without realizing, project their beliefs onto how they read ancient texts. Given the long dominance of Christianity and Judaism in the West, a majority of modern Western audiences, whether consciously or unconsciously, may, on the basis of their faith, regard biblical and Homeric narratives as opposites, seeing the former as “true” or “real”, but the latter as “false”, “unreal”, or “fictional”. Intentionally or unintentionally, faith has erected a wall between the study of the two narrative traditions.
Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East provides a number of examples illustrating the benefit in looking at Greek parallels, in particular the Odyssey (perhaps the Greater Code of Western literature), in order to understand the Old Testment. For example, he compares the argonautic myth against Genesis 28-33, Odyssey 12 against Exodus 32, and Helen against Rahab (Joshua 2).
One example that interests me is from Genesis 6.4 (pp. 191-192). At the end of Gen. 6.4, the heroes of old, the offspring of Nephilim, are described as “men of renown”, or literally “men with a name”. Louden first compares this with the end of tablet 4 of the Gilgamesh Epic, where Gilgamesh talks about defeating the monstrous Humbaba with his close friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh extols the benefit of achieving fame: “It is they who have achieved a name [for] future [time]!” In addition, Louden finds a parallel in Hektor (Iliad 7.82-91), where the hero erects a memorial for his accomplishments (p. 192). Further, Louden notes the example of “[t]he first lines of the Odyssey”, which “show that Odysseus already has epic fame from his role in bringing about the sack of Troy”, thereby establishing him as a heroic mighty man of old.
“The earlier [largely pre-twentieth century] commentaries, especially, cite numerous Greek and Roman parallels, reflecting the happier days of Biblical scholarship, before the specialization of ‘ancient near eastern’ studies had entailed ignorance of half the Old Testament’s Umwelt.”
– Morton Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh (Brill, 1996), vol. 1, p. 235, no. 37.