Welcome to the new course website!

I hope you’ll take a look around.  If you can manage it, I recommend you immediately do a first reading of the main item for Week 3, Frankfort, et. al., Before Philosophy, chapter 1.  The prose is a little dated but the argument is quite accessible; it took me an hour and a half recently to read it.  The other item which would repay immediate reading is the Gospel of Mark; it’s short so it won’t burden you if you just read it as you would any other narrative.  (Then, of course, read them a second time in preparation for class!)

We’re using this WordPress blog as a course website so that you can interact with me and one another frequently outside of class.  In order to make that second-nature, please try to create a comment to this post (a “post” is a headline and some text which are added to the blog as a unit).  “Hello everybody” will do but you can probably say something of interest to others about the course.  The home page is just a list of posts in reverse chronological order.  In order to deal with a single post, click on its headline and you will be brought to a page displaying only that post and all its comments.  At the bottom, you can add your own new comment!  Until I figure out how to disable it, your comment must be approved by me before it will appear (sorry you have to wait!).

14 thoughts on “Welcome to the new course website!

  1. Just want to rave about the online Yale course on the Hebrew Bible for which you provided a link. It’s been a wonderful introduction for me.

  2. Did a whole online course through MOMA where we used nothing but Posts and Comments. the 24 hr interaction was great!

  3. Agree with Ginny’s take on Prof. Christine Hayes’ Yale course on the Hebrew Bible. I really appreciate its succinct style and great educational value.

    Learned a lot!

  4. Look forward to meeting you and class. The original first assignment has been innovative and challenging!

  5. I feel inspired by the resources and suggestions made for the study of these texts and look forward to studying together.

  6. I recognize that this is an intellectual history course, one that will explore changes over time in ideas and perhaps explanations for the changes. I look forward to learning, for my knowledge base is not only thin but rapidly diminishing.

    Hopefully we can begin with what intellectual history means for this particular course.

    For Beardsley’s earlier “Religious Liberty” course, Lillian Broderick provided a very impressive summary of Yehezkel Kaufman’s 1930’s The Religion of Israel (which I have not read). The themes Lillian mentioned reflect one of several types of intellectual history, the category that others have criticized for its “fallacy of presentism,” or Whiggish history in which the past is interpreted from our contemporary “progressive” “enlightened” concerns.

    Another among other approaches to intellectual history are our course’s readings on the inconsistencies in such fables as how the world was created in less than a full week and later some of the mechanics of the flood experience. Focusing on these stories may reflect the approach of a lawyers’ brief, although non-lawyers such as Bart Ehrman adopt a related textual-criticism mode of argument.

    Several of our first-week’s readings provide a time line that covers the lives of those who contributed (authored, recorded, invented) basic Jewish and Christian texts. It seems that old ideas were being refined, supplemented and sometimes discarded over the centuries. Both the times and the authors changed, although we (really me) don’t understand what was behind these changes. Even suggesting that there was a “behind” expands the scope and concerns of intellectual history.

    The surviving early religious documents were socially-created by members of clans and tribes living during very tumultuous centuries (not just decades). This suggests that the intellectual history of Abrahamic religions must be social histories as well.

    That seems to be a challenge for courses on early Western religions, for although the chapters in Shanks’ edited volume are excellent summaries (I assume), there is obviously much more to be done to link ideas to those who contributed to making them. I suspect that this might not be possible, for the evidence is simply not available.

    But if the evidence was available, then we might be able to expand the meaning of intellectual history to include the social, cultural and military influences on the questions addressed by early “theologians” and why some questions were worded in certain ways. Intellectual history can be more than textual analysis – – but, again, the ideal may not be feasible when supporting evidence is lacking.

    If such evidence was in fact available, then it might be possible to better understand what “clean” and “unclean” meant in the Genesis story. I am sure that linguists have already exhaustively explored these words, but the role and distinction of “unclean” conger up images of the role that totems have played in more “primitive” societies. Intellectual history shouldn’t stop with words only.

    Given the absence of reliable evidence, it probably hasn’t been possible to discover the genesis of many religious terms and fables. There are, however, some suggestions about some of the background influences. For example, as I recall from the very far past, Josephus mentioned 20-plus Jewish sects, four of so that he and others have given focused attention. But do we adequately understand the social and cultural cartography of these sects?

    I suspect (without any backup evidence) that these sects were geographically anchored in fairly distinct small areas. Emile Durkheim, as I recall from his book on “primitive” religions, argued that to understand religious ideas and practices we need to know what role they played within geographically designated tribes and clans. Certainly bible scholars recognize the role that genealogy played in the ancient Near East.

    Some suggestion of the social role that tribes and their taboos had on early religious texts can be found in Finkelstein and Silverman’s The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (I skimmed this book soon after its 2001 release but can barely recall what the authors adequately documented). They addressed the “unclean” component associated with pigs (pork, the white meat of the Middle East, a taboo edible). One might expect that ancient Jewish settlements would not have left pig bones for later archaeologists to discover. But this is not the ancient pattern. Some Jewish settlements were white-meat eaters while their fellow nearby Jewish neighbours considered pigs to be verboten. How can intellectual historians explain that?

    Anthropologists (and I am definitely not a member of that tribe) might argue that taboos play a central role in defining who is a legitimate member of a genealogical group, a clan, an extended family in lightly populated areas such as existed in pre and post-biblical times. Over time, the Jews argued that they were the one and only “chosen” people, a claim that defined who was inside or outside the tent (and tabernacle).

    And who were the poets and other authors of these early texts? The written records were, again, socially created, and not all potential creators were probably equal.

    Even “simple” societies have leaders, some of whom claim to be the historians of their people. They are also the self-serving authors of religious stories, including those that are in the holy texts of western religions. Certainly, it seems, the keepers of the Temple were also keepers of the true religion. This suggests that in order to understand the intellectual history of western religions it is also necessary to understand the role of the anointed religious leaders. Intellectual history needs to expand beyond an analysis of ideas independently of the social, political and economic roles these ideas and their interpreters had in a society.

    That is, intellectual histories of early western religions would, if the evidence existed, go beyond the content of meanings to explore what role these meanings had and which of them represented negative and positive taboos in strengthening the cohesion of geographically-anchored clans and tribes. Positive and negative taboos such as the menorah and the cross mark who is and who isn’t a member of your group.

    From what little history I know, it seems that Jewish sects and their near neighbours were often warring with and captives of larger more powerful neighbours who had their own theologies and religious power structures. The final two chapters in the Shanks’ book explore how Jews and early Christians were influenced by both the Greeks and then the Romans. There were multiple cultures, and from what I seem to be reading, some early Christians and Jews (Peter vs. Paul) were appealing to non-overlapping others – – to fellow Jews and nearby Christians versus the larger world at the time.

    There are many opportunities and complexities in authoring an intellectual history of early (and later) western religions.

    Of course, our course can’t cover all these topics, but I hope that we can start with the SGL’s limitation of what he wants us to understand and what we will be unable to even begin to explore.

    • Congratulations, Bob, on your very provocative comment! I’ll comment on a few of the issues you raise and then try to answer your question: what do I hope the course will allow us to understand and what is beyond the scope of our 12-week limit.

      Kaufman has often been criticized for framing his history as an orderly progression towards what was for him the desirable result. We won’t be doing that! In fact, my view is that the result (circa 400CE) was not at all desirable.

      You’re quite right that we could construct a more sophisticated intellectual history if we could consider how the social, cultural (and military ?) influences affected the ideas which prevailed. But you’re also right to realize that we have none of the necessary evidence. Nonetheless, I think we can simply use common sense to imagine in a plausible way, for example, how and why monolatry emerged from polytheism.

      As for “clean” and “unclean,” as the JSB annotation points out, a better usage would have been “pure” and “impure.” For an understanding of these concepts, do read the JSB essay “Concepts of Purity in the Bible” by Jonathan Klamans. The key understanding is that impurity is normal and inescapable but can be removed.

      I’d also recommend reading Genesis 9:1-17 for the Noahide covenant, the first of three covenants in the Torah.

      Josephus in fact only mentioned four sects (naming three) and he is, sadly, our *only* source of information about Judaism during this period so we *can* know only the very little he tells us. Or rather, we can think we know, since Josephus was not a fully reliable narrator.

      You’ll need to cite some evidence for your statement “some Jewish settlements were white-meat eaters.” The archeologists have uncovered Canaanite settlements which contain pork bones and many others nearby which do not. The usual conclusion is not that some Jews ate pork but that both Canaanite and Jewish settlements coexisted peacefully.

      We need to be careful with the term “Christians” before the fourth century. Peter and Paul were both Jews who joined the Jesus Movement. Peter’s group in Jerusalem appealed primarily to Jews while Paul sought to engage with gentiles who were typically polytheists (whom he called “Greeks”).

      Finally, what’s the scope of the course? The long answer is in the course description tab but the short answer is the Basic Ideas timeline (plus our study of Christology).

    • Concepts of Purity in the Bible by Jonathan Klawans in The Jewish Study Bible (first paragraph)

      As in many religious traditions past and present, ancient Israelites categorized persons, places, and other things as “holy” (kodesh) or “common” (πol) and as “pure” (tahor) or “impure” (tame’) (Lev. 10.10 ). These sets of categories are not identical: What is pure is not necessarily holy, nor is the common necessarily impure. Moreover, ancient Israel had multiple conceptions of purity, each of which developed over time, possibly under the influence of distinct religious ideologies. One notion of impurity, moral impurity, concerned the dangers of defilement associated with grave sins such as idolatry, incest, and murder. Another notion of impurity, ritual impurity, concerned contact with various natural substances relating to birth, death, and genital discharges. Contact with ritual impurity had serious consequences in one’s religious life, rendering one temporarily unfit to encounter holy space and objects. To understand and appreciate these distinctions is a challenge for modern readers who are accustomed to looking down on hierarchy in general and to scoffing at seemingly irrational avoidances, especially when they pertain to death and sex.

  7. I was religious (Orthodox Jew) for a short time, when I was between 8 and 10 years old, and became quite familiar with the Torah and Gemara. After leaving that world, I developed my own ideas about why certain things were said the way they were in the Old Testament, later supplemented by comments by modern scholars. So I will be especially interested in hearing the class’ explanation for such issues as contradictory explanations of creation, prohibitions against eating certain animals, wearing certain clothes, certain sexual activities, dialogues with God, etc.

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