uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Five Major Problems With Arizona's Bible-Teaching Bill

I was excited and supportive when I first heard that Arizona, like several other states, had passed a law adding a Bible elective to its high schools' curriculum. The Bible has, indeed, been enormously influential on Western culture, most especially in matters of aesthetics: western art, literature, culture, and even language have been infused in ways that are unintelligible to someone without Biblical knowledge.

Unfortunately, after reading the text of the bill, it appears to have numerous problems. The motivations behind the bill, sponsored and supported by a host of right-wing folks, are laid bare in the language of the bill, which while including much of what I just enumerated above, also includes not-so-subtle hints of religious-right narrative about the Bible's role in "law and government," popularized most effectively by the pseudo-historian David Barton.

Chief among my concerns are that, once this bill goes into effect, further bills will follow when conservative legislators realize the can of worms they've opened. While the bill ensures that the classes are taught from a religiously neutral point of view, one wonders just how comfortable legislators will be with that when the time comes. In university classes, we teach the Bible from a critical standpoint, just as we do any other text from antiquity. This means probing their ambiguities, investigating their historical inaccuracies, and analyzing the motivations of their authors. In history courses, the historical-critical model is still largely used, teasing out what we can about what most probably occurred, even if that is not consistent with what the text says (or wants to say). From a literary standpoint, we might examine what sorts of genres are at work in a given passage: myth, folklore, biography, encomium (praise), polemic (attack), etc.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Black Saturday: Satan, Hades, and Greco-Christian Syncretism

Oft forgotten amid the Holy Week observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the day Jesus supposedly lay in the tomb after his crucifixion on Friday and prior to his resurrection on Sunday.

But this day worked on the imagination of early Christians in fantastic ways. In the Apostles' Creed is the statement that Jesus "descended into Hell" as it is often translated into English. But in the Greek it is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, or "going down into the lowermost parts," and in Latin something almost identical, descendit ad inferos, or "he descended to the lower ones/places." This is not necessarily Hell, because such a concept was not fully worked out yet, but rather the netherworld or underworld of Greco-Roman mythology, the conception of which would eventually provide us with the imagery most commonly associated with Hell.

The most fascinating account of Jesus going down to the underworld has been handed down in the  Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal work that includes the Acts of Pilate (yes, that Pilate, whose ahistorical contrition in the Gospels is later elaborated to the point that he becomes canonized in some Christian sects) and Christ's Descent into Hell. The older, out-of-copyright translation by M.R. James is available in many places online. But the more updated and much less baroque translation by J.K. Elliot is far superior.