Monthly Archives: October 2012

Crowdsourcing Proto-Elamite

Here’s an interesting article from the BBC: researchers from Oxford’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, led by Jacob Dahl, are attempting to decipher inscriptions in Proto-Elamite — an undeciphered writing system from Elam, in present-day Iran — by taking high-resolution photos of the inscriptions and posting those photos online for anyone and everyone to help decipher. Here’s the BBC’s description of the process:

Dr Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.

The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.

It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.

These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.

Dahl and his team have set up a wiki with links to their photos of the Proto-Elamite inscriptions and tools for studying the language. Interested parties can also email cdli.oxford@orinst.ox.ac.uk to volunteer.

To me, this sounds like a very good opportunity for an undergraduate class project in a Near Eastern Languages and Cultures or a Classics program. Students would get hands-on experience using digital tools for research, as well as providing a great benefit to the field.

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Religion and Madness

From a discussion at Religion Bulletin regarding the impending execution of John Errol Ferguson, a schizophrenic man with delusions of being “the anointed Prince of God,” who killed somewhere between 8 and 12 people in 1977 and 1978. These posts bring up some really good questions, ones that are worth thinking about: What is religion? What is madness? Where is the line between a religious belief and a paranoid delusion?

The question of whether Ferguson is mentally competent to execute appears to be hopelessly entangled with the theological claims of his delusion. If he believes he will ascend to sit at the right hand of God before the state can execute him, then he does not meet the standard outlined in Provenzano v. State. On the other hand, if he believes that, like Jesus, he will be executed, resurrected, and then ascend into heaven, he may be competent to execute under Florida law. In the later scenario, Ferguson does understand that he will be physically dead, if only temporarily. In contemplating this problem, it should be noted that Ferguson’s delusion does not have the consistency of a religious creed but rather shifts over time. …

All of this discourse assumes an “either/or logic” in which a religious worldview cannot be insanity and visa-versa. Dr. Tonia Werner, one of the psychiatrists who examined Ferguson, explained that he had a “hyper-religious” belief. The prefix “hyper” appears to be an attempt to make a categorical distinction between Ferguson’s delusions and mainstream religious views. Of course, religion scholars have long argued that “religion” is a second-order category that is always imposed on the beliefs of others from the outside. For this reason, the distinction between religious truth claims and mental delusions cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, the sociology of knowledge teaches us that the distinction between madness and religion is often socially constructed. …

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality. The case of John Errol Ferguson demonstrates the need to think more critically about categories such as religion and madness. These categories are not given but socially constructed. They are so fluid precisely because they deal with beliefs and experiences that exist outside of our shared reality. When those in authority apply inconsistent or self-serving criteria to define these categories it becomes a particularly insidious form of hegemony.

The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson: Part 1
The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson, Part 2

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Persian Influence on Greek Myth

Alexander Nikolaev has an article coming out in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies highlighting the influence Persian myth — specifically, Achaemenid Persian myth (!) — may have had on one facet of Greek myth. Here’s the abstract:

This paper shows that there is a discontinuity in the representation of Argus, the guardian of Io: while in the earliest literary source, the Aegimius ([Hes.] fr. 230 Most), and in the sixth century iconography (LIMC V 664.1, 667.31) we find the conception of Argus as a two-faced monster with four eyes (three according to Pherecydes fr. 66 Fowler), all fifth-century and later sources depict Argus as a giant with thousands of eyes dappling his entire body (Bacch. 18.19-25; Aesch. Suppl. 305; [Aesch.] Pr. 568, 677, etc.). The time period in which this sudden change is observed suggests the following hypothesis: the image of the myriad-eyed cowherd was imported from Achaemenid Iran. Around the turn of the fifth century Greek craftsmen of all kinds had access to the court of the Persian king and it is precisely at that time that a considerable Iranian influence on Greek philosophy and literature can be detected (as shown, above all, by W. Burkert and M. L. West). It is argued that the source for the many-eyed representation of Argus in the fifth century was the Iranian deity Miθra who had a cult in Persepolis: Mithra’s standing epithet is ʻhe who has ten thousand eyesʼ. In Avestan texts Miθra is said to be all-seeing and ever awake, just like Argus, and his vigilance is repeatedly emphasized. Another epithet of Miθra is ʻlord of wide pasturesʼ; he is the quintessential guardian. Miθra is associated with starry sky just like Argus. Given the prominence of the cow in Zoroastrianism, it becomes possible to propose a scenario in which a Greek in the sixth century could have acquired an incomplete picture of a Persian triad corresponding to Zeus, Argus and Io, where Argus matches Miθra, the myriad-eyed cowherd.

Alexander Nikolaev, “Ἄργος Μυριωπός,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies (In Press).

This article looks fascinating to me. The Achaemenid Empire was the Persian empire founded by — you guessed it — Cyrus the Great. Further, it provides evidence for the appeal of Persian religious thought: not only did it influence Judaism, it also apparently influenced Greek religious thought.

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The Three Jesuses

I know I’m nearly two weeks behind, but I’d like to point out Andrew Perriman’s post, in response to a post by Scot McKnight, about the differences between three understandings of Jesus: the historical-critical Jesus, the historical-canonical Jesus, and the creedal-theological Jesus. Here’s a bit from Andrew’s post:

On the whole, it seems to me that there is an account of the “real” Jesus emerging from historical Jesus studies that is not so far from the historical-canonical Jesus, if we read the canonical texts without the later creedal and theological overlay. I think that the Jewish apocalyptic Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future is the historical-canonical Jesus. Critical scholars and historical-canonical interpreters may not see eye to eye over the question of whether the miracles and the resurrection actually happened, but there is no reason in principle why we should not agree about their significance within the narrative. …

The problem for the church, however, is that the convergence between the historical-critical Jesus and the historical-canonical Jesus has caused a corresponding divergence between the historical-canonical Jesus and the creedal or theological, exacerbated by conservative, Reformed reactions against history. This is where I see the more fundamental incompatibility. It will take some time for the church to wean itself off its dependency on abstracted theology and learn to trust the story again.

“Scot McKnight on the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the church” | p.ost

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“Israel on her part no longer expected the saving facts to continue.”

As I was reading this morning, I came across this provocative quote from Gerhard von Rad. Take a look. My thoughts follow below.

The number of these originally independent complexes of tradition is not large: the most important are the promise to the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, the revelation of Jahweh at Sinai, and the bestowal of the land of Canaan. The latest of them is that of Jahweh’s covenant with David — and because of its subject it does not fall within that common picture of the saving history which, as is clear, the older traditions developed at an early date. Without prejudice to their special features, they are all “election traditions,” for they are centred upon saving events brought about by Jahweh for Israel’s benefit. But with the tradition of the covenant with David and the choice of Zion the cycle of election traditions is rounded off. Beyond them Israel knew of no further event capable of producing traditions — things of the kind no longer occurred.

The next event which, at a distance, might have been assessed in such a way, was the return from the Babylonian captivity; but this was not in fact so assessed. It is not in any way attached as a new link in the chain of the earlier saving acts, nor did it, like them, result in the production of tradition. No doubt, the reason for the break in continuity in the saving facts lies, quite simply, to begin with, in the history and its development.

But there is another factor assuredly no less important — Israel on her part no longer expected the saving facts to continue. She no doubt felt, as hitherto, that she was standing in the light of these saving facts — she was in fact occupied more intensively than ever with her religious traditions. But the time of the direct intervention of Jahweh which was creative of saving history was clearly over after the beginning of the monarchical period, and within Israel herself the expectation of and readiness for such events had vanished too.

[Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; New York: Harper & Row, 1962), I.69. Emphasis and paragraph divisions mine.]

Put in a more accessible form, von Rad classifies the major events from Israel/Judah’s religious history as follows:

  1. Part of both the “election tradition” andthe “saving history”
    • The promise to the patriarchs
    • The Exodus
    • The deliverance at the Red Sea
    • The theophany at Sinai
    • The giving of the land of Canaan
  2. Part of the “election tradition” but not part of the “saving history”
    • The covenant with David
  3. Not part of the “election tradition” and not part of the “saving history”
    • The return from exile in Babylon

What is interesting, I think, is that the above events can be classified in exactly the same order, but in a totally different way:

  1. Non-historical
    • The promise to the patriarchs
    • The Exodus
    • The deliverance at the Red Sea
    • The theophany at Sinai
    • The giving of the land of Canaan
  2. Historical, but happened differently than the text describes
    • The covenant with David
  3. Historical, and happened more or less the way the text describes
    • The return from exile in Babylon

In other words, the reason the return from exile didn’t become a part of Israel’s traditions could be that it was too real. The stories from classification (1) are very old and had time to become part of the mythos of Yahwism, and the stories from (2) had time to be embellished and be partway assimilated into that mythos. They were stories of what YHWH did for our ancestors and were built up by gradual accretion, being told over and over again throughout the centuries before they were codified.

The stories from (3), on the other hand, were stories of what YHWH did for us, and were codified very soon after the events happened, meaning that they did not have time to ingrain themselves into the Yahwistic consciousness organically. These stories (like Ezra, Nehemiah) were directly historical, and did not have any obviously miraculous elements in them — no thundering theophanies, no cataclysmic destruction of Israel’s enemies, no holy wars led by YHWH himself. God is often ascribed agency in these stories  (e.g., he inspires the Persian kings to send the Judahites home, he causes the returning exiles not to be ambushed on their journey), but his agency is never direct: people pray to him, but he does not answer back; people speak in his name, but he never speaks himself.

Finally, it is interesting to note that even though the stories about the return from exile themselves did not become part of the Israelite salvation history, the prophetic tradition, which flourished around the same time, did become an integral part of the Yahwistic mythos, precisely because its predictions were non-historical; the prophets told stories of what YHWH will do for us later, and thus addressed their hearers only indirectly. They also frequently use strange and miraculous language to describe YHWH’s actions in the future, which makes them easier to integrate into a miracle-based mythos.

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