The origins of Easter (part 5)

Fun fact #11: At the time of Jesus, Jews were probably not awaiting the Messiah

The Hebrew Moshiah means simply “the Anointed One.” There are 38 instances of this usage in the Hebrew Bible, and in 36 of them, the King James Bible does employ “Anointed One” – meaning (as the context in each case makes clear), the person singled out by Yahweh for a specific task. In two cases the KJV substitutes “Messiah” (from the Greek Messias): in Daniel 9:25-26. However, even here, in the Hebrew Bible’s one apocalyptic text, it’s evident that – as historian Donald Harmon Akenson says – the passage “is not about the coming of a Messiah in the Christian sense, but about an Anointed One, a purely Judahist usage. . . . Moshiah in Daniel’s ‘seventy weeks’ . . . personifies the situation in which a covenantal relationship between Yahweh and his people will flourish: when the liturgical-sacrificial system operates with its two major components intact, an authentic High Priest, and a purified, daily-sacrificing temple. Moshiah here is the divinely sanctioned system whereby the Chosen people and Yahweh touch and mutually affirm their covenant” (Donald Harmon Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt Brace, 1998).

In the Hebrew scriptures, then, the term Moshiah refers to priests (e.g. Lev 4:3), prophets (Psalm 105:15) and kings (1 Sam 12:3, 2 Sam 23:1), and in each case it designates a servant of Yahweh. Such service may even be completely unwitting: Cyrus the Great becomes a Moshiah (Isaiah 45:1) for ending the Babylonian captivity. But the figure of a unitary Moshiah of eschatological significance does not exist in the “Old Testament,” except as later tradition (Rabbinical as well as Christian) has read one into it.

Nor is the term Moshiah employed often, or in a manner differing significantly from traditional usage, in the large number of texts produced during the inter-testamental period (Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls). Akenson concludes from this that “the concept of Messiah was only of peripheral interest to later Second Temple Jerusalem.” But that needn’t mean that a creative, charismatic leader of the period – or his followers – couldn’t have employed the term in a new manner. We know from Josephus that the age was rife with self-styled prophets and insurrectionary leaders, and creative reinterpretations of tradition formed a major part of their modus operandi. This is true of most revolutionary movements, in fact: rarely do the leaders describe their innovations as something completely new. Instead, they tend to cast them as a return (whence revolution) to the roots (whence radical).

However, Akenson would disagree with me here. As a faithful disciple of William of Ockham, he insists upon the fact that “Moshiah, or Messiah, does not emerge as a primary idea until after the Second Temple was pulverized.” Whatever the case, there’s little doubt in my mind that the destruction of the Temple was an absolutely pivotal event for both Judaism and Christianity, precipitating their final and acrimonious divorce.

Fun fact #12: The earliest account of the resurrection, by Paul, implies a belief in a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection

Paul’s letters are the earliest accounts of the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, and the only canonical or extra-canonical works we can date to before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states “that Jesus died for ‘our sins,’ that he was buried and rose again on the third day. He was seen by Cephas (one of the twelve apostles) and after that by 500 of his followers simultaneously. After that Jesus was seen by James (his brother) and then by all of the apostles, ‘and last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of time.'”

That’s Akenson again. As an historian rather than a Biblical scholar, he takes it upon himself to point out a number of fairly obvious, if uncomfortable, truths. Among them: “Paul draws no distinction between his seeing Jesus and the experience of the others. All the believing witnesses (and, according to Paul’s account, it is only believers who see the risen Jesus) had seen the same figure. Paul, in his own writings, does not provide any direct information about his own experience of encountering the resurrected Moshiah. However, the author of the Book of Acts narrates that, within a year or two of Jesus’ death, when Paul, as part of an anti-Christian crusade, is on the road to Damascus, he has a vision of Jesus, sheathed in light from heaven. Paul and the risen Jesus converse briefly, and thereafter Paul becomes a Christian and an enthusiastic proselytizer (Acts 9:1-11). The textual bridging here is obvious enough: Paul’s own account in First Corinthians makes no distinction between his own experience of the resurrected Jesus and that of the other disciples, and in Acts it is clear that he encounters a visual embodiment of the spiritually resurrected Jesus, but not a physically resurrected human being. If one accepts this textual bridge, then it implies that Paul’s own view was that he and the other disciples had encountered a spiritually-raised Christ, but not a physically resurrected Yeshua.”

In fact, Paul makes a special point of distinguishing between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Cor 15:44), concluding that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does corruption and incorruption.” But as Akenson notes, the authors of the gospels and Acts “show some difficulty in making up their minds about what form Jesus’ resurrection actually assumed.”

To me, the actual doctrine isn’t as important to the evolution of Christianity as the attempt to enforce doctrinal conformity down through the ages. That, more than anything else, bred an intolerance of the kind of nuance and paradox that one finds more or less at the theological core of all other major religions. Like many moderns, I resist making sharp distinctions between the corporeal and the spiritual, and am equally resistant toward what I regard as excessively literalistic readings on the one hand and excessively intellectualized readings on the other. In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is taken bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-11), which paradoxically has the effect of allowing him to remain an earthly figure – the very image of the unforeseen Guest, in fact. As William H.C. Propp observes, for modern Jews Elijah has completely replaced the demonic element in the original Passover story – and he is symbolically welcomed into the home, not barred at the door.

In a similar manner, in Christian tradition, the risen Christ returns to earth not merely as Messiah, at the end of time, but potentially right now. For most of the Christian Era, saints and mystics have taught that Jesus is present not merely in the mystery of the Eucharist but in the very real bodies of the widow and the orphan, the homeless and the lepers, the illegal alien and the AIDS victim. (This parallels the official doctrine homologizing Christ with the Church Universal.) The figure of Jesus has also evolved into the preeminent (but far from the only) spirit familiar in the Christian tradition. And with increasing force, down through the centuries, believers have sought to reenact Christ’s self-sacrifice within their own lives, and even within their own bodies: it’s a short step from Imitatio Christi to the stigmata and the Pentecost.

Whatever one makes of the promise of resurrection, and however one views Jesus – as God, as man, or somewhere in between – I think it’s important to acknowledge the centrality of the cross and the empty tomb as symbols of mortality and transcendence in the West. In his thinking about these symbols, the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich (David Calley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992) draws upon the terminology popularized by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. “The term sacrum, the Latin noun corresponding to our sacred, has been used for a long time by religious scientists to describe a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality, or a sign, that within that culture is believed to be . . . a doorway. I had always thought of it as a threshold, the threshold at which the ultimate appears, that which within that society is considered transcendent. For Eliade, a society becomes a conscious unity not just in relation to neighboring societies – we are not you – but also by defining itself in relation to what’s beyond.”

According to this analysis, the cross should be the Christian sacrum par excellance, and I believe that it is. For Illich, however, “faith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.” Well, no doubt the adherents of every tradition would feel that the categories and concepts of anthropologists and comparative religionists fall far short. I would argue that such inadequacy is endemic to the discriminatory process.

But I am struck by the remainder of Illich’s argument.”If there is something analogous to a sacrum in the Christian tradition,” he says, “it is the tomb; and Christian holy places are built around an altar, a table, which stands on top of an empty tomb and is covered by a cupola. It is at this event that Christians remember a historical event and expect one by which history will be closed. This historical event is part of sacred history, from creation to ascension, which will be concluded by the coming-again of the real person, who is Christ. The empty tomb had a powerful, structuring influence on fifteen hundred years of Western history.”

To Illich, this emptiness is far from nothingness, because it is filled with the promise of Life which Christ uniquely embodies. By contrast, he says, our modern attempts to locate “life” either in the uterus (the fertilized zygote) or in the planet as viewed from space (Gaia) are truly empty, in the nihilistic sense. Science doesn’t even recognize this concept of life; it is so much pseudo-scientific idolatry.

Here I am reminded of Dale’s translation, back on March 1 at Vajrayana Practice, of the Buddhist term sunyata: it really means openness, not emptiness, he wrote. From what Illich is saying, the tomb/altar on which the Eucharist is performed is also open in precisely this manner. And my father reminded me the other day that, for Protestants at least, representations of the cross are always empty – or open – as well. A number of interesting and fruitful conclusions might be drawn from this, but I believe it’s up to practicing Christians to draw them. As an amateur scholar and Bibliophile, my job here is finished.


I’ll be away from the computer for much of the day, so I probably won’t get a chance to complete the fifth and final installment of “The Origins of Easter” until tomorrow. To tide you over, here’s a brief essay I wrote last July (reprinted from my other website). I think it kind of demonstrates how much fun one can have if one studiously avoids doing any research whatsoever!


I am wondering about the coal miners’ canaries, the quick & perilous lives that must’ve been their lot, a century or more before they ever gained entrance to the long linguistic half-life of metaphor & byword. Were they rotated, with a different canary assigned to every trick? Or, once drafted, were they kept down there full time? Wouldn’t their bright feathers have faded as the memory of the sun dwindled to a pinprick from a distant lamp? What about their songs of green & silver, palm frond and minnow flash? Even a stray note might’ve turned fey in the face of so much ageless & unattainable fire.

But surely the miners had every reason to keep their guardians as lively as they could. In an era when even epidemics like yellow fever & of course malaria were attributed to bad air, the sacrifice these birds stood ready to make, however unwitting, must’ve seemed a fine, brave thing. I picture them in cages of polished brass, swinging perches lubricated with whale oil, caches of hempseed & sunflower, pressure-activated water fountains, the works. And of course the miners must’ve had lots of superstitions, little amulets wired to the bars: rosaries & crucifixes, probably some patron saint’s emblem. I can even imagine someone entrusted with a cloth of fine white linen to go over the cage during blasting.

Because it’s one thing for the rational mind to accept that the canary must not be shielded from death–that its life is precious mainly for its potential to suddenly cease. But getting the heart to buy into it is another matter. As long as the canary stays safe, we’ll all make it! murmurs the dogmatic pulse, that thick dark stuff that keeps us soft & resilient. Faithful blood that turns red in the presence of oxygen.

Though of course any man who goes down to the coal spits every day the smudgy spore of his own death into his handkerchief. He folds it three ways for politeness’ sake & returns it to a breast coat pocket, where it lies like a little miscarriage pining for milk.

Sooner or later a long-lived canary must’ve become like family: so familiar, so easy to forget. The whistle blows, they get in the cars & half-way up someone says who’s got the bird? And the poor thing will perish there overnight–whether from hunger or from terror, who knows? Because you can’t expect the bosses to let them go back & hunt for it a quarter mile down some new shaft. They split up quickly at the entrance, then, & go straight home, evading their wives’ queries, evincing a sudden interest in weeding the garden. Kneeling in the coal ash-coated dirt, half-expecting to find under every ball of roots some scrap of brightness, a lost coin, a child’s toy whistle.

Diogenes’ Tub (13)

From the AFP: “No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity,” the marchers chanted. “We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country.”

Ah, the Brotherhood of Man. Give us a common enemy and we’ll unite, every time. This particular nation-building project is beginning to show real promise.

The origins of Easter (part 4)

Fun fact #9: In naming the paschal holiday for Ostara, the goddess of spring, Anglo-Saxon Christians recognized the original character of Passover as a springtime rite of passage

The original, combined holiday of Unleavened Bread and Passover amounted to, in William H.C. Propp’s estimation, “a rite of passage from season to season and from year to year. The weeklong celebration is what [anthropologist Victor] Turner calls [in The Forest of Symbols] a ‘liminal’ period, a transitional interval set apart from quotidian activity. Throughout the Near East, both equinoxes were times of fate and danger, evoking special rites of purification and protection. In the lunisolar calendar, months were intercalated at the equinoxes – a procedure that strikes us as routine, but in antiquity was fraught with significance.”

Propp continues with a detailed analysis of the multiple parallels between Massot/Pesach and Sukkot/Yom Kippur, the other Jewish New Year festival associated with an equinox. “Both . . . are liminal periods involving evacuation of the house. For the former, one removes all leaven; for the latter, one removes oneself, to live in a temporary shelter (Lev 23:42). Again, time must be punctuated: to live perpetually in a house or to keep yeast alive indefinitely would be unnatural.” Thus, both festivals emphasize ascetic practices and the healing return to primitive Creation/wilderness.

Both festivals involve blood rites beginning in the evening, and “each in some manner placates a supernatural malefic agency: a demon or the Destroyer at Pesah, the demon (or death god) Azazel on the Day of Expiation . . . Both rituals have undertones of purification and vicarious offering played down by the Biblical authors . . . Since Pesah is a domestic rite, while Yom hakippurim is a national rite, the two equinoctial observances annually cleanse the nation at the micro- and macro- levels.”

One should keep well in mind that, however loosely we may now use the term “rite of passage,” for most pre-modern and indigenous peoples such rites were fraught with danger. To this day, initiatory rites for young men in some societies remain sufficiently grueling as to ensure that not all will survive. The paschal rite appears to have grown out of widely practiced ancient Middle Eastern sacrifices of atonement and purging, in which “blood from the slain beast is applied to humans, animals, the ground, a pillar, a domicile – or a doorway.” In folk beliefs prevalent among Middle Eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims to this day, “demons are attracted to and powerful against those undergoing major life transitions.” Blood is used to distract the malevolent spirit, to trick it into thinking its intended victim has already died.

This use of blood from a sacrificial victim which is then consumed in a fellowship meal distinguishes Passover (and the analogous Muslim rite called fidya) from an ordinary sacrifice, where the animal is completely consumed by fire “in a ritual of pure substitution,” Propp notes. “Arguably, sharing food creates fellowship both among celebrants and between celebrants and the demon or deity at whom the rite is directed. Ingesting the meat may also reinforce, or even actuate, the fictive equation of victim and sacrificer underlying vicarious sacrifice.”

An additional nuance in the Biblical account arises from the fact that the Destroyer is identified as an aspect of Yahweh himself. The rigorous monotheism of the Hebrew Bible propels an identification that may or may not have been present in the folk beliefs from which the festival grew. By the time that Yeshua ben Yosef was ready to give himself up as a paschal lamb to try and prevent what he probably foresaw as the imminent destruction of his people, the Devil had, of course, developed into an autonomous figure. But as we have seen, Yeshua’s teachings emphasized that only God has power over life and death. And if we allow “the fictive equation of victim and sacrificer underlying vicarious sacrifice,” we begin to see what may have been the original meaning of the role of “the Jews” in Jesus’ crucifixion. But first, a little more background.

Fun fact # 10: In the original conception of Passover, the blood of the goat or sheep – and the blood of the first born Egyptian – is intended as a vicarious substitute for God’s first-born son, Israel

According to the Torah (e.g. Lev 17:10-14), blood must never be eaten by human beings. That’s apparently because it was viewed as a highly charged, ambiguous material. “It is the current of life,” says Propp. “Its quasi-magnetic bipolarity both attracts and repels the divine, removing and causing impurity.” The blood of circumcision averts Yahweh’s attack of Moses in Exodus 4:24-26. This demonic attack by a God who had just revealed himself to Moses and appointed him prophet and deliverer of Israel has puzzled many commentators. Propp offers the sensible suggestion that the attack was more-or-less automatic upon Moses’ return to the land of Egypt, prompted by the blood guilt he had incurred years before, when he slew the overseer. Recall that in the Bible’s very first murder, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, land, people and blood are closely identified.

The gospels make the connections between Yeshua’s cruxifiction and the apotropaic rites of Passover as explicit as possible: even the herb used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts in Exodus – marjoram or hyssop – is recalled in John’s account of Jesus’ final drink. The passage builds upon an incident also reported in Matthew and Mark, and alludes to a passage from the Psalms (69:21) popularly associated with the Messiah:

For my food they gave me bitterness,
and for my thirst they gave me sour wine.

In both of the other accounts, this wine is offered to Jesus at the beginning of his crucifixion, and he refuses. It is described as a medicinal wine, infused with myrrh. One might suppose he refuses it because the crucifixion alone is to be his medicine. And in fact, Yeshua himself does envision the crucifixion as a form of bitter medicine: “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:42). Thus, only as he prepares to die (John 19:28) does he ask for a drink. In Willis Barnstone’s translation:

After this Yeshua, knowing that all had been done to fulfill the words of the Psalms, said, I am thirsty.
A jar filled with cheap wine was lying there. So they put a sponge soaked with the vinegar on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
Then when Yeshua had taken the wine, he said, It is ended.
And bowing his head he gave up his spirit.
(John 19:28-30)

The identification of this wine with Yeshua’s own blood is reinforced by the incident immediately following, in verse 34: “But one of the soldiers stabbed his side with his spear, and at once blood and water came out.” And the hyssop/marjoram in this passage has more than one antecedent, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:18-20) points out: Moses used the herb to sprinkle the sacrificial blood of the bulls in the original covenant of Yahweh with Israel.

The participation of Romans in this national sacrifice would seem to parallel the role of the Egyptians in the Exodus story. But if there were ever any implications in earlier versions of the gospels that the Romans should have been punished as the Egyptians had been, they were, perhaps wisely, edited out. In any case, I don’t think that the Christological interpretations should blind us to the likelihood that Yeshua himself understood his sacrifice as the paschal rite writ large.

If the reader will permit me to speculate just a little, I think it is important to remember how a Jewish messiah would have perceived himself: not as the literal son of God – much less the second person of the Trinity – but as a very human being who would willingly sacrifice himself on behalf of his people. The author of Exodus 4:22-23 embeds quote within quote within quote when he has Yahweh command Moses (in Propp’s Anchor Bible translation):

And you will say to Pharaoh, “Thus has Yahweh said: ‘My son, my firstborn, is Israel. And I have said to you, “Release my son that he may serve me.” And if you refuse to release him, see: I am going to kill your son, your firstborn.'”

“The firstborn of man and beast are holy to Yahweh,” Propp notes. The book of Numbers depicts the Levites as Israel’s figurative firstborn; the holy Nazarites Samson and Samuel are both first sons dedicated to Yahweh at birth. This conception of divine sonship seems to me the most obvious origin of the phrase “earthly son” or Son of Man, which is how Yeshua describes himself in the gospels. Of great significance for anyone interested in what Jesus may have thought as a good Jew, he never refers to himself as the son of God. We infer that he thought that way only from later tradition, and from the fact that he addresses God as “Father” – a term of intimacy probably not uncommon among teachers in the neo-Nazaritic tradition who wanted to emphasize their independence from the official, priestly cult.

The popularity of the term “earthly son” for the messiah in intertestamental texts recovered from the caves at Qumran suggests how universalized Israel’s sense of divine mission had become by Yeshua’s time. If Yeshua indeed saw himself as God’s annointed, his use of the term “earthly son” probably meant that he viewed his attempt to avert the destruction of Israel as something done on behalf of all the children of Adam (whose name literally means “earth”).

In the paschal symbolism of the crucifixion, the cross now performs the liminal function of the doorpost/altar. Potent symbolism of varied origins and great antiquity could thus be marshalled to construct a message of unmistakable import to the greatest empire the world had even known: no farther. The ambiguity of the cross must have seemed the most effective magic against such a confounding enemy: whatever its sponsoring Power, it was told, Here. Let this cup pass. For (says Propp in reference to the Exodus account) “the paschal blood may not divert the Destroyer by its own virtue. Rather, it may create a zone of ritual purity attractive to Yahweh’s presence . . . God then protects (psh [possible root of paschal]) the household from his own demonic side.”

This interpretation seems obvious, yet it was not the one the gospels foregrounded, probably for the simple reason that the sacrifice failed: the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed a generation after Yeshua’s death. The charm was broken; instead of the “fictive equation of victim and sacrificer,” the followers of Yeshua began to blame their fellow Jews for the catastrophe. What was the charge? It would have been absurd to blame anyone but the Romans and/or Yeshua himself for his sacrifice, and in any case the sacrifice had been thought necessary to try and avert God’s wrath. The strongest biblical antecedent was of course the binding of Isaac by Abraham. No one would have accused Abraham of treachery – he was simply following orders. And so, in a sense, was the disciple known simply as Yehudah (Judas), “the Jew.”

But the story of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac reminds us of one salient fact: the followers of Yahweh had always placed a great emphasis on the inner intention of the worshipper. Abraham is rewarded for his unquestioning faith. Perhaps, thought the Yeshua-Jews, the crucifixion of the Messiah failed because too few of their fellow Jews had “circumcised their hearts” in the required manner. Perhaps their refusal to participate in the new, reinterpreted paschal rite triggered the national disaster.

O.K., I have no idea how Jews of 2,000 years ago would have thought. But this line of speculation does sort of suggest how all that Near Eastern mythology about the dying and resurrecting god got in there: it was needed to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the original justification for Jesus’ death. From the Annointed One of Israel, Yeshua ben Yosef transmogrifies into the cosmic Lamb of God. Mithraic and Magian worldviews, dominant throughout the region, impose a much sharper dualism than normative Jewish theology would ever allow. God is now all good; no dark side is permitted. (By contrast, in rabbinical Judaism evil is generally explained as a consequence of human free will and/or as an outgrowth of that aspect of the godhead that favors strict judgement. The sayings attributed to Jesus suggest he would have endorsed this view.) For the early Christians, God is now responsible only for life; death becomes the devil’s domain. Sin is generalized to the human condition and read back into the Genesis account, in which the serpent is now interpreted as Satan. “I am the light and the life,” proclaims John’s Jesus. Conspiratorial fantasies about Yeshua’s death pit the few righteous against the many damned, in history as in eternity. Christian dualism and anti-Semitism grow up together.

The origins of Easter (part 3)

The books are piling up on the table beside my computer. I had thought maybe I would end this compendium with yesterday’s post, but that would have left unexplored too many fun and/or obscure facts about the origins of Easter. A couple of points with direct relevance to the via negativa need to be raised. Plus, I just remembered that my parents’ library includes, in addition to most of the Anchor Bible volumes published thus far, a complete set of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Have I mentioned that my father is a retired reference librarian? It’s mainly his bibliophilia that we have to thank (blame?) for the extension of this series well beyond the limits that prudence and decency would impose.

Fun fact #7: the entire account of the Passover plot in the gospels is probably fiction

Most New Testament scholars accept at least the core of the story: that Jesus was turned over to Romans for execution by Jewish religious leaders. And that may be so; who knows? But given the sort of violence and hatred this story has inspired over the centuries, I tend to agree with Willis Barnstone (The New Covenant, Commonly Called the New Testament, Volume One: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse, Penguin, 2002) that scholars and religious leaders of all stripes should strongly repudiate the entire thing. There’s simply no need for it. The Eucharist and the resurrection are already mysteries; surely an admission that the circumstances leading up to the crucifixion of the Christ are equally obscure will do no damage to the Christian faith.

Most people by now are probably already familiar with the key elements of this argument from reading numerous critiques of The Movie: that the authors of the gospels were competing with the rabbis (Pharisees) for converts, and that they were eager to curry favor with Rome. Hence the absurd and ahistorical depiction of the Roman authorities as basically blameless, and the construction of “the Jews” as somehow separate from Jesus and his small band of followers.

Barnstone’s translation is, for my money, the best and most surprising modern English version to date – better even than the Three Gospels by the novelist Reynolds Price. One of the things that makes it so surprising is Barnstone’s insistence on re-Aramaicizing names wherever possible. This seemingly minor adjustment really throws the reader off-balance, calling into question aspects of the text that had seemed most comforting and familiar. (Herein lies a most fruitful paradox: to come up with such a re-vision you probably need a professed agnostic like Barnstone. But this revisioning process, if it allows one to “read the Bible again for the first time,” ought to advance rather than threaten the faith of its Christian audience. What is the ideal balance between comforting familiarity and unsettling strangeness in a religious text, I wonder? The popular success of The Movie leads me to suppose than many more Christians want to be challenged, even shaken, than the folks in the pulpit on Sunday morning are generally willing to acknowledge.)

Here’s Barnstone: “Because the gospels arrive before us from unknown origin, we have only some ‘negative’ facts. It is certain that the authors . . . are unknown by name or person, that no alleged eyewitness accounts survive, that no intermediary texts exist in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, or Latin – the languages used in areas of early Judaism and Christianity. Where did the evangelists, who were not witness to these events, obtain their information? There is no knowledge about this void. What is known is that a rabbi, whose name was probably Yeshua ben Yosef, was crucified by the Romans for the political crime of conspiring against Rome.” Barnstone insists upon a fact that should be obvious but is commonly overlooked: “Outside the gospels we have no information on the specific nature of the political crime of sedition – whether it was his actual opposition to Rome or a plot by his Jewish opponents to convince Rome of his opposition – that persuaded the prefect Pilate to make a public example through crucifixion. Scholars who routinely blame the Jews for setting up Yeshua’s death founder on [this fact], which is the unverifiable conspiracy scenario.”

Barnstone quotes E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism): “It is hard to believe that a formal court actually convened on the first night of Passover, as Matthew and Mark have it. Luke, we should note, states that Yeshua was taken to the Sanhedrin only after daybreak (Luke 22:66). John does not depict a trial before the Sanhedrin at all. . . . The Gospels are all influenced by the desire to incriminate the Jews and exculpate the Romans. The insistence of the crowd that Jesus be killed, despite Pilate’s considering him innocent, shows this clearly enough.”

Barnstone concludes: “The story of the Jews at Passover, who kidnap Christian children to perform ritual murder on them to use their blood to prepare the matzoh, a tale that exists in virtually every language of Europe, is not heard today. Yet the source of the satanization of the Jews, leading to such tales, lies in the New Covenant, and . . . has not faded; and so the venom, of Jew-hating and Jew-killing, has not vanished. The Jew-hating will not disappear for a reader of the New Covenant as long as Yeshua and all his cast continue to have their true identity as Jews interacting with Jews obscured.”

Fun fact #8: the silence attributed to Yeshua during his trial reflects, among other things, an ancient Jewish rejection of civil authority

Setting aside what has just been said about the fictive qualities of the account of Yeshua’s trial, let’s look briefly at how his purported behavior accords with Jewish tradition.

On trial for his life, before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, the eloquent rabbi is largely silent. He breaks this silence only to deflect a question; he gives no real answers. He is wordiest in John, the most prolix of the gospels. Pilate, after getting a “where did you get that question?” answer to a query about his kingship of the Jews (18:33-34), asks (18:35) “What have you done?” In the King James version: “(36) Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (37) Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. (38) Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?”

To that last question, significantly, Jesus gives no reply. As Jacques Ellul points out in Anarchism and Christianity (Eerdmans, 1988), he has no teaching to impart to Pilate. However, Jesus’ silence and the riddling nature of his few replies seems consistent with the hermetic nature of his teaching, which employs parables to prevent the misuse or misconstruing of his words by those incapable of grasping them.

As narratives, the gospels – especially Mark – remain compelling even for non-religious readers, largely because of their abundant foreshadowing of the dramatic and tragic end. In their mastery of the narrative art, the evangelists simply imitated the Hebrew Bible – just as the eventual redactors of the New Covenant imitated the pattern of the Old in placing conflicting accounts side-by-side, trusting that the intelligent reader would be able to pick and choose among them. The text was meant be read both reverentially and critically; Jesus’ use of parables shows as well as anything how acutely aware Jewish and early Christian teachers were of the limitations of language to convey truth. The job of a well-told tale is to enchant, to draw the listener or reader into a willing suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge famously observed. But naive trust, in the Biblical worldview, is but the beginning of faith – the first step in a pilgrimage that leads one through a series of transformations in perception, behavior and understanding.

Thus, the outermost, exoteric truth of the gospels is that “Jesus died for our sins.” In this light, Jesus’ behavior at his trial seems merely fatalistic: he had to die in this way because it was foreordained, foretold, foreshadowed. The logic of the narrative – which purports to be the logic of history – demands it. But at another level, God operates apart from the mundane world, in contradiction to human expectations, outside of history. To have faith in this God is to assimilate one’s own will to His – in absolute freedom. Thus, the believer cannot escape the great paradox of human free will in a universe where all events and outcomes are ultimately up to God. According to the terms of this paradoxical reality, Jesus was killed not by the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans but by an act of his own will – and his death was ultimately illusory, because God cannot die. This is the level of the divine comedy, the passion plays annually performed by European Christian communities for hundreds of years. The self-sacrifice of God is a timeless and re-occurring act.

Another dimension of the Easter drama is more didactic. The practice of nonviolence and non-cooperation with authority constituted one of Yeshua’s core teachings. His ministry only began when he successfully resisted the temptations of the devil, which culminated in the offer of absolute, dictatorial power (Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:6-7). “According to these texts,” Ellul notes, “all the power and the glory of kingdoms, all that has to do with politics and political authority, belongs to the devil. It has all been given to him and he gives it to whom[ever] he wills. Those who hold political power receive it from him and depend on him . . . This fact is no less important than the fact that Jesus rejects the devil’s offer. Jesus does not say to the devil: it is not true. You do not have power over kingdoms and states. He does not dispute this claim. He refuses the offer of power because the devil demands that he should fall down and worship him. This is the sole point when he says: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and you shall serve him, only him’ (Matthew 4:10). We may thus say that among Jesus’ immediate followers and in the first Christian generation political authorities – what we call the state – belonged to the devil and those who held power received it from him. We have to remember this when we study the trial of Jesus.”

So the same Easter story that leads to centuries of anti-Jewish persecution also fuels the radical anti-authoritarian strain in Christian tradition – and here we can speak most truthfully about a Judeo-Christian tradition. Wrestling with authority, civil as well as divine, goes back to the very origins of Judaism as an iconoclastic cult, where at best an uneasy détente prevailed between the inspired nebiim (“prophets”), the priesthood of Aaron and the House of David. The Bible’s “historical” books describe the period before the institution of kingship as a freer, if not more God-fearing, time. When the people beg the aging religious leader Samuel to anoint a king “so we can be like other nations,” Samuel informs them that this is an act of apostasy.

Thus, even in a text from an era before the character of the devil had firmly coalesced, the desire for an earthly ruler was portrayed as irreligious, equated with the desire for idols (1 Sam 8:7-8). Speaking to the people in God’s stead, Samuel proceeds to enumerate all the evils they will suffer under a king (11-18) – the most unsparing criticism of kingship from the ancient world this side of Zhuangzi.

Yeshua’s teachings about resistance to authority are among his most subtle. Should the people pay taxes? His answer: Bring me a coin. “And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.” (KJV, Mark 12:16-17) This follows the flattery of his insincere questioners: “You do not look at a person’s face but rather teach the way of God in accordance to truth,” in Barnstone’s translation. Yet in his response he does draw attention to the face on the coin – the preeminent sign of ownership in a largely illiterate society. The coin is already Caesar’s; give it back to him if he asks for it. But keep in mind that God retains ownership over life and death, because human beings are made in His image.

Ellul calls attention to another saying of Jesus, in Matthew 20:25-28, which builds upon the familiar “suffering servant” motif from Isaiah. Here’s Barnstone’s translation. Yeshua tells his disciples,

You know that the rulers of the gentiles
lord it over the people
and the high officials tyrannize them.
It will not be so for you,
for whoever among you wishes to be great
will be your servant,
and whoever among you wishes to be first
will be your slave.
So the earthly son [“Son of Man”] did not come to be served
but to serve
and to give his own life for the redemption
of the many.

In this teaching and others, the followers of Yeshua are urged to serve each other – to become each other’s messiah, as it were. This is the proper role for all the sons and daughters of the earth; any other form of coercive power is illegitimate. Temptations to power must be completely repudiated – including the temptation to match wits with the authorities – because power is deeply ambivalent. To take up a weapon is to subject oneself to the rule of weapons (Matt 26:52). To pass judgement on others is to condemn oneself (Matt 7:1).

The origins of Easter (part 2)

Fun fact #4: the “bitter herbs” of the Passover meal were probably lettuce

William Propp translates Exodus 12:8: “And they will eat the meat in this night, fire-roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter lettuce they will eat.” He points out in his notes that Biblical botany is notoriously difficult. The Vulgate translates the word in question “as lactucae agrestes, ‘lettuce of the field,’ and Samaritans still eat wild lettuce for Pesah . . . the linguistic cognates point in the same direction.” The Mishnah permits lettuce, endive and chervil.

As Propp points out, whatever it may have originally denoted, the term employed here became synonymous with bitterness in general, for example in Lamentations 3:15. “Late Jews invariably saw the bitter herbs of Pesah as recalling the Hebrews’ travails in Egypt . . . This might be a very ancient tradition.” But any element possessing such symbolical significance is bound to have more than one meaning. Other scholars cited by Propp believe that this wild lettuce might have had a magical function in warding off misfortune.

Lettuce is a weed: that is to say, it’s a quick-growing annual that flourishes in disturbed ground. The wild form is edible only for a very brief period in the spring – two or three days – before it turns bitter. It occurs to me that this might help explain its use in a festival where everything is supposed to be prepared and eaten in haste. “If the species in question sprouted in the springtime,” Propp observes, “it may simply have been part of the holiday’s seasonal symbolism. Or lettuce may have been a pungent condiment that ultimately became canonical.” Given that the lunar and not the solar calendar determined when the holiday would fall, it seems extremely unlikely that it would regularly coincide with the period of greatest edibility for wild lettuce. Thus, this characteristic of fleeting non-bitterness likely remained merely part of the symbolic gestalt.

But bitterness, which so lends itself to ascetic uses, may also possess more meanings than Propp admits. Bitter herbs such as wormwood were revered throughout the ancient world for their preservative and medicinal effects. Properties traditionally ascribed to lettuce include calmative, hypnotic, sedative and analgesic effects. The milky sap of wild lettuce is said to possess mild opiatelike effects – effects enhanced by its addition to beer or wine. According to Maude Grieve (A Modern Herbal, Dover, 1971 [1931]), “The Ancients held the lettuce in high esteem for its cooling and refreshing properties. The Emperor Augustus attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to it, built an altar to it, and erected a statue in its honor.”

So here’s the narrow thread by which I connect wild lettuce with Easter: the common practice in the ancient world of using bitter herbs as preservatives and additional inebriants in wine and beer (we still use hops in this way). The wine of the new covenant, which the followers of Yeshua incorporated into Christianity’s central, theophagic rite, may well have been brewed with the “herbs of affliction.” But in that case, isn’t “affliction” a mistranslation?

Not necessarily. Prepared in stronger doses, metheglins (herbed wines) served as medicines for specific ailments. Such medicine would have been both bitter and welcome at the same time – which is largely how the ancient Hebrews understood the figurative medicine that their national deity doled out when needed. Bitter herbs were part of a whole complex of ascetic ritual elements, and the fact that they grew best wild – cultivated lettuce has much weaker properties – must’ve strengthened their association with the practice of a periodic chastising/healing/renewing return to original creation (“wilderness”).

Fun fact #5: the identity of the deity (Christ) with the sacrificial animal (lamb) has ample precedent in the ancient Near East

In The Hills of Adonis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1968), the very erudite travel writer Colin Thubron sheds some light on the ancient Yahweh-followers’ taboo against eating pork. “The most complex of the animals holy to Astarte was the pig, which the Phoenicians called alpha, ‘the cruel.’ It is thought that during the cutting of the corn a wild swine taking refuge in the dwindling sheaves may have been hailed as god of the harvest; whatever the reason, swine and harvest are linked, and Adonis, at some early stage, perhaps embodied both. In primitive times, it seems, a boar was consecrated as the god and worshipped by a chorus of women who impersonated sows; each year the boar was killed and torn in pieces, his death mourned and his resurrection hailed in the deification of a new boar. Early man saw little distinction between the deity and his sacrifice. A god-king was killed and replaced, and his successor after him. Thus if Adonis was a boar as well as a vegetation spirit, he must suffer death from a boar; and from this mystery – the offering of the god to himself – the classic legend crystallized.”

This illuminates the whole incident of the golden calf and the altar (Exodus 32): recall that the covenant between Israel and Yahweh was performed with the blood of twelve bullocks, one for each tribe. But scholars also note that the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple in the northern kingdom of Israel was topped by the statue of a bull, just as the ark in Solomon’s temple was topped by an anthropomorphic couple, the seraphim (who by the way were probably portrayed in the common position of the hieros gamos – that is to say, in a lovers’ embrace). In Israel, the spirit of Yahweh was envisioned as resting upon this statue of a bull. Thus the story about the golden calf (like many others in the Pentateuch) was intended as a smear against Judah’s rivals. But in fact, this use of bull or calf symbolism borrows directly from the religion of Baal. The story of the golden calf reflects genuine discomfort about the ever-present danger of identifying Yahweh with the sacrificial animal – anathema to followers of his fanatically iconoclastic cult.

Needless to say, the notion of sacrifice as expiation is as Jewish as it is pagan. But the identification of God with the sacrifice represented a radical break with tradition. Christianity departs most fundamentally from its parent religion in the notion of divine incarnation, deicide and resurrection.

The authors of the New Testament were as vicious in their use of propaganda to slight their rabbinical rivals as the priestly redactors of the Torah had been against the practices of the northern kingdom; the fact that the ritual murder of God is fathered upon “the Jews” is the cruelest stroke of all. But it’s interesting that, while the accounts of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection vary widely from one gospel to another, the details of the Eucharist are nearly identical. Most New Testament scholars conclude from this that they represent Rabbi Yeshua’s own midrash; it’s too original, they say, to have plausibly originated otherwise than in the manner described. Pesah is above all a day for remembrance. This, says Yeshua, is how we are to remember him. Not on the cross but in the cup, in the breaking of bread.

What does it mean to incorporate the flesh of god into our own bodies? What does it say about a god that his flesh can be so consumed?

There’s considerable scholarly disagreement about the origin of the fish symbol in Christianity; the ancient Near Eastern dieties Atargatis and Dagon were both worshipped in fish form, and the grounds of their temples included ponds with sacred fish which were periodically consumed by the priests in a theophagic rite. But nearly every element of the Christ myth has ancient antecedents; perhaps they were necessary (the believer thinks) to prepare people’s minds for the coming of Christ. To the skeptic, the prior existence of such themes colored what people saw and how they remembered it. In any case, the most likely direct source for the popularity of the fish symbol can be found in the logical identification of the Eucharist with that other memorable feast of the gospels: the loaves and fishes of Matt 14:13-21. The disciples had been promised that they would become “fishers of people” – and they feed the people with the miraculous wine and bread and fish that permit unending consumption.

This story clearly embodies the transcendent, utopian dimension of the sacral feast. Aside from those who question the historical existence of Yeshua altogether, scholars are unanimous about his eschatology. Whatever else he may have believed, the idea that the utopian “kingdom of god is at hand” almost certainly formed the core of his teaching.

When we eat the sacrifice, we share a meal with God. But to people who believe that God enters into the sacrifice, eating the sacrificial flesh is an entheogenic experience. The Gospel of Thomas, older than the four canonical gospels, attributes the following saying (#3) to Rabbi Yeshua: “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”

I quoted this same passage in a post last December (see there for the citation), which also dealt with the book’s explicit treatment of the intoxicating qualities of Yeshua’s teaching. Intimate knowledge of the godhead is not merely nourishing; it is mind-altering. “Because you have drunk,” says Yeshua (Thomas 13), “you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I measured out.” We can of course argue about how literally this image might have been meant. It’s worth remembering that the worship of Dionysius included the sacramental use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, while the Eleusinian mysteries apparently involved consumption of a non-toxic extract of ergot, which would’ve been similar to LSD in its effects. However, like the Plains Indians, the early Christians seem to have been more interested in the use of sensory deprivation, pain and starvation as routes to achieving altered states of consciousness.

Fun fact #6: the image of the Messiah astride a donkey echoes very ancient Middle Eastern practices and (possibly) Egyptian beliefs about enlightenment

Matthew 21:5 quotes Zech 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” According to the renowned scholar W.F. Albright, in the notes to his translation, with C.S. Mann, of Matthew for the Anchor Bible (1971), the very same language about donkeys was found in the Mari text, a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Haran dating back to the 18th century B.C. “It speaks of the donkey sacrifice as ratifying a treaty between the Apirus (=Hebrews) and various local kings. The figure of the donkey, in the same three words as in the Mari text, occurs again in Gen 49:11 as well as in the text of Zech 9:9.”

The context in Zechariah is explicitly Messianic, referring to the blood of the covenant in v.11, which becomes transformed into wine by v.17: “The Lord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour, and tread down the sling stones, and they shall drink and roar as if drunk with wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar.” In Genesis, the context is Jacob/Israel’s blessing of his sons; it is Judah who is described as “Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”

But if the Middle Eastern milieu shaped the imagery of the Bible, Egyptian theology was the major source of its core teachings (including monotheism; Memphite theology was functionally monotheistic, despite frequent claims to the contrary). The nearly 4,000 year-old Egyptian text contained in Berlin Papyrus 3024 contains the dialogue of a man with his soul, or as Bika Reed translates the title: Rebel in the Soul: A Dialogue Between Doubt and Mystical Knowledge (Inner Traditions, 1987). The despairing protagonist cries out to his soul,

But in this body, which is yours,
I am the progeny of the great ass Iai!
In you I call forth the Other
O Soul unawakened!
I am the progeny of Iai,
A fire which will never cool
I cause the Other to burst forth
O soul in flame!

Reed notes that “IAI, the Great Ass, is an aspect of the sun ‘god’ with ass’s ears. We find his image in the Book of the Gates . . . [which] depicts the progression of the sun through the night. The twelve hours of the Dark Night are depicted as regions of the Underworld. Each region is an ‘hour’ of the Night and has its gate. To pass the gate, one has to know the name of its Guardian.
“The consciousness moves through the Underworld in a process of slow animation. . . . Iai is found in the section known as the Ninth Hour. In this Ninth Hour, a crisis threatens the progress of the boat [of the Sun]. A double monster, half snake, half crocodile, Shes-Shes, faces the boat.” Iai is offered as bait. “Without the self-sacrifice of Iai, the Barque of the Sun will never traverse the night to the light of dawn.”

As in the story of Balaam’s ass (Num 22:21-33), the donkey is identified with a form of recalcitrance that leads to understanding. Reed riffs: “The act of awakening is inseperable from the act of rebellion. Iai rises, symbolizing the sun circumscibed by ass’s ears. He confronts the Abyss, portrayed as a double monster: His own static, fathomless duality unreconciled. As a double being, sun and ass, Iai is the embodiment of an opposition of forces: a cross. Iai is a cross in human form. The sun is confined between the ears of the rebellious and traditionally recalcitrant ‘Ass.’ In the Gospels, Christ appears mounted on the Ass. It is the Ninth Hour: and about the ninth hour, Jesus called with a loud voice, ‘My God, My god, why hast thou forsaken me?'”

The origins of Easter: little-known fun facts (part 1)

Here’s an unsystematic presentation of some of the scholarly thinking about Easter and Passover. Regular readers of this blog will not need a disclaimer about my own lack of credentials as a scholar. I’m merely an interested layperson, a religiously inclined agnostic with no particular axes to grind. Please keep in mind that biblical scholars themselves disagree about nearly everything.

I will of necessity favor the reductionist approach, about which I do harbor some reservations. Source-criticism has its roots in the scientism and progressivism of the 19th century. Motivated by the anti-Semitic belief that the Rabbis couldn’t possibly know what the Old Testament was all about, German Protestant scholars began to vivisect the text in an ultimately fruitless search for the “original” meaning of the Bible. By contrast, some recent scholars favor a more holistic approach, focusing on received textual interpretations – the Bible as it has been lived (or selectively ignored) by actual faith communities. But much as I enjoy this latter approach, I won’t be drawing on it much here.

I mention this only to point out that the following compendium of nifty interpretations shouldn’t be read as a guide to what Passover and Easter “really mean.” Such a discussion would involve us in nothing less than a sweeping critique of Judaism and Christianity themselves – which would make for a really, really long post, even for me.

As for what “really happened,” either during the Exodus or the Passion, I’ll be touching on that only negatively, to emphasize how much we DON’T know. Given how little we know about key events of our own time (the JFK assassination, the events of September 11, 2001), we could well argue that such lack of verifiable knowledge is a prime marker of events of transcendent significance in the history of every sacred or secular community. (Yeah, I know – there I go with that via negativa crap again!)

Fun fact # 1: The Last Supper was a Passover meal

C. S. Mann, in his translation of Mark for the Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1986), summarizes the evidence as follows:

“1. The prescriptions for Passover in Exod 12:26-27 and 13:8 require that at each celebration the father of the family was to explain the reasons for the gathering, and bring to mind the redemption of the people.

“2. The custom of explaining the particular manner of the meal was faithfully observed and remains to this day.

“3. In Jesus’ time on the afternoon before the full moon of Nisan, thousands of lambs were brought in to the temple courts of Jerusalem to be slaughtered, commemorating the deliverance of the Hebrew from Egypt (cf. Exod 12:21-25).

“4. The Passover meal began after sunset in families and in groups such as that of Jesus and his disciples. The meal began with bitter herbs and a fruit relish. The roasted lamb was brought in but not yet eaten. This was the occasion for the head of the gathering to explain the particular features of the meal. This obligation was treated with great emphasis, and Rabbi Gamaliel (claimed as Paul’s teacher in Acts 22:3) insisted that the Passover command was not observed unless three things were explained: the Paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs.

“5. Interpretations were not invariable or fixed. The unleavened cakes might be explained as exemplifying the haste with which the Hebrews left their exile (so leaving no time for the dough to rise), or as signaling the “bread of affliction” (Ps 80:5), or even as a contrast to the abundance to be expected in the Age of Blessings to come. [See below, Fun fact #3, for much more on unleavened bread.]

“6. What we appear to have, therefore, in the words of interpretation used by Jesus with the bread and cup [in Mark 14:22-26 – “This is my body . . . This is the blood of the Covenant”] is nothing more or less than the customary exercise by a head of household at Passover.” What was radical about Jesus’ ministry was his inclusion of sinners and outcasts in his adoptive family gathered at the table for the Passover feast.

So reinterpreting paschal motifs is not as sacrilegious an activity as it might appear! What’s profane here, what keeps mere exegesis from becoming inspired midrash, is the disembodied setting – all the more so for being not merely textual but digital, virtual: in cyberspace. Judaism and Christianity are both blood religions, which is why I like them. And table fellowship remains central to Jewish and Christian concepts of blessing and the creation of sacred space.

Fun fact #2: The word usually translated as “Passover” may mean something else

My source here is William H.C. Propp’s magisterial new (1999) translation and commentary for the Anchor Bible, Exodus 1-18:

“We are uncertain of the original derivation and meaning of Pesah. Exodus provides an explanation of sorts: the blood of Pesah caused Yahweh to pâsah over Israel’s houses (12:13, 23, 27). This bears all the earmarks of folk etymology yet cannot be dismissed out of hand.” According to one traditional interpretation, which Propp himself inclines toward, the root verb might actually mean “protect,” referring to Yahweh’s protection of the Israelites’ houses from the Destroyer.

“But even accepting the Bible’s explanation, we are not certain what the crucial verb means. If pâsah means “pass (over),” then “Passover” is an acceptable translation for Pesah. If, however, pâsah refers specifically to hopping or skipping, matters are less clear.” Here’s where it gets fun.

“Some posit an archaic, limping dance connected with the holiday, comparing the dance of Baal’s priests in 1 Kgs 18:26 . . . The ultimate in conjecture is Keel (1972): the limping dance imitated the progress of the deformed demon of the East Wind, the ‘Destroyer.’ Others imagine a paschal ritual of skipping over a threshold (Zeph 1:8-9; cf. 1 Sam 4:5). But if pâsah means ‘protect,’ then Pesah simply means ‘protection.'”

But in that case, the cynic might add, the whole sacrificial lamb/destroying angel schtick takes on the distinct aura of a protection racket.

Fun fact #3: yeast is unholy

As an amateur baker and homebrewer, this is my favorite fun fact. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Massot) required the complete eradication of leavening, and therein – according to Propp – lay its uniqueness. “Unleavened cakes were baked the year round for various sacral and secular purposes . . . To judge from Exodus 12, neglecting to eat them during Massôt would be at most a peccadillo. Instead, the severest sanctions apply to the eating of leavened food . . . Here may lie the holiday’s original significance.

“The process of fermentation must have seemed mysterious to the ancients. Fermentation of grain yields not only toothsome bread but also intoxicating spirits . . . Leaven in particular is fraught with poignant, multivalent symbolism. Leavening entails both putrefaction and growth, death and life; its pungent odor reaches every corner of the house.” Amen, brother!

“Leaven is incompatible with . . . ‘ultimate holiness.'” Propp suggests elsewhere that the priestly obsession with maximal purity means, among other things, that “an offering should be eaten not only at or near sacred space but during or near sacred time.” Not only can putrefaction not have been involved in the production of consecrated food, but such food must be eaten within strictly circumscribed periods (usually one day or less) to minimize the risk of spoilage. The prototype here is, of course, Manna. Propp also speculates that “The prohibition of hoarding [Exod 16:19-24] is a test of Israel’s faith in Providence. Perhaps for sacrifices, too, one must eat the meat one shares with Yahweh heartily, without concern for the matter.” These additional nuances in interpretation make the ban on yeast a little easier to sympathize with.

“During the week of Unleavened Bread, not just the home but the entire land of Israel becomes like a vast altar to Yahweh, leaven-free,” Propp says, and goes on to offer a parenthetical “SPECULATION: While leaven and honey are never offered to Yahweh (Lev 2:11), salt accompanies every sacrifice (Lev 2:13). Eating one’s overlord’s salt has well-known covenantal overtones (Num 18:19; Ezra 4:14; 2 Chr 13:5). But salt may also be considered leaven’s opposite. While one is the product and agent of decay and defilement, the other preserves. Salt, in the proper hands, can repel death itself (2 Kgs 2:20-21) and is compatible with God’s absolute holiness.”

I don’t know about you, but I just eat this stuff up! To save time, however, I’ll pass over a paragraph discussing postbiblical Jewish references (blog posts must be read on the same day they are written, or they start to go bad).

“Apart from the association with purity, unleavened bread may have been considered more primitive, closer to the created order and hence more sacred than leavened . . . Leaven and fermentation symbolized civilization. Deut 29:6 recalls Israel’s desert wanderings as an austere time when ‘(leavened?) bread you did not eat, and wine or beer you did not drink.’ . . . Just as one fasts on certain days or undertakes temporary vows of abstinence to show independence of food, so one periodically avoids leavened bread and eats the purer massôt to attain a higher spiritual-ritual state.”

O.K., now get this. “The disposal of leaven has still deeper significance. Yeast is in theory immortal. The Israelite’s entire chronometric system, however, and their entire worldview presuppose that time is not a continuous stream. It is and must be periodically interrupted. Six workdays are punctuated by the Sabbath; six years of agricultural labor are punctuated by the Year of Release; forty-nine years of commerce are punctuated by the Jubilee; each life ends with a death. Israelite history itself is punctuated by periods of absence from Canaan . . . The laws of Unleavened Bread ensure that the bread by which people live does not transcend time, at least within the Holy Land. Once a year, all yeast must be killed, with a week of separation before the souring of a new batch. It is crucial that aliens within the land also comply, lest their old leaven be used after the holiday to circumvent the taboo.”

The only thing I would add here is that the pre-modern understanding of yeast as a spirit would’ve reinforced the sense of competition with Yahweh and especially with his creative Breath. Actually, Propp does sort of admit the possibility a little later, speculating that some people may have believed that demons were attracted to leavening.

He concludes: “The Festival of Unleavened Bread is primarily a rite of riddance. Leaven symbolizes the undesirable: misfortune, evil intentions and especially ritual impurity.” Rabbinical commentators tended to associate yeast with pridefulness; I assume this belief must be unattested for earlier periods or Propp would’ve mentioned it. “To purge is to make a fresh start, to experience catharsis. This understanding fits well with the historical context of the holiday. In the month of New Grain, the Hebrews cast off centuries of oppression and assumed a holier, more ascetic status for their desert wanderings and subsequent national life. It also fits the seasonal aspect, for, throughout the world, equinoxes are opportunities for fresh beginnings.”

Diogenes’ Tub (12)

Reuters: “The White House will vet ‘line by line’ the report of an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before it is publicly released, the commission chairman said on Sunday.”

Interesting how journalistic accuracy increasingly suffers without the abundant use of quotation marks: “Independent” commission. Iraqi “sovereignty.” “Patriot” Act. Department of “Defense.” “President” Bush.

Kinder toten lieder

A well blogged and much linked-to article in the Miami New Times about the folklore of street children has lost little of its power to fascinate and appall since it first appeared in 1997.

“Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep,” [Virginia Hamilton] explains. “And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?”

That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis — and perhaps the adults they become — are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be “callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre.” The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it’s highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the “ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good” — a sense of mission — is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.



homage to the homeless children of Dade County, Florida

chalk outline on the sidewalk
too small for an adult

someone crawled
under the yellow caution tape & placed
eight carnations in the upper left
side of the missing torso


lullaby lullaboo
dream of the lady dressed in blue
blue shining skin blue diamond eye
blue of the ocean blue of the sky
lullaby lullaboo
ask her to teach her name to you


mother sleeps on a bed of plastic bags
child stands watch against
police & petty thieves &
the terrible screamers
his word for the junkies suddenly
starved for junk

God has gone missing for months now
they say

the boy keeps watch under the street lamp
hour after hour in the neon glow
craning his neck for
the flash of an angel’s
ant-like wing


the kids in the shelter share secrets
it is all they have


everyone knows the necromancy
to summon Bloody Mary
it’s as easy as taking a ride from a stranger
or going to sleep & never waking up

you stand in front of a mirror
in a darkened room
& chant her name until
with a ripple of wind
she shatters out

flying daggers of glass
cut short the scream before
it leaves your throat

your last vision will be of her
crooning low
unholy mother of no one
weeping dark blood
from empty sockets

but why anyone would crave
such a necromance
the stories never say


street children devour television
for hidden messages

friends met only once
in whispered midnight talks
turn up dead on the 6:00 o’clock news

the anchor calls it crossfire
a drive-by shooting but
the kids know better

Kofi Annan is always looking helpless
the world’s at war

grownups scream at each other
& this too they call


the kids make a pact: whoever dies
will bring back news

once a spirit knows your face
it can always find you

whereas the angels are beleaguered
& hard to summon
their names are difficult
& all they can do is say
hold on


the social worker asked
a ten-year-old girl in the homeless shelter
to make a self-portrait

she pulled a gray crayon from the box
& drew a gravestone with
her name on it


Leon is twelve
he’s lived on the streets for six years now
looks tired all the time
says he’s not so sure about the angels anymore
do they care can they win are they even there
but still believes his dreams
can foretell the future
& he says
Sometimes I dream that when I die soon
I’ll be in some high great place
where people have
time to conversate
& even if there’s no God or heaven
it won’t be too bad


if this were a lullaby
who would sing it?

but it’s in the nature of lullabies
that those who sing them never believe
what they’re singing

lullaboo lullaby
driven from their home in the sky
the angels are hiding in the Everglades
among the cypress & palmetto blades
giant alligators guard them there
hurricanes grow flowers to put in their hair

lullaby lullaboo
if you’re brave & good you’ll go there too
across the clear river an ocean of calm
grass for a pillow
& a canopy of palm
they say the angels feed on light
you have to rest if you want to fight

Such imagination exclaim the students of folklore
forgetting how escaped slaves
& Seminole Indians fought the United
States Army for forty years
from the swamps of Florida
& in the end were undefeated

roads don’t go there
& you’ll never get there if you cry

so go to sleep
some dreams are better if they don’t come true

Diogenes’ Tub (11)

From the Guardian: “President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time.

“Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings . . . However, the administration did not publicly use the word genocide until May 25 and even then diluted its impact by saying ‘acts of genocide.’

“Ms Des Forges said: ‘They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination.'”

That’s the trouble with genocide – it’s always such a dratted inconvenience.