Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where are we going?

The other day I heard a left-leaning commentator on NPR ask some pertinent questions about where the country is going. Let us suppose that we are successful in electing a Democratic Congress, and that Trump is impeached and ejected from the presidency, and that some means will be found for avoiding Pence as his replacement. 
Then what? The US will still in all likelihood have most of the same horrific problems that afflict it now, viz. catering to Wall Street, lack of a truly adequate health system, neglect of our infrastructure (highways, bridges, and tunnels), excessive incarceration, spying on our own citizens, inordinate spending on the military (which always seems to be increasing), continuing interference, often violent, in foreign countries, sending out drones to kill people, and so on. 
By and large the Democrats are no better on these matters than Republicans. These considerations should not lead to despair, but they do indicate the need to think holistically about these issues. As far as I can tell they are not on the radar of the Resist folks.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Today the word "Beatrice" serves as a synonym for "muse," an individual who fosters creative achievement. In fact, Beatrice Portinari (born 1265), was a real person. Dante Alighieri records the effect she had over him in his searing memoir, La Vita Nuova, consulted over the centuries by those of us who have sought to understand the sudden flood of emotion that ensues from an early love, as unexpected as it is powerful. 
Today it comes as a shock, perhaps, that when Dante first saw Beatrice she was not quite nine years old. Paedophilia? Certainly not, as there was no age discrepancy for the poet was then himself only nine years old. There were several subsequent sightings, until the paragon died at the age of 24. As an angelic being she guides the poet in the Purgatorio. 
In life Dante never consummated his passion, nor did he aspire to. The narrative is in fact a legitimate variation on the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, where the lady remains, in most cases, inaccessible.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Even though I live in Manhattan, I have long been aware of the huge cultural differences that separate our privileged bicoastal enclaves from the heartland. With my ex, who loved driving, we would sometimes head West. As soon as we crossed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania I noticed a marked contrast. 
Based on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, hoping to find there an overall explanation of this Other America. That is not what I discovered, for the book is basically a personal account of Vance's growing up in a dysfunctional extended family in Kentucky and southern Ohio, where there was a lot of substance abuse and violence. 
Vance overcame this heritage by joining the Marines. The lessons he learned there enabled him to go to Ohio State University and Yale Law School. 
It is hard to gauge what degree his upbringing is typical. Once upon a time, I can affirm, it was not. Both pairs of my grandparents were farmers in rural East Texas. As a child I boarded for a while with my paternal grandparents, who ran a dairy near Fort Worth. The lives of all these people were, as far as I could tell, boringly conventional. They did not act out, or resort to alcohol or other stimulants, but concentrated on making an honest living in the circumstances they were given. To be sure, this was during the Depression, a major shot of reality for those who experienced it. 
Recently, there has been, in the heartland, much joblessness and opioid addiction. In this light, the Vance approach would benefit from a diachronic orientation - then vs. now. There is also a need for comparison with other regions.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


"Words don't matter." I heard Karl Popper make this shocking statement in a class in London in 1964. In all likelihood, he was reacting against the current philosophical fashion in Oxford and Cambridge for "ordinary language." I suppose that Popper's remark was deliberately provocative, a little like the Zen master who instructed that if one meets Buddha on the path, one should kill him. 
At any rate, the observation chimes oddly with Popper's own quest for precision in language, all the more remarkable as English was his second tongue. 
When in the 1970s I and a group of scholarly friends realized that there was an intellectual component, a necessary one, in gay liberation. We sought to look into the history of words. In those days words were implements of our degradation, whether learned (e.g. perversion, degenerate), or demotic (faggot, fairy). The need to deglamorize these tokens of pejoration led to an effort to trace their history, as I attempted in my sketchy early book, Homolexis. 
There was always the solution, somewhat deceiving I think, to introduce neologisms. Today we are faced with an array of such terms, ranging from the cis- prefix to intersectionality. In time these gargoyles will fade, but the renovation of language continues apace - not always to our advantage. Hence the importance of studying the classics, because they preserve tried and true ways of putting matters, ways that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Our colleges and viewpoint diversity

Some colleges and universities are in fact dominated by conservative thought. Yet none of the examples commonly cited is a publicly supported university. 
These latter institutions are supported by tax-levy money, at least in large measure, and they do not encourage viewpoint diversity as they should. I taught in one such institution (CUNY) for many years, and survival required fancy footwork, even though I am not a conservative.
In another way too, there is no symmetry. Conservatives are fighting an uphill battle, for they have lost the culture war. The viewpoints they put forward must be defended since they cannot count on immediate acceptance. 
By contrast, those on the liberal-left zone of the spectrum tacitly assume that the way they see things is simply the way they are. Perceiving little reason to depart from their own bubble, these bien-pensants are suffused with confirmation bias. 
In the long run this is not a healthy situation. Yet because tenure creates so many sinecures, it is not likely to change soon.

Monday, September 11, 2017


The concept of identity politics is evoking current controversy. Yet the time-frame of the current discussion is foreshortened.  In my youth the concept of identity was unitary. Barring mental disturbance, such as the so-called multiple personality disorder, one had only one identity, one alone and it was a personal possession. 

Conversely, some Buddhists hold that there is no such thing as a stable identity, for all is flux. 

Now, for a half century or so, we have settled for an intermediate notion of a bundle of identities. It used to be said that there were master identities - in my case, being gay, with other lesser ones in tow. But now it is thought that, we can be host to a basket of autonomous identities. That way the demon of intersectionality lies. 

Yet the arrow of time cannot be reversed.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Biblical studies roundup


Ages ago as I prepared to write my dissertation, which treated a medieval illuminated Bible, I sought to gain some understanding of the findings of modern critical studies of the Bible.  Although not brought up as a Christian, I was somewhat familiar with contemporary apologetic writings and knew that they were not what I was looking for.

Needed help came from a book by Bishop Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament (Oxford, 1962.  A new edition of 1988 contains some updating by Tom Wright.

I will not attempt to summarize the work of these scholars, but to give my own account as to the present state of the question in Bible research, with particular emphasis on the last half century.

  1. An absolute divorce must now prevail between the Old Testament and the New Testament, for in no way is the collection of documents in the former category (now better termed the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) a prologue to or prophecy of the later collection.  The only link between them lies in quotations or allusions by New Testament writers to what they commonly termed simply Scripture.
  2. Which translation(s) then?  Regrettably, there are no fully adequate translations. Older ones, such as the King James version are hard to follow because of changes in our own language.  Many recent renderings are marred by doctrinal intrusions.  More recently, the so-called “Inclusive” versions are simply wrong, as when “our father [who is in heaven]” is translated as “our parent” or even “our mother.”  Only the original texts - in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek are authoritative.  Luckily, there are good dictionaries that allow one to look up words and phrases in the original.  Failing that, one can consult an interpreter competent in the original language(s), always being on the lookout for biases of course.
  3. Being guided, somehow, by the original texts is only the first step, though.  One must place each passage in its primordial Sitz im Leben, the social and historical circumstances that presided over its birth.  Because of controversies about dating it is not always easy to determine these factors.
  4. Rabbis and Jewish scholars generally know Hebrew.  Can we not rely on them in our study of the Hebrew Bible?  Actually, in many cases not, because they tend to filter the information through the anachronistic lens of the Talmud.  Oftentimes they seek to ignore findings which have long been established, such as the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch.  There are some exceptions, and Israeli archaeologists have uncovered evidence debunking or at least revising long-held views.
  5. Traditional attributions of authorship have been discerned as unsound, including Moses (the Pentateuch), David (the Psalms), and Solomon (Wisdom).  The book of Isaiah is now generally regarded as a fusion of three original documents.  The model for much of this research is a set of findings known as the Documentary Hypothesis.  Discarding the idea that the Pentateuch was literally revealed by God to Moses, the text is regarded as a composite account stemming from several source documents. This finding recognizes four basic source streams, designated as "J" (Yahwist), "E" (Elohist), "P" (Priestly), and "D" (Deuteronomic). While the hypothesis had several antecedents, it reached its mature expression in the late nineteenth century through the work of Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen; thus it is also sometimes termed the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. The hypothesis further ascribes the combination of the sources into their current form by an editor known as "R" (for Redactor), who supplied additional editorial comments and transitional passages. The specific identity of each author remains unknown, (although a number of candidates have been proposed). However, textual elements identify each source with a specific background and with a specific period in Jewish history. Those who favor an early dating - now regarded as unlikely - associate "J" with the southern Kingdom of Judah around the ninth century BCE, and "E" with a northern context slightly later.  Continuing this line of thought, the combined "JE" text is ascribed to the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of Israel by Assyria in the 720s BCE. "P" would then be associated with the centralizing religious reforms instituted by king Hezekiah of Judah (reigned ca. 716 to 687 BCE), and "D" with the later reforms of Josiah (reigned ca. 641 to 609 BCE). "R" is considered to have completed the work, adding transitional elements to weave the stories together as well as some explanatory comments, sometime after the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile in the fifth century BCE.  Recent scholars doubt the early dates for the original four strands, suggesting further that the text as we have it may stem from as late as the Hellenistic period.  Even though resistance continues among conservatives here and there, the basic structure if considered an established fact, so that the term hypothesis is no longer appropriate, though it persists out of habit.
  6. Over the years some Christian scholars have been involved in an enterprise that they term “Old Testament Theology.”  In part this quest stems from their unacceptable kidnapping of the Hebrew Bible, imposing on it a proleptic goal that never animated the formation of the original documents.  These scholars have struggled with a somewhat chimerical pursuit of their self-assigned task.of defining the unity of the Old Testament.  In my view, all such efforts have failed, as the material is too heterogeneous in character and diverse in its points of origin.  Clearly, the purported prophecies of the coming of Christ are too rare and sporadic to provide this unity.  In consequence many have fallen back on the idea of salvation history, the notion - stemming perhaps from the secular idea of progress - that the story of Israel is one of increasing moral maturity as the underlying concept of monotheism became better understood.  In this perspective the historical books, such as Joshua, Judges, and Chronicles, assume the leading role.  The story is that of God’s march through history. The problem is that some important Biblical books do not fit, preeminently Psalms and the Wisdom Literature. The Hebrew Bible is not so much a book, as a set of books of diverse origin.
  7. As regards sacred history, the recent works of the Minimalist scholars, buttressed by the generally supportive efforts of archaeology, have shown that much of early Israelite history is mythical.  Despite many earnest efforts, no evidence has been found in Egyptian records for the Sojourn in Egypt.  Many now accept that the Exodus never took place.  In the time of Solomon, around 1000 BCE, the town of Jerusalem housed only about one thousand inhabitants.  Moreover, the historicity of such figures as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as Moses, Saul, David, and Solomon is problematic.  In view of the absence of convincing archaeological evidence, it is likely that none of them actually existed.  (There is a slender indication of "the house of David" in the Tel Dan inscription, though it is much later and the interpretation is disputed.)
  8. We turn now to the New Testament, where the first issue that deserves to be addressed is the Synoptic problem.  During the Middle Ages, and for some time afterwards, the Gospel of Mark, the shortest, was thought to be a mere epitome or summary of the other two.  In due course it was realized that in reality the sequence occurred in reverse order.  Mark was the first, and the other two gospels (of Matthew and Luke) were created by annexing the Markan material and supplementing it with another sources, the so-called Q material.  No such text has actually been found, but it is clear that in some fashion the material must have been available to the authors of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John, of course, stands apart.  Whoever its author was, he is unlikely to be identical with the author of Revelation.
  9. Modern scholarship recognizes that none of the four Gospels was actually composed by the writer to whom it is ascribed by custom. The author of Luke, whoever he was, also composed Acts.
  10. It is common, and perhaps natural to assume that the twenty-seven texts now contained in modern versions of the New Testament constitute an organic whole. However, the status of Revelation has long been problematic.  In all likelihood it is a Jewish work, lightly Christianized.
  11. With regard to authenticity, the status of the epistles ascribed to Paul (ostensibly thirteen) is varied.  Most scholars regard seven letters (here noted with consensus dates) as genuine: First Thessalonians (ca. 50 CE), Galatians (ca. 53), First Corinthians (ca.53-54), Philippians (ca.55), Philemon Second Corinthians (ca. 55-56), and Romans (ca. 57.  Two are disputed; Colossians and Second Thessalonians.  Generally regarded as pseudepigraphic are Ephesians, First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus.  The Epistle to the Hebrews has long been regarded as spurious.
  12. Ongoing discoveries have disclosed a score of documents that might have made their way into the New Testament, but did not.  A number of them are associated, rightly or wrongly, with Gnosticism. The Gospel of Thomas (actually a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, 31 of them with no parallel in the canonical gospels) has probably garnered the most attention, and is sometimes included in a set of Five Gospels. Two others that have attracted particular attention in recent years are the Gospels of Mary and Judas. These noncanical texts, with their varied accounts of events, and implicit leverage for theological variation, have invited some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, to create a kind of DIY version of Christianity - perhaps more liberal and more attuned to feminist concerns than the one usually acknowledged.