Thursday, June 14, 2012

RBB12: Reading a Bunch of Books for the Summer of 2012

For the summer of 2012, I intend to read a bunch of books (RBB12 for short). The books for this endeavor are the following:

Helmut Koester: Introduction to the New Testament, Volume One: History, Culture and Religion of the Hellenistic Age (Fortress Press/Walter de Gruyter, 1982).

Helmut Koester: Introduction to the New Testament, Volume Two: History and Literature of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Walter de Gruyter, 2000).

Heikki Räisänen: The Rise of Christian Beliefs: The Thought World of Early Christians (Fortress Press, 2010).

Hans-Josef Klauck: Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (T&T Clark, 2003).

E.P. Sanders: Judaism: Practice & Belief 63 BCE66 CE (SCM Press, 1994).

Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice, edited by Richard Valantasis (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Everett Ferguson: Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Eerdmans, 2009).

For reasons too mysterious for a graduate student to comprehend, I struck a deal with my faculty advisor: study credit points (necessary for me to someday complete that PhD) in exchange for writing a public reading diary of sorts in this very blog.

The effort has two main goals. First, by reading through comprehensive introductions from start to finish to the field of early Christian studies draws my attention to any blanks I might still have in my growing expertise of the area. Second, by combing through works of a number of top scholars in the field will (hopefully) teach me to further appreciate the subtle differences in their respective approaches, even though all of the authors above are representative of the same general school of thought (more on that below).

Besides, the summer's quite fine out there, and one can easily spend the hours under a tree, and to withdraw to the library with air conditioning only when (if) the heat outside becomes unbearable. In Finland, that's about as soon as 25 degrees of Celsius gets broken.

Since Koester's introduction is the most comprehensive in scope, I will begin with that, while everything that follows will be compared to it.

Biblical studies is taught worldwide in a variety of contexts, from denominational seminaries to secular universities. It is hardly the same to come to one's initial understanding of the issues in the study of early Christianity from reading the books of Ben Witherington III, or N.T. Wright, or Gerd Lüdemann. The curriculum in the University of Helsinki follows one particular trajectory, and has prominent places for the works of Walter Bauer, Helmut Koester, E.P. Sanders, Gerd Theissen, Hans-Josef Klauck, and—naturally—Heikki Räisänen, the grand old man of Finnish exegesis. Räisänen, in fact, more than anyone else, could be considered as having a school of thought of his own in the University of Helsinki. At least my perception picks up his influence in everyone in the department.

The particulars of this school are roughly the following. Jesus was a failed Jewish prophet of the imminent apocalypse. Paul was a somewhat more successful Jewish preacher of the imminent apocalypse, though even he had some trouble in convincing some of his fellow believers of his superior understanding and interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. (Though outside the historical study proper, it could still be noted that contemporary presentations of Jesus and Paul in various Christian denominations have little in common with their first-century counterparts.) From early on, there existed a number of different Christianities, some of which were quite dissimilar in a number of important details. And above all, it is not a historian's solution to dismiss the writings of those Christianities which remained non-canonized, following the centuries-long struggle for power and eventual triumph of one of those variants—the one we have been trained to think of as the Christianity, but which, judging from the ancient sources, has no more justification for that title as any of the others.

From these considerations it follows that my reading of Koester, or any of those books listed above, is not going to rock my world and shift my perspective in anything but the most subtle of manners.

Like a summer blockbuster movie, come to think of it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mar Saba: A Short Story by A. L. Rawson (1890)

Following the unofficial policy of the University of Helsinki on blogging—that one shouldn't post anything one might want to publish in some more scholarly venue in the future—the activity on this blog has gone from (very) occasional to non-existent during the past year and a half.

But here's something I don't intend to use in any other format: a story of a smuggling of a young woman into the library of the monastery of Mar Saba sometime during the nineteenth century (per the rules of the monastery, women had to stay outside the monastic walls, in the Women's Tower, during their stay).

Frank Leslie's popular monthly published the following piece in 1890, written by A.L. Rawson and titled "Mar Saba". Thanks to the archival efforts of Google and HathiTrust, the original (with illustrations!) is available as facsimile.

When one closes one's eyes to some of the nonsense included (quips towards ethnic groups and monasticism, the smug tone of the true-bred gentlemen contra Oriental savages), the narrative follows the popular tropes of book hunting at the time period. Rawson, the author, knows the landscape of his expedition either from the numerous nineteenth-century travelogues of Mar Saban visitors, or he may have made the desert trip to the monastery himself. The latter is more likely if A.L. Rawson also penned a presentation on Palestine for the American Geographical Society of New York, published in 1875.

"Would we be likely to find any rare books in Mar Saba?" ... one small box held about a hundred and fifty on vellum or on parchment, in about equal numbers; beautiful specimens of Greek text, written in black ink, with red initials, and a few were ornamented.

The text resides nowadays in public domain.


Mar Saba by A.L. Rawson
"MISS JOSEPHINE, can you tell me why or how that convent in the Kidron gorge came by the name of The Holy Lion?"

"Holy Lion? Who said that was the name?"

"Saba is lion in Arabic, and it may have been the intention of the monks who really built the place to honor some noted disciple of the great unknown inventor of monks and monasteries, whoever he was, and having given him a title befitting his courage for braving the terrors of this terrible wilderness, their successors duly elevated him among the saints in the Greek calendar, and—we have a stately marble tomb to look upon, which keeps his memory green."

"You should have said that some people are admitted to see the awful glories of the tomb of the mythical anchorite, for I have not seen it, except in your sketches. I would gladly see the real thing."

"Do you suppose for a moment that it is real? I mean, is the tomb what is pretended for it?"

"You ask me more than I can answer. In the Lives of the Saints a goodly space is filled with legends about St Saba, and we know the convent is there, with its so-called tomb, in the rocky slope of the Wadi er Nar (Valley of Fire). Now these visible things are real, why not believe there is truth in the legends behind them? You cannot put them aside—I mean the convent and its tomb—with a fine-spun theory. The monks say that the holy man found a lion in the cave he had selected for his retreat, and the noble beast recognized the good man, and quietly walked out, leaving the place to him, who took the name of Lion (Saba)."

"Whoever began this pigeons' roost?"

"Enlarged it, you mean. There are hundreds, or, as the Arabs say, a thousand and one caves, large and small, in that ravine, and others in all the ravines running down to the Dead Sea or the Jordan, and the rock is about the consistency of chalk, very easily worked. Very many of these caves have been enlarged, and nearly every one inhabited by one or more monks. Mar Saba was the chief in extent and in its fittings, having a chapel, dormitories, library, kitchen, and other accessories needful for health and comfort. The entire valley in question was once named Monks' Valley (Wadi er Rahib), and might as well be so called now, because none but monks live there. The truth is, that the modern monk prefers to sleep inside of strong stone walls, with doors locked and barred, and deny himself the luxury of the glory of martyrdom, being contented with singing the praises of the ancients."

"Would we be likely to find any rare books in Mar Saba?"

"The good Archimandrite Nicodemus, who has kindly let my cousin John Hornstein read books in the library of the Convent of the Holy Cross, and of the great Greek Convent in this city, told him there were rare copies of "The Golden-mouthed," Cyril, Villalpandus, and other early fathers of the Church in St. Saba, of which I have long wished to get a glimpse."

"Why not ask the good patriarch to have some of those books brought up to his library for safekeeping?"

"I have tried through my cousin, but so far in vain. The Greek monks are given to traditions. When one is transferred from Jerusalem to Mar Saba he leaves the traditions of the Holy City behind him, and at once enters into the spirit of the clan there, and supports their reputation for antiquity, wealth, sanctity and exclusiveness."

"And sustains all three points?"

"Antiquity is undoubted, for it is conceded on all sides that Mar Saba as a monks' nest was the first example in Palestine."

"Oh, shades of the Essenes!"

"Yes, yes—I mean in the Christian age."

"And the claim to wealth?"

"Is so far believed by the Bedouins as to lead those poor devils of avarice to watch the monks as cats lay in wait for mice. But only the monks know what wealth they have besides their caves and tomb, dry bones, and some few civilizing conveniences; and the monks will not tell—except, perhaps, to the patriarch or his steward. So when the matter of books is mentioned their jealousy is at once aroused."


"Having renounced 'the world, the flesh and the devil,' they take every care to compel as many as possible of that world to come to see them, and one of their means is to take precious care of their books."

"Then I must go to Mar Saba if I would see any of the books?"

"It is Mohammed and the mountain again. The ever-praised prophet had to do the traveling."

"I will go to-morrow."

"Take me with you."

"As far as the outer gate?"

"Yes, and I will manage the rest."

"You make me shiver—so to speak, although the day is hot."

"Well. If, when you are ready to start, which I suppose will be about three o'clock to-morrow morning, English time, I am not presentable, why, you can say bookrah (after), as all the natives do when they wish to dodge or put off anything."

"To-morrow it is, if we can get the patriarch's letter of introduction, or order for admission, and the needful donkeys."

"How many donkeys?"

"One for Josephine, and—"

"One for Maryam Shapira."

"Yes, certainly; and one for her escort, for she will have to stay outside with you."

"Another, then, for John Hornstein, or Abraham."

"Say for John. Then a big one for me."

"The small fellows are the best steppers and easiest riders."

"Small it will be, then. And one for His Highness the boy who will care for the animals, and one for the provisions."

"One donkey will carry boy and provisions."

"That makes five donkeys. Can we get them for the morning?"

"Mr. Hornstein will send for the owner, who will come to the hotel and make the bargain, if he has or can get them."

The patriarch's permission to visit and order to admit four persons to Mar Saba, and the donkeys having been secured, the next morning, at three precisely, the donkeys were announced at the gate of the hotel, the iron doors of which were swung open for our departure

A young Englishman had asked us to include him in our company, and he went with us. But where was Miss Josephine ? Failed us at the last moment. Maryam Shapira was there, lively and chatty as the cool, gray morning prompted as a means of keeping warm. John kept her busy, and rode as near her as the path admitted. The Englishman, Bright, rode ahead of Miss Maryam, and the donkey-boy, with the well-supplied commissariat, behind her, and I brought up the rear on the smallest but the best animal of the lot.

The owner rode beside me down from the Joppa Gate, past the Pool Gihon, as far as the Well Ain Rogel, where we halted to give the animals a drink.

Coming close to me, he said, in a whisper: "The boy on the little gray donkey said he was in your service, and I let him have the donkey. And I came on purpose to see if all is right."

"Why did you not ask me at the hotel-gate?"

"Because, while you packed the provisions he mounted and rode away: and I saw that the number of persons and donkeys corresponded."

"I'll see about it. Joe, come here."

Joe rode up slowly, and I said, feigning anger: "You young rascal, why do you keep so far ahead? Do you prefer to lead the way?"

"I've been over the way many times. May I ride forward, sir?"

"Of course, go ahead."

It was a great relief to me, and a satisfaction to the Arab owner of the donkeys. For, I thought, "If Miss Josephine can escape the eye of an Arab, she may succeed with the monks of Mar Saba."

Four hours of hard riding, only a part of the way on a passably good road, brought us to the door of the convent, where we found Joe chatting with a Bedouin, who claimed backsheesh for the whole company as the lord of the region. Another Arab fooled.

Our animals picketed, and a carpet and umbrella arranged for Maryam and her escort, we were ready for entrance.

But the monks were not ready. They had prayers to recite, or were eating, and answered not to my knocks, which were respectfully low.

"Let me try," said Joe, and picked up a goodly sized stone, with which a double bob-major was executed on the iron door, by way of presenting the compliments of the morning.

That woke up somebody inside, and a little basket was let down by a string, into which we put the patriarch's letter.

In a few moments the key rattled, the door opened a little, and Joe stepped part way in, saying: "Count these persons, and see that none enter more than the patriarch's letter calls for—Protos, deuteros, tritos, emautos tetartos!" (first, second, third, and I am fourth), he shouted in good Greek.

The Greek door-keeper seemed more anxious to shut the door against the dreadful female who crouched across the way than to scrutinize those who entered, so Joe escaped a third time.

After stooping through the low door, we were led down, around through a second door, down again by winding stairs, across small and large courts, irregular in shape, passing under rocky arches and through dark passages, when we were ushered into the reception-room. This time Joe entered protos, without protest.

The divan was nearly eight feet wide, and intended for sleepers, but we squatted on rugs, and were served with water, rakee, and jelly from a large silver salver, in fine cut-glass goblets. We did not become inebriated, for we took the rakee with a tea-spoon, which was of the almond shape so valued by our grandmothers, and only one dip; followed by one dip of jelly, and then by water ad lib. Generous souls! For water is precious at Saba's sanctuary. They carry it up from the Kidron below, hundreds of steps, stony, steep, winding, and the exact reverse of the famous descent into Avernus.

Joe escaped again, but I trembled until we were invited to follow a tall, thin young monk to the library.

"How did any one know we wished to see the library?"

"The Archimandrite Nicodemus is here on a visit. He brought word of the patriarch's permission, and the object of your visit."

I could have taken the wings of the wind and flown away, only they were probably mislaid, just then, and I perspired instead. It was warm about that hour, anyhow, and we had to climb four or five hundred (it seemed five thousand) feet to the tower where the books were kept.

I managed to whisper to Joe, on the way. that the old Nic. was after us, but the quiet answer was: "Yes, I knew he intended to come, and that he came last night. The donkey-boy said he hired an extra big mule for the ride."

The library proved a rare treat, but I dare not even attempt to name more than the most important books—or those which appeared to be so, for there were several hundred volumes. His Thinness the librarian told me, confidentially, there were many thousands of volumes in the sacred inclosure, but it was the policy of the monks to conceal the actual facts, from fear of robbery.

"By visitors?"

"Yes. When rich, learned men come here and find valuable books on the shelves, they offer large sums of ready money for them, which the steward seldom if ever refuses. In this manner are we robbed of our treasures."

"Then you really cherish these treasures ?" I asked.


"And read them daily, or frequently?"

"Never read a page of one in my life, and I have been in this holy place nearly seven years."

"You can read, of course?"

"Not a word."

"Then why do you value the books so very highly?"

"I am always selected to show visitors to the library, and these are only a part of the books; others are in a room joining the chapel, and more in boxes. The visitors talk about the books. I listen, and notice which they pay most attention to, and so learn which are the most precious, and why."

"Show me one, and explain its value to me. I am no robber."

Taking out a volume by Chrysostom (the set had six large quartos), he said:

"This book contains the words of the Father of the Golden Mouth; and this," handing out a volume by Basil, "is most necessary to every Christian for rules and guides in holy living, for he it was who first formulated the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty which are respected everywhere, east and west, throughout the Church and the world."

"'Where ignorance is bliss,'" I thought, but said : "What was his name?"

"Basil. St. Basil the Great."

And so he went about from one case to another, taking books or MSS. from the shelves and commenting, until he had named Cyril, who wrote the Life of St. Saba, Zuallardo (1586, full of engravings), Adamnanus (697, St. Columba), Philocalia (Basil and Gregory), Cotovicus, Cotelier (Cotelerii, Monuments of the Greek Church), Onomasticon (Basil and Jerome), Eusebius, and many other Greeks, Latins, French and Germans; also a MS. in Greek-Arabic (of the ninth century); and an account of the Conquest of Syria by Saladin (Salah - ed - Din). Makreezee (1400), Edrisi (1150), and other Arabs, were represented in manuscript. The Greek classics were not neglected. A palimpsest, Arabic over Thucydides, was very fine.

We were getting on famously when our good Archimandrite Nicodemus climbed the stone stairway and seated himself near it.

Joe was seated, leaning back against a reading-desk opposite the archimandrite, and, in a fit of desperation and fear of exposure, I handed "him" the Greek-Arabic palimpsest, and requested to have it read, or a few sentences. Without rising, Joe rested the book on her knees for a desk, and read a few lines, giving first the Greek, then the Arabic text, which she translated into Greek as she read.

Nicodemus looked very stern and serious when he first came up, but when Joe had read from a few books or manuscripts, his face changed in expression, and he asked me if he too might offer a volume to the learned brother for inspection.

On assent, he took a volume of St. Chrysostom and opened it at random, saying: "Read."

Joe read a page from the Exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.

Nicodemus was delighted and said so, but hastened to say also that he regretted the necessity of his immediate return to El Koods (Jerusalem), for he would gladly hear more, if time permitted.

I was equally delighted to salute the departing prince of the Church, and do him reverence—for had he not respected the learning of our Joe, and stifled any suspicions that might have risen in his mind as to what the modest caftan and agyle (coat and head-dress) covered?

"Now," said I, after he had disappeared, "let us push our investigation."

Our attendant brother-monk, whom I called Slim, or Thinness, was named Ivan Boganovitch, but he could not have been even the most remote of kin to the great Russian poet of that family name; for when I asked him how he liked his namesake's poem, "Dushenka" (Psyche), he said he had never heard of it. The "Dushenka" was published just a hundred years ago. So, since he was as limited in knowledge as in figure, I preferred to continue the name of Slim, which he mistook for the Arab Selim, and all was serene.

We worked as a trio, Slim, Joe and I, until about two o'clock in the afternoon, when I felt like eating something "with a fork," as a Frenchman says, and we all went down to the reception-room, to find a majority of the brothers assembled to see the great curiosity, a learned boy.

"A second 'boy among the doctors,'" said one old white-head.

"Ah, venerable sir, our schools are most excellent."

"Yes, much better than when I was a boy, judging by this specimen. I am a Smyrniote."

Joe said: "Then, perhaps, you knew my father, Aaron Yarning?"

"In truth, I did, and his son, Abraham, and his daughters, Josephine and Elizabeth."

"They are both visiting their uncle, Moses Hornstein, at the Hotel Mediterranean, in Jerusalem."

"How I would enjoy a sight of them! I must not go there; they cannot come here."

Joe gave me a knowing look, and suggested that we have our lunch outside with the rest of our party.

"Bring them in, by all means. There are only one man and a boy."

"What has become of the woman?"

"I saw a tall Arab and four Arab women talking to her and the man, and then they all, except the man, went away to the east."

Anxiety, lest Miss Shapira had been captured by the Arabs, moved me to ask Slim to let us out at once, which he did. We found John and the boy, and John soon quieted our fears by saying that Miss Maryam had been recognized by some Arab women, who had been at her father's house often, and she had gone to their camp, which is less than half a mile away, and in plain sight from the ridge, near the outer tower. The donkey-boy had not been idle. He had arranged our lunch on the shady side of the tower, and we were soon busy over figs, pomegranates, oranges, cold roasted chicken, native wine, and other delicious viands. When you are so near the desert, or so far into it, as at Mar Saba, the appetite grows keener by what it feeds on.

We left word with the boy that Maryam should call for us when she returned, and taking John with us, returned to the sanctuary of ten thousand skulls (vide any monk at St. Saba).

John had been inside this most ancient museum in Palestine, if we must not except the Temple Area in Jerusalem, and knew what to ask for to gratify my desire of seeing the books. So we inquired for the boxes we had heard of, and John had seen a part of. They were stored here and there in different rooms; some contained old, worn-out liturgies, none less than a hundred, and many over two or three centuries old. Nearly all were printed, but one small box held about a hundred and fifty on vellum or on parchment, in about equal numbers; beautiful specimens of Greek text, written in black ink, with red initials, and a few were ornamented.

At the bottom of an iron chest, in the room off the chapel, under a hundred manuscripts on parchment, we found a handsome copy of the Gospels. The leaves were about eight by ten inches, the text black, in two columns on a page, red initials, the pages bordered with red, yellow and blue lines, with a finely executed portrait of each of the four evangelists, highly idealized, and enriched by the appropriate emblems; bound in skin, roughly finished.

I glanced at it and put it back in its place, promising myself another inspection later, or on another visit, and also because it is never prudent to show anxiety in bargaining with Orientals; and furthermore, I had to sustain the róle of being no robber of books.

The library-room of the chapel was dimly lighted, but there was light enough to see many books, printed or in manuscript, lying in confused heaps on the floor, and at our visit Mr. Slim walked over them as if they were only so much straw. And straw they might have been for all he knew or cared for them. Even the illuminated manuscript of the Gospels which was in the iron chest had no charm for him, because no one had given him an account of its peculiar merits.

Further inquiry revealed the hiding-place of a lot of books in a recess in the wall, which had formed the private library of a former occupant of the cell. They were very curious, so much so that I could not ask Joe to look at them at that time, in the presence of the young Englishman. Joe and I had a long sitting over them another day.

Maryam was expected home, and although the others of the party would have gladly staid over night, yet it was thought best to turn our faces toward the Holy City. Therefore, about an hour before sunset, we bid the monks good-night, and under the escort of Sheik Mustafa, who did not refuse a blessing (backsheesh) in the shape of a silver coin, we arrived safely, a little before midnight, at the gate of the Mediterranean Hotel.

We paid our respects to the Greek Patriarch the next morning, and asked him to have certain volumes in the Mar Saba library brought up to the library in the Greek Convent, where we could examine them at greater length. He promised to do so.

While talking with him, the Archimandrite Nicodemus entered the divan and saluted us. After a while he said that he had been tormented with suspicion that the little bunch in the corner of the tower library, opposite to where he sat, was a girl in boy's clothing, and that, in spite of anxiety and care for more than thirteen centuries, the sacred precincts of the tomb of the holy St. Saba was being polluted—

"Instead of which, my most reverend Siadatab (bishop, highness), it was really honored by the presence of a gifted young brain, learned in the knowledge of the best books of the best writers in the Church."

"Ah, that was my proof! Such brains, such ready wit at reading and translating the sacred text, and such eloquence in reciting the unequaled words of the Father of the Golden Mouth, convinced me that it was impossible in a woman. If that young man could have the benefit of a proper training in our schools, our holy faith would, indeed, have an able defender and advocate. He may yet become a great teacher. What school has had the honor of his training so far?"

"The American Mission School at Smyrna."

"Ah! It is with pain that I am compelled to admit that some of the schools of the schismatics are nearly, if not quite, as good as ours in certain things; lacking, of course, in spiritual affairs."

I know that accounts of book-hunting must be dry, and that even the "lark" of a gifted and beautiful young woman cannot amuse forever. The little girl of that day is now a woman, the wife of one who stands high in the confidence of the Khédive of Egypt. Her talents go far toward winning and enabling him to keep his place. Orientals see quickly, and treasure as precious, fine qualities in a woman, as their history shows in many instances. Her portrait, engraved from a photograph made at Cairo, Egypt, during the last year, appears herewith. Its intelligent and kindly face will win many, friends among my readers, while I can only hope to be forgiven for "giving her away" as I have in these pages.

Miss Maryam Shapira was the daughter of the well-known scholar of that name of Jerusalem, who will be remembered as discoverer of a great number of curious terra-cotta images in Moab, and of a manuscript of the Pentateuch, which was supposed by him and some others to be very ancient, and which was pronounced a forgery by certain experts in London. He had offered it for sale at the modest price of one million pounds sterling! Mr. Shapira was reckoned the most accomplished scholar in Hebrew in Europe, if not in the world. He and his work were condemned by men who were far from being his peers in a knowledge of Hebrew, whether language or literature. We were indebted to him for the Arab dresses used on the trip to Mar Saba, and on other excursions; and he also spoke a friendly word in our behalf to the Arab sheiks whose territory we were about to trespass upon.

I must use care in what is written about John Hornstein, for he is now in office in Cairo, Egypt, the City of Victory, and is the official interpreter to the Chief of Police. What if I should feel moved to climb the Great Pyramid once more, or linger in the Museum of Antiquities at Boolak, or should appear at sunrise some morning at the Esbekiyeh, inquiring for a donkey to ride out to Heliopolis ? John might think it his duty to cite me before a Kadee, where he would re-enact the scene in the "Pasha of Many Tales," and cover me with confusion. But he is kind-hearted, and would rescue me, and give the Kadee and me a good dinner afterward.

I regret the necessity for closing this brief account without so much as referring to the books we saw there, or to my success in inducing the patriarch to remove the valuable ones to Jerusalem; but space, although infinite, is on paper limited, and here must my greetings to His Highness be made. May he be forever exalted.