I Hate Museums

There. I said it. I hate museums. I just didn’t know until now that I hated them. It took understanding why you might want to hate them for me to acknowledge the aversion.

I don’t always hate museums, and there’s always something to do in a museum. For instance, you can go to the café on the ground floor, or in the annex, or somewhere else, which is always very pretty and inviting, stand in line, mess up the coffee machine, eat bad cheesecake, get in a fight with the staff because they served you a cold sandwich that was supposed to be hot … Just kidding. Museums are wonderful places, of course. Especially art museums. There is usually a LOT of art. Sometimes, museums only display very few works. That makes them easier to take in. If there’s a lot, it can be overwhelming, which is usually the case. There is usually a lot of white or other plain colors. In the new museum at the former Tacheles in Berlin Mitte (Oranienburger Straße) there is a lot of graffiti in the hallways, and the background to the images on display is grey. Kind of dark. There are always things to read next to the artwork, so you know what you are looking at. Clearly, art cannot be trusted to speak for itself. Come to think of it, the whole thing is more like a zoo for artwork. Makes one wonder whether the art on display was trapped, tranquilized, and taken in boxes to a safe and protected space (“Don’t touch the artwork!”) where it can do no harm, while still entertaining the visitors and their children. Perhaps someone should do a comparative study on art-museum and zoo education and how they have changed over time. Animals are no longer supposed to be confined in inhumane ways. Perhaps artwork will be next? Let it roam free, liberated from explanatory labels, grey or white walls, and far from the uncomprehending gaze of the unwashed. Or the washed, for that matter.

Two visitors at the National Gallery in London (September 2022)

And the poor guards? Imagine spending a whole day standing around or walking on marble along a confined and preordained route, much like the panther in Rilke’s poem, in standard issue shoes, not really looking at the art at all, but making sure that people behave. Kind of like a zookeeper. It does not seem to be a fun thing to do with one’s life. Miriam always talks to some of the museum guards, and she’s long thought it would be great to do an art piece on museum guards. Would that need to be guarded, too? What she means is this: if we only look at the artwork and ignore the people that are there to make sure the art on display is safe from curious touchers, tomato-juice-armed environmentalists, and random vandalists, there is something wrong with that picture.

Which brings me to something I read that made me think it’s ok to hate museums. In Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, there’s a particularly dense chapter on Hermann Broch. I knew the name and thought of him as a novelist, which he was, but he was also someone keenly interested in science, and he developed a theory of knowledge that reached for some kind of “earthly absolute.” (I spare you the details, mostly because I am not sure I understood them myself.) What I learned from that essay is that Broch harbored profound contempt for the idea of l’art pour l’art, that is, turning the aesthetic experience into an absolute value among other absolute values. In the extreme case, to think of art as an absolute value can lead, as Arendt remarks, to an appreciation of the beauty in using men as human torches, as Nero did when Rome was aflame. You get the point. This reminds me of the year-end presentation by one of our son’s fellow students in a little private start-up junior high school. As her subject, she chose to speak about Hitler and how he was a painter and simply wanted to make the world a more beautiful place. Cringe we did. But she understood something. Broch sees the l’art pour l’art movement as the beginning of kitsch. In other words, art that has become independent of all other values and makes itself an absolute cannot be distinguished from kitsch.

I am not sure he’s right. But the thought struck a chord. I thought, what if that is precisely the effect of a museum, which warehouses collections upon collections and puts them on display, restoring and preserving them for posterity, yes, but without being able to say, why? This struck me as particularly perverse in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, which we visited recently twice in one week. (Full disclosure: the second time I went right to the café where I got into a fit with the staff because of a sandwich.) The gallery, part of the erstwhile Prussian state holdings, was established by the generosity of private collectors, most of them wealthy Jews, who in the 19th century, must have bought thousands of works especially from Italy and the Netherlands. For someone interested in the history of painting, particularly in portraits, this is one of the best places to visit. Here you can study the history of Western painting from the early Middle Ages down to the 19th century. They have something from every significant painter and from every school.

If art is of absolute value it cannot be measured by anything else. Ethics for example. Or truth. Of course we loathe the attempt to make art subservient to politics. But the idea that there is a connection between l’art pour l’art and kitsch is intriguing. If art is meant to produce something that is beautiful, and only beautiful, rather than something good, where the beauty is the end and not a by-product of, say, the attempt of representing something truthfully and honestly, it is in danger of losing the ability to be distinguished from kitsch. So it’s not the technical perfection or the mastery in the use of space or color that are in doubt, but the fact that art belongs in context and in relation with other things of value. It cannot be an end in itself. Art can also become kitsch when it is infinitely reproducible (museum stores, anyone?). Religious paintings taken out of their sacred context and placed in a museum to illustrate the “progress” in style, perspective, or technical mastery of another sort are kitsch. Kitsch means trivial. By cordoning off their collections and by conferring on art their stamp of high cultural approval, museums contribute to the commodification of art. That is, their kitschification. Owning an original Picasso says something about the owner, not the painting. It says, I can afford an original and don’t need to make do with reproductions.

We need to ask the question anew when art is not kitsch. I wouldn’t seek the answer to this question in a museum.

“Maskiert.” Ein “BUMM” zu Moses (Exodus 34)

Mit bestem Dank an Harry Schroeter und sein Team!

Research Cluster: “Religious Structures of Modernity”

By “modernity” in the singular I refer to any and all varieties of modernity as manifest in a plurality of “modernities.” “Modernity” as such refers – in this project – to phenomenal worlds or worldviews situated in both continuity and difference from various medieval and ancient antecedents and that are thus structured by shifts in worldview indicated in epochal transitions, e.g., from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican view of the world, or associated with transformative processes,  e.g. “secularization.”

By religious structures of modernity I refer to the transformation of premodern religious norms and forms into specifically modern concerns, patterns, symbols, value systems etc. This project aims to guide, as well as gather, research into the presence of the religious in the secular, of the premodern in the modern, namely, as constitutive elements of various modernities. The project thus builds on, as well as broadens, Max Weber’s example of uncovering the Protestant character of modern capitalist production and extends, as well as subjects to critique, his method of searching for religious elements as constitutive of specifically modern phenomena.

This research cluster is conceived within the context of the Graduate Program in Religion at Boston University, specifically the specialization in Religion in Philosophy, Politics, and Society. It interdisciplinary in that it draws on philosophical, and more broadly humanistic, as well as social and political science theory and puts them in conversation.

A note on “secularization:” Historically speaking, “secularization” refers to the forced transfer of assets owned by the Church into the hands of the laïcistic state in the wake of the French Revolution. It became a useful metaphor in descriptions of the profound changes that spiritual and symbolic assets once associated with religion entered into the “possession” of the laity, whether this was in form of art and literature, or in form of institutions such as modern state-run schools and universities. This grand transfer of religious inheritances into the hands of new and novel forms of social organization and modes of expression is the very subject of this research cluster. I nevertheless suggest to use the term secularization sparingly, as it seems to imply that what came from religious contexts is now no longer “religious” in that it has been secularized. The transfer of agency, however, may not in fact have changed the “structure” of what has been transferred, claimed, or inherited which therefore remains open to investigation. By focusing on the possibility of identifying “religious structures of – rather than in – modernity” I hope to stimulate the generation of new questions and perspectives on “secularization” and the putative “secular.”

Finally, by “research cluster” I mean a loose association of individual projects (dissertations, conferences, lectures, journal articles, etc) conducted by graduate students, post-graduate fellows, and faculty that grow out of and significantly relate to sustained conversations that will stake out the intellectual profile and approach that is here only briefly adumbrated.


Statement on Israel Palestine Conflict 2021

Note: The following statement was signed Boston, May 17, 2021. As of today, Friday, May 21, a ceasefire has been declared between Hamas and Israel. The further-going demands of the statement have not therefore been rendered moot.

Seventy-three years after the Nakba of 1948, the forced displacement of three quarters of a million Palestinians from what became the territory of the State of Israel, and nearly fifty-four years after the June 1967 war, that brought further Palestinian territories and populations under Israeli control, it is important that we realize, without equivocation, that Palestinian lives matter. There cannot be a lasting peace in the Middle East without Israelis and Palestinians recognizing one another’s humanity. Those who claim to act in the name of their religion should consider that, in the eyes of God, we are all equal. Hatred is not the answer.

The undersigned members of the Boston University faculty call for an immediate cease fire between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza. Indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas in Israel and disproportionate air and ground attacks on targets in densely populated areas of Gaza: both amount to collective punishment. These are violations of the laws of war, not justified acts of self-defense. The use of force must be a last resort, not a tactic used to score political points. This is not the way!

We call on President Biden to show leadership and use every appropriate means, including sanctions, to force an end to these needless and brutal hostilities and bring the parties back to the negotiating table, for a fair and equitable peace process without preconditions. We call for a return to bilateral negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. We call on Israel to respect and protect the rights of Muslim and Christian communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land to free and safe access to their holy places. We call for an end to mob violence in Israeli cities that pits Israeli citizens, Palestinians Arabs and Jews, against one another. The incitement of hatred must stop. The right to peaceful protest must be respected. We urge the Palestinian Authority to restore the democratic process, hold the long-overdue elections, and give the Palestinian nation the leadership it so desperately needs. We call on Hamas to stop using their own population as human shields! We call on Israel to end this war and allow the people of Gaza and the entire region to heal.

We condemn all acts of anti-Jewish violence and reject the rhetoric that holds Jews accountable for the actions of the State of Israel, where they are not citizens and cannot vote. We condemn all forms of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Michael Zank, Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, and Medieval Studies
Director, Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

David Frankfurter, Professor of Religion and Aurelio Chair in the Appreciation of Scripture

Tim Longman, Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Director, CURA: Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs
Acting Director, African Studies Center

Neta C. Crawford, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science

Carrie Preston, Director, Kilachand Honors College / Professor of English and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

Muhammad H. Zaman, Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Kimberly Arkin, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Ingrid Anderson, Associate Director, Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies

Teena Purohit, Associate Professor of Religion

Joy and Sadness

Moses Mendelssohn famously argued that mixed sentiments are aesthetically more profound than simple ones.  Profound does not mean pleasing. Pleasing requires something pleasant, but mixed sentiments are not as pleasant as simple ones. A mix of joy and sadness can hardly be more pleasant than joy, pure and simple. Whatever strength joy confers, or expresses, is diminished by sadness. Why then praise mixed sentiments?

I believe that mixed sentiments elevate us. Simple sentiments presuppose attention to things that are simple. Complex sentiments are attached to, or evoked by, complex matters.

Imagine you are God. You look down from your heavenly abode and you see all the things that occur on this earth, let alone other earths for which you may be responsible. Do you think you'd be happy? The gods are happy only if they don't really care about us down here. A God who cares cannot be happy. But, assuming that God does not manipulate or force us to act one way or another, he may not always and only be sad. Sometimes he may be pleased. Or rather, since He is God, and for Him there is no time (time attaching only to temporal things), he must always and forever be both, sad and happy. Mixed emotions bring us a little closer to God.

There is a wonderful rabbinic story about what went on in Heaven as the Israelites shouted for joy when their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the sea, riders, horses, and all. The angels, so goes the story, wanted to join the chorus of jubilation. Perhaps it was Miriam's timbrel that proved irresistible. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately shushed them and said, how can you be jubilant as my creatures are drowning?

Today, Israel celebrated its 73rd Independence Day. It is a joyous occasion for all who take pride and comfort from Israel's existence. Among them is my father-in-law who just turned 100 and who saw what people do to Jews who don't have what it takes to fight back. Israel is strong, and that is good.

Many of us who take pride and comfort from Israel's existence are also haunted by the fact that Israel's independence means catastrophe to the Palestinian Arab community. Can we keep both of these facts in our minds at the same time? Not at the same time, perhaps. After all, we are not God. But perhaps one after the other. And then, perhaps, our sense of joy will be mitigated by sadness. Books poster

May this be more than an exercise in aesthetics. There is nothing sublime or beautiful, says philosopher Immanuel Kant, that is not also morally good.




Yom Hashoah 2021

Words, on the occasion of the BU Hillel and Elie Wiesel Center candle lighting ceremony, April 8, 2021

I light this candle

to remind us that

it is not enough

to say, Never Again!

If we don't know

what it is we are

supposed to remember.

How can we remember

what we never experienced?

But we never experienced

Sinai, or

the House of Bondage, and yet

we remember

If I forget Thee Jerusalem

But how can I remember

What I have not seen?


It is these kinds of

impossible commandments

we resolve to keep


They are not too far from

our mouths, they say.

But our words fail

Not because of the silence

of forgetting

but because there are too many of them.


Too many names to recall

Too many lost


How can they say

there is a God when

even God forgot

to remember?


I light a candle

to the God


forgot to write

their names

in the book

of life.



Jewish Mardi Gras

Purim, as I see it, is a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. Or perhaps it's the other way around. In any case, it is not in the Torah of Moses and it wasn't commanded at Sinai. It was instituted, according to the scroll of Esther, which provides the legend of Purim, by the Persian Jewish community, in the days of King Ahashveros or Ahasuerus, presumably a reference to the Persian shahinsha Xerxes (5th century BCE), to celebrate the rescue (after a casting of lots, hence the Persian name of the festival) of Persian Jewry from the evil plot of Haman. Heroine of the story is Hadassah Esther (Ishtar) who braves the great king by approaching him unbidden and, by doing so, she risks her life for the sake of her fellow-Jews. There is also her good uncle Mordecai, a loyal subject to the same king who earlier discovered a plot against the same king. The Book of Esther is the only canonical biblical book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all. The Greek version adds a prayer, while the Hebrew version plays out entirely on the human plane.

Timed to announce the coming of the First Month of the Jewish calendar, i.e., Nissan, whose New Moon is associated with the birth of the Messiah and which culminates in the Passover, Purim has much in common, in terms of its place in the seasons of the solar year, with Mahdi Gras, which marks the beginning of Lent and leads up to Easter. These liturgical similarities are not coincidental. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations hark back to earlier times, when the natural cycle – and human dependence on the mercy of the gods – was the essence of religion. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations obscure the agricultural origins of these moments in cyclical time by means of narratives about divine providence and salvation in history.

Purim is the only holiday where, as the talmudic rabbis suggest, a man is to drink to the point that he begins to confuse hero and villain of the story, Haman and Mordecai. How so? When the scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue, people are supposed to make noise whenever one of these characters is mentioned. You are supposed to cheer for Mordecai and hiss or boo when Haman appears. Sometimes both appear in the same sentence. It is easy to get confused in the emphatic expression of opposite emotions in short order. It doesn't take much alcohol to become too sluggish to quickly make the right response.

I once attended a reading of the scroll of Esther at the synagogue of the Satmar Hasidic community in Meah Shearim. Men and children had dressed up. Some looked ornate in their usual Satmar garb, others – especially some of the boys – looked burlesque. As I was trying to find the place in the printed edition of Esther I was handed, a boy dressed as a voyager on Star Trek, complete with a noise making laser pistol, passed me by a number of times. It seemed like everyone around me was moving and making a lot of noise. I stood out by the fact that I quite obviously neither belonged nor had any sense of where we were in the reading. After a while, the boy in the space outfit took pity on me. He took the book out of my hands, leafed for a moment, then gave it back to me, this time opened to the right place. It was a gesture of kindness and inclusion.

In that spirit: Happy Purim, everyone!

No, Mr. Schwarzenegger, the Capitol Riots were not like Kristallnacht

In a short video, posted on YouTube, the former Conan the Barbarian star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brandished his stage sword and compared it with American democracy. The tertium comparationis between the “hardened steel” of a sword and American democracy was somewhat nebulous, especially as the brief message ended with a call to “healing.” Is our democracy’s resolve “hardened” by challenge, or are we to threaten rioters with the sword of justice? But I am not writing as a critic who might take issue with Schwarzenegger’s poetry.  I am writing about Schwarzenegger invoking Kristallnacht 1938 as a historical parallel to the recent “breaking of glass” in the US Capitol, a parallel that Schwarzenegger vaguely claims to be familiar with because he was from Austria, even though he was born in 1947.

I am not just confused by this parallel. I am disturbed by it. Here is what happened on Kristallnacht, a three-day state-sponsored, highly organized, and nation-wide pogrom unleashed on Jewish houses of worship, business, and private homes that took place from November 9 to November 11, 1938. I am quoting from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum page on “Kristallnacht.”

Nazi Party officials, members of the SA and the Hitler Youth carry out a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Greater Germany. The rioters destroyed hundreds of synagogues, many of them burned in full view of firefighters and the German public and looted more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and other commercial establishments. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions. Almost 100 Jewish residents in Germany lost their lives in the violence. In the weeks that followed, the German government promulgated dozens of laws and decrees designed to deprive Jews of their property and of their means of livelihood even as the intensification of government persecution sought to force Jews from public life and force their emigration from the country.

After the pogroms, the implementation of German anti-Jewish policy was gradually concentrated in the hands of the SS. Thus, Kristallnacht figures as an essential turning point in Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, which culminated in the Holocaust, the attempt to annihilate European Jews during the war.

My own family was victimized on that day. My grandfather, a World War I veteran of the German army, was among those on lists of prominent Jews to be detained in concentration camps that had been established as early as 1933. My mother’s twin brother, then sixteen years old, was not on such a list but a local policemen thought he should be so he sent him away as well. My grandfather was later released as a decorated WW I volunteer. My uncle was released later, which forced the family to release his seat on a Kindertransport they had secured for the twins. My mother escaped to England. My grandparents and my uncle were ghettoized in Mainz and, in early 1942, deported to German-occupied Poland, where they perished.

Kristallnacht was not spontaneous but well planned. It was violent, deliberate, and devastating for the millions of Jews still living in Germany at that time.

As others have argued, there are many parallels between Trumpism and Hitlerism, or Trumpism and fascism. In many ways, popular support for Trump, the cult of personality, the destruction of trust in mainstream media and the creation of a cloud of disinformation that stokes hatred and encourages violence, all this rings familiar and sheds light on the erosion of democratic institutions that preceded the rise of Hitler in Germany who, btw, was elected and legally appointed as Chancellor before he used constitutional emergency powers to eliminate all opposition. The totalitarian state was not established in a day, and the ground was prepared by a decade and more of the erosion of trust in the rule of law.

But the Capitol riot of January 6 is not equivalent to November 9, 1938. If Schwarzenegger is looking for a parallel, here is one: the abortive Beerhall Putsch of 1923 that landed Hitler in prison. To be sure, that was not the end of Hitler’s political career. Let us brandish the sword of Conan to make sure the January 2021 riots were the end of Trump’s.

On Fiction and the Bible

Let’s talk about fiction, fictions, belief and the imagination

The word “fiction” comes from the Latin verb fingere, which gives us the English name for the digits of our hands, “finger,” which we also use as a verb, when we speak of “fingering someone,” meaning to manipulate (from Latin manus: “hand”).

Literally, fiction is something made by our fingers or something our fingers point to. The semantic range of the Latin verb fingo includes the following meanings:

  1. to shapefashionformknead (dough)
  2. to adorndressarrange
  3. to dissemble; I alter the truth in order to deceivefeignpretend
  4. to trainteachinstruct

Fiction is something made to appear before our eyes, something conjured, an alteration of things found.

We can juxtapose fiction to fact, a derivation from the Latin factum, which is also something made. Facere can mean, or be used to express, the following range of actions: to make, do, act, name (in the sense of designate someone for a job, e.g., make him king), perform, work, build, construct, set (e.g. fire), achieve, to be effective, to cause, commit, concoct, establish, fabricate, and more.

We tend to think that facts are not fictions, but the words seem related, as are facts and fictions, if both are essentially made and the products of human (or divine or natural) making.

Facts and fictions are products of making. Facts are made things; fictions are made up things. Things are made or made up by someone or something, i.e., they have a cause. If everything is caused, everything is either fact or fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction points to the difference between intellect and imagination.

Anthropologically speaking, the human experience begins with toolmaking. A tool, say a stone flint, extends the range, strength, or ability of our fingers. It allows us to produce different and better facts. The human experience also begins with speech. Utterings are also a kind of tool in that they extend our range of power beyond the body. To use a spatial metaphor, speech extends our range in two directions, namely, inward and outward. Utterings are also “innerings.” The utterings of our mouths, the sounds we make with the intention of meaning, give voice to our inner lives, to the things we see, hear, taste, and feel and that we communicate with one another. With the ability to communicate comes the possibility of manipulating and dissembling, but also of instructing.

The first evidence of religion is also the first evidence of civilization, namely, the deliberate burial of human remains with gifts for the hereafter. From the very beginning, human lives were not just factual but fictional, playgrounds for the imagination. We may assume (or is it a fiction?) that early human worlds were populated, even dominated, by fictions. This is a probable assumption because we are aware of the arduous process by which humans have learned to distinguish between fact and fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction serves our interest in self-preservation. Knowing, what is fact and what is fiction, is a source of power. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, but no knowledge is as powerful as the knowledge of causes. If I know the actual cause of a thing, I must no longer fear or enslave myself to fictitious causes. Knowledge liberates from enslavement to fictions.

Today we associate the struggle for the knowledge of true causes with the history of science. But where does that leave fiction?

Fiction remains a powerful tool of manipulation for the sake of power. Knowledge does not just liberate the knower from enslavement to fiction. It also enables the knower to create fictions and to manipulate others, by conjuring worlds that are equally or more compelling than facts. The art of using fiction to manipulate others is used in the rhetoric of persuasion, in propaganda, in advertisement and public relations, and of course in politics.

But fiction, the making of our imagination, is also a powerful tool for the powerless, who can imagine themselves as free and empowered.

The knowledge of facts comes with an element of disenchantment. The world of fiction is an enchanted world. We crave fiction more than facts.

Fiction can provide escape from facts. It exercises the imagination. When we are exposed to fiction as fiction, that is when we recognize that what we see, read, or hear is a product of the imagination, we suspend disbelief and enjoy the alternate reality of fiction. This may seem an entirely passive or receptive engagement, but it is, in fact (!), our own imagination that is at work producing the images, faces, feelings, and emotions that fiction conjures for us. This is particularly true where the medium provides mere clues but doesn’t paint the whole picture for us. Our imagination is more active in the production of fiction when we read than when we immerse ourselves in total works of art such as a musical, a movie, or computer-animated virtual reality.

It is our craving for fiction that makes us susceptible to manipulation. We want to believe what we are told, especially if the telling comes with the authority of religious power.

Realizing the difference between fact and fiction is a perennial task; it is work we practice every day and throughout our lives. We don’t already know whose words we trust or whose truth we can safely embrace. Higher education, really any education worthy of that name, encourages us to raise questions: “How do we know this?,” “Is this a fact, or is it a fiction?,” and “If this is fiction, is it harmless or harmful?”


Biblical literature is a complex mix of fact and fiction. On the borders of biblical literature, Jews, Christians, and Muslims each cultivated their own creative engagements with this literature. They have taken from it what they found compelling and instructive and they have made it into new complex mixes of facts and fictions. Modern biblical scholarship is the effort, begun in the 17th-century European Enlightenment, to break the spell or enchantment of the Bible, its hold on the European imagination, and subject it to the same scrutiny as the new science applied to nature. Textual and higher criticism treated biblical literature with the same critical tools scholars applied to any and all received bodies of literature. As archaeological and epigraphic knowledge grew, in the nineteenth century, new comparanda emerged that allowed scholars to see the emergence of biblical literature in its historical context and recognized the presuppositions and cultural assumptions shared by the biblical texts with other ancient texts and inscriptions. It stripped the Bible of its extraordinariness and established critical distance between modern readers and the ancient texts.

Traditional approaches to the Bible have the opposite purpose. Instead of distance they want to establish proximity and identification. Instead of rational and methodical critique they employed the imagination.

There are two major tools, among other traditional ways of creative engagement with biblical texts, namely, interpretation and embellishment.

Interpretation takes the text as sacrosanct, that is, as an unchangeable symbolic body or body of symbols, down to every word and even each letter, including misspellings, diligently copied from generation to generation. To make sense of this body of symbols, interpretation uses strategies such as allegorical interpretation, typology, and the like, to read the text otherwise than written. Using interpretative strategies to bend the text to the will of the interpreter treats the text as figurative rather than literal, i.e., it suggests that the text means more and other than it says. Late ancient and medieval exegetes spoke in this regard of a “fourfold sense” of Scripture, distinguishing, for example, between the literal (Jerusalem, the city), the tropological or moral (Jerusalem=the believer’s soul), the allegorical (Jerusalem=The Church), and anagogical (Jerusalem=Heaven, pointing to the eschatological future of individual or collective redemption). This would be a Christian example. A similarly ascending system of meanings is suggested by the Hebrew acronym PaRDeS (pshat, remez, drash, sod). There is evidence of creative interpretation in the Bible itself, e.g., when Daniel ponders the words of Prophet Jeremiah and finds a way of applying his prophecies to his own time. The library of Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered at Khirbet Qumran since the late 1940’s, included the first known example of a commentary on a biblical book, the Pesher Habakuk.

The other strategy–embellishment or “corrective” retelling–is also evident among the sacred scriptures, for example, if we understand the Books of Chronicles (1 and 2 Chr) as a corrective retelling of Samuel-Kings. [E.g., cf. 2 Sa 24 with 1 Chr 21]

These retellings were exceedingly popular, well-known, and often displaced the biblical version because they were felt to be more satisfying as explanation of certain events or circumstances, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise ( Life of Adam and Eve), of ritual obligations (sacred history retold to fit into 50-year cycles in the Book of Jubilees), or of new theological ideas ( immortality of the soul popularized in poetic form in the Wisdom of Solomon).

The New Testament gospels fictionalize the life of Jesus of Nazareth to support the apocalyptic message of the early Christian community and to defend their claim that Jesus was the promised “anointed one” or Messiah. There are variations between these tellings that are obvious when you contrast Mark, whose gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as a powerful divine man who vanquished death, with Matthew and Luke, who add genealogies, pregnancy and birth stories, and different vignettes, with the purpose of providing evidence or arguments either directly from scripture (using fulfillment citations, as Mt does) or by means of allusions and imitation of scriptural style (as Luke does), to create a quasi-biblical life of Jesus of Nazareth and to explain why someone from Nazareth could be the promised anointed one. I call these accounts fictional, among other reasons, because they shared the intention of showing (through the birth in Bethlehem) that Jesus of Nazareth had a significant connection with the House of David, a crucial condition for legitimate messiahship in early and later Christian arguments with the Jews, but they use irreconcilably different “facts” to establish that connection. This contradiction means that either one account is fictional and the other factual, or both accounts are fictional.

Similarly, the Latin Life of Adam and Eve constructs a backstory to the figure of Satan (a biblical figure without real personality or individuality), using poetic biblical passages (from Isa and Ezek) to create a new mythological figure as the great enemy of humankind and the one who, for Christians, was vanquished by Christ. In this fashion the ancient combat myth finds its way back into a biblically inspired fiction.










Spring Courses: Holy City and Maimonides