Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Fun Bible Facts From Uta

I'm dangerous around It's like I'm in the world's largest library and I can suddenly grab whatever I want for the cheapest possible price. In some cases this doesn't help much (even the cheapest copy of The Jesus of the Early Christians by G. A. Wells is more than $100), but if a book is reasonably popular, you have a shot at actually getting it. And I have just re-added to my own whittled-down library two books I loved reading in library form: 1.) Raymond Tallis's skeptical take on modern literary theory, called Not Saussure; and 2.) Putting Away Childish Things, by the magnificently-named scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann.

Uta is skeptical about almost everything in the Bible, which is an odd trait for a Catholic professor of theology and religion. (After her first book came out--a withering critique of the church's history of oppressing women and hating sex, called Eunuchs for the Kingdom of God--like fellow theologian Hans Kung, she was forbidden to teach theology again and now teaches church history instead. (P.S. Hans Kung's sin was releasing a book called Infallible?)) And as an aficionado of skeptical books in general, I have to say I don't really recommend it. A good skeptical book sort of tries to meet you halfway and makes its case carefully and sympathetically. Uta Ranke-Heinemann (love that name! Can't stop saying it!) just launches into her attacks from page 1, calling all the miracle stories "fairy tales" and adding little bits of side snark like this quote from Chapter Two, "Matthew's Fairy Tale of Jesus' Childhood":

"The framework of Luke's account has no time for the whole story of the star and the Magi. Since Herod has all the male children killed "who were two years old or under..."[at the time of the visit of the three wise men,] Jesus would have been going on two. Strangely enough, as we know from depictions of the adoration of the Magi, Jesus was still lying in the manger---no doubt he wasn't a very active child. In this phlegmatic feature of his character Jesus obviously took after his father, who after all this time was still sitting tightwith his young family in the stable." (p. 23)

Funny, but it's a straw-man argument. I've never read an evangelical commentator who didn't pooh-pooh the Adoration of the Magi representations as unbiblical precisely because of the two-year gap. So it's a nice slam on popular piety, but doesn't do anything else except offend and piss off evangelicals. What good is that?

However, I have learned a few interesting things from this book that I haven't learned from others, and I hereby share them because a.) they're fun, and b.) you shouldn't have to read deeply into this book to get to them:

Fun Fact #1: Judas could not have been paid thirty pieces of silver.

Explanation: Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophecy in Jeremiah (Mt. 27: 9-10). But the Jeremiah passage mentions the purchasing of a field (not a potter's field), but for seventeen pieces of silver, not thirty (Jer. 32: 6-9). The thirty pieces comes from Zechariah 11: 12-13, where it's thirty shekels of silver. The money quote (as it were): "In Jesus' day there were gold and silver denarii, the double as (a Roman coin) three-as pieces, minai, lepta, selas, drachmas, and double-drachmas---but no coin or currency known as "pieces of silver" These had gone out of circulation around 300 years before." [i.e., in Zechariah's time. The Zecharaiah quote also mentions "weighing out" the coins, which is also anachronistic, since by this time they'd invented minting.] (p. 126)

Fun Fact #2: The dialogue with Jesus at Paul's conversion ("Why do you persecute me?") is clearly faked.

Explanation: In the book of Acts, it is said that the pre-conversion Paul, traveling on the road to Damascus to hunt down Christians, is suddenly struck down by a light and he hears a voice saying "Paul, why do you persecute me?" And Jesus (that's who's talking) adds, "It is hard to kick against the goads" (or "pricks", depending on your translation).

Not only does this not square with Paul's own, much less theatrical descriptions of his conversion (I Cor. 15: 8, Gal. 1: 15-16), but the whole thing is ripped off from The Bacchae by Euripides. In that work, Pentheus, king of Thebes, is persecuting the god Dionysus when Dionysus calls out to him "You disregard my words of warning...and kick against the goads, a man defying god." As Uta points out, "Jesus even uses the same plural form of the noun (kentra) that Euripides needs for the meter of his line" (p. 163). Bonus fun fact: the story later in Acts, when Paul is in prison and an earthquake breaks all the chains and opens all the doors, is ALSO, in part, ripped off from The Bacchae: In one scene, the maenads (followers of Dionysus---who, I should add, is a dying-and-rising vegetation god) are in prison when "The chains on their legs snapped apart/by themselves. Untouched by any human hand, /the doors swung wide, opening of their own accord." (Uta's account of this is on p. 169 of her book.)

I'm about fifty pages from the end and those are my two big takeaways. But they're pretty big for me, since I've read dozens of these books and a lot of the same points keep getting mentioned. These are new! Figured I'd share.



Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

I'd recommend as well Marc Brettler's "How to Read the Bible" (Hardcover: JPS; Paperback, Oxford under the title "How to Read the Jewish Bible").

4/17/2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger Jas P. said...

Good ones, Dave!

This kind of thing, along with translation issues (e.g., "rays" vs. "horns" emanating from Moses' head) always make for the most beautifully disconcerted looks on the faces of Christians who also happen to be well-read enough to understand how literature is made.

BTW, check my lil' blog for an arts & politics post that you'll surely have an interesting opinion about. What'd I miss?

4/18/2007 10:16 AM  
Anonymous dr said...

Hey, Dave. What would you recommend as the best book of this sort? I'm a newly skeptical ex-inerrant-ist. I haven't done a ton of reading in this area (i'm always skeptical of motive and turned off by bitterness... Uta doesn't sound like the gal for me), but I'm interested in reading what you'd say is the meatiest, least waste-of-time thing.

4/20/2007 7:08 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

"So it's a nice slam on popular piety, but doesn't do anything else except offend and piss off evangelicals. What good is that?"

Well other than my just enjoying pissing off evangelicals, not much. They are so easily pissed anyway, one hardly needs to work at it.

11/29/2008 6:20 PM  

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