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Brief book notes

March 11, 2012

I find myself rather busy at the moment – too busy to write a proper blog post.  In the meanwhile, let me share some brief book notes:

    • I am reading a remarkable book by Elaine Pagels (Princeton) on the Book of Revelation.  Now, I am a considerable dilettante when it comes to reading about Revelation; it is not a part of the Bible that I have studied deeply.  As such, I am in no position to give an academic assessment of Pagels’s theories.  However, her book seems cogent and refreshing.  Adam Gopnick, in his New Yorker review, sums up her thesis as follows:

      What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the “Christianity” just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself “Christian,” in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did. That’s the forward-looking worry in the book. “In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles,” Pagels writes. “But since this had not yet happened—not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor—he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture. So, John says, Jesus twice warns his followers in Asia Minor to beware of ‘blasphemers’ among them, ‘who say they are Jews, and are not.’ They are, he says, a ‘synagogue of Satan.’ ” Balaam and Jezebel, named as satanic prophets in Revelation, are, in this view, caricatures of “Pauline” Christians, who blithely violated Jewish food and sexual laws while still claiming to be followers of the good rabbi Yeshua. Jezebel, in particular—the name that John assigns her is that of an infamous Canaanite queen, but she’s seen preaching in the nearby town of Thyatira—suggests the women evangelists who were central to Paul’s version of the movement and anathema to a pious Jew like John. She is the original shiksa goddess. (“When John accuses ‘Balaam’ and ‘Jezebel’ of inducing people to ‘eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication,’ he might have in mind anything from tolerating people who engage in incest to Jews who become sexually involved with Gentiles or, worse, who marry them,” Pagels notes.) The scarlet whores and mad beasts in Revelation are the Gentile followers of Paul—and so, in a neat irony, the spiritual ancestors of today’s Protestant evangelicals. Pagels shows persuasively that the Jew/non-Jew argument over the future of the Jesus movement, the real subject of Revelation, was much fiercer than later Christianity wanted to admit. The first-century Jesus movement was torn apart between Paul’s mission to the Gentiles—who were allowed to follow Jesus without being circumcised or eating kosher—and the more strictly Jewish movement tended by Jesus’ brothers in Jerusalem. The Jesus family was still free to run a storefront synagogue in Jerusalem devoted to his cult, and still saw the Jesus or “Yeshua” movement within the structure of dissenting Judaisms, all of which suggests the real tone of the movement in those first-century years.

    • I am also reading Martin Hengel’s The Septuagint as Christian Scripture:  Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon.  Hengel argues that the Septuagintal writings are largely independent of Hellenistic influence – a topic over which we have had some heated discussion threads here on BLT.  Of course, I might be criticized for reading a book that simply reaffirms my existing views, rather than challenges them, but Hengel lays out his theory with exceptional clarity and logic.
    • Nina Zumel recently posted a remarkable sub-story from the Icelandic Sagas that involved exorcising ghosts by bringing a case against them at a a medieval tribunal.   She writes:

      That’s right. Snorri told Kiartan to haul the ghosts into small claims court and sue them for trespassing and disturbing the peace. If you had asked me how a priest of Thor would hold an exorcism, this is not what I would have guessed. But hey, whatever works.

      Her blog post led me recall a set of books I own called the Complete Sagas of the Icelanders. (However, I have to admit that it is far too expensive for anyone except collectors to buy.)  You can find it on Amazon here — or much more cheaply directly from the Icelandic publisher. I know that the publisher’s web site looks cheesy, but the set itself seems solid (or is that just rationalization on my part?)I don’t read Scandinavian languages (how I admire Joyce, who reportedly learned Norwegian just so he could read Ibsen in the original) — so I am in no position to judge the quality of the translations, but the set was favorably reviewed in Speculum, and Penguin published an abridged edition.  Here are some sections of the Speculum review by Kirsten Wolf (U. of Manitoba):

      Unlike the well-known and popular  saga translations by Magnus Magnusson, Hermann Palsson, and Paul Edwards, the translations in these volumes are not twentieth-century tellings of the sagas and tales that  read as though  they were novels and short  stories. Consider, for ex­ample, Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson’s rendering of the opening of Eiríks saga rauða: “There  was a warrior  king called Olaf the White, who was the son of King Ingjald. Olaf went on a Viking expedition to the British Isles, where he conquered Dublin and the adjoining territory and made himself king over them. He married Aud the Deep-Minded, the daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose; they had a son called Thorstein the Red” (The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America [Harmondsworth, Eng., 1971], p. 75). Here genealogies are excised from the text and relegated to footnotes, so that, as the translators explain, “they do not impede the flow of the narrative” (p. 45). The decision pertains to a notion of the aesthetics of narrative and an assumption that such information is not integral to the text or significant for contemporary readers. But the result is a translation that misrepresents the original, both in terms of content and style. Compare the translation prepared for The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: “There was a warrior king named Oleif  who was called Oleif the White. He was the son of Ingjald, the son of Helgi, son of Olaf,  son of Gudrod, son of Halfdan White-leg, king of the people of Oppland. Oleif went on  viking expeditions around Britain, conquering Dublin and surrounding lands, over which  he declared himself king. As his wife he took Aud the Deep-minded, the daughter of Ketil  Flat-nose, son of Bjorn Buna, an excellent man from Norway. Their son was named Thorstein  the Red” (p. 1). Greater fidelity to the original texts stands as a welcome hallmark of  these new translations.

      A further attractive feature about the translation in these volumes is the consistency in rendering key terms, concepts, and motifs. As the editors point out in their preface, “the world of the sagas and the tales is a unified whole in several senses. They belong to the same geographical setting and tell of a particular period of history. They also share a recognizable narrative technique, although individual sagas often differ sharply in style and content. Each saga highlights various aspects of this common world and presents it from an individual perspective. An important priority has therefore been to retain the uniqueness of this world through consistent translation of certain concepts and the vocabulary belonging to specialized fields, and through the standardization of names” (l:xv).

      Each saga is prefaced by a note on its approximate date of composition, its (modern) Icelandic title, and a brief introduction specifying the manuscript and edition on which the translation is based and describing the saga’s setting, main action, and literary qualities. The historical period covered by the saga is given at the heading on its first page. No introductions are provided for the tales; instead, their Icelandic titles are printed under the English, and information on the source texts and original manuscripts is given in a footnote. On the whole, the saga translation is allowed to stand by itself, and footnotes are kept to a minimum. To that end recurrent key terms and concepts have been italicized. These italicized words, which highlight usage specific to the world of the sagas and which include legal terms, social ranks, supernatural elements, weights and measures, to mention but a few, are explained in a glossary toward the end of volume 5. Remarks on textual or manuscript problems, such as lacunae in the manuscript, have been italicized in square brackets. Occasional explanations of problematic passages are also inserted in the text in square brackets. In the translation of the verses, the imagery, mythology, and thought patterns behind the compound kennings are explained in side glosses.

      An extraordinarily well considered, informative, and beautifully written introduction by Robert Kellogg on the sagas of Icelanders, their characteristics, and their place in Old Norse-Icelandic literature prefaces the translations. The translations are followed by a lengthy four-part reference section. The first part comprises maps of the Vinland explorations, saga sites in Iceland, and Scandinavia and northern Europe; lists of kings of Norway, Denmark, and England; a chronology of historical events relevant to the sagas; and a list of law speakers in Iceland. The second part consists of illustrations of ships and the farm, diagrams of the social and political structure in medieval Iceland and of the social positions named in the sagas, and a map of assembly sites. The third part comprises the glossary and brief descriptions of the imagery of the verses, common elements in place-names, and  the Old Icelandic calendar. A cross-reference index of characters makes up the fourth part  and concludes the volume.

      Collectively, the sagas of Icelanders provide a window to history and culture that is unique. As Kellogg writes, “[T]he development of a prose fiction in medieval Iceland that was fluent, nuanced and seriously occupied with the legal, moral and political life of a whole society of ordinary people was an achievement unparalleled elsewhere in Europe until the rise of the novel five hundred years later” (l:xxxii). With these five volumes, the daunting task of translating the sagas of Icelanders has been accomplished most successfully. Editors and translators alike have done exemplary work, and Leifur Eiriksson Publishing, which was founded in 1993 with the sole aim of publishing The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Including 49 Tales, is to be congratulated for taking this worthwhile initiative and for producing such handsome volumes.

    • Although I am busy, I am currently contemplating five future posts:  (a) a post on Peter Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil; (b) a post on C. D. C. Reeve’s (UNC Chapel Hill) translation philosophy in his second version of Plato’s Republic; (c) a post contrasting Armstrong’s (U. Liverpool) and MacKenna’s (whose is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses) translation philosophies of Plotinus’s Enneads; (d) a post on Giulio Silano’s (U. of Toronto) translation of Peter Lombard’s The Sentences; and (e) the next post in my long delayed (but never abandoned) Job translation series.

    For now, please excuse in advance my irregular posting, and, as Patrick McGoohan might say, “I’ll be seeing you” [on the Internet].

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    2 Comments leave one →
    1. March 12, 2012 9:07 pm

      That’s right. Snorri told Kiartan to haul the ghosts into small claims court and sue them for trespassing and disturbing the peace.

      That’s hilarious!

      You might be interested in a not-yet-completed song cycle by the a capella filk group Sassafras, composed by historian Ada Palmer. I’ve heard them sing in person and really love them. My favorites are My Brother, My Enemy and Sundown.

      Although I am busy, I am currently contemplating five future posts: …

      Do we get to vote? ;) I’m most interested in d) and e).

    2. March 12, 2012 10:10 pm

      Victoria, thanks as always for your great links and supportive comments. Now I wish that Sassafras would hurry up and finish its album.

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