Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Greek Pictionary

"Jackal . . . it's a jackal!"
One of the students in the Greek class I teach at my church recently suggested we try something new: playing Greek Pictionary.  This sounded like much more fun than a boring vocabulary quiz, so we gave it a try.  We focused on reviewing the vocabulary from four earlier chapters in our textbook.  I would write down a word (in Greek) from one of those four chapters, then pass it off to a volunteer who would try to get the rest of the group to guess the word by drawing on a dry-erase board.  To properly guess the word it needed to be written down in Greek (guessing the English definition was not enough).  It was fun!  Some thoughts if you test it out in your own ancient language classes:

  • If you're unfamiliar with the rules of Pictionary, check out good old Wikipedia:
  • Open book vs. closed book?  We did it open book, but if you wanted to make it more challenging, you could do it closed book.
  • Competitive or collaborative?  You could have the whole group working together to figure out the word, or you could break up into teams.
  • When people play Pictionary there are a lot of different strategies to get your team to guess the word.  For instance, if your word is "wellness" you might try to draw something that communicates the meaning of the word, like someone looking healthy.  Alternatively, you might draw some pictures that will get your team to guess the individual sounds that make up the word, a "sounds like" strategy.  So you might draw a picture of a water well to get them to say 'well' and then a picture of the Loch Ness monster to get them to say 'ness.'  If you want to crank up the difficulty level (maybe for a second year readings class?) you might prohibit your students from using any English words if they use a "sounds like" strategy.  If they want to do use this strategy they have to use Greek words.  So in the example I gave, they could not draw a water well to get someone to say the sound "well."  But they could draw a water well to get someone to say "phrear" (which is probably not going to help them at all).       
If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

After we played I did a little Internet search, and it looks like some homeschoolers are already finding this (and charades!) a fun way to learn Greek vocab.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ancient Aliens, Christian Apologetics, and the Narrative of Ancient Anachronism

This is a brief description of a little research project that's on my docket once my thesis is finished.  If you come across any examples of the narrative of ancient anachronism, I'd be much obliged if you sent them my way.  I became interested in analyzing the ancient astronaut theory when I did a search on Google+ for communities dedicated to the study of the ancient world.  I was shocked and a little dismayed when my search for "ancient" turned up a group on ancient aliens that had over 2,000 members, while the next largest group (Ancient Greek Philosophy) had only 200.  This got me thinking that while the ancient alien stuff may seem far out there, it has become one of the primary ways that ordinary people are exploring the ancient world.  I think that invites interaction with and critique of the movement by those who spend their days studying the ancient world in an academic setting.    

"In recent years the ancient astronaut theory has gained a lot of interest and support in popular culture, thanks in large part to the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" series.  This theory claims that extra-terrestrial beings visited earth in ancient times, and that we can find evidence of their visit in ancient religion, mythology, and architecture.  The theory is built on assumptions about the primitive nature of ancient peoples and thus their inability to carry out many of the building feats of the ancient past.  Because they were too primitive to construct such things, a higher, more advanced race must be responsible for them.  Interestingly, this is not the only example of this narrative being employed in discussions of the ancient world.  Some Christians have used this narrative in their apologetic interpretations of the Bible.  They assume not only the technological and scientific inferiority of ancient peoples, but their moral inferiority as well.  They then attempt to identify examples of comparatively more scientifically and morally advanced concepts in the Bible.  While proponents of the ancient astronaut theory explain the supposed architectural anachronisms they identify with recourse to extra-terrestrials, Christian apologists see the scientific and moral anachronisms they find in the Bible as the result of divine intervention.  In this study we will explore this narrative of ancient anachronism, comparing the ways that it has been used both by proponents of the ancient astronaut theory and by Christian apologists.  In both cases we find groups creating a false anachronism in the ancient world and then offering an explanation for this anachronism that involves extra-human intervention.  In both cases the false anachronism is based on more basic assumptions about the primitive nature of ancient peoples."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Questions about Canon

[Study resource for adult Christian formation class at my church on August 25th 2013]

Please read through the following resource from Mennonite New Testament scholar Loren Johns in preparation for our discussion.  The Google Books link will take you to his essay.

Johns, Loren L.  “Was ‘Canon’ Ever God’s Will?” Pages 41-45 in Jewish and Christian Scriptures: the Funciton of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-Canonical Religious Texts. Edited by James H. Charlesworth and Lee Martin McDonald. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Questions about Canon
“Canon” comes from a Greek word that means “measuring rod.”  The biblical canon is the list of books that is considered to be specially authoritative and that make up our Bibles.  There are a lot of important historical, theological, and practical questions surrounding the canon, but they receive little attention within most churches.  Here are some questions to consider:

How did we get the Bibles that we have?  Why do we have these partiulcar books, and not others? Why do different Christians have different books in their Old Testaments?

How do we justify what is inside our Bibles?  What good reasons can we offer for having the particular books we do and not others?

Does it make sense to claim the Bible and not church tradition is our authority, when it was centuries of church tradition that made the Bible in the first place?

What does it mean for a book to be in the Bible?  Are all books in the Bible fundamentally different from all books outside of the Bible?  And if so, what makes them different?

Is our Bible “flat”?  In other words, do all of the books inside have the same authority? 

Can we add or remove books of the Bible?  Why or why not?

Do we need a clearly defined, closed list of writings?  Do we need a ‘Bible’? 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Leaves on a Tree: Homer and Ben Sira on Human Mortality

What does Jerusalem have to do with Ionia?  

At the moment my research focuses on the influence of Homer's epics, particularly the Iliad, on early Jewish literature.  While there continues to be academic disagreement over the extent of Greek literary influence on some early Jewish texts, it is indisputable that some ancient Jewish writers read/heard the blind bard's epics and allowed his voice to echo off the nooks and crannies of their own works. (See, for example, my earlier notes on Theodotus and Sosates).  One passage where there has been some scholarly agreement on Homeric influence is Ben Sira 14:18, which scholars like Th. Middendorp, R.A.F. MacKenzie, Benjamin Wright, Martin West, and Jack T. Sanders believe is influenced in some way by Iliad 6.146-149.  Check out the similarities between the two texts:
Ben Sira 14:18 (MS A)
 {כפרח עלה על עץ רענן / שזה נובל ואחר גומל {צומח
כן דורות בשר ודם אחד גוע ואחד גומל

“As leaves grow upon a green tree, Whereof one withereth, and another springeth up;
So of the generations of flesh and blood, One perisheth, and another ripeneth.” (Schechter and 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Introduzione Alla Lingua Ge'ez: the must-have companion to Lambdin

When this little book arrived in the mail I got pretty excited.  If you've ever used Lambdin's introduction to Ge'ez/Classical Ethiopic you know that it's a great text with one feature that some of us have a love/hate relationship with: everything is in transliteration.

The nice thing about the transliteration is that it (1) allows you to start learning grammar and vocabulary while you're still trying to get a handle on the massive syllabary, (2) makes the book more accessible for comparative Semiticists, and (3) helps you see two important features that are not clearly communicated in the Ge'ez script: gemination (consonant doubling) and when the sixth order consonants are terminal vs. vocalized.  The bad thing is . . . it's transliterated.  The actual Ethiopic texts you will read are not transliterated, and learning the vocab and grammar in transliteration can make it pretty tough to switch mental gears when you begin reading texts.

That's why Osvaldo Raineri's Introduzione Alla Lingua Ge'ez, an Italian translation of Lambdin, is so useful.  It presents the vocabulary and exercises in the Ge'ez script (and transliteration early in the book).  This makes it an excellent, even necessary companion to English Lambdin.  If you have both volumes you get the best of both worlds.

You can look for it in a library at WorldCat.   
You can find it used or new through BookFinder (ISBN is 8872103355).
I got mine new through for 24 euros. (Important: if you buy it here, be sure to go through the registration process in order to get free international shipping -- the quick PayPal purchasing process does not seem to give you the option for free shipping.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


My Big Fat Greek resource page (ok, as far as resource pages go it is fairly slender right now.  But we'll get there).

Greek is a wonderful language that began in the ancient world and continues to be spoken today.  For the student of the ancient Mediterranean world Greek is possibly the most important language to learn.  It's the language of Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Plato, Euripides, the Septuagint, the New Testament, and many of the early Christian writers.  Because of Alexander the Great's conquests Greek became the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean world in the late 4th century BCE, and continued to be widely used into Roman times.

Whenever languages are around a long time they go through stages of development (think about Chaucer vs. Shakespeare vs. Stephen King), and Greek is no different.  In addition to historical developments, different dialects of a language can exist simultaneously.  This all means you have different choices when you decide to learn the language: Homeric Greek, Attic Greek, Koine (or "Biblical") Greek, Byzantine Greek, or Modern Greek.  If you want to be a real nerd you can even learn Linear B/Mycenaean Greek, which will allow you to read riveting inscriptions with lists of goods and possessions (you accountants/ancient language aficionados might enjoy this).

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ancient Numismatic Mythology

Heads or Minotaur?  

Coins are an essential piece of evidence in the ancient historian's toolbox, and fortunately there are some Internet resources that make it easier to find and explore some of this evidence.  A website I am finding interesting is Ancient Numismatic Mythology, which can be found at  The site is "dedicated to ancient coins that depict popular themes from Greek and Roman mythology."  Coins are divided up based on theme, such as: the Trojan War, Theseus and the Minotaur, Labors of Hercules, or King Midas and the golden touch.  Each page is filled with colour photographs of coins from that category.  

Check it out, and see what interesting things you find!


Saturday, August 10, 2013

AMQ: Star Wars in Ge'ez #2

For our last Ancient Movie Quotes (AMQ) we translated Luke's line to Obi-Wan in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi ("You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father!") into Ge'ez.  This time we will translate some of old Ben's response.  If this Ge'ez stuff intrigues you, be sure to cruise the resource page.

"Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force."

ተአብደ ፡ አቡከ ፡ በክፍል ፡ ጸሊም ፡ ዘነፋስ ፡ ሕያው ።
(ta'abda 'abuka bakefl ṣallim zanafās ḥeyāw)

We started our translation with the passive form of the verb አብደ ('abda; "was seduced").  The ተ- (ta-) prefix is a marker for the passive verb.  We then have the subject አቡከ ('abuka; "your father").  Recall that passive verbs are ones in which the subject of the verb is acted upon -- something is happening to the subject.  With passive verbs we can talk about things like agents, means, and instruments: who is the agent doing this thing to the subject or who/what is being used to do this thing?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sugary Myths

You say dirt-man and a rib transplant outside the Garden of Eden, I say ancient man copulating with sugarcane.

The cover story in the current issue of National Geographic (August 2013) is devoted to sugar.  Reading the article my attention was naturally caught by this sweet mythological tidbit:
"In the beginning, on the island of New Guinea, where sugarcane was domesticated some 10,000 years ago, people picked cane and ate it raw, chewing a stem until the taste hit their tongue like a starburst.  A kind of elixir, a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood, sugar featured prominently in ancient New Guinean myths.  In one the first man makes love to a stalk of cane, yielding the human race.  At religious ceremonies priests sipped sugar water from coconut shells, a beverage since replaced in sacred ceremonies with cans of Coke." (Rich Cohen, "Sugar Love (A not so sweet story)", 82 and 86).   
Fortunately the image of us replacing the cups of wine & juice at my Mennonite church with shots of Coca-Cola took root in my mind before I started visualizing the agro-sexual creation myth.  This myth did, however, intrigue me enough to try tracking down some additional information. Unfortunately my very brief search (I did not want to take too long of a break from my admittedly less interesting thesis research) did not turn up any good resources verifying this specific myth or offering additional information on it, but I did come across a few related bits about sugarcane in mythology that I thought I'd share:

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Starship Theseus: Star Trek, Plutarch, and Personal Identity

Leon Thomas' fascinating video "Starship Theseus" was brought to my attention by @ReligionProf.  Thomas brings together Star Trek, Plutarch, and philosophy -- what's not to love?

If you're interested in digging a bit further, here is what Plutarch said about the ship of Theseus:
"The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel." (Plutarch, Theseus, 23.1) 
As Thomas observes in his video, this raises questions about the persistence of identity, a question which he explores by looking at Star Trek's transporter technology as well as the death and resurrection of Spock.  Such questions are interesting within the spans of our mortal lifetimes, as we try to understand what it means to be "me" as "I" grow, develop, and constantly cash in old cells for new ones.  They also stand at the heart of reflections on the possibility and nature of the afterlife.  If an afterlife consists of a disembodied existence, to what extent is that disembodied stuff still you?  If the resurrection of the dead is your afterlife of choice, what does that actually look like and how does your identity persist?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

St. John Chrysostom -- Premodern Social Psychologist?

When someone does something nice for me I usually assume they're doing it in the hopes that their god will throw some burning coals on my head.

In a roughly 1600 year old sermon St. John Chrysostom discusses the passage from Romans 12:20 where the apostle Paul says “No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’” 

Chrysostom notes the odd nature of the verse: it seems that Paul is encouraging people to do nice things for others out of a spirit of vengeance, which undermines the overall thrust of the context which tells the Roman Christians not to seek revenge but to overcome evil with good. There are a variety of ways that interpreters have tried to resolve this tension, and Chrysostom gives an interesting example of one such way:

“. . . That great and noble-minded man [Paul] was well aware of the fact that to be reconciled quickly with an enemy is a grievous and difficult thing; grievous and difficult, not on account of its own nature, but of our moral indolence. But he commanded us not only to be reconciled with our enemy, but also to feed him; which was far more grievous than the former. For if some are infuriated by the mere sight of those who have annoyed them, how would they be willing to feed them when they were hungry? And why do I speak of the sight infuriating them? If any one makes mention of the persons, and merely introduces their name in society, it revives the wound in our imagination, and increases the heat of passion. Paul then being aware of all these things and wishing to make what was hard and difficult of correction smooth and easy, and to persuade one who could not endure to see his enemy, to be ready to confer that benefit already mentioned upon him, added the words about coals of fire, in order that a man prompted by the hope of vengeance might hasten to do this service to one who had annoyed him. And just as the fisherman surrounding the hook on all sides with the bait presents it to the fishes in order that one of them hastening to its accustomed food may be captured by means of it and easily held fast: even so Paul also wishing to lead on the man who has been wronged to bestow a benefit on the man who has wronged him does not present to him the bare hook of spiritual wisdom, but having covered it as it were with a kind of bait, I mean the 'coals of fire,' invites the man who has been insulted, in the hope of inflicting punishment, to confer this benefit on the man who has annoyed him; but when he has come he holds him fast in future, and does not let him make off, the very nature of the deed attaching him to his enemy; and he all but says to him: 'if thou art not willing to feed the man who has wronged thee for piety’s sake: feed him at least from the hope of punishing him.' For he knows that if the man once sets his hand to the work of conferring this benefit, a starting-point is made and a way of reconciliation is opened for him. For certainly no one would have the heart to regard a man continually as his enemy to whom he has given meat and drink, even if he originally does this in the hope of vengeance. For time as it goes on relaxes the tension of his anger. As then the fisherman, if he presented the bare hook would never allure the fish, but when he has covered it gets it unawares into the mouth of the creature who comes up to it: so also Paul if he had not advanced the expectation of inflicting punishment would never have persuaded those who were wronged to undertake to benefit those who had annoyed them. Wishing then to persuade those who recoiled in disgust, and were paralysed by the very sight of their enemies, to confer the greatest benefits upon them, he made mention of the coals of fire, not with a view of thrusting the persons in question into inexorable punishment, but in order that when he had persuaded those who were wronged to benefit their enemies in the expectation of punishing them, he might afterwards in time persuade them to abandon their anger altogether.” 
From John Chrysostom, "To those who had not attended the assembly," in St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statutes (Ed. Philip Schaff; Series 1 vol. 9 of NPNF; Grand Rapids: CCEL), 316-317.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

AMQ: Star Wars in Ge'ez #1

One of the exercises we did in the Greek class I teach is translate famous movie quotes into Greek.  It's a fun way to play around with the language and explore the different ways you can say the same thing. I thought I'd start offering some of my own fiddlings around with ancient movie quotes (AMQ) here.  Please let me know if you think there are better ways to make these translations!

Star Wars in Ge'ez #1

In episode IV (A New Hope) Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi tells Luke about his father, bragging about what a great Jedi, pilot, and friend he was, before telling Luke that a young Jedi named Darth Vader betrayed and murdered him.  We later learn (along with Luke) that this was only true "from a certain point of view."  When Luke confronts the spirit of Obi-Wan on Dagobah he complains: "You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father!"  Here's our Ge'ez rendering:

ነገርከኒ ከመ አግብአ ወቀተለ ወድር አባየ  
(nagarkani kama 'agbe'a waqatala wader 'abāya)

So let's break this down a bit.  First we have a perfect verb in the 2nd masculine singular (ነገርከ/nagarka) to which we've attached a 1st person singular object suffix (/ni).  We've packed "You told me . . ." into one handy little word.  We've then used the conjunction (ከመ/kama) to introduce the indirect speech (Dillman, 538).  For the verb "betray" we had a few different options, since Leslau lists three different verbs with this meaning: ከድዐ, (አ)ግብአ and ጠለመ.  I went with the second one just because that's the word used for Judas' betrayal in passages like Mark 3:19 and 14:10.  Then we have our conjunction ወ/wa and our second verb (ቀተለ/qatala) in the perfect 3rd person masculine singular.  I chose to use verb-subject-object word order, so we have Vader (ወድር/wader) followed by the accusative form of "father" with the 1st person singular pronominal suffix (See Lambdin, 41 where we learn that አብ looks like አቡ- /'abu- when it takes a pronominal suffix, unless it is in the accusative in which case it looks like አባ- /'abā-).

Some things I was curious about:
  • What is the typical word order (if any) when you have two verbs (betray, kill) that share the same direct object (my father) and a stated subject (Vader)?
  • If we wanted to use a qatalo lanegus instead of the simple accusative, what would that look like?  Would it be as simple as putting the 3ms suffix on both verbs followed by ለ-?
Would you translate this any differently?  And more importantly, was Luke right to be a little peeved with Obi-Wan?