17 May 2015

Still Alive

Okay, so first of all, yes, I'm still alive. Yes, it's been over two months since my last post. I think I've got a good excuse...

So here at the end of the school year, I'll finally be able to catch up on everything, and I might even post more often. For now though, I just finished reading some Chaucer.

I've liked The Canterbury Tales since the first time I found the book on my high school English teacher's shelf. This edition was interesting though, because it was an interlinear translation. Technically, Chaucer doesn't need to be translated. He is writing in English, and anyone with a reasonable amount of patience, and perhaps the aid of a dictionary from time to time, ought to be able to read Chaucerian English. In fact, the level of difficulty is not much different from that of trying to read one of George MacDonald's dialect-laden Scottish novels from the 1800s. However, the fact remains that there are plenty of words and phrases that will trip you up as you read Chaucer and make the stories less enjoyable for you. That's why I loved the idea of an interlinear translation of The Canterbury Tales. You can read Chaucer's original language, and, rather than having to open a dictionary when you come to a difficult word, you can simply glance below it to get the sense of the sentence and keep going. I wish this had been all of the tales rather than just a selection, but in any case it was a fun way to read Chaucer.

15 March 2015

Josephus and the Jews

I teach Josephus’s The Jewish War every year in one of my classes, and I was excited to get my hands on this book to give me some further insight into the character and work of Josephus. Unfortunately, I was ultimately disappointed in Josephus and the Jews by F.J. Foakes Jackson.

Many of the book’s primary problems are due to the fact that it was written in 1930. The edition I read had 1978 on the copyright page, and did not indicate that it was a reprint of an earlier book. It was only as I was reading the book and noticing some seriously outdated terminology that I began to suspect the book was much older. A quick Google search confirmed the fact.

The first effect of reading a book about Josephus written in 1930 is that a huge amount of the information is outdated. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1956, changed the way we think about Jewish sects in the first century A.D. Masada, which plays a large role in the ending of the war between the Romans and Jews was not excavated extensively until Yigael Yadin undertook the task in the 1960s. Another effect of reading a book written during this time period is that the author continually makes reference to Zionism as a movement. This was, of course, prior to Israel gaining statehood in 1948. Jackson identifies modern Zionists with the Jewish rebels in Josephus which colors his vision of the first century events.

There are three particular qualities of this book that prevent it from being very useful today. First, I was surprised at how uncritical the book was, especially when it needed to be. The author does talk about Josephus’s sources to some extent, but in many places is content to simply summarize what Josephus wrote. I was looking for some more in-depth commentary and criticism about Josephus’s history.

Second, Jackson offers some strange moralizing in various parts of the book. He also displays a good bit of antagonistic and ethnocentric attitude toward the Jews and all eastern nations. He talks often of Oriental savagery and/or fanaticism and opposes it to Roman and Western civilization and rationality. He has almost nothing good to say about Jewish leaders who fought for independence, but attempts to continually defend the Jews who embraced the Romans. This was especially interesting in the fact that he tried to paint the Herodians as magnanimous and civilized and downplays the cruelties of the members of Herod’s family.

Third, while he starts with a discussion of Josephus’s autobiography and his book Against Apion, and though he ends with a very brief discussion of the Jewish Antiquities, he spends the majority of his time on The Jewish War. It’s a good historical overview, but that can be had in many books about the time period.

So, in conclusion, though Josephus and the Jews may have been a useful book for the time in which it was written, its lack of criticism, odd moral judgments, and unbalanced emphasis on one of Josephus’s works coupled with the outdated information makes this book pretty well obsolete for the study of Josephus today.

13 March 2015

A Moment of Silence

I've always thought it a bit silly for people to get all teary-eyed when a celebrity dies. After all, they didn't know that person...well... personally.

I think I'll have to revise my former opinion on the subject, though.

Good bye, Sir Terry. You've given us so much, and the world will miss you.


Also this picture on Deviantart

09 March 2015

Murder in Mesopotamia

I've been a fan of Hercule Poirot for a long time, so it's hard to remember exactly how I first encountered him. I believe it was in the book Appointment with Death. In any case, I prefer Poirot's travels as an older man through the East to his earlier adventures in London with his friend Captain Hastings.

Regarding Murder in Mesopotamia, we have here a classic Christie mystery. It's set in the middle east at an archaeological dig, a setting Christie knew a lot about being married to an archaeologist. The characters were superbly drawn, the puzzle was clever, and Poirot's denouement hit all the right notes. While not as spectacular as some of her novels, I think I might recommend this as an introduction to the character of Hercule Poirot for new Christie readers.

02 March 2015

Lingua Latina per se Illustrata

I really enjoyed the approach to Latin in Lingua Latin per se Illustrata. The idea of a "Dick, Jane, and Spot" kind of book as a way to learn Latin was fun. For those unfamiliar, Lingua Latina contains only Latin words. The glossary in the back is entirely in Latin, the footnotes are in Latin, the exercises at the ends of the chapters are in Latin. The program is based on the idea that, rather than memorizing charts and writing translations, the best way to learn Latin is by reading it and intuitively learning the meaning of the grammar and words. As a note, the ongoing story in the book was funny and actually made me laugh out loud a few times.

How successful was it? Well, the first half of the book went very well. As the book approached it's final quarter, I had to start reading with a dictionary beside me at all times. I admit this may be a failing on my part rather than on the part of the book, though. I don't think I'm ready yet to move on to the next book in the Lingua Latina series, so I'm planning on going back and looking at some other Latin programs as well before I move forward with more Lingua Latina.

14 February 2015

Tutankhamen: Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism

Tutankhamen: Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism by E. A. Budge. Now that that mouthful of a title is out of the way, on to the review. This book was written by Budge at the behest of Lord Carnarvon himself. The book was originally published in 1923, the year after King Tut’s tomb was discovered, and Carnarvon wanted Budge to write the book in order to dispel some of the crazier misinformation that had been circulating since the discovery. Budge wrote this book which lays out the information available about the development of the cult of Amun, the cult of Aten, and how the two interacted and competed from the time of Thutmose III to the time of Tutankhamen. Also at Carnarvon’s request, several Egyptian hymns were included, printed with the hieroglyphs alongside the translations.

All right, I suppose I should begin by dealing with the negative aspects of this book. First of all, yes, the material on Egyptian religion is wildly outdated. All of the standard spellings of names have also changed, which can make reading it confusing. What did you expect from a book that’s 90 years old about a subject like Egyptology that has developed so dramatically over the last century? However, it must be said that Budge was ahead of his time in many ways. He rejects the ridiculously over-the-top adulation of Akhenaten introduced by men like Breasted even if he does swing the pendulum full force in the other direction by asserting that Akhenaten must have been at least “half insane” as well as “intolerant, arrogant, and obstinate” and a “megalomaniac”.

The other problem is that King Tut gets the top billing both in the title and on the cover of the book, but he isn’t talked about all that much in the book itself. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II and III get most of the attention on the Amun side of things and the Aten side of things in the book is dominated by Akhenaten, for obvious reasons. Tut might have been the selling point, but I think it was a bit of false advertising to get people to buy the book.

However, outdated though it is, the book is still a good read. It shows a historical perspective on this period of the field, considered by many to be the golden age of Egyptology.  Seeing Budges relationship with Carnarvon and getting that personal connection through letters and anecdotes is great. Also, as I said before, Budge was ahead of his time on many points and some of the material is still solid today. Just be sure you don’t’ use it as your introduction to this period of Egyptian history. The book is well-written, it has tons of pictures (always a plus in a book about Egypt), it has some good primary sources included, and you can plow through it fairly quickly.

3/5 stars

11 February 2015

Red Land, Black Land

If you are a fan of ancient Egypt, then you must read Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz. It was pure pleasure to read this book detailing the daily life of ancient Egypt based on the archaeological record. Mertz approaches the issues in this book with all the scholarly reservations necessary to make her a trustworthy source, while at the same time writing in an informal style that feels like having a conversation with an old friend. I especially liked the way she wove anecdotes about various archaeologists and their discoveries and writings seamlessly with the historical information. I also appreciated that she continually explains which things are controversies among Egyptologists and explains the arguments for both sides of each issue. It's no wonder that this book has been continually in print since its writing over 30 years ago.

This would be a good book to supplement a historical survey of Egypt, as background for writing fiction about ancient Egypt, or for anyone who simply would like to spend some time looking at the lives of men and women in a long-forgotten past.

5/5 stars

09 February 2015

Quote the Iliad and Die

"Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew nothing larger than such little towns is historical fact... [A]nyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die."

-from The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton

06 February 2015

Still More Music for Grading

I was reminded today of my yearly tradition of sharing the music I've been listening to while grading papers.

Music for Grading

More Music for Grading

Since I just finished grading exams a week ago and now find myself facing about 70 papers, I think I'll go ahead and share some good music for grading. (Or driving, or eating dinner, or unwinding after a long day of work)

1. M. Ward, Transistor Radio

2. Jon Foreman, Limbs and Branches

3. She & Him, Classics

4. Beta Radio, Seven Sisters

5. Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy

28 January 2015

A Survey of Israel's History

A Survey of Israel's History by Leon Wood is an overview of Old Testament biblical history. It is written with good scholarship and lucidity. Some of the information in it is a bit dated, as it was last updated in 1986, but overall it stands as a good summary of the history of God's people in ancient times.

The opening chapter sets things up very well, and gives some good historical and archaeological background to the book. The following chapters on the patriarchs are adequate, but they really do little more than summarize the stories in the Bible. It does a little, but only a little to place the patriarchs in their historical and cultural situation. With the wealth of archaeological information about time period, Wood could have done a lot more here.

There is an entire chapter devoted to that dating of the Exodus. Wood argues for an early date (1446/1447) rather than a late date (1250). Even a few decades later this is still solid stuff. His discussion on the identity of the habiru is a bit dated, but otherwise this would be a good introduction to the issues surrounding the dating of the exodus.

The life in Egypt chapter is very good, and I think offers a plausible fitting of the exodus story within Egyptian history. That said, there are no absolute, agreed upon dates for Egyptian rulers (Egyptian chronology is notoriously hard to pin down absolutely), but rather higher and lower chronologies. It isn’t necessary for us to dogmatically assert exactly who the pharaoh was during the time of the exodus. For example, Hatshepsut is not necessarily the princess who pulled Moses from the river. The quest to find the pharaoh of the exodus or the pharaoh of Joseph’s day or even to exactly correlate Biblical and Egyptian history must be pursued with caution and without being too dogmatic. Also most scholars today disagree that Thutmose III harbored bitterness for Hatshepsut and see other cultural reasons for his effacing of her name from monuments.

The chapters on the wilderness wanderings and the conquest are adequate, but feel a little rushed overall. Chapter on the judges period is very good on the whole. My only quibble is that he calls the government at this time a theocracy in contrast to the future monarchy. This is a false dichotomy as both are clearly intended as theocracies in Scripture.

The chapters from here on in the book, covering the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the captivity, and the intertestamental period are excellent! They are informative without being too pedantic, and thoroughly cover the historical, cultural and biblical info.

Overall, if an updated version were produced, this would make a good textbook for ages 11-12th grade or a college undergrad course.