A Divine Comedy

20 July 2012

Dante’s vision of the heavens

I confess that there have been weeks, even months in which I haven’t thought of a brief ancient text called the Apocalypse of Paul. As a matter of fact, until yesterday, I had not even heard of this treatise, which is one of the texts from Nag Hammadi.

But I am not going to start this blog post with an obscure treatise from the Egyptian desert; instead, I start with a better known piece of world literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Published between 1308 and 1321, it describes how the poet has a vision, in which he descends into Hell, climbs the Mount of Purgatory, and arrives in Heaven. His guide is the Roman poet Virgil, and it has been assumed that Dante based the structure of the Comedy on the Aeneid, in which the poet descends into the Underworld.

This is of course unsatisfactory. Dante’s poem is too optimistic to be modelled upon a descent into Hell. The Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios discovered a far more plausible model: the Islamic story about Muhamad’s ascension to the seven heavens, the Mi’raj. The classic account of Muhamad’s vision can be found in Ibn Ishaq’s Life of the Prophet, but there are many legends about it. They have been collected in the eleventh-century Kitab al-Miraj (the “Book of the ladder”), which was in 1264 translated into Spanish as La Escala de Mahoma by Abrahim Alfaquim. Dante knew it through his teacher, Brunetto Latini.

In other words, a part of Muhamad’s biography has been embellished; these legends were translated; and Dante used this in his masterpiece. It is always interesting to see how literary themes can jump from one culture to another.

As a matter of fact, the Mi’raj story itself is also an example of this: the Prophet is negotiating with God about the number of prayers that the believers have to say, in a story that very closely resembles the Jewish account of Abraham negotiating with God about the number of righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Dante and Muhamad, however, are not the only visitors of Heaven. In the ancient Jewish world, there used to be a substantial literature about the patriarch Enoch, who is mentioned in Genesis 5.18-24 as one who “walked with God” and who was “taken by God”- in other words, he never died. Since the third century BCE, many stories were told about what Enoch had seen in Heaven, and how he witnessed the great battles between Good and Evil in the early days. This subject matter used to be extremely popular.

However, the rabbis who organized the Jewish Bible excluded the Enochite literature, because they were not convinced that it was Divinely inspired. The early Christians did sometimes quote from Enoch, but in the end also excluded the texts from their scriptures. The exception is the Ethiopian Church, and it is possible that the Mi’raj story is based on the Ethiopian Enoch. However, I think that the Apocalypse of Paul offers a much closer parallel.

It is a very short text – three pages in the translation I consulted – but that is enough to see that it refers to an ascension to heavens. The plural “heavens” is crucial. It is derived from the Pauline epistles, when the apostle says he ascended to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12.1-4). So, I would guess that the Apocalypse of Paul is the missing link between the Book of Enoch and the story of the Mi’raj. However, there are alternatives; Enochite literature was known to Jewish mystics, and they can also be a missing link.

In sum: a motif jumps from one religion to another. The author of the Apocalypse of Paul has combined Enochite and Pauline themes, and is the missing link between Enoch’s ascension to Heaven and the Mi’raj. It might be interesting to look at a connection to the myth of Etana, who was brought to heaven by an eagle.


Abusing the Bible

4 July 2012

Marib, capital of Sheba

That was a nice article. Scientists confirmed that there are close links between Ethiopia and groups outside of Africa, which is evidence of long-ago genetic mixing between Ethiopian populations and Syrian and Israeli people. Not surprising, of course. Already in the Naqada Period, merchants sailed from Egypt to Syria and Nubia. They continued to do so for centuries. It would have been real news if there had been no genetic mixing.

Unfortunately, scientists do not like to confirm what is already known. Or, to be more precise: they themselves have no problem with it, because a confirmation is also interesting, but their financers do not like it. So, the article is introduced by referring to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10.1-13). And voilà, all journalists copy it, although Sheba is not in Ethiopia but in Yemen. I expect that the scientists involved will, when they establish genetic mixing between the Levant and Belgium, refer to Rhabanus Maurus’ story that Joseph of Arimathea visited England.

Why is the Bible always quoted? If the Thera explodes in 1629 BCE, we get a press release that Moses, during his travel through the desert, followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13.21). If scientists tell about lack of oxygen causing people to hallucinate, they refer to Moses on the mountain (Ex. 19.3). If archaeologists find an extremely old sanctuary between Euphrates and Tigris, they start talking about the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8-14). The golden rule appears to be: by referring to the Bible, you will attract large crowds, and can look forward to a miraculous multiplication of funds.

Of course the Bible does mention that Moses followed a pillar of clouds, that Moses went up a mountain, and that God planted a garden between four rivers. The theories founded upon these stories may be nonsensical, but at least there are fitting quotes in the Bible. But there is not a single line in the Bible that can be used to bring the Yemenite Queen to Ethiopia. And the medieval legend that is adduced, is precisely that: a medieval legend.

If scientists start referring to the Queen of Sheba for the genetic mixing in Ethiopia, something is very seriously wrong. Quack historians at least quote things that are actually in the sources. Official scientists are not even interested in that.

Lebanese Antiquities: A Nation Divided

12 April 2012

The Lebanese flag

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It’s a cliché, but Lebanon is indeed a country of minorities. There have been no censuses since 1932, but it is estimated that about ninety percent of the four million inhabitants are Lebanese Arabs. The remainder consists mainly of Palestinians, who settled in camps like Sabra and Shatila (southern Beirut) after 1948, and Armenians, who fled from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and live mainly in eastern Beirut.

Tomb of the assassinated prime minister Hariri

Other divisions are religious. Generally speaking, the people of the coast and center are Christians, with the northern part of the country following the Sunnite Islam, and the eastern part (the Bekaa Valley) and the south being Shi’ite. This division is, however, misleading on three points.

In the first place, because these religious groups are divided into smaller groups: the Shi’ites in the deep south are ‘twelvers’ who are waiting for the return of the twelfth imam (among these Shi’ites, Hezbollah finds its supporters), while the Druzes in the central south are an unusual type of ‘seveners’. The Alawis are another offshoot of the sevener Shia. Christians can be subdivided into Maronites and Greek Orthodox, although we also saw a Melkite church.

Tyre; memorial for the Unifil soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion

In the second place, the geographical division is not as smooth as it seems. For example, although the Bekaa Valley is mainly Shi’ite, the cities of Zahle and Chtaura are Christian. In the third place, some people are pious and orthodox and really define themselves in religious terms, while others are more secular.

So, there’s no denying that Lebanon is a divided country. And it still matters. A man we met in Beirut, presumably Christian, was surprised we had gone to Tyre (Shi’ite), where he had never been. He believed tourists could go there without fear, but he was clearly not interested in going there personally.

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Where is our Easter hoax?!

8 March 2012

Christians are preparing themselves to celebrate Easter, so it’s not a wild guess that Biblical scholars are by now preparing their annual archaeological fundraising hoax. But something seems to be wrong. The big question is: why haven’t we seen anything yet?

I mean, I like those old customs. Just like Christmas would be incomplete without an astronomer who, unaware of the rules of textual exegesis, repeats some mumbo-jumbo about the Star of Bethlehem being a comet/nova/conjunction, Easter is incomplete without some piece of ridiculous archaeology.

Last year, we had Colin Humphreys, but this year… I’ve only seen a lame attempt to focus on an old manuscript that is supposed to exist and, hey, there was Simcha Jacobovici again. But let’s be honest: our scholars can do better.

They must, in fact, because we’re entitled to the annual spectacle of archaeologists making themselves look ridiculous. If the BBC can present Stephen Dando-Collins as a serious scholar, they must this year again be able to sell out to a decent quack historian. Easter traditions are to be taken seriously.


OK, there it is, this year’s scholarly self-harm: Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite. Why on earth does a scholar allow herself to be summarized like that? Why does someone respond without checking the original article? Damage done. Thanks.


15 March 2010

I know the rule on this blog is to provide a nice little image to illustrate the matter at hand, but the gentle reader will pardon me if I forgo it in this particular case: today’s item on Lacus is another Smith’s Dictionary article: Hieroduli. It’s about temple slaves, some of it involving prostitution; if so inclined of course, you may supply your own illustration. It’s not as prudish an article as one often reads for the mid-19c, but there’s really no need to be as prurient as our age seems to enjoy, so a happy balance is struck. The value of the article, again, lies in its collecting the classical loci.