Thursday, May 31, 2007


Hmmm.... No time to write much on this, though there is a huge amount to say, but was talking about it again last night, in the context of discussing homophobia and stuff and so thought it would be a good idea to record some controversial thoughts on it.

  • No-one goes to hell for being gay.
  • Homophobia (especially a fear of being thought to be gay) is deeply ingrained in large parts of British culture and in large parts of the church
  • To treat homosexual sex outside marriage differently from hetereosexual sex outside marriage seems to be an example of homophobia.
  • Sexual "orientation" is both continuous and fluid, though to varying degrees in different people.
  • To define one's identity by sexual orientation (whether straight, gay, bisexual, 3 on the Kinsey scale, whatever) is unhelpful and flawed. We do not link our preference for sweet or sour foods to our identity - why should we link our preference for sex with men or sex with women?
  • In light of the previous two aphorisms, the concept of orientation itself is in some ways deeply flawed and certainly unhelpful in debate.
  • The Biblical doctrine of sex is intrinsically linked to the Biblical doctrine of marriage. To understand what the Bible teaches on the issue in the light of the new covenant, we need to approach the issue through the doctrine of marriage rather than by arguing over which OT laws do or don't apply
  • A clear distinction needs to be drawn between temptation and sin. Temptation is fine. Jesus was tempted, quite possibly in homosexual ways (e.g. Hebrews 4:15). Sin is not fine.
  • The primary Biblical mandate for how Christians are to act is to love rather than to judge.
  • I see no reason why non-Christians should accept arguments based on "the Bible says..."
  • In the light of that, it seems to me that Biblically, marriage is meant to be heterosexual and lifelong, and that sex belongs inside marriage and not elsewhere.
  • If there are three men talking, then one of them goes away and has sexual fantasies about a woman, another goes away and has sex with a man, and the third goes away and is proud that he has controlled his sex life, Jesus would be most likely to condemn the third one. And the first and second are pretty much morally equivalent if we take Matthew 5:27 seriously.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wycliffe Hall stuff

Wycliffe Hall has been in the news recently, and it's annoying for the following reasons:

1. A high proportion of the stuff that is being said is untrue and just straight malicious.

2. The effect that this is likely to have is to make the college more conservative in its intake, which is what no-one really wants. Well, there might be someone who wanted it, but I honestly can't think who that is unless it's someone who doesn't want less conservative theological students trained.

3. I really feel for the people caught up in the flak, especially for Richard Turnbull.

Here's Richard Turnbull's article about what he is trying to do at Wycliffe. And here's a quote from Chris Sugden (not at Wycliffe, but he seems to have a decent understanding of it) on the Sunday programme on Radio 4.

Richard Turnbull comes from parish ministry and wanted to change the culture of what had been really a sort of free-spirited academic collective in common with all Oxford colleges. I think it is a culture change situation in the institution which is being led by the Council which the chief executive is being asked to take through. The culture of Oxford academics is very conservative. And it is a culture change in the college that is obviously providing some degree of discomfort. That is the struggle.

There is a far greater division than those being suggested in the discussions at Wycliffe Hall. For the major division is between those who believe that the Gospel enables people to be transformed through the power of Christ, through his work and the presence of the Holy Spirit and those who in the end of the day do not believe that happens and that what we have is a sort of religiosity of the English people and life that has to be managed and its worst excesses curbed. People have said that are two religions currently in the Church of England and that is not very far from the truth.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Adrian Plass - Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation

This is a kind of mock dictionary of Christian jargon, words, etc. Definitions vary between crossword clues for the word, perceptive commentary, bad puns and outright hilarious comments. A few examples from the back of the book...

Oblivion: Nothing to worry about

Pillar of the Church: big thick thing that holds everything up and restricts vision.

Friday, May 25, 2007

J.R.R. Tolkien - Children of Hurin

It's amazing how quickly I seem to be able to read fiction, especially when I'm in the middle of a work crisis! I remmeber reading Les Miserables twice through while trying to revise for my finals first time I was at uni...

This is a story of Tolkien's, set in Middle Earth about 6500 years before Lord of the Rings, rescued from random manuscripts and notes by his son Christopher and published to try to cash in a little more on the films of Lord of the Rings.

It's striking - Tolkien's interest and intention was largely in legend and in writing it. And whereas Lord of the Rings had much more of a feel of saga or epic - like Beowulf or something - this has much more of the feel of an ancient Greek myth. Quite possibly that's deliberate, being set earlier and all. But I'm hardly an expert on either sub-genre.

Anyhow, Hurin is a senior man in the war against Morgoth (Sauron's boss), and he gets captured by Morgoth and cursed. The book is the tragedy of how the curse works itself out in the lives of his heroic but tragic son Turin and his beautiful but tragic daughter Niennor. It's interesting and moving and set in the same world, but don't expect anywhere near the scale or detail of Lord of the Rings. At the end of the day, it's expanding a legend that was present in Lord of the Rings, so adding still more depth to that world, rather than exploring a new one. It is also a tragedy, so don't expect a happy ending...

Thursday, May 24, 2007


I watched the football last night. Liverpool v AC Milan. Hey, at least we got to the final.

Having said that, as a Liverpool fan, it was almost worth seeing Liverpool lose to see Milan's star player, Kaka, running round the pitch afterwards wearing an "I belong to Jesus" T-shirt. The British commentators were embarrassed and avoided it almost as quickly as they avoided the streaker or whoever it was.

Reminds me of the 2002 World Cup final. After Brazil won it, most of them removed their shirts to display their "I love Jesus" t-shirts, then had photos taken like that. The commentators just went quiet, which is quite impressive for football commentators...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bible Commentaries 3

This is the third part in a series on series of Bible commentaries. This time, I'm aiming to look at longer and heavier commentaries. There's some overlap with part 2, but the series this time often seem to go into multiple volumes on a single Bible book or need knowledge of the original language. These are roughly in my order of preference.

Baker Exegetical Commentary

Baker seem to cover the Bible sporadically in mini-series (e.g. they have a series on Widsom Literature), but very well. The commentaries on the Minor Prophets, on Proverbs and on Luke are excellent, and I haven't seen any that aren't. Knowledge of the original language is useful but not essential for using them. If there's one in print, it's always worth at least a look and will probably be among the best commentaries on that book.

New International Greek Testament Commentary

Slightly oddly named series, only on the New Testament. Whereas most commentaries either use a common translation (NIV/NRSV/ESV) or the author translates it themselves, the NIGTC doesn't - it just leaves it in Greek and discusses the text in Greek. Hence some knowledge of Greek is very much required. The standard is pretty high - France on Mark is excellent, Thistleton on 1 Corinthians is meant to be excellent as well. Generally doctrinally conservative, though that can sometimes be a problem, depending on the author (e.g. in 1 Timothy 2, there is no real discussion of alternative interpretations to the traditional one).

New International Commentary

These seem to vary in weight and depth of coverage. Some, especially the older ones, are lighter - about the level of a NAC, and these are fairly mixed with some good and some less so. Generally the newer ones are both more detailed and better. Block on Ezekiel and Moo on Romans both seem to be among the best and most detailed things in print on those books. The people writing them are generally evangelicals, though coming from a range of positions within that. For example, 1 Corinthians by Fee is generally considered to be excellent and takes a significantly more charismatic view of the book than Thistleton in the NIGTC.

"Critical Commentaries"

I should confess to being immediately suspicious of any commentary that describes itself as "critical". "Critical" comes from a Greek word meaning "to judge", and we are meant to be judged by Scripture, not judge it. Some critical stuff is actually ok - trying to understand how one passage fits into the book as a whole. Some of it is rubbish - like spending almost all the space constructing elaborate pre-histories of the book which actually assume that it's not really true, and ignoring how it might apply to us.

Word Commentary

If you just looked at the advertising for them (and they're about the only series I've seen advertise), you'd think they were the last word in undetrstanding the Bible. They aren't. There are some excellent books in the series (Genesis, Job, John, Colossians spring to mind), but there are some which are horrible. The scholars are meant to be evangelical, but too often spend much of their time doing all the rubbish prehistory of text stuff and not enough on what the passage means and how it applies. In addition, comments on each passage are split into notes, form/structure/setting, comment, notes, explanation which makes them difficult to read, a problem not helped by using a less clear typeface and being badly printed.


This series is big. They're aimed to be written "without arbitrary limits in size or scope", for which read "not easily portable". They're critical, but the primary aim is to "lay bare the ancient meaning of a Biblical work". And they actually often do a good job of it. Don't expect them to explain how an Old Testament passage is all about Jesus, but they're often very good on explaining what it meant for Israel. For example, it's the best commentary I've found on Jeremiah.

Anchor Bible

This is another critical series that aims to go into as much depth as possible. But they don't even expect their authors to be Christians, and often end up spending lots of time doing critical stuff. Three examples - Hosea in the Anchor series is one of the most (excessively) detailed commentaries on any book. Leviticus (3 volumes) is incredibly good and detailed on the significance of the OT ceremonial law, but I don't think it mentions Jesus (well, it is by a Jewish scholar...). The commentary on Jeremiah decides that the book of Jeremiah is in the wrong order, so re-orders it, then does the commentary, which kind of misses the point. Sometimes Anchor is better, sometimes Hermeneia is better. In general Anchor is more critical though. And if Hermeneia commentaries are difficult to carry, Anchor ones are difficult to afford. But it's usually not worth it.

International Critical Commentary

The name prejudices me against them. They're generally critical, liberal but often well-thought through. One of the problems with the series is that some of the books in it are 80 years old (but in modern bindings), which means that they don't just come out with critical rubbish, they come out with outdated, disproved critical rubbish. Another is the cost - they're fairly useful if doing study of the book in a non-Christian academic environment, as they tend to tell you lots of different opinions, but if I only had one commentary on a book, I can't think of a single example where I'd want it to be an ICC.

Series I've forgotten about

There are series I haven't mentioned here - the Interpretation Series, which seems to be a kind of liberal equivalent to the BST, the Sacra Pagina which might be a Roman Catholic equivalent of the NIC, and so on. That's because I haven't really comes across them much, though I know some evangelicals who like them.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Margaret Atwood - Cat's Eye

There are a few authors I really like and sometimes go out of my way to read. Of them, Margaret Atwood is probably the most thought-provoking, and Cat's Eye is no exception.

It's a book about middle-aged female artist doing a retrospective exhibition of her work. Probably over half the book is in flashback to the events that shaped her life, especially her slightly unusual family and how she was bullied as a child. It's got all kinds of themes - memory, ageing, female relationships and friendships, bullying, art, judging other people, ...

One thing worries me though. I am almost certain this classes as "chick lit", which I normally intensely dislike, but I quite enjoyed this one. Probably because it was so well written...

Random Margaret Atwood anecdote - on my selection conference for the C of E, the first evening we had a questionnaire to fill in, kind of like an exam but with questions such as "When were you last angry? What did you do?" In one of those, I mentioned that I'd just finished reading Oryx and Crake, by Atwood. There was one interviewer who was coming from a very different background to me, so I thought it might be difficult to relate well to her. But we chatted for nearly an hour about that book and issues it raised... Random advice for people going on selection conferences therefore is to read a Margaret Atwood novel first, just coz there's so much to talk about afterwards.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Meekness of Wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
James 3:13, ESV

Isn't that a wonderful phrase? "The Meekness of Wisdom".

And so much of a contrast with the way we normally think...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Not a Preacher"

A friend of mine said that to me the other day. She was describing the leader of a local church. The assessment of that leader didn't particularly surprise me, but what surprised me was that she didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with the leader of a church not being a gifted preacher.

As I've written on here before, as far as I can tell, the criteria the apostle Paul required for a church leader were roughly excellent character + able to teach.

Time and again in the New Testament, we see that lots of people have been given lots of different gifts, and it is the job of the people with "word gifts" (such as preaching and teaching) to equip everyone else for using their gifts so that the church can be built up. In other words, it's the preachers and teachers who should be doing the whole servant leadership thing.

In light of that, and in light of some of the mess that's been going on today and will rumble for a while yet, here's a quote from 2 Timothy.

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
2 Timothy 2:24-25, ESV

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bible Commentaries 2

Part 1 | Part 3 | Individual Books

OK - this time I'm aiming to make a start on talking about hardback series of Bible commentaries.

NIV Application Commentaries

In some ways, these belong with the paperback commentaries, though some of them can get quite big. They're generally aimed at people who have to do preaching or teaching without knowledge of the original language. They tend to have sections for each passage on "Original Meaning", "Bridging Contexts" and "Contemporary Significance". That makes them not really ideal for devotional work, and sometimes a bit too much like predigested food for my liking when preaching. They often don't have much technical detail at all, but sometimes really engage with all the critical issues and stuff very well.

Having said that, if you're in a hurry, or don't have the background or training (or whatever) to figure out how to apply a passage in general terms, I'd imagine they are really useful. They've also done a very good job of selecting the authors - they are regularly the best easily accessible commentary on each book, especially in the Old Testament. The NIVAC commentaries on Psalms 1-72 and on Ecclesiastes are the best commentaries of any level that I've found on those books.

One tip for finding very good "heavy" commentaries - find out who wrote the NIVAC, and see what else they've written on that book...

Expositor's Bible Commentary

As series go, this is a real wildcard entry. Some of the commentaries (e.g. Carson on Matthew) are really good. Some are little more than a poor imitation of the Tyndale style. But they publish them in big books containing several commentaries of vastly unequal length and quality. For example, Carson's Matthew fills over half a book, with shorter commentaries on Mark and Luke tagged onto the end. But it's often possible to get them fairly cheap. I've certainly read comments on one of the commentaries saying something like "You should get this commentary, but only because it's in the same volume as vanGemeren's commentary on Psalms."

Pillar New Testament Commentaries

Take a good and well-respected evangelical scholar. Get them to write a good Tyndale-style NT commentary (verse by verse exposition, attention paid to original languages but explained clearly in English, good application of verses and passages, detail on structure of the book), but remove the limit on how much space they can take up within a single-volume commentary, go bigger and hardback and you have the Pillar Series. It's one of the best all-round series of commentaries - they even get commentaries in the series re-written if they aren't up to the high standards, and the series isn't nearly complete yet. Pretty much every commentary in the series is among the best on that book of the Bible.

There is an equivalent series in the OT - the Apollos OT commentaries. I think only three of the series have come out thus far, of which one didn't look great, and I've had one which is meant to be great (McConville on Deuteronomy) on order for several months because the print runs are never big enough for it. [Edited to add - I've got it; it was worth the wait]

New American Commentary

The space limits on the Tyndale series caused problems in the Old Testament (with a few exceptions). That kind of gap in the market seems to be filled quite well by the larger New American Commentaries. One of the big problems with the series is that they're published in the US, so are quite rare over here so difficult to look at beforehand. But they're cheap from Amazon due to a strong pound and weak dollar. The ones I've seen so far (Exodus and Judges especially) seem very good.

There is a New Testament series too, but the only one I've looked at didn't seem quite up to the standards of the Pillar series or the like. They are American, which is a mixed blessing. I've heard the series gets weird when it gets to eschatological stuff, and I don't know what they do with Genesis either.

Calvin's Commentaries

I really ought to mention these, for several reasons. One, they're available free on the Internet. Two, even though they're 450 years old, they're often still among the best commentaries. The bits I'm less keen on are where he tries harmonising books, which misses the point of having four gospels rather than one (for example), and means that he doesn't deal with the structural stuff as well.

On the other hand, if you want old commentaries, they're great. I've heard that Origen's commentary on the Song of Songs is really good too, and that's over 1700 years old....

Still to come...

I've still got to talk about the heavyweight commentaries (which I'm roughly defining as the ones which often go to multiple hardback volumes on a single book of the Bible or which require specialist knowledge of the language) such as NIC, Word, NIGTC, ...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tampering with Creeds

One thing I really don't like is people tampering with creeds. Creeds are meant to be statements of what the Church as a whole believes. So the church as a whole agreed the Nicene Creed at Nicea (well, actually at Constantinople, but it was based on one they'd agreed at Nicea), then the Pope decided to add the word "filioque" (meaning "and the Son") after "who proceeds from the Father". It caused a big split in the church.

Oh and here's the original form of what is now known as the "Apostles' Creed". This version seems to go back to the 2nd century AD, which is pretty early.

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh
(the life everlasting).

There's two sources for that, which are word-for-word the same except that they're in different languages. That last line is in one of the sources and not the other one, but otherwise they're identical.

Since then, however, some people have seen fit to add other bits onto it. Some of them (like calling God the Father "creator of heaven and earth") are fine - that line is just taken from the Nicene Creed. Some of them, like "he descended into hell" are debateable, haven't been held by all the church everywhere always and just cause arguments.

What really annoys me about this though is that the Reformation was meant to be largely about rejecting all the bits the Roman Catholics had added to the faith of the apostles, but they kept the creeds as the Romans had them in the 1500s, with all the extra bits added. Grrrr...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Carson - loving enemies in the church

Ideally, however, the church itself is not made up of natural "friends". It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accens, common jobs, or anything else of that sort.... In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus' sake.

Don Carson, Love in Hard Places

Applications to the whole Fresh Expressions movement, to the way that social subgroups work in church, etc...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bible Commentaries 1

Part 2 | Part 3 | Individual Books

I think this is the sort of post I'd have found useful in the past. Over the last year or so, I've used a lot of Bible commentaries. One point worth making over and over again is that there is more variation between different commentaries in (almost) any one series than there is between similar-ish series. When choosing a commentary, there are several factors to bear in mind.

Why do you want to use one? Is it for personal devotions, for trying to understand a difficult bit of the Bible, for preparing a sermon or a Bible study, for academic work?

What level of background do you have? Do you want something that will assume lots of theological terms and a reasonable proficiency in the original language or something that will ignore it altogether?

I'm aiming today to think about commentary series which are available in paperback, then might move on to some of the heavier ones later. It's worth mentioning that Parableman has his own recommendations, which are pretty good.

Bible Speaks Today

This is probably the series I've seen for sale most often over the years. They generally read like moderately academic sermons - the kind of level I'd expect to hear at the CU at a fairly academic university.

However, the standard of them is somewhat variable. At best (like Stott on Acts, Romans and Ephesians or Wright on Ezekiel), they are pertinent, challenging, clear and really help to understand the text better. But quite a few of them are just long-winded and obtuse ways of saying obvious stuff in a way that isn't especially challenging.

If you get a good one, they can be great to use devotionally, or maybe for a Bible study leader.

Crossway Bible Guides

Simpler than BSTs, very clear, but not much depth. They tend to state the obvious quite a bit and just put some application questions. I've only used a few of them, but they seemed ok. If you want to get to know the Bible better and find it hard to understand or if you're a group leader who doesn't read a lot, they might well be helpful.

Tom Wright's "For Everyone" Series

I've tried them a few times, but really can't get into them. He seems to make comments which are interesting in themselves but don't really go too well with the text and don't really apply it. Probably similar to Crossway in academic level. Quite a few people I know find the translation (which is freshly done by Tom Wright) useful though.

Tyndale Series

These aim to be more of a verse-by-verse commentary than any of the others so far. In my experience with them, there seems to be a big difference between the Old Testament ones (with a few exceptions) and the New Testament ones. The OT ones are usually much too short for the book of the Bible they are dealing with, so don't have space to do more than state the obvious, with a few exceptions (e.g. Wenham on Numbers). The one on Jeremiah (longest book in the Bible) doesn't even look long enough to fit the full text of Jeremiah in! The NT ones are about the same size as the OT ones, but with much shorter Bible books and the format really comes into its own there.

There is commentary on the original language (well, in the NT ones anyway), but you don't need to be able to read or understand Greek at all to use the commentary - it's usually made clear what's going on. Depending on the author, they can be really well applied as well. I've found Grudem on 1 Peter and Stott on 1 John to be really helpful.

At their best, the Tyndales and BSTs end up pretty similar and are probably the best paperback commentaries available. At worst, there's little point buying them, however little they cost.

Books of Sermons

Some of these can be really good as well, and are often the best thing available in paperback on that book. Examples inclue Dale Ralph Davis on Joshua-2 Kings (1 volume per Bible book), Kendall on Jonah.

New International Bible Commentary

This is another very variable series, not just in the quality but in what the authors try to do. Some (e.g. Wright on Deuteronomy) are not that different from books of sermons and can be really good (Wright is). Others (e.g. Provan on 1&2 Kings) do pretty much verse-by-verse with little application, though Provan does it well. Others try anywhere on that spectrum, with varying degrees of quality.

Reading the Bible Today

They try to do a kind of "written exposition" that is part way between the BST and Tyndale styles. It ends up giving only one interpretation of the passage, which isn't always the obvious one, but which gives some food for thought and useful ideas for preaching. But I wouldn't want to prepare a Bible study with this as my only commentary.

Sheffield Academic Guides

These are actually quite useful for getting an overview of a book and seeing what people say about it. It's often the most useful paperback for revising the book for an academic exam, but don't expect them to view the Bible as true.

Reformed Expository Commentaries

See here for my thoughts on the only one I've used.

Choosing a Commentary

Ideally, always read at least part of it before you buy it. Find a difficult verse in the book or a verse you know quite a bit about and see what several commentaries say. If you can't do that, my recommendation for paperback commentaries for fairly literate people (but don't have to be a supergenius) would be roughly as follows:

  • New Testament
    • If Stott wrote the BST, get that
    • Otherwise get the Tyndale
  • Old Testament
    • Is there a good book of sermons on that book? (I've mentioned some above) If so, get that
    • Wright on Deuteronomy (NIBC), Wenham on Numbers (Tyndale), Kendall on Jonah, Motyer on Isaiah (not Tyndale)
    • otherwise BST is probably your best bet. Some are great, but don't expect them all to be. There is a problem with lack of good commentaries on chunks of the Old Testament. NIVACs are often better and at the same sort of level, but are hardback and generally more expensive.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is Hebrew Mathematical?

I'm learning Hebrew at the moment. And one thing that people say to me quite a bit is that I should appreciate Hebew, because it is a very mathematical language. And to be honest, I've never really understood that, until today.

I used to be quite good at maths, well - until my second year at Cambridge. Maths was great, because all I needed was to understand a few simple facts, and then everything else was obvious. But Hebrew didn't seem to be like that at all....

As far as I can tell, Hebrew has a very large number of odd and silly rules, but if you follow those rules, it tends to work.

Today I finally made the conceptual leap. Hebrew is like maths, as encountered by people who aren't very good at it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Bodleian Library

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is quite possibly the most over-rated library in the country. It claims to have copies of every book published in England, which actually means that it doesn't have many useful books printed outside England. And yes, it's got some very large number of books, but most of the books are actually in warehouses 10 miles away.

And they don't actually let you borrow anything. That's useful when it's a book labelled as "Essential reading" on your course list and the 10 copies in the department library have already been borrowed by people with tutorials earlier in the week who have now forgotten to take them back so will have to pay a small fine while I have to cope without. But it's not so good because there aren't any 24-hour reading rooms, which was really inconvenient when I was doing teacher training and so at school all through office hours.

Also, in a world centre of literacy or whatever, I found this sign quite amusing....

So many comments:

  • Could I have a staircase with gravy please? Or how about a toilet with lumpy chocolate sauce?
  • Does the notice say they provide drinking fountains but you aren't allowed to use them? I think so
  • Why does Oxford have this thing against drinking water? (you aren't allowed to drink water while doing exams either, though you are allowed to go to the toilet once in a 3 hour exam - I suspect it's a human rights violation and keep toying with the idea of trying to call them on it). Given that when I went into the Bodleian today, I was dripping wet and managed to drip on a few books, surely a better rule would be drinks with sports caps only; no dripping on books.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Israel 10 - Archaeology

Without passing any comment whatsoever on the politics of the area...

One thing I found really striking was that at almost every archaeological site we visited (rather than churches which had been there for 1700 years), the archaeology started shortly after the modern state of Israel took control of the area. So lots started in the late 1940s and early 50s. In the West Bank, which Israel only got control of in 1967, the archaeology all started in the late 60s. And in Jerusalem, the archaeology was being done almost entirely by Jews and opposed by Arabs. Certainly interesting...

In other news, I'm far too busy at the moment.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Israel 9 - Politics and Propaganda

Being a somewhat tense area of the world, there is an awful lot of propaganda doing the rounds in Israel and Palestine. And sadly, there seem to be very very few people who seem to have fully understood both sides of the argument. We did find one Christian Palestinian guy who was nearly there and was doing excellent work with trying to get reconciliation between individual Palestinian Christians and individual Jewish Christians.

The best single bit of propaganda we came across had to be at Masada. Basically, it was a pretty much invincible fortress. It's a small mountain, a few hundred metres high (though the top is only like 50m above sea level because the bottom is near to the Dead Sea). The top 50m or so all round is essentially cliff face, and they'd built a fortress into it.

(Some of the view from the top, showing bits of the fortress and one of Herod's palaces up there. Note also how far away the background looks.)

In AD66 or so, the Jews revolted against the Roman occupation, so the Romans eventually sent an army to crush them. Masada was the last place held against the Romans, in AD73/74. The Romans, being clever, captured it by forcing expendable slaves to build a huge ramp up one side, therefore making the fortress pregnable.

The Romans brought up battering rams, broke a hole in the wall, but all the Jews committed suicide rather than fighting or being captured. (Incidentally, in a similar situation at Gamla few years earlier, one Jewish guy had been part of the suicide pact, rigged it so he was the last one to die, then handed himself over to the Romans and ended up commanding one of their armies against his own people. Nice.)

Anyhow, at the visitors' centre at the bottom of Masada, there was a video presentation about it. And given that it's kind of hard to spin "Our last few soldiers committed suicide rather than fight" in a good light, they managed to do an exceptionally good job. They had an archaeologist telling the story, but with the decision being between death and slavery. It ended up with the archaeologist saying to another guy something like "I'm really impressed that they chose death over slavery. What would you do?"

Anyway, quick outline of both sides' views, as I understand them.

Neither side (Israeli / Palestinian) really considers the other lot to be human.

Israel was set up in 1948 with stupid and indefensible borders (like having a 10m strip round one side of Lake Galilee, but there's lots of examples). Their experience suggests that they aren't going to get on well enough with their neighbours to be able to trust them with borders like that, so in 1967 they conquered big chunks of land to give them more sensible borders. Hard-line Israelis want control of all the area, but there aren't many of them. Most of them just seem to want security, which includes not having Palestinians (or anyone else) blow themselves up in wedding parties. They therefore do whatever it takes to stop those things happening. And if that means having roads that Palestinian-registered cars can't drive on and having a great big concrete wall around some Palestinian towns with checkpoints, that is what it means. It doesn't actually seem to be apartheid - Palestinians living in Israeli areas (e.g. central Jerusalem) seem to have much the same rights as other Israelis, but it's not an ideal situation.

Palestinians aren't happy about Israel controlling as much land as they do. They see themselves as owning all the lands which were conquered by Israel in 1967. So if Israel decides to build some more houses on land which the Palestinians think they own, even if they don't have deeds to the land, they get very unhappy. They are also very unhappy that when Israel built the big concrete wall, they often built it right round the edge of Palestinian areas, sometimes even through Palestinian-owned land. The hard-liners, of whom there aren't very many, want Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. The moderates want all of what they see as their land back and don't seem to see the treaty signed by Yasser Arafat which gave up some of the West Bank in return for autonomous government in the rest as binding. Though they quite like having their own government.

It gets even more complicated when it comes to Jerusalem. Both sides want to control the Temple Mount, and neither side is going to give in.

Some of my, probably very controversial thoughts:

  • Politically, conquest is a legitimate method of getting to own land. If it isn't, it would be well-nigh impossible to establish ownership of any bit of land anywhere in the world, because it's pretty much all been conquered by someone at some stage. Part of the purpose of taxes is to pay for protection for your ownership of land and property. That seems to go completely against a lot of modern assumptions, but I just don't see how taking any other position holds together, unless you want to deny that it is possible to own land at all.
  • On the other hand, tyranny is also wrong. If lots of people live somewhere, and they all want independence, it's generally right to let them have their own government. And yes, I know there's a lot of tension between these first two points, and they lead to all kinds of questions about squatters and stuff.
  • It's better to solve problems by looking at the current situation and thinking about the best way forwards than by dwelling on the past too much.
  • If Palestinians feel oppressed, violent resistance is likely to get there precisely nowhere. Non-violent resistance, on the other hand, might well get them somewhere if they are feeling aggrieved, especially with the importance of world media. Where is the Gandhi of the Palestinians?
  • If Palestine is independent of Israel, then both sides can do pretty much what they want with border checkpoints and enforcing the border, if there is an agreed border. But if they are independent, Israel shouldn't have checkpoints inside Palestine (and Palestine shouldn't inside Israel).
  • Both sides have been hugely at fault in this conflict, and are unlikely to be able to move forwards unless they both recognise that.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Israel 8 - Silly Signs

Well, it had to be done...

In this church, you weren't allowed to wear underwear or carry guns, but it was essential to eat Pepperami.

This one banned legs and eating cocktail glasses. Dogs were not allowed to look up.

One wonders how much English-speaking custom they got. Or maybe it was a brothel.

This one was almost certainly intentional, but worth showing coz it's kind of cool.

Israel 7 - In the Desert

It was really quite surprising how close the desert is to Jerusalem. Seems to be popular with monks and other people wanting quiet or to be on their own. Lovely pictures, but I'm not sure I'd like to live there...

Monks lived in these caves...

One of the caves they stored scrolls in at Qumeran.

View from near the top of Masada.

Sunset over the Wedi Qelt (and my current computer desktop background).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Israel 6 - Fake and Genuine

We had two guides on the trip to Israel. One was a local Christian of Armenian ancestry. The other was a lecturer here. One of the things I really appreciated about our non-local guide was that he made it a lot easier to tell what was genuine and what wasn't. There does seem to be a strong tendancy for not-quite-genuine things in Israel and Palestine. The worst culprit was quite possibly "the tree Zacchaeus climbed".

(Note the way it doesn't look anywhere near 2000 years old. I guess that's miraculous preservation or something.)

It was an interesting choice of our driver to stop by that tree in Jericho, but not to stop at the Tell (archaeological hill) containing the ruins of one of the oldest cities on Earth.

If we'd just had someone telling us "this is the tree Zacchaeus climbed", "this is the place where Jesus was crucified", we'd have had a heard time telling which ones were genuine and which ones weren't. But the honesty about the implausibility of some sites made the genuine sites more impressive.

Though another interesting take on it was which sites seemed genuine. Although the Church of the Resurrection quite probably was the original site of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Garden Tomb site was much more genuine in the sense of bearing a closer resemblence to what the original was like. Oh, and the garden was nice, even if it was a modified version of the later English gardening movement, which I read the other day was a product of the Reformation.

The tomb has been left in the rock-face, you can go into the ante-room and see into the burial chamber. And there's a lovely sign on the entrance saying "He is not here. He has risen."

I think the Garden Tomb was probably the best venue we visited, and one of the very few to make an effort to explain the significance of what went on.