Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections on 2010 Part II

Oh, so this wasn't enough for you?  Fine, I'll try to do better this time.

I've now typed out two entire blog posts and deleted both of them.  They just sound whiny and selfish.  Suffice it to say that this year has been tough.  An unstable job situation, extremely unstable financial situation, living in an apartment after 10 years of home-ownership (no, we didn't get foreclosed on, but we sold our last house and moved to a new town and have not yet been able to get into a new house), our 9-year-old dog died after a lengthy illness that was almost certainly brought on by the family stress of the last year and a half, and generally feeling extremely out of sorts and off kilter because of all the stress.

Towards the end of the year, things did begin to look up.  My job situation is - I think - beginning to smooth out, although I am still not working 40 hours per week (I am only guaranteed 32 hours per week, and even that doesn't actually always happen).  I also have a new part-time job opportunity with a friend of mine from high school in an online Japanese "Eikaiwa" company.  These companies help Japanese people - usually business people and students - to strengthen their English speaking and writing skills.  Specifically, I will be editing and sort of "grading" submitted writing samples, to help clients with their English writing skills.  The company is just getting off the ground, so I don't know what to expect in terms of monthly income, but it is an exciting opportunity nonetheless.

We also have finally bought a home, and that's certainly something to be excited about after more than a year in an apartment.  It happened rather suddenly.  A week earlier, I would have told you we had no chance of buying a house until at least the middle of 2011.  Then, almost overnight, we had put in a bid on a house about a mile down the road, in a neighborhood we had looked at several times.  I won't go into all the details, but we got the house for a steal because the owner wanted to unload it.  I think we are paying something like $20,000 - maybe even $25,000 - less than what it originally went on the market for.  Our monthly payment will be only slightly higher than our current apartment rent.  The house is two floors, three bedrooms and 2.5 baths, partially finished basement (which probably adds another 500 square feet), fenced yard, and mud room.  We're really excited about it and we feel like we've made a good investment as well, because we are getting the house for so much less than it's worth, and at such a low interest rate.

So anyway, 2010 wasn't a particularly banner year in our household, but we at least have some reason to hope for 2011 to be better.  And can you really ask for much more than that?  

Reflections on 2010

This year pretty much sucked.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Merry Christmas?

During this most wonderful time of the year, it just wouldn't be Christmas without mistletoe and greenery, eggnog and figgy pudding, Christmas songs and family gatherings, and endless outraged ranting from goofy evangelical Christians about saying "Merry Christmas."

This tired old discussion pops up every single year like an old fart wafting up from a basement couch.  In public places - at the checkout counter, perhaps - you'll hear people say: "Merry Christmas," with an ironic emphasis on the last word and a wry little smile that indicates a certain rebelliousness against evil secularism and the PC brigade that wants to desecrate Jesus's birthday.  

Or you'll come across it on places like Facebook and Twitter, or pundits on TV and mouthpieces on the radio.

Today, I had the misfortune of coming across a Facebook post on the page of a Cincinnati country radio station.  Being a country radio station, they are naturally a flag-waving, Jesus-loving, gun-toting bunch of Red-Blooded Americans, and the post said "Merry Christmas.  Pass it on," and included a picture of a billboard somewhere that reads: 

I miss hearing you say "Merry Christmas." 

~ Jesus

We'll ignore for a moment the blasphemous presupposition of putting words onto the lips of Jesus, or the ridiculous notion that no one says Merry Christmas anymore, and instead focus on the comments made by a number of people on this post.  

Here are a few of the more classic ones, reprinted verbatim:
I wish everyone I come in contact with...A Merry Christmas...No one can take that away from ME... So To Everyone... A Very Merry Christmas.... :0)
MERRY CHRISTMAS to EVERYONE!! AMEIN
It's Christmas...not Holiday!!! Dont remove Christ from HIS birthday!!!
Love it. The world is becoming way to PC and it needs to stop. It might hurt someones feelings? How did we survive way back when...sheeesh. Merry CHRISTmas everyone.
he [presumably Jesus] is prob. acutally thinking ...I miss hearing you say happy birthday jesus ! 
Aside from the misspellings, which these sorts of folks can always be relied upon to provide, the thing that strikes me most about these responses is that people really think of December 25th as "Jesus's birthday" - as though Jesus is their cousin and they are celebrating his birthday with cake and party hats.  The Facebook friend of mine who posted a link to this page made the following comment on the link: "Celebrate the birthday of THE KING! We will be making a birthday cake for Jesus this year."

Pardon my French, but are you fucking kidding me?

Here are a few facts relative to all of this:

1. We don't have any idea when Jesus was born, neither the year, nor (especially) the day and month.  Luke clearly conceived of Jesus being born during the warm months of the year, because shepherds would not have been in their fields during the winter.  But of course, Luke's entire story - like Matthew's - is not a literal account of historical facts, so the point is moot regardless.  The simple fact is that we don't know.  He may just as likely have been born on July 4th or October 31st or the Ides of March.

2. December 25th was chosen sometime in the 4th century C.E. for the day of Christ's Mass because that was already a traditional midwinter celebration day, honored as the birthday of several ancient gods, most notably the Roman sun god Sol Invictus.  Sol was a relatively "new" god for the Romans, instituted in the 200's C.E.  His name meant "Unconquerable Sun," and it is easy to see why this Roman god could be equated with Jesus - the unconquerable "son."  (It is important to note, of course, that the linguistic connection between "sun" and "son" was not as explicit in ancient Greek as it is in English.  Still, equating Jesus with the sun - the great giver of life and light - was already by this time a very old Christian tradition).

3. The word "X-mas" does not equate to "taking Christ out of Christmas" or "x-ing out Christ."  This is something I was taught as a child - that the word "X-mas" was borderline blasphemous.  In ancient Christian tradition, the Greek letter Chi - X - was an abbreviation for the word "Christ."  The reason for this abbreviation is simple: X was the first letter of "Christ" in Greek!  It also made a nice play on words, since X is also the symbol of the cross.  In numerous Christian manuscripts of the late Middle Ages, Jesus is referred to as X, or XP (P - the Greek letter Rho - being the second letter of the Greek form of "Christ").  In fact, there was even a Christian symbol - called the Labarum - which artistically depicted X and P wound together, which dates all the way back to Constantine the Great in the early 4th century C.E.  This symbol - also called the Chi-Rho - was one of Constantine's military emblems after his conversion to Christianity.

4. Saying "Happy Holidays" does not equate to secularizing Christmas.  It is a fact of modern society that numerous holidays - many of them celebrated by the majority of Americans - fall between the end of November and the end of December.  There are no less than six that are celebrated by the majority of Americans (two at Thanksgiving, two at Christmas, and two at New Year's).  Furthermore, there are several other holidays celebrated by a lot of folks in December, most notably Hanukkah and Boxing Day.  Thus, "Happy Holidays" recognizes that we do a lot of celebrating from the end of November to the end of December.

5. If you are talking to a stranger, and you have no idea what their religious background is or what their personal feelings are about the Christmas holiday, why in the world would you say "Merry Christmas" to them?  Regardless of whether it offends them or not, it's just pointless - as pointless as saying "Happy New Zealand Independence Day" to a Lithuanian.  Insisting on saying "Merry Christmas" to people who don't celebrate Christmas is simply Christian bullying.  There is no other way to describe it.  It's bullying not because the phrase "Merry Christmas" is mean-spirited, but simply because the insistence on saying it to every person you come in contact with - even strangers about whose religious beliefs and celebratory traditions you know nothing - can be a crude form of unwelcomed proselytizing.

6. People who get offended over hearing someone say "Merry Christmas" to them need to lighten up.  Yes, that may seem to be switching gears from the argument I've been making, but I'm just as capable as the next guy of being reasonable.  I don't have a problem with "Merry Christmas."  I think people who DO have a problem with "Merry Christmas" need to get their priorities straight.

What I am lashing out against here is not "Merry Christmas" per se, but against the insistence by goofy evangelicals to shove it down everyone's throat and act morally outraged that a  lot of Americans don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday - and who like to imagine that this is somehow a new trend!  That's perhaps one of the funniest things about these arguments - that, in their moral outrage, these folks imagine that this secularizing of Christmas is new, that somehow fifty years ago, every American was a Jesus-centered Christian who solemnly kept Christ in Christmas.  In mainstream American society, Christmas ceased being a religious holiday about 100 years ago.

So, to wrap this thing up, let me quote the immortal Christmas wishes of South Park's Mr. Garrison:

In case you hadn't noticed, it's Jesus's birthday, so get off your heathen Hindu ass and fucking celebrate.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Another Pleasant Valley Thursday

I stole and adapted that title from my sister's blog.

Well, November 2010 was the first month since I started blogging in 2006 that I have not put up a single blog post.  Now, it's only been about 33 days since I last posted, and I've probably gone longer than that before, but I've never missed a whole month.

Not sure why I didn't blog last month.  It's not like I was exceptionally busy or anything.  I just have run out of ideas for the moment, I think.  I started an essay a few weeks ago - on the authorship of the books of the New Testament - but have not yet finished it.  Not sure if I even will.

Otherwise, that's about all I've got.  I've started working out again, although it's only tenuous at this point.  I'm hoping to make it a regular thing.  So far I've been managing about twice a week.  I also quit smoking about 6 weeks ago, after about 3 years of the habit.  I'm a rare bird in that I didn't start smoking until I was over 30.  I started in 2007 when I was in school full time and working full time.  I was influenced by all the smokers at work who constantly took smoke breaks, and the fact that I was under a lot of stress.  Not that it's anyone's fault but my own.  I'm glad to have quit, however.  The problem, of course, is that my appetite has increased since I quit.  I've always been an overeater, but it's worse now.  I suppose you tend to replace nicotine with carbs and calories.

A few quick comments on recent issues:

1. I don't have a problem with airport body scanners from the standpoint of privacy.  If someone sees Big Jim and the Twins, that doesn't concern me.  We all have the same parts, after all.  My concern, as a hospital radiographer, is about radiation exposure, especially for frequent fliers and aircraft personnel (like pilots and attendants).  The biological effects of frequent exposure to those people is not fully known, particularly considering that they are already receiving higher yearly doses of natural background radiation because they fly so often - radiation doses are higher at higher altitudes.

2. Sarah Palin is a clown and it makes me weep for the future that so many people take her seriously.

3. How come the same people who are up in arms over the budget deficit are also viciously opposed to raising taxes for anyone, even the wealthy?  The budge is funded by taxes.  That's the basis of the entire existence of the federal government.  How can the budget deficit be overcome without a raise in taxes to help equalize it?  Obviously cutting spending is an integral part of the scenario too, but without raising taxes as well, cutting spending alone will not solve the problem - at least not if you want to actually have a government left at the end.

4. Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and let gay people get married.  Anything less is open discrimination.

5. WikiLeaks provides an important service to the world community, and their exposure of military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan is significant.  However, I think releasing confidential diplomatic correspondence is irresponsible and could have a legitimate negative impact on foreign relations.

6. I hope the Cleveland Cavaliers fans riot tonight and break both of LeBron James's legs.

7. Okay, not really, but I'm looking forward to hearing them harass him.  I wouldn't be so against him if it wasn't for the fact that he is such a blatantly arrogant, overpaid, over-privileged little fuck.

8. North Carolina was obviously overrated at the start of the men's basketball season, and that is now proving true in the regular season.  It warms the cockles of my UK Wildcat heart.

9. Put a pilgrim hat on him and buckled shoes, and Mitch McConnell could look like he just left the Salem Witch Trials.

10. North Korea is such a joke that it's hard to take them seriously.  They are this tiny little nation with virtually no strong allies (not even China) and yet they are acting like they are going to destroy the world or something.  It's like a mouse waving its fist at a pit bull.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Boy King, the Governor, and the Dwarf

When we study history, we tend to have a profound sense of the gap that separates us from our subjects. Reading, for instance, about Cleopatra's decision to nobly commit suicide by snake bite, rather than be paraded as a captive through Rome by the triumphant Octavian, can provide interesting and intriguing insights into history, but the gap between us and them - the chasm between our world views and theirs - is difficult to cross. The world was an immensely different place for them than it is for us.

But sometimes we read stories from history that seem to bridge that chasm and bring about a sense of unity with our ancient subjects, leading us to the realization that humans of the ancient past really weren't so much different than we are today.

Such is the case with the ancient Egyptian king known as Pepi II, a ruler of the Old Kingdom of Egyptian history, living around 2200 B.C.E.

Pepi II in childhood
Pepi is famous, primarily, for being credited with the longest monarchical reign of any king or queen in all of world history. We have two sources for his reign. The earliest is the so-called Turin King List, which was created around the time of Ramses II - roughly 1200 B.C.E. This document lists all the kings prior to Ramses and gives their length of reign. Pepi II is credited with 90 years in this text. The second source comes from the writings of Manetho, a historian who lived around 250 B.C.E. He credits Pepi II with a 99 year reign.

Traditionally, historians have split the difference and suggested a reign of roughly 94 years. Some modern experts, however, are skeptical of this. When ancient Egyptians wrote about things the king said or did, they tended to date their work. Thus, we may find a royal proclamation dated to Year 7 of the reign of so-and-so. In the case of Pepi II, we have found nothing dated beyond Year 64 of his reign. This, of course, does not mean he must necessarily have died shortly thereafter; it could be that we simply haven't yet found whatever artifacts may still exist from that period. This lack of archaeological evidence beyond Year 64, however, is what has led to the modern disputes.

In any case, whether 64 or 94 years, Pepi II ruled for a very long time, particularly by ancient Egyptian standards. Even at 64 years, he'd have the second longest reign of any ruler of ancient Egypt - a period covering roughly 3,000 years.

We know from archaeological evidence that Pepi took the throne as a 6-year-old. Only two statues of Pepi have ever been found, and both depict him as a boy king. On one, he is perched lovingly on the lap of his mother.

Pepi is depicted here in the royal headdress worn only by kings.
It is from this period of Pepi's reign that we find a story that is rather striking in its ability to bridge the gap between the modern and the ancient.

Like the other rulers of his era, Pepi's capital was in northern Egypt, at Memphis (near modern Cairo). Being based so far from his southern border, he needed strong governors in the south to maintain peace and commerce. One of these governors was a man named Harkhuf, who had served first under Pepi's father, then under Pepi. He probably died while Pepi was still a boy king.

Based out of an island city called Elephantine, Harkhuf was not just a governor, but also an explorer into the nether regions south of the Egyptian kingdom. In the area of modern day Sudan, these regions were wild and mysterious to the ancient Egyptians, but full of precious metals and trade goods. Harkhuf evidently made several trading journeys into this region, bringing back with him numerous valuables which he delivered to the king at Memphis.

Following one of these expeditions, he returned to Elephantine and sent a letter north to the boy king Pepi providing a list of the things he had procured, promising to bring them to the king as soon as possible. Among other things, he apparently told Pepi that he had discovered, and brought back with him, a dwarf from "the land of the spirits." Dwarfs, who likely came from the pygmy tribes of central Africa, were highly prized by the ancient Egyptians, and were believed to have supernatural powers. Like dwarfs of the 19th century and even today, they also provided a source of entertainment.

We know of this story about Harkhuf and the dwarf because a letter of response that Pepi sent back to Harkhuf was inscribed on Harkhuf's tomb in southern Egypt. It is dated to Year 2 of Pepi's reign (which actually means the fourth year, because regnal years were biennial - meaning 730 days instead of 365). So Pepi was about 10 years old. Here's what the letter says (with a few parts cut out, or summarized, for length's sake; also, note that when Pepi says "my Majesty," he is referring to himself):
I have noted the matter of your letter, which you have sent to the king, to the palace, in order that one might know that you have descended in safety from Yam [that is, the mysterious region south of Egypt]...You have said in your letter that you have brought all great and beautiful gifts...

You have said in your letter that you have brought a dancing dwarf of the gods from the land of spirits...You have said to my Majesty: "Never before has one like him been brought by any other who has visited Yam."

Come northward to the court immediately. Bring this dwarf with you, which you have taken living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, [so that he may] warm and gladden the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare [that is, Pepi II], who lives forever.

When he goes down with you into the boat, appoint excellent people who will be beside him on each side of the boat. Take care that he does not fall into the water. When he sleeps at night, appoint excellent people who will sleep beside him in his tent. Check on him ten times a night. My Majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If you arrive at court with this dwarf still living, prosperous, and healthy, my Majesty will do [great things for you], since it is the heart's desire of my Majesty to see this dwarf.
This may be the most precious thing I have ever read in an ancient document or inscription. More than all the silver and gold and precious jewels, more than all the trade goods and valuable donations to the palace, the boy king really, really, really wants to see this dwarf!

Harkhuf must have made it to Memphis with the dwarf safely in tow; the fact that he inscribed Pepi's letter of praise on his tomb is evidence of this. If he had failed, the letter would have been like a condemnation and a reminder of the failure.

As such, we can envision the 10-year-old boy king bouncing with delight as this little pygmy from central Africa astounded the court with his spirit dances and magic tricks. But more than anything else, the boy king's undisguised excitement at the prospect of seeing the dwarf is what really connects us to the past. He was just a kid, not much different than kids today, who would also be delighted at the pranks and antics of a costumed dwarf.

As we saw above, Pepi went on to live a very long time. As he grew older, the stability of his government weakened. This fact may provide evidence to support the notion that he ruled well into his 90's. In his last decades - no doubt a feeble old man - he was not able to keep the same level of control over his nation and its more ambitious provincial rulers. After his death, Egypt fell apart, beginning the era that Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period. Centralized government collapsed, and Egypt fell into a state of decay, with various rulers ruling small regions from local capitals, often warring with each other. This lasted for about 100 years, until Egypt was finally united again under a powerful southern ruler named Mentuhotep II. He defeated his northern counterpart and established the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egyptian history.

But regardless of what happened late in his reign, or after his reign, it is this story from the early years of his reign, as a boy king perched on his mother's lap, that has the ability to warm the heart and connect us, in common humanity, with figures of the ancient past.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Melancholy and Diarrhea

So, I'm an ancestry.com addict. I first got interested in genealogical research around 2004, and with a subscription this year to ancestry.com, I've been able to uncover a lot of new information about my family.

If you're interested in researching your family, ancestry.com is definitely well worth the money.

Being a history buff, I love finding family connections to important events in history. It just gets me all a-tingle.

Just to give a brief (ha) run-down:

* So far, I have found ancestry through England, Germany, Switzerland, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. So much for picking just one nationality to explain your heritage. For what it's worth, through the male line in my family, we are of English decent. I have traced my male family name back to the 1600's in Leicestershire, England. These ancestors seem to have arrived in Virginia in the 1630's, just a few years after the Mayflower.

Bosworth Battlefield in Leicestershire.  It was here that Richard III became the
last English king to die in battle, in the late 1400's.  

* I was surprised to discover a French line in my family. In the U.S., people tend to think of folks with French heritage all living in Louisiana. However, through one of my maternal lines, I have discovered French descent. This ancestor was named James Boisseau, and he was a French protestant living in Saumur, France. Saumur was a strongly protestant area in the otherwise largely Catholic France, and there is a chateau there that was first built in the 900's by the Count of Blois, an ancestor to Stephen of Blois, who became King of England in the 1100's. The original chateau was destroyed around the time of William the Conquerer in the 1060's, and was later rebuilt by Henry II, nephew of King Stephen.

The Chateau de Saumur

As for James Boisseau of Saumur, he was born in the 1650's, and was a protestant minister in the Reformed tradition of Calvin. These French protestants were known as Huguenots. He was born during a time of religious unease in France, and in 1685, Louis XIV outlawed protestant religion in France with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This led to a mass exodus of Huguenots, of which my ancestor James Boisseau was one. He sought refuge in England, but did not stay long. Upon arriving there, he applied for passage to the New World, and was granted emigrant status to be a "Huguenot minister to the colonists."

After reaching Virginia, he married a woman from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1691. Perhaps she had fled to Virginia because she was a witch and was trying to evade the Witch Trials, which were all the rage at the time. Or not. In any case, they brought forth their first born son in 1692 and named him James.

The family stayed in Virginia for several generations (Dinwiddie County, to be precise), and a great-grandson - John Boisseau - fought in the Revolutionary War as a 16-year-old volunteer. He fought in the Battle of Camden, which was a significant defeat for the colonists against the British under the famous Lord Cornwallis, and he also fought at the Battle of Petersburg (a Virginia city more famous for its Civil War battles).

This Boisseau family eventually produced my maternal grandmother, who was born in Kentucky.

* Some of my paternal ancestors were evidently reasonably wealthy landowners in Virginia who also owned quite a few slaves. I have found a Last Will and Testament of my great(x6) grandfather from the 1760's in which he doles out his slaves by name to each of his children. They had names like Old Peter and Young Peter, Morning, Old Beck, Moses, Quon, Blackman, and Judah.

* Most of my ancestors, particularly on my father's side, were uneducated farmers. On census form after census form, I find ancestors listed as unable to read and write. These census forms are interesting because they also frequently list occupations. The occupation of virtually all the women is "keeping house," and while "farmer" and "laborer" are most common among the men, I have found things like "shoe and boot maker" and "wagon maker."

* None of my direct ancestors fought in either World War I or World War II. The ages of the various men in my family virtually disqualified all of them from either of these conflicts. I have known all my life, however, that I had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. This is my paternal great-great grandfather, who was called "Clipper." I was aware, however, that he was already older than I am now when the Civil War broke out (late 30's), so I have long assumed he probably didn't take part in much real fighting. In addition to other discoveries, however, I've discovered that this probably isn't true.

To begin with, I have (to date) found not just one, but ten ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Most of them probably knew each other, and all of but one of them fought in the same regiment together.

Both of my father's parents were from the same region in western Kentucky. This explains why both my paternal grandfather and grandmother had ancestors who fought together in the same regiment. In late 1861, after the Civil War began earlier in the summer, the Confederates moved into western Kentucky, heading for the Ohio River, which was one of the big landmarks between the north and the south. As a result of this, the Union army mustered volunteer regiments in western Kentucky to fight these Confederates. My great-great grandfather Clipper enlisted as a private in October of 1861, trained for six weeks, then joined the 11th Kentucky Volunteer Regiment in December. He joined up with two younger brothers - Jesse and James - and two cousins - Samuel and Elijah. Additionally, they were joined by a cousin-in-law of Jesse - his wife's cousin. So there were six of them that all signed up on the same day, trained at the same camp, and joined the same regiment.

Three ancestors of my paternal grandmother were also part of this same regiment. A fourth fought with the 27th Kentucky.

I found some interesting biographical details of each of these people. My great-great grandfather Clipper came through unscathed, and was noted as having led a division of his men in the march to Shiloh, a major battle in which the regiment fought. His youngest brother, James, also came through the war unscathed.

His middle brother, Jesse, was captured in a skirmish in October of 1863 prior to the siege of Knoxville. He was taken to Belle Island Prison, in Richmond, before being transferred in February of 1864 to the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp outside Atlanta. Nearly 1 in 4 Union soldiers in this camp died of malnutrition, starvation, and disease, and the Confederacy was accused of war crimes because of it. My great-great grandfather's brother Jesse was a victim. He died of dysentery there in May of 1864.

The Andersonville Prison Camp

The two cousins - Samuel and Elijah - both died of sickness outside the field of battle. Poor Samuel never even made it out of Kentucky. He died of pneumonia in December of 1861 before the regiment ever marched. Elijah died about a year later, in December of 1862, of typhoid.

As for my grandmother's ancestors, one of her great-grandfathers - Christopher C. Moore - was wounded severely on December 31, 1862, at the Battle of Stone's River, which took place near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Another great-grandfather, David Ewing, spent much of the war on sick leave, including a period listed as AWOL, and was eventually discharged in 1863 for disability. Humorously enough, his disability was listed as "melancholy and diarrhea." This could literally be the title of a book about my grandmother's family.

This David Ewing also had a brother who fought with the regiment, and he was killed in action at the aforementioned Battle of Stone's River. This great-great-great grand-uncle is the only ancestor I've found so far who was actually killed in action. Considering that it was just a few months later that David Ewing was discharged for "melancholy and diarrhea," this "melancholy" was presumably related to his brother's death. Not sure about the diarrhea.

After the war, my great-great grandfather Clipper came home, only to have his wife die a year later, in early 1866. Being that he needed a woman at home to cook his meals and warm his bed, he remarried the following year to a woman about half his age. This woman was Rhoda Ann Hudnall, the sister of Jesse's widow (Jesse, you'll recall, was the brother who died in the POW camp). Clipper and Rhoda had a number of children, including my great-grandfather, and they named their last son Jesse, in honor of Clipper's dead brother.

Clipper and Rhoda.  Such is the stock from whence I come.

Luke and Mandy.  Luke was the son of Clipper and my great-grandfather.
I'm not sure if he's trying to look like Wyatt Earp or not, but he pulls it off.
And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't kick Mandy out of bed.  Just sayin'.  

* Two of my ancestors were named Greenberry.

* I have a lot of good Puritans in my family. I've found names like Goodman, Temperance, and Pleasant.

* Sometimes, genealogical research disproves family stories. I grew up always being told that I had Native American on my mother's side. The story was that my mother's father had a grandmother who was full Cherokee. Unless the information I've gotten from ancestry.com is completely and totally wrong (and there's really not any way that it is), this story is apparently a myth. We're all good red-blooded Europeans. My mother's father, and his brothers, all had leather, tawny skin, and perhaps this is where the story came from.

* Sometimes, genealogical research turns up stories you'd rather not have known. As above, unless the information I'm getting at ancestry.com is unreliable, there was a touch of inbreeding going on in my mother's family in the early 1800's. Hardy and his wife Dorothy Kirby had several children, two of which were James and Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who was much older, married Matthew Summerville and had a daughter named Mary Summerville. Mary decided her uncle James looked mighty fine, so they hooked up and produced my great-grandfather, whose son was my mother's father. Maybe that explains the "Native American" look of that family!!

* To the best of my knowledge, the first people in my entire family history to have college degrees were my parents and their various siblings and cousins. I can't speak for all the great-grand uncles and aunts and all the 3rd cousins twice removed, but among my direct ancestors, it wasn't, apparently, until the mid-20th century that anyone attained a college education.

* The farthest back I've been able to take a particular branch of the family is into the 1400's in England. I've taken a different branch back to the early 1500's in Wales. In both of these cases, however, I am relying mainly on other public family trees, and I can't really be certain that the information is accurate, since I have no idea where it comes from. The farthest back I've been able to go with relative certainty is to the mid-1600's with several different lines.

Luke and Mandy again, now with their children.  My grandfather is on the back left, in the white shirt.
Check out Ears McGillicutty, at right.  

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Paul vs. Matthew: A Christian Conundrum

From Paul's letter to the Romans, circa 58 C.E., chapter 7, verse 6:

But now we are discharged from the Law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

From Matthew's Gospel, circa 85 C.E., from the lips of Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5, verses 17 to 20:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part II

In Part I of this series, we saw that Christian tradition has long rejected the need for Christians to follow Old Testament Law. This tradition goes back a long way; indeed, all the way back to the mid-1st century and the Apostle Paul. We looked briefly at what exactly this Law is – called by various names, it was the complete set of legal, cultural, and religious codes outlined in Jewish scriptures, called the Old Testament by Christians.

We also saw, however, that Jesus – as depicted in the Gospel tradition – seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Indeed, most scholars today agree that Jesus is best understood as a 1st century Jewish male living in the Jewish homeland and working and teaching within Judaism and its practices. We looked at several pieces of Gospel text that confirm this portrait, including an eye-raising teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus explicitly denies that his purpose was to “abolish” Jewish Law. In this passage, Jesus instead affirms that his followers are expected to follow Old Testament Law down to the letter, so that their adherence to the Law surpasses even that of the Pharisees, who were famous in Jesus’s day for their commitment to these traditions.

CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS

Christian apologists frequently explain that God’s Law from the Old Testament was given to and for God’s chosen people, the Jews. The “Law of Christ,” however, was given for all people, and superseded the earlier, uniquely Jewish, Law. In this understanding, Jewish Law was the original “path of salvation,” but was provided only to Jews. The Law of Christ, however, replaced the old ways, providing a new “path of salvation” and given to all people, not just Jews.

Apologists will additionally argue that while Jesus’s earthly message was directed at Jews, God used Paul to expand Jesus’s “mission field” and bring the message to Gentiles. Paul himself makes this argument, stating that the message was “for the Jew first, but also for the Greek [i.e. ‘non-Jew’]”.

Thus, even though Jesus came only to Jews, his mission was just the beginning. Paul came along next, almost like a “part two,” to continue God’s plan and expand the message to non-Jews. Paul understood Jesus’s death and resurrection as the ultimate atonement for human sin, and thus argued that the Law of Moses was no longer necessary for salvation. It had been replaced by the Law of Christ, a phrase Paul himself uses at least twice in his letters, and which involves faith in the atoning nature of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In Romans, Paul also states categorically that: “Christ is the end of the Law.”

This would work well as an explanation of Christian rejection of Old Testament Law if not for that pesky, absolutist statement of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s look at it again:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
As we saw in Part I, Jesus makes it clear in this statement that Jewish laws and customs – the Old Testament Law of Moses – is not simply for Jews. After all, this is a statement recorded in Christian scripture for Christian readers by a Christian evangelist. Nor is the Law only valid for a short period of time, until Paul comes along in a few decades. No, according to Jesus, the Law is forever, and he specifically and explicitly counters the notion that his purpose is to “abolish the Law or the Prophets” (as Paul asserts in Romans). In fact, Jesus says, one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless one not only adheres to the Law, but adheres even better and more stringently and more loyally than the Pharisees, who were famous for their righteousness.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

So how are Christians to understand this passage? How can we reconcile Jesus’s words with our own Christian practice in the modern world? To begin with, let me make one thing clear: I don’t believe the historical Jesus made this statement, and there are several reasons I can give to support this.

First, the teaching that Jesus contradicts – that is, the suggestion that he has come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets” – is a post-Easter, early Christian problem. In fact, it was specifically a problem related to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, which occurred, quite obviously, after Jesus’s death. It was not a problem, or an accusation, that would have existed during Jesus’s life. Thus, there would have been no reason for him to address a problem that didn’t exist.

Secondly, in addition to countering the notion that he has come to “abolish” the Law, Jesus also ominously states that any person who breaks the commandments, and teaches others to do the same (think of Paul and his followers), is excluded from the kingdom of heaven. This is clearly a case of the writer of Matthew attacking notions begun by Paul that Jewish laws and customs didn’t have to be followed.

Finally, scholars and theologians have recognized for centuries that Matthew’s Gospel is the most “Jewish” of all the Gospels of the New Testament. There can be no question that the writer of Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing to a Jewish Christian audience. His readers were concerned about the growing tendency among Gentile Christians to throw away Mosaic Law. Thus, this writer put a statement on the lips of Jesus to directly and explicitly address that problem.

In the end, it seems unlikely to me that the historical Jesus ever actually uttered this statement.

A NUGGET OF AUTHENTICITY

Despite my historical conclusion about Matthew’s use of this quote, there may be a nugget of authentic Jesus material in this saying. In particular, I am referring to the second sentence in the statement: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” This particular saying comes from the Q Gospel – in other words, it is also present, in a slightly different form, in Luke. From chapter 16: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

If scholars are right about the Q Gospel – and I think they are – then it was a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that was first written down around the year 50 C.E. – contemporary with the letters of Paul. Used by Luke and Matthew when they wrote their Gospels, it predates the Gospel of Mark – the earliest Gospel in the New Testament – by as many as twenty years. If my own theory is correct, this Q Gospel may have originally been known as the Gospel of Matthew (with our own Gospel of Matthew being an extension of it), written in Aramaic, and composed by the disciple of Jesus known to history as Matthew or Levi.

Regardless of my own pet theory, if the mainstream ideas about the Q Gospel are correct, then this saying may have historical reliability, simply by virtue of being among the earliest written material attributed to Jesus.

Thus, if Jesus did make this statement – that not the least “stroke of a pen” will ever disappear from the Law – then there is something there to be considered for the modern follower of Jesus. What might Jesus have meant with such a statement? It’s clear that Matthew took it to mean that the Law was for all Christians for all time. But Luke had a different perspective and placed it in a different narrative context. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says:
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
Luke’s own perspective on this quote seems to be a negative one. The Law was valid until John the Baptizer – Jesus’s mentor. Since then, the kingdom of God has been preached. Presumably for Luke, as it was for Paul, the “kingdom of God” is an alternative to the Law and the Prophets. Indeed, it is replacing the Law and the Prophets. Thus, Jesus laments how difficult and slow this change has been – it is easier for the universe to disappear than for people to give up their adherence to the old ways. In this regard, the statement is reminiscent of another famous quip by Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

So which way was it? Did Jesus mean this statement positively, as asserted by Matthew, or did Jesus make this statement as a lament about how long it takes people to break old habits? My feeling is that Matthew’s perspective is closer to the truth. Luke’s perspective reflects Christianity of the late 1st century – Christians were breaking away from Judaism, but most Jews refused to give up the old ways and turn to God’s new way. Thus, I think Matthew probably retains the original spirit of the Q material, whereas Luke redacted it towards the negative. Instead of “heaven and earth” disappearing before the Law is abolished (as in Matthew), it is now “easier for heaven and earth to disappear” than it is for the old ideas to give way to the new. This is a distinct reflection of late 1st century Gentile Christianity, and not the early 1st century Jewish Jesus.

CONCLUSION

So we’re left with the same problem. It is historically probable that Jesus said something akin to the quote recorded by Matthew. If we accept this as true, how does this impact our own Christian lives? Should we be following Jewish customs and traditions? Should we not be planting two different seeds in the same field? Should we not be blending cotton and linen? Should we be eating only kosher foods? Should we, in short, be Jewish Christians?

I wish I could provide some valuable and profound theological insight here. I really wish I could. But I honestly don’t have any very good answers. Jesus was a Jew, living in the Jewish homeland, preaching and teaching within the bounds of 1st century Judaism. He taught his followers that Jewish laws and customs were part of God’s eternal plan for humanity. His earliest followers believed ardently that Christianity and Judaism could not and should not be separated.

For those of us who aim to follow Jesus on the Way of personal and spiritual transformation of ourselves and our world, this is a perspective worth pondering.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part I

One of the oldest traditions in Christianity is the belief that Jewish laws and customs are not binding upon followers of Christ. When Jesus died, the argument goes, he rendered Mosaic Law irrelevant. Salvation, then, comes from belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, and not from following the rules and regulations of the Old Testament.

This tradition goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and the basic formulation was developed by Paul and taught amongst the congregations he founded throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Today, not only are Paul’s letters used to support this notion, but even words attributed to Jesus can be called upon to undergird the tradition.

What exactly are these commandments, and why don’t Christians follow them?

JEWISH LAW AND CUSTOM

First, it is necessary to clear the air on what is meant by common phrases such as “Jewish Law,” “Mosaic Law,” “The Law and the Prophets,” or sometimes just “the Law.” All of these phrases mean the same thing, but there seems to be a lot of confusion in many circles about exactly what they refer to.

Jewish Law came in two parts, and it included far more than simply legal codes dictating criminal and civil offenses. To be sure, Jewish Law included these things, but it also included rules and regulations dictating daily behavior and customs of the Jewish people. It included things such as how to make clothes, how to plant fields and how to raise cattle, how to treat others in relationships, how to prepare food, how to structure family life, and so on. Of course, it also detailed the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism. In short, it was a complete system of legal, religious, and cultural codes for living as a Jew in the ancient world.

The first aspect of this Jewish Law consisted of written laws and customs. Most came from the Torah – that is, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch, and believed by the ancient Jews to have been given by Moses. By the time of Jesus, Jewish scripture included a lot more than just these five books. There were also texts detailing Jewish history, books of poetry, proverbs, and literature, and books of prophecy. Some Jewish sects, both then and know, followed only the Torah. Mainstream Judaism, however, regarded these other traditional Jewish texts as scripture, and this is where familiar New Testament phrases such as “the Law and the Prophets” come from. The Law was the Torah; the Prophets were the books of prophecy such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a dozen others.

In addition to this written aspect of Jewish Law – those codes and customs outlined in Jewish scripture – there was also an oral aspect that consisted of the interpretation of these codes and customs. This interpretive aspect of Jewish Law was well established in oral form by the time of Jesus, but did not achieve codification in written form until several centuries after the time of Jesus. Collectively called the Talmud, these interpretative traditions were the hallmark of the Pharisees, an influential group of 1st century Jews whose practices and traditions became the basis of Rabbinical Judaism, which has been the most common form of Judaism for nearly two millennia.

These two aspects of Jewish religious and cultural customs – Torah and Talmud, the instructions of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of those instructions – constitute what is meant by phrases such as “Jewish Law.”

JEWISH LAW AND CHRISTIANITY

For most of Christian history, Christians have disregarded Jewish Law, both the written Law of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of that Law. It is perhaps easy to see why Christians have never given much thought to the interpretative side of Jewish Law. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is frequently depicted at odds with the Pharisees – the experts of interpretation – and consistently insults and degrades them, even as he disagrees with them in their interpretations. While much of the antagonism in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees is a reflection of the antagonism between Christians and Jews of the late 1st century, there is little doubt that Jesus had run-ins during his life with the Pharisees, whom he saw as collaborators with Roman imperial domination. As a rural Galilean, the Pharisees would have seen Jesus as a rabble-rouser and fiery revolutionary, while Jesus, for his part, would have seen the Pharisees as pretentious, so-called “experts” who were more concerned with their scholarship than with real people in real life. One might compare this situation to a Pentecostal preacher from rural Alabama meeting a group of Reformed theologians from Oxford.

But in addition to dismissing the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees and their later rabbinical successors, Christians have also long rejected the written Law of the Old Testament – the set of laws and customs ostensibly given by God to his chosen people.

As we saw above, this rejection of written Mosaic Law comes largely from the influence of the apostle Paul.

Paul was one of the earliest and certainly most influential Christians. Though he never followed or even knew of Jesus during Jesus’ life, he was converted to Christianity within a few years of Jesus’ death, after a vision of the resurrected Christ.

The Apostle Paul

Very early on, he seems to have begun to jettison his old ways within Judaism, and by about 50 C.E., a major conflict arose between Paul and the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

To put it briefly, the Jerusalem community in the time of Paul was the center of Christendom. It was to Paul’s era what Rome is today to Catholics. This community was supported by many of Jesus’ disciples (such as Peter and John), and led by Jesus’ brother, James. To these Christian leaders, Christianity was essentially a sect within Judaism. It was not a different religion from Judaism, but was instead a new form of Jewish practice. These Jewish Christians believed very strongly that Christianity should remain part of Judaism – in other words, Jewish traditions and customs were still very much a part of their religious practice.

Paul, on the other hand, believed that Jesus’s resurrection had effectively done away with these traditions, and following Jewish Law was no longer necessary. If pressed on the matter, I’m sure Paul would have agreed that if someone wanted to follow Jewish customs, they were certainly entitled to do so, but his argument was that these customs were no longer necessary for salvation. Instead, salvation came through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Paul saw as the ultimate and final atonement for human sin. Since Jesus made himself the ultimate sacrifice, humans could now be forgiven and thus saved, with or without adherence to the Law of Moses.

Needless to say, the Church in Jerusalem did not take Paul’s ideas very well. As described in the book of Acts, and also discussed by Paul himself in Galatians, things came to a head when Paul visited Jerusalem in about 50 C.E. The Jerusalem leaders attempted to reach a compromise with Paul, and agreed that while Paul’s converts did not need to become circumcised (which, in the ancient world, was the “official” way that someone became Jewish), they did need to follow Jewish dietary customs. Specifically, according to Acts, they were to refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols, food from strangled animals, and any food with blood in it.

Paul seems to have accepted this compromise, then immediately gone back to the missionary field and ignored it. Time and again in his letters, Paul insists that “all food is clean,” and even goes so far as to suggest that eating food sacrificed to idols is permissible, because idols are not real, they are simply inanimate objects. The only exception to this rule, for Paul, is when someone’s dietary habits may cause problems for someone else. In other words, if a Christian is eating with another Christian, and the second Christian believes strongly in the difference between “clean” and “unclean” food, then the first Christian should respect that belief and only eat “clean” food when they are eating with that person. Otherwise, “all food is clean” and permissible to eat.

In time, after Paul’s death and the deaths of James, Peter, and the other early Christian leaders, Christianity slowly became more and more of a non-Jewish religion. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, there was no longer a Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, and the center of Christendom shifted first to Alexandria in Egypt, and later, of course, to Rome. This led, during the last few decades of the 1st century, to a painful separation between Christianity and Judaism, a separation that is reflected in the Gospels, which were written around this time. By the start of the 2nd century, Christianity was essentially a non-Jewish religion, and Paul’s viewpoint won the day.

One example of this is reflected in the letter of 1 Timothy, a letter forged in Paul’s name in the late 1st century. The writer is discussing false Christian teachers, which he calls “hypocritical liars,” and he states that they teach people to “abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving.” The writer goes on to say: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So much for the views of James and Peter that some foods are unclean.

Christians from that time to now have left Jewish Law and Jewish customs behind them.

JESUS AND JEWISH LAW

We have looked at what Jewish Law was, and we have also seen why Christians don’t follow Jewish Law. Even though the earliest Christians – the followers of Jesus and their converts – seem to have adhered strongly to Jewish norms and customs, and seem to have believed, at least early on, that one needed to become Jewish in order to be Christian, Paul challenged all that and spread the gospel of Jesus to non-Jews, leading Christianity to an eventual separation from Judaism all together. It became, by the end of the 1st century, a non-Jewish religion that did not adhere to Jewish laws and customs.

But since Jesus is the heart and soul of Christianity, one might wonder what Jesus himself had to say on this matter. For many Christians (and for institutional Christianity in general) Jesus was not just a prophet, but the Son of God, even God himself in human form. For Christians, then, one would expect Jesus’s words to carry significant weight.

Many folks may be surprised to discover that Jesus seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Consider, for instance, Matthew 23, where Jesus states: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat. You must obey them and do everything they tell you.” He goes on to encourage his listeners not to be hypocritical like the Pharisees, but he affirms that their teaching of the Law is sound and his listeners should follow it. For Jesus in this passage, the problem with the Pharisees is not their reliance on Jewish Law, but on the fact that they are hypocrites who don’t really follow it.

Consider also a story repeated in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy. Afterwards, he instructs the man to go to the temple to be ritually purified and to “offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded.” Clearly he found these customs to be necessary.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, provided by Luke, Jesus tells of a beggar named Lazarus who always had to eat the scraps from the table of a rich man.

The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Leandro Bassano

The rich man lived the high life and consistently ignored the plight of Lazarus. In time, both men died, with the rich man going to hell, and Lazarus going “to the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man begs Abraham to let Lazarus return to earth to warn his brothers about the dangers of luxurious living. Abraham responds that the rich man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets” and that they should “listen to them.” Abraham goes on to say that if the rich man’s brothers won’t listen to Moses, then neither will they listen to someone who is raised from the dead (i.e. Lazarus). Jesus, through this parable, is affirming the salvific nature of Mosaic Law.

In a story related in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is approached by a Gentile who wants him to heal her daughter. Jesus flatly refuses to do so, stating that he has come only “to the lost sheep of Israel” and that it is not right to take “the children’s bread” (that is, Jesus’s teachings) and “toss it to the dogs” (that is, unclean Gentiles). The woman persists, however, and Jesus finally agrees to heal her daughter. But he does it from a distance; he does not go to the woman’s unclean, Gentile house.

A similar story is found in both Matthew and Luke. Here, the Gentile is a Roman centurion, and the sick person is his servant. Jesus agrees to heal the servant, but, as with the story from Matthew, he does not go to the centurion’s house, and instead heals the servant from afar.

It is noteworthy to point out that these are the only two healings attributed to Jesus from afar. They are also the only two healings of Gentiles attributed to Jesus. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus keeps away from Gentiles, because he viewed them as unclean, which was consistent with a Jewish worldview.

Finally, there is a passage from Matthew where Jesus explicitly talks about adherence to Jewish Law and customs:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is hard to imagine how Jesus could be more explicit. “Until heaven and earth disappear” – that is, until the end of time – the Law of Moses is valid. Unless your righteousness – that is, your adherence to God’s commandments – exceeds even the righteousness of the Pharisees, who are famous for their strict adherence to the Law, you will not see God’s kingdom.

CONCLUSION

This final passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is a difficult one to reconcile in light of traditional Christian practice. As we saw above, from the time of Paul, Christians began rejecting Jewish laws and customs, and by the beginning of the 2nd century, virtually no Christian followed any of the laws of Moses, except those that they found particularly important. This is true even today, as many Christians revere the Ten Commandments, but handily reject countless other mandates from the Old Testament.

As we have seen, Jesus was a Jewish man, living in the Jewish homeland, and teaching and preaching within the worldview of 1st century Judaism. In the Gospel of Matthew in particular, Jesus is fiercely loyal to Jewish laws and customs, and explicitly states that these commandments are valid for all time – indeed, “until heaven and earth disappear.”

In Part II of this series, we will look much more closely at this passage from Matthew and consider how we might reconcile it with modern Christian practice.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Synoptic Problem, the Q Gospel, and the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew

Perhaps no other textual issue in Christian scholarship has been discussed and debated more over the years than the sources used by the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The discussion, frequently called “the Synoptic Problem,” began in the late 18th century, and continues today in the 21st.

Why is this a problem? To begin with, these three Gospels are very similar in content, sometimes relating stories word-for-word between all three Gospels. In addition to containing many of the same stories, a lot of the literary structure of these three Gospels is similar. This is why they are called “Synoptic” – from the Greek word “syn,” meaning “together,” and “opsis,” meaning “to see” – they can be “seen together” because of their literary and grammatical similarities.

Secondly, while all three Gospels have material in common (often called the “Triple Tradition”), there is a significant amount of material found only in Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark (this is called the “Double Tradition”).

Finally, there is material in all three Gospels that is unique to each Gospel. In other words, there are stories found only in Mark, stories found only in Matthew, and stories found only in Luke.

This, then, is the nature of the “problem.” How can all these various textual traditions be explained?

Problem or not, why is this such an important issue? Why does it matter? Quite simply, because it makes such a dramatic impact on conclusions historians can draw about the life of Jesus and the rise of early Christianity. Knowing when they were written, and how they came to be in the forms we have them today, is vitally important to understanding the traditions handed down to us by the first generations of believers, and by Jesus himself.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW

Until the rise of modern New Testament scholarship in the 19th century, virtually everyone agreed that Matthew was the earliest Gospel, followed by Mark and Luke. This is why they follow in that order in our Bibles – Matthew, Mark, Luke.

But beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scholars and historians studying the texts of the New Testament began to see new patterns that had gone unnoticed, and frankly unlooked for, prior to that time. Since these inaugural studies, three theories have come forward as likely candidates to explain the way these three Gospels are connected.

The first theory goes along with Church tradition of Matthean primacy (i.e. Matthew was written first), but suggests that Luke came second, followed by Mark. According to this theory, Luke used Matthew as a source, which explains why there is so much material common between them. Mark, on the other hand, used both previous Gospels as source material. Since Mark is so much shorter than the other two, this theory supposes that Mark was written as a sort of handbook version of the longer, more detailed Gospels that preceded it.

The second theory denies this Matthean primacy and instead asserts that Mark was written first. Matthew came second, using Mark as a primary source, and repeating almost 90% of Mark’s contents. By this theory’s assertion, Luke was last of the bunch, also using Mark as a source but not using Matthew. Instead, the material common between Matthew and Luke, and which is not found in Mark (the “Double Tradition” referred to above), comes from a source no longer in existence, which these scholars have called the Q Gospel (“Q” being short for the German word “quelle,” which means “source”). Thus, Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as source material, but were independent of one another.

Finally, the third theory takes themes from both the previous two. It agrees that Mark was written first, and that Matthew came second and used Mark as a source. However, it is skeptical of the existence of the Q Gospel, and instead asserts that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources. So this theory agrees with Theory 2 on the Triple Tradition – Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source – but agrees with Theory 1 on the Double Tradition – Luke also used Matthew as a source.

Among modern scholars, only a fraction still adheres to Theory 1. Virtually nobody in the modern academy supposes Matthew was written first. Similarly, in recent years, Theory 3 has become less and less prominent. As of today, it’s fair to say that the majority of Biblical scholars accept Theory 2 – that Mark came first, Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, and that Matthew and Luke also used a second source in common, called Q, which is no longer in existence. There are still some prominent scholars who are skeptical of Q, but it appears that the thrust of modern scholarship is moving towards Q, not away from it.

THE Q GOSPEL

So what, exactly, is the Q Gospel?

As noted above, scholars are virtually unanimous in their agreement that the writers of Matthew and Luke used Mark’s text as a primary source. Thus, whenever we find the same story in all three Gospels, we know that Matthew and Luke got the story from Mark.

However, as also noted above, there are a significant number of stories found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. These stories are frequently the same, word for word, in both Gospels. If Matthew and Luke didn’t get the stories from Mark, then where, exactly, did the stories come from? Not oral tradition, because two authors writing from oral tradition would not give the same word for word accounts. Instead, we have the Q Gospel. As the theory goes, this was an early Gospel containing mostly sayings of Jesus, available to Matthew and Luke, but now lost to history.

There is a lot of evidence to support the 1st century existence of this document. First of all, since we know Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, it is not unreasonable to assume they used other written sources too. Luke, in fact, implies just this thing when, at the beginning of his Gospel, he tells us explicitly that he has combed through all the available writings about Jesus in creating his own text.

Secondly, by looking at all the stories from this hypothesized text, one can begin to analyze it critically. For instance, the majority of the stories in Q are apocalyptically-oriented. This is a distinct literary and theological style, thus implying strongly that we are dealing with an actual third written source, rather than simply one author copying the other (in this case, Luke copying Matthew). Almost all of the apocalyptic language in Matthew comes from this common material. If Luke had been copying Matthew, what are the chances that it was only Matthew’s apocalyptically-oriented sayings that Luke copied?

To make this point a bit clearer, consider the following analogy:

Suppose there is a pair of lovers whose love story has been told by several different writers. Some of those writers depicted the story as uplifting and inspirational, while others depicted the story as a tragedy.

Writer A decides to write his own version. His account is mostly uplifting and inspirational, but he has a few scenes that are quite depressing and tragic.

Writer B also decides to write his own version. His account, like writer A’s, is mostly uplifting and inspirational, but he also has a few depressing scenes.

In analyzing these two accounts, one discovers that in the tragic, depressing scenes, both writers tell virtually the same story, word for word. But in all the other scenes, the writers use different language and tell their stories in their own unique words.

Given that you know Writers A and B both used earlier sources for their own version of the story, and given that you know those sources vary in how they tell the story, how would you analyze the sources each writer used? Would you assume that Writer B copied Writer A, but only on the depressing, tragic scenes, or would you simply assume that both Writer A and Writer B used the same earlier source, a source that was mostly tragic and depressing, for the word-for-word scenes in question?

Clearly, the most likely answer is the second one: Writers A and B shared a source. That source is clearly a version of the story that is tragic and depressing, and since both writers used this source, this explains why they have some tragic, depressing scenes, and those scenes are repeated almost word for word. This also explains why their other material is told differently – it’s told differently because Writer B was not copying Writer A.

This is the case for the Q material. It has a literary and theological theme – namely apocalypticism – which is obvious to anyone who reads the material. Outside of this material, Luke and Matthew tell their stories of Jesus differently from one another (with the obvious exception of the material they both got from Mark). Since everything else is different between these two texts, and since the word-for-word material has a verifiable theological theme that is not generally found elsewhere in Matthew and Luke, it seems clear that this material is coming from an actual third source, and not simply from Luke copying Matthew.

Third, in hypothesizing this Q document, scholars were essentially creating a whole new category of early Christian gospel – now called “sayings gospels.” At the time, in the 19th century, there was no evidence to suggest any such gospel style had ever existed. Yet, in 1945, just such a gospel was discovered – now widely known as the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not the lost Q Gospel, but it is a sayings gospel, proving that the genre existed in early Christianity.

Fourth, most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were written closely together in time: Matthew perhaps around 85 C.E., and Luke around 90 C.E. If these dates are right, it is hard to imagine that Luke could have had access to Matthew’s Gospel. Texts simply didn’t get spread around that quickly in the ancient world. Even if these dates are wrong by 100%, meaning ten years between them, that still doesn’t seem like enough time for Luke to be familiar with Matthew’s text.

Finally, there are so many massive differences between Luke and Matthew in other areas of their Gospels that it is almost unimaginable that Luke had Matthew’s text in front of him. Take, for instance, the stories of Jesus’ birth. Both agree Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary, that his earthly father was Joseph, and that he was born in Bethlehem, but that is where the similarities cease. Virtually every detail of the stories differs between these two texts. The same is true of Jesus’ resurrection accounts between the two Gospels. It is also true in some of the other stories, for instance in their vastly different accounts of how Judas Iscariot died, and even in the identities of Jesus’s twelve disciples. If Luke used Matthew as one of his sources, then either the “Matthew” he used was not the same as the Matthew we know today, or he simply believed that Matthew got a whole bunch of really important details totally and irreconcilably wrong – and yet he took him at face value on some of his material, particularly his apocalyptic material, and copied much of it word for word.

On this point, it’s also important to point out that while the Q material is frequently word-for-word between Luke and Matthew, Luke frequently places the sayings in different circumstances. For instance, Matthew’s famous Sermon on the Mount is Q material. However, in Luke, it’s not on a “mount” at all, but on a plain, and the sayings are in a different order and some aren’t there at all. This is but one example of many. Again, it seems that we are dealing with a lost gospel, one that provided a list of Jesus’ sayings, and Luke and Matthew both used those sayings, placing them in their own unique narrative contexts. If Luke was using Matthew, we should expect these Q sayings to be in a similar narrative context. But they simply aren’t in most cases.

In the end, it is my opinion that the evidence supporting Theory 2 – which includes the Q Gospel hypothesis – is persuasive and overwhelming. Mark came first. Matthew and Luke were written later, both independently using Mark as a source. They also had a second source in common, a list of sayings attributed to Jesus with very little narrative framework. They used these sayings differently, placing them in different narrative contexts, as one would expect in such a situation.

THE ARAMAIC GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

If you’ve followed my arguments up to now, you may realize that there are still some unanswered questions. What about the material that is unique in each Gospel? Where did those stories come from? Furthermore, how come sometimes Matthew and Luke’s Q material is virtually identical, but other times it varies dramatically in how it is told?

There are no clear answers to these questions, but I have formulated some theories aimed at clearing up the confusion.

Turning first to the question of unique material in each Gospel, it is ultimately impossible to explain where this material comes from. If Mark was written first, and did not use the Q Gospel as a source (and it does not appear that he knew of this Gospel), then his stories are all unique. We have no idea where he got his information. Church tradition says Mark was written by John Mark, a companion of Paul and later a secretary to Peter. Papias, an early 2nd century bishop in the region of modern Turkey, provides this information, saying that Mark wrote down all he remembered from his travels with Peter. This, of course, may or may not be accurate.

As for the unique material of Matthew and Luke, Matthew’s unique material is usually dubbed “M,” and Luke’s unique material is usually dubbed “L.” Of the two, Luke has by far the most unique material, comprising something like 40% of his Gospel. So what are these “L” and “M” sources? Again, we don’t know. Most assume the material came from oral tradition known to the individual writers. This is probably true, but it’s also possible that some of this material came from other actual texts that are no longer in existence. There is just no way to know. It’s even possible that some of this material came from Q, but since only one author quoted it, we can’t know it came from Q. We only know Q material when both Matthew and Luke repeat it.

Turning now to the second question, why is some Q material so similar between Matthew and Luke, and why is some of it so different?

Here, it is necessary to consider some clues from early Christian writers, primarily of the 2nd century. To put it simply, a lot of early Church fathers seemed to believe that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew (which, in context, probably meant Aramaic, the language of Jesus). This, in fact, seems to have been common knowledge in the 2nd and 3rd centuries – so common that Christian gospels of this era frequently connect the name “Matthew” with scribes – that is, with people who were writing down stories about Jesus. Consider the opening of the Gnostic text known as the Secret Book of Thomas: “The secret words that the savior spoke to Judas Thomas which I, Matthew, wrote down, while I was walking, listening to them speak with one another.”

As for the writings of Church fathers, consider the words of the aforementioned Papias, writing in the early part of the 2nd century: “Matthew put together the sayings [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” Also, from Iranaeus, writing near the end of the 2nd century: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.”

Thus, if Papias and Iranaeus can be trusted (and Iranaeus, by the way, probably got his information from Papias), Matthew must have been written originally in Hebrew/Aramaic. There is a problem, here, however. As anyone familiar with the Gospel of Matthew will know, Matthew is not merely a list of “sayings” of Jesus, as Papias contends. It’s a whole biographical Gospel in narrative form. Is it possible that what we call the Gospel of Matthew was not the same text known by the same name in the 1st and 2nd centuries? In fact, this is a conclusion drawn by a lot of modern scholars. Many scholars, for instance, will refer to Matthew’s writer as “the editor of Matthew.” For these scholars, the original Matthew was a shorter version, mostly just sayings, that was later expanded into its present form.

What text from the first century do we know of that sounds like this proto-Matthew?

Well, the Q Gospel of course.

HOW IT MAY HAVE HAPPENED

What will follow is my own reconstruction, based on several years of studying this topic. It is by no means the final word on the subject. However, I think it’s at least a possible, if not likely, scenario.

Around 30 C.E., Jesus died. Shortly thereafter, his disciples became convinced that he was still alive, risen from the dead and glorified to the right hand of God. They became “apostles” – preachers of the good news – and Christianity began to blossom and spread. A few years later, say around 35 C.E., a Jew named Paul was converted to Christianity after having a vision of Jesus. He made dramatic steps towards establishing Christian doctrine and beliefs, and he helped spread the story of Jesus beyond the Jewish homeland, into the Greek-speaking world.

Around 50 C.E., say about 20 years after Jesus’s death, one of his disciples decided to write down sayings he remembered of Jesus, fearing that the knowledge might be lost. He may not have been – and indeed probably was not – the first person to do this. In any case, the disciple in question was Matthew, also known as Levi. Levi had been a tax collector prior to following Jesus, and while this made him a pariah in Jewish society, it was a job that would only have been handled by someone of at least some financial means and likely some education. As such, he may have been the only literate disciple of Jesus.

In any case, he wrote down a list of sayings he remembered from Jesus. He wrote in Aramaic, which was his own language and the language of Jesus. This was not a Gospel in the traditional sense, but a list of sayings with very little narrative context. There was nothing in this text about Jesus’s birth, death, or resurrection. Instead, Jesus is shown as an apocalyptic prophet using typical rabbinical teaching techniques (one-liner quips and parables), as well as performing charismatic healings and exorcisms.

Called the Gospel of Matthew at the time, scholars now call this document Q, and it is no longer in existence.

Several decades later, around 70 C.E., Mark wrote his Gospel. He does not appear to be familiar with the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. It is unclear where he got his information, though it may have come from the traditions passed on by Peter.

Perhaps around this same time, the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew was translated by another writer into Greek, the common written language of that era. This would have been done so that the Gospel could be read by those who did not speak Aramaic (which, after 70 C.E., included an increasing number of Christians). This Gospel was still in its “Q” form at the time.

Sometime later, perhaps in the mid-80’s C.E., another writer came along and decided to expand the Greek version of the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. He was familiar with Mark and wanted to use Matthew’s stories to expand Mark. He wrote the text that we know today as the Gospel of Matthew, including all the sayings from the original Aramaic Gospel of Matthew, as well as the vast majority (over 90%) of Mark’s Gospel. He also added in some new material, drawn most likely from his knowledge of oral tradition. Despite writing in Greek, this man was Jewish, writing to a Jewish audience.

Some 5-10 years later, another writer, Luke, came along, using all the resources available to him. He did not have access to the new, longer, Greek version of the Gospel of Matthew, but he did have access to the Greek translation of the original Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. He also had Mark and probably other written and oral sources as well. He used a lot of Mark and all of the Greek translation of the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes he copied Mark and proto-Matthew (i.e. “Q”) word for word, but sometimes he changed the wording to suit his own purposes. It’s also possible that he was not using a Greek translation of proto-Matthew, but was instead translating it himself from the original Aramaic, which would explain why sometimes his translations are virtually identical to what we find in our modern Matthew, and other times they vary dramatically.

This, then, is my reconstruction. What we today call the lost Q Gospel was actually a sayings text written by the disciple Matthew, a few decades before Mark. Mark didn’t know this text. This Q Gospel/proto-Matthew was later translated into Greek and then expanded to include Mark’s information and some other oral traditions. Finally, Luke used both the Q Gospel/proto-Matthew text (either in Greek or Aramaic), and Mark, to compose his own account. He was not familiar with the longer version of Matthew that we know today.

If this speculative reconstruction is true, then the Q Gospel is significant as not only the earliest document detailing the life of Jesus, but also the only Christian writing in existence that was based on firsthand knowledge – namely the knowledge of Jesus’s disciple Matthew.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Forensics of King Tut's Lineage

After more than a century of speculation within Egyptology, the lineage of King Tut and other 18th dynasty figures has been worked out. 

To those for whom Ancient Egypt is just a passing interest, this may not seem so significant.  Yet, in the world of Egyptology, this is akin to solving the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity.  This is, quite simply, a major discovery and a significant mystery solved. 

As with so many other prominent identifications in the last 10-15 years, DNA technology has helped researchers determine once and for all who the parents of King Tut were, and how he and other royal mummies from the 18th dynasty were related. 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Since most of my readers are probably not familiar with the political and cultural conditions of the 18th dynasty, it is necessary to give a bit of background information in order to make sense of what will follow.

The 18th dynasty extends from roughly 1550 to 1300 B.C.E, beginning with Ahmose I and ending with Horemheb.  The exact number of rulers between these two kings is not entirely clear, because of the political upheaval associated with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from about 1350 to 1334 B.C.E.     

This graph shows that Amenhotep III was the father and predecessor of Akhenaten, while his mother was a woman named Queen Tiye.  The precise lineage after that has long been convoluted.

To put it briefly, Akhenaten instituted a massive change in the religious traditions of ancient Egypt.  Outlawing the worship of the traditional gods, he began what many historians consider the first truly monotheistic religion: the cult the Aten, the sun disc god.  He moved the traditional capital from Thebes to the desert of middle Egypt, where he built a new city called Akhetaten (meaning “The Horizon of the Aten”).  Needless to say, this was not received very well by many common Egyptians, not to mention the powerful priests of the old gods, and after Akhenaten’s death, the country was plunged into religious, social, cultural, and political upheaval. 

A statue of Akhenaten.  Note the stylized facial features which characterize Akhenaten's reign.

At least two rulers seem to have held Egypt’s throne for a four year period after Akhenaten’s death.  The first was Smenkhkare, who is believed to have been Akhenaten’s brother.  This Smenkhkare appears to have married Akhenaten’s oldest daughter Meritaten.  Meritaten, in turn, appears to have ruled as a virtual co-regent with her husband, taking the throne name Neferneferuaten.  It further appears that Smenkhkare died within just a year or so of Akhenaten, leaving Neferneferuaten to rule alone for another three years, before she too seems to have died. 

The circumstances of this four-year period are extremely uncertain, and what I have provided above is simply a common historical reconstruction.  It is not clear, for instance, whether Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten were two individuals or simply one person known by two names.  Additionally, it is not clear whether Smenkhkare was Akhenaten’s brother or his son (most believe he was a brother of Akhenaten).  Furthermore, whether two people or one person, even the gender of these figures is also not entirely clear.  Finally, it is not clear exactly when Akhenaten died, and some believe that Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten (whether two people or one) ruled as co-regents with Akhenaten, falling from their position upon Akhenaten’s death.

In any case, following the demise of these previous rulers, Tutankhamun finally came to the throne of Egypt, beginning around 1330 B.C.E.  He was nine years old at the time.  One of his first actions as king was to abandon Akhenaten’s religion and city, return the capital to Thebes, and reinstitute the traditional pantheon of gods and religious traditions.  He ruled for ten years before dying at around the age of nineteen.  His tomb, of course, lay undisturbed for the next 3,000 years before it was discovered in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter.

Inside Tut's tomb, just days after it was discovered.

EARLY THEORIES

The question of who Tutankhamun was has puzzled archaeologists for a long time.  His very existence was lost to history until about 1905, when an artifact was found with his name on it, discussing something he had done as king.  Prior to this, no one had ever heard of him.  Even after his nearly intact tomb was discovered about fifteen years later, nothing within the tomb gave any clear indication as to where he had come from or who he was related to. 

Over the years, most historians have assumed he was Akhenaten’s son.  However, there has been virtually no evidence to prove it.  Of all the paintings and depictions discovered of Akhenaten and his family, Tutankhamun is never pictured.  Instead, Akhenaten is always shown with his wife and his six daughters. 

Akhenaten with his wife, Nefertiti, and three of their daughters, worshiping the Aten.
There is nothing in the historical record to imply that he ever had sons.  Furthermore, as discussed above, his eldest daughter, Meritaten, appears to have been rather prominent, perhaps even ruling for a period of time after her father’s death.  This would imply strongly that there was no viable male heir. 

Others have argued that Tut was, indeed, Akhenaten’s son, but was his son by his secondary wife, a woman named Kiya, about whom very little is known.  This would explain why he is not pictured in paintings of Akhenaten with his principal wife, Nefertiti.     

Queen Kiya
Still others have suggested that Tut was not Akhenaten’s son but his nephew, the son of Smenkhkare, who was likely a brother to Akhenaten.     

Finally, some have argued that Tut may have been Akhenaten’s brother, another son of Akhenaten’s father and predecessor, Amenhotep III.  Akhenaten is known to have reigned for seventeen years, and Tut was only nine years old when he came to power, but this theory presupposes that the first eight to ten years of Akhenaten’s reign was a co-regency with his father Amenhotep, for which there is some (although not much) evidence.  It is significant to note that most of the inscriptional evidence from artifacts actually supports this theory of Tut being the son of Amenhotep III, and thus the brother of Akhenaten. 

Of these theories, the second and third ones have tended to be the most common – Tut was either Akhenaten’s son by his secondary wife Kiya, or was the son of Smenkhkare and thus nephew to Akhenaten.  In a series on Tutankhamun I wrote a few years ago, I supported the Akhenaten/Kiya theory. 

A discovery in 1910 seemed to lend credence to both of these theories.  Now dubbed “KV55,” the tomb was discovered by American archaeologist Theodore Davis.  Thought it was evidently originally a tomb for Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III), it had been reused in antiquity as a burial cache for items and mummies originally buried in the necropolis of Akhenaten’s capital city in the desert.  In fact, Tutankhamun appears to have been behind this reburial, as his name was on the sealed door (leading the archaeologists to initially believe they had found the boy king’s tomb).  Tut had, apparently, commissioned the work to remove these bodies and items from the now ruined city to the Valley of the Kings for protection.  Tut did away with his predecessor’s political and religious upheavals, but apparently still found it important to protect the afterlife destinies of figures associated with the reign of Akhenaten. 

Though the tomb had been robbed many times in antiquity, it still held a number of artifacts, including artifacts with the names of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye (Akhenaten’s father and mother), Akhenaten himself, as well as a few artifacts with Tutankhamun’s name. 

In addition to these, there were also artifacts belonging to Kiya, Akhenaten’s secondary wife (including the jar pictured above).  If Tut did indeed commission this reburial, then the presence of items belonging to Kiya might indicate a maternal affection Tut had for the woman.  It is noteworthy to point out that nothing with the name of Akhenaten’s principle wife, Nefertiti, was found in the tomb.

Finally, Davis’ archaeological team discovered a mummy in the tomb, resting inside a rotting coffin with no lid.  The mummy’s identity was not clear, but it was a male who appeared to have been in his early twenties at death.  Because his right arm was crossed over his chest in the traditional position of male royalty, it was clear this mummy belonged to a king.  Since the mummy appeared to be too young to be Akhenaten, many archaeologists assumed it must have belonged to his brother Smenkhkare.  As with the Kiya theory, if this mummy belonged to Smenkhkare, it may provide evidence of paternal affection Tut had for the man.  Perhaps Tut, then, was the son of Smenkhkare. 

CLEARING UP THE QUESTIONS

As you can see from this brief overview, the question of Tut’s identity has haunted Egyptologists for years, and numerous theories have been put forth based on the scant evidence that has survived the millennia. 

Now, with DNA testing, Egyptologists finally have definitive answers.

To begin with, DNA testing has proven that the male mummy from KV55 was, in fact, Tutankhamun’s father.  It further shows that this mummy was the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, who are known to have been the parents of Akhenaten.    

Fair enough, but who, exactly, does this mummy belong to?  Is it Smenkhkare or Akhenaten?  Both, remember, are believed to have been the sons of Amenhotep and Tiye.

To begin with, there were a number of flowery royal names on the desiccated coffin in which the mummy was found, and these are names known to have been associated with Akhenaten. 

Secondly, new studies performed together with the DNA studies, have indicated that the previously accepted age of this mummy – around twenty – may be off by as many as fifteen years.  Rather than being a young man of twenty, this mummy was probably a middle-aged man of roughly thirty-five (middle age, of course, by the standards of ancient Egypt!).    

Finally, the mummy’s condition upon its discovery indicates very strongly that it was brutalized and vandalized in antiquity.  For instance, the head was completely disconnected from the body, and it was also missing its genitalia (which led initial researchers, in the early 1900’s, to conclude that it was a female mummy).  This, of course, implies that whoever desecrated the body in antiquity most probably believed it was the mummy of Akhenaten, because there would have been no discernable reason to damage the body of Smenkhkare or someone else.   

As a result of this data, the researchers have concluded that the mummy in KV55 is, in fact, Akhenaten.  Though some folks apparently still disagree with this conclusion, it appears that most experts agree that this mummy can be no one but the infamous heretic king.

As such, we can now say with confidence that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and the grandson of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. 

But what about his mother?  Was it Nefertiti, the principle wife of Akhenaten, or Queen Kiya, who, from the evidence of tomb KV55, appears to have been important to Tut?

Turns out, it’s neither.

The DNA testing has proven conclusively that Tutankhamun was the son of an incestuous relationship.  His mother and father were full siblings, meaning both were the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.  Since there is no evidence suggesting that either Nefertiti or Kiya were daughters of these two people, they can be ruled out as mothers for Tutankhamun.  Unfortunately, neither of these women’s mummies has survived with any positive identification, so they cannot be tested for DNA. 

However, other existing mummies can be tested for DNA links to Tutankhamun, and because of this, the researchers have been able to identify the mummy of Tut’s mother.  It is an unidentified mummy found in 1898 in a tomb called KV35.  She has routinely been referred to as the “Younger Lady” of KV35, to differentiate her from another mummy found in that tomb, called the “Elder Lady.”  The DNA evidence has shown that this “Elder Lady” was, in fact, Queen Tiye – an identification that had long been suspected.  Additionally, the Younger Lady has proven to be Tiye’s daughter, Akhenaten’s wife, and Tut’s mother.  Her actual identity, however, is still a mystery. 

The three mummies found in KV35.  On the left is the Elder Lady, now identified as Queen Tiye.  On the right is the Younger Lady, now known to be Tutankhamun's mother (and daughter to Tiye).  The mummy in the center is a still unidentified young male, presumed to be a royal prince.

Since there is no historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti or Kiya were sisters to Akhenaten, they seem to be excluded as possible identities for the Younger Lady (prior to this new study, at least one Egyptologist had argued extensively for the Younger Lady’s identification as Nefertiti).  Since the mummy is known to be a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, and since several of Amenhotep’s other daughters are positively referred to as his own wives on various inscriptions, it is assumed that this Younger Lady is either Nebeta or Beketaten, two daughters of Amenhotep who were never married to their father (thus leaving them free to marry their brother, Akhenaten). 

It is still possible, of course, that this mummy could belong to Nefertiti or Kiya.  Perhaps one of them was, in fact, a sister to Akhenaten, but this evidence has simply not made it into the historical record.  But barring such an unlikely scenario, it is far more probable that the mummy is one of the two daughters of Amenhotep referred to above. 

Finally, DNA testing has shown that two stillborn female fetus mummies discovered in Tut’s tomb, are, in fact, his own children, as has long been assumed.  Furthermore, tentative data suggests that an unknown mummy from a tomb called KV21 is the mother of these two fetuses.  If that’s true, then it is likely that this mummy belongs to Tut’s wife, Ankhesenamun – who is known from the historical record to have been a daughter of Akhenaten and his principle wife Nefertiti. 

CONCLUSION

Confused yet?  It should be obvious by now that with every new discovery comes new questions.  What we can assert positively at this point is that Tutankhamun is the son of the male mummy in KV55 and the younger female mummy in KV35.  These two people were not only married, but were also brother and sister.  They were both the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, meaning Tut is the grandson of these two 18th dynasty figures.  Additionally, Queen Tiye can now be positively identified as the elder female mummy from KV55. 

Much more tentative at this point are the identifications of Tut’s parents and the mother of his two stillborn children.  Regarding the children, it is likely from the historical record that they are the daughters of his only known wife, Ankhesenamun.  As such, it is likely that the unknown female mummy from KV21 is, in fact, Ankhesenamun.  However, the data connecting this mummy to the fetuses is not yet complete.  Furthermore, even if this mummy does prove to be the mother of the fetuses, this does not tell us for certain that she is Ankhesenamun.  Perhaps Tut had lesser wives whose names have been lost. 

Both of these problems – the mother of Tut’s children, and the identity of Tut’s parents – should be cleared up with further DNA testing on the mummy from KV21.  As mentioned above, Ankhesenamun is known from the historical record to be the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.  As such, if the mummy from KV21 shares father/child DNA with the male mummy from KV55 (Tut’s father), this would prove beyond any reasonable doubt that not only is she Ankhesenamun, but that the KV55 mummy is, in fact, Akhenaten (and not Smenkhkare, who would have been her uncle,  not her father).  Furthermore, if her maternal DNA does not match the DNA of the Younger Lady from KV35 (the mother of Tut), this would prove that this Younger Lady was not Nefertiti (although it would still leave the door open for this mummy’s identification as Kiya, if one was so inclined).  Of course, if the maternal DNA matched the Younger Lady of KV35, this would prove that both Tut and his wife were the children of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, though I don’t think many experts expect this to be the case. 

Putting together this speculation with the hard DNA evidence, the researchers behind this project have put together an official genealogy of Tutankhamun.  His paternal grandparents are Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.  His father was Akhenaten.  His mother was sister to Akhenaten and daughter to Amenhotep and Tiye, probably a woman named Nebeta or Beketaten.  His wife was Ankhesenamun, who was a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (making Tut her half-brother).  They had two daughters who were both stillborn.   

This genealogy, of course, is predicated on the assumption that the Younger Lady of KV35 is not Nefertiti or Kiya, and that the mummy of KV21 is Ankhesenamun.    

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