Being a Voyeur of Religion, Politely

This is a post I wrote elsewhere, a while ago, and just realized was never put on this blog, so here it is. I thought of this post and the topic because of the recent data of the Ms Jesus Scroll, which does indeed appear to be old. But they are still arguing about it, of course. Post is slightly revised.

A while ago I asked on my Facebook page whether anyone had seen the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As one might expect, a couple of people, who possibly thought I was joking, noted that the Dead Sea scrolls were part of the Bible, and all that stuff was implausible stories handed down by ignorant Bronze Age shepherds over the generations, etc., etc., etc.

My first reaction to that, as an anthropologist, was this: “Hey, Imma let you say that now, but if you diss any of my people like that I’ll kick your ass. Metaphorically, of course.”  In other words, I do find it rather condescending when western occidento-hetero-caucasoido-normative types take it on themselves to make blanket statements that some other group of people of which they know nothing are stupid. I understand the whole being annoyed at the Bible thing. I mean, it is probably the most annoying book ever written. But this is where modern-day “New Atheists” can be thoughtless when unpracticed in their philosophy and its application.

But it was only a Facebook comment.

My second thought was this: I never read the sports section of the newspaper, but a few years ago when I came across a large fragment of a 30-year-old sports page from the local paper, hidden inside a wall, I read every word of it. Wouldn’t you? And the Dead Sea Scrolls are two thousand years old, and about a topic that is pretty much as interesting to me as hockey scores and basketball.

In the end, I went to see the exhibit. Twice. And I assure you, the part about the stupid Bronze Age shepherds is not only overwhelmingly outdone by other aspects of the scrolls, but in fact is rather inaccurate. The keepers of the scrolls were more like Moonies than shepherds, except when they were also tour guides. Also, it wasn’t the Bronze Age.

So a while back I visited the Jeffers Petroglyphs site in southwestern Minnesota. That’s also a religious exhibit of sorts, if we assume (and we probably should) that the symbols pecked and carved into two-billion-year-old red quartzite played a role in various Native American cultural practices having to do with spirits, gods, afterlife, and so on. Jeffers has thunderbirds, lightning symbols, warriors doing battle with shamans, turtles, magic turtles, hands, bison (probably the extinct kind), atlatls, and more. The guides, polite and well informed caucasionormatives, describe various hypotheses about the symbols and who made them and why, play down the violent parts — maybe that one of the guy with the spear in his chest bleeding all over the place is all about the transition from boyhood to manhood? — and try to link the religious nature of the site to the presumed religiosity (or, at least, spirituality!?!) of the visitors. The prayer we make now at this site is enhanced by the thousands of years of others coming here to pray. And so on.

And both subjects have their holocaustic contexts. The Dead Sea Scrolls were probably kept by a Jewish religious sect, or at the very least, were part of a Jewish Renaissance following an exodus of sorts, and were a big deal in a Jewish world increasingly controlled and colonized by repressive and violent outsiders known today as heroes of Western Civilization. And the next two thousand years is, as they say, bloody history.

Jeffers is much older and diffuse in its cultural associations but was a sacred site to the Dakota (and others) at a time when the practice was to do war with the Indians, kill a lot of them, cut off some of their body parts to sell later in town as curios, or deflesh their bones, varnish them, keep them on display in your office, and to do all the killing in a way that maximized your votes, if you happen to be a politician. And, just to put this in perspective, I think we as a civilization came to abhor the Jewish Holocaust at the time it was revealed, in the mid 1940s. In contrast, most of the native body parts harvested during the Dakota Uprising (centered geographically near Jeffers) were returned decades later, between 1971 and 1990, and by force of law, not because of a sense of shame or propriety. Some still sit on mantles or in boxes in closets.

I recommend a visit to both. But don’t be a dick about it. Your ancestors have already pretty much taken care of that.

Here’s the Ms. Jesus papyrus fragment, in the news recently because it has been “dated” (not really) and is probably old (plausibly). (Image modified by me from Harvard Magazine). I’ve included the translation because it makes me LOL.

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Comments

  1. #1 Smarter Than Your Average Bear
    April 11, 2014

    See the ones I just shared with you on G+ Greg – these are relatively unknown glyphs in the interior of the province. The location is difficult to reach. Visiting this site is a memory I will hold onto all of my days. You can’t help but be filled with wonder over what those symbols, and the place, meant to those who left their mark there.

  2. #2 Matt Whealton
    April 11, 2014

    Interesting. Too bad the fragment is not more complete. But the joke about biblical scholars is a bit badly placed. The issue is that Coptic (Sahidic dialect) uses a post position ‘an’ for negation. The Papyrus breaks just after an ‘a’ in line three. The next letter could easily be ‘n’ on probabilistic and syntactic grounds and thus is responsibly mentioned in the notes. with a question mark indicating the reconstructed ‘not’. This is not a ‘biblical scholar’ thing. It is a papyrological and textual/linguistic analysis thing. (That would be Ariel Shisa-Halevy’s work in the linked article, I believe). (There is another use of the negative ‘an’ in the first line. The reversed square brackets indicate the edge of the papyrus fragment. Anything outside them in the Coptic transcription on the left is a reconstruction).

  3. #3 Matt Whealton
    April 11, 2014

    Oh, and I fully support the main thrust in the post! (Sorry, I just got a little geeked out on the Coptic part…).

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2014

    Matt, I appreciate the details. (I was joking, of course, but in so obscured the truly interesting details that I don’t know much about)

    But, the broader context of the joke is not so much about biblical scholars as about the larger picture including the texts (all of them) and those who read them; the enterprise is full of amazingly contradictory interpretations that are often astounding or at least amusing.

  5. #5 Matt Whealton
    April 11, 2014

    Absolutely! I look at Ancient Egyptian texts all the time – They are amazing things, often wildly different in viewpoint and mode of expression from our modern world. And there are loads of contradictory interpretations too. Reading the footnotes in egyptological papers has had me burst into laughter more than once (some authors love to put their barbed zingers in the notes)!

  6. #6 Jesse
    April 12, 2014

    This got me thinking about something that has blown up the the Atheist-blogosphere — the kerfluffle over Brandeis withdrawing an honorary degree from Ayan Hirsi Ali. There’s a ton of Orientalist-type stuff flowing there.

    The idea that privilege is context-dependent seems to sail right by a lot of New Atheists, and that gets into when they decide to be dicks about things. They don’t seem to get that decrying the terrible actions of governments like Saudi Arabia and saying that even Muslims deserve the same civil rights — whether we are at war with Muslim enemy du jour or not — are not contradictory statements. (Just read the comment threads on FtB to see what I mean). I’ll leave aside a relatively huge blind spot about which political actors were and are advocating sending more money to regressive dictators, religious and not.

    I also know a bit about the impact of enforced secularization on the peoples of the Russian Far East. It was horrible, as much an act of cultural destruction and genocide as the forced religious conversions in the US a half-century earlier.

    I also did some work with marginalized populations (I spent a lot of time on some stories about Native people in the US 20 years back).

    So I make it a point to ask myself what the impacts of certain ideas on marginalized populations is, and to tread carefully when thinking about what religion is and was to those who practice it.

    (As an aside, my grandma was threatened with jail because you know, those Japanese folks just cant be trusted. Thankfully she wasn’t a resident of California, Oregon or Washington — but she did her time bringing food to people in the camps. This historical parallel is also something that seems to get lost on some people who are ostensibly humanists).

    Maybe this comment is OT. I am sorry if it is. But you got me thinking about this stuff.

  7. #7 G
    April 17, 2014

    Greg, re. “But this is where modern-day “New Atheists” can be thoughtless when unpracticed in their philosophy and its application.” Also Jesse @ 6. Exactly right.

    From what I can see, the New Atheists have four main points in their platform: 1) “Out of the closet.” 2) Full legal and cultural equality. 3) Separation of church and state. 4) “We’re right.” Items 1-3 are unarguably correct, item (4) is “marketplace of ideas” material.

    Sometimes they indulge in ad-hominem attacks against religion and believers, and IMHO this is a “shoot self in foot maneuver.” It’s understandable in the same way that the sexual exuberance of the early gay rights movement was understandable, but it doesn’t help the cause.

    What atheists and others who don’t espouse mainstream religion really need to do, is make their own moral frameworks explicit and bring them into the debate. The human mind doesn’t work well with logical negatives. “I don’t believe in a deity” necessarily calls up the questions “then what do you believe?” and “then what’s your basis for moral behavior?”

    Atheists and others need to be prepared to answer those questions, and to make clear that their moral foundation is as solid as any that’s based on a deity as arbiter of morals. That, more than anything, will contribute to the acceptance that leads to support.

  8. #8 Christopher Winter
    April 20, 2014

    Matt Whealton: Absolutely! I look at Ancient Egyptian texts all the time – They are amazing things, often wildly different in viewpoint and mode of expression from our modern world. And there are loads of contradictory interpretations too.

    I trust you’ve never seen anything about the fate of Amaroka — or about stargates — in those texts.

    (Yes, I’m kidding.)

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