Category Archives: Patristics

Michael Heiser Books

[Previously posted, in somewhat different format, as a comment over at Crossover Queen.]

Michael Heiser is a pretty solid Bible scholar. His POV is that he is trying to understand the Bible solely based on the text while ignoring theological tradition. (Hence the title of his podcast, The Naked Bible Podcast.) Of course, you can’t necessarily do that, so he spends most of his career trying to understand the Bible via archaeological, cultural, and historical info. As for his religious POV, I think he’s some flavor of evangelical.

I really enjoyed his podcast series on the Book of Ezekiel. It gave a very nice explication of the literal sense of the text, along with a lot of secondary cultural material that greatly helped. He also had pictures and articles to download from his site, such as pictures of various archaeological discoveries of “chariot thrones” with angel and wheel supporters, found in countries around Israel.

Anyway, the guy has a couple of books out on supernatural angel-related stuff in the Bible, and comparing it to various Phoenician, Sumerian, etc. materials about the same thing. The Unseen Realms is the first one, and it’s available for free on Kindle Unlimited. Reversing Hermon is his more recent one. I read Unseen Realms too fast and missed some of his more startling/iffy bits, until he quoted them in Reversing Hermon.

The downfall of drawing your own conclusions is that you can be led into things like “Hit the button on the astro software, and decide what must be the Star of Bethlehem!” My older brother is an astronomer, so I’ve seen huge numbers of theories about the Star of Bethlehem. I was not impressed by his “Rosh Hashanah must be the real Christmas!” theory, mostly because I’ve seen a lot of the same astronomical material used as an interesting coincidence with the Virgin Mary’s traditional (East and West agree) birthday in September. His theory is a much better grade of “just suppose,” but interesting and academic doesn’t mean closer to reality.

The basic deal with Reversing Hermon is that a lot of Near/Middle East cultures had this idea that they got civilization skills from seven minor deity/angelic sages (who came from heaven or from the ocean). The sages taught humanity all sorts of things, married human women, and had kids who were human on the outside but minor deities/angels/spirits on the inside. And the same thing was true of their grandkids and so on. All the divine-descended people were taller than regular mortals, stronger, great warriors and sorcerors, etc., and had all the awesome skills that the sages taught. Various folks like Enkidu and Gilgamesh had this background.

But they didn’t live forever, and if you killed them their deity/angel/spirit half took over and became a vengeful spirit, punishing humans and haunting various spooky places. They also had their own realm, “the Great Land,” which was underground under various sacred mountains, the Dead Sea, etc. The Canaanites were very big into this, and very big into appeasing them or getting a specific Baal “Lord of the Dead” to keep them under control, because the giant dead running back and forth from their Great Land were a lot more dangerous than normal human dead people in Sheol.

Heiser shows that a lot of the stuff in the Bible about giants is from the POV of Israel putting a different spin on their neighbors’ stories. The sages were really evil rebel angels. The skills taught by the “sages” included a lot of things that Jewish people saw as inimical to good life and civilization, not foundational to it. Giants were mostly not good guys in life, either; they are people possessed by evil spirits or allowing themselves to be used. God was in the process of defeating the rebel angels, their evil descendants, and the evil Rephaim spirits. Heiser also theorizes in Reversing Hermon that a lot of Jesus’ actions, and His Incarnation, were part of showing humans the truth about the ultimate defeat of said rebel angels, giants, and evil spirits.

I thought the thesis was pretty interesting, and the gathering of sources was, too. Obviously Jesus did have a fair number of agendas going on, and spiritual warfare was clearly one of them. What I objected to was the conclusions and uses he made from the material. There was a lot of stuff that had me rolling my eyes and looking dubious, including the Rosh Hashanah Christmas thing.

And then, when you work your whole book up to “And Catholics totally don’t understand the rock/gates of Hell speech, but my theory won’t give satisfaction as to why Peter gets called Rock,” you are going to make us Catholics start looking like an eye slot machine. (Because there’s always another theory about how we’re wrong, and they’re all different except about how we’re wrong this time.)

Also, a lot of his pointing out that various “mighty men” references could also be giant references (based on some good Septuagint translation weirdness), led up to an assertion that the “gebirah” (great woman) stuff in the history chronicles, and the “valiant woman” stuff in Ruth and Proverbs, was not about Israel and Judah’s kings having their moms act as queen mother councilors or about smart ladies doing cool things, but about giantesses with wicked skills. (Okay, he didn’t come right out and say that, but that’s what I was seeing.) Possibly this was on purpose, possibly it was a consequence of his thesis. But either way, it ended up as an indirect swipe at recent Bible scholarship (mostly by Catholics) about how queen mother gebirah imagery relates to the Virgin Mary, among other Bible ladies. I have read a lot of gebirah research stuff, and other scholars have found that there is tons to relate it to similar stuff in neighboring cultures. It is the sort of thing that Heiser would normally like, or at least want to integrate with the giant interpretation thing. I could think of several ways to do that, on my way to the refrigerator.

So yeah, several places strike me as him having a minor Catholic allergy that is getting in the way of his thinking. Disappointing, but maybe he’ll get over it and come up with some fun stuff in a few years. He does make good use of Catholic scholars like Bergsma, Pitre, Hahn, etc., so he’s not suffering from anything serious.

My real problem is that, by separating Bible studies from doctrine or interpretation, he is basically creating an interpretation that is at odds with Christianity. Pagan ideas about the nature of things like the seven (or nine, or twelve) sages are not just morally wrong; they are factually incorrect. So just because Bob and Tanith Canaanite may have believed in vengeful rephaim ghosts, and some Biblical times Jews may have also believed in them, isn’t it somewhat important to point out that demons are full of BS, and stories about them also tend to be factually incorrect? Doesn’t it seem more like Jesus was striking against the BS, rather than worrying about descendants of giants roaming the earth? The fact that all this kind of lore has become very minor and forgotten would tend to argue that the Church didn’t really want to focus people’s attention on this stuff.

I was also not happy about his podcast interviewing some people going out and doing various kinds of “deliverance ministry” and spiritual warfare based on his books. I mean, you can like a scholar’s work pretty well without being willing to trust your life or your soul to his conclusions! He’s not trying to be a cult leader and I don’t find anything creepy in his work, per se; but there are some kinds of materials that just attract… overly enthusiastic… responses. I don’t know that he’s really taking that into account enough. (To be fair, however, he’s starting some kind of anti-Bible-conspiracy-theories video series soon, so maybe he is thinking about this stuff.)

But as a sourcebook for Near/Middle East mythos material and fiction ideas, The Unseen Realms is good and so is Reversing Hermon. And it is Bible fun, which is always fun to consider. Just don’t take it as Gospel.

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Oddity of the Day: Jesus Using a Wand

Santa Sabina has door panels that are very old (fifth century, AD 432) and which have some very old versions of standard Christian iconography. Things just aren’t drawn the same way they would be drawn later, and there are more things drawn in terms of ancient pagan or Jewish artwork.

So here’s Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, multiplying loaves and fishes, and changing water into wine. But on Santa Sabina’s doors, Jesus uses a wand.

Why? Probably because Moses used a staff, and many people and gods of the ancient world bore rods or wands as symbols of their rightful authority. Jesus is the New Moses and He is also God, so Him using a wand is sort of like Him carrying a scepter.

And sure enough, here’s Moses using a wand instead of a staff in a picture of the staves and serpents.

Here’s a video of the doors with the light falling on them, showing all kinds of detail and how they look on the actual church. Pretty nifty! Unfortunately, the guy doesn’t show all the panels in closeup. (I guess he was only interested in certain ones.)

The basilica of Santa Sabina was built on top of an old temple of Juno; its pillars are reused in the basilica. The basilica’s windows are made of translucent selenite instead of glass. This video in Italian shows a lot of details of the church and its surroundings. It also shows it being used as the Station Church for Ash Wednesday. It was given to the Dominicans in the Middle Ages, and St. Thomas Aquinas once taught there.

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“It’s a Mystery” Doesn’t Mean You Stop Thinking about It

A fitting thought, with Advent almost here….

“Insert yourself into this secret between both the One Unbegotten God and the One Only-begotten God!

“Dive into the hidden place of this unimaginable Nativity!

“Start out, run forward, keep going!

“Even though I know you won’t get there, I will congratulate you for what you will accomplish. For one pursues the infinite things with dutiful tenderness; and even if one never catches up to them, one still will profit from having gone out.”

“….insere te in hoc secretum, et inter unum ingenitum Deum, et unum unigenitum Deum, arcano te inopinabilis nativitatis immerge.

“Incipe, procurre, persiste:

“etsi non perventurum sciam, tamen gratulabor profecturum. Qui enim pie infinita persequitur, etsi non contingat aliquando, tamen proficiet prodeundo.”

St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, lib. II, c. 10.

“Incipe, procurre, persiste!” seems like a great motto.

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The Best Reader

“For the best reader is one who can look for the meaning of what is said in what is said, rather than what he imposes on it; and who can take that meaning rather than bring in his own; who can pick up what is seen to be contained in the words, rather than what he presumed to have understood them to contain before reading them.”

St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, lib. I, c. 18.

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Latin Phrases They Didn’t Teach You in School

“Valens cartam et calamum e manibus eius violenter extorsit.”

Valens violently wrenched the paper and pen out of his hands.

— Hilary of Poitiers, Liber I Ad Constantium, 8. (CSEL 65: 187, 12-15.)

This is another bad bishop story. Bishop Eusebius of Vercelli (good bishop) found out that his younger colleague, Bishop Dionysius of Milan, had signed a synod statement that was kinda Arian. So he up and went to the synod himself, and ended up presenting the synod with the Nicene Creed to sign. Dionysius thought this was a great idea, and started writing down his name.

That’s when Bishop Valens of Mursa (bad bishop) grabbed the paper and pen away from Bishop Dionysius.

“carta” is literally a sheet of papyrus, and hence a page or a letter.

“calamus” is a reed, and hence a reed pen or a reed pipe. A reed pen basically operates the same way as a quill pen or a dip pen: the hollow inside the reed is the ink reservoir, and the nib is carved into a rectangular shape with a cut down the middle for ink. (You carve the nib with a penknife, of course.) Dip the pen nib into an ink pot, and the ink goes up into the reed. Write something, and the ink goes down the nib onto the paper (or papyrus, in this case).

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The Book of Paradise, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge

Here’s Volume I of the English translation and Volume II of the English translation and Syriac text of The Book of Paradise, translated by E.A. Wallis Budge (better known as an Egyptologist). It’s a book of lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and various other saints, as well as advice from the Desert Fathers. A Syriac collection by Palladius, bishop of Aspuna, and a Syriac version of St. Jerome’s History of the Monks.

Here’s Volume I and Volume II of another edition, called The Paradise; or Garden of the Fathers. Also translated by Budge. Prettier, but the table of contents isn’t there in Volume II.

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St. Ephrem’s Dragons

St. Ephrem, Epiphany Hymn 8, verse 16:

“In the beginning, the Spirit of fruitfulness
brooded on the waters,
and they conceived and gave birth
to dragons, fish, and birds.
The Holy Spirit brooded on the waters of Baptism,
which gave birth to mystical eagles —
pure virgins and guides of the Church;
and mystical fish —
celibates and mediators, of course;
and mystical dragons —
those clever ones, of course,
who are made as simple as doves.”

This Syriac hymn takes advantage of both the Genesis translation of sea creatures as “dragons,” and the Greek notion that giant serpents are dragons.

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