SURPASSING WONDER

THE INVENTION OF THE BIBLE AND THE TALMUDS

Venturing as an amateur into biblical and Judaic studies, historian Akenson (Queen’s University, Ontario) constructs a brilliant integrative theory of continuities and parallels between Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and rabbinic Judaism. Within today’s complex world of biblical interpretation, Akenson’s book falls under the rubric of canonical criticism: the extrapolation of meanings and intents from the final (canonical) forms sacred scriptures assumed. By his own terms for his project—to uncover “the grammar of biblical invention”—Akenson means to highlight both his theological neutrality on the issue of divine biblical inspiration and his awe-filled regard for the genius of the Jewish and Christian “inventors”: the author/editors who shaped the disparate materials they received, both oral and written, into literary masterpieces that met historically conditioned spiritual needs. The central need in question, according to Akenson, was to replace the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed first by the Babylonians in 587 b.c., and then again by the Romans in 70 a.d., with texts whose ideas could substitute for the temple-based ritual sacrifices. Temple-substitution is the common template over which Akenson lays Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and the rabbinic literature, with startling and provocative results. The Torah, or first five books of Moses, traditionally most revered by Jews, becomes a relatively late, politically motivated extract out of a prior unit of nine books (Genesis through Kings, in the Hebrew Bible); the physically resurrected Christ becomes a biblically ungrammatical aberrancy; and rabbininc Judaism emerges as the younger sibling of Christianity. The intellectual shocks are hugely instructive (St. Paul conceived in relation to the gospels as the Mishnah to the Talmud), entertaining (Ecclesiastes as “camped-up staginess”), and conciliatory—for ultimately, Akenson hopes to reinvigorate Jewish-Christian dialogue with shared wonder over the literary ploys of genial scriptural redactors working common themes to opposite effect. Akenson successfully reproduces, in microcosm, an ancient world of scriptural ideas that he rightly calls “one of the greatest intellectual air shows ever conducted.”

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 1998

ISBN: 0-15-100418-8

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED

The Book of Genesis as imagined by a veteran voice of underground comics.

R. Crumb’s pass at the opening chapters of the Bible isn’t nearly the act of heresy the comic artist’s reputation might suggest. In fact, the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural is fastidiously respectful. Crumb took pains to preserve every word of Genesis—drawing from numerous source texts, but mainly Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (2004)—and he clearly did his homework on the clothing, shelter and landscapes that surrounded Noah, Abraham and Isaac. This dedication to faithful representation makes the book, as Crumb writes in his introduction, a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” But his efforts are in their own way irreverent, and Crumb feels no particular need to deify even the most divine characters. God Himself is not much taller than Adam and Eve, and instead of omnisciently imparting orders and judgment He stands beside them in Eden, speaking to them directly. Jacob wrestles not with an angel, as is so often depicted in paintings, but with a man who looks not much different from himself. The women are uniformly Crumbian, voluptuous Earth goddesses who are both sexualized and strong-willed. (The endnotes offer a close study of the kinds of power women wielded in Genesis.) The downside of fitting all the text in is that many pages are packed tight with small panels, and too rarely—as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—does Crumb expand his lens and treat signature events dramatically. Even the Flood is fairly restrained, though the exodus of the animals from the Ark is beautifully detailed. The author’s respect for Genesis is admirable, but it may leave readers wishing he had taken a few more chances with his interpretation, as when he draws the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a provocative half-man/half-lizard. On the whole, though, the book is largely a tribute to Crumb’s immense talents as a draftsman and stubborn adherence to the script.

An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06102-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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