• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    Noah adaptations p04: How Genesis develops the flood story

    This is part 4 of a series investigating adaptations of the "Noah" story.

    "Noah’s Ark" by Greek painter Theodore Poulakis (1622–1692).

    In the last part of this series on adaptations of Noah, I looked at the variations of the flood story that were brought together to form Genesis, namely the Priestly and non-Priestly material, but what I didn't go into was some of the key changes those two "sources" and the "final" text of Genesis makes to the Babylonian traditions before them.

    These changes are fairly wholesale, which is partly because I'm compressing a few layers of evolution into one, but even focusing on a theoretical reconstruction of the J source and comparing it to the Gilgamesh Epic unearths a very different text. It's a radical overhaul, far more akin to an appropriation than an adaptation. However, as J is still, very much, a theoretical text I'm going to stick to comparing the text of Genesis we find in our Bibles today with the Gilgamesh epic.


    One of the major difference is, of course, the change of identity of the flood hero, from Utnapishti to Noah. In the last entry in this series I looked at where Noah as a character may have emerged from (the first viniculturist), but it's also worth pointing out how that contrasts with Utnapishti.  Utnapishti is an immortal character (at least by the time he is telling his story), Noah is mundanely human. After the events of the flood Utnapishti recalls the god Ea declaring that "he and his wife shall become like us gods!" ( Noah seemingly returns to 'normal life'. Utnapishti now lives in a remote, almost entirely inaccessible place, whereas Noah lives out amongst his descendants.

    There's also much more of a sense of Noah's being of no particular rank. Utnapishti is described as having (pre-flood) silver and gold, oxen and lambs, beer and ale, oil and wine and workmen (XI:71-86). Onto the ark he brings kith covering "Members of every skill and craft" (XI:86).1 Noah just has his family and saves them alone. Yet by the time Gilgamesh meets Utnapishti, there's no mention of his children and descendants. His wife is present -- she even gets some dialogue -- but the two might even live alone. So Noah is a much more relatable, normal, family-driven character.

    That said, it's striking how Genesis removes Noah's voice completely. Utnapishti speaks at length to recite his tale, yet even within that there is a sense of him speaking with the gods, back and forth. Noah, some unusually within the Hebrew Bible, does not debate with God, he gets no voice at all. 

    One key line of dialogue that is dropped is XI:35 "but how do I answer my city, the crowd and the elders". This concern -- absent from Noah in Genesis -- is often perceived as a lack. As we shall see in the Qu'ran Noah goes to great lengths to preach to the crowd to try and save them even though he is unsuccessful (Sura 71). Many schools of Judaism put Noah on a lower pedestal than other biblical heroes for his lack of compassion or arguing with God, see for example this interview with Shmuley Boteach for the "Times of Israel" where he says: 
    Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. ...righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.” ...he failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. 2
    Genesis, unusually for the Hebrew Bible, cuts the flood hero 's objections to God's plans to "blot out from the earth human beings" (6:7), but it's hard to know if this is for theological reasons, or simply because Genesis cuts Noah's voice altogether.


    Of course, theologically speaking the biggest shift in the Genesis account is the move from a pantheon of gods, to just the one (although P names him Elohim whereas J calls him YHWH). In Gilgamesh the gods act, to some extent, independently. The decision to send the flood seems to rest largely with Enlil, albeit with the help of various weather gods (XI:97-108). Yet at the same time, some of "the gods took fright at the deluge" (XI:114) and when Utnapishti makes an offering after it's all over we're told the gods gather and are pleased by the smell of it and criticise Enlil for almost destroying humanity but for Ea's intervention (XI:157-171).

    This contrasts with the Genesis where the one god deems humanity deserving of judgement and decides to send the flood, but preserves only the righteous Noah and his family, almost like some kind of theological selective breeding programme. Noah is not saved because one particular god acts to save the gods from the consequences of the reckless actions one of his colleagues. He is chosen because he is the only righteous human and his descendants represent the best chance of faithful behaviour in future.

    Motivation for flood

    The logical question from there is why did the gods/God want to wipe out humanity in the first place. Here we see an evolving tradition. In the Atrahasis Epic, it is because the humans have become so numerous that they are now too loud and preventing the gods from sleeping. The Gilgamesh Epic does not specify exactly why the gods want to "diminish" humanity (XI:189-91), but given its overall thematic concern about humanity's negative impact on the environment it may well be due to concern about the environmental consequences of over-population.

    Genesis removes the ambiguity and changes the motivation. Now rather than being motivated by noise or environmental degradation, the issue is sinful behaviour. God is displeased by "wickedness...evil...violence" (Gen 6:5-13). Whilst there's some debate, the preceding verses (6:1-4) seem to be deliberately connected here to the rest of the story to give an example of exactly the kind of thing that God is displeased with (the "sons of God" having sex with the "daughters of man").

    It's perhaps here that the authors intentions show most strongly. We move from subservient minor gods attempting to extinguish humanity so they can get better quality sleep; through to a more cautionary tale about respecting the "natural" world the gods inhabit; through to a sense of a single God with clear moral objections to human behaviour.

    Fruitful and multiply 

    There is another place where the author of Genesis also shows their hand fairly clearly, and in contrast to his predecessors. After the flood and Noah's subsequent sacrifice God gives Noah a new covenant, which starts in 9:1-2 with the words
    Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. (NRSV)
    And as if to further reinforce the point later he repeats "be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it." (v7)

    There's a couple of points to make here. Firstly that this is something of an about turn on both Gilgamesh and Atrahasis where the point of the story seems to be a warning that the gods want to keep human numbers in check. Ea may intervene and criticise Enlil for almost wiping them out completely, but his criticism is not that it is inherently wrong, just that it went too far and didn't consider the downside. His suggestions of options Enlil could have taken instead (lion/wolf/famine/plague) area would all still have substantially reduced the human population.

    Of course, God's drastic action equally reduces the human population, but his action is to reduce evil and to start again. As soon as (he thinks) that is done, then he orders Noah and his family to get on with re-populating the Earth. Gilgamesh's environmental concerns about a growing human population are not a concern here. The opposite is positively encouraged.

    'Dominion' and dread

    This brings me on to the second point here, which is that this should be no surprise to anyone reading Genesis from the (literal!) beginning because in Genesis 1:28 God has already said: 
    Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (NRSV)
    There's a lot that could be written here about the echoing of this passage, how it suggests God is rebooting; how this time God makes a slight change and allows humans to eat meat. But I mainly want to point out that these are the classic anti-environmental clobber texts -- verses that have been used in the past to justify ruthlessly exploiting the planet for our own gain.

    Way back in 1967 Lynn White Jr. wrote an influential article "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" which argued that Christianity "not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends".3 White's claims have generally been taken as true, though they do lack a certain nuance. Richard Bauckham, for example, describes White's article as "bursting with confident and ill-substantiated generalizations",4 and claims that such an interpretation of these passages is only relatively recent. Instead he argues that it "was Francis Bacon, in the seventeenth century, who hijacked the Genesis text to authorise the project of scientific knowledge and technological exploitation whose excesses have given us the ecological crisis".5

    In practical terms Bauckham's arguments are largely academic (so to speak). Prior to Bacon, and whether it knew it or not) humanity had comparatively little impact on its environment relative to subsequent events. Deforestation in some areas had certainly been considerable (much of the forests in Britain had been cleared during the Bronze Age,6 for example), but the Industrial Revolution hugely increased humanity's ability to destroy its environment. And, Bacon and those with similar views absolutely used such passages in Genesis to justify their reckless approach to the planet. 

    Thus even if it would not be for another two millennia or so, the change of emphasis by the author of Genesis took a story warning of environmental harm and changed it in to a narrative that would play a significant role in bring such harms into being.

    The 'Ark'

    There's another change here as well that tallies with my "green issues" approach to this subject. In my introductory post to this series, I mentioned that it was going to address "adaptation in an era of changed weather patterns and human responses to that, and the idea that adaptation has parallels with recycling". I noted in post 2 that line 4 of Finkel's flood tablet (part of the Atrahasis Epic) "destroy your house, build a boat" (repeated in Gilgamesh) are essentially a command to recycle, albeit driven by necessity rather than green ethics.7

    In Genesis that initial sense of urgency has gone. The "ark" is no longer an improvised craft but a meticulously planned construction. While a little of this transition occurs in Gilgamesh, the time scale remains at 7 days. When we come to Genesis God gives no indication when the flood will arrive leaving speculation to vary from between 7 days (as in the sources) and 75 years, based on a calculation of Noah's age when his eldest son was born and his recorded age when the flood begins.

    In Gilgamesh, the boat is square (XI: 28-30), a cube even, 10 rods in each dimension, covering an area of one acre with six decks (XI:57-61). In Genesis the ark (which literally just means "box"),8 has become elongated -- 300 cubits long, but only 50 wide and 30 high (that's 133m x 22m x 13m, Gen 6:15), which actually works out at only 0.75 of an acre, with only three decks. 

    I can't help wondering if this new shape and dimension reflect the temple or the Ark of the Covenant in some way (even though both are translated as "ark" in English, the Hebrew uses two different words, both of which mean just "box"), particularly given the likely time of composition -- perhaps just as Noah finds sanctity in the Noah, so the tribes of Israel should find it in the temple; or just as God protects and honours Noah and his family in the ark so too the Ark of the Covenant is worthy of special treatment, or something like that. For the record Solomon's temple was 60 cubits long, 20 wide and 30 high (1 Ki 6:2) and perhaps also had 3 floors (1 Ki 6:6) the Ark of the Covenant was made from "acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high" (Ex 37:1).      

    Lastly we get a change in materials. In The Flood Tablet's version of the Atrahasis Epic the coracle is made from the recycled reeds and "kannu ropes and ašlu rushes... fronds and palm fibre" (lines 10 & 11).9 In the Gilgamesh Epic again we get reeds (XI:21-4) and "ropes of palm-fibre". In Genesis we get what the KJV translates as "gopher wood" with the NKJV and NASB following suit, but other recent versions (NEB, NRSV, NLV) translate as "cypress wood", with the NRSV noting (accurately) that "meaning of Heb uncertain". The Ark of the Covenant was made of acaia wood (Ex 37:1) and the temple was of stone construction but had cedar walls and fir/cypress floors (1 Ki 6:7,15), though there are  two Hebrew words that the NRSV translate . So while Noah's Ark is made of a more solid wood than Atramhasis' and Utnapishti's boats, which increases similarities with the temple/Ark of the Covenant we're not talking about the same material and the requirements for source preparing and building with it seem like a greater task than its Mesopotamian counterparts. The main takeaway is that it's no longer a recycled, improvised craft. but a solid, very much premeditated one.


    I'm aware the above are very much my selection of the ways that the story changes, and that in making that selection I have overlooked some real whoppers. I spoke in the last instalment of this series about the addition of seven pairs of clean animals coming from the non-Priestly material in 7:2, but there are a number of other major ones depending on the angle you're coming from. For example, I've not mentioned the omission of the swallow, the 2nd of the three birds Utnapishtim sends out, or the window/zohar that gets added to the roof of Noah's boat, or the name of the mountain on which they run aground. There's obviously quite a lot, but I hope what I have included gives some indication as to how the changes reflect the theology and beliefs that the story in Genesis is promoting and/or reinforcing.

    1. All quotations taken from The Gilgamesh Epic taken from Andrew George's translation [CITATION]
    2. Hoffman, Jordan (2014) "Hollywood ‘Noah’ is kosher, says celebrity rabbi" in The Times of Israel 27th March. Available online: https://www.timesofisrael.com/hollywood-noah-is-kosher-says-celebrity-rabbi/
    3. White, Lynn Jr. (1967) "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" in Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767 (Mar. 10, 1967), pp. 1203-1207. p.1205. Available online: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofhumanities/theology/beyondstewardship/files/HistoricalRoots_of_EcologicalCrisis_(1).pdf
    4. Bauckham, Richard (2002) God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p.219.
    5. Bauckham, Richard (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco: Baylor University Press) p.6
    6. Thomson, Hugh (2012) "The Sherwood Syndrome" at Aeon 12th September. Available online: https://aeon.co/essays/who-chopped-down-britains-ancient-forests
    7. Finkel, Irving (2014) The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, (London: Hodder), p.376.
    8. Rachelle Gilmour as interviewed by Dave Roos and Helen Bond in "Ep. 68 A Face-Melting Look at the Ark of the Covenant" for the Biblical Time Machine podcast. Relevant clip is from 5 minutes. Available online: https://www.biblicaltimemachine.com/listen-to-episodes/b24fssktgs7yzxz-scarm-bxjxm-jr9y7-khjbb-zn9dd-w9jgd-lc4nj-w8mhr-x6662-en45b-6crbr-cw5tr-ye69n-cbkng 
    9. Finkel, p.377


    Friday, July 12, 2024

    Protozoa (Aronofsky, 1993) and Noah

    This post is part two of a series looking at Darren Aronofsky's other work and how they relate to his 2014 Noah.

    Aronofsky's second student film reappeared in 2021, but there's been remarkably little discussion about it since then, given it's the work of a major future Hollywood director. It's shot in a way that's remarkably reminiscent of it's time: early digital video; a grungy, lo-fi look and feel; disaffected young adult protagonists who feel closely connected to how the maturing Generation X was expressing itself at the time. There's a similar vibe running through out cultural output at the time from Richard Linklater's Slacker (1990) and Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel "Generation X" through to Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) and 1996's Trainspotting.*

    In it the film's three protagonists, Pete, Dave and Ari, in a very early appearance from Lucy Liu, discuss the meaning of life, drawing on what is essentially a modern day parable with a decidedly biblical flavour. It's not hard, then, to draw the lines from this to Aronofsky's Noah (2014). Like that film it also spends much of its time around black deserted landscapes, searches for meaning amid destruction, and centres on characters who are not easy to like. It's not much in terms of plot and character development, at least by his later standards, but in terms of mood and themes it certainly captures some of the feel of what Aronofsky would realise more fully twenty plus years later.

    Even so, it's nevertheless surprising when the first real piece of dialogue (aside from cursory greetings and some opening chat) dives straight into conversation featuring biblical epics. Pete starts telling Dave about a guy they used to know called Blue whose Dad was a TV repairman and who had got stuck in an unfortunate cycle of watching television endlessly. One night "some network shows one of those 1950s biblical epics. You know the type with Liz Taylor and Yul Brynner?" He starts watching it only to discover "it's a film on the story of Abraham" specifically the scene of him "smashing up the idol shop". This speaks to him so powerfully that he does the same with his TVs.

    The details given about the film do not correspond to any given biblical epic, indeed the story is rabbinical not biblical. This is doubtless intentional as it allows Aronofsky to suggest the mythic mature of the story as a whole. The (plainly incorrect) details are in the right ball park and certainly leave the viewer knowing exactly the type of film being referenced, but the lack of a concrete referent also detach the story from reliable history. The point of the story is the meaning which can be derived from it. In other words this is a modern-day parable. 

    Pete continues to describe this scene of destruction which Blue is not enveloped in:

    Pete: Sparks, glass, TVs burning in flames... except for one. It's in flames, but it's not burning.

    Dave: The burning bush!

    Pete: Right. But it's a TV. And then it talks to him.

    Dave: The TV?

    Pete: The fucking TV. "Do not come near. Put off the shoes from your feet. For the place where you are standing is holy ground". And then Blue takes off his hi-tops and the voice says "I have come down to deliver you unto the wilderness. There you will discover the truth."

    Dave: The truth?

    Pete: Yeah. The meaning of life.

    So now we have a modernisation of the Moses story breaking into one that starts by inspiration from (of all things) a biblical epic. So the biblical allusions work on two levels. There is the biblical story of Abraham which (apparently) was on screen at the moment of revelation, and inspired the story's anti-hero to smash up his TVs. This is obviously quite far removed from real life. But there is also the ending to the story where purportedly real events are impacted by the supernatural, validated by their similarity to a biblical story (Moses and the burning bush) and which end with "the meaning of life".

    If the young Aronofsky wasn't quite able to satisfactorily unpack what exactly the meaning of life was/is in the remaining 10 minutes of the film, then we should perhaps forgive him. He was only 24 after all. But Dave is inspired to board a bus carrying some people less fortunate than himself (who he's previously been mocking) in a bid to help them. And while Pete and Ari are less driven to change than their friend, they do decide to return to the source of all this life-changing wisdom. Or at least they decide to go and watch the TV.

    Perhaps they too will be inspired. Or perhaps they too will get caught watching it, unable to tear themselves away. Or perhaps TV is still just TV and Dave's transformation is built on nothing but a story.


    Two other things caught my attention. The first is one character describing LA as "the city of the snake". I've not heard that before, so it's interesting given the prominence of both a snake and a snake skin in Noah.

    Secondly, in the midst of Pete's story, which is told partly by a brick-o-brack of different techniques, we're shown all the drugs that he tried and while they may not be actual drugs, the depiction of them in such a matter of fact manner was quite striking – perhaps not the kind of thing that a studio (either then or now) would permit. It's noticeable too that while the list includes hard and soft, legal and illegal drugs (heroin and opium through to tobacco and caffeine) it doesn't include alcohol. This feels like a deliberate omission and I guess it catches my attention because of the scene at the end of Noah where he tries to drown out his survivor's guilt with alcohol.


    * The connection to Clerks, which I've seen but don't recall that well, is from one of the few reviews I did manage to find by Swapnil Dhruv Bose at Far Out Magazine "Protozoa: Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre student film". Available online: https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/protozoa-darren-aronofsky-bizarre-student-film/


    Monday, July 01, 2024

    Another Italian Nativity Film: Vangelo Secondo Maria (2023)

    Over the years I've written about lots of Italian Bible films and quite a few Nativity films, indeed there's a special, and surprisingly large niche of Italian Nativity films, with one seeming to come along every few years most recently 2019's Il primo Natale (Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem) which went on to become that year's biggest grossing home-grown Italian movie at the box office.

    Clearly, then there's a market -- in Italy at least -- for modern reworkings of the Nativity story and given the prominent role that Catholicism still has in Italian life it was only a matter of time before a new one came along. And so Sardinian director Paolo Zucca has adapted Barbara Alberti's controversial 1979 novel for Sky Cinema/Vision.

    This time though it appears to be more of a dramatic re-telling than a comedy. From the looks of the trailer, and a few of the comments I have read about the film, Vangelo Secondo Maria will offer a more feminist take on the story (it came out in May in Italy) although it is naturally more conventional than Il primo's time travelling comedy.

    The film stars Benedetta Porcaroli (above) as Mary, best known for the Netflix series Baby (2018-20) and the recent Sidney Sweeney nun-horror Immaculate (2024). Opposite her as Joseph will be Alessandro Gassmann (below), 33 years her senior, best known for . More pertinently, though, is the fact that he has already appeared in two other Italian Nativity films, Un bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Named Jesus, 1988) where he played the adult Jesus and Raffaele Mertes's La sacra famiglia (The Holy Family, 2006) where he also played Joseph. He had previously had a minor role in one of Mertes's other biblical TV movies Samson and Delilah (1996). So it's interesting to see him both play the father of a character he played a generation ago and to see him play the same character twice in otherwise unrelated movies. Also worth noting is Maurizio Lombardi who played Inspector Ravini so brilliantly in Netflix's recent Ripley remake.
    The film's trailer came out 2 months ago and certainly gives the impression that it really wants to bring the story into the 21st century. For a start the camera work seems very contemporary with similar colour tones and lighting, and quirky camera angles, point of view shots that are more about conveying emotion than fact and some sequences that might be fantasy or might just be very outside of the typical telling of the nativity story. 

    Then there's the music, which may be nothing to do with the film's final soundtrack, but it certainly conveys a contemporary feel, and the fact that it's sung by a woman adds to the impression that this will be a Mary-centred retelling. Lucia Tedesco puts it so nicely "Quello a cui noi assistiamo è la storia della vita di Maria dall’unico punto di vista di cui avremmo dovuto disporre, ovvero il punto di vista di Maria"(What we are witnessing is the story of Mary's life from the only point of view we should have had, that is, Mary's). That's something that comes across in the dialogue too. Right at the start Mary says "I don't want to get married" and cries that the law is made for men not women". Later on we just hear Mary's voice cry out "I'm challenging you to answer me".

    But there's more to it than that. At one point Mary says "let's pretend that instead of husband and wife you're the teacher and I'm the student" and the following shots and dialogue suggest that Joseph takes her up on that and sets about equipping her, not only teaching her more about the law but also what looks like some kind of inner-life-focused martial art. And lastly there's the shot below which physicalises Mary in the viewer's eyes, even if not in Joseph's, and seems without precedent in a historical nativity film (as far as I can remember, at least, the only Mary film that shows something even vaguely equivalent is Godard's modernisation Hail Mary (1985).        
    The title of the film of course seems like a nod to Italy's most famous and successful Jesus adaptation, Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. There wasn't anything immediately obvious from the trailer that seemed like a nod to Pasolini's film, aside from perhaps a certain fixity of the camera, but it will be interesting to see what else emerges if/when I ever get to see the final film. The other film that comes to mind is Giovanni Columbu’s Sardinian Jesus film Su Re (The King, 2012). 

    The more fantastical elements of the trailer certainly seem like a significant departure from both Pasolini's and Columbu's approaches to the subject, although perhaps not out of keeping with some of his other work such as Il Decamerone (1970). I suppose one key indicator of this is the brief appearance of an angel (below), shot in side profile. Pasolini's angel was played by a young woman (Rossana di Rocco) who wore a simple white dress, but here the angel is played by a young man who has wings. This is a particularly interesting detail (to me, at least) because di Rocco did appear in a later Pasolini film dressed as an gel with wings, but here the character was a human dressing up as an angel. There's a sense that for Pasolini angel's wings were theatrical 
    I don't want to speculate too much about the trailer. As most of the film is not there and some shots in trailers are sometimes absent from the final cut of the movie. There have been a number of reviews of the film. I won't go into them all, but a couple of things that caught my attention were as follows:

    1. At one point in Sky Italia's own review they say "Tra riferimenti a Enki e Enlil, dei della mitologia mesopotamica" (between references to Enki and Enlil gods from the Mesopotamian myth). This caught my attention because I've been writing about those same myths in my work looking at Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

    2.  Lucia Tedesco at Lost in Cinema also mentions that not only is the film shot in Sardinia but also that bits of the dialogue are in Sardinian as well. There are also significant spoilers in her review. She has an generally positive review of the film, as does Hynerd's (Eleonora Matta)

    3. Alessio Accardo at Close-up Italia mentions director of photography Simone D'arcangelo and his love of  Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly Andrei Rublev. Despite the film that this film is in colour (as opposed to Rublev's black and white) I can certainly see the connection with some of Tarkovsky's other films.

    I have no idea how I will get to see this film at the moment. I guess I'm hoping it will get a DVD release in time for Christmas, or at least be released to streaming.

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    Thursday, June 27, 2024

    Fortune Cookie (Aronofsky, 1991) and Noah (2014)

    This post is part two of a series looking at Darren Aronofsky's other work and how they relate to his 2014 Noah.

    Darren Aronofsky's first movie -- at least according to IMDb -- is Fortune Cookie (1991) about a down on his luck salesman whose sales record shows a remarkable improvement after a visit to a Chinese restaurant. In the opening scenes he (Harold Broadneck) is being abused by a fellow salesman for his failure to have completed a sale recently and there's a series of static exterior shots of houses as he approaches their front doors.

    In despair (perhaps) he goes to a Chineese restaurant and when it comes to the end of the meal he reads the message in his fortune cookie "Today is your day for success". For him it's transformative. He realises all the things that have been holding him back  need not any longer. Filled with new confidence he returns to the houses he was failing at before and suddenly his sales rocket.. Seeking to maintain his success he returns to the same restaurant (and the same wonderfully grumpy waiter) to absorb more words of wafery wisdom.

    For me what's most interesting about the film is the way it leaves the reason for Broadneck's transformation open to interpretation. Moments before he enters the restaurant, his manager tells him to have confidence and perhaps the two messages merely reinforce each other in his mind. Conversely, once inside the restaurant we see a God shot of him at his table at the precise moment the cookie is brought along. Does the cookie have magical powers, or is it just Broadneck convincing himself that they do? Even then, Broadneck seems initially just to realise that these particularly words could be true for him, it's only later when he seems to retrospectively attribute his success to some kind of cookie-related magical powers. Contrariwise, once one cookie's message signals his doom, his head drops, his confidence vanishes and his fate seems sealed.

    And then there is the presence of an off car driver, simply called "the pervert" in the credits, who serenades Broadneck just before the initial call to his boos, and appears once again moments after the final fortune cookie has seemingly sealed his fate. This is probably just in my head but the pervert's delivery reminds me of a character in a Straub-Huillet film, but that's probably just me. He offers Broadneck the chance to get into his car and drives him slowly away once Broadneck reluctantly accepts.

    It's interesting seeing some of the initial threads of Aronofsky's later work here. In terms of Noah the idea of some kind of divine providence, a message even that radically changes the protagonist's life is the obvious parallel, as is his failure to really connect with the other humans around him. But also there's something about this short that makes me think of Pi (1998). Perhaps it's the possibility that all the human activity and the scenes we witness might all be irrelevant to what is happening, it's just a statistical blip. The cookie had no significance, real or imagined, it's just a metaphor for humanity's tendency to ascribe meaning to coincidences.

    So while this is not a great film, by anyone's standards, it's certainly got its points of interest for tracking Aronofsky's themes, ideas and motives.


    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Noah adaptations p03:
    Sources behind the biblical account

    This is part 3 of a series investigating adaptations of the "Noah" story.
    "Noah’s Ark On The Mount Ararat" (1570) the only known work of Simon de Myle. But for this painting we know nothing else about him

    In the last part of this series on adaptations of Noah, I looked at the flood stories that preceded the biblical account. Or should I say accounts? I say this because for the last 270+ years scholars have been developing the idea that numerous sources lay behind the Torah/Pentateuch (as well as much of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible) ever since Jean Astruc published his book "Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis" in 1753.

    Documentary Hypothesis

    Since then Astruc's ideas have been developed by other scholars and been discussed as the "documentary hypothesis" with perhaps its most famous incarnation called the "Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis". This proposed four major sources behind the text, known as the Jahwist source (J), the Elohist (E) source, the Priestly source (P) and the Deuteronomist source (D) compiled later by a redactor who made his own changes (R). Since then the theories have dissolved into a thousand variations, from those advocating an array of oral sources, through to those suggesting the strands are variations of the same original source.

    More recently, however, things have begun to coalesce again into three major theories (aside from Mosaic authorship): the fragmentary hypothesis, which argues for a series of shorter independent sources; the supplementary hypothesis which argues D is the oldest and source and that J and P were not entirely independent later sources; and, the neo-documentary hypothesis which pays closer attention to plot and narrative continuity in defining its sources.
    In some ways, perhaps the most significant change to have occurred is the agreement now to talk about three sources rather than four main sources plus a redactor. Scholars these days tend to talk about the Priestly and non-Priestly material among the first four books of the Bible. Deuteronomy onwards was always its own thing, style and composition-wise with Deuteronomy having far more in common with the books that follow it that those before it. As its title suggests, the Priestly source is particularly interested in "the communal practice of religion, which...means a temple-based sacrificial cult".1 The non-priestly material may be older or younger than P or it may be due to the redactor. Some argue J and E can be delineated, or see clear cases for additional sources, but essentially this is the way it tends to be talked about in academic circles.

    The sources and Noah

    This is of particular relevance when it comes to the Noah story, because it's a "standard example" for seeing how these theories might work in practice.2 David Carr says that the "clues to the formation of Genesis are probably thickest in the flood account"3. Indeed, one of the unusual aspects of the text that first raised the idea of multiple stories is the existence of "doublets" – places where the same story seems to be repeated. So, for example, in Genesis we find Noah being told to bring two of every animal onto the ark (6:19) and then just a few verses later to bring 7 pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals (7:2). There are various other places where this kind of confusion/contradiction/repetition can be observed.

    While scholars today vary about which verses belong to which source, there is a general agreement that the two sources can be delineated, as demonstrated here. I looked at how three different scholars had separated out the Noah story and while there was the occasional disagreement over a verse or part verse, overall there's strong agreement around the following separation.4
    Priestly: Genesis 6:9-22; 7:6; 7:8-11; 7:13-16a; 7:18-22; 7:24-8:2a; 8:3b-5; 8:13a; 8:14-19; 9:1-17; 9:28-29 (link - includes full verses, not halves)
    Non-Priestly: Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5; 7:7; 7:12; 7:16b-17; 7:23; 8:2b-3a; 8:6-12; 8:13b; 8:20-22; 9:18-27 (link- includes full verses, not halves)5
    When we look at the P and non-P accounts we find there's a remarkable similarity between them.5 Yes, some of the details, language and theological concerns have changed, but each essentially tells the same story: God sees wrongdoing in the world, and decides to send to destroy humanity except for Noah, his family and a specific number of animals who are safe on board an ark. The flood comes and once the waters have subsided Noah leaves the boat and makes a sacrifice.

    So what influenced what?

    As mentioned in part 2 of this series, the Biblical story of Noah clearly has some dependence on the earlier Mesopotamian accounts of a great flood, so combining that with the idea of two pre-biblical sources raises a few further questions.
    1. Is the dependence on earlier Mesopotamian accounts found in one of these two "sources" in particular? 
    2. Does one of those three Mesopotamian accounts stand out as having been the most influential?
    3. Can we establish a clear sequence?

    1. Is just one source dependent?

    The answer to the first question is a fairly straightforward "no". The fact that both strands stick to the same plot is a strong indicator in itself that both have either direct or indirect dependence on one or more Mesopotamian accounts. Moreover we find particular details, turns of phrase etc. from the Mesopotamian epics in both sources. For example, the details of the ark coming to rest on a mountain occurs in P whilst the use of birds to assess if it's time to disembark occurs in non-P. Indeed Carr takes things a step further arguing that "the combination of the two more fully corresponds to the Gilgamesh version than either strand alone".6

    2. Which Mesopotamian account was most influential?

    Carr's point leads us nicely onto the second question, because it seems likely that the Gilgamesh epic is the one that is most directly influential on the pre-biblical material. In fact Amanda Norsker argues that Genesis and Atrahasis "have nothing in common that is not a part of the Gilgamesh story".7 We find Gilgamesh introducing new elements into Atrahasis and on several occasions these then turn up in either the P material or the non-P material. The most striking one here is the tale of the birds scouting for land which does not feature in any of the fragments we have of the Atrahasis Epic and only appears in the Non-Priestly source.

    Conversely, there's only one, somewhat tenuous, occasion when Gilgamesh excludes something from Atrahasis and one of the pre-biblical sources seems to include something similar, namely that the flood hero had seven days' notice of the impending deluge (Gen 7:10). There are various possible explanations for this, but the most likely is textual variations. The three epics I discussed in the last in this series are key stages in an evolutionary process, and we don't know whether the texts we have are typical of all that were circulating at that time, or if they were outliers. 
    Furthermore, it's difficult to be precise about the time all these sources were formed. Prior to George Smith's 1872 discovery of the Gilgamesh Epic, it was held that the J source was pre-Josiah with Wellhausen dating it in the 9th century and von Rad during the reign of Solomon.8 These theoretical dates are earlier than the physical copies of the Gilgamesh tablets we have which date from the 7th century BCE. So how can the non-Priestly material be dependent on the Gilgasmesh epic if J pre-dates it?

    There are a few key points here. Firstly it's highly unlikely the physical 7th century tablets we have represent the first time the story was ever told in that fashion. It's probably a copy of a copy of a copy etc. with the original going far back. Secondly, we are talking about an evolving tradition so the version of Gilgamesh we have might not be the parent of the biblical sources as much as a sibling of an older version. Finally (and related to that) it's worth pointing out that the flood narrative within Gilgamesh sits somewhat awkwardly within the material. It's cast as an ancient story and it's likely that it was inserted into the text at an earlier stage, having (as we know) already existed.

    As Irving Finkel puts it "The argument, therefore, is not that the Genesis narrative is translated from, or directly derived from, the Assyrian version of Gilgamesh that we now have" rather that "the Hebrew text reflects an antecedent version or versions of the Flood Story in cuneiform that must itself have been strongly related to Gilgamesh XI, while not being identical".9

    What about P?

    In all that discussion of the non-Priestly material, we have rather overlooked the P source. Where does that fit in? The first thing to point out is that P has usually been considered much later than J, at least and likewise later than D and probably after the Babylonian exile. Lianne Feldman see it as reaching its final form shortly before "the formation of the Pentateuch in the fifth through fourth centuries BCE".10 

    Clearly then, the Priestly material could derive directly from the version of the Gilgamesh epic we have, or be its sibling. There is however a further option. Many scholars consider that "the P account is dependent on the non-P material".11 At first glance the way the existing Genesis material is divided seems unlikely because of the 20 points of similarity that Lendering finds between Mesopotamian accounts and Genesis, 9 come from the non-Priestly material, 8 from the Priestly material with a further 3 being disputed. However, there does seem to be some evidence that the Redactor removed some repetition to improve either readability or provide a better structure.12 If so then the 8:9 figures would probably spring more decisively in favour of P's dependence on non-P, particularly because the two sources have far more in common with each other than the combined story has with the Gilgamesh epic.
    At the same time, Idan Dershowitz suggests that the Priestly source's "knowledge of the Babylonian story was certainly not limited to J" 13 Perhaps given the prevalence of these stories in Babylon at the time, this story was familiar to the P authors.

    A proposed model

    While it's difficult to be certain, then, about the relationship between all these sources, the following appears to be the most likely model showing a series of stages of adaptation over a period approaching sixteen hundred years from the writing of the Sumerian Flood Epic around the start of the second century. Each writer recycling and adapting the story to suit their particular context and purpose. The dates here are really just for illustration purposes.

    There are a number of places where I'm uncomfortable with the illustration: the fluid relationship between the Mesopotatamian sources isn't really captures and the lost Gilgamesh antecedent seems more concrete in the above than it has any right to be. Also the separation of the J source from the Non-P source is a bit prescriptive and others might quibble with that. It's more to give clarity to how things might have worked than to other a cast iron solution.

    So where does Noah come from?

    All of this leaves one question untouched: where does Noah fit into things? If he was "originally" called Atrahasis or Utnapishti was there a Noah character before the flood story got assigned to him?
    The answer to this appears to be "yes". We here about Noah in a few places in Genesis that are perhaps around the fringes of the main flood narrative. The first comes in Genesis 5:24-32 where Noah is dropped into a genealogy. Here his father says this about him: "Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands" (v29). What's interesting about Lamech's words is that they don't really fit with the story that follows. Noah is the flood hero / survivor, there's nothing to suggest he brings relief from work.
    The second thing is that it's not implausible that just as a later version of the Gilgamesh Epic seems to have inserted a flood hero narrative into the middle of it, that an earlier version of the biblical texts might have done likewise. If we imagine this then we can see two places where 5:32 would conveniently join up with, because in both cases we get an almost word for word repetition of the same verse.
    The first is the start of Gen 9:18-28. Having repeated the names of Noah's sons it goes on to describe Noah as a "man of the soil" and the "first to plant a vineyard" (v20) and we then get the story of him getting drunk and cursing his grandson. This verse also seems at odds with the flood narrative (Noah had to completely restart society and rebuild the world why would his wine-making be the only thing left to say about him) but, more importantly, seems to tie in a little better with 5:29.
    The other is that the genealogy picks up again properly in 10:1 with a third reminder that the sons of Noah are Shem, Ham and Japheth. So perhaps Noah was originally known as man of the soil, who planted grapes and made wine that brought people "relief" from their toil. In other words he was a pioneering "farmer, the originator of viniculture".14
    Interestingly Idan Dershowitz takes this a stage further arguing that Noah's main contribution was originally bringing relief from a famine rather than a flood.15 Dershowitz argues this by combining these verses with mentions of Noah in prophetic texts that pre-date the writing of Genesis, such as Isaiah 54:9 and particularly Ezekiel 14:14-20. For him "famine ravaged the earth and imperiled its inhabitants for generations until a man named Noah precipitated blessed rain and ended the curse. This original narrative was edited and supplemented so that, in J, Noah was transformed into the survivor of the legendary primeval Flood."

    I'm not sure to what extent I agree with this, but interestingly it does link back to the Atrahasis Epic where the gods, so infuriated by humanity's noise, try to limit their numbers, first by sending a plague and then by sending a famine. Only when this fails do they decide to send a flood. There's a nice circularity in that.
    1. Feldman, Liane M. (2023) The Consuming Fire: The Complete Priestly Source from Creation to the Promised Land, (Oakland: University of California Press). Kindle edition. Loc. 348.
    2. Baden, Joel S. (2012) The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press). Kindle edition. Loc 439.
    3. Carr, David McLain (1996) Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press). p.48
    4. The sources being: John J. Collins (2014) Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical books (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), p.53-58;  Lloyd R. Bailey (1989) Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press); Jona Lendering "The Great Flood" https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/flood6-parallels/.
    5. While I will continue to use the term non-Priestly material here, it is worth pointing out that in the Flood narratives it is usually considered to originate from the J source.
    6. Carr (1996) p.60n24. 
    7. Norsker, Amanda (2015) "A Rewritten Babylonian Flood Myth" in Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, Vol. 29, no.1. p.62 Available online: https://journals.scholarsportal.info/pdf/09018328/v29i0001/55_g6arbfm.xml_en.
    8. Carr p.63.
    9. Finkel, Irving (2014) The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, (London: Hodder), p.213.
    10. Feldman loc 390.
    11. Carr (1996), p.61.
    12. There is a chiastic structure called a palistrophe to the material. See Bailey pp. 152-8. 
    13. Dershowitz, Idan (2016) "Man of the Land: Unearthing the Original Noah" in Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. Vol. 128, no.3, p. 370. Available online: https://www.academia.edu/28643812/Man_of_the_Land_Unearthing_the_Original_Noah_Zeitschrift_f%C3%BCr_die_alttestamentliche_Wissenschaft_ZAW_
    14. Bailey p.208.
    15. Lendering, Jona (2020) "The Great Flood" on Livius. Last updated 12th October 2020. Originally created in 2007. https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/


    Monday, June 17, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e03

    The third episode of The Chosen's season 2 is simply called "Matthew 4:24" which is one of those little verses that just casually mentions Jesus performing mass healings and exorcisms "and they brought to him all who were afflicted...". It sets up an interesting premise for the episode. I'm starting to get now that The Chosen is at least as interested in the disciples as it is in Jesus, and this season in particular, might be even more interested in them than in him. 

    So this time around Jesus is off screen for almost the entire episode. The group have arrived in a new place and those who are "afflicted" have sought him out to try and be healed. Jesus seems to have some kind of booth and there's a rather orderly queue. There are large numbers getting healed, "over 50", at least according to Matthew's counting, "not including lepers...". "He's scary good" one of the other disciples explains. But we're not actually seeing Jesus performing miracles, instead we're following round the disciples and watching their reaction.

    Philip the "Teacher"

    The episode starts by continuing where episode 2 left off, which in this instalment starts with Philip teaching Matthew about the Torah. "Sometimes you have to believe first" says Philip to Matthew who is still trying to understand the mechanics of it all while simultaneously demonstrating his apparent ability to memorise sentences having only heard them once.1 Philip doesn't seem particularly amazed that Matthew can do this. It's the kind of detail that appeals to those who hold the Bible is inerrant: if Matthew had an unusually good ability to recall words having only heard them once then that lends a deeper credibility to the reliability of his words. If this was unremarkable in his world then the same applies for the other Gospels. But it's unclear whether the recollection that it's sometimes claimed first century Jews could perform on scripture (the oral culture = heightened recollection) applies to every day conversations rather than particular, key texts.

    I'm curious as to where the writers would land in terms of the Synoptic problem. Does Matthew's advanced ability to memorise things mean they buy into Matthaean priority? Or do they (like the majority) ascribe to Markan priority but perhaps see his social awkwardness as also suggesting he would be less likely to write the kind of narrative that would engage a broader audience, but then once he had Mark to work off he was able to expand it with the bits he has memorised and written down. Incidentally, when his memory is so good and his available space/materials for writing so limited, what, exactly, is he writing down? 

    Anyway, the first verse they start with is Psalm 139:8 ("If I go up to Heaven you are there...", a slight variation on the actual wording which has "heavens". But right away Matthew is uncomfortable with the poetic language, and asking questions. I like this. They're the kind of questions I might like to ask, or would wish I had asked retrospectively. 

    Philip, who despite having only joined the group in the last episode, has almost supplanted Jesus' role as the teacher now. There's a power dynamic (a wisdom dynamic) between him and Matthew, or between him and Mary Magdalene, even though they have been following Jesus longer than him. Will Philip get brought down a peg or two in future episodes, or is the implication that because he knows more about God (from John)  he has important knowledge to pass on? If so it only makes the next exchange even more curious...

    Philip: "There's nowhere you can go -- no height you can climb to in your intellectual mind; no depths you can reach in your soul -- where God is not with you. Do you get it?

    Matthew: I think so. 

    Philip: No amount of learning can bring you closer to God or make you more or less precious to him. He's always right here, right now. With you. For you. 

    Matthew: I don't feel it.

    Philip: The feeling doesn't always come first sometime you have to believe first.

    Matthew: Believing a thing does not make it true.

    Philip: Ah, that is wisdom, but these are not just any words they are David's, and scripture

    Matthew: How do you know if David was only talking about himself and not everyone else? He did say 'If I ascend' not if people ascend.

    Philip: It almost sounds like you don't want it to be true.

    I feel I could probably write quite a lot on that passage which, perhaps because I feel I've been on the wrong end of conversations such as this too many times, rubs me up the wrong way. One thing I've often encountered in certain Christian circles is this sort of wisdom vs intellectualism paradox. Wisdom is always considered a good thing. It's often associated with knowledge. Intellectual understanding, though, is also often akin to knowledge, but there's also this sense that it's at best insufficient, and at its worst dangerous. Matthew here isn't even being intellectual, he's just asking reasonable questions.

    Right from the start, though, things are stacked against him. The passage is poetic and so could be taken in various ways. Philip though starts it off with a sort of jibe about the intellectual mind and follows it up with the line about learning. But if this is true then why is he in a position to teach Matthew. After all Matthew followed Jesus on his first encounter with Jesus. Philip met Jesus when he was hanging out with John, but didn't immediately follow him. I'm not saying that puts Matthew ahead of Philip, but it does make me question why Philip is so comfortable becoming this wise stand-in for Jesus ahead of all the others who have been following Jesus for longer. 

    Then we move onto feelings. Matthew doesn't feel God is close to him. But feelings, too, are insufficient. Both it and knowledge have to be subjugated to belief. But if neither of those are valid, what is the basis for this belief? In Matthew's case he at least has experience of Jesus, but given this exchange has (I was going to say one eye, but...) both eyes on the 21st century audience at home then. What experience do we have if it's not coming from feelings or from understanding? Why should one accept one series of beliefs (e.g. evangelical Christianity over, say Zoroastrianism? 

    Matthew points out that believing can also be faulty, and Philip responds by explaining that this is "scripture". But what is it about scripture that means we can (as is implied) automatically trust it? Feeling? Knowledge? Ironically, it's Matthew's own precise, forensic desire for the truth which is being used to shore up the automatic believability of the Bible against the very people in the audience who are most likely to ask similar kinds of questions.

    And then there's that final line "you don't want it to be true". Some level of intellectual discussion can be tolerated, celebrated even, but too much then it gets shut down. The only explanation is that you don't want it to be true. It's not just that you have different kinds of "learning styles", or  that the arguments don't add up. Pretty soon Philip has moved from open discussion to shutting Matthew down.

    The conversation ends with Philip passing on a couple of tips to help Matthew understand it. "Meditate on it for a few days and come back to me...Try writing it down several times. There's something about writing it down that makes it go a long way". There's two things here, firstly that Philip's made no attempt to answer a very reasonable, and indeed important, question. Secondly, this tip feels like it's more for the people at home than for a first century traveller. I suppose Philip could be thinking of a wax tablet, or even sand, but any writing method was a laborious and somewhat exclusive process. The idea that it was established as a learning technique seems phoney to me.

    Messianic expectations

    Meanwhile the disciples are discussing the pros and cons. They all seem to be in agreement that Jesus is the messiah even though he goes against their expectations of that term (and I don't recall him claiming that title for himself yet, at least in front of the disciples, but perhaps I'm wrong about that). Some are still after fame, big James in particular wonders what he would have thought if someone would have told him as in his younger days that he would be following the messiah. As a child he "trained every day with a wooden sword" and imagined killing Romans with the messiah. He hadn't expected that they would be spending their time standing around while the messiah healed people.

    For Thomas, it's clearly a military concept as well. And when Mary, who has few expectations about the messiah asks "Why is it you expect a warrior?" Thomas cites a lengthy part of Zechariah 14 to justify a military messiah. Philip seeks to lengthen out the time span for these expectations others cite later Jewish sources about how Jerusalem needs to be holy first.

    Little James's "malady"

    The discussion dissolves as Jesus' followers head off in various directions just as Little James arrives leaving just him and Thomas alone for a more intimate discussion. He worries that the crowds are only following Jesus because he's been healing them "I don't know how many of them would believe in him if he wasn't healing them." 

    This leads Thomas to probe about James' own disability (though James helpfully volunteers his answer before Thomas can quite find an appropriate term for disability). James tells him that it's "A form of paralysis. It's caused problems since birth". 

    It's noticeable that while the full 12 disciples are yet to join up there are now two amongst their growing number who might be considered in today's terms as having some form of disability2. (The other I'm thinking of is Matthew who Dallas Jenkins identified even before the first episode aired as someone with Asperger’s.3 Jenkins went on to say that it's something that he's "had experience with personally".4

    It's worth pointing out that the actor playing James, Jordan Walker Ross, has cerebral palsy and scoliosis. I don't know at what point the decision was made to incorporate Ross's experience into that of Little James. I'd like to think that they cast him on the basis of his ability as an actor and then wrote James' "malady" into the script. If so it's certainly a decision that comes to fruition in the conversation that follows. 

    Thomas (in a slightly doubting Thomas fashion) asks 

    Thomas: So then...why hasn't he healed you.How do you watch all these healings today? Does it bother you?

    James: Fair questions. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about all of this. I mean, I suppose one big thing is that I haven't asked. 

    Thomas: Why not? 

    James: I don't know.

    Thomas: If I had your, er, struggle and I was watching what was happening today, I'd demand it

    James: I don't know if I should. It just doesn't feel right.

    In contrast to the conversation quoted in the previous section, this feels like a real conversation, because it doesn't feel like a point is being made to the audience, or at least if there is a point it's that Jesus healing people is a complex issue. James continues worried that if he tells Jesus about his partial paralysis Jesus might treat him differently. I do wonder if the lack of resolution at the end of this conversation also reflects the actors own feelings about it as well as that of the writing and directing team. They'd like to have a nice pat answer as to why not everyone is healed and they know sometimes it's because people don't ask, but they also know that when people do it doesn't always happen. And they also know that sometimes people don't feel comfortable seeking prayer for these things.


    As the episode progresses it becomes clear that this episode is going to take place mainly on the one set, back at camp and around the campfire. But more than that I start to realise that the one shot I'm watching, which has been moving to adjust as various characters come and go, is extremely long. Indeed, when I go back and check, I realise it's a 13½ minute shot which starts immediately after the opening credits, incorporating all of the conversations above. And it's a roving, weaving, fluid style which moves from group shots to intimate close-ups, often detaching from one conversation to latch onto another.

    I won't breakdown the whole thing, but after the conversations above the shot (now capturing the discussion between James and Thomas) shifts from a close-up of James, as he reveals these deep feelings about his disability; to an intimate two shot with Thomas, as Thomas affirms him; to a moving motion, capturing  the back of the two of them as they get up to join a larger group that Mother Mary has just joined; to then encircling the group, which enhances that sense of Mary being welcomed into the group; to another close-up on Philip; and then on Mary; and only ends when she walks off to prepare some food (at 14m51s).

    It's pretty masterful, actually. Tightly choreographed, smooth, and linking all the goings on behind the scenes of Jesus' day of healing into a whole piece. It gives a sense of that business, but also the progression of time. The light seems to shift radically as the shot takes place. Was that clever artificial lighting, great timing, Kubrick-like persistence over a series of evenings, or just a good dose of fortune? Sadly most of the Q&As with the filmmakers have little time for such questions.

    Mary and Joseph

    Just before the end of that shot Mary makes an interesting comment on hearing her son has been seeing people all day (following a long walk). "He's always been a worker. He gets that from his father. [long pause] Both of them I suppose." I'm tempted to make a flippant comment about Jesus being a workaholic, or about his movement's long hours culture, but it's an interesting line, even though I'm not sure it lines.

    It's actually the forerunner for further insights into Jesus's father which Mary will reveal later as the group unwinds around the campfire. Initially it starts within a conversation the others are having about money. When Mary interjects "I've never had much money my whole life and I've been happy" and you can't help wondering about the magi's gold, but the conversation goes in a different direction.

    Eventually though the conversation comes back round and Mary admits to having been worried about making mistakes when Jesus was younger. Mary Magdalene asks her "How did you feel when it happened?" and the group presses for the story. Mary starts with a nice couple of insights into the feelings she experienced behind those famous verses we find in the Gospels, before admitting "I don't know if I'm ready to give all the details, maybe some other time". But she opens back up again expressing her surprise at the human elements of motherhood when she'd wondered if it might be "completely different". Again I'll quote the extended passage

    When Joseph handed him to me it was like nothing I expected. It was like everything I'd heard about having a baby but I thought this would be completely different. [Peter asks "what do you mean"] I had to clean him off. He was covered in... I will be polite. He needed to be cleaned. And he was and cold and he was crying and he needed my help. My help. A teenager from Nazareth. It actually made me think for just one moment. "Is this really the Son of God?" Joseph told me later he briefly thought the same thing, but we knew he was. I don't know what I expected but he was crying and he needed me and I wondered how long that would last. He doesn't need me anymore..."

    It's an interesting moment, both moving, but also just allowing the viewer to recalibrate a little. Jesus has been performing al these miracles, but it's reminder the viewer of his humanity and vulnerability as well. And then Mary says, almost off-hand "After Joseph passed". The idea of Joseph having died during Jesus lifetime is is not something in the Gospels but it's long been understood from his absence in the main part of the story.5 

    Mary is vulnerable too. She's proud of her son and excited to see what he will do, but admit to missing him and that he no longer needs her, "...as a mum, it makes me a little sad sometimes". 

    Tensions emerge

    The camp-fire chat runs for the remainder of the show. Mary makes her excuses and goes off to sort out the dishes, leaving the disciples to chat a bit about their pasts too. Embolded, perhaps, by Mother Mary's revelations, Mary Magdalene's explains a little of her backstory, about the death of parents when she was young, how she left "everything" and tried to stop being a Jew. She continues "Worse things happened...Most of it is a blur". This continues the show's tendency to hint at the tradition that she was a prostitute, but without explicitly stating it.6

    Mary feels at a disadvantage to the male disciples, but they confess that they don't know as much as she thinks. Except that is, apparently, for Big James. He modestly tries to pass it off, but John doubles down: "You could recite half of Torah if you had to". Obviously this is exaggeration to prove a point in discussion not a literal statement of truth, but still the implication suggests something that would be quite extraordinary for a peasant fisherman in reality. Even being able to read or write would be rare and while there's some evidence to support transmission of information orally among the elite classes,7 we don't really know the extent to which it percolated down to the lower classes. Again it suits the series' apologetic aims to present some of the early church as knowing the Jewish scriptures really well  

     The conversation then veers into talking about the extent to which they maintain Jewish practice or rather the ways in which the various disciples broke the rules. "I tried pork once" one offers perhaps torn between his shame and the sense of one-upmanship that is beginning to emerge between them. Things turn more serious and they reflect on the difficulties and challenges of their identity. "I've come to love being Jewish" Thomas says to nods of approval. 

    And then Simon picks on Matthew. "And what about you?..Has it been difficult for you all this time?" John tries to settle things down, but when Matthew asks him what he wants him to do Andrew joins in "An apology" and it goes on. John points out how Simon nearly put them in trouble with the Romans. Thomas turns the attention back on to Matthew. Simon gets to his feet, ranting now. Big James stands to square up to him. And then, suddenly, there's the soft sound of weary footsteps traipsing into camp. Jesus has finally completed his very long day's labour. He has finally got to the end of the queue. There's no jokes just a would be Messiah, to emotionally exhausted to give more than the most basic of greetings.

    It's not just that Jesus is exhausted, but that it strikes such a contrast with all the conversations that have gone before, from the more obvious (Peter's bitter confrontation of Matthew), through the more mundane such as Big James recalling his own exhaustion at having to follow Sabbath rules, even through to the more spiritual and compassionate sounding such as Mother Mary's sense of loss that she no longer feels Jesus needs her. And all the time they have been chatting, he has been exhausting himself, being that good observant Jew (healing lepers but separately), that true follower, that person that does the caring for others. And now he is there, exhausted. He's a Jesus who still needs his feet cleaning and his Mum to look after him. And I find myself crying because my eldest just turned 18 and we're going through a similar thing to Mary. He's so grown up now, he needs me less and less. And yet he's still, occasionally, vulnerable. "What would I do without you Eema?" says Jesus as the credits roll. And I wonder if I'll hear a similar sentiment ever again.


    1. This appears to relate to the decision to portray Matthew as being on the autism spectrum, which I discuss below (3).

    2. I've been listening to an interview with Dr Isaac Soon (who is also worth following on Twitter) on the "Data over Dogma" podcast, who explains, among an array of interesting points, that what we consider disability is a "cultural construct".

    3. Cited by Peter T. Chattaway in 2019 in "The Chosen — Ethnic And Neurological Diversity In The Story Of Jesus" from an interview for a restricted-access article in Christianity Today "Jesus’ Life Chosen for Two Very Different TV Series" (2019). The term "Asperger's" is now generally not used these days (something where the momentum may have shifted even since then) due to both medical knowledge viewing it as more correctly as part of the broader autism spectrum and Dr. Asperger's involvement with the Nazi regime.

    4. Josh Shepherd (2019) "Jesus’ Life Chosen for Two Very Different TV Series" in Christianity Today March 29. Available online - https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march-web-only/jesus-his-life-history-chosen-tv-series-vidangel.html 

    5. There is a counter narrative, namely that Joseph didn't really exist which goes right back to him being named as Jesus ben Pantera in the Babylonian Talmud, but this series isn't likely to go there.

    6. Kevin Keating highlights the mention of "The Red Quarter" and indications that Mary was raped by a Roman solidier as indications of this in "Mary Magdalene in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)" at The Bible Artist, May 30th 2020. Available online: https://www.thebibleartist.com/post/mary-magdalene-in-the-chosen-adapting-biblical-characters

    7. David Carr (2010) "Torah on the Heart: Literary Jewish Textuality Within Its Ancient Near Eastern Context" in Oral Tradition, 25/1. p.17-40. Available online: https://journal.oraltradition.org/wp-content/uploads/files/articles/25i/04_25.1.pdf


    Monday, June 03, 2024

    Noah adaptations p02:
    Origins of the flood story

    Michelangelo's "The Deluge" (1508-11) from the Sistine Chapel ceiling

    For many people it's a surprise to learn that the biblical story of Noah is itself something of an adaptation. Archaeologists have unearthed an evolving flood story tradition from the ancient near east written on cuneiform tablets. Even allowing for a very conservative date for the writing of Genesis – i.e. if written by Moses roughly around the time of Ramesses II (13th century BCE) – it goes back hundreds of years before Genesis was written. There are at least three different key phases in this evolution,1 but each features remarkable similarities with the Noah story.

    An evolving tradition?

    Of course there are a number of ways of interpreting this data. The author of Genesis (and personally I don't think it was Moses, but more on that in a future post) might have come across these earlier stories and decided to adapt them for his own purposes, or it might be that (as a literal dating of Noah places him earlier than any of these texts) all these documents are referring to an earlier event, but unsurprisingly the details have changed in some of them over the centuries.

    It's worth saying that flood stories have turned up all over the world, with over 300 stories where "the near-destruction of humanity results from a great flood".2 Obviously floods were not uncommon, and could be catastrophic, and clearly those best placed to survive them would have been those with boats, so this widespread phenomenon is perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, there's a particular  pattern here where a divine presence sent a flood to drastically reduce the human population, but a particular man was chosen to survive as well as those close to him. After the waters subside "the broken bond between the gods and humanity was restored... by a sacrifice of ark animals offered by the flood hero".3

    Moreover, these three main phases all relate to the Ancient Near East and whereas many of that 300 are almost entirely different and not so soundly attested to, these contain notable similarities and have been preserved on a variety of clay tablets which have been carbon dated back to pre-biblical times.
    When we look closely at these accounts, including the one in Genesis, we can see the evolution of the story from the oldest of these three traditions through to the Noah story, which is the most familiar to most people today. 

    The Epic of Ziusudur

    The Epic of Ziusudur, also known as the "Sumerian Deluge" or "Eridu Genesis" survives in a third of clay tablet from the seventeenth century BCE, though there are indications that the original version dates from sometime before 2000 BCE and that even this is dependent on earlier incarnations. Despite the fragmented nature of this tablet, the basic story survives: Following the creation of humans and animals, the gods send a deluge, but Ziusudur is warned, builds a boat, and when the sun appears again he offers an animal sacrifice to the gods.4

    The Atrahasis Epic

    The Atrahasis Epic is thought to date back to around 1750 BCE,5 and its "basic elements...closely resemble those of Ziusudra".6 Humans are created, now from clay, the gods send a deluge only this time the chosen survivor is Atrahasis along with his family and the animals. Like Ziusudur's story the flood lasts for seven days. Moreover where lines are missing in the Epic of Ziusudur, the Atrahasis fills in the gaps. It's explicitly stated that the animals are taken aboard and there are details about how the boat is to be constructed.

    Recently, a further clay tablet containing a version of the Atrahasis epic re-surfaced which provides some interesting additional details. The main talking point that emerged from the newly translated tablet was that it seemed to indicate that Atrahasis's vessel was a round coracle, rather than the typical ark shape (significantly longer than it was wide, with a bow and a stern).7 However, of greater interest for the present study is that the gods' words to Atrahasis specifically instruct him to "Destroy your house, build a boat".8To those of us with brick houses today, and probably those in cities even then the instruction to destroy the house seems odd, but Finkel argues that Atrahasis's "house is made of reeds, strong and willowy, that can easily be recycled to a plait a lifeboat if that is what is needed".9 Such reed houses and reed boat were still common in southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), until the latter part of the 20th century particularly in the marshy region near where the Tigris and the Euphrates merge.10

    The suggestion to recycle is probably driven more by urgency than by environmental concern. Nevertheless, by the time of the biblical account -- where an enormous amount of time is available to build the ark -- the command to recycle has disappeared.

    The Gilgamesh Epic

    Finally, there is the Gilgamesh Epic, "arguably the first great work of world literature",11 dating somewhere from the second millennium BCE, though essentially the flood stories are only found in the most complete version dated 650BCE. "The  account in Gilgamesh has clearly drawn heavily upon Atrahasis... and there is evidence of dependence in terms of phraseology, content and structure".12 Perhaps the biggest indicator of this is that the story of the flood forms only one part of the epic (tablet 11) and is set in the distant past.

    Like Genesis, the epic as a whole is not about the flood hero. Instead the story is about a ruler, Gilgamesh, and the ark survivor is now called Utnapishtim (apart from one occasion where the author tellingly reverts to calling him Atrahasis), who enters the scene relatively late in proceedings (tablet 10 of 12). Attempting to learn the secret of Utnapishtim's immortality, Gilgamesh sets out to find him and only then does Utnapishtim reluctantly disclose his story of being granted eternal life after surviving the flood. The flood narrative has become a sidebar to the main story. Most of the Atrahasis Epic remains intact, but now when the boat lands it does so on a mountain, and a dove, a swallow and a raven are dispatched to determine if there is any dry land. 

    However, Gilgamesh does introduce one further element to the story: environmental concern. Both within the flood narrative itself, and in the rest of the Gilgamesh Epic, the poem carries a sense that human activity is endangering the balance of nature. Gilgamesh is attempting to shore up his kingdom by strengthening the city at the expense of the countryside and other elements of nature. This threatens the gods, who are not unlike nature spirits. so "when he goes to extremes by destroying the Cedar Forest, he activates, unawares, the retaliation of Nature".13

    This environmental concern also explains the gods rather Malthusian thinking behind their previous attempt to cull human numbers with a flood. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's "In Our Time" Gilgamesh expert/translator Andrew George explained:
    ...there is the idea of a view of ecology or the environment in which human beings do not, as in the Bible, have dominion over the Earth, they’re actually part of a world which is very carefully balanced and there are opportunities for them to endanger this balance by cutting down cedar forest, by growing too fast in numbers...14
    This idea is also picked up by Martin Puchner who finds Gilgamesh concerned "more with population control and the relation between humans and their environment".15 

    Mark Sentesy takes things further. For him "the  Epic of  Gigamesh represents an  important ecological  event: the  emergence of  the culture  of the   Anthropocene" (which he defines as "the planetary impact of human beings").16 In his efforts to stabilise the flow of food and water, Gilgamesh throws Ishtar out of the city, "the goddess who most of all embodied his culture’s  experience  of nature".17 This represents "a turning point...a break with nature".18 

    So these ideas of depleting resources, deforestation and overpopulation, some of which obviously crop up in Aronofsky's Noah (2014), go back more than three thousand years, such that they precede the more typical date given for the final text of Genesis.

    How do these relate to Genesis?

    As I mentioned above, the traditional view was that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis. While opinions vary as to which Pharaohs are the ones referred to in Exodus even the earliest would have been written after the Babylonian and Sumerian accounts had been recorded. For those who ascribe to Mosaic authorship I will leave it to you to reconcile the evidence.

    The more standard position within scholarship on the Hebrew Bible (including most conservative scholars) is that the Pentateuch / Tanakh was compiled in the post-exilic period (Persian Period), i.e. sometime after 539 BCE with some going later even  than that. If this is true then it seems most likely that the Babylonian version of the flood story went through a process of adaptation until they became the Noah story we have today. 

    That "process of adaptation" will be what I go into in my next post on the subject, before latter posts look at how the Noah story itself has been adapted, particularly in film.  

    1 - A fourth document, Book 2 of Berossus' "Babyloniaca", is sometimes added to these discussions as it to hales from the Ancient Near East and bears similar features to the Noah story, but we know it only from quotations in the work of other authors (such as Josephus and Syncellus) and the time frame (3rd century BCE) seems to be considerably after Genesis found its final form.
    2 - Bailey, Lloyd R. (1989) Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) p.6 counting the stories discussed in Theodor Herzl Gaster, (1969) Myth, legend, and custom in the Old Testament; a comparative study with chapters from Sir James G. Frazer's Folklore in the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row), pp.82-131.
    3 - Stavrakopoulou, Francesca (2021) God: An Anatomy (London: Picador), p.213.
    4 - Lendering, Jona (2020) "The Great Flood" on Livius. Last updated 12th October 2020. Originally created in 2007. https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/ 
    5 - Finkel, Irving (2014) The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, (London: Hodder), p.104.
    6 - Collins, Matthew A. (2017) "An Ongoing Tradition: Aronofsky's Noah as 21st-Century Rewritten Scripture" in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch and Jon Morgan (eds) Noah as Antihero (Abingdon/New York: Routledge) p.10.
    7 - Finkel p.123-56.
    8 - Finkel p.115.
    9 - Finkel p.118
    10 - Finkel p.116-8
    11 - Puchner, Martin (2022) Literature for a Changing Planet,  (New Jersey: Princeton University Press) p.14.
    12 - Collins p.10
    13 - Sharif, Azad, Birzo Abdulkadir and Mohammad Ismail Saeed (2019) "Nature’s Retaliation in the Sumerian Epic Gilgamesh: An Ecocritical Study" in Journal of the University of Garmian. Vol 6 (2), pp. 396-403. p.403.
    14 - Andrew George speaking in the extra material for the podcast section of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time programme. Episode titled "Epic of Gilgamesh", originally broadcast (and then released as a podcast) 3rd Nov 2016.
    (Andrew George)
    15 - Puchner, p.18.
     [A summary of this part of his argument is available online at https://lithub.com/martin-puchner-on-the-climate-lessons-from-the-epic-of-gilgamesh/]
    16 - Sentesy, Mark (2022) "The Ecological Predicament of the Epic of Gilgamesh". Unpublished. October. pp1-2. Available online - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/364185309_The_Ecological_Predicament_of_the_Epic_of_Gilgamesh.
    17 - Sentesy, p.5
    18 - Sentesy, p.1