• 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, 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