History of religion

I used to have a large interest in the history of religion. This mostly came from reading Philip K. Dick who was influenced by Gnosticism and the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and so I liked to read about early Christianity and it's mythology. Then a while back the digital repository of academic papers JSTOR opened it's august doors to the common peasantry, if ever so slightly. You could read I think five articles per month for free without being associated with an academic institution though this could easily be sidestepped by registering multiple accounts and at least back then they accepted mailinator addresses so it was a pretty easy thing to do.
I still have some of the ones I liked best saved and have recently been wanting to go back and re-read them so I thought I'd put up a page where I wrote short summations of them. I'll add links both to the original JSTOR articles but also to a more easily accessible pirated version on zlibrary when available.

Why Did Noah Send out a Raven?
R. W. L. Moberly

Ravens in the Bible are described as detestable in Leviticus and should not be eaten, most likely because they themselves eat carrion, and from Genesis they are usually thought of as that bird that Noah sent out to find land but failed in doing so before the dove was sent instead. Here Moberly points out that the raven's purpose is never explicitly stated in Genesis and therefore we should not assume it was to find land or that the raven failed at whatever it was supposed to do. He compares how the raven's movement is described in Gen 8:7 as going "forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up" to the way God's spirit is described in Gen 1:2 as "hovering over the waters" at the world's creation. The raven is then used to symbolically replicate God's action in creating the world.
Why though would Noah choose a raven to do so? Moberly admits that he doesn't have an answer and that raven's are in fact usually portrayed in a negative light in Jewish and Christian tradition, though he does point out that ravens are sent by God to feed Elijah in 1 Kings so there might have been some other tradition related to ravens that have been lost to time.
I'm not entirely convinced myself but I thought it was an interesting and well argued point which is typical of Moberly. Also ravens are interesting creatures and maybe deserves a reappraisal in this case.
Though they can make an awful racket they also display a significant intelligent, they mourn their dead and are able to use tools to solve problems which is more than what most people appear capable of.

Lion and Human in "Gospel of Thomas" Logion 7
Andrew Crislip

The Gospel of Thomas is an apocryphal gospel found in the Nag Hammadi library. It's a "sayings gospel" meaning it's made up of somewhat unrelated sayings attributed to Jesus. This essay deals with the seventh saying which is considered one of the more difficult ones and goes as follows:
Blessed is the lion that the human eats,
and the lion becomes human.
And cursed is the human that the lion eats,
and the lion will become human.

On the face of it it makes no sense, in both instances the lion becomes human no matter who eats whom. This has sometimes been attributed to scribal error and people have wanted to change the last line to "and the human will become lion", which would be the logical continuation.

The essay by Crislip isn't as interesting as what it quotes from which is another essay entitled "Lion Becomes Man: The Gnostic Leontomorphic Creator and the Platonic Tradition" by Howard M. Jackson. From the quotes given Jackson's argument is that this is an allegory for the soul taken from Plato's Republic. A clear translation isn't given but what I took from it was that it's a play on the positive and negative connotations we have about lions. Where on one hand it's a feral creature with no self control who in Christianity has negative association to people being thrown to the lions and torn apart for heresy but on the other hand we associate many positive things to lions like strength and bravery.
So when the lion eats the human it alludes to letting one's baser nature drag you along and the lion then manifest itself as human in the negative sense of the human becoming uncivilized and like an animal. Whereas the human eating the lion means taking control of one's savage nature, one's "id" if you will, and to quote from the Republic "make an ally of the lions nature". The lion then manifests as human in a positive sense. At least this is my own interpretation, you'd have to read it for the full Republic excerpt.

Crislip doesn't agree with Jackson and states that the soul in the Republic is described as tripartite with a human, a lion and a "many-headed beast" contending for it whereas in the Gospel of Thomas it's bipartite with just the human and lion. Which is true but the conflict is still clearly described as bipartite with the soul being controlled either by the human or the lion and beast as cohorts. So I could easily see some writer needing to condense the story down to pithy aphorism dropping the many-headed beast for brevity.
Anyway the interesting parts which are discussing Jackson ends on page 10 and after that Crislip discusses some other theories, first that the whole thing amounts to dietary advise about vegetarianism and then another theory about it being a standing concern about what happens at resurrection to people whose bodies had been eaten by wild animals. I'd have to go with Jackson especially considering the general Platonic influence on Gnosticism.

The Mark Of Cain - Revealed At Last?
R. W. L Moberly

The mark of Cain has been a source of endless speculation. The Bible makes not statement as to the graphical design of it just that "the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him".

Moberly puts forth the idea that the Bible in fact does tell us what the sign is and that the confusion has been caused precisely because people have assumed that it's a physical mark on Cain's body.
By going back to the original Hebrew he's noted that the word used is "for" and not "upon", as in it's a mark for Cain not upon his body. Something that marks him as being different and what marks him is his violence.
Moberly argues that the sentence immediately preceding the one about God putting a mark on Cain, "Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance" is itself the actual mark of Cain. A warning "which serves to prevent Cain from being killed".

Someone who's been killed obviously can't exact a "sevenfold vengeance" so Cain here represents a tribe of whom he's the progenitor. Also the "seven" in sevenfold shouldn't be taken literally. Instead seven here means "many", just like in English one might say that "I've tried it a hundred times" simply means that something has been attempted many times and no exactly one hundred. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, in Gen 4:24 further indicates that seven was used to mean many when he says:
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times

The mark is then the fearsome reputation of the tribe of Cainites that would prevent people from killing one of their members.

There are several interesting sidetracks in this essay that makes it worth reading. Like how it's almost paradoxical that the sign would on one hand damn Cain and on the other it marks him as safe in God's protection. Here's a quote that was originally in German that I just ran through Google translate:
The sign, however, is the pledge for Cain and for all people who see Cain, the signal that the cursed and outcast may still remain under the grace and protection of God. Cursing man and accepting the damned sinners are always side by side. Here we look into the center of the Bible.

This then leads to the question of whether or not this is God giving the descendants of Cain the right to be murderous or if it's instead an acknowledgment of his pre-existing violence and that Cain therefore will come to no harm, as a response to Cains fears that as an outcast wanderer any who come upon him might kill him.

Cain then embodies over-reaction, at the rejection of his offering to God he responds by murdering Abel.
At the end there's a quote from Matt 18:21-22 where Jesus echoes these boasts of violence from Cain and Lamech but turn them around:
Then Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?". Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times."

The Origin in Ancient Incantatiory Voces Magicae of Some Names In The Sethian Gnostic System
Howard M. Jackson

There's a multitude of different deities in Gnostic texts that don't seem to have any common origin for their names. Some appear Greek, others Semitic and trying to find the root or meaning behind the names can sometimes approach pareidolia.

The meaning of the main Demiurge's name, Ialdabaoth is naturally of particular interest and there's been many theories. One Jackson mentions is "yld abaoth" by Scholem which translates to "Begetter of (S)abaoth" which is most likely the one you currently find on Wikipedia as the "most probable derivation" though the translation there is given as Lord of Chaos.
Jackson argues that this is not only incorrect but that Ialdabaoth and most other names are meaningless and simply taken from the Greek Magical Papyri - abbreviated PGM - essentially because they sounded cool. The PGM contains a lot of incantations, some approaching glossolalia with reams of made up names for deities that themselves don't mean anything. The paper quotes an F. C. Burkitt:
... the nomenclature does not suggest any real acquaintance with Semitic languages or Semitic alphabets, but only a superstitious veneration for Hebrew names found in the Greek versions of the Old Testament, eked out by scraps of ill-digested bits of Hebrew supplied (no doubt) by Jews.

So sort of like early weeaboos but for Hebrew culture instead of Japanese - heebaboos? - they made up Semitic sounding names to lend an aura of mystery and authenticity to their writings. The names then are mostly chosen for aesthetic effect to be used in chants. Another quote:

It comes as no surpize, then, to find Plotinus, in refuting Gnostics who, Prophyry tells us (Life of Plotinus 16), touted documents widely acknowledged to be identical with two of our Sethian ones, informing us that his Gnostics composed magic chants and claimed that their songs and noises and breathings and hissings exerted magical power upon the transcendental world (Enneads 2.9.14), a practice manifestly adopted from the hissings and mouth-poppings and whatnot with which the rituals of the magical papyri are replete.

In the paper everything is quoted in Greek but looking up the given indices in an English translation of PGM you can indeed find names very similar to Ialdabaoth. For example in PGM IV 1195 there's IALDAZAO which is give as the first of a string of names which is followed by "creator of the world, creator of the universe, lord, god of gods". So it's easy to see why Gnostics would think that was a good name to use for the main Demiurge.

The interesting take away from this then is that the people who wrote the Gnostic literature were not native speakers of Hebrew but that they were influence by Semitic religions. Howard state that they may have been Egyptians which makes sense considering Nag Hammadi is in Egypt but that the writings could as well have originated from the Near East or Roman world.

Moses and Monotheism
Sigmund Freud

Freud might not be known as an historian but this book that deals with the origin of Judanism and Monotheism is really fun. In it he argues that Moses was an Egyptian and not a Hebrew and that Moses did not create a new Religion but converted the Israelites to his own Egyptian religion.
Egyptian religion might seem very far from Judaism with it's pantheon of different animalisitic gods but the first recorded case of monotheism in history was the short lived worship of Aten in ancient Egypt.
Atenism was started by the pharaoh Akhenaten - who has been called the first individual in human history - around 1300 B.C. but was discontinued and even forbidden after his death. Moses according to Freud was a high priest/prince of the Aten religion who rather than convert back to the old system chose to emigrate with Israelites whom he also tried to convert.

I'll summarize the salient points:
* Moses' name is the Egyptian word "mose" meaning child and not the Hebrew "Moshes". Mose was a common part of Egyptian names, usually appended after that of a deity so e.g. Ramesses = Ra-mose, Thutmosis = Thuth-mose.
* This point if furthered by the fact that he was given his name by an Egyptian princess and why would an Egyptian princess give the child a Hebrew name or even know Hebrew in the first place?
* Though there are a lot of legends of foundlings growing up to be great leaders in mythology, Moses' story runs in the opposite direction to most. In the majority of cases the child is of high bearing, say a prince and is found and raised by some low caste to later regain an elevated position commensurate with his birth. Freud's argument is that this was a literary device used to naturalize rulers who where originally foreign to the culture they ended up ruling. E.g. in the Mythological origin of Cyrus the Great he's the grandson of the King but was raised by a shepherds only to end up as King himself. This to Freud indicates that Cyrus was a foreign conqueror who by myth becomes the natural heir.
Contrast this to Moses who are born of a low status but raised by Egyptian royalty. His story is reversed but the common theme to all these what Freud terms "exposure stories" is that the actual origin of the person lies in the group that raises him, which for Moses is Egyptian royalty and the myth then undertakes to transform him into a Jew.
* Egyptians were the first to practice circumcision.
* Judaism is the only religion where it's people are "chosen by God" as if God was some foreign entity whereas in most religions the God and it's people belong inseparably together.
* The proscription in Judaism on depictions of God matches Atenisms impersonal depictions of God. Normally around this time Gods were anthropomorphized in some way but there's not a single personal representation of Aten found. Instead Aten is depicted as a sun disc from which rays ending in hands emanate.
* In Exodus 4 Moses himself states to the Lord that he's "never been eloquent" and is "slow of speech and tongue" and has to have Aaron talk to the Israelites for him. This has normally been interpreted as him having a speech impediment like a lisp but Freud would have it to mean that Moses was not a native speaker of Hebrew and needed to have someone translate for him.
This I'm not so convinced of since in Exodus 6 he doesn't want to talk directly to the Pharaoh since he speaks with "faltering lips" and again needs Aaron to address the Pharaoh for him. Now if Moses himself was an Egyptian he would of course have no problem communicating with the Pharaoh. Freud would have this too to be a distorted tradition of Moses not being able to communicate well because he didn't know Hebrew, but I dunno.

The book is split into three parts. The first one being concerned with proving that Moses was an Egyptian but from there Freud moves on to another theory which is that Moses was eventually killed by his own people. Freud appears to have taken it from a man named Sellin but the exact argument is never recounted in the book so the reader's left to wonder what it is. Instead Freud uses this assumption as a launching point for discussing psycho analytics. This is where I think the book loses focus. It gets particularly bad in the third part which was written years after the other two, where he starts discussing highly spurious theories taken from another guy called Robertson Smith about ancient man being being divided into small groups ruled by a single male who regularly killed his sons and who was eventually killed himself by his sons. This theory is then used to prove some sort of collective neurosis in mankind.
There's also discussions that assume genetic memory and there's a lot of musings on the nature of the Jewish people, understandable since it was written after Freud fled Vienna at the German invasion in 1938. All in all I find this third part to be very muddled.

The ideas are probably very out of date at this point but it's a nice historical view into the time it was written and it's worthwhile to read the first two parts even if like me you're ambivalent towards Freud. If you liked the psychology part of the second book you can try reading the third book. I'm tempted to look up these theories of Robertson Smith just for their novelty.