Sunday, December 23, 2007

sadly for simple piety

Various prominent members of German churches are extremely annoyed. German shopping hours have gradually been relaxed over the years (it was once the case that shops were open 9-6 Monday-Friday, 9-1 on Saturday). Sunday trading was the sticking point. More recently, though, the decision was made to leave this up to the individual Länder. Berlin has been especially aggressive in taking advantage of this, passing a law permitting shops to remain open 17 Sundays a year. Needless to say a large number of merchants have picked the Sundays in the run-up to Christmas as the most profitable. One churchman complained: When it comes to staying open on Sunday during ADVENT it's simply the last straw.

Meanwhile I've been reading the manuscript of THE SKEPTICAL SYNAGOGUE-GOER'S GUIDE TO JEWISH HISTORY, by David Levene of the NYU Classics Department. It is a book offering ammunition for the sort of person who goes to synagogue, sits through a sermon in growing indignation at the ludicrous stories passed off as historical fact, thinks "This is absolute bollocks" and wants to share this point of view with the rabbi later over a thimbleful of kosher wine - but doesn't have the evidence to back him (or, of course, her) to back it up. While aimed primarily at a Jewish audience, the book is obviously of interest to anyone who has ever wondered vaguely, as it might be, Did the Assyrian really come down like a wolf on the fold?

The book sets out the accounts of various supposedly historical events as presented in the Tanach and Midrash, then looks at these in the light of historical evidence and considers the question of how far the evidence bears out the traditional version. In some cases, the answer is, not terribly far. The reasoning by which the Seder Olam Rabbah concluded that there were only four Persian kings, and that the Persian Empire lasted 52 years (as opposed to the span of 539-331 BCE favoured by most historians) has a charm all its own. In other cases the traditional version holds up surprisingly well.

To come clean, I tend to steer clear of the type of place where people bundle up moral arguments and historical fabrications. I converted to Judaism in 1987, but I seldom go to a service. Before conversion I was an Episcopalian who avoided services with the same assiduity.
Nothing I have seen of Islam makes me think it would have more to offer than the competition. It's still a pleasure to have the evidence in one place for anecdotes dimly remembered from religious texts; it's a pleasure to see how the chronology of Persian kings can be worked out from Babylonian astronomical calendars showing lunar eclipses, confirmed by legal documents of the time and other sources. Books aimed at a general audience tend to skimp on quotations and references, so that the interested reader has no way of following up something that sounds interesting; it's a pleasure to read one that's an exception to the rule.

DSL is currently looking for a publisher for the book (it is under consideration by an editor as I write); I trust he will find one soon.

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