199. Natural History by Pliny (the Elder) (c.77AD)

199. Natural History by Pliny (the Elder) (c.77AD)

“There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness”  Pliny, Zoology, page 118

A truly encyclopaedic work covering the natural sciences as believed in the 1st century.

My copy was only a selection of the 34 volumes, collected together and published by Penguin Classics, translated by John F. Healy (ISBN 9780140444131).

 My thoughts:

Sure, some of the ideas expressed are amusing two thousand years later, but maybe we have a few things wrong too, which can be smirked at by future readers.

Pliny relies on gathering his facts and beliefs from many earlier writers, whom he justly credits before starting and during his review. The first book covers astronomy but also seismology and meteorology, and I had to wonder if the seeming inconsistencies were an inevitable result of relying on so many other minds. For instance, Pliny dismisses the idea of eclipses as supernatural portents of disaster, but the next page he is claiming just that for the appearance of comets. And it seems cats and dogs were the only things not raining down from the skies: here we have milk, blood, flesh, iron, wool and fired house bricks. The Earth is recognised as spherical with North and South Poles, but is still the centre of the universe.

The next books cover the geography and peoples of the Empire and known lands beyond, including ‘Africa’ (Morocco and Libya), Egypt, Ethiopia, ‘Asia’ (Syria, Jordan), India, Taprobane (Sri Lanka), the Himalayas, and China. Greece and Italy are described in terms that would make a tourism promoter proud, but the further away Pliny looks, the more that native tribes sound like they could have been encountered by Gulliver on his travels : men with no heads, and eyes and mouth in their chests; subhumans who live in caves and talk in shrieks, satyrs and Goat-men, cyclopses and one footed men who lie on their backs and use their feet to keep them dry (thanks Herodotus!). He also pinpoints where legendary stories were set e.g. the precise locations of Scylla and Charybides, the Garden of the Hesperides, and the rock where Andromeda was to be sacrificed to the sea monster before being rescued by Perseus.

The Zoology chapters begin with Man, and reads like a very untrustworthy Guinness Book of Records. We also have elephants climbing ropes and avoiding mice, snakes catching high flying birds on the wing, the proverbial lion with a thorn in his foot, or a bone wedged in her teeth, and weasels waiting for crocodiles (which grow to 30 feet long) to fall asleep with their jaws open, so they can jump in and eat the stomachs. Like any good fisherman, we also have some tall tales from the ocean depths : sharks over 150 feet long, lobsters at 6 feet, eels 300 feet long, and whales which cover 3 acres of water.

Further chapters cover botany, medicine and geology, but I think I’ve got the idea. Let’s move on to my two hundredth read. After all, as Pliny himself says in his preface: “I have taken the greatest care to prevent your having to read them from cover to cover”

Favourite lines/passages:

“To sum up the outward madness of nations, this is the land in which we drive out our neighbours and dig up and steal their turf to add to our own … and rejoice in possessing an infinitesimal part of the earth” which is itself “a dot in the universe”     page 33

I particularly like the description of Mount Atlas in north Africa:

“It is said that not a single inhabitant is seen during the day and everything is quiet with a chilling silence like that of the desert; an apprehensiveness that renders one speechless steals over those who approach the mountain, and similarly a fear of the peak soaring above the clouds and reaching almost to the moon. At night Atlas flashes with many fires … and is filled with the wanton frolics of Goat-Pans and Satyrs and resounds with the music of flutes, pipes, drums and cymbals”    page 55

and the idea that the Carthaginians circumnavigated Africa and established settlements which were never heard from again (very Edgar Rice Burroughs-sy)

And a little bit of human anatomy to consider:

“Leading experts state that the eyes are connected to the brain by a vein. I am inclined to believe that they are also connected to the stomach. For it is an established fact that if a man has an eye knocked out he is invariably sick”   page 160

Personal rating: 4/10

Other reading:  First volume of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War  scifi series. Septuagenarians  relinquish their Earth citizenship to join the space marines in brand new, improved young cloned bodies. Engaging read with plenty of alien species eager to stamp out humanity.

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198. The Books of the Epistles (The New Testament, c. 55-65 AD)

198. The Books of the Epistles (The New Testament, c. 55-65 AD)

“The sound of their voice went out to all the world; their words reached the ends of the earth.”  Romans 10:18

The 21 Books of the New Testament between Acts and Revelation, are largely letters (epistles) and sermons from the Apostles to early churches formed around the Mediterranean world in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection. The first fourteen are referred to as Pauline epistles, written by or originally attributed to Paul, while the remainder (general epistles) were variously attributed to apostles Peter and John, and James and Jude (brothers of Jesus)

A tough read to understand fully in the language of the King James version, so I fell back on a New International translation online https://www.biblestudytools.com/niv/

 I read the more substantial Pauline epistles Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians quite closely, but having got the gist of Paul’s message, I admit I barely skimmed the remainder.

Repeated themes in Paul’s letters besides the actual teaching of the Gospel are

  • Paul’s calling to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, who have not witnessed the miracles and teachings of Jesus firsthand.
  • Faith in God and the resurrection of Jesus has superseded strict observance of the Law of Moses’ time (it matters not if some people eat anything and some only eat certain foods, or if some observe the Sabbath and some don’t, or most controversially if one is circumcised or not : don’t judge others but live in your own faith)
  • The original sin of Adam condemned all people to death, but now Jesus has redeemed us through his death and resurrection setting us free from sin, and we should now live sin-free lives in God’s grace, both Jews and Gentiles, to enjoy eternal life
  • There are false apostles travelling to the congregations, urging some form of Judaic Christianity which retained the Law such as circumcision, which was not the true Gospel of Jesus
  • The hardships of life as an Apostle : beatings, floggings, imprisonment, hunger and thirst, even shipwreck. (Paul was under arrest for several years and eventually beheaded in Rome, possibly on the order of Nero)

The greetings that conclude the letters include many women who must have been playing a prominent role in the early churches, and yet Paul urged that during services women should remain silent in the churches. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

The general epistles named for John, Peter, James and Jude, are more sermon-like. James insists that faith alone is not enough, without deeds done in humility to help others. John and Jude warn against false teachers who are claiming that our salvation gives license to sin again.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”       1 Corinthians 13: 4-8

Personal rating: 4/10

Other reading:   Rather perversely, I read It by Stephen King which had been on my TBR list for years. Seven children band together to stop a shapeshifting monster from another universe, whose favourite form for hunting and killing children is Pennywise the clown. Only partly successful, they reform as adults years later to finish the job. Excellent long read, with King’s way of describing everyday life in such detail that makes things believable while you’re on his journey. Some parts will leave readers uncomfortable for various reasons, but in the end this is a life-affirming and life-celebrating story.

 

 

197. The Acts of the Apostles

197. The Acts of the Apostles

Between the Gospel according to St. John and the Book of Revelation, there are 22 books of the New Testament detailing the actions, writings and thoughts of the Apostles. I had no idea at all of the contents before starting this read.

The Acts of the Apostles carries two intertwined themes : the birth of the early Christian Church by the travels and ministry of the Apostles and its successful extension to the Gentiles after being largely rejected by the Jews; and the story of Saul’s conversion and ministry. In both there is plenty of  conflict between the Jewish and Christian beliefs, centred on the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, leading to the imprisonment, beating and stoning of disciples.

Acts starts from the resurrection of Jesus, and like the Gospel according to St. Luke, is addressed to Theophilus. The Apostles are  remaining in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection and have voted Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot to bring their number to twelve again. (In Matthew, Judas hung himself, but here it is reported that he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out”,  while working on the land he bought with the bribe money)

The Apostles are visited and filled by the Holy Spirit, which also enables them to speak in other languages, presumably to aid their missionary work in spreading the word to different peoples.  We start hearing of communities of people who believe in the Apostles’ teachings described as “churches”, and the healing of many sick and possessed people. The Word spreads to other cities and countries : Samaria, Ethiopia, Macedonia, Cyprus, Athens, Syria  and eventually Asia and Rome.

Saul, who I thought was only a tax collector but was actually one of the chief persecutors of the  Christians, is traveling near Damascus when he is visited by Jesus and is blinded. The  disciple Ananias is sent to restore Saul’s sight, and from then Saul becomes the disciple Paul, who will eventually carry the message to Rome.

Favourite lines/passages:

Jesus asks Saul “Why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”   

Acts 9:5 and 26:14

Personal rating:  Interesting for those who wish to study the evolution of the early Church. For me, 4/10.

Other reading:   Lord Edgware Dies, another Poirot whodunnit by Agatha Christie. I am sure I had read this before but couldn’t quite recall the result, which bodes well for an Alzheimer’s old age. Nevertheless, I had the essential twist on the twist nailed quite early on, so maybe I did remember more than I thought.

Next :  The books of the New Testament containing the Epistles.

196. The Gospel according to St. John (KJV)

196. The Gospel according to St. John (KJV)

Plot: Within the framework of the life of Jesus, the Gospel according to St. John has quite a lot of new stories,  parables and memorable quotes not found in the others, but more noticeably there seems to be a more joyous, beautiful and perhaps optimistic tone to some of the writing.

Again we skip the nativity story entirely, but we do get Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding (Ch. 2), bringing Lazarus back to life (Ch. 11), and washing the Disciples’ feet (Ch.13).  His turning the moneylenders out of the temple is recorded at the beginning of his works and not closer to his arrest and crucifixion as in the other versions. There are also quotes from John the Baptist.

Like Matthew, there are many lines which are well known even to philistines (small p) such as myself.

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone … “   John 8:7

“I am the Light of the World : he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life”  John 8:12

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”   John 8:32

Favourite lines/passages:

Quite a few, actually.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not”  John 1: 5

“The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep”   John 10:11

“A prophet hath no honour in his own country”  John 4:44

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”  John 15:13

“… be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”   John 16:33

Digressions/diversions: 

Many of the quotes attributed to Jesus in John start with the words “Verily, verily” which sounds very Monty Pythonish after a while.

Personal rating: As literature, 5/10.

Next :  Staying with the NT, The Acts of the Apostles

195. The Gospel according to St. Luke (KJV)

195. The Gospel according to St. Luke (KJV)

Continuing with the Gospels. Luke’s version is addressed to Theophilus and written in the knowledge that other Gospels existed. Luke feels like a more detailed story, with each event more fully described. It goes back further, starting with the conception of John the Baptist, and how Mary the mother of Jesus comes and stays with the family. Also the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her what’s going on (in Matthew, only Joseph is visited).  There are new details which I don’t think are covered by Matthew and Mark :

  • the nativity story includes the manger setting and the shepherds following the star,
  • Jesus at 12 questioning the doctors in the temple,
  • Jesus teaching and curing people before calling the disciples, and the miraculous catch of fish in Simon’s boat (5:6)
  • Mary Magdalene was cleaned of seven devils (7:2)
  • Jesus calls another 70 disciples after the first 12, to spread the word, but they must set forth at once, not tarry to say their goodbyes to family, or in one case, bury his father (6:59-62, 7:1)
  • parables of the good samaritan (10:30-37) and the prodigal son (15:11-32)
  • ten lepers cured but only one returns to offer thanks and praise (Ch. 17)

Again, many of the stories are repeated and the same words and speeches used. As eyewitnesses, there certainly seems enough evidence to support the story of Jesus’ life was generally agreed on, and enough differences to believe different authors have reported individually, perhaps referencing an earlier version or the earliest of the four Gospels?

Luke requires greater study in some parts to understand what appears contradictions in Jesus’ words and thoughts :

“I have not come to give peace on earth but division …”  Luke, 12: 51

“Who comes to me but does not hate his father ….. cannot be my disciple”  Luke, 15:26

Oh, and the shy creature from Revelation 4:7 paired with Luke in the image above is a calf.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity”   Luke, 13:27

Digressions/diversions: 

Elias: both a forerunner to someone greater (as John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus), and also someone with a specific mission to fulfill. Also the New Testament version naming of Elijah, so it cam be confusing to know in which context the word is used in each instance.

Noe : Noah (easy one)

mammon : money, wealth, material possessions, and greed for these

Personal rating: Still preferring Matthew, so Luke gets 4/10

Next :  No surprise here.  The Gospel according to St. John

194. The Gospel according to St. Mark (KJV)

194. The Gospel according to St. Mark (KJV)

This post marks a successful spin read for the Classics Club challenge August 2018, having read up to number 9 on my list nominated at the beginning of the month, so there may be new readers to the blog and this post. Hence I repeat my earlier disclaimer : the following posts on the New Testament are not to be read as criticism or discussion of the Books as religious texts but solely my experiences reading them as literature.

So to Mark, and how is it different from Matthew?  Well, apart from skipping the nativity story of Jesus, and starting with his baptism by John the Baptist, there is a great deal of similarity in covering the same major events and miracles of Jesus’ life reported in Matthew, even down to quoting the same speeches almost word for word. What is missing is a lot of those notable phrases that so enlivened Matthew and have been immortalised in literature ever since, which I listed in my previous post.

There was one new addition, (the story of Jesus casting out a legion of devils from one man, into a herd of two thousand swine, who then drown themselves in the sea) and perhaps more stress on the acts of the twelve disciples to heal the sick and cast out devils from the afflicted. There are also some omissions  (Judas betrays Jesus but the bribe amount is not specified and the fate of Judas is not mentioned) and discrepancies (Jesus appears after his resurrection to the disciples as they sit disbelieving Mary’s report, rather than the disciples traveling to the mountain in Galilee to meet him)

Favourite lines/passages:

“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”    Mark, ch 2:27

“For what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Mark, ch. 8:36

Personal rating:  As I rated Matthew with all its memorable and quotable lines  5/10, I can give Mark  no better than 4/10

Next : The third Gospel, Luke.

193. The Gospel according to St. Matthew (KJV)

193. The Gospel according to St. Matthew (KJV)

First a disclaimer.  As I stated with my posts on the various Books of the Old Testament, these following posts on the New Testament are not to be read as criticism or discussion of the Books as religious texts but solely my experiences reading them as literature.  I have never read these in their entirety before now, but obviously know the basics and many of the parables since Sunday School.

The first book of the New Testament is the Gospel according to St. Matthew, relating the life of Jesus Christ from his conception by the Holy Ghost to the virgin Mary, through to his crucifixion and resurrection. There are three further tellings of his life in the NT (Mark, Luke and John) and from what is and is not present in Matthew, I think the story will be like four layers hopefully building as near-complete a picture as possible, sometimes repeating events, and sometimes filling in gaps.

I won’t outline all the events in Matthew as I suspect all my readers will have at the very least the broad outlines. Instead I’ll focus on what were, for me, the lesser known stories and surprises.

Firstly the sheer wealth of famous quotations. Of course, on reflection this would be obvious, but it is the strongest impression I was left with :

the meek shall inherit the earth/ salt of the earth/ hiding one’s light under a bushel/Get Thee hence Satan/ mote in one’s eye/casting pearls before swine/false prophets (wolves) in sheep’s clothing/by their fruits shall ye know them/blind leading the blind/o ye of little faith/suffer the little children/out of the mouths of babes/many are called but few are chosen/render unto Caesar/spirit is willing but flesh is weak/take the sword perish with the sword/’washing his hands’ of something unpopular, and many more.

Then there were the parts I hadn’t heard before:

  • Matthew was a publican (no, not the owner of a pub, but a tax collector for the Romans)
  • that there were two instances of Jesus feeding the multitudes with loaves and fishes, the first with five loaves and two fishes, feeding five thousand (chapter 14), and then with seven loaves and a few little fishes feeding four thousand (chapter 15)
  • that Judas threw back the thirty pieces of silver after the arrest of Jesus, and hanged himself
  • the Lord’s Prayer is laid out verbatim in Matthew  (6 : 9-13)

What I didn’t understand well, or seemed to jar with the rest of the Gospel, was the Parable of the Talents. A master going away entrusts his servants with talents of gold, and all but one invests the money and shows a profit. The exception is scared and buries the gold. When the master claims back the talents, he is pleased with the profits made, but berates the man who merely kept the gold safe. Even though this is meant as an analogy, perhaps to spread the word of the Lord after Jesus dies, it still seems an odd vehicle for the message, given that Jesus scoured the temple of moneylenders.

What I did like was that now the Lord’s message is to be shared with all the nations of the World  – the God of the New Testament is for all mankind, not just the tribes of Israel; and the Gospel ends with the disciples being sent to spread the Word.

Diversions/digressions:

Each of the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is usually depicted in Christian art with one of the four creatures in Revelation 4:7, which I will try to include in the post images. Matthew is usually depicted with a winged man (angel)

My rating :  5/10

Other reading : Sharpe’s Tiger, a re-read of the chronologically first volume in the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Set in the war between the forces of the British Army (acting in the interests of the British East India Company) and the Tippoo Sultan of Mysore in 1799. Private Sharpe is entrusted with a mission to pretend to be a deserter and enter the Sultan’s forces at Saringapatam and return with knowledge of the city’s weaknesses gathered by captured spy McCandless. The flaws and bravery of men on both sides is portrayed well. A great story with lots of colour and excitement, a wonderful anti-hero in brawler Sharpe and unforgettable villain in evil, twitching Sgt Obadiah Hakeswill. 9/10

Next : The Gospel according to St. Mark