30 Days of Writing Prompts.

Last year I provided 30 days of writing prompts as a resource for creative writers. Since I have received many public and private thanks for doing so, I thought I would reblog all 30 of them in one convenient post for those that missed them last time around. Writing exercises are not only great for creative writers, but also help any other kind of writers warm up before working on a business document, research paper, and so on. They get one’s writing brain engaged and I have personally found it is hard to have writer’s block when stimulated by writing that requires no filter or editing. I have also added one or two extras not included in the original list, so I hope you enjoy this new series.

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If you were suddenly made the leader of a country and given a superpower as well, which country and superpower would you choose and how would you use your position/power in service to that country?

You are an animal who keeps a diary. Choose the animal you would like to be and write a diary entry from your new perspective. 

Invent some uninspiring, non-motivational quotes from famous people from the past, e.g. Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Oprah, Winston Churchill, etc. 

You are suddenly transported to a parallel Reality and discover you have directed an Oscar-winning film there. You also discover you are about to go on a national TV show to talk about that movie, and you have no idea the name, who acted in it, and so on. Answer the interviewer’s first question, “what is this movie about?”

Invent a board game that is based on your life. How would the game reflect who you are? What would the rules be?

At night while you are sleeping your skeleton sneaks away and goes to a skeleton party. What do you think they would all talk about?

You are a squirrel who is also a film critic. Write about your favorite film from this new perspective.

Invent a new month and explain: which months it would be between, how many days long, what new day(s) would you add, and so on. 

Invent new names for things in your house, animals in the zoo, fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, etc. 

You are a news anchor and the breaking news is that a big, populated island has suddenly appeared in the middle of the Pacific ocean. describe the people, buildings, transportation, who discovered the island, etc.

Invent a language with which birds and cats could talk to each other. What would they say?

Invent a new Olympic sport: what color medals would it have and why? Would it use a ball? How many people would play it at a time?… and so on

Every culture in the world has one or two numbers considered unlucky. Pick your own unlucky number and explain why it is unlucky, how it is to be avoided, and so on. 

One day you receive an official letter from the government saying you can write absolutely anything you want on a T-shirt, and no matter what you will not lose your job, or be fined or jailed for it. What would the T-shirt say? Why would you say it? 

NETFLIX is planning to make a film about one specific hour of your life. Which one would it be? Why? Who would play you? What music would be used for the soundtrack?… and so on

You have written a hugely popular book. Now write a review of the book someone else might post on Amazon.

One day you wake up and you can talk to the world’s most famous paintings. Which ones would you like to talk to? Which do you think would like to talk to you? What would they say?

The (real life) INDOMIE noodle company puts out a very delicious Indonesian Mi Goreng-style BBQ Chicken instant noodle package. Write about what you think it tastes like.

Look at this Japanese sentence: ジャズは素晴らしい芸術です。Without looking it up on Google Translate, Write about what you think it means.

They say one should enjoy the finer or simpler things in life. How would one go about enjoying the “purple-r” things in Life?

If you had all the knowledge and experience you have now back when you were 8 years old, what would you have done differently with the rest of your life?

Write a love poem from the color blue to the color red.

Your pet cat is secretly a spy for the cat government. What do you think it is reporting back to the cat spy agency about you?

One day you wake up and there is an invitation from NASA to travel to the International Space Station, sitting on your kitchen table. Describe your reaction. Why do you think it is there?

Give classic movies stupid new names, e.g. Star Wars = “Galactic Wizard Battles”, or JAWS = “Mean Fish Chase”. 

An archeologist 200 years from now discovers artifacts from your life. What do you want her to find? What do you think she might say about you?

One evening you are watching a movie and you suddenly see yourself on screen as a character. How do you think you would behave in that particular movie, as a good guy or bad guy? What would you say? How would you be involved with the overall plot?

An ancient Babylonian prophecy has been discovered, and it is about you! What do you think it says? How would it come true? 

One day you travel back in time to meet your 10 year old self, and when you arrive you discover he/she is already speaking to another future version of you! What do you think they are talking about? How do you think your life now connects the two of them?

Imagine if you could tell one giant lie and the whole world believed it completely. What would you say? Would it benefit the world or just yourself?

Choose one of the previous prompts and write a poem based on the answer(s) you gave. 

If you were chosen by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people of 2021, why do you think they would choose you?

 

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In Praise of Mi Goreng Noodles!

You probably don’t know who Nunuk Nuraini (1962 -2021) was. A Muslim woman from Indonesia, Nuraini will be mourned and greatly missed by noodle lovers all over the world, as she is the inventor of the greatest instant noodle pack of all time: Indonesian “mi goreng” flavoured noodles.

A flavour development manager at the Indomie company, Nuraini’s various mi goreng packs are incredibly delicious and decidedly different. Unlike the usual ramen style noodles, mi goreng noodles are designed to be eaten without the broth, rather with a mi goreng base (fried challot seasoning, chili sauce, sweet soy sauce, palm oil) and the featured flavour: BBQ chicken, fried noodle, hot and spicy, and so on.

Indomie brand mi goreng (BBQ chicken flavour) noodles are the best instant noodles in the world, case closed! You can’t believe how amazing they taste (especially if you mix in a little margarine too), even though instant noodles in general are considered a cheap, low quality snack eaten by college students. Indomie mi goreng noodles are the Rolls Royce of instant noodles, and even better, they are as cheap price-wise (if not cheaper) than the more famous Japanese and Korean brands. It is the combination of the sweet chili and shallot as seasoning base that really lifts whatever flavour is mixed in. You MUST track them down and try the fired noodle or BBQ chicken flavored packs for yourself. You haven’t really lived until you try them, they’re THAT good! Thank you Nunuk Nuraini for making the world a much happier place, one plate of mi goreng at a time.

(If you live in Canada, various flavours of Indomie Mi Goreng noodles can be easily found at The Real Canadian Superstore…). 

 

 

177 million seconds since Ornette…

As of today it has been over 177.6 million seconds since the passing of my teacher Ornette Coleman (click here to learn more about him), the legendary Pulitzer Prize winning jazz saxophonist who created the genre of Free Jazz. His kindness and creativity were matchless, and I have yet to meet anyone even remotely and unendingly interesting as he was. I describe the space between then and now in millions of seconds (rather than days or years), because it is a decidedly unusual way of seeing time, very likely a perspective you would not have thought of seeing things from. But that was “Uncle” Ornette’s gift: he saw things that were obvious but unexpected, until they were consciously considered a viable option. Even the very theories and techniques he built up over the years began with a single core mistake at their foundation: a youthful misunderstanding of how key signatures relate to the saxophone (which led him to explore unconventional groupings of notes freed from standard ideas on how music is “supposed” to work). 

What I admired most about him was his seeming courage, how he moved through Life faced with fierce critical resistance even while being hailed as a genius. But he moved, oh how he moved! Always beatific, always enigmatic, he demonstrated what seemed like courage, but what was in actual fact a will of such force that he did not need courage at all. He was of such a mind that his desire to find a path of self-expression was so immense as to direct his every step, his every breath. He lived and breathed music, music , music: seeking, seeking, seeking, even into old age, long after other artists of his age usually give up such a drive. It takes youth and the physical vitality of an athlete to put in the hours of practice he did throughout his entire life, and when his body became old it was his existential drive that seemed to power him like an invisible generator. At our final lesson he was showing clear signs of age and slowing down, but his drive was undeterred; he spoke cheerfully about the new possibilities and directions in music he wished to explore, like a young saxophonist who had finally discovered the path toward their true identity in sound.

So with each passing year as the millions of seconds go by, I celebrate the purity of his intent, how he needed exactly zero courage or motivation to be eternally seeking. He was the very embodiment of the artist’s endless search, so filled with excitement about what lay around the creative bend that the work and study was impossible to tire of.

It is right and fitting to say of the passed “Rest In Peace”. But I know Uncle Ornette must be somewhere out in the Universe, freed from space and time, with a perfect smile on his face, pondering how to express gravity and light in music. So may you “rest” in the Eternal Motion, the beauty of the Search Beyond Searching…

 

Happy New Year 2021, and 森林浴…

Happy New Year Everyone!!

2020 was such a pile of garbage, it is nice to finally escape it. 2021 will still be affected by the goings-on of 2020, but at least we will be psychologically free of it in a manner of speaking.

Every year I choose a Japanese word to be the “theme” of my year, a word that will be the guiding principle to help me move forward with all the different aspects of my life: career, spiritual, financial, whatever it may contextualize and improve. This year I am thinking that I need a reset, a “getting back on track” kind of approach to things after having had my life radically altered by the events of 2020. Thankfully I was not personally affected by COVID-19, but it is no fun to constantly be wearing a mask, social distancing, sterilizing my living space, and so on. But the word ‘reset’ just doesn’t provide the full picture, the right nuances for the year. So instead I have chosen a word with a different meaning that can work as a good substitute of sorts.

When I was young I used to go out into the forest and sit under a tree, piling snow up around myself until I was mostly covered. As I was wearing ski pants, and snow works as an insulator, I was both cozy and hidden away from the forest animals and birds. After remaining motionless for a minute or two, the various denizens of the forest would be moving around again, now that the “danger” was gone. It is amazing how much Life is packed into a few square meters of prairie forest. Multiple species of small and large birds, rabbits, deer, skunks, beavers, coyotes, and if you are unlucky, bears, cougars, and lynx. Even just walking through the area you would see the tracks of so many different animals and birds, that alone was enough to put you into a tranquil state, reflecting on how amazingly lucky Canadians are having all these wonderful animals. This environmentally induced state of peace is known in Japan as shinrinyoku – “forest bathing” (森林浴), the act of going out into the forest and soaking up the fresh air, letting the light coming through the leaves and branches dapple your skin, listening to a babbling brook, and all the other wonder things that the forest can provide. In this case, the environment of the forest provides this effect, being settled amongst the trees, in the middle of all the Life going on.

I also used to get this feeling after cleaning my old apartment in Amagasaki, Japan. I was fortunate enough to have a nice sized apartment with traditional tatami mat flooring and antique, lacquered furniture (cabinets, table). I kept it extremely clean, and thanks to a perfectly placed balcony with sliding floor to ceiling translucent doors, my main living space was filled with wonderful natural light. I could look south across the rooftops towards the distant mountainous hills around Kobe, and watch the seasons colour the landscape. The walls of the main room were a kind of pale sea-foam greenish blue, and the evening sun lit the room up in the most gorgeous manner. I felt like I was “apartment-bathing” (アパート浴?), sitting on the floor with my girlfriend in the evening heat, keeping cool with a giant fan and the best beer on the planet (Asahi SuperDry, of course!).

I think 2021 is the right time to make sure we are keeping our physical and mental environment clean and orderly to the degree that it will have the same effect on us that shinrinyoku does on a nature walk. It was easy to let a lot of things go while being cooped up in our houses. And sometimes it is best to have a creative, inspiring mess going on in the places where we write, paint, practice music, and so on. Clutter isn’t always bad! But the right kind of clutter or the right kind of orderliness, the kinds that brings out the qualities that shinrinyoku does, these are worth reinvesting in. So for 2021 I am going to reinvigorate my household cleaning schedule, optimize my grocery list for health and savings, reevaluate my goals and strategies for becoming a better drummer and saxophonist, reorganize my language study materials; things that can make my inner and outer environments great places to “bath” in my best thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

I invite you to join me on this year long journey, since I am lucky enough to have a great little following of regular readers; artists, musicians, students, poets, and the like. After a sh*t year like 2020, wouldn’t it feel great to do our best living yet? Why don’t we give it a try?

An Introduction To Jewish Folklore.

Since we have been looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls and the various manuscripts in the Nag Hammadi Collection, I thought I would lighten things up a bit with some fun facts about basic jewish folklore, the myths and terms that developed as Jewish people scattered out into the world after the destruction of the their Second Temple in 66 CE by Roman troops, during the time of Emperor Nero. These legends and terms are not “official” Jewish theology like the Torah or the other books of the Tanakh. But they did play a part an important part in the daily life of various Jewish communities over the last 2000 years. Many of them are not well known outside of Judaism, so I hope you will find them interesting.

Shokelin: This is the Yiddish word for the swaying that Jews do when they pray, most famously at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The philosopher Judah Halevi was of the opinion that it came from the fact that religious texts were scarce in the post-Second Temple scattering and thus people had to sway so others could peek past them at the open Torah scroll, etc. The Talmud states that shokelin is the expression of ecstasy that Psalm 35:10 refers to (“All my bones shall say, ‘who is like you, oh Lord’…”).

Ziz: a giant legendary bird who is so massive that when standing on the ground its body and head reach all the way up to heaven where it sings songs to God. When some travellers once saw a ziz standing in a lake only up to its ankles they thought the water was shallow enough to bathe in, so they dropped in an axe to see just how deep it would go… it took seven years for the axe to reach the bottom. When the Messiah returns the flesh of the Ziz will be served to the righteous at the resultant celebratory banquet.

A – T – Ba – Sh: A Biblical code in which the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet replaces the last letter and so on. The name is actually the key to the code: Aleph (first letter), Tav (last letter), Bet (second letter), and Shin (second last letter). This system allows for words to be transposed into other words, creating chains of word association for interpretation for both common scripture and mystical literature like the Zohar. 

Al Tikrei: A Hebrew phrase meaning “do not read” (i.e. do not read just in the regular way, but other ways as well), al tikrei is a method of using another pronunciation or spelling to give a scripture another layer of meaning while not negating the common reading. This technique was inspired by a segment of Psalm 62:11 – “God has spoken once, and I have heard it twice…”. For example, if (hypothetically) the letters AABA were the Hebrew word for salt and AACA was the word for guitar, a scripture could be then interpreted as “their sins will be like how bitter salt is a terrible choice for lunch”, or “their sins will be as if they had eaten a guitar, a really terrible idea.”. 

Agrat Bat Mahalat: Queen of the Demons who wanders around fucking things up along with a cohort of her underlings. Not only is she the concubine of Samael (the king of the demons) but also the granddaughter of Ismael, Abraham’s first son. The sage Chanina Ben Dosa though had the power to banish her from the world forever, so she pleaded with him to allow her to get up to at least a few shenanigans on Tuesdays and Fridays. Thus the Talmud recommends no one go out at night alone on these days. 

Pidyon ha-ben: “The redemption of the son”, a ceremony that takes place thirty days after the birth of a first born son. If the family is not from the priestly or Levite class, the rabbi asks the father to choose between handing over five pieces of silver or handing over the child. Naturally, the father pays the money, and the priest waves his hands over the kid, “redeeming” him from just being a regular person. If the son is not the first born, preceded by a sister or miscarriage, or born via C-section, they don’t have the ceremony.

Sitra Achra: An Aramaic word from the Talmud for “the other side”, the opposite of the divine realm, being the realm of demonic powers. This realm of evil power and demons influences mankind, except on the Sabbath when the demons are forced to slither back into the abyss until their power is restored by the arrival of the first day of the week.

Lamed vavnick: “one of the thirty-six”, one of a group of 36 men (in every generation) hiding amongst the general population, men whose righteousness keeps the world from descending into total chaos. If a generation finally arrives that is worthy, one of these 36 will rise up to be the Messiah. Though they can pop out of the woodwork to save and uplift others every once in a while, they must go right back into obscurity, as they are forbidden by God to reveal themselves, upon pain of death. The founder of the conservative Ukrainian Hasidic branch of Judaism (Baal Shem Tov) was said to have known who all 36 of these men were, and helped them out financially. 

Chelm: a Polish town whose citizens were used in folklore as the basis of silly stories and jokes, most often local “wise” men who came up with stupidly simple solutions to complex problems. For example, one day the citizens come to a rabbi and say, “how shall we overcome our poverty?’ and the rabbi says, “Easy, it shall now be that the poor will have cream and the rich will have to make do with milk”. The people said, “How will this occur?”, and the rabbi said, “Simple… we’ll call cream ‘milk’ and milk, ‘cream’!”. The Chelmians though are usually kind, compassionate people. Once, when the elderly local deacon responsible for wandering the village and waking everyone up for prayers got too frail for the job, the people of Chelm felt compassion and concern for him. So rather than fire him, they gathered up all the shutters from their windows and installed them in his living room so he could knock on them without having to leave the house!

Olam Haba: the “World To Come”, basically referring to Earth rebuilt back into an Eden-like paradise after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, though there is differing opinion about whether it is a physical or divine realm. Though it is considered too amazing to be imagined by ordinary humans, the metaphor used to understand it is as if our world now is a narrow hallway in which mankind prepares itself for entrance into the grand banquet hall that is Olam Haba. This new earth is basically the Jewish conception of paradise, rather than a ‘Heaven’ far off in space, as humans remain here for eternity. Every good Jew and even righteous non-Jews would be able to live in this world, as well as anyone who had walked even a few feet in the Holy Land (modern day Israel), But you would lose your place in Olam Haba if you: publicly shamed someone, said the Tetragrammaton (a mystical, ultra-holy name of God) in public, read heretical Jewish books that were not part of or related to the Tanakh, became a scribe or doctor, were not very enthusiastic about observing Jewish customs, or were a man that walked behind a woman. Saying the Tetragrammaton was completely forbidden, as it contained such spiritual power one could use it to perform God-like feats of healing, creation, traveling great distances within seconds, and so on. It is also considered to have been written on the rod that Moses used to part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16). In Jewish mythology, Adam’s first wife Lilith used the name of God to fly away when she was not given equal status with Adam. 

Lilith: Adam’s first wife who was also the demon Queen of the Night. When she requested equality with Adam and God refused she flew away in rage to the Red Sea. Adam complained to God, so He sent three angels to bring her back. They failed but made her promise to not make too much trouble for humanity. Lilith eventually became the wife of Samael, the Prince of Demons and leader of the evil forces in Sitra Achra (the one who also sent the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve). Lilith is known to fly around and attempt to create children by sleeping with men while they are having a wet dream. She also eats children but cannot harm any child with the names of the three angels sent to her at the Red Sea written on its birth-room doorpost. In the Middle Ages it was considered dangerous to drink water at the solstices and equinoxes because during these moments Lilith’s menstrual blood would drip down and poison it. 

Shabbos goi: a non-Jew (Gentile) hired to do certain types of work for Jews on the Sabbath, their holy day of rest in which they cannot do many activities in and out of the home, most often lighting oven fires for cooking and such. Technically, Jews are not allowed to ask Gentiles to do things they themselves cannot do… but a Jew could indirectly infer that such a thing needed to be done, and the Gentile could offer to do it to help out. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky worked as a shabbos goi when he was young. 

Luz: “almond nut”, a small, nearly indestructible bone at the base of the spine from which God will fashion a new body for righteous resurrected people in Olam Haba. In folklore is is said that the Biblical Flood was so strong that Adam’s luz was dissolved. This bone can only be sustained and fortified in life by regularly eating the final Sabbath supper each week, and bowing to God in prayer is thought to guarantee a strong resurrection body due to the stimulation the luz receives from this act. Luz is also the name of a legendary city situated on the edge of the Holy Land at a site anointed with divine oil by the Biblical patriarch Jacob, whose grandfather was Abraham. Luz was indestructible, and its inhabitants were protected from the Angel of Death. It is hidden from sight and can only be approached through an entrance hollowed out of an almond tree that is also hidden from human sight. 

Shlemiel: an inept person, as typified by the citizens and rabbis of Chelm. It is said that when a shlemiel falls on his back he breaks his nose. No matter what the circumstances, the shlemiel will find a way to mess it up. It is said that when the angel that hands out souls was wandering the earth he tripped and all the foolish shlemiel souls fell into Chelm. This is similar to the nebich (“poor thing”), except the nebich is a born loser thanks to his ineptitude, e.g.  leaves a winning lottery ticket in his pants and then washes them, or is resurrected into Olam Haba and requests only a piece of toast as his eternal reward. 

These are but a few of the many hundreds of terms and legends from Jewish folklore, but I hope you have enjoyed learning about them.

A Brief Introduction To The Dead Sea Scrolls

Since I recently blogged about the Nag Hammadi Collection I thought I would continue our little adventure in ancient texts with an introductory look at another amazing collection, also from the Middle East.

Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his friends Jum’a Muhammed and Khalil Musa came across some ancient storage jars in a cave near the Ein Feshka springs, close to the ancient town of Qumran near the Dead Sea. They thought that there might be someone interested in buying these old “books” so they brought some back with them, and soon found a buyer willing to take them “off their hands”. As they found more they sold them and soon the word got out that some Bedouin kids were selling ancient documents for waayyy less than they were probably worth, considering the growing interest. In the following years archeologists and treasure hunters would discover more scrolls and hundreds of fragments in the area, thus the findings would come to be known as the Qumran Cave Scrolls, and eventually the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These jars contained fragments and texts which were later revealed to be books of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh, except for the Book of Esther), plus rules for community life, commentaries, proverbs, fragments of the “lost” Book of Enoch, the secret teachings of Elijah, lists of false prophets, visions, and even a “treasure map” (the location of hidden caches of silver and gold). As most of these texts were either tattered or decayed, it is thought that the jars were genizot: storage vessels for worn out sacred texts prior to their burial (as it was forbidden to throw texts containing the name of God in the garbage). But whose genizot were they?

Though there is much debate, and no conclusive proof for or against any particular theory, it seems likely that they were genizot of the Essene sect, a branch of Judaism that stood apart from the Jewish groups of the day: the secular-minded (Hellenized) upper class Sadducees (no afterlife), the strict lower class Pharisees, the armed, Rome-hating resistance fighters called the Zealots, and a small group of Messianic Jews that was gathering behind a relatively unknown guy from Nazareth named Jesus. Little is known about the Essenes but what can be inferred from archeological study posits that they were apocalyptic (End Times fixated), communal, and tended to live outside of major centers as often as within them. The most compelling “evidence” so far may come from the fact that the Community Rule scroll (which outlines the laws of the sect) and Roman historian Josephus’ account of the Essenes shows similarities. Modern evidence also suggests that the Essenes might have been former Temple priests who rebelled and exiled themselves after the various Jewish kings took over the role of high priest, thus the organized and ritualistic nature of the various scrolls.

The first document we will look at is 1QS, also discovered in 4Q253-264a, and 5Q1. What does that mean? This work was found in the first Qumran cave, on the first scroll discovered (1-Q-S). The same text was also found in the fourth Qumran cave (4Q) on manuscripts 253 – 264a, and the first manuscript found in the fifth Qumran cave (5Q1). Since there are many Qumran and surrounding discoveries, fragments, scrolls, and such, I will make sure all the numbers and letters are clear.

1QS, the Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association, is also known as the Community Rule, a set of instructions and rules for community life. Since the English word community is not an exact equivalent, it is most accurate (and useful) to use the terminology from the text itself, Yahad (“unity”), instead. Thus these were not rules for a community (singular) but basically a charter one could use in any community or chapter wishing to establish authority, and the rights of those under that authority. The community would understand their various rights and roles, and there would be unity amongst the people, i.e. a comm(unity) if you will. This didn’t always mean that each yahad was strictly religious. The text in the Community Rule also implies a yahad could be more philosophical if they were not an organized group living out in the desert, waiting for the Messiah for example. Once again, like the other manuscripts found in and around Qumran, missing text, as yet understood ergo untranslatable ancient words, allegory, and metaphor often make the various Dead Sea manuscripts and fragments hard to make factual statements about, based on clear evidence. But here is what can be said with certainty.

The group at Qumran, as the Community Rule manuscript describes, was an association of priests, a secondary order of priests (Levites), the community (“Israel”), and Gentile proselytes. Other Jews and Gentiles outside of the community “walk(ed) in the wicked way” and thus are “Men of Perversity”. But if such a person repented of sin, and went through a two year conversion process, they would be assigned a rank in the yahad and thus could advance themselves through maase ha-torah, “works of the Law”. The group considered themselves as having entered a new covenant with God, which fulfilled the old Mosaic covenant.This new covenant was called the Covenant of Mercy, or the Covenant of The Eternal Yahad.

On 1QS alone though is a small, two column appendix that is kind of amazing when seen in light of the rise of Christianity. The Community Rule is for a decidedly Jewish sect…yet this appendix (The Charter for Israel in The Last Days) seems to reference God fathering the Messiah of Israel, the Jewish war leader who would rise up from the line of David and lead the people in battle against evil in order to establish the New Jerusalem! The text is damaged and hard to read, and there are arguments for and against such an interpretation. But the idea of a divinely fathered Messiah showing up in the holy writings of ex-Second Temple Jews? They are not Christian, they are not classical Jews… pretty amazing stuff.

The Yahad was serious about maintaining law and order in each other’s presence, and any spoken mention of the name of God equaled immediate and permanent banishment (even in prayer!). The Common Rule also lays out the prescribed punishment (the rationing of food) for more mundane violations:

1). Anyone who speaks foolishness: three months (of rationing).
2). Anyone whose clothing is so ratty you can see his genitals through it: 30 days.
3). Anyone who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation: 10 days.
4). Anyone who breaks into foolish horse-laughter: 30 days.
5). Anyone who accidentally participates in fraud: 3 months.

As we continue on with our series on the Dead Sea Scrolls let’s review some basic terms from “regular” Jewish culture. As Judaism became a highly literary religion after passing down its traditions orally for hundreds of years, certain terms became necessary for outsiders to learn if they were to understand the relationship between core and subsidiary writings. Basically, Jewish sacred literature is divided into these categories:

1). The Tanakh is the set of writings Christians call the ‘Old Testament’, organized into three sections: Torah (The Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus…), Nevi’im (The Prophets: Samuel, Isaiah…), and Kethuvim (The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job…).

2). Midrash is a word that means “Biblical interpretation”, the actual method of interpreting the Tanakh, and a collection of commentaries on the Tanakh. 

3). The Torah is the first five books of the Tanakh, believed to be written by Moses while dictated by God himself. It was also believed that Moses also gave laws and commands to the Jews that were not written down, and thus a general ‘Oral Torah’ (The Talmud) was also handed down from generation to generation, alongside the official histories and laws in the original, written Torah. After the Jewish (Second) Temple was sacked by the Romans (during the reign of Nero in 66 CE), this oral tradition was written down so the scattering Jews could hold to a central belief system as they spread out across the world, and added their own updated material to it when their spiritual teachers (rabbis) needed to adapt to new cultural and spiritual situations. Thus we see the birth of what is known as Rabbinical Judaism, what you might call the core, basic form of the Judaism we see today. 

4). The Talmud: Jewish Law, which includes a). the Mishnah, brief explanations of various scriptures in the Torah and b). the Gemara, auxiliary commentaries on the Mishnah.  

5). The Zohar is a 13th century Spanish manuscript used by the various mystical branches of Judaism known as Kabbalah. It is filled with various mishnah, gemara and midrash as well as text on related subjects. It is not part of mainstream Judaism, but various Kabbalistic sects still exist, some even being Christian or Hermetic. Some even read it as a kind of mystical self-help book, like one might read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu for daily wisdom, or businessmen read the Art of War by Sun Tzu for success strategies.

But as the Dead Sea Scrolls were being categorized and translated, a new set of writings began to emerge, a type of scriptural interpretation known as a pesher. The pesher writings (pesherim) dealt with either a specific subject or provided a running commentary on specific scriptures, one after the other, explained in turn. These running pesherim were usually found in the Nevi’im (Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc), though there is a pesher on Psalms, which at Qumran was considered a prophetic manuscript. The reason pesherim focused on such writings is that it often meant the “interpretation of dreams”, like Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with feet of iron and clay. So a pesher had the quality of ‘mystery-solving’ through divine understanding. We see this occurring in a pesher (p) on Habbakuk (Hab) found in the first cave at Qumran (1Q).

1QpHab, a Pesher on Habbakuk, is the attempt by its author to figure out the secret truth(s) in Habbakuk the same way Daniel did for Nebchanezzar, through divine inspiration. Here is a verse (from my own copy of the Tanakh) that the writer “peshers” upon (Habbakuk 1:6): For lo, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce, impetuous nation. In 1QpHab the author writes the following: “For I am now about to raise up the Chaldeans, that brutal and reckless people”. This refers to the Kittim (the enemy, i.e. the Romans), who are swift and mighty in war, annihilating many people, and have no faith in the laws of God”. The author then goes on to link many verses to the Romans and their various crimes against humanity, even getting in a few good licks on idolatry: “Woe to those who say to mere wood, ‘Be alert!’, or ‘Wake up!’ to some dumb stone. Can it enlighten you?”.

Also found amongst the various scrolls was one made of copper (3Q15: the 15th manuscript found in the 3rd cave at Qumran), inscribed upon which was a list of various caches of treasure (written in a unique form of Hebrew). The sites are scattered throughout what would have been Judea, but mostly concentrated in and around the Temple Mount, Jericho, and Qumran. At first it was believed the scroll was Essene but the work of a single individual; a private list rather than one the community would have known about (possibly a folktale written down like a legend of pirate gold). But since it is not a religious text, but rather a list (common to antiquity) some think it was a real inventory of some kind, like how Greek temples kept inventories of the various votive objects or gifts brought to them (such as coins, jugs, earrings, and so on). Thus the Scroll is kind of like a business document, since copper was also the medium of choice for Roman documents considered important for posterity: public documents, military discharges, and such.

One of the early editors of the scrolls, John Allegro, even mounted a search for the treasure but found nothing, especially when the Israeli government refused to let him dig under the esplanade of the Dome of The Rock(!). But the treasure may have been already looted by the Romans like how they looted the hidden treasures of Dacian king Decebalus, whose territory they conquered (part of what is now known as Romania). Decebalus diverted a river, buried treasure, then made the river resume its normal course. The Romans found and tortured a Dacian informant, and thus they got what they were looking for. It is thought that the Romans also did this to someone who knew about the Temple Mount treasure, and/or all the others, or possibly found another copy of the Copper Scroll. According to Roman-Jewish historian Josephus’ book WAR, the Roman looting of treasure in that region was so extenisve that the value of gold in nearby Syria fell by 50%! So where do all these Copper Scroll treasures supposedly rest? Let’s look at the actual manuscript:

1). “In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east at a distance of forty cubits: a strong box of silver and its vessels — seventeen talents by weight. KEN“. Letters like the ones at the end (K-E-N) appear in other manuscripts, and editors have not figured out what they are supposed to mean. It is also not known what the precise modern value of talents (and other monetary units) would be, but they would collectively be worth many millions of dollars.

2). “In the dam of the Secacah Valley, dig down three cubits: twelve talents of silver coins, “in the fissure that is in Secacah, to the east of the Pool of Solomon: vessels of votive offering, along with their inventory list”, “at the head of the aqueduct of the Secacah Valley, on the north, under the big stone, dig down three cubits: seven talents of silver coins”, and “in the grave that is in the Wadi Ha-Kepah at the point of entry as you go from Jericho to Secacah, dig down seven cubits: thirty-two talents of silver coins”. I am combining four different cache listings into one because they are all at Secacah, which is actually mentioned in the Old Testament part of the Bible (Joshua 15:61) as one of the villages which the tribes of Judah inherit. Also, the grave at Wadi Ha-Kepah (the twenty-seventh cache) is the clearest geographical reference on the Scroll, as a path to and from a major city would have been well known. (Note: wadi is an Arabic word for a small valley or dry river bed). 

3). “At the grave of the common people — it is ritually pure — in it: fourteen votive vessels, and their inventory list is next to them”. The Qidron Valley was the traditional site for the burial of common people… though personally I find it odd that the Scroll would call the grave of the common people “ritually pure” considering it is where the ashes of the burnt pole of the Asherah idol was dumped (as stated in the Bible, 2nd Kings 23:6).

This is only a very basic introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I am going to add a little more in the days ahead once I scrounge through my old research notes, but hopefully it will whet your appetite for more information. I got all of this from reading The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, with all translations and commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Aregg Jr., and Edward Cook (2005). It is the book I got my old research notes from, and thus everything you have read is their intellectual property. If you want to get way more of the really great stuff from this book, go out and buy it. It is very inexpensive considering its size (662 pages) and a fabulous resource.









A Brief Introduction To The Nag Hammadi Texts.

nag-hammadi-codices

During this time of COVID-19 and social isolation, I have been going through my library and re-reading the ancient classics of mythology and religion. There are so many great things to read and think about, and the Nag Hammadi Collection should definitely be on every amateur (and professional) theologian’s or archeologist’s ‘must read’ list. The following is my very brief summary of the collection and its contents, so I am leaving out a lot to make it more accessible.

(Note: this information is taken from my old research notes using the 2007 book The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts, edited by Marvin Meyer. It is not at all meant to be taken as my own original work, and anything of value is the sole intellectual property of the various contributors). 

In 1945, while digging around at the base of a cliff near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a farmer named Muhammed al-Samman found a large sealed jar containing 13 leather bound collections of 52 different Coptic language texts from the early Christian and Gnostic traditions. Many were only known to scholars through commentary by early Church writers in the 2nd century CE (AD), so to find these varied, mostly complete 3rd to 4th century texts was an almost unbelievable boon for archeologists, anthropologists, and the like. The collection itself contains secret teachings, poems, testimonies, and gnomologies (collections of wise sayings) that were around during and after the life of Jesus Christ himself, so it is a really wild mix of theology and mythic religious cosmology. Major finds include a Gospel of Mary, and the controversial Gospel of Judas, who is “revealed” to have been on a sacred mission as a kind of holy martyr for the greater cause, tasked to him by Jesus Christ himself.  The Nag Hammadi Collection is especially valuable for what it adds to our understanding of Gnostic thought during the tome of the formation of the earliest Christian church(es).

Gnosticism (Greek: gnostikos, “to have knowledge”) is a type of religion based on an eclectic mix of Christian, Jewish, and Greek beliefs from the 1st century CE which claims that personal spiritual knowledge and revelation from the divine world is the ‘real’ truth, rather than official proclamations from religious authorities or official teachings. Many Christian Gnostic sects for example claimed that Jesus preached his Gospel to the masses, but the real teachings were given secretly to only a select disciple or two. Thus, the various Gnostic texts either explain to whom these secret teachings were given, or what their meanings were. For example, a theme that pops up in various sects is that the material world we know is highly flawed and ruled over by the Jewish supreme god YAHWEH, a malevolent deity who is actually not the Supreme God, but rather a lower deity under a greater beneficent God/essence knowable through spiritual illumination. The cosmogonies (models of the Universe) may vary from group to group, but Gnostics essentially all held that complex structures of Light, Being, and Deities were the great Truth that was hidden or obscured by the more standard scriptures of 1st century CE. Judaism and Christianity.

For example, “Sethian” Gnosticism was a syncretic mix of Jewish and Christian theology which claimed that Adam and Eve’s third son Seth was a divine figure who came back as the Messiah in the form of Jesus Christ. Seth was part of a Trinity which included The Great Invisible Spirit (the Father), “Barbelo” (a Mother), and The Self Created One (a Son, Seth), all ruling from a Divine Realm called the “Pleroma”. The Father breathed Life into Adam, the Mother manifested as Eve, and Seth was the Logos/Christ, the fundamental principle(s) of Being that manifested in humanity. In standard Greek language, logos means “the creative principle(s) governing a thing”, thus we get English words such as anthropology, “the organizing principle(s) governing humans”, or biology, “the organizing principle(s) that govern Life”.

In the 2nd century CE, the Greek bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (known for expanding Christianity into the area that would eventually become southern France) wrote a treatise called Against Heresies, which was basically an angry refutation of the Gnostic cult centered around the teachings of Valentinus, a Roman priest who started his own group after being passed over for promotion to bishop, thus beginning the sect of Valentinian Gnosticism. The basis of his belief system was as follows: people of a “spiritual nature” could receive secret knowledge that helped them return to the divine plane of existence (the ‘Pleroma’, as mentioned in Sethian Gnosticism). People with a “psychic” nature (commoners) were only capable of entering lesser states of divinity, while people of a “material nature” (the lazy, sinful, etc) went off and died. Though this is the core theme of Valentinian Gnosticism, the theology itself becomes increasingly more complex in its exegesis. Valentinus, claiming to have received his secret knowledge from Apostle Paul, explained his cosmogony in the following way:

The source of Everything is a singular ‘First Principle’ (“The Father”/ “The Depth”). He is inconceivable and indescribable, but wishes to know Himself. His self-knowledge produces a Son, who is a ‘Mind’. The Father/Son are both Two and One simultaneously, which creates the situation in which multiple beings generate: an unfolding of the self-reflective divine essence of the Father but also individual Entities as well. These spiritual entities are called “Members of The All” or Aeons, who collectively make up the spiritual essence of the Pleroma, “The Fullness”.

But there is a tension between Oneness and Plurality in the process of generation, which leads to a crisis in the last Aeon, a female divinity named Sophia. She attempts to grasp the Fullness of the Father but fails, and as a result splits in two. Her perfect spiritual half returns to the Fullness, while her imperfect half is cut off, and a Boundary is set up to keep it from returning. “Outer Sophia” becomes stale, unfulfilled, and irrational. From this state arises the Material World. Inner Sophia sees this and asks for help from her fellow Pleroma dwelling Aeons. Her repentance and piety thus produces the divine essence that makes up human souls. All the Aeons/Pleroma unite to help and produce a Saviour. As she continues in her work, her emotions produce all the types of matter in the world, thus what we know as reality is a manifestation of Sophia’s various emotional states.

As the solar system is created, each planet is ruled over by an archon, a demon beholden to a chief archon called the Demiurge (a kind of Gnostic “Satan”). He thinks he is a master but he is only a tool in the hands of Sophia/The Saviour to create the solar system. Sophia now lives with her spiritual children in a Middle Region (“The Ogdoad”)  between the local cosmos and the Pleroma (Note: Sophia’s “children” are the various lesser spiritual entities she “bore” while contemplating the Saviour and his angels). The Demiurge is tasked with making humans, but Sophia secretly gives Adam spiritual essence, hidden and passed on to subsequent mankind. This “Inner man” is bullied by the demons and is in need of saving by the Saviour. Thus, the rest of Valentinian Gnosticism concerns sayings, incantations, and rites that reunite the brethren with the Saviour, Sophia and the Pleroma once again.

A Gnostic style of Christianity also arose based on the life and purported teachings of Judas Thomas aka Thomas Didymos, purported to be Jesus’ twin brother (Greek: didymos, “twin”). This branch of Gnostic themed Christianity is known as “Thomas Christianity”.  

This sect began as a branch of Christianity in Syria, “Thomas” being the central figure’s nickname (Aramaic/Syrian: thomas, ”twin”). He is most notable for being the focus of an East Indian branch of Christianity that traces their “true” lineage back to him (the ‘rock’ upon which the Church was built; not Peter, similar to Coptic Christians tracing their heritage back to Jesus’ disciple Mark, their own “rock”, who legend has it was a Jew of African descent). Thomas is believed by some to have been martyred in India and thus there are still Thomas Christians today who worship in that tradition as well as make holy connections between Thomas, Jesus, and the more ancient Hindu traditions (note: the first Trinity concept(s) come out of the Vedic cosmology, arguably the oldest ‘organized’ religion in the world).

Thomas’ role as Jesus’ twin is part of a central allegory of the relationship between a physical man and his divine alter ego, when not directly used as a brotherly metaphor. Like other Gnostic-style texts, the Gospel of Thomas is the record of secret teachings that, when understood properly, mean the reader/hearer will gain immortality. The kingdom is as much within a person as it is “up in the sky” or “down in the underworld”. Since it has some similarities with Valentinian Gnosticism, some scholars believe Valentinus himself may have been influenced by some of its passages. The similarly titled Book of Thomas (The Contender Writing To The Perfect) is a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas (written down by a man named Matthias while walking with and listening to the two of them). This text especially dwells on themes found in the writings of Plato, while also discussing the fires of Hell waiting for sinners.

A Thomasene text that is not in the Nag Hammadi collection is The Acts of Thomas, which is a heroic tale about Thomas’ various adventures trying to gain converts in India. Included in the verse is a poem known as The Hymn of The Pearl, which Thomas supposedly “performed” in prison. Considered by some to be an allegory for Adam and his expulsion from the Garden and possible redemption, the poem concerns a prince who goes to Egypt to steal a pearl guarded by a snake. While in Egypt he eats some great food and soon forgets his mission. But a letter (manifested as an eagle) from his parents “wakes” him from his forgetfulness and he gets the pearl, returns home, everyone is happy, the end. The Acts of Thomas and The Gospel of Thomas were also influences on Manichaeism, a type of Persian Gnosticism that posited a holy man named Mani as the final prophet after Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. Manichaeism was the religion that the Catholic saint Augustine left to become a Christian… though he converted 5 years after Roman Emperor Theodosius the First decreed death to all Manichaean monks (382 CE) and Chrsitianity the only legitimate religion of the Empire (391 CE).

A really fascinating inclusion in the Nag Hammadi collection are texts that have similarities to Gnosticism but come from what is known as “Hermetic” religion. Gnostic religions focus on finding the ultimate origin of Being and gaining special knowledge as the core of Redemption. So too with the various Hermetic religions: sects that sprung from theology built around the Greek god Hermes (god of language and crossing the boundaries between Heaven and Earth as messenger of the gods) and/or Thoth (ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, science and art; inventor of language and hieroglyphics). 

Upon contact with Egyptian culture, the Greeks identified Thoth with Hermes. In Egypt Thoth was tagged with the superlative adjective phrase “great, great, very great” which the Greeks translated as megas, megas, megistos, which was eventually abbreviated into Trismegistos, “Thrice Greatest”. Since many Greeks did not know the origin, meaning, or application of this phrase they thought of Trismegistos as a distinct being; the son of Hermes, a Being who had discovered the Supreme God was a Tripartite ‘great power’, or a third incarnation of Hermes (not unlike the various divine in-dwellings (avatars) of the Hindu gods such as Vishnu appearing on Earth as Krishna, etc). Thus, the various religions based on or around the Hermes/Thoth connection came to be known as “Hermetic” religions. Followers of Hermetic sects basically took ancient Egyptian rites and added various sacred initiation ceremonies, meals, magic words and syllables, ritual objects, texts on alchemy, etc. This “Greek-ifying” of another culture is known as interpretatio graeca, the use of Greek mythology to explain the structure(s) of other religions and philosophies.

Now that you are aware of these four general ‘schools’ of theology contained in the Nag Hammadi collection, let’s look at a few texts themselves. Since we started off looking at the Sethian branch of Gnosticism, let’s look at a Sethian text titled The Nature of The Rulers. It is essentially a Christian text, though it stems from Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Judaism i.e. Adam’s son Seth is the Jewish Messiah, manifested in Jesus as Christ and sent from the divine realm (the Pleroma, also the name of Plato’s realm of “ideal forms”).

The Nature of The Rulers concerns the chief archon of the solar system (a great demon known as the Demiurge) and his lesser archons, who are real, but defeatable when opposed by Sethian Gnsotics, the “children of the Light”. It is basically a retelling of the Biblical creation story (Genesis) from a Gnostic perspective: the Demiurge (Samael: the “blind God”) cries out that it is he who is the Most High God, and those of the Light find this utterance arrogant and blasphemous. The lesser archons, androgynous (or possibly hermaphroditic) beings with animal faces, then try to sexually violate Spiritual Eve. She turns into a tree, so they have forcible sex her remaining physical aspect, the human being version of Eve. Spiritual Eve then shows up as the Serpent and teaches Adam and Eve. Later on Physical Eve has a daughter named Norea (some translations: Orea) who wants to get on the Ark with Noah. He denies her passage and she burns down the Ark in anger, so he has to spend years building another one. The archons later try to violate Norea and she gets help from an angel to repel them. The story goes on in basically this fashion, showing that the Demiurge and the archons can be repelled if one identifies with the Light.

As we continue on through the Nag Hammadi collection, let’s look at the Gospel of Philip, a Coptic text translated from a lost Greek original. This Gospel is essentially a collection of sayings and short paragraphs on a variety of themes: truth, words and names, certain spiritual ‘forces’, Mary’s conception, etc, all from what seems to be a Valentinian perspective.

Among other things it makes the claims that Jesus “invented” bread, had two fathers, was resurrected then died, and being anointed is better than being baptised (dunked in a river). It also uses a word you may not have heard before, “chrism”, which is another name for the anointing oil mixed with balsam and myrrh that was offered to Jesus as a gift by the Three Wise Men. Though the anointing oil was sometimes called “myrrh”, myrrh itself is actually a kind of sap from a thorny tree that is mixed with the balsam in oil, and some in the ancient world would mix myrrh with wine for medicinal (or recreational) purposes thanks to its pain killing effect. Here are some samples from the actual work itself:

“Before Christ came there was no bread in the world, just as paradise, where Adam lived, had many trees for animal food but no wheat for human food, and people ate like animals. But when Christ, the perfect human, came, he brought bread from heaven, that humans might be fed with human food”.

“The master would not have said,’ My Father, who is in Heaven’ if he did not also have another father. He simply would have said, “My Father”. 

“Those who say that the Master first died then arose are wrong, for he first arose and then died. If someone is not resurrected first, wouldn’t that person die? As God lives, that one would die”.

“Chrism is superior to baptism. We are called ‘Christians’ from the word “chrism,” not from the word baptism. Christ also has his name from the word “chrism”, for the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us”.

The Secret Book of John aka the “Apocryphon” of John is the most well known of the various Sethian Gnostic texts contained in the Nag Hammadi collection. It contains what is considered (post-resurrection) secret teachings from Jesus to John, the son of Zebedee. After the fall of Sophia, her ill-begotten son Yaldabaoth (the jewish god YAHWEH) and his minions create Adam by contributing a feature of their own: Goodness created a “soul of bone”, Forethought created a “soul of sinew, Kingdom created a soul of blood, and so on. The angels then create the actual parts of Adam with these ‘souls”: the angel Raphao creates his head, Abron the skull, Bissoum the left ear, Ibikan the molars, Eilo the testicles, etc. Other angels then “activate” the various parts: Bathinoth the genitals,  Yammeax the neck, Aol the right ankle, etc. Another group of angels are over the senses: Oumma is over imagination, Deithanathas over perception, and so on.

Another fascinating text is The Second Discourse of The Great Seth, in which the Messiah literally moves into Jesus’ body, evicting his human soul in the process:

“I approached a bodily dwelling and evicted the previous occupant, and I went in. The whole multitude of archons was upset, and all the material stuff of the rulers and the powers born of earth began to tremble at the sight of the figure with a composite image. I was in it and I did not look like the previous occupant. He was a worldly person, but I, I am from above the heavens…”.

The basic premise of the text is that the Messiah has come down from the Heavenly realm (The Great Majesty of The Spirit) into this realm, ruled over by the chief Archon Yaldabaoth, and has “requisitioned” a human body as his “residence”. Having come down, Yaldabaoth and the lesser archons (the Gnostic equivalent of demons) are confused and upset by this strange new presence, save for Adonaios, a relatively benign archon who takes a liking to Jesus. Jesus laughs at those who think that the Crucifixion of his physical body can stop his holy mission. He also laughs at those who think water baptism is effective, since “true” baptism is the unity of Christ in the believer and the believer in the knowledge of Christ.The text itself was translated from greek into Coptic and happens to contain many peculiar and obscure words and phrases, making its translation not seem like a unified work. It bears features of both Sethian and Valentinian Gnosticism, but either way is a fascinating inclusion into the collection.

 

I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview of an amazing treasure trove of ancient writings. The ancient religions of the world are indeed fascinating!