Electronic Fan Mail
I just wanted to drop a note to say that BR is one of the few magazines that I read cover to cover! Thanks for a superb publication.
Greenville, North Carolina
Thank you, Mitch. Your note is the first to come to us via our Web page. Readers who have not yet visited our home page can reach it at www.bib-arch.org. And, of course, so can readers who have visited our home page.—Ed.
Treadmill to Heaven
I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to open my
Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island
Jesus’ Red Hair
An Artist’s Viewpoint
I don’t know how many artists read BR, but as one who does, I thought you might be interested in an illustrator’s response to the question “Why did Gauguin paint Jesus with red hair?” (Insight, BR 14:03).
Writing in The World (London, May 22, 1878), James Whistler, painter of An Arrangement in Grey and Black (commonly called Whistler’s Mother), said that the vast majority of “English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell.” He went on to say that in his picture called Harmony in Grey and Gold (a snow scene with a single black figure and a lighted tavern), he cared “nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure.” He put it there, he said, because he “wanted black at that spot.” His combination “of grey and gold is the basis of the picture [and] this is precisely what [his] friends [could] not grasp.”
I believe that is precisely what Gauguin was doing when he painted the redheaded Jesus: He wanted red at that spot. To suggest anything beyond that requires us to ask whether Gauguin was also theorizing that the Garden of Gethsemane is near Tahiti, given that he seems to have set it squarely in the tropics. Your initial response, that the red beard is a “daring touch that creates a wonderful visual effect,” is most likely the truth of the matter.
Who knows, though? You may be right. I am by no means an expert on Gauguin or his work, but it is common knowledge that he was not a scholar. That does not necessarily mean that he did not know obscure biblical texts. But even if he did, it’s irrelevant to the picture. That Jesus may have had red hair is all very interesting from historical, scholarly, narrative and illustrative points of view, but as all good painters (and illustrators) know (and have always known), narrative content must always play second fiddle to form.
It’s hard to imagine Gauguin’s The Agony in the Garden with the figure of Jesus sporting, say, black hair. Or brown. Or grey. Even though they are more usual colors for human hair than the bright Uccello red Gauguin gives us, they are not even remote possibilities because the overall blue, blue-green palette of the painting needs—indeed, demands—the red, red-orange for its structure and tension (a double complementary color scheme). Certainly, Gauguin could have chosen the red as the basic, primary chord of his arrangement (in support of illustrating the idea that Jesus was a red-headed descendant of a redheaded David, or because the French text he might have read implied that Jesus was redheaded) and then composed the rest of the picture with the larger but quieter chords of blue, blue-green around it, but as an artist I find that a stretch.
North Hatfield, Massachusetts
Precedents for Gauguin
There’s an artistic tradition to give baby Jesus curly strawberry-blond hair and 006his adult self wavy chestnut-brown hair.
Some examples: Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455), Lamentation, Cell 2 of the San Marco dormitory; Joos Van Ghent (1473–1475), The Communion of the Apostles; Masaccio (1401–1428), Crucifixion, Capodimonte Museum, Naples; Botticelli (1445–1510), Madonna del Libro; Bosch (c. 1450–1516), Christ Crowned with Thorns; Dürer (1471–1528), Christ Among the Doctors; Gérard David (c. 1460–1523), Flight into Egypt, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Paolo Veronese (c. 1528–1588), Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
And Even More Precedents
Gauguin had plenty of precedents, old and new, for representing Jesus as a red-head. Not all the reproductions in books are equally credible in rendering the varied combinations of red, orange, yellow, brown or black in the original pictures, as may be seen when the same pictures are reproduced in different books or when they are compared with reproductions in more scholarly, and presumably more reliable, books. The hair and beard of Christ in Fra Angelico’s Descent from the Cross, in Florence, are more orange then the red blood on his forehead, and the long curly hair of the boy Christ Among the Doctors, by Dürer, is more orange (with yellow) than red, indeed, but both figures would pass for redheads (see His Face: Images of Christ in Art, ed. Marion 007Wheeler [New York: Chameleon, 1988], pp. 92, 98).
Other redheads or near-redheads cited in The Bible in Art: The New Testament (ed. Richard Muhlberger [New York: Portland House, 1990]) include Emil Nolde, The Last Supper (Neukirchen, Germany) (red hair, no doubt prompted by Gauguin’s Christ); Master of the Reredos of the Chapel of the Church of S. Francisco D’Evora, The Last Supper (Lisbon) (orange hair); Edouard Manet, Christ Mocked (Art Institute of Chicago) (his prominent reddish-brown beard contrasts with the drops of blood on his forehead); Andrea Magtegna, The Ascension (Uffizi, Florence) (the reddish-brown hair and beard contrast with his reddish-orange shirt and the orange-red putti).
Other relevant art books include Bruce Bernard, The Bible and Its Painters (New York: Macmillan, 1983); Dennis Thomas, The Face of Christ (London: Hamlyn, 1979); Susan Wright, The Bible in Art (New York: Todri, 1996); Barbara Brown, comp., The Life of Christ: Images of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (London: Barie & Jenkins, 1989); Richard I. Abrams and Warner A. Hutchinson, An Illustrated Life of Jesus: From the National Gallery of Art Collection (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982); and Joseph Rhymer, The Illustrated Life of Jesus Christ (New York: Grove Weidenfield, 1991).
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa
Here is another theory:
Gauguin had a very intense and tumultuous relationship with Vincent Van Gogh. It is very possible that Van Gogh was the inspiration for the Christ figure in Gauguin’s Gethsemane painting. Van Gogh had red hair and a beard very similar to the one Gauguin gives Jesus.
Several other readers made the same suggestion.—Ed.
Regarding your query, “Are there paintings of David with red hair?” there is at least one: Aert de Gelder (Dutch, 1645–1727), Abimelech Giving the Sword of Goliath to David. This painting hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Jack Miles’s article on Jacob and Esau appears in this issue (see Jacob’s Wrestling Match).—Ed.
Josephus and the Matter of Red Hair
I was very much intrigued by your comment and query concerning the Bible’s description of David with red hair. As you note, the Hebrew text (1 Samuel 16:12) says that David was ruddy (’
As to why Josephus does not say that David had red hair, in antiquity there was a general prejudice against red-haired persons. Slaves apparently were said to have red hair, as we may see from the description of three of them in Roman comedies (Plautus, Asinaria 400; Pseudolus 1218; and Terence, Phormio 51), and slaves were often named Rufust (Red). The rabbis associated redness with the shedding of blood, and Philo (Quaestiones in Genesin 4.160) says that Esau’s ruddy body was the sign of a savage man who raged furiously in the manner of a wild beast.
Professor of Classics
New York, New York
Gauguin as Jesus
David Sweetman, in his recent biography of Gauguin (Paul Gauguin—A Life [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995]), describes a poverty-stricken, misunderstood and abandoned Gauguin, who came to identify with Jesus’ misery. “He [Gauguin] had grown a horseshoe beard around his chin, with a trimmed mustache on his upper lip, which made him look rather Christ-like. He even painted himself in the role—Christ in the Garden of Olives, in which the suffering figure of Jesus is given the artist’s red hair and beard,” Sweetman writes. He further substantiates this position by quoting Gauguin himself, from an interview the artist gave to journalist Jules Huret, in which Gauguin said, “There [in Christ in the Garden of Olives] I have painted my own portrait.”
Gauguin also painted The Yellow Christ and The Green Christ. To attribute to Gauguin’s paintings the depth of religious historiography required to tie his vermilion-haired Christ to King David would seem to be expecting too much of an artist whose basic drives tended to be much more self-centered.
Look to Luke
If a biblical answer is required to answer why Gauguin painted Jesus with red hair, consider Luke 22:43, 44. Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, “sweating as it were great drops of blood.” Sweating, perhaps to the point that his hair and beard became drenched. Also note the red coloring in the garment Jesus is wearing in the painting, as if it is saturated with blood and sweat. Gauguin was producing a wordpicture of this biblical text.
Giving Judas His Due?
Paul Gauguin was part of the avant-garde artistic world of the late 19th century. Its members deviated from tradition not only in their artistic efforts but also in their lifestyles and thoughts. Gauguin, perhaps even more than most of his comrades, was cynical and sarcastic, both (I suspect) as a personal choice and as a method of creating interest and controversy.
Early Christian tradition, including medieval literature, describes Judas as having red hair. This is also seen in many medieval portrayals of Judas. Gauguin is either making a not-so-subtle connection between Jesus and Judas or, perhaps, suggesting that the vile reputation of Judas in Christian tradition is questionable. This is the sort of idea he would have relished.
Monterey Park, California
Midrash May Not Have Influenced Gospels
I am baffled as to what wool Herbert W. Basser is trying to pull over our lay eyes in his article, “The Jewish Roots of the Transfiguration,” BR 14:03. It is my understanding that the scholarly/historical debate about just how far back many midrashic and talmudic ideas go is still unresolved. The closest he comes to addressing this problem is in his second footnote, in which he says that “sometimes” it can be shown that the ideas in these later writings “were in circulation hundreds of years earlier.” In other words, for any particular idea, its antiquity may or may not have been demonstrated, and we would need to find out first before discussing the idea as though it were around 009before the Gospels were composed. He states, albeit parenthetically, that it is not Psalm 43 but its midrash that inspires the gospel Transfiguration stories, i.e., not a work that we know to predate the Gospels but one that may or may not predate them. Basser tells us neither in the body of his article nor in his footnotes what the evidence is (or even where we might find it) for his assumption that this particular midrashic image predated and informed the gospel writers. It therefore seems to me dishonest of him to write for a lay readership and have us assume along with him that the ideas and images he uses from the midrash to Psalm 43 predate the Gospels as if this were a settled matter.
Herbert W. Basser responds:
No wool being pulled here. Stephen Brudney’s eyes might see better had he looked at my fuller paper. The editor of BR, with profuse apologies, explained to me that he had shortened my original article. In the longer version I demonstrated why the midrash to Psalm 43 had to be current in the first century. First, this midrash lacks any clear idea of forgiveness as a condition for salvation and is thus closer to the gospel presentation and further from anything we know in rabbinic literature. Clearly, it predates the classical rabbis, who insisted on atonement as a precondition for salvation. Second, it is the only place in the entire corpus of rabbinic literature, besides the Targum to Isaiah, where Isaiah 42:1 is said to have messianic overtones. After the rise of Christianity, Jews never interpreted this verse in such a way. Both the Psalm midrash and the Isaiah Targum are arguably pre-Gospel.
The Gospels’ paraphrase of Isaiah 42:1 confirms the early date of the midrash for another reason as well: The trigger in the midrash to include the text of Isaiah 42:1 is Psalm 105:26. In this verse Moses was sent to Egypt, Aaron was chosen. Correspondingly, at the final redemption Elijah will be sent (Malachi 3:23), and the Messiah will be the chosen one (Isaiah 42:1). Without the background of the midrash, this paraphrase of Isaiah would have no explicable place in the Transfiguration scene. Therefore, the Gospels themselves confirm the pre-rabbinic date for the composition of this midrash.
Not a Revelation of Divinity
I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve read a lot of stuff, but I’ve never heard the Transfiguration referred to as the “moment Jesus’ divinity is revealed to his disciples.” The Transfigured Jesus has been called a preview of the Resurrected Christ, but neither the Transfiguration nor the Resurrection were revelations of divinity. In fact, there are many who believe in the Transfiguration as a reality of history (and of faith), yet do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus—the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, to name but two.
Also, Basser writes that the Transfigu-ration is “critical to Christian theology.” I don’t see how Christian theology would be much different if the Transfiguration hadn’t taken place. My own personal belief in the divinity of Jesus does not rely in any way on the Transfiguration.
Mt. Sinai, New York
Herbert W. Basser responds:
I have much admiration for Tom Adkins, a believer with no need for “witnessing” stories. In literary terms, the Transfiguration story verifies for the disciples what the baptism scene (which most likely is dependent on the Transfiguration story in its paraphrase of Isaiah 42:1) had already declared. It is a pivotal moment in the story, and the shining motif and the words “this is my son” do indeed establish divinity. But “divinity” need not mean “God,” and I used it to mean “having godly, supernatural attributes.”
How Many Sources for the Transfiguration Story?
One can hardly disagree with Herbert W. Basser’s fundamental thesis; given the appearance of Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop, it would be fatuous indeed to deny the Jewish roots of the Transfiguration account. And to be sure, Basser alerts us to some interesting resonances in the Psalms and the Prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Whether the story Mark crafted was originally a legend or a resurrection appearance, he clearly made effective use of stories, symbols and themes from the Hebrew Bible.
Unfortunately, one remains uneasy after the second paragraph, in which we find the unqualified assertion that the differences in the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) indicate that “the evangelists must have worked from different sources, reaching back to very early Jesus stories.” Blithely ignoring the overwhelming consensus of New Testament scholars, Basser pitches the two-source hypothesis out the window without so much as a by-your-leave!
But even if that consensus is held aside for the moment, it is highly ingenuous to assume that Matthew and Luke must have had independent sources—a conclusion that implies that they could not possibly have rung changes on Mark to suit their somewhat different agendas.
Foster, Rhode Island
Herbert W. Basser responds:
Thomas Hall’s issue does not undermine in the least my thesis of midrashic sources influencing the presentation of the Transfiguration story. The variations in the Synoptic Gospels themselves show us that their writers had a variety of sources at their disposal and that many of these materials likely originated in form and content with the followers of Jesus. I have no argument with the two-source theory for my purposes. As for gospel writers adding their own details here and there, I have no argument with that either. Whatever theory one holds as to early sources (call it Mark’s and Q’s sources if you wish), the essential Transfiguration story was, at root, colored by a midrashic understanding, and was so in all its versions.
Spinning the Bible
Latin Name for Greek Book
The word “Septuagint” does not come from the Greek word for 70 (as stated in a footnote to James Sanders’s article), but from the Latin. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Septuagint is a Latin word…a translation into Greek of the Old Testament…by 72 Palestinian Jews.”
How was the Septuagint Organized?
When the Alexandria Bible, the Septuagint, was organized, did the scholars follow the Torah-Neviim-Kethuvim divisions of the Hebrew Bible? If you can answer that one, I’ll go a step further: What books did the Septuagint assign to what division?
James Sanders responds:
No one knows exactly how the Septuagint was organized, except that the order of books was not like the tripartite Tanakh—Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), Neviim (the Prophets) and Kethuvim (the Writings, the rest). The order of the books varies considerably in the known codices of the 010LXX; all lengthen the story line begun in the Torah, or Pentateuch, by inserting books usually found in the Kethuvim in with Joshua, Judges and Kings. For instance, one of the oldest versions of the Septuagint (fourth century B.C.E.), owned by the Vatican and so dubbed Codex Vaticanus, places Chronicles and Esdras A and B after Kings. Another fourth-century B.C.E. version of the Septuagint, discovered at St. Catherine’s at the foot of Mt. Sinai and so called Codex Sinaiticus, does the same thing but then puts Esther, Tobit, Judith and Maccabees after Esdras B. No two versions of the Septuagint preserve the exact same order after Kings. According to Israel Yeivin, a leading Israeli scholar in Masoretic studies, Genesis to Kings was the most stable part of the Jewish canon until the invention of the printing press because those books follow a story line. My point in the article was that stretching that story line until the Maccabean Revolt, by adding books from what we know as the Kethuvim plus non-Masoretic books, would clearly have served Christian purposes but might also have served early Jewish interests as well. It would show the Greco-Roman world that Jews had a lengthy and worthy epic as fine as any they possessed. Over against such tendencies in the early Jewish world, the tripartite Tanakh underscored the Pharisaic/rabbinic conviction that revelation had ceased at the time of Ezra-Nehemiah.
A Jewish Copy of the Septuagint
James Sanders states that all of the codices of the Septuagint are from Christian transmission. However, Papyrus 967, a second-century codex, is usually ascribed to a Jewish copyist. It contains our only ancient copy of the Old Greek version of Daniel, preceded by Ezekiel and followed by Esther. If this codex was part of a multivolume Bible and Isaiah was preceded by the 12 Minor Prophets (as in most Septuagints), then Daniel was included among the Prophets, and Esther was also in this division, as one of the historical works. This would also indicate that the canon, as represented in this codex, did not end with Daniel the prophet.
James Sanders responds:
Jim Miller’s observations about the order of books in Papyrus 967, and the conflicting views on the canon in Philo and Josephus, emphasize that the Kethuvim were not stabilized in the form we know in the Tanakh until after the disastrous Bar-Kokhba Revolt (135 C.E.). As an answer to repeated devastating defeats at the hands of the Romans, rabbinic Judaism decided that God had already departed from history, so to speak, in the early post-Exilic period, and so should rabbinic Judaism in the face of Roman world dominance and oppression.
Twisting the Parable of the Good Samaritan
I very much liked your reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of the Good Samaritan (via Eugène Delacroix) on your Gallery end page (Gallery, BR 14:03). But, in the text, you made two mistakes: You left out something important from your summary of Luke 10:25–37, which distorts the point of the whole story, and you misstated something else.
It has become popular to interpret Jesus as a teacher of subversive wisdom (see the works of John D. Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, E.P. Sanders and Ben Witherington III, to name a few) and thereby to drive a great distance between Jesus and the Judaism of his day. For example, when Witherington discusses the Good Samaritan parable (see Witherington’s Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom [Fortress, 1994], p. 188), no less than seven times he refers to the parable’s shock value, to its offering “a counter-order exceeding the bounds of usual Jewish thinking on this subject” (p. 193). However, he completely leaves out the context of the parable in Luke. He does not mention that the parable is told in response to the lawyer’s question, as BR wisely noted. Witherington also left out the conclusion of the incident, which, unfortunately, you did as well.
Jesus asks the lawyer which person in the parable proved to be a good neighbor to the injured man. Had the parable been told for shock or subversive value, the lawyer would have responded “I don’t know” or “Samaritans can never be good neighbors” or perhaps kept silent altogether. This would have given Jesus the chance to say something like, “O, you evil generation that does not have ears to hear.” Instead, the lawyer says, “The one who showed mercy on him,” and Jesus’ simple and final response is, “Go and do likewise,” in effect saying, “You see? You already know the truth. I have nothing to teach you. Just go do it.”
This is what all great religious teachers do. It is what Moses does in his great 011speech: “For this commandment…is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven…neither is it beyond the sea…But the word is very near you…in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:1–14).
The whole point of a parable is to make things simple and obvious, not complicated and obscure, to tell people that the truth is easily within their grasp, not shocking at all. If you want to call this subversive, then you would have to say that Moses and most of the rabbis are just as subversive as Jesus.
Almost as important, you misstated what Luke says at one point. You said Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question about what to do to inherit eternal life by quoting scripture on loving God and neighbor. Actually, it is the lawyer who says this (Luke 10:27). Jesus does indeed say these words in Mark 12:28–31 and Matthew 22:35–39, but not in Luke.
The effect of your summary of Luke, leaving out the conclusion and changing who quoted scripture on love, is to make Jesus and his fellow Jews appear to be further apart than they really are in Luke. The Good Samaritan parable is more a gentle reminder than a rebuke.
Many people ponder the question about how to improve relations between Christian and Jew. Telling the truth—the whole truth—about what the Gospels say would be a good start.
New York, New York
The 100-Meter Freestyle
Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s column needs clarification. She states, “Sperm…cannot swim very well, and it is the cilia in the vagina that propel the sperm toward the egg.” The fact is that the surface of the vagina has no cilia; it is covered with stratified squamous epithelium.
Sperm are indeed excellent swimmers, lashing their long tails back and forth. They are aided by the pumping action of the penis and the estrogen-induced changes in the consistency of the cervical mucous. However, their motion is the result of their powerful swimming capability.
Sperm, under experimental conditions, are capable of traveling from the vagina to the fimbriated end of the fallopian tubes within five minutes. Usually sperm reach the uterus one minute after intercourse.
During one single ejaculation of 5 ml of semen, 5 to 700 million sperm are introduced into the vaginal cavity, and many more millions are introduced if intercourse is repeated within a short period of time.
A single sperm penetrates one egg, and is indeed the result of a mad swimming and piercing contest with rare chances to become the winning sperm, contrary to Frymer-Kensky’s assertion.
Who Is Gunkel, Anyway?
In Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s column “Creation Myths Breed Violence,” BR 14:03, she states that “One hundred years ago, Hermann Gunkel identified the Chaoskampf—the Battle Against Chaos—as a fundamental biblical myth. Working from the then recently published Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Gunkel drew a picture of the events before creation.” I am ignorant of Hermann Gunkel, his methods and the biblical passages that reflect this epic. Would you please tell me more about him and why we should accept his ideas?
Madison Heights, Michigan
Tikva Frymer-Kensky responds:
Hermann Gunkel is considered one of the forefathers of modern Bible scholarship. Of course, because his ideas are 100 years old, they can no longer be taken as authoritative, but they still provoke useful discussion. Gunkel’s theories about the Chaoskampf—particularly the idea that the final Armaggedon reflects the battle against chaos before the world was formed and that the battle against chaos is a prominent theme in ancient Near Eastern thought—are still accepted by scholars today.
What’s Missing from BR
I am neither a scholar nor a theologian, just part of that “large lay audience” that reads Bible Review. And I ask myself: “Is it possible to conduct a ‘scientific’ and comprehensive study of a book whose essence is spiritual and whose principal Protagonist, God, is Spirit—and yet not consider spiritual hypotheses and explanations among others as a matter of course? Do the editors of BR purposefully steer clear of spiritual interpretations as not being amenable to the “historical-critical method”? Does BR fear to tread where angels assemble?
I would argue strongly that disparate approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One can logically subscribe to the literal factuality of a Bible story and still educe profound allegorical and spiritual messages. Likewise, finding symbolic signification in scripture does not obviate literal authenticity.
My hope is that all aspects of Bible study—the sacred and the scientific, the literal and the literary, the allegorical and the spiritual—would be welcome at the banquet table of ideas. But I have often wondered why basic spiritual explanations of the scriptures under review are seldom, if ever, expressed in BR. Just possibly, BR’s reluctance to serve up the whole spectrum of biblical meaning is at least partially responsible for those frequent warnings in Readers Reply. You know the ones I mean: “BR must do a lot more with the Bible to get me to renew my subscription” (Readers Reply, BR 14:03).
Concerning “Bible Bloopers” (Jots & Tittles, BR 14:03), the Bible publishers of yesteryear were not the only ones to have misprints. The New Revised Standard Version Harper Study Bible published by Zondervan (1991) has the prophet Joel saying: “your old men shall dream reams” (Joel 2:28). How prolific!
Flemington, New Jersey
Electronic Fan Mail
I just wanted to drop a note to say that BR is one of the few magazines that I read cover to cover! Thanks for a superb publication.