Book Reviews

Book Reviews

A History
of God : The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
 by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong, a British journalist and former nun, guides us along one of the most elusive and fascinating quests of all time–the search for God. Like all beloved historians, Armstrong entertains us with deft storytelling, astounding research, and makes us feel a greater appreciation for the present because we better understand our past. Be warned: A History of God is not a tidy linear history. Rather, we learn that the definition of God is constantly being repeated, altered, discarded, and resurrected through the ages, responding to its followers’ practical concerns rather than to mystical mandates. Armstrong also shows us how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have overlapped and influenced one another, gently challenging the secularist history of each of these religions. –Gail Hudson

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this book: A History of God

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The Hebrew Goddess
  by Ralph Patai

The Bible gives the impression that all ancient Jews shared a common belief system … with only an occasional group straying from the fold. But the evidence paints a different picture. As Dr. Patai states, “… it would be strange if the Hebrew-Jewish religion, which flourished for centuries in a region of intensive goddess cults, had remained immune to them.” Archaeologists have uncovered Hebrew settlements where the goddesses Asherah and Astarte-Anath were routinely worshipped. And in fact, we find that for about 3,000 years, the Hebrews worshipped female deities which were later eradicated only by extreme pressure of the male-dominated priesthood.

And then there’s the matter of the Cherubim that sat atop the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. Fashioned by Phoenician craftsmen for Solomon and Ahab, an ivory tablet shows two winged females facing each other. And one tablet shows male and female members of the Cherubim embracing in an explicitly sexual position that embarrassed later Jewish historians … and even the pagans were shocked when they saw it for the first time.

This cult of the feminine goddess, though often repressed, remained a part of the faith of the Jewish people. Goddesses answered the need for mother, lover, queen, intercessor … and even today, lingers cryptically in the traditional Hebrew Sabbath invocation.
  Reviewer: utnapishtim from St. Mary’s
County, Maryland, USA

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Mary
Called Magdalene
, a novel by Margaret George

Due to the popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, all things Magdalene have recently seen a resurgence. This book, written in 2002, is no exception. Because George ignores the “Magdalene was a prostitute” hypothesis, I decided to check it out. But within the first few pages, I was disappointed.

George has decided to focus on certain legends of the Magdalene, with some guesses as to her life as based on the Bible and an understanding of Jewish customs of the time. In the process, she misses the opportunity to disclose more esoteric information. Of course, she also avoids controversy!

George’s version of the Magdalene’s life starts with her life in Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. She makes some questionable historical assertions in the process: she claims the Ammonites lived in the area of Magdala (most historians believe they stayed east of the Jordan River); that Mary Magdalene (to whom I will refer from here as MM) was of the tribe of Naphtali, which was one of the lost tribes (about 750 years earlier!). The town of Nazareth was said to exist (actually it wasn’t founded until after Jesus’ death), and George consistently mixes up the phrases “Nazarene”–from Nazareth–and “Nazarean”–part of the sect of the Nazareans. (To George’s defense, this was probably a difficulty for even the writers of the New Testament, which is why Nazareth is said to exist at the time of Jesus.) MM was shown as a young wife and mother from a strictly observant Jewish family who was possessed by demons after finding a statue called Ashara (obviously a reference to the goddess Asherah). Pagans will obviously object to the idea that a statue causes demonic possession; Jungians would say that the demons are expressions of our own unconscious fears (in this case caused by the strict adherence to the Law, which claims that those who own idols will suffer terribly).

Jesus cures MM of the demonic possession, and she becomes one of his disciples. Her family disowns her, and she loses contact with her daughter. George reconstructs the synoptic gospels with irregularity, sometimes sticking with a general chronology, sometimes changing things around to fit the story (for example, she places the Beatitudes toward the end of Jesus’ ministry). In the process a few rather silly things are invented. Judas proposes to MM. An unnamed woman anoints Jesus. MM and Joanna (another disciple of Jesus whose husband was one of Herod’s stewards) spy on Judas when he goes to meet with Sanhedrin officials to betray Jesus. Later, MM was supposedly flogged by the Sanhedrin, at the same time as Peter.

One problem in reconstructing the life of MM is that she is not mentioned in the book of Acts. So is this because of Luke’s misogyny, or because she wasn’t in Jerusalem at all? Luke has a very positive attitude toward Mary Theotokos, and claims in the book of Acts that the daughters of Philip could prophesy. So he wasn’t a thorough-going misogynist. The other option is that MM had left the scene completely. George doesn’t seem to like this theory, and so doesn’t follow up on any of the many legends leading to France. She instead leaves her in Jerusalem until the Roman armies were at the doorstep, then fleeing with other believers to Pella (where she is one of the leaders). Finally she ends up in Ephesus with John, and dies there. There is a legend that MM was buried in Ephesus, which George followed.

I can’t totally knock this book. George does aptly describe the plight of women in Judaism, and especially the difficulties encountered by MM as a leading apostle (and a female). There is some indication of esoteric wisdom as well. She quotes Jesus as saying, “Now you have become a different way” (page 272). MM says, “Our baptism is of initiation, not repentance” (page 593). George also has MM mentioning catechumens (with an “s” on the end).

On a personal level, I can relate to George’s description of MM leaving her family behind to follow Jesus. I have wondered if I will have to leave my daughter behind, to be in the primary custody of my husband in case of a divorce. (He has threatened to sue for custody if I file for divorce, so I have to keep my beliefs secret to keep him from doing that.) Reading George’s version of MM’s life has helped me work through some of those fears.

In conclusion, the historical difficulties and George’s choice of which legends to follow make this a disappointing read for those with an esoteric bent.

written by initiate Lady Deborah R+C

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