Lesson #419: The Oldest Palimpsest

I was reading an article this week about the only known palimpsest that effaced the Bible to create a copy of the Koran. Which got me wondering about the oldest known palimpsest.

A quick note for those of you who don’t read a lot about religious history: a palimpsest is any document in which the original text has been scraped off and replaced with a later text and in which the original text may be read — in the days before technology, this often had to be done by eye, but now technology allows for the original text to be read more easily and without damaging the current text. Palimpsests are often religious in nature — the largest collection (around 130 texts) is at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt — particularly on the surface text, but don’t necessarily have to be. Palimpsests are usually written on parchment, though some have appeared on paper or papyrus. The reason parchment is the most frequent source of palimpsests is a combination of both its durability and its cost. Because parchments were expensive and in short supply and because they were durable, the original writing could be stripped from the medium (using oat bran and milk) and a new document could be written over top.

As for the oldest known palimpsest, this is a bit tricky. Of the known palimpsests, many — including the Archimedes Palimpsest — originated in the 4th – 6th and 9th and 10th centuries BCE. From what I can find, the oldest is a second century BCE Greek grammar text produced for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is housed in Vienna.

You can read more here, here, and here.


Lesson #408: The Martini

I’m reading a book I’d have liked far better 15 years ago, before I spent a few summers in Minor League baseball and before I embarked on a series of long-distance road trips across entire continents. It doesn’t matter what the book is, because a. it’s not that great and b. what’s important here is that it mentioned the origin of the martini.*

The book makes a brief note, in a discussion about Joe DiMaggio being from Martinez, California, of Martinez being the birthplace of the martini.

Now, I’m an academic skeptic, so give me a little gobbet like this one without any other context and without citation, and I’m going to run with it. So here’s the real story on the martini:

The martini was created. And that’s about where the agreement on its creation stops. Some people believe that a precursor, the Martinez, which is a wine glass of vermouth with a shot of gin in it and was served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s is the inspiration for what we call a martini. Some believe it was developed by the Italian gin distiller Martini & Rossi. Some believe it was created by an Italian immigrant bartender at the Knickerbocker hotel in New York just before the First World War.  Some believe it was developed in England and named for the Martini & Henry rifle the British army used in the late 19th century. No one, apparently, believes the martini was first created in Martinez, California.**

What’s most interesting about the martini is that because of the ease of distilling gin — so easy it could be done in, say, a bathtub — it became a very popular prohibition drink in the US. It was way more vermouth than gin, then. Probably because bathtub gin isn’t the highest quality gin one can make. The martini maintained its popularity through the 1940s and 50s, at which point there was some difficulty in obtaining good quality vermouth, so martinis were mostly just chilled gin by the 1960s. And then they fell out of favour until (what I just assume was) some skeezy bartender looking to get girls decided to start messing around with martinis and brought us all the appletini in the 1990s — which is made with vodka, not gin. So thanks? I guess?

You can read more about the martini here and here.

*Fun fact: for as much as I love beer, I have never had a martini. I enjoy tequila now and again, but I’m not huge on liquor on the whole. I also have a general aversion toward gin for a couple reasons, not the least of which is it tastes like I’m drinking a Christmas tree.

**To be fair to the author, the book was written in the late 80s, and as someone who was alive and aware and remembers the late 80s (however vaguely one remembers the everyday of one’s childhood), I know for sure that I could not have easily found this information at the time. However, even being a personal narrative doesn’t excuse just dropping that information in without having been to see a reference librarian. I know for a fact those existed in the late 80s.

Lesson #357: When A Quote is Not A Quote

This is a lesson that isn’t really a lesson in anything other than assuaging my own curiosity.

Over the whole of a body of work, Milan Kundera is, hands down, my favourite author. I think he’s brilliant. He’s existentialism the way I wish I’d learned existentialism in college. Instead, I got Sartre bashing me over the head with his point.* I’m not a fan. My first introduction to Kundera was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is his strongest work (I’ve since read all of his books except The Joke and Life is Elsewhere, both of which are sitting in my library waiting for me to pick them up) and remains one of my three favourite books ever written.

It’s been a while since I read it, so memory fails me some in direct quotes, but something I’ve read over and over again since my last reading of the novel is, “there is no perfection only life.” And it’s always attributed to Kundera. And always to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Except that it’s not from the novel at all. And I know this because I’ve been re-reading it in its original French.** Only to find it didn’t exist. So I found PDFs both in English and French and did a search. It’s not there. The quote is made up.

Which is too bad; it’s a wonderful sentiment.

*In fairness, I did also get Duras, whose style is much closer to Kundera than to Sartre. The Lover is still one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read.

**Technically, it was originally written in Czech, but its first publication was in French.

Lesson #353: Judas Iscariot, Pilate, Herod, and Jesus’ Speared Side

So I randomly learned that John — which was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written and the one that isn’t synoptic — is the only of the Canonical gospels to make mention of the Roman soldier spearing Jesus on the cross.* Considering the fact that Easter is only two weeks away, I decided to do a textual comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion in each of the four gospels to see what else is dissimilar; it was a pretty fun exercise.

Here’s the list:

– Matthew 27:5 is the only gospel reference to Judas Iscariot’s death. (The only other reference in the Bible is Acts 1:18.)**

– Matthew 27:19 is the only reference to what we call “Pilate’s Dream.” Except that it wasn’t his dream, it was his wife’s.

– Matthew 27:24 is the only reference to Pilate washing his hands of the whole thing.***

– That said, Matthew is also the only gospel in which Pilate doesn’t point out to the rabble that Jesus has committed no crime.

– Mark 15:1 is the only reference in the story of Jesus’ death to mention the Sanhedrin by name.

– Mark 15:25 is the only reference to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion — 9am (though all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke —  note that from noon until 3, the sky got dark)

– Luke 23:8-12 is the only appearance Herod makes in this part of the Jesus story.

– Luke is the only gospel not to mention Pilate’s choice to flog Jesus.

– Luke is also the only one not to make note of the robe (which in Mark and John is described as purple, but in Matthew is scarlet) and crown of thorns.

– John is all over the effing place (because John isn’t one of the synoptic gospels). John goes off-script. A lot.

– In addition to the spear to the side bit, John is the only one to say that Jesus carried his own cross through the city**** (the synoptic gospels name a man called Simon and note he’s from Cyrene. Mark names his sons for reasons I assume are to distinguish this particular Simon from other guys from Cyrene who bore the same name.) He’s also the only one to make reference to prophecies and broken bones.

-NONE of the gospels give any count on the lashes, although there is all sorts of evidence in Biblical and Talmudic law that would make 39 the fair assumption. And in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he had been flogged on several occasions, receiving 40 lashes minus 1 (the reason for this — if you can’t be bothered to read the link above on Biblical/Talmudic law — is that 40 lashes was the legal limit and, in order to avoid going above that, even by accident, the standard was 39). However…as he was in Pilate’s (and, therefore, Rome’s) custody, Jesus was likely flogged by the Romans, who were not likely held to the religious standard that the Jews maintained. So who knows, really?

– Matthew and Mark are the only gospels where Jesus asks, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”; Luke is the only one in which he says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”; John is the only one where he says, “It is finished.”

– Matthew and Mark identify two Marys at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. John notes that Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, his mother’s sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas were in attendance. Luke doesn’t pick anyone out specifically, instead calling them “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” What’s interesting to me here is that this ties back to the lesson from a couple months ago about the adelphoi and the desposyni.

In the entire story of Jesus’ crucifixion, there are only a few things that are the same across the board. They are: Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the discontent of the Sanhedrin (and the people), the release of Barabbas, that Golgotha (which is only expressly named in Matthew and Mark, though all four refer to it as “the Skull”) was the site of the crucifixion, that the soldiers drew lots for Jesus’ clothing, that there was a plaque on the cross that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews”, that Jesus was offered wine vinegar on a sponge, and that he died. So basically, the story we know as one story, with Judas’ death, Herod, Pilate washing his hands of the whole event, the crown of thorns, the 39 lashes, and our friend Simon the crucifer, is actually a composite of all four gospels, some textual exegesis, and a likely Q source.

So after all of this, I decided to see what the Gnostic gospels have to say. Unfortunately, none of them, complete (Philip, Thomas, — which most scholars acknowledge predates the four Canonical gospels — and Truth) or otherwise (Hebrews, Mary and Judas), tell the story of Jesus’ death. You have no idea how disappointing that was to discover.

Anyway, it actually makes quite a lot of sense that Matthew and Mark are so similar; they’re the two earliest — Mark first, then Matthew. And it makes sense that John would be so dissimilar because it’s the non-synoptic gospel. But I think this is a really interesting exercise in how storytelling works. I’m particularly intrigued by Herod’s late addition to the party. But really, what becomes very, very clear, especially when considering the additions Matthew and Luke make to Mark, is that the scholars’ belief that there’s a Q Source from which Matthew and Luke draw, in addition to Mark, isn’t a crackpot theory. And that aspect actually illustrates exactly where my problem lies in viewing the Bible as a historical document.

Anyway, that was fun! I’ve never actually sat down and done a textual comparison with Biblical text before…

*John 19:34

**This one’s cheating; I know this offhand. I’ve done a lot of research into Judas Iscariot over my many years of academia…I think he’s the most interesting character in Christianity, not because of his position at the time, but because of his image after the fact.

***It shouldn’t surprise anyone with half a brain who was raised in the Christian tradition that this is where we get the idiom “to wash [one’s] hands of”.

****John 19:17


Lesson #351: On Books Bound in Human Skin

One of my MA thesis committee members posted an article to Facebook today that was right up my alley. It’s about the books in Harvard’s collection that are bound with human skin. Now, I like dark, but this is full on macabre. But it’s also fascinating!

There’s not really a lot to say here. The practice of using human leather to bind books, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, wasn’t common, but it also wasn’t uncommon. It was mostly practiced in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the earliest example is a 13th century French Bible and there are examples well into the 19th century. Human skin was used to bind a wide array of books, including prayer books, which I find funnier than I probably should, and anatomy texts, including one housed at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which includes the inscription, “The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.”

A number of the more interesting examples include:

Justine et Juliette by the Marquis de Sade, copies of which were bound using skin from female breasts sent from medical interns (who apparently later lost their internships).*

– The memoirs of notorious highwayman James Allen, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, who requested that after his execution, a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and presented to John Fenno, Jr. whom he shot during a robbery after the latter stood up to him. The cover of the Fenno book itself bears the words, Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est, which translates to “this book by [Allen] is bound in his own skin.”

– A copy of Éloge du sein des femmes by the French satirist, Claude-François-Xavier Mercier was reportedly bound in human skin for a private collector and included an intact nipple on the cover.**

– A copy of Camille Flammarion’s astronomy text, Terres du ciel,*** which was bound using a strip of skin from between the shoulders of a young woman, apocryphally called a countess, who admired Flammarion’s work and requested that he bind something after her death from tuberculosis.****

– A copy of the 17th century Spanish canon law textPracticarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, which includes the inscription, “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

– A copy of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuit and his Confederates was bound in the skin of Father Henry Garnet, who was a Jesuit priest who, while not an active participant, heard confessions of conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Reports are that his face was used to bind the cover. This book was auctioned off to a private collector, for $11,000, in 2007.****** However (and this is a big however), this breakdown by a man who knows old books is a good examination of how the myth sounds better than the reality. This article points out all the failings with the supposition that the book is bound using Garnet’s skin at all, nevermind his facial skin.

So…yeah. Apparently, human leather has a distinct waxy smell, compared with other leathers, and a coarser grain.

Good stuff!

*see the bottom of page 98 of this article from the NIH entitled “Tanned Human Skin.”

**see the bottom of page 99 of “Tanned Human Skin.”

***If you think you’re seeing an awful lot of French titles, it’s because you are.

****see page 100 of “Tanned Human Skin,” which includes a description of the events from Flammarion himself.

*****see here and here

A temporary break

I’ll be off the next couple of weeks unless I learn something mind-blowingly cool — and let’s be honest, I’m a nerd; it’s not out of the question.

I’ve decided it’s time to re-read some of my very favourite books — time to revisit Elphaba, Glinda, et. al. for a revolution (Wicked is a pretty solid examination of the smaller actors in a revolution who have no real understanding of the bigger picture AND an absolutely brilliant look at where the line is drawn between right and wrong and who gets to be the one to draw it) and play some war games with Ender (while I contemplate whether I’ll see the film) And it might be time to reconnect with my old friends Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (a film that I have not and will never see because seriously, who thought that was a good idea?). And catch up with my first great literary love, Andrei Androfsky (the last time we met, I lived in Prague) and say hello again to Tereza and Tomaš (a film, incidentally, that I couldn’t get through despite my undying love of both this novel, specifically, and Kundera’s library on the whole). 

Lest you think that’s a lot of reading to get done, I’m off to a friend’s beach house for the weekend with a bunch of mutual friends, and then to the lake* to spend some time with my mother’s side of the family followed by a trip to my homeland to spend some time with my dad’s side of the family (and my brother). Ten days is plenty of time to read five books. And if I have time for it, I’ll throw in the Chance family because “three Swedes and three beatniks in bathrobes committing suicide together in a sauna” is never not hilarious.**

*where there is ZERO cell coverage, and there are not words to express how excited I am by that idea.

**Seriously, the entire first church sequence of that book had me howling with laughter. At the time, I was sitting in the living room of the guy I was dating at the time. He had a massive porn collection and not a single thing to read in the entire apartment. That really should have been a red flag. He did not find that sequence funny. Because he was an idiot. He later burned down his ex-wife’s house. True story. (Sorry, mom.)

Lesson #266: Gatsby’s Misspelling

I was having a fight today, with my friend in the Texas capital. For the most part, we see things very similarly, despite his being a Texan, but today we were not seeing eye-to-eye on the value of graded readers. As a former EFL teacher, I think they’re excellent resources; he feels there are books that should be off-limits because the beauty of the language is obviously lost.

The book in question? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Now, Gatsby is one of my favourite books. The language is just gorgeous, but while I agree with him that all of the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language is lost in something like a graded reader, I disagree that it should be off-limits.

That’s not the point though. The point is, in our discussion about how mangled the last paragraphs of Gatsby are in the intermediate level graded reader, we were talking about the trouble of teaching receding orgiastic futures to 14-year-old native speakers, nevermind to readers whose grasp of English is more tenuous. And then this piece of information came out…

In the original version, the last paragraphs of the book read as follows,

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But in the copy that I first read, and almost certainly my personal copy, it reads, “…the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year…”

According to this (VERY interesting) article by Matthew Bruccoli, the line was amended by editor Edmund Wilson, who assumed that the “unreliable about words” Fitzgerald had actually meant orgiastic.

So if you pick up a new copy of The Great Gatsby, this error has likely been fixed. And in my opinion, the use of the word orgastic makes the line that much better. But if you hear people misquoting it as orgiastic, you’ll know why.