It’s All Greek To Me: Homeric Questions (Part Two)

avdo medjedovitch

Photograph by Albert Lord, then a student working with Milman Parry in 1934-1935. Part of Albert B. Lord’s Photo Album in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard University.

In the summer of 1933, and then for a fifteen month period in 1934-1935, Milman Parry went to the southern part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Born in 1902 in California, Parry was an associate professor at Harvard University, with a recent PhD in Classics from the Sorbonne. He went to Yugoslavia to record Serbian singers, men who specialized in telling long heroic stories of resistance by Serbs and Croatians against the Ottoman Turks. He recorded these singer of tales not only by making written transcriptions of the songs, but also by the use of the latest audio recording technology: a microphone, two turntables, and over 3500 78 rpm aluminum discs. Why was he there? While other classicists were preoccupied with textual analysis, Parry had the insight that if the Homeric epics were in origin sung in performance, then one needed to study contemporary oral traditions of singing or making poetry. In Yugoslavia the singers were illiterate, yet reportedly could faithfully reproduce long epic songs from memory. This was exactly what many Homer scholars had suggested was the origin of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but Parry was the first to test the idea against an actual oral practice.

Scholars of the two Homeric epics had noticed a number of things. First, there are descriptions in The Odyssey of a poet Demodocus who sings two stories. The first song is about the destruction on Troy by the subterfuge of a wooden horse.This is not the narrative of The Iliad – that story is about the anger of Achilles and takes place some time before the fall of Troy, although it knows about the eventual destruction of the city. The second song is a ribald story about Aphrodite and Ares being caught in flagrante delicto and literally manacled to the bed by Hephaestus, the jealous husband of the love goddess; he then invites all the the other gods to show up to make fun of them. Importantly, the poet is blind, just like Homer was supposed to be, and is clearly not reading from a text. Also, he sings the two stories while accompanying himself on the lyre.

The second thing that any reader will notice is that throughout the epics are certain adjectives and phrases that are repeated over and over again. For example, the sea is “wine-dark”, Telemachus in The Odyssey is always “thoughtful”, and Penelope is always “prudent”. While it makes it easy for young students translating the text, it raises the question as to why the author(s) are so repetitive. Could they not think of some other way to describe things? Or was there a reason as to why the poet(s) returned again and again to these formulas?

Parry realized that the south Yugoslav singers also used formulas. The reason was that they were basically re-creating the epic songs as they sang them – creation-in-performance. The formulas were the means of ensuring that the right number of stresses and syllables showed up in a line. If you knew that you would be referring to “thoughtful Telemachus” then that dealt with five syllables and two stresses and you didn’t have to think about it too much, because you already knew how it would fit. Ancient Greek allowed for a fair amount of word-order flexibility, and so the story would flow along according to what the singer remembered, using certain standard ways of describing scenes and these formulas.


Not sure who was the author of this, but I found it on the internet . . .

Parry died suddenly in 1935 in Los Angeles, and never published his research, but his student Albert Lord carried on where he left off. Lord returned to the Balkans both before and after the Second World War and continued to make recordings and transcriptions. His PhD thesis in 1949 argued that the two epics were originally these compositions in performance, and after further work this was published in 1960 as The Singer of Tales. This does not answer the question of whether there ever was someone named Homer, but it firmly established how the two long poems were created. It does not explain the process by which the ancient Greeks wrote it down, but it does explain why there are variations and why there are formulas. It also explains the unusual structures of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in that scenes and episodes could have been dropped in and expanded very easily into the structures of an earlier, shorter version of the poem.

the singer of tales

This is the edition I have. The CD is a real bonus. Lord writes clearly and engagingly.

Lord and Parry were influenced by the study of folklore and comparative literature at Harvard, and their efforts created the genre of the study of oral traditions in Asia and Africa, to supplement what they learned in Yugoslavia. No serious classical scholar contests the origins of the epics in oral recitation as described by Lord and Parry. While the details are still argued about, the reality is that after 2500 years of reading and study there are still new things to be learned from these old epics.

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It’s All Greek To Me: Homeric Questions (Part One)


A 21st century interpretation of Homer by Stavros Damos of Thessaloniki, part of The Wise Reinvented Series.

Towering over all Greek culture past and present are two ancient epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), the great Greek demotic writer, wrote a sequel to The Odyssey (it was not well received). Constatine Cavafy (1863-1933), the great Greek poet, wrote numerous poems with allusions to events and personages; perhaps his best known poem is “Ithaca”, a meditation on journeys and arriving at one’s destination.

The Iliad tells the story of a few weeks towards the end of a long, ten year war between the Greeks and the city-state of Troy. It features Achilles and Paris, Agamemnon and Odysseus, and Menelaus and Helen. The Greek gods are very active, above all Athena, but also Zeus and Poseidon, and Aphrodite and Hermes. The Odyssey is its sequel, telling the story of how Odysseus spent ten long years trying to get home to Ithaca.

Arguably the two poems stand over all “Western” culture, too. Following the Renaissance the ancient classics of Greece and Rome were rediscovered, and these epics in the original archaic Greek were the focus of education for several centuries. It inspired paintings and sculptures. In the First Century CE Virgil could do no better than to emulate it in his Aeneid, which told of how Aeneas of Troy escaped from the ruins of Troy to found a new city in Italy, whose descendants would one day found Rome. The great Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) spent the Great War writing Ulysses (1922) which at first glance told the story of one day in the life of two drunken men in Dublin, but in fact paralleled The Odyssey. The Coen Brothers Oscar-winning movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was loosely based on The Odyssey. The movie Troy (2004) retold the story of The Iliad as an action movie, and it featured Brad Pitt, but was not as well received as the Coen Brothers’ movie, especially as it did not have any of the deities of Olympus showing up. Oh, and at least twenty-six places in the USA are named Troy.

Hey, it’s got Brad Pitt in it – it must be good, eh?

Each of the epics is massive. The Iliad has 15,693 lines of non-rhyming dactylic hexameter, and The Odyssey has 12,110. In Emily Wilson’s recent brilliant English translation of The Odyssey (2018) the epic takes up 421 pages. The sheer size of it is, well, epic!

So who wrote these great and influential works? The tradition, which was believed as solid history up until the 19th century, was that they were written by a blind man named Homer, who may have come from Smyrna on the west coast of Anatolia but became known as a great poet on the Aegean island of Chios. Several lives were written in antiquity, but they contradicted each other.

ms.2 iliad

Homer’s Iliad, cod. F 205 inf. Late 5th-early 6th c. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Source

“The Homeric Question” (which was really a whole series of questions relating to the author) emerged in the 19th century as German classicists began to apply historico-literary techniques to the texts (just as they were being applied to the texts of the Bible). It was noted that the texts had several dialects of archaic classical Greek, and occasionally seemed to contradict itself; could they be, in fact, composite works by different authors? Examination of other ancient authors seemed to suggest that there were variations in the manuscript that were not just scribal errors – so what was the history of the text, and was it “tidied up” at some point? Given the tradition that Homer was blind, was it in fact recited to an amanuensis, as Milton’s Paradise Lost was, or did it have a free-standing existence as an oral epic for a time before being put down on paper? Which of the two epics was written first? How does someone compose a work like The Iliad if you are blind? If it did have an oral existence prior to it being written down, how the heck do you remember something that long? How was it performed – was it spoken, read, or sung? Was writing in fact in existence when Homer supposedly lived (850 BCE, according to Herodotus)? Was there anything of historical value in the two epics? And, finally, was there ever actually someone named Homer?

I’ll look at these issues in the next post, and explain how it came to be that a revolution in the study of the Homeric epics took place in the middle of the 20th century – a revolution that has now created a new consensus and refashioned the Homeric Question.

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It’s All Greek To Me: Modern Greek


The periodical Noumas, issue no. 12 (621), 2 March 1919 in the first page of which the manifesto of protest of poets, writers amd artists for the defence of demotic Greek is published. Athens, Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, Byzantine Greek did not cease to exist, even though it was no longer the tongue of an empire. It continued on as the form of used in the Greek-speaking part of the Eastern Orthodox church, and educated Greeks continued to write in it. However, there was a problem. Already by the 15th century the spoken language had diverged somewhat from the written language. This was not at all unusual. Formal, written Latin, or the Latin used in ancient Roman law courts, was already by the 1st Century CE somewhat different from informal, spoken Latin, as is demonstrated by some plays that portray lower-class Latin, and graffiti found in Pompeii. By the time western Europe was lost to the Roman Empire in the 5th Century Latin was already starting to evolve into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. The fall of Constantinople simply accelerated the process for Greek.

By the time the 18th century came along there was a clear distinction between spoken Greek and written Greek. The former was called demotic Greek, from the word δήμος “people”. The written Greek was basically late Byzantine, hearkening back to Hellenistic and Classical Greek. There were some significant differences.

  • Whereas demotic had dispensed with the dative form, the written Greek retained it.
  • The system of accents, originally indicating tones, made less and less sense because tones had dropped out of the spoken language and had been replaced by stress, which usually but did not always relate to the ancient ways of writing accents.
  • Contact with the Middle East and the Ottomans meant that spoken Greek had many new words that the written Greek would not use.
  • Pronunciation had changed significantly, which meant that new ways to pronounce old sounds had to be found.
  • The old verb forms of the future, perfect, pluperfect tenses, and even the infinitive disappeared from spoken Greek, but continued to be used in written Greek.
  • These verbal forms and the dative meant that the same meanings were now conveyed with the use of prepositions and markers for modes and tenses (which is more like English).
  • As well, word order became far more important in spoken Greek, whereas the written Greek was more flexible.
  • In spoken Greek irregular verbs became more regular, whereas in written Greek they stayed in the old, confusing forms.
  • In Ancient Greek there was no indefinite article – one figured it out by context. The article in Ancient Greek – ὁ, ἡ, τό – simply directed the attention of the listener or reader to the word to which it referred – it might be definite, and usually was, but, again, that was more a matter of context. The ancient article evolved in Modern Spoken Greek into the definite article, but it still functioned a bit differently from the definite article in English. For example, in Η Ελένη πίνει ένα ποτήρι κρασί “Helen drinks wine”, Helen takes the definite article H. Note that in ένα ποτήρι “a glass” the indefinite neuter article ένα appears.

There are more differences, but you get the picture. Ordinary Greeks spoke demotic, while educated and moneyed Greeks learned to write in an archaic form. This is called diglossia, where there are two forms of the language in use. Amongst Greek-speakers this became known as the Greek language question – should the written language be adapted so that it reflects how people actually speak, or should the written language still maintain old forms so that the connection with the ancient forms, whether New Testament or the Classics, is maintained.


The program of the performance Oresteia by Aeschylus, 1903 – translated into Demotic Greek. This was controversial. Archive of the Theatre Museum of Athens

This came to a head when Greece became independent in the 1820s and 1830s. The new nation had to issue publications, and by then the default Byzantine forms were seen to be too problematic. While some advocated for a radical change to a form of demotic, the traditionalists won out by advocating for a form developed in the 1790s called Καθαρεύουσα “Katharevousa”, which means “purifying”. This was an idealization of what the Greek language should be – retaining ancient cases and forms, and driving out foreign loanwords. It meant that the written language, as used in official publications and in the universities and schools – was still quite different from the spoken language, but it was not exactly ancient or medieval Greek, either. Because there was no one body determining what Katharevousa should be, the people wanting it fell into intense arguments over what the correct form should be. Meanwhile, ordinary Greeks, who had difficulty understanding it, continued to use demotic, and the newspapers (and later, radio, films, and television) followed suit. By the 1880s some poets and novelists abandoned Katharevousa and began writing in demotic, to great consternation. Even in the 20th Century this was controversial, but this was the form Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ) used. Cavafy the poet mostly used Demotic, but carefully used Katharevousa in the same poems with Demotic.

The use of Katharevousa became somewhat political, and when the Colonel’s Regime of 1967-1974 espoused the use of it a strong reaction ensued. The restored democracy under the centrist government of Konstantinos Karamanlis began the process of getting rid of it, and in 1976 they passed a law requiring that the schools use Standard Modern Greek in instruction. Forty years later Katharevousa is dead except in the Greek Orthodox Church (of course), and most Greeks under the age of sixty cannot read it except with difficulty. It sort of lives on in Standard Modern Greek, because Modern Greek incorporated some of the vocabulary of katharevousa, mostly formal words and types of address.

The last big step was in 1982 when the polytonic spelling was replaced by monotonic accents. This meant that the accent in any multi-syllable word was indicated, and it always indicated stress. A host of diacritical marks above and below the letters disappeared.


An illustration comparing Kathervousa with Modern Standard Greek. From a talk by Lilia Mouma “My Big Fat Greek Talk” at North American Polyglot Symposium 2016 (NAPS)

Fortunately I am learning this fairly straightforward Standard Modern Greek. My old New Testament Greek pops up in my head every once in awhile – “What happened to the word οἶνος and why did it get replaced with κρασί?” or, “You mean I don’t have to learn the pluperfect subjunctive!?!” – but I am quite happy not to have to learn two forms of the language.

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The Shortest Sermon Ever

A sermon preached on The Fourth Sunday of the Epiphany at the Anglican Church of St. Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece, 11:00 am January 27, 2018.

clock_22 minutes, 42 seconds.

Musicologists, using the power of computing, analyzed the top-rated, best-selling hit songs. They interviewed over 500 people on their personal preferences and analyzed the songs they liked. Their conclusions, then, are based on hard facts – weeks on the Billboard charts, sales, or nowadays, downloads. And amongst many conclusions one was paramount  – the perfect length of a pop song was 2 minutes 42 seconds. Popular songs can be shorter by a bit, longer by a bit, but not much. Bob Dylan’s great hits like A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall at 6.55 is an outlier, the exception that proves the rule, not the norm.

By the way, the musicologists also found out the characteristics and the length of the worst possible song – 22 minutes – and then went ahead and composed it. It includes holiday music, bagpipes, pipe organ, a children’s chorus, a bossa-nova synth, and some unbelievable opera rapping.

Well, what’s the perfect length for a sermon?

About ten minutes and about God would be most people’s answer. At the other end of things I knew someone who justified 45 minute sermons on the basis that, “Sermonettes make for Christianettes.” And while I have been spellbound by preachers who go on that long, most of the time I am wondering when it will end. I know some people who would be just as happy with no sermons ever, because they are there for communion, and find the preaching just gets in the way; I sometimes wonder what kind of a spiritual life they have when they don’t need to be challenged by the preacher. If you know me you know that I appreciate good preaching and will preach at any service, even small mid-week liturgies.


The Great Isaiah Scroll, 1QIsa The Isaiah Scroll is the only complete biblical book surviving among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found in Cave One at Qumran in 1947, it dates from about 120 B.C.E. Not the scroll from which Jesus read, but the one he used would have been almost the same.

Then there is Jesus. He preached the shortest sermon ever, on a text from Isaiah Chapter 61.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

*Mic drop*

Short, eh? To the point. Now, when you hear the words of Isaiah, what do you hear?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

If this was fulfilled in the presence of those who heard Jesus, my question to you is this:

  • How is it being fulfilled among us?
  • How is the good news being brought to the poor among us?
  • How is release being proclaimed to those in captivity?
  • How in our hearing are is eyesight to the blind being proclaimed?
  • How are the oppressed among us being set free?
  • How is the year of the Lord’s favour being announced?

We are the body of Christ, so do not doubt – this is happening. But let these questions rest upon you, and let me know what you think, because with or without me, with or without you, with or without us, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And for the record, that sermon was 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

NB The suggestion of *Mic drop* comes from Frances Bryant-Scott.

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When I Pray: Prayer Cycles

When I pray I have a number of ever-changing people, places, and things that I remember. In the congregation I now serve we have a Prayer Net and the person organizing it keeps track of people to pray for – usually people in some form of illness or distress. She sends out an e-mail every once in a while. A gentleman in my previous parish did the same, and I suspect most churches have someone doing this.

I also use prayer cycles. These are usually promulgated by institutions. The two main ones that I use are:

  • The Anglican Cycle of Prayer Each day this cycle provides the names of one or more dioceses and their bishops within the Anglican Communion. Over the course of a year every diocese and bishop will be prayed for.
  • The Prayer Diary for the Diocese in Europe, Church of England. Each day a different chaplaincy (i.e. parish) is remembered. Over two months every chaplaincy is prayed for. On Sundays partner churches in Europe with whom we are in communion are remembered.
diocese in europe

A map of the Diocese in Europe, which is a diocese of The Church of England. It serves Anglicans and all sorts of Christians outside of the British Isles in Europe, and stretches from Iceland to Mongolia and from Morocco to Moscow. It includes Turkey and some of the republics that were part of the old Soviet Union. There are almost 300 congregations in over 40 nations, with two bishops.

Many dioceses have something similar to the Prayer Diary of the Diocese in Europe. For example, the Diocese of British Columbia on Vancouver Island regularly issues Intercessions which name the various clergy and ministries.

I am an associate of two Anglican religious orders for women, and I pray for them daily.


The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

  • One is the Community of the Sisters of the Church (“CSC”) which has become well known through the television program Call the Midwife. They have four provinces – the UK, Australia, Canada, and the Solomon Islands. The CSC is very small in Canada, with only three sisters left, but I receive from them a monthly prayer cycle in which each day I pray for one or more of the sisters in a location, as well as some of the associates in Canada. I recognise many of the associates!
  • The other is the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, which has a convent in Toronto and a house with two to four sisters in Victoria. They do not have a prayer cycle as such, but I receive their newsletter, and I copy the group photo that is taken at their annual chapter. I then mark it up by numbering off the sisters from one to twenty-five, and pray for them by name, giving me one sister a day to pray for. I already know many of them personally, but this exercise helps me to know all of their names and faces. I fill up the rest of the month by remembering people like the Oblates, the Associates, Benefactors, the Visitor, and so forth.

I have used other Prayer Cycles in the past. con20map_dec2018

  • I used to have one for the Council of the North, which is the organization of the “northern” dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada which receives financial support from the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. I used it until I knew that it was out of date, and it does not appear that they have issued an updated one.
  • At one time I also had one relating to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, but if I remember correctly it was a time limited thing and I haven’t seen a replacement.
  • The Rev. Canon Dr. John Steele, who attended many World Council of Churches (“WCC”) meetings on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, introduced me to their Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer, which is simply a cycle of prayers through the year on a weekly basis for every nation. This week, for example, we pray for Cyrus, Greece, and Turkey (hey, that includes us on Crete!)

Doing these cycles help me to be more other-minded. It does remind me of the extensive network that the church is, and of the many people I know within it. My hope in writing this down in some detail is to suggest to you that if you are trying to develop a discipline of prayer that the use of prayer cycles is one tool you might want to adopt. Again, as I said in my earlier post on prayer, this is not about changing God’s mind, but about changing mine – my soul and body. May you be changed, too.

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Communists say “No!”

One of the more striking things about living in Greece is the existence of a very active Communist party. Communism in Canada and the US was always something that happened elsewhere. Here it’s different. For example, in little villages like Gavalohori we find posters like this:

Here’s the same message in both English and Greek, beneath a well-known building in Athens:

Οχι (pronounced “O-hi”) means “No”. The word is politically resonant, as this was supposedly the one word answer given on October 28, 1941, by Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece, when Mussolini demanded that Italian troops be allowed to occupy certain strategic parts of the kingdom. There is now an “Οχι Day” every October 28 with much flag waving and parades. Of course, Metaxas was a fascist dictator himself, but the spirit of Οχι seems to transcend ideology.

In case you cannot read Greek, or the English below the Parthenon is too small, the posters say:

NO: to the Tsipras – Zaev agreement;
to the plans of USA – NATO – EU;
to irredentism and nationalism.
YES: to friendship – solidarity, and to the joint struggle of the people.

The Tsipras-Zaev agreement is the Prespa agreement, by which the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (otherwise known to the world as Macedonia) will be officially re-named “North Macedonia”. I wrote about this a few days ago.  Although some 70% of Greeks are opposed to the deal, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems to have the votes in the Greek Legislature to get it passed. The newly renamed North Macedonia will then be able to enter NATO and the EU with Greece’s consent.

As Communists the Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας, or KKE for short, are opposed to anti-Soviet alliances such as NATO and capitalist unions like the European Union, and they blame the United States and its dastardly plans for all of this. I suspect the USA – NATO – EU are the bogey-men of the Greek left-wing, to be opposed until one is in government, when one suddenly realises the benefits of the alliances. The KKE is opposed to irredentism – that is, the claim of any nation to redeem territory that should belong to them but is occupied by another power. This is a bit bizarre  in a Greek context, because the history of Greece from the 1820s to 1947 has been about the nation reclaiming territory. The fear that somehow little FYROM/North Macedonia is going to take the Greek region of Macedonia from the heavily armed Hellenic Armed Forces is palpable but not realistic. Fearing North Macedonian irredentism is a populist nationalist ploy – but the KKE also says it is opposed to nationalism, so I am really unclear what they believe.

The KKE is now the oldest political party in Greece, just over a century. For most of its existence it was outlawed. With the rise of the Soviet Union they never got much purchase on the mostly rural, conservative population, especially when word came back of the Communist persecution of Russian Orthodox Christians.

Things became confusing in the late 1930s. Following the Comintern’s official policy they supported the right of ethnic groups to establish their own separate regional governments. Thus, they supported ethnic Macedonians in their desires for self government – the Slavic Macedonians, that is, not the Greek Macedonians. The Greek Macedonians had only become part of Greece in 1913, and were dead set opposed to the aspirations of the Slavic Macedonians. Thus, most Communists in that part of Northern Greece were not Ethnic Greeks, but belonged to the Slavic minority. Then in 1939 Stalin and Hitler agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty to divide Poland and not go to war, and so the Greek Communists felt obliged to support Nazi Germany and its ally Fascist Italy. Then Mussolini issued his ultimatum, and the Greek Communists did not know what to do – support the Greek dictator Metaxas and go against Moscow, or break with the Comintern and join the popular defense? It did not help matters when the Germans invaded in the Spring of 1941 and rolled up the Allied opposition. It only got sorted out which side they should be on when Hitler broke his treaty with the Soviets and invaded Russia later in the summer of 1941.

elas guerrillas 1943

Soldiers of the Communist controlled National People’s Liberation Army (“ELAS”), 1943.

The Communists in Greece were part of a very active resistance, not only attacking Germans but also building up an army that had a broad left-wing support, including some Orthodox clergy. They were also very good at “eliminating” in good Bolshevik fashion any rival leaders in the alliance so that they dominated the resistance throughout the country (except in Crete, where the British were active behind the lines). they were in an excellent position to rule the country after World War II except, alas, Stalin sold them out. At a conference in Moscow in October 1944 Stalin and Churchill divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, supposedly using the back of a napkin, and the United Kingdom got “Greece  – 90% UK”. The British landed troops in Athens in late 1944 and the King and his government-in-exile returned.

The Communists launched a revolution in 1946 and this became a civil war that lasted for three long years with an estimated 178,000 deaths and over a million people displaced. While not adverse to Greece becoming Communist, Stalin did nothing to help, feeling bound by his agreement with Churchill. The UK and then the US assisted the Greek army in its battles, while the KKE received support from the communist-controlled nations of  Albania and Bulgaria , and especially Yugoslavia. At the end of the war much or Greece was in ruins and the KKE and its army was defeated. NATO was formed in 1949 and Greece (along with Turkey) joined in 1952.

The KKE remained underground for the 1950s and 1960s. As Greece industrialized and urbanized they gained a bit more support. The danger of a KKE revolt was used as an excuse in 1967 for the military to overthrow democracy and establish a dictatorship, but in reality the Communists were never in a position to threaten the country.

Finally, after the junta was overthrown in 1974, democracy was restored. The centrist politician Konstantinos Karamanlis returned from exile in France and became the Prime Minister of the transitional government. He legalized the KKE, supposedly in a attempt at inclusion, but I suspect he knew just how small the support for them was, and wanted that to be shown. They received just under 10% of the vote in the first democratic election in 1974, and while they have had seats in the Hellenic Assembly ever since, they have never received more than 13.1%.  In the last election mustered a mere 5.5%. While active and visible, and well supported by a small core of voters, they do not appear to be able to gain the support a significant part of the population.

Greeks, having suffered in living memory from a civil war caused by the Communists and having also endured military juntas, seem wedded to parties that are just left or right of centre. While the current Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, was in fact a member of the Communist Youth, he left the KKE and moved to the centre, and now supports Greece’s ongoing membership in both the EU and NATO. While the KKE may say “No!” to any number of things, the Greeks people are saying “No” to it.

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Paul Was Not A Convert


Caravaggio, 1601. Oil on canvas, 230 cm × 175 cm (91 in × 69 in), Location: Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Note that a horse is nowhere mentioned in scriptures about the event, so the Feast cannot be called “The Unhorsing of Paul” anymore than it should be named “The Conversion of Paul”.

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, celebrated in the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran/evangelische churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. The eucharistic readings for the feast vary, but in the Church of England is read the “Road to Damascus” account of Acts 9.1-22:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ 21All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ 22Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

Paul gives his own account of the event in Galatians 1:

11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.


You should read this book. Pamela Eisenbaum is a Jewish scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins teaching at a Christian divinity school, namely Iliff School of Divinity in Denver, Colorado.

The problem with all of this is the label the church gives to this event: The Conversion of Paul. The issue I have with this is indicated in the title of this post – Paul was not a convert! Search the two passages above, or any of the other accounts that relate to the revelation of Jesus to him, and you will not see the word “convert.” Yes, he changed, but as Pamela Eisenbaum argues in her brilliant book, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), Paul never stopped seeing himself as a Jew, and did not see Christianity as something separate from Judaism. Christianity, a category he did not know of, was not the successor religion to Judaism; rather, Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy and promise, and through Jesus Gentiles could now be grafted onto the salvation promised to Jews. Paul did not convert to Christianity, because Christianity as we understand it did not exist. Paul was, however, called by God through the revelation of Jesus to him to be an apostle to the Gentiles, a kind of rescue mission to an otherwise depraved and damned population.

Of course, most Gentile Christians have not seen it that way. They retro-projected the rigid separation of Judaism and Christianity of their own day – medieval and modern – onto the early church. However, as a multitude of recent scholars have demonstrated, in books such as The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (edited by Adam H. Becker, Annette Yoshiko Reed; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), communities of Jews and Christians overlapped, went to each others services, and shared members throughout antiquity; what we now know as Judaism and Christianity emerged out of an older form of Judaism. Admittedly, from the 2nd Century CE on various leaders in both communities admonished their peoples not to attend each other services, but they had to do it for centuries because the people would not listen and kept on doing so. Christian leaders argued about the date of Easter and its difference from (but connection with) Passover, because Christians were partaking in Passover as well as Easter, and vice-versa; by setting up a separate date the two feasts were separated.


Calling Paul a “convert” is as anachronistic as saying that he fell out of his car on the way to Damascus. Painting by Ernest Vincent Wood III.

So Paul did not convert, and he was never a convert. He was born a Jew, circumcised as a Jew, educated as a Jew, and died a Jew. He followed Jesus because he experienced a call from the Son of the God – a God he knew as the God of the Jews. He never repudiated God’s promises of faithfulness to the Jews, but rather saw them being extended, by special permission, to non-Jews.

The name of the festival is wrong. Paul did not convert, at least not in the usual meaning of that word in a religious context. Using that language encourages supersessionism, the belief that Christianity replaces Judaism – and this is a theology of which we who are Christians must repent. Paul was called, and for that reason I think liturgists and church leaders need to change the name of the feast tomorrow to The Calling of Paul. Over to you, bishops and archbishops, pastors and clergy, synods and liturgical committees.

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