September 17, 2007
Interpreter of Angels
By carol clark
I’m very careful on plane flights not to tell the people sitting next to me what I do for a living,” says Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament and an expert on apocalyptic literature.
Flashes of lightning, fire mingled with blood and trumpeting angels of doom don’t make for good in-flight conversation. Newsom, however, finds such imagery fascinating. “Apocalyptic language is so colorful and the imagination in it is so extreme,” she says. “It deals with some of the fundamental issues of existence: Why is there evil? Why is this a broken world? How do you understand the relationship between good and evil?”
From ancient times to today, apocalyptic literature has been a force for both good and ill in society. “It has the power to be very dangerous, but it also has power for good, as it envisions resistance to radical evil,” Newsom says, as she serves a visitor a mug of mango zinger tea and settles in for a chat in her Bishops Hall office.
Newsom grew up in a progressive Methodist family in Birmingham, Ala. As a child, she was drawn to myths of different cultures — from Greek, Roman, Norse and American Indian narratives to the stories in the Hebrew Bible. “For the longest time, I couldn’t remember which stories were supposed to be scripture and which ones weren’t,” she says.
By the time she was a teenager, Newsom says she identified as an atheist. “It was a form of teenaged rebellion. I’ve always been what I call incurably religious. I just had to get to the right way of understanding it.”
She earned a Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, then entered a Ph.D. program in Harvard’s department of Near East Languages and Civilizations. She studied Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian, the ancient Babylonian tongue.
Immersed in the mythological traditions depicted by some of the oldest texts in the world, Newsom loved tracing threads woven through religious thought back to their origins. The insights she gained made her “differently religious,” she says. “Religion is the human’s attempt to respond to something transcendental, and the way this response becomes concrete is reflective of a particular culture and its place in history. The primary religious virtue ought to be humility, in which we understand that the images and symbols of each culture speak to truth, but they can’t be seen as the truth itself.”
She was particularly drawn to the book of Enoch. One of the earliest apocalyptic writings, it describes Enoch’s visit to heaven and the movement of celestial bodies. “Jews who were living in the Diaspora were coming into contact with different religious traditions in Babylon and Persian thought, which created an interesting ferment,” Newsom says. “The book of Enoch shows a very clear Babylonian imprint, including references to astronomy and astrology.”
‘The time of the sheep’
Some scholars contend that the distinctive genealogy of Jewish and Christianity apocalyptic writing can be traced to Zoroastrianism, which originated in Persia. The Zoroastrians described a cosmic battle between good and evil entities and the eventual defeat of the wolfish evil one. “And then there will come the time of the sheep,” Newsom says, citing the Zoroastrian analogy. “I just love that phrase. It so eloquently expresses the ideal of security from the perspective of a pastoral people.”
Apocalyptic references wax and wane in various cultures and religions. They faded from Judaism after several centuries, but were kept alive by Christians. The “Left Behind” series appeals to some modern-day fundamentalists, although Newsom says the books reduce the rich symbolism and open-ended questions of ancient apocalyptic literature “into a flattened script that’s known in advance and played out.”
She finds it particularly striking that fundamentalist Islam recently began adopting apocalyptic scenarios from modern fundamentalist Christian literature, a trend that may be driven by both inter-religious conflicts and the pervasive media. Just as in ancient times, cultures and religions continue to intersect and borrow from one another, Newsom says.
Alone with Dead Sea Scrolls
Newsom was especially fortunate to be studying at Harvard in 1977, when two of the scholars holding the rights to edit and publish the Dead Sea Scrolls were on the faculty. Their scholarly work began shortly after the scrolls were discovered in the 1950s, but halted about a decade later when the initial grants expired.
Through her adviser, she was offered the enviable task of translating the Dead Sea Scrolls containing the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” She still recalls the awe and excitement she felt as a 27-year-old student when she traveled to the Rockefeller Museum, outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, to study the actual scrolls.
The curator led her into the basement of the museum, where the documents had been stored since the 1960s. He opened a cabinet and took out a folder, which consisted of two pieces of non-acidic cardboard held together with paper clips. Inside were sheets of rice paper and, sandwiched between these, parchment fragments.
The curator placed the fragments on a table and left Newsom alone in the room. The text was in pristine condition, despite the low-tech fashion in which the documents were kept at that time. “I thought, ‘Wow! Here I have documents that are 2,000 years old, just as they were left by the people who wrote them.’ I was probably the second or third person to read them. There’s something incredibly romantic about that,” Newsom says.
The sound of heaven
The scrolls Newsom translated were written by a Jewish religious sect on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, known as the Qumran community. Its members lived a monastic life and believed in a rigorous interpretation of Jewish law. “They felt that the Pharisees were too lax,” Newsom says, adding, “I’m sure they would have disapproved of the early Christian community.”
The scrolls recorded 13 mystical psalms, the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice,” about how the angelic priesthood worships in the heavenly temple. They were written in a nearly classical Hebrew in a repetitive, poetic style. “It was designed to get people into a meditative state, so they would have a sense of being disassociated from reality,” Newsom explains.
The text describes everything in heaven as a spirit. “The walls and beams and engravings of the temple are all composed of living spirits that praise God while the angels also sing praise,” she says. “Imagine what it would sound like, if everything around you was singing praise.”
Encountering the divine
After completing the translation and publishing it, Newsom says she felt a deep bond with the men of ancient Qumran, who believed that after the end of time, when the forces of evil were defeated, they could create this heavenly temple on earth. “I really felt close to them and so privileged to have played that role in bringing their words back,” Newsom says. She takes a sip of her tea and smiles. “Of course, they probably wouldn’t have been too happy that it was a woman who played that role.”
When teaching the Old Testament, Newsom strives to get her students to recognize the myriad influences woven into the text. “Many people think of the Bible as coming from a single voice, but I want them to hear the plurality of voices and understand the history behind them,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you have to fall into a crisis of faith. The divine is encountered in biblical texts as it is encountered in other people and in the world.”