Dec 292017

Today is the feast of king David in a few Western Christian traditions. The theology is a bit murky here, but celebrating David within the Christmas season makes sense if you follow the logic of the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Jesus was the Messiah (anointed one) in 1st century Christian tradition which means that he had to be descended from David, and born in David’s birthplace, Bethlehem. One puzzle that the patristic fathers had to solve was whether people born before Jesus was born could become saints, that is, ascend to Paradise. After all, they could not confess him as Lord and Savior, because they were dead. If you make that confession a criterion you are stuck having to do what Dante did in the Inferno, assigning them to limbo for eternity – neither heaven nor hell. Limbo is sort of like earth without all the pain and death stuff. Plato and Aristotle are there too, according to Dante. Patristic fathers solved the puzzle by asserting that Jesus went down to hell on his death and before his resurrection and saved all the souls there. Case closed. This is the stuff that theologians come up with when they accept the Biblical narrative as it stands, but then use Aristotelian logic to sort out the problems. David presents us with just as many historical problems, starting with the fact that he may not have existed, and the splendid kingdom that he, and his son Solomon, ruled over almost certainly did not.

David is described in the Hebrew Bible as the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. In the biblical narrative, David is a young shepherd who first gains fame as a musician and later by killing Goliath. He becomes a favorite of king Saul, first king over the united tribes of Israel, and a close friend of Saul’s son Jonathan. Worried that David is trying to take his throne, Saul turns on David. After Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David is anointed as king. David conquers Jerusalem, taking the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and establishing the kingdom founded by Saul.

As king, David arranges the death of Uriah the Hittite to cover his adultery with Bathsheba. According to the same biblical text, God denies David the opportunity to build the temple and his son, Absalom, tries to overthrow him. David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, but after Absalom’s death in battle, he returns to the city to rule Israel. Before his peaceful death, after a lifetime of troubles with his sons, he chooses his youngest son Solomon as his successor. He is mentioned in the prophetic literature as an ideal king and an ancestor of a future Messiah, and many psalms are ascribed to him.

Historians of the Ancient Near East agree that if David existed at all it was around 1000 BCE, but that there is little that can be said about him as a historical figure outside the Biblical narratives. There is no direct evidence outside of the Bible concerning David, but the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone erected by a king of Damascus in the late 9th/early 8th centuries BCE to commemorate his victory over two enemy kings, contains the phrase ביתדוד (bytdwd), which most scholars quite reasonably translate as “House of David” (beyth dawid). Ancient Near East historians, following archeology, generally doubt that the united monarchy as described in the Bible existed, but, instead, is a construct of 6th century priests – the Deuteronomists.

One Biblical history of Israel and Judah is called Deuteronomic history by many modern Biblical scholars because it has the hallmarks of one continuous narrative making a strategic political/theological point. These books are called Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, and I & II Kings in the Protestant canon, and flow from Moses and the exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, into the period when the 12 tribes were individual nations with their own territories and rulers, forming a loose confederation that was united occasionally under Judges (שופטים šōp̄əṭîm/shoftim). The Judges united the tribes for as long as necessary, and then went back to being regular guys. Saul changed that when he confronted a number of enemies, especially the Philistines, and instead of going back to normal life, became king of the tribes. David eventually overthrew him and established a dynasty in the kingdom of Judah that is described in detail in II Kings. The final king in that line was supposed to be Josiah, whom the Deuteronomists believed was the new Messiah (anointed king) in the line of David, who would overthrow the oppression of Judah by Egypt and Babylon and establish a glorious kingdom to rival David’s and Solomon’s. Unfortunately, Josiah was killed in the battle on the plain of Megiddo the Hebrew of which gives us the English word Armageddon. From that point on the propaganda had to be rethought.

We will probably never know what sources the Deuteronomists used; most of them may have been oral. The Tel Dan Stele that mentions the House of David is likely referring to a dynasty of the kingdom of Judah which traced its ancestry to a founder named David. Anthropology can step in here. We’re pretty good with kinship and genealogy. Both the temple priests and the Deuteronomists (as well as Luke and Matthew) used genealogy as the skeleton on which to hang their histories. As all anthropologists know well, the person who is at the head of a specific genealogy gives his character to all the people who follow in his line. Jacob was a cunning, but Godly, man who wrestled with an angel (or God) and almost won. His name was changed to Is – ra – el which in Hebrew sounds like “the man who contends with God.” His sons became the sons (tribes) of Israel, and they too were all cunning and contended with God. The founder is the spirit of the nation.  Judah’s putative dynastic founder was David who came from one of Israel’s youngest sons, and was, himself, the youngest son, as was his successor Solomon.  There’s a key point here. Typically, the eldest son inherits, but throughout the Torah and into Deuteronomistic history, it’s the youngest who inherits.  Why?  The simple answer is that at one time, the supposed Davidic era, Judah was nothing but an insignificant hill country backwater. But its (related neighbor), Israel, was rich and powerful.  However, Israel was eventually destroyed by Assyria, and much of the population was deported and lost to history (the lost tribes of Israel). Judah (the poor young relative) survived, by paying tribute to Assyria rather than fighting. The youngest survived by being smart.

What I’m getting at is that genealogical history is designed to fit the propaganda narrative, not the historical facts. If David existed at all he would have been a tribal leader, in Hebrew a nagid (leader or prince), rather than a melek (king). In fact, David is often referred to as a nagid. Legends undoubtedly accrued to him and were embellished and amplified through oral tradition, until we end up with the propaganda hero whom Josiah is meant to emulate. Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians will take me to task over my interpretation. Let them. You can believe what you want to believe. The Deuteronomists did. It all has to do with how you see your identity. I’m not going to debate such issues: it’s a waste of time – mine and theirs. Cooking is more productive.

For David I’ve chosen a dish that may well have been common in 10th century Judah. It’s certainly very common throughout the Middle East and North Africa now.  That is, mulukhiyah, (or mloukhiya, molokhia, molokhiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya (Arabic: ملوخية‎, Hebrew: מלוחיה), the leaves of Corchorus olitorius, commonly used as a vegetable in soups or stews that give their name to the whole dish. It is popular in Middle East, East African and North African countries. Mulukhiyyah is rather bitter, and when boiled, the resulting liquid is a thick, highly mucilaginous broth. Traditionally mulukhiyyah is cooked with chicken or at least chicken stock for flavor and is served with white rice, accompanied with lemon or lime.

The Standard Molokhia dish in the Levant is prepared by cooking a meat of some sort in a separate pot by boiling. Later onions and garlic are cooked to a simmer, then water and chicken stock cubes are added to form a broth. After boiling, the cooked chicken or meat and Molokhia leaves are added and further cooked another 15 minutes. Palestinians will serve Molokhia on a bed of rice topped with vermicelli noodles, and lemon juice and flat bread on the side. Palestinian Bedu ( بَدَوِي ) have an old tradition of cooking a different version of the dish. A whole chicken is cut open, the intestines removed, and the innards stuffed with herbs, spices and raw rice then sewn shut with thick thread. The chicken is then boiled to create the broth for the Molokhia soup which, after preparation, is served as five separate components: The Molokhia soup, Arabic flat bread, the chicken (stuffed with flavored rice), additional plain rice and a small bowl with a mixture of lemon juice and sliced chile. The soup is mixed with rice and lemon juice according to taste, while the chicken is eaten on a separate plate.

I’d wager that you are not going to find mulukhiyah in your local supermarket, but you might be able to get it frozen online. You can also get seeds online to grow it yourself, but that won’t be much help for cooking any time soon.  Here’s a good recipe anyway, in case you luck out. Some Middle Eastern cooks are assessed locally according to their ability to make a good mulukhiya. The key is to make sure not to overcook the mulukhiya. If you do, the leaves will sink to the bottom and the soup/stew will be heavy.



1 kg mulukhiya
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
½ tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
5 cardamom pods
6 boneless chicken breasts
olive oil
20 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp dried coriander
1 tbsp. lemon juice


If you have frozen mulukhiya, let it thaw thoroughly. If you have fresh leaves, parboil them in a large pot of fresh water.

In a separate pot, place the onion, chicken, and bay leaf. Cover with chicken stock and add the cardamom pods tied up in a muslin or cheesecloth bag. Add salt to taste. Bring to the boil and simmer until the chicken is just tender (25 to 30 minutes).

Remove the cardamom pods and bay leaf and discard. Remove the chicken breasts with a slotted spoon. Cut them into strips and then fry them in batches in olive oil in a clean skillet until they take on a little color.

Meanwhile use a slotted spoon to take the onion out of the soup, mash it and return it to the soup along with the fried chicken strips.  Add the thawed, or parboiled, mulukhiya and simmer for about 5 minutes. Do not overcook them. They must remain floating at or near the top.

Mix together the crushed garlic and the dried coriander and fry it in the olive oil left from frying the chicken until it is barely golden. Add to the boiling mulukhiya and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice.

Serve hot in deep bowls with flatbread.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Dec 222017

On this date in 401, Innocent I was installed as pope and served until his death in 417. He was quite something of a stabilizing influence on the church at a time of doctrinal turmoil, with a wide-ranging influence on Catholicism that is still alive and well in the Catholic church today. Among other things, he is reputed to have been the son of the previous pope, putting the papacy on the path to being a dynasty (which never materialized, of course). That notion was short lived for all kinds of reasons. Celibacy was not actually the main issue at the time. From the beginning of his papacy, Innocent set himself up as the general arbitrator of ecclesiastical disputes in both the East and the West. He confirmed the prerogatives of the Archbishop of Thessalonica, and issued a decretal on disciplinary matters referred to him by the Bishop of Rouen. He defended the exiled John Chrysostom and consulted with the bishops of Africa concerning the Pelagian controversy. He was also the pope when the issue of the Biblical canon was settled for good. Until Innocent’s papacy the question of what books belong in the Bible and which ones do not was a hot topic. Pardon my dribble, but I do feel the need to write about the controversies that Innocent was involved in. They concern church dogma which is a sore spot with me. Spoiler alert: DOGMA SUCKS (says the ordained minister). I’d get into trouble with my presbytery if they read that remark. But I don’t care. I defended Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam during my examination for ordination, and they ordained me anyway. So, they knew what they were getting. In any case, I’m not a member of my presbytery in New York any more. I belong to Buenos Aires presbytery and most of them can’t speak English. Furthermore, they never showed any interest in me when I lived in Argentina, and I’m sure they care even less now that I live in Asia. I could, in theory, join a newly formed presbytery in Cambodia, but that seems a bit excessive. I’m retired from pastoral work, and the last thing in the world (anywhere in the world), I want to do is attend presbytery meetings.

We know very little about the early life of Innocent, and the sources are deeply conflicting. According to his biographer in the Liber Pontificalis, Innocent was a native of Albano Laziale (now a comune in the city of Rome) and the son of a man called Innocentius, but his contemporary St Jerome referred to him as the son of the previous pope, Anastasius I, a unique case (as far as we know) of a son succeeding his father in the papacy. According to Urbano Cerri, Innocent was a native of Albania (which sounds to me like a misidentification of Albano – but maybe it’s the other way around).

Innocent I was a vigorous defender of the papacy’s right to be the ultimate resort for the settlement of all ecclesiastical disputes, and he set the stage in that regard for centuries to come. His communications with Victricius of Rouen, Exuperius of Toulouse, Alexander of Antioch and others, as well as his actions on the appeal made to him by John Chrysostom against Theophilus of Alexandria, show that opportunities of this kind were numerous and varied. I’ll spare you the drama associated with Chrysostom. It has little to do with church dogmatics, and much more to do with politics in the empire, and power struggles in the church in the east. Pelagius is another matter.

Pelagius was a Celtic monk who was accused by Augustine of Hippo and others of denying the need for divine aid in performing good works. They understood him to have said that the only grace necessary was the affirmation of the law of God. He was further accused of saying that humans were not wounded by Adam’s sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law without divine aid. More importantly, Pelagius denied Augustine’s theory of original sin, that is, all humans (with the exception of Mary and her mother) bear Adam’s sin and have to be baptized to remove the sin, otherwise they are denied entry into heaven. Well in my oh-so-humble opinion, the doctrine of original sin is nonsense. The doctrine, along with a whole raft of dogma clung to by the Catholic church, is the result of theologians like Augustine applying the logic of Aristotle to the Bible. When you start applying logic, spirituality goes out the window and you are left with dogma. I’ll go with spirituality.

Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, On Nature and Defense of the Freedom of the Will. In these, he defends his position on sin and sinlessness, and accuses Augustine of being under the influence of Manichaeism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine. Manichaeism stressed that the (human) spirit was created by God, while material substance (the body) was corrupt and evil. St Paul probably believed this, so I’m not sure that all the shouting was about. Pelagius held that everything created by God was good, therefore, he could not see how God had made humans fallen creatures. (Augustine’s teachings on the Fall of Adam was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began.) The view that humans can avoid sinning, and that we can freely choose to obey God’s commandments, stand at the core of Pelagian teaching. Pelagius stressed human autonomy and freedom of the will. Of course, as always in the case of teacher and disciple, there is a difference between what Pelagius taught, and what his followers believed. Most theologians now believe that Pelagius was completely orthodox in his teachings.

Pelagianism was condemned at the 15th Council of Carthage in 411. Afterwards, Augustine and four other bishops wrote a letter urging Pope Innocent I to condemn Pelagianism which he did. He also confirmed the decisions of the synod of the province of proconsular Africa, held in Carthage in 416, confirming the condemnation which had been pronounced in 411 against Cælestius, who shared the views of Pelagius. He also wrote in the same year in a similar sense to the fathers of the Numidian synod of Mileve. Augustine was shocked that Pelagius and Celestius were not denounced as heretics, however, and called the Council of Carthage in 418 (one year after Innocent’s death) and laid out nine points of dogma which Pelagius was accused of denying:

    Death came from sin, not man’s physical nature.

    Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.

    Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.

    The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God’s commandments.

    No good works can come without God’s grace.

    We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.

    The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.

    The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.

    Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

If I were you, I’d read the list, laugh, and forget about it. If you want to put it in a nutshell, Augustine and his ilk are saying that humans are bad through and through, but are saved by God’s grace. Otherwise, they will just be pure evil. Your free will is no help. Furthermore, if you are not baptized (properly – by a priest), you can’t go to heaven. Where’s my rubbish bin?

It is accepted that the canon of the Bible was closed c. 405 by Innocent, when he sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse, confirming the list approved by the Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), and identical with the much later pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1545-63), except for some uncertainty in the manuscript tradition about whether the letters ascribed to Paul were 14 or only 13, in the latter case possibly implying omission of the Epistle to the Hebrews (which actually makes no claims to Pauline authorship anyway). Innocent’s canon is the current Catholic Bible which contains 73 books. Innocent did no more than assert that he was the final authority, and it was time to move on. Protestants later excluded 7 of the books that Catholics included (and Luther wanted to exclude many more). Like it or not, you have to accept the fact that the Bible was created by humans, with a great deal of debate about what should be included and what excluded, for several centuries. Innocent ended the debate for Catholics, but that should not be the end of the matter if you have a brain and actually use it. The supposed “authority” of the Bible – in ALL matters if you listen to some people – rests on accepting the decisions that clergy made over 16 centuries ago according to their ideas of what Christianity is, and should be. If you believe that their decisions were guided exclusively by the hand of God, you put more trust in them than I do.

Innocent died on 12 March 417. Accordingly, his feast day is now celebrated on 12th March, though from the 13th to the 20th century he was commemorated on 28th July. In 846, Pope Sergius II gave approval for the relics/remains of Innocent to be moved by Duke Liudolf of Saxony, along with those of his father and predecessor Anastasius, to the crypt of the former collegiate church of Gandersheim, now Gandersheim Abbey, where they now rest.

Gandersheim is in Lower Saxony, so I’ll go with a popular recipe from the region rather than a 5th century Roman recipe recreation (for variety’s sake). If you want to visit Innocent’s relics you have to visit Gandersheim, and you should try out the local specialties. They’re all based on peasant dishes and are hearty rather than refined (in the haute cuisine sense). I’ll go with Steckrübeneintopf (turnip stew). Despite the name, meat is an important part of this dish, but you can use almost all kinds of meat. You can use chicken, lamb, beef or pork, and local sausages may also be included, such as Bregenwurst, Kohlwurst, Pinkelwurst. In the recipe ingredient list I’ve just put 1 lb of meat. You choose, either one kind or a mixture.  “Turnip” (Steckrüben) here means swede or rutabaga.  You can cook this dish in a casserole in the oven after browning all the ingredients if you prefer, or use a slow cooker. I’m a stovetop kinda guy because it gives me more control. Cooking times will vary enormously depending on the meat that you choose.



1 lb meat, cut into serving pieces
8 oz bacon, chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
¼ cup butter
5 cups broth (approx)
2 ½ rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery root, peeled and diced
1 lb potatoes peeled and diced
2 tsp chopped fresh marjoram
5 tbsp heavy cream (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp chopped fresh savory
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper


Melt half of the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot and sauté the bacon until lightly browned. Add the meat and continue cooking until it is browned on all sides, stirring regularly. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Set aside the cooked ingredients from the pot, melt the rest of the butter in the same pot, add the vegetables and sauté until soft.

Add back the cooked meats and onions, plus the broth to cover, and herbs. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer, lid on, for about an hour and a half. Check the seasonings and make sure the meat is cooked through. Add cream if you wish, stir, and garnish with parsley. Serve in the cooking pot.

Oct 092016


Today is World Post Day. It commemorates the date of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in Bern, Switzerland. The UPU was the start of a global communications revolution which allowed people to write to others all over the world. October 9th was first declared World Post Day at the 1969 UPU Congress in Tokyo. Since then, World Post Day has been celebrated all over the world to highlight the importance of the postal services.

In these days of the internet and email we can forget the obstacles that had to be overcome as late as the 1870s to get a letter from one country to the next. Prior to the establishment of the UPU, each country had to prepare a separate postal treaty with other nations it wished to carry international mail to or from. In some cases, senders would have to calculate postage for each leg of a journey, and potentially find mail forwarders in a third country if there was no direct delivery. To simplify the complexity of this system, the United States called for an International Postal Congress in 1863. This led Heinrich von Stephan, Royal Prussian and later German Minister for Posts, to found the Universal Postal Union. It is currently the third oldest international organization after the Rhine Commission and the ITU. The UPU was created in 1874, initially under the name “General Postal Union”, as a result of the Treaty of Bern signed on October 9, 1874. Four years later, the name was changed to “Universal Postal Union.”


The UPU established that:

There should be a uniform flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world

Postal authorities should give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail

Each country should retain all money it has collected for international postage.

One of the most important results of the UPU Treaty was that it ceased to be necessary, as it often had been previously, to affix the stamps of any country through which one’s letter or package would pass in transit. The UPU provides that stamps of member nations are accepted for the entire international route. Toward the end of the 19th century, the UPU issued rules concerning stamp design, intended to ensure maximum efficiency in handling international mail. One rule specified that stamp values be given in numerals (denominations spelled out in letters not being universally comprehensible), another, that member nations all use the same colors on their stamps issued for post cards (green), normal letters (red) and international mail (blue), a system that remained in use for several decades.

After the foundation of the United Nations, the UPU became a specialized agency of the UN in 1948. In 1969, the UPU introduced a new system of payment where fees were payable between countries according to the difference in the total weight of mail between them. These fees were called terminal dues. Ultimately, this new system was fairer when traffic was heavier in one direction than the other. For example, in 2012, terminal dues for transit from China to the USA was 0.635 SDR/kg, or about 1 USD/kg.

I’m old enough to remember when sending a letter internationally was the only effective way to stay in touch with friends and family, and how exciting it was to find a letter from Kenya or England in my mail box. I would keep those letters and read them again and again. Ancient history. Imagine, therefore, how amazing it was – not all that long ago – to be able to communicate with people abroad AT ALL. Until the 1980s we would stick a stamp on a letter and send it off to someone in another country, and not even stop to think about what was involved. Who pays for transit once the letter leaves your home country? How do you guarantee safe transit abroad? Etc. etc. These problems still exist although most international communication now involves telephone and internet. Packages are still an issue, however. A year ago I tried to send a package from China to the U.S. and it took over a month to work out the details with the Chinese postal service. I’ve also wrestled with problems in Argentina and on Easter Island.


What I miss most in the electronic age is having a tangible artifact in my hands from friends abroad. The letter I held in my hand from a friend abroad was solid, real. It was once in that person’s hands and is now in mine. The paper was distinctive, the handwriting was distinctive. Of course I love having instant messages from all over the world, but the physical tangibility is missing. The words are there, but not the body. In his essay “Self Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that every technological advance comes with a human price tag. That is certainly true of the replacement of “snail mail” with binary code traveling across the internet in electronic blips at the speed of light. There was a time once when my living room was festooned each Christmas with cards from around the world, making my house rich with a physical sense of connectivity. All gone.

Mailing letters is definitely a rarity for me these days but I do send packages. Quite often I send edibles as presents with unusual herbs and spices featuring heavily. True cinnamon is one grand favorite. Most cinnamon sold commercially is cassia, Cinnamomum cassia: nice enough in its way, and very useful, but nowhere near as aromatic and complex as Cinnamomum verum or “true cinnamon.” I’ve never found it in stores, only online, so if I want it myself or to send it to someone (usually my sister) I have to use the international postal service. The old botanical synonym for the tree—Cinnamomum zeylanicum—is derived from Sri Lanka’s former name, Ceylon. Sri Lanka still produces 80–90% of the world’s supply of Cinnamomum verum, which is also cultivated on a commercial scale in the Seychelles and Madagascar.

Cinnamomum verum trees are 10–15 meters (32.8–49.2 feet) tall. The leaves are ovate-oblong in shape and 7–18 cm (2.75–7.1 inches) long. The flowers, which are arranged in panicles, have a greenish color and a distinct odor. The fruit is a purple 1-cm drupe containing a single seed which can be used as a flavoring although rare. The bark is the source of the spice.


Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity. It was imported into Egypt as early as 2000 BCE. Cinnamon was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and even for a god; a Greek inscription records the gift of cinnamon and cassia to the temple of Apollo at Miletus. Its source was kept mysterious in the Mediterranean world for centuries by the middlemen who handled the spice trade, to protect their monopoly as suppliers. True cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, and Burma. The first Greek reference to cinnamon is found in a poem by Sappho in the 7th century BCE where it is mixed with myrrh and frankincense. According to Herodotus, both cinnamon and cassia grew in Arabia, together with incense, myrrh, and ladanum, and were guarded by winged serpents. The phoenix was reputed to build its nest from cinnamon and cassia. Herodotus mentions other writers who believed the source of cassia was the home of Dionysos, located somewhere east or south of Greece.

The Greeks used kásia or malabathron to flavor wine, together with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). While Theophrastus gives a good account of the plants, he describes a curious method for harvesting: worms eat away the wood and leave the bark behind. Egyptian recipes for kyphi, an aromatic used for burning, included cinnamon and cassia from Hellenistic times onward. The gifts of Hellenistic rulers to temples sometimes included cassia and cinnamon, as well as incense, myrrh, and Indian incense (kostos), so one might conclude that the Greeks used it for similar purposes.


The Hebrew Bible makes specific mention of the spice many times: first when Moses is commanded to use both sweet cinnamon (Hebrew: קִנָּמוֹן, qinnāmôn) and cassia in the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-25); in Proverbs where the lover’s bed is perfumed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon (Proverbs 7:17); and in Song of Solomon, a song describing the beauty of his beloved, cinnamon scents her garments like “the smell of Lebanon” (Song of Solomon 4:11-14). Cassia was also part of the ketoret, the consecrated incense described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It was offered on the specialized incense altar in the time when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem temples. The ketoret was an important component of the temple service in Jerusalem. Psalm 45:8 mentions the garments of the king (or of Torah scholars) that smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia.

Pliny gives an account of the early spice trade across the Red Sea that cost Rome 100 million sesterces each year. Cinnamon was brought around the Arabian peninsula on “rafts without rudders or sails or oars,” taking advantage of the winter trade winds. Pliny also mentions cassia as a flavoring agent for wine. According to Pliny, a Roman pound (327 grams (11.5 oz)) of cassia, cinnamon, or serichatum cost up to 300 denarii, ten months’ wages for a laborer. Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices from 301 gives a price of 125 denarii for a pound of cassia, while an agricultural laborer earned 25 denarii per day. Cinnamon was too expensive to be commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome, but the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply at the funeral for his wife Poppaea Sabina 65.

Through the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the Western world. From reading Latin writers who quoted Herodotus, Europeans had learned that cinnamon came up the Red Sea to the trading ports of Egypt, but where it came from was less than clear. When the Sieur de Joinville accompanied his king to Egypt on crusade in 1248, he reported – and believed – what he had been told: that cinnamon was fished up in nets at the source of the Nile out at the edge of the world (i.e., Ethiopia). Marco Polo avoided precision on the topic. Herodotus and other authors named Arabia as the source of cinnamon. They recounted that giant cinnamon birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests, and that the Arabs employed a trick to obtain the sticks. Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century that traders had made this up to charge more, but the story remained current in Byzantium as late as 1310. You can get yours by international post direct from Sri Lanka. You’ll still pay a fair price, but not ten months’ salary. Its aroma is magnificent. You’ll never go back to cassia.


Jan 052016


Today is the birthday (1906) of Kathleen Kenyon noted British archeologist whose digs in Jericho and Jerusalem helped change the pattern and aims of archeology in the Near East. Her book, Digging Up Jericho (1957), made her a celebrity in Britain and subsequently in Europe when it was translated into multiple languages.


She was the eldest daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, biblical scholar and later director of the British Museum. Her grandfather, John Robert Kenyon, was a lawyer and Fellow of All Souls College, and her great-great-grandfather was the politician and lawyer Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon. She grew up in Bloomsbury in London, in a house attached to the British Museum, with her mother, Amy Kenyon, and sister Nora Kenyon. Kenyon’s father encouraged wide reading and independent study and in later years she noted that her father’s position at the British Museum was particularly helpful in her self education. Kenyon was an excellent student, winning awards at school and particularly excelling in history. She studied first at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she was Head Girl, before winning an Exhibition to read History at Somerville College, Oxford. While at Oxford, Kenyon won a Blue in hockey and became the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. She graduated in 1929 and began a life-long career in archaeology.


Working in archaeology was first suggested to Kenyon by Margery Fry, librarian at Somerville College. After graduation Kenyon’s first field experience was as a photographer for the pioneering excavations at Great Zimbabwe in 1929, led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson. Returning to England, Kenyon joined the team of Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa Wheeler on their excavation of the Romano-British settlement of Verulamium (St Albans). Working there each summer between 1930 and 1935, Kenyon was schooled by Mortimer Wheeler in the discipline of meticulously controlled and recorded stratigraphic excavation, which later led to her own refinements – a vital component in her own work. Wheeler entrusted her with the direction of the excavation of the Roman theatre.

As a small aside I have to mention the 1950s television show “Animal Vegetable or Mineral” where three distinguished archaeologists, under the chairmanship of Glyn Daniel, attempted to identify ancient artifacts, presented each week by a different museum. Mortimer Wheeler was a regular panelist and Kenyon appeared once. I can’t imagine such a show being produced these days – archeologists sitting around discussing the details of pots, sculptures and such !!! Impossible. Wheeler was famous for announcing now and again, “I was there when they dug it up.” Here’s a sample – absolutely hilarious.

In the years 1931 to 1934 Kenyon worked simultaneously at Samaria, then under the administration of the British Mandate for Palestine, with John Crowfoot and Grace Crowfoot. There she cut a stratigraphic trench across the summit of the mound and down the northern and southern slopes, exposing the Iron II to the Roman period stratigraphic sequence of the site. In addition to providing crucial dating material for the Iron Age stratigraphy of Palestine, she obtained key stratified data for the study of Eastern terra sigilata ware.


In 1934 Kenyon was closely associated with the Wheelers in the foundation of the Institute of Archaeology of University College London. From 1936 to 1939 she carried out important excavations at the Jewry Wall in the city of Leicester. These were published in the Illustrated London News (1937) with pioneering reconstruction drawings by the artist Alan Sorrell whom she had happened to notice sketching her dig.

During the Second World War, Kenyon served as Divisional Commander of the Red Cross in Hammersmith, London, and later as Acting Director and Secretary of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London. After the war, she excavated in Southwark, at The Wrekin, Shropshire and elsewhere in Britain, as well as at Sabratha, a Roman city in Libya. As a member of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ), Kenyon was involved in the efforts to reopen the School after the hiatus of the Second World War. In January 1951 she travelled to the Transjordan and undertook excavations in the West Bank at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) on behalf of the BSAJ.


Her Initial findings were first viewed by the public in the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain 1951 with a reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell. Her work at Jericho, from 1952 until 1958, made her world famous and established a lasting legacy in the archaeological methodology of the Levant. Ground-breaking discoveries concerning the Neolithic cultures of the Levant were made in this ancient settlement. Her excavation of the Early Bronze Age walled city and the external cemeteries of the end of the Early Bronze Age, together with her analysis of the stratified pottery of these periods established her as the leading authority on that period. Kenyon focused her attention on the absence of certain Cypriot pottery at City IV, arguing for an older destruction date than that of her predecessors. Jericho was recognized as the oldest continuously occupied settlement in history because of her discoveries. At the same time she also completed the publication of the excavations at Samaria. Her volume, Samaria Sebaste III: The Objects, appeared in 1957. Having completed her excavations at Jericho in 1958, Kenyon excavated in Jerusalem from 1961 to 1967, concentrating on the ‘City of David’ to the immediate south of the Temple Mount.

Although Kenyon had no doubt the sites she excavated were linked to the Old Testament narrative she nevertheless drew attention to inconsistencies, concluding, for example, that Solomon’s “stables” at Megiddo were totally impractical for holding horses, and that Jericho fell long before Joshua’s arrival. Consequently, Kenyon’s work has been cited to support the Minimalist School of Biblical Archaeology.


Kenyon’s work is now seen as transitional between old-school Biblical archeology and modern Near Eastern archeology. The goal of the former was simply to support Biblical narratives and, in consequence, focused on sites mentioned in the Bible. Modern Near Eastern archeology broke away from a focus on Biblical sites to view the Levant as worthy of study independently of Biblical history. As such we now have a much broader view of the historical cultures of the region as context for Biblical analysis. One of the great casualties of this method is the whole Exodus and Conquest of Israel sequence, which is completely unsupported by archeology (not to mention the absence of evidence for the kingships of David and Solomon). Kenyon hastened the demise of classic Biblical archeology although she still had one foot in that camp.

Kenyon was in her last year as principal of St Hugh’s college, Oxford in 1973 when I was finished with required studies in theology and could spend some time on optional papers. I could have asked to have been taken on by Kenyon as my tutor, but chose instead to focus on Byzantine church history. One of my college mates did work with Kenyon and, as I had suspected, spent a term identifying and memorizing potsherds. I knew this would be his fate having already read Archaeology in the Holy Land which is precious little more than page upon page of pen and ink drawings of assemblages with attendant dates. It took me decades to recover. Nowadays I understand their importance, but I leave the meticulous work to the experts and simply draw on their conclusions. As it happens, Byzantine church history was just as tiresome in that it was taught by an absolute dullard with not an original thought in his brain.

From 1948 to 1962 Kenyon lectured in Levantine Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, her teaching complementing her excavations at Jericho and Jerusalem. In 1962, she was appointed Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and retired in 1973 whereupon she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire.

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Jericho was known in antiquity for a number of products including olives and dates – timeless products enjoyed as much today as thousands of years ago. I suggest making a plate of foods associated with the region. I do this for a quick light meal. The centerpiece can be flatbread with yoghurt and olives, to which you can add goat cheese, dates, figs, and even a pomegranate for good luck.

Sep 302013
St Jerome

St Jerome

International Translation Day is celebrated every year on 30 September on the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators. The celebrations have been promoted by FIT (the International Federation of Translators) ever since it was set up in 1953. In 1991 FIT launched the idea of an officially recognized International Translation Day to show solidarity of the worldwide translation community in an effort to promote the translation profession in different countries. So let’s have a little fun with the art of translating.

FIT chose this date because it is the feast of St Jerome who, although he wrote extensively, is most widely remembered for his Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was the standard Latin Bible used by the Catholic church for centuries. Pope Damasus I commissioned the translation in 382 to replace older, less reliable, translations.

It is probably true that the Bible is the most translated book of all time. Currently it is available in about 518 languages as a whole work, but there are parts of it in as many as 2798 languages. Obviously these numbers are constantly changing.  Translating the Bible highlights some of the basic problems of translation in general.  How, for example, do you go about translating Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” into a language that has only two color terms, or for an equatorial people who have no idea what snow is, let alone have a word for it? There’s also the daunting question of what the original Hebrew and Greek texts actually meant. When Paul refers to pneuma or psyche both of which can be translated as “breath” or “life” (and get translated variously as “soul” or “spirit”) what was his understanding of these concepts? And, in a related vein, which English translation of the Bible is the most accurate, or most effectively renders the original ideas? There is precious little agreement among scholars.  Failures of translation can lead to considerable misunderstanding.  Jerome himself made many mistakes.

Jerome learnt Hebrew so that he could translate the Hebrew scriptures directly from Hebrew manuscripts rather than relying on the Septuagint which was a Greek translation that Jews in the Diaspora, who could not read Hebrew, had used for centuries. His idea was to avoid compounding errors that would inevitably arise from translating from a Greek version that was already on an approximation of the original Hebrew. Best practice, then as now, is to go to the source. The problem is that Jerome was not a great Hebrew scholar and so made a number of errors.  The classic is his description of Moses descending from Mt Sinai after receiving the Law from God.  In Hebrew he is described as Q-R-N. The original text has upper case consonants and no vowels. The reader fills in the vowels.  Usually there is no ambiguity, but in this case there could be.  The word that was meant was “qaran” (radiant), but Jerome read it as “qeren” (horned), thus spawning centuries of art showing Moses with horns, and engendering the belief among non-Jews that Jewish babies were born with horns.


Mistranslation can be a very serious problem. In 1980, 18 year old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a poorly bilingual staff member.  The family said that Willie was “intoxicado” which has several meanings, but in general means “poisoned” and typically refers to food poisoning – which is what the family thought was wrong.  The translator, however, told the doctors that Willie was “intoxicated.” He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

Spanish and English share a large number of cognates – words that sound similar and mean roughly the same thing.  But there are also false cognates – words that sound similar but have distinct meanings (even though there is usually some root connexion). These are sometimes called “false friends.”  Obvious ones are “actual” (current),” embarazada” (pregnant), and “decepción” (disappointment). But the one that might cause you most problems is to go to the doctor and say you are “constipado.” Literally it means “stuffed up” but in the nose, not the other end. “Estoy constipado” means “I have a cold.”

Spanish has the additional problem that there are so many dialects worldwide due to 16th colonization followed by isolation.  New populations cut off from Spain drifted off linguistically from the mother tongue, sometimes by incorporating words from local native languages, and sometimes because they retained old ways of speaking that died out in Spain. For example, in Argentina and many other regions of Latin America the informal second person pronoun is “vos” (not “”). This was common in 16th century Spain but has long since died out there.  Here’s a humorous song about Spanish dialects.  It’s in Spanish but there are English subtitles if you need them.

Qué difícil es hablar el español

In the 1950’s in Japan chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Apparently one company, because of a mistranslation gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that’s what they do to this day.  Men get to reciprocate on March 14.


Back translation is also an interesting phenomenon. This involves taking a translation and translating it back into the original work without seeing the original.  Mark Twain discovered a French version of his short story “The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras” which he then proceeded to translate literally word for word back into English retaining the French word order.  He then published all three together to much laughter.  You can do something similar with the app you will find if you click here.

It’s called Bad Translator. You enter an English phrase which it then translates into another language randomly, then back into English. It then picks another language at random and repeats the process.  You can instruct it to repeat up to 35 times.  Given my Biblical theme I entered Psalm 23:1 with the result:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
…35 translations later, Bing gives us:
“The Lord is my shepherd, and will not work.”

Have fun with it.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “El original no es fiel a la traducción” which is quite reasonably translated as, “The original is not faithful to the translation.” Typical Borges.  He is well known for his translations and for his playfulness with the art. At nine he translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish. It was published in a local journal, but his friends thought the real author was his father. Later he translated works of literature from English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of a part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, André Gide, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. Borges wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation, holding that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally legitimate. Along with publishing genuine translations, he also published original works, for example, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or One Thousand and One Nights, claiming them to be translations of works he had chanced upon (but which did not exist).


I have often had the need to translate recipes. Translating a modern recipe in a modern European language is usually fairly straightforward.  But recipes from cultures that are vastly different from Europe, or come from centuries-old cultures, present deeper problems.  Besides basic concerns about translating the text, there are issues such as knowing what the ingredients actually are and if you can substitute (i.e. translate) them for ones you have to hand without doing too much violence to the original. There’s also the question of replicating cooking methods. Take, for example, this 14th century English recipe for roast swan.

11. For to dihyte a swan. Tak & vndo hym & wasch hym, & do on a spite & enarme hym fayre & roste hym wel; & dysmembre hym on þe beste manere & mak a fayre chyne, & þe sauce þerto schal be mad in þis manere, & it is clept:

12. Chaudon. Tak þe issu of þe swan & wasch it wel, & scoure þe guttes wel with salt, & seth þe issu al togedere til it be ynow, & þan tak it vp and wasch it wel & hew it smal, & tak bred & poudere of gyngere & of galyngale & grynde togedere & tempere it with þe broth, & coloure it with þe blood. And when it is ysothe & ygrounde & streyned, salte it, & boyle it wel togydere in a postnet & sesen it with a litel vynegre.

The language itself is reasonably easy to understand.  You just have to look up a few words such as “dihyte” (prepare), “enarme” (lard), and so forth (as well as understand that the letter “þ” (thorn) stands for “th”).  Otherwise the roasting part is simple, even a bit longer than it need be. I mean, what’s to know? Gut the bird, lard it, put it on a spit, roast it, then carve it.  There is, of course, the minor question of where to get a swan to roast in the first place. In a sense this is the “untranslatable” part of the recipe.  Any bird you choose, such as a goose, will not be right. The larding is also not fully clear.  Swan would be dry and tough, and therefore would need some additional fat injected into the meat. Nowadays you would thread bacon strips with a larding needle. You could also make deep slits and push in fat pork. The instructions here are not clear.

The sauce represents a different sort of challenge.  You can replicate the ingredients well enough but can you make it anything like the original (assuming that the innards of a duck or goose have a similar taste to a swan’s)? The basic ingredients are giblets, salt, broth, bread, ginger, galingale, blood, and vinegar. Galingale (or galangal) is related to ginger and is used commonly in SE Asian cooking. It’s not hard to find.  Blood is a bit harder to come by.  Here in Argentina I can buy undressed fowl, so there is usually enough. I don’t think it is so important anyway; it seems to be mainly for color. However, without knowing the ratios of the main ingredients it is impossible to know whether this should be a thick sauce, like bread sauce, or thinner like a gravy, or somewhere in between.  Here’s a stab at it:



1 set of giblets plus whatever blood there is
2 pints chicken stock
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp galangal
1 cup white breadcrumbs
2 tbsps vinegar


Simmer the giblets (and blood) in the stock until tender (1 hour or more).

Remove the giblets and chop them very fine. Return them to the stock with the breadcrumbs and spices. Simmer gently again for at least an hour, until the bread and stock are fully incorporated and smooth. Add salt if necessary.

Add the vinegar just before serving.