Friday, February 20, 2015

Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies, by Sacha Stern

Stern, Sacha. Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
From the biography page at University College London:
Sacha Stern is Professor of Rabbinic Judaism and Head of Department at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He holds a BA in Ancient History from Oxford (1986), an MA in Social Anthropology from UCL (1988), and a D.Phil in Jewish Studies from Oxford (1992). He has also studied in Yeshivot in Israel. Before joining UCL in 2005, he was Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Jews' College, London and then Reader in Jewish Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). [link]
Stern has done extensive academic research and publication on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, especially as those relate to the peoples and cultures of the Bible.

Calendars in Antiquity is 430 pages, 20 page dibliography, and index.

Stern's focus is to counter the generally held theories concerning the development of calendars which he belives are flawed. Two main issues addressed are:
  1.  that the development of the calendar "cannot be simply explained as the result of Egyptian influence" (p. 427)
  2.  that the calendar is not "the inevitable outcome of some deterministic progression from 'primitive' to 'advanced'; indeed, the evolution of calendars had little to do with what we would call scientific progress.' (ibid.)
In this review I will focus on just a few of Stern's arguments with some detail and then summarize. My hope is to help draw out some examples of the benefits of this work to the Biblical exegete.

Stern's methodology is to focus on the historical cultural aspects of how calendars functioned in their societies and the societal influences that can be shown or reasonably understood to have influenced the changes. Since those influences can be very broad, Stern focuses particularly on the political aspects of cultural forces. Stern limits his calendrical focus chiefly to units of time as they affect annual reckoning. Thus he does not go into detail on how each of the different societies reckoned the hours of the day except as it relates to how the begining of a month or year was fixed. He also limited his study to societies of Classical Antiquity and their interactions leading to the development of the Julian Calendar in late antiquity. Stern does not include calendar traditions from the Far East, ancient America, or later developments like the Islamic calendar.

The study is divided into two main parts: 
  • Part I: From City States to Great Empires: The Rise of the Fixed Calendar.
  • Part II: The Empires Challenged and Dissolved: Calendar Diversity and Fragmentation.
The first part looks at how the various societies that participated in Classical Antiquity reckoned time.

In ancient Greece and Babylon (Chaptes 1 and 2) the calendars were lunar, as was the calendar of Republican Rome. The evidence from Europe also leads us to conclude that the Celtic/Gaulic and German calendars were also lunar.
And there was, for example: among the Greeks and Babylonians, great variety in naming and reckoning months, festivals, and when the new year was to be counted. Individual city-states kept their own month-names and methods of intercalation. This is shown by multiple dating on inscriptions of treaties and contracts.

Intercalation and calendar "tampering" were essentially political tools which not only helped keep the lunar reckoning of time in line with the yearly seasons, but also allowed rulers to do things like: avoid missing a religious festival because a battle was taking place; extend the days to allow tribute and taxes to be brought in before a deadline; and extend their term of office. In the case of the Babylonian city states and the rise of the neo-Assyrian (8th-7th cent. BC) it was the king who declared the first of the month.

The process of unifying calendars between these groups took place when city-states formed alliances or were made part of a larger regional political power.

Stern argues that these lunar calendars were not less rational, less scientific, or less emperical than our current Gregorian/Julian Calendar. These calendars were actually very much emperical as they depended upon the actual observation of the new moon to establish the beginning of a month. The intercalations were based on both natural and societal realities (agricultural, political, and religious). And, being tied to the moon, they were solidly based in a method of reckoning that was available to and understood by most members of their societies. 

They were not origninally solar nor were they originally stellar calendars. Thus the first month (moon) of a year would not begin on the same day of the solar year as we reckon time. Religious festivals, which also varied from one city-state to another, could be delayed with intercalation (the adding of a month) or hastened by suppression (ignoring or eliminating days from the count). But they were not at first tied to solar events (equinox, solstice, etc.) nor to the direct timing of stellar events (the heliacal rising of Pliedes). 

The development of astronomical calendars in Ancient Greece from the late 5th century BC (Meton) and early 4th century BC (Callippus) is a feature limited mainly to Athens. Stern uses inscriptional and historical writings from the period to demonstrate that the astronomical calendars were not used for civic dating. For example, astronomical dates based on these reckonings are ignored by Herotodus and Thucidides. Medical works from the Classical period reference astronomical phenomena, but not as a chronological dating tool. It is only in later with writers [like Diodorus and Geminus (mid to late 1st cent. BC)] who project the Callipic Cycle or Metonic Cycle back upon historical events as an absolute chronological dating scheme. Other lines of evidence include the later (3rd cent. BC) introduction of the parapegmata (a calendar peg-board set up in public) which mentioned astronomical and weather events as part of the count of days.

For the early Babylonians the calenders consisted of months of either 29 or 30 days. This calendar length of the month determined by the sighting of the next new moon. The unification of calendars in Mesopotamia began in the 2nd millenium BC and is tied together with the unification of the city-states under the Assyrian kingdom in 1100 BC. From the influence of this kingdom the month names it chose as standard were spread throughout its region of influence. 

These month names and calendar practice influenced also the names of the months and how they were reckoned by the people of Israel as they settled in Canaan and were impacted by Assyria and neo-Babylonia.

While literature of astronomy/astrology began earlier in Mesopotamia than in Greece (Astrological Omen Lists, letters of astrologers to kings), the chief calendrical function of the astrologer was to site the new moon and report to the king. These documents demonstrate that they had the astronomical knowledge to predict when the new moon should occur. However the calendar still depended upon emperical sighting and political authority. The king would choose to declare the new month. The year consisted of 12 or 13 months, depending upon choice of intercalation.

Reports of new moon sightings from the astrologers to the king become very rare from the 6th-1st cent. BC. However, a group of documents called the Astronomical Diaries yield a great deal of information that allow for reasonably precise dates for this period when the modern calendar is retrojected upon the Babylonian lunar calendar. Stern points out that even though there is a very high degree of astronomical knowledge, this did not effect a change from a lunar to a solar calendar. The basic change in the calendar from the older to the newer is in a greater reliance upon predictions of new moons. This reduced dependency upon the limits of a courier to relay the proclamation of new moons, allowing political administration of wider territories.

It is not until the Achaemenid period (5th cent. BC) that evidence of a fixed calendrical cycle to regulate the lunar year. Firm evidence exists from Cyrus' conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The main evidence comes from the astronomical texts called MUL.APIN and the Saros Cannon texts.

By the Selucid period (312-63 BC) a method of calculating the vernal Equinox was developed. This method differs from modern methods and yields different, usually later, dates than the actual equinox. But this calculation seems to have had no clearly evident affect on the method of intercalation used for the Babylonian calendar.

Data of regular intercalations for the Parthian period from AD 224 and following is unclear.

The Babylonian Calendar remained lunar, but became more fixed through time. The method of regularizing the calendar remained true to its emperical use with the lunar month through better and more reliable predictability of the new moon. This reliability of prediction allowed for the calendar's use over a much wider area of political control. The Babylonian Calendar influenced many regional and local calendars. Both its naming conventions and its methods were incorporated by subject peoples. The calendars of the Old Testament Israelites were strongly influenced.

The Egyptian Calendar (Chapter 3) represents the only fixed (and ideally solar) calendar in Classical Antiquity. But as the Egyptian Calendar was fixed at 365 days the first day of the year drifted forward through the actual solar year by 1 day every four years. This method of reckoning the number of days in the year was adopted by many peoples.

The Persian Zoroastrian Calendar, for example, used the same 365 day scheme with the first day of the year moving one solar day earlier every four years. There is no evidence of the Zoroastrian Calendar before the 6th century BC. Also, the only period at which the Persian Zoroastrian Calendar year actually began on or near the vernal equinox was the years 481-479 BC. The source of Egyptian influence most probably came after the Achaemenid empire conquered Egypt under Cambysus in 525 BC. 

Likewise, the Egyptian Calendar's soar length year became the basis for the Julian reforms of the Republican Roman Calendar. Julius Caesar included an extra day every fourth year. This was to prevent the solar drift that occured in the Egyptian and Persian Zoroastrian Calendars. 

The use of a fixed, predictable calendar was a tool of empire that allowed the Romans to manage a much larger region of influence more conveniently than under the previous lunar calendar of the Republic. 

However, the Julian Calendar reforms were not carried out well at first. The use of inclusive counting by Romans appears to have lead to an over intercalation of leap years in the early period so that Augustus had to revise the leap year schedule temporarily in 8 BC.  Also, while the calendar reforms spread very quickly and widely in the western provinces of the empire, the eastern provinces retained a great deal of calendar independence. 

The calendars of Antioch, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jerusalem, and many other cities individualistic. Often they adopted the form of the Julian calendar but retained regional cultural names for the months; maintained a different new year's date; or --as in the case of Jerusalem-- kept a parallel lunar civic calendar that was important to the culture and religion of the local people. The adoption of the Julian reforms in these regions also was not immediate, in some cases not being adopted until the end of the 1st or mid 2nd cent. AD.

In his second part, Stern describes various examples and ways in which local cultures expressed a kind of dissidence to political authority or subversion by modification of the Julian reforms. 

The data and study of the evidence in the above mentioned examples are more than sufficient to recommend this work to the Biblical exegete. The research presented on the Gallic and Jewish Calendars in the sixth chapter stand out as especially useful.

But the closing chapter is extremely valuable. "Secterianism and heresy: From Qumran Calendars to the Christian Easter Controversies."

In this chapter Stern describes, among other things, some of the formative issues for the Rabbinic Calendar as a distinct expression differing from the Judaean/Palestinian Calendar that preceeded it. And in his discussion of the development of the Christian Calendar Stern brings out some very good arguments about how the Christian Calendar began be a confession of Orthodoxy. Highlighted in this discussion are groups which diverged from this calendrical confession for the purpose of expressing their distinction from the Orthodox Catholic Church, such as the Nestorians, Novations, and the Arians when they were opposing the reinstatement of Athanasius.

While Stern's focus is mainly on the political aspects of these divisions, combining his research with a reading of doctrinal and liturgical history is very helpful and enlightening. 

The book is expensive.  $180. Perhaps one can find it for less than that somewhere online. But I would highly recommend this book for seminary libraries, college libraries, and for those interested in chronology, chronography, ancient history, doctrinal history, and the history of the liturgical year.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The History Of Time, by Leofranck Holford-Strevens

The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction by Leofranc Holford-Strevens
The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction
by Leofranc Holford-Strevens

 Oxford University Press, 2005.

Holford-Strevens' discussion is kept at an introductory level, the glossary is necessary. The study of time keeping, days, and calendars requires learning a little specialized vocabulary. And while Holford-Strevens does a good job explaining terms, once they are explained the terms are used.

The book is an introduction. This means that there are no large discussions over controverted issues, no detailed footnotes. But, the discussion and presentation is based on very sound scholarship. The brief discussion in the text does make reference to primary sources where it is beneficial. And Holford-Strevens includes an annotated list of works for further reading.

Seven chapters are followed by two appendixes, a list for further reading, a glossary, and an index.

The chapters follow on the main themes of time keeping:
  1. The day
  2. Months and years
  3. Prehistory and history of the modern calendar
  4. Easter
  5. Weeks and seasons
  6. Other calendars
  7. Marking the year
The introductions to these topics are very helpful in demonstrating not only where certain concepts and structures came from, but also how they were discussed historically.

For example, subdividing the month into 7-day weeks was not a common idea in ancient times. The Romans, from whom our main system of months derive, actually used an 8-day market cycle. It is called nundial (nine-day).

The Romans (and to some extent other cultures too) used an inclusive count for days. Thus a "nine-day" was a Roman market "week" consisting of eight days, starting over again on the ninth day. In the Gospel of John when the disciples are gathered on the "eighth-day" that means a week later, the same day of the week as before. "The third day" is today, tomorrow, and the third.

All in all, the introduction is very helpful for western and near eastern calendars. Holford-Strevens also discusses Chinese, Japanese, and Mesoamerican calendars. While these latter calendars fall a bit outside my research interest, I would still say that this volume's introductions to those calenders were, perhaps, too brief to be helpful.

It is "very short"--only 142 pages in a 4.5x6.75 inch volume, just over 1/4" thick. There are 26 illustrations, mainly of ancient calendars. The format of the book and the size of the page makes many of these illustrations hard to see. For example, the first illustration "Detail of Egyptian diagonal calendar" is photo reduced to fit 5 3/4 x 1 1/2 inch space. This makes any features noted of the calendar in the text very difficult to see because of the small size. Illustration 12, a photo of a sixth century mosaic of Dionysius Exiguus's tables for calculating Easter is printed inverted.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens is also co-editor/author of The Oxford Book of Days (2000), and The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

no two alike

by Keith Baker

Thumbs Up.

This is conceptually a very simple book, but it's beauty is deep.  The book features two fetching little birds who seem to be discovering the winter woods around them.  They notice how even things that seem alike, are each just a little bit different.  That each thing in nature is a unique entity.  The text is done mostly in simple rhyme, that is very appropriate for even the smallest children. 

The illustrations are a highlight of this book, as the pictures are bold and colorful.  They hold hidden interest the closer and longer one looks.  I was surprised to see that the illustrations were digitally done, as they appear to be drawn in a combination of perhaps the rich hues of oil pastels and stamping.

This is a beautiful wintertime story for a read aloud with small children.  Besides the simply told story, there are delights to find and ponder and discuss on each page.  It's an excellent book to be shared between a child and his adult, upon whose lap he is of course, cozily snuggled.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Blue Comet

by Romsemary Wells  Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.

Thumbs Up.

Oscar Ogilvie, Jr. and his dad love model trains.  They spend their extra dollars building up a grand layout in their basement, complete with the right trains for the right routes and stations around the country.  All is well and good until the stock market crashes in 1929 and nobody can afford to buy the John Deere tractors Oscar Ogilvie, Sr. sells for a living.  The house is repossessed and the train layout sold along with the house, for the bank to use as a lobby display.

Oscar Jr. is left with the formidable Aunt Carmen when his father leaves to find work wherever it's to be had.  Oscar finds unexpected friendship, and through that friendship a fantasy adventure that unfolds throughout the rest of the book.

The author includes cameos from several historical figures.  I got a good chuckle when the first one dawned on me.  I had to skim back several pages to refresh my memory of how Ms Wells portrayed this person's disposition. 

The periodic illustrations are beautifully done.  Mr. Ibatoulline includes accurate illustrations for the various historical figures mentioned in the story.  I had fun (and wasted too much time) googling images of these historical persons to figure out which ones were who.

The book would make a good tie-in for the study of the early decades of the 20th century.  It could be used for older children to launch into economics or politics (Progressivism, Great Depression, World Wars), math and science (Einstein and his theories), or a study of any number of early 20th century figures.  A child who loves trains would enjoy reading about the models and layouts.

This is a fun book that would be a great read-aloud for multiple age levels.  For independent reading, I think an eager student in grades 3-5 could manage this story.  But some of the concepts and vocabulary are a bit difficult.  As a read-aloud with my elementary aged kids, I've had to explain a bit of history or economics now and then, and we're only two chapters into the story at this point.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wednesday Sisters

by Meg Waite Clayton

Two Thumbs Up (I could really use a few more thumbs for this one--it's that good.)

The story takes place in a San Francisco Bay area suburb, in the years beginning with 1967.  Frankie tells the story of her friendship with Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally.  Each woman has her own family, worries, heartaches and secret dreams.  The story is told in such a way that the reader feels a part of the evolving friendship these women share.

After meeting weekly at the playground long enough that they begin to feel comfortable with each other, a couple of the friends decide they'd like to use their time together to do some writing.  Some of the women are less interested, but they are good sports about it.  Soon what started out as a playdate for the kids becomes a writing date for the moms.

As the story continues, the readers are drawn along as these women pursue their writing goals.  But within this primary story, we learn of the secret burdens the various women bear.  We rejoice with them as they learn to trust each other; we share with them as they celebrate the good and mourn the heartache in each other's lives; and we see them grow and change throughout the years. 

Interspersed within the story is the societal growing pains the country is experiencing.  The story touches on the women's lib issue, the peace movement, and racial tensions. The women themselves strive to understand these issues.  Each woman brings a different background and personality as she reacts to and assimilates into her person the various social changes.  Ms Clayton accomplishes this very adeptly.  Her characters and their friendships are never simplistic or artificial; they way they interact and the degree to which each embraces the changing cultures is richly developed.

The book will also be helpful for an aspiring author, as the women work through various books on writing, such as E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel.   Each woman has a "model" story against which she compares her own work and to which she turns for inspiration.  A couple of the women are very adept at pulling quotations from books and calling to mind the characters and plots.  And on one occasion the couples get together for a costume party with a "famous couple from literature" theme.  All these snippets offer readers a constant sampling from a literary smorgasbord. 

The author has included a nice appendix in which she offers a paragraph or two on each of women's model books and also reading lists of the others works cited.  I know I'm going to keep our librarian busy with requests from this list, such as The Great Gatsby, Middlemarch, and Breakfast at Tiffany's; I'll also have to try something by Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Plath; and the list goes on and on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Revolt in Paradise

by K'Tut Tantri

Thumbs up.

I picked this book up at a second hand store, while just quickly perusing the shelves and randomly grabbing books with covers or titles that looked interesting.  I'm glad I did.  Although I read this book several months ago, I didn't take the time to write about it immediately, so I'll have to try to reconstruct all the thoughts I had at that time.

K'tut Tantri as she came to be known, was born in Scotland, of Manx (from the Isle of Man) parentage.  She moved with her mother after the first World War to Hollywood, California, where she eventually ended up writing for British publications about various facets of the film industry.  But K'tut describes herself as having too much of the Manx in her to really fit in, in America.  She was an artist and a dreamer.

After seeing a film set in Bali, she decided that is where she was meant to be.  She packed up and moved there in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with little money or preparation.

The book describes her life there, from her first interactions with the Dutch colonial government; to her stumbling upon the palace of the Rajah and coming to secure the close friendship of the Rajah's son, Anak Agung Nura; her stint as a hotel operator; her imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese during World War II; and her time as a freedom fighter for the Indonesians.

I found her account fascinating.  I learned much about the history of Indonesia.  I was appalled at the treatment of the Indonesian peoples by the Dutch during the colonial era, and especially in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Indonesians were seeking their freedom.

The book would be a useful tie-in when teaching about imperialism or for a southeast Asian supplement to a World War II unit.  The content is appropriate for any age; I think the writing itself could be readily enjoyed by a capable junior high aged reader.

I've read a little more about K'tut Tantri since reading this book. Although the book is presented as non-fiction, historians and anthropologists would find her account a reflection of the artistic and dreamy personality embodied in K'tut.  It's filled with a good bit of truth, but also, disappointingly, contains a fantasy element.  I found this obituary interesting.

Heads You Lose

by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

One thumb each direction

Let me be right up front, and begin this review with the reason for the thumb down.  The primary characters in this book are pot growers.  Among some of their buyers are the typical college students and druggies.  But others are nursing home residents, nurses, staff and doctors.  Still more buyers are normal, everyday types who like to now and then smoke pot or sample from the "baked goods" line.   My issue with the book is that it portrays a worldview that sees marijuana use as mainstream.  I can't fully endorse a book that does this.  I understand that many people use pot regularly.  I also understand that in California, where the book is set, the demographics of marijuana use is probably skewed toward a more mainstream percentage of the population.  But I still don't like to see plots that portray illegal activity as normal.

The flip side of the portrayal is that most of those who are totally immersed in the marijuana use lifestyle are the stereotypical pothead types with little or no ambition and who struggle with concentration and memory.  This is a good thing to portray.  It reflects a large part of the pot culture, and the primary dangers from which the law is intended to protect.

Continuing to the thumbs up side of the book, the concept behind Heads You Lose, and its execution, definitely deserves a two thumbs up.

The entire concept of the book, and a big part of its artistic appeal, is the method of collaboration that Ms Lutz chose when she invited friend and poet, David Hayward, to work with her.  She sent her first chapter to Mr. Hayward with the suggestion that they take turns with the chapters, but that they don't consult together on plot ahead of time.  They were allowed to send brief notes along with each chapter, to which the other may respond.  They were allowed to add footnotes during each other's chapters.  But those brief suggestions and criticisms were the only interactions they allowed themselves.

The editors went along with this and the format in which the book is published reflects those rules.  What the readers get is actually both the story of Heads You Lose, and also the story of "The Writing of Heads You Lose".  There was a certain amount of (I think good natured) ribbing along the way as Lutz and Hayward tossed out ideas and criticisms in these notes.

Because of the style of story development, it's somewhat hard to summarize the plot.  In a nutshell, while Lacey is taking out the garbage late one night, she finds a headless body in her yard and frantically tells her brother, Paul, about it as she dials 911.  Before the connection gets through, Paul hangs up the phone.  Because Paul and Lacey grow pot professionally, there are some interior effects in their home that make a visit from the police undesirable.  After a little debate on what to do with the body, they wrap it in a tarp, load it in their pick-up, and drop it into a low spot along the trail at a nearby state park.

Unlike Paul, who is fine with this solution, Lacey feels responsible for the corpse and so cannot rest easily until the case is solved.  But as the bodies stack up, distrust and distance builds between Paul and Lacey; and one by one their friends and acquaintances start to seem shady, or even fearful.

There are some fun twists and turns as the two authors vie for the primacy of their favorite characters and ideas.  The notes back and forth often bring a smile or chuckle.

All in all, I found the concept a pleasing one.  As an aspiring author, I was intrigued by the idea of such an ad hoc collaboration.  I admired the creativity that was loosed in this endeavor.