The Courtier In The Federalist: “Jacob And His Twelve Sons” @ The Frick

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the terrific exhibition “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” now at The Frick Collection. If you have the chance to get to New York between now and the closing of the show on April 22nd, it’s well worth your time, as I explain in the article. My thanks as always to my (very patient) editor Joy Pullman, who somehow manages to condense my excessive art history verbiage into something readable.


Pooping on Paganism: A Remarkable Find in Ancient Israel

The ancient site of Tel Lachish is now a ruin, but in its day the city of Lachish was almost as large as Jerusalem. Lachish is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Chronicles II, Kings II, Micah, and Nehemiah. Outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lachish was also a familiar place to other ancient cultures. The capture and destruction of the city is recounted on the walls of the palace of King Sennacherib, in the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It also appears in the so-called “Amarna Letters”, a group of tablets containing diplomatic correspondence found at Amarna, which was briefly the capital city of Egypt under the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten. Lachish was destroyed and rebuilt many times, until it was finally abandoned sometime during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, we read in the Second Book of Kings that:

In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king…He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.  It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the [pagan] sacred poles…He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
(2 Kings 18:1, 3-4)

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have recently uncovered a gate-shrine in the ancient city, and you can see a video about the dig here. Inside of the city gate was a pagan shrine, containing two altars as well as numerous offering vessels. At some point in the ancient past, the pointed, horn-like corners of the altars were deliberately smashed off. In addition, a rather grand toilet had been installed smack in the middle of the space. This is a particularly interesting find, because it is very similar to what the Bible describes in 2 Kings 10:27.

About a century before King Hezekiah ruled in Judah, King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel, went after the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. He smashed the shrines to Ba’al, and then installed toilets in them so that these places would remain permanently unclean. This is the first time that archeological evidence of this practice has been found. It would not be surprising then that King Hezekiah, in his zeal to stamp out paganism in Judah, would take the same steps as King Jehu had taken in Israel.

In essence, these Jewish kings were telling the pagans: “I poop on your false god.”

Proving or disproving the historicity of events recounted in the Bible is a fruitless exercise. The Tel Lachish excavation simply indicates that the events recounted in the Bible have some basis in fact – they do not turn the Bible into a history textbook. More importantly, and this is the real takeaway here, the find paints a rather vivid picture of the ancient struggle between Judaism and paganism in the Holy Land as something palpable and quite real.

Out of His Depth: In Response to Bernard Starr

Ignorance is bliss, so they say, but ignorance presented as wisdom is simply embarrassing.

Yesterday psychologist Bernard Starr published a piece in The Huffington Post entitled: “Jesus ‘Used to Be Jewish’? That’s Not What the Gospels Say”, which you can read by following this link. In it, Dr. Starr provides some anecdotal information and conclusions he has drawn about research conducted for his new book exploring Jesus’ Jewish roots. Like many authors seeking to draw attention to themselves by doing something dramatic, if one may paraphrase Addison DeWitt, Dr. Starr’s intellect is far too short for that gesture.

At the very beginning of his piece, Dr. Starr comments that “I found that many still believe that Jesus was born Christian and that he launched a new religion.” While it is clear error to believe that Jesus was born a Christian, the choice of phrase, “still believe” would seem to indicate that, in Dr. Starr’s opinion, if you believe that Jesus founded a new religion, you are somehow stuck in a past filled with error. Apparently two thousand years of Catholic teaching can be entirely refuted by someone whose career primary consists of going on the radio to tell old people to do yoga.

Dr. Starr then goes on to explain that the purpose of his book is “the goal of healing antagonisms and closing the longstanding divide between Christianity and Judaism.” To that laudable end, he makes the following observation:

Then when I stumbled on several Medieval and Renaissance paintings of Jesus, his family and disciples, I was struck by their misrepresentations, distortions and anachronisms. This prompted me to examine hundreds of other classic paintings. I even took a walking tour of the Renaissance galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To my astonishment, Jesus, his followers and his Jewish community were consistently pictured as blond, fair-skinned, northern European latter-day Christians, often surrounded by latter-day saints, Christian clergy and Christian artifacts — images totally at odds with biblical facts and without a trace of any Jewish connections. I concluded that these distortions of “omission” established a powerful platform for anti-Semitism that continues to reverberate today. The artworks set the “Christian” Jesus apart from “the Jews,” when, in fact they were all part on the same Semitic tribe of dedicated Jews.

Apparently, Dr. Starr blames European artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for depicting Jesus and His disciples as people from their own culture, rather than as Jews from 1st century Judea. How dare Giotto portray Jesus preaching in a walled town in Tuscany! Burn all the paintings of van der Weyden for having the Circumcision of Jesus take place in a medieval Flemish church!

Following Dr. Starr’s line of reasoning, we must also assume that he is deeply offended by the ancient Ethiopian frescoes of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles as Ethiopians dressed in brightly-colored robes. Not for him Tang Yin’s magnificent “Madonna and Child” from the Ming Dynasty, portraying Jesus as a little Asian boy sporting a traditional Chinese topknot. And whatever you do make sure you do not show him any of the Japanese ivory netsuke of the 17th century portraying Jesus with Asian features, or images of Our Lady of Guadalupe with indigenous Mexican features, and so on.

Dr. Starr’s fundamentally flawed, underlying assumption is that scenes from the Life of Christ which he observed in museums were designed to be realistic depictions of life in Roman Judea. They were not, partially because no one knew what the place looked like; nor, as it happens, is there any description in the Bible of what Jesus Himself looked like. Most European artists of the Medieval and Renaissance periods had never been to the Middle East, nor had the overwhelming majority of the people who would see their work. In fact, most people rarely or never left the town in which they happened to live, because travel was dangerous, unpleasant, and expensive.

From the beginning of Christian art as a genre, it was intended to serve as an aid to prayer, not as an accurate commemoration of an historic event.  As observed by the hugely influential Catholic art theorist Francesco Pacheco, an artist himself and the father-in-law of the greatest of all Spanish painters, Velázquez: “the principal goal of the artist will be to achieve a state of grace through the study and practice of his profession.”  Using images to help people understand and relate to what they were hearing in the Gospels made the stories of Christ and His followers more real to them, particularly in a time when few people could read.

Down the centuries, Jesus has been portrayed in a huge variety of ways by those who have come to believe in Him.  The earliest known artistic portrait of an adult Jesus was painted in Syria, and depicts Him with close-cropped hair, no beard, and wearing the robes of a 3rd century teacher of that era. Clearly, Syrian Christians of that time were not only familiar with the Jews, but many of them were themselves converts from Judaism or descended from such converts. Yet they still chose to portray Jesus symbolically, in a way that seemed most familiar to them, to help them think about their relationship with Him.

Moreover, Dr. Starr’s argument completely crumbles when we see how European artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance portrayed the Romans. It would not have been very difficult at all for an artist of around the year 1400 to have painted the Roman soldiers who appear in the Gospels in proper Roman armor, since many European cities were full of Roman remains which they could have studied. Yet more often than not, the Romans were portrayed anachronistically, either in contemporary European armor, or even in everyday clothing of the era. And yes, the men arresting and torturing Jesus are often blonde-haired and blue-eyed as well.

There are many more examples of error in Dr. Starr’s piece for you to refute and enjoy, if you care for that sort of thing. However it is patently clear to the casual reader that Dr. Starr’s degree is in psychology, for in his article he does little else but try to present his own bias as fact, and to provoke reactions of self-doubt among those too afraid to ask questions or to challenge his ill-founded assumptions. In effect, he displays his own ignorance of the subject matter while attempting to mock that of others on the same subject.

Dr. Starr ends his rather amateurish and poorly-researched romp through Church history by stating that his aim is “to help heal the rift between the religions and galvanize the reconciliation process.” If this article, and the book which it presumably summarizes, serves as an example of how he intends to go about doing that, then quite frankly he has utterly failed. For my part, I will lay my personal hopes for greater Judeo-Christian understanding at the feet of those who are actually qualified to improve upon it.

Detail of “Our Lady of Japan”
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel