The Gilgamesh Epic

Here is the quick summary of the Gilgamesh epic that I promised you last week. As you read it, think about how it compares to the garden of Eden story told in Genesis. To remind you: Genesis was written during the Iron Age, though was told (orally) much earlier. If you choose to believe it was first told/written by Moses, then the date of the Exodus was about 1446 (according to my own calculations).

(The link to my long ramble about when Moses should be dated is here:

The Story of Gilgamesh is actually an epic poem, written in Akkadian, about 2000 BCE (so before Moses). It was written in cuneiform script, which simply means it was written in wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. A chap called George Smith was working at the British Museum in 1872, deciphering things that were stolen/bought/being kept safe (depending on your viewpoint) and he managed to translate a fragment of tablet found in the site that was once Nineveh. (You might recognise Nineveh? Story of Jonah and the whale.) Anyhow, this fragment seemed to have the story of the Genesis flood, and everyone got very excited and sent George back to try and dig up more. I think that this is when Gilgamesh was discovered.

The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the name of a king. He was pretty nasty, so the god Anu decided to create a counterpart, called Enkidu. He is created from clay (similar to Adam in Genesis story) and is made in the image of a god. Enkidu sets off to meet Gilgamesh, but is waylaid by the temptress Shamhat, and they spend a week making love. He is somehow transformed by this, and realises he needs to wear clothes. This frightens the animals (who previously had been his friends) and they run away. He goes off to meet Gilgamesh, they fight and then become friends.

They travel to a forest, which is guarded by Huwawa. They chop down trees, there is a fight, Huwawa is decapitated. The gods are angry and send a bull to punish them, but they kill that too. The gods are more angry, and decide one of the pair should die, so Enkidu is made ill, and then dies, going to ‘the house of dust.’. (There is stuff here about how the gods let him be like a god, but in the end withheld immortality from him, which also mirrors one of the themes in the Genesis story.)

Gilgamesh mourns his friend, and sets off to try and achieve immortality. The poem then has side stories of scorpion people, and lands of darkness, a beautiful garden and a ferryman. He is looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood, as he holds the secret to immortality. As an aside (this story has a lot of asides) Utnapishtim survived a great flood by building a boat, and taking two of every animal inside. They floated until the boat came to rest on a mountain top.

Gilgamesh manages to find Utnapshtim, and asks how he can gain eternal life. At first, Gilgamesh is told not to sleep. He then sleeps for 7 days (not a great start!) He’s then told that he needs to acquire the plant of life (which mirrors the tree of life). He manages to get the plant, but then leaves it by a pool while he swims (as you do) and it is stolen by a snake. The poem then becomes very confusing, but I think that eventually Gilgamesh becomes both wise and immortal. Though in some versions he simply becomes content to be mortal. My Akkadian is non-existent so I can’t confirm either.

(There’s an entertaining video on Youtube if you fancy watching another quick summary of the story: )

Mesopotamian art has lots of images of Gilgamesh.

So, what are your thoughts? Remember, this epic was written before the Old Testament was written. Though if the events in the Bible are factual, they would of course have happened before Gilgamesh, so you could argue that the Bible events influenced the writer of the epic, which then potentially influenced the writers of the Old Testament. I guess there’s no way of knowing, but it’s worth thinking about, because whatever you believe, you should be able to defend the logic of it.

Next week I’ll tell you about the arguments of James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick, who are very convincing. They also don’t think the garden story was about ‘original sin’. Thanks for reading. Take care, and try to avoid talking snakes.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit … A Synopsis

Hello, and how are you? I hope you enjoyed my blogs last week—I messed up and sent two by mistake (I usually keep one in hand for the next week). Too much on my mind. However, I promised you a quick review of the garden story, as told in the book by Ziony Zevit. If you want to check your English version, it’s at the front of your Bible, Genesis 3 and 4, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.


The book is more interesting than the cover.

Zevit is a Hebrew scholar, and says the story can only be understood if you read it in Hebrew. His book is worth reading, and you don’t need to understand Hebrew to read it (but you probably do to evaluate his claims, so read it with a sceptical mind). He looks at the language used, and tries to assess what the story meant to the people who wrote it. It was told orally long before it was written down, and Biblical Hebrew is a translation of ancient Hebrew, so we can’t be sure, even when we read the Hebrew. Zevit makes some bold claims.

Firstly, he claims the story wasn’t written as a myth, but as an historically accurate event. (Of course, this doesn’t mean it was historical, only that those writing it believed it was.) He also says it overlaps a lot with the Gilgamesh Story, which would have been well-known to those reading it. You might not be familiar with Gilgamesh, so I’ll give you a quick summary next week—but Zevit is right, lots of it is very like the Genesis story (and it was written first).

Zevit makes some interesting translation choices. The one which has earned him a not-too-flattering nickname is his claim that Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, but from his penis. His evidence for this is the Hebrew word used means ‘side’ in most other places, and that Hebrew writing of this time used various euphemisms for body parts and this is just another example. He also notes that humans are the only species which don’t have a bone there, as it works on hydraulics (and he provides drawings of skeletons to prove it). Whilst it’s an interesting view, I think it’s bit speculative (and slightly weird). It’s true that the Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘rib’ and ‘side’ would be a closer translation (and every scholar I’ve read agrees with that). But I don’t think he’s correct on the rest of it.

Another point he makes is that humans were created mortal—in other words, they were always intended to die. I have heard lots of sermons (especially at funeral services) that say death is a result of sin, and not what was intended, but I think Zevit is right here. The story seems reasonably clear that humans were created with the intention to die when old. Otherwise the world would become too full (because reproduction also seems to have been intended) and why would ‘the tree of life’ have been created if people already lived forever? The Old Testament doesn’t see death as a bad thing, it talks a lot about people living to a good old age, and ‘going to sleep’ and joining their ancestors.

He also says that the idea of idle paradise is not what the story is about. The humans were created to work in the garden—first Adam, and then the woman to help him. (Please note, the word used to describe Eve as a ‘helper’ does not imply Adam was the boss! It’s the same word used many times in the Old Testament to describe God helping people, and if anything it implies a stronger being helping a weaker being. But we won’t go there.)

The most dramatic (for me) of Zevit’s claims is that the humans did not sin, and they were not punished. The language used to describe the command given to Adam (before Eve was made) was, Zevit claims, more of an ‘aside’ than a specific command. The main command was to eat from every tree, followed by, “Oh, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” He sees the story as a ‘coming of age’ story, whereby humans gained knowledge, and this resulted in them becoming aware of certain things, which increased their discomfort. If you don’t know childbirth is painful, then you don’t fear it and it’s less painful.

I think some of his points are true, and I’ll discuss them in a later blog. Scholars such as James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick have similar beliefs and I found them more reliable. Certainly some of Zevit’s points are true—the woman was not cursed (a point worth making as I have heard the pain of childbirth described as a curse). He also makes the point that the words used about Cain being born, are pluperfect, so Eve ‘had previously given birth,’ before they ate the fruit. This ties in with Adam naming her ‘Eve’ and calling her ‘the mother of all living beings’ because that would make no sense if she hadn’t yet had a child. Only the snake and the ground were cursed, the people were simply told things would be harder for them. There is no evidence of anger in the story, nor do words akin to ‘punishment’ appear.

Of course, if you decide Zevit is correct, and the garden story is not primarily about sin, then Augustine’s notion of ‘original sin’ (which I mentioned last week) would need to be re-examined. But you need more information before you can do that. Next week I’ll tell you the Gilgamesh story—it’s bit weird (but possibly not more weird than a talking snake).

Have a good week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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My Week

Hello, how was your week? I am writing this in a rush, because it’s the end of my college semester and essays are due and exams need to be revised for.

Actually, if you take away the fear of failing the above, it has been quite a fun week. My lectures were interesting, and I managed to meet my daughter for lunch one day and have a good chat. I also managed to lose my purple gloves, which wasn’t so good, but maybe they’ll turn up.

We did Eschatology this week. Not sure if it’s possible to do that in one week, but we tried. (This is a fancy word for talking about ‘the end times’ and what might happen.) It sounds more exciting than it was.

Wednesday we had a lecture about digital theology. This was more interesting than it sounds. It showed all the ways that we now use technology, and how it has stopped being weird and has become part of everyday life (even my mother can now shop online). This extends to us actually incorporating technology into our bodies, so lots of people have artificial hips, or new knees. Some people have brain implants to help control an illness, or prosthetic limbs. The natural extension of this would be sort of cyber-hybrid-people. Some people apparently hope to ‘upload’ their brain into computers, or replace enough of their broken body to delay death for decades, maybe even longer. So we were asked to consider whether technology, with its ever-present, all-knowing, reaching-inside-us aspects was beginning to replace religion. Do people look to technology where they once looked to God? And how should Christians react to this?

Thursday I had a Hebrew test, when I desperately tried to remember all the different verb forms (and mostly failed, but remembered enough to pass). The big exam is in a couple of weeks, so I have verb paradigms scattered around the house in the belief that if I have copies of them next to the loo and stuck on the fridge door, I will magically assimilate them. Not working so far…Maybe future theologians will be able to simply upload a file of them straight into the memory part of their brain.

Friday I wrote an essay. Well, to be accurate, I deleted most of an essay, to try and squash it into the tiny word-limit that has been set. I have always talked too much, now I find that I also write too much, and squeezing all my arguments, and referring to various scholars, into a measly 4,000 words is very difficult. I have to evaluate a book, so I made rough notes, and this came to over 10,000 words before I’d even started to refer to other scholars or give my own opinions. To make it even harder, every time I refer to someone I have to add a footnote (which counts as part of the word count) saying what they wrote and when, and I can’t use contractions (‘would not’, instead of ‘wouldn’t’) which all adds to the length. Writing the first draft was great fun, and I wrote a blinder! Now I have to delete most of it and hope it still makes sense.

Then it was the weekend, which is when I try to clean the house and have conversations that aren’t linked to theology. Not very good at either of those things. I did however move all the unattractive cleaning products off the downstairs washroom window sill and replace them with a plant, and one of those smelly diffuser things that I was given for Christmas. It smells quite posh in there now. Hoping it will help me to learn the verb paradigms that are stuffed behind the toilet rolls. Hope you have a great week, whatever you’ve got planned. Thanks for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Deconstructing My Religion

When I started my theology course, one of the first things they told us was that they hoped to make us question and evaluate every part of our faith, to take it apart, decide on what it was based, and then reconstruct it from a basis of understanding. I would now say that this is a fairly accurate description of the process I am experiencing; the lectures and books I am absorbing are raising lots of questions. It’s an uncomfortable process, sometimes difficult as I evaluate ‘truths’ that I have believed since childhood, only to discover that in the cold light of ‘logic’ and the piercing eye of ‘experience,’ some of them don’t seem as ‘true’ as I thought.

I was deliberate in my wording of the title. It is my religion, my beliefs, that I am questioning, not God. I have experienced too much in my life to ever be able to properly question God. I have heard his voice correcting me, felt the warmth of his peace at my most desperate hour, known his touch. I cannot deny those things even if I would. But everything else, the outworking of religion, what God actually wants, what I should believe—those things are less certain.

It began a while ago, when I started to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, hoping to read and better understand the original manuscripts that our Bible is based on. Bit of a shocker to discover that we don’t have any existing original manuscripts, our English translation is based on scraps of parchment (some of them very scrappy!) which were written centuries after the original manuscripts were written. Copies of copies of copies…not all the same. This was huge for me. We do have other writings, carvings on Egyptian stones, and myths from Mesopotamia, which have survived. So the question has to be, why did God not ensure the books that form our Bible survived? Is it because he didn’t want us to be completely certain that we understood everything? Is it because humans have a horrible tendency to decide they know exactly what’s right, and then apply the rules that arise to other people? Perhaps we are meant to be a little uncertain.

I think perhaps we should read paraphrased versions of the Bible more often. I have always been irritated by Bibles such as The Message which give an updated version of the books. But actually, at least when we read them, we all know we shouldn’t take them literally, they are the essence of the Bible but not the actual words that were first written. All our English translations are also this, but sometimes we forget that.

What I realise is that to have a belief seems to create more questions. I am currently studying the Garden of Eden story (the one with Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit and the snake—you remember it?) Now, I have always believed that this was the point whereby sin entered the world, that by eating the forbidden fruit humans became sinful, and from then on, every generation that followed was also sinful. Some scholars (like Augustine, a monk from centuries ago) named this ‘original sin’ and taught a tidy lesson about what this means for humans. All humans, because they are descended from that first man, are sinful. The problem with this, is that we also believe that Jesus was human, descended from his mother Mary. We also believe that he was God (because his father was God) but logically this creates a problem. Did Jesus inherit ‘original sin’ from his mother, and if not, why not?

Some people solve this problem by stating that Mary was therefore without sin too. But was she? There isn’t much evidence for that from what I can see. And of course, if Mary was without sin, then what about her parents? Why didn’t she inherit sin from them? We end up having to form convoluted explanations about how Mary either was made pure somehow before conceiving Jesus, or Jesus somehow didn’t inherit that bit of humanity. It all feels a little unsatisfactory to me. I don’t doubt that everyone sins—I can see that for myself—but as to why? Not so sure.

Of course, the Garden Story causes all sorts of other problems. There are a few ways to view it, which one is you?

 Either you don’t believe it at all, think the whole thing was created by Iron-Age people as a story and it has no relevance today. Or you might think it literally happened, as stated, in an actual garden somewhere at the source of four rivers. Or you might think that it’s a myth or parable, not an historically literal event but a story that explains a situation. Which one is you?

I have spent several weeks reading the views of different scholars, looking at the story in biblical Hebrew, trying to discern what it means. It has been a fascinating study. There are so many ways of looking at the story, and a tangle of conclusions that people have drawn from it (like Augustine with his belief in original sin). I will write a few blogs describing the different views. Whether you believe in ancient giants, or carbon-dating and fossilised evidence of evolution, I hope you will find the different views interesting. You can draw your own conclusions when you have read the evidence.
Thanks for reading. Take care.
Love, Anne x

As the story was first written in Hebrew, I will begin with an appraisal of the book by Ziony Zevit (a Hebrew scholar). He shows how Eve wasn’t made from a rib, and Cain was born before the couple left the garden, and the snake never actually told any lies. All very interesting…

The Bad Student’s Guide to Writing an Academic Essay

Before we begin, it’s important to be prepared. Writing an academic essay is very stressful, and good preparation is key. I suggest a couple of whiskeys, but you might prefer gin. I decided to start late at night, a few hours before it is due. This will ensure everything I write is fresh and current.

Although they specify that they want electronic submissions, evidence suggests that lecturers much prefer work that is handwritten. Preferably on scented pink paper.[1] Pink paper is proving hard to find, which might be a problem.

Occasionally, lecturers use words that are unfamiliar. I decided to incorporate them into my work anyway, as I don’t have time to discover their meaning. Words like “elucidate” (a casual romance with Lucy?) will enhance my writing and give an impression of academia. If I run out of intelligent-sounding-vocabulary, there is always a dictionary. I will choose words at random, and smatter my sentences with unexpected phrases.

I’m thinking that pictures might be another good source of marks, especially as I’m not accustomed to writing long essays. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is very true, hence a couple of well-crafted sketches of ancient scholars means 2,000 less words I need to write.[2] I suspect an oil painting would receive more marks, but even a pencil sketch is worth a shot. (You could trace it if art isn’t your thing.)

I decided not to read any books, it’s much more important to voice my own views, and the more extreme they are, the more I think a lecturer will enjoy them. As a teacher, I can confirm that reading variations of the same view 30 times is very boring. We are required to use footnotes, but I am hoping these can be of anything.[3] If I decide to add a quote of someone else’s words, I shall phone my mum or Aunty Ethel. They will be glad of the chat and I can jot down a couple of their sentences at the same time.[4] I also intend to add lots of random dates for emphasis.

Not reading any books will also avoid plagiarism. At school, we called this ‘copying’ and you were told to move seats. At university, it is more serious, and they take you into a small room and remove your thumbs. At all costs I must avoid plagiarism.

Writing a bibliography did seem daunting as I haven’t read any books, but this too can be easily remedied: I will go to the library and pick a shelf. Any shelf will do, it’s a theological college, so all the books will be relevant. Remove about 20 books. Write their details into my bibliography. Sorted.

Apparently, real scholars write papers which are then peer reviewed. This is mentioned frequently, so I assume it is important. I think a peer is another word for ‘friend’ and a review is basically just a comment. I therefore need to make some friends (cupcakes might help) and ask a couple of them (the friends, not the cupcakes) to read my work; then ask if they like it. Voila! I am a scholar.

I do hope these tips are helpful as we steer our way through the adventure of becoming an academic. Do feel free to quote me.[5] Thanks for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

[1] Evidence for this may be found in the documentary: Legally Blonde.

[2] Whilst this phrase might seem an unsubstantiated claim, in research 99% of people could finish the phrase when asked, hence proving it is true.

[3] These little numbers make your essay look very academic, and it doesn’t really matter what they say. If you assume that marks are designated for appearance rather than content, then a footnote looks very professional. Add them at regular intervals.

[4] For example: Ethel Smith (2021) stated: “You can’t trust a monk.” (2021, Ipswich)

[5] Anne E. Thompson @ (2022)

Anne E. Thompson
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Assembly Storytime

One of the sessions I attend at Spurgeon’s College is ‘chapel.’ This is basically an Assembly, just the same as every school used to hold at 10am each morning, the whole school gathered to sit on a cold hard floor for a bit of singing, a Bible-related talk and notices for the day. We don’t have to sit on the floor, and no one is glared at for whispering or removed for kicking the person in front, but other than that it’s identical.

One chapel service included a story, which is always my favourite thing. I believe the person leading chapel copied it from someone else, so you might know it already—but stories are meant to be copied and changed and passed on, so I will share it with you. Grab a coffee and settle back, and I will begin…

River Jordan near lake Kinneret Taken from Google Images, (c) copyright 2016 Land of the Bible

We are travelling way back in time, to where John the Baptist is baptising people in the river. Imagine a hot sun shining above, the waves lapping onto the beach, John up to his waist in water, busily baptising.

Hoards of people have come to see the weird-man-who-eats-locusts, they have heard him preach, they want to be dunked under the water to show that they believe what he has said, and they want to change, to be better people. Being baptised—dunked in the water—was not unusual in those days, it was a way to show you were changing something, ‘dying’ to the old way, and starting again. They were being baptised because they knew they were wrong. Try to imagine them, lounging against trees, some sitting on the ground watching, others jostling to a better position.

As I said, hoards of people had come, and there was a bit of pushing, a few mutterings of discontent, a bit of unfair queue-jumping. John is in the river, baptising, saying a few words to each person. The crowd of people waiting grows larger.

While we watch, a woman arrives. She’s an Human Resources manager, complete with clipboard and an officious attitude. She watches the chaos for a few minutes and decides to intervene. Marching to the front of the line, she waves her clipboard at John, and suggests a few changes. He’s a little taken aback, but he agrees she can try to improve things on the shore, while he gets on with baptising.

The woman sets up a table, and tells everyone to form an orderly queue. She then explains that before they are baptised, they will need to tell John they wish to repent of their sin, and it will speed things up considerably if instead of needing to ask, John can see their main sin clearly written on a badge. She places her badge-making kit on the table, and the first person approaches.

“What is your biggest sin?” asks Mrs H.R.

The man at the table hesitates, then confesses, “I had an affair.”

Mrs H.R. writes ADULTERER in large letters, hands him the badge, then calls the next person.

“What is your biggest sin?” she asks.

“I hate my mother-in-law,” whispers the woman in the queue.

Mrs H.R writes HATE on the badge, and the woman pins it to her clothes.

One after another, people arrive at the table, and their main sin is written on a badge, and they walk away, to await baptism. Some have ENVY, some have GOSSIP, some have SELFISH. When it’s their turn, they join John in the water, he checks the badge, asks if they want to repent, then baptises them. It is all very efficient.

Then Jesus arrives at the table.

“What is your biggest sin?” asks Mrs H.R.

“None,” says Jesus.

Mrs H.R. blinks, confused.

“Oh,” she says. “Then what is your smallest sin?”

“None,” says Jesus.

Mrs H.R. frowns, unsure how to proceed. She gestures for Jesus to pass her, and he goes to join the people waiting to be baptised.

“Here,” he says to a man wearing a badge saying MEANNESS. “Let me have your badge,” says Jesus. He takes the badge, and pins it to his tunic. Then he takes the badge saying THIEF from the woman next to him, and the badge saying CRUDE, and a badge saying CRITICAL. Jesus walks through the crowd, taking everyone’s badge, pinning them to his tunic.

Then Jesus walks down, into the water, and faces John, ready to be baptised.

John looks at Jesus. He looks at the badges that cover Jesus’ tunic, and then he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God…”

Anne E. Thompson
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Herman Gunkel Examines Psalms

Herman Gunkel’s Psalms

I have just attended a fascinating lecture about Psalms, so I want to tell you about it. (I ought to be writing an essay, but this is more fun.)

When you study at Spurgeon’s College, you are allowed to listen to any of the other lectures that they offer. So although it is not related to my course, when I heard there was a lecture about Old Testament writing, I slunk into the back and took notes. It really was very interesting.

In case you don’t know, Psalms are found in the middle of the Bible, and are songs/poems, expressing emotions and full of metaphors. A chap called Herman Gunkel (can only be German with a brilliant name like that!) decided that rather than fuss about who wrote the Psalms, and which situations they related to, we should simply examine them “sitz im Leben,” which means ‘forget all the things we cannot possibly know, and think about the general setting.’

“Ah,” you might say, “but my Bible tells me who wrote the Psalms, some of them say ‘of David’ in the title.”

Well, that is very misleading. Don’t forget, you are probably reading an English translation. The Hebrew would say:לְדָוִד  which can be translated as ‘of David’ or ‘to David’ or ‘for David’ or ‘the sort of thing that David wrote.’ So a bit uncertain really.

Herman lived about a hundred years ago, but scholars still use his findings today.

Herman Gunkel

He sorted the Psalms into three main types: hymns, laments and thanksgiving. If you pick a Psalm, it will fit into one of those categories. He then divided them up further, saying that each type would have certain features—which makes it easy to categorise them if you have to write an essay or preach a sermon—but is also simply interesting.

As you might remember, I am going to learn some of Psalm 22 every day in Lent, and in preparation I have been reading the English version and learning some of the vocab. This Psalm is a lament. If you look, it fits into the category noticed by Herman. A ‘lament’ has the following form:

*It’s addressed to God. *It describes a terrible situation. *There is a confession of trust. *There is a petition. *There is an appeal to God’s care. *There is a vow of praise. *It finishes with an assurance of being heard.

Pick a Psalm, if you can divide it as above, it is a lament. The other forms (hymns and thanksgiving) also have a set structure. It’s quite fun when you know, because you start to spot the various forms when you are reading them.

However, be careful, because the occasional Psalm doesn’t seem to fit. This is probably because originally, they were two separate Psalms, and an editor has patched them together. (Or I suppose it could be that Herman was wrong, but people who know more than me believe he was correct, so who am I to argue?)

The lecture then talked about all the nasty bits in Psalms, and how we should view them today. We looked at a Psalm that ended with the hope that their enemies would suffer and the heads of their babies would be smashed against rocks. Not something we tend to preach in church today. How should we use the uncomfortable and violent sections of Psalms?

Some people simply ignore those bits, and edit the Psalm so only the ‘nice’ bits are read out. That seems like a cop-out to me.

Some people ‘spiritualise’ the Psalm, and transfer the curse to anything evil, wanting for temptation or greed or hatred to be ‘smashed against rocks.’ Personally, I think there are dangers with spiritualising things that were not meant to be spiritualised—the early writers did want to smash up babies’ heads, that is the era in which they lived and I think we should look at the Bible through the lens of history. That’s what they wanted, we don’t say things like that now, though we understand the sentiment of anger.

Some people use those bits to express anger, even though they wouldn’t actually want to smash heads today—they say the anger is a human condition, and that is still relevant. I’m not sure about that either, because the curse is so violent, I don’t feel it does express my own emotions. What do you think?

Anyway, it was all very interesting, and I think I will gate-crash other lectures in the future. Hope you enjoyed reading about it. Thank you for reading.

Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Book Review: The Actuality of Atonement A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin E. Gunton

As you know, I have started by M.A. at Spurgeon’s college, and part of my assessment is a theological essay. I thought this might be quite fun, as I am someone with lots of opinions (as you know) and an essay is the perfect way to inflict them on someone who is paid to read it. I chose my title from a small selection, and started to read the suggested books. The book by Colin Gunton (see above) is the first one I read.

As you will know from my last blog, the second-hand copy I bought was full of irritating under-linings by the previous owner. I shan’t mention this again. The book was quite difficult to read, as it was very wordy (perhaps I should have been expecting this given the not particularly snappy title). However, a box of Cadbury’s ice-creams helped, and I ploughed my way through.

The book was clearly aimed at readers who know more than me, because there were unexplained references to theologians (who I had never heard of). For example, he starts by describing the work of Kant (a chap born in 1724 who also had strong opinions) and Colin is discussing his views, when suddenly he writes: “… and as Barth has asked, ‘Is it possible…” Who is Barth? Had I missed something, I wondered. I checked back a few pages—nope, no mention of him. I assumed he was another theologian as opposed to Colin’s uncle, but I did feel rather bemused. I felt I should have been warned before his name was suddenly interjected into the debate, it was like everyone knew something that I didn’t. This happened a lot when I was day-dreaming at school, but I feel it’s cheating when it’s in a book. It happens again later in the book, when Colin writes about, “Dr, Carr’s querying…” and “G. B. Caird’s remark…” Who are they? People he met at the bus-stop? It was like when you’re chatting with someone and they pause to reply to a text on their phone. Oi! Introduce your readers first please Colin.

I read the book with the help of a dictionary, because Colin has a better vocabulary than me. I had no idea of the meaning of terms like ‘procrustean’ (something that forces everything to be the same) or ‘fortiori’ (a stronger reason) or ‘Pelagianism’ (Pelagius believed humans are basically good, and it is possible to be perfect/sinless) and although I had heard of Plato, I didn’t know that ‘platonist’ was another way of saying, ‘a dispassionate realist.’ I won’t use these terms in my essay, just in case … (some of them sound a bit dodgy).

Colin described various types of rationalism (helpful for my essay) and then wrote pretty much a whole chapter on what constitutes a metaphor. This was less helpful, but quite interesting. His main point was that when we take a word out of context and use it to explain an image of something else, it makes a good description, but is it reliable? As much of the doctrine of the Bible is explained in metaphors (like Jesus having victory over death—a military image, and people being redeemed—which is a slave-trade image) then do we actually have a clear understanding of what is described, or just a hazy picture/image? If God is too big to be fully known, then we cannot have the correct terms to describe him, so we have to use images/metaphors—but are these reliable? Interesting point.

One thing Colin writes (which I can definitely use in my essay) is:

“The language…does not then give us a theory, something final and fixed forever, but one way into a many-sided reality with which we are concerned. It helps us, that is to say, to come to a measure of understanding of some aspects of the way in which the Bible sets forth in language the saving action of God in and towards his world.”

I like when people are a little uncertain, when they don’t think God and theology can be packed into the little box of our brains.

Colin makes the point that we all use the language of our time and culture, and so too did the authors of the Bible. Therefore some of the images which relate to the slave market, or Roman conquest, might be misunderstood by later readers. He writes an interesting chapter on demons, and whether these are ‘individuals’ (like people but somehow spirits) or forces (as in evil influences). The words used in the ancient manuscripts meant different things to later readers. All very interesting.

I’m not sure if I would recommend you read this book, unless you are interested in studying theology, because it is not hugely accessible. However, if you are interested in reading something difficult, buy a box of ice-creams and set aside a weekend for some heavy reading. Colin makes some interesting points.

Anne E. Thompson
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