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Was Rudolf Bultmann's impact on biblical studies generally positive or generally negative?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The First Science Fiction? - Le Donne

Here is an excerpt of a paper I presented in Chicago last week. I was drawing out parallels for an under-appreciated element in the Jesus tradition: a "greater-than" emphasis wherein a contemporary reality/figure could trump a earlier (often ancient) figure or tradition.

Examples" "greater works than these will you do" ... "something greater than the Temple"...."greater than Solomon" .... "greater than Jonah" .... "greater than John the Baptist".

I write:

This greater-than element would seem to run contrary to the general tendency to revere ancient traditions, texts, laws, and patriarchs in Jewish antiquity.  But we do not need to look far to find other examples of epochal aggrandizement in Jewish antiquity.  My favorite example of this comes from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate MenaŠł•oth 29b:

In perhaps the very first science fiction story ever told, God and Moses are discussing the future of Israel’s pedagogy on Mount Sinai.  God tells Moses of a future rabbi named Aqiba “who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws”.  Moses asks to sit in on one of Aqiba’s classes.  God permits Aqiba to time-travel into the future to witness the great rabbi and sit in the back of the classroom.  Moses is astounded at the level of linguistic and erudite interpretation of the Torah, not only by Aqiba, but also by his students.  What is more, Moses concedes that he is intellectually inferior to Aqiba and suggests that God might wait and give the Torah through the hand of Aqiba.  God refuses and the story ends by suggesting that Aqiba took his legislative creativity too far in the end.  But the story (creative in its own right, perhaps ironically so) takes for granted that even Moses paled in comparison to the students of Aqiba.
My question to you is a simple one: can you think of an earlier example of science fiction?  I suppose a circa 4th Cent. CE date would be conservative (go ahead and correct me if I'm wrong). Please don't point me to apocalyptic literature or fantasy. Of course, it would be misnomer to speak of "science" here, but Moses does time-travel so it counts in my book... and another question: does any biblical superhero have more powers than Moses? This guy is like the uber-mutant of the Hebrew Bible.

14 comments:

  1. Surely the myth of Daedalus and Icarus could be considered an earlier example of science fiction, since it deals with a master craftsman using technology to accomplish something that had never been done before.

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    1. absolutely... and there's even science involved.

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    2. I suppose that if we include Icarus, the tower of Babel would qualify as well.

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  2. Your post makes me wonder just how exalted was Moses in the eyes of the first century Jew? Jesus' claim in John 6 to be greater than Moses (the "uber-mutant of the Hebrew Bible"), and its apparent allusion to Deut. 18, might be more than significant. It might be "uber-significant".

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    1. Yours is a good question... can I change it to read: "makes me wonder just how exalted was Moses in the eyes of some first century Jews?" ...we need to acknowledge that Judaism was not an ideologically monolithic group.

      -anthony

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  4. There are some ancient Christian sources that treat Moses on Mount Sinai and Moses and Jesus (and Elijah) on the Mount of Transfiguration as the SAME EVENT. Can anyone say "ancient Doctor Who"?

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  5. God permits *Moses to time travel [forward]. Yes? Or did Aquiba come back to Mount Sinai? I'm curious about the story.

    If you dramatize it, Plato's Cave isn't too different from something Ray Bradbury might have come up with, but fire and puppets might not be "tech" enough to qualify.

    I forget who told the story of Archamedes' reverse siege engines in the incredible defense of Syracuse, but that's probably a winner.

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    1. Bill, the best short answer is that Moses traveled forward into the future. Here is the beginning of the text Anthony cited, from a reputable online translation (I added the first bracketed material you'll see, for clarity - the second bracketed material is found in the translation):

      "When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One,
      blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters [of the Torah]. Said Moses, 'Lord of the Universe, Who stays Thy hand?' He answered, 'There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba b.
      Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws'. 'Lord of the Universe', said Moses; ‘permit me to see him’. He replied, 'Turn thee round'. Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [and listened to the discourses upon the law]."

      We might discuss whether Moses actually traveled forward in time and space to Akiva's classroom, or whether Moses was given a vision of what Akiva's classroom would be like. After all, there's no indication in the story that anyone recognized Moses in Akiva's classroom, and to enter the classroom Moses only needed to turn around. Moreover, when Moses' experience in Akiva's classroom is over, Moses did not have to ask to return back to heaven and his own time -- the text says simply that "Thereupon he [Moses] returned to the Holy One" -- it doesn't say that Moses asked God to return Moses to heaven and his own time. If there was a request-to-God for time travel to get to the classroom, there would need to be a request-to-God for the time travel to return. No?

      But the story DOES tell us where Moses sat in the classroom. If what Moses experienced was a vision, the vision he experienced was something like actually being present in the classroom.

      Or ... you fill in the blanks. I don't think the story is supposed to be taken literally, but I'm fine with Anthony's take that this is a description of time travel.

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  6. Anthony, as a Jew I have heard this story told many times, always with a more complicated and (dare I say?) satiric slant. You're right, part of the irony of the story is that Moses (regarded by the Rabbis of the Talmud as the author-scribe of the Torah) is sitting at the back of Rabbi Akiva's Torah classroom and cannot follow the lesson! But this story states that when the class "came to a certain subject and the disciples said to [Akiva] 'Whence do you know it?’ and the latter replied ‘It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai’ [then Moses] was comforted." The irony here is rich and sweet, because on the surface it's not possible for Akiva to teach a lesson that Moses cannot understand when the lesson is based on Moses' understanding! Below the surface is an open-ended and multi-faceted comment on the process and progress of Jewish exegesis, and the nature of the foundation of Talmud in Torah.

    In other words ... to view this story as a comment on which Rabbi was greater is to miss the point of a story that has many points to make.

    The story finishes with Moses asking God about Akiva's "reward", and God showed Moses a vision of "them weighing out [Akiva's] flesh at the market-stalls." Rabbi Akiva was reported to have died a martyr's death at the hands of the Romans -- according to the story, Akiva's flesh was ripped from his body by iron spikes. "‘Lord of the Universe’, cried Moses, ‘such Torah, and such a reward!’ [God] replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’."

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  7. Lucian's "True Story," mid-second century CE, has intragalatic travel and extraterrestrial life, and has been considered SF avant la lettre.

    Eric

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  8. Eric beat me to it. Lucian is undoubtedly the first to write SciFi as we would think of it.

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  9. Before Moses there was Jacob doing genetic engineering in Genesis 30. Though it is more like magic than science.

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  10. I had never considered the Bible to contain any science fiction before, but this passage proved me wrong. I think that it depends on how we would define science fiction. Time travel seems to fit within this category. While I usually think of science fiction as emerging in literature later on in history, it is really neat to see such an early example of science fiction. I'm not sure, but one might classify ancient Greek mythology to contain some elements of science fiction, which would precede this passage.

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