Class and grain

As part of our research for The Time of Troubles, we have come across the class struggle of grain, or perhaps the in-grained class struggle. Our focus is the Hellenistic era in the eastern Mediterranean. When we enter our era, barley and two basic types of hulled wheat – emmer (Triticum dicoccum) in wetter areas and einkorn (Triticum monococcum) in the Levant and parts of northern Greece – were dominant. Apart from areas under irrigation (such as Egypt or lower Mesopotamia) or well-watered by other means, the average yield was 4:1, or a net product of 400 kilograms per hectare. Both barley and wheat can be used for the staples of beer and bread, although barley was much preferred for beer. Indeed, it may be argued that a major motive for human beings opting to live in such villages, with all their problems, was precisely the desire to produce alcoholic beverages from cultivated grains.

At the same time, class factors began to determine the preferences for barley or wheat. Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was already regarded by the Greeks as a food fit for slaves, peasants, and the poor. Barley is tougher than wheat, and requires less water and labour – precisely why it was preferred by those who knew its value. Both alcohol and bread played crucial roles in the class struggle over the granary. As for alcohol, the Romans and indeed Greeks preferred wine to beer, and with the spread – at least in the poleis – of Hellenistic cultural assumptions, wine displaced beer as the preferred beverage for the citified – on occasion threatening grain supplies since so much land was given over to viticulture. As a consequence, barley was not needed for such refined folk, although it remained a staple in the countryside and among peasants.

Further, the same classes and their aspirants preferred fine-floured bread rather than the course and tough loaves of the village dwellers. On slave estates and in villages required to provide produce for the local polis, the pressure was on to grow so-called naked grains rather than hulled grains, especially high-yield bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), poulard wheat (Triticum turgidum) and durum wheat (Triticum durum). Not only do they require less labour than hulled grains, but, depending on the type, they produce relatively fine-floured breads and semolina. In particular, the most desired bread was the Roman panis siligneus (siligo designated wheat flour), which was produced best in colder zones such as the Crimea, northern Italy and Gaul. If this type of wheat flour was not available, a local variant would have to do. By contrast, the peasants continued to grow the tougher hulled wheats, along with barley and oats, which were courser, more durable, and resistant to disease. Their breads the Roman ruling class called, with some disdain, panis plebeius. Slaves and city poor would also eat such bread, along with types of porridge. It is not for nothing that Josephus noted in the first century CE that in Galilee the rich ate wheat while the poor ate barley.


When raising prices lowers the value of your product

It is pretty clear that ‘prices’ in the ancient Near East had very little to do with mechanisms of demand and supply. Customary if the best way to describe them, and even the various petty potentates weighed in by inscribing such prices in clay. But there is one law of Hammurabi that I find very intriguing, since it suggests that raising your price actually lowers the value of your product. Here it is:

If a woman innkeeper should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts only silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of the beer in relation to the grain, they shall charge and convict that woman innkeeper and they shall cast her into the water.

Let’s see if we can figure out the assumption here. You walk into an inn and order a beer, plonking a bag of grain on the bar – as one does. ‘No,’ says the innkeeper, only silver here.’ She pulls out a large wight and tells you to put your silver on the scales. Wow, that’s heaps more silver than if I’d got hold of it by swapping some grain for silver first. Now, the customary relationships between grain-beer, grain-silver, and silver-beer do seem to have some connection. Fair enough, but how does asking a relatively higher price devalue the beer? Easy: you get less beer for the silver. Hence the beer is worth less.

The Persian baby bonus

These days politicians are fond of giving baby bonuses to bolster numbers of a ‘desired’ ethnic group, especially in response to ‘foreigners’ arriving. The Persians had a far better approach to the baby bonus. Any woman who worked for the state were given an extra ration of beer or wine at the birth of a child:

10 litres for a boy

5 litres for a girl

At times the documents speak of 15 litres. And this was on top of the substantial regular allocations.

Apart from the awareness that a woman needed a good drink or three after giving birth, the Persians had scientifically verified that beer or wine is helpful in milk production.

A night with Engels

In preparation for a book called Intimate Life, I am thoroughly enjoying a re-read of Engels’s early writings in volume two of MECW. One chapter will deal with Engels and sex, while another will deal with the good life – via Engels’s love of beer, wine and tobacco.

A typical evening for Engels while in Bremen (from a letter to his close friend and church pastor, Wilhelm Graeber):

The night before last I had a great booze-up in the wine cellar on two bottles of beer and two and a half bottles of 1794 Rüdesheimer. My prospective publisher and diverse philistines were with me … I can argue six such fellows to death at once, even if I am half-seas over and they are sober … They are dreadfully stolid people, these philistines; I began to sing, but they resolved unanimously against me that they would eat first, and then sing. They stuffed themselves with oysters, while I went on angrily smoking, drinking and shouting without taking any notice of them, until I fell into a blissful slumber (MECW 2: 484).

Or, the only way to read Hegel:

Now I’ll study Hegel over a glass of punch (MECW 2: 487).

Worse than proof-reading the phone book, or, I feel like endless beer and cigarettes

The joys of writing: Criticism of Earth is due to go to the printers, but the editors want me to change all my citations of the 1040 items by Marx and Engels (many of those works are cited on multiple occasions) to a different system. To get a sense of this, Marx wrote non-stop for about 50 years and Engels for almost 60. In some years the references run up to 15-20 items. And they all need to be changed … by hand. Now, where is the beer and where are those smokes?

NB: both Criticism of Theology and Criticism of Earth will be out this year.

Bible and Critical Theory Seminar, Dunedin 7-8 February: Final Programme (absolutely)

In those words immortalised by the Dunedin School, we’re up for some sad Marxist biblical scholarship, Monstrous Christs, Irrupting Badiouan Events, Hysterical Women, Jesus’ Queer Disciples, KRuddy Christian Nazis, Emancipatory Submission, Postcolonial Daughters of Zelophehad, Māori Eco-feminist Hermeneutics, Matthaean Timespace, David and Jonathan’s openings, and a Irigarayan reading of the Song of Songs, not to mention the late additions (cosmic gnostic spaces in the rough and tumble of Job)  … all softened with a large amount of local Dunedin grog.

The Bible & Critical Theory Seminar
February 7-8, 2010
Dunedin, New Zealand

February 7, 2010

0930-1015       Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, NSW

The sadness of Friedrich Engels

Focusing on the early letters of Friedrich Engels, this article explores a little known but exceedingly important aspect of his life: his deep and heart-rending struggle as he gradually lost his Reformed (Calvinist) faith. The issues that confront the young Engels concern the Bible, especially its contradictions (with a focus on biblical genealogies), the relation between reason and faith, and the issue of reading the Bible properly. Engels was a self-taught biblical scholar, but a strikingly informed one. He kept up with the rapidly developing historical critical study of the Bible (newly established in Germany at the time), current issues in philosophy and theology, and he was able to read the New Testament in Greek. We find him debating all these issues with his close friends, Friedrich and Wilhelm Graeber, who were to become pastors in the German Evangelical Church. As he does so he continually shifts positions until he reluctantly gives up his faith. Eventually he would come to terms with his Christian background, offering striking analyses of the revolutionary origins of Christianity.

1015-1100       Eric Repphun, University of Otago

The Monstrous Cinematic Christ: Biblical Narrative as ‘Supplement’ or ‘Multiple Opposite’?

This will be a study of Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ and the way both use source material (including the Gospel narratives), all in light of the Zizek/Milbank debate in The Monstrosity of Christ.


1130-1215       John Barclay, University of Durham, UK

Paul and Alain Badiou

This paper discusses the reading of Paul offered by the contemporary French philosopher, Alain Badiou.  Badiou’s emphasis on event and unconditioned grace is supported by readings from Galatians, such that his philosophical notion of ‘event’, with its militant and universal effects, may claim real consonance with Paul.  However, Paul’s strong notions of divine creation from nothing, and of the benevolence of the Christ event, require that God be reinserted into Paul’s theology, while Badiou’s focus on the resurrection, rather than the cross, misses the social radicalism latent in Paul.

Lunch at The Bog

1300-1345       Christina Petterson, Macquarie University, NSW

Spirit and Matter in John

German feminist and cultural theorist Christina von Braun’s work on hysteria and logos from 1985 contains a fascinating chapter on writing, patriarchy, spirit and matter, which draws heavily on John’s word made flesh to argue for the ‘logical’ outcome of the abstraction process of Western philosophy. In this paper, I want to present and explore this argument, bringing it into discussion with a recent PhD dissertation in Biblical Exegesis on the stoic pneuma in John in order to look at the negotiation of matter in the gospel narrative.

1345-1430       Robert J. Myles, University of Auckland

Dandy discipleship: A queering of Mark’s male disciples

This paper involves a re-reading of a selection of texts from the Gospel of Mark employing the socio-rhetorical method combined with queer and gender criticism as informed by the works of Judith Butler, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and Dale B. Martin. Particular attention is given to the ways in which the gender and sexuality of the male disciples has been constructed in both the world behind the text and the world in front of the text. The paper examines how the masculinity of the disciples is performed by placing the texts in dialogue with dominant discourses from the ancient Mediterranean context. While conventional readings unambiguously presume the normativity of heterosexuality and binary categories of gender, this paper challenges such modern assumptions by purposefully and strategically reading the texts sexually. In the process of applying a provocative queer imagination, underlying components of erotophobia and homophobia within conventional hermeneutical filters are also exposed.


1500-1545       Holly Randell-Moon, Macquarie University

Left or Right? Religion and politics in Australia under the Howard and Rudd governments

A number of scholars, such as Ghassan Hage and David Harvey, have argued that conservative nationalisms often emerge as responses to the alienating effects of neoliberal economic policies. In my previous work, I have argued that the former Howard government’s (1996-2007) promotion of “Christian values” in its public policy and rhetoric can be understood as an attempt to reconcile, or compensate for, the individualising effects of neoliberal economic policy. In this paper, I will compare the Rudd government’s use of a social justice view of Christianity and national culture to shift economic policy away from neoliberalism. However, the Rudd government’s differentiation of its own policies as socially based, in contrast to the non-interventionist and individualist policies under Howard, takes at face value neoliberalism’s claim to limited governance and indifference to social relations. There can be no real engagement with the political effects of neoliberal policies if neoliberalism is simply understood as supporting a neutral conception of the individual or economy. For this reason, I question whether the emergence of a progressive Christian nationalism significantly changes the way neoliberal policies are conceptualised and implemented.

1545-1630       Remy Low, University of Sydney, NSW

Submission in the War of Position:  Towards a Neo-Gramscian Reading of 1 Peter 2:18-21

There have been endless skirmishes over the New Testament’s injunctions to submission (or ‘to subject’; Gk: hupotasso) in the realm of Biblical studies and ethics. In this paper, I engage in a close reading of one particular usage of the term in 1 Peter 2: 18-21 from the rubric of a neo-Gramscian theory of hegemony. Drawing on the work of Gramsci, Gadamer, Laclau and Unger, I argue that the mobilisation of the term has to be understood as a military metaphor mobilized within a specific spatiotemporal context: i.e. for the purpose of presenting an exterior semblance of ‘normality’ in a hostile situation while actively anticipating total liberation with the apokálypsis of the Kingdom of God. I propose that the exhortation to ‘be subject’, far from being an essentially oppressive and/or conservative ethico-political signifier to be at best avoided, can be re-articulated strategically for the purposes of emancipatory struggle in multiple sociocultural spheres.

Drinks and dinner at The Bog
The Bog has live music from 2000 on Sundays

February 8, 2010

0930-1015       Judith McKinlay, University of Otago

The Daughters of Zelophehad hanging out with Edward Gibbon Wakefield: What am I doing with them?

This paper endeavours to introduce a postcolonial reading of the texts concerning Zelophehad daughters alongside a consideration of the settlement of Post Nicholson by the New Zealand Company, and the issues such a reading raises.

1015-1100       Moana Hall-Smith, St John’s College, Auckland/University of Otago

Divine colonization in the Book of Judges: A Maori woman’s ecological reading of Judges 19

This paper is exploratory. As part of a larger project, I am working towards developing a paradigm[s] for reading the biblical text and in particular Judges 19 ecologically. In this paper I propose to use a M_ori woman’s postcolonial lens and a Kaupapa M_ori framework to foster a new ecological -feminist reading of Judges 19 as a way of liberating the text from its colonizing and patriarchal orientation. I will draw on the issues of land exploitation, patriarchy, gender inequality and colonial dominance to qualify that a M_ori eco-feminism is integral to postcolonial thinking. From this dialogue I will draw on M_ori conceptual lenses for reading which might guide an ecological reading of Judges 19. Within the confines of this paper a detailed reading will not be possible but simply the proposing of a Kaupapa M_ori framework for more indepth interpretation. I will investigate the pilegesh; as the “other” to men; “other” to the sons of Israel; “other” to the non-human and “other” to the divine through a number of M_ori conceptual tools. Firstly,  whakapapa which is the systematic and orderly record of human, cosmic and primordial causes and effects. It is based on a genealogical and spiritual relationship to the universe; to the landscape and to stones, rocks and other things seen and unseen, therefore, an association between the female body and the land is invoked and the woman’s decapitated body portrays the ordering of the cosmos; death – death – new life. Secondly, whenua translates both land and womb that are symbolically connected by the birthing cord. Thus the woman’s dismembered body has a strong umbilical attachment to all the lands in Israel. Whenua also provides the interpretive tool that demonstrates the abuse and violation of land was/is intrinsically linked to the abuse and violation of women. Wheiao another conceptual tool, is the liminal space situated between the life and death; the realm of the divine “other”. The battered woman is in this place when she is cut into twelve pieces and sent throughout the territory of Israel. By using M_ori conceptual and postcolonial interpretation lenses, I will try to offer a new way of reading the biblical text that challenges those who insist on interpreting through Biblical historical scholarship. This paper’s particular concern will be how attentiveness to the “other” in the text while highlighting the interconnectedness of the land and its community may bring new questions to the interpretation of Judges 19.


1130-1215       Elaine Wainwright, University of Auckland

From Wilderness to Waterfront: The Play of Time and Space in an Ecological Reading of Matt 3-4

One aspect of the ecological reading process that I am developing is the intertextuality that lies ‘in front of’ the text. This paper will dialogue with emerging theories of time and space/place or Time/Space as May and Thrift call it and how these might inform an ecological reading of selected segments of Matt 3-4.

Lunch at The Bog

1300-1345 Kirsten Dawson, University of Otago

Systemic violence in Job 1-2

Using Žižek’s threefold schema of “subjective”, “systemic” and “symbolic” violence, I will examine the violence apparent in the prologue of the book of Job. While the subjective violence that befalls Job is well-recognised, this paper will investigate the systemic violence in which the prosperous Job is enmeshed, and will suggest some of the implications that these observations might have for interpreting violence in the book as a whole.

1345-1430       Yael Klangwisan, Laidlaw College, Auckland

The Marine Lover & the Song of Songs

In the Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche Luce Irigaray formulates a poetic way of reading and critiquing Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra. In the Marine Lover, Irigaray enacts her metaphor of water and its relationship to the feminine while simultaneously creating a Nietzschean persona with which to engage face to face. This aesthetic, homeopathic and poetic form of interrogation enables Irigaray to envelope herself around Nietzsche’s words, washing against and permeating the weaknesses in his claims resulting in a particularly triumphant and brilliantly subtle riposte. Irigaray’s way of reading (in the Marine Lover) provides possibilities for reading the Song of Songs, especially in her use of poetic forms, her treatment of the text as “person” and thus the potential for face to face encounter and lithe dialogue with a biblical text that is notoriously evasive.



1500-1545       Majella Franzmann, University of Otago

Personal and Cosmic Spaces of Salvation in James and Gospel of Judas in Codex Tchachos

In this paper, I provide a study of the characters of James and Judas in James and Gos. Judas in Codex Tchacos by investigating some personal and cosmic spaces in which the characters move, which they influence, and which produce certain effects upon them in return. I use critical spatiality as a means of studying the spaces inhabited by James and Judas, the spaces between them and other characters, especially Jesus, and the cosmic spaces that they must enter and/or cross on their journey to insight and perfection to attain the heavenly home they are seeking.

1545-1630     James Harding, University of Otago

The David and Jonathan narrative(s) as open text

This paper attempts to move beyond approaches to the David and Jonathan narrative that try to circumscribe the meaning of the text through appeal to word statistics (cf. Zehnder 1998; 2007; critiqued by me at last year’s B&CT seminar) by focusing on the relationship between the constraints of the text, that is the “linear text manifestation,” and the intentions of its readers. Based primarily on Jonathan Culler’s work on the semiotics of reading (Culler 1981) and Umberto Eco’s on the limits of interpretation (Eco 1990), this paper seeks to determine what elements in the text and what interpretive conventions enable the David and Jonathan narrative to produce meaning. My case is that the narrative, which itself is made up of at least two redactional layers, is an “open text” (Eco 1962; 1979) that has been artificially “closed” by the construction of a biblical canon and the imposition of a closed range of interpretive conventions. It is only this move that has made it possible to delimit the work’s meaning by appeal to Lev 18:22; 20:13 (e.g. Gagnon 2001; Zehnder 1998; 2007; etc.) or to the completion of the Old Testament in the new (e.g. Vischer 1946).

Drinks at The Bog


Transport and Accommodation details
Registration: email either James Harding (james.harding(at) let him know that you’re coming.

Of slugs and men

There is a peculiar characteristic that men and slugs have in common: they both like beer. Like men, slugs will often head out under the cover of darkness to find beer. One small difference separates them: whereas most men have developed the incredible ability not to fall into their beers, slugs have yet to reach that crucial stage in their evolution. Put a glass of beer outside at night and by morning you’ll find it full of slugs – or empty if some male has decided to down it after the slugs have gone for a swim.