History as Irony

Into the land for which the Jews
A thousand years before
Had killed and burned to take,
Jesus was born.

In towns controlled by Rome –
Grafting their multicultural odd gods
Onto Rome-cleansed, Rome–straightened cities –
Jesus played.

Walking four miles from Nazareth
To Sepphoris with Joseph at age ten
To work and help his father build another
Roman Jewish palace,
Jesus toiled.

In the uprisings led by Judas of Galilee
When Joseph and two thousand Jews were killed,
Crucified by the Romans, Sepphoris burned,
Jesus escaped.

In hills and deserts outside Rome’s control,
Studying prophecies and hefting swords,
Jesus preached Israel purged of Rome.

Outside the shining city on the hill,
The Passover uprising crushed by Rome,
Flanked by two Zealots, heads of the revolt,
Jesus, King of Jews, was crucified.

Preventing further fundamentalists
Leading attacks against High Priest and Rome,
Saul hunted Jesus’ Messianic dregs.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Mixing old Jewish myths in a fresh blend
With Mithras, Isis – a One God for all –
Saul/Paul created Christ as a new God.

Antonia Fortress

The Antonia Fortress falls to the Romans, 70 AD

Both fundamentalist and Paulist Jews
Denying the Emperor’s divinity –
Disrupting commerce, peace and government –
Nero burned Jewish Christians, and
Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, and
Hadrian deported all the Jews
From Palestine, scattering Christians and Jews
Throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Jews kept their heads down. Christians evangelized,
Spread through the powerless – slaves, women, poor,
Criminals and the lowest army ranks.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Constantine changed Rome’s faith.

Controlling now (in part) the Emperor,
Popes ruled the West from Rome, built palaces,
And persecuted Jews.

(Jesus gives no opinion, being dead.)

Published: Ambit 211, UK, January 2013

Religious opposition to the table fork

Back in Biblical times people ate with their fingers, typically from a shared pot. Jesus states during his Last Passover Supper that he thinks one of the Twelve disciples has betrayed him to the Romans. He only says it’s someone dipping into the pot with him, which they were all doing. In retrospect, Judas is identified and blamed.

eat with the right hand

Eat with the right hand, if sharing food

Still today in the Arab world people eat with their fingers and share food from a common pot. This is why Arabs are so much more scrupulous than Westerners about washing their hands before they eat. It’s also why they have the convention a clean (right) hand for writing, shaking hands and eating, and the left hand for, you know, wiping.

Which also increases the punishment of having a hand cut off for theft. Then what? Would you want to have someone share a meal with you, if they’ve only got one hand – for everything?

So the medieval invention of the small fork for use at the table would seem like a good idea. (Industrial-size ones for cooking had been used by the Romans and others for centuries.) But you know what religious people are like when someone wants to introduce any sort of change – “It’s not sanctioned by Scripture! It’s the work of the Devil!”

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article, “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork“:

Forks for dining only started to appear in the noble courts of the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common among wealthy families of the regions by the 10th century. Elsewhere, including Europe, where the favored implements were the knife and the hand, the fork was conspicuously absent.

Imagine the astonishment then when in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks—and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. She was roundly condemned by the local clergy for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, “God in His wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

When Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian, with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”

And still today Christian fundamentalists think that gay marriage is causing hurricanes in the US, and Muslim fundamentalists think that women’s clothing is causing earthquakes in Iran, and it’s all caused by the Devil.
And do you ever see the Devil with a hurricane or an earthquake? No! (But you see him with a fork…)

Epilepsy and the origins of monotheism

Five closely related Egyptian Pharaohs shared two unusual traits – each had unusually feminized figures (large breasts and large hips), and each died young (and in fact younger than the preceding one). The former trait is suggestive of epilepsy, and the latter of a hereditary disorder. The five are Tutankhamen “the boy king”, his probable father Akhenaten, his possible uncle Smenkhkare, and before them Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV.

Saint Paul’s epileptic seizure – the creation of “Christianity”

In addition, two of them had powerful sun-related religious experiences: Tuthmosis IV in the middle of a sunny day, as detailed in the Dream Stele  inscription near the Sphinx in Giza; and Akhenaten, who elevated the minor sun-god Aten to be the supreme god, replacing Egyptian polytheism with what was probably the world’s first monotheist religion – the first of national significance, anyway.

Of the 40 kinds of epilepsy, the one that fits best is Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, in which seizures can be triggered by sunlight. Common symptoms include a compulsion to write, fainting, extreme religiosity, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Akhenaten, the creator of monotheism had it. Others suspected of it include Moses, almost certainly St. Paul (who was termed epileptic by contemporaries, and whose conversion on the road to Damascus would be a classic example of such a seizure), and definitely Dostoevsky.

There has long been a recognized association between monotheism and the desert’s all-powerful sun, as there is between polytheism and the lush diversity of sun-shaded forests. And it seems that epilepsy is another component of the development and spread of the idea of the One God.

If only they’d had shades in those days, think how much grief we could have avoided!

Rome, Israel, and the Christian compromise

Rome and Israel were in constant conflict for the first 200 years of Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Jesus, as a highly religious Jew, was part of that conflict and was executed for it. Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed in 70. After the umpteenth uprising, the Romans finally kicked the Jews out of Palestine in 135.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD, by David Roberts

When Paul came along, he had the bizarre idea that he could meld his Jewishness and his Roman citizenship, and create a universally applicable religion. It was all done by blending and compromising, and it proved to be very successful. Here are some examples:

Israel: only one God, and no prayers or worship of anyone or anything else. Rome: thousands of gods, worship your own and those of other religions. Christian compromise: only one God… except He has three “persons”, one of which is Jesus… so it’s OK to pray to any of them… also to Jesus’ mother… well, and to any other of God’s angels, saints, etc… but it still counts as only one God.

Israel: God only cares about Israel, God’s Chosen People – ignore everyone else. Rome: local gods care about local people, so the bigger the Empire gets, the more gods care for it. Christian compromise: God cares for everyone who believes in Him, so keep making His empire bigger.

Israel: love Jerusalem, hate Rome. Rome: destroy Jerusalem, Rome is the center of power. Christian compromise: make Rome the center of the Jerusalem-focused religion.

Israel: 7-day week. Rome: 8-day week called “nine days” (inclusive reckoning). Christian compromise: 7-day week called “eight days” or “Octave” (inclusive reckoning).

Israel: Passover. Rome: Saturnalia. Christian compromise: Saturnalia traditions at Saturnalia to celebrate Jesus’ birth, Passover-type traditions at Passover to celebrate Jesus’ death.

Israel: circumcision of males mandatory. Rome: are you crazy? Christian compromise: circumcision of males voluntary.

Israel: detailed dietary and food preparation laws. Rome: eat anything. Christian compromise: no prohibitions most of the time, except Fridays and Lent.

And so on. It’s fascinating. And for a long time, it worked.

Did the religious founders even exist?

Start with Muhammad who lived from 570 to 632 AD. There is extensive proof of his existence, but he’s relatively recent, from the early medieval period.

Before him, Jesus. There are strong indications that a Jewish rabbi of that named lived from about 6 BC – 34 AD, and was executed by the Romans. But those were turbulent times in that part of the world, with insurrections and sieges and the destruction of cities. Certainly the stories told about Jesus were reshaped by Paul with a pro-Roman bias, and some people claim there was no Jesus at all, just an amalgam of Mithraic and other myths.

Moses parting the Red Sea

Some of the religious back stories have always been really, really unlikely.

And now Moses, purported to have been the Jews tribal leader around 1500 BC, is under increasing scrutiny. His existence is questioned on the basis of the entire Jewish-Exodus-from-Egypt story being likely mythical, because there is no trace of any of it in the detailed Egyptian records we have today.

The further back in time, the more dubious the founder looks.

What about Odin? He could have been a tribal leader, bringing the Aesir through Germany into Scandinavia around 300 AD. A trickster, a shaman, a warrior, and perhaps a man who had half-learned to write on the fringes of the Roman Empire, and created a runic alphabet for his own people. Archeology will have to devise fresh tricks before we have more answers.

And Gilgamesh, searching for the secret of immortality, journeying to Dilmun to meet Utnapishtim the Faraway, the survivor of the Flood. The Persian Gulf used to be dry land right out to the Straits of Hormuz during the last Ice Age. If the land flooded by cataclysm rather than gradually, whatever proto-civilizations there were on that fertile plain would have been wiped out. Perhaps a man named Utnapishtim survived, and lived out his days in Dilmun, which the Bahrainis think is the place now known as Bahrain.

And coming back to our own time, we have to consider the new religions of Mormonism and Scientology. Clearly, Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard existed. And equally clearly, the back stories to their religions were made up out of whole cloth, shared with a couple of close associates, and then used to gain access to the wealth and women among the gullible.

And they’ve grown! Mormonism has gone from zero to 14 million since 1830, and Scientology from zero to maybe 200,000 since the early 50s.

So the old religions may have come about in the same way. Yes, there was a founder. Yes, he had visions, or claimed to have visions, or just preached a good story. And a lot of what he preached, even if he made it up out of whole cloth, was believed because it proved to be something that a lot of people were comfortable believing.

And that’s how we got where we are.

Right hand, left hand. At last, Romans and Jews agree!

Genetically, many more humans are right handed than left handed. When everything needs to be done the same way, therefore, there is a natural tendency to require that the procedure favor the right handed.

For example the Roman army required all foot soldiers to hold the shield with the same hand, for the sake of tight formations such as the Tortoise or the Shield.

Shield formation

The Shield formation was designed to be impenetrable by cavalry – at least from the front…

Formal Roman meals were taken reclining on one elbow. You reclined to the left, and ate with the right hand. Jews also celebrated feasts including Passover this way (as in the Last Supper, despite later European depictions). In Judaism left handedness is accepted, but only as an unfortunate imperfection along with blindness, lameness or a lisp. Any of those imperfections disqualified a priest from serving in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the Arab world today there is still a heavy emphasis on right handedness. People often pick food from a common dish at mealtimes, and the right hand is the “clean” hand for shaking hands, for writing, and for eating with. The left hand is used for wiping yourself at the toilet. Imagine the personal embarrassment and the social stigma of the thief who has had a hand cut off, and must do everything with the same hand, and dip into the common pot with his “dirty” hand…

The left hand ends up with all kinds of negative connotations, now built directly into many languages. And so the final word has to go to the trilingual quip by Canadian socialist Tommy Douglas: “The left in Canada is more gauche than sinister.”

Jesus’ 2nd failed prophecy

Jesus went up to Jerusalem at Passover to proclaim himself King of Israel, and two of the prophecies he made were:

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

and

It wasn’t Jesus who destroyed the Temple, it was the Romans in 70 AD. And Jesus hasn’t bothered rebuilding it, either.

“I will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.” (John 2:19)

Christians claim the first event physically happened, and the prophecy was fulfilled. Because the second event clearly didn’t happen, they claim the words were metaphorical and therefore the second prophecy was also fulfilled.

This technique allows anyone with a good sense of metaphor to be 100% accurate in predictions about anything, regardless of the outcome. Checkmate, atheists!

As for the Temple prophecy, I can think of four things it could have meant – though some are only “obvious” after the fact:

  1. I will physically destroy the Temple and physically rebuild it within three days. (That’s what his listeners thought he meant, and they taunted him with it while he was being crucified. But I think he had just been provocative and attention-seeking, i.e. genuinely metaphorical.)
  2. I will take over the Temple, get rid of the moneychangers and their idolatrous foreign coins, destroy the corrupt gang of priests that runs the place, and have a godly administration in place by Passover. (That’s what I think he meant, because that’s what he tried to do, and he got executed for it. This was a reasonable prophecy, but it failed.)
  3. I will allow myself to be killed, and I will come back to life in three days’ time, as I am my own Temple to myself. (That’s the mystical view of Paul and the Christians to justify their faith, because the takeover failed. End-of-the-world predictors do this kind of redefining all the time. And it’s unscientific gibberish.)
  4. I, being God, will destroy the Temple in 30-40 years’ time, using the Romans under Titus as my tools. Then at some point a couple of thousand years in the future I will rebuild it, using as my tools whoever ends up rebuilding it. The “three days” will mean whatever I want it to mean at that point. (C’mon, folks, work with me on this, it’s just as possible as the previous one!)

OK, so that last one is a little flippant, but that’s how the redefining works. Check out the prophecies of Nostradamus, and how each generation thinks all his verses apply to themselves. It’s a fascinating human trait.

When people want to believe something, they will mangle grammar, logic and plain common sense to satisfy themselves. But you don’t have to listen to them. Review the facts, and work it out for yourself.

No one (well, almost no one) wants to die

The human desire to avoid death is instinctive, genetically programmed, and can only be overcome with great difficulty. People don’t think of actual “immortality”, of living “forever”, but they don’t want to die quite yet. Not this year. And if they are offered the option of somehow continuing to live on after death, in a nice place, and made young and healthy again, they will choose to believe it’s possible, unlikely though it might seem.

Rumors were always out there, inspired by hopes and dreams and visions, that there was a place on Earth where you could live forever. Maybe Dilmun (now Bahrain) where Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim the Faraway, survivor of the Flood… Maybe in the West, where the sun goes, beyond the Gates of Hercules, the Isle of Avalon, you can get there from the Grey Havens…

And others (more primitive in their thinking, or more advanced) say No, when you die you get put in a hole in the ground or your body is burned and that’s the end. In the time of Jesus, that was the Sadducees’ position. As wealthy and influential collaborators with the Romans, they didn’t like the idea of any Egyptian-style afterlife and assessment of their morals. But the Pharisees expected a resurrection of the body, so that God could manifest his essential justice and reward the good and punish the evil, and balance out their otherwise unfair lives.

Religious Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought resurrection of the dead was possible. There are three stories in 1 and 2 Kings of people being restored to life: one an intervention by God after Elijah prayed; one a raising from the dead by Elisha; and the third being a dead man who was thrown into a tomb and came back to life when his body touched Elisha’s bones.

Raising the dead was therefore a good indicator of a prophet. Jesus not only claimed to have brought back the daughter of Jairus, and a young man in his own funeral procession, and his friend Lazarus, but he commanded his disciples to raise the dead (as well as heal the sick). Peter and Paul were each said to have raised a dead person on different occasions, as recorded in Acts.

And at the moment that Jesus died, Matthew records that the earth shook and tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people were restored to life. (They were a little slower than Lazarus, because Matthew also says that they didn’t come out of their tombs until Jesus’ own resurrection, a day and a half later, when they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.)

So not all these stories are coherent, let alone credible, but that’s not the point. The point is that humans want to believe that they aren’t going to die. In fact when you offer a belief in the afterlife to someone for the first time, they rarely assess it on grounds of logic, but they choose what to believe regardless.

Modern thinking about an ancient problem

A classic example is the story of Radbod, ruler of Frisia from about 680 to 719. He was nearly baptized a Christian, but then refused when he was told that he wouldn’t find any of his ancestors in Heaven after his death, because they hadn’t been baptized. He said he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his pagan ancestors, than in Heaven with his enemies – especially the Franks. He chose not to be a Christian because he preferred the idea of the Germanic afterlife to the Christian one. Or because his family loyalties were more important than the wishes of God. Or because he couldn’t really tell the afterlife ideas apart, and feasting with Woden is more fun than sitting around on a cloud singing hymns of praise.

The pagan afterlife party (until it all ends in Ragnarok) is one version; the Muslim paradise for believers is another; Hindus and Buddhists see you coming back to life in a different way; Taoists and others let you keep on living as long as your descendants keep on looking after you – buying and burning the things the priests sell, paper money, paper houses.

And as science slowly puts an end to all this wishful thinking, is it any wonder that we start looking to science for genetic intervention and rejuvenation, with the fallback of cryonics as a sort of ambulance to the future if we die before the medical miracles are fully developed?

Hitler, Joshua, Genocide and God

Nobody (almost nobody) likes Adolf Hitler. Christians say he was an atheist, atheists say he was a Christian, Jews say he was a mass murderer. But we can get at his beliefs in two ways: through his actions, and through his words.

First, he was a human. As a species humans are territorial and resource-possessive. We’ve been walking out of Africa in waves for the past 100,000 years, staking a claim to the empty places we like, pushing out the inhabitants of a previous wave, defending our turf against the next wave. We use our gods as moral justification for murder, and we glorify our massacres as historic victories.

Genocidal massacres involve killing men, women and children

The Jews took over the Promised Land of Canaan in this way, with Moses telling them that God said to kill every man, woman, child, animal and tree in the targeted cities in order “that they not pollute you with their evil ways” (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18). With these cities the soldiers weren’t even allowed to abduct the virgins, they had to kill everything.

God intervened to help Moses’ successor Joshua in the conquest, sending hailstones to kill half the enemy one time, and another time stopping the sun in the sky so Joshua could finish off the enemy before dark. (It’s surprisingly hard to find corroborating evidence from other cultures, of the spinning Earth suddenly stopping, and the oceans slopping all over the land as a result, and so on.)

And so the Jews wiped out the people there and took Palestine for themselves.

Christians, Jews and atheists… who claims that this was good?

Hitler’s actions were no worse than Moses’ or Joshua’s, and for the same reason. Genocide for the sake of ethnically uncontested control of territory and resources, and for racial purity.

Christians, Jews and atheists… who claims that this was good?

“But wait,” a Christian may say, “that was acceptable in the time before Christ, but it changed with the dispensation of the New Testament. It isn’t acceptable today.”

No way, Christian! Jesus didn’t intend any changes to the Mosaic Law: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5: 17-18) Any subsequent changes are the work of Paul, not Jesus.

“No, no, wait, wait,” says the religious person. “Moses and Joshua were following the mysterious commands of God for some greater hidden purpose, which Hitler wasn’t.”

You can follow a more detailed discussion of that in a different blog here, and it brings us to the second way of looking at Hitler’s beliefs: his words. Here are 19 Christian quotations from Mein Kampf, from his speeches, and even this one:

“The Catholic Church should not deceive herself: if National Socialism does not succeed in defeating Bolshevism, then Church and Christianity in Europe too are finished. Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the Church as much as of Fascism. …Man cannot exist without belief in God. The soldier who for three and four days lies under intense bombardment needs a religious prop.”  – Adolf Hitler in conversation with Roman Catholic Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Bavaria, November 4, 1936

In sum, Hitler was one of those Christians who wants his Christianity free of Jews. And if his actions were evil, so too were those of Moses, Joshua and God.

So don’t blame atheism for Hitler and the Holocaust. Blame Moses and God… or blame the species we call “humanity”.

Crucifixion by Romans

Crucifixion was designed as the ultimate in slow, painful and humiliating deaths.

Crucified naked

Naked like this, but with a lot of blood

Aspects of the punishment included that prisoners were often required to carry their  crossbeam to the place of execution for it to be attached to its stake or tree; that they were crucified completely naked (more humiliating for a Jew than a Celt, and for a woman than a man – though female crucifixions were rare); that, naked, they would undoubtedly empty their bladder and bowels over themselves in front of the crowd who came to watch.

The prisoner was tied or nailed by the wrists to the crossbeam. The feet were often nailed to the upright, one one each side, at the ankle. Frequently the prisoner had a block of wood attached to the stake or tree for them to sit on, with a spike sticking up from it to magnify their pain.

The execution could last for hours or days, depending on the weather, the prisoner’s condition (such as loss of blood from having the skin scourged off his back) and whether the legionaries guarding the crucifixion were in a hurry to go back to camp. Some ways for the soldiers to hasten death were to break the prisoner’s legs with an iron bar, to run a spear up through the stomach and chest, or even to light a smoky fire below him to asphyxiate him.

Once dead, the body was normally left in place as a warning to others, while it was eaten by crows and buzzards.

The punishment was in use by Greeks, Persians and others before the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans originally used it only for slaves, but then extended it to pirates and enemies of the state. The punishment was forbidden under Jewish religious law, which only allowed execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or decapitating the victim.

So Jesus was not crucified at the wish of Jewish authorities, or of the Jewish people. He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state, which he had declared himself to be by claiming the kingship of Israel while entering Jerusalem. The Romans tacked a sign above his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, to show what they thought of his ambitions.

Jesus was crucified between “two thieves”, but you didn’t get crucified for mere theft. However “thief” and “robber” were synonymous with “Zealot”, “sicariot” (or knifeman) and “insurgent” to the forces of the Roman Occupation. It is reasonable to assume that the “thieves” were leaders in the armed wing of the Zealot resistance – but not as prominent as Jesus, and not part of his cadre of preachers.

Jesus was stripped naked, and the legionaries diced for his clothing. He was scourged: flogged 40 times with a short cat-o’-nine-tails , each tail ending in a lead ball to lacerate and strip the skin off. He was made to carry his crossbeam to the Place of Skulls outside the city, but he collapsed on the way. After perhaps nine hours of crucifixion he called out “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” Then he called out again, and died. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with – or bribed – the Romans to be allowed to take Jesus down for burial, but first the Romans ran a spear up through the corpse to make sure it was dead – this was common practice, and only a dribble of blood and a watery fluid (presumably from the pericardium around the heart) came out.

And that was it. The end of just one of a 200-year series of attempts to oust the Romans from Israel. But preachers and knifemen didn’t have much chance against the Roman Empire.