Wishing for eternal life, then and now

Humans have always (as far as we can tell) resisted the idea of their mortality. Many people simply refuse to think about it, and others refuse to believe it. In the face of all the evidence of creatures that die and rot or get eaten, and don’t come back to life, humans will confidently state that we are different.

True, some groups have accepted that even if we have a “soul”, our body rots in the grave and our “soul” gradually fades away underground. This was one of differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus. The former believed in a resurrection of the body and a divine rebalancing to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoer. The latter felt that life ended at death, and there was no reckoning in an afterlife. Therefore the Pharisees tended to be morally upright and religious puritans, while the Sadducees were generally more venal and collaborated with the Roman Occupation. Fair enough.

Jesus surrounded himself with Jews of all types in his attempt to bring all of Israel to repentance and purity. Of the four philosophies of his time, he was close to the Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes, less close to the Sadducees.

The promise of a physical resurrection of the body, together with the promise of an eternity in paradise if you are a believer or an eternity in hell if you are an unbeliever, is basic to Christian and Muslim belief. It has been a very powerful meme for persuading people to donate their time and cash to the promulgators of the religion. The Mormons have upped the ante by promising their adherents that they can become gods of their own planets… at least, if they are men; the status of women in all these religions is less than equal.

The religious afterlife may be an increasingly laughable idea, but the desire to avoid death is as strong as ever. Last year Google launched a new company, Calico, to focus on health and aging in particular. It is run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at both Genentech and Apple. This is a serious attempt at life extension, backed by Google and its $54 billion in cash.

Image

In Google, Larry Page and his cohorts Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and Astro Teller have created a company that is known for two things: crunching data phenomenally well, and going after data-heavy speculative ideas (officially identified as “Moonshots”) that – even if they work out – will take many years of development to pay off. The original Google search engine was the product of vision and a data-heavy opportunity. Currently under development are a raft of others, including Google Glass and self-driving cars. Looked at in this way, medicine is just another information science with vast amounts of data – seven billion case histories walking around on the planet… data to be assembled and crunched for a path to understanding everything about our life processes. Google’s Calico should then be able to cure disease – eliminate all cancer (which would add some three years to average life expectancy) – and presumably tinker with our cellular and genetic structures any way we can imagine. To me, that suggests an indefinite lifespan in a body that would gradually move away from current human norms.

Timeframe for this? The only hint is from Larry Page: “In some industries it takes 10 to 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

Larry Page is only 40, but I’m 63. Let’s get a move on, guys!

And what will it cost? Google is “not a philanthropic organization. But,” says Astro Teller, “if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way.”

Or in other words, just like with the priests of old, the promise of eternal life will get you to give them a ton of money. The big difference is that this time around, it is grounded in scientific developments, not wishful thinking.

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

Justifying false expectations

Every successful religion evolves its statements of belief into greater complexity and self-contradiction, so that no matter what is under discussion, any position can be advocated, any outcome can be forecast, any alternative outcome can be explained, and any change of position can be justified – all from the same collection of text.

End-of-the-world predictions from Jesus (“This generation shall not pass away until all these things be fulfilled”) to the Millerites to Harold Camping are the best-known examples. But every unheralded event or result has to be justified as God’s Will, part of the Divine Plan, and a further reason to give more money to the Church.

And that’s how religions develop and grow.

Church of England suggests Jesus had mental problems

The Church of England, doing its best to support World Mental Health Day in October 2011, suggested that Jesus and John the Baptist – as well as characters like King Saul, Saint Paul and Saint Francis – may all have suffered from conditions that we label mental health problems today. The Church’s points appear to be that a) God works through everyone, and b) we should be tolerant and supportive of those who have such disabilities.

The Church of England suggests Jesus had mental health problems

The theological implications of suggesting that all the key figures of Christianity were nutters are still being debated. But thank you for widening the debate, Church of England!

Here’s the latest from the Daily Express, a national British daily:

http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/341926/Jesus-Christ-may-have-suffered-from-mental-health-problems-claims-Church-of-England

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.

Pornography for priests

Naked, smiling and being touched by curious young boys.

Dead Christ with Angels

Dead sexy

Rosso Fiorentino painted his “Dead Christ with Angels” as “a work for private devotion” for Bishop Tornabuoni around 1526 (phrase from the Courtauld’s John Shearman).

No blood, no pain, no suffering, just a relaxed body being inspected by inquisitive little angels looking like altar boys grasping enormous phallic candles. What a treat for a bishop!

And a complete disconnect from Jesus’ message of the need to purify Israel, and return to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”). But then again, this is Paul’s Christianity, not Jesus’ Judaism.

The logic of the painting is baffling. With Jesus dead (and his spirit having left the body and gone somewhere else?), why would angels put on clothes to look at his naked corpse? What world are we looking at, the spiritual world but with a physical corpse? Or the physical world, with physical fully-clothed angels such as we rarely see these days? And what does an angel need a candle for anyway? It is a work of deliberate fantasy, with no attempt at fact or logic.

There was a time when angels were considered to be terrifying powerful manifestations of divine power. Here they’re just something for the priesthood to salivate over, and to look and see what kind of reaction the painting gets from other viewers. “Come up to my room and let me show you my work for private devotion…”

Of course, if you want the traditional view, you can just listen to a couple of Khan Academy art critics talking about “elements that are hard to figure out” and “heightening the spirituality” and so on.

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.

Unasked questions: Who *was* buried 3 days and 3 nights?

Before Jesus went up to Jerusalem to have himself proclaimed King of Israel, he prophesied that he would show off his powers by having “a son of man” brought back to life after “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”.

The magic trick might have been more credible if it hadn’t been performed by Jesus on his best friend.

Luckily his best friend Lazarus was reported to have died as Jesus and the disciples were headed towards Jerusalem. Lazarus lived four miles south of the city at Bethany, with his sisters Mary and Martha. Jesus delayed his journey for a couple of days, while the disciples urged him to hurry. When Jesus got to Bethany, Mary and Martha met him near Lazarus’ tomb and made a theatrical production of grief. Jesus dramatically called for the stone to be rolled away and called Lazarus to come out, even though he was four days dead. Lazarus came out.

“Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” (John 11:45) The wording suggests that many others were unimpressed with the show, and didn’t believe it.

So the “three days and three nights” prophecy was fulfilled even before Jesus rode into Jerusalem with the crowd calling him King and God’s Anointed. He had no reason to think he himself was going to be the object of the prophecy.

Lazarus fulfills Jesus’ prophecy. Which is more than can be said for Jesus, who was only buried for some 36 hours before his corpse disappeared.

And no, “son of man” had no meaning of “Godlike” attached to it by Jews at that time. The most detailed exposition of its use in the Old Testament is in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_man. It has the connotation of “mere human”. Redacted excerpt:

“Within the Hebrew Bible, the first place one comes across the phrase son of man is in Book of Numbers 23:19:

God is not a human being (איש : ['iysh]), that he should lie,
or a son of man (בן–אדם : [ben-'adam]), that he should change his mind.”

Got that? God is not a Son of Man. (That Mithraist God-incarnate idea is Paul’s great innovation, and the beginning of Christianity.)

David and Jonathan… Jesus and John…

Hey North Carolina! (My home for 20 years, if Chapel Hill counts as part of NC…)

David and Jonathan... Jesus and John...

David and Jonathan… Jesus and John…

What about the love between David and Jonathan, “surpassing the love of women”? God still made David King of Israel, didn’t he?

What about the unmarried Jesus (not kosher for a rabbi), and John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? Didn’t Jesus love the other disciples? But just not in the same way, right?

So you can be gay and have pride of place in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, get it?

Repeal Amendment One, for the love of God!

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.