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.

Unasked questions: What happened to Joseph?

One of the signs of a great story is the listener’s question, “What happened next?” In the National Geographic for March 2012 the cover article is “The Journey of the Apostles”, detailing the lives and teachings of not just the original Twelve, but also others such as Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We have stories about what happened to all of them, and to many others associated with Jesus. Not all the stories are believable, but where there is no fact there is plenty of speculation and legend.

Except in the case of Joseph, the (step)father of Jesus.

This is strange. If his fate was unknown, we would have legends and rumors. Search for “What happened to Joseph of Arimathea?”, for example, and you find him traveling all over the place, carrying the Holy Grail, settling in Britain, you name it. But search for “What happened to Joseph the father of Jesus?”, and you find nothing about him after his last mention in the Gospels, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Jesus when Jesus was 11 or 12.

Mass crucifixions after an uprising

But suppose his fate was a) not something that the early Church wanted to talk about, and b) so well-known that no one could make up an alternative narrative without having the whole thing dragged out into public discussion again. Therefore silence. No narrative, no legends, nothing.

The interesting event that happened around that time (probably later in the same year that Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, but the timing is uncertain) was an uprising led by Judas of Galilee with an attack on Sepphoris. (Sepphoris is the Roman name; the Hebrew name is Zippori.) This was Herod Antipas’ capital city in Galilee, 4 miles north of Nazareth. Probably a lot of men from Nazareth were in the uprising. The uprising was crushed by the Romans, and the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews outside Sepphoris.

And after that, we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Bible, or in legends or stories.

Jesus, however, retains a remarkable father-fixation all his life, and is himself crucified after leading an attack on the Temple in Jerusalem, having tried to claim the messianic kingship of Israel.

So… what happened to Joseph? And why didn’t anyone want to talk about it in the early Church, as they tried to make Christianity acceptable throughout the Roman Empire?

Jesus’ outbursts of anger

Did Jesus ever get angry?

It’s certainly not the image presented to children. Our foundational understanding of Jesus is “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, mixed in with Baby Jesus, Jesus healing people, Jesus feeding people, and all sorts of “God is love” stuff.

Gentle Jesus, or man of violence?

Well, but he whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. And when he was in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he looked round at the congregation “in anger” (Mark 3:5) before healing someone. And there are other places that he gets angry, yells at his disciples, etc.

So there is nothing unlikely about his being connected in with the Zealot insurrection, or in having a Sicariot and Simon Zealotes among his closest disciples.

In other early writings, contemporary with the canonical Gospels, there are accounts of Jesus’ childhood in which (along with magical stories of his making lumber longer or shorter to help Joseph with the carpentry) there are disturbingly violent incidents. In one version he pushes a boy off a roof and kills him, but brings him back to life. In another he curses a boy who has either bumped into him or thrown a stone at him, and the boy falls dead. In yet another he kills a teacher who has reprimanded him.

These extremely negative stories are not the sort that followers normally make up to glorify their deceased master. They are more likely to be reflections of rumors about his childhood that couldn’t be shaken off, and could only be palliated by adding “and then he brought him back to life”. But if you only wanted to show his early powers of healing, you wouldn’t normally start with having him doing the killing himself…

But as the bastard son of, perhaps, the Roman legionary Pantera – looking unlike Joseph – with some resentment on Joseph’s part – teased by other children because of the rumors… we can make an easy case for his having a lot of anger in him. Add in that Joseph disappears from the narrative when Jesus is 12, in the year of the failed uprising by Judas of Galilee with 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans four miles north of Nazareth…

And we have the makings of an angry, conflicted, anti-Roman young man.

Forget the “meek and mild” – it’s nowhere in the Gospels.

The Transfiguration – just a bloody meeting

The Transfiguration is one of those classic iconic and apparently pointless events in the gospels. Jesus is up a mountain with a couple of the disciples, and Moses and Elijah show up to talk with him. Jesus’ clothes shine brightly (that’s the Transfiguration) and Peter in his spontaneous fashion suggests building tabernacles (tents or huts) for them. A voice from the clouds is interpreted as saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

Another unjustifiably airy-fairy Jesus story

Paintings have developed a tradition to show Jesus and the other two floating around in the air. Is there any textual justification for this? None. (Aside: This is exactly how myths develop: one person hears a story, wants it to be dramatic, fleshes the untold details out in their own mind, and then adds them as fact when they present the story – without even realizing they’re making changes.) Changes regarding a hero’s story tend to exaggerate and glorify, so you can discount some of the frills. But there’s probably a commonsense basis for the story.

Here’s how I tell it in “The Gospel According to the Romans”. First, it’s nighttime, full moon, but overcast. They go up into the mountain without Jesus telling them why. Then he tells them to hold back and goes alone into a clearing, where two Zealot leaders named (or code-named) Moses and Elijah come out and discuss their plans for the attempt to take over the Temple at Passover. (These disciples aren’t privy to this; they were the fishermen Simon Peter, James and John, not the Zealots Judas and Simon Zealotes.)

The full moon comes out from behind the clouds, and catches Jesus’ face and his white robes, making them shine dramatically. There is a roll of thunder. You can make thunder say whatever you want it to say – Eliot records it speaking Sanskrit in The Wasteland. Simon Peter babbles, not untypically.

Going back down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until they’ve seen a man raised from the dead. In other words, not until he has done his Lazarus trick (which they don’t know anything about) which will be right before Passover at Jerusalem. At that point it won’t matter if anything they’ve heard gets out, the uprising to take control of the Temple will be about to happen anyway, and it will be too late for the Roman Legion to stop it…

So, what do you think? Plausible? Or you prefer the floating-around-in-the-air version?

Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.

Jewish-Egyptian mixed marriage, 5th cent BCE

There’s a lovely true-life family saga from 5th century BC Egypt sketched out in the magazine section of a recent Jerusalem Post. It involves Tamat, the Egyptian female slave of a wealthy Jew. She married Annania Ben-Azaria, an attendant in the Jewish temple in Elephantine where the Jewish god Yahu was worshiped… along with a couple of Egyptian goddesses. The marriage was not formalized until she bore him a child, she (and the child) still being formally the possessions of the original owner.

Elephantine Island, Egypt

Love, slavery… ownership, freedom… monotheism, polytheism… Jews, Egyptians… the relationships become ever more complicated as the next generation grows up and marries.

Fascinating novel potential – but I’d want to know a lot more about 5th century BC Egypt before I dared tackle this one!

Things we know Jesus wasn’t

He wasn’t born December 25th. The shepherds and flocks would not have been out in the fields overnight.

He wasn’t a Christian. Christianity was the invention of St. Paul in the decades after Jesus’ execution. Jesus was a rabbi, and outspokenly strict on upholding Jewish religious laws.

Did Jesus look European, or African? Who knows...

He wasn’t a pacificist. He said “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and, shortly before the Romans caught him, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” He attempted to take over the Temple in Jerusalem and he was crucified by the Romans (the punishment for armed insurrection) between two (other) Zealots.

He wasn’t born in 1 BC or 1 AD (or the legendary “Year Dot”). He was born a couple of years before Herod the Great died in 4 BC.

He wasn’t born of a virgin, if by “virgin” you mean “girl who had never had sex”. Why not? Because that doesn’t happen. Get real. The word should be more correctly translated as “young girl of marriageable age”.

As for the rest, you can read into it what you like.

Did he look like a European? Maybe – depending on who his biological father was. The Romans and Greeks were all over Palestine, and the Roman troops included Germans and Gauls. We don’t know. He might equally have looked African.

Was he gay? Maybe – he doesn’t appear to have been married, and there are various ambiguous statements and situations in the Gospels suggesting he was gay. He might have been gay, straight, bi, asexual…

What happened to his corpse? We don’t know for sure. Someone took it when it had been entombed for 36 hours (Friday evening to Sunday morning). Jewish rumor at the time was that his followers stole it.

Lots of room there to create stories about him! Have fun – I do.