Spies need pockets

When you’re writing something like “The Gospel According to the Romans” with its cloaks and daggers, your hero is bound to have the need to hide various items on himself, and his adversaries are going to have weapons stashed on themselves. This would be very easy in cyberpunk, the outfits are so elaborate, with belts and buttons and flaps and pockets all over the place. But what about Ancient Rome and Israel when your clothes were a simple toga, or a basic robe, or possibly a short tunic with a belt?

Robes can certainly have pockets

And then I noticed – being in Saudi Arabia these days – that all the robes have pockets, both men’s thobes and women’s abayas. Where else can people keep their keys and cash and cell phones? How long has this been going on? What is the history of the pocket?

The most succinct yet engaging history of the pocket – though with a very European bias – comes from columnist Jeff Elder, writing in 2004:

In Europe, common people began to exchange coins for goods and services toward the end of the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, many kings, princes, dukes, bishops and free cities minted their own coins.

So people needed someplace to carry their coins. The first pockets were small purses hung on one’s belt. You might’ve seen these in Robin Hood books and movies or Renaissance costumes.

But pockets on the outside of one’s clothes were easy to pick, or swipe altogether. One slice with a knife could cut the drawstrings and your money was gone.

So people started hanging their pocket-purses inside their pants. This made it tough for criminals to get at their money. It also made it difficult for the rightful owners to get at the money. To buy something you’d virtually have to drop your trousers and moon the entire marketplace.

So many people made a simple slit that enabled them to reach through their clothes and into their purses, which were still pouches hung around their waists.

But saddling yourself up with the purse before you put on your clothes was a hassle. And in the late 1700s, tailors and family seamstresses began to sew pockets right into trousers and dresses.

In  other words, it seems unlikely that you can use pockets for hiding anything in a Roman era novel. Yes, coins were common then; but the most you can assume is that a few people kept precious things in a bag round their neck or on a belt round their waist (under their clothes), just as backpackers do today when in unsafe lands.

Oh well, no pockets anyway. So unless anyone can tell me better, it’s back to the vague claim that “he hid it in his robes”…

Unasked questions: Who owned 2,000 pigs?

The oddest story in the Gospels is surely the one about the Gadarene Swine. It is so odd that many Christians don’t know it, and of those who do, many think is a parable. But it isn’t. Slightly different versions of the story (of course) are found in Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8.

Jesus killing 2,000 pigs

Jesus is in the countryside going toward Gadara (east of the River Jordan). A madman comes out of some tombs. He says his name is Legion, because he has many devils in him. Jesus commands the devils to leave him. The devils ask to go into some other being, so as not to go back to the abyss of hell. Jesus kindly sends them into a nearby herd of pigs. The 2,000 pigs rush over a cliff into the sea and are killed while the swineherds run away. The madman is cured. Jesus and whoever was with him carry on to Gadara. People come from Gadara, upset with Jesus, and tell him he isn’t welcome there. Jesus goes somewhere else, telling the healed man to talk about what he has seen.

So who would have owned 2,000 pigs? A Jew? No.

A non-Jewish farmer, maybe a Greek immigrant with a cow and an acre of land? Of course not.

Or is the answer in the madman’s name, Legion? It’s a part of the Roman Legion’s food supply, then.

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” this event is a strike by Jesus against the Romans occupying the Holy Land. A Zealot action against our friends the Legio X Fretensis. I can’t think of a more plausible interpretation.

And we have a deliberately garbled version of the story in the gospels, because the story was too well-known to be ignored. Paul’s pro-Roman revisionism did its best to disguise it.

So forget “Jesus meek and mild”. You may have seen pictures of Jesus tenderly holding a little lamb, but have you ever seen him cuddling a piglet?

What’s this blog all about, anyway?

This blog is a marmalade – sweet and sour boiled together, both rind and juicy bits.

Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • It’s a blog for the ideas of my novel. The novel looks at Jesus in the context of the constant uprisings against the Roman Occupation that began 100 years before his preaching, and went on for 100 years afterwards… until the Romans finally leveled Jerusalem, and killed or enslaved and deported all the Jews, and banned them from the replacement city of Aelia Capitolina.
  • It lets you read Jesus’ words and actions with the awareness that his “greatest commandment” is to recite the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel,”) – and practicing Jews do it multiple times a day. It’s Judaism 101. Jesus wanted Israel to turn back to the Covenant with God, and get rid of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Westerners who were marching around the country without bothering to learn the language.
  • Yes, it makes comparisons with modern Western invasions and occupations.
  • So it carries all my grudges against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Blair destruction of Iraq in the hope of oil money and imperial glory. 100 million of us around the world had protested and pointed out that it was going to lead to nothing but death, destruction and economic catastrophe at home and abroad. And here we are.
  • It also carries the ironies of the current Westernized Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the cynical and heavy-handed Israeli destruction of the people who have been indigenous there for the past 2,000 years… a repetition of how the Jews slaughtered all the Canaanites and others who had been living in the area before Moses came along.
  • So I think Moses was a genocidal barbarian (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
  • And Jesus was a Jew, and more in tune with Osama bin Laden than anyone else.
  • And St. Paul was an epileptic visionary who created Christianity out of a mishmash of Judaism, Mithraism, and bits of Egyptian and Roman mythologies and practices.
  • And I have no respect for any monotheist who believes the earth was created in the past 10,000 years, or thinks the tribal legends of illiterate herdsmen have relevance for government policy today.
  • Does anyone really believe the first chapter of Genesis, when it says that God created day and night on the first day… and then made the sun and moon on the fourth day? What I believe is that we live in a universe of a billion galaxies, each with a billion suns – and someone who can’t even figure out the relationship between daylight and sunshine is to be treated seriously?
  • As for what the creative force behind a billion galaxies looks like, who knows. Call it God if you want… but where did it come from? Why is there anything at all?
  • And I love polytheist mythologies, and they speak to the soul’s images and poetry and inner health – but they’re not literally true.
  • And I loathe people who use religion as nothing but a way to make money, or to grab power. And I loathe people who use politics in that way, too. So I doubly loathe hypocritical politicians who mouth religious crap.
  • But oh how I love it all, at the same time! What a planet! Unbelievable natural beauty and works of art, and the most appalling destruction and massacres, planet-wide pollution, and greed and ignorance. But what can you expect of a planet of 7 billion heavily-armed apes? Humans are simply mind-boggling, stumbling through the dark like reckless two-year-olds.

By the way, it’s also a blog for the novel itself. With links to the trade paperback and to the Kindle edition. But don’t expect to find all the blog’s ideas in the novel – it’s just a contrarian (realistic, commonsense) retelling of an old story from the point of view of, yes, the Western occupation. And yes, Jesus was crucified. No, he didn’t come back from the dead. So, do you want to see how he did all those miracles?

Unasked questions: Sunlight

Creates Light, and Day and Night, in Day 1... doesn't create Sun and Moon until Day 4.

How can I have been in and around the Bible for decades, and never noticed the totally bizarre concepts in the first chapter of Genesis?

I don’t mean the impossible ideas of later chapters – not the talking snake, not the angels having sex with “the daughters of men”, not the assumption that every animal species on earth lived within walking distance of Noah’s ark… those ideas may be unscientific, preliterate, and so on, but they’re not as mind-bogglingly irrational as this:

“And God said, Let there be light… and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Genesis 1: 3-5.

“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night… And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also… And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.” Genesis 1: 14-19.

I’m still pondering this! Day 1: he makes Light, and Day and Night, and morning and evening. (Day 2, he makes heaven and sea and earth. Day 3, he makes grasses and fruit trees.) Then, on Day 4, he makes the sun, moon and stars…?!?

How could even an unscientific, preliterate, myth-creating narrator come up with something as nonsensical as that? (If Day and daylight are independent of the Sun, does the author of Genesis think that it is purely coincidental that daylight and the appearance of the Sun occur together?) Or how could even the worst story-reteller garble a narrative that badly in writing it down? And how the hell can ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible as we have it today is literal fact?

(And how could I have created a skeptical protagonist like Matthew in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’, and omitted to have him question Jesus on the believability of Genesis? No wonder there are no surviving dialogues of Jesus with Greek philosophers, they would have destroyed him! I may have to add a couple of sentences to the novel.)

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.

Unashamed commercialism…

Pantera, a Roman legionary, remains a plausible biological father for Jesus

You have only minutes left to get an interesting gift – a stocking-stuffer for an intelligent, literate, argumentative teen, say.

You could order them a copy of The Gospel According to the Romans for $14.95 here, or from Amazon.com

or you can send it to them as an e-book for 86p in the UK, or 99 cents in the US, or EUR 0,99 at one of Amazon’s main European websites (for example Germany, but you can substitute other country letters for the ‘de’), where you/they can also get a free Kindle app for reading it (look on the right-hand side)

or you can simply point them at this blog, http://robinhl.com, where they can enjoy random religious rants and sniping year-round!

(Discussion of Pantera is at https://robinhl.com/2011/11/06/jesus-son-of-pantera/, fyi. And Merry Christmas!)

Was Jesus gay?

This is one of those ideas that some people find shocking and incomprehensible, and others think self-evident.

You can see what you want in Jesus

There is an excellent and detailed discussion of the issue, for and against, at the Religious Tolerance (.org) website, here. It raises all sorts of interesting questions, such as “Gay meaning orientation? Or gay meaning activities?” But to me the key issues are these:

1) Given that Jesus was a strict religious Jew, firm that marriage was sacred and indissoluble, for example – why is there no indication that he was married? It was a religious duty, a requirement, the first of God’s 613 commandments, to “Be fruitful and multiply”. Surely the Gospels would have promoted the fact.

Naked young man runs away... let's assume he was really naked...

2) Given that Jesus had individual relationships with him various followers, and loved everyone (or at least all Jews… or at least all practicing Jews… or at least all practicing Jews who he agreed with…), why is John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? John would have been a teenager when Jesus was in his late 30s. And who is the young man with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane according to Mark 14: 50-52, “And they all left him and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Wtf?

People say Jesus couldn’t have been gay, because God said it was a sin. But the same God made David King of Israel, despite his relationship with Jonathan. Maybe God doesn’t really care all that much.

So, lots of questions. And probably much of what you get out of Jesus is what you choose to put in. I put in questions. In The Gospel According to the Romans I suggest Jesus might well have been gay, but it’s not an important element of the novel.

Jesus’ Message, 3: Eternal Life

Jesus said that the two greatest commandments from God were the Shema, and to treat your fellow Jews well. When a rich young man told him (Matthew 19: 20) that he had followed these – and the Ten Commandments, and in fact all of God’s commandments – and asked what he had to do to gain eternal life, Jesus did not, repeat NOT, say anything like “Accept me as your Lord.”

Jesus said “Sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow me.”

The Pope on his thrones in his palaces thinks he is poor.

In ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ the words would carry a different nuance: “Sell everything, give it to the Zealots, and join the insurrection against the Roman occupation.”

In any case, the young man went away sadly, because he was rich. That was when Jesus made his remark about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into Heaven.

And no matter which interpretation of Jesus’ words is correct, it is hard to imagine either the Pope or any televangelist being allowed in at the pearly gates.

Legio X Fretensis

Legio X Fretensis (Tenth Legion of the Sea Straits) was formed around 40 BC by Octavian to fight in the civil wars after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavian called it “The Tenth” in honor of Caesar’s famed Tenth Legion, and it earned its nickname “of the Sea Straits” after an early battle near the Straits of Messina.

The Naval Battle of Actium, 31 BC

The Tenth Legion Fretensis fought across the ships at Actium

It consolidated this name in the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, when Octavian’s ships grappled the ships of Antony and Cleopatra, and the Tenth Legion was able to fight across from ship to ship. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Octavian became Caesar Augustus.

Roman Standards of Wolf and Boar

The Tenth Fretensis was stationed in and around Judea for over 400 years, at Damascus, Caesarea and latterly Aqaba. It was involved in the suppression of the ongoing Jewish insurrection against the Roman occupation, including:

  • the defeat of Judas of Galilee and the crucifixion of 2,000 rebels at Sepphoris (Zippori), four miles from Nazareth, in 6 AD
  • the siege of Jerusalem in the Great Revolt of 66-73 AD, the looting and destruction of the Temple, and the capture of Masada
  • the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-135 AD, with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the enslavement, deportation and banishment of all Jews from Judea.

That other minor (but well-known) incident in the mid-30s, ending with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and two Zealot ringleaders, was trivial compared with what the Legion had to deal with a lot of the time. But that incident, of course, is the focal point of my novel “The Gospel According to the Romans”.

Roman detachment with Standards

The Tenth’s symbols were the Bull, the Ship and the Boar. The Bull, Taurus, may be from its being created sometime between April 20 and May 20 – but it certainly made an easy connection with the Mithraic religion that was spreading into the Empire from the East. The Boar was, in itself, a source of conflict with the Jewish inhabitants throughout the region – they didn’t like to see foreign troops in any case, but for them to parade around under the graven image of a pig was an extreme insult.

Who were the Zealots?

The Zealots were the armed resistance to the Roman occupation of Israel, and caused uprisings throughout a 200 year period. They terrorized collaborators, assassinated leaders, robbed caravans and killed legionaries whenever they could, operating as urban and rural guerrillas with their trademark curved dagger, the sica. They were sicariots, dagger men.

Zealots - robbers, or freedom fighters?

The Romans called them sicariots, robbers, thieves and brigands. But they would hardly call them heroes, patriots and freedom fighters, would they?

Once a generation or so a Zealot leader would arise who would lead a full-scale revolt – capture a city, massacre gentiles, loot arms and treasure, and finally be crushed when the Romans sent in a couple of Legions.

In 6 CE when Jesus was about 12, Judas of Galilee captured Sepphoris (or Zippori), the capital of Galilee only four miles from Nazareth. The Romans defeated his ragtag forces and crucified 2,000 of them. (Jesus’ father Joseph is not heard of after that event.)

After Jesus led his unsuccessful uprising in the Temple at Jerusalem, he was caught and crucified between two “thieves”. Neither theft nor blasphemy was punished with crucifixion; only rebellion was. When the Romans labeled Jesus “King of the Jews” they were echoing his claim from his ride into Jerusalem on his donkey, and clarifying why they were crucifying him. The two “thieves” were also important enough to be crucified.

A fourth was arrested and released: Barabbas, identified as “a robber”. “Bar-abbas” is a strange name – it means “son of a father”, “son of his father”, or “Son of the Father”. He was a Zealot, anyway. In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I suggest a couple of different reasons for his release.

The Zealots were active for another 100 years, until the final destruction of Jerusalem in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.