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.

For Writers: ABNA – the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

ABNA is an annual contest “to find and develop new voices in fiction” sponsored by Amazon, Penguin, and Publishers Weekly. Its two Grand Prizes (General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction) include publication by Penguin with a $15,000 advance. The winnowing process from 5,000 entries in each category goes through several stages: the pitch, the first chapter, a complete review by Publishers Weekly, and a popularity contest of the final three by Amazon readers. This process is a reasonable mirror of an individual browsing in a bookstore, assessing, reading and then recommending a book, so I don’t see any problem with the contest’s first ruthless cut being made on the pitch alone.

In 2009: “The Gospel According to the Romans” made it to the Quarterfinals. Here is one of the professional reviews:

The great hope for unpublished writersHere is one of the professional reviews:

“This is exceptionally erudite, flawless, and subversively delicious. The author blends an almost vicious comedy to some serious history for a compelling historical fiction. The characters are richly drawn, the narrative fierce, muscular, compelling. The author has mastery of prose and story and knows how to mold the English language into an empire of a story. The action and dialogue move the story forward as well as develop the characters. The setting is atmospheric with the era pitch perfect. This is a story I would like to read in full.”

But of course one good review doesn’t win the whole thing for you. In the case of “The Gospel”, whoever the next reader was rejected it. Perhaps the process favors extremely professional but strictly mainstream works (as opposed to the implied unconventionality in the hyped “new voices”), because at various points a single reviewer can stop a manuscript from going any further. This is unfortunate for those of us who don’t mind upsetting 50% of the reading public for the sake of connecting with the other 50%.

ABNA tries to compensate for this by having multiple judges, and by changing them each year, so that no single opinion will dominate. But it is still the mainstream publisher’s consensus view, rather than the visionary small press view, that is likely to produce the final winner.

Regardless of how you see yourself as a writer, if you write novel-length fiction you should enter ABNA for the sake of getting closer to your publishing and reading markets… as well as for the chance at that Penguin contract!

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.

Who were the Twelve?

Jesus attracted a wide range of Jewish followers, both men and women. Inasmuch as he was trying to get all Israel to turn away from foreign influences and back to the Mosaic Law, he was talking to all parts of Jewish society.

It would be reasonable, then, for his closest followers to include representatives of the various philosophies and social classes, and to be a cross-section of Jewish male society. When Jesus debated with “the Pharisees”, for example, there is no reason to think that they weren’t members of the Twelve.

Jesus and the Twelve

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I identify the Twelve in this way:

    • The fishermen James and John, and Andrew and Simon Peter – illiterate, unaffiliated with a particular philosophy, but anti-Roman
    • Judas Iscariot (or “the Sicariot”) and Simon Zealotes (“the Zealot”) as Zealots – part of the armed resistance to the Romans
    • Little James and his brother Judas Thaddeus as Essenes who avoided Romans
    • Philip and Bartholomew, Pharisees who argued about correct attitudes regarding the Law and the Romans
    • Thomas, a Sadducee willing to make allowances for the Romans
    • Matthew, a foreign-born Greek-educated Jew who had worked for the Romans – a lost sheep who was returned to the flock

This covers the range of Jewish men. Jesus also had a diversity of  women among his followers, such as the three who lived in Tiberias at Herod Antipas’ court: Mary Magdalene; Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; and Susanna. A couple more, Mary and Martha, were sisters of Lazarus, close associates of Jesus, and assistants at the resurrection of Lazarus.

Using current events for historical fiction

Current events are excellent for giving fresh insights into a pre-existing area of interest. I had long wanted to write a non-believer’s novel about Jesus, and it was the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq that triggered the idea of writing about Jesus from the point of view of the Romans occupying Palestine.

What would a local religious funamentalist preach, if his land was occupied by heavily armed Westerners who trampled on the religion and culture?

Six years later, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE ROMANS is in proof and should be out in a couple of weeks (CreateSpace and Amazon). If you’re interested in the different take, and the use of current events in historical fiction, the first chapter can be accessed from the top of this page.