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?

Easter is finished

Easter ended a couple of years ago in our household when the children left home. Hunting for chocolate rabbits and Easter eggs in the garden, including digging through the sandpit, remained a fun event for the kids and their friends right through to college. Church, Jesus, Bible stories – they were never a part of it. This was about nature, not religion. Spring, not sin. Eostre, not Easter.Eastre, goddess of Spring

Eostre (to the Northumbrians) or Eastre (to the West Saxons) was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. Eggs and bunnies. Flowers, nests, the rebirth of the world.  March/April (in northern climes only), surrounded by birds, bunnies and mad March hares.

Paul built the legend of Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb to be a Mithraic story of the Blood of the Passover Lamb (instead of the blood of the Mithraic bull) taking away the sins of the world (a Mithraic, not Jewish, concept). This echoed so fortuitously with the springtime rebirth of the world that, as Christianity spread north, it simply adopted the preexisting springtime celebrations, and kept the name Eastre and the eggs and rabbits in order to help transition the pagans into Christianity.

For our adult sanity, we drop the idea of the Resurrection. For our kids’ enjoyment, we keep only the eggs and rabbits… and the old name Easter.

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?

Long hair, short hair

Jesus wanted the Mosaic Law upheld in all its details. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 17-19)

Symptomatic of this is Jesus’ hair, always shown long in keeping with Leviticus 19:27 “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.”

To Jesus, the Romans were pig-eating, uncircumcised, beard-shaving idolators who needed to be expelled from Israel.

Pilate and Jesus

But Paul wanted to move away from ethnic-based Judaism to a universal religion acceptable to the whole Roman Empire. Paul’s entire outlook is Roman. He writes: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” (1 Corinthians 11: 14)

Paul’s Christianity is hostile to the beliefs of Jesus. The hair says it all.

New religion? New laws.

It’s normal for the founder of a new religion to produce a new code of laws. After all, the founder isn’t content with the existing social situation, or he (and it’s usually a he) wouldn’t feel the urge to create something different. The new religion will require a new definition of god/ess/es and a new definition of the appropriate and/or mandatory ways to worship them and beg things from them.

The god Shamash (seated) giving Hammurabi insignia and laws

New god(s), therefore new liturgy, new rules regarding purity… cleanliness… then food… food preparation… and of course clothing… and now we’re into the regulation of sexual relations… marriage… penalties for disobedience… Pretty soon you’re instituting the death penalty for adultery, then regulating marketplace weights and measures, and standardizing the length of cart axles so that the wheels always fit the ruts in the road.

It may not be necessary to create a whole new religion if your interest is just the laws. Especially if you have a pantheon of gods to choose between, you can simply shift the emphasis from one to the other, as Moses did in suppressing the worship of Ba’al and other gods in favor of Yahweh. But then, Moses may not have written all of those laws – it appears they kept getting added to for hundreds of years, the authors always attributing the additions to Moses attributing them to Yahweh.

Several centuries before Moses, various rulers in the area of modern Iraq such as Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi provided extensive written laws. They too invoked the gods as the true creators of the laws, increasing the authority of the laws and enhancing the status of the ruler.

So it’s an apparent anomaly that there was no new and extensive written code of laws with the birth of Christianity – neither from Jesus nor from Paul.

But Jesus had no interest in starting a new religion – he was a Jew who was trying to get all other Jews to turn back to the old ways, back to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”), and away from the polluting Romans.

And Paul, though he wanted to start a new religion, had no interest in new laws because he was intent on starting this new religion within the existing framework of the Roman Empire. The Romans didn’t look favorably on people who tried to override their laws.

So Christianity started out without any clear legal definition, only the tension of trying to adhere to the very different Mosaic and Roman legal structures simultaneously…

And then a few hundred years later we get Muhammad, and we’re back to divinely inspired legislation.

Faith means never having to admit you were wrong

Jesus performed “healing miracles” all around the Galilee countryside, except in his hometown of Nazareth. The people there knew him and his tricks.

Threatening to throw Jesus off a cliff - Luke 4: 19

As one young “Christ follower” says: “After bringing Jesus out of the desert, God calls Him to preach in Nazareth where he is unable to do many miracles because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58). But it gets worse. He then preached in the synagogue and offended the people (Mark 6:3). They were so incensed by His sermon they tried to push him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-30).”

That doesn’t stop Christians like the blogger quoted above – they just go into their Have-it-both-ways mode. Jesus as God is not the same as Jesus as man… Jesus as God is omniscient and infallible, Jesus as man is fallible and still learning… How can you tell which Jesus you’re dealing with? By the results, of course! If a miracle succeeds, it was God. If it fails, it was just the human.

This is the heart of faith: A person is in a car crash and survives – “Praise the Lord!”… but their spouse is killed – “God works in mysterious ways.”

A child is in hospital with doctors and medicine and survives some rare and often-fatal illness: “Proof that prayer works! Praise the Lord!”

Meanwhile there are 30 countries in Africa in which over 10% of children die before the age of 5. The leading causes of death for them are simple: acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, measles, malaria and, of course, malnutrition. Worldwide, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, 7,000,000 children a year die from preventable causes. So why do so many innocents die? “God works in mysterious ways.”

Faith means never admitting you were wrong. It’s not a good attitude for raising children, making educational policy, or running a government.

It’s not Hamza Kashgari who is blasphemous – it’s his accusers!

On the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, 23-year-old poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari sent out three tweets:

Hamza Kashgari calls it like he sees it

  • On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
  • On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

This ignited a firestorm of indignation, with tens of thousands of his fellow Saudis calling for him to be tried for blasphemy and atheism, and executed. For some of the worst acting from a cleric, watch this short video.

Hamza flew to Malaysia, heading for asylum in New Zealand, but was arrested in the airport at Kuala Lumpur.

The irony is that his tweets are perfectly in line with the attitude that Muhammad himself tried to cultivate: that humans should never be deified, that neither Jesus nor Muhammad was anything but an ordinary man (though favored with prophetic gifts), and that, as he himself tried to prove, Muhammad could not perform miracles.

By the way, that’s the source of the story that ends “Well, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Very much like King Canute shutting his flattering courtiers up by setting his chair up on the beach and telling the waves to go back, which they wouldn’t.

But the followers and the religious organizers always take over after the great man is dead, and turn him into a god to be worshiped. It happened with Buddha, with Odin, with Jesus. Muhammad put as many firewalls in the way as he could, but all too many Muslims treat Muhammad the way Christians treat Jesus, and impute outlandish miracles to him such as splitting and rejoining the moon.

Realistically, therefore, it’s the fanatical and superstitious accusers of Hamza Kashgari who are the blasphemers. The young poet should be praised for trying to keep Islam true to the wishes of its Prophet.

The Meanest Miracle – Cursing the Fig Tree

This is Jesus’ stupidest and most mean-spirited miracle, as reported in the gospels. Here’s the story:

He’s walking the four miles from Bethany to Jerusalem just before Passover (March/April). Here’s Mark: “Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. (Ooh, look, a bonus! Proof that Jesus isn’t omniscient, and therefore isn’t God!) When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. The next morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.”

Jesus curses a fig tree, and unwittingly sets up a joke.

So, he’s not omniscient, and he’s petty, and he’s vindictive, and he’s also not very bright – because in the spring there would be leaves but no fruit yet. So he curses it, and the next day it’s completely withered.

What’s the point? Christian apologists tie themselves in knots saying that he did it to symbolize that the Jewish religion, though outwardly in full leaf, is not productive and is destined to die from Jesus’ update to True Religion. But Jesus didn’t say anything about that. When the disciples said “Oh, wow!” he just told them that if they had unwavering faith that yonder mountain could be thrown into the sea, it would happen. (If any of them tried, it didn’t work.) The apologists draw their message out of thin air. They also don’t address Jesus’ hunger, ignorance, anger or stupidity.

It’s a typical Jesus miracle in these aspects:

1) It could be faked – all you have to do is have your friend Lazarus (living in Bethany) come by that evening and pull all the leaves off, and next day the disciples would be fooled into thinking that the tree had withered at Jesus’ command.

2) It’s not the sort of beneficial and glorious thing that you would have chosen if you were writing a story about a real miracle-worker. In that case, you would have Jesus bless the tree instead of curse it, and within 60 seconds it would have fruited and produced enough delicious out-of-season ripe figs to make everyone happy. (And then the apologists would say that he showed how the Jewish religion could be transformed by his blessing into something productive, etc etc.)

Somehow it’s always like that. He heals someone who says they’re lame, or blind, or suffering from devils… but does he ever regrow an amputated limb? Ha! He can restore to life a friend who says he was dead… but what about his spiritual teacher, the man who baptized him, John the Baptist? Why didn’t he put John’s head back on his shoulders, and restore him to life?

Jesus’ miracles are always street magic, designed to engage the audience while he preaches his message of repentance and the return to God… and, probably, while his followers collect contributions for the Zealot uprising.

What kind of “new religion”? Mormons and Christians

Religions never spring to life fully-formed and without any connection to the religious and cultural ideas around them. (Scientology is the nearest to an exception I can think of, but it claims not to be a religion. It is heavily indebted to 1950s science fiction, anyway.)

Sometimes a “new religion” is like the Lutherans, more of a family squabble about reform than a whole new religion. “The Bible should be translated into the local language so everyone can read it.” “No, it should stay in Latin, because we’re Romans, remember?” And so on.

The angel "Moroni" giving Joseph Smith the "golden plates" in "Reformed Egyptian"

But sometimes you get a kid with a streak of the con artist, writing screeds of bad fantasy in an imitative style…

Joseph Smith’s impoverished farming parents tried to make extra money by treasure-digging, and the teenage Joseph claimed he could use “seer stones” for this. He would put a special stone in a white stovepipe hat, and then see the information he needed in the reflections inside the hat. (At age 20 he was tried in New York state on the charge of “glass-looking,” or pretending to find lost treasure.)

In his teens he claimed to have been visited at night by an angel named Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of silver spectacles with lenses composed of seer stones, which had been hidden in a hill near his home.  Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning but was unsuccessful because the angel prevented him.

A couple of years later he got hold of the golden plates, which the angel told him not to show to anyone, but to translate from the “Reformed Egyptian” and publish. They told the story of the Lost Tribes of Israel coming to North America and having all sorts of pseudo-Biblical events in pseudo-Biblical language, full of anachronisms like elephants, steel and silk; and then of Jesus appearing to these North Americans and essentially preparing for Americans (at least the believing ones) to be God’s Chosen People.

He subsequently translated other pages of Egyptian hieroglyphics (which no one else could in the 1840s) and determined that they were all about sacrifices and God and Abraham and so on. Unfortunately the pages have since resurfaced, and real translation shows them to be about embalming and funerary rites and Osiris. There is a Christian critique of the issue here.

So this “new religion” is not a simple reform like Lutheranism. This is one individual’s fantasy, springboarding off the Bible into whatever sounds good and will win converts. It’s not surprising that regular Christian sects don’t have much use for Mormonism – and that’s even before we get into Joseph Smith’s 34 wives, and the issue of everybody being able to evolve through several Heavens into becoming a God of their own planet, and all that jazz.

The irony is that from the point of view of Judaism, Jesus looks like a kind of argumentative reformist Luther… but St Paul’s Christianity, the Christianity that we have today, looks a hell of a lot more like Joseph Smith’s made-up Mormonism.

“Teach both theories”

Half a dozen US states currently have legislation in process to allow the teaching of religious ideas as scientific theories, to be equally weighted against actual science. Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have all been in the news recently with their popular attempts to turn education back to the Dark Ages when the only formal education was religion-based.

"Teach both theories", say the religious fundamentalists

Their cry is “Evolution is only a theory”. And they claim that equal weight should be given to the theories of illiterate herdsmen who thought that the earth was flat, that snakes could talk, and that every species on the planet, from polar bear to platypus, lived within walking distance of Noah’s Ark.

Very democratic of them. And, if the laws of the entire Universe were based on the opinions of the least-educated of humans, very reasonable.