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?

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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.

Would even the Romans have had 2000 pigs?

This question was asked by Greta van der Rol, an Australian writer of historical fiction (“To Die a Dry Death”) and science fiction (the “Iron Admiral” books).

When the Romans had permanent bases, they used their soldiers as builders: roads, farms, towns, aqueducts.

“When on station, the soldiers (…) always maintained a herd of cattle, sometimes herding other animals such as sheep and goats, grew grain and other crops, including vegetables, and foraged for variety.” (http://romanmilitary.net/people/food)

A Legion of 8,000 men engaged in hard labor ate a lot.

“It is estimated that just the soldiers in Britain ate over 33.5 tons of grain a day.”

Plus they liked pork and bacon!

“A soldier always marched with at least a good supply of bacon, hard tack biscuits, and sour wine.”

For hundreds of years the Romans had a Legion (or more) stationed in Palestine. They were there permanently, not on some hit-and-run Panda operation (“eats shoots and leaves”). Undoubtedly they had their own farms – and Romans did things on a very large and impressive scale. Shipping that much food around would have been foolishly expensive and inefficient, even if you had as good a port as Sebaste, built by Herod the Great at Caesarea Maritima. 

Sebaste Harbor at Caesarea Maritima

And the food would still have to been farmed somewhere.

That said, the story of the Gadarene Swine in the three Synoptic Gospels was written down a generation after Jesus’ execution, by people who had heard it from other people who in turn remembered it a little differently, with added elements of bravado (from the Zealots) and exaggeration (from the fishermen) and deliberate obfuscation (from the pro-Roman Paul).

Pigs would be a prime target for Zealots, as pigs should not have been farmed and eaten in Israel. And it would have been almost impossible not to give the Romans the nickname “pigs” – big ugly grunting unclean creatures, pig-eating and marching around under their Legion’s boar standard.

And, accurate or not, the number of 2,000 may have been a deliberate echo of the number of Jews crucified four miles from Nazareth during Jesus’ childhood, when “the Roman pigs” suppressed the uprising by Judas of Galilee.

Where were the Gadarene Swine?

The Gadarene Swine slaughter took place in the countryside around Gadara. This was one of the semi-autonomous Ten Cities (the Decapolis), in the Roman-controlled area mostly east of the River Jordan. Gadara was almost certainly at the place now called Umm Qais.

Gadara (Umm Qais), with the Sea of Galilee and, right, the Golan Heights

In the panorama we have Umm Qais in the foreground, the Sea of Galilee in the background, and the Golan Heights on the right. The gospels say that the pigs rushed over the cliff into the sea and were killed. It is not possible today to find a location on the east of the Sea of Galilee where such a fall is possible – there is a margin of flat land between the Sea and the Golan Heights, and the heights of Umm Qais are even further away.

One possibility is that the lake level may have been higher. But more likely the lake that the pigs fell into wasn’t the Sea of Galilee, but some other lake in the area.

The southern end of the Golan Heights is near vertical in places – you can see the road switchbacking down in the photo. Driving down it you will pass wrecked vehicles suspended halfway in the vertical ravines beside you. And at the bottom is a small lake.

So I suggest that the south end of the Golan Heights is the place where a herd of 2,000 pigs were kept for the Legio X Fretensis, and that Jesus and his followers chased them over the cliffs that are just to the left of that zigzag road in the picture. There may be other equally steep cliffs on the ridge of Umm Qais itself – but maybe you don’t want to have that many pigs on your doorstep. They’d be perfectly safe just across the valley, wouldn’t they? Unless some Jew came along with a chip on his shoulder about pigs and Romans…

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?

Magical thinking and Jesus

Context. Without context, a star can hover over a house, because that’s the way our creative understanding works. In the context of astrophysics, that star idea is nonsensical. Without context, Jesus was a Christian and the Jews hated him. In the context of his time and place, there were no Christians. He lived in the middle of an area occupied by pig-eating, beard-shaving, idolatrous Westerners. He lived in the middle of 200 years of constant uprisings by religious fundamentalists. Reading his words in context, it is obvious that he was a Jew, he hated the Romans, most Jews loved him, and Romans hated him.

Paul's legacy: nonsensical magical thinking

The genius of Paul was in seeing that by removing context and putting everything into the mythic realm, a universal religion could be created that wasn’t tied to the foibles of its anointed fountainhead. In this case, by decontextualizing Jesus, he became no longer a Jew (John says things like “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him” – John 5: 18). He became no longer an adversary of Rome, no longer a Zealot, no longer gay… he becomes instead a mythic god, independent of the realities of history, independent of the laws of the universe. “Magic Jesus“, in the song by Tim Minchin.

Whether Paul understood this consciously and deliberately planned it, or whether he believed the visions from his own epileptic seizures, we may never know. But Paul is the creator of the post-Jewish “Christianity”.

The Gospels are written in an episodic way, highlighting some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, camouflaging other uncomfortable aspects, turning Jesus’ Jewishness upside down to make him more acceptable to Roman listeners and the Roman Empire, blending him with Mithras and Apollo. The Gospels swaddle him in miracles not just “from birth to death”, not even just “from womb to tomb”, but, in words originating in another context, “from the erection to the resurrection”. The very bookends of his life are so unbelievable that many people nowadays suspect he never existed at all.

So Jesus becomes a myth, a spiritual reality, an archetype. Like others before him in the preliterate world, he attains godhood. The historical person didn’t, of course – the historical person is dead and buried. But the story lives and grows and transmutes, constantly evolving to resonate more deeply with more people. All this is natural, inherent in human tendencies, and can be very useful for personal growth…

But magical thinking is a lousy basis for government policy decisions. Especially regarding the science curriculum for schools and universities.

The Miracles, 4: Lazarus

When Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for Passover (because he was a Jew, remember?) he got word that his close friend Lazarus is very sick. Instead of making the one-day walk to Lazarus, he waits where he is for a couple of days, telling the disciples that Lazarus will die so that he can be resurrected to demonstrate God’s glory. Jesus has already been prophesying that people will see a “son of man” raised from the dead after three days. Now’s clearly the time for it.

Classic Mummy

Jesus shows up, finally. Yes, Lazarus has been dead for three or four days. Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary meet Jesus at the graveyard, there are a lot of other people there too, and Jesus has the tomb opened and calls Lazarus, who stumbles out stinking and wrapped in grave-clothes. “Many believed,” says John’s Gospel. Therefore clearly many, perhaps most, did not believe.

Why not?

Too easy to fake.

Why didn’t Jesus come earlier, except to show off what he could do?

If he could raise people from the dead, why didn’t he do it more often… and not for a close friend where there would be doubts about the veracity of it?

And Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Seriously, no one wraps a body for real like they do for horror movies. In real life you wrap the legs together, just as you wrap the arms to the body. Unless you want the body to be able to walk!

It was a bogus ‘miracle’, and not even good enough to fool all the onlookers.