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.

Jesus and the Ultra-Orthodox Jew

In the news today, Israeli President Shimon Peres is calling on Israelis “to save the majority from the hands of a small minority”. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (who are exempt from military service and, rather than working, collect a government subsidy for religious studies) are increasingly resisting the secular nature of the Jewish state and trying to enforce ancient religious practices.

"Segregate women", the sign says. But surely the men are free to segregate themselves? At home? And veil themselves when they go out?

The Ultra-Orthodox demand strict gender segregation and “modest” dress for women. Recent incidents have seen schoolgirls harassed and spat at,  and women ordered to sit at the back of local buses or get off, despite court rulings that women can sit anywhere on a bus.

This issue resonates interestingly with the position of Muslim hardliners in other countries, and with the Jewish resistance to Roman rule 2,000 years ago.

Fanatics everywhere thrive on polarization. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Al Qaeda are brothers with a common view of the universe, a view that their God, through His Infallible Book, has given them the divine duty to order the lives of entire 21st century nations in accordance with a subsistence-economy tribal past. They disagree as to which set of Semitic writings is the True Word of God, but they all loathe the Western tolerance of casual secular behavior. (Their leaders also understand that their power is increased by turning the Middle East into a religious battleground.)

When Rome ruled Palestine, the same dynamics were in play. Rome wanted a live-and-let-live religious environment where anyone could worship any god, and temples to all of them were scattered about. The more secular of the Jews were happy with this – they enjoyed the peace and improved travel and trade that the Empire brought. But the more religious of the Jews wanted to cleanse Israel of the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist idolators, and they wanted all Jews to repent and return to the Law of Moses. To them, all Jews were one family and everyone else should be evicted from the Promised Land.

Jesus was only one of a stream of would-be Messiahs who, over a 200 year period, led uprising after failed uprising against the Westerners and got crucified for their pains. Osama Bin Laden was of that mindset and he too has been executed. Secularism is gradually replacing religion around the world in a several-generations process now speeded by mass media, mass travel and the Internet. But the Ultra-Orthodox may well have a decade or two of success ahead of them.

The same things are still happening, that have been going on for 2,000 years. The Westernization of Israel is still in question.

The Miracles, 2 – Feeding 5,000 and feeding 4,000

Jesus mostly avoided the big cities, and instead held his mass rallies in the countryside where he was free of interference from the Romans and their Sadducee collaborators. He became a wanted man, and was constantly on the move: “The birds have their nests, and the foxes their dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus looks for pricing on a bulk volume deal.

His message was always the same: the unity of the Jewish people, the need for purification and submission to the will of God. And he made his points by stories (parables) and by vivid events (stage-managed miracles).

When he preached in the countryside he could attract crowds of up to 5,000 people. Obviously he didn’t just start talking, and have that many people show up spontaneously. These were publicized events. As at an outdoor event like Woodstock, some people would have brought food and drink with them, and others wouldn’t. But here there was nowhere to get food if you needed it.

Having preached to a large crowd, he would have a small boy come up and offer to share food – “five barley loaves and two small fishes”. He would praise the spirit of the boy, and ask everyone to sit down where they were, and for those who had brought food to share with whoever they were next to. They were all Jews, they were all God’s children, they were all one family. Jesus and the disciples and the whole crowd would share food between them as a communal celebration for one large family, and reinforce his teachings and their bonds as a single chosen people.

The miracle was in getting 5,000 people to share their food with strangers.

(And it was all done without rock music or recreational drugs.)

The Promised Land, 3 – do Jews really believe that?

The land promised to Abraham by his god (in exchange for exclusivity of worship) was “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates”. In modern terms this includes not just Israel/Palestine, but Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, half of Iraq, a large part of Egypt, and an undefined part of Saudi Arabia. (You could even argue that it includes the entire Arabian peninsula, as falling within the coast between the Euphrates and Egypt.)

Map of the Promised Land as defined in Deuteronomy

If you don’t think that fundamentalist Jews and Messianic Christians believe in such a massive expansion of Israel, look at this map on this website.

If you don’t think that the Arabs are aware of the fundamentalist Jewish vision, then look at this blog. This blog includes references to Jews claiming the full territory in the writings of Theodore Herzl and in 1947 testimony to the UN.

And notice that they are using the same map (misspelling ‘Caspian’, and showing Israel as including both Lebanon and the Sinai peninsula). How nice that they can agree about something.

Of course, only a very few Jews and Christians make these preposterous claims to own the whole “Promised Land”. Similarly, only a very few Muslims want to eradicate the state of Israel. Most people on both sides, as most people everywhere, simply want a better life for themselves and their children, and to feel that they are living in a fair and just world. As the bumper sticker says, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

It would be nice for Palestinian constitutions to renounce the idea of the eradication of Israel. Israel could show the way by renouncing, in its constitution, the idea of the Promised Land “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates”.

The Promised Land, 2 – the people already living there

Of course, a whole lot of people were already living in the Promised Land when Moses showed up with the Children of Israel. It was good land.

According to Moses, GOD had two sets of rules for warfare with cities, depending on whether the target cities were outside the Promised Land (“very far from you”), or inside it (“cities of the nations here”).

For the first ones, GOD says, offer them peace as slaves. If they accept, enslave them. If they don’t accept, then besiege the city, capture it, kill all the males, and keep the women and cattle as booty. You can afford to be this generous, because it’s outside the Promised Land.

But if the city is inside the Promised Land, you have to kill everything – men, women, children, animals – “in order to prevent them infecting you with their immoral practices”. I kid you not.

"You shall save alive nothing that breathes."

Here are the rules, from Deuteronomy 20, verses 10-15 for the first lot, 16-18 for the second.

[10] When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.
[11] And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.
[12] But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
[13] and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword,
[14] but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
[15] Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.

[16] But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
[17] but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per’izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb’usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
[18] that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

Having got control of Palestine for 1500 years through genocide and ethnic cleansing, religious Jews (including Jesus, obviously) were in no mood to have the idolatrous, polytheist, pig-eating Romans come in and run the country. Their duty was to wipe the Romans out.

Unfortunately that thinking is still alive today among religious Jews. Even if Palestinians are neither idolatrous nor polytheist nor pig-eating, the more fanatical among the Jews do not see them as worshiping the same God, and want to wipe them out. But God is said to have promised the land to the descendants of Abraham – and Arabs, too, claim descent from Abraham. So the promise of the Covenant is fulfilled if Jews or Arabs live in the Promised Land… from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.

The Promised Land, 1 – The Covenant

The Covenant with Abraham is the basis for the world’s three major monotheist religions, as well as for the conflicts between them. It dates back to the time of polytheism, and appears to have been taken originally as a powerplay by one local god, Yahweh, to ally himself with a tribe of humans for their mutual expansion. Abraham was to give sole worship and complete obedience to this god. What the god, now to be GOD, promised in exchange is found scattered through Genesis chapters 12 to 17:

  • to make of Abraham a great nation and to multiply his seed exceedingly
  • to make him father of a great many nations
  • to bless Abraham and make him great
  • to make Abraham a blessing to all the families of the earth
  • to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him
  • to give Abraham and his seed forever all the land which he could see
  • to give him a sign of the covenant (circumcision).

And specifically, Genesis 15:18-21 describes what is referred to in Jewish tradition as Gevulot Ha-aretz (“Borders of the Land”) and regarded as the full extent of the land God promised to Abraham:

"From the river of Egypt to the Euphrates"

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river the Euphrates. The land of the Kenites, Kenizites, Kadmonites; the Chitties, Perizites, Refaim; the Emorites, Canaanites, Gigashites and Yevusites.”

But Arabs also lay claim to legitimate descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael. As Amir Ali has written, ‘The Bible declares, “So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hager the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Gen 16:3). Note that the adjective wife has been used twice, once associated with Sar’ai and second time associated with Hager indicating no superiority of one wife over the other. This shows, according to the Bible, the original Arabs were equally descendants of Abraham as were the original Bani Israel. Christian and Jewish apologetics may have some irrational rationalization to exclude children of Ishmael from God’s covenant to Abraham.’ (End of quote.)

The vaguely Promised Land…

Jesus’ Message, 2: “Love thy neighbour…”

Jesus is quoted as saying that the second most important commandment is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. This may be accurate, but not the whole story.

Because the phrase isn’t among the Ten Commandments, many Christians have the impression that it’s a Jesus original, expressing love towards the whole world. When you see it in its original context, though, it has a slightly different message. Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18 –

“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.”

Love thy neighbour - Leviticus 19:18

The commandment is for Jews to love their fellow Jews. It says nothing about loving gentiles. It certainly says nothing about loving the idolatrous pig-eating beard-shaving military occupation forces, no matter how St. Paul would later try to twist the teachings of Jesus to fit his own pro-Roman agenda.

Taken together, the two greatest commandments say “Think of and obey the God of Israel constantly, and look after your fellow Jews”.

Jesus was not preaching a universal message.

Jesus’ Message, 1: “Hear, O Israel -“

Jews traditionally identify 613 commandments from God in the Torah, from the initial commands to Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”, through “Thou shalt not kill”, to the requirement that the congregation stone a blasphemer to death. No wonder that it is claimed that no one has ever been able to keep all 613 commandments!

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important he said “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

Because these two sound so much more forceful and defined than the Ten Commandments, people brought up in the Christian tradition assume they are Jesus’ original developments to monotheism.

Yet for the first one, Jesus is merely affirming his Jewishness. He is quoting the fundamental prayer of Judaism:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house, and upon thy gates.”

A Mezuzah for holding the text of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9

For its opening words, this is known as the Shema Yisrael (or just the Shema). It is the most important prayer, recited twice daily by observant Jews, taught to children to recite before sleep, attempted as the last words of the dying.

When you enter the home of an observant Jew you will notice a small container, a couple of inches long, fixed to the door frame. This is a mezuzah, containing the Shema.

For Jesus, as for any observant Jew, it was the single most important commandment from God.