What ELSE was the big story in 1492?

From Europe to India, a major geopolitical event in 1492 had everyone talking –  and it had nothing to do with Columbus. Columbus was just some explorer who had discovered some islands somewhere. But the really big news was that, after nearly 800 years, the aggressive Christians had finally kicked the more cultured Muslims out of Spain.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

Granada was conquered. Cordoba and Seville, the greatest centers of learning in Europe, where thousands of Christian scholars had traveled surreptitiously, and from which the European Renaissance had been born, were now turned into fresh hunting grounds for the Spanish Inquisition. Decrees ordered Muslims and Jews to convert or leave. Tens of thousands chose the former, hundreds of thousands the latter. Of those who converted and stayed, thousands were subsequently executed by the Inquisition under suspicion of insincerity; initially over 90% of the executions were of Jews, because the moriscos were too well-connected and too important to the government and economy to be maltreated. But after some decades the focus turned to moriscos (and Protestants), and finally all the moriscos were expelled without being allowed to take money or jewelry or anything more than they could carry.

The most advanced state in Europe was destroyed, and neither it nor the rest of Spain has ever fully recovered.

An ironic element is that, after 800 years of Islam in Spain, the Christians “were not actually expelling Arabs nor were they expelling Berbers. The huge majority of the people that were being expelled, by blood, by DNA if you will, were as Iberian as their Christian cousins in the North who were kicking them out of Peninsula”. This from British historian Professor Dwight Reynolds in a 2005 documentary.

The Muslims and Jews who were expelled took the keys to their front doors with them. Fifteen generations later, around the Mediterranean, many of those keys are still in the possession of the original families.

Jesus’ outbursts of anger

Did Jesus ever get angry?

It’s certainly not the image presented to children. Our foundational understanding of Jesus is “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, mixed in with Baby Jesus, Jesus healing people, Jesus feeding people, and all sorts of “God is love” stuff.

Gentle Jesus, or man of violence?

Well, but he whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. And when he was in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he looked round at the congregation “in anger” (Mark 3:5) before healing someone. And there are other places that he gets angry, yells at his disciples, etc.

So there is nothing unlikely about his being connected in with the Zealot insurrection, or in having a Sicariot and Simon Zealotes among his closest disciples.

In other early writings, contemporary with the canonical Gospels, there are accounts of Jesus’ childhood in which (along with magical stories of his making lumber longer or shorter to help Joseph with the carpentry) there are disturbingly violent incidents. In one version he pushes a boy off a roof and kills him, but brings him back to life. In another he curses a boy who has either bumped into him or thrown a stone at him, and the boy falls dead. In yet another he kills a teacher who has reprimanded him.

These extremely negative stories are not the sort that followers normally make up to glorify their deceased master. They are more likely to be reflections of rumors about his childhood that couldn’t be shaken off, and could only be palliated by adding “and then he brought him back to life”. But if you only wanted to show his early powers of healing, you wouldn’t normally start with having him doing the killing himself…

But as the bastard son of, perhaps, the Roman legionary Pantera – looking unlike Joseph – with some resentment on Joseph’s part – teased by other children because of the rumors… we can make an easy case for his having a lot of anger in him. Add in that Joseph disappears from the narrative when Jesus is 12, in the year of the failed uprising by Judas of Galilee with 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans four miles north of Nazareth…

And we have the makings of an angry, conflicted, anti-Roman young man.

Forget the “meek and mild” – it’s nowhere in the Gospels.

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?

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.

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”…

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.