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.

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?

What’s this blog all about, anyway?

This blog is a marmalade – sweet and sour boiled together, both rind and juicy bits.

Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • It’s a blog for the ideas of my novel. The novel looks at Jesus in the context of the constant uprisings against the Roman Occupation that began 100 years before his preaching, and went on for 100 years afterwards… until the Romans finally leveled Jerusalem, and killed or enslaved and deported all the Jews, and banned them from the replacement city of Aelia Capitolina.
  • It lets you read Jesus’ words and actions with the awareness that his “greatest commandment” is to recite the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel,”) – and practicing Jews do it multiple times a day. It’s Judaism 101. Jesus wanted Israel to turn back to the Covenant with God, and get rid of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Westerners who were marching around the country without bothering to learn the language.
  • Yes, it makes comparisons with modern Western invasions and occupations.
  • So it carries all my grudges against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Blair destruction of Iraq in the hope of oil money and imperial glory. 100 million of us around the world had protested and pointed out that it was going to lead to nothing but death, destruction and economic catastrophe at home and abroad. And here we are.
  • It also carries the ironies of the current Westernized Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the cynical and heavy-handed Israeli destruction of the people who have been indigenous there for the past 2,000 years… a repetition of how the Jews slaughtered all the Canaanites and others who had been living in the area before Moses came along.
  • So I think Moses was a genocidal barbarian (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
  • And Jesus was a Jew, and more in tune with Osama bin Laden than anyone else.
  • And St. Paul was an epileptic visionary who created Christianity out of a mishmash of Judaism, Mithraism, and bits of Egyptian and Roman mythologies and practices.
  • And I have no respect for any monotheist who believes the earth was created in the past 10,000 years, or thinks the tribal legends of illiterate herdsmen have relevance for government policy today.
  • Does anyone really believe the first chapter of Genesis, when it says that God created day and night on the first day… and then made the sun and moon on the fourth day? What I believe is that we live in a universe of a billion galaxies, each with a billion suns – and someone who can’t even figure out the relationship between daylight and sunshine is to be treated seriously?
  • As for what the creative force behind a billion galaxies looks like, who knows. Call it God if you want… but where did it come from? Why is there anything at all?
  • And I love polytheist mythologies, and they speak to the soul’s images and poetry and inner health – but they’re not literally true.
  • And I loathe people who use religion as nothing but a way to make money, or to grab power. And I loathe people who use politics in that way, too. So I doubly loathe hypocritical politicians who mouth religious crap.
  • But oh how I love it all, at the same time! What a planet! Unbelievable natural beauty and works of art, and the most appalling destruction and massacres, planet-wide pollution, and greed and ignorance. But what can you expect of a planet of 7 billion heavily-armed apes? Humans are simply mind-boggling, stumbling through the dark like reckless two-year-olds.

By the way, it’s also a blog for the novel itself. With links to the trade paperback and to the Kindle edition. But don’t expect to find all the blog’s ideas in the novel – it’s just a contrarian (realistic, commonsense) retelling of an old story from the point of view of, yes, the Western occupation. And yes, Jesus was crucified. No, he didn’t come back from the dead. So, do you want to see how he did all those miracles?

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.