At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”
But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.
My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Memoirs, Posts, Travel
Tagged Archaeology, Israel, Jesus, Mount of the Temptation, Nashotah House, Solomon, Tel Dor
While I was off in Indiana, Jesus was coming down in New Jersey. Well, at least a graven image was. My wife saved the front page of Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger that had a front-page, above the fold headline, “Workers give Jesus a much-needed lift.” The caption notes that in a gusty storm on Tuesday the 200-300 pound Jesus (this is America, after all) tumbled off his pedestal at Saint John’s School in Orange. A crane hoisting the fallen Lord dominates the first page. Clearly a bit of irony on a slow news day, the social commentary is thick indeed. Despite Magritte’s assertion, we still say the painting is a pipe. The representation is the object. This is the native logic behind the “idols” of old—to capture an image is to somehow to encompass some of the essence. This is precisely why the Hebrew Bible forbids images to be made.
I realize that “essence” is a disputed concept these days. Some scientists have declared that no such thing exists, along with souls, deities, and free will. Nevertheless, most mornings I wake up aware that I am me and not you, that my physical body is relatively near where I last remember it being, and that it faces the same hopes and limitations it did the day before and before and before. Perhaps this continuity is an illusion, but I can’t afford to treat it as such. It’s hard for an identity-less person to hold down a job. As usual, it is money that comes back to define us.
We recognize that it is disrespectful to mistreat representations of what we hold sacred. Does Jesus suffer any real harm for his image laid out on the ground? The nuance necessary to separate likeness from reality is something we obviously possess, but as we deal with the physical world the distinction frequently fades. Religion may have lost much of its explanatory value for the material world we inhabit, but images of a fallen savior demonstrate that we still operate otherwise. Much of our religious life concerns appearances. And for many people that step between appearances and reality is a very small step indeed.
Posted in Bible, Consciousness, Current Events, Posts, Science, Weather
Tagged idols, images, Jesus, Magritte, New Jersey, New Jersey Star-Ledger
Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).
The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.
Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.
So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”
Rounding up the usual suspects?
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Feminism, Goddesses, Posts
Tagged celibacy, Copts, Cro-Magnon, goddess, Jesus, Jesus' wife, Middle East
Hagiography has gone out of style. Since the Reformation we’ve come to see even our most promising lights as flawed and sullied, and no one retains the sheen of unadulterated goodness. It is the new realism. Yet somewhere in our psyches we still need our heroes—those who give us something to which we might feebly attain. A couple years back I visited Edison’s Orange labs in New Jersey—his last inventing paradise—and partook of the mythology that is Edison. Thoughts of that visit keep coming to me, so I read Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Like a wonder-struck schoolboy, or Homer Simpson, I was ready to find stories of incredible creations Edison conceived. Instead Stross’s account is devoid of hagiography and presents a tarnished hero that is much more in keeping with the spirit of the twenty-first century.
Edison was known, even in the nineteenth century, for his atheistic leanings. He was one of the proponents of the human spirit of achievement, a perennial hard worker who believed we could solve our own problems. In many respects, although he didn’t foresee the practical aspects of his inventions, he was ahead of his time. As Stross points out, during his days as a telegraph operator Edison got into trouble for transcribing Jesus Christ as “J.C.,” following the standard practice of rendering time as “B.C.” (Before Christ). Others saw this as sacrilege, perhaps falling into that perpetual myth that Christ was Jesus of Nazareth’s surname. Abbreviation, no matter how sacerdotal the content, is eminently practical in telegraphy.
When entertaining Henry Stanley during his days of phonograph fame, according to Stross, Stanley asked whose voice Edison would most like to hear from history. (Keep in mind, at this time, before records, magnetic tape, and MP3s, a recorded human voice seemed to be a way of communicating with the dead.) When Edison answered “Napoleon,” Stanley expressed surprise suggesting he would’ve supposed the most important voice to be that of Jesus. Edison replied, “Well, you know, I like a hustler.” Even for Edison hagiography was dead. But he did see that the world had gone after the hustlers. Watching the political game unfold again, of which I’m already deathly sick, I hear echoes of Edison’s cynicism. Political leaders would have us believe they are in it for our best interests. Anyone who has studied history (which most politicians despise and discourage us from doing) knows that Edison was right. For all his flaws, Edison will remain a symbol of light in dark times.
Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.
And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.
So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged civil religion, Deism, Jesus, Judaism, Mitt Romney, Mormonism, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Paul, politicians, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Deignan, William Howard Taft
I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.
My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?
It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.
Posted in Deities, Feminism, Holidays, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Good Friday, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus, London, Newsweek, Times Square, Watchtower
One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.
In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.
Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.
Here comes the sun
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Holidays, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Balder, Christmas tree, Hanukkah, Imbolc, In the Bleak Midwinter, Jesus, Pagan, Saturnalia, winter solstice
When the same religio-historic event is described in three consecutive books I’ve read on diverse topics, I start to consider what strange form of coincidence is operating here. Coincidences are some of the potent spices that give life flavor—the tragic death of Suzanne Hart on Wednesday when an elevator crushed her to death occurred the very day my bus was late and I took the route directly past her building to avoid the crowds on 42nd Street. What was the series of uncanny events that led me to where someone was about to die? It hardly seems within the divine character. So coincidences have been on my mind of late.
The last three books I read have all discussed the Taiping Rebellion that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite having studied religion all of my life, I had never come across this religiously motivated violence until reading Daniele Bolelli’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion. Unrest in imperial China had existed before, but Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the rebellion, was motivated by religion. Xiuquan was a Christian (no doubt the fruit of missionary activity) who came to believe that he was Jesus’ younger brother. His motivation for the rebellion was based on his aberrant version of Christianity that quickly grew into a full-fledged movement calling itself the Heavenly Kingdom. Basing itself in Taiping, the movement adopted the early Christian practice of communal property and came to rule over about 30 million people. The numbers are what is truly stunning about this tragedy. When the conflict with the Qing Dynasty ended, about 20 million people were dead. The number is so high as to shut down comprehension. So many dead because of religion. It has a corporate feel to it.
Religion evolves. When it is spread into new cultures, syncretism takes over. Many religious believers, through faith, insist that their religion is the same as the founder propounded. Such simplistic understanding is not true. Culture, just like biology, lives and grows through evolution. The American Christian dressed in expensive clothes in a phenomenonally costly mega-church with a shining preacher bearing a million-dollar smile is about as far from a property-less, vagabond carpenter from Nazareth as you can get. Yet we still pretend. If that pastor says he is Jesus’ younger brother, chances are good that many will believe him. Stranger things have passed the lips of televangelists. Emotional involvement in religion easily leads the zealous to extreme action. History has demonstrated this time and again. The Taiping Rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom proves the point, even if we’ve never heard of it. Maybe it is no coincidence after all.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Evolution, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged China, Daniele Bolelli, Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Xiuquan, Jesus, Qing Dynasty, Suzanne Hart, syncretism, Taiping Rebellion
Stepping into the Port Authority Terminal in New York City may be the last place I expected to see Jesus. But there he was, at Hudson News, his beneficent face forming a repeating mosaic before the hurried and harried commuters rushing to get to work. U.S. New & World Report’s special issue features Jesus. Obviously. Racking my half-asleep brain, I couldn’t think of any reason for this sudden popular epiphany; it seems out of sync for Christmas and Easter, and no big news discoveries in the archaeological world had been recently announced. Perhaps the editors know the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is coming up next week. Getting 10,000 scholars of religion together in one location is enough to make even the most hardened skeptic pray for a miracle. So, what are these “Secrets of Christianity” that call for a special edition?
The sidebar taunts: “New Insights on His Life and Death,” “The Mysterious Virgin Mary” and “Has His Tomb Been Found?” I am curious about what makes Mary mysterious; she is a minor character in the Gospels who rose to a mysterious prominence only with Catholic hagiography. Well, the sidebar does also state that the special edition has “An Excerpt From Pope Benedict’s New Book on Holy Week.” Spoiler alert! Please keep in mind that Holy Week is months away yet. Perhaps it is in response to the overly religious tussle that is going on with Republican presidential candidates. What was once a forbidden topic of discussion is now headline news, and the average person might feel the need to brush up on Christianity 101. Problem is, apart from the Gospels—and their brief is not always historical—we have very little in the way of evidence about Jesus. In the first century he was just another radical rabbi, not likely to have garnered much public notice until after his martyrdom. That means that the smallest nuggets become huge in a world where we simply don’t know.
The cycling and recycling of Jesus into the public consciousness is big business in America. With the frenetic faith claims of political candidates lacing the headlines, it is almost like a high school locker room with each contender claiming to have the bigger God. Cracking open the magazine on my lunch hour confirmed my suspicions—there’s nothing here that scholars haven’t known for years. Problem is, scholars don’t speak on a level that most people can hear. I don’t recall the last time I saw a professor taking a bus or hanging out in a bus terminal. That’s the thing about Jesus, you can always find him hanging out with the common folk. If religious specialists would learn to speak in plain language there wouldn’t be so many “Secrets of Christianity.”
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Current Events, Higher Education, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged American Academy of Religion, Jesus, Republican Party, Secrets of Christianity, Society of Biblical Literature, US News & World Report, Virgin Mary