The Pokey Finger of God

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Ruminations 2015

December 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized

This is my first, and likely last, post for 2015. It was a good year for life and home, and I mostly relaxed and did things other than writing or thinking about Christianity. Although, the topic never seems far away. The Atwill book caused a major rethink on my part: it made sense, and it addresses many of the outstanding questions I had in my own theories. At the same time, it opened up a variety of other avenues of research, and presents some of its own questions.

Authorship of the New Testament hasn’t been something I’ve wanted to really dig too deeply into, but it’s a key part of the whole story. Atwill’s book game me something to pin the Gospels to, and I had a good candidate for someone who had the will and means to create the Epistles from repurposed pagan evangelicals. Now, I assume that Josephus wrote (or directed to have written) the four Gospels and Acts, and that Eusebius of Caesarea created the Epistles a few centuries later. I’ve seen enough arguments about the timing and placement of the final book — Revelations — that I don’t know if it was part of Eusebius’ efforts or something appended later. My current best guess is that it was appended about a century later as part of the heresy wars.

I’ve seen a few recent connections worth noting. Part of my understanding of Constantine the Great was that he was a keen student of history. When he became Emperor, he took the name “Flavius”, perhaps to indicate his intention to rule as did the Flavians. This could imply that his adaptation of Christianity was a part of this adoption of a Flavian lineage. If so, his father took the name “Flavius” as well. Had Constantius been the one to revive the old Flavian cult?

Another connection is from the study of imperial cults. The highest honor an imperial cult would give is something called a “Triumph”. It’s basically a parade to honor the Emperor’s victory in war. The period leading up to a “Triumph” is a period of time called “Advent”. In the modern Christian calendar there is a period called “Advent” that occurs prior to the Christmas season. Is there a connection between these two “Advents”?


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Irrational Animus

October 9th, 2014 · christianity, culture, media

In response to Damon Linker’s essay Why do so many liberals despise Christianity?:

First off, it’s ludicrous to posit that all, or even many, liberals hate Christianity, simply because there are so many liberal Christians. From what I can tell, for every annoying, conservative, evangelical Christian, there are two liberal, mainstream Christians who simply don’t get in people’s faces. When you paint with a broad brush, you can be sure to get sloppy results. But I don’t think this is an accident.

The whole point of an argument that starts with “liberals despise Christianity” is to further demonize a political group. This isn’t about convincing anyone to change their behavior, it’s about generating outrage. And frankly, Linker’s being a real chump about it. He’s not discussing stories he found while trolling mainstream news sites, but instead regurgitating well-chewed arguments from other conservative bloggers. Here, he discusses two such stories, ending both with a series of leading, rhetorical questions.

The first story is about Brian Palmer’s essay in Slate about missionary doctors in Africa. His complaints can be summarized in two points: he doesn’t like that they are underpaid or even unpaid; and he doesn’t like the evangelism component of their work. Linker doesn’t understand why either is a problem. Instead, he sees the whole essay as a generalized argument to promote secularized health care.

The second story references a small Christian college in Boston that stands to lose accreditation for its anti-gay policies. As much as Linker tries to reapply lipstick to this pig, it’s pretty clear that the school isn’t following a general rule to avoid discrimination, and would rather shut down than allow gays to do their gay thing around them. This, again, is being presented as horrible oppression by those dastardly atheistic liberals.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t an organized conspiracy against the good and true by the evil henchmen of the cruel world. I understand how someone from their mindset may not recognize just how offensive and inappropriate Christian evangelicalism is. They may not see how selective enforcement of racist or sexist laws from ancient traditions is outdated and out of place in the modern world. It’s likely that their embrace of victimhood is more a feature of their world view than anything anyone else may or may not do, but it still feels authentic to them.

What’s missing in Linker’s ledger of woe is any actual anti-Christian sentiment, activity, or even thought. While I agree that the stories both include Christian organizations on some level or another, at no place is anyone saying that folks shouldn’t believe in something or profess a particular faith. There isn’t a pogram of Christians being rounded up and shot. There’s not a special rule that only applies to Christians, or only to non-Christians. These are complaints about poor behavior on the part of some Christians, and Linker is confounding these into an attack against all things Christian — as if he could speak for every denomination.

From the first story, underpaid doctors and nurses is a problem because people who do work should get paid well. Clearly, this isn’t about religion, but economics. The fact that Linker doesn’t see this as a problem reflects his political biases, not his faith. The degree to which he fails to see this as a legitimate problem is shown in how he deflects this complaint as mere camouflage for the Slate writer’s obvious hatred of all things Christian.

Again, from the first story, is the point that Palmer expresses displeasure with evangelical doctors and nurses, but again this is not a stab at Christianity or Christians. This is a fundamental disagreement with the notion that doctors and nurses might (a) take time away from their work, to (b) insult and minimize the culture and traditions of (c) folks too poor and/or sick to escape this humiliation. Linker may feel that evangelism is the milk of loving kindness, and it’s sad that he can’t recognize this boorish behavior for what it is. If folks want to sell their flavor of faith to people who don’t share their language, customs, or world-view, then good luck to them, but they should sell it on its own merits, not as the stick behind the carrot of medicine.

The second story doesn’t even apply to Linker’s thesis very well. The only thing about it that make it even slightly relevant is that it’s a Christian college. The thing is, the accreditation rules apply to all schools, not just Christian ones. If a non-religious school decided to make rules about sexual behavior of any sort, they, too, would stand to lose their accreditation. Linker may feel that their religious connection justifies their actions, but that’s not how rules work. You don’t get to make justifications for bad behavior based on the flimsy foundation of faith, and pretend that your faith is being attacked when being told your behavior is inappropriate. Perhaps I should say that you shouldn’t: because I see evangelicals trying this tactic all the time, and it’s just as stupid every time I see it.

I know that victimhood is an easy rhetorical fallback position for Christian apologists, and it’s clear here that the intended recipients of this message are other conservative evangelicals in order to pump up the outrage-o-meter. But on behalf of all the liberal Christians I have known, especially those who were there for me when I was a child, I couldn’t read this and not point out that Linker’s Christianity isn’t all Christianity, nor is it even representative of all Christianity. And it’s really inappropriate for him to assume that people aren’t Christian because they don’t follow his political world view.

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Fellowship: Ritual and structure

September 23rd, 2014 · fellowship, ritual

Quick recap: Go to the Fellowship category there on the right to see all of the Fellowship essays. This continues from a recent set of essays here and here.

Ritual is rightfully a topic of research and invention in and of itself, and for its own sake. It is distinct from faith, belief, habit, mime, and dance. Ritual is a set of tools and techniques that reliably initiate specific reactions in the physical and mental systems of participants and observers. With the right mindset, changes on a spiritual realm can also be observed.

The use of ritual in a religious context is a deliberate choice, so the tool or technique chosen should be harmonious with the principle being honored and the people performing the ritual. Time of day, the weather or the space itself may help determine appropriate activities chosen. The key, then, is to not be hung up on what ritual tool is used, but to give people several different tools to use at their own convenience. Some rituals require specific gear and costume, location and time, others require none of these things.

Visualization skills can help make a ritual seem more real and be better remembered. Projecting imaginary lines of light or energy as needed into the environment helps keep the ritual oriented and focused. For solitary ritual, visualization of the entire ritual can be sufficient, while for group rituals, more effort must be exerted to sharing a visualization. From experience: so long as the ritual leader has a clear visualization of the ritual, it can aid the larger group in “seeing” it as well.

Ritual is a stylized transaction between two or more people. In the context of ritual, the definition of “people” is very flexible. Human brain function has evolved with human inter-personal activities given the greatest slice of the cognitive pie. When a human face or personality is applied to a force of nature, what had been an unapproachable phenomenon becomes something that can be remembered, understood, even negotiated with. This principle drives a great deal of pantheistic ritual, such that gods and spirits are encountered as if they had a human presence, because that is the thing we are most comfortable dealing with, remembering, and understanding.

The structure of ritual is fairly consistent. First the space is prepared, then the participants are prepared, the gods and/or ancestors are invoked then greeted as arriving guests. Any gifts or offerings are presented before making requests or announcements. This is sometimes followed by a meal, a song, or some other presentation in a group setting. In some situations, divination is performed, talismans are charged, or oracles consulted. The ritual is concluded with farewells to the invited guests, and a bonding of friendship among the participants.

With just one to three people performing ritual, typically much of the performance element is left out, and visualization is heavily used. It may be as brief as a greeting, an offering, divination, and closing. With groups of 7-13 people, shared activities like chanting, singing, and dancing can be used to great effect. With large groups of people, care must be taken to insure as many as possible can participate, meaning more of the performance is done by a limited group held apart, perhaps on a stage, while participation by most limited to group chanting or simple movement.

Planning a ritual for many is well served by the use of theatrical-style scripting. Defining the space in terms of stage and seating, walkways and storage The best use of a particular space is often determined through trial and error, although very small locations may only allow a small number of participants. Planning for a ritual with a very large number of participants requires several extra levels of management to handle logistics, people management, and security, along with more requirements for artificial lighting, sound amplification, seating, parking, and restrooms.

The content of a ritual is surprisingly diverse: this template can accommodate a great many different occasions and situations. Generally, content is determined by the reason for the rite, be it a sacred remembrance, a change in family structure, or the launch of a ship. Relevant gods are determined by the situation, the participants, and the preferences of the ritualists. Astrological connections by meaning or event can also suggest colors, incense, sounds, and visualization clues. A good deal of preparation for a ritual can be in the research of appropriate god forms and relevant decorative elements.

There are many sources for deities from various cultures across the planet and throughout time, but there is no particular reason why new names can’t be discovered. The ritual for the unnamed god is used in situations where the deity related to a particular location or activity isn’t familiar — perhaps the activity is new, or the peoples that had known that location were all gone away. As a part of the invocation of the nameless god, the areas of dominion are carefully described, and the relationship between the deity and the participants is clearly defined. Sometimes, after a period of divination, a name can be determined, along with relevant associations. Sometimes a name is chosen by the participants, based on similarities to gods in other pantheons.

With events like Pentafest or a seasonal celebration, there may be several rituals within a larger ritual, there may be more performances, and more participant interaction. Some rituals, done individually be each person at specific times or occasions, are entirely idiosyncratic. The ritual template is a generalization, not a rule, and effective ritual can take many shapes. Be ingenious when creating ritual and the impact will be stronger.


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Fellowship: sketching a calendar

September 20th, 2014 · fellowship, intentional communities, ritual

Continuing from the previous post, I am working further on plans for an “event” in a few months.

Step one is gathering together the calendar information relevant to the cycles of Venus and Mercury. This is done and available here. Based on the current date and the upcoming events, I see two particularly good dates for events.

The one I had originally spotted in early December looks good for a large gathering. December 6th is a Saturday, a full moon, and is two days after the reappearance of Venus and two days before the conjunction of Mercury. This would be a great celebration of Venus and honoring of Mercury and appreciation of the Full Moon. Good times.

The second event time I spotted is a bit sooner, on October 25th — also a Saturday — is a proper Pentafest, with the actual Venus conjunction occurring that day. This is a good day to start all the cycles, but also more of a private celebration — perhaps for the co-producers for the December party — to light the spark that catches fire in the minds of a new community.

So now I’m planning two parties, a small one on 10/25 and a much larger one on 12/6. To be honest with myself, I’m planning to do a lot of parties, gatherings, workshops, services, lectures, and video projects, starting with a small party on 10/25, and a much larger one on 12/6. I’m going to work and move forward on the assumption that folks will be interested in this and will want to participate, if they are given opportunities to hear about it and understand what it’s about.

This helps me with another thing that needs to be spelled out now, before much more work is done. This thing needs some clear boundaries. I keep thinking about this both in terms of how it will start and what it could become and I’m wanting to allow space for natural growth, so I’m being deliberately vague about a lot of it. Setting boundaries now will help me set scale and determine priorities.

Fundamentally, this community needs to be able to survive and grow without me. I’m happy to devote my time and effort towards building it up and running it for a while, but I’ll move on at some point and other folks should take up the mantle of leadership. So it can’t be about me. Obviously, I’ll be setting up the original stuff and I’ll be the spokesman for the group, and I’m bringing it all together now, but ultimately, it needs to be about the people who are all doing it together, not about who’s in charge. To this end, anti-authoritarianism and self-reliance will be virtues encouraged in the mythology.

Another virtue encouraged is that of self-love, such that forgiveness of self, acceptance of self, and respect of self are strongly emphasized in the mythology and the rites. This virtue is extended to become a love of everyone, a love of the world. Everyone has the right to be treated with respect and honor.

The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is also highly prized, each person is expected to learn to think logically and come to rational conclusions. The arts of rhetoric and performance should be taught to all. Each person is encouraged to seek out truth and understanding in its every form and from every source.

Each member is taught how to respect and honor the sacredness of the unknown, how to open themselves to divine guidance and wisdom, and how to communicate what they know to those who follow them. This dynamic — how to learn and how to teach — is really the engine that can drive this community forward through the generations. Both sides of this interaction needs to be modeled multiple times throughout the mythology until it becomes a trope.

Naturally, nearly everything done will be compared to Christianity, and there are elements which are specifically designed to counter the cultural impact of Christianity — and thus may cause conflict with many. Christianity is the dominant faith of the culture, and as such, it deserves the appropriate respect. Nothing is gained by being exclusionary or by demonizing the dominant faith. Instead, it should be welcomed as a good introduction to the larger world of religious experience. At root, Christianity is the patriotic worship of authority, and so it belongs as part of other patriotic and nationalist icons. When grouping icons around a temple, a space set aside to welcome and praise the gods of nation and state is the perfect place to add a Virgin Mary and Jesus statue, or maybe a descending dove or a shepherd and sheep as representations of the Christian faith. Personally, I would avoid placing a crucifix in my temple: representations of death are expected, but I don’t countenance capital punishment.

In other ways, I want to avoid manifestations that compare to Christian traditions. The predominant form of gathering should not be a regimented appreciation of authority, but an organic expression of acceptance and good will. So temples will not have rows of benches bolted to the floor, facing the podium. Instead, open floor arrangements with many alcoves for alternating use all around, with priests attending to and guiding the people as they are called. More than one mythic cycle will be presented, so that gatherings and rituals are not the same every week, every year.

Each person will be called upon to discover their own gods and their own rites. The authority to recognize divinity and interact with it is given freely to all. Neither the Fellowship nor the Temple define or judge what is divine, but instead teach its membership how to recognize the divine, and how to treat with it. There can be no arguments about orthodoxy or heresy if everyone recognizes that theirs is not the one true way, but simply one of many. Acceptance of belief includes those who choose not to recognize external divinity, as even a blind man can live life and do good work without ever being able to see their results.

The Fellowship, as an educational community, will present ancient and modern mythology, representations of divinity, and rules for specific practices. It should be made clear that these are not the only available myths, representations, or practices, and that others will be shown, but more importantly, that each person should take it upon themselves to make up myths, and divine their own representations and practices as they see fit. People will be encouraged to make altars in their homes, offices, cars, and back yards, and to see divinity as all around, not just in the Temple, or where-ever the Fellowship is meeting.

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Fellowship: Keystone Point approaching

September 18th, 2014 · culture, fellowship, intentional communities, ritual

I was reminded about my Fellowship project last night when I saw that my birthday this year is the day Mercury is hidden by the Sun. It will remain invisible for 12 days. (It’s actually passing in front of the Sun from our perspective, but you can’t see it without special lenses, because Sun.) Two of the key cycles in the Fellowship mythology are the cycles of Mercury and Venus, so the conjunction of Mercury and the Sun is “important” in this context.

So now I’m considering that this may be a fortuitous occasion to kick off some small part of the larger project. Or perhaps just a good theme for my birthday party.

I have put a few short essays here about the Fellowship, but the two things to know here is that (1) the purpose of the Fellowship is to model a new type of religious community, and (2) the Mercury cycle is related to learning and wisdom, such that each cycle is considered a new opportunity to learn and apply knowledge to gain wisdom.

Both Mercury and Venus are “followed” by the Fellowship as they move through what is called a retrograde cycle, meaning that they appear to move backward across the sky periodically. Mercury repeats its series every four months, while Venus repeats hers every nine months. Specific points within these cycles relate to events in the mythology that guide and give context to the rituals performed during these times.

The rituals themselves should be inclusive and informal, with time and space for each person invited to experience the elements of the evening. An element might be a thought written down, a flavor sampled, a word spoken, or a vision beheld. Once most or all have sampled each element, a group ritual (each speaking from their seat or place) could provide a sense of having a conjoined spirit. There should be food and drink, opportunities for folks to mingle and visit, and several shrines set up to honor different gods.

There should also be a few “demonstration rituals”, where folks have an opportunity to witness several “personal” or “family” rituals. These might occur several times during the event as is reasonable to do so. Overall, the experience should be one of having attended “an occasion”, with a feeling of having become wiser or better than before. Participants should feel anxious to return again soon to another, similar, event.

We’re talking about something two and a half months away from this point, so there’s time for planning and creative work. Most immediately, I need to develop a calendar for the coming 16 months, with the relevant Fellowship dates on it. Then, some mythology needs to be hammered out that covers the necessary dates/events. Given both, I should be able to design a “Hermes Enflamed” party.

I will need a few conspirators. I need co-producers who can help lead ritual, explain the props, and, hopefully, help set up the party. At some point, I’ll need help to develop the mythology and structure of the Fellowship. Should it gain enough traction to develop a following, I’ll need help to keep it going. If it all goes unexpectedly well and it takes off, becoming enormously popular, then having other co-producers can make it more about the group and less about just one person.

Big picture: this is an educational project. The point is to give people an opportunity to witness and experience what religion could be if we allow ourselves to experience the full breadth and depth of religious experience, and not just the shallow, binary theology popular in our culture. The Fellowship is modeled on common elements of  pre-Christian practice in the ancient Roman Empire, circa 300CE.  The goal is to create an active, self-sustaining religious community that actively models these old methods and philosophies.

We cannot revive the ancient ways. Beyond the loss of the language, the history, and the ancestral traditions, we now are different people, with different needs and different expectations, so we don’t really want to go back to the past just to experience a greater range of religious practice. Whatever we do is fundamentally modern because we are modern people, so there is no need to strive toward historical accuracy. What was it they were trying to do with this ritual or that taboo? How do we replicate the results here, today?

In order to reach the goal of an active, self-sustaining community, the firm foundation of an intentional community must first be deliberately created. Religion or esprit de corps can be used as one leg of the intentional community tripod, but economic and educational elements must also be present to attract and retain membership. These elements need not have anything to do with presenting an educational presentation, or reviving ancient ways of worship, yet they stand as possibly the most relevant issues, and if they are ignored, the greatest obstacles to success.

Through the filter of time and the strictures of organizational politics, the golden light of ancient philosophy must still shine through. Folks should again understand all knowledge and learning to be sacred, and guided by holy guardians, and worthy of their focused attention. Neighbors should once again view each others as brothers of the land and members of a larger community. Families should be able to revive their connection to their ancestors and the lands of their peoples. And all that’s really needed is to demonstrate it in practice. Lectures, workshops, and books can come later, after there is a living community to show that such a thing is really possible.

So, two-and-a-half months to develop a dozen rituals, some coordinating philosophy and mythology, and rope a half-dozen friends into playing along. And if I am really serious about sustainable community and making something real out of this, I’ll want to have more than a half-dozen friends to be at the ritual. I’ll need to somehow attract a large number of pagan-friendlies, religious searchers, archaeo-humanist types, and free-thinkers to come to a  thing that’s most definitely much more than a birthday party for me.

Just how many people is the key to whether I can afford to secure the space to do this. I haven’t priced areas for ritual or workshops in a while, so I’m expecting this to be mind-blowing.

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Atwill vs. Traditional Early Church legends

September 11th, 2014 · christianity, history

In the traditional Early Church stories, the faith that became Christianity was started by the friends and family of the original apostles, who would meet in each others’ homes and tell stories about the Christ each of them knew. The crowds at these gatherings grew larger each year, and people would travel away to other cities and begin shared faith groups there, sharing letters along with retelling the stories they had been told. Despite official disapproval and periodic persecution from Rome, these groups spread and grew, and folks began writing books (eg: Gospels, Epistles) that would be copied and shared around the Greek and Latin worlds. Then Constantine, convinced of its truth by his mother, embraced the faith of Christ and it became the most powerful faith in the Empire because of the enthusiasm and pride of the early Christians.

In the introduction to Caesar’s Messiah, Joseph Atwill outlines four points describing a new understanding of Christianity based upon his theories. And I quote:

  • Christianity did not originate among the lower classes in Judea. It was a creation of a Roman imperial family, the Flavians.
  • The Gospels were not written by the followers of a Jewish Messiah but by the intellectual circle surrounding the three Flavian emperors: Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian.
  • The Gospels were written following the 66-73 C.E. war between the Romans and the Jews, and many of the events of the Jesus’ ministry are satirical depictions of events from that war.
  • The purpose of Christianity was supersession. It was designed to replace the nationalistic and militaristic messianic movement in Judea with a religion that was pacifistic and would accept Roman rule.

Later in the book, Atwill indicated the years 70 to 79 CE as the period most probably when the Gospels were written, about events set forty years prior to Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem. According to Atwill, in the Gospels, all of the character names are jokes. Jesus is the Messiah, and the joke is that there were actually quite a few people running around, each claiming to be the Messiah when Titus was there, with their own exclusive gang of followers, mercenaries, and hangers-on. So the character Jesus is actually an amalgam of several different would-be saviors, most of whom would have been born years after the traditional crucifixion date. So the story begins in 73 CE, with the destruction of Jerusalem, and there’s no point in looking for a “real” Jesus, or an “historical” Jesus.

For over a century, folks have been turning the Levant into a giant golf ball, digging for proof of Jesus. Much has been said about some of the tiny effluvia found, but to date, substantive proof of the historical presence of the Jesus from the Bible has never been found outside the Bible. Some schools of archaeology now use the actual results of years of digs to show that the Bible is largely fiction.

However, it should be pretty easy to determine whether Christianity originated as a grass-roots organization, or by imperial decree. It was not unheard of for religions to spread rapidly across the Roman Empire, especially in the 4th Century, but in the 1st Century, there were too many cultural and economic barriers for anyone besides the Emperor to successfully create a faith across the empire.

One of the more persistent issues with the traditional Early Church stories is the authorship of the Gospels has always been in question. Few scholars assume these books were written by their apostolic namesakes, but rather by scribes who copied the stories told to them by the named Apostles, or had been passed down to them from the Apostles. The obvious problem being that laborers and criminals were largely illiterate, so the ability for any of them to create compelling literature is strongly in doubt. Atwill’s book names three people who, in coordination with Josephus, actually had the upper-class education and the imperial motivation to create the Gospels.

Partly due to the problem with illiterate lower class folks being the core of the traditional Early Church stories, the time when the Gospels were actually written is estimated to have occurred anytime between 33 and 300 CE. Using contextual information, some of the Gospels and Epistles have been “sorted” according to when each book was most likely to have been written, but this is not certain or clear, since it is unknown why a group of illiterates would have felt the need to write books they couldn’t read. Instead, Atwill names a specific time and a specific motivation to the creation of the Gospels: directly after the destruction of the Jews, in order to coopt and re-direct the rebellious tendencies of the radical Jews.

The questions of who wrote the Bible, when was it written, and why was it written, are uniformly ignored or bypassed by the traditional Early Church legends. Joseph Atwill’s book, Caesar’s Messiah not only addresses these questions, it provides reasonable, logical answers. Whether or not his answers are correct, Atwill has come further that any apologist or pope into a reasonable explanation that explains not only the big questions, but many of the little ones as well.

The parables of Jesus are often confusing, sometimes redundant, and rarely meaningful, even with explanations provided by Jesus in the same stories. Atwill’s theory provides a consistent template for understanding the parables from the beginning of Matthew to the end of John. They are not metaphors for things that occurred hundreds of years later, but frequently intended to be entirely literal.

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A Talent Not Invested

September 6th, 2014 · christianity, history

“This is a little off the subject but I was discussing prosperity theology and came across Luke 19 – a parable Jesus said told Zacchaeus the tax collector about 3 servants charged with making money work for a king in his absence. Long story short the servant who buried the money was called wicked because he didn’t deposit it and get interest so the king took the money away and gave it to the servant who’d actually made money. This is the point where Jesus says, “‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” and it left me wondering how the ban on usury even got started in the first place. I’m reading it as something we’re encouraged to do. Just curious what your take on it is.”  — Laura C.

This parable in Luke has a companion in Matthew that uses “talents” instead of “minas”, but it’s largely the same tale. I always liked the ending from Matthew: “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This parable gives Sunday School teachers fits, and is usually left out of any lesson plans. Given the repeated warnings against usury in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and even Ezekiel, the bosses in these stories are very clearly immoral folks, who punish their servants for doing good in the face of evil. (Like in Dilbert.) Consequently, these are among the tales that are best discussed metaphorically.

The classic interpretation is that God, like the master in the tale, gives His gifts to each of us in our own measure, and He expects us to use them to do His will. Of course, another way to see it is that God is used to taking what isn’t his, like the immoral master in the story, and is incensed that his servant fails to fully impoverish his neighbors. Or at least that the servant who didn’t profit God was punished and the one who most profited him was rewarded.

This isn’t the only example of Jesus seeming to encourage rude behavior. A story in Luke 16 tells about a steward who, knowing they will soon be sacked contrives to reduce the debts from his master’s debtors so that he would be able to find favor (eg: another job) with them later. The guy stole from his first boss in order to gain a next boss. In the story, Jesus says, “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”.  WTF?

Personally, if I told my lawyer or agent that they were about to be fired, and they go around telling all the people who owe me money that they only owe me half as much, I would be livid, not proud. There is a jarring sense of dismay when Jesus “Loves the Poor” Christ says things like: stick it to the poor. I don’t think this is a mistake. That situation would be jarring to nearly anyone who has ever had to manage money or consider justice, and it’s that way on purpose. When you read something like this that clearly doesn’t make any logical sense, the message is that you need to re-examine your assumptions.

If we consider the Gospels as a product of the late 1st Century Flavians as a humiliating joke on the Jews (a la Joseph Atwill), then this passage is mocking the hypocrisy of the Jewish merchant class. Such a notion becomes more reasonable with the reading of a similar story Eusebius says he found in Hebrew sources, where the servant with five talents profligately wastes the wealth on wine and women, and is later cast out in humiliation. His found story is actually in line with the books of Moses, and I tend to believe this was the original form of the tale. Twisting it to make it a tale not praising restraint and discipline, but condemning honesty and fairness, as an “ancient Hebrew tale” is simply common demonization of wartime enemies.

Such an interpretation doesn’t fit in with a preconception of a hippie Christ, surrounded by playing children in a garden of light. It is, however, logically consistent and appropriate to the historical context.


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Killing Jesus

September 4th, 2014 · christianity, culture, media

Recently, conservative media darling Bill O’Reilly wrote a book called Killing Jesus. Normally, such an event would go unremarked by me, but there was an awesome review of the book on Salon that I really got a kick out of. Richard Price starts out by propping up his conservative bonefides, insisting that he is actually a big fan of O’Reilly. Then he gets out his steak knives and gets to work.

I haven’t read O’Reilly’s book, nor am I likely to. I’m not his audience, and I’m okay with that. According to Mr. Price, Killing Jesus is doctrinaire propaganda for the literalists and biblical inerrancy crowd, so I wouldn’t enjoy it much anway. Well the book irritated Price so much, he wrote a very stern blog post about it. He says, I should estimate that reporting the historical truth about Jesus falls somewhere between documenting the facts about Robin Hood and Superman.”

Comparing this book to Mel Gibson’s film Passion, he says, Both are exhibitions of popular piety aimed at reinforcing believers’ faith and stilling their doubts by providing a real-seeming illusion about the myths and legends of the gospels.” He sees the audience for such material as similar to those who read “End Times” fiction. Such materials, “help buttress faith in the ever-receding, always deferred Second Coming of Christ by depicting it in narrative form before the eyes of those who would really like to see the Rapture, the Great Tribulation and so on occurring on the evening news. They don’t. They can’t. So End Times fiction is the next best thing, a game of pretend.”

Just in case Church Lady hasn’t yet fainted, he whips out with: The familiar Sunday school tales are dressed up in pseudo-documentary form to make the Christian reader feel confident that the legends are historical reports, not legends at all.” 

In the next paragraph, he equates the sophomoric fact-checking in the book to the work Da Vinci Code‘s Dan Brown did, who based his work on Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh’s “cinderblock of misinformation”, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. All O’Reilly really did was crib from other literalist, historical Jesus writers. And it really upset Mr. Price that they would have such a point of contention.

The mythic Jesus position isn’t the popular stand among the general population. Within some circles, such beliefs are tolerated, but rarely encouraged. It’s interesting to hear from folks on the right playing the minimalist card, and rare enough to be noticeable. Having gone from the a strongly literalist position in my youth to the fully minimalist position today, I can appreciate the range of opinions between those two boundaries, and how challenging it is to make the transition.

It’s difficult to get believers to read something that begins by denying the reality of a god whose followers imagine so intently. O’Reilly definitely had the easier task here.



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Further Revelations

September 3rd, 2014 · christianity, history

After establishing the creation of the Gospels at around 80AD, at the hand of Josephus, there are still the question of when and who created the remaining books of the New Testament. Briefly, these are the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, James, and John, and the Revelation of John.

I was previously ready to establish that the entire New Testament was created by Eusebius of Caesaraea. But his prior modus operandi was to extend an existing work in the voice of the original author. For this reason, it seems reasonable that Eusebius may have created the book of Acts as just such an extension of Josephus’ work. The book of Revelations has many referents to the events of Constantine’s conflict, with Diocletians’ Tetrarchy represented as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,  the Persian Empire as the Whore of Babylon, and the general chaos as the inevitable result of the anger of the traditional gods being sidelined by a different pantheon. Of them all, I see Acts and Revelations as being the most likely to have been penned on behalf of Constantine.

For the Epistles, though, I see a few possibilities emerge. For them to have appeared in Constantine’s Bible, the Epistles must have either been created at his request, or they had been lifted from some other context and reappropriated for the new faith. It may have been that the letters had been written in the context of the Flavian cult, perhaps some years after the dynasty itself had faded but hope remained of their eventual return to power. I think it is more likely that they were actually written in the context of another cult entirely, perhaps a healer cult or an Eastern mystery cult, and then later was adapted to fit the new cult.

It should probably also be suggested that Eusebius may have taken a few found Epistles, and then created the others using the original ‘voices’ of each author. The Epistles are often broken out into sets of greater or lesser authority based on how much one letter is like the others. It may very well have been those letters that we most doubt the authenticity are truly the most authentic, and the ones we are most confident about were actually all faked by the same hand.

So one of the things I need to be taking another fresh look at is any extra-Biblical writings sourced to the 2nd or 3rd centuries.

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The Flavian Gospels

September 2nd, 2014 · christianity, history

It occurs to me that Atwill doesn’t say in Caesar’s Messiah that the Flavians invented Christianity, but rather that they had commissioned the Gospels to be written, alongside a history of the violent, decade-long destruction of the Hebrew state. Atwill’s main premise is that these works were meant to be read side-by-side. Each was like a plaid pattern that created a solid whole when laid together, and Josephus was the author of the entire work.

This work then became an element of the Imperial Cult, further exalting the Emperor and his family, and acting as the royal origin myth. Wars of the Jews, along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, comprised a single document that celebrated the military successes of Titus while mocking and humiliating the Jewish state he had decapitated. What I want to understand is how this was used in the context of the Imperial Cult.

We know that Titus is frequently referenced as the “Son of God” in passages attributed to Jesus, and had his late father deified by the Roman Senate, so he was literally the son of a god. It would make sense that the idea of “Son of God”, along with other traditional elements of the Roman Cult like the “Spirit of Rome” and the “City on the Hill” with the “Light of the World”, were all frequently invoked.

We also know that the Imperial Cult was an amalgam of all of the religions celebrated throughout the Empire. The Emperor was the head priest of every cult, and the chief deity in every pantheon. Every home and workshop in the Empire would have had an image of the Emperor that the occupants worshiped, along with images for familial, local, and economic deities. Articles from the temples of their conquered lands resided in the vaults of the Imperial Cult; their gods had been captured and taken to Rome. And it was the Roman Emperor who thus became the chief pontiff of their faiths.

We know that Titus captured Jerusalem because of that Josephus book Wars of the Jews, and we know that he carried back the goodies from the Temple in Jerusalem because Titus erected an enormous arch in Rome that glorifies the plunder. Titus had every right to claim every element of the Jewish faith as his own — indeed, he had an obligation to do so!

We know the Imperial Cult already had temples in every major town and city throughout the Empire, and that the infrastructure to support such an organization had been around since the Republic. The Imperial Cult wasn’t a mystery cult in any way: its rituals were public and well documented. It also was not a singular entity over the centuries, either. A number of emperors made adjustments as they felt appropriate. Gods were added, taken away, and shuffled in the hierarchy. The Invincible Sun was popular at the top for quite a while, largely at the urging of Marcus Aurelius, who insisted that the Eastern states would only bow to a pantheon with the Sun at the apex.

Some say the emperors had made a hobby of inventing whole new cults. Some stories point to Hadrian as the creator of the Mithraic mystery cult, devised as a means to culturally unify the vast Roman army. It’s not impossible that Diocletian could have been behind the development of Manichaeism. Even without this supposition, we have many well documented cases of Emperors inventing fabulous origin stories for themselves. Titus would have had a great deal of precedent to take the faith of his conquered peoples and form a new testament to the power of Rome.

It also addresses the mystery of Elagabalus. Known for three years as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, this emperor began his rule at the age of 14, and he was assassinated by his own guard before he was 18. He was the next-to-last gasp of the Severan Dynasty, which was the last successful ruling dynasty for a century of imperial crisis and perpetual civil war. He was reputed to be the son of Caracalla, and it was Caracalla’s maternal aunt who engineered his elevation to the purple.

He was called Elagabalus because prior to becoming emperor, he had been the high priest of Elagabalus, so when he became Emperor, he set aside the Invincible Sun and established Elagabalus as the chief deity in the official Imperial pantheon. Naturally, this upset many people, and was likely a factor of his early demise. Interestingly, both Elagabaluses (both god and emperor) were Syrian. The deity was culturally related to the gods “El” and “Elohim”, familiar to the peoples from that same area in the stories of Genesis.

The mystery was how this Syrian family became so well placed as to capture the Roman Empire. I understand about how dynastic politics work, and recognize that it didn’t happen overnight or on accident. Given the dramatic destruction of the neighboring states  by prior emperors, and the extreme distance of Syria from Rome, I didn’t understand what could have been the leverage used to bring such a distant family — no matter how wealthy — to power.

But if there had already been an established context with Eastern gods and faith systems brought about by Titus 140 years previously, and with familial connections to the wealthy and powerful in Palestine and Syria, it was simply a matter of time before Imperial candidates from that region would appear. The Palestinian precedent established by Titus would allow Elagabalus to remain at the peak of the Imperial Cult during his namesake’s rule. (But not longer. After the priest was dead, the Invincible Sun retook his place of glory.)

This would also imply that the weight of the Gospels, and their impact within the Imperial Cult, had been retained — perhaps even with a patina of legendary history — at least until the beginning of the Century of Crisis (as the period is dramatically named), 150 years later. This makes it more reasonable that Constantine would have been able to find the Flavian Gospels during his education in Syria.


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