The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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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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First Five Centuries: What do we know?

September 1st, 2014 · christianity, history

I have two problems to resolve. My understanding of the origin of Christianity points to Constantine, while Joseph Atwill’s book “Caesars’ Messiah” points to the Flavians, two centuries prior to Constantine. One of my problems is to connect the development of Flavian Christianity to Constantinian Christianity. The other problem is to find anything at all that might bring to light a better understanding of the mechanics and theology of Flavian Christianity. (At this point, I have no disagreement with what Atwill has presented, and am looking to integrate his ideas into my understanding.)

What is known of the era of early Christian history is mostly mythology with few facts. The bounds of this period is roughly 100BCE to 400CE. Estimates given for the birth of Jesus Christ range from 100BCE to 25CE, with most guesses around 5-7BCE: so the most generous boundary is placed at the start. The end of this period is really some time after most of what we would consider to be “Christianity” had been established, and more importantly, the time after the last generations alive when Christianity was not the exclusive faith of the empire, had died. This is around 400CE.

We must assume that at some point after 100BCE, Christianity began in some form — perhaps one that was not immediately recognized as a new thing — and that this form developed over time to create the Roman Catholic Church by around 400CE. This simple sketch begs many questions, but the first that I see is: did Christianity start as an entirely new thing, or as a derivative of something else?

We actually have a good deal of information about pre-Christian Rome, in terms of what they did, said, believed, and reported. There were very many religions operating within the larger cities and towns across the Empire, and each had its own characteristic flavor and import. We also know mostly what Christianity looked like by about 400CE, and how it’s changed over the centuries to become what we know today. What we don’t have much good information about is how Christianity went from nothing to world power in a couple of centuries.

The Catholic Church provides us with a fascinating and exciting Early Church story that is great for Sunday School, but not so handy for connecting historical movements and actions to the provided narration. I dismiss it entirely out of hand, but will continue to reference it as a means to help others understand my position. In any case, starting from the beginning of that story is a shot in the dark. Much better it is to start and the end, where we have more evidence and documentation to guide our way.

At the end, then, of our period in question, the position of Christianity is without question: it is the official and exclusive faith of the Roman Empire, the Senate, and the People of Rome. After the fall of Rome, the Roman Church continued to exercise imperial authority over the states created in the wake. So we know the Church didn’t just have power because of Empire, it had power that superceeded Empire.

In the popular history Constantine is viewed as being the first Roman Emperor to support Christianity, although in more serious historical documents, it’s pretty clear that Constantine saw Christianity as something supporting him. In either case, there is little controversy regarding when Christianity was embraced by Empire. But what was it that Constantine embraced? Much of the core of the faith wasn’t established until Constantine demanded the first Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 325CE. By that time, Constantine had already fought most of his battles over control of Empire, yet Christianity had been the official faith of his followers since the day his late father’s troops declared him Caesar.

So what was it, exactly, that Constantine’s followers believed in? How did they demonstrate this belief? And more importantly, from whom did they learn about this belief?

Here’s something we do know: Diocletian had radically changed the official Roman faith decades before Constantine began seeking the throne. The official religion of the Empire prior to Diocletian is referred to as “sun worship”, and the faith Diocletian established was one based on the primitive faith of the Republican Romans, focusing on Jupiter and Heracles as patristic touchstones. It’s also pretty well established that this change infuriated the peoples of the Eastern half (the Greek half) of the Empire, who had much preferred “sun worship” as their guiding faith.

Much of Constantine’s strategy in overturning Diocletian’s regime was to embody the “traditions of Rome” that had been in place prior to Diocletian. Constantine was an astute historian who had carefully studied the successes and failures of all of the prior Caesars, and he frequently looked to examples from past Caesars to guide him in the face of future issues. The name he took when he became Caesar was “Flavian”, although he actually had no biological link to the Flavians. He was communicating to the citizens of Rome that he would rule like the Flavians did — and since they represented some of the best Emperors, this was a positive association for him.

Here’s where we turn to Atwill’s book for some more structure to our tale. If we take as read the notion that the Flavian Emperor Titus was instrumental in the creation of the Gospel stories and the early mythology of Jesus Christ, and that this faith remained potent, yet hidden, for another century as people pined for another stable series of emperors, then it would be an obvious target for Constantine’s grasp for authenticity and historical relevance. If he could be the returning Titus, that would be a real public relations coup.

Taking Atwill’s proposal that Josephus wrote both “History of the Jews” and the four Gospel tales as part of a singular work, combining these with books from the Hebrew Torah for legitimacy and context, then we answer the questions about when and why Christianity was created. What is left is to learn more about the Flavians, about how and where their signature faith developed, and what the relationship was between that faith and the one presented by Constantine.

Could it be possible that we already know of Flavian Christianity, only by another name? Perhaps we know it as “Arianism”, or perhaps it was “Mithraism”. Or perhaps it was something else that we have forgotten. At least now I feel like I know what I’m looking for.

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A New Start

September 1st, 2014 · administration

Originally, this site was created as a location for the religion-oriented essays I had been writing on Live Journal. Having a themed site made it easier for me to stick to the topic, and it helped coalesce the various ideas together into a book. After completion of the book, my use of this site dropped off dramatically.

I have many excuses for why this is so. I was busy with work. Money was tight, so we didn’t replace failed workstations for several years. I’ve been more busy with other projects. Most importantly, I stopped making the time to meditate and write.

This site has not been entirely moribund, as it has captured my reviews of several books I’ve read and some discussions on cultural topics, but nothing has happened with enough frequency to warrant a following. (For example: this post is the first new item published since early 2013.) There have been some administrative headaches, as well: lost account passwords and a gradual increase in spam comments to irritating levels.

Today, I decided that I would revive “Pokey Finger” and give it a new mission. Account passwords were reset, and I’ve updated the WP code and all the mods. Spam should be, once again, an occasional nuisance. I even made a backup for good measure. If I keep to my goal of writing every day, I’ll probably update the theme and do some other site rearranging for good measure, in a few weeks.

The new mission is simple: write. In addition to the usual topics, I would like to focus more on:

  • Integrating Atwill’s Flavian hypothesis into my own understanding of the development of Christianity
  • Further developing the concept of the “Fellowship”, which is my attempt to construct a pagan-based community culture
  • Meditations on recognizing divinity around us
  • Essays deconstructing the mechanics of religion, faith, and divinity
  • Presenting activities, rituals, and social interactions for pagans

Finally, I have been thinking about my Illuminations series with some nostalgia, so look for some articles discussing prior Illuminations classes, and perhaps the presentation of a new series of Illuminations classes.

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The Christian Persecution Myth

February 27th, 2013 · christianity, culture, media

One of my favorite myths of the “Early Church” has top billing in this new book by Candida Moss. I discussed this in some detail in my book, Janus in Nicea, but it was less of a key point than a reinforcing element. In retrospect, this is a better topic for public discussion as it doesn’t require one to broach the question of whether Christianity existed prior to the Fourth Century.

Moss apparently takes the Early Church stories more seriously than I did, but still comes to the same conclusion. This article describes some points she made about anachronisms within the specific persecution narratives that I failed to notice.

Here’s the thing: the actual stories of Christian persecution individually fail to stand up to scrutiny. Either the Romans didn’t generally behave the way the stories are portrayed, or more primary records from the time dispute the more lurid stories. In any case, the “Sunday School” mythos of early Christians hiding in catacombs to avoid sustained and brutal persecution isn’t supported even by the most sympathetic persecution narratives. Instead the narratives show a pattern of occasional interest in mild punishments that were easily avoided.

Further, looking to contemporary documentation regarding persecution narratives prior to Diocletian (where it exists) reveals that they all focused, not on Christians, but on other fringe cults that really did populate the Pre-Christian Greco-Roman world.

This, I think, is the key point: the political and religious reality of Third Century Rome isn’t correctly reflected in Early Church stories, and especially not in persecution narratives. Given the extremely complex interrelationships between the many varieties of religious practice available to Romans in the Third Century, the Roman attitudes reported in most persecution narratives simply don’t make any sense historically. However, as Fourth Century propaganda, they sound great.

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The Folly of Translation

April 27th, 2012 · christianity, history, media

Some Pentacostal Evangelicals have their panties in a knot about some translations of the Bible Wycliffe has made for Muslim cultures. Read the news article here. The complaint is that “language in some of their translations intended for Muslim countries misses the essential Christian idea of Trinity: the father, son and the holy spirit or ghost.” Where they expect to see “Father”, the translation is to “Lord”; for “Son”, they used “Messiah”.

The article does a good job of describing some of the difficulties of translation in general, and of translating the Bible in particular. But there were still a couple of points it didn’t make, so I’m making them here.

Technically, the translators are correct. The use of familial relationships to describe God is specifically denigrated by Islamic tradition. Had they forced the issue, they would have lost many potential readers who would have been put off by such descriptions.

Another thing the protestors have working against them is that the Trinity is a post-Biblical construct. It doesn’t make sense to complain that a Bible translation doesn’t prop up Trinitarianism, since there exists no translation which does so.

The first century of Christianity after Constantine is structured by the series of severe and often violent conflicts regarding efforts to describe the nature of God or the Messiah. Folks who disagreed back in the day would refer to their opponents as “heretics” and their ideas as “heretical”. However, the difference between an orthodox idea and a heretical one had a lot more to do with the politics of those in charge at the time than anything specific to the ideas themselves.

Early on, the idea of the “Trinity” was cooked up as a way to describe, without describing, the nature of God and the Messiah. Unfortunately, this did not diminish the conflicts between the various political groups that made up the early Church. If anything, it increased the furor as folks tried to authoritatively describe the Trinity, or how its members inter-related.

Returning to the more recent past, American Evangelicals have repeated nearly every heretical idea in their quest to redefine Christianity on their own terms. It may make sense to some of them to read the Trinity into Biblical passages, but by demanding a change to a Bible translation, they are assuming authority to define both the Trinity and the members thereof that would have made St. Augustine blush.

By taking on the overwhelming task to translate the Bible into as many other languages as possible, Wycliffe has set for themselves a difficult path: and they’re aware of the many pitfalls and traps along the way. Even those who aren’t Christian can appreciate the scale of the work they have already done and how much they still have left to do. I don’t think they do themselves any favors by trying to accommodate noisy and irritable bullies who can only use such issues to prop up their own failing sense of authority.

 

 

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