Sunday, February 04, 2007

Adam & Eve

The story of 'Adam and Eve' may have actually started as a historical account. The problem is that the protestant bible only devotes part of one chapter (less than three hundred sentences) to describing a two-thousand-year period of history. Just how detailed (and how accurately) do you think that little chunk of writing can portray two millennia?

This will open a can of worms … but the word “adam” (not capitalized, and pronounced roughly “ah-DAHM”) is the Hebrew word for all of humanity. It is the exact equivalent of the modern English word “mankind.” It was never … not once … used as a proper name in any of the original Hebrew manuscripts. It was only applied to a single individual in the later Hebrew transcripts (about the time of the Septuagint), and it only became a specific man’s name after the translators of the King James Version (in the 16th Century) capitalized it. To this day, the Jews still consider it simply a “shorthand” method of condensing a lot of history into a small amount of writing.

I had a discussion the other day with a man who staunchly claimed that Adam and Eve were perfect. I doubt it. The Elohim were very careful to deny Adam and Eve access to the Tree of Life. If Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree of Life, then yes, they would THEN have been as gods, perfect (including being immortal).

Adam and Eve were not “built to live forever” (as he put it). First, God told them specifically that He had already - before He ever created them in the first place! - arranged a way that they could indeed die (that is, by eating the fruit of the Tree of “Knowledge of Good and Evil”). They were not created as permanently immortal … they were simply blessed (a temporary and revocable decision on God’s part!).

Second, there are actually two Genesis creation stories. In the other (older, 'P' document) story … after Adam and Eve had already had their escapade with the serpent, the Elohim (a plural word meaning “gods” – not capitalized) very carefully denied Adam and Eve access to the Tree of Life (a second tree, not the same as the tree of “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” which at that point in the story they had already eaten from). The Elohim decision was predicated upon, “lest they become as one of us” … meaning both spiritually aware and immortal … thus, gods themselves. And no, I am not making this up.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

There is a Hell ...

I once heard a man engaged in a religious discussion proclaim, “There is a Hell. Anyone who doesn’t know Jesus will be there."

Here, I’ll break with the biblical literalists (those whom I term “bible-thumpers”) who espouse that particular point-of-view. “Anyone” who overtly and knowingly refuses the gift of eternal life … may suffer horribly. But the exact extent and description of that fate is still unknown.

As a quick background, there were seven different words (Hebrew and Greek) in ancient religious writings that were ALL translated in the King James Bible into the single English word “hell.” Each ancient word had a different meaning and individual connotation (for instance, one meant “narrow valley”, one simply meant “open hole in the ground”, and another meant “unlit cavern”). Yet, all seven words were blandly translated into “hell”, which -- thanks to Dante’s Inferno -- we now associate with an eternal torture chamber. But that was NOT intended by the original writers ... nor is it what was distinctly understood by the original audiences who heard first-hand the ancient religious preaching/teaching. Yet, we modern readers are stuck with an imperfect idea as a result of the poor translation (and one guilt-ridden author’s vivid imagination).

I certainly agree that hell is real … it is eternal punishment away from God. I just don’t think it’s the exact place with seven levels that Dante described in his opus.

Fundamentalist dogma to the contrary notwithstanding, the ancient Hebrews (and specifically the Israelites prior to the Exile, circa 600 BC) had no concept of an “eternal” life. They were adamant about the quality of earthly life -- which was all they understood to exist -- being directly related to their relationship to God. That is, a prosperous life meant an individual was “in God’s favor.” Problems (disease, poverty, etc) meant the individual was a sinner not “in God’s favor.” To the ancients, all reward and punishment occurred here on earth … the concept of life eternal was unknown. Upon death, the individual (not just what we call the “soul” -- which they had no concept of, either) was assumed to be relegated to a plain, gray, unlit, cavernous underground area … very much akin to the Greek concept of Hades. However, there were rare instances reserved for “special” men such as Elijah, who (without actually dying) could be physically “taken up” into God’s presence.

Nor did the ancient Hebrews have any concept of a “Satan.” Remember, the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden is never treated or described as a spiritual creature – demon or angel. It was just an earthly antagonist … who was doomed to an earthly punishment. The Israelites finally received the concepts of 1) an “anti-God” spiritual entity – Satan – and 2) “eternal souls” from the Babylonians, barely five centuries before Christ’s birth. None of the Patriarchs or Elders of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Solomon, Elijah, etc) ever had any knowledge of a “Satan.” That concept was introduced to the remaining Jews (only Judeans – not Israelites, who no longer existed by then!) during the Exile in Babylonia.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the beliefs in “souls” and “Satan” were firmly entrenched in Jewish doctrine … but there was still no widespread agreement about hell. Some Jews maintained that it was that unlit cavern … some insisted that it was merely a simple hole-in-the-ground grave. Interestingly, when Jesus spoke of hell, he used the term “Gehenna” which referred to the Valley of Henom. Henom is a small gulley that runs southwest, away from the southwest corner of the outer wall of Jerusalem. The gulley was used as the city’s garbage dump, and that’s what Jesus was trying to impress his listeners with … hell was ostensibly the spiritual “garbage dump” for worthless souls.

Henom was also the source of the (much later) idea of eternal fire. The garbage in the dump was necessarily burned, and because there was a constant influx of daily garbage, the fire understandably burned more-or-less continuously. About 1450 AD (a century or so prior to the King James translation), an unidentified cleric picked up on the Hebrew idea of a “continuous” fire and turned it into “eternal” fire. We get the benefit of his interpretation …

Monday, November 13, 2006


Over lunch the other day, a business associate made the profound statement that "The Bible has a clear policy of respecting life." That's a statement (and social, religious and emotional position) with which I absolutely agree.

However, he couldn't seem to let well-enough alone and, a few moments further into the conversation, he continued, "Anyone who can read English can decipher that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality."

When I finally stopped choking with laughter, I accused him of really opening a can of worms with that statement! (And, there went the previous statement about respecting life …)

I asked about his reference to “the Bible” (the original texts of which were written in simple, archaic language that had a limited vocabulary and absolutely no technological sophistication)… Vulgate? Septuagint? King James? Catholic? New American? New Revised Standard? New International? Beck? (they aren’t the same, you know).

Since we’re Protestants, I suggested we stick with King James (the most common non-Catholic) version. It is a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. And THAT only got it up to 16th Century English (in which, for instance, the simple word “let” originally meant “prevent” - the exact opposite of its modern meaning of “allow” - and the apostrophe didn’t even exist, because it was invented in the 17th Century)… which is a far cry from modern “American” English. The third translation step occurred when James struck a bargain with the Vatican to consolidate his British throne both politically and religiously. Part of that bargain -- besides creating the Anglican Church -- included James bearing the cost of translating the Vulgate (Latin bible) into English. James sent soldiers into the streets to find anyone who could -- or even claimed to -- read Latin (no test or confirmation of literacy was conducted!), and the lucky finalists were sealed in a dungeon. They were promised release as soon as the project was completed. No editorial efforts were made to oversee the accuracy of the translation. That does not lead sane people to conclude that errors were studiously avoided …

He had begun with the Old Testament, which (it must be remembered) was provided to and for a nomadic, tribal people who were in constant danger of dying out as a society.

Leviticus 18:22 (KJV): "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind…"

The problem is with "mankind" in this sentence. The original ancient word did not refer to males in general … it very specifically referred only to victims of pederasty. The proper 21st Century English translation is more accurately and understandably, "Do not lie with male sex slaves…" That is exactly what the ancient Hebrews understood it to mean. Nothing more.

Leviticus 20:13: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…"

Again, the same problem exists here with the improper translation into the word "mankind," but there's a bit more. At the time Leviticus was prepared, anything (and everything) that endangered the tribes was a capital crime, punishable by death. And failure to procreate (and thus provide the society with needed additional "manpower") was seen by rabbis - who were themselves required to marry - as a serious endangerment. The death sentence was called for on that basis, rather than on a sexual basis.

I had to remind him that the bible was not originally written in English, and it doesn’t “clearly condemn” homosexuality. At least, not as we know it today. In the original manuscripts, every single word -- in Hebrew and Greek -- that referenced same-gender sexual activity (“malokoi,” “pornoi,” “arsenokoitai’” etc … every word, without exception!) applied only to pederasty … sexual slavery, and in particular young male sexual slavery. That is precisely what every member of the original audience who read and heard the first teaching/preaching actually understood.

Of course, every civilized person and society, world-wide, now (rightly) condemns such slavery as absolutely unacceptable.

But the original biblical manuscripts do not in any way address -- not one word about -- the issue of what we 21st Century denizens now call “homosexuality” (the conscious, consensual relationship between two adults). You see, during the era in which the bible was first set to written form, there was no such thing for scripture to address … prior to that era, the last society that formally condoned same-sex adult relationships was the ancient Greek city of Sparta (whose motivations were primarily military), and that society had disappeared from the face of the earth about 700 years before the bible was reduced to writing.

Now, understand that I did NOT say the bible condones homosexuality … I simply deny that the bible specifically and actively condemns it by name. Actually, the bible -- like Jesus Himself -- is simply but completely silent on that specific matter.

Of course, the antiquated 16th Century English into which the old manuscripts were translated is not much help. And Paul, who wrote the New Testament’s references to same gender sex, had a guilt-ridden attitude that certainly didn't clear the waters, either. His anti-feminine advice to all heterosexuals was to willfully ignore God’s specific intentions -- a stance that, on any subject, is a remarkably dangerous thing to do -- and to only marry if you couldn’t avoid hell in any other manner. Hopefully, humanity has progressed past that closed-minded outlook (after all, we've had two millennia in which to do so).

It is each person’s responsibility to obtain as much understanding from scripture as is possible, so your “take” on the issue of homosexuality is your own to decide. But don’t misread what the bible actually says (and certainly don't ignore what it originally meant) when making your choices. Use some intelligence to augment your religious fervor.

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was born to a prosperous Benjamite family in Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the city of Tiberias. As with most Biblical figures, the portrait of Mary is incomplete. Her life is a puzzle, but it has intriguing pieces. Mary’s the (supposedly "red-haired") woman who was forgiven by Jesus, when He cast out her "seven demons" (a common metaphor for mental illness). Mary traveled the country with Jesus, and contributed money to his ministry. She was with Him during His final days in Jerusalem, one of the few followers to remain with Him at His moment of death. She was the first witness to the Resurrection, which solidifies her position at the center of Jesus' life.

But Mary's presence was always inconvenient. Although the New Testament Gospel authors can't avoid her completely (they mentioned her 13 times), they offer few details of her life. We never learn her occupation, her hair color, her age, or whether she was physically beautiful. This lack of information was no accident. Women were considered untrustworthy in the Roman world, and the Gospel writers – eager to make new converts – did not wish to highlight the fact that a woman was a key witness to their story of the Resurrection (a story that was already difficult enough to explain).

However, Mary wasn’t a prostitute. The New Testament never describes Mary Magdalene as an adulterer or a harlot. That (undeserved) reputation was the result of a sermon in 591AD, delivered by Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory intentionally mixed her up with the unnamed "sinful" woman who entered Jesus’ presence as He dined with a Pharisee (an event which occurred before Mary is introduced, in the Gospel of Luke. But even in the case of that sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh - in the first century, a woman could be considered "sinful" for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone). Yet, they are clearly different women, and Gregory created the prostitute persona from thin air. In 1969, the Vatican quietly but officially cleared Mary Magdalene of the accusation of prostitution. In 1988, in an official church document, Pope John Paul II noted that during early Christianity's "most arduous test of faith and fidelity" (the Crucifixion), Mary Magdalene "proved stronger than the Apostles."

Throughout history, Gregory’s slanderous misidentification has been the basis for accusations of an intentional, and occasionally sinister, conspiracy by the Catholic Church to hide the true nature of Mary's relationship to Jesus. And there are some tantalizing and very real clues -- some buried in sand for sixteen centuries -- that help explain Mary's relationship to Jesus and her connection to the Holy Grail.

At the end of World War II, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a peasant opened an earthenware jar and revealed more than fifty ancient “uncial” texts (written on parchment in all-capital Greek lettering) that had been hidden since the middle of the 4th century AD. They are actually leather bound books … part of a large collection known as the Gnostic Gospels. (The Gnostic sect, a significant force in the earliest years of Christianity, stressed salvation through study and knowledge rather than by simple faith alone). The Catholic Church has not officially canonized these books, but they contain revealing insights about Mary Magdalene.

These later gospels elaborate on what Jesus told Mary. They indicate that she was Jesus' most trusted disciple and advisor, and that she became a strong leader in the fledgling church, emerging as a kind of original feminist. In the Gospel of Thomas, she is called a "true disciple" of Jesus. In the Dialogue of the Savior, she is referred to as “the woman who understood all things." The Gospel of Mary depicts her as a leader of Jesus' followers after his resurrection. Written by Christians about 90 years after Jesus' death, it suggests that the Magdalene initially held favored status around Jesus - a woman so threatening that the apostles later suppressed her role, as well as that of other women, in order to build a patriarchal church hierarchy. The most compelling aspect of the Gospel of Mary is its radical ideas about gender. Mary is called the disciple that "the Savior loved, more than all other women," but she and Jesus consider gender distinction as irrelevant, something that will disappear in the next life. The text argues that the basis for leadership lies in spiritual development.

In particular, the Gnostic Gospel of Philip describes her as “foremost among the Apostles." According to this gospel, Mary was the disciple who best understood Jesus, and she was able to carry on His teachings. She is described as a threat to the early church’s male leaders (a dire situation in that highly-patriarchal place and time), who were envious of her. Mary became a direct rival to the Apostle Peter ("a wrathful and jealous man"), the fisherman who was later the first Bishop of Rome -- the leadership spot that eventually became the position of Pope.

Side note: Dr. Darrell Bock is an evangelical scholar and Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Bock admits that the above information is correct, and that “Mary Magdalene is a very important figure in the early church,” but he cautions against misreading the text. Even in Philip’s gospel, there is no indication or evidence that Mary actually held a formal office or had a formal teaching role within the male-dominated church.

The bond between Mary and Jesus was obviously strong, but nowhere in the New Testament (or in any other Christian teaching) is there specific mention of whether or not Jesus and Mary were married. Of course, the Catholic Church refutes the notion, arguing (seemingly plausibly) that such information would have been impossible to keep secret. The church insists that Biblical silence indicates no such marriage existed – a stance that ignores the fact that only the four canonic (not the hundred Gnostic) gospels actually are silent on the issue. There is a significant amount of support (Biblical and secular) to indicate that silence was not simply a flat denial of such a marriage.

1) Undeniably, most Jewish men got married. It was the cultural norm … expected behavior … and exceptions were rare. It was incumbent upon all fathers to find a wife for each son, prior to the son’s twentieth birthday. And in fact, Rabbis were specifically required to marry. As a religious leader, Jesus would have shouldered enormous social, cultural and religious pressure to marry. As an unmarried man -- even one who performed great miracles -- Jesus would have had particular difficulty retaining the attention of the general populace (and His credibility with them).

2) New Testament women are invariably identified by their relation to men (Mary the mother of James, and Joanna the wife of Cuza, for example). Yet the Magdalene is distinguished by her hometown. No husband ever appears (perhaps an explanation of how she was able to travel freely with Jesus), but it was highly unlikely that she never married at all. A freewoman in that society who never married would have been an extreme rarity.

Side note: Most Americans scoff at those two ideas, because they have no concept of the strength with which (the depth to which) cultural norms and social behaviors were ingrained into the daily lives of the Jewish people of that era. Nevertheless, the social requirement to marry really was “carved-in-stone” absolute.

3) According to the canonic Gospel of John … after the crucifixion, Mary went to the burial garden, to mourn for Jesus and to perform His final anointing. There she found Him resurrected (and the fact that He appeared first to her – rather than to Peter, James or John – must be considered significant). She was overjoyed, and attempted to hold Him. But in that culture and era, if she weren't married to him, she wouldn't have dreamed of embracing him. Under harsh Mosaic Law, simply touching a man not her husband was punishable by stoning.

4) The Gnostic Gospel of Philip says Mary Magdalene "always walked with the Lord, and is called his companion" (or, legitimately, “spouse”). Other verses read that Christ “loved her more than the other disciples” and that He “kissed her often."

The DaVinci Code is a popular and controversial piece of work. It is classified as fiction, but it certainly is thoroughly researched. Like all good fiction, it contains a great deal of verifiable fact. It makes a well-supported case for a marital relationship between Jesus and Mary, but it isn't the first book to do so. Nor is it the first book to identify The Priory of Sion, a European secret society founded by the Crusaders in 1099 (after they captured Jerusalem). The Priory’s military arm, the Knights Templar, was entrusted with protecting what the Priory considers the truth about Jesus and Mary –- facts that could prove devastating to the church.

A similar story was published in 1982 in a nonfiction book entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. That book was as controversial in Britain in its time as The DaVinci Code later proved to be worldwide. The true story at the heart of Holy Blood, Holy Grail began more than a century ago, in the tiny French village of Rennes le Chateau. It involves a man named Sauniere (the same name that author Dan Brown assigned the curator in The DaVinci Code). The real-life Berenger Sauniere was a young, penniless priest. But soon after he began renovating the local church, that situation changed. He quickly and inexplicably became quite wealthy.

Sauniere’s church renovation was bizarre (including demonic figurines, multiple altars and a chapel tower devoted to Mary Magdalene, rather than to the Virgin Mary), which initiated a running feud with Rome. The Vatican publicly accused Sauniere of selling mail order prayer services - a scandal that resulted in his suspension from the pulpit – but the local residents insisted that Sauniere had found documents (old parchments) hidden in the church's original altar, and that he had resorted to blackmail. There was general consensus that Sauniere was not at all unhappy with his forced “retirement,” and that he had extorted money from the Vatican … a contention that is supported by the fact that Sauniere was denied absolution and last rites (an incredibly serious decision by the church). The local police consider Sauniere’s death in 1917 suspicious, and they found that a coffin had anonymously been ordered in advance.

In their research efforts, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail visited the French National Library, where they found a collection of papers blandly called Le Dossiers Secret (simply, “Secret Documents”) that had been “rediscovered” in the late 1970s. Analyzing the parchments, they found that Sauniere had stumbled onto evidence of The Priory of Sion. The papers included a directory of Priory leaders, called grand masters. The list begins with obscure French noblemen, but it later includes some of the most notable and powerful men in Western civilization (Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Jonathan Swift, etc). Men whose mission was to first hide what they considered the secret of Mary and Jesus, then to pass it down through the ages.

Leigh carefully examined these enigmatic papers, matching them point-by-point to documented French history and even comparing them to local legends. According to the documents, the secret the Priory so vigorously protected was that Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene produced a child, a girl named Sarah (Hebrew for “princess”), whom the Priory considers to be the real Holy Grail. All early manuscripts that referred to the “Sangraal” did so as a single word. Around 1400 AD, an unknown cleric split the word into “San Graal,” meaning sainted vessel (holy cup), and the church formally adopted that interpretation. But the Priory of Sion was convinced (not unreasonably) that the word is more properly split into “Sang Raal,” meaning “blood royal,” which they apply to Sarah.

Side note: The Secret Documents file also contained papers filled with elaborate family trees and genealogies, which directly tie a line of French kings and queens to the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The authors painstakingly followed all the genealogies (even those that seemed irrelevant to the main story), and the family trees were accurate back to the first century AD. In doing research for their book, the authors then followed the documented genealogies forward as far as possible, and continued through contemporary records, until they established contact with current members of the Priory. The Priory’s official spokesman was a charming and eccentric Frenchman named Pierre Plantard, the soft-spoken son of domestic servants. He had lived an unremarkable and low-key life as a mid-level governmental bureaucrat. During a 1979 documentary BBC interview with the authors, Plantard quietly told a grand story confirming the existence of the Priory. And (from memory) he itemized the same genealogy of royal lineage – all the way back to the Merovingians – that appears in the Secret Documents. For the rest of his life, Plantard declined to identify the current grand master. He passed away in early 2000.

The documents also indicate that at some point shortly after the crucifixion, Jesus' pregnant widow seriously invoked Peter’s wrath, and fled (in the company of Mary’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, along with the Virgin Mary’s sister, Mary Jacoby). They initially traveled through Egypt.

Sometime prior to 42 AD, an oar-less boat carrying refugees from the holy land (who “brought the Holy Grail with them”) washed ashore at France’s Mediterranean village of St Marie de la Mare. Among those onboard were Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, who settled in one of the local Judaic communities and raised Sarah. At the time they arrived, Sarah was “pre-adolescent,” meaning between 9 and 12 years of age. According to the Priory, Sarah eventually bore children of her own, carrying on her father's bloodline (Mary and Jesus were, after all, legitimate Jewish nobility of the Houses of Benjamin and David). In 496 AD, this bloodline intermarried with the French royal family, producing the sacred Merovingian lineage. The Priory claims to have been guarding the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for centuries.

The DaVinci Code is an amalgam of truth and fiction, fact and hoax (both sacred and profane), and has enthralled millions of readers. It freely used, and greatly expanded upon, the above information and placed heavy emphasis (obviously) upon the role of grand master Leonardo DaVinci. However, the preceding information -- regardless of how it may have been used in presenting a fictionalized story -- is itself entirely accurate and verifiably factual. The Priory of Sion does exist, for instance, as do the file of Secret Documents, the French villages, the Gnostic Gospels, etc.

Of course, any credence given to a secret society that has endured (and remained true to its mission!) for a thousand years is a matter of personal faith. So, on a personal note … whether or not Jesus married Mary Magdalene has no effect on the tenets of my faith. Nor does it affect the strength with which I hold to those beliefs.

It is a staple of all Christian denominations that Jesus was truly the “perfect sacrifice.” All those denominations necessarily define Him as simultaneously both fully human and fully divine. That dichotomy is rather difficult to grasp, and it presents significant challenges to believers (especially new Christians). Those difficulties usually result in believers becoming uncomfortable with – and, generally ignoring – the “fully human” aspect, as they prefer to dwell on the more distant but more easily admired “fully divine” portion of Christ’s existence.

However, Jesus unquestionably enjoyed life. He went for nature walks, took sailboat rides, drank wine, attended parties and weddings, and participated in discussions at synagogues. Additionally, He was clearly capable of feeling hunger, thirst, anger, disappointment, impatience, anxiety, fear, and pain. It may make believers quite uncomfortable, but Jesus experienced the same desire to have a family, to share intimacy, and to become a parent that God deliberately instilled in the human psyche. Interestingly, Jesus (as a human) would have been subject to God’s instructions to all mankind to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Virgin Birth

Joseph found his betrothed to be pregnant, and initially presumed that she had behaved improperly. But he was warned by an angel against canceling the marriage.

Matthew 1 :20. . . . fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

In Hebrew, the name of Jesus' mother is Miriam (the name of Moses' sister). In Aramaic, the name became Mariam. In Latin, dropping the final letter made the name Maria, the feminine version of the popular Roman name Marius, and that is still the name used in most European languages (although it became Marie in French, and Mary in English). Christians consider Mary – based on Matthew’s writings – to have been a virgin, even while pregnant, so she is commonly called the "Virgin Mary" or simply "the Virgin."

The gospel of Matthew emphasizes the fact that her pregnancy was the result of action of the Holy Spirit, rather than of man. Interestingly, the tradition of the virgin birth is found only in the first chapter of Matthew (although there are two verses in Luke that might be used to support it, but not indisputably). No other references to it exist, anywhere else in the New Testament.

The Jews were, in those days, surrounded by a vast world of Gentiles who had traditions of their own. It was customary and usual in Gentile legend (necessary, in fact) that any great hero, any wonder-worker, be the son of a god. For example, the Roman historian Livy, who died just before the start of Jesus' ministry, had written an enormously popular history of Rome. It included the city’s founding by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were described by Livy as being of virgin birth. Their mother, Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin whose children were fathered by Mars.

A virgin impregnated by a god in magical fashion was particularly prevalent in the Greek tradition. And there were many Jews living in places such as Alexandria, where Greek influence was strong. Those Greek-speaking Jews naturally felt that if a virgin birth could be used to exalt the founders of a pagan city, then a virgin birth could much more rightly be used to exalt the founding of the kingdom of God!

Thus, Matthew was faced with two contemporary traditions concerning Jesus' birth, the strictly Jewish genealogy of Davidic descent, and the Greek-Jewish story of the virgin birth. So, although mutually exclusive, Matthew accepted both and intertwined them in his gospel. Note that Matthew first demonstrates that Joseph was a descendant of David, but then he carefully specifies that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

But the idea of “virgin birth” itself is completely outside the Jewish tradition. It is not demanded by any of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. In fact, conservative Palestinian Jews actively abhorred the idea that their coming Messiah might be "lumped in" with those ridiculous but extremely common gentile folktales. Yet Matthew felt bound to support his assertion of the virgin birth (or risk losing his Greek-speaking audience), and he did so by citing an Old Testament prophecy. He could find only one, a passage in Isaiah:

Isaiah 7:14. Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son ...

But that is not particularly useful, especially in this connection. The Hebrew language has a specific word ("bethulah") for "virgin" but that is not used here. The Hebrew word that Isaiah used ("almah") means nothing more than "young woman," and it has never had any connotation or hint of sexual activity (or lack of it).

When St Jerome later translated the Greek Septuagint into the Vulgate, he used a Latin word that contextually could (might or might not) denote a lack of sexual activity. It was that amorphous Latin word which was mistranslated by the clerics in King James’ dungeon into the narrowly strict English word “virgin,” which has extra meaning that the Hebrew word never originally intended. Thus none of the original Disciples or Apostles, or any of the people who were with her (including Peter, John, Joseph of Arimathea, etc) thought of Jesus’ mother in terms of virginity … and no Jew, Gentile, or Christian in the first thousand-plus years of Christianity’s existence considered her a “virgin mother.”

Matthew's assertion did lead some early translations of the Bible to – again mistakenly – use the word "virgin" in the Isaiah passage as well. In any case (whether "virgin" or "young woman"), that passage from Isaiah – which Matthew clearly took out of context – had no Messianic significance.

A bit of historical background about that passage …

Isaiah became a prophet in a turbulent historical period, when Israel and Syria were organizing a coalition against Assyria. King Jotham (who succeeded Uzziah to the throne of Judah) preferred to remain outside that coalition – judging, correctly, that it was doomed to disastrous failure. Israel and Syria angrily threatened to invade Judah because of its lack of support. In 735 BC, Jotham died and his son Ahaz took the throne.

Isaiah assured Ahaz that he need not fear Israel or Syria. Viewed secularly, Isaiah's point of view is understandable. The king of Assyria (Tiglath-Pileser) knew that Israel and Syria were preparing a coalition against him. It was certain that he would soon attack the fledgling coalition, and it was also certain that the powerful Assyrian army would smash the small western nations. Isaiah counseled that Judah need simply remain neutral and wait. But Ahaz (uncomfortable about doing nothing) felt it politically wise to declare himself on the Assyrian side and to accept Assyrian rule. Isaiah vehemently opposed this, feeling that Assyrian governance and religious practices would result in the persecution of nationalistic Yahvists (as in fact actually happened a half century later, in the reign of Manasseh). Isaiah argued hard for a go-it-alone policy, promising God's help.

Isaiah 7:14. ... Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel ... before the child shall know to refuse evil, and choose good, the lands thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

In other words, in a couple of years (before a child, born in the near future, becomes old enough to exercise even the simplest judgment), the attacking kings will be defeated. And indeed, three years later (732 BC) Tiglath-Pileser permanently destroyed the Syrian kingdom and rendered Israel powerless.

Christians generally interpret this verse as a reference to the virgin birth of Jesus, but the verse must have had a more immediate meaning. Isaiah could not offer to Ahaz (as a sign for his then-current predicament) the birth of a child more than seven centuries later. The name Immanuel means "God is with us," which had symbolic meaning in connection with the immediate problem. Isaiah's message was that God is with Judah and will not allow it to be destroyed by Syria and Israel.

Isaiah's mention of “a young woman” is a reference to his own wife. Isaiah was only twenty five at the time, and his wife was less than twenty. Immediately after the description of the meeting with Ahaz, Isaiah records the birth of his own (second) son:

Isaiah 8:3 ... his name is Mahershalal-hash-baz ... before the child shall have knowledge to cry, "father," and "mother," the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.

The name "Maher-shalal-hash-baz" means "spoil and booty." The reference is to Syria and Israel, which are to become spoil and booty for the Assyrians. And before the child was old enough to say "mama," the end indeed came for the two northern kingdoms.

Although no child named Immanuel is recorded as having been born in that period of history (or anywhere in the Bible, for that matter), Isaiah said precisely the same things for the predicted child Immanuel and for the actual child Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Immanuel refers to Judah's good fortune and Maher-shalal-hash-baz refers to Syria's (and to Israel's) bad fortune, but the symbolism is exactly the same.

I don’t have any problem with the concept of the "Virgin Birth," its etymology or its inclusion in the Catholic and Anglican traditions. Most modern churches actively support it, and I applaud anyone who intelligently includes the concept as a tenet of personal faith. But bear in mind that it is clearly a traditional belief, not (as fundamentalists claim) an “absolute, undeniable fact” … and it really is comparatively recent (barely 450 years old). It did not originate 2,000 years ago. In fact, the very concept is only about one-quarter as old as Christianity itself. Mary was historically venerated (even adored) as the Mother of the Messiah, but she was referred to – in ALL ancient writings – only as “young” (specifically under age 16 at the time of Jesus’ birth).

Interestingly, the concept of the “Virgin Mary” took two historically divergent paths in religious organizations.

The Anglican Church (and subsequent Protestant churches) accepted the literal meaning of the English word “virgin” exactly as it was – erroneously – translated from St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, but stopped there. Since the New Testament includes English references to Jesus’ brothers (and at least one sister), the Protestant presumption was that Mary and Joseph later had and raised a normal family. While the English language does have multiple words that differentiate and specifically identify “brothers,” “sisters,” “first cousins,” “step-brothers,” etc … the original (Aramaic) language had only one word that applied to all close relatives (which was understandable in a primarily tribal society). So the translation of that one old generic word (from multiple locations) into specific English words like “brother” (rather than “cousin,” for instance) was clearly only a “judgment call” by the 16th Century clerics.

The Catholic Church also accepted the literal meaning of the English word “virgin,” but didn’t stop there. Although the Church steadfastly refused to canonize the Gnostic Gospels, it nonetheless used passages from several of those Gospels to alter and complicate the story of Mary’s virginity. The Gospel of James the Lesser (the “Protonomicon”), for instance, indicates that before their marriage, Joseph was already a widower with grown children, and that he was much older than Mary. The combination of Joseph’s advanced age and the likelihood (at least, according to the “Protonomicon”) that Jesus’ brothers were in reality His half-brothers by marriage, led Catholic leaders to conclude that Mary was perpetually a virgin throughout her life ... a conclusion that most Protestant churches do not currently accept.

The term “born of the Holy Spirit” is a New Testament restatement of the prophesy that the Messiah would be spiritually “One with God.” Even the Q’Ran describes Jesus exactly that way (spiritually “One” with God). In fact, the Q’Ran has the exact same story of the Angel’s visit to Mary (informing her that she was “chosen” to bear God’s Messiah to the Jews) that we now read in the bible's New Testament. Islam still to this day venerates Mary, the only woman specifically mentioned by name in the entire Q'Ran, as the perfect “vessel” who carried God’s “Chosen One.” But they don't consider her a "virgin mother," either.

Book of Esther

Why is the book of Esther in the bible at all? There are a number of reasons it should not be …

1) No mention of God.
Esther is the only book in the bible (either Catholic or protestant version) in which the word “God” does not appear … at all.

2) Not a timely record.
Esther was not a contemporary record … it was not actually reduced to written form until more than three and a half centuries after the purported events.

3) Impossible chronology.
According to the written chronology, Esther was a centenarian before she ever even met her husband-to-be!

Mordecai and his uncle (Esther’s father) were among the adults taken from Israel to Babylon - in the Exodus - by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. After Esther’s father died, she was raised by Mordecai.

After divorcing his second wife Vishti, Persian King Ahaseurus (better known in secular history as Xerxes) gathered a group of maidens - in 480 BC - from whom he was to choose a replacement wife. Esther was included in this group of maidens. Mordecai is described as still being alive in 480 BC, and even if there were as much as thirty years difference in the ages of cousins Esther and Mordecai, Esther would still have been a minimum of 117 years of age when she first met King Ahaseurus! By this book’s account, both Mordecai and Esther lived well over three times the normal life expectancy (which was about 42 to 45 years) in that time and place.

4) No Hebrew names.
Not one character in this book has a Hebrew name. All the characters’ names mentioned - Mordecai, Zeresh, Haman, Vishti, Marduk, Ahaseurus, and in fact, both names of the title character (Esther and Hadasseh) - are Babylonian. Those names were not in common use among the local population … they were the sacred names of the chief gods and goddesses of Babylonian Mythology. This book is an undisguised re-telling of a well-known three thousand year old myth concerning a god and goddess who were cousins.

This tale is not even about Jews. In fact, Esther specifically does NOT claim to be a Jew. She very carefully avoids telling her husband Ahasuerus that she is Jewish, and only makes that claim - late in the book - in order to save Mordecai’s life and punish Haman.

As a side note, when Mordecai is first introduced in the story, his ancestry is specified as a Benjamite … a descendent of Saul. But that one particular verse is not written in Hebrew, as was the rest of the book. Rather, it was written in Aramaic, and is a later addition of unknown origin.

Despite these (and other) deficiencies, the Council of Nicea – six centuries after Esther was written, and a thousand years after the events in the book – nevertheless decided to canonize the book and it was included in the Catholic bible. Also, a number of additions to the book of Esther were later compiled, but these were so implausible and unrealistic that Jewish scholars did not accept them. However, they were included in the Greek Septuagint, and St. Jerome (in translating the Hebrew and Greek into Latin) included them in the Catholic Apocrypha as “The Rest of Esther.”

Judas Sicariot?

Judas Iscariot is invariably placed last in the lists of the apostles(since he ultimately betrayed Jesus).

The word "Iscariot" was historically interpreted to mean "of Carioth." Carioth (or Kerioth) is a city in Judea. It is listed in the Book of Joshua among the cities in the southern territory originally assigned to the tribe of Judah. Based on that assumption, scholars have widely presumed that Judas was the only Judean in a group of Galileans. In that case, the assumption of being an outcast (an "outsider") was used to explain Judas’ behavior and ultimate betrayal, which seemed to make reasonable sense.

However, there is no indication anywhere (within the gospels or in contemporary secular writings) that Judas was a Judean rather than a Galilean - except for this very doubtful interpretation of the word "Iscariot." It was discovered that the oldest original Latin manuscripts read Judas Sicariot ... a 16th Century copyist had transposed the first two letters, and the word is more accurately "Sicariot." Judas was after all a Galilean, like all the other apostles, chosen by Jesus from the local area of Capernaum.

A "Sicariot" was a member of the political party of the "Sicarii," a sect of reactionary zealots who advocated the use of force to rid Israel of Roman subjugation, and who yearned for a powerful King to lead a military uprising against Roman occupiers. The name arose from the Greek word meaning "assassins," applied to men who carried small knives ("sicae") under their robes, and who believed in outright assassination of Romans (and their Jewish supporters) as the most direct and effective means of fighting foreign domination.

The most accurate English translation for his name would have been “Judas the Terrorist.” And his disappointment upon learning that Jesus was NOT the militant Messiah that the Siciarii had expected is an even more rational and logical explanation of Judas’ betrayal.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I just overheard a surprising conversation, between two gentlemen. One of them, obviously a fundamentalist, made the flat statement that “Allah is NOT the triune God of the Bible, and I dare you to say otherwise."

I hate to burst your bubble, sir … but you should be careful about daring others. Because Christianity, Judaism and Islam are far more closely related than most of their individual adherents wish to admit. They are all three, in fact, directly descended from the same patriarch, Abraham (circa 2000 BC). The One “God of Abraham,” whom we Christians read about in Genesis, is now worshipped by Christians as “Jehovah,” by Jews as “Yahweh,” and by Muslims as “Allah.” Of course, there are distinct and emotional levels of tolerance/intolerance for ideas, regional beliefs, and detail incongruities outside each orthodox, but we do all share a common ancestry … father Abraham (or Ibrahim!).

The Muslims, who are Abraham's descendants through his secondary son Ishmael, did not just “dream up” a whole new idolatrous god “from scratch” … that’s a ludicrous idea. They and the Jews (Abraham's descendents through his primary son Isaac) started with the exact same unchanging “I AM that I AM” whom we Christians worship.

All three religions consider God to be eternal and unchanging (perfection itself). Humans are the changeable factor in the equation. Over history, the three major trunks of religious believers developed (“split off” from each other), and each has its own (admittedly finite) description of the one Deity they specifically worship. Each trunk has its own unique definition of the Creator and His attributes. Regardless of the fact that they do not agree on all the details, regardless of the fact that they have hated and fought each other -- for four thousand years -- over those exact differences in “details” … it’s inarguably the same monotheistic entity!

Historically, the first two branches (Israelites and Arabs) have also had serious territorial disputes, fighting over land for the last four millennia. But they fully acknowledge their common genealogy (kinship) and their worship of the very same God. Only after the publication of the Q’ran (about 900 AD) did specific differences in their religious rituals -- not in the history -- show up. But in direct opposition to Christianity, both sides are so adamantly and narrowly monotheistic that they take the exact same viewpoint … that there cannot be a Trinity (as Christians call it) since there is only one God (and the concept of a Trinity is certainly not an easily grasped idea, in the first place). Christian denominations insist that it is impossible to make the flat statement that “Allah (or Yahweh) is not a triune god” (that is, unless you’re willing to admit that God exists only as He is defined by His believers, which is an entirely separate can of worms).

Except for that (admittedly important) concept of the Trinity, in which God manifests Himself in three characteristics, there is no other truly significant difference in the basic (one God of Creation) beliefs between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Yet despite being so closely related, each of the three religious trunks is brim-filled with small-minded individuals who first are absolutely certain that they -- and they alone -- have all “Truth” sewn up in their hip pocket. Second, they hatefully insist that each of the other two trunks is thoroughly evil, and therefore destined for eternal hellfire and damnation. Third, they claim that the differences between all three of them are irreconcilable.

As for this common attitude -- what is it supposed to teach, exactly? Think how that religious strife affects non-believers (especially the ones who honestly need and seek God). You know … the lost ones who (while sincerely seeking help) are exposed to all that religious intolerance, nitpicking animosity, fear, and outright hatred exhibited by the three fine upstanding examples of God’s People … everywhere they look! And -- in case you hadn't noticed -- yes, I am irate about that sheer, abject stupidity. Not surprisingly, however, I am somehow convinced that whatever our finite little human minds may think about God does not actually limit Him too much …


The “evolution vs. creationism” issue

The Catholic Church now holds the position that one can indeed believe in both evolution and God. Evolution is a scientific theory (backed up by mountains of evidence) about how it happened, and faith in God is a religious conviction about why it happened. The difference between a scientific theory and a religious belief is significant, and every student should be taught the difference.

Creationism is a religious belief. It is based on a literal interpretation of the second account of creation in Genesis (there are actually two biblical accounts, and the first account poses no problem for evolutionists). Grounded in biblical literalism - as are all religious battles - Creationism moves deductively (from a general belief in a sudden creation of human beings about 6,000 years ago) to specific supposed “evidence”, however artificial, to support such an a priori position.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It concerns the origin of the various species, and is built on strong evidence that points to a rational theory about how life developed over time. Evolutionists study fossils and carbon dating information, as well as the documented changes over time in species (including our human ancestors) and arrive inductively at a theory to explain it. The evidence suggests the theory, rather than being driven by it.

Scientific method is not a religion. Nor is it anti-religious. It is only a methodology. As such, it poses no threat to religious belief. Nothing in the theory of evolution denies the existence of God. There are people (of deep religious conviction) who believe that the process of evolution is merely the way God created human beings ... a more marvelous and mysterious method than simply placing them suddenly in the midst of a garden – a garden more precisely symbolizing innocence than geography.

Educating students involves exposing them to theories, which they are subsequently free to reject. All students should know what ninety-nine percent of the world’s scientists believe, and why those scientists hold to it. If the students then choose to believe something else, they will know exactly what they rejected, and will clearly understand the enormity of the task of proposing an alternative theory.

Students need to learn about the theory of evolution, and they need to know that many people hold a religious belief called creationism. They need to know that the two are not mutually exclusive. But most importantly, the students need to understand the difference between a scientific theory and a religious belief. If they don't, they shouldn't graduate.