THE REASON FOR THE SEASON (Part 2)

In remembrance of Me

In Luke 22:19, we find the same Jesus that was born in Bethlehem thirty-three or so years earlier. This was His last meal on Earth and He tells His disciples the following words: “Do this in remembrance of me” (emphasis added). There are two very important elements in these four words: remembrance and me. Jesus orders His disciples to perform that very same sacred meal on a regular basis in order to keep Him always present in their mind. The human memory is something prodigious: we are able to store thousands of thoughts, mementos, skills and abilities. Yet, Jesus indicates that there was a very distinct possibility that the disciples might forget Him (the Greek word for “remembrance” is anamnesia which means loosely “forget me not”) and that the Lord’s Supper was a means to keep their memory active.

The second word is Me; a lot could be said about what “me” means in the case of Jesus-Christ, but we could sum it up as follows: Jesus’ own self-consciousness included His human and Divine nature. In other words, when “Me” is pronounced in the context of Jesus’ humanity, it does not exclude His divine nature, but includes both human and divine; therefore, the remembrance of Jesus as a human being does not affect His status as the Son of God, nor is He offended when we do so. Jesus knew that His bodily absence would constitute a challenge to Christianity and that concrete celebrations would keep His memory among His Church.

What would be the purpose of this in the Christmas context? In the general context of God’s Redemption plan, the birth of Christ was to be the first step in the accomplishment of the vicarious sacrifice on the Cross (there is no death without birth), and as such, was to be miraculous. The importance and remembrance of the birth of Christ cannot be underestimated in the general purpose of God, because by negating or subtracting importance to it, we incur the risk of negating an important part of God’s plan. The “mystery of godliness” as explained by Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:16) has a first step in the manifestation of God in the Flesh, which was accomplished on the Lord’s birth day.

What importance did God ascribe to His Son’s birth? Once again, we can refer to Scripture: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe a series of supernatural events surrounding The Supernatural Event. The angel went to the shepherds and told them that “the good tidings” that he brought would be “of great joy” (Luke 2:10); that “the Savior was born today” and to go and see the sign of the “babe wrapped, lying in the manger” (Luke 2:11-12); a multitude of angels appeared to praise and sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14); the impact of the vision of the angels and the confirmation of the sign made the shepherds “glorify and praise God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20); finally, Matthew 2:1-12 describes the arrival of the Magi and their gift-giving (maybe a few days or months after the birth of Christ) and the appearance of the first “Grinch” in History (King Herod). If God hadn’t wanted humanity to know that His Son was born, or had thought that it was of minimal importance, He wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble to make people aware of that and to immortalize it in the Gospels.

So, in conclusion, what can we say about celebrating Christmas? In the previous post, we already discarded (or at least seriously challenged) the idea of Christmas being a “Christianization” of a pagan holiday, since there seems to have been no pagan holiday in that time of the year. In any case, we might say that the secular world has “paganized” Christmas. I, for one, celebrate Christmas because I believe that Jesus-Christ was manifested in the flesh; that Jesus’ birth was part of God’s plan to unite the divine nature with the human nature in order to achieve mankind’s salvation; because God is not averse to establishing festivals and special days as a way of jolting human remembrance of His Works (for more information, read Exodus and Leviticus); and because for one day in the year, the World can hear the marvelous story of the mystery of godliness arising, which is never a bad thing.

I wish my readers (even those who will disagree with me) a Merry Christmas!

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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON (Part 1)

Every year, the Christian holiday of Christmas is attacked on two fronts, and one of these two fronts is unexpected and saddening: Christians are attacked on the secular level, with those on the atheistic/agnostic spectrum decrying public displays of Christmas paraphernalia (such as trees, Nativity scenes, the word “Christmas”, etc.), while the second front comes from some Christians themselves, which is why this is not only unexpected, but also saddening. Some Christians will refuse to celebrate Christmas because of some obscure reasons that we will lay out throughout this post and the following one.

THE ROMAN/PAGAN [DIS]CONNECTION

On a cosmic level, planet Earth is affected by four orbital variations based on the distance of the Earth from the Sun: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. The beginnings of Spring and Fall are called equinoxes (times of equal day and night) while Summer and Winter are known as solstices (longest or shortest days). Because of their obviousness, these variations were noted by humans, because the days would get hotter or colder, longer or shorter, and they also affected agricultural growth. Therefore, based on these observations, humans would appoint these days as special.

The crib of Christianity is located in the Northern Hemisphere, and more precisely the Mediterranean, where the Roman Empire left an indelible mark in Western Civilization. While it was an empire built on brutal conquest, its civilization and customs were emulated throughout its extent. Now, for the truth behind Christian attacks on Christmas: indeed, the period of Winter Solstice was a period in Rome of great festivity. From the 17th to the 23rd of December (not December 25th), the Saturnalia were celebrated: these holidays included role-reversal (the master served the slaves a meal) as well as gift-giving and feasting. On the 23rd, everyone went back to their “natural” social station.

On December 25th, or so the theory goes, there was a festival called Dies Natali Sol Invictus or the birthday of the invincible Sun; thus, still according to the same theory, December 25th was originally a pagan holiday that was cleverly replaced by the Christmas holiday by a Church overeager to please its pagan audience. Although at face value, it seems a possible theory, it is interesting to note that fact does contradict it. As far as Roman holidays go, while the cult to Sol (the Sun) was as ancient as the Roman Republic, its acknowledgment in the Roman calendar was quite tardive, and according to many scholars[1], it had all but disappeared in the beginning of the 2nd century AD. Elagabalus, who was an emperor of Syrian descent, attempted to introduce the Syrian variant of the cult in 219 AD and Aurelian scheduled a few chariot races on that day c. 274 AD.

As some scholars argue, actually, the date of December 25 as Sol Invictus Day could have been instituted as late as 354 AD by the pagan Emperor Julian, who may have attempted to kick start moribund paganism in the face of the growing Christianization of the Empire. This could mean that Julian, in his acerbic hatred of Christianity, attempted to pollute the day chosen by the Christian Church to celebrate the birth of Christ with a pagan festival. Furthermore, the days that were commonly designated to celebrate Sol Invictus with chariot races and other festivities, were August 8, 9, 28 and December 11, not December 25. So, once we discard the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus pagan holidays as probable sources for Christmas, why did the Church choose that day?

THE HERETIC MENACE

The Church had been confronted to heresies since its inception; one of such heresies was Docetism, which taught that Jesus was never manifested in the flesh, but that He had been a spirit all along. Docetism, along with Gnosticism, was based on the Greek philosophical idea that all flesh or matter is evil and that inevitably, proclaiming that Jesus was manifested in the flesh, was tantamount to say that Jesus was a corruptible being. Origen of Alexandria (184-253 AD), the Church Father, even indicated that “only pagans celebrated birthdays” (Lev. Hom. VIII), which some have used as a justification not to celebrate Christmas or common birthdays. While Origen’s writings are respectable and he is considered a Father of the Church, we must be careful into ascribing him biblical authority. Some of Origen’s writings were tainted with Gnostic overtones (i.e. the idea that the soul is purified by Gnosis or knowledge, and also preexistent); thus, it would be normal for him to reject a birthday celebration as a pagan event, since, as we said earlier, in accordance with Greek pagan philosophy, the body was an evil contraption. This is contrary to the truth of Scripture: the Book of Genesis states that “God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him.” (Genesis 1:27), and that all of God’s material creation was seen by God as good “And God saw everything that He had made and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31); in Acts 10:15, Peter is reminded that “What God has made clean, you do not call common”. Therefore, the first objection to birthdays may very well be a taint of Greek philosophy into the original doctrine of the Church.

Secondly, at the beginning of the 3rd century, an Alexandria presbyter (minister), named Arius, started preaching that Jesus Christ had been similar to the Father (as in created), but that He did not share the same substance as God. The crisis was deepened by the fact that Arius was an excellent speaker and people were flocking to hear his new doctrine. The Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, prohibited Arius from preaching this doctrine and the latter’s refusal, combined with the rapid spread of that false doctrine, led emperor Constantine to convoke a council in the city of Nicaea in the year 325 AD. In that Council, it was established that Jesus and the Father were consubstantial and that Jesus was not a created being; in a blow to Docetism and Gnostic thoughts, the Nicene Creed also established that Jesus was born physically and bodily of the Virgin Mary. Some people mistakenly assume that Nicene Christianity was established by the Council of Nicaea, but nothing could be farther from the truth: such a concept was already present in the 1st century; Paul writes to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:16): “And without controversy (an advice that many Christians would do well to heed) great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh […]”. The Greek word for “manifested” is phaneroo which means “render apparent, appear, or show”. The first step of the revealing of the mystery of godliness is the manifestation or the apparition of the flesh of Christ. The importance of this cannot be underestimated in determining the relevance of Christmas in the Church: Jesus shared the substance of eternity with the Father, along with all other characteristics of the Godhead, but was also fully made flesh through the virginal conception and birth. Therefore, it became important for the Church to enshrine the day of the birth of Jesus as momentous, because it consecrated the hypostasis (or the joining of the two natures in one: God and man). In other words, the manifestation of the gestation of the Eternal Word into full flesh was made visible on Jesus’ birth day, or Christmas.

What can we conclude from the aforementioned? More than a form of shameless pandering to pagan sensibilities, the institution of Christmas was a powerful doctrinal statement on the incarnation and manifestation of the Word of God. By ascribing a day to it, the Church established a means of remembrance of the mystery of godliness. In our next post, we will speak of the importance of remembrance.

Is Halloween moot?

Photo credit: Cristian Bassa

Photo credit: Cristian Bassa

A simple look around our town’s stores seasonal products indicates that it is that time of the year again: ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, assorted candy containers and candy are filling the shelves. Once again, we will have the scary movies showing in theaters and being released on video for cheap thrills; in Facebook and social media, we will have pictures of cute children dressed as cute vampires and other creatures of the underworld; and some adults, well…let’s say that those parties are beyond NC-17.

We will also be exposed to the nasty side of Halloween: revealers of secret human sacrifice rituals, satanic conspiracy theorists and former witches and warlocks spilling the beans on Christian media about what they did on their Halloweens (which can be summed in three words: sex, drugs and rock and roll). It is also the time when Christian parents (myself included) will have to uncomfortably tell their children why they will not be participating in Halloween, while other kids are having all the fun and candy. Cultural Christians, Non-Christians, agnostics and atheists will roll their eyes at the perceived “superstition” of belief and will disparage Christians for not participating in a holiday that, after all, “is for children”.

Or is it? According to common belief, the Church christened a pagan festival in the British Isles called Samhain (pronounced sow-in) which was a festival to celebrate the first day of winter and the end of the harvest. Paradoxically, according to some scholars, Samhain was not as ritualistically important to the Celts (Britons, Scots and Welsh) as May Day (see link here) The Irish, unlike their Celtic cousins, had a stronger sense of magical things occurring in Samhain than in any other day. The Irish belief was that during Samhain the “curtain” between the physical and spiritual worlds was thinner and that spirits could freely roam the earth then. Based on that evidence, some scholars consider that the Irish belief did not have a major influence in Halloween/Samhain as it was celebrated in Britain, Scotland and Wales.

So if we were to exclude the “Irish Samhain Connection” as arriving fairly late in Medieval times, who started this Halloween craze? The answer may lie in the name of the Festival itself: Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”, which has been held by the Western Church on October 31 since the 8th Century in order to honor all of the “faithful departed” (i.e. all those who died within the Church, but who are not canonized as saints or blessed). In turn, November 1 became the Feast of All Saints, which is a festival held by the Catholic Church to remember all of the saints and martyrs who do not have a calendar day of their own (with 365 days, the real estate is quite limited). The first All Saints’ Day had been May 13th 609, which was the day that Pope Boniface IV (608-615 AD) consecrated the Roman Pantheon temple (formerly dedicated to the old Roman gods) as a Church to the Virgin Mary and the Martyrs, by transferring twenty-eight cartloads of martyrs’ bones to the edifice (see the Article of the Catholic Encyclopedia here). Boniface ordered that May 13th should be the day of All Saints, following that momentous date. This was changed by Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD), otherwise known as an enthusiastic devout of the worship of images and the initiator of the iconoclastic crisis with the Byzantines (see article here); Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to the saints and martyrs on November 1st and decreed that henceforth, all Saints’ Day would occur on that date, with the Day of the Faithful Departed occurring the day before. So, most likely and based on the aforementioned evidence, the culprit in marking that day as special has been the Western Church in general and the papacy in particular, not the pagans.

Once we exclude the pagan connection, what is left? We have a Christian holiday, which involves otherworldly or fantastical themes and elements. The question that you might ask is: why the costumes and the candy? The answer again lies in English and Scandinavian practices that accompanied the celebration of Hallows’ Eve and even Christmas: mumming and souling. Mumming was, and still is, a type of street folk comedy play that accompanied the celebration of these holidays: the theme was based on duality (fight between good and evil) and death and resurrection (usually a quack or witch doctor would resurrect the good character that had been killed by the bad one), sometimes, the characters would be Beelzebub or devils; the performers of such plays were called mummers or guisers, because they wore disguises for the play. Such plays would be performed on the street or from house to house. The second component, souling, was a form of house-to-house request for “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the souls of those who were giving the cakes and their friends, dead or alive. There is no evidence that souling would entail any type of mischief if the person refused to give a soul cake, but most definitely it would give a bad reputation in a society in which intercession for one’s soul was prized. So, in essence, the trick-or-treating may be a compound of these two practices.

Mary Mapes Dodge (Life time: 1905) - Original publication: "St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks", Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

Illustration of Souling  Source: Mary Mapes Dodge “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”, Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

Now, for the Evangelicals out there that might be reading this, one question remains to be answered: Should my family participate? The answer is “no” for the following reasons:

a) Christianity is a religion of life, not of death. While the death of Jesus is central to the atonement plan of God, His resurrection is the centerpiece of Christianity. The idea of atoning death is as old as the Mosaic Law, the idea of resurrection was not. In other words, the death of Jesus, while being the quintessence of all atoning deaths, cannot be dissociated of the resurrection factor, which makes it absolute and permanent (see Hebrews 9:27-28). The Apostle Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 15:14-20 (read it here). Jesus grieved the death of His friend Lazarus as the Son of Man, but gave him life as the Son of God. Therefore, an excessive focus on death obscures the hope of resurrection.
b) Souls cannot hear our prayers or entreaties and they cannot talk to us. Hebrews 9:27 indicates that “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this is the judgment”; furthermore, Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 states that once you die, there is no more contact with those who “live under the sun”. This applies for the holy and the unholy as well. Therefore, the claim that the spirits of the dead are still roaming the Earth after their separation from the body is not only ludicrous but anti-biblical.
c) As Christians, we are not entitled to intercede to God for the souls of other men; only one person can do that, and it is Jesus-Christ. The Apostle Paul, once again, said “For there is only one God and One Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus-Christ.” (1 Timothy 2:5); while the trick-or-treating has been diluted to child’s play, it is in essence a practice that is non-biblical and substitutes the role of Jesus as Mediator. Human intercession may be acceptable in Catholic practices, in which everybody from the priest to the Virgin Mary intercede for the faithful, but the Evangelical faith believes in a direct relationship between God and men through the agency of Jesus-Christ and our faith in Him as our agent. Jeremiah 17:5 says “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord.”
d) We cannot ignore the theme of the holiday: children (and youngsters) do not go around disguised as angels or saints, but as physical and spiritual creatures that belong into the realm of evil, be they mythical or not. A counter argument for this statement could be that since those creatures do not exist, the holiday is based on fake premises, making it a non-holiday of sorts. While the aforementioned argument is acceptable at first glance, consider this: even the appearance of evil can affect someone else’s conscience. During Paul’s times, the presence of pagan gods was overwhelming; to the point that all the meat that was sold in markets was most likely the product of sacrifices to deities. Paul had to use a dual approach and agree with Jesus that while the food does not soil the person, those who surround the person may be affected by the sight of the believer eating that food (1 Corinthians 10:25-29). While eating candy in moderation might be acceptable any other day, eating candy during a holiday with such a charged meaning may give the wrong impression to Christians and non-Christians alike about partaking with idolatry. Paul acknowledged that while the idols meant nothing, what they represented meant a lot, and this concept still holds true today.

So in conclusion, while it is appropriate to say that Halloween may have a less pagan origin than people think, it is nonetheless the product of a distorted vision of redemption, life and death. As an Evangelical Christian, with a view of Christianity based on Christ alone, Faith alone and Scripture alone, I cannot find any redeeming quality in the holiday that would make me participate in it. Furthermore, even though my conscience is free from guilt, I cannot allow someone else’s to be violated by my own actions. Therefore, I will not participate.

Cosmic Wars

Giordano Bruno's Campo Di Fiori statue

I have been watching (on and off) the hailed series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, featuring the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as narrator; while his performance is very subdued and disappointing compared to other media appearances he has had, I find the series fascinating. I highly respect Mr. Tyson and his accomplishments; however, I find his militancy in promoting atheism and anti-Christian ideas fastidious. Already in the first episode, there is a veiled jab to Christianity when we are presented with the cosmic scale of the Universe as a calendar; Jesus-Christ, according to the narration, would be born in the last minute of the last hour of the current Universe’s timeline. There is also a good chunk of time consecrated to Giordano Bruno, the unfortunate Dominican monk who was executed in 1600 by the Catholic Church for maintaining, among other things, a heliocentric position, as well as the fact that the Sun was only one cog in the overall Universe’s machinery. Knowing where this was going, I was expecting a Galileo tirade. After all, Galileo is better known, was Bruno’s contemporary and also put on trial by the Catholic Church; however, his fate was less spectacular and less convenient for the producers of the show: while Bruno was indeed burned at the stake, Galileo, friend of popes and cardinals, was placed in a comfortable forced residence at the home of a cardinal who was his friend, before being sent to serve his sentence in his own house.

All of this meant to say that of course, in the vernacular of today’s society and media, Christianity equals “not-so-smart” and intolerant. It doesn’t take into account that Urban VIII, pope at that time and Galileo’s friend, held and encouraged Galileo’s views.

Mr. Tyson has proclaimed himself an agnostic, and distances himself from being an atheist (see it here) which is to be respected. We must however consider his strange bedfellow: the vulgar and potty-mouthed Seth McFarlane (a good example here), who is an atheist. Mr. McFarlane is one of the producers of these series, which is tantamount to put William Shakespeare and Dubya as the main representatives of the English language. Suffice to say as well that Mr. McFarlane is an admirer and frequent guest of Bill Maher’s and this will draw a complete painting.

A foreword about what I WILL NOT say today: I will not excuse the Catholic Church and the Inquisition; no one should die for holding different views, and Giordano Bruno’s death should not have happened. That being said, Giordano Bruno’s cosmology, however accurate, was only a small part of his ideas: he also embraced metempsychosis (or the transmigration of souls, aka reincarnation); pantheism (God is everywhere in the Universe, and the sum of all the Universe is God) and hermeticism (belief in magic and transmutation of metals); he also believed that time and matter were infinite, which has been debunked by the Big Bang theory. Needless to say that if these theories of Bruno were proposed in this day and age by a modern scientist, they would bring the derision and condemnation of Mr. Tyson and Mr. McFarlane as well. This goes to say that there is also a scientific inquisition that pushes aside the “fringe” and doesn’t allow it free expression in “distinguished circles”.

The fact that Jesus was born quite recently in the scale of Universal evolution does not mean anything in terms of spirituality or even science. The incarnation of Jesus-Christ indeed occurred at the far end of civilization (if we take the commonly accepted timeline of 10,000 BC as the beginning of history, Jesus was born when 8,000 years of human history had elapsed, or three-fifths thereof). While Jesus’ birth consecrated the beginning of his human life, the Gospel writers were aware of the fact that He was a transcendent being, or that He predated His birth. John 1:1 says:” In the beginning was the Verb and the Verb was with God and the Verb was God”; which beginning was that? Nothing but the beginning of the Universe and time.

Finally, scientific thought is characterized by the vindication of a theory by empirical data. The exposition of data by scientific discovery is valid and acceptable, but by no means does it disprove the existence of God. The astounding number of “coincidences” that have allowed the Earth to be in its current location, with a gaseous composition able to harbor life, make that life as diverse as it is, and finally produce the only sentient beings this side of the Milky Way, speaks volumes of the high probability of a Creator. Even Mr. Tyson had to admit that, for scientists, the origins are still mysterious, as well as the spark that brought the Universe into being. I am comfortable in believing that God made that possible. 

The Gospel according to Reza Aslan (Part IV)

Passion Play

Image

Ecce Homo
Antonio Ciseri (1871)

I wish to apologize to my readers and followers if I have been posting almost every day of this week, and I want to assure them that this series of posts were supposed to occur in a longer period of time; however, since this is Easter Week and today is Good Friday, I wanted to make this post coincide with this major date. After all, Christmas and Easter are two milestones of Christianity, albeit trivialized by commercialism. Suffice to say that Christmas is important because it celebrates the important event of the Word made flesh or incarnation and Easter represents the cusp of God’s redemptory plan: the death and resurrection of His only-begotten Son to save the sins of mankind. I wish to provide you today with a Passion Play based on Reza Aslan’s view of the Gospels, i.e. that it is all fiction surrounding a real event.

A Passion Play would not be complete without a dramatis personae:

  • Jesus of Nazareth: Central to the story, as He is the one who is arrested, tried and crucified in accordance with all four Gospels.
  • Joseph Caiaphas: Jewish High Priest; according to Flavius Josephus, he was High priest from 18 through 36 AD, and was the son in law of another powerful High Priest, Annas; Annas was the real “power behind the throne” (Antiquities XX, 9.1).
  • Pontius Pilate: Prefect (military rank) of Judea from 26-36 AD; he was under the administration of the legate of Syria Lucius Pomponius Flaccus.
  • Herod Antipas: Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, reigned from 6 through 39 AD. Son of Herod the Great, was in charge of the jurisdiction of Galilee.
  • Judas Iscariot: one of the Twelve Apostles, betrayed and gave away Jesus. Died the same day as Jesus on 33 AD; cause of death: suicide by hanging.
  • The Apostles
  • The Jews: A disclaimer should be made here. Some people have read into this (wrongly) as a justification for antisemitism, the singling out of a whole nation and the claim of “blood libel”. We must read this as it was understood in the 1st century: this is not a racial distinction, but a provincial one. The Jews (Jehudim) were initially the descendants of the tribe of Judah, the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, and also the residents of the Roman province of Judea in general and Jerusalem in particular, as such distinguished from Galileans, Samaritans, Pereans and Idumeans. The inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem were proud of and benefitted greatly from the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem and were shocked by Jesus’ claims that he would destroy the Temple, which by the way was the charge by which the Sanhedrin accused Jesus.

ACT I

In the Passover festival of 33 AD, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday); upon arrival, he consciously reenacted the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 and entered the city sitting on a donkey as the King of the Jews was expected to do. This message did not escape the spectators who acclaimed him as King as well as the Temple leaders and Roman authorities. During the days that followed, Jesus increased the gap between Him and the Temple authorities by  attacking the hypocrisy of the Temple elite, disrupting their business model (the system in place in the Temple was that no foreign monies could be accepted when giving an offering, but that currency had to be exchanged with the prutah or the Tyre shekel, with very advantageous prices); in this aspect, I agree with Mr. Aslan’s claims that the fees required to comply with all aspects of Judaism were prohibitive for most people. What topped the hostility was Jesus’ claim that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days (nowhere else is this more poignant than in the debate initiated in John 2:12-22). Radical action was required from the elites to end this possible ferment of revolt (in their view); John 11:48-49 translates that disquiet “If we allow him to go in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.” Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is more to our advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.”” Judas Iscariot becomes a pivotal part in this event: Judas became increasingly disenchanted and disgruntled with Jesus most likely when the latter refused to become King by popular acclamation after the miracle of the multiplication of the bread. Judas was a member, along with the other apostle Simon (not Peter) of the Zealot movement, and believed in the radical messianic view of kicking the foreign occupier off the land of Judea. His possible association of Jesus with those views and Jesus disengagement from them led to Judas’ disenchantment. In light of this, it became easier for him to betray Jesus to the Temple elite. It must be highlighted, however, that Judas may not have expected the final outcome.

ACT II

After having his last Passover meal and instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus went away with the disciples to Mt. Olivet or the Gethsemane; there, he was arrested by guards sent by Caiaphas and led by Judas Iscariot. Two things must be said about this: a) The Temple authorities did not arrest Jesus in broad daylight because there were riot possibilities (tempers flew high during Festivals) and; b) Jerusalem being jam-packed with pilgrims coming to the Festival, the authorities did not know for sure where Jesus could be; people stayed in hostels and synagogues who provided shelter during the holidays. Judas was privvy to the place where Jesus would be. This is where the confusion starts for many people and have led many scholars to dismiss the Gospels as fiction: true, the Sanhedrin never convened by night; however, the Gospels never claimed that the trial at the Sanhedrin occurred by night. A closer read of the Gospels indicates that there were two phases in the trial: a prosecutorial meeting with Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies at the former’s house, where the witnesses were doctored and charges forged and then a formal Sanhedrin trial at dawn, where the whole Council was misled into believing the charges and issue a formal condemnation. Matthew, Mark and John mix up both events, because in reality they form one, the second being just a formality, while the first being the real trial. Luke makes the distinction very clearly in chapter 22 verse 66 of his Gospel.  In the end, whether the trial occurred at night or in the morning it is a testimony to the deviousness of the cutthroats that constituted the Temple elite, which, if we are to accept Josephus’ accounts, were not that far removed from Herod’s own antics.

ACT III

Now comes the most controversial part of the Gospel narrative of the Passion: Pilate’s own conduct. The charge that has been leveled at the Gospels and Christians is that Pilate’s actions are uncharacteristic of him. Those who point out these inconsistencies are keen to speculate that the Gospels meant to differentiate Christians from Jews in the eyes of the Roman authorities, who saw the Judeans as a seditious lot, and present a kinder profile of Pilate vis-a-vis the perfidy of the Jews. We’ll clear out the 3,000 lbs elephant from the room: Pilate was not a nice guy, period. I do not think either that the Gospels excuse his behavior, quite contrarily. I will concede that Pilate acted uncharacteristically because what was occurring was unusual; however, he would not be the first tyrant to have done so and certainly not the last. This does not make the events described in the Gospel implausible.  The events unfolding in front of him are unusual for the following reasons:

a)      It was unusual for Jews to hand out other Jews to the Gentiles to be killed. The Romans usually killed wholesale or found dead bodies, because of what has been known as the “Masada complex” (better dead than surrender). Judas Iscariot’s fatal scruples were spurred because of that fact (Matthew 27:3-4 “Then he who had betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, sorrowing, Judas returned the thirty pieces of silver again to the chief priests and elders, (4) saying, I have sinned, betraying innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? You see to that.”)

b)      The plight of the accusers that Jesus pretended to be the King of the Jews and that they were giving him away for that, accepting Caesar instead as king made it even stranger. Even if the High Priests were cronies of the Romans, they had an uneasy relationship with them.  An occupier is always an occupier. 

c)       Many commenters, including Mr. Aslan, indicate that Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus is a ludicrous detail. I daresay that precisely because of all of the above, Pilate was intrigued and did indeed question Jesus. In turn, Jesus’ answers most likely convinced him that Jesus was nothing else but a mentally ill person.

d)      The practice of releasing one criminal for the holidays is not mentioned anywhere else (and by that, I mean Josephus and Philo, the only other historian who focused on Jewish history), but we also must point out that the sources on that time and place are scarce and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Thus, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the Gospels.

e)      Pilate had had to face riots before and, according to Philo of Alexandria, had been warned by Tiberius concerning his brash behavior with the Jews (Philo, On the Embassy of Gaius Book XXXVIII 299–305); so while Pilate was somehow uneasy, he sacrificed Jesus on the altar of political expediency, showing more his ruthlessness than his softness. Moreover, his gesture of deference towards Herod became advantageous for himself, thus effectively “killing two birds with one shot”.

Once Pilate made his decision, he did not back up and proceeded to punish Jesus with all the rigors of Roman capital punishment. The story of the Crucifixion is known enough to be retold here; however two details deserve mention:

a)      The titulum on Jesus’ cross was not meant to be a mockery but a sign of Pilate’s warning to this and any future pretender to the throne: Rome would be ruthless.

b)      The fact that he conceded the body to Joseph of Arimathea does not mean that he was soft, but rather that he ceded to the latter’s influence (or maybe even a bribe, the only thing that moved cogwheels in Roman governors’ decisions).

The rest of the story is known to everybody. You can read it here. On my next (and last) post in this series, I will be discussing Mr. Aslan’s take on the further evolution of Christianity after the Resurrection of Jesus. I wish to all my readers a Happy Easter.

He is risen indeed!

The Gospel According to Reza Aslan (Part III)

More than a Zealot

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In my previous post in this matter, I reviewed the documentation available in what concerns the existence of Jesus and determined that the hypothetical existence of ‘Q’ gives us an insight into the philosophical and political views (very few and far between) of Jesus of Nazareth, and this very closely to Jesus’ own life and death. As anything related with 1st century Judea, politics and religion were closely associated; thus, religious parties were also heavily opinionated about what type of political governance befitted Judea. What about Jesus? What were His political views? Was the “Kingdom of God” (omnipresent in Jesus’ sermons) a political entity or a spiritual one?

Indeed the historical Jesus lived in turbulent times; Mr. Aslan makes a very vivid and accurate description of the rifts that existed in Judaism, between the Temple aristocracy (cronies of the Roman occupier and rife with Hellenistic cultural tendencies) and the Zealots. These rifts had existed since times immemorial as Israelites never were a unified and homogenous group: there was a part of the Israelites that never identified with Yahwism and worshipped deities that were outside of the acceptable standards established by the monotheistic Yahwism (for more information on the subject, I recommend the reading of Simon Schama’s fascinating opus, the recently published “Story of the Jews”). The frustrated echoes of prophets and kings before the exile in Babylon stand witness to the difficulties that Israel faced to homogenize its belief system. Post-exile Persian Judea had managed, under the energetic leadership of the Teacher of the Law Ezra, to come back to the sources and unify Israel in its acceptance of Yahwism as cultural and national cement. However, the issue was further complicated by the Greek invasion of Alexander the Great and his succeeding Hellenic Kingdoms (3rd century BC onwards); once again, Israel was lured by the “siren’s chant” of a pervasive and efficient culture (Antiochus Epiphanes being a hiccup thereof). Hellenism, nonetheless brought a new rift in Israel that resulted in bloody wars between the proponents of pure Jewish thought, set apart from the “nations” and those who had been “contaminated” by Hellenistic tendencies. The theocracy of Priest-Kings initiated by the Maccabees destroyed itself from within when one of its leaders unwittingly invited Rome to settle an internal dispute.

The Roman Empire, infinitely more practical than Hellenism, was only interested in collecting taxes and to keep the Pax Romana in an area so vital for its own sustenance (Egypt, the bread basket of Rome, bordered with Judea). Furthermore, Judea acted as a “buffer province” between the Parthians (the descendants of the Persian Empire and archenemies of Rome) and Rome’s vital interests. The Judean Jews, jealously worshipping Yahweh, did not admit any other worship (which excluded the Samaritans and almost the Galileans) and the Romans were savvy enough to allow them an exemption from the Imperial Cult, allowing instead a daily sacrifice to Yahweh for the good health of the Emperor.

In this context, indeed the historical Jesus had his say about the political situation occurring in His land of birth. Mr. Aslan is right in pointing out that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew; nobody in our day and age debates that point, except the Nazis in the 1930s (the “Aryan” Jesus fighting the Jews) and ignorant supremacists of any stroke. However, Mr. Aslan is mistaken when he points out that Jesus had an exclusively judeocentric and zealot view of relationships between Jews and Gentiles. In my opinion, Mr. Aslan’s view contradicts the evidence which he uses to make his point: the Gospels. At the same time he mostly qualifies the Gospels as fiction, sticking to his idea of ‘Q’ as an “unpolluted” source. If we accept ‘Q’ as a real and credible source, the image of Jesus in his own words is not the image of a Zealot or a revolutionary bent on killing any last Roman in the land, in an echo of the old wars of conquest of the Promised Land, but a rather meek and peaceful character. A few examples come to mind in the Beatitudes of the Sermon of the Mount and other logia: “Love thy enemies” (being that there is no racial exception in those words, wouldn’t that also include the Romans, the enemy of Israel?); furthermore, the description of one’s enemy forcing someone “to walk one mile” could be a direct reference to forced labor that Roman soldiers imposed on any passerby at will (as happened with Simon of Cyrene in the Passion narrative); “do not resist evil”, etc. The proposal of Jesus-Christ would be of a unified Judea without racial or sectarian divisions: the Parable of the Good Samaritan brings a stark contrast between the Jews ‘views on racial and religious differences and God’s own views, etc.  In this aspect, Jesus’ teachings and ideas clashed with the expectations of the messianic and the Zealots. 

So, what about the Kingdom of God? Jesus’ mention of the Kingdom of God, unlike Mr. Aslan maintains, was not a promise of a concrete political entity in the here and now, but rather a state of the soul, in which those who suffered from the injustices of their time (and indeed there were many) would receive a reward in the “next life” (a concept present in Judaism and in the Talmud). More importantly, the Gospels point out to the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus-Christ as a show of God’s own immanence (or the idea of God being in and extending into all parts of the created universe); in other words, the access to the Kingdom of God was none other than through Christ Himself, not a new political entity free of the Roman yoke. In this case, Jesus explained by himself in the form of the logia or ‘Q’, presents a compelling case of patience in the face of injustice and hope, not a zealot misnomer of a “freedom fighter” giving coded insurrectionist messages to his followers.

In my next post, I will analyze the perceived inconsistencies in the Gospels concerning the birth and more importantly, trial, death and burial of Jesus. Stay tuned. 

The Gospel According to Reza Aslan (Part II)

The Sources

In my previous post on this subject (see it here), I summed up the main points of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Before delving further in my rebuttal of Mr. Aslan’s main points, I would like to lay the groundwork of what I consider displays the “real” Jesus (as opposed to what some scholars call the “historical Jesus”). Who was the historical Jesus? Was there even a historical Jesus? This question has haunted many scholars from the 18th century onwards. Ernest Renan (1823-1892) wrote “The Life of Jesus” which was one of the first forays into “humanizing” Jesus. The “humanization” of Christ arises from a profound distrust of the Four Gospels as an adequate historical source, their purpose being perceived as solely being theological at best or apologetic at worst. 

What can we Christians say about Jesus beyond what the Gospels say? Stepping away from the Gospels makes our understanding of Jesus schematic at best. A point has to be made regarding the historicity of the Gospels. In historical studies, two types of sources are available: primary and secondary. A primary source is defined as unadulterated evidence which excludes anything written in hindsight; this would include firsthand accounts, tomb inscriptions, epigraphic sources (or in a more contemporary setting, pictures and documentary reels); secondary sources, on the other hand, are written sources by third parties occurring after the fact or in hindsight. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the primary source is more “authentic” than the secondary source (after all, propaganda is never far away from any “official” inscription or newsreel), just that the primary source provides raw data as to the existence of one individual in the passage of time. For example, Roman History specialists mostly agree that the busts representing the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus do not accurately represent his real physical features but rather idealized ones; the bust, along with inscriptions and a few self-congratulatory writings constitute the bulk of Augustus’ claim to existence. However, by itself, this data does not tell us how Augustus behaved or acted in his daily life; for this, we have historians, or third parties writing about him and providing the necessary perspective: Suetonius, Tacitus, Livy and others.

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The “Mesha Stele”, a good example of a primary source

Using this standard, let’s be blunt: all of the Gospels are secondary sources, and, yes, Christianity lacks primary evidence of the existence of Jesus: in other words, Jesus did not leave behind inscriptions or any other epigraphic sources. What is that supposed to mean? Not very much, by ancient History standards; as an example, his murderer, Pontius Pilate (more about him later), being a Roman governor and all, lacked a primary source until recently, when an inscription bearing his name surfaced in Caesarea. Other historical characters, including numerous Pharaohs, are only known to us because a historian named Manetho mentioned them in his Aegyptiaca around the 3rd Century BC, in some cases giving us information about kings existing 20 centuries before him. This does not cause Egyptologists to refrain from using his work profusely to reconstruct dynastic information. The lack of primary sources does not make Jesus less real. As a humble tekton or handyman from Nazareth, he did not leave epigraphic inscriptions (the privilege of the great and mighty), statues or even coins with his effigy, and yet, He lived in the First Century.

What are we trying to say by this? The question does not lie into whether the Gospels are primary or secondary sources, but rather if those sources accurately represent Jesus as a living teacher in 1st Century Judea. Mr. Aslan embraces the idea that most of the Gospels were written at the end of the 1st century AD (John’s Gospel being the last at around 100 AD). However, he also repeatedly brandishes ‘Q’ as being a more ancient source and also more accurate than the Gospels.

What is ‘Q’? This vaguely Bond-esque monosyllabic is short for the German word “Quelle“, which means “source”. ‘Q’ is a hypothetical primordial manuscript hypothetically written around 50 AD, from which Luke and Matthew extracted Jesus ‘sermons and words (also known as the “logia“, Greek for “words”); the hypothesis stems from a comparison made by Biblical scholars between the two abovementioned Gospels, and from a statement made by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastic History (III, 39), written in the 3rd century AD. Indeed, Luke and Matthew’s Gospels offer glaringly similar words in the original Greek for the same sermons, almost copied word for word. Let me point out that I believe that Mr. Aslan shows intellectual dishonesty by not pointing out in the corpus of his book that ‘Q’ is hypothetical, which means that its existence has not been demonstrated (he points that out in the end-book notes though, which earns him a good mention, if people made the effort to read at all the end-book notes)

The hypothetical existence of ‘Q’ might be important and less of a point for Mr. Aslan’s intellectual exercise than he claims. If ‘Q’ was a collection of sayings of Jesus that someone put in writing as an effort to make them “indelible”, the passage of time between Jesus-Christ‘s death and ‘Q’ is minimal in Ancient History standards: It is commonly accepted that Jesus died around 33 AD. If ‘Q’ was redacted in 50 AD, there were only 17 years elapsed between the existence of the man Jesus and the first collection of His words. More importantly, there is no corpus written in the first century AD (of Christian origin or otherwise) that directly contradicts Jesus’ sayings as reflected in ‘Q’ and the first Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke).

In conclusion, while Mr. Aslan’s book displays a great attention to detail in pointing out the possibility of a proto-Gospel in the form of ‘Q’, implying that the Gospels were contaminated by foreign and Gentile influences, he still does not answer the question about the motivations of the Historical Jesus: Was the Historical Jesus a Zealot bent on revolutionary and radical action, or was He someone else? In my next post on this subject, I will analyze this claim in detail. Keep tuned.