When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Lent Presidents

Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.

Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?

An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.

Old Salt

Time has been at a premium lately, but when I have a few spare moments I like to read the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Those of us who make a living with words often find them utterly fascinating. Simon Thomas’ post, “Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’” brings a number of interesting facts to light. Salt, now on the list of public enemies, is essential to our well-being in small doses. His clever post includes “salt of the earth,” a phrase biblical through-and-through. It reminded me of the fact that the Bible’s become so porous that few people can say what’s actually in it. It’s kind of a big book, and who has the kind of time needed to read it all, let alone remember what it did or didn’t say? Many phrases are attributed to Holy Writ that don’t appear within its covers, while others that do come thence are thought to originate elsewhere. Strange but true.

We may never come to an agreement on what Jesus actually said, but “salt of the earth” is a phrase attributed to him. Indeed, he may have coined the term “saltness,” but I haven’t researched that thoroughly. The idea of essences, I’m told, is outmoded. But the idea is fascinating—what is salt that has no taste? Would it work to clear our roadways in winter time? There’s a layer of salt on my car already, and it only just snowed for the first time this year. We all know what salt is, what it tastes like—but what is its essence? (If such things exist?)

Thomas notes that Roman soldiers were paid it salt. I wonder if this was behind a phrase my step-father used to use about work. Although he and I did not get along, now that he’s gone I come back to the hidden bits of wisdom he sometimes shared. He worked very long hours, and seemed happiest when he was doing so. Early in the morning he’d limp through the house and say, “Time to get back to the salt mine.” He wasn’t a literal miner, although we lived in coal country. Salt could mean food, and the salt mine was where you worked to provide food for your family. I may not have gotten along with my step-father, but he worked hard to support a family with three kids not his own. He may have been bitter about that, but today anyone who stays with a family in hard times is considered salt of the earth. And that’s biblical.

Mark of the Beast

namingantichristI grew up believing in “the Antichrist.” As I came to realize that much of the New Testament pointed to contemporary problems (for them) with the Roman Empire and that what appeared to be predictions were actually safe ways to discuss forbidden topics, I began to worry less. It was about the past, not the future. Recent political events have ratcheted up my anxiety level again—maybe there is such an evil after all. Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession is an important book in this regard. Although end-time worries have diminished among some now that we’re safely into a new millennium, for the true believer none of that matters. The Antichrist is a great motivator. I hadn’t realized until reading this book just how much of contemporary culture has grown from this fabricated fear.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning. In the Bible there is no figure known as “the Antichrist.” The generalized word antichrist is used only twice and in neither instance is the book in question Revelation. Early Christians speculated that the beast of Revelation might be “the Antichrist” but that identification wasn’t solidified until the beginnings of the Fundamentalist movement in the late 1800s. By the time Fundamentalism was a fully developed system, by about the 1920s, believing in the Antichrist and trying to identify him had become a cottage industry. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey and the pressing concern that “the Antichrist” was alive in the world today. Face it, The Omen loses something if he isn’t. This strange, non-biblical belief has come to define a large number of true believers.

Fuller’s book is important for the insight he brings into why some “Christians” are avowed enemies of peace, toleration, and the improvement of human conditions. Those who believe their tribe is the only correct one hold the double standard of ethical treatment of those inside and scorn and hatred of those without. This view believes that the world is to be condemned, natural resources used up, wars started, and civil rights suppressed, in the name of Christ. Perhaps you may begin to see why a chill ran down my spine as I was reading this book. We need to try to understand this perverted way of looking at the world in order to understand the forces that would rather see a dictatorial billionaire run the country than an eminently qualified woman. Reason’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about conviction. Failure to understand that is perhaps the surest way to bring about the end of the world. We ignore religious thought to our own peril.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Madness of Kings

The Roman Empire ruled the known world. Christianity owes much of its form and structure to the fact that the Romans expressed their rule in a military way and prized what they thought was order and fairness. While all of this was happening across the ocean, what are now ancient cedars had begun to grow in Roosevelt Grove, Washington. Having survived the many forest fires that sweep through this area of the northwest, these trees may be up to 2000–3000 years old with an average of about 800 years per tree. Impressed by such longevity, this year on the East Coast I’ve visited the two oldest trees in New Jersey (posts about them may be found in January and July of this year’s offerings). The Great Swamp Oak may be 700 years old, and the Basking Ridge Oak is over 600. The longest lived trees in the country, however, are out here in the west.

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The cedars of Roosevelt Grove aren’t the oldest. There are Bristlecone Pines further to the south that are twice again the age of these millennial trees. One survives from the days when writing itself was first being invented and has lived through most of human civilization. Wisely, its exact location has not been disclosed. We all know how, in a moment of foolishness, a single human being can easily destroy that which can’t be replaced. The story of the Bristlecone Pines is illustrative. A naturalist studying the trees took a core sample of the tree that, at that time, was the oldest living tree known. When his bit broke off in the tree the solution was to cut it down to retrieve the bit. Fortunately an even older tree was later discovered in the same forest and those who know where it is don’t say. It’s a form of collective madness that makes humans want to conquer. Romans and trees both stand witness.

A few miles south of Roosevelt Grove stands the Shoe Tree. For reasons unknown, decades ago campers began leaving shoes on this great conifer. Shoe trees actually exist in several locations around the country. This particular exemplar was a well-known local attraction. Shoes had been nailed to the trunk, or tied together and tossed high into the branches. Whimsical and illogical, it would have drove a Roman crazy. Then a few years back someone decided to set the tree on fire. Thinking the act had ended the joie de vivre, one unthinking person sought to change history. After the act of destruction, however, shoes were once again nailed to the now dead tree, and once again tossed into its lifeless branches. The tree next to it, I noticed, has started to acquire its own sets of footwear. If it outlasts the empires of today, there will be those of generations yet unimagined wondering about the madness that those who insist on conquering leave in their wake.

The Problem with Love

As far as we can tell, historically there is no Saint Valentine that is particularly connected to February 14. Even if there were, it is difficult to imagine a saint promoting what we know as love. Love is a slippery topic. The ancient Greeks (who did not marry for love) were so perplexed that they came up with three different words for it, and the nascent Christian community tended to prefer agape-type love. Love that expresses well-being for the community and has little to do with the physical attraction that people everywhere find so compelling. It is safe to say that Christianity has always been uncomfortable with the kind of love that Valentines Day celebrates. The holiday, because of its associations, has often been removed from the liturgical calendar a time or two. People are already prone to express their biological urges, so it is best not to give them an excuse, sanctioned by the church.

This is an odd situation, thinking love is wrong, or at best, tolerated. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians had no particular concerns in this way. We can’t measure, of course, how people loved their spouses, but there was nothing inherent in the new religion to suggest physical attraction was bad. By the time Paul of Tarsus started writing his letters a couple of decades after Jesus’ life, at the earliest, some doubts had crept in. They seem to have been largely personal. We know little of Paul’s life, but we are aware that he saw the kind of love known as eros to be a problem. Concession had to be made to those who couldn’t control themselves, but otherwise, in good stoic fashion, love was to be ignored. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, some three centuries later, sex passed on original sin and love had become decidedly dark.

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Attitudes change with time, of course. After two millennia a certain practicality sets in. We have moved through the troubadours and courtly love to psychology and deep human needs. Arranged marriages are, for the most part, considered like shackles from the past. And love, that feeling that we never completely outgrow, is believed to be a positive thing. Saint Valentine (and there were at least two of them) would likely have disagreed. While the Romans celebrated sexuality, they also believed in restraint most of the time. Valentines Day, however, still has something to teach us. Despite the commercialization of the holiday, in a world with a surplus of hatred, any kind of love is, as long as it’s mutual, is worth celebrating.

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Incitatus Redux

What more is there to say about God and politics? Far too much, I fear. In a Sunday Review in the New York Times, Frank Bruni lays out a catalogue of what, in a rational universe, would be considered violations of the United States constitution by politicians who insist their (conservative) Christianity is the faith of the nation. This is, however, one of the philosophical conundrums of religious freedom. Religious believers are free to use their faith to try to change the system from within. And the fact that the media is telling us that religion has become irrelevant doesn’t help. Who should be afraid of what’s irrelevant? Can irrelevant substances harm you? Can irrelevant bullets kill you? Why, yes, they can! And so being told repeatedly by the media that religion is something we can safely lock into a box marked “Medievalisms Outdated” we step out the door to see politicians using a religion poorly understood to gain power. A recipe for an apocalypse, it sounds like to me.

Academics too readily fall prey to the media hype. University presidents and deans suppose that religion really is dead and shouldn’t be studied. Who’s going to help us through the morass of the upcoming election if people who understand religion are made indigent and put out on the streets? Good luck to the rest of society! We must, if we are to survive, understand religion. Its death, following shortly on that of God, was proclaimed early last century. And yet it’s showing no signs of dying. In fact, it’s just waking up. Who are we going to ask? Scientists? Accountants? Economists? What will you really learn about our laws being God’s laws in the minds of the wealthy and powerful? Don’t ask me—I’ve only spent some thirty-five years studying religion. What do I know?

I sometimes wonder what it must’ve been like to live in Rome as Alaric was whetting his sword among his Visigothic horde. Insane—literally insane—emperors wielded unchallenged power and lived lives of opulence amid the slaves and poor. Religion was front and center on the agenda, of course, because emperors were gods. You don’t have to listen too deeply to hear the same message even today. Those who proclaim God as the justification for their political ambitions know that God is the ultimate malleable deity. In fact, God can even be in the Oval Office. Lead can line your aqueducts and your horse can be made a senator. Lord knows an ass can be. And all the while let’s shut down the voices of those who’ve looked at religion, beginning in the Stone Age and up to now. If we want to grab power it’s vital that we keep it from public view that self-deification is as old as kingship and in a post-religious world, we have only to pretend.

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Redemption?

NonbelieverNation The Roman emperor Gaius, it is said, was insane. He perpetrated such antics as declaring war on the North Sea, making his horse a senator, and appearing in public dressed as various gods. Better known as Caligula, Gaius is often presented as evidence of the decadence that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Civilization, we’re told, has progressed enormously since then. We put people on the moon, and we carry in our pockets technology that appears, to mere mortals, as if it’s magic. We have elected an African-American to the White House and men have magnanimously granted females the right to vote. Oh how far we’ve come! And yet, in the midst of our self-congratulation, we have not one, but a plethora of high-ranking politicians in all three branches of the government who believe the world is only 6000 years old. They firmly believe Jesus will return on a white horse (presumably to be made a senator) any day now. And there will be a massive battle of good (us, or at least some of us) versus evil (those not evangelical in orientation) that will lead to the end of the world. And they are easily elected. Is that a knowing smile I see on Gaius’ face?

David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has written an important book entitled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Before you run for your shotguns, be assured that Niose is—like most secularists—not trying to do away with religion. Secularity is all about the founding principles of this country: freedom of conscience, the right to believe what we will. Or won’t. Up until the 1950’s the secular aspect of this country was taken more or less for granted. Tellingly, Niose opens his book by looking at the presidential elections of 1912 in which not one of the four candidates had a problem with evolution and even the most religious of them was very much a moderate. A century later and we have rampant Fundamentalists well funded and ready to push other nations toward initiating Armageddon. “Well, they started it!” And still, secular Americans are consistently portrayed as insidious snakes in the garden, trying to destroy everything.

It is difficult to read Nonbeliever Nation and not feel embarrassed as we see the promise of an advanced nation winding back its clock to the point that the educated are presented as ignorant at best—or more likely, evil. Where churches and corporations are increasingly difficult to tell apart, and where basic civil liberties for women and gays are still considered somewhat suspect, as if they hadn’t cleared the desk of the Big Man upstairs. Yes, he does have a beard and a son. And yet, despite the message of that putative son—known as a pacifist with radical ideas about social equality—the faithful bar the way for the oppressed while building the most massive arsenal in the world’s history. Rome, they say, was not built in a day. It didn’t even fall until 476, but already in the first century, large cracks had begun to appear. The difference is that America is far more religious. Does that give us any better chances, or worse? Read David Niose and decide. And, since global warming is real, the North Sea will eventually win in the end.

Clockwork Heavens

DecodingTheHeavensIn a museum in Athens sits a device chock-full of gears and cogs and dials. Indeed, it looks quite a bit like the movement of a pre-digital clock. This particular object, known as the Antikythera Device, is what would sometimes be labeled an “out of place artifact” were its provenance not so well attested. History doesn’t always play fair. Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000 Year Old Computer—And the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets tells the fascinating story. Discovered by sponge-divers blown off course by a storm in 1900, a sunken ship at Antikythera became the first ever site of a ship-wreck excavation attempt. Even today underwater archaeology presents numerous challenges, but in the turn of the previous century, even land-based archaeology was a kind of glorified treasure hunt rather than an attempt to reconstruct ancient history. As the divers visited and revisited the site into 1901, they discovered ancient Greek statues that are among the best preserved from the ancient world. They also found the corroded box of gears that nobody really noticed for several months.

Marchant carefully unravels the slow process of discovery, acclaim, and forgetfulness that accompanied learning about this highly advanced computer. As with many other important finds, World Wars I and II led to distractions that made history somewhat less appealing than killing millions and then trying to recover from the damage. (The Ugaritic tablets, as I’ve often suggested, suffered a similar forgetfulness for being found at the wrong time.) As scholars, usually only one or two in a decade, began to notice the Antikythera mechanism, it became very much an object out of time. A sophisticated computer for calculating the movement of the sun, moon, and planets, the device could also show the phases of the moon, predict eclipses, and keep track of the Saros, Metonic, Exeligmos, and Callippic Cycles (18, 19, 54, and 76 years in duration, respectively). These cycles accounted for the adjustments needed by leap years and other fixes in the modern calendar. I can’t even keep track of Daylight Savings Time.

Adding to the mystery and drama, the Antikythera Device dates from the first century BCE, a time confirmed by radiocarbon dating and the presence of coins found on the ship. It is unknown who made it, but the influence of Archimedes is implicated. A similar device would not be known for another 1500 years with the beginnings of the Early Modern Period. The Roman Empire, which held power in the Mediterranean world at the time, was on its way toward the legendary decadence that would lead to its inevitable fall. It seems that a culture based on military might had little use for academic devices that were literally centuries ahead of their time. History does not repeat itself precisely, but broad strokes may often reveal more than passing similarities. And for those who want to discover a computer than shouldn’t have been, Marchant’s book is an excellent introduction to how the wisdom of the ancients still keeps us guessing.

Irrational Revelation System

In an article on Obamacare in last week’s paper, Kathleen O’Brien pointed out an interesting dilemma. Some religions, such as the Anabaptist traditions (Amish, Mennonites) must comply with modern regulations on healthcare or face a fine. Under pressure, the Internal Revenue Service grants exemptions to some such religions, but those religions have to have been established before 1950. Maybe I’m paranoid, but just having read about Scientology, I have to wonder about two things: what is the IRS doing defining religions, and why 1950?

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

1950. Like the Roman Empire, frustrated with new religions (like Christianity) popping up all over the place, governments sometimes default to a religion’s age as a sign of its validity. Rome required conformity, but Judaism, demonstrably already an ancient religion, was granted an exemption from some of the regulations. We have a tendency to think that if a religion is valid, it must have been discovered/revealed long ago. All religions, however, were new at one time. Even the first shaman offering the first propitiatory gesture to the first recognized nature spirit, was experimenting a little. Did that stop in 1950? That line in the sand must stand for the cutoff date for new religions. Why? Well, you see, it has to do with money.

The IRS, as an organization, doesn’t really care what you believe. As long as it includes paying your taxes. One of the burdens of citizenship, too quickly forgotten, is that life together in a complex society is not possible without incurring considerable costs. Religions have long claimed tax-exempt status under the rubric of disestablishment. If they pay the government, then it is like the government is receiving kickbacks from the Almighty. The biggest donor should get the biggest favors. Soon you have a state church. So it is just easier to let religions be tax exempt. But since nobody has ever adequately defined what a religion is, the doors have been wide open for entrepreneurs in the faith industry. Instead of letting religious experts decide how to define a religion, that has become a government job. I picture a simple, bearded Amish man pulling his buggy up outside the IRS headquarters in a frenetic Washington, DC to go argue his case. Don’t worry, Bruder. Divine revelation, whatever that is, apparently stopped in 1950 and you’re clearly pre-McCarthy era. Suddenly a whole lot of things seem to start making sense.

Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.

Flea the Obvious

In one of my personal ironies of history, the period of ancient times that I find least interesting is the one I’ve been reading most about. Part of that is based on my lack of coherence when it comes to selecting reading material. I take recommendations seriously, so when a friend suggested Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen, I figured I’d better read it. I had fairly recently read Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars, about the nearly unbelievable shenanigans of post-apostolic Christendom, and so I felt up to taking on the Plague. Justinian’s Flea is about the fall of the Roman Empire. At Gorgias Press, where Justinian’s former prostitute wife Theodora was subjected to revisionist history that made her a lifelong saint, I learned to discount most of what went on during this time period. I was, it seems, a bit too hasty. Justinian and Theodora’s reign is quite interesting, and it is, as intimated, largely because of ecclesiastical politics.

Rosen begins his study by laying out the background to Justinian’s imperial days in Constantinople. In describing the disputes between what specialists now call various Christianities (formerly true believers versus heretics), Rosen notes that Christians had particular disdain for Gnostics, largely based on interpretations of what Jesus’ death might mean. At one point he writes, “Monotheistic religions are famously intolerant of apostasy, even when they disagree about what constitutes it.” Here he hit the flea on the head. “I doesn’t know what it be, but I’m ag’in it.” This attitude of religions has long been the motivation behind massive campaigns of bloodshed and intolerance. Often in the name of religions that claim peace and tolerance as the highest goods. So it was in the early church; heretics were routinely martyred for their “wrong” belief.

Not to throw in a spoiler, but the first great wave of the Plague does nearly draw an end to the ailing Roman Empire. Justinian’s expansions were mere band-aids trying to hold together a Frankenstein’s monster of many nationalities. So riding home on the bus I was surprised first of all that the driver engaged a passenger in conversation (generally frowned upon) and second of all, that he ranted for many miles about politics. It isn’t very comforting in the stressful traffic around New York City to hear your bus driver cry out, “the Roman Empire collapsed—maybe it’s time America did as well!” The prospects of getting home seldom looked dimmer. And I had just been reading about that very empire’s last days. I try to stay away from predictions because I dislike being proven wrong—the end of the story hasn’t been written yet. Rosen, however, has given us a great cautionary tale; if the humble flea can help bring down the world’s mightiest empire—one ruled by a leader overwhelmingly concerned with religion—maybe it’s time to canvass what the infidels like to take in their coffee.