Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's Christmas, let's write dumb and pointless things about Jesus!  Valerie Taricot (who else?) obliges with the empty insights!

Cropped hair, not long. Jewish men at the time of Christ did not typically wear their hair long. A Roman triumphal arch of the time period depicts Jewish slaves with short hair. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses male hair length. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” (1 Corinthians 11:14 NRSV). During the 1960’s conservative Christians quoted this verse to express their disgust against the hippy movement and to label it as anti-Christian.

Yeah, probably.  It's a cinch Jesus didn't look like this:

I used to tell people, back when they knew who I meant (it's hell getting old!) that Jesus probably looked like Yassir Arafat.  Certainly not like a white guy with a high forehead and long, curly locks.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Married, not single. In 2012, when an ancient papyrus scrap came to light referring to the wife of Jesus (most likely a forgery), some Catholics and Evangelicals were scandalized at the very thought. But unlike the Catholic Church, Jews have no tradition of celibacy among religious leaders. Ancient writers documented exceptions like the Apostle Paul or the Essene sect precisely because they violated the norm. In the Gospels, Jesus is called rabbi; and all great rabbis that we know of were married.  A rabbi being celibate would have been so unusual that some modern writers have argued that Jesus must have been gay. But a number of ancient texts, including the canonical New Testament, point to a special relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. For example, the non-canonical Gospel of Phillip says, “[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [word missing].”

Heard this before, and:  "Nope."  The argument that Jesus was ever called "rabbi" is strictly from the Gospel of John, where the term is used.  Problem is, rabbis didn't become a distinct class of Jews until after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and the end of Jewish temple worship (which petered out slowly, not on Jan. 1 (no, there wasn't one in 71 C.E., but work with me here!) 71 C.E.  John's reference, for an audience in the 2nd century, was an anachronism for an itinerant preacher from the early 1st century.  For reference, Jesus was dead by circa 35 C.E., long before the Temple was defiled and Temple worship began to fall (and modern Judaism arise).  John's gospel was written in the early 2nd century, long after the Temple fell.  As for the historical Jesus, being an itinerant is the more established fact of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (and I didn't say "established,"  I said "more established"), so it's doubtful he had a wife wandering around after him.  References to Mary Magdalene and Jesus are all distinct retrojections derived from Luke 7:36-50.  You could look it up.  Not, in other words, an historically sound conjecture at all.

Hung on a pole, not necessarily a cross. For centuries scholars have known that the Greek New Testament word “stauros,” which gets translated into English as cross, can refer to a device of several shapes, commonly a single upright pole, “torture stake” or even tree. The Romans did not have a standard way of crucifying prisoners, and Josephus tells us that during the siege of Jerusalem soldiers nailed or tied their victims in a variety of positions. Early Christians may have centered in on the vertical pole with a crossbeam because it echoed the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of life,  or simply because it was more artistically and symbolically distinctive than the alternatives. Imagine millions of people wearing a golden pole on a chain around their necks.

No, not really.  "in our lit. of the instrument by which the capital punishment of crucifixion was carried out.....a stake sunk in the earth in an upright position; a cross-piece was oft attached to its upper part, so that is was shaped like a "T" or [a cross]."  That's from the definition of stauros in Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, the go-to resource for the language and literature of the Christian scriptures.  I've read three books by Dom Crossan and reviewed the Scholar's Version translation of the gospels by the Jesus Seminar.  Crossan doesn't even think Jesus was buried in a tomb, but more likely was tossed in a shallow pit like most Roman political prisoners.  Yet I've never heard this idea that stauros more likely means a pole (Festivus!) than a cross.  I'm sticking with the Biblical scholars and tradition on this one.

The ankh idea is entirely fanciful; another pseudo-Puritan argument that symbols from the Catholic church were derived from "heathen" practices.  Again, you could look it up, especially at Christmas (which the Puritans outlawed, on the same grounds).  You think I exaggerate, but I have a friend in the ministry who is of distinctive New England Congregational stock.  He told me proudly how his "meeting house" (modeled on one in New England, but here in Texas) could be used for Jewish worship simply by removing the hymnals from the pews, which had a cross on them (and it was used by a synagogue).  Anitpathy, weak or strong, against "heathen symbols," runs deep; no doubt Taricot picked it up from her evangelical upbringing.  Then again, a lot of on-line atheists think they are skeptical and modern when they repeat talking points that were old when Cotton Mather mouthed them.  As for wearing gold poles around our necks, 1st century Christians would be equally perplexed by our crosses.  Mostly they preferred fish.

Short, not tall. The typical Jewish man at the time of the Roman Empire was just over five feet tall, which makes this a best guess for the height of Jesus. That he is typically depicted taller likely derives from the mental challenge people have in distinguishing physical stature from other kinds of stature. Great men are called “big men” and “larger than life.” In ancient times they often were assigned divine parentage and miraculous births, and the idea that Jesus was uniquely divine has created a strong pull over time to depict him as taller than is likely. A good illustration of this is the Shroud of Turin, which is just one of many such Jesus-shrouds that circulated during medieval times and which bears the (now reproduced) image of a man closer to six feet in height.

Well, probably; but again, setting the Shroud of Turin aside:  who cares?

Born in a house, not the stable of an inn. The miraculous birth story of Jesus is a late, maybe 2nd century addition to the gospels, and consequently it contains many fascinating mythic elements and peculiarities. But the idea that Jesus was born in a stable got added to the Christmas story even later. In the original narrative, Joseph and Mary probably would have stayed with relatives, and the phrase “no room for them in the inn (gr: kataluma)” is better translated “no room for them in the upper room.” Later storytellers did not understand that people of the time might bring animals into their ground floor, as in Swiss housebarns, and they assumed that the presence of a manger implied a stable.

This one I actually agree with; and it is a misreading of Luke to imagine Jesus' parents were banished to a barn for the night.  A gross insult on the famed hospitality of 1st century Palestine, too.

Named Joshua, not Jesus. The name Joshua (in Hebrew Y’hoshuʿa meaning “deliverance” or “salvation”), was common among Jews in the Ancient Near East as it is today. Joshua and Jesus are the same name, but are translated differently in our modern Bible to distinguish Jesus from the Joshua of the Old Testament, who leads the Hebrew people to the Promised Land. In actuality, though, the relationship between the two figures is fascinating and important. Some scholars believe that the New Testament gospels are mostly updated retellings of the more ancient Joshua story, remixed with episodes  from stories of Elisha and Elijah and Moses. A modern parallel can be found in the way that Hollywood writers have reworked Shakespearean tropes and plot elements into dozens of modern movies (though for a very different purpose).

Jesus is the transliteration into Greek of the Hebraic "Joshua."  So?  And yeah, some scholars believe all kinds of nonsense.  It's what makes scholarly horse-races.  Or keeps the literary school of Northrop Frye alive (fugeddaboutit!)

Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history. Whether Jesus had 12 disciples who ranked above his other devotees is an open question, as their names vary from list to list. Since the Gospels echo the story of Joshua, the “12” apostles most immediately mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. But the number 12 was considered auspicious by many ancient people, including the Israelites, and the 189 repetitions of the number 12 in the Bible ultimately may derive from the same pre-historical roots as the 12 signs of the zodiac and 12 months of the year. Astrotheology or star worship preceded the Hebrew religion, and shaped both the Bible and Western religions more broadly. One might point to the 12 Olympian gods or 12 sons of Odin, or the 12 days of Christmas or 12 “legitimate” successors to the prophet Mohammed.

"May" is the key word in that paragraph; "may," but probably doesn't.  Stick with the 12 tribes explanation.
Prophecies recalled, not foretold. Even people who aren’t too sure about the divinity of Jesus sometimes think that the way he fulfilled prophecies was a bit spooky, like the writings of Nostradamus. In reality, Scooby Doo could solve this one in a single episode with four pieces of information: First, Old Testament prophecies were well known to 1st century Jews, and a messianic figure who wanted to fulfill some of these prophecies could simply do so. For example, in the book of Matthew, Jesus seeks a donkey to ride into Jerusalem “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 21:4). Second, “gospels” are a genre of devotional literature rather than objective histories, which means that the authors had every reason to shape their stories around earlier predictions. Third, scholars now believe that some Bible texts once thought to be prophecies (for example in the Book of Revelation) actually relate to events that were past or current at the time of writing. Finally, a psychological phenomenon known as the “Barnum Effect” ensures that those who want to believe in prophecies (or astrology, for that matter) will find amazing coincidences if they look hard enough.

Well, yeah; that's one of the safeguards against reading the Hebrew Scriptures as mere prelude to the Christian ones.  First thing my OT professor told us on the first day of class.  It is important to regard the Hebrew Scriptures on their own terms, not as merely window dressing for the prophecies made popular again this time of year.  Alternatively, the "prophecies" were not so well known in 1st century Palestine as Taricot assumes (nor do I assume Jesus actually rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people.  A wandering preacher from a hick backwater like Judea in the city of Jerusalem?  Who would even notice, especially at Passover?).  Literacy was not widespread, and knowledge of scripture would come from Temple worship, not from Sunday school or weekly Bible study.  The teachings of Scripture as applied to daily life were known; but the expectations of a Messiah were probably not the common currency of life among the descendants of Abraham in Palestine, any more than they are today.

Some Jesus quotes not from Jesus, others uncertain. Lists of favorite Jesus sayings abound online. Some of the most popular are the Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, etc.) or the story of the woman caught in adultery (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which, we are told, sums up the Law and the Prophets.) Which words actually from Jesus? This question has been debated fiercely by everyone from 3rd century Catholic Councils to the 20th Century Jesus Seminar. Even Thomas Jefferson weighed in, but much remains unclear. The New Testament Gospels were written long after Jesus would have died, and no technology existed with which to record his teachings in real time, unless a he wrote them down himself, which he didn’t. We can be confident that at least some of the wise and timeless words and catchy proverbs attributed to Jesus are actually from earlier or later thinkers. For example, the Golden Rule was articulated before the time of Christ by the Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who similarly said it was the “whole Torah.” By contrast, the much loved story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t appear in manuscripts until the 4th century. Attributing words (or whole texts) to a famous person was common in the Ancient Near East, because it gave those words extra weight. Small wonder, then, that so many genuinely valuable insights ended up, in one way or another, paired with the name of Jesus.

Again, welcome to the cutting edge of 19th century Biblical scholarship.  I haven't checked to see if the story from John is really only known after the 4th century, but simply the footnotes in the Scholar's Version translation (by the Jesus Seminar) make me very, very dubious that the story is 2 centuries older than the gospel itself.  What's interesting is that she doesn't pick on "This is my body, broken for you.  Take, eat; do this in remembrance of me."  My NT professor said they spent a whole graduate seminar trying to find a corollary or even a similar statement anywhere in the known ancient world literature, and couldn't.  Actually, standing by itself absent the eucharistic theologies of the last 2000 years, it's an extremely puzzling statement, and entirely sui generis.  Just sayin'.....

And she doesn't even mention the salient seasonal fact that Matthew's gospel has the magi, Luke's the shepherds and angels, and never the two do mix; except in our nativity scenes and Christmas stories and imagination.  Oh, well; same as it ever was.


  1. Valerie Taricot has peddled essentially the same piece just about every year since I first noticed her.

    I'm kind of surprised they're still peddling that "wife of Jesus" snippet which even the scholar who tried to sell it has admitted, after rigorous analysis of it, that it's an even more obvious forgery than the Shroud of Turin. As I recall it there were scholars who warned her that it wasn't even a very skillful forgery. I can't recall the journalist who tracked down the probable forger, a really dodgy German guy who ended up in Florida engaged in various sleazy enterprises. Though, considering Taricot's MO, it's not surprising.

    I'd say that at Rawstory but they banned me when I got too factual about some other atheist piece they posted. I've come to believe that atheism is a good warning sign of phony-leftiness, the kind who do more damage to progress than the nothing they do for it.

  2. They are extremely conservative and narrow minded about what they want everyone else to think.