Son of God

31 January, 2010

yahwehnameOne of the claims that is very explicit in the New Testament is that Jesus is the Son of God. Moreover he is God himself. Apologists have noted that this idea would be utterly unthinkable in the Jewish context of Jesus’ life. No Jew could hear this without thinking it blasphemy, and so those that turned to this new idea would have to have been convinced by something extraordinary. The only thing that could be so extraordinary would be that Jesus was in fact God. Others took a different view. Rationalists of the 19th century all the way through to characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have posited that Jesus himself was just a normal human, preaching a message of love and tolerance (and happily ignoring the end-times apocalyptic quotes of Jesus). They think that the son of God idea came from the neighbouring Hellenistic cultures. After all, gods, demi-gods,  cult heroes, saviours born of virgins and so on were common place in the Greek world. As Christianity expanded it is natural that the new converts would start to include their own pre-held beliefs in their liturgy and rituals and eventually their theologies as well.

But it wasn’t just the Greeks who had the idea of Sons of Gods. The Jews themselves were once polytheistic and even by the time of the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) they had not entirely come round to pure monotheism. Just as future Christians would read back into the early churches their own brand of Christianity, so too did the Rabbinic Judaism formed in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem read its own monotheism right back to the beginning of their history. They were certainly correct that a form of monotheism had been the mainstay (or at minimum a very powerful force) of Judaism since at least the Exile in the sixth century BCE. The Deuteronomists give us vivid descriptions of the overturning of the pagan rituals that were performed in Judah just prior to the Exile. Sacred groves to Asherah, the wife of Yahweh were burned and statues removed from the Temple. Although portrayed as removing foreign influences it is clear that these were natives beliefs that were being challenged and changed. Despite the reformers best efforts the belief in multiple deities continued. The high god, El-Elyon and his son Yahweh, were separate beings for many Jews.

In addition to snippets of old belief the remain in the Old Testament we also have evidence of what other groups of Jews believed around the time of the emergence of Christianity. The writings discovered at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveal a more complicated picture of Judaism than some imagined. The writings of the Alexandrian Jew Philo show a theology that is perfectly content with a second God: the Logos – the son of the All Mighty. Jewish Gnostic writings are replete with descriptions of the angels, the sons of the God Most High. The argument that no Jew would ever tolerate the idea of someone being the son of God is manifestly false.

An interesting aspect of the title ‘Son of God’ within the Old Testament is that it can refer to different kinds of beings. The word translated to God was sometimes El (the High God) and sometimes Yahweh (God of Israel). The phrase Son of El was always used to describe heavenly beings, recognised as either Gods or Angels. Whenever the phrase is Son of Yahweh it refers to human beings (or sometimes the population of Israel). Most often this is done in the case of the King, he is made the son of Yahweh in a ceremony, the words of which are also used on Jesus when he is baptised. Does this imply Jesus was seen as the new King? Not at all. In each case where he is referred to as the Son of God he is the Son of El Elyon. Jesus was no mere mortal, he was an angelic being, a divine god. And which god? Over and over he is called Lord, the same translation into the greek that is used for Yahweh himself. Jesus was Yahweh. His very name means Yahweh Saves (or Yahweh is Salvation) and he is referring to himself. There was no need for centuries to pass and for legends and more impressive credentials to accrue to Jesus, it was there from the start. The stories of Jesus are the stories of Yahweh, returned to the world and ready to end it, all in preparation for a new world that never came.

Nazareth and Bethlehem

18 December, 2008

nazarethOut of the four gospels in the New Testament only two of them have any detail on the birth of Jesus. Each story, the one in Matthew and the one in Luke, are quite different but contain the authors attempts to explain two bits of information. The first is that the Messiah (the anointed one) would be born in Bethlehem. The second is that Jesus was known as Jesus the Nazareon/Nazarene/Nazerite. The author of Matthew takes the view that the family have always lived in Bethlehem, and then they have to flee when an evil king attempts to kill all the young children in the land. They finally end up in the town of Nazareth. The author of Luke takes a different approach. He postulates that the family originally came from Nazareth but were forced by the Romans to visit Bethlehem where the birth took place. So why did the authors feel the need to create stories about these two facts? One possibility is of course that there was a historical Jesus and people knew that he had been born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. But there are other possibilities too.

Bethlehem was known for being the birthplace of the Israelite hero King David. The monarchy that ruled Judah for hundreds of years claimed descent from David and euphemisms were used to describe people who were part of this family. Of the Root of Jesse (David’s father) was one, and Born of Bethlehem was another. After the fall of Judah many prophecies were made about the return of a King of Judah and it was expected that it would be a member of the royal household who would take up the reign. And so the prophecies predicted that the Messiah (the anointed one, or King) would be of the Root of Jesse, or Born of Bethlehem. So when Jesus was declared the Messiah some thought it necessary to show his credentials. Both Matthew and Luke give long (differing) genealogies to show how Jesus was literally descended from King David. But they also both took the idea of being Born of Bethlehem literally and placed his birth in that city.

This brought up a problem though. Jesus was supposed to have lived in Nazareth. Or was he? Nazareth had existed in ancient times but had been abandoned for many years by the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. It was only repopulated around the middle of the first century, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection were placed. So why did people think he lived there? It could have something to do with the name, Jesus was known as a Nazorene, which could mean someone for a particular Jewish sect. In modern terms it would be like saying Jesus the Methodist, or Jesus the Sunni. As the incarnation of God Almighty it seemed strange to later generations that Jesus would be from a particular sect. And so the solution was to place his hometown as Nazareth thereby changing Jesus the Nazarene to Jesus of Nazareth and allowing him to be sectless and someone everyone could worship.

Ideas about Jesus were varied from the get go, and the gospel authors attempts to explain these ideas were often as varied as people’s attempts to reconstruct the early church and Jesus’ life today.

The Levites

10 April, 2008

Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.

Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.

The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.

In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.

But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.

Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.

But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.

Sacrifice of IsaacThe story of the Sacrifice of Isaac is one which has resonated throughout the ages. Despite being only a few paragraphs in Genesis it has raised many questions about faith, obedience and moral behaviour. Starting with the text itself, the main body of it is from the E source, while the section describing the Angel of Yahweh is from a later redaction. This raises the question of whether in the original story Abraham actually carried out the sacrifice of his son. Certainly in the E stories no more mention is made of Isaac after this one, and the E text states that Abraham “did this thing” and “didn’t withhold” his son. Clues perhaps that he did stick the knife in after all. The later redactor makes it clear that child sacrifice is not something that their god requires. This could be a story (priestcraft) explaining why a long held practice should no longer be carried out. The priests did not want people to sacrifice their children and so stated that even should you want to, Yahweh will accept a sheep instead. It isn’t clear how widespread the practice of child sacrifice was in the ancient world, at the stage this story was redacted though, child sacrifice was not something that the Israelites supported. Their condemnation indicates that it was something that people were familiar with though.

Later scholars of the Talmud, including Josephus who wrote a history of the Jews in the first century CE, claimed that Isaac was a grown man in this story. There is no indication in the text itself of what age Isaac is meant to be, only that he is old enough to talk. If he was a grown man then in adds another dimension to the story, not only was Abraham being tested but Isaac was as well. Only as a child would Abraham be able to forcibly tie him to the altar, if he was an adult then he must have succumbed willingly. To me this is reaching a bit far with what we have. The only source for working out Isaac’s age is the next chapter where it talks of his mother’s age at the time of her death, but there is no indication that this happened immediately after Genesis 22. Since the narrative before Gen 22 has Isaac still as a child, he could be any age you want him to be.

The character of Abraham who by faith alone is willing to commit a monstrous act is seen in different lights by people looking at this story today. To many it is appalling, an example of “to make good people do evil it takes religion”. Indeed were we to picture anyone today doing as Abraham did we would probably try to lock them away for their own good. What good is faith if it leads to doing evil things? In the Epistle to the Hebrews (in the New Testament) it states “By faith, Abraham being tested, offered up Isaac … he reasoned that God was capable even of raising the dead”. The argument is that since Abraham has already been promised that his descendants will multiply, then God cannot possibly let his only child die. This ignores Ishmael, but even so, does this not then challenge the idea of faith alone? This is faith that God will *not* let his son die forever, rather than faith that he should do something which he cannot understand.

As an aside it brings into question the idea of what a sacrifice is for if it is temporary. If Abraham knew that his son would not really die, how much more would God/Jesus know that he would not die for any length of time either. Would Jesus need faith?

The philosopher Kierkegaard wrestled with this idea of faith and ascribes a higher level of faith to Abraham – that of trust based on the strength of the absurd. It is Abraham’s faith that God will not let Isaac die which prevents him from being a murderer. But who can imagine what Abraham was thinking as he proceeded to attempt to kill his own son. Did he truly believe that God would not let him, was this the faith he had? In Dan Simmon’s Hyperion books, one of the characters realises that it wasn’t Abraham who was being tested by God, but that God was being tested by Abraham. If God had allowed the sacrifice then he surely wouldn’t be a God worthy of worship.

To me the idea of using this story to teach about real world faith falls apart with the start where God tells Abraham what to do. In the stories it has been established that God and Abraham have had a lot of little chats, they’re on first name terms, so Abraham is sure of what God wants. Does anyone today believe that they understand the will of their god so completely and assuredly? Even if you have faith that your god will not let you do something so terrible, can you be sure that it is your god that you are following? I would argue that anyone who doesn’t have doubts about that is exceptionally immoral, but thankfully child sacrifice is rare enough these days. In any case, this little story in the bible is certainly a great one for bringing up the dilemmas and conundrums inherent in faith.

The Dark Side Of Myth

15 March, 2008

masks2After the fall of Mycenaean civilisation there was a dark age across Greece. The writing that was used in the great Palaces of Mycenae and Pylos disappeared from the archaeological record, never to return. Oral tradition and bardic entertainers kept the stories of this heroic age in the minds of the Greeks. The fall of Troy, the interactions of the gods, all were spoken of, none were written. After hundreds of years spent in this ‘dark age’ writing once again came to Greece. This time is was based on the Phoenician alphabet and it would last until the present day. Now the stories of the bards were committed to tablets, written down and stored.

The most famous of these were the Iliad and the Odyssey, telling stories set around the Trojan War. At the same time the Theogony was written, a poem describing the origins of the gods. These tales were full of descriptions of how to serve the gods, and how a hero should act. The Theogony explained why it was that when an animal was sacrificed, the humans got the best parts of the animal and the worst parts were burned in offering to the gods. There was no sacred text book as a foundation for the religion of the Greeks, but these books served a similar purpose, showing how the religion was to be carried out.

The bardic tradition continued. The myths were told again and again, and with variations depending on the audience, or where the tale-teller was from. The myths were well known by everyone and could be used as a shorthand to reach deeper understandings. Around 500 BCE these myths were used in a new form of entertainment – the theatre. Dramas were written and performed at competitions in great festivals. The competition was fierce and the subject matter had to impact those watching. The playwrights used the ancient myths and turned them around to look at their dark side.

The story of Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece was well known. During his voyages he received help from Medea, a barbarian girl who fell in love with Jason. After saving his life many times he brought her back home with him. After that there are several different endings to the tale, but the Playwright Euripides told the version that became the most famous. On arriving back in Greece, Jason was offered the hand of a princess in marriage. Knowing that she would bring him great wealth he accepted the offer, much to the horror of Medea who by this time had borne Jason two sons. Using poison she killed the princess and her father the King. Then she went further and killed her own two sons before fleeing Jason leaving him with nothing. It is a dark tale and although the play is based upon the Jason myth there are no daring sword fights, no miraculous rescues by the gods, and no fantastical wonders. It is the other side of the myth, exploring different subjects than the earlier bards did.

Many of the plays were written as a sort of thought experiment. Just as a science fiction writer today will take an idea and extrapolate it to see what the world could be like, so too did the ancients take ideas and stretch them to breaking point. And as when people discuss crime and law today and someone comes up with a “but what would you do in this extreme case?” argument, so too did the ancient playwrights think about how the law and society would react given events that were stretched beyond the norm.

Agamemnon was a heroic figure in the Iliad. Headstrong, arrogant, but noble. After the war he was murdered by his wife. Her motives vary according to different versions of the tale. In some she was seeking vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter. In others it was because he had brought back Cassandra from Troy as a concubine. In yet more it was because she was an adulteress and was fearful of being caught. In any case, it fell to Agamemnon’s son Orestes to avenge him. But what was he to do? If he avenged his father he would have to kill his mother. If he did nothing, then he would allow the murderer of his father to go free. He was stuck with an appalling choice.

Orestes chooses to avenge Agamemnon’s death, and in the plays of Aeschylus this whole story is told. It ends with the trial of Orestes for killing his mother, and here it is most clear that this is a thought experiment. It was a way of looking at the current issues that were facing the Athenians as they watched this play, but told through the common myths of their time. By using this shorthand, by basing the plot of their play on a well known story, the playwrights allowed themselves to explore many issues without losing their audience. In turn they have brought these dark stories into our own modern views of the originals. Just as the Romans incorporated the plays into any summaries of the ancient legends, so do we do the same today. An ancient look at the dark side of myth has left us with better rounded stories showing all sides of the human condition.

The Rationalists

5 February, 2008

Chariots of fireIn the nineteenth century a group of protestant literalists decided to have another look at the bible they read every Sunday. These people were rationalists, they didn’t believe that their God would create a world that worked by laws and then break those laws whenever he saw fit. No, their God was one who created the laws of nature and could carry out his divine plan within those very laws. When they turned to the bible they had a bit of a problem. There are many tales of supernatural events. People rose from the dead at an alarming rate in some parts of the New Testament. Walking on water, floating in the clouds, mass healings and so on. But rather than treat these tales as folklore these literalists instead set about to explain how these events had actually happened, but that the writers had not understood what was really going on.

So for instance, they adopted the ‘Swoon Theory’ of Jesus’ Crucifixion. Jesus really did get crucified. He was taken down, and sometime later his tomb was empty and he was seen chatting to his disciples. The explanation is obvious – Jesus didn’t really die, he just came so close that people thought he was dead. When Jesus was seen to be walking on water it was an optical illusion, similar to one that Jim Jones manufactured to help convince his followers that he was divine. For each biblical oddness they tried to come up with a rational explanation for what it could be. The one explanation they made sure to leave out was that the event didn’t happen and was just a story. These were pious people who wanted to be rational, and have their bible still tell true tales.

Others have taken up this goal of demythologising ancient stories. Instead of using prosaic explanations though, they turned to science fiction. Elijah seeing a fiery chariot is taken by some modern day rationalists to be a description of an alien spaceship. These same people see aliens as having created the pyramids, as having influenced the Olmecs and the Maya. After all, if aliens are abducting people today and doing weird anal probes, couldn’t they have been doing this throughout history? Was Gabriel visiting Mary just a garbled account of an alien abduction and X-files like breeding experiment? All sorts of stories are told about demi-gods with amazing powers, and the gods themselves live in the sky… In effect this line of thinking is similar to the protestant rationalists who wanted to keep the truth of the stories but see them through a different lens. In this case it is a lens where aliens visit us today and throughout history. It makes for a nice story (c.f. Stargate), but again suffers from the literal interpretation.

There were some other rationalists a long time ago. These were the writers of much of the early Hebrew bible. They worked slightly differently, for they kept in much that was miraculous or supernatural. Instead they changed many of the Gods that were worshipped into lesser beings, in some cases into Angels, in others into mortal men. Moses, Seth, Joshua, Adam, Samson. All of these mortal men were at one point or another seen as Gods or Angels, or, at least the stories that went with them were ones that were at some times associated with Gods. The redactors of the bible knew from their rationalist perspective that there was only one God, and so they explained the miraculous occurrences as being derived all from the one God Yahweh. The powers of Samson were not because he was a Sun God, but because he was favoured of Yahweh. The Greeks tried this too. Herodotus tried to calculate when Hercules lived, sorting through the conflicting information to place this mythological story into history.

Many have tried this, indeed sometimes it is a worthwhile goal. But as the alien-spaceship theory, and the ‘optical illusion’ theory show, these aren’t particularly robust explanations. Sometimes a story is just a story.

The Real Story

13 January, 2008

SupermanThe mythological stories that I put up on this blog are my interpretations of traditional tales. One of the appealing attributes of myths is that every single version of a tale has been defined by decisions about what is important to the overall story. Unlike a novel which generally has one author, myths don’t have a definitive version. The sands shift beneath our feet when we try and look at the ‘true version’ or the ‘real story’ at the root of a myth. Some examples will show the difficulty in being certain about these stories.

The death of Agamemnon is related in the Odyssey. Telemachus has journeyed to the court of Menelaus and Helen of Troy in order to find out if Menelaus has any word of his father Odysseus. While there Menelaus relates what happened after the fall of Troy and includes the story of Agamemnon’s return home. While away at the war Agamemnon’s wife had conducted an affair with Aegisthus, and when Agamemnon arrived back he was slaughtered, along with his followers, by this cruel and cunning Aegisthus. When Menelaus relates this tale he talks of the nobility of Agamemnon and the cruelty of the adulterer Aegisthus. And yet although this seems to be the oldest version of the story, it is not the most famous. Pindar, a Greek poet, wrote of how Agamemnon was killed in his bath by his wife. He had returned from Troy with the seer Cassandra and jealousy drove his wife to stab him to death while he bathed. Or perhaps it was retribution since in some stories Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter. Any tale of Agamemnon cannot possibly have all versions and so one must be chosen that suits the rest of the tale that is being told.

Superman flies. It’s iconic, he wouldn’t be Superman if he couldn’t woosh into the air, or hover in the background with his cape billowing. And yet in the early stories he was only able to leap over buildings in a single bound. Super jumping is not quite the same as flying. If you were to tell the myth of Superman would you include the fact he can fly? It is so ingrained in the idea of him now that it would be strange not to include it except to make the point that originally he was more of a human flea! In the early stories the planet Krypton is “so far advanced in evolution that it bears a race of superman”. In other stories the people of Krypton were normal and only when exposed to the Earth’s sun did Superman become, well, super. The evolution of the Superman myth, from powerful human to demigod has fascinating parallels in another set of stories.

Just as the Christmas story differs between the four canonical Gospels, so too do other aspects of Jesus’ story. In particular the accounts of the resurrection are quite different even amongst the synoptic gospels, showing evidence that they are later additions to the core of the story that all three synoptic gospels share. When asked then to get to the truth of the Jesus story then, should you use Matthew and have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two donkeys? And the hordes of zombie saints that rose from the dead on the same day as Jesus rose from the dead? Or should you use Mark and end the story with some women finding the empty tomb and then not telling anybody about it which is why nobody to this day has ever heard that Jesus rose from the dead?

Anytime someone makes an effort to come up with a definitive version of a myth they must pick and choose which bits they want to keep in and (as important) which bits to leave out. Whether for theological reasons or to make a story more consistent, people have been retelling myths for as long as there have been stories, subtly changing them to keep them up to date, re-looking at old ideas and always inevitably adding a little something to the myth. Although I try not to add anything to the stories I relate in this blog, and that all the core ideas are from (usually written) sources it is inevitable that they will end up being something new. At the least they will hopefully be a new lens to look at old ideas.