Friday, March 30, 2012

Scaling Apocalyptic Heights


Mountains have always had a special aura in the human mind. They are huge, challenging, closer to heaven and inspiring.  There’s Mt. Sinai, where God supposedly spoke to Moses; Mt. Olympus (left), the home of Greek gods; Mt. Fuji, the sacred Japanese mount; Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa; Mt. Everest; Mt. Rushmore; the Alps; the Andes; the Rockies; and so on.   Maybe the clouds surrounding the peaks like halos, shielding the top from view, gives them that special aura. 

Now, there’s a new mountain to add to the sainted mix: Pic de Bugarach in France.  It may be the most mysterious of all of them.

You may never have heard of it.  After all, Bugarach (right) is just 4,000 feet high – not even among the top 100 world’s tallest mountains -- and located in the equally unfamiliar Corbières Mountains in one of the poorest and least populated parts of France.  This was an area hikers traditionally visited in an effort to get away from everything. 

These days, however, they have to find somewhere else to walk.  Bugarach has attracted a lot of attention from deluded doomsday cults expecting the world will end on Dec. 12, 2012.  Some of them believe, for no apparent reason, that only people living in the small village at the base of the mountain will survive the coming Gotterdammerung.

“The apocalypse we believe in is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another, a new spiritual world,” a former teacher now living in a tent outside the village told reporters. “The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering,” Jean said. Bugarach is “one of the major chakras of the Earth, a place devoted to welcome the energies of tomorrow.”

Bugarach has actually attracted bizarre attention in the past because of its unusual shape.   Soon after the mountain was uplifted, geologists have determined, “it exploded, and the top landed upside-down. “  The strange appearance gave it something of a sacred tag from people with little else to do but to identify odd places as sacred.

One recurring theme is that the mountain houses aliens. “We all know that aliens are there for thousands of years,” said Paul Ponssot, the owner of a Paris-based bookstore specializing in esoteric literature. “They may be the forces who will help us get through 2012.”

The 200 or so local residents have never seen anything unusual, except an occasional pilgrim, but they probably lack the deep insight and clear vision that religious fanatics always bring to a situation.

Mayor Jean-Pierre Delord (left) said that some 20,000 people have already flocked to the place to set up camp and perform religious rituals.   "They think Pic de Bugarach is 'un garage à ovnis' [an alien garage]," he told reporters.  "The villagers are exasperated: the exaggerated importance of something which they see as completely removed from reality is bewildering.”

Removed from reality?  Not the American Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which has taken up campsites in the area.  Members espouse the teachings of Ramtha, an ancient warrior who, they claim, “battled the residents of Atlantis more than 35,000 years ago and discovered the secret to immortality.” 

How much closer to reality can you get?

Atlantis, the mythical nation described by Plato as having been destroyed around 12,000 B.C.E., gets entwined in the French mountains because, according to very tall tales, a few survivors of the catastrophe moved there and set up their civilization underground.

They have some lightweight company.  Early Celtics, those paragons of logic whose ideas have animated Christmas, thought that the mountain served as a doorway to the realm of ancient Tinkerbells.  The fairies could be neighborly because, in these stories, Pic de Bugarach has a hollow core.  That idea generated a lot of thoughts in fertile minds. 

For example, 1800s English author Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (right) -- best known for the line: “It was a dark and stormy night” – once described the people of the underground who would emerge to make us all slaves.  That’s slightly better than being annihilated during Armageddon, I guess.

Captivated by the idea that some secret world hides under the mountain, French author Jules Verne also liked Bugarach and referred to the site in some of his novels, as did many other famed French writers such as Maurice Leblanc, Gaston Leroux and George Sand.

Unfortunately, the mountain is not hollow.  It’s solid limestone, like lots of mountains, with an occasional cave to boost the imagination.  Besides, lots of French mountains are supposedly hollow, including High Loire (Pradelles), Ariège (Miglos), the Pilat (Annonay), the Ardeche (St Pierreville) the Maritime Alps (Falicon), Provence (Clansaye, Baux of Provence), according to a lengthy report on Bugarach.

All those places are quite solid, too, but are also home to stories about poor souls who wandered into a secret cave and either disappeared or stumbled over a strange village buried beneath the earth.

The folks settling down at Bugarach are in good company.  They are doing something else that’s pretty familiar around the world, too, especially when it comes to the possible end of the world – making a mountain out of a molehill.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shroud of Turin Can't Mask Reality


The Shroud of Turin, which supposedly contains the image of Jesus magically superimposed there during his resurrection,  is back in the news.  An English art historian has written a book about it, claiming that the revered little piece of cloth housed in Italy somehow is responsible for Christianity.  “It was encounters with the Shroud itself, rather than seeing a risen Christ, that convinced the apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead,” according to the breathless news announcement.

The author told the media that “back then, images had a psychological presence.  They were seen as part of a separate plain of existence, as having a life of their own.  The Shroud's envelopment of Jesus's body would have fostered the idea of the transference of his soul from flesh to cloth... Christ's clothing (like Peter's shadow) contained or conveyed something of his spiritual presence. The Shroud, which clothed Jesus in the tomb, would surely have been infused with similar power -- a power focused and increased by its ‘miraculous’ image."

That, of course, requires that the Shroud existed “back then,” at the time of Jesus.  It didn’t.  Multiple studies using carbon 14 have shown the cloth dates from the 1300s.  The actual image has been reproduced using known techniques of that time period.  The Shroud was unknown before then, and a bishop of the time reports knowing who created it.

More importantly, it did not lie on anyone’s body.  If it had, the image would have been distorted.  That’s what happens when any cloth is placed across a face.  The image on the Shroud is not distorted in anyway.  It’s a mirror image – albeit faint – and had to be man-made. 

That’s not the main point, however.  The question is why such claims keep arising.  In this case, one reason is obvious: the author wants to promote his book, imitating Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code in 2003.  Brown did not care if the story that Jesus survived crucifixion was true; he just wanted to sell novels.  So does this guy. 

The main reason is more significant than a few dollars: people want to believe something because there’s no extant evidence to support Christian religious views.  No historians of Jesus’ day knew about him.  No one wrote about him.  No official Roman record mentions him.

There’s an abysmal void.  As Albert Schweitzer noted (right) in his 1906 iconic book The Quest for the Historical Jesus, authors of the Gospels were more influenced by their beliefs than by any historical interest.  As such, he said, New Testament could not serve as a valid historical source. Nothing is more discouraging than examining the Bible from an historical perspective, Schweitzer concluded.

One solution to the lack of credible historical data has been to dig up the Holy Land looking for proof.  All that has done is contradict biblical accounts.  Matthew contains a mention of a road that Jesus traveled, but which actually didn’t exist 2,000 years ago.  Matthew also has Jesus travel in the wrong direction to a destination.  Luke sends pigs hurtling off a high cliff that doesn’t exist.  The traditional site of the crucifixion actually is not on Roman soil. The list is endless.

Nothing has ever been found that confirms a single religious claim in the New Testament. 

That led to the second solution: fabricated relics.  That was a cottage industry in the late 1800s in France.  One creation, a death certificate for Jesus, was brought to my class.  It was obviously a fake, including as a witness the first Capetian king (left) who lived about 900 years after Jesus.

The Shroud falls into that category, created in a time when limited education mandated by the ruling Church guaranteed a credulous population.  So does the carved ossuary of our time, which bears the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  An Israeli court is deciding if the bone box (below) is authentic.  Most scholars have already decided it isn’t.
 
They are also convinced that the same antique dealer responsible for the ossuary fabricated other “holy” relics, including an inscribed pomegranate and the gold-flecked Jehoash tablet, both of which supposedly came from Solomon's Temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E.

The discovery of the faked religious artifacts has created a severe backlash among true believers.  "The faithful — those who believe in a higher, supernatural power that leaves a material record of itself for man to literally hold and behold — must also confront and grapple with the painful presence of doubt,” wrote Nina Burleigh, who unraveled the story of fabricated relics in her book Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land.

The nice part of faith is that a believer inevitably accepts there is not a single fact to support that belief, but believes anyway.  That’s true for all religions.

However, the void provides ample opportunity for charlatans – think how many false messiahs (for example, Sabbatai Zvi, at left) have existed in the last 2000 years – and for profiteers to engineer their own “proofs.”  This new book about the Shroud  is just the latest in a long line; it won’t be the last.

People really want to believe.  So they will, even if the evidence, like the Shroud, has to be manufactured.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Religious Book Accepts that Bible is not History


It’s about time.

For the past 200 or so years – not more, although many people like to think so – evangelical Christians have insisted that the Bible is the literal word of God.  Early Church fathers didn’t think that.  Neither did Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Movement.  The Roman Catholic Church still doesn’t think that.  

While evangelicals have been memorizing every word of the sacred texts, archaeology and science have decimated the historical nature of the Bible with in depth research, dating of known relics and recovered documents.  “Literalists” have ignored the findings, but the evidence is solid and overwhelming.

Unfortunately, most of it has been hidden from the public in the sanctuary of biblical historians and scholars.  That is changing.  The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has about 1.5 million members, has just published a new Torah – the first five books of the Bible – with an attached commentary.  The book minces no words, including many areas of modern research to demonstrate that the Bible is a “human rather than a divine document.”

This is not the work of wild-eyed fanatics out to trash the Bible.  Conservative Jews represent the middle area between the Reform Jews, who have done away with many of the religion’s traditions in an attempt to fit into society; and orthodox Jews, who cling to older, more religion-based ideas.  Conservative Jews wear yarmulkes (skull caps) and have traditional Sabbath services.  However, their new book fits nicely into the long tradition of Jewish biblical exegesis.

Talmud
Historians have debated when the first books of the Bible, known as the Torah (or the “law”) were first written.  It had to be no later than the 5th century B.C.E. because the texts were well enough known and accepted to be translated into Greek a century later.  By then, they were being discussed and analyzed by sages who devoted their lives to interpreting and understand the books.  Eventually, the sages' ideas and comments were written down in what today is known as the Talmud (“learning”).

The modern version of the Talmud underwent many transformations.  Initially, separate texts were written in Jerusalem and in Babylon anywhere from 1800 to 1500 years ago.  Scholarly Jews started the writing in Israel, but were forced to flee from Byzantine Christians and found a home in Babylon. They flourished on the banks of the Euphrates River, discussing the sacred books and collecting commentaries.  Their book is considered more authoritative, but is younger than the Jerusalem version.

Eventually, the two books were combined along with additional oral traditions that were memorized by generations of sages.  It has been edited multiple times to remove redundancies, outdated commentary and extraneous material.

From the first, the existence of the Talmudic teachings shows that Jews believed the holy texts represented God’s communication with His chosen people, but that the information had to be interpreted and, in some cases, edited by humans.  It was not the “word of God” encased in stone and unmalleable.

Christians felt the same way.  Comparisons of the earliest Gospel texts with later versions show hundreds of thousands of changes, reflecting new ideas that seeped into Christianity.  Humans made those changes.  No text was sacrosanct.  Both Matthew and Luke, for example, freely revised and amplified their main source, Mark.

The originally anonymous authors didn’t think they were misleading anyone.  They thought they were simply amending the texts to include information previous unknown, dropped out or otherwise forgotten.  In many cases, theology had changed.  So, the Gospels had to be altered to include the new ideas.  For example, the Virgin Birth is a later addition to the Gospels.  That caused some editing to be sure that idea was backed in writing.

Those who insist the Bible represent in inerrant word of God will not accept the new Jewish text.  However, they are missing the point of the Bible and its real value.  The Bible represents the moral and ethical teachings of generations of people.  Some of it is focused on Jesus; some on older patriarchs.  None of it has to be accurate historically to fulfill its primary function as a guide to living a good life.

In fact, history has no meaning in the Bible.  That’s what archaeology, anthropology, geology and other fields are for.

It’s nice that, finally, at least one religious organization recognizes that.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.