Thursday, March 28, 2013

History Collides With Religious Beliefs


Charlton Heston as Moses
When invited to speak about religious history to civic organizations, I happily accept, but with some trepidation.  I speak about religious history, but invariably someone in the audience confuses that subject with belief.  That's particularly true during certain times of the year, like during the Passover and Easter holidays this week that supposedly are  based on historic events.

The result is invariably anger, frustration, annoyance and disappointment.  Sometimes, all of them show up at the same time.

Listeners often have a hard time understanding that belief and history are two different things.
Bible: the source of Western religious belief

Belief is the acceptance of some idea without facts.  Some people believe that Moses led the Jews from Egyptian slavery and stood on Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments.  They are 100 percent correct.  Belief is always correct, because it’s what a person thinks is true.

An historian doesn’t limit himself to belief.  An historian looks at the same Moses and asks: were there slaves in Egypt?  Could Jews have been slaves there?  Where is Mt. Sinai? What do the 10 Commandments say?  From the writing, can we tell when they were written?

The questions are different than those asked by believers.  They have to be.

The idea of examining belief is relatively new.  It only started in the 1700s.  Before that, no one (at least,  openly) questioned beliefs or challenged the basic claims behind a belief.  Some theologians may argue over a nuance or how to interpret a particular belief.  They might label each other heretics and, at worse, kill opponents, or, at best, toss each other out of a religion.  The belief itself was never questioned.

However, in the mid-1700s, the first real investigation into religious beliefs began with a critical analysis of the New Testament.  That led to more studies until, by the end of the 1800s, a German theological school could argue Jesus never existed.

An archaeological dig in Israel
Naturally, believers felt challenged by such findings.  They began to search for information, principally in the Holy Land where Jesus once lived, but also in ancient texts.  In essence, they abandoned belief to find history.

Bad idea.

To date, no research, no historical find, no fact has supported any historical claims about Moses or Jesus.  In fact, no scholars have ever found anything that backs biblical stories in the Old Testament before around 1000 B.C.E.  Accuracy does improve a little in the Jewish Bible as research draws closer to 7th century, the time when the first  texts were written.   However, belief always colored the writing, not history.

St. Catherine's Monastery below Mt. Sinai
That means belief alone sustains the stories of Moses, Joshua, Judges and the biblical patriarchs.  For  example, no mountain in the world matches the biblical description of Mt. Sinai.  The one in the desert today called Sinai  (right) was named for the biblical story.  There are three versions of the 10 Commandments in the Bible.    They do not agree.  The oldest is limited to religious requirements.  Later ones branch out to include laws for daily life.

That’s all right.  There was no famine in Egypt to help Joseph rise to power; no Exodus ; no invasion of Canaan.  Archaeology has convincingly proven that.

This week, millions of Jews worldwide are retelling the story of an event that never happened.

As for Jesus, even the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest religion and one founded on the back of Jesus, has conceded that its sacred texts are not historically accurate.  They represent, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Encyclopedia admit, only the "belief" of the authors. 

Dr. James Charlesworth, one of the world’s foremost religious historians, was asked about the conflict between belief and history.  A Methodist minister, he was well aware of the disparity.  He made a cogent observation, however, to the people (like me) who attended his program: if you base your faith on history, he said, you will be disappointed, but if you base your faith on philosophy, such as peace on earth and good will toward men, then you will have no problems.

He is, of course, correct. That’s why I advise students in my religious history classes or listeners to a presentation to leave their beliefs outside the door.  Inside, we’ll discuss history, an ever-changing, ever-expanding amorphous blob.  In contrast, beliefs are the rock-solid illusions that sustain us.

True or false, they are far too entrenched for history to have any real effect on them.

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.net.  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.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1



Monday, March 25, 2013

Jesus' Crucifixion Garners Historical Attention


Artist's conception
This Easter, millions of Christians worldwide will flock to churches to affirm their faith in Jesus and His rising from the dead on that Sunday.  They have no doubts of what happened and why.

Historians are the ones with the questions.

They mostly agree that Jesus died by crucifixion as described in the New Testament.  Those four books, however, were not written by eyewitnesses and contain little actual history.  Nevertheless, crucifixion seems plausible since no one would boast of such a humiliating death for the founder of a religion unless it had some basis in fact.

Other questions about crucifixion are not easy to resolve.

Historians know the Romans honed the skill of nailing criminals to wooden beams as a public execution.  They got the idea from the Phoenicians, who may have invented that technique, but lost three wars to the Romans in the battle for control of the Mediterranean. 
Multiple crucifixions from a movie

The Romans often crucified multitudes, such as the remnants of Spartacus’ slave army.  The public display served as deterrents in case anyone else was thinking of rebelling.  It was not always fatal.  Jewish historian Josephus in the first century C.E. described trying to rescue several friends he found crucified and succeeded in saving one of them. 

Heel bone with a nail in it
Historians also know that due to a shortage of wood, the upright beams were left in place while condemned prisoners carried the crossbeams to the execution site.

So far, so good.  However, no one is sure how process worked.  For example, were nails used on Jesus?  Three images and the lone skeleton of a crucified man found by archaeologists provide only clues. 

It’s clear that nails were definitely used, at least, on occasion, to hold the victim’s feet in place.  Several historians have argued Jesus was not nailed to the cross because nails were so expensive and not readily available in ancient Judea.  The evidence from the artifacts and from the skeleton found in Israel with a nail through its foot only demonstrates that at least some people were nailed to the cross, but not necessarily Jesus.

Ancient spikes used in crucifixions
Nails were likely used to prevent relatives from rescuing the victim.  Ropes could be cut, but nails were very difficult to extract from a living person.  After the victim died, nails were removed either to be reused or stolen because they were thought to now have magical properties useful in healing.

However, palms and hands are not strong enough to be held by nails.  They would have to be bound to the beam with ropes.   People who have developed stigmata – actual bleeding at the supposed points where nails were pounded through flesh – invariably and erroneously include their palms.

On the other hand, the earliest depiction of a crucified god does not show nails being used at all.  In the image dating from the 2nd century, the feet are depicted apart, and the figure is standing on a plank of wood.  The image is crude and meant to ridicule the belief, since the figure on the cross has a donkey’s head.  Nevertheless, it does show what the artist thought was how a person was crucified.
Recently found drawing of a crucifixion

A younger, equally crude illustration, found recently in Italy, does depict a man whose feet are nailed to the cross. His hands seem to be holding on to the wooden crossbeam.  His back also has welts, symptomatic of the usual Roman floggings.

The nude figure is also shown from the back.  Historians believe it was sketched by someone who witnessed a crucifixion there.  There is no religious symbolism that would connect it to Jesus.

On the other hand, it raises the question if Jesus was nude also.  The only note in the Bible about his clothing is that Roman soldiers took them.

In a third illustration, a gemstone from probably the 4th century contains an image of a crucified man.  In that one, the legs are separated; arms are tied. 

Without additional information, there’s no way to know exactly how the Romans crucified Jesus.

Then there’s the question of why Jesus was crucified.  Later exegesis argues that blood was necessary for true atonement.  That idea arose only later, however, when Christianity developed the philosophical answers to explain Jesus’ death. 
Artist's view

Since Romans only crucified criminals, Jesus must have been thought of as one.  His crime could not have been blasphemy against the Jews, who had no ability to impose the death penalty.  Instead, Romans must have perceived Jesus in the same light they saw other itinerant anti-Roman preachers of the day – as enemies of the state.  Anyone speaking out against the emperor would have been executed.

Roman and Jewish historians, as well as the New Testament, identify other Jewish leaders who suffered the same fate for that reason.

While it’s not clear what Jesus said that so infuriated the Romans – none of his quoted words differs from known Pharisee teachings --- he must have done something seriously wrong.  Perhaps the attack on moneylenders described in all four Gospels got him arrested.  The Temple, after all, was both a religious center and a citadel with soldiers stationed nearby.

In the end, anyone studying the death of Jesus is really left with more questions than answers.  Perhaps that’s more valuable anyway on Easter.  The answers then can come from belief. 

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.net.  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.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hindu Book Rivals Hotel Bibles


Looking for something to read next time you are in your hotel room?  Sure, you can reach for a Gideon Bible.  After all, the evangelical group has sprinkled them in hotels around the world – 1.6 billion books in 90 languages so far, according to the group‘s website. 

On the other hand, maybe you are looking for something different.  How about the sacred Hindu text called the Bhagavad-Gita?

It’s not exactly the usual reading material, but it’s short – just 700 verses in 18 chapters – which definitely gives it an advantage over the 39 books in the Jewish Bible and the 27 books in the New Testament.

The books really have nothing in common.  Besides being relatively brief, Bhagavad-Gita is the account of a god, Krishna, talking to an Indian prince on the eve of a great battle.   Prince Arjuna may have had the reputation as a great warrior -- he is the only ancient Indian hero who supposedly never lost a battle – but he is concerned because he is waging war against friends and relatives.  Krishna provides guidance toward wisdom, devotion and selfless action.

At least some of that sounds somewhat biblical, although the Bible accounts usually call for complete massacres of opponents, such as King Saul with the Amalekites.  When he failed to annihilate everyone, Saul lost God’s support.

But you can read that for yourself.  So far, a group called Motel Gita has handed out 150,000 copies in a reported 1,100 motels and hotels in the last year.  Admittedly that’s far behind the Gideons, but the evangelicals have had a head start.  They began in 1899.  Besides, Motel Gita has more modest aims. The group isn’t trying to stuff holy books into every available hotel drawer.

Vaisesika Dasa
Vaisesika Dasa (right), founder and president of the Motel Gita project, said their goal is to place at least 1 million books to “provide solace to traveling souls by giving them spiritual knowledge.”

He got the idea from the Gideons and recently joined with two colleagues to start distributing books in the San Francisco area.

The trio was a bit concerned at first how hoteliers would react. However, Dasa said, there were no problems.  “We quickly found that prominent motel owners whole-heartedly welcomed and supported this program and that their guests were appreciating finding the Gita.”

Hare Krishna in London
They got some help from the Hare Krishnas, the drum pounding, robe-clad Hindu evangelists often found at airports and other public buildings.  Formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKC) with branches around the United States, Canada and Britain, the group was founded based on the philosophy in the Bhagavad-Gita, and members happily delivered the books to interested hotels.

In addition, an estimated 20,000 hotels in this country are owned by Indian-Americans, many of whom are Hindus.  That means a lot of doors opened up for the Bhagavad-Gita.

Others just think it’s a grand idea.   “Bhagavad-Gita provides depth of knowledge not easily accessible to people in the Western countries. The concept of spiritualism, nature and God described in this holy book should be shared for the benefit of all humanity,” one hotel owner told reporters.

Gideon Bible in its natural habitat
The entry of the Bhagavad-Gita into the hotel reader sweepstakes also reflects a growing trend in this country to move away from conventional religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, toward either an alternative faith or nothing.  Several recent surveys show that the rising tide of nonbelievers is swamping the one-time bastions of faith.

The Gideon Bible isn’t turning out to be much of a wall against disbelief.

Nevertheless, in the past, when new ideas threaten the traditional faiths, religious leaders have reacted in force by throwing the Bible at the problem.  The various revivals have echoed through the country, but none have been the least bit successful.  If anything, they have led to results that the older organized religions could not have been happy with.

For example, one revival in the mid-1700s changed this country completely by launching several Protestant sects, forcing changes in established churches and spreading the idea of religious equality.  The Great Awakening, as it was known, also spread the ideas of racial equality that would culminate in the Civil War.

Another revival in the early 1800s was partially responsible for the birth of the Mormon faith as well as additional Protestant sects.

The process is continuing these days.  The attempts by conservative Christians to push their beliefs on the public has led to a move away from the traditional faith.  In some ways, this time period resembles an era 2,000 years ago when the faith in the traditional gods like Jupiter, Hera and Mars was slowly fading.  That eventually led to Christianity.

Lord knows what a little philosophical Hindu reading in a hotel will lead to now.

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.net.  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.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1