Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming Soon to a Bookshelf Near You






A vibrant account of how NASCAR went from being a redneck Southern sport to become a national powerhouse.


One Religion Stresses Education



A recent note in my hometown daily newspaper reported that Jews are the best educated religious group in the world.  They average more than 13 years of schooling.  Christians were second at around 9 years, with Muslims and Hindus in the rear at about 5.5 years.  The world average is around 7.7 years.

The short article didn’t answer the big question:  why?

For Jews, education was necessary to read the sacred texts.  The Bible wasn’t codified until the 4th century C.E., but Jewish monotheism dates from the 7th century B.C.E.  That’s when Jews moved away from the concept of a god who was one among many to a single god.  That idea later infused Christianity and Islam. 

Writing that later became biblical texts then supported that concept, either by subverting history, via prophetic claims or through fiction.  Eventually, those books were collected into what became sacred text.  There’s a long history that explains how the Bible came into existence, but that doesn’t matter now.
Bible

To know what their god wanted, younger Jews had to be literate.  That emphasis increased with anti-Semitism as Jews, ostracized by society, pored through the religious writing in an effort to discover why they were being persecuted.  The text itself provides no direct answers, but required interpretation.  At one time, sages handled that chore.  Their views were organized in what is now known as the Talmud. 

Medieval rabbi
After sages died out in the murderous Roman wars, rabbis (“teachers”) took on that chore.  Naturally, such a person had to be extremely well read, intelligent and devout.   Recognized for his wisdom, a rabbi became a sought-after mate.  His children carried the same allure, regardless of appearance.  As a result, Jews practiced natural selection with an emphasis on intelligence.

In contrast, Christians focused on the afterlife, the supposed heaven and hell.  Knowledge then had little value.  Indeed, the rise of Christian domination led to what is known as the Dark Ages, which were finally ended when Christian Crusaders were exposed to Muslim learning during the Crusades. 

Crusader
The most intelligent Christian men became priests, who were not supposed to marry or have children.  As a result, Christians bred out intelligence.

Initially, Muslims stressed education during the first 500 years of the religion’s existence.  However, as science began to expose weaknesses in religious claims, successive caliphs rejected learning in lieu of belief.  They closed the House of Knowledge, where brilliant scholars had gathered for centuries to share information and expand information in such fields as astronomy and math.  We still call numbers “Arabic” numerals, while terms like algorithm and algebra come directly from Arabic.

Today, still straitjacketed by religion, education fails to receive its necessary emphasis in the Muslim world.  I witnessed how religion muffles knowledge as Muslims in my ESL classes rejected scientific research in favor of their beliefs.  The same thing happens in the Christian world, where scientifically proven concepts like evolution are routinely spurned by the faithful.

The Jewish emphasis on education continues in the face of unrelenting anti-Semitism, while Christians and Muslims lag behind, still handicapped by beliefs that shunt aside knowledge. 

I saw this discrepancy first hand.  My father was Jewish.  He went to college during the Depression and insisted we start saving for college as young children.  Money I earned caddying, starting when I was 8 years old, went a college fund.  My three brothers and I discussed where we would go to college, not if.  We all have at least one degree.  Three of us have two or more.

On the other hand, while in college, I dated a Catholic girl, Karen.  While visiting her house, I joined a family discussion whether or not the youngest son should go to college.  The family also debated whether Karen should continue. The answer to both was “yes.”  Nevertheless, I was stunned.  That conversation would never have happened at my house.

In my high school, then predominately Jewish, had the highest percentage of enrolling college students than any other high school in the country.

The emphasis on Jews to get an education isn’t going to change anytime soon.  As a result, the statistics regarding which religion has the most educated members also isn’t likely to change in the near future. 


Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 
 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.














Sunday, December 18, 2016

Why is Christmas on December 25?



Lost amid the holiday hoopla, Santa Claus, decorated fir trees, eggnog and carols, there’s a basic question: why did anyone think Jesus was born on December 25?

After all, no writer of the time period gave a date for his birth.  We don’t even know what year he was born.  In fact, despite all the displays, images of shepherds, stars, magi and the like, we really know nothing about Jesus’ birth.  Early Church Fathers didn’t want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  The first recorded Christmas took place in the middle of the 4th century.  As a result, any real information was buried under the weight of centuries.

Philo
To complicate matters, no historian of the time period, Jewish or Roman, mentioned Jesus.  None knew he existed as a child or an adult, not even Philo, the great Jewish philosopher from Alexandria who died in 41 C.E.  He longed for evidence of God’s existence and even created the image of a living word, which John picked up to begin his Gospel: “In the beginning, there was the word …”

The only texts that give us any information on Jesus are the four Gospels.  Only two of them, Matthew and Luke, provide birth stories.  However, they contradict each other, rendering their accounts useless as historical guides.

In Matthew, great kings from the East follow a star first to Jerusalem where King Herod greets them and then to Bethlehem.  They worship the newborn baby and bring fabulous gifts. Herod is so upset that the future king has been born that he tries to kill all the children.  So, Mary and Joseph must take Jesus and flee to Egypt.

The problems with that tale are legion:  Just for starters, no star is capable of guiding anyone.  In addition, astronomers of the day, an era when the skies were watched closely, somehow missed it. 

To get around that, some apologists have suggested the kings were aware of the Jewish myth that the formation of certain stars presages the birth of a monarch.  That, too, is absurd. Astrology has long been proven inaccurate.  Also, that same formation has occurred multiple times in human history without anyone suggesting another messiah was born.
Magi?

Finally, the kings were called magi, meaning that they believed in the Zoroastrian faith.  Why they would know a Jewish myth or care if a Jewish king was born remains a mystery.  On top of that, their gifts would have made the family wealthy, so the Roman Catholic Church was obligated later to claim that Joseph and Mary gave the gifts to a “poor” family.

Actually, Matthew was drawing on stories of how the sons of Roman emperors were welcomed into the world: foreign kings brought them the gifts ascribed to the Holy Family – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Moreover, Matthew was comparing Jesus to Moses.  He was writing to Jews in Egypt, refugees from the war against the Roman from 66 to 73 that leveled Jerusalem, killed an estimated 1 million Judeans, sent another 1 million fleeing to other countries and enslaved 1 million more.
Herod
Matthew wanted them to believe that if the refugees followed Jesus, he would lead them back home.

The only valid element in his story is King Herod, who died in 4 B.C.E.

In contrast, Luke has the family caught up in a census, requiring Joseph and his pregnant wife to return to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem.  However, unable to find a place at an inn, they settle for the barn.  Jesus is then born and placed in a feeding trough, a manger.  The family then goes to Jerusalem for the traditional naming ceremony.

There’s no Herod, attempted murder, fleeing to Rome or any other element of Matthew’s birth account.  However, there really was a census, just as there really was a Herod.  Both are described in surviving historical documents.  Nevertheless, the timing is off.  The census took place in 6 C.E., 10 years after Herod’s death.  That’s not the only problem with Luke’s imaginative account.

Manger scene
The census was held in Judea when the Romans ousted Herod’s son, who had succeeded his father. However, Joseph and Mary lived in Galilee, an area unaffected by the census.  Then, too, the purpose of a census then was to determine taxable property. Anything Joseph owned was in Galilee, not Judea.  In fact, no one was asked to return to a hometown.  That would have made the census useless.

Both Matthew and Luke wanted to get Jesus to Bethlehem because several prophets had foreseen the next king coming from the line of David, who was born in Bethlehem.  The fourth evangelist, John, rejected that argument: he has a resident of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth ask how anyone could think Jesus was the next king since he hadn’t been born in Bethlehem. 

John also compounded efforts to date Jesus’ birth by saying Jesus was almost 50, when the other three Gospels list him as close to 30.

Pilate
As a result of this complete mishmash, historians cannot figure when Jesus was born.  Supposedly, he was crucified during the rule of Pontius Pilate, who was Judean governor from 26 to 36.  Count back 30 years, if you follow Matthew, Mark and Luke; 50 years, if you believe John.

But why December 25?

For many years, historians have assumed Christians adopted that date to counter the Roman Saturnalia, a holiday in late December, or the birth of the invincible sun, a popular holiday for a different god.  That one fell exactly on December 25.

There was precedent: all religious holidays gave been borrowed from other sources and given new meanings.  Easter, for example, comes from the Jewish Passover, which comes from the merger of two ancient Egyptian holidays.  Sabbath, too, was borrowed from the Babylonians while the Saturnalia originated in Egypt.

The idea that the Christians were overlaying an existing holiday was the prevailing opinion until recently.  It had been contested by scholars who pointed out that no extant writings from Church Fathers contain any mention of pagan holidays or concern about creating an alternative holiday to counter them.

Artist's view of assumption
As a result, researchers in religious history now suggest that the day occurred naturally.  The Catholic Feast of the Assumption -- which honors Mary’s pregnancy – falls on March 25.  Nine months later would be December 25.  Many Christian sects celebrate Jesus’ birthday as January 6.  It may not be a coincidence that they also celebrate the Feast of Assumption on April 6, exactly nine months earlier.  Unfortunately, there is one serious quibble with this view: while the first references to Christmas date from the 340s, and Christmas wasn’t placed on Dec. 25 until about 20 years later, mentions of the Feast of the Assumption don’t show up until 300 years after that.

Besides, nine months for a pregnancy is an average.  Births rarely occur exactly nine months after conception.

That may mean the celebration of Jesus’ birth created a need for a holiday to mark the pregnancy, not the other way around.

After looking at all the evidence, there’s still no way to determine exactly when Jesus was born.  As such, December 25 is as good a day as any. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 
 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.































Monday, October 3, 2016

Learning About Donald Trump

Trump

How well do you know Donald Trump?

Let’s find out.

Who said the following: “With the certainty of a sleepwalker, I am traveling the road Providence has set me down.”

Choices:
1. Donald Trump
2. Hillary Clinton
3. Adolf Hitler
4. Barack Obama

Only two people on that list have claimed that God is directing them.  Of course, other prominent political figures have in the past, including Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, but were proven wrong.  At least, they haven’t made it yet to the White House, their chosen destination.

Answer: (3) Hitler.

Stone Jr.
The other choice is Trump.  His confidant and former advisor Roger Stone Jr. told a radio audience that “I think that he believes that he’s been put here at this time and place to save this country.  I don’t think he talks about it that way because, as you know, some non-believers would accuse him of being insane, but I think that there’s an internal guidance here that is very much a part of him.”

Thinking God is on your side will definitely cloud judgment.

Try this one:  About whom was it said after a speech:

Clinton
“Every sentence was a lie, but I almost think an unconscious lie.  The man is a narrow-minded fanatic.  And he’s learned nothing.”

1. Donald Trump
2. Hillary Clinton
3. Adolf Hitler
4. Vladimir Putin

Maybe this will provide a clue: The Huffington Post kept track of lies during the first Presidential debate, held Sept. 26.  The tally at the end of the day: Trump: 16 lies; Clinton: 0.

The answer to the question, though, is (3) Hitler again.  The late Victor Klemperer, a Romance language scholar, who kept a now-famous diary about his experiences in Nazi Germany, wrote that observation after hearing the German Nazi leader in 1934 speak over the radio.

Isn’t it sad that many of you were no doubt sure the reference was to Trump, simply because he is well known for not telling the truth? 

Why can’t he be honest?  Maybe there’s a reason.  “Pathological liars have a pattern of frequent, repeated and excessive lies or lying behavior for which there is no apparent benefit or gain for the liar,” said Charles Dike, clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University and medical director of the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital.

One more question:  About whom was it written:

“The longer one knows him (her), the more one learns to appreciate and love him (her), and the more unreservedly one is prepared to devote oneself to his (her) great cause. “

1. Donald Trump
2. Hillary Clinton
3. Adolf Hitler
4. Mao Tse-tung

Giuliani
All four individuals, even those now deceased, on the list certainly have devoted followers.  Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is even willing to overlook Trump’s marital indiscretions by claiming everyone cheats.  Of course, Giuliani would know: he has been married three times, and left his wife and two children to live in Gracie Mansion while he moved in with the woman he would later marry. 

However, the correct answer to the question is (3) Hitler. Nazi propaganda guru Joseph Goebbels said that about his boss.

However, such a claim could explain support for Trump.  After all, the nonstop lies, terrible business decisions that led to multiple bankruptcies and thousands of lawsuits, his failure to pay taxes, his unwillingness to release his tax returns seemingly would disqualify him for consideration by any sane voter, yet he commands the support of millions.

Hitler
As psychiatrists have noted, his supporters won’t respond to facts.  After all, in politics, facts really have no appeal.  Confronted by solid evidence against their candidate, supporters will actually cling even tighter to their opinions in what is known as the “backlash” effect.

As a result, Trump’s supporters don’t know him at all.  They have projected their own insecurities and biases onto him, not caring what insults he hurls or falsehoods he tells simply because they believe in him.

That’s a concept Hitler would understand very well.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks regularly at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. 

 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as 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 Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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