Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reality of the Historical Jesus



Jesus?
Repeating a common statement, a Christian friend told me that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most attested events in history.

It would be nice if history confirmed such a key religious claim.  If true, it would affirm beliefs and provide meaningful support for the world’s largest single religion.

Unfortunately, at least for the faithful, the claim is incorrect.

No historian of the time period knew of Jesus or even acknowledged Jesus’ existence.  Later writers who did mention Christianity either cited religious claims to underpin their writing or presented a mishmash of facts and myths.  The resurrection of Jesus is not mentioned by anyone outside the faith nor cited by any historian.

The Gospels are no help.  Mark, the oldest, has no resurrection account.  It ends with Jesus being buried in a cave.  The book once had a resurrection tale, but that yarn was erased when two copies of oldest Mark were found to end without any resurrection account.  The resurrection story turned out to have been added to Mark later by some misguided but well-intention editor making up for the omission.
 
Yet, Matthew and Luke both relied on the non-authentic material in Mark to fashion the resurrection stories in their Gospels.  Those versions have remained intact, but being based on inserted hyperbole hardly makes them remotely accurate.

The youngest of the Gospels, John, does have a resurrection account, but being written so much later clearly allowed room for multiple non-facts to creep into the text.  John alone presents a Jesus who is God on Earth, a lofty impression that effaces any hint of humanity or factual reality.

Artist's impression of Paul
Paul, a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus, wrote the oldest texts that mention Jesus.  His epistles, much edited, remain our best evidence simply because they are closer to the living Jesus, even though Paul admits to having never met the person named Jesus.  However, they, too, raise serious concerns.

In I Corinthians, Paul wrote:  Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

That sounds pretty through and might be great testimony, except for the fact others who supposedly saw Jesus left contrary testimony.

The Ebionites (“poor ones”) were the original followers of Jesus.  They were converts to the original faith, and their literature has survived.  They didn’t believe that Jesus was a god.  They didn’t believe he was resurrected.  And they hated Paul for, what they said, distorting Jesus’ teaching. Remember: they were the ones taught by the other disciples, who Paul said saw the risen Jesus.  If so, their followers didn't know that..

Moreover, Paul cites “scripture” as his source.  However, as the New Testament did not exist then, he had to be referring to Jewish texts. Not one of the 39 books in the Jewish Bible talks in any way about a resurrected person or anyone dying for someone else’s sins.  In fact, the Jewish Bible says flatly that the sins of the father are not visited on the son.  

 “When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Ezekiel 18:19-20:

Also:

“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

In essence, the life, death and possible resurrection of Jesus rest completely on air.  No fact buttresses the claims.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus is not, as the faithful insist, God incarnate who was sacrificed to save man from mortal sin.  That’s belief.  Facts then have no meaning in competition with belief.

However, in turn, believers can’t claim facts support their faith.  Facts don’t.

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.









Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day Poem

Valentine’s Day is dandy
Lots of roses and all that candy.

The warmth serves as winter’s relief.

One day devoted to amour,
A day of kisses and longing for.

Enjoy old Cupid and the hearts
But remember that’s only the start.

One day is definitely far too brief

I need to a lifetime to say
I love you in my own way.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Debate over Religion Classes in Public Schools



Mercer County Bible class
Here we go again.  Parents in a West Virginia county are fighting to keep a Bible class in their 19 elementary schools.  Others are trying to halt the classes, which are taught by volunteers and been in place for almost 80 years. An estimated 96 percent of the 4,000 local students are enrolled in the classes in Mercer County.  Donations cover the costs, so the argument is not over money.

Instead, the debate echoes debates heard in other parts of the country over such things as a painting of Jesus over a school entrance or Christmas pageants.

On the surface, the question seems simple: teach religion or not.  However, one look at the demographics of Mercer County, located at the southern tip of the state, tells a different story.

Mercer County's locale
The population of the area is 62,000.  Of those, in 2000, most were mainline or Evangelical Protestant, according to the U.S. Religion Census.  However, just 10 years later, both of those groups collectively had lost 25 percent of their followers. People claiming no affiliation to any religion blossomed 20 percent in that decade.

In fact, according to the published research, more than 58 percent of the residents of this staunchly Republican community now belong to no church.

That means more people opposed to classes on religion taught in school.  At the same time, believers are becoming increasingly scarce, and, as a result, they are desperate to smother their children in a blanket of their fading faiths.

“It is very important that what we teach at home can be moved on to the school and instilled there and moved to the church and it’s still there so that it moves in a circle,” explained Cherilyn Thomas, whose daughter takes the classes.

The key problem is that the students don’t know the difference between belief and knowledge.  They are taught English, history, science and other topics in school and think religion is equal to them.  It isn’t.  Religion is belief, not fact.  As we all know, there are multiple beliefs.  Which one should be taught?

Some students do not participate in the Bible classes.  They face peer pressure and downright abuse.  Elizabeth Deal took her daughter, Sophie, out of the school system because of bullying. “They taunted her about it. They told her that she was going to hell, that I was going to hell, that her father was going to hell,” Deal said

Mercer County schools insist the Bible is being taught for its “literary and historic qualities," a media account reported.  “To completely eliminate a Bible course would be an unprecedented and drastic step,” Hiram Sasser, a lawyer representing the school board, said in the published article. “The only issue that ever arises is any kind of implementation.”

Statue of Zeus
He has a point.  The Bible is a key element in Western Civilization. We all should know about its historical influence   In fact, at one time, such courses were not unusual.  I took elective classes in college, which looked at the Bible through historical and philosophical prisms. I also took a high school class that touched on comparative religion, but that course was aborted by Roman Catholic parents objecting to the even-handed content. 

The same thing will happen in Mercer County and in every school that tries to actually teach about religion rather than indoctrinate.  The debate also won’t be slacking off anytime soon.  The faithful want to ensure everyone believes what they do, even as their belief begins its slow descent into the pit containing such now-ignored deities as Zeus, Odin and Osiris.

Until that happens, the faithful will continue to fight their losing battle. That’s not belief; that’s history.

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.

 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hypocrites and Sharia Law


Sharia law
Recently, Facebook friends spent an afternoon decrying American Muslim desire to follow Sharia law, the rules and regulations derived from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and later interpretations. In doing so, they proved only two things: they don’t know a thing about world history, and they are hypocrites.

The laws cover five distinct areas: 

1. Belief in Allah, prophets and requirements.
2. Morality, such as humility and patience.
3. Devotion, including the pilgrimage to Mecca and tithing.
4. Business and family law.
5. Punishment.

If that sounds familiar, it should.  The Bible covers the same ground.  Many of the laws are similar and equally fierce.  For example, the sharia requires death for anyone who leaves the faith.  So does the Bible, who orders death for anyone worshiping another god except Yahweh.

Also, according to the Bible, death is warranted if you curse your father or mother (Lev: 20:9) or let loose some blasphemy (Lev: 24:14). Among the long list of laws that the Bible lovingly prescribes capital punishment for include: for adultery and for a woman who is found not to have been a virgin on the night of her wedding night.

Naturally, not all sharia or biblical laws are the same.  Sharia law definitely is anti-women, especially in areas of sex and divorce.  That’s ironic since Prophet Muhammad was very liberal toward women for his day, a natural result of having only daughters.

10 Commandments posted in a courthouse
Today, sharia is followed in a few countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, Yemen, as well as parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and the United Arab Emirates.  Other Islamic countries follow portions of the law.

I can’t think of a single country that follows biblical law.  That doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to impose it in the past or in our time.

The same people bleating about Muslim preference for sharia law regularly try to force obedience to Bible-based laws.  They cite biblical prohibitions against homosexuality as grounds to discriminate, just as in the 1800s, southern leaders used the Bible as grounds to support slavery. They demand placement of the 10 Commandments in courts.  And so on.

Burning apostate at the stake
There’s no question to them the biblical laws should be obeyed, according to the New Testament.  As Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke or a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  (Matthew 5:17-18)

In fact, that requirement has fired much of Christian history as Church prelates spent their lives trying to impose laws on western civilization.  People were burned and massacred to uphold the biblical laws, as interpreted by the religious leaders.  Every part of daily life, from birth to death, was completely circumscribed by religious laws. That control wasn’t broken until the 1500s in the aftermath of the Protestant Revolution.  However, Protestants weren’t any more lenient when it came to obeying religious laws.

The fight between kings and popes regarding which set of laws to follow – religious or civil – continued for centuries, leading to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and uprisings against papal authorities.  Eventually, civil law took precedent, but the battle is hardly over. Look at the fight today over punishment for priests who abused children.  The Church still wants to apply its own sanctions and avoid civil courts.
Orthodox Jew at prayer
Christians aren’t the only hypocrites who decry Muslim efforts to create laws dictating every human interaction.  Jews do the same thing. Orthodox Jews still obey laws that straitjacket behavior and activities, and want everyone else to kowtow to “God’s” requirements.

In fact, virtually every religion has extensive laws in an attempt to limit apostasy and increase control.

That’s another reason why religion must never be allowed to infiltrate the civic arena.  You are welcome to follow any law you want in the privacy of your home.  You can publicly call for the imposition of religious law, but the Constitution thankfully prohibits that from happening.

That’s one law we can all gratefully follow.

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.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's Backward March


Trump
Welcome back to the Middle Ages.

You remember hearing about that lovely time when kings dictated, and opponents found themselves in serious trouble?  When one religion dominated and insisted everyone else was wrong?  When the rich controlled everything while the vast bulk of humanity slaved to support the few on top?  When what little media existed was censured and bullied?  When truth was whatever the leaders decided it was?

It’s all the rage these days.

Too bad if you are not one of the elite.  Of course, that’s no protection unless you support the king. 

Meet Donald Trump: the new king of the 16th century.

Trump can’t imagine he lives in a democracy.  Not knowing anything about government, only his ability to set the rules as an owner of a company, he intends to trample (or fire) his opponents.  He insists that only his way is correct.

Truman
We have had strong presidents before: George Washington, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, his cousin Franklin and Harry S. Truman, to name the most prominent.  They all had something in common: the desire to work within the system to help improve society as a whole.  They may have disagreed on the goal – Jackson destroyed the monetary system because he thought it undermined the average person; Franklin Roosevelt tried to strengthen the banking system – but the underlying premise was the same: will it help Americans?

Trump has no such concern.  His move to block incoming visitors has caused immense chaos not just for people with valid visas, but for Americans.  His decision to name a known racist as his chief advisor and nominate another as attorney general represents a direct assault on millions of Americans.  His choice for the Department of Education chief, a woman with an overt dislike of public education and limited knowledge about anything, throws a black cloud over the entire educational system in this country, affecting all Americans.

He has ordered scientists not to talk about Global Warming, an increasingly threatening danger to human life.  He has named someone who opposes environmental regulations to the Environmental Protection Agency.  He has threatened to end our role in the United Nations, which, for all its limitations, has managed to end diseases like smallpox, provide relief to refugees worldwide and reduce global tensions.

The list could go on, including supporting the effort to build a pipeline through the heart of United States, but it’s a sad legacy built in just a few short days in control.  It also portends far worse in the future.

Charles I
Given Trump’s unconscionable desire to restore the dictatorship of hundreds of years ago, perhaps some timely reminders would be helpful.

For starters, no kingdom survived the effort.  Common people, fed up with oligarchies, revolted.  The Church split in half, forever losing its control.  Kings were beheaded – Louis XVI, Charles I – or lost power to elected officials.  No omnipotent kings remain.  The closest is probably Kim in North Korea, although he doesn’t claim kingship.  Even the Saudi monarchs answer to their religious leaders. 

Media became stronger.  In the Middle Ages, men like Erasmus produced multiple and successful essays that offered a different view of life; the Bible was translated into vernacular despite the protests of the clergy; opinions that countered kings became commonplace.  Attempted censorship in the Middle Ages failed miserably; the same will happen these days with the wide array of communication channels available to everyone.

In the Middle Ages, more scientists grew emboldened to express truths that contradicted both regal and religious claims.  Given new tools, like microscopes and telescopes, they began to explore the reality of the world they inhabited, bequeathing us a treasure trove of knowledge.  Kings couldn’t stop the march; neither can Trump today.
Spence Tracy as Henry Drummond

As Henry Drummond told the court in Inherit the Wind – a retelling of the 1925 Tennessee trial when a biology teacher was arrested for teaching evolution:

“Can't you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, backward, through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

Clarence Darrow addressing the real Scopes jury.
Drummond lost the case, but won the argument.  In the play, Matthew Brady, Drummond’s fictional opponent, discovered he was not a prophet of God.  The state of Tennessee in reality changed the law that banned the teaching of evolution. 

They all learned the same lesson: leaders can attempt to drive the world backwards for a short time, but, eventually, they are forced to learn that’s the completely wrong direction.

Trump will get that same message, too.


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.