Wednesday, March 30, 2011

That’s not Christian History (necessarily)

Is it the greatest thing since the Dead Sea scrolls?  Maybe.  What it isn’t is definitively Christian.  At least not yet.

Some odd book-like objects were found about five years ago in a cave in Jordan.  Not your typical books, these are inscribed metal plates, bound (in some cases on all four sides) with more metal.  It’s possible that they are early Christian artifacts.  Early dating evidence makes the timing possible.  The location of the find makes it possible.  But the supposed definitive proof is what I like to call nothistory.

This proof is described by Dr. Margaret Barker, identified as a past president of the Society for Old Testament Study, thus:
‘As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck,’ he [sic] said. ‘That struck me as so obviously a Christian image. There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city.
‘There are walls depicted on other pages of these books too and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem. It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls.’

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Margaret Barker is indeed entitled to the title of doctor, but not through the academic route.  Her doctorate of divinity was honorary, granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2008 for her work on the symbolism of the first temple.  Her thesis, not widely accepted, is that there was an earlier Jewish tradition that can be inferred from the symbolism embedded in the physical structure of the first temple, one based on a more mystical faith and including worship of a sacred tree associated with the Akkadian mother-goddess Asherah, but that was replaced by a later, more strictly monotheistic Judaism. She argues that disciples of the older form of Judaism had not yet disappeared by the time of Christ, that a number of them became his followers, and that theirs is the form of Judaism most influential in the teachings of the historical Jesus.  It’s an interesting idea, though her evidence seems (to the non-expert eye, anyway) pretty thin.  More worrying, her inclusion of medieval tropes like infant sacrifice is highly suspect, especially considering that many of her sources were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the fact.  While she is a popular figure in Latter Day Saint circles, critiques of her work are readily available on the web, though a search on “Margaret Barker Bible review” in JSTOR brought up no scholarly evaluations of her work.

The other easy hit is the notion of a Christian crucifixion.  I suggest we all agree that she meant a Roman crucifixion of Christians and move on.

Now let’s get to the actual evidence, or rather, the question raised by the supposed evidence.  That is, is an image of a cross in front of a building with an opening in front of city walls necessarily Christian?  There are three images here to unpack: the city walls, the building with the opening, and the cross.  

City Walls:  I have to wonder what makes city walls depicted in artifacts found in Jordan “almost certainly … Jerusalem”?  City walls of that period pretty much all looked the same, and most of the distinguishing features of Jerusalem’s current walls, like King David’s Gate, are of far more recent construction than the artifact in question.  We have no idea what might have distinguished Jerusalem’s walls from any other city’s walls in the 1st century CE.

A Building With an Opening:  Which apparently “has to be” the tomb of Jesus.  Just for the moment, we will assume that these artifacts are what they are hypothesized to be.  In that case, they were made by people who were intimately familiar with the details of the story of the historic Jesus, if not with the man himself.  They would have known that the tomb of Jesus was not a hole in a building, it was a hole in a cave.  There is, in fact, a building over that cave today, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  There are depictions of Jesus’ tomb that represent the church itself as the tomb.  If, however, you visit that church (as I have), you will be taken deep, down below the street level to peer through the semi-darkness at a niche cut out of the side of a small cave.  That’s what has historically been believed to be the tomb of Jesus.  Why would people familiar with, not the medieval imagination of Christ’s tomb, but the actual location itself, depict it as a building?  Unless we are further positing that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the wrong place and that all those pilgrims prayed at the wrong hole in the wrong cave.  So far, though, no one’s said that.

 And, saving the best for last, The Cross: The notion that a cross symbolized Jesus to his contemporary followers requires four important assumptions.  First, that his crucifixion was performed on a cross-shaped structure.  Second, that crosses were used at the time to symbolize crucifixion.  Third, that crucifixions in the region were assumed to be Roman crucifixions of Christians.  Fourth, that the cross as a symbol of Roman crucifixion of Christians was necessarily seen as representative of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Greek term in the New Testament, stauros, is typically translated as ‘cross’, but in fact meant ‘stake’ or ‘pole’.  Roman crucifixions were done on either stakes (with the hands bound or nailed together above the head) or on Tau shaped crosses, resembling a capital letter T, that left the head unsupported.  Other civilizations also used Y-shaped structures for crucifixion, but the point is that the choices were either stake or T, not a cross, and that the only evidence we have indicates the stake.  A community of people close to the historical Jesus would not have associated a cross with his crucifixion.

Crosses were important symbols at the time, though not of crucifixion.  The cross as a symbol in the Mediterranean predates both Christianity and the Roman Empire.  The most popularly known is the Egyptian ankh, which looked slightly different, having a loop at the top.  The contemporary Christian version, the right-angled intersection of two straight lines, was used by a number of civilizations with a number of different meanings, including the joining of the male and female.  The first use by Christians was in the third century, which was described by Tertullian (a Christian who lived in Roman Carthage from 160-220 CE) thus:

The cross is adored with all the homage due only to the Most High; and for any one to call it, in the hearing of a genuine Romanist, by the Scriptural term, "the accursed tree," is a mortal offence. To say that such superstitious feeling for the sign of the cross, such worship as Rome pays to a wooden or a metal cross, ever grew out of the saying of Paul, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ"--that is, in the doctrine of Christ crucified--is a mere absurdity, a shallow subterfuge and pretence. The magic virtues attributed to the so-called sign of the cross, the worship bestowed on it, never came from such a source. The same sign of the cross that Rome now worships was used in the Babylonian Mysteries, was applied by Paganism to the same magic purposes, was honoured with the same honours. That which is now called the Christian cross was originally no Christian emblem at all, but was the mystic Tau of the Chaldeans and Egyptians

Which brings us to assumption three, that a crucifixion would be assumed to be a Roman crucifixion of Christians.  Crucifixion was certainly practiced in the Levant by the Romans, but also by the Persians and Seleucids.  Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon all (apparently, I’ve seen the citation but not the original texts) confirm the Persian practice.  Under the Seleucids, the Judean ruler, Janneaus Alexander, was reported to have crucified 800 Pharisee prisoners in front of their wives and children.  As for the Romans, crucifixion was but one of many forms of the death penalty, which ranged from the mercifully quick beheading, through the symbolically rich punishment for patricide of being sewn into a leather sack with a cock, a dog, a serpent and a monkey and thrown into the ocean (or a lake, if the ocean wasn’t handy), and culminating in the slow, painful death from asphyxiation and/or thirst and exposure (depending on the method, though infection and blood loss could also come into play) of the crucifixion.  As Josephus reported, in the aftermath of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, this ‘most wretched of deaths’ was meted out to hundreds of Jews.  Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus was hardly a singular act, either in its place or time.  

Finally, the most common symbol archeologists and historians associate with early Christians is the fish, not the cross.  The standard interpretation is that, at a time when crucifixion was common, the cross was seen as a symbol of horrific punishment, not of divinity.  While the (contested) use of the cross as a Christian symbol may date to the third century, at the end of that century, when Constantine had a vision telling him he would be successful in battle if he fought under “A heavenly divine symbol” he chose the Chi-Rho, not the cross.  (That is, as recounted by Lacantius.  Eusebius claimed that Constantine was convinced of the truth of the Christian faith when the sun’s rays formed a cross over a battlefield.  Constantine was Lacantius’ patron and appointed him to tutor his son, making Lacantius much more personally connected to Constantine than Eusebius, who was bishop of a distant province, an inveterate political manipulator, and whose account was written conveniently after Constantine’s death.)

It’s not that these artifacts could not be Christian.  They could.  But the leap from an image of a cross in front of a building with a hole in it in front of a city wall to ‘this must be the cross of Jesus before the tomb of Jesus before the walls of Jerusalem’ is a leap of faith, not of history.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shhh, don't tell anyone it's history

It’s always interesting when thought streams from different parts of life intersect. 

At the moment, I’m teaching the General Education/Core Curriculum/whatever-your-school-calls-those-classes-everyone-needs-to-take-some-of course on the history of the whole world from the mists of time to 1500.  The primary sources I’ve chosen for that course include documents on medieval European laws and court cases, which led me to wonder when and how things changed, when did the basic principles I recognize as the American legal system start to be practiced?  This led me a barrister by the name of William Garrow, who was a transformative figure (or so my sources tell me, I’m hardly an expert) in the English legal system in the 1880s and 90s (after which he was first promoted to King’s Council and then demoted to a mere Member of Parliament before eventually wasting his final decades in such worthless occupations as judge, Solicitor General and Privy Councilor).  Before Garrow, the courts relied on the testimony of witnesses to a crime.  The prosecutor found the witnesses, the judge asked the questions, the jury evaluated the evidence, and the defense attorney … well, there usually wasn’t one and the defendant wasn’t generally allowed to speak on his or her own behalf.  It all came down to the witnesses, who were not cross-examined!  Garrow changed all that.  By appearing in court for the defendants and asking the witnesses questions, he is credited (by my sources) with playing a key role in the innovations of the adversarial system, rules of evidence, and the invalidation of hearsay evidence, in addition to personally introducing both the concept and the phrase, “innocent until proven guilty”.

Garrow’s biographers, John Hostettler and Richard Braby, in Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice, picked a particular cross-examination from the Old Bailey records to demonstrate how it was done.  In this case, Garrow had already gotten the witness, a Mr. Fleming, to admit to being the receiver of the goods that the defendant was accused of stealing.  He had further gotten Fleming to admit that he was likely to be hanged for possession of stolen goods unless he could fix possession on another person.  Garrow then went in for the kill:

Garrow: Did you not do this to save your own neck; did you not make the disclosure to save your own life?

Fleming: I suppose I must answer, Mr. Garrow, in the affirmative, for I know no better: I certainly made this disclosure to save myself.

Garrow: Then you are now swearing, in order to fix this danger on somebody else to save yourself.

Fleming: I apprehend, Mr. Garrow, I am still in the same danger if I do not fix on the right person.

Notice that, in his last answer, Fleming argued that it would go badly for him if he made a false accusation.  The jury didn’t care.  They were horrified at the idea that they were expected to accept the testimony of someone who had such a direct interest in a conviction, and on that basis alone, acquitted the defendant.  It became, over time, an accepted tenet of the English legal system that interested witnesses were not reliable.

I mulled that over for a few days, trying to figure out why it felt somehow off.  Oversimplified.  Naïve, even.  Too likely to excuse real criminals who posed serious dangers to society.  Was it the jury’s refusal to consider the witnesses final statement? 

Meanwhile, another stream of my life, starting in a completely different place, was heading right for that very point.  I recently got back in contact with a woman I’ve known since I was born, as far as I can tell.  Our parents were friends and the families got together several times a year, but as we grew up, as so often happens, we drifted off in different directions.  Reconnecting with her got me thinking about all the other people I’d known that way, and wondering where they are today.  The great gift of Google came through, and I found one.  She’s now called Alexandra Natapoff, but I’m pretty darned sure she’s the kid I used to know as Sasha.  She was a few years younger than me, and I don’t remember her all that well, but I remember her mother, and this Alexandra looks, sounds, and moves exactly the way her mother did back when we were kids.  How do I know that?  Because I found this video.  Which, in an astonishing coincidence, addressed my question about Garrow and the testimony of Mr. Fleming:

We think of our legal system as inherited from the English system, based on the same principles and precedents of common law.  And yet, somewhere in the late 1700s, they diverged.  Given that we were fighting a war of independence from England at the time, it’s understandable that our legal experts might not have been studying their latest innovations.  And yet, we did pick up the notions of the adversarial system, presumption of innocence, etc.  But we somehow didn’t adopt the inherent distrust of the snitch.* 

Natapoff makes the point, rather effectively I think, that our reliance on snitches in the legal system has in recent years expanded to reliance on snitches in the wider, American society.  We are socializing ourselves, myself obviously included (hence the mulling), to accept snitching as part of the normal practice of citizenship.  This can be a very good thing.  The anonymous bar employee who paid attention to a semi-drunk man’s ravings, got his license plate number off his car and called the police saved the lives of hundreds of innocent people.  Less risky, perhaps, but just as important and valuable a protection of lives as the airplane passengers who jumped on the man trying to light his shoe on fire.  I applaud anonymous bar employee’s snitchy ways.  Hell, snitching is not only a civic duty, in this age of terrorism, both homegrown and imported, snitching is an act of patriotism!

Which is all well and good from a law enforcement perspective, but as national identities go, “We are the Snitches” isn’t exactly “Give me liberty or give me death.”  It doesn’t have the same ring, the same nobility, the same élan.  More importantly, snitching by its nature divides us, turns us against each other.  It makes us, not a nation united in common cause (freedom, the common welfare, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but individuals perpetually suspicious of our neighbors and distrusting of difference instead of celebrating the melting pot.  As national values go, it is fundamentally destructive.  Is this the America we want to be?  And what, if any, role does this valorization of snitching play in the atmosphere of distrust and anger in America today.

* I’m only addressing snitching, which is the act of informing on an individual, not whistleblowing, which is exposing wrongdoing by an organization.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Seriously?  Sparta?  That's where you want to go for an iconic historical image of your struggle to promote your beliefs within contemporary American society?

Let's start with Spartan society, which in the example cited (the 300), was fighting against the expanding Persian Empire.  The Spartans were a tiny group of wealthy landowners whose economy was based on the enslavement of an entire neighboring nation, who euthanized imperfect babies, and where the government took all male children away from their families at the age of seven in order to train and indoctrinate them into service to the state as part of a universal compulsory draft system.  Men were not allowed to marry until they passed their graduation exams (at 18 or 19), and could not marry women younger than 18 (having sex with a girl who was not yet of an age to enjoy it properly was considered rape).  Once married, a man couldn't live with his wife until turning 30, until then, the man could only see his family at public festivals and during nighttime conjugal visits, while the woman had complete control over the household, property and children.

Persia, (incidentally ruled by the white, Aryan race) was the leading civilization of its time in terms of wealth, technology and knowledge.  The functions of government included national defense, infrastructure (road building, mostly), the postal service, and communications (in the form of public offices with multilingual scribes who would read, write, and translate documents for a fee), and very little else.  Monogamous marriage was the norm, and children were raised by their parents.  They did have a developing states rights issue at the time, as Xerxes was trying to spread their monotheistic religion and impose principles like the abolition of slavery, but otherwise respected the traditional values of mostly autonomous regions within the empire.

Which one sounds more like America today?  Which sounds more like the America those guys want to live in?

And yet, that's not the really strange part.  The really strange part is that a group that, one assumes, is hoping to be successful in promoting its goals would take as its model a military band that chose to fight what they knew would be a losing battle.  The 300 defended the pass at Thermoplyae in the hopes (according to one theory, anyway) of reducing the losses of the remaining Greek forces so they would survive to fight the Persians later.  Even though there was no possibility those survivors would be able to defeat the Persians anyway.  How are "Christian" values supported by mass suicide?  (Could they be subtly signaling a shift in their position on euthanasia?)  More importantly, why are they portraying themselves as martyrs, destined to die in a hopeless cause?

300 was a fun flick.  It was even, despite its many ludicrous aspects, somewhat inspiring.  Taking it as a model for trying to bring about cultural/spiritual change in 2010s America?  That's what we like to call nothistory.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

History wants more than "oops"

Is it just me, or is the Catholic Church ironically crap at the whole apology thing?  For a group that invented the notion of confession, they don't seem to get that it's not enough to just say, "Oops, got that one wrong."  A real apology, like a confession, has to include acknowledgment of more than error, it requires acknowledgment of harm done, guilt for that harm, and a genuine effort to ameliorate the harm.  Saying "mistakes were made" in the handling of the pedophile priest issue isn't enough.  And exonerating Jews for the death of Jesus? Not even close to enough.  Start with acknowledging the centuries of slaughter, including Crusades, Inquisitions, and pogroms.  Then acknowledge complicity in the Holocaust.  That might be a start.  Because that still doesn't cover the multitude of expulsions, removals, and loss of property that damaged the lives of those not killed.  Nor does it address the pain of ongoing humiliations suffered by those you and your followers, acting on your guidance, 'allowed' to remain in their own homes.  "Oops, got that one wrong" seems to be all you are capable of saying, and it's not even close to a beginning of a true apology. 

The thing is, unlike the pedophile priests, which to the best of our knowledge at least, are a recent problem, this one is historical, and while the Catholic Church has a long way to go to earn the forgiveness of those it has hurt in recent years by enabling predators access to innocent bodies and souls, it has roughly 1700 years worth of atonement to perform for the malicious and false accusation of murder, for the vile notions of collective and inherited guilt, and for the blood libel. 

Once you've finished that one, you can start working on an apology to the African people.  Had you forgotten about them?  Or do you imagine that your complicity in the slave trade is far enough in the past that the rest of us had?   Alone of all the world's current major religions, you have spouted the absurd notion that your vengeful god curses entire races of humans in perpetuity.  It was not enough to turn this literal weapon of mass destruction against the Jews, you tarred all Africans with that same notion of inherited guilt when your theologians declared them, in the complete absence of any supporting evidence, to be the recipients of the curse of Ham, and therefor marked by your god as slaves.  Instead of teaching tolerance and love, like any self-respecting religious faith, for centuries you have both incited and justified cruelty and viciousness in your followers.  Are you planning another "oops" statement for that little embarrassment in your past?  Not to mention the things you've done to those you decreed as heretics.

"Oops" isn't enough.  No number of "oopses" can brush away historical crimes that remain shrouded in secrecy.  The victims may be gone, but their memories are still languishing in the shadows.  As any good priest knows, the first step in confession is to admit your sins.  Open up the Vatican records, let in the light of public scrutiny.  Give the world knowledge of your crimes and your victims, and give yourself up to the judgment of history.  Because "oops" isn't enough to earn you absolution.