Monday, April 30, 2007

The Heavenly Messenger of 1006

1001 years ago tonight...

The evening of April 30, 1006, would have started like any other spring evening in north-central Egypt. As the sun set, the mid-80 degree temperatures would have sluiced off like water down a drain, dropping quickly into the low- to mid-60’s. The setting sun would have illuminated the western sides of the Pyramids at Giza, casting them in a golden orange glow until the disc of the sun dropped below the horizon. The purple-blue sky would have quickly descended into a vast, moonless black. The moon’s last quarter had begun on April 23rd, and April 30th marked the night of the new moon. The stars that night would have shown like grains of sand on a beach, the stellar light added to only by cooking fires spread across the Muslim village of Cairo.

Abu’l Hasan Ali ibn Ridwan Al-Misri was roughly 10 or 11 years old on that moonless Egyptian night. Born near Giza, he was an exceptionally bright child, fascinated by the heavens, devoted to Allah, and interested in the workings of the human body. He would one day become a prominent physician and astronomer, writing commentaries on ancient Greek medical practices and engaging in lively polemics against a rival physician and thinker across the deserts in Baghdad.

But on this night, the night of April 30, 1006, Ali ibn Ridwan, as he was more commonly known, was still a curious and eager child, with the world at his doorstep. He must have stepped out of that doorstep on that fateful evening, perhaps to engage in a nightly routine of stargazing, or perhaps to perform some mundane household task. Whatever the reason, what he saw in the sky that night would remain in his mind forever.

As he gazed into the heavens on that dark, moonless night, he saw what astronomers now know was the brightest and most intense supernova ever witnessed and recorded by human beings.

Later in life, Ali ibn Ridwan would write that it was about three times the size and intensity of Venus (which was, and is, a very bright, prominent body in the night sky), and that the overall intensity was about one-quarter the brightness of a full moon. Indeed, it was so bright, it cast shadows on the ground, much like the moon can do on a clear night. A modern astronomer commenting on the event stated that it was probably so bright, one could likely have read a text or manuscript by its light.

Egyptians weren’t the only ones who witnessed this timeless stellar event. Benedictine monks in Switzerland wrote of the supernova, “in a wonderful manner this was sometimes contracted, sometimes diffused, and moreover sometimes extinguished.”

According to Chinese astrologers, who left the most detailed report of the event, the supernova was east of the constellation of Lupus, south of Di, and one degree west of Centaurus. These same astrologers claimed its brightness equaled half the intensity of the full moon.

The supernova remained visible in varying degrees of intensity throughout the summer, before disappearing in the fall. As the earth rotated, it became visible again in December, and appeared off and on for at least the next year and a half. A recently discovered Native American petroglyph from roughly the same era is believed to also record the event (see this CNN article.)

In 1965, astronomers verified the factuality of the various ancient texts when they first detected radio waves and X-rays emitting from the remnant of the explosion. It was long believed, based on the eyewitness reports, that the supernova of 1006 was a Type Ia explosion, meaning, among other things, that it lacked hydrogen. A Type Ia explosion had been suspected primarily based on the reports from the Swiss monks of the star’s tendency to change in intensity, diffuse, and disappear. Type Ia supernovae do not collapse into neutron stars or form black holes, and, verifying the initial suspicions about the nature of the 1006 supernova, no neutron star or black hole has ever been detected in the remnant.

The next time you casually step outside on a clear night and stare up into the sky, remember Ali ibn Ridwan, and marvel at the vastness and timeless beauty of the universe.

A Type Ia supernova just outside the border of galaxy NGC 4526.

Friday, April 27, 2007



That's right. SUCK ON IT!!

Come on September 1st!!!!!!!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thunder Over Louisville

Saturday, April 21st, 2007, dawned crisp and clear, with a pristine blue sky stretching unmarred from horizon to horizon. I had been looking forward to this day since March, when my best friend Russell first suggested that we go to Thunder Over Louisville together.

Thunder is a relatively new annual tradition in Louisville, first begun in 1990 as a way to kick off the traditional Kentucky Derby festivities. It takes place two Saturdays before the Derby itself, and it inaugurates fourteen days of citywide entertainment, culminating with the fastest two minutes in sports. It consists of the country’s 5th largest air show, which takes place all afternoon and into the early evening, and ends with the largest annual fireworks show in the United States.

According to the official estimates, as many as 1 million people turn out for Thunder Over Louisville. Roughly 700,000 on the Kentucky side, and another 300,000 on the Indiana side. Considering there is only about 1.2 or 1.3 million in the Greater Louisville area, these figures show how many out-of-towners converge on the city on this day. A 2001 estimate stated that the 1-day show brings in about 31 million dollars for the local economy, and I suspect it is probably a lot higher than that by now.

Russell and I arrived in downtown Louisville at about 2:00 on Saturday. The capitalist parking lot owners were out in full force, with some lots charging as much as $45 for parking. We passed those lots by and found a “cheaper” lot a few blocks farther on where we paid a measly (!!!) $20 for parking. The lot belonged to a funeral home, and the director was in the parking lot taking cash and directing us into the appropriate slot, which was probably not too terribly unfamiliar to him, what with sliding bodies out of morgue trays and all. He offered to let us use the bathroom inside if need be, which I thought was kind of him, even if we had just paid him twenty dollars to park our car on his pavement. No death calls today, please! I’m making more money committing anal rape in my parking lot!

As is his tradition, Russell had brought along a bottle of Jim Beam to help liven things up a bit, but there were too many people around to safely carry it with us, so we decided to leave it in the car and come back for it later. We began the 25-minute walk to the main festival area, which was situated on the river right in front of the Louisville Bats baseball stadium. Even as far out as the stadium, a number of people had blankets and chairs set up, not feeling the need to get any closer to the mass of humanity that was slowly converging on the riverfront. Police were everywhere, and a line of ambulances sat idling along the street, ready to whisk away the inevitable heat stroke, heart attack, and broken bone victims that must surely appear when so many people are in one spot.

We entered the festival area, which was situated underneath and around the JFK Memorial Bridge. Rows and rows of food stands lined the main drag, consisting of everything from the typical fairground hotdogs and corn dogs, to Greek gyros, barbecue, and sirloin tips. Even this early in the afternoon, it was already quite crowded. To our right, nearer the river, the various branches of the military each had interactive displays, complete with a rope ladder to test your climbing skills for the Navy, a pull-up bar to test your upper body strength with the Marines, and some kind of obstacle course to run for the Army.

Naturally, Russell and I directed our attention directly at the Chow Wagon. This was an enclosed area near the center of the festival grounds where alcohol (as well as more food) was sold. You had to purchase a 3-dollar Pegasus pin to get in, and then you had to show your ID and get a green bracelet to show that you were 21. None of the food stands or beer stands in the Chow Wagon take cash; instead, you had to purchase food tickets or alcohol tickets: 50 cents for a food ticket, and a dollar for a beer ticket. A 20-ounce beer cost 6 tickets and your basic Oscar Mayer wiener, grilled black, would set you back 4 tickets. A gyro sandwich cost a whopping 12 tickets. Once you got your Pegasus pin from the vendor outside, passed through the turnstiles showing your pin to the guard, obtained your green bracelet from the ID booth, and purchased your tickets from the ticket booth, you then took your tickets to your food/beer stand of choice and bought your food and/or drinks.

Russell and I went through this highly convoluted and complicated process (which is clearly meant to weed out any drinkers with less than a Ph.D in Physics, although somehow the white trash still managed to get through), and finally got 2 frosty Bud Lights, which we summarily downed with gusto.

Inside the Chow Wagon

There was a cover band with a female singer playing Country Hits of Your Grandparents’ Generation and throwing in an occasional Electric Slide just for shits and giggles. Honestly, they weren’t that bad, but I could have done with a band playing more upbeat music from the last 20 years or so, as opposed to 1960’s and 70’s hits of Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt. When they mentioned that they would be playing a set following the fireworks show, Russell and I gave it some serious consideration, but then decided to go insert fishhooks into our eyeballs instead.

At 3:00, the air show started. It was hard not to realize when it began, because it started with a double afterburner F-22 Raptor streaking across the sky, followed by a roar that made the eardrums buzz. The F-22 was followed by a series of other deafening jets, before some more serene propeller planes took over, flying in formation and performing various tricks.

After standing in the sun for while, draining two more beers, taking some pictures of the planes, and then walking around the waterfront for half an hour or so, we decided to head back to the car to crack open the Beam. It was in the upper 70’s outside, and not a cloud in the sky, so we were losing a lot of fluid to sweat, and replacing it not with water, but with beer. So even with only a few beers apiece, we were both feeling pretty good. I’m not much on bourbon, especially after I’ve already had beer, but Russell loves it, so I decided to be a trooper. For his sake.

We hiked back to the car and were disappointed to find that there were still some funeral home personnel lingering around the parking lot. So we sat in the car for a few minutes, finished the pack of cigarettes we had started earlier, and then, all stealthy-like, poured a bunch of bourbon into the Cokes we had purchased before walking out of the festival area. There was no reliable way to carry the bottle with us without getting caught, so we decided to leave it permanently in the car. For this reason, we made what would be our only mixed drink quite strong. Bourbon with a splash or two of Coke, really.

As the day wore on, the crowds began to swell. By the time we returned with our illicit drinks, the mass of humanity seemed to have doubled. Where the Chow Wagon had been a slight reprieve from the heavy crowds outside earlier in the day, by 5:30 it was as crowded as any other area we had been in. Unfortunately, after walking back inside, the guards made us pour out our drinks, which we had only half finished. It wasn’t because he knew there was liquor in it; apparently you simply aren’t allowed to bring beverages in from outside, even if they were bought at a festival stand. We were too buzzed by this time to realize we could have just walked back outside and finished the drinks before entering the Chow Wagon, so instead we dumped them unceremoniously into the garbage.

Since we were now without beverage, like two newborns without pacifiers, we immediately went to buy more beer, but had to stand in a line stretching to Memphis to buy tickets. When we had finally rescued the Bud Light from the keg and had it safely in our hands, we returned to the place we had been standing earlier, against a wall right in front of a small waterfall that provided a nice cool breeze.

I sat for a while, having been drained of energy by the bourbon, while Russell stood and presumably tried not to look drunk.

I finally stood back up right about the time an older black man, with a few missing teeth, curly hair tied into a very short bun/ponytail behind his head, and wearing a slick green suit with a yellow turtleneck, leather shoes, and no socks, walked up, complaining that someone had stolen his cigarettes. He had stood up, he said, to dance a little to the music, and when he turned around, his cigarettes were gone. He wasn’t mad, though, because that’s just the way life goes sometimes. I offered him some of ours, but he declined, assuring me that the lady next to him had just sold him five cigarettes for a dollar – an act which he found to be immensely kind and generous, apparently forgetting that you can get 20 for about $2.50 at any corner gas station.

He and I began chatting. I learned that his last name was Cooper, and I won’t make any attempt to recreate his first name, as it was nothing I had ever heard before and sounded either tribal African or otherwise made up. He was not an evangelist, he told me, but he was simply called to show God’s love. God, he said, was allowing him to have a few beers because he had just graduated from culinary school. That very day. It was a gift, he assured me, and it was not something he would do again, because he didn’t want to take advantage of that gift. He’s not a crack cocaine user, he doesn’t do all that yellow rock. That’s the past. God has transformed his life. How has God transformed his life? Well, he went from a double-barreled shotgun pointed at his mouth to the man you see today dressed in these fine clothes. You see, it happened back in 1998. He found out that his wife was “sucking dicks” for money. His kids told him. He’d come home and his son would say, “Daddy, Mama had those men over again today.” She was sucking dicks for cash. He was so distraught, and so high on that yellow rock, that he decided he couldn’t live anymore. He came home, put a round into a double-barreled shotgun, chambered it and cocked it, and then stuck it in his mouth. But before he pulled the trigger, he prayed. Suddenly a bright light glowed around him, so bright he had to shield his eyes. It was coming from behind him, and he turned to look. He heard a voice that told him everything was going to be okay. This was, apparently, God, not the yellow rock talking. He felt a sudden peace in his heart (as opposed to the piece that had been in his mouth). He put the gun down, lay back, and slept better than he had ever slept in his life, waking up the next morning feeling like a new man. Ever since then, he’s been working to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction (hadn’t had a drink in two years, he said, until God gave him the gift of beer that day as a reward for graduating from culinary school), and he was working at the YMCA as a cook, with his new degree. He was currently in “transitional living,” which was his phrase for “living in a homeless shelter,” working at the YMCA and the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army, he admitted, was where he had gotten his nice suit, because “you know, I gotta get mine, too.”

While this 45-minute conversation of testimony and the Divine Reward of Beer was going on, Russell, I found out later, was sneaking puffs on a joint from a girl standing next to him who had gladly produced it. By the time Mr. Cooper finally left (he was going home because he couldn’t get drunk on God’s Reward that night – he had bible study and church on Sunday), the joint was gone, and the girl walked away about the same time. Damn my luck.

We stood around for a while longer, until Russell accidentally spilled his beer down the wall in front of the waterfall. We decided it was time to head toward the main lawn area, which is the best viewing area for the fireworks. It was about 8:15.

The main lawn area was like Woodstock, without the mud. Just a sea of bodies, lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers, stretching for as far as the eye could see. It probably took us half an hour just to get through the crush of bodies and find a 5-foot area of grass where we could stand.

Thunder Over Woodstock

It was at this point that all the Obligatory Patriotic Bullshit started. Since I went to Thunder Over Louisville with Russell back in 2004 or 2005, I had known this was coming, but I had been dreading it all the same. It started with two helicopters flying in the dusk sky, spotlights illuminating the fluttering Stars and Stripes hanging down from their landing skids. A deep, heavy voice – the kind of voice you hear at those overly dramatic EPCOT exhibits: rich and deep, penetrating, dripping with the weight of historical importance – began giving a soliloquy on American history. “From a farmer-turned-general who would lead This Great Nation through its Revolution against the Forces of Tyranny, to the Kentucky-born president who would Emancipate the Slaves, and to the selfless actions of the Greatest Generation in the War to End All Wars, America the Beautiful has stood as One Nation Under God, never faltering in the Face of Adversity, but always Standing Up For Freedom...” blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. This, naturally, was followed by a rousing rendition of God Bless America, followed, as could only be expected, by an equally rousing rendition of Your Favorite Song and Mine, Proud to Be An American. Because hey, at least I know I’m free.

There was a group of teenage girls not far from where we were standing. They weren’t the slutty teenage type, but looked, instead, like a group of girls from a church youth group. During God Bless America, they were doing sign language to the lyrics (I mean, does anything scream CHURCH more than sign language to a patriotic song?), and for the word “bless” they made a cross with their fingers. Now, I don’t know sign language, but I was betting that motion wasn’t the word for “bless.” I looked it up today, and sure enough, “bless” is done by placing both fists on the chin, thumbs back, and then moving the hands downward, palms open and toward the floor. So these kids had learned sign language to God Bless America, but had learned “bless” as two crossed index fingers.

I’m not sure what was worse – listening to the soliloquy and the songs, or watching all the shirtless, sunburned white trash saluting, waving miniature flags, singing, and slow-dancing with their trashy girlfriends with expressions of deep meditation on the Greatness of Our Country and the Sacrifice of Our Troops.

Thankfully, God herself finally intervened and made the fireworks start, thereby ending the Orwellian fervor of Patriotic Bliss that was happening all around me.

Fireworks are, well, fireworks. You can see the pictures, although it doesn’t do them justice.

Opening salvo.

Atom with nucleus.

Burning bridge.

The heart.

Final blast.

There were two areas of fireworks, with the main one spread right out in front of us, covering the majority of the sky. They were being shot from the bridges and from barges on the river. You could feel the concussions in your chest, and sometimes the sky was so bright it was like stadium lights had been turned on. The show lasted about half an hour, ending first with a faux climax, and then starting up again in an utter blitzkrieg of colored fire in the sky.

When the show was finally over, Russell and I made a quick exit, hoping to beat some of the mass of humanity back toward Main Street. Once there, we made our way to Stevie Ray's, which is a blues bar dedicated to the memory of Stevie Ray Vaughan, a great rock n’ roll blues guitarist. We went there after our Thunder experience in 2004 or 2005, and we had had a great time. Turns out, the same band was there, a local blues powerhouse called The Predators. I can say, without any question, that this is the best local band I have ever heard anywhere in any city at any event. The lead singer has an amazing voice, the band as a whole is tight and accurate, they perform without the slightest sense of tension or urgency, and the lead guitarist is hands down the best electric guitarist I have ever seen perform live, with the exception of Alex Lifeson of Rush. He seems to be as good as Stevie Ray himself, and the tone and timbre of his guitar is identical to Stevie Ray’s. They played, naturally, a lot of Stevie Ray’s music, but also played a lot of other songs, ranging from 1960’s Motown hits to modern rock songs. The last time we went, they even played Prince’s “Sexy Motherfucker,” which is hardly a blues-style song, but which they performed flawlessly.

The place was pretty crowded, but we were able to find seats at a table on the patio. The crowd swelled very quickly, and soon a group of very attractive 20-something couples were sitting all around us. You know the type: guys and girls who look like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie ad. They were all pretty drunk, and kept hitting the table and knocking their drinks over. Two beer bottles were spilled on the table, a third bottle crashed to the ground and shattered, and a vodka and cranberry was dropped to the floor, splashing my legs. That all happened in about 30 minutes’ time.

It was so crowded that we were unable to get another round from the waitress, so after about an hour, we went inside, ordered another round from the bar, and found an empty table near the stage that someone had just vacated. By now it was well after midnight, and I was pretty tired and drained. All day outside in the heat and sun, nothing to drink but alcohol, nothing to eat but a $4 burnt Oscar Mayer wiener, and about a pack and a half of cigarettes. I didn’t even finish the second beer, but left it about two-thirds full on the table. We paid our tab and left.

On the way home, naturally, we stopped at Taco Bell and bought about 4 pounds of food. We got home and binged it right on down, chased with a glass of water and, for Russell, a couple of hits on the bowl (that’s slang for “he smoked pot”). His brother Chad came over for a little while, but we were already so tired and half asleep that I don’t remember much after he showed up. I know he had beers with him, but Russell and I both declined. I’m not sure when he left.

I actually wasn’t that drunk by this time. Following my last Chow Wagon beer, which I finished about 8:00, I only had the 1.4 bottles of beer at Stevie Ray’s, and that wasn’t until between 10:30 and 12:30. But, as I stated earlier, I was simply drained from a day in the sun and a day of drinking, and, especially, from all those damn cigarettes. I woke up several times during the night with a pounding headache and racing heart – the typical Night of Drinking effects that I always get – but felt pretty good the next morning and was not hungover.

And that’s the long and short of my weekend adventure.

Who wants to join us next year?

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Origin of the Virgin Birth Stories

To read more on the tradition of the virgin birth stories, see my newest series of essays:
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part I
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part II
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part III

A thread on the Internet message board I frequent recently had a post by one of the prominent atheists and skeptics that said:

"The virgin birth thing always makes me laugh. What probably happened is Joseph knocked up Mary, but they were too afraid to tell anyone, so some story about a virgin birth got made up. ("Really mom! I don't know how it happened! I had this dream...")"

While I certainly can agree with this person that the virgin birth stories in the bible are mythological, he is as wrong in his perception about the origins of the virgin birth stories as the literalists are in assuming the stories are literal histories.

The virgin birth stories did not get made up in an effort to explain away an illegitimate birth. More than likely, Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary, who were lawfully married and had normal marital sexual relations that produced a normal, healthy child.

Long after Jesus's death, and even after the deaths of all those who knew him personally - a good 3 generations after Jesus died - virgin birth stories began to circulate within the Christian community as a result of the natural progression of the mythology surrounding Jesus.

The concept of a great man being the literal son of a god, and therefore born to a human virgin who is impregnated by said god, was a common theme in ancient mythology.

The most prominent such theme during the time and location in which Jesus lived was the mythology surrounding Romulus, the founder of Rome. He and his twin brother were said to have been birthed by a Vestal Virgin who was raped by a god and later put to death for having children (if a Vestal Virgin lost her virginity, the punishment was death). This mythology was part of the way that later Romans justified raising Romulus to the level of a god himself. Julius Caesar had a statue built next to Romulus and other Roman gods, which was one of the actions that led to his assassination - he seemed to be claiming godship.

Another common virgin birth mythology, that would have been known to many people in the 1st century, was from the Mithras cult. Many parallels, in fact, exist between earlier Mithraic traditions and Christianity - much of what we understand today as Christian traditions were actually Mithraic traditions, later overlayed onto the emerging Christian religion. Mithraism was common in ancient Rome, up until the 4th century C.E., and Mithras was said to have been born of a virgin (although that was one of only many stories about his birth - others said he sprang from a rock). Incidentally, his birthday was celebrated on December 25th, which was the day the ancients calculated to be the date of the Winter Solstice, otherwise celebrated as the day the sun is born (because it's the day that the days begin getting longer; we know now the Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 21st or 22nd).

The Egyptian version ususally didn't involve a heavenly god impregnating a virgin, but it most certainly included a god-king impregnating his queen to produce a god-prince who would someday rule the kingdom.

Mithraism, the story of Romulus and Remus, and the general idea that great men must be conceived by gods rather than regular mortals, explain the genesis and development of the virgin birth stories surrounding Jesus. It had absolutely nothing to do with attempting to cover up any illegitimacies. If such scandals had surrounded Jesus's life - for instance, from enemies trying to discredit him - the last thing that people would do is say "Oh, well, his Mom got impregnated by God, that's how it happened!!" To even suggest such a thing is absurd. They clearly would have come up with some way to show that Joseph and Mary's union was lawful and that, therefore, Jesus's birth was legitimate.

It is clear that the virgin birth mythology surrounding Jesus has an origin completely unrelated to any attempt to cover up an embarassing illegitimacy. It does not appear in the Christian tradition until about 80-85 C.E., and it seems to disappear from the Christian tradition after about 95-100 C.E.

Indeed, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only Christian writings in existence that mention anything about a virgin birth. None of the letters of Paul (written much earlier than any Gospel), none of the letters of later Christian leaders, neither the Gospels of Mark nor John nor any of the earliest Gnostic Gospels, nor any other canonical text, ever mentions a virgin birth.

Paul, the earliest Christian writer, actually uses terms to refer to Mary that would only be used to refer to a married, sexually-active woman. Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, mentions no virgin birth at all, and the writer of John (the last Gospel to be written), in addition to having no virgin birth tale, actually calls Jesus the "son of Joseph" in chapter 6!

The virgin birth may have, in fact, not even been a widespread belief among 1st century Christians - it may well have been a regional thing among Jewish Christians living in a small area of Roman Jerusalem, established first in writing by the author of Matthew, continued by the Gentile author of Luke, and then dying out thereafter, until resurrected by 2nd and 3rd century Christians who were beginning to study and assemble early Christian writings and attempting to develop a doctrinal view of the meaning of Jesus's life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Burn Out

I don't know what it is, but for the last week or so, I've just been dragging in regards to work and school. I feel fine - this isn't a physical thing; I just have no motivation right now.

The problem with work, I believe, is that I have started seriously thinking about getting a new job, and even went yesterday to submit a resume to a hospital here in town. So now that I have "new job" on my mind, I think it's making my current work totally intolerable. Whereas I've never enjoyed or liked this job, it has always at least been tolerable and not something I dreaded every morning. I'm not exactly to the "dread" point yet, but I feel like I am suddenly progressing toward that point very quickly.

As for school, I feel burned out there as well. It's not the material or anything like that. I enjoy what I'm doing and I think I will enjoy working in this field. I think, perhaps, it's a combination of only getting a week off in between the Winter and Spring quarters (except for that one week, I've been going non-stop since January 2nd), and the fact that I'm in this Rad 200 class three nights a week. While it's nice to only have 2 classes this quarter (Rad 200, plus Psychology on Thursdays), and therefore only two sets of material to learn and be tested on, having 3 or 4 classes each week at least breaks up the monotony. I think having the same class and going over the same kind of material three nights a week simply gets tiring after a while. Some nights I go in there and just totally don't feel like being there - in fact, I've felt that way pretty much every night for the last 3 or 4 class meetings.

I was seriously considering skipping last night, but figured if I did, I'd only end up at the bar, so I went to class instead. I don't want to get into the habit of skipping classes (even though we are allowed to miss up to 6 in this course) because I know from my experiences at Georgetown how easy it can become to just skip class. Since starting at Spencerian, I've never just skipped a class for no reason. I have perfect attendance this quarter, had perfect attendance last quarter, and only missed two half-classes my first quarter, both due to sickness. So I've not even missed a full class since starting at Spencerian.

Anyway, I hope this is just a phase, because damn near every day for the last week or so, I've been wanting to smoke and drink and skip class and skip work and not go home.

Another year and a half of this seems almost impossible, emotionally, right now.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rush's 2007 Tour

Well, if I can talk my wife into letting me be gone two weekends in a row in September to follow Rush around like a groupie, I may be going to St. Paul the second weekend of September to see Rush's final U.S. show on this tour.

The pre-sale sale occurred on Wednesday through Rush's website, and I was able to get a 14th row, center section seat in St. Paul. I also got 23rd row, center section for Columbus, the weekend before. The Cincinnati pre-sale was a joke, and I couldn't get anything at all. However, I have managed to come up with a different avenue for good seats to that show. There was nothing illegal or unethical about how I got the Cincinnati tickets, but it is not something I can advertise here on my blog, so if you want to know, ask me personally.

So, I will, at the very least, be seeing Rush in Cincinnati on September 1, and Columbus on September 2. And if I can get my wife to agree to it, I'll round it out with the final U.S. show in St. Paul one week later.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Two Views on God

There are two interesting email messages I have recently received that I wanted to post. The messages, while tragic, give what I think is an interesting, if not outright disturbing, 21st century view of God. Receiving these messages was strange, because I received an article last week from a friend that I felt was probably best commentary on God that I have ever read. Upon receiving it, I immediately planned on posting it on my blog. I think it provides a unique and interesting parallel to the concept of God outlined in the emails.

I’ll first post the two email messages (with names and locations removed, of course), and then the article.

Email # 1:

SUBJECT: Will you pray?

Some of you may have heard about the tragedy that our family is currently facing. My son-in-law, JOHN DOE, the husband of my daughter JANE DOE, had a freak accident on Tuesday, and is now in desperate need of your prayer support. JOHN is extremely asmatic and apparently very allergic to bees. He was stung while working on a car, and though there's a long horrible story of all that has occurred thereafter, he is currently on life support at A HOSPITAL, and the prognosis is very discouraging. However, we firmly believe in the power of prayer and are counting on you, our friends and family, to interceed on our behalf during this midnight hour.

Please pray for JANE as well, as she's 14 weeks pregnant with our first grandchild and is beside herself, needless to say.

Believing that The Great Physician still makes house calls and that He who raised Lazarus will also raise JOHN.


Email # 2:

SUBJECT: Graduation...

As many of you know, our son-in-law, JOHN DOE, the husband of our precious JANE DOE, experienced supernatural graduation on Friday morning, April 6 . Though we certainly will not pretend to understand God's timing during this dark and devastating hour, we trust Him and lean heavily upon Him for strength and comfort.

JOHN loved the Lord, treasured our daughter, adored his son, and was looking so forward to the arrival of our grandchild this fall. Having known and loved JOHN DOE, our lives will never be the same.

[Funeral information deleted]

Words can never convey our sincere thanks for your prayers and encouragement these past few days. We covet your continued intercession on our behalf.


Now, here is the article:

Rabbi Marc Gellman on Whether God Is Real
The debate about whether God is real misses the true nature of the question. Here's why.
MSNBC Article Link

By Marc Gellman
April 5, 2007

The recent theological disputation between Rick Warren and Sam Harris on whether God is real was wonderfully enlightening—but sadly was offered up without a verdict. Since I am both a professional religious guy and also have a doctorate in philosophy, I thought I might declare a winner in the spirit of the old Yiddish joke in which two disputants ask the rabbi to resolve their argument. After hearing the first man the rabbi says, "You are right." Then the second man protests and tells his side, after which the rabbi says, "You are right." The men go away puzzled and disappointed whereupon a third person complains to the rabbi, "They can't both be right." The rabbi looks at him and says, "You're right, too." So here is my verdict: Both Rick and Sam are right and wrong and if you think this is impossible ... you're right, too.

The problem with these debates is that they do not understand the nature of the question being asked. The French existentialist Gabriel Marcel in his book "The Mystery of Being" helpfully distinguished between two types of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions about things outside of us that we lay siege to. When we answer them correctly they go away forever.

Once chemists thought that a mysterious substance called phlogiston caused combustion. Then in the 1770s Antoine Lavoisier conclusively proved that oxygen causes combustion, and nobody thought about phlogiston again. This is because the question of what causes combustion is a problem, not a mystery.

Mysteries are not questions we constitute (those are problems). Mysteries are, according to Marcel, questions within which we ourselves are constituted. Mysteries are not problems that have not yet been answered. "What is the cure for cancer?" is an unanswered problem, not a mystery, but the question of whether God is real or whether goodness is rewarded or whether there is a purpose to human existence or why do fools fall in love or who put the bop in the bop sh-bop sh-bop—these are all mysteries and they will not go away and they will always be important and they will always define us by the way we answer them with our lives and our hopes.

So both Pastor Warren and atheist Harris have erroneously come to believe that the question of whether God is real is just some problem that can be answered—like how far is it from New York to Cleveland? God cannot be proved with evidence that is outside of us. Said another way, the mystery of God is resolved by the answer we give to it with our life. If a person believes that all human beings are made in the image of God and thus deserve respect, then God is real for that person as the source of his or her transcendent duty to treat all people with love and respect. If, on the other atheist hand, people are just one of many species ruled by the survival of the fittest, then God does not exist for that person and neither does any transcendent duty to treat others with dignity. In this dispute, Sam is not wrong, he is just on the side of those who do not believe in the sanctity of life. Why they believe that others ought to be treated with dignity is not clear to Rick, and it is not clear to me, but I would not make the invidious case that atheists cannot be moral. Nor would I say that Sam is wrong. We might well be alone in a chaotic meaningless cosmos. I stand with Rick in responding to the mystery of meaning in the universe by affirming that I am not alone and that when I look into even Sam's eyes I cannot help but believe that I am looking at the image of God. Sam's response to the mystery of meaning is to try to hold onto the absolute moral judgments born of Rick's and my faith while not allowing the God who both birthed and sustained that moral truth. This, plus Sam's personal desire for a kind of rational spirituality, as well as the massive empirical evidence of religious altruism—which he admits—versus the admittedly thin record of well known atheistic altruism all leads me to believe that Sam Harris may well understand deep down that ditching God is not remotely like ditching Zeus.

As for my evangelical friend Rick Warren, I continue to pray that his faith becomes not less strong but less exclusivist. Perhaps I am, in fact, saved by the atoning death of Jesus, and perhaps I need to say that in order to be saved. I don't believe so, but I do not feel degraded or belittled by Rick's belief that I need to do so. What I believe, the way I respond to the mystery of God as I have learned it through Judaism, is that God did not give all the truth to just one faith. What I believe is that, "The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come." This means that I expect to see Rick and Sam there, but instead of continuing their debate, I expect them to be laughing and saying to each other, "Why didn't we listen to Gellman?"

Happy Passover to my Jewish readers.
Happy Easter to Rick and all my Christian friends.
And to Sam Harris, happy springtime.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Easter Week Day 5 - A Personal Testimony

I thought I would end my series of Easter week essays with a short personal testimony about what I believe in regards to the significance of Easter. I think I have sufficiently explained “why” in my previous four essays, so this essay will simply provide the “what.”

I believe Jesus was executed because he threatened the precarious power base of the Jewish priesthood in Roman Jerusalem. I believe he was crucified and that he died on the cross. I believe his body was taken down and buried, most likely in a common grave. I believe he stayed buried. I do not believe his dead body came back to life and walked out of a tomb. I think it is possible, though not probable, that his body was stolen or desecrated, thus enhancing later “empty tomb” stories. I believe, however, that this has no bearing whatsoever on the message of Easter or the significance of life as a Christian. The resurrection was about the meaning of Jesus’s life and teachings, not the events surrounding his corpse after his death.

My Christian faith centers around the message and life of Jesus. I believe the meaning of that life was finally and ultimately understood by those followers of his who experienced the resurrection. I believe the resurrection was a spiritual event, not a physical one. I believe it was defined by a powerful spiritual awakening experienced in the wake of his death. I believe, in the midst of grief, the disciples, most probably Peter specifically, began to see the meaning of Jesus’s life in a dramatically new light. The disciples began to understand that death could not contain him. Death could not take the meaning of his message. His life transcended death. I believe his followers came to understand that God was, indeed, met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe his followers saw that the coming of the kingdom of God was not some future event to be expected. Rather, they understood that the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality within us all, brought forth when we learn to love as Jesus loved, give as Jesus gave, and live and Jesus lived. In the words of John Shelby Spong, Jesus’s followers came to experience love by giving love and experience life by giving life. Thus was born the idea that Jesus “gave his life for us.”

I believe loving wastefully and completely, living fully in each and every moment, practicing selflessness in every situation, and being the very best that I can be is the way that I live as part of God’s kingdom. When I do these things, I experience God in a very real and powerful way.

When I attempt to understand the Gospels as literal histories, describing chronological historical events, they become disjointed, contradictory, counterintuitive, and devoid of valuable spiritual significance.

But when I read the Gospel accounts through the lens of the midrash tradition which defines their creation, it brings new and significant meaning to the stories of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Indeed, death did not, does not, and cannot contain him!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Easter Week Day 4 - The Tradition of Midrash

Understanding the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life hinges upon our ability to understand the mindset of a first century Jew, and to understand what midrash is and how it was used by Jewish scribes and storytellers.

In a nutshell, midrash was a technique employing ancient spiritual and cultural images to describe and explain current experiences. It was used to give descriptive image and voice to events that stood otherwise outside the realm of description.

By way of example, and to put it in modern, American terms, I might write midrashically on the greatness of General George Meade during the battle of Gettysburg by saying the following:

Gathering his troops around him, General Meade was faced with a difficult decision. His troops needed food and shelter from the cold, but the closest town – Gettysburg – was on the other side of an ice-bound river. The enemy was closing in from the south, and a messenger galloped through Meade’s temporary barracks warning that the Greycoats were coming. Making a decision that would change the course of the war, Meade set his face for Gettysburg and loaded his troops into makeshift rafts, crossing the frozen, treacherous river. He lost not a single man in the crossing, and his troops took up defensive positions in Gettysburg, awaiting the Rebel attack.

Now, what I have done is describe a real event, but I have woven in images and stories from the Revolutionary War in order to enliven the account and to make sense of Meade’s greatness in the battle. By comparing him to George Washington (through alluding to Washington’s famous crossing of the frozen Delaware River), I am honoring Meade and showing what a great general he was. I have also tied in a second Revolutionary War image, by alluding to a messenger on horseback stating that the “Greycoats” are coming. This is midrash on the story of Paul Revere’s Ride, tied into the account of Meade and Gettysburg to show the timeless importance of the battle.

What I have written is not literal history. Instead, it is a colorful account of a real event (that is, the Battle of Gettysburg), told metaphorically through the lens of several commonly known American stories.

This is how the ancient Jewish midrash tradition worked. It was a storytelling tradition, employed to bring life to modern events and to raise the importance of such events to the realm of mythology. It was the way ancient Jews attempted to explain the inexplicable, describe the indescribable, and give legend to the legendary.

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are midrash. They are told through the lens of Jewish cultural and spiritual images from Jewish scripture. The Gospels were not written, and were never meant, to be read literally. They were meant, instead, to be written tributes to the transcendent greatness met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Their intent was to give written honor to Jesus’s life-changing teachings and example. And they were created as written venerations to an individual who had brought to his followers a spiritual awakening that seemed to stand outside the realm of space and time.

It was not until the Christian movement began to spread in large numbers to the Gentiles – people who had no clear knowledge, background in, or understanding of Jewish culture – that the Gospel accounts and oral traditions began to be misinterpreted and read literally.

Thus, when we look at Mark’s account of the resurrection through the lens of midrash, discarding literal interpretations that were never the intent of the author, we can see a clear liturgical element to the events surrounding the description of the resurrection.

Mark 16:2-7 – Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

“He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” These statements, and, indeed, the entire passage, reads like an early, developing liturgical tradition when seen through the lens of midrash. The proclamation was not that a dead body had literally, at some point in historical time, stood up and walked out of a tomb. Instead, it was a proclamation that death could not contain the meaning of this person’s life. Death could not stop the life-changing power that was met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” In other words, the spiritual awakening that defined the Easter experience for Jesus’s followers occurred in Galilee (not in Jerusalem, as the later Gospels attest).

Even in the latest Gospel – the Gospel of John, written around 100 C.E. – we see signs of liturgical and midrashic tradition.

John 20:11-16 – Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’s body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

You can almost see the liturgy in this passage being enacted in first day of the week services within early Christian communities.

Leader: Christians, why are you crying?
Congregation: They have taken our Lord away and we don’t know where they have laid him.
Leader: Who is it you are looking for?
Congregation: Our Teacher.

In this passage, and through these liturgical elements, we can see pieces of early tradition surrounding the spiritual awakening that occurred in the midst of pain and grieving over Jesus’s death. Mary was looking for Jesus, grieving at his loss, distraught and unsure of where to turn. But then she saw him and he spoke to her – that is, she began, finally, to understand the meaning of his life and how his words and teachings could change her own existence and bring about newness of life in God. The grave could not contain him!

When I read the Gospel accounts through the lens of midrash and with the understanding that I believe was the original intent of the writers, the resurrection accounts take on new and powerful meanings. Not literal accounts of historical events, but midrashic and metaphorical explanations of a spiritual awakening that occurred in the lives of the followers of Jesus in the wake of his tragic and seemingly meaningless death.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Easter Week Day 3 - The Messiah Tradition

Around 1000 B.C.E., a king named David came to the throne of Israel, inheriting a kingdom that had been united by his predecessor from the lands conquered by the Jews of the exodus era. He moved his capital from the Judean town of Hebron to the nearby city of Jerusalem, which he conquered from a Canaanite tribe called the Jebusites. Prior to this time, Jerusalem had been the untouchable pearl of the area, perched unassailably atop a hillside, where it easily gained notoriety as a heavenly city, built literally (as far as the ancient Jews were concerned) right beneath the base of heaven.

One can almost imagine the early Jews looking toward Jerusalem from their capital city of Hebron and marveling at its glory, up there on the hillside, illuminated each evening by the long rays of the setting sun. It is little wonder that they wanted it for themselves. King David helped them achieve this goal, and Jerusalem has been at the center of Jewish culture ever since. Its location and mythological aura helped create such New Testament images as the “New Jerusalem” which would “descend from heaven” at the second coming. Jerusalem had been overrun and largely destroyed around 70 C.E., and the writer of Revelation envisioned Jesus returning in glory to earth to re-establish Jerusalem as the city of God.

After King David came to the throne, the kingdom of Israel flourished for another 70 years or so, through the reign of his son Solomon, until geographic differences caused a split which resulted in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Over the next several hundred years, Judah – with its capital city of Jerusalem – flourished while its northern neighbor struggled and eventually declined. The kingdom of Israel was overrun and ultimately destroyed around 720 B.C.E. by the Assyrians. Judah, however, continued on until roughly 590 B.C.E., when it was overrun in a series of attacks by the Babylonians. The Judeans were deported and sent into exile in Babylon while their kingdom and their capital city of Jerusalem sat in ruins, overrun by foreigners.

The Jews remained in exile for roughly 40-50 years, or two generations. During that time, the first nuggets of the messiah tradition began to develop. The Jews envisioned a son of God arising from the Jewish ranks to return the Jews to Davidic glory. To the ancient Jew, “son of God” did not mean someone who was literally the divine offspring of God. Rather, it was a term used to describe the king of Judah or Israel, that is, God’s “chosen” or “anointed” leader on earth. Many ancient cultures referred to their king as “God’s son.” Thus, the messiah tradition began as one of a mighty, conquering king. Included in this tradition was the idea that this king would be “of the line of David,” as David was the legendary king who had led the united Israel through its golden age.

Around 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus finally allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. By now, most all the people of the original exile were dead, so those returning were children of the exile, knowing their homeland only through stories and oral traditions.

Unfortunately, when they began arriving back home en masse, they discovered to their horror that the celebrated homeland they had heard about from their parents and grandparents while sitting around the campfires of Babylon was nothing but a toppled, deserted wasteland. Their cities were crumbling and the desert was taking back over. Foreigners occupied their houses and properties, worshipping foreign gods under foreign religious traditions. Hardly the glorious return they had expected and hoped for.

At this point, the messiah traditions began transforming from ideas of a great and powerful king to ideas of a “suffering servant,” a prophet who would raise Israel to newness of life in God. It became a “spiritual” idea rather than a physical one, as there seemed to be no hope for any physical return to glory for Israel.

Into this mindset came an unnamed and unknown prophet whose writings eventually came to be tagged on to the end of the Isaiah scrolls. From Isaiah chapter 40 and onward, a different writer is writing, and this writer’s works (chapter 40 through the end of the book of Isaiah) are known in scholarly circles as “2 Isaiah.” It is within these chapters that the “suffering servant” version of the messianic tradition is described. These are the passages most often quoted in the New Testament, and by modern Christians, when referring to Old Testament prophecies about the messiah. This model stated that the messiah would be a prophet and servant who would suffer for mankind and who, because he was so utterly pure, would take on the sins of the Jewish nation in order to bring about the kingdom of God.

Within a generation or two of the writing of 2 Isaiah, the older versions of messianic traditions began cropping up again. Israelite lands were being rebuilt and reclaimed, and the Jewish nation was slowly but surely returning to glory. The “suffering servant” of 2 Isaiah was more or less forgotten in favor of the older “conquering king” models. The models began taking on an increasingly mythological and fanciful quality, as the Jews began to hope for a king who would ultimately raise the Jewish nation into oneness with God and ultimate control of their lands. This became especially important once the Jewish nation came under the sphere of Roman influence.

Into this Jewish culture came Jesus of Nazareth, an alternate wisdom teacher and faith healer who called his followers into newness of life in God, and presented a major threat to the Jewish power base in Roman-controlled Jerusalem. After Jesus was executed, and his followers were attempting to understand his life against the backdrop of their Jewish heritage and culture, someone, or some group of people, began to see parallels between Jesus’s life and the obscure “suffering servant” messiah talked about in the final chapters of the book of Isaiah.

The mythologies and prophetic connections, including the idea that Jesus was “of the line of David,” began building from there within the mindset of the early Christian community. By the time of the Gospels and most of the other New Testament books, Israel was once again defeated and the Jews dispersed, and this time, there was no going back. No chance of ever returning to glory. This only helped to fuel the belief by many converts that Jesus was the messiah, and that the messiah was not a conquering king, but one who would suffer to bring spiritual glory instead.

The Gospels, of course, tell us that Jesus was recognized during his life as this long-awaited messiah. An early passage in Mark’s account has Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds “You are the Christ [that is, the Messiah].” However, it seems absurd to suggest that Peter actually said this, especially so early in Jesus’s ministry. If Peter and the others had recognized messianic prophecies in Jesus so early on, their behavior as described in the Gospels later makes no sense. Their later misunderstandings, denials, and abandonments are nonsensical if they had understood all along that he was the suffering servant messiah, and, as such, must therefore suffer for the glory of humanity. If they had understood this idea during Jesus’s life, they would not have been such bumbling idiots later.

For me, it seems clear that the messianic models were not applied to Jesus until after his death, and after the spiritual awakening that defined the resurrection experience for his followers.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Easter Week Day 2 - The Burial of Jesus

Christian Easter traditions state that, after Jesus was crucified, he was taken down from the cross and buried by a mysterious character named Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a wealthy Jewish leader, and, so the story goes, he used his own tomb to bury Jesus’s body, covering the tomb entrance with a large, round stone.

These images are an integral part of the Easter story, and have given rise to our concepts of the “stone” being “rolled away,” the angel perched atop the stone to announce Jesus’s resurrection, and the women “entering the tomb” to anoint Jesus’s body.

A recent scholarly account that I have come across argues that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character (which I believe is probably true), and that, in fact, Jesus was probably not buried in a tomb at all.

This argument is based on several intriguing textual clues, as well as the custom of the times. In ancient Rome, when criminals were crucified, their bodies were taken down by the soldiers and buried in common, mass graves. The only reason Christian tradition holds that this was not true for Jesus is because of the Joseph of Arimathea story (which the Gospel of John adds to by including another Jewish leader and secret follower of Jesus, a man named Nicodemus, who appears several times in John’s account). If evidence exists to suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea tradition is fictional, then the only assumption that can be made is that Jesus was buried by the soldiers in a mass grave. Thus, we turn to the texts.

The first clue involves the reason for the visit to the tomb by the women. In this tradition, the women come on the morning after the Sabbath to “anoint” Jesus’s body. This seems a strange thing for them to do, considering that all the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea state that Joseph anointed Jesus’s body and prepared it for burial. There would be no reason for the women to go two days later to anoint Jesus’s body again. In fact, for an ancient Jew, to mess with a dead body that had already been prepared adequately and buried would have been a desecration. This suggests, perhaps, that there are echoes of earlier traditions in this later Sunday morning tomb story – that is, an early tradition might have stated that female followers of Jesus went to find Jesus’s grave so they could give him a proper Jewish anointing, since he was otherwise buried by non-Jews in a common grave.

The second clue involves the common Gospel theme of how Jesus’s followers abandoned him at the hour of his death. With the exception of John’s Gospel, which states that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” remained by Jesus’s side to the end (a rather transparent attempt by the writer(s) of John to glorify the disciple John, who was the patron of this particular group of Christians), the Gospels tell us that all of Jesus’s followers and disciples scattered at the crucifixion. Jesus was effectively abandoned to the authorities, as his followers attempted to save their own skins. Thus, there was no one around to stop the soldiers from taking Jesus’s body and burying it according to Roman custom.

This is the reason, no doubt, for the genesis of the Joseph of Arimathea story – since it was widely known that Jesus’s followers had abandoned him at the end, Jesus’s biographers had to come up with some way of getting Jesus from a common Roman grave to a tomb that could later be found empty. Thus, Joseph of Arimathea shows up suddenly in Mark’s Gospel to take charge of Jesus’s body.

If this is true, it does not, in my opinion, mean that Mark and the other Gospel writers were making it all up. By the time of Mark’s Gospel, around 70 C.E., the empty tomb tradition was well established in the budding Christian community. Mark simply had to come up with a way to account for the fact that no one had been around to bury Jesus, other than the Roman authorities. So in order to reconcile that problem, it seems likely that he came up with the character of Joseph of Arimathea.

When we look to the earlier New Testament texts, we find no mention of this Joseph, or even of anything like an empty tomb or a rolled away stone. Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, says only that Jesus “was buried.” There is no elaboration at all – no mention of a “tomb” and no mention of any of the events surrounding the tomb. In fact, outside of the Gospels and Acts, there is no mention of a tomb for Jesus at all in any New Testament writing.

The final textual clue – and perhaps the most compelling – comes to us from the book of Acts. It is found in a sermon attributed to Paul – the same Paul who never, in his own writings, mentioned anything about an empty tomb or a burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The passage, found in Acts 13, states the following: “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”

Pay special attention to that final sentence. Paul, speaking through the pen of the writer of Acts, states that the Jewish authorities, through Rome, took charge of Jesus’s burial!

The writer of Acts was the same writer who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and that writer’s Gospel, like the others, includes the Joseph of Arimathea tradition. However, it would appear that, in this portion of his second volume, while transcribing a sermon attributed to Paul, Luke fell back into an earlier tradition surrounding Jesus’s burial – one that knew Jesus had been buried by the authorities, not by his own followers.

The clues all add up to indicate that perhaps Jesus was not buried in a tomb at all, but rather in a common Roman grave, with the other criminals (and there may have been many) who were executed with him.

I can’t say, at this point, that I find this argument totally convincing – I think there is probably no way to know for sure. Maybe he was buried in a private tomb and maybe he wasn’t. However, I think the clues and the conclusion are consistent and intriguing, and if nothing else, I think it points strongly to the reality that the stories of Jesus are Jewish midrash, written metaphorically and for the purpose of describing, through the lens of Jewish spiritual tradition, the transcendent God-experience met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Easter Week Day 1 - The Tradition of Three Days

Christian tradition states that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon, died near sundown, was taken down from the cross and buried, remained dead throughout Saturday, then rose sometime before dawn on Sunday morning (the “first day of the week”).

Bearing this in mind, did Jesus make a mistake in predicting the amount of time before his resurrection? If not, how can the following be explained:

Mark 8:31 – He [Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

Matthew 12:40 – (Jesus speaking) “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

You can do the simple math here. Three days from Friday evening is Monday evening, not Sunday morning. According to tradition as I outlined above, Jesus was dead for about 36 hours – not even two full days. Yet in Mark, and again in Matthew, Jesus predicts he will rise “after three days” and that he will be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth.

Those who claim biblical infallibility are faced with a dilemma here. They must either admit that Jesus – the divine Son of God – got his own resurrection prediction wrong, or they must admit that the bible is fallible. It simply can’t be both ways. Either Jesus was dead and buried for a day and a half (as the “first day of the week” resurrection tradition implies), or he was dead and buried for three days and three nights, as an apparently earlier Christian tradition stated.

When you take a deeper look at the Synoptic texts (that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke), a clear progression of events begins to come to light surrounding the three days/first day of the week dichotomy. (I exclude the Gospel of John from this because John has no references at all to Jesus predicting the progression of days between his crucifixion and his resurrection.)

To start, it is important to understand the background of just what “three days” meant to the average first century Jew. Three days, according to Jewish apocryphal teachings, was the amount of time that would pass after the end of the world before the ushering in of the kingdom of God. Obviously, this is counter-intuitive, as there could be no “days” after the “end of the world.” But that mindbending concept was sort of the point of the mythology – the kingdom of God is bigger than our concept of reality and stands squarely outside of our concept of space and time. Thus, the idea of significant events occurring around a 3-day time frame was common in Jewish scripture. In the Old Testament, there are no less than 70 different references to events occurring either “on the third day” or “after three days” or “within three days,” etc. Like the number 12 and its various multiples, 3 was an important number to the ancient Hebrews, and “three days” was a spiritual concept that was never meant to imply literal chronological time.

When the Gospel writers sat down to write their accounts of Jesus’s life, they had a clear and spiritually-relevant image of the significance of “three days.” As they wrote their accounts, they used this Jewish image midrashically – that is, they incorporated this ancient Jewish apocryphal concept into the story of Jesus of Nazareth as a means of displaying the importance of Jesus’s teachings on their own spiritual awakening.

However, in doing so, they also needed to fix the competing traditions within the Christian community of Jesus being dead “three days” before his resurrection (which appears to be the earlier tradition), and Jesus rising on “the first day of the week” (which appears to have developed sometime later).

Mark, the first gospel writer, writing in about 70 C.E. (that is, about two generations after the death of Jesus), does not appear to have a problem with the conflict. Throughout his Gospel, and on more than one occasion, he has Jesus predict that he will rise from the dead “after three days.” However, during his resurrection account, he goes with the dawn of Sunday morning tradition, stating that the women went “on the first day of the week” to anoint Jesus’s body and subsequently found the tomb empty.

Matthew was the next Gospel to be written, and it was composed about 10-15 years after Mark, around 80 C.E. The defining characteristic of this Gospel is its target audience of Jewish Christians. The Gospel is full of references to Old Testament stories and prophecies, and the purpose of the writer was clearly to persuade those of the Jewish faith and culture that Jesus was the anointed one of God, predicted and expected so frequently in Jewish scripture. Much of Matthew’s text is drawn directly from Mark, and it is almost universally accepted within scholarly and even most theological circles that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as an outline. Much of Matthew has word-for-word transcriptions of Mark’s story. Interestingly, with the exception of the above-referenced verse wherein Jesus predicts his death to last three days and three nights, Matthew changes all of Mark’s “after three days” comments to “on the third day.”

Thus, you have examples like Matthew 16:21 – From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

As noted above, the one occasion where Matthew does use the “three days” motif is when Matthew is linking Jesus to the Old Testament story of Jonah. Clearly Matthew couldn’t change the established text regarding Jonah, so he stuck with the “three days” motif and had Jesus predict his time “in the heart of the earth” as “three days and three nights.” Again, Matthew’s purpose was to link Jesus to Old Testament prophecies and stories, and here he seems to have had a difficult choice to either connect Jesus to the Old Testament character of Jonah and therefore abide by the “three days” tradition, or throw the Jonah link out completely. He clearly decided it was more important to keep the Jonah link there, since it served his target purpose. Everywhere else, however, he changed “three days” to “on the third day,” obviously trying to account for Mark’s contradiction.

Luke, writing about 90 C.E. and 20 years after Mark, also used Mark as a guide and also carried on Matthew’s tradition of changing all of Mark’s “three days” statements. Whereas Mark has 5 different references to Jesus talking about his resurrection occurring “after three days,” Luke has no references using “three days” at all, and instead has 5 references to “on the third day.”

It seems quite clear that Matthew and Luke, writing later and using Mark as a guide, systematically changed all of Mark’s “three days” references to “on the third day,” since such a phrase could reasonably be construed to imply the first day of the week (that is, Sunday). It was a way for Matthew and Luke to reconcile the competing traditions of Jesus rising on Sunday morning and Jesus being dead for “three days.”

John Shelby Spong argues that the resurrection was a real event involving real experiences with real people, but he believes it was a kind of spiritual awakening, centered around Peter, and occurring after a lengthy passage of time from the date of Jesus’s death. The stories of dead bodies reanimating, empty tombs, a 3-day time frame between death and resurrection, and Jerusalem as the setting for the resurrection, Spong argues, are simply midrashic techniques and mythology, developed into the story in the intervening decades after the resurrection experience.

I find his arguments persuasive.