Friday, May 30, 2008

Why The King James Version of the Bible is an Inferior English Translation

The King James Version of the Bible (dubbed the Authorized Version by the Church of England) has without question been the most read, quoted, and recognized English-language version of the Bible since its creation in the first decade of the 17th century.

The KJV was first commissioned by James I of the England in order to create a universal English-language text of the Bible that would conform to the doctrines and theologies of the Church of England. James intended to create a translation that would not only “compete” with the Latin versions used by the Roman Catholic Church, but which would also pay homage, theologically, to the concerns of new Protestants in England, most notably the Puritans. James wanted a completely “de-catholicized” version of the Bible. The work was begun in 1604 and was completed in 1611.

Because of its widespread popularity, which lasted well into the 20th century, the KJV is the most “comfortable” translation for many Christians. Phrases, verses, and passages that have fallen into the general Christian lexicon are almost universally KJV in origin, and simply do not “sound right” when read from any other translation.

For this reason, many modern Christians are still partial to the KJV, and many Protestant churches – mostly evangelical and Pentecostal – still insist that the KJV is the only translation that should be read. I am reminded of Kiefer Sutherland’s fundamentalist Christian character in the film “A Few Good Men.” When questioned about “proper authorities”, he responds: “I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God.” Even among more moderate denominations, the KJV is routinely used and quoted from.

Recently, a KJV supporter said the following to me:

“…the KJV…is the direct translation from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The Greek and Hebrew texts from the first century were copied word for word from generation to generation. To them, it was the Word of God and very precious, so no words were changed for all of those centuries…It’s the truest version from the original tongue.”

Unfortunately, while this person seems clearly to believe what he says, he has either been sorely misled, or simply does not know the facts of the matter. Since I think his perspective is somewhat common – especially among conservative Christians – I would like to attempt to clear this matter up once and for all.

It is true that the KJV was translated from a Greek and Hebrew text. This is true also for every other major modern English translation. The KJV does not hold any special place among English versions of the Bible for having been translated from the original Greek and Hebrew.

Unfortunately, with regards to the KJV, the texts used by the translators are known – and have been known almost since the time of the translation – to have been inferior and full of errors.

The KJV translators relied solely on one Greek manuscript for the New Testament. This manuscript is known as the Textus Receptus. It was put together in the early 1500’s by a Dutch scholar named Erasmus. In putting together the Textus Receptus, Erasmus used only a handful of sources, and all of these sources date from the 12th century or later. Furthermore, only one of his sources came outside what is called the “Byzantine” texts, which were a group of texts all copied in and around a specific geographic region (i.e., Byzantium). Scholars recognize that the Byzantine texts are full of scribal errors and do not conform to other earlier textual groupings, such as the Alexandrian texts.

Bart Ehrman, a textual scholar, who studied under the most pre-eminent textual scholar in the world – Bruce Metzger – has said that Erasmus’ text was based on “one of the worst…manuscripts that we now have available to us.”

So the Textus Receptus was the only source used by the KJV translators, and this source was itself based on only a few sources, all of which came from the Middle Ages or later, the majority of which came from only one geographic region, and all of which are known to be inconsistent with earlier texts and textual groupings.

What this means is that the New Testament in the KJV is based on very late manuscripts, which are known to be full of textual errors and wild variations.

Moving on to the assertion that the earliest texts were all copied perfectly, this is demonstrably untrue. In fact, among the thousands of ancient manuscripts and partial manuscripts in existence, hardly any of them coincide 100% with each other. In fact, among all our handwritten manuscripts (which is all of the manuscripts up until the printing press was invented in the 1400’s), there are something like 200,000 different variations among the numerous texts. And this is a conservative estimate. Some textual scholars say there might be as many as 400,000 variations. Either way, the variations are so numerous, that even in this age of computers, scholars have yet to catalogue all of them.

The earliest copyists were not professional scribes – copying the sacred texts was generally pawned off on whoever in the community happened to be able to read and write (which, during the earliest centuries, was very few). Thus, they were not professionals, and were prone not only to dramatic mistakes and errors, but also to changing texts intentionally based on whatever particular doctrine or “school” of Christianity they happened to come from. These sorts of theologically-motivated changes are numerous, and can be demonstrated among the earliest texts.

Furthermore, in those early days, Greek was not written like modern languages are written. Everything was in capitals, there was no punctuation, there were no spaces between sentences, and there were not even necessarily any spaces between words.


One can imagine, then, just how tedious a task it would have been to make handwritten copies of a text written like that, with thousands and thousands of lines. Not only would it have been physically tedious, but it would be easy to misread lines, without spaces between words. An English language example was put forth by Bart Ehrman:


Does this say you looked at a table and saw a lot of food, or does it say you saw a piece of bread get up and start dancing?

Add all this to the fact that the earliest copyists were not professional scribes to begin with, and it is not difficult to imagine that countless errors, omissions, and changes were made, usually unintentionally, but often intentionally.

So now we have the KJV New Testament, based on only one text – a text that was itself based on just a handful of late, error-ridden texts – thus leading to numerous variations in the KJV from the words that the original New Testament documents most certainly contained.

Add now to this the fact that the KJV is literally fraught, almost from beginning to end, with Puritan doctrinal and theological bias. I will provide a few examples that I have discovered in my own research.

1. The use of “hell” in the Old Testament. Hell was not a concept in ancient Hebrew culture. It did not begin to develop until late antiquity, in the decades before Jesus’ birth. It did not become a central aspect of Christianity until many centuries after Jesus lived. There is certainly not a single mention of “hell,” or any place like hell, in the Old Testament. Yet, if you look in the KJV, you will see “hell” repeated numerous times in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew word for “grave” or “underworld” or “pit” was Sheol. This is how ancient Jews viewed life after death. There was no heaven (at least, not for human beings other than a few special prophets, like Elijah), and there was no hell. There was simply death – the grave, the pit, the dark, dank underworld. This is where all humans went, good and bad, Jew and Gentile, after they died. Yet, in the KJV, any time that the death of a good person, or a Jew, is being discussed, and Sheol appears in the Hebrew text, the translators accurately translate it as “grave” or “pit.” However, when Sheol is used in the context of the death of a bad person, or an enemy of the Jews, the KJV translators called it “hell.” This is simply Puritan bias, taking the meaning of the text far away from its authors’ clear original intent. The Puritans were the ones with a highly-developed concept of hell – not the ancient writers of the Old Testament.

2. The use of the phrase “born again,” in the Gospel of John. The idea of being born again is a long-standing tradition within Protestant Christianity. It is symbolized in most Protestant churches by baptism. The phrase “born again” only appears three times in the New Testament: once in 1 Peter, and twice in a teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The problem is, in the passage in John, the phrase does not actually say “born again.” Instead, Jesus asserts that in order to take part in the kingdom of God, one must be “born from above.”

The Greek word used is anothen, and this word means “above,” “top,” or “beginning.” In every other place in the KJV when anothen is encountered, it is translated correctly. However, in this passage, the translators’ bias crept in, because they clearly wanted to see Jesus asserting the Puritan “born again” principle; thus, they had Jesus utter the now famous phrase: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Translating it correctly (“born from above”) opens the door to many problems. Is Jesus saying that only a select few can enter heaven – those who are somehow “born from above,” or born with heavenly approval? Is Jesus saying only the most holy and pious will ever make it to heaven? The KJV translators could not have such theological problems confronting their congregations, so they simply cleared it up by inserting their particular Puritan viewpoint. You must be born again – that is, baptized following a profession of faith – if you want to get to heaven.

3. Also in John, there is a famous utterance of Jesus where he proclaims: “In my father’s house are many mansions…” The Greek word used there, translated by the KJV translators as “mansions,” does not mean mansions at all, but simply “rooms” or “dwelling places.” The Puritan bias in this passage came from the well-entrenched, though not otherwise Biblical, idea that heaven would be a place where everyone would live in grand glory, like the king himself. It was easy, then, for the translators to call this word “mansions,” to fit with the notion of heaven as a place of palatial glory, even though that is not what Jesus was saying. He was simply saying there is room for everyone in the kingdom of God – he was not promising that we would all live like Hollywood socialites.

These are just three examples that I have discovered on my own. There are countless others, which have been catalogued and displayed by textual scholars over the years. Furthermore, as I have already alluded to, it is an established fact that when James I commissioned the translation, he specifically ordered his translators to ensure that the new English text conformed directly and specifically with Anglican doctrine and theology. This was done to ensure that this English translation supported the Church of England, and not the Church of Rome. So it was known from the very start that the text was theologically- and doctrinally-biased. They did not even try to hide this fact.

To recap, here is what we have with the KJV:

1. The New Testament of the KJV was based on only one source (as opposed to modern translations which use hundreds of sources). This one source was itself based on only a few very late sources, which are known to be error-ridden and full of scribal variations.

2. The KJV was specifically commissioned to conform to Anglican theology, Puritan interests, and to be the Bible for the Church of England, specifically against the Church of Rome. As such, it was openly theologically-biased, and this can be demonstrated in countless places in the text itself, where words, phrases, and passages were translated inaccurately in order to conform to specific Church doctrines and beliefs.

These things are more than enough, by themselves, to cause anyone to shy away from using the King James Version for studying the Bible. However, there is yet a third issue, one that is probably the most obvious: the King James Version was written in Shakespearean English. Since we no longer speak this kind of English, it makes the KJV very difficult to follow and understand for modern readers. For example, Galatians 4:9 in the KJV: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” What exactly is being said here? Of course, if one is reasonably intelligent and educated, one can read it over several times and figure out what the point is, but studying the Bible is difficult enough without also having to dig one’s way through highfalutin 17th century English. And when one considers that many folks in small, rural Pentecostal and evangelical churches are not typically well-educated or well-read, the problem multiplies tenfold.

Newer translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, are based on hundreds and hundreds of the most reliable early manuscripts and they also take into account a lot of new knowledge that modern scholars have about ancient Hebrew and Greek – knowledge that folks like Erasmus and the translators of the KJV did not have. Furthermore, we have far more early manuscripts available to us now than the earlier translators had – this allows us to get a better idea of how the original texts probably read. Finally, versions like the New Revised Standard – in addition to being highly accurate and true to the original words – are also written in plain, modern English. These reasons are why scholars – both conservative and liberal alike – tend to recommend the New Revised Standard Version for English readers of the Bible. The KJV is probably the last version any modern English speaker needs to read, unless they are simply reading it for the beauty of the words and the literary quality of the prose.

As a Christian, should one want to read what is comfortable and most familiar, or should one want to read what is accurate and most clear?

I would most certainly choose the latter.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Geographic Origins of Jesus, Part II: The Hometown of Jesus

In the first part of this study, we looked at the birthplace of Jesus. In that study, I concluded that Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem. In drawing this conclusion, I took it as undisputed fact that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth. Indeed, this is the clear belief of the Gospel writers, and even plays a role in understanding the problems faced by Luke and Matthew in getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. However, there is some historical question as to whether or not Jesus was even, in fact, from Nazareth.

To begin this study, let me assert, again, that it was the clear and undisputed fact among Christians of the Gospel era that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth. There can be no question that the Gospel writers took this as common knowledge. As alluded to above, it was this very common, widely-held knowledge that presented such an issue for the writers of the Bethlehem birth stories. Jesus is referred to time and time again in the texts of the New Testament as hailing from Nazareth.

A problem, however, with this understanding arises first in the archaeological record. Archaeologists working in Galilee have compiled artifacts and evidence of human habitation in the area of Nazareth going all the way back to the prehistoric period. Cave men and hunter-gatherers lived in the area of Nazareth. Archaeologists have also gathered evidence of human habitation in the area during the historical period that predates the Jewish era. Thus, groups such as the Canaanites are known to have inhabited the area of Nazareth – though there is no evidence to suppose they called their town by that name.

However, beginning with the Jewish period – that is, by about the time of King David in around 1000 B.C.E. (and actually quite a bit earlier) – the archaeological well runs dry. There is little to no evidence of human habitation in the area after the Jews arrived. Throughout all of ancient Jewish history, there appears to have been no one living there; or, if some settlement existed, it was so minor as to have left no significant archaeological evidence, and to have never garnered any mention in the texts of the Old Testament (at least, not with the name of Nazareth). This period of archaeological drought continues up to and through the time of Jesus. The archaeological discoveries do not begin to pick up again until about the 2nd century C.E., or 100 years after Jesus’ death.

This first bit of evidence has caused some to question whether Jesus, then, could have been from a town that did not, apparently, exist in the early 1st century. From there, these folks begin looking for other possible evidence to support this supposition. They find it in the ancient Jewish sect of the Nazirs, to which we now turn.

The Nazirs were Jews who took an ascetic’s vow. As outlined in the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Nazirite vow included abstaining from wine and other fermented beverages, up to an including eating grapes, refraining from cutting body hair, and avoiding dead bodies, graves, or tombs. While some Nazirs appear to have taken the vow for life, most took the vow only for a predetermined period of time. It functioned, then, rather like a Buddhist leaving society for a year to pray and meditate, and then later returning to regular life.

Those familiar with the New Testament will probably already begin to see that we have at least one New Testament figure who was undoubtedly a Nazir – John the Baptist. John is described as living in the wilderness, eating only what he could scrounge up from nature, abstaining from alcohol, refraining from cutting his hair, and wearing animal skins as clothes. Furthermore, the Gospel of Luke, in describing an angelic visit to John’s father, tells us that John is to be a Nazir from birth, taking the appropriate vows.

As all Christians should be aware, Jesus and John the Baptist are very closely linked. The Gospels describe the relationship between these two men as one of messenger and coming messiah. John the Baptist, then, “prepares the way” for Jesus, predicting his arrival on the scene, and describing him as “one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

However, many scholars do not believe the relationship was quite so one-sided in Jesus’ favor. In fact, many Jesus scholars believe that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, who later broke from his mentor and became a prophet in his own right. There is an array of evidence for this, which is far too detailed to discuss in depth in this essay. For our purposes I will point out first that Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as going to John for baptism, something that would seem to imply that Jesus was, in fact, following John. Additionally, much of Jesus’ message builds on the message of John (and then later diverges), and this is another important piece of evidence to suggest that Jesus began as John’s follower. We know of John’s life and message not primarily from the Christian tradition, but rather from Jewish records. John the Baptist was revered by Jews as an important 1st century figure and prophet, and as such, he was written about extensively by historians such as Josephus. Scholars argue that the New Testament depicts John as merely heralding Jesus’ coming, and insisting routinely on his own secondary status to Jesus, simply because it would not have fit with emerging Christian theology to describe Jesus – who was understood as the messiah and Son of God – as starting secondarily to John the Baptist.

The logical conclusion, then, to be drawn from this evidence of Jesus as John the Baptist’s disciple is that Jesus, too, took the Nazir vow. Following this assertion a little further, one can imagine how the story might have unfolded: Jesus came into John’s inner circle and became his follower, he subsequently took the Nazir vow and spent an unspecified period of time praying and meditating and retreating from society, eventually completed the requirements of his vow, and then returned to society “preaching and teaching” the new insights he had gained during his ascetic spiritual quest. In at least one Gospel account of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is made to tell his followers that he will not “take of the vine” again (meaning, he will not drink wine or eat grapes) until he enters the kingdom of God. Perhaps, for this Gospel writer, Jesus was renewing his vow in light of his coming crucifixion.

Having looked now at who the Nazirs were and how Jesus has come to be connected with them, we turn back to the original problem: In light of the lacking archaeological record, what other evidence is there to suggest that Jesus did not actually come from Nazareth? Based on the similarity of the two words, you may already see where I am going.

Folks who argue that Jesus did not come from Nazareth have postulated that the Nazareth tradition sprang up on the basis of a misunderstanding. Jesus, these folks say, was widely known during his life as “Jesus the Nazarene.” This designation, they argue, was based on the fact that Jesus was known to have taken the Nazir vow. The moniker would have followed Jesus after his death and into the early Christian period. As Christianity spread to non-Jews, as well as to Jews who may not have known any better, the designation of “Jesus the Nazarene” got misinterpreted by people unfamiliar with the sect of the Nazirs. Instead, they assumed it meant that Jesus was from a town called Nazareth. In time, the misunderstanding propagated, and eventually came to be understood as common knowledge. In light of this, the argument goes, we do not actually know where Jesus came from, but it could not have been Nazareth. Nazareth, these folks say, became a new town only after Jesus’ death, and this is why the archaeological evidence does not reappear until the 2nd century.

Seeing now the issue raised by some skeptics, should we make the conclusion that Jesus was supposed by the early Christians to have been from a town called Nazareth, but this was based on a misunderstanding driven by ignorance of the sect of the Nazirs and Jesus’ association with them, and Nazareth, in actuality, did not exist during Jesus’ life?

It may surprise some of my more traditional readers – who sometimes accuse me of perpetually trying to deconstruct the traditional beliefs surrounding Jesus – that my answer to this question is a firm “no.” I do, in fact, believe that the evidence for Jesus’ Nazareth origins is overwhelming. Furthermore, I believe that the arguments of the skeptics, when each branch is taken to its logical conclusion, lead to the firm assertion that Jesus must have been from a town called Nazareth. I turn now to my reasons for this belief.

As I have stated now several times, there can be no question that the Gospel writers, beginning sometimes after 70 C.E., were utterly convinced that Jesus was from a real town called Nazareth. For them, it was undisputed common knowledge. It was so widely known, that it presented a serious composition problem for those writers who wanted to place Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth. Since we can know with certainty that the Gospel writers believed Jesus was from Nazareth, it stands to reason that there must have been a real town, with real inhabitants, called Nazareth by the time the Gospel writers were creating their stories. Otherwise, they would have been asserting that Jesus was from a town that everyone knew did not even exist. There could have been no obvious reason for the Gospel writers to be using Nazareth metaphorically or interpretatively as part of their creative memory of Jesus (recall that Nazareth never appears in the Jewish scriptures), so we must assume that their use of this town name was based on the fact that they really believed and knew that such a town existed.

This alone, however, is not enough. Perhaps the town existed by the Gospel era, but had only first sprung up after Jesus died. By this line of reasoning, one might assume that the misunderstanding began in new Christian converts after Jesus died, and these converts, assuming there was a town called Nazareth, went to Galilee to find it. Upon arriving, they found no such town, so they simply founded one themselves and called it Nazareth. As such, by the time of the Gospel era, there really was a Nazareth.

This explanation, however, is fraught with improbability. The disciples and followers of Jesus, who had known him and learned from him personally, were obviously the first people to spread the Christian message. They were the first people to begin converting people to the new Christian religion. Furthermore, they would have known where he was from. If their converts, who met Jesus through them as “Jesus the Nazarene,” began propagating the mistaken idea that Jesus must have been from a town called Nazareth, these disciples and personal companions of Jesus would have obviously steered them straight. “No,” they would have said, “Jesus was a Nazir, that’s why he’s called the Nazarene. There is no such town as Nazareth. Jesus was actually from Capernaum” (or Magdala, or Acco, or Tiberius, or whatever Galilean town Jesus was actually from in this scenario). The mistaken designation could not possibly have blossomed into widely-held common knowledge because there would have been too many people who knew Jesus personally who would have stepped in to correct it.

But what if the mistake did not begin to grow until after most of Jesus’ personal companions had died? If we follow this line of thought, we see that it, too, is fraught with improbabilities. First of all, most of Jesus’ personal companions would not have been dead until about the 60’s C.E. We know Mark’s Gospel was written shortly after 70 C.E. (and remember, Mark already assumes the common knowledge that Nazareth existed). There would not have been enough time between the deaths of Jesus’ companions, and the beginning of the Gospel era, for such an error to grow to epidemic proportions. Secondly, it cannot be assumed that knowledge of Jesus’ hometown would have died completely with his companions. Clearly, in their many years of missionary work, preaching in synagogues, discussing Jesus with converts, and starting churches, facts about Jesus’ life – such as where he was from – would have trickled down. Thus, even after all his closest companions were dead, second generation Christians would have known where Jesus was from. Thus, if some people – who for whatever reason did not know about Jesus’ hometown – began assuming a place called Nazareth, these second generation Christians would have stepped in to stem the tide of misunderstanding.

It is also vital to point out that if a town had sprung up after Jesus’ life and had been named Nazareth and passed off as Jesus’ actual hometown, there would have been countless people who would have known the town was actually new and had not existed before. Even if there were a lot of early Christians ignorant of Galilean geography (and it is true that people did not exactly have atlases sitting on their bookshelves at home), there still would have been plenty of folks who did know that Nazareth had never existed during Jesus’ life. These people, too, both Christian and non-Christian alike, could have easily stemmed the tide of the growing misunderstanding. “There was no town of Nazareth during the life of Jesus,” these people would have said. “The town there now was only just settled fifteen years ago, and it was started by Christians!”

It is simply an untenable proposition to assert that Nazareth could have been founded after Jesus’ life, without countless people – both Jesus’ own companions and their later converts, and other folks who simply knew the geography of Galilee – pointing out that the town had not existed previously. There would have been far too many people aware that Nazareth was not really the hometown of Jesus for the idea to have grown, by 70 C.E., to the point of common, undisputed knowledge.

For this reason, one must assert that not only did Nazareth indisputably exist as an inhabited town by the time of the Gospel era, but it must also have existed during the life of Jesus. Any other assertion is simply untenable and does not follow the line of reasoning to its logical conclusion.

We have now established, I believe conclusively, that Nazareth must have been a real, inhabited town even during the life of Jesus. However, this does not, in and of itself, mean that Jesus was, in fact, from Nazareth. Perhaps the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” really did refer to Jesus’ Nazir roots, and not to any origins in the town of Nazareth. However, the same arguments used to establish the conclusion that Nazareth really existed during the time of Jesus can be used to counter any continued insistence that Jesus may not have been from Nazareth. How could the disciples and closest companions of the Jesus – who would have known where he was from – let such a mistake propagate? How could the second generation Christians, to whom the knowledge of Jesus’ companions had trickled down, allow the mistake to live on? A mistake of this proportion could not have blossomed with so many people around who knew it was wrong.

What if the error began on a small scale, in some far off region? By this line of thinking, one might suppose that the early Christians – those who knew Jesus – came through some remote region of the empire, preaching and teaching the message of Christ. While there, they converted many people, and started a church. After some time, they went on their way, leaving the church to flourish. Perhaps during their time there, the subject of Jesus’ hometown never got brought up or discussed. After the missionaries left, the converts began pondering their new faith. Since they had never heard of a Nazir, they began to assume that the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” meant Jesus was from the small hamlet of Nazareth, known to exist in Galilee. It very quickly became common knowledge among this remote group of Christians that Jesus was from Nazareth. From there, it slowly began to blossom. Perhaps there were other similar remote regions where the same mistake was made. Eventually they grow into each other and the mistake becomes common knowledge.

Again, this line of reasoning simply cannot work because as the regional mistakes began to blossom, they would have invariably met areas with Christians who did know the true hometown of Jesus. Once again, those who knew the true story would have put an end to the growing rumors of Jesus’ Nazareth connection.

Some might, at this point, wish to return to the archaeological evidence. All discussions of the supposed misunderstanding aside, how can we reconcile the dearth of archaeological evidence from the eras before, during, and even after Jesus? Actually, it is quite simple. The reason no significant archaeological evidence exists from the ancient Jewish kingdom may very well be because no one was living there. Perhaps the town was settled in late antiquity, possibly even just prior to Jesus’ life. Maybe Jesus and his family were among the first Jews to inhabit the area. During Jesus’ life, and immediately thereafter, the town was certainly small. Not even a town, really, but a village of a few hundred people. It is probably not surprising that a village with such a small population would leave no archaeological evidence 2,000 years later, particularly with all the layers of civilization that have grown on top of it. By the 2nd century, when the evidence does begin to appear in the record, it does so at that time because by then, the town had grown! Christians wanting to live in the hometown of Jesus would probably have flocked to the little village of Nazareth in droves during the century after Jesus’ life. Thus, by the 100’s, there were enough people living there to leave traces for archaeologists to uncover later.

Another important fact to point out, in refuting arguments that Jesus was not really from Nazareth, refers back to the roots of Jesus as a Nazir. The argument being put forward by some skeptics is that Jesus was a Nazir, and his designation as “Jesus the Nazarene” was based on his life as a Nazir, not on any connection to Nazareth. However, it is vitally important to remember that we cannot know with certainty that Jesus was, in fact, a Nazir. This is a scholarly conclusion based on a lot of good evidence, but it is by no means an established objective fact. There are plenty of scholars who do not describe Jesus that way, and there is certainly no explicit reference in the New Testament to Jesus ever taking the Nazir vow. Thus, if Jesus, in fact, never took the Nazir vow, then the entire argument about a misunderstanding is null and void from the outset. If Jesus was never a Nazir, then the argument cannot be valid, because it begins on a false premise. Again, there are a lot of good reasons to suppose Jesus may have taken the Nazir vow, but we cannot know this for certain.

In the end, I think the entire issue is put to rest simply by recognizing that the premise of the argument is not evidence that Jesus was not from Nazareth, but is simply evidence of a 1st century coincidence – a coincidence, by the way, that is rather mundane and not all that unusual. Jesus was from a town called Nazareth. It also just so happens that he fell into the inner circle of a man who was a committed figure in the Nazir sect, and Jesus, too, may have taken a vow of Nazir asceticism. The fact that Nazareth and Nazir are similar words is just a coincidence. A modern analogy might be a man named Louis who happens to live in Louisville. I am sure there are many Louis’s in Louisville, and I am sure there is nothing significant whatsoever about that fact. I am equally certain that there are plenty of Yorks in New York and Francis’s in San Francisco. There may even be some Hell’s Angels in Los Angeles and one or two dentists in Denver. And as there is no greater meaning behind any of those mundane coincidences, neither is there any significance behind the coincidence that Jesus was from the town of Nazareth, and may also have been a Nazir.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Geographic Origins of Jesus, Part I: The Birthplace of Jesus

Christian tradition tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small hamlet about five miles south of Jerusalem. This is one of the oldest and most well-known details of Jesus’ life. One would be hard pressed to be a Christian of any persuasion and not be familiar with this traditional idea of Jesus’ origins. To this day, Bethlehem is a pilgrimage site for many Christians, and there are numerous Christian churches there. One of these churches – the famous Church of the Nativity – actually claims to be built over the very site of Jesus’ birth itself, and it has an underground room where the faithful can visit and touch the rock upon which Mary actually gave birth.

But does the textual and historical evidence support this assertion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? A consideration of a number of textual clues and historical facts leads to the very strong conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, not born in Bethlehem.

To begin, it is important to note that in the entirety of the New Testament, only two texts tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. These are the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, both written some time in the 9th and 10th decades of the Common Era – meaning about 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death, and nearly 100 years after his birth. Our earliest Biblical accounts – such as the epistles of Paul, the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, and the Gospel of Mark – do not mention any Bethlehem origins for Jesus. Mark tells us explicitly that Jesus was from Nazareth, and that this was his hometown. Furthermore, our latest Gospel – the Gospel of John – written after Matthew and Luke, also does not mention any Bethlehem birth traditions. In fact, in that Gospel, Jesus is twice referred to as the “son of Joseph,” implying no knowledge of a virgin birth story either. This essay does not seek to discuss the validity of the virgin birth stories, but as they are tied inextricably to the Bethlehem birth tradition, it is important to note that John omits both, despite writing after a time when we know that the traditions were in existence.

It is also important to point out that it appears to have been widely known and remembered in the days of early Christianity that Jesus came from the rural Galilean town of Nazareth. Nazareth was very small, with a population in Jesus’ time possibly as low as 300 or 400. It is significant to note that no reference to Nazareth is ever found in the Old Testament, and it is not ever mentioned in any Jewish writings at all until the 3rd century C.E. Furthermore, while some prehistoric and pre-Jewish archaeological evidence has been found in the area, no archaeological evidence has ever been uncovered from Nazareth during the period when the ancient Jews inhabited Galilee, up to and including the Roman era and the time of Jesus. This has led some scholars to suggest that Nazareth itself did not exist in Jesus’ day, but most scholars reject this based on the textual evidence of the New Testament. Clearly by the time the Gospels were written, the town of Nazareth was known to exist.

Nazareth was so insignificant in the time of Jesus that it appears to have been a source of embarrassment for early Christians. The author of John includes a story where Jesus’ authority is questioned based on the very fact that he was from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” the skeptic is made to say. A modern parallel can be drawn from state rivalries in the U.S. “Could anything good come out of Indiana?” a lifelong Kentuckian might say. Nazareth, then, appears to have been a sore spot for some Christians, but because it was so widely known and remembered that Jesus was a Nazarene, his city origins could not be denied. Jesus is referred to numerous times in the New Testament as hailing from Nazareth.

Matthew, as alluded to above, is our earliest source for a Bethlehem birth tradition, most likely written around 85 C.E. It is uncertain exactly where Matthew’s Bethlehem story came from since none of our earlier sources mention it. It is possible that Matthew had access to a text that discussed the Bethlehem story but which is no longer in existence. It is also possible that Matthew based his story on some local oral tradition. Finally, the possibility exists that the writer of Matthew himself developed the story, based on his studies of Jewish scripture. By the time the Gospels were being written, interpreting the life and death of Jesus against Jewish scriptures and religious rituals was well-established. Even as early as the time of Paul, Christians had already scoured their scriptures (that is, the Christian Old Testament) to find places where Jesus’ life and death mirrored either prophecy or religious ritual. As such, by the time of Matthew, it was well-established within Christianity that Jesus had been the Jewish messiah, and that his death and resurrection had functioned symbolically as atonement for sin, an idea drawn from the rituals of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Matthew, however, seems to have especially been interested in how Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic prophecies, and his text is full of references to the Jewish scriptures.

In all likelihood, Matthew was probably not the first Christian to discover the fact that one of the many Jewish messianic prophecies suggested that the messiah would come from the city of David – that is, Bethlehem. Others had simply bypassed it, because it was widely know that Jesus was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. But where others ignored it because they knew it did not fit, Matthew – with a special interest in how Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecy – seems not to have been able to resist connecting Jesus to this messianic tradition.

He was faced with a serious problem, however. As I have already made clear, it was widely known and remembered that Jesus was from Nazareth. It was even a sore spot that could not be denied. How, then, was Matthew going to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in order to have Jesus born there? Simple: he merely asserts that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem at the time. Mary, a virgin, becomes pregnant, and gives birth there in Bethlehem to Jesus. Herod, who was king of Judea at the time, finds out about this miraculous birth of a supposed future king, and is furious. He orders all Jewish males less than two years of age to be slaughtered. Joseph is warned about the coming slaughter in a dream, and is instructed to take the family to Egypt. Thus, Jesus lives for a few years in the land of the pharaohs. After Herod dies, Joseph is once again visited in a dream and told that it is safe to return. Upon the family’s return from Egypt, they first plan to go back to Bethlehem – their hometown. But when they find out that Herod’s son is now in charge of Judea, they choose instead to go north to Galilee, where they settle on Nazareth as a new hometown. This, Matthew tells us, fulfills the scripture that says the messiah “will be called a Nazarene.” Incidentally, no one is quite certain exactly what prophecy Matthew is referring to here. There is nothing in the Old Testament about the messiah, or anyone else, being called a Nazarene.

We have seen now how Matthew contrived to get Jesus – a known Nazarene – into Bethlehem for his birth, and then subsequently back into Nazareth. It is notable that Matthew is the only New Testament writer to tell us anything about Jesus ever living in Egypt, or anything about Herod getting word of his birth and ordering the slaughter of all Jewish males less than two years of age. For what it is worth, there is certainly no secular or Jewish record of Herod ever ordering such a thing, and one would have to expect the Jews to have recorded such a horrifyingly significant event in their history.

So now we turn to the only other source in the New Testament for the Bethlehem birth tradition, the Gospel of Luke. The fact that Luke also includes a Bethlehem birth tradition, despite that he almost certainly did not have Matthew’s text as a source, is a strong indication that Matthew probably was not the first person to conceive of the idea. It is entirely possible that Luke and Matthew, independently, both decided to try to connect this known messianic prophecy to Jesus, where others had simply ignored it because of the knowledge that Jesus was from Nazareth. However, might these independent attestations of Luke and Matthew indicate that the Bethlehem birth tradition was, in fact, real history? Multiple independent attestations are, after all, one of the criteria that scholars look for when trying to determine whether a story is historical or not. I will get to that question shortly, after we look at Luke’s method and how his story matches up with known historical facts.

Luke clearly was not using Matthew, or a possible source of Matthew, as his basis for the Bethlehem birth tradition, because his story is completely and in every way different from Matthew’s. When we, as Christians, consider the birth of Jesus, we tend to merge both Matthew and Luke’s account into one, effectively creating a third account which neither Luke nor Matthew, nor any other Biblical source, gives us. Thus, we tend to imagine three Oriental kings, a group of shepherds, heralding angels, a massive glowing star over a stable, and offerings of frankincense and myrrh. In fact, there are no kings at all in either of the stories – the idea of three kings comes from a popular Christmas song, not from the Bible. The Bible tells us they were “Magi,” or magicians, not kings, and it does not tell us there were three of them, it simply tells us that “Magi from the east” came to find Jesus. Furthermore, neither story tells of a glowing star over a stable – those are two concepts merged from Matthew and Luke, creating an image that neither account gives. In Luke’s account there are no Magi, exotic gifts, or glowing stars, and in Matthew’s account, there is no stable, no angels singing praises in the heavens, and no shepherds. Furthermore, Matthew specifically calls the place where the Magi see Jesus a “house,” and if one tries to connect this to Luke’s account, it does not fit because for Luke, Mary and Joseph never lived in Bethlehem at all, and would not, therefore, have been in a house.

Luke tells us that, rather than already living as citizens in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph are actually from Nazareth. To get Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register for an empire-wide census, and it just so happened that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. This may seem, to some skeptics, a bit too convenient. And probably for good reason. Can you imagine a man taking his wife who was “great with child” on a long, arduous eight or nine day journey from Galilee, far south into Judea?

Unfortunately, Luke – in an effort to work what he apparently thought were historical facts into his account – got his details wrong. Luke tells us, first of all, that there was an empire-wide census (“all the world should be taxed”). However, secular records from ancient Rome, which are extensive, never give any indication whatsoever that any empire-wide censuses ever took place. When a census was taken in ancient Rome, it was done regionally, not empire-wide. Secondly, Luke tells us that this was the first census taken after Quirinius became governor of Syria. Here, it is important to stop our discussion briefly to discuss Jesus’ age.

Our common dating system presupposes that the birth of Jesus took place in 1 C.E., and that we are, today, 2008 years removed from that event. However, scholars have long suspected that the early Church leaders, when reconfiguring their calendar around Jesus’ birth, miscalculated slightly. Both Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great. As we have seen, a great majority of Matthew’s birth narrative is centered on the supposition that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign. Herod, however, is known to have died in 4 B.C.E. Therefore, if Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, it would have to have been at least as early as 4 B.C.E., and possibly earlier.

However, as I am attempting to argue in this essay that much of what Matthew and Luke wrote about Jesus’ birth cannot be viewed as literal history, it would be inconsistent of me to base the dating of Jesus’ birth solely on what is said by Matthew and Luke – and they are the only two who mention Jesus being born during Herod the Great’s reign. So therefore we look at the next piece of evidence, and that is the death of Jesus. All four Gospels, as well as countless other early Christian sources that are not included in our Bible, agree that Jesus was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. I know of no scholar who argues that Jesus was not crucified under the government of Pilate. We know that Pilate ruled in Judea from 26 C.E. to 36 C.E. There is also a lot of textual corroboration to suggest that Jesus was in his early 30’s when he died. Finally, there is at least one piece of textual evidence that suggests Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime after an uprising against Pilate in 29 C.E. In the famous story where Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas, Barabbas is described as a murderer who had killed someone in the uprising. This is presumably a reference to the uprising of 29 C.E. (Interestingly, in another Gospel, Barabbas is described as a “bandit,” not a murderer.) Putting all these clues together, most scholars believe Jesus was born in about 5 or 4 B.C.E., and was executed in Jerusalem in about 29 or 30 C.E.

Now, back to our discussion of Luke’s birth account. Luke tells us that the census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was the first census taken after Quirinius became governor of Syria. The only problem with this statement is that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 C.E., ten years after the death of Herod, and far too late to have been governor at the time of Jesus’ birth, assuming we can rely on the fact that Jesus was in his early 30’s when he was executed. If he had been born as late as 6 C.E., he not only could not have been born during Herod’s reign, but he also would have been only 29 or 30 at his death, and that would have been during the very final year of Pilate’s governorship in Judea. If he was executed around 30 C.E., that would have made him in his early to mid-20’s. For this reason, and because Jesus cannot possibly have been born during the time of both Herod and Quirinius (as Luke asserts), most every scholar agrees that Luke simply made an error here. Interestingly, Quirinius is known to have conducted a census after he came to power in Syria, as was the custom for any new governor in ancient Rome. It seems that Luke knew something of this account, but simply got his years mixed up.

The problem is, Luke’s apparent errors do not stop there. I have already pointed out that there was no such thing as an empire-wide census in ancient Rome. Furthermore, Luke, in using this census to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, tells us that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census because he was from the “house and line of David.” In other words, this census required the citizens to register not in the cities in which they lived, but in their ancestral homes. The very idea of such a thing is counter-intuitive. In fact, there is not a single known instance, in all of world history – much less Roman history alone – in which a census was taken requiring the citizens to register in their ancestral homes, rather than the cities where they lived. A modern equivalent would be like having to file your taxes every year in the European or African or Asian country where your ancestors came from, rather than in your home state. How would you decide which ancestor to follow? Is three generations enough, or does it have to be ten? What about folks who do not have any record of their ancestors? It would have been as nonsensical in the 1st century as it would be today. Furthermore, King David, who had been one of the earliest patriarchs of the Hebrew people, had been king of Israel around 1000 B.C.E. By the 1st century, an enormous portion of the Hebrew population in Roman Palestine could have traced their lineage through David’s many, many descendents. As such, the concept that these hundreds of thousands of people would have been descending on the little village of Bethlehem is mind-boggling. No room in the inn, indeed! A 1st century Woodstock, multiplied many times over. There would not have been a pothole free to void in, with so many people packed into such a small place. The idea that Joseph would have been required, in a census, to return to his ancestral home to register, is simply not supported by any evidence, either subjective, objective, or intuitive.

The point in detailing all this evidence is that by collecting this evidence, a very clear picture begins to emerge of how Luke and Matthew developed these stories as fiction, rather than telling objective, literal history. In no way do I suppose that Matthew and Luke were simply liars trying to delude people. Their reasons for writing these stories were varied, but primarily they were attempting to show, in their own way, the special power of presence met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Entire books have been written on these subjects, and this essay is not the place to go into further detail about it. I simply want to make clear that my motivation here is not to call Matthew and Luke liars, and not to destroy the importance of the Jesus story.

As I mentioned earlier, multiple independent attestations in the Biblical texts is one criterion scholars use to determine whether a story is likely to be historical, or likely to be fictional. By “multiple independent attestations” I am referring to places in the Bible, and within other non-Biblical early Christian writings, where two different authors, writing independently of one another, tell the same story. Some scholars even go so far as to base all their conclusions only on texts that have multiple attestations, because the single attestation texts, simply by virtue of being the only account of a certain event, cannot be relied upon for firm historical conclusions, whether they happen to be accurate or not.

So in the Bethlehem stories of Luke and Matthew, we have two independent attestations, because Luke clearly was not copying Matthew’s account. Therefore, should we assume that these stories are historically accurate, rather than fictional? For reasons that I hope I have already made clear, I think the answer to that question is no. When you look at the entire body of evidence – how the stories were crafted and how they differ in dramatic ways, the irreconcilable errors within some of the facts (such as Luke’s assertion that Jesus was born during the reign of Quirinius in Syria but also during the time of Herod), the lack of Bethlehem traditions in any other Biblical texts, and the lack of corroboration of important events (such as Herod’s slaughter of Jewish male babies) within secular records – it seems clear that despite having two independent attestations, these stories cannot be considered historically true.

Here is the key, and the basis of my entire thesis: if it was a simple fact that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, but later moved to Nazareth, it would have been an easy thing for Luke and Matthew to simply tell the story and move on. The fact that their stories are so wildly divergent, and the fact that they clearly went to great lengths to come up with creative ways to get Jesus the Nazarene into Bethlehem for his birth, and then back to Nazareth – this is strong evidence in and of itself that there was no historical knowledge of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.

Traditionalists, including some traditionally-leaning Biblical scholars, will argue that these stories do represent literal history, and if Luke and/or Matthew got a few facts wrong, and contradicted each other in a few places, that does not mean that the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem is, itself, fictional. They will argue that many of the contradictions between the two accounts are not contradictions at all, but are simply emphases among the two writers on different events. Thus, they will argue that Luke gives us the account of the night of Jesus’ birth – heralding angels, shepherds, and a stable – whereas Matthew skips that and instead gives us the account of what happened in the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’ birth – namely, the wise men showed up and offered gifts to Jesus, and then eventually Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. Skeptics will point out that Matthew refers to the wise men visiting Jesus in a “house,” and yet Luke, in telling us that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, never makes mention of them staying at a house in Bethlehem. Traditionalists will counter this by saying that clearly Joseph and Mary, in Luke’s story, did not return immediately to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth. They could not have traveled with a newborn infant, and Mary would have been in no condition to travel immediately after giving birth (one would have to wonder, however, how she could have traveled nine months pregnant in the first place). Furthermore, Luke tells us explicitly that Mary and Joseph hung around the Jerusalem area for a while, because Jesus is shown being taken to the temple after forty days for consecration and circumcision. Therefore, the traditionalists will assert, it is logical to assume that they left the stable and moved in temporarily with a family member in Bethlehem, which is the “house” Matthew refers to in his wise men story.

On the surface, these attempts at reconciling the two accounts seem logical and sound. I will certainly give credit where credit is due. But as I have already pointed out, one must look at the overall body of evidence. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many scholars, the overall body of evidence that these stories are fictional in nature (a body of evidence that I have just spent several thousand words detailing) far outweighs the pleasant reconciling that traditionalists attempt to give the stories. Furthermore, no matter how nicely some of the facts of the two stories can be comfortably merged, there still remain many irreconcilable differences. For instance, Matthew tells us, explicitly, that Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem. There is never any mention of Nazareth until the family returns from Egypt, and at that time, they choose not to return to Bethlehem only because an angel warns Joseph in a dream to get out of Judea for good. Then, and only then, does Nazareth come into play. Additionally, when reading the passage where the wise men visit Jesus in a “house,” no, Matthew does not explicitly say that this was Joseph and Mary’s house, as opposed to, say, a family member’s house, but if you are reading Matthew’s text without reading it through the lens of Luke – as we must do for any text of the New Testament – there is no reason whatsoever to suppose Matthew is implying that the house in question does not belong to Joseph and Mary. He has already made it clear, after all, that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem. It must, therefore, have been their house in Matthew’s mind – not the house of a family member, as is required by the traditionalist reconciliation.

On the other hand, Luke tells us, again very explicitly, that Joseph and Mary were, in fact, from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. They go to Bethlehem only because of the census. They certainly would not have had a house there. After the ritual purification time of about 40 days, Luke tells us they returned to Nazareth. How, therefore, can Matthew’s story of the escape to Egypt, and subsequent return, be reconciled into this Lukan account? The answer is, it cannot. Furthermore, as we have already seen, the facts Luke lists for his census are simply wrong.

Despite the fact that some details in the stories can be merged seamlessly together, there are as many details that cannot be reconciled, on top of blatant contradictions and factual errors, and combined with the knowledge that no other Biblical text tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and added to the contrived nature of the passages which seem to find creative, and yet naturally different, ways to get the known Nazarene Jesus into Bethlehem for his birth. Taken all together, I believe the evidence for the Bethlehem stories being fictional is overwhelming. One final bit of evidence, just as a side note, about the fictional likelihood of the Bethlehem story, came in a 2005 issue of Archaeology magazine, where archaeologist Aviram Oshri points out that there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that Bethlehem was even inhabited at the time of Jesus. Take that piece of evidence as you will (and thanks go to Wikipedia for that reference).

To end, I want to make the important point that none of this has any bearing on a Christian’s decision to believe in the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus. Even if our accounts of the Bethlehem birth of Jesus are fictional, that does not have to mean that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin, as the divine son of God. Maybe the Bethlehem messianic prophecy was simply one that the divine Christ did not happen to fulfill. That is a decision believers must make on faith, and has little relevance to historical analyses like the one I have illustrated in this essay. Naturally, I have very strong opinions on the historicity of the virgin birth stories, and I do believe they, like anything else in the Bible, can be subjected to the investigative process, but this essay is not the place for that.

Stay tuned for Part II, discussing Jesus' hometown.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Few Random Thoughts

1. This year, as in previous years, oil companies are reporting record profits. Essentially, the major oil companies in the world have been setting new records each year in profits for the last several years, defeating the records they set in the previous year. In February, Exxon - the largest oil company - reported over 40 billion dollars in profit (not overall revenue), which was by far the highest profit margin of any company on earth. Think about that for a second. (Finger to pursed lips in deep consternation: "Hmmmm, wonder how that could be?") Their overall sales were 404 billion dollars; according to the New York Times, that's more than the gross domestic product of 120 countries combined. Royal Dutch Shell also set record profits, recording the highest profit margin of any British company in history.

Of course, the oil companies are still talking about the trouble looming ahead, blah, blah, blah, and trying to focus on how much revenue they put into the search for new oil sources. It's all the biggest con job in the history of the world. The circumstantial evidence is certainly strong that there is outright collusion going on, with the major oil companies all agreeing not to undercut each other -- meaning they can drive prices up, literally, as high as they want. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him?

Recently, they installed televisions - yes televisions - in the pumps at my local Shell station, so you can watch local news and weather updates ("The Fuel Network," it's called) while the numbers on the pump are scrolling into the stratosphere. I paid nearly 60 dollars today to fill up my 15-gallon tank. I wonder how they could afford to install televisions in my gas pumps? (Finger to pursed lips again...) I'd much rather just watch TV at home, and pay $1.20 a gallon.

2. The Weather Channel really needs to change its name. The new name should be The Commercial Channel. Have you ever noticed this? No lie, I bet 80% of the time that I switch it to the Weather Channel, they are in the middle of a commercial break. I realize their viewing audience is never high at any given time, so they can't charge a lot for air time, and thus they have to show a lot of commercials, but still. They really should call it The Commercial Channel, so that you can understand that what you are going to be seeing is a series of commercials, with occasional weather forecasts given in between commercial breaks.

3. I stuck a needle in a real live human being for the first time today. In my Patient Care class, we have to learn how to start IV's and do intravenous injections, because RT's routinely have to inject contrast. So we basically have to learn phlebotomy. We practiced last week on dummy arms - which I now know don't feel anything like real arms - and then had to do a competency on a real person today, and get graded. I stuck two people. My first was an African-American girl, which is a little harder because it is more difficult to see veins under darker skin. I missed it when I went in, but I was close enough that I was able to "fish" around and get the needle into the vein to draw a backflow of blood into the tubing. The second girl had a nice, prominent vein, and it was a cinch to stick it accurately. So I was proud of the fact that I successfuly got into the vein on both my first two tries.

4. I also had another "first time" event today. (That actually makes 3 -- first time I've ever paid as high as $3.85 for gas, first time I've ever stuck a needle in a human being, plus the following.) I went to see a movie by myself for the first time today. I decided to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall because I had heard it was a funny raunchy romantic comedy, and had graphic nudity. Perfect! Unfortunately, the graphic nudity consisted entirely of dicks. There were no less than four full-on dick and ball shots in the movie - used sort of as "shock comedy." The main female actors in the film were both very good-looking, but never showed anything. Instead, it was just the lead actor - who looks like an ugly Will Ferrel with fat rolls and love handles and bad skin - constantly walking around naked with his cock hanging out. It was reasonably funny, although not what I would call a "hilarious" movie. It wasn't good enough that I would necessarily want to watch it again, but I don't feel like I wasted my money or anything.

5. Two words: Indiana Jones. I've been waiting 20 years for this. Twenty years!
Lucky for me, it's coming out next Thursday, which is the day I have class at 8 a.m., and am done by 10 a.m. Therefore, I will be one of the first people in the country to see this movie, because you can bet I'll be there for the 12:30 matinee.

6. I just got a new Garth Brooks compilation album. It's 2 CD's, each with about 16 songs on them, plus a DVD with 33 or 34 live songs. I picked it up just planning on looking at it, but when I saw that I could get all that for only $16.99, I couldn't pass it up. I have no idea why Target was selling it for so cheap. With 2 CD's and a DVD, I expected it to be 35 or 40 dollars. That now makes 3 country music CD's that I've bought in my life -- the previous were collections of Hank Jr. and Johnny Cash (unless you count Jimmy Buffett, and then the number goes way higher - I still can't describe him as a country music singer, though).

7. Obama for president.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Revelation: The Antichrist and the End of Times

Recently on the Rush Message Board, a frequent and long-time contributor who I will describe as an “end-of-times fundamentalist” has started making a lot of comments about prophecies in Revelation, and particularly the so-called “Mark of the Beast” – 666. This number has turned up randomly in his life several times recently, most notably on several trips to fast food restaurants. Most recently, his total at Long John Silver’s was $6.66. He stated that he does not believe these are coincidences, and said that he believes God is trying to tell him something. He has been warning us not to take the mark, and implying that the current world situation is evidence of the end of times. How someone could be a rabid fan of Rush – a band whose lyrics are consistently anti-religion and even atheistic sometimes – is a different topic all together.

In an effort to put some aspects of the book of Revelation into better historical and contextual perspective, I would like for my readers to consider the following points. I will quote some verses, then make commentary. Before doing that however, let me make a brief comment about the number 666.

In our oldest and most reliable early sources, “666” is not the number of the beast. Instead, the number is 616. It appears that a scribe, sometime during the early Dark Ages, simply made a mistake in copying, and that mistake was passed on to future copies, and eventually came down to us as “666.” Church fathers as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries even addressed the mistake in their own writings. One of these church fathers, Iraneaus – who was a prolific early Christian writer, heresy-hunter, and the Bishop of Lyon in the late 2nd century – believed “666” was the correct number. Textual scholars, however, have known for a very long time that the number was almost certainly 616 in the original manuscript. Today’s scholars have far more early manuscripts at their disposal than Iraneaus had.

Now, with that established, let us move on to some passages from Revelation.

Revelation 1:1 and 3 – (1)The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. (3) Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Revelation 22:7a, 10, and 12a – (7) Behold, I am coming soon! (10) Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (12a) Behold, I am coming soon!

1 John 4:3bThis is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

Revelation and 1 John are said by the Church to have been written by the same person, and they believe that person was the disciple John (scholars almost universally agree that this is not correct, but that is for a different topic – the point is, traditionalists, including end-of-times evangelicals, believe 1 John and Revelation were produced by the same writer).

Thus, it is could not be more clear from these texts that the writer(s) believed the end was coming soon, within their own lifetimes. In 1 John, it says clearly that the antichrist is already in the world.

Therefore, anything prophesied in Revelation was clearly believed by the writer to be events that were going to happen very soon. To assume that the writer was simply mistaken, or that by “soon” and “the time is near” the writer was speaking metaphorically, is to read meaning and words into the text that are not actually there. This is a problem in and of itself, but it becomes an even bigger problem when taken in context with another passage in Revelation:

Revelation 22:18-19 – I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Thus, by the warning given by the very same writer who promised all this was to happen soon, anyone who supposes that the writer was writing metaphorically, or was mistaken, is going to be one of the victims of the horrifying prophecies predicted in the book itself.

Taken together with the fact that we know 666 is a scribal error, and 616 was the original number, to believe that these predicted events are still in the future, and to believe that 666 is a significant number accompanying those events, is to put yourself in danger of eternal suffering in the lake of fire.

If I were a fundamentalist and end-of-times believer, I would immediately cease with any suggestion that 666 has any significance whatsoever, or that God is trying to tell me something in the Long John Silver’s drive thru. Furthermore, I would not put much stock in Revelation, because it is clear that if the prophecies were accurate, the events must already have taken place. To suggest anything else is to commit the damnable sin the writer warns about. An end-of-times fundamentalist must assume the events in Revelation are in the past, and we are now living in the period preceding the coming kingdom of God. This, of course, puts a major wrench in fundamentalist theology. A whole new essay could be written just based on that alone.

As for 666 and the antichrist, let us first look at the relevant passage in sections:

Revelation 13:5-6 – The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.

Caligula was a Roman emperor who ruled from the middle part of 37 C.E. until the first month of January, 41 C.E. It was a period of roughly 46 months. He was a tyrant and regarded by most people to be certifiably insane. Shortly after he came to power, he fell deathly ill and most believed he was going to die. Somehow, however, he recovered. He later endured several assassination attempts. He proclaimed himself a god and forced people to worship him – something that was quite unprecedented in the Roman empire. He put a statue in the Temple at Jerusalem – the dwelling place of the Jewish and Christian God – thereby severely offending Jews and Christians alike.

Revelation 13:11-18 – Then I saw another beast...he exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men...he ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived...he also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666 [616].

Emperor Nero was the nephew of Caligula, and ruled during the 50’s and 60’s C.E. He kept with the tradition of forcing people to worship past emperors, including Caligula. He was associated with the great fire of Rome, and was believed by many to have actually orchestrated it. He was obsessed with his own reputation, and frequently found himself at odds with the Senate and the nobles because he routinely enacted legislation to make the masses happy, frequently at the expense of the rich and powerful. He put through a number of economic packages designed to ease the tax burden of the people and to ensure that they remained loyal to him. He was widely regarded as the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians. In ancient Jewish numerology, his name equals the number 616, which is the number contained in the original text. This number is arrived at by taken Nero’s name in Aramaic, and coming up with a “sum” of his name.

It is very obvious, from a comparison of the text to the historical record, that the writer was talking about Caligula and Nero – Caligula being the “first” beast with the “wound” that had healed, and Nero being the second, who followed in the footsteps of the first. Added to that is the known fact that many Christians in the 2nd century and thereafter believed Nero was the antichrist who would return to earth to battle the Christ in the final showdown. This is stated explicitly in a number of 2nd century Christian texts, including the “Ascension of Isaiah” and the “Syballine Oracles.” The book of Revelation, too, was written in the 2nd century. Even the great St. Augustine, writing as late as the 5th century, referred to the widespread belief among Christians that Nero was the antichrist, going so far as to agree that many of Nero’s actions mirrored those of the supposed antichrist.

The fact that the writer was writing in code is pretty obvious from the text. “This calls for wisdom,” and “If anyone has insight...” are sort of like a “Wink, wink. Hint, hint,” phrase in the text. The writer was clearly hinting to his readers that he was speaking in code. The code was used to ensure that if the text fell into the wrong hands, no one could discover any treasonous material in it – the writer knew his Jewish-Christian readers would understand, but knew Roman pagans would not. Furthermore, as mentioned above, Nero enacted a number of economic programs to keep the masses loyal to him. Thus, only those with the “sign of the beast” – that is, only those willing to bow to Nero – could “buy or sell.”

It is also important to point out that the text tells us “everyone” was “forced” to take the sign. It was not something they had a choice in. Thus, the idea that people today need to reject the sign of the beast does not add up with what it says in the text. Later in the text, of course, the writer suggests that only those who did not take the sign would get to enter paradise, but the fact that the writer himself seems to have made contradictory statements is irrelevant. Remember, the Christians of the early 2nd century were subjects of the Roman empire. The point the author of Revelation was making was that only those people who refused to subject themselves to Roman laws and religions would have their names written down in the Book of Life.

It is a virtual certainty that the writer of Revelation pictured Nero as the antichrist, following in the footsteps of Caligula, who was the precursor to the antichrist. The writer clearly believed Nero was due to return to earth and battle Jesus. And of course, 2nd century Christians would not have had Roman histories available to them on every street corner or on the Internet, and their knowledge of the history of the Roman emperors would have been based primarily on oral tradition. It is possible the writer of Revelation pictured Caligula and Nero – as well as all the powerful leaders of the Roman empire – as more or less one and the same, with the actions of each sort of overlapping. The seat of the Roman emperor was a precarious one in the 1st century – no less than eleven men were emperor of Rome from 37 C.E. to 98 C.E. In the year 69 alone, four emperors ruled in a period of twelve months. Of the eleven rulers from 37-98 C.E., seven of them either were assassinated or committed suicide. Someone writing in the early 2nd century would not have had all the facts straight – knowledge and information would have overlapped. What is obvious, however, is that the writer of Revelation pictured the antichrist as a composite of a Roman emperor, who was, to the author and the communities he was writing to, the embodiment of earthly evil.

With this in mind, unless you suppose that a 1st century Roman emperor is going to return to earth in a breastplate and carrying a short-sword, and attempt to take control of humanity, I think we can safely say that these prophecies belong in the ancient, pre-Enlightenment era. They certainly have no relation to the modern world, and the writer made it clear that he believed the final battle was going to happen during his 2nd century life, not 2,000 years later.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

An Analysis of Rush Epics

Rush is a multi-platinum-selling progressive rock band who have been consistently putting out new albums for nearly 35 years, without ever having a personnel change during that span. Among other things, Rush is famous for a series of “epic” songs they recorded in the early years of their career, some of which were upwards of twenty minutes long, comprising entire sides of vinyl albums. Although it is not necessarily a major topic of debate, even among diehard Rush fans who tend to analyze all things Rush to death, there is some disagreement over just how many epic songs Rush recorded. In this analysis, I want to set forth the criteria for what I believe make an “epic” song, and then look at each one of Rush’s early albums to determine which songs qualify as epics and which do not.

When Neil Peart joined the band as drummer and primary lyricist in 1974, Rush only had one previous album to their credit. As soon as Peart joined the band, the direction of the music, both lyrically and instrumentally, changed course dramatically. The difference in sound and lyrical content between the first and second albums is marked – even if you do not know anything about the band’s history, it is obvious that something changed between the first and second albums. One of those changes included a penchant for writing long songs with unusual lyrical content primarily consisting of science-fiction/fantasy themes.

Before delving into the albums and songs, it is necessary to outline the criteria for what makes a song an “epic” song.

1. Length. Any good epic song will be longer than average. If we assume that an “average” rock song is about 3:30, then any epic song would need to be considerably longer than this.

2. Lyrical Theme. For a song to qualify as an epic, the lyrical theme should generally be out of the ordinary. “Out of the ordinary” could include science-fiction themes, historical themes, sociopolitical themes, fantasy themes, nature themes, mythology themes, folktale themes, etc.

3. Lyrical Content. Generally speaking, a good epic song will tell a story. Like the country music “story songs” of the past, a rock epic should be arranged in such a way that a writer might be able to adapt its lyrics to a short story.

4. Formatting. Most rock songs are arranged in a traditional format, with an opening, a series of one to three verses, a repeated chorus, a bridge and/or solo section, and an ending, which often includes a repetition of the chorus. Musically, this can be denoted with a series of letters. Thus, a song with two verses, a repeated chorus, and a bridge, might look like this: ABABCBB, where “A” represents the verses, “B” represents the chorus, and “C” represents the bridge. For a song to be a good epic song, it should generally stray from this sort of traditional formatting. It may follow a much more complicated format, or it may be durchcomponiert, that is, “through composed,” meaning there is no repetition of any one musical section – no repeated verses, choruses, or bridges.

5. Instrumentation. If an average rock song uses electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums, an epic song should have a wider variety of musical instruments employed. These may include strings, keyboards, synthesizers, various percussion instruments, brass, and even choirs.

6. Stylistic Arrangement. If most rock songs generally follow the same style throughout, an epic song should have various sections where the style of the music differs greatly from previous and subsequent sections. An example might be a song that starts out loud and fast, with traditional instruments, and then moves into a section where the music slows and quiets down, and new instruments are brought in to create a different sound and mood. Dramatic changes in key signatures and time signatures may also accompany these stylistic variations.

With these criteria in mind, we can perhaps come up with three categories in analyzing songs for “epic” quality. Any song that contains five or more of the above criteria could reasonably be labeled an epic song. A song with two or fewer epic criteria should be labeled a non-epic song. In the middle of these two – with three to four criteria – is a category I will call “pseudo-epic.” There will be some overlap, of course, depending on which criteria a particular song employs. For instance, a song that tells a story and has unusual content, but no other epic criteria, is probably best called a non-epic. However, a song that has unusual content and is over ten minutes long could very well be considered a pseudo-epic, even though it, like the previous example, only had two of the six qualifying criteria.

Having outlined the standards we will be searching for, we now take a look at the actual albums and songs.

Rush’s second album was entitled “Fly By Night,” and this album, I believe, has two songs worthy of consideration. The first is “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” widely accepted in the Rush community to be Rush’s first epic. Keeping our criteria in mind, this song displays abnormal length (nearly nine minutes), an unusual theme (it centers on a wizard-like tale about a battle between the title characters), it tells a story, it uses a variety of instrumental sounds (the “battle section” involves a sound that mimics the barking of a dog), and it has a varying stylistic arrangement. Thus, this song displays five of our six criteria, and is therefore considered a certifiable epic song.

The second song on “Fly By Night” which should be considered is “Rivendell.” This song is frequently not included in discussions about Rush’s epic songs, but I believe it qualifies as a pseudo-epic. It has unusual content (it is based on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”), and it has unusual instrumentation (the music consists entirely of solo classical guitar, with some very soft electric guitar sounds in the background, mimicking the sound of a medieval woodwind instrument). It is not significant in length, but it does run about five minutes, making it quite a bit longer than an average rock song. These three criteria, I believe, qualify “Rivendell” as a pseudo-epic.

Rush’s third album was called “Caress of Steel,” and it includes two songs that are without question epic songs – “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth.” The former has at least five of the six necessary criteria, lacking perhaps only the necessary varied instrumentation.

“The Fountain of Lamneth” contains four of the six qualifying criteria, lacking only varied instrumentation and complex formatting. The song is arranged into a series of five or six “movements,” with each movement more or less functioning as a stand-alone song with traditional formatting. However, because of the arrangement in movements, an easy argument could be made that this song carries the complex formatting criterion as well. Either way, there is no question this song is a certifiable epic.

A possible third candidate on “Caress of Steel” is a song entitled “Lakeside Park.” It contains an unusual lyrical theme, it tells a story, and it has varying styles. With these three criteria, it could probably qualify as a pseudo-epic, but in my opinion this is still too much of a stretch because the varying styles and unusual themes are not really varied and unusual enough to qualify as “out of the ordinary.” Thus, I would probably categorize “Lakeside Park” as a non-epic.

Rush’s fourth album, “2112,” contains perhaps its most famous epic song. Also titled “2112,” this song runs over twenty minutes (it would have been clever of them to make it 21:12 instead of 20:33), and tells a sort of futuristic science-fiction story that ends with the narrator’s suicide. Like the epics before it, the only criterion it seems to be missing is varied instrumentation, but it has some sound effects in the middle and near the end, including a robot-like voiceover. Whether this qualifies as varied instrumentation or not, the song is certainly strong on the remaining five criteria. It is arranged just like a symphonic work, with an overture covering musical themes from subsequent sections, individual movements, and a finale.

Rush’s fifth album, “A Farewell to Kings,” begins with a song by the same name, and I believe this song, though not widely regarded as an epic, demands consideration. It is longer than average at nearly six minutes, it has unusual themes in that it discusses modern sociopolitical concerns with metaphors couched in medieval images, it has unusual formatting in that it has only verses but no true chorus and is strewn with various bridge-like sections that sometimes follow one after the other, it has complex instrumentation including classical guitars and various percussive sounds, and it has stylistic variations, beginning and ending with classical guitar solos. Thus, “A Farewell to Kings” qualifies as much as an epic song as “2112” or “The Necromancer” with five out of the six criteria met.

Two other songs on this album most definitely qualify as epics. These songs are “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1.” Both of these songs quite clearly contain all six of the required criteria of length, theme, content, formatting, instrumentation, and style, and I will not waste a lot of time discussing them. Suffice it to say, these are the first two songs in Rush’s catalogue that have, without question, all six of the necessary criteria to make an epic song.

Rush’s next album, “Hemispheres,” has an 18-minute epic by the same title. Like “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1” before it, it has all six epic criteria, and is also considerably longer and more varied than either of those songs. Like “2112,” it is arranged like a symphonic work, with an overture, movements, and finale.

The final song on this album, “La Villa Strangiato,” bears consideration. Frequently overlooked in discussions about epic Rush songs, this song contains five of the six necessary criteria for epic songs: length, theme, formatting, instrumentation, and style. It fails on the lyrical content only because the song has no lyrics – it is a nearly ten minute instrumental with themed movements, but no words. I believe “La Villa Strangiato” is a certifiable Rush epic.

Another song on “Hemispheres” that I believe deserves consideration is “The Trees.” This song qualifies on theme, content, instrumentation, and style. One could also argue that it qualifies on length, running about 4:45, though this is a stretch. It contains unusual subject matter (a sociopolitical commentary using a living forest as a running metaphor), it tells a story, it has complex instrumentation, and its style varies because the song begins – like “A Farewell to Kings” – with a haunting classical guitar solo. “The Trees,” therefore, qualifies as a solid pseudo-epic, meaning that three of the four songs on this album have epic qualities.

Rush’s seventh album, “Permanent Waves,” has several candidates, starting, perhaps, with “Freewill.” This song qualifies on length and content, but it would be a stretch to find any other epic criteria in it. Thus, it is best described as a non-epic song.

The next song to be considered is “Jacob’s Ladder.” Though this is the shortest of Rush’s widely regarded epics, I think it most certainly deserves the designation. At 7:28, it qualifies on length, and also qualifies on theme, formatting, instrumentation, and style. It may be Rush’s only song that is truly durchcomponiert, with no repeated sections from beginning to end. There are repetitions of motifs within sections, but no sectional musical theme is ever repeated in the song. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a solid epic.

The final song on this album, “Natural Science,” frequently wins fan polls for favorite Rush song, and is generally lumped in with Rush’s epic songs. However, a close look at the song shows that it probably only displays four of the six epic criteria – length, theme, formatting, and style. The lyrics do not really tell a story, and there is not much variation in instrumentation. The song opens with a creek bubbling in the background, but this is not enough, alone, to meet the instrumentation criteria. I think this song is probably more accurately called a pseudo-epic, but we are ultimately splitting hairs. The varied style, movement-oriented arrangement, length, and lyrical themes are probably enough to push this one over the edge into epic status.

Widely regarded to be Rush’s last epic song, “The Camera Eye” is found on Rush’s eighth and most popular album, “Moving Pictures.” In interviews, band members have repeatedly said that this is the one song that is most often requested to be performed live. This fact is no doubt the result of several factors, most notably that it has not been performed live in well over twenty years, and that it is included on Rush’s best-selling album – meaning that this may be one of the few epic songs that casual Rush fans are familiar with. I think “The Camera Eye” is a fine song, and I enjoy listening to it, but up against their other epic-quality songs, it is among my least favorite.

Be that as it may, “The Camera Eye” is probably a true epic. It qualifies without question on length, theme, instrumentation, and style. It probably also qualifies on formatting, although the format is not quite as varied and complex as many of Rush’s other epic songs, and it contains a number of repeated sections – hallmarks of non-epics. However, it does not have a true chorus, and this strengthens the formatting qualification. I think it is fair to call this song a certifiable epic.

Another song on “Moving Pictures” that bears consideration is “Red Barchetta.” This song most certainly qualifies on length, theme, and content, and it could probably be argued that it qualifies on stylistic arrangement as well, due to an introduction that is otherwise quite different from the rest of the song. Even with only three qualifications, those three are solid, and I believe this song is a pseudo-epic.

As I mentioned above, most fans regard “The Camera Eye” as the end of Rush’s “epic” period. Following “Moving Pictures,” Rush began writing almost exclusively traditional, non-epic songs. They have continued to maintain eclectic lyrical content and varied musical styles, as well as complex instrumentation, but gone are the days of excessive length, unusual content, “story” lyrics, and complex formatting. For the most part, their albums since “Moving Pictures” have contained songs that are certainly intellectual, notably virtuosic, and frequently eclectic, but they are generally arranged and performed in a traditional manner. “Pseudo-epic” claims could probably be made for songs like “Manhattan Project,” “Territories,” “Mystic Rhythms,” and “Tai Shan,” but I believe these songs are simply non-epics that happen to be eclectic.

However, there may be a few legitimate pseudo-epics among Rush’s later albums. “Digital Man,” from their “Subdivisions” album, is the first. This song qualifies strongly on length and theme (it was their longest post-“Moving Pictures” song until 2007’s “Snakes & Arrows” album), and a good argument could be made for formatting as well, as it has a more complex format than a non-epic song. I believe this one qualifies as a pseudo-epic.

The next to consider is “Losing It,” from the same “Subdivisions” album. This song probably qualifies on length at nearly five minutes, and it has an unusual theme, tells a story, and contains varied instrumentation (including an electric violin solo). Despite this, I think “Losing It” is more in the category of “non-epic but eclectic,” rather than pseudo-epic.

“Red Sector A,” off of the “Grace Under Pressure” album probably qualifies as a pseudo-epic. At 5:11, it qualifies on length, and it most certainly qualifies on theme, content, and instrumentation.

“Roll the Bones,” from the album of the same name, qualifies on length and style, and more weakly on instrumentation and formatting. What really pushes this one over the top is the unusual bridge in the middle of the song, which more or less contains a rap. This song is widely unpopular among diehard fans, but by my criteria in this analysis, I think “Roll the Bones” qualifies, just barely, as a pseudo-epic.

In the final analysis, I believe Rush’s epic-quality songs line up like this:

Certifiable Epics
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
The Necromancer
The Fountain of Lamneth
A Farewell to Kings
Cygnus X-1
La Villa Strangiato
Jacob’s Ladder
Natural Science
The Camera Eye

Of this list, perhaps only “A Farewell to Kings” is a true shock, but as I noted above, several other widely accepted epic songs (“Natural Science,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “The Camera Eye,” and even possibly “The Fountain of Lamneth”) just barely make the cut.

The Trees
Red Barchetta
Digital Man
Red Sector A
Roll the Bones

A lot of people would no doubt argue this list, as generally none of these songs are given any sort of epic status among diehard fans, but by the same criteria that make the certifiable epics what they are, I believe these songs have enough qualities to at least get an honorable mention.

Friday, May 09, 2008

My Family Line

Despite the fact that my surname is one that most people do not easily forget, and despite that I frequently get asked where my name came from, I have never really delved very deeply into my family history. Beyond information absorbed over the years by my grandparents, I have generally known very little about my family tree. Recently, however, I have started trying to do some online research, and have uncovered a couple of websites that have given me what appears to be a pretty accurate look through ten generations of my family. Unfortunately, I have gotten no closer to actually discovering the genesis of the name, but at least I can speak with a little bit of knowledge now about my ancestors.

From two different sources I have found, it would appear that my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a fellow with the first name of Goodman. He appears to have been nicknamed “Gad.” My two sources differ on his date of birth; the earlier source has him born in 1616 in Leicestershire County, England, and I believe this is the more accurate of the two.

I have no information on exactly when or why, but Gad appears to have come to America sometime before 1646, and settled in Virginia. In that year, a record shows that he was paid 80 pounds of tobacco for digging graves. In 1653 he was the witness for a deed given to an apparent associate of his. In 1666, he was involved in a court case, and was awarded 40 pounds of tobacco. For someone who apparently began with the rather lowly job of digging graves, he appears to have become successful later in life. A record from about 100 years after Gad’s life indicates that he and his family had a 99-year lease on a plot of land on the south side of the Pohick Creek in what was then called Stafford County, Virginia. Today, this is in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Gad wife’s name is not known, but he had at least one child with her; this child’s name was Charles.

It is uncertain when Charles was born, but he died sometime after 1705. His wife’s name was Mary Cross. They had three sons: John, Charles, and Thomas. In 1705, Virginia records show that Charles and his wife Mary arranged for their youngest son, 16-year-old Thomas Cross (he had been given his mother’s maiden name for a middle name), to be apprenticed to a man named Captain Thomas Harrison. Just what this apprenticeship entailed is not clear from the record. He was to be apprenticed until the age of 21, at which time Captain Harrison was to discharge him, providing him with a “sute of apparel” and a “2-year-old heifer.”

Although both of my sources listed Charles and his father Goodman as the father and grandfather, respectively, of Thomas Cross, the more reliable and detailed of my sources pointed out that this information was given to him by someone from the Internet, and he has not personally researched it. Prior to receiving the information on Thomas Cross’s father and grandfather, this source had only traced the line back to Thomas Cross.

Thomas Cross was born on October 1, 1689, on the family estate at Pohick Creek. As mentioned above, he was apparently apprenticed to a Captain Thomas Harrison at age 16. The family was evidently quite well off, as Thomas Cross’s Last Will and Testament has him dispersing 33 “negroes” among five of his seven children. His two eldest daughters, Agnes and Sarah Ann, were not listed in the will at all, and one has to wonder if there had not been some kind of falling out. Among the five children who are listed in the will, each received a “feather bed and furniture,” as well as five or six “negroes.” Each of these slaves was named, with names like “Old Harry,” “Young Ned,” “Morning,” “Moses,” “Old Peter,” and “Young Peter.” To his eldest son, John, he also bequeathed a horse named “Shaven.” Finally, he dispersed money among his numerous grandchildren.

Thomas Cross’s youngest child, also named Thomas, had apparently died just a few months before the will was drawn up. In the will, Thomas Cross notes that his son’s wife is in charge of his son’s estate. This younger Thomas had married a woman named Temperance Whitlock, and their family had evidently moved to North Carolina, where the younger Thomas died. They had five children, the youngest of which was about 2 years old when his father died and when his grandfather (Thomas Cross) was drawing up his will. This child, named William, is referenced in the will of Thomas Cross as being eligible to take his share of the estate upon reaching the age of 16. His share included six slaves (“Tom, Dick, Blackman, Moll, Judah, and Patt”), as well as “three stock of cattle, sheep, and working tools.”

William, the grandson of Thomas Cross, was born about 1766 in North Carolina, where his father, Thomas, had moved the family. He married a woman named Elizabeth Jenkins. Together, they had ten children. About 1809, William and his family moved to Logan County, Kentucky. They are on the census sheets for the county in 1810. Thus, William and Elizabeth were the first ancestors in my direct line to live in Kentucky.

Their fourth child, and second son, was named Edmund. He was born about 1800, when the family was still living in North Carolina. He married a Georgia woman named Nancy Ann Miller. Edmund and Nancy had eleven children. Their first son’s name was John Clipper.

John Clipper was born on the 4th of July, 1822. In an 1850 census, John Clipper was listed as a “farmer” living in Butler County, Kentucky, with a farm worth $100. Despite being nearly 40 at the outbreak of the Civil War, John Clipper apparently volunteered, and was a private in “A” Company at Calhoun, Kentucky. He was discharged in 1864.

John Clipper was married twice. His first wife, Mary Watkins, was only 16 when they were married, and after having four children, she died at the age of 34. John Clipper married again a year later, this time to Rhoda Sarah Ann Hudnall. Rhoda was about 23 at the time, and John Clipper was about 45. Together, they had five children. At some point, they moved to Indiana, where John Clipper died in 1916 at the age of 94.

John and Rhoda

John Clipper and Rhoda’s eldest son, and third child overall, was named Luke. Luke was born in 1875, in Indiana, and married a woman named Amanda “Mandy” Andrews in 1900. They had nine children together – two daughters (the first died in infancy) and seven sons. Luke’s World War I draft registration card lists him as a farmer of medium height with a “slender” build. In a 1930 census, all seven sons were still living at home; also living with the family at that time was Luke’s brother, John, and Mandy’s father, William Andrews.

Both Luke and Mandy died in 1964, with Mandy outlasting Luke by about six months. Oddly enough, Mandy apparently died on December 25th of that year.

Of their children, the eldest was a girl named Thelda, who died at about 11 months. Their second child was a son named Rufus Coleman, followed by another son, Cephas, a daughter Clara, and then five more sons: William Montrose, Arthur, John Driver, Theron, and James Thomas. The two youngest sons, Theron and James Thomas, both died young, with Tom dying from an apparent stroke in 1945, and Theron succumbing to tuberculosis in 1946. The son by the name of John Driver was apparently given this odd middle name because he was the fifth son, and a family member told Luke upon John’s birth: “You’ve already got four mules, now you’ve got a driver.”

The fourth son, Arthur, was born on March 18, 1915. He married Ina Mae Ewing, and together they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where they had four children. Their first child, a daughter named Laquita, died at birth. Fearing they would not be able to have children, they decided to adopt a child, Sheila Jane. Shortly after the adoption was finalized, and before Sheila Jane was born, Ina Mae turned up pregnant. As a result, Sheila Jane and her brother Arthur Ewing were only seven months apart, and were frequently mistaken as twins. Two peas in a pod, they grew up with the close companionship of twins, and remain the best of friends and confidants to this day. The intimate closeness of these two siblings is mirrored in the companionable relationship Sheila Jane has with her beloved sister-in-law, Dixie.

Seven years after Sheila Jane and Arthur Ewing were born, a third child came along: Byron Keith. Born in 1948, Byron Keith married Sonja Ann Kirby, of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Together they had two children, Elissa and yours truly.

My sister and I, and our cousins, represent the 11th generation since Gad came over from Leicestershire, England. Unfortunately, I am the only male grandchild of my grandfather, Arthur. So his branch of the family name will end with me.

The direct line of the family tree, through me, looks something like this:

Goodman (“Gad”) – Born 1616 in England, immigrated to Virginia sometime before 1646.
Thomas Cross – Owned over thirty slaves.
Thomas – Moved his family to North Carolina.
William – Born in North Carolina, moved his family to western Kentucky around 1809.
John Clipper – Fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Arthur – Moved his family from western Kentucky to Louisville in the 1930’s.
Byron Keith – Moved his family from Louisville to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1988.
Scott – Still pissed about that move.

Those 11 generations comprise nearly 500 years of my family line.