Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An Analysis of the Religion Segment in the Internet Film "Zeitgeist"

Those folks who enjoy spending their free time browsing Internet sites like YouTube and other video websites may be familiar with the independent Internet documentary “Zeitgeist.” The title comes from a German word meaning “the spirit of the times.” This film, written and directed by Peter Joseph, and based largely on the works of a man named Jordan Maxwell, is broken up into three segments, one on religion, one on 9/11, and one on the Federal Reserve. I have not viewed the last two segments, and do not intend to, but I was asked by an acquaintance to watch the segment on religion and comment on it.

In this segment, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the filmmakers discuss ancient religion and astrology and attempt to show how ancient astrological ideas impacted the story of Jesus. For the sake of space, I will discuss only the major themes asserted in the segment, looking at specific claims only when I feel that they are vitally important to the analysis of the film.

In an effort to sum up my thoughts here at the very beginning, as a sort of thesis for this analysis (and so those who do not want to read everything can understand the gist of my opinions), let me say that the entire segment, from the first second to the last second, is utter nonsense. I can think of no kinder way to couch my opinion. The arguments made by the filmmakers are absurd, and are mostly comprised of total fiction and intentional deceptions. Whether their arguments are valid or not, I would like to suppose that the filmmakers were acting in good faith, putting together a series of arguments that they truly believed in, based on in-depth research. But the arguments stray so far from the historical record that one can only make the assumption that they were literally making it up as they went along, in an effort to support a predetermined conclusion that was otherwise unsupported by the actual evidence. There may be a few things they got right, most likely by accident, but by and large, their assertions are baloney. In short, the arguments represent pseudo-scholarship, or, more bluntly and certainly more accurately, “bad” scholarship. There is not a reputable scholar or historian on earth who would give even a second thought to the claims made in this film. The filmmakers themselves do not have a shred of scholarly credibility, and the claims they make are, in a literal sense of the word, laughable.

The segment begins by making the assertion that the well-known stories of Jesus were almost entirely drawn from other ancient religions. These stories include a virgin birth, Son of God status, healings and other miracles, ultimate betrayal by a trusted confidant, execution by crucifixion, and resurrection after three days. The filmmakers assert that Jesus is simply the “most recent” of what they call the “solar messiahs.” They assert that there were literally dozens of these pre-Jesus solar messiahs. Specifically, the filmmakers spend quite a bit of time discussing what they believe are the astounding similarities between Jesus and the ancient Egyptian god Horus. In fact, they state that Jesus’ character is “most explicitly a plagiarization of the Egyptian sun god Horus.” Because of the significance they place on the Horus/Egyptian connection, I will spend quite a bit of time discussing this in detail.

The filmmakers assert that Horus was born on December 25th to the virgin goddess Isis. His birth, so the filmmakers tell us, was said to have been heralded by a star in the east, which three kings followed in order to find him and pay homage. He began teaching people as early as the age of 12. His official ministry began at the age of 30, shortly after he had been baptized. He was accompanied during his ministry by 12 disciples, and he performed many miracles, including healing the sick and walking on water. He was referred to by titles such as “the truth,” “the light,” “God’s anointed son,” “the good shepherd,” and the “lamb of God.” He was ultimately betrayed, crucified on a cross, and then resurrected to new life three days later.

Christians will recognize each one of these attributes as attributes of Jesus. The filmmakers, however, assert that they were originally attributes of Horus, many, many centuries before Jesus was born. But is there any credibility to these claims? Someone unfamiliar with ancient Egyptian history and mythology may not know for certain, but as someone who has had a lifelong interest in ancient Egypt, let me assure you that these claims are nonsense and non-historical. They can only be intentional, outright lies on the part of the filmmakers.

When delving into the mythology of ancient Egypt, it is first important to understand the time frame one is dealing with. We can discuss ancient Greece, or the Roman Empire, or the history of the United States, and we will be dealing with a period of a few centuries. In the case of ancient Egypt, we are dealing with a few millennia. By way of comparison, the relatively “old” society of modern England goes back about a thousand years (one-third the length of the ancient Egyptian civilization). By the time of King Tut, for instance, the pyramids were already over a thousand years old (older than the English monarchy is today). When Cleopatra took Julius Caesar to see the pyramids in about 49 B.C.E., the pyramids, at that time, were already more ancient to Caesar and Cleopatra than Caesar and Cleopatra are to us. Think on that for a few seconds.

So when looking at Egyptian history, we are looking at an extremely long period of time. As such, it is easy to understand that throughout this long period, not only were dozens and dozens of gods worshipped, but the way in which those gods were worshipped changed and morphed based on the era in question, and the area of Egypt in question. Thus, one god may have been worshipped in one way during one era in a specific region, and the same god may have been worshipped differently in a different era and a different region. Look how much religious beliefs have changed even within Christianity over just the last thousand years or so. A thousand years ago, Christians were slaughtering Jews and other “heathens” in the crusades, and later during the Inquisition. Now multiply that by three millennia, and you can see how much change would have taken place in the way the ancient Egyptians defined, understood, and worshipped their gods.

Horus was one of the few Egyptian gods who essentially survived throughout most of ancient Egyptian history. As such, his story is difficult to follow, because it changes depending on the era and region. Sometimes he is the son of Isis. Sometimes he is the husband of Isis. In other places/eras, he is either the son or husband of Hathor. At other times he is called the brother of either Isis or Hathor. Sometimes he is depicted as an adult god, sometimes a child god. Sometimes he is associated with the sun god Ra, other times he is associated with the creator god Amun. In some places, he is associated not with the sun, but with the moon.

Generally speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was the son of either Ra and Hathor, or Osiris and Isis. His uncle (Osiris’ brother) was the wicked god of chaos and infertility, known as Seth (interestingly, and as another illustration of what I mentioned above, in certain eras of Egyptian history, this “wicked” god was actually highly honored…the father of Ramses the Great, for instance, was named “Seti” in honor of his patron god Seth, and Seti was one of the great and powerful pharaohs of the New Kingdom era). Horus and Seth are routinely depicted in competition with each other, with Horus being said to have cut off one of Seth’s testicles (thus, his status as the god of infertility), and with Seth said to have gouged out one of Horus’ eyes. This latter mythology is what led to the famous Egyptian symbol of the Eye of Horus. Horus’ eye was gouged out, but later was restored (in some places by Isis, in others by Hathor), and thus the Eye of Horus became a symbol of restoration, wholeness, and perfection. It was used as an amulet for good luck, and a famous one was found on the mummy of King Tut.

Having looked at what we can generally know from the historical record about the ways Horus was depicted in ancient Egyptian mythology, we now go back to the claims made in the film. It might be easier to talk about what the filmmakers managed to get right, rather than what they got wrong, because there is very little that was accurate. Horus was, at times, associated with the sun god Ra, as asserted by the film. He was not known, however, as the sun god himself, as is implied by the filmmakers. Horus is, at times, depicted as a child god, which must be the source for the film’s assertion of Horus “teaching at the age of 12,” but that’s a nebulous connection at best, and a simple distortion of the truth at worst. And that about covers what the film managed to get right on this subject.

There is nothing whatsoever in the historical record of Horus about a virgin birth, a star in the east, three kings visiting the baby, baptism, ministry starting at the age of 30, betrayal, crucifixion, or resurrection three days later. The resurrection connection must surely be drawn from the idea of Horus’ restored eye, but that hardly qualifies as a connection to the resurrection story of Jesus! Again, it is a simple, but intentional, deception on the part of the filmmakers, as are all the other connections asserted. There is also certainly no connection to December 25th – to suggest such a thing would be to suggest that the ancient Egyptians had the Julian calendar – something that was not invented until just shortly before the birth of Jesus!

I want to talk briefly about the film’s assertion regarding crucifixion, and regarding the names connected to Horus. First of all, the very idea that crucifixion could have been part of the Horus story is laughable. Crucifixion was probably first performed in ancient Persia, and later became the primary form of criminal execution in the Roman Empire. Outside of those two areas, crucifixion was unknown. I know of no record in ancient Egypt of crucifixions taking place, unless it was after Egypt became a Roman province (about 30 years before Jesus’ birth). It certainly was in no way connected with the stories of Horus.

As for the names of Horus, the film asserts that his name means “light.” In fact, his name means “He Who is Above,” and refers to his typical depiction as a falcon-headed god. Since part of the film’s ongoing argument required Horus to be deeply associated with the sun, the motivation of the filmmakers to change this is clear. In researching Horus, I have drawn on my own accumulated knowledge, based on a lifetime of interest in ancient Egypt, as well as several Internet websites, and a couple of books from my own library. I can find nothing whatsoever to suggest Horus was ever called “the lamb of God,” or “the good shepherd.” Of course, I did not expect to find any such reference, but I wanted to research it in the name of being fair. The very idea that these distinctly Jewish names for Jesus could have predated Jesus in ancient Egyptian mythology is yet another literally laughable suggestion. Without the basis of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, these names would be meaningless. When applied to Jesus, they make sense against the Jewish background of the earliest Christians. To suggest they were names of the ancient Egyptian god Horus is not only untrue, but yet another example of what can only be a blatant, intentional lie, told for the purpose of supporting a conclusion that otherwise has no basis in the historical record.

The final assertions made by the film, in regards to Horus, center around a painting on the wall of the Temple of Luxor, in southern Egypt. This carving appears to have been made around 1500 B.C.E., or about the beginning of what Egyptologists call the “New Kingdom.” It would have been about a thousand years after the building of the pyramids. The film asserts that this image depicts what would later become the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, birth, and Adoration of Jesus. The filmmakers tell us that the drawing shows the god Thoth (whose name the narrator mispronounces) announcing to the virgin Isis that she will give birth to the god Horus. In the next scene, the god Kneph impregnates the virgin Isis. The film describes Kneph as the “holy ghost.” The following scenes then depict the birth of Horus and his later adoration by the gods.

The only problem is this: like most everything else asserted in the film, it is a pack of lies from start to finish. The drawing actually depicts the birth of Amun-Ra, the creator god. This god was actually a conglomeration of two ancient gods whom the people of the New Kingdom era came to understand as one god. In the drawing, Thoth announces the birth to the god Neith, who was a goddess associated with the primordial waters before creation. Neith is not ever depicted as a perpetual “virgin.” In the next scene, the gods Hathor and Kneph impregnate Neith with an ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol associated with the pharaohs). Neith then gives birth to Amun-Ra, and all the gods of the pantheon pay homage to him. To suggest this painting involves Horus is a simple lie, and to suggest it forms the basis of later Christian doctrines is nonsense.

One final note on this topic – the goddess Isis, frequently connected to Horus, and mentioned by the filmmakers as his “virgin” mother, associated with Jesus’ mother Mary – was never, in ancient Egypt, understood as a virgin. The stories depicting her as the mother of Horus never involve a virgin birth. Again, this is just pure fiction on the part of the filmmakers. They needed the virgin birth connection, so like everything else, they just made it up.

After discussing the supposed Horus/Jesus connection in depth, the filmmakers then move into the realm of astrology. They argue that the “star in the east” and the “three king” motif associated with Jesus actually comes from a study of the night sky. On December 24th, they argue, the three stars of Orion’s belt (which the filmmakers assert were known in the ancient world as “the three kings”) align with the bright eastern star of Sirius, and all four stars point to the spot on the horizon where the sun (that is, the “son”) will rise (or be born) on December 25th. This, they argue, is the basis for why “three kings” are said to follow a “star in the east” toward the birth of a new son.

The problem with this assertion is manifold. To begin, Christian tradition in no way asserts that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. That is simply the day that the Christian Church named as the celebration of Christ’s mass (hence the name). They chose that day, no doubt, because of it was already a pagan holiday. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Biblical tradition to suggest Jesus was visited by “three kings.” The book of Matthew says that “Magi from the east” came to find the newborn Jesus, following a star. They are not kings, and there are not necessarily three of them. The idea of “three kings” in Christian tradition comes from a Christmas song, not the Bible.

I have already pointed out that the assertion by the filmmakers that Horus was said to have been visited by three kings on December 25th is factually unsupported. But does Orion’s belt line up with Sirius in the eastern sky on December 24th, and were those stars known to the ancients as “the three kings”? Furthermore, were such mythologies ever known to surround other ancient figures, before Jesus?

The answer to this question is yes and no. From what I can find in my research, it does appear that the three stars of Orion’s belt line up, somewhat, with the star Sirius, though it is certainly not a clearly direct line. Furthermore, this is not true only on December 24th, but many days during the year. Thus, there is nothing special about this connection for December 25th. Also, as far as pointing toward the eastern horizon where the sun rises, it depends on what time of the night you are looking at the stars as to whether they actually point to the horizon. Additionally, many stars could be known as a “star in the east,” and while Sirius is generally in the east during certain times of the year, so are many other prominent stars.

As for the assertion that the stars of Orion’s belt were known as the “three kings” in antiquity, this appears, from my research, to be false. I have found a few references from the 19th century, but that is all. I have found nothing to support the idea that the ancients called these stars by this name. Furthermore, since the film makes such a connection between Egyptian astrology and Christian tradition, I know that the Orion constellation was known to the ancient Egyptians as representing the abode of the gods. The pyramids at Giza, in fact, are believed to have been geographically situated to represent the three stars of Orion’s belt, and together with pyramids to the north and south of Giza, they create a star map of the constellation.

Finally, I can find no evidence in my research to suggest that any pre-Jesus figures were said to have been visited by three kings, who were following a star in the east, to find a baby being born. It would appear that these assertions in the film, like so many others, are simply made up.

In the film, the filmmakers take the December 25th connection even one step further. They assert that as the sun makes its slow progression from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, it makes a slow but inexorable slide to the south. The film asserts that on the winter solstice, December 21st, the sun stops its southerly movement. Then it seems to “pause” for three days – December 22nd, 23rd, and 24th – before finally making a 1 degree move northward, thus starting the slow climb toward the summer solstice. The film goes on to say that this is the basis for the mythology of a god being dead for three days before finally “rising” again. Christians celebrate this astrological event on Easter instead of Christmas, the film says, because Easter is around the spring equinox, and it is on that day that the “light finally defeats the darkness” – the spring equinox marks the date when the day becomes longer than the night. Finally, and most significantly, the film suggests that as the sun is making its slow progression toward the winter solstice, it passes directly through the constellation known as the Southern Cross just prior to December 21st. This, the film asserts, is why crucifixion was always the way that the “son” was killed. Of course, since crucifixion was in no way associated with any ancient civilization outside of Persia and Rome, and since I know of no other ancient “gods” prior to Jesus associated with death by crucifixion, this already becomes a moot point. But does the sun go through the Southern Cross before the winter solstice? Furthermore, does the sun pause for three days, before finally moving north again on December 25th?

The answer to the first question is a resounding “no.” The Southern Cross is not even visible in the Northern Hemisphere, at any time. It is called the Southern Cross because it is visible in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a constellation that would have been unknown to those living in the ancient Mediterranean.

As for the question of the sun pausing for three days, the evidence is sketchy. In the first place, the date of the winter solstice shifts each year between December 20th and 22nd, based on how the calendar changes. Thus, the “low point” of the sun’s progress through the sky is not always on December 21st, meaning the assertion about the sun “pausing” on the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th is automatically rendered meaningless. This would have been true with ancient calendars as well as modern calendars.

But does the sun “pause” for three days after the winter solstice, regardless of what day it is on? If Wikipedia can be trusted, the answer to this question, surprisingly, is yes. It is surprising because it is the only major assertion, at this point in my analysis, that has proven to be accurate in the film. However, of six other websites I browsed, I found only one other that mentioned this “pause.” This was an educator reference website, and is presumably trustworthy. It mentions, however, that the sun’s position in the sky seems to stay the same for “several days before and after the solstice.” In other words, no mention of three days specifically, and the sun apparently appears to hover before the solstice as well as after. Wikipedia’s content was so directly in line with the points made by the filmmakers in “Zeitgeist,” that I am extremely suspicious that the article itself has been amended by someone based on the claims made by the “Zeitgeist” creators. Either way, going with the seemingly trustworthy information from the educator site I browsed, it would seem that there is indeed a pause, but it is a stretch to characterize it as “three days after the winter solstice” and ending on December 25th. This appears to simply be more deception on the part of the filmmakers – twisting facts in order to prove a point that cannot otherwise be supported.

The way December 25th came to be associated with the celebration of the birth of Jesus is quite simple. There was a pagan Roman celebration around the winter solstice each year, as there was in most every ancient culture. When Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar, he marked December 25th as the day for this festival. This same festival later came to be associated with the god Mithra. In the middle ages, Christmas began being celebrated officially on this day, simply to replace the pagan holiday. There was nothing more to it than that, and it certainly had no effect on the theology-building of the writers of the New Testament. The three day tradition within Christianity had a completely different genesis, one that was tied directly and solely to the Jewish heritage of the earliest Christians. It had nothing to do with astrology.

As for the origins of the crucifixion of Jesus, this is one aspect of the Jesus story that is almost universally accepted by scholars as historically factual in the Bible – Jesus is said to have been crucified because he was, in fact, crucified. Again, it had nothing to do with astrology.

As the film progresses, it describes how there are 12 constellations in the zodiac, with the sun always pictured in the middle of those twelve constellations. The film argues that this is the reason why Jesus (i.e. “the sun/son”) is “followed around” by 12 disciples. It goes on to point out that the significance of the number 12 in the Bible is astrological, not religious. The problem with this, of course, is glaringly obvious: ancient Jews would not have had access to, or knowledge of, ancient Chinese astrology! Whether the Jews themselves had astrologers can be debated, but they certainly would not have divided the sky up the same way the ancient Chinese did, nor would they have called the constellations by the same names or pictured them the same way. I honestly do not have the background in Jewish history to say with certainly where the Jewish obsession with the number 12 came from, but regardless, the Christian adoption of the number 12 came from Judaism, not astrology.

After making these assertions, the film starts a long exposition on the intricacies of the Chinese zodiac. It asserts that due to the wobble and angle of the earth on its axis, it takes about 26,000 years for a full procession of the zodiac to take place. Since there are twelve phases in the zodiac, an astrological “age” takes about 2150 years. We are currently in the Age of Pisces, which began in 1 C.E. It will end in 2150 and the Age of Aquarius will begin. I have not researched this myself, and do not intend to; I will base my analysis on the assumption that these claims about the nature of the zodiac are accurate.

Using this basis, the film asserts that when the ancient Israelites were worshipping the golden calf during the time of Moses, this calf was actually Taurus – the “bull” constellation of ancient China – and this was because during that time, the world was in the “Age of Taurus.” Again, the very idea that the ancient Jews would have looked at this same constellation and called it a bull is absurd, to say the least. The film also asserts that the Age of Taurus was from 3400 B.C.E. to 2150 B.C.E. This places Moses and the Exodus (and thus, the golden calf story) about 1000 years earlier than most every biblical scholar places the story of Moses. The film goes on to say that the reason Moses was upset about his followers worshipping the bull Taurus is because this represented the “old” age, and Moses was inducting the “new” age – the Age of Aries, which began in 2150 B.C.E. The ancient Jewish custom of blowing a ram’s horn, the film asserts, began because the ancient Jews, after Moses, were living in the Age of Aries (Aries is a ram constellation). Again, would the ancient Jews have imaged this constellation the same way the ancient Chinese did? The entire basis of this argument is speculative, and completely ignores the historical record.

The film goes on to assert that Jesus, being born around 1 C.E., ushered in the new age – the Age of Pisces, which is represented by two fish. This, the film says, is the reason why the fish is a symbol of Christianity, and why many of Jesus’ followers were said to be fishermen.

In making these assertions, the filmmakers are failing to understand that the Jesus story was deeply imbedded in Jewish tradition, not astrology. The myths surrounding Jesus’ life grew up from Jewish history, not from the sky. If some aspects of ancient Judaism had astrological origins (and I am not convinced this is true), that is irrelevant. The film asserts that Jesus, in fact, was a mythical figure who never existed, and that the Christians were simply making this stuff up, based on astrology. There is not a reputable scholar on the planet who would agree with this position.

In discussing astrological ages, the filmmakers reference the New Testament passage of Luke 22:10. In this verse, and in the passage that surrounds it, Jesus and his disciples are preparing for the Passover meal – the meal that will prove to be the Last Supper. Jesus’ disciples ask him where they should go to prepare for the meal. He tells them to go into Jerusalem, and once they are there, they will find a man with a pitcher of water. Jesus tells them to follow this man to his house, and this will be the house where they eat.

When referencing this verse, however, the film says that the disciples asked Jesus where the next Passover will be after Jesus is gone. This, as you can see, is not actually what takes place in that passage. However, twisting it like this is vitally important to the filmmakers’ point, because they use this to springboard into an argument that the man with the pitcher was actually a symbol of the constellation Aquarius – which the ancient Chinese (again, not the ancient Jews) imaged as a water-bearer. Thus, the filmmakers argue, Jesus – who is the embodiment of the Age of Pisces – is simply predicting that the Age of Aquarius will come after him. As I said above, the Age of Aquarius is due to begin in 2150 C.E.

Well, you can see that this is nonsense. The very “evidence” that this assertion is based on is false to begin with. Read the passage for yourself – the disciples do not ask Jesus where to have Passover after he is dead, but rather they are simply discussing where their meal together is going to take place.

As a final point on their arguments about astrological ages, the film references Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, where he promises to be with his followers “until the end of the age.” This, the filmmakers assert, is true – Jesus embodies the Age of Pisces, and this age will last until 2150, and which time a new age will begin. Thus, the film says, those obsessed with the “end of times” are misunderstanding this passage – it was all about astrological ages, not the end of the world. They make the comment that “millions” of Americans believe this way, and while making this assertion, they show people burning books. Nice touch, but completely deceptive. This argument, like the others on astrology, is completely speculative, and ignores the historical record.

I have already mentioned how the filmmakers assert that Jesus was probably not even a real historical figure. For evidence of this, they mention the lack of non-Biblical sources for his life. It is true that there is very little secular corroboration for Jesus. However, from a historical standpoint, why would there be? Jesus was only important to his followers – to everyone else, he was just another messianic prophet in the backwaters of the Roman Empire who got executed. There is no reason to suppose that he, or his followers, would have been noticed by historians writing during that period. We may like to imagine that Christianity was already followed by millions of people by the end of the first century, but the fact is that Christianity was a minor, practically unnoticed little cult until about the 300’s C.E. The filmmakers go on to suggest that Jesus, as a pagan sun god, did not become literalized until Constantine and the subsequent Council of Nicea in the fourth century. Apparently the filmmakers have failed to read the countless writings by early Church fathers (predating Constantine) which make it quite clear that Jesus was understood to be a real person.

As a side note – and just for more evidence of the dishonest methods used in the film – the filmmakers note that the only direct reference in secular sources to Jesus’ life comes from Josephus, and that Josephus’ comments have long been known to have been a later forgery. Whether an intentional lie, or just poor research, this is not true. Josephus’ account of Jesus, while short, is very much original to his writings. Forgery comes into play because several hundred years later, Christian scribes inserted Christian language and images into Josephus’ account. So there was forgery involved, but it was only an addition to the account that already existed. Josephus, a non-Christian historian writing about the same time the first gospel was written, clearly had heard of the Christian religion, and of Jesus, and believed Jesus to have been a real person who was executed some decades earlier. Whether it is convenient to the filmmakers’ arguments or not, this is a fact of history that cannot be ignored. I know of no reputable scholar, liberal or conservative, who asserts that Jesus was not a real historical person.

The conclusion of the religion segment makes the motivations of the filmmakers quite clear. I mentioned earlier that in addition to religion, the film has segments on 9/11 and the U.S. Federal Reserve. Although I have not watched these segments, I know the general gist of their content. They are arguing that 9/11 was perpetrated by the U.S. government and involves what must surely be the greatest cover-up in U.S. history, and they are arguing that U.S. banks, headed by the Federal Reserve, are trying to basically take over the world. It is a lot of conspiracy-fueled nonsense, to be frank. And in watching the conclusion of the religion segment, it became quite clear why this topic was included in a film that otherwise discussed U.S. politics and the U.S. economy. The conclusion talked about how religious leaders use myths – such as the myth of Jesus – to control people and to control society. People are otherwise kept in the dark about the true genesis of their religious beliefs, and they simply blindly follow what they are told. The conclusion goes on to assert that religious myths can serve as a “psychological soil” from which other lies can take root and grow. This final assertion is followed up dramatically by a scene from 9/11, and that is where the first segment ends. Clearly the filmmakers, in asserting lies and cover-ups relating to 9/11 and the Federal Reserve, wished to show how these lies and cover-ups are possible with an otherwise well-educated America – if well-educated Americans can blindly follow a religion that is based on ancient Egyptian astrology, then it is not such a big step to assume they could be duped into believing terrorists were behind 9/11. Their motivations for painting Christianity as a religion of “astrotheological” myths suddenly becomes quite clear.

It is certainly true that some aspects of Christian tradition are taken from pagan sources, such as the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. It is also true that stories of virgin births and resurrections abounded in the ancient world, before Jesus. But the extraordinary claims made in this film require extraordinary evidence, and the filmmakers clearly understood this, so they simply made the evidence up, since the extraordinary evidence did not exist in the historical record otherwise. The fact is that the Jesus story, as we know it, is largely mythological. But those stories had a purpose. They were written not to be literal history, but to be creative interpretations of Jesus’ life, to show others how important this real person had been. And the early Christians drew primarily from their deeply-rooted Jewish heritage to create this composite of the otherwise historical Jesus. Pagan theology may have played a minor role in how the early Christian described Jesus, but by and large, the stories of Jesus came from Jewish tradition. Astrology had absolutely nothing to do with it.

As a post-script, and to give a little more background, this film was based largely on the works of a man named Jordan Maxwell. I was not able to find a whole lot of information on this person, but the brief article about him on Wikipedia was enlightening. This article describes him as a “researcher and independent scholar” who focuses on “the foundations for modern day religion and government.” What this means, of course, is that he is an amateur with no legitimate credentials. “Independent scholar” is just a kinder, gentler way of saying “someone who does not actually have an educational background in the field.” For instance, I would be considered an “independent scholar” of the New Testament. It is something I am interested in and have read about quite a bit, but I do not have a degree in New Testament scholarship, and am not a credentialed Bible scholar. Furthermore, the article discusses a lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission against Maxwell, charging him and ultimately convicting him of illegally selling international driving permits over the Internet. Finally, the article also says that Maxwell believes his research reveals that the government and many major religious institutions are actually being controlled by a secret society that involves organized crime. This secret society, according to Maxwell, practices a modern form of the ancient Canaanite religion, which is revealed by Canaanite symbols which are (he asserts) prevalent in society.

Yes, this is the person whose work was behind the information in “Zeitgeist.”

Oddly enough (and this is evidence of why Wikipedia information should always be taken with a grain of salt), when I looked at this article several weeks ago, there was a statement in it suggesting that Maxwell is frequently accused of making up facts and bending the truth in order to make a point. However, upon returning to the article today, no such statement is there, and, in fact, the opening paragraph sings his praises, saying that “peers and fans alike” consider him a “preeminent scholar” in the field of religious philosophy. Whatever the truth is, I feel confident that no “peers” in the scholarly field consider him in any way a “preeminent scholar.”

The true irony of this film is that the filmmakers assert that their purpose is to reveal the truth, and to show the lies being propounded by the Church and the government. Yet, not only are the filmmakers not revealing the truth, they are, in fact, committing the very sin they accuse their enemies of committing – telling blatant lies in order to intentionally deceive people. All things considered, it is really quite shocking.

Finally, I want to thank my online acquaintance Stu, a.k.a. “Roger Rigid,” for bringing this video to my attention. I had been familiar with the film, but had never viewed it. It was Stu who told me that there was a religion segment, and it was Stu who asked me to comment on it. So thanks go to him for taking an interest in what I have to say. I am sure that what I have written here was far more than he wanted, but, knowing my tendency for long-windedness, I am sure it is not unexpected. Sorry, Stu :)

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Discussion of "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman

For those of you who read my blog regularly, let me apologize in advance for the differing format for this blog. Most of my blog posts are written like essays, and I write most of them to be just that -- essays or articles. This post, however, is actually from a post I made on the Rush messageboard, so it's not going to have the normal style that you might be familiar with. I recently finished New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's bestselling book on New Testament textual criticism called "Misquoting Jesus," and it a really good book. I posted about it on the messageboard, and wanted to share my thoughts here, too. So here it is...


On another thread, we got to talking about how the Bible has been changed and amended over the centuries by various scribes during the era when all copies were handwritten. I pointed out that I had been reading Bart Ehrman's best-seller "Misquoting Jesus", which discusses this topic in detail, and Jeremy commented that this is one of the reasons why he can't accept the "infallible Word of God" thing anymore. I wanted to talk a little more about this book, now that I'm done with it. As I said on the other thread, this is a book that every Christian needs to read.

I ended up reading this book in 4 days. I do read a lot more than the average person, but it still normally takes me 3 or 4 weeks to get through an entire non-fiction book. This one, however, was so captivating, and was so easy to follow, that I just breezed right through it. It's probably the first major publication on this topic (textual criticism) to be written for laypeople and casual readers, as opposed to scholars and graduate students. And Ehrman does a fantastic job of taking this otherwise complex subject and describing it in such a way that it is very easy to follow and understand. The book is just absolutely fantastic, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in how our modern Bibles came down to us from the original texts.

The thing that's interesting is that none of this is new material. Scholars and theologians have known literally since the very inception of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that textual variants existed and were widespread. It was actually a topic of a lot of concern for many of the early church fathers, writing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Furthermore, the fact that the texts were frequently changed was a source of ammunition for many opponents of Christianity during those early years. For instance, as early as the 160's and 170's C.E. -- less than 100 years after many of the books were written -- the pagan philosopher Celsus -- who wrote an entire book condemning the Christian religion -- pointed out that one of the reasons Christianity was so suspect is because they frequently altered and amended their own holy texts to fit changing theologies and to counter "heretical" belief systems.

Ehrman points out again and again throughout the book that the vast majority of the variations among the texts are minor and completely insignificant to the meaning of the passage. The book itself is actually dedicate to Bruce Metzger, who is almost universally regarded as the pre-eminent textual scholar in the world, and yet Metzger is also a traditionally believing Christian. Most of the variations are simply scribal mistakes...accidentally omitting a word or phrase here or there, or mispelling a word, or using the wrong word because of similarities in spelling (sort of like mixing up "for" and "four", for instance). The early Greek texts were very difficult to copy. They didn't write in those days the way we write now. The texts were actually written in what we would call a stream of consciousness -- there were no capital letters and lower case letters, and there was no punctuation. Furthermore, the writers frequently didn't even put spaces between words and sentences. itliterallywouldreadlikethistothehumaneyeandtherewouldbenospacesbetweenonesenten

You can see how tedious the job of copying a manuscript would be. Not only would the eye quickly weaken, but it would be very easy to accidentally write the wrong word. For instance, consider this phrase: ilookedatthetableandsawabundancethere. Does that say that I saw a table with a lot of food on it, or does it say that I saw a table where a bun got up and started dancing? So you can see how mistakes would be common and wide-spread. Furthermore, in the earliest centuries, most of the scribes were not professionals, but were instead amatuers from various Christian communities who happened to know how to read and write, and so would be asked to make copies. For this reason, and against what might otherwise seem self-evident, our earliest sources are frequently the ones that have the most mistakes and variations. Those amatuer Christian scribes were also more likely to make intentional changes based on their own theological interpretations, as opposed to the later professional scribes who may not have been Christians at all, but were simply being paid to make copies.

But while most of the changes were simple mistakes, some of the changes were very obviously deliberate, and by using the scientific investigative method, one can make strong arguments for why a text may have been deliberately altered. Even in most of those cases, the alteration wasn't greatly significant, and in most cases, the scribe who changed it wasn't doing it because of some ulterior motive, but because he honestly thought he was making the text "correct" (for instance, he might have assumed the manuscript had an error in it, so he would change what he thought was an error, but was in fact changing something that was authentic).

However, there are a few cases here and there where deliberate changes singificantly altered the theology of the passage and sometimes even of the entire book. For instance, there is a passage in the book of John that in some early manuscripts refers to Jesus as "the unique God." This is a clear and obvious supportive statement for the concept of the Trinity and the doctrine that Jesus was God in the flesh. However, it is known to have been a scribal addition, not original to the text. The original text, in fact, called Jesus the "unique Son," not the "unique God," and the phraseology used was the exact same language that was used elsewhere in John. We know the phrase as "only begotten Son," but what it actually says is "the unique Son" (such as in the famous verse of John 3:16). Anyway, this is the same exact phrase used in the passage in question. But scribes later changed it to say "unique God," apparently attempting to insert language that would support their understanding of Jesus as God in the flesh. There are many other numerous examples of changes like this.

What sets this book apart, I think, in addition to its readability, is the fact that unlike most every other scholarly book I have read, this book deals largely in objective, indisputable facts, rather than the gathering of evidence and the assertion of a reasoned argument based on that evidence. There is some of that in this book, particularly when it comes deciding which particular text represents the variation, and which text represents the original. Often times it's easy to figure out which text has the change, and which text has the original, but other times it's not so easy.

But by and large, this book deals with objective facts rather than subjective analysis. People may not like knowing that the New Testament texts have been changed and altered, and that in some cases we simply cannot know with certainty what the original text said, but whether they like it or not, they cannot argue that the variations don't exist. We have the manuscripts, and we know they don't match up. This objective, indisputable fact alone should cause anyone to think twice before asserting that the Bible is the infallible inerrant word of God.

Even if one presupposes that the original texts were the infallible inerrant word of God, it's a rather meaningles proposition, because we don't have the originals, and we don't have copies of copies of copies of the originals, and in many cases we cannot be certain what the original actually said. Therefore, it seems that if God was going to take the trouble to inspire the originals, he should have also taken the trouble to ensure that the originals were transmitted perfectly down the ages to us. He didn't do this, however, which leads to the obvious conclusion that he probably didn't inspire the originals either.

This recognition on the part of Ehrman was what first caused him, as an evangelical Christian graduate student, to begin realizing that what he thought was the inspired infallible word of God was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The Bible as we know it today, was not only written by eminently human people, but has since been corrupted by human people too.

None of this, of course, means that nothing in the New Testament can be trusted as original material. As Ehrman points out numerous times, most of the variations are insignificant, and even with hundreds of thousands of variations, there are still plenty of places where just about every text agrees. The variations, then, don't negate the entirety of the texts, but they simply put into perspective that much of what we know as "Biblical truths" are not necessarily based on original material.

One really eye-opening change is the famous passage in John where Jesus is presented with a woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees are trying to trap him by asking whether she should be stoned, as the law of Moses commands. If he says yes, then he is contradicting his own message of love and mercy, but if he says no, then he is blaspheming and contradicting God's law. Instead of answering, Jesus is depicted as stooping to the ground and writing in the sand. What he writes is not revealed to us. After a few minutes, he looks up and makes one of his most famous statements: "You who is without sin should cast the first stone." The Pharisees walk away in shame, and then Jesus, once he is alone with the woman, tells her that if the others will not judge her, then neither will he, and he commands her to go in peace and sin no more.

This passage, as I said, is one of the most famous stories of Jesus known to Christians. "You who is without sin should cast the first stone" is an oft-repeated phrase that has been the source of countless sermons and teachings. I would think that there are very few Christians who are not familiar with this phrase. The passage has also been used by apologists to show that Jesus -- who is believed by most scholars to have been illiterate like most every other 1st century Jew in his social class -- actually could read and write, because he is depicted in this passage as writing in the sand.

The problem is, the story is not original, and this is known almost to the point of being universally accepted by scholars of all theological persuasions. It does not appear in any of our earliest manuscripts, and despite its current widespread popularity, it is never mentioned by any early Church fathers in their writings. In fact, it does not begin to appear in our manuscripts until the 5th and 6th centuries. And when it does first begin to appear, it is frequently inserted in different spots. Some of these manuscripts have it in chapter 7, some in chapter 15, some in chapter 21, etc. There is even one manuscript that puts it not in John at all, but in Luke! Clearly it was added at some late date by a scribe who was probably familiar with the story from oral tradition, or possibly from another text that is no longer in existence, and he decided it was important enough to be added into the Bible's Gospel tradition. It may very well represent an early oral memory of a scene involving Jesus, and in that sense, it may be a perfectly valid story about Jesus that simply, for whatever reason, was never originally included in any of our Gospels. But the fact remains that it was not original to the Gospel of John, and was instead added much later by an anonymous scribe from an anonymous source. It's also important to point out, on the issue of possibly being an early oral tradition, that it not only doesn't appear in any original texts of the Gospels, but it also isn't found in any of the non-biblical writings like the Gnostic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas and other early Christian accounts. This, then, would imply that whatever its origins are, it probably wasn't early.

Well, I've written way more than I intended. But if you have read everything I wrote, and find it as interesting and fascinating as I do, then you will love this book, because that's what the entire book is about. I can't recommend this book enough to Christians and others with an interest in this topic.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

An Introduction to the Book of Esther

Despite being a lifelong Christian, one raised in a family that was in Church three times a week, and despite having heard literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of sermons in my life and attended countless Sunday school classes, I do not think that I have ever heard a teaching from the Old Testament book of Esther. Recently, however, I read a short synopsis of what the book was about, and found it intriguing, so I decided to sit down and read it for myself.

Esther is a short book, comprising only nine chapters, and it is unique in the Bible as being the only book that never, either implicitly or explicitly, mentions God in any form. There are no references at all to God or the Lord, and no common reference found in other Old Testament books to prominent figures and events like Moses, Elijah, Abraham, the Exodus, the Temple, Jerusalem, or the Mosaic Law. In fact, the whole story takes place not in the Promised Land, but entirely in the kingdom of Persia, specifically the capital city of Susa, and centers around the court of King Xerxes. Rather than reading like a religious text, it reads instead like a work of ancient creative writing, similar in style to The Odyssey or The Iliad. Like a work of good fiction, it has all the elements of a captivating ancient drama: a lovely na├»ve virgin from the fringe of society who wins the heart of the king and is made queen, thwarted assassination attempts, revenge-fueled genocidal pogroms against an entire race of people, impalings on ancient gallows, a vicious antagonist with a vendetta, and a climatic battle where the “good guys” are ultimately the victors.

The story begins in the early days of Xerxes’ reign, historically set during the 5th century B.C.E. He throws an elaborate banquet, and when it is over, he sends word to the queen – who like most wives of ancient rulers lived in a separate part of the palace – that she should come to him. She spurns his request, however, and refuses to come. The text does not elaborate on her reasons, leaving it open to creative interpretation. Perhaps she had a lover and no longer wanted to provide sexual favors to the king; perhaps she was secretly conspiring against him. Whatever her reason, she refuses to see him. Naturally, this raises Xerxes’ ire, and he sends her away, effectively divorcing her and excommunicating her from his court.

Following this, the king sends out a proclamation to all his lands that he is in the market for a new wife, and he commands all the people to send him their most available virgins for him choose from. At this point we are introduced to the character of Mordecai. Mordecai was a Jew, working in some unnamed manner in the court of the king. The Jews, as a race of people, had come to be in the Persian kingdom about one hundred years earlier, when they were deported there by the then ruling Babylonians. The Babylonians had subsequently been overthrown by the invading Persians, and the Persians had permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. However, since most of the Jews who were living by that time had been born and raised in Babylon and not Judea, many were not interested in returning to an unfamiliar homeland, and preferred instead to stay in the place that was familiar. This was further encouraged by the Persian propensity to allow freedom of religion and to even allow non-Persians to hold important positions in society. For this reason, Mordecai the Jew was able to work in the capital city, in the court of the king himself.

Mordecai, the text tells us, had adopted his female cousin Esther, after her parents – Mordecai’s uncle and aunt – had died. Esther was, apparently, quite a bit younger than her cousin Mordecai, and Mordecai had essentially raised her as his own daughter. She was a beautiful and charming young virgin, and Mordecai brought her to the king’s court to be considered by Xerxes. Xerxes, in turn, was immediately taken in by her beauty and charm, and subsequently chose her as his new wife. Suddenly Esther, a non-Persian from ignoble origins, had become the most powerful woman in the kingdom.

Sometime after Esther’s ascendancy, Mordecai, as an employee at the king’s court, got word of a secret plot by two of the palace guards to assassinate Xerxes. Mordecai, who was still in touch with Esther, told her about the plot, and Esther in turn revealed it to the king. Xerxes arrested the conspirators and had them publicly impaled on the gallows, and his commitment to his new queen was further deepened, as Esther had been the one who had revealed the plot to him. At this point in time, Xerxes did not apparently know that Mordecai had actually been the revealer of the conspiracy.

After the thwarted assassination attempt, the text tells us that one of the king’s chief advisors, a man named Haman who is described as an Agagite, won special favor with the king and was elevated to second in command in the kingdom. The text does not tell us what Haman did to win the king’s favor. Perhaps he won a decisive military victory – again, the lack of information leaves it open to creative interpretation. Either way, the king ordered all of his advisors, counselors, and officials to bow down in respect to Haman whenever they were in his presence, much the same way that they would be required to show obeisance in the king’s presence. Mordecai, however, refused to do this. As an Agagite, Haman was descended from a group of people who were one of Israel’s ancient enemies, and as such, Mordecai apparently could not bring himself to bow before Haman.

Naturally, Haman did not respond well to Mordecai’s insubordination. However, instead of simply taking revenge on Mordecai personally, Haman is depicted as deciding that the entire Jewish population of the Persian kingdom needed to be eradicated. Throughout the text, Haman is referred to as “the enemy of the Jews.”

In order to carry out his dastardly scheme, Haman went to the king and informed him that there was a group of people within the kingdom who were a threat to the king and to the stability of his lands, and that they should therefore be gotten rid of. Not having any clue just who this race of people consisted of (Xerxes is routinely depicted throughout the story as a sort of absent-minded but loveable despot), Xerxes approves Haman’s request, and gives him his signet ring, permitting him to draw up a proclamation, seal it with the royal ring, and send it out to all the lands of the kingdom. At this point, Haman draws lots to determine the day upon which the slaughter should take place, and it comes to pass that the day is chosen for some eight or nine months down the road. Subsequently, Haman draws up a proclamation in the king’s name, ordering all able-bodied men to form armies and slaughter all the Jews – elderly, women, and children included – on the appointed day. Since Persian law and tradition held that any proclamation by the king was binding for all time, the order to slaughter the Jews could not ever be rescinded, even by the king himself.

Needless to say, Mordecai very quickly became aware of Haman’s plot to eradicate the Jewish people. He felt that the only way to subvert this plot was to go to Esther and ask her to appeal on behalf of the Jewish people to the king. When she learns of the plot, Esther is horrified by what Haman is planning, but is also hesitant to approach the king about the subject. If she seeks an audience with the king, and the king is not pleased, the punishment is death. She asks Mordecai to tell the Jews to fast three days for her, while she makes her decision as to whether or not she will risk the king’s displeasure and her own demise by approaching him with this issue. This request for fasting is the only passage in the entire text that either implicitly or explicitly refers to any sort of religious ritual or practice.

In the end, Esther decides to approach the king, but decides that trying to charm him is the smartest route. Therefore, instead of entering his chambers and asking him to save the Jews, she first approaches him and asks him to attend a banquet that she is throwing in his honor. In his meeting with Esther, Xerxes is depicted as still being smitten with her, promising her that he will give her anything she asks, “even up to half my kingdom.” He attends the banquet and it is a great success. However, when the banquet is over and he again asks her what she wants from him, she again declines to bring up the issue of the Jews, and instead asks him to attend yet another banquet that she is throwing for him. He consents.

About this point in the text, the story returns to the machinations of Haman in ridding Persia of the Jews. Haman has decided that he cannot wait until the appointed day to slaughter all the Jews, and instead wants to go ahead and whet his appetite by putting Mordecai to death. To this end, he erects a gallows in his own front yard, upon which he intends to impale Mordecai. But before he can do this, the time for the second banquet arrives, and Haman accompanies the king to Esther’s elaborate feast.

Again the king is depicted as being utterly smitten with Esther, and when the banquet is over, he again asks her to tell him what she wants, promising to give her anything, up to half his kingdom. Esther delicately begins to tell him what has been transpiring under his nose. She reveals, apparently for the first time, that she is a Jew, and she tells him that someone in his court has been conspiring to eradicate her people from the empire. Xerxes (again the bumbling, absent-minded but loveable despot) is outraged that this has been going on, and he begs Esther to tell him who is behind the nefarious scheme. Esther points to Haman, who has been present throughout the entire discussion. Xerxes wastes no time in sentencing Haman to death. Without much pomp or ceremony described in the text, Haman is summarily impaled, executed upon the very gallows he had set up for Mordecai.

At this point, Esther also reveals to Xerxes that it had been Mordecai who had actually revealed the assassination plot by the palace guards. Xerxes asks if Mordecai was ever rewarded for this. When he finds out that Mordecai was overlooked, he dresses Mordecai up in royal garb, and parades him around the city, ordering all those who encounter him to bow down. Suddenly Mordecai has replaced Haman as second in command beneath the king, and the one for whom the king has intense favor.

There is still the issue of the impending slaughter of the Jews, however. As noted already, the king’s royal decree – the one penned by Haman – could not be rescinded, even by the king himself. So Mordecai and the king decide to draft another proclamation, this one allowing the Jews to defend themselves against the coming attacks. The text tells us that the people of Persia stood in fear of the Jews, and by and large began to rally around their cause. However, when the appointed day finally arrived, armies of Persian warriors set out to slaughter the Jews. The Jews, however, were ready, and were bolstered by popular support, and they soundly defeated their enemies. The text tells us that they put 75,000 people to death throughout the kingdom, not counting those they slaughtered in the capital city of Susa.

This victory over their enemies was cause for great celebration for Jews throughout the kingdom. Since the original date of the extermination had been chosen by drawing lots, they enacted a new holiday called Purim, which is simply the Hebrew word for “lots.” The text tells us that from that time forward, the holiday of Purim was to be celebrated by Jews, to remember and honor and celebrate the victory they won over their enemies, with the help of their beloved Queen Esther. The story ends by telling us, in essence, that Esther and Mordecai and all the others lived happily ever after.

The Book of Esther is a fantastic story with all the elements of a great drama, and while it may or may not contain any factual historical information, it stands as a testament to the perseverance of the Jews in the face of adversity, and it provides the basis for which the Jewish holiday of Purim is celebrated to this day. It further functions as a story of encouragement to modern Jews – one can imagine how it may have inspired Jews throughout history when they were faced with various pogroms against them, such as during the Inquisition and World War II. It illustrates in a creative way how the Jews have managed to maintain their unique identity, and how they have managed to survive even when so many different groups, throughout so many eras of history, have tried to wipe them from the face of the planet.

Despite being the only book in the Bible that never mentions God in any fashion, this is an extremely important and fascinating book, and rightfully belongs in the canon we call scripture.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Free Will and God's Will: Mutually Incompatible

Free will is generally defined as the freedom of human beings to make their own autonomous choices and decisions, and to reap the consequences of those decisions. While there is certainly room for philosophical posturing in regards to whether we truly have free will, or whether we are simply automated by our genes, most everyone can agree that, from a practical standpoint, humankind exhibits free will. We are free to make our own choices, and the various experiences that define who we are come from the product of our free will choices and the free will choices of those around us.

Yet while most people will agree that human beings have free will, many people also abide by the belief that God has a will, and that this will is frequently enacted within human history. Thus you hear folks say things like, “It just wasn’t God’s will,” or “I’m trying to follow God’s will for my life,” or “I decided to just sit back and trust God’s will.” When good things happen, many believers will give the credit to God, and if something does not turn out the way someone hopes, they will frequently remark that it simply “was not God’s will.”

But is this consistent? Can humankind have free will, while simultaneously living in world where God’s will is routinely in play?

In a word, no.

For God’s will to be enacted on earth, a suspension of human free will is required. This is seen time and time again in the Bible. The Old Testament story of the Exodus goes so far as to explicitly state that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – implying that the pharaoh was merely a puppet on God’s string. The Jews did not escape Egypt by their own strength of conviction and good fortune, but escaped because God allowed them to. Later, Joshua defeated the Canaanites not through the excellence of his own military prowess, but because God made it happen. God even made the earth stop rotating so that there would be longer daylight to allow Joshua to keep slaughtering his enemies. In the New Testament, the entire story of Jesus’ life is an example of God’s will invading human history, with all of Jesus’ enemies acting out the grand plan of salvation enacted by God and predicted by the prophets. The Roman soldiers, for instance, did not choose of their own free will to cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, but did it like puppets on a divine string in order to fulfill scripture. Later, they pierced his side but left his legs intact, not because they made this decision of their own free will, but because this was in fulfillment of prophecy and scripture.

The Bible is not the only place that God’s will seems to come into play. Most traditionally-believing Christians will argue that the various doctrinal councils of the 4th and 5th centuries were doing “the will of God” when they determined which books would be in the Bible and when they settled on a set of doctrines and creeds. Furthermore, these same folks will argue that the texts of the Bible, while written by human beings, were divinely inspired, meaning that when these human beings were writing their texts, God was directing their pens – thus, they could not have been acting of their own human free will.

Even today, many Christians will argue that certain events are tinged with God’s intervention – such as when an ill person makes a miraculous recovery, a major disaster is narrowly averted, or a remarkably positive event occurs in a person’s life. Recently, Kansas defeated Memphis in the NCAA basketball tournament championship game. Memphis blew a late lead, and missed some key free throws in the last few seconds of the game. After the game, the Memphis head coach remarked that it simply was not God’s will for those free throws to be hit, or for his team to win the game. In other words, the team lost not because they got outplayed, and not because they missed some free throws, but because it was not God’s will.

Of course, many Christians would admit that the Memphis coach’s comments were absurd, and were simply an emotional response to a huge disappointment. But even in doing so, many frequently still hold fast to other ideas of God’s will being enacted in human life, and many would probably make similar comments in similar circumstances. I feel confident that whatever religious beliefs the Memphis head coach has, they are probably not unusual or out of the ordinary.

So how can believers reconcile God’s will with human free will? The most common answer would probably be that God chooses, from time to time, to invade human history and suspend free will as he sees fit. He is omniscient and all-powerful, after all. He can do what he wants. Yet if free will can be suspended, at any time, then free will does not truly exist. The very concept of free will demands that it exists at all times, unimpeded. If God can suspend free will at his whim, then we do not truly have free will. Instead, we are free to do as we choose only insofar as God allows it. That is not free will, by any definition of the phrase. As such, if we truly have free will, as most people seem to assume, then God must, by definition, not ever invade human history with his own agenda.

What I am getting at is this: one can not believe that human beings have free will, and also believe that God has a will which sometimes gets enacted on earth, without simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs.

Many Christians might respond to this by suggesting that perhaps we do not, in fact, have free will like we think we do. Doing so, of course, does in some ways resolve the problem that I have illustrated, but it opens a whole other can of philosophical worms. If we do not have free will, then what does this mean for our very existence? Furthermore, how does it affect our relationship with God? Does God, then, choose us, rather than us choosing God? What would make God choose one person over another? Why would a loving, merciful God send the majority of people (that is, non-Christians) to hell? Is anything we do actually determined by us, or does God control everything? If we determine some things, how does God decide when to let us make our own choices, and when to do his own thing? Why does God – who controls everything and leaves nothing to chance or free will – cause some people to get sick, and others to be healthy? Why does God make hurricanes and tsunamis and tornados exist, and why does he cause some people to survive those disasters, but causes others to get killed by them? These are the kinds of philosophical and theological questions one must face if they choose to reject free will.

The other option, of course, is to recognize that we do have free will, and the things that happen on this planet, for good or bad, are the result of that human free will, as well as chance and luck. As such, God has absolutely nothing to do with any of it, beyond allowing us to have free will in the first place.

The important thing to realize, and the entire point of this essay, is to raise to consciousness the fact that most of us hold contradictory beliefs regarding free will. We say we believe in free will, but simultaneously believe that God invades human history with his own agenda. It cannot be both ways, and this is the point that I would like to stress. Think on it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Herbal Remedies: Bad Medicine

In the last decade, alternative forms of medicine have become all the rage. From stores like GNC pushing an influx of herbal remedies, to the resurgence of 19th century homeopathy, more and more Americans are turning to alternative medicine when faced with illness. There are a number of reasons for this, but most notably it is due to an increasing distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, bred by many high-profile drug recalls, and a similarly increasing distrust of doctors, who many feel are simply pawns of the pharmaceutical companies. These doctors, many feel, will simply prescribe whatever medicine the drug reps have given them, without much regard for whether it is the best option for a given patient. These suspicions are frequently encouraged by television and print advertisements for alternative therapies, and by practitioners of alternative medicine, such as chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists.

Unfortunately, there is often a good reason why alternative medicine remains separated from mainstream medicine: it is because in most cases, there is no hard evidence or clinical indication that the therapies work. If a certain form of alternative medicine is shown to be clinically effective over a wide range of the population, it ceases to be alternative medicine and becomes mainstream medicine. Therefore, any therapy that has maintained an “alternative medicine” status for a long period of time should immediately be regarded with suspicion of being ineffective and unreliable. Suggesting otherwise would be like saying that a career minor-league baseball player is as good as a hall-of-famer.

The most prominent face of the alternative medicine craze lies in the area of herbal remedies and nutritional supplements. Thanks to a rigorous advertising campaign, most everyone is familiar with drugs like St. John’s Wort, Gingko, and Omega-3 fish oil. In addition, various vitamin and mineral concoctions have become popular as supplements for every walk of life. Go to GNC’s website, and you will see categories like “Sports Nutrition & Protein,” “Diet & Energy,” and “Health, Beauty, & Medicine Cabinet.” They sell supplements with names like “Muscle Milk,” “Fat Incinerating Serum,” and “Amplified Creatine.”

One of the most common and oft-repeated advertising phrases for these sorts of supplements and remedies is that they are “all natural.” The implication of this assertion is that because they are all natural, they are therefore safe. Unfortunately, this is a blatant untruth. Just because a supplement is all natural does not mean that it is safe, nor does it imply that it is effective. Grass is all natural, and while it may not hurt me to eat a blade or two, it certainly is not going to cure my cold. Arsenic is all natural, but you would not want to ingest arsenic for any reason, ever, unless you were planning on committing suicide. In the 19th century, cocaine was a popular drug prescribed for everything from chest colds to depression. Little did they know that it was also highly addictive and extremely damaging to the body’s organs. But it was all natural! The “all natural” label simply tells us nothing about the drug’s safety or effectiveness. In fact, one should be suspicious of any remedy advertising its all natural content, because this implies that there is not much else of benefit to be focused upon.

Another aspect of the dangers of herbal medicines and supplements is the issue of drug interactions. Most people seem to have the idea in mind that herbal remedies – again, because they are “all natural” – do not carry the same risk of drug interaction that prescription drugs carry. This is a misconception. Indeed, herbal remedies and supplements are just as likely to interact with other drugs and foods as prescription drugs are. For instance, someone receiving an organ transplant could increase the likelihood of rejection by taking St. John’s Wort, because of the way St. John’s Wort interacts with the immunosuppressant medicines given to transplant patients. This, of course, is just one of many examples.

Herbal remedies do not go through the same rigorous clinical testing that prescription drugs go through to prove safety and effectiveness. They are not put through double-blind tests, and their advertised benefits are not evaluated by the FDA. In fact, with any given herbal remedy, the vast majority of its “proven” effectiveness is by word of mouth and anecdotal evidence only. Do not be fooled when you hear a commercial telling you that a given supplement is “clinically proven.” In almost every case, these clinical trials were not overseen by a neutral third party – as is required with prescription medicines – and they almost never include placebo tests or double blind tests. They are typically carried out on a small scale and budget, and are organized and arranged in order to get the best possible results. The method of clinical testing simply does not stand up to that endured by prescription drugs.

Safety is a major issue with herbal remedies, and one that is frequently overlooked. As alluded to above, people assume that a given remedy is safe simply because it is labeled as “all natural.” Again, because these drug concoctions do not go through the same rigorous clinical testing that prescription drugs go through, their safety has not been proven. As with the issue of effectiveness, the known safety of a given herbal remedy is generally through word of mouth and anecdotal evidence. Yet there is plenty of word of mouth and anecdotal evidence that some supplements may not be safe. One story that comes to mind involves my own father. At nearly 60, he has never had a food or drug allergy in his life. Recently, he began taking Omega-3 fish oil supplements. After a few days of this, he began to get sick. Once the sickness and vomiting passed, he began taking the supplements again. It was not until he got sick a second time that he began to connect the two. As a result, he stopped taking the supplements completely. However, a few weeks later, after eating a seafood meal, he got sick again. Ever since that time, he has gotten sick each time he has attempted to eat seafood. There is only one obvious conclusion: the Omega-3 fish oil supplements somehow birthed a seafood allergy that he had never had before in nearly 60 years of life. How did this happen? Well, who knows – the supplements have not had the sort of clinical testing that mainstream drugs go through. And that is the entire point. The safety of these supplements has not been tested and cannot be proven.

It seems unlikely that the herbal remedy craze, or the general alternative medicine craze, will cease anytime soon. So it is important for us, as patients and consumers, to be very careful about the herbal remedies we take, and to recognize that if they could be proven to be highly effective, they would be marketed as prescriptions, not as herbal remedies. In the past, herbal remedies were all we had. One of the many benefits of living in the modern era is that we have modern medicine at our fingertips, and do not have to rely on garlic, hyssop extract, gingko, and peppermint oil to cure our diseases anymore. If those things worked effectively, human beings throughout all of human history would not have been keeling over left and right before the age of 50. The reason those of us in the developed world have an average lifespan of 75 or more, is largely due to the development of modern medicine, and the subsequent decline of herbal medicine and home remedies. Why, then, are so many people interested in bringing these ineffective therapies back to the forefront? Herbal remedy proponents argue that the pharmaceutical industry is only interested in your money, but I wonder if the pot is not calling the kettle black.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015