Jason and the Argonauts and Lightsabers

Because, let’s face it, every story is more interesting with lightsabers.  You’re welcome.

My first real attempt at lightsaber editing, because Star Wars...d'uh.

My first real attempt at lightsaber editing, because Star Wars…d’uh.

Why I am Leaving Rutgers University (After This Semester)

As some of you already know, after two years at Rutgers, at the end of the current semester, I will be transferring out.  This was a hard decision for me, but one I have had to make out of a growing necessity—which I shall explain below.

This all started in January.  We were already one week into classes; all the books I needed–$100 later—were purchased and on their way to me.  I was prepped for an exciting semester, taking a few courses I was really excited about.  One was ‘God, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament’ and the other was on the Historical Socrates.  On the former, I had a good grasp of the material already and had developed a good relationship with the instructor, with whom I’ve had several very useful and informative conversations.  The latter course I needed to satisfy a requirement for my Classics program and I was very interested to see how the class was taught in relation to my Historical Jesus class from last semester (were the methods, assumptions, and criterion used in the different fields similar or different, for example?).

I received a rather bizarre email at 7:30 in the evening while I was working on homework.  I was informed that I would have to drop my Gods, Sex, and Violence class because it did not satisfy any of my graduation requirements.  I immediately grew suspicious—a spam email maybe?  It made no sense.  It was offered by Rutgers, I am a Rutgers student, I’m double-majoring and I knew it counted towards my generic ancient history major.  So what gives?

I immediately wrote to the advising office who then informed me that because it was offered by Rutgers Camden (satellite campus) and not Rutgers main (at New Brunswick), it would not meet the criteria necessary to count towards my graduation, so I had to drop it now or they would drop it for me.

So quick recap: 1 week into the semester, books ordered, classes paid for, email ultimatum issued demanding I drop a class.  Got that all?  Okay.

Now I’m in a predicament.  It’s a week into the Spring term, I now have to frantically try to find another class (not an easy task after a week has gone by—most are full, closed, or don’t count towards my degree).  I am doubly-screwed because I am taking the courses online due to the terrible weather in the winter months and commuting over an hour and a half to classes after working a full 8 hours is unbearable normally, but then throw in the winter we’ve had this year (and the fact that Rutgers NEVER, EVER cancels classes—EVER) and it is just more miserable.  So I am extremely limited to what classes I can take (RU does not have a very well developed online program for nontradition students).

So I called—because by this time I was livid—and spoke with someone who seemed to be having a bad day.  I was confused since I had taken a class last semester on the Camden campus through their online program to get a few more credits and I had not received this email or any indication that I should be dropping the class.  Well, she informed me, they let me slide that time—but it still didn’t count.  Full stop.

Yes, you read that right—it isn’t bad enough that they wait until a week into the term to let me know I’m wasting my money, Rutgers didn’t feel a need to inform me that I was taking a class last semester that didn’t count towards my degree (not even electives).  I just threw away $2500.  Seriously, I might as well just go burn my money.

You may be asking–$2500?  Wha?  Yep.  You see, as a nontraditional, out of state, part time student, I am paying $809 per credit hour.  You would think with all that dough I’m shoveling out, Rutgers would have a more helpful administrative staff.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten the infamous RU Screw.

I settled for another class I didn’t want to take, but being a week late meant I was a week behind (two weeks actually, by the time my books came and I had access to the course because, apparently, technology).

Don’t get me wrong, I love Rutgers.  I love the brand.  I enjoyed walking down the sacred path and the lively discussions during class and having professors who get it, and who know what they’re talking about.  But I just can’t afford it anymore—I can’t continue to shovel out that kind of money (or throw it away)—when I don’t feel I’m being treated like a student (more like a commodity).  I pay so much more money per credit hour than an instate, on-campus, 18-something and yet I get thrown under the bus.  And I just can’t take it anymore.

And it’s sad, it really is.  Rutgers has really grown on me.  But the other issue that I had to take into consideration is the travel time and the fact that I’m no spring chicken.  I’m dangerously approaching 31 (which technically isn’t old, but it is when you consider that I’ve got another few years of undergrad work to do and I still have to go to grad school).  I’m actually, literally, wasting time because there is no way I can go to morning or afternoon classes without quitting my job—which won’t happen because bills.

And this isn’t Rutgers fault, per se.  But what is annoying is that they don’t offer any solid online programs.  I mean, being in a class room is fantastic, but you don’t really need to be ‘present’ to be present anymore.  Technology has dated the old-school in-class need, with programs like Skype and Google Hangout, you don’t have to be physically in a room with 30 other kids to have a lively and interactive lecture.  But Rutgers is insanely slow to catch up to this and it is leaving students like me in a bad place financially (because we pay the same rates that other commuters and on-campus students pay) and mentally (because we have a harder work load and less options).

I know I’m not alone in this either.  A lot of my classmates have expressed similar dissatisfaction with Rutgers’ ecollege programs.  I’m pretty sure other nontrad students like me have had (or are having) similar experiences.

The good thing about transferring into another program is that all of my credits have been excepted (so I don’t have to burn all my cash and watch it disintegrate after all).  The school is fully accredited (by a proper accrediting institution—thanks to Chris for looking into it all for me), I can get my whole degree online, and it is way, way less expensive (about $240 per credit hour).  But there are downsides.

For one thing, the brand isn’t as well recognized as Rutgers and I can’t double-major anymore (and they don’t offer a Classics program, only a basic history program).  That’s fine because I can still get into grad school with it, and really it is the grad school that really matters.  But by then I’ll be a bit more ahead, have some money saved (I was blowing through $80 a week on gas commuting to Rutgers 3-4 nights a week last year), and have more publications under my belt.

So here it is.  I am still at Rutgers until the end of the semester.  But before the summer comes, I’ll have to say my goodbyes.  It’s been fun, I had a blast, but I have to get along now (and by ‘now’, I mean in a few months).

Why I Support Pope Francis

Many of my secular friends are having a hard time coping with Pope Francis, and I understand why.  He’s an enigma.  We’ve all borne witness to the likes of Pope Benedict, whose status as a theologian was overshadowed by his callous attitude and many missteps.

Pope Francis is in some ways Benedict’s polar opposite. Being a Jesuit—the first ever to hold a Papal tenure—he is humble, attempts to live a simplified life, and understands the plight of the impoverished.  He goes out at night and takes care of the sickly.  He finds humility to be a worthwhile attribute so much that he refuses to stay in the expensive Papal suite.  He gives up the Pope Mobile for an antique.  He speaks out against Capitalism. He walks the walk… even literally.

Meanwhile, Benedict’s tenure saw scandals galore: money laundering at the hands of the Vatican bank played into the notion of a Vatican City awash in Capitalism rather than the ethical behavior one expects to find at the Holy See.  He fumbled—like Bush did with FEMA during Katrina—when it came to dealing with allegations of pedophilia in the clergy.  We witnessed the proclaimed center of Catholic morality, including god’s chosen witness on earth, fall into corruption.

Rightly the secular masses are somewhat skeptical—why Francis to replace Benedict?  Is this the new face of Catholicism or just the guy they are using to spin the church right before they fall back into corruption once he is gone—like a placeholder for the second coming of Ratzinger?  Frankly, I don’t believe the highly-conservative heads of the College of Cardinals would have cast their votes for someone like Francis if they knew he was going to turn as many heads as he has; they have never cared about public opinion before and I doubt highly that they had a change of heart about it.  So the conspiracy theories that Francis is a Publicity Stunt for a dying church is growing a little tiresome.

But while there are your typical conspiracy nuts out there (especially those who just flat out hate religion, or just Catholicism in general), other secular individuals are just downright impractical.  They want Francis to allow women priests, to open up the doors to gay marriage in catholic churches, and if he doesn’t heed their demands, well, then he’s a terrible nonliberal, who does not belong in his position of authority.

Let me be clear: I’m not an atheist, yet nor am I a Catholic (in the practicing sense, but I do believe in a supreme being).  But I was a Catholic—raised into the faith and traditions and the shame (as every good Catholic, even former Catholics, knows well)—and so I am sympathetic towards Catholicism.  For me, even as an Apostate, Catholicism represents the earliest, most ‘accurate’ variant of what might be considered ‘actual’ Christianity; that is to say, it represents, to the best of its ability, the oldest continuing sect of what came from the Romanization of the dogmatic eschatological traditions of the 4th Century (which had already changed dramatically—perhaps almost entirely—from the initial post-Easter kerygma).  I’ve got a bias and I know it.

However I’m not one to let the church off easy for its many sins.  I’ve written scathing articles against the treatment of women, on confessional institutions that limit academic freedom of thought and research, and on certain conservative interpretations of the Bible.  In this respect, I am as much a Catholic as any other—one who is both reverent of its place in the world but skeptical of its own hierarchical claims to authority (said with only part of my tongue in my cheek).

Yes, I do think that the Magdalene Laundries were horrific.  Yes, I think the Crusades were unfortunate and a tragedy—especially for Muslims and Jews.  And, absolutely, I agree with anyone who thinks that every priest who has sexually assaulted or abused another human being—whether that be a child or a woman or a man—should be tarred and feathered and stuck out in the gallows at which people to throw rotten food.  And yet somehow I can’t think of a reason why I should let these terrible and historic events overshadow the present.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you all not to judge the people, or even people in general, because I think that is unrealistic.  Our world wouldn’t run if people weren’t judged by other people (it makes more sense the longer you think about it).  But maybe I’m just a stickler for judging individuals based upon their circumstances and context rather than taking the whole institution as a whole.  Maybe I don’t want to hold Francis responsible for the sins of his church fathers.

Would it be awesome if women were allowed into a priestly role?  Yes.  Shouldn’t the church allow gay marriages?  It would certainly be great for all those practicing Catholics who are also gay and who love just as deeply as a straight Catholic.  But let us be realistic here.  That isn’t going to happen now.  There are lines drawn in the sand.  It is a glorious thing when a Pope decides that it is time to cross one of those lines, let alone several—but we cannot expect total reform.  The Catholic church is a huge and ancient institution (which is a pleasant way of saying that parts of it are rather dated).  Things must happen slowly in order to take hold.

Granted, Francis is accountable for his own actions, in his own time (presently), in the broader context of the current state of the church.  And right now they are the actions of a decent man trying to desperately to teach his fellow Christians how to ‘Christian’ correctly—at least the way he sees as ‘correct’.  Given his predecessors, that is a tremendous leap forward. We should take that for what it is and be grateful.  Any man who risks his own life to sneak out and feed the poor—especially after angering so many dangerous people—is a man who is heroic.  When was the last time we had such a Pope? That is why I support him. Dimidium facti qui coepit habet.  Given time, it is my thinking that his accomplishments will be the light which shines the path for those who follow.

On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media

There seems to be some great confusion in the public media about the definition of ‘scholar’ and what it means, how it is actually used, and to whom it applies.  When it comes to defining ‘scholars’, journalists seem to have the hardest time actually determining who fits the bill; those that actually have earned that title are confused, for instance, with scientists (and are sometimes labeled as such), whereas those with no credibility whatsoever are given the esteemed honor of being a ‘scholar’ or ‘historian’ or ‘expert’.

This became clear ages ago, but over the last few years this phenomenon has really picked up with some frightening speed.  Clearly so is the example of how the Elkington’s (and their fake lead codices) were labeled as ‘Egyptologists’ (a title given to someone with a graduate or PhD degree in the field of Egyptology), ‘Biblical Scholars’, and ‘experts’. More recently this has been the case with Mr. Joe Atwill (who incidentally calls himself a ‘Biblical Scholar’).  In the hope of clarifying this issue for the press and laypeople out there who may not know what words mean, I’ve devised this post.

First, a layperson who self-publishes a book on something isn’t an ‘expert’.  They may be considered an enthusiast, an amateur, a hobbyist, a thrill-seeker.  These are polite titles.  More often than not, however, people who only self-publish do so because they do not want to have their ideas vetted by pesky things like editors, peers, or actual experts.  So less polite, but certainly more accurate, titles for many of these sorts of individuals might be ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘loon’, or ‘Indiana Jones Wanna-be’ (actually this isn’t a complement).

Second, let us stop calling the self-published tomes of these sorts of people, who have zero credibility, ‘theses’.  This isn’t a thesis. To a layperson, with no background in the relevant field, any claim or argument that is new to them will appear to be ground-breaking.  That doesn’t mean that it is actually new, or useful, or even correct.

The purpose of peer review, of academic vetting, is to determine how well an argument or hypothesis can withstand criticism.  If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular. That isn’t to say that an uncredentialed person cannot produce a solid book on a subject.  It may actually be ground-breaking, it may be earth-shattering, but if it hasn’t been vetted by other people with credentials then there is no means by which one can claim that it is.

Third, if you are ever unsure about whether or not someone has produced a new theory, and you are curious if this individual is trustworthy, as a journalist you have several options: (1) Google their CV—if they have a CV, check to see if they have some credibility (are academically published, have formal education or training in the relevant fields, etc…), (2) if you don’t trust Google, ask other scholars (your local University has them; they are underpaid—but they will help you), (3) engage with the material yourself (instead of, you know, just republishing the PR Web article or press release without any critical thoughts about it), (4) provide a basic caveat emptor that you are (presumably, as a journalist) not qualified to judge the arguments in the book and request your readers investigate the issue on their own critically, (5) don’t automatically label them as a Scholar, but look for signs (do they have a graduate degree or doctorate? Have they at least been published academically? Have they some engagement with scholars in a critical way? Are other scholars—not laypeople—praising their work? Aim for at least two of these three things before giving an individual press time).

What is perhaps most important to remember is that what you write will resonate with laypeople—your work, as journalists for professional news outlets, gives legitimacy to an idea.  So choose wisely and carefully.  It is your responsibility to examine the individual and the sources and their theories before you write on them.  If you fail to do so, you fail your audience.  The second you publish that article, it will be shared one-hundred, one-thousand, perhaps tens-of-thousands of times during its lifespan (before being dumped into a pay-wall archive).  So please, for the love of Pete, take the time needed to make sure that you are not putting a crank and their crazy conspiracy theory on a pedestal before you publish.  There is nothing more embarrassing for a journalist, I imagine, than highlighting a concept that is absolutely beyond credible.  And it drives people like me, who take history seriously, to drink.

(Author’s Note: I think it is important to state here that I have been diligent, over the past few years, to correct people about my credentials–those who confuse me for a scholar or an expert, I am quick to point out to them that, while I am a student, and I am in the guild, and I am academically published, that does not ipso facto make me an expert, a scholar, or professional historian.  When I publish, I vet my scholarship against other qualified, credible people so I know that what I put out to the guild is interesting and useful.  I haven’t always been so careful; in my past, I have made mistakes–quite similar to those made by Atwill, Ellis, Elkington, Jacobovici, and others–and I have worked hard to correct them.  So this all comes from experience; experience in the guild and outside the guild.  I think that this is vital: even though I could, by all means, consider myself a historian–as both a member of the guild and as a published academic–I refuse to do so until I have the laurels and the degrees to back that up.  This is the difference between who I was, and who I am; it is the difference also between Atwill and me.)

Ancient History: The Undead Edition

Halloween is my favorite time of year for various reasons: Scary movies, costume parties, overloading on tons of sugary goodness.  But I am also reminded about the fact that many of our spooky superstitions–vampires, ghosts, and werewolves–have come to us from thousands of years ago.  That, in and of itself, is a little freakishly cool, don’t you think?  That people, thousands of years ago, living in Athens or Rome or Alexandria, had the same basic fearful ghouls that we shiver over today.  Compiled here in this post are a few examples from Classical, Jewish, and Christian sources that involve tales of the haunted, the horror-ible (See what i did there?  Horror+horrible! I’m so clever), the frighteningly cool.  Enjoy… if you DARE!  Muahahahaha!

The Walking Dead

“If thou dost not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will smash the doors of the Nether World, I will place those above below, I will raise up the dead eating and alive, so that the dead shall outnumber the living! (Ishtar to Anu, Epic of Gilgamesh, VI.94-100)

And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth. (Zechariah 14.12)

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.52-3)

Ghosts and Specters

 Disembodied now, I hover as a wraith over my mother’s head, riding for three long days upon the air, three hopeless days of suffering and fear since she left Troy and came to Chersonese. Here on the shore of Thrace, in sullen idleness beside its ships, the whole Achaean army waits and cannot sail. For Achilles’ ghost appeared, stalking on his tomb, wailing, and stopped the ships as they stood out for sea on the journey home. He demanded my sister Polyxena as a prize, the blood of the living to sweeten a dead man’s grave….On this day destiny shall take my sister down to death. Ah you, poor mother, you must see your two last children dead this day, my sister slaughtered and my unburied body washed up on shore at the feet of a slave. These were the favors I asked of the gods below—to find my mother and be buried by her hands—and they have granted my request. Now I go, for there below I see my mother coming, stumbling from Agamemnon’s tent, still shaken by that dream in which she saw my ghost. (Euripides, Hecuba 30-54)

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.”And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day.Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. (1 Samuel 28.11-19)

 Prophets and Curses

 Germanicus’s conviction that he had been put under a spell by Piso aggravated the disease. They dug up the floor and the walls and found remains of human bodies in them, spells and binding curses, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on lead tablets, ashes half-burned and smeared with gore and the other evil devices by which it is believed that souls are devoted to the infernal powers. (Tacitus, Annals 2.69)

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (1 Kings 2.23-5)

 The Mummies Return

The old [Egyptian] woman, believing that she was now free of hindrance and was not being watched, first dug a pit and then kindled a fire on one side of it. She laid out the body of her son between the two and took a ceramic bowl from an adjacent tripod…. She cut her arm open, wiped up some of the blood with a laurel branch, and threw it into the fire. She did some other strange things in addition to these and then bent over the corpse of her son and sang some incantation into his ear. She roused him and compelled him to stand upright by her [witch]craft…. She was inquiring whether her remaining son, the brother of the dead man, would return home safe and sound.

The corpse made no reply, but just nodded, allowing its mother the insecure hope that the response was favorable. But then all at once he fell headlong onto his face. The woman rolled the corpse onto its back again and would not finish with the interrogation….

While the old woman was doing this Chariclea [the Greek ingenue] earnestly begged Calasiris [the Egyptian priest] that they should approach the scene of action and make an inquiry of their own…. He [Calasiris] declined; it was not holy, he said, even to watch the rite, but he suffered it under the constraint of circumstance. It did not befit a prophet either to attempt or to attend such rites. Prophets derived their divination from lawful sacrifices and pure prayers, but the impure and earthly actually derived their divination from circling around corpses, just as, by accident, they were now seeing the Egyptian woman do.

Calasiris was still speaking when the corpse muttered in a deep, ugly voice as if from a crypt or a craggy cavern. “At first I spared you, mother,” it said, “and I put up with you as you broke the laws of humanity, violated the decrees of the gods, and unfixed with your sorceries what was fixed. For, so far as possible, respect for parents is preserved even among the dead. But you abolish this of your own accord. No longer are you merely dabbling in lawlessness, as at first; now you push it beyond limit…. Hear now these prophecies which I have long been forbearing to reveal to you. Neither will your son return safely to you nor will you yourself escape death from the sword….” (Heliodorus, Aethiopica 6.12-15)

And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13.21)

Demons and Underworldlings

When a plague fell upon the Ephesians, and no defense against it could be found, they sent to Apollonius, and made him their doctor for the disease…. Apollonius assembled the Ephesians and said, “Do not worry, for I will put an end to the disease this day.” Saying this, he led all the people into the theatre, where the statue of the Averter is now sited. there he found what appeared to be an old beggar contriving to squint…. He was dressed in rags and had a squalid face. Apollonius grouped the Ephesians around the beggar and said, “Collect as many stones as you can and throw them at this enemy of the gods.” The Ephesians were taken aback by this instruction, and thought it terrible to kill a stranger in such an unfortunate condition. The beggar himself was beseeching Apollonius and begging for pity, but Apollonius was insistent and urged the Ephesians to get on with the job and not let the man go. When some of the people began to pelt him with stones, the man who had been pretending to be squinting suddenly looked up at them and showed that his eyes were full of fire. The Ephesians then recognized that he was a demon and so they stoned him to death so thoroughly that they built up a heap of stones over him. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.10)

That same day, in the city of Ecbatana in Media, a woman named Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was being insulted by one of her father’s servant women. Sarah had gone through seven wedding ceremonies with seven different husbands, but each time, before she and her new husband had gone to bed on their wedding night, he was killed by the demon Asmodeus. That’s why the servant had told her, “You’ve already been married seven times, and each of those times you have killed your husband before he could give you a son. So why do you strike at us because your husbands have died? Just go where they are! We hope you never have any children!” (Tobit 3.7-9)

 Large Beasts and Monsters

The moon was shining like the midday sun. We arrived among the tombs. My man went [to relieve himself - ed.] against a gravestone. I held back, singing and counting the stones. Then, when I looked back at my companion, he had taken all his clothes off and laid them beside the road. I almost died of fright, and I stood there like a dead man. He urinated a circle around his clothes and suddenly became a wolf. Don’t think I’m joking. No one’s inheritance is so valuable as to make me lie. But, as I’d begin to say, after he had become a wolf, he began to howl and ran into the woods…. But I drew my sword and hacked at shades, until I arrived at my girlfriend’s house. I was like a ghost when I got in, and almost bubbling out my final breath. Melissa expressed amazement that I’d walked there so late and said, “If you’d come earlier, at least you could have helped us. For a wolf got into the estate and among the flocks. He was draining the blood out of them like a butcher. But even if he got away, the last laugh was ours, for our slave managed to get a spear through his neck.” When I heard this, I could not even think of sleep, but when it was fully light I ran off home like the robbed innkeeper. But when I arrived home, my soldier was lying on his bed like an ox, and a doctor was attending to his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I could not thereafter bring myself to break bread with him, not even if you had forced me on pain of death, Others can make up their own mind about this. But if I’m lying, may your guardian spirits exercise their wrath upon me. (Petronius, Satyricon 61-2)

Witches and Their Spell Books

Two friends from Arcadia who were taking a journey together came to Megara, and one traveller put up at an inn and the second went to the home of a friend. After they had eaten supper and retired, the second traveller, in the dead of the night, dreamed that his companion was imploring him to come to his aid, as the innkeeper was planning to kill him. Greatly frightened at first by the dream he arose, and later, regaining his composure, decided that there was nothing to worry about and went back to bed. When he had gone to sleep the same person appeared to him and said: ‘Since you would not help me when I was alive, I beg that you will not allow my dead body to remain unburied. I have been killed by the innkeeper, who has thrown my body into a cart and covered it with dung. I pray you to be at the city gate in the morning before the cart leaves the town,’ Thoroughly convinced by the second dream he met the cart-driver at the gate in the morning, and, when he asked what he had in the cart, the driver fled in terror. The Arcadian then removed his friend’s dead body from the cart, made complaint of the crime to the authorities, and the innkeeper was punished. (Cicero, Div. 1.57)

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah.And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.”And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. And the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever.And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.” (2 Kings 21.1-8)

 Vampirism

 “As such,” replied Apollonius, “you must regard this adornment, for it is not reality but the semblance of reality. And that you may realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the vampires, that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins. These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially to the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feasts.”

And the lady said: “Cease your ill-omened talk and begone”; and she pretended to be disgusted at what she heard, and in fact she was inclined to rail at philosophers and say that they always talked nonsense. When, however, the goblets of gold and the show of silver were proved as light as air and all fluttered away out of their sight, while the wine-bearers and the cooks and all the retinue of servants vanished before the rebukes of Apollonius, the phantom pretended to weep, and prayed him not to torture her nor to compel her to confess what she really was.

But Apollonius insisted and would not let her off, and then she admitted that she was a vampire, and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.25)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6.53-7; I couldn’t help but to include this!)

The Inscription on the Jonah Ossuary Redux and the Shape-Shifting Fish

A lot more has been said on the issue of the Jonah ossuary this week; in fact it has been an interesting few days.  As James McGrath keeps the round-ups alive (here and here; I won’t belabor it by reposting everything here–go to James’ blog for the details), I’ve been contemplating something that has been bothering me that I had completely missed previously.

Dr. James Tabor has made an effort recently to reenforce his belief that there is an inscription in the vessel ‘fish’.  However it seems that every instance a new image is released by his and Simcha’s team, there are startling differences that cause me to raise an eyebrow.  Mark Goodacre blogged about something quite similar last year, but this needs to be demonstrated more thoroughly taking into account more recent events.

1. The Elusive Etruscan Letter and the Stick Man

During the very beginning of the debate over the iconography on the ossuary (fish or vessel?), I wrote a long post in response to Dr. Tabor’s conclusions that the ossuary portrayed the fish spitting out Jonah.  I am sure it still stands up to scrutiny a year later–but it dawned on me recently that I had quoted some pretty interesting dialogue from Dr. Tabor on the part of the fish in which he now claims there exists an inscription.

Back in the first week of March, 2012, Dr. Tabor posted up this bit:

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‘A perfume flask or a fish?’ (http://jamestabor.com/2012/03/03/a-perfume-flask-or-a-fish/) Accessed online: 9-19-13.

And in detail, this specific part of his analysis:

etruscanscreengrab1

Keep this in the back of your mind. That perceived Etruscan letter is a big deal.

To be clear, at this point Dr. Tabor was still using the CGI generated photo as an original photo of the actual ossuary (which turns out was not the case).  In my response to Dr. Tabor, I made note that the misleading image was photoshopped in some way, but I also highlighted the lines of his image:

stickfigure

Image from ‘Some considerations about the iconography on the ossuary’, (http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/some-considerations-about-the-iconography-on-the-ossuary/) Accessed online: 9-19-13.

I wrote then:

Note how completely ‘unhuman’ the ‘stickfigure’ looks when you isolate the lines (in red) and see what is really there.  Frankly, I’m finding any resemblance to a ‘stickfigure’ to be completely disingenuous.  Also, take note of all the red squares.  Those are repeated notches which indicate to me that this item was not just digitally modified but parts of it were copied and pasted into the image to fill it out.  The left side of one notch in the middle-upper-left of the image has been cut off (and looks like a smudging effect was applied). So how is it that Dr. Tabor expects us to carefully examine this iconography in any detail when the iconography presented is not an accurate representation of what is on the ossuary?

Remember when Simcha and Dr. Tabor were then arguing that this was a stick figure and the ‘head’ of the fish contained an eye?  How adamant were they (specifically Dr. Tabor) about the stick man being spit out of the fish?

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Note the highlighted bit.  Still there as of 9-20-13.

plain stickfigure
So much so did he believe this that it was ‘so plain’! From ‘The fish and the man’ (http://jamestabor.com/2012/03/06/the-fish-and-the-man/); Accessed online: 9-20-13.

I do find it interesting that Dr. Tabor draws attention to the fact that critics “have suddenly move[d] from the ‘tower’ to the perfume flask.”  But then again, the image that had been originally seen by everyone was not oriented correctly–but then, Dr. Tabor can’t really decide if orientation matters or not (Hint: it probably doesn’t if what you want to see is a fish and a stick figure).  Because Dr. Tabor and Simcha have suddenly gone from a “stick man” in a “fish’s head”, and then they said that it was a mix between a “stick man”, “fish’s head” and an “inscription” reading “Jonah”.  How dare they!  But most importantly, that is one impressive shape-shifting fish-stick-man-name!

But this stick figure is so incredibly clear, Dr. Tabor says.  In fact he went to the trouble of posting up a fan drawing of it:

FishJoanImageLined

Again, at this point it was not made clear that this photo was a CGI generated image; probably because at this point in early March, Dr. Tabor and Simcha were still claiming the CGI image was merely “a blowup”. (Refer to evidence here)  It was not until Bob Cargill caught the tells of CGI and called them on it that they made it clear what this was.

Man, just look how clear this is!  So great of Dr. Tabor to highlight the ‘so plainly’ visible stick figure.  Dr. Tabor even makes a point to state the clarity of the stick man a third time:

thirdtimeclaimstickman

Note that Dr. Tabor does not attempt to clarify the fact that this is NOT a real photo of the iconography; he does not qualify that this is just a CGI image. He states, “the stick figure … so clearly has two legs, two arms, with one down and one up….” (ibid)

After this image was exposed as a computer generated image, not an ‘enhancement’, Dr. Tabor produced this image (probably courtesy of his team):

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Notice what he had inked here and notice what he didn’t have inked at all. The tracing is sloppy and inaccurate. More on this in a moment.

Even in his preliminary report on the subject, he sees a stick figure.

preliminarystickman

The interesting bit is at this point, in early march, no mention of any inscription is found.  Anywhere.  In fact, again, Dr. Tabor doesn’t read anything in Hebrew on this ossuary.  Instead time is given to the Greek inscription on the back of ossuary 5 (not the same ossuary) and that’s it.  Dr. Tabor is thoroughly puzzled by what he initially sees as an Etruscan letter.

A few final notes here:

  1. The original “replica” ossuary and the CGI fabricated image have a connected line well below where it is portrayed as elsewhere or have an unconnected line at the center of the ‘fish head’; this indicates they didn’t see a connection:
    unconnected

    CGI; Green outline and red circle show perfectly that even in their CGI image there is no connection of the “legs”.

    unconnected2

    From “Replica” 1; outline done by Steve Caruso. This replica seems ti highlight the ‘stickman’ with adjoining stick “legs”.

  2. Dr. Tabor especially made note of how “clear” the stick figure was on the ossuary.

But it seems that as time goes on, the fish iconography seems to shift and mold into something that seems remarkably more pliable to Dr. Tabors’ arguments.

2. The Shape-Shifting Fish-na-Man-na-Name-O-Tron!

At the end of March and early April, we see a dynamic shift in argument from the Jesus Discovery team.  A new replica is released (though barely discussed) with very different ‘fish head’ iconography and the startling news that the stick figure was actually serving a double-purpose: he was hiding the inscription YONH (Yonah)!  From Dr. Tabor’s blog:

inscription

How clever! That sneaky little stick figure!  Accessed online: 9-20-13; http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/11/name-of-jonah-encrypted-on-the-jonah-and-the-fish-image/

And this is the accompanying picture provided by Dr. Tabor:

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Now notice what he inked and what he didn’t. Note how that Etruscan letter became a hey!

A side by side:

SIDEBYSIDE

The difference one month makes, right? That Etruscan character morphed right into that hey. All of a sudden lines start shifting. Pay close attention to the spots that are circled with no lines present.

These photos are interesting because they demonstrate not only a shift in tactics, but a little misleading information.  Bob Cargill and Steve Caruso have done some excellent work demonstrating the glaring inaccuracies and inconsistencies here.

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Click to embiggen. Courtesy of Bob Cargill.

Steve demonstrates the errors here.  The biggest controversy here is the difference between this image and the unedited “raw” image.   Here is what I’ve put together:

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Click to embiggen!

There is just so much happening between these three photos.  So much is lost, so much added, lines are fusing together left and right.  They move and sway and vanish and reappear.  It’s incredible!

This fish is like Martia, the Cameloid shape-shifter from Undiscovered Country!  “Don’t like the stick man? Oh, well, is this a more pleasant form?  Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place.”

And wouldn’t you know how Dr. Tabor was defending this?  Why, the same way he defended the stick man of course.

On Steve Caruso’s blog post on April 14, last year, Dr. Tabor wrote:

It [the inscription-ed.] is plain as the Aramaic on your face and I think you surely know it.

It is just so plainSo plain.  It is as plain as the Etruscan letter, the stick man, the ‘half-fish’ with handles.  It’s just, so d’uh!  It’s so plain that Dr. Tabor writes just today:

In fact it was obvious enough that Dr. Tabor missed it for months on end.  He missed it during the few months he was investigating the ossuary, he missed it for a few additional months while reviewing photos, while writing his preliminary report.  He made it through just an entire month of blogging, mistaking such a plain and obvious hey as a letter in the Etruscan alphabet.

There are also sketches done of the “Jonah” ossuary by the Jesus Discovery team and it was so plain to see that they included it!  Oh wait, no they didn’t.

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Closeup of this image put out by the Jesus Discovery team. Guess what? No YONH!

And isn’t it interesting that the photos and second “replica” used now (in fact featured on the website) are missing extraneous lines that would otherwise obscure and dilute the inscription?  And isn’t it odd that no one seems to be denying that fact?

Conclusion

So to recap: First it is a fish with a stick man, then it’s a fish with a stick man that is also an inscription.  Stick man is so powerful.

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I feel like I’m watching this. “Pick your own interpretation of the Jonah ossuary!”

What I find most distracting is that Dr. Tabor seems to again be changing tactics!  While initially the inscription was hidden inside the shape shifting stick man, now Dr. Tabor just wants us to forget about the stick man entirely.  He told Mark Goodacre just a few days ago:

taborrecantingstickfigure

“Let’s forget any stick figure”! But Dr. Tabor, it’s so plain! It’s as plain as the Etruscan on your face! Or the serif in the yod? Or the.. well, you get it.

Honestly, maybe it is time for the Jesus Discovery team to abandon the stick man entirely and focus on the inscription.  Clearly that is where Dr. Tabor’s head is at.  So what do we believe?  A stick man?  Not a stick man?  An Etruscan letter?  A hey?  It is interesting that when Dr. Tabor sees something that contradicts his “rock-solid” plain view of a fish and Jonah or a stick man, well, it is just probably a mistake.  He writes:

A closeup view of this area makes it clear that there is certainly no handle remotely resembling that of a vase or amphora but just a couple of stray lines, unconnected to the image, that the engraver might have even made by mistake.

Wait, you mean it shows up in multiple images and resembles items that we have seen on other ossuaries? Oh… oh my…

Well, this is embarrassing…. I just think we should end this on a positive note.  So… take it away Xzibit!

xzibitag036

Pimp My Ossuary edition!

Did the Ancient Jews Practice Crucifixion?

Last night during one of our class discussions on the historical Jesus, the question came up over crucifixion; someone had made the claim that only the Romans had practiced it.  But is that really the case?  Were the Romans really the only people in antiquity to use crucifixion as a form of punishment?  Well, actually, no.

First, crucifixion was not necessarily standardized.  The Greek word used in the New Testament, for example, to explain Jesus’ death is σταυρός (and cognates, e.g., Mark 16.6; ἐσταυρωμένον) which literally meant a ‘stake’, with which to impale someone.  This process could be done in a variety of ways and according to written tradition, some Roman rulers did experiment with all sorts of manners of crucifying their enemies.  It is important though that the two basic elements generally remain the same: the plank(s) or beam(s) of wood and something with which to impale the flesh (nails, hooks, etc…).  It was certainly a gruesome event.

Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative attitude that the Jewish people had towards crucifixion, it seems to have been something that was practiced by Jews at various times in the history of Judea.  Most notably were the crucifixions under the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, in the1st Century BCE.  Following his victories against opponents (specifically Demetrius) to his rule, he crucified 800 of his enemies.  This practice is memorialized in Josephus and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (it has also been argued that the crucifixion under Jannaeus of his enemies was looked at favorably by those who wrote the Pesher Nahum–Specifically Y. Yadin, ‘Pesher Nahum (4Q pNahum) Reconsidered’, Israel Exploration Journal , Vol. 21, No. 1 [1971], pp. 1-12).

There was also a Rabbinic punishment of crucifying bodies of those stoned to death for committing blasphemy (i.e., Sanhedrin 6.4n-q); the law specifies that planks of wood be used to hang up the bodies, apparently like slabs of meat–so presumably the body would be impaled to the plank.

Of course, hanging for punishment was not new.  In the Hebrew Bible, those guilty of a crime could be hung from a ‘tree’ (In the LXX, ‘tree’ is from ξύλον; specifically, ‘plank/beam of wood’–also found in Acts 5.30) and was considered acceptable to god, so long as the body was taken down that same day (this is the basis of the law found in the Talmud).  Normally, though, the process would not involve a living person (until Alexander Jannaeus), but in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Sam 18), Absalom is found hanging by a tree alive, and is then pierced to death by three spears through the heart (which would quite literally be considered a crucifixion–fastened to a tree by his hair and he was impaled by spears) before he is beset upon by soldiers who further inflict more damage.

So it seems clear to me that the Jews of the period were not only familiar with the process of crucifixion before the Romans (the Persians also practiced crucifixion long before the Romans), but even practiced it as a form of punishment from time to time.  See further D.J Halperin, ‘Crucifixion, the Nahum Pesher and the Rabbinic Penalty of Crucifixion,’ The Journal of Jewish Studies 32 (1981), 32-46, esp. 44; and J.A. Fitzmyer, ‘Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament’, Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978), 493-513

Students, What Have I to do with Thee?

So we are now finishing up our first week of class and it seems like it is going to be an interesting semester.  In my ‘Jesus’ class, most of the students are very religious.  That’s fine.  But I am concerned about why they have chosen to take a class on the historical Jesus when they clearly only seem to care about the Jesus of their particular faith tradition.  Worse, although students are required to have a background in New Testament (you have to have completed the Intro to New Testament course in order to take the course on Jesus), some don’t appear to have any clue.

The professor asked us all to write out a ‘Gospel’; that is, to give a brief explanation of who Jesus was, why he is or isn’t influential, and why do we think we should or shouldn’t study him.  It was a fantastic exercise that I enjoyed.  But some of the other gospels out there were just..well… terrible.  There is no other way to put it.

One student listed the birthplace of Jesus as Nazareth(!) while another seemed to think that kings sought advice from him.  Yet another believed that Jesus was discussed in the Septuagint!  I shake my head.  One student who seemed to have a greater grasp of the concepts knew of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but her ideas about the text imply that she hasn’t actually read the gospel.  She must have watched a program about it on History or some other similar channel because she thought that Jesus was fashioning pots out of clay (actually it was sparrows in a stream) and has some silly notion that Jesus just goes around hurting people in it (far from it actually).

So I guess I have concerns.  What exactly did these students learn in Intro to New Testament?  I had a great professor and the class seemed to take away a lot.  So what happened with these students?  Granted, the class is about Jesus so chances are that by the end of the semester these students will have a better understanding of the historical Jesuses (I hope); but why even bother taking the class if you don’t at least have some basic knowledge of the Gospel accounts?

And why do religious individuals just presume that taking a course on the historical Jesus will be like attending a second church?  Nearly 2/3 of the student gospels written were faith statements.  Do they not realize they will have their faith shaken?  And how can one call themselves a religious Christian when they don’t even know where Jesus was born?  I mean that is pretty basic stuff.

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.

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“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?

Related:

See this (Joel Watts).

What if the King had Conceded to Colonial Demands?

In response to my last article on the causes of the Revolutionary War, a friend on twitter asked me (in twitter speak, so revised):  ‘What if King George had granted representation and a few of the colonist’s demands, would the war have happened?’  It was an interesting thought experiment, though I could not give a veritable answer in 120 characters, therefore blogging it only seemed appropriate.

However, I must stress that this sort of activity is stepping into the realm of science fiction; unlike some students of history, I do not presume to be omniscient.  I’m no Hegelian (re: imperialist determinist), not even by a stretch.  There is no way to no definitively what could or would have happened, supposing things had gone differently in, say, 1773.  Still I do think that understanding the sociological framework for the war itself can lend some clues to one possible alternate future (and I’m no J.J. Abrams either, just for the record–though Abrams may be a Hegelian for all I know). With that caveat fresh in the reader’s mind, we can proceed.

1. An Adequately Understood Timeline

A lot of back-and-forth took place between the crown and the colonies.  Most of it had been divisive and none had been missed on either side.  As far back as the 1760′s, rumors and actions led to suspicions of one another; the British accused the colonists of trading with the enemy during the French and Indian war and the Americans were increasingly upset with the continued loss of property and lives on the frontier settlements.  Worse, the British navy increasingly became abusive to New Englanders as a result of these rumors, often blaming them for all sorts of things as a result.  Their assaults on individuals spread through newspapers and incited unease among the population.

Then came taxes.  It is important to keep in mind that as far as the tax rate goes, the colonists had it pretty good.  The figures suggest that the colonists paid less taxes than those on the British mainland, and rightly so as they had more expenses–especially following the war, along with rebuilding destroyed estates and hiring a workforce and purchasing new lands with which to farm and subsequently supply Britain with continued goods.   Economically it made sense to allow the lower tax rates.  But as time went on, despite the low amount that was due, more taxes continued to pile up on things that previously had not been taxed.  Stamps, tea, glass–things that were necessary for living started getting a little pricier.

Again, it was not the money that was an issue; for the colonists it seems it had to do more with the principle of it.  Things perhaps would not have been so dire had there been 13 representatives in parliament, elected by the colonists, to speak on their behalf.  As a consequence, the levied taxes–and the arrival of troops and a fleet of war ships–felt unjustified and harsh, as well as unfounded.  Town meetings were held (legally) and votes were cast; individuals started boycotting the purchase of British goods.

The situation went from bad to worse, as the population–especially in New England–grew mortified by the actions of the King.  Things became violent.  As public outrage grew against the crown and the Loyalist enforcers, groups of people started to work against the British more openly.  Crowds gathered, effigies were hung with symbolic messages attached, Paul Revere worked on several engravings which would continue to spur resistance (like the one below).

Engraving from Paul Revere, adapted from an English original (click to enlarge).

It is important to note that localities in America had already started to move towards developing their own governing laws without consultation–and often in direct defiance of–parliament.  Patrick Henry had moved to resolve the current tax acts in place and commanded for the established bureaucracy in Virginia the powers to impose and enforce taxes, for example (though these were rescinded by conservative members the next day), and certain congresses had arisen to do the same in other colonies.   Then came the response in 1766 from Great Britain: the the Declaratory Act.  This act stated (re: reaffirmed) that all individuals were under the sole providence of the King and as subordinates under the dominion of Great Britain, all should recognize that only the crown has authority and power.  As one can imagine, this quite enraged the people of America further.

 Within four years time, from 1766 to 1770, life in the colonies was overshadowed by their ‘big brother’ with additional taxes and acts being supplemented.  But in 1770 the Boston Massacre occurred.  This incident set off a new series of events that launched the colonies towards independence and war at a much faster pace.  In 1772, the Gaspee Affair occurred–remembering the way that British naval officials had treated them years before (and continued to treat them), a few hundred individuals rushed the schooner Gaspee, killed the commander of the vessel, and burned it in the harbor.

After the Stamp Act (top), came the anti-Stamp Act movement which included a public display of defiance against the British (the hanging of an effigy of a colonist chosen to enforce the act in 1765, which led eventually to the Boston Massacre in 1770--five years later.

After the Stamp Act (top), came the Anti-Stamp Act movement which included public displays of defiance against the British (e.g., the hanging of an effigy of a colonist chosen to enforce the act in 1765), which led eventually to the Boston Massacre in 1770–five years later.

In 1773, the Boston Tea Party stood in direct opposition to the taxes on tea, instituted by the crown in favor of the debt-accruing East India Company, sparked additional support and rage from colonists.  Again, we must keep in mind that tensions were considerably high–a lot had occurred in several years time that had rubbed both sides the wrong way.  With mounting resolve, parliament instituted additional acts to quell rebellion and subdue the Sons of Liberty.  But these ‘intolerable acts’ would only further incite insurrection, leading to the first Continental Congress in 1774 and the perhaps inevitable confrontation one year later at Lexington and Concord.

2. What If?

I know that last section was long.  But remember, we’re trying to figure out what would have happened if the King had just accepted the demands of the colonists and without some background there is no way to do that.  But now, it seems, we all have some adequate information on the various milieux of the period.  So what if?

For me, the question should also be a matter of ‘when’.  When would the King consider this request?  Would it be after the French and Indian war, when the colonists had sacrificed so much–and prior to the institution of the Stamp Act?  Would it have been following the Stamp Act in 1765?  After the Boston Tea Party in 1773?  When the King would have considered these requests and at which point he would have permitted the colonist’s demands will ultimately bear upon our answer, would it not?

This may never have materialized.

Had the King chosen, following the French and Indian war, to bring representatives in for each colony in America, it seems less likely that a war would have broken out at the time it did.  It may be that a war would have happened later–but those circumstances are, obviously, unknown to us so presuming such a thing is not recommended.  Still, had this been done early on, there is a greater chance that public opinion would not have wavered so fervently towards independence.  After all, what reason would they have to complain?  Taxes were low and even if new taxes were instigated, it would have been at the hands of their elected officials–not the crown itself.  Additionally, the Sons of Liberty might never had formed, meaning that Paul Revere’s engravings and the tactics of his constituents to instill a sense of rebellion would never have come to pass.  There would not have been a Boston Massacre, a Tea Party, etc…. a form of peace would have probably been the status quo.

Now, had the King considered this premise in the early 1770′s, chances are likely that the war would have happened anyway–perhaps it would not have occurred the same way (such as the battles at Lexington and Concord) but it may have played out in a different manner and, quite possibly, with more egregious consequences; maybe France would not have felt the urgency to get involved, which would have meant no incoming supplies like weapons and munitions, leading to a Continental defeat.

What remains is merely speculation.  There is no one solution to the question(s); had the King displayed some leniency towards the colonists at all, it is always possible that history might have played out differently.  But this is precisely why we study the past.  We have the luxury, hundreds of years later, to enact these sorts of mental exercises.  The colonists certainly did mull it over.  Rightly, they could have fought back in 1770 following the Boston Massacre, but they waited, delegated, and considered options.  There are implications for that as well (e.g., that enough people were against a war that they allowed Great Britain additional liberties to tax them and attempt to contain them).

In the end, and I stress this again, the war was never about a single issue–it was about a build up of multiple issues over a long period of time.  Primarily, it was the result of a monarchy treating the colonists like second rate people; there existed no equality between the colonists and the British even though they had shed the same blood defending the land over which, later, they would fight (and shed blood again).  If one were to take anything away from this experiment, it should be this solemn fact.

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