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 accepted (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 every 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.

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:

etruscanscreengrab

‘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’, (https://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?

jesusdiscstickman

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):

1

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:

3

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.

1239964_10102663721133316_1131951567_n

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:

553009_10202049267901616_2144798336_n

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.

1236809_10151621946246338_1161603819_n

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.

145972_1317841461

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 rains 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.

362k9n

“…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).

I’m Being Harassed and Threatened by Ralph Ellis

Dear Friends and Family,

Since April 8th, Ralph Ellis has been running around Google searching for my name and sending out hateful and spiteful emails to colleagues and friends (also to me, because he doesn’t realize the sites that he is emailing are run by me) because I wrote negatively about his online work (suggesting Jesus was King Arthur, that his relative was Cleopatra, and that Jesus was King of Edessa–so yes, I wrote some scathing posts about them).  This is completely legal and within my rights under the 1st Amendment and through my experience as a student majoring in the field at a high tier research university.

He has libeled and harassed me and continues to do so however, and I want you to be aware that this individual may be dangerous.  He has threatened to ‘run me off’ and I have been saving all the emails and notifications that many of you have sent along (thank you).  I am compiling a portfolio full of his harassing and threatening messages so I continue to ask you all to send everything to me that he sends out to you.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a minor issue.  If Ralph Ellis were simply an internet troll or someone with whom I just disagreed, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  But he is actively trying to discredit me to people I’ve known for years and while he will not succeed, he is breaking the law and willfully engaging in bullying tactics in order to force me to remove my negative reviews of his work.  I will not bow to this bully and I want you to know that,

This is the stalker:

ralfellis

Here is how Steve Caruso (and here and here), James McGrath (and here), Diglot, and Joel Watts have handled his threats and libel.  Also Aaron Adair (and here) and Rod from Political Jesus have also jumped into the fray to lend their support.

Daniel McClellan has also offered some helpful thoughts on this whole matter; here is a snippet:

Next, the link in the comment takes one to a website entitled “Thomas Verenna Is A Lying Idiot.” Obviously such an insulting and unprofessional attempt to undermine Tom’s credibility does more to expose Mr. Ellis’ own lack of scruples, but it gets worse. Ellis’ accusations of dishonesty are incredibly ironic in light of his rather transparent habit of posting multiple anonymous and/or sock-puppet comments on his and others’ blogs in an attempt to make it seem like his claims have broad support. This kind of childish and petulant behavior flatly undermines any and all claims on his part to objectivity or scholarly erudition. Mr. Ellis is apparently submitting comments like these all over the internet, and as the link above shows, he’s starting blogs to personally attack Tom.

In another post, Dan writes in response to Mr. Ellis’ complaints:

The worst methodological mistake you make throughout all of your texts, however, is your insistance on synthesizing select data from various different disparate sources, while dismissing data that conflict with your preconceptions. You refuse to acknowledge errors where errors are beyond doubt, while asserting errors where the texts are clearly accurate, all in an effort to manipulate the sources in the aid of your presuppositions. Then you bark about people not being in the know, and not understanding because they’re trying to do history instead of acknowledging that the truth is cryptically hidden underneath the surface of the text. This is pseudo-scholarship, pure and simple.

Ralph Ellis is not in his right mind, as you can see.

Courtesy of Steve Caruso

Courtesy of Steve Caruso

Here are some links with more information:

Thanks,

Tom

Bill O’Reilly and the Polarizing Political Figure of Jesus

It has come to my attention that Bill O’Reilly will be publishing a book on the life and death of Jesus. This news has been making the rounds on the interwebs and of course I’m concerned. It isn’t necessarily because I don’t like O’Reilly, or because I find his views on generally everything to be atrociously flawed and morally questionable, but I am concerned because the last thing we need to happen is a “Which way would Jesus vote?” debate start dominating the conversation about the figure of Jesus.

Of course I’m aware that Jesus is often called upon by various politicians of all affiliations. But politicians most likely use this rhetoric to reflect what popular culture supports and, unfortunately, culture supports some crazy ideas. Consider sites like Rapture Ready (a website for fundamentalist Christians who believe the world will end within their lifetimes) which make the following (generally popular) claims about Jesus found in certain wings of evangelical Christianity:

There is one thing certain we can state, based upon the integrity of Bible truth. Jesus would never endorse or be a member of any party whose platform supports abortion, gay rights, and a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.

Interestingly, Jesus is portrayed to have spoken thousands of words between all four Gospels, yet not one of those words was about abortion or gay rights. So what should one do about people who are hostile to Bible-believing Christians? Well, it gets a little hairy in this area, but there is that oft-quoted phrase “turn the other cheek.” So I’m not sure how certain anyone can be about endorsements for any particular political party.

When it comes down to it, scholars have enough trouble coming to any sort of consensus on what Jesus may have said and what he might have done, let alone what his political views might have been.

4611

And now that we’re on the subject, I don’t really hate bankers, or what they do, I just don’t want them doing their business in my house!

And those politicians on the right side of the aisle are not the only culpable ones. While Jesus spoke of social change in theological terms, he was not the liberal, leftist ideologue that some would suggest (like those at Jesus is (was?) a Liberal believe). He did not come to bring class equality, he did not come to preach against the corporate state (‘render unto Caesar’ and all that), he did not bring it to ‘the man’ (‘the man’ crucified him). He did not resolve to rid the world of poverty, he only eased their suffering by promising them a better world when they died (of leprosy, of starvation, of a beating by a slave owner, etc…); he certainly never promised the poor their freedom from their current, earthly state of poverty-stricken existence.

Yes, the authors of the Gospels portray him as feeding the multitudes, but he only does that occasionally as a demonstration of his similarity (sameness?) to Elijah/Elisha, who both performed similar miracles, and to show the power of god (which the poor would see when they died). He never lifted a finger to end poverty. The Jesus of the Gospels could care less about class warfare; in heaven, he would argue, the tables would turn. Here on earth, well, you’re stuck with what you have–even if that is nothing.

And while it may shock some of you, on occasion, he got involved in a little saber rattling. Jesus was not portrayed as a pansy. He had his moments of testosterone (can god have testosterone?) fueled rage and sometimes he was pretty blunt about what to do with those who crossed him (“those who are not with me are against me” and “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and “these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”).

Many of these verses were used during the inquisition to torture heretics and were justifications to launch the crusades. Whether they were right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion) it just demonstrates how that liberal, hippie (not to be confused with ‘hipster’) Jesus with the ‘anti-war’, pacifist attitude is a myth (in John 2.15, Jesus made a whip out of cord and he whipped the crap out of people for goodness sake!). But it is a myth in the same sense as the conservative, anti-gay, pro-guns Jesus that the right loves so much.

“I’m saving this lamb from the evil butchers–it’s free-range for this guy!” – Said Jesus never.

As Candida Moss has pointed out, Jesus did offer some semblance of free health care, healing poor and curing people without ever taking a cent. Obviously there were some caveats, because god, but these were largely faith-based (you don’t see poor people acquiring a referral because of their HMO in order to be touched and healed by Jesus, for example). So the whole concept that Jesus wouldn’t stand behind universal health care seems a little out of place.

The Gospels are also pretty clear that being poor and being a Christian are sort of hand-in-hand. He tells a rich man that in order to follow him, he must give up all his possessions (because he will be rewarded ten-fold by his faith after death in heaven):

“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

After this man left, he states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, according to Jesus, get poor or GTFO! This doesn’t quite jive with conservative capitalism, does it?

Similarly, while not in the Gospels, god (and therefore Jesus) advocates communism over capitalism and those who refuse to adhere to it cannot be a part of the Christian church. Period. Do not pass go, do not collect eternal life. And if you refuse to give up all your possessions and then lie about it, well, god strikes you dead.

So am I concerned about O’Reilly’s foray into historical Jesus studies? Oh, god yes. I’m terrified. But I’m terrified because of the way lay people and politicians will continue to construe and deconstruct the Jesus we have–even as unstable and contradictory an individual as he may be–and scholarship will continue to remain within a relatively isolated community of experts. In other words, books by the Bill O’Reillys and the Clint Willises (author of Jesus Is Not a Republican) of the world are the only books on Jesus that anyone will read. Because they will be the only books available and accessible.

Besides, broadcasters and talking heads don’t have the facts straight when it comes to their actual jobs (reporting the news). Bill O’Reilly can’t seem to figure out what causes the tide, so just how well do you think he’ll do getting the historical Jesus right? Keep in mind, scholars can’t even seem to figure it out entirely–and they’ve spent their professional career trying to find answers. I’m betting that O’Reilly will not produce a very accurate picture.

He is already imaging Jesus much like how he views himself, a “beloved and controversial young revolutionary” who is constantly persecuted, but who fights for that in which he believes. It is a stunning pseudo-autobiographical portrayal of Jesus through O’Reilly’s eyes. And had O’Reilly been trained in the field, he would know that George Tyrrell pointed out this troublesome factor of historical Jesus scholarship decades ago. But O’Reilly isn’t a scholar, nor even an educated layman on the subject; he is a pundit on a news network with an agenda (like all politicians and political-pundits). That is precisely the problem.

url

“I should write a book on Jesus… but also on aliens.”

Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels is multifaceted because we have at least four portrayals. But the nuance of the figure of Jesus is much greater, and so limiting Jesus to particular synchronic values does nothing but narrow his value to everyone. Even as a secular student of history, I can find value there because the study of these nuances is important to all–not conservatives, not liberals, not any particular sectarian group. So this is my plea to everyone: leave Jesus out of politics. You are not salvaging history, you’re destroying the future (of history).

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: Enslaved Women in a Modern World

I’m not sure how I didn’t know about this sooner.  A report in TIME World from last week caught my eye.  It seems that Americans were kept pretty much in the dark about this terrible atrocity:

They were the forgotten women of Ireland, kept under lock and key, forced to clean and sew, and to wash away the sins of their previous life while never being paid a penny. Some stayed months, others years. Some never left. They were the inmates of Ireland’s notorious 20th century workhouses, the Magdalene Laundries. And this week, with the publication of a government report into the dark history of the laundries, the women came that much closer to obtaining justice.

The laundries — a beneficent-sounding word that helped hide the mistreatment that took place inside their walls — were operated by four orders of Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1922 to 1996. Over 10,000 young women, considered a burden by family, school and the state, spent an average of six months to a year locked up in these workhouses doing unpaid, manual work. Some were kept there against their will for years. Their numbers were made up by unmarried mothers and their daughters, women and girls who had been sexually abused, women with mental or physical disabilities who were unable to live independently, and young girls who had grown up under the care of the church and the state. The laundries were “a mechanism that society, religious orders and the state came up with to try and get rid of people deemed not to be conforming to the so-called mythical, cultural purity that was supposed to be part of Irish identity,” Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter told Ireland’s national broadcasting service, RTE, this week. Known as the fallen women, the workers were only entitled to leave if signed out by a family member or if a nun found a position of work for them, and if they tried to escape the confines of the home they were brought back by the Irish police.

via Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: Report Exposes a National Shame | TIME.com.

This is very dark.  Some estimate as many as 30,000 women have gone through these slave mills.

There are a lot of implications here.  How many Popes knew about this?  When the laundries stopped running in 1996 (at least, I hope they have stopped), that was during John Paul II’s tenure.  Did he know about these laundries?

Catholic enslavement of women: Just another reason why I’m an apostate.

Here is where you can go to find out more and where you can find ways to help.

%d bloggers like this: