Vridar

2011/12/16

The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:

  1. The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
  2. A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
  3. A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
  4. More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David'”
  5. Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would re”coil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.

Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention. (more…)

2010/11/17

God: Liar? Compromiser? Poet? Incompetent?

Filed under: God and other deities — Neil Godfrey @ 3:45 pm
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Bob Dylan Portrait by T.HO 2004

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The will to believe is overpowering. And the idea of a single “God” as a real being who  epitomizes all Goodness lies at the heart of religions that can trace their historic influences back to ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, or maybe only as recently as late Mediterranean paganism when the lesser deities of the Olympian pantheon were being subsumed as mere manifestations or angelic agents of the Supreme Deity.

The efforts of modern believers to rationalize the God of their Book with pure Goodness are certainly quaint. A few of these were recently encapsulated in a theologian’s blog thus:

Many will say that the heart of the matter is whether God lied to humanity in the Bible. But that’s not the case at all. It is much easier to suggest that God accommodated the message in the Bible to what people could understand when it was written, or spoke in poetic rather than literal terms, or didn’t override the minds and understanding of the Bible’s authors when God inspired them, or perhaps didn’t even inspire the Bible at all, than to suggest that God lied and continues to lie to us through the evidence the universe itself provides. (more…)

2010/10/16

Jesus Christ in Little India

Filed under: God and other deities,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 1:35 pm
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Last night I strolled along Serangoon Road in Little India, Singapore, to see what was happening in the build-up to the Hindu Deepavali festival. Some of the photos here are from Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, others are from market displays. The last one listed here stood out as strangely “in place” as part of it all. (Clicking the images will enlarge them.)

 

(more…)

2010/09/30

Demonology: the basics of Middle Platonic beliefs as a background to early Christianity

Filed under: God and other deities,Middle Platonism — Neil Godfrey @ 1:50 pm
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Apuleius

Image via Wikipedia

This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:

It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.

John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because

There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)

So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity. (more…)

2010/09/29

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. (more…)

2010/08/20

Two Adams, Human-Divine Mediators and Angels, and a very different view of early Judaism

The point of this post is to highlight, with reference to the sources, some of the less widely known beliefs among Jews around the time Christianity was emerging, and that would seem to have some resonances among Christian ideas we find in Paul and other early letters and gospels.

The Jewish world from which Christianity emerged is infinitely more complex than our traditional readings of the Old Testament and the beliefs of current Judaism. I would love to compile an outline of all its variations — or better still, find a book where this is already done. Till then, here are a few snippets that are worth keeping in mind whenever the subject of Christian origins is addressed.

  1. The human form of the Logos, God’s first-born, and Heavenly Man
  2. The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man
  3. The human form of Wisdom
  4. The heavenly Adam
  5. Melchizedek and other vice-regents of God
  6. Divine Heavenly Patriarchs

The following is taken primarily from a chapter on Jewish sectarian texts (and from a few references in a chapter on Philo) in Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. (more…)

2010/07/28

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports: (more…)

2010/07/19

How Literal was the Mythical World?

Filed under: Doherty: Jesus God nor Man,God and other deities — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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The gods of Olympus, after whom the Solar Syst...
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Is Doherty’s view that earliest Christian belief that Christ was crucified in some heavenly realm even conceivable? Could any ancient mind plausibly think of a divinity taking on a bodily form and suffering and being exalted again — all quite apart from a literal location on earth? This post does not address such specifics. The topic is too vast for that. But it does have a more modest goal of illustrating the sorts of things that we know ancient minds certainly did think about the sorts of things that might go on “up there”.

Earlier this year I posted Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. A couple of responses were interesting. One or two commenters immediately took exception to plain statements that some ancients believed that the entire space between the earth and the moon is inhabited by spirits or demons of some sort. It did not seem to matter what certain ancient authors actually said. The real fear seemed to be that quoting such passages might lend some credence to Earl Doherty’s arguments that earliest Christian thinking held that Christ was a heavenly entity who was crucified in a heavenly realm.

Well, this time I’m just going to list the highlights from a small section of Doherty’s Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, one headed with the same title as this post, pp. 149-152.

His intent in this section is to “look at some examples of pictures that were presented of goings-on in the spiritual realm.” None of the following can be said to be allegory. They are written to encourage beliefs about certain realities of “what is up there”.

Ascension of Isaiah

Doherty does not repeat his detailed discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah here. But it is essential reading for anyone looking to understand ancient thought about the various stages and inhabitants between heaven and earth. R. Joseph Hoffmann also discusses the Ascension in relation to Paul’s understanding of Christ, and I quoted some of his discussion in Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments.

1 Enoch

In the pre-Christian 1 Enoch chapter 21 we learn of a belief that certain angels are confined to fearful realms outside heaven and certainly not on earth: (more…)

2010/07/18

Videos capturing gods entering humans and communicating through their blood

Filed under: God and other deities — Neil Godfrey @ 6:29 pm

I am fascinated by other “foreign” ceremonies. They invite comparisons with the ones with which we are familiar, and help grasp a bigger picture of what “it” is all about.

My days in Singapore are numbered as I look forward to a new position back in Australia, so I was very glad when some Chinese locals went out of their way to encourage me to attend the opening ceremony celebrating the birthday of one of their gods. This one happened to be at the Aljuneid locale (suburb? district?) of Singapore. (Aljuneid also happens to be an Arab name — Arabs, especially from Yemen, have a long history of ties with Singapore, and I happen to work with one of the Aljuneid descendants here.) I asked the local Chinese who encouraged me to attend the ceremony for the name of the god, but was met with uncertainty as to how to convey something apparently uniquely Chinese in a meaningful way to me in English. So I can’t say what god(s) the following videos depict.

It seems to me that somewhere in Singapore there are temporary marquees being set up every week for the purpose of celebrating a local society’s or community’s particular god’s birthday. One night is for the opening ceremony, another for a community meal, and yet another for entertainment. (The decorative detail — its colour and intricacy — of all the paraphernalia is astonishing. Maybe I can post some photos later.)

I have the impression that the community meal is also routinely accompanied by entertainment in the form of Chinese opera. But the Chinese audiences for this, from my few experiences, are far fewer than those for the modern pop entertainment on the final night. Some of my younger Chinese work colleagues have expressed some astonishment that anyone could sit through and enjoy a Chinese opera. I do have to admit the audiences to these that I have observed are a small number from the older generation, plus me. But the community meals also come with auctions and/or raffles that seem to keep the many scores of diners happily entertained.

But last night was the first time I had the experience of witnessing the opening night ceremonies of a local god’s birthday. It was a lengthy process, two and a half hours no less, but I enclose here only two of the videos/photos I captured.

The first video depicts the moment that the god enters his human medium. If interested, you might want to fast-forward the first 50 or 60 seconds. (more…)

2010/05/04

How did Jesus become a God? (or How did Christianity begin?)

Larry W. Hurtado (How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?) raises some interesting points about how Christians came to worship Christ alongside God. He focuses on the role of personal revelation (hallucination?). My initial response to his book was to think that his explanation was as vacuous as saying “God did it”, and that it was not an explanation at all. Indeed, he finds it necessary to defend his explanation against other scholars who do not give it the time of day. But I have come to think there is probably more to what he is arguing than I first understood, although he would disagree with my slant.

(Hurtado’s problem is greater than mine, however, because he is seeking to explain how a historical human of recent memory was exalted to be worshiped alongside God, and I don’t think Hurtado’s explanation is sufficient to explain that. But it may well go some way towards helping explain the development of the exalted Christ concept alongside God that we find in Paul’s and other New Testament letters. Hurtado also expresses disapproval of interpreting revelatory experiences as psychopathology and downplays related personal and social crises factors.)

Hurtado asks

what might have moved Jews in touch with their religious tradition to feel free to offer to Jesus the kind of unparalleled cultic devotion that characterized early Christian religious practice? (p.198)

How exalted was Jesus Christ in early Christian thought?

Pretty high up.

God made life, the universe and everything else through Jesus, and Jesus keeps everyone alive and everything in existence now:

yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6)

has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17)

And God has ordained that everything and everyone should worship him:

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Is there anything unusual here?

Hurtado (rightly) struggles to understand how a mere mortal should be exalted to this God-status level and worshiped alongside God. (more…)

2009/10/25

Candi Ceto

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 2:15 pm
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Nearby the Candi Sukuh is a (Hindu?) temple, “Candi Ceto”, also high up in a mountain region.

Full set of photos on Flickr

Samples:

the alignment of all the pillars

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IMGP7157

I wish I knew

looking back across town

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Sukuh Temple in Java – different, embarrassing, erotic and largely unknown

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 12:50 pm
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Borobudur temple view from northeast plateau, ...

Borobudur Temple Image via Wikipedia

I was recently holidaying in central Java and one “ancient” temple I had hoped to see was Candi Sukuh. I had heard it was very different from the usual run of the mill temple complexes at Borobudur and Prambanan, which I also had to see of course, and I hoped a first hand look would help me understand a little more about the culture and people that built it, and a little more about what we (humanity) are.

Prambanan temple complex from the front gate.

Prambanan temple complex image via Wikipedia

I had not realized that there was more to Jogyakarta than Borobudur and Prambanan. There were also other smaller but no less interesting temples (candi) – Plaosan and Sewu. And nearby Solo’s Candi Sukuh was neighboured by a somewhat similar Candi Ceto. It will take me time to sort out and label the photos I took of all of these, but I have completed my Flickr set of the Sukuh photos.

Some of my labels and descriptions are really questions begging for more knowledgable persons to enlighten me to the meanings and stories behind them.

It was no easy task finding and reaching the Sukuh temple. The locals I asked at Jogyakarta seemed never to have heard of it. At one point I was told to change buses just outside the city, but there I was put on a bus that returned me to my starting point! Another generously took me on his motorcycle to what he thought was where I wanted to go, but I had to tell him he had taken me to the wrong temple. Finally I was told that the temple I wanted to see was way over in east Java towards Bali, and it was impossible to see it from Jogyakarta.

After all that I finally gave up any hope of seeing it, but a chance meeting at the Prambanan complex with an architecture student from Solo university was my lucky breakthrough. I owe Vava much — he very kindly offered to take me out to the sites on his motor cycle the next day. All I had to do was catch a train from Jogyakarta to Solo and meet him the following morning. I drove him mad with my incessant photographing, I’m sure. But he was responsible for the best part of my holiday, enabling me to see not only temple complexes too rarely seen (or even known) by outsiders, but also so much of the central Java countryside and people.

A major feature of the Candi Sukuh complex, a two meter high phallus or lingga, has been removed and placed out of public view in a back work room of the National Museum. At first I thought it might be on display in the museum, but I soon had doubts about that when I visited the museum to find it quite small and flooded throughout with classes of happily noisy and mobile young schoolchildren. But I did see it through a smudgy window to the out of bounds workroom.

Presumably Muslim sensibilities are at work here, both at the official and local levels.

But the temple does certainly raise interesting questions about our religiosity when contrasted with the far more modest and widely known temple complexes of central Java. The similarity with the Mayan structures is also remarkable.

My Candi Sukuh photos are now on Flickr. Links to Wikipedia and other information about the temple are also included there.

A few of them here —

The pyramid - how reminiscent of the Mayan structures!

Yoni again - the same

Dancing elephant-man in smithy

Three flat tortoise platforms

Scene from Sudamala story?

Someone must have really liked his head

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2009/08/28

Hungry Ghosts and Holy Ghost : cultural perspectives

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,God and other deities,Singapore — Neil Godfrey @ 11:41 am

Lately I have seen many Chinese here in Singapore offering food and joss sticks and burning “ghost money” for hungry ghosts. It’s the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival — there are other specific Singapore explanations here and here. The ghosts come out every seventh lunar month. One Chinese colleague explained to me that it is believed there are more accidents than usual in this month. That would explain why so many offerings and joss sticks are placed at road intersections and stairways. When I mentioned this to some relatives back in Australia they thought they whole idea was “crazy” or “a bit peculiar”. And so it seems to westerners. But I could not help thinking of Christian Pentecost and western celebrations commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost and how churches also mark this day with fruit and candles, and some with babbling tongues.

So a Hungry Ghost is weird but a Holy Ghost is normal? One is superstition but the other is religious faith?

There has also been an unfortunate story of a Moslem woman in Malaysia being sentenced to caning for imbibing a drug (alcohol) in public. Another work colleague made the interesting observation that in some western countries individuals can suffer degrading treatment and even ruin through their legal systems for being caught with a different brand of drug.

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Table of food for ghosts at a food court

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Encouraging ghosts to be kind to people traversing the stairway

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Making ghosts happy where the pedestrian pathway meets the road

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Burning (offering) lots of ghost money

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Time for quiet reflection

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2009/08/18

7 predictors of belief in God; and the different reasons why “I” and “They” believe

Why Darwin Matters contains several sharable nuggets of dot-points findings and here’s one more. In 1998 Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer surveyed 10,000 Americans about their beliefs in God. Here are the summaries (pp. 34-37):

The seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parent’s religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

They also asked respondents whey they believed in God and the top 5 reasons were as follows:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (8.2%)

But an interesting thing happened when they were asked why they thought others believed in God. What had been the mainly rational reasons for each respondent believing (concluding design required a designer, thinking about life experiences) were dropped to last and third places when asked why they thought others believed in God. Others — not themselves — were mainly thought to believe for emotional (nonrational) reasons.  Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)

  1. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
  2. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
  3. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (13.0%)
  4. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
  5. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Related post — Why people do not accept evolution

Historian of science and Skeptics Society foun...

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2009/05/09

Happy Vesak Day

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 1:34 pm
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Today in Singapore is a public holiday, Vesak Day. It’s a Buddhist festival. One positive about Singapore is that public holidays are officially sanctioned for each of the faiths in this multicultural city state: Buddhist (+Taoist), Christian, Moslem, Hindu (+Sikh).

I’m not a Buddhist and I shy away from its sermonizing about mind-control/thought stopping or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to “remove one’s mind from what might cause suffering”. Not that I’m against CBT. I’m sure it’s a great benefit to many people.

I’m not a fan of the Dalai Lama, either. I don’t like his politics and I especially don’t like his giggly way of justifying a report of poor villagers raising money for a local temple or statue when their health and lives remain at risk from a lack of basic sanitation. Nor do I keep my patience when monks pretend to be striking up a welcoming conversation only to lead the conversation to where they can try to bite me for money. But at least they do provide an alternative floor to sleep on for those who would rather not opt for the subway, so I believe.

But for all that, I do find all the colour and paraphernalia that comes with special Buddhist festivals (and even some of their less ostentatious temples) to convey a happy peacefulness and tranquility.

Sure there are the devotees who are there handing out literature. Maybe it’s my bias, but it does seem to me that they have a more laid-back attitude to their task than their Christian counterparts. These latter have generally come across to me as more intense in their desire to get you to take and read their tracts. (I cannot forget one extreme case of a Jehovah’s Witness looking frantic and fearful and crying out that God holds him accountable for my hearing his message — as I was closing the door on him. First time I ever had the guilt trip put on me in reverse in order to win me over.)

But a happy smiling Buddha, and lots of lotus flowers and tranquil pools of water and graceful statuettes is undeniably a far more positive, relaxing and happy image than the suffering figure of a crucified man. One focuses one’s thoughts on peace and wellbeing for “all sentient beings”, and the other on guilt, pain, suffering, horror, desolation, especially guilt and sin.

Is it surprising that Buddhists I know or know of seem so much more tolerant and at peace with difference, than so many Christians who, speaking generally certainly, at best, struggle with difference and “the other”?

A couple of pics from the opening night of Vesak right in the Aljunied area of Singapore — all recently set up for the coming weekend:

A few more, for what they’re worth, on flickr.

2009/04/11

Good Friday and Thaipusam, and the common DNA of religions

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 3:59 pm
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What does it say about the nature of religion when we observe that, just as human culture and language are at the same time the same thing yet richly diverse, so the world’s diverse religions share so many of the same themes, metaphors and motifs? This post looks at rituals from two religions by way of convenient illustration.

(Caveat etc: Scholarship has rightly moved on beyond Sir James Frazer, but Jonathan Z. Smith has missed the forest while studying the trees.)

A month or so ago I stumbled across the Hindu Thaipusam procession. Last night I went to see the famous Good Friday procession at St Joseph’s cathedral in Singapore. The sameness of its motifs with the Christian and other religions reinforced my view that religions all share a common mindset, a common consciousness, a common set of motifs. They are all part of a singular cross-cultural psychological family in the same way. The concepts they share, and which vary only in their ritual and mythological details, are like the biological similarities that point to a common genetic base that unites the animal kingdom.

Both the Hindu and Christian processions dramatize

  • suffering,
  • symbolic or momentary ego or literal death,
  • and glory and victory of spirit through both suffering and death,
  • including sharing the glory of the divinity — some form of identity with the deity.
  • a special place of the mourners, especially the women and family, of those who follow or otherwise accompany their loved one through his burdens or ‘suffering-passion’.

Common motifs of that suffering include

  • Physical torment, piercing of the flesh,
  • Emphasis on the role of blood — whether the value of it being shed or the value of it not being shed,
  • Fasting, a denial of food for relief in the midst of suffering, special foods and drinks.
  • And of course, not forgetting a solemn attention to the forsaking of sin and the embrace of righteousness through this suffering.

Devotees in the Thaipusam festival bear the pain themselves for their god:

Pierced penitent bearing cross-shaped kavadi and the glory of the god, followed by family women

Pierced penitent bearing cross-shaped kavadi and the glory of the god, followed by family women

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Christian devotees prefer to vicariously suffer through their god:

The body of Jesus, followed by Mary, after being taken down from the cross.

The body of Jesus, followed by Mary, after being taken down from the cross.

Good Friday procession at St Joseph’s cathedral, Singapore, 2009.
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It is all about suffering, death, and overcoming these in body, spirit or both. And I wonder if it all has common roots in the evolution of religion and human consciousness, and if the same motifs can be found in our earliest art still found in “cave-cathedrals” — See Mind in the Cave for earlier discussion.

Inside St Joseph's Singapore, Good Friday 2009

Inside St Joseph's Singapore, Good Friday 2009

The image of a tortured body, no less gruesome than the Hindu  flagellents, likewise glorified by devotees. This same effigy was lowered from the cross and placed in the bier captured in the photo above that also shows Mary following.

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A Christian does not need much imagination to understand the essential meaning underlying one of the rituals caught on this video

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Our languages differ, but they are all the one thing, language. Maybe it’s the same with our religions. Yes?

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2009/02/26

Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)

2009/02/22

the glory of suffering for god — hindu and christian styles

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:54 pm
Tags: , ,

thaipusam3A couple of weeks ago, by chance I stumbled across a crowded street scene in Little India (part of Singapore) and had to have a look to see what the interest was. Hundreds of onlookers were staring at a half-naked man stoically carrying a heavy metal structure decorated with peacock feathers and other Hindu decorations. From a distance it was easy to dismiss it as little more than a decorative show for some worship ceremony, but a closer look raised questions. Were those really metal hooks laced by the dozens through his skin? Were both his cheeks really pierced through with a single dagger?

There was no blood, however. But yes, looking at more of these men following one another along the street, it was clear they were walking with some form of self-sacrificial burdens. Daggers pierced both cheeks; other exquisitely decorated long blades pierced tongues; hooks through their skin in dozens of places carried what must surely have been a substantial weight of chains; and most bore on their shoulders an obviously weighty structure displaying the glory of what I took to be some Hindu god. A smaller number instead hauled heavy religious statues along the road by chains hooked through the skin on their backs.

All were surrounded by close bands of supporters. Presumably relatives and friends. Women, elderly, children. Regularly they all broke out into chants and songs, beating drums, clashing cymbals. They would keep a close eye on the one carrying the burdens of some sort of penance and regularly check to see that he was coping. Sometimes this “help” consisted of refastening a hook on the end of a chain that had fallen out of  his skin on his back, or his nose or cheek. Sometimes a little water was poured down the mouth of a man who looked up helplessly with his cheeks parted by a single dagger lodged through them both, and another upright through his tongue.

Astonishingly, on some occasions one of these flagellants would begin skipping, jumping, and whirling around in a lively dance with the sound of the drums and cymbals. Crowds would cheer him on. Ocassionally after one who exerted himself like this for a few minutes supporters would offer him a stool for a moment’ sit-down.

I know very little about Hinduism, but I afterwards learned from some Hindu friends here in Singapore that this is the Thaipusam festival, and that it is only found today in Malaysia, Singapore, and pockets of southern India. Not even all Hindus would have heard of it, I was told.

I have a full set of photographs, including video clips (which will not load here) at my Thaipusam collection on Flickr.

I was also told that that preceding this journey the men would undergo a special fast that was supposed to contribute to the absence of blood when pierced by hooks and daggers.

The large weights of magnificant decorations are called kavadi. This was a cross shaped base superimposed by a dome.

Some of the women carried food — milk and flour and fruit. At one stage the suffering of one of the devotees was ritually enhanced by one of his attendants stop before him, take a piece of fruit from a tray held by a woman nearby, and then with a knife cut it in two — and tossing each piece far out into the crowd. The sufferer was not to eat, but had to see food tossed away from before him. (I think this is captured in the second half of my IMG1919 clip.)

I was also told that at the end of their several kilometer “pilgrimage” they fire-walk. But I know how that works so that didn’t impress me so much. (The heat from coals is slow to generate and as long as one keeps one’s feet moving quickly enough there will not be time for them to be burned across a short sprint.)

Given my Christian background and the strangeness of this ceremony to me, I could not help but make comparisons:

  1. In both religions there is the concept of a person being required, for salvific purposes, to undergo extreme physical suffering
  2. This physical suffering is something to be overcome. In the ceremony I saw there were no tears from any of the participants, only the reverse — an occasional burst of dance and song to apparently demonstrate that the sufferer was “not of this body” but was infused with a higher existence.
  3. There is an important role for blood: either it is to be liberally shed or not shed at all.
  4. The suffering and giving up of the flesh of each man is also his glory. Presumably he does this to attain to some higher spiritual life or relationship. And as Christian literature speaks of the cross as a glory, so it was clear that each of these participants bore in their suffering the weight of the glory of their gods.

Interesing — the myths vary, the roles of the actors vary, but they all point to a common action-theme. Of course some Christians today in Latin America, Philippines and southern Europe imitate the sufferings of Christ in a similar way. Again, this may be another pointer to the origins of myths — they originated long ago to explain the customs, not the other way around.

thaipusam1

thaipusam4

thaipusam5

My video clips and more pics available here.

2008/11/12

Casting legions of demons into the sea — an original version?

Filed under: God and other deities,Gospel of Mark,New Testament,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:55 am

This is one of a number of surviving Ugaritic incantations for exorcisms:

I will recite an incantation against the suspect ones;
alone I will overpower . . . .
And may the Sons of Disease turn around,
may the Sons of Disease fly away . . . .
may they beat themselves like the ill of mind!
Go back . . .
The Legion to the Legions,
The Flies to the Flies,
those of the Flood to the Flood

From Incantations I lines 20-30 (p. 179 of An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit by Johannes de Moor, 1987)

Now I don’t know the original word translated as Legions, and I do not have access to my copy of the companion cuneiform and dictionary volume of this anthology. But though I have not included the scholarly marks indicating gaps and guesses in the above, it is a scholarly translation and the Legion translation is cross referenced to Mark 5:9

And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

It seems superfluous to compare the incantation’s order that the demons beat themselves like the ill of mind with Mark 5:5

Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.

And to compare the demons of the flood turning back to the flood with Mark 5:13

And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

The same text notes that Baal was the preferred god for exorcism because of his mastery over the sea and the monsters therein:

Baal is the champion of exorcists because he had defeated Sea and Death with their monsters. (p.183)

2008/10/29

Other gods who healed the blind and raised the dead

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:36 pm

Marduk

You take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed

Ishtar

The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly.

At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light,

the unhealthy one who sees your face, becomes healthy.

O deity of men, goddess of women, whose delights no one can conceive, where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up.

Nabu

Let the dead man revive by your breeze; let his squandered life become gain.

It’s reassuring to know Jesus has company. Like Ishtar, he did not need to rely on hocus pocus rituals to heal. A mere word or command, or simply taking one’s hand, is clearly enough to heal when a deity is directly involved. Maybe the last line relating to Nabu speaks of a metaphoric raising from the dead. Maybe that was the original meaning of the miracles of Jesus in the first gospel, too.

(Extracts from B. R. Foster, Before the Muses, vol.2, cited in Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth, p. 329)

2008/10/28

A Pagan endorsement for the devout Jew, Christian, Moslem

Filed under: God and other deities,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 3:27 pm

An ancient Akkadian wisdom text goes to the heart of the ideal relationship between a mortal and a deity. It makes no difference who one’s deity is. It is all the same. The text is clear evidence to me that there is no difference between pagan polytheistic religions and modern monotheistic ones in respect to a sense of pious devotion towards a deity.

Pay homage daily to your god

With sacrifice, prayer, and appropriate incense-offering.

Towards your god you should feel solicitude of heart:

That is what is appropriate to the deity.

Prayer, supplication, and prostration to the ground

Shall you offer in the morning: then your might will be great,

And in abundance, through god’s help, you will prosper.

In your learning examine the tablet.

Reverence (for the deity) produces well-being,

Sacrifice prolongs life,

And prayer atones for sin.

A god-fearing man is not despised by [his god];

Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels, p.427, ANET.

Does anyone else feel some loss that so few devotees of today’s one-and-only-gods evidence the same “live and let live” approach to religious diversity?

2008/09/16

Who the ‘EL was God? (Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel, 2)

Okay, bad juvenile pun, I’m sure.

But I’m having trouble outlining Margaret Barker’s Israel’s Second God here. Firstly because work commitments have made it difficult for me to take the time to synthesize and then restructure the contents adequately, and secondly  because Barker refers to many studies and theses that really require much unpacking for the uninitiated. (The following has taken weeks and weeks of broken bits of ten or twenty minutes to write, which makes for a very disjointed piece!) I’d find more enjoyment in taking time to explore some of those studies she refers to instead of her “grand thesis” that builds on them. I do have years-old notes from some of those studies filed away, and I would enjoy more digging those out and editing them to place here. But unfortunately I am currently working in “the most isolated city in the world” – Perth, Western Australia – over 4,000 k’s from my home and where my library is stored. I’d need my library to cross-check my old notes. And my next job and residence (only a few weeks from now) is to be even more distant from my library (Singapore!). Blogging here and on Metalogger will become a series of snatched ad hoc moments.

But to finish off chapter 2 of Margaret Barker’s Great Angel/Israel’s Second God . . . .

Continuing from Israel’s Second God, ch. 2 contd . . . .

It has widely been accepted among scholars that El was the most ancient name for God and that this name was later replaced by Yahweh. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God as El, but from the time of Moses and the Exodus he was known as Yahweh.

Exodus 3:15

Yahweh, the God [El] of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name for ever, and thus [as Yahweh] I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 6:2-3

I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.

Names for god such as El Shaddai appear in “early stories” in Genesis and Exodus, and in ancient poetry such as found in the Balaam oracles in Numbers 24.

But Margaret Barker points to a problem with this idea:

The name of EL is used more often in texts from later periods, especially from the time of the Babylonian exile, such as in – – –

Second Isaiah

Job

Later Psalms

Daniel

Apocalyptic writings

Hellenistic Jewish literature

If it were the more ancient name that had been replaced by Yahweh, then why does it not eventually disappear? Why is it used more often at a later period in the texts listed above?

Explanations (or ad hoc rationalizations?) proposed hitherto to explain this “anomaly” include:

a cultural interest in reviving old liturgical forms

vicissitudes of fashion

influence of the Hellenistic Zeus Hypsistos

Barker suggests another explanation:

Maybe El never fell out of use at all.

Maybe there were many who resisted the attempted reforms of the Yahwists and Deuteronomists when they attempted to displace (or merge) El with Yahweh.

Maybe those who maintained their independence from the Deuteronomists continued to think of the god El and the god Yahweh as a separate deities all along, perhaps even as Father and Son gods

Some reasons to think this may have been the case:

1. The Old Testament contains polemics against a number of Canaanite deities, especially Baal, but no polemic at all against the head Canaanite deity, El. (Here Margaret Barker is drawing heavily on O. Eissfeldt’s article, “El and Yahweh”, published in the Journal of Semitic Studies (1956), pp.25-37.) Is this because El was never viewed as a threat to Yahweh? Baal and Yahweh were very similar deities. Both were storm gods. Both loved roaring around in clouds and making thunderous noises and terrorizing mortals with their flashes of lightning. And if both were sons of El  (see previous post notes for details) one can understand the need for one to displace the other.

But Yahweh also takes on some of the characteristics of El in some passages. He takes on El’s role as king presiding over a heavenly court. Why was there no apparent conflict with El as there was between Yahweh and Baal?

2. The patriarchs in Genesis did things forbidden by the author of Deuteronomy — such as setting up local altars throughout Canaan and having their sacred trees or groves and pillars. But if Deuteronomy is a sixth century text or later, then such practices must have been practiced as late as that time. Otherwise the author would have had no need to condemn them.

Margaret Barker draws on studies that have argued that El worship was practiced throughout Canaan at local altars, and that various of these altars and pillars were given special significance as a part of the Genesis narratives about the travels and adventures of the patriarchs of Israel.

Just as the Canaanite barley festival came to be associated with the Exodus, and as the Canaanite wheat harvest was linked with the law being given at Sinai, and the grape harvest with the enthronement of the king, so also were the Canaanite customs of local altars and pillars given special meanings from narrative associations with the patriarchs.

Would this explain the El epithets associated with these altars and places of groves and pillars? (e.g. Bethel, Penuel)

This worship of El, at local altars, may indeed have continued right through in exilic times, despite efforts or hopes of the Deuteronomists to replace it with a centralized worship of Yahweh.

Other advocates of Yahweh (not necessarily hostile Deuteronomists) may have merged the stories referring to El into their accounts of Yahweh. El and Yahweh may have been merged by these authors without thoughts of tension or conflict existing between the two, as was the case with Yahweh and Baal.

J and E (the documentary hypothesis) are hypothetical, not facts

John Van Seters (Abraham in History and Tradition; In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History) has pioneered significant challenges to the documentary hypothesis that proposes that much of the Old Testament was composed by combining two “national epics” labelled by scholars as J and E. And as Margaret Barker stresses, J and E are only hypotheses. They are not “facts”. Repetition and ongoing references to J and E have led to them becoming “facts” in the minds of many, but they are still hypotheses.

Comparing the Pentateuch with the Histories by Herodotus

Van Seters and other scholars have compared the Pentateuch with the work of Greek historian, Herodotus. Its author, who was a Yahwist, was collecting and compiling materials in a way similar to the way Herodotus worked to compose his Histories. Both use a

“mixture of myths, legends and genealogies to demonstrate the origin of Athenian society, its customs and institutions”

The Greek historian, not unlike the author or compiler of the Pentateuch, used several sources:

“some were written, some were tales he heard on his travels, and sometimes he used ‘to fabricate stories and anecdotes using little or no traditional material, only popular motifs or themes from other literary works.”

Both wrote with the same purpose: to give their audiences “a sense of identity and national pride”. This would have been particularly necessary for Jews who had been dispossessed by the exile.

If this is how the Pentateuch was compiled, then we cannot expect to find in it evidence for anything but the concerns of the exiles, and one of these seems to have been to relate the El practices to those of Yahweh’s cult. (p.22)

The mutating transmission of oral traditions

Barker refers to R. N. Whybray (The Making of the Pentateuch) to dismiss the old idea that oral traditions of Israel’s history were handed down rigidly without change throughout generations before being written down. Tellers of tales were more likely to adapt stories to the needs of their audiences.Thus the history in the Pentateuch more likely reflects the needs and interests of the later audience for whom it was written than any accurate ancient history of Israel. If so, then the references to El in the Pentateuch were not archaic relics from yesteryear, but were part of the religious interest and life of audiences as late as the sixth century b.c.e.

Scissors and paste or a single Mastermind?

The Pentateuch very likely represents but one religious point of view in ancient Israel. And this is perhaps easier to grasp if we concur with modern studies that argue that the Pentateuch’s complex patterns are evidence for a literary artistry that must have come from the creative mind of a single author. The old idea that the Pentateuch is a higgledy piggledy clumsy pasting of various traditions and sources together no longer stands scrutiny.

And if the Pentateuch does represent but one author’s viewpoint, and that of his sect or group, then what other viewpoints existed beside it? The prophets have long been recognized as religious innovators, and it is quite possible that the author of the Pentateuch was another.

The gods El, Baal and Yahweh merge

The Canaanite deity El was an “ancient of days” father god, creator/procreator of heaven and earth, merciful, presiding over the heavenly council of lesser divinities.

The Canaanite Baal was a god of storm and thunder. He appeared in clouds with terrifying displays of lightning and thunder. He was a king and judge. But he was also subordinate to (and a son of) El.

The Bible portrays deadly conflicts between Baal and Yahweh. Witness Elijah’s slaying of the prophets of Baal. But there is no similar conflict between Yahweh and the Canaanite god El. Yet there was no similar tension with El.

Barker’s explanation is that the religion of Israel long acknowledged two gods, El and (like Baal, his son) Yahweh. The biblical storm and cloud imagery attached to Yawheh (from Exodus to Ezekiel) marked Yahweh as an alternative to Baal. But biblical literature also refers to El throughout the history of Israelite literature, and not just in the earliest periods. El is used throughout the late Second Isaiah, for example. Barker believes that this points to Israelite religion in many quarters acknowledging both El and Yahweh as distinct deities.

The Deuteronomist (and Yahwist) did attempt to fuse El and Yahweh, but their re-writings and beliefs did not change the thinking and writings of all. Some authors, particularly those of Jewish texts that did not become part of the later orthodox Jewish canon, continued to think of El and Yahweh as separate deities, even as father and son deities, just as El and Baal had been in Canaanite mythology.

The biblical Yahweh appears to have taken on the attributes of both El and Baal.

If, as the evidence testifies, the early name for the god of Israel was El, one question to ask is when Yahweh replaced (or took on the attributes of) El. And at what point were the earlier stories of Israel overwritten so that El was replaced with Yahweh? The prevailing documentary hypothesis (J and E) has indicated that this fusion occurred early in the kingdom of Israel. But this is not a fact, as Barker is at pains to point out, but only one of several hypotheses. The fusion may well have been as late as the exilic period.

But more significantly, Margaret Barker argues that these questions are not just about the different names.

Compare Psalms and Ugaritic poems

Psalms, for example, that address both El and Yahweh have traditionally been interpreted as using two names for the one god:

Psalm 18:13

Yahweh thundered in the heavens, and Elyon uttered his voice

But compare a Canaanite religious poem from Ugarit:

Lift up your hands to heaven;
Sacrifice to Bull, your father El.
Minister to Ba’l with your sacrifice,
The son of Dagan with your provision.

Does the Canaanite poem inform us how we should be reading the Psalm — not seeing the different names as poetic synonyms for the one person, but in fact different names for different deities?

Compare the image of Matthew’s parable of sheep and goats

Matthew 25:31-46 depicts the king sitting in judgment, but the king also acknowledges a higher authority than himself — his Father.

Compare Baal, who also was a king who sat in judgment, yet was himself subordinate to his father, El.

Barker asks us to question the survival of an ancient Canaanite image of gods appearing in a Christian text. She proposes that it makes sense to think of those ancient images in fact being maintained throughout Israel’s history, and this despite the impression we easily pick up by assuming that the Pentateuch and re-written biblical texts are representative of ancient Israel’s religion. These texts should, rather, be seen within the context of nonbiblical literature as well, and we should also consider more critically the implications of the biblical texts having been edited by later Yahwists or Deuteronomists.

Compare Daniel and the Son of Man imagery

The same parable in Matthew 25 also refers to the King as the Son of Man.

And the Son of Man kingly image is clearly pulled from Daniel 7.

J. A. Emerton (The Origin of the Son of Man Imagery, JTS New Series ix (1958), pp 225-42) cited by Barker discusses this more fully. Too fully to summarize here. Daniel 7:13-14, he notes, speaks of the Son of Man “coming in clouds” and “like” or “in appearance as” a son of man. The same latter description coheres with the description of Yahweh in Ezekiel 1:27. Yahweh is also regularly associated with appearing and traveling in the clouds.

If the Son of Man, then, is Yahweh, who is The Ancient of Days?

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

How to explain the presence in this passage in Daniel of TWO divine figures?

How could Daniel, a second century text, and one that was written in a context of pagan efforts (Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire) to subdue that form of Jewish religion that opposed all efforts to impose certain pagan uniformities (banning circumcision, sacrificing unclean animals on the temple altar) toy with the supposedly pagan imagery of El (the ‘ancient of days’ and high god in Canaanite mythology) and Baal (the son of El and one given kingly authority and who rode in clouds)?

Is the simplest explanation that Yahweh replaced Baal among Israelites, but that for many he long continued to maintain his subordinate and clearly separate identity from the high god El? And this situation — one school following the Deuteronomist view that identified El and Yahweh, another that maintained their separate identities — continued through the first century c.e.?

Does Christianity represent one branch of ancient Israelite religion, the branch that maintained the distinction between El and Yahweh, while rabbinism represents another, that which was advanced by the Deuteronomist and Yahwist scribes?

2008/08/27

Israel’s Second God. ch. 2 contd

Continued from Israel’s Second God (2 . . .) (notes from Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel) . . . .

What was the religion of Israel that the Deuteronomists (from the time of King Josiah and after) were attempting to reform?

One way Margaret Barker believes we can catch a glimpse of this religion is by examining the ways El (god) is used, and comparing it with uses of Yahweh.

Texts where El simply means “god”

Psalm 104:1 Bless the LORD (Yawheh), O my soul. O LORD (Yawheh) my God (El), thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD (Yawheh) thy God (El), he is God (El), the faithful God (El), which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;

Joshua 22:22 The LORD (Yawheh) God (El) of gods, the LORD (Yawheh) God (El) of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the LORD (Yawheh), . . .

Texts where El is the name or title of Yahweh

Isaiah 43:12-13 I have declared, and have saved, and I have shewed, when there was no strange god among you: therefore ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD (Yahweh), that I am God (El).  Yea, before the day was I am he; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand: I will work, and who shall let it?

Isaiah 45:22 Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God (El), and there is none else.

The Titles and tasks of El become the titles and tasks of Yahweh

Genesis 14:19 And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God (El Elyon), possessor of heaven and earth:

Isaiah 44:24 Thus saith the LORD, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the LORD that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself

Isaiah 51:13 And forgettest the LORD thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; and hast feared continually every day because of the fury of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy? and where is the fury of the oppressor?

El the procreator becomes Yahweh the maker

Isaiah 44:24 and Isaiah 51:13 interestingly appear to modify the title used of El, Procreator or Generator of the earth etc by calling Yahweh the Maker or creator. The sexual or procreative functions of El have been replaced by a Maker god.

Isaiah appears to have removed the idea that god was a procreator of gods and men, and recast him as a creator. Margaret Barker (p.19):

the idea of a procreator God with sons seems to have fallen out of favour among those who equated Yahweh and El. (Those who retained a belief in the sons of God, e.g. the Christians, . . . were those who continued to distinguish between El and Yahweh, Father and Son. This cannot be coincidence.)

Examples where Yahweh has been cast as the Maker, not the Procreator, of heaven and earth.

Psalm 115:15 Ye are blessed of the LORD which made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121 2 My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

Psalm 124:8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 134:3 The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.

Psalm 146:5-6 Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God: Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever:

Yahweh the Maker of Heaven and Earth becomes Yahweh the Maker of History

Isaiah 42:5, 9 Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein: . . . . Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.

Compare Isaiah 43:1-2, 15-21 But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.  When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. . . . . . . . I am the LORD, your Holy One, the creator of Israel, your King.  Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters;  Which bringeth forth the chariot and horse, the army and the power; they shall lie down together, they shall not rise: they are extinct, they are quenched as tow.  Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old.  Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.  The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls: because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen.  This people have I formed for myself; they shall shew forth my praise.

Jeremiah 32:17, 21 Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee: . . . . . And hast brought forth thy people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with great terror;

Psalm 136

Yahweh as creator of heaven and earth:

1 Give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

2 Give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever.

4 To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.

5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.

And Yahweh as creator of Israel’s history:

10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:

11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:

12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.

13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.

16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.

17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:

20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:

22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:

24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.

25 Who giveth food to all flesh: for his mercy endureth for ever.

26 O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endureth for ever.

Next post

Next post on this topic will look at the question of whether El, the more ancient name for god according to the Pentateuch — Exodus 3:15, Exodus 6:2-3; Deuteronomy 32:8) waned over time. If not, how strong are the hypotheses proposed to explain its continuing usage?

2008/08/11

Israel’s Second God. 2 and a bit . . .

Continuing from Evidence of the Exile . . . .

Because the Bible uses different words and names for “god” scholars have generally since the 19th century believed that this variation is evidence for the bible being cobbled together from different sources. Each source would have had its respective preferred term for the deity. An editor, sometimes suspected of being Ezra in the 5th century b.c.e, wove these various sources together into the first five books of our Bible, The Pentateuch.

Four main sources are usually identified, but for our purposes in discussing Barker’s hypothesis that early Israel did not practice monotheism in the sense we understand the term, we look at just 2. J and E.

The J source stands for the Jehovah (or Yahweh) source, thought to have been written somewhere in the southern kingdom of Judah during the tenth century. This name, Jehovah/Yahweh, is linked to the Moses narratives in the Bible. Easy to remember: think of J and Jehovah and Judah, and that J is the 10th letter of the alphabet (10th century) and there are 10 commandments (J is linked with the Moses traditions, eg. the Ten commandments).

The E source stands for El, Elohim, or the Elohist source. Recall in previous posts that El was the Canaanite name for the chief god who was father of all other gods, including Baal, and according to that famous passage in the earliest texts of Deuteronomy, also father of Jehovah/Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 32:8

When the Most High [Elyon] gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God [‘el].

The El traditions are mostly associated with the stories before the Moses narrative, that is, with the Patriarchs Abraham and co. The E source is thought to have been written in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the ninth century. Even easier to remember: just work on remembering J and E falls into place.

If you want more detailed background for starters then check out the Documentary Hypothesis on Wikipedia.

In the passages Exodus 3:15 and 6:2-3 Yahweh is quoted as saying his new name, Yahweh, is, well, “new” — unlike the old name by which he was known to the Patriarchs, El:

Exodus 3:15

Yahweh, the God [El] of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name for ever, and thus [as Yahweh] I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 6:2-3

I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.

Traditionally these passages have been explained as the original biblical editors doctoring the story somewhat in order to explain to readers why the two names for god appeared in the narrative.

Margaret Barker, however, notes that “Recent scholarship has offered a different explanation.” This explanation suggests that the fusion of the two names was the result of the certain later religious reformers, after the exile, working to fuse the different religious practices found in pre-exilic Israel into one monotheistic like religion. That is, before the exile, Israel practiced the worship of both Yahweh AND El as separate deities, and later reformers, e.g. the Deuteronomists, attempted to fuse these gods into one when they edited the Pentateuch and later narrative of Israel’s history.

The reason for the Pentateuch assuming such importance in this debate is because it is in these first five books that the greatest concentration of name variations for “god” is found. It is felt that it is in these books that the key to the origin of monotheism is to be found.

Barker notes, however, following Whybray, that such traditional Pentateuchal studies through the paradigm of the Documentary Hypothesis is “unduly dependent on a particular view of the history of the religion of Israel.” That is, it assumes the view of history which it claims the evidence supports. There is a circularity of argument here. The PREsupposition is a particular view of the history of Israel’s religion. And that was the framework in which the evidence was examined and discussed.

The 2 sources, J and E, are said to have been early epic narratives of certain aspects of Israel’s history. And the later biblical editors drew on these sources to create a single narrative.

Barker asks, however,

“if the great epics J and E really had formed the basis of the Pentateuch, how is it that the authors of Israel’s earlier literature had virtually no knowledge of them? The fact that the authors of the pre-exilic literature of the Old Testament outside the Pentateuch appear to know virtually nothing of the patriarchal and Mosaic traditions of the Pentateuch raises serious doubts about the existence of an early J or E.” (pp.16-17)

Scholarship has traditionally assumed that J and E represented early narratives about Israel’s god, and that these could be reconciled into a single narrative. But if J and E did not exist, what was Israel thinking about God during the period of the biblical Kingdoms of Israel and Judah — the tenth and ninth centuries b.c.e.?

And if they did not exist, what period of religious thought is represented by the Pentateuch with its various names for the deity? Increasingly, there is more scholarship that sees the Pentateuch the product of the post-exilic Deuteronomist. That is, that school of religion who attempted to assert their authority in Palestine some time during the Persian period.

Look again at those passages from Exodus cited above. They are asserting that before the Yahweh traditions and narratives (of Moses?), there was another name for god with stories attached, El. Those Exodus passages are informing readers that El was replaced by Yahweh as not only the new name for God, but as the only name allowed for God from henceforth.

“Presumably this means that any non-Yahweh traditions were either dropped, or rewritten of Yahweh.”

How many, and which ones, we can never know.

How to see behind the reform of the Deuteronomists? Barker suggests that one way is to examine the remaining uses of El, and to see if there is a significant distinction between El and Yahweh. There was such a distinction between the Sons of El and the Sons of Yahweh, as discussed in the first post of this series. Any similar distinction between the uses of the 2 names in other respects will be crucial for Barker’s hypothesis that El and Yahweh were originally two separate deities worshipped in ancient Israel.

To be continued etc etc. . . . .

2008/08/05

Israel’s second God. 2: Evidence of the Exile

1992, a year with two pivotal publications

The Great Angel by Margaret Barker was published 1992, the same year as Philip Davies’ publication of In Search of Ancient Israel. Each proposes a different model for the interpretation of biblical texts and their historical matrix. Davies argues that the realities of ancient deportations make any notion of uprooted captives having the luxury to ponder and creatively build on their literary and cultural heritage as romantic (pious) nonsense. See, for example, my notes on his discussion of the Babylonian Captivity.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, proposes an alternative hypothesis that is rooted in a fresh analysis of the biblical and extra-biblical Jewish texts. She works within the framework of the orthodox hypothesis of the Babylonian Captivity being the turning point in Jewish literature and history, and explains the difficulties with the evidence in terms of the massive destruction and unsettled political and cultural developments of the period. Davies, rather, sees the problems arising from scholars attempting to explain the literature through a historical reconstruction that was a literary and theological fiction. In the following discussion of Margaret Barker’s second chapter of The Great Angel I am tempted to suggest alternative explanations and leads for followup thoughts by commenting on Barker’s explanations through Davies views, but then I would be doing an injustice to my primary reason for these posts. That is to do what I can to help publicize a wee bit more the biblical scholarship — in this case Barker’s The Great Angel — that too often tends to slip by the radars of most lay readers. I will try to keep any notes that relate to Davies’ viewpoint to a minimum, and clearly mark them as distinct from Barker’s thoughts.

What’s left when the ashes settle?

Barker explains that her hypothesis is “exploratory”. The destruction of the Jewish state and Babylonian captivity, the mass deportations, and the religious-political turmoil that preceded all this (the Josiah reforms) leave evidence so patchy and confusing that certainty is impossible in any attempted reconstruction of  Israel’s religion up to this time.

[T]he customary descriptions of ancient Israel’s religion are themselves no more than supposition. What I shall propose in this chapter is not an impossibility, but only one possibility to set alongside other possibilities, none of which has any claim to being an absolutely accurate account of what happened. Hypotheses do not become fact simply by frequent repetition, or even by detailed elaboration. What I am suggesting does, however, make considerable sense of the evidence from later periods, as I shall show in subsequent chapters. (p.12)

(Davies and others who have broadly followed in his wake have do not see the necessary social, economic and cultural conditions that must have been required to produce the biblical literature existing in Palestine before the Persian period. Another possibility Davies would propose is that the biblical literature was the product of different scribal schools, many of them engaging in debate or dialogue with one another, and this dialogue can be seen in a comparative reading of the texts.)

The religious practices the Deuteronomist purged (or wished were purged?)

Margaret Barker (MB) refers to 2 Kings 22-23 describing in detail the abominations that Josiah purged from Israel and adds a brief mention of a great Passover. I’ve listed them from that passage here, along with some notes from readings outside Barker. (more…)

2008/07/27

Israel’s second God. 1: The Son of God

Margaret Barker wrote an interesting book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, a few years back, in which she argued that prior to the rabbinic Judaism that emerged after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. the Jewish concept of God was not so monolithic as understood today. A bit of serendipitous googling shows that Barker’s research has a certain popularity among Mormons today, but I know of no reason to think that Barker herself is associated with Mormonism or supports the uses they make of her work. I have other reasons to be interested in her work that have more to do with searching for explanations for the development of Christianity, and am finally getting around to editing and posting up here some notes I took from The Great Angel some years back. Will just look at chapter one here: The Son of God chapter. Barker comments on previous discussion about the Son of God:

It is customary to list the occurrences of “son of God” in the Old Testament, and to conclude from that list that the term could be used to mean either a heavenly being of some sort, or the King of Israel, or the people of Israel in their special relationship with God. (p.4)

But Barker remarks that these studies have ignored the distinction between two different words for God in the Jewish Scriptures, and have consequently ignored “a crucial distinction”. According to Barker (and I am taking her word for it here, and her citations as complete and accurate, not having taken the time to date to check the details for myself):

All the texts in the Hebrew Bible distinguish clearly between the divine sons of Elohim/Elyon and those human beings who are called sons of Yahweh. (p.10 – Barker’s italics) (more…)

2008/06/29

Remaking God in the Image of Abraham

According to Levenson the central elements of the Christian message derive from a reinterpretation and midrashic reworking of prominent tropes in the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, the central Christian message and characterization of Jesus can be traced directly to the central motifs that lie at the heart of the old biblical stories and proclamations about the “beloved (and only begotten) son”. Further, these biblical stories have their antecedents in Canaanite mythology. The fundamental theme involves a father (human or divine) who willingly gives up his most beloved son to a bloody sacrifice, either out of love for another, or to save others from death. This is found most prominently in what have come to us as the writings of Paul, as well as in one especially famous gospel verse.

There is another parallel set of “beloved son” narratives that turn on the murderous hostility of the older siblings of that beloved son because of his destiny to inherit what they think should be their due. In this tradition, the father is an unwilling participant until the eventual miraculous return of his most beloved one. At that point the most favoured son assumes the full inheritance. Sometimes, but not always, there is reconciliation with the older siblings. This narrative enters the Christian message through certain plot and character details and another famous parable found in the synoptic gospels.

But at this point, in the series outlining Levenson’s book, ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, we come to his final chapter where he begins by looking at how the very character of God was transformed by early Christianity through its midrashic reading of the Jewish scripture stories of “the beloved son”. As previous posts in this series demonstrate, the “beloved son” trope, also often accompanied with the notion of “the only begotten” son, is part and parcel with the plot or myth of the father delivering up his most favoured offspring to bloody sacrifice for a greater good.

This ancient Jewish (and earlier Canaanite) story, Levenson proposes, is the underlying source of the Christian message, beginning with the very concept of God as a being who loves humanity so much he will sacrifice his only son to save them. . . .

Note the Hebrew Scripture themes that underly this passage in Romans 8:28-35:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would bethe firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

The complex thoughts expressed in this passage are all surfacing here from Jewish scripture narratives:

The firstborn son

  1. In the context of the narratives in the Jewish scriptures, the firstborn son was the one destined to be given to God as a sacrifice, or through a ritual that substitutes for a literal sacrifice (see beloved and only begotten sons sacrificed, and Jesus displaces Isaac);
  2. Sometimes (e.g. Jacob and Joseph) he is really the last born, and acquires his firstborn status through divine or parental assistance, or through birth to a favoured wife, and must accordingly face the murderous rage of his older brothers.

The image (eikon) of his Son

  1. This metaphor builds on the tradition that God created the individual man Adam in his own image, and that we are all in that image through procreation, the process blessed at creation;
  2. Now the image of God is no longer mediated through Adam, but through Jesus, through supernatural regeneration that was manifested at Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is available only to those called and chosen. Jesus is the new Adam.

The Isaac motifs

The constellation of the first born son, predestination, chosenness, glorification — this combination is at the core of the Isaac story. Anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures will not have the story of Isaac and other beloved sons catapulted to firstborn status far from mind when reading here of the plot of the firstborn experiencing predestination, being chosen and finally glorified. This pattern is the core of Isaac’s birth, near-sacrifice and ascent to the rank of patriarch. And in later Jewish interpretations, his near-sacrifice became in implied actual sacrifice and resurrection. (See the previous posts for details.)

Abraham maybe

The above passage stresses the love of God, and since in Jewish Scripture and Second Temple interpretations Abraham was the archetypical lover of God, his shadow may well cover the above passage:

Isaiah 41:8 — Abraham is known as the archetypical lover of God. (Below is a translation of the Hebrew; in the LXX the word is from the Greek “agape” for love (agapete), describing God as the lover of Abraham):

— And thou, O Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, Seed of Abraham, My lover

Jubilees 17:15-18 While the original Genesis account spoke of Abraham’s fear of God, this passage from Jubilees points to a shift in Jewish interpretation of Abraham where it was his love for God that was stressed, and with everything working out well for him despite afflictions because of his love for God:

there were voices in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in all that He told him, and that he loved the Lord, and that in every affliction he was faithful. And the prince Mastema came and said before God, ‘Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son, and he delights in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try him. And the Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn (from him), and with circumcision; and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away. And in everything wherein He had tried him, he was found faithful, and his soul was not impatient, and he was not slow to act; for he was faithful and a lover of the Lord.

Everything worked out well for Abraham because of his love for God.

Abraham definitely

The shadows of Abraham’s character lurking in the above passage are confirmed as definitely his own when we read of the final test, the real proof, of God’s love:

He who did not spare (pheidomai) His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all

Compare Genesis 22:12, 16:

for now I am certain that the fear of God is in your heart, because you have not kept back (pheidomai) your son, your only son, from me. . . . because you have done this and have not kept back (pheidomai) from me your dearly loved only son

The evidence of God’s love for humanity is the same as was the evidence of Abraham’s love for God. In both cases the supreme test or sign of that love was the giving up of their only sons.

Through this model of Abraham God has established a “new aqedah” (binding of Isaac). Just as Abraham’s aqedah enabled the life of the nation of Israel (see previous posts), so the new aqedah by God, in return, enables the new life of the Christian.

Role of Love in the New Aqedah

For God so loved the world, that He gave (edoken) His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Familiarity makes for an easy sentimentalization of this passage. But the idea of “givine one’s only begotten son” is nothing less than the scriptural idea of God’s requirement that the firstborn son be handed over (given up) for a bloody sacrifice. The way the Son is “given” goes back to Exodus 22:29b:

you shall give me the first-born among your sons

The fathers gift is the bloody slaying of Jesus, in the same sense as the killing of the passover lamb.

The killing of Jesus, like the killing of the passover lamb, enables the life of others who were marked for death. And like the beloved sons in the Hebrew traditions, his death also proves reversible. He is, like them, miraculously restored to life and reunited with those who love him, but who had given up all hope for his return.

Linking the above to a new age and general resurrection

Whence the pivotal historical moment, the turning of the new age interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection? That comes from Jewish apocalyptic, not from the midrash of biblical stories of near loss and miraculous return of the beloved son.

But the resurrection idea came with the Pharisees and the rabbis who followed them. It was not part of the earliest biblical narratives. But imagine how the Pharisees and rabbis who believed in a resurrection must have read and thought about the stories of the beloved son. One can imagine the old stories being recast under the impact of that new belief, of the old stories of an averted death being recast as a resurrection. Levenson had earlier discussed the enigmatic appearance of “the ashes of Isaac” in the Second Temple period.

The story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37 (cf 1 Kings 17:17-24) likely represents a reworking of the beloved son story in a different cultural context, with a belief in resurrection.

Given these resurrection stories in the Elijah-Elisha narratives, it may indeed be significant that the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is quite possibly modeled on much of the content and structure of the Elijah-Elishah saga (1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 13). Levenson cites Roth, and I would add Brodie. Levenson comments:

Even those unpersuaded by the case must conclude theis: if already in a world in which people believed in wonder-working prophets, the death of the only and promised son could be reversed by his bodily resurrection, it is all the more the case that in a world in which the resurrection of the dead is a central tenet, like that of Pharisaic Judaism, the report of the son’s return from death need not be taken for a definitive break with the older pattern. The report of Jesus’ resurrection is the old wine in a bottle that is relatively new but hardly unique. (p. 224, my emphasis)

Both Canaanite and Jewish myths

As discussed in the earlier posts in this series, there was the old Canaanite theme of god, El, who offered his son, his only son, in order to avert disaster. This offered son was said to be the “monogenes“, the “only” son, or the “only begotten” son.

Philo of Byblos translates the name of the son of El, whom El offered, as Ieoud or Iedoud. Behind this Ieoud/Iedoud is the Hebrew word yahid, the favoured one, the same term repeatedly applied to Isaac:

Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac . . .
thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me. . . .
because thou . . . hast not withheld thy son, thine only son . . (Genesis 22:2, 12, 16):

One LXX translation of this word uses the Greek monogenes when it applies to Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:34. Another LXX version combines monogenes auto agapete (she was his “only child and beloved” daughter).

So the resonances of Jewish and Canaanite myths lurk beneath the Christian message (outlined in the Romans passage at the beginning of this post) and the Christian God, although the Jewish myth of course dominates. In the Jewish myth the motive for giving up the beloved son was a love greater than that for the son, not fear of calamity, as was the motive in the Canaanite myth.

And when Jesus was the one identified as the son of the God, then God himself was transformed into the image of father Abraham.

I titled this post “remaking god in the image of abraham”, but I am not sure to what extent there was any real “re-make” — or if the remake was really about shifting the image of a godfather god who demands absolute fealty to one who guises that mafia-like godfather image beneath a “love” garment. Rather than a theological innovation, does the new myth represent a Stockholm syndrome — those who saw themselves captive to their godfather have come to love him, since they see themselves as totally dependent on him.

one more post to go ( i think) to finish off this series……

2008/06/04

Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus

Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible at Lund University, Sweden, takes issue with the “near consensus” (in the wake of J. Z. Smith’s assault on Frazer’s work) that ancient “dying and rising gods” do not really return from the dead or rise to live again.

Since I made reference to Baal in this death and resurrection context in a recent post, have decided to summarize here Mettinger’s reasons for arguing that Baal in Ugaritic mythology did indeed die and return to life again. Mettinger’s book is The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (2001). (more…)

2008/05/26

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 2

Continuing with the first chapter by Martin West of Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. This and the 2 earlier entries of this series can be found in my Book Notes/Reviews subcategory “West” or in the Religion subcategory God and other deities.

School of Athens by Raphael

Parmenides (early 5th century b.c.e.) — Love, not fire or lightning, is the guiding principle, and he/it’s a She

For Parmenides what steered or guided cosmic events was:

  • a goddess
  • who was located in the middle of a system of circles of fire and darkness
  • and who ruled by bringing male and female together to produce all births and mixtures

Plutarch identified Parmenides match-making goddess with Aphrodite.

Another text fragment informs us that this feminine power first brought forth — apparently by the power of her mind or thought alone — the god Eros.

One school of Parmenides appeared to identify this goddess with Dike or Ananke. What is certain however, is that once again we have a hierarchy of gods emanating from the ultimate one.

The Orphic Protogonos Theogony (ca 500 b.c.e.) — Zeus the first and last, for a moment anyway

A theogony is a list of births of many gods, but West sees its relevance to the history of monotheism in that it this particular poem was part of Parmenides’ cultural tradition, and includes a dramatic scene where polytheism for a moment become effectively “monotheistic”:

When Zeus succeeded Cronus as King of Heaven, Zeus swallowed Protogonos, or Phanes. Phanes was the bisexual god who first appeared from the cosmic egg with the seed of the gods inside him/her. By swallowing Phanes, Zeus swallowed the universe, including all the gods:

all the immortals became one with him, the blessed gods and goddesses
and rivers and lovely springs and everything else
that then existed: he became the only one.

Then follows a hymn to Zeus:

Zeus was first, Zeus was last, god of the bright bolt:
Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, from Zeus are all things made . . .
Zeus is the king, Zeus the ruler of all, god of the bright bolt.

Zeus thus for a moment becomes the sole god. He then proceeds to “bring up” all the other gods “from his holy heart”, presumably a metaphor for an intelligent design. So all the gods subsequently existing become are the creation and emanation of Zeus himself.

Empedocles (ca 490-430 b.c.e.) — the Solitary Sphere, made by Love, shattered by Strife

The same model of all the elements becoming absorbed into One and then expelled again was used by Empedocles. All matter was the product of 4 divine elements — fire, air, water, earth. Under the influence of Love, these elements periodically absorbed themselves into one uniform mass, a single god called Sphairos, or the Sphere.

“This rotund divinity ‘rejoices in his circular solitude’, until Dissension [Strife] sends tremors through his body and the separating elements begin to take the shapes of all the beings that are now in the world.” (p.35)

So unlike Zeus, this Sphere god does not guide or control the universe. It disappears under the infiltration of Strife.

Out of the breakup of the Sphere come the 4 elements as the 4 gods (the links with the elements is my guesswork, not in West):

  • Zeus / fire
  • Hera / air
  • Nestis (Persephone) / water
  • Aidoneus (Hades) / earth

There were 2 other gods who governed the relations between these four, not through the chances of conflict, but through the orderly abiding by the terms of formal agreement:

  • Love
  • Strife

The things produced by the mixing of the four elements included not only humans, trees and plants, animals, birds and fish, but also extremely long-lived gods.

These gods can be condemned for misbehaviour to 30,000 years of embodiment within animal or vegetable bodies.

One of the gods of Empedocles was a disembodied Mind that darted across the universe at the speed of thought. Unlike the solitary Mind or Intelligence god postulated by Xenophanes and Heraclitus, this Mind was merely one of many of the long-life gods that emerged after the Sphere fractured into the 4 divine elements. Other ancients attributed this Mind to Apollo, or to divinity in general.

Anaxagoras (ca 500-428 b.c.e.) — a material controlling Mind over all

Anaxagoras postulated something that functioned like a god but was a natural material substance. He thought of this as an extremely rarefied material Mind (Nous) that:

  • is a rarefied, homogeneous and autonomous material (not divine) substance, the finest and purest of all material substances
  • cannot combine with other substances
  • is everlasting (but Anaxagoras refused to apply divine labels like “immortal” to it)
  • is able to live in some living creatures
  • is the greatest power in existence
  • is all-knowing
  • initiated the rotation of the cosmos which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture
  • has determined and continues to decide the precise mixture of elements in each thing
  • governs all living things
  • has organized all things, past, present and future

Anaxagoras thought of it as a stand-by physical explanation to answer questions that could not be explained by other physical mechanisms.

Diogenes of Apollonia (ca 460 b.c.e.) — the divine Air we breathe

Diogenes was more clear cut in restricting the ultimately divine power to Air (Aer) than Anaximenes had been. Anaximenes had attributed divinity to all the products and secondary products of Aer. Not so Diogenes.

Air is breathed in by living things and is therefore the soul and consciousness of living things.

Everything contains some portion of air. But not everything contains the same portion.

This air is everywhere and in everything. It gives humans and other animals their souls and consciousness through their breath. It is God.

Air is responsible for the “intelligent design” of the orderly universe: winter and summer, night and day, rain, wind and fine days.

Like Anaxagoras, Diogenes attributed this Mind or Consciousness to a physical element, Air, but unlike Anaxagoras he was willing to call it divine, God.

Diogenes also interpreted Homer allegorically and regarded Zeus in the epic myths as the personification of Air. It is unknown whether or how he interpreted the other deities allegorically as well. If he did, no doubt Zeus or Air would have been the overall guiding power.

Ancient Arguments from Design

Herodotus commented in his Histories on what he took as evidence of “intelligent design” guiding the universe and everything in it. He observed, for example, that animals that were food for others bred in large numbers while the predators had few offspring, thus preserving a happy balance (‘happy’ at least for the predators!)

West comments on Herodotus’s example of the flying snakes of Arabia that, H says, would over-run the world if it were not for the planning of Providence in guiding the female to crunch on the male’s throat at climax and for the unborn young avenging their father by eating their way out of their mother’s body.

Herodotus attributed such balance to “the forethought of the divine”, which was Wisdom.

Socrates likewise, according to Xenophon in his Memorabilia, argued for a divine intelligence behind humans, for example. They had arms whereas other animals only had legs; they also had light to see by; and usefully stood upright; and each part of the body had a useful function. He saw similar design in the heavens and other living things.

He attributed all of these things to “the gods”.

The indifference between gods, plural, and God, singular, in ancient thought

One reads sayings of Socrates where he will speak sometimes of “the gods” and other times of “(the) god”.

Whether in 5th century b.c.e. Histories, Philosophical Discourse, the Hippocratic Corpus or in Dramatic Tragedy, “[w]henever some theological truth is formulated, some statement about the regime under which mankind lives, the writer typcally does not name one of the traditional gods but says οι θεοι or ο θεος (in tragedy commonly without the article).” (p. 38 )

West concludes:

The indifference as between singular and plural is possible because when someone says ‘the gods’, the assumption is that these gods act as a unanimous body. Because of the force of tradition there was no hurry to discard polytheistic language, and yet there was a general disposition to see the divine regimen as unified and purposeful. This was a situation in which monotheism could develop without causing upset. (pp.38-39)

( . . . to be contd etc . . . )

2008/05/25

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1

Last month I posted my reading of an interesting discussion by senior research fellow M. L. West about the nature of ancient Mid-East and Mediterranean world polytheism and how it appears to have evolved into monotheism in late antiquity.

This post continues the remainder of that discussion by West. It outlines how and why the philosophers moved the intellectual world to a position where monotheism came to be embraced as the most economical answer to “the big questions” of the day.

As in that previous post, I am discussing the first chapter by Martin West in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede.

On the quest of the sixth and fifth century Greek philosophers West begins:

To invoke God as an explanation of phenomena is to confess that you do not know how to explain them rationally — unless, that is, you are prepared to supply a rational explanation of God. The Presocratics, however, did try to explain God. What they sought to eliminate from the world was not divinity as such but caprice and the arbitrary events which had formerly been ascribed to divine initiative. (p.30)

Guiding principles: Depersonalize and Economize

Rather than discard gods as an explanation, what these philosophers did was to depersonalize the gods of the myths. By depersonalizing them and morphing them into abstract principles they hoped to discover ageless and unchanging forces and powers and principles in place of the moody temperamentalism of human-like gods. They may retain the names of some of these gods for those abstract agencies, but at least such impersonal phenomena would be worthy of the label “god” in their view.

“Among the principles that informed these men’s theorizing were economy and coherence.” They valued the idea of a single cause over many causes. The fewer gods at the apex who could be deduced to be guiding all below the better, although some thinkers retained a small hierarchy of a few agencies at the top.

Thales (ca 624-547 b.c.e) — getting the abstractions right

West sees Thales as the one who began to emancipate such terms as “soul” and “god” from their conventional mythical applications. (more…)

2008/04/27

Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness

Note 30th May: Currently updating my notes on Wright’s resurrection arguments here.

My previous post was a jotting down of some points I had found of interest in Martin West’s chapter explaining how the distance between monotheism and polytheism was very narrow indeed. It is not at all difficult to imagine how monotheism gradually evolved from polytheism.

Since I am currently perusing sections of Durham bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and it is impossible to avoid noticing the sharpest contrast between styles of arguments of West and Wright. (more…)

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps

//www.ancientsites.com/aw/Article/437870

One of the more intriguing books I read not many years ago was Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. Its opening chapter by Martin West looks at some of the earliest signs of the transformation of polytheistic religions into monotheistic thought. He begins with Greek and “Near Eastern” (sic) literature.

The essence of polytheism is that the many gods have independent existences, rarely crossing each others paths as they are respectively called on by devotees to help out with their special talents. A thief would call on a god of thieves for blessing, not the god of justice — unless or until he was himself wronged. The Homeric hero Odysseus was persecuted by the god Poseidon but regularly protected by Athena. The Bible narratives likewise point back to the time when Yahweh was among many gods with his own distinct provenance:

You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us (Judges 11:24)

But Homer, West argues, also introduces readers to something contrary to true polytheism. The gods meet in council and subsume their individual wills to their exalted chief, Zeus. (more…)

2008/02/12

“Heaven above and Hell below” : a cosmos in the brain and genesis of religion?

Heaven above, Hell below, and the level of anxious humanity in between appear in one form or another across the globe. Why should this be so? In the materiality of daily life there is, after all, no evidence whatsoever of hidden spiritual realms above and below. (David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, p.144)

David Lewis-Williams, in his pioneering The Mind in the Cave, argues that the universally held beliefs of a three tiered cosmos, with spirit worlds above and below the here and now of daily life, are best explained by the wiring of the human brain, in altered states of consciousness, to generate the experience such a cosmos.

Laboratory experiments and reports from “an extremely broad range of shamanistic (and other) societies” point to this near universal concept originating in certain experiences of an altered state of consciousness.

The ubiquity of institutionalized altered states of consciousness is borne out by a survey of 488 societies included in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. Erika Bourguignon, who carried out this survey, found that an overwhelming 437, or 90 per cent, of these societies were reported to have ‘culturally pat­terned forms of altered states of consciousness’. She concluded that ‘the capacity [necessity] to experience altered states of consciousness is a psychobiological capacity [necessity] of the species, and thus universal, its utilization, institutionalization, and patterning are, indeed, features of cultures, and thus variable.’ (p.131)

Lewis-Williams adds that the Ethnographic Atlas defined altered states of consciousness too narrowly so that sub-Saharan African societies were excluded from being counted among those who recognized the importance of altered states. The difference is that they do not create the same overt institutionalization around them as other cultures.

It seems, then, that Bourguignon’s ‘capacity’ should be changed to ‘necessity’, if the full range of altered states is recognized and the ways in which they may be institutionalized are seen as highly variable. (p.131)

Cultural bias against these altered states has led to an undervaluing in scientific studies of their significance as a valid experience of being human. These experiences of a state of consciousness frowned upon by modern western institutions have nonetheless formed a fully valid and important role in the institutions, beliefs and ways of living in other societies.

Altered states of consciousness — the genesis of religion?

Lewis-Williams: “I am not alone in emphasizing the importance of making sense of altered states of consciousness in the genesis of religion.”

Peter Furst: “It is at least possible, though certainly not provable, that the practice of shamanism . . . may have involved from the first — that is, the very beginnings of religion itself — the psychedelic potential of the natural environment.”

James McClenon: “Shamanism, the result of cultural adaptation to biologically based [altered states of consciousness], is the origin of all later religious forms.”

Weston La Barre: “All the dissociative ‘altered states of consciousness’ — hallucination, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation, and especially the REM-state dream — apart from their cultural contexts and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind; . . . shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states . . . is the de facto source of all revelatio, and ultimately of all religions.”

(All cited from The Mind in the Cave, p.135)

The spectrum of consciousness

The normal trajectory from Alert to Autistic states of consciousness, although like the light spectrum there is no clear dividing moment between any of the stages:

  1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
  2. Daydreaming
  3. Hypnagogic states
  4. Dreaming
  5. Unconsciousness

But there’s another far more intensified spectrum that leads to hallucinations. This one can be induced by sensory deprivation that leads to the compensatory release of internal imagery, certain psychopathological states and drugs.

  • meditation techniques shutting out of the environment
  • audio-diving with prolonged drumming
  • sustained rhythmic dancing
  • fatigue
  • pain
  • fasting
  • psychotropic substances
  • schizophrenia
  • temporal lobe epilepsy

The intensified trajectory that results:

1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
2. Daydreaming
3. Entoptic phenomena (see entoptic images here and also a pdf view of normal and pathological images)
4. Construal (brain attempts to decode these entoptic images by fitting them into its store of recognized images (e.g. a circle becomes an orange to one who is hungry, a breast to one sexually aroused, cup of water to one thirsty, or a bomb to one who is fearful)

between #4 and #5 there may be the experience of a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel drawing the person down into it; its walls are marked by a lattice of squares like tv screens displaying spontaneous hallucinatory images; sometimes a bright light in the centre creates this tunnel effect, with images moving into and/or away from the centre

5. Hallucinations (in any of the 5 senses) — i.e. “altered states of consciousness”

The imagery of the tunnel (between #4 and #5) is also a western construct. It can be similarly called a funnel, an alley, a cone, a corridor, a pit. In other cultures it is often seen as a hole in the ground; or as a falling through a tube; gliding down through the sea; following roots of a tree down into the ground . . .

The imagery the hallucinations #5 are largely derived from memory, and hence vary across cultures. An Inuit will see talking seals or bears; Hildegard of Bingen saw angels and strange creatures from scriptures, medieval wall paintings and illuminations. They are vivid. Not described as being “like” something, but as the real things themselves. Sometimes entoptic phenomena remain as part of the image, as geometric patterns behind or framing the images, or blending with them (e.g. a man with zig-zag legs). The hallucinator blends with the geometric and iconic imagery, sensing him or herself changing into an animal and other transformations.

The spectrum of consciousness is ‘wired’, but its content is mostly cultural. (p.126)

Shamanism

Chatacteristics of hunter-gatherer shamanism:

  • it deploys a range of institutionalized altered states of consciousness
  • the visual, aural and somatic experiences of those altered states lead to perception of a tiered alternative reality (spirit realms above and below)
  • the shamans are believed to have the powers to access this alternative reality
  • the human nervous system in certain altered states creates the illusion of dissociation from one’s body (sometimes understood as posses­sion by spirits)

These altered states are “used” for the purposes of:

  • contacting spirits
  • healing the sick
  • controlling the movements and lives of animals
  • changing the weather

Spirit helpers assist the shamans enter their altered states and perform the above duties. These helpers include:

  • various supernatural powers
  • animal-helpers and other spirits

Altered states of consciousness are not restricted to one form of trance. Some “contact the spirits” in visions and out-of-body travel in a number of states, ranging from “light trance” in which the shamans are aware of their surroundings (healing the sick, divination, etc); in ordinary dreams; and “deep trance” where they appear to lie dead while their souls travel elsewhere. Some societies place great importance on the entoptic imagery; others on the full hallucinations where contact is made with the figures they know from myths.

I’m not saying Jesus was a shaman, but that is how he appears in the gospels. Some scholars have suggested that. With those in mind it is interesting to note that Jesus is said to have spoken to spirits, healed the sick, kept wild animals at bay while in the wilderness and sent 2000 pigs hurtling into a lake, and stilled a storm and darkened the earth at his death. He began his career with the power of the spirit entering into or upon him in the form of a dove.

Brain wiring creates the upper-lower spirit world cosmos

One form of altered consciousness state is the wired neuropsychological experience of weightlessness, dissociation and the sense of one’s body being stretched out with superlong limbs. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of flight or floating — into a spirit world above.

Another form of altered consciousness state that is the wired-into-the-human-nervous-system is the experience of travel through a vortex, often accompanied by a difficulty in breathing, hearing sounds, distorted vision, weightlessness and a sense of being in another world. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of travel underground or underwater — past spirits talking or singing and into a spirit world below. Some cultures speak of entering caves through this experience, others of following the roots of a tree, or of going down animal burrows (Alice in Wonderland?).

However they are interpreted, the fundamental sensations of being underground or underwater remain universal: they are the most obvious, most logical explanations for the effects created by the behaviour of the nervous system in altered states. An ‘introcosm’ is projected onto the material world to create a cosmology. (p.146)

In sum:

Taken together the neurologically generated experiences of travelling underground and flying are, I argue, the origin of notions of a tiered cosmos.

This is, I believe, the best explanation for so universally held beliefs that have no relation to the material experience of daily life.

Such beliefs were not inferred from observations of the natural environment.

Nor did they easily and swiftly diffuse from a single geographically located origin because they made excellent sense of the world in which people lived.

Rather, they are part of the in-built experiences of the full spectrum of human consciousness.

(p.147 — formatting mine)

Beyond Paleolithic cave art

David Lewis-Williams is proposing an explanation for Paleolithic cave art. There is, of course, much more to the explanation but what is summarized here is a fundamental part of his hypothesis.

He also discusses the positioning of various artistic depictions within the caves, their relationship to natural protuberances and cavities on the cave walls (the spirits of these lay just behind those cave walls?), their inclusion of geometrical and boatlike (entoptic?) shapes, and what appear to be swarms of bees or enormous numbers of spears in some human forms (paleolithic interpretations of the experience of the stinging of the skin as one “descended through the earth”?), the bleeding noses, the phallic signs of sexual arousal (sometimes accompanying hallucinogenic states), the elongated limbs (an hallucinatory experience), the animals and humans that seem to be a mixture of different creatures in the one body (hallucinations of turning into other animals?), the overlapping of some images, and more. As I read The Mind in the Cave I felt those decorated caves taking on a Paleolithic equivalence to a cathedral in Rome. The meaning of the art in both is drenched in religious experience. The neuropsychological roots of the earlier one are more obvious and less controversially explained.

Not everyone in societies that value these alternate states of consciousness experiences them. But everyone does experience enough (dreams, entoptic images) to validate the experiences of those who do.

Moving on from Paleolithic times, we encounter the Delphic oracle and other Sybils. We know the image of the old woman at the cave mouth who communed with the god within.

So what emerges with such an explanation is a template for the earliest myths from historical times.

The legends of Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas and earlier Mesopotamian heroes and divinities descending into the underground abode of spirits and returning are familiar — and would appear to go back to the earliest experiences of homo sapiens’ consciousness. (Evidence suggests that Neanderthals and other pre homo sapiens hominids lacked consciousness of the extended past and future in order to experience the same.)

The concept of a human able to communicate with the spirits, to travel to and from the upper and lower places of spirits, of being possessed or infused with the power of the spirits, may well be an inevitable universal part of the way the brain of homo sapiens is wired.

And what is equally interesting to me is that such a template foreshadows the pattern of a human departing this world, appearing to die, and suffering piercings of the skin as they descended down to the underworld, before finally “returning victorious” to their bodies.

Many modern scholars have attempted to distance themselves from the “parallelism” of Sir James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough fame) by lurching with a vengeance into the embrace of Jonathan Z. Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is not Territory, To Take Place, Imagining Religion, etc.). But as Robert M. Price has noted, and without denying the real weaknesses in Frazer’s work, Smith’s “demolition” of the apparently obvious is based on a denial of the broader conceptual notion of similar ideas. By attributing greater weight to the subsidiary culturally bound details than to the larger whole one can in effect deny the possibility of any comparison at all.

But how can one fail at least to wonder at the possibility of a template of a man who dies and returns, spirit empowered, to an even more respected and higher role from which to guide a community to health and safety, perhaps even eventually salvation from death?

Perhaps all religions with motifs of suffering, death and redemption or resurrection of some form are all essentially congenital in origin and appeal.

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