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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jephthah's Daughter: Darkness in Gilead

There stands great Jephthah of Gilead, dumbstruck. The [1]Ammonites who had been harassing his people finally had been defeated at his hand. Before the conquest he had made a [2]vow to God that if victory would be his, then he would offer to God whatever first happened to come out of his house when he returned home. Now the victorious returned warrior watches horrified as his beloved only daughter emerges joyfully from his house and comes dancing to greet him.

Distraught, the father tells his daughter of his vow to God. We are told that the daughter [3]urges her father nevertheless to keep his vow, but asks for two months to sojourn in the mountains with her companions to lament her virginity (that is: her unmarried state), at the end of which time she promises to return. She duly and dutifully does so, and the vow is fulfilled. We are not told the manner of the daughter’s death, and neither is the [4]killing even mentioned by name. We merely are discreetly told that “at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made.”

But supposing that scripture instead were to confront us with specifics? Supposing, instead of merely ‘doing with her’, we were to read that “at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who according to his vow then slipped a cord about his daughter’s neck and tightened it fast until the veins of her throat burst, and her life blood flowed away.” This [5]scenario of the manner of her death is one likely reality, but reading it might not hold our sympathies either for Jephthah or God as much as the sanitized version which scripture offers us, as the unknown writer of this passage appears well to have realized.

During her two-months sojourn in the mountains with her companions, the daughter contemplates her coming fate and seeks some form of reconciliation with events.
The daughter was a young woman in the bloom of life. She had to be killed somehow. Scripture introduces her father by telling us that he was [6]‘a mighty warrior’. But the text then informs us that he had a background in common brigandage: this was a man used to killing with weapons, to taking life with his own brute strength. However he killed his daughter, it would have been a grim and bloody hands-on business. But the actual killing only fulfilled the first part of Jephthah’s vow. He also had promised God that he would make a burnt offering of whatever he sacrificed. We must assume that this was done as well, although scripture discreetly leaves the deed unmentioned once the killing has taken place.

A burnt offering is exactly what the term implies: it is the carcass of an animal or the corpse of a human that has been slain for sacrificial purposes, which is then completely burned on a pyre so that the smoke from the burning flesh can waft heavenwards to give pleasure to the god or gods in whose name the sacrifice has been made. Since this was a part of his vow, and since Jephthah ‘did with her according to his vow’, he must have done this also. Having killed his daughter, he would then have burned her corpse, not as a cremation, but as part of the sacrificial ritual. But again the clear impression from the text is that the writer sensed the grim distastefulness of this final act of the vow, and so deliberately avoided mentioning it after the killing had occurred.

Smoke from the daughter's pyre begins to drift heavenwards. As a burnt offering, the burning is not a cremation, but a part of the sacrificial ritual.
Intriguingly, we instead learn from the text that from that time ‘the daughters of Israel’ observed a four-day period of lamentation each year for the daughter of Jephthah. The yearly observation (by women, nota bene) is for the slain daughter. There is no mention of any observance of the father’s obedience to God in keeping his vow, and neither the vow nor the sacrifice are further mentioned in Jephthah’s continuing story. When reading this passage in scripture, there is an unstated undercurrent that the writer sensed that things had gotten way off track, that Jephthah went too far, but that the basic message of obedience to God nevertheless had to be pushed home. The undercurrent is felt, not so much in what is openly said, but in the grim details which have been discreetly omitted. 

Another detail which has been omitted is painfully obvious: we never [7]learn the daughter’s name. One might perhaps argue that this is incidental to the point of the story, but would it have been overlooked if the object of the sacrifice instead had been Jephthah’s only son? It certainly is not the only [8]story in scripture in which the name of a principal female protagonist remains unmentioned. This young woman who became a human sacrifice to God remains forever anonymous.

And the most distasteful aspect of the story is not that the daughter was the victim of sacrifice (however reconciled she might have been to her fate), but that the apparent point of including the story in scripture is instead to laud her father’s obedience, however misguided, to his vow to God. Nowhere in scripture are this man’s actions condemned, or even critically scrutinized. In fact, when Jephthah is mentioned in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:32-33) it is not to condemn him for his inhuman actions, but to praise him for his faith.

When Abraham was moments away from sacrificing his son Isaac, the angel of the Lord made a timely appearance to stay the hand that held the knife. The same angel seems to have been strangely reticent to save Jephthah's daughter when she found herself in the same situation, and the knife was thrust home.
This is morality turned on its head. A sordid story of actual human sacrifice in God’s name is presented as a scriptural morality tale of observance of one’s vow to God. Unlike the story of [9]Abraham and his intention to sacrifice his son Isaac (again at God’s demand), no angel of the Lord miraculously appears to stay the hand holding the knife once the protagonist had shown his full intention to carry out the deed. In the story of Jephthah, the knife is actually driven home. The daughter actually dies. It is a story unrelenting in its gothic grimness.

But whether or not the incident actually happened, whether it is history or metaphor, is irrelevant to the reality of the moral question which it presents. The moral values of Jephthah are in reality those of a murderer. That the story happens to appear in scripture does not in some obscure way change those moral values for the good, and if we think that it does, what does that say about our own moral values?

Jephthah's daughter: a ghost without a name. Her sacrifice to God at the hands of her father creates a moral darkness which apparently left the writer of the Book of Judges avoiding uncomfortable details.
Well, such ‘moral values’ are exemplified in a Christian Apologist [10]website article about this incident which, in striving to justify what is actually morally reprehensible, makes the guarded observation that [11]“no indication is given in the text that God actually approved of the action.” Really? God, I was always told, is all-knowing, so he would have known at the time that Jephthah made his vow who was going to come out of the house first. And God is also [12]all-powerful, so if he saved the day before by having his angel intervene to spare Isaac, then he could have done so on this occasion as well – or just shuffled the deck by having a chicken run out of the house instead. He did, after all, manipulate the previous situation to ensure that a ram was substituted for Abraham’s son.

Tacit inaction, to paraphrase Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is tantamount to action in support of injustice. In this light, and in spite of what the above apologist article attempts to excuse, God seems to have been pretty okay with the way things went down on that dark day in Gilead. And for Jephthah’s daughter, whose very name remains unknown to us, there was to be no timely last-minute intervention by the angel of the Lord. 

The complete story of Jephthah’s daughter can be read in The Book of Judges 11:29-40. The quotations from scripture in this post are from the Revised Standard Version. An abridged version of this story can be read in my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land.

[1] Two Tribes: The Ammonites were one of two tribes (the Moabites were the other) founded by the sons of Lot’s two daughters resulting from their incest with their father. The Ammonites’ incursions into Jephthah’s territory were not invasive. They previously had been displaced eastward by Joshua’s earlier conquest of the area, and three centuries later made this bid to reclaim their lost homelands.

Three Ammonite cities - Aro'er, Abel-keramim and Minnith - are mentioned by name as being conquered by Jephthah, although scripture assures us that twenty cities in total were overrun 'with a very great slaughter'. Jephthah then returns to his home city of Mizpah, the site of the sacrifice.
[2] What is Really Sacrificed? One pro-scriptural argument is that the story is a salutary lesson in making rash promises, particularly to God. I would suggest that it is a salutary lesson in the reckless folly of keeping a vow when holding to that vow means not only sacrificing one’s daughter, but also one’s own humanity. The Book of Judges maintains a stony silence about the morality of Jephthah’s actions, and any ‘salutary lessons’ which are supposed to be drawn from the story are passed over.

[3] Who Consoles Whom? In this emotion-charged scene it is actually Jephthah who tears his clothes in despair, even to telling his daughter that by her actions it is she who is “the cause of great trouble” to him. While her father indulges in despairing self-pity, it is the daughter who remains resolute and strong, even to the point of consoling her distraught father and then calmly making a plan for the coming event. When push comes to shove, the woman is stronger than the man. Just like in real life.

[4] Words as well can be Sacrificed: In fact, at no time does scripture actually use the word ‘sacrifice’, either about the daughter or in relation to what takes place. But since a burnt offering clearly must first be sacrificed as part of the ritual, this is a further indication that the original writer of the text and all subsequent translators were aware of how distasteful this incident was, and were attempting to gloss over the difficult reality in order to make the story more palatable. 

[5] Knife or Rope? Although a burnt offering was usually sacrificed with a knife, a female human victim could have made strangulation a possible alternative option. My description of the act is loaned from the author Cormac McCarthy in his book No Country for Old men. It is always possible that the original unknown writer assumed that his readers would be aware that a knife would have been used as the traditional means of sacrificing a burnt offering. 

[6] A Man of Valour? The phrase “a mighty warrior” appears in the Revised Standard Version (Judges 11:1). In the King James Version the phrase is “a mighty man of valour”. You may choose whether or not you consider ‘warrior’ to be equitable with ‘valour’ in relation to Jephthah.

[7] Where is the Mother? The text is also mysteriously silent about someone else. No mention is made of the daughter’s mother. Perhaps Jephthah was a widower, or perhaps his wife was anonymously present: another unnamed woman who has remained a cypher, a shadowy presence whose existence is confirmed only obliquely by the existence of the daughter. I tend to assume that Jephthah was a widower, or at least a man living without the mother of his child. His misguided and callous behaviour lacks a woman’s restraining hand.

[8] More Unnamed Daughters: In the story of Lot and his escape from the city of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-38) we never learn the names either of Lot’s wife (who turned into the famed pillar of salt) or of his two daughters who feature prominently in the story as their father's seducers, although the names of their sons from this incest (Moab and Ben-ammi) are supplied as soon as they appear on the scene. Painting (right) of Lot being Seduced by his Daughters, by Robert von Stutterheim. Please see my post Lot and his Daughters: The inside Story.

[9] Jephthah’s Only Son? Abraham’s only beloved son Isaac was saved from sacrifice by God’s intervention. The point needs to be made that the angel of the Lord might have been more readily prompted to swing into action and intervene on Jephthah’s only daughter’s behalf had she been Jephthah’s only son. Please see my post Abraham, Isaac and a Stressed Out Ram.

[10] Where is the Body? The apologist article in Apologetics Press (Jephthah's Daughter, by Dave Miller, Ph.D.) on the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (left, by Pietro Vecchia) strives to wriggle out from under by instead suggesting that her father did not actually kill her at all, and that the ‘sacrifice’ is a mere figure of speech referring to offering her (as the article suggests) for “religious service in the Tabernacle.”

[10 cont.] Hence this Apologetics Press article’s astonishing conclusion that: “Jephthah was not upset because his daughter would die a virgin. He was upset because she would live and remain a virgin.” Seriously? This startling apologist claim that no killing actually took place because the ‘sacrifice’ is intended to be read as a mere euphemism, collapses when we remember that the sacrifice became a burnt offering: difficult to achieve with no body to burn. The scriptural text is unambiguous: Jephthah vowed a burnt offering. The daughter became the unwitting object of the vow. Jephthah "did with her according to his vow which he had made". Therefore: the daughter became the vowed burnt offering. This conclusion drawn from the text leaves no room for 'nicer' interpretations, however much apologists might wish it so.

[11] Taking Sides: The logic of such apologist arguments is wholly partisan. As I point out in my post on the Book of Joshua about that particular Israelite ‘hero’, had Jephthah happened to have been ‘on the other side’ (that is: a non-Israelite), and had he nevertheless acted exactly as he does in the Book of Judges, apologists would be falling over themselves to piously condemn him as a despicable monster, and his murder of his own daughter in the name of his god as a wretched deed of truly heathen darkness. 

[12] An Interventionist God: I am all too aware that, in their attempts to find some justification for such dark deeds in the name of God, apologists will protest that God allows us (and therefore Jephthah) to exercise our own free will: that he gives us the freedom to determine our own actions and so learn by our errors. But the God of scripture is an interventionist God. He intervenes to drown his own creation. He intervenes to destroy Sodom and other Cities of the Plain. He intervenes to feed his starving people in the wilderness of the Exodus. He intervenes on the battlefield to fight alongside Joshua. He intervenes to save Abraham’s son. He does not intervene to save Jephthah’s daughter.

Daughter on Pyre. A powerful image by contemporary artist Barry Moser, from his illustrated King James Bible. Here all 19th-century romanticism and melodrama have been stripped away to confront us with a difficult reality that scripture shies away from mentioning.

Top image: Jephthah and his Daughter, painted for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved. based upon the sculpture by Emil Wolff, from a photo by Haffitt. 2nd image; The Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by George Hicks. 3rd image: Jephthah's Vow: The Martyr, by Edwin Longsden Long. 4th image: Abraham and isaac, by Laurent de la Hyre. 5th image: marble statue of Jephthah’s Daughter in the Art Institute of Chicago, by Chauncey Bradley Ives, photographer unknown. Map and other graphics by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Enlightened Insight of the Woman

Adam is a pushover for the dark powers to corrupt. He is already compliant to the suggestions of the serpent. But within Adam’s innermost secret being lies a mysterious purity, a wise and essential other Self, which will prevent his further corruption. To weaken Adam further, so that he will become a willing participant in the [1]creator’s schemes, the creator knows that he must extract this pure and powerful essence from Adam, and so causes Adam to become unaware. Now with Adam in a state of unawareness his creator can, as it were, make a forced entry into Adam’s being.

And so within the deepest recesses of the Man’s inner being the creator is able to locate and remove this secret Self, this enlightened Insight from Adam. The creator places this Insight inside a female form, because this is the form which most closely mirrors the perfect Self that the creator had seen in a vision. In this way this essential part of Adam is removed from him and given its own independent existence: a form which reflects the purity that once had been an integral part of Adam’s own being, a form which embodies this precious quality of enlightened Insight.

Adam now sees this shining new form standing beside him. At this same moment his state of unawareness vanishes as enlightened Insight lifts the veil that has covered his mind. In this new being Adam recognizes his partner, his equal, his true other Self. And although they are now two separate beings, together they are a reflection of the unity that once had existed, and will do so again.


When compared with the widely known version in the Bible, the above story is an unfamiliar recounting of the creation of Eve. In the [2]second chapter of the Bible’s Book of Genesis Adam literally is sent into a ‘deep sleep’, during which God physically removes one of his ribs from which he then creates the Woman. The Genesis recounting of these events is literal indeed, and has the Woman being formed from the actual flesh of the Man. In Genesis, Eve is a creation from [3]second-hand material.

But the above first version of the creation of Eve concludes by assuring us that, although the Woman was extracted from the Man, it was a process of mysterious essence, and not, as the text emphasises, involving any physical modification of Adam’s anatomy, as [4]Moses describes in Genesis. This first version actually names Moses and ‘Adam’s rib’ in its striving to correct what it clearly considers to be an erroneously literal version of the creation of Eve.

In this 16th-century woodcut by Heinrich Aldegraver of the creation of Eve, a pontifical deity physically extracts Eve from the side of a sleeping Adam. However fervently we as believers might read the scriptural text, a literal depiction of the event confronts us with an anatomical absurdity.
What we notice in the above first version is that, far from being the rather condescending literalist description of Eve’s creation which Genesis offers us, it instead honours the Woman. In this version, the form of the Woman – her very body – is itself the embodiment of this precious quality of enlightened Insight. The Woman does not just ‘have’ insight: she actually is Insight. What at first seems to be an adjustment to the literalist Genesis account is actually a radical revision – a ‘re-visioning’, and we must weigh the two alternatives: the Genesis version which treats the Woman as a sort of creative [5]afterthought, and the other which, in the manner of her creation, grants her both status and dignity.

The Biblical version of the creation of Eve from Adam’s flesh is, as we know, recounted in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. The other less familiar version related here is told in The Secret Book of John, one of the texts now known as the Nag Hammadi scriptures, after the nearby Egyptian village where they were discovered by chance in 1945. For over sixteen centuries the literalist version of scripture is the one which has had the official Church stamp of approval. Of the other, all known copies were burned or otherwise destroyed in the 3rd-4th-century purges organized by the Church. The text of The Secret Book of John discovered at Nag Hammadi is one of only [6]two known copies which we have.

Both of these versions of the creation of Eve are stories, not history. But stories also can be ways of transmitting greater truths, and we must decide for ourselves which [7]stories carry the most truth and meaning for us personally. But supposing that our choice of which story to take on board carries with it a moral responsibility, and with this in mind the weighing up of such a choice can have huge, even momentous significance, with consequences for our perception of womankind that will echo down the centuries. So: of these two stories of the creation of Eve, which version, the Gnostic or the Biblically orthodox, shows womankind more respect, and gives her creation – her very existence – a greater meaning and dignity?

[1] The identity of this creator will be the subject of a future post. 

[2] Although it is the familiar version in the second chapter of Genesis which is featured in this post, please see my post Lilith: Spirit of the Night for a separate and conflicting version of the Woman’s creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Please also see my posts Adam: The God who Failed and Eve's Story for other alternative versions of the Eden story.

[3] ‘Second-hand’, because in Genesis 2 God already has created the Man, and then creates the Woman from the material which already has been created. 

[4] Tradition names Moses as the author of the first five books of the Old Testament (the Jewish Torah), although this attribution is unsupported by scholarship.

[5] My use of the term ‘creative afterthought’ is justified by scripture itself, which relates that God, having created the Man, then decides that he needs a ‘help meet’ (K.J.V. Genesis 2:18). In the Revised Standard Version the term is ‘helper’. Apparently it only occurs to God to create the Woman once the Man has been created - and then not as his equal partner, but merely as his 'helper'.

[6] The other copy was discovered in a monk's tomb in the 19th-century. And while I am always cautious about floating the idea of conspiracy theories, it is possible, even plausible, that other copies of these Gnostic texts (and other such texts which the Church deemed to be heretical), which have yet to be evaluated or even viewed by impartial scholarship, were kept at the time for record and archival purposes, and to this day remain under seal either in the Vatican Library or in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[7] The current resurgence of alternative spiritual views and values did not grow out of a historical vacuum, but reflects the Church’s loss of control as the arbiter of truth in such matters. Only a little less than two centuries ago the Church still could – and did – impose the death penalty for any view which it considered heretical, with the last execution for heresy being carried out by the Inquisition as recently as 1826. The breaking of the Church as a political power altered the whole game plan – but it should never be forgotten that such countries as Iran and Saudi Arabia still provide a chilling example in our own time of what happens when religion has a political power base. Under Islamic law the death penalty for apostasy is still current. Keeping the adherents to one’s faith in line through threat and fear of the consequences has long been an option for those who wield religious power.  

The Secret Book of John, translated from the Coptic by John D. Turner and Marvin Meyer, can be read in its entirety with all textual notations in: The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer. Published by Harper One for Harper Collins, 2008. The story retold in my post is only one episode in this text, which contains both further narrative events regarding the expulsion from Eden and the Flood, and advice about the soul's journey. The entire book is in the form of a first person narration by Jesus.

No illustrated version of The Secret Book of John exists. The first, second and the last images suggesting the events from this text have been painted for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

Please see my post The Ecstasy of Eve for several other versions of the creation of Eve by different artists.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

They Shall Take Up Serpents

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” These stirring words spoken by Jesus in Mark 16:17-18 have been seized upon by certain Christian [1]literalists who have been only too eager to proclaim their faith by following to the letter what this Biblical text recommends.

“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…” ~ Gospel of Mark, 16:18. These words have been used to justify the practice of venomous snake handling as part of a religious service. But the words did not originally appear in this gospel, and who included them and why is unknown. The snake is the species commonly used in such services, the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). Photo by Tad Arensmeier.
Ah, but that is the problem with Biblical literalism. It apparently is not that big on scriptural [2]scholarship. It seems that these particular literalists have not been following original scripture at all. The last twelve verses of Mark, which include this text, were not originally a part of the gospel, but were added as much as several centuries later for reasons unknown, by a hand that is equally unknown. In short: we have no idea who added these words to Mark, or why they were added – except, apparently (and perhaps even mischievously), as a goading exhortation to reckless tests of faith. And in spite of their spurious authorship, these tests of faith have been, and are, practiced by various church communities, mostly in the Appalachian region of the United States.

The legality of snake handling – in this case, highly-venomous rattlesnakes – as part of a religious service is an involved one, which is why services which include this practice are sometimes held in the home rather than in a church. And although the whole point of snake handling is to demonstrate immunity through the strength of one’s faith, there have been many recorded [3]deaths from snakebite during these services, including that of the movement’s founder, George Went Hensley, and one of its most ardent practitioners, [4]Gregory James ‘Jamie’ Coots. That the number of fatalities nevertheless seems to be kept within [5]reasonable limits perhaps owes more to the condition of the captive snakes than to any supposed immunity granted from on high. The snakes would seem to be [6]lethargic through stress and undernourishment, and seldom live longer than a month in the confines of their boxes.

Rattlesnakes in their boxes await possible handling during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
Without crunching the numbers, I nevertheless am going to make the reasonable assumption that, given all factors, including the condition of the snakes, the proportion of total deaths would be the same whether or not the context were within a religious service. But whatever you might personally think about this practice, highlighting the practice itself is not what drives me to write this particular post. For its participants, serpent handling is about faith. But there is a sense in which I am aware that the reverse is also true: that faith is itself a form of serpent handling.

We take our faith out of the box, and the very power of the thing in turn gives us a sense of empowerment. Faith can be a powerful force indeed, and the more that force is felt and experienced, the more we feel strengthened by our faith. It is a classic positive feedback situation. But faith can bite. At any given moment it can twist around and sink its teeth into the very person who is handling it. This bite might be so subtle that at first we hardly feel it. It is that moment when we truly start to believe that our faith (whatever it might be) is surely the only ‘right’ one, and that all other faiths are in some way flawed, or even just plain ‘wrong’. Instead of tolerantly thinking ‘this faith is right for me, and for me personally’, we drift into the mindset: ‘this faith is the only true faith’.

“..And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” Bottles of lethal poisons lined up ready for possible consumption during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church.
The next step in the progress of this coursing toxicity is [7]proselytizing our faith. Indeed, proselytizing might actually be a requirement of our faith. We actually come to believe that we truly can improve someone if we can persuade them to believe what we believe, that we can ‘save’ them by getting them to follow the same faith as ourselves. We already have lost sight of the fact that, in human terms, this is a presumptuous conceit. 

So we already have come to think that our faith is the only ‘right’ one, and from this one dangerous thought flows all the misery, all the conflicts, which have so plagued and shamed religious belief through the centuries. It is dangerous because it breeds intolerance, specifically: intolerance for the beliefs of others. And unless we become aware of what is happening to us, our system becomes more toxic. Eventually the levels of toxicity might increase until we arrive at the fatal moment when we relinquish both the purity of our faith and our own humanity. We persuade ourselves that, yes, it is okay actually to take the life of someone who believes in something with which we disagree, which we consider is ‘wrong’.

The fortress of Montségur in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which was the site of the last stand of the Cathars. Branded by the Vatican as heretics, a [8]crusade was waged against them which saw the deaths by massacre and burning of one million pacifist Cathars and their local Catholic sympathisers, effectively exterminating Cathar beliefs. This religion-based Christian-against-Christian genocide remains one of the darkest and most shameful episodes in European history.
Faith can be empowering, certainly. But its very power can also make it a tricky and even a dangerous thing to handle. As soon as we imagine that we can improve someone by getting them to believe what we believe, or at the most extreme, when we actually are prepared to kill someone in the name of our faith, then we have abandoned our own faith in favour of a new and toxic god, and we follow that god into a dark and unknown territory.

And true assertions of faith are of course something else. They come in forms less sensational and more confronting than snake handling, and often-enough must be borne in the silence of the heart. Coping with loss and uncomprehending grief, contending with an insidious and life-threatening affliction, being helpless in the face of blind and bigoted injustice, can make taking up serpents as a test of faith look like so much misguided and melodramatic posturing.

[1] I have avoided mentioning a specific denomination for these literalists, as I understand that they prefer to shun denominational definition as part of their beliefs. 

[2] This apparently not only applies to those who take Biblical texts literally. In my experience, Christians generally seem to have only a vague idea about how and when the texts which comprise the Bible were actually compiled, which to me is startling enough for those who use these texts as a foundation for their moral conduct, even for their very lives.

[3] Deaths by snakebite (during the course of a religious service) between 1955, when the movement’s founder George Went Hensley (left) was fatally bitten, and 1998 (of John Wayne ‘Punkin’ Brown, whose wife was fatally bitten three years earlier), are thought to number over seventy. Ralph Hood, professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, has documented over one hundred deaths. As I suggest in my closing comments of this post, such voluntary flirting with death must seem like a slap in the face to someone who is told that they have cancer. This is why, to me, shame rather than ridicule is the appropriate response to serpent handling as part of a religious service. 

[4] Gregory James ‘Jamie’ Coots (right), pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was fatally bitten while conducting a service in February, 2014. Three months later his son Cody, who took over his father’s ministry, was bitten while handling rattlesnakes prior to a service, but fortunately recovered. From: Months after snake-handling preacher's death, his son recovering from snakebite, by Bill Estep, Kentucky Lexington Herald, May 27, 2014. Retrieved on September 16, 2014.

[5] But are any such deaths ‘reasonable’? Surely any death caused by reckless misadventure is unreasonable and avoidable. Those who are bitten while handling rattlesnakes as part of a religious service refuse all medical assistance. If the bite is fatal, then their community does not blame them for lack of faith, merely concluding that it was ‘their time’. To me, and perhaps for you as well, this is fatalism in extremis

[6] It is tempting for this reason to speculate that the real test of faith would be in only handling rattlesnakes which either have been freshly-caught or which are in optimal condition. But for the sake of those humans involved I’m not recommending this, however stalwart their faith might be. Neither do I agree with keeping any animals in captivity unless those animals are provided with the best conditions possible for their circumstances. Animals cannot demand rights for themselves, which is why humans carry the responsibility to provide such conditions.

Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes in their boxes at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church.
[6 cont.] This includes the strident macho posturing of so-called 'Rattlesnake Roundup' events, which are actually causing the serious depletion of rattlesnake populations in the areas where these events are held. From: Rattlesnake Roundups Leading to Demise of Eastern Diamondback. The study was published in the August 2009 issue of Herpetological Conservation and Biology. Presumably this in turn will now mean a proportional unchecked rise in the number of rodents (which otherwise would have gone onto these snakes’ menu) in these areas.

[7] Taking such action in conversation with a close friend is already presumptuous. Doing so to a total stranger, as such door-to-door proselytizing as the Church of Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses practice, is both disrespectful to the beliefs or non-beliefs of others and a wretched example of being 'bitten' by one's own faith, as my post suggests. When Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking at my door (which happens often-enough) I am always half tempted to let them in to discuss what they wish to tell me. As yet I have not done so, which for their sakes is perhaps a mercy.

[8] Please see my post A Dark Crusade. The notorious Inquisition (left) run by the Dominican brotherhood was originally founded specifically to eradicate the last remnants of the Cathars and revert all their property to the Papacy once the crusaders' military campaign had exhausted itself. Instead of being disbanded as an institution of the Church after the campaign to eliminate the Cathars was over, the Inquisition survived into the 19th-century.

For the Record: "Rattlesnakes are also among the most reasonable forms of dangerous wildlife: their first line of defence is to remain motionless; if you surprise them or cut off their retreat, they offer an audio warning; if you get too close, they head for cover. Venom is intended for prey so they're reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50 percent of all bites are dry - no venom is injected."   Leslie Anthony: Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. Greystone Books, 2008.

A Dangerous List: In answer to someone who might think: what would he know, sitting safely in the Netherlands which has no creatures in the wild that are even remotely dangerous, I would reply: I was raised in Australia, which is home to some of the deadliest animals on the planet, both on land and in the surrounding seas, and as a state museum staff member I encountered quite a few of them, including tiger snakes (Notechis), redback spiders (Latrodectus), a stonefish (Synanceia), a cone shell (Conus) and a small blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena). So which one of these has a bite or sting that can be potentially fatal? All of them. 

The Choice of Species: This in turn invites further speculation that the practice of snake handling as part of a religious service is rather down to which venomous species are available in the region. It has to be said that there is something about rattlesnakes (or even copperheads) that is kind of cool, even mythic. And rattlesnakes are not regarded as an actively aggressive species. But supposing that the regional venomous species were instead Australian tiger snakes or the notoriously aggressive king brown? Would these deadly but less physically imposing species be handled during the service? A king brown (above) has been known even to attack someone who was quietly asleep. There is a sense that the choice of species would alter the game plan, and therefore the willingness to test one’s faith in such a reckless way. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Words of Jesus

What are the actual words spoken by Jesus? This question was prompted by my writing a previous [1]post in the first person as Jesus. This was not a conscious decision I made beforehand. It was something which simply happened when I began to write. I rather think now that had I pre-planned such a form for my post then I would have been too overawed to write a word. But the thought was also prompted by my noting that in my [2]King James Study Bible the editors had made the decision to print the entire text in black – except for all the spoken words of Jesus in the New Testament, which are printed in a confident red.

This textual colour choice might give Jesus’ words a certain authoritative conviction, but it also ironically invites the question: just how truly reliable are these as the actual spoken words of Jesus? To make one point clear: I am not one who subscribes to the theory that Jesus as a historical person did not actually exist. It might be an uncomfortable truth for some that we have no [3]independent verification outside of the gospels for his historicity, but that to me is not a reason in itself to call his existence into question, even if his actual nature might remain in the province of personal belief.

In the Gospel of Matthew, 8:4, having miraculously cured a leper, Jesus admonishes the man to tell no one what he has done. So how do we know about this incident, and what Jesus said to this man? Did the cured leper ignore Jesus’ wish and spread the news of what had transpired, and who had cured him? If there were other witnesses present who overheard Jesus’ words (and therefore were in a position to record and preserve them) then the words themselves were already public, making Jesus’ statement redundant. Either option demonstrates the uncertainty of the exchange, even its very unreliability.

"And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way.." But how do we know this?
There are, of course, other such examples, not the least of which is the detailed exchange that took place between Jesus and Satan in the [4]wilderness. Clearly no one else was present to witness and record the incident, so how can we possibly know the actual words that were spoken – including those spoken by a supernatural being? And what actually were the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross? You can pick and choose, because three of the four gospels will tell you something different.

Both Matthew and Mark agree on what these last words were, having Jesus cry out in despair: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [5](Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). Luke’s phrase is one of simple acceptance: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). John has Jesus utter the phrase of brief resignation: “It is finished.” (John 19:30). Not one of these three ‘last words’ phrases even remotely resembles the others. Clearly, while they might all be wrong, they certainly cannot all be right. Few examples of scripture contradicting itself focus our uncertainty more than these conflicting phrases. What they purport to be is not some mere conversational aside, but the actual last words uttered by Jesus in his earthly existence – words of no small moment for Christians everywhere.

Jesus’ actual appearance is a total unknown, and yet throughout history artists have portrayed him as he appears here. This portrayal of him has now become an entrenched aspect of Christian tradition: a tradition for which we nevertheless have no verification.
We are in a situation in which we are being forced to choose which contradictory Gospel account might be the more accurate version. Scholastically the problem does not present itself, as it simply demonstrates that the unknown writers of these gospels evidently were using different sources for their material. It only becomes a problem when scriptural authority is accepted as religious belief. Some light can be shed on the situation once we recognize that the four gospels were something of an experiment in literary form. The idea of weaving stories and apparent conversations together in a narrative to give them the ring of actual events was something of a novelty for its time. This contrasts with such a text as the ex-canonical Gospel of [6]Thomas, which makes no attempt at narrative, but rather presents an apparent conversation with Jesus in [7]instructional form. It has no ‘setting’ as such.

The first two pages of the surviving Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic. It was buried along with other such texts in the Egyptian sands for sixteen long centuries before being discovered in 1945. Many such texts were destroyed in the purges ordered by Athanasius, the influential bishop of Alexandria, and deliberately burying them became a desperate way for those who valued them to ensure the texts' survival. Against all the odds, it worked.
This non-narrative form of the Gospel of Thomas is of particular interest because it appears to predate those [8]canonical gospels which derive certain common passages from it. This in turn strongly suggests that the original gospel writings were actually such non-narrative collections of ‘wise sayings’ (in this case, those of Jesus), which in turn implies that the narrative elements of the canonical gospels (the story lines, settings, miracles, etc.) were later additions which expanded upon these original collections of sayings.

Most of these collections have now been lost, but one source known simply as Q (from the German quelle, meaning ‘source’) is hypothesized from elements common to Matthew and Luke. It is possible that the authors of Q and Thomas were actually the [9]same person who therefore greatly influenced later gospel writers. This is because reconstructing Q from Matthew and Luke leaves only the sayings and teachings of Jesus, with no narrative elements: the same form as the Gospel of Thomas.

The lost text known as Q can be extrapolated from the contents common to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. While Q has never been found, its one-time existence is entirely plausible, and is a reminder that all such texts which we now have, both scriptural and ex-canonical, are simply those which have survived both the willful destructiveness of orthodox purges and the rigors of time. 
All of these gospel texts, whether they happen to be canonical or whether they are from other sources, and whether those sources are approved by orthodoxy or not, contain detailed and sometimes extended passages purported to be the actual words spoken by Jesus. On the face of things, it would seem to be stretching all credulity to presume that a scribe happened to be on hand on each and every occasion to record exactly what was being said, and any texts that might have been written at the time have been lost to history. What we have instead are only near-contemporary texts dating in some cases from [10]decades after the events which they describe.

So how can we so confidently take for granted that these words of Jesus are indeed what is claimed for them? It is, as with all such situations, a matter of faith. And perhaps it is so that, as I imply in my own previous post The Mystic Marriage, the words of Jesus need not be a matter of any historical record, but are any words, said by anyone, anywhere, at any time, which are truly spoken from the heart.

“As we say down here when we preach, it is written in red letter. It is in my King James Bible, and that is what I go by, the King James Bible.” ~ Serpent handler [11]Pastor Andrew Hamblin, Tabernacle Church of God, LaFollette, Tennessee.

[1] Please see my post The Mystic Marriage.

[2] The King James Study Bible, pub. Zondervan.  Printing the spoken words of Jesus in red is commonly encountered in Bibles, although such a two-colour print run adds to the expense of production. 

[3] The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (right), who switched his allegiance to the Romans, is often cited as an independent source which confirms Jesus' historicity, although the passages in his text which appear to refer to Jesus are thought to be later additions by an unknown hand, evidently with an agenda to provide such backdated independent confirmation of Jesus’ existence. The actual historicity of Jesus is naturally a very gnarly question to answer. The occupying Roman forces, normally such scrupulous bureaucrats, leave no record. This is mysterious in itself, considering the potential threat that such a person would have been to the stability of Roman occupation. Jesus was, after all, tried for sedition against the state. There is one possible reference by the Roman historian Tacitus to an unnamed messiah, but historical certainty is something else. 

[4] Please see my post The Good Satanist.

[5] Both Matthew (which copies from Mark) and Mark agree that after uttering these words Jesus ‘cried with a loud voice’ (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37) before dying. This statement has been used as something of a let-out clause by those striving to give the four gospels an internal coherence (as do the editors of my King James Study Bible, which is the Apologist approach to scriptural scholarship), and who for this reason claim that this ‘loud cry’ actually was the short phrase referred to in John. Such a claim is clearly unverifiable and speculative, and still leaves the discrepancy with Luke’s version (in which Jesus does not cry out) unexplained. My own instincts tell me that the phrase in John, "It is finished", if it was said at all. would have been uttered in a last gasp: one of almost whispered resignation. Can you really imagine these modest words being yelled out at max volume? 

[6] ‘Thomas’ is not a name, but a term meaning ‘twin’. This might mean that he was a true reflection – a ‘mirror’ – of the teachings of Jesus, or rather more mysteriously, that Jesus indeed had a twin, a second Self: a can of mystic worms which I might open in a future post. This to me is explanation enough of why this particular gospel never made it into the canon: if there is one thing that orthodoxy apparently abhors, it is mysticism, and the Gospel of Thomas is replete with statements which read more like Zen koans. It will by turns delight, intrigue and shock, and we need to put in some spadework to unearth the deep wisdom that is contained there.

[7] In this sense, the Gospel of Thomas is in the form of a catechism: instructions on faith or doctrine written in a question-and-answer format, as if the reader is in conversation with the writer.

[8] The famed ‘Doubting Thomas’ episode in John 20:24-29 suggests a calculated ridiculing of Thomas, and other passages in John imply a deliberate refutation of the ideas which the Gospel of Thomas expresses. Since this key incident in John's Gospel of Thomas’s skeptical encounter with the risen Christ is virtually ignored by the other three gospels, it is reasonable to conclude that this is a fictive incident which was written into the narrative to serve John’s anti-Thomas agenda, with John portraying Thomas as the ultimate agnostic.

[9] Since the Gospel of Thomas is considered to be a Gnostic text, and since the Q source must have been similar to Thomas - even perhaps by the same person - it logically follows that the amount of Q shown in my above 'pie-slice' diagram is a telling indication of just how much Gnostic influence still remains in the canonical gospels. The responses of Jesus in Matthew 8:20-22 are wholly Gnostic in their nature. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Matthew 8: 20, R.S.V.) "Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lie down and rest." (Thomas 86).

[10] The scriptural texts most nearly contemporary with the events of the crucifixion are specific letters of Paul. Intriguingly, although he lived within the same generation, Paul himself shows little interest in the historical Jesus. Rather, he is impassioned about establishing the new beliefs on an Apostolic Gentile basis, and steering them away from a direction which tied them to a tradition of Jewish customs and prophets which was the focus of James. The four canonical gospels were believed to have been written within the first century, which nevertheless makes their authorship a retrospective one relating events which were not witnessed first-hand by their unknown writers. The oldest gospel is not Matthew, but Mark, which, like Q, has elements common to both Matthew and Luke, and from which the writers of these two gospels also evidently drew for source material.

[11] Quoted in: Snake Salvation: One Way to Pray in Appalachia, by Elizabeth Dias, Time, September 9, 2013. Please see my post They Shall Take Up Serpents.

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House, 2003. Professor Pagels’ title contains the complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, as well as a comprehensive examination of both its content and the historical setting and aftermath, including emerging doctrinal conflicts of the early Church which were contested by a number of individuals who sought to shape Christian doctrine to their will. Not the least of these was Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, who decided that only four of the many gospels then in circulation should be included in scripture – and then only the four of his personal choosing. Yes, it really was a single individual who decided for himself that he had the right to make such a momentous decision – and then made it.

The top image is a detail from the painting Christ and the Sinner, by Henrik Siemiradki. The third image is a detail from the painting Christ Crucified, by Harry Anderson. In the notes: Crucifixion, by Thomas Eakins. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio. Saint Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt. Other graphics created for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ecclesiastes: Conversations with the Heart

I read a lot of books, and whatever I read I prefer to take on its own merits, which is to say that for me there is no distinction between a text which appears in scripture and any other text I might be reading, which for me makes all of literature a level playing field. This puts me in a different position from either the die-hard [1]atheist who might reject scripture in its entirety simply because it is scripture, and at the other end of the critical spectrum, the Christian Apologist who attempts to defend and excuse even the most recklessly immoral and inhuman episodes in scripture, and there sadly are enough of [2]these.

In dismissing scripture, I would suggest that the atheist misses much that is worthwhile. But in uncritically accepting it, the Apologist often-enough strives to justify the unjustifiable, and any innate sense of human moral worth is overruled by the mere fact that the offending (and offensive) events happen to appear ‘in scripture’. But what the stances of my hypothetical atheist and Apologist have in common is their lack of critical discrimination, of being unable to acknowledge either the merits or the shortcomings in such texts. 

One book in scripture that is a favourite of mine is Ecclesiastes: The Preacher. Of modest length (it easily can be read in one sitting), it brims with simple wisdom and sagacious advice about negotiating one’s way, both in the world and through life itself. It is truly a text with heart. Indeed, the unknown author of this text actually says to us that ‘I communed with mine own heart.’ And that is the way it feels to us, his readers.

Let me now take another personal favourite from my bookshelf: the Edward Fitzgerald translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Unlike Ecclesiastes, the identity of the author is not in doubt. As history informs us, he was the 11th-century Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer Omar ben Ibrahim al-Khayyami, known in the West as [3]Omar Khayyám. Omar might at first seem a very different world away from Ecclesiastes, but it is their similarities that intrigue.

Both texts reveal a deep wisdom, a practical vision of life and of death, and the stance necessary to face both. Both contain [4]phrases to which we respond so powerfully that they have passed into the language. Both offer a sense of true consolation, of offering a way through the convoluted course of life. Both acknowledge the futility of worldly vanity, the ultimate meaninglessness of material titles and possessions. Both openly agree that wisdom itself has its own limitations, and should not be placed above simple human responses to situations. These are among their similarities, but what of the differences?

Excepting the obvious differences of time and place, what at first seems like a clear difference between Omar and Ecclesiastes is the latter’s piety. When compared with Ecclesiastes’ reverence, and his urging his readers to place God centrally in their lives, Omar seems positively worldly. It is Omar who urges us not to take things too seriously, and it is Ecclesiastes who concludes by urging us to “fear God and keep his commandments.” But does he? Scholarship now considers that these overtly reverend verses of Ecclesiastes were inserted by a later hand, to give the text a greater sense of piety. If such later additions are removed, then it is as if the two voices, the one Persian, the other Hebrew, speak as one.

Of course there still remains a very obvious difference indeed: one is in scripture, and the other is not. So how did Ecclesiastes come to be a part of scripture? Its worldly voice seems to be a very different one from those in the scriptural books around it. One tradition suggests that Solomon was himself its author, and the great king’s name and status carried enough gravitas to have it accepted, although this claim is an attribution with little weight in scholarship. It also could be that its tacked-on ‘fear God..’ conclusion gave it the necessary weight to make it canonical, although this and other such phrases, as mentioned above, almost certainly were not part of the original text. The fact is that we simply do not know how or why Ecclesiastes ended up being part of scripture. Its inclusion remains a mystery.

But Ecclesiastes nevertheless is in scripture, which in turn reasonably invites a comparison with Omar Khayyám on these terms. Is what one of these voices says any more or less valid or meaningful than the other for this reason? Of course not. Both voices have equal validity, both in what they say and in what they offer to us, their readers. Both show a great depth of humanity, and in that humanity, both reach out to us in a meaningful way across the intervening centuries. With this perspective before us, that we read Omar in a secular context and Ecclesiastes in a scriptural one seems in the end to be down to mere happenstance, to the chances of history and of place.

Both of these literary voices are in this sense very much ‘conversations with the heart’. Both reveal to us an essential humanity, and comment profoundly on the human condition. The [5]line which we have drawn between the scriptural and the secular is one which we ourselves have created, and – at least when considering the voices of Ecclesiastes and Omar Khayyám – there is not a cigarette paper’s thickness between them.

[1] I am of course aware that not accepting scriptural authority also includes any non-Christian belief or religion, and that Judaism accepts the first five books – the Torah – as its own authority. 

[2] Please see my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for chapter-and-verse references to some of these. The task of Christian Apologists is an unenviable one. They must excuse their way through a whole battery of atrocities which include the condoning of rape and slavery, the massacre of women and children, the agonizing death by stoning even for such trivial acts as your child's disobedience, and the actual human sacrifice to God of one's own child - and all of these in just the first seven of the sixty six books of scripture.

[3] For more about Omar and his verses, please see my posts Omar Khayyám and Through the Seventh Gate. It is often suggested that Fitzgerald’s translation is really more of a reinterpretation, more Fitzgerald’s own vision of things than Omar’s. If so, then for the purposes of my comparison in this post this simply puts it on the same footing as the English translation of Ecclesiastes, which has been filtered through Hebrew, Greek and Vulgate Latin to become the familiar resounding prose of the King James Version.   

[4] Among the sayings originating in Ecclesiastes we find: all is vanity; the sun also rises; all the rivers run into the sea; there is nothing new under the sun, and; to everything there is a season. Omar Khayyám most famously offers us: The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

[5] I have used Omar Khayyám as my example because to me his parallels with Ecclesiastes are so strikingly clear. But of course when considering such profound voices as Omar’s countrymen Rumi and Hafez, or the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (left), the whole idea that what is written in scripture is in some way inherently ‘better’, and has more to tell us than these and other such voices, simply becomes meaningless. The Golden Rule attributed to Jesus – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – was first uttered by Confucius three centuries before New Testament times.

Martin A. Shields: The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes. Eisenbrauns, 2006.

Michael V. Fox: The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes. Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald, in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952. University of Texas Press, 1964. Borges, usually so meticulous with literary facts, describes Omar Khayyám as an atheist. In fact, it has proven notoriously complex to unravel his personal beliefs, and he has been described as being everything from an agnostic hedonist to a Sufi mystic. I personally opt for the mystic. Fitzgerald might at times portray him as an earthy and wine-quaffing devil-may-care, but this particular Omar is largely one of Fitzgerald’s invention. Omar ben Ibrahim al-Khayyami also wrote a brilliant and ground-breaking treatise on algebra, as well as producing profound poetry and being an accomplished astronomer – hardly the profile of a drunken sot.

There are various editions of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, several of them illustrated by noted artists. My own is: Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald, Illustrated in Colour and in Line by René Bull. Hodder and Stoughton, 1913. I bought this first edition many years ago for $33. An edition signed by the artist is now worth over $2,500.

The images for this post are adapted from the illustrations by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson for the 1905 edition of the Rubáiyát, published by Dodge. This American artist pioneered the use of photography as a medium for book illustration, and her originality in this field is more deserving of attention than it perhaps receives.