What could these three books possibly have in common?
They each say something factual and important about Judaism's and Christianity's religious roots
NOTE THAT THIS ADDS TO A PREVIOUS, 2012, SERIES OF READINGS ON THIS TOPIC
A long long time ago (almost 50 years ago!) I owned and read these two books by Werner Keller.
At that time I was a true believer and found these books bolstered my faith:
This year I read three more books that touched on the Bible as history.
At this point in time I am an unbeliever.
I found all three of these books bolstered my unbelief, that is mostly what they had in common for me, hence my linking them under my thematic reviews page:
Grove Press, 2011 Sourcebooks, Inc., 2000 Random House, 2013
1. Paradise Lust by Wilensky-Lanford
The Wilensky-Lanford book was a fun romp through the history of relatively modern efforts to locate the Garden of Eden on the world map. It was apparent to most that the Biblical description of the location was impossible to follow since it mentioned two rivers that exist and two that do not. It also mentions two areas that the unknown rivers were near and those two areas also do not exist. Or in one case did not exist until long after the events being described but in that case there is no river with the assigned name It is a puzzler! But toward the end of her book Wilensky-Lanford cites a most promising solution to this puzzle, we will get to that below.
The chapter on the Mormon version of this Eden-hunting tale was illuminating to me. She actually praises, faintly, the modern turning away from a physical location in Missouri by that faith to harboring "Zion" in one's own heart and home wherever one may be. It is a state of mind. It is a way we deal with each other. It is NOT a location on a map! Very wise.
At first I thought she was mixing up Zion and the Garden of Eden. But then I recalled, from my days as a believing Mormon, the song "Now Let Us Rejoice" with the line: "And Earth will appear as the Garden of Eden, and Jesus will say to all Israel 'Come home.'" And this other song: "Israel, Israel God is Calling" which has as one of its four verses: "Israel, Israel, God is speaking. Hear your great Deliv'rer's voice! Now a glorious morn is breaking For the people of his choice. Come to Zion, come to Zion, And within her walls rejoice. Come to Zion, come to Zion, And within her walls rejoice." Although both these songs are about a future Eden on Earth, the equation is obviously that the garden of Eden and Zion (in the future) are the same thing. OK.
The book is quite entertaining and it made me a little sad to see that some people devoted their entire lives to this search for Eden, and their searches led them from the North Pole to the Middle East and even Africa, India, China and several places in the Americas. So much for the reliability of the Bible for locating archaeological sites!
In Wilensky-Lanford's last chapter she resonated with my prejudices when she suggested that (p. 236):
By the 1950s, everyone in the world of Biblical archaeology had finally agreed that the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis---including the creation, Eden, Cain and Abel, the Flood, Noah's Ark, and everything up to the Book of Job---were out of bounds for investigation. These stories came from Mesopotamian oral traditions. They had first been told before writing was invented. . . . Genesis should be considered literature, not history.
Wilensky-Lanford is then surprised to find an actual archeologist, Juris Zarins, a retired professor from Southwest Missouri State University, publishing in 1987, in the Smithsonian "Has the Garden of Eden Been Located at Last?" His thesis is that the story is about the shift from hunter-gathering to agricultural subsistence. The story has its roots in what is now Saudi Arabia where long ago there was more rainfall, vegetation, and one of the two missing rivers named in Genesis. That river is now just a memory of a river in the sand, a wadi. The other missing river still flows out of Iran, and where the four rivers met is now under the sea. But the story is an oral tradition that was carried forward by the people driven out of Arabia by drought and moving back to where they came from in Mesopotamia, driven further northeast up the Tigris and Euphrates valleys by rising seawaters from an identifiable historic transgression that now stands as the Persian or Arabian Gulf. As they met their forebears they were astounded to find their lifestyle no longer practiced and wistfully referred to their former home where the four rivers met, where they lived easy on whatever nature provided them. Now they had to do the back-breaking work that is agriculture, a curse from the gods! Wilensky-Lanford observes (p. 242):
The Sumerians walked north ahead of the advancing seas, along the way telling stories of their vanished land. And eventually, about 3,000 years later, the stories were written down in the Bible. The writers of Genesis, whoever they were, spun the ancient stories into monotheistic terms, turning "Edin" into Eden, farmers into the sinning Adam and Eve, and fertile lands into forbidden fruit.
Wilensky-Lanford interviewed Zarins and asked him what he thought of this part of the Bible. His answer was (p. 243):
"I think the Bible was written down during the Babylonian captivity, in about 550 B.C. " . . . "The first eleven books of Genesis are all Mesopotamian. Plagiarized! Nobody gives them credit."
That is a perfect introduction to the next book in this series of three:
2. 101 Myths of the Bible by Greenberg
Greenberg shows that almost every character and event of note in what we call the Old testament is relatable to Egyptian stories, myths and heroes. He goes so far as suggesting that Israel consciously twisted some of their stories around to pay more homage to their later Babylonian captors, leading to some of the same events happening to different characters. Perhaps this was much like the people writing the New testament rewriting their history to be more compatible with their Roman environment's sensibilities, tolerances and expectations (something well illustrated in the third book by Aslan).
But the real BOMBSHELL for me was the hint that the Hebrews were escapees from Egypt and never were a separate peoples prior to their being part of the Egyptian empire. This suggests their entire history in Mesopotamia before entering Egypt was made up, using Babylonian mythology as a base for creating a new history with individuals and tales that more closely affiliated them to their captors, the Babylonians, and distanced themselves from the evil Egyptians, the rival empire --and hence an enemy-- to the Babylonian empire.
Had never heard that one before, and Greenberg does not make a big issue of it, but makes a very strong though subtle case for it peacemeal by showing that many of the key personalities and less than credible tales of the Old testament were strongly related to Egyptian mythology and religion and overlain and altered by adding in similar tales from Sumerian legends. The difference between the Egyptian and Hebrew versions of these stories is that Gods and other Divine beings were changed into the One God, perhaps an occasional angel, and most often a Hebrew hero. The flood and creation stories, Greenberg suggests, were reversed from the Egyptian version which had a creation by eight gods (the Ogdoad) coming out of a flood and planting the Earth,. The Hebrews changed the eight gods into eight people on the ark. The Egyptians had a creation story as a result of the flood. The Hebrews had a flood story as a restart of an aborted creation. A do-over made necessary by disobedience. A story with many holes in it making it logically and scientifically incredible except to children and the most ardent of adult true believers. But serving as a severe warning to those trying to remain unbelievers or being disobedient to the chosen representatives of the one true God. When in the past I read the Law of Moses and the Old testament accounts of God punishing the slightest infractions with severe diseases or much suffering and death I wondered at the ethics of such a God. But now seeing this God as the reason for the tyranny in Egypt under Akhenaton, it all makes more sense. The Hebrews brought that heartless deity with them from Egypt and reinstalled him on another national throne. Over time he was tamed and given the loving words and deep wisdom attributed to him by a more peaceful people in more peaceful times.
So was there an actual exodus from Egypt? Yes. Greenberg suggests that when the tyranny of the forced monotheism of Akhenaton was overthrown, his most ardent supporters and priests, Moses among them, fled the prospect of being massacred in their own country and turned about and massacred their way into their God-promised land. They remained rabid monotheists and slaughtered nearby polytheists and created a wholly new mythology to justify their actions in taking inhabited lands as their very own, their God-promised land, based on God's promises to heroes (Abraham, Jacob) and heroines (Sara) who likely never lived where they allegedly lived --if they actually lived at all.
There is a book on this topic that I have not read and given its price ($ 275 new) probably never will read.
The Amazon.com book description says:
"Through linguistic, philologic, and religious explorations, the authors prove that the "Chosen People" were not slaves from a foreign country but high-ranking Egyptian priests and the adherents of the monothiest pharaoh Akhenaton. During a counterrevolution against monotheism, his followers were forced to move to the Egyptian province of Canaan."
So there. Now let's look at the similar statement that Greenberg has on his last page (304) making reference to his aforementioned book The Moses Mystery/The Bible Myth: . . ."I argue that the Israelites emerged suddenly in fourteenth-century B.C. Egypt as followers of the religious monotheism of Pharaoh Akhenaten, and they left Egypt in the violent aftermath of the counterrevolution. The book also compares the Bible's patriarchal history with Egyptian mythological cycles and shows the parallels between the two." This myth-comparing is something Greenberg does throughout this 101 Myths of the Bible book as well, and here he also shows evidence for the effort made to distance the people from Babylon's enemy, Egypt. Their origin is now Mesopotamian, and they only came out of Egypt because that evil empire had enslaved them! They escaped. They won.
This is all VERY reminiscent of what happened much later to a branch of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. In their case the dominant empire was the Roman empire. Because of continuing bloody Jewish uprisings, the Jews, of which Jesus was one, were perceived by Rome as their enemies. A branch of the followers of Jesus became a new religion, based on the life, death, and especially and emphatically on the purported resurrection of Jesus, who was now considered God. Another branch of the followers of Jesus did not go this far and remained Jewish. But both types of the followers of Jesus moved into the Roman empire itself. A clear and present danger. Therefore, for the branch of Jesus followers that considered him God, a divorce from Judaism was declared by rewriting history to clear the Romans of blame in the death of this new God. The Jews were directly blamed. This made common cause between the new Christians and the Romans against the Jews, just as in the distant past the Hebrews made common cause with Babylon against Egypt.
3. Zealot, by Aslan
Did I base the previous paragraph on my reading of Aslan's book? I could have.
But I based it on another book I reviewed, and endorsed, three years ago, Christ's Ventriloquists by Eric Zuesse (click on the link to go there).
Zuesse makes a very compelling case, using Paul's own words, to show that Paul intentionally created the lie of Deicide against the very people from whom Jesus came, and whom Jesus had sacrificed his life to protect: the Jews. Zuesse proves from Paul's own words that he did this to curry favor with the Roman regime that had executed Jesus for sedition, but also in order to exact revenge against those Jews refusing to go along with his teaching that Jesus was God incarnate. Paul was rejected by them, in return he fixed them good: anti-Semitism was born out of Paul's writings and teachings, which, as Aslan points out, came to dominate the New Testament.
Aslan makes the same case that Zuesse made. His approach and style are different. The conclusions are the same.
Here is a sampling of Aslan's observations about Paul and his new religion of "Christians" and a few odd observations about Jesus I threw in just because I found them interesting (these 'asides' I marked with a star*):
The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus. . . . Paul may be an excellent source for those interested in the early formation of Christianity, but he is a poor guide for uncovering the historical Jesus.
The Christians, too, felt a need to distance themselves from the revolutionary zeal that had led to the sacking of Jerusalem, not only because it allowed the early church to ward off the wrath of a deeply vengeful Rome, but also because, with the Jewish religion having become pariah, the Romans had become the primary target of the church's evangelism. Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. That was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosius (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher's movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity was born.
This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity. . . . It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus's failure to establish God's reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus's mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah.
*On Pages 36 and 37 Aslan discusses the rumors about Jesus being an illegitimate child, and observes about speculations about his marital status that we simply don't know:
Although there is no evidence in the New Testament to indicate whether Jesus was married, it would have been almost unthinkable foe a thirty-year-old Jewish male in Jesus's time to not have a wife.
*Page 97 has Aslan naming women that traveled with and supported Jesus, and notes that the "most famous of all" is Mary of Magdala. He does not, as far as I can recall, discuss her role as the "apostle to the apostles," the first to see the resurrected Christ and sent by him to his twelve appointed disciples to declare the good news to them. Some have speculated that this meant she was his wife, Aslan does not mention that speculation.
Pages 170 and 171
. . . How could a failed messiah who died a shameful death as a state criminal be transformed, in the span of a few years, into the creator of the heavens and the earth: God incarnate?
The answer to that question relies on recognizing this one rather remarkable fact: practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive . . . .
The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including the members of his family and the remnants of the Twelve, openly clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews when it came to the correct understanding of Jesus's message. The discord between the two groups resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus's brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. As we shall see, it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.
*Pages 174-176 has Aslan discussing the resurrection. it cannot be easily dismissed as a delusion, Aslan says, because:
. . . one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony . . . . They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. . . . It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.
. . . Nevertheless, the fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event. it may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.
Aslan suggests the resurrection takes away the cross as a symbol of a failed messiah:
. . . if Jesus did not actually die---if his death were merely the prelude to his spiritual evolution---then the cross would no longer be a curse or a symbol of failure.
Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other movement leaders agreed. Not even Luke, Paul's sycophant, whose writings betray a deliberate, if ahistorical, attempt to elevate his mentor's status in the founding of the church, refers to Paul as an apostle.
. . . The apostles may have walked and talked with the living Jesus (or, as Paul dismissively calls him. "Jesus-in-the-flesh"). But Paul walks and talks with the divine Jesus: they have, according to Paul, conversations in which Jesus imparts secret instructions intended solely for his ears.
. . . In other words, Paul does not consider himself the thirteenth apostle. He thinks he is the first apostle.
The claim of apostleship is an urgent one for Paul, as it was the only way to justify his entirely self-ascribed mission to the gentiles, which the leaders in Jerusalem appear not to have initially supported.
Only after three years of preaching a message that Paul insists he received not from any human being (by which he quite obviously means James and the apostles), but directly from Jesus, did he deign to visit the men and women in Jerusalem who had actually known the man Paul professed as Lord (Galatians 1:12).
Why does Paul go to such lengths not only to break free from the authority of the leaders in Jerusalem, but to denigrate them and dismiss them as irrelevant or worse? Because Paul's views about Jesus are so extreme, so beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish thought, that only by claiming they come directly from Jesus himself could he possibly get away with preaching them. . . . Paul. . . advances an altogether new doctrine that would have been utterly unrecognizable to the person upon whom he claims it is based . . . transforming Jesus into a completely new creature, one that seems almost wholly of his own making: Christ.
Paul's portrayal of Jesus as Christ may sound familiar to contemporary Christians--it has since become the standard doctrine of the church--but it would have been downright bizarre to Jesus's Jewish followers. The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexistent, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus of eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul's (a firm indication that Paul's Christ was likely his own creation). . . .
During the decade of the fifties . . . when Paul is writing his letters, his conception of Jesus as Christ would have been shocking and plainly heretical, which is why, around 57 C.E., James and the apostles demand that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings. . . .
Paul claims that he was ambushed at the Apostolic Council by a group of "false believers" (those still accepting the primacy of the Temple and Torah) who had been secretly spying on him and his ministry, Although Paul reveals little detail about the meeting, he cannot mask his rage at the treatment he says he received at the hands of "the supposedly acknowledged leaders" of the church; James, Peter, and John. Paul says he "refused to submit to them, not even for a minute," as neither they, nor their opinion of his ministry, made any difference to him whatsoever (Galatians 2:1-10).
Page 198 [Paul is now in Rome, as is Peter]
. . . in the year 66 C.E., the same year that Jerusalem erupted in revolt, emperor Nero, reacting to a sudden surge in Christian persecution in Rome, seized Peter and Paul and executed them both for espousing what he assumed was the same faith.
He was wrong.
Pages 210-211: [part of a discussion of the Pseudo-Clementines, a history of the church under the guidance of James, Peter and John claiming to be authored by Peter's successor in Rome]
What the Pseudo-Clementine documents indicate, and the New Testament clearly confirms, is that James, Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles viewed Paul with wariness and suspicion, if not open derision, which is why they went to such lengths to counteract Paul's teachings, censuring him fir his words, warning others not to follow him, even sending their own missionaries to his congregations. No wonder Paul was so keen to flee to Rome after the incident at the Temple in 57 C.E. He was surely not eager to be judged by the emperor for his alleged crimes, as Luke seems to suggest. Paul went to Rome because he hoped he could escape James's authority. But as he discovered when he arrived in the Imperial City and saw Peter already established there, one could not so easily escape the reach of James and Jerusalem.
While Paul spent the last years of his life in Rome, frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm he received for his message (perhaps because the Jews were heeding Peter's call to "believe no teacher, unless he brings from Jerusalem the testimonial of James the Lord's brother"), the Jerusalem assembly under James's leadership thrived.
After the Temple was destroyed, the holy city burned to the ground, and the remnants of the Jerusalem assembly dispersed, Paul underwent a stunning rehabilitation in the Christian community. . . . Without the mother assembly to guide the followers of Jesus, the movement's connection to Judaism was broken, and Paul became the primary vehicle through which a new generation of Christians was introduced to Jesus the Christ. Even the gospels were deeply influenced by Paul's letters, One can trace the shadow of Pauline theology in Mark and Matthew. But it is in the gospel of Luke, written by one of Paul's devoted disciples, that one can see the dominance of Paul's views, while the gospel of John is little more than Pauline theology in narrative form.
Paul's conception of Christianity may have been anathema before 70 C.E. But afterward, his notion of a wholly new religion free from the authority of the Temple that no longer existed, unburdened by a law that no longer mattered, and divorced from a Judaism that had become a pariah was enthusiastically embraced by converts throughout the Roman empire. . . .
And the rest is history. So what have we just learned from these three books, if we accept that they are telling history as it was? Several things:
1. The Garden of Eden story is a Mesopotamian myth about the change from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural civilization.
2. Israel was a refugee group of devotees to Akhenaton's monotheistic reforms in Egypt, and Moses was more likely than not a very high ranking priest in that short-lived regime. This may explain the horribly authoritarian and cruel nature of a society that makes an attempt to live all aspects of the Law of Moses verbatim. Perhaps this was what Akhenaton was trying to enforce at home and the people rebelled and chased his enforcers out of the country.
3. Jesus the Christ was made up by Paul and does not at all resemble Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew who sought to defend his people against their oppressors and dies on a cross at Roman hands just as hundreds of others who acted against Rome and its puppets seeking a free, self governing Israel.
So the bottom line is that the religions of the book are likely rooted to a book with a pagan pedigree. I had, when a true believer, wondered how people in the old days and even now can believe in multiple gods with all-too-human personalities. But now I see that the current largest belief system in the world has nothing more to show for its bona fides than these others: all religions are man made.
But there is good news in this realization, the good in the human world comes from inside humans, as does the evil. Why is that latter part also good news? Because the power is within us to deal with it, evil is not something deposited in us by an external demonic agent.
For those like myself who swore at one time that they felt the immanence of deity and it clarified their mind and vision and brightened their world, filled it with a bright light we called LOVE, the very good news is that THIS VISION IS ALSO WITHIN YOU! It is part of your natural endowment as a human. You just have to learn to draw it out, keep it on, and live by its light. Life is a good thing.
If you want to read my other book report on this same subject, one where I say much more about Jewish Christians, and note the close resemblance between their interpretation of Jesus's role and that of Islam, just click on this link.
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