Friday, March 22, 2019

Appointment in Jerusalem

Easter is fast approaching, which means we'll probably be seeing village-atheist memes like this one:

Which is almost entirely false.  There's a nice dissection of it here, but on rereading it today I noticed a curious problem in the discussion.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus returned to Jerusalem from his forty days in the desert just before Passover. In fact, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus was killed on the day before the first night of Passover, at the time when lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Passover feast (because Jesus was the Lamb of God, etc. – SYMBOLISM, Y’ALL). There are a few differing accounts of when Jesus actually died, but most Christian texts, philosophers and scholars agree that it was around the time of Passover. Easter is still celebrated the week after Passover, which is why it’s a different day each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus did not return to Jerusalem after his forty days in the desert, not "just before Passover" or at all, really.  That's telescoping his admittedly rather contentious career just a tad too much.  In none of the first three canonical gospels did Jesus travel to Jerusalem after his period of fasting and temptation in the desert: rather, he returned to Galilee, where his hometown of Nazareth was located.  The gospel of John, the fourth in the sequence, doesn't include the temptation narrative at all, and casts no light on this matter. 

He did travel to Jerusalem later in his career, and that was (according to the gospels, with no real evidence to the contrary) "around the time of Passover."  John has him going to Jerusalem for Passover three times, which complicates the chronology because he drove the money changers out of the Temple on the first trip, two years before his arrest and crucifixion, instead of during his final climactic visit.  That's odd, because the cleansing of the Temple makes sense as a provocation that brought about his arrest; but in John he gallivanted around fairly freely afterwards for a long time.  Discrepancies between the first three gospels (known to students as Synoptic, because they have the same basic timeline) and John give scholars headaches as well as exciting dissertation topics.

The canonical gospels all agree that Jesus was executed around Passover.  Where they differ is that the Synoptics have him arrested and tried on Passover night, then executed before the next sunset -- remember that in Judaism days are reckoned from sunset to sunset -- which also is difficult to make sense.  For one thing, in the Synoptics, Jesus is tried before a Jewish court on Passover night, when it's forbidden to leave one's house.  Of course his judges might well have violated commandments and gone out anyway, but nothing in the accounts acknowledges the difficulty.  John addresses it, in effect, by having Jesus arrested the day before Passover, and executed as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (as the blogger says, "SYMBOLISM, Y'ALL"), but this also means that the Last Supper is not a Passover meal as the Synoptics have it.

Luckily, I don't need to resolve this.  The point is that the blogger, while aware of some of the issues, gets some basic things wrong, just like the people she's criticizing.  Jesus didn't go to Jerusalem directly after his desert sojourn in any of the gospels.  Most of her discussion seems sound enough, but the biblical material is a lot less arcane, requiring less historical research.  All I had to do was look quickly at the relevant parts of the gospels, which took about five minutes.

Here's something else I thought was dubious at best:
Scratch the surface of just about any Christian holiday, and you’ll find pagan elements, if not a downright pagan theme, underneath.

Know what else? Most Christians know this. Or, at least, most of the Christians that I’m friends with (which is, admittedly, a fairly small sampling). They know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and they know that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, and they know that rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols. But they don’t care, because they realize that religions evolve and change and that that’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that many Christian saints are just re-imagined pagan gods and goddesses doesn’t alter their faith one iota; because faith isn’t about reason or sense, it’s about belief.
Most of the Christians I know and have communicated with (not a representative sample, admittedly, but better than hers) do not know this.  If they know that Jesus probably wasn't born on December 25th, they probably got that datum from sources like the meme above.  They don't know about the history of Christmas and Easter and their symbolism.  And they don't know that "religions evolve and change and that that's actually a good thing".  They are much more likely to believe, as a surprising number of atheists I've encountered also believe, that Christianity has devolved, that Jesus was a good man who taught Truth and Peace and Love, but bad humans distorted his teachings, added miracle stories and other distractions, and we need to get back to the original gospel.  They are usually confident that they know what that original gospel was, but they can't explain how they know it if the distortion begins with the scoundrel Paul and the evangelists.  They just know it in their hearts, I suppose.  But they are generally biblically and historically illiterate.  So are most of their atheist critics, though, so neither faction is in a position to cast the first stone at the other.  Which doesn't stop them, of course.

Oh, and that circular bit about "faith isn't about reason or sense, it's about belief."  I think that most people who will try to excuse their ignorance by talking about leaps of faith and the like only do it when they get caught in misstatements.  Think of the people Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote about in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, who insisted on the cemetery arrangements they were used to, or at any rate wanted.  They were sure that their customs went back to the Bible, without significant change.  You can call this faith, you can call it belief, but you could just as well call it stubbornness born of ignorance, or of knowing so much that isn't so.  That's faith: believing in what you know isn't so, and doubling down on it when you encounter opposition or disagreement.  In many cases it's all we have, but how many of us know our ignorance for what it is?  I'm not casting the first stone either; I know some of the expanse of my ignorance, but not all of it.  If I did, I'd be less ignorant.