Think Free


Q – It’s okay to be uncertain

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve – Wikipedia

The Catholic Monk Thomas Merton once said that the Bible is a difficult, perplexing work. It doesn’t make sense. It has contradictions. And its Old Testament often portrays God as an immature, violent ogre. But with his hallmark Christian optimism, Merton says that’s exactly why he likes the Bible. It’s not fake or flaky. It portrays life as it really is.

Warts Exposed

I admit that some New Age websites telling us that “love is all around” give me the feeling that something not too loving is brewing underneath the surface of all that sugary sweetness. So I tend to agree with Merton. The Bible doesn’t cover up but exposes warts. Its compilers didn’t edit out apparent inconsistencies but left them in. Note the two different accounts of Creation in Genesis, for instance. Or Jesus saying we need to hate our parents, spouse, kids and siblings to follow him (Luke 14:26).

In the New Testament you’d think these difficulties and contentious scenarios would have disappeared. After all, many years had passed since Old Testament times and the relatively modern people around Jesus’ day could have edited everything into a nice, neat package. A package without contradictions.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

What about Q?

Most scholars agree that the New Testament was formed from an oral tradition. Christ lived his life, sometimes solitary, other times with his followers. People told stories about Christ and the Gospel writers collected those tales, probably according to their political and pastoral needs.

Some Gospel writers likely borrowed from existing texts. The words didn’t enter directly into their minds as some fundamentalists would say. At least, that is how it seems from the textual evidence.

10th century CE Byzantine illustration of Luke the Evangelist – Wikipedia

No one can say for sure. It is possible that the Gospel writers were divinely inspired to say the same things the same way. I considered that perspective soon after my conversion to Christianity. But years of study have tempered my thinking… for better or for worse.

One obvious feature of the Gospels is the material common to Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark.

Different theories try to explain this.

A prevailing idea is Q theory. Q sounds hip and cool but I doubt that’s why religious scholars chose it. The theory cropped up in the early 1900s and, as far I know, marketing wasn’t a burning academic issue at that time.

Johannes Weiss was a German Protestant scholar who first coined the name “Q.” He used Q to refer to some of that shared material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. For decades most scholars assumed that Q alluded to the German word quelle, meaning “source.” But recent studies indicate that “Q” might have been chosen on a whim.

So maybe Weiss and his followers were trying to be trendy. Who knows. Before the word Q caught fire, researchers called this material the logia, calling to mind images of stony faced scholars sifting through weighty volumes in dusty old libraries.

What is most important to remember about Q is that it is a purely hypothetical document. Archaeologists have never discovered evidence that it actually exists. Not even a scrap or fragment. Despite this, some scholars carry on as if it were fact.

For and Against

Elaine Pagels is a religion writer who rose to prominence with her 1979 bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels believes in Q because, as she points out, Jesus spoke in Aramaic. He, himself, wrote nothing. So Jesus’ actual sayings come to us through translated sources. But not only that. Our earliest existing sources are in Greek

New Testament apocrypha – Wikipedia

Whatever Jesus did say, our version has been translated at least once by somebody else. The fact that Jesus’ sayings are so strikingly similar in Matthew and Luke points to the existence of a textual source from which they were copied—namely, Q.²

Opponents of Q theory say the early Christians would have revered such an immediate record of their savior’s sayings, not allowing it to be misplaced or destroyed.

So where is Q? If Q did exist, how could the early Church have lost a document so important and essential to its formation?

Detractors have a simple answer. The early Christians would not have lost it. Q never existed.

For me it doesn’t really matter if Q existed or not. It is a compelling idea but as Pagels suggests, quite a few links were forged over the centuries from the era of Jesus and the occupying Romans to current, 21st century versions of the Bible. With much uncertainty accrued over two millennia, it would be unwise to fixate on any particular explanation without hard proof. Proof we may never discover.

It’s okay to not know everything

In a way, uncertainty is good. It can help to deflect the kind of fundamentalism that fuses zealous patriotism with a specific, dogmatic take on religion.³

Normally, I wouldn’t care about fundamentalists too much. But the visibility of some sectarians and their facile claims can make it more difficult for the rest of us thoughtful Christians, especially when trying to convey the beauty of Christ. Most caring, sensible people react adversely to fundamentalism. And if they haven’t really explored Christian religious differences, some otherwise good people lump all Christians together into one narrow-minded, authoritarian group.

Trying to explain the difference between the goodness of Christ and religious zealotry isn’t always easy. One has to get the listener past the image of aggressive, finger-wagging individuals.4

Worldly people, on the other hand, sometimes say that Christian religious experience is generated by body chemistry. For them, the Christian cannot discern the difference between an endorphin rush, sugar high or caffeine hit as opposed to the indwelling of spiritual graces.

To me, that only serves to tell me something about the mindset of the spiritually ignorant. Hard-boiled skeptics often don’t realize that while they’re looking at us, we’re looking at them.

At the other end of the spectrum, some fundamentalists say mysticism is nothing more than a devilish deception. There’s no talking to these people. They love to cherry pick Bible verses to support – while ignoring anything that challenges – their particular outlook.5

When folks, be they worldly or religious, are so entrenched in a limiting worldview my proverbial b.s. detector often goes from yellow to red. It may be a pastor. A blogger. A doctor. It doesn’t matter who. At those times I find the best thing is to politely withdraw and later on, when the time is right, redirect my thoughts into action.

¹ Some even believe in an original Aramaic New Testament that has been lost in the sands of time.

² See From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, online at Most agree that we have no original New Testament documents. So this would make our present version of Jesus’ sayings third-hand, at best. » 1 » Original Aramaic »  2 »  First but now lost transcriptions into Greek »  3 »  Surviving copies.

³ To me this is like the old Roman Empire championing its state gods.

4 We’ve probably all lived through or heard a story about offensive, overbearing Christians.

5 See Religious people have a brain so why don’t some use it?

For more on Q, see my highlights at LINER.

 Who Is Jesus? (3) (

 Ghetts announces Ghetto Gospel: New Testament album, listen to new single “Slumdog Millionaire” (

 The Reformation Rolls On: (

 Just listen (

 Sean Carvajal Steps in for Victor Rasuk in JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN at Signature Theatre (


 Is this blasphemous? (



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Rastafarianism – The “evil weed” becomes “incense for the flowers”

Shira Golding Evergreen - coffeeshop free adam vis Flickr

Shira Golding Evergreen – coffeeshop free adam via Flickr

Rastafarianism is a Jamaican religious movement. Some of its adherents see blacks as the chosen people and Haile Selassie (1891-1975), the former Emperor of Ethiopia, is believed to be God, Jesus Christ or a manifestation of God (Jah from the Hebrew YHWH). However, Selassie denies this claim, saying he never advocated his self-deification.

In a 1967 interview when a Canadian interviewer mentioned the Rastafari belief that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, he responded by saying: “I have heard of this idea. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.”¹

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, during a ...

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, during a visit to Washington, October 1st, 1963 (Wikipedia)

Like most religions, aspects of the Bible are cherry picked to support particular beliefs, but unlike other Bible based religions, much of the Biblical text is said to have been corrupted by ‘Babylon’—that is, the dominant white establishment.²

Despite overwhelming evidence that smoking cannabis has harmful effects on the mouth, throat, lungs and brain, smoking up is not frowned on but taken as a spiritual act.

For Rastas, smoking cannabis, commonly referred to as herb, weed, kaya, sinsemilla (Spanish for “without seeds”), or ganja (from the Sanskrit word ganjika, used in ancient Nepal and India), is a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible study; they consider it a sacrament that cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah. They often burn the herb when in need of insight from Jah.³

This practice is so widespread that it was made legal by the Jamaican government in 2015.4

It would be a huge mistake to suppose that all Rastas are down on white people. Softer forms of Rastafarianism respect every person as a potentially unique “flower within the Garden of Eden,” as international reggae star Peter Tosh once put it.

The great Bob Marley had a spiritual teacher, Mortimer Planno, who was a well-known drummer and elder in the Rasta movement. Many of Marley’s songs hit home, musically and emotionally, even if leaning toward a fundamentalist side of Biblical interpretation. Today Marley is mostly heard on web and college radio stations. But when I was a teen, he was a big deal among many different populations and ethnicities.

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Redemption Song


² By way of contrast, Catholic approved bibles make amorphous claims that some of the Old Testament teachings, especially, are culturally biased. But at the same time the Catholic Church regularly proclaims that the bible is “Holy Scripture” and “The Word of God.” Confused?


Canada’s PM, Justin Trudeau, seems to be heading in the same direction.

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Elizabeth – The Mother of the Last Great Jewish Prophet?

Statue of the Visitation at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel via Wikipedia

In the New Testament, Elizabeth a daughter of Aaron, wife of  Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist.

Among Christian theologians and homilists, John is often spoken of as a link between the Old and New Testaments. He’s the last of a long line of Jewish prophets who announces the coming of someone so great that he, himself, is “not worthy to untie the strap on his sandals.”¹ That person, of course, turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth, who goes on to become the founder of the world’s largest and most international religion.²

A nice New Testament story is one that also becomes part of the Catholic Holy Rosary as “The Visitation” of the Joyful Catholic Mysteries.³ This is the tale, true or not, that the unborn John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary, bearing Jesus, comes to visit.4

This story reminds me of several studies, true or not, suggesting that the unborn get used to and turn out smarter if they hear classical music through their mother’s abdomen. 5

But in the case of John and Jesus, I would also think that these two babies, being who they were, would be especially spiritually sensitive. So quite possibly John leaped in the womb because he could sense the presence of Jesus. Not so much because he heard Mary’s voice. However, John’s reaction could have been prompted by both auditory and spiritual factors—if the story is true, that is, and not just a pleasant religious tale fabricated by early enthusiasts to advance their religious beliefs.

Most of us have heard the tale about the angel coming to visit the teenager, Mary, giving her the choice to be the mother of a miraculously conceived Jesus. But not quite so popular is a parallel story about an angel coming to visit Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah:

But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (Luke 1:13–15).

Again, is this just good religious storytelling or did things really happen in parallel as written? While scholars and religious people argue this point back and forth, for me the answer, like most things in life, ultimately comes down to belief.

Sadly, the human story ends miserably for both John and Jesus. John is beheaded at the hands of Herod Antipas who grants the cruel request of his step-daughter Salome and her mother. And Jesus dies on a cross after willfully submitting to a complex political web involving the Jewish religious leaders in Israel, some of an assembled mob, and the occupying Roman authorities. I say the human story ends miserably because, according to the belief, both of these figures endure in unimaginably great heavenly places, beyond time and space as we know it.






Related » Hail Mary Prayer


Evil: Natural, Moral and Intrinsic

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November ...

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some say that during his tenure at Oxford, the differentiation of theology, philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How we define evil is influenced by our core beliefs. Materialists and some scientists dismiss the idea of evil as if it were culturally inherited from a world once peopled by believers in magic and outdated superstitions.

Today, violent criminals are usually depicted in psychiatric terms. Murderers are reported as having a mental illness instead of being possessed by Satan. However, callous murderers are sometimes called “monsters,” so the idea of evil still creeps into our predominantly scientific worldview.

Evil in Christian theology

In Christianity a theological distinction exists between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil includes “acts of God” (for example, tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches. Moral evil is a conscious human choice to turn away from God’s will thereby participating in some action harmful to self and possibly others (for example, spying on a friend for political gain or career advancement).

The Scottish theologian Duns Scotus said intrinsic evil  involves acts that are inherently evil and accordingly prohibited. Intrinsically evil acts are not evil because they are prohibited. They’re just bad in themselves.

For Christians, evil is often taken as a necessary component of God’s plan of salvation. Christians accept as an article of faith that God permits evil for some greater good. However, this greater good is usually beyond the comprehension of mere mortals (see Isaiah 55:8-9). So Christians must believe. They may have reason to believe. But still, their faith comes down to belief above knowledge.

A Christian school of thought, initiated by St. Irenaeus and popularized by John Hick, emphasizes that evil is permitted, but not caused, by God.

Space Evil or Mars Demon

Space Evil or Mars Demon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why would an all-powerful God permit evil to happen? According to the Irenian school, the answer is found in the concept of soul-making. Soul making refers to the notion that a soul freely choosing to abstain from evil is of greater value than a soul that would automatically avoid evil like a programmed robot. The free, good soul apparently better glorifies God than a sinless automaton would.

Although evil may ravage, test and torment good souls alive and embodied on Earth, the ultimate goal of our finite, earthly life is to be made worthy of everlasting, heavenly life. From this perspective the evils of the world act as a crucible. Souls not succumbing to but resisting evil are purified and strengthened toward the good. Evil, then, is necessary. It acts as a kind of hammer, constantly pounding out the soul’s impurities.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.¹

Aquinas also says, in keeping with the notion of a final winnowing of the Apocalypse (Luke 3:17, Matthew 3:12):

God permits some evils lest the good things should be obstructed.²

This quote has to do with the belief, often heard in Catholic homilies, that it’s easier to separate the good from the bad (wheat from the chaff) after each has fully developed. Essentially, the New Testament uses familiar parables to try to explain things that human beings are too limited to understand.

Another Christian view, influenced by Plato‘s idea of the Forms, comes from St. Augustine. Augustine sees evil as a privatio boni, which in Latin means the absence of good. According to this idea, God is good, therefore evil must exist where God is not present. God does not create evil. Rather, it is a choice. At this point the theological debates can get complicated, and some ask whether Augustine’s theodicy (defence of God’s goodness with the reality of evil) holds up for both natural and moral evil.

Different branches of Christianity hold different views about what happens to evil souls in the afterlife. Some Churches damn sinners eternally. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that some souls are predestined for hell. Some contemporary Christians pray for the liberation of souls in hell while others do not.³ And the Catholic concept of Purgatory is neither a heaven nor hell, but a difficult preparation for heaven.

Evil in non-Christian religion

Hindu devotees watch an effigy of the Hindu demon king Ravana, stuffed with fire-crackers, burn at the grounds in Amritsar on October 22, 2015

Evil in Islam is similar to the Christian idea. But for Muslims, it is evil to suggest that Christ is one with God (John 10:30). And the prohibitions in the Koran differ from those of the New Testament. Notably, killing is permitted in the Koran in some circumstances4, whereas the very thought of killing is denounced in the New Testament. Many branches of Christianity do, however, support the idea of the Just War (just as in justice).

Hinduism presents a different view of evil. Evil is permitted to maintain the right balance of sacred heat or power (tapas) within the universe. Aspects of Hinduism speak to the reality of hell for evildoers. But evil in Hinduism is mostly viewed in terms of personal ignorance and spiritual development. So hellish punishments are temporary instead of eternal.

According to this belief, the evil soul reincarnates on earth until it is cleansed of the ignorance that influenced it to do bad things. This differs from the Catholic teaching that souls in hell are eternally damned and, some say, would never want to leave. Unlike the Christian, the Hindu aspires to transcend ideas about good and evil through an experiential knowledge of universal truth. This is a big Good beyond smaller goods and evils.

Accordingly, the ultimate goal of Hinduism differs from both the Christian and Islamic goals. For the Hindu, heaven is a halfway house on the road to ultimate realization. The reincarnating soul may enjoy periodic visits to different heavens but, though the round of rebirth, it eventually transcends all heavens to ultimately achieve the greatest good of the Brahman. A similar but in some ways different view of evil is found in Taoism.

An interesting but routinely overlooked question is whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu heavens and hells are identical in character. The Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade notes that heavens and hells are described differently among world religions. But do they all feel the same? The answer to this question I think depends on the person and where they’re at in their journey.

Most global cultures at some point in history have seen evil as a cause of mental or physical illness. This belief is prevalent in Shamanism. And some religious writers, such as the Catholic, Michael Brown, say they feel the presence of evil almost anywhere.

For W. H. Auden, evil is inferior to good because

Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good.5

And that’s why I believe good will always overcome evil in the long run. It’s smarter, more insightful and has access to a wider vista of knowledge and experience.


² See » Google Books

³ See this excellent discussion:

4 See

W. H. Auden, A Certain World

Related Posts » Determinism, Free-will, Shamanism, Siva, Suffering, Trickster

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Original Sin – A powerful Western myth?

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Christian doctrine, original sin is a state of alienation from God. It is present at birth and collectively inherited from the first sin of the biblical Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4-3:24).

In the Genesis account, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit growing on the tree of knowledge at the garden center.¹ Their eyes are opened, they become ashamed of their nakedness and cover themselves. So they hide from God who is “walking” in the garden. When God discovers them he basically flips out. God curses the serpent and tells the woman that he will make childbirth much more painful. Moreover, the serpent and human beings will forever be in violent conflict.

God then casts Adam and Eve out of the garden into the world beyond. The garden’s entrance is barred by a cherubim with a revolving, fiery sword. Adam and Eve’s offspring are cursed for generations. No longer is everything easy and good. They must not merely work, as they did in the garden, but rather, toil for their food (Genesis 3).

To the modern mind, this story seems to be rooted in primitive myth and beliefs. God is supremely anthropomorphic. The tale also seems sexist because Eve is blamed for the Fall. She is also condemned to be subservient to her husband, whom she desires all the same.

Adam and Eve - Albrecht Dürer

Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer (Wikipedia)

The Church Fathers mention the idea of original sin as early as the 2nd century. They believed, as do many subsequent Christians, that their views were justified by Biblical scripture. The practice of harkening back to Biblical scripture to try to legitimize the idea of original sin involves both the Old and New Testaments.

Christians generally say that the New Testament “fulfills” the Old Testament, so the NT has to sort of patch up and surpass a good deal of the gobbledygook, primitive hate and sexism found in the OT.²

In the New Testament, for example, the apostle Paul says sin came into the world because of one man—that is, Adam (Romans 5:12). For all his apparent visionary experience of the risen Christ, Paul still believes in the ancient OT story as if it were literal fact.³

The story of Adam and Eve is also mentioned in 1 Timothy 2 and upheld by many contemporary Christians who, perhaps inadvertently or unconsciously, legitimize sexism with scripture:

A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman who was deceived and fell into transgression. Women, however, will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (1 Timothy 2 [11-15])

For Catholics, there are two exceptional people in human history who do not inherit the taint of original sin: Jesus and his mother the Virgin Mary. Protestants and Anglicans generally do not accept that Mary was born without sin. And the Orthodox position has its own complications.

The idea of original sin has been debated for centuries but the leading Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, along with the Protestant Reformers, have upheld it.

Recently, theologians like Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) have attempted to separate the mythic and cultural aspects of the Bible, on the one hand, from its spiritual essence, on the other hand. For Bultmann, the terms “authentic existence” and “inauthentic existence” are more meaningful to modern minds than are their traditional antecedents, “salvation” and “sin.” Other contemporary theologians challenge the notion of inheriting sin from a mythic past. And present-day thinkers like astronomer David Darling suggest that time is holistic instead of linear, which complicates the idea of original sin.

Surely there had to have been some special point of origin? But no. What was needed was a more panoramic view in which the universe, past, present, and future, was seen as having always been there–a permanent, all-encompassing, space-time eternity. Of course, it was natural for man, whose left-brain consciousness produced the illusion of “passing” time to think of past and future as somehow different in status. To dwell, moreover, on that elusive moment called now which transformed the potentiality of future events into the actuality of the past. But “now” was, in truth, only a chimera. Every point in space and time coexisted with equal importance. The future was there from the beginning as surely as was the past.4

If viewed this way, the idea of an evil force that runs through all-time and which compels humanity to sin might make more sense than stories primarily based on linear time.5

¹ Eve was tempted first by the serpent. After eating the fruit, she hands it to Adam, who also eats. The fruit is usually depicted as an apple, especially in Western culture. However, the actual fruit is unknown.

² Not to say that the NT is devoid of cultural bias. It may have done away with violence. But it still arguably discriminates on the basis of ethno-religion and sex in places.

³ Possibly many people today have genuine mystical experiences and yet unconsciously assume that this proves a particular set of theological stories and traditions. If a church gives them all the answers, they don’t have to bother reflect any further. And people like me who simply want to use the mind God gave them, are under the sway of “Satan.”

4 David Darling, Deep Time, New York: Delacorte Press, 1989, pp. 187-188).

The Catholic position is summed up here: This Catholic position is at least partially rooted in a traditional understanding of linear time, and probably won’t be reconsidered by the Church until sufficient political pressure acts upon the Catholic hierarchy–that is, until the idea of holistic time becomes more commonplace. And that, ironically, will likely take centuries. Even the apparently “smart” Catholics, the Jesuits, are still largely rooted in traditional ways of looking at and analyzing problems. At least, they are compelled to uphold Catholic teachings during the Mass. The suppression of free thinking among the clergy and the faithful runs deep into Catholic history. Not as obvious now, as say, the house arrest of Galileo, it seems the Vatican still keeps a pretty firm grip on its shepherds; even if, perhaps, losing its grip on many of its sheep. However, Catholic conservatism isn’t entirely bad because it defends the Church against nutty extremists. But it can also hinder true theological progress and fair theological practice.

5 Many Christians and Catholics say that Jesus exists in or simply is “all-time,” so the Catholic view is not so linear. But the Bible tells us that Satan fell some time after the initial creation (see Wikipedia lists some parallel stories to the Garden of Eden. Not exactly the same but with similarities:

Related » Brahman, Calvinism, Donatism, Felix Culpa, Jesus Christ, John Milton, Mortal Sin, Sin, Venial Sin, Virgin Mary

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Saturn, Christmas and child sacrifice

Sebastià Giralt Font de Saturn, Jardins de Versailles via Flickr

In Roman myth Saturnus was an agricultural god of blight and sowing. The Romans likened him to the Greek god Cronus.

His annual festival was Saturnalia, originally held on December 17th. This popular festival was later held from December 17-23.

The early Christians transformed Saturnalia when arbitrarily setting the date for the birth of Christ—that is, Christmas. Some scholars and theologians say that December 25th was chosen because local and surrounding inhabitants were accustomed to gathering and celebrating at this time, making it a logical and convenient time to inaugurate Christmas.

But this wasn’t entirely based on a sweet and jubilant history. The mythic Saturn was known to devour his children because he was paranoid they would overthrow him.¹ And ancient sources tell us that actual child sacrifice to Saturn was pretty common. The ancients believed that by appeasing the Gods, things would go well for them. So giving up one’s own child (which presumably was highly valued), would bring about the best possible result. The better the sacrifice, the better the result. This kind of primitive, superstitious thinking runs throughout the ancient world, and in the Bible‘s Old Testament as well.²

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sacrifice of children to Saturn is mentioned in the excellent video, “Isaac,”³ and Wikipedia elaborates:

According to Stager and Wolff, in 1984, there was a consensus among scholars that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance that their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[24] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of:

the lady Tanit … . The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open … . The child was alive and conscious when burned … Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.[25]

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus in his “Scholia” of Plato’s Republic mentions the practice:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.[26]

This reference also seems to clarify that the statue itself was not made to move by the flames, but rather the burnt and shriveled body of the victim was contorted by them.

Diodorus Siculus too references this practice:

Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea[…] in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice

Plutarch in De superstitione also mentions the practice in Carthage:

they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young bird

These all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn.4

‘Saturn Devouring one of his Children’, 1821-1823. Found in the collection of the Prado, Madrid, Spain.

¹ When some Christians say that the Bible is the “Word” of God, they seem to be oblivious to the personal, cultural and political forces that helped to shape it, as well as the widely accepted theory that multiple authors contributed to many books previously thought to be penned by just one author. For example, not too many mature scholars believe that Moses wrote the Torah, being the first 5 books of the Old Testament. There any many scholarly works on the Old Testament. I’m not an expert but one that I’ve found very helpful is Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt.


³ Amy-Jill Levine, Lecture 5, “Isaac” in


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Barbara Thiering

Dea sea scroll display is

Dea sea scroll display is (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barbara Thiering (1930 – ) is an Australian author of several works, including the best-selling Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Thiering takes a naturalist approach and believes that the miraculous aspects of the New Testament are just codified political statements. She studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, which mention a “teacher of righteousness” and writes that this teacher existed in the Qumran community, somewhere between 200 BCE and the time of Jesus.

For Thiering, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the social conditions and practices of the Qumran community. And she believes the New Testament writings about the nearby Early Christian community can be assessed from the perspective of the Qumran community. For instance, in Qumran all newcomers were apparently initiated, regardless of social standing, with a baptism of water. Members of the inner circle were also given “The Drink of the Community,” which Thiering says was wine.

Thiering argues that Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding ceremony at Canaan reveals the Gospel writer’s ingenious attempt to symbolically convey Christ’s true message—that group membership is not just for a select few, but for all types of people (John 2: 1-11).

Ad for DSS in WSJ

Ad for DSS in WSJ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thiering likewise says that the miracles of the virgin birth (Matthew 1-18-25; Luke 1:26-38; Isaiah 7:14), walking on water (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48-51), the multiplication of loaves (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38), the eating of miraculously obtained fish (John 21:1-11) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44) represent the Gospel writers’ use of symbolism to depict natural events and Jesus’ political motives.

Jesus, she claims, didn’t walk on water but walked on a “jetty” (a wharf or a dock). She also sees as metaphorical the Gospel account of Peter getting “out of the boat” to “walk on the water” toward Jesus. Peter’s becoming afraid and beginning to “sink” when the wind picked up is said to be purely allegorical, as was Christ’s “outstretched hand” that rescued him (Matthew 14: 25-32).

Common sense says we cannot “sink” while standing on a jetty. But for Thiering Peter’s symbolic sinking represents his fear of being “number two” to Christ. His sympathy with the rite of circumcision, which Paul abrogated, would make him “sink” in stature.

Citing another New Testament passage that claims it’s better to drown with a millstone around your neck in the sea than suffer the consequences of placing a “stumbling block” before one of God’s children (Matthew 18:6), Thiering says this passage relates to supports her interpretation of Peter’s sinking (Matthew 14:30) because “the same verb” is used.¹

But from a broader perspective, her argument seems questionable. Some scholars insist that portions of the Qumran scrolls were, in fact, imported from outside Qumran. Others say that the scrolls might be commentaries on Old Testament scripture.

Near Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrol...

Near Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Randall Price says that Thiering’s logic sometimes contradicts itself. Price points out that Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique,” that apparently gets at the true meaning of the scrolls, is a false attempt to legitimize what is nothing more than her own individual interpretation, weakly supported (as sometimes happens with overzealous researchers) by a vast amount of illogically applied data.

According to Price, “pesher” simply means commentary.

Florentino Garcia Martinez rather bluntly says:

Thiering’s work is a wholly artificial construction that not only disregards logic and distorts the meaning of events, but trespasses all reasonable boundaries of sound historical reconstruction.²

Poststructural and semiotic approaches suggest that the motif of sinking and being rescued connotes not just one, but a plethora of possible meanings (for instance, losing and regaining faith).

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, many Christian writers say that the symbolic import of miraculous events need not conflict with their historicity. Instead of reducing the miraculous to the natural and political, the events and teachings in the life of Christ arguably serve a dual function: First, they are actual, for the benefit of those around Christ at the time. Second, they are symbolic for the pastoral benefit of subsequent generations.

If Gospel stories have been exaggerated, we must remember that this was a common technique used in Bible times. Stories were exaggerated for emphasis.  So the details of a big emotional and spiritual event would normally have been exaggerated in its retelling to try to convey the supernatural awe and wonder experienced by actual witnesses.

Another view from depth psychology differs from Thiering’s as well as from orthodox Christian perspectives.

English: Joseph Campbell, late 1970

Joseph Campbell, late 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Depth psychology makes use of the mythic instead of the historical dimension of Christ. Contemporary individuals don’t undergo physical crucifixion, death and visible resurrection. Instead, thinkers like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman say the Christ story depicts an archetypal truth about psychological transformation.

Individuals sometimes undergo a symbolic death of outmoded, inappropriate ego-attitudes. In the best case scenario, these are replaced by newer, more comprehensive realizations—a symbolic type of resurrection.

¹ Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Toronto: Doubleday, 1992: 329.

² Randall Price, Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1996: 361-369.

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