Wrestling with Pesky Moral Issues

slave train

This photograph placed in the Public Domain by Thib Phil

One of my favorite characters on the old TV series Giligan’s Island was the greedy rich guy, Thurston Howell, III. On one episode someone reminded him that in this country “all men are created equal.” “Created equal, yes,” Mr. Howell responded. “But once a man comes into money. . .” Never has the contrast in this country been more clear between those who waive the Bible around to justify their prejudice and greed, and those who wonder how in the hell we landed in this hand-basket.

It really wasn’t that sudden if you think about it. In spite of the moral facade that was painted across its surface from the beginning, the civil war was all about greed and conservatism. The economy of the South depended on slavery. When the South needed to find effective arguments to conserve the status quo, it most often resorted to scripture. They knew that if you can point to the Bible to support your argument, you no longer have to justify your position. What a convenient mechanism for exploiting children, blacks, women, Chinese immigrants and American Indians! My God said it was to be this way; so shut up and pick cotton! Once the country accepted the lie (cleverly communicated by implication rather than explicitly) that Jesus was a capitalist, everything that helps the rich make a buck is okay. Human beings take a back seat to greed because Jesus would have found anything more tolerable than socialism.

Like you, I really need to believe we have made progress toward becoming better human beings since then. But sadly, nothing has changed. The Orwellian tone of today’s most hotly debated issues is uncanny. If we step back and look at the big picture, there are two sides to the national debate.

On one side the mob is calling for respecting everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Folks on this side believe the government should provide a safety net for the weak, the poor, and the less fortunate. They believe it is the govenment’s responsibility to take care of children and homeless and sick people when they have no place to turn. They believe the government should not only legalize but should support what appears to be the most promising scientific research that could lead to the cure of all of the most horrific diseases. They tend to believe the big rich guys are doing just fine and don’t need anyone to advocate for their interests. They prefer to advocate for the vast majority of people whose lives and livelihoods are at the mercy of the actions of the big guys. Some of them don’t believe in a god: but many of them do. Either way, they both share the belief that the government should not take a postition on personal issues of faith and conviction. By not placing their own defintion of God ahead of everything including common sense, they are free to evaluate moral questions objectively – with how they affect actual people in mind.

But alas, there is another side. This mob claims Jesus as its own. It proclaims love and its own definition of “grace” as the foundation of all that is important. They are all about love. But hate is okay too. The trick is that one must never admit the hate is directed toward people. A favorite mantra is “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” What a cute and deceitfully powerful catch phrase! Armed with this rhetorical device, this side can “love” homosexuals as long as they deny their own nature – as long as they force themselves to look and act like them. Almost as bad as gays (who are all heathens in their reckoning) are atheists and “liberals.” These are people who have committed the unpardonable sin of disagreeing with their version of reality and of moral conscience. Like gays, the liberals can be “saved” from their disgusting condition – but only by looking and acting like them. However, like Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, it is not good enough that they look and act like them. The change must be on the inside. They must actually believe it. This pre-requisit to salvation is vital to those who need to validate what they have chosen to believe by forcing its acceptance on everyone else.

Most of these people are not wealthy. But they have been conned into believeing that they may be someday. And they have “faith” that it will happen. So strongly do they believe it will happen, that they tend to proactively take the super wealthy side of almost every issue. They will tell you they don’t want poor people to die for lack of food or healthcare. They just don’t believe anyone else (even the richest people in the country) should have to pay for it. But if taxing the wealthiest people is the only way, then let them die. After all there is a greater “moral” principle involved. Capitalism trumps humanity every time. The only atheist these people respect is Ayn Rand. They can look past her mean-spirited atheism because she exemplified the most important attribute of all – placing the importance of greed (uhum “capitalism”) above all else.

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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The Illusion of Knowledge

Gobekli Tepe

Use of Image governed by Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Throughout history, the greatest innovators, those who have added the most to the sum of human knowledge seem to have shared one dominant trait – the lack of arrogance. The fundamental prerequisite for finding new nuggets of understanding is not only accepting, but actually embracing the fact that we do not already have them.

As one of the greatest thinkers of our time, Stephen Hawking puts it, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Even the experts who devote their lives to studying the things the rest of us long to better understand, never get it exactly right. But we would all be so much poorer but for their efforts.  In his 1988 essay, The Relativity of Wrong, Isaac Asimov really nailed it:

When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Understanding that we never actually get to “the truth” whatever that may ultimately be, should never discourge us from the quest for more knowledge.  At the same time, we should realize that we never know as much as we think we do. An excellent example of this principle is the near-miss and eventual discovery of one of the lesser known, yet most important archaeological sites ever.

In the 1960s, according to an article at Smithsonian.com, anthropologists from the University of Chicago and Istanbul University surveyed some large mounds in southeastern Turkey.  After examining some broken slabs of limestone, they concluded that the mound was an abandoned medieval cemetery.  “Nothing really to see here,” they moved on to other things.  But all of that changed in 1994.  While the details of the discovery in this video seem to contradict the account in the Smithsonian.com article, the important takeaway from all of this is that we now must reconsider everything we thought we knew about the beginnings of modern human civilizations.

So far, only five percent of this site, known to us as “Gobekli Tepe,” has been excavated.  But we already know it is aproximately eleven thousand years old.  Stone Henge and the Great Pyramids are less than half that old.  This discovery combined with similar finds in the region, pushes back the end of the “hunter-gatherer” period and the beginning of what we think of as modern civilizations litterally twice as far as was previously thought.

Based on the bone fragments discovered so far, experts believe in spite of the elaborate construction, this was still a hunter-gatherer site.  But they have also discovered evidence of domesticated farming and wheat production beginning at least as early as 500 years later.

The Smithsonian.com article goes on to explain lead archaelogist, Klaus Schmidt’s theory that we need to revise our thinking about how societies develop.  These seven-ton stone pillars could not have been carved, moved and erected by a handful of really smart and really strong cavemen.  This took hundreds of workers that needed to be fed and housed over long periods of time during the construction of the site.

Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, another ancient site near Gobekli Tepe, agrees that the traditional view that the domestication of farms came first, then the development of complex societies is exactly backwards.  “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later.”

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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It Isn’t There If You Don’t Want to See it?

One of 11 caves near Qumran in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found - by Effi Schweizer with permission

Over the next few months, a fascinating exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be on display in Fort Worth Texas.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are a perfect example of how intelligent, honest, sincere people can be mislead by the assumptions of faith.

What is the biggest problem with basing important decisions on faith?  There are two major issues with this approach to dealing with “reality.”  First, it causes us to base our actions on an incredibly arrogant assumption – that we already “know” what the truth is even though we never had to learn it and cannot explain or justify it.  Secondly, beginning with this assumption makes us unteachable.   How can one possibly learn anything when the ultimate answer is not only certain, but is not subject to intellectual scrutiny?

Most of us recall reading in Psychology 101 about experiments that Blakemore and Cooper performed on kittens in the 60s. Kittens that were raised in an environment completely devoid of horizontal or vertical lines literally could not see them when they encountered the alternative objects as adults. There was nothing wrong with their eyesight. But their brains were not wired to perceive those dimensions. For a brief refresher (and a general look at a really cool website) Click Here.

What we expect to see has so much to do with our perception of reality.  A Christian friend of mine used to say the difference between a believer and a non-believer is that the non-believer says “when I see it I will believe it.”  But the believer says “when I believe it I will see it.”  I could not agree with him more.  That does seem to be the difference between us.  To an atheist or agnostic there should be some reason beyond the mere decision to believe something that would cause us to take it seriously.  But for my friends who make a conscious decision to believe in a god or the inerrancy of a particular book, no evidence is needed.  In fact, no evidence that contradicts what they already miraculously “know” has any relevance.  When they believe it they will see it: even if it is not really there.  The rest of us enjoy looking for things we don’t already see.  We begin with the assumption that we do not already know.  We eagerly anticipate the discovery of things we did not know before.  We derive tremendous satisfaction in sharing our discoveries with others – not of things we personally decided to believe, but of things we found by considering objective evidence.

So what does all of this have to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the assumptions of faith?  We know from the excavations at Qumran and from what now amounts to more than fifty years of scholarship that Qumran was much more than a small cubby hole in the desert where hermits collected scriptures and speculated about theology.  Scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of the scrolls now realize that the Essenes were all over Judea (not just in caves out in the desert), and that Qumran was the nerve center of a large movement.  As Robert Eisenman shows in his book, James the Brother of Jesus, Qumran was a central hub and library of this movement that had everything to do with the people who originally followed Jesus.

On the other hand, it had nothing to do with what eventually came to be known as Christianity. So this Messianic Movement of the Essenes at Qumran has become the 800 pound guerilla of Christian historians.

Christian scholars acknowledge that these writings are an important discovery.  But for them, the importance is that they support the accuracy of the Old Testament by providing us with writing almost a thousand years older than anything we had before.  To the extent that they lend credence to their own traditions, the scrolls are embraced.  But the other two-thirds of this material, the writings that are not copies of Old Testament scriptures are seldom if ever mentioned at all.

It is from those writings that we have the best chance of any generation since the first century to learn what these people were like, and what they actually did believe.  You can bet that if they had thought Jesus was God, they would have written about it.  And Christian leaders would be all over it!  Instead, references to the scrolls by Christian writers tend to perpetuate mis-information about the Essenes from more than thirty years ago: such as the claim that the Qumran community believed there would be two messiahs, an assumption which has been completely discredited since 1991.  Meanwhile, the fact that they don’t mention Jesus at all (even while afirming their belief in a messiah) is somewhat embarassing to Christian scholars.

How could this very large and very active group whose core reason for existence was a messianic hope, operating and writing contemporaneously with the life and crucifixion of Jesus not have an opinion on him one way or the other?  Of course they had no reason to refute or agree with the stories that were later related in the New Testament Gospels.  The Gentile version of Jesus as reflected in the Gospels had not been written yet.

If we begin with the assumption that those who knew Jesus believed he was God this is a huge problem – better left ignored.  But if, as all of the earliest (2nd and 3rd century) Christian historians agreed, the first century Jerusalem followers never thought Jesus was God, his absence from these writings is much less of a mystery.  These writings focus on the messianic expectation rather than on the person of whomever may carry that expectation out.  If Jesus had not accomplished what they perceived to be the messianic expectation, there would be no reason to write about him.  And it does not appear that there was.

It seems ironic that so many of the people who talk about Jesus the most seem to have the least interest in learning more about the only writings ever found about his people (those who actually knew him) that were actually written during his lifetime.

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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Things Left Unsaid

Decoding the Messages

Deception is an ancient art form. Today, just as five thousand years ago, its practitioners are dominated by religious leaders and politicians. Both have an agenda. Both need you to believe things you may have a tendency to question. But most of all, both need to sell you on the idea that they are on your side. Their survival depends on their ability to convince you to believe and accept a particular paradigm of the universe and of your place in it.

Among the most successful techniques that has developed over time, is the art of removing the unwinnable portions of the position from the debate. For politicians these exclusions consist of such no longer controversial things as the equality of people regardless of race, the equality of the sexes, and the unfairness of basing public policy solely on the religious convictions of their supporters.

For religious fundamentalists, the “we just won’t go there” topics include all of the above in addition to the (universally understood by their adherents) unwritten black book (no – not that black book, the other black book) subjects that don’t play well in the light of fair objective inquirey, but that nevetheless they “know” to be a fact. Because they don’t openly talk about it, how they know is their little secret. As one of them used to brag to me, “you just know it in your knower.”

That’s why it is so important to the establishment that the surfs buy into a fundamental proposition that makes no logical sense at all: the “value” of faith as some kind of moral attribute. There are some things “decent” people just don’t question. In America, two of the greatest untouchables are the existence of God, and the concept that the “Holy Bible” as delivered to us by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century is His inerrant “word” to us.

So what do the study of climate change, evolution, genetic research, and the textual criticism of the Bible have in common? They all begin with the assumption that we don’t already know everything. They have all been fought to the death by the Church since the beginning of its history. From the destruction of the writings of Porphyry, to the denial of climate change, the Church supported government has always resisted the development of scientific knowledge. It should be no surprise that the Republican leadership of the State of Texas is absolutely opposed to the teaching of “higher order thinking skills” in the public schools! Too much book learn’n!!

If you want to control others, how could there be a more useful tool?! Imagine all of the problematic thinking that can be completely eliminated by the application of this concept! How do you know there is a God? The Bible says so. How do you know you are right? He told me so. How do you know you can trust the Bible? Well if there is a God (which there clearly must be), and if He has let people think this is His word for 2000 years it MUST be true. In other words, if you assume one of the things you are supposed to, you have by default bought into the other one.

Okay. It doesn’t make logical sense. But you have to admit the process is brilliant. However, the concept contains one annoying problem. A lot of people have failed to buy into the faith proposition. A lot of other people have bought into some faith proposition – but not the convenient one. Since by the Christian definition, faith is the “substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” those most devoted to it do not feel compelled to prove it. The “evidence” is the faith itself. To outsiders, this sounds rather silly. But to those who believe Paul is virtually infallible it makes perfect sense.

Why do so many viciously attack gays, fight same sex marriage, fight the discovery of medical cures through stem cell research? The excuses vary from time to time. But the real reason begins and ends with the religious convictions of the attacker. There simply are no other reasons. Everything else is a smokescreen. People who seldom if ever have a clue about who wrote the Bible, where it came from, when it was written, or even what language most of it was written in “know” these people are wrong.

Any suggestion that men wrote the Bible is perceived as an “attack on Christianity.” How can objectively questioning the claims of the Bible be an attack on Christianity unless that book is itself the God of Christianity? I know people who define themselves as Christians who don’t hate gays, who don’t think God will burn everyone who disagrees with Christians, and who believe they have a “personal relationship” with their God. But those people do not usually take positions that depend on the claims of the book. Could it be that it is not so much the belief in God that causes so much hatred and meddling into the affairs of others? Perhaps the bigger culprit is blind acceptance of the infallibility of a particular book?

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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Whatever Became of the People Jesus Knew? – Part II

Masada (with author's permission)

Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate some time between 27 and 30 C.E.  We could know a lot more than we do about what actually happened.  But in its efforts to erase every record that contradicted the views of the “Holy” Roman Empire in the fourth century, the Church shot itself in the foot.

Historians know the Romans kept meticulous records of trials such as the one of Jesus in the first century.  But after several centuries of edicts to destroy every single writing considered hostile to Christianity, the Roman records of his trial and crucifixion no longer exist.

This total absence of external records is often cited by non-Christians as evidence that Jesus himself never existed.  And that assessment is partially correct.  The fact that we have records of the Church ordering the destruction of writings that contradicted the official story proves there were such writings.  Someone wrote about a different Jesus.  After centuries of deletions, redactions, and book burnings, one thing is clear.  There were at one time, writings that forcefully contradicted the version of “Jesus” that has been passed down to us.

The other Jesus was the man with parents, brothers and sisters who was crucified for insurrection against Rome.  Between the time of his death (probably 27 C.E., but most often dated around 30 C.E.) and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., his family, his disciples, and those who knew him best went on with their lives.

Unlike the writers of the New Testament Gospels who never met him, who lived outside of Judea, and who wrote their accounts after almost everyone who actually did know him was dead, these people from Jesus’ inner-circle went on to endure unimaginable trauma for the next forty years.

In Part I we took a brief look at a famous turncoat named Josephus who wrote the only surviving eye-witness accounts of what happened to these people.  He, like the New Testament writers referred to them as Zealots.  Unlike his brief reference to Jesus that historians know was dramatically altered if not completely fabricated by fourth century Christians, his accounts of the Zealots seem to be accurate.  At least they agree with other sources and the Dead Sea Scrolls in their details.

But why, you may ask, did the Church leave these records untouched?  The answer is that the Church had no issue with these records.  By the middle of the second century, the Church had deified Jesus.  In the process, it had so distanced him from his actual family that their histories were no longer perceived to be a threat to Christian doctrine.  What happened to them was beyond the boundaries of the story the fourth century Church was interested in publishing.

In fact, the lives of these people seem inconsequential to the architects of the Gentile Christian movement; so much so that even though their virtual annihilation occurred before the composition of the earliest of the Gospels, with the exception of a few (after the fact) prophetic references, the New Testament is silent on the subject.

Four years after the the murder of Jesus’ brother Yaakov (“Jacob” but known today by the Gentile name of ”James”), the people of Jerusalem faced the end of everything. From the first wave of the seige of Jerusalem which began in 66 C.E. until the final destruction of the Temple complex in 70 C.E., life for them was unbearable.

After several consecutive attacks, a bloody massacre, and literally thousands of crucifixions, most of the people who had known Jesus and his family were dead. Just before the final seige, some had escaped to Zealot outposts.

Nine hundred and sixty people including rebel fighters, women and children barracaded themselves in the last major stronghold, the fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem. They watched the smoke in the distance as the only homes they ever knew burned to the ground. They well knew that the rest of their families and everything they cared most about was going up in that smoke.

Under their commander, Eleazar ben Yair, the “Zealots” at Masada survived in relative safety for the next two years. They only came out of the fortress at night to initiate guerilla attacks against Roman troops.

All of that changed in 72 C.E. The night-time raids on Roman garrisons were beginning to embarrass the Empire. The new Procurator of Judea, Flavius Silva led the Tenth Legion along with slaves and additional troops to begin the siege of Masada.

It took months for the Roman soldiers to build an earthen ramp on the west side of the mountain (the remains of which can still be seen in the lower right hand corner of the photograph above) under the continuous barrage of arrows and stones that were hurled onto them from above.

On top of the ramp, the Romans erected a platform out of large stones, fortified with iron. With the platform in place, they began to attack the stone casemate wall surrounding the top of the fortress with their battering rams.

But the Zealots had built a second casemate wall out of heavy timbers and filled it with dirt. The dirt absorbed the shock of the battering rams.  The harder they rammed, the tighter the dirt was compacted.

On the final day, Silva ordered his soldiers to set fire to the timbers of the secondary wall. The fires would burn all night.  It was clear that on the following morning, there would be nothing left to prevent the Romans from forcing their way in.

The Zealots knew they were finished. They resolved to kill themselves before the Romans got to them.  All died that night with the exception of two women and five children that had hidden in an aqueduct.  When the Romans pushed through on the following morning, there was nothing for them to capture.  There would be two more major uprisings by the remnants of the people of Judea before the end of the last revolt in 135 C.E.  But those who knew Jesus and his brothers were gone.  Their stories were burried with the Jerusalem Temple.

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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Whatever Became of the People Jesus Knew? – Part I

Just before the reign of Egypt’s most well-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, Egypt experienced an interesting hiccup in its world view.  In 1352 B.C.E., his predecessor, Amenhotep IV (who preceded the reign of Smenkhare), adopted the name Akhenaten and an idea that, as far as we know, was competely new to the Middle East.

This is one they did not tell you about in Sunday School.  Just over 100 years before Moses, Akhenaten not only introduced, but imposed monotheism on the Egyptian Empire.  The creator of the world, Ra was to be known as Aten, the Great Disk that illuminated the universe. There was only one God and he had one son, Akhenaten.  Indeed, an ancient inscription purported to have been written by him and addressed to Aten says, “there is no other who knows you except your son, Akhenaten.” The names of all other gods (and even references to the plural of the word “God”) were to be deleted from history.

But wouldn’t you know, his successors saw things differently.  They ordered that Akhenaten’s capital of Akhetaten, as well as his name and religion were to be deleted from all historical records.  The task was carried out with great efficiency.  But a cache of clay tablets known as the Amarna Letters was uncovered in 1887.  From them, scholars have learned all kinds of details about his fourteen year reign.  Most of what we know about this period comes from those correspondences.

The original followers of Jesus (and by original I mean those who actually knew him personally long before Paul and Luke, who never met him, weighed in with what was to become the “official” story) suffered a similar fate at the hands of historians.

Some forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus – eight years after the murder of his brother James, the remnants of the movement to which Jesus had belonged were massacred.  The city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was burned.  Most of his family died with them.

The people who opposed Roman rule and fanatically insisted on the superiority of Jewish law are usually referred to as the “Zealots.”  But that was a title conferred upon them by their enemies.  The writers of the New Testament didn’t like them much either.  So the New Testament accounts tell us almost nothing about them other than a few casual references to the fact that Jesus was associated with them.  See Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13 and Acts 21:20.

To the Roman Government, the Zealots were treasonous thieves and murderers who refused to accept Roman sovereignty.  Naturally, those who were perceived to be friends of these Zealots were not likely to last long in the Empire.  So the Church did not spend a lot of time talking about them either.

After the first century Church succeeded in distancing itself from them enough to survive into the second century, there was no going back.  Because the Church had absolute control over what was recorded as history from the end of the second century until modern times, their life stories have been all but forgotten.

The destruction of Jerusalem which concluded in 70 C.E. was carried out in several stages.  The first siege in 66 C.E., ended abruptly when it reached the walls of the Temple complex.  For some reason that is not completely clear to historians, the Roman Commander, Cestius Gallus ceased his attack and retreated to the North with the Zealots in hot pursuit.  In preparation for Rome’s imminent return, the Zealots divided Judea into seven regions.  The area believed to be the most strategic was the Galilee.  Its defense was entrusted to a young gentleman named Yosef ben Matityahu.

In 67 C.E., Vespasian entered Judea with three legions to pick up where Gallus had left off.  To get back to Jerusalem, he had to first overcome the strategically positioned fortified cites that now surrounded it.  Among the first of these was Jotapata where our friend Yosef ben Matityahu had established his command center.  The Romans took his city rather easily.  They tracked down Matityahu and forty of his companions hiding in a hole.

Matityahu was almost persuaded by Vespasian to surrender.  But his friends said they would kill him if he did.  So he had a change of heart.  Gathering up all of his “courage” he convinced them all to commit suicide rather than submit to the Romans.  When the dust and confusion cleared, only Matityahu and one of his friends remained standing.  They immediately came out praising the Romans and explaining that all of this must have been God’s will since God had clearly placed the Romans in charge of the whole world.

It turns out that Yosef ben Matityahu had a lot to give.  He became the Romans’ spokesman and official Jewish historian of the region of Judea.  His accounts written in the name of “Josephus” are the only surviving records of this period that were actually composed by an eyewitness to the events they describe.

In Part II we will take a look at Josephus’ description of what finally happened to the people Jesus clearly spent a lot of time with – the people the New Testament called the Zealots, and who Josephus called Zealots, Robbers and the “Sacarii.”

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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Two Whacks at the Hornets’ Nest

 

Photo by Jason Hollinger Creative Commons license

The status quo is like a big hornets’ nest. Some parameter around it is understood to be off limits – no “No Trespassing” sign is required. For most of us, that is just fine. But sometimes the parameter of the hornets’ nest includes something we want to know more about. If we get too close, we may bump into it. That is when things really get interesting!

The legends and traditions connected to Jesus are among our biggest hornets’ nests. Get too close to that one, and you know all hell is bound to break loose.

People have preconceived ideas about who Jesus was. Sadly, many don’t much care who he really was. For those individuals who he actually was, is less important than who they need him to be. It is okay to dig for historical evidence as long as there is never a suggestion that the evidence may contradict the accepted Jesus story. If anyone gets too close for comfort, the hornets will swarm.

Sharing the Wrong Documents

In September of 1991, Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Robert Eisenman did not just bump into the hornets’ nest, he actually kicked it over.  In defiance of the handful of Church officials that had been jealously hoarding the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls until that time, he published everything.

Few realize that there is NO writing – not a single fragment of the New Testament that was composed before the second century. Yet, before 1991 there were a dozen or so scholars on the entire planet sitting on (and keeping from the rest of us) an entire library of material, much of which was literally written during Jesus’ lifetime. Since their initial discovery in 1947, and subsequent archeological excavations beginning in 1954, these scholars hid almost all of them until they were released without their permission in 1991.

When Professor Eisenman and Michael Wise published the details of their fight to release the photographic plates in their book, Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, there was an outcry of buzzing in religious circles and the sound of crickets almost everywhere else.

Perhaps the original hoarders of these manuscripts had succeeded in convincing the world that there was nothing that new or important there. But these documents are very important. We had been told that this was a stash of random writings scattered among eleven caves, written by some group of insignificant hermits called “Essenes.” But Professor Eisenman explains that these writings do not represent “a random collection of disparate writings, but extremely homogeneous ones betokening a movement.”

That movement was big enough to bring about the fall of Jerusalem in its final war against the Romans. It was a movement which the writers of the New Testament did not want to discuss. Those of us who are interested in history want to know more about that first century movement.  Now we can.

Finding the Wrong Coffin

For one brief moment in history (near the beginning of the first century until 70 C.E.), the Jews living in the Roman region of Judea followed an unsual burial custom. Those with the money and means to do so commissioned family tombs that were cut into the rock all over Jerusalem. These tombs usually consisted of one or more slabs and shelves carved out of the rock. When someone died, he or she was placed on the slab and left there for about a year to decompose into a skeleton. Then the family would return and place the bones of their loved ones into a box scholars call an ossuary.

Sometimes, but not usually, they would inscribe the name of the deceased on the outside of the box. Hundreds of these bone boxes have been recovered in and around Jerusalem. All of them are from the time Jesus and his family lived in Jerusalem. That was the only time in history this custom was ever practiced.

Wouldn’t it be cool if someone found one of those boxes belonging to a sibling of Jesus? Well, it looks like they may very well have. You may be tempted to assume that the holder of such an historical treasure would be the most popular guy around. If people who find images of Jesus on medieval shrouds, in their screen doors, and in their waffle irons are taken seriously by many and never attacked by the “experts,” how much more popular should the owner of this item be?

Still, when antiquities collector Oded Golan announced that he had an ossuary that bore the inscription “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” he and four others were arrested and charged with forgery. No one ever confiscated one of these screen doors or pieces of toast, but after dropping charges against three of the original defendants, Mr. Golan and another Israeli antiquities dealer, Robert Deutsch, were dragged through a five year criminal trial.

Now the results are finally in. On March 14, 2012, both men were acquitted of all criminal charges. The “experts” who claimed the inscription to be a forgery have been discredited. And regardless of whether or not this is a reference to the brother of the famous Jesus, the inscription has been determined to be genuine and authentic. You can read all about it here. Of course it will not end there. You can be sure more hornets will emerge.

Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD

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What Are Conservatives Trying to Conserve?

Water Color Painting “The Storming of the Bastille” by Jean-Pierre Houël (1789)

Here is a brain teaser: Why are there poor, or female, or black, or Hispanic conservatives? Are there actually poor or black or Hispanic or female people in this country that feel like we should “conserve” the status quo?  Are the people whose very livelihood and civil rights are under attack on a daily basis really okay with that?

Perhaps they think right wingers call themselves “conservatives” because they want to conserve some utopian idea that does not yet exist? But conservatives must have “the truth” because they are always promoting “true” things like capitalism and the inferiority of everything else.

Take the oft repeated phrase “capitalism works.”  This is usually shoveled out in contrast to the line: “communism does not work.”   Note that you could easily substitute “socialism” for “communism” since the speakers that use either soundbite seldom, if ever, understand the distinction between the two. 

For most of my life, I have heard the American party line: Capitalism good – Socialism bad.  If you are a billionaire and okay with the fact that your neighbors are homeless, sick and starving, that may be true for you.  After all, who has the right to “redistribute wealth” by taking some of your gourmet coffee money without your permission just to feed some hungry brat whose mom can’t find work since you moved her job overseas.  Unless you think there is something wrong with uninhibited greed, capitalists are not immoral.  They are simply amoral.  You did not terminate her job to hurt her.  As a true capitalist you had no choice but to maximize your profits by going elsewhere to use people without the pesky expensive baggage of thinking they have some “right” to a living wage, healthcare, and safe working conditions. 

Corporate mouthpieces often use the analogy of the three legged stool.  You have probably seen the slideshow presentations explaining that whatever concept they are marketing at the time is based on three equally important things.  If any one of the vital ingredients is missing, the stool cannot stand.  Let’s apply that analogy to capitalism. Imagine a three legged stool sitting in the middle of a cow pasture called the global economy. The philosophy of capitalism is supported by one deceptively simple idea.  But it is also propped up by two other legs that only exist in the minds of the true believers.  The first leg posits that people are basically greedy.  And if you give greed a safe nurturing environment in which to grow there is no limit to the amount of wealth the greediest people can accumulate. 

The second leg stands or falls on the premise that the more wealth greedy people accumulate, the better it will be for everyone else.  This philosophy was popularized by the patron saint of American capitalism, Ronald Reagan.  He called it “Trickle Down economics.”  This theory is often promoted by religious fanatics and is similar to the Biblical statement that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.”  [For all of you Biblical purists, I am aware that this statement was not made in the context of economic theory.  I realize it was actually attributed to a Gentile woman who wanted Jesus to heal her in spite of the fact that she was not a Jew and therefore not within the scope of Jesus’ agenda.  But you get the idea.]  Greedy people don’t have a direct interest in benefiting the surfs.  But the peasants will reap bountiful treasures as an unintended side effect of their selfish activities. 

The third leg is related to the second.  The insatiable appetite for more, by its very nature requires investment and growth from the greedy folks at the top.  Therefore (we are supposed to believe), they will grow their good ol’ red, white and blue American businesses by employing more surfs.  Or to put it another way, as long as there is a rich old ass that needs wiping, there will be more and more jobs for the rest of us.  It’s win-win! 

But that first leg (the only one that isn’t total bullshit) also has an Achilles heel.  It is based on a pyramid scheme.  Unfortunately, there is a limit to the total amount of wealth and resources that can be sucked up by the selfish Pharaohs.  The first Amway distributors do great.  The guys at the next tier do pretty well.  But those that buy in after a while thinking they will someday reach the top, have a hard lesson ahead of them.  For everyone sitting at the top of the pyramid, there are ten thousand peasants with an upside down mortgage and a basement full of soap products no one really wants.  This vast majority of schmucks are scrambling for the crumbs of wealth that fall from the American corporate tables. I say American tables because so many of the crumbs have already been exported to the lands of child labor and sweatshops.

We know from the examples of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation, and France under Louis the XVI, that unlimited greed eventually begins to devour the minimum level of resources necessary for everyone else’s survival.  When peasants get too hungry, the empire is in trouble.  So here we are with record unemployment and most of us sharing the crumbs of what (in spite of the lies we have been told) are clearly finite resources.  That what we share are the crumbs is no weak analogy.  From 2002 to 2007, the income of the top one percent of households grew ten times faster than that of the bottom ninety percent.  That is the largest disparity in American income since 1928.  Yet, as the following rant by Bill Maher points out, the conservatives go berserk and imply you are unpatriotic if you dare complain about it.

If only the goal of the conservatives was to protect the equality and fairness for everyone that brave, progressive people wrested from them in 60s and 70s, their objectives would be worthy of support. Instead, we are watching the dismantling of those triumphs and their rapid replacement with a hypocritical socio-economic cast system that conserves the wealth and power of a select few at everyone else’s expense.

Copyright © 2011, Rick D. Massey, JD

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to “Replenish the ol’ Coffers”

International Military Tribunal Trial of War Criminals at Nuremberg

It cost the Dixie Chicks a lot of money to proclaim that they were ashamed to have come from the same state as George W. Bush.  Fans called radio stations demanding a boycot of the Dixie Chick’s records.  But that was 2003.  And there was a lot the rest of us did not yet know. Those of us that were paying attention already knew Bush and his cowardly cohorts Cheney and Rumsfeld (all three of whom had found their own ways to evade service in a previous unnecessary and unconscionable war), were directly responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands of human beings for their own economic and political reasons. We knew they were liars. And we knew they were sending brave soldiers to be killed and mutilated without the necessary equipment to protect their selves because as Rumsfeld glibly stated “you go to war with the army you have.”  Apparently that includes an unnecessary war against a country that never attacked us in the first place.

Of course, these three musketeers were not exactly suffering. In 2008, Bush proudly exclaimed that “Laura and I are having the time of our lives.” Yes. While our government was sponsoring war crimes in various secret concentration camps around the world, life was pretty good for our President. His biggest problem was how to get through his remaining term, then get out there and “replenish the ol’ coffers.”

Because we had so many congressmen pretending to be too stupid to realize or who were too crooked to admit that drowning people constitutes torture; and because he got his own lawyers to say it was okay, all of his wildest fantasies of completely dominating people that could not fight back were within his grasp. The secret meetings must have closely resembled this scene from the movie Yellowbeard.

Things went smoothly for a while. Bush was replaced by a new Democratic President that did not have the backbone, the resolve, or the depth of human decency necessary to hold the former President and his administration accountable for their actions. Given this perfect storm of complacency, it looked like he just may have gotten away with it.

Meanwhile, Julien Assange made the news again this week because the systematic plan to extradite him for crimes they have not had time to fully invent has hit a snag. No one has been able to come up with an actual crime Assange has committed in any country, not to mention the U.S. other than to embarass its top brass. But getting him is still a top priority. His lawyers fear he will wind up at Guantanamo or worse yet, one of the secret concentration camps we have yet to close down around the world.

Oh yea, and one other small thing - so small in fact that it barely made the news at all this week. It seems that our former President had to cancel his trip to Geneva because if he leaves this country other governments less timid than our own will place him on trial for war crimes against their citizens.

Now isn’t that embarrassing? Thanks largely to his insistence on going around bragging about how he was above our laws and international law, our former leader cannot leave the country for fear of being arrested and held accountable for his crimes. It looks like Bush will have to replenish the ol’ coffers with money from his right-wing groupies here in the States. If he wanders too far from home he could wind up finally having to answer for what he did to his own people and the rest of the world. And it doesn’t look like he could handle that.

Copyright © 2011, Rick D. Massey, JD

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Ignorance of the Past Breeds Optimism for the Future!

Raoul Wallenberg Passport Photo from WikiMedia Commons Used with Permission

In 1912, three months after the death of his father, a little boy was born with what should have been a silver spoon in his mouth near Stockholm Sweden. He grew up in a wealthy home with his mother (who remarried six years later), stepfather, one brother and one sister. His family was well-connected. His grandfather was a Swedish diplomat and envoy to Tokyo, Istanbul, and Sofia. He was educated in America and became fluent in at least four languages.

It was in 1944, after the Hungarian government undertook a massive deportation of Jews to almost certain death in Auschwitz that the young man, Raoul Wallenberg, secured his place as one of the great heroes of recorded history. Ultimately, more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported. Most of them were killed on arrival. But tens of thousands of people (some estimate as high as 100,000) were saved by a small group of volunteers led by Wallenberg.

After creating a phony Swedish Embassy encompassing 32 buildings in Budapest, Wallenberg began disseminating “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews. He had the implicit – but not the official support of the Swedish government which had denied him any assistance beyond looking the other way while he forged official looking documents. The “embassy” was a front. The “passports” were created by Wallenberg himself and were not issued by the authority of the Swedish government. For all practical purposes, he was on his own.

If you ever get the chance to visit the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, take some time to view the archived video interviews with some of the survivors. One of them describes an instance in which Wallenberg came into a warehouse filled with families that were trying to evade deportation. The eye witness account says Wallenberg was crying when he entered the building. He said “I wish I could save all of you.” “But I can only take your children.” “Please let them come with me.” This story was told by one of the surviving children.

Wallenberg’s driver describes another account that illustrates how determined and how persistent he was in saving a trainload of people that were about to be shipped to Auschwitz.

Then he climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don’t remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it!

Today, January 27th, is recognized around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Even Iran of all places will mark the occasion. International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be honored in Israel in addition to the better known national holiday, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which is (with a few exceptions) observed on the 27th of Nissan on the Jewish calendar and occurs in the spring on Western calendars. The Jewish holiday is also known as “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah” (Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism).

About 63 years ago (conflicting accounts place his death between 1945 and 1947), Raoul Wallenberg, one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, is believed after having been imprisoned and tortured to have died in a Soviet prison camp. It was not the Nazis, but the Soviet Union that finally got him.

More than 30 years later (1979), one of the world’s sorriest excuses for a human being, Joseph Mengele, died while swimming in Brazil having enjoyed a comfortable, mostly secure and prosperous life. He never had to face responsibility for his actions. With the exception of having been born into privilege, the only thing these two men seem to have shared is the amazing lack of justification for how each of their lives turned out.

Let’s recap. A successful business man, with a perfectly peaceful, safe and secure livelihood, left Sweden and put everything on the line to save innocent people from one of the greatest human tragedies in history. His life, his future and any dreams he may have had were utterly and completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, a subhuman dirt bag that made a career out of injecting dye into the eyes of children, amputating their limbs and mutilating them for no better reason than to get his name on the books for medical experiments; a cold, hateful asshole that calmly sent innocent people to gas chambers on a daily basis, went on after the war to enjoy the life he stole from so many others for the total amount of time Raoul Wallenberg lived on this planet.

Many years ago, I ran across a calendar that was designed to help the uninitiated understand the meaning of the Jewish holy days. For each holiday, a brief description of its historical purpose was included. Under the holiday “Yom Kippur” (Day of Atonement) was the traditional description “Man is judged by God.” This made sense because I understood the concept that this was a day on which the books of accounting were opened and God would decide the fate of every Jew based on the kind of person he had been in the preceding year. But the description for Yom HaShoah really floored me. Under the name of that holiday was the description “God is judged my Man.” I struggled to understand how the Jewish people could make such an audacious statement!

I would later learn that the Holocaust was a turning point for many Jewish people. There were some that would dig in their heels and view the whole thing as a test of their faith – as evidence that there are things in the universe that people just cannot understand. But others saw this as evidence that if there ever was a covenant between God and the Jewish People, God had utterly failed to keep his end of the bargain. The Holocaust was an equal opportunity atrocity. The best of people and the worst of people having been identified as Jews (or Communists, or homosexuals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses) were captured, tortured and killed. It made no difference if you were an Atheist, a Christian or a fanatically observant Jew. If you were one of the targets or perceived as sympathetic to one of the targets, you were next. And there was no God to save you.

I know the Conservatives tend to panic when anyone dares to compare their world view and policies to those of the Nazis. That is an exercise of free speech reserved for their guys, Beck and Limbaugh. But if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck. . . you know the rest.

For all of the things the Holocaust may be, ancient history is not one of them. Some of the survivors are still with us. They will tell you that most of the victims did not see it coming until it was too late to escape. When Hitler came to power the German people were suffering a terrible economy, massive unemployment, and a sense of national despair. Waging unnecessary and unprovoked war created a huge boost for the economy. Depriving the people of basic human rights such as fair trials, the right to face their accusers and confront the evidence against them, and the right to legal counsel made the despicable acts of a totalitarian government not only possible, but relatively easy.

Like our modern politicians, the Nazis had a “solution” to offer the public: eliminate the gays, the “communists”, and the Jews. But hate is nurtured by an abundance mentality. There is always room for more. Today it seems that the voices of rational, educated, compassionate human beings are drowned out by a sea of misfits with a flag in one hand, a bible in the other, and a hateful idiot in the middle. The gays, the communists/socialists, and the Jews are blamed for creating all of the problems with which they, as categories had nothing to do. But move over for the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the “Liberals.” If we could all understand how important it is to hate those people, all modern problems would be solved. Combine that thinking with the ignorant rhetoric about “Second Amendment Solutions” and the blind, stupid “faith” that we are unconditionally the best country on earth (even if we torture people and hold our leaders above the law); and that God just likes us better than everyone else, and we will surely repeat the atrocities of World War II before the end of this generation. Ignoring what happened before makes it easier to believe we have ‘the truth.” But it will not save us from ourselves – or the rest of the world from us.

Copyright © 2011, Rick D. Massey, JD

Posted in HIstory, Politics | Tagged | 4 Comments