Thursday, December 8, 2011

Recently Read: Angels and Demons - Dan Brown

I know Dan Brown books get quite a bit of stick from the literati, but personally I quite like them. I started reading this one before last Christmas. I got about two-thirds of the way through and then got sidetracked and started reading something else. I only picked it up again a few weeks ago. I know that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but the fact that it took me a year to read it probably says more about my erratic reading habits than it does about the book.

This was the second Dan Brown book I'd read, the first being The Da Vinci Code. Like the first, I quite enjoyed this one. I found it interesting, fast-paced and quite zippy.

Actually, I should probably use this opportunity to stick up for Dan Brown a bit. His writing style and subject matter often come in for criticism, but I think it's a bit unfair. When I hear people, even people I'm a fan of like Stephen Fry, deriding The Da Vinci Code I kind of feel they're missing the point and being a little bit snobbish. Dan Brown's writing style is perfectly apt for the type of books he writes. If you want extraordinary prose you should probably go somewhere else. In fact, part of Dan Brown's success lies in his unpretentious writing style - his books read like James Bond movies, that's part of the appeal.

Another thing which I find a bit silly is the way people take issue with the statements made in the preface of his books - like the one where he states that the Priory of Sion is a real organisation. First of all, his books are works of fiction. How anyone can get worked up about something they've read in a fictional work is beyond me, whether it's been presented as fact or otherwise. And secondly, the statements are clearly literary devices. When Dan Brown writes that the Priory of Sion is a real organisation he's basically saying "listen, I haven't made this stuff up out of thin air." The point being that people in the real world had actually researched and speculated about this stuff before he wrote the book. Anyone reading a Dan Brown novel for the first time needs to know this stuff otherwise it wont make any sense.

Anyway, like I said, I feel the criticism he gets is a bit unfair. This was a good book.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Love Thy Neighbour - The Golden Rule

In my last post I wrote;
The biggest mystery that remains for me is who came up with some of the social and moral philosophy that we find in the New Testament. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you,’ ‘love your enemies,’ all pretty profound ideas. If Jesus didn’t exist, who came up with this stuff, and where did it originate?
Since then I've been reading about 'The Golden Rule' - basically the ethic of reciprocity, or rather, the idea that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

It turns out that this idea exists in pretty much all major religions and philosophical traditions. I'll give a few examples.

In Ancient Greece;
"Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him."  - Pittacus
"What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either. " - Sextus the Pythagorean.
In China;
"Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." - Laozi
In Judaism;
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. - Leviticus 19:18
In Islam;
A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. Prophet said: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. Now let the stirrup go! [This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!]” - Kitab al-Kafi,
Myriad other examples can be found on the Wikipedia page -

So, far from being a mystery, it turns out that the concept has always been fairly common across all human cultures. In fact, I'm now starting to think that the idea is probably more or less innate to all human beings.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Many Faces of Jesus

I’ve recently been doing a little bit of research on Jesus, mainly because I feel that the timing of his birth is a little suspicious. The Julian calendar was started in 45 BCE by Julius Caesar, then corrected by Augustus (no later than 8 CE), Jesus was then born sometime around 6 CE. Now to me it seems a little odd that the calendar was sorted out just in time for the arrival of the baby Jesus. Of course it could just be a coincidence, and a minor one at that. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone at sometime had just pinned the birth of Jesus near the beginning of the Julian calendar. Either because Jesus never existed and the beginning was an obvious place to put the birth of the son of God, or for some other reason altogether.

Anyway, needless to say, I didn’t find a simple answer regarding my suspicions. Instead I was just led into a labyrinth of speculation and synchronicity. Basically, there were so many different theories regarding Jesus that I was left no wiser than when I started.

I’ll give a brief introduction to some of these theories here.

The Gaulish Jesus - Esus

Esus, also know as Hesus, was a Gaulish god. The existence of this god is known from two statues and from a reference in Lucan's Bellum civile. On both statues Esus is portrayed cutting tree branches with his axe. He was apparently associated with human sacrifice and it’s said that his victims were sacrificed by being tied to a tree and flailed. The obvious similarity of the names, Esus, Hesus and Jesus has lead to the god being equated with the biblical Jesus.

Jesus as Iaso

Iaso was a Greek goddess and was associated with healing and recuperation. She’s one of the lesser known Greek gods and her equation with Jesus is even less well known - so much so that I’ve only actually came across it once so far, and that online. Her association with Jesus mainly comes from the similarity of her name to the Greek version of Jesus - Iesous. And, of course, from the fact that she’s associated with healing.

Jesus as Zeus

I’ve came across this one quite a few times on the Internet. Apparently, Iesous, the Greek name for Jesus, translates as “Hail Zeus.” “Ie,” apparently meaning “Hail” and “sous,” “Zeus.” The “Hail” bit in particular sounds a little bit apocryphal to me. However, a lot of Greek names rendered in English seem to have the “sus” ending - Dionysus, etc. So maybe there’s some truth to it.

Jesus as the Sun

People have also equated the worship of Jesus with the worship of the Sun, citing the fact that the holy day of Christianity is Sunday, and also the fact that Jesus is worshipped as the “Son” of God. It’s also said that sun-worship was so prevalent amongst the early Christians that it had to be sermonised against by the likes of Pope Leo the Great (391/400-461). He preached;
“From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is so proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter’s basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform, they turn round and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb”
This theory is obviously quite attractive to me at the moment as it kind of fits in with my suspicions about the Julian calendar and the birth of Christ. The fact that Sol Invictus - The Invincible Sun - was also at one point the official religion of Rome also seems to go hand in hand with this.

Jesus as Horus

It’s said that the story of the Egyptian god Horus also parallels the story of Jesus. The most apparent and symbolic parallel being that of the Virgin Mary and Jesus with the goddess Isis and her son, the infant Horus. Some people have also speculated that the holy trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost) is of Egyptian derivation.

The Mithraic Connection

Mithraism was a religion that flourished in the Roman Empire between the 1st and 4th centuries CE - i.e. in the early days of Christianity and largely before the Christian faith was officially adopted by the Roman Empire. The main connection with Jesus is that the birthday of Mithras was celebrated on the 25th of December (although there’s some contention about this).

Something that caught my eye was this on Wikipedia;
“The Christian apologist Tertullian wrote that as a prelude to the Mithraic initiation ceremony, the initiate was given a ritual bath and at the end of the ceremony, received a mark on the forehead. Tertullian described these rites as a diabolical counterfeit of the baptism and chrismation of Christians.”
It’s also been suggested that Mithraism was a solar cult, so this maybe connects with the ‘Jesus as the Sun’ theory mentioned earlier.

Jesus as Dionysus

Another god who has been mentioned as a precursor to Jesus is Dionysus, the god of grape harvest, wine and general abandon. It’s mainly the association with wine that has led to the comparison. Although there are other similarities, such as the fact that both are viewed as dying-and-returning gods.

Something which maybe lends itself to the idea of an overlap between Jesus and Dionysus is the fact that Dionysius continued to be a popular name well into the Christian era. Examples include Pope Dionysius (259–268), Dionysius, bishop of Milan (349-355) and Dionysius Exiguus (470–544), the formulator of the Anno Domini era.

The Arian Interpretation of Jesus

Arianism was a branch of Christianity that followed the teachings of Arius (amongst others). It held the view that Jesus was separate from God and was a created being - as opposed to the Roman Catholic view that held that Jesus and God were one and the same. Sadly the main evidence we have for Arianism derives from works written by its detractors as the original writings were deemed heretical and consequently burned.

From what I’ve read so far it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the Arians believed that Jesus was simply a man and not a god. However, it’s generally believed that the Arians viewed Jesus as divine and simply saw him as beneath God, but nevertheless still of God, and of divine importance.

Personally, I find it hard not to sympathise with the Arian view, after all Arius was arguing against Trinitarianism - the idea that the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ are of the same exact substance and are co-equally God. A thoroughly nonsensical doctrine. The Arian viewpoint seems slightly more rational, at least given the scraps of information we have concerning it. In fact, again, it’s difficult not to sense a few glimmers of philosophical light in the fragments.

For example, when reading these fragments it often seems that the Word of God is being confused with the Son of God. So that rather than speaking about Jesus in particular they seem to be speaking of religious concepts generally.  In fact, sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re speaking about Jesus Christ or about man in general.

The following comes from a poem by Arius called the Thalia;

"In brief, God is inexpressible to the Son.
For He is in himself what He is, that is, indescribable,
So that the Son does not comprehend any of these things or have the understanding to explain them.
For it is impossible for him to fathom the Father, who is by Himself.
For the Son himself does not even know his own essence.
For being Son, his existence is most certainly at the will of the Father."

On the topic of the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost,’ I think it would certainly make more sense if it was something more akin to ‘God, Man and the Soul.’ It would certainly be more in keeping with the Greek philosophical tradition which preceded it.

It may also be the case that the Arians were simply arguing that anything of this world, be it man or the utterances of man, or anything else for that matter, are of God but not actually God himself. And thus, that nothing in this universe can be more divine or less divine than anything else in it. And therefore that nothing of this world (be it biblical scripture or Jesus himself) should be elevated to the rank of God. Then again maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part.

[I’ve just read that Origen (184/5–253/4 CE), one of the precursors to Arius, believed that Jesus was the Word of God incarnate. So the above almost certainly is wishful thinking].

In Conclusion

All in all it’s difficult not to see Christianity as a compound religion. A composite and amalgamation of numerous beliefs and traditions, brought together and codified by a single supranational authority - kind of a faith based European Union project. What the actual truth is I’m not sure, and deeply so.

The biggest mystery that remains for me is who came up with some of the social and moral philosophy that we find in the New Testament. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you,’ ‘love your enemies,’ all pretty profound ideas. If Jesus didn’t exist, who came up with this stuff, and where did it originate? The various gods, goddesses and sun-gods that inspired the Christian faith don’t really explain this. At least as far as I know anyway.

Either way, I feel like a cat pawing at the cat-flap of history. Pushing at the door, but still on the outside. More research needed!

The Two Pence Piece Value

The current scrap value of the copper in a British 2p coin (minted pre-1992) is now 3.3p. 

The scrap metal value of a 2p coin (pre-1992) is now 3.3p, 10.7% less than at this time last year.
And the value of the (cupro-nickel) 5p coin is now 2.0p, 17.5% less.