About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2018/04/06

Jesus' twin?

Dragon Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari) from Socotra
Three things you might not know about Early Christianity.

1) Gospels (Matthew 13:55f and Mark 6:3) mention matter-of-factly and in an adversarial context (therefore credibly) Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Only some fundamentalists and conservative Roman Catholics usually have a problem with it artificially explaining it as Jesus’ half-siblings or cousins. But then there was a disciple called Thomas. His Aramaic name (nickname) literally meant “a twin”. And if there were any doubts about the meaning of his name, Evangelist John (11:16; 20:24 and 21:2) translated it into Greek as Didymos so that everyone would know that it indeed meant a Twin. If Thomas was a twin, where was the other twin? Some early Christian writings provided the answer. Thomas was supposed to be the twin of Jesus. The oldest recorded legend dates to the brink of the 2nd and 3rd century. And rumors of this kind must clearly be even older, dating back to the late biblical times.
     At least some early Christians thought that Thomas was Jesus’ twin brother. And that is something you might not know about Early Christianity.

2) According to the early Christian legends, Thomas was a missionary to India, especially its western shore around the Arabian Sea. But well documented legends connect Thomas’ missionary work with one other surprising place - an island of Socotra. Now this island belongs to Yemen, but it is just off the easternmost tip of the Horn of Africa. It is an interesting place with many endemic plants such as Dragon Blood Trees and Bottle trees. In ancient times the island was famous for its frankincense and other aromatic resin. Thomas was supposedly shipwrecked there on his way to India and converted the island to Christianity and it stayed Christian until medieval times when it converted to Islam.
     This Thomassian mission might be legendary, but there is little doubt about a far reaching early mission to India and around the Arabian Sea. And that is something you might not know about early Christianity.

3) Earlier I mentioned legends and writings associated with Thomas. In fact there is an entire library of early Christian literature written under Thomas’ name. The Gospel of Thomas, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Thomas, Book of Thomas Athlete/Contender, Apocalypse of Thomas and even Psalms of Thomas. All these writings are very different, they survived in different languages, and were influenced by different theologies. At the same time they have something in common - not a single of these writings made it to the Bible. Writings associated with Thomas were mistrusted by the official church and many of them were actively suppressed. Censorship was so successful that some were discovered only recently and by pure chance. That begs a question: Is it possible that the famous biblical story of “unbelieving Thomas” (John 20:19-29) was an attempt by early orthodox Christians to label, brand, dismiss and suppress these heterodox writings and groups which produced them? Or did different unorthodox Christians pick the “unbelieving Thomas” as their patron in protest? We might never know, and both approaches are not mutually exclusive.
     This extensive and diverse literature associated with Thomas shows us the great theological broadness of early Christians. And that is also something you might not know about the early Christianity.

2018/03/23

Royal asses

According to the gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. (Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-9, Luke 19: 28-40 even John 12:12-15). As overwhelmingly confirmed as it looks, it is difficult to know whether it really happened. All the gospels are mutually connected and at least in their current form are shaped as traditional "fulfillment narrative" fulfilling an ancient prophecy. Matthew and John even quote (each in slightly different words) that prophecy (Zachariah 9:9). Matthew then goes still further by talking about two animals, she-donkey and her colt. While in Zachariah two, even three animals are a part of the Semitic poetical style (poetical parallelism), Matthew makes two animals part of his story. (Literalistic/fundamentalistic tendencies together with misunderstanding of the Semitic poetic style among Christians are clearly of a very early date! :-) )
            Interestingly, the prophecy of Zachariah is not the oldest preserved parallel to the Gospel story. The oldest known parallel is preserved on the cuneiform tablet from Ugarit. (KTU 1.4.iv.1-15). Goddess Asherah is departing for a visit to her partner and the head of the Pantheon, god El. Her assistant/s are summoned and then he/they saddle a donkey for her.
 
And the Great Lady-who-Tramples-Sea replied:
‘Listen, O Qadesh and Amurru,
     O fisherman of the Great Lady-who-Tramples-Sea!
Harness an ass,
     saddle a donkey,
put on trappings of silver,
     and golden fitments.
Prepare the harness of my she-ass!’

And  Qadesh and Amurru obeyed.
He prepared an ass,
     he saddled a donkey.
He put on trappings of silver,
     and golden fitments.
He prepared the harness of her she-ass.

Qadesh and Amurru took her,
     he helped Athirat on the back of the ass,
          into the most comfortable saddle on the donkey.

Qadesh took a torch,
     Amurru was like a start in front.
While Virgin Anat and Baal
     departed to the heights of Saphon,
Athirat indeed set her face towards El,
     towards the source of the (four world) rivers,
          in between the springs of  Two Deeps ....


     It is epic poetry, so again, we have here plurality of animals, a donkey, an ass, her she-ass. But we have here also the fitting and saddling of the animal. And finally, just like in the gospel of Luke, there is also lifting up and seating of the rider.
     It goes without mentioning that Evangelists definitely did not know Ugaritic texts. They are more than 12 centuries older. But all four canonical Gospels, prophecy of Zachariah as well as polytheistic myth from Ugarit clearly show that among the West Semitic peoples: a) donkeys were traditional divine and royal riding animals and b) preparing, saddling of the animal and even c) lifting up and seating of the rider were integral parts of a royal protocol/ritual.
     The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem might look like a piece of a bucolic idyll but in reality this story reflect an ancient royal ritual with deep religious and political roots predating the gospels by many centuries.
     And that is something you might not known about the Bible.
 
 
A detail from  Mycenaean krater from Ugarit

2018/03/08

For love of the Universe

Three weeks ago I spent with Martina few days in Tromsø (It was her anniversary wish). Tromssø is a Norvegian city way above the Polar Circle right in the “Auroral zone” – this is a geographic belt around the poles which is excellent for observing Auroras (Northern Lights). That was our goal - to see Aurora Borealis. During shorter days temperatures stayed around single digits (Fahrenheit) and overnight they were dipping deep into the minus territory (cold waters of a fjord were steaming like a boiling pot).
            We spent nights outside hunting and observing this awesome celestial spectacle. Streams and curtains of light are flowing and swirling across the wide expanses of sky from one horizon to another. This marvelous display was often as bright as street lights, illuminating Norwegian fjords, mountains and peaks with its predominant bright green light.
            Aurora received its name from the name of the Latin goddess of the dawn. As if the ancients knew about its close association with our Sun. Polar lights are caused by particles of solar wind which are deflected and captured in the high atmosphere (High Mesospher and low Thermosphere). Northern lights are in fact a spectacular sideshow by which our planet is protecting and keeping all of us, terrestrials, alive.
            While I was preparing for this trip, I refreshed my high school education and perhaps learned a little bit more about the Northern lights. Understanding them was great, but direct experience was awe inspiring.  And theologically (in thinking of faith) this combination of beauty and protection revealed to me a prime example of the divine love of the Universe.  It will be our theme this Sunday - reclaiming the famous John 3:16 from the clutches of evangelicals and fundamentalists and highlighting its beautiful message of inclusive divine love.

2018/02/28

Dark Religion

A part of our Rutgers Church's Marchers at the March for our lives.
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21)

What does this quotation from the Third Book of Moses mean?  Endless books and learned articles have been written about this strange commandment. I list below some of the most common questions and theories.*) Nevertheless, I doubt that we would ever know the answer with any reasonable level of certainty and I have been closely studying Ancient Middle Eastern religions for more than three decades.
     But several matters are undisputable - Molech, simply for its Semitic word-root MLK(MLCH) is associated with the sphere of ruling, governing, power, politics or ideology. And to these political ends children were dedicated in some ritual which, with a high degree of probability, involved their death.
     After the tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary School and subsequent school shootings I started to realize that our society and especially some of our politicians are deeply tainted by this dark business - offering our children and youth to Molech. It is done indirectly, by the unwillingness to follow common sense and elemental reason or by the recalcitrant inability to change or enact some simple basic laws of gun control. Our politicians sacrifice our youth for their political and ideological expediency.
     Indeed, this entire dark business has all the marks of a false religion - an idolatry of military grade guns led by the dark priests from the NRA assisted by the choirs of corrupt politicians all reciting the blasphemously misconstrued Second Amendment, while children are being slaughtered in our schools. And as if it was not enough, the chief dark wizard (actually painted orange) did not know anything better, but to suggest arming school teachers and coaches, thus converting teachers (priests of knowledge) into the armed demons of this dark religion.
     Enough! We must stop these human sacrifices in this political and ideological idolatry of guns. In the name of religion of life, we must not give any more of our offprints to this dark monster of deadly politics.



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*) The very language and terminology is not clear. Is it about dedication or sacrifice? Is it a sacrifice of firstborns or just a sacrifice of any babies? Is Molech a name of a deity, the name of a ritual or just a grade of a ritual? If "Molech" was a name of the deity, which one exactly and how it should be vocalized? Molech, Malik, Milku, Muluk? (Mind you, in Semitic languages we often do not know the vowels.) Is it the name of a proper deity or a title for just any ruling deity (“melech” means “king”) or just a deified office of a king?
Was it a proper sacrifice or, for instance, just a cremation of stillborn babies in the hope of a new pregnancy? Can we connect this passage with the well documented Punic practice or should we look for some closer Middle-Eastern cognates?

2018/02/22

In Pursuit of Justice

I used to have a problem with the American concept of justice. So often justice was presented as consisting in retribution and vengeance, concentrating primarily on punishing perpetrators and not enough rehabilitating them or restoring harmony among victims an society.
After the horrendous tragedy in Parkland Florida I realised that at least part of American society, its young people, is able to get over the curse of retributive justice and envision and demand a higher concept of justice, which is often called restorative justice. Children and young people are more mature than many adults. They are not distracted with howling for blood, they stay focused on asking and demanding solutions.
That is the original ancient concept of justice. For instance, in the Bible, Greek justice, DIKĒ, was defined as what was customary, balanced and harmonious. Hebrew justice TSADAQAH was what was right, legitimate, lawful, a state of harmony and social health.
Moreover, Hebrew justice is described as flowing like rivers, springing like water, and like rain in a parched land. Imagine an arid or semiarid Middle Eastern land and you understand that Hebrew justice is not about punishment but about bringing and restoring life.
This Sunday we will hear a parable in which Jesus encourages us, his disciples, to seek this salvific, redemptive, restorative justice and never give up.

2018/01/30

Incendiary Fragment

In the boiler room of our church we have recently made an epochal discovery. In an old bucket of ancient ash, clearly from before the gas and even oil conversions, we found a partly-burned old document, completely charred all around the edges. After deciphering the old cursive we realized why some old pious faithful might be tempted to destroy this writing from the workshop of the Manhattan Bible of Henry Rutgers. Here is our attempt to reconstruct this single legible page:   

And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
for the old heaven and the old earth got reborn;
and all the garbage and pollution were gone.

And I Henry saw the Holy City, a new Manhattan,
coming down from heaven,
dressed up and adorned for a major festival.
And I heard a clear voice saying,
Behold, from now on God will dwell among people.

And I could not but notice some epochal changes,
There were no homeless people sleeping in the subway,
because God herself made their beds for them.
And there were no hungry begging for spare change
because God herself cooked meals for them.
Even overcrowded emergency rooms were no more,
because God herself dressed all their wounds without waiting.
Just note, and know, that many things we consider normal,
are not normal before God.

In that city all banks, hedge-funds
and wealth management firms went out of business,
and bankers and managers disappeared like cockroaches
after the light is turned on.
Because in that city the sidewalks were paved with diamonds
and streets were made of pure gold,
all the wealth was literally just dirt under their shoes.

And divine revolution continued,
I could not find in that city any churches,
temples, mosques, sanctuaries, synagogues,
tabernacles, chapels and shrines.
They were turned into homes for homeless,
into hospitals for the ill, into schools for the children,
into nursing homes for the elderly,
and those with high ceilings were turned into gyms
so that God can play badminton with her followers.
Only few examples of the most pompous sacred architecture
were preserved as museums of bigotry and religious wars.
God now dwelled in the world among people -
and all the religions went out of business,
no more need for all those endlessly feuding cabals.
    

 
Now you know, why someone wanted to burn this divine message. As has been noted above, this fragment is, without any doubt, just another example of a very late post-biblical literature. But its close affinity to the last chapters of the Bible (Revelation 21) can hopefully illuminate the radical nature of this otherwise often misunderstood last book of the Bible.
I wrote a several years ago about the historical religious background of this passage here: Sun City Dream.

2018/01/25

Egalitarian Allegory

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon (Memorabilia 2.iii.18), Socrates once tried to reconcile two fighting brothers by telling them that they were like two hands or two feet of one person. By divine design they were to work together.
    That is the earliest known version of the allegory of a human body. After Socrates, this image, this allegory became quite popular in ancient times among rhetoricians and politicians.  Four hundred years later, Apostle Paul used the same image to appeal for solidarity, cooperation and harmony among Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 12).
    Paul took this allegory even further. He likened Christians to the body of Christ. But is a human body the only alternative to imagining Church, Christ or God? The Gospel of John uses the body of vine to speak about interdependence of believers and Christ. Could not a garden (Genesis 2), vineyard (Isaiah 5) or even a forest (Psalm 104) be also a fitting image to teach us about God and plurality, diversity, mutuality and solidarity in nature and in Church?
    Join us this Sunday in celebrating beautiful allegories of mutuality and interconnectedness.  

2018/01/17

Umami catchers

Do you know what GARUM was?
    It was a Hellenistic fish sauce. In the Greco-Roman world it was like a soy sauce for Asian cuisine. The only difference being that garum was more an indication of social status. The rich people bought expensive fish sauce imported from distant provinces. While the poor used dreks left from the production of this fish sauce. They flavored their porridge with a paste of crushed fermented salted fish.
    Catching fish for the production of garum and slated or pickled fish was the occupation of the first disciples of Jesus. They were industrial fishermen. From ancient history* and archeology** we know they were hardly making ends meet and they were exploited. They paid their regular temple and imperial taxes. But as fishermen, they also needed to buy fishing licenses, they had to pay for use of the harbour (or just for docking or landing) and they had to pay tolls for bringing their catch to market.
    At the end, they had hardly enough to stay alive. They were catching fish which they had to sell (and could not eat), so that the rich could enjoy fermented pleasures. They must have felt like a little fish trapped in a large and unjust exploitation net of fees, tolls and taxes. Are we surprised that many of them were ready to leave behind the tools of their exploitation and follow Jesus joining his reform movement?
    That is how Galilean fishermen heard the call to unite with nothing to lose but their nets in which they themselves felt ensnared (To paraphrase one well-known German philosopher).
   Let us rejoice this Sunday in leaving behind umami business to capture the true fresh and just zest of life.
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* For instance the Galilean town Magdala was also know in Greek as Tarichae - which literally means "a place for processing (salting and fermenting) fish". Or for instance a biblical scholar, K.C.Hanson, reconstructed from different ancient sources a complex Galilean fishing economy.
** I wrote about a discovery of the Galilean fishing boat in one of my earlier blog posts.

And for the curious or knowledgeable a quiz question with a small reward -- Would you know who was that "Well-known German philosopher" and what would be his wording of that quotation Fishermen unite, you have nothing to lose but your nets? Write me by email or talk to me after worship.

2018/01/04

Epiphany Today

This is an icon of "Our Lady who brings down walls". The icon was commissioned by Benedictine nuns from Emmanuel Monastery in Bethlehem. It is written (that is the proper verb used for painting icons) by Ian Knowles on the 26ft tall Separation Wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian Bethlehem.
    History teaches us that walls do not really work. Roman border fortifications including the famous Hadrian Wall in Great Britain did not work. The Chinese Great Wall as impressive as it might be, was actually only a small part of many constructed over a number of centuries and considering the amount of work and endeavor, those walls also did not work, all were eventually abandoned. We all know the history of the Maginot Line (French defenses before WWII) and I personally experienced growing up behind the Iron Curtain. I vividly remember rejoicing over its fall (you might recall pictures of the end of the Berlin Wall).
    All such walls are in fact a treatment of symptoms instead of real underlying problems. They are delusional, ineffective and relatively short-lived. They are manifestations of some deeper political, moral or spiritual bankruptcy.
    This Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany. A deeply meaningful holiday rooted in a picturesque legend about the wise-ones paying a visit to the newborn Jesus. It can hardly escape anyone that such a journey would be extremely difficult if not outright impossible to take today. Just imagine religious officials traveling from Afghanistan and Iran, crossing war-torn Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria eventually arriving to the towering Separation Wall and its dangerous checkpoints.  
    Yet right there is the deepest meaning of this Epiphany story. Early church created and embraced this story because it went to the roots and addressed the causes of misunderstandings and animosities among the peoples, cultures, races and religions. It taught the early church an alternative, positive and constructive vision for our world. Vision of the rational, multi-cultural and multi-faith world without walls. Join us in celebrating this beautiful and deeply meaningful holiday.