Thursday, September 14, 2006

9: The Truth About Jesus

It was around this time, at the Eastern end of the Roman Empire, that a chap known to history as Jesus was starting to make his presence felt.
His real name Joshua or Jeshua or Jeheshua, a perfectly commonplace Hebrew name at the time, but he's known to us as Jesus because that was how his name translated into Greek, but just to be different let's call him Josh.
As far as we know, it seems this man was an itinerant preacher whose followers claimed he was the rescuer of the Jewish people whose arrival had been announced in advance by certain authors of several hundred years before, whose writings had since become Holy (i.e. immune from rational scrutiny and therefore True). That being the case, a lot of people around this time were looking around for a good candidate to fulfil these prophesies: The main reason for them doing it just then was probably that the Romans were stomping all over them, as indeed they were stomping all over most of Europe and the Middle East, replacing local barbaric murderous tyrants with their own civilised murderous tyrants, and no-one seemed to be able to do anything about it.
Centuries earlier (we skipped this bit) the Hebrews had made a legal deal - by proxy of course - with one of their gods, agreeing that they would worship only him and have no dealings with any of the others. Over the course of time this came to mean that they couldn't even acknowledge the existence of any others, and finally that anyone who DID acknowledge the existence of any others was definitely on the outs with the one-and-only real god, whether or not they'd been party to the original deal, and therefore on the outs with his followers too. Thus began the monotheistic mindset of 'we're all going to Heaven and to hell with everyone else'.
This was the state of affairs when the Blessed Hebrews found themselves being stomped all over by the Damned Romans, and naturally enough they had the feeling that this wasn't quite how things were meant to be. Surely their god wasn't going back on the deal?
So the prophesies about a rescuer (or 'Saviour') came to the fore, and they started looking high and low for him. There were a number of candidates - mainly itinerant evangelists - who seemed to vaguely fulfil the requirements, and Josh was one of them. He apparently went along with the idea - after all, he might have reasoned, there's no such thing as bad publicity - and gained something of a reputation. But neither the Jewish Establishment nor the Roman administrators were really won over by this upstart, and between the two of them they had him nailed to a big wooden cross for his impudence.
One would think that would be the end of the story, since this Rescuer, according to the prophesies, was supposed to free the Blessed Jews from whatever Damned Oppressors were oppressing them this time. Getting himself nailed to a piece of wood was never part of the plan. If it had been, one suspects, he might have been a little more cautious about taking the part.
However, Josh had perhaps the best PR men the business has ever seen, and years after he died they got round to writing the whole story down and arguing that this was in fact what was supposed to happen all along. It all ties in with pagan customs involving sacrifice that their ancestors had adopted centuries earlier, and which were still popular in parts of Europe for centuries to come:
Many cultures throughout history have subscribed to the idea that they can get on good terms with their gods by giving them a present. This usually involves killing it. So if you want a particular favour from one of your gods, a specific present would be expected; a chicken or something - the bigger the favour, the bigger the present. If it's a really BIG favour, like asking if the annual harvest can PLEASE be a bit bigger this year than it was the last seven years, the present might have to be the hottest young unattached lady in the vicinity.
To take this reasoning to its next stage, what can you sacrifice to ask the one and only really genuine god to forgive everything you've ever done to upset him as well as everything you're ever going to do in the future? Auntie Vera's eldest, the one with the nice ankles, isn't even going to begin to cover it.
The idea was that by getting himself nailed to the cross, Josh was volunteering himself as a sort of super-human sacrifice. Him being the one and only son of the one and only real god, he was worth way more than some girl of high repute and was therefore the only possible candidate for the job.
Under impolite scrutiny, the logic seems a bit strained to say the least. For one thing, you'd think killing God's son would only upset him. Second, he wasn't actually getting himself killed because he was only supposed to be going back up to Heaven anyway, which by all accounts is a much nicer place than here, even if it is invisible. (Come to think of it, if MY place was invisible that might be considered an improvement.) So where's the sacrifice there?
If the sacrifice is supposed to be ours, in that we don't have him around to consult any more, then that sort of negates the idea that he's all around us all the time, more so than if he was really here, so to speak, as his self-appointed representatives have long been telling us he is.
As if that wasn't enough, we're told he came back for a quick encore a couple of days later as if just to prove he could do it. All of this seems to suggest that the crucifixion business never actually achieved anything worthwhile apart from giving the poor chap a remarkably painful day or two.
Finally we're told that he was then taken up to heaven - floated up on a cloud or something - and that was the last anyone ever saw of him, apart from the occasional cameo on the road to Damascus or on a piece of toast.
Allow me to present two versions of these events, and you may draw your own conclusions as to which is more credible.

Version 1: Josh is up on a hill nailed to a cross. His friends are hanging around watching. They can't do anything because the Romans who nailed him there are also hanging around. After a day or so Josh dies. His friends draw this fact to the attention of the guards who let them take him down and carry him off. Without too much ceremony, they put him in a cave and wheel a great big stone over the doorway.
A couple of days later some of them wander by and find that the stone has been moved away; the door is open. Then they happen across Josh, who is up and walking about. He has miraculously come back to life. After a final quiet party they wander up a hill with him and watch him being taken up to heaven on a cloud.

Version 2: Josh is up on a hill nailed to a cross. His friends are hanging round watching. After a day or so he loses consciousness. His friends tell the Roman guards that he's dead and ask if they can please take him down. The guards, keen to get indoors after standing in the rain for hours, agree. Josh's friends remove him and hide him in a cave. Just to keep the Romans from finding him again too easily, they wheel a big stone across the doorway.
A couple of days later, they sneak back and open the door up again while no-one is looking and take Josh away to a safe house. However the opened tomb does not go unnoticed, and it is decided that it would be a good idea for Josh to make himself scarce and keep a low profile. He does not want to get nailed to a cross again.
Next day a couple of Romans accost some of Josh's friends and interrogate them about the open tomb and the whereabouts of Josh. 'Oh,' they say. 'You won't be seeing him again. We saw him being taken up to heaven'. The Romans accept this, at least as a good reason for not letting this chap create more work and trouble for them.
Naturally enough, word of that story gets around, tying in as it does with all the remaining evidence, and Josh's reputation starts to grow. We might speculate on how much of it Josh himself lived to see, and indeed whether he was responsible for any of it.

One would like to think that all this is of secondary importance compared to the philosophy of life that Josh went around teaching:
Whereas God's instructions in the Old Testament can be summed up thus:
'Do what I tell you, or you'll be sorry'.
Josh's version reads:
'Be nice to each other.'
In itself that seems beautifully simple, harmless and nothing if not helpful and constructive, and even rather obvious, but sadly a lot of people have found it necessary to combine it with the older philosophy, and interpret it this way:
'Be nice to each other or I'll set my Dad on you, then you'll be sorry.'
Which, naturally enough, often provokes the response:
'No you won't.'
To which the inevitable reply is:
'To Hell with you, then.'
... and downhill from there. Which shows what happens when you complicate things.

Friday, September 08, 2006

8: The Roman Empire

A couple of hundred years or so later we come to Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman ever. Caesar was Rome's greatest general and the first Roman to take a very large bunch of soldiers ('legion') over to Britain.
Britain was regarded as an easy target for conquest in those days since the natives were merely a bunch of unruly savages whose interests seldom went beyond painting their faces, grunting and hitting each other. (Yes, I know.)  
However, perhaps discouraged by the bad weather and lack of intelligent conversation, Caesar limited his invasion to a quick look around, and quickly left again. He diverted his energies towards lots of conquering on mainland Europe until he got to the point where, when he decided he'd like to rule the whole Empire personally, nobody cared to argue.
After a while though his arrogance began to get on people's nerves and a bunch of his friends literally stabbed him in the back - but I ask you, if you can't be an arrogant sod when you're Emperor of Rome, when can you?
It didn't do them a lot of good in the long run because after a few years of unrest (in which Cleopatra is somehow involved, never mind the details) Caesar's nephew Augustus took over as emperor, followed  - sometimes in quite rapid succession - by a long string of other emperors, who got progressively worse. 
One of the the most notorious was Caligula, who we think of as mad partly because he made his horse a senator - but then these days we often give control of the country to a complete ass, so who are we to talk?  

7: The Roman Republic

The Romans had the first proper empire to have any lasting effect on the world, and a lot of their ways of doing things are still with us today.
Why it sprung up when and where it did is anyone's guess, but at any rate Rome started around 1000BC when the city was, according to legend, founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were raised from infancy by a wolf - hardly an auspicious start for a pair of future city-builders - unless wolves have an innate talent for town planning which, being wolves, they seldom get a chance to exercise. Similarly, many humans of course have a gift for stalking caribou and the like, an activity best left to wolves, who at least have the dignity to do it the hard way, by pouncing on them and using their teeth. Though perhaps Prince Charles feels he'd just look silly.
Little is known about Roman history until about 600BC, when they threw out their royalty and declared themselves a republic. This worked quite well for a few hundred years, so much so that by 300BC Roman influence stretched across the Mediterranean to the City of Cartlidge, (part of modern Two-Knees) where it somehow raised the hackles of local big man Hannibal, who decided it was time for a change of leadership.
Strong on Leader but short on Ship, Hannibal marched on Rome the long way round, by way of Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain, France and the Alps - or whatever they were called then. Not satisfied with taking a huge army, he also took a bunch of elephants, possibly for dramatic effect. The impact of these beasts on the locals must have been awesome. It's not even as if they might amusingly have mistaken them for giant cats or sheep because elephants look utterly unlike anything else, beyond having four legs and two eyes. The first guy to see the creatures must have had a terrible job trying to describe them to his mates when he ran home. The problem wouldn't have been so bad for those living directly in Hannibal's path, because his bizarre description would pretty soon be backed up and followed by those satisfying 'Oh, yeah-! Crikey!' noises - but if you lived a few miles from the route and just happened to be in the area when the elephants were passing, you'd have to suffer a lifetime of ridicule, known forever afterwards as the guy who got all excited over what could only have been an unusually fat horse. And you wouldn't get the satisfaction of being able to say 'told you so' as your critics' homes were trampled to a pulp.
Rome was still there after Hannibal had a go at it; no doubt they had plenty of time to prepare while those elephants stumbled over the Alps. I don't know what happened to the elephants afterwards but the Roman army probably didn't want for meat for a while.

6: The Greeks

The Ancient Greeks lived in Greece from a time before history up to about 500AD, at which point they ceased to be ancient and became merely Greek, or possibly Middle-Aged, and finally Modern. (Individual people are generally Modern, Middle-Aged then Ancient but with history it's the other way round.)
As far as Europe is concerned, the Greeks were the first to be civilised, and therefore the first to widely practice both slavery and philosophy. Having slaves gave them the free time to sit around thinking, and thereby develop philosophy, which they then passed on to the slaves, enabling them to be more content with their lot by thinking such profound thoughts as 'Oh well, could be worse'.
The Greeks also thought up Mythology, i.e. stories that are supposed to be true, but which everyone knows really aren't, on account of the fact that they include such elements as dozens of squabbling gods, big bull-headed creatures called mindthedoors or something similar, and golden fleas.
Regarding the dozens of gods, the idea of Polytheism has not stood the test of time in Europe, possibly on the grounds that one God strains the credibility quite enough, thank you very much.

5: The Egyptians

Ancient history, the little I was taught of it, tends to centre on Europe and the Middle East for the simple reason that these were the only cultures doing any writing in those days, and therefore the only ones we really know about (apart from China and they wrote Chinese so we're none the wiser).
Written history started with the Assyrians and the Mesopotamians, who invented cunieform writing, fancy chariots and tidily knitted little black beards, but the three Big Cultures of ancient times, roughly in order of appearance, were the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Egyptians first:
The ancient Egyptians are best know today for their tombs and temples- in fact those are about the only things left after five thousand years, with the result that we tend to think of the Egyptians as being death-obsessed in those days. (The one exception to this is the Sphinx, apparently the oldest thing in Egypt - much older than the Pyramids. Not only do we not even know what it is, we don't even know what the word 'sphinx' means - beyond 'lion-type-thing with human head' which is a bit circular). Why anyone would want to expend years of effort creating a big lion statue with a human head on it is not only beyond my knowledge, it's beyond my imagination - I can only speculate that if you have thousands of people all living in that desert heat year in and year out it might only take one slightly drier summer for them all to go off their heads, in which case it might seem like quite a good idea to knock up a big wacky statue.
The other big Egyptian thing was the Pyramids, which are not only still there, several of them are more there than any other man-made thing is anywhere, wherever it might be, except possibly the Great Wall of China, which perhaps doesn't count because relatively little of it is any one place - which is to say, wherever part of it is, the rest of it is somewhere else, if you follow - but then that's because it's so big.
Popular belief has it that the pyramids were built as enormous tombs to house dead pharaohs. This theory is given weight by the discovery of various dead people inside pyramids, often wrapped in bandages and surrounded by gold things. Personally I'm not convinced.
Even if you're a pharaoh it seems like an awful lot of trouble to have a massive pyramid built which you will only fully appreciate after you are dead - and even then you'll be right in the middle of it; the only point for miles around where you wouldn't have a good view of it, even if you were alive. (The Egyptians, not uniquely, seem to have had trouble getting their heads round the concept of 'dead'.)
A more likely explanation is that the things were built just to keep an idle population of peasants or Hebrew slaves occupied and out of mischief - any depositing of dead personages within these structures no doubt came later. An excellent idea if you ask me, in fact a few new pyramids probably wouldn't go amiss, as long as they put them somewhere discreet. Speaking of which: all the dead characters found in there seem to have been wrapped in bandages, suggesting that they suffered some nasty mishap shortly before their demise, perhaps involving those chariots with the spiky wheels. It seems likely that these people were simply thieves who had been caught stealing all those gold things that surround them, and have been severely beaten up then planted in a pyramid as punishment. Not only are they stuck for all eternity in the one place where they can't see the only tourist attraction for hundreds of miles (except for the wacky lion thing which they can't see either), but all those hundreds of feet of rock stop their souls from drifting off to heaven or any other more desirable place. As for why they are allowed to keep all the gold, that can only be a sort of bloody-minded taunt - an eternal reminder that their ill-gotten gains are no good to them here. The previous, rightful owner of the wealth might have something to say, but- well, what can you spend it on in the middle of the desert anyway, when they haven't even invented DVDs yet?

4: Ancient History According to Science

Those who dismiss science in favour of the Bible often cite the fact that scientists are always changing their minds about stuff, so how can we possibly give any credence to what they say? In contrast, those who simply believe the Bible never have cause to change their mind - and we all know that people who never change their mind, no matter what new case you put to them, are always right. Nevertheless, in the interests of an unbiased report, here is a summary of Science's current view, as I understand it:

20 billion years ago there was a huge bang and the universe was created. In time it cooled and congealed from dust and gas into planets and stars, including the Earth and the Sun.
Much later life arose, first in the form of a microbe with the capacity to duplicate itself. Some copies were better than others, some worse, and naturally the better ones made more and better copies of themselves while the poorer ones, by definition, didn't, and died out. Following this pattern, more and more complex life forms gradually arose, leading to bigger and bigger creatures until we get to trilobites, fish, and dinosaurs.
Every seventy or eighty million years or so, great masses of creatures suddenly died out due to some environmental catastrophe - many think that one of the millions of metoerites that orbit nearby crashes into the Earth from time to time and creates climatic havoc, thus killing off the larger and hungrier species and leaving a gap in the ecosystem for smaller ones to grow and flourish.
My own theory is that every seventy or eighty million years some intelligent species springs up, discovers fossil fuels and atomic energy, and creates climatic havoc long before it can build enough Playstations and iPods to leave a detectable layer in its own fossil record.
Either that, or it's just God - younger still than his grumpy Old-Testament self, throwing a tantrum at the inadequacy of his work and starting over.
Right now, we're keeping our civilization going largely through the courtesy of oil - the fossilised remains of ancient organisms - according to science.
If the Biblical account is true, though, then oil must have some other origin. Probably it was put there by God to keep the earth lubricated and going round smoothly and efficiently. Either way, the world is liable grind to a halt when it runs out.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

2: Eternity - Some Thoughts

So God, for reasons that are none of our business, created the universe roughly six thousand years ago, in about a week.
God being eternal, one might wonder what he did with his time before he got round to this job. Eternity being what it is, it could go back a very long way - even if such a thing as Eternity could be said to have a start at all.
Actually it could, because we are often told that if we're naughty or give too much credence to certain parts of the Bible and not enough to other parts, we will burn in hell for all of it - though clearly we are not there already.
Eternity, though, in all probability goes infinitely far back as well as forward (the odds of our present time being anywhere near the start of something infinitely long are obviously infinitely small).
This, surely, would give God literally no end of time to practice on previous Earths - thus becoming Perfect - before getting around to ours. However ours is so clearly faulty that it seems likely to be one of the practice versions itself. Infinitely more likely, come to think of it. Also, if God is eternal, then no matter how old he is NOW, he's still young in comparison to eternity (though old enough to have a son, of course).
This does of course present the disturbing picture of God being young and inexperienced by divine standards - a picture that rather matches the petulant, tantrum-prone character in the Old Testament.
All this raises the worrying question of whether any of us are going to get to Heaven. After all, the super-perfect graduates of any future draft of Earth - which there must be in all Eternity - might have something to say about it (though very politely, of course). Unless we get kicked out when they arrive, in which case (a) they get a second-hand Heaven, (b) we would have to clean it up before leaving, and (c) we would be spending much of our time there worrying about the next place, in which case it wouldn't be Heaven.
Presumably they could get some Damned Souls in from Hell to clean it up one Sunday. This would have the side benefit of showing them what they were missing, thereby making them even more Damned - though it would probably be more efficient just to pipe down pictures of it on cable TV for them to watch with one eye whilst having the other gouged out with a rusty fruit knife, or whatever it is they do.

3: Ancient History According to the Bible

Shortly after creating the world, God either made the animals and plants then the first man; or the other way round, depending on which chapter of the Bible you read - which presents a problem since it's all True. However, what we don't know is how much never made it into the book, so it's possible that God made all the animals, decided they weren't good enough (quite plausible from what we've already deduced), deleted them all, created Man, THEN created a fresh lot of animals for Man to name - a nice neat explanation that not only keeps the Bible perfectly true but explains where all the fossils of other no-longer-here animals came from. Perhaps the first lot were dinosaurs or trilobites or something - which presents the entertaining image of God wiping them out with a huge meteorite in a fit of frustration, perhaps because they weren't very good at building churches. Next, God created Woman, who led Man astray in no time flat (this bit at least rings true). This particular piece of mischief involved the Devil disguised as a snake - for some reason he seems to have thought this would help his credibility.
The Bible has little to say about where the Devil came from, though it has been speculated that the Devil was an angel gone bad; a problem usually attributed only to humans.
The Adam and Eve story involves the Devil persuading them to eat of the 'tree of knowledge', which they'd expressly been told not to do. Having eaten, they suddenly realised they were naked; not a great secret in the first place one would think but then as far as we know they only took one bite. Perhaps if they'd had the whole apple we might have learned something useful and avoided a lot of trouble later on, but they never got the chance to do that, since at this point they were unceremoniously booted out of their nice garden and forced to live in much less hospitable climes. (For some reason I always visualise the Garden of Eden as being a lot like the formal garden at Hampton Court, with a high hedge round it - somewhat at odds with the mental picture of people wandering around naked, come to think of it - after all it would take a lot of use of hedge-clippers to keep it that way, and you don't want to be using those with nothing on.)
Much further down the line God decided that a spring-cleaning was in order and drowned the whole planet, except for a select few that a chap called Noah rescued in a big wooden ship. (The Bible doesn't say what he did with the termites.)
Clearly this would have involved creating a lot more water than we already had, and neatly disposing of it again afterwards - no great problem to the sort of being who can create the whole world in a week in the first place - it just makes you wonder why he doesn't do this sort of thing more often. After all we are now several thousand years down the line and he's had lots of time to learn a few tricks, so one would think it would be no great problem for him to flood Slough and leave, say, Legoland relatively unscathed. (Most of Legoland would float anyway, come to think of it.)

1: The Creation

Owing to the lack of reliable witnesses at the dawn of time (with the possible exception of Adam, and he's dead) we are forced to fall back on conjecture. Put simply, views on the creation tend to fall into two main camps: The 'scientific' ideas, which currently state that it all popped into existence from absolutely nothing around 20 billion years ago, and the 'religious' ones, which state that God did it all about 6000 years ago - a much more comprehensible timescale and therefore, obviously, far more appealing.
There are problems with the idea, of course, but they're easily dismissed if we want to:
For instance: If God made the universe, who made God?
Answer: God is eternal and divine and therefore immune from such impertinent questioning. Just think yourself grateful he did it. If he wanted us to know he'd have put it in at least one edition of the Bible (which makes me wonder if he's one of those people who just don't like to talk about their embarrassing parents).
Anyway, if he wants to pop into existence from nothing, he's perfectly entitled, being God and all. The universe, by comparison, couldn't possibly do anything so wondrous because it's mainly composed of mundane stuff like rocks and inert gases and badgers, and they don't do cool stuff like that.
Also, scientists would have us believe in complicated, counter-intuitive stuff like carbon dating, cores from the Greenland ice sheet, and the geological laying-down of layers of rock over aeons of time... however they also like to say that the simplest explanation is the most likely, and the simple explanation for all this stuff is that the devil put it there to confuse us, so they've rather shot themselves in the foot there I think.