Showing posts with label biblical research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label biblical research. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


There may be readers who fail to understand how I can be irritated by the present-day practice of religion (disgusted at times, as in my previous blog post) but simultaneously fascinated by the history of religions. I ask such readers, rhetorically: To be fascinated by the burial rites for pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, is it necessary to believe in reincarnation? Does one have to worship the goddess Athena in order to appreciate Homer's Odyssey and Iliad ? Of course not. Historians remain personally detached, thankfully, from the subjects they examine, just as a brilliant actor can take on the role of a detestable individual with whom he shares nothing. I trust that I don't need to insist any further upon this question. To call a spade a spade: When I evoke Judaism (a fascinating subject), that doesn't mean that I've ever imagined for an instant the crazy idea of getting my penis butchered and embracing personally this archaic religion. Whenever I talk about Jesus, that doesn't mean that I might believe for an instant that this fellow was the son of God, that he performed miracles, and that he survived magically the horrible execution method of crucifixion.

The Gallica website, operated by the BNF library (Bibliothèque nationale de France), offers us this amusing image of the Hebrew monarch David, attired in a basic robe, wearing a crown and gaily strumming his harp.

The image comes from a 9th-century Bible that Count Vivien, abbot of the Basilica of St Martin in Tours, presented to the king Charles the Bald [823-877]... who may have acquired his nickname ironically because of his exceptional hairiness.

I have the impression that David, the killer of Goliath, is prancing along at the head of a regal Gay Pride procession. I notice that the Wikipedia article on David describes him as a "culture hero", which is a way of saying that we don't know if such an individual ever truly existed, let alone being a biological ancestor of Jesus. In Biblical history, David was a charismatic figure: a shepherd armed with a sling, a musician and poet (author of many Psalms), who went on to found the Hebrew kingdom. At the origins of that history, David was such a spectacular and essential personage that, if ever he hadn't existed, we would need to invent him. And that appears to sum up exactly what has happened.

In my article of 23 September 2010 entitled Better than the Bible [display], I drew attention to a fascinating book: David and Solomon by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.

Recently, in my article of 9 September 2012 entitled Jesus [display], I mentioned the fine work of a present-day Biblical archaeologist and author, James Tabor, who has been in the middle of stories concerning a pair of controversial tombs located in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem.

This North Carolina academic has become a familiar participant in several excellent documentaries (which I've watched on French TV) on the history of monotheism. Like the books of Finkelstein and Silberman, Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty is required reading, to my humble mind, of anyone interested in the historical Jesus.

People tend to forget that many of the initial supporters of Jesus of Nazareth saw him primarily as a pretender to the throne of David. And this claim depends of course, for its validity, upon genealogy. How could Jesus possibly be considered, as the evangelist Matthew put it, a "son of David" ? Now, if there's one thing that most New Testament readers skim through hurriedly and superficially, it's all that boring "begat" stuff about the genealogy of Jesus... and yet it's fundamental, all important, because it indicates the underlying reasons for which the fellow was finally crucified. He wasn't executed because of all his vaguely magical work as a healer, or the splendid moral assertions of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was nailed to a cross and left to die because of his seditious claim to the throne.

Evangelist Matthew (with an angel looking over his shoulder)

Matthew's genealogical approach—which occupies the opening chapter of the New Testament—starts with Abraham and moves down to David. Then the Davidic lineage moves down from Solomon to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Within this would-be paternal lineage, there are four or five cases of female links, which is quite unorthodox in the presentation of an alleged royal descent. Matthew says that Jesus "was fathered" from Mary, which clearly suggests that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. So, all in all, Matthew's genealogy is not a particularly convincing demonstration that Jesus might be the rightful heir to the throne.

Evangelist Luke (with a symbolic bull looking over his shoulder)

The evangelist Luke begins with Jesus, and presents his paternal ascent all the way back to Adam. See Luke [3:23–38]. But he starts in a fuzzy manner by describing Jesus as "the son, as people thought [my italics], of Joseph son of Heli". Apart from the fact that both evangelists consider Joseph as merely the adoptive father of Jesus, there's an obvious problem concerning the identification of the grandfather of Jesus. Matthew said that Joseph's father was named Jacob, whereas Luke now says he was named Heli. Why this discrepancy?

Parenthesis : I'm amused by the portraits that accompany my remarks. Nobody even knows whether individuals such as the New Testament authors Matthew and Luke really existed. Consequently, common sense dictates that these charming portraits are totally fake, indeed absurd. But we've grown accustomed to such monstrous absurdities in the domain of so-called spiritual art. Indeed, centuries of artistic expression have been founded upon factual falsity, but we've all learned to live with such silly stuff. It's highly probable that future creators will put an end to all this crazy religious bullshit, and affirm that art should rhyme necessarily with scientific reality.

Concerning the genealogy of Jesus, James Tabor provides a subtle explanation of what has happened. Insofar as Luke knew perfectly well that Joseph played no role in the biological heritage of Jesus, he decided to deal solely, from the outset, with the lineage through Mary, the mother of Jesus. So, he has performed a subtle substitution operation. Heli was no doubt the father, not of Joseph, but of Mary, and therefore the maternal grandfather of Jesus. Heli was short for Eliakim, and this was a variant of Joachim, which is the traditional name of Mary's father. This lineage of Jesus, through his mother, went back to David, but through David's son Nathan rather than Solomon.

So, whichever way you look at it, Jesus did indeed seem to be an heir—to a certain degree—to the kingdom of the Jews. His claims to that title were apparently sufficiently genuine, widely publicized and potentially disturbing to lead to his arrest and execution. It was the death of a royal pretender...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Better than the Bible

If you're interested in religions based upon the Hebrew Bible—Judaism, Christianity or Islam—then you should buy these two splendid books. They reveal essentials facts, based largely upon archaeology, concerning likely circumstances in which the stories of the Bible were conceived and set down in writing.

Both books have been written by the same scholars: an Israeli, Israel Finkelstein, and an American, Neil Asher Silberman. And they're "better than the Bible" (a sentiment that brings to mind John Lennon concerning the relative popularity of the Beatles with respect to Jesus Christ) in the sense that Finkelstein and Silberman don't beat around the burning bush. You don't have to worry about the authenticity of their explanations. They go straight to the facts, and demonstrate that the Biblical stories cannot possibly be descriptions of historical realities.

Today, few serious scholars persist in imagining that the stories of the Hebrew Bible describe real historical events. And there's no authentic factual evidence whatsoever (apart from the words of the Bible) enabling us to consider that real individuals such as Moses, David and Solomon, etc, actually existed once upon a time. Does this mean that everything in the Bible is make-believe? Not exactly, because the inspiration for most of the Biblical stories was surely derived from various real events and iconic personages. So, we have no right to say that everything's pure fiction. But neither does anybody have the right to claim that the books of the Bible relate authentic history.

Over the last week, I was reminded of the work of Finkelstein and Silberman because of a silly front-page "news" article that has been appearing throughout the world. I'm talking of an inspired American Christian guy (I prefer to leave him anonymous, to refrain from adding to his publicity) who claims to have discovered a way in which the waters of the Red Sea might have parted in order to enable Moses and his Hebrew brethren to escape from their Egyptian pursuers. I'm tempted to say to this brain-damaged guy: "For Christ's sake, what's the problem? Everybody knows it was God who separated the waters. Why the fuck do you need to demonstrate things scientifically?" In fact, this affair falls into place once you realize there's nothing whatsoever to be proven, for the simple reason that the Red Sea story is pure magic make-believe. If it didn't happen, then why go to the trouble of trying to explain technically how it might have happened?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brilliant French electricity corporation

Everybody in France is familiar with EDF: Electricité de France. They're the national electricity utility, whose shares were recently made available to private investors. We think of EDF as the athletes who climb up poles after storm damage, the engineers who play around with hydroelectric dams, or their colleagues who operate France's well-known network of nuclear reactors.

Well, believe it or not: EDF is also a state-of-the-art researcher in the exotic domain of Dead Sea Scrolls archaeology. It's a long story, which I'll try to summarize...

In 1952, in the caves above Qumran, searchers on the lookout for parchments—mostly leather, sometimes papyrus—came upon two mysterious rolls of copper, known today as 3Q15, the Copper Scroll.

Needless to say, researchers were totally unaccustomed to handling ancient stuff of this kind. Finally, after much discussion, the scholars sent the rolls to the Manchester College of Technology in England, where they were cut into rectangular sections. Photos of these strips then enabled a Polish ex-priest and scrolls expert, Josef Milik [whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally, fifteen years ago, in his Paris flat], to produce a first edition of the astonishing contents of the Copper Scroll. Without going into details, let's say that the Copper Scroll seems to describe vast quantities of gold and silver that might even be the mysterious treasure of Herod's temple in the Holy City, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Readers might be asking by now: How, when and where does France's high-tech electricity organization step into this ancient picture? Well, on the outskirts of Paris, EDF has an avant-garde laboratory called Valectra, which is no doubt one of the world's most advanced workshops for handling ancient metallic specimens such as the Copper Scroll. Today, two bulky and expensive books relate, in French, the story of the extraordinary collaboration between Biblical scholars and EDF scientists, culminating in the restoration and preservation of the Copper Scroll... not to mention its translation. You can also use Google to find many documents describing this fantastic intellectual and industrial adventure. Probably the most spectacular aspect of the EDF Copper Scroll project has been the production of perfect metallic replicas, enabling scholars and museum-goers throughout the world to come face-to-face with artifacts that resemble ideally the real thing.