On September 19, 2015, my wife and I stood in line for an hour and a half outside the New School for Social Research in New York City. Noam Chomksy was scheduled to give a talk on power and ideology, and we were hoping to get a seat. We were delighted to be among the first to be let into the auditorium. Noam discussed numerous events and topics, and some of his points were downright revelatory (one example: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld urged the Shah of Iran to develop nuclear weapons and pressured MIT into accepting students into its nuclear physics program; some of those students are now helping to run Iran’s nuclear program). Toward the end of the lecture, however, when Chomsky said, “The US is one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world,” I wasn’t at all surprised.
A survey conducted in 2006 by political scientist Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University showed that only 14 percent of American adults consider evolution “definitely true” while roughly a third believe it to be “absolutely false.” Out of a sampler of 34 countries, only Turkey was less accepting of Darwin’s theories, while in nations such as Denmark, Sweden, and France, better than 80 percent of the adults questioned sided with Darwin. Perhaps more disquieting is the fact that 20 years ago about seven percent of U.S. adults were uncertain about evolution; that number has since tripled.
America’s uniquely fundamentalist position among industrialized nations is reiterated by a chart showing the relationship of wealth to religious belief republished in the June 2, 2010 opinion section of by the New York Times (“Why Is America Religious?”), which demonstrates that the “the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The one exception: the United States.”
A somewhat medieval mentality, it seems, still holds significant sway in the world’s most powerful nation. If ‘medieval’ seems too close to hyperbole, recall Pat Robertson’s remark about Haiti and its “pact with the Devil” in the wake of the earthquake that hit the island. If you’re inclined to dismiss Robertson as a marginal political player, consider Ronald Reagan, who openly wondered whether Armageddon—in the form of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union—was going to occur on his watch. Or take the Bush White House, which in 2003 had to deny claims trumpeted by a BBC television program that Bush bragged to Palestine’s President Abbas, “God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did …” When it comes to credibility, Abbas and the BBC are probably safer bets. We are dealing after all with a man who, in his nationally televised debate with John Kerry, said, “I pray over my decisions,” including the one to invade Iraq.
Reagan and Bush are not alone. According to the 2008 documentary Waiting for Armageddon, 20 million Americans believe we are now living in the End Times. It was in this atmosphere of religious recidivism that I began writing The Christos Mosaic. There are a number of serious issues that I hope the novel deals with in an entertaining way. One of them is this: we in the 21st century really can’t hope to understand the Bible without studying the world and times out of which it came. The vast majority of us today, for example, don’t speak Aramaic (the supposed language of Jesus) or ancient Hebrew, nor have we read the Gospels in the Koine Greek in which they were written. Moreover, most of us have no concept whatsoever of the religious milieu in which the Gospel writers lived, and even scholars can reconstruct it only vaguely for us. In short we’ve lost the calibrations on our compass.
To get an impression of the ancient Mediterranean’s spiritual mindset, I’d like to offer a brief biography of the Greco-Egyptian God Serapis. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Alexander’s generals divided up his empire; Ptolemy got Egypt and took Alexandria as his capital. Faced with ruling an Egyptian population and a large number of transplanted Greeks, Ptolemy needed a way to unite his subjects. Settling on worship as the most effective way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, Ptolemy created a composite god: Serapis. Serapis was the husband of the Egyptian goddess Isis, just as the Egyptian god Osiris had been. And Serapis’s animal was the divine bull, Apis—as was Osiris’s. (The name Serapis is a fusion of Osiris-Apis.) Whenever Serapis was depicted, however, the likeness was of a bearded, curly-haired Greek. Like Zeus, Serapis was the ruler of the gods, and like Dionysos, he was a fertility god.
Ptolemy’s god was created purely out of political expediency although the religion Serapis presided over was not. Today, except in the case of a very small, fringe cult, this would be unthinkable—you just don’t go around mixing and matching gods. In the first-century Mediterranean and in centuries previous, however, it was not only acceptable, it was routine. The Mystery religions, of which the cult of Serapis was one, were classic examples of this sort of syncretism. In Asia Minor the Greek goddess Artemis was grafted onto the cult of the Anatolian mother goddess Kybele and stood at the center of the Ephesian Mysteries. The Pythagorean Mysteries took the Mysteries of Osiris and replaced the Egyptian god with a Greek one—Dionysos, who evolved into Dionysos Zagreus, the divine figure worshipped in numerous Mystery cults. His dual name reflected that fact he was also a composite of two gods, but the minor figure of Zagreus (who is slain and resurrected) was almost completely assimilated by the more prominent god.
This syncretism worked on a local level as well; a city-state often chose a god who already had a strong following to head up their Mysteries. The Eleusian Mysteries near Athens, for example, venerated Demeter and her daughter Kore (also known as Persephone, who was the mother of Zagreus). Using a familiar god as the front man—or woman—was a simple but effective way of gaining converts to an alien religion or to a newly created one. (We can see a vestige of this practice in car interiors: the plastic Jesus sometimes glued to the dash often has blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, which, had Jesus lived, is hardly likely.)
Ptolemy’s strategy worked brilliantly. Serapis became enormously popular, and the cult spread well beyond Egypt; the Serapeum in Alexandria, destroyed by fanatical Christians in 385 AD, was by all accounts one of the finest edifices of the ancient world.
Another problem when reading the Bible or even the Gospels (a much less complex undertaking) is that we don’t know who wrote them. Any of them. Not only are the authors anonymous and the Gospels unsigned (only later were they given names), but we don’t even know what the Gospels originally said because we do not have any originals. Or even copies close to the original dates of composition. Over the centuries, scribes subtracted, inserted, added, and embellished as they saw fit. As Saint Origen pointed out “It is an undeniable fact today that there is a great deal of diversity among the manuscripts, either because of the carelessness of the scribes or the perverse audacity of their superiors in adulterating the text, or again to the fact that among us are clergy who add or delete as they see fit, deeming themselves correctors.” And this is by about 230 AD! Imagine the mess we have now.
Let me provide an example that involves one of Jesus’ finest moments. In “What Did Jesus Do?”, published in The New Yorker (May 24, 2010), Adam Gopnik (a fine writer as it happens) moons over the prophet he thinks he’s found in the Gospels: “there is … something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself.”
There may not be a “more miraculous scene in ancient literature,” but it never happened, and Jesus wasn’t around when it was written. As Helmut Koester points out in Ancient Christian Gospels (p. 248), “the pericope about Jesus and the adulteress … is missing in the older papyri (Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75) and in the oldest uncial codices … as well as in the oldest translations … and appears for the first time in the 5th century.” In other words, some scribe snuck it in about 400 years after Jesus had already met his much-discussed end. And it caught on (it is good). Thanks to this anonymous copyist, we see with crystalline clarity how even certain things we have come to think of as “pure Jesus” (quotation marks mine) are pure fiction.
I’m not trying to disparage the Gospels or Christianity; rather, I’m trying to point out that no matter how noble our intentions, we cannot understand the Bible without immersing ourselves in the history of the ancient Levant, out of which it came, and without reading the extensive commentaries of various scholars on both Testaments. Even then, we must admit—as do scholars themselves—that much remains unclear. What we cannot do is consult a millennia-old book, which has baffled scholars for centuries, as though it is free of human error and our sole guide to understanding ourselves and the world.