2009-02-22

the glory of suffering for god — hindu and christian styles

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by Neil Godfrey

Thaipusam, flagellants, kavadi

A couple of weeks ago, by chance I stumbled across a crowded street scene in Little India (part of Singapore) and had to have a look to see what the interest was. Hundreds of onlookers were staring at a half-naked man stoically carrying a heavy metal structure decorated with peacock feathers and other Hindu decorations. From a distance it was easy to dismiss it as little more than a decorative show for some worship ceremony, but a closer look raised questions. Were those really metal hooks laced by the dozens through his skin? Were both his cheeks really pierced through with a single dagger?

There was no blood, however. But yes, looking at more of these men following one another along the street, it was clear they were walking with some form of self-sacrificial burdens. Daggers pierced both cheeks; other exquisitely decorated long blades pierced tongues; hooks through their skin in dozens of places carried what must surely have been a substantial weight of chains; and most bore on their shoulders an obviously weighty structure displaying the glory of what I took to be some Hindu god. A smaller number instead hauled heavy religious statues along the road by chains hooked through the skin on their backs.

All were surrounded by close bands of supporters. Presumably relatives and friends. Women, elderly, children. Regularly they all broke out into chants and songs, beating drums, clashing cymbals. They would keep a close eye on the one carrying the burdens of some sort of penance and regularly check to see that he was coping. Sometimes this “help” consisted of refastening a hook on the end of a chain that had fallen out of his skin on his back, or his nose or cheek. Sometimes a little water was poured down the mouth of a man who looked up helplessly with his cheeks parted by a single dagger lodged through them both, and another upright through his tongue.

Astonishingly, on some occasions one of these flagellants would begin skipping, jumping, and whirling around in a lively dance with the sound of the drums and cymbals. Crowds would cheer him on. Ocassionally after one who exerted himself like this for a few minutes supporters would offer him a stool for a moment’ sit-down.

I know very little about Hinduism, but I afterwards learned from some Hindu friends here in Singapore that this is the Thaipusam festival, and that it is only found today in Malaysia, Singapore, and pockets of southern India. Not even all Hindus would have heard of it, I was told.

I have a full set of photographs, including video clips (which will not load here) at my Thaipusam collection on Flickr.

I was also told that preceding this journey the men would undergo a special fast that was supposed to contribute to the absence of blood when pierced by hooks and daggers.

The large weights of magnificent decorations are called kavadi. This was a cross shaped base superimposed by a dome.

Some of the women carried food — milk and flour and fruit. At one stage the suffering of one of the devotees was ritually enhanced by one of his attendants stop before him, take a piece of fruit from a tray held by a woman nearby, and then with a knife cut it in two — and tossing each piece far out into the crowd. The sufferer was not to eat, but had to see food tossed away from before him. (I think this is captured in the second half of my IMG1919 clip.)

I was also told that at the end of their several kilometer “pilgrimage” they fire-walk. But I know how that works so that didn’t impress me so much. (The heat from coals is slow to generate and as long as one keeps one’s feet moving quickly enough there will not be time for them to be burned across a short sprint.)

Given my Christian background and the strangeness of this ceremony to me, I could not help but make comparisons:

  1. In both religions there is the concept of a person being required, for salvific purposes, to undergo extreme physical suffering
  2. This physical suffering is something to be overcome. In the ceremony I saw there were no tears from any of the participants, only the reverse — an occasional burst of dance and song to apparently demonstrate that the sufferer was “not of this body” but was infused with a higher existence.
  3. There is an important role for blood: either it is to be liberally shed or not shed at all.
  4. The suffering and giving up of the flesh of each man is also his glory. Presumably he does this to attain to some higher spiritual life or relationship. And as Christian literature speaks of the cross as a glory, so it was clear that each of these participants bore in their suffering the weight of the glory of their gods.

Interesting — the myths vary, the roles of the actors vary, but they all point to a common action-theme. Of course some Christians today in Latin America, Philippines and southern Europe imitate the sufferings of Christ in a similar way. Again, this may be another pointer to the origins of myths — they originated long ago to explain the customs, not the other way around.

My video clips and more pics available here.


Embarrassing or stereotypical narrative details? (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend)

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by Neil Godfrey

I had been assured by a number of fundamentalists and book reviews that the Eddy and Boyd book (The Jesus Legend) was a cut above the rest of apologetics in its scholarly critique of sceptical arguments and buttressing of the veracity of the gospel text as it is. So far I have been disappointed in my search for something seriously challenging. In their discussion of what many call the “criterion of embarrassment”, there is nothing new, and it seems they studiously avoid the most obvious and well-known literary tropes to which the New Testament gospels were indebted.

On page 408 Boyd and Eddy write:

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history.

They continue,

early Christians would not have invented material that was counterproductive to their cause — material that put Jesus of themselves in a negative light . . .

After discussing the “embarrassing” account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, Boyd and Eddy list 15 other supposedly self-damaging details, all from Mark’s gospel, to demonstrate “the prevalence” of this “honesty-at-all-costs” type of material.

Before looking at some of these 15 “self-damaging” points, a note on the “embarrassing nature” of Mark’s baptism narrative. What is embarrassing about Mark’s scene of the baptism of Jesus is that it flies in the face of later orthodox doctrine. Mark presumably believed that Jesus was a mere man who was possessed by the spirit only after his baptism, and it was only at that point that he was declared to be a “son of God”. The subsequent embarrassment is one over theological beliefs, not historical facts, about Jesus and his nature. But this is a discussion requiring a post of its own.

Eight of the fifteen points of “embarrassment” or “self-damaging honesty” in the narrative of Mark’s gospel that Boyd and Eddy (pp. 410-411) list are:

  1. Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21)
  2. Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5)
  3. Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3)
  4. some thought Jesus was in collusion with, even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30)
  5. Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18)
  6. Jesus associated with people of ill-repute (2:14-16)
  7. The disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50)
  8. Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66-72)

I will address these separately from the others because they all belong to the same literary trope found in Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) literature to characterize the godly hero as stereotypically rejected by his own, misunderstood, burdened with uncomprehending “followers”, etc.

The other points listed by Boyd and Eddy are, for most part, no less readily explicable as UNembarrassing parables or anecdotes to teach particular theological or spiritually symbolic lessons.

  1. Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33, 8:23)
  2. Jesus’s own healings and exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (8:22-25; 5:8)
  3. Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18)
  4. Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27)
  5. Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (2:23-24)
  6. Jesus “often” (sic) spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (3:31-35)
  7. Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:13-14)

These points require a separate discussion from the eight above. Suffice to remark here that (a) Jesus’s suggestion that he was “not good” sits equally with the observation I made with Mark’s portrayal of the baptism of Jesus;  (b) why would any early gentile Christian see it as an “embarrassment” that Jesus disregarded Jewish customs? and (c) — what do fundamentalists do with passages that seem to show Jesus as being rude and insulting? From the way some correspondence has gone with them I wonder if some of them see this portrayal of Jesus as offering licence to likewise be rude and insulting. But back to the first set of eight.

Why presume that an author who portrays Jesus as rejected by his own is somehow embarrassed by this fact and that he only records it because of his compulsion to be “true to the facts”? He would never fabricate such a portrayal of Jesus?

Why not? Since the first story of the martyrdom of Abel the Jewish literature portrays in both narrative and wisdom-sayings form the stereotypical notion of the true “man of God” always being alone in this corrupt world.

The Old Testament narratives would actually suggest that any story of a righteous — or a chosen — godly man would, for the sake of “ringing true”, of necessity have to depict him as misunderstood and rejected by his own.

  • Righteous Abel was rejected and betrayed by his brother.
  • Righteous Abraham had to endure and go out of his way to get along with his self-seeking kinsman, Lot
  • Isaac was hated by those in his own household
  • Jacob was hated by his brother and had to flee as a fugitive for his life
  • Joseph was hated by his brethren for the favour he found with God, and was betrayed by his close brethren.
  • Moses was rejected by his Israelite kin and had to flee into the wilderness
  • Jephthah was hated and rejected by his kin
  • David was not esteemed by his family, parents or brothers.
  • David associated with a band of undesirable fugitives from the law
  • David was thought to be mad by some of his enemies.
  • Like Joseph, David was falsely accused and betrayed by his closest kin
  • Elijah was persecuted and hated
  • Elisha had to patiently bear with an uncomprehending and failing disciple
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet
  • Daniel was falsely accused before kings

The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is, I suggest, in complete synch with the Jewish tale of the stereotypical righteous chosen one: misunderstood, hated, even by family, betrayed, persecuted. . . .

The trope of uncomprehending disciples is also as old as literature iteself, perhaps. It is a multi-millennial old technique for enhancing the superiority of the heroic leader. We find it used as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh has his Peter, the wild-man Enkidu), Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus has his wayward crew led by the devoted but rash Eurylochus); Jason’s Argonauts; Buddha’s followers . . .

Rather than being “embarrassing” details such points were the badges of honour, the signs of being truly an elect of God. The point of such details is, as the author of Hebrews would have understood, to show that “the world is not worthy” (11:38) of the divinely chosen hero. Even the chosen followers are “scarcely saved”, if at all.

An audience that has chosen the way of being rejected from their own kin and of being cruelly misunderstood or accused, such an audience needs a like hero with whom they can relate for assurance.

Most Christians I know and whom I have discussed it with absolutely adore the gospel accounts of Peter’s failures. Peter gives them hope, not embarrassment. Why would it have been any different among the first generations of would-be martyrs?


Destroying a story to save a geographic reference. (Eddy & Boyd’s ‘Jesus Legend’)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Several believers in the inerrancy of the Bible text have strongly urged me to read Boyd and Eddy’s The Jesus Legend so I have finally got around to it.

But Boyd and Eddy actually deny or remove from a story the occurrence of a dramatic nature miracle in order to rationalize a mere apparent geographic discrepancy in one of Mark’s stories. Their explanation makes perfect sense, but only at the expense of ignoring much of what Mark actually wrote and above all ignoring – as if it never happened at all and had no impact on the characters whatever -the miracle in the middle of the story.

Why do fundamentalists recommend, let alone write, such a book?

I started near the end, on page 447, as specifically requested by the most recent advocate insisting I should read this. The discussion is about supposed geographic errors in the Gospel of Mark.

After miraculously feeding the 5000 Jesus sent his disciples out across the “Sea” of Galilee (only Mark and his more literal translators call this lake a “sea” but we’ll leave aside that specific geographic anomaly for now) “to Bethsaida”. Bethsaida was on the eastern shore of the lake. But by the time the disciples land they are said to be at Gennesaret on the western shore.

Boyd and Eddy say they can explain this discrepancy by joining with other commentators and arguing thus:

“the disciples encounter a storm during their boat voyage” (p.449)

“In fact the episode is told for this very reason — a strong storm arises and Jesus meets them, walking on the water, to calm their fears.” (p.449)

Why don’t literalist fundamentalists take up stones to throw at Boyd and Eddy for blasphemy and for contradicting the Scriptures when they write stuff like this?

Firstly, what storm? Here is what Mark 6:47-48 actually says:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.

Mark used another word for “storm” (lailaps) in his earlier miracle story of Jesus commanding the storm, wind and seas that threatened to end the lives of the disciples to be still. Here is uses only the word for “wind”, and contra Boyd and Eddy and the commentators they follow here, Mark nowhere says a storm was involved.

The disciples were not in fear of drowning. They were “merely” having a very tough time rowing against the wind. What was that passage in the Book of Revelation about curses on those who would add a single word to scriptures?

Secondly, the second statement of Boyd and Eddy — that Mark told this story for the very reason of demonstrating how Jesus went out into the storm, walking on water, to reassure the disciples — contradicts the story as we read it in Mark.

Facts of the story as writ:

  1. Jesus was about to pass the disciples by. He only turned towards them and joined them after they were terrified at seeing him.
  2. It was the fear of seeing what they thought was a ghost, not any fear of a non-existent life-threatening storm, that Jesus responded to.
  3. The reason Mark told the story, if his final line is any guide, was to demonstrate the failure of the disciples to comprehend the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and thus to demonstrate just how hard-hearted they really were.

In its own words:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

Matthew was apparently so embarrassed by the moral of Mark’s story (to demonstrate how hard-hearted and unbelieving the disciples were) that he added the story about Peter at least trying to believe and get it right by attempting to walk on water just like Jesus.

Commentators who speculate that Mark omitted this scene from his gospel out of deference to the modesty of Peter (his supposed source) who did not like to “boast” that he walked on water, too, at least for a moment, are playing wishful fantasy games. Mark says (as quoted above) that the point of the story was to demonstrate to his readers just how UNbelieving and UNcomprehending were the disciples led by Peter.

But note in particular that any commentator who tries to argue that Jesus went out to reassure the disciples is simply denying the story as we have it. Mark’s Jesus was about to pass his disciples by. The disciples were terrified — not of any storm (there was no storm) — of Jesus.

Jesus attempted to reassure them they they had no need to fear him. We are reminded of other evangelists who similarly portrayed the disciples after the resurrection of being fearful that they were seeing a ghost, but who then had Jesus reassure them they had no reason to fear anything like that.

Boyd and Eddy next disagree with scholars who suggest that the reassured disciples, with Jesus in the boat, and the wind no longer tending to blow them off course, would have had every reason to re-establish their bearings and continue on their way to Bethsaida, as originally instructed. So why do we read of them berthing on the opposite side of the lake? Boyd and Eddy “explain”:

the actual experience of a group of traumatized, water-logged men on a small boat who just narrowly escaped being drowned . . . . Perhaps stepping onto firm terrain and drying out were more pressing priorities at that moment than turning the boat back into the sea! (p. 450)

Where to begin? Why is this sort of “explanation” not hidden from “sceptics” such as myself as an embarrassment to fundamentalism attempting to save the inerrancy of the Scriptures?

This “explanation” is asking readers to completely overlook, deny, pretend the complete absence from the psychology of eyewitnesses to a most astonishing miracle of a man walking on water and changing the weather by the mere act of stepping in a boat!

Instead, Boyd and Eddy want readers to try to imagine the psychology of sailors who had endured a “storm” (which is not in the story) as if no such miracle had ever occurred!

Mark’s actual story:

  • Before Jesus came on the scene, the disciples were hard at work attempting to keep the boat on course against the wind.
  • No storm. No fear of drowning. Just hard physical labour of attempting obey the command of Jesus to row to Bethsaida.
  • They suddenly see a man walking on water and in the act of passing them.
  • They scream in terror at the sight of this “ghost”.
  • It turns out to be Jesus and the wind is suddenly favourable again.

How on earth can any reader honestly impute into such a story the image of Boyd and Eddy of “a group of traumatized, water-logged men on a small boat who just narrowly escaped being drowned”.

Such an image is a complete denial of the story Mark told.

By attempting to “rationalize” the story to make it historically plausible, and to apparently save any reason for Mark to cite variant geographical settings, Boyd and Eddy in fact destroy the story and tell a completely different one.

Note also how Boyd and Eddy go even further and subtly assume what they are in fact attempting to prove.

Perhaps stepping onto firm terrain and drying out were more pressing priorities at that moment than turning the boat back into the sea!

TURNING the boat BACK into the sea? They have neatly just assumed — gratuitously injected into the story — that a storm arose, and that a wind accompanying this took them in a westerly direction, and that they were now somehow near Gennesaret.

Facts as we read them in Mark’s story paint a different scene:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. (Mark 6:47-53)

The only location Mark gives for this scene is “in the middle of the lake”. That is where they were when Jesus “went out to them”. This is to read the story as is, without re-imagining some other story we might find easier to rationalize. And after these events where Jesus had gone — “in the middle of the lake” — then they are described as “crossing over” to land at Gennesaret.

How is it that Boyd and Eddy can honestly inject here the image of all this happening near the shore of Gennesaret so that the disciples would have been required “to TURN BACK TO SEA” to sail to Bethsaida?

No, the geographic question remains. The disciples are sent to Bethsaida and they end up, without explanation, at Gennesaret. Boyd and Eddy’s attempt at rationalization both deny Mark’s account and deny the impact of a miracle on eyewitnesses.

One would expect the oarsmen, who had been labouring exhaustively against the wind to obey Jesus, would have momentarily lost any sense of weariness after their adrenaline rush from witnessing the miracle of Jesus.

Boyd and Eddy fail to address the psychology of those who had really believed they had seen a ghost walking on water, and then the shock of discovering it was Jesus, and then the added awe of witnessing the changing of the weather to give them smooth rowing the moment he reached them.

Instead, they inject an imaginary storm into the story, assume the wind is an easterly and the disciples, instead of straining against it, had been helplessly blown near the shores of Gennesaret, and that the dominant fear they faced was a near-drowning and being left cold and wet.

Surely if this is an attempt to save the story of Mark, and its geographic inerrancy, the gospel has more to fear from its over-zealous friends than its critics.

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