What’s the word for…


 Today there are about six thousand languages in the world, and half of the world’s population speaks only ten of them.

— Christine Kenneally, The First Word, p. 286

Linguistics has always intrigued me.  Think about it:  We all think in the language we speak, which begs the question — is complex thought even possible without language?

There’s a misconception on the Internet that every two weeks somewhere in the world a language goes extinct, but more accurately it seems to be once every three months.  That’s still a death rate of four a year.  Four languages on the earth will lose their last speaker over the next year.

 Today 457 or 9.2% of the living languages have fewer than 10 speakers and are very likely to die out soon, if no revitalization efforts are made. 639 of the languages known to have existed are already extinct – 10% of all languages.



How Many Seconds in Eternity?



So give me a second…

  • One thousand seconds is equal to just under 17 minutes.
  • One million seconds is 11 and a half days.
  • One billion seconds is 32 years.
  • One trillion seconds is 32,000 years.
  • One quadrillion seconds is 32,000,000 years.
  • One quintillion seconds is… simply, longer than the universe has existed

So seconds add up, but the above also gives context to some otherwise usually intangible, big numbers.  A week is 604,800 seconds.  A 30-day month is 2,592,000 seconds.  The average human lifespan takes place over a span of two-and-a-half billion seconds.

A second seems to us a very small measurement of time in our everyday life, but in reality, a second is an entire universe.  Are you ready to get REALLY REALLY small?  Consider Planck Time, which is the smallest possible division of time.  If you think a second is tiny, here’s the mind-boggling thing:  There are more units of Planck Time in a single second than there have been all the seconds since the Big Bang.

No Word in Hebrew for “Soul”


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Ever wondered where the notion of an afterlife first emerged in the Bible?

No, it’s not in Genesis.  Sure, Adam, Noah, Moses & Company may have reportedly lived hundreds of years (and Methuselah wins the contest at 969), but when these folks finally died they seemed to be genuinely kaput.  Concepts such as a spirit or soul or any afterlife were apparently unknown to the ancient Biblical authors of the Pentateuch; in fact, there wasn’t even a term for “soul” in Hebrew.  The idea of any afterlife is a decidedly late Jewish tradition; the Judeo-Christian notion of heaven today doesn’t find its beginnings until the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd Century BC.  Here’s the first mention of an afterlife in the Bible, found in Daniel, 12:2 -3:

“2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  3And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”

There you have it; an intriguingly bizarre and ambiguous reference first occurring nearly a THOUSAND pages into the narrative.  And the Judeo-Christian concept of an afterlife was still very much a developing notion by the time of the writing of the books of the New Testament two centuries later, which is why Paul’s interpretation is not unlike the above, though both may strike the modern reader as a bit underwhelming:

“… the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud commandthe dead in Christ will rise first… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever. (First Thessalonians 4:15 – 17)

It might surprise you to learn that there is no obvious and unambiguous reference to “heaven” or “hell” found within either the Old or New Testaments… and for that matter, angels didn’t become “angels” until the New Testament, before which they were simply identified as “men,” e.g. the men who appeared to Abraham and Lot in Genesis.  Make no mistake, there are certainly oblique references to be found of “heaven” and “the heavens” within the Old Testament, and similarly oblique references to a “kingdom of God” appearing within New Testament passages, viz.:

“Verily I say to you: Whoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall in no way enter into it.” (Mark, 10:15)

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark, 10:25)

But this “kingdom of God” stands as something of an ambiguity; if contemporary sources interpret this as an afterlife it is not at all clear that this was the meaning intended; after all, many early Christians believed the “kingdom of God” was meant to be a coming physical fiefdom on the earth.  The notion that bad people will go to hell or that good people will go to heaven is a tradition that derives largely outside of the pages of the Bible.

Other, more contemporary takes on the idea of an afterlife:

 I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue.  But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

— Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

 We are each free to believe what we want, and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God.  No one created the universe, and no one directs our fate.  This leads me to a profound realization:  There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either.  We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe.  For that, I am extremely grateful.

— Stephen Hawking, Did God Create the Universe

 The significance of our lives, and our fragile planet, is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage.  We are the custodians of life’s meaning.  We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes.  But knowledge is preferable to ignorance.  Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.  If we crave some cosmic purpose, let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Saving the Souls of Dog-Heads…

In the 9th Century a missionary by the name of Rimbert wrote to an elder with an earnest question:  “What do I do when I encounter the dog-heads?  Do I preach to them?  Can I thereby save their souls?  Or do I look at them as animals and therefore don’t preach to them?”

Ratamnus replied in his now famous and distinctly odd Letter on the Dog-headed Creatures that he believed them to be children of Adam; they clothed themselves (thereby showing modesty), and by his information had domesticated livestock.  “I do not see how this could be so if they had an animal and not a rational soul,” he concluded methodically.  Therefore, the matter was settled; Dog-Heads were creatures with souls, and worth preaching to.


I remember my days from college, during my many, many (many) art history courses I was occasionally confronted with a medieval depiction of dog-headed people somewhere in the corner of the artwork; sure, I thought it was weird but didn’t give it much additional thought.  As it turns out, not just for decades or centuries, but for millennia, people believed in the existence of dog-headed people.  These Cynocephali clothed themselves in human fashion, lived in villages and farms and they always seemed to live just outside of the fringes of society and just over the horizon, wherever that society or horizon happened to be.  The fact that no one had ever seen a Dog-Head never seemed to dissuade anyone from the belief that they existed.  Even Saint Augustine wrote of the Cynocephali in the 5th Century (“What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?”), and he too concluded that their souls were worth saving.  Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, was believed to be a Dog-Head.  If you Google Image search “Saint Christopher dog” you might think you’ve stumbled upon some bizarre medieval comic strip or a Purina commercial from the Middle Ages.  “Saint Christopher,” in the words of Ratamnus, “is thought to have come from this race of people, and he fully committed  both his life and martyrdom to radiant virtues.”  And not just Christopher, Saint Andrew was also often depicted as and believed to be a Dog-Head.  Dog-Heads were everywhere (while at the same time nowhere).  It was not until the Age of Exploration and the 16th Century that the idea of the Dog-Head was exposed as a fallacy and finally began to fade away.

 It appeared that the people of the East thought the Dog-Heads lived in the West.  Wherever the travelers went, asking for them, they encountered people who said, ‘What? We thought they lived where you came from’….  It was becoming clear that the monsters lived just over the horizon.  As the horizon was pushed back, so the myths receded.  The long-standing puzzle of whether or not to preach to Dog-Heads or Monopods was solved by the absence of those creatures.

— Robert Bartlett, Inside the Medieval Mind, Ep. 1, BBC Four, 2008

I’m not comparing the concept of the soul to Dog-Heads… but then again, maybe I am.

Simply, there is nothing in science to suggest a soul.  Our bodies are biological machines and our minds creations of chemistry.  Your thoughts are measurable chemical activity within your brain; and that is to say that thoughts are observable electrical impulses that may be demonstrably and physically detected, and the chemicals and neurons reacting within the brain make you happy or sad… which begs the question that if a soul exists… through what media would a soul think?  How, exactly, would a thought carry or be conducted?  How could a soul be moody?  I guess it would never sleep, because, well, no eyelids… (okay, I’m being serious now) but if our brain is an electro-chemical network within mapped gray matter, without any such chemicals or any platform how would a mood or memory or a thought generate?

Let’s consider this objectively.  Not to be crude or cynical, but a soul does quickly becomes a canard; after all, how many souls would history account for now — two thousand years’ worth or two HUNDRED thousand years’ worth?  Did Neanderthals have souls?  Or HeidelbergensisHomo erectusAustralopithecines?  Chimps?  If the idea of a soul doesn’t appear before 2100 years ago — and our species predates that number by about 100 times — when might a soul have begun, and do dogs have souls?  If Dog-Heads were presumed to have souls, shouldn’t dogs have them too?  And if dogs have souls, certainly cats should have souls….  And if a cat has a soul, I like to think my parakeet Charlie, who drowned in a glass of Hawaiian Punch juice in 1977, would too.  And if a bird has a soul, that suggests that dinosaurs (from which birds derived) would have had souls (…so, did the dinosaurs all go to hell or do they simply still haunt their skeleton replicas in museums?)  I don’t like to think that ants and termites have souls, but I guess it’s a logical extension of the argument… with arachnid souls chasing after them (and do their souls still have eight appendages & do their prey still have six, or is it now a level playing field?).  And if Dog-Heads never existed then what happened to their souls?  And at what point does all of this reduction become absolutely absurd?  And have we ever established how many angels (or in the words of the Old Testament, “men”) can dance on the head of a pin?

Here’s Brian Cox in 2017, presenting an interesting and novel argument:

 If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies.

To this a surprised Neil DeGrasse Tyson responded: “If I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, disproved the existence of ghosts.”

Cox (smiling):  “Yes.”

An unconventional but intriguing proposition:  Given that thoughts are detectable and measurable activity, it seems likely that the Large Hadron Collider — commonly detecting energies and particles in the universe that are thousands of trillionths’ the size of neurons — probably would have detected evidence of at least one soul by now.

The Odds of Other Technological Species in the Universe


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Flight has evolved separately several different times in the history of life on earth — insects, birds and mammals have all taken to the skies, and each class evolved the ability independently of one another.  Eyes have evolved several different times over the history of life on earth.  The octopus developed camera eyes not unlike the human eye, despite the fact that our two species are separated from one another genetically by some 600 million years.

But exactly how common is… intelligence?

It is a trait that seems to have evolved only once in the four billion year history of life on earth.  Like photosynthesis or like the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, intelligence seems to be an outlier, a wonderful spelling error in the recipe that changed something less tasty into the cookie.  And certainly, “intelligent life” is open to interpretation… chimps & apes, dogs, dolphins, elephants, crows and the aforementioned octopus all share intelligence, even down to the ability to manipulate tools.  And if an extraterrestrial were to come to earth judging on the curve, even our degree of intelligence might not impress.

But let us for a moment reconsider the question to focus on a species that is capable of a technological society.  In four billion years of life (and four and-a-half billion years of the earth’s existence) a species with an intelligence capable of producing a technological society has arisen only once.  Homo sapiens emerged out of the tangled tapestry of earlier Homo lines some 200,000 years ago, .005% of the history of life on this planet, or .0044% of the planet’s existence.  By any interpretation this is a fluke — it’s like throwing down a royal flush; it wouldn’t happen the first time you throw down the cards, but if you’re tossing down cards often enough the odds demand that eventually a perfect hand will come down… even if it does take four billion-plus years.

If a technological-capable species has existed on this planet for only a fraction-of-a-fraction of its existence, here’s the big question as we send out signals and carefully listen for reply from giant radio-telescopes… exactly how likely is it that we might find intelligence elsewhere?  Make no mistake, the building blocks for water-based life such as we find on earth seem everywhere in the universe.  Simple amino acids and water are found in abundance in asteroids and comets — and what are all rocky planets but accretions of these same asteroids and comets?  Comets and asteroids whiz around planetary systems like prepackaged freeze-dried, life-delivery kits.  But if it took three billion years for the eukaryote to evolve on earth; if it took four billion years for complex life to find its footing; if it took four and-a-half billion years for intelligent life to evolve and ponder life elsewhere… then finding intelligent life in the universe is a different measure entirely.  As NOVA’s 2014 episode entitled “Alien Planets Revealed” suggested:  “The probability of intelligent life evolving on another planet is perhaps the greatest unanswered question.  But there are hints on earth that intelligence might be the exception, not the rule.”  Geoff Marcy:

 Sharks… have ruled the seas for 400 million years, and yet their brains are no larger than peas.  How could it be that after 400 million years sharks have not developed a higher intelligence?…  That tells us something frightening about life elsewhere in the universe:  perhaps the intelligence of which we humans are so proud is not an attribute that is strongly favored in Darwinian evolution.

– Geoff Marcy (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/alien-planets-revealed.html)

And considering an intelligence capable of a technological civilization lengthens those odds considerably.  Just as no human is born an adult, we did not emerge as a species technologically aware.  We used tools from the beginning, but so did our ancestors millions of years ago, so at what point did we actually become a “technological species”?  This is certainly an elastic term open to interpretation, but let’s say for the sake of generosity that we’ve been technological since the invention of writing, some 4,500 – 5,000 years.  This also coincides with many of our early megalithic and monolithic structures, so this seems fair, if not overly kind.  By this metric, the planet earth has possessed an intelligent species capable of technological understanding for one one-millionth of the planet’s existence.  Let me stress than again.  One one-millionth — that’s equivalent to one second in 11 and-a-half days.  It’s like a lifelong shut-in across the street opening his blinds and peering outside for 42 minutes in his 80-year life.

Now apply the same metric to another technological society in the galaxy.  What is the likelihood of two 80-year old hermits (whose lives don’t even necessarily coincide!) peering out the window and spotting one another in the same 42 minute overlap?

But the likelihood would increase if there were more than two.  Since the Kepler telescope began finding exoplanets in 2009, estimates of habitable planets in the galaxy have reached from the stratosphere into the airless region of hyperbole, but if one were to consider a rather conservative estimate and begin building a template from that, let’s say that there are 10 billion habitable planets in our galaxy — and to be clear, “habitable” should not be confused with “inhabited,” the former means capable of hosting life, but not necessarily inhabited.  So imagine 10 billion habitable planets, and let’s just say for argument’s sake that those 10 billion aren’t quite as habitable as we thought at first flush and maybe only one out of ten actually does harbor life.  Now if even just 1 in 10 hosts life that would still be one billion inhabited planets in the galaxy.

But as we’ve seen it takes time to evolve intelligence; on earth it took four and-a-half billion years.  Factor in the same metric for a technological society as we’ve seen on earth and that means that only one one-millionth of a planet’s existence might see a species capable of technological advancements and capable of understanding communication.  So essentially, there’s a one-in-a-million chance of an inhabited (similarly-aged) world possessing a technological society right now.  That’s right, we have to divide our number by one million.  This winnows the field from one billion to 1000.

But not all planets are the same age; some in the Milky Way are older, but many are younger, and this is likely to further reduce the number.  One must also consider the idea that some intelligent species might exist on “water worlds” or never have left the water as life on earth eventually did, which means its society would be unable to take advantage of any “technology” as we would recognize it.

Other considerations:

  • Exactly how common is an over-sized moon like ours that was so crucial in stabilizing the earth’s tilt, allowing for long-term climate stability?
  • How common is photosynthesis, a necessary precursor for the production of free oxygen, itself a necessary precursor for complex, multi-cellular life?
  • How common is a churning-iron core fueling a magnetic field and plate tectonics?
  • And here’s perhaps the biggest one…  How common is it that water-based life actually leaves water?

All of the above are crucial thresholds, without any of which you would not be reading this.  What are we down to now… 100?  200?  Generously!

But even with such a low estimate of 200 technological civilizations spaced around the Milky Way galaxy right now, the same result dictates that in the larger observable universe there would still be some 40 trillion civilizations at this moment.  Forty trillion, right now.

Still, even if we could bridge the boundaries of physics and talk to them… well, could we really?

 We don’t have conversations with any other species on earth, with whom we have DNA in common!  To believe that some intelligent other species is going to be interested in us, enough to have a conversation…?  ‘Isn’t that quaint…!’

– Neil Degrasse Tyson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2wp5Qe3JV0)

I know, kind of a bummer to end with, but listen… chimps are between 96% and 98% genetically identical to us, and we can’t even achieve meaningful conversations with our closest existing relatives.  If we are unable to have a significant conversation with any other species on earth — and we’re related to them — then what would suggest a conversation is even possible with some species that is completely unrelated to us?

5800 Copies of the New Testament, and Each is Different (…and Hamlet, too!)


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There are some 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, all hand-written between the 2nd and 16th Centuries.  Fifty eight hundred… and no two are identical.  Think about that.  And the earliest copies — those which were fewest in number, transcribed by amateurs and most influential over the whole — were also the ones that were most subject to variation.  As Professor Bart Ehrman (UNC Chapel Hill) has so memorably expressed the point: “There are more differences in our Manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”  There is no original handwritten letter of Paul, no original copy of Mark or Luke to go back and fact-check, not even close.  The oldest versions that survive today are fragments of copies written two centuries later, and if there was as much textural variation in those two centuries from which virtually nothing survives as there clearly was by the fourth century, well, maybe Jesus’ name was actually Joshua. (Hint: it was)

The standardization of text in books is something we take for granted today, but this was a revolution that only came about with the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century.  The King James Version of the Bible was assembled between 1604 and 1611, but the sources used to compile it were relatively later codices, which is to say, upwards of the 12th Century.  When during the 19th Century Biblical scholars began seeking out and finding older codices from the 4th and 5th Centuries they began discovering New Testament books that varied vastly from what exists in the King James Version today.  Quotes, passages and entire chapters found within the King James were significantly different or entirely absent in earlier versions.  No Resurrection in Mark.  No Ascension in Luke.  No “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The entire sequence in John featuring the Woman Caught in Adultery wasn’t there.  Even in comparing the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, two of the oldest surviving codices from the 4th Century:  “According to Herman Hoskier, there are, without counting errors of iotacism, 3,036 textual variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the text of the Gospels alone.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_codices_Sinaiticus_and_Vaticanus)

Even the works of Shakespeare were not immune from significant textural variations.  Quite simply, the Hamlet we read or view today was not any Hamlet that existed in Shakespeare’s time.  Our Hamlet is a bloated merging of the three different versions surviving from Shakespeare’s day — Q1 from 1603, Q2 from 1604 and F from 1623.  Some had lines others did not, some had sequences others did not, but it’s very unlikely all three were ever performed (or intended) as one “Mega-Hamlet.”

So what was the secret to 17th Century folks sitting through a four-hour play?  They didn’t.

What is the Higgs Boson? (And Why Its Confirmation in 2012 Was Such a Big Deal)


Fish swim in an ocean.  You and I also exist in an ocean, though one less dense than water, a cocktail mix of nitrogen and oxygen we call our atmosphere.  It was long suspected, and proven in 2012, that the entire universe exists within an ocean far more fundamental… a Higgs Field.  The Higgs Field is what — by simply being there — determines mass as everything “swims” through it.  Any particle that interacts with this ocean has mass, any particle that does not interact with it has no mass.  The default speed in the universe for anything without mass is light speed.  The default speed in the universe for anything with mass (however slight) is Rest.  The Higgs Field is that determining factor, and the way it slows matter down is what makes our material universe possible.  The atoms in your body could never form (or for that matter, keep that form) at light speed.  Without the Higgs Field creating the slightest resistance the entire universe would be nothing but particles darting around at the speed of light… in other words, light, but no eyes to see it with.

Deconstructing Mythology: 10 Facts About Early Christianity that Most People Don’t Know


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Early image of Jesus


As Miriam A. Ferguson, governor of Texas, is reputed to have declared in the 1920s, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  Jesus clearly spoke Elizabethan English… it’s in the Bible, after all.  Some things we just take for granted.

Interpretation is a powerful tool that is often misused as a hammer.  To revisit a previous post, there are some 5800 manuscripts of the New Testament, hand-written between the 2nd and 16th Centuries, and no two among the 5800 are identical.  Some 80 generations of transcriptions and interpretations, translations and re-interpretations (and sometimes mistranscriptions of those mistranslations) has left us with the collateral effect that people think they know what they don’t, and don’t know what they thought.  Assumption means not knowing what you don’t.  There is an argument to be made — and I think it’s a good one — that when one does not understand a thing’s context, one cannot not understand the thing in question.  Some quick examples…

  • What was the first New Testament book written?  It was not any of the gospels (which came late in the tradition), but the letter we know today as First Thessalonians (though there is a valid argument for Galatians, which had to have come very early or very late in Paul’s career).
  • Who says the Resurrection lasted 40 days?  One single unknown author writing some 60 years after the fact mentioned it once (Acts 1:3), and that alone is where the notion came from.
  • Who said Jesus was 33 at the time of death?  No one; it was simply an assumption which persists today.  The only suggestion of his age in the entirety of the New Testament was a line in Luke (3:23) suggesting “that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry.”
  • Who ever said Jesus was a carpenter?  Again, no one; in fact, this seems to have been a transcription error.
  • Was Jesus even his name?  Not really; at least he wouldn’t have recognized it.
  • What was the only gospel to not feature any demons?  That was John.
  • In which gospel do you find the Star of Bethlehem?  That’s Matthew.
  • Where do you find the birth in a manger?  In Luke.
  • Are two of the gospels simply plagiarisms of a third?  Yes… but there were no lawsuits for such things in the 1st Century.

My interest is not in proving or disproving, my interest is simply in delineating the line between what can be known versus what cannot, the difference between discernible fact and age-old assumption.  It is probably fair to say that many people learned their Bible stories not from the Bible, but from children’s storybooks about the Bible, which just adds another level of embellishment from the source.  Even when consulting the source it’s worth noting that when one reads the New Testament in order, one is decidedly NOT reading the New Testament in order!  I began my career as the resident “in-house” fact-checker at a state archives, and as anyone acquainted with the use of primary sources will attest, mythology overwhelms facts, and there quickly becomes a measurable disconnect between what what CAN be known versus what people THINK they know.  Here, then, are just a few examples, understanding context and separating facts:

10.  Image Not Found.  There is no picture or description of Jesus.  Let’s be honest:  one of the chief problems with the Shroud of Turin (excepting the fact that carbon dating suggests it was created between 1260 and 1390… AND the fact that the face in question is inappropriately European) is that there is nothing to suggest that Jesus looked like this to begin with.  What one finds on the Shroud is an iconic depiction of Jesus as he would have been imagined to look by late-Medieval European conventions, and this convenience must not be overlooked.  In short, who says Jesus looked like… Jesus?  There is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament; not in the Gospels or Epistles, nor were there any known depictions of him in art for the next two hundred years.  Whether tall or short, hair color/length, no comment was made of physical characteristics, and indeed an argument can be made that had he stuck out in any way (… or looked as distinctly European as the Shroud might suggest) why would it have been necessary for Judas to point him out to the Jewish authorities?

The earliest depictions of Jesus in art arose out of the 3rd and 4th Centuries, more than two hundred years after his death.  As demonstrated in the image above that opens this post, he was typically depicted as a beardless youth; the Jesus in art did not obtain a beard until the period between the 4th and 6th Centuries, as first demonstrated in the “Christ in Majesty” and “Pantocrator” motifs of Byzantine and Eastern art; thereafter, as his beard grew so did his hair.  By the 8th Century some Eastern depictions had the flowing locks that are still associated with him today, while European art took another couple of centuries to fall into line.  In short, the bearded, flowing-hair Jesus that we see in tradition today ultimately traces its origins to the Byzantine “Pantocrator” depictions of the 6th to 8th Centuries.

Early images of Jesus

In regards to long hair, it is worth noting that in the 1st Century Paul dismissed long hair on men as “disgraceful” (First Corinthians 11:14), which does not necessarily mean Jesus did not have long hair but might suggest it was unlikely.

9.  Spreading the gospel before the Gospels.  There were three leaders of the early Jesus Movement — Peter (the Apostle described as “Cephas,” or “the Rock”); James, the “brother of the Lord” (according to Mark and Matthew, one of Jesus’ four brothers); and Saul/Paul, a relatively late convert to the Jesus Movement, in the mid-to-late 30s AD.  Even a casual reader of Paul knows that he did not quite see eye to eye with Peter and James.  When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,” Paul wrote in Galatians 2:11, angry at what he viewed as Peter’s hypocrisy.  Paul spent much of the 50s in Asia Minor establishing congregations and collecting monies, during which time perhaps Peter and James might have imagined they were marginalizing him and his influence.  But it was Paul’s successful marketing-of-message and letter-writing campaign that would go on to form the basis of the faith.  The letters of Paul form the backbone of the New Testament.

As to the other two leaders of the movement:  there are only two letters attributed to Peter within the New Testament, whether or not they were actually penned by him is subject to debate — First Peter is generally regarded as potentially authentic, Second Peter is not — but in Acts 4:13, Peter is described as illiterate.  Similarly, there is only one letter in the New Testament attributed to James, but its date and authorship (“the” James versus a random James), is very much in question.  It is interesting and ironic that of the three leaders, it was neither Peter nor James who provided the framework for the Christian faith as it exists today, but Paul… the outsider, and the only one of the three who — by his own admission — never personally knew any living Jesus.

8.  Any second now.  We may not think often today of its apocalyptic beginnings, but the Jesus Movement was just one of countless apocalyptic cults arising in the Judean wilderness of 1st Century Palestine, and as such the early Jesus Movement’s founders fully expected a literal end of the world within their lifetime.  Its apocalyptic nature can still be found throughout Paul’s letters.  One example is in First Corinthians, as Paul responds to a question of whether or not young people should be permitted to marry with a lengthy refrain that there simply wasn’t much time before the end came. “The appointed time has grown very short,” he warned (7:25 – 29).  “Let us not neglect our church meetings,” he exhorted in Hebrews 10:25, “especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.”  Peter, too, sounded a little like a man on today’s street corner holding a sign.  The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (First Peter 4:7)

Of course, the most cited example of Paul’s insistence of the end of days is what we call today the Rapture.  People confuse the Rapture with something in Revelations, but the Rapture is a brief passage contained within Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians:

15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (First Thessalonians 4:15 – 17)

First Thessalonians is possibly the oldest surviving writing by Paul, generally regarded as written between 49 and 52 AD.  It must be understood that Paul was writing to a community that had believed that Jesus would return within their lifetime, only to see members start dying off in the meantime.  His letter was intended to assure his congregation that even those who had just recently passed away would be taken too, in addition to the “we who are still alive.”  Taken out of this context today, the Rapture, conflated with Revelations, now strikes one as some dark and twisted, bizarre worldwide zombie awakening.

7.  What did Paul know and when did he know it?  The letters of Paul do emerge as a crucial tool for understanding pre-Gospel Christianity in that they represent the closest written source to the time of Jesus and provide, really, an unparalleled access into the “think-tank” of the early Jesus Movement.  Anyone who hopes to put early Christianity in context has to pore through the letters of Paul before even considering picking up a gospel… Paul is the “patient zero” of the New Testament.

Paul’s Epistles comprise essentially one-third of the New Testament.  There are 13 letters attributed to Paul; it should be understood that scholarly consensus today contends that 7 of the 13 are authentic — which is to say that seven of these letters were indeed written by Paul — while 6 are regarded as “less authentic” and whose authorship is subject to debate.  But whether 7 or 13, our author Paul — the architect of one-third of the New Testament — actually says very little about Jesus or his life.  In none of these letters does Paul ever quote any proverb of his Jesus’ lifetime, nor does he ever cite a single miracle of his living ministry; indeed, Paul makes no specific reference to Jesus’ life at all prior to the events of the Last Supper.  The three-plus decades before Jesus’ last 24 hours do not factor into Paul’s writing; and quite frankly, in Paul’s time many of these details and traditions that would later be associated with Jesus simply were not yet in place.  The sacrifice and salvation of Jesus is what interested Paul, and that was the message he wanted to spread.  Even the Resurrection is referred to as an abstraction, which to be fair, is not unlike the gospels.  The gospels will dedicate full pages — in fact, entire chapters — to a single sermon of Jesus but gloss over the Resurrection — if true, the most miraculous event in the history of the world — with a few broad strokes or a solitary chapter.  In reading the letters of Paul, one might be tempted to dismiss any resurrection as a complete abstraction but for the fact that Paul does make one specific reference (First Corinthians 15:1 – 8) which is interesting:

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

This marks Paul’s only specific remark in his letters regarding the Resurrection, and it is curious that the “more than five hundred” episode to which he refers above is an account that is not found in any of the gospels.  In addition, one might also observe that Paul includes his encounter on the Road to Damascus a few years later as one of Jesus’ appearances; our modern-day interpretation of the Resurrection lasting “forty days” is a later tradition that derives solely from one lone line of text in Acts 1:3… there is NO other source making this claim in the New Testament.  Paul knew nothing of a Resurrection confined to forty days.

6.  Emergence of the Gospels.  So the earliest and oldest surviving Christian writings in the Bible are the letters of Paul, written in the 50s AD… but Paul doesn’t have much to offer in terms of a Jesus biography.  The first stories ABOUT Jesus don’t find their way to print until four decades after Jesus’ death.  Since the 19th Century scholarly consensus has maintained that Mark’s was the first gospel penned, sometime around 70 AD, with the other three following over the next three decades, give or take.  This means that more than a generation passed between the death of Jesus and the authorship of the earliest narrative gospel, and the better part of a century before John’s Gospel.  The gospels emerged out of the decades between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (66-70 AD and 132-136 AD) and arose from the vacuum left by the deaths of the founding generation of Peter, Paul, etc..  (Despite stories that would later arise around Peter’s martyrdom, we do not know exactly when or how Paul or Peter died.)  The modern scholarly consensus is that the four gospels of the New Testament were not first-hand accounts, nor were they necessarily penned by the men for whom they are named.  It is entirely possible that earlier proto-gospels may have been just “sayings” gospels; the Gospel of Thomas (rediscovered in the 1890s and at Nag Hammadi in 1945) and the theoretical (but lost) “Q” Gospel — which provided many of the sayings found in Matthew and Luke — suggest such a possibility.  The narrative template (Jesus’ “life story”) however, seems to have first arisen with Mark.

  • Paul’s lettersoldest Jesus-related writings — written in the 50s AD
  • The Gospel of Mark — post-1st Jewish Revolt period, about or after 70 AD
  • The Gospels of Matthew and Luke — between 85 and 95 AD
  • The Gospel of John — around 100 AD, additional material added later (?)
First centuryA

Jefferson Hall, 2016

The Gospels were romance tales, to what degree any of them are historically accurate would hinge almost entirely on Mark.  The Gospel of Mark was the “first draft” of the story.  Mark is the first, shortest, simplest and most crudely written of the gospels, but Mark provided the model and the template — directly or indirectly — for the other three.  A dark story, it is very much in keeping with Pauline thought, emphasizing sacrifice and struggle.  In Mark, Jesus is a healer and exorcist; the author of the gospel was either unaware or uninterested in the “Q” source material, so Jesus is not the gifted orator that would characterize the later gospels; his longest single passage/sermon lasts 40 sentences.  Mark’s Jesus is a man overtaken by events; he’s eccentric, moody, cryptic and inflammatory; early in his ministry (Mark 3) his family is convinced he’s lost his senses.  His mother and his brothers come to drag him away, but he ignores their efforts.  Jesus is on a mission, it’s poignant that in Mark no one — not his family nor even his disciples — ever “get” what he’s talking about.

The life narratives used in Matthew and Luke were not separate witness accounts but were simply transcriptions from Mark, slightly modified, and supplemented with dialogue from the “Q” source.  They were essentially “second-draft Mark,” smoothing over the tonal inconsistencies and “fixing” some of Mark’s narrative shortcomings along the way.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish community, this is the gospel of the Jewish Jesus; anyone familiar with the Old Testament would have had an easier time relating to it; Matthew’s Gospel was focused on fulfilling Scripture, and Jesus is cast in the role of a New Moses.  A good example of how Matthew tries to “fix” a narrative shortcoming in Mark: in Mark, Jesus finds himself unable to perform miracles when he returns to Nazareth; he falls victim to a kind of stage fright.  Matthew’s author makes it clear that he chooses not to perform miracles at Nazareth because of all the unbelievers in his hometown.

Matthew wastes little time in putting the “Q” sayings to use; the Sermon on the Mount occupies three early chapters (5-7) as Jesus dispatches wisdom and the Law in a setting not unlike Moses from the mountaintop.  These early chapters in Matthew offer a more accessible introduction to Jesus than Mark, which begins with an inscrutable and slightly oddball protagonist exorcising demons up and down the Judaean countryside.

The sources for Matthew and Luke:

These “Q” sayings become the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.  The author of the Gospel of Luke was probably a physician, his gospel was written for a non-Jewish, Grecco-Roman audience.  He also wrote Acts; though broken up in the New Testament today, Luke/Acts was intended as a seamless two-act literary work.  The Jesus that Luke presents is the Serene Jesus; in Mark Jesus is erratic and often irritated or downright angry, but the Jesus of Luke is mild and unflappable.  Another example of how a subsequent gospel “fixes” Mark can be found in Luke’s Passion: in Mark, Jesus is silent after conviction, silent during crucifixion, silent as he is mocked by the adjacent criminals (BOTH of them); the only line he speaks in the ENTIRETY of the crucifixion sequence in Mark is the impassioned “Eloi eloi, lama sabachthani?”  This dramatizes the despair and dark quality of Mark.  In contrast, Luke’s narrative has Jesus stopping by the side of the road to implore the women not to weep for him, asking God to forgive those who are nailing him to the cross, making friends with one of the criminals beside him and never does he cry out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” but instead he gracefully exits with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  This is a different narrative Jesus and presents a fascinating contrast.  In Mark, he’s out of control.  In Luke, he’s not only in control, he’s friendly, sympathetic and even strangely conversational.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of John is not a rewrite of Mark, but a thorough re-imagining, with a clearly Eastern influence.  Certainly to the modern reader Mark — with its never-ending gallery of demons and possessed people — is difficult to view seriously; John’s narrative is a bit more sophisticated, and never does a demon rear its head in John.  John introduces a few different disciples (Nathanael, Jude, etc.) and reorganizes some of the old Synoptic narratives.  For example:  The “Cleansing of the Temple” in Jerusalem (the episode also known as “Jesus and the money changers”) is one of the few episodes to appear in all four gospels — in Mark, Matthew and Luke it occurs in the final week of Jesus’ life and is what brings him to the attention of the authorities; in no small way it is ultimately one of the reasons he is put to death.  The author of John, however, shifts it to the first act of his ministry (John 2:13 – 16), and the affair passes without incident.

John also introduces the reader to a handful of decidedly different narratives and stories, some of which were demonstrably later inventions, like the “Pericope Adulterae” (see #4 below) and the interview with Nicodemus, which takes up all of John 3 and hinges on a clever double entendre (“born again/born from above”) that only works in the Greek in which these manuscripts were written… when tellingly, both would have been speaking Aramaic.  John may have been the most “open-source” version of the four gospels, in that this gospel does show glaring evidence of marked insertions by later contributors (7:53 – 8:11, all of 21).  Even as late as the 5th Century it appears that stories were still being added to the canon of John.

By the writing of this fourth gospel, Jesus is self-assured and incredibly eloquent; his longest soliloquy runs three entire chapters (14-17, more than 150 sentences).  This is the gospel of the Divine Jesus; here he is no longer man but God on earth.  It is probably safe to say that when one thinks of Jesus today it is this meditative and all-knowing Jesus found in John or Luke that one pictures, and not the capricious and brusque Jesus of Mark.  (After all, in Mark 1:29 – 31, Jesus is invited to Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law of a fever, she then gets up and fixes them all dinner… though this is later found in Matthew and Luke, the sheer brevity in Mark suggests that he heals her SO that she can feed them… a darkly humorous inference that is distinctly Markan)  As anyone who has read Mark and John back-to-back might attest, it’s hard to reconcile the Jesus of Mark with the Jesus of John (and remember, 30 to 40 years separate the writing of the two).  But two themes that do reoccur from Mark:  Jesus’ family is once again portrayed as antagonistic toward his ministry (he’s taunted by his brothers in John 7), and the author of John does not make any use of the “Q” source.  In lieu of the “Q” sayings, John introduces Jesus’ seven “I am…” declarations (“I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Gate,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light” and “I am the Vine”).  The idea that Jesus says far more in the gospel that is furthest removed from his lifetime could be seen as emblematic of myth-building; after all, it would seem unlikely that dialogue could survive verbatim for 70-80 years, by the time of the writing of John.

The narrative of Jesus, then, may be seen like a game of Telephone, in which each author added their own particular slant or spin, each owing a debt to the less-developed tradition that preceded it, before which the trail disappears into the abstraction of Paul’s letters, possible oral traditions and lost sayings gospels; no writing of Jesus during his lifetime exists.

It’s worth noting that in the past two centuries additional non-canonical gospels have been discovered, though with the exception of the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas, all are incomplete.  These gnostic gospels tend to be less counterpart and more counterpoint to their canonical brethren, challenging the interpretations offered by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  The Gospel of Philip emerged with Thomas at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Judas in the 1970s, the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] in the late 19th Century, the same period which saw the discovery of the Gospel of Peter.  Only the last portion of the Gospel of Peter survives; in it Herod, not Pilate, orders the crucifixion, and the narrative ends with two giant angels and a fantastic walking, talking cross emerging from the empty tomb.  Transcriptions for these gospels can be found online and demonstrate that in the early centuries after Jesus there were many different interpretations and ways of seeing Jesus, though most of these Christologies/Christianities (Gnosticism, Montanism, Docetism, Manichaeism and Arianism) were suppressed in the 4th Century as the Christianity of the Trinity (“Orthodox Christianity”) was created.  Speaking of the Trinity, the only reference to the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the entire New Testament occurs in Matthew 28:19, spoken by a Resurrected Jesus.  The origins, the meaning and any further explanation of any Trinity simply does not appear in the New Testament; the “Comma Johanneum” passage within First John 5:7 – 8 is a later fraudulent addition.

5.  Richer or Poorer.  The tradition of Jesus as a carpenter emerges solely from one line in the Gospel of Mark, 6:3 — “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?'”  This is similar to the text in Matthew, the gospel that was simply a more Jewish transcription of Mark “‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?'” (Matthew, 13:55, emphasis added)  One will note that in Mark, Jesus is a “carpenter,” in Matthew Jesus is just the “carpenter’s son.”

Here’s where the matter gets confusing.  As a passionate defender of the faith, the famous Christian Apologist Origen (c.184 – 253) insisted in the 3rd Century “that in none of the Gospels current in the Churches is Jesus himself ever described as being a carpenter.” (Against Celsus 6:36).  To anyone who has read Mark, this blanket assertion might seem absurd.  But he is not incorrect.  Many of the earliest versions of Mark — including Papyri 45 (c. 250), which is the earliest fragment of Mark 4 – 9 — do NOT feature any reference to Jesus as being a carpenter, just as being a “carpenter’s son,” exactly as found in Matthew.  So clearly even in the time of Origen there were already two different versions of Mark in circulation, one in which Jesus was a carpenter (and which made it into the current King James Bible) and another, asserted by Origen to be authentic, in which he was not.  One of these was incorrect eighteen centuries ago, but which one is not possible to determine… though the earlier provenance of “carpenter’s son” and harmony with Matthew’s text (not to mention Origen’s rebuff) certainly leads to the suggestion that “carpenter” is the scribal error.

Moreover, the original Greek “tekton” does not necessarily mean “carpenter” in any sense we think of today anyway, this is just another instance in which context has been lost.

If Paul’s letters are to be given any more credibility, given their closer chronological proximity to the life of Jesus and the fact that Paul offers us so little information about Jesus the man, one throwaway line from Paul’s letter in Second Corinthians leaves an odd inference that Jesus came from a wealthy family.  Speaking on the subject of financial donations he remarked:  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (8:9)  Certainly, the line represents some allegory, but it seems that if there were no basis in literal truth there would seem to be little reason for choosing the wording.  The idea that Jesus may have walked away from a wealthy family adds pathos to the encounter with the wealthy young man who could not bring himself to walk away from his own wealth (Mark, 10:17 – 25, Matthew, 19:16 – 24, Luke, 18:18 – 25).

4.  Fraudulent alterations to the text in the 5th Century: Mark’s Resurrection and John’s “cast the first stone.”  This might be surprising, but the first gospel had no Resurrection.  Mark ended with the ultimate cliffhanger: The women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  And THIS was the original ending of the Gospel of Mark.  So Mark, the first of the four gospels written, originally ended at 16:8 with an empty tomb; we refer to it today as “Short Mark,” as found in the two oldest complete copies of Mark (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), both from the 4th Century.  The first gospels to feature post-Resurrection narratives were Matthew and Luke, and much as Mark had initially inspired their composition, so it appears that Mark was later altered to more closely correspond with them.  The earliest surviving versions of Mark to feature the Resurrection — the “Long Mark” that we see today, featuring 12 additional verses — emerge from the 5th Century, not just decades but centuries after the original writing.  In fact, 5th Century Mark is quite variegated — like its predecessors, the Codex Syriacus has no Resurrection, but the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (all 5th Century transcriptions) do, while their contemporary Codex Washingtonianus goes further and features an entire additional passage not found even in today’s version of Mark, the Freer Logion (“Satan’s time is done…” proclamation), inserted between 16:14 and 16:15.  And while on the subject, it’s worth noting that one of John’s two chapters detailing the Resurrection (21) is also regarded as inauthentic.

Similarly, the “Pericope Adulterae,” despite being one of the most recognizable stories today about Jesus, is recognized a medieval insertion.  In this episode, found only in John (7:53 – 8:11), a woman accused of adultery is brought before Jesus as a trap by the Pharisees:

“53 Then each of them went home, 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”

The above passage is one of the most famous episodes of Jesus’ ministry, and his response to his challengers perhaps his best known saying, and yet this entire episode is simply not found in any copy of John before the 5th Century.  This is a medieval interpolation, even written in a different style.  It is not extant in the 3rd Century copies of John (Papyri 66 or 75), not found in the 4th Century (Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus), nor in the majority of the 5th Century texts (Codex Syriacus, Codex Washingtonianus, Codex Borgianus, and regarded as likely not present in the Codex Alexandrinus or Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus… though the latter two are missing pages here, people smarter and more dedicated than I have measured the lines-per-page ratio).  Not until the Codex Bezae and Codex Fuldensis (early-to-mid-5th Century) does the narrative first conclusively appear, and even as late as the 10th Century it was still excluded from many versions for the reason that it was recognized as inauthentic.

3.  What child is this?  For centuries, one unintended consequence of the birth narratives was that it left a problem of explaining Jesus’ “lost years” between infancy and ministry.  But most scholars today regard the Nativity as “tradition” (an elegant way of saying fictional), which would render any years in-between as a complete non-issue.  In antiquity, miraculous birth stories often arose around figures of prominence, notably after they were famous.  Considered objectively, of all of the events that occur in the Narrative of Jesus the Nativity is the easiest to challenge; it was a relatively late addition to the canon and appears in only two of the four gospels — Matthew and Luke — both penned well after Mark and dating to between 85 and 95 AD.  If Jesus is understood to have lived between roughly 4 BC and 30 AD, that places their compositions between 55 and 65 years after his death and nearly an entire century after his birth, which begs the obvious question that if all of the principles involved in the story were long dead, who could possibly be the source?  If the two narratives shared more in common it might argue for the existence of some now-long-lost previous text that inspired them, à la the “Q” Gospel, but this is not the case.  Matthew and Luke tell two entirely different narratives.

It is the story of Luke that presents the idea that Jesus and John the Baptist are cousins, a Roman census, no room at the inn, a birth in a manger and the annunciation to the shepherds.  Matthew’s story seems to feature an ordinary birth (no manger), but introduces the star of Bethlehem and wise men from the east, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the family’s flight into Egypt.  The Nativity that is observed every Christmas season today simply merges these two rather disparate narratives into one.  In fact, many of the ideas and instances that people today believe are in the Bible are actually later Christian traditions, assumptions and amalgamations; the Nativity is just one of the clearest examples of this.

There is no record of any census involving non-Roman citizens and no record anywhere of an errant star in the sky or Herod’s slaughter, both of which likely would have attracted attention in other sources.  Herod’s slaughter seems a narrative analog of the one Pharaoh ordered in Exodus and the story of Moses; the fact that this episode is confined to the gospel which most tried to tie itself to Judaic themes (Matthew) is probably not a coincidence.  And the use of Bethlehem as the birth location is likely a construct to conform with the prophesy of Micah 5:2.  Interestingly, in the gospels of both Mark and John, there is no Bethlehem pretense; Jesus is fully from Nazareth.  In John 1:46, when told that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael wryly remarks — ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’”  And in John 7:41 – 42, one of the arguments presented against Jesus by the crowd was that he was not from Bethlehem.

Another attempt to conform to Scripture is the depiction of Jesus as born of a virgin, fulfilling the text of Isaiah 7:14.  But tellingly the authors of Matthew and Luke would have been reading the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, in which “parthenos” means virgin.  In the original Hebrew text of Isaiah an “almah” means young woman, which does not necessarily carry any connotation of sexual status.  In a likely example of overreach, it seems possible that in forming their stories the authors of Matthew and Luke were framing their narratives to match the mis-translation of the Scripture they would have had at hand.

It is important to note that a “Virgin” Mary is never mentioned in the gospels of Mark or John (on the contrary, John 7 certainly leaves the impression his brothers are older), and Mary is never mentioned at all in the writings of Peter or the many letters of Paul… and certainly, had such a “virgin birth” tradition existed in Paul’s time, it seems hard to believe that he — the master of early Christian spin — would not have exploited that to the fullest in every letter he wrote.  In short, if Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, it seems that no one passed this information along to Peter or Paul.

2.  404 Not Found.  There is no evidence of any historical Jesus outside of the Bible stories and no mention of him by any surviving contemporary sources.  This is important and bears repeating: anyone looking for any extra-Biblical evidence of a Jesus of Nazareth will come away disappointed.  He is mentioned in the New Testament and the New Testament alone, and no writing within the New Testament even dates to within twenty years of his lifetime.  He goes unmentioned in any surviving records of the day — no appearances in court records, census data, notes or letters or official documents, Roman or Jewish, of any kind.  Nothing was written by him — or of him — in his lifetime.

To be technical, his name wasn’t even Jesus.  “Jesus” is a derivation from the Greek in which the New Testament books were written, but make no mistake — no one was speaking Greek in 1st Century Palestine.  His name would have been Yeshua or Yehoshua, which would come down from the Hebrew today more accurately as “Joshua.”  Despite the intervening two millennia of prayers to someone named Jesus, no one in his lifetime would have ever called him that.

1.  In the Name Of...   Given the fact that Christian doctrine was shaped by Paul, the life story of Jesus written by anonymous Gospel authors two generations later and the Church organized and politicized by oligarchs three centuries after his death, one disturbing fact does seems clear:  Even presuming there was a genuine historical Jesus/Yeshua at the center of centuries of myth-creation and political appropriation, Christianity is a faith that seems to have been founded and shaped by NO ONE who actually knew the man.

Some Conclusions and Questions

As a historian trained by practice and profession to confirm facts and provenance, the above represents an interesting study, but a challenge to fact or scrutiny.  To be blunt:  There is no primary source here.  In the end one cannot substantiate a single lesson or any word ever said by Jesus, as every word that comes to us today is third-person hearsay written down no earlier than four decades after his death.  In the first gospel he speaks the least, while Matthew and Luke introduce dialogues from the “Q” source.  So where did the “Q” source come from and were these actually the words of Jesus?  And if they were, then why are they not found anywhere in the gospels of Mark and John?  Similarly, why are Jesus’ distinctive dialogues in John found nowhere else?

In an absence of primary sources, the next logical step is to consider the earliest possible secondary sources; in this case the earliest secondary source comes an entire generation after his death with the writings of Paul, which returns us to point #7 and the fact that Paul says very little about Jesus.  Did Paul exist?  Almost unquestionably; we know because Paul left behind a trail.  Paul… wrote.  And Paul wrote extensively.  We have numerous writings of Paul; we have no writings of Jesus.  A logical objective argument is that if Jesus (or any god) wanted/intended/imagined a message to be spread then why did he or that deity not make sure that Jesus himself could write and pass the message along, instead of relying on later third-party sycophants who never knew him to transcribe (or clearly mis-transcribe) the agenda over the following generations?

The Trinity, for example (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), is a cornerstone of Church doctrine, but any reading of the gospels finds this idea only once, shoehorned into Jesus’ mouth in a questionable post-Resurrection passage in Matthew.  And the Resurrection stories — leaving aside the fact that the first gospel didn’t even have one — are a plethora of conflicting narratives… Paul, Matthew, Luke and John all tell different tales, only John offers us any specific incident or more than a single chapter.  John presents two chapters, and one of those two (John 21), like Mark 16:9 – 20, is generally regarded as an inauthentic later addition.  The Resurrection seems like a lost opportunity… we have five sources (and two of them regarded as forgeries [Mark & John]), 40 days (maybe? Again, see #7) and almost nothing specific is recorded.  It’s a stage encore played with all the mics off or a Super Bowl touchdown with all the cameras pointed at the stadium floor.  If the Resurrection was planned by a deity it does seem somewhat poorly orchestrated.

The absence of a Yeshua/Jesus in Philo stands out additionally… Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BC-c.50 AD) was a lifelong student of liberal Jewish thought, documenting several wandering Jewish mystics of the time period, but despite the whole of Jesus’ ministry taking place within the prime of his life he seems to have been unaware of such a person, which seems odd for someone with a following who might have performed miracles and returned from the dead.  At the same time, the notion of modern “mythicists,” who believe Jesus was a figure entirely made up seems flawed as well.  After all, the one tradition that is found from the earliest source onward — really, the most defensible element of the narrative — is that the man was crucified; this is decidedly NOT the way one would want to start the story, if given a choice.  Another strong suggestion of his existence is the tortured logic by which Matthew and Luke place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  If starting from a clean slate, he would be from Bethlehem to begin with, no hoops to jump through.  That he was from Nazareth is an inconvenient detail that fiction would not invent.  If you cross Ockam’s Razor with the analogy that “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” it argues against probability to suggest there was NO Jesus.

I often say there is always some grain of truth in the sandbox of embellishment.  The Mayflower landed, but not at Plymouth Rock… after all, the first reference to any “Plymouth Rock” came some 121 years after the event.  Paul Revere’s “Midnight Ride” really happened, but never once did he shout, “the British are coming,” as he himself (and the colonists) considered themselves British.  Instead, the quote above came some 85 years later in a poem by Longfellow, who effectively reshaped history into mythology-in-rhyme.  Many of these shared stories one learns from childhood are a result of embellishment and half-truths writ generations later.  Stories snowball, myths gain traction; it’s just what they do.  As the old saying goes, our love of stories outweighs our love of facts.

I suspect that any genuine and historical Yeshua probably would have about as much in common with today’s “Jesus Christ” as Saint Nicholas would with his more famous alter-ego.  Saint Nicholas was a real person (who lived from 270-343), but our “Santa Claus” emerged over the centuries as a mythological and marketable variant built upon his legacy.  It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” are words that were never uttered by the genuine Saint Nicholas, and yet these words are “gospel” we cannot disassociate from him.  At what point does a real person become mythology?  The first writings about Jesus began some two decades after his death and reached a crescendo in the centuries that followed, with more gospels and interpretations than we can reconstruct today.  But not unlike the secular examples of King Arthur or Robin Hood — similar composite characters written and re-imagined by different authors over centuries — history and fact fall short of finding him.  Like an Impressionist painting, the well-defined picture of Jesus that we see by the fourth century loses focus the closer one looks toward his lifetime, and ultimately dissipates altogether a full two decades before even reaching his lifetime.  Also not unlike an Impressionist picture… one may see what one wants to see.

How You are Stardust (…and Nuclear Waste)


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  “It never ceases to amaze me that our bodies are constructed of the stuff of stars.” — Stephen Hawking

  “You are stardust.  It is literally the most poetic thing I know about in all of science” — Lawrence Krauss
  “That association–for me–is actually quite enlightening, and ennobling, and enriching.  In fact, it’s almost spiritual.” — Neil Degrasse Tyson


 We are a collection of atoms that understands that it is a collection of atoms…  [We are] the universe knowing that it is the universe.

— Dr. Nina Lanza, How the Universe Works, s04e05, Discovery Communications, 2015

So where do YOU ultimately come from?  Is it too abstract to declare in the first sentence that you came from space?  Yes, I guess it’s a poor way to start; you would argue sensibly that no, you came from the womb and there may even be pictures and video to prove it, to which I would reply… eww, and then this post would prematurely end in awkward silence.  To be clear, I am not disputing that you came from your mother’s womb.  But your mother came from space….  Okay, let me start over:  So everyone had a mother and everyone came from the womb; but take a moment to consider that your body, and the body of the mother who bore you, and hers before her, was built up over 8 or 9 months simply using proteins and minerals already present or ingested during pregnancy by the body that produced you.  In short, you were produced in a secure environment, but your unique cells were assembled from already existing atoms.

I probably don’t have to tell you that you started small; every person on earth spent their first half hour as a single cell, what we refer to as a zygote (see, already you sound like you came from space).  The definition, according to Wikipedia:  “a cell formed when two gamete cells are joined by means of sexual reproduction.  In multicellular organisms, it is the earliest developmental stage of the embryo.”  By the time you were born your body was an amazing construction of 100 trillion cells working in concert.  But every individual cell is finite; about three hundred million cells die every minute — you don’t feel your body slipping away because they are always replaced in kind.  Neil Shubin, from his 2008 book Your Inner Fish:

 Our skin cells, for example, are continually dividing, dying, and being sloughed off.  Yet you are the same individual you were seven years ago, even though virtually every one of your skin cells is now different:  the ones you had back then are dead and gone, replaced by new ones.  Like a river that remains the same despite changes in its course, water content, even size, we remain the same individuals despite the continual turnover of our parts.

— p. 118

It is estimated that we slough off some 8 pounds of cells a year.  Yes, that’s 8 pounds!  By this metric, there is more YOU outside of you, blowing in the wind and gathering as dust in your house, than still an organized part of you.  Even as you reached your teens, by weight, YOU were already the minority of you.  It reminds me of Charlie Brown’s friend, Pigpen, forever sporting a cloud of dust behind him; if we had special glasses and time lapse video, we might all appear like Pigpen, leaving behind a cloud of dead residue.  (Eww… and again awkward silence.)

So a human cell follows a lifespan and then it dies, replicated by another — in fact, every ten years your face has completely regenerated with cells that are clones of their predecessors.  Interestingly, the same is true on the larger, more abstract scale – with the “face of humanity” — which regenerates every hundred years from the clones of its predecessors.

So let’s take a moment to understand the difference between our cells (finite, organic chemistry) and atoms (the cell’s non-living and essentially-eternal constituents).  Here’s a sense of scale:  each of your 100 trillion cells is made up of roughly 100 trillion atoms.  In simple terms, you are to the scale of the cell what the cell is to the atom.  An atom is the smallest constituent of matter that is still an element; the atom is the end of the road.  An atom of gold is a smallest portion of gold you can cut it into; if you were to cut it smaller it would by definition no longer be gold.  Cut it any smaller you’d simply be breaking down the universal parts of an atom (protons, electrons, neutrons), dismantling the hardware, if you will.  Though a cell is much larger in size, the same general principle applies from the inorganic to the organic; a cell is the smallest constituent of you that is still “you.”  If you were to cut a cell any smaller, you’d simply be splitting constituent parts (acids, sugars, water, etc.).

Think of a body as an entire civilization; one human cell then, might be imagined as a city, a well-organized metropolitan layout following a strict master plan (its DNA), which was handed down by the city planner (aka, the parents).  But what is the city made of… bricks, steel, glass, drywall and mortar.  Just as each body is made up of 100 trillion cells, and each individual cell is made up of roughly 100 trillion atoms, think of the atom then as a single grain of sand in the countless bricks or sheets of glass that make the city.  The city is a magnificent collection of structures, but we don’t often consider the fact that each and every grain of sand making up the city existed long BEFORE the city, and will last long AFTER it’s gone.  The grain of sand is re-purposed over millenia.  This distinction made, now consider the untold and unheralded story of the atom, because this is the story of everything.


Code Breaking

Complexity arises out of simplicity.  So much in our universe is just an expression of code combinations.  Our DNA is made up of a base of just four chemical compounds, yet repeated enough times that the result is a staggering diversity.  A mix of just three primary colors results in 64 crayons in the box, and every song ever made has been just a different arrangement of 12 recurring notes. Our alphabet is made up of 26 letters, and from that, not just one, but multiple languages are possible.  Our universe is no different; it is the end result of just 92 basic chemical elements, mixed together in different combinations.  There are only 92 types of naturally occurring atoms in our universe.  Think of our universe as an amazingly flavorful stew made up of just 92 ingredients… and ultimately, 91 of those 92 were made from just the first.

The recipe of our universe, as it turns out, was that big old white poster that hung at the front of your old school classroom.  There sitting atop the old periodic table was that one simple letter “H”, as fundamental, simple and iconic as the big “E” on an eye doctor’s chart.  Made up of just one proton and one electron (hence its atomic number 1), hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe and was the first atom to congeal in those first several hundred thousands years after the Big Bang.  Forgive me if I shout this: it is interesting to note that roughly 10% of your body is more than 13 billion years old!  Atoms, like that grain of sand, are simply recycled and re-purposed, and the closest physical property to eternal that exists in our universe.  In the first several million years of the universe the only element was hydrogen — well, technically, hydrogen and a little helium (elements 1 and 2) — and even today our universe remains an overwhelming 98% hydrogen/helium mix; all of the other 90 elements you see on the periodic table make up less than 2%.  Hydrogen is the fuel of our universe.

So let’s all agree hydrogen is basically awesome and awesomely basic (and if you bake it a cake just don’t light the candle).  Here’s the breakdown, and where I always got confused and hung up thinking about this concept as a child:  there was nothing physical that came out of the Big Bang — there were no planets, no asteroids or rock; not even the slightest speck of dust came out of the Big Bang.  (Yes, the Big Bang was dust-free.)  Dust, rocks, asteroids, planets and people all require carbon, and carbon was yet to exist.  Now to be clear, making a universe using only hydrogen and helium would not be unlike trying to form a language using only the first two letters of the alphabet… you’d be hard pressed to produce a single word, much less an entire language.  But just as a language starts with one word, so does a universe start with just one element.  The difference between an empty universe of hydrogen and a universe of planets and buildings and oceans and bumblebees and endless M*A*S*H reruns and YOU reading these words was gravity.  Matter and gravity are a feedback cycle; the more mass an object gains the more gravity it exerts, which in turn attracts more mass to it.  Brought together by this fundamental force of gravity, hydrogen clouds gathered, compressed and lit up into the first generation of big blue hydrogen stars.  It was stars, in one form or another, that ultimately created all the other natural elements that exist today, fused together within the furnaces of their cores.  Stars are the stars of our story.

This process — the creation of heavier elements from lighter elements through fusion — is known as nucleosynthesis.  A process proposed as early as the 1920s during the early days of quantum physics, by 1957 the last details of the amazing story of stellar nucleosynthesis were finally understood.  Imagine two hydrogen atoms thrust together into one… one atom with two protons is by default no longer hydrogen but helium (element #2, with 2 protons and 2 electrons).  Helium can fuse into lithium (element #3, with 3&3) and beryllium (#4, 4&4), or three helium atoms (three #2s) can fuse directly into one carbon (#6) in a neat trick called the triple-alpha process, initiating the “CNO cycle” as carbon fuses into nitrogen (#7) and oxygen (#8).  The process continues up the scale; in essence, one sees the order of creation and the difficulty in creation with the ascending order on the periodic table, with every number representing a new and heavier elemental material than the one before.  Stars are element factories, through escalating pressures creating ever more complex elements right up to the last instant of their existence (to iron #26), and then only in that instant of the violent death/explosion of a star in a supernova/hypernova/neutron star merger does the process overcome the iron barrier to create the even rarer elements… from silver (#47) and gold (#79) and lead (#82) to uranium (#92)… and all the elements the star spent its life and death making are blown out into the universe.


 The Third Star

 The cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium; heavier elements were made in red giants and in supernovae and then blown off into space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets.  Our Sun is probably a third generation star.

  Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Ep. 9, PBS, 1980

So stars function as the great seed spores of the universe.  In the early universe stars lived and died alone; there simply couldn’t BE any planets, comets, asteroids or dust because there were no heavy materials.  It was the detonation of these first stars that introduced chemistry into the universe for the first time.  Now instead of just two letters, there was an entire alphabet from which a language could be constructed.  Complexity became possible.  Here’s the takeaway: there had to have been at least two generations of stars living and dying in order to create the rich abundance of heavy materials that make rocks, planets, our earth, the universe we see today, and life like us.  From NASA…

 Our Sun is thought to be a third-generation star and our entire solar system is made of the recycled star stuff of previous star generations.

– NASA (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/yss/display.cfm?ThemeID=2&Tab=Background)

In the 1950s two broad classifications for stars were created

  • Population I stars, meaning third generation, relatively new and high in metallicity.  Our own sun is a Population I star.
  • Population II stars are the older generation and demonstrate a less metal-rich composition.

In 1980 a third classification was added

  • Population III stars (the first generation) are theoretical and thought to be long extinct, but would have contained no metals at all.

Simply, through the process of stellar nucleosynthesis each star produces within its interior heavier-than-helium elements that in turn are released upon supernova, which enriches the next generation of stars that form from its nebula.  It goes without saying that long before you were here your ancestors were here.  So by applying the same anthropic principle that declares that your grandfather must have existed because you exist, quite simply the only way our sun, with its heavier elements, can exist is because some nearby Population II star (or stars) detonated, creating our higher-metallicized stellar nursery.  The universe existed some 9 billion years before our solar system, but we couldn’t exist without those 9 billion years before us.  “Only Population I objects are expected to harbor planetary systems.” (– http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/P/PopI.html)

The human body is made up of 65% oxygen atoms, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous… in short, you are made 100% of atoms, and 100% of those (non-hydrogen) atoms came out of long dead stars… there is simply no other way to generate them.  You are literally stardust.  Every non-hydrogen atom in your body came from a star, but not one came from a star that you see in the sky today.  They — and we — are descended from those generations of stars that died long before us.  The stars that dot the night skies of today are made of the same stuff, our atomic cousins.

 Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars.  The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light-years away and billions of years ago.  Our planet, our society and we ourselves are built of star stuff.

  Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Ep. 9, PBS, 1980

And you might notice the above caveats regarding hydrogen… as pointed out previously the hydrogen atoms are even older!  Your body is a sculpture some 13 billion years in the making, using materials brought together from across vast distances of the universe.  The five most common elements in the universe are hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.  The most common elements in your body are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen; helium aside (which is a noble gas & chemically inert), your body reflects — virtually in kind — the makeup of the universe around you.  The ingredients that result in life are the elements that are most common throughout the universe.

 In order that we might live stars in the billions, tens of billions, hundreds of billions even, have died.  The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen that fills our lungs each time we take a breath — all were cooked in the furnaces of stars which expired long before the earth was born.

Marcus Chown, The Magic Furnace, p. 211

The chemical elements are a broth made from a soup of accumulated supernova waste.  To consider this notion poetically, the atoms in just the tip of your pinkie could have come from a hundred different stars.  Every rock, every tree, every blade of grass, every bird, every breath of air, everything you see and feel and everyone you’ve ever known in this material universe is made of atoms from an ancient fusion in the belly of a star.  To consider it more mundanely, you and I and everyone you know and everything you see are little more than a waste byproduct of stellar processes… in a very real and literal sense, nuclear waste.  However you tend to see it, we are merely short-term hosts for these atoms, we’re just a temp job; they’ve existed billions of years before us and will outlast us by the same.  To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are the ashes of hydrogen fusion that have achieved self-awareness.  We are a way for the universe to know itself, if only for a moment, before like a star we release our borrowed atoms back into the universe to be recycled again elsewhere.

 Every living thing is just a temporary home for carbon atoms that existed long before there was life on earth and will exist long after… earth [is] gone.

— Professor Brian Cox, The Wonders of Life, Ep. 3, BBC, 2012

 What’s true is that we are only the temporary custodians of the particles which we are made of.  They will go on to lead a future existence in the enormous universe that made them.

— Stephen Hawking, Into the Universe, Discovery Communications, 2010

Additional Reading:

 Population I, or metal-rich stars, are young stars with the highest metallicity out of all three populations. The Earth’s Sun is an example of a metal-rich star.

 All Population I stars are relatively rich in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium since they formed from clouds of gas and dust which contained the products of nucleosynthesis from previous generations of stars. The presence of heavy elements in protoplanetary disks is believed to be a key factor in the formation of planets, so that only Population I objects are expected to harbor planetary systems.


 The Sun also belongs to the Population I group of stars, which contain relatively large amounts of heavier elements. The first ever stars, made from pure hydrogen and helium are Population III. These exploded as supernovae, producing fusing the lighter elements into heavier and heavier elements. Our Sun, then, contains the metal from previous generations of stars that went supernova.


 Because stars manufacture heavier elements, each generation of new star forms from material previously enriched by previous generation stars and therefore has a higher metallically than the previous generation.
So it’s thought our sun is formed from material already recycled, produced by two previous generations of stars that came before it…. This can be measured by looking at the spectral lines to determine the composition of the star and hence the likely generation it was formed in, the higher the metallically ratio the older the generation of material the star was formed from.

Composition of the sun, listing its metallurgical content:  http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/tables/suncomp.html

Breakdown of the process of stellar nucleosynthesis:  Stellar nucleosynthesis – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia