Thursday, 17 December 2020

The Man from Two Places

Imagine you were tasked with writing the definitive version of the gospel. You have some version of the Book of Mark available for a large chunk of the narrative, but it doesn’t include all of the new stories that have been floating around, such as Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances, and it also says nothing about his birth.

What’s more, despite the fact that Jesus is said to come from Nazareth in Galilee, there’s another tradition that says he was born in Bethlehem in Judaea. So, how can you incorporate this new tradition into the story and write the narrative of his birth in Bethlehem without contradicting the fact that he came from Nazareth?

Well, if you’re the author of Luke, you begin with Jesus’s parents living in Nazareth but invent a scenario that forces his mother to give birth in Bethlehem and return to Nazareth to raise him. On the other hand, if you’re the author of Matthew, you begin with the couple living in Bethlehem but invent a scenario that forces them to move to Nazareth after he’s born.

Luke's Nativity

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of a girl called Mary living in Nazareth who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. God sent an angel named Gabriel to tell her that she’d give birth to a son despite being a virgin.

Some time after this, the Romans decided to conduct a census, but for some strange reason, they told everyone to return to the town of their ancestors to register. Now, Joseph, the man to whom Mary was engaged, was a descendant of King David who was born in Bethlehem, so he took his pregnant wife and went to Bethlehem to register for the census.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a room for the night, and even more unfortunately, Mary went into labour, and thus, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, possibly in a stable (although it doesn’t explicitly say this), and placed in a manger where he was adored by some local shepherds.

After they’d waited a week for Mary to no longer be ‘ceremonially unclean’ from giving birth, they went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, and on the eighth day, the baby was circumcised. After this, they returned to Nazareth.

Matthew's Nativity

Now, the author of Matthew came up with another way to resolve the issue. His story doesn’t mention Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth before Jesus’s birth. The first mention of a location is in Matthew 2:1 where it says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judaea, so it’s reasonable to assume that in Matthew’s version, Joseph and Mary were living there to begin with.

Matthew’s account begins by saying that Joseph and Mary were pledged to be married, but when she became inexplicably pregnant, Joseph decided to divorce her. However, an angel visited him and assured him that the child was conceived via the Holy Spirit.

Some time after the child was born, some unspecified number of magi from the east turned up looking for the Messiah, and they inadvertently tipped off King Herod that a new king had been born. The magi visited Jesus and brought him gifts. Meanwhile, Herod, fearing that the newborn king would usurp his throne, sent his men out to kill all the boys aged two and under. Luckily, Joseph was warned about this in a dream, so he and Mary took the baby and fled to Egypt.

Once Herod was dead, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him the coast was clear. However, Herod’s son Archelaus was now king, and Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem, so, instead, he, his wife, and his son settled outside of Judaea in Nazareth, Galilee.

Bringing them together

These two authors found very different ways to reconcile the conflicting traditions and came up with unique stories. However, both accounts made it into the Bible and have added elements to the Nativity story.

So, the combined version of the story begins in Luke with Mary being visited by Gabriel and being told she’d have a baby. The narrative then switches over to Joseph’s angelic visitation in Matthew. As no location is mentioned at this point in the story, you can claim this took place in Nazareth so as not to contradict Luke. Turning back to Luke, the Roman census brings the couple down to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth in a stable, and the shepherds turn up to adore the baby.

Jumping back to Matthew, some magi from the east come searching for the newborn king, tip off Herod, and then bring the baby gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. In modern retellings of the Nativity, the number of magi is usually given as three because they had three gifts, and they are called either wise men or kings. Also, their visitation is often depicted as concurrent with the shepherds’.

Now, here comes the tricky part. In Luke, the couple observed the ritual purification week, had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, and then returned home to Nazareth, but in Matthew, they went to Egypt once the magi had left, and it was only after Herod died that they settled in Nazareth. The easiest way to resolve this contradiction is to ignore it by including only one of the endings or leaving them off completely. I mean, it’s much more pleasant to end with the happy couple being brought gifts than it is to have them fleeing from an infanticidal killing spree, right?

Saturday, 29 February 2020

God Doesn't Send People to Hell... People Do

I’ve never understood the Christian argument that God doesn’t send people to Hell, you send yourself there, as though this means God has no hand in it. Bear in mind I don’t believe in God nor Hell, I am merely addressing the argument.

To me, the idea is analogous to a mugger saying, ‘Give me your wallet, or I’ll shoot you,’ the victim refusing to give him his wallet, and the mugger shooting him and saying, ‘It’s your fault that I shot you.’ For the record, I’m not the first person to draw this analogy.

So, when a Christian has made the argument to me that people send themselves to Hell, I have often responded, ‘But God created Hell,’ or, ‘But isn’t Hell supposed to be the punishment that God set up for sinners?’ And often the Christian will reply, ‘He created Hell for Satan and/or his demons.’

If that’s the case, why do people end up there? Surely, it would still mean that God sends people there even if it wasn’t his original intention to do so. Even then, if he is unchanging, how could he change his mind about the purpose of Hell? And if he is omniscient, how could he create Hell without knowing he would eventually intend for sinners to go there?

Are they suggesting that it is Satan or some other force that takes people to Hell? If so, and it isn’t God’s intention for people to go there, why would he allow it? No matter what the cause, if an omnipotent god disagreed with people going to Hell, it would be within his power to prevent it.

So, the question is, why is your god okay with people going to Hell?

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Reconciling the Stations of the Exodus

My stories began as standalone narratives, which I was writing as longer versions of my joke Twitter verses. When I decided to turn them into books, I had to consider the overarching narrative and ensure that the stories fit together cohesively. For ‘The MisreadBible: Genesis’, this wasn’t much of a problem because the Book of Genesis consists mostly of narratives, which are in more or less chronological order.

My next book (tentatively titled ‘The MisreadBible: Exodus’), will cover the Books of Exodus to Deuteronomy. Turning this particular collection of stories into a long narrative hasn’t been an easy task.

For a start, there are lots of non-narrative chapters covering laws and the bizarre blood rituals the Israelites performed for everything from atoning for sins to curing leprosy. They seem to have been scattered willy-nilly throughout the books, sometimes right in the middle of stories. My solution? Put them to one side and keep only the narratives. I am considering having a section at the back of the book where I’ll parody them in a different way.

The next issue was that the main narratives are found in Exodus to Numbers, and Deuteronomy, for the most part, just glosses over the stories, sometimes with additional or contradictory details. My solution? Base the narratives on Exodus to Numbers and use Deuteronomy as a supplementary source.

I often use spreadsheets to lay out ideas because I find it easier to process information in table form. I created a spreadsheet, listed the main narratives from Exodus to Numbers in one column, put the corresponding passage references in the next, and marked which of them I had written. Each time I write a new story, I replace the traditional narrative name with my own title.

After a while, it occurred to me that this whole narrative is about a journey, and while I had been including the names of various places in the stories, I was ignoring the fact that the Israelites were moving from place to place.

Numbers 33 contains a passage known as the Stations of the Exodus, a list of the various locations (or stations) that the Israelites visited on their journey. I made another table based on this list and tried to match the locations mentioned in Exodus to Numbers against it. I did the same thing with Deuteronomy. Ah! There’s an issue. Each list contained places that weren’t in the others.

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe some helpful Christian has sat and made a list of all of these locations in order, or maybe they’ve made a map.’

I looked for lists of all of the places mentioned, but I was unable to find one. I also looked at several different ‘Route of the Exodus’ maps, but no two were the same.

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself again. ‘Maybe people have worked out where some of these places are, and I can make my own map in order to work out the order.’

It turns out that only a handful of places have been identified, lots more have multiple proposed locations, and most are completely unknown. Even Mount Sinai is hypothesised to be in several distinct locations.

‘Bugger!’ I thought.

I put in hours of work trying to make the three sources fit together, so much time, in fact, that I hadn’t spent any writing new stories. My book was stagnating.

Then a realisation hit me: I am writing a book of fiction. Books of fiction don’t have to be accurate in every detail. Besides, making fun of the contradictions in the Bible is something that I do in my stories all the time.

So, at the end of all this, I do have a crude list of places the Israelites visited. It might not be completely accurate, but I can use it as a rough guide.

The lesson from all of this is that the Pentateuch (that is the first five books of the Bible) is a patchwork of multiple sources that were never intended to be combined. The source documents were composed of stories that were cobbled together into longer narratives, and these documents were combined despite the fact that they contradict each other. Trying to get a literal or even coherent picture from them is a fool’s errand.

My job as a satirist and an author is to accentuate the absurdities, poke fun at the contradictions, but at the end of the day, tell an entertaining story. If, when I release my next book, you think that I’ve got the places in the wrong order, kindly write down the order in which you think they should appear, put the list into an envelope, and shove it all the way up your arse.