Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Liberty, Freedom, Justice for All? (Viva la libertá!?)

Last night I watched an amazing production of Rossini's final opera - William Tell - from the Rossini Festival in Pesaro with Juan Diego Flores as Arnold and Nicola Alaimo as Tell. It was amazing. A beautiful production and beautifully sung.
But what struck me is that this work from the early part of the 19th century and like many works from a variety of writers, composers and artists it deals with issues of liberty and freedom. The Swiss, in this case, are oppressed by the Austrians and (spoiler alert) after the famous incident where Tell shoots the apple off of his son's head the Austrians are finally routed and the bright rays of freedom begin to shine. It is perhaps like many works of the time overly simplistic, but it is a common theme - think Beethoven (Eroica, Fidelio) or even Mozart (Nozze of Don Giovanni "Viva la libertá!") Works and writings about freedom and liberty emerged in the late 18th century and had a huge impact on Europeans who were tired of the oppressive regimes of absolute monarchs and on fledgling colonies, like the United States, who could clearly see the dangers of absolute monarchs and took steps to preclude that kind of governmental structure. Despite its flaws (and there are many flaws and loopholes created by the group of entitled and privileged white, male land owners we call the "Founding Fathers") it nevertheless was an exciting idea - government by and for the people rather than a government by an established, rich, landed, paternalistic aristocracy, whose abuses were well known.
Americans embraced this concept of liberty and freedom for all, even if it excluded people of color and women, as being an improvement. And over the years the American experiment has attempted to rectify those loop-holes with varying success. But what, in particular, struck me as I watched the struggles on stage between the Swiss Freedom Fighters against the oppressive cruel Austrians is how our current government is much more like the Austrians in this story of William Tell than like the Swiss. And for some reason, there is a sizable part of the population which thinks this is ok. I frankly don't get it! There was a reason the Framers of the Constitution wanted to preclude any hint of a monarch or aristocracy in government. And some of those reason are on full display every day at the campaign rallies, I mean, pandemic briefings to which we are subject daily by this current administration.
This man who occupies this nation's highest office is everything the original framers objected to - he is landed, privileged and completely self-centered. He has no respect for the constitution and presumes powers and privileges which are not his. And not only that but he is sexist, racist, anti-semitic and cruel. And those who support him are either complicit or cowards. In either case they all need to be removed from office. To be clear, this man is not a conservative - don't give me the gaslighting excuse that this is liberal verses conservative. There is nothing conservative about him. He has ripped up all traditionally conservative values.
But why have we abandoned our commitment to liberty and justice and freedom and why do we seem so quick to submit to a totalitarian ruler who is incompetent and basically cruel and really doesn't care about anyone but himself? This white house has completely bungled the pandemic response and continues to make things worse. Why are the states having to compete with FEMA for supplies? That is ridiculous. Why are all states not on a total stay-at-home order? Why are we even considering using a drug to treat this virus that has proven itself to be not even close to effective and has its own serious side effects just because Mr. Conflict of Interest is pushing it? Why are the medical experts silenced in favor of no nothing political functionaries?
This (so-called) president needs to be removed from office; his supporters need to be removed from office and some of them need to be prosecuted and jailed and we need courageous leadership that will take charge of this situation using the best and most up to date information and utilizing the best scientific and medical experts.
Short of this, you can look forward to seeing the ideals of liberty, justice and freedom drift farther and farther away. There is a reason that the early middle ages are called the "Dark Ages" and it isn't because we don't know what happened during that time. It is because it was a time of disease and violence and oppression when a powerful aristocracy emerged with the blessing of the church. Well, if we continue the road we are on - welcome to the New Dark Ages!

For some inspiration - check out William Tell.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Some Thoughts on the Apocalypse

I want to make a comment about the apocalyptic references that have been appearing in the news lately. But politicians (mostly on the hard right) and certain (so-called) Christian "Leaders" like to trot out their version of the apocalyptic story which they claim is from the Bible, but really isn't. Apparently some of these folks are simply thrilled whenever we are appear to be hurtling towards war in the middle east, since, in their mind, this means we can prompt or push God to initiate "Armegedon," the "Rapture" and "Jesus 2nd coming." So where to begin. I'll try to make it concise:
1. You cannot push God into action. All you need to do is look at a little history to see that this has been tried before and unlike the sheeplike mindless and fear-filled followers of your cult God will not be manipulated into action. Whatever is to come will come in its own time.
2. There is NO RAPTURE! I'll say it again - there is NO RAPTURE in the bible. It is a complete misreading and mis-interpretation of a few texts which have been pulled out of their textual and cultural contexts. Look it up - the so-called "rapture" was invented in the early 19th century. But this religious fabrication has proven to be a useful tool to manipulate and create fear.
3. Luther says (and I paraphrase) that Christians should always read scripture through the eyes of the Gospel. So instead of going right to the Revelation of John or the other brief apocalyptic passages found here when concerned and wondering about the "end times" I would suggest starting with the Gospels of Jesus. Specifically God's unconditional love for ALL God's children, including and especially those who are in need, those who are attacked, those who are refugees those who are rejected and discriminated against, those who are the victims of violence. God's love and mercy are UNCONDITIONAL. The entire theology of the "rapture" rejects and undermines this. Also, folks, go back and read the Hebrew Bible and you find the same thing - "God's steadfast love endures forever."
4. The promise of New Testament apocalyptic is NOT that we will be fished out of this world and brought to another world, but that God / Jesus will enter into this world and transform it. This is why in Genesis at the creation humanity is given the job of stewarding the creation. Well, we have done a crummy job of it. And we need to do everything we can to turn this around and treasure this creation as a gift, not as a vehicle for profit.
5. We have a responsibility to each other and to this world. It is up to us to start working on treasuring the creation, working to reduce pollution, cutting back and eliminating completely our dependence on oil and gas which are simply destroying our planet. We have a responsibility to work for peace - to find diplomatic solutions - to respect other cultures and other peoples. To work against racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia and begin to see all our neighbors as brothers and sisters, with whom we may not always agree, and who perhaps have a different way of being in the world than we do. But that doesn't mean our way is "right." We have a responsibility to start working on listening, learning from and respecting others.
6. Lastly, one of the most important cornerstones of Stoicism (and you can read about this in the writings of Marcus Aurelius) is that fear is created by an overly strong focus on the future. Stoicism teaches that one of the great tasks of life is to learn to live today and eliminate obsessing about the future, because you can't do anything about it and it only leads to fear. I am not talking about exercising personal responsibility by the way. I am talking about working to curb the future orientation of our society and our religion. Future focus has become way too much a central part of Christianity. Jesus says, "Perfect Love casts out all fear." And if we believe that our relationship with God or Jesus is based on unconditional love, then what are we fretting about the future for? This should free us to do the work of loving others, including (according to Matthew) our enemies.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A Funeral Sermon on John 14

Once more I have had the unpleasant experience of having to listen to a "pastor" expound on the John 14 text in a way which focuses exclusively on "what we get when we get to heaven." Central to this position is the insistence that "you better believe in Jesus - have a personal relationship with Jesus" or else you won't be getting one of those nice mansions." This is not the Gospel and it is not what this text is saying. In fact I find this approach to funeral sermons to be reprehensible as it subjects vulnerable and grieving men and women to a manipulative religious diatribe which is totally irrelevant to the occasion - the loss of a loved one. Not only that, but I have experienced also the dishonesty of evangelical "pastors" enlisting the deceased in their manipulation (e.g. Mildred believed in Jesus so you all should be like Mildred and believe in Jesus). This is NOT the Gospel. This is manipulation and it is irresponsible. So, for all who may have had the terrible experience of having to sit through a "God's going to give you a mansion when you get to heaven" manipulative sermon at a funeral I humbly offer this meditation.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus who is the Christ.

Someone once wrote that the lives we live are like a pebble tossed into a pond, which causes ever-widening rings and ripples.  The ripples in the water can often continue on for a while and will touch everything in the path, and not only that but those ripples will continue on even after the stone has disappeared from view.  In the same way those who we love and those who have gone before us have touched us with their lives – their character, values and the things they have given to us will continue to touch us and affect us for years. 
At this point it would be appropriate to remember your loved one - who he/she was, what they did, how did they affect you in both positive and negative ways. Remember no one is perfect and we all have both our positive and negative parts of our lives. And not only that, but what are some of concrete things this person did that reveal the kind of person (s)he was.
Some thoughts on John 14:
The passage is set during the Last Supper.  Now this is the last time Jesus and his disciples spent together and the entire experience ended up being a very difficult and emotional time for all of them. Jesus had started off by washing the feet of the disciples, predicted that Peter would deny him and that all of them would run away and he again reminded them that he would soon be arrested and crucified.  These were difficult words for the disciples to hear and as Jesus shared some final teachings it is obvious from the questions that the disciples are upset and confused.  In the passage from John 14, Jesus is trying to comfort the disciples as they struggle with their confusion and impending loss.  “Trust in God – trust in me” Jesus tells them and then he tells them this:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
            Now, the King James version translates the beginning of this line as "Mansions" – in my Father’s house are many mansions.  But this is not what the original text says - at all.  There are no mansions in the text, and even the phrase “dwelling places” is a little vague.  What is Jesus telling his grieving disciples here?  In the 1st century, goods and merchandise were usually transported from one place to another in large caravans, which consisted of a large number of animals carrying goods, accompanied by an equally large number of men.  Well, these caravans didn’t travel very fast and there were no hotels along the way so they would need to set up camp each night along the way.  So, a couple men would always go ahead of the caravan to scout out places to rest and camp.  These places would need to have water available and provide as much rest and refreshment as possible.  The idea was that when the caravan finally arrived, the camp would be set; rest and refreshment would be waiting.  You see, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going ahead of them and will prepare a place of rest, refreshment, grace and love.  At the same time assuring us that he has gone ahead and has prepared a place of rest, refreshment, grace and love for __N__. 
Dust to dust; ashes to ashes! “How can we know the way?” asks the Disciple Thomas.  To this Jesus responds - I am the way, the truth and the life.  We believe and proclaim that through Jesus’ presence, God has transformed death and grief.  _____ now rests in the light of Christ; held in God’s grace and presence and love forever.
In the name of the Father, the Son+ and the Holy Spirit.  Amen!
More about the Gospel's understanding of heaven - Click here for an excellent article by NT Wright.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Reflections and Response to Issues Raised - Turkey and Greece 2019

The opportunity to travel presented itself and I signed on for a trip that was entitled, “In the Footsteps of Paul.” Initially the name did not put me off. I have seen ads for other trips to this part of the world with this title. I presumed, correctly as it turned out, that the trip would focus on the so-called missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, as laid out in the book of Acts. The trip would also provide opportunities for visiting other sites that would provide an immersive experience in the ancient world. Sounds great! After a little thought I signed up. While I think the 4 missionary journeys of Paul are an ahistorical construct I recognize that both Luke (the book of Acts) and tour agencies might find these to be a useful organizing tool.

I signed up and on the 13th of May flew to Istanbul. What followed was fascinating, physically demanding, spiritually uplifting and (at the same time) exceptionally frustrating and upsetting. I had no idea when I signed up that I would end up on a tour that was organized for American evangelical Christians. This meant that all of my tour mates, the tour leader and one of the three tour guides were all evangelical Christians. But this is how it turned out and it was a pretty homogenous group, and I was the odd one out. It was clear to me early on that if I were going to get anything from this expensive trip I would have to do my own research and keep my own counsel and seek my own spiritual revelations as I would not find them with this group.

What I would like to do is to address three specific issues that were raised during the trip regarding the historical and theological issues. These are issues that I think are important and that were addressed poorly on the tour. Following that I will share a few photos of the highlights of this trip, for there were some wonderful highlights. 

But, first I do want to acknowledge that both of the two tour guides in Turkey were absolutely terrific. They were completely professional in every way, not at all ideological and, best of all, they knew their stuff and presented the information in an expert manner. In fact, Turkish tour-guide #2 was so good I was constantly amazed at how up to date he was with all the most recent scholarship. Tutku Tours has two outstanding tour guides in these two Turkish tour guides and, frankly, they were the best thing about the entire tour. I wish I could say that the Greek tour guide was at least mediocre, but I can’t. I felt that she was terrible. She was exceptionally and overwhelmingly ideological and seemed to feel that it was part of her job to preach at us. She would use her Greek New Testament and go on and on about various passages. The problem with that is that just because one speaks Modern Greek does not make one an expert in Ancient, Classical or Biblical Greek. As it happened I also had my Greek NT (it is an app on my phone) and I also read Koiné Greek and frankly I was totally appalled at what she had to say. Her interpretations were nothing short of nonsense and what she had to say about the various tour sites was not a whole lot better. The Greek part of my tour was very unsatisfactory as a result.  

These are three issues that I will address - and in this order:

1.     At the Ephesus Archeological Museum, questions about Artemis and the goddesses statues.
2.     Was the Delphi Oracle “evil?”
3.     Did God (Jesus) cause the Spartans to loose at Thermopylae? And are we just puppets, with God as the great puppet-master?

I. Artemis Ephesia
Take a close and careful look at these photos. And don’t just glance at them, but rather look at them in detail. If you can enlarge the photos, please do so and look at them carefully.

These are photos of two statues of Artemis Ephesia – Artemis of the Ephesians.  I took both of those photos. Seeing these incredibly beautiful statues was one of the highlights of the trip for me despite the incident I will relate. Please notice that the statues are in absolutely amazing condition. This is because these statues were buried at some point. They were probably smaller versions of the great statues that stood in the great temple itself, but those were made of wood, covered with gold. The originals (along with the Great Temple itself) have long since disappeared. All that remains of the temple are a couple stones. These statues were probably kept in the Bouleuterion (city council chambers) in another part of the city, that is where they were found. It is a miracle that they have survived in the condition they are in.

As we traveled towards the museum after spending the morning visiting the ruins of the city (also amazing) our excellent tour guide made some general comments about the museum and mentioned the statues and even described them a little. In this description it was obvious to me that he knew the scholarship regarding these statues. I was impressed. But when we got into the museum he disappeared and our tour leader took over. In general he was pretty knowledgeable about a lot of stuff, especially geography. But his comments in the museum, especially regarding the statues, were disappointing to say the least.

As you look at the photos above I am sure you noticed the multiple protuberances on her chest. These are on both statues. What was your first thought? Be honest! Your first thought was they were multiple breasts, right? If you thought that you are in good historical company. The initial consensus was that the protuberances were multiple breasts. However, if you take another look notice that she is not naked, she is wearing a garment, a robe of some sort. Those protuberances are attached to the garment. In fact, it appears that she is wearing some kind of ritual robe.

It is not surprising that the group as a whole assumed the Artemis statues were covered in multiple breasts. The group tittered like 14 year olds about it and one older retired evangelical pastor asked the tour leader to explain them. The exact wording of the question was something like this, “Did the people of that time really get turned on looking at this? I don’t find it very arousing at all.” The response he received was completely uninformed and simply confirmed the prejudices of the group. I found this entire episode offensive.

Here is how I would have answered the question: First, they aren’t breasts. I could find no current scholarship that considers the protuberances to be breasts, including Wikipedia. This is an old and outdated interpretation. 

So then what are they? No one knows for sure. But there are some very thoughtful and insightful possibilities that have been put forward by a variety of scholars. It is important to note that while we tend to think of the Greek pantheon in very clear definitive and narrow terms – example: Zeus = head god, Athena = wisdom, Apollo = sun, Artemis = goddess of the hunt and so on – the ancients themselves had a much more fluid understanding of their deities. So in various places various god and goddesses would take on a variety of functions and foci, and these would vary from place to place. It is also the case that over time some of the gods and goddesses were joined together. So, in Ephesus for example, Artemis (who was the city’s patron goddess) also had assumed the characteristics of both Cybele and Isis. This is important in understanding these statues. Cybele was the goddess of motherhood and the one who protected mothers in childbirth. Artemis assumed this role from her and so it was Artemis Ephesia who became the goddess of fertility, motherhood and childbirth. Do not confuse the focus on fertility to mean “eros.” That was the domain of Aphrodite. Artemis was not about sex. Artemis was the virgin goddess, who would protect mothers and children through the dangerous process of childbirth and who insured the prosperity of the city through this protection. So, the protuberances represent fertility. Suggestions of what might be represented here include eggs, pomegranates or the testicles of bulls. It is highly possible that these statues are specifically geared toward representing Artemis the protector of women and mothers.

Second, Do not sexualize Artemis. If you have read any of the myths that include Artemis you will know that she is non-sexual and not only that, but that those who attempt to sexualize her (even accidently!) do not end well. But a deeper question which arises for me is this: what is it about American/Western Christians that have a need and compulsion on the one hand to be so strict and judgmental about sex (focusing on it obsessively as though the entire faith is completely centered on sexual behavior) and on the other to be so totally fascinated by it to the point of being totally and completely childish and inappropriate at best and abusive and secretly obsessive about it at worst? These statues are not intended to induce sexual arousal, and if you think they do then maybe you have some issues you ought to ponder. Also, there are some very interesting parallels between the cult and devotion of Artemis and what eventually emerged around Mary. Christians should be careful about assuming the high ground. There is nothing new under the sun. Artemis and Mary overlap in some very interesting ways!

Third, I found the entire episode downright disrespectful. But why should this surprise me? The entire history of Christianization is one story of disrespect and disregard after the other. From the violence perpetuated against the ancient temples and cults to the destruction of art to the burning of books and murder of great thinkers (looking at you Cyril and the murder of the brilliant ancient female philosopher Hypatia – can you spell misogyny? Anti-intellectualism? #fearofsmartwomen) the story of the Christianization of the west is in part a story of such blatant outright disrespect and violence that is sometimes boggles the mind. If only it were all a part of the past and we could say this no longer is an issue. But, this is not true. Evangelical Christians continue to disrespect everything that they don’t understand or accept. It is actually more than just disrespect. The violence and hate continues unabated – the attacks on the LGBTQIA community, the hate which is expressed towards people of color, especially immigrants and refugees (no, there is no caravan; there is no excuse for the cruelty and crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated in our name by this horrible administration). This seemingly benign and silly incident of ignorance was for me much more important than that because it represented to me the evils that have been and continue to be perpetuated in the name of Christ by (so-called) conservative and evangelical believers.

I was able to distance myself from the group for a while after this and to spend a fair amount of time in the space where these statues stand. There was nothing else in that immediate space. The statues stood in a small dark room with lights illuminating them. I stood in the dark and pondered. What did these statues look like initially? They were probably painted (almost all statues were painted – no, they were not white). What had the goddess represented in the statue observed and heard? What pain and fear must have been placed at her feet! Was she able to offer some degree of comfort to the women who came to her? Did they feel her support? I would like to think that these statues were very comforting for the women who brought offerings and asked for her help and strength.

II. Was the Dephi Oracle evil?
I still cannot believe that a Greek tour guide, taking a group to visit the ruins of Delphi would say such a thing. “Well, you know the Oracle was evil.” And then she went on to describe how the whole thing was a fake. How the Oracle herself would just get high and utter nonsense and the priests would make things up always making sure that the official Oracle’s pronouncements were really vague. After she said this I separated myself from the group for the rest of the day. This incident might have ruined one of the most incredible sites on the tour for me. But I tried hard to make sure it didn’t. I put it out of my mind and walked the other way.

So in response where do I start? The Oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was one of a number of oracles in Greece. But, Delphi was the best known and the most popular. The Oracle was a woman, and for most of the history of the Oracle it was an older woman who was past childbearing age and who had no husband or young children to care for. And there was more than one. There were two Oracles actually at any given time and they would take turns. Then there were a group of women who supported and assisted them (for example during the preparations which required two purification baths in the springs). It was probably from this group that the new Oracle was chosen.  People would come from long distances for the chance to query the Oracle. She only took her place on the Tripod once a month – on the 7th of the month; and only for 9 months of the year. During the winter Apollo would remove himself and so he was unavailable and the Oracle did not function. The focus shifted during the winter to the Mystery rites of Dionysius.

The process of consulting the Oracle is not a secret and is pretty well known. In particular it is important to note that Plutarch was for a while the High Priest at Delphi, so he knew the workings of the temple and the Oracle intimately and speaks with reverence and affection about it. He also states that while the women who served as Oracle were a mixed group, with widely variant backgrounds, nevertheless for Plutarch, it didn’t matter. The Oracle still spoke true and with authority despite the individual woman serving as Oracle or the priests serving as her interpreters.

The remains of the Great Altar of Delphi

If you were to present yourself in Delphi and wish to consult the Oracle you would first be required to make a sacrifice at the great altar that stands outside the temple. The sacrifice would be analyzed (the entrails read) and it would then be determined if Apollo was willing to address your question. This was exceptionally important. If the answer was no, then it was no and you were turned away. There are stories of those who disregarded the reading of the sacrifice and those stories do not end well for any of the participants. If the priest determined that you could query the Oracle you would then be led to the outer chamber. Only the Oracle and her priest interpreter were allowed into the chamber itself. You would present your question – one question only. The priest would present this question to the Oracle and she would ponder it while sitting on the Tripod. She would usually be in or go into a trance and then she would speak. The priest would then interpret, sometimes in verse.

The Oracle on her Tripod by John Collier

What was it that induced the trance? It was ethylene. Much study has been done on this question and it has been determined that the gas that emerged from the fissure in the earth that runs underneath the temple was ethylene. This is a gas that would induce a trance but whose effects disappear quickly when the source of the gas is stopped. Since the source was a natural source, through a fissure in the side of Mount Parnassus, the intensity of the gas would vary. It is also true that regular exposure to the gas had a detrimental effect on the health of the Oracle. But they didn’t really understand this. There is some attestation to a sweet smell that was noticeable in the outer chamber. But the Oracle and the priests took their responsibility and job very seriously. They truly believed that the god Apollo was being channeled and was guiding their actions and words, and providing insights and important advice on a variety of topics that ran the gamut from political questions, questions about national security to questions about relationships and children and love.

The Oracle has had a major impact on the history of western civilization. The democracy we (say) we treasure and which is enshrined in our constitution was based to some degree on a system that was developed in ancient Athens. Not only the representative nature of democracy, but also dimensions of the legal system were also established at the same time. During this process, as the Athenians debated and struggled to establish their new ideas about government, the Oracle was consulted and helped guide the creation of this new, experimental system of government and law. Decisions about war and defense were made in consultation with the Oracle. In particular, the Oracle is credited with providing the key to defeating the Persian King Xerxes at sea after he had burned Athens.

IIb. The Delphi Manumission Inscriptions
There is something else that is very important about Delphi, but that is somewhat complex. I will try to provide a brief discussion and introduction of the Delphi Manumission Inscriptions.

Human slavery was an essential part of the ancient world. And in many respects the entire economic system was built on the use (and abuse) of human slavery. One scholar estimates that during the 1st century CE, in the first years of the Roman Empire, as much as 60% of the population were slaves. In general, we do not talk about this much. Those of us who spend a lot of time studying the New Testament texts are aware of slavery but for the most part I think we gloss over it and ignore it. The only time the NT really deals with slavery is in Paul’s letter to Philemon where Paul writes in defense of one particular runaway slave. It is notable that Paul never criticizes the institution of slavery itself. And he isn’t alone. The New Testament assumes a world where the institution of slavery is a integral part of the culture and economic system. And the institution of slavery is never criticized by any of the great pagan philosophers either, with the notable exception of Epicurus. But at the same time slavery is not completely absent from the New Testament. If you read through the NT every time you come to the word “servant” read it as “slave.” The Greek word is “doulos” and it literally means “slave.” English translations soften this by translating the word as “servant” but I think this is unfortunate since for most of us a “servant” is someone for whom “service” is somewhat voluntary – kind of like the servants in Downton Abby. It wasn’t like that at all. Slaves (douloi) in the ancient world were owned body and soul and they could be used and abused however the master chose. And small subset ended up in responsible positions but the vast majority were worked to death, beaten and used sexually – this is especially true with women and girls who were slaves, but not only women.

Slavery is an abominable institution and that it flourished so long, and continues to flourish in parts of the world is nothing short of reprehensible. But in talking about slavery in the ancient world there was one thing that set it apart and that is that it was possible for a slave to purchase their freedom and in fact, slaves were sometimes set free – manumitted. Let’s be clear, this was not an easy thing to do. Slaves didn’t earn money being slaves so it was hard for them to come up with the money to purchase their manumission, but it was theoretically possible at least.

The Manumission Inscriptions at Delphi on the stones on the side of the Temple ruins.

This brings us to the Delphic Manumission Inscriptions. If you wander up the Sacred Way towards the temple as you get close to the temple walls you suddenly realize that the stones of the temple wall are covered with small writing in Greek. This continues to the extent of the wall and also can be found in the theater and in other places in Delphi. This writing records the legal transaction of the sale (or what scholars call a “fictive sale”) of slaves from their owners to the god Apollo. But Apollo did not utilize his rights of ownership and so this was in effect the legal transaction of manumission. A city official from Delphi and one or two priests of Apollo are listed as witness to every transaction and the conclusion is that the slave was now a free person, though there were conditions occasionally. This is where it gets very complicated. A peremon clause was often attached requiring some task to be accomplished or a certain amount of time to pass before the slave was actually free. This might include, for example, the case of a young girl (maybe 11 years old) whose parents purchased her manumission but with the condition that she was obligated to care for them in their old age. Or, the manumission might be delayed until the death of the master. Of the 1200 extant inscriptions some 400 contain clear peremon clauses. (Also, significantly, these inscriptions are dated from 200 BCE to 100 CE – which includes the period of the New Testament).

Now I am not suggesting that the Oracle, the city of Delphi or the temple administration was in any way working actively against the institution of chattel slavery in the ancient world. This does not appear to be the case. They, like the majority of pagan philosophers and writers and the writers of the New Testament, simply accepted slavery as a fact of life in their world. I suspect none of them could imagine a world without it. But, the fact remains that the Temple of Apollo in Delphi stood and represented the possibility and hope of freedom for slaves. This was a place where once you met the conditions then you could be manumitted. And the temple and its priests were bound to defend your freedom if it was ever called into question – hence the inscriptions! This is more than any of the New Testament writers ever accomplished. For them they simply note that slavery exists as a fact of life and appear resigned to it. At Delphi the Temple at least to some degree was involved in freeing slaves!

Digression – I want to make it clear that simply because the NT never condemns slavery doesn’t mean that it approves slavery. The New Testament – the Bible as a whole – is never proscriptive, it is descriptive. In other words, the bible does not define the way the world should be but describes the way the world is at the time of the writing and then challenges the readers to imagine a world that is beyond the hate, exclusion and slavery of the real world to a world of love, acceptance and freedom. This is the Kingdom of God! This is “abundant life.”

And so, the Christians who would condemn the Oracle for being evil are the same ones who promote hate, who cheer as children are ripped from their parents arms at our border and thrown into cages, who defend the slaughter of children in our schools which is the result of our idiotic gun laws. These are the ones who coddle white supremacists who would re-enslave our brothers and sisters of color. To suggest that the Oracle was evil is simply an absurd thing to say in my view. Try looking to the “log in your own eye” before judging a culture you do not know and that no longer exists. 

The Oracle was an extremely important part of the history of the ancient world. She contributed to the security and well-being of the people in a variety of unique, creative and progressive ways. I believe we need to accord to the Oracle respect and her place in history. For she deserves to be honored and remembered for all that she did accomplish.

III. Did God (Jesus) cause the Spartans to loose at Thermopylae? And are we just puppets, with God as the great puppet-master?

The statue of General Leontis honoring and commemorating his heroic last stand against the Persian invaders. The inscription refers to his response when Persian messengers came to him to suggest that he and his troops all give up their arms the King replied “Come and get them!”

As we approached Thermopylae our guide told us the story of the defeat of the Spartans and King Leonitis and finished her recounting with this comment: “It was of course all pre-ordained. God caused the Spartans to loose. After all, we are just puppets.” I was shocked at that comment and I don’t think I was the only one. Even my evangelical companions I think found that statement over the line. It calls all kinds of things into question. If we are only puppets and have no ability to make our own choices and everything is pre-ordained then we cannot choose to follow Jesus on our own and we cannot make any choices about our lives or our communities. This means there is no free choice. If we are puppets then what does that say about God? God becomes cruel and capricious relegating some to wealth and ease and others to misery and suffering. While it is true that with a little creative proof-texting one can find support of just about anything in the Bible, I would say that this is not the description of the God of either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob is fleeing his home after having cheated his brother and he stops to rest. While he sleeps he has a dream and there he sees the messengers of YHWH “ascending and descending” from heaven to earth and back again. The point is to assure Jacob that YHWH is with him, no matter what. Even in the midst of fear and alienation and suffering YHWH will be present. Heaven has to do with earth and God is involved, not as a control but as a presence.
When we move to the New Testament we can turn to John chapter 1 where in verse 14 the text reads that “the Word became flesh and dwelt (tented) among us.” This is the principal incarnation text and it proclaims that God is not about control. Rather, God, though Jesus, is about presence and love. God “so loved the world” that God has entered into the world and become en-fleshed in Jesus, not in order to increase control, but to extend God’s presence with the creation and especially assurance of God’s presence with God’s beloved humans even in the face of the darkest pain, suffering and death.

The “puppet” understanding of God is simply incompatible with the Gospels. In fact, I would argue that most of our ways of understanding God are pretty limited and not terribly compatible with the God of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. For example, God is not far distant; God is not a vending machine where if you put in the right combination of belief and prayer (and behavior) then out pops some kind of blessing; God is not “Santa Claus” who is “keeping a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice…” and who “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…” so, “you better watch out!”

The word used in the Hebrew Bible to describe YHWH is hesed which is usually translated as “Steadfast Love.” The word that is used by Paul to describe the God of Jesus is the word charis that is sometimes translated (in KJV) and “charity,” but is more correctly translated as “Grace.” What both have in common is their unconditional nature – there is nothing anyone can DO to earn either hesed or charis. They are a gift of God. And they bring a promise of God’s abiding love and presence. Perhaps it is oddly comforting to think that “God is in control” but this “puppet” image of God simply negates both hesed and charis.

So why did King Leonitis loose the battle of Thermopylae? It was not because of any divine involvement. It was because of military and strategic factors. The Persians vastly outnumbered the Spartans, but nevertheless the Spartans held them at bay for a while and fought brilliantly. I suppose they could not have continued indefinitely but the traitor who showed the Persians a secret path around the pass that enabled the Persians to attack the Spartans on both sides would be the immediate reason for the loss. Nevertheless, the Spartans fought to the death and their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to stand firm and this led to their ultimate victory.

Final comment: I think it is a mistake for Christians to make the mistake of assuming that grace and God’s steadfast love are solely and entirely their own possession. And it might come as a surprise to learn that ancient paganism was much more varied than modern people usually assume. There was a depth to ancient paganism, a sense of the presence of the deity and a sense of a deep and profound connection to the spiritual in the ancient world. And there were all of the same variations we see in modern religion as well, including some mentioned above. The one thing that I think that sets ancient paganism apart from Christianity is that it required the adherent to be active. It was not enough to simply pray in secret and one did not “believe” in the sense that it required people to take on a mental attitude about their faith. In ancient paganism the gods and goddess were available for a relationship and the relationship required reciprocal action on the part of the adherent such as offerings, gifts, participation in communal festivals (such as the Elysian Mysteries) which worked to bring the community together and helped individuals understand their own place within the community and their own responsibilities for the community. Christianity could learn from ancient paganism – especially in regards to seeing the individual as a part of a broader community, one for which they have both dependence and responsibility. And, not only that, but we need to see community in terms of the larger community. We are a part of this world and all human beings are beloved children of God no matter their race, their color, their culture, their sexual orientation or whether they are Greeks, Americans, Turks or Gypsies. We are responsible for them and for this world.

I would like to close this section with a quote from "In the Wake of the Goddess" by Tikva Frymer-Kensky. She is speaking specifically in the except about the world of the ancient Sumarians and Akkadians but I think this quote is applicable to the ancient world in general:
If we study the literature of the Babylonians and Sumarians we can no longer believe the description of 'pagan' religion that has long been a part of Western tradition and is still often found in modern religious writing. Instead of capricious gods acting only in pursuit of their own desires, we meet deities concerned with the proper ordering of the universe and the regulation of history. Instead of divine cruelty and arrogance, we find deliberation and understanding. Instead of lawlessness and violence, we see a developed legal system and a long tradition of reflective jurisprudence. Instead of immoral attitudes and behavior, we find moral deliberation, philosophical speculation, and penitential prayer. Instead of wild orgiastic rites, we read of hymns, processions, sacrifices, and prayers. Instead of the benighted paganism of the Western imagination, cuneiform literature reveals tos us an ethical polytheism that commands serious attention and respect.

I have spent this long blog post reacting to comments that I found difficult or offensive, but this does not mean that I did not get a lot out of the trip and so to conclude I will post some photos of some of my favorite places that we visited. Entering into the ancient world in this trip was a moving and edifying experience for me. It brought, not only biblical texts but also other ancient works to life in a way that I had not experienced before.

The Celsus library in Ephesus

Mosiac inside of Hagia Sofia 

Perge - The head of the fountain that runs throughout the city. A gift of the goddess. The River of life.

Dancing woman - Perge Archeological Museum

 Medusa from the Great Temple to Apollo at Didyma

The Great Temple to Apollo at Didyma

The Bouletarion at Priene 

The Theater at Priene 

Private home in Ephesus 

The site of the Great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus 

Private home - Ephesus 

Artemis - Philadelphia 

The island of Lesbos seen from Assos 

The ancient harbor of Assos 

The Great Temple to Athena in Assos 

The Temple to Emperor Trajan in Pergamum 

Ancient harbor of Troas 

Philippi - The Agora with the Plains of Philippi in the back (site of the Battle of Philippi)


The Temple to Poseidon at the Parthenon in Athens 

 The Great Temple to Athena at the Parthenon in Athens